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Wrecked on a Reef

Chapter XI. — We Erect Another Signal - A New Dish - my Reasons for Giving up Beer - Our Parroquets - Dogs in the Island

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Chapter XI.
We Erect Another Signal - A New Dish - my Reasons for Giving up Beer - Our Parroquets - Dogs in the Island.

Our chase had been very lucky; we had captured more game than we should be able to consume before its freshness went off. We thought, therefore, of curing at least a half of it; and this the more readily because, when winter came, we might perhaps be exposed to the risks of hunger.

We employed in the curing process a portion of the salt we had saved. Out of our seven seals; four were cut up, and the pieces laid between layers of salt in an empty cask. Some days afterwards, when they were thoroughly saturated, we suspended them to the rafters of the roof in the interior of our hut.

It was then the period of the equinox, and throughout the week the weather was extremely bad. Gale succeeded gale without intermission, and showers of rain and hail fell incessantly. Sometimes lurid lightnings clove the sky, obscured by dense masses of cloud, and the thunder broke out in awful peals. The hurricane shook, and bent, and twisted the trees, tearing off their foliage, in spite of its tenacity, and carrying clouds of rent and faded leaves to the waters of the bay, which were covered with them. With the fluttering of those which kept their hold mingled the crash and splintering of the branches.

Upon the shore the billows dashed themselves furiously against the cliffs, which they whitened with foam. At times an enormous mass of rock, loosened by the thunder from its lofty resting-place, descended like an avalanche the mountain declivity, pursued its impetuous course through the forest of the littoral, where it described a broad deep furrow, crushing everything it encountered in its path, and finally, arriving on the brink of the precipice, with one last leap it fell into the stormy waves.

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One might have supposed one's-self a witness of a general insurrection of all the elements against the wise laws imposed upon Nature by its Creator, and that they were struggling to hurl the world back again into chaos.

For a whole week we were prisoners indoors. With the exception of a few slight damages, our hut behaved admirably, and victoriously defied the storm. We congratulated ourselves on having left standing on the seashore a rampart or screen of trees, which deadened to some extent the shock of the wind, and on having supported our edifice externally with solid buttresses. We were not less fortunate in having collected a good supply of provisions before the tempest broke, and in having salted them; otherwise we must have suffered cruelly from hunger.

About the middle of the following week, as soon as it was possible for us to venture on the waters of the bay, we prepared for another visit to Musgrave Peninsula, to see if the signal we had erected was still standing, of which we had grave doubts.

On Thursday morning, March 24, leaving the house in charge of our Norwegian, whose turn it was to act as cook, we launched our boat and hoisted sail. The wind, which was favourable, soon took us to the spot where we wished to land.

We found still erect in the place where we had planted it, the staff which had borne our signal of distress; but the flag had disappeared; the wind had carried it away. A few paces distant lay the bottle, torn also from its position, and nearly buried in the peat, but still intact.

Having had the prudence to foresee that our signal would need to be repaired or replaced, we had brought with us some planks tied together in the form of a triangle, and painted white (with chalk moistened in a little seal-oil). In the centre, with a black pigment composed of soot and oil, I had painted a gigantic N, indicating the direction in which was situated Shipwreck Bay.

This signal-board was firmly fastened to the summit of two strong poles opposite the principal mouth of Port Carnley. The mountain, clothed with vegetation, formed behind it a deep green background, against which it stood out in bold relief; it was visible a considerable distance out at sea.

Below it we suspended the bottle, and then returned to Epigwait.

Next morning, the weather continuing fair, we took advantage of it to make another visit to the Eighth Island, and to renew, if we could, our nearly exhausted stock of provisions.

Not only was our expedition again successful, but it was diversified by a grotesque incident, which might nevertheless have been attended with serious consequences had I not been able to bring it to a termination.

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Having crept up noiselessly to the clearing which constituted the territory of Royal Tom, we found it, as before, inhabited by a great number of young seals, some females, and the aged potentate himself. The latter, as soon as he caught sight of us, rushed towards us without a moment's hesitation, displaying his old worn tusks, as if to provoke us to combat. Unwilling to slay him, and more completely masters of our movements than in the forest, we avoided replying to his invitation by passing him, as it were, on the outside; and, in spite of his rage and his roaring, we effected a considerable slaughter among the young phocae. While occupied in dragging down our victims to the shore of the bay, the old sea-lion and his mates, less timid than on our first invasion, pressed close upon us, harassing our rear; and George, who was struggling under a heavy burden, found himself suddenly confronted in a narrow gap by a great female seal. It was impossible for him to escape either on the right hand or the left; she blocked up the whole passage; and there was no time to retreat. By an instinctive movement, George let go his prey, seized a stout branch which hung above his head, and with a bound threw himself across it just soon enough to escape the animal's tusks. But the latter, apparently resolved on vengeance, tranquilly took up her position under the branch, with her head raised, and her eyes fixed upon her enemy. Several minutes passed away, while the man and the seal thus watched each other, completely motionless. I do not know when poor George would have been able to descend from his perch, had I not appeared on the scene with my gun, and lodged a bullet in the animal's head.

