The Mysterious Island: The Secret of the Island

Chapter V

The engineer’s assertions—Pencroff’s grandiose hypotheses—An aerial battery—Four projectiles—On the subject of the surviving convicts—Ayrton’s hesitation—Cyrus Smith’s generous sentiments—Pencroff apologizes.

So then, everything was explained by the submarine explosion of this torpedo. Cyrus Smith, who during the war of the Union had had occasion to experiment with these terrible engines of destruction, was not mistaken. It was under the action of this cylinder, loaded with an explosive substance, nitroglycerin, picrate or other material of the same nature, that the water of the channel rose like a waterspout. The brig was struck from below and foundered instantly. It was impossible to refloat the brig because its hull had been subjected to considerable damage. The Speedy had not been able to resist a torpedo which could destroy an armored frigate as easily as a simple fishing boat.

Yes! everything was explained, everything... except the presence of this torpedo in the waters of the channel!

“My friends,” Cyrus Smith then said, “we can no longer doubt the presence of a mysterious being, a castaway like ourselves perhaps, abandoned on our island, and I say this in order that Ayrton may be brought up to date on the strange events that have occurred during these two years. Who is this unknown benefactor whose intervention, fortunately for us, is manifested in so many ways? I cannot imagine him. What interest does he have in acting so and in concealing himself after rendering these services? I do not understand it. But these services are none the less real and such that only a man possessing prodigious power could have rendered them for us. Ayrton is just as indebted to him as we are, because it was the stranger who saved me from the waves after the fall of the balloon, it was evidently he who wrote the document, who put this bottle along the route of the channel which told us of our companion’s situation. I will add that this case, so conveniently containing everything that we needed, was brought to and stranded at Flotsom Point by him; that it was he who lighted the fire placed on the heights of the island which permitted you to reach land; that it was he who fired the lead bullet found in the body of the peccary; that it was he who placed this torpedo in the channel which destroyed the brig; in a word, that all these inexplicable events, which we have not been able to render an account of, they are due to this mysterious being. Thus whoever he is, castaway or exile on this island, we would be ingrates if we thought ourselves free of any obligation toward him. We have contracted a debt and I hope that we will pay it one day.”

“You are right in speaking this way, my dear Cyrus,” replied Gideon Spilett. “Yes, there is a being, almost all powerful, hidden in some part of the island, whose influence has been strangely useful for our colony. I will add that this stranger seems to have means of action which border on the supernatural, if the supernatural is acceptable to the events of practical life. Is it he who is in secret communication with us by means of the well in Granite House and does he therefore know all our plans? Was it he who put this bottle within our reach when the canoe made its first sea excursion? Was it he who threw Top out of the waters of the lake and gave the mortal wound to the dugong? Was it he, as we are all led to believe, who saved you from the waves, Cyrus, and under circumstances in which any other man could not have acted? If it is he, then he possesses a power which renders him master of the elements.”

The reporter’s observation was justified and everyone agreed with him.

“Yes,” replied Cyrus Smith, “if we no longer doubt the intervention of a human being, I agree that he has a means of action which are outside that available to humanity. That is also a mystery, but if we discover the man, the mystery will also be solved. The question then is this: should we respect the privacy of this generous being or should we do everything to find him? What is your opinion in this respect?”

“My opinion,” replied Pencroff, “is that whoever he is, he is a brave man and he has my esteem.”

“That is so,” replied Cyrus Smith, “but that is not an answer, Pencroff.”

“My master,” Neb then said, “my opinion is that we can search as much as we wish for the gentleman in question but we will not find him until it pleases him.”

“What you say, Neb, is not foolish,” replied Pencroff.

“I agree with Neb,” replied Gideon Spilett, “but that is no reason for not trying. Whether we find or do not find this mysterious being, we will at least have done our duty toward him.”

“And you, my child, give us your opinion,” said the engineer, turning toward Herbert.

“Ah!” shouted Herbert, whose look became animated, “I would like to thank him. It was he who first saved you and who saved us afterwards.”

“Don’t despair, my lad,” retorted Pencroff, “and I also, and all of us! I am not curious but I would give one of my eyes to see this particular person face to face. It seems to me that he must be handsome, tall, strong, with a fine beard, hair like rays, and that he must lie on the clouds with a large ball in his hand!”

“But Pencroff,” replied Gideon Spilett, “that is the portrait of God, the Father, that you have given us.”

“Possibly, Mister Spilett,” replied the sailor, “but that is how I visualize him.”

“And you, Ayrton?” asked the engineer.

