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Wrecked on a Reef

Chapter XVIII. — Project of Deliverance - Invention and Erection of a Forge- Bellows - Devotion of Everybody to the Common Work

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Chapter XVIII.
Project of Deliverance - Invention and Erection of a Forge- Bellows - Devotion of Everybody to the Common Work.

It was the 25th of December — Christmas Day — a day of sacred rejoicing for all Christians, of domestic happiness for all families.

I had found no day in all the year more painful, more full of agonising impressions and recollections. It was impossible for me to undertake any work, or fix my mind upon the reality. My thoughts flew away, beyond the seas, to my native land. All the merry scenes of which this great festival is the opportunity, presented themselves with extraordinary precision before my eyes.

I saw the streets thronged by an animated crowd; the bells rang aloud their pleasant chimes; from the churches issued the sound of holy song blended with the rich harmonies of the organ; the whole formed a concert, joyous and yet solemn, whose mingled music I felt assured I could plainly hear: but how keen was my suffering when I reflected that I could take no part in all the mirth, that I was separated from it by an impassable abyss!

Then, when evening came, silence reigned without; the streets were deserted; but the windows of every house were lighted up. In each "interior" the board was spread, and dazzling with lustre; and the whole family, from the grandfather to the grandchildren, gathered round it. Gay jests were bandied to and fro, mingled with bursts of laughter; happiness expanded on every countenance.

But on a sudden these ravishing images vanished, to give place to another, a very sad, a very gloomy picture. In a little chamber, sombre and silent, two persons were seated side by side near a fire which they had suffered to die out: they were my father and mother. Their hair was white, their faces were worn and wrinkled, they wore mourning attire. For them page 157there was no joyous Christmas, no family festivities. With heads bowed low, they spoke not, but they wept. They wept for their son, whom they believed to be dead.

To tear myself away from these melancholy visions, I shook off the torpor which weighed upon me. I rose from the bench where for several hours I had been seated, with my elbows on my knees, and my head between my hands, and I looked around me. My companions were lying on the ground, silent, their countenances dark with the dreariest melancholy. Evidently they had been the victims of regrets as bitter, and despair as great, as mine. For a few seconds I considered the spectacle: then, in less time than it takes me to relate it, I felt a complete revolution working within me. To depression succeeded a kind of exaltation; my heart, reinspired by a transport of pride, indignation, and almost wrath, beat violently. With a firm, strong voice I cried: —

"No, this cannot last; it is senseless, it is cowardly. Of what avail are our lamentations and our despair? If men abandon us, let us save ourselves. It is impossible but that, with good will, energy, and perseverance, we shall succeed in escaping from our prison. We ought to be able to do so; in any case, we ought to attempt it. Courage, then, and to work!"

My comrades lifted up their heads and looked at me with surprise, but my exhortation produced little effect upon them; my enthusiasm did not kindle theirs. They asked me what new scheme I had devised.

I then explained to them the idea which had just occurred to my mind, and which, while I spoke, had developed into a settled project.

"I would wish to say," I replied, "that since our boat is too small and frail to undertake a long journey, we must construct a larger and stronger one, in which we may quit this island and gain New Zealand."

In spite of the influence I had obtained over my comrades, and the confidence which they placed in me — a confidence due to the success which, since our shipwreck, had nearly always attended my labours — they did not welcome my proposition so eagerly as I had expected. Some turned pale, and were silent before the terrible prospect of venturing on a sea incessantly vexed by storms; others objected the insurmountable difficulties which, according to them, must necessarily prevent the execution of such an enterprise.

I said no more, but I promised myself that I would set to work, unaided, without a day's delay, thinking that a successful beginning would be the most powerful argument to convince my companions.

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Next day my plan was fully sketched out. To build a boat we must provide ourselves with a sufficient store of tools (for, as I have said we possessed but a hammer, a half-worn axe, an auger, and an old and almost useless adze); but to fabricate new tools a forge was necessary. It was then with the erection of a forge — that is to say, of a furnace, an anvil, and a pair of bellows — that I must in the first place busy myself. The bellows was the most complicated instrument, and by far the most difficult to manufacture: I began with it.

At an early hour I paid a visit to the Grafton, or at least to all that remained of the poor schooner: the breakers had destroyed its upper works; they had left nothing but the empty hulk, which was solidly fixed among the rocks. With our pincers I detached a few sheets of copper, a tolerably large quantity of broad-headed nails, and numerous planks, already shaken by the waves. A sensation of cold which, in the midst of my ardour of work I experienced in the chest, warned me that the tide was rising, and that it was time I regained the shore; I quitted the wreck, carrying with me my precious booty.

I was occupied for fully a week in constructing a machine which had the shape and could do the work of a forge-bellows. This machine was composed of three panels of wood, semicircular on one side, and fashioned to a point on the other. They were made of narrow planks fastened together by transversal beams, which were fixed in their places by wooden pegs. The small saw of my pocket-knife I employed in shaping the planks, and the auger in piercing the holes into which the pegs were inserted. The seams were caulked with tow, which I procured from untwisted ropes.

