Uncle Robinson

Chapter X

The next day the weather was favorable for an excursion. Flip decided to explore the shores of the lake. He asked Mrs. Clifton if she wanted to accompany him with her young children.

“I thank you, friend Flip,” the mother replied. “Since someone must stay behind to watch the fire, it is better that I should be in charge of this task. Marc and Robert will be more useful than I, as hunters and as fishermen. During your absence, I will use the time to arrange things in our new home.”

“Then you don’t mind remaining here alone?” the sailor asked Mrs. Clifton.

“Yes, Flip.”

“If you want, Mother,” Marc said, “I will stay with you and Robert can go with Flip.”

“As a hunting dog,” Robert joined in.

“No, my children,” Mrs. Clifton replied. “Both of you go with Flip. Mustn’t I get accustomed to staying alone some of the time? Besides, don’t I have big Jack to protect me?...”

Master Jack stood heroically on his two feet on hearing his mother speak. However, to speak frankly, this little boy was not very brave. Whenever night came on, he did not dare to venture outside alone in the shadows. But in full daylight, he was a hero.

They respected Mrs. Clifton’s decision. Flip, Marc and Robert prepared to leave. Not wanting to prolong his absence, the sailor agreed to limit his exploration to the western and southern shores of the lake.

Knowing that Mrs. Clifton intended to smoke the three remaining legs of the capybara, Flip installed an apparatus proper for this operation before leaving. Three stakes united at the top like a tent and fixed in the ground at their lower extremities formed the apparatus. The hams would be suspended over a fire of green wood and the thick smoke would penetrate the meat. They would use a few branches from aromatic bushes which would give the meat a delicious aroma and since there was no lack of these bushes in the vicinity, Mrs. Clifton would put the finishing touches on her culinary operation.

At eight o’clock, after a quick breakfast, the three hunters, armed with their pointed clubs, left the encampment and crossed the prairie to the shore of the lake. In passing, they admired the magnificent groves of coconut trees and Flip promised his young companions that before long they would harvest the nuts.

When the sailor reached the lake, instead of going left along the circular shore that led to the forest already explored, he turned right to go south. In certain places the shore was marshy. Many aquatic birds were there including several couples of kingfishers. Perched on some stone, solemn and immobile, they were on the lookout for passing fish. From time to time they dashed and plunged under the water making a sharp cry, then they reappeared with prey in beak. Robert naturally wanted to try his skill at hunting these birds either with his club or by throwing a stone; but Flip stopped him; he knew that the flesh of these birds is detestable; so why destroy these inoffensive creatures?

“Let them live around us,” he said to the two young boys. “These animals break our solitude and charm us. Remember, Mister Robert, that we must never spill the blood of an animal for no reason. That is the act of a bad hunter.”

After walking for half an hour, Flip and his two companions reached the extremity of the lake. The western shoreline, following an oblique line, turned away from the coast; from this point the ocean was not even visible and a succession of dunes, bristling with bulrushes, cut short the view. At the point where the travellers then found themselves, the southern bank ran from the southwest to the northeast. It was rounded, making the lake look like the point of a heart directed southward. The waters were beautiful, clear, a bit blackish and, from the bubbles and the concentric circles that criss crossed each other at the surface, there was no doubt that these waters were full of fish.

South of the lake the ground was uneven, rising abruptly and forming a succession of hills. The three explorers crossed this new countryside. Marc immediately noted that a large number of tall bamboo trees were growing there.

“Bamboos!” shouted Flip. “Ah! Mister Marc, here is a precious discovery.”

“But we can’t eat bamboos,” Robert said.

“Good,” replied the sailor, “aren’t there other uses besides eating? Besides, I can tell you that in India I have eaten bamboos like asparagus!”

“Asparagus thirty feet high!” shouted Robert. “And were they good?”

“Excellent,” Flip responded unruffled. “Only to be frank, it was not the thirty foot high stalks but the young shoots. You should also know, Mister Robert, that the pith of the new stalks, pickled in vinegar, makes a very appreciated condiment. In addition, these bamboos, which are suitable for all sorts of economic uses, exude a sweet liqueur between their nodes which Miss Belle will find very tasty.”

