Off on a Comet, by Jules Verne

Chapter 9

Inquiries Unsatisfied

Fast as his legs could carry him, Servadac had made his way to the top of the cliff. It was quite true that a vessel was in sight, hardly more than six miles from the shore; but owing to the increase in the earth’s convexity, and the consequent limitation of the range of vision, the rigging of the topmasts alone was visible above the water. This was enough, however, to indicate that the ship was a schooner — an impression that was confirmed when, two hours later, she came entirely in sight.

“The Dobryna!” exclaimed Servadac, keeping his eye unmoved at his telescope.

“Impossible, sir!” rejoined Ben Zoof; “there are no signs of smoke.”

“The Dobryna!” repeated the captain, positively. “She is under sail; but she is Count Timascheff’s yacht.”

He was right. If the count were on board, a strange fatality was bringing him to the presence of his rival. But no longer now could Servadac regard him in the light of an adversary; circumstances had changed, and all animosity was absorbed in the eagerness with which he hailed the prospect of obtaining some information about the recent startling and inexplicable events. During the twenty-seven days that she had been absent, the Dobryna, he conjectured, would have explored the Mediterranean, would very probably have visited Spain, France, or Italy, and accordingly would convey to Gourbi Island some intelligence from one or other of those countries. He reckoned, therefore, not only upon ascertaining the extent of the late catastrophe, but upon learning its cause. Count Timascheff was, no doubt, magnanimously coming to the rescue of himself and his orderly.

The wind being adverse, the Dobryna did not make very rapid progress; but as the weather, in spite of a few clouds, remained calm, and the sea was quite smooth, she was enabled to hold a steady course. It seemed unaccountable that she should not use her engine, as whoever was on board, would be naturally impatient to reconnoiter the new island, which must just have come within their view. The probability that suggested itself was that the schooner’s fuel was exhausted.

Servadac took it for granted that the Dobryna was endeavoring to put in. It occurred to him, however, that the count, on discovering an island where he had expected to find the mainland of Africa, would not unlikely be at a loss for a place of anchorage. The yacht was evidently making her way in the direction of the former mouth of the Shelif, and the captain was struck with the idea that he would do well to investigate whether there was any suitable mooring towards which he might signal her. Zephyr and Galette were soon saddled, and in twenty minutes had carried their riders to the western extremity of the island, where they both dismounted and began to explore the coast.

They were not long in ascertaining that on the farther side of the point there was a small well-sheltered creek of sufficient depth to accommodate a vessel of moderate tonnage. A narrow channel formed a passage through the ridge of rocks that protected it from the open sea, and which, even in the roughest weather, would ensure the calmness of its waters.

Whilst examining the rocky shore, the captain observed, to his great surprise, long and well-defined rows of seaweed, which undoubtedly betokened that there had been a very considerable ebb and flow of the waters — a thing unknown in the Mediterranean, where there is scarcely any perceptible tide. What, however, seemed most remarkable, was the manifest evidence that ever since the highest flood (which was caused, in all probability, by the proximity of the body of which the huge disc had been so conspicuous on the night of the 31st of December) the phenomenon had been gradually lessening, and in fact was now reduced to the normal limits which had characterized it before the convulsion.

Without doing more than note the circumstance, Servadac turned his entire attention to the Dobryna, which, now little more than a mile from shore, could not fail to see and understand his signals. Slightly changing her course, she first struck her mainsail, and, in order to facilitate the movements of her helmsman, soon carried nothing but her two topsails, brigantine and jib. After rounding the peak, she steered direct for the channel to which Servadac by his gestures was pointing her, and was not long in entering the creek. As soon as the anchor, imbedded in the sandy bottom, had made good its hold, a boat was lowered. In a few minutes more Count Timascheff had landed on the island. Captain Servadac hastened towards him.

“First of all, count,” he exclaimed impetuously, “before we speak one other word, tell me what has happened.”

The count, whose imperturbable composure presented a singular contrast to the French officer’s enthusiastic vivacity, made a stiff bow, and in his Russian accent replied: “First of all, permit me to express my surprise at seeing you here. I left you on a continent, and here I have the honor of finding you on an island.”

“I assure you, count, I have never left the place.”

“I am quite aware of it. Captain Servadac, and I now beg to offer you my sincere apologies for failing to keep my appointment with you.”

“Never mind, now,” interposed the captain; “we will talk of that by-and-by. First, tell me what has happened.”

“The very question I was about to put to you, Captain Servadac.”

