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The Captain Makes An Exploration






Part of: BOOK I.
From: Off On A Comet

Hector Servadac was not the man to remain long unnerved by any untoward
event. It was part of his character to discover the why and the
wherefore of everything that came under his observation, and he would
have faced a cannon ball the more unflinchingly from understanding the
dynamic force by which it was propelled. Such being his temperament, it
may well be imagined that he was anxious not to remain long in ignorance
of the cause of the phenomena which had been so startling in their
consequences.

"We must inquire into this to-morrow," he exclaimed, as darkness fell
suddenly upon him. Then, after a pause, he added: "That is to say, if
there is to be a to-morrow; for if I were to be put to the torture, I
could not tell what has become of the sun."

"May I ask, sir, what we are to do now?" put in Ben Zoof.

"Stay where we are for the present; and when daylight appears--if it
ever does appear--we will explore the coast to the west and south, and
return to the gourbi. If we can find out nothing else, we must at least
discover where we are."

"Meanwhile, sir, may we go to sleep?"

"Certainly, if you like, and if you can."

Nothing loath to avail himself of his master's permission, Ben Zoof
crouched down in an angle of the shore, threw his arms over his eyes,
and very soon slept the sleep of the ignorant, which is often sounder
than the sleep of the just. Overwhelmed by the questions that crowded
upon his brain, Captain Servadac could only wander up and down the
shore. Again and again he asked himself what the catastrophe could
portend. Had the towns of Algiers, Oran, and Mostaganem escaped the
inundation? Could he bring himself to believe that all the inhabitants,
his friends, and comrades had perished; or was it not more probable
that the Mediterranean had merely invaded the region of the mouth of
the Shelif? But this supposition did not in the least explain the other
physical disturbances. Another hypothesis that presented itself to his
mind was that the African coast might have been suddenly transported to
the equatorial zone. But although this might get over the difficulty
of the altered altitude of the sun and the absence of twilight, yet
it would neither account for the sun setting in the east, nor for the
length of the day being reduced to six hours.

"We must wait till to-morrow," he repeated; adding, for he had become
distrustful of the future, "that is to say, if to-morrow ever comes."

Although not very learned in astronomy, Servadac was acquainted with
the position of the principal constellations. It was therefore a
considerable disappointment to him that, in consequence of the heavy
clouds, not a star was visible in the firmament. To have ascertained
that the pole-star had become displaced would have been an undeniable
proof that the earth was revolving on a new axis; but not a rift
appeared in the lowering clouds, which seemed to threaten torrents of
rain.

It happened that the moon was new on that very day; naturally,
therefore, it would have set at the same time as the sun. What, then,
was the captain's bewilderment when, after he had been walking for about
an hour and a half, he noticed on the western horizon a strong glare
that penetrated even the masses of the clouds.

"The moon in the west!" he cried aloud; but suddenly bethinking himself,
he added: "But no, that cannot be the moon; unless she had shifted very
much nearer the earth, she could never give a light as intense as this."

As he spoke the screen of vapor was illuminated to such a degree that
the whole country was as it were bathed in twilight. "What can this be?"
soliloquized the captain. "It cannot be the sun, for the sun set in the
east only an hour and a half ago. Would that those clouds would disclose
what enormous luminary lies behind them! What a fool I was not to have
learnt more astronomy! Perhaps, after all, I am racking my brain over
something that is quite in the ordinary course of nature."

But, reason as he might, the mysteries of the heavens still remained
impenetrable. For about an hour some luminous body, its disc evidently
of gigantic dimensions, shed its rays upon the upper strata of the
clouds; then, marvelous to relate, instead of obeying the ordinary laws
of celestial mechanism, and descending upon the opposite horizon, it
seemed to retreat farther off, grew dimmer, and vanished.

The darkness that returned to the face of the earth was not more
profound than the gloom which fell upon the captain's soul. Everything
was incomprehensible. The simplest mechanical rules seemed falsified;
the planets had defied the laws of gravitation; the motions of the
celestial spheres were erroneous as those of a watch with a defective
mainspring, and there was reason to fear that the sun would never again
shed his radiance upon the earth.

But these last fears were groundless. In three hours' time, without any
intervening twilight, the morning sun made its appearance in the west,
and day once more had dawned. On consulting his watch, Servadac
found that night had lasted precisely six hours. Ben Zoof, who was
unaccustomed to so brief a period of repose, was still slumbering
soundly.

