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The book tells the adventures of five American prisoners of war on an uncharted island in the South Pacific. Begining in the American Civil War, as famine and death ravage the city of Richmond, Virginia, five northern POWs decide to escape in a rather unusual way – by hijacking a balloon! This is only the beginning of their adventures...
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First digital edition 2017 by Anna Ruggieri
THE HURRICANE OF 1865—CRIES IN THE AIR—A BALLOON CAUGHT BY A WATERSPOUT—ONLY THE SEA IN SIGHT—FIVE PASSENGERS—WHAT TOOK PLACE IN THE BASKET—LAND AHEAD!—THE END.
“Are we going up again?”
“No. On the contrary; we are going down!”
“Worse than that, Mr. Smith, we are falling!”
“For God’s sake throw over all the ballast!”
“The last sack is empty!”
“And the balloon rises again?”
“I hear the splashing waves!”
“The sea is under us!”
“It is not five hundred feet off!”
Thena strong, clear voice shouted:—
“Overboard with all we have, and God help us!”
Such were the words which rang through the air above the vast wilderness of the Pacific, towards 4 o’clock in the afternoon of the 23d of March, 1865:—
Doubtless, no one has forgotten that terrible northeast gale which vented its fury during the equinox of that year. It was a hurricane lasting without intermission from the 18th to the 26th of March. Covering a space of 1,800 miles, drawn obliquely to the equator, between the 35°of north latitude and 40° south, it occasioned immense destruction both in America and Europe and Asia. Cities in ruins, forests uprooted, shores devastated by the mountains of water hurled upon them, hundreds of shipwrecks, large tracts of territory desolated by the waterspouts which destroyed everything in their path,thousands of persons crushed to the earth or engulfed in the sea; such were the witnesses to its fury left behind by this terrible hurricane. It surpassed in disaster those storms which ravaged Havana and Guadeloupe in 1810 and 1825.
While these catastrophes were taking place upon the land and the sea, a scene not less thrilling was enacting in the disordered heavens.
A balloon, caught in the whirl of a column of air, borne like a ball on thesummit of a waterspout, spinning around as in some aerial whirlpool, rushed through space with a velocity of ninety miles an hour. Below the balloon, dimly visible through the dense vapor, mingled with spray, which spread over the ocean, swung a basket containing five persons.
From whence came this aerial traveller, the sport of the awful tempest? Evidently it could not have been launched during the storm, and the storm had been raging five days, its symptoms manifesting themselves on the 18th. It must, therefore, have come from a great distance, as it could not have traversed less than 2,000 miles in twenty-four hours. The passengers, indeed, had been unable to determine the course traversed, as they had nothing with which to calculate their position; andit was a necessary effect, that, though borne along in the midst of this tempest; they were unconscious of its violence. They were whirled and spun about and carried up and down without any sense of motion. Their vision could not penetrate the thick fog massed together under the balloon. Around them everything was obscure. The clouds were so dense that they could not tell the day from the night. No reflection of light, no sound from the habitations of men, no roaring of the ocean had penetrated that profound obscurity in which they were suspended during their passage through the upper air. Only on their rapid descent had they become conscious of the danger threatening them by the waves.
Meanwhile the balloon, disencumbered of the heavy articles, such as munitions, arms, and provisions, had risen to a height of 4,500 feet, and the passengers having discovered that the sea was beneath them, and realizing that the dangers above were less formidable than those below, did not hesitate to throw overboard everything, no matter how necessary, at the same time endeavoring to lose none of that fluid, the soul of the apparatus, which sustained them above the abyss.
The night passed in the midst of dangers that would have proved fatal to souls less courageous; and with the coming of day the hurricane showed signs of abatement. At dawn, the emptied clouds rose high into the heavens; and, in a few hours more, the whirlwind had spent its force. The wind, from a hurricane, had subsided into what sailors would call a “three reef breeze.”
Toward eleven o’clock, the lower strata of the air had lightened visibly. The atmosphere exhaled that humidity which is noticeable after the passage of great meteors. It did not seem as if the storm had moved westward, but rather as if it was ended. Perhaps it had flowed off in electric sheets after the whirlwind had spent itself, as is the case with the typhoon in the Indian Ocean.
Now, however, it became evident that the balloon was again sinking slowly but surely. It seemed also as if it was gradually collapsing, and that its envelope was lengthening and passing from a spherical into an oval form. It held 50,000 cubic feet of gas, and therefore, whether soaring to a great height or moving along horizontally, it was able to maintain itself for along time in the air. In this emergency the voyagers threw overboard the remaining articles which weighed down the balloon, the few provisions they had kept, and everything they had in their pockets, while one of the party hoisted himself into the ring towhich was fastened the cords of the net, and endeavored to closely tie the lower end of the balloon. But it was evident that the gas was escaping, and that the voyagers could no longer keep the balloon afloat.
They were lost!
There was no land, not even an island, visible beneath them. The wide expanse of ocean offered no point of rest, nothing upon which they could cast anchor. It was a vast sea on which the waves were surging with incomparable violence. It was the limitless ocean, limitless even to themfrom their commanding height. It was a liquid plain, lashed and beaten by the hurricane, until it seemed like a circuit of tossing billows, covered with a net-work of foam. Not even a ship was in sight.
In order, therefore, to save themselves from being swallowed up by the waves it was necessary to arrest this downward movement, let it cost what it might. And it was evidently to the accomplishment of this that the party were directing their efforts. But in spite of all they could do the balloon continued todescend, though at the same time moving rapidly along with the wind toward the southwest.
It was a terrible situation, this, of these unfortunate men. No longer masters of the balloon, their efforts availed them nothing. The envelope collapsed more and more, and the gas continued to escape. Faster and faster they fell, until at 1 o’clock they were not more than 600 feet above the sea. The gas poured out of a rent in the silk. By lightening the basket of everything the party had been able to continue theirsuspension in the air for several hours, but now the inevitable catastrophe could only be delayed, and unless some land appeared before nightfall, voyagers, balloon, and basket must disappear beneath the waves.
It was evident that these men were strong andable to face death. Not a murmur escaped their lips. They were determined to struggle to the last second to retard their fall, and they tried their last expedient. The basket, constructed of willow osiers, could not float, and they had no means of supporting it on the surface of the water. It was 2 o’clock, and the balloon was only 400 feet above the waves.
Then a voice was heard—the voice of a man whose heart knew no fear—responded to by others not less strong:—
“Everything is thrown out?”
“No, we yet have 10,000 francs in gold.”
A heavy bag fell into the sea.
“Does the balloon rise?”
“A little, but it will soon fall again.”
“Is there nothing else we can gut rid of?”
“Not a thing.”
“Yes there is; there’s the basket!”
“Catch hold of the net then, and let itgo.”
