The Swiss Family Robinson, Chapter 03
'I will spare you a description,' said my wife, 'of our first day's occupations; truth to tell, I spent the time chiefly in anxious thought and watching your progress and signals. I rose very early this morning, and with the utmost joy perceiving your signal that all was right, hastened to reply to it, and then while my sons yet slumbered, I sat down and began to consider how our position could be improved.
'"For it is perfectly impossible," said I to myself, "to live much longer where we are now. The sun beats burningly the livelong day on this bare rocky spot, our only shelter is this poor tent, beneath the canvas of which the heat is even more oppressive than on the open shore. Why should not I and my little boys exert ourselves as well as my husband and Fritz? Why should not we too try to accomplish something useful?
'"If we could but exchange this melancholy and unwholesome abode for a pleasant shady dwelling-place, we should all improve in health and spirits. Among those delightful woods and groves where Fritz and his father saw so many charming things, I feel sure there must be some little retreat where we could establish ourselves comfortably; there must be, and I will find it."
'By this time the boys were up, and I observed Jack very quietly and busily occupied with his knife about the spot where Fritz's jackal lay. Watching his proceedings, I saw that he had cut two long narrow strips of the animal's skin, which he cleaned and scraped very carefully, and then taking a handful of great nails out of his pocket, he stuck them through the skin points outwards, after which he cut strips of canvas sailcloth twice as broad as the thongs, doubled them, and laid them on the raw side of the skin so as to cover the broad flat nail heads.
'At this point of the performance, Master Jack came to me with the agreeable request that I would kindly stitch the canvas and (moist) skin together for him. I gave him needles and thread, but could not think of depriving him of the pleasure of doing it himself.
'However, when I saw how good-humouredly he persevered in the work with his awkward unskilful fingers, I took pity upon him, and conquering the disgust I felt, finished lining the skin dog-collars he had so ingeniously contrived. After this I was called upon to complete in the same way a fine belt of skin he had made for himself. I advised him to think of some means by which the skin might be kept from shrinking.
'Ernest, although rather treating Jack's manufacture with ridicule, proposed a sensible-enough plan, which Jack forthwith put in execution. He nailed the skin, stretched flat, on a board, and put it in the sun to dry.
'My scheme of a journey was agreed to joyously by my young companions. Preparations were instantly set on foot: weapons and provisions provided: the two elder boys carrying guns, while they gave me charge of the water flask, and a small hatchet.
'Leaving everything in as good order as we could at the tent, we proceeded towards the stream, accompanied by the dogs. Turk, who had accompanied you on your first expedition, seemed immediately to understand that we wished to pursue the same route, and proudly led the way.
'As I looked at my two young sons, each with his gun, and considered how much the safety of the party depended on these little fellows, I felt grateful to you, dear husband, for having acquainted them in childhood with the use of firearms.
'Filling our water-jar, we crossed the stream, and went on to the height from whence, as you described, a lovely prospect is obtained, at the sight of which a pleasurable sensation of buoyant hope, to which I had long been a stranger, awoke within my breast.
'A pretty little wood in the distance attracted my notice particularly, and thither we directed our course. But soon finding it impossible to force our way through the tall strong grass which grew in dense luxuriance higher than the children's heads, we turned towards the open beach on our left, and following it we reached a point much nearer the little wood, when, quitting the strand, we made towards it.
'We had not entirely escaped the tall grass, however and with the utmost fatigue and difficulty were struggling through the reeds, when suddenly a great rushing noise terrified us all dreadfully. A very large and powerful bird sprang upward on the wing. Both boys attempted to take aim, but the bird was far away before they were ready to fire.
'"Oh dear, what a pity!" exclaimed Ernest; "now if I had only had my light gun, and if the bird had not flown quite so fast, I should have brought him down directly!"
'"Oh yes," said I, "no doubt you would be a capital sportsman if only your game would always give you time to make ready comfortably."
'"But I had no notion that anything was going to fly up just at our feet like that," cried he.
'"A good shot," I replied, "must be prepared for surprises: neither wild birds nor wild beasts will send you notice that they are about to fly or to run."
'"What sort of bird can it have been?' inquired Jack.
'"Oh, it certainly must have been an eagle," answered little Franz, "it was so very big!"
'"Just as if every big bird must be an eagle!" replied Ernest, in a tone of derision.
'"Let's see where he was sitting, at all events!" said I.
'Jack sprang towards the place, and instantly a second bird, rather larger than the first, rushed upward into the air, with a most startling noise.
'The boys stood staring upwards, perfectly stupefied, while I laughed heartily, saying, "Well, you are first-rate sportsmen, to be sure! You certainly will keep my larder famously well supplied!"
'At this, Ernest coloured up, and looked inclined to cry, while Jack put on a comical face, pulled off his cap, and with a low bow, called after the fugitive, "Adieu for the present, sir! I live in hopes of another meeting!"
'On searching the ground carefully, we discovered a rude sort of nest made untidily of dry grass. It was empty, although we perceived broken egg-shells at no great distance, and concluded that the young brood had escaped among the grass, which, in fact, we could see was waving at a little distance, as the little birds ran through it.
'"Now look here, Franz," said Ernest, presently, "just consider how this bird could by any possibility have been an eagle. Eagles never build on the ground, neither can their young leave the nest and run as soon as they are out of the egg. That is a peculiarity of the gallinaceous tribe of birds alone, to which then these must belong. The species, I think, is indicated by the white belly and dull red colour of the wing coverts which I observed in these specimens, and I believe them to be bustards, especially as I noticed in the largest the fine moustache-like feathers over the beak, peculiar to the Great Bustard."
