What an encounter! By what chance?... or say rather that divine providence brought this about! What a change in the situation of the Clifton family. Father and husband restored to them. Their deprivations and present misery are of no importance. They can now look to the future.
Not for one moment did it occur to Flip that the body lying stretched out on the sand might be a corpse. Harry Clifton's face was turned skyward, pale, eyes shut, mouth half open with his tongue between his teeth. His body, with hands extended, was completely immobile. His clothes, spattered with mud, showed traces of violence. Flip saw and old flint gun, an open knife and a grappling hook lying near the engineer.
Flip leaned over the engineer's body. He undid his clothes. The body was warm but horribly emaciated from the deprivations and suffering. Flip lifted Clifton's head. He then saw a large wound on the skull covered by a thick blood clot.
Flip held his ear against Clifton's chest. He listened.
“He is breathing! He is still breathing!” he shouted. “I will save him. Some water! Some water!”
A few feet away Flip saw a small brook on a bed of sand flowing from the marsh to the sea. He ran there, dipped his handkerchief into this fresh water and returned to the invalid. First he bathed his head and delicately detached the dried blood sticking to the hair. Then he wet the engineer's eyes, lips and face.
Harry Clifton moved a bit. His tongue moved slightly between his swollen lips and Flip thought he heard this word: “Food! Food!”
“Ah!” Flip shouted, “the unfortunate! He is dying of hunger! Who knows how many days he has not eaten!”
But how should he correct this misfortune? How should he revive this life about to escape him?
“Ah!” Flip shouted, “the biscuit and the meat that Mrs. Clifton... It was an inspiration from heaven that made the worthy woman do this!”
Flip ran to the spring and carried back a little water in a shell. Then he mixed a bit of the biscuit into the fresh water making a sort of soup of it and carried a handful of it to the wounded man's mouth.
Harry Clifton could swallow one or two handfuls of the bread soup only with difficulty. His contracted throat barely allowed food to pass through. However he succeeded in swallowing a bit of this dissolved bread and he seemed more alive.
During this while, Flip spoke to him like a mother speaks to her sick child. He lavished the most encouraging words on him. A half hour passed and Harry Clifton half opened his eyes. His look had a deep effect on Flip. He recognized the honest sailor - that was evident - because his lips tried to form a smile.
“Yes, Mister Clifton,” Flip said to him, “it really is me, the mate from the Vancouver... You recognized me well! Yes! yes, I know what you would like to ask me! But do not speak! It is not worth the effort!. Only listen to me. Your wife, your children... everyone is well. They are happy! Very happy! And what joy when they see you again! What rapture!”
Flip immediately understood the slight movement of the injured man's fingers. Flip took the engineer's hand and gently squeezed it.
“It is understood, sir, it is understood,” the sailor repeated, “but don't trouble yourself! Don't mention it! On the contrary, it is I who must thank you for coming to find us. That was a nice thing to do.”
And jolly Flip laughed. He gently patted the injured man's hand. Fido joined in with his caresses, licking his master's cheeks.
Suddenly Flip shouted.
“I'm thinking. You must be dying of hunger, Fido! So eat then, mister, eat. Your life is still more precious than mine!.”
While speaking, Flip gave the loyal dog a few small pieces of meat and biscuit. Fido jumped up and devoured it. Flip gave him more. This was a day to be lavish. Besides, he seriously believed that, with the father found, he need no longer worry about the well being of the small colony.
However, Harry Clifton had to gather all his strength to swallow the moist biscuit. While he was eating, Flip examined his wound. The bone of the skull was merely bruised. Flip had experience with this. Twenty times he had occasion to treat it himself. Other than this, there was nothing wrong. Fresh water would be the way to treat this fracture. A compress, made with Flip's handkerchef, was applied to Clifton's head. Flip the prepared a bed of grass and marine plants which he arranged on a slope of sand. The wounded man was carried to the improvised couch. Flip covered him with his jacket and his woolen shirt to protect him from the cold of the night.
Clifton could only thank him with a glance.
“Don't speak. Don't speak!” Flip kept repeating. “I do not need to know how you came here. Later you will tell us. The important thing is that you are here and, merciful heaven, you are home!”
He then whispered into his ear. “Can you hear me, Mister Clifton?” he asked.
Harry Clifton made an affirmative sign with his eyes.
