Uncle Robinson

Chapter XIX

During the following two weeks Clifton was not able to undertake his important excursion. Various domestic occupations required the services of everyone in the grotto. The question of clothing was first among others. They would need animal skins to take the place of fabrics. So they conducted additional seal hunts. Uncle was able to kill another half dozen, but soon these amphibians, becoming very defiant, abandoned the islet and they had to give that up.

Fortunately the seals were replaced by another group of animals. A dozen of them fell under the children's arrows during the 18th and 19th of May. These were foxes of a long eared species, with a gray yellow coat of fur, a little larger than the ordinary fox. This encounter was advantageous to the pantry reserve. Mrs. Clifton was satisfied. Uncle was enchanted. It seemed there was no longer anything left to wish for in this world. However, when Clifton asked him if he wanted anything else:

"Yes," he replied. But he would not say what it was.

When these indoor tasks were completed, Mr. Clifton was completely occupied with exploring the land, to finally know if fate had thrown them on an island or on a continent. They decided then to undertake an expedition to the interior with the double goal of determining the layout of the land and to examine its natural riches. On this subject, Uncle Robinson had an excellent idea.

"We would like," he said, "to go inland. Well then, why not profit from the watercourse that nature has given us? Let's go up the river in our boat. We'll go as far as it's navigable and when it can no longer transport us we'll go on foot. Then we can make use of the boat on our return."

This plan was adopted. There remained only one important question to resolve. Who should take part in the expedition? Leaving Mrs. Clifton alone in the grotto was opposed by her husband even though she was willing to pass a night or two alone with her young daughter. Marc knew that he would be sorry to be left out of the expedition but he generously offered to remain at the grotto. They could see what the sacrifice would cost the lad.

"But," said Uncle Robinson, "why can't the entire family come along? The first days of June are fine days and the nights are already very short. A night passed in the woods, what is that? Nothing. I propose that everyone come along. If nothing gets in our way we can leave Monday morning and return by Tuesday evening. Besides, we can go most of the way by boat with little or no fatigue."

Needless to say, this was everyone's preference, young or old. They began their preparations. Roasted meat, hard eggs, grilled fish and fruit were put in reserve for the expedition. Uncle made new arrows and sticks were hardened in fire. In Clifton's hands, the ax could be used for attack or defense as needed. They settled the question of fire this way: The piece of amadou was torn in two, with half to stay at the grotto to rekindle the fire on their return. The other half would be carried with them to be used as needed. It goes without saying that finding the proper substance to replace the amadou was the most important goal of this and future expeditions.

The evening prior to the departure - it was a Sunday - was devoted to rest and sanctified by prayer. Mr. and Mrs. Clifton spoke to their children about ethics and Uncle Robinson told them about the principles of natural philosophy he followed. Everyone rose the next day, the 31st of May, at daybreak. The day promised to be an excellent one. They readied the boat. Uncle needed the sail to profit from the favorable breezes, two oars to maneuver against the wind and a long rope of coconut fibers for hauling it along land.

The boat was launched. At six in the morning, everyone took his proper place. Marc and Robert were up front, Jack and Belle near their mother in the center, and Uncle and Clifton at the bow. Uncle was at the helm and Clifton in charge of the sail.

The wind blew from the open sea. It rippled along the surface of the water. Shouts of joy filled the air. The sail was hoisted and the boat moved gently through the channel between the islet and the mainland. The tide began to rise which was a favorable circumstance because for a few hours it would move the boat to the upper reaches of the river.

In a short while, aided by wind and tide, they reached the northern extremity of islet near the entrance to the river. Clifton turned the sail and they ascended the water course with the wind to their rear. No longer in the cliff's shadow, they were now in the sunshine. Fido barked with joy and Jack joined in.

The children recognized their first encampment when they passed it. Mrs. Clifton showed her husband where they had turned the boat over to serve as a tent. But the tide moved them along rapidly and the first encampment was soon left behind.

Moving between green banks, the craft soon reached the place where the forest formed a sharp angle with the river. The voyagers then went under a dome of vegetation. A few of the larger trees intermingled their branches to the level of the water. Without wind, the sail was useless. Uncle asked Marc and Robert to haul it down and the two boys did it skilfully. The oars were put in place in case they were needed but the tide was strong enough to move the boat at a good speed. However, the helm no longer responded because the speed of the boat and the current were equal. Uncle then used an oar at the rear to keep the boat in the center.

"These banks are truly charming," Clifton said, looking at this winding river hidden under the vegetation.

"Yes," mother replied. "With a little water and a few trees, nature achieves these beautiful reflections."

"You will see more of these, Madam," said Uncle Robinson. "I repeat that fate has cast us on an enchanted land."

"Then you have already explored this waterway," Mrs. Clifton asked.

"Without doubt," Robert replied. "Uncle and I have ascended the right bank through the creepers and the brushwood."

