I cannot describe our delight when, after long and gloomy weeks, we saw at length the sky clear, and the sun, dispersing the dark clouds of winter, spread its vivifying rays over all nature; the winds were lulled, the waters subsided, and the air became mild and serene. We went out, with shouts of joy, to breathe the balmy air, and gratified our eyes with the sight of the fresh verdure already springing up around us. Nature seemed in her youth again, and amidst the charms that breathed on every side, we forgot our sufferings, and, like the children of Noah coming forth from the ark, we raised a hymn of thanksgiving to the Giver of all good.
All our plantations and seeds had prospered. The corn was springing, and the trees were covered with leaves and blossoms. The air was perfumed with the odour of countless beautiful flowers; and lively with the songs and cries of hundreds of brilliant birds, all busy building their nests. This was really spring in all its glory.
In the mean time we walked over to Tent House to see the state of things, and found that winter had done more damage there than at Falcon’s Nest. The storm had overthrown the tent, carried away some of the sailcloth, and injured our provisions so much, that great part was good for nothing, and the rest required to be immediately dried. Fortunately our beautiful pinnace had not suffered much, it was still safe at anchor, and fit for use; but our tub boat was entirely destroyed.
Our most important loss was two barrels of gunpowder, which had been left in the tent, instead of under the shelter of the rock, and which the rain had rendered wholly useless. This made us feel still more strongly the necessity of securing for the future a more suitable shelter than a canvas tent, or a roof of foliage. Still I had small hope from the gigantic plan of Fritz or the boldness of Jack. I could not be blind to the difficulties of the undertaking. The rocks which surrounded Tent House presented an unbroken surface, like a wall without any crevice, and, to all appearance, of so hard a nature as to leave little hopes of success. However, it was necessary to try to contrive some sort of cave, if only for our gunpowder. I made up my mind, and selected the most perpendicular face of the rock as the place to begin our work. It was a much pleasanter situation than our tent, commanding a view of the whole bay, and the two banks of Jackal River, with its picturesque bridge. I marked out with chalk the dimension of the entrance I wished to give to the cave; then my sons and I took our chisels, pickaxes, and heavy miner’s hammers, and began boldly to hew the stone.
Our first blows produced very little effect; the rock seemed impenetrable, the sun had so hardened the surface; and the sweat poured off our brows with the hard labour. Nevertheless, the efforts of my young workmen did not relax. Every evening we left our work advanced, perhaps, a few inches; and every morning returned to the task with renewed ardour. At the end of five or six days, when the surface of the rock was removed, we found the stone become easier to work; it then seemed calcarious, and, finally, only a sort of hardened clay, which we could remove with spades; and we began to hope. After a few days’ more labour, we found we had advanced about seven feet. Fritz wheeled out the rubbish, and formed a sort of terrace with it before the opening; while I was working at the higher part, Jack, as the least, worked below. One morning he was hammering an iron bar, which he had pointed at the end, into the rock, to loosen the earth, when he suddenly cried out
“Papa! papa! I have pierced through!”
“Not through your hand, child?” asked I.
“No, papa!” cried he; “I have pierced through the mountain! Huzza!”
We had brought from the vessel a box of fireworks, intended for signals; I threw into the cave, by a cord, a quantity of rockets, grenades, &c., and scattered a train of gunpowder from them; to this I applied a long match, and we retired to a little distance. This succeeded well; a great explosion agitated the air, a torrent of the carbonic acid gas rushed through the opening, and was replaced by the pure air; we sent in a few more rockets, which flew round like fiery dragons, disclosing to us the vast extent of the cave. A shower of stars, which concluded our experiment, made us wish the duration had been longer. It seemed as if a crowd of winged genii, carrying each a lamp, were floating about in that enchanted cavern. When they vanished, I threw in some more lighted hay, which blazed in such a lively manner, that I knew all danger was over from the gas; but, for fear of deep pits, or pools of water, I would not venture in without lights. I therefore despatched Jack, on his buffalo, to report this discovery to his mother, and bring all the candles she had made. I purposely sent Jack on the errand, for his lively and poetic turn of mind would, I hoped, invest the grotto with such charms, that his mother would even abandon her wheel to come and see it.
“This succeeded well; a great explosion agitated the air–a torrent of the carbonic acid gas rushed through the opening.”
Delighted with his commission, Jack leaped upon his buffalo, and, waving his whip, galloped off with an intrepidity that made my hair stand on end. During his absence, Fritz and I enlarged the opening, to make it easy of access, removed all the rubbish, and swept a road for mamma. We had just finished, when we heard the sound of wheels crossing the bridge, and the cart appeared, drawn by the cow and ass, led by Ernest. Jack rode before on his buffalo, blowing through his hand to imitate a horn, and whipping the lazy cow and ass. He rode up first, and alighted from his huge courser, to help his mother out.
I then lighted our candles, giving one to each, with a spare candle and flint and steel in our pockets. We took our arms, and proceeded in a solemn manner into the rock. I walked first, my sons followed, and their mother came last, with Francis. We had not gone on above a few steps, when we stopped, struck with wonder and admiration; all was glittering around us; we were in a grotto of diamonds! From the height of the lofty vaulted roof hung innumerable crystals, which, uniting with those on the walls, formed colonnades, altars, and every sort of gothic ornament of dazzling lustre, creating a fairy palace, or an illuminated temple.
When we were a little recovered from our first astonishment, we advanced with more confidence. The grotto was spacious, the floor smooth, and covered with a fine dry sand. From the appearance of these crystals, I suspected their nature, and, on breaking off a piece and tasting it, I found, to my great joy, that we were in a grotto of rock salt, which is found in large masses in the earth, usually above a bed of gypsum, and surrounded by fossils. We were charmed with this discovery, of which we could no longer have a doubt. What an advantage this was to our cattle, and to ourselves! We could now procure this precious commodity without care or labour. The acquisition was almost as valuable as this brilliant retreat was in itself, of which we were never tired of admiring the beauty. My wife was struck with our good fortune in opening the rock precisely at the right spot; but I was of opinion, that this mine was of great extent, and that we could not well have missed it.
Some blocks of salt were scattered on the ground, which had apparently fallen from the vaulted roof. I was alarmed; for such an accident might destroy one of my children; but, on examination, I found the mass above too solid to be detached spontaneously, and I concluded that the explosion of the fireworks had given this shock to the subterranean palace, which had not been entered since the creation of the world. I feared there might yet be some pieces loosened; I therefore sent out my wife and younger sons. Fritz and I remained, and, after carefully examining the suspected parts, we fired our guns, and watched the effect; one or two pieces fell, but the rest remained firm, though we struck with long poles as high as we could reach. We were now satisfied of the security of our magnificent abode, and began to plan our arrangements for converting it into a convenient and pleasant habitation. The majority were for coming here immediately, but the wiser heads determined that, for this year, Falcon’s Nest was to continue our home. There we went every night, and spent the day at Tent House, contriving and arranging our future winter dwelling.