The magnificent marble bridge which unites the Rue de Rennes with the Rue de Louvre, and which, lined with the statues of celebrated scientists and philosophers, emphasizes the monumental avenue leading to the new portico of the Institute, was absolutely black with people. A heaving crowd surged, rather than walked, along the 8quays, flowing out from every street and pressing forward toward the portico, long before invaded by a tumultuous throng. Never, in that barbarous age preceding the constitution of the United States of Europe, when might was greater than right, when military despotism ruled the world and foolish humanity quivered in the relentless grasp of war—never before in the stormy period of a great revolution, or in those feverish days which accompanied a declaration of war, had the approaches of the house of the people’s representatives, or the Place de la Concorde presented such a spectacle. It was no longer the case of a band of fanatics rallied about a flag, marching to some conquest of the sword, and followed by a throng of the curious and the idle, eager to see what would happen; but of the entire population, anxious, agitated, terrified, composed of every class of society without distinction, hanging upon the decision of an oracle, waiting feverishly the result of the calculations which a celebrated astronomer was to announce that very Monday, at three o’clock, in the session of the Academy of Sciences. Amid the flux of politics and society the Institute survived, maintaining still in Europe its supremacy in science, literature and art. The center of civilization, however, had moved westward, and the focus of progress shone on the shores of Lake Michigan, in North America.
This new palace of the Institute, with its lofty domes and terraces, had been erected upon the ruins remaining 9after the great social revolution of the international anarchists who, in 1950, had blown up the greater portion of the metropolis as from the vent of a crater.
On the Sunday evening before, one might have seen from the car of a balloon all Paris abroad upon the boulevards and public squares, circulating slowly and as if in despair, without interest in anything. The gay aerial ships no longer cleaved the air; aeroplanes and aviators had all ceased to circulate. The aerial stations upon the summits of the towers and buildings were empty and deserted. The course of human life seemed arrested, and anxiety was depicted upon every face. Strangers addressed each other without hesitation; and but one question fell from pale and trembling lips: “Is it then true?” The most deadly pestilence would have carried far less terror to the heart than the astronomical prediction on every tongue; it would have made fewer victims, for already, from some unknown cause, the death-rate was increasing. At every instant one felt the electric shock of a terrible fear.
A few, less dismayed, wished to appear more confident, and sounded now and then a note of doubt, even of hope, as: “It may prove a mistake;” or, “It will pass on one side;” or, again: “It will amount to nothing; we shall get off with a fright,” and other like assurances.
But expectation and uncertainty are often more terrible than the catastrophe itself. A brutal blow knocks us down once for all, prostrating us more or less completely. We come to our senses, we make the best of it, we recover, and take up life again. But this was the unknown, the expectation of something inevitable but mysterious, terrible, coming from without the range of experience. One was to die, without doubt, but how? By the sudden shock of collision, crushed to death? By fire, the conflagration of a world? By suffocation, the poisoning of the atmosphere? What torture awaited humanity? Apprehension was perhaps more frightful than the reality itself. The mind cannot suffer beyond a certain limit. To suffer by inches, to ask every evening what the morning may bring, is to suffer a thousand deaths. Terror, that terror which congeals the blood in the veins, which annihilates the courage, haunted the shuddering soul like an invisible spectre.
For more than a month the business of the world had been suspended; a fortnight before the committee of administrators (formerly the chamber and senate) had adjourned, every other question having sunk into insignificance. For a week the exchanges of Paris, London, New York and Pekin, had closed their doors. What was the use of occupying oneself with business affairs, with questions of internal or foreign policy, of revenue or of reform, if the end of the world was at hand? Politics, indeed! Did one even remember to have ever taken any interest in them? The courts themselves had no cases; one does not murder when one expects the end of the world. Humanity no longer attached importance to anything; its heart beat furiously, as if about to stop forever. Every face was emaciated, every countenance discomposed, and haggard with sleeplessness. Feminine coquetry alone held out, but in a superficial, hesitating, furtive manner, without thought of the morrow.
The situation was indeed serious, almost desperate, even in the eyes of the most stoical. Never, in the whole course of history had the race of Adam found itself face to face with such a peril. The portents of the sky confronted it unceasingly with a question of life and death.
