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Chapter 27


CHAPTER 5

Cyrus Harding and his companions slept like innocent marmots in the cave
which the jaguar had so politely left at their disposal.

At sunrise all were on the shore at the extremity of the promontory, and
their gaze was directed towards the horizon, of which two-thirds of the
circumference were visible. For the last time the engineer could ascertain
that not a sail nor the wreck of a ship was on the sea, and even with the
telescope nothing suspicious could be discovered.

There was nothing either on the shore, at least, in the straight line of
three miles which formed the south side of the promontory, for beyond that,
rising ground had the rest of the coast, and even from the extremity of the
Serpentine Peninsula Claw Cape could not be seen.

The southern coast of the island still remained to be explored. Now
should they undertake it immediately, and devote this day to it?

This was not included in their first plan. In fact, when the boat was
abandoned at the sources of the Mercy, it had been agreed that after having
surveyed the west coast, they should go back to it, and return to Granite
House by the Mercy. Harding then thought that the western coast would have
offered refuge, either to a ship in distress, or to a vessel in her regular
course; but now, as he saw that this coast presented no good anchorage, he
wished to seek on the south what they had not been able to find on the
west.

Gideon Spilett proposed to continue the exploration, that the question of
the supposed wreck might be completely settled, and he asked at what
distance Claw Cape might be from the extremity of the peninsula.

"About thirty miles," replied the engineer, "if we take into
consideration the curvings of the coast."


"Thirty miles!" returned Spilett. "That would be a long day's march.
Nevertheless, I think that we should return to Granite House by the south
coast."

"But," observed Herbert, "from Claw Cape to Granite House there must be
at least another ten miles.

"Make it forty miles in all," replied the engineer, "and do not hesitate
to do it. At least we should survey the unknown shore, and then we shall
not have to begin the exploration again."

"Very good," said Pencroft. "But the boat?"

"The boat has remained by itself for one day at the sources of the
Mercy," replied Gideon Spilett; "it may just as well stay there two days!
As yet, we have had no reason to think that the island is infested by
thieves!"

"Yet," said the sailor, "when I remember the history of the turtle, I am
far from confident of that."

"The turtle! the turtle!" replied the reporter. "Don't you know that the
sea turned it over?"

"Who knows?" murmured the engineer.

"But,--" said Neb.

Neb had evidently something to say, for he opened his mouth to speak and
yet said nothing.

"What do you want to say, Neb?" asked the engineer.

"If we return by the shore to Claw Cape," replied Neb, "after having
doubled the Cape, we shall be stopped--"

"By the Mercy! of course," replied Herbert, "and we shall have neither
bridge nor boat by which to cross."

"But, captain," added Pencroft, "with a few floating trunks we shall have
no difficulty in crossing the river."

"Never mind," said Spilett, "it will be useful to construct a bridge if we
wish to have an easy access to the Far West!"

"A bridge!" cried Pencroft. "Well, is not the captain the best engineer
in his profession? He will make us a bridge when we want one. As to
transporting you this evening to the other side of the Mercy, and that
without wetting one thread of your clothes, I will take care of that. We
have provisions for another day, and besides we can get plenty of game.
Forward!"

The reporter's proposal, so strongly seconded by the sailor, received
general approbation, for each wished to have their doubts set at rest, and
by returning by Claw Cape the exploration would he ended. But there was not
an hour to lose, for forty miles was a long march, and they could not hope
to reach Granite House before night.

At six o'clock in the morning the little band set out. As a precaution
the guns were loaded with ball, and Top, who led the van, received orders
to beat about the edge of the forest.

From the extremity of the promontory which formed the tail of the
peninsula the coast was rounded for a distance of five miles, which was
rapidly passed over, without even the most minute investigations bringing
to light the least trace of any old or recent landings; no debris, no mark
of an encampment, no cinders of a fire, nor even a footprint!

From the point of the peninsula on which the settlers now were their gaze
could extend along the southwest. Twenty-five miles off the coast
terminated in the Claw Cape, which loomed dimly through the morning mists,
and which, by the phenomenon of the mirage, appeared as if suspended
between land and water.

