The Swiss Family Robinson

by J.D. Wyss

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Chapter XIII

As evening approached, the bears' paws, which were stewing for supper, sent forth savoury odours; and we sat talking round the fire, while listening anxiously for sounds heralding the return of our young explorers.

At last the tramp and beat of hoofs struck our ears; the little troop appeared, crossing the open ground before us at a sharp trot, and a shrill ringing cheer greeted us as we rose and went to meet them.

They sprang from their saddles, the animals were set at liberty to refresh themselves, and the riders eagerly came to exhibit their acquisitions and give an account of themselves.

Funny figures they cut! Franz and Jack had each a young kid slung on his back, so that the four legs, tied together, stuck out under their chins.

Fritz's game-bag looked remarkably queer—round lumps, sharp points, and an occasional movement seemed to indicate a living creature or creatures within.

`Hurrah, for the chase, father!' cried Jack. `Nothing like real hunting after all. And just to see how Storm and Grumble go along over a grassy plain! It is perfectly splendid! We soon tired out the little antelopes, and were able to catch them.'

`Yes, father,' said Franz, `and Fritz has two angora rabbits in his bag, and we wanted to bring you some honey. Only think! Such a clever bird—a cuckoo, showed us where it was!'

`My brothers forget the chief thing,' said Fritz. `We have driven a little herd of antelopes right through the Gap into our territory; and there they are, all ready for us to hunt when we like—or to catch and tame!'

`Well done!' cried I. `Here is indeed a list of achievements. But to your mother and me, the chief thing of all, is God's goodness in bringing you safe back to us. Now, let us hear the whole story that we may have a definite idea of your performances.'

`We had a splendid ride,' said Fritz, `down Glen Verdant, and away to the defile through our Rocky Barrier, and the morning was so cool and fresh that our steeds galloped along, nearly the whole way, at the top of their speed. When we had passed through the Gap we moderated our furious pace and kept our eyes open on the look-out for game; we then trotted slowly to the top of a grassy hill, from whose summit we saw two herds of animals, whether antelopes, goats or gazelles, we did not know, grazing by the side of the stream below us.

`We were about to gallop down and try to get a shot at them, when it struck me that it would be wiser to try and drive the whole herd through the Gap into our own domain, where they would be shut up, as it were, in a park, free and yet within reach.

`Down the hill we rode as hard as we could go, formed in a semicircle behind the larger herd of magnificent antelopes—and, aided by the dogs, with shouts and cries drove them along the stream towards the Gap; as we came near the opening they appeared inclined to halt and turn like sheep about to be driven into the butcher's yard; and it was all we could do to prevent them from bolting past us; but, at length, one made a rush at the opening and, the rest following, they were soon all on the other side of the frontier and inhabitants of New Switzerland.'

`Capital,' I said, `capital, my boy! But I don't see what is to make them remain inhabitants of our domain, or to prevent them from returning through the Gap whenever they feel inclined.'

`Stop, father,' he replied, `you interrupted me too soon; we thought of that possibility too, and provided against it. We stretched a long line right across the defile and strung on it feathers and rags and all sorts of other things, which danced and fluttered in the wind, and looked so strange that I am perfectly certain that the herd will never attempt to pass it; in fact, Levaillant, from whom I learnt the trick, says in his Voyage au Cap de Bonne Esperance that the Hottentots make use of the method for penning in the antelopes they have caught in the chase.'

`Well done,' said I, `I am glad to see that you remember what you have read. The antelopes are welcome to New Switzerland, but, my boy,' I added, `I cannot say the same for the rabbits you have there; they increase so rapidly that if you establish a colony of the little wretches your next difficulty will be to get rid of them.'

`True,' he replied, `but my idea was to place them upon Whale Island, where they would find abundant food, and at the same time in no way trouble us. May I not establish a warren there? It would be so useful. Do you know my eagle caught these pretty little fellows for me? I saw a number of them running about and so unhooded him, and in a few minutes he brought me three—one dead, with whose body I rewarded him, and these two here, unhurt.'

