Part 3: The Secret of the Island - Chapter XV
The colonists, warned by the engineer, left their work and gazed in silence at the summit of Mount Franklin.
The volcano had awoke, and the vapor had penetrated the mineral layer heaped at the bottom of the crater. But would the subterranean fires provoke any violent eruption? This was an event which could not be foreseen. However, even while admitting the possibility of an eruption, it was not probable that the whole of Lincoln Island would suffer from it. The flow of volcanic matter is not always disastrous, and the island had already undergone this trial, as was shown by the streams of lava hardened on the northern slopes of the mountain. Besides, from the shape of the crater—the opening broken in the upper edge—the matter would be thrown to the side opposite the fertile regions of the island.
However, the past did not necessarily answer for the future. Often, at the summit of volcanoes, the old craters close and new ones open. This had occurred in the two hemispheres—at Etna, Popocatepetl, at Orizabaand on the eve of an eruption there is everything to be feared. In fact, an earthquake—a phenomenon which often accompanies volcanic eruption—is enough to change the interior arrangement of a mountain, and to open new outlets for the burning lava.
Cyrus Harding explained these things to his companions, and, without exaggerating the state of things, he told them all the pros and cons. After all, they could not prevent it. It did not appear likely that Granite House would be threatened unless the ground was shaken by an earthquake. But the corral would be in great danger should a new crater open in the southern side of Mount Franklin.
From that day the smoke never disappeared from the top of the mountain, and it could even be perceived that it increased in height and thickness, without any flame mingling in its heavy volumes. The phenomenon was still concentrated in the lower part of the central crater.
However, with the fine days work had been continued. The building of the vessel was hastened as much as possible, and, by means of the waterfall on the shore, Cyrus Harding managed to establish an hydraulic sawmill, which rapidly cut up the trunks of trees into planks and joists. The mechanism of this apparatus was as simple as those used in the rustic sawmills of Norway. A first horizontal movement to move the piece of wood, a second vertical movement to move the saw—this was all that was wanted; and the engineer succeeded by means of a wheel, two cylinders, and pulleys properly arranged. Towards the end of the month of September the skeleton of the vessel, which was to be rigged as a schooner, lay in the dockyard. The ribs were almost entirely completed, and, all the timbers having been sustained by a provisional band, the shape of the vessel could already be seen. The schooner, sharp in the bows, very slender in the after-part, would evidently be suitable for a long voyage, if wanted; but laying the planking would still take a considerable time. Very fortunately, the iron work of the pirate brig had been saved after the explosion. From the planks and injured ribs Pencroft and Ayrton had extracted the bolts and a large quantity of copper nails. It was so much work saved for the smiths, but the carpenters had much to do.
Shipbuilding was interrupted for a week for the harvest, the haymaking, and the gathering in of the different crops on the plateau. This work finished, every moment was devoted to finishing the schooner. When night came the workmen were really quite exhausted. So as not to lose any time they had changed the hours for their meals; they dined at twelve o’clock, and only had their supper when daylight failed them. They then ascended to Granite House, when they were always ready to go to bed.
Sometimes, however, when the conversation bore on some interesting subject the hour for sleep was delayed for a time. The colonists then spoke of the future, and talked willingly of the changes which a voyage in the schooner to inhabited lands would make in their situation. But always, in the midst of these plans, prevailed the thought of a subsequent return to Lincoln Island. Never would they abandon this colony, founded with so much labor and with such success, and to which a communication with America would afford a fresh impetus. Pencroft and Neb especially hoped to end their days there.
“Herbert,” said the sailor, “you will never abandon Lincoln Island?”
“Never, Pencroft, and especially if you make up your mind to stay there.”
“That was made up long ago, my boy,” answered Pencroft. “I shall expect you. You will bring me your wife and children, and I shall make jolly chaps of your youngsters!”
“That’s agreed,” replied Herbert, laughing and blushing at the same time.
“And you, Captain Harding,” resumed Pencroft enthusiastically, “you will be still the governor of the island! Ah, how many inhabitants could it support? Ten thousand at least!”
They talked in this way, allowing Pencroft to run on, and at last the reporter actually started a newspaper—the New Lincoln Herald!
So is man’s heart. The desire to perform a work which will endure, which will survive him, is the origin of his superiority over all other living creatures here below. It is this which has established his dominion, and this it is which justifies it, over all the world.
After that, who knows if Jup and Top had not themselves their little dream of the future.
Ayrton silently said to himself that he would like to see Lord Glenarvan again and show himself to all restored.
One evening, on the 15th of October, the conversation was prolonged later than usual. It was nine o’clock. Already, long badly concealed yawns gave warning of the hour of rest, and Pencroft was proceeding towards his bed, when the electric bell, placed in the dining-room, suddenly rang.