'"My dear boy!" I said, "your eyes were actively employed, I must confess, if your fingers were unready with the gun. And after all, it is just as well, perhaps, that we have not thrown the bustard's family into mourning."
'Thus chatting, we at length approached my pretty wood. Numbers of birds fluttered and sang among the high branches, but I did not encourage the boys in their wish to try to shoot any of the happy little creatures. We were lost in admiration of the trees of this grove, and I cannot describe to you how wonderful they are, nor can you form the least idea of their enormous size without seeing them yourself. What we had been calling a wood proved to be a group of about a dozen trees only, and, what was strange, the roots sustained the massive trunks exalted in the air, forming strong arches, and props and stays all around each individual stem, which was firmly rooted in the centre.
'I gave Jack some twine, and scrambling up one of the curious open-air roots, he succeeded in measuring round the trunk itself, and made it out to be about eighteen yards. I saw no sort of fruit, but the foliage is thick and abundant, throwing delicious shade on the ground beneath, which is carpeted with soft green herbage, and entirely free from thorns, briars, or bushes of any kind. It is the most charming resting-place that ever was seen, and I and the boys enjoyed our midday meal immensely in this glorious palace of the woods, so grateful to our senses after the glare and heat of our journey thither.
'The dogs joined us after a while. They had lingered behind on the sea-shore, and I was surprised to see them lie down and go comfortably to sleep without begging for food, as they do usually when we eat.
'The longer we remained in this enchanting place, the more did it charm my fancy; and if we could but manage to live in some sort of dwelling up among the branches of those grand, noble trees, I should feel perfectly safe and happy. It seemed to me absurd to suppose we should ever find another place half so lovely, so I determined to search no further, but return to the beach and see if anything from the wreck had been cast up by the waves, which we could carry away with us.
'Before starting, Jack persuaded me to sit quietly a little longer, and finish making his belt and the spike-collars for the dogs, for you must know that the child had actually been carrying the board on which these were stretched all this time, so that they should get the full benefit of the sun.
'As they were now quite dry, I completed them easily, and Jack girded on the belt with great pride, placing his pistols in it, and marching about in a most self-important style, while Ernest fitted the collars on the two dogs.
'On reaching the shore, we found it strewed with many articles, doubtless of value, but all too heavy for us to lift. We rolled some casks, however, beyond high-water mark, and dragged a chest or two also higher on the beach; and, while doing so, observed that our dogs were busy among the rocks. They were carefully watching the crevices and pools, and every now and then would pounce downwards and seize something which they swallowed with apparent relish.
'"They are eating crabs," said Jack. "No wonder they have not seemed hungry lately."
'And, sure enough, they were catching the little green crabs with which the water abounded. These, however, did not apparently entirely satisfy them.
'Some time afterwards, just as we were about to turn inland towards the ford, we noticed that Juno was scraping in the sand, and turning up some round substances, which she hastily devoured.
'Ernest went to see what these were, and reported in his calm way that the dog had found turtles' eggs.
'"Oh," cried I, "then let us by all means share in the booty!" Mrs. Juno, however, did not at all approve of this, and it was with some difficulty that we drove her aside while we gathered a couple of dozen of the eggs, stowing them in our provision bags. 'While thus employed, we caught sight of a sail which appeared to be merrily approaching the shore beyond the cliffs. Ernest declared it must be our raft. Little Franz, always having the fear of savages before his eyes, began to look frightened, and for a moment I myself was doubtful what to think.
'However, we hastened to the stream; and, crossing it by the stepping-stones, came in sight of the landing-place, where we joyfully met you.
'Now I hope you approve of the proceedings of your exploring party, and that tomorrow you will do me the favour of packing everything up, and taking us away to live amongst my splendid trees.'
'Aye, little wife,' said I, 'so that is your idea of comfort and security is it! A tree, I do not know how many feet high, on which we are to perch and roost like the birds? If we had but wings or a balloon, it would, I own, be a capital plan.'
'Laugh as much as you like,' returned my wife, 'my idea is not so absurd as you make it out. We should be safe up there from jackals' visits during the night. And I know I have seen at home in Switzerland, quite a pretty arbour, with a strong floor, up among the branches of a lime tree, and we went up a staircase to reach it. Why could not we contrive a place like that, where we could sleep safely at night?'
'I will consider the idea seriously, my wife,' said I, 'perhaps something may come of it, after all! Meantime, as we have finished supper, and night is coming on, let us commend ourselves to Almighty protection and retire to rest.'
Beneath the shelter of our tent, we all slept soundly as marmots, until break of day; when, my wife and I awaking, took counsel together as to future proceedings.
Referring to the task she had the previous evening proposed for me, I remarked that to undertake it would involve so many difficulties that it was highly necessary to look closely into the subject.
'In the first place,' said I, 'I am unwilling hastily to quit a spot to which I am convinced we were providentially led as a landing-place. See how secure it is; guarded on all sides by these high cliffs, and accessible only by the narrow passage to the ford, while from this point it is so easy to reach the ship that the whole of its valuable cargo is at our disposal. Suppose we decide to stay patiently here for the present—until, at least, we have brought on shore everything we possibly can?'
'I agree with you to a certain extent, dear husband,' replied she, 'but you do not know how dreadfully the heat among the rocks tries me. It is almost intolerable to us who remain here all day while you and Fritz are away out at sea, or wandering among the shady woods, where cool fruits refresh, and fair scenes delight you.
'As to the contents of the ship, an immense deal has been cast ashore, and I would much rather give up all the remainder, and be spared the painful anxiety it gives me when you even talk of venturing again on the faithless deep.'
