"Do you know," observed Fritz, who had been cogitating awhile, "I think I see the reason for their methodical habit of going to and from the water."
"Indeed?" said Eric.
"Yes. Don't you recollect how an equal number seem always to come out from the rookery and proceed down the beach when the other batches land from the sea, just as if they took it in rotation to go fishing?"
"Of course. Why, Captain Brown specially pointed that out to us."
"Well," said Fritz, "the reason for that is, that the males and females mind the nests in turn, just as you sailors keep watch on board ship. First, let us say, the gentlemen penguins go off to the sea to have a swim, and see what they can catch; and then, at the expiration of a fixed time, these return to the shore and take charge of the nests, sitting on the eggs while their wives, whom they thus relieve for a spell, have a spell off, so as to get a mouthful of fresh air—"
"Water, you mean," interposed Eric, jokingly.
"All right, water then, and perhaps a fish or two as well; after which they come back to attend to their own legitimate department. Look now at that group there, just in front of us?"
Eric glanced towards the spot where his brother directed his attention, and noticed a party of penguins returning from the sea. These separated as soon as they approached the line of nests, different individuals sidling up to the sitting birds and giving their partners a peck with their beaks, by way of a hint, barking out some word of explanation at the same time. In another moment, the home-coming penguin had wedged itself into the place of the other, which struggling on to its feet then proceeded outside the thicket, where, being joined by others whose guard had been thus similarly relieved, the fresh group proceeded together, in a hurried, scrambling sort of run, to the beach, whence they shortly plunged into the sea, having, however, their usual gabbling colloquy first in concert before taking to the water.
"They're a funny lot," said Eric; "still, they're not going to get the better of me, for I intend to load the wheelbarrow with their guano, whether they like it or not!"
"I wouldn't disturb them again, if I were you," observed Fritz. "They seem to have quieted down, and do not mind our presence now."
"I won't trouble them, for I shall not go inside their rookery," said Eric. "I only intend to skirt round the place, and see what I can pick up outside."
"Very well then, I will go on digging the garden, which I have been neglecting all this time, if you will get the manure. I should like to plant some of our potatoes to-day, before knocking off work, if we can manage it."
"All right, fire away; I will soon come and join you," said Eric, and the brothers separated again—Fritz proceeding back to the ground he had been digging, which now began to look quite tidy; while the sailor lad, lifting up the handles of the wheelbarrow, trundled it off once more along the edge of the tussock-grass thicket, stopping every now and again to shovel up the guano, until he had collected a full load, when he wheeled his way back to where Fritz was working away still hard at the potato patch.
A piece of ground twenty yards long by the same in breadth is not easy to dig over in a day, even to the most industrious toiler, and so Fritz found it; for, in spite of the interruption his brother had suffered from on his first start after the manure from the bird colony, the lad managed to cover the whole of the plot they had marked out with the fertilising compound, which he wheeled up load after load, long before he had accomplished half his task, although he dug away earnestly.
Fritz had been a little more sanguine than he usually was. He thought he could have finished the job before the middle of the day; but, when it got late on in the afternoon and the sun gave notice as he sank behind the western cliff that the evening was drawing nigh, there was still much to finish; and so, much to the elder brother's chagrin, the task had to be abandoned for the day in an incomplete state.
"Never mind," he said to Eric—when, putting their spades and other tools into the wheelbarrow, they trundled it homeward in turn, like as their friends the penguins practised their domestic duties—"we'll get it done by to-morrow, if we only stick to it."
"I'm sure I will do my best, brother," responded Eric; "but, really, I do hate digging. The man who invented that horrible thing, a spade, ought to be keel-hauled; that's how I would serve him!"
"Is that anything like what the penguins did to you this morning?" asked Fritz with a chuckle.
"Pretty much the same," said Eric, grinning at the allusion. "I declare I had almost forgotten all about that! However, I'll now go and get a change of clothes, and have a bath in the sea before sitting down comfortably to our evening meal;" and, anxious to carry out this resolve at once, the lad set off running towards the hut with the wheelbarrow before him, he having the last turn of the little vehicle.
"There never was so impetuous a fellow as Eric," Fritz said to himself, seeing the lad start off in this fashion. "Himmel, he is a regular young scatter-brain, as old Lorischen used to call him!"
"Pray be quick about your bath," he called out after him. "I will get the coffee ready by the time you come back."
"Good!" shouted Eric in return. "Mind and make it strong too; for, I'm sure I shall want something to sustain me after all my exertions!"
The day terminated without any further incident; although the wind having calmed down, the young fellows heard the penguins much more plainly through the night than previously. Still, this did not much affect their rest; for in the morning they turned out fresh and hearty for another day's experience of gardening.
But, again, they were unable to finish the plot of land properly on this second day, to Fritz's satisfaction, so as to begin planting their seeds. The ground was so hard and there were such numbers of roots and weeds to remove from the soil, that it took them up to the middle of the afternoon of the third day ere their little plot could be said to be clear of all extraneous matter. Then, however, it was really ready for the reception of their seedling potatoes and other vegetables, with the guano well dug in.
"Hurrah!" exclaimed Fritz, as he and Eric began fixing a piece of line across the fresh mould, so as to be able to make the furrows straight for the potatoes, which they had ready cut in a basket, only pieces with an "eye" in them being selected, "now, we'll soon be finished at last! When we've put in the cabbage seed and onions, I think we'll have a holiday for the rest of the day."
"Right you are," said Eric, in high glee at the prospect of a little respite from the arduous toil they had been engaged in almost since they had landed. He would have struck work long before, had it not been for Fritz labouring on so steadily, which made him ashamed to remain idle. "I tell you what we'll do to celebrate the event, now the garden is done. We will have a feast there."
"I don't know where that's to come from," observed Fritz in his sober way, just then beginning to place carefully the pieces of potato in the drills prepared for them. "I don't think there's much chance of our having any feasting here."
"Oh, indeed," replied Eric; "am I not cook?"
"Well, laddie, I haven't noticed any great display of your skill yet since we landed," said Fritz dryly.
"Ah, we've been too busy; you just wait till I have time, like this afternoon. Then you shall see what you shall see!"
"No doubt," said Fritz, laughing at this sapient declaration. "However, I assure you, brother mine and most considerate of cooks, I'll not be sorry to have a change of diet from the cold salt pork and biscuit on which we have fared all the time we've been gardening."
