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Chapter 15


CHAPTER 15

The next day, the 17th of April, the sailor's first words were addressed to
Gideon Spilett.

"Well, sir," he asked, "what shall we do to-day?"

"What the captain pleases," replied the reporter.

Till then the engineer's companions had been brickmakers and potters,
now they were to become metallurgists.

The day before, after breakfast, they had explored as far as the point of
Mandible Cape, seven miles distant from the Chimneys. There, the long
series of downs ended, and the soil had a volcanic appearance. There were
no longer high cliffs as at Prospect Heights, but a strange and capricious
border which surrounded the narrow gulf between the two capes, formed of
mineral matter, thrown up by the volcano. Arrived at this point the
settlers retraced their steps, and at nightfall entered the Chimneys; but
they did not sleep before the question of knowing whether they could think
of leaving Lincoln Island or not was definitely settled.

The twelve hundred miles which separated the island from the Pomoutous
Island was a considerable distance. A boat could not cross it, especially
at the approach of the bad season. Pencroft had expressly declared this.
Now, to construct a simple boat even with the necessary tools, was a
difficult work, and the colonists not having tools they must begin by
making hammers, axes, adzes, saws, augers, planes, etc., which would take
some time. It was decided, therefore, that they would winter at Lincoln
Island, and that they would look for a more comfortable dwelling than the
Chimneys, in which to pass the winter months.

Before anything else could be done it was necessary to make the iron ore,
of which the engineer had observed some traces in the northwest part of the
island, fit for use by converting it either into iron or into steel.

Metals are not generally found in the ground in a pure state. For the
most part they are combined with oxygen or sulphur. Such was the case with
the two specimens which Cyrus Harding had brought back, one of magnetic
iron, not carbonated, the other a pyrite, also called sulphuret of iron. It
was, therefore the first, the oxide of iron, which they must reduce with
coal, that is to say, get rid of the oxygen, to obtain it in a pure state.
This reduction is made by subjecting the ore with coal to a high
temperature, either by the rapid and easy Catalan method, which has the
advantage of transforming the ore into iron in a single operation, or by
the blast furnace, which first smelts the ore, then changes it into iron,
by carrying away the three to four per cent. of coal, which is combined
with it.

Now Cyrus Harding wanted iron, and he wished to obtain it as soon as
possible. The ore which he had picked up was in itself very pure and rich.
It was the oxydulous iron, which is found in confused masses of a deep gray
color; it gives a black dust, crystallized in the form of the regular
octahedron. Native lodestones consist of this ore, and iron of the first
quality is made in Europe from that with which Sweden and Norway are so
abundantly supplied. Not far from this vein was the vein of coal already
made use of by the settlers. The ingredients for the manufacture being
close together would greatly facilitate the treatment of the ore. This is
the cause of the wealth of the mines in Great Britain, where the coal aids
the manufacture of the metal extracted from the same soil at the same time
as itself.

"Then, captain," said Pencroft, "we are going to work iron ore?"

"Yes, my friend," replied the engineer, "and for that--something which
will please you--we must begin by having a seal hunt on the islet."

"A seal hunt!" cried the sailor, turning towards Gideon Spilett. "Are
seals needed to make iron?"

"Since Cyrus has said so!" replied the reporter.

But the engineer had already left the Chimneys, and Pencroft prepared for
the seal hunt, without having received any other explanation.

Cyrus Harding, Herbert, Gideon Spilett, Neb, and the sailor were soon
collected on the shore, at a place where the channel left a ford passable
at low tide. The hunters could therefore traverse it without getting wet
higher than the knee.

Harding then put his foot on the islet for the first, and his companions
for the second time.

On their landing some hundreds of penguins looked fearlessly at them. The
hunters, armed with sticks, could have killed them easily, but they were
not guilty of such useless massacre, as it was important not to frighten
the seals, who were lying on the sand several cable lengths off. They also
respected certain innocent-looking birds, whose wings were reduced to the
state of stumps, spread out like fins, ornamented with feathers of a scaly
appearance. The settlers, therefore, prudently advanced towards the north
point, walking over ground riddled with little holes, which formed nests
for the sea-birds. Towards the extremity of the islet appeared great black
heads floating just above the water, having exactly the appearance of rocks
in motion.

These were the seals which were to be captured. It was necessary,
however, first to allow them to land, for with their close, short hair, and
their fusiform conformation, being excellent swimmers, it is difficult to
catch them in the sea, while on land their short, webbed feet prevent their
having more than a slow, waddling movement.

