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Wrecked on a Reef

Chapter VI. — The Blue Flies - Our Birds - Our First Joint of Roast Meat -we Project the Building of a House - Common Prayer

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Chapter VI.
The Blue Flies - Our Birds - Our First Joint of Roast Meat -we Project the Building of a House - Common Prayer.

AT Auckland exists an incredible quantity of large blue flies. Less delicate than our European flies, they withstand the cold weather, and live in every season. Even in winter they retain their activity, and continue to deposit their larvae, especially at times of heavy rain, fogs, or damp weather; and as, at Auckland, dampness, fogs, and rain prevail almost uninterruptedly, this country is a real paradise for them. A fragment of rotten wood, the core of a decomposed fern, or even a plant which a sea-lion has grazed in passing, but, above all, the places where these animals sleep — such are the spots to which they are most partial, and there they assemble in myriads to lay their eggs.

We found these disgusting insects a complete scourge, against which we must take every kind of precaution. They had penetrated into our tent in great numbers, and had left abundant marks of their presence. When Harry moved our articles to carry them outside, they arose in swarms, and, instead of seeking the open air, settled against the inside walls. But when the fire was lighted, they began to stir about, inconvenienced probably by the smoke; and whirling round and round, they kept up an almost intolerable buzzing until they escaped outside.

"For every ill there is a good," says an old proverb, which this time, at all events, came true. These flies, which so troubled us, attracted numerous charming birds, whose company, and whose songs especially, we found exceedingly agreeable. Never having been alarmed by man, they hovered round about us, and perched themselves on the branches, within easy reach of our hands.

The first to pay us a visit was a little blue robin, whose ash-coloured page 64breast was marked in the centre with a red spot. His tiny voice was clear, silvery, but not very resonant. Numbers of these graceful birds assembled before the entrance, or on the sides of the tent, fixing upon us, as they bent their heads sidelong, a hard-like but watchful eye, which did not suffer a single movement of ours to escape it. They were very partial to the flies — seizing them on the wing, or coming to take them from our fingers, or picking them off our clothes, where they would perch themselves when we lay quiet.

We had also for neighbours, in the wood, some small, green, red-headed parrots, whose presence, the first time we saw them, greatly astonished us in the cold, damp climate of our island. These birds, as a rule, frequent the Tropics only, or, at least, regions at no great distance from them. Ours, however, seemed very well pleased and fully satisfied with their lot. It seems to me not impossible that some hurricane from the North had one day blown some individuals of this species from New Zealand. Finding in the Aucklands abundant evergreens to shelter, and copious supplies of seed to nourish them, they grew acclimatised.

But the commonest, and, at the same time, most interesting species which inhabits this island, is a bird of a brownish-green, slightly yellow underneath, insectivorous like the robin, and not less partial to flies. He is nearly the size of the canary, and, like that bird, of an inexhaustible gaiety. Whether the weather is bad or good, it matters little to him: he sings with a full heart. When we passed through the forest, a company of these birds almost always hovered round us, or perched on the neighbouring trees. We marched to the music of a concert. Expanding their plumage, turning towards one another, as if to excite feelings of mutual admiration, the amiable little minstrels poured out, with all their skill, a succession of melodious sounds. Some times, to excite them still more, I amused myself with whistling a few cadences. Then would occur an explosion of harmony! — all singing at once, until you would have thought yourself in an aviary. We also met, but more rarely, with a jet-coloured bird, about the size of the English merle. About the neck his feathers are long, forming a ruff or collar, like those of a cock: they are lit up with gleams of bronze. Above and on the breast he has two large, white, floating feathers, which give him a very curious appearance, and add to the gravity of his mien.

Upon these inoffensive passerines a bird of prey wages the deadliest war. He is a falcon, like those of Europe, and very common in the Aucklands. We frequently saw these birds perched in couples on the dead trees of the shore — motionless, silent, their head half hidden under their wings, their large fixed eyes exploring space.

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When the smoke had delivered us from the clouds of flies which had invaded the tent, we turned our attention to the seal killed by our companions. She was a female, about one year old, weighing very nearly one hundred and twenty pounds. Her skin, which Musgrave had brought, was covered with a short, smooth hair, of a brown colour, with silvery reflections. Harry unwound the strands of a rope's end, and with these suspended a quarter of the animal to the branch of a tree. I lighted a large fire close by, and kept the joint turning by touching it at intervals with a small sprig, so that it was thoroughly well cooked for our dinner.

Towards noon, our comrades returned to the camp, bringing with them the compass of the Grafton, which Musgrave had dismantled, some sails, all the cooking and table utensils they had been able to save, the great iron pot, and our trunks. They had also brought ashore all the empty bottles. These they had left on the strand, above high-water mark.

A few moments afterwards, seated in a circle on some logs of timber before the entrance of the tent, we bravely attacked our joint of roast seal. The black, coarse, oleaginous flesh, which was as little agreeable to the smell as to the taste, did not appear to us a very satisfactory repast. But we felt we must accustom ourselves to it. If this, the flesh of a young animal, was so repugnant, what would be the case when we were compelled to make use of that of the old? For it was probable that we should not always be at liberty to choose our game.