"What fine trees!" Clifton said.

"Yes," Uncle said. "We will never lack for trees, whatever use we put them to."

In fact, on the left bank of the river there rose magnificent specimens of ulmaceous plants, those precious French elms so sought after by builders, which have the property of bearing up well in water for a long time. Then there were numerous groups belonging to the same family, nettle trees among others, whose almond produces a very useful oil. Further on, the engineer noted some lardizabalaceae 1 whose flexible boughs, soaked in water, make an excellent cord, and two or three ebony trunks of a beautiful black color, divided into capricious veins. Clifton also recognized a North American species, the dios piros virginiana (divine Virginia pear tree) encountered up to the latitude of New York.

Among the most beautiful trees were the giants of the liliaceous species. Humboldt had seen specimens of these in the Canaries.

"Ah! What fine trees!" Robert and Marc shouted.

"These are the dragon trees," Mr. Clifton replied, "and it will surprise you to know that these trees are only ambitious leeks."

"Is it possible?" Marc replied.

"At the least," said Clifton, "they belong to the same liliaceous family as the onion, the shallot, the chive and the asparagus. The humble members of this family could be more useful to us than these gigantic trees. I will add that the liliaceous species includes the tulip, the aloes, the hyacinths, the lilies, the tuberose and this phormium tenax, the linseed of New Zealand that your mother could make good use of."

"Father," Marc asked, "how can the naturalists group into the same family the dragon trees which are a hundred feet tall and the onions which are two inches in width?"

"Because the typical characteristics of these vegetables are the same, my dear child. It's the same with the animals and it will surprise you to know that foxes and ray fish are in the same category. It therefore follows that this liliaceous family is a considerable one, containing at least twelve hundred species scattered over the surface of the globe, but especially in the temperate zones."

"Good!" Uncle shouted, "I will not despair of one day finding other specimens of these liliaceous plants that you regret not having, Mrs. Clifton. Besides, let us not speak ill of the dragon trees. If I remember correctly, in the Sandwich Islands people eat their ligneous roots which they call the roots of Ti. When cultivated, they are excellent. I have eaten some of it. Ground and subject to a certain fermentation, it makes a very agreeable liquor."

"True," replied the engineer, "but those roots come from the purple dragon tree which we may meet up with perhaps. As for these, they only yield a blood-dragon which is a resin than can be used to advantage in treating a hemorrhage. Bethencourt collected it during the conquest of the Canaries."

The boat left at six in the morning. An hour later, with the help of the tide, it reached the lake. It was a joy for the children to travel on this vast plane of water where formerly they could only move along its shores. From this position they could once again see the western cliff, the curtain of large trees, the yellow carpet of dunes and the sparkling sea. They then crossed the northern part of the lake in order to reach the mouth of the upper river. There was a fine wind no longer hindered by the screen of trees. Uncle hoisted the sail and the light vessel moved rapidly toward the west. Remembering the inexplicable bubbling he had seen at the time of his first visit to the lake, Harry Clifton carefully observed these somewhat suspicious waters. But the children could only admire the scenery. Little Jack dipped his hand in the water outside the boat and amused himself by tracing a small wake while twittering.

At Marc's request they went to explore a tiny islet that emerged some three hundred meters from the shore. The boat reached it in a few moments. It was a solid rock measuring some hundred square meters in area, covered with aquatic grass. The birds from the lake favored it. It was like an enormous nest where the winged community lived in harmony. Fido barked and wanted to jump ashore but Mr. Clifton held him back. This islet was a reservation for aquatic game. They must not casually disturb this bird retreat and give them the idea of nesting elsewhere.

With this exploration completed, Uncle Robinson directed the boat toward the mouth of the upper waterway. At this point they not only had to lower the sail but also remove the mast. They could not advance under this arc of low thick vegetation. Since the tide was not felt in this upper part of the river, Uncle and Marc took to the oars leaving the engineer to attend to the helm.

"We are now in an undiscovered area!" Clifton said.

"Yes," Uncle replied. "We never went this far. We waited for you before making this excursion. Where this river goes I cannot say but it would not surprise me if goes a long way into the interior. As you will see, this is a large land."

In fact the width of the new river was over eighty feet and the channel did not seem to narrow. Very fortunately the current was not strong and the light boat, driven with the oars, easily moved along sometimes near one bank, sometimes near the other.

They went along in this way for about two hours. Even though the sun was high in its course, it barely showed through the thick foliage. A few times the explorers set foot on one of the banks. During these halts, they made a few useful discoveries in the vegetable kingdom. The chenopod family was represented principally by a sort of wild spinach which had crossbred spontaneously. Mrs. Clifton gathered some of it and promised to transplant them later. She also found many specimens of wild mustard plants with high hopes of transplanting them. In the cabbage family, they found cress, horse radish, turnips and small slightly rough hairy stems, a meter high, which produced an almost brown grain. Clifton easily recognized the charlock from which mustard is made.

