It was seven months to the day that the balloon passengers had been thrown on Lincoln Island. During this time, in spite of the search they had made, no human had shown himself. Never had any smoke betrayed the presence of man on the surface of the island. Never had any manual work attested to his passage either in the past or recently. Not only did the island seem uninhabited, but they believed that it had never been inhabited. And now this entire structure of deductions fell before a simple grain of metal found in the body of an inoffensive rodent.
In fact, this bullet was fired from a gun and who but a human could operate such a weapon?
When Pencroff placed the lead bullet on the table, his companions looked at it with a profound astonishment. They suddenly became aware of the considerable consequences of this incident in spite of its apparent insignificance. The sudden appearance of a supernatural being would not have impressed them more vividly.
Cyrus Smith did not hesitate to spell out the hypotheses resulting from this surprising and unexpected fact. He held the lead bullet between his index finger and thumb and turned it back and forth. Then:
“You are able to say,” he asked Pencroff, “that the peccary wounded by this lead bullet was hardly older than three months?”
“Hardly, Mister Cyrus,” replied Pencroff. “It was still being nursed by its mother when I found it in the trap.”
“Well then,” said the engineer, “this proves that a gun was fired on Lincoln Island three months ago at most.”
“And that a lead bullet struck this young animal, but not mortally,” added Gideon Spilett.
“Without doubt,” replied Cyrus Smith, “and these are the consequences that can be deduced from this incident: either the island was inhabited before our arrival or men came here in the last three months. Did these men come here voluntarily or involuntarily, by landing or by a shipwreck? This point can be cleared up later. As to who they are, European or Malayan, enemies or friends of our race, nothing permits us to say, and if they still inhabit the island or if they have left it, we know nothing about it. But these questions are too interesting for us to remain uncertain for long.”
“No, a hundred times no, a thousand times no,” cried the sailor, rising from the table. “There are no men on Lincoln Island other than we. The devil. The island isn’t large and if it had been inhabited, we would already have seen some of its inhabitants.”
“In fact, the contrary would be very astonishing,” said Herbert.
“But it would be even more astonishing, I suppose,” observed the reporter, “if this peccary was born with a lead bullet in its body.”
“At least,” said Neb seriously, “if Pencroff hasn’t had...”
“See for yourself, Neb,” retorted Pencroff. “Would I have had a lead bullet in my jaw for five or six months without knowing it? But where would I conceal it?” added the sailor, opening his mouth to show the thirty two magnificent teeth which filled it. “Look carefully, Neb, and if you find a hollow tooth in this set, I will let you pull out a half dozen!”
“Look carefully, Neb.”
“Neb’s hypothesis is not admissible,” replied Cyrus Smith who, in spite of the gravity of his thoughts, could not restrain a smile. “It is certain that a gun has been fired on the island in the last three months at most. But I am led to believe that these beings, whoever they were, landed on this shore only for a very short time or that they were only passing through because if it had been inhabited at the time that we were examining the island from atop Mount Franklin, we would have seen them or we would have been seen. It is probable that for a few weeks only, some castaways were thrown by a storm on some point of the shore. Whatever is the case, it is important for us to be sure on this point.”
“I think that we should act prudently,” said the reporter.
“That is my advice,” replied Cyrus Smith, “because unfortunately it is to be feared that these were Malayan pirates who landed on the island.”
“Mister Cyrus,” asked the sailor, “would it not be expedient, before going on a reconnaissance, to make a canoe which would permit us either to ascend the river or if need be, to go around the coast? We should not be caught off guard.”
“Your idea is a good one, Pencroff,” replied the engineer, “but we cannot wait. At least a month is needed to build a canoe...”
“A real canoe, yes,” replied the sailor, “but we do not need a vessel destined to take to the sea. In five days at most, I am confident that I can construct a canoe able to navigate on the Mercy.”
“Make a boat in five days!” cried Neb.
“Yes, Neb, a boat in the Indian fashion.”
“Of wood?” asked Neb, unconvinced.
“Of wood,” replied Pencroff, “or rather of bark. I repeat to you, Mister Cyrus, in five days the matter can be settled.”
“In five days be it,” replied the engineer.
“But from now on, we will do well be cautious,” said Herbert.
“Very much so, my friends,” replied Cyrus Smith, “and I beg you to limit your hunting excursions to the neighborhood of Granite House.”
The dinner finished less gaily than Pencroff had hoped.
Thus then, the island was or had been inhabited by others than the colonists. After the incident of the lead bullet, this was an incontestable fact and such a revelation could only make the colonists uneasy.
