Uncle Robinson

Chapter VI

The night passed without incident. It stopped raining about three in the morning. Mrs. Clifton’s troubles had kept her awake. At daybreak she left the boat. Her children were sleeping soundly. She wanted to take Flip’s place and the sailor, for better or for worse, had to get some rest under the boat for several hours.

At seven o’clock, Flip was awakened by the noisy children. They were already running around the beach. Mrs. Clifton was getting the younger children ready, washing them in the sweet water of the river. Jack, who was ordinarily unmanageable during this operation, did not resist this time. It was a real river and more amusing than a washbowl.

When Flip left his bed of sand and moss, he saw with satisfaction that the sky was serene. The clouds, high and scattered, showed large patches of blue sky. This fine weather favored Flip’s plans for the day which were to explore the surrounding countryside.

“How are you today, my children?” he shouted with a happy voice. “And you, Miss Belle and you, Mrs. Clifton? And I was the last to get up, at my age!”

“Weren’t you on the watch all night, friend Flip?” replied Mrs. Clifton, extending her hand to her worthy companion. “You barely slept two hours.”

“That is enough for me, dear lady,” replied Flip... “Ah! Talking about the household chores, there is the kettle already on the fire! But if you do everything by yourself, Mistress Clifton, what’s left for me?”

While speaking, Flip approached the fire on which the old kettle was suspended between two rocks already blackened by the flames. Sparks were flying about.

“Hey! What water! What beautiful water!” Flip shouted, not sparing any admiration. “It is a pleasure to watch it! It chirps like a bird! So we don’t have a few tea leaves or some coffee grains for a nice beverage; that will come in time! Come, my children, who wants to go with me to look around?”

“We, we!” the three boys shouted.

“Me too, I want to go with papa Flip,” the young girl said.

“Good,” replied the sailor, “My only problem is that I have too great a choice.”

“Are you going far, Flip?” Mrs. Clifton asked.

“We will not go far, my dear lady, only a few hundred feet. Marc, Robert and I will explore the countryside.”

“We are ready,” said the two lads.

“As to Jack, he is a big boy we can depend on. I hope he will keep an eye on the fire while we are away and especially that he won’t spare any wood.”

“Yes! Yes!” shouted Jack, excited about the task assigned to him. “Belle will hand me the pieces of wood and I will throw them into the fire.”

Already Marc and Robert were out on the road walking along the left bank of the river.

“You will be back soon?” said Mrs. Clifton.

“In an hour, Madame,” replied the sailor. “I ask only for enough time to turn the cliff to examine the inlet where we landed yesterday. We will fail if we don’t bring you back something to eat so we can economize on our meat and our biscuit.”

“Go then, friend Flip. And if you get to the top of the cliff,” Mrs. Clifton added with tears in her eyes, “look out to sea...”

“Yes! I understand, my dear lady! I have good vision! I will look! This is not the end of the matter and perhaps Mr. Clifton... Take hope, have faith, Madame, you must set an example of courage and resignation for us. Have confidence. Ah! The fire! The fire comes first! I believe that Master Jack will not let it burn out but keep an eye on it from time to time. I am going, I am going!”

That said, Flip took leave of Mrs. Clifton and soon joined his two young companions at the mouth of the river.

At this place, the cliff made an abrupt turn around itself and ended in a sharp corner. It then ran north and south forming an elevated shore. The tide began to go down leaving behind a rocky and sandy dry beach which was easy to walk on.

“Won’t we be blocked by the rising tide later?” asked Marc.

“No, my boy,” replied Flip. “The ebb tide 1 is just starting and the sea will not be high again until six o’clock tonight. While crossing the beach, look around the rocks. Nature may have placed some good things here and there which we can use to our profit. As for me, I’ll be looking for a ramp to help me climb this cliff but I will not lose sight of you, don’t worry!”

Marc and Robert separated. Marc, being more observant, walked carefully and examined the beach and the cliff. Robert, being impatient, jumped around the rocks and leaped over the water puddles at the risk of slipping on the clumps of wrack.

