The Mysterious Island: The Castaways from the Sky

Chapter XIII

What is found on Top—Making bows and arrows—A brickyard—The kiln for pottery—Various kitchen utensils—The first broth—Wormwood—The southern cross—An important astronomical observation.

“Well, Mister Cyrus, where shall we begin?” Pencroff asked the engineer the next morning.

“At the beginning,” replied Cyrus Smith.

In fact the colonists had to really begin at the beginning. They did not even possess the tools needed to make tools and they did not even find themselves in the position of Nature which “having time, economizes on effort.” They had no time since they had to provide immediately for the needs of their existence, and if profiting from acquired experience they had nothing to invent, none the less they had everything to make. Their iron, their steel was still only in the mineral state, their pottery was in the clay state, their linen and clothes were in the state of textile materials.

It must be said however that these colonists were “men” in the true sense of the word. The engineer Smith could not have been seconded by more intelligent companions nor with more devotion and zeal. He had tried them. He knew their strengths.

Gideon Spilett, a reporter of great talent, having learnnd everything, could speak about everything and could contribute with his mind and body to the colonization of the island. He would not recoil before any task and, being a passionate hunter, he would make a business out of what had been until then a sport for him.

Herbert, a courageous lad, already remarkably instructed in the natural sciences, would make a substantial contribution to the common cause.

Neb was devotion personified. Skillful, intelligent, tireless, robust, with a constitution of iron, he understood a little about the work of the forge and would be very useful to the colony.

As to Pencroff, he had sailed on all the oceans, a carpenter in the Brooklyn dockyards, a tailor’s aide in the Navy, gardener, farmer during his furloughs, etc., and like a man of the sea, prepared for everything and knowing how to do everything.

It would truly be difficult to unite five men more suitable to battle fate and more assured of triumphing against it.

“At the beginning,” Cyrus Smith had said. Now this beginning that the engineer referred to was the construction of an apparatus which would serve to transform natural substances. It is known that heat plays a role in these transformations. Now the fuel, wood or coal, was available for immediate use. They must proceed to make a furnace for using it.

“What is the purpose of the furnace?” asked Pencroff.

“To make the pottery that we need,” replied Cyrus Smith.

“And with what will we make the furnace ?”

“With bricks.”

“And the bricks?”

“With clay. Let’s go, my friends. In order to avoid transportation problems we will establish our workshop at the very place of production. Neb will bring the provisions and there will be no lack of fire for cooking food.”

“No,” replied the reporter, “but if there is to be no lack of food then we will have to make some hunting weapons.”

“Ah! If we only had a knife,” cried the sailor.

“What then?” asked Cyrus Smith.

“Then I would quickly make a bow and arrows and there would be plenty of game in the pantry.”

“Yes, a knife, a sharp blade...,” the engineer said as if speaking to himself.

At this moment he turned his attention toward Top who was prowling around the beach.

Suddenly Cyrus Smith became excited.

“Here, Top,” he said.

The dog ran up at his master’s call. He took Top’s head between his hands, detached the collar that the animal carried on his neck and broke it in two parts, saying:

“Here are two knives, Pencroff.”

The sailor responded with two hurrahs. Top’s collar was made of a thin blade of tempered steel. It was sufficient to first grind it on a sandstone so as to give it a keen sharp edge and then to raise the edge on a finer sandstone. Now this type of sandy rock was met with in abundance on the beach and two hours later the colony’s stock of tools was composed of two sharp blades which had been easy to fit into sturdy handles.

The conquest of this first tool was saluted like a triumph, a precious conquest indeed which would come in handy.

They left. It was Cyrus Smith’s intention to return to the eastern shore of the lake. There he had noticed on the previous day this clay soil, a sample of which he had. They took to the bank of the Mercy, crossed Grand View Plateau and after a walk of five miles at most they arrived at a clearing situated two hundred feet from Lake Grant.

On the way Herbert discovered a tree whose branches are used by the Indians of South America to make their bows. It was the “crejimba” of the palm tree family which does not bear edible fruit. Some long straight branches were cut, stripped of leaves, pruned, made thicker in the center and thinner at the extremities, and they had only to find a suitable plant for the cord of the bow. This was a species belonging to the mallow family, the “hibiscus heterophyllus” which furnishes fibers of remarkable tenacity that can be compared to the tendons of animals. Pencroff thus obtained some rather strong bows for which he only needed arrows. These were easy to make with some straight and rigid branches without knots but the point would have to be armed, that is to say with a substance suitable for replacing the iron which would not be easy to meet with. But Pencroff said that having done his share of the work, chance would do the rest.

