"I say! what's this?" he exclaimed.
"That!" replied one of the sailors, "why, it's a piece of rock the beast swallowed by way of ballast."
"It's just a bottle, neither more nor less, that the fellow has got in his inside, and couldn't digest," said another of the crew.
"Hold your tongues, all of you!" said Tom Austin, the mate of the DUNCAN. "Don't you see the animal has been such an inveterate tippler that he has not only drunk the wine, but swallowed the bottle?"
"What!" said Lord Glenarvan. "Do you mean to say it is a bottle that the shark has got in his stomach."
"Ay, it is a bottle, most certainly," replied the boatswain, "but not just from the cellar."
"Well, Tom, be careful how you take it out," said Lord Glenarvan, "for bottles found in the sea often contain precious documents."
"Do you think this does?" said Major McNabbs, incredulously.
"It possibly may, at any rate."
"Oh! I'm not saying it doesn't. There may perhaps be some secret in it," returned the Major.
"That's just what we're to see," said his cousin. "Well, Tom."
"Here it is," said the mate, holding up a shapeless lump he had managed to pull out, though with some difficulty.
"Get the filthy thing washed then, and bring it to the cabin."
Tom obeyed, and in a few minutes brought in the bottle and laid it on the table, at which Lord Glenarvan and the Major were sitting ready with the captain, and, of course Lady Helena, for women, they say, are always a little curious. Everything is an event at sea. For a moment they all sat silent, gazing at this frail relic, wondering if it told the tale of sad disaster, or brought some trifling message from a frolic-loving sailor, who had flung it into the sea to amuse himself when he had nothing better to do.
However, the only way to know was to examine the bottle, and Glenarvan set to work without further delay, so carefully and minutely, that he might have been taken for a coroner making an inquest.
He commenced by a close inspection of the outside. The neck was long and slender, and round the thick rim there was still an end of wire hanging, though eaten away with rust. The sides were very thick, and strong enough to bear great pressure. It was evidently of Champagne origin, and the Major said immediately, "That's one of our Clicquot's bottles."
Nobody contradicted him, as he was supposed to know; but Lady Helena exclaimed, "What does it matter about the bottle, if we don't know where it comes from?"
"We shall know that, too, presently, and we may affirm this much already-- it comes from a long way off. Look at those petrifactions all over it, these different substances almost turned to mineral, we might say, through the action of the salt water! This waif had been tossing about in the ocean a long time before the shark swallowed it."
"I quite agree with you," said McNabbs. "I dare say this frail concern has made a long voyage, protected by this strong covering."
"But I want to know where from?" said Lady Glenarvan.
"Wait a little, dear Helena, wait; we must have patience with bottles; but if I am not much mistaken, this one will answer all our questions," replied her husband, beginning to scrape away the hard substances round the neck. Soon the cork made its appearance, but much damaged by the water.
"That's vexing," said Lord Edward, "for if papers are inside, they'll be in a pretty state!"
"It's to be feared they will," said the Major.
"But it is a lucky thing the shark swallowed them, I must say," added Glenarvan, "for the bottle would have sunk to the bottom before long with such a cork as this."
"That's true enough," replied John Mangles, "and yet it would have been better to have fished them up in the open sea. Then we might have found out the road they had come by taking the exact latitude and longitude, and studying the atmospheric and submarine currents; but with such a postman as a shark, that goes against wind and tide, there's no clew whatever to the starting-point."
"We shall see," said Glenarvan, gently taking out the cork. A strong odor of salt water pervaded the whole saloon, and Lady Helena asked impatiently: "Well, what is there?"
"I was right!" exclaimed Glenarvan.