Swiss Family Robinson Chapter 54

Chapter 54

“My life,” she began, “passed without any remarkable events, till the misfortune occurred which brought me to this island. I was married, when very young, to Mr. Hirtel, a merchant at Hamburg, an excellent man, whose loss I have deeply felt. I was very happy in this union, arranged by my parents, and sanctioned by reason. We had three children, a son and two daughters, in the first three years of our marriage; and M. Hirtel, seeing his family increase so rapidly, wished to increase his income. An advantageous establishment was offered him in the Canary Islands; he accepted it, and prevailed on me to settle there, with my family, for some years. My parents were dead, I had no tie to detain me in Europe. I was going to see new regions, those fortunate isles I had heard so much of, and I set out joyfully with my husband and children, little foreseeing the misfortunes before me.

“Our voyage was favourable; the children, like myself, were delighted with the novelties of it. I was then twenty-three years old; Sophia, seven; Matilda, six; and Alfred, our pretty, gentle boy, not yet five. Poor child! he was the darling and the plaything of all the crew.”

She wept bitterly for a few moments, and then resumed her narration.

“He was as fair as your own Francis, and greatly resembled him. We proceeded first to Bourdeaux, where my husband had a correspondent, with whom he had large dealings; by his means my husband was enabled to raise large sums for his new undertaking. We carried with us, in fact, nearly his whole fortune. We re-embarked under the most favourable auspices, the weather delightful, and the wind fair; but we very soon had a change; we were met by a terrible storm and hurricane, such as the sailors had never witnessed. For a week our ship was tossed about by contrary winds, driven into unknown seas, lost all its rigging, and was at last so broken, that the water poured in on all sides. All was lost, apparently; but, in this extremity, my husband made a last attempt to save us. He tied my daughters and myself firmly to a plank, taking the charge of my boy himself, as he feared the additional weight would be too much for our raft. His intention was to tie himself to another plank, to fasten this to ours, and, taking his son in his arms, to give us a chance of being carried to the shore, which did not appear far off. Whilst he was occupied in placing us, he gave Alfred to the care of a sailor who was particularly attached to him. I heard the man say, ’Leave him with me, I will take care to save him.’ On this, M. Hirtel insisted on his restoring him, and I cried out that he should be given to me. At that moment the ship, which was already fallen on its side, filled rapidly with water, plunged, and disappeared with all on board. The plank on which I and my daughters were fixed alone floated, and I saw nothing but death and desolation round me.”

Madame Hirtel paused, almost suffocated by the remembrance of that awful moment.

“Poor woman!” said my wife, weeping, “it is five years since this misfortune. It was at the same time as our shipwreck, and was doubtless caused by the same storm. But how much more fortunate was I! I lost none that were dear to me, and we even had the vessel left for our use. But, my dear, unfortunate friend, by what miracle were you saved?”

“It was He who only can work miracles,” said the missionary, “who cares for the widow and the orphan, and without whose word not a hair of the head can perish, who at that moment gave courage to the Christian mother.”

“My strength,” continued she, “was nearly exhausted, when, after being tossed about by the furious waves, I found myself thrown upon what I supposed to be a sand-bank with my two children. I envied the state of my husband and son. If I had not been a mother, I should have wished to have followed them; but my two girls lay senseless at my side, and I was anxious, as I perceived they still breathed, to recover them. At the moment M. Hirtel pushed the raft into the water, he threw upon it a box bound with iron, which I grasped mechanically, and still held, when we were left on shore. It was not locked, yet it was with some difficulty, in my confined position, that I succeeded in opening it. It contained a quantity of gold and bank-notes, which I looked upon with contempt, and regret. The wind was still blowing, but the clouds began to break, and the sun appeared, which dried and warmed us.

“My poor children opened their eyes, and knew me, and I felt I was not utterly comfortless; but their first words were to ask for their father and brother. I could not tell them they were no more. I tried to deceive myself, to support my strength, by a feeble and delusive hope. M. Hirtel swam well, the sailor still better; and the last words I had heard still rung in my ears ’Do not be uneasy, I will save the child.’ If I saw anything floating at a distance, my heart began to beat, and I ran towards the water; but I saw it was only wreck, which I could not even reach. Some pieces were, however, thrown on shore, and with these and our own raft I was enabled to make a sort of shelter, by resting them against a rock. My poor children, by crouching under this, sheltered themselves from the rain, or from the rays of the sun. I had the good fortune to preserve a large beaver hat, which I wore at the time, and this protected me; but these resources gave me little consolation; my children were complaining of hunger, and I felt only how much we were in want of. I had seen a shell-fish on the shore, resembling the oyster, or muscle. I collected some, and, opening them with my knife, we made a repast on them, which sufficed for the first day. Night came my children offered up their evening prayer, and I earnestly besought the succour of the Almighty. I then lay down beside my babes on our raft, as conveniently as we could, and they soon slept. The fearful thoughts of the past, and dreadful anticipations of the future, prevented me from sleeping. My situation was indeed melancholy; but I felt, as a mother, I ought not to wish for death.