The colonists arrived on terrain that they recognized from the previous day. It was composed of this figuline clay which serves in making bricks and tiles, clay which consequently would be very useful in carrying out the operation in question. The manual labor required would not present any difficulty. It sufficed to thin this fuguline with some sand, to mold the bricks and to bake them in the heat of a wood fire.

Ordinarily bricks are pressed into molds but the engineer was content to form them by hand. All that day and the following were employed with this work. The clay, mixed with water, was then puddled with the hands and feet of the manipulators and divided into blocks of equal size. A skilled workman could make, without a machine, up to ten thousand bricks in twelve hours but in their two days of work the five brickmakers of Lincoln Island made not more than three thousand which were arranged alongside each other until the time, three or four days later, when their complete drying would permit them to perform the baking.

Three thusand bricks were arranged...

On April 2nd Cyrus Smith determined the position of the island.

On the previous evening he had noted exactly the time when the sun had disappeared below the horizon, taking account of refraction. This morning he noted no less exactly the time when it reappeared. Between this setting and this rising twelve hours less twenty four minutes elapsed. Thus six hours and twelve minutes after today’s sunrise the sun would exactly pass the meridian and the point in the sky that it would occupy at that moment would be north. 1

At the indicated hour Cyrus noted this point by lining up two trees with the sun which would serve as a reference mark. He thus obtained a fixed meridian for subsequent operations.

The two days preceding the baking of the bricks were occupied with providing fuel. They cut off branches around the clearing and gathered all the wood that had fallen under the trees. This was not done without a little hunting in the vicinity now done better since Pencroff possessed several dozen arrows armed with very sharp points. It was Top who had furnished these points. He brought in a porcupine, rather mediocre as food, but of incontestable value thanks to the quills with which it was studded. These quills were securely attached to the ends of the arrows whose stability was assured by a tail made with the feathers of cockatoos. The reporter and Herbert promptly became skillful archers. Then hairy and feathery game were abundant at the Chimneys, capybaras, pigeons, agoutis, heather cocks, etc. For the most part these animals were killed in the part of the forest situated on the left bank of the Mercy to which they gave the name Jacamar Woods in remembrance of the bird that Pencroff and Herbert had pursued during their first exploration.

This game was eaten fresh but they saved the legs of the capybara which they smoked over a fire of green wood after having aromatized it with fragrant leaves. This nourishment was fortifying but nevertheless it was always roast upon roast and the diners would have been happy to hear on the hearth the sound of beef boiling, but they would have to wait until the pot was made and consequently until the oven was built.

During these excursions, which were only made within a restricted radius around the brickyard, the hunters were able to verify the recent passage of large animals with powerful claws of a species they did not recognize. Cyrus Smith urged them to be extremely prudent because it was likely that the forest concealed several dangerous animals.

And it was well that they did. In fact one day Gideon Spilett and Herbert saw an animal that resembled a jaguar. This animal fortunately did not attack them because they perhaps would not have gotten away without some serious wound. But as soon as they could have a real weapon, that is to say one of the guns that Pencroff clamored for, Gideon Spilett vowed an intense war against the ferocious beasts to purge them from the island.

During these days the Chimneys were not made more comfortable because the engineer counted on discovering or building, if necessary, a more convenient dwelling. They were content to spread a fresh litter of moss and dry leaves on the sand of the passageways and on these somewhat primitive beds the weary workers slept a perfect sleep.

They also noted the days which passed on Lincoln Island from the time that the colonists first set foot there, and kept a regular count. The fifth of April, which was a Wednesday, was twelve days from the time that the storm had thrown the castaways on this shore.

On the sixth of April, at daybreak, the engineer and his companions gathered at the clearing in the vicinity of where the brick baking operation would take place. Naturally this kind of operation had to be done in the open air instead of in a furnace or rather in this conglomeration of bricks which would only be an enormous furnace which would bake itself. The fuel, made of well prepared faggots, was placed on the ground surrounded by several rows of dry bricks, soon forming a large cube, with air vents leading to the outside. This work lasted the entire day and only by evening did they set fire to the faggots.

That night no one went to bed and they watched carefully that the fire did not slacken.

