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Chapter 16


CHAPTER 16

It was the 6th of May, a day which corresponds to the 6th of November in
the countries of the Northern Hemisphere. The sky had been obscured for
some days, and it was of importance to make preparations for the winter.
However, the temperature was not as yet much lower, and a centigrade
thermometer, transported to Lincoln Island, would still have marked an
average of ten to twelve degrees above zero. This was not surprising, since
Lincoln Island, probably situated between the thirty-fifth and fortieth
parallel, would be subject, in the Southern Hemisphere, to the same climate
as Sicily or Greece in the Northern Hemisphere. But as Greece and Sicily
have severe cold, producing snow and ice, so doubtless would Lincoln Island
in the severest part of the winter. and it was advisable to provide against
it.

In any case if cold did not yet threaten them, the rainy season would
begin, and on this lonely island, exposed to all the fury of the elements,
in mid-ocean, bad weather would be frequent, and probably terrible. The
question of a more comfortable dwelling than the Chimneys must therefore be
seriously considered and promptly resolved on.

Pencroft, naturally, had some predilection for the retreat which he had
discovered, but he well understood that another must be found. The Chimneys
had been already visited by the sea, under circumstances which are known,
and it would not do to be exposed again to a similar accident.

"Besides," added Cyrus Harding, who this day was talking of these things
with his companions, "we have some precautions to take."

"Why? The island is not inhabited," said the reporter.

"That is probable," replied the engineer, "although we have not yet
explored the interior; but if no human beings are found, I fear that
dangerous animals may abound. It is necessary to guard against a possible
attack, so that we shall not be obliged to watch every night, or to keep up
a fire. And then, my friends, we must foresee everything. We are here in a
part of the Pacific often frequented by Malay pirates--"

"What!" said Herbert, "at such a distance from land?"

"Yes, my boy," replied the engineer. "These pirates are bold sailors as
well as formidable enemies, and we must take measures accordingly."

"Well," replied Pencroft, "we will fortify ourselves against savages with
two legs as well as against savages with four. But, captain, will it not be
best to explore every part of the island before undertaking anything else?"

"That would be best," added Gideon Spilett.

"Who knows if we might not find on the opposite side one of the caverns
which we have searched for in vain here?"

"That is true," replied the engineer, "but you forget, my friends, that
it will be necessary to establish ourselves in the neighborhood of a
watercourse, and that, from the summit of Mount Franklin, we could not see
towards the west, either stream or river. Here, on the contrary, we are
placed between the Mercy and Lake Grant, an advantage which must not be
neglected. And, besides, this side, looking towards the east, is not
exposed as the other is to the trade-winds, which in this hemisphere blow
from the northwest."

"Then, captain," replied the sailor, "let us build a house on the edge of
the lake. Neither bricks nor tools are wanting now. After having been
brickmakers, potters, smelters, and smiths, we shall surely know how to be
masons!"

"Yes, my friend; but before coming to any decision we must consider the
matter thoroughly. A natural dwelling would spare us much work, and would
be a surer retreat, for it would be as well defended against enemies from
the interior as those from outside."

"That is true, Cyrus," replied the reporter, "but we have already
examined all that mass of granite, and there is not a hole, not a cranny!"

"No, not one!" added Pencroft. "Ah, if we were able to dig out a dwelling
in that cliff, at a good height, so as to be out of the reach of harm, that
would be capital! I can see that on the front which looks seaward, five or
six rooms--"

"With windows to light them!" said Herbert, laughing.

"And a staircase to climb up to them!" added Neb.

"You are laughing," cried the sailor, "and why? What is there impossible
in what I propose? Haven't we got pickaxes and spades? Won't Captain
Harding be able to make powder to blow up the mine? Isn't it true, captain,
that you will make powder the very day we want it?"

Cyrus Harding listened to the enthusiastic Pencroft developing his
fanciful projects. To attack this mass of granite, even by a mine, was
Herculean work, and it was really vexing that nature could not help them at
their need. But the engineer did not reply to the sailor except by
proposing to examine the cliff more attentively, from the mouth of the
river to the angle which terminated it on the north.

They went out, therefore, and the exploration was made with extreme care,
over an extent of nearly two miles. But in no place in the bare, straight
cliff, could any cavity be found. The nests of the rock pigeons which
fluttered at its summit were only, in reality, holes bored at the very top,
and on the irregular edge of the granite.

It was a provoking circumstance, and as to attacking this cliff, either
with pickaxe or with powder, so as to effect a sufficient excavation, it
was not to be thought of. It so happened that, on all this part of the
shore, Pencroft had discovered the only habitable shelter, that is to say,
the Chimneys, which now had to be abandoned.