'Well, I must admit that there is much right on your side,' I continued; 'suppose we were to remove to your chosen abode, and make this rocky fastness our magazine and place of retreat in case of danger. I could easily render it still more secure, by blasting portions of the rock with gunpowder. But a bridge must be constructed in the first place, to enable us to cross bag and baggage.'
'Oh, I shall be parched to death before we can leave this place, if a bridge has to be made,' cried my wife impatiently. 'Why not just take our things on our backs and wade across as we have done already? The cow and the donkey could carry a great deal.'
'That they will have to do, in whatever fashion we make the move,' said I; 'but bags and baskets we must have, to put things in, and if you will turn your attention to providing those, I will set about the bridge at once. It will be wanted not once, but continually; the stream will probably swell and be impassable at times, and even as it is, an accident might happen.'
'Well, well!' cried my wife, 'I submit to your opinion; only pray set about it without delay, for I long to be off. It is an excellent idea to make a strong place among the cliffs here; the gunpowder especially, I shall be delighted to see stored here when we go away, for it is frightfully dangerous to keep so much as we have close to our habitation.'
'Gunpowder is indeed the most dangerous and at the same time the most useful thing we have,' said I, 'and for both these reasons we must be especially careful of it. In time I will hollow out a place in the rock where we can store it safe from either fire or damp.'
By this morning's consultation we had settled the weighty question of our change of abode, and also chalked out work for the day. When the children heard of the proposed move their joy was boundless; they began at once to talk of it as our 'journey to the Promised Land', and only regretted that time must be 'wasted', as they said, in bridge-building before it could be undertaken.
Everyone being impatient for breakfast that work might be begun at once, the cow and goats were milked, and, having enjoyed a comfortable meal of biscuit boiled in milk, I prepared to start for the wreck, in order to obtain planks for the proposed bridge.
Ernest as well as Fritz accompanied me, and we were soon within the influence of the current, and were carried swiftly out to sea. Fritz was steering, and we had no sooner passed beyond the islet at the entrance of the bay, so as to come in sight of its seaward beach, than we were astonished to see a countless multitude of sea-birds, gulls and others, which rose like a cloud into the air, disturbed by our approach, and deafened us by their wild and screaming cries.
Fritz caught up his gun, and would have sent a shot among them had I permitted it. I was very curious to find out what could be the great attraction for all this swarm of feathered fowl; and, availing myself of a fresh breeze from the sea, I set the sail and directed our course towards the island.
The swelling sail and flying pennant charmed Ernest, while Fritz bent his keen eyes eagerly towards the sandy shore, where the flocks of birds were again settling.
Presently he shouted, 'Aha, now I see what they are after! They have got a huge monster of a fish there, and a proper feast they are making! Let's have a nearer look at it, father!'
We could not take our boat very close in, but we managed to effect a landing at a short distance from the festive scene; and, securing the raft by casting a rope round a large stone, we cautiously drew near the object of interest.
It proved to be a monstrous fish, on whose flesh these multitudes of birds were ravenously feeding; and it was extraordinary to watch the ferocity, the envy, the gluttony, and all manner of evil passions, exhibited among the guests at this banquet.
'There was nothing on this sandy beach when we passed yesterday, I am certain, father,' said Fritz. 'It seems strange to see this creature stranded here.'
'Why, Fritz!' cried Ernest, 'it must be the shark! Your shark, you know! I believe I can see where you hit him in the head.'
'You are right, I do believe, Ernest,' said I, 'though I think your imagination only can distinguish the gunshot wounds among all the pecking and tearing of the voracious birds there. Just look, boys, at those terrific jaws, beneath the strangely projecting snout. See the rows upon rows of murderous teeth, and thank God we were delivered from them! Let us try if we can induce these greedy birds to spare us a bit of the shark's skin; it is extremely rough, and when dry may be used like a file.'
Ernest drew the ramrod from his gun, and charged so manfully into the crowd, that striking right and left he speedily killed several, whilst most of the others took to flight. Fritz detached some broad strips of skin with his knife, and we returned towards the boat.
Perceiving with satisfaction that the shore was strewn with just the sort of boards and planks I wanted, I lost no time in collecting them; and, forming a raft to tow after us, we were in a short time able to direct our course homeward, without visiting the wreck at all.
As we sailed along, extremely well pleased with our good fortune, Fritz, by my direction, nailed part of the shark's skin flat on boards to dry in the sun and the rest on the rounded mast.
'Will that be a good idea, father?' inquired he, 'it will be quite bent and crooked when it hardens.'
'That is just what I want it to be,' said I, 'we may happen to find it useful in that form as well as flat. It would be beautiful shagreen* with which we could smooth and polish wood.'
* Rough leather used like sandpaper
'I thought,' remarked Ernest, 'that shagreen was made from asses' hides.'
'And you thought rightly,' said I. 'The best shagreen is prepared in Turkey, Persia, and Tartary, from the skins of horses and asses. In these skins, the roughness is produced artificially; while the skin is newly flayed and still soft, hard grains of corn are spread on the under surface, and pressed into it as it dries. These grains are afterward removed, and the roughness imparted to the appearance of the skin remains indelibly; shagreen is useful in polishing joiners' work, and it is made in France from the rough skin of a hideous creature called the angel-fish.'
'Angel-fish!' exclaimed Fritz; 'what a name to give to anything "hideous," father!'
'There are bad angels as well as good ones,' observed Ernest, in his dry, quiet way; 'it is better to leave people to see for themselves which is meant.'
