A Mystery to be cleared up – The Stranger's first Words – Twelve Years on the Islet – Avowal which escapes him – The Disappearance – Cyrus Harding's Confidence – Construction of a Mill – The first Bread – An Act of Devotion – Honest Hands.
Yes! the unfortunate man had wept! Some recollection doubtless had flashed across his brain, and to use Cyrus Harding's expression, by those tears he was once more a man.
The colonists left him for some time on the plateau, and withdrew themselves to a short distance, so that he might feel himself free; but he did not think of profiting by this liberty, and Harding soon brought him back to Granite House. Two days after this occurrence, the stranger appeared to wish gradually to mingle with their common life. He evidently heard and understood, but no less evidently was he strangely determined not to speak to the colonists; for one evening, Pencroft, listening at the door of his room, heard these words escape from his lips: —
"No! here! I! never!"
The sailor reported these words to his companions.
"There is some painful mystery there!" said Harding.
The stranger had begun to use the labouring tools, and he worked in the garden. When he stopped in his work, as was often the case, he remained retired within himself; but on the engineer's recommendation, they respected the reserve which he apparently wished to keep. If one of the settlers approached him, he drew back, and his chest heaved with sobs, as if overburthened!
Was it remorse that overwhelmed him thus? They were compelled to believe so, and Gideon Spilett could not help one day making this observation, —
"If he does not speak it is because he has, I fear, things too serious to be told!"
They must be patient and wait.
A few days later, on the 3rd of November, the stranger, working on the plateau, had stopped, letting his spade drop to the ground, and Harding who was observing him from a little distance, saw that tears were again flowing from his eyes. A sort of irresistible pity led him towards the unfortunate man, and he touched his arm lightly.
"My friend!" said he.
The stranger tried to avoid his look, and Cyrus Harding, having endeavoured to take his hand, he drew back quickly.
"My friend," said Harding in a firmer voice, "look at me, I wish it!"
The stranger looked at the engineer, and seemed to be under his power, as a subject under the influence of a mesmerist. He wished to run away. But then his countenance suddenly underwent a transformation. His eyes flashed. Words struggled to escape from his lips. He could no longer contain himself!.. At last he folded his arms, then, in a hollow voice, —
"Who are you?" he asked Cyrus Harding.
"Castaways, like you," replied the engineer, whose emotion was deep. "We have brought you here, among your fellow-men."
"My fellow-men!.. I have none!"
"You are in the midst of friends."
"Friends! – for me! friends!" exclaimed the stranger, hiding his face in his hands. "No – never – leave me! leave me!"
Then he rushed to the side of the plateau which overlooked the sea, and remained there a long time motionless.
Harding rejoined his companions and related to them what had just happened.
"Yes! there is some mystery in that man's life," said Gideon Spilett, "and it appears as if he had only re-entered society by the path of remorse."
"I don't know what sort of a man we have brought here," said the sailor. "He has secrets – "
"Which we will respect," interrupted Cyrus Harding quickly. "If he has committed any crime, he has most fearfully expiated it, and in our eyes he is absolved."
For two hours the stranger remained alone on the shore, evidently under the influence of recollections which recalled all his past life – a melancholy life doubtless – and the colonists, without losing sight of him, did not attempt to disturb his solitude. However, after two hours, appearing to have formed a resolution, he came to find Cyrus Harding. His eyes were red with the tears he had shed, but he wept no longer. His countenance expressed deep humility. He appeared anxious, timorous, ashamed, and his eyes were constantly fixed on the ground.
"Sir," said he to Harding, "your companions and you, are you English?"
"No," answered the engineer, "we are Americans."
"Ah!" said the stranger, and he murmured, "I prefer that!"
"And you, my friend?" asked the engineer.
"English," replied he hastily.
And as if these few words had been difficult to say, he retreated to the beach, where he walked up and down between the cascade and the mouth of the Mercy, in a state of extreme agitation.
Then, passing one moment close to Herbert, he stopped, and in a stifled voice, —
"What month?" he asked.
"December," replied Herbert.
"Twelve years! twelve years!" he exclaimed.
Then he left him abruptly.
Herbert reported to the colonists the questions and answers which had been made.
"This unfortunate man," observed Gideon Spilett, "was no longer acquainted with either months or years!"
