Uncle Robinson

Chapter XVII

When the worthy sailor's madness had subsided, one could see him tapping his head thinking about his disgraceful behavior. In fact, his trickery had cost them three days when the patient had in his own pocket... Perhaps Harry Clifton had prolonged the situation a bit by not revealing the amadou immediately after Mrs. Clifton spoke. Who could blame him for that?

When the small colony had calmed down, Uncle set about to light the fire. Nothing was easier. The broken blade would act as a lighter and with the flint and a piece of amadou, they had everything they needed.

The engineer's amadou was the size of a playing card. It was dry. Uncle tore off a piece of it and carefully put the rest away. He then prepared an exterior hearth with dead leaves, small pieces of wood and dry moss which would easily catch fire. That done, he was about to make the sparks fly when Robert said to him:

"Uncle Robinson!"

"Yes, Mr. Robert?"

"Couldn't my pistol be of help to you?"


"Instead of powder, put a little piece of amadou in the chamber and fire. It will produce a flame."

"That's an idea, my boy, and by golly, that's just what we'll do."

Uncle took the pistol, put a small piece of amadou in the chamber and armed it.

"Let me fire it," Robert said.

The sailor gave the weapon to the boy. He fired it and the sparks ignited the amadou. Uncle turned the flame into the dry leaves and this produced a light smoke. Uncle blew into it, first like a whisper, then like a blast of air for a forge. The dry wood sparkled and a beautiful flame rose into the air. Cries of joy saluted its appearance.

A pot with fresh water was soon suspended over the fire and Mrs. Clifton put in some of the frog legs that the sailor had skinned with his usual skill.

At noontime the stew was simmering with an enticing odor. Uncle roasted a rabbit. Mussels and pigeon eggs completed the meal. Nothing was raw. Even the pine almonds were well done. The frog boullion, even without vegetables, was praised. Harry Clifton saw to it that everyone had enough to eat. Uncle Robinson had to taste some of it although he tried to excuse himself. He had eaten salangane 1 in China and grilled grasshoppers in Zanzibar, "that is to say perhaps the best the world had to offer," but he had to confess nothing was better than frog bouillon. In consequence, Jack was put in charge of making the fishing devices for catching the batrachians.

Mr. Clifton felt much stronger. He wanted to extend the promenade with his wife and children up to the lake. But Mrs. Clifton wanted to take care of some domestic details. So the engineer, his three sons and the sailor walked along the cliff road. Robert and Jack carried their fishing gear. They passed the curtain of fine trees. When they reached the edge of the lake, the father seated himself on a broken tree trunk and admired the beautiful countryside; the forests, the mountains, the shape of the dunes, the magnificent lake of clear water, a lake of poetic melancholy like the Champlain and Ontario lakes described by Cooper.

Uncle Robinson told Harry Clifton about the excursions he and the children had already made into the surrounding countryside, the discovery of the warren in the south and the exploration of the river with its bend.

"We will visit our domain together, Mr. Harry," he said. "You will see the resources it has. We will run over to our islet and if I am not mistaken, it is only a refuge for a colony of web-footed birds. And the marsh, the large marsh I crossed in going to meet up with you, what a reserve of aquatic game, and in the forests, what quadrupeds only waiting for a skilful blow to land on our table! So then, to the north we have the birds in the marsh, to the south the rabbits of the warren, to the east the feather game and to the west the penguins, and heaven knows what else. You can see that we lack nothing."

"How will we kill this game?" Harry Clifton asked.

"We will make bows, Mr. Clifton. There is no lack of wood. As to the strings, the quadrupeds will furnish us that."

"Good," Clifton replied, "but before anything else, we must build a poultry yard with an enclosure and try to domesticate several couples of these animals that are still in the wild state."

"An excellent idea, sir," Oncle replied, "and an easy thing to do, and after we domesticate these animals, perhaps we can try to domesticate some garden vegetables. Mrs. Clifton will not complain about that."

"In fact, my worthy friend," the engineer said with a smile, "with a man such as you, nothing is impossible. Do you know, Uncle Robinson, - I really like that name - do you know that a house built midway between the lake and the sea would be in a charming place?"

"I have already given that some thought. It is as if it has already been done. Do you see down there, a little to the right, that cluster of nettle trees? It seems that nature put it there just for us. They protect the trees that will form the corners of the house and the partition walls. We can cut down the others. We will put in place thick traverse joists and leave room for doors and windows. We will have a thatched roof over girders and the house will have a fine look."

"It will also be easy to profit from the slope of the ground to draw the water from the lake into this house," the engineer added.

"We will do that, sir, we will do that!" Oncle shouted with enthusiasm. It will be superb! Ah, what other things we must do! Where the river leaves the lake, we must throw over a bridge there, to make it easy to reach the right bank."

