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Wrecked on a Reef

Chapter XII. — A Night in the Open Air - 1 Undertake to Tan the Skins of the Sea-Lions

page 115

Chapter XII.
A Night in the Open Air - 1 Undertake to Tan the Skins of the Sea-Lions.

Wednesday, May 1

Winter is coming on apace, and the cold begins to make itself keenly felt. The seals are getting rarer and rarer, so that the future does not present itself to our eyes under the most radiant aspects; the spectre of Famine rises menacingly on the horizon, and every day draws nearer with gigantic strides. If the weather were but less inclement! We might extend our researches further. But it is only now and then that we can make an excursion on the waters of the bay.

"We left Harry, whose week it is at Epigwait, and set out on foot this morning to explore the south coast, of which as yet we are entirely ignorant. It is impossible to keep along the sea-shore, for the cliffs rise in tremendous precipices whose feet are washed by deep waters. We must take the upper route — that is, through the forest, and painfully and slowly effect our passage.

"Shortly before noon we arrive at the little isthmus which links to our island Musgrave Peninsula. This was the goal of our excursion; the beach being low and easy of access, we hoped to find there a few seals.

"After having rested for a moment on the trunk of a tree, we beat about in the vicinity in every direction; not a nook which we have not examined closely — and all in vain, for there are no seals.

"Fatigued, and yet quite as much overcome by our failure as by fatigue, we deliberate on the next step to be taken. Our first thought is to retrace our steps, and return immediately to Epigwait; but, however diligent we might be, we could not possibly reach it before night. And what good was page 116to be gained by returning with empty hands? Was it reasonable? No; since we had come so far, we must continue our journey across the isthmus, and see if on the opposite shore we should find what we had so vainly sought for here.

"Soon afterwards, a magnificent circular bay opened upon our view. The shore was strewn with enormous boulders, except about the centre, where, for a space of three hundred feet or more, these were replaced by gravel. On the side facing us, it terminated abruptly in a gigantic cliff, which concealed from our gaze the mouth of the port.

"Stumbling among the rocks and pebbles, with eyes on the watch, and ears attentive to the slightest sound, examining with special minuteness the approaches to the woods, we advanced, but advanced slowly, and without discovering any traces of a seal. At length we reached the patch of gravelly beach, where we were able to walk with a little more comfort.

"And here, with lengthened visage and craving stomach, we seated ourselves piteously at the foot of a rock, waiting until the tide was low enough for us to wade into the sea, and gather a few mussels from the nearest reefs.

"About an hour afterwards, we collected a sufficient quantity, and greedily devoured them all, raw as they were. Poor Musgrave paid dearly for this savage repast; he endured the cruellest pain.

"Night came on, cold, sombre, threatening. It was impossible to think of returning to our hut in the darkness, and by a road so broken and so dangerous, which we had traversed but once. We were accordingly compelled to remain where we were, and to wait patientiy for the approach of dawn. Huddling together as some slight protection from the keen cold, thinking of Harry who was expecting us, and whose anxiety would be excessive, weakened in mind and body, and Musgrave ill, we spent the night — a night sixteen hours in length — in the open air, behind a rock which, interposed between the sea and ourselves, protected us a little against the violence of the wind.

"At length, on the following morning, between seven and eight o'clock, the first beams of day glimmered through the mist. The wind fell, but in its place came a thick fog, to be succeeded by a dense, fine, icy rain. Hunger, inexorable hunger, presented anew its imperious requests. Soaked through, benumbed, and perishing with cold, we quitted the shelter of our rock, and profited by the low tide to catch some mussels, which this time we were wise enough to use in moderation. Then, slightly reinvigorated, we retook the road to the hut.

"Musgrave and I marched a little in advance; the two sailors followed us.

page 117
"About an Hour Afterwards, we Collected a Sufficient Quantity."

"About an Hour Afterwards, we Collected a Sufficient Quantity."

page 118

We spoke but little; our reflections not being of a nature to inspirit one another, we instinctively avoided communicating them. Already we were among the boulders, when a slight noise, coming from the wood, attracted our attention. We halted, that we might listen the more attentively. George and Alick, quickening their pace, soon overtook us. The noise had ceased, and we thought we must have been mistaken, but it occurred again. I got ready my gun, and my comrades wielded their cudgels ready to strike. We waited. In about two or three minutes a head was visible between two clumps of heath; it was that of a young seal preparing to descend to the waters. She must have come ashore in the night; for, as I have said, in the evening not a trace was anywhere to be detected. On seeing us, she halted, undecided, not knowing whether to continue her route or retreat. Fearing she might re-enter the wood, and so escape us, I fired, and the bullet crashed right through her head.

"About an hour afterwards, with joyous spirits, and bending under the weight of our booty, of which each of us carried one-fourth, but no longer sensible of fatigue, we were marching resolutely in the direction of Epigwait, where we arrived about noon, after an absence of thirty hours. Harry, on seeing us return, shed tears of happiness; the poor boy had spent a night of agony in thinking of all the misfortunes of which we might have been the victims."