Of the three panels the middle was the longest, and it ended in a copper tube, which gradually diminished from its base to its extremity. This tube I manufactured by rolling a sheet of copper on an iron bar which I used as a lever; and I joined the edges by doubling them twice over each other, just as tinmen do. Afterwards, I enclosed the base with two little pieces of wood hollow in the middle, which, when brought close together, formed a land of ferrule. This I fastened with pegs to the extremity of the panels.

The two other panels, a little shorter than the former, were attached to it on the pointed side by a couple of hinges made of seal-skin. In this way they were movable, could rise or sink, as wanted, on the middle piece, which remained immovable, when the bellows were fixed in their place between two posts erected in the rear of the fire. In the middle of two of the panels — that is, of the lower and the central — I made two round holes, to which I fitted a couple of leather valves, intended to open for the introduction and to close for the driving back of the air.

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Finally, I completed this wonderful instrument by covering the sides with seal-skin of a suitable shape, nailed to the edges of each of the three panels.

Early in the following week I presented my companions with a genuine forge-bellows in two compartments — that is to say, of double action, capable of furnishing a continuous jet of air — and whose power, when I tested it, surpassed all my anticipations.

As I had hoped, this visible and palpable result was far more eloquent than any reasoning of mine to convince my comrades. In the face of this first success their doubts vanished, hope reinvigorated their hearts and I profited by the happy moment to demand their assistance. A unanimous shout of assent was the reply; all offered to join in a work so manifestly for the common good; and all hastened to compensate for the time which had been lost through their incredulity and hesitation.

Thenceforward the order of our occupations was changed. A superabundance of work imposing on us, it became necessary to divide it, that each might do his share, according to his strength and fitness.

The reader will remember that when we built our house we had still a supply remaining of provisions saved from the wreck. We had drawn upon this supply, and so had been able to devote ourselves to our house-building without spending too much valuable time in hunting after seals. Ever since, it had been wholly owing to our united labours that we had been able to secure the means of subsistence. But now, if we wished to carry our enterprise to a successful termination, it was imperative that the task of providing for the wants of all should be undertaken by two only. It was bravely accepted by George and Harry, the two youngest. Upon them alone fell the heavy labour of hunting and fishing, as well as of cooking and washing, the repair of our clothing, and the management of our household affairs. This enormous and overwhelming task they sustained during the seven months occupied in the building of the boat, with a courage and a devotion which never failed for a single instant. Except on two or three occasions, when, their hunt having been fruitless, we were all obliged to lend a hand, they accomplished the laborious occupations which had previously engaged the efforts of all five of us.

Nor was the work of Alick, our Norwegian, much lighter. He had to supply the forge with fuel, of which it consumed a very great quantity. This wearisome occupation demanded his continued attention both night and day. First, he had to cut down the wood, and form a pile from seven to nine yards thick; then to overlay this pile with turf to kindle it in the middle, and to watch its combustion. And here he had to overcome a great difficulty.

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"He Had to Supply the Forge With Fuel"

"He Had to Supply the Forge With Fuel"

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If the layer of peat were made too thick (and we had no other earth at our disposal), its heat disengaged a great quantity of aqueous vapour, which softened and diluted it into mud: in which case it formed a compact hermetical coating, impervious to the air, and the fire died out. Obviously, the layer of peat must be thin; but then it soon dried up and cracked, and the wind found its way through the fissures, over-stimulating the process of combustion, and kindling a live fire; so that on the following day, instead of charcoal, we found ashes. The sole means of obviating this serious inconvenience was to watch incessantly the condition of the crust of peat, and as soon as any chinks or cracks appeared, to stop them up immediately with pellets of fresh peat.

Such was the rough drudgery which fell to poor Alick's lot: to work all day, and while his companions were taking their rest, to sleep with one eye open, and rise a score of times during the night. Yet he laboured to the very end without a single complaint. Such absolute self-denial is above all praise.

As for Musgrave, he assisted me in building the boat, as well as in the labours of the forge.

We began by building, he and I, beside our hut, a shed, roofed in with the sheets of copper stripped from the sides of the Grafton. Under this shelter we set up our forge-bellows, and in front of them erected a large fireplace of masonry, whose platform was made of the bricks found at Camp Cove.

The only thing wanting then was an anvil. I thought at first of using, as I had often done in Australia, a smooth stone; but stones break easily, and the necessity of replacing them would have frequently caused delay. I once more visited the Grafton, our inexhaustible resource, and among the iron ballast in the hold I was fortunate enough to find a smooth four-sided block of iron, about fourteen inches in length, by three inches and a half in breadth and thickness. I had but to set this in a strong framework of timber, and my anvil was made.