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Chapter 48


CHAPTER 6

However, the chief business of the colonists was to make that complete
exploration of the island which had been decided upon, and which would have
two objects: to discover the mysterious being whose existence was now
indisputable, and at the same time to find out what had become of the
pirates, what retreat they had chosen, what sort of life they were leading,
and what was to be feared from them. Cyrus Harding wished to set out
without delay; but as the expedition would be of some days duration, it
appeared best to load the cart with different materials and tools in order
to facilitate the organization of the encampments. One of the onagers,
however, having hurt its leg, could not be harnessed at present, and a few
days' rest was necessary. The departure was, therefore, put off for a week,
until the 20th of November. The month of November in this latitude
corresponds to the month of May in the northern zones. It was, therefore,
the fine season. The sun was entering the tropic of Capricorn, and gave the
longest days in the year. The time was, therefore, very favorable for the
projected expedition, which, if it did not accomplish its principal object,
would at any rate be fruitful in discoveries, especially of natural
productions, since Harding proposed to explore those dense forests of the
Far West, which stretched to the extremity of the Serpentine Peninsula.

During the nine days which preceded their departure, it was agreed that
the work on Prospect Heights should be finished off.

Moreover, it was necessary for Ayrton to return to the corral, where the
domesticated animals required his care. It was decided that he should spend
two days there, and return to Granite House after having liberally supplied
the stables.

As he was about to start, Harding asked him if he would not like one of
them to accompany him, observing that the island was less safe than
formerly. Ayrton replied that this was unnecessary, as he was enough for
the work, and that besides he apprehended no danger. If anything occurred
at the corral, or in the neighborhood, he could instantly warn the
colonists by sending a telegram to Granite House.

Ayrton departed at dawn on the 9th, taking the cart drawn by one onager,
and two hours after, the electric wire announced that he had found all in
order at the corral.

During these two days Harding busied himself in executing a project which
would completely guard Granite House against any surprise. It was necessary
to completely conceal the opening of the old outlet, which was already
walled up and partly hidden under grass and plants, at the southern angle
of Lake Grant. Nothing was easier, since if the level of the lake was
raised two or three feet, the opening would be quite beneath it. Now, to
raise this level they had only to establish a dam at the two openings made
by the lake, and by which were fed Creek Glycerine and Falls River.

The colonists worked with a will, and the two dams which besides did not
exceed eight feet in width by three in height, were rapidly erected by
means of well-cemented blocks of stone.

This work finished, it would have been impossible to guess
that at that part of the lake, there existed a subterranean passage
through which the overflow of the lake formerly escaped.

Of course the little stream which fed the reservoir of Granite House and
worked the lift, had been carefully preserved, and the water could not
fail. The lift once raised, this sure and comfortable retreat would be safe
from any surprise.

This work had been so quickly done, that Pencroft, Gideon Spilett, and
Herbert found time to make an expedition to Port Balloon, The sailor was
very anxious to know if the little creek in which the "Bonadventure" was
moored, had been visited by the convicts.

"These gentlemen," he observed, "landed on the south coast, and if they
followed the shore, it is to be feared that they may have discovered the
little harbor, and in that case, I wouldn't give half-a-dollar for our
'Bonadventure.'"

Pencroft's apprehensions were not without foundation, and a visit to Port
Balloon appeared to be very desirable. The sailor and his companions set
off on the 10th of November, after dinner, well armed. Pencroft,
ostentatiously slipping two bullets into each barrel of his rifle, shook
his head in a way which betokened nothing good to any one who approached
too near him, whether "man or beast," as he said. Gideon Spilett and
Herbert also took their guns, and about three o'clock all three left
Granite House.

Neb accompanied them to the turn of the Mercy, and after they had
crossed, he raised the bridge. It was agreed that a gunshot should announce
the colonists' return, and that at the signal Neb should return and
reestablish the communication between the two banks of the river.