Pencroft knew the habits of these creatures, and he advised waiting till
they were stretched on the sand, when the sun, before long, would send them
to sleep. They must then manage to cut off their retreat and knock them on
the head.

The hunters, having concealed themselves behind the rocks, waited
silently.

An hour passed before the seals came to play on the sand. They could
count half a dozen. Pencroft and Herbert then went round the point of the
islet, so as to take them in the rear, and cut off their retreat. During
this time Cyrus Harding, Spilett, and Neb, crawling behind the rocks,
glided towards the future scene of combat.

All at once the tall figure of the sailor appeared. Pencroft shouted. The
engineer and his two companions threw themselves between the sea and the
seals. Two of the animals soon lay dead on the sand, but the rest regained
the sea in safety.

"Here are the seals required, captain!" said the sailor, advancing
towards the engineer.

"Capital," replied Harding. "We will make bellows of them!"

"Bellows!" cried Pencroft. "Well! these are lucky seals!"

It was, in fact, a blowing-machine, necessary for the treatment of the
ore that the engineer wished to manufacture with the skins of the
amphibious creatures. They were of a medium size, for their length did not
exceed six feet. They resembled a dog about the head.

As it was useless to burden themselves with the weight of both the
animals, Neb and Pencroft resolved to skin them on the spot, while Cyrus
Harding and the reporter continued to explore the islet.

The sailor and the Negro cleverly performed the operation, and three
hours afterwards Cyrus Harding had at his disposal two seals' skins, which
he intended to use in this state, without subjecting them to any tanning
process.

The settlers waited till the tide was again low, and crossing the channel
they entered the Chimneys.

The skins had then to be stretched on a frame of wood and sewn by means
of fibers so as to preserve the air without allowing too much to escape.
Cyrus Harding had nothing but the two steel blades from Top's collar, and
yet he was so clever, and his companions aided him with so much
intelligence, that three days afterwards the little colony's stock of tools
was augmented by a blowing-machine, destined to inject the air into the
midst of the ore when it should be subjected to heat--an indispensable
condition to the success of the operation.

On the morning of the 20th of April began the "metallic period," as the
reporter called it in his notes. The engineer had decided, as has been
said, to operate near the veins both of coal and ore. Now, according to his
observations, these veins were situated at the foot of the northeast spurs
of Mount Franklin, that is to say, a distance of six miles from their home.
It was impossible, therefore, to return every day to the Chimneys, and it
was agreed that the little colony should camp under a hut of branches, so
that the important operation could be followed night and day.

This settled, they set out in the morning. Neb and Pencroft dragged the
bellows on a hurdle; also a quantity of vegetables and animals, which they
besides could renew on the way.

The road led through Jacamar Wood, which they traversed obliquely from
southeast to northwest, and in the thickest part. It was necessary to beat
a path, which would in the future form the most direct road to Prospect
Heights and Mount Franklin. The trees, belonging to the species already
discovered, were magnificent. Herbert found some new ones, among others
some which Pencroft called "sham leeks"; for, in spite of their size, they
were of the same liliaceous family as the onion, chive, shallot, or
asparagus. These trees produce ligneous roots which, when cooked, are
excellent; from them, by fermentation, a very agreeable liquor is made.
They therefore made a good store of the roots.

The journey through the wood was long; it lasted the whole day, and so
allowed plenty of time for examining the flora and fauna. Top, who took
special charge of the fauna, ran through the grass and brushwood, putting
up all sorts of game. Herbert and Gideon Spilett killed two kangaroos with
bows and arrows, and also an animal which strongly resembled both a
hedgehog and an ant-eater. It was like the first because it rolled itself
into a ball, and bristled with spines, and the second because it had sharp
claws, a long slender snout which terminated in a bird's beak, and an
extendible tongue, covered with little thorns which served to hold the
insects.

"And when it is in the pot," asked Pencroft naturally, "what will it be
like?"

"An excellent piece of beef," replied Herbert.

"We will not ask more from it," replied the sailor,

During this excursion they saw several wild boars, which however, did not
offer to attack the little band, and it appeared as if they would not meet
with any dangerous beasts; when, in a thick part of the wood, the reporter
thought he saw, some paces from him, among the lower branches of a tree, an
animal which he took for a bear, and which he very tranquilly began to
draw. Happily for Gideon Spilett, the animal in question did not belong to
the redoubtable family of the plantigrades. It was only a koala, better
known under the name of the sloth, being about the size of a large dog, and
having stiff hair of a dirty color, the paws armed with strong claws, which
enabled it to climb trees and feed on the leaves. Having identified the
animal, which they did not disturb, Gideon Spilett erased "bear" from the
title of his sketch, putting koala in its place, and the journey was
resumed.