Our hunger, if not our taste, being tolerably satisfied, we opened the chests to take out and dry their contents.

Happily, the gunpowder in mine was not wetted: it was contained in tin cases, each holding about a pound, and hermetically sealed. Musgrave's chronometer, thanks to the well-lined box in which it was enclosed, had not suffered at all, and, notwithstanding the violent shocks to which it had been exposed, had not even stopped. The other instruments were our sextant, a metal barometer, and a Fahrenheit thermometer. All the other articles — our marine charts, some books, and our clothes (of which unfortunately we had brought but a small stock, counting only on a short absence) — were completely deluged.

My gun was covered with rust. While I was engaged in cleaning it, my companions laid out upon the trunks of the trees, and hung up to the branches, our clothes and linen, and lighted several large fires around.

Towards evening these were all collected, and deposited carefully within the tent; and wrapped in dry coverlets, we were able to enjoy a little comfort and repose.

The rain having again begun to fall during the night, we perceived that page 66
"It Was Thoroughly Well Cooked for Our Dinner."

"It Was Thoroughly Well Cooked for Our Dinner."

page 67our shelter of sail-cloth was utterly insufficient in such a climate; and we determined, as soon as the day had reappeared, to construct a more comfortable abode — a little timber hut.

Though walking still with difficulty, I felt my strength returning, and I followed my companions to the mouth of the little brook which rippled near the tent. It emptied itself into the bay, nearly opposite the wrecked vessel. Close beside it spread a small beach, covered with rocky fragments: we cleared and levelled it as well as we were able, in order to haul up our canoe above the reach of the tide and the waves. Further up, on the same stretch of shore, rose a small hill, or rather a rounded hillock, thirty-five to forty feet in height, and covered, like the rest of the littoral, with a dense vegetation. As we were anxious to keep as near as possible to the Grafton, this seemed a convenient site for our projected building; all the more so that its comparative elevation would render it an easy task to keep it free from damp. We resolved to erect our new habitation there.

For three days Musgrave, George, and Alick were busy felling trees, cutting them up into lengths, and piling them up on the hill-side. Harry attended to the cooking, and went from time to time to lend them a hand. As for myself, being too feeble for any hard work, I mended the torn clothing of my companions.

When a sufficient space had been cleared, another day was occupied in levelling the soil; and the day after, as the trees of the island yielded only a bent, knotty, and twisted wood, wholly unfit for building purposes, they repaired to the Grafton for the necessary materials. They returned with the yards and lightest spars, intended for the framework of our edifice.

For these five days the weather was almost continually bad: we experienced a hurricane nearly as severe as that which had driven us ashore. When at length the rain and wind ceased, the sky remained covered and loaded with dense black clouds, through which a sort of twilight found its way, gray and gloomy. And yet it was the middle of summer!

I open my journal, and there I read the following notes:

"Today, Sunday, a light breeze from the west has driven away the clouds: the sky is at length visible, and its luminous azure arches above our heads. The scene, which recently appeared so rough, so wild, so inhospitable, when the hurricane held it in its mighty constraint, now seems to be transfigured. Behold how sweet it is — how smiling! Should we not see in this a happy omen, a promise of happiness and approaching deliverance?

"Or by this soft appeal does the Creator wish to move our hearts, to reproach our forgetfulness tenderly, our indifference to His goodness? For page 68if in our childhood we had experienced any religious sentiments, we had since allowed them to die out, or at least to slumber, enervated as we were in a treacherous security, or more often held back by a false shame and the foolish dread of ridicule.

"In this moment of peace and benediction, after the terrible trials we had undergone, we all of us felt in the bottom of our hearts the awakening of an irresistible need of devotion, of an indefinable secret emotion, which led us at the same time to humble ourselves and to adore.

"We belonged to different communions; but who bethought themselves of such divisions? How utterly were they all effaced! how every barrier was broken down! The five of us were now of the same belief, the same faith — that of the man who finds himself alone, face to face with the Creator, with the Being infinite and all powerful, and who humbly confides to Him his troubles, his wants, and his hopes.

"Musgrave had a Bible. He had found it in his trunk, where, without his knowledge, his wife had placed it before his departure from Sydney. We begged him to read us some fine passage from the Gospels; and ranged in a circle round him before the tent, we listened with the deepest attention.

"At these words, 'Come to Me, all ye who suffer, and I will comfort you,' and at this command, ''Love one another,' we burst into tears.

"These passages we knew by heart — we had heard them or read them many times; but never had they told so powerfully upon us, never had they conveyed to us so profound, so impressive a signification. It seemed to us as if they were directly addressed to each soul, as if they had been purposedly written for us. They are, in truth, divine.

"After the reading was over, we knelt down, and uttered aloud a fervent prayer."