The Swiss Family Robinson

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Author: Johann Wyss  | Date: 1813

1

A Shipwreck, and Preparations for Deliverance

ALREADY THE tempest had continued six days; on the seventh its fury seemed still increasing; and the morning dawned upon us without a prospect of hope, for we had wandered so far from the right track, and were so forcibly driven toward the south-east, that none on board knew where we were. The ship’s company were exhausted by labour and watching, and the courage which had sustained them was now sinking. The shivered masts had been cast into the sea; several leaks appeared, and the ship began to fill. The sailors forbore from swearing; many were at prayer on their knees; while others offered miracles of future piety and goodness as the condition of their release from danger. ’My beloved children,’ said I to my four boys, who clung to me in their fright, ’God can save us, for nothing is impossible to him. We must however hold ourselves resigned, and, instead of murmuring at his decree, rely that what he sees fit to do is best, and that should he call us from this earthly scene, we shall be near him in heaven, and united through eternity. Death may be well supported when it does not separate those who love.’

At this moment a cry of ’Land, land!’ was heard through the roaring of the waves, and instantly the vessel struck against a rock with so violent a motion as to drive every one from his place; a tremendous cracking succeeded, as if the ship was going to pieces; the sea rushed in, in all directions; we perceived that the vessel had grounded, and could not long hold together. The captain called out that all was lost, and bade the men lose not a moment in putting out the boats. The sounds fell on my heart like a thrust from a dagger: ’We are lost!’ I exclaimed, and the children broke out into piercing cries. I then recollected myself, and, addressing them again, exhorted them to courage, by observing that the water had not yet reached us, that the ship was near land, and that Providence would assist the brave. ’Keep where you are,’ added I, ’while I go and examine what is best to be done.’

I now went on the deck. A wave instantly threw me down, and wetted me to the skin; another followed, and then another. I sustained myself as steadily as I could; and looking around, a scene of terrific and complete disaster met my eyes: the ship was shattered in all directions, and on one side there was a complete breach. The ship’s company crowded into the boats till they could contain not one man more, and the last who entered were now cutting the ropes to move off. I called to them with almost frantic entreaties to stop and receive us also, but in vain; for the roaring of the sea prevented my being heard, and the waves, which rose to the height of mountains, would have made it impossible to return. All hope from this source was over, for, while I spoke, the boats, and all they contained, were driving out of sight. My best consolation now was to observe that the slanting position the ship had taken would afford us present protection from the water; and that the stern, under which was the cabin that enclosed all that was dear to me on earth, had been driven upwards between two rocks, and seemed immovably fixed. At the same time, in the distance southward, I descried, through clouds and rain, several nooks of land, which, though rude and savage in appearance, were the objects of every hope I could form in this distressing moment.

Sunk and desolate from the loss of all chance of human aid, it was yet my duty to appear serene before my family: ’Courage, dear ones,’ cried I on entering their cabin, ’let us not desert ourselves: I will not conceal from you that the ship is aground; but we are at least in greater safety than if she were beating upon the rocks; our cabin is above water; and should the sea be more calm to-morrow, we may yet find means to reach the land in safety.’

What I had just said appeased their fears; for my family had the habit of confiding in my assurances. They now began to feel the advantage of the ship’s remaining still; for its motion had been most distressing, by jostling them one against another, or whatever happened to be nearest. My wife, however, more accustomed than the children to read my inmost thoughts, perceived the anxiety which devoured me. I made her a sign which conveyed an idea of the hopelessness of our situation; and I had the consolation to see that she was resolved to support the trial with resignation. ’Let us take some nourishment,’ said she; ’our courage will strengthen with our bodies; we shall perhaps need this comfort to support a long and melancholy night.’

Soon after night set in; the fury of the tempest had not abated; the planks and beams of the vessel separated in many parts with a horrible crash. We thought of the boats, and feared that all they contained must have sunk under the foaming surge.

My wife had prepared a slender meal, and the four boys partook of it with an appetite to which their parents were strangers. They went to bed, and, exhausted by fatigue, soon were snoring soundly. Fritz, the eldest, sat up with us. ’I have been thinking,’ said he, after a long silence, ’how it may be possible to save ourselves. If we had some bladders or cork-jackets for my mother and my brothers, you and I, father, would soon contrive to swim to land.’

’That is a good thought,’ said I; ’we will see what can be done.’

Fritz and I looked about for some small empty firkins; these we tied two and two together with handkerchiefs or towels, leaving about a foot distance between them, and fastened them as swimming-jackets under the arms of each child, my wife at the same time preparing one for herself. We provided ourselves with knives, some string, some turfs, and other necessaries which could be put into the pocket, proceeding upon the hope that, if the ship went to pieces in the night, we should either be able to swim to land, or be driven thither by the waves.

