The Swiss Family Robinson (Kingston)/Chapter 10
Bird-lime—A midnight raid—The massacre at Woodlands—Capture of Molucca pigeons—A pigeon-house—Fritz and I prepare a conjuring trick—Great success of our experiment—Lichen and nutmegs discovered—Jack's adventure—The loom manufactured—Winter stores prepared—The rainy season sets in—Interior of our house arranged—We study languages—The return of spring—A stranded whale—An account of coral—We go to work on the whale's carcase—Remarks on the habits of the whale.
On the following morning we were early astir; and as soon as breakfast was over, we went regularly to work with the bird-lime. The tough, adhesive mixture of caoutchouc, oil and turpentine turned out well.
The boys brought rods, which I smeared over, and made them place among the upper branches, where the fruit was plentiful, and the birds most congregated.
The prodigious number of the pigeons, far beyond those of last year, reminded me that we had not then, as now, witnessed their arrival at their feeding-places, but had seen only the last body of the season, a mere party of stragglers, compared to the masses which now weighed down the branches of all the trees in the neighbourhood.
The sweet acorns of the evergreen oaks were also patronized; large flocks were there congregated; and from the state of the ground under the trees it was evident that at night they roosted on the branches. Seeing this, I determined to make a raid upon them by torchlight, after the manner of the colonists in Virginia.
Meantime, the bird-lime acted well: the pigeons alighting, stuck fast. The more they fluttered and struggled, the more completely were they bedaubed with the tenacious mixture, and at length, with piteous cries, fell to the ground, bearing the sticks with them. The birds were then removed, fresh lime spread, and the snare set again.
The boys quickly became able to carry on the work without my assistance; so, leaving it to them, I went to prepare torches, with pine-wood and turpentine, for the night attack.
Jack presently brought a very pretty pigeon, unlike the rest, to show me, as he felt unwilling to kill it; and seeing that it must be one of our own European breed, which we wished to preserve until their numbers greatly increased, I took the trembling captive, and gently cleaned its feet and wings with oil and ashes from the stiff, sticky mess with which it was bedaubed, placing it then in a wicker cage, and telling Jack to bring me any others like it which were caught. This he did; and we secured several pairs, greatly to my satisfaction, as having necessarily let them go free when we landed, they had become quite wild, and we derived no advantage from them: whereas now we would have a cot, and pigeon-pie whenever we liked.
When evening drew on, we set out for the wood of sweet acorns, provided merely with long bamboo canes, torches, and canvas sacks.
These weapons appeared very curious and insufficient to the children; but their use was speedily apparent: for darkness having come upon us almost before we reached the wood, I lighted the torches, and perceived, as I expected, that every branch was thickly laden with ortolans and wild pigeons, who were roosting there in amazing numbers.Suddenly aroused by the glare of light, confusion prevailed among the terrified birds, who fluttered helplessly through the branches, dazzled and bewildered, and many falling, even before we began to use the sticks, were picked up, and put in the bags.
When we beat and struck the branches, it was as much as my wife and Franz could do to gather up the quantities of pigeons that soon lay on the ground. The sacks were speedily quite full. We turned homewards, and on reaching Falconhurst, put our booty in safety, and gladly withdrew to rest.
The following day was wholly occupied in plucking, boiling, roasting, and stewing, so that we could find time for nothing else; but next morning a great expedition to Woodlands was arranged, that measures might there be taken to prevent a repetition of the monkey invasion.
I hoped, could I but catch the mischievous rascals at their work of destruction, to inflict upon them such a chastisement as would effectually make them shun the neighbourhood of our farm for the future.
My wife provided us with a good store of provisions, as we were likely to be absent several days, while she, with Franz and Turk, remained at home.
I took with me abundance of specially prepared bird-lime, far stronger than that which we used for the pigeons; a number of short posts, plenty of string, and a supply of cocoa-nut shells and gourds.
The buffalo carried all these things, and one or two of the boys besides. I myself bestrode the ass, and in due time we arrived at a convenient spot in the forest, near Woodlands, well concealed by thick bushes and underwood, where we made a little encampment, pitching the small tent, and tethering the animals. The dogs, too, were tied up, lest they should roam about, and betray our presence.
We found the cottage quite quiet and deserted; and I lost no time in preparing for the reception of visitors, hoping to be all ready for them, and out of sight before they arrived.