"How could I cook anything else, when you wanted me here?" replied Eric indignantly, handing the last piece of potato to put in the sole remaining drill. "I couldn't be up at the hut with my saucepans and down here helping you at the same time, eh?"
"No," said Fritz, proceeding to give the plot a final rake over; after which he sowed some cabbage seed and onions in a separate patch, while Eric put in the peas and scarlet runners which the skipper had given him. "We'll consider the past a blank, laddie. See what you can do with your saucepans to-day; you've got the whole afternoon before you."
"All right," replied Eric. "Only, you must promise not to interfere with me, you know; mind that, old fellow!"
"What, I have the temerity to offer advice to such a grand cuisinier as the noble ex-midshipman? no, not if I know myself."
"Thanks, Herr Lieutenant," said Eric, with a deferential bow; "I will summon your lordship when the dinner is ready."
With this parting shot, the lad went off laughing towards the hut. Fritz proceeded down to the shore; and, in order that he might keep his promise to Eric of not disturbing him, he determined to devote his time to watching the penguins, so as to get up an appetite for the forthcoming banquet—although the hard work he had just gone through rendered any stimulus to eating hardly necessary. Indeed, Fritz would have been well enough satisfied to have sat down and demolished a fair quantity of the despised cold pork and biscuits long before Eric summoned him up to the hut, which he did presently, with a hail as loud as if he were calling "all hands" at sea, in a heavy squall.
"Ahoy, Herr Lieutenant!" shouted out the lad in his funny way. "Your gracious majesty is served!"—screeching out the words so distinctly that, though he was on the opposite side of the valley, the portentous announcement sounded to Fritz as if it had been bellowed in his ears.
"I'm coming," he answered; and, with no lagging footsteps, he quickly hastened towards the left cliff, where in front of the hut he could see Master Eric had made the most elaborate preparations in his power for the promised feast. The lad had even gone so far as to spread the piece of tarpaulin which the skipper had given them, on the ground in lieu of a tablecloth!
Everything looked charming.
Eric had arranged some plates and a couple of dishes round the tarpaulin with great artistic effect, and a carving knife and fork before the place where he motioned Fritz to seat himself. The lad's own position, as host, was in front of a large mess tin which was covered with a cloth. A most agreeable odour filled the air, albeit the faint smell as of burnt meat somewhat struck Fritz as Eric proceeded to take off the covering cloth with a flourish.
"Well, Monsieur Cuisinier, what is the bill of fare?" asked the elder brother with a gratified smile, the unaccustomed smell of a hot dinner almost making his mouth water before he knew what he was going to have.
"Roast beef to begin with," announced Master Eric pompously.
"Himmel!" exclaimed Fritz, "roast beef! How have you managed to provide that?" His heart sank within him as he asked the almost unnecessary question; for, quickly came the answer he feared.
"Oh," said Eric in an off-hand way, "I opened the cask Captain Brown gave us and roasted a piece over the fire."
"But, that was salt meat!" ejaculated Fritz in consternation.
"Well, what matter?" rejoined Eric; "I suppose it was as good to roast as any other. Besides, we didn't have any fresh."
Fritz heaved a sigh of despair.
"Let us try it, anyhow," he said in a melancholy tone, and Eric having, carved off with extreme difficulty a knob—it could be called nothing else—of the black mass in the mess tin he had before him, handed the plate containing it over to Fritz, who, sawing off a fragment, endeavoured to chew it unsuccessfully and then had finally to eject it from his mouth.
"Good heavens, Eric!" he exclaimed, "it's as hard as a brickbat, as salt as brine, and burnt up as thoroughly as a piece of coke. How could you even think of trying to roast a bit of salt junk? Why, your own experience of the article on board ship should have told you better!"
"Well, I know it is tough when boiled; but I fancied it might be better roasted for a change. I'm very sorry, old fellow, but, still, we haven't come to the end of our resources yet; I have got another dish to surprise you."
"I hope not in the same way!" said Fritz with a shudder. "What is the other string to your bow, eh, Mr Cook?"
"A stew," replied Eric laconically.
"Ho, that sounds better," said his brother, the complacent look which had stolen over his face on sitting down to the banquet now returning again in the expectation of having something savoury at last. "A stew, eh? Why, that used to be my favourite dish at home; don't you remember, laddie?"
"Yes, I remember," responded Eric, not quite so joyously as his brother evidently expected; "but," he added hesitatingly, "you'll find this a little different, because, ah, you know, ah, I hadn't got all the proper things. Still, it's very nice, very nice indeed!"
The amateur cook brought out the last words with great earnestness, as if wishing to impress Fritz with the fact that, although the dish might not be quite what he expected, yet it would be certainly "tasty"—that is, according to his notions!
It was; for, hardly had Fritz tasted a spoonful of it, than he spat it out again, making the most terrible faces.
"Why, this is worse than the other!" he cried rather angrily. "What on earth have you made it of. Eric?"
"Well, I put in some pork and the tinned oysters—"
"That mixture would be almost enough to settle one!" said Fritz, interrupting him. "Anything else?"
"Oh, yes. As there were only a few potatoes left from those we used for planting in the garden I put them in; and, as I had no other vegetables, I also shook in some preserved peaches, and—"
"There, that will do," shouted Fritz, quite put out at having his expected dinner treat spoilt in such a fashion,—"salt pork, pickled oysters, and preserved peaches,—good heavens! The stew only wanted some cheese to be added to make it perfect."
"I did put some in," said Eric innocently.
This naive acknowledgment quite restored Fritz's good humour, and he burst out laughing; his anger and disgust dispelled at once by the comical confession.
"If ever I let you cook for me again," he observed presently when he was able to speak again, "I'll—yes, I will eat a stewed penguin, there!"
Eric laughed, too, at this; although he remarked, wisely enough, "Perhaps you might have to eat worse than that, old fellow!"
"I don't know what could be," said Fritz.
"Nothing!" curtly replied Eric, the truism silencing his brother for the moment and setting him thinking; but he presently spoke again to the point at issue.
"Is there nothing left for us to eat?" he asked. "I'm famishing."
"There's the cheese and some raw ham if you can manage with those," said Eric sadly, quite disheartened at the failure of all his grand preparations for giving his brother a treat.
