The Mysterious Island: The Abandoned

Chapter XI

Winter—Pressing wool—The mill—Pencroff’s obsession—Whalebones—To what use an albatross can be put—The fuel of the future—Top and Jup—Storms—Damage at the poultry yard—An excursion to the marshes—Cyrus Smith alone—Exploration of the well.

Winter arrived with the month of June which is the December of the northern hemisphere and the main occupation was the making of warm and sturdy clothing.

The sheep at the corral had been divested of their wool and it was now a matter of transforming this precious textile material into fabric.

It goes without saying that Cyrus Smith, not having either a carding machine, nor a wool-combing machine, nor a smoothing machine, nor a drawing machine, nor a twisting machine, nor a “Mule-Jenny,” nor a “self-acting” machine to spin the wool, nor a loom to weave it with, had to proceed in a simpler way that would save the spinning and weaving. In fact, he intended simply to make use of the property that wool filaments have when pressed in all directions, that of becoming entangled and criss-crossed into a material called felt. This felt could be obtained by a simple pressing, an operation which, if it diminished the softness of the fabric, significantly increased its heat insulating properties. The wool furnished by the sheep was made of very short strands which was good for felting.

The engineer, aided by his companions including Pencroff—he had to abandon his boat once more—began the preliminary operations which had as its goal to rid the wool of this oily and greasy substance with which it is impregnated and which is called suint. This degreasing was done in wash-tubs in which the wool was immersed for twenty four hours at a temperature of seventy degrees. Then it was thoroughly washed in a soda bath. Later it would be squeezed dry, becoming compressed and producing a firm felt, rough doubtless and of no value in the industrial centers of Europe or America but which would be highly appreciated in the “markets of Lincoln Island.”

This kind of fabric has been known from the earliest times and the first wool fabric was made by this very procedure that Cyrus Smith was going to use.

Where his abilities as an engineer would be needed was in the construction of a machine to press the wool, because he knew how to profit from the unused mechanical force inherent in the water falling on the beach to actuate a pressing machine.

Nothing was more rudimentary. A shaft, provided with lifters which would raise and lower vertical hammers on each revolution, troughs to receive the wool on which the hammers would fall, a strong timber housing to support the entire system and hold it together: such was the machine in question and such it has been throughout the centuries, until the hammers were replaced by compressing cylinders which no longer subjected the material to a beating but to a real rolling action.

The operation, well supervised by Cyrus Smith, succeeded as they had hoped. The wool, previously impregnated with a soapy solution intended on the one hand to facilitate the sliding action, the compression and the softening and, on the other hand, to prevent its alteration from the thrashing, left the mill as a thick layer of felt. The streaks and coarseness with which the strands of wool are naturally provided with were so well intertwined with one another that they formed a fabric equally suited to making clothing as well as blankets. It obviously was not merino, nor muslin, nor Scotch cashmere, nor worsted, nor repp, nor Chinese satin, nor Orleans cloth, nor alpaca, nor flannel! It was “lincolnian felt,” and Lincoln Island had another industry.

Thus with good clothing and thick blankets, the colonists could face the winter of 1866-67 without fear.

The severe frost began to really make itself felt toward the 20th of June and to his great regret, Pencroff had to suspend the construction of the boat which besides he could not finish before the coming spring.

The sailor’s obsession was to make a voyage of discovery to Tabor Island although Cyrus Smith did not approve of this voyage for curiosity’s sake because there evidently was nothing useful to find on this semi-arid and deserted rock. A voyage of one hundred fifty miles in a relatively small boat on an unknown sea could not but cause him some apprehension. If the vessel, once at sea, could not reach Tabor Island and if it could not return to Lincoln Island, what would become of it in this Pacific so full of disasters?

Cyrus Smith often spoke about this project with Pencroff and he found in the sailor a rather strange stubbornness to complete this voyage, a stubbornness which he could not explain.

One day the engineer said to him, “My friend, after having said so many nice things about Lincoln Island, after having indicated so many times that you would be sorry to leave it, you are the first to want to go.”

“To leave it for several days only,” replied Pencroff, “For several days only, Mister Cyrus! Time to come and go, to see what is on the islet.”

“But it cannot be as good as Lincoln Island!”

“I know that in advance.”

“Then why venture there?”

“To know what goes on at Tabor Island.”

