The stage represents the tip of a small island; some bushes, some leafless trees, tall rocks to the right and left. The sea beats the point of the isle at the left. At a distance which must be a half mile at sea the remains of a shipwreck can be seen—only the overturned hull is visible. Close to the audience a few barrels and tools saved from the wreck. In the back, the horizon. Broad daylight and the heaven is clear.
All the characters are dressed in bad condition. Some are stretched on the ground, others come and go quickly on the beach. At Rise, Captain Grant is standing on a high rock observing the horizon. Ayrton, Forster and Dick form a group apart. Young James is anxiously observing what is going on around him.
First Sailor: (in a deep voice) No, no! Enough of suffering like this.
Second Sailor: To be driven so far south, is to tempt God.
Dick: It’s tempting the devil and the devil doesn’t like being tempted! Thus, you see what has become of the Britannia!
(Dick points to the hull run aground in the sea and returns to Ayrton.)
First Sailor: Yes, a hulk which is no longer good for anything and that the first breeze will demolish.
Second Sailor: (pointing to Grant with his fist) And all that through the fault of this captain of ill luck!
Forster: (to Ayrton) You see, Ayrton! Now they are rebelling against Grant. Let’s profit by it.
Dick: Yes—and command in his place.
Ayrton: Patience, Forster, patience, Dick. The moment has not yet come, but it is near, and I will pay this man for all I’ve suffered in my vanity and my interests! Ah, Captain Grant! It’s you they entrusted with this mission of going to discover the South Poll and in preference to me! It’s you they named Commandant of the Britannia where I only occupy second place! Well—the shipwreck will do what my will couldn’t do. Bad luck to you!
James: (aside) What are they up to talking so low? I tremble for my father. It seems to me we are surrounded by nothing but enemies.
Forster: (to Ayrton) But, why wait any longer?
Ayrton: Because I intend to know, before acting, whose side Harry Grant will take.
Forster: And, what side to you want him to take, if not that of leaving this island by whatever means possible, and reaching the lands of the North?
Dick: A barrel of biscuit and a quartet of brandy for 23 people. In a week we’ll be dead of starvation!
Ayrton: In a few minutes we will know what’s going to keep us!
Forster: If the Captain is obstinate in the accomplishment of his plan, which is, now, a death threat for the whole crew?
Ayrton: Then it’s his own condemnation sentence he’ll be pronouncing.
Dick: And who will take on himself the execution of the sentence?
Ayrton: Who? (pointing to Burch) That brute there who is still roaring in hat and fury.
Ayrton: Yes, Burch, who the Captain had whipped for insubordination! That tiger will avenge himself sooner or later and we will avoid being accused of killing the Captain.
Forster: You think he would have the courage.
Ayrton: Him! Wait. (going to Burch) Burch!
Ayrton: What would you do if the fate of Grant were placed in your hands?
Burch: I would kill him. (rising and pointing to his fist)
Ayrton: (aside) Fine! (in a low voice to the sailors) Ours is a terrible situation, my friends!
Forster: (low) And it’s the Captain who plunged us into it! Bad luck to him!
(Grant has left his post on the height of the rock at the right and placed himself in the midst of the mutineers who he looks in the face.)
Grant: What’s this mean?
James: (running to him) Oh! Father! Take care!
Grant: Are you forgetting that I command on this island just as I commanded on the Britannia? Here as on board I intend to be obeyed by all.
Ayrton: I don’t know that any one of us is refusing to do his duty!
Grant: (severely) None of you, neither officer, nor sailor! I am counting on it! Heaven has harshly tested us, no question, by casting us on this island in the Australian Sea, but nothing is yet desperate. I demand of you only two things: courage which never weakens and unity that nothing can alter. At that price, I will answer for the common well-being and completing our task.
Ayrton: Are you forgetting that the Britannia is half broken on the reefs and that it is impossible to refloat it?
Grant: No, but I know that with zeal and labor we can lead our work to a good conclusion. Dispose everything for a provisional camp. See if we can still save some provisions. Ayrton, embark with some men. You understand me?
Ayrton: (after hesitating) Yes, captain.
Grant: And you, Forster, watch so that no one touches this case of brandy, perhaps our only reserve.
Forster: (looking at Ayrton) Yes, yes! We’ll watch!
Grant: Meanwhile, I am going to inspect this island which I’ve come to believe is Baker Island in the Australian Sea, situated not far from the coast of Adelaide. Yet once more, my friends, remember, United we are strong. Disunited, we are lost!
James: Father, I’ll accompany you.
Grant: Come, my son. From the height of these rocks we’ll take a survey of this island.
Ayrton: And if it is habitable, Captain?
Grant: If it is habitable, if physical life can be assured, even during the rigorous polar winter we will install ourselves here. From the wreckage of the Britannia, in less than 6 months we will have constructed a ship somewhat smaller, but solid, and once the ice flow reopens, at the first cracking, we will leave this island to search more profoundly, once again, for the route to the south pole.
Ayrton: And if this island is uninhabitable?
