Wrecked on a Reef
Chapter IX. — A Massacre of Innocents - our Furniture - Adoption of Certain Regulations - the Evening School - our Pastimes
A Massacre of Innocents - our Furniture - Adoption of Certain Regulations - the Evening School - our Pastimes.
"Monday, February 8.
We have spent the morning felling wood in the forest, and in transporting to our hillock the pieces of timber which are required for laying down a floor in our hut. At noon the rain began to fall in torrents, which lasted until evening; but since we finished our roof we are able to go on with our work under cover, and the bad weather does not interrupt us.
"During the rest of the day we have not had too much time for squaring our joists, fixing them firmly in the soil, and nailing to them the planks obtained from the bulwarks of the Grafton. Towards eight o'clock the rain ceased to fall, the weather cleared, and it remained calm until the following morning.
"Tuesday, February 9.— A cloudy, misty sky; the clouds accumulate on the mountains, and enshroud them to their very base. The rain recommences, fine, incessant, penetrating. The flies fail not to take advantage of so admirable an opportunity to deposit their larvae in all directions. The chimney swarms with them; and the buzzing is so insupportable that we are forced to light a great fire in the hearth to drive them away. The rain increases, and falls in floods which last till Thursday evening. It is impossible to go out.
" Wednesday, February 10. — The wind has swept away the clouds. While Musgrave assists me in building a door to our hut, and Harry is engaged in the tent in the preparation of our dinner, Alick and George dig around the chimney a trench to preserve it from damp. But as this trench weakens the foundations, we resolve on setting up at the corners, as well as on each side of the door, strong inclined stakes, like buttresses, whose base will rest page 90on stout trunks of trees previously sunk in the peat at some distance from the walls."
I must have the honesty to own that though thus surrounded by a fosse, and flanked by "flying buttresses," our edifice had by no means the look of a strong castle: more than ever it appeared what it really was, a cabin, a hut; but it was strong enough to resist the hurricane, and it afforded us a secure shelter, which were the two essential points.
"Saturday afternoon.— My companions, armed with their cudgels, and myself, carrying my gun in a sling, went towards the head of the bay, ascending on the north side as far as a little islet which we had often felt-desirous of visiting. Hitherto we had been unable to carry out our desire, either on account of our work, which had detained us at home, or of the bad weather, which very seldom permitted us to venture on a voyage.
"We found here a pretty cove, nearly square in shape, but rather broader at the mouth than at the extremity: at either angle within two full streams poured their tribute into its waters. We caught sight of some wild ducks of extraordinary timidity — at least, when compared with the comparative tameness of all the other feathered inhabitants of the island. We concluded, therefore, that they were subject to the frequent attacks of enemies, probably of sea-lions; but a moment afterwards found ourselves wrong in our conjecture, these amphibians swimming tranquilly among the ducks, and never molesting them, while the latter did not appear the least alarmed, though at our approach they had immediately taken to flight.
"We remained for a while concealed behind the trees, in the hope they might settle again in our vicinity; nor was our expectation deceived. At the end of a few minutes they returned, dabbling about near the mouth of one of the streams, and hunting the tiny marine animals. I advanced as stealthily as a wolf, and when within reach fired. A single shot brought down three birds. But they were not worth the powder I had spent upon them, belonging to a very small species. I made a vow thenceforth to preserve for more profitable opportunities the small quantity of ammunition which remained.
"After crossing the stream, which we did very easily, the tide being low, and the water not reaching to our knees, we arrived on a fine gravelly beach, the first of the kind we had ever met with. It extended right along the base of the bay for about six hundred and thirty feet.
"Just as we reached the extremity of the shore, an enormous sea-lion suddenly emerged from the sea, uttered a tremendous roar, and charged us headlong. We fled in all directions: then the animal halted, hesitating against whom she should direct her attack. George, who was nearest, seized the opportunity, when the seal was looking towards my position, to spring forward and strike at her. The beast, astonished at my companion's audacity, turned round and was preparing for a spring, when George dealt her a tremendous blow on the muzzle, between the eyes. Stunned, she fell flat upon the ground, beat about with her fins for a moment, and then remained motionless: she was dead.