While Flip went southward along the beach, he kept his eye on the two boys. The high wall continued for a quarter of a mile, always with the same uniformity and the same perpendicularity. Near the top of the cliff all kinds of sea birds fluttered about in particular various web footed species with long, compressed, pointed beaks, who were squalling and hardly afraid of the presence of man who, for the first time no doubt, was disturbing their solitude. Among these web-footers, Flip recognized several skua, a sort of sea gull, which are sometimes called stercorarius and also the voracious little sea mews which nested in the crevices in the granite. A gunshot fired into this swarm of birds would have killed a great number. But Flip had no gun and besides, these sea mews and these gulls are scarcely edible and even their eggs have a detestable taste.

Flip saw that the cliff extended yet another two miles to the south. It ended abruptly with a promontory covered by the surf’s white foam. If they wanted to turn the promontory, would they have to wait another hour for low tide? This is what Flip asked himself when he found an opening in the wall produce by a rock fall.

“Here is a natural staircase,” he thought. “I must use it to get to the top where I can observe both land and sea.”

Flip began his ascension on the fallen rocks and thanks to his strong legs and his uncommon skill he reached the crest of the wall in a few minutes.

On arriving, his first care was to cast a glance at this land that developed before him. Three or four leagues away there rose a large snow covered peak. The area extending two miles from the shore up to the first ramps of the mountain was covered by vast woods with patches of taller evergreens. There was a green pasture bristling with clumps of trees at random between the forest and the wall of the shore. On his left, granite rocks were piled up in tiers along the right bank of the river, enclosing the horizon so he could not see beyond them. But toward the south, the wall receded in height, changing to isolated rocks, then sand dunes for a distance of several miles. There, the view was hidden by a cape boldly projecting into the sea. Did the land run east or west in back of the cape? Was it part of a continent? On the contrary, was the land rounded in the east making it merely an island on which chance had thrown this abandoned family?

Flip could not answer this important question putting it off for another time. As to the land itself, island or continent, it seemed to be fertile, pleasing in appearance, and varied in its output so one could not ask anything more of it.

After this quick look, the sailor turned his attention to the ocean. He looked at the sandy beach bordered by the breakers. At low tide, the emerged rocks resembled groups of amphibians sluggishly lying in the surf. Flip saw the two young boys who seemed to be searching for something among the rocks.

“They discovered something,” Flip thought. “If it was Mister Jack or Mademoiselle Belle down there, I believe they would be gathering sea shells, but Mister Marc is a serious young man, so he and his brother are occupied with increasing our food supply!”

Beyond the reefs battered by the surf, the sea scintillated under the oblique rays of the sun which grazed the elevated ground of the shoreline. On this sea, this vast liquid surface, not a sail, not a craft in sight, nothing remaining of the Vancouver’s passage! Nothing to hint at the fate of the unfortunate Harry Clifton!

Flip took a last look at the beach below. He noticed an oblong islet offshore, a mile long, whose northern end was almost in line with the river and whose southern end was flush with the end of the cliff. Perhaps this end of the islet even extended further. This arid islet was rather higher than the waves so it protected the shoreline from the open sea. This left a tranquil channel between them in which vessels could easily find shelter.

After Flip carefully examined the countryside he thought of rejoining his young companions. They saw him and motioned for him to come down. Flip came down via the fallen rocks, leaving a complete exploration of the interior for another day. When he set foot on the beach, he came over to Marc and Robert.

“Come here, Flip,” they shouted impatiently, “Come here. We collected a fine pile of edible mollusks.”

“Which are edible and which we will eat,” replied Flip, looking on as one of the boys used his teeth to detach some appetizing mollusks enclosed in a double valve.

“As for what’s left, Flip, there’s more than we can ever eat. Look at these rocks. They’re covered completely and we can be sure we’ll never die of hunger.”

In fact, the rocks uncovered by the ebb tide were covered with oblong mollusks, firmly attached to the rock in clusters among the clumps of wrack.

“These are mussels,” Marc said, “excellent mussels; I just noticed that they bore holes into the rock that supports them.”

