Authors: Jules Verne
Among so many effective and artistic tales, it is difficult to give a
preference to one over all the rest. Yet, certainly, even amid Verne's
remarkable works, his "Off on a Comet" must be given high rank. Perhaps
this story will be remembered when even "Round the World in Eighty Days"
and "Michael Strogoff" have been obliterated by centuries of time. At
least, of the many books since written upon the same theme as Verne's,
no one has yet succeeded in equaling or even approaching it.
In one way "Off on a Comet" shows a marked contrast to Verne's earlier
books. Not only does it invade a region more remote than even the
"Trip to the Moon," but the author here abandons his usual scrupulously
scientific attitude. In order that he may escort us through the depths
of immeasurable space, show us what astronomy really knows of conditions
there and upon the other planets, Verne asks us to accept a situation
frankly impossible. The earth and a comet are brought twice into
collision without mankind in general, or even our astronomers, becoming
conscious of the fact. Moreover several people from widely scattered
places are carried off by the comet and returned uninjured. Yet further,
the comet snatches for the convenience of its travelers, both air and
water. Little, useful tracts of earth are picked up and, as it were,
turned over and clapped down right side up again upon the comet's
surface. Even ships pass uninjured through this remarkable somersault.
These events all belong frankly to the realm of fairyland.
If the situation were reproduced in actuality, if ever a comet should
come into collision with the earth, we can conceive two scientifically
possible results. If the comet were of such attenuation, such almost
infinitesimal mass as some of these celestial wanderers seem to be, we
can imagine our earth self-protective and possibly unharmed. If, on the
other hand, the comet had even a hundredth part of the size and solidity
and weight which Verne confers upon his monster so as to give his
travelers a home—in that case the collision would be unspeakably
disastrous—especially to the unlucky individuals who occupied the exact
point of contact.
But once granted the initial and the closing extravagance, the departure
and return of his characters, the alpha and omega of his tale, how
closely the author clings to facts between! How closely he follows, and
imparts to his readers, the scientific probabilities of the universe
beyond our earth, the actual knowledge so hard won by our astronomers!
Other authors who, since Verne, have told of trips through the planetary
and stellar universe have given free rein to fancy, to dreams of what
might be found. Verne has endeavored to impart only what is known to
In the same year with "Off on a Comet," 1877, was published also
the tale variously named and translated as "The Black Indies," "The
Underground City," and "The Child of the Cavern." This story, like
"Round the World in Eighty Days" was first issued in "feuilleton" by the
noted Paris newspaper "Le Temps." Its success did not equal that of its
predecessor in this style. Some critics indeed have pointed to this work
as marking the beginning of a decline in the author's power of awaking
interest. Many of his best works were, however, still to follow. And, as
regards imagination and the elements of mystery and awe, surely in the
"Underground City" with its cavern world, its secret, undiscoverable,
unrelenting foe, the "Harfang," bird of evil omen, and the "fire
maidens" of the ruined castle, surely with all these "imagination" is
anything but lacking.
From the realistic side, the work is painstaking and exact as all the
author's works. The sketches of mines and miners, their courage and
their dangers, their lives and their hopes, are carefully studied. So
also is the emotional aspect of the deeps under ground, the blackness,
the endless wandering passages, the silence, and the awe.
"Nothing, sir, can induce me to surrender my claim."
"I am sorry, count, but in such a matter your views cannot modify mine."
"But allow me to point out that my seniority unquestionably gives me a
"Mere seniority, I assert, in an affair of this kind, cannot possibly
entitle you to any prior claim whatever."
"Then, captain, no alternative is left but for me to compel you to yield
at the sword's point."
"As you please, count; but neither sword nor pistol can force me to
forego my pretensions. Here is my card."
This rapid altercation was thus brought to an end by the formal
interchange of the names of the disputants. On one of the cards was
Captain Hector Servadac,
Staff Officer, Mostaganem.
On the other was the title:
Count Wassili Timascheff,
On board the Schooner "Dobryna."
It did not take long to arrange that seconds should be appointed, who
would meet in Mostaganem at two o'clock that day; and the captain and
the count were on the point of parting from each other, with a salute of
punctilious courtesy, when Timascheff, as if struck by a sudden thought,
said abruptly: "Perhaps it would be better, captain, not to allow the
real cause of this to transpire?"
"Far better," replied Servadac; "it is undesirable in every way for any
names to be mentioned."
"In that case, however," continued the count, "it will be necessary to
assign an ostensible pretext of some kind. Shall we allege a musical
dispute? a contention in which I feel bound to defend Wagner, while you
are the zealous champion of Rossini?"
"I am quite content," answered Servadac, with a smile; and with another
low bow they parted.
The scene, as here depicted, took place upon the extremity of a little
cape on the Algerian coast, between Mostaganem and Tenes, about two
miles from the mouth of the Shelif. The headland rose more than sixty
feet above the sea-level, and the azure waters of the Mediterranean, as
they softly kissed the strand, were tinged with the reddish hue of the
ferriferous rocks that formed its base. It was the 31st of December. The
noontide sun, which usually illuminated the various projections of the
coast with a dazzling brightness, was hidden by a dense mass of cloud,
and the fog, which for some unaccountable cause, had hung for the
last two months over nearly every region in the world, causing serious
interruption to traffic between continent and continent, spread its
dreary veil across land and sea.
After taking leave of the staff-officer, Count Wassili Timascheff wended
his way down to a small creek, and took his seat in the stern of a light
four-oar that had been awaiting his return; this was immediately pushed
off from shore, and was soon alongside a pleasure-yacht, that was lying
to, not many cable lengths away.
At a sign from Servadac, an orderly, who had been standing at a
respectful distance, led forward a magnificent Arabian horse; the
captain vaulted into the saddle, and followed by his attendant, well
mounted as himself, started off towards Mostaganem. It was half-past
twelve when the two riders crossed the bridge that had been recently
erected over the Shelif, and a quarter of an hour later their steeds,
flecked with foam, dashed through the Mascara Gate, which was one of
five entrances opened in the embattled wall that encircled the town.
At that date, Mostaganem contained about fifteen thousand inhabitants,
three thousand of whom were French. Besides being one of the principal
district towns of the province of Oran, it was also a military station.
Mostaganem rejoiced in a well-sheltered harbor, which enabled her to
utilize all the rich products of the Mina and the Lower Shelif. It was
the existence of so good a harbor amidst the exposed cliffs of this
coast that had induced the owner of the
to winter in these
parts, and for two months the Russian standard had been seen floating
from her yard, whilst on her mast-head was hoisted the pennant of
the French Yacht Club, with the distinctive letters M. C. W. T., the
initials of Count Timascheff.
Having entered the town, Captain Servadac made his way towards Matmore,
the military quarter, and was not long in finding two friends on whom
he might rely—a major of the 2nd Fusileers, and a captain of the
8th Artillery. The two officers listened gravely enough to Servadac's
request that they would act as his seconds in an affair of honor, but
could not resist a smile on hearing that the dispute between him and the
count had originated in a musical discussion. Surely, they suggested,
the matter might be easily arranged; a few slight concessions on either
side, and all might be amicably adjusted. But no representations on
their part were of any avail. Hector Servadac was inflexible.
"No concession is possible," he replied, resolutely. "Rossini has been
deeply injured, and I cannot suffer the injury to be unavenged. Wagner
is a fool. I shall keep my word. I am quite firm."