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The Secret of the Island, Page 2

Jules Verne



  It was now two years and a half since the castaways from the balloon hadbeen thrown on Lincoln Island, and during that period there had been nocommunication between them and their fellow-creatures. Once thereporter had attempted to communicate with the inhabited world byconfiding to a bird a letter which contained the secret of theirsituation, but that was a chance on which it was impossible to reckonseriously. Ayrton, alone, under the circumstances which have beenrelated, had come to join the little colony. Now, suddenly, on thisday, the 17th of October, other men had unexpectedly appeared in sightof the island, on that deserted sea!

  There could be no doubt about it! A vessel was there! But would shepass on, or would she put into port? In a few hours the colonists woulddefinitely know what to expect.

  Cyrus Harding and Herbert having immediately called Gideon Spilett,Pencroft, and Neb into the dining-room of Granite House, told them whathad happened. Pencroft, seizing the telescope, rapidly swept thehorizon, and stopping on the indicated point, that is to say, on thatwhich had made the almost imperceptible spot on the photographicnegative--

  "I'm blessed but it is really a vessel!" he exclaimed, in a voice whichdid not express any great amount of satisfaction.

  "Is she coming here?" asked Gideon Spilett.

  "Impossible to say anything yet," answered Pencroft, "for her riggingalone is above the horizon, and not a bit of her hull can be seen."

  "What is to be done?" asked the lad.

  "Wait," replied Harding.

  And for a considerable time the settlers remained silent, given up toall the thoughts, all the emotions, all the fears, all the hopes, whichwere aroused by this incident--the most important which had occurredsince their arrival in Lincoln Island. Certainly, the colonists werenot in the situation of castaways abandoned on a sterile islet,constantly contending against a cruel nature for their miserableexistence, and incessantly tormented by the longing to return toinhabited countries. Pencroft and Neb, especially, who felt themselvesat once so happy and so rich, would not have left their island withoutregret. They were accustomed, besides, to this new life in the midst ofthe domain which their intelligence had as it were civilised. But atany rate this ship brought news from the world, perhaps even from theirnative land. It was bringing fellow-creatures to them, and it may beconceived how deeply their hearts were moved at the sight!

  From time to time Pencroft took the glass and rested himself at thewindow. From thence he very attentively examined the vessel, which wasat a distance of twenty miles to the east. The colonists had as yet,therefore, no means of signalising their presence. A flag would nothave been perceived; a gun would not have been heard; a fire would nothave been visible. However, it was certain that the island, overtoppedby Mount Franklin, could not have escaped the notice of the vessel'slook-out. But why was this ship coming there? Was it simple chancewhich brought it to that part of the Pacific, where the maps mentionedno land except Tabor Islet, which itself was out of the route usuallyfollowed by vessels from the Polynesian Archipelagos, from New Zealand,and from the American coast? To this question, which each one askedhimself, a reply was suddenly made by Herbert.

  "Can it be the _Duncan_?" he cried.

  The _Duncan_, as has been said, was Lord Glenarvan's yacht, which hadleft Ayrton on the islet, and which was to return there some day tofetch him. Now, the islet was not so far-distant from Lincoln Island,but that a vessel, standing for the one, could pass in sight of theother. A hundred and fifty miles only separated them in longitude, andseventy in latitude.

  "We must tell Ayrton," said Gideon Spilett, "and send for himimmediately. He alone can say if it is the _Duncan_."

  This was the opinion of all, and the reporter, going to the telegraphicapparatus which placed the corral in communication with Granite House,sent this telegram:--"Come with all possible speed."

  In a few minutes the bell sounded.

  "I am coming," replied Ayrton.

  Then the settlers continued to watch the vessel.

  "If it is the _Duncan_," said Herbert, "Ayrton will recognise herwithout difficulty, since he sailed on board her for some time."

  "And if he recognises her," added Pencroft, "it will agitate himexceedingly!"

  "Yes," answered Cyrus Harding; "but now Ayrton is worthy to return onboard the _Duncan_, and pray Heaven that it is indeed Lord Glenarvan'syacht, for I should be suspicious of any other vessel. These areill-famed seas, and I have always feared a visit from Malay pirates toour island."

  "We could defend it," cried Herbert.

  "No doubt, my boy," answered the engineer smiling, "but it would bebetter not to have to defend it."

