The Captain Makes An Exploration

: 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

f the cause of the phenomena which had been so startling in their


"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


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


"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


"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


"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.