The next morning, the 8th of January, after a day and a night passed at the corral, all things being in order, Cyrus Smith and Ayrton returned to Granite House.
The engineer assembled his companions at once and told them that Lincoln Island was subject to an immense danger that no human power could avert.
“My friends,” he said—and his voice revealed a deep emotion—, “Lincoln Island is not one of those that will endure as long as the globe itself. It is destined in the near future to a destruction the cause of which is in itself and nothing can avoid it.”
The colonists looked at each other and at the engineer. They did not understand him.
“Explain yourself, Cyrus,” said Gideon Spilett.
“I will explain myself,” replied Cyrus Smith, “or rather I will only transmit to you the explanation which Captain Nemo gave me during the few minutes of our secret talk.”
“Captain Nemo!” shouted the colonists.
“Yes, and it is the last service which he wished to render us before dying.”
“The last service!” shouted Pencroff. “The last service! You will see that although he is dead he will render us still others!”
“But what did Captain Nemo say to you?” asked the reporter.
“Know it then, my friends,” replied the engineer. “Lincoln Island is not like other islands of the Pacific and a particular condition which Captain Nemo made known to me must sooner or later bring on a destruction of its submarine framework.”
“Destruction! Lincoln Island! Come now!” shouted Pencroff who, in spite of all the respect he had for Cyrus Smith, could not refrain from shrugging his shoulders.
“Listen to me, Pencroff,” continued the engineer. “This is what Captain Nemo said and what I confirmed myself during the exploration which I made in Dakkar Crypt yesterday. This crypt extends under the island as far as the volcano and it is separated from the central chimney by the wall at its end. Now this wall is covered with fractures and fizzures which already allow the passage of sulphurous gases from the interior of the volcano.”
“And so?” asked Pencroff, whose forehead wrinkled up.
“And so I recognized that these fractures were growing larger under the interior pressure, that the basalt wall was cracking little by little and that in a more or less short time it would allow a passage for the sea water which fills the cavern.”
“Good!” replied Pencroff, who once more was still trying to make a joke. “The sea will extinguish the volcano and everything will be finished!”
“Yes, everything will be finished,” replied Cyrus Smith. “On the day when the sea rushes through the wall and penetrates through the central chimney into the bowels of the island where the eruptive materials are boiling, on that day, Pencroff, Lincoln Island will explode like Sicily would explode if the Mediterranean came rushing into Etna!”
The colonists did not reply to this affirmative statement from the engineer. They understood the danger that menaced them.
It must be said besides, that Cyrus Smith did not exaggerate in any way. Many people have the idea that one can perhaps extinguish volcanos which are nearly all located at the borders of a sea or a lake by opening a passage for their water. But they do not realize that this would run the risk of blowing up a part of the globe like a boiler which is suddenly subjected to overheating. The water, rushing into a confined region whose temperature is perhaps measured in thousands of degrees, would vaporize with such sudden energy that no casing could contain it.
Thus there was no doubt that the island, threatened by a frightful and forthcoming destruction, would endure only as long as the wall of Dakkar Crypt would itself endure. It was not even a question of months nor even of weeks but a question of days, of hours perhaps!
The first sentiment of the colonists was one of deep sorrow! They thought not of the peril which directly threatened them but of the destruction of this land which had given them asylum, this island which they had fertilized, this island which they loved, which they wanted to render so flourishing one day! So much effort uselessly dispensed, so much work lost!
Pencroff could not hold back a large tear which glistened on his cheek and which he did not try to hide.
The conversation continued for a little while longer. The chances to which the colonists could still count on were discussed but they concluded that there was not an hour to lose, that the construction and layout of the vessel must be pursued prodigiously and that this was now the only chance of safety for the inhabitants of Lincoln Island!
All hands thus were needed. Of what use was it to reap, harvest, hunt, or increase the reserves of Granite House? What was still in the storeroom and the pantry would suffice, and even to provision the vessel for a trip, however long it might be! They had what they needed until such time as the inevitable catastrophe would occur.
The work was resumed at a feverish pace. Around the 23rd of January the vessel was half sided. Until then there had been no change at the top of the volcano. It was always vapor and smoke mixed with flames and incandescent stones which escaped from the crater. But during the night of the 23rd to the 24th, under the pressure of the lava which reached the level of the first stage of the volcano, the cone which formed the cap was blown off. A frightful noise was heard. At first the colonists thought that the island had cracked apart. They rushed outside Granite House.
It was about two o’clock in the morning.