Before going to sleep, Cyrus Smith and Gideon Spilett talked a long time about these things. They asked if by chance this incident did not have some connection with the unexplained circumstances in which the engineer had been saved and other strange events which had already astounded them several times. However, after having discussed the pros and cons of the question, Cyrus Smith ended by saying:
“In short, do you want to know my opinion, my dear Spilett?”
“Well, it is this: however minutely we will explore the island, we will find nothing!”
The next day Pencroff went to work. He did not intend to make a canoe with ribs and planking but very simply a floating device, flat at the bottom, which would be excellent for navigating the Mercy especially when approaching its sources where the water was not deep. Some pieces of bark stitched together would suffice to form a light vessel and in the event it became necessary to carry it, due to natural obstacles, it would be neither heavy nor cumbersome. Pencroff counted on forming the seams of the bark strips by using riveted studs and to assure, with their adherence, the water tightness of the apparatus.
He therefore chose trees whose flexible and tenacious bark was suitable for this purpose. Now the last storm had thrown down a certain quantity of douglas which is perfectly suitable for this type of construction. Several of these fir trees were stretched out on the ground and they had only to take off their bark but this was difficult in view of the imperfect tools possessed by the colonists. But they managed somehow.
While Pencroff, seconded by the engineer, was occupied with this without losing an hour, Gideon Spilett and Herbert did not remain idle. They became the purveyors of the colony. The reporter could not help but admire the lad who had acquired a remarkable skill in the handling of the bow and the spear. Herbert also showed daring and coolness which one can justly call the “reasonableness of the brave.” Besides, the two hunting companions took account of Cyrus Smith’s recommendations by not going beyond a two mile radius around Granite House. The first slopes of the forest furnished a sufficient tribute of agoutis, capybaras, kangaroos, pecarries, etc. and if the yield from the traps was less important since the end of the frost, none the less the warren gave its accustomed share which would have been enough to feed the colony of Lincoln Island.
Often, during these hunts, Herbert chatted with Gideon Spilett about the incident of the lead bullet whose consequences were of such concern to the engineer and one day—it was the 26th of October—he said to him:
“But, Mister Spilett, do you not find it extraordinary that if some castaways have landed on the island that they still have not shown themselves in front of Granite House?”
“Very astonishing if they are still here,” replied the reporter, “but not at all astonishing if they are no longer here.”
“Hence, you believe that these people have already left the island?” answered Herbert.
“That is more than likely, my son, because if their stay was prolonged and especially if they were still here some incident would have finally betrayed their presence.”
“But if they were able to leave,” the lad noted, “then they were not castaways.”
“No, Herbert, or at least they were what I would call temporary castaways. In fact, it is very possible that a windstorm had thrown them on the island without damaging their vessel and that they returned to sea when the storm was over.”
“One thing must be acknowledged,” said Herbert, “which is that Mister Smith always seems to fear rather than desire the presence of human beings on our island.”
“In fact,” replied the reporter, “there is nothing desirable about these Malayans who frequent these seas and these gentlemen are wicked rogues who are best avoided.”
“It is not impossible, Mister Spilett,” replied Herbert, “that one of these days we will find some traces of their landing and perhaps it will settle the matter.”
“I do not say no, my son. An abandoned camp, an extinct fire will put us on the track and it is this which we will look for in our coming exploration.”
On the day when the hunters were chatting in this manner, they found themselves in a part of the forest near the Mercy, noted for its trees of great beauty. Among others, rising to a height of almost two hundred feet above the ground, were several of those superb conifers which the natives of New Zealand call “kauris.”
“An idea, Mister Spilett,” said Herbert. “If I climb to the top of one of these kauris, I will perhaps be able to observe the country over a large area.”
“The idea is good,” replied the reporter, “but will you be able to climb to the top of these giants?”
“I can always try,” replied Herbert.
The agile and skillful lad darted up to the first branches whose arrangement made it rather easy to climb and in several minutes he arrived at the top which emerged above this immense plain of verdure that formed the foliage of the forest.
From this high point the view extended over the entire southern portion of the island from Cape Claw in the southeast to Reptile Promontory in the southwest. In the northwest rose Mount Franklin which hid a good quarter of the horizon.
But Herbert, from the height of his observatory, could clearly see all of this still unknown portion of the island which could give or had given refuge to the strangers whose presence they suspected.
The lad looked carefully. First on the open sea there was nothing in sight. Not a sail either on the horizon nor on the approaches to the island. However, since the trees hid the shore, it was possible that a vessel, especially a vessel with damaged masts, was very near land and consequently was invisible.
There was also nothing amid the forests of the Far West. The forest formed an impenetrable dome measuring several square miles, without a clearing and without any light. It was even impossible to follow the course of the Mercy or to recognize the point of the mountain from which it took its source. Perhaps other creeks flowed toward the west but that could not be determined.