`Now, father,' said Jack, interrupting him, `do listen to me and hear my story, or else Fritz will begin upon my adventures and tire you out with his rigmarole descriptions.'

`Certainly, Jack,' I said, `I am quite ready to listen to you. First and foremostly, how did you bring down those beautiful little animals you have there?'

`Oh, we galloped them down. The dogs sniffed about in the grass while Fritz was away after the rabbits, out popped these little fawns and away they went bounding and skipping, at the rate of thirty miles an hour, with Storm, Grumble and the dogs at their heels. In about a quarter of an hour we had left the dogs behind and were close upon our prey. Down went the little creatures in the grass, and, overcome with terror and fatigue, were at our mercy. So we shouted to Fritz, and—'

`My dear boy,' said I, `according to your statement, Fritz must have been seven miles and a half off.'

`Oh, well, father, perhaps we did not ride for quite a quarter of an hour, and, of course, I can't say exactly how fast we were going; and then, you see, the fawns did not run in a straight line; at any rate Fritz heard us, and he and Franz and I leashed the legs of the pretty creatures, and then we mounted again, and presently saw a wretch of a cuckoo, who led us ever so far out of our course by cuckooing and making faces at us and then hopping away. Franz declared it must be an enchanted princess, and so I thought I would rid it of its spell; but Fritz stopped me shooting it, and said it was a "Honey Indicator", and that it was leading us probably to a bees' byke, so we spared its life, and presently, sure enough, it stopped close by a bees' nest in a hollow tree.

`This was capital, we thought, and, as we were in a great hurry to taste the honey, I threw in a lot of lighted lucifer matches, but somehow it did not kill the bees at all, but only made them awfully angry, and they flew out in a body and stung me all over. I rushed to Storm and sprang on his back, but, though I galloped away for bare life, it was an age before I got rid of the little wretches, and now my face is in a perfect fever. I think I will get mother to bathe it for me,' and off rushed the noisy boy, leaving Fritz and me to see to the fawns and examine the rabbits.

With these latter I determined to do as Fritz proposed, namely, to colonize Whale Island with them. I was all the more willing to do this because I had been considering the advisability of establishing on that island a fortress to which we might retreat in any extreme danger, and where we should be very thankful, in case of such a retreat, to possess means of obtaining a constant supply of animal food.

Having ministered to the wants of the antelopes, I tried to interest the boys in my discovery of the block of talc, but just then their mother summoned us to dinner.

The principal dish in this meal consisted of the bears' paws—most savoury-smelling delicacies, so tempting that their close resemblance to human hands, and even the roguish `Fee-fo-fum' from Jack, did not prevent a single member of the family from enjoying them most heartily.

Supper over, we lit our watch-fire, retired to our tent and slept soundly.

We had been working very diligently; the bears' meat was smoked, the fat melted down and stored, and a large supply of bamboos collected. But I wished to make yet another excursion, and at early dawn I aroused the boys.

Fritz mounted the mule, I rode Lightfoot, Jack and Franz took their usual steeds and, with the two dogs, we galloped off—first to visit the euphorbia to collect the gum, and then to discover whether the ostrich had deserted her eggs in the sand.

Ernest watched us depart without the slightest look or sigh of regret, and returned to the tent to assist his mother and study his books.

Our steeds carried us down the Green Valley at a rapid rate, and we followed the direction we had pursued on our former expedition. We soon reached Turtle Marsh, and then, filling our water-flasks, we arrived at the rising ground where Fritz discovered the mounted Arabs.

As Jack and Franz wanted a gallop, I allowed them to press forward, while Fritz and I visited the euphorbia trees. A quantity of the red gum had exuded from the incisions I had made, and as this had coagulated in the sun, I rolled it into little balls and stored it in a bamboo jar I had brought with me for the purpose.

As we rode after the boys, who were some way ahead, Fritz remarked, `Did you not tell me that the juice of that tree was poisonous, father; why have you collected such a quantity?'

