Off on a Comet, by Jules Verne

Chapter 18

An Unexpected Population

The Dobryna was now back again at the island. Her cruise had lasted from the 31st of January to the 5th of March, a period of thirty-five days (for it was leap year), corresponding to seventy days as accomplished by the new little world.

Many a time during his absence Hector Servadac had wondered how his present vicissitudes would end, and he had felt some misgivings as to whether he should ever again set foot upon the island, and see his faithful orderly, so that it was not without emotion that he had approached the coast of the sole remaining fragment of Algerian soil. But his apprehensions were groundless; Gourbi Island was just as he had left it, with nothing unusual in its aspect, except that a very peculiar cloud was hovering over it, at an altitude of little more than a hundred feet. As the yacht approached the shore, this cloud appeared to rise and fall as if acted upon by some invisible agency, and the captain, after watching it carefully, perceived that it was not an accumulation of vapors at all, but a dense mass of birds packed as closely together as a swarm of herrings, and uttering deafening and discordant cries, amidst which from time to time the noise of the report of a gun could be plainly distinguished.

The Dobryna signalized her arrival by firing her cannon, and dropped anchor in the little port of the Shelif. Almost within a minute Ben Zoof was seen running, gun in hand, towards the shore; he cleared the last ridge of rocks at a single bound, and then suddenly halted. For a few seconds he stood motionless, his eyes fixed, as if obeying the instructions of a drill sergeant, on a point some fifteen yards distant, his whole attitude indicating submission and respect; but the sight of the captain, who was landing, was too much for his equanimity, and darting forward, he seized his master’s hand and covered it with kisses. Instead, however, of uttering any expressions of welcome or rejoicing at the captain’s return, Ben Zoof broke out into the most vehement ejaculations.

“Thieves, captain! beastly thieves! Bedouins! pirates! devils!”

“Why, Ben Zoof, what’s the matter?” said Servadac soothingly.

“They are thieves! downright, desperate thieves! those infernal birds! That’s what’s the matter. It is a good thing you have come. Here have I for a whole month been spending my powder and shot upon them, and the more I kill them, the worse they get; and yet, if I were to leave them alone, we should not have a grain of corn upon the island.”

It was soon evident that the orderly had only too much cause for alarm. The crops had ripened rapidly during the excessive heat of January, when the orbit of Gallia was being traversed at its perihelion, and were now exposed to the depredations of many thousands of birds; and although a goodly number of stacks attested the industry of Ben Zoof during the time of the Dobryna‘s voyage, it was only too apparent that the portion of the harvest that remained ungathered was liable to the most imminent risk of being utterly devoured. It was, perhaps, only natural that this clustered mass of birds, as representing the whole of the feathered tribe upon the surface of Gallia, should resort to Gourbi Island, of which the meadows seemed to be the only spot from which they could get sustenance at all; but as this sustenance would be obtained at the expense, and probably to the serious detriment, of the human population, it was absolutely necessary that every possible resistance should be made to the devastation that was threatened.

Once satisfied that Servadac and his friends would cooperate with him in the raid upon “the thieves,” Ben Zoof became calm and content, and began to make various inquiries. “And what has become,” he said, “of all our old comrades in Africa?”

“As far as I can tell you,” answered the captain, “they are all in Africa still; only Africa isn’t by any means where we expected to find it.”

“And France? Montmartre?” continued Ben Zoof eagerly. Here was the cry of the poor fellow’s heart.

As briefly as he could, Servadac endeavored to explain the true condition of things; he tried to communicate the fact that Paris, France, Europe, nay, the whole world was more than eighty millions of leagues away from Gourbi Island; as gently and cautiously as he could he expressed his fear that they might never see Europe, France, Paris, Montmartre again.

“No, no, sir!” protested Ben Zoof emphatically; “that is all nonsense. It is altogether out of the question to suppose that we are not to see Montmartre again.” And the orderly shook his head resolutely, with the air of a man determined, in spite of argument, to adhere to his own opinion.

“Very good, my brave fellow,” replied Servadac, “hope on, hope while you may. The message has come to us over the sea, ‘Never despair’; but one thing, nevertheless, is certain; we must forthwith commence arrangements for making this island our permanent home.”

