The Swiss Family Robinson, In Words of One Syllable/Chapter 13

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We had now so much work to do, and the days and weeks came and went so quick, that I do not think we should have known the time of year had it not been for our log.

Some days were spent at the Cave, where we made our goods, ground our flour, stored our food, and kept our tame live stock. Then we had to take care of our crops on the fields near The Nest, and this took us two or three days in each month. Once in ten days at least we went to the Farm on the hill, and at the same time made a call at the Half Way House; so that there was not a day that we had not our hands quite full. Now and then we went out to hunt for sport or to add to our stock of beasts, which had grown so large that there were few we could name that had not been caught and brought home. We had birds of the air, fowls of the land, and beasts of all kins, from the great black ox of the plain to the small wild Rab-bit that came and made its hole close by our cave.

But there was one bird that we had not yet caught, though we had seen it two or three times in the woods. This was the Os-trich. Fritz found a nest with some eggs in it, and this led us to make a tour with


The boys take Home the Ostrich,

a view to catch one of the old birds. We rose that day ere it was light, and set out at dawn, each on the back of a good steed.

As we should have to hunt through the woods, my wife was left at home; and Ernest, who did not like rough work, chose to stay with her. We made it a rule to take one of the dogs with us when we went out to hunt, but on this day we thought it wise to let them both come.

Fritz took us straight to where he had seen the nest, which was not more than a few miles up the stream. When we came in sight of the spot, we saw four great birds, as if on their way to meet us. As they drew near we kept the dogs well in, and made no noise, so that they did not stop till they came near us.

Fritz had brought his Ea-gle with him, which he now let fly. At one swoop the bird came down on the head of the Os-trich, held on with its beak, and struck out its wings with great force, as if to stun it. We now rode up close to the scene of war. Jack first flung a cord round the legs of the bird, which made it fall to the ground. I then threw my pouch on its head, and, strange to say, it lay down as still as a lamb.

I now tied both its legs with cords, but left it just room to walk. We then made it fast to the two bulls that had brought Jack and Frank all the way from home, and put one of them on each side. They next got up on their steeds, and I took the pouch from the head of the bird. As soon as it could see, it gave a wild stare, and then fought to get free.

The boys then put spurs to the flanks of their steeds, and when the bird had made a few starts back, as if to try the strength of the cords which held it, it set off with a run, and the bulls at each side made it keep up a smart pace.

Fritz and I now went in search of the nest, which we soon found. I took the eggs from it and put them in a bag I had brought to hold them, in which I put some wool and moss, so that they should not break.

It did not take us long to get up to the two boys, who had gone on first, and we were glad to find that the poor bird had made up its mind to its fate, and kept up well with the pace of the bulls.

When we got in sight of home, my wife and Ernest, who had been on the look out for us, came forth to meet us; and the strange way in which we brought home our new prize made them laugh. I need not say that we took great care of it.

The next day we built it a house, with a space in front for it to walk up and down, round which were put rails, so that it could not get out. At first it was shy, and would not take any food, so that we had to force some balls of maize down its throat; but in a short time it took grain from the hands of my wife, and soon grew quite tame.

The boys now set to work to break it in for use. They taught it first to bear them on its back. Then they put a pair of string reins in its mouth, and made it turn which way they chose to pull, and to walk, or run, or stand still, as it was bid. Thus, in a month from the time we caught it, the boys made it take them on its back to and from the Farm or The Nest, in less than half the time an ox would go; so that it came to be the best steed we had to ride on.

The eggs we found in the nest were put in a warm dry place, and though we scarce thought our care would bring live birds out of the shells, we had the joy to hatch three of them, and this led us to hope that we should ere long have a steed for each of our sons.

My work at this time was by no means light. Our hats and caps were all worn out, and with skins of the musk cat I had to make new ones. The bears' skins were laid in the sun to dry, and of these we made fur coats, which would keep us warm when the cold wet nights came round, and there were some left to serve as quilts or rugs for our beds.

I now tried my hand at a new craft. I dug some clay out of the bed of the stream, and taught the boys to knead it up with sand, and some talc that had been ground as fine as road drift. I had made a lathe with a wheel, and by its aid the clay left my hands in the shape of plates, cups, pots, and pans. We then burnt them in a rude kiln, and though at least one half broke with the heat and our want of skill, still those that came out whole more than paid me for my toil, and kept up my wife's stock of delf. Some of the jars were set round with red and blue glass beads, and these were put on a shelf as works of art, and kept full of long dried grass.

The time was now at hand when we must reap our grain and store the ripe crops that were still on the ground; and, in fact, there was so much to be done, that we scarce knew what to do first. The truth must be told that our wants did not keep pace with the growth of our wealth, for the land was rich, and we had but a few mouths to fill.