We drove the stakes lightly into the ground, so as to form an irregular paling round the house, winding string in and out in all directions between them, thus making a kind of labyrinth, through which it would be impossible to pass without touching either the stakes or the cords.
Everything was plentifully besmeared with bird-lime; and basins of the mixture were set in all directions, strewed with rice, maize, and other dainties for bait.
Night came without any interruption to our proceedings; and all being then accomplished, we retired to rest beneath the shelter of our little tent.
Very early in the morning we heard a confused noise, such as we knew betokened the approach of a large number of apes. We armed ourselves with strong clubs and cudgels, and holding the dogs in leash, made our way silently behind the thickets, till ourselves unseen, we could command a view of all that went on; and strange indeed was the scene which ensued!
The noise of rustling, crackling, and creaking among the branches, with horrid cries, and shrieks, and chattering, increased to a degree sufficient to make us perfectly giddy; and then out from the forest poured the whole disorderly rabble of monkeys, scrambling, springing, leaping from the trees, racing and tumbling across the grassy space towards the house; when, at once attracted by the novelties they saw, they made for the jars and bowls.
They seemed innumerable; but the confused, rapid way in which they swarmed hither and thither, made it difficult to judge accurately of their numbers. They dashed fearlessly through and over the palings in all directions, some rushing at the eatables, some scrambling on to the roof, where they commenced tugging at the wooden pegs, with a view to forcing an entrance.
Gradually, however, as they rambled over the place, all in turn became besmeared with our bird-lime on head, paws, back, or breast. The wretched predicament of the apes increased every instant.
Some sat down, and with the most ludicrous gestures, tried to clean themselves. Others were hopelessly entangled in stakes and cordage, which they trailed about after them, looking the picture of bewildered despair.
Others, again, endeavoured to help one another, and stuck fast together: the more they pulled, and tugged, and kicked, the worse became their plight.
Many had the gourds and cocoa-nut shells lumbering and clattering about with them, their paws having been caught when they sought to obtain the rice or fruit we had put for bait.
Most ridiculous of all was the condition of one old fellow, who had found a calabash, containing palm wine, and, eagerly drinking it, was immediately fitted with a mask, for the shell stuck to his forehead and whiskers, of course covering his eyes; and he blundered about, cutting the wildest capers in his efforts to get rid of the encumbrance.
Numbers took to flight; but, as we had spread bird-lime on several of the trees around, many apes found themselves fixed to, or hanging from the branches, where they remained in woeful durance, struggling and shrieking horribly.
The panic being now general, I loosed the three dogs, whose impatience had been almost uncontrollable, and who now rushed to the attack of the unfortunate monkeys, as though burning with zeal to execute justice upon desperate criminals.
The place soon had the appearance of a ghastly battle-field; for we were obliged to do our part with the clubs and sticks, till the din of howling, yelling, barking, in every conceivable tone of rage and pain, gave place to an awful silence, and we looked with a shudder on the shocking spectacle around us.
At least forty apes lay mangled and dead, and the boys began to be quite sad and down-hearted, till I, fully sharing their feelings, hastened to turn their thoughts to active employment in removing and burying the slain, burning the stakes, cordage, bowls, everything concerned in the execution of our deadly stratagem.
After that we betook ourselves to the task of restoring order to our dismantled cottage; and seeking for the scattered flock of sheep, goats, and poultry, we gradually collected them, hoping to settle them once more peacefully in their yards and sheds.
While thus engaged, we repeatedly heard a sound as of something heavy falling from a tree. On going to look, we found three splendid birds, caught on some of the limed sticks we had placed loose in the branches.
Two of these proved to be a variety of the Blue Molucca pigeon; the third I assumed to be the Nicobar pigeon, having met with descriptions of its resplendent green, bronze, and steely blue plumage; and I was pleased to think of domesticating them, and establishing them as first tenants of a suitable dwelling near the cave.
“First tenants, father!” said Fritz; “do you expect to catch more like these?”
“Not exactly catch them; I mean to practise a secret art. Much can be done by magic, Fritz!”
Further explanation I declined to give.
In a few days Woodlands was once more set in order, and everything settled and comfortable, so that we returned without further adventure to Falconhurst, where we were joyfully welcomed.
