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Chapter 55


CHAPTER 13

How had it happened? who had killed the convicts? Was it Ayrton? No, for a
moment before he was dreading their return.

But Ayrton was now in a profound stupor, from which it was no longer
possible to rouse him. After uttering those few words he had again become
unconscious, and had fallen back motionless on the bed.

The colonists, a prey to a thousand confused thoughts, under the
influence of violent excitement, waited all night, without leaving Ayrton's
house, or returning to the spot where lay the bodies of the convicts. It
was very probable that Ayrton would not be able to throw any light on the
circumstances under which the bodies had been found, since he himself was
not aware that he was in the corral. But at any rate he would be in a
position to give an account of what had taken place before this terrible
execution. The next day Ayrton awoke from his torpor, and his companions
cordially manifested all the joy they felt, on seeing him again, almost
safe and sound, after a hundred and four days separation.

Ayrton then in a few words recounted what had happened, or, at least, as
much as he knew.

The day after his arrival at the corral, on the 10th of last November, at
nightfall, he was surprised by the convicts, who had scaled the palisade.
They bound and gagged him; then he was led to a dark cavern, at the foot of
Mount Franklin, where the convicts had taken refuge.

His death had been decided upon, and the next day the convicts were about
to kill him, when one of them recognized him and called him by the name
which he bore in Australia. The wretches had no scruples as to murdering
Ayrton! They spared Ben Joyce!

But from that moment Ayrton was exposed to the importunities of his
former accomplices. They wished him to join them again, and relied upon his
aid to enable them to gain possession of Granite House, to penetrate into
that hitherto inaccessible dwelling, and to become masters of the island,
after murdering the colonists!

Ayrton remained firm. The once convict, now repentant and pardoned, would
rather die than betray his companions. Ayrton--bound, gagged, and closely
watched--lived in this cave for four months.

Nevertheless the convicts had discovered the corral a short time after
their arrival in the island, and since then they had subsisted on Ayrton's
stores, but did not live at the corral.

On the 11th of November, two of the villains, surprised by the colonists'
arrival, fired at Herbert, and one of them returned, boasting of having
killed one of the inhabitants of the island; but he returned alone. His
companion, as is known, fell by Cyrus Harding's dagger.

Ayrton's anxiety and despair may be imagined when he learned the news of
Herbert's death. The settlers were now only four, and, as it seemed, at the
mercy of the convicts. After this event, and during all the time that the
colonists, detained by Herbert's illness, remained in the corral, the
pirates did not leave their cavern, and even after they had pillaged the
plateau of Prospect Heights, they did not think it prudent to abandon it.

The ill-treatment inflicted on Ayrton was now redoubled. His hands and
feet still bore the bloody marks of the cords which bound him day and
night. Every moment he expected to be put to death, nor did it appear
possible that he could escape.

Matters remained thus until the third week of February. The convicts,
still watching for a favorable opportunity, rarely quitted their retreat,
and only made a few hunting excursions, either to the interior of the
island, or the south coast.

Ayrton had no further news of his friends, and relinquished all hope of
ever seeing them again. At last, the unfortunate man, weakened by ill-
treatment, fell into a prostration so profound that sight and hearing
failed him. From that moment, that is to say, since the last two days, he
could give no information whatever of what had occurred

"But, Captain Harding," he added, "since I was imprisoned in that cavern,
how is it that I find myself in the corral?"

"How is it that the convicts are lying yonder dead, in the middle of the
enclosure?" answered the engineer.

"Dead!" cried Ayrton, half rising from his bed, notwithstanding his
weakness.

His companions supported him. He wished to get up, and with their
assistance he did so. They then proceeded together towards the little
stream.

It was now broad daylight.

There, on the bank, in the position in which they had been stricken by
death in its most instantaneous form, lay the corpses of the five convicts!

Ayrton was astounded. Harding and his companions looked at him without
uttering a word. On a sign from the engineer, Neb and Pencroft examined the
bodies, already stiffened by the cold.

They bore no apparent trace of any wound.

Only, after carefully examining them, Pencroft found on the forehead of
one, on the chest of another, on the back of this one, on the shoulder of
that, a little red spot, a sort of scarcely visible bruise, the cause of
which it was impossible to conjecture.

"It is there that they have been struck!" said Cyrus Harding.

"But with what weapon?" cried the reporter.

