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Tracking A Buried River,

the Adventure of Two Sailor Boys


"The sum of 3000 francs [$600] will be paid by the Scientific Association of Morlaix to any one who shall succeed in tracing the course of the Larve, and ascertaining whether it has any under-ground communication with the sea.

"Félix Delaroche, President."

Such was the announcement which, posted in the quaint three-cornered market-place of the old French town of Longchamp, attracted a good many readers, and among the rest two lads in sailor costume, one of whom remarked to the other:

"What a holiday we'd have if we could earn it! eh, Pierre, my boy?"

"I should think so! But nobody will earn that reward very soon. Don't you remember how, a year ago, they widened the cleft into which the stream falls, and let down a man with a lantern, and how, before he'd gone thirty feet, he got bumped against a rock, and broke his lantern, and hurt himself so badly that he had to be hauled up again?"

"True; it's not a very likely job. Well, come along, and let's get the boat out."

Pierre Lebon, the younger of the two, was a lithe, olive-cheeked, merry little fellow, whose slim figure and jaunty black curls contrasted markedly with the burly frame and thick sandy hair of his chum, Jacques Vaudry. The latter ought rightly to have been called Jack Fordrey, for he was an English boy, born in Guernsey; but having been adopted by a Breton fisherman after his father's death, both he and his name had got considerably "Frenchified."

The two boys had to manage by themselves the boat of which they were joint owners, for old Simon Lebon, Pierre's real and Jack's adopted father, was now too aged and rheumatic to help them in their work, except by advising them when to start and where to go. But his advice was always good, for in his time he had been one of the best fishermen on the coast, and the lads were usually very successful.

On this particular day, however, their good luck seemed to have forsaken them, for, try as they might, they could catch nothing worth mentioning. Possibly they were thinking too little of their work, and too much of the reward offered by the Scientific Association; for three thousand francs would have been quite a fortune to them both. Moreover, the idea of tracking an under-ground river had a spice of romance and adventure about it which was the very thing to tempt them.

The little stream of the Larve had long been the acknowledged puzzle of the whole neighborhood. After skirting the town for some distance, it vanished into the earth through a narrow cleft, and was seen no more. Where it went to after that, no one could tell; and, as we have seen, the first attempt to find out had succeeded so badly that nobody felt much inclined for a second.

Tired out at length, the unsuccessful fishers went home, inwardly resolving to try whether they might not have better fortune by night than by day. Pierre, indeed, when the night came, began to have some doubts about the wisdom of the idea, having heard his father say once and again that it was a very dangerous thing to attempt at that season. But the hardest thing in the world for a boy to do is to draw back from anything simply because it is dangerous. Rather than let Jack think him afraid, Pierre would have gone to sea on a hen-coop; so they stole out of the cottage as noiselessly as possible, and away they went over the dim gray waste of sea, half lighted by the rising moon.

The "take" of fish was a very good one this time, and the boys began to think their night voyage a lucky idea; but they were rejoicing too soon. A little after midnight the sky began to cloud over and the sea to rise in a way which showed that there was a storm brewing. They put about at once, and made for the shore, but long before they reached it the storm burst upon them in all its fury.

In an instant the boat was half full of water, and it was all they could do to keep her from foundering outright, as they flew through the great white roaring waves, thumped and banged about from side to side, and drenched to the skin at every plunge by the flying gusts of spray. Pierre grasped the tiller in his half-numbed hands, while Jack held on with all his might to the "sheet" that steadied their little three-cornered sail, at which the wind tugged as if meaning to tear it away altogether.

The little craft held her own gallantly, and the young sailors began to hope that, after all, they might make the entrance of the bay without accident. But just then an unlucky shift of the wind tore the sail clean away, and the boat, falling off at once, was swept helplessly toward the formidable cliffs beyond.

"Not much chance for us now," said Jack, shaking his head. "Pierre, my boy, I'm sorry I've brought you into this mess; it's all my fault."

"Not a bit, old fellow. I ought to have warned you of what I'd heard my father say. However, if the worst comes to the worst, we can swim for it."

However, there seemed to be little hope, for not a foot of standing-room was to be seen on the rocky sides of the vast black precipice upon which they were driving headlong. All at once Jack shouted:

"Port your helm, Pierre—port! We'll do it yet."

His keen eye had detected a cleft in the rock, just wide enough for the boat to enter.

Pierre had barely time to obey, when there came a tremendous crash, and the boys found themselves floundering amid a welter of foam, nets, sand, dead fish, and broken timbers, in a deep dark hollow that looked like the mouth of a cave.

"There goes father's boat," sputtered Pierre, as soon as he could clear his mouth of the salt-water.

"And there go our fish," added Jack. "Here's that loaf that we put in the locker, though; and even wet bread's better than none, in a place like this. Now, then, let's be getting higher up, for the tide will be upon us here in no time."

