Off on a Comet
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Another of the voyages to the island had been to collect the dry
grass and straw which was necessary for inflating the balloon.
Had the balloon been less cumbersome it would have been conveyed
to the island, whence the start would have been effected;
but as it was, it was more convenient to bring the combustible
material to the balloon.
The last of the coal having been consumed, the fragments
of the shipwrecked vessels had to be used day by day for fuel.
Hakkabut began making a great hubbub when he found that they were
burning some of the spars of the _Hansa_; but he was effectually
silenced by Ben Zoof, who told him that if he made any more fuss,
he should be compelled to pay 50,000 francs for a balloon-ticket,
or else he should be left behind.
By Christmas Day everything was in readiness for immediate departure.
The festival was observed with a solemnity still more marked than
the anniversary of the preceding year. Every one looked forward
to spending New Year's Day in another sphere altogether, and Ben Zoof
had already promised Pablo and Nina all sorts of New Year's gifts.
It may seem strange, but the nearer the critical moment approached,
the less Hector Servadac and Count Timascheff had to say to each
other on the subject. Their mutual reserve became more apparent;
the experiences of the last two years were fading from their minds
like a dream; and the fair image that had been the cause of their
original rivalry was ever rising, as a vision, between them.
The captain's thoughts began to turn to his unfinished rondo;
in his leisure moments, rhymes suitable and unsuitable,
possible and impossible, were perpetually jingling in his imagination.
He labored under the conviction that he had a work of genius to complete.
A poet he had left the earth, and a poet he must return.
Count Timascheff's desire to return to the world was quite
equaled by Lieutenant Procope's. The Russian sailors'
only thought was to follow their master, wherever he went.
The Spaniards, though they would have been unconcerned to know
that they were to remain upon Gallia, were nevertheless looking
forward with some degree of pleasure to revisiting the plains
of Andalusia; and Nina and Pablo were only too delighted
at the prospect of accompanying their kind protectors on any
fresh excursion whatever.
The only malcontent was Palmyrin Rosette. Day and night he persevered in his
astronomical pursuits, declared his intention of never abandoning his comet,
and swore positively that nothing should induce him to set foot in the car
of the balloon.
The misfortune that had befallen his telescope was a never-ending theme
of complaint; and just now, when Gallia was entering the narrow zone
of shooting-stars, and new discoveries might have been within his reach,
his loss made him more inconsolable than ever. In sheer desperation,
he endeavored to increase the intensity of his vision by applying to his
eyes some belladonna which he found in the _Dobryna's_ medicine chest;
with heroic fortitude he endured the tortures of the experiment,
and gazed up into the sky until he was nearly blind. But all in vain;
not a single fresh discovery rewarded his sufferings.
No one was quite exempt from the feverish excitement which prevailed
during the last days of December. Lieutenant Procope superintended his
final arrangements. The two low masts of the schooner had been erected
firmly on the shore, and formed supports for the rnontgolfier, which had been
duly covered with the netting, and was ready at any moment to be inflated.
The car was close at hand. Some inflated skins had been attached
to its sides, so that the balloon might float for a time, in the event
of its descending in the sea at a short distance from the shore.
If unfortunately, it should come down in mid-ocean, nothing but the happy
chance of some passing vessel could save them all from the certain fate
of being drowned.
The 31st came. Twenty-four hours hence and the balloon,
with its large living freight, would be high in the air.
The atmosphere was less buoyant than that of the earth,
but no difficulty in ascending was to be apprehended.
Gallia was now within 96,000,000 miles of the sun, consequently not
much more than 4,000,000 miles from the earth; and this interval
was being diminished at the rate of nearly 208,000 miles an hour,
the speed of the earth being about 70,000 miles, that of the comet
being little less than 138,000 miles an hour.
It was determined to make the start at two o'clock, three-quarters
of an hour, or, to speak correctly 42 minutes 35.6 seconds,
before the time predicted by the professor as the instant of collision.
The modified rotation of the comet caused it to be daylight
at the time.
An hour previously the balloon was inflated with perfect success,
and the car was securely attached to the network.