The cords which attached the basket to the hoop were cut, and the balloon, as the former fell into the sea, rose again 2,000 feet. This was, indeed, the last means of lightening the apparatus. The five passengers had clambered into the net around thehoop, and, clinging to its meshes, looked into the abyss below.
Every one knows the statical sensibility of a balloon. It is only necessary to relieve it of the lightest object in order to have it rise. The apparatus floating in air acts like a mathematical balance. One can readily understand, then, that when disencumbered of every weight relatively great, its upward movement will be sudden and considerable. It was thus in the present instance. But after remaining poised for a moment at its height, the balloon began to descend. It was impossible to repair the rent, through which the gas was rushing, and the men having done everything they could do, must look to God for succor.
At 4 o’clock, when the balloon was only 500 feet above the sea, the loud barkingof a dog, holding itself crouched beside its master in the meshes of the net, was heard.
“Top has seen something!” cried one, and immediately afterwards another shouted:—
The balloon, which the wind had continued to carry towards the southwest, had since dawn passed over a distance of several hundred miles, and a high land began to be distinguishable in that direction. But it was still thirty miles to leeward, and even supposing they did not drift, it would take a full hour to reach it. An hour! Before that time could pass, would not the balloon be emptied of what gas remained? This was the momentous question.
The party distinctly saw that solid point which they must reach at all hazards. They did not know whether it was an island or a continent, as they were uninformed as to what part of the world the tempest had hurried them. But they knew that this land, whether inhabited or desert, must be reached.
At 4 o’clock it was plain that the balloon could not sustain itself much longer. It grazed thesurface of the sea, and the crests of the higher waves several times lapped the base of the net, making it heavier; and, like a bird with a shot in its wing, could only half sustain itself.
A half hour later, and the land was scarcely a mile distant. Butthe balloon, exhausted, flabby, hanging in wrinkles, with only a little gas remaining in its upper portion, unable to sustain the weight of those clinging to the net, was plunging them in the sea, which lashed them with its furious billows. Occasionally the envelope of the balloon would belly out, and the wind taking it would carry it along like a ship. Perhaps by this means it would reach the shore. But when only two cables’ length away four voices joined in a terrible cry. The balloon, though seemingly unable to rise again, after having been struck by a tremendous wave, made a bound into the air, as if it had been suddenly lightened of some of its weight. It rose 1,500 feet, and encountering a sort of eddy in the air, instead of being carried directly to land, it was drawn along in a direction nearly parallel thereto. In a minute or two, however, it reapproached the shore in an oblique direction, and fell upon the sand above the reach of the breakers. The passengers, assisting each other, hastened to disengage themselves from the meshes of the net; and the balloon, relieved of their weight, was caught up by the wind, and, like a wounded bird recovering for an instant, disappeared into space.
The basket had contained five passengers and a dog, and but four had been thrown upon the shore. The fifth one, then, had been washed off by the great wave which had struck the net, and it was owing to this accident that the lightened balloon had been able to rise for the last time before falling upon the land. Scarcely had the four castaways felt the ground beneath their feet thanall thinking of the one who was lost, cried:—“Perhaps he is trying to swim ashore. Save him! Let us save him!”
AN EPISODE OF THE REBELLION-THE ENGINEER CYRUS SMITH—GIDEON SPILETT—THENEGRO NEB—THE SAILOR PENCROFF—THE YOUTH, HERBERT—AN UNEXPECTED PROPOSAL—RENDEZVOUS AT 10 O’CLOCK P.M.—DEPARTURE IN THE STORM.
They were neither professional aeronauts nor amateurs in aerial navigation whom the storm had thrown upon this coast. They were prisoners of war whose audacity had suggested this extraordinary manner of escape. A hundred times they would have perished, a hundred times their torn balloon would have precipitated them into the abyss, had not Providence preserved them for a strange destiny, and on the 20th of March, after having flown from Richmond, besieged by the troops of General Ulysses Grant, they found themselves 7,000 miles from the Virginia capital, the principal stronghold of the Secessionists during that terrible war. Their aerial voyage had lasted five days.
Let us see by what curious circumstances this escape of prisoners was effected,—an escape which resulted in the catastrophe which we have seen.
This same year, in the month of February, 1865, in one of those surprises by which General Grant, though in vain, endeavored to take Richmond, many of his officers were captured by the enemy and confined within the city. One of the most distinguished of those taken was a Federal staff officer named Cyrus Smith.
Cyrus Smith was a native of Massachusetts, an engineer by profession, and a scientist of the first order, to whom the Government had given, during the war, the direction of the railways, which played such a great strategic part during the war.
A true Yankee, thin, bony, lean, about forty-five years old, with streaks of grey appearing in his close cut hair and heavy moustache. He had one of those fine classical heads that seem as if made to be copied upon medals; bright eyes, a serious mouth, and the air of a practiced officer. He was one of these engineers who began of his own wish with the pick and shovel, as there are generals who have preferred to rise from the ranks. Thus, while possessing inventive genius, he had acquired manual dexterity, and his muscles showed remarkable firmness. He was as much a man of action as of study; he moved without effort, under the influence of a strong vitality and his sanguine temperament defied all misfortune. Highly educated, practical, “clear-headed,” his temperament was superb, and always retaining his presence of mind hecombined in the highest degree the three conditions whose union regulates the energy of man: activity of body, strength of will, and determination. His motto might have been that of William of Orange in the XVIIth century—“Ican undertake without hope, and persevere through failure.”
Cyrus Smith was also the personification of courage. He had been in every battle of the war. After having begun under General Grant, with the Illinois volunteers, he had fought at Paducah, at Belmont, at Pittsburg Landing, at the siege of Corinth, at Port Gibson, at the Black River, at Chattanooga, at the Wilderness, upon the Potomac, everywhere with bravery, a soldier worthy of the General who said “I never counted my dead.” And a hundred times Cyrus Smith would have been among the number of those whom the terrible Grant did not count; but in these combats, though he never spared himself, fortune always favored him, until the time he was wounded and taken prisoner at the siege of Richmond.
At thesame time with Cyrus Smith another important personage fell into the power of the Southerners. This was no other than the honorable Gideon Spilett, reporter to the New York Herald, who had been detailed to follow the fortunes of the war with the armies ofthe North.
Gideon Spilett was of the race of astonishing chroniclers, English or American, such as Stanley and the like, who shrink from nothing in their endeavor to obtain exact information and to transmit it to their journal in the quickest manner. The journals of the United States, such as the New YorkHerald, are true powers, and their delegates are persons of importance. Gideon Spilett belonged in the first rank of these representatives.
