Servadac laughed, and remarked that they should have the professor talking about the 238th of June, and the 325th of December.
It soon became evident that the detached portion was not revolving round the comet, but was gradually retreating into space. Whether it had carried with it any portion of atmosphere, whether it possessed any other condition for supporting life, and whether it was likely ever again to approach to the earth, were all questions that there were no means of determining. For themselves the all-important problem was--what effect would the rending asunder of the comet have upon its rate of progress? and as they were already conscious of a further increase of muscular power, and a fresh diminution of specific gravity, Servadac and his associates could not but wonder whether the alteration in the mass of the comet would not result in its missing the expected coincidence with the earth altogether.
Although he professed himself incompetent to pronounce a decided opinion, Lieutenant Procope manifestly inclined to the belief that no alteration would ensue in the rate of Gallia's velocity; but Rosette, no doubt, could answer the question directly, and the time had now arrived in which he must be compelled to divulge the precise moment of collision.
But the professor was in the worst of tempers. Generally taciturn and morose, he was more than usually uncivil whenever any one ventured to speak to him. The loss of his telescope had doubtless a great deal to do with his ill-humor; but the captain drew the most favorable conclusions from Rosette's continued irritation. Had the comet been in any way projected from its course, so as to be likely to fail in coming into contact with the earth, the professor would have been quite unable to conceal his satisfaction. But they required to know more than the general truth, and felt that they had no time to lose in getting at the exact details.
The opportunity that was wanted soon came.
On the 18th, Rosette was overheard in furious altercation with Ben Zoof. The orderly had been taunting the astronomer with the mutilation of his little comet. A fine thing, he said, to split in two like a child's toy. It had cracked like a dry nut; and mightn't one as well live upon an exploding bomb?--with much more to the same effect. The professor, by way of retaliation, had commenced sneering at the "prodigious" mountain of Montmartre, and the dispute was beginning to look serious when Servadac entered.
Thinking he could turn the wrangling to some good account, so as to arrive at the information he was so anxiously seeking, the captain pretended to espouse the views of his orderly; he consequently brought upon himself the full force of the professor's wrath.
Rosette's language became more and more violent, till Servadac, feigning to be provoked beyond endurance, cried: