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While the contract of this duel was being discussed by the
president and the captain— this dreadful, savage duel, in
which each adversary became a man-hunter— Michel Ardan was
resting from the fatigues of his triumph. Resting is hardly an
appropriate expression, for American beds rival marble or granite
tables for hardness.
Ardan was sleeping, then, badly enough, tossing about between
the cloths which served him for sheets, and he was dreaming of
making a more comfortable couch in his projectile when a frightful
noise disturbed his dreams. Thundering blows shook his door. They
seemed to be caused by some iron instrument. A great deal of loud
talking was distinguishable in this racket, which was rather too
early in the morning. “Open the door,” some one
shrieked, “for heaven’s sake!” Ardan saw no
reason for complying with a demand so roughly expressed. However,
he got up and opened the door just as it was giving way before the
blows of this determined visitor. The secretary of the Gun Club
burst into the room. A bomb could not have made more noise or have
entered the room with less ceremony.
“Last night,” cried J. T. Maston, ex abrupto,
“our president was publicly insulted during the meeting. He
provoked his adversary, who is none other than Captain Nicholl!
They are fighting this morning in the wood of Skersnaw. I heard all
the particulars from the mouth of Barbicane himself. If he is
killed, then our scheme is at an end. We must prevent his duel; and
one man alone has enough influence over Barbicane to stop him, and
that man is Michel Ardan.”
While J. T. Maston was speaking, Michel Ardan, without
interrupting him, had hastily put on his clothes; and, in less than
two minutes, the two friends were making for the suburbs of Tampa
Town with rapid strides.
It was during this walk that Maston told Ardan the state of the
case. He told him the real causes of the hostility between
Barbicane and Nicholl; how it was of old date, and why, thanks to
unknown friends, the president and the captain had, as yet, never
met face to face. He added that it arose simply from a rivalry
between iron plates and shot, and, finally, that the scene at the
meeting was only the long-wished-for opportunity for Nicholl to pay
off an old grudge.
Nothing is more dreadful than private duels in America. The two
adversaries attack each other like wild beasts. Then it is that
they might well covet those wonderful properties of the Indians of
the prairies— their quick intelligence, their ingenious
cunning, their scent of the enemy. A single mistake, a
moment’s hesitation, a single false step may cause death. On
these occasions Yankees are often accompanied by their dogs, and
keep up the struggle for hours.
“What demons you are!” cried Michel Ardan, when his
companion had depicted this scene to him with much energy.
“Yes, we are,” replied J. T. modestly; “but we
had better make haste.”
Though Michel Ardan and he had crossed the plains still wet with
dew, and had taken the shortest route over creeks and ricefields,
they could not reach Skersnaw in under five hours and a half.
Barbicane must have passed the border half an hour ago.
There was an old bushman working there, occupied in selling
fagots from trees that had been leveled by his axe.
Maston ran toward him, saying, “Have you seen a man go
into the wood, armed with a rifle? Barbicane, the president, my
The worthy secretary of the Gun Club thought that his president
must be known by all the world. But the bushman did not seem to
“A hunter?” said Ardan.
“A hunter? Yes,” replied the bushman.
“About an hour.”
“Too late!” cried Maston.
“Have you heard any gunshots?” asked Ardan.
“Not one! that hunter did not look as if he knew how to
“What is to be done?” said Maston.
“We must go into the wood, at the risk of getting a ball
which is not intended for us.”
“Ah!” cried Maston, in a tone which could not be
mistaken, “I would rather have twenty balls in my own head
than one in Barbicane’s.”
“Forward, then,” said Ardan, pressing his
A few moments later the two friends had disappeared in the
copse. It was a dense thicket, in which rose huge cypresses,
sycamores, tulip-trees, olives, tamarinds, oaks, and magnolias.
These different trees had interwoven their branches into an
inextricable maze, through which the eye could not penetrate.
