It was just this deficiency which baffled these daring mechanicians.
ATTACK AND RIPOSTE
As soon as the excitement had subsided, the following words were heard uttered in a strong and determined voice:
"Now that the speaker has favored us with so much imagination, would he be so good as to return to his subject, and give us a little practical view of the question?"
All eyes were directed toward the person who spoke. He was a little dried-up man, of an active figure, with an American "goatee" beard. Profiting by the different movements in the crowd, he had managed by degrees to gain the front row of spectators. There, with arms crossed and stern gaze, he watched the hero of the meeting. After having put his question he remained silent, and appeared to take no notice of the thousands of looks directed toward himself, nor of the murmur of disapprobation excited by his words. Meeting at first with no reply, he repeated his question with marked emphasis, adding, "We are here to talk about the moon and not about the earth."
"You are right, sir," replied Michel Ardan; "the discussion has become irregular. We will return to the moon."
"Sir," said the unknown, "you pretend that our satellite is inhabited. Very good, but if Selenites do exist, that race of beings assuredly must live without breathing, for-- I warn you for your own sake-- there is not the smallest particle of air on the surface of the moon."
At this remark Ardan pushed up his shock of red hair; he saw that he was on the point of being involved in a struggle with this person upon the very gist of the whole question. He looked sternly at him in his turn and said:
"Oh! so there is no air in the moon? And pray, if you are so good, who ventures to affirm that?
"The men of science."
"Sir," replied Michel, "pleasantry apart, I have a profound respect for men of science who do possess science, but a profound contempt for men of science who do not."
"Do you know any who belong to the latter category?"
"Decidedly. In France there are some who maintain that, mathematically, a bird cannot possibly fly; and others who demonstrate theoretically that fishes were never made to live in water."
"I have nothing to do with persons of that description, and I can quote, in support of my statement, names which you cannot refuse deference to."
"Then, sir, you will sadly embarrass a poor ignorant, who, besides, asks nothing better than to learn."
"Why, then, do you introduce scientific questions if you have never studied them?" asked the unknown somewhat coarsely.
"For the reason that `he is always brave who never suspects danger.' I know nothing, it is true; but it is precisely my very weakness which constitutes my strength."
"Your weakness amounts to folly," retorted the unknown in a passion.
"All the better," replied our Frenchman, "if it carries me up to the moon."
Barbicane and his colleagues devoured with their eyes the intruder who had so boldly placed himself in antagonism to their enterprise. Nobody knew him, and the president, uneasy as to the result of so free a discussion, watched his new friend with some anxiety. The meeting began to be somewhat fidgety also, for the contest directed their attention to the dangers, if not the actual impossibilities, of the proposed expedition.
"Sir," replied Ardan's antagonist, "there are many and incontrovertible reasons which prove the absence of an atmosphere in the moon. I might say that, a priori, if one ever did exist, it must have been absorbed by the earth; but I prefer to bring forward indisputable facts."
"Bring them forward then, sir, as many as you please."
"You know," said the stranger, "that when any luminous rays cross a medium such as the air, they are deflected out of the straight line; in other words, they undergo refraction. Well! When stars are occulted by the moon, their rays, on grazing the edge of her disc, exhibit not the least deviation, nor offer the slightest indication of refraction.