By this time we were close in shore; and, lowering the sail, we soon had our craft with the raft in tow, safely moored to the bank.
No one was in sight, not a sound to be heard, so with united voice we gave a loud cheery halloo, which after a while was answered in shrill tones, and my wife with her two boys came running from behind the high rocks between us and the stream, each carrying a small bundle in a handkerchief, while little Franz held aloft a landing-net.
Our return so soon was quite unexpected, and they anxiously inquired the reason, which we soon explained; and then the mysterious bundles were opened, and a great number of fine crawfish displayed; whose efforts to escape by scuttling away in every direction, directly they were placed in a heap on the ground, caused immense fun and laughter as the boys pursued and brought them back, only to find others scrambling off in a dozen different ways.
'Now, father, have we not done well, today!' cried Jack, 'did you ever see such a splendid crawfish? Oh, there were thousands of them, and I am sure we have got two hundred here at least. Just look at their claws!'
'No doubt you were the discoverer of these fine crabs, eh, Jack?' said I.
'No! Fancy young Franz being the lucky man!' answered he. 'He and I went towards the stream while mother was busy, just to look for a good place for the bridge. Franz was picking up pebbles and alabasters, some because they were so pretty, some to strike sparks with in the dark, and some he insisted were "gold."
'"Jack! Jack!" cried he presently, "come and see the crabs on Fritz's jackal!" You know we threw it away there, and to be sure it was swarming with these creatures. Are you glad we have found them, father? Will they be good to eat?'
'Very excellent, my boy, and we may be thankful that food for our wants is thus provided day by day.'
When each party had related the day's adventures, and while my wife was cooking the crawfish, we went to bring our store of planks to land. Even this apparently simple operation required thought, and I had to improvise rope-harness for the cow and the donkey, by which we could make them drag each board separately from the water's edge to the margin of the stream.
Jack showed me where he thought the bridge should be, and I certainly saw no better place, as the banks were at that point tolerably close to one another, steep, and of about equal height.
'How shall we find out if our planks are long enough to reach across?' said I. 'A surveyor's table would be useful now.'
'What do you say to a ball of string, father?' said Ernest. 'Tie one end to a stone, throw it across, then draw it back, and measure the line!'
Adopting my son's idea, we speedily ascertained the distance across to be eighteen feet. Then allowing three feet more at each side, I calculated twenty-four feet as the necessary length of the boards.
The question as to how the planks were to be laid across was a difficult one. We resolved to discuss it during dinner, to which we were now summoned. And my wife, as we sat resting, displayed to me her needlework. With hard labour had she made two large canvas bags for the ass to carry. Having no suitable needle, she had been obliged to bore the hole for each stitch with a nail, and gained great praise for her ingenuity and patience.
Dinner was quickly dispatched, as we were all eager to continue our engineering work. A scheme had occurred to me for conveying one end of a plank across the water, and I set about it in this way.
There fortunately were one or two trees close to the stream on either side; I attached a rope pretty near one end of a beam, and slung it loosely to the tree beside us; then, fastening a long rope to the other end, I crossed with it by means of broken rocks and stones, and having a pulley and block, I soon arranged the rope on a strong limb of the opposite tree, again returning with the end to our own side.
Now putting my idea to the proof, I brought the ass and the cow, and fastening this rope to the harness I had previously contrived for them, I drove them steadily away from the bank. To my great satisfaction, and the surprise and delight of the boys, the end of the plank which had been laid alongside the stream began gently to move, rose higher, turned, and soon projecting over the water continued to advance, until, having described the segment of a circle, it reached the opposite bank.
I stopped my team, the plank rested on the ground, the bridge was made! So at least thought Fritz and Jack, who in a moment were lightly running across the narrow way, shouting joyfully as they sprang to the other side.
Our work was now comparatively easy. A second and third plank were laid beside the first; and when these were carefully secured at each end to the ground and to the trees, we very quickly laid short boards side by side across the beams, the boys nailing them lightly down as I sawed them in lengths; and when this was done, our bridge was pronounced complete.
Nothing could exceed the excitement of the children. They danced to and fro on the wonderful structure, singing, shouting and cutting the wildest capers. I must confess I heartily sympathized with their triumphant feelings.
Now that the work was done, we began to feel how much we were fatigued, and gladly returned to our tent for refreshment and repose.
Next morning, while we breakfasted, I made a little speech to my sons on the subject of the important move we were about to make, wishing to impress them with a sense of the absolute necessity of great caution.
'Remember,' said I, 'that, although you all begin to feel very much at your ease here, we are yet complete strangers to a variety of dangers which may surprise us unawares. I charge you, therefore, to maintain good order, and keep together on the march. No darting off into bye-ways, Jack. No lingering behind to philosophize, Ernest. And now all hands to work.'
The greatest activity instantly prevailed in our camp. Some collected provisions, others packed kitchen utensils, tools, ropes, and hammocks, arranging them as burdens for the cow and ass.
My wife pleaded for a seat on the latter for her little Franz, and assuring me likewise that she could not possibly leave the poultry, even for a night, nor exist an hour without her magic bag, I agreed to do my best to please her, without downright cruelty to animals.
Away ran the children to catch the cocks and hens. Great chasing, fluttering and cackling ensued; but with no success whatever, until my wife recalled her panting sons, and, scattering some handfuls of grain within the open tent, soon decoyed the fowls and pigeons into the enclosure; where, when the curtain was dropped, they were easily caught, tied together, and placed on the cow.