“Mister Smith,” replied Ayrton, “I can hardly give you my advice on this matter. What you will do will be fine with me. When you wish me to join your search, I will be ready to follow you.”

“I thank you, Ayrton,” replied Cyrus Smith, “but I would like a more direct response to the question which I have asked. You are our companion; several times already you have shown your devotion to us and, like everyone here, you should be consulted when we are making some important decision. Speak then.”

“Mister Smith,” replied Ayrton, “I think that we should do everything to find this unknown benefactor. Perhaps he is alone? Perhaps he suffers? Perhaps there is a life to renew? I also, as you have said, owe him a debt. It was he, it could only be he who came to Tabor Island, who found there this wretch that you have come to know, who made you aware that there was an unfortunate to save... It is therefore thanks to him that I have become a man once again. No, I will never forget him.”

“It is decided,” Cyrus Smith then said. “We will begin our search as soon as possible. We will not leave any part of the island unexplored. We will pry into its most secret retreats and I hope that our unknown friend will pardon our intentions.”

For several days the colonists were employed in hay making and harvesting. Before putting into execution their project to explore the still unknown parts of the island, they wanted to complete all indispensable tasks. It was also the season for harvesting the various vegetables grown from the Tabor Island plants. Everything was stored and fortunately there was no lack of space at Granite House where they could put all the riches of the island. The products of the colony were there, methodically arranged and in a secure place, protected, we can be sure, as much from beasts as from men. No dampness was to be feared in the midst of this thick mass of granite. Several natural excavations situated in the upper passageway were enlarged and widened either with the pickaxe or with the mine and Granite House thus became a general warehouse containing the provisions, the munitions, the tools and the spare utensils, in a word all the material of the colony.

As to the cannons from the brig, they were fine pieces cast in steel which, at Pencroff’s urging, were hoisted by means of winding tackle and cranes to the very level of Granite House; recesses were made in the windows and soon one could see the shining muzzles of the cannons through the granite wall. From this height, these muzzles truly commanded all of Union Bay. It was like a miniature Gibraltar and any vessel which would moor in sight of the islet would be inevitably exposed to the fire from this aerial battery.

“Mister Cyrus,” Pencroff said one day,—it was the 8th of November—“now that this armament is in place, we should try our pieces for range.”

“Do you believe that this is useful?” replied the engineer.

“It is more than useful, it is necessary! Without it, how can we know to what distance we can send one of these fine balls with which we are provided?”

“Let us try it then, Pencroff,” replied the engineer. “Nevertheless I think that we should try to use not ordinary powder whose supply I would like to leave intact, but pyroxylin which we will never lack.”

“Can these cannons withstand the explosion of pyroxylin?” asked the reporter, who was no less desirous than Pencroff to try out the Granite House artillery.

“I think so. Besides,” added the engineer, “we will proceed carefully.”

The engineer had reason to believe that these cannons were of excellent manufacture as he could plainly see. Made with forged steel and breech loaded, they could, as a result, withstand a considerable charge and consequently have an enormous range. In fact, from the practical point of view, the trajectory described by the ball should be as accurate as possible and this accuracy can only be obtained if the projectile is given a very large muzzle velocity.

“Now,” said Cyrus Smith to his companions, “the muzzle velocity is in proportion to the amount of powder used. In the manufacture of these pieces, the question reduces itself to using the strongest possible metal, and steel is incontestably the strongest of all metals. I therefore have reason to believe that our cannons will withstand the expansion of the pyroxylin gases without danger and will give excellent results.”

“We will be more certain of that when we try it,” replied Pencroff.

It goes without saying that the four cannons were in perfect condition. After they had been salvaged from the water, the sailor had given himself the task of polishing them conscientiously. What hours he spent rubbing them, lubricating them, cleaning the obturator mechanism, the locking bolt and the pressure screw! And now these pieces were as brilliant as if they had been on board a frigate of the United States Navy.

What hours he spent rubbing them!

On this day then, in the presence of all the personnel of the colony, Master Jup and Top included, the four cannons were tried in turn. They loaded them with pyroxylin, taking account of its explosive power which, as has been said, is quadruple that of ordinary powder; the projectile that they would use was cylindro-conical.

Pencroff, holding the fuze cord, was ready to fire.

On a sign from Cyrus Smith, this was done. The ball, directed toward the ocean, passed over the islet and was lost at sea at a distance that they could not determine accurately.

The second cannon was pointed toward the extreme rocks at Flotsom Point and the projectile, striking a sharp rock nearly three miles from Granite House, made it fly into splinters.

It was Herbert who had aimed the cannon and fired it and he was full of pride over the test. Only Pencroff was even prouder, for the honor of this shot belonged to his dear child.

