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Off on a Comet

by Jules Verne



All previous hypotheses, then, were now forgotten in the presence of the one great fact that Gallia was a comet and gravitating through remote solar regions. Captain Servadac became aware that the huge disc that had been looming through the clouds after the shock was the form of the retreating earth, to the proximity of which the one high tide they had experienced was also to be attributed.

As to the fulfillment of the professor's prediction of an ultimate return to the terrestrial sphere, that was a point on which it must be owned that the captain, after the first flush of his excitement was over, was not without many misgivings.

The next day or two were spent in providing for the accommodation of the new comer. Fortunately his desires were very moderate; he seemed to live among the stars, and as long as he was well provided with coffee, he cared little for luxuries, and paid little or no regard to the ingenuity with which all the internal arrangements of Nina's Hive had been devised. Anxious to show all proper respect to his former tutor, Servadac proposed to leave the most comfortable apartment of the place at his disposal; but the professor resolutely declined to occupy it, saying that what he required was a small chamber, no matter how small, provided that it was elevated and secluded, which he could use as an observatory and where he might prosecute his studies without disturbance. A general search was instituted, and before long they were lucky enough to find, about a hundred feet above the central grotto, a small recess or reduct hollowed, as it were, in the mountain side, which would exactly answer their purpose. It contained room enough for a bed, a table, an arm-chair, a chest of drawers, and, what was of still more consequence, for the indispensable telescope. One small stream of lava, an off-shoot of the great torrent, sufficed to warm the apartment enough.

In these retired quarters the astronomer took up his abode. It was on all hands acknowledged to be advisable to let him go on entirely in his own way. His meals were taken to him at stated intervals; he slept but little; carried on his calculations by day, his observations by night, and very rarely made his appearance amongst the rest of the little community.

The cold now became very intense, the thermometer registering 30 degrees F. below zero. The mercury, however, never exhibited any of those fluctuations that are ever and again to be observed in variable climates, but continued slowly and steadily to fall, and in all probability would continue to do so until it reached the normal temperature of the regions of outlying space.

This steady sinking of the mercury was accompanied by a complete stillness of the atmosphere; the very air seemed to be congealed; no particle of it stirred; from zenith to horizon there was never a cloud; neither were there any of the damp mists or dry fogs which so often extend over the polar regions of the earth; the sky was always clear; the sun shone by day and the stars by night without causing any perceptible difference in the temperature.

These peculiar conditions rendered the cold endurable even in the open air. The cause of so many of the diseases that prove fatal to Arctic explorers resides in the cutting winds, unwholesome fogs, or terrible snow drifts, which, by drying up, relaxing, or otherwise affecting the lungs, make them incapable of fulfilling their proper functions. But during periods of calm weather, when the air has been absolutely still, many polar navigators, well-clothed and properly fed, have been known to withstand a temperature when the thermometer has fallen to 60 degrees below zero. It was the experience of Parry upon Melville Island, of Kane beyond latitude 81 degrees north, and of Hall and the crew of the _Polaris_, that, however intense the cold, in the absence of the wind they could always brave its rigor.

Notwithstanding, then, the extreme lowness of the temperature, the little population found that they were able to move about in the open air with perfect immunity. The governor general made it his special care to see that his people were all well fed and warmly clad. Food was both wholesome and abundant, and besides the furs brought from the _Dobryna's_ stores, fresh skins could very easily be procured and made up into wearing apparel. A daily course of out-door exercise was enforced upon everyone; not even Pablo and Nina were exempted from the general rule; the two children, muffled up in furs, looking like little Esqui-meaux, skated along together, Pablo ever at his companion's side, ready to give her a helping hand whenever she was weary with her exertions.

After his interview with the newly arrived astronomer, Isaac Hakkabut slunk back again to his tartan. A change had come over his ideas; he could no longer resist the conviction that he was indeed millions and millions of miles away from the earth, where he had carried on so varied and remunerative a traffic. It might be imagined that this realization of his true position would have led him to a better mind, and that, in some degree at least, he would have been induced to regard the few fellow-creatures with whom his lot had been so strangely cast, otherwise than as mere instruments to be turned to his own personal and pecuniary advantage; but no - the desire of gain was too thoroughly ingrained into his hard nature ever to be eradicated, and secure in his knowledge that he was under the protection of a French officer, who, except under the most urgent necessity, would not permit him to be molested in retaining his property, he determined to wait for some emergency to arise which should enable him to use his present situation for his own profit.

On the one hand, the Jew took it into account that although the chances of returning to the earth might be remote, yet from what he had heard from the professor he could not believe that they were improbable; on the other, he knew that a considerable sum of money, in English and Russian coinage, was in the possession of various members of the little colony, and this, although valueless now, would be worth as much as ever if the proper condition of things should be restored; accordingly, he set his heart on getting all the monetary wealth of Gallia into his possession, and to do this he must sell his goods. But he would not sell them yet; there might come a time when for many articles the supply would not be equal to the demand; that would be the time for him; by waiting he reckoned he should be able to transact some lucrative business.

Such in his solitude were old Isaac's cogitations, whilst the universal population of Nina's Hive were congratulating themselves upon being rid of his odious presence.