"In killing these animals, as we learned later, the great thing is not so much to strike heavily as to strike in a vulnerable spot; that is, exactly between the eyes, as George had done so skilfully.
"A fact well-known to naturalists, but which astonished us considerably, is the prodigious quantity of blood, and very hot blood, which these amphibia possess. On bleeding the one we had just killed, a continuous jet issued from the wound for a long time, and forming on the shore a small stream, reddened the waters of the bay for some distance.
We had scarcely finished cutting up our prey, when we saw three females in their turn advancing out of the water uttering prolonged bellowings, to which some feeble bleatings in the neighbouring thicket immediately replied. Leaving the old seal, we passed under the spreading trees, and guided by their cries, soon came in sight of three young ones huddling together under a large incumbent tree. One of them, half emerging from his retreat, replied with all possible loudness to the call of his dam; while the two others, more timid or less eager, peeped over his shoulder. On our appearance they at first took refuge precipitately under their sheltering tree; then, inspired by their instinct, and comprehending that we were enemies, they made a hasty dash, and took to flight with their utmost speed. In spite of the rapidity of their career, as the forest was not very dense, and did not impede our freedom of movement, we soon overtook them.
"As it was impossible for us to carry home at one and the same time the carcasses of the old seal and the three young ones, and as, moreover, the former spread a nearly suffocating odour, which promised us a very indifferent repast, we decided on taking only the latter; and these freed us for several days from all anxiety about our daily food.
"Monday, February 22. — Wind, N.W. Yesterday we had a stiff gale, accompanied by hail-showers of extreme violence. Today, again, the weather is anything but fair, but the clouds do not scud so swiftly, and numerous showers of frozen rain or fine hail have fallen."
The last time that Alick, Musgrave, and George went on board the Grafton to collect timber, they brought back with them a square chest which was placed in the cabin, against the partition separating it from the hold, and nearly at the foot of the hatchway ladder. This chest was lined with tin, and divided into two compartments, in which we had sometimes packed away our corn or biscuit to protect them against the ravages of our fellow voyagers, the rats. A couple of lids, attached by hinges to the partition, and a little larger than the chest itself, when they were smoothed and covered with waxed cloth, made an excellent table for our cabin.
This article of furniture stood on the north side, below one of the little windows; it served as a desk for Musgrave and myself. Above it were hung our chronometer, our instruments of navigation, and the library. The latter word will seem perhaps rather ambitious, since we possessed only three or four volumes: a copy of the Bible, Milton's Paradise Lost, and a couple of English works of fiction, deficient in some of their pages. The two journals we were compiling took their places by the side of these. The looking-glass, a small mirror in a red wooden frame, was hung against the wall by the side of the window.
On the right and left of the desk, in the corners of the hut, Musgrave and I established our beds; his on the side of the door, mine near the chimney. I need not say that they were very rudely fashioned; being simply two chests, longer than wide, elevated on four wooden posts, so as to let the air freely circulate beneath. These boxes, as they might well be called, were half filled with dry moss, which we renewed from time to time. I say nothing of feathers or wool, but this moss formed a bed infinitely softer than the fragments of planks which had been our only resting-place in the tent.page 95
Alick, George, and Harry placed theirs at the other extremity of the chamber, parallel to the three sides.
In the middle of the apartment stood a table, which, like the door, we had constructed with the smoothest and most substantial planks; it was about six feet long by three feet wide. Two benches, made in the same manner, were placed on either side, in the direction of its length.
Against the wall, near the door, and at the foot of Alick's bed, we raised a third and smaller table, destined for culinary operations. On a couple of shelves above we arranged our pots and pans and dishes, and our lamps when they were not in use. These lamps were truly primitive: we had manufactured them out of old tin preserve-cases; threads of sail-cloth woven together made tolerable wicks, and the seals furnished the oil.
Not to lumber up our little house unpleasantly, we constructed at each angle a little triangular loft, where we deposited the remainder of the sails and cordage of the Grafton.
Finally, there is one more detail which I ought to notice here: before our provisions were completely exhausted, I had set aside in a bag a few pounds of flour to serve at need in the place of medicine. With a small quantity of mustard, it constituted all our pharmacy. Being appointed keeper of these precious articles, I hung them to a hook over my bed.
