On this day he did not, therefore, hesitate to accost him, saying, without circumlocution, "Have you had enough of Richmond, captain?"
The engineer looked fixedly at the man who spoke, and who added, in a low voice,--
"Captain Harding, will you try to escape?"
"When?" asked the engineer quickly, and it was evident that this question was uttered without consideration, for he had not yet examined the stranger who addressed him. But after having with a penetrating eye observed the open face of the sailor, he was convinced that he had before him an honest man.
"Who are you?" he asked briefly.
Pencroft made himself known.
"Well," replied Harding, "and in what way do you propose to escape?"
"By that lazy balloon which is left there doing nothing, and which looks to me as if it was waiting on purpose for us--"
There was no necessity for the sailor to finish his sentence. The engineer understood him at once. He seized Pencroft by the arm, and dragged him to his house. There the sailor developed his project, which was indeed extremely simple. They risked nothing but their lives in its execution. The hurricane was in all its violence, it is true, but so clever and daring an engineer as Cyrus Harding knew perfectly well how to manage a balloon. Had he himself been as well acquainted with the art of sailing in the air as he was with the navigation of a ship, Pencroft would not have hesitated to set out, of course taking his young friend Herbert with him; for, accustomed to brave the fiercest tempests of the ocean, he was not to be hindered on account of the hurricane.
Captain Harding had listened to the sailor without saying a word, but his eyes shone with satisfaction. Here was the long-sought-for opportunity--he was not a man to let it pass. The plan was feasible, though, it must be confessed, dangerous in the extreme. In the night, in spite of their guards, they might approach the balloon, slip into the car, and then cut the cords which held it. There was no doubt that they might be killed, but on the other hand they might succeed, and without this storm!--Without this storm the balloon would have started already and the looked-for opportunity would not have then presented itself.
"I am not alone!" said Harding at last.
"How many people do you wish to bring with you?" asked the sailor.
"Two; my friend Spilett, and my servant Neb."
"That will be three," replied Pencroft; "and with Herbert and me five. But the balloon will hold six--"
"That will be enough, we will go," answered Harding in a firm voice.
This "we" included Spilett, for the reporter, as his friend well knew, was not a man to draw back, and when the project was communicated to him he approved of it unreservedly. What astonished him was, that so simple an idea had not occurred to him before. As to Neb, he followed his master wherever his master wished to go.
"This evening, then," said Pencroft, "we will all meet out there."
"This evening, at ten o'clock," replied Captain Harding; "and Heaven grant that the storm does not abate before our departure."
Pencroft took leave of the two friends, and returned to his lodging, where young Herbert Brown had remained. The courageous boy knew of the sailor's plan, and it was not without anxiety that he awaited the result of the proposal being made to the engineer. Thus five determined persons were about to abandon themselves to the mercy of the tempestuous elements!
No! the storm did not abate, and neither Jonathan Forster nor his companions dreamed of confronting it in that frail car.
It would be a terrible journey. The engineer only feared one thing; it was that the balloon, held to the ground and dashed about by the wind, would be torn into shreds. For several hours he roamed round the nearly- deserted square, surveying the apparatus. Pencroft did the same on his side, his hands in his pockets, yawning now and then like a man who did not know how to kill the time, but really dreading, like his friend, either the escape or destruction of the balloon.