"Yes," Clifton replied, "a bridge with a wheel, a sort of drawbridge, because if I remember correctly from the description you gave me, all of the land between the sea, the cliff and the lake is bordered by the river."

"Yes sir."

"To the north," the engineer replied, "from the mouth of the river to where it leaves the lake, we have a barrier that animals cannot cross. The lake, from the lower part of the river to the upper part, protects the northeastern section of the land. Wild animals could only come to the grotto from the south after having gone around the shores of the lake. Well then, Oncle, suppose we could shut off the southern approach, either with a fence or with a large ditch fed by the very waters of the lake, a distance of a mile from the western corner of the lake to the sea, wouldn't we have enclosed all sides? We would then have created a vast parkland which our domesticated animals could not leave and which wild animals could not enter."

"Ah! Mister engineer," Oncle shouted, "if you gave me a piece of land on the borders of the Mohawk 2 I could not make a park like that out of it. Let's get to work."

"Everything in due time, Uncle Robinson," Clifton replied, stopping the sailor who already had his hatchet in hand. "Before we close up the park, even before we build the house, let's first begin by protecting the grotto we are now living in. Let's defend the entrance with a fence."

"Sir," the sailor replied, "I am always ready. If you would like to stay here at the lake with Mister Robert and Mister Jack who will be fishing for some trout, Mister Marc and I will go to the forest to chop down some trees."

The proposition was accepted. Uncle and his "nephew" Marc went to the north shore of the lake toward the woods. During this while, the two brothers amused themselves with fishing. Jack went a little further down and caught some more frogs. The father and his second son were busy throwing out the lines and were rather happy to bring in a half dozen fine trout. But more than once Mr. Clifton had to keep Robert's impatience in check.

While the sailor and Marc were gone and Robert was busy with his fishing tackle, the engineer gave some thought to the situation fate had created for him. He reviewed in his mind the important events that changed his existence so completely. He was not concerned about keeping his family in good health under actual conditions, but he wanted to know if there was any hope of ever seeing his country again. To know this he would first have to determine the position of this land in the Pacific. With that done, it would help in resolving the important question: Is this land a continent or an island?

Determining the position of this land without astronomical instruments was almost impossible. How could he measure the longitude without a chronometer and the latitude without a sextant? Estimating the route followed by the Vancouver from the final observations made by Captain Harrisson offered only inaccurate results. The engineer could not rely on these approximations. The vessel had been thrown off to the north outside its planned route but to what parallel could not be easily determined.

The second question was easier to resolve. In fact, there were two ways for Mr. Clifton to determine whether he had set foot on an island or a continent; climb the central peak or travel in a boat.

The peak had an elevation of five or six thousand feet above sea level. Then if the land was an island of average size, measuring forty or fifty leagues in circumference, an observer at the summit could see the sky touching the ocean all around him. But could they climb the peak? Could they cross the forest area and the succession of buttresses supporting the mountain's base?

The other way was more practical. It was sufficient to sail along the shore to determine its shape. Uncle was a good sailor and the boat would not draw much water. It could follow the meandering of the shore during the long days in June or July and they would soon know the nature of the land.

If it was a continent then getting home was possible. Their stay would be temporary.

If it was an island, the Clifton family was imprisoned at the mercy of the chance that some vessel would wander into these waters. In that case they must plan on definitely settling in. Besides, Harry Clifton was an energetic and courageous man who was not afraid of isolation. Only he wanted to know what to expect and he decided to undertake a reconnaissance as circumstances would permit.

While engaged in thought, the engineer was looking at the lake and he was rather surprised to see the water bubbling some hundred meters from the shore. What could produce this phenomenon? Was it caused by subterranean forces, which would explain the volcanic character of the land? Was it only a reptile that made the lake its regular home? Clifton did not know what to think. The bubbling soon stopped but the engineer decided to keep an eye in the future on these somewhat suspicious waters.

The day advanced and the sun was already low on the horizon when Mr. Clifton thought he saw, near the northern shore of the lake, a mass of considerable size moving on the surface. Did this object have something to do with the bubbling he had seen before? It was only natural that Clifton should ask himself this. As to the object itself, there was no doubt it must stir up the waters in moving along the northern shore.

Harry Clifton called his two children, Robert and Jack. He pointed out the moving mass and asked what it could be. One said a marine monster, the other an enormous piece of drifting wood. During this time, the mass came closer and they soon saw that it was a raft of wood steered by some men.

Suddenly Robert shouted out:

"But they are our own people! That's Marc and Uncle Robinson!"

The lad was not mistaken. His brother and the sailor had made a raft with pieces from the trees they had chopped down and they were directing it to the very corner of the lake that was closest to the grotto. In a half hour they would reach them.

