A Captain at Fifteen by Jules Verne Part I Chapter 15


The next day, April 7th, Austin, who was on guard at sunrise, saw Dingo run barking to the little river. Almost immediately Mrs. Weldon, Dick Sand and the blacks came out of the grotto.

Decidedly there was something there.

"Dingo has scented a living creature, man or beast," said the novice.

"At all events it was not Negoro," observed Tom, "for Dingo would bark with fury."

"If it is not Negoro, where can he be?" asked Mrs. Weldon, giving Dick Sand a look which was only understood by him; "and if it is not he, who, then, is it?"

"We are going to see, Mrs. Weldon," replied the novice. Then, addressing Bat, Austin, and Hercules, "Arm yourselves, my friends, and come!"

Each of the blacks took a gun and a cutlass, as Dick Sand had done. A cartridge was slipped into the breech of the Remingtons, and, thus armed, all four went to the bank of the river.

Mrs. Weldon, Tom, and Acteon remained at the entrance of the grotto, where little Jack and Nan still rested by themselves.

The sun was then rising. His rays, intercepted by the high mountains in the east, did not reach the cliff directly; but as far as the western horizon, the sea sparkled under the first fires of day.

Dick Sand and his companions followed the strand of the shore, the curve of which joined the mouth of the river.

There Dingo, motionless, and as if on guard, was continually barking.

It was evident that he saw or scented some native.

And, in fact, it was no longer against Negoro, against its enemy on board the ship, that the dog had a grudge this time.

At that moment a man turned the last plane of the cliff. He advanced prudently to the strand, and, by his familiar gestures, he sought to calm Dingo. They saw that he did not care to face the anger of the vigorous animal.

"It is not Negoro!" said Hercules.

"We cannot lose by the change," replied Bat.

"No," said the novice. "It is probably some native, who will spare us the _ennui_ of a separation. We are at last going to know exactly where we are."

And all four, putting their guns back on their shoulders, went rapidly toward the unknown.

The latter, on seeing them approach, at first gave signs of the greatest surprise. Very certainly, he did not expect to meet strangers on that part of the coast. Evidently, also, he had not yet perceived the remains of the "Pilgrim," otherwise the presence of the shipwrecked would very naturally be explained to him. Besides, during the night the surf had finished demolishing the ship's hull; there was nothing left but the wrecks that floated in the offing.

At the first moment the unknown, seeing four armed men marching toward him, made a movement as if he would retrace his steps. He carried a gun in a shoulder-belt, which passed rapidly into his hand, and from his hand to his shoulder. They felt that he was not reassured.

Dick Sand made a gesture of salutation, which doubtless the unknown understood, for, after some hesitation, he continued to advance.

Dick Sand could then examine him with attention.

He was a vigorous man, forty years old at the most, his eyes bright, his hair and beard gray, his skin sunburnt like that of a nomad who has always lived in the open air, in the forest, or on the plain. A kind of blouse of tanned skin served him for a close coat, a large hat covered his head, leather boots came up above his knees, and spurs with large rowels sounded from their high heels.

What Dick Sand noticed at first--and which was so, in fact--was that he had before him, not one of those Indians, habitual rovers over the pampas, but one of those adventurers of foreign blood, often not very commendable, who are frequently met with in those distant countries.

It also seemed, by his rather familiar attitude, by the reddish color of a few hairs of his beard, that this unknown must be of Anglo-Saxon origin. At all events, he was neither an Indian nor a Spaniard.

And that appeared certain, when in answer to Dick Sand, who said to him in English, "Welcome!" he replied in the same language and without any accent.

"Welcome yourself, my young friend," said the unknown, advancing toward the novice, whose hand he pressed.

As to the blacks, he contented himself with making a gesture to them without speaking to them.

"You are English?" he asked the novice.

"Americans," replied Dick Sand.

"From the South?"

"From the North."

This reply seemed to please the unknown, who shook the novice's hand more vigorously and this time in very a American manner.

"And may I know, my young friend," he asked, "how you find yourself on this coast?"

But, at that moment, without waiting till the novice had replied to his question, the unknown took off his hat and bowed.

Mrs. Weldon had advanced as far as the steep bank, and she then found herself facing him.

It was she who replied to this question.

"Sir," said she, "we are shipwrecked ones whose ship was broken to pieces yesterday on these reefs."

An expression of pity spread over the unknown's face, whose eyes sought the vessel which had been stranded.

"There is nothing left of our ship," added the novice. "The surf has finished the work of demolishing it during the night."

"And our first question," continued Mrs. Weldon, "will be to ask you where we are."

"But you are on the sea-coast of South America," replied the unknown, who appeared surprised at the question. "Can you have any doubt about that?"

"Yes, sir, for the tempest had been able to make us deviate from our route," replied Dick Sand. "But I shall ask where we are more exactly. On the coast of Peru, I think."