The operation lasted forty eight hours and was a perfect success. It was then necessary to let the smoking mass cool. During this time Neb and Pencroff, guided by Cyrus Smith, used a hurdle of interlacing branches to transport several loads of limestone, very ordinary stones, which they found abundant north of the lake. These stones, decomposed by the heat, gave a very slimy quicklime with a yield increased by slaking, as pure in the end as if it had been produced by the calcination of chalk or of marble. Mixed with sand, which has the effect of reducing the contraction of the paste when it solidifies, this limestone furnished an excellent mortar.

The result of these various works was that on April 9th the engineer had at his disposal a certain quantity of fully prepared lime and several thousand bricks.

Without losing an instant they then began the construction of a kiln which would serve to bake the various potteries indispensable for domestic use. They succeeded without too much difficulty. Five days later the kiln was charged with coal discovered by the engineer in an open bed near the mouth of Red Creek. The first smoke escaped from a chimney about twenty feet high. The clearing was transformed into a factory and Pencroff was not far from believing that from this kiln would issue all the products of modern industry.

While waiting, the first thing that the colonists made was an ordinary pot but one very useful for cooking food. The main material was clay soil to which Cyrus Smith added a little lime and quartz. In reality this paste constitutes the real “pipe clay” from which they made pots, cups which had been molded on pottery wheels of the appropriate form, plates, large jars and vats for holding water, etc. The form of these objects was awkward and defective; but after they had been fired at a high temperature, the kitchen of the Chimneys found itself provided with a certain number of utensils as precious as if the most beautiful kaolin had been used in its composition.

The colonists made an ordinary pot.

It should be mentioned here that Pencroff, desiring to know if this clay, so prepared, justified its name of “pipe clay,” made some rather grotesque pipes which he found charming but since tobacco was missing, alas! And, it should be said, this was a large deprivation for Pencroff.

“But the tobacco will come like everything else,” he repeated during his outbursts of absolute confidence.

These tasks lasted until April 15th and one can be sure that this time was conscientiously employed. The colonists, having become potters, did no other thing except pottery. When it would be convenient for Cyrus Smith to change them to forgers, they would be forgers. But the next day was Sunday, Easter Sunday no less, and all agreed to sanctify this day by rest. These Americans were religious men, scrupulous observers of the precepts of the bible and the situation that they found themselves in could only develop their confidence in the Author of all things.

On the evening of the 15th of April they definitely returned to the Chimneys. The rest of the pottery was carried away and the kiln was extinguished to await a new use. The return was marked by a happy incident, the discovery made by the engineer of a substance suited to replace tinder. It is known that this spongy and velvety pulp comes from a certain mushroom of the polypore genus. Properly prepared it is extremely inflammable especially when it has been previously saturated with cannon powder or boiled in a solution of nitrate or potassium chlorate. But up to that time they had not found any of these polypores nor even morels which can replace them. On this day the engineer, having recognized a certain plant that belongs to the artemisia genus, which counts among its principle species wormwood, citronella, tarragon, etc., tore off several clumps and presented them to the sailor.

“Keep these, Pencroff,” he said. “Here is something that will please you.”

Pencroff looked at the plant attentively, lined with a lengthy and silky down, whose leaves were covered with a fluffy cotton.

“Well, what is this Mister Cyrus?” asked Pencroff. “Good heavens, is it tobacco?”

“No,” replied Cyrus Smith, “it is artemisia, Chinese artemisia for the scientists but for us it will be tinder.”

And in fact this artemisia, properly dried, furnishes a very inflammable substance especially when later the engineer would impregnate it with potassium nitrate of which the island possessed several beds and which is nothing more than saltpeter.

This evening all the colonists were gathered in the main room and ate in style. Neb had prepared a broth of agouti, a fragrant capybara ham to which was added boiled tubercules of the “caladium macrophizum,” a sort of herbaceous plant of the family of aroids which, in the tropical zone, take on an arborescent form. These rhizomes had an excellent taste, very nutritious, and nearly like the substance that is sold in England under the name of “Portland Sago.” This could, to a certain degree, replace bread which was still lacking to the colonists of Lincoln Island.

The supper was finished but before surrendering themselves to slumber, Cyrus Smith and his companions went to get some fresh air on the beach. It was eight o’clock. The night promised to be magnificent. The moon, which had been full five days earlier, had not yet risen but already the horizon was silvered with the soft gentle hues that could be called the lunar dawn. At the southern zenith the polar constellations glistened and among them was the Southern Cross which the engineer had greeted several days earlier on the top of Mount Franklin.

