Uncle Robinson

Chapter XVIII

With these works completed, they had to occupy themselves with renewing all kinds of reserves. It goes without saying that Mr. Clifton had completely recovered his strength. His wound had healed completely and he no longer suffered from it. All his energy and ingenuity would now be devoted to the well being of his small colony.

It was Tuesday, the 7th of May. After the morning meal the children went fishing, gathered eggs from the nests and explored the shore and the cliff. Harry Clifton and Uncle Robinson took the boat to the oyster bank. The sea was calm. The gentle wind blew toward land. They sailed there without any incident. Clifton carefully observed this part of the coast. He was struck by its savage appearance. The soil was convulsed with enormous rocks scattered about. This formation was the result plutonic activity. The engineer, very versed in the natural sciences, could not be mistaken about that.

When Uncle and he reached the bank of mollusks, they began to harvest them and soon the boat was fully loaded. This reserve of oysters was truly inexhaustible.

After getting underway, Uncle, recalling the incident of the tortoise and no longer having any reason to hoard the interesting batracians, proposed to Clifton that they rummage among the rocks. So they landed on the shore with the aim of going on a hunt. The soil showed little mounds which attracted Clifton's attention. Pressing down on these little hillocks, they found there a certain quantity of perfectly spherical eggs in a hard white shell. These were tortoise eggs whose white has the property of not coagulating when heated like the white of bird's eggs. The marine tortoises evidently preferred this beach. They came from the open sea to lay their eggs leaving to the sun the task of hatching them. There were countless eggs here which should not surprise anyone since these animals can each lay up to two hundred fifty eggs annually.

"It is a real egg field," shouted Uncle. "They are already hard and we have only to pick them up."

"Let us not take any more than we need, my worthy fellow," Clifton replied. "Once these eggs are taken from the ground, they will spoil. It would be better to let them hatch so they could produce new tortoises who could lay more eggs for us."

Uncle only took about a dozen eggs. Clifton and he then returned to the boat. The sail was hoisted and a half hour later the boat landed at the foot of the cliff. The oysters were deposited in the park and the eggs were brought to mother who incorporated them into the midday meal.

After lunch, Uncle discussed the question of arms with Mr. Clifton. They could not continue to hunt with sticks and stones. It was primitive, hardly a way to hunt and surely no way to protect themselves. In the place of firing arms, well made bows and arrows would be formidable weapons. Uncle resolved to make some.

Before anything else, it was important to find the right wood. Fortunately, Harry Clifton had discovered among a cluster of coconut palms, a certain species of wood known under the name of crejimba, a wood used to make the bows and arrows of the South American Indians. Father and children gathered a few branches of this crejimba and carried them to the grotto. In a few hours work, Uncle Robinson made three large bows with a smooth curvature. They would have elasticity and yet be light. The very resistant cord was made from coconut fiber. As to the arrows, Uncle was content to cut some small bamboos. The nodes were carefully leveled and he armed the larger end with the quills from a porcupine. Moreover, to stabilize their flight, he attached bird feathers to the smaller end. If skilfully used, these bows and arrows would be terrible weapons.

We can understand why the children wanted to try out their new weapons the same day. They were satisfied with the height their arrows reached up into the air. With experience they would put them to good use either for defensive or for offensive purposes. After experimenting with the range of these arrows, Mr. Clifton wanted to find out their power of penetration. He used the trunk of a coconut tree as his target. Several arrows were fired implanting themselves deeply into the wood. With these experiments over, father instructed his children not to lose their arrows and never to use them without necessity because making them consumed too much valuable time.

Night fell. Everyone entered the fenced in courtyard in front of the grotto. By the engineer's watch it was about eight thirty. This excellent instrument, enclosed in a double golden box, had not been damaged while immersed in the sea water, but it had to be rewound since its movement had stopped while Clifton was injured. To give it the correct time, he would have to make an accurate observation of the sun's height.

Nights were still disturbed by the howlings of the jackals mingling with other cries that Mrs. Clifton had already heard. Evidently, apes were roaming around. A fence would be no barrier to these agile animals, but apes are less to be feared than other wild beasts. Nevertheless, Harry Clifton decided to find out what species of apes these were during his next excursion.

The next day, Wednesday the 8th of May, was employed with various activities. They renewed their supply of wood and paid a visit to the warren where a few rabbits were skilfully attacked with the bows and arrows. That same day, Mrs. Clifton asked for a good supply of salt. She intended to salt the meat from the two capybaras. Marc and his father went to gather the salt deposited by the sea into rock crevices. They brought back several pounds of this useful substance, the only mineral used in food. Mrs. Clifton thanked her husband and asked him if it would be possible to find some kind of soap to wash clothes. Clifton told her that certain vegetables could replace the soaps from the best soap makers and that he was sure to find them in these inexhaustible forests. However, it was agreed that they would take the greatest possible care of their clothing. Without imitating the ways of the savages, they could dress lightly during the warm season and economize on their clothing until such time as Uncle Robinson would find a way to replace them.

On this very day, a new plate appeared on the table at dinner time. It was a plate of excellent crayfish which swarmed in the upper part of the river. For bait, it was enough for Uncle to throw some branches into the current on which he had placed pieces of meat. When he returned a few hours later, all the branches were covered with these crustaceans. The shells of these crayfish had a fine cobalt blue color. They were grilled and were delicious to eat.

To occupy himself during the evening, Uncle Robinson made some more bamboo vases of different sizes. Ah! if only he could fire them. But their pot was always the only utensil they could use for preparing the food. If only Mrs. Clifton had a saucepan. Uncle responded to her request by telling her that a clay pot would suffice for their needs. He was put in charge of making one if he could find the right clay.