"Capitally," replied Fritz, "fetch them out, and let us make a good square meal. We can have some coffee afterwards. Next time, laddie," he added to cheer up Eric, "I dare say you'll do better."
The lad was somewhat relieved at his brother taking the matter so good- humouredly, and quickly brought out the cheese and ham, which with some biscuits served them very well in place of the rejected viands; and, soon, the two were chatting away together again in their old affectionate way as if no misunderstanding had come between them, talking of home and old familiar scenes and recollections of Lubeck.
While they were yet sitting in front of the hut, over their coffee, the setting sun cast the shadow of the cliff right before their feet; and, at the very edge of the craggy outline, they perceived the shadow of something else which was in motion.
This somewhat aroused their attention and made them look up towards the heights above the waterfall.
What was their astonishment, there, to see a large animal, which, in the strong light behind it from the descending orb, appeared almost of gigantic proportions.
The beast appeared to be right over their heads; and, as they looked up, it seemed as if about to jump down on them!
CHAPTER TWENTY SIX.
THE WILD GOATS.
"Ach, Himmel! What is it?" exclaimed Eric, getting closer to his brother, who also was at first a bit frightened.
"I sure I don't know," said Fritz, quite perplexed for the moment; but he was soon reassured, for the animal, which had hitherto presented itself end on towards them, so that its head and body were humped up together, now turning sideways, its change of position enabled him better to judge of its proportions. "Pshaw!" he cried out, "it's only a goat, after all!"
"A goat?" repeated Eric, still surprised, not catching at once the meaning of the word.
"Yes; don't you remember that young Glass said there was a flock of goats on the tableland above the cliff?"
"Oh, I recollect now," said Eric, his mind quite relieved. For the moment, he really believed that some terrible monster inhabited the desert island besides themselves; and thought that this unknown animal might possibly sally forth as soon as the sun set and darkness reigned, in search of its prey, when he and Fritz would fall victims to its rapacity. "I did not understand you at first."
"Well, it's all right now, brother, so you need not be afraid. I cannot wonder at your alarm, however for I was startled, I must confess. Fancy, me, a soldier, to show such want of nerve! Why, I'm as bad as you were the other morning when the penguins attacked you!"
"Don't say any more about that, please," pleaded Eric, whose fright of the birds was still a standing joke with Fritz. "I'm sure when they rushed at me so fiercely they seemed quite as awful as the sight of that big brute up there on the cliff, who looked just as if he were going to leap down on us."
"Very well, we'll let the matter drop, then," said the other, laughing. "I can't afford to boast of my courage now! If all goes well, laddie, we will ascend the cliffs to-morrow and have a peep at my gentleman at closer quarters."
"All right," replied Eric, using his stock phrase for everything; and then, as it was getting dark, the brothers turned in for the night—the sailor lad taking particular care, by the way, to see that the door of the hut was carefully barricaded, a precaution which had been omitted since the first evening of their taking possession of the little dwelling.
The next morning was a bright and cheerful one, with no wind to speak of, save a pleasant breeze, while the sun was warm and cheerful—its light dancing on the curly little waves that rippled on the beach, causing the plumage of the penguins as they made their pilgrimages to and from the rookery to gleam with iridescent colours. This was especially the case when the birds emerged from the water, the light just then giving them the tints which the dolphin displays when first caught and before death has deadened its changing hues.
"A splendid day for our exploring trip!" sang out Eric, the early riser, waking up Fritz by rolling away the barrels from before their frail doorway and fussing about the hut. "Rouse up, brother. The old sun has been up for an hour or more, and it will be soon time for us to start."
"Eh, what? oh, yes," cried Fritz, rubbing his eyes and yawning; but, Eric, pulling away his blankets, soon made him bestir himself, when his brother jumped up with his usual alertness—first running down to the beach and imitating the penguins in having a dip in the sea, to wash the cobwebs out of his head, as he laughingly said on his return to their little domicile, when proceeding to dress.
For a sailor, Eric was, strangely enough, not half so fond of a daily bath; but, as he said in excuse to his brother, this was perhaps owing to his having so many impromptu and unexpected douches on board ship. Most seamen, especially those of foreign nationality, have seemingly a horror of water for ablutionary purposes, in contradistinction to landsmen.
However, there was one advantage in this, to Fritz at least; for, while he was performing his swim and making his subsequent toilet, Eric had lit a fire and was preparing coffee for their breakfast, to which, when ready, Fritz was able to sit down comfortably without any trouble or exertion on his part.
A cup of the steaming fluid apiece warmed the two, invigorating them for the business of the day; and, as soon as the matutinal meal was finished, they set about getting their traps ready.
"Of course, we'll take our guns, eh?" asked Eric; although, as far as he was concerned, he had evidently already come to a decision on the point, for he had carefully selected one of the Remington rifles from their armoury for his own especial weapon.
"Yes, I suppose we had better take something to shoot with," replied Fritz. "We need not pot our old friend the goat yet, however. Judging by his horns and beard, he must be the kaiser of the flock, and so may be a little tough; still, we may find some daintier morsel to shoot. I confess I should be glad of a little fresh meat for a change—a real roast this time, eh, Eric?"
"Oh, bother that roast salt beef; I suppose I'll never hear the end of it!" cried the lad pathetically, although he could not refrain from laughing at Fritz's allusion to the unsuccessful banquet. "You just get me something proper to cook, and I bet you'll not be disgusted with the way in which I dress it!"
"We'll see," replied Fritz, taking up the fowling piece and slinging a powder flask and shot case round his neck. "As you're going to carry a rifle for heavy game, laddie, I'll take this for the benefit of any likely-looking birds we may come across."
"All right," responded Eric; when the two, packing up some biscuit and cheese for their refreshment by the way and barricading the door of the hut from the outside—lest the penguins might chance to pay them a visit in their absence—set forth towards the base of the waterfall up the gorge. Here, the Tristaner had told them, they would be able to climb up by the aid of the tussock-grass should they wish to reach the summit of the cliff.
It was a tedious ascent, the top of the ridge being over a thousand feet above the little valley in which they lived.
As for Fritz, he was quite worn-out when they arrived at the head of the crags above the waterfall; but Eric found the climbing easier work from his practice in the rigging aboard the Pilot's Bride. This was just as well, for he had to pull his brother up nearly all the way.
