Part 1: Dropped from the Clouds - Chapter IX
In a few words, Gideon Spilett, Herbert, and Neb were made acquainted with what had happened. This accident, which appeared so very serious to Pencroft, produced different effects on the companions of the honest sailor.
Neb, in his delight at having found his master, did not listen, or rather, did not care to trouble himself with what Pencroft was saying.
Herbert shared in some degree the sailor’s feelings.
As to the reporter, he simply replied,—
“Upon my word, Pencroft, it’s perfectly indifferent to me!”
“But, I repeat, that we haven’t any fire!”
“Nor any means of relighting it!”
“But I say, Mr. Spilett—”
“Isn’t Cyrus here?” replied the reporter.
“Is not our engineer alive? He will soon find some way of making fire for us!”
What had Pencroft to say? He could say nothing, for, in the bottom of his heart he shared the confidence which his companions had in Cyrus Harding. The engineer was to them a microcosm, a compound of every science, a possessor of all human knowledge. It was better to be with Cyrus in a desert island, than without him in the most flourishing town in the United States. With him they could want nothing; with him they would never despair. If these brave men had been told that a volcanic eruption would destroy the land, that this land would be engulfed in the depths of the Pacific, they would have imperturbably replied,—
“Cyrus is here!”
While in the palanquin, however, the engineer had again relapsed into unconsciousness, which the jolting to which he had been subjected during his journey had brought on, so that they could not now appeal to his ingenuity. The supper must necessarily be very meager. In fact, all the grouse flesh had been consumed, and there no longer existed any means of cooking more game. Besides, the couroucous which had been reserved had disappeared. They must consider what was to be done.
First of all, Cyrus Harding was carried into the central passage. There they managed to arrange for him a couch of sea-weed which still remained almost dry. The deep sleep which had overpowered him would no doubt be more beneficial to him than any nourishment.
Night had closed in, and the temperature, which had modified when the wind shifted to the northwest, again became extremely cold. Also, the sea having destroyed the partitions which Pencroft had put up in certain places in the passages, the Chimneys, on account of the draughts, had become scarcely habitable. The engineer’s condition would, therefore, have been bad enough, if his companions had not carefully covered him with their coats and waistcoats.
Supper, this evening, was of course composed of the inevitable lithodomes, of which Herbert and Neb picked up a plentiful supply on the beach. However, to these molluscs, the lad added some edible sea-weed, which he gathered on high rocks, whose sides were only washed by the sea at the time of high tides. This sea-weed, which belongs to the order of Fucacae, of the genus Sargassum, produces, when dry, a gelatinous matter, rich and nutritious. The reporter and his companions, after having eaten a quantity of lithodomes, sucked the sargassum, of which the taste was very tolerable. It is used in parts of the East very considerably by the natives. “Never mind!” said the sailor, “the captain will help us soon.” Meanwhile the cold became very severe, and unhappily they had no means of defending themselves from it.
The sailor, extremely vexed, tried in all sorts of ways to procure fire. Neb helped him in this work. He found some dry moss, and by striking together two pebbles he obtained some sparks, but the moss, not being inflammable enough, did not take fire, for the sparks were really only incandescent, and not at all of the same consistency as those which are emitted from flint when struck in the same manner. The experiment, therefore, did not succeed.
Pencroft, although he had no confidence in the proceeding, then tried rubbing two pieces of dry wood together, as savages do. Certainly, the movement which he and Neb exhibited, if it had been transformed into heat, according to the new theory, would have been enough to heat the boiler of a steamer! It came to nothing. The bits of wood became hot, to be sure, but much less so than the operators themselves.
After working an hour, Pencroft, who was in a complete state of perspiration, threw down the pieces of wood in disgust.
“I can never be made to believe that savages light their fires in this way, let them say what they will,” he exclaimed. “I could sooner light my arms by rubbing them against each other!”
The sailor was wrong to despise the proceeding. Savages often kindle wood by means of rapid rubbing. But every sort of wood does not answer for the purpose, and besides, there is “the knack,” following the usual expression, and it is probable that Pencroft had not “the knack.”
