Uncle Robinson

Chapter XIII

Was heaven itself now against these poor wretches? They could well believe it after these two incidents of the extinguished fire and the broken knife!

After this last mishap, Flip left the grotto and threw away this useless part of the knife. Without saying a word, the children stood where they were. They understood the import of this irreparable calamity.

After the sailor left, Mrs. Clifton got up. Her eyes were red with fatigue and grief. She went outside.

Flip, with arms crossed, was staring at the ground. She went to him and called him by name.

Flip didn’t even hear her.

Mrs. Clifton gently touched his arms.

Flip turned around. Flip was crying! Yes! Large tears were running down his cheeks.

“Flip, my friend,” she said to him in a calm gentle voice. “When we first arrived here, when I was desperate and about to succumb to my anguish you came to me and restored me with your words! You taught me that it was my duty to survive for my four children! Well today, now that you have made me strong, is it not my duty in turn to give you strength and make you listen to the same words that you spoke to me and so I say to you: Friend Flip, do not despair.”

On hearing this woman, this mother express herself in this way, the worthy sailor was overcome with tears. Seeing that her efforts were effective, Mrs. Clifton continued to speak to him quietly with encouragement. She reminded him the her children and she had not lost confidence in him. She added that if he lost hope, then everything would be over for them. They would perish!

“Yes,” the sailor finally said after he had regained possession of himself, “you are right, Mrs. Clifton. It would be unworthy of me especially when you, a woman, show such force of character! Yes! I will fight and overcome this contrary feeling. Your children are my children. I will struggle for them as their courageous father would have done. But you must forgive me for this moment of depression! It got the better of me, but now it is over! It is over!”

Flip shook hands with Mrs. Clifton. Without adding another word, he picked up his broken knife and returned to the grotto. There he lifelessly opened the oysters with what remained of the blade, since it could still be used for that purpose.

The unfortunates ate because they were starving. The mollusks appeased their appetite a bit. The meal was completed with sargassum weeds and pine almonds. But they were silent and one could sense the loss of hope not only in the children but also in the mother and the worthy sailor. They had already met with so many misfortunes.

During the days that followed, April 27th, 28th and 29th, Flip and the children worked courageously to renew the supply of coconuts and sargassum. Twice the sailor used the boat to go to the oyster bank by doubling the shore. He transported several thousand of these mollusks. It was his plan to pack them into a natural pen formed by a few immersed rocks at the foot of the cliff. This new oyster bed would be only a few meters from the grotto. Together with the sargassum, it was their basic food from now on. Their bodies suffered from this meager menu but the brave children never thought of complaining in fear of causing their mother more pain.

But Mrs. Clifton was not able to misjudge the causes of this wasting away, so visible in young children. Flip was not affected as much. But the poor man no longer knew what to do next. He was at the end of his resources. All that was humanly possible to do he had done, but human strength has a limit. The family could no longer count on help from Providence. But would Providence intervene. “We had help from heaven before,” Flip thought to himself. “Couldn’t heaven help us just a little?”

About this time, Flip resolved to attempt an exploration to the north of the shore. If by chance this land was inhabited, he had to know about it without delay. But Flip wanted to make this reconnaissance alone. The children were weak from undernourishment and could not keep up with him because he intended, if need be, to cover a considerable distance. It was likely that he would not return the same day. It that case it would be better if the boys stayed with their mother for the night.

Flip told Mrs. Clifton about his plan. She approved. If Flip’s trip could lead to help, however small this chance, then they must not overlook it.

It was at noon on Tuesday, the 29th of April, that Flip said goodbye to the family and took to the road. For food he cohered only some pine almonds, but he expected to follow the shoreline where he could gather shellfish, mussels and other things.

The weather was fine. A gentle breeze barely made waves on the sea.

Marc accompanied Flip for a quarter of a mile and then prepared to leave him.

“Watch the children, Marc,” the sailor said to him, “and if I do not return by nightfall, do not worry about it.”

“Yes, Flip. Adieu, Flip,” said the lad.

Marc retraced his steps along the cliff and Flip followed the shoreline to the mouth of the river which he soon reached. There he found traces of their first encampment and cold cinders with an extinct fire. There was not an ember or a spark where the boat came ashore and he could not restrain a sigh. His heart was filled with hope then, and now!...

“Still, if I was alone!” he said to himself. “But I’m on a forgotten land with a mother and her children!”

