Uncle followed the engineer’s advice and kept the secret of this last conversation but the consequences that Clifton deduced from the presence of the horn on the cock were absolutely logical. Someone was on the island at some time in the last two years, that fact could not be in doubt. Uncle had doubts that they were still here since he had found no trace of human creatures but this question could not be resolved without a complete exploration of the island in the coming year.
The month of October passed with windstorms and equinoctial rain. The boat was sheltered near the surf. The keel was overturned and it would pass the winter at the foot of the cliff. The hut where the wood was cut and stored was filled to capacity. Meat reserves were increased but hunting from time to time could still supply them with fresh game. As to the poultry yard, it prospered and it was already too small. Everyone, including the children, took part in feeding the birds. They now had male and female bustards surrounded by their chicks. These long legged wading fowls belonged to the houbara species, characterized by a sort of cloak around their necks formed of long feathers. These bustards ate grass or berries without distinction. The ducks had multiplied. They were shoveler ducks whose upper jaw is extended on each side by a membranous appendage. They splashed about in an artificial pond. They also noticed a couple of black game cocks with their numerous chicks. They were the Mozambique cocks deriving their name from the black color of their crests, carbuncle and skin, but their flesh is white and very tasty.
It goes without saying that inside the grotto Uncle had made shelves and wardrobes. One corner in particular was reserved for a large quantity of vegetables. The pine cone almonds had been collected in abundance. One could also see a certain quantity of this root belonging to the aralia 1 family found everywhere on the globe. These were the roots of the dimorphantus edulis, aromatic and somewhat bitter but tasty. The Japanese eat it in the winter. Uncle often ate some of it at Yedo and they were excellent.
One of mother’s ardent wishes was finally satisfied thanks to Uncle’s advice. His experience was always useful.
It was at the beginning of November that Harry Clifton said to his wife:
“Isn’t it true, dear friend, that you would be very happy if we could bring you sugar?”
“Without a doubt,” Mrs. Clifton replied.
“Well, we can make something similar.”
“You found cane sugar?”
“I don’t know about that, but nature has placed a very common and precious tree on this island. It is the maple.”
“And can the maple give us sugar?”
“Who ever heard of such a thing?”
In fact, Uncle was not mistaken. The maple, one of the most useful members of the acerinea family, is commonly found in the temperate regions, in Europe, in Asia, in North Indies and in North America. Of the sixty species that comprise this family, the most useful is the Canadian maple, also called acer saccharinum, because it yields a sugary substance. It was during one of their excursions to the south, among the hills on this part of the island, that Clifton and Uncle had found numerous groups of this vegetable.
Winter was the best season for the extraction of the sugar from the acer saccharinum. They decided to use the first days of November to do this. Father, Uncle, Marc and Robert returned to the maple forest leaving Fido and Master Jup to guard Elisa House.
In passing near the warren, Uncle made a slight detour to visit the bear pit which was always empty to his great disappointment.
Upon arriving at the forest, Robert, with his usual frivolity, laughed on seeing these so called sugar trees but they paid no attention to his jokes and went to work.
Using his ax, Uncle made deep incisions in about a dozen maple trunks and soon a clear sugary liquid came gushing out. They were barely able to collect it in the vases they brought with them. They could see that harvesting it, if it could be called that, required little work. When the vases were full, Uncle carefully closed them and returned to Elisa House.
But all was not over. From the moment it is collected, the maple liquid takes on a white color and a syrupy consistency but this is still not the kind of crystalline sugar that Mrs. Clifton was asking for. They had to purify it in a sort of refiner which fortunately was very simple. The liquid was placed over a fire which subjected it to a certain evaporation and a foam came to the surface. As soon as the substance began to thicken, Uncle took care to stir it with a wooden spatula which accelerated its evaporation and at the same time prevented it from taking on an acrid taste. After boiling for a few hours, the liquid was transformed into a thick syrup. This syrup was poured into argile molds that Uncle had fashioned into a variety of shapes. The next day the syrup solidified into cakes and tablets. It was sugar with a slight reddish color but it was nearly transparent and had a perfect taste. Mrs. Clifton was delighted and more so Jack and Belle who foresaw sweet desserts and cakes in the future and more so than the children, Master Jup who had become something of a gourmand. It was his only fault but they could pardon him for that.
The colony would no longer lack sugar. First it would be used to make a delightful composition that would change the way they used the fermented coconut juice. Here’s how.
Clifton knew quite well that the young shoots of certain conifer trees could be made into an antiscorbutic liqueur used on vessels making long trips. For this purpose they used the shoots from the Canadian firs and the abies nigra that grew on the lower slopes of the central peak. They were advised to collect a considerable quantity. The young shoots were boiled in water on a hot fire and the liquid was sweetened with maple sugar. They left it to ferment and obtained a pleasant and healthy drink which Anglo Americans call spring beer, in other words fir beer.
Before the first frost came on, there was still one important project that had to be completed. It would present no difficulty, it is true. It was to plant little Belle’s single grain of wheat which could produce ten ears with eighty grains each, making eight hundred grains in all. Then, at the fourth harvest, and they could perhaps have two harvests a year at this latitude, they would have an average of four hundred billion grains.
