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    Chapter 17

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    Chapter 17
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    For a whole hour I wander about among Back Cup's dark vaults, amid the
    stone trees, to the extreme limit of the cavern. It is here that I
    have so often sought an issue, a crevice, a crack through which I
    might squeeze to the shore of the island.

    My search has been futile. In my present condition, a prey to
    indefinable hallucinations it seems to me that these walls are thicker
    than ever, that they are gradually closing in upon and will crush me.

    How long this mental trouble lasts I cannot say. But I afterwards find
    myself on the Beehive side, opposite the cell in which I cannot hope
    for either repose or sleep. Sleep, when my brain is in a whirl
    of excitement? Sleep, when I am near the end of a situation that
    threatened to be prolonged for years and years?

    What will the end be as far as I am personally concerned? What am I to
    expect from the attack upon Back Cup, the success of which I have been
    unable to assure by placing Thomas Roch beyond the possibility of
    doing harm? His engines are ready to be launched, and as soon as the
    vessels have reached the dangerous zone they will be blown to atoms.

    However this may be, I am condemned to pass the remaining hours of the
    night in my cell. The time has come for me to go in. At daybreak I
    shall see what is best for me to do. Meanwhile, for aught I know I
    may hear the thunder of Roch's fulgurator as it destroys the ships
    approaching to make a night attack.

    I take a last look round. On the opposite side a light, a single
    light, is burning. It is the lamp in Roch's laboratory and it casts
    its reflection upon the waters of the lake.

    No one is about, and it occurs to me that the pirates must have taken
    up their lighting positions outside and that the Beehive is empty.

    Then, impelled by an irresistible instinct, instead of returning to my
    cell, I creep along the wall, listening, spying, ready to hide if I
    hear voices or footsteps.

    I at length reach the passage.

    God in heaven! No one is on guard there--the passage is free!

    Without giving myself time to reflect I dart into the dark hole, and
    grope my way along it. Soon I feel a fresher air--the salt, vivifying
    air of the sea, that I have not breathed for five months. I inspire it
    with avidity, with all the power of my lungs.

    The outer extremity of the passage appears against the star-studded
    sky. There is not even a shadow in the way. Perhaps I shall be able to
    get outside.

    I lay down, and crawl along noiselessly to the orifice and peer out.

    Not a soul is in sight!

    By skirting the rocks towards the east, to the side which cannot be
    approached from the sea on account of the reefs and which is not
    likely to be watched, I reach a narrow excavation about two hundred
    and twenty-five yards from where the point of the coast extends
    towards the northwest.

    At last I am out of the cavern. I am not free, but it is the beginning
    of freedom.

    On the point the forms of a few sentries stand out against the clear
    sky, so motionless that they might be mistaken for pieces of the rock.

    On the horizon to the west the position lights of the warship show in
    a luminous line.

    From a few gray patches discernable in the east, I calculate that it
    must be about five o'clock in the morning.

    _November 18_.--It is now light enough for me to be able to
    complete my notes relating the details of my visit to Thomas Roch's
    laboratory--the last lines my hand will trace, perhaps.

    I have begun to write, and shall dot down the incidents of the attack
    as they occur.

    The light damp mist that hangs over the water soon lifts under the
    influence of the breeze, and at last I can distinguish the warships.

    There are five of them, and they are lying in a line about six miles
    off, and consequently beyond the range of Roch's engines.

    My fear that after passing in sight of the Bermudas the squadron would
    continue on its way to the Antilles or Mexico was therefore unfounded.
    No, there it is, awaiting broad daylight in order to attack Back Cup.

    There is a movement on the coast. Three or four pirates emerge from
    the rocks, the sentries are recalled and draw in, and the entire band
    is soon assembled. They do not seek shelter inside the cavern, knowing
    full well that the ships can never get near enough for the shells of
    the big guns to reach, the island.

    I run no risk of being discovered, for only my head protrudes above
    the hole in the rock and no one is likely to come this way. The only
    thing that worries me is that Serko, or somebody else may take it into
    his head to see if I am in my cell, and if necessary to lock me in,
    though what they have to fear from me I cannot conceive.

