Uncle Robinson

Chapter VIII

No incident worthy of note occurred during Flip’s absence. The fire had been carefully maintained and Marc had renewed the supply of eggs and mollusks. Flip brought over the capybara and the dozens of couroucous. There was no worry about food for the time being.

Before telling about his trip, the sailor want to prepare a meal, an urgent task since the two hunters had sharp appetites. They decided to save the couroucous for the next day and eat the capybara, a real pièce de résistance.

But first they had to cut up the capybara. Flip took charge of this task in his capacity as a sailor, that is to say as a “jack of all trades.” He skinned the rodent with remarkable skill. The chops from the capybara were placed on the burning wood. At the same time, the mollusks were cooked in the kettle and the eggs were placed under the cinders. That made a fine dinner. Mrs. Clifton intended to smoke the rest of the capybara early the next day.

Soon the odor of roast chops filled the air. Mother was ready with her dinner plates, that is to say her seashells. In the shadow of the cliff, the dinner guests gathered round the kettle on this fine day. Although the mollusks appeared to be ordinary, they were their usual success; the capybara chops were declared to be without rival in the entire world. If one were to believe the honest Flip, they had never had such a meal! He proved it by devouring anything left over.

When the dinner guests had satisfied their hunger, Mrs. Clifton begged Flip to tell about his exploration. But the sailor left that pleasure to his young traveling companion. Robert eloquently told what had happened during the excursion, a little impetuously perhaps, in short phrases and in poor grammar. He described the walk through the forest, the hunt for the couroucous, the capture of the capybara and the return by the lake and the southern cliff. He did mention their clumsy maneuvers with good grace and he minimized only a little his victory in his memorable battle with the amphibious capybara. But what he did not say, Flip said for him.

Mrs. Clifton was proud of her son. She embraced him tenderly while shaking Marc’s hand. Perhaps the latter was a bit jealous of his brother’s success. In this way Mrs. Clifton thanked her oldest son for watching over them during Flip’s absence.

Then the sailor repeated, in detail, Robert’s story; he emphasized certain important points principally about the discovery of the lake with potable water.

“There, Madam Clifton,” he said, “if we can settle in between the lake and the ocean, we will have a real Garden of Eden. We should not live far from the sea and here it will always be in view. The lake will furnish all our needs because it is frequented, I imagine, with flocks of aquatic birds. Further, the trees are much more beautiful than those on the shore and I saw coconuts, which have many uses.”

“But how can we settle there?” Mrs. Clifton asked.

“The worst part,” Flip replied, “will be to substitute the shelter under the boat for a cabin under a roof. But even that would not make an acceptable shelter. We must respect a castaway’s dignity. We will surely find a grotto, an excavation, a hole, a simple hole...”

“That we can make bigger!” said little Jack.

“Yes, with my knife,” Flip replied, smiling at the child.

“And where we can play!” Belle added.

“Yes, my pretty lady, without gun powder, only with a little bang, and we will have a charming place, dry in the winter and cool in the summer!”

“I would like a beautiful grotto, with diamonds on the walls like in the fairy tales.”

“We will make one, Miss Belle, just for you!” Flip replied. “The fairies will take their orders from pretty ladies like you!...”

Belle clapped her hands and the worthy sailor was very happy to spread a little gaiety and hope among these young spirits. Mrs. Clifton looked at him with half a smile on her pale lips.

“Then,” Flip said, “we will visit the neighborhood of our new home; not today, it is too late for that, but tomorrow.”

“Is the lake far?” Marc asked.

“No. Only two miles away. Tomorrow morning, with your permission, Mistress Clifton, I will take, for two hours only, Mister Marc and Mister Robert and we will examine this place.”

“All that you have done has been good, friend Flip,” Mrs. Clifton replied. “Aren’t you our Providence?”

“A pretty Providence!” shouted the sailor. “A Providence that has only a knife to carry on our affairs!”

“Yes,” Mrs. Clifton added, “only a knife, but a strong hand to grasp the knife!”

With this project agreed upon, it only remained to rest up while waiting for the next day. Flip rested in his usual way, by renewing the supply of wood.

Night then came on. The fire was prepared for the night. A clear sky indicated that it would be cold. But moss, dried with the fire, was prepared by Mrs. Clifton herself and the children huddled like fledglings in their nest.

Mrs. Clifton wanted to watch the fire and with difficulty she was able to get Flip to take a few hours of sleep. He obeyed her but decided to sleep with only one eye shut. Mother remained alone this dark night in front of the sparkling fire, attentive and thoughtful at the same time. Her stray thoughts focused on the ocean and on the outcome of the mutiny!

The next day, after a quick breakfast, Flip gave his two young companions the signal to depart. After embracing Mrs. Clifton, Marc and Robert went on ahead and turned the corner of the cliff. Flip soon joined them. While passing the bank of lithodomes they agreed that they had an inexhaustible supply. On the other side of the channel, on this long islet that protected the shoreline, numerous flocks of birds promenaded solemnly. These animals belonged to the division of divers; they were penguins, easily recognizable by their disagreeable cry which reminds one of the braying of a donkey. The flesh of these birds, although blackish, is quite edible. Flip knew this, and he also knew that these penguins, sluggish and stupid, could easily be killed with blows from a club or a stone. He promised himself that one of these days he would cross the channel to explore the islet so abundant in game. But he did not tell the two young lads about his plan. Robert would not have hesitated for a moment to throw himself into the water with the intention of giving chase to the penguins.

