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Chapter 21


CHAPTER 21

From this time Pencroft did not let a single day pass without going to
visit what he gravely called his "corn-field." And woe to the insects which
dared to venture there! No mercy was shown them.

Towards the end of the month of June, after incessant rain, the weather
became decidedly colder, and on the 29th a Fahrenheit thermometer would
certainly have announced only twenty degrees above zero, that is
considerably below the freezing-point. The next day, the 30th of June, the
day which corresponds to the 31st of December in the northern year, was a
Friday. Neb remarked that the year finished on a bad day, but Pencroft
replied that naturally the next would begin on a good one, which was
better.

At any rate it commenced by very severe cold. Ice accumulated at the
mouth of the Mercy, and it was not long before the whole expanse of the
lake was frozen.

The settlers had frequently been obliged to renew their store of wood.
Pencroft also had wisely not waited till the river was frozen, but had
brought enormous rafts of wood to their destination. The current was an
indefatigable moving power, and it was employed in conveying the floating
wood to the moment when the frost enchained it. To the fuel which was so
abundantly supplied by the forest, they added several cartloads of coal,
which had to be brought from the foot of the spurs of Mount Franklin. The
powerful heat of the coal was greatly appreciated in the low temperature,
which on the 4th of July fell to eight degrees of Fahrenheit, that is,
thirteen degrees below zero. A second fireplace had been established in the
dining-room, where they all worked together at their different avocations.
During this period of cold, Cyrus Harding had great cause to congratulate
himself on having brought to Granite House the little stream of water from
Lake Grant. Taken below the frozen surface, and conducted through the
passage, it preserved its fluidity, and arrived at an interior reservoir
which had been hollowed out at the back part of the storeroom, while the
overflow ran through the well to the sea.

About this time, the weather being extremely dry, the colonists, clothed
as warmly as possible, resolved to devote a day to the exploration of that
part of the island between the Mercy and Claw Cape. It was a wide extent of
marshy land, and they would probably find good sport, for water-birds ought
to swarm there.

They reckoned that it would be about eight or nine miles to go there, and
as much to return, so that the whole of the day would be occupied. As an
unknown part of the island was about to be explored, the whole colony took
part in the expedition. Accordingly, on the 5th of July, at six o'clock in
the morning, when day had scarcely broken, Cyrus Harding, Gideon Spilett,
Herbert, Neb, and Pencroft, armed with spears, snares, bows and arrows, and
provided with provisions, left Granite House, preceded by Top, who bounded
before them.

Their shortest way was to cross the Mercy on the ice, which then covered
it.

"But," as the engineer justly observed, "that could not take the place of
a regular bridge!" So, the construction of a regular bridge was noted in
the list of future works.

It was the first time that the settlers had set foot on the right bank of
the Mercy, and ventured into the midst of those gigantic and superb
coniferae now sprinkled over with snow.

But they had not gone half a mile when from a thicket a whole family of
quadrupeds, who had made a home there, disturbed by Top, rushed forth into
the open country.

"Ah! I should say those are foxes!" cried Herbert, when he saw the troop
rapidly decamping.

They were foxes, but of a very large size, who uttered a sort of barking,
at which Top seemed to be very much astonished, for he stopped short in the
chase, and gave the swift animals time to disappear.

The dog had reason to be surprised, as he did not know Natural History.
But, by their barking, these foxes, with reddish-gray hair, black tails
terminating in a white tuft, had betrayed their origin. So Herbert was
able, without hesitating, to give them their real name of "Arctic foxes."
They are frequently met with in Chile, in the Falkland Islands, and in all
parts of America traversed by the thirtieth and fortieth parallels. Herbert
much regretted that Top had not been able to catch one of these carnivora.

"Are they good to eat?" asked Pencroft, who only regarded the
representatives of the fauna in the island from one special point of view.

"No," replied Herbert; "but zoologists have not yet found out if the eye
of these foxes is diurnal or nocturnal, or whether it is correct to class
them in the genus dog, properly so called."

Harding could not help smiling on hearing the lad's reflection, which
showed a thoughtful mind. As to the sailor, from the moment when he found
that the foxes were not classed in the genus eatable, they were nothing to
him. However, when a poultry-yard was established at Granite House, he
observed that it would be best to take some precautions against a probable
visit from these four-legged plunderers, and no one disputed this.

