AS ten o’clock struck, Michel Ardan, Barbicane, and Nicholl, took leave of the numerous friends they were leaving on the earth. The two dogs, destined to propagate the canine race on the lunar continents, were already shut up in the projectile.
The three travelers approached the orifice of the enormous cast-iron tube, and a crane let them down to the conical top of the projectile. There, an opening made for the purpose gave them access to the aluminum car. The tackle belonging to the crane being hauled from outside, the mouth of the Columbiad was instantly disencumbered of its last supports.
Nicholl, once introduced with his companions inside the projectile, began to close the opening by means of a strong plate, held in position by powerful screws. Other plates, closely fitted, covered the lenticular glasses, and the travelers, hermetically enclosed in their metal prison, were plunged in profound darkness.
“And now, my dear companions,” said Michel Ardan, “let us make ourselves at home; I am a domesticated man and strong in housekeeping. We are bound to make the best of our new lodgings, and make ourselves comfortable. And first let us try and see a little. Gas was not invented for moles.”
So saying, the thoughtless fellow lit a match by striking it on the sole of his boot; and approached the burner fixed to the receptacle, in which the carbonized hydrogen, stored at high pressure, sufficed for the lighting and warming of the projectile for a hundred and forty-four hours, or six days and six nights. The gas caught fire, and thus lighted the projectile looked like a comfortable room with thickly padded walls, furnished with a circular divan, and a roof rounded in the shape of a dome.
Michel Ardan examined everything, and declared himself satisfied with his installation.
“It is a prison,” said he, “but a traveling prison; and, with the right of putting my nose to the window, I could well stand a lease of a hundred years. You smile, Barbicane. Have you any arrieère-pensée? Do you say to yourself, ‘This prison may be our tomb?’ Tomb, perhaps; still I would not change it for Mahomet’s, which floats in space but never advances an inch!”
While Michel Ardan was speaking, Barbicane and Nicholl were making their last preparations.
Nicholl’s chronometer marked twenty minutes past ten P.M. when the three travelers were finally enclosed in their projectile. This chronometer was set within the tenth of a second by that of Murchison the engineer. Barbicane consulted it.
“My friends,” said he, “it is twenty minutes past ten. At forty- seven minutes past ten Murchison will launch the electric spark on the wire which communicates with the charge of the Columbiad. At that precise moment we shall leave our spheroid. Thus we still have twenty-seven minutes to remain on the earth.”
“Twenty-six minutes thirteen seconds,” replied the methodical Nicholl.
“Well!” exclaimed Michel Ardan, in a good-humored tone, “much may be done in twenty-six minutes. The gravest questions of morals and politics may be discussed, and even solved. Twenty-six minutes well employed are worth more than twenty-six years in which nothing is done. Some seconds of a Pascal or a Newton are more precious than the whole existence of a crowd of raw simpletons——”
“And you conclude, then, you everlasting talker?” asked Barbicane.
“I conclude that we have twenty-six minutes left,” replied Ardan.
“Twenty-four only,” said Nicholl.
“Well, twenty-four, if you like, my noble captain,” said Ardan; “twenty-four minutes in which to investigate——”
“Michel,” said Barbicane, “during the passage we shall have plenty of time to investigate the most difficult questions. For the present we must occupy ourselves with our departure.”
“Are we not ready?”
“Doubtless; but there are still some precautions to be taken, to deaden as much as possible the first shock.”
“Have we not the water-cushions placed between the partition-breaks, whose elasticity will sufficiently protect us?”
“I hope so, Michel,” replied Barbicane gently, “but I am not sure.”
“Ah, the joker!” exclaimed Michel Ardan. “He hopes!—He is not sure!—and he waits for the moment when we are encased to make this deplorable admission! I beg to be allowed to get out!”
“And how?” asked Barbicane.
“Humph!” said Michel Ardan, “it is not easy; we are in the train, and the guard’s whistle will sound before twenty-four minutes are over.”
“Twenty,” said Nicholl.
For some moments the three travelers looked at each other. Then they began to examine the objects imprisoned with them.
“Everything is in its place,” said Barbicane. “We have now to decide how we can best place ourselves to resist the shock. Position cannot be an indifferent matter; and we must, as much as possible, prevent the rush of blood to the head.”
“Just so,” said Nicholl.