Every one agreed that we must go at once to Tentholm, to make the proposed pigeon-house in the rock. Several other things there also requiring our attention, we made arrangements for a prolonged stay.My plan for the pigeon-house was to hollow out an ample space in the cliff, facing towards Jackal river, and close to our rocky home, fitting that up with partitions, perches, and nesting places; while a large wooden front was fitted on to the opening, with entrance-holes, slides, or shutters, and a broad platform in front, where the birds could rest, and walk about.
When, after the work of a few weeks, we thought it was fit for habitation, I set the other children to work at some distance from our cavern, and summoning Fritz,—
“Now, my faithful assistant,” said I, “it is time to conjure the new colonists to their settlement here. “Yes,” I continued, laughing at his puzzled look. “I mean to play a regular pigeon-dealer's trick. You must know such gentry are very ingenious, not only in keeping their own pigeons safe, but in adding to their numbers by attracting those of other people. All I want is some soft clay, anise-seed and salt, of which I will compound a mixture, which our birds will like very much, and the smell of which will bring others to share it with them.”
“I can easily get you those things, father.”
“I shall want some oil of anise-seed besides,” said I, “to put on the pigeon-holes, so that the birds' feathers may touch it as they pass in and out, and become scented with what will attract the wild pigeons. This I can obtain by pounding anise-seed; therefore, bring me the mortar and some oil.”
When this was strongly impregnated with the aromatic oil from the seeds (for I did not propose to distil it in regular style), I strained it through a cloth, pressing it strongly: the result answered my purpose, and the scent would certainly remain for some days.
All my preparations being completed, the pigeons were installed in their new residence, and the slides closed. The European birds were by this time quite friendly with the three beautiful strangers; and when the other boys came home, and scrambled up the ladder to peep in at a little pane of glass I had fixed in front, they saw them all contentedly picking up grain, and pecking at the “magic food,” as Fritz called it, although he did not betray my secret arts to his brothers.
Early on the third morning I aroused Fritz, and directed him to ascend the rope ladder, and arrange a cord on the sliding door of the dove-cot, by which it could be opened or closed from below. Also he poured fresh anise-seed oil all about the entrance, after which we returned, and awoke the rest of the family, telling them that if they liked to make haste, they might see me let the pigeons fly.
Everybody came to the dove-cot, understanding that some ceremony was to attend the event, and I waved a wand with mock solemnity, while I muttered a seeming incantation, and then gave Fritz a sign to draw up the sliding panel.
Presently out popped the pretty heads of the captives, the soft eyes glanced about in all directions; they withdrew, they ventured forth again, they came timidly out on “the verandah,” as little Franz expressed it; then, as though suddenly startled, the whole party took wing, with the shrill whizzing sound peculiar to the flight of pigeons, and circling above us, they rose higher, higher, finally darting quite out of sight.
While we were yet gazing after them, they reappeared, and settled quietly on the dove-cot; but as we congratulated ourselves on a return which showed they accepted this as a home, up sprang the three blue pigeons, the noble foreigners, for whom chiefly I had planned the house, and rising in circles high in air, winged their rapid way direct towards Falconhurst.
Their departure had such an air of determination and resolve about it, that I feared them lost to us for ever.
Endeavouring to console ourselves by petting our four remaining birds, we could not forget this disappointment, and all day long the dove-cot remained the centre of attraction.
Nothing, however, was seen of the fugitives until about the middle of next day; when most of us were hard at work inside the cavern, Jack sprang in full of excitement, exclaiming,—
“He is there! He is come! he really is!”
“Who? Who is there? What do you mean?”
“The blue pigeon, to be sure! Hurrah! Hurrah!”
“Oh, nonsense!” said Ernest. “You want to play us a trick.”
“Why should it be ‘nonsense’?” cried I. “I fully believe we shall see them all soon!”
Out ran everybody to the dove-cot, and there, sure enough, stood the pretty fellow, but not alone, for he was billing and cooing to a mate, a stranger of his own breed, apparently inviting her to enter his dwelling; for he popped in and out at the door, bowing, sidling, and cooing, in a most irresistible manner, until the shy little lady yielded to his blandishments, and tripped daintily in. “Now, let's shut the door.”
“Pull the cord and close the panel!” shouted the boys, making a rush at the string.
“Stop!” cried I, “let the string alone! I won't have you frighten the little darlings. Besides, the others will be coming, would you shut the door in their faces?”