They had to protect this grain from all destructive possibilities. It was planted in a terrain sheltered from the sea’s winds and Belle was put in charge of protecting it from insects.
The weather became cold and rainy about the end of November. Fortunately the grotto was comfortably arranged. It needed only an interior chimney which they had to put in without delay. This was difficult work. It required many attempts but Uncle Robinson finally made a sort of clay stove It was large enough to be heated by wood and could give out enough heat. There still was the question of removing the smoke to the outside. That was a difficult one. They could not dream of piercing a shaft through to the top of the grotto since the thick granite above it went up to a considerable height. Clifton and Uncle then tried to make a lateral opening in the wall through to the outside of the cliff. This required time and patience. They had no tools. However, using a well sharpened spike that Uncle found in the boat, they succeeded in making a passageway for a long bamboo pipe that had been bored through along its entire length. Another pipe, made of clay, was shaped to go above the stove and in this way the smoke could reach the outside. They then had an almost acceptable chimney. It smoked a little when the southwest winds blew but that presented no difficulty. Uncle was enchanted with his work.
The rainy season arrived at the end of November. They had work inside the grotto. Uncle, who had gathered a certain quantity of osiers, showed the children how to make bread baskets and wicker baskets. Using osiers and clay he himself made large cages in which the hosts of the poultry yard could find a refuge for the winter. In the same way he made Jup’s hut more habitable. The latter helped him to carry the necessary materials. During this work, Uncle chatted with his companion, asking questions and giving his own answers naturally. They were two real friends. When the hut was finished, Master Jup was very satisfied but he could not complement his architect with words. As to the children, they found the place so elegant, they baptized it with the lofty name of Jup Palace.
In the first days of December the weather suddenly became very cold. It became necessary to try on their new clothes. The members of the little colony looked completely different dressed in skins with outside fur.
“We look like Jup,” Uncle said with a laugh, “with this difference that we can remove our clothes but he cannot remove his.”
The Clifton family looked like a group of Eskimos but that was not important since the cold wind could not get under the warm fur. They all had clothes they could change into and they were able to face the winter weather.
About the middle of December, torrential rains fell. Serpentine River overflowed from the masses of water that flowed from the mountain. Their first encampment was inundated up to the foot of the cliff. The level of the lake rose and Clifton was afraid that it would overflow, causing damage to the plantations and even reaching Elisa House. He realized that they had to build an embankment to hold back the rising waters because all of the lower area between the lake and the shore could become inundated.
Fortunately the rain stopped and the overflow subsided in time. These setbacks were followed by hurricanes and squalls that damaged the forest. They heard the noise of the trees breaking apart but Uncle did not complain about that saying that he would let the storm do its work as woodsman. There would be no need to spare the supply of wood. They could collect it without having to cut down the trees.
It goes without saying that they made a good fire in the chimney of Elisa House. Why economize on the wood? The reserve was inexhaustible. The sparkling fire cheered everyone while the two youngsters chattered about. They worked as a family. They made arrows and baskets, mended the clothes and took care of the food, everyone working at his specialty, following a plan devised by Clifton.
They did not neglect intellectual and moral education. Clifton gave his children daily lessons. He had collected a few pieces of paper that he had on him at the moment he left the Vancouver and there he carefully recorded the various events that occurred on this deserted island. The notes were brief but precise. It would allow them to reconstruct the daily history of the abandoned family which was only a true account.
And so the year 1861 came to an end. Clifton and his family had lived on Flip Island for nine months. At first their condition was deplorable but now it was bearable. They had a comfortable grotto well protected by a palisaded enclosure, a full poultry yard, an oyster park and an almost completed yard for large animals. They had bows, gunpowder, bread, amadou and clothes. They had no lack of meat, fish or fruit. Could they look forward to the future? Yes, without a doubt.
Nevertheless a serious question was always on Clifton’s mind. The incident of the cock with the horn was always a subject of conversation between Clifton and Uncle. They had no doubt that men had already set foot on the island but were these men still here? Evidently no, because they had found no trace of them. Clifton and Uncle had banished all fear in this regard. They no longer thought about it when an unexpected incident occurred that made them change their minds.
It was the 29th of December and Marc had captured a very young hare who was doubtless lost far from its burrow. This animal was killed, roasted and served for dinner. Everyone had a piece and Uncle, who had his share, had one of the legs of the animal.
The worthy sailor ate with appetite, guzzling his food, when suddenly he let out a yell.
“What is it?” Mrs. Clifton asked him vividly.
“Nothing, madame, nothing, except that I broke a tooth.”
It was really true.
“But what was in the hare’s flesh?” Clifton asked.
“A stone, sir, a simple little stone,” Uncle replied. “It was my luck!”
“Poor Uncle!” Belle said. “One tooth missing.”
“Oh, mademoiselle!” Uncle replied. “I still have thirty two. I had one too many.”
Everyone laughed and went on with their meal.
But when the meal was over, Uncle took Clifton aside.
“This was the stone I was talking about, sir.” he said to him. “Do me the pleasure of telling me what you would call this stone.”
“A lead pellet,” Clifton shouted.
In fact it was a lead pellet.