Uncle Robinson

Chapter XI

Flip used the days that followed to get the Clifton family settled in. The question of their survival was practically solved. This land could provide everything the small colony needed. The question of their health remained; but Flip did not despair in resolving that likewise.

During the week the sailor acquired large quantities of firewood. The fire must be constantly watched, it was his most urgent task. Keeping a constant eye on the fire was an exacting obligation. Flip, Mrs. Clifton and her children could not venture far from the grotto as a group. It was impossible to undertake a large expedition to the interior. Flip, who did not show emotion easily, trembled at the thought of finding the fire extinguished. He remembered his fears when he tried that last match! Flip still had not found a suitable vegetable replacement for the amadou, and not knowing how to obtain fire by rubbing two pieces of wood together the way the savages do, they had to keep a constant watch on the grotto fire. In an excess of precaution, the sailor even thought of lighting additional fires for the night; these were torches made of resinous wood which, driven into the ground several meters from the base of the cliff, burned for several hours.

During this second week, several excursions allowed them to explore the neighborhood but within a limited area. Flip, did not want to leave Mrs. Clifton alone for the night, exposed to attacks from wild beasts, so he made it his duty to return to camp every night. Thus he still could not settle this important question of knowing if the land which served as a refuge for this abandoned family was a continent or an island.

Little by little the utensils of the colony were perfected by the ingenious sailor with skilful help from Marc and Robert. There was no lack of bamboo vases which they could easily make in all sizes. Marc even discovered a tree on the northern shore of the lake from which they could obtain an assortment of ready made bottles. This tree belonged to a species of calabash trees, very common in the tropical zones of two continents, but rarely found in the temperate climates.

“This leads me to believe,” the lad said to Flip, “that this land is at a lower latitude than we think.”

“In fact,” Flip replied, “the presence of these coconut trees tends to confirm that opinion.”

“But you, Flip,” said Marc, “you could not have known the position of the Vancouver at the time when the scoundrels abandoned us on the ocean?”

“No, Mister Marc. These things are the concern of the captain, not the crew. We sailors maneuver the vessel, but we do not decide in which direction it will go. But considering the products produced by this land, I think as you do, Mister Marc, that it is at a relatively low latitude, something like the Balearic Islands in the Mediterranean, or even the provinces of French Algeria.”

“However,” Marc replied, “this month of March is very cold for this low latitude.”

“Well, my lad,” Flip said, “don’t forget that in some years, even African rivers are frozen over. In February, 1853, I saw ice at Saint-Denis-du-Sig in the province of Oran. Besides, you very well know that in New York, which is at the same latitude as Madrid or Constantinople, on the 40th parallel, the winters are extremely rigorous. The climate depends a great deal on the nature of configuration of the land. It is thus possible that the winters here will be very cold even if we are at a low latitude.

”It is unfortunate that we cannot determine it,“ said Marc.

”Yes, it is unfortunate, Mister Marc,“ replied the sailor, ”but we have no instrument which will allow us to determine this position, and we will have to be content with guessing. In any case, whether the calabash trees have or do not have the right to grow here, they are growing here and we must profit from it.“

While chatting, Marc and Flip returned to the cliff; They brought back about a dozen calabash fruits, a sort of gourd, which could advantageously replace bottles. Flip placed them in a corner of the grotto, because they still did not have shelves or cabinets or walls to separate the area into distinct rooms. However, Mrs. Clifton’s methodical mind was able to imagine certain lines in the sand as divisions for the dining room here, the bedrooms there, over here the pantry, over there the kitchen, but above all, everything was neat and tidy.

Mrs. Clifton, holding back her constant grief, worked feverishly to organize her small colony. This mother, we must realize, worked not for herself but for her dear children. She worked hard for them. She did not forget but she controlled herself. Flip observed her and understood her efforts to resist despair. Marc perhaps also noticed it because at times he took her hand, kissed it and said in a low voice:

”Courage, mother, courage!“

And Mrs. Clifton, pressing beloved Marc to her bosom—the living image of his father, his face already showing the gentle intelligence that characterized the engineer—Mrs. Clifton covered him with passionate kisses!

During this week Flip, to the great joy of the children, managed to make some fishing devices, for better or for worse. He had very fortunately discovered a species of leguminous plants whose pines could serve as a fish hook. It was an acacia whose sharp thorns he detached. He bent them over a fire and attached them to the end of some coconut threads. When he made a few of these lines, he baited them with small pieces of meat and, followed by the children and their mother, he went to the lake.

