Uncle Robinson

Chapter XXII

Uncle Robinson was at the peak of happiness; a superb island, an adorable family and a pipe of tobacco! If some vessel had presented itself at this moment he would certainly have hesitated to abandon this corner of the earth.

And yet there still were some things that the colony needed. Harry Clifton had to know not only how to provide for the future but he also could not neglect his children’s education. He had no book to put into their hands but he himself was a veritable living encyclopedia. He taught them relentlessly on every subject, drawing the best lessons from nature. Example immediately followed theory. The sciences, especially natural history, geography, then religion and ethics, were practiced every day. As to philosophy which gave one a sense of right and wrong, what better teacher could they have than Uncle Robinson who was better than any professor from Oxford or Cambridge? But nature was their best teacher and Uncle was the perfect disciple of that school. As to Mrs. Clifton, with her woman’s tenderness and the dignity of a mother, her love bound the little world together. She was the soul of the colony.

We will remember that during the excursion to the mountain, the voyagers had been able to acquire a certain quantity of sulfur. The engineer intended to make some sort of gunpowder if by chance he could discover some saltpeter. Now, precisely on the 20th of July, while he was exploring some cavities in the northern part of the cliff, he found a sort of humid grotto whose walls were covered with deposits of sodium nitrate salts. Over the ages, this salt was deposited on the surface of the granite through capillary action.

Clifton told Uncle about his discovery and announced his intention to make powder.

“I cannot obtain a perfect powder,” he added, “because I cannot separate the impurities from the saltpeter by refining so I will be forced to use it in its natural state, but it will still give good service to break up rocks and create explosions.”

“Good, sir,” Uncle replied. “We will be able to build a powder magazine near the grotto.”

“Besides,” Clifton added, “we can saltpeter the courtyard ground. Mixed with saltpeter and pounded in, it will become rainproof.”

This was the major use for the saltpeter. The courtyard and even the very soil in the grotto was pounded in and took on the consistency of granite. Mother made it shine like a wooden floor.

The engineer went on to make the powder. The children followed all the details with interest. Even though the colony had only one pistol, they acted as if they had to provide an entire artillery regiment.

Saltpeter, sulfur and charcoal must be intimately mixed in order to develop the powerful gas forces needed in firearms or in mines. Clifton had saltpeter and sulfur. He needed charcoal. This was easy. Instead of chestnut or the poplar wood which is used to make war powder, the engineer used the elm whose charcoal is especially suited for mines. He chose a few young branches and used the bark to make cinders. He carbonized them in pits.

Needless to say, the engineer knew the proper proportions. In a hundred parts, the powder contains seventy five parts of saltpeter, twelve and a half parts of sulfur and twelve and a half parts of charcoal. These three substances were subjected to various grinding operations, moisturized and finally pounded with a wooden pestle in a thick clay bowl made by Uncle. Clifton obtained a sort of large pancake which could only be used if it was granulated.

This was a difficult but indispensable part of the operation. In fact, if the powder remains in a compact form, it will detonate but the detonation will not occur simultaneously throughout and no explosive effect will result. It will be a detonating mixture but not an explosive mixture.

The engineer tried to obtain any kind of granulation. The powder was reduced by pulverization and left to dry for two days. It was broken into pieces with the fragments placed in a flared clay vase. By means of a cord and a pulley from the boat, he was able to impart a rather rapid gyratory motion to it. After determined and fatiguing work, he obtained a powder in large, sharp, unpolished form, but it was granular at last. The explosive material in this form was exposed to the sun’s heat and it dried completely.

The next day, Robert did not stop urging his father to experiment with the new product. The pistol was cleaned and made ready. The flint was put in place, and charged and primed. Robert wanted to be the first to fire it, but Uncle himself wanted to make the trial since he did not want to expose the boy in case the powder exploded prematurely. Besides, he took the necessary precautions so that he himself would not be injured.

The gun was fired. The ignition of the powder in the chamber did not proceed rapidly it must be said but it finally caught on and, half ignited, half detonated, it pushed out a stone cannon ball placed there by Uncle.

