Swiss Family Robinson Chapter 55

Chapter 55

We went to the grotto early in the morning, and found our two invalids much improved: my wife had slept better, and Mr. Willis found Jack’s wound going on well. Madame Mimi told her daughters to prepare breakfast: they went out and soon returned, with a native woman and a boy of four or five years old, carrying newly-made rush baskets filled with all sorts of fruit: figs, guavas, strawberries, cocoa-nuts, and the bread-fruit.

“I must introduce you,” said Emily, “to the rest of my family: this is Canda, the wife of your friend Parabery, and this is their son, Minou-minou, whom I regard as my own. Your Elizabeth is already attached to them, and bespeaks your friendship for them. They will follow us to the Happy Island.”

“Oh, if you knew,” said Francis, “what a well-behaved boy Minou is! He can climb trees, run, and leap, though he is less than I am. He must be my friend.”

“And Canda,” said Elizabeth, “shall be our assistant and friend.”

She gave her hand to Canda, I did the same, and caressed the boy, who seemed delighted with me, and, to my great surprise, spoke to me in very good German the mother, too, knew several words of the language. They busied themselves with our breakfast: opened the cocoa-nuts, and poured the milk into the shells, after separating the kernel; they arranged the fruits on the trunk of a tree, which served for a table, and did great credit to the talent of their instructress.

“I should have liked to have offered you coffee,” said Madame Hirtel, “which grows in this island, but having no utensils for roasting, grinding, or preparing it, it has been useless to me, and I have not even gathered it.”

“Do you think, my dear, that it would grow in our island?” said my wife to me, in some anxiety.

I then recollected, for the first time, how fond my wife was of coffee, which, in Europe, had always been her favourite breakfast. There would certainly be in the ship some bags, which I might have brought away; but I had never thought of it, and my unselfish wife, not seeing it, had never named it, except once wishing we had some to plant in the garden. Now that there was a probability of obtaining it, she confessed that coffee and bread were the only luxuries she regretted. I promised to try and cultivate it in our island; foreseeing, however, that it would probably not be of the best quality, I told her she must not expect Mocha; but her long privation from this delicious beverage had made her less fastidious, and she assured me it would be a treat to her. After breakfast, we begged Madame Hirtel to resume her interesting narrative. She continued:

“After the reflections on my situation, which I told you of last night, I determined only to return to the sea-shore, when our food failed us in the woods; but I acquired other means of procuring it. Encouraged by the success of my fishing, I made a sort of net from the filaments of the bark of a tree and a plant resembling hemp. With these I succeeded in catching some birds: one, resembling our thrush, was very fat, and of delicious flavour. I had the greatest difficulty in overcoming my repugnance to taking away their life; nothing but the obligation of preserving our own could have reconciled me to it. My children plucked them; I then spitted them on a slender branch and roasted them before the fire. I also found some nests of eggs, which I concluded were those of the wild ducks which frequented our stream. I made myself acquainted with all the fruits which the monkeys and parroquets eat, and which were not out of my reach. I found a sort of acorn which had the flavour of a nut. The children also discovered plenty of large strawberries, a delicious repast; and I found a quantity of honeycomb in the hollow of a tree, which I obtained by stupifying the bees with a smoking brand.

“I took care to mark down every day on the blank leaves of my pocket-book. I had now marked thirty days of my wandering life on the border of the river, for I never strayed beyond the sound of its waters. Still I kept continually advancing towards the interior of the island. I had yet met with nothing alarming, and the weather had been most favourable; but we were not long to enjoy this comfort. The rainy season came on: and one night, to my great distress, I heard it descend in torrents. We were no longer under our fig-tree, which would have sheltered us for a considerable time. The tree under which we now were had tempted me by having several cavities between the roots, filled with soft moss, which formed natural couches, but the foliage was very thin, and we were soon drenched completely. I crept near my poor children to protect them a little, but in vain; our little bed was soon filled with water, and we were compelled to leave it. Our clothes were so heavy with the rain that we could scarcely stand; and the night was so dark that we could see no road, and ran the risk of falling, or striking against some tree, if we moved. My children wept, and I trembled for their health, and for my own, which was so necessary to them. This was one of the most terrible nights of my pilgrimage. My children and I knelt down, and I prayed to our Heavenly Father for strength to bear this trial, if it was his will to continue it. I felt consolation and strength from my prayers, and rose with courage and confidence; and though the rain continued unabated, I waited with resignation the pleasure of the Almighty. I reconciled my children to our situation; and Sophia told me she had asked her father, who was near the gracious God, to entreat Him to send no more rain, but let the sun come back. I assured them God would not forget them; they began to be accustomed to the rain, only Sophia begged they might take off their clothes, and then it would be like a bath in the brook. I consented to this, thinking they would be less liable to suffer than by wearing their wet garments.