Captain Servadac now led the way to the gourbi, which, by his servant’s exertions, had been entirely rebuilt; and here he did the honors of his modest establishment to his two guests, the count and the lieutenant, and gave a welcome, too, to little Nina, who had accompanied them on shore, and between whom and Ben Zoof the most friendly relations had already been established.

The adjacent building continued in good preservation, and Captain Servadac’s satisfaction was very great in finding the two horses, Zephyr and Galette, comfortably housed there and in good condition.

After the enjoyment of some refreshment, the party proceeded to a general consultation as to what steps must be taken for their future welfare. The most pressing matter that came before them was the consideration of the means to be adopted to enable the inhabitants of Gallia to survive the terrible cold, which, in their ignorance of the true eccentricity of their orbit, might, for aught they knew, last for an almost indefinite period. Fuel was far from abundant; of coal there was none; trees and shrubs were few in number, and to cut them down in prospect of the cold seemed a very questionable policy; but there was no doubt some expedient must be devised to prevent disaster, and that without delay.

The victualing of the little colony offered no immediate difficulty. Water was abundant, and the cisterns could hardly fail to be replenished by the numerous streams that meandered along the plains; moreover, the Gallian Sea would ere long be frozen over, and the melted ice (water in its congealed state being divested of every particle of salt) would afford a supply of drink that could not be exhausted. The crops that were now ready for the harvest, and the flocks and herds scattered over the island, would form an ample reserve. There was little doubt that throughout the winter the soil would remain unproductive, and no fresh fodder for domestic animals could then be obtained; it would therefore be necessary, if the exact duration of Gallia’s year should ever be calculated, to proportion the number of animals to be reserved to the real length of the winter.

The next thing requisite was to arrive at a true estimate of the number of the population. Without including the thirteen Englishmen at Gibraltar, about whom he was not particularly disposed to give himself much concern at present, Servadac put down the names of the eight Russians, the two Frenchman, and the little Italian girl, eleven in all, as the entire list of the inhabitants of Gourbi Island.

“Oh, pardon me,” interposed Ben Zoof, “you are mistaking the state of the case altogether. You will be surprised to learn that the total of people on the island is double that. It is twenty-two.”

“Twenty-two!” exclaimed the captain; “twenty-two people on this island? What do you mean?”

“The opportunity has not occurred,” answered Ben Zoof, “for me to tell you before, but I have had company.”

“Explain yourself, Ben Zoof,” said Servadac. “What company have you had?”

“You could not suppose,” replied the orderly, “that my own unassisted hands could have accomplished all that harvest work that you see has been done.”

“I confess,” said Lieutenant Procope, “we do not seem to have noticed that.”

“Well, then,” said Ben Zoof, “if you will be good enough to come with me for about a mile, I shall be able to show you my companions. But we must take our guns,”

“Why take our guns?” asked Servadac. “I hope we are not going to fight.”

“No, not with men,” said Ben Zoof; “but it does not answer to throw a chance away for giving battle to those thieves of birds.”

Leaving little Nina and her goat in the gourbi, Servadac, Count Timascheff, and the lieutenant, greatly mystified, took up their guns and followed the orderly. All along their way they made unsparing slaughter of the birds that hovered over and around them. Nearly every species of the feathered tribe seemed to have its representative in that living cloud. There were wild ducks in thousands; snipe, larks, rooks, and swallows; a countless variety of sea-birds — widgeons, gulls, and seamews; beside a quantity of game — quails, partridges, and woodcocks. The sportsmen did their best; every shot told; and the depredators fell by dozens on either hand.

Instead of following the northern shore of the island, Ben Zoof cut obliquely across the plain. Making their progress with the unwonted rapidity which was attributable to their specific lightness, Servadac and his companions soon found themselves near a grove of sycamores and eucalyptus massed in picturesque confusion at the base of a little hill. Here they halted.

“Ah! the vagabonds! the rascals! the thieves!” suddenly exclaimed Ben Zoof, stamping his foot with rage.

“How now? Are your friends the birds at their pranks again?” asked the captain.

“No, I don’t mean the birds: I mean those lazy beggars that are shirking their work. Look here; look there!” And as Ben Zoof spoke, he pointed to some scythes, and sickles, and other implements of husbandry that had been left upon the ground.