"A weapon, lightning-like in its effects, and of which we have not the
secret!"

"And who has struck the blow?" asked Pencroft.

"The avenging power of the island," replied Harding, "he who brought you
here, Ayrton, whose influence has once more manifested itself, who does for
us all that which we cannot do for ourselves, and who, his will
accomplished, conceals himself from us."

"Let us make search for him, then!" exclaimed Pencroft.

"Yes, we will search for him," answered Harding, "but we shall not
discover this powerful being who performs such wonders, until he pleases to
call us to him!"

This invisible protection, which rendered their own action unavailing,
both irritated and piqued the engineer. The relative inferiority which it
proved was of a nature to wound a haughty spirit. A generosity evinced in
such a manner as to elude all tokens of gratitude, implied a sort of
disdain for those on whom the obligation was conferred, which in Cyrus
Harding's eyes marred, in some degree, the worth of the benefit.

"Let us search," he resumed, "and God grant that we may some day be
permitted to prove to this haughty protector that he has not to deal with
ungrateful people! What would I not give could we repay him, by rendering
him in our turn, although at the price of our lives, some signal service!"

From this day, the thoughts of the inhabitants of Lincoln Island were
solely occupied with the intended search. Everything incited them to
discover the answer to this enigma, an answer which would only be the name
of a man endowed with a truly inexplicable, and in some degree superhuman
power.

In a few minutes, the settlers re-entered the house, where their
influence soon restored to Ayrton his moral and physical energy. Neb and
Pencroft carried the corpses of the convicts into the forest, some distance
from the corral, and buried them deep in the ground.

Ayrton was then made acquainted with the facts which had occurred during
his seclusion. He learned Herbert's adventures, and through what various
trials the colonists had passed. As to the settlers, they had despaired of
ever seeing Ayrton again, and had been convinced that the convicts had
ruthlessly murdered him.

"And now," said Cyrus Harding, as he ended his recital, "a duty remains
for us to perform. Half of our task is accomplished, but although the
convicts are no longer to be feared, it is not owing to ourselves that we
are once more masters of the island."

"Well!" answered Gideon Spilett, "let us search all this labyrinth of the
spurs of Mount Franklin. We will not leave a hollow, not a hole unexplored!
Ah! if ever a reporter found himself face to face with a mystery, it is I
who now speak to you, my friends!"

"And we will not return to Granite House until we have found our
benefactor," said Herbert.

"Yes," said the engineer, "we will do all that it is humanly possible to
do, but I repeat we shall not find him until he himself permits us."

"Shall we stay at the corral?" asked Pencroft.

"We shall stay here," answered Harding. "Provisions are abundant, and we
are here in the very center of the circle we have to explore. Besides, if
necessary, the cart will take us rapidly to Granite House."

"Good!" answered the sailor. "Only I have a remark to make."

"What is it?"

"Here is the fine season getting on, and we must not forget that we have
a voyage to make."

"A voyage?" said Gideon Spilett.

"Yes, to Tabor Island," answered Pencroft. "It is necessary to carry a
notice there to point out the position of our island and say that Ayrton is
here in case the Scotch yacht should come to take him off. Who knows if it
is not already too late?"

"But, Pencroft," asked Ayrton, "how do you intend to make this voyage?"

"In the 'Bonadventure.'"

"The 'Bonadventure!'" exclaimed Ayrton. "She no longer exists."

"My 'Bonadventure' exists no longer!" shouted Pencroft, bounding from his
seat.

"No," answered Ayrton. "The convicts discovered her in her little harbor
only eight days ago, they put to sea in her,

"And?" said Pencroft, his heart beating.

"And not having Bob Harvey to steer her, they ran on the rocks, and the
vessel went to pieces."

"Oh, the villains, the cutthroats, the infamous scoundrels!" exclaimed
Pencroft.

"Pencroft," said Herbert, taking the sailor's hand, "we will build
another 'Bonadventure'--a larger one. We have all the ironwork--all the
rigging of the brig at our disposal."

"But do you know," returned Pencroft, "that it will take at least five or
six months to build a vessel of from thirty to forty tons?"

"We can take our time," said the reporter, "and we must give up the
voyage to Tabor Island for this year."

"Oh, my 'Bonadventure!' my poor 'Bonadventure!'" cried Pencroft, almost
broken-hearted at the destruction of the vessel of which he was so proud.

