Read DOCTOR OX'S EXPERIMENT : CHAPTER XIII. of A Winter Amid the Ice and Other Thrilling Stories , free online book, by Jules Verne, on ReadCentral.com.

IN WHICH IT IS ONCE MORE PROVED THAT BY TAKING HIGH GROUND ALL HUMAN LITTLENESSES MAY BE OVERLOOKED.

“You say?” asked the Burgomaster Van Tricasse of the Counsellor Niklausse.

“I say that this war is necessary,” replied Niklausse, firmly, “and that the time has come to avenge this insult.”

“Well, I repeat to you,” replied the burgomaster, tartly, “that if the people of Quiquendone do not profit by this occasion to vindicate their rights, they will be unworthy of their name.”

“And as for me, I maintain that we ought, without delay, to collect our forces and lead them to the front.”

“Really, monsieur, really!” replied Van Tricasse.  “And do you speak thus to me?”

“To yourself, monsieur the burgomaster; and you shall hear the truth, unwelcome as it may be.”

“And you shall hear it yourself, counsellor,” returned Van Tricasse in a passion, “for it will come better from my mouth than from yours!  Yes, monsieur, yes, any delay would be dishonourable.  The town of Quiquendone has waited nine hundred years for the moment to take its revenge, and whatever you may say, whether it pleases you or not, we shall march upon the enemy.”

“Ah, you take it thus!” replied Niklausse harshly.  “Very well, monsieur, we will march without you, if it does not please you to go.”

“A burgomaster’s place is in the front rank, monsieur!”

“And that of a counsellor also, monsieur.”

“You insult me by thwarting all my wishes,” cried the burgomaster, whose fists seemed likely to hit out before long.

“And you insult me equally by doubting my patriotism,” cried Niklausse, who was equally ready for a tussle.

“I tell you, monsieur, that the army of Quiquendone shall be put in motion within two days!”

“And I repeat to you, monsieur, that forty-eight hours shall not pass before we shall have marched upon the enemy!”

It is easy to see, from this fragment of conversation, that the two speakers supported exactly the same idea.  Both wished for hostilities; but as their excitement disposed them to altercation, Niklausse would not listen to Van Tricasse, nor Van Tricasse to Niklausse.  Had they been of contrary opinions on this grave question, had the burgomaster favoured war and the counsellor insisted on peace, the quarrel would not have been more violent.  These two old friends gazed fiercely at each other.  By the quickened beating of their hearts, their red faces, their contracted pupils, the trembling of their muscles, their harsh voices, it might be conjectured that they were ready to come to blows.

But the striking of a large clock happily checked the adversaries at the moment when they seemed on the point of assaulting each other.

“At last the hour has come!” cried the burgomaster.

“What hour?” asked the counsellor.

“The hour to go to the belfry tower.”

“It is true, and whether it pleases you or not, I shall go, monsieur.”

“And I too.”

“Let us go!”

“Let us go!”

It might have been supposed from these last words that a collision had occurred, and that the adversaries were proceeding to a duel; but it was not so.  It had been agreed that the burgomaster and the counsellor, as the two principal dignitaries of the town, should repair to the Town Hall, and there show themselves on the high tower which overlooked Quiquendone; that they should examine the surrounding country, so as to make the best strategetic plan for the advance of their troops.

Though they were in accord on this subject, they did not cease to quarrel bitterly as they went.  Their loud voices were heard resounding in the streets; but all the passers-by were now accustomed to this; the exasperation of the dignitaries seemed quite natural, and no one took notice of it.  Under the circumstances, a calm man would have been regarded as a monster.

The burgomaster and the counsellor, having reached the porch of the belfry, were in a paroxysm of fury.  They were no longer red, but pale.  This terrible discussion, though they had the same idea, had produced internal spasms, and every one knows that paleness shows that anger has reached its last limits.

At the foot of the narrow tower staircase there was a real explosion.  Who should go up first?  Who should first creep up the winding steps?  Truth compels us to say that there was a tussle, and that the Counsellor Niklausse, forgetful of all that he owed to his superior, to the supreme magistrate of the town, pushed Van Tricasse violently back, and dashed up the staircase first.

Both ascended, denouncing and raging at each other at every step.  It was to be feared that a terrible climax would occur on the summit of the tower, which rose three hundred and fifty-seven feet above the pavement.

The two enemies soon got out of breath, however, and in a little while, at the eightieth step, they began to move up heavily, breathing loud and short.

Then ­was it because of their being out of breath? ­their wrath subsided, or at least only betrayed itself by a succession of unseemly epithets.  They became silent, and, strange to say, it seemed as if their excitement diminished as they ascended higher above the town.  A sort of lull took place in their minds.  Their brains became cooler, and simmered down like a coffee-pot when taken away from the fire.  Why?

We cannot answer this “why;” but the truth is that, having reached a certain landing-stage, two hundred and sixty-six feet above ground, the two adversaries sat down and, really more calm, looked at each other without any anger in their faces.

“How high it is!” said the burgomaster, passing his handkerchief over his rubicund face.

“Very high!” returned the counsellor.  “Do you know that we have gone fourteen feet higher than the Church of Saint Michael at Hamburg?”

“I know it,” replied the burgomaster, in a tone of vanity very pardonable in the chief magistrate of Quiquendone.