  "A useless observation," said Spilett. "Lincoln Island is unknown tonavigators, since it is not marked even on the most recent maps. Do younot think, Cyrus, that that is a sufficient motive for a ship, findingherself unexpectedly in sight of new land, to try and visit rather thanavoid it?"

  "Certainly," replied Pencroft.

  "I think so too," added the engineer. "It may even be said that it isthe duty of a captain to come and survey any land or island not yetknown, and Lincoln Island is in this position."

  "Well," said Pencroft, "suppose this vessel comes and anchors there afew cables-lengths from our island, what shall we do?" This suddenquestion remained at first without any reply. But Cyrus Harding, aftersome moments' thought, replied in the calm tone which was usual to him--

  "What we shall do, my friends? What we ought to do is this:--we willcommunicate with the ship, we will take our passage on board her, and wewill leave our island, after having taken possession of it in the nameof the United States. Then we will return with any who may wish tofollow us to colonise it definitely, and endow the American Republicwith a useful station in this part of the Pacific Ocean!"

  "Hurrah!" exclaimed Pencroft, "and that will be no small present whichwe shall make to our country! The colonisation is already almostfinished; names are given to every part of the island; there is anatural port, fresh water, roads, a telegraph, a dockyard, andmanufactories; and there will be nothing to be done but to inscribeLincoln Island on the maps!"

  "But if any one seizes it in our absence?" observed Gideon Spilett.

  "Hang it!" cried the sailor. "I would rather remain all alone to guardit: and trust to Pencroft, they shouldn't steal it from him, like awatch from the pocket of a swell!"

  For an hour it was impossible to say with any certainty whether thevessel was or was not standing towards Lincoln Island. She was nearer,but in what direction was she sailing? This Pencroft could notdetermine. However, as the wind was blowing from the north-east, in allprobability the vessel was sailing on the starboard tack. Besides, thewind was favourable for bringing her towards the island, and, the seabeing calm, she would not be afraid to approach although the shallowswere not marked on the chart.

  Towards four o'clock--an hour after he had been sent for--Ayrton arrivedat Granite House. He entered the dining-room, saying--

  "At your service, gentlemen."

  Cyrus Harding gave him his hand, as was his custom to do, and, leadinghim to the window--

  "Ayrton," said he, "we have begged you to come here for an importantreason. A ship is in sight of the island."

  Ayrton at first paled slightly, and for a moment his eyes became dim;then, leaning out of the window, he surveyed the horizon, but could seenothing.

  "Take this telescope," said Spilett, "and look carefully, Ayrton, for itis possible that this ship may be the _Duncan_ come to these seas forthe purpose of taking you home again."

  "The _Duncan_!" murmured Ayrton. "Already?" This last word escapedAyrton's lips as if involuntarily, and his head drooped upon his hands.

  Did not twelve years' solitude on a desert islan
d appear to him asufficient expiation? Did not the penitent yet feel himself pardoned,either in his own eyes or in the eyes of others?

  "No," said he, "no! it cannot be the _Duncan_!"

  "Look, Ayrton," then said the engineer, "for it is necessary that weshould know beforehand what to expect."

  Ayrton took the glass and pointed it in the direction indicated. Duringsome minutes he examined the horizon without moving, without uttering aword. Then--

  "It is indeed a vessel," said he, "but I do not think she is the_Duncan_."

  "Why do you not think so?" asked Gideon Spilett. "Because the _Duncan_is a steam-yacht, and I cannot perceive any trace of smoke either aboveor near that vessel."

  "Perhaps she is simply sailing," observed Pencroft. "The wind isfavourable for the direction which she appears to be taking, and she maybe anxious to economise her coal, being so far from land."

  "It is possible that you may be right, Mr Pencroft," answered Ayrton,"and that the vessel has extinguished her fires. We must wait until sheis nearer, and then we shall soon know what to expect."

