One day, having gone over with my younger sons to weed the garden, and survey our possessions, I perceived that the roof of the gallery wanted a little repair, and called Jack to raise for me the rope ladder which I had brought from Falcon’s Nest, and which had been very useful while we were constructing the roof; but we sought for it everywhere; it could not be found; and as we were quite free from robbers in our island, I could only accuse my elder sons, who had doubtless carried it off to ascend some tall cocoa-nut tree. Obliged to be content, we walked into the garden by the foot of the rocks. Since our arrival, I had been somewhat uneasy at hearing a dull, continued noise, which appeared to proceed from this side. The forge we had passed, now extinguished, and our workmen were absent. Passing along, close to the rocks, the noise became more distinct, and I was truly alarmed. Could it be an earthquake? Or perhaps it announced some volcanic explosion. I stopped before that part of the rock where the noise was loudest; the surface was firm and level; but from time to time, blows and falling stones seemed to strike our ears. I was uncertain what to do; curiosity prompted me to stay, but a sort of terror urged me to remove my child and myself. However, Jack, always daring, was unwilling to go till he had discovered the cause of the phenomenon. “If Francis were here,” said he, “he would fancy it was the wicked gnomes, working underground, and he would be in a fine fright. For my part, I believe it is only people come to collect the salt in the rock.”
“People!” said I; “you don’t know what you are saying, Jack; I could excuse Francis and his gnomes, it would be at least a poetic fancy, but yours is quite absurd. Where are the people to come from?”
“But what else can it be?” said he. “Hark! you may hear them strike the rock.”
“Be certain, however,” said I, “there are no people.” At that moment, I distinctly heard human voices, speaking, laughing, and apparently clapping their hands. I could not distinguish any words; I was struck with a mortal terror; but Jack, whom nothing could alarm, clapped his hands also, with joy, that he had guessed right. “What did I say, papa? Was I not right? Are there not people within the rock? friends, I hope.” He was approaching the rock, when it appeared to me to be shaking; a stone soon fell down, then another. I seized hold of Jack, to drag him away, lest he should be crushed by the fragments of rock. At that moment another stone fell, and we saw two heads appear through the opening, the heads of Fritz and Ernest. Judge of our surprise and joy! Jack was soon through the opening, and assisting his brothers to enlarge it. As soon as I could enter, I stepped in, and found myself in a real grotto, of a round form, with a vaulted roof, divided by a narrow crevice, which admitted the light and air. It was, however, better lighted by two large gourd lamps. I saw my long ladder of ropes suspended from the opening at the top, and thus comprehended how my sons had penetrated into this recess, which it was impossible to suspect the existence of from the outside. But how had they discovered it? and what were they making of it? These were my two questions. Ernest replied at once to the last. “I wished,” said he, “to make a resting-place for my mother, when she came to her garden. My brothers have each built some place for her, and called it by their name. I had a desire that some place in our island might be dedicated to Ernest, and I now present you the Grotto Ernestine.”
“And after all,” said Jack, “it will make a pretty dwelling for the first of us that marries.”
“Silence, little giddy-pate,” said I; “where do you expect to find a wife in this island? Do you think you shall discover one among the rocks, as your brothers have discovered the grotto? But tell me, Fritz, what directed you here.”
“Our good star, father,” said he. “Ernest and I were walking round these rocks, and talking of his wish for a resting-place for my mother on her way to the garden. He projected a tent; but the path was too narrow to admit it; and the rock, heated by the sun, was like a stove. We were considering what we should do, when I saw on the summit of the rock a very beautiful little unknown quadruped. From its form I should have taken it for a young chamois, if I had been in Switzerland; but Ernest reminded me that the chamois was peculiar to cold countries, and he thought it was a gazelle or antelope; probably the gazelle of Guinea or Java, called by naturalists the chevrotain. You may suppose I tried to climb the rock on which this little animal remained standing, with one foot raised, and its pretty head turning first to one side and then to the other; but it was useless to attempt it here, where the rock was smooth and perpendicular; besides, I should have put the gazelle to flight, as it is a timid and wild animal. I then remembered there was a place near Tent House where a considerable break occurred in the chain of rocks, and we found that, with a little difficulty, the rock might be scaled by ascending this ravine. Ernest laughed at me, and asked me if I expected the antelope would wait patiently till I got to it? No matter, I determined to try, and I told him to remain; but he soon determined to accompany me, for he fancied that in the fissure of a rock he saw a flower of a beautiful rose-colour, which was unknown to him. My learned botanist thought it must be an erica, or heath, and wished to ascertain the fact. One helping the other, we soon got through all difficulties, and arrived at the summit; and here we were amply repaid by the beautiful prospect on every side. We will talk of that afterwards, father; I have formed some idea of the country which these rocks separate us from. But to return to our grotto.