The loss of the "Bonadventure" was certainly a thing to be lamented by
the colonists, and it was agreed that this loss should be repaired as soon
as possible. This settled, they now occupied themselves with bringing their
researches to bear on the most secret parts of the island.

The exploration was commenced at daybreak on the 19th of February, and
lasted an entire week. The base of the mountain, with its spurs and their
numberless ramifications, formed a labyrinth of valleys and elevations. It
was evident that there, in the depths of these narrow gorges, perhaps even
in the interior of Mount Franklin itself, was the proper place to pursue
their researches. No part of the island could have been more suitable to
conceal a dwelling whose occupant wished to remain unknown. But so
irregular was the formation of the valleys that Cyrus Harding was obliged
to conduct the exploration in a strictly methodical manner.

The colonists first visited the valley opening to the south of the
volcano, and which first received the waters of Falls River. There Ayrton
showed them the cavern where the convicts had taken refuge, and in which he
had been imprisoned until his removal to the corral. This cavern was just
as Ayrton had left it. They found there a considerable quantity of
ammunition and provisions, conveyed thither by the convicts in order to
form a reserve.

The whole of the valley bordering on the cave, shaded by fir and other
trees, was thoroughly explored, and on turning the point of the
southwestern spur, the colonists entered a narrower gorge similar to the
picturesque columns of basalt on the coast. Here the trees were fewer.
Stones took the place of grass. Goats and musmons gambolled among the
rocks. Here began the barren part of the island. It could already be seen
that, of the numerous valleys branching off at the base of Mount Franklin,
three only were wooded and rich in pasturage like that of the corral, which
bordered on the west on the Falls River valley, and on the east on the Red
Creek valley. These two streams, which lower down became rivers by the
absorption of several tributaries, were formed by all the springs of the
mountain and thus caused the fertility of its southern part. As to the
Mercy, it was more directly fed from ample springs concealed under the
cover of Jacamar Wood, and it was by springs of this nature, spreading in a
thousand streamlets, that the soil of the Serpentine Peninsula was watered.

Now, of these three well-watered valleys, either might have served as a
retreat to some solitary who would have found there everything necessary
for life. But the settlers had already explored them, and in no part had
they discovered the presence of man.

Was it then in the depths of those barren gorges, in the midst of the
piles of rock, in the rugged northern ravines, among the streams of lava,
that this dwelling and its occupant would be found?

The northern part of Mount Franklin was at its base composed solely of
two valleys, wide, not very deep, without any appearance of vegetation,
strewn with masses of rock, paved with lava, and varied with great blocks
of mineral. This region required a long and careful exploration. It
contained a thousand cavities, comfortless no doubt, but perfectly
concealed and difficult of access.

The colonists even visited dark tunnels, dating from the volcanic period,
still black from the passage of the fire, and penetrated into the depths of
the mountain. They traversed these somber galleries, waving lighted
torches; they examined the smallest excavations; they sounded the
shallowest depths, but all was dark and silent. It did not appear that the
foot of man had ever before trodden these ancient passages, or that his arm
had ever displaced one of these blocks, which remained as the volcano had
cast them up above the waters, at the time of the submersion of the island.

However, although these passages appeared to be absolutely deserted, and
the obscurity was complete, Cyrus Harding was obliged to confess that
absolute silence did not reign there.

On arriving at the end of one of these gloomy caverns, extending several
hundred feet into the interior of the mountain, he was surprised to hear a
deep rumbling noise, increased in intensity by the sonorousness of the
rocks.

Gideon Spilett, who accompanied him, also heard these distant mutterings,
which indicated a revivification of the subterranean fires. Several times
both listened, and they agreed that some chemical process was taking place
in the bowels of the earth.

"Then the volcano is not totally extinct?" said the reporter.

"It is possible that since our exploration of the crater," replied Cyrus
Harding, "some change has occurred. Any volcano, although considered
extinct, may evidently again burst forth."

"But if an eruption of Mount Franklin occurred," asked Spilett, "would
there not be some danger to Lincoln Island?"

"I do not think so," answered the reporter. "The crater, that is to say,
the safety-valve, exists, and the overflow of smoke and lava, would escape,
as it did formerly, by this customary outlet."

"Unless the lava opened a new way for itself towards the fertile parts of
the island!"