However, once arrived at the summit, the two had the whole tableland exposed to their view. This sight alone well rewarded them for their trouble, for the plateau stretched like an undulating plain before them, occupying the entire extent of the island—with the exception of the three-cornered slice taken out of it by their valley, like a segment cut from a round cheese. There was, also, a slight depression on the western side, where there was a little cave, although this was not nearly so wide as the bay on the east fronting their valley.
Groups of stunted trees grew in the hollows, in which sprang up in great luxuriance the inevitable tussock-grass; while, amongst the little thickets that were sparsely scattered over the plain, were grazing large numbers of hogs, headed by a monster boar. This animal had tusks nearly a foot long; and he almost impaled Eric against a buckthorn tree, under the shelter of which he had been lying until surprised by the lad, when, after making a rush at him, he ran grunting away, followed by his numerous family.
As the brothers proceeded across the tableland, they also saw numbers of a small bird, about the size of a bantam, called by young Glass the "island hen." Its plumage was almost entirely black, and its wings were so short that they were useless for flight, the bird running in and out of the long grass and ferns with which the surface of the plateau was covered in the open, like the partridge does amongst the turnips in England. Fritz shot a couple of the little things, and the brothers plucked and roasted them over an extemporary fire which Eric lit with the box of matches he invariably "carried in his pocket—as a sort of badge of his culinary office," Fritz said. The birds were found to be very palatable for lunch, along with the biscuit and cheese which the brothers had brought with them.
The goats were the main object of the excursion; but Fritz could not see anything of them until they had nearly made the circuit of the plain.
When they had almost given up the animals as a myth, feeling inclined to believe that the old "billy" they had seen the evening before was the creature of their imagination, they suddenly came upon the flock. The goats were secreted in a thicket of buckthorn trees and tussock-grass, close to where the tableland sloped to the beach at its western extremity.
There were twenty-three in all, and must have been the produce of a pair which some whaling vessel had turned loose on the island; for, they were every one marked in the same way as the patriarchal-looking male,— evidently their progenitor. He was a stately old fellow, with a fine pair of curving horns that nearly reached to his tail; in addition to which, he could boast of a long silky beard that a Turkish pasha might have envied.
Seeing three kids amongst the number, Fritz told Eric to shoot one; and the lad, after a third attempt with the repeating rifle he carried, succeeded in making a successful shot. There was some excuse for Eric's not killing his kid at first; for, the old male was extremely wary, keeping at a very respectful distance from the two sportsmen and making the flock remain in his rear, while he fronted the intruders— continually retreating as they advanced, and dexterously shifting his position, by a flank movement every now and then, so as not to be driven over the cliffs.
"Master Billy can't be ignorant of men folk or firearms," said Eric, when he had missed his second shot, "otherwise, he would not remain so far off!"
"He was probably brought here originally from the Cape," replied Fritz, telling his brother to aim lower next time, his last bullet having only missed by too great an elevation. "So, like all animals that have once heard a gun go off, he knows what it means! Most likely, if I had not fired twice at those little birds, we might have got up quite close to the flock; but, the old gentleman must have heard the report and that has made him so cautious about letting us approach. Look out, Eric; now's your chance! Only aim low and steadily, and you will bring down that kid there to the right!"
Puff, bang! No sooner said than done.
"Hurrah!" shouted Eric, "I've got him this time, without fail!"
He had; for, although the flock of goats scampered off from the thicket they were at that moment occupying towards another woody clump on the opposite side of the plain, darting away with the rapidity of the wind, they left one of their number behind.
The unfortunate victim was a pretty little kid, about three months old; and it lay stretched out, bleeding, on the grass. Its body had been perforated by the bullet from Eric's rifle.
"That was a capital shot!" exclaimed Fritz, when the two came up to where the poor little kid lay. "The ball has passed right through its heart; so, you must have aimed, as I told you, behind the shoulder."
"I did," said Eric, alike proud of his powers and the compliment; "but, poor little thing, it seems a pity to have killed it!"
"Ah," remarked Fritz the practical, "still, roast mutton will taste nice after our living on salt meat for so many days, eh?"
"Yes," replied Eric, with much satisfaction, his sympathy for the slaughtered kid quickly disappearing at the thought of all that young Glass had told him as to the flavour of the animal when cooked. "It is better than the tenderest pork, they say."
"Very well, we'll try it for dinner to-morrow and see whether we agree with that verdict. It will be too late to cook it when we get home this evening."
"Dear me, I really did not think the time was going so fast! Why, it must be within a hour of sunset; don't you think so?"
"Not far off," said Fritz; "so, therefore, there's all the greater reason for our returning down the gully as soon as possible. If the darkness came on while we were descending, I should never be able to scramble down."
"Never fear, brother; I'll look after you," cried Eric.
On their approaching the eastern end of the clift again, the sailor lad first lowered down the dead kid by a piece of rope he had taken with him, on to one of the niches in the gorge above the waterfall, and then prepared for the descent of Fritz and himself. "Never fear brother," he repeated. "Although you may be stronger than I, still my eye is steady and my hand sure!"
"Good!" said Fritz. "You had better then go down first, and direct me where to put my feet. After we've been up and down once or twice, of course, I shall not find it so difficult."
"All right," responded Eric, "here goes!" So saying, he swung himself over the top of the cliff, when, holding on firmly to the tussock-grass and half slipping down and half stepping on the projections in the face of the crag, he reached in a few minutes the first broad ledge over which the rivulet from above tossed its spray.
"Are you quite safe?" asked Fritz, before adventuring on the descent.
"Certainly," said the other. "Hold on to the grass stems the same as I did, and let yourself slide over at the corner—there! Now, feel with your foot for a projecting bit of stone just below where you are standing and about a yard to the right. Have you got it?"
"Yes," replied Fritz.
"All right, then, let yourself down on it and take a fresh grip of the tussock-grass, for you will have to bear more to the left this time. Hold on tight and take a long step down, now, and you'll be beside me; there you are, you see!"
Eric then proceeded down to the next step, or leap, of the waterfall in the same way, lowering the kid first, and then descending and directing his brother's steps; so that, in a much shorter time than they had ascended, they arrived once more in the valley—although, from the fact of the tableland being more open and exposed and the cliffs obscuring the light, the lads found it quite dark when they reached their hut, the sun having sunk below the western ocean while they were climbing down the crags.
