Uncle Robinson

Chapter XVI

Uncle Robinson! This was the word of the day and the honor of thinking of it belonged to Jack and Belle. From now on this would be Flip's name. At first he hesitated to accept the name since he did not wish to be the humble servant of the family. But he understood that he would be neither master nor servant so he resigned himself. Besides, had he never changed his name? He was called Pierre Fanthome in Picard and Flip in America. Why should he not be Uncle Robinson on these lands of the Pacific Ocean?

Harry Clifton slept until the next day. But while the engineer was asleep, Uncle Robinson - or rather "Uncle" as his new nephews called him more often - Uncle was uneasy about when the engineer would wake up. In fact, the convalescent would ask for food and the question of soup would become a "burning" one!

Uncle chatted about it with Mrs. Clifton.

"What do you want, Madam," he repeated to her. "Sooner or later we must tell him about our situation. We recovered your husband and we will recover the fire in due course. How, I have no idea but we will recover it."

Mrs. Clifton shook her head in doubt and Uncle could not convince her otherwise.

The next day, May 2nd, Harry Clifton felt much better when he woke up. After embracing his wife and his children, after shaking Uncle Robinson's hand, he said that he was starving.

"Good sir, good," Uncle quickly replied with joy. "What would you like us to give you? Ask! Anything you want. We still have those fresh oysters."

"And you may say, Uncle, that they are excellent!" Harry Clifton said.

"We also have the coconut and its milk. It would be difficult to find a better food for a weak stomach."

"I agree, Uncle, I agree. However, without being a doctor, I imagine that a bit of well grilled venison would do me no harm."

"Is that what you think, sir," Uncle replied. "You must not be in a hurry to start eating such substantial food. You are in the same situation as those unfortunate castaways recovering from a shipwreck, dying of thirst and hunger. Do you think they should satisfy their appetite all at once?"

"Immediately, no" Clifton replied, "but the next day they should not restrain themselves, I suppose..."

"Sometimes, sir, sometimes," Flip said with assurance, "that should be eight days! Yes, Mr. Clifton, a full eight days. In 1855 I was shipwrecked. I had the good luck to save myself with a raft. Well, I wanted to eat quickly. I was dying of hunger. My stomach was..."

"Excellent?" Clifton asked.

"Excellent, I agree," Flip replied, "but in the end it took a turn for the worse."

It was hard not to smile at Uncle Robinson's logic.

"Well, Uncle," the engineer said, "I suppose I must still endure for today the diet you are prescribing for me. You will not be inconvenienced, I guess, if I have some warm soup?"

"Warm soup," Uncle Robinson shouted, leaning against the wall, "warm soup! Perfect, sir. As you wish! A broth, for example!"


"Good, well then, Mister Robert and I, we will go to thrash about the forest and kill a broth for you, a broth of the best quality, with large eyes like those of Mademoiselle Belle. Is that agreed?"

This morning, Harry Clifton was satisfied with some edible weeds, oysters and coconuts. Then Robert and Uncle Robinson went to the warren and brought back two rabbits captured with collars. Uncle showed the engineer the result of his hunt and they agreed that a warm rabbit boullion would help his recovery.

The children then occupied themselves gathering the fruits that formed their principal nourishment. Mrs. Clifton and Belle washed what little linen the colony had. All this while Uncle Robinson sat near the engineer's bed, talking with him.

Harry Clifton asked Uncle if he had ever thought about whether wild beasts roamed this part of the land. This could be a danger for people without defensive arms. Uncle had not dared to bring up this subject but he mentioned the footprints in the sand he saw during his first visit to the grotto three weeks earlier.

The engineer listened attentively. He suggested that they build a fence as soon as possible to protect the entrance to the grotto. He recommended that Uncle keep large fires burning during the night because wild beasts hardly ever cross a burning barrier.

Uncle Robinson promised he would not fail to do this adding that there would never be a lack of wood and that the colony possessed an inexhaustible supply.

The engineer then asked about the food supply and if there was any fear of a famine.

Uncle did not have to think about that. The fruits, eggs, fish and mollusks were there in abundance and their supply could easily be renewed once fishing lines and hunting tools were perfected.

Clifton then brought up the question of clothing. The children were rough on their clothes. How could they replace them?

Uncle Robinson asked that they divide the clothing question into two parts. They could do little about the underwear. As to the outerwear, that was another matter and they would look to the animals to solve that.

"You realize, Mr. Clifton, that while avoiding a visit from ferocious beasts, we can still profit from them by borrowing their fur."