The third projectile, thrown this time over the dunes which formed the upper coast of Union Bay, struck the sand at a distance of at least four miles; then after having ricocheted, it lost itself at sea in a cloudy spray.

For the fourth piece, Cyrus Smith overloaded it a bit, in order to test it at maximum range. Everyone took cover in case it exploded. The fuze was ignited with a long cord.

A violent detonation was heard but the piece held. Running to the window the colonists could see the projectile chip the rocks of Cape Mandible at nearly five miles from Granite House and disappear into Shark Gulf.

“Well, Mister Cyrus,” shouted Pencroff, whose hurrahs rivaled the detonations produced, “what do you think of our battery? All the pirates of the Pacific have only to present themselves in front of Granite House. Now not one will land without our permission.”

“Believe me, Pencroff,” replied the engineer, “it would be better not to have the experience.”

“On the same subject,” replied the sailor, “what shall we do with the six rascals who are roaming the island? Will we let them overrun our forests, our fields and our prairies? Pirates like these are real jaguars and it seems to me that we should not hesitate to treat them as such. What do you think Ayrton?” said Pencroff, turning to his companion.

At first Ayrton hesitated to reply and Cyrus Smith regretted that Pencroff had been a little thoughtless in asking this question. He was very moved when Ayrton replied in a humble tone:

“I have been one of these jaguars, Mister Pencroff, and I do not have the right to speak...”

And he quietly withdrew.

Pencroff understood.

“Devilish beast that I am,” he shouted. “Poor Ayrton! He nevertheless has the right to speak as much as anyone here...”

“Yes,” said Gideon Spilett, “but his reserve does him honor and we must respect this feeling that he has about his sad past.”

“Agreed, Mister Spilett,” replied the sailor, “I won’t do that again. I would rather devour my tongue than cause Ayrton any sorrow. But let us return to the question. It seems to me that these bandits have no right to any pity and that we must rid the island of them as soon as possible.”

“Is that really your opinion, Pencroff?” asked the engineer.

“It is definitely my opinion.”

“And before pursuing them without mercy would you not wait until they had done something hostile against us?”

“Isn’t what they have already done sufficient?” asked Pencroff, who could not understand these hesitations.

“They could take on other sentiments,” said Cyrus Smith, “and perhaps repent...”

“Repent, they!” shouted the sailor, raising his shoulders.

“Pencroff, think of Ayrton!” Herbert then said, taking the sailor’s hand. “He became an honest man again.”

Pencroff looked at his companions from one to the other. He had not thought that his proposal would have encountered any hesitation whatsoever. His rough nature could not admit that they compromise with the rascals who had landed on the island, the accomplices of Bob Harvey, the assassins of the Speedy’s crew, and he looked upon them as wild beasts whom he must destroy without hesitation and without remorse.

“Come now!” he said. “I have everyone against me. You want to deal generously with these rascals! So be it. May we not regret it.”

“What danger do we run,” said Herbert, “if we take care to keep up our guard?”

“Hm!” said the reporter, who had not spoken much. “They are six and well armed. If each of them lay in wait in a corner and fired on one of us they would soon be masters of the colony.”

“Why haven’t they done so?” replied Herbert. “Doubtless because it is not in their interest to do so. Besides, we are also six.”

“Good! good!” replied Pencroff, whom no amount of reasoning could convince. “Let us allow these worthy men to attend to their little occupations and let us think no more about them.”

“Come, Pencroff,” said Neb. “You are not as wicked as all that. If one of these unfortunates were here, in front of you, in easy range of your gun, wouldn’t you fire over...”

“I would fire on him as if he were a mad dog, Neb,” replied Pencroff coldly.

“Pencroff,” the engineer then said, “you have often shown much deference to my opinion. Won’t you in this circumstance yield to me again?”

“I will do as you wish, Mister Smith,” replied the sailor, who was not convinced.

“Well then, let us wait, and attack only if we are attacked.”

Their conduct with respect to the pirates was thus decided even though Pencroff could foresee no good result. They would not attack them but they would remain on guard. After all, the island was large and fertile. If some sentiment of honesty remained in the depths of their souls, these wretches could perhaps reform. Under the conditions in which they had to live, was it not in their interest to start a new life? In any case, humanity required that they wait. Perhaps the colonists no longer could come and go as before without caution. Until then they had had to guard only against wild animals, and now six convicts, perhaps of the worst kind, were roaming their island. It was doubtless serious and for less brave men it would have been lost security.

No matter! For the present the colonists were right contrary to Pencroff. Would they be right in the future? That remained to be seen.

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