"No, my young friend, no! A little more to the south! You are wrecked on the Bolivian coast."

"Ah!" exclaimed Dick Sand.

"And you are even on that southern part of Bolivia which borders on Chili."

"Then what is that cape?" asked Dick Sand, pointing to the promontory on the north.

"I cannot tell you the name," replied the unknown, "for if I know the country in the interior pretty well from having often traversed it, it is my first visit to this shore."

Dick Sand reflected on what he had just learned. That only half astonished him, for his calculation might have, and indeed must have, deceived him, concerning the currents; but the error was not considerable. In fact, he believed himself somewhere between the twenty-seventh and the thirtieth parallel, from the bearings he had taken from the Isle of Paques, and it was on the twenty-fifth parallel that he was wrecked. There was no impossibility in the "Pilgrim's" having deviated by relatively small digression, in such a long passage.

Besides, there was no reason to doubt the unknown's assertions, and, as that coast was that of lower Bolivia there was nothing astonishing in its being so deserted.

"Sir," then said Dick Sand, "after your reply I must conclude that we are at a rather great distance from Lima."

"Oh! Lima is far away--over there--in the north!"

Mrs. Weldon, made suspicious first of all by Negoro's disappearance, observed the newly-arrived with extreme attention; but she could discover nothing, either in his attitude or in his manner of expressing himself which could lead her to suspect his good faith.

"Sir," said she, "without doubt my question is not rash. You do not seem to be of Peruvian origin?"

"I am American as you are, madam," said the unknown, who waited for an instant for the American lady to tell him her name.

"Mrs. Weldon," replied the latter.

"I? My name is Harris and I was born in South Carolina. But here it is twenty years since I left my country for the pampas of Bolivia, and it gives me pleasure to see compatriots."

"You live in this part of the province, Mr. Harris?" again asked Mrs. Weldon.

"No, Mrs. Weldon," replied Harris, "I live in the South, on the Chilian frontier; but at this present moment I am going to Atacama, in the northeast."

"Are we then on the borders of the desert of that name?" asked Dick Sand.

"Precisely, my young friend, and this desert extends far beyond the mountains which shut off the horizon."

"The desert of Atacama?" repeated Dick Sand.

"Yes," replied Harris. "This desert is like a country by itself, in this vast South America, from which it differs in many respects. It is, at the same time, the most curious and the least known portion of this continent."

"And you travel alone?" asked Mrs. Weldon.

"Oh, it is not the first time that I have taken this journey!" replied the American. "There is, two hundred miles from here, an important farm, the Farm of San Felice, which belongs to one of my brothers, and it is to his house that I am going for my trade. If you wish to follow me you will be well received, and the means of transport to gain the town of Atacama will not fail you. My brother will be happy to furnish, them."

These offers, made freely, could only prepossess in favor of the American, who immediately continued, addressing Mrs. Weldon:

"These blacks are your slaves?"

And he pointed to Tom and his companions.

"We have no longer any slaves in the United States," replied Mrs. Weldon, quickly. "The North abolished slavery long ago, and the South has been obliged to follow the example of the North!"

"Ah! that is so," replied Harris. "I had forgotten that the war of 1862 had decided that grave question. I ask those honest men's pardon for it," added Harris, with that delicate irony which a Southerner must put into his language when speaking to blacks. "But on seeing those gentlemen in your service, I believed----"

"They are not, and have never been, in my service, sir," replied Mrs. Weldon, gravely.

"We should be honored in serving you, Mrs. Weldon," then said old Tom. "But, as Mr. Harris knows, we do not belong to anybody. I have been a slave myself, it is true, and sold as such in Africa, when I was only six years old; but my son Bat, here, was born of an enfranchised father, and, as to our companions, they were born of free parents."

"I can only congratulate you about it," replied Harris, in a tone which Mrs. Weldon did not find sufficiently serious. "In this land of Bolivia, also, we have no slaves. Then you have nothing to fear, and you can go about as freely here as in the New England States."

At that moment little Jack, followed by Nan, came out of the grotto rubbing his eyes. Then, perceiving his mother, he ran to her. Mrs. Weldon embraced him tenderly.

"The charming little boy!" said the American, approaching Jack.

"It is my son," replied Mrs. Weldon.

"Oh, Mrs. Weldon, you must have been doubly tried, because your child has been exposed to so many dangers."

"God has brought him out of them safe and sound, as He has us, Mr. Harris," replied Mrs. Weldon.

"Will you permit me to kiss him on his pretty cheeks?" asked Harris.

"Willingly," replied Mrs. Weldon.

But Mr. Harris's face, it appeared, did not please little Jack, for he clung more closely to his mother.

"Hold!" said Harris, "you do not want me to embrace you? You are afraid of me, my good little man?"

