Swiss Family Robinson Chapters 22 and 23

Chapter 22

I projected an excursion with my eldest son, to explore the limits of our country, and satisfy ourselves that it was an island, and not a part of the continent. We set out, ostensibly, to bring the sledge we had left the previous evening. I took Turk and the ass with us, and left Flora with my wife and children, and, with a bag of provisions, we left Falcon’s Nest as soon as breakfast was over.

We now met with a new kind of bush covered with small white berries about the size of a pea. On pressing these berries, which adhered to my fingers, I discovered that this plant was candle-berry myrtle from which a wax is obtained that may be made into candles. With great pleasure I gathered a bag of these berries, knowing how my wife would appreciate this acquisition; for she often lamented that we were compelled to go to bed with the birds, as soon as the sun set.

We forgot our fatigue, as we proceeded, in contemplation of the wonders of nature, flowers of marvellous beauty, butterflies of more dazzling colours than the flowers, and birds graceful in form, and brilliant in plumage. Fritz climbed a tree, and succeeded in securing a young green parrot, which he enveloped in his handkerchief, with the intention of bringing it up, and teaching it to speak. And now we met with another wonder: a number of birds who lived in a community, in nests, sheltered by a common roof, in the formation of which they had probably laboured jointly. This roof was composed of straw and dry sticks, plastered with clay, which rendered it equally impenetrable to sun or rain. Pressed as we were for time, I could not help stopping to admire this feathered colony. This leading us to speak of natural history, as it relates to animals who live in societies, we recalled in succession the ingenious labours of the beavers and the marmots; the not less marvellous constructions of the bees, the wasps, and the ants; and I mentioned particularly those immense ant-hills of America, of which the masonry is finished with such skill and solidity that they are sometimes used for ovens, to which they bear a resemblance.

We had now reached some trees quite unknown to us. They were from forty to sixty feet in height, and from the bark, which was cracked in many places, issued small balls of a thick gum. Fritz got one off with difficulty, it was so hardened by the sun. He wished to soften it with his hands, but found that heat only gave it the power of extension, and that by pulling the two extremities, and then releasing them, it immediately resumed its first form.

Fritz ran to me, crying out, “I have found some India-rubber!”

“If that be true,” said I, “you have made a most valuable discovery.”

He thought I was laughing at him, for we had no drawing to rub out here.

I told him this gum might be turned to many useful purposes; among the rest we might make excellent shoes of it. This interested him. How could we accomplish this?

“The caoutchouc,” said I, “is the milky sap which is obtained from certain trees of the Euphorbium kind, by incisions made in the bark. It is collected in vessels, care being taken to agitate them, that the liquid may not coagulate. In this state they cover little clay bottles with successive layers of it, till it attains the required thickness. It is then dried in smoke, which gives it the dark brown colour. Before it is quite dry, it is ornamented by lines and flowers drawn with the knife. Finally, they break the clay form, and extract it from the mouth; and there remains the India-rubber bottle of commerce, soft and flexible. Now, this is my plan for shoemaking; we will fill a stocking with sand, cover it with repeated layers of the gum till it is of the proper thickness; then empty out the sand, and, if I do not deceive myself, we shall have perfect boots or shoes.”

Comfortable in the hope of new boots, we advanced through an interminable forest of various trees. The monkeys on the cocoa-nut trees furnished us with pleasant refreshment, and a small store of nuts besides. Among these trees I saw some lower bushes, whose leaves were covered with a white dust. I opened the trunk of one of these, which had been torn up by the wind, and found in the interior a white farinaceous substance, which, on tasting, I knew to be the sago imported into Europe. This, as connected with our subsistence, was a most important affair, and my son and I, with our hatchets, laid open the tree, and obtained from it twenty-five pounds of the valuable sago.

This occupied us an hour; and, weary and hungry, I thought it prudent not to push our discoveries farther this day. We therefore returned to the Gourd Wood, placed all our treasures on the sledge, and took our way home. We arrived without more adventures, and were warmly greeted, and our various offerings gratefully welcomed, especially the green parrot. We talked of the caoutchouc, and new boots, with great delight during supper; and, afterwards, my wife looked with exceeding content at her bag of candle-berries, anticipating the time when we should not have to go to bed, as we did now, as soon as the sun set.


Chapter 23

The next morning my wife and children besought me to begin my manufacture of candles. I remembered having seen the chandler at work, and I tried to recall all my remembrances of the process. I put into a boiler as many berries as it would hold, and placed it over a moderate fire: the wax melted from the berries, and rose to the surface, and this I carefully skimmed with a large flat spoon and put in a separate vessel placed near the fire; when this was done, my wife supplied me with some wicks she had made from the threads of sailcloth; these wicks were attached, four at a time, to a small stick; I dipped them into the wax, and placed them on two branches of a tree to dry; I repeated this operation as often as necessary to make them the proper thickness, and then placed them in a cool spot to harden. But we could not forbear trying them that very night; and, thought somewhat rude in form, it was sufficient that they reminded us of our European home, and prolonged our days by many useful hours we had lost before.

