Chapter VII.
 

The Search for the Unknown--Three Fleets on Dry Land--The Indiscretions of a Sugar Cane--Larboard and Starboard--The supposed Sensibility of Plants--The Fly-trap--Vendetta--Root and Germ--Mine and Countermine--The Polypi--Oviparous and Viviparous--A Quid pro Quo.

"Have any of you been at Falcon's Nest lately?" inquired Becker, when he had verified the truth of Fritz's intelligence.

"None of us," unanimously replied all the boys.

"You will understand that the question I put to you is, under the circumstances in which we are placed, one of the greatest moment. If, therefore, there is any unseemly joking, any trick, or secret project in contemplation, with which this affair is connected, do not conceal it any longer."

All the boys again reiterated their innocence of the matter in question.

Becker then called to mind the mysterious disappearance of Willis, and, although they were too short in duration to admit of his having been at Falcon's Nest, still he deemed it advisable to put the question to him individually.

Willis declared that the present was the first time he had been in the vicinity of the Nest, and his word was known to be sacred.

"There can be no mistake then," said Becker; "the traces are self-evident. This is altogether a circumstance calculated to give us serious uneasiness. Nevertheless, we must view the matter calmly, and consider what steps we should take to unravel the mystery."

"Let us instantly beat up the island," suggested Fritz.

"It appears to me," remarked Willis, "that the Nelson has been wrecked after all, and that one of the men has escaped."

"That," replied Ernest, "is very unlikely. All the crew knew that the island was inhabited, and consequently, had any one of them been thrown on shore, he would have come at once to Rockhouse, and not stopped here."

"As regards the Captain or Lieutenant Dunsley," said Willis, "who were on shore, and could easily find their way, what you say is quite true; but the men were kept on board; and if we suppose that a sailor had been thrown on the opposite coast, he would not be able to determine his position in fifteen days."

"Much less could he expect to find a villa in a fig-tree."

"To say nothing of the light that has been kept burning recently on Shark's Island, nor of the buildings with which the land is strewn, nor the fields and plantations that are to be met with in all directions. For, although a swallow alone is sufficient to convey the seeds of a forest from one continent to another, still it requires the hand of man to arrange the trees in rows and furnish them with props."

"Perhaps we may have crossed each other on the way; and the stranger, after passing the night here, has steered, by some circuitous route, in the direction of Safety Bay."

"May it not have been a large monkey," suggested Jack, "who has resolved to play us a trick for having massacred its companions at Waldeck?"

"Monkeys," replied Ernest, "do not generally open doors, and, seeing no bed prepared for them, go down stairs and collect material for a mattress. You may just as well fancy that the monkey, in this case, came to pass the night at Falcon's Nest with a cigar in its mouth."

"Then he must have been dreadfully annoyed to find neither slippers nor a night-cap."

"There is, unquestionably, a wide field of supposition open for us," said Becker; "but that need not prevent us taking active measures to arrive at the truth. Our first duty is to care for the safety of the ladies; Mr. Wolston is still ailing and feeble, so that, if a stranger were suddenly to appear amongst them, they might be terribly alarmed."

"There are six of us here," remarked Willis, "the cream of our sea and land forces; we could divide ourselves into three squadrons, one of which might sail for Rockhouse."

"Just so; let Fritz and Frank start for Rockhouse."

"And what shall we say to the ladies, father?" inquired the latter; "it does not seem to me necessary to alarm our mother, Mrs. Wolston, and the young ladies, until something more certain is ascertained."

"Your idea is good, my son, and I thank you for bringing it forward; it is one of those that arise from the heart rather than the head."

"We have, only to find a pretext for their sudden return," observed Ernest.

"Very well," said Jack, "they have only to say it is too hot to work."

"Just as if it were not quite as hot for us as for them. Your excuse, Jack, is not particularly artistic."

"Might they not as well say they had forgotten a tool or a pocket handkerchief?"

"Or, better still, that they had forgotten to shut the door when they left, and came back to repair the omission."

"We shall say," replied Fritz, "that, finding there were twelve strong arms here to do what my father accomplished fifteen years ago by himself--for the assistance of us boys could not then be reckoned--we were ashamed of ourselves, and had returned to Rockhouse to make ourselves useful in repairing the damage to the gallery caused by the tempest."

