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Les indes-noirs. English, Page 2

Jules Verne


  THE course of James Starr's ideas was abruptly stopped, when he got thissecond letter contradicting the first.

  "What does this mean?" said he to himself. He took up the torn envelope,and examined it. Like the other, it bore the Aberfoyle postmark. It hadtherefore come from the same part of the county of Stirling. The oldminer had evidently not written it. But, no less evidently, the authorof this second letter knew the overman's secret, since it expresslycontradicted the invitation to the engineer to go to the Yarrow shaft.

  Was it really true that the first communication was now without object?Did someone wish to prevent James Starr from troubling himself eitheruselessly or otherwise? Might there not be rather a malevolent intentionto thwart Ford's plans?

  This was the conclusion at which James Starr arrived, after maturereflection. The contradiction which existed between the two letters onlywrought in him a more keen desire to visit the Dochart pit. And besides,if after all it was a hoax, it was well worth while to prove it. Starralso thought it wiser to give more credence to the first letter than tothe second; that is to say, to the request of such a man as Simon Ford,rather than to the warning of his anonymous contradictor.

  "Indeed," said he, "the fact of anyone endeavoring to influence myresolution, shows that Ford's communication must be of great importance.To-morrow, at the appointed time, I shall be at the rendezvous."

  In the evening, Starr made his preparations for departure. As it mighthappen that his absence would be prolonged for some days, he wrote toSir W. Elphiston, President of the Royal Institution, that he should beunable to be present at the next meeting of the Society. He also wroteto excuse himself from two or three engagements which he had made forthe week. Then, having ordered his servant to pack a traveling bag, hewent to bed, more excited than the affair perhaps warranted.

  The next day, at five o'clock, James Starr jumped out of bed, dressedhimself warmly, for a cold rain was falling, and left his house in theCanongate, to go to Granton Pier to catch the steamer, which in threehours would take him up the Forth as far as Stirling.

  For the first time in his life, perhaps, in passing along the Canongate,he did NOT TURN TO LOOK AT HOLYROOD, the palace of the former sovereignsof Scotland. He did not notice the sentinels who stood before itsgateways, dressed in the uniform of their Highland regiment, tartankilt, plaid and sporran complete. His whole thought was to reachCallander where Harry Ford was supposedly awaiting him.

  The better to understand this narrative, it will be as well to hear afew words on the origin of coal. During the geological epoch, whenthe terrestrial spheroid was still in course of formation, a thickatmosphere surrounded it, saturated with watery vapors, and copiouslyimpregnated with carbonic acid. The vapors gradually condensed indiluvial rains, which fell as if they had leapt from the necks ofthousands of millions of seltzer water bottles. This liquid, loadedwith carbonic acid, rushed in torrents over a deep soft soil, subject tosudden or slow alterations of form, and maintained in its semi-fluidstate as much by the heat of the sun as by the fires of the interiormass. The internal heat had not as yet been collected in the center ofthe globe. The terrestrial crust, thin and incompletely hardened,allowed it to spread through its pores. This caused a peculiar form ofvegetation, such as is probably produced on the surface of the inferiorplanets, Venus or Mercury, which revolve nearer than our earth aroundthe radiant sun of our system.

  The soil of the continents was covered with immense forests. Carbonicacid, so suitable for the development of the vegetable kingdom,abounded. The feet of these trees were drowned in a sort of immenselagoon, kept continually full by currents of fresh and salt waters.They eagerly assimilated to themselves the carbon which they, little bylittle, extracted from the atmosphere, as yet unfit for the functionof life, and it may be said that they were destined to store it, in theform of coal, in the very bowels of the earth.

  It was the earthquake period, caused by internal convulsions, whichsuddenly modified the unsettled features of the terrestrial surface.Here, an intumescence which was to become a mountain, there, an abysswhich was to be filled with an ocean or a sea. There, whole forests sunkthrough the earth's crust, below the unfixed strata, either until theyfound a resting-place, such as the primitive bed of granitic rock, or,settling together in a heap, they formed a solid mass.

  As the waters were contained in no bed, and were spread over everypart of the globe, they rushed where they liked, tearing fromthe scarcely-formed rocks material with which to compose schists,sandstones, and limestones. This the roving waves bore over thesubmerged and now peaty forests, and deposited above them the elementsof rocks which were to superpose the coal strata. In course of time,periods of which include millions of years, these earths hardened inlayers, and enclosed under a thick carapace of pudding-stone, schist,compact or friable sandstone, gravel and stones, the whole of themassive forests.

  And what went on in this gigantic crucible, where all this vegetablematter had accumulated, sunk to various depths? A regular chemicaloperation, a sort of distillation. All the carbon contained in thesevegetables had agglomerated, and little by little coal was formingunder the double influence of enormous pressure and the high temperaturemaintained by the internal fires, at this time so close to it.