“As soon as day broke, I went close to the shore, to seek some shell-fish for our breakfast. In crossing the sand, I nearly plunged my foot into a hole, and fancied I heard a crash. I stooped, and putting my hand into the opening, found it was full of eggs; I had broken two or three, which I tasted, and thought very good. From the colour, form, and taste, I knew them to be turtle’s eggs; there were at least sixty, so I had no more care about food. I carried away in my apron as many as I could preserve from the rays of the sun: this I endeavoured to effect by burying them in the sand, and covering them with one end of our plank, and succeeded very well. Besides these, there were as many to be found on the shore as we required; I have sometimes found as many as ninety together. These were our sole support while we remained there: my children liked them very much. I forgot to add, that I was fortunate enough to discover a stream of fresh water, running into the sea; it was the same which runs past this house, and which conducted me here. The first day we suffered greatly from thirst, but on the second we met with the stream which saved us. I will not tire you by relating day by day our sad life; every one was the same, and took away by degrees every hope from me. As long as I dared to indulge any, I could not bear to leave the shore; but at last it became insupportable to me. I was worn out with gazing continually on that boundless horizon, and that moving crystal which had swallowed up my hopes. I pined for the verdure and shade of trees.

Although I had contrived to make for my daughters little hats of a marine rush, they suffered much from the extreme heat, the burning rays of a tropical sun. I decided at last to abandon that sandy shore; to penetrate, at all risks, into the country, in order to seek a shady and cooler abode, and to escape from the view of that sea which was so painful to me. I resolved not to quit the stream which was so precious to us, for, not having any vessel to contain water, I could not carry it with us. Sophia, who is naturally quick, formed, from a large leaf, a sort of goblet, which served us to drink from; and I filled my pockets with turtles’ eggs, as provision for a few days. I then set off with my two children, after praying the God of all mercy to watch over us; and, taking leave of the vast tomb which held my husband and my son, I never lost sight of the stream; if any obstacle obliged me to turn a little way from it, I soon recovered my path.

My eldest daughter, who was very strong and robust, followed me stoutly, as I took care not to walk too far without resting; but I was often compelled to carry my little Matilda on my shoulders. Both were delighted with the shade of the woods, and were so amused with the delightful birds that inhabited them, and a pretty little sportive green monkey, that they became as playful as ever. They sang and prattled; but often asked me if papa and Alfred would not soon return to see these pretty creatures, and if we were going to seek them. These words rent my heart, and I thought it best then to tell them they would meet no more on earth, and that they were both gone to heaven, to that good God to whom they prayed morning and evening. Sophia was very thoughtful, and the tears ran down her cheeks: ‘I will pray to God more than ever,’ said she, ’that he may make them happy, and send them back to us,’ ‘Mamma,’ said Matilda, ’have we left the sea to go to heaven? Shall we soon be there? And shall we see beautiful birds like these?’

We walked on very slowly, making frequent rests, till night drew on, and it was necessary to find a place for repose. I fixed on a sort of thick grove, which I could only enter by stooping; it was formed of one tree, whose branches, reaching the ground, take root there, and soon produce other stems, which follow the same course, and become, in time, an almost impenetrable thicket. Here I found a place for us to lie down, which appeared sheltered from wild beasts or natives, whom I equally dreaded. We had still some eggs, which we ate; but I saw with fear that the time approached when we must have more food, which I knew not where to find. I saw, indeed, some fruits on the trees, but I did not know them, and feared to give them to my children, who wished to have them. I saw also cocoa-nuts, but quite out of my reach; and even if I could have got them, I did not know how to open them. The tree under whose branches we had found protection was, I conjectured, an American fig-tree; it bore a quantity of fruit, very small and red, and like the European fig. I ventured to taste them, and found them inferior to ours, insipid and soft, but, I thought, quite harmless. I remarked that the little green monkeys ate them greedily, so I had no more fear, and allowed my children to regale themselves. I was much more afraid of wild beasts during the night; however, I had seen nothing worse than some little quadrupeds resembling the rabbit or squirrel, which came in numbers to shelter themselves during the night under our tree. The children wished to catch one, but I could not undertake to increase my charge. We had a quiet night, and were early awaked by the songs of the birds. How delighted I was to have escaped the noise of the waves, and to feel the freshness of the woods, and the perfume of the flowers, with which my children made garlands, to decorate my head and their own! These ornaments, during this time of mourning and bereavement, affected me painfully, and I was weak enough to forbid them this innocent pleasure; I tore away my garland, and threw it into the rivulet. ‘Gather flowers,’ said I, ’but do not dress yourselves in them; they are no fitting ornaments for us; your father and Alfred cannot see them.’ They were silent and sad, and threw their garlands into the water, as I had done.