“But nothing happens there! Nothing can happen there.”

“Who knows?”

“And what if you are caught in some storm?”

“We need not fear that in the fine season,” replied Pencroff. “But, Mister Cyrus, since we must think of everything, I ask your permission to take Herbert with me on this voyage.”

“Pencroff,” replied the engineer, placing his hand on the sailor’s shoulder, “do you think that we could ever forgive ourselves if some harm came to you or to this lad whom chance has made our son?”

“Mister Cyrus,” replied Pencroff with firm confidence, “we will not cause you this grief. Besides, we will speak again about this voyage when the time will come to make it. Then I imagine, when you will see our boat well rigged, with good topsides, when you will see how well it takes to the sea, when we will make a tour of our island—because we will do it together—I imagine, say I, that you will no longer hesitate to let me leave. I will not hide from you that your boat will be a masterpiece.”

“At least say ‘our boat’ Pencroff,” replied the engineer, momentarily disarmed.

The conversation ended in this way to commence again at a later time without convincing either the sailor or the engineer.

The first snow fell toward the end of the month of June. Previously the corral had been well provisioned and daily visits were no longer necessary, but it was decided that they would not let a week go by without returning there.

The traps were set again and they tried the devices made by Cyrus Smith. The whalebones were bent, encased in a sheath of ice, covered with a thick layer of blubber and placed at the edge of the forest where animals usually passed on their way to the lake.

To the great satisfaction of the engineer, this invention, repeatedly used by Aleutian fishermen, succeeded perfectly. A dozen foxes, some wild boars, and even a jaguar were taken. They found these animals dead, their stomachs pierced by the extended whalebones.

At this time the colonists made their first attempt to communicate with their fellow men.

Gideon Spilett had already thought several times either of throwing a notice enclosed in a bottle into the sea that the current could perhaps carry to some inhabited shore or to entrust it to a pigeon. But how could they seriously hope that pigeons or bottles could cross the distance which separated the island from land twelve hundred miles away? It was pure folly.

But on the 30th of June the capture was made, not without difficulty, of an albatross which Herbert’s shot had slightly wounded in the leg. It was a magnificent bird of that family of great flyers whose extended wings measure ten feet and who can cross seas as large as the Pacific.

Herbert would have wanted to keep this superb bird whose wound had promptly healed. He intended to tame it but Gideon Spilett made him to understand that they could not neglect this occasion to try to correspond, by means of this courier, with the lands of the Pacific. Herbert had to yield, because if the albatross had come from some inhabited region he would not fail to return there when he was set free.

Perhaps, deep down, Gideon Spilett, still a newsman at heart, was not sorry to entrust to slim chance an article relating to the adventures of the colonists of Lincoln Island. What success the reporter would gain for the New York Herald and for the issue which contained the story, if ever it reached the address of its editor, the honorable John Bennett!

Gideon Spilett then wrote up a concise article which he put in a strong bag of gummed cloth, with an earnest request to anyone who should find it, that it be forwarded to the offices of the New York Herald. This small sack was attached to the neck of the albatross and not to its foot because these birds are in the habit of resting on the surface of the sea; then this rapid courier of the skies was set free, and it was not without some emotion that the colonists saw it disappear far into the haze in the west.

A small sack was attached to the neck of the albatross.

“Where is he going?” asked Pencroff.

“Toward New Zealand,” replied Herbert.

“Bon Voyage!” cried the sailor who did not expect any great result from this method of correspondence.

With the winter, activities were resumed inside Granite House, mending the clothes, various preparations among others the making of sails for the boat, which were cut from the inexhaustible envelope of the balloon.

During the month of July the cold was intense but they spared neither the wood nor the coal. Cyrus Smith had installed a second chimney in the great hall and it was there that they passed the long evenings. Chatting while they worked, reading when not working, the time passed profitably for everyone.

And the time passed without boredom.

It was a real satisfaction for the colonists when, in this room well lighted by candles, well heated by coal, after a comforting dinner, steaming cups filled with elderberry coffee, pipes giving forth a fragrant smoke, they heard the tempest roaring outside! It was perfect comfort if perfect comfort can ever exist for those who are far from their fellow men and without possible communication with them. They always chatted about their country, of the friends they had left behind, of the grandeur of the American republic whose influence could not but increase and Cyrus Smith, who had been very involved with the affairs of the Union, vividly interested his listeners with his recitals, his perceptions and his predictions.