Cyrus Smith observed this splendid constellation for some time, which was composed on its upper portion and on its lower portion of two stars of the first magnitude, on its left arm a star of the second and on its right arm a star of the third magnitude.

Then after thinking:

“Herbert,” he asked the lad, “Isn’t this the 15th of April?”

“Yes, Mister Cyrus,” replied Herbert.

“Well then, if I am not mistaken, tomorrow will be one of the four days in the year when the true time will coincide with the average time, that is to say, my child, that tomorrow, within a few seconds, the sun will cross the meridian at noon, by the clock. If the weather is nice I think that I will be able to obtain the longitude of the island to an approximation of several degrees.”

“Without instruments or a sextant?” asked Gideon Spilett.

“Yes,” replied the engineer. “Also, since the night is clear I am going to try this very night to obtain our latitude by calculating the height of the Southern Cross, that is to say of the southern pole above the horizon. You can well appreciate, my friends, that before undertaking serious work on getting settled, it not only suffices to know that this land is an island but it is also necessary to know, if possible, at what distance it is situated either from the American continent, or the Australian continent or the principal archipelagos of the Pacific.”

“In fact,” said the reporter, “instead of constructing a house we could be more interested in constructing a boat if by chance we are only about a hundred miles from some inhabited coast.”

“That is why,” replied Cyrus Smith, “I am going to try this evening to obtain the latitude of Lincoln Island and tomorrow at noon I will try to calculate its longitude.”

If the engineer had possessed a sextant, an apparatus which permits, by reflection, the high precision measurement of the angular distance between objects, the operation would have offered no difficulty. This night by the height of the pole, the next day by the sun’s crossing of the meridian, he would have obtained the coordinates of the island. But with the apparatus missing, he had to supply it.

Cyrus Smith therefore returned to the Chimneys. By the light from the hearth he carved two small flat rulers that he attached together at their extremities so as to form a sort of compass whose branches could open or close. The point of attachment was secured by means of a strong thorn from an acacia which was part of the dead wood in the woodpile.

This instrument completed, the engineer returned to the beach, but he had to take the height of the pole above a clearly defined horizon, that is to say the horizon of the sea. However, Cape Claw hid the southern horizon so he would have to find a more convenient station. The best would evidently have been the shore exposed directly to the south but for this it would be necessary to cross the Mercy, then in darkness, which would be a difficulty.

Consequently, Cyrus Smith resolved to make his observations from Grand View Plateau and to take into account its height above sea level, a height which he would calculate the next day by a simple procedure of elementary geometry.

The colonists therefore went to the plateau by ascending the left bank of the Mercy and placed themselves on the edge that was oriented northwest to southeast, that is to say on this line of capriciously cut rocks which bordered the river.

This part of the plateau was fifty feet higher than the right bank which sloped down to the extremity of Cape Claw and to the southern coast of the island. No obstacle interfered with their view which embraced the horizon from the Cape to Reptile Promontory. In the south this horizon was illuminated from below by the first rays of the moon vividly delineated on the sky, enabling them to sight it with a certain precision.

At this moment the Southern Cross presented itself to the observer in an upside down position, the star Alpha marking its base, being the closest to the southern pole.

This constellation is not situated as close to the antarctic pole as the pole star is to the arctic pole. The star Alpha is about 27 degrees from it, but Cyrus Smith knew this and would take account of this angle in his calculation. He was also careful to observe the moment when it passed its lowest meridian which would render his observation easier.

Cyrus Smith therefore lined up one branch of his wooden compass with the horizon of the sea, the other on Alpha, as he would have done with circular eyepieces, and the opening between the two branches gave him the angular distance that separated Alpha from the horizon. In order to fix the angle obtained in an immutable way, he fastened the two slats of his apparatus by means of thorns using a third slat placed transversely such that their separation was firmly maintained.

That done, it remained only to calculate the angle obtained by correcting the observation to the level of the sea in a manner to take account of the depression of the horizon which necessitated the measurement of the height of the plateau. The value of this angle would thus give the height of Alpha and consequently that of the pole above the horizon, that is to say the latitude of the island, since the latitude of a point on the globe is always equal to the height of the pole above the horizon at this point.

These calculations were left for the next day and at ten o’clock everyone was in a deep sleep.

  1. In fact at this time of the year and at this latitude, the sun rises at 5:48 a.m. and sets at 6:12 p.m.

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