The Swiss Family Robinson

by J.D. Wyss

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Chapter XIV

Scarcely had I completed my pottery, when great black clouds and terrific storms heralded the approach of another winter. The rainy season having set in, we were compelled to give up our daily excursions.

Even in the spacious house which we now occupied, and with our varied and interesting employments, we yet found the time dragging heavily. The spirits of all were depressed, and even occasional rapid rides, during a partial cessation of the rain, failed permanently to arouse them. Fritz, as well as I, had perceived this, and he said to me:

`Why, father, should we not make a canoe, something swifter and more manageable than those vessels we as yet possess? I often long for a light skiff, in which I might skim over the surface of the water.' The idea delighted all hands, but my wife, who was never happy when we were on the sea, declared that our chances of drowning were, with the pinnace and canoe, already sufficiently great, and that there was not the slightest necessity for our adding to these chances by constructing another craft which would tempt us out upon the perfidious element.

Her fears were, however, speedily allayed, for I assured her that the boat I intended to construct should be no flimsy cockleshell, but as safe and stout a craft as ever floated upon the sea. The Greenlander's cajack I intended to be my model, and I resolved not only to occupy the children, but also to produce a strong and serviceable canoe—a masterpiece of art.

The boys were interested, and the boat-building was soon in operation. We constructed the skeleton of whalebone, using split bamboo canes to strengthen the sides and also to form the deck, which extended the whole length of the boat, leaving merely a square hole in which the occupant of the canoe might sit.

The work engrossed our attention most entirely, and by the time it was complete the rain had passed away and the glorious sun again shone brightly forth.

Our front door was just wide enough to admit of the egress of our boat, and we completed her construction in the open air. We quickly cased the sides and deck with seal-skin, making all the seams thoroughly watertight with caoutchouc.

The cajack was indeed a curious-looking craft, yet so light that she might be lifted easily with one hand, and when at length we launched her she bounded upon the water like an india-rubber ball. Fritz was unanimously voted her rightful owner, but before his mother would hear of his entering the frail-looking skiff she declared that she must contrive a swimming-dress, so that `should his boat receive a puncture from a sharp rock or the dorsal fin of a fish and collapse, he might yet have a chance of saving his life'.

Though I did not consider the cajack quite the soap bubble my wife imagined it, I yet willingly agreed to assist her in the construction of the dress.

The garment we produced was most curious in appearance, and I must own that I doubted its efficiency. It was like a double waistcoat, made of linen prepared with a solution of india-rubber, the seams being likewise coated with caoutchouc, and the whole rendered perfectly airtight. We so arranged it that one little hole was left, by means of which air could be forced into the space between the outer covering and the lining, and the dress inflated.

Meanwhile I perceived with pleasure the rapid vegetation the climate was producing. The seeds we had scattered had germinated, and were now promising magnificent crops. The verandah, too, was looking pleasant with its gay and sweet-scented creepers, which were already aspiring to the summit of the pillars. The air was full of birds, the earth seemed teeming with life.

The dress was at length completed and Fritz, one fine afternoon, offered publicly to prove it. We all assembled on the beach, the boy gravely donned and inflated the garment, and amidst roars of laughter from his brothers, entered the water. Quickly and easily he paddled himself across the bay towards Shark Island, whither we followed in one of our boats.

The experiment was most successful, and Ernest, Jack and Franz, in spite of their laughter at their brother's garment, begged their mother to make for each of them a similar dress.

While on the island we paid a visit to the colonists whom we had established there the previous autumn. All were well; we could perceive by the footprints that the antelopes had discovered and made use of the shelter we had erected for them, and feeling that we could do nothing more we scattered handfuls of maize and salt, and strolled across to the other side of the island.

The shore was covered with lovely shells, many of which, with beautiful pieces of delicate coral, the boys collected for their museum; strewn by the edge of the water too lay a great quantity of seaweed of various colours, and as the mother declared that much of it was of use, the boys assisted her to collect it and store it in the boat.

As we pulled back to the land I was surprised to see that my wife chose from among the seaweed a number of curious leaves with edges notched like a saw. When we reached home she carefully washed these and dried them in the oven. There was evidently something mysterious about this preparation and my curiosity at length prompted me to make an attempt to discover the secret.

`Are these leaves to form a substitute for tobacco?' said I. `Do you so long for its refreshing smell?'

My wife smiled, for her dislike of tobacco was well known, and she answered in the same jocular tone:

`Do you not think that a mattress stuffed with these leaves would be very cool in summer?'

The twinkle in her eyes showed me that my curiosity must still remain unsatisfied, but it nevertheless became greater than ever.

