Off on a Comet

Page 44

The lid was fastened on by wax, and so securely that it would take a long immersion before any water could penetrate; there was no maker's name to be deciphered; but impressed very plainly with a seal on the wax were the two initials "P. R."

When the scrutiny of the outside was finished, the wax was removed and the cover opened, and the lieutenant drew out a slip of ruled paper, evidently torn from a common note-book. The paper had an inscription written in four lines, which were remarkable for the profusion of notes of admiration and interrogation with which they were interspersed:

"Gallia??? _Ab sole_, au 15 fev. 59,000,000 1. ! Chemin parcouru de janv. a fev. 82,000,000 1. !! _Va bene! All right!!_ Parfait!!!"

There was a general sigh of disappointment. They turned the paper over and over, and handed it from one to another. "What does it all mean?" exclaimed the count.

"Something mysterious here!" said Servadac. "But yet," he continued, after a pause, "one thing is tolerably certain: on the 15th, six days ago, someone was alive to write it."

"Yes; I presume there is no reason to doubt the accuracy of the date," assented the count.

To this strange conglomeration of French, English, Italian, and Latin, there was no signature attached; nor was there anything to give a clue as to the locality in which it had been committed to the waves. A telescope-case would probably be the property of some one on board a ship; and the figures obviously referred to the astronomical wonders that had been experienced.

To these general observations Captain Servadac objected that he thought it unlikely that any one on board a ship would use a telescope-case for this purpose, but would be sure to use a bottle as being more secure; and, accordingly, he should rather be inclined to believe that the message had been set afloat by some _savant_ left alone, perchance, upon some isolated coast.

"But, however interesting it might be," observed the count, "to know the author of the lines, to us it is of far greater moment to ascertain their meaning."

And taking up the paper again, he said, "Perhaps we might analyze it word by word, and from its detached parts gather some clue to its sense as a whole."

"What can be the meaning of all that cluster of interrogations after Gallia?" asked Servadac.

Lieutenant Procope, who had hitherto not spoken, now broke his silence by saying, "I beg, gentlemen, to submit my opinion that this document goes very far to confirm my hypothesis that a fragment of the earth has been precipitated into space."

Captain Servadac hesitated, and then replied, "Even if it does, I do not see how it accounts in the least for the geological character of the new asteroid."

"But will you allow me for one minute to take my supposition for granted?" said Procope. "If a new little planet has been formed, as I imagine, by disintegration from the old, I should conjecture that Gallia is the name assigned to it by the writer of this paper. The very notes of interrogation are significant that he was in doubt what he should write."

"You would presume that he was a Frenchman?" asked the count.

"I should think so," replied the lieutenant.

"Not much doubt about that," said Servadac; "it is all in French, except a few scattered words of English, Latin, and Italian, inserted to attract attention. He could not tell into whose hands the message would fall first."

"Well, then," said Count Timascheff, "we seem to have found a name for the new world we occupy."

"But what I was going especially to observe," continued the lieutenant, "is that the distance, 59,000,000 leagues, represents precisely the distance we ourselves were from the sun on the 15th. It was on that day we crossed the orbit of Mars."

"Yes, true," assented the others.

"And the next line," said the lieutenant, after reading it aloud, "apparently registers the distance traversed by Gallia, the new little planet, in her own orbit. Her speed, of course, we know by Kepler's laws, would vary according to her distance from the sun, and if she were-- as I conjecture from the temperature at that date--on the 15th of January at her perihelion, she would be traveling twice as fast as the earth, which moves at the rate of between 50,000 and 60,000 miles an hour."

"You think, then," said Servadac, with a smile, "you have determined the perihelion of our orbit; but how about the aphelion? Can you form a judgment as to what distance we are likely to be carried?"

"You are asking too much," remonstrated the count.

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