All these little indoor labours were terminated on Saturday morning, the 5th of March. The rest of the day was occupied in dismantling the tent and transporting our penates into our new abode, where, after lighting a good fire on the hearth, we slept that very evening.
But it was not enough to provide for the material needs of life; its moral wants also claimed our attention. Assuredly we had lived together since our shipwreck in peace and harmony — I may even say in true and honest brotherhood; yet it had sometimes happened that one or the other had yielded to a fit of temper, and let drop an unkind word, which naturally provoked a not less disagreeable repartee. But if habits of bitterness and animosity were once established amongst us, the consequences could not but be most disastrous: we stood so much in need of one another! Was not this demonstrated in the erection of our hut, to which each of us, according to his capacity, had contributed his best? It was evident that we had no strength except in union, that discord and division must be our ruin. Yet man is so feeble that reason, and self-respect, and even the considerations of self-interest, do not always suffice keep him in the path of duty. An external regimen is necessary, a strict and formal discipline, to protect him against his own weakness.page 96
I revolved these thoughts in my mind during a part of the night. On the following morning I communicated them to my companions, as well as the plan I had conceived for ensuring the preservation of order and peace in our little community. My idea was that we should choose among us, not a master or a superior, but a "head" or "chief of the family," tempering the legal and indisputable authority of the magistrate by the affectionate condescension of a father, or, rather, of an elder brother.
|1.||To maintain with gentleness, but also with firmness, order and harmony among us:|
|2.||By his prudent advice to put aside every subject of discussion which might lead to controversy:|
|3.||In case any serious dispute arose in his absence, the parties to it were immediately to bring it before him; then, assisted by the counsel of those who had held aloof, he was to adjudicate upon the matter, stating who was in the right, and reprimanding him who was in error. If the latter, disregarding the sentence pronounced, persisted in his wrong, he would be excluded from the community, and condemned to live alone in another part of the island, for a longer or shorter period, according to the gravity of his fault:|
|4.||The chief of the family would direct the hunting expeditions, as well as all other labours; he would set to each man his appointed task, without being himself excused from giving a good example by the strict discharge of his own duty:|
In urgent circumstances, he would not be allowed to give a decision without the assent of all, or, at least, of a majority of this comrades.
This project was much approved by my companions, who felt, as I did, the necessity of organising our little society, and, after adding the following clause, they adopted it unanimously:
|6.||The community reserves to itself the right of deposing the chief of the family, and electing another, if at any time he shall abuse his authority, or employ it for personal and manifestly selfish purposes.|
This last clause was a prudent precaution against the despotic tendencies which develop themselves in almost every person whom the confidence of his equals has invested with authority. It was of easy application, and, consequently, of assured efficacy, since the president of our little republic possessed no "standing army" to support his ambition. I must add, however, that throughout the time we lived together we had no occasion to act upon it.page 97
Without delay, our ideal scheme of government was written out on one of the blank leaves in Musgrave's Bible — we read it formally every Sunday before prayers — and then all of us, placing our hands on the sacred volume, swore to obey and respect it. We performed this action seriously, and in good faith. It was no mere empty ceremony. Each of us felt there was a certain solemnity in this voluntary engagement of our conscience, which we had called God to witness.
It now remained for us to elect our chief I proposed Musgrave, who was our senior, and an unanimous assent was given to the proposition.
Thenceforth he sat at the head of the table, and was released from all share in the work of cooking, which was undertaken by Alick, George, Harry, and myself; each discharging the important duties of cook for a week at a time.
Desirous to offer a proof of my good-will and to set the example of submission to our new constitution, I asked leave to enter immediately on the office, and took the first week in the cuisine. My companions armed themselves, Musgrave with the gun, the others with their cudgels and knives, and set out on a hunting expedition; for myself as we had just risen from breakfast, I set to work to clear the table, and wash the various utensils.
Yes — to wash the various utensils. And I declare, at the risk of exciting the reader's risibility, that I discharged my task with the most serious attention, and with a conviction of its great importance. This he will understand, perhaps if he remembers that we possessed exactly five earthenware plates, and one of these was cracked (it was regularly placed before the individual who was acting as temporary cook). The loss of one of these would have been irreparable, and to him who was the cause of the loss it would have been an absolute privation. Therefore, no costly service of Saxony or old Sevres china was ever handled with so much caution. I experience, I confess, a certain satisfaction, which is not perhaps exempt from a feeling of pride, in stating that four men washed the dishes in turn, thrice a day, for a period of nineteen months and a half, without breaking one of them.
