Gallian should survive to tell the tale of their strange peregrinations?
Moments were precious; but Hector Servadac resolved that he would adopt a device to secure that at least some record of their excursion in solar distances should survive themselves.
Tearing a leaf from his note-book, he wrote down the name of the comet, the list of the fragments of the earth it had carried off, the names of his companions, and the date of the comet's aphelion; and having subscribed it with his signature, turned to Nina and told her he must have the carrier-pigeon which was nestling in her bosom.
The child's eyes filled with tears; but she did not say a word, and imprinting a kiss upon its soft plumage, she surrendered it at once, and the message was hurriedly fastened to its neck. The bird wheeled round and round in a few circles that widened in their diameter, and quickly sunk to an altitude in the comet's atmosphere much inferior to the balloon.
Some minutes more were thus consumed and the interval of distance was reduced to less than 8,000 miles.
The velocity became inconceivably great, but the increased rate of motion was in no way perceptible; there was nothing to disturb the equilibrium of the car in which they were making their aerial adventure.
"Forty-six minutes!" announced the lieutenant.
The glowing expanse of the earth's disc seemed like a vast funnel, yawning to receive the comet and its atmosphere, balloon and all, into its open mouth.
"Forty-seven!" cried Procope.
There was half a minute yet, A thrill ran through every vein. A vibration quivered through the atmosphere. The balloon elongated to its utmost stretch, was manifestly being sucked into a vortex. Every passenger in the quivering car involuntarily clung spasmodically to its sides, and as the two atmospheres amalgamated, clouds accumulated in heavy masses, involving all around in dense obscurity, while flashes of lurid flame threw a weird glimmer on the scene.
In a mystery every one found himself upon the earth again. They could not explain it, but here they were once more upon terrestrial soil; in a swoon they had left the earth, and in a similar swoon they had come back!
Of the balloon not a vestige remained, and contrary to previous computation, the comet had merely grazed the earth, and was traversing the regions of space, again far away!
IN Algeria, captain?"
"Yes, Ben Zoof, in Algeria; and not far from Mostaganem." Such were the first words which, after their return to consciousness, were exchanged between Servadac and his orderly.
They had resided so long in the province that they could not for a moment be mistaken as to their whereabouts, and although they were incapable of clearing up the mysteries that shrouded the miracle, yet they were convinced at the first glance that they had been returned to the earth at the very identical spot where they had quitted it.
In fact, they were scarcely more than a mile from Mostaganem, and in the course of an hour, when they had all recovered from the bewilderment occasioned by the shock, they started off in a body and made their way to the town. It was a matter of extreme surprise to find no symptom of the least excitement anywhere as they went along. The population was perfectly calm; every one was pursuing his ordinary avocation; the cattle were browsing quietly upon the pastures that were moist with the dew of an ordinary January morning. It was about eight o'clock; the sun was rising in the east; nothing could be noticed to indicate that any abnormal incident had either transpired or been expected by the inhabitants. As to a collision with a comet, there was not the faintest trace of any such phenomenon crossing men's minds, and awakening, as it surely would, a panic little short of the certified approach of the millennium.
"Nobody expects us," said Servadac; "that is very certain."
"No, indeed," answered Ben Zoof, with a sigh; he was manifestly disappointed that his return to Mostaganem was not welcomed with a triumphal reception.
They reached the Mascara gate. The first persons that Servadac recognized were the two friends that he had invited to be his seconds in the duel two years ago, the colonel of the 2nd Fusiliers and the captain of the 8th Artillery. In return to his somewhat hesitating salutation, the colonel greeted him heartily, "Ah! Servadac, old fellow! is it you?"
"I, myself," said the captain.
"Where on earth have you been to all this time? In the name of peace, what have you been doing with yourself?"
"You would never believe me, colonel," answered Servadac, "if I were to tell you; so on that point I had better hold my tongue."
"Hang your mysteries!" said the colonel; "tell me, where have you been?"
"No, my friend, excuse me," replied Servadac; "but shake hands with me in earnest, that I may be sure I am not dreaming." Hector Servadac had made up his mind, and no amount of persuasion could induce him to divulge his incredible experiences.
Anxious to turn the subject, Servadac took the earliest opportunity of asking, "And what about Madame de L——?"
"Madame de L——!" exclaimed the colonel taking the words out of his mouth; "the lady is married long ago; you did not suppose that she was going to wait for you. 'Out of sight, out of mind,' you know."
"True," replied Servadac; and turning to the count he said, "Do you hear that? We shall not have to fight our duel after all."
"Most happy to be excused," rejoined the count. The rivals took each other by the hand, and were united henceforth in the bonds of a sincere and confiding friendship.
"An immense relief," said Servadac to himself, "that I have no occasion to finish that confounded rondo!"
It was agreed between the captain and the count that it would be desirable in every way to maintain the most rigid silence upon the subject of the inexplicable phenomena which had come within their