Off on a Comet, by Jules Verne

Chapter 19

Gallia’s Governor General

The Spaniards who had arrived on board the Hansa consisted of nine men and a lad of twelve years of age, named Pablo. They all received Captain Servadac, whom Ben Zoof introduced as the governor general, with due respect, and returned quickly to their separate tasks. The captain and his friends, followed at some distance by the eager Jew, soon left the glade and directed their steps towards the coast where the Hansa was moored.

As they went they discussed their situation. As far as they had ascertained, except Gourbi Island, the sole surviving fragments of the Old World were four small islands: the bit of Gibraltar occupied by the Englishmen; Ceuta, which had just been left by the Spaniards; Madalena, where they had picked up the little Italian girl; and the site of the tomb of Saint Louis on the coast of Tunis. Around these there was stretched out the full extent of the Gallian Sea, which apparently comprised about one-half of the Mediterranean, the whole being encompassed by a barrier like a framework of precipitous cliffs, of an origin and a substance alike unknown.

Of all these spots only two were known to be inhabited: Gibraltar, where the thirteen Englishmen were amply provisioned for some years to come, and their own Gourbi Island. Here there was a population of twenty-two, who would all have to subsist upon the natural products of the soil. It was indeed not to be forgotten that, perchance, upon some remote and undiscovered isle there might be the solitary writer of the mysterious papers which they had found, and if so, that would raise the census of their new asteroid to an aggregate of thirty-six.

Even upon the supposition that at some future date the whole population should be compelled to unite and find a residence upon Gourbi Island, there did not appear any reason to question but that eight hundred acres of rich soil, under good management, would yield them all an ample sustenance. The only critical matter was how long the cold season would last; every hope depended upon the land again becoming productive; at present, it seemed impossible to determine, even if Gallia’s orbit were really elliptic, when she would reach her aphelion, and it was consequently necessary that the Gallians for the time being should reckon on nothing beyond their actual and present resources.

These resources were, first, the provisions of the Dobryna, consisting of preserved meat, sugar, wine, brandy, and other stores sufficient for about two months; secondly, the valuable cargo of the Hansa, which, sooner or later, the owner, whether he would or not, must be compelled to surrender for the common benefit; and lastly, the produce of the island, animal and vegetable, which with proper economy might be made to last for a considerable period.

In the course of the conversation, Count Timascheff took an opportunity of saying that, as Captain Servadac had already been presented to the Spaniards as governor of the island, he thought it advisable that he should really assume that position.

“Every body of men,” he observed, “must have a head, and you, as a Frenchman, should, I think, take the command of this fragment of a French colony. My men, I can answer for it, are quite prepared to recognize you as their superior officer.”

“Most unhesitatingly,” replied Servadac, “I accept the post with all its responsibilities. We understand each other so well that I feel sure we shall try and work together for the common good; and even if it be our fate never again to behold our fellow creatures, I have no misgivings but that we shall be able to cope with whatever difficulties may be before us.”

As he spoke, he held out his hand. The count took it, at the same time making a slight bow. It was the first time since their meeting that the two men had shaken hands; on the other hand, not a single word about their former rivalry had ever escaped their lips; perhaps that was all forgotten now.

The silence of a few moments was broken by Servadac saying, “Do you not think we ought to explain our situation to the Spaniards?”

“No, no, your Excellency,” burst in Ben Zoof, emphatically; “the fellows are chicken-hearted enough already; only tell them what has happened, and in sheer despondency they will not do another stroke of work.”

“Besides,” said Lieutenant Procope, who took very much the same view as the orderly, “they are so miserably ignorant they would be sure to misunderstand you.”

“Understand or misunderstand,” replied Servadac, “I do not think it matters. They would not care. They are all fatalists. Only give them a guitar and their castanets, and they will soon forget all care and anxiety. For my own part, I must adhere to my belief that it will be advisable to tell them everything. Have you any opinion to offer, count?”

