Uncle Robinson

Chapter XII

The situation had become terrible. A gust of wind had sufficed to compromise the future of the unfortunate family! Without fire, what would become of the small colony? How would they prepare the food necessary for their existence? How would they resist the rigorous frost of winter? How would they even protect themselves at night against an attack from wild beasts? Poor Flip did not know what to think. In spite of his courage, he was overwhelmed. He remained there, immobile, silent, his clothes soiled with mud and soaked from the rain.

As to Marc, his despair was indescribable. He was in tears.

“Forgive me! Forgive me!” he murmured.

Flip could find no words to console him.

“My mother! My poor mother!” Marc kept repeating.

“Let us not wake her,” the sailor said to him. “She is sleeping! Her children are also sleeping. Let us not wake them! Tomorrow we will find a way to repair this misfortune.”

“It is irreparable!” murmured Marc.

“No...” replied Flip, “no... perhaps!... we will see!”

The honest sailor could not find the words to express what he himself did not believe!

He tried to get Marc to go back to the grotto because the rain was falling in torrents. The unfortunate child resisted.

“It’s my fault! It’s my fault!” he repeated.

“No!” Flip replied. “No, my boy! It was not your fault. Had I been there, the same thing would have happened. No one can fight this storm. In your place, I could not have saved a single spark from this fire. Don’t carry on like this, Marc. Let’s go back!”

Marc had to give in. He threw himself on his bed of moss. Flip did likewise but the worthy sailor, overwhelmed and in despair to the bottom of his heart, could not find a moment’s sleep and for the rest of the night he heard the poor child crying.

Daybreak came at about five in the morning. A feeble light appeared in the grotto. Flip got up and went outside. The storm had left marks of its passage. The wind had piled up the sand into real dunes. Some trees were broken and others uprooted. The ground was scattered with burnt wood. Flip could not restrain a gesture of anger and despair.

At this moment, Mrs. Clifton left the grotto. She took the sailor by surprise. She came up to him and saw his face in pain. He was not able to deceive her.

“What is it, my friend?” she asked.

“Nothing, madame, nothing!”

“Speak, Flip. I want to know everything.”

“Well Mrs. Clifton...” Flip said and hesitated.

“Friend Flip,” Mrs. Clifton repeated in a distressed voice, “what other misfortune has struck us in addition to the others we have already endured?”

“It is but one, madame, only one!” the sailor replied in a low voice.

“And what is that?”


And while speaking, he led Mrs. Clifton to the destroyed fireplace.

“The fire! The extinct fire!” the poor woman murmured.

“Yes,” replied Flip. “A storm... during the night!...”

Mrs. Clifton clasped her hands and looked at Flip.

“And you could not prevent it?...” she asked.

“No... Madame,” replied the worthy man, evasively. “It was a clumsiness on my part... a default of surveillance... I forgot myself for a moment.”

Marc came out of the grotto. He saw his mother. He heard what Flip told her. He understood that Flip wanted to take full blame. He ran to his mother and shouted.

“It wasn’t Flip, mother. It was I!, It was I!”

The unfortunate mother opened her arms to her child. She covered him with kisses, but Marc was in despair.

“Don’t cry, my child, don’t cry,” she said to him. “You are breaking my heart.”

Robert, Jack and Belle came to Mrs. Clifton. Robert did not spare tender words for his brother. Jack and Belle put their arms around him. This touching scene was made for tears.

“Come, come!” said Flip. “Let’s show a little courage, my children. In any event, no one is to blame! There’s no fire? Well, we’ll make some and get over it!”

“Yes, let us resign ourselves!” murmured Mrs. Clifton.

But Flip was not a man to resign himself. At any cost he wanted to spend the day to rekindle the fire he had lost. He tried many ways.

There was an abundance of flint on the beach and it would be easy enough to get some sparks out of them using his knife. But sparks must ignite something. Nothing is better suited for this purpose than amadou, which is made from certain fleshy, spongy, velvety mushrooms of the genre polypore. This substance, properly prepared, is extremely flammable especially when saturated with cannon powder or mashed with nitrate or potassium chloride. Perhaps these mushrooms could be found here. Perhaps other mushrooms in the same genre could give them a suitable amadou. They must look for them. But as for directing these sparks onto dry moss—Flip tried this—he had to give it up. Mosses are not flammable!