“Here they come! here they come!” exclaimed Fritz, whose keen eye marked the birds afar, and to our delight the second blue pigeon arrived, likewise with a mate, whom, after a pretty little flirtation scene of real and assumed modesty on her part, he succeeded in leading home.
The third and handsomest of the new pigeons was the last in making his appearance. Perhaps he had greater difficulty than the others in finding a mate as distinguished in rank and beauty as himself.
However, we fully expected them, and the boys talked of the arrival of “Mr. and Mrs. Nicobar” as a matter of course.
Late in the day Franz and his mother went out to provide for supper, but the child returned directly, exclaiming that we must hasten to the dove-cot to see something beautiful.
Accordingly a general rush was made out of the cave, and we saw with delight that the third stranger also had returned with a lovely bride, and encouraged by the presence of the first arrivals, they soon made themselves at home.
In a short time nest-building commenced, and among the materials collected by the birds, I observed a long grey moss or lichen, and thought it might very possibly be the same which, in the West Indies, is gathered from the bark of old trees, where it grows, and hangs in great tuft-like beards, to be used instead of horse-hair for stuffing mattresses.
My wife no sooner heard of it, than her active brain devised fifty plans for making it of use. Would we but collect enough, she would clean and sort it, and there would be no end to the bolsters, pillows, saddles, and cushions she would stuff with it.
For the discovery of nutmegs we had also to thank the pigeons, and they were carefully planted in our orchard.
For some time no event of particular note occurred, until at length Jack, as usual, got into a scrape, causing thereby no little excitement at home.
He went off early on one of his own particular private expeditions.
He was in the habit of doing this that he might surprise us with some new acquisition on his return.
This time, however, he came back in a most wretched plight, covered with mud and green slime; a great bundle of Spanish canes was on his back, muddy and green like himself; he had lost a shoe, and altogether presented a ludicrous picture of misery, at which we could have laughed, had he not seemed more ready to cry!
“My dear boy! what has happened to you? Where have you been?”
“Only in the swamp behind the powder-magazine, father,” replied he. “I went in to get reeds for my wicker-work, because I wanted to weave some baskets and hencoops, and I saw such beauties a little way off in the marsh, much finer than those close by the edge, that I tried to get at them.
“I jumped from one firm spot to another, till at last I slipped and sank over my ankles; I tried to get on towards the reeds, which were close by, but in I went deeper and deeper, till I was above the knees in thick soft mud, and there I stuck!
“I screamed and shouted, but nobody came, and I can tell you I was in a regular fright.
“At last who should appear but my faithful Fangs! He knew my voice and came close up to me, right over the swamp, but all the poor beast could do, was to help me to make a row; I wonder you did not hear us! The very rocks rang, but nothing came of it, so despair drove me to think of an expedient. I cut down all the reeds I could reach round and round me, and bound them together into this bundle, which made a firm place on which to lean, while I worked and kicked about to free my feet and legs, and after much struggling, I managed to get astride on the reeds.
“There I sat, supported above the mud and slime, while Fangs ran yelping backwards and forwards between me and the bank, seeming surprised I did not follow. Suddenly I thought of catching hold of his tail. He dragged and pulled, and I sprawled and crawled, and waded, sometimes on my reeds like a raft, sometimes lugging them along with me, till we luckily got back to terra firma. But I had a near squeak for it, I can tell you.”
“A fortunate escape indeed, my boy!” cried I, “and I thank God for it. Fangs has really acted a heroic part as your deliverer, and you have shown great presence of mind. Now go with your mother, and get rid of the slimy traces of your disaster! You have brought me splendid canes, exactly what I want for a new scheme of mine.”
The fact was, I meant to try to construct a loom for my wife, for I knew she understood weaving, so I chose two fine strong reeds, and splitting them carefully, bound them together again, that when dry they might be quite straight and equal, and fit for a frame. Smaller reeds were cut into pieces and sharpened, for the teeth of the comb. The boys did this for me without in the least knowing their use, and great fun they made of “father's monster toothpicks.”
In time all the various parts of the loom were made ready and put together, my wife knowing nothing of it, while to the incessant questions of the children, I replied mysteriously,
“Oh, it is an outlandish sort of musical instrument; mother will know how to play upon it.”