Between the place occupied by the colonists and the other side of the
immense bay, the shore was composed, first, of a tract of low land,
bordered in the background by trees; then the shore became more irregular,
projecting sharp points into the sea, and finally ended in the black rocks
which, accumulated in picturesque disorder, formed Claw Cape.

Such was the development of this part of the island, which the settlers
took in at a glance, while stopping for an instant.

"If a vessel ran in here," said Pencroft, "she would certainly be lost.
Sandbanks and reefs everywhere! Bad quarters!"

"But at least something would be left of the ship," observed the
reporter.

"There might be pieces of wood on the rocks, but nothing on the sands,"
replied the sailor.

"Why?"

"Because the sands are still more dangerous than the rocks, for they
swallow up everything that is thrown on them. In a few days the hull of a
ship of several hundred tons would disappear entirely in there!"

"So, Pencroft," asked the engineer, "if a ship has been wrecked on these
banks, is it not astonishing that there is now no trace of her remaining?"

"No, captain, with the aid of time and tempest. However, it would be
surprising, even in this case, that some of the masts or spars should not
have been thrown on the beach, out of reach of the waves."

"Let us go on with our search, then," returned Cyrus Harding.

At one o'clock the colonists arrived at the other side of Washington Bay,
they having now gone a distance of twenty miles.

They then halted for breakfast.

Here began the irregular coast, covered with lines of rocks and
sandbanks. The long sea-swell could be seen breaking over the rocks in the
bay, forming a foamy fringe. From this point to Claw Cape the beach was
very narrow between the edge of the forest and the reefs.

Walking was now more difficult, on account of the numerous rocks which
encumbered the beach. The granite cliff also gradually increased in height,
and only the green tops of the trees which crowned it could be seen.

After half an hour's rest, the settlers resumed their journey, and not a
spot among the rocks was left unexamined. Pencroft and Neb even rushed into
the surf whenever any object attracted their attention. But they found
nothing, some curious formations of the rocks having deceived them. They
ascertained, however, that eatable shellfish abounded there, but these
could not be of any great advantage to them until some easy means of
communication had been established between the two banks of the Mercy, and
until the means of transport had been perfected.

Nothing therefore which threw any light on the supposed wreck could be
found on this shore, yet an object of any importance, such as the hull of a
ship, would have been seen directly, or any of her masts and spans would
have been washed on shore, just as the chest had been, which was found
twenty miles from here. But there was nothing.

Towards three o'clock Harding and his companions arrived at a snug little
creek. It formed quite a natural harbor, invisible from the sea, and was
entered by a narrow channel.

At the back of this creek some violent convulsion had torn up the rocky
border, and a cutting, by a gentle slope, gave access to an upper plateau,
which might be situated at least ten miles from Claw Cape, and consequently
four miles in a straight line from Prospect Heights. Gideon Spilett
proposed to his companions that they should make a halt here. They agreed
readily, for their walk had sharpened their appetites; and although it was
not their usual dinner-hour, no one refused to strengthen himself with a
piece of venison. This luncheon would sustain them until their supper,
which they intended to take at Granite House. In a few minutes the
settlers, seated under a clump of fine sea-pines, were devouring the
provisions which Neb produced from his bag.

This spot was raised from fifty to sixty feet above the level of the sea.
The view was very extensive, but beyond the cape it ended in Union Bay.
Neither the islet nor Prospect Heights was visible, and could not be from
thence, for the rising ground and the curtain of trees closed the northern
horizon.

It is useless to add that notwithstanding the wide extent of sea which
the explorers could survey, and though the engineer swept the horizon with
his glass, no vessel could be found.

The shore was of course examined with the same care from the edge of the
water to the cliff, and nothing could be discovered even with the aid of
the instrument.

"Well," said Gideon Spilett, "it seems we must make up our minds to
console ourselves with thinking that no one will come to dispute with us
the possession of Lincoln Island!"

"But the bullet," cried Herbert. "That was not imaginary, I suppose!"

"Hang it, no!" exclaimed Pencroft, thinking of his absent tooth.

"Then what conclusion may be drawn?" asked the reporter.