After several vain attempts, the sailor tried the method used by savages which consists of rubbing wood to produce a flame. But—as has already been noted—the savages use a particular kind of wood Flip was not familiar with. Besides, they use two different methods in rubbing two pieces of wood against each other, either to move one piece of wood in and out through a cavity in the other piece or to rapidly rotate one against the other. Either method requires much practice for success.

Flip tried both methods. Marc, Robert and Jack imitated him without obtaining any result other than scraping their hands. The wood hardly heated from the rubbing.

Flip had to give up this procedure for making fire. He had only one hope, only one idea: to find the polypore mushroom or some other vegetable of the same species whose pulp can replace the amadou.

Four days had passed since this deplorable incident. The abandoned family lost its confidence. They were silent. No more chatter between the children and Flip! No more planning for the future! No more projects in mind for the ingenious sailor!

Their material life showed the effects of these things. They lived off the reserves of smoked meat and fish but their reserves noticeably diminished. Besides, what was the point of renewing them? Why hunt or fish? Without fire they could not use the products of hunting and fishing. Excursions were almost completely suspended. Each day Flip was content to gather the vegetables needed for that day’s food supply.

Among these edible vegetables the most precious, without question, was the coconut fruit. These coconuts were gathered with care and became the main part of the family’s regular food. The nuts, though not at full maturity, contained a milk of excellent quality. The children pierced one of the three openings at the tail end of the nut which enclosed a soft wood. Then they drank the liquid with extreme pleasure. In addition, when this liquid is enclosed in a bamboo vase or in a gourd for a period of time, carbon dioxide forms giving it an agreeable taste but very intoxicating. When the coconut is fully ripe, the milk hardens supplying a nourishing and healthy almond.

So then, the fruits of these coconuts, numerous in the vicinity of the grotto, could supply and feed this family deprived of meat. Marc and Robert, with the help of cords made by Flip, easily climbed to the top of these high coconut trees. From there, they threw the nuts to the ground but not all of them broke there because they have hard shells. They then had to break them with heavy stones, to the sailor’s regret, because if he had had a saw he could have made various kitchen utensils from them.

Another vegetable discovered by the sailor was soon added to the regular food supply of the small colony. It was a marine plant eaten in large quantity by people living along Asian shores. Flip distinctly remembered having eaten it in the past. It was a seaweed belonging to the fucaceae family, a sort of sargasso found abundantly on the rocks at the extremity of the cliff. On letting this seaweed dry, it formed a gelatinous material, rich in nutrients, but with a disagreeable taste. However, they became accustomed to it. The young children at first made faces but they found it excellent and had no trouble eating it.

The mussels and some other shellfish, eaten raw, was a bit of a variation from the ordinary and introduced some protein which the body must have. Besides, at about this time, Marc was fortunate to discover a bank of very useful mollusks along the southern coast below the grotto.

“Mister Flip,” he said one day to his friend, the sailor, showing him an oyster shell.

“An oyster bed,” Flip shouted.

“Yes, Flip, and if it is true that each oyster produces fifty to sixty thousand eggs, we have an inexhaustible supply.”

“You have made a useful discovery, Marc, and tomorrow we will visit this bank. They are delicious but I don’t know if they are very nourishing.”

“No,” replied Marc, “these mollusks contain only a trace of protein and if a man tried to live on them exclusively he would need to eat at least fifteen to sixteen dozen daily.”

“Well,” shouted Flip, “if the bank is inexhaustible, then we will eat dozens upon dozens! These mollusks are easy to pick up from the bank and I have never heard anyone getting indigestion from them.”

“Good,” said Marc, “I will bring the good news to my mother.”

“Wait, Mister Marc,” replied the sailor. “Let’s visit the oyster bank first and then we will be sure of our business.”

The next day, the 26th of April, Marc and Flip went along the western shore in a southerly direction, crossing the line of dunes. At three miles from their encampment the shore became rocky. Enormous blocks were piled up in a picturesque fashion. Rocks like these are often found along the shores of Brittany where they form deep dark abysses or “chimneys.” The rising tide engulfed them with a thunderous noise. A range of reefs rendered this shore unapproachable even by small boats. Everywhere the surf foamed against the rocks. The line of reefs extended up to the extremity of the southwest promontory.

To the rear of these rock piles and at a higher elevation, there were vast plains, real moors, with spiny shrubs and heather growing there. Their savage aspect was in sharp contrast to the cliff area where evergreens grew at the summit. A curtain of trees grew in the background for several miles from the shore up to the first high ground connected to the central mountain system. The country had a desolate appearance.

