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Chapter 6


CHAPTER 6

The inventory of the articles possessed by these castaways from the clouds,
thrown upon a coast which appeared to be uninhabited, was soon made out.
They had nothing, save the clothes which they were wearing at the time of
the catastrophe. We must mention, however, a note-book and a watch which
Gideon Spilett had kept, doubtless by inadvertence, not a weapon, not a
tool, not even a pocket-knife; for while in the car they had thrown out
everything to lighten the balloon. The imaginary heroes of Daniel Defoe or
of Wyss, as well as Selkirk and Raynal shipwrecked on Juan Fernandez and on
the archipelago of the Aucklands, were never in such absolute destitution.
Either they had abundant resources from their stranded vessels, in grain,
cattle, tools, ammunition, or else some things were thrown up on the coast
which supplied them with all the first necessities of life. But here, not
any instrument whatever, not a utensil. From nothing they must supply
themselves with everything.

And yet, if Cyrus Harding had been with them, if the engineer could have
brought his practical science, his inventive mind to bear on their
situation, perhaps all hope would not have been lost. Alas! they must hope
no longer again to see Cyrus Harding. The castaways could expect nothing
but from themselves and from that Providence which never abandons those
whose faith is sincere.

But ought they to establish themselves on this part of the coast, without
trying to know to what continent it belonged, if it was inhabited, or if
they were on the shore of a desert island?

It was an important question, and should be solved with the shortest
possible delay. From its answer they would know what measures to take.
However, according to Pencroft's advice, it appeared best to wait a few
days before commencing an exploration. They must, in fact, prepare some
provisions and procure more strengthening food than eggs and molluscs. The
explorers, before undertaking new fatigues, must first of all recruit their
strength.

The Chimneys offered a retreat sufficient for the present. The fire was
lighted, and it was easy to preserve some embers. There were plenty of
shell-fish and eggs among the rocks and on the beach. It would be easy to
kill a few of the pigeons which were flying by hundreds about the summit of
the plateau, either with sticks or stones. Perhaps the trees of the
neighboring forest would supply them with eatable fruit. Lastly, the sweet
water was there.

It was accordingly settled that for a few days they would remain at the
Chimneys so as to prepare themselves for an expedition, either along the
shore or into the interior of the country. This plan suited Neb
particularly. As obstinate in his ideas as in his presentiments, he was in
no haste to abandon this part of the coast, the scene of the catastrophe.
He did not, he would not believe in the loss of Cyrus Harding. No, it did
not seem to him possible that such a man had ended in this vulgar fashion,
carried away by a wave, drowned in the floods, a few hundred feet from a
shore. As long as the waves had not cast up the body of the engineer, as
long as he, Neb, had not seen with his eyes, touched with his hands the
corpse of his master, he would not believe in his death! And this idea
rooted itself deeper than ever in his determined heart. An illusion
perhaps, but still an illusion to be respected, and one which the sailor
did not wish to destroy. As for him, he hoped no longer, but there was no
use in arguing with Neb. He was like the dog who will not leave the place
where his master is buried, and his grief was such that most probably he
would not survive him.

This same morning, the 26th of March, at daybreak, Neb had set out on the
shore in a northerly direction, and he had returned to the spot where the
sea, no doubt, had closed over the unfortunate Harding.

That day's breakfast was composed solely of pigeon's eggs and lithodomes.
Herbert had found some salt deposited by evaporation in the hollows of the
rocks, and this mineral was very welcome.

The repast ended, Pencroft asked the reporter if he wished to accompany
Herbert and himself to the forest, where they were going to try to hunt.
But on consideration, it was thought necessary that someone should remain
to keep in the fire, and to be at hand in the highly improbable event of
Neb requiring aid. The reporter accordingly remained behind.

"To the chase, Herbert," said the sailor. "We shall find ammunition on
our way, and cut our weapons in the forest." But at the moment of starting,
Herbert observed, that since they had no tinder, it would perhaps be
prudent to replace it by another substance.

"What?" asked Pencroft.

"Burnt linen," replied the boy. "That could in case of need serve for
tinder."

The sailor thought it very sensible advice. Only it had the inconvenience
of necessitating the sacrifice of a piece of handkerchief. Notwithstanding,
the thing was well worth while trying, and a part of Pencroft's large
checked handkerchief was soon reduced to the state of a half-burnt rag.
This inflammable material was placed in the central chamber at the bottom
of a little cavity in the rock, sheltered from all wind and damp.

