Uncle Robinson

Chapter XX

The family went on its way. Uncle and his two friends, Marc and Robert, carried their bows and arrows and surveyed this new land. Mr. and Mrs. Clifton came behind them with Jack and Belle frolicking about, running and tiring themselves uselessly whatever one could tell them.

The ground was uneven evidently convulsed by plutonic forces. They noticed many basalt debris and pumic rocks. They saw more and more evidence of the volcanic nature of this region. However, the travelers still had not passed the zone of trees leading to the snowy peak. These conifers, like all those growing at this height, were pines and spruce, which little by little became more scarce.

During the last part of the climb, Uncle drew Harry Clifton's attention to the large footprints encrusted in the ground indicating the presence of large animals. What animals these were, they could not say. It would be prudent to keep on guard and the children were cautioned not to wander off.

Mr. Clifton and Uncle were chatting and these footprints gave rise to a rather plausible idea in the engineer's mind.

“These animals,” he said to Uncle, “are evidently powerful and numerous. I am led to believe that fate has thrown us on a continent rather than on an island, at least an island of considerable size. But I do not recall any islands in this part of the Pacific where the Vancouver has abandoned us. Yes, we are on a continent probably somewhere on a part of the American shoreline between the fortieth and fiftieth north latitudes.”

“Let's climb further,” Uncle replied, “and we will perhaps know what we have to deal with when we pass the tree zone.”

“But, my worthy friend,” said Clifton, “so far we have only seen the shoreline of this land, until we get to the top.”

“That will be a nasty business,” Uncle replied. “If the summit is not accessible, we may have to go around it at its base to find out if we are islanders or, how shall I say it, continenters.”

“Well, let's press on!”

“I suggest,” Uncle said, “that we be content for today to reach the end of the tree zone. There we can camp for the night which will be a fine one. I will be in charge of organizing a camp and tomorrow, at dawn, we will try to climb to the top.”

It was then three o'clock. They continued their climb. If the ferocious animals, judging from their footprints, were no longer here, no one thought of complaining. There was no lack of food and Fido put to flight several food worthy species difficult to recognize. However, Marc and Robert's arrows soon felled a gallinule couple of the pheasant family. The birds had a fleshy wattle hanging from their throats and two slender cylindrical horns set behind their eyes. These fine birds were the size of a rooster. The female was brown but the male sparkled with a red plumage dotted with white teardrop shapes. Mr. Clifton gave the gallinule birds their real name calling them tragopans. Mrs. Clifton was sorry they had not been caught alive. These pheasants would have adorned the poultry yard but they had to be content with making a roast of them at the next stop.

Another animal, a large one, was soon spotted among the basalt rocks. They could not capture it but Clifton was glad to know they were here. It was one of the large sheep that live in the mountains of Corsica, Crete and Sardinia. These were a distinct species going under the name of moufflon. Clifton easily recognized their strong horns curving rearward and flat at the tip with woolen fleece hidden under long silky buff colored hair. This fine animal stood still near the trunk of a fallen tree. Clifton and Uncle came closer. The moufflon looked at them with astonishment as if he was seeing human bipeds for the first time and then, his fears becoming aroused, he disappeared across the clearing and the rocks beyond the reach of Uncle's arrows.

“Au revoir!” Uncle shouted at him, in a comic tone of frustration. “The wretched animal! It is not the legs but the fleece I am sorry about! He took a jacket away from us but we will get it back!”

“At least we will try,” Clifton replied, “and if we succeed in domesticating a few couples of these animals, as Uncle says, we will no longer lack for legs and jackets.”

At six in the evening, the small troop reach the tree limit. They decided to stop, prepare the evening meal and camp for the night. Their only thought was to find a convenient place for sleeping. Marc and Robert went off in one direction and Clifton and Uncle to the other. Mrs. Clifton, Jack and Belle were sheltered under a large pine tree.

Marc and Robert were gone for barely a few minutes when their mother saw them returning in a fright. Mrs. Clifton went to them.

“What is it, my children?” she asked them.

“Smoke,” Robert said. “We saw smoke rising from the rocks.”

“Are there people here?” Mrs. Clifton asked.

She seized her children.

“But what kind of people, savages, cannibals?”

The children looked at their mother without answering.

At this moment, Uncle and the engineer reappeared. Marc told them what happened. Everyone was quiet for a few moments.

“Let's act prudently,” Uncle Robinson finally said. “It is evident that human creatures are there near us. We do not know who we have to deal with. I truly fear them more than I want them. Stay near Mrs. Clifton, Mister engineer. Mister Marc, Fido and I will do a reconaissance.”