Grant: I will consider. Come, James. (they leave)
First Sailor: Wait here six months!
Second Sailor: To winter amidst the ice bergs.
Forster: To die of hunger.
Second Sailor: And of cold.
Dick: Never, comrades.
Ayrton: Eh! Didn’t you hear what Harry Grant told you. Your Captain today as yesterday, here as there. Will you obey?
All: No, no.
Dick: When a Captain is crazy, he is removed from his command.
Burch: Or he’s killed without pity or mercy.
Forster: He’s right! Our captain—it will be you, Ayrton! Long live Captain Ayrton.
All: Yes, yes, love live Ayrton.
Ayrton: Comrades, take care of what you are doing! Will you follow me?
Forster: Wherever you choose to lead us.
Ayrton: You will obey me?
Dick: Unto death!
Ayrton: Friends, we need a ship, not to go lose ourselves in the polar ice, but to return to the lands of the Pacific. We have the sloop from the Britannia. It’s a solid craft, well decked, well rigged; and suitable to bring us to the nearest land.
Forster: To New Zealand!
Ayrton: No, to Australia. That’s where lads with courage, ready for anything can find an independent life, well-being, without pain, riches without labor! There, if we seized a ship for ourselves, it would be a simple thing—on the condition of obeying me.
All: In Australia!
Dick: But if the sloop cannot contain more than 20 men—and we are twenty-three.
Ayrton: The sloop will carry only those it can carry.
All: How’s that?
Ayrton: Harry Grant and his son will stay here. Cold and famine will soon have killed them.
All: Yes, yes.
Dick: Let’s embark then, and he won’t find us on his return!
Ayrton: First of all, load the provisions which have been saved. Perhaps that’s all that the Britannia can furnish. They will suffice us for a crossing that cannot exceed three weeks. And now, Captain Grain, to the two of us!
(The sailors begin to execute the orders of Ayrton. The barrel of biscuit is rolled towards the sloop which has been brought to the point of the island. The case of brandy is still on stage.)
First Sailor: Hey! Captain Ayrton, it’s getting devilishly thirsty here.
All: Oh! yes, Captain.
Ayrton: Harry Grant forbade you to drink. Well, drink, comrades, drink.
All: A drink, a drink.
Burch: For me, some brandy for me! Since I cannot avenge myself right away, I have to make my rage sleep.
Ayrton: And it will awaken only more terrible, right Burch?
Burch: He shed my blood! I will shed his unto the last drop. (drinks)
Forster: To the health of the new Captain!
All: To the health of Captain Ayrton.
Burch: To the eternal damnation of Grant (bottle in hand, still drinking) and to his death. (drinks and shivers) To his—
(At this moment Grant appears, he strides towards Burch, snatches the bottle from him and hurls it to the ground.)
Burch: (rushing on Grant) Sonofabitch!
Grant: Wretched brute. (repulses Burch violently; Burch, already drunk, falls) (to Ayrton) Doubtless, Ayrton, it was despite your orders that these wretches are going to lose their reason in intoxication?
Ayrton: It’s I who permitted them to drink.
Grant: You dared?
Ayrton: Go ahead, comrades!
First Sailor: Drink!
Other Sailors: Drink! Drink!
Grant: (seizing a hatched) The first of you who touches this case, I split his head open.
Forster: (to Ayrton) Well! The moment hasn’t come?
Ayrton: Let him go! He’s ruining himself.
Grant: (to the crew) I demanded obedience and union from you in the common interest. This absolute submission to my orders that I impose on my crew, I also impose on my officers. (turning toward Ayrton) Ayrton, you have been given the first example of disobedience! I break you of your rank! You are no longer the mate of the Britannia.
Ayrton: What’s it matter! There no longer is a Britannia.
Grant: The sloop remains. It’s a part of it, and now it’s our only means of safety.
Forster: (aside) What’s he mean?
Grant: I’ve just explored this island. It is arid, without vegetation and cannot furnish the physical requirements of a winter harbor. We must leave it, return to the lands of the Pacific and, since the wind is favorable, we are going to embark this very day.
Ayrton: The sloop can contain only 20 men at most, and there are twenty-three to ship.
Grant: Three men of the crew will remain on this isle.
Grant: I will return myself to get them. In three weeks the sloop will have reached the coast of New Zealand. There I will charter a boat. The ice won’t reappear for five months! Then, having five weeks I will return and we’ll see England again; you, your families, me, my dear children that I left there, Mary and Robert.
Ayrton: (interrupting him) And which of us will remain on the island?
All: Yes, yes! which ones?
Grant: Those that fate chooses. The names will be put in a hat and the first three picked.
Ayrton: (interrupting him) That’s unnecessary.
Grant: What do you mean?
Ayrton: We have already chosen.
Forster: Grant and his son, first of all.
All: Yes, yes! Grant and his son!
Ayrton: (forcefully) The moment has come to choose between Grant and Ayrton.
The Sailors: Ayrton! Ayrton!
