Swiss Family Robinson Chapter 34

Chapter 34

We entered our apartment literally as if we had come out of the sea, and I found my poor Elizabeth much agitated. “Heaven be praised!” said she; “but where is Jack, that rash little fellow?”

“Here I am, mamma,” said he, “as dry as when I left you. I have left my dress below, that I might not terrify you; for if Mr. Fritz had had his gun, I might have been shot as a rhinoceros, and not been here to tell you my story.”

The good mother then turned her thoughts on Fritz and me, and would not suffer us to come near her till we had changed our drenched garments. To oblige her, we retired to a little closet I had contrived between two thick branches at the top of the staircase, which was used to contain our chests of linen, our dresses, and our provisions. Our dress was soon changed; we hung up the wet garments, and I returned to my companion, who was suffering from her foot, but still more from a frightful headache. She had a burning fever. I concluded that bleeding was urgently needed, but commenced by assuaging her thirst with some lemonade. I then opened my box of surgical instruments, and approached the opening to the east which served us for a window, and which we could close by means of a curtain, that was now entirely raised to give air to our dear invalid, and to amuse my children, who were watching the storm. The mighty waves that broke against the rocks, the vivid lightning bursting through the castles of murky clouds, the majestic and incessant rolling of the thunder, formed one of those enchanting spectacles to which they had been from infancy accustomed. As in the Swiss mountains we are liable to frightful storms, to which it is necessary to familiarize oneself, as one cannot avoid them, I had accustomed my wife and children, by my own example, to behold, not only without fear, but even with admiration, these great shocks of the elements, these convulsions of nature.

I had opened the chest, and my children had directed their attention to the instruments it contained; the first were a little rusty, and I handed them to Ernest, who, after examining them, placed them on a table inside the window. I was searching for a lancet in good condition, when a clap of thunder, such as I had never heard in my life, terrified us all so much, that we nearly fell down. This burst of thunder had not been preceded by any lightning, but was accompanied by two immense forked columns of fire, which seemed to stretch from the sky to our very feet. We all cried out, even my poor wife; but the silence of terror succeeded, and seemed to be the silence of death. I flew to the bedside, and found my dear patient in a state of total insensibility. I was convinced that she was dead, and I was dumb with despair. I was roused from my stupor by the voice of my children. I then remembered that I had not lost all: there still remained duties to fulfil, and affection to console me. “My children,” cried I, extending my arms to them, “come and comfort your unfortunate father: come and lament with him the best of wives and mothers.” Terrified at the appearance of their mother, they surrounded her bed, calling on her in piercing accents. At that moment I saw my little Francis was missing, and my grief was augmented by the fear that he had been killed by the lightning. I hastily turned to the window, expecting to find my child dead, and our dwelling in flames. Fortunately, all was safe; but, in my distraction, I scarcely thanked God for His mercy, at the very moment even when he graciously restored to me my lost treasures.

Francis, frightened by the storm, had hidden himself in his mother’s bed, and fallen asleep; awaked by the thunder, he had not dared to move, fearing it announced the arrival of the natives; but at last, the cries of his brothers roused him, and raising his pretty fair head, supposing his mother sleeping, he flung his arms round her neck, saying, “Wake, mamma, we are all here, papa, my brothers, and the storm, too, which is very beautiful, but frightens me. Open your eyes, mamma; look at the bright lightning, and kiss your little Francis.” Either his sweet voice, or the cries of her elder children, restored her faculties: she gradually recovered, and called me to her. The excess of my joy threatened to be almost as fatal as my grief. With difficulty I controlled my own feelings and those of my boys; and, after I had sent them from the bed, I ascertained that she was not only really living, but much better. The pulse was calm, and the fever had subsided, leaving only a weakness that was by no means alarming.

I relinquished, joyfully, the intention of bleeding her, the necessity of which I had trembled to contemplate, and contented myself with employing the boys to prepare a cooling mixture, composed of the juice of the lemon, of barley, and tamarinds, which they completed to the great satisfaction of their mother. I then ordered Fritz to descend to the yard, to kill a fowl, pluck and boil it, to make broth, a wholesome and light nourishment for our dear invalid. I told one of his brothers to assist him, and Jack and Francis, frequently employed under their mother, were ready in a moment. Ernest alone remained quietly on his seat, which I attributed to his usual indolence, and tried to make him ashamed of it. “Ernest,” said I, “you are not very anxious to oblige your mother; you sit as if the thunderbolt had struck you.”

“It has, indeed, rendered me unfit to be of any service to my good mother,” said he, quietly; and, drawing his right hand from under his waistcoat, he showed it to me, most frightfully black and burnt.