Considering how rudimentary these devices were, Flip was not over confident. The lake was swarming with fish. Most of the fish that nibbled at the bait succeeded in detaching it from the hooks. Marc was very patient. A few fish lunged at the bait just as Marc gave a well-timed jerk on the line. They were thrown out of the water on to the ground. One of these resembled a trout whose silvery sides were covered with small yellowish spots. Even though the meat of this animal was very black, it was declared excellent when grilled on the fire. Other fish of the same species were caught on the following days because, being extremely voracious, they rashly threw themselves on the bait. They also caught a large number of smelts which were a treat for the colony’s gourmands.

And so they had healthy and nourishing food—for meat, capybaras and rabbits from the warren—for fish, smelts and trout, mollusks, crabs and lithodomes—for fruits, pine cone almonds—and rock pigeon eggs. They lacked vegetables and especially bread. At each meal, little Belle did without bread.

”The baker is not coming,“ honest Flip invariably said. “He is late, my charming lady, this wicked baker, and we will most certainly fire him if he continues his bad service.”

“Good!” said Jack. “We can do without bread. It is not so good!”

“It will be good when you eat it,” Flip replied.

“And when will that be, please?”

“When we have some of it!”

Mrs. Clifton looked at Flip when he said this. He was a worthy man who doubted nothing. He was sure he could make bread one day or as he would say “something like it!”

And so the week passed. Sunday, the 7th of April arrived. It was religiously observed. Before dinner, everyone took a stroll along the top edge of the cliff to a point above the old encampment at the border of the river. From this point they could see far over the Pacific, an immense desert to which Mrs. Clifton gave her attention. The courageous woman had not lost all hope. Flip encouraged her. According to him, the Vancouver mutineers had no reason to take Mr. Clifton’s life, or the engineer would be landed on a nearby island, or he would escape from the Vancouver. His primary concern would then be to search for his wife and children. However vague was his information, it would put this intelligent and audacious man on the right track. The devoted husband and father would surely find their refuge even if he had to search every island in the Pacific.

Mrs. Clifton made no comment to Flip’s reasoning. Even admitting that the sailor was right, what about the dangers her husband would encounter and could they themselves survive on this unknown land.

“Besides,” said Mrs. Clifton, “if the Vancouver mutineers did not intend to kill the engineer, why did they separate him from his wife and children? Why didn’t they put him in the same boat that had carried them to land?”

Flip stammered but he had no answer.

During the week beginning Monday, April 8, they increased their food supply. They felt that famine would never be a problem. While working, Flip taught the children about practical things. He tried to make them as skilful and ingenious as he was. He had promised them bows and arrows as soon as he would find the right wood; but in the meantime, he taught them how to set bird traps, by making a noose from coconut threads placed over three fragile sticks arranged in the form of a “4.” These nooses were even used with success at the rabbit warren. The rodents were caught with slipknots placed at the entrance to their burrows. Mrs. Clifton suggested that Flip try to domesticate some of these rabbits and gallinaceans; but first they would have to build a poultry yard and there was no time for that as yet.

While making traps and nooses, Flip taught the youngsters to act as decoys to lure birds by imitating sometimes the cry of the female, sometimes the cry of the male. They would turn leaves into a cone shape and blow through them to reproduce bird songs or rustle them to imitate the flight of various species. The children, especially Robert, became skilful in this activity. Little Jack likewise succeeded at it, with his cheeks puffed up looking like an angelic clown. The birds were attracted to it and often caught.

During all these activities, Flip always kept his eye on the fire because there was no way to protect it from a windstorm or a rainstorm. He would have wanted to place the hearth inside the grotto but the thick smoke would make the place uninhabitable. As to making a pipe to let the smoke escape outside, that was a difficult task. Without tools, a pick or pickax, how could he cut a path through the granite wall? If he found some crack, perhaps he could take advantage of it, but the wall was a compact mass and no knife could cut into it. Under these conditions he would have to give up his plan for a chimney inside the grotto and put his hearth outside. However, the sailor did not despair about executing his project one of these days. It nurtured in his brain along with two or three other ideas and he often talked about it with young Marc.

It was at the beginning of the third week, Monday, April 15th, that Flip, Marc and Robert made a new and important excursion into the forest. It was their intention to visit the right bank of the river and the thick woods which covered the slopes. But without a boat or a bridge, it was not easy to cross the waterway either near the lake or at its source. They decided to go around the west and south shores of the lake to reach the river’s right bank. This was a trip of three leagues 1 but Robert and Marc barely felt it. There was lots of time. The three excursionists had left early in the morning carrying provisions for the entire day not expecting to return until nightfall. Mrs. Clifton consented to this absence with apprehension.

At six in the morning Flip and the two boys reached the edge of the forest on the lake’s eastern shore. The soil was very uneven here. The trees were entangled and formed a green dome that allowed no sunlight in. The moist air under the foliage was in constant shade. Everywhere they saw junipers, larches, firs and maritime pines belonging to the conifer family.

