Off on a Comet

Page 38

A flag at her mast-head fluttered in the breeze, and towards this the two officers, with the keenest attention, respectively adjusted their focus.

Simultaneously the two telescopes were lowered. The colonel and the major stared at each other in blank astonishment. "Russian!" they gasped.

And true it was that the flag that floated at the head of yonder mast was the blue cross of Russia.

CHAPTER XIV

SENSITIVE NATIONALITY

When the schooner had approached the island, the Englishmen were able to make out the name "_Dobryna_" painted on the aft-board. A sinuous irregularity of the coast had formed a kind of cove, which, though hardly spacious enough for a few fishing-smacks, would afford the yacht a temporary anchorage, so long as the wind did not blow violently from either west or south. Into this cove the _Dobryna_ was duly signaled, and as soon as she was safely moored, she lowered her four-oar, and Count Timascheff and Captain Servadac made their way at once to land.

Colonel Heneage Finch Murphy and Major Sir John Temple Oliphant stood, grave and prim, formally awaiting the arrival of their visitors. Captain Servadac, with the uncontrolled vivacity natural to a Frenchman, was the first to speak.

"A joyful sight, gentlemen!" he exclaimed. "It will give us unbounded pleasure to shake hands again with some of our fellow-creatures. You, no doubt, have escaped the same disaster as ourselves."

But the English officers, neither by word nor gesture, made the slightest acknowledgment of this familiar greeting.

"What news can you give us of France, England, or Russia?" continued Servadac, perfectly unconscious of the stolid rigidity with which his advances were received. "We are anxious to hear anything you can tell us. Have you had communications with Europe? Have you--"

"To whom have we the honor of speaking?" at last interposed Colonel Murphy, in the coldest and most measured tone, and drawing himself up to his full height.

"Ah! how stupid! I forgot," said Servadac, with the slightest possible shrug of the shoulders; "we have not been introduced."

Then, with a wave of his hand towards his companion, who meanwhile had exhibited a reserve hardly less than that of the British officers, he said:

"Allow me to introduce you to Count Wassili Timascheff."

" Major Sir John Temple Oliphant," replied the colonel.

The Russian and the Englishman mutually exchanged the stiffest of bows.

"I have the pleasure of introducing Captain Servadac," said the count in his turn.

"And this is Colonel Heneage Finch Murphy," was the major's grave rejoinder.

More bows were interchanged and the ceremony brought to its due conclusion. It need hardly be said that the conversation had been carried on in French, a language which is generally known both by Russians and Englishmen-- a circumstance that is probably in some measure to be accounted for by the refusal of Frenchmen to learn either Russian or English.

The formal preliminaries of etiquette being thus complete, there was no longer any obstacle to a freer intercourse. The colonel, signing to his guests to follow, led the way to the apartment occupied jointly by himself and the major, which, although only a kind of casemate hollowed in the rock, nevertheless wore a general air of comfort. Major Oliphant accompanied them, and all four having taken their seats, the conversation was commenced.

Irritated and disgusted at all the cold formalities, Hector Servadac resolved to leave all the talking to the count; and he, quite aware that the Englishmen would adhere to the fiction that they could be supposed to know nothing that had transpired previous to the introduction felt himself obliged to recapitulate matters from the very beginning.

"You must be aware, gentlemen," began the count, "that a most singular catastrophe occurred on the 1st of January last. Its cause, its limits we have utterly failed to discover, but from the appearance of the island on which we find you here, you have evidently experienced its devastating consequences."

The Englishmen, in silence, bowed assent.

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