A man of great merit; energetic, prompt, and ready; full of ideas, having been all over the world; soldier and artist; vehement in council; resolute in action; thinking nothing of pain, fatigue, or danger when seeking information, first for himself and afterwards for his journal; a master of recondite information of theunpublished, the unknown, the impossible. He was one of those cool observers who write amid the cannon balls, “reporting” under the bullets, and to whom all perils are welcome.
He also had been in all the battles, in the front rank, revolver in one hand and notebook in the other, his pencil never trembling in the midst of a cannonade. He did not tire the wires by incessant telegraphing, like those who speak when they have nothing to say, but each of his messages was short, condensed, clear, and to the purpose. For the rest, he did not lack humor. It was he who, after the affair of Black river, wishing at any price to keep his place at the telegraph wicket in order to announce the result, kept telegraphing for two hours the first chapters of the Bible. It cost the New YorkHerald$2,000, but the New YorkHeraldhad the first news.
Gideon Spilett was tall. He was forty years old or more. Sandy-colored whiskers encircled his face. His eye was clear, lively, and quick moving. It was the eye of a man who was accustomed to take in everything at a glance. Strongly built, he was tempered by all climates as a bar of steel is tempered by cold water. For ten years Gideon Spilett had been connected with the New YorkHerald, which he had enriched with his notes and his drawings, as he wielded the pencil as well as the pen. When captured he was about making a description and a sketch of the battle. The last words written in his note-book were these:—“A Southerner is aiming at me and—.” And Gideon Spilett was missed; so, following his invariable custom, he escaped unscratched.
Cyrus Smith and Gideon Spilett, who knew each other only by reputation, were both taken to Richmond. The engineer recovered rapidly from his wound, and it was during his convalescence he met the reporter. The two soon learned to appreciate each-other. Soon their one aim was to rejoin the army of Grant and fight again in the ranks for the preservation of the Union.
The two Americans had decided to avail themselves of any chance; but although free to go and come within the city, Richmond was so closely guarded that an escape might be deemed impossible.
During this time Cyrus Smith was rejoined by a devoted servant. This man was a negro, born upon the engineer’s estate, of slave parents, whom Smith, an abolitionist by conviction, had long since freed. The negro, though free, had no desire to leave his master, for whom he would have given his life. He was a man of thirty years, vigorous, agile, adroit, intelligent, quick, and self-possessed, sometimes ingenuous always smiling, ready and honest. He was named Nebuchadnezzar, but he answered to the nickname of Neb.
When Neb learned that his master had been taken prisoner he left Massachusetts without waiting a moment, arrived before Richmond, and, by a ruse, afterhaving risked his life twenty times, he was able to get within the besieged city. The pleasure of Cyrus Smith on seeing again his servant, and the joy of Neb in finding his master, cannot be expressed. But while he had been able to get into Richmond it was much more difficult to get out, as the watch kept upon the Federal prisoners was very strict. It would require an extraordinary opportunity in order to attempt an escape with any chance of success; and that occasion not only did not present itself, but it was difficult to make. Meanwhile, Grant continued his energetic operations. The victory of Petersburg had been vigorously contested. His forces, reunited to those of Butler, had not as yet obtained any result before Richmond, and nothing indicated an early release to the prisoners. The reporter, whose tiresome captivity gave him no item worthy of note, grew impatient. He had but one idea; to get out of Richmond at any risk. Many times, indeed, he tried the experiment, and was stopped by obstacles insurmountable.
Meanwhile, the siege continued, and as the prisoners were anxious to escape in order to join the army of Grant, so there were certain of the besieged no less desirous to be free to join the army of the Secessionists; and among these was a certain Jonathan Forster, who was a violent Southerner. In truth, the Confederates were no more able to get out of the city than the Federal prisoners, as the army of Grant invested it around. The Mayor of Richmond had not for some time been able to communicate with General Lee, and it was of the highest importance to make the latter aware of the situation of the city, in order to hasten the march of the rescuing army. This Jonathan Forster had conceived the idea of passing over the lines of the besiegers in a balloon, and arriving by this means in the Confederate camp.
The Mayor authorized the undertaking, a balloon was made and placed at the disposal of Forster and five of his companions. They were provided with arms as they might have to defend themselves in descending, and food in case their aerial voyage should be prolonged. The departure of the balloon had been fixed for the 18th of March. It was to start in the night, and with a moderate breeze from the northeast, the party expected to arrive at the quarters ofGeneral Lee in a few hours. But the wind from the northeast was not a mere breeze. On the morning of the 18th there was every symptom of a storm, and soon the tempest broke forth, making it necessary for Forster to defer his departure, as it was impossible to risk the balloon and those whom it would carry, to the fury of the elements.
The balloon, inflated in the great square of Richmond, was all ready, waiting for the first lull in the storm; and throughout the city there was great vexation at the settledbad weather. The night of the 19th and 20th passed, but in the morning the storm was only developed in intensity, and departure was impossible.
On this day Cyrus Smith was accosted in one of the streets of Richmond by a man whom he did not know. It was asailor named Pencroff, aged from thirty-five to forty years, strongly built, much sun-burnt, his eyes bright and glittering, but with a good countenance.
This Pencroff was a Yankee who had sailed every sea, and who had experienced every kind ofextraordinary adventure that a two-legged being without wings could encounter. It is needless to say that he was of an adventurous nature, ready to dare anything and to be astonished at nothing. Pencroff, in the early part of this year, had come to Richmond on business, having with him Herbert Brown, of New Jersey, a lad fifteen years old, the son of Pencroff’s captain, and an orphan whom he loved as his own child. Not having left the city at the beginning of the siege, he found himself, to his great displeasure, blocked. He also had but one idea: to get out. He knew the reputation of the engineer, and he knew with what impatience that determinedman chaffed at his restraint. He did not therefore hesitate to address him without ceremony.
“Mr. Smith, have youhad enough of Richmond?”
The engineer looked fixedly at the man who spoke thus, and who added in a low voice:—
“Mr. Smith, do you want to escape?”
“How?” answered the engineer, quickly, and it was evidently an inconsiderate reply, for he had not yet examined the man who spoke.
“Mr. Smith, do you want to escape?”
““Who are you?” he demanded, in a cold voice.
Pencroff made himself known.
“Sufficient,” replied Smith. “And by what means do you propose to escape?”
“By this idle balloon which is doing nothing, and seems to me all ready to take us!”—
The sailor had no need to finish his sentence. The engineer had understood all in a word. He seized Pencroff by the arm and hurried him to his house. There the sailor explained his project, which, in truth, was simpleenough:—They risked only their lives in carrying it out. The storm was at its height, it is true; but a skilful and daring engineer like Smith would know well how to manage a balloon. He, himself, would not have hesitated to have started, had he known how—with Herbert, of course. He had seen many storms and he thought nothing of them.
