He found some dry moss, and by striking together two pebbles he obtained some sparks, but the moss, not being inflammable enough, did not take fire, for the sparks were really only incandescent, and not at all of the same consistency as those which are emitted from flint when struck in the same manner. The experiment, therefore, did not succeed.
Pencroft, although he had no confidence in the proceeding, then tried rubbing two pieces of dry wood together, as savages do. Certainly, the movement which he and Neb exhibited, if it had been transformed into heat, according to the new theory, would have been enough to heat the boiler of a steamer! It came to nothing. The bits of wood became hot, to be sure, but much less so than the operators themselves.
After working an hour, Pencroft, who was in a complete state of perspiration, threw down the pieces of wood in disgust.
"I can never be made to believe that savages light their fires in this way, let them say what they will," he exclaimed. "I could sooner light my arms by rubbing them against each other!"
The sailor was wrong to despise the proceeding. Savages often kindle wood by means of rapid rubbing. But every sort of wood does not answer for the purpose, and besides, there is "the knack," following the usual expression, and it is probable that Pencroft had not "the knack."
Pencroft's ill humor did not last long. Herbert had taken the bits of wood which he had turned down, and was exerting himself to rub them. The hardy sailor could not restrain a burst of laughter on seeing the efforts of the lad to succeed where he had failed.
"Rub, my boy, rub!" said he.
"I am rubbing," replied Herbert, laughing, "but I don't pretend to do anything else but warm myself instead of shivering, and soon I shall be as hot as you are, my good Pencroft!"
This soon happened. However, they were obliged to give up, for this night at least, the attempt to procure fire. Gideon Spilett repeated, for the twentieth time, that Cyrus Harding would not have been troubled for so small a difficulty. And, in the meantime, he stretched himself in one of the passages on his bed of sand. Herbert, Neb, and Pencroft did the same, while Top slept at his master's feet.
Next day, the 28th of March, when the engineer awoke, about eight in the morning, he saw his companions around him watching his sleep, and, as on the day before, his first words were:--
"Island or continent?" This was his uppermost thought.
"Well!" replied Pencroft, "we don't know anything about it, captain!"
"You don't know yet?"
"But we shall know," rejoined Pencroft, "when you have guided us into the country."
"I think I am able to try it," replied the engineer, who, without much effort, rose and stood upright.
"That's capital!" cried the sailor.
"I feel dreadfully weak," replied Harding. "Give me something to eat, my friends, and it will soon go off. You have fire, haven't you?"
This question was not immediately replied to. But, in a few seconds--
"Alas! we have no fire," said Pencroft, "or rather, captain, we have it no longer!"
And the sailor recounted all that had passed the day before. He amused the engineer by the history of the single match, then his abortive attempt to procure fire in the savages' way.
"We shall consider," replied the engineer, "and if we do not find some substance similar to tinder--"
"Well?" asked the sailor.
"Well, we will make matches.
"It is not more difficult than that," cried the reporter, striking the sailor on the shoulder.
The latter did not think it so simple, but he did not protest. All went out. The weather had become very fine. The sun was rising from the sea's horizon, and touched with golden spangles the prismatic rugosities of the huge precipice.
Having thrown a rapid glance around him, the engineer seated himself on a block of stone. Herbert offered him a few handfuls of shell-fish and sargassum, saying,--
"It is all that we have, Captain Harding."
"Thanks, my boy," replied Harding; "it will do--for this morning at least."
He ate the wretched food with appetite, and washed it down with a little fresh water, drawn from the river in an immense shell.