Flip ascended the left bank of the river. He intended to swim across. A swimmer such as he was would have no difficulty. While walking along the river’s bank, he saw that the opposite side was very steep with a fault that would allow him to easily climb to the top of the cliff. From this higher elevation, he would be able to observe the ocean on one side and one the other side he would be able to see over the plains that border this part of the coast.

Getting ready to cross the river, he began to take off his clothes to put them into a compact pile over his head. He had just removed his jacket when, on folding it, he felt a small packet in one of the pockets. The packet was wrapped in a large elm leaf neatly tied with a coconut fiber. He did not know what to think. Very surprised, he untied the cord, unraveled the leaf and saw a piece of biscuit and a bit of meat which he was about to put into his mouth!

But he stopped himself. Mrs. Clifton, seeing that he was going to leave without enough food, had taken this bit of biscuit and this bit of meat from her reserve, the last of it perhaps!

“This good wonderful woman!” he shouted. “But did she think that I would eat this biscuit and this meat when she and her children have nothing!”

That said, Flip wrapped up the small packet and put it back in his pocket to return it to them. Then, undressed, with his clothes on his head, he went into the water.

The water was refreshingly cool. He enjoyed the dip. In a few strokes he reached the right bank. He set foot on a narrow strip of sand and let the breeze dry him a bit. He then dressed and climbed to the summit of the cliff which at this point measured three hundred feet in height.

First Flip looked at the ocean which was always deserted. The coastline extended to the northwest curving in the same way as it did below the river. It formed a sort of bay with a two to three league perimeter. The river emptied into this bay. It really was a kind of open harbor exposed to the winds and waves of the high seas.

The top of the cliff has horizontal for two or three miles and then it seemed to vanish. It was impossible to know what lay beyond.

He saw large tracts of vegetation at the eastern border of the plateau, that is to say opposite the sea. They were the first of the forest stages leading to the central peak. Above that, he saw powerful butresses which converged toward the mountain. All of this land was magnificent, covered with forests and prairies. Its fertility contrasted with the southern region which was arid, savage and desolate.

“Yes!” Flip thought. “We could live well here on this land. A small colony such as ours could prosper! A few tools and a bit of fire and I would guarantee the future.”

With this thought, Flip moved on a rapid pace. He looked the countryside over very carefully but without leaving the cliff’s edge. After an hour’s walk he reached the end of the cliff. Here the cliff formed a cape which was the terminal point of the north of the bay. The shore continued a little to the east and formed a very pointed promontory.

Below the cliff, about two hundred feet from Flip, the ground was a marsh, in fact a vast marsh with large patches of stagnant water, a league in length and width. He saw the capricious outline of the shore, indicated by a long line of dunes that ran from south to north four or five hundred feet from the ocean.

Instead of going around the marshes and heading into the interior, Flip decided to follow the sandy border. A part of the cliff sloped downward which allowed him to reach the lower ground without difficulty.

The soil here was formed of siliceous clay mud mixed with vegetable debris. There were green algae, bulrush, sedge, club rush and, here and there, layers of pasture covering them. Many ponds sparkled under the sun’s rays. Neither rain nor unexpected river overflows fed these reservoirs. One had to naturally conclude that these marshes were fed by infiltrations from the soil. That was the case.

Above these aquatic plants, above the stagnant water, a world of birds flew about. A hunter would not have wasted a single shot. Wild duck, teal and snipe lived there in flocks and since they had no fear, it would be easy to approach them. Flip could have killed them with the throw of a stone!

But for what purpose? These appealing specimens of water fowl could only make the sailor feel regretful. He turned away and hurried across the narrow slopes that must lead to the sea. With his stick he probed the vegetation that covered the puddles to avoid falling into the mud. But he made no misstep and moved quickly.

At half past three he finally reached the western limit of the marshes. He now had an easy path between the dunes and the sea. It was a fine sand, strewn with shells, and firm underfoot. He moved quickly, nibbling on some pine cone almonds and quenching his thirst from streams that overflowed from the marshes to the sea. There were no rocks on this part of the shore and consequently no mussels or other mollusks that Flip found so pleasing to eat. But the sailor had a philosophical attitude of mind and stomach and knew how to forego what he didn’t have.

