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Chapter 11

‘Now for the finishing up of this dirty job,’ cried I, merrily, as we all woke up next morning at daybreak. And after the regular work was done, we commenced operations by raising a stand or rough scaffold on which the tubs full of blubber were placed and heavily pressed, so that the purest and finest oil overflowed into vessels underneath.

The blubber was afterwards boiled in a cauldron over a fire kindled at some distance from our abode, and by skimming and straining through a coarse cloth, we succeeded in obtaining a large supply of excellent train oil, which, in casks and bags made of the intestines, was safely stowed away in the ‘cellar’, as the children called our roughest store-room. This day’s work was far from agreeable, and the dreadful smell oppressed us all, more especially my poor wife, who, nevertheless, endured it with her accustomed good temper. Although she very urgently recommended that the new island should be the headquarters for another colony, where, said she, ‘any animals we leave would be safe from apes and other plunderers, and where you would find it so very convenient to boil whale-blubber, strain train oil, and the like’.

This proposal met with hearty approval, especially from the boys, who were always-charmed with any new plan; and they were eager to act upon it at once, but when I reminded them of the putrefying carcass which lay there, they confessed it would be better to allow wind and storms, birds and insects to do their work in purging the atmosphere, and reducing the whale to a skeleton before we revisited the island.

The idea of a rowing-machine kept recurring to my brain. I determined to attempt to make one.

I took an iron bar, which when laid across the middle of the boat projected about a foot each way. I provided this bar in the middle with ribbed machinery, and at each end with a sort of nave, in which, as in a cart wheel, four flat spokes, or paddles, were fixed obliquely. These were intended to do the rowers’ part.

Then the jack was arranged to act upon the machinery in the middle of the iron cross-bar, in such a way that one of its strong cogwheels bit firmly into the ribs, so that when it was wound up, it caused the bar to revolve rapidly, of course turning with it the paddles fixed at either end, which consequently struck the water so as to propel the boat.

Although this contrivance left much to be desired in the way of improvement, still when Fritz and I wound up the machinery, and went off on a trial trip across the bay, we splashed along at such a famous rate, that the shores rang with the cheers and clapping of the whole family, delighted to behold what they considered my brilliant success.

Everyone wanted to go on board, and take a cruise, but as it was getting late, I could not consent. A trip next day, however, was promised to Cape Disappointment and the little settlement of Prospect Hill.

This proposal satisfied everybody. The evening was spent in preparing the dresses, arms and food which would be required, and we retired early to rest.

Intending to be out all day, the house was left in good order, and we departed on our expedition, provided, among other things, with spades and mattocks, for I wished to get young coconut trees and shrubs of different kinds, that, on our way back, we might land on Whale Island, and begin our plantation there.

We directed our course towards the opposite side of the bay. The sea was smooth, my rowing-machine performed its work easily, and leaving Safety Bay and Shark Island behind us, we enjoyed at our ease the panorama of all the coast scenery.

Landing near Prospect Hill, we moored the boat, and walked through the woods to our little farm, obtaining some fresh coconuts, as well as young plants, on the way.

Before coming in sight of the cottage at the farm, we heard the cocks crow, and I experienced a sudden rush of emotion as the sound recalled in a degree painfully vivid, the recollection of many a ride and walk at home, when we would be greeted by just such familiar sounds as we approached some kind friend’s house. Here, but for the unconscious animals, utter solitude and silence prevailed, and I with my dear family, whose visit would have been hailed with delight in so many homes, advanced unnoticed to this lonely cottage. So long had been our absence that our arrival created a perfect panic. The original animals had forgotten us, and to their progeny, lambs, kids, and chickens, who had never seen the face of man, we seemed an army of fierce foes.

The boys found it impossible to milk the goats, until, by the use of the lasso, they captured them one after the other, bound their legs, then giving them salt to lick, they soon obtained a supply of excellent milk which was poured from the coconut shells they used into calabash flasks, so that we could take with us what was not required at dinner.

The fowls were enticed by handfuls of grain and rice, and my wife caught as many as she wished for.

Before returning to Whale Island, I felt a strong wish to round Cape Disappointment and survey the coast immediately beyond, but the promontory maintained the character of its name, and we found that a long sandbank, as well as hidden reefs and rocks, ran out a great way into the sea.

Fritz espying breakers ahead, we put about at once, and aided by a light breeze, directed our course towards Whale Island.