  So saying, Ayrton sat down in a corner of the room and remained silent.The colonists again discussed the strange ship, but Ayrton took no partin the conversation. All were in such a mood that they found itimpossible to continue their work. Gideon Spilett and Pencroft wereparticularly nervous, going, coming, not able to remain still in oneplace. Herbert felt more curiosity. Neb alone maintained his usualcalm manner. Was not his country that where his master was? As to theengineer, he remained plunged in deep thought, and in his heart fearedrather than desired the arrival of the ship. In the meanwhile, thevessel was a little nearer the island. With the aid of the glass, itwas ascertained that she was a brig, and not one of those Malay proas,which are generally used by the pirates of the Pacific. It was,therefore, reasonable to believe that the engineer's apprehensions wouldnot be justified, and that the presence of this vessel in the vicinityof the island was fraught with no danger. Pencroft, after a minuteexamination, was able positively to affirm that the vessel was rigged asa brig, and that she was standing obliquely towards the coast, on thestarboard tack, under her topsails and topgallant-sails. This wasconfirmed by Ayrton. But by continuing in this direction she must soondisappear behind Claw Cape, as the wind was from the south-west, and towatch her it would be then necessary to ascend the heights of WashingtonBay, near Port Balloon--a provoking circumstance, for it was alreadyfive o'clock in the evening, and the twilight would soon make anyobservation extremely difficult.

  "What shall we do when night comes on?" asked Gideon Spilett. "Shall welight a fire, so as to signal our presence, on the coast?"

  This was a serious question, and yet, although the engineer stillretained some of his presentiments, it was answered in the affirmative.During the night the ship might disappear and leave for ever, and, thisship gone, would another ever return to the waters of Lincoln Island?Who could foresee what the future would then have in store for thecolonists?

  "Yes," said the reporter, "we ought to make known to that vessel,whoever she may be, that the island is inhabited. To neglect theopportunity which is offered to us might be to create everlastingregrets."

  It was, therefore, decided that Neb and Pencroft should go to PortBalloon, and that there, at nightfall, they should light an immensefire, the blaze of which would necessarily attract the attention of thebrig.

  But at the moment when Neb and the sailor were preparing to leaveGranite House, the vessel suddenly altered her course, and stooddirectly for Union Bay. The brig was a good sailer, for she approachedrapidly. Neb and Pencroft put off their departure, therefore, and theglass was put into Ayrton's hands, that he might ascertain for certainwhether the ship was or was not the _Duncan_. The Scotch yacht was alsorigged as a brig. The question was, whether a chimney could bediscerned between the two masts of the vessel, which was now at adistance of only five miles.

  The horizon was still very clear. The examination was easy, and Ayrtonsoon let the glass fall again, saying--

  "It is not the _Duncan_! It could not be her!"

  Pencroft again brought the brig within the range of the telescope, andcould see that she was of between three and four hundred tons burden,wonderfully narrow, well-masted, admirably built, and must be a veryrapid sailer. But to what nation did she belong? That was difficult tosay.

  "And yet," added the sailor, "a flag is floating from her peak, but Icannot distinguish the colours of it."

  "In half an hour we shall be certain about that," answered the reporter."Besides, it is very evident that the intention of the captain of thisship is to land, and, consequently, if not to-day, to-morrow at thelatest, we shall make his acquaintance."

  "Never mind!" said Pencroft. "It is best to know whom we have to dealwith, and I shall not be sorry to recognise that fellow's colours!"

  And, while thus speaking, the sailor never left the glass. The daybegan to fade, and with the day the breeze fell also. The brig's ensignhung in folds, and it became more and more difficult to observe it.

  "It is not the American flag," said Pencroft from time to time, "nor theEnglish, the red of which could be easily seen, nor the French or Germancolours, nor the white flag of Russia, nor the yellow of Spain. Onewould say it was all one colour. Let's see: in these seas, what do wegenerally meet with? The Chilian flag?--but that is tri-colour.Brazilian?--it is green. Japanese?--it is yellow and black, whilstthis--"

  At that moment the breeze blew out the unknown flag. Ayrton, seizingthe telescope which the sailor had put down, put it to his eye, and in ahoarse voice--

  "The black flag!" he exclaimed.

  And indeed the sombre bunting was floating from the mast of the brig,and they had now good reason for considering her to be a suspiciousvessel!

  Had the engineer, then, been right in his presentiments? Was this apirate vessel? Did she scour the Pacific, competing with the Malayproas which still infest it? For what had she come to look at theshores of Lincoln Island? Was it to them an unknown island, ready tobecome a magazine for stolen cargoes? Had she come to find on the coasta sheltered port for the winter months? Was the settler's honest domaindestined to be transformed into an infamous refuge--the headquarters ofthe piracy of the Pacific?

