The Mysterious Island: The Castaways from the Sky

Chapter III

Five o’clock in the evening—The missing person—Neb’s despair—Search to the north—The islet—A wretched night of anguish—The morning fog—Neb swims—View of the land—Fording the channel.

The engineer was carried off by a wave through the mesh of rope which had given way. His dog had also disappeared. The faithful animal had voluntarily thrown himself in to help his master.

“Forward!” shouted the reporter.

And all four, Gideon Spilett, Herbert, Pencroff and Neb, forgetting their exhaustion and fatigue, began their search.

Poor Neb cried with rage and despair at the same time at the thought of having lost all that he loved in the world.

Two minutes had not passed from the moment when Cyrus Smith had disappeared to the instant when his companions touched land. They could therefore hope to arrive in time to save him.

“Let us search! Let us search!” shouted Neb.

“Yes, Neb,” replied Gideon Spilett, “and we will find him!”



“Does he know how to swim?” asked Pencroff.

“Yes,” replied Neb, “and besides, Top is there...”

The sailor, listening to the sea roar, shook his head.

It was on the coast to the north, about a half mile from the spot where the castaways had landed, that the engineer had disappeared. If he could reach the nearest point on the shoreline he would be at most a half mile from them.

It was then nearly six o’clock. A fog came on making the night very obscure. The castaways proceeded northward on the eastern coastline of this land upon which chance had thrown them, an unknown land whose geographical location they could not even guess at. They trampled on sandy soil, mixed with stones, which seemed to be deprived of every species of vegetation. This soil, very uneven and rugged, seemed in certain spots to be riddled with small potholes which made their progress very painful. From these holes, heavy birds of sluggish flight escaped at each instant, flying off in all directions into the obscurity. Other more agile ones rose and passed overhead in flocks like clouds. The sailor thought he recognized sea gulls and sea mews whose sharp cries contended with the roars from the sea.

From time to time the castaways stopped to shout and listen for some sound not made by the ocean. It was possible that if they were near the place where the engineer had landed they might hear Top’s barking in case Cyrus Smith was unable to give some sign of his existence. But no cry was heard above the roar of the waves and the clash of the surf. Then the small troop resumed their forward march and searched every crevice of the shoreline.

After a walk of twenty minutes the four castaways were suddenly stopped by the foaming waves. Solid ground vanished. They found themselves at the extremity of a sharp point against which the sea broke with fury.

“It is a promontory,” said the sailor. “We must retrace our steps keeping to our right and in this way we will get to the mainland.”

“But what if he is there!” replied Neb, pointing to the ocean, whose enormous waves whitened the darkness.

“Then let us call him!”

And they all shouted together vigorously but there was no response. They waited for a lull. They shouted again. Again nothing.

And they all shouted together...

The castaways then went back on the opposite side of the promontory on soil just as sandy and rocky. However Pencroff noted that this shoreline was more abrupt, and the ground more elevated and he assumed that it was joined by an elongated ramp to a high coast that he could barely make out. The birds were less numerous on this part of the shore. The sea also surged less here and was less noisy. It was also remarkable that there was less agitation in the waves. They could barely hear the noise of the surf. Doubtless this side of the promontory formed a semi-circular cove with a sharp point that protected it from the waves of the open sea.

But in going in this direction they were moving toward the south away from that part of the coast where Cyrus Smith might have set foot. For a mile and a half the shoreline did not present any turn that would permit them to head north again. Though they had turned the point, the promontory should be connected to the mainland. In spite of their exhaustion the castaways continued to move forward courageously hoping at each moment to find a sharp turn that would put them back in the original direction.

Imagine their disappointment when, after about two miles, they found themselves once again stopped by the sea on a somewhat elevated group of slippery rocks.

“We are on an islet,” said Pencroff, “and we have surveyed it from one extremity to the other.”

The sailor’s observation was justified. The castaways had been thrown not on a continent, not even on an island, but on an islet that did not measure more than two miles in length and whose width was evidently considerably less.