The boys and their companion entered the woods. They walked with difficulty across a path blocked by a network of branches and creepers. They cut and broke these plants with every step. Frightened birds flew away in the dim light. Several quadrupeds, disturbed in their shelters, escaped through the tall grass. To Robert’s great disappointment, they could not recognize them let alone capture them.

After a half hour’s walk, Marc, who was in front, suddenly stopped and shouted.

“What is it, Marc?” Flip asked, running to the lad.

“The river, friend Flip.”

“Already,” cried the sailor, in surprise.

“Look,” Marc replied.

They saw deep dark water flowing along. The river measured sixty feet across at this point. Large trees, stretching from one shore tot he other, formed a gigantic canopy. Both shores were uneven and hidden by the vegetation. The river, thus hemmed in, meandered through a narrow gorge and picturesque ravine. It was a savage area. In some places broken trees formed a clearing where the sun streamed in under the foliage and seemed to set the forest aglow. The air was perfumed with a good healthy odor from the woods enhanced by the balsam of the conifers. The vegetation there was semi-tropical. Intertwined creepers choked the trees under the excess foliage, a nest for reptiles which they must guard against.

Flip and the two lads looked at this ensemble with mute admiration. One thought however was on the sailor’s mind. How did they reach this river which, according to his estimate, they should not have reached for yet another hour? He could not explain it. Marc and Robert did not understand it either.

“This river,” Marc then said, “is not one we have already explored.

”That is evident,“ said Flip. ”I recognize neither the color of these waters nor the rapidity of its current. These waters are blackish and move with the violence of a rapid.“

”You are right, Flip,“ Marc replied.

”Let’s follow its course,“ and we will soon see that it will not lead us to the sea.”

“This river must go somewhere,” said Robert.

“In fact,” replied Marc, “why couldn’t this river be an affluent of one we have already explored.”

“Let’s move on and we’ll find out,” said Flip.

The boys followed their companion and a hundred paces further, to their extreme surprise, they found themselves at the western shore of the lake.

“You spoke well, Marc,” shouted the sailor. “This river empties into the lake instead of leaving it. The other river overflows from it, as we’ve seen. The two rivers are but one river, which crossing the lake, reaches the ocean a little below our first encampment.”

“I am certain of that,” Marc replied. “There are many examples in nature of rivers which follow their course across vast bodies of water.”

“Yes,” shouted Robert, “and the place where this river comes out of the lake, where my capybara disappeared under the water, it is there, a little to our right, not two miles from here! I see it distinctly, and if we had a raft to get to the right bank, we would have less than an hour’s walk to get home.”

“Doubtless,” replied Marc, “only you forget on thing, my dear Robert.”

“What, Marc?”

“It is that after crossing the upper river, we would still have to cross the lower part of the river.”

“A wise thought,” said Flip.

“Well then,” replied Robert, “since we must return by the road we’ve already taken, and since that’s a long ways, let’s eat.”

Robert’s suggestion was accepted. Flip, Marc and he sat down on the shore in the shadow of a magnificent group of acacias. The sailor took some pieces of cold meat from his bag, some hard boiled eggs and a handful of pine kernel almonds. The lake furnished fresh clear water and the meal was soon finished with appetite.

Flip, Marc and Robert then got up and took a last look around. They could see the entire lake.

About a league away, a little to the right, there was the cliff in front of which Mrs. Clifton must be at this moment. But at this distance they could not see her nor even the smoke rising from the hearth. Beyond the watercourse, the shore of the lake, gently curved, was framed in vegetation. Above this there were wooded hills topped by a rounded peak of snow. This poetic scene, the peaceful water, the wind from the forest which came in ripples, the murmur of the wind through the large trees, the contour of sand which stretched from the warren to the sea, the ocean blazing under the sun’s rays, all of this nature excited the boy’s imagination.

“We must take mother here to admire this magnificent spectacle,” said Marc.

“Yes!” replied Robert. “We will bring Jack and Belle along, if we had a boat on the lake.”

“But couldn’t we move our boat here?” Marc continued, “or even ascend the river with it?”

“A good idea!” shouted Robert. “Then we could explore the upper part of the river. Ah! what a charming excursion that would be, friend Flip!”

“All in good time!” replied the worthy sailor, enchanted to see Marc and Robert so enthusiastic. “But a little patience, my boys. At the moment, two waterways are blocking our way so I suggest that we go home.”

It was the best thing to do and Flip gave the signal to leave. The three, with clubs in hand, followed the shore of the lake, which was much easier than the barely practical passages of the forest.

The excursionists, having finished their task, hoped on their return to resume their role as hunters. They would have returned with empty hands but for the fortunate blow struck by Marc against a small hedgehog half asleep in its burrow. This animal had a longer head and a smaller tail than its European congeners. It was also distinguished by its long ears and appeared to be of a species of flesh eating insectivores commonly found in Asia. In short, this hedgehog was rather mediocre game but it was game and as such, Marc suspended it from his club. Besides its quills, hard and sharp, could be used in different ways principally to arm arrows.

