Off on a Comet, by Jules Verne

Chapter 10

A Search for Algeria

The Dobryna, a strong craft of 200 tons burden, had been built in the famous shipbuilding yards in the Isle of Wight. Her sea going qualities were excellent, and would have amply sufficed for a circumnavigation of the globe. Count Timascheff was himself no sailor, but had the greatest confidence in leaving the command of his yacht in the hands of Lieutenant Procope, a man of about thirty years of age, and an excellent seaman. Born on the count’s estates, the son of a serf who had been emancipated long before the famous edict of the Emperor Alexander, Procope was sincerely attached, by a tie of gratitude as well as of duty and affection, to his patron’s service. After an apprenticeship on a merchant ship he had entered the imperial navy, and had already reached the rank of lieutenant when the count appointed him to the charge of his own private yacht, in which he was accustomed to spend by far the greater part of his time, throughout the winter generally cruising in the Mediterranean, whilst in the summer he visited more northern waters.

The ship could not have been in better hands. The lieutenant was well informed in many matters outside the pale of his profession, and his attainments were alike creditable to himself and to the liberal friend who had given him his education. He had an excellent crew, consisting of Tiglew the engineer, four sailors named Niegoch, Tolstoy, Etkef, and Panofka, and Mochel the cook. These men, without exception, were all sons of the count’s tenants, and so tenaciously, even out at sea, did they cling to their old traditions, that it mattered little to them what physical disorganization ensued, so long as they felt they were sharing the experiences of their lord and master. The late astounding events, however, had rendered Procope manifestly uneasy, and not the less so from his consciousness that the count secretly partook of his own anxiety.

Steam up and canvas spread, the schooner started eastwards. With a favorable wind she would certainly have made eleven knots an hour had not the high waves somewhat impeded her progress. Although only a moderate breeze was blowing, the sea was rough, a circumstance to be accounted for only by the diminution in the force of the earth’s attraction rendering the liquid particles so buoyant, that by the mere effect of oscillation they were carried to a height that was quite unprecedented. M. Arago has fixed twenty-five or twenty-six feet as the maximum elevation ever attained by the highest waves, and his astonishment would have been very great to see them rising fifty or even sixty feet. Nor did these waves in the usual way partially unfurl themselves and rebound against the sides of the vessel; they might rather be described as long undulations carrying the schooner (its weight diminished from the same cause as that of the water) alternately to such heights and depths, that if Captain Servadac had been subject to seasickness he must have found himself in sorry plight. As the pitching, however, was the result of a long uniform swell, the yacht did not labor much harder than she would against the ordinary short strong waves of the Mediterranean; the main inconvenience that was experienced was the diminution in her proper rate of speed.

For a few miles she followed the line hitherto presumably occupied by the coast of Algeria; but no land appeared to the south. The changed positions of the planets rendered them of no avail for purposes of nautical observation, nor could Lieutenant Procope calculate his latitude and longitude by the altitude of the sun, as his reckonings would be useless when applied to charts that had been constructed for the old order of things; but nevertheless, by means of the log, which gave him the rate of progress, and by the compass which indicated the direction in which they were sailing, he was able to form an estimate of his position that was sufficiently free from error for his immediate need.

Happily the recent phenomena had no effect upon the compass; the magnetic needle, which in these regions had pointed about 22 degrees from the north pole, had never deviated in the least — a proof that, although east and west had apparently changed places, north and south continued to retain their normal position as cardinal points. The log and the compass, therefore, were able to be called upon to do the work of the sextant, which had become utterly useless.

On the first morning of the cruise Lieutenant Procope, who, like most Russians, spoke French fluently, was explaining these peculiarities to Captain Servadac; the count was present, and the conversation perpetually recurred, as naturally it would, to the phenomena which remained so inexplicable to them all.

“It is very evident,” said the lieutenant, “that ever since the 1st of January the earth has been moving in a new orbit, and from some unknown cause has drawn nearer to the sun.”

“No doubt about that,” said Servadac; “and I suppose that, having crossed the orbit of Venus, we have a good chance of running into the orbit of Mercury.”

“And finish up by a collision with the sun!” added the count.

“There is no fear of that, sir. The earth has undoubtedly entered upon a new orbit, but she is not incurring any probable risk of being precipitated onto the sun.”

“Can you satisfy us of that?” asked the count.

“I can, sir. I can give you a proof which I think you will own is conclusive. If, as you suppose, the earth is being drawn on so as to be precipitated against the sun, the great center of attraction of our system, it could only be because the centrifugal and centripetal forces that cause the planets to rotate in their several orbits had been entirely suspended: in that case, indeed, the earth would rush onwards towards the sun, and in sixty-four days and a half the catastrophe you dread would inevitably happen.”