    At twenty-five minutes past seven: Ker Karraje, Engineer Serko and
    Captain Spade advance to the extremity of the point, where they sweep
    the north-western horizon with their telescopes. Behind them the
    six trestles are installed, in the grooves of which are Roch's
    autopropulsive engines.

    Thirty-five minutes past seven: Smoke arises from the stacks of the
    warships, which are getting under way and will soon be within range of
    the engines.

    Horrible cries of joy, salvos of hurrahs--howls of wild beasts I might
    more appropriately say--arise from the pirate horde.

    At this moment Engineer Serko quits Ker Karraje, whom he leaves with
    Captain Spade, and enters the cavern, no doubt to fetch Thomas Roch.

    When Ker Karraje orders the latter to launch his engines against the
    ships will he remember what I told him? Will not his crime appear
    to him in all its horror? Will he refuse to obey? No, I am only too
    convinced of the contrary. It is useless to entertain any illusion on
    the subject. The inventor believes he is on his own property. They are
    going to attack it. He will defend it.

    The five warships slowly advance, making for the point. Perhaps they
    imagine on board that Thomas Roch has not given up his last and
    greatest secret to the pirates--and, as a matter of fact, he had
    not done so when I threw the keg into the lagoon. If the commanders
    propose to land storming parties and the ships advance into the
    zone of danger there will soon be nothing left of them but bits of
    shapeless floating wreckage.

    Here comes Thomas Roch accompanied by Engineer Serko. On issuing
    from the passage both go to the trestle that is pointing towards the
    leading warship.

    Ker Karraje and Captain Spade are awaiting them.

    As far as I am able to judge, Roch is calm. He knows what he is going
    to do. No hesitation troubles the soul of the hapless man whom hatred
    has led astray.

    Between his fingers shines the glass phial containing the deflagrator

    He then gazes towards the nearest ship, which is about five miles'

    She is a cruiser of about two thousand five hundred tons--not more.

    She flies no flag, but from her build I take her to belong to a nation
    for which no Frenchman can entertain any particular regard.

    The four other warships remain behind.

    It is this cruiser which is to begin the attack.

    Let her use her guns, then, since the pirates allow her to approach,
    and may the first of her projectiles strike Thomas Roch!

    While Engineer Serko is estimating the distance, Roch places himself
    behind the trestle. Three engines are resting on it, charged with
    the explosive, and which are assured a long trajectory by the fusing
    matter without it being necessary to impart a gyratory movement to
    them--as in the case of Inventor Turpin's gyroscopic projectiles.
    Besides, if they drop within a few hundred yards of the vessel, they
    will be quite near enough to utterly destroy it.

    The time has come.

    "Thomas Roch!" Engineer Serko cries, and points to the cruiser.

    The latter is steaming slowly towards the northwestern point of the
    island and is between four and five miles off.

    Roch nods assent, and waves them back from the trestle.

    Ker Karraje, Captain Spade and the others draw back about fifty paces.

    Thomas Roch then takes the stopper from the phial which he holds in
    his right hand, and successively pours into a hole in the rear-end of
    each engine a few drops of the liquid, which mixes with the fusing

    Forty-five seconds elapse--the time necessary for the combination to
    be effected--forty-five seconds during which it seems to me that my
    heart ceases to beat.

    A frightful whistling is then heard, and the three engines tear
    through the air, describing a prolonged curve at a height of three
    hundred feet, and pass the cruiser.

    Have they missed it? Is the danger over?

    No! the engines, after the manner of Artillery Captain Chapel's
    discoid projectile, return towards the doomed vessel like an
    Australian boomerang.

    The next instant the air is shaken with a violence comparable to that
    which would be caused by the explosion of a magazine of melinite or
    dynamite, Back Cup Island trembles to its very foundations.