“Do you mean to say you know nothing of the cause, and can tell me nothing of the extent, of the catastrophe which has transformed this part of Africa into an island?”

“Nothing more than you know yourself.”

“But surely, Count Timascheff, you can inform me whether upon the northern shore of the Mediterranean —”

“Are you certain that this is the Mediterranean?” asked the count significantly, and added, “I have discovered no sign of land.”

The captain stared in silent bewilderment. For some moments he seemed perfectly stupefied; then, recovering himself, he began to overwhelm the count with a torrent of questions. Had he noticed, ever since the 1st of January, that the sun had risen in the west? Had he noticed that the days had been only six hours long, and that the weight of the atmosphere was so much diminished? Had he observed that the moon had quite disappeared, and that the earth had been in imminent hazard of running foul of the planet Venus? Was he aware, in short, that the entire motions of the terrestrial sphere had undergone a complete modification? To all these inquiries, the count responded in the affirmative. He was acquainted with everything that had transpired; but, to Servadac’s increasing astonishment, he could throw no light upon the cause of any of the phenomena.

“On the night of the 31st of December,” he said, “I was proceeding by sea to our appointed place of meeting, when my yacht was suddenly caught on the crest of an enormous wave, and carried to a height which it is beyond my power to estimate. Some mysterious force seemed to have brought about a convulsion of the elements. Our engine was damaged, nay disabled, and we drifted entirely at the mercy of the terrible hurricane that raged during the succeeding days. That the Dobryna escaped at all is little less than a miracle, and I can only attribute her safety to the fact that she occupied the center of the vast cyclone, and consequently did not experience much change of position.”

He paused, and added: “Your island is the first land we have seen.”

“Then let us put out to sea at once and ascertain the extent of the disaster,” cried the captain, eagerly. “You will take me on board, count, will you not?”

“My yacht is at your service, sir, even should you require to make a tour round the world.”

“A tour round the Mediterranean will suffice for the present, I think,” said the captain, smiling.

The count shook his head.

“I am not sure,” said he, “but what the tour of the Mediterranean will prove to be the tour of the world.”

Servadac made no reply, but for a time remained silent and absorbed in thought.

After the silence was broken, they consulted as to what course was best to pursue; and the plan they proposed was, in the first place, to discover how much of the African coast still remained, and to carry on the tidings of their own experiences to Algiers; or, in the event of the southern shore having actually disappeared, they would make their way northwards and put themselves in communication with the population on the river banks of Europe.

Before starting, it was indispensable that the engine of the Dobryna should be repaired: to sail under canvas only would in contrary winds and rough seas be both tedious and difficult. The stock of coal on board was adequate for two months’ consumption; but as it would at the expiration of that time be exhausted, it was obviously the part of prudence to employ it in reaching a port where fuel could be replenished.

The damage sustained by the engine proved to be not very serious; and in three days after her arrival the Dobryna was again ready to put to sea.

Servadac employed the interval in making the count acquainted with all he knew about his small domain. They made an entire circuit of the island, and both agreed that it must be beyond the limits of that circumscribed territory that they must seek an explanation of what had so strangely. transpired.

It was on the last day of January that the repairs of the schooner were completed. A slight diminution in the excessively high temperature which had prevailed for the last few weeks, was the only apparent change in the general order of things; but whether this was to be attributed to any alteration in the earth’s orbit was a question which would still require several days to decide. The weather remained fine, and although a few clouds had accumulated, and might have caused a trifling fall of the barometer, they were not sufficiently threatening to delay the departure of the Dobryna.

Doubts now arose, and some discussion followed, whether or not it was desirable for Ben Zoof to accompany his master. There were various reasons why he should be left behind, not the least important being that the schooner had no accommodation for horses, and the orderly would have found it hard to part with Zephyr, and much more with his own favorite Galette; besides, it was advisable that there should be some one left to receive any strangers that might possibly arrive, as well as to keep an eye upon the herds of cattle which, in the dubious prospect before them, might prove to be the sole resource of the survivors of the catastrophe. Altogether, taking into consideration that the brave fellow would incur no personal risk by remaining upon the island, the captain was induced with much reluctance to forego the attendance of his servant, hoping very shortly to return and to restore him to his country, when he had ascertained the reason of the mysteries in which they were enveloped.

On the 31st, then, Ben Zoof was “invested with governor’s powers,” and took an affecting leave of his master, begging him, if chance should carry him near Montmartre, to ascertain whether the beloved “mountain” had been left unmoved.

Farewells over, the Dobryna was carefully steered through the creek, and was soon upon the open sea.

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