On landing, I began at once to plant the sugar-cane shoots we had brought. The boys assisted me for a while, but wearied somewhat of the occupation, and one after another went off in search of shells and coral, leaving their mother and me to finish the work.

Presently Jack came back, shouting loudly, ‘Father! Mother! Do come and look. There is an enormous skeleton lying here; the skeleton of some fearful great beast—a mammoth, I should think.’

‘Why Jack!’ returned I laughing, ‘have you forgot our old acquaintance, the whale? What else could it be?’

‘Oh no, father, it is not the whale. This thing has not fish bones, but real good, honest, huge, beast bones. I don’t know what can have become of the whale—floated out to sea most likely. This mammoth is ever so much bigger. Come and see!’

As I was about to follow the boy, a voice from another direction suddenly cried, ‘Father! Father! A great enormous turtle! Please make haste. It is waddling back to the sea as hard as it can go, and we can’t stop it.’

This appeal being more pressing, as well as more important than Jack’s, I snatched up an oar and hastened to their assistance.

Sure enough a large turtle was scrambling quickly towards the water, and was within a few paces of it, although Ernest was valiantly holding on by one of its hind legs.

I sprang down the bank, and making use of the oar as a lever, we succeeded with some difficulty in turning the creature on its back.

It was a huge specimen, fully eight feet long, and being now quite helpless, we left it sprawling, and went to inspect Jack’s mammoth skeleton, which, of course, proved to be neither more nor less than that of the whale. I convinced him of the fact by pointing out the marks of our feet on the ground, and the broken jaws where we had hacked out the whalebone.

‘What can have made you take up that fancy about a mammoth, my boy?’

‘Ernest put it into my head, father. He said there seemed to be the skeleton of an antediluvian monster there, so I ran to look closer, and I never thought of the whale, when I saw no fish bones. I suppose Ernest was joking.’

‘What a marvellous structure it is, father!’ said Fritz. ‘What a ponderous mass of bones! Can we not make use of any of them?’

‘Nothing strikes me at this moment; we will leave them to bleach here yet awhile, and perhaps by sawing them up afterwards, make a few chairs, or a reading-desk for the museum. But now it is time to return home. Bring the boat round to where the turtle awaits his fate; we must settle how to deal with him.’

It was soon decided that he must swim. I fastened the empty water-cask to a long line, one end of which was made fast to the bow of the boat, the other carefully passed round the neck and fore-paws of the creature, who was then lifted, so as to let him regain his feet, when he instantly made for the water, plunged in, the cask floated after him, and prevented his sinking. We were all on board in a moment; and the worthy fellow, after vainly attempting to dive, set himself diligently to swim right forwards, towing us comfortably after him. I was ready to cut the line on the least appearance of danger, and kept him on the course for Safety Bay by striking the water with a boat-hook right or left, according as the turtle was disposed to turn too much one way or the other.

The boys were delighted with the fun, and compared me to Neptune in his car, drawn by dolphins, and accompanied by Amphitrite and attendant Tritons.

We landed safely at the usual place, near Rockburg, and the turtle was condemned and executed soon afterwards; the shell, which was quite eight feet long, and three broad, was, when cleaned and prepared, to form a trough for the water supply at the cave, and the meat was carefully salted, and stored up for many a good and savoury meal.

It had been my intention to bring a piece of land under cultivation before the next rainy season, to be sown with different sorts of grain; but many unforeseen circumstances had intervened to hinder this, and our animals, unaccustomed to the yoke, were not available for the plough.

I therefore gave up the idea for the present, and applied myself, with Ernest’s assistance, to completing the loom, which, although the workmanship was clumsy, I succeeded in making quite fit for use.

Success encouraging me to persevere, I next began harness-making; the spoils of the chase having furnished us with plenty of leather, with which I covered light frames of wood, using the hairy moss or lichen for stuffing, and ere long the animals were equipped with saddles, stirrups, bridles, yokes and collars, to the very great satisfaction of their youthful riders and drivers.

This occupation was followed by a great deal of work connected with the annual return of the herring shoals which now took place; to them succeeding, as on former occasions, shoals of other fish, and many seals. More than ever aware of the value of all of these, we did not fail to make good use of our opportunities, and captured large numbers.

The boys were getting anxious for another shooting expedition; but before undertaking that, I wished to do some basket-making, as sacks were beginning to fail us, and there was constant demand for baskets in which to carry and keep our roots and fruits. Our first attempts were clumsy enough; but, as usual, perseverance was rewarded, and we produced a good supply of all sorts and sizes. One very large basket I furnished with openings through which to pass a strong stick, so that it might, when heavily laden, be carried by two persons.

