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L'île mystérieuse. English, Page 2

Jules Verne

  Chapter 2

  Those whom the hurricane had just thrown on this coast were neitheraeronauts by profession nor amateurs. They were prisoners of war whoseboldness had induced them to escape in this extraordinary manner.

  A hundred times they had almost perished! A hundred times had theyalmost fallen from their torn balloon into the depths of the ocean. ButHeaven had reserved them for a strange destiny, and after having, on the20th of March, escaped from Richmond, besieged by the troops of GeneralUlysses Grant, they found themselves seven thousand miles from thecapital of Virginia, which was the principal stronghold of the South,during the terrible War of Secession. Their aerial voyage had lastedfive days.

  The curious circumstances which led to the escape of the prisoners wereas follows:

  That same year, in the month of February, 1865, in one of the coupsde main by which General Grant attempted, though in vain, to possesshimself of Richmond, several of his officers fell into the power of theenemy and were detained in the town. One of the most distinguished wasCaptain Cyrus Harding. He was a native of Massachusetts, a first-classengineer, to whom the government had confided, during the war, thedirection of the railways, which were so important at that time. Atrue Northerner, thin, bony, lean, about forty-five years of age; hisclose-cut hair and his beard, of which he only kept a thick mustache,were already getting gray. He had one-of those finely-developed headswhich appear made to be struck on a medal, piercing eyes, a seriousmouth, the physiognomy of a clever man of the military school. He wasone of those engineers who began by handling the hammer and pickaxe,like generals who first act as common soldiers. Besides mental power, healso possessed great manual dexterity. His muscles exhibited remarkableproofs of tenacity. A man of action as well as a man of thought, all hedid was without effort to one of his vigorous and sanguine temperament.Learned, clear-headed, and practical, he fulfilled in allemergencies those three conditions which united ought to insure humansuccess--activity of mind and body, impetuous wishes, and powerful will.He might have taken for his motto that of William of Orange in the 17thcentury: "I can undertake and persevere even without hope of success."Cyrus Harding was courage personified. He had been in all the battles ofthat war. After having begun as a volunteer at Illinois, under UlyssesGrant, he fought at Paducah, Belmont, Pittsburg Landing, at the siege ofCorinth, Port Gibson, Black River, Chattanooga, the Wilderness, on thePotomac, everywhere and valiantly, a soldier worthy of the general whosaid, "I never count my dead!" And hundreds of times Captain Harding hadalmost been among those who were not counted by the terrible Grant; butin these combats where he never spared himself, fortune favored him tillthe moment when he was wounded and taken prisoner on the field of battlenear Richmond. At the same time and on the same day another importantpersonage fell into the hands of the Southerners. This was no other thanGideon Spilett, a reporter for the New York Herald, who had been orderedto follow the changes of the war in the midst of the Northern armies.

  Gideon Spilett was one of that race of indomitable English or Americanchroniclers, like Stanley and others, who stop at nothing to obtainexact information, and transmit it to their journal in the shortestpossible time. The newspapers of the Union, such as the New York Herald,are genuine powers, and their reporters are men to be reckoned with.Gideon Spilett ranked among the first of those reporters: a man of greatmerit, energetic, prompt and ready for anything, full of ideas, havingtraveled over the whole world, soldier and artist, enthusiastic incouncil, resolute in action, caring neither for trouble, fatigue, nordanger, when in pursuit of information, for himself first, and then forhis journal, a perfect treasury of knowledge on all sorts of curioussubjects, of the unpublished, of the unknown, and of the impossible. Hewas one of those intrepid observers who write under fire, "reporting"among bullets, and to whom every danger is welcome.

  He also had been in all the battles, in the first rank, revolver in onehand, note-book in the other; grape-shot never made his pencil tremble.He did not fatigue the wires with incessant telegrams, like those whospeak when they have nothing to say, but each of his notes, short,decisive, and clear, threw light on some important point. Besides, hewas not wanting in humor. It was he who, after the affair of the BlackRiver, determined at any cost to keep his place at the wicket of thetelegraph office, and after having announced to his journal the resultof the battle, telegraphed for two hours the first chapters of theBible. It cost the New York Herald two thousand dollars, but the NewYork Herald published the first intelligence.