This amiable and phlegmatic animal had stood calmly chewing the cud, while package after package was disposed on her broad back, nor did she now object even to this noisy addition to her load. I placed a couple of half-hoops over all; and, spreading sailcloth on them, put the fowls in darkness, and they rapidly became quiet; and the cow, with the appearance of having a small waggon on her back, was ready to start.
Franz was firmly seated on the ass, amidst bags and bundles of all sorts and sizes; they rose about him like cushions and pillows, and his curly head rested on the precious magic bag, which surmounted all the rest. Having filled the tent with the things we left behind, closing it carefully, and ranging chests and casks around it, we were finally ready to be off, each well equipped and in the highest spirits.
Fritz and his mother led the van. Franz (the young cavalier), and the sober-minded cow followed them closely.
Jack conducted the goats; one of these had also a rider, for Knips the monkey was seated on his foster-mother, whose patience was sorely tried by his restlessness and playful tricks.
The sheep were under Ernest's care, and I brought up the rear of this patriarchal band, while the two dogs kept constantly running backwards and forwards in the character of aides-de-camp.
'We seem delightfully like those simple and pastoral tribes I have read of,' said Ernest, as we proceeded, 'whose whole lives are spent in shifting from place to place, without any wish to settle.'
'Yes,' said I. 'Among the Arabs, Tartars, and some other Eastern nations, this mode of live is natural. They for that reason are called Nomads.
'These tribes are amply provided with camels and horses, and effect their journeys more quickly and conveniently than we are likely to do with these deliberate quadrupeds of ours. Whatever you young folks may think, I suspect your mother and I will be quite satisfied with one such undertaking. At least I hope she will be contended with the nest she intends me to build for her up in her wonderful trees.'
With honest pride I introduced my wife to my bridge, and after receiving from her what I considered well-merited praise for my skill in its construction, we passed over it in grand procession, reinforced unexpectedly on the opposite side by the arrival of our cross-grained old sow. The perverse creature had obstinately resisted our attempts to bring her with us, but finding herself deserted, had followed of her own accord, testifying in the most unmistakable manner, by angry grunts and squeals, her entire disapproval of our proceedings.
I soon found we must, as before, turn down to the sea beach, for not only did the rank grass impede our progress, but it also tempted the animals to break away from us, and, but for our watchful dogs, we might have lost several of them.
On the firm, open sands we were making good way, when to my annoyance, both our dogs suddenly left us, and springing into the thick cover to our right, commenced a furious barking, following by howling as if in fear and violent pain.
Not for a moment doubting that some dangerous animal was at hand, I hastened to the spot, remarking as I went the characteristic behaviour of my three older sons.
Fritz cocked his gun and advanced boldly, but with caution. Ernest looked disconcerted, and drew back, but got ready to fire, while Jack hurried after Fritz without so much as unslinging his gun from his shoulders.
Before I could come up with them, I heard Jack shouting excitedly:
'Father! Father! Come quickly! A huge porcupine! A most enormous porcupine!'
Sure enough, the dogs were rushing round and round a porcupine, and having attempted to seize it, were already severely wounded by its quills. Each time they came near, the creature, with a rattling noise, bristled up its spines.
Somewhat to my amusement, while we were looking at the curious defense this creature was making, little Jack stepped close up to it, with a pocket pistol in his hand, and shot it dead, making sure of it by a couple of hearty raps on the head, and then giving way to a burst of boyish exultation, he called upon us to help to convey his prize to his mother. This it was not by any means easy to do. Sundry attempts resulted in bloody fingers, till Jack, taking his pocket-handkerchief, and fastening one corner round its neck, ran off, dragging it after him to where his mother awaited us.
'Hullo, mother! Here's a jolly beast, isn't it? I shot it, and it's good to eat! Father says so! I only wish you had seen how it terrified the dogs, and heard the rattling and rustling of its spines. Oh, it is a fearful creature!'
Ernest, examining it carefully, pronounced its incisor teeth, its ears and feet, to resemble those of the human race, and pointed out the curious crest of stiff hairs on its head and neck.
'I have read of another species,' said he, 'called the tuft-tailed porcupine, which must be even more curious-looking than this is. It has short flat quills, and a scaly tail ending in an extraordinary tuft, like a bunch of narrow strips of parchment. It cannot be such a disagreeable enemy to encounter as this fellow.'
'Were you not afraid, Jack,' asked I, 'lest the porcupine should cast some of his quills like darts at you?'
'Of course not,' returned he, 'I know well enough that is nothing but a fable!'
'A fable!' said I, 'why look at your mother! She is drawing five or six spines out of each of the dogs!'
'Ah, those stuck into them when they so fiercely fell upon it in their attack. Those are the shortest quills, and seem very slightly fixed in its skin. The long quills bent aside when Juno pressed against them.'
'You are perfectly right, my boy,' said I, 'there is no truth in the old idea of shooting out the spines. But now, shall we leave this prickly booty of yours, or attempt to take it with us?'
'Oh, please, father, let us take it! Why, it is good to eat!'
Smiling at the child's eagerness, and willing to please him, I made a somewhat awkward bundle of the porcupine, wrapping it in several folds of cloth, and added it to the donkey's load.
Our party then resumed the march, which, with little interruption, was continued steadily, until we came in sight of our future place of residence.
The wonderful appearance of the enormous trees, and the calm beauty of the spot altogether, fully came up to the enthusiastic description which had been given to me. And my wife gladly heard me say that if an abode could be contrived among the branches, it would be the safest and most charming home in the world.
We hastily unloaded the ass and cow, securing them, as well as the sheep and goats, by tying their fore-feet loosely together.
