The Swiss Family Robinson

Contents:
Author: Johann Wyss  | Date: 1813

47

Return of the Boys- Their Adventures- The Kangaroo-

Harvesting- Partridges and Quails

TOWARD EVENING we began to grow anxious about the return of the boys, when suddenly Jack appeared in the distance. He arrived at full gallop on his ostrich, having left his brothers far behind. He brought nothing with him, pretending that his courser would receive no other burden than himself. Fritz and Francis coming up, we discovered that each of them carried before him a sack full of game, the products of the chase, in which they had been extremely fortunate; and they had brought back with them four of those beasts whom we had christened ’beasts with a bill,’ twenty ondatras, one monkey, a kangaroo, and two varieties of the musk rat, which they had found in the swamp. The first was the musk-beaver, not much different from the ondatra, excepting in the formation of his snout. I recognised it as being the Tolay of Buffon. *

* Probably the Totai, not Tolay, which is rather larger than an ondatra, more resembling the rabbit both in appearance and habit.

Francis laid down before us a bundle of thistles with extremely sharp points, which would serve admirably to card wool, hair, etc. But each one was anxious to narrate the details of the expedition; and, according to custom, Jack commenced.

’First of all,’ said he, ’honour to my courser, honour to the horse with long legs- honour to the hippogriff. * He carried me along so fast that I was obliged to shut my eyes, and the motion really took my breath away. There is one thing yet wanting to complete my equipments: I want a mask with glass eye-lenses; you will make one, papa- I must have it.’

* A fabulous winged horse.

’Ah, my dear cavalier, I am sorry; but I shall not make you a mask.’

’Why not?’

’The reason is, that, instead of having recourse to the industry of another, you should attempt the thing yourself; so then, if you want a mask, make one yourself’

’That is well,’ said Fritz; ’every one for himself is the principle we have been carrying out all the morning; we had nobody but ourselves to prepare our dinner. But, dear papa, what do you think of the fine furs we have brought back?’

’I receive them with all the thanks they merit; but I would rather my huntsmen would let me know when they are going away, and not run off and leave their parents ignorant of where they are.’

’That is true,’ said Fritz. ’We thought of that when we were a league away from here; but I promise you it shall never happen again.’

The boys’ frankness disarmed me, and I could not reproach them. While my sons were unharnessing their coursers, and leading them to the stable, my wife gave the last turn to her roast pig, and we were soon all seated round the table.

’Truly,’ said Francis, as he snuffed up the delicious odour of the pig, ’this is a great deal nicer dinner than the one we cooked out in the desert; and, I must confess, I have not much relish for a hunter’s life, when he has to cook his own dinners.’

’Admirable!’ replied his good mother, laughing. ’I am enchanted to have so well divined the taste of my little Francis.’ And she took occasion to remark to us the treasures with which she had loaded our table. By the side of the pig was placed a plate of nice fresh salad; opposite to that was a dish of the Hottentot jelly; for dessert we had a sort of fritters made from guava apples; sweetmeats of cinnamon preserved in sugar; a bottle of hydromel completed this dinner, which was laid out with as much precision and nicety as if we had been at Zurich instead of on a desert island.

During the repast, each one recounted his adventures, Fritz describing their passage through the valley, the attack of the ondatras and the beavers. ’We also,’ said he, ’then saw those ’beasts with a bill’ coming out of the swamp to partake of a repast intended for them. We then caught a fish or two in the lake; and relieving our dinner with a plate of ginseng cooked in the ashes, sat down to our humble meal.’

’Pooh, pooh!’ cried Jack the boaster; ’who cares for rats and fishes? It is to my courser and me that you owe this royal prize, this noble kangaroo.’

’Oh, yes,’ added Francis, ’a prize very easy to take, as it remained quiet until you came up and shot it.’

’For my part,’ continued Fritz, ’I have brought home nothing but a plant; but it is of more value than the kangaroo. Examine these thistles, I beg of you; see their hard, sharp points. Will they not be excellent to card the hair in manufacturing our hats?’

’Oh, go away with your thistles,’ replied Jack; ’my game is worth twice as much as a waggon-load of them.’

We now had before us the whole of the game which our adventurers had brought home. The rats were soon passed over; we were too familiar with them to dwell long on their probable uses. The musk-beaver received a more careful examination; but the kangaroo was an object of special study on the part of Master Ernest.

