Swiss Family Robinson Chapters 26 and 27

Chapter 26

I took a long pole, and tried the height from the window I had made; and tied a stone to a string to sound the depth. To my surprise, the pole penetrated without resistance to the very branches where our dwelling was, and the stone went to the roots. It was entirely hollow, and I thought I could easily fix a winding staircase in this wide tunnel. It would seem, that this huge tree, like the willow of our country, is nourished through the bark, for it was flourishing in luxuriant beauty.

We began by cutting a doorway, on the side facing the sea, of the size of the door we had brought from the captain’s cabin, with its framework, thus securing ourselves from invasion on that side. We then cleansed, and perfectly smoothed the cavity, fixing in the middle the trunk of a tree about ten feet high, to serve for the axis of the staircase. We had prepared, the evening before, a number of boards from the staves of a large barrel, to form our steps. By the aid of the chisel and mallet, we made deep notches in the inner part of our tree, and corresponding notches in the central pillar; I placed my steps in these notches, riveting them with large nails; I raised myself in this manner step after step, but always turning round the pillar, till we got to the top. We then fixed on the central pillar another trunk of the same height, prepared beforehand, and continued our winding steps. Four times we had to repeat this operation, and, finally, we reached our branches, and terminated the staircase on the level of the floor of our apartment. I cleared the entrance by some strokes of my axe. To render it more solid, I filled up the spaces between the steps with planks, and fastened two strong cords from above, to each side of the staircase, to hold by. Towards different points, I made openings; in which were placed the windows taken from the cabin, which gave light to the interior, and favoured our observations outside.

The construction of this solid and convenient staircase occupied us during a month of patient industry; not that we laboured like slaves, for we had no one to constrain us; we had in this time completed several works of less importance; and many events had amused us amidst our toil.

A few days after we commenced, Flora produced six puppies; but the number being too large for our means of support, I commanded that only a male and female should be preserved, that the breed might be perpetuated; this was done, and the little jackal being placed with the remainder, Flora gave it the same privileges as her own offspring. Our goats also, about this time, gave us two kids; and our sheep some lambs. We saw this increase of our flock with great satisfaction; and for fear these useful animals should take it into their heads to stray from us, as our ass had done, we tied round their necks some small bells we had found on the wreck, intended to propitiate the natives, and which would always put us on the track of the fugitives.

The education of the young buffalo was one of the employments that varied our labour as carpenters. Through the incision in his nostrils, I had passed a small stick, to the ends of which I attached a strap. This formed a kind of bit, after the fashion of those of the Hottentots; and by this I guided him as I chose; though not without much rebellion on his part. It was only after Fritz had broken it in for mounting, that we began to make it carry. It was certainly a remarkable instance of patience and perseverance surmounting difficulties, that we not only made it bear the wallets we usually placed on the ass, but Ernest, Jack, and even little Francis, took lessons in horsemanship, by riding him, and, henceforward, would have been able to ride the most spirited horse without fear; for it could not be worse than the buffalo they had assisted to subdue.

In the midst of this, Fritz did not neglect the training of his young eagle. The royal bird began already to pounce very cleverly on the dead game his master brought, and placed before him; sometimes between the horns of the buffalo, sometimes on the back of the great bustard, or the flamingo; sometimes he put it on a board, or on the end of a pole, to accustom it to pounce, like the falcon, on other birds. He taught it to settle on his wrist at a call, or a whistle; but it was some time before he could trust it to fly, without a long string attached to its leg, for fear its wild nature should carry it from us for ever. Even the indolent Ernest was seized with the mania of instructing animals. He undertook the education of his little monkey, who gave him sufficient employment. It was amusing to see the quiet, slow, studious Ernest obliged to make leaps and gambols with his pupil to accomplish his instruction. He wished to accustom Master Knips to carry a pannier, and to climb the cocoa-nut trees with it on his back; Jack and he wove a small light pannier of rushes, and fixed it firmly on his back with three straps. This was intolerable to him at first; he ground his teeth, rolled on the ground, and leaped about in a frantic manner, trying in vain to release himself. They left the pannier on his back night and day, and only allowed him to eat what he had previously put into it. After a little time, he became so accustomed to it, that he rebelled if they wished to remove it, and threw into it everything they gave him to hold. He was very useful to us, but he obeyed only Ernest, who had very properly taught him equally to love and fear him.

Jack was not so successful with his jackal; for, though he gave him the name of “The Hunter,” yet, for the first six months, the carnivorous animal chased only for himself, and, if he brought anything to his master, it was only the skin of the animal he had just devoured; but I charged him not to despair, and he continued zealously his instructions.

