Off on a Comet
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The earth seemed as elastic as the springboard of an acrobat;
they scarcely touched it with their feet, and their only fear was
lest the height to which they were propelled would consume the time
which they were saving by their short cut across the fields.
It was not long before their wild career brought them to the right bank
of the Shelif. Here they were compelled to stop, for not only had
the bridge completely disappeared, but the river itself no longer existed.
Of the left bank there was not the slightest trace, and the right bank,
which on the previous evening had bounded the yellow stream, as it murmured
peacefully along the fertile plain, had now become the shore of a tumultuous
ocean, its azure waters extending westwards far as the eye could reach,
and annihilating the tract of country which had hitherto formed the district
of Mostaganem. The shore coincided exactly with what had been the right
bank of the Shelif, and in a slightly curved line ran north and south,
whilst the adjacent groves and meadows all retained their previous positions.
But the river-bank had become the shore of an unknown sea.
Eager to throw some light upon the mystery, Servadac hurriedly made
his way through the oleander bushes that overhung the shore, took up
some water in the hollow of his hand, and carried it to his lips.
"Salt as brine!" he exclaimed, as soon as he had tasted it.
"The sea has undoubtedly swallowed up all the western part of Algeria."
"It will not last long, sir," said Ben Zoof. "It is, probably,
only a severe flood."
The captain shook his head. "Worse than that, I fear, Ben Zoof," he replied
with emotion. "It is a catastrophe that may have very serious consequences.
What can have become of all my friends and fellow-officers?"
Ben Zoof was silent. Rarely had he seen his master so much agitated;
and though himself inclined to receive these phenomena with
philosophic indifference, his notions of military duty caused
his countenance to reflect the captain's expression of amazement.
But there was little time for Servadac to examine the changes which a few
hours had wrought. The sun had already reached the eastern horizon,
and just as though it were crossing the ecliptic under the tropics,
it sank like a cannon ball into the sea. Without any warning,
day gave place to night, and earth, sea, and sky were immediately
wrapped in profound obscurity.
THE CAPTAIN MAKES AN EXPLORATION
Hector Servadac was not the man to remain long unnerved by any
untoward event. It was part of his character to discover the why
and the wherefore of everything that came under his observation,
and he would have faced a cannon ball the more unflinchingly
from understanding the dynamic force by which it was propelled.
Such being his temperament, it may well be imagined that he was
anxious not to remain long in ignorance of the cause of the phenomena
which had been so startling in their consequences.
"We must inquire into this to-morrow," he exclaimed, as darkness
fell suddenly upon him. Then, after a pause, he added:
"That is to say, if there is to be a to-morrow; for if I were
to be put to the torture, I could not tell what has become
of the sun."
"May I ask, sir, what we are to do now?" put in Ben Zoof.
"Stay where we are for the present; and when daylight appears--
if it ever does appear--we will explore the coast to the west and south,
and return to the gourbi. If we can find out nothing else,
we must at least discover where we are."
"Meanwhile, sir, may we go to sleep?"
"Certainly, if you like, and if you can."
Nothing loath to avail himself of his master's permission, Ben Zoof
crouched down in an angle of the shore, threw his arms over his eyes,
and very soon slept the sleep of the ignorant, which is often sounder
than the sleep of the just. Overwhelmed by the questions that crowded
upon his brain, Captain Servadac could only wander up and down the shore.
Again and again he asked himself what the catastrophe could portend.
Had the towns of Algiers, Oran, and Mostaganem escaped the inundation?
Could he bring himself to believe that all the inhabitants, his friends,
and comrades had perished; or was it not more probable that the Mediterranean
had merely invaded the region of the mouth of the Shelif? But this
supposition did not in the least explain the other physical disturbances.
Another hypothesis that presented itself to his mind was that the African
coast might have been suddenly transported to the equatorial zone.
But although this might get over the difficulty of the altered altitude
of the sun and the absence of twilight, yet it would neither account
for the sun setting in the east, nor for the length of the day being
reduced to six hours.
"We must wait till to-morrow," he repeated; adding, for he had become
distrustful of the future, "that is to say, if to-morrow ever comes."
Although not very learned in astronomy, Servadac was acquainted
with the position of the principal constellations. It was
therefore a considerable disappointment to him that, in consequence
of the heavy clouds, not a star was visible in the firmament.