Fritz, who had been up all night, and was fatigued with his laborious occupations, now lay down near his brothers, and was soon asleep; but their mother and I, too anxious to close our eyes, kept watch, listening to every sound that seemed to threaten a further change in our situation. We passed this awful night in prayer, in agonising apprehensions, and in forming various resolutions as to what we should next attempt. We hailed with joy the first gleam of light which shot through a small opening of the window. The raging of the winds had begun to abate, the sky was become serene, and hope throbbed in my bosom, as I beheld the sun already tinging the horizon. Thus revived, I summoned my wife and the boys to the deck to partake of the scene. The youngest children, half forgetful of the past, asked with surprise, why we were there alone, and what had become of the ship’s company? I led them to the recollection of our misfortune, and then added, ’Dearest children, a Being more powerful than man has helped us, and will, no doubt, continue to help us, if we do not abandon ourselves to a fruitless despair. Observe, our companions, in whom we had so much confidence, have deserted us, and that Divine Providence, in its goodness, has given us protection! But, my dear ones, let us show ourselves willing in our exertions, and thus deserve support from heaven. Let us not forget this useful maxim, and let each labour according to his strength.’

Fritz advised that we should all throw ourselves into the sea, while it was calm, and swim to land.- ’Ah! that may be well enough for you,’ said Ernest, ’for you can swim; but we others should soon be drowned. Would it not be better to make a float of rafts, and get to land all together upon it?’

’Vastly well,’ answered I, ’if we had the means for contriving such a float, and if, after all, it were not a dangerous sort of conveyance. But come, my boys, look each of you about the ship, and see what can be done to enable us to reach the land.’

They now all sprang from me with eager looks, to do as I desired. I, on my part, lost no time in examining what we had to depend upon as to provisions and fresh water. My wife and the youngest boy visited the animals, whom they found in a pitiable condition, nearly perishing with hunger and thirst. Fritz repaired to the ammunition room; Ernest to the carpenter’s cabin; and Jack to the apartment of the cabin; but scarcely had he opened the door, when two large dogs sprang upon him, and saluted him with such rude affection that he roared for assistance, as if they had been killing him. Hunger, however, had rendered the poor creatures so gentle, that they licked his hands and face, uttering all the time a low sort of moan, and continuing their caresses till he was almost suffocated. Poor Jack exerted all his strength in blows to drive them away: at last he began to understand, and to sympathise in their joyful movements, and put himself upon another footing. He got upon his legs, and gently taking the largest dog by the ears, sprang upon his back, and with great gravity presented himself thus mounted before me, as I came out of the ship’s hold. I could not refrain from laughing, and I praised his courage; but I added a little exhortation to be cautious, and not go too far with animals of this species, who, in a state of hunger, might be dangerous.

By and by my little company were again assembled round me, and each boasted of what he had to contribute. Fritz had two fowling-pieces, some powder and small-shot, contained in horn flasks, and some bullets in bags.

Ernest produced his hat filled with nails, and held in his hands a hatchet and a hammer; in addition, a pair of pincers, a pair of large scissors, and an auger, peeped out at his pocket-hole.

Even the little Francis carried under his arm a box of no very small size, from which he eagerly produced what he called some little sharp-pointed hooks. His brothers smiled scornfully. ’Vastly well, gentlemen,’ said I; ’but let me tell you that the youngest has brought the most valuable prize, and this is often the case in the world; the person who least courts the smiles of Fortune, and in the calm of his heart is scarcely conscious of her existence, is often he to whom she most readily presents herself. These little sharp-pointed hooks, as Francis calls them, are fishing-hooks, and will probably be of more use in preserving our lives than all we may find besides in the ship. In justice, however, I must confess, that what Fritz and Ernest have contributed will also afford essential service.’

’I, for my part,’ said my wife, ’have brought nothing; but I have some tidings to communicate which I hope will secure my welcome: I have found on board a cow and an ass, two goats, six sheep, and a sow big with young: I have just supplied them with food and water, and I reckon on being able to preserve their lives.’

’All this is admirable,’ said I to my young labourers; ’and there is only master Jack, who, instead of thinking of something useful, has done us the favour to present us two personages, who, no doubt, will be principally distinguished by being willing to eat more than we shall have to give them.’

’Ah!’ replied Jack, ’but if we can once get to land, you will see that they will assist us in hunting and shooting.’

’True enough,’ said I, ’but be so good as to tell us how we are to get to land, and whether you have contrived the means?’

’I am sure it cannot be very difficult,’ said Jack, with an arch motion of his head. ’Look here at these large tubs. Why cannot each of us get into one of them, and float to the land? I remember I succeeded very well in this manner on the water, when I was visiting my godfather at S__.’

’Every one’s thought is good for something,’ cried I, ’and I begin to believe that what Jack has suggested is worth a trial: quick, then, boy! give me the saw, the auger, and some nails; we will see what is to be done.’ I recollected having seen some empty casks in the ship’s hold: we went down, and found them floating in the water which had got into the vessel; it cost us but little trouble to hoist them up, and place them on the lower deck, which was at this time scarcely above water. We saw, with joy, that they were all sound, well guarded by iron hoops, and in every respect in good condition; they were exactly suited for the object; and, with the assistance of my sons, I instantly began to saw them in two. In a short time I had produced eight tubs, of equal size, and of the proper height. We now allowed ourselves some refreshment of wine and biscuit. I viewed with delight my eight little tubs, ranged in a line.