All were there, Cyrus Harding, Gideon Spilett, Herbert, Ayrton, Pencroft, Neb. Therefore none of the colonists were at the corral.
Cyrus Harding rose. His companions stared at each other, scarcely believing their ears.
“What does that mean?” cried Neb. “Was it the devil who rang it?”
No one answered.
“The weather is stormy,” observed Herbert. “Might not its influence of electricity—”
Herbert did not finish his phrase. The engineer, towards whom all eyes were turned, shook his head negatively.
“We must wait,” said Gideon Spilett. “If it is a signal, whoever it may be who has made it, he will renew it.”
“But who do you think it is?” cried Neb.
“Who?” answered Pencroft, “but he—”
The sailor’s sentence was cut short by a new tinkle of the bell.
Harding went to the apparatus, and sent this question to the corral:—
“What do you want?”
A few moments later the needle, moving on the alphabetic dial, gave this reply to the tenants of Granite House:—
“Come to the corral immediately.”
“At last!” exclaimed Harding.
Yes! At last! The mystery was about to be unveiled. The colonists’ fatigue had disappeared before the tremendous interest which was about to urge them to the corral, and all wish for rest had ceased. Without having uttered a word, in a few moments they had left Granite House, and were standing on the beach. Jup and Top alone were left behind. They could do without them.
The night was black. The new moon had disappeared at the same time as the sun. As Herbert had observed, great stormy clouds formed a lowering and heavy vault, preventing any star rays. A few lightning flashes, reflections from a distant storm, illuminated the horizon.
It was possible that a few hours later the thunder would roll over the island itself. The night was very threatening.
But however deep the darkness was, it would not prevent them from finding the familiar road to the corral.
They ascended the left bank of the Mercy, reached the plateau, passed the bridge over Creek Glycerine, and advanced through the forest.
They walked at a good pace, a prey to the liveliest emotions. There was no doubt but that they were now going to learn the long-searched-for answer to the enigma, the name of that mysterious being, so deeply concerned in their life, so generous in his influence, so powerful in his action! Must not this stranger have indeed mingled with their existence, have known the smallest details, have heard all that was said in Granite House, to have been able always to act in the very nick of time?
Every one, wrapped up in his own reflections, pressed forward. Under the arch of trees the darkness was such that even the edge of the road could not be seen. Not a sound in the forest. Both animals and birds, influenced by the heaviness of the atmosphere, remained motionless and silent. Not a breath disturbed the leaves. The footsteps of the colonists alone resounded on the hardened ground.
During the first quarter of an hour the silence was only interrupted by this remark from Pencroft:—
“We ought to have brought a torch.”
And by this reply from the engineer:—
“We shall find one at the corral.”
Harding and his companions had left Granite House at twelve minutes past nine. At forty-seven minutes past nine they had traversed three out of the five miles which separated the mouth of the Mercy from the corral.
At that moment sheets of lightning spread over the island and illumined the dark trees. The flashes dazzled and almost blinded them. Evidently the storm would not be long in bursting forth.
The flashes gradually became brighter and more rapid. Distant thunder growled in the sky. The atmosphere was stifling.
The colonists proceeded as if they were urged onwards by some irresistible force.
At ten o’clock a vivid flash showed them the palisade, and as they reached the gate the storm burst forth with tremendous fury.
In a minute the corral was crossed, and Harding stood before the hut.
Probably the house was occupied by the stranger, since it was from thence that the telegram had been sent. However, no light shone through the window.
The engineer knocked at the door.
Cyrus Harding opened the door, and the settlers entered the room, which was perfectly dark. A light was struck by Neb, and in a few moments the lantern was lighted and the light thrown into every corner of the room.
There was no one there. Everything was in the state in which it had been left.
“Have we been deceived by an illusion?” murmured Cyrus Harding.
No! that was not possible! The telegram had clearly said,—
“Come to the corral immediately.”
They approached the table specially devoted to the use of the wire. Everything was in order—the pile on the box containing it, as well as all the apparatus.
“Who came here the last time?” asked the engineer.
“I did, captain,” answered Ayrton.
“And that was—”
“Four days ago.”
“Ah! a note!” cried Herbert, pointing to a paper lying on the table.
On this paper were written these words in English:—
“Follow the new wire.”
“Forward!” cried Harding, who understood that the despatch had not been sent from the corral, but from the mysterious retreat, communicating directly with Granite House by means of a supplementary wire joined to the old one.
Neb took the lighted lantern, and all left the corral. The storm then burst forth with tremendous violence. The interval between each lightning-flash and each thunder-clap diminished rapidly. The summit of the volcano, with its plume of vapor, could be seen by occasional flashes.