But scarcely had we satisfied one necessity — and that of feeding ourselves was ever present — before another arose which it was desirable to meet. I have already remarked, that as we had sailed from Sydney in summer-time, counting on a very brief voyage, we had not taken with us a very extensive wardrobe. The clothes of my companions were half worn out when we set sail; mine alone were new. Among them was an excellent pair of boots, which I had very little worn, owing to my long illness, and consequent inability to undertake protracted excursions. The moment soon came when my comrades, after incessantly traversing the rocky shores of Campbell, and then those of Auckland Island, found their boots and shoes absolutely useless. What was to be done? They had made an effort to replace them by a kind of moccasins made with seal skin, but had not succeeded. This skin, not being prepared, and always in contact with a marshy soil, grew flabby, absorbed water, rotted away, and was quickly rent to pieces by the jagged rocks of the shore. They required to be renewed so frequently, that the number of animals we were able to kill did not supply a sufficient quantity of the skin.

The idea then occurred to me of tanning this skin before making use of page 119
"The Rock Protected us a Little Against the Violence of the Wind"

"The Rock Protected us a Little Against the Violence of the Wind"

page 120it. After a series of experiments on the barks of the different trees or shrubs which the country furnished, I came to the conclusion that that of the ironwood tree was the best; its eminently astringent properties were owing, undoubtedly, to the quantity of tannin which it contained, though, as I have said, it was not very thick.

Having procured a certain quantity, I cut it up very small, boiled it in water, and when I thought the decoction strong enough, poured it into a cask placed by the side of that which served as a filter when I was manufacturing soap. In another cask I made a solution of lime with mussel-shells which I had previously burned to powder; and I put into the bath a number of skins, some as thick and others as thin as I could find. I proposed to destroy, by means of this alkali, the oily matter with which they were impregnated, before tanning them.

After lying for a couple of weeks in the lime solution, the skins were taken out. With a few planks still left on hand, which I fastened with strong pegs to three transversal beams, I constructed a species of platform. On this I stretched the skins, and finished cleaning them - an easy task. We then stripped the thickest of their fur, but we did not touch that of the thinner, because out of these we intended to make for ourselves some clothes to replace the rags and tatters we were then wearing. As for the oily matter -which, combining with the lime, had formed a kind of soap — we easily got rid of it by steeping the skins for some hours in the running water of the brook; after which we subjected them to heavy pressure between planks loaded with great stones, so as to expel all the lime which might still remain in them. After repeating this process several times, we plunged them into the tan-bath. Spite of our sedulous care to renew the liquid frequently, it was not until the end of winter — full four months later — that the thicker skins were properly tanned.

"Tuesday, May 20. During the last three weeks we have been somewhat favoured in respect to our food. The tides have been very low, and we have been able to catch some mussels as well as a few fish, which we have taken close in among the rocks. Moreover, we have killed three seals, which had come to pass the night in the neighbourhood of Epigwait.

"The weather is variable, but generally cold and damp. The thermometer, on an average, has registered 3° below zero at noonday in the shade, and at night is frequently below this.

"In the shade!' What a mockery! Are we not always in gloom and obscurity? The sun scarcely shows himself once or twice a week — just for a moment, between two clouds — and what a sun! so pale, so cold! And page 121sometimes he does not make his appearance at all for fifteen days consecutively! Ah, but it is sad always to see above one's head an eternal veil of gray, a dull arc of sinister clouds! Oh, for more blue! for more sky!

"One thing, moreover, has always produced upon me, as well as upon my companions, a still more painful impression, a kind of suffocating anxiety; namely, the monotonous and incessant beat of the waves upon the shore, at a few paces only from our hut, joined to the not less continuous murmur of the wind among the neighbouring trees. It incessantly recalls to us our cruel destiny. Our nerves, therefore, are frequently over-excited; sometimes the most-terrible melancholy, at once violent and gloomy, has been on the point of mastering us; and I am persuaded that we should have already succumbed to the most grievous and oppressive hypochondria, if we had not been supported by the continual work on which we kept ourselves employed, and which left us little leisure to think of our misfortunes.

"Work! it was then that I felt its value, its virtue! What a blessing it is from God! How great our happiness, that man, possessing intelligence and imagination, and so many active faculties, can find in work their proper food! Without this bridle, whither should we not wander? Without this resource, we should inevitably fall victims either to a shameful and senseless lethargy, or to the most hideous vices. We admire the harmonious laws by which the world is governed. For my part, I admire especially that law — not less harmonious — of necessity which stimulates labour, and of labour which satisfies necessity, whence comes the result of a healthy, honourable, and happy life. I admire it from the tranquil viewpoint of the philosopher; and I love it, I bless it, because it has saved me!"*

* A modern writer, Sir Arthur Helps, has given utterance to a very similar thought to that of our friend, M. Raynal. "No doubt," he says, "hard work is a great police-agent. If everybody were worked from morning till night, and then carefully locked up, the register of crimes might be greatly diminished." Compare also the following lines from Lord Houghton:

"Let us go forth, and resolutely dare
With sweat of brow to toil our little day;
And if a tear fall on the task of care
In memory of those spring hours passed away,
Brush it not by!
Our hearts to God! to brother men,
And labour, blessing, prayer, and then
To these a sign"

So, too, Ruskin says: "It is only by labour that thought can be made healthy, and only by thought that labour can be made happy; and the two cannot be separated with impunity." Passages on the blessedness and usefulness of work are scattered throughout the writings of Thomas Carlyle.