But, let us go back to the beginning.
Three months before the day of which we speak, the director of the observatory of Mount Gaurisankar had sent the following telephonic message to the principal observatories of the globe, and especially to that of Paris:
1. For about 300 years the observatory of Paris had ceased to be an observing station, and had been perpetuated only as the central administrative bureau of French astronomy. Astronomical observations were made under far more satisfactory conditions upon mountain summits in a pure atmosphere, free from disturbing influences. Observers were in direct and constant communication by telephone with the central office, whose instruments were used only to verify certain discoveries or to satisfy the curiosity of savants detained in Paris by their sedentary occupation.
“A telescopic comet discovered tonight, in 290°, 15´ right ascension, and 21°, 54´ south declination. Slight diurnal motion. Is of greenish hue.”
Not a month passed without the discovery of telescopic comets, and their announcement to the various observatories, especially since the installation of intrepid astronomers in Asia on the lofty peaks of Gaurisankar, Dapsang and Kanchinjinga; in South America, on Aconcagua, Illampon and Chimborazo, as also in Africa on Kilimanjaro, and in Europe on Elburz and Mont Blanc. This announcement, therefore, had not excited more comment among astronomers than any other of a like nature which they were constantly receiving. A large number of observers had sought the comet in the position indicated, and had carefully followed its motion. Their observations had been published in the Neuastronomischenachrichten, and a German mathematician had calculated a provisional orbit and ephemeris.
Scarcely had this orbit and ephemeris been published, when a Japanese scientist made a very remarkable suggestion. According to these calculations, the comet was approaching the sun from infinite space in a plane but slightly inclined to that of the ecliptic, an extremely rare occurrence, and, moreover, would traverse the orbit of Saturn. “It would be exceedingly interesting,” he remarked, “to multiply observations and revise the calculation of the orbit, with a view to determining whether the comet will come in collision with the rings of Saturn; for this planet will be exactly at that point of its path intersected by the orbit of the comet, on the day of the latter’s arrival.”
A young laureate of the Institute, a candidate for the directorship for the observatory, acting at once on this suggestion, had installed herself at the telephone office in order to capture on the wing every message. In less than ten days she had intercepted more than one hundred despatches, and, without losing an instant, had devoted three nights and days to a revision of the orbit as based on this entire series of observations. The result proved that the German computor had committed an error in determining the perihelion distance and that the inference drawn by the Japanese astronomer was inexact in so far as the date of the comet’s passage through the plane of the ecliptic was concerned, this date being five or six days earlier than that first announced; but the interest in the problem increased, for the minimum distance of the comet from the earth seemed now less than the Japanese calculator had thought possible. Setting aside for the moment, the question of a collision, it was hoped that the enormous perturbation which would result from the attraction of the earth and moon would afford a new method of determining with exhaustive precision the mass of both these bodies, and perhaps even throw important light upon the density of the earth’s interior. It was, indeed, established that the celestial visitor was moving in a plane nearly coincident with that of the ecliptic, and would pass near the system of Saturn, whose attraction would probably modify to a sensible degree the primitive parabolic orbit, bringing it nearer to the belated planet. But the comet, after traversing the orbits of Jupiter and of Mars, was then to enter exactly that described annually by the earth about the sun. The interest of astronomers was not on this account any the less keen, and the young computor insisted more forcibly than ever upon the importance of numerous and exact observations.
It was at the observatory of Gaurisankar especially that the study of the comet’s elements was prosecuted. On this highest elevation of the globe, at an altitude of 8000 meters, among eternal snows which, by newly discovered processes of electro-chemistry, were kept at a distance of several kilometers from the station, towering almost always many hundred meters above the highest clouds, in a pure and rarified atmosphere, the visual power of both the eye and the telescope was increased a hundred fold. The craters of the moon, the satellites of Jupiter, and the phases of Venus could be readily distinguished by the naked eye. For nine or ten generations several families of astronomers had lived upon this Asiatic summit, and had gradually become accustomed to its rare atmosphere. The first comers had succumbed; but science and industry had succeeded in modifying the rigors of the temperature by the storage of solar heat, and acclimatization slowly took place; as in former times, at Quito and Bogota, where, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a contented population lived in plenty, and young women might be seen dancing all night long without fatigue; whereas on Mont Blanc in Europe, at the same elevation, a few steps only were attended with painful respiration. By degrees a small colony was installed upon the slopes of the Himalayas, and, through their researches and discoveries, the observatory had acquired the reputation of being the first in the world. Its principal instrument was the celebrated equatorial of one hundred meters focal length, by whose aid the hieroglyphic signals, addressed in vain for several thousand years by the inhabitants of the planet Mars to the earth, had finally been deciphered.