“Then,” replied Michel Ardan, ready to suit the action to the word, “let us put our heads down and our feet in the air, like the clowns in the grand circus.”
“No,” said Barbicane, “let us stretch ourselves on our sides; we shall resist the shock better that way. Remember that, when the projectile starts, it matters little whether we are in it or before it; it amounts to much the same thing.”
“If it is only ‘much the same thing,’ I may cheer up,” said Michel Ardan.
“Do you approve of my idea, Nicholl?” asked Barbicane.
“Entirely,” replied the captain. “We’ve still thirteen minutes and a half.”
“That Nicholl is not a man,” exclaimed Michel; “he is a chronometer with seconds, an escape, and eight holes.”
But his companions were not listening; they were taking up their last positions with the most perfect coolness. They were like two methodical travelers in a car, seeking to place themselves as comfortably as possible.
We might well ask ourselves of what materials are the hearts of these Americans made, to whom the approach of the most frightful danger added no pulsation.
Three thick and solidly-made couches had been placed in the projectile. Nicholl and Barbicane placed them in the center of the disc forming the floor. There the three travelers were to stretch themselves some moments before their departure.
During this time, Ardan, not being able to keep still, turned in his narrow prison like a wild beast in a cage, chatting with his friends, speaking to the dogs Diana and Satellite, to whom, as may be seen, he had given significant names.
“Ah, Diana! Ah, Satellite!” he exclaimed, teasing them; “so you are going to show the moon-dogs the good habits of the dogs of the earth! That will do honor to the canine race! If ever we do come down again, I will bring a cross type of ‘moon-dogs,’ which will make a stir!”
“If there are dogs in the moon,” said Barbicane.
“There are,” said Michel Ardan, “just as there are horses, cows, donkeys, and chickens. I bet that we shall find chickens.”
“A hundred dollars we shall find none!” said Nicholl.
“Done, my captain!” replied Ardan, clasping Nicholl’s hand. “But, by the bye, you have already lost three bets with our president, as the necessary funds for the enterprise have been found, as the operation of casting has been successful, and lastly, as the Columbiad has been loaded without accident, six thousand dollars.”
“Yes,” replied Nicholl. “Thirty-seven minutes six seconds past ten.”
“It is understood, captain. Well, before another quarter of an hour you will have to count nine thousand dollars to the president; four thousand because the Columbiad will not burst, and five thousand because the projectile will rise more than six miles in the air.”
“I have the dollars,” replied Nicholl, slapping the pocket of this coat. “I only ask to be allowed to pay.”
“Come, Nicholl. I see that you are a man of method, which I could never be; but indeed you have made a series of bets of very little advantage to yourself, allow me to tell you.”
“And why?” asked Nicholl.
“Because, if you gain the first, the Columbiad will have burst, and the projectile with it; and Barbicane will no longer be there to reimburse your dollars.”
“My stake is deposited at the bank in Baltimore,” replied Barbicane simply; “and if Nicholl is not there, it will go to his heirs.”
“Ah, you practical men!” exclaimed Michel Ardan; “I admire you the more for not being able to understand you.”
“Forty-two minutes past ten!” said Nicholl.
“Only five minutes more!” answered Barbicane.
“Yes, five little minutes!” replied Michel Ardan; “and we are enclosed in a projectile, at the bottom of a gun 900 feet long! And under this projectile are rammed 400,000 pounds of gun-cotton, which is equal to 1,600,000 pounds of ordinary powder! And friend Murchison, with his chronometer in hand, his eye fixed on the needle, his finger on the electric apparatus, is counting the seconds preparatory to launching us into interplanetary space.”
“Enough, Michel, enough!” said Barbicane, in a serious voice; “let us prepare. A few instants alone separate us from an eventful moment. One clasp of the hand, my friends.”
“Yes,” exclaimed Michel Ardan, more moved than he wished to appear; and the three bold companions were united in a last embrace.
“God preserve us!” said the religious Barbicane.
Michel Ardan and Nicholl stretched themselves on the couches placed in the center of the disc.
“Forty-seven minutes past ten!” murmured the captain.
“Twenty seconds more!” Barbicane quickly put out the gas and lay down by his companions, and the profound silence was only broken by the ticking of the chronometer marking the seconds.
Suddenly a dreadful shock was felt, and the projectile, under the force of six billions of litres of gas, developed by the combustion of pyroxyle, mounted into space.