Off on a Comet

Page 42

"If that be so," observed the count, "it accounts for some of the strange phenomena we witness. If our world has become so insignificant a spheroid, not only has its gravity diminished, but its rotary speed has been accelerated; and this affords an adequate explanation of our days and nights being thus curtailed. But how about the new orbit in which we are moving?"

He paused and pondered, and then looked at Procope as though awaiting from him some further elucidation of the difficulty. The lieutenant hesitated. When, in a few moments, he began to speak, Servadac smiled intelligently, anticipating the answer he was about to hear.

"My conjecture is," said Procope, "that a fragment of considerable magnitude has been detached from the earth; that it has carried with it an envelope of the earth's atmosphere, and that it is now traveling through the solar system in an orbit that does not correspond at all with the proper orbit of the earth."

The hypothesis was plausible; but what a multitude of bewildering speculations it entailed! If, in truth, a certain mass had been broken off from the terrestrial sphere, whither would it wend its way? What would be the measure of the eccentricity of its path? What would be its period round the sun? Might it not, like a comet, be carried away into the vast infinity of space? or, on the other hand, might it not be attracted to the great central source of light and heat, and be absorbed in it? Did its orbit correspond with the orbit of the ecliptic? and was there no chance of its ever uniting again with the globe, from which it had been torn off by so sudden and violent a disruption?

A thoughtful silence fell upon them all, which Servadac was the first to break. "Lieutenant," he said, "your explanation is ingenious, and accounts for many appearances; but it seems to me that in one point it fails."

"How so?" replied Procope. "To my mind the theory meets all objections."

"I think not," Servadac answered. "In one point, at least, it appears to me to break down completely."

"What is that?" asked the lieutenant.

"Stop a moment," said the captain. "Let us see that we understand each other right. Unless I mistake you, your hypothesis is that a fragment of the earth, comprising the Mediterranean and its shores from Gibraltar to Malta, has been developed into a new asteroid, which is started on an independent orbit in the solar regions. Is not that your meaning?"

"Precisely so," the lieutenant acquiesced.

"Well, then," continued Servadac, "it seems to me to be at fault in this respect: it fails, and fails completely, to account for the geological character of the land that we have found now encompassing this sea. Why, if the new land is a fragment of the old--why does it not retain its old formation? What has become of the granite and the calcareous deposits? How is it that these should all be changed into a mineral concrete with which we have no acquaintance?"

No doubt, it was a serious objection; for, however likely it might be that a mass of the earth on being detached would be eccentric in its movements, there was no probable reason to be alleged why the material of its substance should undergo so complete a change. There was nothing to account for the fertile shores, rich in vegetation, being transformed into rocks arid and barren beyond precedent.

The lieutenant felt the difficulty, and owned himself unprepared to give at once an adequate solution; nevertheless, he declined to renounce his theory. He asserted that the arguments in favor of it carried conviction to his mind, and that he entertained no doubt but that, in the course of time, all apparently antagonistic circumstances would be explained so as to become consistent with the view he took. He was careful, however, to make it understood that with respect to the original cause of the disruption he had no theory to offer; and although he knew what expansion might be the result of subterranean forces, he did not venture to say that he considered it sufficient to produce so tremendous an effect. The origin of the catastrophe was a problem still to be solved.

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