There was no telegraphic communication in any part of the corral between the house and the palisade; but the engineer, running straight to the first post, saw by the light of a flash a new wire hanging from the isolator to the ground.
“There it is!” said he.
This wire lay along the ground, and was surrounded with an isolating substance like a submarine cable, so as to assure the free transmission of the current. It appeared to pass through the wood and the southern spurs of the mountain, and consequently it ran towards the west.
“Follow it!” said Cyrus Harding.
And the settlers immediately pressed forward, guided by the wire.
The thunder continued to roar with such violence that not a word could be heard. However, there was no occasion for speaking, but to get forward as fast as possible.
Cyrus Harding and his companions then climbed the spur rising between the corral valley and that of Falls River, which they crossed at its narrowest part. The wire, sometimes stretched over the lower branches of the trees, sometimes lying on the ground, guided them surely. The engineer had supposed that the wire would perhaps stop at the bottom of the valley, and that the stranger’s retreat would be there.
Nothing of the sort. They were obliged to ascend the south-western spur, and re-descend on that arid plateau terminated by the strangely-wild basalt cliff. From time to time one of the colonists stooped down and felt for the wire with his hands; but there was now no doubt that the wire was running directly towards the sea. There, to a certainty, in the depths of those rocks, was the dwelling so long sought for in vain.
The sky was literally on fire. Flash succeeded flash. Several struck the summit of the volcano in the midst of the thick smoke. It appeared there as if the mountain was vomiting flame. At a few minutes to eleven the colonists arrived on the high cliff overlooking the ocean to the west. The wind had risen. The surf roared 500 feet below.
Harding calculated that they had gone a mile and a half from the corral.
At this point the wire entered among the rocks, following the steep side of a narrow ravine. The settlers followed it at the risk of occasioning a fall of the slightly-balanced rocks, and being dashed into the sea. The descent was extremely perilous, but they did not think of the danger; they were no longer masters of themselves, and an irresistible attraction drew them towards this mysterious place as the magnet draws iron.
Thus they almost unconsciously descended this ravine, which even in broad daylight would have been considered impracticable.
The stones rolled and sparkled like fiery balls when they crossed through the gleams of light. Harding was first—Ayrton last. On they went, step by step. Now they slid over the slippery rock; then they struggled to their feet and scrambled on.
At last the wire touched the rocks on the beach. The colonists had reached the bottom of the basalt cliff.
There appeared a narrow ridge, running horizontally and parallel with the sea. The settlers followed the wire along it. They had not gone a hundred paces when the ridge by a moderate incline sloped down to the level of the sea.
The engineer seized the wire and found that it disappeared beneath the waves.
His companions were stupefied.
A cry of disappointment, almost a cry of despair, escaped them! Must they then plunge beneath the water and seek there for some submarine cavern? In their excited state they would not have hesitated to do it.
The engineer stopped them.
He led his companions to a hollow in the rocks, and there—
“We must wait,” said he. “The tide is high. At low water the way will be open.”
“But what can make you think-” asked Pencroft.
“He would not have called us if the means had been wanting to enable us to reach him!”
Cyrus Harding spoke in a tone of such thorough conviction that no objection was raised. His remark, besides, was logical. It was quite possible that an opening, practicable at low water, though hidden now by the high tide, opened at the foot of the cliff.
There was some time to wait. The colonists remained silently crouching in a deep hollow. Rain now began to fall in torrents. The thunder was re-echoed among the rocks with a grand sonorousness.
The colonists’ emotion was great. A thousand strange and extraordinary ideas crossed their brains, and they expected some grand and superhuman apparition, which alone could come up to the notion they had formed of the mysterious genius of the island.
At midnight, Harding carrying the lantern, descended to the beach to reconnoiter.
The engineer was not mistaken. The beginning of an immense excavation could be seen under the water. There the wire, bending at a right angle, entered the yawning gulf.
Cyrus Harding returned to his companions, and said simply,—
“In an hour the opening will be practicable.”
“It is there, then?” said Pencroft.
“Did you doubt it?” returned Harding.
“But this cavern must be filled with water to a certain height,” observed Herbert.
“Either the cavern will be completely dry,” replied Harding, “and in that case we can traverse it on foot, or it will not be dry, and some means of transport will be put at our disposal.”
An hour passed. All climbed down through the rain to the level of the sea. There was now eight feet of the opening above the water. It was like the arch of a bridge, under which rushed the foaming water.
Leaning forward, the engineer saw a black object floating on the water. He drew it towards him. It was a boat, moored to some interior projection of the cave. This boat was iron-plated. Two oars lay at the bottom.
“Jump in!” said Harding.
