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Wrecked on a Reef

Chapter V. — A Moment of Despair - Our Encampment - a Combat of Sea-Lions - Capture of One of These Animals

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Chapter V.
A Moment of Despair - Our Encampment - a Combat of Sea-Lions - Capture of One of These Animals.

The wind continued to blow violently, and the rain fell without intermission.

Having been soaked through, as people say, for many hours, we shivered with cold. Our first thought was to kindle a fire — but how? Not one of us had steel or tinder-box. All at once Harry uttered a cry of joy. Fumbling in his pockets, he had come upon a small box of fuzees. But, alas! the sea water had rendered them quite damp. At Harry's exclamation, George had gone to a neighbouring thicket, and he quickly returned with a handful of small twigs, nearly dry, which he had found under the trunk of a tree. Harry then took one of his fuzees and rubbed it softly, with the utmost caution, in the hope of igniting it; but in vain. He essayed a second, a third, a fourth; all were useless; they would not catch light. We were grouped around him, anxious, in quiet, scarcely breathing, waiting for a spark. Harry, who had paused for a moment discouraged, recommenced; a moment, and we heard a crackling; oh, how our hearts beat! We pressed closely round him, so as to form a rampart against the wind, and protect the feeble flame; soon a joyous crepitation became audible, our fire was beginning to burn! Alick ran immediately to fill the tea-pot at a tiny stream of fresh water which trickled close at hand, and placed it on the fire. In a quarter of an hour we had some tea, which we drank heartily, while eating a biscuit, and warming our frozen limbs.

Our repast finished, my companions sallied forth, each in a different direction, in search of a cave or grotto, whither we might transport our provisions, and which would afford us a shelter from the bad weather. Before departing, they collected in the neighbourhood a quantity of dead page 53
"We Pressed Closely Round, to Protect the Flame."

"We Pressed Closely Round, to Protect the Flame."

page 54wood, which they placed in a heap by my side: being good for nothing else, on account of my weakness, I could at least occupy myself, during their absence, in keeping alive the fire, which had become of such value to us — as sacred as was that flame which of old the virgins of Vesta tended! Not more than they, could we suffer it to die out, for with it would also die out our lives.

While discharging the duty devolved upon me, I was not long in discovering that the soil itself burned, and that it was forming a cavity underneath the fire. I immediately conjectured — what I afterwards assured myself of— that the soil was a land of bog-peat, proceeding from the decomposition of vegetable matters, and resting immediately on the rock. It is soft, spongy, and always impregnated with water. On the shore it varies from three to seven feet in thickness, but gradually diminishes as the land rises higher above the sea-level.

Alone, and abandoned to myself, you may guess of what melancholy reflections I was soon the victim. I began to think of my family, of others who were dear to me, and whom, at that moment, I loved with redoubled tenderness. I was separated from them by a whole hemisphere. How and when should I escape from this island, hidden in the midst of the seas, and lying beyond the limits of the inhabited world? Perhaps, never! A violent despair overmastered me. I felt my heart swell; I was almost suffocated; tears which I could not restrain filled my eyes, and I wept like a child.

Then I uttered the name of God, and I thought of that Infinite, All-powerful Being who rules over the world. I knelt down on the humid soil, and pouring my anguish into His bosom, I implored His assistance for myself and my companions in misfortune.

After this, I rose to my feet; I felt more tranquil. The maxim which I had so often heard uttered, and which, doubtlessly, I had often repeated with indifference, "Help thyself and Heaven will help thee," returned to my recollection, and assumed a new, impressive, luminous meaning. I perceived that, in our situation, to abandon one's-self to despair, was simply self-destruction — was to solicit death.

Thenceforth, I firmly resolved to combat and drive away the gloomy thoughts which had assailed me, and I felt a desire to render myself as useful as I could, and without delay, to my comrades, who had, all of them, done so much for me.

