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The Castaways of the Flag, Page 2

Jules Verne

  "Well, what the deuce!" John Block exclaimed. '' There is a harbour somewhere! All we have to do is to steer for it, with the wind whistling through the yards. Good Lord! If I were the Creator I would show you half a dozen islands lying all round us, waiting our convenience!"

  "We won't ask for as many as that, bo'sun," the passenger replied, unable to refrain from smiling.

  "Well," John Block answered, "if He will drive our boat towards one of those which exist already, it will be enough, and He need not make any islands on purpose, although, I must say, He seems to have been a bit stingy with them hereabouts!"

  ''But where are we?"

  "I can't tell you, not even within a few hundred miles,'' John Block replied. "You know that for a whole long week we were shut up in the hold, unable to see what course the ship was shaping, whether south or north. Anyhow, it must have been blowing steadily, and the sea did plenty of rolling and chopping."

  "That is true, John Block, and true, too, that we must have gone a long way; but in what direction?"

  "About that I don't know anything," the boatswain declared. "Did the ship go off to the Pacific, instead of making for the Indian Ocean? On the day of the mutiny we were off Madagascar. But since then, as the wind has blown from the west all the time, we may have been taken hundreds of miles from there, towards the islands of Saint Paul and Amsterdam."

  "Where there are none but savages of the worst possible sort," James Wolston remarked. "But after all, the men who cast us away are not much better."

  "One thing is certain," John Block declared; "that wretch Borupt must have altered the Flag's course and made for waters where he will be most likely to escape punishment, and where he and his gang will play pirates! So I think that we were a long way out of our proper course when this boat was cut adrift. But I wish we might strike some island in these seas—even a desert island would do! We could live all right by hunting and fishing; we should find shelter in some cave. Why shouldn't we make of our island what the survivors of the Landlord made of New Switzerland? With strong arms, brains, and pluck –"

  "Very true," James Wolston answered, "but the Landlord did not fail her passengers. They were able to save her cargo, while we shall never have anything from the Flag's cargo."

  The conversation was interrupted. A voice that rang with pain was heard:

  "Drink! Give me something to drink!"

  "It's Captain Gould," one of the passengers said. "He is eaten up with fever. Luckily there is plenty of water, and –"

  "That's my job," said the boatswain. "Do one of you take the tiller. I know where the can is, and a few mouthfuls will give the captain ease."

  And John Block left his seat aft and went forward into the bows of the boat.

  The three other passengers remained in silence, awaiting his return.

  After being away for two or three minutes John Block came back to his post.

  "Well?" someone enquired.

  "Someone got there before me," John Block answered. "One of our good angels was with the patient already, pouring a little fresh water between his lips, and bathing his forehead that was wet with sweat. I don't know whether Captain Gould was conscious. He seemed to be delirious. He was talking about land. 'The land ought to be over there,' he kept saying, and his hand was wobbling about like the pennon on the mainmast when all winds are blowing at once. I answered: ' Ay, ay, captain, quite so. The land is somewhere! We shall reach it soon. I can smell it, to northwards.' And that is a sure thing. We old sailors can smell land like that. And I said too: 'Don't be uneasy, captain, everything is all right. We have a stout boat and I will keep her course steady. There must be more islands hereabouts than we could know what to do with. Too many to choose from! We shall find one to suit our convenience—an inhabited island where we shall find a welcome and where we shall be sent home from.' The poor chap understood what I said, I am sure, and when I held the lantern near his face he smiled to me—such a sad smile!—and at the good angel too. Then he closed his eyes again, and fell asleep almost at once. Well! I may have lied pretty heavily when I talked about land to him as if it were only a few miles off, but was I far wrong?"

  "No, Block," the youngest passenger replied ; "that is the kind of lie that God allows."

  The conversation ended, and the silence was only broken thereafter by the flapping of the sail against the mast as the boat rolled from one side to the other. Most of those who were aboard her, broken down by fatigue and weakened by long privation, forgot their terrors in heavy sleep.

  Although these unhappy people still had something wherewith to quench their thirst, they would have nothing wherewith to appease their hunger in the coming days. Of the few pounds of salt meat that had been flung into the boat when she was pushed off, nothing now remained. They were reduced to one bag of sea-biscuits for eleven people. How could they manage, if the calm persisted % And for the last forty-eight hours not one breath of breeze had stolen through the stifling atmosphere, not even one of those intermittent gusts which are like the last sighs of a dying man. It meant death by starvation, and that within a short time.

  There was no steam navigation in those days. So the probability was that, in the absence of wind, no ship would come into sight, and, in the absence of wind, the boat could not reach land, whether island or continent.

  It was necessary to have perfect faith in God to combat utter despair, or else to possess the unshakeable philosophy of the boatswain, which consisted in refusing to see any but the bright side of things. Even now he muttered to himself:

  "Ay, ay, I know; the time will come when the last biscuit will have been eaten; but as long as one can keep one's stomach one mustn't grumble, even if there is nothing to put in it! Now, if one hadn't got a stomach left, even if there were plenty to put in it—that would be really serious!"

