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CHAPTER XVII THE VENTURE MADE
What would be the consequences of this sudden and complete disruption, Servadac and his people hardly dared to think.
The first change that came under their observation was the rapidity of the sun's appearances and disappearances, forcing them to the conviction that although the comet still rotated on its axis from east to west, yet the period of its rotation had been diminished by about one-half. Only six hours instead of twelve elapsed between sunrise and sunrise; three hours after rising in the west the sun was sinking again in the east.
"We are coming to something!" exclaimed Servadac. "We have got a year of something like 2,880 days."
"I shouldn't think it would be an easy matter to find saints enough for such a calendar as that!" said Ben Zoof.
Servadac laughed, and remarked that they should have the professor talking about the 238th of June, and the 325th of December.
It soon became evident that the detached portion was not revolving round the comet, but was gradually retreating into space. Whether it had carried with it any portion of atmosphere, whether it possessed any other condition for supporting life, and whether it was likely ever again to approach to the earth, were all questions that there were no means of determining. For themselves the all-important problem was - what effect would the rending asunder of the comet have upon its rate of progress? and as they were already conscious of a further increase of muscular power, and a fresh diminution of specific gravity, Servadac and his associates could not but wonder whether the alteration in the mass of the comet would not result in its missing the expected coincidence with the earth altogether.
Although he professed himself incompetent to pronounce a decided opinion, Lieutenant Procope manifestly inclined to the belief that no alteration would ensue in the rate of Gallia's velocity; but Rosette, no doubt, could answer the question directly, and the time had now arrived in which he must be compelled to divulge the precise moment of collision.
But the professor was in the worst of tempers. Generally taciturn and morose, he was more than usually uncivil whenever any one ventured to speak to him. The loss of his telescope had doubtless a great deal to do with his ill-humor; but the captain drew the most favorable conclusions from Rosette's continued irritation. Had the comet been in any way projected from its course, so as to be likely to fail in coming into contact with the earth, the professor would have been quite unable to conceal his satisfaction. But they required to know more than the general truth, and felt that they had no time to lose in getting at the exact details.
The opportunity that was wanted soon came.
On the 18th, Rosette was overheard in furious altercation with Ben Zoof. The orderly had been taunting the astronomer with the mutilation of his little comet. A fine thing, he said, to split in two like a child's toy. It had cracked like a dry nut; and mightn't one as well live upon an exploding bomb? - with much more to the same effect. The professor, by way of retaliation, had commenced sneering at the "prodigious" mountain of Montmartre, and the dispute was beginning to look serious when Servadac entered.
Thinking he could turn the wrangling to some good account, so as to arrive at the information he was so anxiously seeking, the captain pretended to espouse the views of his orderly; he consequently brought upon himself the full force of the professor's wrath.
Rosette's language became more and more violent, till Servadac, feigning to be provoked beyond endurance, cried:
"You forget, sir, that you are addressing the Governor-General of Gallia."
"Governor-General! humbug!" roared Rosette. "Gallia is my comet!"
"I deny it," said Servadac. "Gallia has lost its chance of getting back to the earth. Gallia has nothing to do with you. Gallia is mine; and you must submit to the government which I please to ordain."
"And who told you that Gallia is not going back to the earth?" asked the professor, with a look of withering scorn.
"Why, isn't her mass diminished? Isn't she split in half? Isn't her velocity all altered?" demanded the captain.
"And pray who told you this?" again said the professor, with a sneer.
"Everybody. Everybody knows it, of course," replied Servadac.
"Everybody is very clever. And you always were a very clever scholar too. We remember that of old, don't we?"
"You nearly mastered the first elements of science, didn't you?"
"A credit to your class!"
"Hold your tongue, sir!" bellowed the captain again, as if his anger was uncontrollable.
"Not I," said the professor.
" Hold your tongue!" repeated Servadac.
"Just because the mass is altered you think the velocity is altered?"
"Hold your tongue!" cried the captain, louder than ever.
"What has mass to do with the orbit? Of how many comets do you know the mass, and yet you know their movements? Ignorance!" shouted Rosette.
"Insolence!" retorted Servadac.
Ben Zoof, really thinking that his master was angry, made a threatening movement towards the professor.
"Touch me if you dare!" screamed Rosette, drawing himself up to the fullest height his diminutive figure would allow. "You shall answer for your conduct before a court of justice!"
"Where? On Gallia?" asked the captain.
"No; on the earth."
"The earth! Pshaw! You know we shall never get there; our velocity is changed."
"On the earth," repeated the professor, with decision.
"Trash!" cried Ben Zoof. "The earth will be too far off!"
"Not too far off for us to come across her orbit at 42 minutes and 35.6 seconds past two o'clock on the morning of this coming 1st of January."
"Thanks, my dear professor - many thanks. You have given me all the information I required;" and, with a low bow and a gracious smile, the captain withdrew. The orderly made an equally polite bow, and followed his master. The professor, completely nonplussed, was left alone.
Thirteen days, then - twenty-six of the original Gallian days, fifty-two of the present - was all the time for preparation that now remained. Every preliminary arrangement was hurried on with the greatest earnestness.
There was a general eagerness to be quit of Gallia. Indifferent to the dangers that must necessarily attend a balloon ascent under such unparalleled circumstances, and heedless of Lieutenant Procope's warning that the slightest check in their progress would result in instantaneous combustion, they all seemed to conclude that it must be the simplest thing possible to glide from one atmosphere to another, so that they were quite sanguine as to the successful issue of their enterprise. Captain Servadac made a point of showing himself quite enthusiastic in his anticipations, and to Ben Zoof the going up in a balloon was the supreme height of his ambition. The count and the lieutenant, of colder and less demonstrative temperament, alike seemed to realize the possible perils of the undertaking, but even they were determined to put a bold face upon every difficulty.
The sea had now become navigable, and three voyages were made to Gourbi Island in the steam launch, consuming the last of their little reserve of coal.
The first voyage had been made by Servadac with several of the sailors. They found the gourbi and the adjacent building quite uninjured by the severity of the winter; numbers of little rivulets intersected the pasture-land; new plants were springing up under the influence of the equatorial sun, and the luxuriant foliage was tenanted by the birds which had flown back from the volcano. Summer had almost abruptly succeeded to winter, and the days, though only three hours long, were intensely hot.
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.
Turn to the next chapter: CHAPTER XVIII SUSPENSE