  Gideon Spilett was tall. He was rather more than forty years of age.Light whiskers bordering on red surrounded his face. His eye was steady,lively, rapid in its changes. It was the eye of a man accustomed to takein at a glance all the details of a scene. Well built, he was inured toall climates, like a bar of steel hardened in cold water.

  For ten years Gideon Spilett had been the reporter of the New YorkHerald, which he enriched by his letters and drawings, for he was asskilful in the use of the pencil as of the pen. When he was captured,he was in the act of making a description and sketch of the battle. Thelast words in his note-book were these: "A Southern rifleman has justtaken aim at me, but--" The Southerner notwithstanding missed GideonSpilett, who, with his usual fortune, came out of this affair without ascratch.

  Cyrus Harding and Gideon Spilett, who did not know each other exceptby reputation, had both been carried to Richmond. The engineer'swounds rapidly healed, and it was during his convalescence that he madeacquaintance with the reporter. The two men then learned to appreciateeach other. Soon their common aim had but one object, that of escaping,rejoining Grant's army, and fighting together in the ranks of theFederals.

  The two Americans had from the first determined to seize every chance;but although they were allowed to wander at liberty in the town,Richmond was so strictly guarded, that escape appeared impossible. Inthe meanwhile Captain Harding was rejoined by a servant who was devotedto him in life and in death. This intrepid fellow was a Negro born onthe engineer's estate, of a slave father and mother, but to whom Cyrus,who was an Abolitionist from conviction and heart, had long since givenhis freedom. The once slave, though free, would not leave his master. Hewould have died for him. He was a man of about thirty, vigorous, active,clever, intelligent, gentle, and calm, sometimes naive, always merry,obliging, and honest. His name was Nebuchadnezzar, but he only answeredto the familiar abbreviation of Neb.

  When Neb heard that his master had been made prisoner, he leftMassachusetts without hesitating an instant, arrived before Richmond,and by dint of stratagem and shrewdness, after having risked his lifetwenty times over, managed to penetrate into the besieged town. Thepleasure of Harding on seeing his servant, and the joy of Neb at findinghis master, can scarcely be described.

  But though Neb had been able to make his way into Richmond, it was quiteanother thing to get out again, for the Northern prisoners were verystrictly watched. Some extraordinary opportunity was needed to make theattempt with any chance of success, and this opportunity not only didnot present itself, but was very difficult to find.

  Meanwhile Grant continued his energetic operations. The victory ofPetersburg had been very dearly bought. His forces, united to those ofButler, had as yet been unsuccessful before Richmond, and nothing gavethe prisoners any hope of a speedy deliverance.

  The reporter, to whom his tedious captivity did not offer a singleincident worthy of note, could stand it no longer. His usually activemind was occupied with one sole thought--how he might get out ofRichmond at any cost. Several times had he even made the attempt,but was stopped by some insurmountable obstacle. However, the siegecontinued; and if the prisoners were anxious to escape and join Grant'sarmy, certain of the besieged were no less anxious to join the Southernforces. Among them was one Jonathan Forster, a determined Southerner.The truth was, that if the prisoners of the Secessionists could notleave the town, neither could the Secessionists themselves while theNorthern army invested it. The Governor of Richmond for a long time hadbeen unable to communicate with
General Lee, and he very much wished tomake known to him the situation of the town, so as to hasten the marchof the army to their relief. Thus Jonathan Forster accordingly conceivedthe idea of rising in a balloon, so as to pass over the besieging lines,and in that way reach the Secessionist camp.

  The Governor authorized the attempt. A balloon was manufactured andplaced at the disposal of Forster, who was to be accompanied by fiveother persons. They were furnished with arms in case they might haveto defend themselves when they alighted, and provisions in the event oftheir aerial voyage being prolonged.

