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"The unhappy man has been surprised," said Harding, "and as he was a man to defend himself, he must have been overpowered."
"Yes, that is to be feared!" said the reporter. "Then, doubtless, the convicts installed themselves in the corral where they found plenty of everything, and only fled when they saw us coming. It is very evident, too, that at this moment Ayrton, whether living or dead, is not here!"
"We shall have to beat the forest," said the engineer, "and rid the island of these wretches. Pencroft's presentiments were not mistaken, when he wished to hunt them as wild beasts. That would have spared us all these misfortunes!"
"Yes," answered the reporter, "but now we have the right to be merciless!"
"At any rate," said the engineer, "we are obliged to wait some time, and to remain at the corral until we can carry Herbert without danger to Granite House."
"But Neb?" asked the reporter.
"Neb is in safety."
"But if, uneasy at our absence, he would venture to come?"
"He must not come!" returned Cyrus Harding quickly. "He would be murdered on the road!"
"It is very probable, however, that he will attempt to rejoin us!"
"Ah, if the telegraph still acted, he might be warned! But that is impossible now! As to leaving Pencroft and Herbert here alone, we could not do it! Well, I will go alone to Granite House."
"No, no! Cyrus," answered the reporter, "you must not expose yourself! Your courage would be of no avail. The villains are evidently watching the corral, they are hidden in the thick woods which surround it, and if you go we shall soon have to regret two misfortunes instead of one!"
"But Neb?" repeated the engineer. "It is now four-and-twenty hours since he has had any news of us! He will be sure to come!"
"And as he will be less on his guard than we should be ourselves," added Spilett, "he will be killed!"
"Is there really no way of warning him?"
While the engineer thought, his eyes fell on Top, who, going backwards and forwards seemed to say,--
"Am not I here?"
"Top!" exclaimed Cyrus Harding.
The animal sprang at his master's call.
"Yes, Top will go," said the reporter, who had understood the engineer.
"Top can go where we cannot! He will carry to Granite House the news of the corral, and he will bring back to us that from Granite House!"
"Quick!" said Harding. "Quick!"
Spilett rapidly tore a leaf from his note-book, and wrote these words:--
"Herbert wounded. We are at the corral. Be on your guard. Do not leave Granite House. Have the convicts appeared in the neighborhood? Reply by Top."
This laconic note contained all that Neb ought to know, and at the same time asked all that the colonists wished to know. It was folded and fastened to Top's collar in a conspicuous position.
"Top, my dog," said the engineer, caressing the animal, "Neb, Top! Neb! Go, go!"
Top bounded at these words. He understood, he knew what was expected of him. The road to the corral was familiar to him. In less than an hour he could clear it, and it might be hoped that where neither Cyrus Harding nor the reporter could have ventured without danger, Top, running among the grass or in the wood, would pass unperceived.
The engineer went to the gate of the corral and opened it.
"Neb, Top! Neb!" repeated the engineer, again pointing in the direction of Granite House.
Top sprang forwards, then almost immediately disappeared.
"He will get there!" said the reporter.
"Yes, and he will come back, the faithful animal!"
"What o'clock is it?" asked Gideon Spilett.
"In an hour he may be here. We will watch for his return."
The gate of the corral was closed. The engineer and the reporter re-entered the house. Herbert was still in a sleep. Pencroft kept the compresser always wet. Spilett, seeing there was nothing he could do at that moment, busied himself in preparing some nourishment, while attentively watching that part of the enclosure against the hill, at which an attack might be expected.
The settlers awaited Top's return with much anxiety. A little before eleven o'clock, Cyrus Harding and the reporter, rifle in hand, were behind the gate, ready to open it at the first bark of their dog.
They did not doubt that if Top had arrived safely at Granite House, Neb would have sent him back immediately.
They had both been there for about ten minutes, when a report was heard, followed by repeated barks.
The engineer opened the gate, and seeing smoke a hundred feet off in the wood, he fired in that direction.
Almost immediately Top bounded into the corral, and the gate was quickly shut.
"Top, Top!" exclaimed the engineer, taking the dog's great honest head between his hands.
A note was fastened to his neck, and Cyrus Harding read these words, traced in Neb's large writing:--"No pirates in the neighborhood of Granite House. I will not stir. Poor Mr. Herbert!"
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The Mysterious Island -by- Jules Verne