Crusoes of the Frozen North/chapter6
In their rambles through this little Arctic fairy land, Tom noticed that the squirrels were now busy every day running away to their holes with nuts and leaves. Of course they might have young ones to feed, he thought; but surely it was something more than this which made them act thus.
Creeping all alone one morning through the bushes, as quietly as a mouse, Tom came upon a sight which taught him a useful lesson. For high up in the trunk of an old tree was a big round hole with a squirrel's tail hanging out. Presently up ran another squirrel, carrying a great mouthful of leaves and clay.
The new-comer made a slight noise, when out came No. 1 and took the bundle from No. 2, which then darted off for more.
"Ho! ho!" said Tom to himself, "they seem to be storing up food for winter. Heigho! I thought it would always be summer in this fairyland. But thank you, Master Squirrel, I shall go and do the same." So off went Tom to tell Frank and the girls what he had seen the squirrels doing.
"As there is no sign of the ship coming back for us, children," he said somewhat seriously, "and we may have to spend the winter here, I think, you know, we ought to be making ready for it."
"So do I," said Pansy, looking very wise. "We want food, and we want wood and all, doesn't we, Tom?"
"It won't be very, very cold in this island," said her brother, "because we have the warm-water lake all round us. But perhaps the squirrels know best."
So now began a very busy season indeed, for everybody went nut-gathering.
Tom opened up a squirrel's store, and a pretty noise the little creature made about it. But he did not rob it; he only wanted to learn a lesson.
He noticed that the nuts it had collected were a little green on one side, so these must be the best. Then he looked at the leaves and clay that were packed over them, and thought he would get some just the same.
This going a-nutting in fairyland was real fine fun, and to have heard their merry voices, talking and laughing and singing, with every now and then Briton's great bass "Wowff!" and Veevee's shrill "Wiff!" no one would have taken them for castaways and Crusoes.
Nutting made everyone so hungry too!
Rabbits were very plentiful on the island. The boys caught them by means of snares made of a kind of tough creeper. And bonny Flossy caught as many fish as would have kept a large family alive.
Tom seldom used his rifle, though he always carried it. The cartridges were too precious to waste.
Another thing which these Crusoes had to be very careful to do was never to let the fire go out. It was easily kept in by placing a kind of mossy peat among the hot ashes and covering it quite over.
So they collected an immense quantity of nuts, and these were placed in holes found in the rocks, and covered right up with the same sort of cement as the squirrels used. The roots that served them instead of bread every day, and which were cooked by placing them for a short time in the hot ashes, they also collected and stored. So when the harvest was all over, Tom told Frank and his sisters that they needn't be afraid to spend their Christmas in this beautiful island.
"Oh, but, Tom," said Pansy, "we'll all be home long, long before Christmas, won't we?"
Poor child! She was beginning to long for her mother's cosy cottage on the cliff, and for the fires that in the long winter evenings always burned so brightly in the parlour grate.
"Now, about light for the long Arctic winter night, which will soon be here?"
This was the question that Tom put to Frank just after sunset one beautiful evening as the snow on the tops of the highest mountains was changed to a rose tint in the sun's parting rays.
"It is a very serious question, you know," he added.
"Very serious," said Pansy, who heard him, shaking her wise, wee head.
Sitting by the camp fire there, with its lights and shadows chasing each other over her face and through her sunny hair, Pansy looked a very beautiful child indeed.
For some time they had all been sitting round the fire, watching the curling smoke and the dancing flames, everyone intent on his or her own thoughts. Aralia had been wondering what they were all doing at home, and if her father and mother were anxious about her and Pansy. It was such a long, long time—hundreds of years it seemed—since they had sailed away; so many strange things had happened since that day. Pansy was a little maiden who took the world very easily, and enjoyed each day and hour as it passed. Her thoughts were hardly worth a penny. Frank was not unlike Pansy, and took things as they came, and if they were not nice, just let them slide. The mastiff was asleep, so was Veevee, and both seemed to be dreaming, and talking in their dreams. But Flossy's eyes were very wide open now. She was really wondering if she could catch another fish to-night. Flossy had lately taken to waddling away towards evening for a swim in the warm lake, and never came back without something in her mouth.
So nobody was surprised when they missed her from the fire, only, as she stayed rather longer to-night than usual, and as the long twilight would soon end, Tom took up his rifle and went off all by himself to look for her.