These precious vegetables were stored in the boat and the voyage was resumed. It was truly a charming trip. The trees served as a refuge for a large number of birds. Marc and Robert got hold of two or three couples of gallinaceae in their nests. They were birds with long slender beaks, long necks, short wings and without an apparent tail. They were tinamous. It was decided that they would keep a male and female alive to populate a future poultry yard. With bows and arrows the young hunters also killed a few touraco lories, a sort of parrot the size of a pigeon, all daubed in green with a part of its wing of a crimson color and a narrow festooned crest with a white border, charming birds especially excellent from a culinary point of view because its meat is very tasty.

During one of these stops, they made another very important discovery thanks to little Jack who could hardly stay confined on the boat. The young man went to frolic in a sort of clearing. When he returned his clothes were completely soiled with a yellowish soil which earned him a scolding from his mother. Jack was totally disgraced.

"Take a look, Madame Clifton," Uncle Robinson said. "Don't scold him. It is fortunate that the child amused himself."

"That he messed himself up?" the mother replied.

"But how could he amuse himself without getting all messed up?" Uncle asked.

"Ah! Worthy Uncle!" Mrs. Clifton replied. "I would like to know what his father thinks about this."

"This once," Clifton said, "I think that Jack should not be scolded. On the contrary, we should congratulate him for have messed around with this yellowish soil."

"And why?"

"Because this yellowish soil is clay, a loamy soil which can be made into crude but useful pottery."

"Pottery!" Mrs. Clifton shouted.

"Yes, and I have no doubt that Uncle Robinson is as good a potter as he is a carpenter, a woodsman and a tanner."

"Just say sailor," Uncle replied, "and that does it."

Little Jack led Clifton and Uncle to the clearing. The engineer recognized that the soil was formed of a clay earth called figuline clay which is used mostly for making ordinary earthenware. He could not be mistaken about this and besides, having placed a bit of this substance on his tongue, he sensed the extreme avidity that the argile exhibits toward liquids. So then, this precious material, spread over the surface of the globe, was freely offered to the small colony. They would use this argile as a paste base.

"An excellent discovery!" Mr. Clifton shouted. "For a moment I thought it was kaolin so that we could make porcelain. But now, by pounding this clay soil and washing out its larger particles, we will get our earthenware."

"We will be happy with simple pottery," Uncle replied. "I am certain that Madame Clifton would pay dearly for an earthen bowl."

They placed a good quantity of this plastic soil in the boat to replace the ballast of rocks. When Uncle returned to the grotto, he would lose no time in making pots, dishes and plates to the great satisfaction of the household.

They embarked again and the boat, propelled by the oars, tranquilly ascended the rivercourse. It had now become winding and sensibly narrower. They could now believe that its source was not far off. The river's depth had also diminished. On taking a sounding, Uncle realized that the boat had no more than two or three feet of water under the keel. Clifton estimated that they had now gone about two leagues from the upper entrance into the lake.

The narrow valley the explorers then crossed was less wooded. Instead of a thick forest, the trees were scattered in clusters. Large rocks jutted out on the banks. The soil here was different. This was the beginning of the mountain system to culminate at the central peak.

At about half past eleven, it was impossible to go further. There was little water under the boat. Black rocks, not grass, lined the riverbanks. Soon they heard the noise of a waterfall not far off.

In fact, after turning a sharp corner, they came in sight of the cascade. It was a charming place. The stream plunged some thirty feet to the bottom of a picturesque gorge filled with mossy rocks. The volume of water was not considerable but the sharp rocks scattered it about. Its jets intersected each other and collected into certain natural hollows. They stopped to admire this wonderful spectacle.

"Oh! What a wonderful fall!" Jack shouted.

"Father, father," Belle said in her turn, "let's get closer."

But the girl's wish was not to be satisfied. The boat scraped bottom with each stroke of the oar. They had to make for the left bank some fifty feet from the falls. Everyone left the boat and the two youngsters began to frolic about the bank.

"What will we do now?" Marc asked.

"Let's go to the base of the mountain," Robert replied impatiently, pointing to the peak to the north.

"Children," Mrs. Clifton said. "Before we go on any new excursions, I have a suggestion to make."

"What, mother!" Marc asked.

"Let's eat."

The suggestion was accepted without any quarrel. They removed their provisions from the boat. To the cold meat they added some lories and tinamous meat. A wood fire was lit. The small game was placed on a spit and was soon roasting over a sparkling flame.

The meal was soon finished. They had to push forward in haste. Clifton and Uncle took a careful look at the surroundings so as not to miss it on their return. Besides, they could not fail to discover again this watercourse that had made such an impression. ________________________________ 1. A family of vines found in China, Japan and Chile.

[prev] [up] [next]

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