"Well, that excuse has, at least, the merit of being reasonable; and let it be so. Fritz and Frank will return to Rockhouse; Ernest and myself will continue the work in hand, and receive the friend or enemy which God has sent us, should he return to resume his quarters; Willis and Jack will investigate the neighborhood."

"By land or water, Willis?" inquired Jack.

"By land, Master Jack, for this cruise. I shall abandon the helm to you, for I know nothing of the shoals here-abouts."

"If," continued Becker, "though highly improbable, any thing important should have happened, or should happen at Rockhouse, you will fire a cannon, and we will be with you immediately. Willis and Jack will discharge a rifle if threatened with danger; and we shall do the same on our side, if we require assistance."

"It is a pity," remarked Jack, "that we had not two or three four-pounders amongst the provisions."

"I scarcely regard this matter as altogether a subject for joking," continued Becker, "and sincerely hope that all our precautions may prove useless. Take each of you a rifle and proceed with caution; above all, do not go far apart from each other; do not fire without taking good aim, and only in case of self-defence or absolute necessity; for this time it does not appear to be a question of bears and hyenas, but, as far as we are able to judge, one of our own species."

Two of the squadrons then hauled off in different directions, carefully examining the ground as they went, beating up the thickets, and endeavoring to obtain some further trace of the stranger, in order to confirm those at Falcon's Nest.

The squadron of observation, in the meanwhile set diligently to work. A tree having been selected at about fifteen paces from that already existing, it was necessary, as on the former occasion, to discharge an arrow carrying the end of a line, and in such a way that the cord might fall across some of the strongest branches; this done, the bamboo ladder was drawn up from the opposite side and held fast until Ernest had ascended and fastened it with nails to the top of the tree.

Ernest then commenced lopping off the branches to the right and left, so as to form a space in the centre for their contemplated dwelling; whilst Becker himself below was making an entrance into the trunk, taking care to avoid an accident that formerly happened, by assuring himself that a colony of bees had not already taken possession of the ground. The gigantic fig-trees at Falcon's Nest being for the most part hollow, and supported in a great measure by the bark--like the willows in Europe when they reach a certain stage of their growth--it was easy to erect a staircase in the interior; still this was a work of time, and Becker had resolved in the meantime to give up the habitation already constructed to Wolston and his family, at least until such time as an entrance was attached to the new one that did not require any extraordinary amount of gymnastics.

A portion of the day had been occupied in these operations, when Willis and Jack returned to the camp.

"We have seen no one," said the Pilot.

"But," said Jack, "we are on the track of Fritz's knife."

"Be good enough to explain yourself."

"Well, father, at the entrance to the cocoa-nut tree wood we stumbled upon two sugar canes completely divested of their juice."

"Which proves--" said Ernest; but his remark was cut short by Jack, who continued--

"Not a bit of it; a philosopher would have passed these two worthless sugar canes just as a place-hunter passes an overthrown minister, that is, as unworthy of notice."

"And what did you do?"

"Well, I, the headless, the thoughtless, the stupid--for these are the epithets I am usually favored with--I took them up, scrutinized them carefully, and discovered--"

"That they were sugar canes."

"In the first instance, yes."

"Very clever, that!"

"And then that they had not been torn up--they had been cut."

"Is that all?"

"Yes, most wise and learned brother, that is all; and I leave you to draw the inferences."

"I may add," observed the sailor, "that, as we were steering for the plantation, myself on the starboard and Jack on the larboard--"

"On the what?"

"Master Jack on the left and myself on the right."

"That I pitched right over these canes without ever noticing them."

"Which is not much to be wondered at; Willis has been so long at sea that he has no confidence in the solidity of the land; during our cruise, he kept a look-out after the wind, expecting, I suppose, that it would perform some of the wonderful things you spoke of this morning."

"After all," observed Becker, "this is another link in the chain of evidence, and I congratulate Jack on his sagacity in tracing it."

"But the affair is as much a mystery as ever."

"True; and the solution may probably be awaiting us at Rockhouse."

The united squadrons then started on their homeward voyage, Jack thrusting his nose into every bush, and carefully scanning all the stray objects that seemed to be out of their normal position.

"If these plants and bushes had tongues," said Jack, "they could probably give us the information we require."

"Do you think," inquired Ernest, "that plants and bushes are utterly without sensation?"