Cyrus Smith listened to the sailor without saying a word, but with glistening eyes. This was the opportunity, and he was not the man to let it escape him. The project was very dangerous, but it could be accomplished. During the night, in spite of the guards, they might reach the balloon, creep into the basket, and then cut the lines which held it! Certainly they risked being shot, but on the other hand they might succeed, andbut for this tempest—but without this tempest the balloon would have been gone and the long-sought opportunity would not have been present.
“I am not alone,” said Smith at length.
“How many would you want to take?” demanded the sailor.
“Two; my friend Spilett, and my man Neb.”
“That would be three,” replied Pencroff; “and, with Herbert and myself, five. Well, the balloon can carry six?”
“Very well. We will go!” said the engineer.
This “we” pledged the reporter, who was not a man to retreat, and who, when the project was told him, approved of it heartily. What astonished him was, that so simple a plan had not already occurred to himself. As to Neb, he followed his master wherever his master wanted to go.
“To-night, then,” said Pencroff.
“To-night, at ten o’clock,” replied Smith; “and pray heaven that this storm does not abate before we get off.”
Pencroff took leave of the engineer, and returned to his lodging, where he found young Herbert Brown. This brave boy knew the plans of the sailor, and he was not without a certain anxiety as to the result of the proposal to the engineer. We see, therefore, five persons determined to throw themselves into the vortex of the storm.
The storm did not abate. And neither Jonathan Forster nor his companion dreamed of confronting it in that frail basket. The journey would be terrible. The engineer feared but one thing; that the balloon, held to the ground and beaten down under the wind, would be torn into a thousand pieces. During many hours he wandered about the nearly desertedsquare, watching the apparatus. Pencroff, his hands in his pockets, yawning like a man who is unable to kill time, did the same; but in reality he also feared that the balloon would be torn to pieces, or break from its moorings and be carried off.
Eveningarrived and the night closed in dark and threatening. Thick masses of fog passed like clouds low down over the earth. Rain mingled with snow fell. The weather was cold. A sort of mist enveloped Richmond. It seemed as if in the face of this terrible tempest a truce had been agreed upon between the besiegers and besieged, and the cannon were silent before the heavy detonations of the storm. The streets of the city were deserted; it had not even seemed necessary, in such weather, to guard the square in whichswung the balloon. Everything favored the departure of the prisoners; but this voyage, in the midst of the excited elements!—
“Bad weather,” said Pencroff, holding his hat, which the wind was trying to take off, firmly to his head, “but pshaw, it can’t last, all the same.”
At half-past 9, Cyrus Smith and his companions glided by different routes to the square, which the gas lights, extinguished by the wind, left in profound darkness. They could not see even the huge balloon, as it lay pressed overagainst the ground. Beside the bags of ballast which held the cords of the net, the basket was held down by a strong cable passed through a ring fastened in the pavement, and the ends brought back on board.
The five prisoners came together at the basket. They had not been discovered, and such was the darkness that they could not see each other. Without saying a word, four of them took their places in the basket, while Pencroff, under the direction of the engineer, unfastened successively the bundles of ballast. It took but a few moments, and then the sailor joined his companions. The only thing that then held the balloon was the loop of the cable, and Cyrus Smith had but to give the word for them to let it slip. At that moment, a dog leaped with a bound into the basket. It was Top, the dog of the engineer, who, having broken his chain, had followed his master. Cyrus Smith, fearing to add to the weight, wanted to send the poor brute back, but Pencroff said, “Pshaw, it is but one more!” and at the same time threw overboard two bags of sand. Then, slipping the cable, the balloon, shooting off in an oblique direction, disappeared, after having dashed its basket against two chimneys, which it demolished in its rush.
Then the storm burst upon them with frightful violence. The engineer did not dare to descend during the night, and when day dawned all sight of the earth was hidden by the mists. It was not until five days later that the breaking of the clouds enabled them to see the vast sea extending below them, lashed by the wind into a terrific fury.
We have seen how, of these five men, who started on the 20th of March, four were thrown, four days later, on a desert coast, more than 6,000 miles from this country. And the one who was missing, the one to whose rescue the four survivors had hurried was their leader, Cyrus Smith.
[The 5th of April, Richmond fell into the hands of Grant, the Rebellion was repressed, Lee retreated into the West (sic) and the cause of the Union triumphed.]
FIVE O’CLOCK IN THEAFTERNOON—THE LOST ONE—THE DESPAIR OF NEB—SEARCH TO THE NORTHWARD—THE ISLAND—A NIGHT OF ANGUISH—THE FOG OF THE MORNING—NEB SWIMMING—SIGHT OF THE LAND—FORDING THE CHANNEL.
The engineer, on the giving way of the net, had been swept away by a wave. His dog had disappeared at the same time. The faithful animal had of its own accord sprung to the rescue of its master.
“Forward!” cried the reporter, and all four, forgetting weakness and fatigue, began their search. Poor Neb wept with grief and despair at the thought of having lost all that he loved in the world.
Not more than two minutes had passed between the moment that Smith had disappeared, and the instant of his companions landing. They were, therefore, hopeful of being in time to rescue him.
“Hunt, hunt forhim,” cried Neb.
“Yes, Neb, and we will find him,” replied Spilett.
“Can he swim?” demanded Pencroff.
“Oh, yes,” responded Neb. “And, besides, Top is with him—”
The sailor, looking at the roaring sea, shook his head.
It was at a point northward from this shore, and about half a mile from the place where the castaways had landed, that the engineer had disappeared, and if he had come ashore at the nearest point it was at least that distance from where they now were.
It was nearly 6 o’clock.The fog had risen and made the night very dark. The castaways followed northward along the shore of that land upon which chance had thrown them. A land unknown, whose geographical situation they could not guess. They walked upon a sandy soil, mixed with stones, seemingly destitute of any kind of vegetation. The ground, very uneven, seemed in certain places to be riddled with small holes, making the march very painful. From these holes, great, heavy-flying birds rushed forth, and were lost in the darkness. Others, more active, rose in flocks, and fled away like the clouds. The sailor thought he recognized gulls and sea-mews, whose sharp cries were audible above the raging of the sea.
From time to time the castaways would stop and call, listening for an answering voice from the ocean. They thought, too, that if they were near the place where the engineer had been, washed ashore, and he had been unable to make any response, that, at least, the barking of the dog Top would have been heard. But no sound was distinguishable above the roaring of the waves and the thud of the surf. Then the little party would resume their march, searching all the windings of the shore.
After a walk of twenty minutes the four castaways were suddenly stopped by a foaming line of breakers. They found themselves upon the extremity of a sharp point upon which the sea broke with fury.
“This is a promontory,” said the sailor, “and it will be necessary to turn back, keeping to the right in order to gain the main land.”
“But if he is there!” cried Neb, pointing towards the ocean, whose enormous waves showed white through the gloom.