"Go, Jack," Mr. Clifton said. "Tell your mother that we will be on our way..."

Jack looked at the cliff. It seemed that distance he had to walk was very long. And how could he cross the curtain of tall trees! Finally, he hesitated.

"Are you afraid," Robert asked, mocking him.

"Oh! Jack," his father said.

"Well then," said Robert. "I will go."

"No," his father said. "Marc and Uncle will need your help."

Jack looked around without a word.

"My child," his father said to him, getting down on knees, "there is nothing to be afraid of. You will soon be eight years old. You are already a little man. Think only that we are asking you to help us with our limited forces. There is nothing to be afraid of."

"I will go, father," the lad replied, suppressing a sigh.

He then left with determination, carrying his frogs.

"You must not laugh at Jack," Mr. Clifton said to Robert. On the contrary, you must encourage him. He went in spite of himself. That is good."

Harry Clifton and his son went to the point where the floating raft would come ashore.

Uncle and Marc skilfully directed the raft with long poles and soon reached land.

"Everything went well! Everything went well!" Uncle shouted.

"That was a good idea you had there of constructing a raft," said the engineer.

"That was Mister Marc's idea," Uncle answered. "Before long, your eldest son will become an adept woodcutter. He thought of this way of transportation. It drifts our material and ourselves!"

The floating raft was built with some thirty spruce trees each measuring about twenty or thirty inches 3 in diameter at the base. Strong creepers tied them together. Uncle and the two boys went to work and before nightfall every trunk was unloaded.

"There will be plenty of work for tomorrow," Uncle said.

"Yes," Clifton said, "tomorrow we will bring this wood to the grotto."

"With your permission, Mister engineer," the sailor said, "we will cut up the wood here. It will make it easier to carry."

"You're right, Uncle Robinson. Now let's return to the grotto where dinner is waiting for us."

Uncle showed Clifton an animal a little larger than a hare belonging to the order of rodents. Its yellow fur was mixed with greenish spots. It barely had a tail.

"This animal," Clifton said, "belongs to the agouti genre. But it is a little larger than the agouti of the tropical countries. It is more like the American rabbit. This must be one of the long eared variety found in the temperate parts of the American continent. I am not mistaken. Look at the five molars on each side of the jaw. That is the distinguishing feature of agoutis."

"And how is it for eating?" Uncle Robinson asked.

"It is edible and easy to digest."

Marc suspended the agouti at the end of his stick. Uncle helped Clifton and they reached the grotto at about six o'clock. Mother was expecting her guests and had prepared an excellent meal. Evening came on and the entire family took a stroll on the beach. Clifton looked at the outline of the islet and the direction of the currents in the channel. He told Uncle that it would be easy to build a small port here by constructing a jetty in the channel. This project was left for some later time. But there was more pressing work for the small colony, in particular the construction of the fence. They even decided not to attempt any new excursions until this enclosure was completed.

The family then returned to the grotto, Mrs. Clifton arm in arm with her husband, Uncle chatting with Marc and Robert, Jack and Belle picking up shells and pebbles. They passed the oyster bank and added to their reserve. It looked like these gallant citizens were taking a walk in their own private park. Then during the night, Marc and Uncle Robinson carefully watched the fire, a task which made it urgent for them to find a flammable mushroom.

The next day Clifton and Uncle traced a line in front of the grotto where the posts of the fence would be placed. The first of these would be installed against the very wall of the cliff. This would give them a semi-circular area which could be used for various domestic purposes. After the line was drawn, Uncle cut the trench, an operation that was easily completed in the sandy soil. The work was finished by noon.

After lunch, Clifton, Marc and the sailor went to the edge of the lake where they had left the wood. There they cut them up into convenient weights and lengths.

The sailor was not embarrassed when they spoke of his skill in handling the hatchet. It was something to see how he rounded the foot of the tree like a real carpenter and cut off enormous chips to square it. The rest of the day and the next day were employed with this work. On Tuesday morning they began to lay down the posts. They were solidly dug into the soil and joined together with other wood transversely attached. At the foot of the fence, Clifton planted a sort of agave whose leaves would grow at the base of the cliff. This agave, a species of American aloe, would soon form hard spiny leaves making for an impenetrable hedge.

The work on the fence was finished on May 6th. The grotto was well defended. Harry Clifton could only be pleased with his idea because the next day a group of jackals came to roam around the encampment. They made a deafening racket. The fire, glowing in the dark, kept them at a distance. Several animals however came right up to the fence. But Uncle threw over some burning branches and they fled in a howl. _________________________________________________________ 1. Salangane are martins who build their nest with edible

algae. 2. An affluent that enters the Hudson River at Albany. 3. The inch is the twelfth part of a foot. It is equal to

2.70 centimeters (sic). Translator's note: That number

should be 2.54.

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