As already stated in the message brought by the carrier pigeon, the distance traveled by Gallia in April was 39,000,000 leagues, and at the end of the month she was 110,000,000 leagues from the sun. A diagram representing the elliptical orbit of the planet, accompanied by an ephemeris made out in minute detail, had been drawn out by the professor. The curve was divided into twenty-four sections of unequal length, representing respectively the distance described in the twenty-four months of the Gallian year, the twelve former divisions, according to Kepler's law, gradually diminishing in length as they approached the point denoting the aphelion and increasing as they neared the perihelion.

It was on the 12th of May that Rosette exhibited this result of his labors to Servadac, the count, and the lieutenant, who visited his apartment and naturally examined the drawing with the keenest interest. Gallia's path, extending beyond the orbit of Jupiter, lay clearly defined before their eyes, the progress along the orbit and the solar distances being inserted for each month separately. Nothing could look plainer, and if the professor's calculations were correct (a point upon which they dared not, if they would, express the semblance of a doubt), Gallia would accomplish her revolution in precisely two years, and would meet the earth, which would in the same period of time have completed two annual revolutions, in the very same spot as before. What would be the consequences of a second collision they scarcely ventured to think.

Without lifting his eye from the diagram, which he was still carefully scrutinizing, Servadac said, "I see that during the month of May, Gallia will only travel 30,400,000 leagues, and that this will leave her about 140,000,000 leagues distant from the sun."

"Just so," replied the professor.

"Then we have already passed the zone of the telescopic planets, have we not?" asked the count.

"Can you not use your eyes?" said the professor, testily. "If you will look you will see the zone marked clearly enough upon the map."

Without noticing the interruption, Servadac continued his own remarks, "The comet then, I see, is to reach its aphelion on the 15th of January, exactly a twelvemonth after passing its perihelion."

"A twelvemonth! Not a Gallian twelvemonth?" exclaimed Rosette.

Servadac looked bewildered. Lieutenant Procope could not suppress a smile.

"What are you laughing at?" demanded the professor, turning round upon him angrily.

"Nothing, sir; only it amuses me to see how you want to revise the terrestrial calendar."

"I want to be logical, that's all."

"By all manner of means, my dear professor, let us be logical."

"Well, then, listen to me," resumed the professor, stiffly. "I presume you are taking it for granted that the Gallian year-by which I mean the time in which Gallia makes one revolution round the sun - is equal in length to two terrestrial years."

They signified their assent.

"And that year, like every other year, ought to be divided into twelve months."

"Yes, certainly, if you wish it," said the captain, acquiescing.

"If I wish it!" exclaimed Rosette. "Nothing of the sort! Of course a year must have twelve months!"

"Of course," said the captain.

"And how many days will make a month?" asked the professor.

"I suppose sixty or sixty-two, as the case may be. The days now are only half as long as they used to be," answered the captain.

"Servadac, don't be thoughtless!" cried Rosette, with all the petulant impatience of the old pedagogue. "If the days are only half as long as they were, sixty of them cannot make up a twelfth part of Gallia's year-cannot be a month."

"I suppose not," replied the confused captain.

"Do you not see, then," continued the astronomer, "that if a Gallian month is twice as long as a terrestrial month, and a Gallian day is only half as long as a terrestrial day, there must be a hundred and twenty days in every month?"

"No doubt you are right, professor," said Count Timascheff; "but do you not think that the use of a new calendar such as this would practically be very troublesome?"

"Not at all! not at all! I do not intend to use any other," was the professor's bluff reply.

After pondering for a few moments, the captain spoke again. "According, then, to this new calendar, it isn't the middle of May at all; it must now be some time in March."

"Yes," said the professor, "to-day is the 26th of March. It is the 266th day of the Gallian year. It corresponds with the 133d day of the terrestrial year. You are quite correct, it is the 26th of March."

"Strange!" muttered Servadac.

"And a month, a terrestrial month, thirty old days, sixty new days hence, it will be the 86th of March."

"Ha, ha!" roared the captain; "this is logic with a vengeance!"

The old professor had an undefined consciousness that his former pupil was laughing at him; and as it was growing late, he made an excuse that he had no more leisure. The visitors accordingly quitted the observatory.

It must be owned that the revised calendar was left to the professor's sole use, and the colony was fairly puzzled whenever he referred to such unheard-of dates as the 47th of April or the 118th of May.

According to the old calendar, June had now arrived;

[illustration omitted] [page intentionally blank] and by the professor's tables Gallia during the month would have advanced 27,500,000 leagues farther along its orbit, and would have attained a distance of 155,000,000 leagues from the sun. The thermometer continued to fall; the atmosphere remained clear as heretofore. The population performed their daily avocations with systematic routine; and almost the only thing that broke the monotony of existence was an occasional visit from the blustering, nervous, little professor, when some sudden fancy induced him to throw aside his astronomical studies for a time, and pay a visit to the common hall. His arrival there was generally hailed as the precursor of a little season of excitement. Somehow or other the conversation would eventually work its way round to the topic of a future collision between the comet and the earth; and in the same degree as this was a matter of sanguine anticipation to Captain Servadac and his friends, it was a matter of aversion to the astronomical enthusiast, who had no desire to quit his present quarters in a sphere which, being of his own discovery, he could hardly have cared for more if it had been of his own creation. The interview would often terminate in a scene of considerable animation.