“Well, let us call again.”
And all together, uniting their voices, uttered a vigorous cry, but without response. They waited for a lull, and tried once more. And again there was no answer.
Then the castaways turned back, following the opposite side of the promontory over ground equally sandy and rocky. However, Pencroff observed that the shore was bolder, that the land rose somewhat, and he thought that it might gradually slope up to the high hill which was dimly visible through the darkness. The birds were less numerous on this shore. The sea also seemed less surging and tempestuous, and it was noticeable that the agitation of the waves was subsiding. They hardly heardthe sound of the surf, and doubtless, this side of the promontory formed a semi-circular bay, protected by its sharp point from the long roll of the sea.
But by following this direction they were walking towards the south, which was going away from that place where Smith would have landed. After a tramp of a mile and a half, the shore presented no other curve which would permit of a return towards the north. It was evident that this promontory, the point of which they had turned, must be joined to the mainland. The castaways, although much fatigued, pushed on courageously, hoping each moment to find a sudden turn which would take them in the desired direction. What, then, was their disappointment when, after having walked nearly two miles, they found themselves again arrested by the sea, upon a high promontory of slippery rocks.
“We are on an island,” exclaimed Pencroff; “and we have measured it from end to end!”
The words of the sailor were true. The castaways had been thrown, not upon a continent, but uponan island not more than two miles long, and of inconsiderable breadth.
This desert isle, covered with stones, without vegetation, desolate refuge of sea-birds, did it belong to a more important archipelago? They could not tell.The party in the balloon, when from their basket they saw the land through the clouds, had not been able to determine its size. But Pencroff, with the eyes of a sailor accustomed to piercing the gloom, thought, at the moment, that he could distinguish in the west confused masses, resembling a high coast. But at this time they were unable, on account of the obscurity, to determine to what system, whether simple or complex, their isle belonged. They were unable to get off, as the sea surrounded them, and it was necessary to wait untilthe next day to search for the engineer; who, alas! had made no cry to signal his presence.
“The silence of Cyrus proves nothing,” said the reporter. “He may have fainted, or be wounded, and unable to reply, but we will not despair.”
The reporter then suggested the idea of lighting a fire upon the point of the island, which would serve as a signal for the engineer. But they searched in vain for wood or dry branches. Sand and stones were all they found.
One can understand the grief of Neb and his companions,who were strongly attached to their brave comrade. It was too evident that they could not help him now, and that they must wait till day. The engineer had escaped, and was already safe upon the land, or he was lost forever. The hours were long and dreadful, the cold was intense, and the castaways suffered keenly, but they did not realize it. They did not think of sleep. Thinking only of their chief, hoping, wishing to hope, they moved back and forth upon that arid island, constantly returning to the northern end, where they would be closest to the place of the catastrophe. They listened, they shouted, they tried to catch some call, and, as a lull would come, or the roar of the surf fall with the waves, their hallooes must have sounded far into the distance.
Once the cry of Neb was answered by an echo; and Herbert made Pencroff notice it, saying:—“That proves that there is land not far to the west.”
The sailor nodded; he knew his eyes could not deceive him. He thought he had seen land, and it must be there.But this distant echo was the only answer to the cries of Neb, and the silence about the island remained unbroken. Meanwhile the sky was clearing slowly. Towards midnight, some stars shone out, and, had the engineer been there with his companions, he wouldhave noticed that these stars did not belong to the northern hemisphere. The pole star was not visible in this new horizon, the constellations in the zenith were not such as they had been accustomed to see from North America, and the Southern Cross shoneresplendent in the heavens.
The night passed; and towards 5 o’clock in the morning the middle heavens began to brighten, though the horizon remained obscure; until with the first rays of day, a fog rose from the sea, so dense that the eye could scarcely penetrate twenty paces into its depths, and separated into great, heavy-movingmasses. This was unfortunate, as the castaways were unable to distinguish anything about them. While the gaze of Neb and the reporter was directed towards the sea, the sailor andHerbert searched for the land in the west; but they could see nothing.
“Never mind,” said Pencroff, “if I do not see the land. I feel that it is there,—just as sure as that we are not in Richmond.”
But the fog, which was nothing more than a morning mist, soon rose. A clear sun warmed the upper air, its heat penetrating to the surface of the island. At half-past 6, three quarters of an hour after sunrise, the mist was nearly gone. Though still thick overhead, it dissolved, below, and soon all the island appeared, as from a cloud. Then the sea appeared, limitless towards the east, but bounded on the west by a high and abrupt coast.
Yes, the land was there! There, safety was at least provisionally assured. The island and the main land were separated by a channel half a mile wide, through which rushed a strong current. Into this current one of the party, without saying a word or consulting with his companions, precipitated himself. It was Neb. He was anxious to be upon that coast and to be pushing forward towardsthe north. No one could keep him back. Pencroff called to him in vain. The reporter prepared to follow, but the sailor ran to him, exclaiming:—
“Are you determined to cross this channel?”
“I am,” replied Spilett.
“Well, then, listen to me a moment. Neb can rescue his master alone. If we throw ourselves into the channel we are in danger of being carried out to sea by this strong current. Now, if I am not mistaken it is caused by the ebb. You see the tide is going out. Have patience until low water and thenwe may ford it.”
“You are right,” answered the reporter; “we will keep together as much as possible.”
Meantime, Neb was swimming vigorously in a diagonal direction, against the current; his black shoulders were seen rising with each stroke. He was drawn backward with swiftness, but he was gaining towards the other shore. It took him more than half an hour to cross the half mile which separated the isle from the mainland, and when he reached the other side it was at a place a long distance from the point opposite to that which he had left.
Neb, having landed at the base of a high rocky wall, clambered quickly up its side, and, running, disappeared behind a point projecting into the sea, about the same height as the northern end of the island.
Neb’s companionshad watched with anxiety his daring attempt, and, when he was out of sight, they fixed their eyes upon that land from which they were going to demand refuge. They ate some of the shellfish which they found upon the sands; it was a poor meal, but then it was better than nothing.
The opposite coast formed an immense bay, terminated to the south by a sharp point bare of all vegetation, and having a most forbidding aspect. This point at its junction with the shore was abutted by high granite rocks. Towards thenorth, on the contrary, the bay widened, with a shore more rounded, extending from the southwest to the northeast, and ending in a narrow cape. Between these two points, the distance must have been about eight miles. A half mile from the shore the island,like an enormous whale, lay upon the sea. Its width could not have been greater than a quarter of a mile.
Before the Island, the shore began with a sandy beach strewn with black rocks, at this moment beginning to appear above the receding tide. Beyond this rose, like a curtain, a perpendicular granite wall, at least 300 feet high and terminated by a ragged edge. This extended for about three miles, ending abruptly on the right in a smooth face, as if cut by the hand of man. To the left on the contrary, above the promontory, this kind of irregular cliff, composed of heaped-up rocks and glistening in the light, sank and gradually mingled with the rocks of the southern point.
