Uncle Robinson

Chapter VII

The next day, the 27th of March, everyone was on foot at daybreak. The weather was fine, but a bit chilly. It was an opportune time for an excursion to the interior and Flip resolved not to postpone this important exploration. To survey the land, the nature of the resources within it, what the castaways could expect from it, to know if it was inhabited or not, to decide once and for all if the Clifton family could settle here, these were serious questions that must be resolved as soon as possible. As to this other no less interesting question to determine if this was an island or a continent, Flip did not expect to find the answer during this initial expedition. It probably was not an island, at least not a small island. The height of the peak and the buttresses that supported it made that unlikely. Certainly, if they could climb the mountain, they would probably know what they could count on; but the ascension of the mountain would have to be attempted later; they must think first of the most pressing matters; food and lodging.

Flip, making his plans known, obtained Mrs. Clifton’s approval. As a strong and courageous woman, she was able to control her sorrow. She placed her confidence in God, in herself, and in Flip, knowing that providence would not abandon them. When the worthy sailor consulted her on the necessity for this exploration of the interior, she well understood that her two youngest children could not join the expedition and that she must remain alone with them. A vivid emotion seized her heart at this thought, but she surmounted it and replied that Flip must leave without delay.

“Very well, Madam!” Flip replied, “let us start breakfast and we will decide later which of the young gentlemen will accompany me!”

“Me! Me!” Marc and Robert shouted.

But Flip announced that only one of the two older boys would accompany him with the other guarding the family during his absence. And, while saying this, Flip looked at Marc in a way that the brave boy could not mistake. He understood that it was incumbent on him, as the oldest, to watch over his mother, his brother and his sister. This child was the head of the family; better suited than impetuous Robert, he understood the gravity of the situation and the responsibility placed upon him. Flip did not need to say another word.

“I will stay with you, Mother. I am the oldest and I will watch our camp while Flip is away.”

Marc chose his words well because Mrs. Clifton began to cry.

“A thousand devils!” shouted the worthy sailor, becoming emotional. “You are a brave boy, Mister Marc, and I would like to embrace you.”

Marc ran into Flip’s arms and pressed against his chest.

“And now, let’s eat,” he said.

It was seven in the morning. They ate lightly. Mrs. Clifton did not want the explorers to leave without sufficient provisions for the trip. She insisted that they take some of the biscuit and salted meat. Flip had to give in, but the question of food did not worry him. He counted on nature to provide. He regretted only one thing, that they didn’t have the proper weapons. How could they hunt for game without weapons or protect themselves against attacks from men or wild beasts? He cut off two sticks, sharpened one end and hardened them in fire. No doubt a primitive device but a formidable weapon in Flip’s hands. With his stick on his shoulder, Robert assumed a challenging posture which made his brother smile.

It was agreed that Mrs. Clifton and the children would not roam far; Marc would go along the shore only to gather more mollusks and pigeon eggs; but, with Flip’s express instructions: watch the fire, watch it constantly. Marc and his mother were especially directed to keep up the fire.

At eight o’clock, Robert embraced Mrs. Clifton, his brothers and his sister. They were ready to leave. Flip shook their hands, he reminded them again of their duties, and he started off along the left bank of the river. He did not pause when he reached the place where he had constructed the raft. Little by little the river narrowed and the grassy banks became hemmed in. The right bank was bordered by a granite cliff which was higher than the cliff on the other side and it extended beyond the forest. They would not be able to survey the countryside toward the north. But Flip could explore the right bank of the watercourse at a later time, limiting this exploration to the south countryside.

At a mile from the encampment, Flip and his young companion saw that the river disappeared under the double arch of the forest. The evergreen trees presented a gloomy appearance. They must now cross the woods and Robert, always impatient, wanted to run on ahead, but Flip suggested that he should not leave him.

“We do not know what we will encounter in this forest,” he said. “I beg you then, Mister Robert, not to go far from me.”

“But I am not afraid!” the young lad replied, waving his sharp stick.

“I know that,” the sailor replied with a smile, “but I will be scared if you leave me alone.”

Without abandoning the path formed by the bank, both entered under the dome of trees. Fresh water flowed on their left. The sun, already high in the sky, traced shadows of the foliage across the dark river. Flip and Robert did not follow the riverbank without encountering a few obstacles, here some bent trees with stumps soaked in the river, there some creepers or thorns which they broke with a stick or the knife. Robert often pranced about the broken branches with the agility of a young cat, and he disappeared into the forest, but Flip called him back.