"Thank goodness, we're here at last!" exclaimed Fritz, when, having got within their hut, he sank upon the bed in the corner. "I didn't tell you before, for fear of alarming you; but, as I came down the cliff, I sprained my ankle fearfully. Once, I thought I should never reach the bottom alive, laddie. Really, if we had but another step now to go, I'm certain I would not have been able to limp it."
"Himmel!" ejaculated Eric, "I couldn't see that you walked lame on account of its being dark; and, you wouldn't tell me, of course, or lean on my arm so as to let me help you!"
Eric spoke in quite an aggrieved tone, which struck his brother keenly, although he refrained from answering him; but, while expressing his sense of hurt feeling at Fritz not asking his aid, the lad was busily employed in lighting the lamp and examining the injured ankle, which, to his consternation, he found so badly dislocated that the bone protruded. The foot, too, was already swollen to more than twice its size!
"It looks awful," he said; "and, just think, if it had given way when we were descending the crag you might have tumbled down the precipice and made me brotherless! Why did you not tell me and ask my help?"
"Because," replied Fritz, with some reason, "my doing so might perhaps have frightened you, causing you to lose your nerve at a moment when the safety of both of us depended on your keeping cool and steady."
"That might have been so," said Eric; "but, still, I would have been able to help you more if I had known! However, 'everything that is, is for the best,' isn't that so, brother?"
With this consoling reflection, the sailor lad, under Fritz's directions, set about bandaging the wounded limb with a long handkerchief dipped in cold water and wrapped round it as tightly as possible.
This surgical operation accomplished, the two then went to bed, pretty well tired with the day's excursion.
They had had a long chase after the wild goats, in addition to first exploring the tableland above and the exertion of ascending and descending the cliff—which latter was quite an arduous enough enterprise in itself and sufficiently dangerous, as was amply proved by the fact of Fritz's accident, that might lay him up for some time.
However, the next day, the invalid thought roast kid ample payment for sprained ankle; and he was not sorry for the enforced rest he was obliged to take after the rough exercise he had undergone since landing on the island, having now an opportunity of reading and investigating the little library of books given by Celia Brown to Eric, which he had not yet had the chance of overhauling.
Indeed, Master Fritz had a nice easy time of it; for Eric not only waited on him, but saw to everything that had to be done until he was able to move about again.
"That old billy-goat was bound to do me an injury! I thought so when I first saw him that evening, standing out against the sunset sky over our heads," said the elder brother to Eric, when he was once more out of doors and felt again like his old self. "Aha, though, I've not done with the old rascal yet! Some day, I'll pay him out, never fear!"
"Right you are!" was Eric's answer, laughing the while.
The lad was really so overjoyed to see his brother on his legs again, that he went off into fits of laughter every now and then about nothing at all.
He could not contain himself!
CHAPTER TWENTY SEVEN.
It was well on in the month of September—the spring of the year in South Atlantic latitudes—when the brothers commenced their crusoe-like life on Inaccessible Island; and, by the time that Fritz had recovered from the effects of his sprained ankle, so far as to be able to hobble about the place, it was nearly the end of October. This was the beginning of the early summer at Inaccessible Island; and, the season being but a short one, not an hour of it could be wasted if they wished to carry out to advantage the special purpose that had taken them away from the haunts of men.
The sealing season would soon begin; and, it behoved them to be ready for it, so that they should lose no chance of securing as many skins as they could get. The amount of oil they might procure from the boiled- down blubber was also a consideration, but only a secondary one in comparison with the pelts; for, owing to the market demand for sealskins and the wholesale extermination of the animal that supplies them that is now continually going on in arctic and antarctic seas alike, the pursuit is as valuable as it is more and more precarious each year—the breeding-grounds now being almost deserted to what they once were, even in the most out-of-the-way spots, the Esquimaux to the north and American whalers in the south having depopulated the whilom numerous herds.
The garden was the first point Fritz aimed for, when he found he could put his foot to the ground; and he proceeded thither slowly, with the aid of a stick to lean upon and with Eric "frisking round him," as he said, just like old Gelert would have done!
In the comparatively short space of time since Fritz had last seen the little plot, a wonderful transformation had been effected—thanks to the richness of the virgin soil, the productiveness of the climate, and, lastly, the super-stratum of guano which Eric had suggested being placed over the clearing.
The sailor lad, too, had not forgotten each morning to water the newly planted land, which was exposed all day to the sun's heat, with the exception of a brief period in the afternoon when the shade of the cliffs extended over it; so, now, the garden presented a smiling appearance, with the potatoes just sprouting above their ridges, and cabbages and radishes coming up in clusters, while rows of peas and scarlet runners were sprouting as thick as hedges—not to speak of the slender onion stems, like tiny spears, each bearing its own seed back above ground after it had performed its creative mission below the surface, leaving a root behind.
"This looks well," said Fritz, delighted at the result of their joint handiwork. "Bye-and-bye, we ought to reap a good return for all our labour. I'm glad we got the job done when we did; otherwise, we should not have such a charming prospect before us."
"I'm jolly glad we haven't got to do it now!" replied Eric, with a shrug of his shoulders and laughing as usual. "Himmel! I shall never forget that digging!"
"Nor the penguins either, I suppose, when you went to get the guano that day?" said Fritz slyly, with a meaning glance.
"Ah, brother, 'no more of that, an thou lovest me!'" quoted Eric. "Still, the guano, perhaps, has made the things come on so well, eh?"
"No doubt of that," replied Fritz. "But, we'll have to thin out those cabbage plants shortly, laddie; that will necessitate our digging up some more ground, so as to make a place ready for them."
"Oh!" groaned the other in a lachrymose way, making a hideous grimace.
"However, we needn't hurry about it," continued Fritz, smiling at his grimace.
"Ah!" exclaimed Eric, much relieved. He knew that if the thing had to be done, he should have to accomplish it; for, in spite of all his disgust for spade work, he certainly would not have allowed Fritz to attempt gardening so soon with his invalided foot.
"No, there's no hurry," went on Fritz, as if thinking aloud. "We'll have to confine our attention to the seals now for the next two months or so, as that is our special business here. When we can capture no more of those gentry, we'll have plenty of time to attend to the garden; although, probably, we shall get something out of it ere long, if only a few radishes—at all events we ought to have some new potatoes by Christmas, that is if they ripen as rapidly as they have jumped out of the ground!"
