Off on a Comet, by Jules Verne

Chapter 15

An Enigma from the Sea

Lieutenant Procope had been left on board in charge of the Dobryna, and on resuming the voyage it was a task of some difficulty to make him understand the fact that had just come to light. Some hours were spent in discussion and in attempting to penetrate the mysteries of the situation.

There were certain things of which they were perfectly certain. They could be under no misapprehension as to the distance they had positively sailed from Gourbi Island towards the east before their further progress was arrested by the unknown shore; as nearly as possible that was fifteen degrees; the length of the narrow strait by which they had made their way across that land to regain the open sea was about three miles and a half; thence onward to the island, which they had been assured, on evidence that they could not disbelieve, to be upon the site of Gibraltar, was four degrees; while from Gibraltar to Gourbi Island was seven degrees or but little more. What was it altogether? Was it not less than thirty degrees? In that latitude, the degree of longitude represents eight and forty miles. What, then, did it all amount to? Indubitably, to less than 1,400 miles. So brief a voyage would bring the Dobryna once again to her starting-point, or, in other words, would enable her to complete the circumnavigation of the globe. How changed the condition of things! Previously, to sail from Malta to Gibraltar by an eastward course would have involved the passage of the Suez Canal, the Red Sea, the Indian Ocean, the Pacific, the Atlantic; but what had happened now? Why, Gibraltar had been reached as if it had been just at Corfu, and some three hundred and thirty degrees of the earth’s circuit had vanished utterly.

After allowing for a certain margin of miscalculation, the main fact remained undeniable; and the necessary inference that Lieutenant Procope drew from the round of the earth being completed in 1,400 miles, was that the earth’s diameter had been reduced by about fifteen sixteenths of its length.

“If that be so,” observed the count, “it accounts for some of the strange phenomena we witness. If our world has become so insignificant a spheroid, not only has its gravity diminished, but its rotary speed has been accelerated; and this affords an adequate explanation of our days and nights being thus curtailed. But how about the new orbit in which we are moving?”

He paused and pondered, and then looked at Procope as though awaiting from him some further elucidation of the difficulty. The lieutenant hesitated. When, in a few moments, he began to speak, Servadac smiled intelligently, anticipating the answer he was about to hear.

“My conjecture is,” said Procope, “that a fragment of considerable magnitude has been detached from the earth; that it has carried with it an envelope of the earth’s atmosphere, and that it is now traveling through the solar system in an orbit that does not correspond at all with the proper orbit of the earth.”

The hypothesis was plausible; but what a multitude of bewildering speculations it entailed! If, in truth, a certain mass had been broken off from the terrestrial sphere, whither would it wend its way? What would be the measure of the eccentricity of its path? What would be its period round the sun? Might it not, like a comet, be carried away into the vast infinity of space? or, on the other hand, might it not be attracted to the great central source of light and heat, and be absorbed in it? Did its orbit correspond with the orbit of the ecliptic? and was there no chance of its ever uniting again with the globe, from which it had been torn off by so sudden and violent a disruption?

A thoughtful silence fell upon them all, which Servadac was the first to break. “Lieutenant,” he said, “your explanation is ingenious, and accounts for many appearances; but it seems to me that in one point it fails.”

“How so?” replied Procope. “To my mind the theory meets all objections.”

“I think not,” Servadac answered. “In one point, at least, it appears to me to break down completely.”

“What is that?” asked the lieutenant.

“Stop a moment,” said the captain. “Let us see that we understand each other right. Unless I mistake you, your hypothesis is that a fragment of the earth, comprising the Mediterranean and its shores from Gibraltar to Malta, has been developed into a new asteroid, which is started on an independent orbit in the solar regions. Is not that your meaning?”

“Precisely so,” the lieutenant acquiesced.

“Well, then,” continued Servadac, “it seems to me to be at fault in this respect: it fails, and fails completely, to account for the geological character of the land that we have found now encompassing this sea. Why, if the new land is a fragment of the old — why does it not retain its old formation? What has become of the granite and the calcareous deposits? How is it that these should all be changed into a mineral concrete with which we have no acquaintance?”

No doubt, it was a serious objection; for, however likely it might be that a mass of the earth on being detached would be eccentric in its movements, there was no probable reason to be alleged why the material of its substance should undergo so complete a change. There was nothing to account for the fertile shores, rich in vegetation, being transformed into rocks arid and barren beyond precedent.