The sky was on fire. The upper cone—a mass a thousand feet in height weighing millions of pounds—had fallen on the island making the ground tremble. Fortunately the cone inclined northward and it fell on the plain of sand and tuffs which extended between the volcano and the sea. The crater, now largely open, projected an intense light toward the sky which by the simple effect of reverberation seemed to make the atmosphere incandescent. At the same time, a torrent of lava swelled up at the new summit and poured out in long cascades like water which escapes from an overfull vase. A thousand serpents of fire crawled over the slope of the volcano.
“The corral! The corral!” shouted Ayrton.
It was in fact toward the corral that the lava was flowing as a result of the orientation of the new crater and consequently it was the fertile parts of the island, the sources of Red Creek and Jacamar Woods which were threatened with immediate destruction.
At Ayrton’s cry, the colonists rushed toward the onagers’ stable. The cart was harnessed. All had but one thought, to rush to the corral and set the animals which it enclosed at liberty.
Before three o’clock in the morning they arrived at the corral. The frightful howlings of the sheep and the goats indicated their terror. Already a torrent of incandescent material and liquified minerals fell from the buttresses on to the prairie and sapped away at this side of the palisade. The door was abruptly opened by Ayrton and the maddened animals escaped in all directions.
One hour later the boiling lava filled the corral, vaporizing the water from the small brook which crossed it, setting fire to the house which burned like coal dust and devouring the palisaded enclosure to the last post. Nothing remained of the corral.
The colonists wanted to battle against this invasion. They would have done so madly and uselessly because man is helpless in the presence of great disasters.
Day came on—the 24th of January. Cyrus Smith and his companions, before returning to Granite House, wanted to observe the definite direction which the deluge of lava would take. The general slope of the ground went downhill from Mount Franklin to the east coast and they feared that in spite of the thick Jacamar Woods, the torrent would reach Grand View Plateau.
“The lake will protect us,” said Gideon Spilett.
“I hope so!” replied Cyrus Smith and that was his only response.
The colonists would have wanted to advance up to the plain on which the upper cone from Mount Franklin had fallen but the lava now barred the way. It followed Red Creek valley on the one hand and Falls River valley on the other, vaporizing these two watercourses by its passage. There was no possibility of crossing this torrent. On the contrary, they had to withdraw in front of it. The uncapped volcano was no longer recognizable. A sort of smooth table terminated it and replaced the former crater. Lava was pouring out incessantly from two cracks in the south and east rims, thus forming two distinct currents. Above the new crater, a cloud of smoke and cinders was mixed with some vapors of the atmosphere massed over the island. Thunder burst forth mingled with the rumblings from the mountain. Igneous rocks escaped from its mouth. They were thrown more that a thousand feet, bursting in the sky and dispersing like grapeshot. The sky replied to the volcanic eruption with flashes of lightning.
Around seven o’clock in the morning, the position was no longer tenable for the colonists who had taken refuge at the edge of Jacamar Woods. Not only did projectiles begin to rain around them but lava, overflowing the bed of Red Creek, threatened to cut off the corral road. The first rows of trees caught fire and their sap, suddenly transformed to vapor, burst like firecrackers, while other less humid ones remained intact in the midst of the flooding.
The position was no longer tenable...
The colonists moved back on the corral road. They walked slowly, retreating so to speak. But because of the inclination of the ground, the torrent gained rapidly in the east, and as soon as lower layers of lava became hard, other bubbling layers covered them.
Nevertheless, the main current from the valley of Red Creek became more menacing. All of this part of the forest caught fire and enormous curls of smoke twirled above the trees whose crackling feet were already in the lava.
The colonists stopped near the lake, a half mile from the mouth of Red Creek. A question of life and death was now to be decided by them.
Cyrus Smith, accustomed to deal with serious situations, and knowing that he was addressing men capable of hearing the truth whatever it might be, then said:
“Either the lake will stop the flow and a part of the island will be preserved from complete devastation or the flow will invade the forests of the Far West and not a tree, not a plant will remain on the surface. We will have nothing to look forward to on these bare rocks but death from an explosion of the island!”
“Then,” shouted Pencroff, crossing his arms and stamping on the ground, “it is useless to work on the boat, is it not?”
“Pencroff,” replied Cyrus Smith, “we must do our duty to the end!”
At this moment the torrent of lava, after blazing a trail through the fine trees that it was destroying, reached the edge of the lake. There was a certain elevation in the ground there which if it had been higher could perhaps suffice to contain the torrent.
“To work!” shouted Cyrus Smith.
The engineer’s idea was understood immediately. They must dam up this torrent so to speak, and compel it to overflow into the lake.
The colonists ran to the shipyard. They brought back shovels, pickaxes, axes and by means of earthworks and fallen trees they succeeded in a few hours in erecting a dam three feet high and several hundred feet in length. It seemed to them, when they were finished, that they had barely worked for a few minutes!