Upon the upper level of the coast not a tree was visible. It was a table-land, as barren though not as extensive as that around Cape Town, or at the Cape of Good Hope. At least so it appeared from the islet. To the right, however, and back of the smooth face of rock, some verdure appeared. The confused massing of large trees was easily distinguishable extending far as the eye could reach. This verdure gladdened the sight tired by the rough face of granite. Finally, back of and above the plateau, distant towards the northwest about seven miles, shone a white summit, reflecting the sun’s rays. It was the snowy cap of some lofty mountain.
It was not possible at present to say whether this land was an island or part of a continent; but the sight of the broken rocks heaped together on the left would have proved to a geologist their volcanic origin, as they were incontestably the result of igneous action.
Gideon Spilett, Pencroff, and Herbert looked earnestly upon this land where they were to live, perhaps for long years; upon which, if out of the track of ships, they might have to die.
“Well,” demanded Herbert, “what do you think of it, Pencroff?”
“Well,” replied the sailor, “there’s good and bad in it, as with everything else. But we shall soon see; for look; what I told you. In three hours we can cross, and once over there, we will see what we can do towards finding Mr. Smith.”
Pencroff was not wrong in his predictions. Three hours later, at low tide, the greater part of the sandy bed of the channel was bare. A narrow strip of water, easily crossed, was all that separated the island from the shore. And at 10 o’clock, Spilett and his two companions, stripped of their clothing, which they carried in packages on their heads, waded through the water, which was nowhere more than five feet deep. Herbert, where the water was too deep, swam like a fish, acquitting himself well; and all arrived without difficulty at the other shore. There, having dried themselves in the sun, they put on their clothes, which had not touched the water, and took counsel together.
THE LITHODOMES—THE MOUTH OF THE RIVER—THE“CHIMNEYS”—CONTINUATION OF THE SEARCH—THEFOREST OF EVERGREENS—GETTING FIREWOOD—WAITING FOR THETIDE—ON TOP OF THE CLIFF—THE TIMBER-FLOAT—THERETURN TO THE COAST.
Presently the reporter told the sailor to wait just where he wasuntil he should come back, and without losing a moment, he walkedback along the coast in the direction which Neb had taken somehours before, and disappeared quickly around a turn in theshore.
Herbert wished to go with him.
“Stay, my boy,” said the sailor. “We mustpitch ourcamp for the night, and try to find something to eat moresatisfying than shellfish. Our friends will need food when theycome back.”
“I am ready, Pencroff,” said Herbert.
“Good,” said the sailor. “Let us set to workmethodically. We are tired, cold, and hungry: we need shelter,fire, and food. There is plenty of wood in the forest, and we canget eggs from the nests; but we must find a house.”
“Well,” said Herbert, “I will look for a cavein these rocks, and I shall certainly find some hole in which wecanstow ourselves.”
“Right,” said Pencroff; “let us start atonce.”
They walked along the base of the rocky wall, on the strand leftbare by the receding waves. But instead of going northwards, theyturned to the south. Pencroff had noticed, some hundreds offeetbelow the place where they hadbeen thrown ashore, a narrow inlet inthe coast, which he thought might be the mouth of a river or of abrook. Now it was important to pitch the camp in the neighborhoodof fresh water; in that part of the island, too,Smith might befound.
The rock rose 300 feet, smooth and massive. It was a sturdy wallof the hardest granite, never corroded by the waves, and even atits base there was no cleft which might serve as a temporary abode.About the summit hovered a host of aquatic birds, mainly of theweb-footed tribe, with long, narrow, pointed beaks. Swift andnoisy, they cared little for the unaccustomed presence of man. Ashot into the midst of the flock would have brought down a dozen;but neither Pencroff nor Herbert had a gun. Besides, gulls andsea-mews are barely eatable, and their eggs have a verydisagreeable flavor.
Meanwhile Herbert, who was now to the left, soon noticed somerocks thickly strewn with sea weed, which would evidently besubmerged again in a few hours. On them lay hosts of bivalves, notto be disdained by hungry men. Herbert called to Pencroff, who camerunning to him.
“Ah, they are mussels,” said the sailor. “Nowwe can spare the eggs.”
“They are not mussels,” said Herbert, examining themollusks carefully, “they are lithodomes.”
“Can we eat them?” said Pencroff.
“Then let us eat some lithodomes.”
The sailor could rely on Herbert, who was versed in NaturalHistory and very fond of it. He owed his acquaintance with thisstudy in great part to his father, who had entered him in theclasses of the best professors in Boston, where the child’sindustry and intelligence had endeared him to all.
These lithodomes were oblong shell-fish, adhering in clusters tothe rocks. They belonged to that species of boring mollusk whichcan perforate a hole in the hardest stone, and whose shell has thepeculiarity of being rounded at both ends.
Pencroff and Herbert made a good meal of these lithodomes. whichlay gaping in the sun. They tasted like oysters, with a pepperyflavor which left no desire for condiments of any kind.
Their hunger was allayed for the moment, but their thirst wasincreased by the spicy flavor of the mollusks. The thing now was tofind fresh water, which was not likely to fail them in a region soundulating. Pencroff and Herbert, after having taken the precautionto fill their pockets and handkerchiefs with lithodomes, regainedthe foot of the hill.
Two hundred feet further on they reached the inlet, throughwhich, as Pencroff had surmised, a little river was flowing withfull current Here the rocky wall seemed to have been torn asunderby some volcanic convulsion. At its base lay a little creek,running at an acute angle. The water in this place was 100 feetacross, while the banks on either side were scarcely 20 feet broad.The river buried itself at once between the two walls of granite,which began to decline as one went up stream.
“Here is water,” said Pencroff, “and overthere is wood. Well, Herbert, now we only want thehouse.”
The river water was clear. The sailor knew that as the tide wasnow low there would be no influx from the sea, and the water wouldbe fresh. When this important point had been settled, Herbertlooked for some cave which might give them shelter, but it was invain. Everywhere the wall was smooth, flat, and perpendicular.
However, over at the mouth of the watercourse, and abovehigh-water mark, the detritus had formed, not a grotto, but a pileof enormous rocks, such as are often met with in graniticcountries, andwhich are calledChimneys.
Pencroff and Herbert went down between the rocks, into thosesandy corridors, lighted only by the huge cracks between the massesof granite, some of which only kept their equilibrium by a miracle.But with the light the wind came in, and with the wind the piercingcold of the outer air. Still, the sailor thought that by stoppingup some of these openings with a mixture of stonesand sand, theChimneys might be rendered habitable. Their plan resembled thetypographical sign, &, and by cutting off the upper curve ofthe sign, through which the south and the west wind rushed in, theycould succeed without doubt in utilizing its lower portion.