"But they will not give them to us unless we beg them to do so."

"Then we will beg them to do so, sir, but do not be uneasy about that. First get better and everything will be fine."

During the day, Jack distinguished himself with a master stroke. With a coconut fiber and a piece of cloth he made a clever fishing line for catching frogs from the weeds of the lake. These batracians belong to a species improperly named brown toads; in reality they are and excellent to eat. Their light white meat contains much gelatin. What bouillon could be made for Harry Clifton! They could not make use of Jack's catch but Uncle Robinson praised him none the less for his skills.

The next day, Friday, after a rather fine night, the engineer felt much better. His wound had healed rapidly. However, on the advice of Uncle and Mrs. Clifton, he agreed to stay rested the entire day. He would take a walk in the neighborhood of the grotto the next day.

Uncle, with a stubbornness hard to explain, still avoided the question of the fire. But why? Sooner or later he would have to acknowledge it. Eventually Harry Clifton would find out. Didn't he deserve to be told about it? If his wife and his children were able to endure these troubles, couldn't he also endure them? Did Uncle Robinson hope that by some chance he could get a fire going again? No, but he could not make up his mind to speak about it. Mrs. Clifton herself urged him to remain silent. The dear wife, seeing that her husband was still weak, hesitated to cause him additional pain.

Be it as it may, Uncle Robinson no longer knew how to avoid Harry Clifton's requests. It was evident that when he would bring him his usual oysters and coconuts, Clifton would ask for the bouillon he was promised. Uncle did not know what to do.

Very fortunately, a change in weather saved him from the embarrassment. It was cloudy during the night and toward morning they had a violent rainstorm. Trees bent under the wind and the sand on the shore flew about like hail.

"Ah! This is a good rain, a good rain," Uncle shouted.

"This is a bad rain!" Marc said to him, since he had planned on going to the shore for some oysters.

"Very good, I tell you Mr. Marc. This will save us!"

Marc could not understand why Uncle was so happy but he got his explanation when he entered the grotto. He heard Uncle speaking to Mr. Clifton in a frustrated tone of voice.

"Ah! Mr. engineer, what weather, what wind, what rain. It wasn't possible to keep our fire lit. It was extinguished."

"Well, my friend," Clifton replied, "that is not a big misfortune. We will light it again when the storm is over."

"No doubt, sir, no doubt, we will light it again and this does not trouble me. This setback distresses me for your sake."

"For me?" the engineer replied.

"Yes! I was about to make you an excellent frog bouillon when all my cinders blew away."

"I can do without the bouillon."

"It is all my fault," said Uncle, exaggerating his white lie. It is my fault. Why didn't I make that unfortunate bouillon while I still had my fire? What a beautiful fire it was! Then you would have had this excellent beverage so good for your health."

"Don't be sad, Uncle Robinson. I can wait for another day. But how will my wife and children prepare their meals?"

"Well, sir. Don't we have our reserve of biscuit and salted meat?"

The reserve! The worthy sailor knew only too well that Mrs. Clifton had given him the last piece of meat when he went on his last excursion along the north shore.

"You realize, Uncle," Harry Clifton then said to him, "that we must find another place to install our fire. We cannot leave it where every gust of wind can blow it out."

"Agreed, Mr. Clifton. But how can we drill a chimney through this thick wall of granite? I have examined the surface. Not a hole or a crack anywhere. Take my word for it. Some day we will build a house, a real house!"

"A stone house?"

"No, a wooden house, a house with beams and girders. Now that we have your hatchet, this will not be difficult. You will see how yours truly handles this tool. I worked for six months in Buffalo as a carpenter."

"Good, my friend," the engineer replied. "we will watch you do your thing. I only ask to work under your direction."

"You! An engineer!" Uncle Robinson shouted. "But the plans. Who will prepare the plans if not you? We must have a comfortable home with windows, doors, rooms, salons, chimneys, chimneys everywhere! Don't forget the chimneys! And what a pleasure it will be to return from a long trip to see a blue smoke rising to the sky and to say to oneself that there is a nice warm fire waiting for us down there with good friends ready to feast us."

In speaking like this, the tireless sailor gave the entire family hope and courage. It rained into the night. It was impossible to venture outside. But there was work for everyone inside the grotto. Uncle Robinson finished a set of bamboo cups using the saw from Harry Clifton's knife. He even made some plates more useful than the shells they were using until this time. He also made a knife for himself, or at least he rounded off the rough edges of what had remained of his blade, rubbing it on a stone. The children, in turn, were not idle. They prepared the coconuts and the pine kernels. A few pints of fermented coconut milk were placed inside gourds. This would turn into an alcoholic liqueur. For his part, Robert cleaned his father's pistol which was rusted over with the salty water. He expected that it would come in handy. Mrs. Clifton washed her children's clothes.

