Swiss Family Robinson Chapter 25

Chapter 25

My wife began by saying they had not been idle in my absence. They had collected wood, and made torches for the night. Fritz and Ernest had even cut down an immense sago-palm, seventy feet high, intending to extract its precious pith; but this they had been unable to accomplish alone, and waited for my assistance. But while they were engaged in this employment, a troop of monkeys had broken into the tent and pillaged and destroyed everything; they had drunk or overturned the milk, and carried off or spoiled all our provisions; and even so much injured the palisade I had erected round the tent, that it took them an hour, after they returned, to repair the damage. Fritz had made also a beautiful capture, in a nest he had discovered in the rocks at Cape Disappointment. It was a superb bird, and, though very young, quite feathered. Ernest had pronounced it to be the eagle of Malabar, and I confirmed his assertion; and as this species of eagle is not large, and does not require much food, I advised him to train it as a falcon, to chase other birds. I took this opportunity to announce that henceforward every one must attend to his own live stock, or they should be set at liberty, mamma having sufficient to manage in her own charge.

We then made a fire of green wood, in the smoke of which we placed the buffalo-meat we had brought home, leaving it during the night, that it might be perfectly cured. We had had some for supper, and thought it excellent. The young buffalo was beginning to graze, and we gave him a little milk to-night, as well as to the jackal. Fritz had taken the precaution to cover the eyes of his eagle, and tying it fast by the leg to a branch, it rested very tranquilly. We then retired to our mossy beds, to recruit our strength for the labours of another day.

At break of day we rose, made a light breakfast, and I was about to give the signal of departure, when my wife communicated to me the difficulty they had had in cutting down the palm-tree, and the valuable provision that might be obtained from it with a little trouble. I thought she was right, and decided to remain here another day; for it was no trifling undertaking to split up a tree seventy feet long. I consented the more readily, as I thought I might, after removing the useful pith from the trunk, obtain two large spouts or channels to conduct the water from Jackal River to the kitchen garden.

Such tools as we had we carried to the place where the tree lay. We first sawed off the head; then, with the hatchet making an opening at each end, we took wedges and mallets, and the wood being tolerably soft, after four hours’ labour, we succeeded in splitting it completely. When parted, we pressed the pith with our hands, to get the whole into one division of the trunk, and began to make our paste. At one end of the spout we nailed one of the graters, through which we intended to force the paste, to form the round seeds. My little bakers set vigorously to work, some pouring water on the pith, while the rest mixed it into paste. This we threw into a heap, hoping mushrooms might spring from it. We spent the rest of the day in loading the cart with our utensils and the halves of the tree. We retired to our hut at sunset, and slept in peace.

The next morning the whole caravan began to move at an early hour. The buffalo, harnessed to the cart, by the side of his nurse, the cow, took the place of our lost ass, and began his apprenticeship as a beast of draught. We took the same road on our return, that we might carry away the candle-berries and the vessels of India-rubber. The vanguard was composed of Fritz and Jack, who pioneered our way, by cutting down the underwood to make a road for the cart. Our water-pipes, being very long, somewhat impeded our progress; but we happily reached the candle-berry trees without accident, and placed our sacks on the cart. We did not find more than a quart of the caoutchouc gum; but it would be sufficient for our first experiment, and I carried it off.

In crossing the little wood of guavas, we suddenly heard our dogs, who were before us with Fritz and Jack, uttering the most frightful howlings. I was struck with terror lest they should have encountered a tiger, and rushed forward ready to fire. The dogs were endeavouring to enter a thicket, in the midst of which Fritz declared he had caught a glimpse of an animal larger than the buffalo, with a black, bristly skin. I was just about to discharge my gun into the thicket, when Jack, who had lain down on the ground, to look under the bushes, burst into a loud laugh. “It is another trick of that vexatious animal, our old sow! she is always making fools of us,” cried he. Half merry and half angry, we made an opening into the thicket, and there discovered the lady lying, surrounded by seven little pigs, only a few days old. We were very glad to see our old friend so attended, and stroked her. She seemed to recognize us, and grunted amicably. We supplied her with some potatoes, sweet acorns, and cassava bread; intending, in return, to eat her young ones, when they were ready for the spit, though my dear wife cried out against the cruelty of the idea. At present we left them with her, but proposed afterwards to take away two, to be brought up at home, and leave the rest to support themselves on acorns in the woods, where they would become game for us. At length we arrived at Falcon’s Nest, which we regarded with all the attachment of home. Our domestic animals crowded round us, and noisily welcomed us. We tied up the buffalo and jackal, as they were not yet domesticated. Fritz fastened his eagle to a branch by a chain long enough to allow it to move freely, and then imprudently uncovered its eyes; it immediately raised its head, erected its feathers, and struck on all sides with its beak and claws; our fowls took to flight, but the poor parrot fell in his way, and was torn to pieces before we could assist it. Fritz was very angry, and would have executed the murderer; but Ernest begged he would not be so rash, as parrots were more plentiful than eagles, and it was his own fault for uncovering his eyes; the falconers always keeping their young birds hooded six weeks, till they are quite tamed. He offered to train it, if Fritz would part with it; but this Fritz indignantly refused. I told them the fable of the dog in the manger, which abashed Fritz; and he then besought his brother to teach him the means of training this noble bird, and promised to present him with his monkey.