But if Herbert saw no indication of an encampment, could he at least detect some smoke in the air which would reveal the presence of man? The atmosphere was clear and the least vapor would show clearly against the background of the sky.
For a moment, Herbert thought that he saw a faint smoke rising in the west but a more careful observation showed him that he was mistaken. He looked very carefully and his view was excellent... No, decidedly, there was nothing there.
Herbert climbed down to the foot of the kauri and the two hunters returned to Granite House. There Cyrus Smith listened to the lad’s recital, shook his head and said nothing. It was rather evident that they could answer this question only after a complete exploration of the island.
Two days later—October 28th—another incident occurred whose explanation also left something to be desired.
While roaming about the beach two miles from Granite House, Herbert and Neb were rather happy to capture a magnificent specimen of the order of chelonia. It was a tortoise of the genus mydase, whose shell had a green luster.
Herbert saw this tortoise sliding among the rocks, trying to get to the sea.
“Help Neb, over here!” he cried.
Neb rushed up.
“What a beautiful animal!” said Neb, “but how will we get hold of it?”
“Nothing is easier, Neb,” replied Herbert. “We will turn this tortoise over on its back and it will not be able to escape. Take your spear and imitate me.”
The reptile, sensing the danger, withdrew into its shell and into its breast-plate. One could no longer see its head nor its paws and it was as still as a rock.
Herbert and Neb placed their sticks under the breast-bone of the animal and working together, they succeeded not without difficulty in turning it on its back. This tortoise, which measured three feet in length, would weigh at least four hundred pounds.
“Good!” cried Neb, “this will make friend Pencroff happy.”
“This will make friend Pencroff happy.”
In fact friend Pencroff could not but be happy because the flesh of these tortoises, which feed on seaweed, is extremely tasty. At the moment this tortoise was only allowing a glimpse of its small flat head which was widened subsequently by the large temporal fossa of the skull hidden under a bony arch.
“And now what will we do with our game?” said Neb. “We cannot drag it to Granite House.”
“Let’s leave it here, since it cannot turn over,” replied Herbert, “and we will return to take it with the cart.”
Nevertheless, as an added precaution, Herbert took the care, which Neb considered superfluous, to wedge in the animal with large stones. After that the two hunters returned to Granite House following the beach that the then low tide had uncovered. Herbert, wanting to surprise Pencroff, did not tell him anything about the “superb specimen of the chelonia order,” which they had turned over on the sand; but two hours later, Neb and he came back with the cart to the spot where they had left it. The “superb specimen of the chelonia order” was no longer there.
Neb and Herbert first looked at each other, then they looked around. Nevertheless it was the place where they had left the tortoise. The lad even found the stones which he had used and consequently he was sure that he was not mistaken.
“So,” said Neb, “these animals can turn themselves over.”
“So it seems,” replied Herbert, who could not understand it and looked at the stones scattered on the sand.
“Well, Pencroff will not be happy.”
“And it will perhaps be difficult for Mister Smith to explain this disappearance,” Herbert reflected.
“Good,” said Neb, who wanted to hide his misadventure, “we won’t speak about it.”
“On the contrary, Neb, we must speak about it,” replied Herbert.
And both, taking back the cart which they had hauled uselessly, returned to Granite House.
Going to the lumber room where the engineer and the sailor were working together, Herbert told what had happened.
“What dopes,” cried the sailor. “To let at least fifty soups escape.”
“But Pencroff,” replied Neb. “It is not our fault if the animal escaped since I told you that we turned it over.”
“Then you didn’t turn it over enough,” the intractable sailor retorted ludicrously.
“Not enough!” cried Herbert.
And he told how he had taken care to wedge the tortoise with the stones.
“Then it was a miracle!” replied Pencroff.
“I believe, Mister Cyrus,” said Herbert, “that tortoises, once placed on their back, cannot turn over, especially when they are large.”
“That is true, my child,” replied Cyrus Smith.
“Then how was it able...?”
“At what distance from the water did you leave the tortoise?” asked the engineer, who stopped working and reflected on this incident.
“About fifteen feet at most,” replied Herbert.
“And it was low tide at the time?”
“Yes, Mister Cyrus.”
“Well,” replied the engineer, “what the tortoise could not do on the sand, it was able to do in the water. It turned itself over when the tide returned to it and tranquilly returned to the high seas.”
“Ah! What dopes we are!” cried Neb.
“That is precisely what I had the honor of telling you!” replied Pencroff.
Cyrus Smith had given this explanation which was doubtless admissible. But was he convinced of the correctness of the explanation? One would not dare to say so.