"Excuse him, sir," Mrs. Weldon hastened to say. "It is timidity on his part."

"Good! we shall become better acquainted," replied Harris. "Once at the Farm, he will amuse himself mounting a gentle pony, which will tell him good things of me."

But the offer of the gentle pony did not succeed in cajoling Jack any more than the proposition to embrace Mr. Harris.

Mrs. Weldon, thus opposed, hastened to change the conversation. They must not offend a man who had so obligingly offered his services.

During this time Dick Sand was reflecting on the proposition which had been made to them so opportunely, to gain the Farm of San Felice. It was, as Harris had said, a journey of over two hundred miles, sometimes through forests, sometimes through plains--a very fatiguing journey, certainly, because there were absolutely no means of transport.

The young novice then presented some observations to that effect, and waited for the reply the American was going to make.

"The journey is a little long, indeed," replied Harris, "but I have there, a few hundred feet behind the steep bank, a horse which I count on offering to Mrs. Weldon and her son. For us, there is nothing difficult, nor even very fatiguing in making the journey on foot. Besides, when I spoke of two hundred miles, it was by following, as I have already done, the course of this river. But if we go through the forest, our distance will be shortened by at least eighty miles. Now, at the rate of ten miles a day, it seems to me that we shall arrive at the Farm without too much distress."

Mrs. Weldon thanked the American.

"You cannot thank me better than by accepting," replied Harris. "Though I have never crossed this forest, I do not believe I shall be embarrassed in finding the way, being sufficiently accustomed to the pampas. But there is a graver question--that of food. I have only what is barely enough for myself while on the way to the Farm of San Felice."

"Mr. Harris," replied Mrs. Weldon, "fortunately we have food in more than sufficient quantity, and we shall be happy to share with you."

"Well, Mrs. Weldon, it seems to me that all is arranged for the best, and that we have only to set out."

Harris went toward the steep bank, with the intention of going to take his horse from the place where he had left it, when Dick Sand stopped him again, by asking him a question.

To abandon the sea-coast, to force his way into the interior of the country, under that interminable forest, did not please the young novice. The sailor reappeared in him, and either to ascend or descend the coast would be more to his mind.

"Mr. Harris," said he, "instead of traveling for one hundred and twenty miles in the Desert of Atacama, why not follow the coast? Distance for distance, would it not be better worth while to seek to reach the nearest town, either north or south?"

"But my young friend," replied Harris, frowning slightly, "it seems to me that on this coast, which I know very imperfectly, there is no town nearer than three or four hundred miles."

"To the north, yes," replied Dick Sand; "but to the south----"

"To the south," replied the American, "we must descend as far as Chili. Now, the distance is almost as long, and, in your place, I should not like to pass near the pampas of the Argentine Republic. As to me, to my great regret, I could not accompany you there."

"The ships which go from Chili to Peru, do they not pass, then, in sight of this coast?" asked Mrs. Weldon.

"No," replied Harris. "They keep much more out at sea, and you ought not to meet any of them."

"Truly," replied Mrs. Weldon. "Well, Dick, have you still some question to ask Mr. Harris?"

"A single one, Mrs. Weldon," replied the novice, who experienced some difficulty in giving up. "I shall ask Mr. Harris in what port he thinks we shall be able to find a ship to bring us back to San Francisco?"

"Faith, my young friend, I could not tell you," replied the American. "All that I know is, that at the Farm of San Felice we will furnish you with the means of gaining the town of Atacama, and from there----"

"Mr. Harris," then said Mrs. Weldon, "do not believe that Dick Sand hesitates to accept your offers."

"No, Mrs. Weldon, no; surely I do not hesitate," replied the young novice; "but I cannot help regretting not being stranded a few degrees farther north or farther south. We should have been in proximity to a port, and that circumstance, in facilitating our return to our country, would prevent us from taxing Mr. Harris's good will."

"Do not fear imposing upon me, Mrs. Weldon," returned Harris. "I repeat to you that too rarely have I occasion to find myself again in the presence of my compatriots. For me it is a real pleasure to oblige you."

"We accept your offer, Mr. Harris," replied Mrs. Weldon; "but I should not wish, however, to deprive you of your horse. I am a good walker----"

"And I am a very good walker," replied Harris, bowing. "Accustomed to long journeys across the pampas, it is not I who will keep back our caravan. No, Mrs. Weldon, you and your little Jack will use this horse. Besides, it is possible that we may meet some of the farm servants on the way, and, as they will be mounted--well, they will yield their horses to us."

Dick Sand saw well that in making new objections he would oppose Mrs. Weldon.

"Mr. Harris," said he, "when do we set out?"

"Even to-day, my young friend," replied Harris. "The bad season commences with the month of April, and it is of the utmost importance for you to reach the farm of San Felice first. Finally, the way across the forest is the shortest, and perhaps the safest. It is less exposed than the coast to the incursions of wandering Indians, who are indefatigable robbers."