We then worked at our fountain, a great source of pleasure to my wife and to all of us. We raised, in the upper part of the river, a sort of dam, made with stakes and stones, from whence the water flowed into our channels of the sago-palm, laid down a gentle declivity nearly to our tent, and there it was received into the shell of the turtle, which we had raised on some stones of a convenient height, the hole which the harpoon had made serving to carry off the waste water through a cane that was fitted to it. On two crossed sticks were placed the gourds that served us for pails, and thus we had always the murmuring of the water near us, and a plentiful supply of it, always pure and clean, which the river, troubled by our water-fowl and the refuse of decayed leaves, could not always give us. The only inconvenience of these open channels was, that the water reached us warm and unrefreshing; but this I hoped to remedy in time, by using bamboo pipes buried in the earth. In the mean time, we were grateful for this new acquisition, and gave credit to Fritz, who had suggested the idea.


Chapter 27

One morning, as we were engaged in giving the last finish to our staircase, we were alarmed at hearing at a distance strange, sharp, prolonged sounds, like the roars of a wild beast, but mingled with an unaccountable hissing. Our dogs erected their ears, and prepared for deadly combat. I assembled my family; we then ascended our tree, closing the lower door, loaded our guns, and looked anxiously round, but nothing appeared. I armed my dogs with their porcupine coats of mail and collars, and left them below to take care of our animals.

The horrible howlings seemed to approach nearer to us; at length, Fritz, who was leaning forward to listen as attentively as he could, threw down his gun, and bursting into a loud laugh, cried out, “It is our fugitive, the ass, come back to us, and singing his song of joy on his return!” We listened, and were sure he was right, and could not but feel a little vexation at being put into such a fright by a donkey. Soon after, we had the pleasure of seeing him appear among the trees; and, what was still better, he was accompanied by another animal of his own species, but infinitely more beautiful. I knew it at once to be the donkey, a most important capture, if we could make it; though all naturalists have declared it impossible to tame this elegant creature, yet I determined to make the attempt.

By degrees we advanced softly to them, concealed by the trees; Fritz carrying the lasso, and I the pincers. The donkey, as soon as he got sight of Fritz, who was before me, raised his head, and started back, evidently only in surprise, as it was probably the first man the creature had seen. Fritz remained still, and the animal resumed his browsing. Fritz went up to our old servant, and offered him a handful of oats mixed with salt; the ass came directly to eat its favorite treat; its companion followed, raised its head, snuffed the air, and came so near, that Fritz adroitly threw the noose over its head. The terrified animal attempted to fly, but that drew the cord so tight as almost to stop his respiration, and he lay down, his tongue hanging out. I hastened up and relaxed the cord, lest he should be strangled. I threw the halter of the ass round his neck, and placed the split cane over his nose, tying it firmly below with a string. I subdued this wild animal by the means that blacksmiths use the first time they shoe a horse. I then took off the noose, and tied the halter by two long cords to the roots of two separate trees, and left him to recover himself.

In the mean time, the rest of the family had collected to admire this noble animal, whose graceful and elegant form, so superior to that of the ass, raises it almost to the dignity of a horse. After a while it rose, and stamped furiously with its feet, trying to release itself; but the pain in its nose obliged it to lie down again. Then my eldest son and I, approaching gently, took the two cords, and led or dragged it between two roots very near to each other, to which we tied the cords so short, that it had little power to move, and could not escape. We took care our own donkey should not stray again, by tying his fore-feet loosely, and putting on him a new halter, and left him near the donkey.

I continued, with a patience I had never had in Europe, to use every means I could think of with our new guest, and at the end of a month he was so far subdued, that I ventured to begin his education. This was a long and difficult task. We placed some burdens on his back; but the obedience necessary before we could mount him, it seemed impossible to instill into him. At last, I recollected the method they use in America to tame the wild horses, and I resolved to try it. In spite of the bounds and kicks of the furious animal, I leaped on his back, and seizing one of his long ears between my teeth, I bit it till the blood came. In a moment he reared himself almost erect on his hind-feet, remained for a while stiff and motionless, then came down on his fore-feet slowly, I still holding on his ear. At last I ventured to release him; he made some leaps, but soon subsided into a sort of trot, I having previously placed loose cords on his fore-legs. From that time we were his masters; my sons mounted him one after another; they gave him the name of Lightfoot, and never animal deserved his name better. As a precaution, we kept the cords on his legs for some time; and as he never would submit to the bit, we used a snaffle, by which we obtained power over his head, guiding him by a stick, with which we struck the right or left ear, as we wished him to go.

During this time, our poultry-yard was increased by three broods of chickens. We had at least forty of these little creatures chirping and pecking about, the pride of their good mistress’s heart. Part of these were kept at home, to supply the table, and part she allowed to colonize in the woods, where we could find them when we wanted them. “These,” she said, “are of more use than your monkeys, jackals, and eagles, who do nothing but eat, and would not be worth eating themselves, if we were in need.” However, she allowed there was some use in the buffalo, who carried burdens, and Lightfoot, who carried her sons so well. The fowls, which cost us little for food, would be always ready, she said, either to supply us with eggs or chickens, when the rainy season came on the winter of this climate.

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