Off on a Comet, by Jules Verne

Chapter 35

A Fete Day

The temperature continued to decrease; the mercurial thermometer, which freezes at 42 degrees below zero, was no longer of service, and the spirit thermometer of the Dobryna had been brought into use. This now registered 53 degrees below freezing-point.

In the creek, where the two vessels had been moored for the winter, the elevation of the ice, in anticipation of which Lieutenant Procope had taken the precautionary measure of beveling, was going on slowly but irresistibly, and the tartan was upheaved fifty feet above the level of the Gallian Sea, while the schooner, as being lighter, had been raised to a still greater altitude.

So irresistible was this gradual process of elevation, so utterly defying all human power to arrest, that the lieutenant began to feel very anxious as to the safety of his yacht. With the exception of the engine and the masts, everything had been cleared out and conveyed to shore, but in the event of a thaw it appeared that nothing short of a miracle could prevent the hull from being dashed to pieces, and then all means of leaving the promontory would be gone. The Hansa, of course, would share a similar fate; in fact, it had already heeled over to such an extent as to render it quite dangerous for its obstinate owner, who, at the peril of his life, resolved that he would stay where he could watch over his all-precious cargo, though continually invoking curses on the ill-fate of which he deemed himself the victim.

There was, however, a stronger will than Isaac Hakkabut’s. Although no one of all the community cared at all for the safety of the Jew, they cared very much for the security of his cargo, and when Servadac found that nothing would induce the old man to abandon his present quarters voluntarily, he very soon adopted measures of coercion that were far more effectual than any representations of personal danger.

“Stop where you like, Hakkabut,” said the captain to him; “but understand that I consider it my duty to make sure that your cargo is taken care of. I am going to have it carried across to land, at once.”

Neither groans, nor tears, nor protestations on the part of the Jew, were of the slightest avail. Forthwith, on the 20th of December, the removal of the goods commenced.

Both Spaniards and Russians were all occupied for several days in the work of unloading the tartan. Well muffled up as they were in furs, they were able to endure the cold with impunity, making it their special care to avoid actual contact with any article made of metal, which, in the low state of the temperature, would inevitably have taken all the skin off their hands, as much as if it had been red-hot. The task, however, was brought to an end without accident of any kind; and when the stores of the Hansa were safely deposited in the galleries of the Hive, Lieutenant Procope avowed that he really felt that his mind had been unburdened from a great anxiety.

Captain Servadac gave old Isaac full permission to take up his residence amongst the rest of the community, promised him the entire control over his own property, and altogether showed him so much consideration that, but for his unbounded respect for his master, Ben Zoof would have liked to reprimand him for his courtesy to a man whom he so cordially despised.

Although Hakkabut clamored most vehemently about his goods being carried off “against his will,” in his heart he was more than satisfied to see his property transferred to a place of safety, and delighted, moreover, to know that the transport had been effected without a farthing of expense to himself. As soon, then, as he found the tartan empty, he was only too glad to accept the offer that had been made him, and very soon made his way over to the quarters in the gallery where his merchandise had been stored. Here he lived day and night. He supplied himself with what little food he required from his own stock of provisions, a small spirit-lamp sufficing to perform all the operations of his meager cookery. Consequently all intercourse between himself and the rest of the inhabitants was entirely confined to business transactions, when occasion required that some purchase should be made from his stock of commodities. Meanwhile, all the silver and gold of the colony was gradually finding its way to a double-locked drawer, of which the Jew most carefully guarded the key.

The 1st of January was drawing near, the anniversary of the shock which had resulted in the severance of thirty-six human beings from the society of their fellow-men. Hitherto, not one of them was missing. The unvarying calmness of the climate, notwithstanding the cold, had tended to maintain them in good health, and there seemed no reason to doubt that, when Gallia returned to the earth, the total of its little population would still be complete.

The 1st of January, it is true, was not properly “New Year’s Day” in Gallia, but Captain Servadac, nevertheless, was very anxious to have it observed as a holiday.

“I do not think,” he said to Count Timascheff and Lieutenant Procope, “that we ought to allow our people to lose their interest in the world to which we are all hoping to return; and how can we cement the bond that ought to unite us, better than by celebrating, in common with our fellow-creatures upon earth, a day that awakens afresh the kindliest sentiments of all? Besides,” he added, smiling, “I expect that Gallia, although invisible just at present to the naked eye, is being closely watched by the telescopes of our terrestrial friends, and I have no doubt that the newspapers and scientific journals of both hemispheres are full of accounts detailing the movements of the new comet.”

“True,” asserted the count. “I can quite imagine that we are occasioning no small excitement in all the chief observatories.”

“Ay, more than that,” said the lieutenant; “our Gallia is certain to be far more than a mere object of scientific interest or curiosity. Why should we doubt that the elements of a comet which has once come into collision with the earth have by this time been accurately calculated? What our friend the professor has done here, has been done likewise on the earth, where, beyond a question, all manner of expedients are being discussed as to the best way of mitigating the violence of a concussion that must occur.”

The lieutenant’s conjectures were so reasonable that they commanded assent. Gallia could scarcely be otherwise than an object of terror to the inhabitants of the earth, who could by no means be certain that a second collision would be comparatively so harmless as the first. Even to the Gallians themselves, much as they looked forward to the event, the prospect was not unmixed with alarm, and they would rejoice in the invention of any device by which it was likely the impetus of the shock might be deadened.

Christmas arrived, and was marked by appropriate religious observance by everyone in the community, with the exception of the Jew, who made a point of secluding himself more obstinately than ever in the gloomy recesses of his retreat.