The little band advanced directly along the road which led to the
southern coast of the island. This was only a distance of three miles and a
half, but Gideon Spilett and his companions took two hours to traverse it.
They examined all the border of the road, the thick forest, as well as
Tabor Marsh. They found no trace of the fugitives who, no doubt, not having
yet discovered the number of the colonists, or the means of defense which
they had at their disposal, had gained the less accessible parts of the
island.

Arrived at Port Balloon, Pencroft saw with extreme satisfaction that the
"Bonadventure" was tranquilly floating in the narrow creek. However, Port
Balloon was so well hidden among high rocks, that it could scarcely be
discovered either from the land or the sea.

"Come," said Pencroft, "the blackguards have not been there yet. Long
grass suits reptiles best, and evidently we shall find them in the Far
West."

"And it's very lucky, for if they had found the 'Bonadventure' added
Herbert, "they would have gone off in her, and we should have been
prevented from returning to Tabor Island."

"Indeed," remarked the reporter, "it will be important to take a document
there which will make known the situation of Lincoln Island, and Ayrton's
new residence, in case the Scotch yacht returns to fetch him."

"Well, the 'Bonadventure' is always there, Mr. Spilett," answered the
sailor. "She and her crew are ready to start at a moment's notice!"

"I think, Pencroft, that that is a thing to be done after our exploration
of the island is finished. It is possible after all that the stranger, if
we manage to find him, may know as much about Tabor Island as about Lincoln
Island. Do not forget that he is certainly the author of the document, and
he may, perhaps, know how far we may count on the return of the yacht!"

"But!" exclaimed Pencroft, "who in the world can he be? The fellow knows
us and we know nothing about him! If he is a simple castaway, why should he
conceal himself! We are honest men, I suppose, and the society of honest
men isn't unpleasant to any one. Did he come here voluntarily? Can he leave
the island if he likes? Is he here still? Will he remain any longer?"

Chatting thus, Pencroft, Gideon Spilett, and Herbert got on board and
looked about the deck of the "Bonadventure." All at once, the sailor having
examined the bitts to which the cable of the anchor was secured,--

"Hallo," he cried, "this is queer!"

"What is the matter, Pencroft?" asked the reporter.

"The matter is, that it was not I who made this knot!"

And Pencroft showed a rope which fastened the cable to the bitt itself.

"What, it was not you?" asked Gideon Spilett.

"No! I can swear to it. This is a reef knot, and I always make a running
bowline."

"You must be mistaken, Pencroft."

"I am not mistaken!" declared the sailor. "My hand does it so naturally,
and one's hand is never mistaken!"

"Then can the convicts have been on board?" asked Herbert.

"I know nothing about that," answered Pencroft, "but what is certain, is
that some one has weighed the 'Bonadventure's' anchor and dropped it again!
And look here, here is another proof! The cable of the anchor has been run
out, and its service is no longer at the hawse-hole. I repeat that some one
has been using our vessel!"

"But if the convicts had used her, they would have pillaged her, or
rather gone off with her."

"Gone off! where to--to Tabor Island?" replied Pencroft. "Do you think,
they would risk themselves in a boat of such small tonnage?'

"We must, besides, be sure that they know of the islet," rejoined the
reporter.

"However that may be," said the sailor, "as sure as my name is
Bonadventure Pencroft, of the Vineyard, our 'Bonadventure' has sailed
without us!"

The sailor was positive that neither Gideon Spilett nor Herbert could
dispute his statement. It was evident that the vessel had been moved, more
or less, since Pencroft had brought her to Port Balloon. As to the sailor,
he had not the slightest doubt that the anchor had been raised and then
dropped again. Now, what was the use of these two maneuvers, unless the
vessel had been employed in some expedition?

"But how was it we did not see the 'Bonadventure' pass in the sight of
the island?" observed the reporter, who was anxious to bring forward every
possible objection.

