Authors: Robur the Conqueror
The pistol shots were almost simultaneous. A cow peacefully grazing
fifty yards away received one of the bullets in her back. She had
nothing to do with the quarrel all the same.
Neither of the adversaries was hit.
Who were these two gentlemen? We do not know, although this would be
an excellent opportunity to hand down their names to posterity. All
we can say is that the elder was an Englishman and the younger an
American, and both of them were old enough to know better.
So far as recording in what locality the inoffensive ruminant had
just tasted her last tuft of herbage, nothing can be easier. It was
on the left bank of Niagara, not far from the suspension bridge which
joins the American to the Canadian bank three miles from the falls.
The Englishman stepped up to the American.
"I contend, nevertheless, that it was 'Rule Britannia!'"
"And I say it was 'Yankee Doodle!'" replied the young American.
The dispute was about to begin again when one of the
seconds—doubtless in the interests of the milk trade—interposed.
"Suppose we say it was 'Rule Doodle' and 'Yankee Britannia' and
adjourn to breakfast?"
This compromise between the national airs of Great Britain and the
United States was adopted to the general satisfaction. The Americans
and Englishmen walked up the left bank of the Niagara on their way to
Goat Island, the neutral ground between the falls. Let us leave them
in the presence of the boiled eggs and traditional ham, and floods
enough of tea to make the cataract jealous, and trouble ourselves no
more about them. It is extremely unlikely that we shall again meet
with them in this story.
Which was right; the Englishman or the American? It is not easy to
say. Anyhow the duel shows how great was the excitement, not only in
the new but also in the old world, with regard to an inexplicable
phenomenon which for a month or more had driven everybody to
Never had the sky been so much looked at since the appearance of man
on the terrestrial globe. The night before an aerial trumpet had
blared its brazen notes through space immediately over that part of
Canada between Lake Ontario and Lake Erie. Some people had heard
those notes as "Yankee Doodle," others had heard them as "Rule
Britannia," and hence the quarrel between the Anglo-Saxons, which
ended with the breakfast on Goat Island. Perhaps it was neither one
nor the other of these patriotic tunes, but what was undoubted by all
was that these extraordinary sounds had seemed to descend from the
sky to the earth.
What could it be? Was it some exuberant aeronaut rejoicing on that
sonorous instrument of which the Renommée makes such obstreperous use?
No! There was no balloon and there were no aeronauts. Some strange
phenomenon had occurred in the higher zones of the atmosphere, a
phenomenon of which neither the nature nor the cause could be
explained. Today it appeared over America; forty-eight hours
afterwards it was over Europe; a week later it was in Asia over the
Hence in every country of the world—empire, kingdom, or republic—there
was anxiety which it was important to allay. If you hear in
your house strange and inexplicable noises, do you not at once
endeavor to discover the cause? And if your search is in vain, do you
not leave your house and take up your quarters in another? But in
this case the house was the terrestrial globe! There are no means of
leaving that house for the moon or Mars, or Venus, or Jupiter, or
any other planet of the solar system. And so of necessity we have to
find out what it is that takes place, not in the infinite void, but
within the atmospherical zones. In fact, if there is no air there is
no noise, and as there was a noise—that famous trumpet, to wit—the
phenomenon must occur in the air, the density of which invariably
diminishes, and which does not extend for more than six miles round
Naturally the newspapers took up the question in their thousands, and
treated it in every form, throwing on it both light and darkness,
recording many things about it true or false, alarming and
tranquillizing their readers—as the sale required—and almost
driving ordinary people mad. At one blow party politics dropped
unheeded—and the affairs of the world went on none the worse for it.
But what could this thing be? There was not an observatory that was
not applied to. If an observatory could not give a satisfactory
answer what was the use of observatories? If astronomers, who doubled
and tripled the stars a hundred thousand million miles away, could
not explain a phenomenon occurring only a few miles off, what was the
use of astronomers?
The observatory at Paris was very guarded in what it said. In the
mathematical section they had not thought the statement worth
noticing; in the meridional section they knew nothing about it; in
the physical observatory they had not come across it; in the geodetic
section they had had no observation; in the meteorological section
there had been no record; in the calculating room they had had
nothing to deal with. At any rate this confession was a frank one,
and the same frankness characterized the replies from the observatory
of Montsouris and the magnetic station in the park of St. Maur. The
same respect for the truth distinguished the Bureau des Longitudes.