It was nine o'clock in the morning. The weather was threatening and the
breeze blew from the southeast. Herbert and Pencroft turned the angle of
the Chimneys, not without having cast a look at the smoke which, just at
that place, curled round a point of rock: they ascended the left bank of
the river.

Arrived at the forest, Pencroft broke from the first tree two stout
branches which he transformed into clubs, the ends of which Herbert rubbed
smooth on a rock. Oh! what would they not have given for a knife!

The two hunters now advanced among the long grass, following the bank.
From the turning which directed its course to the southwest, the river
narrowed gradually and the channel lay between high banks, over which the
trees formed a double arch. Pencroft, lest they should lose themselves,
resolved to follow the course of the stream, which would always lead them
back to the point from which they started. But the bank was not without
some obstacles: here, the flexible branches of the trees bent level with
the current; there, creepers and thorns which they had to break down with
their sticks. Herbert often glided among the broken stumps with the agility
of a young cat, and disappeared in the underwood. But Pencroft called him
back directly, begging him not to wander away. Meanwhile, the sailor
attentively observed the disposition and nature of the surrounding
country. On the left bank, the ground, which was flat and marshy, rose
imperceptibly towards the interior. It looked there like a network of
liquid threads which doubtless reached the river by some underground drain.
Sometimes a stream ran through the underwood, which they crossed without
difficulty. The opposite shore appeared to be more uneven, and the valley
of which the river occupied the bottom was more clearly visible. The hill,
covered with trees disposed in terraces, intercepted the view. On the right
bank walking would have been difficult, for the declivities fell suddenly,
and the trees bending over the water were only sustained by the strength
of their roots.

It is needless to add that this forest, as well as the coast already
surveyed, was destitute of any sign of human life. Pencroft only saw traces
of quadrupeds, fresh footprints of animals, of which he could not recognize
the species. In all probability, and such was also Herbert's opinion, some
had been left by formidable wild beasts which doubtless would give them
some trouble; but nowhere did they observe the mark of an axe on the trees,
nor the ashes of a fire, nor the impression of a human foot. On this they
might probably congratulate themselves, for on any land in the middle of
the Pacific the presence of man was perhaps more to be feared than desired.
Herbert and Pencroft speaking little, for the difficulties of the way were
great, advanced very slowly, and after walking for an hour they had
scarcely gone more than a mile. As yet the hunt had not been successful.
However, some birds sang and fluttered in the foliage, and appeared very
timid, as if man had inspired them with an instinctive fear. Among others,
Herbert described, in a marshy part of the forest, a bird with a long
pointed beak, closely resembling the king-fisher, but its plumage was not
fine, though of a metallic brilliancy.

"That must be a jacamar," said Herbert, trying to get nearer.

"This will be a good opportunity to taste jacamar," replied the sailor,
"if that fellow is in a humor to be roasted!"

Just then, a stone cleverly thrown by the boy, struck the creature on the
wing, but the blow did not disable it, and the jacamar ran off and
disappeared in an instant.

"How clumsy I am!" cried Herbert.

"No, no, my boy!" replied the sailor. "The blow was well aimed; many a
one would have missed it altogether! Come, don't be vexed with yourself. We
shall catch it another day!"

As the hunters advanced, the trees were found to be more scattered, many
being magnificent, but none bore eatable fruit. Pencroft searched in vain
for some of those precious palm-trees which am employed in so many ways in
domestic life, and which have been found as far as the fortieth parallel in
the Northern Hemisphere, and to the thirty-filth only in the Southern
Hemisphere. But this forest was only composed of coniferae, such as
deodaras, already recognized by Herbert, and Douglas pine, similar to those
which grow on the northwest coast of America, and splendid firs, measuring
a hundred and fifty feet in height.

At this moment a flock of birds, of a small size and pretty plumage, with
long glancing tails, dispersed themselves among the branches strewing their
feathers, which covered the ground as with fine down. Herbert picked up a
few of these feathers, and after having examined them,--

"These are couroucous," said he.

"I should prefer a moor-cock or guinea-fowl," replied Pencroft, "still,
if they are good to eat--"

"They are good to eat, and also their flesh is very delicate," replied
Herbert. "Besides, if I don't mistake, it is easy to approach and kill them
with a stick."

The sailor and the lad, creeping among the grass, arrived at the foot of
a tree, whose lower branches were covered with little birds. The couroucous
were waiting the passage of insects which served for their nourishment.
Their feathery feet could be seen clasping the slender twigs which
supported them.