I then sought for a long pliant plank, and placed my eight tubs upon it, leaving a piece at each end reaching beyond the tubs; which, bent upward, would present an outline like the keel of a vessel. We next nailed all the tubs to the plank, and then the tubs to each other, as they stood, side by side, to make them the firmer, and afterwards two other planks, of the same length as the first, on each side of the tubs. When all this was finished, we found we had produced a kind of narrow boat, divided into eight compartments, which I had no doubt would be able to perform a short course in calm water.

But now we discovered that the machine we had contrived was so heavy, that, with the strength of all united, we were not able to move it an inch from its place. I bid Fritz fetch me a crow, who soon returned with it: in the meanwhile I sawed a thick round pole into several pieces, to make some rollers. I then, with the crow, easily raised the foremost part of my machine, while Fritz placed one of the rollers under it.

’How astonishing,’ cried Ernest, ’that this engine, which is smaller than any of us, can do more than our united strength was able to effect! I wish I could know how it is constructed.’

I explained to him as well as I could the power of Archimedes’ lever, with which he said he could move the world, if you would give him a point from which his mechanism might act, and promised to explain the nature of the operation of the crow when we should be safe on land.

Jack here remarked that the action of the crow was very slow.

’Better slow than never, Jack,’ replied I. ’Experience has ever taught, and mechanical observations have established as a principle, that what is gained in speed is lost in strength: the purpose of the crow is not to enable us to raise anything rapidly, but to raise what is exceedingly heavy; and the heavier the thing we would move, the slower is the mechanical operation. But are you aware what we have at our command, to compensate this slowness?’

’Yes, it is turning the handle quicker.’

’Your guess is wrong; that would be no compensation: the true remedy, my boy, is to call in the assistance of patience and reason: with the aid of these two fairy powers I am in hopes to set my machine afloat.’ As I said this, I tied a long cord to its stern, and the other end of it to one of the timbers of the ship, which appeared to be still firm, so that the cord being left loose would serve to guide and restrain it when launched. We now put a second and a third roller under, and, applying the crow, to our great joy our machine descended into the water with such a velocity that, if the rope had not been well fastened, it would have gone far out to sea. But now a new difficulty presented itself: the boat leaned so much on one side that the boys all exclaimed they could not venture to get into it. I was for some moments in the most painful perplexity; but it suddenly occurred to me that ballast only was wanting to set it straight. I drew it near, and threw all the useless things I could find into the tubs, so as to make weight on the light side. By degrees the machine became quite straight and firm in the water, seeming to invite us to take refuge in its protection. All now would get into the tubs, and the boys began to dispute which should be first. I drew them back, and seeking a remedy for this kind of obstacle, I recollected that savage nations make use of a paddle for preventing their canoes from upsetting. I once more set to work to make one of these.

I took two poles of equal length, upon which the sails of the vessel had been stretched, and having descended into the machine, fixed one of them at the head, and the other at the stern, in such a manner as to enable us to turn them at pleasure to right or left, as should best answer the purpose of guiding and putting it out to sea. I stuck the end of each pole, or paddle, into the bung-hole of an empty brandy-keg, which served to keep the paddles steady, and to prevent any interruption in the management of our future enterprise.

There remained nothing more to do but to find in what way I could clear out from the encumbrance of the wreck. I got into the first tub, and steered the head of the machine so as to make it enter the cleft in the ship’s side, where it could remain quiet. I then remounted the vessel, and sometimes with the saw, and sometimes with the hatchet, I cleared away, to right and left, everything that could obstruct our passage; and, that being effected, we next secured some oars for the voyage we resolved on attempting.

We had spent the day in laborious exertions; it was already late; and as it would not have been possible to reach the land that evening, we were obliged to pass a second night in the wrecked vessel, which at every instant threatened to fall to pieces. We next refreshed ourselves by a regular meal; for, during the day’s work we had scarcely allowed ourselves to take a bit of bread, or a glass of wine. Being now in a more tranquil and unapprehensive state of mind than the day before, we all abandoned ourselves to sleep; not, however, till I had used the precaution of tying the swimming apparatus round my three youngest boys and my wife, in case the storm should again come on. I also advised my wife to dress herself in the clothes of one of the sailors, which were so much more convenient for swimming, or any other exertions she might be compelled to engage in. She consented, but not without reluctance, and left us to look for some that might best suit her size. In a quarter of an hour she returned, dressed in the clothes of a young man who had served as volunteer on board the ship. She could not conceal the timid awkwardness, so natural to her sex, in such a situation: but I soon found means to reconcile her to the change, and one and all crept into our separate hammocks, where a delicious repose prepared us for the renewal of our labours.

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Chicago: Johann Wyss, "1," The Swiss Family Robinson Original Sources, accessed February 7, 2023, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=U15F3H8P1M8WMVR.

MLA: Wyss, Johann. "1." The Swiss Family Robinson, Original Sources. 7 Feb. 2023. http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=U15F3H8P1M8WMVR.

Harvard: Wyss, J, '1' in The Swiss Family Robinson. Original Sources, retrieved 7 February 2023, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=U15F3H8P1M8WMVR.