"Fancy, new potatoes at Christmas!" cried Eric. "I wonder what they would say to that at home in Lubeck?"
"Aye, what!" repeated Fritz; and, in a second, his thoughts were far away across the rolling Atlantic. His mental eyes could see—as plainly as if the scene was there before him, now, in that little valley between the cliffs of the desert isle where the two brothers were—the house in the Gulden Strasse, with the dear home faces belonging to it. Yes, there they were in a loving vision, the "little mother," Lorischen, and Madaleine, not forgetting Gelert or Mouser even; while the old-fashioned town, with its antique gateway and pillared market platz, and quaint Dom Kirche and clock of the rolling eyes, seemed moving past in a mental panorama before him!
Eric recalled him presently to himself by a pertinent inquiry.
"We'll have to see to our boat to hunt the seals in, won't we?" he asked.
"Yes, certainly," said Fritz, fixing his mind on present things with an effort. "I hope it's all right!"
"You may make sure of that," answered Eric. "I wasn't going to let any harm happen to the boat which the good captain so kindly gave us! No. I have been down to look at and overhaul it every day—keeping water in it besides, that the seams should not open with the heat and make it leak."
"Then it is quite seaworthy?"
"Oh, yes, without doubt."
"Well, I tell you what we'll do," said Fritz. "As the exertion will not compel me to have any walking to speak of, nor interfere with the strengthening of my poor foot, I vote that we sail round the headland to the western beach on the other side of the island. We can then see whether there is any appearance yet of the seals coming to take up their summer residence here."
"Won't that be jolly!" shouted out Eric. "Why, it is the very thing I have been longing to do since we went up the cliffs and saw the beach there from the tableland! I would not speak to you about it, because I knew, of course, you could not move, and feared that talking of it might excite you."
"That was very considerate of you, laddie," replied Fritz; "so, now to reward you for your thoughtfulness, I vote that we proceed there as soon as we can get the boat ready and prepare for the excursion. Apart from its being in the nature of a little pleasure trip—my convalescent tour, as it were, for change of air—it is really necessary work for us to know when we can begin, if we are going to be seal hunters and trade in skins and oil!"
"Right you are," said Eric, quite convinced by this argument that nothing could be more wise or sensible than a voyage round the island in the whale-boat, especially as the plan agreed with his own views of the matter to an iota; and, in his usually impulsive way, in spite of having already inspected the little craft that morning, he rushed off down to the beach, scaring multitudes of penguins on his way, to see whether she was as sound and seaworthy as he had said, and thoroughly fit for the cruise.
Everything was right, fortunately; so, early on the following day, they shoved off the whale-boat from the beach. This was a rather fatiguing operation, although it was greatly facilitated by some rollers which Eric sawed off a spare topgallant mast that was amongst the old spars the skipper gave them. The brothers then started on their trip round the island, the wind being fair from the south-east—the same point, indeed, from which it had blown almost entirely during their stay, with the exception of a short spell from the south-west just after their arrival.
The coast, after clearing the headland, was bold and precipitous, the wall of rock continuing round to the west side; although here it broke away, with a lower ridge of soft dolomite that had caves worn into its face from the action of the sea, and one or two creeks that the boat could run into. This was evidently the haunt of the seals, for numbers of fish bones were scattered about on the floor of the caves and on the fragments of volcanic rock that were scattered on the beach below, piled and heaped up in pyramid fashion.
Landing at one of the little caves, just under a tussock-grass-grown gully, like that close to their hut on the eastern side, Eric ascended with his rifle to the ridge above. He soon gained the tableland, returning anon with a well-grown kid which Fritz had told him to shoot, so that they might take it home with them. The ascent to the plateau, the lad said, was much easier from this part of the coast than by the waterfall; but, of course, as it would necessitate a voyage almost round the island whenever they attempted it, the other way was more preferable, although dangerous by contrast.
One or two seals were seen sunning themselves on the rocks; but these quickly slid off into the sea when the boat approached. Their breeding- season had certainly not yet arrived, else they would not only have been more numerous, but have been too much engaged with their families to mind ordinary intruders. When separated from their fellows, as the brothers now saw them, however, they were naturally extremely timid animals.
Proceeding round the southern extremity of the island, the cliff that encircled the coast seemed the more precipitous the further they advanced, frowning down destruction on any ship that might approach it unawares in the darkness—should the wind blow on shore and the set of the sea prevent escape from its terrors!
Eric steered the boat out a bit here, so that they might tack further on inwards and so weather the eastern promontory, which stretched to the left of the bay outwards into the ocean. They were thus able to have a grand view of the whole island, getting back to their little home, not long before sundown. Nor did they return empty-handed, either; for, the kid furnished fresh meat for their dinner, to which their trip besides added a piquant relish.
What with making things more comfortable in their hut and attending to the garden, which bloomed out apace each day, the hours did not lag on their hands by any means during the next week or two. There was occupation enough, even in this interval, to pass the time pleasantly away; but, when the month of November was ushered in, the seals then coming to the island in shoals, they found plenty to do from morning till night.
There was work of all kinds to be done:— first, boating round the coast after their prey; secondly, hunting the animals into their caves and killing them, taking care to secure their bodies before they sank into deep water and were thus irrecoverably lost; thirdly, getting off the skins and salting them down to prevent their putrefying; and, lastly, boiling blubber—oh, yes, they had enough work to employ them, and no time to be idle!
Before this busy period, however, every morning, again at midday, and in the afternoon, Eric would go up and down the tussock-grass ladder by which he scaled the precipice on to the tableland above, whence he was able to reconnoitre the west coast, the favourite resort of the seals, according to the information of young Glass, the Tristaner who instructed them in the matter.
The lad did this daily as a matter of duty, "climbing the fore cross- trees for a look-out," as he termed the scramble up the gorge; and, as regularly, three times every day, after his morning, midday, and afternoon observations, he would come back to Fritz with the same unsatisfactory tale—that no seals were in sight.
One afternoon, however, towards the end of the month, he reported more cheering news.
"Oh, there are such a lot of seals on the rocks!" he called out from the top of the cliff, without waiting to come down. "Why, there must be hundreds of them there, crawling in and out of the caves on their flappers, to and from the sea! Which will be the best way to tackle them, brother, we can reach them from here, you know?"