"Come, wake up!" said Servadac, shaking him by the shoulder; "it is time
to start."

"Time to start?" exclaimed Ben Zoof, rubbing his eyes. "I feel as if I
had only just gone to sleep."

"You have slept all night, at any rate," replied the captain; "it has
only been for six hours, but you must make it enough."

"Enough it shall be, sir," was the submissive rejoinder.

"And now," continued Servadac, "we will take the shortest way back to
the gourbi, and see what our horses think about it all."

"They will think that they ought to be groomed," said the orderly.

"Very good; you may groom them and saddle them as quickly as you like.
I want to know what has become of the rest of Algeria: if we cannot get
round by the south to Mostaganem, we must go eastwards to Tenes." And
forthwith they started. Beginning to feel hungry, they had no hesitation
in gathering figs, dates, and oranges from the plantations that formed a
continuous rich and luxuriant orchard along their path. The district was
quite deserted, and they had no reason to fear any legal penalty.

In an hour and a half they reached the gourbi. Everything was just as
they had left it, and it was evident that no one had visited the place
during their absence. All was desolate as the shore they had quitted.

The preparations for the expedition were brief and simple. Ben Zoof
saddled the horses and filled his pouch with biscuits and game; water,
he felt certain, could be obtained in abundance from the numerous
affluents of the Shelif, which, although they had now become tributaries
of the Mediterranean, still meandered through the plain. Captain
Servadac mounted his horse Zephyr, and Ben Zoof simultaneously got
astride his mare Galette, named after the mill of Montmartre. They
galloped off in the direction of the Shelif, and were not long in
discovering that the diminution in the pressure of the atmosphere
had precisely the same effect upon their horses as it had had upon
themselves. Their muscular strength seemed five times as great as
hitherto; their hoofs scarcely touched the ground, and they seemed
transformed from ordinary quadrupeds into veritable hippogriffs.
Happily, Servadac and his orderly were fearless riders; they made no
attempt to curb their steeds, but even urged them to still greater
exertions. Twenty minutes sufficed to carry them over the four or five
miles that intervened between the gourbi and the mouth of the Shelif;
then, slackening their speed, they proceeded at a more leisurely pace to
the southeast, along what had once been the right bank of the river, but
which, although it still retained its former characteristics, was now
the boundary of a sea, which extending farther than the limits of the
horizon, must have swallowed up at least a large portion of the province
of Oran. Captain Servadac knew the country well; he had at one time been
engaged upon a trigonometrical survey of the district, and consequently
had an accurate knowledge of its topography. His idea now was to draw up
a report of his investigations: to whom that report should be delivered
was a problem he had yet to solve.

During the four hours of daylight that still remained, the travelers
rode about twenty-one miles from the river mouth. To their vast
surprise, they did not meet a single human being. At nightfall they
again encamped in a slight bend of the shore, at a point which on the
previous evening had faced the mouth of the Mina, one of the left-hand
affluents of the Shelif, but now absorbed into the newly revealed
ocean. Ben Zoof made the sleeping accommodation as comfortable as the
circumstances would allow; the horses were clogged and turned out to
feed upon the rich pasture that clothed the shore, and the night passed
without special incident.

At sunrise on the following morning, the 2nd of January, or what,
according to the ordinary calendar, would have been the night of the
1st, the captain and his orderly remounted their horses, and during the
six-hours' day accomplished a distance of forty-two miles. The right
bank of the river still continued to be the margin of the land, and only
in one spot had its integrity been impaired. This was about twelve miles
from the Mina, and on the site of the annex or suburb of Surkelmittoo.
Here a large portion of the bank had been swept away, and the hamlet,
with its eight hundred inhabitants, had no doubt been swallowed up by
the encroaching waters. It seemed, therefore, more than probable that a
similar fate had overtaken the larger towns beyond the Shelif.

In the evening the explorers encamped, as previously, in a nook of the
shore which here abruptly terminated their new domain, not far from
where they might have expected to find the important village of
Memounturroy; but of this, too, there was now no trace. "I had quite
reckoned upon a supper and a bed at Orleansville to-night," said
Servadac, as, full of despondency, he surveyed the waste of water.