But was this barren islet, scattered with rocks, without vegetation, this desolate refuge for several sea birds, was it part of an important archipelago? They could not say. When the balloon passengers were in the basket they could see land only indistinctly through the fog. They were not able to judge its size. However, Pencroff, whose sailor’s eyes were accustomed to pierce the haze, believed that he could distinguish confused masses in the west which would signify an elevated coast.

But then, because of the obscurity, they could not determine if the islet had a simple or a complex appearance. They could not even leave it because the sea surrounded it. They must put off until the next day the search for the engineer who alas had not signaled his presence by any cry.

“The silence of Cyrus proves nothing,” said the reporter. “He may have fainted or be injured and momentarily in no condition to respond, but let us not despair.”

The reporter then got the idea of lighting a fire at the point of the islet to serve as a signal to the engineer. They looked in vain for dry wood or brushwood. Sand and stones, there was nothing else.

One can understand the grief of Neb and his companions who were keenly attached to this intrepid Cyrus Smith. It was quite evident that they were powerless to help him. They must await the day. Either the engineer had been able to save himself and had already found refuge at some point on the coast, or he was lost forever!

These were long and painful hours to pass. The cold was sharp. The castaways suffered cruelly but they scarcely felt it. It did not occur to them to rest for a moment. Forgetting themselves for their chief, hoping, always wanting to hope, they went back and forth on the barren islet, always coming back to its north point, closest to the place of the catastrophe. They listened, they shouted, they tried to detect some supreme call. Their voices should have carried far because a certain calm then prevailed in the atmosphere and the noise of the sea began to fall with the billows.

One of Neb’s cries even seemed, for a moment, to produce an echo. Herbert brought this to Pencroff’s attention, adding:

“This proves that there is a shoreline not too far to the west.”

The sailor made an affirmative sign. Besides, his eyes could not deceive him. If he had distinguished land however faintly, it was because land was there.

But this remote echo was the only response provoked by Neb’s cries and all else on the east part of the islet remained silent.

However, little by little the sky cleared. Toward midnight some stars were shining and if the engineer had been there near his companions he would have remarked that these stars were no longer those of the northern hemisphere. In fact the pole star did not appear above this new horizon and the polar constellations were no longer those usually observed in North America. It was the Southern Cross which was shining at the south pole of the sky.

The night passed. About five o’clock in the morning, the 25th of March, the higher levels of the atmosphere changed slightly. The horizon was still dark but with the first light of day an opaque fog rose from the sea so that visibility did not extend more than about twenty feet. The fog spread out in large volutes that moved clumsily.

It was a disappointment. The castaways could not distinguish anything around them. While Neb and the reporter looked toward the ocean, the sailor and Herbert looked for a coastline in the west but not a bit of land was visible.

“No matter,” said Pencroff, “if I do not see the coastline, I can feel it... It is there... there... just as surely as we are no longer in Richmond.”

But the haze was not long in lifting. It was nothing but a fine weather haze. A good sun warmed the upper layers and this heat sifted to the surface of the islet.

In fact about half past six, three quarters of an hour after sunrise, the fog became more transparent. It persisted above but dissipated below. Soon the entire islet appeared as if it had descended from a cloud. The sea showed itself in a circular form, infinite in the east but bounded by an elevated and abrupt coast in the west.

Yes! Land was there. Their safety was at least provisionally assured. Between the islet and the coast, separated by an open channel a half mile in width, ran a noisy rapid current.

However, one of the castaways, consulting only his heart, immediately threw himself into the current, without asking the opinions of his companions and without even saying a single word. It was Neb. He was in a hurry to be on this coast and to rush northward. No one could hold him back. Pencroff called to him but in vain. The reporter was inclined to follow Neb.

Pencroff then went to him:

“Do you want to cross this channel?” he asked.

“Yes,” replied Gideon Spilett.