No sooner did the children see the force of this idea, than they got a bamboo, and popping little Franz into the basket, carried him about in triumph.

This amusement suggested a fresh notion to Fritz. ‘Oh, father,’ cried he, ‘don’t you think we might make something like this for mother, and carry her much more comfortably than jolting along in the cart?’

The boys shouted with glee at the proposal, and though their mother thought the plan feasible enough, she confessed that she did not much like the thought of sitting in the middle of a basket, and just looking out now and then over the rim.

However, I assured her it should be a well-shaped comfortable sedan-chair, or litter; and the next question was how it should be carried, since the boys could not play the part of Indian palanquin-bearers, either with safety to their mother, or with any pleasure to themselves.

‘The bull and the buffalo!’ cried Jack. ‘Why not use them for it? Let’s go and try them now!’

Off ran the boys, and in a short time the basket was securely hung between Storm and Grumble. Fritz and Jack sprang into their saddles, and Ernest very gingerly deposited himself in the ‘cradle’, as Franz called it; they set forth at a most sober pace, the animals, who were perfectly docile, appearing only a little surprised at the new arrangement.

‘Oh, it is so pleasant, mother, it is a delightful motion,’ cried Ernest, as they passed us. ‘It swings and rocks really soothingly. Quicker, Fritz! Go quicker!’ And the trot pleasing him equally well, the pace gradually quickened, till the animals were going along at a rate which shook and jolted the basket about most fearfully. Ernest called and screamed in vain for a halt. His brothers thought it capital fun to ‘shake up’ the ‘professor’, and made the circuit of the level ground near Rockburg, finally pulling up in front of us, like performers stopping to receive the applause of spectators.

It was impossible to help laughing, the scene was so ridiculous, but Ernest was very angry with his brothers, his reproaches provoked high words in reply, and a quarrel was imminent, but I interfered, and showed them how easily a joke carried too far would lead to disputes and bad feeling, urging them to avoid on all occasions any breach of the good fellowship and brotherly love which was the mainstay of our strength and happiness.

Good humour was soon restored, Ernest himself helped to unharness the beasts, and got some handfuls of salt and barley to reward their exertions, saying, that they must have some more palanquin-practice another day.

I was seated with my wife and Fritz beneath the shade of the verandah, engaged in wicker-work, and chatting pleasantly, when suddenly Fritz got up, advanced a step or two, gazing fixedly along the avenue which led from Jackal River, then he exclaimed, ‘I see something so strange in the distance, father! What in the world can it be? first it seems to be drawn in coils on the ground like a cable, then uprises as it were a little mast, then that sinks, and the coils move along again. It is coming towards the bridge.’

My wife took alarm at this description, and calling the other boys, retreated into the cave, where I desired them to close up the entrances, and keep watch with firearms at the upper windows. These were openings we had made in the rock at some elevation, reached within by steps, and a kind of gallery which passed along the front of the rooms.

Fritz remained by me while I examined the object through my spy-glass.

‘It is, as I feared, an enormous serpent!’ cried I. ‘It advances directly this way, and we shall be placed in the greatest possible danger, for it will cross the bridge to a certainty.’

‘May we not attack it, father?’ exclaimed the brave boy.

‘Only with the greatest caution,’ returned I. ‘It is far too formidable, and too tenacious of life, for us rashly to attempt its destruction. Thank God we are at Rockburg, where we can keep in safe retreat, while we watch for an opportunity to destroy this frightful enemy. Go up to your mother now, and assist in preparing the firearms; I will join you directly, but I must further observe the monster’s movements.’

Fritz left me unwillingly, while I continued to watch the serpent, which was of gigantic size, and already much too near the bridge to admit of the possibility of removing that means of access to our dwelling. I recollected, too, how easily it would pass through the walls. The reptile advanced with writhing and undulatory movements, from time to time rearing its head to the height of fifteen or twenty feet, and slowly turning it about, as though on the look-out for prey.

As it crossed the bridge, with a slow, suspicious motion, I withdrew, and hastily rejoined my little party, which was preparing to garrison our fortress in warlike array, but with considerable trepidation, which my presence served in a measure to allay.

We placed ourselves at the upper openings, after strongly barricading everything below, and, ourselves unseen, awaited with beating hearts the further advance of the foe, which speedily became visible to us.