The provinces were slightly more affirmative. Perhaps in the night of
the fifth and the morning of the sixth of May there had appeared a
flash of light of electrical origin which lasted about twenty
seconds. At the Pic du Midi this light appeared between nine and ten
in the evening. At the Meteorological Observatory on the Puy de Dome
the light had been observed between one and two o'clock in the
morning; at Mont Ventoux in Provence it had been seen between two and
three o'clock; at Nice it had been noticed between three and four
o'clock; while at the Semnoz Alps between Annecy, Le Bourget, and Le
Léman, it had been detected just as the zenith was paling with the
Now it evidently would not do to disregard these observations
altogether. There could be no doubt that a light had been observed at
different places, in succession, at intervals, during some hours.
Hence, whether it had been produced from many centers in the
terrestrial atmosphere, or from one center, it was plain that the
light must have traveled at a speed of over one hundred and twenty
miles an hour.
In the United Kingdom there was much perplexity. The observatories
were not in agreement. Greenwich would not consent to the proposition
of Oxford. They were agreed on one point, however, and that was: "It
was nothing at all!"
But, said one, "It was an optical illusion!" While the other
contended that, "It was an acoustical illusion!" And so they
disputed. Something, however, was, it will be seen, common to both
"It was an illusion."
Between the observatory of Berlin and the observatory of Vienna the
discussion threatened to end in international complications; but
Russia, in the person of the director of the observatory at Pulkowa,
showed that both were right. It all depended on the point of view
from which they attacked the phenomenon, which, though impossible in
theory, was possible in practice.
In Switzerland, at the observatory of Sautis in the canton of
Appenzell, at the Righi, at the Gäbriss, in the passes of the
St. Gothard, at the St. Bernard, at the Julier, at the Simplon, at
Zurich, at Somblick in the Tyrolean Alps, there was a very strong
disinclination to say anything about what nobody could prove—and
that was nothing but reasonable.
But in Italy, at the meteorological stations on Vesuvius, on Etna in
the old Casa Inglesi, at Monte Cavo, the observers made no hesitation
in admitting the materiality of the phenomenon, particularly as they
had seen it by day in the form of a small cloud of vapor, and by
night in that of a shooting star. But of what it was they knew
Scientists began at last to tire of the mystery, while they continued
to disagree about it, and even to frighten the lowly and the
ignorant, who, thanks to one of the wisest laws of nature, have
formed, form, and will form the immense majority of the world's
inhabitants. Astronomers and meteorologists would soon have dropped
the subject altogether had not, on the night of the 26th and 27th,
the observatory of Kautokeino at Finmark, in Norway, and during the
night of the 28th and 29th that of Isfjord at Spitzbergen—Norwegian
one and Swedish the other—found themselves agreed in recording that
in the center of an aurora borealis there had appeared a sort of huge
bird, an aerial monster, whose structure they were unable to
determine, but who, there was no doubt, was showering off from his
body certain corpuscles which exploded like bombs.
In Europe not a doubt was thrown on this observation of the stations
in Finmark and Spitzbergen. But what appeared the most phenomenal
about it was that the Swedes and Norwegians could find themselves in
agreement on any subject whatever.
There was a laugh at the asserted discovery in all the observatories
of South America, in Brazil, Peru, and La Plata, and in those of
Australia at Sydney, Adelaide, and Melbourne; and Australian laughter
is very catching.
To sum up, only one chief of a meteorological station ventured on a
decided answer to this question, notwithstanding the sarcasms that
his solution provoked. This was a Chinaman, the director of the
observatory at Zi-Ka-Wey which rises in the center of a vast plateau
less than thirty miles from the sea, having an immense horizon and
wonderfully pure atmosphere. "It is possible," said he, "that the
object was an aviform apparatus—a flying machine!"
But if the controversy was keen in the old world, we can imagine what
it was like in that portion of the new of which the United States
occupy so vast an area.
A Yankee, we know, does not waste time on the road. He takes the
street that leads him straight to his end. And the observatories of
the American Federation did not hesitate to do their best. If they
did not hurl their objectives at each other's heads, it was because
they would have had to put them back just when they most wanted to
use them. In this much-disputed question the observatories of
Washington in the District of Columbia, and Cambridge in
Massachusetts, found themselves opposed by those of Dartmouth College
in New Hampshire, and Ann Arbor in Michigan. The subject of their
dispute was not the nature of the body observed, but the precise
moment of its observation. All of them claimed to have seen it the
same night, the same hour, the same minute, the same second, although
the trajectory of the mysterious voyager took it but a moderate
height above the horizon. Now from Massachusetts to Michigan, from
New Hampshire to Columbia, the distance is too great for this double
observation, made at the same moment, to be considered possible.