"Faith, I can't say," replied Jack; "perhaps they can speak if they liked--probably they have an idiom of their own. You, that know all languages, and a great many more besides, possibly can converse with them."

"I should like to know," said Becker, "why you two gentlemen are always snarling at each other; it is neither amusing nor amiable."

"Ernest is continually showing me up, father, and it is but fair that I should be allowed to retort now and then. But to return to plants, Ernest; you say they have nerves?"

"If they have," said Willis, "they do not seem to possess the bottle of salts that most nervous ladies usually have."

"No," replied Ernest, "they have no nerves, properly so called; but there are plants, and I may add many plants, which, by their qualities--I may almost say by their intelligence--seem to be placed much higher in the scale of creation than they really are. The sensitive plant, for example, shrinks when it is touched; tulips open their petals when the weather is fine, and shut them again at sunset or when it rains; wild barley, when placed on a table, often moves by itself, especially when it has been first warmed by the hand; the heliotrope always turns the face of its flowers to the sun."

"A still more singular instance of this kind was recently discovered in Carolina," remarked Becker; "it is called the fly-trap. Its round leaves secrete a sugary fluid, and are covered with a number of ridges which are extremely irritable: whenever a fly touches the surface the leaf immediately folds inwards, contracts, and continues this process till its victim is either pierced with its spines or stifled by the pressure."

"It is probably a Corsican plant," observed Jack, "whose ancestors have had a misunderstanding with the brotherhood of flies, and have left the Vendetta as a legacy to their descendants."

"There is nothing in Nature," continued Ernest, "so obstinate as a plant. Let us take one, for example, at its birth, that is, to-day, at the age when animals modify or acquire their instincts, and you will find that your own will must yield to that of the plant."

"If you mean to say that the plant will refuse to play on the flute or learn to dance, were I to wish it to do so, I am entirely of your opinion."

"No, but suppose you were to plant it upside down, with the plantule above and the radicle below; do you think it would grow that way?"

"Plantule and radicle are ambitious words, my dear brother; recollect that you are speaking to simple mortals."

"Well, I mean root uppermost."

"Right; I prefer that, don't you, Willis?"

"Yes, Master Jack."

"At first the radicle or root would begin by growing upwards, and the plantule or germ would descend."

"That is quite in accordance with my revolutionary idiosyncracies."

"You accused me just now of using ambitious words."

"Well, I understand a revolution to mean, placing those above who should be below."

"Nature then," continued Ernest, "very soon begins to assert her rights; the bud gradually twists itself round and ascends, whilst the root obeys a similar impulse and descends--is not this a proof of discernment?"

"I see nothing more in it than a proof of the wonderful mechanism God has allotted to the plant, and is analogous to the movements of a watch, the hands of which point out the hours, minutes, and seconds of time, and are yet not endowed with intelligence."

"Very good, Jack," said Becker.

"Suppose," continued Ernest, "that the ground in the neighborhood of your plant was of two very opposite qualities, that on the right, for example, damp, rich, and spongy; that on the left, dry, poor, and rocky; you would find that the roots, after growing for a time up or down, as the case might be, will very soon change their route, and take their course towards the rich and humid soil."

"And quite right too," said Willis; "they prefer to go where they will be best fed."

"If, then, these roots stretched out to points where they would withdraw the nourishment from other plants in the neighborhood--how could you prevent it?"

"By digging a ditch between them and the plants they threaten to impoverish."

"And do you suppose that would be sufficient?"

"Yes, unless the plant you refer to was an engineer."

"Therein lies the difficulty. Plants are engineers; they would send their roots along the bottom of the ditch, or they would creep under it--at all events, the roots would find their way to the coveted soil in spite of you; if you dug a mine, they would countermine it, and obtain supplies from the opposite territory, and revenge themselves there for the scurvy treatment to which they had been subjected. What could you do then?"

"In that case, I should admit myself defeated."

"If," continued Ernest, "we present a sponge saturated with water to the naked roots of a plant, they will slowly, but steadily, direct themselves towards it; and, turn the sponge whichever way you will, they will take the same direction."

"It has been concluded," remarked Becker, "from these incontestable facts, that plants are not devoid of sensibility; and, in fact, when we behold them lying down at sunset as if dead, and come to life again next morning, we are forced to recognise a degree of irritability in the vegetable organs which very closely resemble those of the animal economy."