  The departure of the balloon was fixed for the 18th of March. It shouldbe effected during the night, with a northwest wind of moderate force,and the aeronauts calculated that they would reach General Lee's camp ina few hours.

  But this northwest wind was not a simple breeze. From the 18th it wasevident that it was changing to a hurricane. The tempest soon becamesuch that Forster's departure was deferred, for it was impossible torisk the balloon and those whom it carried in the midst of the furiouselements.

  The balloon, inflated on the great square of Richmond, was ready todepart on the first abatement of the wind, and, as may be supposed, theimpatience among the besieged to see the storm moderate was very great.

  The 18th, the 19th of March passed without any alteration in theweather. There was even great difficulty in keeping the balloon fastenedto the ground, as the squalls dashed it furiously about.

  The night of the 19th passed, but the next morning the storm blew withredoubled force. The departure of the balloon was impossible.

  On that day the engineer, Cyrus Harding, was accosted in one of thestreets of Richmond by a person whom he did not in the least know. Thiswas a sailor named Pencroft, a man of about thirty-five or forty yearsof age, strongly built, very sunburnt, and possessed of a pair ofbright sparkling eyes and a remarkably good physiognomy. Pencroft was anAmerican from the North, who had sailed all the ocean over, and who hadgone through every possible and almost impossible adventure that a beingwith two feet and no wings would encounter. It is needless to say thathe was a bold, dashing fellow, ready to dare anything and was astonishedat nothing. Pencroft at the beginning of the year had gone to Richmondon business, with a young boy of fifteen from New Jersey, son of aformer captain, an orphan, whom he loved as if he had been hisown child. Not having been able to leave the town before the firstoperations of the siege, he found himself shut up, to his great disgust;but, not accustomed to succumb to difficulties, he resolved to escape bysome means or other. He knew the engineer-officer by reputation; he knewwith what impatience that determined man chafed under his restraint. Onthis day he did not, therefore, hesitate to accost him, saying, withoutcircumlocution, "Have you had enough of Richmond, captain?"

  The engineer looked fixedly at the man who spoke, and who added, in alow voice,--

  "Captain Harding, will you try to escape?"

  "When?" asked the engineer quickly, and it was evident that thisquestion was uttered without consideration, for he had not yet examinedthe stranger who addressed him. But after having with a penetratingeye observed the open face of the sailor, he was convinced that he hadbefore him an honest man.

  "Who are you?" he asked briefly.

  Pencroft made himself known.

  "Well," replied Harding, "and in what way do you propose to escape?"

  "By that lazy balloon which is left there doing nothing, and which looksto me as if it was waiting on purpose for us--"

  There was no necessity for the sailor to finish his sentence. Theengineer understood him at once. He seized Pencroft by the arm, anddragged him to his house. There the sailor developed his project, whichwas indeed extremely simple. They risked nothing but their lives in itsexecution. The hurricane was in all its violence, it is true, but soclever and daring an engineer as Cyrus Harding knew perfectly well howto manage a balloon. Had he himself been as well acquainted with the artof sailing in the air as he was with the navigation of a ship, Pencroftwould not have hesitated to set out, of course taking his young friendHerbert with him; for, accustomed to brave the fiercest tempests of theocean, he was not to be hindered on account of the hurricane.

  Captain Harding had listened to the sailor without saying a word,but his eyes shone with satisfaction. Here was the long-sought-foropportunity--he was not a man to let it pass. The plan was feasible,though, it must be confessed, dangerous in the extreme. In the night,in spite of their guards, they might approach the balloon, slip into thecar, and then cut the cords which held it. There was no doubt that theymight be killed, but on the other hand they might succeed, and withoutthis storm!--Without this storm the balloon would have started alreadyand the looked-for opportunity would not have then presented itself.

  "I am not alone!" said Harding at last.

  "How many people do you wish to bring with you?" asked the sailor.

  "Two; my friend Spilett, and my servant Neb."