And so he continued his exploration to the north. What did he hope to find on these deserted beaches? Some native hut, the debris of a vessel, a wreck he could profit from? No. It would be more correct to say that the worthy sailor, discouraged in spite of himself, moved on mechanically, without a goal, without a thought to distract him and, we must add, without hope!

And so it went for several miles. There was no change in the appearance of the land. The sea was on the one side and the marshes on the other. There was nothing to indicate that this was going to be any different further on. Why should Flip continue his exploration? Why tire himself for no purpose? Anything he didn’t already find he could discover another time.

Flip sat down on the sand between two clumps of sharp bulrush whose roots held the dunes from shifting. He stayed there for a half hour with his head resting on his hands without looking at the waves. Then he got up intending to return to camp.

At that moment he heard a bizarre cry that attracted his attention. It was not the clucking of a wild duck but more like a yelping.

Flip climbed to the top of a dune and looked over the marshes. He saw nothing, only flocks of birds rushing to the high trees.

“There must be some animal out there,” Flip said to himself, “some reptile scaring these birds!”

Flip looked carefully but there was no movement in the tall grass. The cry did not repeat. The marsh, abandoned by the birds, did not seem to conceal any living being. The sailor listened for a few minutes. He observed the plain, the shore and the line of dunes. In fact, the sand could hide some dangerous visitor. Flip grasped his stick firmly, ready for any attack, but there was no movement in the bulrush.

“I was mistaken,” Flip thought. He climbed down from the dune, went to the shore and turned southward.

But the sailor had barely walked for five minutes when he heard the yelping once more and closer.

Flip stopped. This time there could be no mistake. It was definitely a bark, but a stiffled bark, the bark of an exhausted dog.

“A dog here?” Flip wondered.

He listened again and heard two or three yelps.

“Yes, it’s a dog,” Flip said to himself, retracing his steps, “but not a wild dog. A wild dog doesn’t bark like this. What is it trying to say?”

He could not explain the emotion that seized him. Why was a dog here? Did some natives or castaways live here. He must find out at any price.

Flip climbed back over the small chain of dunes. He heard the barking again. He ran past the bulrush, up and down the hillocks of sand. He could not see the dog but it could not be far off.

Suddenly the bulrush parted a little at the edge of a pool of stagnant water. Flip saw the animal. It was an emaciated dog, mere skin and bones, spattered with mud, worn out and barely able to walk.

Flip went toward him. The dog seemed to be waiting for him. It was a large animal with drooping ears and a short tail, its silky hair covered with mud. He belonged to the intelligent race of spaniels. But what was his condition, with bloody feet and his snout spattered with a muddy slime! But when he saw his kind sweet eyes and his affectionate look, Flip knew that he had nothing to fear from this animal.

The dog crawled toward Flip. He seized Flip’s pants between his teeth and tried to drag him to the shore.

Suddenly Flip stopped and knelt on the sand. He looked carefully at the dog’s head to see if he could recognize him under the mud. Then he let out a cry.

“He, he! No, this is not possible!”

He looked and looked again. He wiped the animal’s head...

“Fido!” he finally shouted.

On hearing his name the dog became agitated. He wagged his tail and tried to jump for joy. He had been recognized!

It is very easy to understand Flip’s amazement when he found Fido here on this deserted shore. Fido was the loyal companion of the engineer, Clifton, and a friend of the young children, a dog he had often petted on board the Vancouver. He knew Fido well!

“But he did not come here alone,” Flip shouted. “What happened on board the Vancouver?”

It seemed that Fido understood the sailor’s question. He seemed to want to answer. He barked and tried to pull Flip forward at the risk of tearing the sailor’s clothes. This intelligent pantomime could not be mistaken.

“There is something here,” he said. Let’s go.

And he followed the shrewd animal.

Flip and Fido, one leading the other, crossed the dunes and descended to the shore. Flip seemed revived and ran ahead of Flip and came back. The sailor was overexcited. He was full of hope but he could not say what this was based on. He did not dare to put his thoughts in order. He went into the unknown. He forgot his fatigue and the long journey he had already made and the long way back!

It was five o’clock in the evening when the sun was already low on the horizon that Fido stopped at the foot of a rather elevated dune. Then, looking at Flip one last time, he yelped strangely and dashed through a narrow passage between two dunes.

Flip followed him. He turned around a large clump of bulrush and let out a cry when he saw a man stretched out on the ground.

He ran toward him and recognized the engineer Clifton.

[prev] [up] [next]

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