Wrecked on a Reef
Chapter XV. — Distress - In the Recesses of the Gulf - Return of Plenty -A Moment of Happiness
Distress - In the Recesses of the Gulf - Return of Plenty -A Moment of Happiness.
Some time elapsed, and we found ourselves reduced once more to nibble at our last piece of rancid meat, ignorant of any means of procuring provision for the morrow.
For three whole days we had fruitlessly traversed the environs of Epigwait, beating the bushes, and everywhere seeking for some kind of food. For my part, I had visited Point Raynal in the hope of catching a few fish, but had been unsuccessful. I had returned with my bag nearly empty, having made but an insignificant capture — that of two or three cod. As for mussels, it was impossible to catch any: the season of high tides had not yet arrived, and the sea did not ebb sufficiently far.
Ah me, after such days of disappointment, how gloomily passed the evening! Our lessons dragged their slow length along; we were too much overcome, too much preoccupied, to give them a serious attention. We had still less spirit for play. Play! where the prospect before us was that of death by famine. We went to bed early, and as we were always weary, we slept. And at least, while sleeping, we did not think of our misery.
At the end of the third day of scarcity, before retiring to bed, we all of us joined in our humble prayer to the Most High, the Maker of all things, pouring out our melancholy forebodings, but submitting ourselves in faith and obedience to His almighty will.
Next day I went out hunting at daybreak. I took my gun, with the design of killing a few cormorants. Unfortunately these birds, which began to know and fear us, now came very rarely to the surrounding rocks; and those which did, took to flight the moment they saw us appear. I contrived, however, to bring down three, which about noon I carried home with a page 135very melancholy air: they had cost me a couple of shots, and this was paying dearly for them.
We thought them delicious. They had but one defect; they were too small. Alick was absent, but we carefully set aside his proper portion.
He, too, had sallied forth early in the morning, to explore the coast in a northern direction. We had just concluded our too frugal repast when we saw him returning. He bounded down the cliff much more quickly than was his wont, and he carried something heavy on his back. We ran to meet him. O happiness! his expedition had been successful.
For he bore on his shoulders a young seal, about seven or eight months old, and weighing nearly one hundred and fifty pounds. With such a burden he had returned from the head of the bay, and along the most difficult paths imaginable! Our Norwegian was a brave and stalwart youth; and if he spoke little, he knew how to act.
He told us that a mile beyond the bay of the wild ducks he had detected on the ground, which was covered with a light fall of snow, a quite recent track. He had followed it into the forest, and it brought him at last into the presence of an aged female and her young one. After a very fatiguing pursuit, he had succeeded in overtaking and killing both. The mother, as we saw, he had left behind, and had returned with the cub.
We immediately started off to fetch the lioness, guided by Alick, who, notwithstanding his fatigue, insisted on going with us to point out the road. Harry remained at home, to get ready a substantial supper.
Musgrave was in advance, with the Norwegian. I followed them at an interval of about a hundred yards, and George came last, being about fifty paces in the rear.
About half-way, and shortly before you arrive at the bay of wild ducks, a tall cliff projects like a promontory into the sea. At its base lie pell-mell enormous fragments of jagged rocks, rendered slippery by the sea, which covers them at high water, and deposits upon them layer after layer of marine plants.
To avoid this laborious traject I plunged into the forest, followed by George. Musgrave and Alick had taken the coast path.
On the other side of the cliff, in a little hollow, lay a kind of marsh, fed by a stream of water descending from a deep and narrow crevasse in the mountain side. This crevasse, formed by continued aqueous action on a bed of soft greenish stone, was spanned at the point where it abutted on the marsh by a natural roof or archway, consisting of the trunks of trees which had fallen across it, and on which had accumulated in the course of years a thick stratum of peat. At this particular part, which we called the page 136Bridge, the crevasse was about seven feet wide, and thirty-three feet deep.
A little higher up, numerous long and shaggy roots depended from its sides, and its opening was almost entirely concealed by a quantity of broad-leaved plants, tufts of ferns, and masses of lianas.
Ascending higher still, you saw these two lines of vegetation, at first distinct, gradually blending into a single mass: you could no longer perceive the cavity it covered: above, the forest trees interlaced their branches, and formed a roof of foliage, which allowed but a kind of semi-daylight to penetrate: it was one of the most dangerous defiles on that part of the coast.
I advanced, followed by George, in this direction. Striding across the trunks of trees, gliding between the ferns, putting aside the lianas, and the great leaves loaded with drops of water, we marched as quickly as possible to rejoin Musgrave and Alick on the other side of the cliff.
All at once the sound of a fugitive animal within a short distance from me attracted my attention. I stopped short, but for a second only. I caught sight of the beast: it was a sea-lion, a young male, about two years old. Cudgel in hand, I started in pursuit.
I sped onward with all the speed of which I was capable: several times I found myself close upon the seal, and was on the point of striking it, but I abstained, fearing lest I should miss my aim on account of the obstacles which impeded me, and preferring to wait until I could make sure of my blow. The terrified animal fled as fast as he could.