“This is just what we want,” said Pencroff, and ifwe ever see Mr. Smith again, he will knowhow to take advantage ofthis labyrinth.”
“We shall see him again, Pencroff,” said Herbert,“and when he comes back he must find here a home that istolerably comfortable. We can make this so if we can build afireplace in the left corridor with an opening for thesmoke.”
“That we can do, my boy,” answered the sailor,“and these Chimneys will just serve our purpose. But first wemust get together some firing. Wood will be useful, too, inblocking up these great holes through which the wind whistlessoshrilly.”
Herbert and Pencroff left the Chimneys, and turning the angle,walked up the left bank of the river, whose current was strongenough to bring down a quantity of dead wood. The return tide,which had already begun, would certainly carry it in theebb to agreat distance. “Why not utilize this flux and reflux,”thought the sailor, “in the carriage of heavytimber?”
After a quarter of an hour’s walk, the two reached theelbow which the river made in turning to the left. From this pointonward it flowed through a forest of magnificent trees, which hadpreserved their verdure in spite of the season; for they belongedto that great cone-bearing family indigenous everywhere, from thepoles to the tropics. Especially conspicuous were the“deodara,” so numerous in the Himalayas, with theirpungent perfume. Among them were clusters of pines, with talltrunks and spreading parasols of green. The ground was strewn withfallen branches, so dry as to crackle under their feet.
“Good,” said the sailor, “I may not know thename of these trees, but I know they belong to the genus firewood,and that’s the main thing for us.”
It was an easy matter to gather the firewood. They did not needeven to strip the trees; plenty of dead branches lay at their feet.This dry woodwould burn rapidly, and they would need a largesupply. How could two men carry such a load to the Chimneys?Herbert asked the question.
“My boy,” said the sailor, “there’s away to do everything. If we had a car or a boat it would be tooeasy.”
“We have the river,” suggested Herbert.
“Exactly,” said Pencroff. “The river shall beour road and our carrier, too. Timber-floats were not invented fornothing.”
“But our carrier is going in the wrong direction,”said Herbert, “since the tide is coming up fromthesea.”
“We have only to wait for the turn of tide,”answered the sailor. “Let us get our float ready.”
They walked towards the river, each carrying a heavy load ofwood tied up in fagots. On the bank, too, lay quantities of deadboughs, among grass whichthe foot of man had probably never pressedbefore. Pencroff began to get ready his float.
In an eddy caused by an angle of the shore, which broke the flowof the current, they set afloat the larger pieces of wood, boundtogether by liana stems so as to form a sort of raft. On this raftthey piled the rest of the wood, which would have been a load fortwenty men. In an hour their work was finished, and the float wasmoored to the bank to wait for the turn of the tide. Pencroff andHerbert resolved to spend the mean time in gaining a more extendedview of the country from the higher plateau. Two hundred feetbehind the angle of the river, the wall terminating in irregularmasses of rocks, sloped away gently to the edge of the forest. Thetwo easily climbed this natural staircase, soon attained thesummit, and posted themselves at the angle overlooking the mouth ofthe river.
Their first look was at that ocean over which they had been sofrightfully swept. They beheld with emotion the northern part ofthe coast,the scene of the catastrophe, and of Smith’sdisappearance. They hoped to see on the surface some wreck of theballoon to which a man might cling. But the sea was a waterydesert. The coast, too, was desolate. Neither Neb nor the reportercould be seen.
“Something tells me,” said Herbert, “that aperson so energetic as Mr. Smith would not let himself be drownedlike an ordinary man. He must have got to shore; don’t youthink so, Pencroff?”
The sailor shook his head sadly. He never thought to see Smithagain; but he left Herbert a hope.
“No doubt,” said he, “our engineer could savehimself where any one else would perish.”
Meanwhile he took a careful observation of the coast. Beneathhis eyes stretched out the sandy beach, bounded, upon the right ofthe river-mouth, by lines of breakers. The rocks which still werevisible above the water were likegroups of amphibious monsterslying in the surf. Beyond them the sea sparkled in the rays of thesun. A narrow point terminated the southern horizon, and it wasimpossible to tell whether the land stretched further in thatdirection, or whether it trended southeast and southwest, so as tomake an elongated peninsula. At the northern end of the bay, theoutline of the coast was continued to a great distance. Theretheshore was low and flat, without rocks, but covered by greatsandbanks, left by the receding tide.
When Pencroff and Herbert walked back towards the west, theirlooks fell on the snowcapped mountain, which rose six or sevenmiles away. Masses of tree-trunks, with patches of evergreens,extended from its first declivities to within two miles of thecoast. Then from the edge of this forest to the coast stretched aplateau strewn at random with clumps of trees. On the left shorethrough the glades the waters of the little river, which seemed tohave returned in its sinuous course to the mountains which gave itbirth.
“Are we upon an island?” muttered the sailor.
“It is big enough, at all events,” said the boy.
“An island’s an island, no matter how big,”said Pencroff.
But this important question could not yet be decided. Thecountry itself, isle or continent, seemed fertile, picturesque, anddiversified in its products. For that they must be grateful. Theyreturned along the southern ridge of the granite plateau, outlinedby a fringe of fantastic rocks, in whose cavities lived hundreds ofbirds. A whole flock of them soared aloft as Herbert jumped overthe rocks.
“Ah!” cried he, “these are neither gulls norsea-mews.”
“What are they?” said Pencroff. “They look forall the world like pigeons.”
“So they are,” said Herbert, “but they arewild pigeons, or rock pigeons.” I know them by the two blackbands on the wing, the white rump, and the ash-blue feathers. Therock pigeon is good to eat, and its eggs ought to be delicious; andif they have left a few in their nests—”
“We will let them hatch in an omelet,” saidPencroff, gaily.
“But what will you make your omelet in?” askedHerbert; “in your hat?”
“I am not quite conjurer enough for that,” said thesailor. “We must fall back on eggs in the shell, and I willundertake to despatch the hardest.”
Pencroff and the boy examined carefully the cavities of thegranite, and succeeded in discovering eggs in some of them. Somedozens were collected inthe sailor’s handkerchief, and, hightide approaching, the two went down again to the water-course.
It was 1 o’clock when they arrived at the elbow of theriver, and the tide was already on the turn. Pencroff had nointention of letting his timber float at random, nor did he wishtoget on and steer it. But a sailor is never troubled in a matterof ropes or cordage, and Pencroff quickly twisted from the drylianas a rope several fathoms long. This was fastened behind theraft, and the sailor held it in his hand, while Herbert keptthefloat in the current by pushing it off from the shore with along pole.