“Mister Robert,” he shouted.

“Here I am, here I am, Mister Flip,” the young lad replied, showing himself through the shrubs with his face red as a peony flower.

Nevertheless, Flip surveyed the surrounding area. The soil was flat on the left bank of the river; wet in places it took on a marshy appearance. They felt an underground network of streams which, by some subterranean fault, flowed toward the river. At times a real brook flowed through the brushwood which the two travelling companions crossed without difficulty. The opposite bank was more varied and the valley more sharply patterned. The embankment, covered by trees of various sizes, formed a curtain which obstructed their view. On the right bank, walking would have been difficult because of the abrupt cavities in the ground and because the trees, curved to the surface of the water, seemed to hold on only by a miracle of equilibrium.

Needless to say, this forest showed no signs of any human touch. Flip only saw traces of animals. Nowhere the mark of a pick or an axe. Nowhere an extinct fire. The sailor was happy about this because cannibals frequent this part of the Pacific. He dreaded the presence of man more than he desired them.

Flip and Robert were moving along but slowly. After an hour they barely covered a mile. They did not leave the watercourse which would show the way to return out of this labyrinth. They frequently stopped to look for game. Flip, who had travelled the entire world from the frigid zones to the torrid zones, hoped to find some edible fruit. But up to this point their search had been fruitless. The trees of this forest generally belonged to the conifer family, which grow in all the regions of the globe from cold climates to the tropics. A naturalist would have especially recognized the deodar species which are seen as far away as the himalayan countries. These trees emit an agreeable fragrance. They saw numerous clusters of maritime pines whose opaque parasol boughs were widely spaced. In the midst of the tall grass, their feet crushed dry branches which crackled like fireworks.

Several birds were chirping and flying about under the foliage, but they showed themselves to be extremely elusive. In a marshy part of the forest, Robert recognized a bird with a sharp and elongated beak which anatomically resembled a kingfisher. However, what distinguished this bird was its rather rugged plumage which was coated with a metallic brilliance. Robert and Flip really wanted to get hold of it, one to bring to his brothers, the other keeping its edible qualities in mind. But they could not get near.

“What bird is this?” Robert asked.

“This bird, Mister Robert,” replied the sailor, “I think I have already encountered in the forests of North America where they call it a jacamar.”

“How fine it will look in a henhouse,” the young lad shouted.

“And in a stew!” Flip laughed. “But this roast is not in a humor to be caught!”

“What does that matter!” Robert shouted, pointing to a flock of birds scattered across the foliage. “What pretty plumage! What a long tail and what sparkling colors. But they are small! They rival the hummingbird’s size and color!”

In fact, the birds indicated by the lad sluggishly scattered across the branches but their loosely attached feathers fell to the ground in a fine down. Flip gathered some of these feathers and examined them.

“Are these small creatures edible?” Robert asked.

“Yes, my boy” replied the sailor. “These little birds are much sought after because of their delicate flesh. I much prefer a guinea fowl or a heather cock; but with a few dozen of these charming birds we could make a presentable meal.”

“And what birds are these?”

“Couroucous,” replied Flip. “I have captured thousands of these in northern Mexico, and if my memory is not mistaken, it is easy to approach them and kill them with a stick.”

“Good!” said Robert, dashing forward.

“Not so fast, Mister impatient!” shouted the sailor, “not so fast. You will never become a good hunter if you are so quick tempered.”

“Oh! If I only had a gun...” Robert said.

“Gun or stick, you must be cunning. When you are well armed, do not hesitate to fire or strike. But right now, stay calm. Watch! Imitate me and try to bring Mrs. Clifton a plate of couroucous.”

Flip and Robert glided through the tall grass until they came to the foot of the trees whose lower branches were covered with these small birds; these couroucous were waiting for the passage of insects that made up their diet. They could see their feet, covered with feathers up to their toes, grasping the branches that supported them.

The hunters had arrived at their theater of action. Robert controlled his impatience but he promised himself he would deliver a sharp blow. He was disappointed when he realized how insufficient his stick was against these peaceful birds. Hiding in the tall grass, Flip gave a signal. He stood up in a flash and razed entire files of couroucous. The birds, dazed and stupefied by this sort of attack, did not think of fleeing. They calmly allowed themselves to be slaughtered. About a hundred littered the ground when the others decided to fly away.