At five o'clock in the evening, Cyrus Harding gave the signal to halt.
They were now outside the forest, at the beginning of the powerful spurs
which supported Mount Franklin towards the west. At a distance of some
hundred feet flowed the Red Creek, and consequently plenty of fresh water
was within their reach.

The camp was soon organized. In less than an hour, on the edge of the
forest, among the trees, a hut of branches interlaced with creepers, and
pasted over with clay, offered a tolerable shelter. Their geological
researches were put off till the next day. Supper was prepared, a good fire
blazed before the hut, the roast turned, and at eight o'clock, while one of
the settlers watched to keep up the fire, in case any wild beasts should
prowl in the neighborhood, the others slept soundly.

The next day, the 21st of April, Cyrus Harding accompanied by Herbert,
went to look for the soil of ancient formation, on which he had already
discovered a specimen of ore. They found the vein above ground, near the
source of the creek, at the foot of one of the northeastern spurs. This
ore, very rich in iron, enclosed in its fusible veinstone, was perfectly
suited to the mode of reduction which the engineer intended to employ; that
is, the Catalan method, but simplified, as it is used in Corsica. In fact,
the Catalan method, properly so called, requires the construction of kilns
and crucibles, in which the ore and the coal, placed in alternate layers,
are transformed and reduced, But Cyrus Harding intended to economize these
constructions, and wished simply to form, with the ore and the coal, a
cubic mass, to the center of which he would direct the wind from his
bellows. Doubtless, it was the proceeding employed by Tubalcain, and the
first metallurgists of the inhabited world. Now that which had succeeded
with the grandson of Adam, and which still yielded good results in
countries which in ore and fuel, could not but succeed with the settlers in
Lincoln Island.

The coal, as well as the ore, was collected without trouble on the
surface of the ground. They first broke the ore into little pieces, and
cleansed them with the hand from the impurities which soiled their surface.
Then coal and ore were arranged in heaps and in successive layers, as the
charcoal-burner does with the wood which he wishes to carbonize. In this
way, under the influence of the air projected by the blowing-machine, the
coal would be transformed into carbonic acid, then into oxide of carbon,
its use being to reduce the oxide of iron, that is to say, to rid it of the
oxygen.

Thus the engineer proceeded. The bellows of sealskin, furnished at its
extremity with a nozzle of clay, which had been previously fabricated in
the pottery kiln, was established near the heap of ore. Using the mechanism
which consisted of a frame, cords of fiber and counterpoise, he threw into
the mass an abundance of air, which by raising the temperature also
concurred with the chemical transformation to produce in time pure iron.

The operation was difficult. All the patience, all the ingenuity of the
settlers was needed; but at last it succeeded, and the result was a lump of
iron, reduced to a spongy state, which it was necessary to shingle and
fagot, that is to say, to forge so as to expel from it the liquefied
veinstone. These amateur smiths had, of course, no hammer; but they were in
no worse a situation than the first metallurgist, and therefore did what,
no doubt, he had to do.

A handle was fixed to the first lump, and was used as a hammer to forge
the second on a granite anvil, and thus they obtained a coarse but useful
metal. At length, after many trials and much fatigue, on the 25th of April
several bars of iron were forged, and transformed into tools, crowbars,
pincers, pickaxes, spades, etc., which Pencroft and Neb declared to be real
jewels. But the metal was not yet in its most serviceable state, that is,
of steel. Now steel is a combination of iron and coal, which is extracted,
either from the liquid ore, by taking from it the excess of coal, or from
the iron by adding to it the coal which was wanting. The first, obtained by
the decarburation of the metal, gives natural or puddled steel; the second,
produced by the carburation of the iron, gives steel of cementation.

It was the last which Cyrus Harding intended to forge, as he possessed
iron in a pure state. He succeeded by heating the metal with powdered coal
in a crucible which had previously been manufactured from clay suitable for
the purpose.

He then worked this steel, which is malleable both when hot or cold, with
the hammer. Neb and Pencroft, cleverly directed, made hatchets, which,
heated red-hot, and plunged suddenly into cold water, acquired an excellent
temper.

Other instruments, of course roughly fashioned, were also manufactured;
blades for planes, axes, hatchets, pieces of steel to be transformed into
saws, chisels; then iron for spades, pickaxes, hammers, nails, etc. At
last, on the 5th of May, the metallic period ended, the smiths returned to
the Chimneys, and new work would soon authorize them to take a fresh title.


Jules Verne