Animated by this desire, I collected my energies, and emerged from the [unclear: little tent] under which I had been resting, in the midst of the articles saved from the wreck. Holding in one hand the empty tea-kettle, and with the page 55
"I Knelt Down on the Humid Soil"

"I Knelt Down on the Humid Soil"

page 56other clinging to the branches I found within my reach, step by step I contrived to gain the brook. Having arrived there, though the distance was scarcely fifty yards, I seated myself on the trunk of a tree for a moment's rest. After which, I filled my tea-pot, and, quite proud of my exploit, returned and set it on the fire; with the view of agreeably surprising my comrades when they came back, by offering them a little hot tea, which the poor fellows, wet and weary, would doubtlessly drink with pleasure.

About an hour later they dropped in, one by one, with heads bent down, and the rain trickling from their garments; they had not found a solitary place of refuge.

When they had seated themselves around the fire, closely packed, one against the other, beneath the rude covering of our impromptu tent, which was much too small to hold us and our provisions, we discussed what steps should be taken to release us, if possible, from our difficulties.

George and Harry had lost courage, and could find words only to lament their fate. They regretted that they had not perished outright; that they had blindly obeyed the instinct of self-preservation in taking refuge on this rock, so seldom visited by ships, and where, in all probability, we were destined to die a lingering and painful death.

Alick, his forehead wrinkled with thought, more taciturn than ever, uttered not a word.

Musgrave, his face pale and furrowed, struggled visibly to repress his anguish.

"Courage, my friends!" I exclaimed; "God does not abandon those who rely upon Him."

And addressing myself more particularly to Musgrave, I recalled to his mind the pledge given by our associates.

"Even if they should remember it," he replied, "they will seek for us on Campbell Island, and that not for three or four months to come. Who knows, besides, whether they will? They may suppose that we have found the tin-mine, and made preparations for working it: will they be agreeable, think you, that others, searching in our track, should also discover it, and anticipate them in asking from government the concession of the island? Certainly it will be against their interest to do so."

"However great," I answered, "may be the power of self-interest over the human heart, we have no reason to fear such an act of inhumanity. I know Sarpy — he was my childhood's friend — I will answer for his fidelity. As for his partner, he is your kinsman, and, his attachment to you is a guarantee that he will not break his word. The ship which they will send to Campbell Island, finding it abandoned by us, will assuredly come after page 57us to the Aucklands, which lie in its route."

"But should it happen otherwise!" murmured Musgrave; "ah, my poor wife' my poor children! What will be their fate, if I am not restored to them?"

And overcome by his emotion, this man, usually so strong, so calm, in the presence of danger, hid his face his hands, and sobbed aloud.

George and Harry were silent. In truth, we were all dumb before this great agony of our unfortunate companion. We dared not turn our eyes towards him; we were penetrated with respect and sympathy.

After allowing him a little time to recover himself, I spoke again.

"We must not allow," I said, "a moment of trial to unman us. We are men, let us prove it. For my part, I have faith, and I am of opinion that we should use every exertion to render our condition here as comfortable as possible, until our friends send us assistance, which will not fail to arrive."

My confident air revived the courage of my companions. "Let us try," they said; and it was agreed that while I remained on shore to watch over the fire, they should endeavour, in the boat, to regain the Grafton, and bring away some sails, ropes, and planks, with which we might build ourselves a cabin larger and more convenient than our miserable shelter.

They started on their voyage immediately, and, in spite of wind and wave, were completely successful. They returned with all the necessary materials, and plunged into the wood to fix upon a suitable place for our encampment.