The doves and poultry were set at liberty, and we sat down to rest among the soft herbage while we laid our plans for the night.
Fritz soon left us, but presently two shots were fired, and he appeared holding a fine tiger-cat by the hind legs, which, with the intensest delight, he exhibited to each in turn.
'Well done, Fritz!' cried I. 'Our cocks and hens would have had an unfortunate night of it but for this lucky shot of yours. It is to be hoped he has left no companion near at hand. You must be on the look-out.'
'How curious it seems,' remarked Ernest, 'that God should create hurtful animals like this.'
'To our feeble and narrow vision many of the ways of the Infinite and Eternal Mind are incomprehensible,' I replied. 'What our limited reason cannot grasp, let us be content to acknowledge as the workings of Almighty power and wisdom, and thankfully trust in that "Rock," which, were it not higher than we, would afford no sense of security to the immortal soul.
'That animals should prey upon one another is a means of preserving a due balance in the world of nature. What beautiful and warm furs are procured by hunters just in those countries where no other covering would defend the inhabitants from the wintery cold!—As, for instance, the skins of bears, wolverines, and arctic foxes, wild cats, and many others.'
'The skin of the seal, or sea dog, is also valuable,' said Ernest.
'It is,' I replied, 'and in its own element that creature preys on fish as the dog did on land animals before his race became domesticated by man. But now, Fritz, tell us how you obtained your prize.'
'Observing that something moved among the branches,' said he, 'I went softly round the tree with my gun, and making sure the creature was a wild cat I fired and brought it down. It was severely wounded, but, rising in a fury, it attempted to climb the tree, when I luckily having a loaded pistol, gave it a quietus. And do tell me, father, what sort of cat it is.'
'It is a mercy the brute did not fly at your throat instead of attempting to escape,' said I. 'It belongs to a fierce and blood-thirsty race—that of the ocelots or tiger-cats, natives of the tropical parts of America. I should say this was a margay, and as it would have proved a cruel foe, not only of our poultry, but also of our sheep and goats, I am well pleased that you have rid us of it.'
'May I have the beautiful skin, father? And will you tell me what will be the best use to make of it?'
'I advise you to skin the animal very carefully, and of the handsome black and yellow tail, make a hunting-belt for yourself. The paws—let me see—why, I fancy the paws might be made famous cases for knife, fork and spoon, and look well hanging from the belt. The skin of the body you had better preserve until you find some suitable use for it.'
'Oh, father, what a splendid plan!' cried Jack. 'Do tell me some good use for my porcupine.'
'I think its feet may make cases also; at least, you may try. The quills, I am sure, may be used for packing needles, and for tipping arrows, and I should try to make defensive armour for the dogs out of the rest. They may fall in with foes more dangerous than any we have yet seen.'
'To be sure, father, the very thing!' shouted Jack in high glee. 'I have seen pictures of boar-hunts, in which the dogs were protected by a sort of leather coat of mail. That will be grand!'
After giving this advice, I got no peace until I had shown my boys how to act upon it, and in a short time each had his prize fastened up by the hind legs, and carefully slitting the skin, was stripping it from the carcase.
Ernest, meanwhile, was fetching large flat stones in order to form a fire-place, while Franz gathered sticks, as his mother was anxious to prepare some food.
'What sort of tree do you suppose this to be, father?' inquired Ernest, seeing me examining that under which we were encamping. 'Is not the leaf something like a walnut?'
'There is a resemblance, but in my opinion these gigantic trees must be mangroves or wild figs. I have heard their enormous height described, and also the peculiarity of the arching roots supporting the main trunk raised above the soil.'
Just then little Franz came up with a large bundle of sticks, and his mouth full of something he was eating with evident satisfaction.
'Oh, mother!' cried he, 'this is so good! So delicious!'
'Greedy little boy!' exclaimed she in a fright. 'What have you got there? Don't swallow it, whatever you do. Very likely it is poisonous! Spit it all out this minute!' And his anxious mother quickly extracted from the rosy little mouth the remains of a small fig.
'Where did you find this?' said I.
'There are thousands lying among the grass yonder,' replied the little boy. 'They taste very nice. I thought poison was nasty. Do you think they will hurt me? The pigeons and the hens are gobbling them up with all their might and main, papa!'
'I think you have no cause for alarm, dear wife,' I said. 'The trees seem to be the fig-bearing mangrove of the Antilles. But remember, Franz, you must never eat anything without first showing it to me, never mind how good it seems.
'If birds and monkeys eat a fruit or vegetable, it is usually safe to believe it wholesome,' added I, turning to the other boys, who instantly taking the hint, coaxed Franz to give them the figs he still had in his pocket, and ran to offer them to Knips, who was closely watching the skinning of the tiger-cat and porcupine, apparently giving his opinion on the subject with much chattering and gesticulation.
'Here, Knips, allow me to present you with a fig!' cried Jack, holding one out to the funny little creature.
Knips took it readily, and after turning it about, and sniffing and smelling it, he popped it into his mouth, with such a droll grimace of delight and satisfaction that the boys all laughed and clapped their hands, crying 'Bravo, Knips! You know a good thing when you see it, don't you, old fellow! Hurrah!'
My wife, with her mind set at rest on the question of the figs, now continued her preparations for dinner.
The flesh of the margay was given to the dogs, but part of the porcupine was put on the fire to boil, while we reserved the rest for roasting.
I employed myself in contriving needles for my wife's work, by boring holes at one end of the quills, which I did by means of a red hot nail, and I soon had a nice packet of various sizes, which pleased her immensely. I also laid plans for making proper harness for our beasts of burden, but could not attempt to begin that while so many wants more pressing demanded attention.
