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Wrecked on a Reef

Chapter VIII. — Completion of Our Hut -I Manufacture Some Soap -From the Summit of the Mountain - Erection of a Signal Post - the Cormorants

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Chapter VIII.
Completion of Our Hut -I Manufacture Some Soap -From the Summit of the Mountain - Erection of a Signal Post - the Cormorants

Next day we resumed the construction of our hut. The posts we had cut in the forest were sunk some inches deep into the ground on each side of the little structure, and fixed at the top to the transversal beams of the framework. Then over the entire superficies of this palisade we fastened horizontal and parallel rows of laths, or thin planks, and the rafters of the roof we covered in the same manner. The next task was to fill up the interstices of this trellis-work with straw, instead of oakum or putty, as we had neither.

For this purpose we made use of a coarse, long and strong grass, which grew in thick tufts on the sea-shore and along the edge of the cliffs. Each of us, taking with him a rope, set out at daybreak to collect this grass, returning, after some hours, with three or four enormous bundles. The reader may think that this occupation was rather amusing than otherwise, but, in reality, it gave us a good deal of trouble.

In the tufts which we cut down were a large number of dry blades mingled with the green, and these dry blades were not only extremely hard, but jagged at the edges, and sharp as a knife. Now we had to catch hold of them near the root to cut them down, so that when we returned home our hands were covered with blood, and literally gashed. These tiny wounds, not having time to close, eventually caused us an agony so keen as more than once to interrupt our work.

When we had at length collected a sufficient quantity of grass, we spent several days in tying it up with thread in small bundles about as thick as a man's arm. As fast as these were got ready, my companions passed them to page 78me, and, resting them on a log of wood, I cut off, with a few blows of the axe, all the straws which bulged out of, or projected from, the bundle.

It took no fewer than nine thousand of these little sheaves to cover the sides and roof of our cabin; and this is how we disposed of them:

Commencing at the bottom of the framework, we bound them against the planking side by side, exactly on a level, and taking care that no space was left between them. When the first row was finished, we placed the second, which partly overlapped it; then above the second a third; and so on, up to the top of the walls, and thence to the very summit of the roof. The sheaves were upwards of a yard in length, and formed an outer covering of nine to ten inches in thickness.

To prevent the wind from taking hold of our thatched walls, and stripping them clean, we fastened outside a quantity of laths, connected with those inside by loops of twine, which we carried through holes made in the straw with a wooden needle — a wooden needle of the size of a sword-blade! In the upper part of the walls we cut three small openings, into which we inserted, with the utmost nicety, some panes of glass which had belonged to the cabin of the Grafton, and which we had found intact. These were our windows.

This great work accomplished, the condition of our hands, still suffering from contact with the jagged grass, compelled us to take a few days' rest.

We employed them in repairing our clothes, which stood in great need of tailoring skill. We could not enter the forest without tearing them into rags; nor, so far as cleanliness is concerned, were they less badly served by the oily seal-flesh which we had to cut up and carry about. We found ourselves able to fashion for each of us a pair of trousers out of some sail-cloth; and a blouse, which we wore over our clothes when exercising our trades of butchers and hunters. We did not succeed in protecting ourselves completely, however; and the water of the brook, economical as we were in using it, was insufficient to counteract the effects, every day more apparent, of the unpleasant work to which we were condemned. Here, then, a great question arose. We were threatened with the loss of self-respect, or of becoming to our own eyes an object of disgust.

The idea then occurred to me that I would attempt the manufacture of some soap.

When I spoke of it to my companions, they hinted doubts and insinuated difficulties which were slightly satirical: they did not see how I was to procure the indispensable materials, at least unless I was in possession of some magic means, some cabalistic words. I let them talk on, page 79reserving to myself the pleasure of convincing them of the results of the experiments which I proposed to try on the following day.

It was evening: after I had entered in my diary the day's proceedings, I laid myself down by the side of my companions on our hard wooden couch.

I have omitted to mention that, among the articles saved from the wreck, we had found a small bottle of ink, which, to me particularly, was very precious. Every evening, before retiring to rest, I wrote in the official log-book which, in my capacity of second officer, I was obliged to keep during the voyage, the meteorological or any other observations taken in the course of the day. I added to these a brief narrative of our doings and adventures; sometimes I allowed myself to jot down my individual impressions.

