Off on a Comet

Page 16

Ben Zoof's first care on the following morning was to provide a good breakfast. To use his own phrase, he was as hungry as the whole population of three million Algerians, of whom he was the representative, and he must have enough to eat. The catastrophe which had overwhelmed the country had left a dozen eggs uninjured, and upon these, with a good dish of his famous couscous, he hoped that he and his master might have a sufficiently substantial meal. The stove was ready for use, the copper skillet was as bright as hands could make it, and the beads of condensed steam upon the surface of a large stone al-caraza gave evidence that it was supplied with water. Ben Zoof at once lighted a fire, singing all the time, according to his wont, a snatch of an old military refrain.

Ever on the lookout for fresh phenomena, Captain Servadac watched the preparations with a curious eye. It struck him that perhaps the air, in its strangely modified condition, would fail to supply sufficient oxygen, and that. the stove, in consequence, might not fulfill its function. But no; the fire was lighted just as usual, and fanned into vigor by Ben Zoof applying his mouth in lieu of bellows, and a bright flame started up from the midst of the twigs and coal. The skillet was duly set upon the stove, and Ben Zoof was prepared to wait awhile for the water to boil. Taking up the eggs, he was surprised to notice that they hardly weighed more than they would if they had been mere shells; but he was still more surprised when he saw that before the water had been two minutes over the fire it was at full boil.

"By jingo!" he exclaimed, "a precious hot fire!"

Servadac reflected. "It cannot be that the fire is hotter," he said, "the peculiarity must be in the water." And taking down a centigrade thermometer, which hung upon the wall, he plunged it into the skillet. Instead of 100 degrees, the instrument registered only 66 degrees.

"Take my advice, Ben Zoof," he said; "leave your eggs in the saucepan a good quarter of an hour."

"Boil them hard! That will never do," objected the orderly.

"You will not find them hard, my good fellow. Trust me, we shall be able to dip our sippets into the yolks easily enough."

The captain was quite right in his conjecture, that this new phenomenon was caused by a diminution in the pressure of the atmosphere. Water boiling at a temperature of 66 degrees was itself an evidence that the column of air above the earth's surface had become reduced by one-third of its altitude. The identical phenomenon would have occurred at the summit of a mountain 35,000 feet high; and had Servadac been in possession of a barometer, he would have immediately discovered the fact that only now for the first time, as the result of experiment, revealed itself to him--a fact, moreover, which accounted for the compression of the blood-vessels which both he and Ben Zoof had experienced, as well as for the attenuation of their voices and their accelerated breathing. "And yet," he argued with himself, "if our encampment has been projected to so great an elevation, how is it that the sea remains at its proper level?"

Once again Hector Servadac, though capable of tracing consequences, felt himself totally at a loss to comprehend their cause; hence his agitation and bewilderment!

After their prolonged immersion in the boiling water, the eggs were found to be only just sufficiently cooked; the couscous was very much in the same condition; and Ben Zoof came to the conclusion that in future he must be careful to commence his culinary operations an hour earlier. He was rejoiced at last to help his master, who, in spite of his perplexed preoccupation, seemed to have a very fair appetite for breakfast.

"Well, captain?" said Ben Zoof presently, such being his ordinary way of opening conversation.

"Well, Ben Zoof?" was the captain's invariable response to his servant's formula.

"What are we to do now, sir?"

"We can only for the present wait patiently where we are. We are encamped upon an island, and therefore we can only be rescued by sea."

"But do you suppose that any of our friends are still alive?" asked Ben Zoof.

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