"Tom, my friends," replied Dick Sand, turning to the blacks, "it only remains for us to make preparations for departure. Let us select, then, from among the provisions on hand, those which can be most easily transported, and let us make packs, of which each will take his share."

"Mr. Dick," said Hercules, "if you wish, I shall carry the whole load very well."

"No, my brave Hercules," replied the novice; "it will be better for us all to share the burden."

"You are a strong companion, Hercules," then said Harris, who looked at the negro as if the latter were for sale. "In the markets of Africa you would be worth a good price."

"I am worth what I am worth," replied Hercules, laughing, "and the buyers will only have to run well, if they wish to catch me."

All was agreed upon, and to hasten the departure, each went to work. However, they had only to think of feeding the little troop for the journey from the sea-coast to the farm, that is to say, for a march of ten days.

"But, before setting out, Mr. Harris," said Mrs. Weldon, "before accepting your hospitality, I beg you to accept ours. We offer it to you with our best wishes."

"I accept, Mrs. Weldon; I accept with eagerness," replied Harris, gayly.

"In a few minutes our breakfast will be ready."

"Good, Mrs. Weldon. I am going to profit by those ten minutes to go and get my horse and bring it here. He will have breakfasted, he will."

"Do you want me to go with you, sir?" asked Dick Sand.

"As you please, my young friend," replied Harris. "Come; I shall make you acquainted with the lower course of this river."

Both set out.

During this time, Hercules was sent in search of the entomologist. Faith, Cousin Benedict was very uneasy indeed about what was passing around him.

He was then wandering on the summit of the cliff in quest of an "unfindable" insect, which, however, he did not find.

Hercules brought him back against his will. Mrs. Weldon informed him that departure was decided upon, and that, for ten days, they must travel to the interior of the country.

Cousin Benedict replied that he was ready to set out, and that he would not ask better than to cross America entirely, provided they would let him "collect" on the way.

Mrs. Weldon then occupied herself, with Nan's assistance, in preparing a comfortable repast--a good precaution before setting out.

During this time, Harris, accompanied by Dick Sand, had turned the angle of the cliff. Both followed the high bank, over a space of three hundred steps. There, a horse, tied to a tree, gave joyous neighing at the approach of his master.

It was a vigorous beast, of a species that Dick Sand could not recognize. Neck and shoulders long, loins short, and hindquarters stretched out, shoulders flat, forehead almost pointed. This horse offered, however, distinctive signs of those races to which we attribute an Arabian origin.

"You see, my young friend," said Harris, "that it is a strong animal, and you may count on it not failing you on the route."

Harris detached his horse, took it by the bridle, and descended the steep bank again, preceding Dick Sand. The latter had thrown a rapid glance, as well over the river as toward the forest which shut up its two banks. But he saw nothing of a nature to make him uneasy.

However, when he had rejoined the American, he suddenly gave him the following question, which the latter could little expect:

"Mr. Harris," he asked, "you have not met a Portuguese, named Negoro, in the night?"

"Negoro?" replied Harris, in the tone of a man who does not understand what is said. "Who is this Negoro?"

"He was the cook on board," replied Dick Sand, "and he has disappeared."

"Drowned, perhaps," said Harris.

"No, no," replied Dick Sand. "Yesterday evening he was still with us, but during the night he has left us, and he has probably ascended the steep bank of this river. So I asked you, who have come from that side, if you had not met him."

"I have met nobody," replied the American; "and if your cook has ventured alone into the forest, he runs a great risk of going astray. Perhaps we shall overtake him on the way."

"Yes; perhaps!" replied Dick Sand.

When the two returned to the grotto, breakfast was ready. It was composed, like the supper of the evening before, of alimentary conserves, of corned beef and of biscuit. Harris did honor to it, like a man whom nature had endowed with a great appetite.

"Let us go," said he; "I see that we shall not die of hunger on the way! I shall not say as much for that poor devil of a Portuguese, of whom our young friend has spoken."

"Ah!" said Mrs. Weldon, "Dick Sand has told you that we have not seen Negoro again?"

"Yes, Mrs. Weldon," replied the novice. "I desired to know if Mr. Harris had not met him."

"No," replied Harris; "so let us leave that deserter where he is, and think of our departure--whenever you are ready, Mrs. Weldon."

Each took the pack which was intended for him. Mrs. Weldon, assisted by Hercules, placed herself on the horse, and the ungrateful little Jack, with his gun strapped on his back, straddled the animal without even thinking of thanking him who had put that excellent beast at his disposal. Jack, placed before his mother, then said to her that he would know how to lead the gentleman's horse very well.

They then gave him the bridle to hold, and he did not doubt that he was the veritable head of the caravan.