To have ascertained that the pole-star had become displaced
would have been an undeniable proof that the earth was revolving
on a new axis; but not a rift appeared in the lowering clouds,
which seemed to threaten torrents of rain.
It happened that the moon was new on that very day; naturally, therefore,
it would have set at the same time as the sun. What, then, was the captain's
bewilderment when, after he had been walking for about an hour and a half,
he noticed on the western horizon a strong glare that penetrated even
the masses of the clouds.
"The moon in the west!" he cried aloud; but suddenly bethinking himself,
he added: "But no, that cannot be the moon; unless she had shifted very much
nearer the earth, she could never give a light as intense as this."
As he spoke the screen of vapor was illuminated to such a degree
that the whole country was as it were bathed in twilight.
"What can this be?" soliloquized the captain. "It cannot be the sun,
for the sun set in the east only an hour and a half ago.
Would that those clouds would disclose what enormous luminary lies
behind them! What a fool I was not to have learnt more astronomy!
Perhaps, after all, I am racking my brain over something that is
quite in the ordinary course of nature."
But, reason as he might, the mysteries of the heavens still
remained impenetrable. For about an hour some luminous body,
its disc evidently of gigantic dimensions, shed its rays upon
the upper strata of the clouds; then, marvelous to relate,
instead of obeying the ordinary laws of celestial mechanism,
and descending upon the opposite horizon, it seemed to retreat
farther off, grew dimmer, and vanished.
The darkness that returned to the face of the earth was not more
profound than the gloom which fell upon the captain's soul.
Everything was incomprehensible. The simplest mechanical rules
seemed falsified; the planets had defied the laws of gravitation;
the motions of the celestial spheres were erroneous as those of a
watch with a defective mainspring, and there was reason to fear
that the sun would never again shed his radiance upon the earth.
But these last fears were groundless. In three hours' time, without any
intervening twilight, the morning sun made its appearance in
the west, and day once more had dawned. On consulting his watch,
Servadac found that night had lasted precisely six hours.
Ben Zoof, who was unaccustomed to so brief a period of repose,
was still slumbering soundly.
"Come, wake up!" said Servadac, shaking him by the shoulder;
"it is time to start."
"Time to start?" exclaimed Ben Zoof, rubbing his eyes.
"I feel as if I had only just gone to sleep."
"You have slept all night, at any rate," replied the captain;
"it has only been for six hours, but you must make it enough."
"Enough it shall be, sir," was the submissive rejoinder.
"And now," continued Servadac, "we will take the shortest way back
to the gourbi, and see what our horses think about it all."
"They will think that they ought to be groomed," said the orderly.
"Very good; you may groom them and saddle them as quickly as you like.
I want to know what has become of the rest of Algeria:
if we cannot get round by the south to Mostaganem, we must
go eastwards to Tenes." And forthwith they started.
Beginning to feel hungry, they had no hesitation in gathering
figs, dates, and oranges from the plantations that formed
a continuous rich and luxuriant orchard along their path.
The district was quite deserted, and they had no reason to fear
any legal penalty.
In an hour and a half they reached the gourbi.
Everything was just as they had left it, and it was evident
that no one had visited the place during their absence.
All was desolate as the shore they had quitted.
The preparations for the expedition were brief and simple.
Ben Zoof saddled the horses and filled his pouch with biscuits
and game; water, he felt certain, could be obtained in abundance
from the numerous affluents of the Shelif, which, although they
had now become tributaries of the Mediterranean, still meandered
through the plain. Captain Servadac mounted his horse Zephyr,
and Ben Zoof simultaneously got astride his mare Galette,
named after the mill of Montmartre. They galloped off in
the direction of the Shelif, and were not long in discovering
that the diminution in the pressure of the atmosphere had precisely
the same effect upon their horses as it had had upon themselves.
Their muscular strength seemed five times as great as hitherto;
their hoofs scarcely touched the ground, and they seemed
transformed from ordinary quadrupeds into veritable hippogriffs.
Happily, Servadac and his orderly were fearless riders;
they made no attempt to curb their steeds, but even urged them
to still greater exertions. Twenty minutes sufficed to carry them
over the four or five miles that intervened between the gourbi
and the mouth of the Shelif; then, slackening their speed,
they proceeded at a more leisurely pace to the southeast, along what
had once been the right bank of the river, but which, although it