’The kangaroo,’ said he, ’is one of the most curious animals of the New World. It is sometimes nine feet in length, from the extremity of the snout to the end of the tail; they sometimes weigh as much as two hundred pounds; the hair is short and thick, of a reddish-grey colour, lighter on the flanks and belly; it has a small, elongated head, large, erect ears, and a nose furnished with a mustache; its neck and shoulders are small, increasing in size gradually toward the haunches; the fore-legs of the kangaroo are about eighteen inches in length: they serve the animal merely to scratch the earth and to convey victuals to its mouth; but its hind-legs are prodigiously strong; it springs often seven or eight feet high. There are but three claws on each foot, the middle one of which is considerably longer than the others. The tail of the kangaroo is long, thick at the butt, but gradually tapering; the animal uses it for defence, and can strike blows with it strong enough to break the leg of a man.’

Each one of our young adventurers had a thousand different stories to relate, each one vaunting his own prowess and extolling his share in the events of the day. I had no time to listen to their boastings, and I turned to examine the products of the expedition and determine their use. The thistles of Fritz, which I recognised as being the ’carding-thistle,’ were received by me as a precious discovery- one more instrument added to our resources. My sons had also brought home some cuttings of sweet potatoes and cinnamon: their good mother received them with joy; and the next morning they were carefully planted in the kitchen-garden.

The grain that we had sown before the rainy season, I perceived, had now come to maturity, although it was not more than five months since we had confided it to the earth. We now had our hands full of business. The herrings would soon arrive, then the sea-dogs would come; and my dear Elizabeth lamented piteously while she enumerated all the labour we yet had to perform. There was the manioc to dig up, the potatoes to gather and sow- in short, a thousand cares to attend to, a thousand labours to undertake, that would occupy more time than the year has days.

I tranquillised my good companion as well as I was able, assuring her that the manioc would not be injured by remaining in the ground; and as to the potatoes, I informed her that she had nothing to fear for this precious fruit, as our soil was warm and sandy, and they would keep a great while in the earth.

I decided that our labours should commence with the grain, the chief and best of our resources; but wishing to effect the harvest in the shortest possible time, and with the smallest expenditure of strength, I resolved to adopt the Italian method rather than the Swiss.

I commenced by levelling a large space before the grotto, to serve as a threshing-floor. We then, after having well watered it, beat the earth for a long time with clubs. When the sun had dried it up, the operation was repeated, and we continued it until we obtained a solid, flat surface, without a crack in it, and almost as impenetrable to water as to the sun’s rays. When we had finished this, I harnessed the buffalo and the bull to the famous osier basket which we had dignified by the pompous name of ’palanquin,’ and which had been the innocent instrument of torturing poor Ernest. Jack and Francis recalled the scene to the philosopher, and invited him to take another ride; but Ernest was not a boy that would be taken twice in the same trap, and he respectfully declined the honour.

On arriving at the field we were about to reap, my wife asked me where I would find anything with which to tie up the blades into sheaves.

’We will need nothing of the sort,’ said I; ’everything is to be done according to the Italian method. Those people, naturally averse to labour, never use sheaves, as being too heavy to carry.’

’How, then,’ asked Fritz, ’do they manage to carry their harvest home?’

’You will soon see,’ said I.

At the same time I gathered up in my left hand all the stalks it could contain. and taking a long knife in my right hand, I cut off the stalks about six inches below the head. I then threw the handful into the basket. ’There,’ said I, laughing, to Fritz, ’there is the first act of an Italian harvest.’

My children thought it was an admirable plan; and in a short time the plain presented but an unequal surface, bristling with decapitated stalks, here and there dotted with a forgotten blade.

’I must confess,’ said my good wife, as she cast a look over the field, ’that I do not much approve of an Italian harvest. Why, only look at the fine blades you have left behind.’

’Not so fast, my dear woman, not so fast,’ said I; ’do not condemn my new method yet, bad as it seems: what we leave behind now we will drink afterward.’

’This is an enigma I cannot solve.’

’I did not expect you could; but sometimes, if things were not put in enigmas, they would be forgotten; however, to explain mine, I will tell you that the Italian drinks what he does not eat of his harvest, only it is under another form. In Italy, grass, hay, and pasturage are extremely rare and dear. The Italian endeavours to provide for this scarcity by converting the refuse of his harvest into forage. He never cuts down the straw of the grain, and the substance that remains in the stalk makes the grass grow, and forms a solid mat. Then he cuts it and gathers an excellent forage for his cattle. The blades that were left about the field render the supply of milk from the cow that eats them much more abundant. And now, you see, I have explained my enigma.’

’Very good,’ replied my wife; ’but if the Italian feeds all his straw to his cattle, out of what does he make litter for them?’

’None is needed. The soil of Italy is a healthful one, and does not throw out that humidity which prevents our cattle from sleeping on the bare ground. But we have no time for further explanation: after having gathered the grain like the Italians, we must thresh it like them. Gentlemen, to the grotto, and prepare your coursers- we shall have need of them.’