We then made haste to the shore, where the seals, embarrassed by the fragments of rocks encumbering it, could less easily assail us; we piled up our booty in the boat, which could scarcely hold it (there were eleven seals!), and resumed the course to Epigwait.

Out of these eleven seals we salted nine, and laid them by as a provision for the short, dark winter days which were in prospect; the two others served for immediate consumption.

But the exclusively animal diet to which we were condemned, besides that it was repugnant to us on account of its oily savour, was unwholesome for Europeans accustomed from infancy to a mixed diet, in which farinaceous food and vegetables occupy a not less important place than meat. We suffered severely from this cause. We had made several attempts to vary our bill of fare by the introduction of some of the roots growing in the island, but we had found none of them eatable, and had abandoned page 111their use. How often did I hear Harry express his craving after the potato peelings which, during our voyage, he had so contemptuously thrown overboard!

Always intent in my mind on the discovery of some edible vegetable, I had noticed, in the neighbourhood of the marshes, a plant with circular leaves, folded up like a funnel, and broad as a plate, developing themselves in a tuft or cluster on the top of a long and tubular stem. This stem grew not vertically, but horizontally, and was held to the soil by numerous tiny roots. From the middle of the tuft of leaves issued, in the spring, on a tall, slender stalk, a large posy of white three-petalled blossoms, which in due time were succeeded by a compact mass of small black seeds. The heart of the stem was composed of a pulpy, sugary substance, intermingled with woody fibres, which, it was evident, would require some preparation to render them eatable. We gave this plant the name of sacchary.

I bethought myself of manufacturing a grater out of a bit of a sheet-iron plate, with which, on board the Grafton, the flooring of the caboose had been partially lined. After piercing in it a number of small holes, and giving it a semicircular form, I nailed it on a piece of wood by its two edges.

With this implement we grated a quantity of sacchary stems, which we afterwards fried in seal-oil.

This new dish, which bore a tolerable resemblance to sawdust, was served up at table with a certain degree of ceremony. Unfortunately, it did not realise our expectations. It was only by moistening it with broth that we could swallow it; and when this operation had been accomplished — not without difficulty — we were not at the end of our troubles, the superabundance of woody fibres rendering it extremely indigestible. Some of us, however, persisted in making use of it, and gradually grew accustomed to the dish. As for myself, I could never stomach it.

I then endeavoured to turn to advantage the saccharine properties of the plant. I grated a considerable quantity of it, which I put into the iron pot with some boiling water, and left to ferment.

My companions were greatly interested in these preparations, and never ceased asking me what I was attempting. I told them that I wanted to brew some beer! They began to laugh and jest at me; but when, next day, they saw the liquor in process of fermentation, they proposed to distil it, and convert it into brandy. One of the barrels of my gun was neatly fitted to the spout of the tea-kettle. Then it was wrapped round with a cloth, and cold water being continually poured upon it, I made it serve as the worm of this impromptu still.

I then repented of my design of brewing beer, for if, instead of page 112contenting ourselves with that innocent liquor, we succeeded in procuring alcohol, I foresaw, with alarm, the fatal consequences of the abuse of it which, sooner or later, would inevitably take place.

To prevent so great a danger, I abandoned my project, which, nevertheless, I had much at heart. I purposedly allowed the fermentation to turn acid, under the pretext that it was not as yet sufficiently advanced for distillation, and we were compelled to throw away the liquid. The experiment, whose success I declared impossible, though inwardly persuaded that it was certain, was never renewed.

In a life like ours, so monotonous, so completely devoid of variety and amusement, the most trivial incident assumed importance: it is for this reason I relate the story of our parroquets.

One day, while we were busily hunting for new plants, Harry observed a tree which on one side was pierced with a hole; and he noticed that from time to time a parroquet entered this hole, to issue forth again almost immediately. After watching for awhile the bird's manoeuvre, he took advantage of one of her periods of absence to examine what he supposed would be her nest. Inserting his hand into the cavity, he found there three young parroquets, already covered with feathers. He set to work at once to construct a littie cage for their reception, weaving a number of twigs together in the most skilful fashion. Then at nightfall he transferred the young birds to their new home, and carried them to Epigwait.