"Quite impossible," replied Ben Zoof, "except you had gone by a boat.
But cheer up, sir, cheer up; we will soon devise some means for getting
across to Mostaganem."

"If, as I hope," rejoined the captain, "we are on a peninsula, we are
more likely to get to Tenes; there we shall hear the news."

"Far more likely to carry the news ourselves," answered Ben Zoof, as he
threw himself down for his night's rest.

Six hours later, only waiting for sunrise, Captain Servadac set himself
in movement again to renew his investigations. At this spot the shore,
that hitherto had been running in a southeasterly direction, turned
abruptly to the north, being no longer formed by the natural bank of the
Shelif, but consisting of an absolutely new coast-line. No land was in
sight. Nothing could be seen of Orleansville, which ought to have been
about six miles to the southwest; and Ben Zoof, who had mounted the
highest point of view attainable, could distinguish sea, and nothing but
sea, to the farthest horizon.

Quitting their encampment and riding on, the bewildered explorers kept
close to the new shore. This, since it had ceased to be formed by the
original river bank, had considerably altered its aspect. Frequent
landslips occurred, and in many places deep chasms rifted the ground;
great gaps furrowed the fields, and trees, half uprooted, overhung the
water, remarkable by the fantastic distortions of their gnarled trunks,
looking as though they had been chopped by a hatchet.

The sinuosities of the coast line, alternately gully and headland,
had the effect of making a devious progress for the travelers, and at
sunset, although they had accomplished more than twenty miles, they had
only just arrived at the foot of the Merdeyah Mountains, which, before
the cataclysm, had formed the extremity of the chain of the Little
Atlas. The ridge, however, had been violently ruptured, and now rose
perpendicularly from the water.

On the following morning Servadac and Ben Zoof traversed one of the
mountain gorges; and next, in order to make a more thorough acquaintance
with the limits and condition of the section of Algerian territory of
which they seemed to be left as the sole occupants, they dismounted, and
proceeded on foot to the summit of one of the highest peaks. From this
elevation they ascertained that from the base of the Merdeyah to the
Mediterranean, a distance of about eighteen miles, a new coast line had
come into existence; no land was visible in any direction; no isthmus
existed to form a connecting link with the territory of Tenes, which had
entirely disappeared. The result was that Captain Servadac was driven
to the irresistible conclusion that the tract of land which he had been
surveying was not, as he had at first imagined, a peninsula; it was
actually an island.

Strictly speaking, this island was quadrilateral, but the sides were so
irregular that it was much more nearly a triangle, the comparison of the
sides exhibiting these proportions: The section of the right bank of the
Shelif, seventy-two miles; the southern boundary from the Shelif to the
chain of the Little Atlas, twenty-one miles; from the Little Atlas to
the Mediterranean, eighteen miles; and sixty miles of the shore of the
Mediterranean itself, making in all an entire circumference of about 171
miles.

"What does it all mean?" exclaimed the captain, every hour growing more
and more bewildered.

"The will of Providence, and we must submit," replied Ben Zoof, calm and
undisturbed. With this reflection, the two men silently descended the
mountain and remounted their horses. Before evening they had reached
the Mediterranean. On their road they failed to discern a vestige of the
little town of Montenotte; like Tenes, of which not so much as a ruined
cottage was visible on the horizon, it seemed to be annihilated.

On the following day, the 6th of January, the two men made a forced
march along the coast of the Mediterranean, which they found less
altered than the captain had at first supposed; but four villages had
entirely disappeared, and the headlands, unable to resist the shock of
the convulsion, had been detached from the mainland.

The circuit of the island had been now completed, and the explorers,
after a period of sixty hours, found themselves once more beside the
ruins of their gourbi. Five days, or what, according to the established
order of things, would have been two days and a half, had been occupied
in tracing the boundaries of their new domain; and they had ascertained
beyond a doubt that they were the sole human inhabitants left upon the
island.

"Well, sir, here you are, Governor General of Algeria!" exclaimed Ben
Zoof, as they reached the gourbi.

"With not a soul to govern," gloomily rejoined the captain.

"How so? Do you not reckon me?"

"Pshaw! Ben Zoof, what are you?"

"What am I? Why, I am the population."

The captain deigned no reply, but, muttering some expressions of regret
for the fruitless trouble he had taken about his rondo, betook himself
to rest.





Next: Ben Zoof Watches In Vain

Previous: A Mysterious Sea



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