It was a difficult matter to kindle it, though, and still more to keep it alight. The air was so rarefied that there was scarcely oxygen enough in it to support combustion. At least, this was the reason assigned by the Major.
"By way of compensation, however," he added, "water will boil at less than 100 degrees heat. It will come to the point of ebullition before 99 degrees."
McNabbs was right, as the thermometer proved, for it was plunged into the kettle when the water boiled, and the mercury only rose to 99 degrees. Coffee was soon ready, and eagerly gulped down by everybody. The dry meat certainly seemed poor fare, and Paganel couldn't help saying:
"I tell you what, some grilled llama wouldn't be bad with this, would it? They say that the llama is substitute for the ox and the sheep, and I should like to know if it is, in an alimentary respect."
"What!" replied the Major. "You're not content with your supper, most learned Paganel."
"Enchanted with it, my brave Major; still I must confess I should not say no to a dish of llama."
"You are a Sybarite."
"I plead guilty to the charge. But come, now, though you call me that, you wouldn't sulk at a beefsteak yourself, would you?"
"And if you were asked to lie in wait for a llama, notwithstanding the cold and the darkness, you would do it without the least hesitation?"
"Of course; and if it will give you the slightest pleasure--"
His companions had hardly time to thank him for his obliging good nature, when distant and prolonged howls broke on their ear, plainly not proceeding from one or two solitary animals, but from a whole troop, and one, moreover, that was rapidly approaching.
Providence had sent them a supper, as well as led them to a hut. This was the geographer's conclusion; but Glenarvan damped his joy somewhat by remarking that the quadrupeds of the Cordilleras are never met with in such a high latitude.
"Then where can these animals come from?" asked Tom Austin. "Don't you hear them getting nearer!"
"An avalanche," suggested Mulrady.
"Impossible," returned Paganel. "That is regular howling."
"Let us go out and see," said Glenarvan.
"Yes, and be ready for hunting," replied McNabbs, arming himself with his carbine.
They all rushed forthwith out of the CASUCHA. Night had completely set in, dark and starry. The moon, now in her last quarter, had not yet risen. The peaks on the north and east had disappeared from view, and nothing was visible save the fantastic SILHOUETTE of some towering rocks here and there. The howls, and clearly the howls of terrified animals, were redoubled. They proceeded from that part of the Cordilleras which lay in darkness. What could be going on there? Suddenly a furious avalanche came down, an avalanche of living animals mad with fear. The whole plateau seemed to tremble. There were hundreds, perhaps thousands, of these animals, and in spite of the rarefied atmosphere, their noise was deafening. Were they wild beasts from the Pampas, or herds of llamas and vicunas? Glenarvan, McNabbs, Robert, Austin, and the two sailors, had just time to throw themselves flat on the ground before they swept past like a whirlwind, only a few paces distant. Paganel, who had remained standing, to take advantage of his peculiar powers of sight, was knocked down in a twinkling. At the same moment the report of firearms was heard. The Major had fired, and it seemed to him that an animal had fallen close by, and that the whole herd, yelling louder than ever, had rushed down and disappeared among the declivities lighted up by the reflection of the volcano.
"Ah, I've got them," said a voice, the voice of Paganel.
"Got what?" asked Glenarvan.
"My spectacles," was the reply. "One might expect to lose that much in such a tumult as this."
"You are not wounded, I hope?"
"No, only knocked down; but by what?"
"By this," replied the Major, holding up the animal he had killed.
They all hastened eagerly into the hut, to examine McNabbs' prize by the light of the fire.