“My own opinion, captain, coincides entirely with yours.

I have followed the plan of explaining all I could to my men on board the Dobryna, and no inconvenience has arisen.”

“Well, then, so let it be,” said the captain; adding, “It is not likely that these Spaniards are so ignorant as not to have noticed the change in the length of the days; neither can they be unaware of the physical changes that have transpired. They shall certainly be told that we are being carried away into unknown regions of space, and that this island is nearly all that remains of the Old World.”

“Ha! ha!” laughed Ben Zoof, aloud; “it will be fine sport to watch the old Jew’s face, when he is made to comprehend that he is flying away millions and millions of leagues from all his debtors.”

Isaac Hakkabut was about fifty yards behind, and was consequently unable to overhear the conversation. He went shambling along, half whimpering and not unfrequently invoking the God of Israel; but every now and then a cunning light gleamed from his eyes, and his lips became compressed with a grim significance.

None of the recent phenomena had escaped his notice, and more than once he had attempted to entice Ben Zoof into conversation upon the subject; but the orderly made no secret of his antipathy to him, and generally replied to his advances either by satire or by banter. He told him that he had everything to gain under the new system of nights and days, for, instead of living the Jew’s ordinary life of a century, he would reach to the age of two centuries; and he congratulated him upon the circumstance of things having become so light, because it would prevent him feeling the burden of his years. At another time he would declare that, to an old usurer like him, it could not matter in the least what had become of the moon, as he could not possibly have advanced any money upon her. And when Isaac, undaunted by his jeers, persevered in besetting him with questions, he tried to silence him by saying, “Only wait till the governor general comes; he is a shrewd fellow, and will tell you all about it.”

“But will he protect my property?” poor Isaac would ask tremulously.

“To be sure he will! He would confiscate it all rather than that you should be robbed of it.”

With this Job’s comfort the Jew had been obliged to content himself as best he could, and to await the promised arrival of the governor.

When Servadac and his companions reached the shore, they found that the Hansa had anchored in an exposed bay, protected but barely by a few projecting rocks, and in such a position that a gale rising from the west would inevitably drive her on to the land, where she must be dashed in pieces. It would be the height of folly to leave her in her present moorings; without loss of time she must be brought round to the mouth of the Shelif, in immediate proximity to the Russian yacht.

The consciousness that his tartan was the subject of discussion made the Jew give way to such vehement ejaculations of anxiety, that Servadac turned round and peremptorily ordered him to desist from his clamor. Leaving the old man under the surveillance of the count and Ben Zoof, the captain and the lieutenant stepped into a small boat and were soon alongside the floating emporium.

A very short inspection sufficed to make them aware that both the tartan and her cargo were in a perfect state of preservation. In the hold were sugar-loaves by hundreds, chests of tea, bags of coffee, hogsheads of tobacco, pipes of wine, casks of brandy, barrels of dried herrings, bales of cotton, clothing of every kind, shoes of all sizes, caps of various shape, tools, household utensils, china and earthenware, reams of paper, bottles of ink, boxes of lucifer matches, blocks of salt, bags of pepper and spices, a stock of huge Dutch cheeses, and a collection of almanacs and miscellaneous literature. At a rough guess the value could not be much under pounds 5,000 sterling. A new cargo had been taken in only a few days before the catastrophe, and it had been Isaac Hakkabut’s intention to cruise from Ceuta to Tripoli, calling wherever he had reason to believe there was likely to be a market for any of his commodities.

“A fine haul, lieutenant,” said the captain.

“Yes, indeed,” said the lieutenant; “but what if the owner refuses to part with it?”

“No fear; no fear,” replied the captain. “As soon as ever the old rascal finds that there are no more Arabs or Algerians for him to fleece, he will be ready enough to transact a little business with us. We will pay him by bills of acceptance on some of his old friends in the Old World.”

“But why should he want any payment?” inquired the lieutenant. “Under the circumstances, he must know that you have a right to make a requisition of his goods.”