`I did indeed say so,' I replied, `it is a most deadly poison. The inhabitants of the Cape of Good Hope use it to poison the springs where wild animals assemble to quench their thirst; and they thus slaughter an immense number of the creatures for the sake of their hides. I intend, however, to use it to destroy the apes should they again commit depredations, and also in preparing the skins of animals to protect them from the attacks of insects.'

The two boys were still at some distance from us, when suddenly four magnificent ostriches rose from the sand where they had been sitting.

Jack and Franz perceived them, and with a great shout, drove them towards us. In front ran a splendid male bird, his feathers of shining black, and his great tail plume waving behind. Three females of an ashen grey colour followed him. They approached us with incredible swiftness, and were within gun-shot before they perceived us. Fritz had had the forethought to bind up the beak of his eagle so that, should he bring down an ostrich, he might be unable to injure it.

He now threw up the falcon which, towering upwards, swooped down upon the head of the foremost bird, and so confused and alarmed him, that he could not defend himself nor continue his flight. So greatly was his speed checked that Jack overtook him, and hurling his lasso, enfolded his wings and legs in its deadly coils and brought him to the ground. The other ostriches were almost out of sight, so leaving them to their own devices we leaped from our steeds and attempted to approach the captured bird. He struggled fearfully, and kicked with such violence right and left, that I almost despaired of getting him home alive.

It occurred to me, however, that if we could cover his eyes, his fury might be subdued. I instantly acted upon this idea, and flung over his head my coat and hunting bag, which effectually shut out the light.

No sooner had I done this than his struggles ceased, and we were able to approach. We first secured round his body a broad strip of sealskin, on each side of which I fastened a stout piece of cord, that I might be able to lead him easily. Then, fastening another cord in a loop round his legs that he might be prevented from breaking into a gallop, we released him from the coils of the lasso.

`Do you know,' said I to the boys, `how the natives of India secure a newly captured elephant?'

`Oh, yes!' said Fritz. `They fasten him between two tame elephants. We'll do that to this fine fellow, and tame him double quick.' `The only difficulty will be,' remarked Jack, `that we have no tame ostriches. However, I daresay Storm and Grumble will have no objection to perform their part, and it will puzzle even this great monster to run away with them.'

So we at once began operations. Storm and Grumble were led up on either side of the recumbent ostrich, and the cords secured to their girths. Jack and Franz, each armed with a stout whip, mounted their respective steeds, the wrappers were removed from the bird's eyes, and we stood by to watch what would next occur.

For some moments after the return of his sight he lay perfectly still, then he arose with a bound and, not aware of the cords which hampered him, attempted to dash forwards. The thongs were stout, and he was brought to his knees. A fruitless struggle ensued, and then at length seeming to accommodate himself to circumstances, he set off at a sharp trot, his guards making the air re-echo with their merry shouts. These cries stimulated the ostrich to yet further exertions, but he was at length brought to a stand by the determined refusal of his four-footed companions to continue such a race across loose sand.

The boys having enjoyed the long run, I told them to walk with the prisoner slowly home, while Fritz and I returned to examine the ostrich's nest. The eggs were quite warm, and I was certain that the mother had quite recently left the nest; leaving about half, I packed the rest of the eggs in a large bag I had brought for the purpose, and slung it carefully on the saddle before me.

We soon caught up our advance guard, and without other notable incident reached our tent.

Astonishment and dismay were depicted on the face of my wife as we approached.

`My dear husband,' she exclaimed, `do you think our provisions so abundant that you must scour the deserts to find some great beast to assist us to devour them? You must discover an iron mine next, for iron is what ostriches chiefly live on, is it not?

`Oh! I do wish you would be content with the menagerie you have already collected, instead of bringing in a specimen of every beast you come across. And this is such a useless monster!'

`Useless! Mother,' exclaimed Jack, `you would not say so had you seen him run; why he will be the fleetest courser in our stables. I am going to make a saddle and bridle for him, and in future he shall be my only steed. Then as for his appetite, father declares it is most delicate, he only wants a little fruit and grass, and a few stones and tenpenny nails to help his digestion.'