It was just in time. The liquified material reached the lower part of the earthwork almost immediately. The torrent swelled up like a flooded river trying to overflow, and it threatened to pass over this only obstacle which prevented it from invading all of the Far West... But the dam succeeded in containing it and after a terrible minute of hesitation it fell down twenty feet into Lake Grant.
The colonists, out of breath, looked at this battle between the two elements without making a gesture and without saying a word.
What a spectacle was this combat between fire and water! What pen could describe this scene of marvellous horror, and what brush could paint it! The water hissed and evaporated on contact with the boiling lava. The vapors were thrown into the air, twirling to a great height as if the valves of an immense boiler had suddenly been opened. But as considerable as was the mass of water contained in the lake, it must in the end be absorbed because the torrent, fed by an inexhaustible source, kept flowing with new waves of incandescent material.
What a spectacle was this combat between fire and water!
The first lava which fell into the lake solidified immediately, accumulated and soon emerged. Other lava slid over its surface, becoming hard in its turn but gaining toward the center. A jetty of sorts formed and threatened to fill up the lake which did not overflow because the excess water evaporated. Hissings and cracklings rent the air with a deafening noise and the steam, caught up by the wind, fell back into the sea as rain. The jetty became longer and blocks of solidified lava piled up on each other. Where formerly there had been peaceful water, there now appeared an enormous pileup of smoking rocks as if an uprising of the ground had make a thousand reefs appear. If one could imagine the water agitated during a storm, then suddenly solidified by a twenty degree frost, he would have a picture of the lake three hours after the irresistible torrent had erupted.
This time water would be vanquished by fire.
However, it was a fortunate circumstance for the colonists that the discharge of the lava had been directly toward Lake Grant. They had before them several days of respite. Grand View Plateau, Granite House and the construction yard were preserved for the moment. Now these few days must be used to plank the vessel and to caulk it carefully. Then they would launch it and take refuge on it, leaving the rigging for when it was in its element. With the fear of the explosion which threatened to destroy the island, there was no longer any security in remaining on land. The Granite House retreat, formerly so secure, could become blocked up within its granite walls at any moment!
During the six days which followed, from the 25th to the 30th of January, the colonists did as much work on the vessel as twenty men could have done. Hardly taking any rest, the glare from the flames which rushed out from the crater allowed them to continue day and night. The volcano was always overflowing but perhaps with less abundance. This was fortunate because Lake Grant was almost entirely filled and if new lava would have piled up over the surface of the old, it would inevitably spill on to Grand View Plateau and from there on to the beach.
But if this side of the island was partly protected, it was not so with the western portion.
In fact, the second current of lava which had followed the large valley of Falls River whose terrain was depressed on each side of the creek, had found no obstacle. The incandescent liquid therefore flowed across the forests of the Far West. At this time of the year, when the trees were dry from the torrid heat, the forest caught fire instantly, with the fire propagating simultaneously at the base of the trunks and by the high branches whose interlacing aided the progress of the conflagration. It even seemed that the current of flame at the top of the trees moved faster than the current of lava below.
The maddened animals, jaguars, boars, capybaras, koalas, game of ground and sky, took refuge on the banks of the Mercy and in the Tadorn marsh beyond the road to Port Balloon. But the colonists were too preoccupied with their work to pay any attention to even the most formidable of these animals. Besides, they had abandoned Granite House. They had not even wanted to find shelter in the Chimneys and they camped under a tent near the mouth of the Mercy.
Every day Cyrus Smith and Gideon Spilett ascended to Grand View Plateau. Sometimes Herbert accompanied them but never Pencroff who did not wish to see the profoundly devastated island under its new aspect.
In fact it was a distressing spectacle. All the wooded part of the island was now bare. A single cluster of green trees stood at the extremity of Serpentine Peninsula. Here and there several branchless blackened stumps grimaced. The land on which the destroyed forests were located was more barren than the Tadorn marsh. The enroachment of lava was complete. Where formerly wonderful foliage grew, the ground was now only a savage pile of volcanic tuffs. The valleys of Falls River and of the Mercy did not spill a single drop of water into the sea and the colonists would not have had any means of appeasing their thirst if Lake Grant had been completely dry. But fortunately its southern corner had been spared and formed a sort of pond containing all that remained of the potable water on the island. Toward the northwest, the grim and rugged outlines of the buttresses of the volcano looked like gigantic claws grasping the ground. What a sorrowful spectacle, what an appalling sight, and what regrets for these colonists who, from a fertile domain covered with forests, irrigated by watercourses, enriched by crops, to find themselves in an instant transported to a devastated rock on which, without their reserves, they would not even have been able to live!