On his part, Musgrave every Sunday, or every fortnight, recorded in his journal the detailed history of our island life.*

It was agreed that in case misfortune pursued us to the end, and condemned us to perish in the isle, the last survivor should enclose our two diaries in a tin box, which he should conceal under a cairn of stones in front of the door of our hut. Then, at all events, if the crew of any vessel landed on the desert shore, they would be sure to examine the pile and discover the deposit, and our compatriots (alas! perhaps not our contemporaries) would become acquainted with our melancholy fate.

"Friday, February 5. Since the 20th of January we have had a succession of strong winds, principally from the west, and numerous showers of rain. The day before yesterday, and yesterday particularly, the wind was very violent; this morning a moderate breeze sprang up in the north-west, and the weather is clear and mild.

"Musgrave, George, and Harry have just set out to undertake the ascent of the mountain at whose foot we are encamped. I would fain have followed them, but I felt myself still too weak in my limbs to attempt so fatiguing an excursion. As for Alick, the poor boy has not been well for the last day or two; he requires repose, and therefore remains with me.

"Our brave Norwegian, who is full of zeal and activity, has undoubtedly abused his strength of late in carrying bundles of straw, stones, or pieces of wood to the hillock, and the illness from which be suffers is probably the result of his excessive exertions. May it be nothing worse!

* Published under the title of "Cast Away at the Auckland Isles."

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"Since I was ill, I have experienced, on the appearance of the slightest indisposition, a terrible fear lest the disease should pounce on one of my companions, and terminate fatally. I am persuaded that the death of any one of us, in our present circumstances, would most injuriously affect the morale of the others, and perhaps be attended with fatal consequences to all of us. So my constant prayer is, that in our already severe affliction, God would spare us this trial."

So soon as my companions had started, I set to work to carry out the project I had conceived on the preceding day, and attempted the manufacture of soap. First, I cut down some wood, and constructed a pile about three feet and a half in height. Then I collected along the shore several thick tufts of dried marine plants — which our enemies, the little black flies, did not allow me to do with impunity. I also gathered a small quantity of pounded shells. The whole was placed on the wood pile, which I ignited in the evening, and allowed to burn all night.

Next morning I found a mass of ashes, which I deposited in a cask placed erect on two great blocks of wood, and in whose bottom I had drilled several small holes with the gimlet. I poured water on the stratum of ashes, and the operation took place which we see taking place daily in a coffee-filter. The water dripped, and I collected a liquid charged with soda, potash, and a certain quantity of lime in solution. To this liquid I added a sufficient proportion of seal-oil, boiled the mixture, and obtained an excellent soap, which was of inestimable value to us, both as regarded health and cleanliness.

The preceding evening my companions returned from their mountain excursion, worn with fatigue. The roast joint of cold seal which I put on the table, and which generally composed our supper, appeared to them first-rate. What an appetite had their exercise given them! They were not less well disposed towards the soup (also of seal), which for some days we had made our ordinary drink t meals, so as to economise the little tea remaining, which we thought it prudent to reserve for cases of illness.

They spoke with great animation of what they had seen. Musgrave favoured me with the following detailed narrative:

The Ascent of the Mountain

When they had made their way, not without difficulty, through the intertangled forest, and passed beyond the line of the great trees, they found themselves confronted by still more serious difficulties. The soil became a complete swamp, and was covered with a multitude of low shrubs, lianas, and herbs of all descriptions, whose intertangled growth page 81formed an impassable barrier. Looking for some opening in this compact mass, they came upon a gap close to the ground, a land of tunnel which had evidently been wrought by some sea-lion of tolerable proportions. And it was evident, too, that this animal had effected a passage only by crawling with his head and body flat upon the ground. They therefore assumed the same position, and at the risk of finding themselves face to face with a seal, they set to work, and crept through the narrow passage, in the middle of the mud, and through pools of miry water. On issuing from this defile, their clothes were incrusted with a coat of black mud, which they were obliged to scrape off with their knives.

Gradually this dense forest of shrubs and bushes grew clearer and more open, and gave way to a growth of herbage which sprang up in tufts, like the grasses of the shore, but whose leaves were not flat, or sharp at the edges. The ground continued on the rise; and the vegetation, scantier and yet scantier as they advanced, finally disappeared; before them towered the bare gray rocks of the mountain summit.