"Why, Mr. Spilett," replied the sailor, "they would only have to start in
the night with a good breeze, and they would be out of sight of the island
in two hours."

"Well," resumed Gideon Spilett, "I ask again, what object could the
convicts have had in using the 'Bonadventure,' and why, after they had made
use of her, should they have brought her back to port?"

"Why, Mr. Spilett," replied the sailor, "we must put that among the
unaccountable things, and not think anything more about it. The chief thing
is that the 'Bonadventure' was there, and she is there now. Only,
unfortunately, if the convicts take her a second time, we shall very likely
not find her again in her place!"

"Then, Pencroft," said Herbert, "would it not be wisest to bring the
'Bonadventure' off to Granite House?"

"Yes and no," answered Pencroft, "or rather no. The mouth of the Mercy is
a bad place for a vessel, and the sea is heavy there."

"But by hauling her up on the sand, to the foot of the Chimneys?"

"Perhaps yes," replied Pencroft. "At any rate, since we must leave
Granite House for a long expedition, I think the 'Bonadventure' will be
safer here during our absence, and we shall do best to leave her here until
the island is rid of these blackguards."

"That is exactly my opinion," said the reporter. "At any rate in the
event of bad weather, she will not be exposed here as she would be at the
mouth of the Mercy."

"But suppose the convicts pay her another visit," said Herbert.

"Well, my boy," replied Pencroft, "not finding her here, they would not
be long in finding her on the sands of Granite House, and, during our
absence, nothing could hinder them from seizing her! I agree, therefore,
with Mr. Spilett, that she must be left in Port Balloon. But, if on our
return we have not rid the island of those rascals, it will be prudent to
bring our boat to Granite House, until the time when we need not fear any
unpleasant visits."

"That's settled. Let us be off," said the reporter.

Pencroft, Herbert, and Gideon Spilett, on their return to Granite House,
told the engineer all that had passed, and the latter approved of their
arrangements both for the present and the future. He also promised the
sailor that he would study that part of the channel situated between the
islet and the coast, so as to ascertain if it would not be possible to make
an artificial harbor there by means of dams. In this way, the
"Bonadventure" would be always within reach, under the eyes of the
colonists, and if necessary, under lock and key.

That evening a telegram was sent to Ayrton, requesting him to bring from
the corral a couple of goats, which Neb wished to acclimatize to the
plateau. Singularly enough, Ayrton did not acknowledge the receipt of the
despatch, as he was accustomed to do. This could not but astonish the
engineer. But it might be that Ayrton was not at that moment in the corral,
or even that he was on his way back to Granite House. In fact, two days had
already passed since his departure, and it had been decided that on the
evening of the 10th or at the latest the morning of the 11th, he should
return. The colonists waited, therefore, for Ayrton to appear on Prospect
Heights. Neb and Herbert even watched at the bridge so as to be ready to
lower it the moment their companion presented himself.

But up to ten in the evening, there were no signs of Ayrton. It was,
therefore, judged best to send a fresh despatch, requiring an immediate
reply.

The bell of the telegraph at Granite House remained mute.

The colonists' uneasiness was great. What had happened? Was Ayrton no
longer at the corral, or if he was still there, had he no longer control
over his movements? Could they go to the corral in this dark night?

They consulted. Some wished to go, the others to remain.

"But," said Herbert, "perhaps some accident has happened to the
telegraphic apparatus, so that it works no longer?"

"That may be," said the reporter.

"Wait till to-morrow," replied Cyrus Harding. "It is possible, indeed,
that Ayrton has not received our despatch, or even that we have not
received his."

They waited, of course not without some anxiety.

At dawn of day, the 11th of November, Harding again sent the electric
current along the wire and received no reply.

He tried again: the same result.

"Off to the corral," said he.

"And well armed!" added Pencroft.

It was immediately decided that Granite House should not be left alone
and that Neb should remain there. After having accompanied his friends to
Creek Glycerine, he raised the bridge; and waiting behind a tree he watched
for the return of either his companions or Ayrton.