We fed them on the seeds of the sacchary plant, which at first we pounded carefully, and afterwards mixed with a little seal's flesh roasted, and minced into very small pieces. One of them died very quickly. The other two throve upon this nourishment, and lived all the winter. They proved to be male and female. In a brief period they destroyed, by incessant gnawing, the bars of their cage, and we allowed them full liberty to roam about our interior. Every day we furnished them with a new branch garnished with all its foliage, and some seeds. This branch was placed at the foot of Harry's bed, right against the chimney, and in the evening they retired there to roost.

The male was not long in learning to utter a few words of English: at daybreak he commenced his chattering, which amused us greatly.

Daily, at our dinner-hour, they were accustomed to bathe. We prepared their bath in an old tin box, placed at the foot of their roosting-branch. They were very difficult to please. Unless the water was perfectly clear and fresh, they would not touch it. On emerging from their bath, they dried themselves before the fire, and turned themselves first on one side, then on the other, page 113with the gravest air in the world; afterwards, when their plumage was thoroughly dry, and before we had finished our meal, they climbed upon the table, and, in excellent English, Boss — for so we named the male bird — demanded his share.

But, alas! one day, being in a great hurry, Harry himself set a pot filled with water down upon the unfortunate Boss, whom he had not seen, and crushed him. A week afterwards, his poor little mate died of grief. We were all greatly afflicted at the loss of these charming birds, to which we had grown quite attached.

I find recorded in my Journal, at the same date, an incident which caused us great astonishment, and was the theme of a thousand conjectures. Several times we had fancied that we heard noises like the barking of dogs at a distance. Were there any dogs in the island; and if there were, how was their presence to be accounted for? Did they not rather belong to some vessel anchored in one of the neighbouring inlets of Port Carnley, or even at Port Ross, to the north of the Auckland group? In the latter hypothesis there was something very attractive for us, and we were even tempted to start on an expedition to verify its accuracy; but we remembered in time the innumerable difficulties which render the exploration of these islands, even under the most favourable conditions, nearly impracticable. How was it possible for us to venture to such a distance, in so heavy and stormy a sea, and in a boat so frail as ours? It would have been madness to make the attempt; and we renounced all idea of it.

Moreover, it was much more probable that these dogs, if indeed they existed, had been left on the island by the whalers of whom we had found traces in the Eighth Island; or, more likely still, by the fishers of the Enderby settlement at Port Ross, abandoned, for want of success, in 1850.

If the origin of these dogs remained to the last a problem we could not solve, their existence, at all events, was clearly demonstrated: we saw them.

Our stock of fresh meat being nearly exhausted, and the weather again unfavourable, preventing us from a voyage to the Eighth Island, where we were sure of finding game, we resolved to set out on foot, following the shore in a north-westerly direction, to the point where we had previously killed the ducks, in the hope that among the tall, rank herbage there we might find some seals.

Alick and Harry, being ready first, had taken their departure. It was George's turn to remain on guard at Epigwait. But just as Musgrave and I, armed with my gun, were on the point of setting forth, to our astonishment we saw Harry returning, in fiery haste, and almost breathless.

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He was in an extremely agitated condition. He told us that Alick and he had just met with two dogs on the sea-shore. One was a fine shepherd's dog, white and black, with a long plume-like tail; the other, of smaller size, seemed a cross between a bull-dog and a mastiff. Alick had remained behind to watch their movements, while he had returned in all haste for a bit of meat to try and attract them, and a rope's-end with which to fasten them, if they allowed themselves to be caught; which he doubted greatly, for they appeared very fierce.

Furnished with the necessary articles, we all three took the road along the shore, but at the end of a few minutes discovered Alick coming towards us. He informed us that during his companion's absence he had endeavoured to approach the dogs very gently, speaking to them in caressing tones, but that the sound of his voice had appeared to frighten them greatly, and that he had scarcely made a step forward before they darted off into the jungle, where it was impossible to follow them.

When we reached the scene of their disappearance, we could see quite distinctly the prints of their feet on the soft soil; some were larger than others.

Our disappointment was extreme. We had taken our desire for a reality; we had fancied ourselves already in possession of two faithful companions, of two friends, from whom we might obtain assistance and affection, and lo! we had lost them. Fortunately, we were actively occupied during the remainder of the day, and to a certain extent forgot our self-deception. We found a female seal and her young one, which we killed, as well as a dozen birds. We were compelled to cut up our game, except the birds, on the spot, that we might carry it home in pieces, on account of the weight; and it was not until evening that we returned to Epigwait, spent with fatigue.