“It breaks my heart,” Gideon Spilett said one day.
“Yes, Spilett,” replied the engineer. “May Heaven give us time to finish this boat, now our only refuge.”
“Do you not find, Cyrus, that the volcano seems to be getting calmer? It is still vomiting lava, but less abundantly, if I am not mistaken!”
“That’s of little importance,” replied Cyrus Smith. “The fire is always burning in the bowels of the mountain and the sea can rush in at any moment. We are in the position of passengers whose vessel is being devoured by a fire that they cannot extinguish and who know that sooner or later it will reach the powder room! Come Spilett, come and let us not lose an hour!”
During the next eight days, that is to say until the 7th of February, the lava continued to pour out but the eruption kept within the indicated limits. Cyrus Smith feared above all else that the liquified material would overflow on the beach and in that case the shipyard would not be spared. However, about this time, the colonists felt vibrations in the framework of the island which made them uneasy to the highest degree.
It was the 20th of February. There was still a month before the vessel was fit to go to sea. Would the island hold up until then? Pencroff’s and Cyrus Smith’s intention was to proceed with the launching of the vessel as soon as the hull was sufficiently watertight. The bridge, the superstructure, the interior arrangements and the rigging would be done later, but the important thing was that the colonists would have a secure refuge off the island. Perhaps it would be better to take the vessel to Port Balloon, that is to say as far as possible from the eruptive center, because at the mouth of the Mercy, between the islet and the granite wall, it ran the risk of being crushed in case of the island’s breakup. All the efforts of the workers were therefore directed toward finishing the hull.
They reached the 3rd of March and they could plan that the launching would take place in about a dozen days.
Hope returned to the colonists, so stricken with misfortune during this fourth year of their stay on Lincoln Island! Pencroff himself seemed to come a little out of this gloomy taciturnity into which the ruin and devastation of his domain had plunged him. He thought of nothing truly but of this vessel on which he concentrated all his hopes.
“We will finish it!” he said to the engineer. “We will finish it, Mister Cyrus, and it will be just in time because the season is advanced and we will soon be at the height of the equinox. Oh well, if need be we will put in at Tabor Island and pass the winter there! But Tabor Island after Lincoln Island! Ah! Woe of my life! Did I ever believe that I would see such a thing!”
“Let us hurry!” the engineer would inevitably reply.
And they worked on without losing a moment.
“My master,” asked Neb a few days later. “If Captain Nemo had still been alive, do you think that all this would have happened?”
“Yes, Neb,” replied Cyrus Smith.
“Oh well, as for me, I do not believe it!” murmured Pencroff in Neb’s ear.
“Nor I,” replied Neb seriously.
During the first week of March, Mount Franklin again became threatening. Thousands of glass threads, made of liquid lava, fell on the ground like rain. The crater again filled with lava which poured out on all sides of the volcano. The torrent ran over the surface of the hardened tuffs and ended by destroying the straggling skeletons of trees which had withstood the first eruption. The flow, following this time the southwest bank of Lake Grant, carried as far as Glycerin Creek and overran Grand View Plateau. This last stroke, affecting the accomplishments of the colonists, was terrible. The windmill, the houses of the poultry yard, the stables, nothing remained of them. The frightened birds disappeared in all directions. Top and Jup gave signs of the greatest fright and their instinct forewarned them that a catastrophe was near. A good number of the animals had perished during the first eruption. Those that had survived found refuge at the Tadorn marsh, except for the few to whom Grand View Plateau offered asylum. But this last retreat was finally closed to them and the river of lava, overflowing the edge of the granite wall, began to rain its cataracts of fire on the beach. The sublime horror of this spectacle escapes all description. During the night it was like a Niagara of molten liquid with its incandescent vapors above and its bubbling masses below!
The colonists were forced into their last entrenchment and even though the upper seams of the vessel still had not been caulked, they resolved to launch it!
Pencroff and Ayrton proceeded then with the preparations for the launching which was to have taken place the next day on the morning of the 9th of March.
But during the night of the 8th to the 9th an enormous column of vapor, escaping from the crater, rose to a height of more than three thousand feet amidst frightful detonations. The wall of Dakkar cavern had evidently given way under the pressure of the gas, and the sea, rushing into the fire-emitting abyss by way of the central chimney, suddenly vaporized. But the crater could not give a sufficient outlet for these vapors. An explosion, which was heard a hundred miles away, shook the air. Pieces of mountain fell back into the sea and in a few minutes the ocean covered the place where Lincoln Island had been.
An explosion shook the air.