In the event of the pirates presenting themselves and attempting to force
the passage, he was to endeavor to stop them by firing on them, and as a
last resource he was to take refuge in Granite House, where, the lift once
raised, he would be in safety.

Cyrus Harding, Gideon Spilett, Herbert, and Pencroft were to repair to the
corral, and if they did not find Ayrton, search the neighboring woods.

At six o'clock in the morning, the engineer and his three companions had
passed Creek Glycerine, and Neb posted himself behind a small mound crowned
by several dragon trees, on the left bank of the stream.

The colonists, after leaving the plateau of Prospect Heights, immediately
took the road to the corral. They shouldered their guns, ready to fire on
the slightest hostile demonstration. The two rifles and the two guns had
been loaded with ball.

The wood was thick on each side of the road and might easily have
concealed the convicts, who owing to their weapons would have been really
formidable.

The colonists walked rapidly and in silence. Top preceded them, sometimes
running on the road, sometimes taking a ramble into the wood, but always
quiet and not appearing to fear anything unusual. And they could be sure
that the faithful dog would not allow them to be surprised, but would bark
at the least appearance of danger.

Cyrus Harding and his companions followed beside the road the wire which
connected the corral with Granite House. After walking for nearly two
miles, they had not as yet discovered any explanation of the difficulty.
The posts were in good order, the wire regularly extended. However, at that
moment the engineer observed that the wire appeared to be slack, and on
arriving at post No. 74, Herbert, who was in advance stopped, exclaiming,--

"The wire is broken!"

His companions hurried forward and arrived at the spot where the lad was
standing. The post was rooted up and lying across the path. The unexpected
explanation of the difficulty was here, and it was evident that the
despatches from Granite House had not been received at the corral, nor
those from the corral at Granite House.

"It wasn't the wind that blew down this post," observed Pencroft.

"No," replied Gideon Spilett. "The earth has been dug, up round its foot,
and it has been torn up by the hand of man."

"Besides, the wire is broken," added Herbert, showing that the wire had
been snapped.

"Is the fracture recent?" asked Harding.

"Yes," answered Herbert, "it has certainly been done quite lately."

"To the corral! to the corral!" exclaimed the sailor.

The colonists were now half way between Granite House and the corral,
having still two miles and a half to go. They pressed forward with
redoubled speed.

Indeed, it was to be feared that some serious accident had occurred in
the corral. No doubt, Ayrton might have sent a telegram which had not
arrived, but this was not the reason why his companions were so uneasy,
for, a more unaccountable circumstance, Ayrton, who had promised to return
the evening before, had not reappeared. In short, it was not without a
motive that all communication had been stopped between the corral and
Granite House, and who but the convicts could have any interest in
interrupting this communication?

The settlers hastened on, their hearts oppressed with anxiety. They were
sincerely attached to their new companion. Were they to find him struck
down by the hands of those of whom he was formerly the leader?

Soon they arrived at the place where the road led along the side of the
little stream which flowed from the Red Creek and watered the meadows of
the corral. They then moderated their pace so that they should not be out
of breath at the moment when a struggle might be necessary. Their guns were
in their hands ready cocked. The forest was watched on every side. Top
uttered sullen groans which were rather ominous.

At last the palisade appeared through the trees. No trace of any damage
could be seen. The gate was shut as usual. Deep silence reigned in the
corral. Neither the accustomed bleating of the sheep nor Ayrton's voice
could be heard.

"Let us enter," said Cyrus Harding.

And the engineer advanced, while his companions, keeping watch about
twenty paces behind him, were ready to fire at a moment's notice.

Harding raised the inner latch of the gate and was about to push it back,
when Top barked loudly. A report sounded and was responded to by a cry of
pain.

Herbert, struck by a bullet, lay stretched on the ground.


Jules Verne