  Two hours passed. The boat had not moved a cable's length, for there was only the motion of the swell to affect her. Now the swell does not move forward; it merely makes the surface of the water undulate. A few chips of wood that had been thrown over the side the day before were still floating close by, and the sail had not filled once to move the boat away from them.

  While merely afloat like this, it was little use to remain at the helm. But the boatswain declined to leave his post. With the tiller under his arm, he tried at least to avoid the lurching which tilted the boat to one side and another, and thus to spare his companions excessive shaking.

  It was about three o'clock in the morning when John Block felt a light breath pass across his cheeks, roughened and hardened as they were by the salt sea air.

  "Can the wind be getting up?" he murmured as he rose.

  He turned towards the south, and, wetting his finger in his mouth, held it up. There was a distinct sensation of coldness, caused by the evaporation, and now a distant rippling sound became audible.

  He turned to the passenger sitting on the middle bench, near one of the women.

  "Mr. Fritz!" he said.

  Fritz Robinson raised his head and bent round.

  "What do you want, bo'sun?" he asked.

  "Look over there—towards the east."

  "What do you think you see?"

  "If I'm not mistaken, a kind of rift, like a belt, on the water-line."

  Unmistakably there was a lighter line along the horizon in that direction. Sky and sea could be distinguished with more definiteness. It was as if a rent had just been made in the dome of mist and vapour.

  "It's wind!" the boatswain declared.

  "Isn't it only the first beginning of daybreak?" the passenger asked.

  "It might be daylight, though it's very early for it," John Block replied, "and again it might be a breeze! I felt something of it in my beard just now, and look!—it's twitching still! I'm aware it's not a breeze to fill the top-gallant sails, but anyhow it's more than we've had for the last four and twenty hours. Put your hand to your ear, Mr. Fritz, and listen; you'll hear what I heard."

  "You are right," said t
he passenger, leaning over the gunwale; "it is the breeze."

  "And we're ready for it," the boatswain replied, "with the foresail block and tackle. We've only got to haul the sheet taut to save all the wind which is rising."

  "But where will it take us?"

  "Wherever it likes," the boatswain answered; "all I want it to do is to blow us out of these cursed waters!''

  Twenty minutes went by. The breath of wind, which at first was almost imperceptible, grew stronger. The rippling aft became louder. The boat made a few rougher motions, not caused by the slow, nauseating swell. Folds of the sail spread out, fell flat, and opened again, and the sheet sagged against its cleats. The wind was not strong enough yet to fill the heavy canvas of the foresail and the jib. Patience was needed, while the boat's head was kept to her course as well as might be by means of one of the sculls.

  A quarter of an hour later, progress was marked by a light wake.

  Just at this moment one of the passengers who had been lying in the bows got up and looked at the rift in the clouds to the eastward.

  "Is it a breeze?" he asked.

  '' Yes,'' John Block answered. ''1 think we have got it this time, like a bird in the hand— and we won't let go of it!"

  The wind was beginning to spread steadily now through the rift, through which, too, the first gleams of light must come. From southeast to south-west, the clouds still hung in heavy masses, over three-quarters of the circumference of the sky. It was still impossible to see more than a few cables' lengths from the boat, and beyond that distance no ship could have been detected.

  As the breeze had freshened, the sheet had to be hauled in, the foresail, whose gear was slackened, hoisted, and the course veered a point or two, so as to give the jib a hold on the wind.

  "We've got it; we've got it!" the boatswain said cheerily, and the boat, heeling gently over to starboard, dipped her nose into the first waves.

  Little by little the rent in the clouds grew bigger and spread overhead. The sky assumed a reddish hue. It seemed that the wind might hold to the present quarter for some little time, and that the period of calms had come to an end.

  Hope of reaching land revived once more, or the alternative hope of falling in with a ship.

  At five o'clock the rent in the clouds was ringed with a collar of vivid coloured clouds. It was the day, appearing with the suddenness peculiar to the low latitudes of the tropical regions. Soon purple rays of light arose above the horizon, like the sticks of a fan. The rim of the solar disc, heightened by the refraction, touched the horizon line, drawn clearly now at the end of sky and sea. At once the rays of light caught on the little clouds which hung in the high heaven, and dyed them every shade of crimson. But they were stubbornly arrested by the dense vapours accumulated in the north, and could not break through them. And so the range of vision, long behind, was still extremely limited in front. The boat was leaving a long wake behind her now, marked in creamy white upon the greenish water.

  And now the whole sun emerged above the horizon, enormously magnified at its diameter. No haze dimmed its brilliance, which was insupportable to the eye. All aboard the boat looked away from it; they only scanned the north, whither the wind was carrying them. The main question was what the fog screened from them in that direction.