"This," replied the engineer, "that three months or more ago, a vessel,
either voluntarily or not, came here."

"What! then you admit, Cyrus, that she was swallowed up without leaving
any trace?" cried the reporter.

"No, my dear Spilett; but you see that if it is certain that a human
being set foot on the island, it appears no less certain that he has now
left it."

"Then, if I understand you right, captain," said Herbert, "the vessel has
left again?'

"Evidently."

"And we have lost an opportunity to get back to our country?" said Neb.

"I fear so."

"Very well, since the opportunity is lost, let us go on; it can't be
helped," said Pencroft, who felt home-sickness for Granite House.

But just as they were rising, Top was heard loudly barking; and the dog
issued from the wood, holding in his mouth a rag soiled with mud.

Neb seized it. It was a piece of strong cloth!

Top still barked, and by his going and coming, seemed to invite his
master to follow him into the forest.

"Now there's something to explain the bullet!" exclaimed Pencroft.

"A castaway!" replied Herbert.

"Wounded, perhaps!" said Neb.

"Or dead!" added the reporter.

All ran after the dog, among the tall pines on the border of the forest.
Harding and his companions made ready their firearms, in case of an
emergency.

They advanced some way into the wood, but to their great disappointment,
they as yet saw no signs of any human being having passed that way. Shrubs
and creepers were uninjured, and they had even to cut them away with the
axe, as they had done in the deepest recesses of the forest. It was
difficult to fancy that any human creature had ever passed there, but yet
Top went backward and forward, not like a dog who searches at random, but
like a dog being endowed with a mind, who is following up an idea.

In about seven or eight minutes Top stopped in a glade surrounded with
tall trees. The settlers gazed around them, but saw nothing, neither under
the bushes nor among the trees.

"What is the matter, Top?" said Cyrus Harding.

Top barked louder, bounding about at the foot of a gigantic pine. All at
once Pencroft shouted,--"Ho, splendid! capital!"

"What is it?" asked Spilett.

"We have been looking for a wreck at sea or on land!"

"Well?"

"Well; and here we've found one in the air!"

And the sailor pointed to a great white rag, caught in the top of the
pine, a fallen scrap of which the dog had brought to them.

"But that is not a wreck!" cried Gideon Spilett.

"I beg your pardon!" returned Pencroft.

"Why? is it--?"

"It is all that remains of our airy boat, of our balloon, which has been
caught up aloft there, at the top of that tree!"

Pencroft was not mistaken, and he gave vent to his feelings in a
tremendous hurrah, adding,--

"There is good cloth! There is what will furnish us with linen for years.
There is what will make us handkerchiefs and shirts! Ha, ha, Mr. Spilett,
what do you say to an island where shirts grow on the trees?"

It was certainly a lucky circumstance for the settlers in Lincoln Island
that the balloon, after having made its last bound into the air, had fallen
on the island and thus given them the opportunity of finding it again,
whether they kept the case under its present form, or whether they wished
to attempt another escape by it, or whether they usefully employed the
several hundred yards of cotton, which was of fine quality. Pencroft's joy
was therefore shared by all.

But it was necessary to bring down the remains of the balloon from the
tree, to place it in security, and this was no slight task. Neb, Herbert,
and the sailor, climbing to the summit of the tree, used all their skill to
disengage the now reduced balloon.

The operation lasted two hours, and then not only the case, with its
valve, its springs, its brasswork, lay on the ground, but the net, that is
to say a considerable quantity of ropes and cordage, and the circle and the
anchor. The case, except for the fracture, was in good condition, only the
lower portion being torn.

It was a fortune which had fallen from the sky.

"All the same, captain," said the sailor, "if we ever decide to leave the
island, it won't be in a balloon, will it? These airboats won't go where we
want them to go, and we have had some experience in that way! Look here, we
will build a craft of some twenty tons, and then we can make a main-sail, a
foresail, and a jib out of that cloth. As to the rest of it, that will help
to dress us."

"We shall see, Pencroft," replied Cyrus Harding; "we shall see."

"In the meantime, we must put it in a safe place," said Neb.