Robert finally got permission to act. If it was not in the role of a hunter at least it was worthy of a hunting dog. This role suited him and he did it well. He leaped across the brushwood, dashed over tree stumps and scooped up the wounded birds huddling in the grass. Soon nine or ten dozen were piled up on the ground.

“Hurrah!” shouted Flip. “That will make a commendable dish. But it is not enough. The forest must be rich in game. Let’s look further!”

The couroucous were strung up on a bulrush and the hunters continued their journey under the shelter of the green trees. Flip noted that the river curved slightly to the south. The sun was now shining from the side whereas before it was directly in front proving that the river’s direction had changed. But in his opinion the river could not continue long in this direction because its waters evidently came from the foothills of the mountain, supplied by the melting snow which covered the sides of the central peak. Flip then resolved to continue along the river bank, hoping soon to leave the thick forest behind so he could explore the open countryside.

The trees were magnificent but Flip did not stop to admire them. Still no edible fruit. The sailor searched in vain for some of those precious palm trees that find so many uses in domestic life, and he was surprised at not finding any since they grow from the fortieth degree north latitude to the thirty fifth degree south latitude. But the conifer family of trees were the only ones in this forest. The douglas trees 1 resembled those admirable fir trees that grow in northwest America measuring sixty centimeters in diameter at their base and growing to sixty meters in height.

“What beautiful trees!” Flip shouted, “but we can’t put them to use!”

“Perhaps!” Robert replied, suddenly getting an idea.

“What is your idea?”

“To climb to the top to examine the countryside.”

“Can you do that?”

Flip had not finished speaking but the lad had already climbed to lower branches of the colossal fir tree. He climbed with unrivalled agility. The arrangement of branches facilitated his ascension. Flip urged caution but Robert barely heard him. But his agility was so remarkable and he seemed to have experience with this exercise so Flip felt reassured.

Robert soon reached the top of the tree. Getting a good grip, he looked around. Flip heard him clearly.

“Nothing of interest,” he said, “nothing but trees; a shoreline, a peak that dominates the countryside; and a scintillating line that must be the ocean. All is in order.”

“I did not say no,” shouted Flip, “but go down carefully.”

Robert obeyed and reached the bottom without mishap. He repeated what he had said: the forest was covered with fir trees like the one he had climbed. “Never mind,” Flip replied, “let’s continue along the river and if we don’t reach the end of the forest in an hour we will go back.”

Around eleven o’clock, Flip remarked to Robert that the sun’s rays were no longer striking them from the side but from the back. The river’s direction was now toward the sea. There was no inconvenience to the hunters in following the river. They were on the inside curve but they had had no occasion to cross to the other bank. They continued on their way. They still had not caught some larger game. However, several times Robert had flushed out some invisible animal while running in the tall grass. The lad was not able to get hold of it and he often regretted that his dog Fido was not there to do the job!

“Fido is with Robert’s father!” Flip thought, “and perhaps it is better that way!”

They caught a glimpse of a new flock of birds pecking away at aromatic berries. Flip recognized that they were juniper berries. Suddenly the sound of real trumpets resonated through the forest. Robert cocked his ear expecting a cavalry regiment to appear. But Flip recognized that this strange fanfare was made by gallinules 2 which are called grouse in the United States. Soon the saw several couples, with a variety of brown and fawn colored plumage, and with a brown tail. The males were recognized by the two pointed fins formed by the feathers raised on their neck. Gallinules are larger than a chicken and Flip knew that their flesh is as good as that of a hazel hen. He decided to capture a few of these grouse. In spite of Flip’s ruses, in spite of Robert’s skill, they were not able to get hold of them. The sailor was at the point of striking one of the grouse with his pointed stick but a sudden movement by Robert made the bird fly away.

Flip looked at the lad and pronounced these words which affected him deeply: “Mrs. Clifton would have been very happy to share a wing of this fowl with her small children!”

Robert, with his hands in his pockets and eyes to the ground, walked behind the sailor and followed him without saying a word.