Michel Ardan and Maston walked side by side in silence through the
tall grass, cutting themselves a path through the strong creepers,
casting curious glances on the bushes, and momentarily expecting to
hear the sound of rifles. As for the traces which Barbicane ought
to have left of his passage through the wood, there was not a
vestige of them visible: so they followed the barely perceptible
paths along which Indians had tracked some enemy, and which the
dense foliage darkly overshadowed.
After an hour spent in vain pursuit the two stopped in
“It must be all over,” said Maston, discouraged.
“A man like Barbicane would not dodge with his enemy, or
ensnare him, would not even maneuver! He is too open, too brave. He
has gone straight ahead, right into the danger, and doubtless far
enough from the bushman for the wind to prevent his hearing the
report of the rifles.”
“But surely,” replied Michel Ardan, “since we
entered the wood we should have heard!”
“And what if we came too late?” cried Maston in
tones of despair.
For once Ardan had no reply to make, he and Maston resuming
their walk in silence. From time to time, indeed, they raised great
shouts, calling alternately Barbicane and Nicholl, neither of whom,
however, answered their cries. Only the birds, awakened by the
sound, flew past them and disappeared among the branches, while
some frightened deer fled precipitately before them.
For another hour their search was continued. The greater part of
the wood had been explored. There was nothing to reveal the
presence of the combatants. The information of the bushman was
after all doubtful, and Ardan was about to propose their abandoning
this useless pursuit, when all at once Maston stopped.
“Hush!” said he, “there is some one down
“Some one?” repeated Michel Ardan.
“Yes; a man! He seems motionless. His rifle is not in his
hands. What can he be doing?”
“But can you recognize him?” asked Ardan, whose
short sight was of little use to him in such circumstances.
“Yes! yes! He is turning toward us,” answered
“And it is?”
“Nicholl?” cried Michel Ardan, feeling a terrible
pang of grief.
“Nicholl unarmed! He has, then, no longer any fear of his
“Let us go to him,” said Michel Ardan, “and
find out the truth.”
But he and his companion had barely taken fifty steps, when they
paused to examine the captain more attentively. They expected to
find a bloodthirsty man, happy in his revenge.
On seeing him, they remained stupefied.
A net, composed of very fine meshes, hung between two enormous
tulip-trees, and in the midst of this snare, with its wings
entangled, was a poor little bird, uttering pitiful cries, while it
vainly struggled to escape. The bird-catcher who had laid this
snare was no human being, but a venomous spider, peculiar to that
country, as large as a pigeon’s egg, and armed with enormous
claws. The hideous creature, instead of rushing on its prey, had
beaten a sudden retreat and taken refuge in the upper branches of
the tulip-tree, for a formidable enemy menaced its stronghold.
Here, then, was Nicholl, his gun on the ground, forgetful of
danger, trying if possible to save the victim from its cobweb
prison. At last it was accomplished, and the little bird flew
joyfully away and disappeared.
Nicholl lovingly watched its flight, when he heard these words
pronounced by a voice full of emotion:
“You are indeed a brave man.”
He turned. Michel Ardan was before him, repeating in a different
“And a kindhearted one!”
“Michel Ardan!” cried the captain. “Why are
“To press your hand, Nicholl, and to prevent you from
either killing Barbicane or being killed by him.”
“Barbicane!” returned the captain. “I have
been looking for him for the last two hours in vain. Where is he
“Nicholl!” said Michel Ardan, “this is not
courteous! we ought always to treat an adversary with respect; rest
assureed if Barbicane is still alive we shall find him all the more
easily; because if he has not, like you, been amusing himself with
freeing oppressed birds, he must be looking for you. When we have
found him, Michel Ardan tells you this, there will be no duel
“Between President Barbicane and myself,” gravely
replied Nicholl, “there is a rivalry which the death of one
“Pooh, pooh!” said Ardan. “Brave fellows like
you indeed! you shall not fight!”
“I will fight, sir!”
“Captain,” said J. T. Maston, with much feeling,
“I am a friend of the president’s, his alter ego, his
second self; if you really must kill some one, shoot me! it will do
just as well!”