Uncle, the young lad and the faithful dog left without delay. Marc's heart was pounding. Uncle, his lips tight and eyes wide open, advanced carefully. After a few minutes moving in a northeast direction, Marc suddenly stopped and showed his companion a smoke rising into the air at the border of the last trees. No wisp of wind blew and the smoke rose to a great height.

Uncle stopped. Fido wanted to spring forward but Marc restrained him. The sailor made a sign to the lad to wait for him and he glided like a serpent among the rocks and disappeared.

Marc stood still with emotion, waiting for his return. Suddenly he heard a shout echoing from the rocks. Marc jumped forward ready to help his companion but the shouting was followed by a hearty laughter and Uncle soon reappeared.

“This fire,” he shouted, swinging his large arms, “or rather this smoke...”

“Well, it is made by nature! It is a sulfer source that will allow us to effectively treat our laryngites.”

Uncle and Marc returned to where Clifton was waiting for them and Uncle told him about the situation all the while laughing.

Father, mother and children wanted to go there to see the gushing source a little beyond the tree line. The soil was mostly volcanic. From a distance, Clifton recognized the sulfuric acid odor of the gushing gases combining with the atmospheric oxygen. These sulfuric waters flowed abundantly among the rocks. The engineer dipped his hand into it and found it oily to the touch and that its temperature was about thirty seven degrees (Celsius). It tasted somewhat sweet. This source, like those in Luchon or Cauterets, have been effectively used for the treatment of respiratory ailments and, thanks to the heat, even for lymphatic constitutions.

Marc then asked his father how he was able to estimate the thirty seven degree temperature of this source without a thermometer. Mr. Clifton told him that when he immersed his hand into the water he felt no sensation of cold or hot; consequently he concluded that they were at the same temperature as the human body which is about thirty seven degrees.

With these observations made, they decided to camp here between two large basaltic rocks under the protection of the last trees. The children gathered some dry wood, enough to keep the fire going all night. A few howlings in the distant made precautions necessary. Ferocious animals would not cross a barrier of flames.

These preparations were quickly completed. Mother, helped by Jack and Belle, were occupied with making supper. The two pheasants were roasted. With the meal over, the children lay down on their beds of dry leaves. They were exhausted and were not long in falling asleep. During this time, Clifton and Uncle Robinson made a reconaissance around the camp. They even went as far as a small bamboo woods growing on the initial slopes of the mountain. Here they distinctly heard the howlings of ferocious beasts.

In order to better defend the approaches to his camp, Clifton then thought of using an idea recommended by Marco Polo, one used by the Tartars during the long nights to protect against dangerous animals. Uncle and he cut a quantity of bamboos which they carried to the camp. From time to time they threw a few pieces of this vegetation onto the incandescent cinders. A fireworks ensued that cannot be imagined by those who have never heard it. Marc and Robert were awakened by the noise. They were amused by the detonations, violent enough to frighten the nocturnal prowlers. In fact, the night passed without troubling the sleep of the Clifton family in any way.

The next day, the first of June, everyone was on foot at an early hour, ready to make the climb. They left at six o'clock after a quick meal. The tree zone was soon crossed and the small troop ventured onto the initial slopes leading to the peak. There was no doubt that the peak was a volcanic one. In fact, the slopes were covered with cinders and slag with lava flows appearing among them. Clifton saw materials indicating previous volcanic eruptions. They were pozzuolanas in small irregular shapes and highly torrefied white cinders made by an infinity of small feldspar crystals.

They climbed rapidly over the steep slopes made of capriciously ridged lava. Small solfatara sometimes blocked their path and they had to go around them. It was a pleasure for Clifton to talk about the abundance of sulfur all around in the form of encrusted crystals.

“Good!” Clifton shouted. “Children, here is a substance that comes to us just in time.”

“To make candles?” Robert asked.

“No,” the father replied, “to make powder, because however carefully we look, we will not be able to find saltpeter.”

“Is it true, father?” Marc asked. “You can make powder?“

“I cannot promise you powder of the first quality but a substance that will give us good service.”

“Then we will no longer lack for anything,” Mrs. Clifton said.

“For example, my dear Elisa?” the engineer asked.

“Firing arms, my friend”

“Well, don't we have Robert's pistol?”

“Oh yes,” shouted the noisy lad, shouting as loud as a gun.

“Calm down, Robert,” Mr. Clifton said, “and let's continue our climb. We'll gather in some sulfer on our way down.”