We examined the different trees, and chose one which seemed most suited to our purpose. The branches spread at a great height above us, and I made the boys try if it were possible to throw sticks or stones over one of these, my intention being to construct a rope ladder if we could once succeed in getting a string across a strong bough.
Finding we could not succeed in that way, I resolved other schemes in my mind, and meantime went with Jack and Fritz to a small brook close by, where I showed them how to place the skins to steep and soften in the water, with stones placed on them to keep them beneath the surface.
When dinner was over, I prepared our night quarters. I first slung our hammocks from the roots of the tree, which, meeting above us, formed an arched roof, then covering the whole with sailcloth, we made a temporary tent, which would at least keep off the night damps and noxious insects.
Leaving my wife engaged in making a set of harness for the ass and cow, whose strength I intended to employ the following day in drawing the beams up to our tree, I walked down with Fritz and Ernest to the beach to look for wood suitable for building our new abode and also to discover, if possible, some light rods to form a ladder.
For some time we hunted in vain, nothing but rough driftwood was to be seen, utterly unfit for our purpose. Ernest at length pointed out a quantity of bamboos half buried in the sand. These were exactly what I wanted, and stripping them of their leaves I cut them into lengths of about five feet each; these I bound in bundles to carry to the tree, and then began to look about for some slight reeds to serve as arrows.
I presently saw what I required in a copse at a little distance. We advanced cautiously lest the thicket should contain some wild beast or venomous serpent. Juno rushed ahead; as she did so a flock of flamingos, which had been quietly feeding, rose in the air. Fritz instantly firing brought a couple of the birds to the ground, the rest of the squadron sailing away in perfect order, their plumage continually changing, as they flew, from beautiful rose to pure white, as alternately their snowy wings and rosy breasts were visible.
One of those which fell was perfectly dead, but the other appeared only slightly wounded in the wing, for it made off across the swampy ground. I attempted to follow, but soon found that progress was impossible on the marsh; Juno, however, chased the bird and, seizing it, speedily brought it to my feet. Fritz and Ernest were delighted at the sight of our prize.
'What a handsome bird!' exclaimed they. 'Is it much hurt? Let us tame it and let it run about with the fowls.'
'Its plumage is much more brilliant than that of the dead one,' remarked Fritz.
'Yes,' said Ernest, 'this is a full-grown bird, while yours is younger; it is some years before they reach perfection. See what long active legs it has, like those of a stork, while with its great webbed feet it can swim faster than a goose. Earth, air, or water is all the same to the flamingo, it is equally at home in any one of the three.'
'Well,' said Fritz, 'let us take the dead one to mother and get her to introduce it to the other element and see what it will make of that; if it is young and tender, as you say, it should make a delicious roast.'
Fritz and Ernest then carried the birds and bamboos to the tree, while I proceeded to cut my reeds. I chose those which had flowered, knowing that they were harder, and having cut a sufficient quantity of these, I selected one or two of the tallest canes I could find to assist me in measuring the height of the tree. I then bound them together and returned to my family.
'Do you mean to keep this great hungry bird Fritz has brought?' said my wife. 'It is another mouth to feed, remember, and provisions are still scarce.'
'Luckily,' I replied, 'the flamingo will not eat grain like our poultry, but will be quite satisfied with insects, fish, and little crabs, which it will pick up for itself. Pray reassure yourself, therefore, and let me see to the poor bird's wound.'
So saying, I procured some wine and butter and anointing the wing, which though hurt was not broken, I bound it up, and then took the bird to the stream where I fastened it by a long cord to a stake and left it to shift for itself. In a few days the wound was healed, and the bird, subdued by kind treatment, became rapidly tame.
While I was thus employed my sons were endeavouring to ascertain the height of the lowest branch of the tree from the ground. They had fastened together the long reeds I had brought with them, and were trying to measure the distance, but in vain; they soon found that were the rods ten times their length they could not touch the branch.
'Hello, my boys,' I said, when I discovered what they were about, 'that is not the way to set to work. Geometry will simplify the operation considerably; with its help the altitude of the highest mountains are ascertained; we may, therefore, easily find the height of that branch.'
So saying, I measured out a certain distance from the base of the tree and marked the spot, and then by means of a rod, whose length I knew, and imaginary lines, I calculated the angle subtended by the trunk of the tree from the ground to the root of the branch. This done, I was able to discover the height required, and, to the astonishment of the younger children, announced that we should henceforth live thirty feet above the ground. This I wanted to know, that I might construct a ladder of the necessary length.
Telling Fritz to collect all our cord, and the others to roll all the twine into a ball, I sat down and taking the reeds, speedily manufactured half a dozen arrows and feathered them from the dead flamingo. I then took a strong bamboo, bent it and strung it so as to form a bow. When the boys saw what I had done they were delighted, and begged to have the pleasure of firing the first shot.
'No, no!' said I, 'I did not make this for mere pleasure, nor is it even intended as a weapon, the arrows are pointless. Elizabeth,' I continued to my wife, 'can you supply me with a ball of stout thread from your wonderful bag?'
'Certainly,' replied she, 'I think that a ball of thread was the first thing to enter the bag,' and diving her hand deep in, she drew out the very thing I wanted.
'Now, boys,' I said, 'I am going to fire the first shot,' and I fastened one end of the thread to one of my arrows and aimed at a large branch above me. The arrow flew upwards and bore the thread over the branch and fell at our feet. Thus was the first step in our undertaking accomplished. Now for the rope ladder!