  At length, just before half-past six, one of the passengers seized the halyards of the foresail and clambered nimbly up to the yardarm, just as the sun cleared the sky to the eastward with its early rays.

  And in a ringing voice he shouted:



  IT was on the 20th of October that the Unicorn had left New Switzerland on her way back to England. On her return, when the Admiralty sent to take possession of the new colony in the Indian Ocean, after a brief stop at the Cape of Good Hope, she was to bring back Fritz and Frank Zermatt, Jenny Montrose and Dolly Wolston. The two brothers took the berths left vacant by the Wolstons who were now settled on the island. A comfortable cabin had been placed at the disposal of Jenny and her little companion Dolly, who was going to join James Wolston and his wife and child at Cape Town.

  After rounding the False Hope Point the Unicorn sailed westward before the wind and came down to the south again, leaving the island of Burning Rock to her starboard. Before finally leaving New Switzerland Lieutenant Littlestone decided to reconnoitre its eastern coast as well, in order to satisfy himself that it really was an isolated island in these seas, and to form an approximate idea of the size of a colony which would soon be included among the island dominions of Great Britain. As soon as he had done this, the corvette, with a fair wind behind her, left the island to the north-west, after getting little more than a glimpse of its southern portion through the haze and fog.

  Fortune favoured the first few weeks of the voyage. The passengers on the Unicorn were delighted with the weather, as well as with the cordial treatment which they received from the commander and the other officers. When they all met at table in the officers' mess, or under the awning on the poop, the conversation generally turned upon the wonders of New Switzerland. If the corvette met with nothing to delay her they all hoped to see it again within the year.

  Fritz and Jenny often talked of Colonel Montrose, and of the gladness that would be his when he clasped in his arms the daughter whom he had thought he would never see again. For three years no news had been received of the Dorcas, whose loss with nearly all hands had been confirmed, by the survivors who had been taken to Sydney. But when they reached England Jenny would present to her father the man who had rescued her, and would beg him to bless their union.

  As for Frank, though Dolly Wolston was only fourteen, it would not be without a bitter pang that he would leave her at Cape Town, and keen would be his longing to come back to her side!

  After crossing the Tropic, off the Isle of France, the Unicorn encountered less favourable winds. These delayed her arrival at her port until the 17th of December, two months after her departure from New Switzerland.

  The corvette came to anchor in the harbour of Cape Town, where she was to remain for a week.

  One of the first visitors to come aboard was James Wolston. He knew that his father, mother, and two sisters had taken passages on the Unicorn, and his disappointment can be imagined at finding that there was only one sister for him to meet. Dolly presented Fritz and Frank Zermatt to him.

  "Your father and mother and sister Hannah are living in New Switzerland now, Mr. Wolston," Fritz told him; "an unknown island on which my family was cast twelve years ago, after the wreck of the Landlord. They have decided to remain there and expect you to join them. When she comes back from Europe the Unicorn will take you and your wife and child to our island, if you are willing to go with us."

  "When is the corvette due back at the Cape?" James Wolston enquired.

  "In eight or nine months," Fritz replied, "and she will go from here to New Switzerland where the British flag will be flying. My brother Frank and I have availed ourselves of this opportunity to take back to London the daughter of Colonel Montrose who, we hope, will consent to come and settle with her in our second fatherland."

  "And with you too, Fritz dear; for you will have become his son," Jenny added, giving him her hand.

  '' That is my most ardent wish, Jenny dear,'' said Fritz.

  "And we and our parents do very much want you to bring your family and settle in New Switzerland," Dolly Wolston added.

  "You must insist on the fact, Dolly," Frank declared, "that our island is the most wonderful island that has ever appeared above the sea."

  "James will be the first to agree, when he has seen it," Dolly answered. "When once you have set foot in New Switzerland, and stayed at Rock Castle –"

  "And roosted at Falconhurst, eh, Dolly?" said Jenny, laughing.

  "Yes, roosted," the little girl replied; "well, then you will never want to leave New Switzerland again!"

  "You hear Mr. Wolston?" said Fritz.

  "I hear, M. Z
ermatt," James Wolston answered. "To settle in your island and open up its first commercial relations with Great Britain is a proposition that I find peculiarly inviting. My wife and I will talk about it, and if we decide to go we will wind up our affairs and hold ourselves in readiness to embark upon the Unicorn when she comes back to Cape Town. I am sure Susan will not hesitate."

  "I will do whatever my husband wishes," Mrs. Wolston said.

  Fritz and Frank shook James Wolston's hand warmly as Dolly kissed her sister-in-law.

  "While the corvette stays here," James Wolston then explained, "we expect you all to accept the hospitality of our house. That will be the best way to knit our friendship, and we will talk as much as you please about New Switzerland."

  Naturally the passengers on the Unicorn accepted this invitation in the spirit in which it had been offered.