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Chapter XXVI: Fire!
The first of December had arrived! the fatal day! for, if the
projectile were not discharged that very night at 10h. 48m. 40s.
P.M., more than eighteen years must roll by before the moon would
again present herself under the same conditions of zenith and
The weather was magnificent. Despite the approach of winter, the
sun shone brightly, and bathed in its radiant light that earth
which three of its denizens were about to abandon for a new
How many persons lost their rest on the night which preceded
this long-expected day! All hearts beat with disquietude, save only
the heart of Michel Ardan. That imperturbable personage came and
went with his habitual business-like air, while nothing whatever
denoted that any unusual matter preoccupied his mind.
After dawn, an innumerable multitude covered the prairie which
extends, as far as the eye can reach, round Stones Hill. Every
quarter of an hour the railway brought fresh accessions of
sightseers; and, according to the statement of the Tampa Town
Observer, not less than five millions of spectators thronged the
soil of Florida.
For a whole month previously, the mass of these persons had
bivouacked round the enclosure, and laid the foundations for a town
which was afterward called “Ardan’s Town.” The
whole plain was covered with huts, cottages, and tents. Every
nation under the sun was represented there; and every language
might be heard spoken at the same time. It was a perfect Babel
re-enacted. All the various classes of American society were
mingled together in terms of absolute equality. Bankers, farmers,
sailors, cotton-planters, brokers, merchants, watermen,
magistrates, elbowed each other in the most free-and-easy way.
Louisiana Creoles fraternized with farmers from Indiana; Kentucky
and Tennessee gentlemen and haughty Virginians conversed with
trappers and the half-savages of the lakes and butchers from
Cincinnati. Broad-brimmed white hats and Panamas, blue-cotton
trousers, light-colored stockings, cambric frills, were all here
displayed; while upon shirt-fronts, wristbands, and neckties, upon
every finger, even upon the very ears, they wore an assortment of
rings, shirt-pins, brooches, and trinkets, of which the value only
equaled the execrable taste. Women, children, and servants, in
equally expensive dress, surrounded their husbands, fathers, or
masters, who resembled the patriarchs of tribes in the midst of
their immense households.
At meal-times all fell to work upon the dishes peculiar to the
Southern States, and consumed with an appetite that threatened
speedy exhaustion of the victualing powers of Florida, fricasseed
frogs, stuffed monkey1, fish chowder, underdone ‘possum, and
raccoon steaks. And as for the liquors which accompanied this
indigestible repast! The shouts, the vociferations that resounded
through the bars and taverns decorated with glasses, tankards, and
bottles of marvelous shape, mortars for pounding sugar, and bundles
of straws! “Mint-julep” roars one of the barmen;
“Claret sangaree!” shouts another;
“Cocktail!” “Brandy-smash!” “Real
mint-julep in the new style!” All these cries intermingled
produced a bewildering and deafening hubbub.
But on this day, 1st of December, such sounds were rare. No one
thought of eating or drinking, and at four P.M. there were vast
numbers of spectators who had not even taken their customary lunch!
And, a still more significant fact, even the national passion for
play seemed quelled for the time under the general excitement of
Up till nightfall, a dull, noiseless agitation, such as precedes
great catastrophes, ran through the anxious multitude. An
indescribable uneasiness pervaded all minds, an indefinable
sensation which oppressed the heart. Every one wished it was
However, about seven o’clock, the heavy silence was
dissipated. The moon rose above the horizon. Millions of hurrahs
hailed her appearance. She was punctual to the rendezvous, and
shouts of welcome greeted her on all sides, as her pale beams shone
gracefully in the clear heavens. At this moment the three intrepid
travelers appeared. This was the signal for renewed cries of still
greater intensity. Instantly the vast assemblage, as with one
accord, struck up the national hymn of the United States, and
“Yankee Doodle,” sung by five million of hearty
throats, rose like a roaring tempest to the farthest limits of the
atmosphere. Then a profound silence reigned throughout the
The Frenchman and the two Americans had by this time entered the
enclosure reserved in the center of the multitude. They were
accompanied by the members of the Gun Club, and by deputations sent
from all the European Observatories. Barbicane, cool and collected,
was giving his final directions. Nicholl, with compressed lips, his
arms crossed behind his back, walked with a firm and measured step.
Michel Ardan, always easy, dressed in thorough traveler’s
costume, leathern gaiters on his legs, pouch by his side, in loose
velvet suit, cigar in mouth, was full of inexhaustible gayety,
laughing, joking, playing pranks with J. T. Maston. In one word, he
was the thorough “Frenchman” (and worse, a
“Parisian”) to the last moment.
Ten o’clock struck! The moment had arrived for taking
their places in the projectile! The necessary operations for the
descent, and the subsequent removal of the cranes and scaffolding
that inclined over the mouth of the Columbiad, required a certain
period of time.
Barbicane had regulated his chronometer to the tenth part of a
second by that of Murchison the engineer, who was charged with the
duty of firing the gun by means of an electric spark. Thus the
travelers enclosed within the projectile were enabled to follow
with their eyes the impassive needle which marked the precise
moment of their departure.
The moment had arrived for saying “good-by!” The
scene was a touching one. Despite his feverish gayety, even Michel
Ardan was touched. J. T. Maston had found in his own dry eyes one
ancient tear, which he had doubtless reserved for the occasion. He
dropped it on the forehead of his dear president.
“Can I not go?” he said, “there is still
“Impossible, old fellow!” replied Barbicane. A few
moments later, the three fellow-travelers had ensconced themselves
in the projectile, and screwed down the plate which covered the
entrance-aperture. The mouth of the Columbiad, now completely
disencumbered, was open entirely to the sky.
The moon advanced upward in a heaven of the purest clearness,
outshining in her passage the twinkling light of the stars. She
passed over the constellation of the Twins, and was now nearing the
halfway point between the horizon and the zenith. A terrible
silence weighed upon the entire scene! Not a breath of wind upon
the earth! not a sound of breathing from the countless chests of
the spectators! Their hearts seemed afraid to beat! All eyes were
fixed upon the yawning mouth of the Columbiad.
Murchison followed with his eye the hand of his chronometer. It
wanted scarce forty seconds to the moment of departure, but each
second seemed to last an age! At the twentieth there was a general
shudder, as it occurred to the minds of that vast assemblage that
the bold travelers shut up within the projectile were also counting
those terrible seconds. Some few cries here and there escaped the
thirty-seven!— thirty-eight!— thirty-nine!—
Instantly Murchison pressed with his finger the key of the
electric battery, restored the current of the fluid, and discharged
the spark into the breech of the Columbiad.
An appalling unearthly report followed instantly, such as can be
compared to nothing whatever known, not even to the roar of
thunder, or the blast of volcanic explosions! No words can convey
the slightest idea of the terrific sound! An immense spout of fire
shot up from the bowels of the earth as from a crater. The earth
heaved up, and with great difficulty some few spectators obtained a
momentary glimpse of the projectile victoriously cleaving the air
in the midst of the fiery vapors!
1Ok, Messr Verne has completely taken leave of his senses. Where he came up with stuffed monkey as a Florida delicacy, I would not know. Can't you just envision some abused assistant or librarian slipping it in just to mess with his head?
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