It happened one day that Gideon Spilett had occasion to say:

“But in the end, my dear Cyrus, all this industrial and commercial activity in which you predict a continual increase, is it not in danger of coming to a complete halt sooner or later?”

“To a halt? And why so?”

“By a lack of coal which can be rightly called the most precious of minerals.”

“Yes, it is the most precious,” replied the engineer, “and it seems to me that nature wanted to emphasize this by making the diamond, which is pure carbon alone in the crystallized state.”

“You do not wish to say, Mister Cyrus,” retorted Pencroff, “that they will burn diamonds in the way coal is burned in furnaces?”

“No, my friend,” replied Cyrus Smith.

“However I insist,” said Gideon Spilett. “You cannot deny that one day all the coal will be used up.”

“Oh! The coal deposits are still considerable, and a hundred thousand miners removing five million metric tons annually do not come anywhere near in exhausting it.”

“With an increase in the consumption of coal,” replied Gideon Spilett, “one can predict that these one hundred thousand miners will soon become two hundred thousand miners and that the extraction will be doubled.”

“Doubtless; but after the mines of Europe, which new machines will soon exploit to greater depths, the mines of America and Australia will continue to furnish the needs of industry for a long time.”

“How long?” asked the reporter.

“At least two hundred fifty or three hundred years.”

“That is reassuring for us,” replied Pencroff, “but disturbing for our great grand cousins.”

“They will find something else,” said Herbert.

“I hope so,” replied Gideon Spilett, “because without coal, no more machines, and without machines, no more railroads, no more steamships, no more factories, no more progress for modern life.”

“But what will they find?” asked Pencroff. “Can you imagine, Mister Cyrus?”

“Just about, my friend.”

“And what will they burn in the place of coal.”

“Water,” replied Cyrus Smith.

“Water,” cried Pencroff, “water to heat steamships and locomotives, water to heat water?”

“Yes, but water decomposed into its basic elements,” replied Cyrus Smith, “decomposed doubtless by electricity which will then become a powerful and manageable force, because all great discoveries, by some unexplainable law, seem to coincide and become completed at the same time. Yes, my friends, I believe that water will one day be employed as a fuel, that hydrogen and oxygen, which compose it, used alone or together, will furnish an inexhaustible source of heat and light and with an intensity that coal cannot provide. One day, in the place of coal, the coal bunkers of steamers and the tenders of locomotives will be loaded with these two compressed gases which will burn in furnaces with an enormous heating power. Then there will be nothing to fear. As long as this earth is inhabited, it will provide for the needs of its inhabitants and neither light nor heat will ever be lacking, nor will the products of the vegetable, mineral, and animal kingdoms. I believe that when the coalmines have been exhausted, they will heat and be heated with water. Water is the coal of the future.”

“I would like to see that,” said the sailor.

“You came of age too soon, Pencroff,” replied Neb, who intervened in the discussion only with these words.

Nevertheless it was not Neb’s words which ended the conversation but Top’s barking which burst out with that strange intonation that had already preoccupied the engineer. At the same time, Top began to pace around the orifice of the well which opened at the end of the inside corridor.

“Why does Top still bark like this?” asked Pencroff.

“And Jup growl this way?” added Herbert.

In fact the orang, joining the dog, gave unmistaken signs of agitation, and strange to say, these two animals appeared to be rather anxious instead of irritated.

“It is evident,” said Gideon Spilett, “that this well is in direct communication with the sea and that some marine animal comes from time to time to breathe at the bottom.”

“It is evident,” replied the sailor, “because there is no other explanation to be given... come, quiet, Top,” added Pencroff, turning toward the dog, “and you Jup, to your room!”

The ape and the dog were silent. Jup went to bed but Top remained in the room and continued to make muffled grunts throughout the evening.

There was no more question about the incident which however, darkened the brow of the engineer.

During the rest of the month of July it alternated between rain and frost. The temperature did not fall below that of the preceding winter and it did not go lower than eight degrees Fahrenheit (13.33° centigrade below zero). But if this winter was not colder, nevertheless it was more troubled by tempests and windstorms. There still were violent assaults by the sea which once again jeopardized the Chimneys. It seemed that some violent current, provoked by some underseas commotion, lifted these monstrous waves and threw them against the wall of Granite House.