At three in the afternoon, Flip, Marc and Robert arrived in front of the grotto. They did well to press home because a few drops of rain were already falling from the cloudy sky. The wind was blowing hard and there was bad weather ahead.

Mrs. Clifton was not sorry to see Flip and her two sons return. During their absence she had not received any unwelcome visit but she heard howlings close by. Did this indicate the presence of wild beasts in the vicinity of the grotto? When Mrs. Clifton told Flip about this, he thought that these noises could be coming from apes. Nevertheless, he resolved to put them on their guard. He had already formed a project in his mind to defend the entrance to the grotto with a strong palisade but with only his knife, how could he fell the trees and cut them into girders and planks?

During the week of the 16th to the 21st of April they did not attempt any new excursions. The rain fell incessantly with hardly a clear moment. Very fortunately the wind blew from the northwest and so the grotto was not exposed to its direct gusts. What suffering would the abandoned family have been exposed to under the insufficient shelter of their first encampment? Of what use would the overturned boat have been against the violent rain which struck like a sharp whip? On the contrary, in this solid and impenetrable grotto neither wind nor rain had access. Flip constructed a few channels which prevented the water from reaching the grotto’s bed of sand.

The only worry, in fact the only difficulty, was to keep up the flame in the exterior hearth. The resinous torches were also at risk of being extinguished by the showers. Several times eddies of wind struck the cliff threatening to scatter the burning wood. Flip was always on the watch and took every precaution his inventive mind suggested. But he was very uneasy.

During breaks in the weather, the sailor and the two boys rushed to the forest to renew the supply of wood an so the reserve did not diminish even though they did not spare the wood. Mrs. Clifton’s kitchen suffered from the these atmospheric disturbances. The pot on the fire was overturned more than once. The housewife had to prepare her meals inside the grotto, but to avoid the smoke she only used hot charcoal to grill fish and meat. Little belle helped her with intelligence and papa Flip always complimented her.

Papa Flip however was never idle. He made cord from coconut fibers. This material, in the hands of a cord maker working with specialized tools, can be made into cord of high quality. But Flip, even if he was a bit of a cord maker as all sailors are, did not possess the proper tools. However, with the help of a large revolving drum that he constructed, he succeeding in giving the fibers sufficient strength. He obtained fine strings in this way which he wanted to use to make bows and arrows but the elasticity of the cord was not proper for this application. Flip then thought of using suitably prepared animal catgut for string and so he postponed the fabrication of the bows for the time when he could get some of it. He then spent his time in making some fixed benches to run along the length of the grotto wall. He drove stakes into the sand and used planks taken from the upper deck of the boat which the vessel could spare. He also installed a table in the center of the grotto. These few pieces of furniture were very much appreciated by the household and for the first time, it was on a Friday, the family could finally “set the table.”

However, the bad weather did not let up. The showers and the winds continued without respite. Flip wondered if this land had a rainy season that could last for several weeks. That would curtail their hunting and fishing and they would have to work something out.

The rainstorm doubled in violence during the night of the 21st to the 22nd of April. Flip had taken every precaution to safeguard his fire. He did not believe there was any danger since the wind was blowing from the northeast. Only gusts of wind were to be feared. Ordinarily, Flip spent the night watching the fire so that Mrs. Clinton and the children could sleep in the grotto. But for some time now Marc was permitted to share this task with him. The courageous sailor could not go without some sleep and, for better or worse, he agreed to Marc’s request. Flip and the young boy, in whom he had total confidence, took turns every four hours.

Now, on this detestable night of the 21st to the 22nd of April, Flip had turned over the watch to Marc and went to lie down on his bed of moss. The fire, furnished with lots of wood, burned brightly. There was no lack of wood piled up at the entrance to the grotto. Marc, protected by some rocks, was doing his best to protect himself from the rain which fell in torrents.

During the first hour there was nothing new. The wind and the sea howled in unison but the weather did not get any worse.

Suddenly, about one thirty in the morning, the wind abruptly changed direction from northwest to southeast. It seemed that a waterspout of air and water mixed with sand struck the cliff.

Marc, blinded for a moment, immediately ran to his fire. There was no fireplace. The storm had scattered the stones. The resinous torches were blown out. The incandescent embers rolled on the sand and threw off their last flame.

Poor Marc was desperate.

“Flip! Flip!” he shouted.

The sailor, suddenly waking, ran to Marc. He understood everything! The lad and he tried to get hold of some of the burning wood thrown about by the storm! But, blinded by the rain and thrown back by the wind, they had no success. In despair, they huddled at the base of the cliff in the darkness.

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