This wood is very dense, in fact almost impenetrable, in the neighbourhood of the shore, where, as I have said, the stratum of peat is thickest. It is composed of a tangle of shrubs, heaths, ferns, and grasses of every kind, dominated over by three species of trees. Of these the most remarkable is a kind of iron wood, with a thin bark, whose trunk measures from ten to twelve inches in diameter. This trunk is generally twisted in the most fantastic fashion; a condition which may be attributed to the constant struggle it has to maintain against the winds. It seems that in the moments of respite it hastens to resume its normal mode of growth, and to rise perpendicularly; then comes the buffeting wind again, and beaten down anew, it bows, and writhes, and humiliates itself, to shoot aloft once more for a foot or so, until soon it falls back vanquished, and is bent towards the ground.*Sometimes these trees, being wholly unsuccessful in their attempts to rise erect, crawl, as it were, along the earth, disappearing every now and then under hillocks of verdant turf, while the portions visible are coated with mosses of every description. The thick gnarled branches share the same fate as the trunk; they attempt at first, as it does, to spring towards page 58the sky, then, forced to abandon their aspiration, they take a horizontal direction. They bear, nevertheless, a thick close foliage which shelters, as a roof might do, a whole subordinate world of shrubs, heaths, and marshy plants. The other two species are, one a small mountain pine, the other a white-wooded tree, with broad green leaves.

After having explored the forest, my companions selected the spot least encumbered by vegetation, and set to work to clear it. They had taken care to bring from the ship a couple of pickaxes, two iron spades, and an axe, with which we were provided, in view of possible excavations in Campbell Island, as well as a gimlet, an old adze, and a hammer: these were all our tools. The earth having been cleared and levelled, they set about erecting our tent.

Meantime, to my post of Vestal I had added that of chef de cuisine. I prepared the dinner, which, I confess, did not require any great culinary talent on my part, our bill of fare consisting only of a piece of salt beef boiled, with biscuits and a cup of tea.

The banquet finished, Musgrave gave me his arm, and conducted me to our new abode, whither our supply of provisions had already been transported. In front of the entrance, a large fire was kindled, which each of us in turn, throughout the night, undertook to watch and maintain. Then we laid ourselves down on some boughs spread upon the earth, and endeavoured to get a little rest.

It was not yet night; the twilight enabled me to discern surrounding objects. My weary comrades had already fallen asleep, when a thousand strange noises attracted my attention. These proceeded from the sea-lions, who were quitting the shores of the bay, where, in the daytime, they had hunted for prey, and came to seek shelter for the night in the forest shades. I could hear the voices of the females calling their little ones (very numerous at this season of the year) to suckle them. Every now and then the loud roar of a male could be heard. Speedily a confused noise of crackling plants, and panting breath, and hoarse coughs rose all around us.

But this confusion was speedily overpowered by an extraordinary page 59
"We Laid Ourselves Down on Some Boughs Spread Upon the Earth."

"We Laid Ourselves Down on Some Boughs Spread Upon the Earth."

page 60turmoil. This was caused, I found, by the splintering of broken branches, and by precipitate blows, just as if the moist soil were being struck with battle-dores. To nothing else can I compare it.

My companions, awaking with a start, sprang to their feet. Alick, the first to stand upright, seized the axe. The others, each armed with a cudgel, darted out of the tent. Impelled by curiosity, I followed them.

Behold, at a few paces from our encampment, two sea-lions delivered battle! Our appearance did not disturb them, for they continued to attack each other with the same ferocity.

Each was about eight feet long, and nearly six and a half feet in girth at the shoulders. From thence the body narrowed, until it terminated in a couple of little fins. It was covered with a short, thick, smooth hair, of a chocolate colour. The fore-paws, from four to five inches in length, wore, on their upper surface, a fine and delicate fur, tawny, or rather bronze, and underneath, a thick, black, corrugated skin. These large fins, or paws, were attached, by means of a short, thick arm, to their enormous shoulders. The latter, as well as the neck, and a part of the head, were covered with a shaggy, iron-gray mane, which, during their combat, the two champions bristled up, and shook every now and then in fury.