The way in which Jack assumed the proprietorship of our new prize seemed to strike his brothers as rather cool, and there was instantly a cry raised on the subject.

`Very well,' said Jack, `let us each take possession of the part of the ostrich we captured. Your bird, Fritz, seized the head; keep that; father shall have the body, I'll have the legs, and Franz a couple of feathers from the tail.'

`Come, come,' said I, `I think that Jack has a very good right to the ostrich, seeing that he brought it to the ground, and if he succeeds in taming it and converting it into a saddle-horse it shall be his. From this time, therefore, he is responsible for its training.'

The day was now too far advanced to allow us to think of setting out for Rockburg, so we fastened up the ostrich between two trees, and devoted the remainder of the evening to making preparations for our departure.

At early dawn our picturesque caravan was moving homewards. The ostrich continued so refractory that we were obliged to make him again march between Storm and Grumble, and as these gallant steeds were thus employed, the cow was harnessed to the cart, laden with our treasures. Room was left in the cart for my wife, Jack and Franz mounted Storm and Grumble, I rode Lightfoot, and Fritz brought up the rear on Swift.

At the mouth of the Gap we called a halt, and replaced the cord the boys had strung with ostrich feathers by a stout palisade of bamboos. I also took the opportunity of collecting a store of pipe-clay, as I intended during the winter months, which were close at hand, to try my hand at china making.

When we reached the sugar-cane grove, we again stopped to collect the peccary hams we had left to be smoked; and my wife begged me to gather some seeds of an aromatic plant which grew in the neighbourhood, and which had the scent of vanilla. I obtained a good supply, and we moved forward towards Woodlands, where we intended to rest for the night, after our long and fatiguing march.

Our tent was pitched, and on our beds of cotton we slept soundly.

Next morning early we examined our farmyard, which appeared in a most prosperous and flourishing condition. The sight of all these domestic animals made us long even more than ever for our home at Rockburg, and we determined to hasten thither with all possible speed.

The number of our pigs, goats and poultry had greatly increased since we had last visited our colony; and some of these, two fine broods of chickens especially, my wife wished to take back with her.

We found that the herd of antelopes which Fritz and Jack had driven through the Gap, had taken up their abode in the neighbourhood, and several times we saw the beautiful animals browsing amongst the trees.

While at the farm, we repaired both the animals' stalls, and our dwelling-room, that the former might be more secure against the attacks of wild beasts, and the latter fitted for our accommodation when we should visit the spot.

Everything at length being satisfactorily arranged, we again retired to rest, and early next morning completed our journey to Rockburg.

By midday we were once more settled at home. Windows and doors were thrown open to admit fresh air; the animals established in their stalls; and the cart's miscellaneous cargo discharged and arranged.

As much time as I could spare, I devoted to the ostrich, whom we fastened, for the present, between two bamboo posts in front of our dwelling.

I then turned my attention to the eggs we had brought, and which I determined to hatch, if possible by artificial heat. For this purpose I arranged a stove, which I maintained at a uniform temperature, and on it I placed the eggs carefully wrapped in cotton wool.

Next morning Fritz and I went off in the boat first to Whale Island, there to establish our colonists, the angora rabbits, and then to Shark Island, where we placed the dainty little antelopes.

Having made them happy with their liberty and abundance of food, we returned as quickly as possible to cure the bears' skins, and add the provisions we had brought to the stores lying in our cellar.

As we returned, we caught up Jack, making his way in great glee towards Rockburg. He was carrying, in a basket, an immense eel, which he and Ernest had secured.

Ernest had set, on the previous night, a couple of lines; one had been dragged away, but on the other they found this splendid fellow.

It proved delicious. Half was prepared for dinner, and the other half salted and stowed away.

We now, for a short time, again turned our attention to our duties about the house.

