What was this intractable Robur going to do? Had not the time arrived for them to end the voyage by blowing up the ship?
It was noticed that during the 24th of July the engineer had frequent consultations with his mate. He and Tom Turner kept constant watch on the barometer--not so much to keep themselves informed of the height at which they were traveling as to be on the look-out for a change in the weather. Evidently some indications had been observed of which it was necessary to make careful note.
Uncle Prudent also remarked that Robur had been taking stock of the provisions and stores, and everything seemed to show that he was contemplating turning back.
"Turning back!" said Phil Evans. "But where to?"
"Where he can reprovision the ship," said Uncle Prudent.
"That ought to be in some lonely island in the Pacific with a colony of scoundrels worthy of their chief."
"That is what I think. I fancy he is going west, and with the speed he can get up it would not take, him long to get home."
"But we should not be able to put our plan into execution. If we get there --"
"We shall not get there!"
The colleagues had partly guessed the engineer's intentions. During the day it became no longer doubtful that when the "Albatross" reached the confines of the Antarctic Sea her course was to be changed. When the ice has formed about Cape Horn the lower regions of the Pacific are covered with icefields and icebergs. The floes then form an impenetrable barrier to the strongest ships and the boldest navigators. Of course, by increasing the speed of her wings the "Albatross" could clear the mountains of ice accumulated on the ocean as she could the mountains of earth on the polar continent--if it is a continent that forms the cap of the southern pole. But would she attempt it in the middle of the polar night, in an atmosphere of sixty below freezing?
After she had advanced about a hundred miles to the south the "Albatross" headed westerly, as if for some unknown island of the Pacific. Beneath her stretched the liquid plain between Asia and America. The waters now had assumed that singular color which has earned for them the name of the Milky Sea. In the half shadow, which the enfeebled rays of the sun were unable to dissipate, the surface of the Pacific was a milky white. It seemed like a vast snowfield, whose undulations were imperceptible at such a height. If the sea had been solidified by the cold, and converted into an immense icefield, its aspect could not have been much different. They knew that the phenomenon was produced by myriads of luminous particles of phosphorescent corpuscles; but it was surprising to come across such an opalescent mass beyond the limits of the Indian Ocean.
Suddenly the barometer fell after keeping somewhat high during the earlier hours of the day. Evidently the indications were such as a shipmaster might feel anxious at, though the master of an aeronef might despise them. There was every sign that a terrible storm had recently raged in the Pacific.
It was one o'clock in the afternoon when Tom Turner came up to the engineer and said, "Do you see that black spot on the horizon, sir-- there away to due north of us? That is not a rock?"
"No, Tom; there is no land out there."
"Then it must be a ship or a boat."
Uncle Prudent and Phil Evans, who were in the bow, looked in the direction pointed out by the mate.
Robur asked for the glass and attentively observed the object.
"It is a boat," said he, "and there are some men in it."
"Shipwrecked?" asked Tom.
"Yes! They have had to abandon their ship, and, knowing nothing of the nearest land, are perhaps dying of hunger and thirst! Well, it shall not be said that the "Albatross" did not come to their help!"
The orders were given, and the aeronef began to sink towards the sea. At three hundred yards from it the descent was stopped, and the propellers drove ahead full speed towards the north.
It was a boat. Her sail flapped against the mast as she rose and fell on the waves.