“What else can be done with this precious vegetable?” Marc asked.

“With its bark cut into flexible lath, Mister Marc, we can make bread baskets and bins. This bark, macerated and reduced to a paste serves to make rice paper. From the stems, according to their size, we can make canes and water pipes. The largest bamboos are an excellent construction material, light and strong, which are never attacked by insects. Finally, and this is what we will use them for, we will make vases of different sizes.”

“Vases! But how?” Robert asked.

“By sawing the bamboo internodes to a convenient length, and keeping for the bottom a portion of the transverse partition which forms the node. In this way sturdy and handy pots are obtained which are very much in use by the Chinese.”

“Ah! Our mother will be happy!” Marc said. “Her poor kettle is her only utensil!”

“Well, my young friends,” said Flip, “it is useless for us to load up now with these bamboos. On our return we will pass by here and then we will collect them. Let’s be on our way.”

The walk through the hills was resumed. The hunters, always on the alert, soon saw the scintillating ocean past the capricious line of dunes. From this elevated point they could easily distinguish the end of the cliff, the one with the excavation that now served as the family’s home.

The boys looked carefully toward the coast but at this distance of five miles across a curtain of trees they could not locate the exact position of the encampment.

“No,” said Marc, “I cannot see the grotto in which our mother, Jack and Belle are sheltered at the moment. But look, Robert, don’t you see a small line of bluish smoke rising above the trees? Isn’t that a sign that all is well down there?”

“Yes, I see it,” Robert shouted.

“And in fact,” said Flip, “this small smoke is a good sign and we need have no fear for those we have left behind. But, if you please, my young gentlemen, if we keep looking at the shore we won’t be getting much hunting done. I would rather find out if these hills of the southwest have game. Let us not forget that our duty as hunters comes before our explorations. Let’s think of our cupboard.”

Flip’s suggestion was a good one to follow. They still had no game. Flip and his young companions went down toward the ocean and they discovered some small prairies hidden among the sand dunes; the lightly moist soil was covered with aromatic herbs that perfumed the air. Without difficulty, Flip recognized groups of thyme, serpolet, basil, savory, all sweet smelling species of the labiate family. It was a natural warren only lacking in rabbits. In this area, at any rate, they saw none of the holes that riddle the grounds frequented by these rodents. However, Flip could not admit that the guests would be missing when the table was set for them. He decided to explore this warren with greater care and they continued their walk among the hills and the prairies. Robert ran and jumped about like a child, gliding among the sandy declivities at the risk of tearing his clothes.

This exploration was continued for another half hour but rabbits or other representatives of the rodent tribe did not appear. However, although there were no animals, a naturalist would have had the occasion to study several specimens of the vegetable kingdom. Marc, who was rather fond of natural history and botany, saw certain plants that could be useful in a household. Among others, he recognized various plants of didymous monardas 1 which go under the name of Oswego tea in North America. Marc remembered their agreeable taste when taken as a tea. He gathered a certain quantity as well as basil shoots, rosemary, melissa, betony 2, etc., and others which possessed therapeutic properties for use as cough mixtures, astringents 3, antifebriles 4, others antispasmodics, or antirhumatics. These prairies contained a fortune for a pharmacist.

However, since no member of the small colony was nor wished to be sick, Flip was not paying too much attention to these medical resources when he heard Robert calling about fifty paces ahead.

Flip rushed over and realized that he had not been mistaken in his feelings. He saw hundreds of sandy mounds riddled with holes.

“Burrows!” Robert said.

“Yes!” Flip replied.

“But are they inhabited?”

“That is the question” replied the sailor.

The question was not long in resolving itself. Almost at once, bands of small animals resembling rabbits fled in all directions but with such speed that they could not hope to follow them. Being good runners, Marc and Robert went in pursuit but the rodents easily escaped them. But Flip resolved not to leave the place before capturing a half dozen of these animals. First he wanted to supply the pantry and then to domesticate those that they would take later. But when he saw Marc and Robert returning exhausted and with empty hands, he realized that since they could not take these rodents on the run, they must try to take them at the burrows. With a few collars hung at the openings to the burrows the operation would likely succeed, but with no collars and no way to make them, that compounded the difficulty. They resigned themselves to visiting each burrow, to pry with a stick, doing with patience what they could not do any other way.