“What is it you mean?” asked Servadac, getting somewhat impatient.

“Hush, hush! listen!” was all Ben Zoof’s reply; and he raised his finger as if in warning.

Listening attentively, Servadac and his associates could distinctly recognize a human voice, accompanied by the notes of a guitar and by the measured click of castanets.

“Spaniards!” said Servadac.

“No mistake about that, sir,” replied Ben Zoof; “a Spaniard would rattle his castanets at the cannon’s mouth.”

“But what is the meaning of it all?” asked the captain, more puzzled than before.

“Hark!” said Ben Zoof; “it is the old man’s turn.”

And then a voice, at once gruff and harsh, was heard vociferating, “My money! my money! when will you pay me my money? Pay me what you owe me, you miserable majos.”

Meanwhile the song continued:

“Tu sandunga y cigarro,
Y una cana de Jerez,
Mi jamelgo y un trabuco,
Que mas gloria puede haver?”

Servadac’s knowledge of Gascon enabled him partially to comprehend the rollicking tenor of the Spanish patriotic air, but his attention was again arrested by the voice of the old man growling savagely, “Pay me you shall; yes, by the God of Abraham, you shall pay me.”

“A Jew!” exclaimed Servadac.

“Ay, sir, a German Jew,” said Ben Zoof.

The party was on the point of entering the thicket, when a singular spectacle made them pause. A group of Spaniards had just begun dancing their national fandango, and the extraordinary lightness which had become the physical property of every object in the new planet made the dancers bound to a height of thirty feet or more into the air, considerably above the tops of the trees. What followed was irresistibly comic. Four sturdy majos had dragged along with them an old man incapable of resistance, and compelled him, nolens volens, to join in the dance; and as they all kept appearing and disappearing above the bank of foliage, their grotesque attitudes, combined with the pitiable countenance of their helpless victim, could not do otherwise than recall most forcibly the story of Sancho Panza tossed in a blanket by the merry drapers of Segovia.

Servadac, the count, Procope, and Ben Zoof now proceeded to make their way through the thicket until they came to a little glade, where two men were stretched idly on the grass, one of them playing the guitar, and the other a pair of castanets; both were exploding with laughter, as they urged the performers to greater and yet greater exertions in the dance. At the sight of strangers they paused in their music, and simultaneously the dancers, with their victim, alighted gently on the sward.

Breathless and half exhausted as was the Jew, he rushed with an effort towards Servadac, and exclaimed in French, marked by a strong Teutonic accent, “Oh, my lord governor, help me, help! These rascals defraud me of my rights; they rob me; but, in the name of the God of Israel, I ask you to see justice done!”

The captain glanced inquiringly towards Ben Zoof, and the orderly, by a significant nod, made his master understand that he was to play the part that was implied by the title. He took the cue, and promptly ordered the Jew to hold his tongue at once. The man bowed his head in servile submission, and folded his hands upon his breast.

Servadac surveyed him leisurely. He was a man of about fifty, but from his appearance might well have been taken for at least ten years older. Small and skinny, with eyes bright and cunning, a hooked nose, a short yellow beard, unkempt hair, huge feet, and long bony hands, he presented all the typical characteristics of the German Jew, the heartless, wily usurer, the hardened miser and skinflint. As iron is attracted by the magnet, so was this Shylock attracted by the sight of gold, nor would he have hesitated to draw the life-blood of his creditors, if by such means he could secure his claims.

His name was Isaac Hakkabut, and he was a native of Cologne. Nearly the whole of his time, however, he informed Captain Servadac, had been spent upon the sea, his real business being that of a merchant trading at all the ports of the Mediterranean. A tartan, a small vessel of two hundred tons burden, conveyed his entire stock of merchandise, and, to say the truth, was a sort of floating emporium, conveying nearly every possible article of commerce, from a lucifer match to the radiant fabrics of Frank-fort and Epinal. Without wife or children, and having no settled home, Isaac Hakkabut lived almost entirely on board the Hansa, as he had named his tartan; and engaging a mate, with a crew of three men, as being adequate to work so light a craft, he cruised along the coasts of Algeria, Tunis, Egypt, Turkey, and Greece, visiting, moreover, most of the harbors of the Levant. Careful to be always well supplied with the products in most general demand — coffee, sugar, rice, tobacco, cotton stuffs, and gunpowder — and being at all times ready to barter, and prepared to deal in sec-ondhand wares, he had contrived to amass considerable wealth.

