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Wrecked on a Reef

Chapter XVII. — My Experiences as a Boot and Shoe Maker -Our Despairing Conjectures - Return of The Summer Season -Our Geographical Studies

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Chapter XVII.
My Experiences as a Boot and Shoe Maker -Our Despairing Conjectures - Return of The Summer Season -Our Geographical Studies.

Whatever might be our mental condition, new wants, incessantly arising, provoked the activity of our faculties as well as that of our arms, and proved, as I have already said, our salvation.

It was in the course of this same month of November that we finally completed our tanning operation, commenced four months before. The skins, saturated with tannin, had assumed a reddish colour; owing to the contraction they had undergone, they were somewhat rugged: a network of wrinkles, crossing one another in all directions, was defined upon their surface.

We hastened to use them in replacing the moccasins of flabby and greenish skin, exhaling a disagreeable odour, which for a long time my comrades had been reduced to wear, and to which I too had been compelled to have recourse: an inconvenient kind of chaussure, which did but imperfectly protect the feet against damp and the roughness of a rocky soil.

The skins were taken out of the bath in which they had lain soaking, and left for awhile on the trunk of a tree to throw off their moisture. Before they were thoroughly dry we carried them into the hut, where the heat softened them a little, and we were able to spread them along the walls on little wooden pegs. A few days afterwards they were dry, and the largest creases had disappeared; in fact, they furnished us with an excellent leather. Ambition grows with success. The result we had obtained had so far exceeded our hopes that it inspired me with the idea of making, not moccasins, but real, actual shoes!

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True, for this purpose implements were necessary; and as we had none, our first care was to manufacture them. With a sailmaker's needle inserted in a haft of ironwood — on which one might strike and strike, and not break it — we made an awl: this sufficed for piercing the sole, so as to insert the wooden pegs which would fasten it to the upper leather.

We were occupied for several evenings in the manufacture of these pegs. Among the remains of the Grafton I found a plank made of Norwegian fir: hard, reddish, resinous, with straight, regular fibres, and easy to split. With the little saw of my pocket-knife I divided it into a great number of pieces, each about an inch in length; and while Alick with his clasp-knife cut these tiny morsels of wood, first in one direction, then in another, into splints about a tenth of an inch in thickness, as if he were making matches, our companions finished off the pegs by shaping one end into a quadrangular point, like the summit of an obelisk.

When I had furnished them with sufficient work, and while they were employed upon it, I endeavoured to manufacture a couple of lasts. For this purpose I took a white wood which grew in the island, one of the three species of which I have already spoken; selecting it by preference from trees that had recently withered, so that it might be nearly dry and easy to work.

The manufacture of these lasts or models cost me a great deal of trouble. I spoiled my first two pairs; it was not until a third attempt that I proved successful. At least I thought myself successful, but experience afterwards showed me that I had been mistaken.

I next set to work to obtain a supply of thread and pitch. I paid a visit to the wreck, and brought back some dry tar, which I scraped with my knife off the sides of the unfortunate schooner. To this I added a little seal-oil, and melted the two together; thus I secured a very satisfactory pitch. As for the thread, I wound together the long threads of unwoven sail-cloth, terminating each needleful with a strong hair, plucked from the mane of a sea-lion; by this means I gave to its extremity a firmness and a rigidity which greatly facilitated the process of sewing.

As the awl which I had made for piercing the sole was of rather a stout calibre, I manufactured a second, much finer, out of another sailmaker's needle, which I reduced in size on the grindstone. With the latter I was able to sew together the different pieces of the vamp or upper leather.

All my preparations completed, I set to work, and began my first pair of shoes.

At the end of a week's hard labour I had produced a pair which perhaps a village cobbler's apprentice might have induced a ploughman to accept page 151
"I Was Able to Sew Together the Different Pieces."

"I Was Able to Sew Together the Different Pieces."

page 152for wearing in the furrowed fields. But even then, the ploughman must needs have been a very simple swain! Yet I confess that my workmanship did not fail to give me the liveliest satisfaction.

Alas! it soon vanished. For when I attempted to withdraw the lasts, I was utterly unable; they defied all my efforts. They were fastened to the sole by a great number of wooden pegs, which had been driven in with the utmost tenacity. Moreover, the opening of the shoes was too narrow to let them pass. I decided, therefore, to split the upper leather down the middle, and, at length, by dint of hammering and pulling — two processes which greatly endangered the solidity of my work — I contrived to extract them.

Taught by experience, I thenceforth avoided so serious an inconvenience. I bethought myself of sawing my last into two portions, so that I could first pull out the heel, and next the anterior part. This was a step in advance, but it was not sufficient. I had to invent some method of preventing the last, when thus divided, from getting displaced, and moving about in the shoe. In this I succeeded by cutting on the upper surface of each portion a deep longitudinal slit, into which I introduced a small wooden wedge, fitting closely. When the wedge was inserted, the two parts became as one, and were firmly fastened together; when I pulled it out, of course they were separate, and easily movable. Then a string passed through a hole in each enabled me to get hold of them and extract them whenever I wanted to do so.

As for preventing the sole from adhering to the last, nothing was more simple. We had only to cut our pegs shorter.