The boys and I had one day made a long and fatiguing expedition, and, tired out, we flung ourselves down in the verandah. As we lay there resting, we heard the mother's voice:

`Could any of you enjoy a little jelly?' She presently appeared, bearing a porcelain dish laden with most lovely transparent jelly. Cut with a spoon and laid before us it quivered and glittered in the light.

`Ambrosia!' exclaimed Fritz, tasting it. It was indeed delicious, and, still marvelling from whence my wife could have obtained a dish so rare, we disposed of all that she had set before us.

`Aha,' laughed my wife, `is not this an excellent substitute for tobacco, far more refreshing than the nasty weed itself. Behold the produce of my mysterious seaweed.'

`My dear wife,' exclaimed I, `this dish is indeed a masterpiece of culinary art, but where had you met with it? What put it into your head?'

`While staying with my Dutch friends at the Cape,' replied she,

`I often saw it, and at once recognized the leaves on Shark Island. Once knowing the secret, the preparation of the dish is extremely simple: the leaves are soaked in water, fresh every day, for a week, and then boiled for a few hours with orange juice, citron and sugar.'

We were all delighted with the delicacy, and thanked my wife for it most heartily, the boys declaring that they must at once go off again to the island to collect as many of the leaves as they could find. I agreed to accompany them, for I wished to examine the plantations we had made there.

All were flourishing, the palms and mangroves had shot up in a most marvellous manner, and many of the seeds which I had cast at random amongst the clefts in the rocks had germinated, and promised to clothe the nakedness of the frowning boulders.

A way up among the rocks too we discovered a bright sparkling spring of delicious water, at which, from the footprints around, we saw that the antelopes must have refreshed themselves.

Finding everything so satisfactory, we were naturally anxious to discover how our colony and plantations on Whale Island had fared. It was evident at a glance that the rabbits had increased, the young and tender shoots of the trees bore the marks of many greedy mischievous little teeth. The cocoanut palms alone had they spared.

Such depredations as these could not be allowed, and with the help of the boys I erected round each stem a hedge of prickly thorn, and then prepared again to embark; before we did so, however, I noticed that some of the seaweed had also been gnawed by the rabbits, and wondering what it could have been to tempt them, I collected some of it to examine more fully at home.

The skeleton of the whale, too, attracted our attention, for picked clean by the birds and bleached by sun and rain the bones had been purified to a most perfect whiteness. Thinking that the joints of the vertebrae might be made of use, I separated some ten or twelve, and rolled them down to the boat, and then returned to the shore, towing them after us.

A scheme now occupied my mind for the construction of a crushing machine which would prove of the greatest service to us. I knew that to make such a machine of stone was far beyond my power, but it had struck me that the vertebrae of the whale might serve my purpose.

I determined next morning to look out a tree from which I might cut the blocks of wood that I should require to raise my crushers.

My expedition was destined to be a solitary one, for when I went to the stables for a horse, I discovered that the boys had gone off by themselves with their guns and traps, and had left to me a choice between the bull and buffalo.

With Storm, therefore, I was fain to be content. I crossed the bridge, but as I reached the cassava field I noticed to my great annoyance that it had been overrun and laid waste by some mischievous animals. I examined the footprints, and seeing that they greatly resembled those of pigs, determined to follow the trail, and see who these invaders of our territory would prove to be.

The track led me on for some way until I almost lost sight of it near our old potato field. For some time I hunted backwards and forwards without seeing a sign of the animals; at length a loud barking from Floss and Bruno, who were with me, announced that they had been discovered.

The whole family of our old sow, and she herself, were standing at bay, showing their teeth and grunting so savagely, that the dogs feared to approach them.

I raised my gun and fired twice amongst the herd: two of the pigs fell, and the rest fled, followed by the dogs. I picked up the pigs, and calling back the pursuers, continued my way through the forest.

A tree suited to my purpose was soon found; I marked it, and returned home.

Ernest, who had remained at home, assisted me to flay the young porkers, and I handed them over to my wife to prepare for supper; by which time I hoped the other lads would have returned.

Late in the evening we heard the sounds of trampling hoofs, and presently Jack appeared, thundering along upon his two-legged steed, followed in the distance by Fritz and Franz. These latter carried upon their cruppers game-bags, the contents of which were speedily displayed: four birds, a kangaroo, twenty musk-rats, a monkey, two hares and half a dozen beaver rats, were laid before me. Besides these, Fritz threw down, without a word of explanation, a bundle of thistles.

The boys seemed almost wild with excitement at the success of their expedition, and presently Jack exclaimed:

`Oh, father, you can't think what grand fun hunting on an ostrich is; we flew along like the wind; sometimes I could scarcely breathe, we were going at such a rate, and I was obliged to shut my eyes because of the terrific rush of air; really, father, you must make me a mask with glass eyes to ride with, or I shall be blinded one of these fine days.'

