Uncle Robinson

Chapter IV

The unfortunates finally reach land! They touch solid ground! They have escaped the dangers of the ocean. But what awaits them on this shore? What resources does it offer?

Flip jumped to shore. Marc and Robert followed him and together the three towed the boat onto the sand. Besides, the tide was going down and the boat was soon high and dry.

Flip took the two young children in his arms, put them on the sand, then he helped Mrs. Clifton step off the boat. The worthy sailor could not hide his joy on walking on this solid shore.

“All goes well, Madam,” he repeated, “all goes well. We have only to settle in!”

The place where chance had left them was situated on the left bank of a river a hundred feet 1 wide at this point. The sandy shore was rather narrow, not measuring more than twenty five feet. It was wedged in between the watercourse and the high granite wall. This wall, which was a continuation of cliffs on the coast, followed the left bank of the river and gradually sloped lower. At the landing site, its height was still more than three hundred feet. It was nearly straight and even vertical in some places. Thus, it was impossible to climb this face: Flip found this annoying because he wanted to survey the surrounding countryside from the top.

First he looked for some cavity or hole where the family could find shelter from the menacing rain on this first night. He searched along the granite wall but to his bitter disappointment he could not find the smallest grotto which could serve as a temporary encampment. The block was solid throughout and did not show the smallest crack. In one place, on the beach where the boat had run aground, tidal action had hollowed out a little shelter which gave some protection against the westerly winds blowing at the moment but it was an insufficient refuge which would become uninhabitable if the wind should shift even a quarter toward the north. Flip resolved to walk up river for several hundred feet to see what he could find. He told Mrs. Clifton about his plan.

“Do not be afraid, Madam,” he told her. “I will not go far. I have tall legs and I will return promptly. Besides, your children will not leave you. You will watch your mother, Marc?”

“Yes, Flip,” replied the young lad, who displayed an energy truly superior for his age.

“I am leaving then,” said Flip. “Since I will go and return by the left bank, you cannot mistake the route if you have to go to meet me.”

Flip conducted Mrs. Clifton and her two youngest children to the hollow he had found. Mother, Belle and Jack huddled there, while Marc and Robert stood watch on the beach. Night was coming on. They heard only the whistling of the wind, the noise of the surf, and the cries of the birds nesting high above in the massif.

Having settled his small world, Flip moved quickly. He followed the foot of the cliff which became lower bit by bit. After a half mile it reached the ground with a steep slope. Here the river measured only sixty to sixty five feet across. The right bank showed about the same layout as the left bank being limited by a rocky cliff.

Arriving at end of the wall, Flip saw a less savage countryside. There were green pastures which extended to the edge of some forest blurred by the oncoming darkness. “Good!” thought the sailor. “There will be no lack of firewood.”

Flip went to the woods to get some firewood; as to a shelter, he could find nothing. He had to be content, for this night at least, with the temporary encampment. The sailor reached the edge of the forest. The view was blocked on the right. He noted the uneveness of the ground as it rose to a higher level toward an obscure interior. This land was dominated by a peak thirty miles in the distance whose presence first alerted the sailors of the Vancouver to this unknown land.

While tying the fagots, Flip thought about ways to manage the affairs of this family to which he was devoted. The question of an encampment preoccupied him.

“After all,” he repeated to himself, “we have plenty of time. We need not settle in at the shore. What we need first is fire, and to make a good fire: a good flammable wood.”

It was easy to harvest it since a large quantity of dead wood, thrown down by storms, littered the ground. What species this wood was, Flip could not say, but he was content to assign it to the category of “burning wood,” the only one which suited him at the moment.

But if there was no lack of fuel, there was no way to transport it. All the load Flip could carry—and he was a strong man—was not enough for one night. However, he must hurry. The sun had disappeared in the west behind some large red clouds. The atmospheric moisture, less harassed by the wind, condensed and rain began to fall. But Flip did not want to return without enough wood. “There must be a way to transport this load,” he said to himself. “There is always a way to do everything! I have only find it. Ah! If I had a handcart, I would have no problem! What could take the place of a handcart? A boat? But I don’t have a boat!”

Flip gathered his wood while immersed in thought. “But if I don’t have a boat, I have the river, a river that moves itself. And floating rafts were not invented not to be used!”

Flip was enchanted with his idea. He loaded his shoulders with wood and went back to the river not one hundred meters away. There the sailor found still more dead wood. He gathered it and began to make a raft.

In a sort of eddy produced at one point of the bank which broke the current, Flip placed the largest pieces of wood and tied them together with dry creepers. He formed a raft on which he piled his harvest, a load for ten men. If the cargo arrived safely, there would be no lack of fuel.

In a half hour Flip finished his work. The sailor did not plan to float the raft in the river unattended, and neither did he intend to get on board to steer it. He would control it the way children do with their toy sailboats. But the cord? Doesn’t every sailor have a belt around his body several fathoms long? He detached it while remarking to himself, and not without good reason, that belts had been specifically invented for towing wooden rafts. He attached it to the rear of his raft and by means of a long pole he shoved his apparatus into the current.