“No, no,” quickly rejoined Servadac; “we will not do that. Just because the fellow is a German we shall not be justified in treating him in German fashion. We will transact our business in a business way. Only let him once realize that he is on a new globe, with no prospect of getting back to the old one, and he will be ready enough to come to terms with us.”

“Perhaps you are right,” replied the lieutenant; “I hope you are. But anyhow, it will not do to leave the tartan here; not only would she be in danger in the event of a storm, but it is very questionable whether she could resist the pressure of the ice, if the water were to freeze.”

“Quite true, Procope; and accordingly I give you the commission to see that your crew bring her round to the Shelif as soon as may be.”

“To-morrow morning it shall be done,” answered the lieutenant, promptly.

Upon returning to the shore, it was arranged that the whole of the little colony should forthwith assemble at the gourbi. The Spaniards were summoned and Isaac, although he could only with reluctance take his wistful gaze from his tartan, obeyed the governor’s orders to follow.

An hour later and the entire population of twenty-two had met in the chamber adjoining the gourbi. Young Pablo made his first acquaintance with little Nina, and the child seemed highly delighted to find a companion so nearly of her own age. Leaving the children to entertain each other, Captain Servadac began his address.

Before entering upon further explanation, he said that he counted upon the cordial co-operation of them all for the common welfare.

Negrete interrupted him by declaring that no promises or pledges could be given until he and his countrymen knew how soon they could be sent back to Spain.

“To Spain, do you say?” asked Servadac.

“To Spain!” echoed Isaac Hakkabut, with a hideous yell. “Do they expect to go back to Spain till they have paid their debts? Your Excellency, they owe me twenty reals apiece for their passage here; they owe me two hundred reals. Are they to be allowed . . .?”

“Silence, Mordecai, you fool!” shouted Ben Zoof, who was accustomed to call the Jew by any Hebrew name that came uppermost to his memory. “Silence!”

Servadac was disposed to appease the old man’s anxiety by promising to see that justice was ultimately done; but, in a fever of frantic excitement, he went on to implore that he might have the loan of a few sailors to carry his ship to Algiers.

“I will pay you honestly; I will pay you well,” he cried; but his ingrained propensity for making a good bargain prompted him to add, “provided you do not overcharge me.”

Ben Zoof was about again to interpose some angry exclamation; but Servadac checked him, and continued in Spanish: “Listen to me, my friends. Something very strange has happened. A most wonderful event has cut us off from Spain, from France, from Italy, from every country of Europe. In fact, we have left the Old World entirely. Of the whole earth, nothing remains except this island on which you are now taking refuge. The old globe is far, far away. Our present abode is but an insignificant fragment that is left. I dare not tell you that there is any chance of your ever again seeing your country or your homes.”

He paused. The Spaniards evidently had no conception of his meaning.

Negrete begged him to tell them all again. He repeated all that he had said, and by introducing some illustrations from familiar things, he succeeded to a certain extent in conveying some faint idea of the convulsion that had happened. The event was precisely what he had foretold. The communication was received by all alike with the most supreme indifference.

Hakkabut did not say a word. He had listened with manifest attention, his lips twitching now and then as if suppressing a smile. Servadac turned to him, and asked whether he was still disposed to put out to sea and make for Algiers.

The Jew gave a broad grin, which, however, he was careful to conceal from the Spaniards. “Your Excellency jests,” he said in French; and turning to Count Timascheff, he added in Russian: “The governor has made up a wonderful tale.”

The count turned his back in disgust, while the Jew sidled up to little Nina and muttered in Italian. “A lot of lies, pretty one; a lot of lies!”

“Confound the knave!” exclaimed Ben Zoof; “he gabbles every tongue under the sun!”

“Yes,” said Servadac; “but whether he speaks French, Russian, Spanish, German, or Italian, he is neither more nor less than a Jew.”

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