We knew that we might leave the roots in the ground for some time, as the soil was dry, but that the grain would soon spoil; so we made the corn our first care. When it was all cut and brought home, our next task was to thresh it. The floor of our store room was now as hard as a rock, for the sun had dried it, and there was not a crack to be seen. On this we laid the ears of ripe corn, from which the long straw had been cut, and sent the boys to bring in such of our live stock as were fit for the work to be next done. Jack and Fritz were soon on the backs of their steeds, and thought it fine fun to make them course round the floor and tread out the grain. Ernest and I had each a long fork, with which we threw the corn at their feet, so that all of it might be trod on. The ox on which Jack sat put down his head and took a bunch of the ears in his mouth.

"Come," said Jack, "it is not put there for you to eat, off you go!" and with that he gave it a lash with his whip.

"Nay," said I, "do you not know what God has said in his Word?—We must not bind up the mouth of the ox that treads out the corn. This brings to my mind the fact that the means we now take to thresh our wheat were those used by the Jews in the days of old."

To sort the chaff from the grain we threw it up with our spades while the land or sea breeze blew strong. The draught which came in at the door took the light chaff with it to one side of the room, while the grain fell straight to the ground by its own weight.

The maize we left to dry in the sun, and then beat out the grain with long skin thongs. By this means we got a store of the soft leaves of this plant, which my wife made use of to stuff our beds.

When all the grain had been put in our store room, some in sacks and the rest in dry casks, we took a walk one day to our fields, and found that flocks of birds, most of which were quails, had come there to feed. This gave us a fine day's sport with our guns, and the next year we did not fail to look for them, so that the fields were made to yield a stock of game as well as a crop of grain.

With but slight change in our mode of life, we spent ten long years in our strange home. Yet the time did not seem long to us. Each day brought with it quite as much work as we could do, so that weeks and months and years flew past, till at last we gave up all hope that we should leave the isle or see our old Swiss home, the thought of which was still dear to us.

But the lapse of ten years had wrought a great change in our sons. Frank, who was but a mere child when we first came, had grown up to be a strong youth; and Jack was a brave a lad as one could wish to see. Fritz, of course, was now a young man, and took a large share of the work off my hands. Ernest had just come of age, and his shrewd mode of thought and great tact was a great a help to us as was the strength and skill of the rest.

To crown all, it was a rare thing for them to be ill; and they were free from those sins which too oft tempt young men to stray from the right path. My wife and I did our best to train them, so that they might know right from wrong; and it gave us great joy to find that what we told them sunk deep in their hearts, and, like ripe seed sown in rich soil, brought forth good fruit.

I need not say that in the course of ten years we had made great strides in those arts which our wants had first led us to learn. When we first came the land near Tent House was a bare waste; now it bore fine crops, and was kept as neat as a Swiss farm. At the foot of the hill by the side of Rock Cave, was a large plot of ground, which we laid out in beds, and here we grew herbs and shrubs, and such plants as we used for food. Near this we dug a pond, and by means of a sluice which led from the stream, we kept our plants fresh in times of drought. Nor was this the sole use we made of the pond; for in it we kept small fish and crabs, and took them out with a rod and line when we had need of food, and time to spare for that kind of sport. In the ground round the mouth of the Cave we drove a row of strong canes, bound at the top to a piece of wood, so as to form a fence, up which grew a vine, and, at each side, plants that threw a good show of gay bloom crept up to meet it. Shells of great size and strange shapes were got from the shore, and these we built up here and there with burnt clay, so as to form clumps of rock work, on which grew ferns and rare plants. All this gave a charm to our home, and made the grounds round it a source of joy when we laid by our work for the day. In fact, we thought there was now scarce a thing to wish for that we had not got.

Our cares were few, and our life was as full of joy and peace as we could well wish; yet I oft cast a look on the sea, in the hope that some day I should spy a sail, and once more greet a friend from the wide world from which we had been so long shut out. This hope, vague as it was, led me to store up such things as would bring a price, if we had the chance to sell them; they might prove a source of wealth to us if a ship came that way, or would at least help to pay the charge of a cruise back to the land we came from.

It is but just to say that the boys did not share my hopes, nor did they seem to wish that we should leave the place where they had been brought up. It was their world, and the cave, to which we gave the name Rock House, was more dear to them than any spot on the earth.

"Go back!" Fritz would say; "to leave our cave, that we dug with our own hands; to part with our dear kind beasts and birds; to bid good by to our farms, and so much that is our own, and which no one in the world wants. No, no. You can not wish us to leave such a spot."

My dear wife and I both felt that age would soon creep on us, and we could not help some doubts as to the fate of our sons. Should we stay and end our days here, some one of us would live out the rest, and this thought came oft to my mind, and brought with it a sense of dread I could not get rid of. It made me pray to God that he would save us all from so dire a fate as to die far from the sound of the voice of man, with no one to hear our last words, or lay us in the earth when He should call us to our rest.

My wife did not share this dread. "Why should we go back?" she would say. "We have here all that we can wish for. The boys lead a life of health, free from sin, and live with us, which might not be the case if we went out in the world. Let us leave our fate in the hands of God."