“Listen to me, then, ” Flip repeated. “Night is coming on and judging from the sky, it will be a fine night. If you could walk a bit or even if I could carry you for a mile or two, we would leave together; but to follow the irregularities of the shoreline, four leagues separate us from the encampment where we will find your wife and your children, in good health, I repeat. That's a valiant woman you have there, Mister Clifton, and courageous children.”
With a look, Clifton thanked the worthy sailor. He was revived by hearing those he loved so much spoken about in this way.
“This is what I am going to do,” Flip said. “The most pressing concern is that you be taken to the grotto where there will be no lack of attention. I will leave you here for a few hours. I put next to you in this shell a little moist biscuit and some small pieces of meat in case you have the strength to eat. Flip will not disturb it. He promised me that. In another shell you will find some sweet water to wet your lips. Very good. You hear me. Good. I am leaving. It is eight o'clock. In two hours at the most, I will be back at the grotto because I have good legs. Once there, I will take the boat, you know which one, the boat from the Vancouver, which these honest rascals from the Vancouver gave us. There's a good wind blowing from the southwest and in not more than an hour and a half after that I will be back at your side. So it will be for three and a half hours, mister engineer, make it four hours, that I ask you to wait for me. I will be here at midnight. Together we will wait for the morning low tide which will favor our return. At eight in the morning you will be lying on a bed of moss, warm and comfortable, surrounded by your dear family. Is this arrangement to your liking?”
“Yes, Flip,” Harry Clifton murmured.
“That said,” the sailor replied, “I am leaving, Mister Clifton, wait for me with confidence and you will see that I will return exactly when I said.”
Flip made some last minute arrangements. After carefully putting a border around the wounded man's bed, he once again pressed his hand. Then he addressed the faithful dog.
“As for you, Fido, keep a good lookout my boy, watch your master and don't eat his food!”
Doubtless Fido understood him because he barked in a way that sounded like a “yes” and Flip was satisfied. Then the worthy man left at a good pace.
With what energy and enthusiasm Flip ran back to the encampment! What joy sustained him. He forgot all about the fatigues of the day. No. He would not return to the grotto with empty hands. He no longer thought about his broken knife or his extinct fire. Wouldn't an engineer like Harry Clifton know how to handle that? He could make everything from nothing. Flip now thought of thousands of projects and did not doubt that they would be accomplished one day!
However, night came on. Land and sea blended into the darkness. The moon, then in third quarter, would not rise before midnight. Flip had to count on his instinct and ingenuity to find the wretched route. He could not move in a direct line for fear of getting entangled in the marshes. He must follow the shoreline to the beginning of the cliff. Once arrived at that point, the difficulties would begin. He would have to recognize the narrow foot paths that winded through the pools. Flip could not afford any wrong move. He even laughed about it but he did not resent this obstacle. At every step, aquatic birds were awakened and flew away across the weeds.
“Bah!” Flip repeated. “This soil is like a swamp. But the holes are only holes and I have seen better ones than these in my time. I have already sunk into holes deeper than these and there is no marsh that can hold me back!”
With this kind of reasoning, one can accomplish many things! Flip, soaked from head to toe, covered with mud, kept moving forward. He reached this breach from which he had earlier descended to the marshy plane from the cliff's summit. Twenty others would not have recognized the way to this practical path in the darkness. But Flip was not mistaken about it. He had night vision like a cat. He climbed the breech as swiftly as an antelope hunter.
“At last,” he said to himself, “I'm on solid ground! This lousy marsh has worn me out. I even think I'm a bit tired... Ah! I can still run at full speed!”
And Flip did just that. With elbows close to his hips and chest pushed forward, he ran like a professional racer. In a few minutes he crossed the granite plateau and reached the right bank of the river. Taking off his clothes, that is to say his trousers and his thick wool shirt which he made into a pack placed on his head, he dashed into the water crossed the river, dressed himself on the other side, all in a minute. He reached their first encampment, crossed the beach and ran directly to the grotto.
Flip turned the last bend a few minutes after ten o'clock. He was hailed by a voice he immediately recognized.
“Hi, Mister Marc,” he replied.
The sailor and the lad were soon united.
Marc was not able to sleep. He was anxious about Flip's absence. While his mother was asleep, he went outside to guard the family and wait for his friend's return. It seemed that this night passed without Flip would never end.
But the sailor had not expected Marc to be awake. For a moment he hesitated tell him that he must immediately return to bring his father back. Would this unexpected news be too much of a shock?
“But no,” Flip thought, “this young lad has the strength of an adult and besides, good news is never fatal.”
