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Chapter 50


CHAPTER 8

So the convicts were still there, watching the corral, and determined to
kill the settlers one after the other. There was nothing to be done but to
treat them as wild beasts. But great precautions must be taken, for just
now the wretches had the advantage on their side, seeing, and not being
seen, being able to surprise by the suddenness of their attack, yet not to
be surprised themselves. Harding made arrangements, therefore, for living
in the corral, of which the provisions would last for a tolerable length of
time. Ayrton's house had been provided with all that was necessary for
existence, and the convicts, scared by the arrival of the settlers, had not
had time to pillage it. It was probable, as Gideon Spilett observed, that
things had occurred as follows:

The six convicts, disembarking on the island, had followed the southern
shore, and after having traversed the double shore of the Serpentine
Peninsula, not being inclined to venture into the Far West woods, they had
reached the mouth of Falls River. From this point, by following the right
bank of the watercourse, they would arrive at the spurs of Mount Franklin,
among which they would naturally seek a retreat, and they could not have
been long in discovering the corral, then uninhabited. There they had
regularly installed themselves, awaiting the moment to put their abominable
schemes into execution. Ayrton's arrival had surprised them, but they had
managed to overpower the unfortunate man, and--the rest may be easily
imagined!

Now, the convicts,--reduced to five, it is true, but well armed,--were
roaming the woods, and to venture there was to expose themselves to their
attacks, which could be neither guarded against nor prevented.

"Wait! There is nothing else to be done!" repeated Cyrus Harding. "When
Herbert is cured, we can organize a general battle of the island, and have
satisfaction of these convicts. That will be the object of our grand
expedition at the same time--"

"As the search for our mysterious protector," added Gideon Spilett,
finishing the engineer's sentence. "An, it must be acknowledged, my dear
Cyrus, that this time his protection was wanting at the very moment when it
was most necessary to us!"

"Who knows?" replied the engineer.

"What do you mean?" asked the reporter.

"That we are not at the end of our trouble yet, my dear Spilett, and that
his powerful intervention may have another opportunity of exercising
itself. But that is not the question now. Herbert's life before
everything."

This was the colonists' saddest thought. Several days passed, and the
poor boy's state was happily no worse. Cold water, always kept at a
suitable temperature, had completely prevented the inflammation of the
wounds. It even seemed to the reporter that this water, being slightly
sulphurous,--which was explained by the neighborhood of the volcano, had a
more direct action on the healing. The suppuration was much less abundant,
and thanks to the incessant care by which he was surrounded!--Herbert
returned to life, and his fever abated. He was besides subjected to a
severe diet, and consequently his wealmess was and would be extreme; but
there was no want of refreshing drinks, and absolute rest was of the
greatest benefit to him. Cyrus Harding, Gideon Spilett, and Pencroft had
become very skilful in dressing the lad's wounds. All the linen in the
house had been sacrificed. Herbert's wounds, covered with compresses and
lint, were pressed neither too much nor too little, so as to cause their
cicatrization without effecting any inflammatory reaction. The reporter
used extreme care in the dressing, knowing well the importance of it, and
repeating to his companions that which most surgeons willingly admit, that
it is perhaps rarer to see a dressing well done than an operation well
performed.

In ten days, on the 22nd of November, Herbert was considerably better. He
had begun to take some nourishment.

The color was returning to his cheeks, and his bright eyes smiled at his
nurses. He talked a little, notwithstanding Pencroft's efforts, who talked
incessantly to prevent him from beginning to speak, and told him the most
improbable stories. Herbert had questioned him on the subject of Ayrton,
whom he was astonished not to see near him, thinking that he was at the
corral. But the sailor, not wishing to distress Herbert, contented himself
by replying that Ayrton had rejoined Neb, so as to defend Granite House.

"Humph!" said Pencroft, "these pirates! they are gentlemen who have no
right to any consideration! And the captain wanted to win them by kindness!
I'll send them some kindness, but in the shape of a good bullet!"

"And have they not been seen again?" asked Herbert.

"No, my boy," answered the sailor, "but we shall find them, and when you
are cured we shall see if the cowards who strike us from behind will dare
to meet us face to face!"

"I am still very weak, my poor Pencroft!"

"Well! your strength will return gradually! What's a ball through the
chest? Nothing but a joke! I've seen many, and I don't think much of them!"

At last things appeared to be going on well, and if no complication
occurred, Herbert's recovery might be regarded as certain. But what would
have been the condition of the colonists if his state had been aggravated,
--if, for example, the ball had remained in his body, if his arm or his leg
had had to be amputated?

"No," said Spilett more than once, "I have never thought of such a
contingency without shuddering!"

"And yet, if it had been necessary to operate," said Harding one day to
him, "you would not have hesitated?"

"No, Cyrus!" said Gideon Spilett, "but thank God that we have been spared
this complication!"

As in so many other conjectures, the colonists had appealed to the logic
of that simple good sense of which they had made use so often, and once
more, thanks to their general knowledge, it had succeeded! But might not a
time come when all their science would be at fault? They were alone on the
island. Now, men in all states of society are necessary to each other.
Cyrus Harding knew this well, and sometimes he asked if some circumstance
might not occur which they would be powerless to surmount. It appeared to
him besides, that he and his companions, till then so fortunate, had
entered into an unlucky period. During the two years and a half which had
elapsed since their escape from Richmond, it might be said that they had
had everything their own way. The island had abundantly supplied them with
minerals, vegetables, animals, and as Nature had constantly loaded them,
their science had known how to take advantage of what she offered them.

The wellbeing of the colony was therefore complete. Moreover, in certain
occurrences an inexplicable influence had come to their aid!... But all
that could only be for a time.

In short, Cyrus Harding believed that fortune had turned against them.

In fact, the convicts' ship had appeared in the waters of the island, and
if the pirates had been, so to speak, miraculously destroyed, six of them,
at least, had escaped the catastrophe. They had disembarked on the island,
and it was almost impossible to get at the five who survived. Ayrton had no
doubt been murdered by these wretches, who possessed firearms, and at the
first use that they had made of them, Herbert had fallen, wounded almost
mortally. Were these the first blows aimed by adverse fortune at the
colonists? This was often asked by Harding. This was often repeated by the
reporter; and it appeared to him also that the intervention, so strange,
yet so efficacious, which till then had served them so well, had now failed
them. Had this mysterious being, whatever he was, whose existence could not
be denied, abandoned the island? Had he in his turn succumbed?

No reply was possible to these questions. But it must not be imagined
that because Harding and his companions spoke of these things, they were
men to despair. Far from that. They looked their situation in the face,
they analyzed the chances, they prepared themselves for any event, they
stood firm and straight before the future, and if adversity was at last to
strike them, it would find in them men prepared to struggle against it.


Jules Verne