Thinking that the verandah would be greatly improved by some creepers, I sowed round the foot of each bamboo pillar, vanilla, and pepper-seed, as well as that of other creeping plants, which would not only give the house a pleasanter aspect, but also afford us shade during the summer months.

I constructed a couple of hen-coops too, for the hens and their little chicks which we had brought from Woodlands, for I knew that if I left them unprotected, the inquisitive dispositions of Knips and Fangs might induce them to make anatomical experiments which would be detrimental to the welfare of the youngsters.

Ernest's rat-skins were voted a nuisance within doors, and were tied together and hung up outside; so powerful was the odour they emitted, that even then Jack would pretend to faint every time he passed near them.

The museum received its additions: the condor and vulture were placed there, to be stuffed when we should find time during the rainy season. The mica and asbestos, too, were brought in for the present, not to lie there idle, but to wait until I could use them as I intended, for china and lamp-wicks.

Having occupied two days in this way, we turned our attention to other duties: the cultivation of a wheat, barley and maize field, the management of the ostrich's eggs, and the taming of the captives.

As agriculture was, though the least to our taste, the most important of these several duties, we set about it first. The animals drew the plough, but the digging and hoeing taxed our powers of endurance to the utmost.

We worked two hours in the morning and two in the evening. Fully did we realize the words of Scripture: `In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread.'

In the interval we devoted our attention to the ostrich. But our efforts on behalf of his education seemed all in vain. He appeared as untameable as ever. I determined, therefore, to adopt the plan which had subdued the refractory eagle.

The effect of the tobacco fumes almost alarmed me. The ostrich sank to the ground and lay motionless. Slowly, at length, he arose, and paced up and down between the bamboo posts. He was subdued, but to my dismay resolutely refused all food. I feared he would die; for three days he pined, growing weaker and weaker each day.

`Food he must have!' cried I. `Food he must have!'

My wife determined to attempt an experiment. She prepared balls of maize flour, mixed with butter. One of these she placed within the bird's beak. He swallowed it, and stretched out his long neck, looking inquiringly for a second mouthful. A second, third, and fourth ball followed the first. His appetite returned, and his strength came again.

All the wild nature of the bird had gone, and I saw with delight that we might begin his education as soon as we chose. Rice, guavas, maize and corn he ate readily—`washing it down', as Jack expressed it, with small pebbles, to the great surprise of Franz, to whom I explained that the ostrich was merely following the instinct common to all birds; that he required these pebbles to digest his food, just as smaller birds require gravel.

After a month of careful training, our captive would trot, gallop, obey the sound of our voice, feed from our hand; and, in fact, showed himself perfectly docile. Now our ingenuity was taxed to the utmost. How were we to saddle and bridle a bird? First, for a bit for his beak. Vague ideas passed through my mind, but every one I was obliged to reject. A plan at length occurred to me. I recollected the effect of light and its absence upon the ostrich, how his movements were checked by sudden darkness, and how, with the light, power returned to his limbs.

I immediately constructed a leathern hood, to reach from the neck to the beak, cutting holes in it for the eyes and ears. Over the eyes-holes I contrived square flaps or blinkers, which were so arranged with whalebone springs that they closed tightly of themselves. The reins were connected with these blinkers, so that the flaps might be raised or allowed to close at the rider's pleasure.

When both blinkers were open, the ostrich would gallop straight ahead; close his right eye and he turned to the left, close his left and he turned to the right, shut both and he stood stock still.

I was justly proud of my contrivance, but, before I could really test its utility, I was obliged to make a saddle. After several failures, I succeeded in manufacturing one to my liking and in properly securing it; it was something like an old-fashioned trooper's saddle, peaked before and behind—for my great fear was lest the boys should fall. This curious-looking contrivance I placed upon the shoulders as near the neck as possible, and secured it with strong girths round the wings and across the breast, to avoid all possibility of the saddle slipping down the bird's sloping back.