Pencroft’s ill humor did not last long. Herbert had taken the bits of wood which he had turned down, and was exerting himself to rub them. The hardy sailor could not restrain a burst of laughter on seeing the efforts of the lad to succeed where he had failed.
“Rub, my boy, rub!” said he.
“I am rubbing,” replied Herbert, laughing, “but I don’t pretend to do anything else but warm myself instead of shivering, and soon I shall be as hot as you are, my good Pencroft!”
This soon happened. However, they were obliged to give up, for this night at least, the attempt to procure fire. Gideon Spilett repeated, for the twentieth time, that Cyrus Harding would not have been troubled for so small a difficulty. And, in the meantime, he stretched himself in one of the passages on his bed of sand. Herbert, Neb, and Pencroft did the same, while Top slept at his master’s feet.
Next day, the 28th of March, when the engineer awoke, about eight in the morning, he saw his companions around him watching his sleep, and, as on the day before, his first words were:—
“Island or continent?” This was his uppermost thought.
“Well!” replied Pencroft, “we don’t know anything about it, captain!”
“You don’t know yet?”
“But we shall know,” rejoined Pencroft, “when you have guided us into the country.”
“I think I am able to try it,” replied the engineer, who, without much effort, rose and stood upright.
“That’s capital!” cried the sailor.
“I feel dreadfully weak,” replied Harding. “Give me something to eat, my friends, and it will soon go off. You have fire, haven’t you?”
This question was not immediately replied to. But, in a few seconds—
“Alas! we have no fire,” said Pencroft, “or rather, captain, we have it no longer!”
And the sailor recounted all that had passed the day before. He amused the engineer by the history of the single match, then his abortive attempt to procure fire in the savages’ way.
“We shall consider,” replied the engineer, “and if we do not find some substance similar to tinder—”
“Well?” asked the sailor.
“Well, we will make matches.
“It is not more difficult than that,” cried the reporter, striking the sailor on the shoulder.
The latter did not think it so simple, but he did not protest. All went out. The weather had become very fine. The sun was rising from the sea’s horizon, and touched with golden spangles the prismatic rugosities of the huge precipice.
Having thrown a rapid glance around him, the engineer seated himself on a block of stone. Herbert offered him a few handfuls of shell-fish and sargassum, saying,—
“It is all that we have, Captain Harding.”
“Thanks, my boy,” replied Harding; “it will do—for this morning at least.”
He ate the wretched food with appetite, and washed it down with a little fresh water, drawn from the river in an immense shell.
His companions looked at him without speaking. Then, feeling somewhat refreshed, Cyrus Harding crossed his arms, and said,—
“So, my friends, you do not know yet whether fate has thrown us on an island, or on a continent?”
“No, captain,” replied the boy.
“We shall know to-morrow,” said the engineer; “till then, there is nothing to be done.”
“Yes,” replied Pencroft.
“Fire,” said the sailor, who, also, had a fixed idea.
“We will make it, Pencroft,” replied Harding.
“While you were carrying me yesterday, did I not see in the west a mountain which commands the country?”
“Yes,” replied Spilett, “a mountain which must be rather high—”
“Well,” replied the engineer, “we will climb to the summit to-morrow, and then we shall see if this land is an island or a continent. Till then, I repeat, there is nothing to be done.”
“Yes, fire!” said the obstinate sailor again.
“But he will make us a fire!” replied Gideon Spilett, “only have a little patience, Pencroft!”
The seaman looked at Spilett in a way which seemed to say, “If it depended upon you to do it, we wouldn’t taste roast meat very soon”; but he was silent.
Meanwhile Captain Harding had made no reply. He appeared to be very little troubled by the question of fire. For a few minutes he remained absorbed in thought; then again speaking,—
“My friends,” said he, “our situation is, perhaps, deplorable; but, at any rate, it is very plain. Either we are on a continent, and then, at the expense of greater or less fatigue, we shall reach some inhabited place, or we are on an island. In the latter case, if the island is inhabited, we will try to get out of the scrape with the help of its inhabitants; if it is desert, we will try to get out of the scrape by ourselves.”
