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Wrecked on a Reef

Chapter X. — A Grindstone - The Charts - A Temptation - Visit to the Eighth Island - The Patriarch of the Phoge

page 102

Chapter X.
A Grindstone - The Charts - A Temptation - Visit to the Eighth Island - The Patriarch of the Phoge.

During my first week of duty, when I aroused my companions daily at six o'clock in the morning, they murmured gently at my importunate zeal; but they arose nevertheless. And soon they fell into the good habit of early rising. While I got ready the breakfast they set about felling, and bringing to the house, the fuel necessary for the day's consumption. We burned a great quantity; partly to keep the hut warm at night, and partly to cook the flesh of the captured seals, a good fire always blazed upon our hearth.

The timber we preferred to use as fuel was the species of ironwood of which I have already spoken. I know of no better. Green or dry, it kindles readily, throws out a great heat, and emits but little smoke. The ashes produced by its combustion contain a very great quantity of potash, as well as of silicious materials which vitrify, and form into concrete lumps very difficult to break when they are cool.

In cutting this wood, which is excessively hard, as its name implies, our hatchet was so notched and blunted that we could scarcely make any further use of it. The morning's task every day became more fatiguing; much trouble produced but small results. The evil must absolutely be remedied.

Having vainly sought among the rocks of the shore for a flint which might supply the place of a whetstone, I bethought myself of the blocks of sandstone which, before our departure from Sydney, had been placed in the hold of the Grafton for ballast. I took advantage of a very low tide to wade on board the wreck, and by means of a cord which hung from the main scuttle, I lowered myself into the hold. Then, up to my waist in water, I page 103groped about for a long time before I found what I wanted; the ebb and flow of the sea, penetrating into the interior of the vessel, had deposited a thick layer of mud upon the stones, which rendered my search very difficult. I succeeded at length in discovering one which suited my purpose; I fastened it to the rope, hauled it upon deck, thence transported it to the shore, and afterwards to Epigwait.

Before I left the wreck I had removed from one of its spars an iron pin, which, being half corroded by rust, did not hold very securely. Having heated it red-hot in our cabin-fire, I hammered one end of it into the shape of a cold chisel: then, with this new tool and my hammer, I fashioned my block of sandstone into a knife grinder's grindstone. The longest and most difficult part of the job was piercing a hole in the centre, for the insertion of a wooden axle, to which I had attached a small handle. I was obliged to strike very gentle blows, and with the utmost caution, lest the stone should fly asunder, and destroy in a moment the labour of many days. At length I brought my work to an end. I fitted my axle firmly, and I suspended the apparatus to the trunks of two young trees, planted close together, at no great distance from the house. Thenceforth we possessed a grinding-stone, and could sharpen our hatchet and other implements.

Preoccupied in organising our daily economy, in accustoming ourselves to regular occupations, we decided that Monday morning should be devoted to washing. Every day, on our return from the hunt, our clothes, if need were, and there was nearly always need, underwent reparation. It must be owned that after a short time they assumed a very singular appearance.

The primitive or original material had completely disappeared under the multitude of pieces which covered or replaced it. These pieces were composed of all kinds of stuffs, of all colours, but principally of sail-cloth. Of the latter, however, we soon became very economical from a presentiment that we might one day require it to make a sail.

It was our daily thought who should afford some unexpected proof of his inventiveness. To the games of solitaire and chess we added dominoes; then — in the way of luxury and pleasure, man never knows when to stop — I joined cards with these, not reflecting that they might become among us, what they so often are, an element of discord. And this, indeed, was very nearly the case. I was not long in discovering that Musgrave, in spite of his eminent and excellent qualities, was a bad player. Yet he piqued himself on being an adept at cards; and though it was a rule that we should play without any stake (in which there was no merit, since we possessed absolutely nothing to bet with or upon), when he lost, he lost his temper page 104also, and grew irritable and excited.

As I was the author of the evil, it was my duty to find a remedy. One morning, when Musgrave and I, in the course of the game, had exchanged some unpleasant words, I waited until the game was over; then tranquilly, without saying a word, I threw the cards in the fire. I had manufactured them with the leaves of an old log-book, and some boiled flour reduced into paste.

I recollect, by the way, that I shared with Musgrave the small quantity of paste remaining at the bottom of the pot: truly, I had never eaten anything in my life which seemed so delicious. It resembled almost bread.

However, I was punished for my greediness: for several days, my palate retaining the impression of this exquisite savour, I suffered the agony of Tantalus in presence of the small bag of flour suspended at my bed's head. It was with extreme difficulty I could keep down my yearning to make it into bread or hasty pudding, and indulge myself once more to my heart's content; but it was a sacred deposit, and I knew how to respect it. Had I yielded to the temptation, my weakness would have been attended with deplorable consequences: I should infallibly have lost the esteem of my companions. I should have set them an example of egotism and cupidity, and have sown the seeds of discord, division, and ruin.