“Well, Flip,” Marc asked, his heart pounding, “what happened?...”
“There is something new, Mister Marc,” the sailor replied.
“Ah, Flip,” the lad shouted, “can we give me mother something to hope for? These are difficult trials for a woman. She will collapse from them.
“Mister Marc,” replied Flip, “if you do not thank heaven for the news I am about to give you, you will be an ingrate.”
“What is it, Flip? What is it?” the lad asked, trembling with emotion.
“Be calm, sir,” replied the sailor, “and listen to me. I found Fido.”
“Fido! Our dog! My father's dog?”
“Yes! Fido, emaciated, exhausted, dying; but he recognized me.”
“And then...” said Marc, his voice changed, “and then... speak Flip. Fido... you did not bring him?...”
“No, Mister Marc, I left him... down there... to watch someone...”
Marc would have collapsed if Flip had not seized him. The lad cried in the sailor's arms. In an emotional voice Flip told him all that had transpired during his encounter. Ah! What joy! His father! His father alive!
“Let's leave,” he shouted, tearing himself from the sailor's arms. “He must be brought here.”
“Yes,” replied Flip, “and there is not an instant to lose. Here is what I propose to do, Mister Marc.”
Flip told the lad of his plan to take the boat to sea and sail it to the place where he left Fido to guard Harry Clifton. He wanted to keep his promise to return at midnight. The tide was rising which would be in their favor and he wanted to profit from it to sail more rapidly to the north.
“And my mother,” said Marc, “shouldn't I warn her?”
“Mister Marc,” replied the sailor, “this is a delicate matter. Listen to the dictates of your heart. You must prepare Mrs. Clifton little by little...”
“Then I'm not to go with you, Flip?” the lad asked.
“In the interests of your mother, Mister Marc, I believe that you should stay here.”
“But my father! My father who is waiting for me!”
“No, my boy. You are the oldest of the family. You must watch over them in my absence. Besides, remember that we will be returning not later than eight o'clock in the morning. I ask you to be patient for only a few hours.”
“But,” the lad still argued, “what if my poor father collapses from his suffering and I am not there to...”
“Mister Marc,” the honest sailor replied seriously, “I told you about a living father and it is a living father I will return to his family!”
Marc had to give in to Flip's logic. In fact, they agreed that Marc's presence at the grotto was necessary not only to keep watch on its hosts but also because the lad was the only one who could skilfully prepare his mother for the immense joy that awaited her. Besides, Marc could not leave without telling Mrs. Clifton about his departure and he did not have the courage to interrupt her sleep.
So Marc went to help the sailor get the boat ready. The sail was still in place because Flip had recently used the boat to pick up the oysters. He hauled it into the water.
At this moment the current between the islet and the shore flowed northward. In addition, the southwest breeze favored the boat's movement. The night was dark, it is true, and the moon would not rise for another two hours. But that did not prevent a sailor such as Flip from guiding it in the dark. Flip placed himself to the rear of the vessel.
“Embrace my father,” the lad shouted.
“Yes, Mister Marc,” replied the sailor, “I will embrace him for you and for everyone.”
Flip hoisted the sail and soon disappeared in the shadows.
It was half past ten in the evening. Marc remained alone on the shore, in agitation. He could not decide whether to return to the grotto. He wanted to come, to go, to breath the fresh air of the night. No! He would not wake his mother at any price. What would he say to her? Could he hide his thoughts from her, could he keep silent in her presence?
But why keep silent? Hadn't Flip recommended that little by little he should prepare Mrs. Clifton for seeing the person she thought was lost forever? His father returned to him, husband to his wife, and this would happen in a few hours. But what to say, what to think, what to do?
Walking back and forth between the shore and the grotto, Marc was absorbed in thought. Soon the night's darkness cleared up a bit. A gentle light appeared vaguely outlining the high points of the coast, leaving a line between sky and sea. It was the moon rising in the east. It was now past midnight. If Flip had completed his trip, he would now be at Harry Clifton's side. Marc visualized his father with a friend watching over him. This thought calmed him a bit. In his excited mind, he imagined the worthy sailor lavishing devotion to his father and he wished that he could lavish it himself.