The exploration ended, the colonists found themselves at the north angle
of the cliff, where it terminated in long slopes which died away on the
shore. From this place, to its extreme limit in the west, it only formed a
sort of declivity, a thick mass of stones, earth, and sand, bound together
by plants, bushes, and grass inclined at an angle of only forty-five
degrees. Clumps of trees grew on these slopes, which were also carpeted
with thick grass. But the vegetation did not extend far, and a long, sandy
plain, which began at the foot of these slopes, reached to the beach.

Cyrus Harding thought, not without reason, that the overplus of the lake
must overflow on this side. The excess of water furnished by the Red Creek
must also escape by some channel or other. Now the engineer had not yet
found this channel on any part of the shore already explored, that is to
say, from the mouth of the stream on the west of Prospect Heights.

The engineer now proposed to his companions to climb the slope, and to
return to the Chimneys by the heights, while exploring the northern and
eastern shores of the lake. The proposal was accepted, and in a few minutes
Herbert and Neb were on the upper plateau. Cyrus Harding, Gideon Spilett,
and Pencroft followed with more sedate steps.

The beautiful sheet of water glittered through the trees under the rays
of the sun. In this direction the country was charming. The eye feasted on
the groups of trees. Some old trunks, bent with age, showed black against
the verdant grass which covered the ground. Crowds of brilliant cockatoos
screamed among the branches, moving prisms, hopping from one bough to
another.

The settlers instead of going directly to the north bank of the lake,
made a circuit round the edge of the plateau, so as to join the mouth of
the creek on its left bank. It was a detour of more than a mile and a half.
Walking was easy, for the trees widely spread, left a considerable space
between them. The fertile zone evidently stopped at this point, and
vegetation would be less vigorous in the part between the course of the
Creek and the Mercy.

Cyrus Harding and his companions walked over this new ground with great
care. Bows, arrows, and sticks with sharp iron points were their only
weapons. However, no wild beast showed itself, and it was probable that
these animals frequented rather the thick forests in the south; but the
settlers had the disagreeable surprise of seeing Top stop before a snake of
great size, measuring from fourteen to fifteen feet in length. Neb killed
it by a blow from his stick. Cyrus Harding examined the reptile, and
declared it not venomous, for it belonged to that species of diamond
serpents which the natives of New South Wales rear. But it was possible
that others existed whose bite was mortal such as the deaf vipers with
forked tails, which rise up under the feet, or those winged snakes,
furnished with two ears, which enable them to proceed with great rapidity.
Top, the first moment of surprise over, began a reptile chase with such
eagerness, that they feared for his safety. His master called him back
directly.

The mouth of the Red Creek, at the place where it entered into the lake,
was soon reached. The explorers recognized on the opposite shore the point
which they had visited on their descent from Mount Franklin. Cyrus Harding
ascertained that the flow of water into it from the creek was considerable.
Nature must therefore have provided some place for the escape of the
overplus. This doubtless formed a fall, which, if it could be discovered,
would be of great use.

The colonists, walking apart, but not straying far from each other, began
to skirt the edge of the lake, which was very steep. The water appeared to
be full of fish, and Pencroft resolved to make some fishing-rods, so as to
try and catch some.

The northeast point was first to be doubled. It might have been supposed
that the discharge of water was at this place, for the extremity of the
lake was almost on a level with the edge of the plateau. But no signs of
this were discovered, and the colonists continued to explore the bank,
which, after a slight bend, descended parallel to the shore.

On this side the banks were less woody, but clumps of trees, here and
there, added to the picturesqueness of the country. Lake Grant was viewed
from thence in all its extent, and no breath disturbed the surface of its
waters. Top, in beating the bushes, put up flocks of birds of different
kinds, which Gideon Spilett and Herbert saluted with arrows. Orie was hit
by the lad, and fell into some marshy grass. Top rushed forward, and
brought a beautiful swimming bird, of a slate color, short beak, very
developed frontal plate, and wings edged with white. It was a "coot," the
size of a large partridge, belonging to the group of macrodactyls which
form the transition between the order of wading birds and that of
palmipeds. Sorry game, in truth, and its flavor is far from pleasant. But
Top was not so particular in these things as his masters, and it was agreed
that the coot should be for his supper.

The settlers were now following the eastern bank of the lake, and they
would not be long in reaching the part which they already knew. The
engineer was much surprised at not seeing any indication of the discharge
of water. The reporter and the sailor talked with him, and he could not
conceal his astonishment.