“Then they are not mussels,” replied the sailor.

“I protest,” Robert shouted, “the evidence of the eyes agrees with the taste.”

“I repeat, Mister Robert,” Flip replied; “It is a very common mollusk in the Mediterranean, but a little less widespread in American seas. I have eaten it so often that I can claim to know something about it. I guarantee that when you munch on these mollusks you will find they have a strong pepper flavor.”

“That’s right,” Marc replied.

“Besides, notice that these valves form an oblong mollusk, nearly equally rounded at both ends, which is not found in the ordinary mussel. These mollusks are called lithodomes, but they are none the less good for us.”

“Also,” Robert said, “We have collected an ample supply for our mother. Let’s leave!” the lad added, wishing he was back at the encampment.

“Hey, don’t run so fast,” Flip shouted on seeing Robert bolting across the rocks; but nothing came of his suggestion.

“Let him go,” said Marc. “Our mother will be at ease that much sooner when she sees him return.”

However, Marc and Flip returned to the shore and walked along the base of the cliff. It was about eight o’clock in the morning. The two explorers had no lack of appetite and a substantial meal would have met with universal approval. But these mollusks are not rich in protein. And Flip regretted that he could not bring Mrs. Clifton something more nourishing. But it was difficult to catch a fish without a string or a line or to catch some game without a gun or some noose. Fortunately, on following the granite wall, Marc found a half dozen bird’s nests in the cracks on the lower sections of the granite.

“Good,” said the sailor, “these birds are not sea gulls. See, Mister Marc, how they fly away at top speed! If I am not mistaken, this game is excellent to eat.”

“What are these birds?” Marc asked.

“I recognize them by the double black band on their wings, by their white rump and their ashen blue plumage. They are wild pigeons also called rock pigeons. Later we will try to domesticate this species for our future poultry yard. But if the rock pigeon is good to eat, its eggs cannot be bad and if they would only let us get into their nest!...”

While speaking, Flip approached some of the cavities from which frightened pigeons were escaping. In one cavity he found about a dozen eggs which he carefully placed in his handkerchief. Decidedly, breakfast was complete. Marc gathered a few handfuls of salt from the rock hollows where the sea water had evaporated. They went back to the encampment.

A quarter of an hour after Robert returned, Flip and Marc rounded the corner of the cliff and saw the entire colony gathered around a sparkling blaze with a plume of smoke twirling into the air. The newcomers were welcomed. Mrs. Clifton had placed the kettle on the fire and soon the mollusks were gently cooking in several pints of sea water which would pep up its flavor. As to the pigeon eggs, they were greeted with joy by the two young children. Little Belle first wanted an egg cup; but Flip, not having one to give her, consoled her by promising to pick one off a tree that grew egg cups. This time they had to be content with hardening the eggs under the hot cinders.

Breakfast was soon ready. The fully cooked mollusks gave off an excellent sea odor. Even soup plates were not missing; because Mrs. Clifton had gathered a few dozen large sea shells to replace them. When the kettle was empty, Marc went to fill it with fresh water from the river. As usual, Flip livened things up by talking about his plans for the future, making a castaway’s life seem enviable. It goes without saying that no one touched the biscuit or the salted meat, reserving it for extreme circumstances.

With breakfast over, Mrs. Clifton and Flip talked about improving their situation. It was indispensable to find a more secure shelter. This search would necessitate a serious exploration of the cliff. But Flip put this exploration off for the next day. He did not want to go far on this first day leaving Mrs. Clifton alone with her children. Besides, he wanted to keep up the supply of fuel.

He returned to the forest by way of the right bank of the river. He carried back several loads of wood using the raft. He even took the precaution of lighting two distinct fires so they would not be deprived in case one of them was extinguished.

The second day thus passed. Lithodomes and more eggs, gathered by Flip and Robert, assured the evening meal. Then night came on, a starry night, which the family passed under the shelter of the boat. Mrs. Clifton and Flip took turns in watching the fires. Nothing troubled their tranquility except for the distant howlings of some wild beasts who once again frightened the poor mother!

  1. A descending tide.

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