`Indeed!' replied I, `I must do no such thing.' `Why not?' asked he, with a look of amazement upon his face.

`For two reasons: firstly, because I do not consider that I must do anything that you demand; and, secondly, because I think that you are very capable of doing it yourself. However, I must congratulate you upon your abundant supply of game; you must have indeed worked hard.

`Yet I wish that you would let me know when you intend starting on such a long expedition as this; you forget that though you yourselves know that you are quite safe, and that all is going on well, yet that we at home are kept in a constant state of anxiety. Now, off with you, and look to your animals, and then you may find supper ready.'

Presently the boys returned, and we prepared for a most appetizing meal which the mother set before us.

While we were discussing the roast pig, and washing it down with fragrant mead, Fritz described the day's expedition.

They had set their traps near Woodlands, and had there captured the musk-rats, attracting them with small carrots, while with other traps, baited with fish and earthworms, they had caught several beaver rats, and a duck-billed platypus. Hunting and fishing had occupied the rest of the day, and it was with immense pride that Jack displayed the kangaroo which he had run down with his swift courser.

Contributions to the garden had not been forgotten, and Fritz handed over to his mother several cuttings from cinnamon and sweet-apple trees. Finally, when all the other treasures had been displayed, Fritz begged me to examine his thistles which he had gathered, thinking, he said, that it was a plant used in the manufacture of wool.

He was perfectly right, for I recognized it at once as the `fuller's teazle', a plant whose sharp little thorns, which cover the stem and leaves, are used to raise the nap of cloth. We resolved to be up betimes the following morning, that we might attend to the preparation of the booty, and as I now noticed that the boys were all becoming extremely drowsy, I closed the day with evening devotions.

The number of the creatures we killed rendered the removal of their skins a matter of no little time and trouble. It was not an agreeable task at any time, and when I saw the array of animals the boys had brought me to flay, I determined to construct a machine which would considerably lessen the labour.

Amongst the ship's stores, in the surgeon's chest, I discovered a large syringe. This, with a few alterations, would serve my purpose admirably. Within the tube I first fitted a couple of valves, and then, perforating the stopper, I had in my possession a powerful air pump. The boys stared at me in blank amazement when, armed with this instrument, I took up the kangaroo, and declared myself ready to commence operations.

`Skin a kangaroo with a squirt?' said they, and a roar of laughter followed the remark.

I made no reply to the jests which followed, but silently hung the kangaroo by its hind legs to the branch of a tree. I then made a small incision in the skin, and inserting the mouth of the syringe forced air with all my might between the skin and the body of the animal. By degrees the hide of the kangaroo distended, altering the shape of the creature entirely.

Still I worked on, forcing in yet more air until it had become a mere shapeless mass, and I soon found that the skin was almost entirely separated from the carcase. A bold cut down the belly, and a few touches here and there where the ligatures still bound the hide to the body, and the animal was flayed.

`What a splendid plan!' cried the boys. `But why should it do it?'

`For a most simple and natural reason,' I replied. `Do you not know that the skin of an animal is attached to its flesh merely by slender and delicate fibres, and that between these exist thousands of little bladders or air chambers; by forcing air into these bladders the fibres are stretched, and at length, elastic as they are, cracked. The skin has now nothing to unite it to the body, and, consequently, may be drawn off with perfect ease.

`This scientific fact has been known for many years; the Greenlanders make constant use of it; when they have killed a seal or walrus they distend the skin that they may tow the animal more easily ashore, and then remove its hide at a moment's notice.' The remaining animals were subjected to the same treatment, and, to my great joy, in a couple of days the skins were all off, and being prepared for use.

I now summoned the boys to assist me in procuring blocks of wood for my crushing machine, and the following day we set forth with saws, ropes, axes and other tools. We soon reached the tree I had selected for my purpose, and I began by sending Fritz and Jack up into the tree with axes to cut off the larger of the high branches so that, when the tree fell, it might not injure its neighbours.

They then descended, and Fritz and I attacked the stem. As the easiest and most speedy method we used a saw, such as is employed by sawyers in a saw-pit and, Fritz taking one end and I the other, the tree was soon cut half through. We then adjusted ropes that we might guide its fall, and again began to cut. It was labourious work, but when I considered that the cut was sufficiently deep we took the ropes and pulled with our united strength. The trunk cracked, swayed, tottered, and fell with a crash.

The boughs were speedily lopped off, and the trunk sawed into blocks four feet long. To cut down and divide this tree had taken us a couple of days, and on the third we carted home four large and two small blocks, and with the vertebrae joints of the whale I, in a very short time, completed my machine.

While engaged on this undertaking I had paid little attention to our fields of grain, and, accordingly, great was my surprise when one evening the fowls returned, showing most evident indifference to their evening meal, and with their crops perfectly full. It suddenly struck me that these birds had come from the direction of our cornfield. I hurried off to see what damage they had done, and then found to my great joy that the grain was perfectly ripe.