“The day began to break, and I determined to walk on without stopping, in order to warm ourselves by the motion; and to try to find some cave, some hollow tree, or some tree with thick foliage, to shelter us the next night.

“I undressed the children, and made a bundle of their clothes, which I would have carried myself, but I found they would not be too heavy for them, and I judged it best to accustom them early to the difficulties, fatigue, and labour, which would be their lot; and to attend entirely on themselves; I, therefore, divided the clothes into two unequal bundles, proportioned to their strength, and having made a knot in each, I passed a slender branch through it, and showed them how to carry it on their shoulders.

“When I saw them walking before me in this savage fashion, with their little white bodies exposed to the storm, I could not refrain from tears. I blamed myself for condemning them to such an existence, and thought of returning to the shore, where some vessel might rescue us; but we were now too far off to set about it. I continued to proceed with much more difficulty than my children, who had nothing on but their shoes and large hats. I carried the valuable box, in which I had placed the remains of our last night’s supper, an act of necessary prudence, as there was neither fishing nor hunting now.

“As the day advanced, the rain diminished, and even the sun appeared above the horizon.

“‘Look, my darlings,’ said I, ’God has heard us, and sent his sun to warm and cheer us. Let us thank him,’

“‘Papa has begged it of him!’ said Matilda. ’Oh! mamma, let us pray him to send Alfred back!’

“My poor little girl bitterly regretted the loss of her brother. Even now she can scarcely hear his name without tears. When the natives brought Francis to us, she at first took him for her brother. ’Oh, how you have grown in heaven!’ cried she; and, after she discovered he was not her brother, she often said to him, ’How I wish your name was Alfred!’

“Forgive me for dwelling so long on the details of my wretched journey, which was not without its comforts, in the pleasure I took in the development of my children’s minds, and in forming plans for their future education. Though anything relating to science, or the usual accomplishments, would be useless to them, I did not wish to bring them up like young natives; I hoped to be able to communicate much useful knowledge to them, and to give them juster ideas of this world and that to come.

“As soon as the sun had dried them, I made them put on their dresses, and we continued our walk by the brook, till we arrived at the grove which is before this rock. I removed the branches to pass through it, and saw beyond them the entrance to this grotto. It was very low and narrow; but I could not help uttering a cry of joy, for this was the only sort of retreat that could securely shelter us. I was going to enter it without thought, not reflecting there might be in it some ferocious animal, when I was arrested by a plaintive cry, more like that of a child than a wild beast; I advanced with more caution, and tried to find out what sort of an inhabitant the cave contained. It was indeed a human being! an infant, whose age I could not discover; but it seemed too young to walk, and was, besides, tied up in leaves and moss, enclosed in a piece of bark, which was much torn and rent. The poor infant uttered the most piteous cries, and I did not hesitate a moment to enter the cave, and to take the innocent little creature in my arms; it ceased its cries as soon as it felt the warmth of my cheek; but it was evidently in want of food, and I had nothing to give it but some figs, of which I pressed the juice into its mouth; this seemed to satisfy it, and, rocking it in my arms, it soon went to sleep. I had then time to examine it, and to look round the cave. From the size and form of the face, I concluded it might be older than I had first thought; and I recollected to have read that the natives carried their children swaddled up in this way, even till they could walk. The complexion of the child was a pale olive, which I have since discovered is the natural complexion of the natives, before the exposure to the heat of the sun gives them the bronze hue you have seen; the features were good, except that the lips were thicker and the mouth larger than those of the Europeans. My two girls were charmed with it, and caressed it with great joy. I left them to rock it gently in its cradle of bark, till I went round this cave, which I intended for my palace, and which I have never quitted. You see it the form is not changed; but, since Heaven has sent me a friend,” looking at the missionary, “it is adorned with furniture and utensils which have completed my comforts. But to return.