  All these ideas instinctively presented themselves to the colonists'imaginations. There was no doubt, besides, of the signification whichmust be attached to the colour of the hoisted flag. It was that ofpirates! It was that which the _Duncan_ would have carried, had theconvicts succeeded in their criminal design! No time was lost beforediscussing it.

  "My friends," said Cyrus Harding, "perhaps this vessel only wishes tosurvey the coast of the island. Perhaps her crew will not land. Thereis a chance of it. However that may be, we ought to do everything wecan to hide our presence here. The windmill on Prospect Heights is tooeasily seen. Let Ayrton and Neb go and take down the sails. We mustalso conceal the windows of Granite House with thick branches. All thefires must be extinguished, so that nothing may betray the presence ofmen on the island."

  "And our vessel?" said Herbert.

  "Oh," answered Pencroft, "she is sheltered in Port Balloon, and I defyany of those rascals there to find her!"

  The engineer's orders were immediately executed. Neb and Ayrtonascended the plateau, and took the necessary precautions to conceal anyindication of a settlement. Whilst they were thus occupied, theircompanions went to the border of Jacamar Wood, and brought back a largequantity of branches and creepers, which would at some distance appearas natural foliage, and thus disguise the windows in the granite cliff.At the same time, the ammunition and guns were placed ready so as to beat hand in case of an unexpected attack.

  When all these precautions had been taken--

  "My friends," said Harding, and his voice betrayed some emotion, "ifthese wretches endeavour to seize Lincoln Island, we shall defend it--shall we not?"

  "Yes, Cyrus," replied the reporter, "and if necessary we will di
e todefend it!"

  The engineer extended his hand to his companions, who pressed it warmly.

  Ayrton alone remained in his corner, not joining the colonists. Perhapshe, the former convict, still felt himself unworthy to do so!

  Cyrus Harding understood what was passing in Ayrton's mind, and going tohim--

  "And you, Ayrton," he asked, "what will you do?"

  "My duty," answered Ayrton.

  He then took up his station near the window and gazed through thefoliage.

  It was now half-past seven. The sun had disappeared twenty minutes agobehind Granite House. Consequently the eastern horizon was becominggradually obscured. In the meanwhile the brig continued to advancetowards Union Bay. She was now not more than two miles off, and exactlyopposite the plateau of Prospect Heights, for after having tacked offClaw Cape, she had drifted towards the north in the current of therising tide. One might have said that at this distance she had alreadyentered the vast bay, for a straight line drawn from Claw Cape to CapeMandible would have rested on her starboard quarter.

  Was the brig about to penetrate far into the bay? That was the firstquestion. When once in the bay, would she anchor there? That was thesecond. Would she not content herself with only surveying the coast,and stand out to sea again without landing her crew? They would knowthis in an hour. The colonists could do nothing but wait.

  Cyrus Harding had not seen the suspected vessel hoist the black flagwithout deep anxiety. Was it not a direct menace against the work whichhe and his companions had till now conducted so successfully? Had thesepirates--for the sailors of the brig could be nothing else--alreadyvisited the island, since on approaching it they had hoisted theircolours. Had they formerly invaded it, so that certain unaccountablepeculiarities might be explained in this way? Did there exist in the asyet unexplored parts some accomplice ready to enter into communicationwith them?

  To all these questions which he mentally asked himself, Harding knew notwhat to reply; but he felt that the safety of the colony could not butbe seriously threatened by the arrival of the brig.

  However, he and his companions were determined to fight to the lastgasp. It would have been very important to know if the pirates werenumerous and better armed than the colonists. But how was thisinformation to be obtained?

  Night fell. The new moon had disappeared. Profound darkness envelopedthe island and the sea. No light could pierce through the heavy pilesof clouds on the horizon. The wind had died away completely with thetwilight. Not a leaf rustled on the trees, not a ripple murmured on theshore. Nothing could be seen of the ship, all her lights beingextinguished, and if she was still in sight of the island, herwhereabouts could not be discovered.

  "Well! who knows?" said Pencroft. "Perhaps that cursed craft will standoff during the night, and we shall see nothing of her at daybreak."

  As if in reply to the sailor's observation, a bright light flashed inthe darkness, and a cannon-shot was heard.

  The vessel was still there and had guns on board.

  Six seconds elapsed between the flash and the report.

  Therefore the brig was about a mile and a quarter from the coast.

  At the same time, the chains were heard rattling through thehawse-holes.

  The vessel had just anchored in sight of Granite House!