Uncle Robinson

Chapter XXI

While the voyagers were away, Mrs. Clifton had prepared a meal with the remainder of the game killed the previous day. At twelve thirty everyone began to descend the slopes of the mountain. The tree zone was crossed at right angles and they reached the river in the upper part of its course, that is to say above the cascade. At this point it formed a real rapid and its current foamed on the heads of black rocks. The site was extremely savage. After crossing an inextricable jumble of trees, creepers and brambles, they reached the boat. There they placed the provisions, plants and various things collected during the exploration. The boat moved rapidly down the waterway. At three o’clock they reached the entrance to the lake. The sail was hoisted and the boat, running on a close hauled tack, arrived at the lower rivercourse. At six in the evening everyone was back at the grotto. The first word from Uncle was an exclamation. The palisade enclosure bore evident traces of damage. Someone had tried to force it and uproot some posts which fortunately held secure.

“It was those nasty monkeys,” Uncle said, “who paid us a visit during our absence. They are dangerous neighbors, Mister Clifton, and we must do something about it.”

After this fatiguing day, the travelers had an irresistible need to go to sleep. Everyone went to his sleeping place. The fire had not been lit so there was no need to watch it but the night passed pleasantly. The next day, Wednesday June 2nd, Uncle Robinson and the engineer were the first to wake up.

“Well then, Mister Clifton!” Uncle shouted with joy.

“Well then, my worthy friend!” the engineer replied with resignation. “Since we are islanders, let’s act like islanders and organize ourselves as if we will always be here.”

“Well spoken, Mister Clifton,” Uncle replied with confidence. “I say again that we are well off. We will make a Garden of Eden with our island. I say our island because it really is ours. Notice that if we have nothing to expect from other people, we no longer need be afraid of them. That must be taken into consideration. Has Mrs. Clifton adjusted to the new situation?”

“Yes, Uncle. She is a courageous woman and her trust in God will not fail her.”

“He will not abandon her,” Uncle said. “As to the children, Mr. Clifton, I am certain that they are enchanted to be here.”

“Then, Uncle Robinson, there is nothing you regret?”

“Nothing, or rather yes, only one thing.”

“What is that?”

“Must I say it?”

“Yes, Uncle.”

“Well then, tobacco. Yes, tobacco. I would give one of my ears to be able to smoke a pipe.”

Clifton could not hold back a smile while listening to the sailor express his regret. Not being a smoker himself, he could not understand the addiction created by this habit. Nevertheless, he resolved to try to satisfy Uncle Robinson some day.

Mrs. Clifton had asked for the establishment of a poultry yard. Her husband believed that he should begin his permanent installations on the island with this building. Near the palisade enclosure, at the right, he built a second enclosure with an area of hundred square meters. The two enclosures were in contact with each other through an interior door. The work was completed in two days. Two small huts made of branches were divided into compartments only waiting for the arrival of their guests. The first of these was the tinamou couple that had been taken alive during the preceding excursion. Mrs. Clifton cut their wings. Their domestication was easy. For companions they gave them a few ducks that frequented the shores of the lake who were content with the water in the bamboo vases that was renewed every day. These ducks belonged to this Chinese species whose wings open like a fan and who rival the gilded pheasants with the brilliance and brightness of their plumage.

During the weekend, hunts were organized for the purpose of populating the poultry yard. The children captured a gallinaceous couple with rounded tails made of long feathers. They could mistaken for turkeys. They were alectors who were not long in becoming tame. All of this miniature world, after several disputes, ended by coming to terms and soon increasing in reassuring proportions.

Clifton, wanting to complete his plan, built a pigeon house in a friable part of rock. Some dozen pigeons were lodged there whose eggs furnished the family with important nourishment. These pigeons easily became accustomed to return to their new dwelling each evening. Besides, they showed more of a tendency to become domesticated than their congeners, the wood pigeons, who would only reproduce in the wild state.

During the first fortnight of June, Uncle Robinson made some marvels in the art of ceramics. We will remember that the boat had carried a certain quantity of argile useful for making large pottery. Not having a wheel, Uncle was content to make his pots by hand. They came out somewhat awkward, somewhat deformed, but they still were pots. During the baking of these utensils, not knowing how to regulate his fire, a certain number broke, but very fortunately there was no lack of argile and after a few fruitless attempts, he could give the family some half dozen pots or dishes that could give acceptable service. One of them was an enormous pot worthy of the name boiling pot.

Since Uncle was occupied with making these household articles, Clifton, sometimes with Marc, sometimes with Robert, made some excursions within a radius of a league around the grotto, and so he visited the marsh full of game, the warren that seemed to be inexhaustible, and the oyster bed whose precious products were carried to the oyster park. He was always on the lookout for some cryptogamous 1 useful for replacing the amadou, but he still could not find it. It was at this time that by chance he was able to satisfy one of Mrs. Clifton’s strong wishes. Mrs. Clifton was always asking for some soap for washing the clothes. Clifton had intended to make some by treating animal fat, oil or grease, with soda made from the incineration of marine plants but the operation was a long one and he was able to avoid doing it thanks to finding a certain tree of the pine family. It was the savonnier whose fruits work up an abundant lather in water to replace ordinary soap. The engineer knew that these fruits could wash sixty times as much linen by weight as soap could. Mother used them immediately with success.

