Swiss Family Robinson Chapter 51

Chapter 51

Fritz was now swimming far before us, and appeared to have no idea of turning, so that I was at once certain he projected swimming on to the point where we had lost sight of the natives, to be the first to discover and aid his brother. Although he was an excellent swimmer, yet the distance was so great, that I was much alarmed; and especially for his arrival by night in the midst of the natives. This fear was much increased by a very extraordinary sound, which we now heard gradually approaching us; it was a sort of submarine tempest. The weather was beautiful; there was no wind, the moon shone in a cloudless sky, yet the waves were swoln as if by a storm, and threatened to swallow us; we heard at the same time a noise like violent rain. Terrified at these phenomena, I cried out aloud for Fritz to return; and though it was almost impossible my voice could reach him, we saw him swimming towards us with all his strength. Ernest and I used all our power in rowing to meet him, so that we soon got to him. The moment he leaped in, he uttered in a stifled voice, pointing to the mountains of waves, “They are enormous marine monsters! whales, I believe! such an immense shoal! They will swallow us up!”

“No,” said Ernest, quietly; “don’t be alarmed; the whale is a gentle and harmless animal, when not attacked. I am very glad to see them so near. We shall pass as quietly through the midst of these colossal creatures, as we did through the shining zoophytes: doubtless the whales are searching for them, for they constitute a principal article of their food.”

They were now very near us, sporting on the surface of the water, or plunging into its abysses, and forcing out columns of water through their nostrils to a great height, which occasionally fell on us, and wetted us. Sometimes they raised themselves on their huge tail, and looked like giants ready to fall on us and crush us; then they went down again into the water, which foamed under their immense weight. Then they seemed to be going through some military evolutions, advancing in a single line, like a body of regular troops, one after another swimming with grave dignity; still more frequently they were in lines of two and two. This wonderful sight partly diverted us from our own melancholy thoughts. Fritz had, however, seized his oar, without giving himself time to dress, whilst I, at the rudder, steered as well as I could through these monsters, who are, notwithstanding their appearance, the mildest animals that exist.

They allowed us to pass so closely, that we were wetted with the water they spouted up, and might have touched them; and with the power to overturn us with a stroke of their tail, they never noticed us; they seemed to be satisfied with each other’s society. We were truly sorry to see their mortal enemy appear amongst them, the sword-fish of the south, armed with its long saw, remarkable for a sort of fringe of nine or ten inches long, which distinguishes it from the sword-fish of the north. They are both terrible enemies to the whale, and next to man, who wages an eternal war with them, its most formidable foes. The whales in our South Seas had only the sword-fish to dread; as soon as they saw him approach, they dispersed, or dived into the depths of the ocean. One only, very near us, did not succeed in escaping, and we witnessed a combat, of which, however, we could not see the event. These two monsters attacked each other with equal ferocity; but as they took an opposite direction to that we were going, we soon lost sight of them, but we shall never forget our meeting with these wonderful giants of the deep.

We happily doubled the promontory behind which the canoe had passed, and found ourselves in an extensive gulf, which narrowed as it entered the land, and resembled the mouth of a river. We did not hesitate to follow its course. We went round the bay, but found no traces of man, but numerous herds of the amphibious animal, called sometimes the sea-lion, the sea-dog, or the sea-elephant, or trunked phoca: modern voyagers give it the last name. These animals, though of enormous size, are gentle and peaceful, unless roused by the cruelty of man. They were in such numbers on this desert coast, that they would have prevented our approach if we had intended it. They actually covered the beach and the rocks, opening their huge mouths, armed with very sharp teeth, more frightful than dangerous. As it was night when we entered the bay, they were all sleeping, but they produced a most deafening noise with their breathing. We left them to their noisy slumber; for us, alas! no such comfort remained. The continual anxiety attending an affliction like ours destroys all repose, and for three days we had not slept an hour. Since the new misfortune of Jack’s captivity, we were all kept up by a kind of fever. Fritz was in a most incredible state of excitement, and declared he would never sleep till he had rescued his beloved brother. His bath had partially removed the colouring from his skin, but he was still dark enough to pass for a native, when arrayed like them. The shores of the strait we were navigating were very steep, and we had yet not met with any place where we could land; however, my sons persisted in thinking the natives could have taken no other route, as they had lost sight of their canoe round the promontory. As the strait was narrow and shallow, I consented that Fritz should throw off the clothes he had on, and swim to reconnoitre a place which seemed to be an opening in the rocks or hills that obstructed our passage, and we soon had the pleasure of seeing him standing on the shore, motioning for us to approach. The strait was now so confined, that we could not have proceeded any further with the pinnace; we could not even bring it to the shore. Ernest and I were obliged to step into the water up to the waist; but we took the precaution to tie a long and strong rope to the prow, and when we were aided by the vigorous arm of Fritz, we soon drew the pinnace near enough to fix it by means of the anchor.