  Thus there was one kingdom substituted for another in this slow butirresistible reaction. The vegetable was transformed into a mineral.Plants which had lived the vegetative life in all the vigor of firstcreation became petrified. Some of the substances enclosed in thisvast herbal left their impression on the other more rapidly mineralizedproducts, which pressed them as an hydraulic press of incalculable powerwould have done.

  Thus also shells, zoophytes, star-fish, polypi, spirifores, even fishand lizards brought by the water, left on the yet soft coal their exactlikeness, "admirably taken off."

  Pressure seems to have played a considerable part in the formation ofcarboniferous strata. In fact, it is to its degree of power that are duethe different sorts of coal, of which industry makes use. Thus in thelowest layers of the coal ground appears the anthracite, which, beingalmost destitute of volatile matter, contains the greatest quantityof carbon. In the higher beds are found, on the contrary, lignite andfossil wood, substances in which the quantity of carbon is infinitelyless. Between these two beds, according to the degree of pressure towhich they have been subjected, are found veins of graphite and rich orpoor coal. It may be asserted that it is for want of sufficient pressurethat beds of peaty bog have not been completely changed into coal. Sothen, the origin of coal mines, in whatever part of the globe they havebeen discovered, is this: the absorption through the terrestrial crustof the great forests of the geological period; then, the mineralizationof the vegetables obtained in the course of time, under the influence ofpressure and heat, and under the action of carbonic acid.

  Now, at the time when the events related in this story took place, someof the most important mines of the Scottish coal beds had been exhaustedby too rapid working. In the region which extends between Edinburghand Glasgow, for a distance of ten or twelve miles, lay the Aberfoylecolliery, of which the engineer, James Starr, had so long directed theworks. For ten years these mines had been abandoned. No new seams hadbeen discovered, although the soundings had been carried to a depth offifteen hundred or even of two thousand feet, and when James Starr hadretired, it was with the full conviction that even the smallest vein hadbeen completely exhausted.

  Under these circumstances, it was plain that the discovery of a new seamof coal would be an important event. Could Simon Ford's communicationrelate to a fact of this nature? This question James Starr could notcease asking himself. Was he called to make conquest of another cornerof these rich treasure fields? Fain would he hope it was so.

  The second letter had for an instant checked his speculations on thissubject, but now he thought of that letter no longer. Besides, the sonof the old overman was there, waiting at the appointed rendezvous. Theanonymous letter was therefore wor
th nothing.

  The moment the engineer set foot on the platform at the end of hisjourney, the young man advanced towards him.

  "Are you Harry Ford?" asked the engineer quickly.

  "Yes, Mr. Starr."

  "I should not have known you, my lad. Of course in ten years you havebecome a man!"

  "I knew you directly, sir," replied the young miner, cap in hand. "Youhave not changed. You look just as you did when you bade us good-by inthe Dochart pit. I haven't forgotten that day."

  "Put on your cap, Harry," said the engineer. "It's pouring, andpoliteness needn't make you catch cold."

  "Shall we take shelter anywhere, Mr. Starr?" asked young Ford.

  "No, Harry. The weather is settled. It will rain all day, and I am in ahurry. Let us go on."

  "I am at your orders," replied Harry.

  "Tell me, Harry, is your father well?"

  "Very well, Mr. Starr."

  "And your mother?"

  "She is well, too."

  "Was it your father who wrote telling me to come to the Yarrow shaft?"

  "No, it was I."

  "Then did Simon Ford send me a second letter to contradict the first?"asked the engineer quickly.

  "No, Mr. Starr," answered the young miner.

  "Very well," said Starr, without speaking of the anonymous letter. Then,continuing, "And can you tell me what you father wants with me?"

  "Mr. Starr, my father wishes to tell you himself."

  "But you know what it is?"

  "I do, sir."

  "Well, Harry, I will not ask you more. But let us get on, for I'manxious to see Simon Ford. By-the-bye, where does he live?"

  "In the mine."

  "What! In the Dochart pit?"

  "Yes, Mr. Starr," replied Harry.

  "Really! has your family never left the old mine since the cessation ofthe works?"

  "Not a day, Mr. Starr. You know my father. It is there he was born, itis there he means to die!"

  "I can understand that, Harry. I can understand that! His native mine!He did not like to abandon it! And are you happy there?"

  "Yes, Mr. Starr," replied the young miner, "for we love one another, andwe have but few wants."

  "Well, Harry," said the engineer, "lead the way."

  And walking rapidly through the streets of Callander, in a few minutesthey had left the town behind them.