Harry Clifton also wanted to get, if not cane sugar which can only be found in the tropics, at least some analogous substance from a maple tree or any sacchariferous tree 2. He was constantly looking for it in the wooded parts of the island.

It was during one of these excursions made in the company of Marc, that Clifton discovered a vegetable product that would give exquisite pleasure, because it would allow him to satisfy Uncle Robinson’s only wish.

On the 22nd of June, Marc and he were exploring the right bank of the river in the wooded portion to the north. While crossing through some tall grass, Marc was surprised by the odor emanating from certain plants with straight cylindrical branchy stems in the upper part. These plants were very sticky and produced small clustered berries. Marc tore off one or two stems and returned to his father, asking him to identify the plant.

“And where did you find this plant?” father asked.

“There in the clearing,” Marc replied, “where it grows abundantly. It seems to me that I know it but...”

“Well,” Clifton said, “you made there, my child, a very precious discovery. There will no longer be anything lacking for Uncle’s happiness.”

“Then it is tobacco!” Marc shouted.

“Yes, Marc.”

“And what happiness!” the lad shouted. “What joy for worthy Uncle! But we must not say anything to him, father. You will make a fine pipe for him and one fine day we will present him with a full pipe.”

“Agreed, Marc.”

“Will it be difficult to transform these leaves into smoking tobacco?”

“No, my child. Besides, if this tobacco is not of the first quality, it is nevertheless tobacco and Uncle will not ask more of it.”

Clifton and his son gathered a good quantity of this plant and they brought it into the grotto “deceitfully” with as much precaution as if Uncle had been the most severe of customs inspectors. The next day, during the absence of the worthy sailor, the engineer, having detached the smallest leaves, left them to dry, intending to chop them later and to subject them to a certain torrefaction over some hot stones.

However, Mrs. Clifton was always occupied with the question of clothing. There were enough skins from the seals and blue foxes but the difficulty was to piece them together without a sewing needle.

On this subject, Uncle told how he had once swallowed the an entire box of needles “by accident” he added, but unfortunately these needles had exited his body little by little, which he now regretted. However, with long thorns and coconut thread, Mrs. Clifton, helped by little Belle, was able to make a few large coats. Uncle, who, like all sailors, knew how to sew, did not spare his help and his advice.

The month of June came to an end when all these activities were completed. The poultry yard prospered and the number of its hosts increased every day. Agoutis and capybara frequently fell under the boys’ arrows. Mother quickly transformed them into smoked hams assuring provisions for the winter. They need not fear any famine. The engineer also thought of making an enclosure for wild quadrupeds, moufflons and others, to capture and domesticate them. He decided on a large expedition for this purpose to be held at the northern part of the island, fixing the date for it on July 15th. Clifton also wanted to see if the island contained any specimens of this artocarpus tree which would be useful. The breadfruit tree grows as high as this latitude. They had no bread in their diet and several times Master Jack begged for a piece.

However, the time was ripe for the colony to acquire wheat flour. Belle, turning her pocket inside out one day, saw a grain of wheat fall out, but only a single grain. The little lady ran into the grotto with joy. She showed he grain of wheat to everyone triumphantly.

“Good!” Robert shouted mockingly, “What shall we make with it?”

“Do not laugh, Robert,” Clifton replied. “This grain of wheat is as precious to us as a nugget of gold.”

“Without a doubt, without a doubt,” Uncle replied.

“A single grain of wheat,” father repeated, “produces an ear; an ear can yield up to eighty grains so our little Belle’s grain contains a full harvest.”

“But why did you find this grain in your pocket?” Mrs. Clifton asked her little girl.

“Because I sometimes gave some of it to the chickens on board the Vancouver.”

“Well,” the engineer said, “we will take care of your grain of wheat, we will plant it next season and one day you will have cakes to eat, my child.”

Belle was enchanted with this promise and all afire as if she were Ceres herself, the goddess of the harvest.

The day fixed for the excursion to the northeast of the island arrived. It was agreed that this time Marc would stay with his mother, Jack and Belle. Clifton, Uncle and Robert would plan on going quickly and possibly returning as soon as possible that very evening. At four o’clock in the morning, the 15th of July, they were on their way. The boat took them on the river to the point where the cliff ended in the north. There they debarked and instead of turning the marsh by going toward the shore, they went directly northeast.

Already it was no longer the forest because the trees were grouped in isolated clusters, but it was still not a plain. Bushes grew here and there on uneven ground. Among the trees, Clifton recognized several new species, among others the citron trees in a wild state. Its fruits were not as valuable as those from Provence, but they contained a sufficient quantity of citric acid and they had the same sedative property. Uncle Robinson plucked some dozen of them which would be well received by Mrs. Clifton.

