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Chapter 21

CHAPTER XXI


HOW A FRENCHMAN MANAGES AN AFFAIR


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 best friend?"

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
understand him.

"A hunter?" said Ardan.

"A hunter? Yes," replied the bushman.

"Long ago?"

"About an hour."

"Too late!" cried Maston.

"Have you heard any gunshots?" asked Ardan.

"No!"

"Not one?"

"Not one! that hunter did not look as if he knew how to hunt!"

"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 companion's hand.

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
intensified anxiety.

"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 there!"

"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 Maston.

"And it is?"

"Captain Nicholl!"

"Nicholl?" cried Michel Ardan, feeling a terrible pang of grief.

"Nicholl unarmed! He has, then, no longer any fear of his adversary!"

"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 tone:

"And a kindhearted one!"

"Michel Ardan!" cried the captain. "Why are you here?"

"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 hiding?"

"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 you."

"Between President Barbicane and myself," gravely replied
Nicholl, "there is a rivalry which the death of one of us----"

"Pooh, pooh!" said Ardan. "Brave fellows like you indeed! you
shall not fight!"

"I will fight, sir!"

"No!"

"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 accept it."

"What is it?" asked Nicholl with manifest incredulity.

"Patience!" exclaimed Ardan. "I can only reveal it in the
presence of Barbicane."

"Let us go in search of him then!" cried the captain.

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:

"Barbicane! Barbicane!"

No answer! Ardan rushed toward his friend; but in the act of
seizing his arms, he stopped short and uttered a cry of surprise.

Barbicane, pencil in hand, was tracing geometrical figures in a
memorandum book, while his unloaded rifle lay beside him on the ground.

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
in astonishment.

"Ah, it is you!" he cried at last. "I have found it, my friend,
I have found it!"

"What?"

"My plan!"

"What plan?"

"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 also?"

"Himself," replied Ardan; "and permit me to introduce to you at
the same time the worthy Captain Nicholl!"

"Nicholl!" cried Barbicane, who jumped up at once. "Pardon me,
captain, I had quite forgotten-- I am ready!"

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
found occupied.

"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 the shock!"

"Done!" cried Barbicane.

But quickly as he pronounced the word, he was not before Nicholl.

"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!"


Jules Verne

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