To Ben Zoof the last week of the year was full of bustle. The arrangements for the New Year fete were entrusted to him, and he was anxious, in spite of the resources of Gallia being so limited, to make the program for the great day as attractive as possible.

It was a matter of debate that night whether the professor should be invited to join the party; it was scarcely likely that he would care to come, but, on the whole, it was felt to be advisable to ask him. At first Captain Servadac thought of going in person with the invitation; but, remembering Rosette’s dislike to visitors, he altered his mind, and sent young Pablo up to the observatory with a formal note, requesting the pleasure of Professor Rosette’s company at the New Year’s fete.

Pablo was soon back, bringing no answer except that the professor had told him that “to-day was the l25th of June, and that to-morrow would be the 1st of July.”

Consequently, Servadac and the count took it for granted that Palmyrin Rosette declined their invitation.

An hour after sunrise on New Year’s Day, Frenchmen, Russians, Spaniards, and little Nina, as the representative of Italy, sat down to a feast such as never before had been seen in Gallia. Ben Zoof and the Russian cook had quite surpassed themselves. The wines, part of the Dobryna’s stores, were of excellent quality. Those of the vintages of France and Spain were drunk in toasting their respective countries, and even Russia was honored in a similar way by means of a few bottles of kummel. The company was more than contented — it was as jovial as Ben Zoof could desire; and the ringing cheers that followed the great toast of the day —“A happy return to our Mother Earth,” must fairly have startled the professor in the silence of his observatory.

The dejeuner over, there still remained three hours of daylight. The sun was approaching the zenith, but so dim and enfeebled were his rays that they were very unlike what had produced the wines of Bordeaux and Burgundy which they had just been enjoying, and it was necessary for all, before starting upon an excursion that would last over nightfall, to envelop themselves in the thickest of clothing.

Full of spirits, the party left the Hive, and chattering and singing as they went, made their way down to the frozen shore, where they fastened on their skates. Once upon the ice, everyone followed his own fancy, and some singly, some in groups, scattered themselves in all directions. Captain Servadac, the count, and the lieutenant were generally seen together. Negrete and the Spaniards, now masters of their novel exercise, wandered fleetly and gracefully hither and thither, occasionally being out of sight completely. The Russian sailors, following a northern custom, skated in file, maintaining their rank by means of a long pole passed under their right arms, and in this way they described a trackway of singular regularity. The two children, blithe as birds, flitted about, now singly, now arm-in-arm, now joining the captain’s party, now making a short peregrination by themselves, but always full of life and spirit. As for Ben Zoof, he was here, there, and everywhere, his imperturbable good temper ensuring him a smile of welcome whenever he appeared.

Thus coursing rapidly over the icy plain, the whole party had soon exceeded the line that made the horizon from the shore. First, the rocks of the coast were lost to view; then the white crests of the cliffs were no longer to be seen; and at last, the summit of the volcano, with its corona of vapor, was entirely out of sight. Occasionally the skaters were obliged to stop to recover their breath, but, fearful of frost-bite, they almost instantly resumed their exercise, and proceeded nearly as far as Gourbi Island before they thought about retracing their course.

But night was coming on, and the sun was already sinking in the east with the rapidity to which the residents on Gallia were by this time well accustomed. The sunset upon this contracted horizon was very remarkable. There was not a cloud nor a vapor to catch the tints of the declining beams; the surface of the ice did not, as a liquid sea would, reflect the last green ray of light; but the radiant orb, enlarged by the effect of refraction, its circumference sharply defined against the sky, sank abruptly, as though a trap had been opened in the ice for its reception.

Before the daylight ended. Captain Servadac had cautioned the party to collect themselves betimes into one group. “Unless you are sure of your whereabouts before dark,” he said, “you will not find it after. We have come out like a party of skirmishers; let us go back in full force.”

The night would be dark; their moon was in conjunction, and would not be seen; the stars would only give something of that “pale radiance” which the poet Corneille has described.

Immediately after sunset the torches were lighted, and the long series of flames, fanned by the rapid motion of their bearers, had much the appearance of an enormous fiery banner. An hour later, and the volcano appeared like a dim shadow on the horizon, the light from the crater shedding a lurid glare upon the surrounding gloom. In time the glow of the burning lava, reflected in the icy mirror, fell upon the troop of skaters, and cast their lengthened shadows grotesquely on the surface of the frozen sea.

Later still, half an hour or more afterwards, the torches were all but dying out. The shore was close at hand. All at once, Ben Zoof uttered a startled cry, and pointed with bewildered excitement towards the mountain. Involuntarily, one and all, they plowed their heels into the ice and came to a halt. Exclamations of surprise and horror burst from every lip. The volcano was extinguished! The stream of burning lava had suddenly ceased to flow!

Speechless with amazement, they stood still for some moments. There was not one of them that did not realize, more or less, how critical was their position. The sole source of the heat that had enabled them to brave the rigor of the cold had failed them! death, in the cruellest of all shapes, seemed staring them in the face — death from cold! Meanwhile, the last torch had flickered out.

It was quite dark.

“Forward!” cried Servadac, firmly.

At the word of command they advanced to the shore; clambered with no little difficulty up the slippery rocks; gained the mouth of the gallery; groped their way into the common hall.

How dreary! how chill it seemed!

The fiery cataract no longer spread its glowing covering over the mouth of the grotto. Lieutenant Procope leaned through the aperture. The pool, hitherto kept fluid by its proximity to the lava, was already encrusted with a layer of ice.

Such was the end of the New Year’s Day so happily begun.

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