“We followed the stream, and passed two more nights under the trees. We had the good fortune to find more figs; but they did not satisfy us, and our eggs were exhausted. In my distress I almost decided to return to the shore, where we might at least meet with that nourishment. As I sat by the stream, reflecting mournfully on our situation, the children, who had been throwing stones into the water, cried out, ’Look, mamma, what pretty fishes!’ I saw, indeed, a quantity of small salmon-trout in the river; but how could I take them? I tried to seize them with my hands, but could not catch them; necessity, however, is the mother of invention. I cut a number of branches with my knife, and wove them together to make a kind of light hurdle, the breadth of the stream, which was very narrow just here. I made two of these; my daughters assisted me, and were soon very skilful. We then undressed ourselves, and took a bath, which refreshed us much. I placed one of my hurdles upright across the rivulet, and the second a little lower. The fishes who remained between attempted to pass, but the hurdles were woven too close. We watched for them attempting the other passage; many escaped us, but we captured sufficient for our dinner. We threw them out upon the grass, at a distance from the stream, so that they could not leap back. My daughters had taken more than I; but the sensible Sophia threw back those we did not require, to give them pleasure, she said, and Matilda did the same, to see them leap. We then removed our hurdles, dressed ourselves, and I began to consider how I should cook my fish; for I had no fire, and had never kindled one myself. I tried to strike a light, and after some difficulty succeeded. I collected the fragments of the branches used for the hurdles, the children gathered some dry leaves, and I had soon a bright, lively fire, which I was delighted to see, notwithstanding the heat of the climate. I scraped the scales from the fish with my knife, washed them in the rivulet, and then placed them on the fire to broil; this was my apprenticeship in the art of cookery. I thought how useful it would be to give young ladies some knowledge of the useful arts; for who can foresee what they may need? Our European dinner delighted us as much as the bath and the fishing which had preceded it. I decided to fix our residence at the side of the rivulet, and beneath the fig-trees. My children would early learn to bear privations, to content themselves with a simple and frugal life, and to labour for their own support. I might teach them all that I knew would be useful to them in future, and above all, impress upon their young minds the great truths of our holy religion. By bringing this constantly before their unsophisticated understanding, I might hope they would draw from it the necessary virtues of resignation and contentment. I was only twenty-three years of age, and might hope, by God’s mercy, to be spared to them some time, and in the course of years who knew what might happen? Besides we were not so far from the sea but that I might visit it sometimes, if it were only to seek for turtles’ eggs. I remained then under our fig-tree at night, and by day on the borders of the stream.”

“It was under a fig-tree, also,” said my wife, “that I have spent four happy years of my life. Unknown to each other, our fate has been similar; but henceforward I hope we shall not be separated.”

Madame Hirtel embraced her kind friend, and observing that the evening was advanced, and that my wife, after such agitation, needed repose, we agreed to defer till next day the conclusion of the interesting narrative. My elder sons and myself followed the missionary to his hut, which resembled the king’s palace, though it was smaller; it was constructed of bamboos, bound together, and the intervals filled with moss and clay; it was covered in the same way, and was tolerably solid. A mat in one corner, without any covering, formed his bed; but he brought out a bear’s skin, which he used in winter, and which he now spread on the ground for us. I had observed a similar one in the grotto, and he told us we should hear the history of these skins next day, in the continuation of the story of Emily, or Mimi, as she was affectionately called by all. We retired to our couch, after a prayer from Mr. Willis; and for the first time since my dear wife was taken from me, I slept in peace.

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