Grant: To me, those who are for their Captain.
Ayrton: To me, those who are for Ayrton.
(All the sailors group around Ayrton; Grant is alone with his son.)
Grant: (rushing on Ayrton, axe in hand) Traitor!
James: Father! Father!
(The Sailors rush Grant and disarm him.)
Ayrton: You and your son will stay here on this island—and I am not promising to come get you!
All: No! no!
Grant: I told you no human creature will be found alive here during the winter. Still, for myself, I accept the death you inflict on me. But take my child and leave me alone!
James: (rushing to the arms of Captain Grant) Father, I won’t leave you.
Ayrton: Your son will remain with you! And for all the humiliations that I’ve suffered on your deck, you will drag out, miserably, the few months that remain for you to live! Come on, embark, the rest of you!
Grant: Ayrton, I won’t try to soften you up for me, but for my son, at least have compassion for my son!
James: (hanging on his father) Separate myself from you, father—never! Never! (to Ayrton) Ayrton, I entreat you, I beg you on my knees, don’t be without pity, don’t abandon us on this desert isle! Think that in Scotland we have my brother and my sister who are waiting for us—two poor orphans who will die of despair when they learn of our deaths! You don’t want to soil yourself with so many crimes at once! Mercy, mercy for all of us, Ayrton! Mercy! Mercy!
Ayrton: (a little shaken) No. I—the sentence has been pronounced. Embark, lads, embark.
(The sailors take their place in the sloop and are followed by Forster.)
James: (in despair) Lost! We are lost!
Grant: Wretches! I will find you again, Ayrton! A ship might pass.
Ayrton: (shrugging his shoulders) At the limit of the polar circle? Come off it!
Grant: I will know how to construct a sloop from the remains of the Britannia.
Ayrton: (mocking) With the remains of the Britannia? I don’t think so, Harry Grant.
Grant: Ah! (heads towards the sloop)
Forster: (to Ayrton) And Burch?
Ayrton: Burch? Since one of us cannot find a place in the sloop, let it be him! (low) In case that cold and famine should spare Harry Grant that one won’t! Make room!
All the Sailors: Keep off!
(The sloop is pushed away and disappears.)
James: (falling on his knees by his father) They are leaving. They are leaving! It’s all over. It’s all over! Ah, my God! Have pity! Help us.
Grant: (raising his head) Let’s help ourselves, so that heaven will aid us. James, we must leave this island before the ice shuts around it. The wreckage of the Britannia is in good condition. But there are only two of us and we need so much time.
James: But, father, during the summer season whalers sometimes approach these shores. Couldn’t we?
Grant: Wait! (stumbling over a bottle that fell to the ground) That bottle! A document could be enclosed into it and it could then be thrown into the sea!
James: Perhaps it might be picked up by some ship?
Grant: And perhaps they will come to save us before time runs out, so long, alas! will be required for the construction of a new sloop.
James: Yes, father, write! As for me, meanwhile, I am going to prepare a bit of tarpaulin to cork the bottle.
Captain Grant: (tearing a page from his notebook and writing) "Captain Grant and his son, abandoned on the island Balher, near the Australian louds, after shipwreck of the Britannia at latitude 37 degrees south, and longitude 165 degrees west. A long agony awaits them. Come to their aid or they will be lost!"
(Grant takes this paper, folds it and inserts it into the bottle.)
James: (giving him the tarpaulin stopper) Here, fahter.
Grant: (closing the bottle) We must, without further delay, go to the beach where the Britannia is. Perhaps we’ll find some provisions; some clothes. Wood and iron that we can snatch from it will still be our most precious resource!
James: (noticing Burch) Ah! Burch! Abandoned too. Father, he is concerned as we are, in this attempt at salvation.
Grant: What can you hope for from such a man?
James: Still, allow me—
(At an approving sign from Grant, James approaches Burch, kneels by him and shakes him gently.)
James: Burch! Burch!
Burch: What do you want with me? (seeing James) Huh! You, the son of the accursed Captain! Get back. I tell you, get back or if not—
James: Burch, they’ve all gone, and you, my father and I, have been abandoned!
Burch: Abandoned! (rising and looking around) Abandoned! Abandoned in his desert!
James: Will you not help us to get out of here?
Burch: Help you to get out of here, you and your father! (finding himself face to face with Captain Grant) He who had me beaten? Shamefully flogged? No, nothing in common between us—nothing! Nothing except hate and death! (picks up the hatched while Grant grasps a rifle) Watch out for yourself. I’m on my guard!
Burch: (leaving) We will see each other again, Harry Grant.
Grant: Come on, James, to the ship.
James: To the ship, father. (they head toward the back; at that moment there’s an explosion and the wreckage of the ship vanishes in the waves) The wretches! They’ve destroyed what remained of our Britannia.
Grant: (climbing on a rock, bottle in hand) My God! Our only hope is on this fragile bottle, confided to winds and waves!
James: (kneeling) Let it fall, Lord, into helping hands.
(Grant hurls the bottle into the sea.)