But to get higher up was no easy matter. They were in utter darkness, and (as they had already found by groping about) on the brink of a chasm of unknown depth. The ledge upon which they had been cast was evidently very narrow, and almost as slippery as ice; and Jack, being encumbered with the loaf, and Pierre badly bruised against the rocks, they were not in the best condition for climbing.

But the roar of the next wave as it came bursting in, splashing them from head to foot where they sat, was a wonderful quickener to their movements, and away they scrambled through the pitchy blackness, clinging like limpets to the rough side of the cavern as they felt their feet slide upon the treacherous rocks, and thought of the unseen gulf below.

Onward, onward still, deeper and deeper into the heart of the cold, silent rock, fearing at every moment to feel their way barred by a solid wall, and find themselves cut off from escape, and doomed to be drowned by inches. But, no; the strange tunnel went on and on as if it would never end, their only consolation being that they were unmistakably tending upward, and already (as they calculated) beyond the reach of the flood-tide.

Suddenly Jack uttered a shout of joy:

"Hurrah, Pierre! here's one of the lantern candles in my inner pocket, and I know I've got my matches somewhere. We'll be able to see where we are at last, my boy!"

The matches (luckily still dry) were produced, the candle was lighted, and our heroes took a survey of their surroundings.

They were in a long narrow passage, rising to a considerable height overhead, and with another ledge on its opposite side, steeper and more broken than the one on which they were. In the centre lay the chasm already mentioned; but instead of the frightful depth which they had imagined, it was only six or seven feet deep at the most, and more than half full of water.

"There's our terrible precipice," laughed Jack, stooping over it. "I don't think that would hurt us much. But—holloa! I say, Pierre, this isn't sea-brine; it's fresh-water, running water! It's a stream that's tunnelled its way through the rock; and if we follow it far enough, we'll get out. Hurrah!"

"Hurrah!" echoed Pierre, brightening up. "We sha'n't run short of water, anyhow; and as for food, we may as well have a bite of that loaf before starting again."

The under-ground breakfast was soon finished, and the adventurous lads started once more.

But the pain of Pierre's bruises, which he had manfully concealed hitherto, began to master him at last. His tired limbs began to drag more and more heavily; his feet slipped again and again, and only the strong hand of his comrade saved him from more than one serious fall.

"Better sit down and rest a bit, old fellow," said Jack, kindly; "there's no hurry, for this candle will burn a long while yet. I know you won't own it, but you did get a nasty bump against that rock yonder."

"I fancy you're right there," answered Pierre, sinking wearily upon the ledge. "But we don't need the candle while we're sitting still, you know. Blow it out, and light it again when we start."

Jack did so, and they sat silent in the darkness. All at once Pierre heard his comrade call out,

"I say, don't you hear water falling somewhere?"

"To be sure I do," replied Pierre, after listening a moment. "We must be close to the place where this stream falls down into the tunnel, and now we'll have a chance of getting out at last. Bravo!"

Jack slapped his hands together, with a shout that made the cavern echo.

"I've got an idea, Pierre, my boy! What a fool I was not to think of it before! This stream that we've been following is the Larve, and we've got to the very place where it falls through the cleft. Now if we can only get out with whole bones, it's fifteen hundred francs apiece to us. Come along, quick!"

All Pierre's weariness was gone in a minute. Already, in his mind's eye, he saw his ailing father comfortably provided for, and Jack and himself standing out to sea in a brand-new boat. The instant the candle was lighted they were off again at a pace which would have seemed impossible a few minutes before.

Guided by the increasing din of the water-fall, they were not long in reaching a huge perpendicular funnel or chimney in the rock, down one side of which poured a stream of water, while through a cleft above, dazzlingly radiant after the darkness of the buried passage, came a bright gleam of sunshine. Just then a big stone, flung from above, came thundering down into the chasm, falling close to the feet of the two explorers.

"That's the boys at their fun," said Jack, laughing. "I've done it many a time myself. Above there—hoy!"

The only answer was a howl of terror and the sound of flying feet. Pierre, alarmed at the thought of being deserted, shouted in his turn,

"Help, comrades! help!"

"Who's that calling?" asked a gruff voice from above, while the light was obscured by a broad visage peering down into the hole.

"Holloa, Gaspard! is that you?" cried Pierre, recognizing the voice of one of his father's fisher cronies.

"What, Pierre Lebon! you down there? Well, who ever saw the like? Just wait a minute, while I run for a rope."

But before he could return there were already more than a hundred people gathered around the hole, for the news of a human voice having been heard out of the "Larve Chimney," as the chasm was called, had spread far and wide.

The water-fall on one side and the sharp rocks on the other made it no easy matter to draw the boys up safely. But at length they were dragged forth into the daylight, to be embraced and shouted over by the whole town, and to receive, a few days later, the praises of the entire Scientific Association, together with the three thousand francs which they had so bravely earned.