When the colonists, leaning against their windows, saw these enormous masses of water breaking under their eyes, they could not but admire the magnificent spectacle of this impotent fury of the ocean. The waves rebounded as a dazzling foam, the beach completely disappeared under this angry deluge, and the wall seemed to emerge from the sea itself, whose sprays rose to a height of over one hundred feet.

During these storms it was difficult to venture on the island’s trails, even dangerous, because falling trees were frequent. The colonists however did not let a week pass without visiting the corral. Fortunately, this enclosure, sheltered by the southern buttress of Mount Franklin, did not suffer much from the violences of the storm which spared the trees, the sheds and the fence. But the poultry yard, built on Grand View Plateau, and consequently directly exposed to the winds from the east, was subjected to rather considerable damage. The pigeon house was twice broken up and the fence was also damaged. They had to rebuild everything in a more sturdy manner because they could clearly see that Lincoln Island was situated in the worst waters of the Pacific. It really seemed that it formed the central point of a vast cyclone which whipped about like a spinning top. Only here it was the top that was stationary and the whip that turned round.

During the first week of the month of August the squalls abated little by little and the atmosphere recovered the calm that it seemed to have lost forever. With the calm the temperature dropped, the frost returned very vividly and the thermometer column fell to eight degrees Fahrenheit below zero (22° centigrade below freezing).

On the 3rd of August an excursion which had been planned for several days was made to the southeast of the island toward Tadorn Marsh. The hunters were tempted by the waterfowl which had established their winter quarters there. Wild duck, snipe, pintail, teal and grebe abounded there and it was decided that a day would be devoted for an expedition against these birds.

Not only Gideon Spilett and Herbert, but Pencroff and Neb also took part in the expedition. Only Cyrus Smith, on the pretext of some work, did not join them and remained at Granite House.

The hunters took the Port Balloon Road to reach the marshes after having promised to return in the evening. Top and Jup accompanied them. After they passed over the Mercy Bridge, the engineer raised it and returned with the thought of putting into execution a project for which he wanted to be alone.

Now this project was to minutely explore the inside of the well whose orifice opened at the level of Granite House and which communicated with the sea since formerly it had served as a passage for the waters of the lake.

Why did Top pace so often around this orifice? Why these strange barks when a sort of uneasiness drove him toward the well? Why did Jup join Top in a sort of common anxiety? Did this well have other branches in vertical communication with the sea? Did it reach out to other portions of the island? This Cyrus Smith wanted to know and to be the first to know. He therefore resolved to attempt an exploration of the well during the absence of his companions and the occasion presented itself for doing it.

It was easy to descend to the bottom of the well by using the cord ladder that had not been in service since the installation of the elevator and whose length was sufficient. This is what the engineer did. He dragged the ladder up to the opening, whose diameter measured about six feet and he let it unroll after having secured it firmly at its upper end. Then, lighting a lantern, taking a revolver and putting a cutlass into his belt, he began to descend the first rungs. The wall was solid throughout; but there were several projections of rock here and there and by means of these projections it would have been possible for an agile being to climb up to the well’s opening.

The engineer made a mental note of this; but on casting his lantern on these projections he could find no footprint, nor any fracture which would make him think that it had been used as a staircase either recently or in the past.

Cyrus Smith descended deeper, lighting up all the points of the wall.

He saw nothing suspicious there.

He saw nothing suspicious there.

When the engineer reached the last rungs he felt the surface of the water which was then perfectly calm. Neither at this level nor at any other part of the well was there any lateral corridor which could branch out to the interior of this solid mass. The wall, which Cyrus Smith struck with the handle of his cutlass, sounded solid. It was a compact granite through which no living being could blaze a passage. To get to the bottom of the well and then ascend to the orifice it was necessary to pass through the always submerged channel which put it in communication with the sea via the rocky subsoil under the beach, and this was possible only for marine animals. As to the question of knowing where the channel ran, at what point on the shore and at what depth under the waves, that could not be determined.

Having completed his exploration, Cyrus Smith then climbed back up, drew up the ladder, covered the opening of the well and returned, full of thoughts, to the large hall of Granite House, saying to himself,

“I have seen nothing, yet there is something there.”

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