This encouraged me to attempt another enterprise. My wife had long regretted that she had not been able to make butter. She had attempted to beat her cream in a vessel, but either the heat of the climate, or her want of patience, rendered her trials unsuccessful. I felt that I had not skill enough to make a churn; but I fancied that by some simple method, like that used by the Hottentots, who put their cream in a skin and shake it till they produce butter, we might obtain the same result. I cut a large gourd in two, filled it with three quarts of cream, then united the parts, and secured them closely. I fastened a stick to each corner of a square piece of sailcloth, placed the gourd in the middle, and, giving a corner to each of my sons, directed them to rock the cloth with a slow, regular motion, as you would a child’s cradle. This was quite an amusement for them; and at the end of an hour, my wife had the pleasure of placing before us some excellent butter. I then tried to make a cart, our sledge being unfitted for some roads; the wheels I had brought from the wreck rendered this less difficult; and I completed a very rude vehicle, which was, nevertheless, very useful to us.

While I was thus usefully employed, my wife and children were not idle. They had transplanted the European trees, and thoughtfully placed each in the situation best suited to it. I assisted with my hands and counsels. The vines we planted round the roots of our trees, and hoped in time to form a trellis-work. Of the chesnut, walnut, and cherry-trees, we formed an avenue from Falcon’s Nest to Family Bridge, which, we hoped, would ultimately be a shady road between our two mansions. We made a solid road between the two rows of trees, raised in the middle and covered with sand, which we brought from the shore in our wheelbarrows. I also made a sort of tumbril, to which we harnessed the ass, to lighten this difficult labour.

We then turned our thoughts to Tent House, our first abode, and which still might form our refuge in case of danger. Nature had not favoured it; but our labour soon supplied all deficiencies. We planted round it every tree that requires ardent heat; the citron, pistachio, the almond, the mulberry, the Siamese orange, of which the fruit is as large as the head of a child, and the Indian fig, with its long prickly leaves, all had a place here. These plantations succeeding admirably, we had, after some time, the pleasure of seeing the dry and sandy desert converted into a shady grove, rich in flowers and fruit. As this place was the magazine for our arms, ammunition, and provisions of all sorts; we made a sort of fortress of it, surrounding it with a high hedge of strong, thorny trees; so that not only to wild beasts, but even to human enemies, it was inaccessible. Our bridge was the only point of approach, and we always carefully removed the first planks after crossing it. We also placed our two cannon on a little elevation within the enclosure; and, finally, we planted some cedars, near our usual landing-place, to which we might, at a future time, fasten our vessels. These labours occupied us three months, only interrupted by a strict attention to the devotions and duties of the Sunday. I was most especially grateful to God for the robust health we all enjoyed, in the midst of our employments. All went on well in our little colony. We had an abundant and certain supply of provisions; but our wardrobe, notwithstanding the continual repairing my wife bestowed on it, was in a most wretched state, and we had no means of renewing it, except by again visiting the wreck, which I knew still contained some chests of clothes, and bales of cloth. This decided me to make another voyage; besides I was rather anxious to see the state of the vessel.

We found it much in the same condition we had left it, except being much more shattered by the winds and waves.

We selected many useful things for our cargo; the bales of linen and woollen cloth were not forgotten; some barrels of tar; and everything portable that we could remove; doors, windows, tables, benches, locks and bolts, all the ammunition, and even such of the guns as we could move. In fact we completely sacked the vessel; carrying off, after several days’ labour, all our booty, with the exception of some weighty articles, amongst which were three or four immense boilers, intended for a sugar-manufactory. These we tied to some large empty casks, which we pitched completely over, and hoped they would be able to float in the water.

When we had completed our arrangements, I resolved to blow up the ship. We placed a large barrel of gunpowder in the hold, and arranging a long match from it, which would burn some hours, we lighted it, and proceeded without delay to Safety Bay to watch the event. I proposed to my wife to sup on a point of land where we could distinctly see the vessel. Just as the sun was going down, a majestic rolling, like thunder, succeeded by a column of fire, announced the destruction of the vessel, which had brought us from Europe, and bestowed its great riches on us. We could not help shedding tears, as we heard the last mournful cry of this sole remaining bond that connected us with home. We returned sorrowfully to Tent House, and felt as if we had lost an old friend.

We rose early next morning, and hastened to the shore, which we found covered with the wreck, which, with a little exertion, we found it easy to collect. Amongst the rest, were the large boilers. We afterwards used these to cover our barrels of gunpowder, which we placed in a part of the rock, where, even if an explosion took place, no damage could ensue.

My wife, in assisting us with the wreck, made the agreeable discovery, that two of our ducks, and one goose, had hatched each a brood, and were leading their noisy young families to the water. This reminded us of all our poultry and domestic comfort, at Falcon’s Nest, and we determined to defer, for some time, the rest of our work at Tent House, and to return the next day to our shady summer home.

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