The Mysterious Island: The Abandoned

Chapter VII

Projects to execute—A bridge over the Mercy—Making an island out of Grand View Plateau—The draw-bridge—The corn harvest—The creek—The culverts—The poultry yard—The pigeon house—The two onagers—The harnessed cart—Excursion to Port Balloon.

The colonists of Lincoln Island had thus regained their dwelling without having been obliged to use the old passageway, which saved them from masonry work. It was truly fortunate that at the moment when whey were getting ready to do this, the band of apes had been terrified, at least subjected to something inexplicable, which had driven them from Granite House. Did these animals have some warning of a serious assault coming to them from another direction? This was just about the only way to explain their retreat.

During the final hours of that day, the bodies of the apes were carried to the woods where they were buried; then the colonists repaired the disorder caused by the intruders—disorder but not damage—because if they had upset the furniture in the rooms, at least they had broken nothing. Neb rekindled his stoves and the reserves in the pantry furnished a substantial meal to which all did justice.

Jup was not forgotten and he ate with appetite the pine almonds and the rhizome roots which were abundantly provided for him. Pencroff had untied his arms but he judged it best to leave the fetters on his legs until the time when they could count on his submissiveness.

Pencroff had untied his arms.

Then, before going to bed, Cyrus Smith and his companions, seated around the table, discussed several projects whose execution was urgent.

The most important and the most pressing was the establishment of a bridge over the Mercy in order to put the southern part of the island in communication with Granite House, then the establishment of a corral destined to house the sheep or other wool animals that they agreed to capture.

As can be seen, these two projects tended to solve the question of clothing, which was then the most serious. In fact, the bridge would make it easy to transport the envelope of the balloon which would give linen, and the corral would furnish a collection of wool which would give winter clothing.

As to the corral, it was Cyrus Smith’s intention to establish it at the very source of Red Creek, where the ruminants would find fresh and abundant pasture for their nourishment. Already the route between Grand View Plateau and the sources had been partly blazed, and with a cart better built than the first one, the haul would be easier especially if they managed to capture some beast of burden.

But if there was no inconvenience due to the fact that the corral might be far from Granite House, such was not the case with the poultry yard, which Neb called to the attention of the colonists. In fact, it was necessary that the birds be within the reach of the kitchen chef and no location seemed more favorable than that portion of the banks of the lake that bordered on the old overflow. The waterfowl would know how to prosper there as well as the others. The tinamou couple, taken during the last excursion, would serve as the first attempt at domestication.

The next day—the 3rd of November—the new works were begun with the construction of the bridge and all hands were required for this important task. Saws, axes, chisels and hammers were placed on the colonists’ shoulders who, transformed into carpenters, descended to the shore.

There Pencroff had a thought.

“What if, during our absence, Master Jup takes a fancy to draw up this ladder that he gallantly threw down yesterday?”

“Let us tie it down at its lower end,” replied Cyrus Smith.

This was done by means of two picks well buried in the sand. Then the colonists ascended the left bank of the Mercy and soon arrived at the bend formed by the river.

There they stopped in order to see if the bridge could be thrown at this point. The spot seemed suitable.

In fact from this point to Port Balloon, discovered the previous day on the southern shore, it was only three and a half miles. From bridge to port it would be easy to blaze a path fit for a cart, which would make for easy communication between Granite House and the south of the island.

Cyrus Smith then acquainted his companions with a project both very simple to execute and very advantageous, which he had thought about for some time. It was to completely isolate Grand View Plateau in order to shelter it from any attack by quadrupeds or by quadrumanes. By this means Granite House, the Chimneys, the poultry yard and all the upper part of the plateau destined to be made into an island, would be protected from the depredations of animals.

Nothing was easier to execute than this project and here is how the engineer counted on doing it.

The plateau already found itself defended on three sides by watercourses, be they artificial or natural.

In the northwest, by the shore of Lake Grant from the corner located at the opening of the old overflow to the cut made on the east shore for the escape of the waters;

In the north, from this cut to the sea, by the new watercourse which had hollowed itself out on the plateau and on the beach upstream and downstream from the waterfall, and in fact it was sufficient to excavate the bed of this creek to render it impractical to animals;

On the eastern shore by the sea itself, from the mouth of the aforesaid creek to the mouth of the Mercy;

Finally on the south, from this mouth to the bend in the Mercy where they would establish the bridge.

There still remained the western part of the plateau, between the bend in the river and the southern corner of the lake, a distance less than one mile, which was open to all who came. But nothing was easier than to cut a wide and deep trench, which would be filled by the waters of the lake and whose overflow would be thrown into the Mercy by a second waterfall. The level of the lake would doubtless be lowered a little as a result of this new discharge but Cyrus Smith knew that the flow of Red Creek was sufficient to allow for the execution of his project.

“In this way,” added the engineer, “Grand View Plateau will be a real island, being surrounded by water on all sides and it will communicate with the rest of our domain only by the bridge which we are going to throw across the Mercy, the two smaller bridges already established upstream and downstream from the waterfall, and finally two other bridges yet to be constructed, one over the trench that I propose to excavate and the other on the left bank of the Mercy. Now if these bridges can be raised at will, Grand View Plateau will be protected against any surprise.”