The lieutenant felt the difficulty, and owned himself unprepared to give at once an adequate solution; nevertheless, he declined to renounce his theory. He asserted that the arguments in favor of it carried conviction to his mind, and that he entertained no doubt but that, in the course of time, all apparently antagonistic circumstances would be explained so as to become consistent with the view he took. He was careful, however, to make it understood that with respect to the original cause of the disruption he had no theory to offer; and although he knew what expansion might be the result of subterranean forces, he did not venture to say that he considered it sufficient to produce so tremendous an effect. The origin of the catastrophe was a problem still to be solved.

“Ah! well,” said Servadac, “I don’t know that it matters much where our new little planet comes from, or what it is made of, if only it carries France along with it.”

“And Russia,” added the count.

“And Russia, of course,” said Servadac, with a polite bow.

There was, however, not much room for this sanguine expectation, for if a new asteroid had thus been brought into existence, it must be a sphere of extremely limited dimensions, and there could be little chance that it embraced more than the merest fraction of either France or Russia. As to England, the total cessation of all telegraphic communication between her shores and Gibraltar was a virtual proof that England was beyond its compass.

And what was the true measurement of the new little world? At Gourbi Island the days and nights were of equal length, and this seemed to indicate that it was situated on the equator; hence the distance by which the two poles stood apart would be half what had been reckoned would be the distance completed by the Dobryna in her circuit. That distance had been already estimated to be something under 1,400 miles, so that the Arctic Pole of their recently fashioned world must be about 350 miles to the north, and the Antarctic about 350 miles to the south of the island. Compare these calculations with the map, and it is at once apparent that the northernmost limit barely touched the coast of Provence, while the southernmost reached to about lat. 20 degrees N., and fell in the heart of the desert. The practical test of these conclusions would be made by future investigation, but meanwhile the fact appeared very much to strengthen the presumption that, if Lieutenant Procope had not arrived at the whole truth, he had made a considerable advance towards it.

The weather, ever since the storm that had driven the Dobryna into the creek, had been magnificent. The wind continued favorable, and now under both steam and canvas, she made a rapid progress towards the north, a direction in which she was free to go in consequence of the total disappearance of the Spanish coast, from Gibraltar right away to Alicante. Malaga, Almeria, Cape Gata, Car-thagena. Cape Palos — all were gone. The sea was rolling over the southern extent of the peninsula, so that the yacht advanced to the latitude of Seville before it sighted any land at all, and then, not shores such as the shores of Andalusia, but a bluff and precipitous cliff, in its geological features resembling exactly the stern and barren rock that she had coasted beyond the site of Malta. Here the sea made a decided indentation on the coast; it ran up in an acute-angled triangle till its apex coincided with the very spot upon which Madrid had stood. But as hitherto the sea had encroached upon the land, the land in its turn now encroached upon the sea; for a frowning headland stood out far into the basin of the Mediterranean, and formed a promontory stretching out beyond the proper places of the Balearic Isles. Curiosity was all alive. There was the intensest interest awakened to determine whether no vestige could be traced of Majorca, Minorca, or any of the group, and it was during a deviation from the direct course for the purpose of a more thorough scrutiny, that one of the sailors raised a thrill of general excitement by shouting, “A bottle in the sea!”

Here, then, at length was a communication from the outer world. Surely now they would find a document which would throw some light upon all the mysteries that had happened? Had not the day now dawned that should set their speculations all at rest?

It was the morning of the 21st of February. The count, the captain, the lieutenant, everybody hurried to the forecastle; the schooner was dexterously put about, and all was eager impatience until the supposed bottle was hauled on deck.

It was not, however, a bottle; it proved to be a round leather telescope-case, about a foot long, and the first thing to do before investigating its contents was to make a careful examination of its exterior. The lid was fastened on by wax, and so securely that it would take a long immersion before any water could penetrate; there was no maker’s name to be deciphered; but impressed very plainly with a seal on the wax were the two initials “P. R.”

When the scrutiny of the outside was finished, the wax was removed and the cover opened, and the lieutenant drew out a slip of ruled paper, evidently torn from a common note-book. The paper had an inscription written in four lines, which were remarkable for the profusion of notes of admiration and interrogation with which they were interspersed:

“Gallia??? Ab sole, au 15 fev. 59,000,000 1.! Chemin parcouru de janv. a fev. 82,000,000 1.!! Va bene! All right!! Parfait!!!”

There was a general sigh of disappointment. They turned the paper over and over, and handed it from one to another. “What does it all mean?” exclaimed the count.