After having turned the point, the settlers saw a long beach washed by
the open sea. It was then eight o'clock in the morning. The sky was very
clear, as it often is after prolonged cold; but warmed by their walk,
neither Harding nor his companions felt the sharpness of the atmosphere too
severely. Besides there was no wind, which made it much more bearable. A
brilliant sun, but without any calorific action, was just issuing from the
ocean. The sea was as tranquil and blue as that of a Mediterranean gulf,
when the sky is clear. Claw Cape, bent in the form of a yataghan, tapered
away nearly four miles to the southeast. To the left the edge of the marsh
was abruptly ended by a little point. Certainly, in this part of Union Bay,
which nothing sheltered from the open sea, not even a sandbank, ships
beaten by the east winds would have found no shelter. They perceived by the
tranquillity of the sea, in which no shallows troubled the waters, by its
uniform color, which was stained by no yellow shades, by the absence of
even a reef, that the coast was steep and that the ocean there covered a
deep abyss. Behind in the west, but at a distance of four miles, rose the
first trees of the forests of the Far West. They might have believed
themselves to be on the desolate coast of some island in the Antarctic
regions which the ice had invaded. The colonists halted at this place for
breakfast. A fire of brushwood and dried seaweed was lighted, and Neb
prepared the breakfast of cold meat, to which he added some cups of Oswego
tea.

While eating they looked around them. This part of Lincoln Island was
very sterile, and contrasted with all the western part. The reporter was
thus led to observe that if chance had thrown them at first on the shore,
they would have had but a deplorable idea of their future domain.

"I believe that we should not have been able to reach it," replied the
engineer, "for the sea is deep, and there is not a rock on which we could
have taken refuge. Before Granite House, at least, there were sandbanks, an
islet, which multiplied our chances of safety. Here, nothing but the
depths!"

"It is singular enough," remarked Spilett, "that this comparatively small
island should present such varied ground. This diversity of aspect,
logically only belongs to continents of a certain extent. One would really
say, that the western part of Lincoln Island, so rich and so fertile, is
washed by the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico, and that its shores to the
north and the southeast extend over a sort of Arctic sea."

"You are right, my dear Spilett," replied Cyrus Harding, "I have also
observed this. I think the form and also the nature of this island strange.
It is a summary of all the aspects which a continent presents, and I should
not be surprised if it was a continent formerly."

"What! a continent in the middle of the Pacific?" cried Pencroft.

"Why not?" replied Cyrus Harding. "Why should not Australia, New Ireland,
Australasia, united to the archipelagoes of the Pacific, have once formed a
sixth part of the world, as important as Europe or Asia, as Africa or the
two Americas? To my mind, it is quite possible that all these islands,
emerging from this vast ocean, are but the summits of a continent, now
submerged, but which was above the waters at a prehistoric period."

"As the Atlantis was formerly," replied Herbert.

"Yes, my boy... if, however, it existed."

"And would Lincoln Island have been a part of that continent?" asked
Pencroft.

"It is probable," replied Cyrus Harding, "and that would sufficiently,
explain the variety of productions which are seen on its surface."

"And the great number of animals which still inhabit it," added Herbert.

"Yes, my boy," replied the engineer, "and you furnish me with an argument
to support my theory. It is certain, after what we have seen, that animals
are numerous in this island, and what is more strange, that the species are
extremely varied. There is a reason for that, and to me it is that Lincoln
Island may have formerly been a part of some vast continent which had
gradually sunk below the Pacific."

"Then, some fine day," said Pencroft, who did not appear to be entirely
convinced, "the rest of this ancient continent may disappear in its turn,
and there will be nothing between America and Asia."

"Yes," replied Harding, "there will be new continents which millions and
millions of animalculae are building at this moment."

"And what are these masons?" asked Pencroft.

"Coral insects," replied Cyrus Harding. "By constant work they made the
island of Clermont-Tonnerre, and numerous other coral islands in the
Pacific Ocean. Forty-seven millions of these insects are needed to weigh a
grain, and yet, with the sea-salt they absorb, the solid elements of water
which they assimilate, these animalculae produce limestone, and this
limestone forms enormous submarine erections, of which the hardness and
solidity equal granite. Formerly, at the first periods of creation, nature
employing fire, heaved up the land, but now she entrusts to these
microscopic creatures the task of replacing this agent, of which the
dynamic power in the interior of the globe has evidently diminished--which
is proved by the number of volcanoes on the surface of the earth, now
actually extinct. And I believe that centuries succeeding to centuries, and
insects to insects, this Pacific may one day be changed into a vast
continent, which new generations will inhabit and civilize in their turn."

"That will take a long time," said Pencroft.

"Nature has time for it," replied the engineer.

"But what would be the use of new continents?" asked Herbert. "It appears
to me that the present extent of habitable countries is sufficient for
humanity. Yet nature does nothing uselessly."

"Nothing uselessly, certainly," replied the engineer, "but this is how
the necessity of new continents for the future, and exactly on the tropical
zone occupied by the coral islands, may be explained. At least to me this
explanation appears plausible."

"We are listening, captain," said Herbert.