And when the time came for presenting it, her joy was only equalled by the amusement and interest with which the children watched her movements while “playing the loom,” as they always said.
About this time, a beautiful little foal, a son of the onager, was added to our stud, and as he promised to grow up strong and tractable, we soon saw how useful he would be. The name of Swift was given to him, and he was to be trained for my own riding.
The interior arrangements of the cavern being now well forward, I applied myself to contriving an aqueduct, that fresh water might be led close up to our cave, for it was a long way to go to fetch it from Jackal river, and especially inconvenient on washing days. As I wanted to do this before the rainy season began, I set about it at once.
Pipes of hollow bamboo answered the purpose well, and a large cask formed the reservoir. The supply was good, and the comfort of having it close at hand so great, that the mother declared she was as well pleased with our engineering as if we had made her a fountain and marble basin adorned with mermaids and dolphins.
Anticipating the setting in of the rains, I pressed forward all work connected with stores for the winter, and great was the in-gathering of roots, fruits, and grains, potatoes, rice, guavas, sweet acorns, pine-cones; load after load arrived at the cavern, and the mother's active needle was in constant requisition, as the demand for more sacks and bags was incessant.
Casks, and barrels of all sorts and sizes were pressed into the service, until at last the raft was knocked to pieces, and its tubs made to do duty in the store-rooms.
The weather became very unsettled and stormy.
Heavy clouds gathered in the horizon, and passing storms of wind, with thunder, lightning, and torrents of rain swept over the face of nature from time to time.
The sea was in frequent commotion; heavy ground-swells drove masses of water hissing and foaming against the cliffs. Everything heralded the approaching rains. All nature joined in sounding forth the solemn overture to the grandest work of the year.
It was now near the beginning of the month of June, and we had twelve weeks of bad weather before us.
We established some of the animals with ourselves at the salt-cave. The cow, the ass, Lightfoot, Storm, and the dogs, were all necessary to us, while Knips, Fangs, and the eagle were sure to be a great amusement in the long evenings.
The boys would ride over to Falconhurst very often to see that all was in order there, and fetch anything required.
Much remained to be done in order to give the cave a comfortable appearance, which became more desirable now that we had to live indoors.
The darkness of the inner regions annoyed me, and I set myself to invent a remedy.
After some thought, I called in Jack's assistance, and we got a very tall, strong bamboo, which would reach right up to the vaulted roof. This we planted in the earthen floor, securing it well by driving wedges in round it. Jack ascended this pole very cleverly, taking with him a hammer and chisel to enlarge a crevice in the roof so as to fix a pulley, by means of which, when he descended, I drew up a large ship's lantern, well supplied with oil, and as there were four wicks, it afforded a very fair amount of light.
Several days were spent in arranging the different rooms.
Ernest and Franz undertook the library, fixing shelves, and setting the books in order.
Jack and his mother took in hand the sitting-room and kitchen, while Fritz and I, as better able for heavy work, arranged the workshops. The carpenter's bench, the turning lathe, and a large chest of tools were set in convenient places, and many tools and instruments hung on the walls.
An adjoining chamber was fitted up as a forge, with fire-place, bellows, and anvil, complete, all which we had found in the ship, packed together, and ready to set up.
When the great affairs were settled, we still found in all directions work to be done. Shelves, tables, benches, movable steps, cupboards, pegs, door-handles, and bolts—there seemed no end to our requirements, and we often thought of the enormous amount of work necessary to maintain the comforts and conveniences of life which at home we had received as matters of course.
But in reality, the more there was to do the better; and I never ceased contriving fresh improvements, being fully aware of the importance of constant employment as a means of strengthening and maintaining the health of mind and body. This, indeed, with a consciousness of continual progress towards a desirable end, is found to constitute the main element of happiness.
Our rocky home was greatly improved by a wide porch which I made along the whole front of our rooms and entrances, by levelling the ground to form a terrace, and sheltering it with a verandah of bamboo, supported by pillars of the same.
Ernest and Franz were highly successful as librarians.
The books, when unpacked and arranged, proved to be a most valuable collection, capable of affording every sort of educational advantage.
Besides a variety of books of voyages, travels, divinity, and natural history (several containing fine coloured illustrations), there were histories and scientific works, as well as standard fictions in several languages; also a good assortment of maps, charts, mathematical and astronomical instruments, and an excellent pair of globes.