“Certainly, nothing could be plainer,” replied Pencroft.
“But, whether it is an island or a continent,” asked Gideon Spilett, “whereabouts do you think, Cyrus, this storm has thrown us?”
“I cannot say exactly,” replied the engineer, “but I presume it is some land in the Pacific. In fact, when we left Richmond, the wind was blowing from the northeast, and its very violence greatly proves that it could not have varied. If the direction has been maintained from the northeast to the southwest, we have traversed the States of North Carolina, of South Carolina, of Georgia, the Gulf of Mexico, Mexico, itself, in its narrow part, then a part of the Pacific Ocean. I cannot estimate the distance traversed by the balloon at less than six to seven thousand miles, and, even supposing that the wind had varied half a quarter, it must have brought us either to the archipelago of Mendava, either on the Pomotous, or even, if it had a greater strength than I suppose, to the land of New Zealand. If the last hypothesis is correct, it will be easy enough to get home again. English or Maoris, we shall always find some one to whom we can speak. If, on the contrary, this is the coast of a desert island in some tiny archipelago, perhaps we shall be able to reconnoiter it from the summit of that peak which overlooks the country, and then we shall see how best to establish ourselves here as if we are never to go away.”
“Never?” cried the reporter. “You say ‘Never,’ my dear Cyrus?”
“Better to put things at the worst at first,” replied the engineer, “and reserve the best for a surprise.”
“Well said,” remarked Pencroft. “It is to be hoped, too, that this island, if it be one, is not situated just out of the course of ships; that would be really unlucky!”
“We shall not know what we have to rely on until we have first made the ascent of the mountain,” replied the engineer.
“But to-morrow, captain,” asked Herbert, “shall you be in a state to bear the fatigue of the ascent?”
“I hope so,” replied the engineer, “provided you and Pencroft, my boy, show yourselves quick and clever hunters.”
“Captain,” said the sailor, “since you are speaking of game, if on my return, I was as certain of roasting it as I am of bringing it back—”
“Bring it back all the same, Pencroft,” replied Harding.
It was then agreed that the engineer and the reporter were to pass the day at the Chimneys, so as to examine the shore and the upper plateau. Neb, Herbert, and the sailor were to return to the forest, renew their store of wood, and lay violent hands on every creature, feathered or hairy, which might come within their reach.
They set out accordingly about ten o’clock in the morning, Herbert confident, Neb joyous, Pencroft murmuring aside,—
“If, on my return, I find a fire at the house, I shall believe that the thunder itself came to light it.” All three climbed the bank; and arrived at the angle made by the river, the sailor, stopping, said to his two companions,—
“Shall we begin by being hunters or wood-men?”
“Hunters,” replied Herbert. “There is Top already in quest.”
“We will hunt, then,” said the sailor, “and afterwards we can come back and collect our wood.”
This agreed to, Herbert, Neb, and Pencroft, after having torn three sticks from the trunk of a young fir, followed Top, who was bounding about among the long grass.
This time, the hunters, instead of following the course of the river, plunged straight into the heart of the forest. There were still the same trees, belonging, for the most part, to the pine family. In certain places, less crowded, growing in clumps, these pines exhibited considerable dimensions, and appeared to indicate, by their development, that the country was situated in a higher latitude than the engineer had supposed. Glades, bristling with stumps worn away by time, were covered with dry wood, which formed an inexhaustible store of fuel. Then, the glade passed, the underwood thickened again, and became almost impenetrable.
It was difficult enough to find the way among the groups of trees, without any beaten track. So the sailor from time to time broke off branches which might be easily recognized. But, perhaps, he was wrong not to follow the watercourse, as he and Herbert had done on their first excursion, for after walking an hour not a creature had shown itself. Top, running under the branches, only roused birds which could not be approached. Even the couroucous were invisible, and it was probable that the sailor would be obliged to return to the marshy part of the forest, in which he had so happily performed his grouse fishing.