"And why, my dear Spilett," answered Cyrus Harding, "should it not follow
the road naturally traced out for it?"

"Well, volcanoes are capricious," returned the reporter.

"Notice," answered the engineer, "that the inclination of Mount Franklin
favors the flow of water towards the valleys which we are exploring just
now. To turn aside this flow, an earthquake would be necessary to change
the mountain's center of gravity."

"But an earthquake is always to be feared at these times," observed
Gideon Spilett.

"Always," replied the engineer, "especially when the subterranean forces
begin to awake, as they risk meeting with some obstruction, after a long
rest. Thus, my dear Spilett, an eruption would be a serious thing for us,
and it would be better that the volcano should not have the slightest
desire to wake up. But we could not prevent it, could we? At any rate, even
if it should occur, I do not think Prospect Heights would he seriously
threatened. Between them and the mountain, the ground is considerably
depressed, and if the lava should ever take a course towards the lake, it
would be cast on the downs and the neighboring parts of Shark Gulf."

"We have not yet seen any smoke at the top of the mountain, to indicate
an approaching eruption," said Gideon Spilett.

"No," answered Harding, "not a vapor escapes from the crater, for it was
only yesterday that I attentively surveyed the summit. But it is probable
that at the lower part of the chimney, time may have accumulated rocks,
cinders, hardened lava, and that this valve of which I spoke, may at any
time become overcharged. But at the first serious effort, every obstacle
will disappear, and you may be certain, my dear Spilett, that neither the
island, which is the boiler, nor the volcano, which is the chimney, will
burst under the pressure of gas. Nevertheless, I repeat, it would be better
that there should not be an eruption."

"And yet we are not mistaken," remarked the reporter. "Mutterings can be
distinctly heard in the very bowels of the volcano!"

"You are right," said the engineer, again listening attentively. "There
can be no doubt of it. A commotion is going on there, of which we can
neither estimate the importance nor the ultimate result."

Cyrus Harding and Spilett, on coming out, rejoined their companions, to
whom they made known the state of affairs.

"Very well!" cried Pencroft, "The volcano wants to play his pranks! Let
him try, if he likes! He will find his master!"

"Who?" asked Neb.

"Our good genius, Neb, our good genius, who will shut his mouth for him,
if he so much as pretends to open it!"

As may be seen, the sailor's confidence in the tutelary deity of his
island was absolute, and, certainly, the occult power, manifested until now
in so many inexplicable ways, appeared to be unlimited; but also it knew
how to escape the colonists' most minute researches, for, in spite of all
their efforts, in spite of the more than zeal,--the obstinacy,--with which
they carried on their exploration, the retreat of the mysterious being
could not be discovered.

From the 19th to the 20th of February the circle of investigation was
extended to all the northern region of Lincoln Island, whose most secret
nooks were explored. The colonists even went the length of tapping every
rock. The search was extended to the extreme verge of the mountain. It was
explored thus to the very summit of the truncated cone terminating the
first row of rocks, then to the upper ridge of the enormous hat, at the
bottom of which opened the crater.

They did more; they visited the gulf, now extinct, but in whose depths
the rumbling could be distinctly heard. However, no sign of smoke or vapor,
no heating of the rock, indicated an approaching eruption. But neither
there, nor in any other part of Mount Franklin, did the colonists find any
traces of him of whom they were in search.

Their investigations were then directed to the downs. They carefully
examined the high lava-cliffs of Shark Gulf from the base to the crest,
although it was extremely difficult to reach even the level of the gulf. No
one!--nothing!

Indeed, in these three words was summed up so much fatigue uselessly
expended, so much energy producing no results, that somewhat of anger
mingled with the discomfiture of Cyrus Harding and his companions.

It was now time to think of returning, for these researches could not be
prolonged indefinitely. The colonists were certainly right in believing
that the mysterious being did not reside on the surface of the island, and
the wildest fancies haunted their excited imaginations. Pencroft and Neb,
particularly, were not contented with the mystery, but allowed their
imaginations to wander into the domain of the supernatural.

On the 25th of February the colonists re-entered Granite House, and by
means of the double cord, carried by an arrow to the threshold of the door,
they re-established communication between their habitation and the ground.

A month later they commemorated, on the 25th of March, the third
anniversary of their arrival on Lincoln Island.


Jules Verne