Flip and Marc went further south, walking near each other but speaking little. The sailor had some vague thoughts forming in his mind. He was obsessed with one special concern. Empty shells by the millions were crackling under his feet. Masses of edible marine snails were there under flat rocks that would be covered by the rising tide. They were excellent mollusks but they required a long cooking. They must think about making use of them.

It was the same for a reptile they were pleased to encounter. It was a magnificent specimen of the order of chelonia, a tortoise of the genus mydase, whose shell has a pleasing green luster.

Flip was the first to see this tortoise sliding among the rocks trying to get to the sea.

“Help, Marc, over here,” he shouted.

“Ah! What a fine animal,” shouted the lad, “but how will we get hold of it?”

“Nothing is easier,” replied Flip, “we will turn it over on its back. Take your stick and imitate me.”

The reptile, sensing the danger, withdrew into its shell and into its breastplate. They could no longer see its head nor its paws. It was as still as a rock.

Flip and Marc placed their sticks under the breastbone of the animal and, working together, they were able to turn it on its back. This tortoise measured a meter in length and weighed at least two hundred kilograms.

The overturned reptile allowed only a glimpse of its small flat head which widened further back by the large temporal fossa of the skull hidden under a bony arch.

“And now, Flip,” asked Marc, “what will we do with this animal?”

“This is what we will do, my boy. I really don’t know what we will do with it! Ah! If we only had a fire to cook it with, what delicious and nourishing food this superb beast would give us. It is a fully grown tortoise. It feeds on this excellent marine plant called zostere. Its flesh is delicate and sweet! With this we could make the celebrated tortoise broth...”

Truly, if the situation had not been so serious, one would think from the tone of the disappointed connoisseur that the sailor was ready to laugh. With what eyes he looked at the tortoise and what sharpened white teeth he showed while looking at it. Worthy Flip must be pardoned for his gluttony!

Marc listened to his companion. He understood the significance of his reticence. He thought again about the scene during the storm and felt guilty.

“Let’s go,” said Flip, striking his foot on the ground. “There is nothing more for us to do here. Let’s leave.”

“But what about the tortoise?” replied Marc.

“In fact,” replied Flip, “it is not its fault if we cannot eat it. And it is useless and it would be cruel to let it die this way without profit to anyone. Let’s use our sticks.”

The sticks were used once more as levers and the reptile was put back into its normal position. Flip and Marc moved a few feet away. At first the tortoise did not move. Then, hearing no sound, it showed its head, its large eyes looked at the sea, and its oar shaped flat paws left its shell. Finally the animal moved with a sluggishness one would call “the gallop of a tortoise.” It went toward the sea and soon disappeared under the waves.

“Bon voyage, tortoise!” shouted Flip, in a tone both piteous and comic. “You’re a lucky reptile so don’t brag.”

Marc and the sailor resumed their journey interrupted by this encounter. They soon arrived at the area the lad had discovered. It was a series of flat rocks, broken and covered with oysters. Flip said that there would be no difficulty in gathering these mollusks. The bed was immense and they counted thousands of oysters. They were of medium size but excellent as Flip and Marc discovered while enjoying a few whose valves were half-opened. It reminded them of the oyster beds of the French channel port of Cancale, one of the world’s best edible varieties. As to the exploitation of this bank, nothing was easier.

“With the boat,” Flip said, “when the sea and wind are calm, I will go round the reefs and drop anchor a cable 1 from the bank. We will load the boat with these excellent mollusks and transport them to the foot of the cliff. They will be there within reach and we will make a handsome profit from them.”

On this day, Marc and Flip gathered a few dozen to bring to the encampment. The harvest was quickly completed and three quarters of an hour later, they entered the grotto.

The mollusks were well received to serve as the main dish for the next meal.

The problem was to open these oysters without breaking their only knife. This was Flip’s responsibility and with good reason. If the hearth still had had a few hot cinders then these oysters, held above the embers, would have opened by themselves, but—this difficulty was the consequence of their lack of fire.

Flip took it upon himself to use his knife to open the oysters. The children, standing around him, naturally took an interest in what he was doing.

At the eighth oyster his knife did not wedge in properly and made a sharp noise.

The blade, cracked at mid-point, fell on the table.

“Curses!” shouted the sailor, in a moment of anger.

No fire! Now his knife broken! What else would happen? What would become of these dear people to whom he was devoted body and soul?

  1. A cable equals 125 meters.

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