It only awaited the stowage of the passengers.
Isaac Hakkabut was the first to take his place in the car. But scarcely
had he done so, when Servadac noticed that his waist was encompassed
by an enormous girdle that bulged out to a very extraordinary extent.
"What's all this, Hakkabut?" he asked.
"It's only my little bit of money, your Excellency; my modest little fortune--
a mere bagatelle," said the Jew.
"And what may your little fortune weigh?" inquired the captain.
"Only about sixty-six pounds!" said Isaac.
"Sixty-six pounds!" cried Servadac. "We haven't reckoned for this."
"Merciful heavens!" began the Jew.
"Sixty-six pounds!" repeated Servadac. "We can hardly carry ourselves;
we can't have any dead weight here. Pitch it out, man, pitch it out!"
"God of Israel!" whined Hakkabut.
"Out with it, I say!" cried Servadac.
"What, all my money, which I have saved so long, and toiled for so hard?"
"It can't be helped," said the captain, unmoved.
"Oh, your Excellency!" cried the Jew.
"Now, old Nicodemus, listen to me," interposed Ben Zoof;
"you just get rid of that pouch of yours, or we will get rid of you.
Take your choice. Quick, or out you go!"
The avaricious old man was found to value his life above his money;
he made a lamentable outcry about it, but he unfastened his girdle at last,
and put it out of the car.
Very different was the case with Palmyrin Rosette. He avowed over and
over again his intention of never quitting the nucleus of his comet.
Why should he trust himself to a balloon, that would blaze
up like a piece of paper? Why should he leave the comet?
Why should he not go once again upon its surface into the far-off
realms of space?
His volubility was brought to a sudden check by Servadac's bidding
two of the sailors, without more ado, to take him in their arms
and put him quietly down at the bottom of the car.
To the great regret of their owners, the two horses and Nina's pet goat
were obliged to be left behind. The only creature for which there was found
a place was the carrier-pigeon that had brought the professor's message
to the Hive. Servadac thought it might probably be of service in carrying
some communication to the earth.
When every one, except the captain and his orderly, had taken their places,
Servadac said, "Get in, Ben Zoof."
"After you, sir," said Ben Zoof, respectfully.
"No, no!" insisted Servadac; "the captain must be the last to leave the ship!"
A moment's hesitation and the orderly clambered over the side of the car.
Servadac followed. The cords were cut. The balloon rose with stately
calmness into the air.
When the balloon had reached an elevation of about 2,500 yards,
Lieutenant Procope determined to maintain it at that level.
A wire-work stove, suspended below the casing, and filled
with lighted hay, served to keep the air in the interior at
a proper temperature.
Beneath their feet was extended the basin of the
Gallian Sea. An inconsiderable speck to the north marked
the site of Gourbi Island. Ceuta and Gibraltar, which might
have been expected in the west, had utterly disappeared.
On the south rose the volcano, the extremity of the promontory
that jutted out from the continent that formed the framework
of the sea; whilst in every direction the strange soil,
with its commixture of tellurium and gold, gleamed under the sun's
rays with a perpetual iridescence.
Apparently rising with them in their ascent, the horizon was
well-defined. The sky above them was perfectly clear; but away
in the northwest, in opposition to the sun, floated a new sphere,
so small that it could not be an asteroid, but like a dim meteor.
It was the fragment that the internal convulsion had rent from
the surface of the comet, and which was now many thousands of
leagues away, pursuing the new orbit into which it had been projected.
During the hours of daylight it was far from distinct, but after
nightfall it would assume a definite luster.
The object, however, of supreme interest was the great expanse
of the terrestrial disc, which was rapidly drawing down obliquely
towards them. It totally eclipsed an enormous portion of the
firmament above, and approaching with an ever-increasing velocity,
was now within half its average distance from the moon.
So close was it, that the two poles could not be embraced in one focus.
Irregular patches of greater or less brilliancy alternated on
its surface, the brighter betokening the continents, the more
somber indicating the oceans that absorbed the solar rays.