For an hour the three hunters visited a large number of burrows, taking care to plug earth and grass into those that were not occupied. Marc was the first to find one of these rodents crouching in its burrow; with a little difficulty he captured the animal with a blow from his stick. Flip recognized the rodent as a rabbit resembling its European congeners and who are commonly known under the name of “American Rabbits” because they are found in the northern parts of that continent.

Marc’s success made his competitors hungry. Robert did not want to return to the encampment without at least two or three of these rodents as his share, but since he had more energy than patience, he allowed a half dozen rabbits to escape him after surprizing them in their burrows. After an hour, Flip and Marc captured four rabbits and he not a single one. He gave up prying into the burrows and began to chase them on foot but the agile rodents easily dodged his stones and stick. When Flip gave the signal to leave, the unfortunate lad mumbled something about his disappointment.

Flip, however, was enchanted with his success. He could not be more pleased. Four rabbits, that was a good catch especially under the conditions it was obtained. Besides, the sun indicated it was noon time and the stomachs of the hunters spoke urgently. Flip decided to get back to the grotto. He suspended his two rabbits at the end of his stick; Marc imitated him; and both, belittling the need for collars, took to the road past the lake. Robert preceded them, whistling as if he didn’t care at all.

“I am sorry that Robert didn’t catch anything,” Marc said to his friend Flip.

“Mister Robert is a little bitter,” the sailor replied, “but he will mature in time.”

At half past twelve, Flip and his companions reached the southern end of the lake. They then turned left towards the bamboo groves. While prying about here and there in a marshy area, Robert caught sight of a bird that quickly flew away. The young lad’s self-esteem came into play and he decided to catch this bird at any price. He dashed off in pursuit. Flip didn’t have time to call him back. The thoughtless boy was already splashing about the mud; but with a skilfully thrown stone he wounded the bird. With its wing broken, the creature was struggling in the grass a few meters away.

Not wanting his prey to escape, Robert went deeper into the marshy area. In spite of Flip’s shouts, he went to the bird and captured it. But the soil was soaked and little by little he began to sink. It was fortunate that he had the presence of mind to place his stick crosswise; then, pulling on clumps of grass, he hauled himself out of the marsh at the expense of ruining his clothes now covered with black mud.

He was triumphant. He paid little attention to Flip’s reprimands nor the danger he had undergone, nor the condition of his clothes which would be difficult to replace. He had no regrets whatsoever.

“I caught my bird! I caught my bird!” he shouted while gesticulating.

“You didn’t act wisely,” Flip replied. “Besides, what kind of bird do you have there? Is it edible?”

“It is good,” Robert answered back, “I would like to see someone find fault with it.”

The sailor examined the bird that Robert gave him. It was a coot, belonging to the group of macrodactiles that form the transition between the order of waders and those of the web footers. The coot is a good swimmer, grey colored with a short beak, an eminent frontal bone, fingers stretched in a scalloped frame, distinguished by a white edge on its wings, about the size of a partridge. Flip easily identified it and, shaking his head, he gave it up as poor game, unworthy of a respectable roast or stew. But Robert belonged to that group of hunters humorously called “carnivorous imbeciles” who care nothing about which animal they eat as long as they have killed it! Since Robert considered his coot to be edible and since a discussion in this regard would fall on deaf ears, Flip did not pursue it, and he continued on his way to the coconut groves.

There, using his knife, he cut a half dozen different sizes of these vegetables belonging to the armidinaria bamboo species which from afar resemble small palm trees because numerous branches full of leaves come out of their nodes. Flip and the boys shared in carrying the bamboos and, taking the shortest route, they reached the encampment around two in the afternoon.

Mrs. Clifton, Jack and Belle went forward a quarter of a mile to meet them. The hunters were welcomed with joy and the rabbits with the honors they deserved. The housewife was happy to know that this warren could always furnish her family with healthy nourishing game.