Its movements appeared to become uncertain, as though puzzled by the trace of human habitation; it turned in different directions, coiling and uncoiling, and frequently rearing its head, but keeping about the middle of the space in front of the cave, when suddenly, as though unable to resist doing so, one after another the boys fired, and even their mother discharged her gun. The shots took not the slightest effect beyond startling the monster, whose movements were accelerated. Fritz and I also fired with steadier aim, but with the same want of success, for the monster passing on with a gliding motion, entered the reedy marsh to the left, and entirely disappeared.

A wonderful weight seemed lifted from our hearts, while all eagerly discussed the vast length and awful though magnificent appearance of the serpent. I had recognized it as the boa constrictor. It was a vast specimen, upwards of thirty feet in length.

The near neighbourhood of this terrific reptile occasioned me the utmost anxiety; and I desired that no one should leave the house on any pretence whatever, without my express permission.

During three whole days we were kept in suspense and fear, not daring to stir above a few hundred steps from the door, although during all that time the enemy showed no sign of his presence.

In fact, we might have been induced to think the boa had passed across the swamp, and found his way by some cleft or chasm through the wall of cliffs beyond, had not the restless behaviour of our geese and ducks given proof that he still lurked in the thicket of reeds which they were accustomed to make their nightly resting place.

They swam anxiously about, and with much clapping of wings and disturbed cackling, showed their uneasiness; finally, taking wing, they crossed the harbour, and took up their quarters on Shark’s Island.

My embarrassment increased, as time passed on. I could not venture to attack with insufficient force a monstrous and formidable serpent concealed in dense thickets amidst dangerous swamps; yet it was dreadful to live in a state of blockade, cut off from all the important duties in which we were engaged, and shut up with our animals in the unnatural light of the cave, enduring constant anxiety and perturbation.

Out of this painful state we were at last delivered by none other than our good old simple-hearted donkey; not, however, by the exercise of a praiseworthy quality, but by sheer stupidity.

Our situation was rendered the more critical from having no great stock of provisions, or fodder for the animals; and the hay failing us on the evening of the third day, I determined to set them at liberty by sending them, under the guidance of Fritz, across the river at the ford.

He was to ride Lightfoot, and they were to be fastened together until safely over.

Next morning we began to prepare for this by tying them in a line, and while so engaged my wife opened the door, when old Grizzle, who was fresh and frolicsome after the long rest and regular feeding, suddenly broke away from the halter, cut some awkward capers, then bolting out, careered at full gallop straight for the marsh.

In vain we called him by name. Fritz would even have rushed after him, had not I held him back. In another moment the ass was close to the thicket, and with a cold shudder of horror, we beheld the snake rear itself from its lair, the fiery eyes glanced around, the dark deadly jaws opened widely, the forked tongue darted greedily forth—poor Grizzle’s fate was sealed.

Becoming aware on a sudden of his danger, he stopped short, spread out all four legs, and set up the most piteous and discordant bray that ever wrung echo from rocks.

Swift and straight as a fencer’s thrust, the destroyer was upon him, wound round him, entangled, enfolded, compressed him, all the while cunningly avoiding the convulsive kicks of the agonized animal.

A cry of horror arose from the spectators of this miserable tragedy.

‘Shoot him, father! Oh, shoot him—do save poor Grizzle!’

‘My children, it is impossible!’ cried I. ‘Our old friend is lost to us for ever! I have hopes, however, that when gorged with his prey, we may be able to attack the snake with some chance of success.’

‘But the horrible wretch is never going to swallow him all at once, father?’ cried Jack. ‘That will be too shocking!’

‘Snakes have no grinders, but only fangs, therefore they cannot chew their food, and must swallow it whole. But although the idea is startling, it is not really more shocking than the rending, tearing and shedding of blood which occurs when lions and tigers seize their prey.’

‘But,’ said Franz, ‘how can the snake separate the flesh from the bones without teeth? And is this kind of snake poisonous?’

‘No, dear child,’ said I, ‘only fearfully strong and ferocious. And it has no need to tear the flesh from the bones. It swallows them, skin, hair and all, and digests everything in its stomach.’

‘It seems utterly impossible that the broad ribs, the strong legs, hoofs and all, should go down that throat,’ exclaimed Fritz.

‘Only see,’ I replied, ‘how the monster deals with his victim; closer and more tightly he curls his crushing folds, the bones give way, he is kneading him into a shapeless mass: He will soon begin to gorge his prey, and slowly but surely it will disappear down that distended maw!’