Fritz, who was below seated outside the hut, just preparing to mend some of his clothes that had long needed looking after, in a moment became equally excited, pitching the dilapidated garments back inside the hut and putting off the work of repairing to some future day.
"Come down sharp, Eric, and help me to get the boat out," he cried. "We must attack them from seaward; for, if we went at them from the cliff, they would at once take to the water, and so escape us. Descend at once, while I am getting the guns and tackle ready!"
"Right you are!" shouted the sailor lad in answer. "I'll be down with you in a brace of shakes!"
No sooner had he uttered the words than he was scrambling down by the tussock-grass through the waterfall gully; while, at the same time, Fritz below was proceeding hurriedly to collect the various articles required for the sealing expedition, which had been put away on one side so as to be handy for just such an emergency:— the loaded rifles, with spare cartridges; the two harpoons, to each of which a long coiled-up line was attached; the strong boat-hook to pull in the carcases of their victims; and, other little etceteras.
The common seal, which is frequently seen on the north coast of Scotland amongst the Hebrides and Shetland Islands, and the sea bear of Cape Horn and the Magellan Straits, are both very similar in their general habits to the Greenland seal of the Esquimaux; and the animals usually herd together in flocks or droves of some thirty to a hundred, each male having a certain number of females under his charge—the males being some six to eight feet long and the females of less dimensions.
The seals invariably frequent the most desolate rocks and caverns, where they can have ready access to the sea, which is their proper element; and, in the north and extreme south, they live on the ice-peaks as a rule, getting the fish they require for their food by diving off and catching their prey in the same way that an otter does.
The wildest and stormiest seas appear to delight them most. In such they may be seen, sporting amidst the breakers and rough water, in the highest of spirits apparently, and escaping scatheless where other creatures would be dashed to pieces on the rocks that form their temporary homes. Although they do not assemble on shore in any numbers, except during the summer months of the latitudes in which they are found, they are never far-distant from their favourite haunts at any time, the reason for their not being seen, most probably, being that they only leave the water at night during the winter, or else because the stormy weather prevents those who go after them from approaching their habitats and so noticing them.
By the time Eric descended the cliff, Fritz had the boat ready to shove off, with their hunting gear inside and all necessary weapons for the chase; so, the two were soon on their way round the headland, steering towards the seal-caves on the western side of the island.
"You never saw such a lot, brother," Eric went on to say, when they had embarked and were working round the coast. "There were hundreds of small ones, while some were big monsters that had long noses and seemed to be double the size of the others!"
"Ah, those were probably sea elephants," said Fritz. "I should like to catch one. The fur, they say, is not so good as that of the common seal, but they yield an immense lot of oil from their blubber—from eight to ten barrels, I have been told."
"Really?" observed Eric. "Why, one or two of those gentlemen would soon fill up our casks!"
"Yes, and I shouldn't regret it," said Fritz. "We should then have a good stock ready against the time Captain Brown returns to visit us with the Pilot's Bride!"
"Aye, I should like that," replied the other; and then, as both rowing and sailing—for the wind was light—the boat neared the rock caves of the western coast, the brothers grew too excited to talk any more.
Presently, they hove in sight of their hunting-ground; whereupon, they at once stopped the way of the boat in order to map out their campaign.
It did not take long for them to do this; and the gist of the plan could be seen in the arrangements they made for battle.
Fritz and Eric both put their rifles ready on the thwarts of the boat, and the harpoons were also placed handy in the bows along with the boat- hook; then, lowering the lugsail which the little craft carried, they muffled their oars with some rags they had prepared and pulled in steadily towards the beach.
As they got nearer, the seals could be seen swarming on the rocks, while the noise they made—something like the bleating of sheep mingled with a hoarse growling roar, not dissimilar to that of an angry bull in the distance—could be heard plainly while the brothers were yet more than a mile off.
Some of the seals were swimming about in the water, but the majority were basking on the huge slabs of rocks that had been broken off from the face of the cliff by the onslaught of the waves and which now lay on the beach at its base, partly in and partly out of the sea.
"Now, Eric, be ready!" called out Fritz in a hoarse whisper. "Do you see those two fellows on that boulder nearest us?"
"Yes," whispered Eric in return, almost breathless with excitement.
"Then, you take the right-hand one, and I will make sure of the one to the left. Aim low and steadily at the head, for that is the only vital part a ball will reach. Remember, if you only wound him, he'll slip into the water and dive out of our reach!"
"Right you are; I'm ready," was Eric's reply.
"Wait till I give the word, then," said Fritz.
There was a moment of suspense as the boat crept closer to the poor seals, who were playing away, thoughtless of danger, and then—
"Fire!" exclaimed Fritz.
The two murderous rifles, at the same instant, at once belched forth their contents; and, a moment after, the dropped heads of the animals aimed at showed that the respective bullets had accomplished their mission.
"Now, let us push in," cried Fritz, seizing his oar again, when, his brother following his example, they beached the boat in a few strokes.
Then, each taking up a harpoon, they attacked the cluster of animals, killing fifteen before the frightened creatures could escape into their native element, although they came off the rocks with a rush, looking most formidable as they opened their mouths and showed their fangs, emitting the while terrific roars; and, as they waddled in a crowd into the water, they rolled down the brothers with their impetus as if they had been ninepins.
"I don't mind the bruises," said Fritz, picking himself up again with a laugh. "Not when I have such a sound salve for them as the thought of the oil we'll get out of all the carcases!"
"Nor I," chimed in Eric, rubbing his nose ruefully though all the same. "Think of fifteen—no, seventeen sealskins, counting in the two we shot first on the rocks! They ought to fetch something handsome when we send them to the States, eh?"
"Yes," said Fritz; "but now, out with your knife, laddie! Let us set to work, taking off the pelts while they are still warm."
"Right you are," replied Eric; and the two were soon at work, skinning the animals and taking off the layer of blubber which lay immediately beneath the inner lining of the skin—rolling up the greasy and reeking mass of skin and fat together in bundles and placing them in the boat as soon as each seal had his toilet thus attended to.
It was very dirty work and neither was sorry when all the blubber and skins were stowed in the whale-boat; their last care being to roll the poor bodies of the seals now bereft of those coveted coats which had caused their destruction, into the sea. This was done in order that the remains might not scare away others of the herd from such inhospitable shores. The task was soon accomplished, for the rocks shelved down abruptly into the water; and, when the place was made tidy again, the brothers set sail for home with their cargo, going back the contrary way they came, so as to have the advantage of the wind and save the labour of rowing.