Suddenly I heard the fall of a heavy body just two paces in front of me. The seal had disappeared in the crevasse, which was there about fifteen feet deep. I had some difficulty in checking my impetus; and, as it was, could only save myself from falling, in my turn, into the darkened chasm, by clinging to a tuft of ferns growing on the very edge.
Quickly starting to my feet, for my sudden stoppage had flung me prostrate, I shouted to George to watch at the mouth of the ravine where it debouched upon the shore; for the seal, which dabbled noisily in the water at the bottom of the crevasse, had taken that direction.
In about ten or twelve minutes I heard the voice of George, who, from his post, gave me the information that the animal had not yet made his appearance. Thinking he had halted under the Bridge, I resolved to descend and drive him out.
With the thong of my club or cudgel passed round my neck, and clinging with both hands to the roots and lianas which drooped into the chasm at the point where the seal had fallen, I lowered myself nearly to the bottom, and then letting go, dropped without accident into the bed of the torrent.page 137
I found myself in darkness. Groping along the sides of the ravine, with my feet in the half-frozen water, I followed up the traces of the animal. In a few moments I could see a little more clearly. Near the Bridge the crevasse, so far as I could judge, was much wider and deeper than at the point where I had descended into it. But I found there a labyrinthine tangle of lianas and pendent roots which closed, as with a curtain, the mouth of this species of drain or tunnel. I bent my head to pass under it, and made a few steps forward — into a dim gloomy cavern, lit only by the feeble light which penetrated through the low narrow entrance from the marsh. The space here was considerably wider than in the ravine. The two walls, though drawing close together at the top, were wide apart at the bottom. In the centre the tiny thread of clear water ran noisily down the declivity to gain the mouth, near which, on one of the banks, I perceived the sea-lion, motionless: undoubtedly he could see George, who was standing sentinel outside, and held himself ready to act when occasion required.
There was just enough light to enable me to watch my adversary's movements. The moment he heard my steps he turned right round, uttered a roar of indignation, and delivered a desperate attack. Fortunately, as I stood in the shade, I had an advantage over him. However, I knew that I could strike only a single blow, and that I must hit hard; otherwise he would leave me no time for another: I should be at his mercy.
Grasping my cudgel with both hands, and raising it to the level of my shoulders, with my eyes fixed upon him, I waited until he came within reach. Now, with open jaws, he springs upon me! I strike; my cudgel whistles through the air, and alights full upon his head.
I had stricken home. Heaving a deep sigh, he sank on the ground of the cavern, which he beat for a moment with his fins, and then lay motionless. I put an end to any pain he might be suffering with my knife, and dragged his body to the mouth of the ravine — which was no easy task, for it weighed upwards of three hundred pounds; but I rolled it into the brook, and the water helped me to convey it as far as the opening, where George came to my assistance.
This done, I was forced to lie down on my face and stomach in the ice-cold water, and take the same road. I rose from it dripping like a Triton, shivering in every limb, and my teeth chattering, under the influence of a keen wind which glued my wet clothes to my body.
After extricating our game from the marsh, whose surface was covered with a thin crust of ice, we set to work and cut it up into quarters; two of which we suspended to the branch of a tree: loaded with the other two, we returned to Epigwait.page 138 page 139
Night had come, and our companions, Musgrave and Alick, had not returned. Undoubtedly they would be waiting for us, and much disquieted, perhaps, on our account. After having changed our clothes, and provided ourselves with a small horn lantern, which we had saved from the Grafton, we set out to meet them. On reaching the bay of the wild ducks, not far from the first stream, we heard a cry; it was the joyous exclamation of our companions on seeing us, or rather our lantern. In spite of all their diligence, darkness had overtaken them, and fearing to venture on the rocks or cliffs, or among the depths of the forest, they had resigned themselves to pass the night where we found them. They showed us the place where, after depositing their burden, they intended to have rested, huddled against each other, under an enormous hollow trunk, which, being much bent with age, would have afforded them some slight protection had rain come on.
As they were benumbed with the cold, we set fire to a heap of brushwood; then, after we had warmed ourselves a little, George marching ahead with the lantern, we began our return journey, reaching Epigwait about nine o'clock.
We opened the door; we crossed the threshold: what an enticing spectacle was presented to our gaze! What a contrast with the scene we had just quitted! Without, night, and intense cold, and a whistling, biting wind; within, light and warmth. A huge fire craclded and flamed upon the hearth; a warm atmosphere surrounded and penetrated us; all the lighted lamps filled the interior with a joyous brightness.
We looked to the table; it was laid out with more than ordinary care. Our utensils, coarse as they were, shone with irreproachable cleanliness. The centre was occupied by an enormous joint, all smoking and steaming, of the young animal killed in the morning by Alick. Harry, our chef, had exhausted all his skill in cooking it to perfection.
Gallant, honest Harry! Evidently he had been anxious to give a festal character to the day on which, after a season of scarcity and distress, abundance and safety had once more blessed us. He appeared enraptured by the contentment visible on our countenances as we surveyed his preparations.