Thanks to these successive improvements, I contrived to place my feet in an excellent pair of shoes. My companions quickly followed my example, and soon all five of us were shod anew.

I will not go so far as to pretend that our chaussures could have figured advantageously among the elegant exhibitions of our best Parisian shoemakers; but then elegance, was not the problem we cared about solving. We had manufactured for our feet a solid defence against damp, cold, and a rough soil; our end was fully attained.

I have said that we had tanned also some skins of young seals, thinner than those of the older animals, and that we had not stripped them of their fur. Of these we made ourselves coats to replace our old ones, which, spite of the pieces we had incessantly patched upon them, were so worn that the slightest friction against a tree, or the weight of a burden, or even the wind, when it blew with any degree of violence, rent them into rags and tatters.

In a short time the two seamen and the cook were completely clothed in seal-skin from head to foot. Musgrave and I were content with cutting page 153out a kind of paletot or cloak, which we threw over our clothes when it rained.

Meantime the days passed by, and the ship we were so eagerly expecting did not appear. According to our calculations, she should have sailed from Sydney at the beginning of October, immediately after the gales of the September equinox. We could not prevent ourselves from forming the most alarming conjectures about ourselves, and the most injurious for the honour of our associates. Could they have forgotten the engagement into which they had solemnly entered — an engagement which the most elementary probity, to say nothing of friendship, should have invested with all the sacredness of a law? Or had they found it impossible to fulfil their promise; and had the Government of New South Wales, to which they were bound to address themselves, refused, in defiance of all considerations of humanity, to accede to their demand?

It was Musgrave who showed the greatest impatience under these cruel apprehensions. "If it only affected myself!" he said to me a hundred times. "But my wife, my children, of whom I am the sole support, are the victims of my misfortune. Every day's delay aggravates their sufferings, and confirms them in the painful conviction of my death and their abandonment." At times his exasperation grew so violent that his mind wandered, and he adopted the wildest resolutions. He declared that at all risks he would quit the island, if he embarked alone in the boat, and would return to Australia. And when I pointed out to him that such an attempt would simply be a form of suicide: "Well," he exclaimed, "what matters it, since we are destined to die here? Better bring our misery to an end at once. What is the use of living? Of what profit is life in such circumstances as ours?"

However, conjectures less discouraging, thrown out by one or other of us, sometimes succeeded in reviving our spirits, and even in restoring hope to Musgrave himself. Might it not be that our friends had despatched a ship, but that in the voyage she had met with great damage, and had been compelled to put into some port — into New Zealand, perhaps — to repair? Then why give way to melancholy? It was but a delay of days, or, at the most, of weeks.

A fortunate incident came to give us patience. The sea-lions returned. One morning early in November, we saw a band of these animals, about twenty females, disporting in the bay opposite Epigwait, and then continuing their route towards Eighth Island.

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The following week new and more numerous troops, in which were several males, peopled the waters of Port Carnley, and particularly of the North Channel. Not only was their return a guarantee to us against famine, but it had also the same comfort as the arrival of swallows in France or England: it announced the approach of summer.

And, in truth, with the month of December the fine days (compared with the rest of the year it is allowable so to designate them) reappeared. The storms and showers were less frequent. The decreasing density of the mists enabled us to see more often the blue sky and the sun. Only, at times, a singular phenomenon occurred: the temperature would fall suddenly, the thermometer sinking to zero; then it would rise to its previous level with equal rapidity. These sudden atmospheric variations are owing to the colossal icebergs which at the beginning of summer are detached from the vast ice-fields of the South Pole. Driven by the winds and the currents, they float occasionally into the neighbourhood of the Auckland Islands.

If we should have the happiness once more to regain the society of our kind, we felt that it would not be right that our residence in the Aucklands should assume the character only of a personal adventure, and prove wholly unprofitable to science. We made it part of our duty, therefore, to take advantage of the fine weather for some solar and lunar observations, so as to define as exactly as possible the geographical position of the group. But the natural horizon, limited by the mountains of the bay, was of no service for this purpose, and we resolved to make an artificial horizon with some liquid pitch poured into a plate, which afforded an excellent reflector, far superior to the wind-troubled and vacillating waves. In taking the average of a series of observations, which differed very little from one another, we obtained as the result: S. lat., 50° 53' 30"; long. E. from Paris, 163° 55' 21".

The chart of Port Carnley which we had undertaken to lay down we carefully continued, and nearly completed. To determine the relative positions of the different points of the inner coast, we employed, as I have said, a system of triangulation made by means of the compass.

The configuration of the outer coast, which alone was wanting for the completion of the chart, was furnished to me at a later date by Captain Norman, commander of the steam corvette Victoria, and by his officers, who had made a sketch of it at the time of their voyage to the Aucklands. I shall have to speak of this expedition.

The observations which they communicated to me concerning the situation of Port Carnley corresponded almost exactly (within two miles) page 155with our own. They also agree with those made by Sir James Clark Ross, at Port Ross, in 1840. According to these new studies, the Auckland group lies fifty miles more to the west than is shown by Laurie in his chart published in 1853, Norie in his "Epitome of Navigation," and Findlay in his "Pilot of the Pacific Ocean."