I went along, first looking for my pretty gazelle, which I saw licking a piece of rock, where doubtless she found some salt. I was hardly a hundred yards from her, my gun ready, when I was suddenly stopped by a crevice, which I could not cross, though the opening was not very wide. The pretty quadruped was on the rock opposite to me; but of what use would it have been to shoot it, when I could not secure it. I was obliged to defer it till a better opportunity offered, and turned to examine the opening, which appeared deep; still I could see that the bottom of the cavity was white, like that of our former grotto. I called Ernest, who was behind me, with his plants and stones, to impart to him an idea that suddenly struck me. It was, to make this the retreat for my mother. I told him that I believed the floor of the cave was nearly on a level with the path that led to the garden, and we had only to make an opening in the form of a natural grotto, and it would be exactly what he wished. Ernest was much pleased with the idea, and said he could easily ascertain the level by means of a weight attached to a string; but though he was startled at the difficulty of descending to our labour every day, and returning in the evening, he would not agree to my wish of beginning at the outside of the rock, as we had done in our former grotto, He had several reasons for wishing to work from within. ‘In the first place,’ said he, ’it will be so much cooler this summer weather; we should be soon unable to go on labouring before the burning rock; then our path is so narrow, that we should not know how to dispose of the rubbish; in the interior, it will serve us to make a bench round the grotto; besides, I should have such pleasure in completing it secretly, and unsuspected, without any assistance or advice except yours, my dear Fritz, which I accept with all my heart; so pray find out some means of descending and ascending readily.’
“I immediately recollected your rope ladder, father; it was forty feet long, and we could easily fasten it to the point of the rock. Ernest was delighted and sanguine. We returned with all speed. We took first a roll of cord and some candles; then the rope ladder, which we rolled up as well as we could, but had great difficulty in conveying it up the rock; once or twice, when the ascent was very difficult, we were obliged to fasten a cord to it, and draw it up after us; but determination, courage, and perseverance overcame all obstacles. We arrived at the opening, and, on sounding it, we were glad to find our ladder would be long enough to reach the bottom. We then measured the outside of the rock, and ascertained that the floor of the grotto was near the same level as the ground outside.
“We remembered your lessons, father, and made some experiments to discover if it contained mephitic air. (Hi, it’s me again. I don’t know what mephitic air is. Do you? But next we’ll read that they lit candles which didn’t go out. Fire needs oxygen to burn, so it seems they are testing to see if the air was okay to breathe. You won’t get all the words, but follow the story.) We first lighted some candles, which were not extinguished; we then kindled a large heap of sticks and dried grass, which-burned well, the smoke passing through the opening like a chimney. Having no uneasiness about this, we deferred our commencement till the next day. Then we lighted the forge, and pointed some iron bars we found in the magazine; these were to be our tools to break open the rock. We secured, also, your chisel, as well as some hammers, and all our tools were thrown down below; we then arranged two gourds to serve us for lamps; and when all was ready, and our ladder firmly fixed, we descended ourselves; and we have nothing more to tell you, except that we were very glad when we heard your voices outside, at the very time when our work was drawing to an end. We were sure, when we distinguished your voices so clearly, that we must be near the external air; we redoubled our efforts, and here we are. Now tell us, father, are you pleased with our idea? and will you forgive us for making a mystery of it?”
I assured them of my forgiveness, and my cordial approbation of their manly and useful enterprise; and made Ernest happy by declaring that it should always be called the Grotto Ernestine.
“Thanks to you all, my dear children,” said I; “your dear mamma will now prefer Tent House to Falcon’s Nest, and will have no occasion to risk breaking a limb in descending the winding staircase. I will assist you to enlarge the opening, and as we will leave it all the simplicity of a natural grotto, it will soon be ready.”
We all set to work; Jack carried away the loosened stones and rubbish, and formed benches on each side the grotto. With what had fallen outside, he also made two seats in the front of the rock, and before evening all was complete. Fritz ascended to unfasten the ladder, and to convey it by an easier road to Tent House; he then rejoined us, and we returned to our castle in the air, which was henceforward only to be looked on as a pleasure-house. We resolved, however, to establish here, as we had done at our farm, a colony of our cattle, which increased daily: we had now a number of young cows, which were most useful for our support. We wished, however, for a female buffalo, as the milk of that animal makes excellent cheese. Conversing on our future plans, we soon reached home, and found all well.