  "That will be three," replied Pencroft; "and with Herbert and me five.But the balloon will hold six--"

  "That will be enough, we will go," answered Harding in a firm voice.

  This "we" included Spilett, for the reporter, as his friend well knew,was not a man to draw back, and when the project was communicated to himhe approved of it unreservedly. What astonished him was, that so simplean idea had not occurred to him before. As to Neb, he followed hismaster wherever his master wished to go.

  "This evening, then," said Pencroft, "we will all meet out there."

  "This evening, at ten o'clock," replied Captain Harding; "and Heavengrant that the storm does not abate before our departure."

  Pencroft took leave of the two friends, and returned to his lodging,where young Herbert Brown had remained. The courageous boy knew of thesailor's plan, and it was not without anxiety that he awaited the resultof the proposal being made to the engineer. Thus five determinedpersons were about to abandon themselves to the mercy of the tempestuouselements!

  No! the storm did not abate, and neither Jonathan Forster nor hiscompanions dreamed of confronting it in that frail car.

  It would be a terrible journey. The engineer only feared one thing; itwas that the balloon, held to the ground and dashed about by thewind, would be torn into shreds. For several hours he roamed round thenearly-deserted square, surveying the apparatus. Pencroft did the sameon his side, his hands in his pockets, yawning now and then like a manwho did not know how to kill the time, but really dreading, likehis friend, either the escape or destruction of the balloon. Eveningarrived. The night was dark in the extreme. Thick mists passed likeclouds close to the ground. Rain fell mingled with snow, it was verycold. A mist hung over Richmond. It seemed as if the violent storm hadproduced a truce between the besiegers and the besieged, and that thecannon were silenced by the louder detonations of the storm. The streetsof the town were deserted. It had not even appeared necessary in thathorrible weather to place a guard in the square, in the midst of whichplunged the balloon. Everything favored the departure of the prisoners,but what might possibly be the termination of the hazardous voyage theycontemplated in the midst of the furious elements?--

  "Dirty weather!" exclaimed Pencroft, fixing his hat firmly on his headwith a blow of his fist; "but pshaw, we shall succeed all the same!"

  At half-past nine, Harding and his companions glided from differentdirections into the square, which the gas-lamps, extinguished by thewind, had left in total obscurity. Even the enormous balloon, almostbeaten to the ground, could not be seen. Independently of the sacks ofballast, to which the cords of the net were fastened, the car washeld by a strong cable passed through a ring in the pavement. The fiveprisoners met by the car. They had not been perceived, and such was thedarkness that they could not even see each other.

  Without speaking a word, Harding, Spilett, Neb, and Herbert took theirplaces in the car, while Pencroft by the engineer's order detachedsuccessively the bags of ballast. It was the work of a few minutes only,and the sailor rejoined his companions.

balloon was then only held by the cable, and the engineer hadnothing to do but to give the word.

  At that moment a dog sprang with a bound into the car. It was Top,a favorite of the engineer. The faithful creature, having broken hischain, had followed his master. He, however, fearing that its additionalweight might impede their ascent, wished to send away the animal.

  "One more will make but little difference, poor beast!" exclaimedPencroft, heaving out two bags of sand, and as he spoke letting go thecable; the balloon ascending in an oblique direction, disappeared, afterhaving dashed the car against two chimneys, which it threw down as itswept by them.

  Then, indeed, the full rage of the hurricane was exhibited to thevoyagers. During the night the engineer could not dream of descending,and when day broke, even a glimpse of the earth below was intercepted byfog.

  Five days had passed when a partial clearing allowed them to see thewide extending ocean beneath their feet, now lashed into the maddestfury by the gale.

  Our readers will recollect what befell these five daring individualswho set out on their hazardous expedition in the balloon on the 20th ofMarch. Five days afterwards four of them were thrown on a desert coast,seven thousand miles from their country! But one of their number wasmissing, the man who was to be their guide, their leading spirit, theengineer, Captain Harding! The instant they had recovered their feet,they all hurried to the beach in the hopes of rendering him assistance.