On the eventful night of the 1st of January the Hansa had been at Ceuta, the point on the coast of Morocco exactly opposite Gibraltar. The mate and three sailors had all gone on shore, and, in common with many of their fellow-creatures, had entirely disappeared; but the most projecting rock of Ceuta had been undisturbed by the general catastrophe, and half a score of Spaniards, who had happened to be upon it, had escaped with their lives. They were all Andalusian majos, agricultural laborers, and naturally as careless and apathetic as men of their class usually are, but they could not help being very considerably embarrassed when they discovered that they were left in solitude upon a detached and isolated rock. They took what mutual counsel they could, but became only more and more perplexed. One of them was named Negrete, and he, as having traveled somewhat more than the rest, was tacitly recognized as a sort of leader; but although he was by far the most enlightened of them all, he was quite incapable of forming the least conception of the nature of what had occurred. The one thing upon which they could not fail to be conscious was that they had no prospect of obtaining provisions, and consequently their first business was to devise a scheme for getting away from their present abode. The Hansa was lying off shore. The Spaniards would not have had the slightest hesitation in summarily taking possession of her, but their utter ignorance of seamanship made them reluctantly come to the conclusion that the more prudent policy was to make terms with the owner.

And now came a singular part of the story. Negrete and his companions had meanwhile received a visit from two English officers from Gibraltar. What passed between them the Jew did not know; he only knew that, immediately after the conclusion of the interview, Negrete came to him and ordered him to set sail at once for the nearest point of Morocco. The Jew, afraid to disobey, but with his eye ever upon the main chance, stipulated that at the end of their voyage the Spaniards should pay for their passage — terms to which, as they would to any other, they did not demur, knowing that they had not the slightest intention of giving him a single real.

The Hansa had weighed anchor on the 3rd of February. The wind blew from the west, and consequently the working of the tartan was easy enough. The unpracticed sailors had only to hoist their sails and, though they were quite unconscious of the fact, the breeze carried them to the only spot upon the little world they occupied which could afford them a refuge.

Thus it fell out that one morning Ben Zoof, from his lookout on Gourbi Island, saw a ship, not the Dobryna, appear upon the horizon, and make quietly down towards what had formerly been the right bank of the Shelif.

Such was Ben Zoof’s version of what had occurred, as he had gathered it from the new-comers. He wound up his recital by remarking that the cargo of the Hansa would be of immense service to them; he expected, indeed, that Isaac Hakkabut would be difficult to manage, but considered there could be no harm in appropriating the goods for the common welfare, since there could be no opportunity now for selling them.

Ben Zoof added, “And as to the difficulties between the Jew and his passengers, I told him that the governor general was absent on a tour of inspection, and that he would see everything equitably settled.”

Smiling at his orderly’s tactics, Servadac turned to Hakkabut, and told him that he would take care that his claims should be duly investigated and all proper demands should be paid. The man appeared satisfied, and, for the time at least, desisted from his complaints and importunities.

When the Jew had retired, Count Timascheff asked, “But how in the world can you ever make those fellows pay anything?”

“They have lots of money,” said Ben Zoof.

“Not likely,” replied the count; “when did you ever know Spaniards like them to have lots of money?”

“But I have seen it myself,” said Ben Zoof; “and it is English money.”

“English money!” echoed Servadac; and his mind again reverted to the excursion made by the colonel and the major from Gibraltar, about which they had been so reticent. “We must inquire more about this,” he said.

Then, addressing Count Timascheff, he added, “Altogether, I think the countries of Europe are fairly represented by the population of Gallia.”

“True, captain,” answered the count; “we have only a fragment of a world, but it contains natives of France, Russia, Italy, Spain, and England. Even Germany may be said to have a representative in the person of this miserable Jew.”

“And even in him,” said Servadac, “perhaps we shall not find so indifferent a representative as we at present imagine.”

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