Then Marc thought of what he must say to Mrs. Clifton. He would have to tell her that Flip returned during the night and left with the boat and why he did this. He decided to tell her that during his excursion Flip had discovered an island near shore that appeared to be inhabited and that, for better or worse, he wanted to reach it before dawn. He would then add that in Flip's opinion, this islet might be a refuge for some castaways because the sailor thought he saw a mast erected at a high point to attract the attention of navigators. Marc would then hint that these castaways could well be the men from the Vancouver. In fact, with this vessel lost and wandering, deprived of its captain, maneuvered by an ignorant second mate and a crew in revolt, could it not have given way against the reefs of the island? He would leave his mother with this possible hypothesis.
Marc thought about this for a long time afraid of saying too much or saying too little. However, the moon passed the meridian and vague light appeared in the east, announcing the coming sunrise. Full light comes rapidly at this relatively low latitude.
Marc was seated on a rock absorbed in his thought when, raising his head, he saw his mother standing in front of him.
“You didn't sleep, my child?” Mrs. Clifton asked.
“No, mother,” Marc replied, getting up, “No. I could not sleep while Flip was away. It is my duty to watch over everyone.”
“Dear Marc, my dear child,” Mrs. Clifton said, holding the lad's hands. “And what about Flip?” she added.
“Flip?” said Marc, hesitating a bit. “Oh, Flip returned.”
“Returned!” Mrs. Clifton replied, looking around her.
“Yes,” Marc said, “returned... and left. He took the boat.”
Marc was stammering. His mother looked straight into his eyes.
“Why did Flip leave again?” she asked.
“Mother, he left again...”
“What is it, Marc? Are you hiding something from me?”
“No, mother, I wanted to say... I'm not sure, but there's hope...”
Mrs. Clifton took her son's hand and said nothing for a few moments.
“Marc,” she said, “what happened?”
“Mother, listen to me,” Marc said.
Marc then told Mrs. Clifton about the fictional incidents of Flip's trip. Mrs. Clifton listened without interrupting him. But when her son spoke about the castaways from the Vancouver and the possibility of finding them on this island, Mrs. Clifton let go of his hand, got up and went to the shore.
At this moment she was surrounded by her other children. They threw themselves into her arms. Mrs. Clifton, without knowing why, without saying anything, embraced them passionately. Then, without asking for any new explanations from her eldest, but with her heart agitated with an inexpressible emotion, she got Jack and Belle ready for breakfast.
As for Marc, he continued to walk along the shore. He decided not to say anything else or his secret would soon leave his lips. However, he had to say something to Robert who saw that the boat was no longer in its usual place and asked what had become of it.
“Flip took it last night so he could pursue his exploration further to the north.”
“Then Flip came back?”
“And when will he return?”
“Most likely this morning, about eight o'clock.”
It was then seven thirty. Mrs. Clifton, now back at the shore, said:
“My children, if you like, we will go to the cliff to meet our friend, Flip.”
They agreed. Marc did not dare to look at his mother. He paled at the thought of saying anything more to her and he felt all his blood returning to his heart.
Mother and children went to the shore. Soon, Robert saw a white speck on the horizon. It was a sail, there was no mistake about that. It was Flip's boat. With the help of the ebb tide he doubled the north point of the bay. In a half hour he would reach their first encampment.
Mrs. Clifton looked at Marc who was about to shout, “My father, my father is there,” but with a supreme effort he held himself back.
The boat rapidly approached the shore. The waves under its stem were foaming and the wind tilted it. It was soon close enough for Robert to call out:
“Look, there is an animal on board.”
“Yes, a dog,” Marc replied, saying this in spite of himself.
His mother went to his side.
“Ah! If only it was our Fido,” little Belle said.
A few moments later, as if he were answering his sister, Robert said:
“But it is Fido! I recognize him, mother! It's Fido.”
“Fido,” Mrs. Clifton murmured.
“Yes, mother!” the lad repeated, “Fido. Our brave dog. But how did he get there with Flip? Fido! Fido!” he shouted.
There heard a bark.
“He recognizes me! He recognizes me!” Robert repeated. “Fido! Fido!”
At this moment the boat reached the narrow channel between the islet and the shore. The tide pushed it forward at great speed. It came abreast the start of the cliff. It doubled the point thanks to a skilful movement of the helm.
At this moment the dog threw himself into the water and swam toward the group of children. He swam obliquely to the current that threatened to pull him under. He soon reached the sand and ran to the children who gave him many a caress.
But Marc ran to the boat. Mrs. Clifton, pale as death, followed him.
The boat avoided an obstacle and gently touched shore. Flip was at the helm. A man lying next to him lifted himself and Mrs. Clifton fainted into the hands of the husband who had given her so many tears!