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.
"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?"
"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; 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!