The amount of work before us startled my wife. This unexpected harvest, which added reaping and threshing to the fishing, salting, and pickling already on hand, quite troubled her.

`Only think,' said she, `of my beloved potatoes and manioc roots! What is to become of them, I should like to know? It is time to take them up, and how to manage it, with all this press of work, I can't see.'

`Don't be downhearted, wife,' said I; `there is no immediate hurry about the manioc, and digging potatoes in this fine, light soil is easy work compared to what it is in Switzerland, while as to planting more, that will not be necessary if we leave the younger plants in the ground. The harvest we must conduct after the Italian fashion, which, although anything but economical, will save time and trouble, and as we are to have two crops in the year, we need not be too particular.'

Without further delay, I commenced leveling a large space of firm clayey ground to act as a threshing floor; it was well sprinkled with water, rolled, beaten, and stamped; as the sun dried the moisture it was watered anew, and the treatment continued until it became as flat, hard, and smooth as a threshing floor need be.

Our largest wicker basket was then slung between Storm and Grumble; we armed ourselves with reaping hooks, and went forth to gather in the corn in the simplest and most expeditious manner imaginable. I told my reapers not to concern themselves about the length of the straw, but to grasp the corn where it was convenient to them, without stooping; each was to wind a stalk around his own handful, and throw it into the basket; in this way great labour was saved.

The plan pleased the boys immensely, and in a short time the basket had been filled many times, and the field displayed a quantity of tall, headless stubble, which perfectly horrified the mother, so extravagant and untidy did she consider our work.

`This is dreadful!' cried she; `you have left numbers of ears growing on short stalks, and look at that splendid straw completely wasted! I don't approve of your Italian fashion at all.'

`It is not a bad plan, I can assure you, wife, and the Italians do not waste the straw by not cutting it with the grain; having more arable than pasture land, they use this high stubble for their cattle, letting them feed in it, and eat what grain is left; afterward, allowing the grass to grow up among it, they mow all together for winter fodder. And now for threshing, also in Italian fashion. We shall find it spares our arms and backs as much in that as in reaping.'

The little sheaves were laid in a large circle on the floor, the boys mounted Storm, Grumble, Lightfoot, and Hurry, starting off at a brisk trot, with many a merry jest, and round they went, trampling and stamping out the grain, while dust and chaff flew in clouds about them.

My wife and I were incessantly occupied with hayforks, by means of which we shook up and moved the sheaves over which the threshers rode, so as to throw them in the track.

From time to time the animals took mouthfuls of the tempting food they were beating out; we thought they well deserved it, and called to mind the command given to the Jews, `Thou shalt not muzzle the ox that treadeth out the corn.'

After threshing, we proceeded to winnowing: by simply throwing the threshed corn with shovels high in the air when the land or sea-breeze blew strong, the chaff and refuse was carried away by the wind and the grain fell to the ground.

During these operations our poultry paid the threshing-floor many visits, testifying a lively interest in the success of our labours, and gobbling up the grain at such a rate that my wife was obliged to keep them at a reasonable distance; but I would not have them altogether stinted in the midst of our plenty. I said, `Let them enjoy themselves; what we lose in grain, we gain in flesh. I anticipate delicious chicken-pie, roast goose, and boiled turkey!'

When our harvest stores were housed, we found that we had reaped sixty, eighty, even a hundred-fold what had been sown. Our garner was truly filled with all manner of store.

Expecting a second harvest, we were constrained to prepare the field for sowing again, and immediately therefore commenced mowing down the stubble. While engaged in this, flocks of quails and partridges came to glean among the scattered ears. We did not secure any great number, but resolved to be prepared for them next season, and by spreading nets, to catch them in large quantities.

My wife was satisfied when she saw the straw carried home and stacked; our crop of maize, which of course had not been threshed like the other corn, afforded soft leaves which were used for stuffing mattresses, while the stalks, when burnt, left ashes so rich in alkali as to be especially useful.

I changed the crops sown on the ground to rye, barley and oats, and hoped they would ripen before the rainy season.

The shoals of herring made their appearance just as we finished our agricultural operations. This year we pickled only two barrels of them; but we were not so merciful towards the seals, which arrived on the coast directly afterwards. We hunted them vigorously, requiring their skins for many purposes, more especially for the completion of the cajack. On the little deck of that tiny vessel I had made a kind of magazine, in which to store pistols, ammunition, water and provisions, and this I meant to cover with seal-skin, so as to be quite watertight. A couple of harpoons furnished with seal bladders were to be suspended alongside.


Return to the The Swiss Family Robinson Summary Return to the J.D. Wyss Library

© 2022