We now hastened to the grotto, taking with us the grain we had just cut. When we arrived there, Ernest and his mother received orders to sprinkle the blades over the threshing-floor I had prepared, while my three cavaliers stood by their coursers’ sides, laughing at our new invention for threshing grain.

’Ah,’ said Jack, ’my courser will cut capers here, such as she never did in the desert.’ ’Threshing grain on horseback!’ said another. ’Harvesting at a hand-gallop!’ said a third. The laugh and jest went merrily round, and my innovation at least made us all joyful, if nothing else. But I kept a sober face, looking as if I was quite certain my project would succeed.

When everything was prepared, ’To the saddle!’ cried I, ’to the saddle!’ and I told them they had nothing to do but display their horsemanship among the grain. I leave the screams, the shouts of laughter, to the imagination of readers; the bull, the onager, and the ostrich rivalled each other in swiftness; my wife, Ernest, and I, each one armed with a pitchfork, followed after them, throwing the grain under the feet of the animals. Everything went on marvellously well, when two incidents, which I had not foreseen, rekindled the flame of my wife’s irony, who was not yet a sincere convert to the Italian method. The bull and the onager, unable to withstand the temptation before them, suddenly stopped short in their career, and, stretching out their long tongues, each took up a huge mouthful of the grain.

When the grain was all threshed, we set to work to clear it of the straws and dirt that had become mixed with it. This was the most difficult and the most painful part of all the labour. We laid the grain on close hurdles, and with wooden flails we endeavoured to disengage the dirt; but this was not to be effected, except at the expense of our eyes, mouth, or nose. The poor little workmen coughed terribly, and we were obliged to desist every few moments to clear our throats.

Our feathered colony, which had taken care to keep clear of the heels of the animals, now that they were gone, flocked around us, picking up by single grains as much as the onager and the bull had taken at one mouthful. ’Let them alone,’ said I to my sons; ’what they take now we will recover some other time; and if the corn diminishes, the fowls will grow fatter.’ But I had spoken too late, for my wife had already frightened them, and they were all far away.

We were several days engaged in these works, and we wished to see exactly how much we possessed. We found ourselves rich enough to defy all attacks of famine; we had sixty bushels of barley, eighty of wheat, and more than a hundred of maize, from which I concluded that the soil was more favourable to this last than to the barley and the other European grains we had sown at the same time. We had not prepared the maize as we had the other grains; but after having dried the stalks, we detached the grains by beating them with long, flexible whips; we took this care because we wanted its soft and elastic leaves to stuff our mattresses. My wife also burned the stalks, the ashes containing an alkaline quality very useful in bleaching linen.

I had not lost sight of my intention of obtaining a second harvest before the end of the season, and we now set to work to clear our fields of the straw; but we had scarcely commenced when we beheld an innumerable swarm of quails and partridges start up from the dried stalks, where they had been enticed by the few blades of grain we had left behind. As we were unprepared for them, they all escaped, save one quail, which Fritz brought down with a stone; but the presence of these birds after the harvest was a precious discovery for following years, and we anticipated with pleasure the superb chase of quails and partridges we should have after our harvests.

When the land was all cleared I sowed it anew; but remembering what I had learned in Europe, not to exhaust the soil, I varied my original mode of operation, and contented myself by sowing, for the second crop, wheat and oats.

Our agricultural labours were scarcely finished, when the bank of herrings appeared off Safety Bay. Our winter provisions being so abundant, we did not take as many as customary of these; and we contented ourselves with preparing two barrels, one of salted and one of smoked herrings; we also preserved some of the fish alive, which we put in the Jackal’s River, so that at any time we could obtain them.

The sea-dogs then had their turn: my pneumatic syringe did wonders; and, thanks to its assistance, our labour on these animals was but trifling. The skins, the bladders, all were put to use, experience having taught us the value of these riches. We had not been able to finish our cajack until this time, and we now provided it abundantly with bladders, so that it might float more lightly on the surface of the water. When this work was finished, preparations were made to launch the boat and try her power over the winds and the waves.

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Chicago: Johann Wyss, "47," The Swiss Family Robinson Original Sources, accessed August 8, 2022, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=4W8DXMNP71WQ6PG.

MLA: Wyss, Johann. "47." The Swiss Family Robinson, Original Sources. 8 Aug. 2022. http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=4W8DXMNP71WQ6PG.

Harvard: Wyss, J, '47' in The Swiss Family Robinson. Original Sources, retrieved 8 August 2022, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=4W8DXMNP71WQ6PG.