This expedient proved an entire success. The enormous load ofwood kept well in the current. The banks were sheer, and there wasno fear lest the float should ground; before 2 o’clocktheyreached the mouth of the stream, a few feet from the Chimneys.
ARRANGING THE CHIMNEYS—THE IMPORTANT QUESTION OFFIRE—THE MATCH BOX—SEARCH OVER THE SHORE—RETURNOF THE REPORTER AND NEB—ONE MATCH—THE CRACKLINGFIRE—THE FISH SUPPER—THE FIRSTNIGHT ON LAND.
The first care of Pencroff, after the raft had been unloaded,was to make the Chimneys habitable, by stopping up those passagestraversed by the draughts of air. Sand, stones, twisted branches,and mud, hermetically sealed the galleries of the & open to thesoutherly winds, and shut out its upper curve. One narrow, windingpassage, opening on the side; was arranged to carry out the smokeand to quicken the draught of the fire. The Chimneys were thusdivided into three or four chambers, if these dark dens, whichwould hardly have contained a beast, might be so called. But theywere dry, and one could stand up in them, or at least in theprincipal one, which was in the centre. The floor was covered withsand, and, everything considered, they could establish themselvesin this place while waiting for one better.
While working, Herbert and Pencroff chatted together.
“Perhaps,” said the boy, “our companions willhave found a better place than ours.”
“It is possible.” answered the sailor, “but,untilwe know, don’t let us stop. Better have two strings toone’s bow than none at all!”
“Oh,” repeated Herbert, “if they can only findMr. Smith, and bring him back with them, how thankful we willbe!”
“Yes,” murmured Pencroff. “He was a goodman.”
“Was!”said Herbert. “Do you think we shall notsee him again?”
“Heaven forbid!” replied the sailor.
The work of division was rapidly accomplished, and Pencroffdeclared himself satisfied. “Now,” said he, “ourfriends may return, and they will find a goodenoughshelter.”
Nothing remained but to fix the fireplace and to prepare themeal, which, in truth, was a task easy and simple enough. Largeflat stones were placed at the mouth of the first gallery to theleft, where the smoke passage had been made; and this chimney wasmade so narrow that but little heat would escape up the flue, andthe cavern would be comfortably warmed. The stock of wood was piledup in one of the chambers, and the sailor placed some logs andbroken branches upon the stones. He was occupiedin arranging themwhen Herbert asked him if he had some matches.
“Certainly,” replied Pencroff, “and moreover,fortunately; for without matches or tinder we would indeed be introuble.”
“Could not we always make fire as the savages do,”replied Herbert, “by rubbing two bits of dry woodtogether?”
“Just try it, my boy, some time, and see if you doanything more than put your arms out of joint.”
“Nevertheless, it is often done in the islands of thePacific.”
“I don’t say that it is not,” repliedPencroff, “but the savages must have a way of their own, oruse a certain kind of wood, as more than once I have wanted to getfire in that way and have never yet been able to. For my part, Iprefer matches; and, by the way, where are mine?”
Pencroff, who was an habitual smoker, felt in his vest for thebox, which he was never without, but, not finding it, he searchedthe pockets of his trowsers, and to his profound amazement, it wasnot there.
“This is an awkward business,” said he, looking atHerbert. “My box must have fallen from my pocket, and Ican’t find it. But you, Herbert, have you nothing: no steel,not anything, with which we can make fire?”
“Not a thing, Pencroff.”
The sailor, followed by the boy, walked out, rubbing hisforehead.
On the sand, among therocks, by the bank of the river, both ofthem searched with the utmost care, but without result. The box wasof copper, and had it been there, they must have seen it.
“Pencroff,” asked Herbert, “did not you throwit out of the basket?”
“I took good care not to,” said the sailor.“But when one has been knocked around as we have been, sosmall a thing could easily have been lost; even my pipe is gone.The confounded box; where can it be?”
“Well, the tide is out; let us run to the place where welanded,” saidHerbert.
It was little likely that they would find this box, which thesea would have rolled among the pebbles at high water;nevertheless, it would do no harm to search. They, therefore, wentquickly to the place where they had first landed, some 200 pacesfrom the Chimneys. There, among the pebbles, in the hollows of therocks, they made minute search, but in vain. If the box had fallenhere it must have been carried out by the waves. As the tide wentdown, the sailor peered into every crevice, but without Success. Itwas a serious loss, and, for the time, irreparable. Pencroff didnot conceal his chagrin. He frowned, but did not speak, and Herberttried to console him by saying, that, most probably, the matcheswould have been so wetted as to be useless.
“No, my boy,” answered the sailor. “They werein a tightly closing metal box. But now, what are we todo?”
“We will certainly find means of procuring fire,”said Herbert. “Mr. Smith or Mr. Spilett will not be ashelpless as we are.”
“Yes, but in the meantime we are without it,” saidPencroff, “and our companions will find but a very sorry mealon their return.”
“But,” said Herbert, hopefully, “it is notpossible that they will have neither tinder nor matches.”
“I doubt it,” answered the sailor, shaking hishead.“In the first place, neither Neb nor Mr. Smith smoke, andthen I’m afraid Mr. Spilett has more likely kept his notebookthan his match-box.”
Herbert did not answer. This loss was evidently serious.Nevertheless, the lad thought surely they could makea fire in someway or other, but Pencroff, more experienced, although a man noteasily discouraged, knew differently. At any rate there was but onething to do:—to wait until the return of Neb and thereporter. It was necessary to give up the repast of cooked eggswhich they had wished to prepare, and a diet of raw flesh did notseem to be, either for themselves or for the others, an agreeableprospect.
Before returning to the Chimneys, the companions, in case theyfailed of a fire, gathered a fresh lot oflithodomes, and thensilently took the road to their dwelling. Pencroff, his eyes fixedupon the ground, still searched in every direction for the lostbox. They followed again up the left bank of the river, from itsmouth to the angle where the raft hadbeen built. They returned tothe upper plateau, and went in every direction, searching in thetall grass on the edge of the forest, but in vain. It was 5o’clock when they returned again to the Chimneys, and it isneedless to say that the passages were searched in their darkestrecesses before all hope was given up.
Towards 6 o’clock, just as the sun was disappearing behindthe high land in the west, Herbert, who was walking back and forthupon the shore, announced the return of Neb and of Gideon Spilett.They came back alone, and the lad felt his heart sink. The sailorhad not, then, been wrong in his presentiments; they had beenunable to find the engineer.
The reporter, when he came up, seated himself upon a rock,without speaking. Fainting from fatigue,half dead with hunger, hewas unable to utter a word. As to Neb, his reddened eyes showed howhe had been weeping, and the fresh tears which he was unable torestrain, indicated, but too clearly, that he had lost allhope.
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