When Saturday evening arrived, I not only handed over to George, my successor, the ménage in perfect order, everything arranged in its place, the floor washed with soap and water, but I was able to terminate my administration by a coup d'éclat: I placed at the disposal of my companions the delights of a warm bath, which I had prepared in casks cut down for the purpose. I make no vaunt when I affirm that this little gratification was very warmly received.

"Thursday, March 15. The weather, bad enough last week, has a little mitigated. This morning the wind is from the N.N.W., but slight. We have launched the canoe, and intend rowing to the Eighth Island."

After disembarking, and hauling the canoe on shore, armed with our clubs, we sallied into the forest. Quickly we arrived at a land of clearing, situated in the centre of the island, where we discovered the traces of a small and ancient encampment. There was no reason to doubt that Port Carnley was known to and frequented by the whalers. This fact awakened in us the liveliest pleasure; it enabled us to look in the face the chances we had of being one day or another picked up by their vessels. The men who had encamped on this spot had undoubtedly come hither in pursuit of seals. A few paces further on, a cavity burned in the peat by the action of page 105the fire indicated the place where the whalers had bivouacked, and from its depth we conjectured that they had sojourned there about two weeks.

In exploring the locality I caught sight of a small reddish article lying on the ground, and hastened to pick it up; it proved to be a triangular file, thickly coated with rust — a more certain proof than any of the others that civilised men had been before us.

After pocketing this valuable treasure-trove, I rejoined my companions, who had returned into the forest hunting after seals. Their voices, which we could hear distinctly, guided our steps.

Having made our way, not without some difficulty, to the extremity of the isle, we discovered a large number of these animals. And here, the trunks of trees not being so closely piled together, the young were able to disport themselves freely in the vicinity of their mothers. Nearly all the latter were engaged in suckling their cubs. In the middle of the group an old male, probably the ruler of those parts, took his ease, eying calmly the youthful gaiety which went on around him. He had the appearance of a venerable patriarch pleased with the games of his little children.

When he opened his enormous mouth to yawn, we could see that his jaws were almost toothless, a few black stumps projecting here and there from the gums. Evidently he was extremely old. His physiognomy was much milder than that of any male we had previously met with. He was rendered remarkable, moreover, by two great white scars: one at the end of the neck, the other on the right side. We named him "Royal Tom."

We approached noiselessly the very borders of this new clearing, and remained for awhile motionless, contemplating the amusing spectacle before our eyes.

Soon the old lion raised his head, and snuffing the air noiselessly, and with much disquiet, began to look around him in every direction, to discover from what quarter came the unknown odour which the exquisite sensibility of his nostrils had detected in the atmosphere.

His eye glared; raising himself haughtily, he vented from the depth of his vast chest a resonant and prolonged growl, which attracted the attention of the females, and spread alarm among all the troop. Immediately the young ones desisted from their games, and rushing towards their mothers, to whose hoarse cries they responded with feeble bleatings, they crouched down beside them.

We selected this moment for a sudden charge into their midst, and profited by the confusion and astonishment our apparition produced to deal mortal blows on the heads of the least nimble of the cubs. Seven fell upon the ground; we hastened to drag them out of the sight of their page 106companions. Musgrave, Alick, and I, after handing our cudgels to Harry, seized each of us a couple of the victims, one in each hand, by the posterior fin; Harry, with his free hand, caught hold of the seventh. We soon reached the shore; two of us went in search of the boat, and after having deposited our booty in it, we set out in the direction of Epigwait.

The wild cries of the mothers, who could not find their little ones, and the roar of the old seal, rendered furious by the smell of blood, just reached our ears, and made us regret the imperious necessity which compelled us to deal so cruelly with these poor animals.

A few moments afterwards we saw the females, who had followed up our traces, dash into the sea, accompanied by their patriarch, at the very point where we had embarked, and swim in pursuit of us. For a long time they strove to overtake the canoe which carried off their progeny. Emboldened by maternal love, one of them leaped out of the water every now and then, as if she would spring into our boat; and we were deluged with the spray which poured upon us as she fell back into the waves.

Fearing lest she should succeed in her efforts, and capsize us with her weight, I seized my gun and favoured her with a volley. The detonation terrified the seals; all the band veered round in alarm and gave over their pursuit.

Impelled by a fair wind, we arrived one hour afterwards in Shipwreck Bay.

page 107
"We Saw the Females SWM in Pursuit of US."

"We Saw the Females SWM in Pursuit of US."