Pressing one against the other, their eyes glowing, their nostrils expanded and snuffing the air with a loud noise, their lips, trembling with rage, turned upwards, these monsters opened wide their enormous jaws, surmounted by long, stiff moustaches, and displaying the most formidable tusks. Every moment they flung themselves upon one another, and bit and gnawed, tearing away great shreds of flesh, or inflicting gashes whence the blood flowed in abundant streams. They exhibited an audacity, a vigour, and a fury truly worthy of their terrestrial homonym — the monarch of the African deserts.

After contemplating for some time this curious spectacle, we resolved to put an end to the encounter, whose din had prevented us from sleeping. It occurred to George and Harry to pluck a couple of burning brands out of the fire, and to throw them between the combatants. This scheme was entirely successful. Before the unknown enemy, which burned their flesh, the two seals recoiled with loud roars, and finally fled into the forest, each in a different direction. Yet it appeared that their hatred was not extinguished; for we soon afterwards heard the sounds of a fresh attack, though at too great a distance to inconvenience us.

The night passed in tranquillity. Yet, on our hard, wet planks, we tasted but a fitful slumber, disturbed by continual nightmares, and on the page 61following morning arose with stiffened limbs, feverish, and more fatigued than before we went to sleep.

The rain had ceased, and the wind was more moderate. The clouds were breaking, and revealed here and there some patches of blue sky.

All about the tent we detected traces of sea-lions. Some were still fresh; but the amphibia had disappeared — had all returned to the sea.

Yet, just as we were on the point of retiring, a slight rustle in the adjacent wood indicated the presence of some straggler who was making for the shore.

Desirous of tasting the flesh of these animals, which might, in no short time, become our only food, my comrades, seizing axe and cudgels, started off in pursuit. In the midst of such an inextricable network of vegetation, he had a great advantage over them; for while they were impeded by the tall vegetation, and at every step ran the risk of falling into some hole or crevasse, and painfully clambered over the trunks of the prostrate trees, the seal easily glided under the brushwood, and drew near to the sea. Several times I heard the hunters asking one another in what direction he had vanished. Then they would halt, and listen eagerly for the slightest sound, and having gained some trifling indication of the animal's progress, would suddenly resume their march. The pursuit lasted for half an hour, the seal drawing them to such a distance that I could not hear the sound of their footsteps, nor even of their voices, until some loud shouts and exclamations were borne upon the wind. Then I understood that my comrades had overtaken and despatched the fugitive.

And before long, in truth, I saw them returning, each with a portion of the animal on his back.

They did not effect their return, however, without difficulty. They had taken their way along the seashore, so that they might not again be forced to traverse the forest. But sometimes, to double the spur of a precipitous cliff, they were forced to wade up to their waists through the waters; sometimes, loaded as they were, to climb the abrupt, steep rocks — in the former case, running the risk of being carried away by the current; and in the latter, of falling to the bottom of a precipice. Fortunately, no accident occurred. They arrived safe and sound, bent double by their burden, their clothes soaked in salt water, and besmeared by the still steaming flesh of the seal.

After cleansing themselves in the fresh water of the brook, and drying their clothes before a good fire, they did full justice to the meal which I had prepared for them; after which Musgrave, George, and Alick took advantage of the ebb to go on board the Grafton, in search of various articles they had been unable to remove.

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Meanwhile, Harry and I were engaged with household cares. We carried outside the tent our provisions, our tools, all which had been placed there in haste, and were wetted by the rain or sea-water, including the planks on which we took our rest. These we exposed in the open air to dry. Then we lighted in the middle a huge fire, to dry the ground, and to season, as far as possible, our habitation.

* This description reminds us of Dante's forest in the seventh circle of his Inferno:

"We entered on a forest, where no track
Of steps had worn a way. Not verdant there
The foliage, but of dusky hue; not light
The boughs and tapering, but with knares deformed
And matted thick: fruits there were none, but thorns
Instead, with venom filled."
Dante, Inferno, book i., canto xiii., 2-7 (Cary's translation).