    The cruiser has disappeared,--blown to pieces. The effect is that of
    the Zalinski shell, but centupled by the infinite power of Roch's

    What shouts the bandits raise as they rush towards the extremity of
    the point! Ker Karraje, Engineer Serko, and Captain Spade remain
    rooted to the spot, hardly able to credit the evidence of their own

    As to Thomas Roch, he stands with folded arms, and flashing eyes, his
    face radiant with pride and triumph.

    I understand, while I abhor his feelings.

    If the other warships approach they will share the same fate as the
    cruiser. They will inevitably be destroyed. Oh! if they would but give
    up the struggle and withdraw to safety, even though my last hope would
    go with them! The nations can consult and arrive at some other plan
    for destroying the island. They can surround the place with a belt of
    ships that the pirates cannot break through and starve them to death
    like so many rats in a hole.

    But I know that the warships will not retire, even though they know
    they are going to certain death. One after the other they will all
    make the attempt.

    And I am right. Signals are exchanged between them. Almost immediately
    clouds of black smoke arise and the vessels again advance.

    One of them, under forced draught, distances the others in her anxiety
    to bring her big guns quickly into action.

    At all risks I issue from my hole, and gaze at the on-coming warship
    with feverish eyes, awaiting, without being able to prevent it,
    another catastrophe.

    This vessel, which visibly grows larger as it comes nearer, is a
    cruiser of about the same tonnage as the one that preceded her. No
    flag is flying and I cannot guess her nationality. She continues
    steaming at full speed in an effort to pass the zone of danger before
    other engines can be launched. But how can she escape them since they
    will swoop back upon her?

    Thomas Roch places himself behind the second trestle as the cruiser
    passes on to the surface of the abysm in which she will in turn soon
    be swallowed up.

    No sound disturbs the stillness.

    Suddenly the rolling of drums and the blare of bugles is heard on
    board the warship.

    I know those bugle calls: they are French bugles! Great God! She is
    one of the ships of my own country's navy and a French inventor is
    about to destroy her!

    No! it shall not be. I will rush towards Thomas Roch--shout to him
    that she is a French ship. He does not, cannot, know it.

    At a sign from Engineer Serko the inventor has raised the phial.

    The bugles sound louder and more strident. It is the salute to the
    flag. A flag unfurls to the breeze--the tricolor, whose blue, white
    and red sections stand out luminously against the sky.

    Ah! What is this? I understand! Thomas Roch is fascinated at the sight
    of his national emblem. Slowly he lowers his arm as the flag flutters
    up to the mast-head. Then he draws back and covers his eyes with his

    Heavens above! All sentiment of patriotism is not then dead in his
    ulcerated heart, seeing that it beats at the sight of his country's

    My emotion is not less than his. At the risk of being seen--and what
    do I now care if I am seen?--I creep over the rocks. I will be there
    to sustain Thomas Roch and prevent him from weakening. If I pay for it
    with my life I will once more adjure him in the name of his country. I
    will cry to him:

    "Frenchman, it is the tricolor that flies on yonder ship! Frenchman,
    it is a very part of France that is approaching you! Frenchman, would
    you be so criminal as to strike it?"

    But my intervention will not be necessary. Thomas Roch is not a prey
    to one of the fits to which he was formerly subject. He is perfectly

    When he found himself facing the flag he understood--and drew back.

    A few pirates approach to lead him to the trestle again. He struggles
    and pushes them from him.

    Ker Karraje and Engineer Serko run up. They point to the rapidly
    advancing ship. They order him to launch his engines.

    Thomas Roch refuses.

    Captain Spade and the others, mad with rage, menace him--curse
    him--strike him--try to wrest the phial from him.

    Roch throws it on the ground and crushes it under foot.

    Then panic seizes upon the crowd of wretches. The cruiser has passed
    the zone and they cannot return her fire. Shells begin to rain all
    over the island, bursting the rocks in every direction.

    But where is Thomas Roch? Has he been killed by one of the
    projectiles? No, I see him for the last time as he dashes into the

    Ker Karraje, Engineer Serko and the others follow him to seek shelter
    inside of Back Cup.

    I will not return to the cavern at any price, even if I get killed by
    staying where I am.

    I will jot down my final notes and when the French sailors land on the
    point I will go--

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