Fritz had obtained two coils of cord each about forty feet in length; these we stretched on the ground side by side; then Fritz cut the bamboos into pieces of two feet for the steps of the ladder, and as he handed them to me, I passed them through knots which I had prepared in the ropes, while Jack fixed each end with a nail driven through the wood. When the ladder was finished, I carried over the bough a rope by which it might be hauled up. This done, I fixed the lower end of the ladder firmly to the ground by means of stakes, and all was ready for an ascent. The boys who had been watching me with intense interest were each eager to be first.
'Jack shall have the honour,' said I, 'as he is the lightest, so up with you, my boy, and do not break your neck.'
Jack, who was as active as a monkey, sprang up the ladder and quickly gained the top.
'Three cheers for the nest!' he exclaimed, waving his cap.
'Hurrah, hurrah, hurrah for our jolly nest! What a grand house we will have up here; come along, Fritz!'
His brother was soon by his side, and with a hammer and nails secured the ladder yet more securely. I followed with an axe, and took a survey of the tree. It was admirably suited to our purpose; the branches were very strong and so closely interwoven that no beams would be required to form a flooring, but when some of the boughs were lopped and cleared away, a few planks would be quite sufficient.
I now called for a pulley, which my wife fastened to the cord hanging beside the ladder, I hauled it up, and finding the boys rather in my way, told them to go down while I proceeded to fasten the pulley to a stout branch above me, that we might be able to haul up the beams we should require the next day. I then made other preparations that there might be no delay on the morrow, and a bright moon having arisen, I by its light continued working until I was quite worn out, and then at length descended.
I reached the ground, but to my surprise found that the two boys were not there. They had not been seen. A moment afterwards, however, all anxiety was dispelled, for amongst the topmost boughs I heard their young voices raised in the evening hymn.
Instead of descending, they had, while I was busy, climbed upwards, and had been sitting in silent admiration of the moonlight scene, high above me. They now joined us, and my wife showed me the results of her labour. She had made two complete sets of harness. I congratulated her upon her success, and we then sat down to supper.
On a cloth spread out upon the grass were arranged a roast shoulder of porcupine, a delicious bowl of soup made from a piece of the same animal, cheese, butter, and biscuits, forming a most tempting repast. Having done this ample justice, we collected our cattle, and the pigeons and fowls having retired to roost on the neighbouring trees, and on the steps of our ladder, we made up a glorious fire to keep off any prowling wild beasts, and ourselves lay down.
The children, in spite of the novelty of the hammocks, were quickly asleep. In vain I tried to follow their example; a thousand anxious thoughts presented themselves, and as quickly as I dispelled them others rose in their place. The night wore on, and I was still awake; the fire burned low, and I rose and replenished it with dry fuel. Then again I climbed into my hammock, and towards morning fell asleep.
Early next morning we were astir, and dispersed to our various occupations. My wife milked the goats and cow, while we gave the animals their food, after which we went down to the beach, to collect more wood for our building operations.
To the larger beams we harnessed the cow and ass, while we ourselves dragged up the remainder. Fritz and I then ascended the tree, and finished the preparations I had begun the night before; all useless boughs we lopped off, leaving a few about six feet from the floor, from which we might sling our hammocks, and others still higher, to support a temporary roof of sailcloth.
My wife made fast the planks to a rope passed through the block I had fixed to the bough above us, and by this means Fritz and I hauled them up. These we arranged side by side on the foundation of boughs, so as to form a smooth solid floor, and round this platform built a bulwark of planks, and then throwing the sailcloth over the higher branches, we drew it down and firmly nailed it. Our house was thus enclosed on three sides, for behind the great trunk protected us, while the front was left open to admit the fresh sea breeze which blew directly in.
We then hauled up our hammocks and bedding and slung them from the branches we had left for that purpose. A few hours of daylight still remaining, we cleared the floor from leaves and chips, and then descended to fashion a table and a few benches from the remainder of the wood. After working like slaves all day, Fritz and I flung ourselves on the grass, while my wife arranged supper on the table we had made.
'Come,' said she at length, 'come and taste flamingo stew, and tell me how you like it. Ernest assured me that it would be much better stewed than roasted, and I have been following his directions.'
Laughing at the idea of Ernest turning scientific cook we sat down. The fowls gathered round us to pick up the crumbs, and the tame flamingo joined them, while Master Knips skipped about from one to the other, chattering and mimicking our gestures continually.
To my wife's joy, the sow appeared shortly after, and was presented with all the milk that remained from the day's stock that she might be persuaded to return every night.
'For,' said my wife, 'this surplus milk is really of no use to us, as it will be sour before the morning in this hot climate.'
'You are quite right,' I replied, 'but we must contrive to make it of use. The next time Fritz and I return to the wreck we will bring off a churn amongst the other things we require.'
'Must you really go again to that dreadful wreck?' said my wife shuddering. 'You have no idea how anxious I am when you are away there.'
'Go we must, I am afraid,' I replied, 'but not for a day or two yet. Come, it is getting late. We and the chickens must go to roost.'
We lit our watch fires, and, leaving the dogs on guard below, ascended the ladder. Fritz, Ernest and Jack were up in a moment.
Their mother followed very cautiously, for though she had originated the idea of building a nest, she yet hesitated to entrust herself at such a terrific height from the ground. When she was safely landed in the house, taking little Franz on my back, I let go the fastenings which secured the lower end of the ladder to the ground, and swinging to and fro, slowly ascended.
Then for the first time we stood all together in our new home. I drew up the ladder, and, with a greater sense of security than I had enjoyed since we landed on the island, offered up our evening prayer, and retired for the night.