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Maître du monde. English, Page 2

Jules Verne

  Chapter 2


  The twenty-seventh of April, having left Washington the night before,I arrived at Raleigh, the capital of the State of North Carolina.

  Two days before, the head of the federal police had called me to hisroom. He was awaiting me with some impatience. "John Strock," saidhe, "are you still the man who on so many occasions has proven to meboth his devotion and his ability?"

  "Mr. Ward," I answered, with a bow, "I cannot promise success or evenability, but as to devotion, I assure you, it is yours."

  "I do not doubt it," responded the chief. "And I will ask you insteadthis more exact question: Are you as fond of riddles as ever? Aseager to penetrate into mysteries, as I have known you before?"

  "I am, Mr. Ward."

  "Good, Strock; then listen."

  Mr. Ward, a man of about fifty years, of great power and intellect,was fully master of the important position he filled. He had severaltimes entrusted to me difficult missions which I had accomplishedsuccessfully, and which had won me his confidence. For several monthspast, however, he had found no occasion for my services. Therefore Iawaited with impatience what he had to say. I did not doubt that hisquestioning implied a serious and important task for me.

  "Doubtless you know," said he, "what has happened down in theBlueridge Mountains near Morganton."

  "Surely, Mr. Ward, the phenomena reported from there have beensingular enough to arouse anyone's curiosity."

  "They are singular, even remarkable, Strock. No doubt about that. Butthere is also reason to ask, if these phenomena about the Great Eyrieare not a source of continued danger to the people there, if they arenot forerunners of some disaster as terrible as it is mysterious."

  "It is to be feared, sir."

  "So we must know, Strock, what is inside of that mountain. If we arehelpless in the face of some great force of nature, people must bewarned in time of the danger which threatens them."

  "It is clearly the duty of the authorities, Mr. Ward," responded I,"to learn what is going on within there."

  "True, Strock; but that presents great difficulties. Everyone reportsthat it is impossible to scale the precipices of the Great Eyrie andreach its interior. But has anyone ever attempted it with scientificappliances and under the best conditions? I doubt it, and believe aresolute attempt may bring success."

  "Nothing is impossible, Mr. Ward; what we face here is merely aquestion of expense."

  "We must not regard expense when we are seeking to reassure an entirepopulation, or to preserve it from a catastrophe. There is anothersuggestion I would make to you. Perhaps this Great Eyrie is not soinaccessible as is supposed. Perhaps a band of malefactors havesecreted themselves there, gaining access by ways known only tothemselves."

  "What! You suspect that robbers--"

  "Perhaps I am wrong, Strock; and these strange sights and sounds haveall had natural causes. Well, that is what we have to settle, and asquickly as possible."

  "I have one question to ask."

  "Go ahead, Strock."

  "When the Great Eyrie has been visited, when we know the source ofthese phenomena, if there really is a crater there and an eruption isimminent, can we avert it?"

  "No, Strock; but we can estimate the extent of the danger. If somevolcano in the Alleghanies threatens North Carolina with a disastersimilar to that of Martinique, buried beneath the outpourings of MontPelee, then these people must leave their homes."

  "I hope, sir, there is no such widespread danger."

  "I think not, Strock; it seems to me highly improbable that an activevolcano exists in the Blueridge mountain chain. Our Appalachianmountain system is nowhere volcanic in its origin. But all theseevents cannot be without basis. In short, Strock, we have decided tomake a strict inquiry into the phenomena of the Great Eyrie, togather all the testimony, to question the people of the towns andfarms. To do this, I have made choice of an agent in whom we havefull confidence; and this agent is you, Strock."

  "Good! I am ready, Mr. Ward," cried I, "and be sure that I shallneglect nothing to bring you full information."

  "I know it, Strock, and I will add that I regard you as speciallyfitted for the work. You will have a splendid opportunity toexercise, and I hope to satisfy, your favorite passion of curiosity."

  "As you say, sir."

  "You will be free to act according to circumstances. As to expenses,if there seems reason to organize an ascension party, which will becostly, you have carte blanche."

  "I will act as seems best, Mr. Ward."

  "Let me caution you to act with all possible discretion. The peoplein the vicinity are already over-excited. It will be well to movesecretly. Do not mention the suspicions I have suggested to you. Andabove all, avoid arousing any fresh panic."

  "It is understood."

  "You will be accredited to the Mayor of Morganton, who will assistyou. Once more, be prudent, Strock, and acquaint no one with yourmission, unless it is absolutely necessary. You have often givenproofs of your intelligence and address; and this time I feel assuredyou will succeed."

  I asked him only "When shall I start?"


  "Tomorrow, I shall leave Washington; and the day after, I shall be atMorganton."

  How little suspicion had I of what the future had in store for me!

  I returned immediately to my house where I made my preparations fordeparture; and the next evening found me in Raleigh. There I passedthe night, and in the course of the next afternoon arrived at therailroad station of Morganton.

  Morganton is but a small town, built upon strata of the jurassicperiod, particularly rich in coal. Its mines give it some prosperity.It also has numerous unpleasant mineral waters, so that the seasonthere attracts many visitors. Around Morganton is a rich farmingcountry, with broad fields of grain. It lies in the midst of swamps,covered with mosses and reeds. Evergreen forests rise high up themountain slopes. All that the region lacks is the wells of naturalgas, that invaluable natural source of power, light, and warmth, soabundant in most of the Alleghany valleys. Villages and farms arenumerous up to the very borders of the mountain forests. Thus therewere many thousands of people threatened, if the Great Eyrie provedindeed a volcano, if the convulsions of nature extended to PleasantGarden and to Morganton.