They had now to undertake a positive ascent, which in some places was not unattended with danger. They scaled steep precipices, clinging to ledges or projections, and literally suspended in the air. Finally, they gained the topmost peak, and were rewarded for their exertions by the magnificent panorama unrolled before their eyes.

Around them was a labyrinthine accumulation of peaks, and ridges, and escarpments. Here and there a glacier glittered in the sun. Down the mountain-slopes, a thousand streamlets, fed by the almost perpetual mists which collect about the summits, wound their silvery paths, like uncoiled ribbons of silver.

To the south they recognised Adam Island, the most elevated of the group, blocking up the horizon with its bulk. In the west extended, from north to south, a prolonged ridge, broken up by enormous masses of rocks, like to colossal fortresses; each gap was a precipice. Towards the north, several less elevated ranges, starting from the principal chain, and diminishing gradually in elevation, abutted, in the east, on the sea-washed cliffs; they divided the island into numerous great furrows, in which were sunken bogs of greater or lesser depth, which from their lofty altitude the explorers could not distinguish. One, and the nearest, of these ridges, was crowned by two mountains, rising one beside another in the same line — the Giant's Peak and the Giant's Tomb. Nearer still, in the east, might be seen an isolated rock, with a chasm yawning in its summit.

Such was the foreground. Beyond, at the northern extremity of Auckland Island, many other islands were plainly visible. The largest and page 82
"Issuing From this Defile."

"Issuing From this Defile."

page 83the most level would be Enderby Island.*

To the north-east, the sea broke against the numerous reefs which we had perceived in that direction on our arrival. Their presence was indicated by the long crests of glittering foam, which stretched out a dozen miles to sea.

Further, still further, on every side, the view was lost in the mighty expanse of ocean. My companions surveyed it wistfully, with a gaze which penetrated to the most distant horizon, but could not see a solitary sail.

"The view of this sea, this boundless and desolate sea," said Musgrave at last, "has made me ill." He was silent; but his comrades knew that that silence did but guard his anxious, painful thoughts.

"Certainly," he resumed a few minutes later, addressing himself to me, "I believe as you do in the goodness of Providence, but it trusts us to one another; it wills that man should work for those dependent upon him. And now look at me. What can I do here for the welfare of my family? What will become of them?"

I assured him, in a tone of firm conviction, that he would see them again, and that one day or other we should be delivered.

"Well," said he, forcing himself to recover his usual courage, "let us then neglect nothing which may contribute to our safety. We have omitted one essential particular; that is, to erect a signal to attract the attention of any passing vessel, and indicate our presence. A ship might sail by these shores without once suspecting that we were here. We must immediately plant a signal somewhere."

We were all of his opinion, and it was agreed that this should be the next day's task.

We had an empty bottle. Musgrave, before going to rest, wrote a dispatch, embodying all the necessary facts and instructions, and inserted it in the bottle, which he afterwards sealed up carefully with some of the pitch collected from the timbers of the Grafton.

"Saturday, February 6. Weather cloudy and threatening; the wind blows from the north with increasing violence. The barometer has sunk during the night; it will not be prudent to venture into the bay in our canoe.

"While I am fully engaged in manufacturing soap, Musgrave and the others have gone on board the wreck in search of some wood. With the iron pincer, they have torn down the partition between the cabin and the hold, and have obtained a small supply of nails, which will be very useful in completing the equipment, so to speak, of our chimney. They have also

* Discovered by a whaling-captain of that name in 1840

page 84brought away all the remaining long and narrow timbers of the schooner's bulwarks; they will serve to make a floor, which is really indispensable to the healthiness of our new abode.

"Sunday, February 7. A light westerly breeze; the weather clear; barometer falling. This morning, at an early hour, we launched our boat, and set off to erect a signal on the coast of Musgrave Peninsula, opposite the principal entrance of Port Carnley. Alick, having recovered from his indisposition, was able to accompany us.

"On one of the points of the peninsula, nearly in the centre of the pass, we found, on the summit of the cliff an open and exposed site well adapted for our purpose. We sunk a good depth into the peat a long stout pole, surmounted by a flag of sail-cloth, and steadied by four ropes fastened in four different directions to strong stakes. Underneath the flag we suspended the bottle containing the instructions which Musgrave wrote last night.

"In this excursion, Musgrave nearly met with a fatal accident. On entering the forest in quest of a pine for the flagstaff of our signal-post, we encountered a sea-lion, lying across our path asleep. She was a very young female, and, awakened by the noise of our footsteps, she took to flight precipitately; we followed in pursuit.