“Sir,” Nicholl replied, seizing his rifle
convulsively, “these jokes——”
“Our friend Maston is not joking,” replied Ardan.
“I fully understand his idea of being killed himself in order
to save his friend. But neither he nor Barbicane will fall before
the balls of Captain Nicholl. Indeed I have so attractive a
proposal to make to the two rivals, that both will be eager to
“What is it?” asked Nicholl with manifest
“Patience!” exclaimed Ardan. “I can only
reveal it in the presence of Barbicane.”
“Let us go in search of him then!” cried the
The three men started off at once; the captain having discharged
his rifle threw it over his shoulder, and advanced in silence.
Another half hour passed, and the pursuit was still fruitless.
Maston was oppressed by sinister forebodings. He looked fiercely at
Nicholl, asking himself whether the captain’s vengeance had
already been satisfied, and the unfortunate Barbicane, shot, was
perhaps lying dead on some bloody track. The same thought seemed to
occur to Ardan; and both were casting inquiring glances on Nicholl,
when suddenly Maston paused.
The motionless figure of a man leaning against a gigantic
catalpa twenty feet off appeared, half-veiled by the foliage.
“It is he!” said Maston.
Barbicane never moved. Ardan looked at the captain, but he did
not wince. Ardan went forward crying:
No answer! Ardan rushed toward his friend; but in the act of
seizing his arms, he stopped short and uttered a cry of
Barbicane, pencil in hand, was tracing geometrical figures in a
memorandum book, while his unloaded rifle lay beside him on the
Absorbed in his studies, Barbicane, in his turn forgetful of the
duel, had seen and heard nothing.
When Ardan took his hand, he looked up and stared at his visitor
“Ah, it is you!” he cried at last. “I have
found it, my friend, I have found it!”
“The plan for countering the effect of the shock at the
departure of the projectile!”
“Indeed?” said Michel Ardan, looking at the captain
out of the corner of his eye.
“Yes! water! simply water, which will act as a
spring— ah! Maston,” cried Barbicane, “you here
“Himself,” replied Ardan; “and permit me to
introduce to you at the same time the worthy Captain
“Nicholl!” cried Barbicane, who jumped up at once.
“Pardon me, captain, I had quite forgotten— I am
Michel Ardan interfered, without giving the two enemies time to
say anything more.
“Thank heaven!” said he. “It is a happy thing
that brave men like you two did not meet sooner! we should now have
been mourning for one or other of you. But, thanks to Providence,
which has interfered, there is now no further cause for alarm. When
one forgets one’s anger in mechanics or in cobwebs, it is a
sign that the anger is not dangerous.”
Michel Ardan then told the president how the captain had been
“I put it to you now,” said he in conclusion,
“are two such good fellows as you are made on purpose to
smash each other’s skulls with shot?”
There was in “the situation” somewhat of the
ridiculous, something quite unexpected; Michel Ardan saw this, and
determined to effect a reconciliation.
“My good friends,” said he, with his most bewitching
smile, “this is nothing but a misunderstanding. Nothing more!
well! to prove that it is all over between you, accept frankly the
proposal I am going to make to you.”
“Make it,” said Nicholl.
“Our friend Barbicane believes that his projectile will go
straight to the moon?”
“Yes, certainly,” replied the president.
“And our friend Nicholl is persuaded it will fall back
upon the earth?”
“I am certain of it,” cried the captain.
“Good!” said Ardan. “I cannot pretend to make
you agree; but I suggest this: Go with me, and so see whether we
are stopped on our journey.”
“What?” exclaimed J. T. Maston, stupefied.
The two rivals, on this sudden proposal, looked steadily at each
other. Barbicane waited for the captain’s answer. Nicholl
watched for the decision of the president.
“Well?” said Michel. “There is now no fear of
“Done!” cried Barbicane.
But quickly as he pronounced the word, he was not before
“Hurrah! bravo! hip! hip! hurrah!” cried Michel,
giving a hand to each of the late adversaries. “Now that it
is all settled, my friends, allow me to treat you after French
fashion. Let us be off to breakfast!”
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