“Well, Pencroft,” said Neb, in a slightly sarcastic tone, “if this is all the game which you promised to bring back to my master, it won’t need a large fire to roast it!”
“Have patience,” replied the sailor, “it isn’t the game which will be wanting on our return.”
“Have you not confidence in Captain Harding?”
“But you don’t believe that he will make fire?”
“I shall believe it when the wood is blazing in the fireplace.”
“It will blaze, since my master has said so.”
“We shall see!”
Meanwhile, the sun had not reached the highest point in its course above the horizon. The exploration, therefore, continued, and was usefully marked by a discovery which Herbert made of a tree whose fruit was edible. This was the stone-pine, which produces an excellent almond, very much esteemed in the temperate regions of America and Europe. These almonds were in a perfect state of maturity, and Herbert described them to his companions, who feasted on them.
“Come,” said Pencroft, “sea-weed by way of bread, raw mussels for meat, and almonds for dessert, that’s certainly a good dinner for those who have not a single match in their pocket!”
“We mustn’t complain,” said Herbert.
“I am not complaining, my boy,” replied Pencroft, “only I repeat, that meat is a little too much economized in this sort of meal.”
“Top has found something!” cried Neb, who ran towards a thicket, in the midst of which the dog had disappeared, barking. With Top’s barking were mingled curious gruntings.
The sailor and Herbert had followed Neb. If there was game there this was not the time to discuss how it was to be cooked, but rather, how they were to get hold of it.
The hunters had scarcely entered the bushes when they saw Top engaged in a struggle with an animal which he was holding by the ear. This quadruped was a sort of pig nearly two feet and a half long, of a blackish brown color, lighter below, having hard scanty hair; its toes, then strongly fixed in the ground, seemed to be united by a membrane. Herbert recognized in this animal the capybara, that is to say, one of the largest members of the rodent order.
Meanwhile, the capybara did not struggle against the dog. It stupidly rolled its eyes, deeply buried in a thick bed of fat. Perhaps it saw men for the first time.
However, Neb having tightened his grasp on his stick, was just going to fell the pig, when the latter, tearing itself from Top’s teeth, by which it was only held by the tip of its ear, uttered a vigorous grunt, rushed upon Herbert, almost overthrew him, and disappeared in the wood.
“The rascal!” cried Pencroft.
All three directly darted after Top, but at the moment when they joined him the animal had disappeared under the waters of a large pond shaded by venerable pines.
Neb, Herbert, and Pencroft stopped, motionless. Top plunged into the water, but the capybara, hidden at the bottom of the pond, did not appear.
“Let us wait,” said the boy, “for he will soon come to the surface to breathe.”
“Won’t he drown?” asked Neb.
“No,” replied Herbert, “since he has webbed feet, and is almost an amphibious animal. But watch him.”
Top remained in the water. Pencroft and his two companions went to different parts of the bank, so as to cut off the retreat of the capybara, which the dog was looking for beneath the water.
Herbert was not mistaken. In a few minutes the animal appeared on the surface of the water. Top was upon it in a bound, and kept it from plunging again. An instant later the capybara, dragged to the bank, was killed by a blow from Neb’s stick.
“Hurrah!” cried Pencroft, who was always ready with this cry of triumph.
“Give me but a good fire, and this pig shall be gnawed to the bones!”
Pencroft hoisted the capybara on his shoulders, and judging by the height of the sun that it was about two o’clock, he gave the signal to return.
Top’s instinct was useful to the hunters, who, thanks to the intelligent animal, were enabled to discover the road by which they had come. Half an hour later they arrived at the river.
Pencroft soon made a raft of wood, as he had done before, though if there was no fire it would be a useless task, and the raft following the current, they returned towards the Chimneys.
But the sailor had not gone fifty paces when he stopped, and again uttering a tremendous hurrah, pointed towards the angle of the cliff,—
“Herbert! Neb! Look!” he shouted.
Smoke was escaping and curling up among the rocks.