"Yes!" added Herbert, "and he had been twelve years already on the islet when we found him there!"
"Twelve years!" rejoined Harding. "Ah! twelve years of solitude, after a wicked life, perhaps, may well impair a man's reason!"
"I am induced to think," said Pencroft, "that this man was not wrecked on Tabor Island, but that in consequence of some crime he was left there."
"You must be right, Pencroft," replied the reporter, "and if it is so it is not impossible that those who left him on the island may return to fetch him some day!"
"And they will no longer find him," said Herbert.
"But then," added Pencroft, "they must return, and – "
"My friends," said Cyrus Harding, "do not let us discuss this question until we know more about it. I believe that the unhappy man has suffered, that he has severely expiated his faults, whatever they may have been, and that the wish to unburden himself stifles him. Do not let us press him to tell us his history! He will tell it to us doubtless, and when we know it, we shall see what course it will be best to follow. He alone besides can tell us, if he has more than a hope, a certainty, of returning some day to his country, but I doubt it!"
"And why?" asked the reporter.
"Because that, in the event of his being sure of being delivered at a certain time, he would have waited the hour of his deliverance and would not have thrown this document into the sea. No, it is more probable that he was condemned to die on that islet, and that he never expected to see his fellow-creatures again!"
"But," observed the sailor, "there is one thing which I cannot explain."
"What is it?"
"If this man had been left for twelve years on Tabor Island, one may well suppose that he had been several years already in the wild state in which we found him!"
"That is probable," replied Cyrus Harding.
"It must then be many years since he wrote that document!"
"No doubt, and yet the document appears to have been recently written!"
"Besides, how do you know that the bottle which enclosed the document may not have taken several years to come from Tabor Island to Lincoln Island?"
"That is not absolutely impossible," replied the reporter.
"Might it not have been a long time already on the coast of the island?"
"No," answered Pencroft, "for it was still floating. We could not even suppose that after it had stayed for any length of time on the shore, it would have been swept off by the sea, for the south coast is all rocks, and it would certainly have been smashed to pieces there!"
"That is true," rejoined Cyrus Harding thoughtfully.
"And then," continued the sailor, "if the document was several years old, if it had been shut up in that bottle for several years, it would have been injured by damp. Now, there is nothing of the kind, and it was found in a perfect state of preservation."
The sailor's reasoning was very just, and pointed out an incomprehensible fact, for the document appeared to have been recently written, when the colonists found it in the bottle. Moreover, it gave the latitude and longitude of Tabor Island correctly, which implied that its author had a more complete knowledge of hydrography than could be expected of a common sailor.
"There is in this, again, something unaccountable," said the engineer; "but we will not urge our companion to speak. When he likes, my friends, then we shall be ready to hear him!"
During the following days the stranger did not speak a word, and did not once leave the precincts of the plateau. He worked away, without losing a moment, without taking a minute's rest, but always in a retired place. At meal times he never came to Granite House, although invited several times to do so, but contented himself with eating a few raw vegetables. At nightfall he did not return to the room assigned to him, but remained under some clump of trees, or when the weather was bad crouched in some cleft of the rocks. Thus he lived in the same manner as when he had no other shelter than the forests of Tabor Island, and as all persuasion to induce him to improve his life was in vain, the colonists waited patiently. And the time was near, when, as it seemed, almost involuntarily urged by his conscience, a terrible confession escaped him.
On the 10th of November, about eight o'clock in the evening, as night was coming on, the stranger appeared unexpectedly before the settlers, who were assembled under the verandah. His eyes burned strangely, and he had quite resumed the wild aspect of his worst days.
Cyrus Harding and his companions were astounded on seeing that, overcome by some terrible emotion, his teeth chattered like those of a person in a fever. What was the matter with him? Was the sight of his fellow-creatures insupportable to him? Was he weary of this return to a civilised mode of existence? Was he pining for his former savage life? It appeared so, as soon he was heard to express himself in these incoherent sentences: —
"Why am I here?.. By what right have you dragged me from my islet?.. Do you think there could be any tie between you and me?.. Do you know who I am – what I have done – why I was there – alone? And who told you that I was not abandoned there – that I was not condemned to die there?.. Do you know my past?.. How do you know that I have not stolen, murdered – that I am not a wretch – an accursed being – only fit to live like a wild beast far from all – speak – do you know it?"