By noon, the hunters had gone about four miles 3 from the encampment; they were exhausted not so much from walking along the bank but from their walk across the obstructed forest. Flip decided not to go any further but to return by the left bank of the river in order not to go astray. But he and Robert were hungry. They both sat down under a clump of trees and started to eat with a good appetite.

With the meal ended, the sailor got ready to return to the encampment when he heard an unusual sound. He turned and saw an animal crouching under the brushwood. It was a kind of pig, about eighty centimeters long, blackish brown but not as dark on the underside, having tough but thin hair. The animal’s toes, which were then gripping the ground, seemed to be united by membranes. Flip immediately recognized this animal as a cabybara, one of the larger rodents.

The capybara did not move. It stupidly rolled its large eyes which were deeply imbedded in a thick layer of fat. Perhaps it saw man for the first time and did not know what to expect!

Flip held his stick firmly. The rodent was ten feet from him. Flip stared at Robert. Robert did not move any more than the capybara did. He crossed his arms on his chest and made every effort to control himself.

“Good!” Flip said to him, making a sign that he should not move from his place.

He then walked in small steps around the brushwood while the animal remained immobile. He soon disappeared into the tall grass. Robert stood as if rooted to the soil; but his chest heaved with rapid movements. He stared at the rodent. Five minutes passed and then Flip appeared in back of the brushwood. The capybara, sensing danger, turned its head; but suddenly Flip’s formidable cudgel struck it from behind like lightning. The capybara let out a vigorous grunt and, being seriously wounded, it ran forward, knocked Robert over and escaped into the woods.

Hearing Flip shout, Robert got up still stunned from his fall, and ran after the wounded rodent. He soon spotted him. Just as he was about to pounce on the animal the latter made one last dash and overshot the boundary of this endless forest which unfolded not onto a prairie but a vast body of water.

To Robert’s great surprise, the capybara plunged into this lake and disappeared. The lad stood still, his stick raised, looking at the bubbling water. Flip soon appeared. He did not even look at the new scenery. He thought only of his capybara. He asked about his capybara.

“Ah! How clumsy I am!” Robert shouted. “I lost him!”

“But where is it?”

“There! Under the water.”

“Let us wait for it! Mister Robert. It will soon come to the surface to breathe.”

“Won’t it drown?”

“No. It has webbed feet. It is a capybara and I have hunted more than one of them on the banks of the Orinoco. Let’s watch for it.”

Flip paced back and forth this time more impatient than Robert. In his mind it was a priceless rodent. It was the pièce de résistance of a future dinner. But Flip was not mistaken. After a few minutes the animal emerged from the water at least a meter from where Robert was stationed. The lad dashed towards the capybara and grabbed him by a leg. Flip ran over and strangled the capybara.

“Well done!” Flip shouted. “You will become a real hunter, Mister Robert. Here is a rodent which we will gnaw to the bone and which will conveniently substitute for the grouse that escaped us. But where are we?”

The surroundings were worth looking at. This large expanse of water was a lake shaded by fine trees on the eastern and northern banks. The river served as a spillway for the lake’s overflow. There were a few arid ramps south of the lake where only clumps of trees grew. The lake measured about a league along its larger diameter. An island emerged a few hundred feet from the edge of the forest. Toward the west, across a curtain of trees among which Flip recognized some coconut trees, the scintillating horizon of the sea appeared.

The sailor threw the capybara over his shoulder and, followed by Robert, he walked alongside the edge of the lake for about two miles. There the lake formed a sharp corner with only a large verdant prairie separating it from the shoreline of the ocean. They need only cross this prairie to reach the coast and Flip counted on the new route to reach the encampment. He was not mistaken. They crossed the large carpet of greenery as well as the line of coconut trees. The two hunters found themselves at the southern end of the cliff whose summit Flip had reached on the previous day. The long islet he had already seen extended in front of him with a narrow channel separating it from the shore.

But Flip was impatient to rejoin Mrs. Clifton and her family. Robert and he turned the small promontory formed by the corner of the cliff, walking across the sand. They had to hurry because the tide was coming in and the tops of the rocks had already disappeared under the rising sea. They made haste and at about two thirty they reached the encampment where they were greeted with joyous cries from the entire family.

  1. Conifers have thick branches and grow rapidly.
  2. An order of land birds to which belong the fowl, the partridge, the peacock, the guinea fowl and the turkey.
  3. The terrestrial mile equals 1.609 meters and is still used in Great Britain and in North America.

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