The hurrahs were louder than the detonation itself. It was the children shouting with joy. At last they had a gun. They had to let Marc and Robert each take a try at it and they were enchanted with the results. In sum, it seemed that the powder left much to be desired for use as gunpowder but it could, at least, be used in a mine.

During these various activities, Mrs. Clifton was occupied with overseeing the prospering poultry yard. The gallinules had been successfully domesticated so why not quadrupeds? Clifton decided to build a special enclosure of several acres which he chose to the north of the lake about a mile from the camp. It was a grassy prairie fed by the water from the river. The perimeter of the new enclosure was traced out by the engineer and Uncle was occupied with choosing, cutting down and squaring the trees destined to become the posts of the palisade. The work was hard but it was carried out without delay nevertheless because Uncle counted on populating it before the coming spring. We should understand that as a result of this activity, there were frequent visits to the forest. Uncle planned it so that the cutting of the necessary trees laid out a pathway to make for easier exploitation of the area.

During one of these excursions, the engineer discovered a precious tree of the cycadacea 1 family, very common in Japan, whose presence seemed to prove that the island was not located as far north as they had assumed.

On this day, after a excellent dinner in which neither fish nor meat were spared, Clifton said to his children:

“Well then, my children, what do you think of our life? Is there anything you lack?”

“No father,” Marc, Robert and Jack replied with one voice.

“Not even food?”

“That would be difficult to name. We have so much game, fish, mollusks and fruit. Who needs anything else?”

“Ah, yes!” said little Jack.

“Which is?” father asked.


“There is our gourmand,” Clifton replied, “but the boy is right. However, we have no cakes because we have no bread.”

“That is true,” Flip said, “we forgot about bread. But don’t be anxious about that, my lads. We will make that when Miss Belle’s grain of wheat is planted.”

“We will wait a long time for that,” Clifton replied, “but this very afternoon I discovered a tree that produces an excellent flour.”

“Is it sago!” Marc shouted. “Like in Swiss Family Robinson!”

“Sago,” Uncle replied, “but it is an excellent food. I ate some of it on the Molucca Islands were one finds entire forests of sagoes with each trunk containing perhaps as much as four hundred kilograms of this tasty and nutritious paste. That is a precious discovery that you made there. Onward to the forest of the sagoes!”

Uncle got up and reached for his axe. Clifton stopped him.

“One moment, Uncle Robinson,” he said. “Let us not speak of a sago forest. That tree is a product of tropical countries and our island is very certainly situated to the north of the tropics. No! We simply have here a vegetable belonging to the cycadacea family which produces a substance similar to sago.”

“Well then, sir. We will treat it as if it is sago.”

Clifton and Uncle, leaving the children at the grotto, soon took to the road to the forest and reached the river that they had to cross.

“Sir,” Uncle said, stopping at the bank, “we must decide to build a bridge here because we must always bring the boat here which will be a waste of time.”

“I agree,” the engineer replied. “We will make a drawbridge to get us to the left bank. It will form our natural frontier on this side. Let us not forget that this river covers the north and protects us from wild animals.”

“No doubt,” Uncle replied, “but they can get through because a southern route is open to them.”

“And who is to prevent us,” Clifton said, “from blocking this passage be it with a long palisade or with a diversion of the waters from the lake. Who is to stop us?”

“It will not be me,” Uncle Robinson replied, “but while waiting for our bridge to be built, I will cut down a trunk that will take us to the other side.”

A few minutes later, Clifton and Uncle moved through the forest in a northeast direction. Fido, who was with them, drove many capybara and agouti out of the bushes. Uncle remarked that several groups of monkeys were scampering about the branches but so rapidly that they could not recognize the species they belonged to.

After walking for a half hour, the two companions reached the edge of the forest on a vast plain covered with clusters of trees resembling sago trees. These were the trees that had attracted Clifton’s attention. These trees, belonging to the sago palm species, showed a single stem covered with a scaly bark which held striped leaves with small parallel veins. They were rather small making them more like bushes than trees.

“In their trunk,” Clifton shouted, “these precious vegetables carry a nourishing flour that nature has given us fully ground.”