The hunters then rose, and using their sticks like scythes, they mowed
down whole rows of these couroucous, who never thought of flying away, and
stupidly allowed themselves to be knocked off. A hundred were already
heaped on the ground, before the others made up their minds to fly.

"Well," said Pencroft, "here is game, which is quite within the reach of
hunters like us. We have only to put out our hands and take it!"

The sailor having strung the couroucous like larks on flexible twigs,
they then continued their exploration. The stream here made a bend towards
the south, but this detour was probably not prolonged for the river must
have its source in the mountain, and be supplied by the melting of the snow
which covered the sides of the central cone.

The particular object of their expedition was, as has been said, to
procure the greatest possible quantity of game for the inhabitants of the
Chimneys. It must be acknowledged that as yet this object had not been
attained. So the sailor actively pursued his researches, though he
exclaimed, when some animal which he had not even time to recognize fled
into the long grass, "If only we had had the dog Top!" But Top had
disappeared at the same time as his master, and had probably perished with
him.

Towards three o'clock new flocks of birds were seen through certain
trees, at whose aromatic berries they were pecking, those of the juniper-
tree among others. Suddenly a loud trumpet call resounded through the
forest. This strange and sonorous cry was produced by a game bird called
grouse in the United States. They soon saw several couples, whose plumage
was rich chestnut-brown mottled with dark brown, and tail of the same
color. Herbert recognized the males by the two wing-like appendages raised
on the neck. Pencroft determined to get hold of at least one of these
gallinaceae, which were as large as a fowl, and whose flesh is better than
that of a pullet. But it was difficult, for they would not allow themselves
to be approached. After several fruitless attempts, which resulted in
nothing but scaring the grouse, the sailor said to the lad,--

"Decidedly, since we can't kill them on the wing, we must try to take
them with a line."

"Like a fish?" cried Herbert, much surprised at the proposal.

"Like a fish," replied the sailor quite seriously. Pencroft had found
among the grass half a dozen grouse nests, each having three or four eggs.
He took great care not to touch these nests, to which their proprietors
would not fail to return. It was around these that he meant to stretch his
lines, not snares, but real fishing-lines. He took Herbert to some distance
from the nests, and there prepared his singular apparatus with all the care
which a disciple of Izaak Walton would have used. Herbert watched the work
with great interest, though rather doubting its success. The lines were
made of fine creepers, fastened one to the other, of the length of fifteen
or twenty feet. Thick, strong thorns, the points bent back (which were
supplied from a dwarf acacia bush) were fastened to the ends of the
creepers, by way of hooks. Large red worms, which were crawling on the
ground, furnished bait.

This done, Pencroft, passing among the grass and concealing himself
skillfully, placed the end of his lines armed with hooks near the grouse
nests; then he returned, took the other ends and hid with Herbert behind a
large tree. There they both waited patiently; though, it must be said, that
Herbert did not reckon much on the success of the inventive Pencroft.

A whole half-hour passed, but then, as the sailor had surmised, several
couple of grouse returned to their nests. They walked along, pecking the
ground, and not suspecting in any way the presence of the hunters, who,
besides, had taken care to place themselves to leeward of the gallinaceae.

The lad felt at this moment highly interested. He held his breath, and
Pencroft, his eyes staring, his mouth open, his lips advanced, as if about
to taste a piece of grouse, scarcely breathed.

Meanwhile, the birds walked about the hooks, without taking any notice of
them. Pencroft then gave little tugs which moved the bait as if the worms
had been still alive.

The sailor undoubtedly felt much greater anxiety than does the fisherman,
for he does not see his prey coming through the water. The jerks attracted
the attention of the gallinaceae, and they attacked the hooks with their
beaks. Three voracious grouse swallowed at the same moment bait and hook.
Suddenly with a smart jerk, Pencroft "struck" his line, and a flapping of
wings showed that the birds were taken.

"Hurrah!" he cried, rushing towards the game, of which he made himself
master in an instant.

Herbert clapped his hands. It was the first time that he had ever seen
birds taken with a line, but the sailor modestly confessed that it was not
his first attempt, and that besides he could not claim the merit of
invention.

"And at any rate," added he, "situated as we are, we must hope to hit
upon many other contrivances."

The grouse were fastened by their claws, and Pencroft, delighted at not
having to appear before their companions with empty hands, and observing
that the day had begun to decline, judged it best to return to their
dwelling.

The direction was indicated by the river, whose course they had only to
follow, and, towards six o'clock, tired enough with their excursion,
Herbert and Pencroft arrived at the Chimneys.


Jules Verne