My wife, with little Franz, found the scene all too horrible, and hastened into the cave, trembling and distressed. To the rest of us there seemed a fearful fascination in the dreadful sight, and we could not move from the spot.

This wonderful performance lasted from seven in the morning until noon. When the awkward morsel was entirely swallowed, the serpent lay stiff, distorted, and apparently insensible along the edge of the marsh.

I felt that now or never was the moment for attack!

Calling on my sons to maintain their courage and presence of mind, I left our retreat with a feeling of joyous emotion quite new to me, and approached with rapid steps and levelled gun, the outstretched form of the serpent. Fritz followed me closely.

Jack, somewhat timidly, came several paces behind; while Ernest, after a little hesitation, remained where he was.

The monster’s body was stiff and motionless, which made its rolling and fiery eyes, and the slow spasmodic undulations of its tail more fearful by contrast.

We fired together, and both balls entered the skull: the light of the eye was extinguished, and the only movement was in the further extremity of the body, which rolled, writhed, coiled and lashed from side to side.

Advancing closer, we fired our pistols directly into its head, a convulsive quiver ran through the mighty frame, and the boa constrictor lay dead.

As we raised a cry of victory, Jack, desirous of a share in the glory of conquest, ran close to the creature, firing his pistol into its side, when he was sent sprawling over and over by a movement of its tail, excited to a last galvanic effort by the shot.

Being in no way hurt, he speedily recovered his feet, and declared he had given it its quietus.

‘I hope the terrific noise you made just now was the signal of victory,’ said my wife, drawing near, with the utmost circumspection, and holding Franz tightly by the hand. ‘I was half-afraid to come, I assure you.’

‘See this dreadful creature dead at our feet; and let us thank God that we have been able to destroy such an enemy.’

‘What’s to be done with him now?’ asked Jack.

‘Let us get him stuffed,’ said Fritz, ‘and set him up in the museum amongst our shells and corals.’

‘Did anybody ever think of eating serpents?’ inquired Franz.

‘Of course not!’ said his mother. ‘Why, child, serpents are poisonous—it would be very dangerous.’

‘Excuse me, my dear wife,’ said I. ‘First of all, the boa is not poisonous; and then, besides that, the flesh even of poisonous snakes can be eaten without danger; as, for instance, the rattle-snake, from which can be made a strong and nourishing soup, tasting very like good chicken broth—of course, the cook must be told to throw away the head, containing the deadly fangs.

‘But come, Ernest, can you not give us an epitaph for our unfortunate friend the donkey?

‘We must afford him more honourable sepulture than he enjoys at present, when we proceed, as we speedily must, to disembowel his murderer.’

Ernest took the matter quite seriously, and planting his elbows on his knees, he bent his thoughtful brow in his hands, and remained wrapt in poetic meditation for about two minutes.

‘I have it!’ cried he. ‘But perhaps you will all laugh at me?’

‘No, no, don’t be shy, old fellow; spit it out!’ and thus encouraged by his brother, Ernest, with the blush of a modest author, began:

‘Beneath this stone poor Grizzle’s bones are laid,

A faithful ass he was, and loved by all.

At length, his master’s voice he disobeyed,

And thereby came his melancholy fall.

A monstrous serpent, springing from the grass,

Seized, crushed, and swallowed him before our eyes.

But we, though yet we mourn our honest ass,

Are grateful; for he thereby saved the lives

Of all the human beings on this shore——

A father, mother, and their children four.’

‘Hurrah for the epitaph! Well done, Ernest!’ resounded on all sides, and taking out a large red pencil I used for marking wood, the lines were forthwith inscribed on a great flat stone, being, as I told the boy, the very best poetry that had ever been written on our coast.

We then had dinner, and afterwards went to work with the serpent.

The first operation was to recover the mangled remains of the ass, which being effected, he was buried in the soft marshy ground close by, and the hole filled up with fragments of rock.

Then we yoked Storm and Grumble to the serpent, and dragged it to a convenient distance from Rockburg, where the process of skinning, stuffing, and sewing up again afforded occupation of the deepest interest to the boys for several days.

We took great pains to coil it round a pole in the museum, arranging the head with the jaws wide open, so as to look as alarming as possible, and contriving to make eyes and tongue which were quite sufficient to represent nature; in fact, our dogs never passed the monster without growling, and must have wondered at our taste in keeping such a pet.

Over the entrance leading to the museum and library were inscribed these words:

NO ADMITTANCE FOR ASSES

The double meaning of this sentence pleased us all immensely.

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