On arriving at the encampment, Flip found the fire in perfect condition, because Mrs. Clifton had taken care to add wood after he left. The capybara legs were smoked in thick vapors which escaped from a pile of green branches. Flip immediately began to skin one of the four rabbits. A stick, acting as a spit, pierced the rabbit from head to toe. Two forked branches, dug into the ground, held the stick in place. A flaming fire was maintained under the future roast. Master Jack was put in charge of turning the apparatus and a food hound would not have discharged his duties with more intelligence.

On seeing Robert’s clothes soiled with mud, mother looked at him without saying a word. But the boy understood the meaning of this silent reproach. He carefully brushed his clothes since the dry mud had turned into dust. As to his coot, he did not want to admit his mistake. He quickly plucked it, tearing off some of the meat with the feathers, then, after tearing half of the crop with the entrails under the pretence of cleaning it, he put it on the spit and watched the roast himself.

The rabbit roast was ready and dinner was served on the sand outside the grotto. The rabbit, perfumed with the odor of all the herbs that served as its regular nourishment, was found to be excellent and was gnawed to the bone. Little would have remained if another one of the rabbits had been passed around. But a dozen pigeon eggs completed the meal. As to Robert’s coot, after it was only half roasted, it was cut into pieces to be served all around. Little Jack decided to taste a piece. But at the first mouthful, he made a terrible face and had to spit it out. The flesh tasted muddy and marshy and it was impossible to swallow it. Robert, however, with his self esteem at stake, was stubborn. He courageously ate every last piece just to show that there was nothing wrong with it.

Flip and Mrs. Clifton devoted the next day to getting things in order and settling in. The sailor used the day to make vases from the bamboo internodes. He used his knife to skilfully cut this hard material. A saw was the proper instrument for this task but Flip used the point of the knife and he was able to give the family a dozen finished vases which were placed in a corner of the grotto. The largest were immediately filled with fresh water and the smallest were used as drinking glasses. Mrs. Clifton was very satisfied with her wood glassworks which were worthy for use in Bohemia or in Venice. “Even better,” she said, “we needn’t fear that these glasses will break.”

During the day Marc discovered a sort of edible fruit which would fortunately vary the regular menu. These fruits, or rather these grains, came from a pine tree they frequently came across at the edge of the prairie. It was the pine kernel which produces an excellent almond that is very esteemed in the temperate regions of America and Europe. The ones Marc took to his mother were in a perfect state of maturity. Henceforth the children helped their brother gather an abundant supply of these kernels. They didn’t have to beg. As compensation, their mother let them nibble at a few of them.

So then, the family’s situation improved day by day. Little by little hope began to return to this poor woman so cruelly tried. But for how long a time had this family been cast on this land? Neither Mrs. Clifton, nor Flip, nor any of the children could say for sure. That night Jack asked, “What day is it?” prompting them to think of past events.

“What day?” Flip repeated. “My word, I am forced to admit that I don’t know.”

“What,” said Robert, “we don’t know how many days we’ve been here?”

“I can’t say!” Mrs. Clifton replied.

“I don’t know any more than mother does,” Marc added.

“Well, I, I know,” said little Belle.

Everyone turned to the little girl and they could see her taking some stones out of her pocket and placing them on a seashell.

“Little Belle,” her mother asked her, “what is the significance of these stones?”

“Mother,” the child replied, “every day since we have been here, I put one of these stones in my pocket so all we need to do is to count them.”

They welcomed the little girl’s declaration. Flip congratulated her for having thought of this mineral calendar and he embraced her for her trouble.

They counted the stones; there were six. It was six days since the abandoned family had set foot on this land. Now it was on Monday, the 25th of March that the boat had left the Vancouver. Today was Saturday, the 30th of March. “Good!” shouted Jack, “tomorrow will be Sunday.”

“Yes, the 31st of March,” Mrs. Clifton replied, “and this Sunday, my children, will be Easter Sunday!”

The next day was devoted to rest and prayer. Everyone thanked heaven for having so obviously protected them and they did not forget to pray for their absent father who was always in their thoughts.

  1. Labiate which have two lobes in the embryo of their grain and have non parallel veins in their leaves.
  2. Labiate with purgative properties for the inducement of sneezing.
  3. Which tighten the tissues to stop hemorrhaging.
  4. Which reduce a fever.

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