“And what demonstration do you offer,” asked Servadac eagerly, “that it will not happen?”

“Simply this, captain: that since the earth entered her new orbit half the sixty-four days has already elapsed, and yet it is only just recently that she has crossed the orbit of Venus, hardly one-third of the distance to be traversed to reach the sun.”

The lieutenant paused to allow time for reflection, and added: “Moreover, I have every reason to believe that we are not so near the sun as we have been. The temperature has been gradually diminishing; the heat upon Gourbi Island is not greater now than we might ordinarily expect to find in Algeria. At the same time, we have the problem still unsolved that the Mediterranean has evidently been transported to the equatorial zone.”

Both the count and the captain expressed themselves reassured by his representations, and observed that they must now do all in their power to discover what had become of the vast continent of Africa, of which, they were hitherto failing so completely to find a vestige.

Twenty-four hours after leaving the island, the Dobryna had passed over the sites where Tenes, Cherchil, Koleah, and Sidi-Feruch once had been, but of these towns not one appeared within range of the telescope. Ocean reigned supreme. Lieutenant Procope was absolutely certain that he had not mistaken his direction; the compass showed that the wind had never shifted from the west, and this, with the rate of speed as estimated by the log, combined to assure him that at this date, the 2d of February, the schooner was in lat. 36 degrees 49 min N. and long. 3 degrees 25 min E., the very spot which ought to have been occupied by the Algerian capital. But Algiers, like all the other coast-towns, had apparently been absorbed into the bowels of the earth.

Captain Servadac, with clenched teeth and knitted brow, stood sternly, almost fiercely, regarding the boundless waste of water. His pulse beat fast as he recalled the friends and comrades with whom he had spent the last few years in that vanished city. All the images of his past life floated upon his memory; his thoughts sped away to his native France, only to return again to wonder whether the depths of ocean would reveal any traces of the Algerian metropolis.

“Is it not impossible,” he murmured aloud, “that any city should disappear so completely? Would not the loftiest eminences of the city at least be visible? Surely some portion of the Casbah must still rise above the waves? The imperial fort, too, was built upon an elevation of 750 feet; it is incredible that it should be so totally submerged. Unless some vestiges of these are found, I shall begin to suspect that the whole of Africa has been swallowed in some vast abyss.”

Another circumstance was most remarkable. Not a material object of any kind was to be noticed floating on the surface of the water; not one branch of a tree had been seen drifting by, nor one spar belonging to one of the numerous vessels that a month previously had been moored in the magnificent bay which stretched twelve miles across from Cape Matafuz to Point Pexade. Perhaps the depths might disclose what the surface failed to reveal, and Count Timascheff, anxious that Servadac should have every facility afforded him for solving his doubts, called for the sounding-line. Forthwith, the lead was greased and lowered. To the surprise of all, and especially of Lieutenant Procope, the line indicated a bottom at a nearly uniform depth of from four to five fathoms; and although the sounding was persevered with continuously for more than two hours over a considerable area, the differences of level were insignificant, not corresponding in any degree to what would be expected over the site of a city that had been terraced like the seats of an amphitheater. Astounding as it seemed, what alternative was left but to suppose that the Algerian capital had been completely leveled by the flood?

The sea-bottom was composed of neither rock, mud, sand, nor shells; the sounding-lead brought up nothing but a kind of metallic dust, which glittered with a strange iridescence, and the nature of which it was impossible to determine, as it was totally unlike what had ever been known to be raised from the bed of the Mediterranean.

“You must see, lieutenant, I should think, that we are not so near the coast of Algeria as you imagined.”

The lieutenant shook his head. After pondering awhile, he said: “If we were farther away I should expect to find a depth of two or three hundred fathoms instead of five fathoms. Five fathoms! I confess I am puzzled.”

For the next thirty-six hours, until the 4th of February, the sea was examined and explored with the most unflagging perseverance. Its depth remained invariable, still four, or at most five, fathoms; and although its bottom was assiduously dredged, it was only to prove it barren of marine production of any type.

The yacht made its way to lat. 36 degrees, and by reference to the charts it was tolerably certain that she was cruising over the site of the Sahel, the ridge that had separated the rich plain of the Mitidja from the sea, and of which the highest peak, Mount Boujereah, had reached an altitude of 1,200 feet; but even this peak, which might have been expected to emerge like an islet above the surface of the sea, was nowhere to be traced. Nothing was to be done but to put about, and return in disappointment towards the north.

Thus the Dobryna regained the waters of the Mediterranean without discovering a trace of the missing province of Algeria.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 18:24