They continued on their way. Already, their view embraced a vast semi-circular horizon beyond the eastern part of the shore. The shoreline seemed to turn sharply to the north and to the south; in the north, beyond the large marsh not far from where Clifton had been found; in the south, beyond the promontory to the rear of the oyster bed. From this elevated point the travelers distinctly saw the vast bay where the river emptied, the winding course of its flow across the clearings, the foliage of the forest and the lake which appeared like a vast floor. To the north, the shore seemed to follow a west to east line. It was indented forming a wide bay ending in the east by a rounded cape. They could not see beyond because the mountain hid their view. In the south, on the contrary, the land was as straight as if it had been traced with a drawing pen. All of this shore, from the cape to the promontory, measured about six leagues. However, behind the peak they did not know whether there was a continent of some sort or an ocean beating against a still invisible shore. As to the land situated at the base of the peak and irrigated by the two branches of the river, it seemed to be very fertile. The southern region was ridged with savage looking dunes and the northern region looked like an immense marsh.

The family stopped to better observe this land and the ocean.

“Well, what do you think, Mr. engineer,” Uncle said. “What is your opinion? Are we on an island or are we on a continent?”

“I do not know what to say, my worthy companion,” Clifton replied. “I cannot see through the mountain that hides the east. We are not more than three hundred feet above sea level. Let us climb further to the plateau on which the peak rests. Perhaps we will then be able to go around it and see the eastern shore.”

“I'm afraid,” Uncle said, “that Mrs. Clifton and her two youngsters will find this second part of the climb a bit tiring.”

“But here,” the mother replied, “there is nothing to fear from an attack and I can wait with Jack and Belle for your return.”

“In fact, my dear friend,” Clifton replied, “I believe that we need fear neither people nor animals here.”

“Besides, don't I have Jack to protect me?” Mrs. Clifton said with a smile.

“And he will defend you like a hero,” Uncle said. “He is a little lion, afraid of nothing, but if you wish, madame, I can stay here with you.”

“No, my friend, no. Go with my husband and children. I would rather you did. Jack, Belle and I will wait here and rest.”

That settled, Mr. Clifton, Uncle, Marc and Robert continued their climb and soon, with the distortion of distances peculiar to mountainous regions, mother and children appeared as three barely distinguishable points.

The path was no longer easy. The slopes were steep and their feet slipped on the streaks of lava but they climbed quickly toward the upper plateau. As to reaching the summit of the volcano, they would have to give that up if the slopes were steeper here than those on the western side.

Finally, after a painful hour's climb with very dangerous slips, Uncle, father and the two boys reached what may be called the base of the peak. It was an irregular narrow plateau but sufficiently practical. Situated at nine hundred or thousand meters above sea level, it rose gradually to the north by an oblique curve. The peak dominated it by seven or eight hundred meters. This grand slab of snow sparkled under the sun's rays.

In spite of the climbers' fatigue, there was no question of resting for a moment. They hurried to turn the mountain. Their view of the north gradually enlarged.

After an hour's march, the northern part of the peak had been turned. There was no land beyond. But father, Uncle and the boys moved forward, speaking little and all a prey to the same emotion. Marc and Robert, tireless, were in front. Finally, at about eleven o'clock, the sun's position indicated to Clifton that they had reached the opposite side.

The travellers saw nothing but an immense sea to the limits of the horizon. They watched in silence this ocean that imprisoned them. There could be no communication with other people, no help from them. They were isolated on a land lost in the Pacific Ocean.

According to the engineer's estimate, the island's circumference measured about twenty to twenty five leagues, an island larger than Elba, with a perimeter twice that of Saint Helena. This island was relatively small and Clifton did not know how to explain the presence of these large animals, whose traces they had seen, on a land so restricted. Perhaps its volcanic nature could explain some of these things. Was it possible that the island had once been part of a larger one now sunk under the waves or that it had drifted away from a continent? Clifton promised himself that he would verify these hypotheses when he would make a tour of the island. In the presence of this ocean without limits, the boys understood the gravity of their situation and they remained silent.

They did not want to question their father. He gave the signal to depart. The descent was rapid. In less than a half hour they rejoined Mrs. Clifton waiting for them, absorbed in thought.

When she saw her husband and her children she rose and went to them.

“Well,” she said.

“An island,” the engineer replied.

“The will of God be done,” the mother murmurred.

[prev] [up] [next]

Translation Copyright © 2000 Sidney Kravitz
Copyright © Zvi Har’El
$Date: 2007/12/23 17:44:42 $