In a moment the settlers were in the boat. Neb and Ayrton took the oars, Pencroft the rudder. Cyrus Harding in the bows, with the lantern, lighted the way.
The elliptical roof, under which the boat at first passed, suddenly rose; but the darkness was too deep, and the light of the lantern too slight, for either the extent, length, height, or depth of the cave to be ascertained. Solemn silence reigned in this basaltic cavern. Not a sound could penetrate into it, even the thunder peals could not pierce its thick sides.
Such immense caves exist in various parts of the world, natural crypts dating from the geological epoch of the globe. Some are filled by the sea; others contain entire lakes in their sides. Such is Fingal’s Cave, in the island of Staffa, one of the Hebrides; such are the caves of Morgat, in the bay of Douarnenez, in Brittany, the caves of Bonifacio, in Corsica, those of Lyse-Fjord, in Norway; such are the immense Mammoth caverns in Kentucky, 500 feet in height, and more than twenty miles in length! In many parts of the globe, nature has excavated these caverns, and preserved them for the admiration of man.
Did the cavern which the settlers were now exploring extend to the center of the island? For a quarter of an hour the boat had been advancing, making detours, indicated to Pencroft by the engineer in short sentences, when all at once,—
“More to the right!” he commanded.
The boat, altering its course, came up alongside the right wall. The engineer wished to see if the wire still ran along the side.
The wire was there fastened to the rock.
“Forward!” said Harding.
And the two oars, plunging into the dark waters, urged the boat onwards.
On they went for another quarter of an hour, and a distance of half-a-mile must have been cleared from the mouth of the cave, when Harding’s voice was again heard.
“Stop!” said he.
The boat stopped, and the colonists perceived a bright light illuminating the vast cavern, so deeply excavated in the bowels of the island, of which nothing had ever led them to suspect the existence.
At a height of a hundred feet rose the vaulted roof, supported on basalt shafts. Irregular arches, strange moldings, appeared on the columns erected by nature in thousands from the first epochs of the formation of the globe. The basalt pillars, fitted one into the other, measured from forty to fifty feet in height, and the water, calm in spite of the tumult outside, washed their base. The brilliant focus of light, pointed out by the engineer, touched every point of rocks, and flooded the walls with light.
By reflection the water reproduced the brilliant sparkles, so that the boat appeared to be floating between two glittering zones. They could not be mistaken in the nature of the irradiation thrown from the glowing nucleus, whose clear rays were shattered by all the angles, all the projections of the cavern. This light proceeded from an electric source, and its white color betrayed its origin. It was the sun of this cave, and it filled it entirely.
At a sign from Cyrus Harding the oars again plunged into the water, causing a regular shower of gems, and the boat was urged forward towards the light, which was now not more than half a cable’s length distant.
At this place the breadth of the sheet of water measured nearly 350 feet, and beyond the dazzling center could be seen an enormous basaltic wall, blocking up any issue on that side. The cavern widened here considerably, the sea forming a little lake. But the roof, the side walls, the end cliff, all the prisms, all the peaks, were flooded with the electric fluid, so that the brilliancy belonged to them, and as if the light issued from them.
In the center of the lake a long cigar-shaped object floated on the surface of the water, silent, motionless. The brilliancy which issued from it escaped from its sides as from two kilns heated to a white heat. This apparatus, similar in shape to an enormous whale, was about 250 feet long, and rose about ten or twelve above the water.
The boat slowly approached it, Cyrus Harding stood up in the bows. He gazed, a prey to violent excitement. Then, all at once, seizing the reporter’s arm,—
“It is he! It can only be he!” he cried, “he!—”
Then, falling back on the seat, he murmured a name which Gideon Spilett alone could hear.
The reporter evidently knew this name, for it had a wonderful effect upon him, and he answered in a hoarse voice,—
“He! an outlawed man!”
“He!” said Harding.
At the engineer’s command the boat approached this singular floating apparatus. The boat touched the left side, from which escaped a ray of light through a thick glass.
Harding and his companions mounted on the platform. An open hatchway was there. All darted down the opening.
At the bottom of the ladder was a deck, lighted by electricity. At the end of this deck was a door, which Harding opened.
A richly-ornamented room, quickly traversed by the colonists, was joined to a library, over which a luminous ceiling shed a flood of light.
At the end of the library a large door, also shut, was opened by the engineer.
An immense saloon—a sort of museum, in which were heaped up, with all the treasures of the mineral world, works of art, marvels of industry—appeared before the eyes of the colonists, who almost thought themselves suddenly transported into a land of enchantment.
Stretched on a rich sofa they saw a man, who did not appear to notice their presence.
Then Harding raised his voice, and to the extreme surprise of his companions, he uttered these words,—
“Captain Nemo, you asked for us! We are here.—”