In order to help his companions to better understand his plan, Cyrus Smith made a map of the plateau and his project was immediately grasped in its entirety. It was approved unanimously and Pencroff, brandishing his carpenter’s axe, cried:

“First to the bridge!”

It was the most urgent work. The trees were chosen, cut down, branches removed, and cut into small beams, into thick planks and into boards. This bridge, fixed on the side that was supported by the right bank of the Mercy, would be movable on the left bank so that it could be raised by means of counterweights as is done with certain floodgates.

It should be understood that this was a large undertaking, and if it was done efficiently it still required a lot of time because the Mercy was about eighty feet wide. It would be necessary to sink the piles into the riverbed in order to support the platform of the bridge and to make a pile driver to pound the tops of the piles which would enable the two arches of the bridge to support heavy loads.

This was a large undertaking.

Very fortunately they lacked neither the tools to work the wood, nor the ironwork to put it together, nor the knowledge of what was to be done, nor finally the zeal of those who during these seven months had necessarily acquired the manual dexterity. Gideon Spilett was not the most awkward one and kept up with the sailor himself, who never would have expected this from “a mere journalist.”

The construction of the bridge over the Mercy lasted three weeks, which were fully occupied. They ate at the worksite itself, the weather was magnificent then, and they only returned to Granite House for supper.

During this period Master Jup became accustomed and familiar with his new masters whom he looked upon with extreme curiosity. As a precaution, Pencroff still did not allow him complete freedom of movement, wanting to wait, rightly so, until the limits of the plateau would be restricted by these proposed projects. Top and Jup got on and played together but Jup was always serious.

The bridge was finished on the 20th of November. Its movable portion, in equilibrium with the counterweights, moved easily, and it required little effort to raise it. Between the hinge and the support on which it would rest when closed, there was a twenty foot interval which would be sufficient to prevent any animals from crossing.

It was then a question of going for the envelope of the balloon, which the colonists were anxious to put in complete security; but in order to transport it, it would be necessary to get a cart over to Port Balloon and in consequence to blaze a route across the thick forest of the Far West. That would require time. Neb and Pencroff first pushed through to the port and since they found that the “linen supply” would not suffer in the grotto where it had been stored, it was decided that the works relative to Grand View Plateau would be pushed without pausing.

“That,” noted Pencroff, “will permit us to establish our poultry yard under the best conditions since we will fear neither a visit from the foxes nor the aggression of other noxious animals.”

“Without mentioning,” added Neb, “that we will be able to clear the plateau so as to transplant wild plants there...”

“And to prepare our second cornfield,” cried the sailor triumphantly.

In fact the first cornfield, sowed with a single grain, had prospered admirably thanks to Pencroff’s care. It had produced the ten ears predicted by the engineer and each ear carried eighty grains. In six months the colony had obtained eight hundred grains, since two harvests each year were permitted.

These eight hundred grains, less fifty which were prudently put aside, would be sowed in a new field with no less care than that bestowed on the single grain.

The field was prepared and then surrounded by a high, sharp and strong wooden fence that quadrupeds would find very difficult to cross. As to the birds, some noisy whirligigs and frightful mannequins, dreamed up by Pencroff’s fantastic imagination, were sufficient to scatter them. The seven hundred fifty grains were then put in small very regular furrows and nature would do the rest.

Some frightful mannequins were sufficient to scatter them.

On the 21st of November, Cyrus Smith began to design the trench that would enclose the plateau from the west, from the southern corner of Lake Grant to the bend in the Mercy. This ground had two feet of topsoil and, under that, granite. He made some more nitroglycerin and the nitroglycerin produced its usual effect. In less than fifteen days a trench, a dozen feet wide and six feet deep, was excavated into the hard ground of the plateau. A new drain was, by the same means, cut into the rocky shore of the lake. The water fell into this new bed and formed a small watercourse to which they gave the name “Glycerin Creek” which became an affluent of the Mercy. As predicted by the engineer, the level of the lake was lowered but by an insignificant amount. Finally, to complete the enclosure, the bed of the brook on the beach was considerably enlarged, and they held the sand in place by means of a double fence.

In the first half of December these activities were finished and Grand View Plateau, that is to say a sort of irregular pentagon having a perimeter of about four miles, was surrounded by water and absolutely protected against all aggression.

It was very hot during this month of December. However, the colonists did not want to delay the execution of these projects any longer since it was urgent to set up a poultry yard.

Needless to say, since the enclosure of the plateau, Master Jup had been given his liberty. He did not leave his masters and showed no wish to escape. He was a gentle animal, very vigorous however, and with an extraordinary agility. Ah! When he climbed the ladder to Granite House, he had no rival. They had already used him for several tasks: He dragged loads of wood and carted away stones that had been extracted from the bed of Glycerin Creek.

“He is not yet a mason, but he is already an ape!” said Herbert jokingly, making allusion to the nickname of “ape” that masons give to their apprentices. And if ever the name was justified, this was it.