They certainly could not think of carrying this load of cloth, ropes, and
cordage, to Granite House, for the weight of it was very considerable, and
while waiting for a suitable vehicle in which to convey it, it was of
importance that this treasure should not be left longer exposed to the
mercies of the first storm. The settlers, uniting their efforts, managed to
drag it as far as the shore, where they discovered a large rocky cavity,
which owing to its position could not be visited either by the wind or
rain.

"We needed a locker, and now we have one," said Pencroft; "but as we
cannot lock it up, it will be prudent to hide the opening. I don't mean
from two-legged thieves, but from those with four paws!"

At six o'clock, all was stowed away, and after having given the creek the
very suitable name of "Port Balloon," the settlers pursued their way along
Claw Cape. Pencroft and the engineer talked of the different projects which
it was agreed to put into execution with the briefest possible delay. It
was necessary first of all to throw a bridge over the Mercy, so as to
establish an easy communication with the south of the island; then the cart
must be taken to bring back the balloon, for the canoe alone could not
carry it, then they would build a decked boat, and Pencroft would rig it as
a cutter, and they would be able to undertake voyages of circumnavigation
round the island, etc.

In the meanwhile night came on, and it was already dark when the settlers
reached Flotsam Point, where they had found the precious chest.

The distance between Flotsam Point and Granite House was another four
miles, and it was midnight when, after having followed the shore to the
mouth of the Mercy, the settlers arrived at the first angle formed by the
Mercy.

There the river was eighty feet in breadth, which was awkward to cross,
but as Pencroft had taken upon himself to conquer this difficulty, he was
compelled to do it. The settlers certainly had reason to be pretty tired.
The journey had been long, and the task of getting down the balloon had not
rested either their arms or legs. They were anxious to reach Granite House
to eat and sleep, and if the bridge had been constructed, in a quarter of
an hour they would have been at home.

The night was very dark. Pencroft prepared to keep his promise by
constructing a sort of raft, on which to make the passage of the Mercy. He
and Neb, armed with axes, chose two trees near the water, and began to
attack them at the base.

Cyrus Harding and Spilett, seated on the bank, waited till their
companions were ready for their help, while Herbert roamed about, though
without going to any distance. All at once, the lad, who had strolled by
the river, came running back, and, pointing up the Mercy, exclaimed,--

"What is floating there?"

Pencroft stopped working, and seeing an indistinct object moving through
the gloom,--

"A canoe!" cried he.

All approached, and saw to their extreme surprise, a boat floating down
the current.

"Boat ahoy!" shouted the sailor, without thinking that perhaps it would
be best to keep silence.

No reply. The boat still drifted onward, and it was not more than twelve
feet off, when the sailor exclaimed,--

"But it is our own boat! she has broken her moorings, and floated down
the current. I must say she has arrived very opportunely."

"Our boat?" murmured the engineer.

Pencroft was right. It was indeed the canoe, of which the rope had
undoubtedly broken, and which had come alone from the sources of the Mercy.
It was very important to seize it before the rapid current should have
swept it away out of the mouth of the river, but Neb and Pencroft cleverly
managed this by means of a long pole.

The canoe touched the shore. The engineer leaped in first, and found, on
examining the rope, that it had been really worn through by rubbing against
the rocks.

"Well," said the reporter to him, in a low voice, "this is a strange
thing."

"Strange indeed!" returned Cyrus Harding.

Strange or not, it was very fortunate. Herbert, the reporter, Neb, and
Pencroft, embarked in turn. There was no doubt about the rope having been
worn through, but the astonishing part of the affair was, that the boat
should arrive just at the moment when the settlers were there to seize it
on its way, for a quarter of an hour earlier or later it would have been
lost in the sea.

If they had been living in the time of genii, this incident would have
given them the right to think that the island was haunted by some
supernatural being, who used his power in the service of the castaways!

A few strokes of the oar brought the settlers to the mouth of the Mercy.
The canoe was hauled up on the beach near the Chimneys, and all proceeded
towards the ladder of Granite House.

But at that moment, Top barked angrily, and Neb, who was looking for the
first steps, uttered a cry.

There was no longer a ladder!


Jules Verne