From time to time, indeed, they raised great shouts, calling alternately Barbicane and Nicholl, neither of whom, however, answered their cries. Only the birds, awakened by the sound, flew past them and disappeared among the branches, while some frightened deer fled precipitately before them.
For another hour their search was continued. The greater part of the wood had been explored. There was nothing to reveal the presence of the combatants. The information of the bushman was after all doubtful, and Ardan was about to propose their abandoning this useless pursuit, when all at once Maston stopped.
"Hush!" said he, "there is some one down there!"
"Some one?" repeated Michel Ardan.
"Yes; a man! He seems motionless. His rifle is not in his hands. What can he be doing?"
"But can you recognize him?" asked Ardan, whose short sight was of little use to him in such circumstances.
"Yes! yes! He is turning toward us," answered Maston.
"And it is?"
"Nicholl?" cried Michel Ardan, feeling a terrible pang of grief.
"Nicholl unarmed! He has, then, no longer any fear of his adversary!"
"Let us go to him," said Michel Ardan, "and find out the truth."
But he and his companion had barely taken fifty steps, when they paused to examine the captain more attentively. They expected to find a bloodthirsty man, happy in his revenge.
On seeing him, they remained stupefied.
A net, composed of very fine meshes, hung between two enormous tulip-trees, and in the midst of this snare, with its wings entangled, was a poor little bird, uttering pitiful cries, while it vainly struggled to escape. The bird-catcher who had laid this snare was no human being, but a venomous spider, peculiar to that country, as large as a pigeon's egg, and armed with enormous claws. The hideous creature, instead of rushing on its prey, had beaten a sudden retreat and taken refuge in the upper branches of the tulip-tree, for a formidable enemy menaced its stronghold.
Here, then, was Nicholl, his gun on the ground, forgetful of danger, trying if possible to save the victim from its cobweb prison. At last it was accomplished, and the little bird flew joyfully away and disappeared.
Nicholl lovingly watched its flight, when he heard these words pronounced by a voice full of emotion:
"You are indeed a brave man."
He turned. Michel Ardan was before him, repeating in a different tone:
"And a kindhearted one!"
"Michel Ardan!" cried the captain. "Why are you here?"
"To press your hand, Nicholl, and to prevent you from either killing Barbicane or being killed by him."
"Barbicane!" returned the captain. "I have been looking for him for the last two hours in vain. Where is he hiding?"
"Nicholl!" said Michel Ardan, "this is not courteous! we ought always to treat an adversary with respect; rest assureed if Barbicane is still alive we shall find him all the more easily; because if he has not, like you, been amusing himself with freeing oppressed birds, he must be looking for you. When we have found him, Michel Ardan tells you this, there will be no duel between you."
"Between President Barbicane and myself," gravely replied Nicholl, "there is a rivalry which the death of one of us----"
"Pooh, pooh!" said Ardan. "Brave fellows like you indeed! you shall not fight!"
"I will fight, sir!"
"Captain," said J. T. Maston, with much feeling, "I am a friend of the president's, his alter ego, his second self; if you really must kill some one, shoot me! it will do just as well!"
"Sir," Nicholl replied, seizing his rifle convulsively, "these jokes----"
"Our friend Maston is not joking," replied Ardan. "I fully understand his idea of being killed himself in order to save his friend. But neither he nor Barbicane will fall before the balls of Captain Nicholl. Indeed I have so attractive a proposal to make to the two rivals, that both will be eager to accept it."
"What is it?" asked Nicholl with manifest incredulity.
"Patience!" exclaimed Ardan.