At this moment Top, who had been very quiet till then, gave signs of
agitation. The intelligent animal went backwards and forwards on the shore,
stopped suddenly, and looked at the water, one paw raised, as if he was
pointing at some invisible game; then he barked furiously, and was suddenly
silent.

Neither Cyrus Harding nor his companions had at first paid any attention
to Top's behavior; but the dog's barking soon became so frequent that the
engineer noticed it.

"What is there, Top?" he asked.

The dog bounded towards his master, seeming to be very uneasy, and then
rushed again towards the bank. Then, all at once, he plunged into the lake.

"Here, Top!" cried Cyrus Harding, who did not like his dog to venture
into the treacherous water.

"What's happening down there?" asked Pencroft, examining the surface of
the lake.

"Top smells some amphibious creature," replied Herbert.

"An alligator, perhaps," said the reporter.

"I do not think so," replied Harding. "Alligators are only met with in
regions less elevated in latitude."

Meanwhile Top had returned at his master's call, and had regained the
shore: but he could not stay quiet; he plunged in among the tall grass, and
guided by instinct, he appeared to follow some invisible being which was
slipping along under the surface of the water. However the water was calm;
not a ripple disturbed its surface. Several times the settlers stopped on
the bank, and observed it attentively. Nothing appeared. There was some
mystery there.

The engineer was puzzled.

"Let us pursue this exploration to the end," said he.

Half an hour after they had all arrived at the southeast angle of the
lake, on Prospect Heights. At this point the examination of the banks of
the lake was considered finished, and yet the engineer had not been able to
discover how and where the waters were discharged. "There is no doubt this
overflow exists," he repeated, and since it is not visible it must go
through the granite cliff at the west!"

"But what importance do you attach to knowing that, my dear Cyrus?" asked
Gideon Spilett.

"Considerable importance," replied the engineer; "for if it flows through
the cliff there is probably some cavity, which it would be easy to render
habitable after turning away the water."

"But is it not possible, captain, that the water flows away at the bottom
of the lake," said Herbert, "and that it reaches the sea by some
subterranean passage?"

"That might be," replied the engineer, "and should it be so we shall be
obliged to build our house ourselves, since nature has not done it for us."

The colonists were about to begin to traverse the plateau to return to
the Chimneys, when Top gave new signs of agitation. He barked with fury,
and before his master could restrain him, he had plunged a second time into
the lake.

All ran towards the bank. The dog was already more than twenty feet off,
and Cyrus was calling him back, when an enormous head emerged from the
water, which did not appear to be deep in that place.

Herbert recognized directly the species of amphibian to which the
tapering head, with large eyes, and adorned with long silky mustaches,
belonged.

"A lamantin!" he cried.

It was not a lamantin, but one of that species of the order of cetaceans,
which bear the name of the "dugong," for its nostrils were open at the
upper part of its snout. The enormous animal rushed on the dog, who tried
to escape by returning towards the shore. His master could do nothing to
save him, and before Gideon Spilett or Herbert thought of bending their
bows, Top, seized by the dugong, had disappeared beneath the water.

Neb, his iron-tipped spear in his hand, wished to go to Top's help, and
attack the dangerous animal in its own element.

"No, Neb," said the engineer, restraining his courageous servant.

Meanwhile, a struggle was going on beneath the water, an inexplicable
struggle, for in his situation Top could not possibly resist; and judging
by the bubbling of the surface it must be also a terrible struggle, and
could not but terminate in the death of the dog! But suddenly, in the
middle of a foaming circle, Top reappeared. Thrown in the air by some
unknown power, he rose ten feet above the surface of the lake, fell again
into the midst of the agitated waters, and then soon gained the shore,
without any severe wounds, miraculously saved.

Cyrus Harding and his companions could not understand it. What was not
less inexplicable was that the struggle still appeared to be going on.
Doubtless, the dugong, attacked by some powerful animal, after having
released the dog, was fighting on its own account. But it did not last
long. The water became red with blood, and the body of the dugong, emerging
from the sheet of scarlet which spread around, soon stranded on a little
beach at the south angle of the lake. The colonists ran towards it. The
dugong was dead. It was an enormous animal, fifteen or sixteen feet long,
and must have weighed from three to four thousand pounds. At its neck was a
wound, which appeared to have been produced by a sharp blade.

What could the amphibious creature have been, who, by this terrible blow
had destroyed the formidable dugong? No one could tell, and much interested
in this incident, Harding and his companions returned to the Chimneys.


Jules Verne