The colonists listened without interrupting the miserable creature, from whom these broken confessions escaped, as it were, in spite of himself. Harding wishing to calm him, approached him, but he hastily drew back.
"No! no!" he exclaimed; "one word only – am I free?"
"You are free," answered the engineer.
"Farewell then!" he cried, and fled like a madman.
Neb, Pencroft, and Herbert ran also towards the edge of the wood – but they returned alone.
"We must let him alone!" said Cyrus Harding.
"He will never come back!" exclaimed Pencroft.
"He will come back," replied the engineer.
Many days passed; but Harding – was it a sort of presentiment? – persisted in the fixed idea that sooner or later the unhappy man would return.
"It is the last revolt of his wild nature," said he, "which remorse has touched, and which renewed solitude will terrify."
In the meanwhile, works of all sorts were continued, as well on Prospect Heights as at the corral, where Harding intended to build a farm. It is unnecessary to say that the seeds collected by Herbert on Tabor Island had been carefully sown. The plateau thus formed one immense kitchen-garden, well laid out and carefully tended, so that the arms of the settlers were never in want of work. There was always something to be done. As the esculents increased in number, it became necessary to enlarge the simple beds, which threatened to grow into regular fields and replace the meadows. But grass abounded in other parts of the island, and there was no fear of the onagas being obliged to go on short allowance. It was well worth while, besides, to turn Prospect Heights into a kitchen-garden, defended by its deep belt of creeks, and to remove them to the meadows, which had no need of protection against the depredations of quadrumana and quadrupeds.
On the 15th of November, the third harvest was gathered in. How wonderfully had the field increased in extent, since eighteen months ago, when the first grain of wheat was sown! The second crop of six hundred thousand grains produced this time four thousand bushels, or five hundred millions of grains!
The colony was rich in corn, for ten bushels alone were sufficient for sowing every year to produce an ample crop for the food both of men and beasts. The harvest was completed, and the last fortnight of the month of November was devoted to the work of converting it into food for man. In fact, they had corn, but not flour, and the establishment of a mill was necessary. Cyrus Harding could have utilised the second fall which flowed into the Mercy to establish his motive power, the first being already occupied with moving the felting mill; but after some consultation, it was decided that a simple windmill should be built on Prospect Heights. The building of this presented no more difficulty than the building of the former, and it was moreover certain that there would be no want of wind on the plateau, exposed as it was to the sea breezes.
"Not to mention," said Pencroft, "that the windmill will be more lively and will have a good effect in the landscape!"
They set to work by choosing timber for the frame and machinery of the mill. Some large stones, found at the north of the lake, could be easily transformed into millstones; and as to the sails, the inexhaustible case of the balloon furnished the necessary material.
Cyrus Harding made his model, and the site of the mill was chosen a little to the right of the poultry-yard, near the shore of the lake. The frame was to rest on a pivot supported with strong timbers, so that it could turn with all the machinery it contained according as the wind required it. The work advanced rapidly. Neb and Pencroft had become very skilful carpenters, and had nothing to do but to copy the models provided by the engineer.
Soon a sort of cylindrical box, in shape like a pepperpot, with a pointed roof, rose on the spot chosen. The four frames which formed the sails had been firmly fixed in the centre beam, so as to form a certain angle with it, and secured with iron clamps. As to the different parts of the internal mechanism, the box destined to contain the two millstones, the fixed stone and the moving stone, the hopper, a sort of large square trough, wide at the top, narrow at the bottom, which would allow the grain to fall on the stones, the oscillating spout intended to regulate the passing of the grain, and lastly the bolting machine, which by the operation of sifting, separates the bran from the flour, were made without difficulty. The tools were good, and the work not difficult, for in reality, the machinery of a mill is very simple. This was only a question of time.
Every one had worked at the construction of the mill, and on the 1st of December it was finished. As usual, Pencroft was delighted with his work, and had no doubt that the apparatus was perfect.
"Now for a good wind," said he, "and we shall grind our first harvest splendidly!"
"A good wind, certainly," answered the engineer, "but not too much, Pencroft."
"Pooh! our mill would only go the faster!"