"Oh, dear!" cried Pansy, as the sound of a shot startled everyone in the fort. "Tom's gone and killed something!"
"Let's run and see," said Frank. Veevee and Briton had already rushed off.
They found Tom at the lake-side, standing over a huge dead bear, with Flossy near him.
"That bear," said Tom, laughing, "was keeping poor Floss in the lake; but he won't do so again. Isn't he a fine one?"
"Yes," cried Frank; "he is indeed."
"And now, children," said Tom, when he was once more seated in front of the camp fire, "the question of lights is settled for good. Frank and I are going to make candles out of that bear's tallow."
"Yes, Pansy, we are. Oh, we shouldn't be half Crusoes if we couldn't make candles!"
So the boys arranged to start work the very next morning at sunrise.
"But first let us have a look through this beautiful isle of the sea, while the girls are asleep. There may be more bears. Briton, you must stay and watch. Veevee, you may come."
Though Veevee searched every bush and grove, no bear was found. The one Tom had so cleverly killed must have crossed to the island alone by the bridge of rocks.
So, after breakfast, the boys built their fire. With big blocks of lava they made a sort of stove, and on top of this was placed a large cup-like stone, which they had chanced to find. Into this they put the tallow to melt. In the meantime Tom pulled a quantity of thick rushes, and set Frank and the girls to peel them, while the dogs looked on as if wondering what it was all about.
"It's something to eat, I suppose," said Briton, looking very wise.
"A sort of soup of some kind from the smell of it, I should think," was Veevee's remark.
The long threads of white pith were about as thick as a penholder, and these were to form the wicks. When dried they were tied two and two by one end.
Then between two uprights Tom placed a long willow rod, with three dozen strong thorns stuck in it about two inches apart, to serve as hooks.
By this time the tallow was melted and all was ready.
"Now, ladies and gentlemen," said Tom, "you shall see how candles were built in the Royal Navy when Uncle was a boy." He rolled up his sleeves, and, picking up a double wick, dipped it in the pan, and then hung it on the first peg for the tallow to set. He did the same with all the rest, and by the time he had the thirty-sixth wick hung up, No. 1 was ready to be taken down and dipped again. So on he went all along the row, till he had dipped them a dozen times at least, when, lo! and behold! they were thick and beautiful candles, each one strong enough to give the light of half a dozen ordinary ship's candles.
He worked for two days, and made about a hundred in all, so there was no fear of their having to sit in the dark.
Next night, while the moon was shining low over the snow-clad hills, the whole camp was alarmed by the fierce barking of Briton. The mastiff was "wowffing", Veevee was "wiffing", and Flossy was moaning and wagging her tail in the air. Though it was long past midnight, Briton wanted to be off out and kill something or somebody he had heard, and Veevee would also go on the war-path for fear Briton might get hurt.
Almost immediately after came the most tremendous yelling the Crusoes had ever heard, and it was clear that a whole pack of foxes had invaded the island, and if Briton and Veevee had been allowed to go out, they would both have been torn to pieces. The awful din lasted for hours, with a sound now and then of fighting.
Then it stopped, and all was still.
Everybody went quietly off to sleep again, but next day, when they went to the lake-side, behold not a trace of the bear was to be seen. The beasts had eaten all the flesh, and carried away the bones and skin.
"Now, what if these wild dogs return some night," said Tom to Frank, "and attack the camp. Although no bear could squeeze in here, these half-bred wolves might, and tear us all in pieces.
"Don't frighten a fellow, Tom," said Frank. "But I say, old man, we must puzzle our heads once again and make a gate."
"Well, that's good!" cried Tom, laughing; "why, there is only one head between the two of us, and that belongs to me, Master Frank; and don't you forget it."
"Well, well, you may have it, only for goodness' sake make good use of it!"
The cup-like top of the hill in which our Crusoes were living had but one entrance, as I have before told you, and the path leading to it was very steep, and made up of large stones and lumps of lava.
"It would be a good thing," Tom said, "to get a lot of these inside. They would come in very handy to throw at an enemy, eh?"
"That they would," said Frank.
Well, it took them three whole days to make and fix up a gate, which they could raise or lower before the entrance by means of ropes made out of long trailing weeds, or creepers.
Then, after they had carried about a hundred big stones inside, they began to feel happier and safer.