“But doubtless Heaven had not sufficiently punished this unhappy man, for he felt that he was gradually becoming a savage! He felt that brutishness was gradually gaining on him!
“He could not say if it was after two or three years of solitude, but at last he became the miserable creature you found!
“I have no need to tell you, gentlemen, that Ayrton, Ben Joyce, and I, are the same.”
Cyrus Harding and his companions rose at the end of this account. It is impossible to say how much they were moved! What misery, grief, and despair lay revealed before them!
“Ayrton,” said Harding, rising, “you have been a great criminal, but Heaven must certainly think that you have expiated your crimes! That has been proved by your having been brought again among your fellow-creatures. Ayrton, you are forgiven! And now you will be our companion?”
Ayrton drew back.
“Here is my hand!” said the engineer.
Ayrton grasped the hand which Harding extended to him, and great tears fell from his eyes.
“Will you live with us?” asked Cyrus Harding.
“Captain Harding, leave me some time longer,” replied Ayrton, “leave me alone in the hut in the corral!”
“As you like, Ayrton,” answered Cyrus Harding. Ayrton was going to withdraw, when the engineer addressed one more question to him:—
“One word more, my friend. Since it was your intention to live alone, why did you throw into the sea the document which put us on your track?”
“A document?” repeated Ayrton, who did not appear to know what he meant.
“Yes, the document which we found enclosed in a bottle, giving us the exact position of Tabor Island!”
Ayrton passed his hand over his brow, then after having thought, “I never threw any document into the sea!” he answered.
“Never?” exclaimed Pencroft.
And Ayrton, bowing, reached the door and departed.
“Poor man!” said Herbert, who had rushed to the door, but returned, having seen Ayrton slide down the rope on the lift and disappear in the darkness.
“He will come back,” said Cyrus Harding.
“Come, now, captain,” exclaimed Pencroft, “what does that mean? What! wasn’t it Ayrton who threw that bottle into the sea? Who was it then?”
Certainly, if ever a question was necessary to be made, it was that one!
“It was he,” answered Neb, “only the unhappy man was half-mad.”
“Yes!” said Herbert, “and he was no longer conscious of what he was doing.”
“It can only be explained in that way, my friends,” replied Harding quickly, “and I understand now how Ayrton was able to point out exactly the situation of Tabor Island, since the events which had preceded his being left on the island had made it known to him.”
“However,” observed Pencroft, “if he was not yet a brute when he wrote that document, and if he threw it into the sea seven or eight years ago, how is it that the paper has not been injured by damp?”