I foresaw much interesting study on discovering that we possessed the grammars and dictionaries of a great many languages, a subject for which we all had a taste. With French we were well acquainted. Fritz and Ernest had begun to learn English at school, and made further progress during a visit to England. The mother, who had once been intimate with a Dutch family, could speak that language pretty well.
After a great deal of discussion, we agreed to study different languages, so that in the event of meeting with people of other nations, there should be at least one of the family able to communicate with them.
All determined to improve our knowledge of German and French.
The two elder boys were to study English and Dutch with their mother.
Ernest, already possessing considerable knowledge of Latin, wished to continue to study it, so as to be able to make use of the many works on natural history and medicine written in that language.
Jack announced that he meant to learn Spanish “because it sounded so grand and imposing.”
I myself was interested in the Malay language, knowing it to be so widely spoken in the islands of the Eastern Seas, and thinking it as likely as any other to be useful to us.
Our family circle by and by represented Babel in miniature, for scraps and fragments of all these tongues kept buzzing about our ears from morning to night, each sporting his newly acquired word or sentence on every possible occasion, propounding idioms and peculiar expressions like riddles, to puzzle the rest.
In this way, the labour of learning was very considerably lightened, and every one came to know a few words of each language.
Occasionally we amused ourselves by opening chests and packages hitherto untouched, and brought unexpected treasures to light—mirrors, wardrobes, a pair of console tables with polished marble tops, elegant writing tables and handsome chairs, clocks of various descriptions, a musical-box, and a chronometer were found; and by degrees our abode was fitted up like a palace, so that sometimes we wondered at ourselves, and felt as though we were strutting about in borrowed plumes.
The children begged me to decide on a name for our salt cave dwelling, and that of Rockburg was chosen unanimously.
The weeks of imprisonment passed so rapidly, that no one found time hang heavy on his hands.
Books occupied me so much that but little carpentering was done, yet I made a yoke for the oxen, a pair of cotton-wool carders, and a spinning wheel for my wife.
As the rainy season drew to a close, the weather for a while became wilder, and the storms fiercer than ever. Thunder roared, lightning blazed, torrents rushed towards the sea, which came in raging billows to meet them, lashed to fury by the tempests of wind which swept the surface of the deep.
The uproar of the elements came to an end at last.
Nature resumed her attitude of repose, her smiling aspect of peaceful beauty; and soon all traces of the ravages of floods and storms would disappear beneath the luxuriant vegetation of the tropics.
Gladly quitting the sheltering walls of Rockburg to roam once more in the open air, we crossed Jackal River, for a walk along the coast, and presently Fritz with his sharp eyes observed something on the small island near Flamingo Marsh, which was, he said, long and rounded, resembling a boat bottom upwards.
Examining it with the telescope, I could form no other conjecture, and we resolved to make it the object of an excursion next day, being delighted to resume our old habit of starting in pursuit of adventure.
The boat was accordingly got in readiness; it required some repairs, and fresh pitching, and then we made for the point of interest, indulging in a variety of surmises as to what we should find.
It proved to be a huge stranded whale. The island being steep and rocky, it was necesssry to be careful; but we found a landing-place on the further side. The boys hurried by the nearest way to the beach where lay the monster of the deep, while I clambered to the highest point of the islet, which commanded a view of the mainland from Rockburg to Falconhurst.
On rejoining my sons, I found them only half way to the great fish, and as I drew near they shouted in high glee:
“Oh! father, just look at the glorious shells and coral branches we are finding. How does it happen that there are such quantities?”
“Only consider how the recent storms have stirred the ocean to its depths! No doubt thousands of shell-fish have been detached from their rocks and dashed in all directions by the waves, which have thrown ashore even so huge a creature as the whale yonder.”
“Yes; isn't he a frightful great brute!” cried Fritz. “Ever so much larger than he seemed from a distance. The worst of it is, one does not well see what use to make of the huge carcase.”
“Why, make train oil, to be sure,” said Ernest. “I can't say he's a beauty, though, and it is much pleasanter to gather these lovely shells, than to cut up blubber.”
“Well, let us amuse ourselves with them for the present,” said I, “but in the afternoon, when the sea is calmer, we will return with the necessary implements, and see if we can turn the stranded whale to good account.”