There were neither trees nor rocks on that desert shore to which we could fasten the pinnace; but, to our great delight and encouragement, we found, at a short distance from our landing-place, a bark canoe, which my sons were certain was that in which Jack had been carried off. We entered it, but at first saw only the oars; at last, however, Ernest discovered, in the water which half filled the canoe, part of a handkerchief, stained with blood, which they recognized as belonging to Jack. This discovery, which relieved our doubts, caused Fritz to shed tears of joy. We were certainly on the track of the robbers, and might trust that they had not proceeded farther with their barbarity. We found on the sand, and in the boat, some cocoa-nut shells and fish-bones, which satisfied us of the nature of their repasts. We resolved to continue our search into the interior of the country, following the traces of the steps of the natives. We could not find any traces of Jack’s foot, which would have alarmed us, if Fritz had not suggested that they had carried him, on account of his wound. We were about to set out, when the thoughts of the pinnace came over us; it was more than ever necessary for us to preserve this, our only means of return, and which moreover contained our goods for ransom, our ammunition, and our provisions, still untouched, for some bread-fruit Fritz had gathered, some muscles, and small, but excellent, oysters, had been sufficient for us. It was fortunate that we had brought some gourds of water with us, for we had not met with any. We decided that it would be necessary to leave one of our party to guard the precious pinnace, though this would be but an insufficient and dangerous defence, in case of the approach of the natives. My recent bereavements made me tremble at the idea of leaving either of my sons. I cannot yet reflect on the agony of that moment without horror yet it was the sole means to secure our vessel; there was not a creek or a tree to hide it, and the situation of the canoe made it certain the natives must return there to embark. My children knew my thoughts, by the distracted glances with which I alternately regarded them and the pinnace, and, after consulting each other’s looks, Ernest said

“The pinnace must not remain here unguarded, father, to be taken, or, at any rate, pillaged by the natives, who will return for their canoe. Either we must all wait till they come, or you must leave me to defend it. I see, Fritz, that you could not endure to remain here.”

In fact, Fritz impatiently stamped with his foot, saying

“I confess, I cannot remain here; Jack may be dying of his wound, and every moment is precious. I will seek him find him and save him! I have a presentiment I shall; and if I discover him, as I expect, in the hands of the natives, I know the way to release him, and to prevent them carrying off our pinnace.”

I saw that the daring youth, in the heat of his exasperation, exposed alone to the horde of barbarians, might also become their victim. I saw that my presence was necessary to restrain and aid him; and I decided, with a heavy heart, to leave Ernest alone to protect the vessel. His calm and cool manner made it less dangerous for him to meet the natives. He knew several words of their language, and had read of the mode of addressing and conciliating them. He promised me to be prudent, which his elder brother could not be. We took the bag of toys which Fritz had brought, and left those in the chest, to use if necessary; and, praying for the blessing of Heaven on my son, we left him. My sorrow was great; but he was no longer a child, and his character encouraged me. Fritz embraced his brother, and promised him to bring Jack back in safety.

Chapter List