The two notabilities soon resumed their ascent, casting curious glances through the loopholes pierced in the tower walls.  The burgomaster had taken the head of the procession, without any remark on the part of the counsellor.  It even happened that at about the three hundred and fourth step, Van Tricasse being completely tired out, Niklausse kindly pushed him from behind.  The burgomaster offered no resistance to this, and, when he reached the platform of the tower, said graciously, ­

“Thanks, Niklausse; I will do the same for you one day.”

A little while before it had been two wild beasts, ready to tear each other to pieces, who had presented themselves at the foot of the tower; it was now two friends who reached its summit.

The weather was superb.  It was the month of May.  The sun had absorbed all the vapours.  What a pure and limpid atmosphere!  The most minute objects over a broad space might be discerned.  The walls of Virgamen, glistening in their whiteness, ­its red, pointed roofs, its belfries shining in the sunlight ­appeared a few miles off.  And this was the town that was foredoomed to all the horrors of fire and pillage!

The burgomaster and the counsellor sat down beside each other on a small stone bench, like two worthy people whose souls were in close sympathy.  As they recovered breath, they looked around; then, after a brief silence, ­

“How fine this is!” cried the burgomaster.

“Yes, it is admirable!” replied the counsellor.  “Does it not seem to you, my good Van Tricasse, that humanity is destined to dwell rather at such heights, than to crawl about on the surface of our globe?”

“I agree with you, honest Niklausse,” returned the burgomaster, “I agree with you.  You seize sentiment better when you get clear of nature.  You breathe it in every sense!  It is at such heights that philosophers should be formed, and that sages should live, above the miseries of this world!”

“Shall we go around the platform?” asked the counsellor.

“Let us go around the platform,” replied the burgomaster.

And the two friends, arm in arm, and putting, as formerly, long pauses between their questions and answers, examined every point of the horizon.

“It is at least seventeen years since I have ascended the belfry tower,” said Van Tricasse.

“I do not think I ever came up before,” replied Niklausse; “and I regret it, for the view from this height is sublime!  Do you see, my friend, the pretty stream of the Vaar, as it winds among the trees?”

“And, beyond, the heights of Saint Hermandad!  How gracefully they shut in the horizon!  Observe that border of green trees, which Nature has so picturesquely arranged!  Ah, Nature, Nature, Niklausse!  Could the hand of man ever hope to rival her?”

“It is enchanting, my excellent friend,” replied the counsellor.  “See the flocks and herds lying in the verdant pastures, ­the oxen, the cows, the sheep!”

“And the labourers going to the fields!  You would say they were Arcadian shepherds; they only want a bagpipe!”

“And over all this fertile country the beautiful blue sky, which no vapour dims!  Ah, Niklausse, one might become a poet here!  I do not understand why Saint Simeon Stylites was not one of the greatest poets of the world.”

“It was because, perhaps, his column was not high enough,” replied the counsellor, with a gentle smile.

At this moment the chimes of Quiquendone rang out.  The clear bells played one of their most melodious airs.  The two friends listened in ecstasy.

Then in his calm voice, Van Tricasse said, ­

“But what, friend Niklausse, did we come to the top of this tower to do?”

“In fact,” replied the counsellor, “we have permitted ourselves to be carried away by our reveries ­”

“What did we come here to do?” repeated the burgomaster.

“We came,” said Niklausse, “to breathe this pure air, which human weaknesses have not corrupted.”

“Well, shall we descend, friend Niklausse?”

“Let us descend, friend Van Tricasse.”

They gave a parting glance at the splendid panorama which was spread before their eyes; then the burgomaster passed down first, and began to descend with a slow and measured pace.  The counsellor followed a few steps behind.  They reached the landing-stage at which they had stopped on ascending.  Already their cheeks began to redden.  They tarried a moment, then resumed their descent.

In a few moments Van Tricasse begged Niklausse to go more slowly, as he felt him on his heels, and it “worried him.”  It even did more than worry him; for twenty steps lower down he ordered the counsellor to stop, that he might get on some distance ahead.

The counsellor replied that he did not wish to remain with his leg in the air to await the good pleasure of the burgomaster, and kept on.

Van Tricasse retorted with a rude expression.

The counsellor responded by an insulting allusion to the burgomaster’s age, destined as he was, by his family traditions, to marry a second time.

The burgomaster went down twenty steps more, and warned Niklausse that this should not pass thus.

Niklausse replied that, at all events, he would pass down first; and, the space being very narrow, the two dignitaries came into collision, and found themselves in utter darkness.  The words “blockhead” and “booby” were the mildest which they now applied to each other.

“We shall see, stupid beast!” cried the burgomaster, ­“we shall see what figure you will make in this war, and in what rank you will march!”

“In the rank that precedes yours, you silly old fool!” replied Niklausse.

Then there were other cries, and it seemed as if bodies were rolling over each other.  What was going on?  Why were these dispositions so quickly changed?  Why were the gentle sheep of the tower’s summit metamorphosed into tigers two hundred feet below it?

However this might be, the guardian of the tower, hearing the noise, opened the door, just at the moment when the two adversaries, bruised, and with protruding eyes, were in the act of tearing each other’s hair, ­fortunately they wore wigs.

“You shall give me satisfaction for this!” cried the burgomaster, shaking his fist under his adversary’s nose.

“Whenever you please!” growled the Counsellor Niklausse, attempting to respond with a vigorous kick.

The guardian, who was himself in a passion, ­I cannot say why, ­ thought the scene a very natural one.  I know not what excitement urged him to take part in it, but he controlled himself, and went off to announce throughout the neighbourhood that a hostile meeting was about to take place between the Burgomaster Van Tricasse and the Counsellor Niklausse.