A half hour after leaving the encampment, Flip, Marc and Robert arrived at the southern end of the cliff with the tide ebbing at the moment. They had reached the large area between the shore and the lake which was familiar to Flip from his exploration of the previous day. Marc found the countryside charming. Clumps of coconut trees grew majestically at midway, tilted a little backwards. A curtain of fine trees grew on an uneven soil. These were beautiful conifers, some pines and larches among others, about thirty superb specimens of the ulmaceae family known under the name of Virginia elms.

Flip and his two young companions explored all of this part of the coastal area where the lake formed its eastern boundary. The lake seemed to be swarming with fish. But to exploit this resource, they would need lines, hooks and lines; Flip promised Marc and Robert that he would make these fishing devices after the small colony settled in.

While following the western shore of the lake, Flip discovered the footprints of some large animals who probably came to quench their thirst at this large reservoir of potable water. But he saw no trace of the presence of man. They were exploring land unsullied by humans.

Flip then returned to the southern part of the cliff where it was perpendicular to the sea and ended only a few feet from the clumps of elms.

This wall was carefully inspected. They hoped to discover a rather large cavity to house the entire family. This search had a happy result. It was Marc who discovered the long sought grotto. It was a real cavern cut into the granite, measuring thirty feet in length by twenty feet in width. A fine sand, bristling with mica, covered the ground. The cavern was more than ten feet high. Its sides, rugged near the top, were smooth and polished at the base as if the sea had at one time smoothed out its rough spots. The opening to this cavern was cut in an irregular shape, forming a sort of triangle, but there was sufficient daylight for the interior. In any event, Flip would not be inconvenienced by it. He would enlarge it.

On entering the grotto, Marc did not allow himself to jump or run on the sand—it was bound to happen with Master Robert. The latter’s jumping about destroyed large traces etched in the ground. Flip examined these traces. They were large footprints, evidently made by an animal that plainly moved on the soles of its feet, like the mammal racers do, and not on its fingers. The locomotive organs of the plantigrade that had left these footprints were powerful ones with pointed nails that made clear marks on the sand.

Flip did not want to frighten his young friends. He erased the footprints saying that they were of no importance. But he asked himself if this cavern which was frequented by a large beast could ever offer sanctuary to people who had no defensive weapons. However, having made this observation, he thought, not without reason, that even if it was visited by an animal, it was not the animal’s den. He saw no trace of excrement or of gnawed bones. They could hope that this chance visit would not occur again. Besides, if they obstructed the opening with blocks of stones, this grotto could be secure. In addition, fires could be kept burning night and day to keep ferocious beasts at a distance since fire is one of their great fears.

Flip then decided to make this spacious excavation his principal encampment. After examining the inside he looked at the exterior of the cliff. It was a solid mass a hundred and fifty feet high at this point. Its upper part receded like the high roofs that covered brick houses in Louis XIII’s century. The grotto was situated three hundred meters from the shoreline and two hundred meters from the lake. It was sheltered in part by a granite block which protected it from the rainy west winds. As to the grotto itself, they would not have a full view of the ocean but only a side view which extended to the promontory in the south. The central peak which rose to the rear of the cliff was not visible from the grotto; but otherwise they would have a fine view, the blue sky reflected in the lake, the wooded banks to the right, the piled up dunes, and the far away horizon with everything in between! It was a charming landscape!

The grotto was in a good location between the lake and the sea, at the edge of this green prairie covered with beautiful trees. Flip decided to bring Mrs. Clifton and her family here on this very day. This plan appealed to the young lads. They started back to the encampment.

They did not return without fishing and hunting on the way. The boys did not want to return with empty hands. While Robert gathered pigeon eggs, Marc collected mollusks. He was even able to capture an enormous crab, a toothed carapace weighing at least five pounds 1 with powerful claws he skilfully avoided. It was a fine piece of meat. On his part, Robert collected about a dozen eggs after breaking a few in his hurry to snatch them up. But he knew he wouldn’t break all of them.

At ten o’clock, Flip and his two travelling companions returned to the encampment. A smoke from the fire was rising gently into the air. Jack and Belle, charged with keeping up the fire, had done their job well.

Mrs. Clifton quickly made lunch with the crab prepared fresh. She had to cut it into pieces to get it into the kettle. Cooked in sea water, it was as tasty as lobster or crayfish from European seas.

Flip told Mrs. Clifton about his plan to move and she was ready to follow him. However, after the meal, the equinox winds which are so unpredictable during the final days of March burst into a violent rainstorm. Flip was forced to forgo his plans to move on this day. The gusts of wind, coming from the northwest, blasted directly against the cliff and threatened to sweep through the bed of moss under the boat. Flip worked constantly to prevent a flooding. The Clifton family was poorly protected and suffered a great deal from this squall which lasted all day and into the night. The fire was maintained only with the greatest difficulty. Never was their need for an enclosed and dry home felt so urgently.

  1. The pound is a unit of weight which varies in different places; in Paris it equals 489 grams. (Translator’s note: Now the pound is equal to 453.6 grams.)

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