The next day, Saturday May 3rd, the sky was serene again, promising a magnificent day. The wind had passed away to the northeast, and the sun was shining with a brilliance. Harry Clifton was again in a hurry to leave and explore the neighborhood. He wanted to bathe in the sun expecting it to give him a complete return to health. He therefore asked Uncle if he could lean on his arms. Having no plausible reason for refusing, Uncle resigned himself. He offered his arms and left the grotto as if he was the victim of a torture march.

First Harry Clifton gave a deep sigh of satisfaction. The air was fresh and invigorating. He inhaled it as if it was a tonic. He had never felt so warm! He looked at the sparkling sea. He saw the islet, the narrow channel, the meandering of the coastline and the natural harbor. Then he made an about face. He saw the first level of the cliff with its verdant curtain of trees and the luxurious prairie, the blue lake framed in a thick border of forests and the high peak overlooking this ensemble. This beautiful scenery pleased him. He foresaw good things from this charming country. The engineer hatched up twenty projects that he wanted to execute without delay.

Harry Clifton, sometimes leaning on his wife's arms, sometimes on those of Uncle Robinson, returned to the grotto. He examined the cliff and reached the location where the blackened rock indicated that this was the place where the fire had been burning.

"Was the fire here?" he asked. "Of course. Now I understand how the eddies of wind whirling around the cliff easily put out the fire. We will look for a better place. Come children, Marc and Robert. Bring one or two armfuls of dry wood. There must be no lack of fuel. Let's make a beautiful fire."

On hearing these words, everyone stared at the father without a word. Uncle lowered his eyes. He had a guilty look.

"Well, children?" Harry Clifton repeated. "Did you hear me?"

Someone had to speak up. Mrs. Clifton realized that it was her place to do so.

"My friend," she said, taking her husband's hand. "I have a confession to make."

"Which is, my dear Elisa?"

"Harry," Mrs. Clifton said in a solemn voice, "we have no fire."

"No fire!" Clifton shouted.

"And no way to light one!"

Harry Clifton seated himself at the edge of a rock without saying a word. Mrs. Clifton told him about what had happened after they landed, the incident of the single match, how the fire was carried up to the grotto, and under what conditions, in spite of the surveillance, it had been blown out by the windstorm. The mother did not mention Marc but he came over to Harry Clifton.

"And it happened while I was watching it," he said.

Clifton took Marc's hand and pressed it to his chest.

"Don't you even have a little piece of amadou?" he asked him.

"No, my friend," Mrs. Clifton replied.

Uncle then intervened.

"But all hope is not lost!" he said. "Isn't it possible that we could find a way to make a fire. Do you know what I am counting on, Mister Clifton?"

"No, my friend."

"On nature, sir, on nature itself to give it back to us one day."

"And how?"

"With a thunderbolt! A tree set afire and our hearth will be back."

"Yes," the engineer replied. "Waiting for your fire from a thunderbolt is very problematic and it will always be at the mercy of the first squall. But have you tried to get a fire by rubbing two pieces of wood?"

"Yes," said Robert, "but we were not successful."

"If we only had a lens!" Marc added.

"Perhaps we could replace the lens," Harry Clifton said, "with the glass from two watches with water introduced between them."

"Quite right, Mr. Clifton," Uncle said. "But if you have a watch, we don't have any."

"Or perhaps," Clifton said, "we could bring water to the boiling point by imparting a rapid movement to it in a closed vase!"

"An excellent way to make a broth but not a roast. You see, Mr. Clifton, all these means are not practical and my only hope is to find some mushroom species to replace the amadou."

"But burnt linen can serve as amadou."

"I know that," Flip replied, "but I say to Mr. Clifton that to get burnt linen we first need to have a fire and to have a fire..."

"We need something easier than all that!" Clifton replied.

"Which is?" Uncle Robinson shouted, opening his eyes wide.

"That we use the amadou I have in my pocket!" Clifton replied with a smile.

The children shouted hurrah! Uncle screamed. Would this man that nothing could surprise go mad. He danced a jig better than any Scotsman. Then, taking Belle and Jack by the hand, he danced round about with them, while singing:

He had amadou,

And a fire for you

All along he knew,

He had amadou.

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