I soon saw that my plan would succeed, though skill and considerable practise was necessary in the use of my patent bridle. It was difficult to remember that to check the courser's speed it was necessary to slacken rein, and that the tighter the reins were drawn, the faster he would fly. We at length, however, all learned to manage Master Hurricane, and the distance between Rockburg and Falconhurst was traversed in an almost incredibly short space of time. The marvellous speed of the bird again revived the dispute as to the ownership, and I was obliged to interfere.

`Jack shall retain the ostrich,' said I, `for it is most suited to him; he is a lighter weight than either of you his elder brothers, and Franz is not yet strong enough to manage such a fleet courser. But he is so far to be considered common property, that all may practise on him occasionally; and, in a case of necessity, anyone may mount him.'

Our field-work was by this time over. The land had been ploughed and sown with wheat, barley, and maize. On the other side of Jackal River we had planted potatoes and cassava roots, and all sorts of other seeds had been carefully sown.

We had not neglected the ostrich's eggs, and one day Fritz introduced me with great glee to three little ostriches. But alas, the little creatures were not destined to enjoy life for long. One died almost as soon as it was hatched, and the others, after tottering about on their stilt-like legs for a few days, followed its example.

I now found time to turn my attention to the bears' skins, which required preparation before they would be fit for use as leather. They had been salted and dried, and now required tanning. I had no tan, however. This was unfortunate; but not to be deterred from my purpose, I determined to use a mixture of honey and water in its place.

The experiment proved successful. When the skins were dried they remained flexible and free from smell, while the fur was soft and glossy.

This was not the only result of the experiment, for the honey-water which I boiled appeared so clear and tempting, that it struck me that I might prepare from it an excellent drink. I put by some of the liquid before making use of it as tan, and reboiled it with nutmeg and cinnamon. The preparation, which much resembled English mead, was pronounced delicious, and my wife begged me to brew a large supply. As our cellar was now well stocked with provisions for the winter, and our other preparations were completed, I was able to turn my attention to details of lesser importance.

The boys had been clamouring for hats, and as my success in so many trades had surprised me, I agreed to turn hatter for the nonce. With the rat-skins and a solution of india-rubber, I produced a kind of felt, which I dyed a brilliant red with cochineal, and stretching this on a wooden block I had prepared, I passed over it a hot iron, to smooth the nap, and by next morning had the satisfaction of presenting to my wife a neat little red Swiss cap, to be lined and finished by her for one of the boys.

My wife admired the production immensely, and lining it with silk, added yet more to its gay appearance, by adorning it with ribbons and ostrich feathers, and finally placed it upon the head of little Franz.

So delighted was everyone with the hat, that all were eager to be similarly provided, and begged me to manufacture more. I readily agreed to do so, as soon as they should furnish me with the necessary materials, and advised them to make half a dozen rat-traps, that they might secure the water rats with which the stream abounded, and whose rich glossy fur would serve admirably for felt.

Every fifth animal that they brought me I told them should be mine, that I might obtain material for a hat for myself and their mother. The boys at once agreed to this arrangement, and began the manufacture of the traps, which were all so made that they should kill the rats at once, for I could not bear the idea of animals being tortured or imprisoned.

While they were thus engaged I applied myself to the manufacture of porcelain. I first cleaned the pipe-clay and talc from all foreign substances, and made them ready to be beaten down with water into a soft mass, and then prepared my moulds of gypsum plaster. These preparations were at length made, and the moulds received a thin layer of the porcelain material. When this was partly baked, I sprinkled over it a powder of coloured glass beads which I had crushed, and which looked very pretty in patterns upon the transparent porcelain.

Some of my china vessels cracked with the heat of the stove, some were very ill-shaped; but, after many failures, I succeeded in producing a set of white cups and saucers, a cream-jug, a sugar-basin, and half a dozen small plates.

I must allow that my china was far from perfect; the shape of some of the vessels was faulty, and none were really transparent; nevertheless, the general appearance gave great satisfaction, and when the plates were filled with rosy and golden fruit resting on green leaves, and fragrant tea filled the cups, it greatly added to the appearance of the table.


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