Off on a Comet

Page 37

"And take care that your fellows don't get their arms and legs blown off," added the officer.

"Very good, sir," said the corporal; and he made his salute and withdrew.

Of all the bombs, howitzers, and various species of artillery with which the fortress had been crowded, one solitary piece remained. This was a cumbrous muzzle-loader of 9-inch caliber, and, in default of the smaller ordnance generally employed for the purpose, had to be brought into requisition for the royal salute.

A sufficient number of charges having been provided, the corporal brought his men to the reduct, whence the gun's mouth projected over a sloping embrasure. The two officers, in cocked hats and full staff uniform, attended to take charge of the proceedings. The gun was maneuvered in strict accordance with the rules of "The Artilleryman's Manual," and the firing commenced.

Not unmindful of the warning he had received, the corporal was most careful between each discharge to see that every vestige of fire was extinguished, so as to prevent an untimely explosion while the men were reloading; and accidents, such as so frequently mar public rejoicings, were all happily avoided.

Much to the chagrin of both Colonel Murphy and Major Oliphant, the effect of the salute fell altogether short of their anticipations. The weight of the atmosphere was so reduced that there was comparatively little resistance to the explosive force of the gases, liberated at the cannon's mouth, and there was consequently none of the reverberation, like rolling thunder, that ordinarily follows the discharge of heavy artillery.

Twenty times had the gun been fired, and it was on the point of being loaded for the last time, when the colonel laid his hand upon the arm of the man who had the ramrod. "Stop!" he said; "we will have a ball this time. Let us put the range of the piece to the test."

"A good idea!" replied the major. "Corporal, you hear the orders."

In quick time an artillery-wagon was on the spot, and the men lifted out a full-sized shot, weighing 200 lbs., which, under ordinary circumstances, the cannon would carry about four miles. It was proposed, by means of telescopes, to note the place where the ball first touched the water, and thus to obtain an approximation sufficiently accurate as to the true range.

Having been duly charged with powder and ball, the gun was raised to an angle of something under 45 degrees, so as to allow proper development to the curve that the projectile would make, and, at a signal from the major, the light was applied to the priming.

"Heavens!" "By all that's good!" exclaimed both officers in one breath, as, standing open-mouthed, they hardly knew whether they were to believe the evidence of their own senses. "Is it possible?"

The diminution of the force of attraction at the earth's surface was so considerable that the ball had sped beyond the horizon.

"Incredible!" ejaculated the colonel.

"Incredible!" echoed the major.

"Six miles at least!" observed the one.

"Ay, more than that!" replied the other.

Awhile, they gazed at the sea and at each other in mute amazement. But in the midst of their perplexity, what sound was that which startled them? Was it mere fancy? Was it the reverberation of the cannon still booming in their ears? Or was it not truly the report of another and a distant gun in answer to their own? Attentively and eagerly they listened. Twice, thrice did the sound repeat itself. It was quite distinct. There could be no mistake.

"I told you so," cried the colonel, triumphantly. "I knew our country would not forsake us; it is an English ship, no doubt."

In half an hour two masts were visible above the horizon. "See! Was I not right? Our country was sure to send to our relief. Here is the ship."

"Yes," replied the major; "she responded to our gun."

"It is to be hoped," muttered the corporal, "that our ball has done her no damage."

Before long the hull was full in sight. A long trail of smoke betokened her to be a steamer; and very soon, by the aid of the glass, it could be ascertained that she was a schooner-yacht, and making straight for the island.

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Off on a Comet Page 38

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Jules Verne

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