"In future," said Jack, "I shall take care not to tread upon a weed, lost, being hurt, it should scream."

"On the other hand, they have not been found to possess any other sign of this supposed sensibility. All their other functions seem perfectly mechanical."

"Ah then, father," exclaimed Jack, "you are a believer in my system!"

"We make them grow and destroy them, without observing anything analogous to the sensation we feel in rearing, wounding, or killing an animal."

"But the fly-trap, father, what of that?"

"It is no exception. The fly-trap seizes any small body that touches it, as well as an insect, and with the same tenacity; hence, we may readily conclude that these actions, so apparently spontaneous, are in reality nothing more than remarkable developments of the laws of irritability peculiar to plants."

"It does not, then, spring from a family feud, as Jack supposed?" remarked Willis.

"Besides," continued Becker, "if plants really existed, possessing what is understood by the term sensation, they would be animals."

"For a like reason, animals without sensation would be plants."

"Evidently. Moreover, the transition from vegetable to animal life is almost imperceptible, so much so, that polypi, such as corals and sponges, were for a long time supposed to be marine plants."

"And what are they?" inquired Willis.

"Insects that live in communities that form a multitude of contiguous cells; some of these are begun at the bottom of the sea and accumulated perpendicularly, one layer being continually deposited over another till the surface is reached."

"Then the coral reefs, that render navigation so perilous in unknown seas, are the work of insects?"

"Exactly so, Willis."

"Might they not as well consist of multitudes of insects piled heaps upon heaps?"

"It is in a great measure as you say, Willis."

"Not I--I do not say it--quite the contrary."

"Well, Willis, you are at liberty to believe it or not, as you think proper."

"I hope so; we shall, therefore, put the polypi with Ernest's stars and Jack's admirals."

"So be it, Willis; but to resume the subject. There is a remarkable analogy in many respects between the lower orders of animals and plants, the bulb is to the latter what the egg is to the former. The germ does not pierce the bulb till it attains a certain organization, and it remains attached by fibres to the parent substance, from which, for a time, it receives nourishment."

"Not unlike the young of animals," remarked Willis.

"When the germ has shot out roots and a leaf or two, it then, but not till then, relinquishes the parent bulb. The plant then grows by an extension and multiplication of its parts, and this extension is accompanied by an increasing induration of the fibres. The same phenomena are observed as regards animals."

"Curious!" said Willis.

"Animals, however, are sometimes oviparous."

"Oviparous?" inquired Willis.

"Yes, that is, they lay eggs; others are viviparous, producing their young alive. A few are multiplied like plants by cuttings, as in the case of the polypi."

"Bother the polypi," said Willis, laughing, "since we have to thank them for destroying some of his Majesty's ships."

"Then again," continued Becker, "both plants and animals are subject to disease, decay, and death."

"But, father, if the analogies are remarkable, the differences are not less marked."

"Well, Ernest, I shall leave you to point them out."

"Without reckoning the faculty of feeling, that cannot be denied to the one nor granted to the other, the most striking of these distinctions consists in the circumstance that animals can change place, whilst this faculty is absolutely refused to plants."

"If we except those," remarked Jack, "that insist upon travelling to the succulent parts of the earth, and are as indefatigable in digging tunnels as the renowned Brunel."

"Then plants are obliged to accept the nourishment that their fixed position furnishes to them; whilst animals, on the contrary, by means of their external organs, can range far and near in search of the aliments most congenial to their appetites."

"Which is often very capricious," remarked Willis.

"Then, considered with regard to magnitude, the two kingdoms present remarkable distinctions; the interval between a whale and a mite is greater than between the moss and the oak."

"Ho!" cried Jack, "there is Miss Sophia coming to meet us, Willis."

"Perhaps they have news at the grotto."

"Well," inquired the child, "have you seen them?"

"Good," thought Becker, "our chatterers have not been able to hold their tongues; I am surprised at that as regards Frank."

"We expected to have found them at Rockhouse."

"To have found whom?"

"The sailors from the wreck."

"What wreck?"

"The Nelson."

"I sincerely hope that the Nelson has not been wrecked."

"In that case, whom do you refer to yourself, Miss Sophia?"

"To your go-cart and my doll, Master Jack."