We cannot claim much merit for not injuring the remainder of our poor stock of utensils: it consisted of some iron forks and spoons, three saucepans also of iron — including the large one of which I have already spoken — several cups of enamelled iron, a frying pan, and a small tea-cup. It is needless to say that we did not enjoy the luxury of a table-cloth; but, thanks to the frequent use of soap and water, our table was always irreproachably clean.page 98
When I had devoted the utmost care to the cleansing of our "interior," I resolved to go fishing, in the hope of adding a dish of fish to our ordinary bill of fare. I had it much at heart that my companions should be satisfied with the zeal of their new cook. I had found in my chest five or six rusty hooks and a line, of which I had sometimes made use at Sydney in my leisure hours. I took them, provided myself with a bag, and repaired to a small headland near our encampment, to which, as I often afterwards visited it for piscatorial purposes, my companions gave the name of Raynal Point.
The locality being convenient and the season favourable, I succeeded in catching a good supply of fish, principally of cod, which came to conceal themselves under the rocks from the pursuit of the seals; besides a few-hundreds of mussels.
The hunters, on their return, were enraptured at the spectacle of such unwonted abundance. This time the everlasting joint of roast seal was completely neglected; my fried fish and boiled mussels arrogated all the honours of the banquet. I am not modest enough to conceal the fact that some portion of the glory fell on its purveyor.
In the evening Musgrave laughingly proposed that we should christen our new home. Soon, instead of one name, we had five, and each of us was eager to demonstrate the obvious superiority of that which he had proposed. To terminate the debate, it was resolved, at my suggestion, to write down the five names on little strips of paper, which should be folded up and deposited in a hat, and drawn forth at hazard. The bulletins being duly written out, folded, and thrown into the impromptu urn, George, as the youngest, selected one, and opened it: he read aloud the name
which had been proposed by Musgrave. This word, borrowed from the language of the Redskins of North America, signifies Near the Shore, or, more strictly speaking, Near the Great Waters. It was adopted. Therefore I shall henceforth make use of this name to designate our house, or rather the hillock on which it was constructed.
To the useful we wished to join the agreeable: it seemed to us that a few amusements would not be a superfluous element in our monotonous and dreary life, and we resolved to manufacture or invent some games — a resolution which we duly carried into effect.
With a bit of wood perforated with holes, and some small pegs quite artistically shaped, Musgrave made a solitaire board. On my part, on another but larger piece of wood I drew the squares of a chess-board, which I afterwards painted in black and white; the former pigment consisting of soot, and the latter of lime, mixed up with a little seal-oil. Finally, I cut out the chessmen — two sets; one white, the other red — from a couple of thin laths, with my pocket-knife.
My pocket-knife! May I not be allowed a few words respecting it? It is a debt of gratitude which I am anxious to discharge. That dear old companion has rendered me so many services! It was with me throughout my mining experiences; it traversed a great portion of the Australian continent. I found it one day, covered with rust, in a corner of my chest, where it had remained forgotten since our departure from Sydney. Ah! thenceforth I gave the rust no opportunity of eating into the trusty steel, for not a single day passed — I had almost said not a single hour — in which it did not do some work. And what work! It is furnished with a little saw: be assured that this, too, was not idle! In the building of our hut, in the construction of our beds and other furniture, it sundered planks — a task it was certainly never intended to execute; and yet it lasted to the very end without breaking one of its teeth. And to what functions, besides those page 101of cutting and sawing, was not this brave little knife always equal! It served me as cleaver, hedging bill, chisel, grater, bodkin, punch, gimlet! It measured itself against all known substances, and it showed itself superior to all; for it remained intact. How marvellously must this little bit of steel have been tempered! Now, as a good servant should, it enjoys a dignified repose; it rests in a drawer of my secrétaire, by the side of numerous other memorials of my voyages. From time to time I look at it; I find a pleasure in handling it, in opening and shutting up its blades. Assuredly, I would not part with it for ten, nay, twenty times its weight in gold.