The poultry yard occupied an area of two hundred square yards on the southeast bank of the lake. They surrounded it with a wooden fence and they built different shelters for the animals that would populate it. These were shacks made of branches and divided into compartments, which would not be long in receiving their hosts.

The first were the tinamou couple, who soon had numerous young. For companions they had a half dozen ducks who had frequented the borders of the lake. Some of them belonged to this Chinese species whose wings open like a fan and who rival the gilded pheasants with the brilliance and brightness of their plumage. Several days later, Herbert got hold of a gallinaceous couple with a rounded tail and a crest of long feathers, and magnificent “alectorides,” who were not long in becoming tame. As to the pelicans, the kingfishers and the waterfowl, they came by themselves to the waterside of the poultry yard, and all of this miniature world, after several disputes, cooing, cheeping and clucking, ended by coming to terms and increasing in proportions which were reassuring for the alimentary future of the colony.

Cyrus Smith, wanting to complete his plan, established a pigeon house in a corner of the poultry yard. A dozen of those pigeons that frequented the high rocks of the plateau were lodged there. These birds became easily accustomed to come to their new dwelling each evening and showed more of a tendency to become domesticated than their congeners, the wood pigeons who besides, would only reproduce in the wild state.

Finally the time came for them to use the envelope of the balloon to make linen. As to keeping it in this form and risk themselves in a hot air balloon in order to leave the island, above an ocean without limits so to say, that was not admissible for people who were destitute of everything. Cyrus Smith, being practical, could not dream of it.

They took steps then to bring the envelope to Granite House and to make their heavy cart more manageable and lighter. But if a vehicle was not lacking, the motor had still to be found. Did there exist on the island some native ruminant species that could replace the horse, donkey, ox or cow? That was the question.

“The truth is,” said Pencroff, “that a beast of burden would be very useful to us while waiting for Mister Smith to construct a steam cart or even a locomotive, because certainly one day we will have a railroad from Granite House to Port Balloon with a branch line to Mount Franklin.”

And the honest sailor, in speaking this way, believed what he said. Oh! Imagination, when faith is blended with it!

But, without exaggeration, a simple harnessable quadruped would have done well for Pencroff’s purpose, but Providence favored him and did not keep him waiting.

One day, the 23rd of December, they heard Neb shouting and Top barking in rivalry at the same time. The colonists, occupied at the Chimneys, ran immediately fearing some violent incident.

What did they see? Two large fine animals who had imprudently ventured onto the plateau while the bridges were down. One would have said they were two horses at least two donkeys, male and female, with a fine form, dove colored fur, white legs and tail, with black stripes on the head, neck and trunk. They advance calmly without showing any uneasiness and looked with a sharp eye on these men whom they still did not recognize as their masters.

“They are onagers,” cried Herbert, “quadrupeds which are midway between the zebra and the quagga.”

“Why not donkeys?” asked Neb.

“Because they do not have long ears and their forms are more gracious.”

“Donkeys or horses,” laughed Pencroff, “they are ‘motors’, as Mister Smith would say and as such worth capturing.”

The sailor, without frightening the two animals, glided among the grass to the bridge over Glycerin Creek, swung it up, and the onagers were prisoners.

Now should they seize them with violence and submit them to a forced domestication? No. It was decided that, for several days, they would let them come and go freely on the plateau where there was abundant grass, and immediately the engineer made a stable near the poultry yard where the onagers could find good litter and a refuge for the night.

The magnificent couple were allowed complete freedom of movement and the colonists even avoided frightening them by coming near them. Several times however, the onagers seemed to feel the need to leave the plateau, which was too small for them, accustomed as they were to the large areas of the deep forests. They then saw them follow the belt of water that held them back, braying sharply, galloping among the grass and, becoming calm, they looked for hours at the woods that were denied to them forever.

Harnesses and straps were made of vegetable fiber, and some days after the capture of the onagers not only was the cart ready to be harnessed, but a straight road or rather a cut had been made across the forest of the Far West from the bend in the Mercy to Port Balloon. They could take the cart there and it was toward the end of December that they tried the onagers for the first time.

Pencroff had already coaxed the animals so that they came to eat from his hand and they could approach them without difficulty, but once harnessed, they reared and they had a hard time bridling them. However they were not long in yielding to this new service. The onager, who is less rebellious than the zebra, is frequently harnessed in the mountainous regions of South Africa and even in some relatively cold zones of Europe.

On this day the entire colony got into the cart except for Pencroff who marched at the head of the animals. They took the road to Port Balloon. It was hardly surprising that they were jolted all along the way, that goes without saying; but the vehicle arrived without any accident and, on the same day, they loaded the envelope and the various riggings of the balloon.

At eight o’clock in the evening the cart, after having passed back over the Mercy bridge, redescended the left bank of the river and halted on the beach. The onagers were unharnessed and then brought back to their stable, and before going to sleep, Pencroff heaved a sigh of satisfaction which echoed throughout Granite House.

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Translation Copyright © 1992 Sidney Kravitz
Copyright © Zvi Har’El
$Date: 2007/12/23 17:44:41 $