On the 27th of June (old calendar) the professor burst like a cannon-ball into the central hall, where they were all assembled, and without a word of salutation or of preface, accosted the lieutenant in the way in which in earlier days he had been accustomed to speak to an idle school-boy, "Now, lieutenant! no evasions! no shufflings! Tell me, have you or have you not circumnavigated Gallia?"

The lieutenant drew himself up stiffly. "Evasions! shufflings! I am not accustomed, sir - " he began in a tone evidencing no little resentment; but catching a hint from the count he subdued his voice, and simply said, "We have."

"And may I ask," continued the professor, quite unaware of his previous discourtesy, "whether, when you made your voyage, you took any account of distances?"

"As approximately as I could," replied the lieutenant; "I did what I could by log and compass. I was unable to take the altitude of sun or star."

"At what result did you arrive? What is the measurement of our equator?"

"I estimate the total circumference of the equator to be about 1,400 miles."

"Ah!" said the professor, more than half speaking to himself, "a circumference of 1,400 miles would give a diameter of about 450 miles. That would be approximately about one-sixteenth of the diameter of the earth."

Raising his voice, he continued, "Gentlemen, in order to complete my account of my comet Gallia, I require to know its area, its mass, its volume, its density, its specific gravity."

"Since we know the diameter," remarked the lieutenant, "there can be no difficulty in finding its surface and its volume."

"And did I say there was any difficulty?" asked the professor, fiercely. "I have been able to reckon that ever since I was born."

"Cock-a-doodle-doo!" cried Ben Zoof, delighted at any opportunity of paying off his old grudge.

The professor looked at him, but did not vouchsafe a word. Addressing the captain, he said, "Now, Servadac, take your paper and a pen, and find me the surface of Gallia."

With more submission than when he was a school-boy, the captain sat down and endeavored to recall the proper formula.

"The surface of a sphere? Multiply circumference by diameter."

"Right!" cried Rosette; "but it ought to be done by this time."

"Circumference, 1,400; diameter, 450; area of surface, 630,000," read the captain.

"True," replied Rosette, "630,000 square miles; just 292 times less than that of the earth."

"Pretty little comet! nice little comet!" muttered Ben Zoof.

The astronomer bit his lip, snorted, and cast at him a withering look, but did not take any further notice.

"Now, Captain Servadac," said the professor, "take your pen again, and find me the volume of Gallia."

The captain hesitated.

"Quick, quick!" cried the professor, impatiently; "surely you have not forgotten how to find the volume of a sphere!"

"A moment's breathing time, please."

"Breathing time, indeed! A mathematician should not want breathing time! Come, multiply the surface by the third of the radius. Don't you recollect?"

Captain Servadac applied himself to his task while the by-standers waited, with some difficulty suppressing their inclination to laugh. There was a short silence, at the end of which Servadac announced that the volume of the comet was 47,880,000 cubic miles.

"Just about 5,000 times less than the earth," observed the lieutenant.

"Nice little comet! pretty little comet!" said Ben Zoof.

The professor scowled at him, and was manifestly annoyed at having the insignificant dimensions of his comet pointed out in so disparaging a manner. Lieutenant Procope further remarked that from the earth he supposed it to be about as conspicuous as a star of the seventh magnitude, and would require a good telescope to see it.

"Ha, ha!" laughed the orderly, aloud; "charming little comet! so pretty; and so modest!"

"You rascal!" roared the professor, and clenched his hand in passion, as if about to strike him. Ben Zoof laughed the more, and was on the point of repeating his satirical comments, when a stern order from the captain made him hold his tongue. The truth was that the professor was just as sensitive about his comet as the orderly was about Montmartre, and if the contention between the two had been allowed to go on unchecked, it is impossible to say what serious quarrel might not have arisen.

When Professor Rosette's equanimity had been restored, he said, "Thus, then, gentlemen, the diameter, the surface, the volume of my comet are settled; but there is more to be done. I shall not be satisfied until, by actual measurement, I have determined its mass, its density, and the force of gravity at its surface."

"A laborious problem," remarked Count Timascheff.

"Laborious or not, it has to be accomplished. I am resolved to find out what my comet weighs."

"Would it not be of some assistance, if we knew of what substance it is composed?" asked the lieutenant.

"That is of no moment at all," replied the professor; "the problem is independent of it."

"Then we await your orders," was the captain's reply.

"You must understand, however," said Rosette, "that there are various preliminary calculations to be made; you will have to wait till they are finished."

"As long as you please," said the count.

"No hurry at all," observed the captain, who was not in the least impatient to continue his mathematical exercises.

"Then, gentlemen," said the astronomer, "with your leave we will for this purpose make an appointment a few weeks hence. What do you say to the 62d of April?"

Without noticing the general smile which the novel date provoked, the astronomer left the hall, and retired to his observatory.

Turn to the next chapter: CHAPTER V WANTED: A STEELYARD

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