Ernest then told him that the Caribs subdue the largest birds by making them inhale tobacco smoke. Fritz laughed at this; but Ernest brought a pipe and some tobacco he had found in the ship, and began to smoke gravely under the branch where the bird was perched. It was soon calm, and on his continuing to smoke it became quite motionless. Fritz then easily replaced the bandage, and thanked his brother for his good service.

The next morning we set out early to our young plantation of fruit-trees, to fix props to support the weaker plants. We loaded the cart with the thick bamboo canes and our tools, and harnessed the cow to it, leaving the buffalo in the stable, as I wished the wound in his nostrils to be perfectly healed before I put him to any hard work. I left Francis with his mother, to prepare our dinner, begging them not to forget the maccaroni.

We began at the entrance of the avenue to Falcon’s Nest, where all the trees were much bent by the wind. We raised them gently by a crowbar; I made a hole in the earth, in which one of my sons placed the bamboo props, driving them firmly down with a mallet, and we proceeded to another, while Ernest and Jack tied the trees to them with a long, tough, pliant plant, which I suspected was a species of llana. As we were working, Fritz inquired if these fruit-trees were wild.

“A pretty question!” cried Jack. “Do you think that trees are tamed like eagles or buffaloes? You perhaps could teach them to bow politely, so that we might gather the fruit!”

“You fancy you are a wit,” said I, “but you speak like a dunce. We cannot make trees bow at our pleasure; but we can make a tree, which by nature bears sour and uneatable fruit, produce what is sweet and wholesome. This is effected by grafting into a wild tree a small branch, or even a bud, of the sort you wish. I will show you this method practically at some future time, for by these means we can procure all sorts of fruit; only we must remember, that we can only graft a tree with one of the same natural family; thus, we could not graft an apple on a cherry-tree, for one belongs to the apple tribe, and the other to the plum tribe.”

“Do we know the origin of all these European fruits?” asked the inquiring Ernest.

“All our shell fruits,” answered I, “such as the nut, the almond, and the chesnut, are natives of the East; the peach, of Persia; the orange and apricot, of Armenia; the cherry, which was unknown in Europe sixty years before Christ, was brought by the proconsul Lucullus from the southern shores of the Euxine; the olives come from Palestine. The first olive-trees were planted on Mount Olympus, and from thence were spread through the rest of Europe; the fig is from Lydia; the plums, your favourite fruit, with the exception of some natural sorts that are natives of our forests, are from Syria, and the town of Damascus has given its name to one sort, the Damascene, or Damson. The pear is a fruit of Greece; the ancients called it the fruit of Peloponnesus; the mulberry is from Asia; and the quince from the island of Crete.”

Our work progressed as we talked thus, and we had soon propped all our valuable plants. It was now noon, and we returned to Falcon’s Nest very hungry, and found an excellent dinner prepared, of smoked beef, and the tender bud of the cabbage-palm, the most delicious of vegetables.

After dinner, we began to discuss a plan I had long had in my head; but the execution of it presented many difficulties. It was, to substitute a firm and solid staircase for the ladder of ropes, which was a source of continual fear to my wife. It is true, that we only had to ascend it to go to bed; but bad weather might compel us to remain in our apartment; we should then have frequently to ascend and descend, and the ladder was very unsafe. But the immense height of the tree, and the impossibility of procuring beams to sustain a staircase round it, threw me into despair. However, looking at the monstrous trunk of the tree, I thought, if we cannot succeed outside, could we not contrive to mount within?

“Have you not said there was a swarm of bees in the trunk of the tree?” I inquired of my wife. “Yes,” said little Francis, “they stung my face dreadfully the other day, when I was on the ladder. I was pushing a stick into the hole they came out of, to try how deep it was.”

“Now, then,” cried I, “I see through my difficulties. Let us find out how far the tree is hollow; we can increase the size of the tunnel, and I have already planned the sort of staircase I can construct.” I had hardly spoken, when the boys leaped like squirrels, some upon the arched roots, some on the steps of the ladder, and began to strike with sticks and mallets to sound the tree. This rash proceeding had nearly been fatal to Jack, who, having placed himself just before the opening, and striking violently, the whole swarm, alarmed at an attack, which probably shook their palace of wax, issued forth, and revenged themselves amply on all the assailants. Nothing was heard but cries and stamping of feet. My wife hastened to cover the stings with moist earth, which rather relieved them; but it was some hours before they could open their eyes. They begged me to get them the honey from their foes, and I prepared a hive, which I had long thought of a large gourd, which I placed on a board nailed upon a branch of our tree, and covered with straw to shelter it from the sun and wind. But it was now bedtime, and we deferred our attack on the fortress till next day.

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