While the astronomers of Europe were discussing the orbit of the new comet and establishing the precision of the computations which foretold its convergence upon the earth and the collision of the two bodies in space, a new phonographic message was sent out from the Himalayan observatory:
“The comet will soon become visible to the naked eye. Still of greenish hue. Its course is earthward.”
The complete agreement between the astronomical data, whether from European, American, or Asiatic sources, could leave no further doubt of their exactness. The daily papers sowed broadcast this alarming news, embellished with sinister comments and numberless interviews in which the most astonishing statements were attributed to scientists. Their only concern was to outdo the ascertained facts, and to exaggerate their bearing by more or less fanciful additions. As for that matter, the journals of the world had long since become purely business enterprises. The sole preoccupation of each was to sell every day the greatest possible number of copies. They invented false news, travestied the truth, dishonored men and women, spread scandal, lied without shame, explained the devices of thieves and murderers, published the formulæ of recently invented explosives, imperilled their own readers and betrayed every class of society, for the sole purpose of exciting to the highest pitch the curiosity of the public and of “selling copies.”
Everything had become a pure matter of business. For science, art, literature, philosophy, study and research, the press cared nothing. An acrobat, a runner or a jockey, an air-ship or water-velocipede, attained more celebrity in a day than the most eminent scientist, or the most ingenious inventor—for these two classes made no return to the stockholders. Everything was adroitly decked out with the rhetoric of patriotism, a sentiment which still exercised some empire over the minds of men. In short, from every point of view, the pecuniary interests of the publication dominated all considerations of public interest and general progress. Of all this the public had been for a long time the dupe; but, at the time of which we are now speaking, it had surrendered to the situation, so that there was no longer any newspaper, properly speaking, but only sheets of notices and advertisements of a commercial nature. Neither the first announcement of the press, that a comet was approaching with a high velocity and would collide with the earth at a date already determined; nor the second, that the wandering star might bring about a general catastrophe by rendering the atmosphere irrespirable, had produced the slightest impression; this two-fold prophecy, if noticed at all by the heedless reader, had been received with profound incredulity, attracting no more attention than the simultaneous announcement of the discovery of the fountain of perpetual youth in the cellars of the Palais des Fées on Montmartre (erected on the ruins of the cathedral of the Sacré-Cœur).
Moreover, astronomers themselves had not, at first, evinced any anxiety about the collision, so far as it affected the fate of humanity, and the astronomical journals (which alone retained any semblance of authority) had as yet referred to the subject simply as a computation to be verified. Scientists had treated the problem as one of pure mathematics, regarding it only as an interesting case of celestial mechanics. In the interviews to which they had been subjected they had contented themselves with saying that a collision was possible, even probable, but of no interest to the public.
Meanwhile, a new message was received by telephone, this time from Mount Hamilton in California, which produced a sensation among the chemists and physiologists:
“Spectroscopic observation establishes the fact that the comet is a body of considerable density, composed of several gases the chief of which is carbonic-oxide.”
Matters were becoming serious. That a collision with the earth would occur was certain. If astronomers were not especially preoccupied by this fact, accustomed as they were for centuries to consider these celestial conjunctions as harmless: if the most celebrated even of their number had, at last, coldly shown the door to the many beardless reporters constantly importuning them, declaring that this prediction was of no interest to the people at large and was a strictly astronomical question which did not concern them, physicians, on the other hand, had begun to agitate the subject and to discuss gravely, among each other, the possibilities of asphyxia, or poisoning. Less indifferent to public opinion, so far from turning a cold shoulder to the journalists, they had welcomed them, and in a few days the subject suddenly entered upon a new phase. From the domain of astronomy it had passed into that of philosophy, and the name of every well-known or famous physician appeared in large letters on the title-pages of the daily papers; their portraits were reproduced in the illustrated journals, and the formula, “Interviews on the Comet,” was to be seen on every hand. Already, even, the variety and diversity of conflicting opinions had created hostile camps, which hurled at each other the most grotesque abuse, and asserted that all physicians were “charlatans eager for notoriety.”