This dear child, who must have suffered very much, had never uttered a complaint, for fear of alarming his mother; and even now he made a sign to me to be silent, lest she should hear, and discover the truth. She soon, however, fell into a sleep, which enabled me to attend to poor Ernest, and to question him about the accident. I learned that a long and pointed steel instrument, which he was examining near the large window, stooping over it to see it better, had attracted the lightning, which, falling partly on the hand in which he held it, had caused the misfortune. There were traces on his arm of the electric fire, and his hair was burnt on one side. By what miracle the electric fluid had been diverted, and how we, dwelling in a tree, had been preserved from a sudden and general conflagration, I knew not. My son assured me he had seen the fire run along the instrument he held, and from thence fall perpendicularly to the earth, where it seemed to burst with a second explosion. I was impatient to examine this phenomenon, and to see if any other traces were left, except those on the hand of my son, which it was necessary, in the first place, to attend to. I remembered frequently to have applied with success in burns the most simple and easy of remedies, which everybody can command: this is, to bathe the hand affected in cold water, taking care to renew it every eight or ten minutes. I placed Ernest between two tubs of cold water, and, exhorting him to patience and perseverance, I left him to bathe his hand, and approached the opening, to try and discover what had preserved us, by averting the direction of the lightning, which one might have expected would have killed my son, and destroyed our dwelling. I saw only some light traces on the table; but, on looking more attentively, I found that the greater part of the surgical instruments which Ernest had placed upon it were either melted or much damaged. In examining them separately, I remarked one much longer than the rest, which projected beyond the edge of the table, and was much marked by the fire. I could not easily take it up; it had adhered somewhat in melting, and, in endeavouring to disengage it, I saw that the point, which was beyond the opening, touched a thick wire, which seemed to be suspended from the roof of our tent. All was now explained to me; except that I could in no way account for this wire, placed expressly to serve as a conductor for the lightning. It seemed to be the work of magic.

The evening was too far advanced for me to distinguish how it was fastened, and what fixed it below; therefore, enjoining Ernest to call loudly if he needed me, I hastened down. I saw my three cooks very busy, as I passed through, preparing the broth for their mother they assured me it would be excellent. Fritz boasted that he had killed the fowl with all speed, Jack that he had plucked it without tearing it much, and Francis that he had lighted and kept up the fire. They had nothing to employ them just then, and I took them with me to have some one to talk to on the phenomenon of the lightning. Below the window I found a large packet of iron wire, which I had brought from Tent House some days before, intending on some leisure day to make a sort of grating before our poultry-yard. By what chance was it here, and hooked by one end to the roof of our house? Some time before I had replaced our cloth canopy by a sort of roof covered with bark nailed upon laths; the cloth still enclosed the sides and front; all was so inflammable, that, but for the providential conductor, we must have been in flames in an instant. I thanked God for our preservation; and little Francis, seeing me so happy, said

“Is it quite true, papa, that this wire has preserved us?”

“Yes, it is true, my darling; and I wish to know what good genius has placed it there, that I may be thankful,” said I.

“Ah! father,” said my little fellow, “embrace me, but do not thank me; for I did not know that I was doing good.”

Astonished at this information, I requested my boy to tell me why and how he had fixed the wire?

“I wanted to reach some figs,” said he, “when you and Fritz were at Tent House, and Jack and Ernest were nursing mamma; I wished to do some good for her. I thought she would like some of our sweet figs; but there were none in my reach, and I had no stick long enough to beat them down. I went below, and found that great roll of wire. I tried to break a piece off, but could not; and I then determined to carry the whole up to our dwelling, and to bend one end into a hook, by which I might catch some of the branches, and bring them near me to gather the figs. I was very successful at first, and secured one or two figs. I had my packet of wire on the table by the window, and stood near it myself. I thought I could reach a branch that hung over our roof, loaded with fruit. I leaned forward, and extended my hook to the branch; I felt I had secured it, and joyfully began to pull. You know, papa, they bend, and don’t break; but it remained immovable, as well as my hook, which was held by one of the laths of the roof. I pulled with all my strength, and, in my efforts, I struck my foot against the roll of wire, which fell down to the ground without detaching the hook. You may judge how firm it is, for it is no trifling leap from our house to the ground.”

“A good work, indeed, my boy,” said I, “is yours, for it has saved us. God has inspired you, and has made use of the hand of a child for our preservation. Your conductor shall remain where you have so happily placed it; we may still have need of it. The sky still looks very threatening; let us return to your mother, and take a light with us.”

I had contrived a sort of portable lantern, which lighted us in our offices. Moreover, a calibash pierced with small holes, with a candle inside, was placed at the top of the winding staircase, and lighted it entirely, so that we were able to descend without danger by night as well as by day. I was, however, uneasy about the way we should bring my wife down, if we found it necessary to remove her during her sickness; I named it to Fritz.

“Have no uneasiness, father,” said he, “Ernest and I are very strong now, and we can carry mamma like a feather.”

“You and I might, my dear boy,” said I; “but Ernest cannot be of much assistance to us at present.”

I then related his misfortune to them. They were distressed and astonished, not comprehending the cause, which I promised to explain. They wished now, however, to see their brother. Fritz then requested, in a low tone of voice, that he might go to Tent House, to see if the vessel and the captain had arrived. Seeing his brothers listening with curiosity, I thought it best to tell them the affair, requesting them, however, not to name it to their mother at present. Jack, who was now about fourteen years of age, listened with the most intense interest, his eyes sparkling with joy and surprise.

“A vessel! people from Europe! Do you think they have come to seek us? Perhaps they are our relations and friends.”

“How glad should I be,” said Francis, “if my good grandmamma were there; she loved me so much, and was always giving me sweetmeats.” This was the mother of my dear wife, from whom she had parted with extreme regret; I knew that a single word from the child would have revived all her sorrows, and would in her present state be dangerous. I therefore forbade him naming such a thing to his mother, even if we mentioned the vessel.

We ascended, and found our dear patient awake, with Ernest at her side, his hand tied up and I returned with an anxious heart to my invalids.

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