“Something mysterious here!” said Servadac. “But yet,” he continued, after a pause, “one thing is tolerably certain: on the 15th, six days ago, someone was alive to write it.”

“Yes; I presume there is no reason to doubt the accuracy of the date,” assented the count.

To this strange conglomeration of French, English, Italian, and Latin, there was no signature attached; nor was there anything to give a clue as to the locality in which it had been committed to the waves. A telescope-case would probably be the property of some one on board a ship; and the figures obviously referred to the astronomical wonders that had been experienced.

To these general observations Captain Servadac objected that he thought it unlikely that any one on board a ship would use a telescope-case for this purpose, but would be sure to use a bottle as being more secure; and, accordingly, he should rather be inclined to believe that the message had been set afloat by some savant left alone, perchance, upon some isolated coast.

“But, however interesting it might be,” observed the count, “to know the author of the lines, to us it is of far greater moment to ascertain their meaning.”

And taking up the paper again, he said, “Perhaps we might analyze it word by word, and from its detached parts gather some clue to its sense as a whole.”

“What can be the meaning of all that cluster of interrogations after Gallia?” asked Servadac.

Lieutenant Procope, who had hitherto not spoken, now broke his silence by saying, “I beg, gentlemen, to submit my opinion that this document goes very far to confirm my hypothesis that a fragment of the earth has been precipitated into space.”

Captain Servadac hesitated, and then replied, “Even if it does, I do not see how it accounts in the least for the geological character of the new asteroid.”

“But will you allow me for one minute to take my supposition for granted?” said Procope. “If a new little planet has been formed, as I imagine, by disintegration from the old, I should conjecture that Gallia is the name assigned to it by the writer of this paper. The very notes of interrogation are significant that he was in doubt what he should write.”

“You would presume that he was a Frenchman?” asked the count.

“I should think so,” replied the lieutenant.

“Not much doubt about that,” said Servadac; “it is all in French, except a few scattered words of English, Latin, and Italian, inserted to attract attention. He could not tell into whose hands the message would fall first.”

“Well, then,” said Count Timascheff, “we seem to have found a name for the new world we occupy.”

“But what I was going especially to observe,” continued the lieutenant, “is that the distance, 59,000,000 leagues, represents precisely the distance we ourselves were from the sun on the 15th. It was on that day we crossed the orbit of Mars.”

“Yes, true,” assented the others.

“And the next line,” said the lieutenant, after reading it aloud, “apparently registers the distance traversed by Gallia, the new little planet, in her own orbit. Her speed, of course, we know by Kepler’s laws, would vary according to her distance from the sun, and if she were — as I conjecture from the temperature at that date — on the 15th of January at her perihelion, she would be traveling twice as fast as the earth, which moves at the rate of between 50,000 and 60,000 miles an hour.”

“You think, then,” said Servadac, with a smile, “you have determined the perihelion of our orbit; but how about the aphelion? Can you form a judgment as to what distance we are likely to be carried?”

“You are asking too much,” remonstrated the count.

“I confess,” said the lieutenant, “that just at present I am not able to clear away the uncertainty of the future; but I feel confident that by careful observation at various points we shall arrive at conclusions which not only will determine our path, but perhaps may clear up the mystery about our geological structure.”

“Allow me to ask,” said Count Timascheff, “whether such a new asteroid would not be subject to ordinary mechanical laws, and whether, once started, it would not have an orbit that must be immutable?”

“Decidedly it would, so long as it was undisturbed by the attraction of some considerable body; but we must recollect that, compared to the great planets, Gallia must be almost infinitesimally small, and so might be attracted by a force that is irresistible.”

“Altogether, then,” said Servadac, “we seem to have settled it to our entire satisfaction that we must be the population of a young little world called Gallia. Perhaps some day we may have the honor of being registered among the minor planets.”

“No chance of that,” quickly rejoined Lieutenant Procope. “Those minor planets all are known to rotate in a narrow zone between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter; in their perihelia they cannot approximate the sun as we have done; we shall not be classed with them.”

“Our lack of instruments,” said the count, “is much to be deplored; it baffles our investigations in every way.”

“Ah, never mind! Keep up your courage, count!” said Servadac, cheerily.

And Lieutenant Procope renewed his assurances that he entertained good hopes that every perplexity would soon be solved.

“I suppose,” remarked the count, “ that we cannot attribute much importance to the last line: ‘Va bene! All right!! Parfait!!!’”

The captain answered, “At least, it shows that whoever wrote it had no murmuring or complaint to make, but was quite content with the new order of things.”

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