In the mean time the director of the Paris observatory having at heart the interests of science, was profoundly disturbed by an uproar which had more than once, on former occasions, singularly misrepresented astronomical facts. He was a venerable old man who had grown gray in the study of the great problems of the constitution of the universe. His utterances were respected by all, and he had decided to make a statement to the press in which he declared that all conjectures, made prior to the technical discussion authorized by the Institute, were premature.
It has been remarked, we believe, that the Paris observatory, always in the van of every scientific movement, by virtue of the labors of its members, and more especially, of improved methods of observation, had become, on the one hand, the sanctuary of theoretical research, and on the other the central telephone bureau for stations established at a distance from the great cities on elevations favored by a perfectly transparent atmosphere.
It was an asylum of peace, where perfect concord reigned, where astronomers disinterestedly consecrated their whole lives to the advancement of science, and mutually encouraged each other, without experiencing any of the pangs of envy, each forgetting his own merit to proclaim that of his colleagues. The director set the example, and when he spoke it was in the name of all.
He published a technical discussion, and he was listened to—for a moment. For the question appeared to be no longer one of astronomy. No one denied or disputed the meeting of the comet with the earth. That was a fact which mathematics had rendered certain. The absorbing question now was the chemical constitution of the comet. If the earth, in its passage through it, was to lose the oxygen of its atmosphere, death by asphyxia was inevitable; if, on the other hand, the nitrogen was to combine with the cometary gases, death was still certain; but death preceded by an ungovernable exhilaration, a sort of universal intoxication, a wild delirium of the senses being the necessary result of the extraction of nitrogen from the respirable air and the proportionate increase of oxygen.
The spectroscope indicated especially the presence of carbonic-oxide in the chemical constitution of the comet. The chief point under discussion in the scientific reviews was whether the mixture of this noxious gas with the atmosphere would poison the entire population of the globe, human and animal, as the president of the academy of medicine affirmed would be the case.
Carbonic-oxide! Nothing else was talked of. The spectroscope could not be in error. Its methods were too sure, its processes too precise. Everybody knew that the smallest admixture of this gas with the air we breathe meant a speedy death. Now, a later despatch from the observatory of Gaurisankar had more than confirmed that received from Mount Hamilton. This despatch read:
“The earth will be completely submerged in the nucleus of the comet, whose diameter is already thirty times that of the globe and is daily increasing.”
Thirty times the diameter of the earth! Even then, though the comet should pass between the earth and the moon, it would touch them both, since a bridge of thirty earths would span the distance between our world and the moon.
Then, too, during the three months whose history we have recapitulated, the comet had emerged from regions accessible only to the telescope and had become visible to the naked eye. In full view of the earth it hovered now like a threat from heaven among the army of stars. Terror itself, advancing slowly but inexorably, was suspended like a mighty sword above every head. A last effort was made, not indeed to turn the comet from its path—an idea conceived by that class of visionaries who recoil before nothing, and who had even imagined that an electric storm of vast magnitude might be produced by batteries suitably distributed over that face of the globe which was to receive the shock—but to examine once more the great problem under every aspect, and perhaps to reassure the public mind and rekindle hope by the discovery of some error in the conclusions which had been drawn, some forgotten fact in the observations or computations. This collision might not after all prove so fatal as the pessimists had foretold. A general presentation of the case from every point of view was announced for this very Monday at the Institute, just four days before the prophesied moment of collision, which would take place on Friday, July 13th. The most celebrated astronomer of France, at that time director of the Paris observatory; the president of the academy of medicine, an eminent physiologist and chemist; the president of the astronomical society, a skillful mathematician, and other orators also, among them a woman distinguished for her discoveries in the physical sciences, were among the speakers announced. The last word had not yet been spoken. Let us enter the venerable dome and listen to the discussion.
But before doing so, let us ourselves consider this famous comet which for the time being absorbed every thought.