“Because,” the worthy sailor added, “we must think of our pantry in everything that we do.”

“Well then,” Clifton replied, “if I am not mistaken, here is a plant that will delight her.”

“What, these dwarf trees?” Robert shouted.

“Without a doubt,” Clifton replied. “They belong to the ericine genre 3 and contain an aromatic oil with a pleasing odor which is antispasmatic. It is found in North America where it is vulgarly called palommier. You must know this plant, Uncle Robinson.”

“I must know it but I don’t know it.”

“As palommier perhaps, but as mountain tea or Canadian tea?”

“Ah! Sir, you said it right!” Uncle replied. “I know this Canadian tea well. It is the tea of the emperor of China. Unfortunately it is sugar that we still do not have but we will find that later. Let us collect this tea as if the beets were growing in our fields and as if our sugar mills were ready to go into operation.”

They followed Uncle’s advice. The tea joined the citrons in the bags of the voyage. Clifton and his two companions then continued with their journey to the northeast. The birds were numerous in this part of the island but they flew from tree to tree not allowing anyone near them. For the most part, they were finches of the order of sparrow, recognizable by the two short jaws of their beak. Besides, from an edible point of view, they were not worth an arrow. However, Robert skilfully killed a few gallinaceous from the tridactyl 4 group which have long pointed wings. The upper part of their bodies are an ashen yellow with black rays and bands. These tridactyls walk poorly but they fly very fast which however did not save them from Robert’s arrows.

At about eleven o’clock in the morning, they halted near one of the sources of the river. Lunch consisted of a piece of cold capybara and rabbit mixed with aromatic herbs. The river source furnished fresh water. Uncle added some citron juice which softened the raw taste. They then continued on their way. Clifton was always thinking of his amadou and he was astonished that he still had not found this parasitic plant which counts more than ten thousand species and grows naturally everywhere on earth.

At this moment a rustling of wings was heard in a thicket. Robert leaped forward preceded by a growling Fido.

“Well done, Fido, well done!” Robert shouted.

This recommendation would not have been followed if Robert had not arrived promptly. Fido’s victim was a magnificent wild cock that the lad could still take alive. Clifton was not mistaken about the origin of this gallinule. It evidently belonged to the domestic race of medium height of a variety called the Benthane cock. The feathers of its ankle make a sort of cuff. However, one feature of this animal caught Robert’s attention.

“Look, a cock with a horn on its head.”

“A horn!” Clifton shouted, examining the animal.

“In fact,” Uncle replied, “a horn firmly implanted at the base of its comb. This cock would be fierce in combat. Well, Mr. Clifton, I who have seen everything have never seen a cock with horns!”

Harry Clifton did not know what to say. He looked at the bird in a strange way and all he could say was:

“Yes, it really is a Benthane cock!”

Uncle tied the bird’s wings. He wanted to carry it alive to the poultry yard. The voyagers then continued their excursion turning a bit to the east to join the watercourse. However, neither mushrooms of the polypore genre nor morils that could take the place of amadou were found. Fortunately they did find a plant that could be used for this purpose. The plant belonged to this large family of composite flowers. It was the artemise, vulgarly called armoise which counts among its principal species the wormwood, the citron tree, tarragon, alpine wormwood, etc. This species was Chinese armoise or omoxa armoise covered with a cotton down. It was frequently used by the doctors of the Heavenly (Chinese) Empire.

Clifton knew that the leaves and stems of this plant, covered with long silky hair would catch fire from a spark when they were thoroughly dried.

“At last, this is our amadou,” Clifton shouted.

“Good!” Uncle replied with joy. “Our day has not been wasted. And all I can see is that Providence always gives us the best. That is all I can see. It must not do otherwise. We can depend on it.”

They collected a certain quantity of the armoise and then went southwest. Two hours later they reached the right bank of the river and at six o’clock in the evening the family was reunited at the camp. For supper they had a spiny lobster caught by Marc among the rocks at the point. Clifton described all the details of their excursion. The Benthane cock was placed in the poultry yard where it was the finest ornament.

But when the meal was over there was a big surprise, even an emotional one, for Uncle Robinson. Belle came to him and gave him a glossy red lobster leg shell stuffed with tobacco. At the same time Jack presented him with a hot cinder.

“Tobacco!” Uncle shouted, “and you said nothing about it to me!”

In spite of himself, the worthy sailor blinked his wet eyes. The pipe was soon lit and a fine odor of tobacco filled the air.

“You saw it well, my worthy friend,” Clifton then said, “that Providence which has already given us everything, reserved yet another surprise for you.”

  1. The cryptogamous are plants whose reproductive organs are barely visible like the ferns and the mosses.
  2. Which produces a sugary substance.
  3. Or ericacea plants, which comprise the heather, the strawberry trees, rhododendrons and azaleas.
  4. Birds whose feet have three digits.

[prev] [up] [next]

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