"This is my idea: philosophers generally admit that some day our globe
will end, or rather that animal and vegetable life will no longer be
possible, because of the intense cold to which it will be subjected. What
they are not agreed upon, is the cause of this cold. Some think that it
will arise from the falling of the temperature, which the sun will
experience alter millions of years; others, from the gradual extinction of
the fires in the interior of our globe, which have a greater influence on
it than is generally supposed. I hold to this last hypothesis, grounding it
on the fact that the moon is really a cold star, which is no longer
habitable, although the sun continues to throw on its surface the same
amount of heat. If, then, the moon has become cold, it is because the
interior fires to which, as do all the stars of the stellar world, it owes
its origin, are completely extinct. Lastly, whatever may be the cause, our
globe will become cold some day, but this cold will only operate gradually.
What will happen, then? The temperate zones, at a more or less distant
period, will not be more habitable than the polar regions now are. Then the
population of men, as well as the animals, will flow towards the latitudes
which are more directly under the solar influence. An immense emigration
will take place. Europe, Central Asia, North America, will gradually be
abandoned, as well as Australasia and the lower parts of South America. The
vegetation will follow the human emigration. The flora will retreat towards
the Equator at the same time as the fauna. The central parts of South
America and Africa will be the continents chiefly inhabited. The Laplanders
and the Samoides will find the climate of the polar regions on the shores
of the Mediterranean. Who can say, that at this period, the equatorial
regions will not be too small, to contain and nourish terrestrial humanity?
Now, may not provident nature, so as to give refuge to all the vegetable
and animal emigration, be at present laying the foundation of a new
continent under the Equator, and may she not have entrusted these insects
with the construction of it? I have often thought of all these things, my
friends, and I seriously believe that the aspect of our globe will some day
be completely changed; that by the raising of new continents the sea will
cover the old, and that, in future ages, a Columbus will go to discover the
islands of Chimborazo, of the Himalayas, or of Mont Blanc, remains of a
submerged America, Asia, and Europe. Then these new continents will become,
in their turn, uninhabitable; heat will die away, as does the heat from a
body when the soul has left it; and life will disappear from the globe, if
not for ever, at least for a period. Perhaps then, our spheroid will rest--
will be left to death--to revive some day under superior conditions! But all
that, my friends, is the secret of the Author of all things; and beginning
by the work of the insects, I have perhaps let myself be carried too far,
in investigating the secrets of the future.

"My dear Cyrus," replied Spilett, "these theories are prophecies to me,
and they will be accomplished some day."

"That is the secret of God," said the engineer.

"All that is well and good," then said Pencroft, who had listened with
all his might, "but will you tell me, captain, if Lincoln Island has been
made by your insects?"

"No," replied Harding; "it is of a purely volcanic origin."

"Then it will disappear some day?"

"That is probable.

"I hope we won't be here then."

"No, don't be uneasy, Pencroft; we shall not be here then, as we have no
wish to die here, and hope to get away some time."

"In the meantime," replied Gideon Spilett, "let us establish ourselves
here as if forever. There is no use in doing things by halves."

This ended the conversation. Breakfast was finished, the exploration was
continued, and the settlers arrived at the border of the marshy region. It
was a marsh of which the extent, to the rounded coast which terminated the
island at the southeast, was about twenty square miles. The soil was formed
of clayey flint-earth, mingled with vegetable matter, such as the remains
of rushes, reeds, grass, etc. Here and there beds of grass, thick as a
carpet, covered it. In many places icy pools sparkled in the sun. Neither
rain nor any river, increased by a sudden swelling, could supply these
ponds. They therefore naturally concluded that the marsh was fed by the
infiltrations of the soil and it was really so. It was also to be feared
that during the heat miasmas would arise, which might produce fevers.

Above the aquatic plants, on the surface of the stagnant water, fluttered
numbers of birds. Wild duck, teal, snipe lived there in flocks, and those
fearless birds allowed themselves to be easily approached.

One shot from a gun would certainly have brought down some dozen of the
birds, they were so close together. The explorers were, however, obliged to
content themselves with bows and arrows. The result was less, but the
silent arrow had the advantage of not frightening the birds, while the
noise of firearms would have dispersed them to all parts of the marsh. The
hunters were satisfied, for this time, with a dozen ducks, which had white
bodies with a band of cinnamon, a green head, wings black, white, and red,
and flattened beak. Herbert called them tadorns. Top helped in the capture
of these birds, whose name was given to this marshy part of the island. The
settlers had here an abundant reserve of aquatic game. At some future time
they meant to explore it more carefully, and it was probable that some of
the birds there might be domesticated, or at least brought to the shores of
the lake, so that they would be more within their reach.

About five o'clock in the evening Cyrus Harding and his companions
retraced their steps to their dwelling by traversing Tadorn's Fens, and
crossed the Mercy on the ice-bridge.

At eight in the evening they all entered Granite House.


Jules Verne