They then made plans for the next day's activities. While waiting for the long excursion that Clifton wanted to attempt into the inland, they resolved to pay a visit to the islet either as fisherman or as hunters. The children did not expect to return empty handed.

That evening the family had a small scare. When it was time to go back into the grotto, Mrs. Clifton noticed that little Jack had not answered her call. They looked for him in vain. They called again. There was no response.

We can imagine everyone's terror on not finding the child. No one could say exactly when he had disappeared. It was a dark night since there was a new moon. Father, brothers and Uncle soon dispersed in all directions, one to the shore, another to the lake, everyone shouting.

Uncle Robinson was the first to find out what had happened to Jack. In the darkest part, under a cluster of nettle trees, he spotted the little gentleman standing still with his arms crossed.

"Well, Mister Jack, is that you?" he shouted at him.

"Yes, Uncle," Jack replied in a disguised voice, "and I am afraid."

"And what are you doing there?"

"I am acting like a brave man."

Ah! What a dear child. Uncle took him in his arms and carried him to his mother with all possible speed. When they were told about the little man's response, how he was only trying to be brave, who could scold him? Everyone embraced and caressed him. The four night watches over the fire were scheduled and they went to sleep.

The next day, the 9th of May, a Thursday, preparations were made for the planned excursion. Harry Clifton, his three sons and Uncle then embarked in the boat in order to first go around the islet. They began the exploration by going through the channel. The side of the islet facing the mainland showed a steep bank of boulders but when they doubled the northern point, the engineer discovered that the western side was covered with rocks. The islet measured about a mile and a half in length. Its largest width was at most a quarter of a mile in the southern part. The islet would do well for a hunter's sack.

The explorers set foot on the southern tip of the islet. Innumerable groups of birds belonging to the sea gull genre took flight. They were the species of gull that make their nests in the sand or in the crevices of rocks. Clifton especially recognized the skua gulls with the pointed tails, which are vulgarly given the name of stercoraries. The birds spread their wings, took to the open sea and disappeared.

"Ah!" Clifton said, "these birds evidently fear the presence of man."

"They assume that we are better armed than we really are," Uncle replied, "but there are other here who have not flown away and for good reason."

Uncle was referring to a species of heavy birds, divers the size of geese, unable to fly because their wings had no feathers.

"What clumsy awkward birds!" Robert shouted.

"They are great auks," Clifton replied, "fat and oily, "penguis" in Latin, and they deserve their name."

"Good," said Marc, "they will experience the power of our arrows."

"There is no need to dull our porcupine quills," Uncle replied. "These birds are stupid animals and we can easily attack them with our sticks."

"But they are not edible," their father said.

"Agreed," Uncle replied, "but they are full of fat which we can use. We must not disregard that."

At these words, every stick was raised. It was not a hunt but a massacre. Some twenty birds allowed themselves to be killed without trying to escape. They were carried to the boat.

Some hundred feet further along, the hunters met with another kind of divers just as stupid, but at least their flesh was edible. They were penguins whose wings were reduced to the state of flat stumps formed like paddles with scales. It was easy to kill this game but they only killed enough for immediate use. These penguins have a deafening cry like the braying of a donkey. But this hunt, or rather this slaughter, which required neither skill nor courage, disgusted the children. They then resumed the exploration of the islet.

The small group continued to advance toward the northern point on sandy soil covered with innumerable depressions in which the penguins nested. Suddenly Uncle Robinson motioned to his companions to remain still. Toward the extremity of the islet he pointed to large black specks swimming in the waves. They were the heads of rocks in motion.

"So what are they?" Marc asked.

"They are," Uncle replied, "worthy amphibians who will give us jackets and overcoats."

"Yes." Mr. Clifton said. "It is a herd of seals."

"Without doubt," Uncle replied, "and we must catch them at any price. But cunningly, because we will only get near them with guile."

First they must allow the animals to come ashore. In fact, with their narrow pelvises, short compact chest hair and streamlined shape, these seals are excellent swimmers. However, they are clumsy on land. With their short webbed feet, real oars, they can only crawl along.

Uncle knew their habits. He knew that once on land, they would stretch out under the sun's warmth and go to sleep immediately. Everyone waited patiently, even impatient Robert, and in a quarter of an hour some half dozen of these marine mammals were in a deep sleep.

Uncle Robinson decided to glide with Marc in back of a small promontory toward the north of the island so as to position themselves between the seals and the sea. All this while, the father and the two other boys would stay hidden until they heard Uncle shouting. Uncle would attack the seals with his ax. Equipped with only sticks, the others would try to cut off their retreat.

Uncle and the lad went first and disappeared behind the promontory. Harry Clifton, Robert and Jack silently crept along awkwardly toward the shore.

Suddenly the tall sailor jumped up. He shouted. Clifton and the two boys threw themselves between the seals and the sea. Uncle struck two of the seals on the head with his ax and they fell dead on the sand. The others tried to reach open water but Clifton fearlessly blocked them and two more seals fell under Uncle's ax. The remaining seals reached the sea but not without throwing Robert to the ground. He let out a frightful yell out of fear but he got up safe and sound.

"A good hunt!" Uncle shouted, "for the pantry and for the wardrobe."

These seals were relatively small. They were not more than a meter and a half in length. Their head resembles a dog's head. Uncle and Marc found the boat and loaded the seals. The boat crossed the channel and landed gently at the foot of the cliff.

Preparing the seal skins was a rather difficult operation. However, Uncle went to work in the following days and he worked skilfully at it. The skins would be used to make some of the winter clothes. He had more ideas. He thought of getting a bear coat for Clifton to help pass the winter. He never saw any bears but he did not despair of meeting one. He told no one about this. He wanted to act in secret and surprise the engineer Clifton.

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