"There is no need for it to go so very fast," replied Cyrus Harding. "It is known by experience that the greatest quantity of work is performed by a mill when the number of turns made by the sails in a minute is six times the number of feet traversed by the wind in a second. A moderate breeze, which passes over twenty-four feet to the second, will give sixteen turns to the sails during a minute, and there is no need of more."
"Exactly!" cried Herbert; "a fine breeze is blowing from the north-east, which will soon do our business for us."
There was no reason for delaying the inauguration of the mill, for the settlers were eager to taste the first piece of bread in Lincoln Island. On this morning two or three bushels of wheat were ground, and the next day at breakfast a magnificent loaf, a little heavy perhaps, although raised with yeast, appeared on the table at Granite House. Every one munched away at it with a pleasure which may be easily understood.
In the meanwhile, the stranger had not reappeared. Several times Gideon Spilett and Herbert searched the forest in the neighbourhood of Granite House, without meeting or finding any trace of him. They became seriously uneasy at this prolonged absence. Certainly, the former savage of Tabor Island could not be perplexed how to live in the forest, abounding in game, but was it not to be feared that he had resumed his habits, and that this freedom would revive in him his wild instincts? However, Harding, by a sort of presentiment, doubtless, always persisted in saying that the fugitive would return.
"Yes, he will return!" he repeated with a confidence which his companions could not share. "When this unfortunate man was on Tabor Island, he knew himself to be alone! Here, he knows that fellow men are awaiting him! Since he has partially spoken of his past life, the poor penitent will return to tell the whole, and from that day he will belong to us!"
The event justified Cyrus Harding's predictions. On the 3rd of December, Herbert had left the plateau to go and fish on the southern bank of the lake. He was unarmed, and till then had never taken any precautions for defence as dangerous animals had not shown themselves on that part of the island.
Meanwhile, Pencroft and Neb were working in the poultry-yard, whilst Harding and the reporter were occupied at the Chimneys in making soda, the store of soap being exhausted.
Suddenly cries resounded, —
Cyrus Harding and the reporter, being at too great a distance, had not been able to hear the shouts. Pencroft and Neb, leaving the poultry-yard in all haste, rushed towards the lake.
But before them, the stranger, whose presence at this place no one had suspected, crossed Creek Glycerine, which separated the plateau from the forest, and bounded up the opposite bank.
Herbert was there face to face with a fierce jaguar, similar to the one which had been killed on Reptile End. Suddenly surprised, he was standing with his back against a tree, whilst the animal, gathering itself together, was about to spring.
But the stranger, with no other weapon than a knife, rushed on the formidable animal, who turned to meet this new adversary.
The struggle was short. The stranger possessed immense strength and activity. He seized the jaguar's throat with one powerful hand, holding it as in a vice, without heeding the beast's claws which tore his flesh, and with the other he plunged his knife into its heart.
The jaguar fell. The stranger kicked away the body, and was about to fly at the moment when the settlers arrived on the field of battle, but Herbert, clinging to him, cried, —
"No, no! You shall not go!"
Harding advanced towards the stranger, who frowned when he saw him approaching. The blood flowed from his shoulder under his torn shirt, but he took no notice of it.
"My friend," said Cyrus Harding, "we have just contracted a debt of gratitude to you. To save our boy you have risked your life!"
"My life!" murmured the stranger "What is that worth? Less than nothing!"
"You are wounded!"
"It is no matter."
"Will you give me your hand?"
And as Herbert endeavoured to seize the hand which had just saved him, the stranger folded his arms, his chest heaved, his look darkened, and he appeared to wish to escape, but making a violent effort over himself, and in an abrupt tone, —
"Who are you?" he asked, "and what do you claim to be to me?"
It was the colonists' history which he thus demanded, and for the first time. Perhaps this history recounted, he would tell his own.
In a few words Harding related all that had happened since their departure from Richmond; how they had managed, and what resources they now had at their disposal.
The stranger listened with extreme attention.
Then the engineer told who they all were, Gideon Spilett, Herbert, Pencroft, Neb, himself; and he added, that the greatest happiness they had felt since their arrival in Lincoln Island was on the return of the vessel from Tabor Island, when they had been able to include amongst them a new companion.
At these words the stranger's face flushed, his head sunk on his breast, and confusion was depicted on his countenance.
"And now that you know us," added Cyrus Harding, "will you give us your hand?"
"No," replied the stranger in a hoarse voice; "no! You are honest men, you! And I – "