“Well then listen, believe me,” said the sailor, “Neb is well able to bring help to his master. If we throw ourselves into this channel we will risk being carried to the open sea by an extremely violent current. Now, if I am not mistaken, it is an ebbing current. See the sea is going down on the beach. Let us have patience and at low tide it is possible that we will find a fordable passage...”

“You are right,” replied the reporter. “Let us not separate any more than we have to...”

During this time Neb was vigorously struggling against the current. He crossed it in an oblique direction. They saw his black shoulders emerge at each stroke. He was swept on at an extreme speed but he also got closer to the shore. It took him a half hour to cross the half mile that separated the islet from the mainland. He reached the opposite shore several thousand feet downstream from the point on the islet where he started.

Neb set foot at the base of a high granite wall and shook himself vigorously, then running he soon disappeared behind a point of rocks that projected into the sea at about the same distance as the northern extremity of the islet.

Neb’s companions anxiously followed his daring endeavor. When he was out of sight they turned their attention to this land on which they would be taking refuge, while eating some shellfish which were scattered on the sand. It was a meager repast but it was something.

The opposite coast formed a vast bay, terminated in the south by a very sharp point which was devoid of all vegetation and of a very savage aspect. This point was joined to the shore by a rather capricious pattern and was braced up against high granite rocks. Toward the north, on the other hand, a wide bay formed a more rounded coast, running from southwest to northeast and ending with a sharp cape. Between these two extreme points of the bay’s arc the distance was perhaps eight miles. A half mile from shore the islet occupied a narrow strip of the sea resembling an enormous cetacean whose body it represented on a large scale. Its largest width was not more than a quarter of a mile.

Opposite the island, the shore in the foreground was composed of sand scattered with blackish rocks which, at the moment, were reappearing little by little with the ebbing tide. Behind that was a sort of smooth granite facade crowned by a capricious ridge at a height of three hundred feet. It ran thus for a length of three miles and ended abruptly at the right with a slanted corner that one would think was made by the hand of man. On the left, on the other hand, beyond the promontory, this sort of irregular cliff broke into prismatic fragments made of a conglomerate of rocks, sloping downward by an elongated ramp which gradually blended with the rocks at the southern point.

There was not one tree on the upper plateau of the coast. It was a flat plateau like the one which overlooks Capetown at the Cape of Good Hope but with much reduced proportions. At least so it appeared as seen from the islet. Nevertheless, vegetation was not lacking to the right, behind the slanted corner. They could easily distinguish a confused mass of large trees to the limit of their view. This verdure gladdened eyes saddened by the lines of the granite face.

Lastly, to the rear beyond the plateau in a northwesterly direction and at a distance of at least seven miles, glittered a white peak reflecting the sun’s rays. It was a hat of snow capping some distant mountain.

They could not say if the land formed an island or if it was part of a continent. But looking at the convulsed rocks piled up on the left, a geologist would have not hesitated to give them a volcanic origin, because they were incontestably the result of plutonic activity.

Gideon Spilett, Pencroff and Herbert carefully observed this land on which they would perhaps spend many long years, even die on it if they were not on the ship lanes.

“Well,” asked Herbert, “what do you say, Pencroff?”

“Well,” replied the sailor, “there is good here and bad as in everything. We will see. But now the ebb is being felt. In three hours we will try to cross and once there we will try to organize ourselves to search for Mister Smith.

Pencroff was not wrong in his prediction. Three hours later, at low tide, most of the sand that formed the bed of the canal was uncovered. Between the shore and the islet there remained only a narrow channel which would doubtless be easy to cross.

In fact about ten o’clock Gideon Spilett and his two companions took off their clothing, placed them in bundles over their heads and ventured into the channel whose depth was not more than five feet. Herbert, for whom the water was too high, swam like a fish and managed wonderfully. All arrived without difficulty on the other side. There the sun rapidly dried them, they put on their clothes which they had preserved from contact with the water, and they discussed the next step.

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Translation Copyright © 1992 Sidney Kravitz
Copyright © Zvi Har’El
$Date: 2007/12/23 17:44:40 $