Everything went as hoped. The large load of wood that Flip held in check followed the river’s current. The bank was steep so there was no fear that the raft would run aground. A few minutes after six Flip arrived at the landing place where he moored his floating train.

Mother and children ran up to him.

“Yes, Madam!” Flip shouted with joy, “I can bring you an entire forest and there will be more left over, believe me. No need to economize. The wood costs nothing.”

“But what kind of land are we on?”... Mrs. Clifton asked.

“Oh! Very pleasant!” replied the worthy sailor, unruffled. “You will see that in full daylight. The trees are magnificent. When everything blooms, the countryside will be charming.”

“But what about our house?” Belle asked.

“Our house? my dear little girl. We will make a house and you will help us.”

“But what about today?” said Mrs. Clifton.

“Today, Madam,” replied Flip, somewhat embarrassed. “Today we must stay where we are! I still have not found even the smallest grotto! The cliff is smooth like a new wall. But tomorrow, in full daylight, we will find what we need. Meanwhile, let us make some fire. It will clear our minds.”

Marc and Robert began to unload the raft and soon the entire cargo was on the ground at the foot of the cliff. Flip chopped away like a man who knew his business. Mrs. Clifton and her two young children, crouching in the hollow, looked on.

When Flip finished, he reached into his pocket for his match box which was always with him because he was a confirmed smoker. He rummaged through his large pants pockets and to his deep amazement he could not find the box.

A shiver ran through his entire body. Mrs. Clifton stared at him without blinking.

“Imbecile!” he said, shrugging his shoulders, “my matches are in my jacket pocket.”

His jacket was in the boat. Flip went on board, took the jacket and turned it inside out, no box.

The sailor paled. Perhaps match box fell inside the boat when he covered the children with his jacket.

He searched the boat, rummaged through all the corners, under the small deck, between the frames. Nothing. Evidently the box was lost.

The situation was serious. The loss of this box was irreparable. Without fire, what would become of them? Flip could not hide his disappointment. Mrs. Clifton understood everything and went to his side. Without matches how could they make a fire? Flip could easily make flint sparks with his knife but he had no amadou. Burnt linen could replace amadou but he needed fire to get that. As to the method the savages use to make fire by rubbing two pieces of dry wood, he had to forget about that also not only because a special wood is needed which he didn’t have, but also because he didn’t have experience with it.

Flip remained thoughtful not daring to look at Mrs. Clifton with her unfortunate shivering children. She returned to the foot of the cliff.

“Well, Flip?” Marc said to the sailor.

“We have no matches, Marc!” Flip replied, lowering his voice.

Marc picked up the jacket. He turned it every which way. He rummaged through the inner and outer pockets. Suddenly he shouted.

“A match!” he said.

“Ah! One, a single one!” shouted the sailor, “and we are saved!”

Flip took his jacket and, as Marc had done, he felt a little piece of wood stuck in the lining. His large hands trembled. They clutched at the little piece of wood through the material without being able to pull it out. Mrs. Clifton came over.

“Give it to me, my friend!” she told him.

Then, taking the jacket, she removed the little piece of wood.

“A match!” Flip shouted! “It is a real match with sulfur and phosphorous! Ah! It as good as an entire cargo!”

And the courageous sailor jumped for joy, embracing the children and hiding the tears flowing from his eyes.

“Ah, so!” he said. “We have a match, that’s good, but we must use it carefully and think twice before making a move.”

That said, Flip carefully examined his single match and quickly assured himself that it was really dry. Then, that done:

“We need some paper,” he said.

“Here it is,” Robert replied.

Flip took the paper the young lad gave him and went toward the wood pile. He took additional precautions and crammed in a few handfuls of dry grass and moss gathered at the foot of the cliff. He arranged it so the air could circulate easily and quickly ignite the dead wood; then he rolled the paper into a cone the way smokers do in a high wind.

Next he took the match and picked up a dry stone, a rough pebble on which to rub the phosphorous. Then, crouching at the foot of the cliff, in a well protected corner, while Marc held his hat a short distance from the wall as an added precaution, he gently rubbed the match on the stone.

The first rubbing produced no effect. Flip had not applied enough pressure. But the poor man was afraid to rub off the phosphorous. He held his breath and could hear his heart beating.

He rubbed his match a second time. A weak blue flame spurted out producing a pungent smoke. Flip introduced the match into the paper cone. The paper caught fire a few seconds later and Flip introduced it under the hearth of grass and moss. A moment later the wood crackled, and a joyful flame, activated by the breeze, developed in the midst of the darkness.

  1. A foot equals 0.324 meters; this old unit of measure was used for a long time in the 19th century in spite of the existence of the metric system established by the (French Revolutionary) Convention.

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Translation Copyright © 2000 Sidney Kravitz
Copyright © Zvi Har’El
$Date: 2007/12/23 17:44:42 $