"Each of us had armed himself with his cudgel to penetrate into the forest, except Musgrave, who, on this occasion, chanced to take my gun. As when we went to the bay I always carried it with me, it had been loaded some days before.

"In the course of the hunt, coming close upon the animal, he fired. The first discharge, however, had no effect, the gun being only loaded with shot. Musgrave tried the second barrel, but it hung fire. After fruitlessly using up three caps, he grew discouraged; but as he rested the gun on the ground to re-load the first barrel, it went off. The ball passed through the nap of his hat close to his forehead! His face black with powder, and his features discomposed by the sudden surprise, Musgrave let go the weapon, and recoiling a step, supported himself for a moment against the trunk of a tree. Thinking he was wounded, we abandoned our chase, and hastened to his assistance. The seal took advantage of the incident; she gained the shore, and escaped our pursuit by plunging into the waves.

"When our signal was erected, we took several observations; for whenever we went out on the bay, Musgrave and I were accustomed to lay down a portion of a chart of the harbour. For this purpose we had adopted a system of triangulation by means of the compass. Nor did we ever neglect to take with us our sounding-line, to measure the depth of water.

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"On the Summit of the Cliff."

"On the Summit of the Cliff."

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"In returning, we passed near a headland frequented by a great number of cormorants. These birds, which are nearly the size of a duck, are often met with in the Auckldands. They are generally found perched on the lowest rocks which project into the bay, or else skimming the surface of the waves to prey upon the sardine, of which they are specially fond.*

"Anxious for a little variety in our daily food, I fired two barrels at the cormorants, and brought down six-and-twenty. Their flesh, notwithstanding its oily flavour, is less disagreeable than that of seal.

"As we skirted the cliffs, we had an opportunity of observing their stratification. They seemed to us composed of basalt, trap, gray volcanic scoria;, somewhat porous, but very hard, and of some veins of a soft and greenish stone. Here and there, on the margin of the sea, we found agglomerations of pebbles cemented together by a kind of lava which, when we broke off a bit, was of a beautiful purple colour, sometimes shading into violet. During the whole time of our residence in the Aucklands we found neither sandstone nor slate, no clay nor chalk.

"On the north coast of Musgrave Peninsula, I noticed some beds of a yellowish-gray granite, of large grain, about seven feet in thickness, and inclining towards the south-east at an angle of 22°.

"A little beyond, after having passed the isthmus which links the peninsula to the mainland, the coast assumed the appearance of an abruptly truncated hill, and described an arc of a circle, in whose centre the cliffs rose to an elevation of about three hundred and twenty feet. On a headland of some extent were visible the traces of a landslip, caused, no doubt, by the recent heavy showers.

"After leaving this point, the west wind, increasing in strength, compelled us to lower our sail and take to our oars as far as Shipwreck Bay, where we arrived in the afternoon.

"Having done full justice to the repast which Harry had made ready for us, we spent the remainder of the day in plucking our cormorants, which we hung in couples to the loftiest branches of the surrounding trees, to place them out of the reach of the attacks of the flies: we had remarked that the latter never rose very high, probably on account of the wind. In this respect our plan succeeded wonderfully well, but soon an inconvenience presented itself which we had not foreseen. The falcons, which are keen of sight, quickly detected the baits, which we seemed to have exposed on

* More than once the idea occurred to us of fishing, like the cormorants, for sardines, and of making nets out of the threads of sail-cloth; but the seals, which hunt these fishes, destroyed them for us, and we abandoned the idea.

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"I Fired two Barrels at the Cormorants, and Brought Down Six-and-Twenty."

"I Fired two Barrels at the Cormorants, and Brought Down Six-and-Twenty."

page 88purpose for their benefit, and hastened towards them in crowds. Planted on the trees which skirted the forest, they eyed our game with a greedy air, waiting only for a favourable moment to pounce upon the easy prey. We were not long in removing our birds, however, and the thieves were disappointed of the excellent booty they had promised themselves.

"On the approach of the falcons, the charming little singers which were accustomed to hover about us, and beguile the tedium of our work by their joyous strains, had fled into the depths of the forest, uttering sharp cries of alarm, as if to warn one another of the presence of their formidable foes. It was this which had given us warning in time to save our game.