We were soon ready to return to the boat, but Ernest had a fancy for remaining alone on the island till we came back, and asked my permission to do so, that he might experience, for an hour or two, the sensations of Robinson Crusoe.
To this, however, I would not consent, assuring him that our fate, as a solitary family, gave him quite sufficient idea of shipwreck on an uninhabited island, and that his lively imagination must supply the rest.
The boys found it hard work to row back, and began to beg of me to exert my wonderful inventive powers in contriving some kind of rowing machine.
“You lazy fellows!” returned I; “give me the great clockwork out of a church tower, perhaps I might be able to relieve your labours.”
“Oh father!” cried Fritz, “don't you know there are iron wheels in the clockwork of the large kitchen-jacks? I'm sure mother would give them up, and you could make something out of them, could you not?”
“By the time I have manufactured a rowing-machine out of a roasting jack, I think your arms will be pretty well inured to the use of your oars! However, I am far from despising the hint, my dear Fritz.”
“Is coral of any use?” demanded Jack suddenly.
“In former times it was pounded and used by chemists; but it is now chiefly used for various ornaments, and made into beads for necklaces, &c. As such, it is greatly prized by savages, and were we to fall in with natives, we might very possibly find a store of coral useful in bartering with them.
“For the present we will arrange these treasures of the deep in our library, and make them the beginning of a Museum of Natural History, which will afford us equal pleasure and instruction.”
“One might almost say that coral belongs at once to the animal, vegetable, and mineral kingdoms," remarked Fritz; “it is hard like stone, it has stems and branches like a shrub, and I believe tiny insects inhabit the cells, do they not, father?”
“You are right, Fritz; coral consists of the calcareous cells of minute animals, so built up as to form a tree-like structure.
“The coral fishery gives employment to many men in the Persian Gulf, the Mediterranean Sea, and other places. The instrument commonly used, consists of two heavy beams of wood, secured together at right angles, and loaded with stones. Hemp and netting are attached to the under side of the beams, to the middle of which is fastened one end of a strong rope, by which the apparatus is let down from a boat, and guided to the spots where the coral is most abundant.
“The branches of the coral become entangled in the hemp and net-work; they are broken off from the rock, and are drawn to the surface of the water.
“Left undisturbed these coral insects, labouring incessantly, raise foundations, on which, in course of time, fertile islands appear, clothed with verdure, and inhabited by men.”
“Why father, here we are at the landing-place!" exclaimed Jack. “It has seemed quite easy to pull since you began to tell us such interesting things.”
“Very interesting indeed; but did you notice that the wind had changed, Jack?" remarked Ernest as he shipped his oar.
The animated recital of our adventures, the sight of the lovely shells and corals, and the proposed work for the afternoon, inspired the mother and Franz with a great wish to accompany us.
To this I gladly consented, only stipulating that we should go provided with food, water, and a compass. “For,” said I, “the sea has only just ceased from its raging, and being at the best of times of uncertain and capricious nature, we may chance to be detained on the island, or forced to land at a considerable distance from home.”
Dinner was quickly dispatched, and preparations set on foot.
The more oil we could obtain the better, for a great deal was used in the large lantern which burned day and night in the recesses of the cave; therefore all available casks and barrels were pressed into the service; many, of course, once full of pickled herrings, potted pigeons, and other winter stores, were now empty, and we took a goodly fleet of these in tow.
Knives, hatchets, and the boy's climbing buskins, were put on board, and we set forth, the labour of the oar being greater than ever, now that our freight was so much increased.
The sea being calm, and the tide suiting better, we found it easy to land close to the whale; my first care was to place the boat, as well as the casks, in perfect security, after which we proceeded to a close inspection of our prize.
Its enormous size quite startled my wife and her little boy; the length being from sixty to sixty-five feet, and the girth between thirty and forty, while the weight could not have been less than 50,000 lbs.
The colour was a uniform velvety black, and the enormous head about one-third of the length of the entire bulk, the eyes quite small, not much larger than those of an ox, and the ears almost undiscernible.
The jaw opened very far back, and was nearly sixteen feet in length, the most curious part of its structure being the remarkable substance known as whalebone, masses of which appeared all along the jaws, solid at the base, and splitting into a sort of fringe at the extremity. This arrangement is for the purpose of aiding the whale in procuring its food, and separating it from the water.