“Mr. Clifton,” Uncle replied, “nature does well in everything it does. What would become of a poor devil thrown on a deserted shore if nature did not come to help him? You see, I have always thought that there are islands for castaways, created especially for them, and most certainly this island is one of them. And now, to work!”

That said, Uncle and the engineer cut some palm branches and then, not wanting to carry excess wood, they decided to extract the flour on the spot.

The trunk of the palm was composed of a glandular texture. It enclosed a certain quantity of floury pith, traversed by ligneous bundles and separated by rings of the same substance arranged concentrically. This flour was mixed with a gummy sap with a disagreeable taste that would be easy to remove by pressure. This cellular substance formed a real flour of superior quality. A very small quantity was enough to nourish a man. Clifton told Uncle that the exportation of this precious vegetable was formerly prohibited by Japanese laws.

After a few hours work, the two companions extracted a large quantity of flour. With a full load they took the road back to the encampment. On returning to the forest, Clifton and Uncle Robinson found themselves among many groups of monkeys. This time they were able to observe them carefully. They were tall animals and could be regarded as among the highest order of the quadrupeds. The engineer could not be mistaken about that. That would make them either chimpanzees or orangs or gibbons, certainly belonging to the anthropoid apes, so called because of their resemblance to the human race.

These animals could become formidable adversaries because they were powerful and intelligent. Had these already seen men? What did they think of these bipeds? Whatever the case, they made contortions and grimaces while Clifton and Uncle passed by at a steady pace, not anxious for a battle with these fearful animals.

“Sir,” Uncle said. “We could have quite a problem with these jolly fellows.”

“In fact,” Clifton replied, “it is certain they have seen us. It would be unfortunate if they followed us to the grotto.”

“We need not fear that.” Uncle said. “The river will soon stand in their way but let us move on.”

The two companions moved on quickly without provoking the grimacing troop neither with a gesture nor by looking at them. The apes, about a dozen of them, continued to escort them. From time to time, one of them who seemed to be the leader of the band, came closer to Clifton or to Uncle, looked at them face to face and then returned to his companions.

Under these conditions, the engineer was able to observe him closely. This orang was six feet tall. He had an admirably proportioned body, a large chest, a head of average size with a facial angle of sixty five degrees, a rounded cranium, a prominent nose, a skin covered with a sleek, gentle and glossy hair, in short an accomplished type of anthropomorph. His eyes, a little smaller than human eyes, shown with a vivacious intelligence. His white teeth showed through his moustache and he had a small beard with a hazel color.

“My word, a fine lad,” Uncle murmurred.

However, Clinton and he moved on quickly. Little by little they saw with satisfaction that the group dispersed themselves in the woods. The escorting group were reduced to three or four apes and soon the large orang was the only one following them. This animal had attached himself to them with an incomprehensible stubbornness. They could not for a moment think of outdistancing him. With his long legs, he could move at top speed.

Clifton and Uncle finally reached the river at four o’clock. They easily found the place where they had moored the temporary raft. There they had to decide what to do about the ape.

The orang came right up to the bank. He looked at the two men unloading their provisions on the raft and he observed all their movements with interest. He walked along looking at the other side and seemed little disposed to abandon his travelling companions.

“This is the moment when we part company,” Uncle said.

The cable was detached. Clifton and Uncle jumped on board and began to move away from shore. But in a flash the orang threw himself on board, landing at the edge of the raft at the risk of capsizing it. With his ax in hand, Uncle dashed toward the ape but the latter stayed put, staring at him and demonstrating no hostile intentions.

Uncle lowered his weapon. This was not the time to start a fight which would be a dangerous one under these conditions. Once on the other side, they would decide on the best course of action.

They crossed the river. Uncle and Clifton disembarked. The ape did likewise and followed them along the road to the grotto. They went around the north shore of the lake, passed the coconut trees and skirted the cliff with the ape close behind. They finally arrived at the palisade, opened the door and quickly closed it behind them.

Night came on, a night of thick clouds making for poor visibly. Was the ape still there? Yes, because several times throughout the night they heard a strange cry that disturbed the silence of the night.

  1. An exotic shrub, a sort of palm with a flour that has given it the name of bread tree.

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