“The grotto was spacious, and irregular in form. In a hollow I found, with surprise, a sort of bed, carefully arranged with moss, dry leaves, and small twigs. I was alarmed. Was this grotto inhabited by men or by wild beasts? In either case, it was dangerous to remain here. I encouraged a hope, however, that, from the infant being here, the mother must be the inhabitant, and that, on her return, finding me nursing her child, she might be induced to share her asylum with us. I could not, however, reconcile this hope with the circumstance of the child being abandoned in this open cave.

“As I was considering whether I ought to remain, or leave the cave, I heard strange cries at a distance, mingled with the screams of my children, who came running to me for protection, bringing with them the young native, who fortunately was only half awaked, and soon went to sleep again, sucking a fig. I laid him gently on the bed of leaves, and told my daughters to remain near him in a dark corner; then, stepping cautiously, I ventured to look out to discover what was passing, without being seen. The noise approached nearer, to my great alarm, and I could perceive, through the trees, a crowd of men armed with long pointed lances, clubs, and stones; they appeared furious, and the idea that they might enter the cave froze me with terror. I had an idea of taking the little native babe, and holding it in my arms, as my best shield; but this time my fears were groundless. The whole troop passed outside the wood, without even looking on the same side as the grotto; they appeared to follow some traces they were looking out for on the ground. I heard their shouts for some time, but they died away, and I recovered from my fears. Still, the dread of meeting them overcame even hunger. I had nothing left in my box but some figs, which I kept for the infant, who was satisfied with them, and I told my daughters we must go to bed without supper. The sleeping infant amused them so much, that they readily consented to give up the figs. He awoke smiling, and they gave him the figs to suck. In the mean time, I prepared to release him from his bondage to make him more comfortable; and I then saw that the outer covering of bark was torn by the teeth of some animal, and even the skin of the child slightly grazed. I ventured to carry him to the brook, into which I plunged him two or three times, which seemed to give him great pleasure.

“I ran back to the cave, which is, you see, not more than twenty yards distant, and found Sophia and Matilda very much delighted at a treasure they had found under the dry leaves in a corner. This was a great quantity of fruits of various kinds, roots of some unknown plant, and a good supply of beautiful honey, on which the little gluttons were already feasting. They came directly to give some on their fingers to their little doll, as they called the babe. This discovery made me very thoughtful. Was it possible that we were in a bear’s den! I had read that they sometimes carried off infants and that they were very fond of fruits and of honey, of which they generally had a hoard. I remarked on the earth, and especially at the entrance, where the rain had made it soft, the impression of large paws which left me no doubt. The animal would certainly return to his den, and we were in the greatest danger; but where could we go? The sky, dark with clouds, threatened a return of the storm; and the troop of natives might still be wandering about the island. I had not courage, just as night set in, to depart with my children; nor could I leave the poor infant, who was now sleeping peacefully, after his honey and figs. His two nurses soon followed his example; but for me there was no rest; the noise of the wind among the trees, and of the rain pattering on the leaves, the murmur of the brook, the light bounds of the kangaroo, all made my heart beat with fear and terror; I fancied it was the bear returning to devour us. I had cut and broken some branches to place before the entrance; but these were but a weak defence against a furious and probably famished animal; and if he even did no other harm to my children, I was sure their terror at the sight of him would kill them. I paced backwards and forwards, from the entrance to the bed, in the darkness, envying the dear sleepers their calm and fearless rest; the dark-skinned baby slept soundly, nestled warmly between my daughters, till day broke at last, without anything terrible occurring. Then my little people awoke, and cried out with hunger. We ate of the fruits and honey brought us by our unknown friend, feeding, also, our little charge, to whom my daughters gave the pet name of Minou, which he still keeps.

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