The tongue was remarkably large, soft and full of oil; the opening of the throat wonderfully small, scarcely two inches in diameter.
“Why, what can the monster eat?” exclaimed Fritz; “he never can swallow a proper mouthful down this little gullet!”
“The mode of feeding adopted by the whale is so curious,” I replied, “that I must explain it to you before we begin work.
“This animal (for I should tell you that a whale is not a fish, he possesses no gills, he breathes atmospheric air, and would be drowned if too long detained below the surface of the water); this animal then frequents those parts of the ocean best supplied with the various creatures on which he feeds. Shrimps, small fish, lobsters, various molluscs and medusae form his diet. Driving with open mouth through the congregated shoals of these little creatures, the whale engulfs them by millions in his enormous jaws, and continues his destructive course until he has sufficiently charged his mouth with prey.
“Closing his jaws and forcing out through the interstices of the whalebone, the water which he has taken together with his prey, he retains the captured animals, and swallows them at his leisure.
“The nostrils, or blow-holes, are placed, you see, on the upper part of the head, in order that the whale may rise to breathe, and repose on the surface of the sea, showing very little of his huge carcase.
“The breathings are called ‘spoutings,’ because a column of mixed vapour and water is thrown from the blow-holes, sometimes to a height of twenty feet.
“And now, boys, fasten on your buskins, and let me see if you can face the work of climbing this slippery mountain of flesh, and cutting it up.”
Fritz and Jack stripped, and went to work directly, scrambling over the back to the head, where they assisted me to cut away the lips, so as to reach the whalebone, a large quantity of which was detached and carried to the boat.
Ernest laboured manfully at the creature's side, cutting out slabs of blubber, while his mother and Franz helped as well as they could to put it in casks.
Presently we had a multitude of unbidden guests.
The air was filled by the shrill screams and hoarse croaks and cries of numbers of birds of prey; they flew around us in ever narrowing circles, and becoming bolder as their voracity was excited by the near view of the tempting prey, they alighted close to us, snatching morsels greedily from under the very strokes of our knives and hatchets.
Our work was seriously interruped by these feathered marauders, who, after all, were no greater robbers than we ourselves. We kept them off as well as we could by blows from our tools, and several were killed, my wife taking possession of them immediately for the sake of the feathers.
It was nearly time to leave the island, but first I stripped off a long piece of the skin, to be used for traces, harness, and other leather-work. It was about three-quarters of an inch thick, and very soft and oily—but I knew it would shrink and be tough and durable.
I also took a part of the gums in which the roots of the baleen or whalebone was still imbedded, having read that this is considered quite a delicacy, as well as the skin, which, when properly dressed and cut in little cubes, like black dice, has been compared by enthusiastic and probably very hungry travellers, to cocoa-nut and cream-cheese.
The boys thought the tongue might prove equally palatable, but I valued it only on account of the large quantity of oil it contained.
With a heavy freight we put to sea, and made what haste we could to reach home, and cleanse our persons from the unpleasant traces of the disgusting work in which we had spent the day.
Next morning we started at dawn.
My wife and Franz were left behind, for our proposed work was even more horrible than that of the preceding day; they could not assist, and had no inclination to witness it.
It was my intention to open the carcase completely, and, penetrating the interior, to obtain various portions of the intestines, thinking that it would be possible to convert the larger ones into vessels fit for holding the oil. This time we laid aside our clothes and wore only strong canvas trousers when we commenced operations, which were vigorously carried on during the whole of the day; then, satisfied that we could do so with a clear conscience, we abandoned the remains to the birds of prey, and, with a full cargo, set sail for land.
On the way it appeared to strike the boys (who had made not the slightest objection to the singularly unpleasant task I had set them,) as very strange that I should wish to possess what they had been working so hard to procure for me.
“What can have made you wish to bring away that brute's entrails, father? Are they of any use?”
“There are countries,” I replied, “where no wood grows of which to make barrels, and no hemp for thread, string, and cordage. Necessity, the mother of all the more valuable inventions, has taught the inhabitants of those countries, Greenlanders, Esquimaux, and others, to think of substitutes, and they use the intestines of the whale for one purpose, the sinews and nerves for the other.”
We were right glad to land, and get rid, for the present, of our unpleasant materials, the further preparation of which was work in store for the following day.
A refreshing bath, clean clothes, and supper, cheered us all up, and we slept in peace.