CHAPTER I. A CHALLENGE
"Nothing, sir, can induce me to surrender my claim."
"I am sorry, count, but in such a matter your views cannot modify mine."
"But allow me to point out that my seniority unquestionably gives me a prior right."
"Mere seniority, I assert, in an affair of this kind, cannot possibly entitle you to any prior claim whatever."
"Then, captain, no alternative is left but for me to compel you to yield at the sword's point."
"As you please, count; but neither sword nor pistol can force me to forego my pretensions. Here is my card."
This rapid altercation was thus brought to an end by the formal interchange of the names of the disputants. On one of the cards was inscribed:
Captain Hector Servadac, Staff Officer, Mostaganem.
On the other was the title:
Count Wassili Timascheff, On board the Schooner "Dobryna."
It did not take long to arrange that seconds should be appointed, who would meet in Mostaganem at two o'clock that day; and the captain and the count were on the point of parting from each other, with a salute of punctilious courtesy, when Timascheff, as if struck by a sudden thought, said abruptly: "Perhaps it would be better, captain, not to allow the real cause of this to transpire?"
"Far better," replied Servadac; "it is undesirable in every way for any names to be mentioned."
"In that case, however," continued the count, "it will be necessary to assign an ostensible pretext of some kind. Shall we allege a musical dispute? a contention in which I feel bound to defend Wagner, while you are the zealous champion of Rossini?"
"I am quite content," answered Servadac, with a smile; and with another low bow they parted.
The scene, as here depicted, took place upon the extremity of a little cape on the Algerian coast, between Mostaganem and Tenes, about two miles from the mouth of the Shelif. The headland rose more than sixty feet above the sea-level, and the azure waters of the Mediterranean, as they softly kissed the strand, were tinged with the reddish hue of the ferriferous rocks that formed its base. It was the 31st of December. The noontide sun, which usually illuminated the various projections of the coast with a dazzling brightness, was hidden by a dense mass of cloud, and the fog, which for some unaccountable cause, had hung for the last two months over nearly every region in the world, causing serious interruption to traffic between continent and continent, spread its dreary veil across land and sea.
After taking leave of the staff-officer, Count Wassili Timascheff wended his way down to a small creek, and took his seat in the stern of a light four-oar that had been awaiting his return; this was immediately pushed off from shore, and was soon alongside a pleasure-yacht, that was lying to, not many cable lengths away.
At a sign from Servadac, an orderly, who had been standing at a respectful distance, led forward a magnificent Arabian horse; the captain vaulted into the saddle, and followed by his attendant, well mounted as himself, started off towards Mostaganem. It was half-past twelve when the two riders crossed the bridge that had been recently erected over the Shelif, and a quarter of an hour later their steeds, flecked with foam, dashed through the Mascara Gate, which was one of five entrances opened in the embattled wall that encircled the town.