  The mayor of Morganton, Mr. Elias Smith, was a tall man, vigorous andenterprising, forty years old or more, and of a health to defy allthe doctors of the two Americas. He was a great hunter of bears andpanthers, beasts which may still be found in the wild gorges andmighty forests of the Alleghanies.

  Mr. Smith was himself a rich land-owner, possessing several farms inthe neighborhood. Even his most distant tenants received frequentvisits from him. Indeed, whenever his official duties did not keephim in his so-called home at Morganton, he was exploring thesurrounding country, irresistibly drawn by the instincts of thehunter.

  I went at once to the house of Mr. Smith. He was expecting me, havingbeen warned by telegram. He received me very frankly, without anyformality, his pipe in his mouth, a glass of brandy on the table. Asecond glass was brought in by a servant, and I had to drink to myhost before beginning our interview.

  "Mr. Ward sent you," said he to me in a jovial tone. "Good; let usdrink to Mr. Ward's health."

  I clinked glasses with him, and drank in honor of the chief of police.

  "And now," demanded Elias Smith, "what is worrying him?"

  At this I made known to the mayor of Morganton the cause and thepurpose of my mission in North Carolina. I assured him that my chiefhad given me full power, and would render me every assistance,financial and otherwise, to solve the riddle and relieve theneighborhood of its anxiety relative to the Great Eyrie.

  Elias Smith listened to me without uttering a word, but not withoutseveral times refilling his glass and mine. While he puffed steadilyat his pipe, the close attention which he gave me was beyondquestion. I saw his cheeks flush at times, and his eyes gleam undertheir bushy brows. Evidently the chief mag
istrate of Morganton wasuneasy about Great Eyrie, and would be as eager as I to discover thecause of these phenomena.

  When I had finished my communication, Elias Smith gazed at me forsome moments in silence. Then he said, softly, "So at Washington theywish to know what the Great Eyrie hides within its circuit?"

  "Yes, Mr. Smith."

  "And you, also?"

  "I do."

  "So do I, Mr. Strock."

  He and I were as one in our curiosity.

  "You will understand," added he, knocking the cinders from his pipe,"that as a land-owner, I am much interested in these stories of theGreat Eyrie, and as mayor, I wish to protect my constituents."

  "A double reason," I commented, "to stimulate you to discover thecause of these extraordinary occurrences! Without doubt, my dear Mr.Smith, they have appeared to you as inexplicable and as threateningas to your people."

  "Inexplicable, certainly, Mr. Strock. For on my part, I do notbelieve it possible that the Great Eyrie can be a volcano; theAlleghanies are nowhere of volcanic origins. I, myself, in ourimmediate district, have never found any geological traces of scoria,or lava, or any eruptive rock whatever. I do not think, therefore,that Morganton can possibly be threatened from such a source."

  "You really think not, Mr. Smith?"


  "But these tremblings of the earth that have been felt in theneighborhood!"

  "Yes these tremblings! These tremblings!" repeated Mr. Smith, shakinghis head; "but in the first place, is it certain that there have beentremblings? At the moment when the flames showed most sharply, I wason my farm of Wildon, less than a mile from the Great Eyrie. Therewas certainly a tumult in the air, but I felt no quivering of theearth."

  "But in the reports sent to Mr. Ward--"

  "Reports made under the impulse of the panic," interrupted the mayorof Morganton. "I said nothing of any earth tremors in mine."

  "But as to the flames which rose clearly above the crest?"

  "Yes, as to those, Mr. Strock, that is different. I saw them; sawthem with my own eyes, and the clouds certainly reflected them formiles around. Moreover noises certainly came from the crater of theGreat Eyrie, hissings, as if a great boiler were letting off steam."

  "You have reliable testimony of this?"

  "Yes, the evidence of my own ears."

  "And in the midst of this noise, Mr. Smith, did you believe that youheard that most remarkable of all the phenomena, a sound like theflapping of great wings?"

  "I thought so, Mr. Strock; but what mighty bird could this be, whichsped away after the flames had died down, and what wings could evermake such tremendous sounds. I therefore seriously question, if thismust not have been a deception of my imagination. The Great Eyrie arefuge for unknown monsters of the sky! Would they not have been seenlong since, soaring above their immense nest of stone? In short,there is in all this a mystery which has not yet been solved."

  "But we will solve it, Mr. Smith, if you will give me your aid."

  "Surely, Mr. Strock; tomorrow we will start our campaign."

  "Tomorrow." And on that word the mayor and I separated. I went to ahotel, and established myself for a stay which might be indefinitelyprolonged. Then having dined, and written to Mr. Ward, I saw Mr.Smith again in the afternoon, and arranged to leave Morganton withhim at daybreak.

  Our first purpose was to undertake the ascent of the mountain, withthe aid of two experienced guides. These men had ascended Mt.Mitchell and others of the highest peaks of the Blueridge. They hadnever, however, attempted the Great Eyrie, knowing that its walls ofinaccessible cliffs defended it on every side. Moreover, before therecent startling occurrences the Great Eyrie had not particularlyattracted the attention of tourists. Mr. Smith knew the two guidespersonally as men daring, skillful and trustworthy. They would stopat no obstacle; and we were resolved to follow them througheverything.

  Moreover Mr. Smith remarked at the last that perhaps it was no longeras difficult as formerly to penetrate within the Great Eyrie.

  "And why?" asked I.

  "Because a huge block has recently broken away from the mountain sideand perhaps it has left a practicable path or entrance."

  "That would be a fortunate chance, Mr. Smith."

  "We shall know all about it, Mr. Strock, no later than tomorrow."

  "Till tomorrow, then."