Since their onslaught, not another live seal was to be seen in the vicinity, the first to make off before the boat was pulled into the beach after Fritz and Eric had fired being the couple of sea elephants which they had noticed amongst the mass of animals, clustered together on the rocks; and these, consequently, they were unable to secure.
However, they consoled themselves on their way back to the bay with the reflection that they had done a very good day's work. They were by no means dissatisfied with the result of their sport—seventeen seals at one haul were not to be despised!
For some time after reaching the hut they were busily engaged, cleaning the skins and salting them down for preservation. They had both been instructed how to do this on board the whaler; although Eric, having had previous practical experience with all the details of the operation, now acted as superintendent.
They had also to boil the blubber in the iron cauldron, which they had brought from the States for the purpose of "trying out the oil," as whaling men technically term the procedure; and they found when they had finished that the result realised some ten barrels full.
This was a splendid start for them and it made them so contented that it was upwards of a fortnight before they undertook another expedition to the west beach.
But, apart, from the satisfactory results of their first venture, they thought it best to let the seals have a little interlude of calm before attacking them again. Besides this, Eric's reports from his look-out station on the tableland were most unfavourable, as, for some days after their last foray, hardly a seal was to be seen in the neighbourhood of the scene of the fray.
However, one fine morning in December, Eric reported the arrival of a fresh batch of the fur-bearing animals on the west rocks; so, making their boat ready, the brothers soon sailed round thither once more.
They had turned the last projecting point of the headland, before opening the beach frequented by the seals, and Fritz had brought up the boat's head to the wind, preparatory to their lowering the sail and taking to their oars to pull into shore, when Eric, who had been looking out over the bows, arrested his brother's intention.
"Hullo, Fritz!" he exclaimed, "there's some one there before us. I can see a boat, with a lot of men in it, close to the beach!"
"Indeed!" said Fritz, quite as much astonished. "I wonder who they are?"
He felt almost as indignant as a landlord on finding that a party of poachers had invaded his choicest preserves and were ruthlessly appropriating his pet pheasants!
"Himmel!" he repeated, "I wonder who the fellows can be?"
Just then, the discharge of several rifles all together, as if practising platoon firing, struck on his ear; and, as Fritz sniffed the smell of the burnt gunpowder floating by him in the air to seaward, driven off from shore by the wind, the saltpetrous scent did not tend to restore his equanimity!
CHAPTER TWENTY EIGHT.
"What donkeys we are!" exclaimed Eric presently, a moment or so after the discharge of the firearms. "We are real stupids to be astonished at all!"
"How, in what way?" asked Fritz. "Why, the strange boat must have come from Tristan d'Acunha. Don't you recollect, we were told that a party always came sealing here, as well as at Nightingale Island, during the summer?"
"Oh yes; I forgot," said Fritz. "I wonder, though, you didn't see their boat pass your look-out station—you, with your fine observant eyes!"
"Ah, they must have come round to leeward of the promontory, close under the land," replied Eric to this taunt:—"that is how they escaped my notice. But, what shall we do now—go on, or return home?"
"It strikes me we had better go home, for we shall have uncommon little sport to-day, since they have been first in the field!" said Fritz dryly. "Still, I suppose we'd better be friendly with them. Let us go on to shore first before leaving, and have a chat. No doubt, they'll be as much surprised to see us as we were just now at their unexpected appearance here."
"Well, I don't know about that," observed Eric. "I should think young Glass would have told them about our having settled here."
"But, I asked him not to mention it," replied Fritz, "and, as he seemed a very decent sort of young fellow, I dare say he has obeyed my wish— especially as he was your friend, you know."
"It's all right then," said Eric; "my Tristaner would be certain to keep his word if he promised it. Let us proceed now and astonish them with our presence, which must therefore, as you say, be quite unexpected."
"Pull away then, brother."
"Right you are!" said Eric in response; and the two, putting their backs into the oars, the boat was soon speeding to the point where the islanders were gathered in a group on the shore—far too busy with the seals they had shot to notice their approach.
"Now," cried Fritz, when they were close to the others, although still unobserved, "let us give them a call."
"Shout away!" said Eric; when, he and his brother joining their voices, they gave utterance to a ringing hail that must have frightened all the fish near.
The party on shore, who had their backs turned seawards, jumped round at this as if they had been shot; but soon, an answering hail assured them that some one amongst the islanders had recognised them.
"Hillo, whar be you sprung from?" inquired a voice with a strong nasal twang.
It was that of Nat Slater, the "deck hand" of the Rhode Island steamboat!
Fritz was perfectly astounded to find him now amongst the Tristaners. How came he there? What could possibly have become of the Pilot's Bride and Captain Brown?
These were the anxious thoughts that at once flashed through the mind of the young German, and his brother shared his anxiety to an equal extent.
Nat Slater however did not keep them long in suspense.
"I guess," he said—as soon as they reached the beach and accosted the islanders, who received them very coldly they could perceive, as if looking upon them now as rivals in the same pursuit—"me and the old man couldn't drive the same team long. We had a muss together, soon as you parted company, an' I asked him to put me ashore at Tristan, thinking to ship in another whaling craft; but, I'm blest if ary a one's called thar since the Pilot's Bride sailed, so I've ben forced to chum in with these islanders!"
"Did you get on a spree, or what, to make Captain Brown leave you behind?" asked Fritz, judging by what the skipper had told him of Mr Nathaniel Slater's character that the real facts of the case might put quite another complexion on his plausible statement, that the skipper had quarrelled with him.
"Waall, I reckon, I did go on a bit of a bender aboard," said the whilom deck hand in a drawling way. "I managed to stow away a couple o' bottles of Bourbon whisky I got to Providence after I left hum, an' I thought I would have a licker-up arter we parted with you an' your brother, mister, I felt so kinder lonesome."
"And I suppose you got so drunk that Captain Brown kicked you out of the ship?" exclaimed the young German indignantly. "Why, you knew his particular orders about never allowing any spirituous liquors on board his vessel when at sea!"
"I guess he wern't boss of everybody," said the American coolly. "An' so I told him, too! But, say, mister, I've a kinder hankering to jine you and your brother haar; will you let a poor coon chum in?"
"No, I confess I would rather not," was the instant reply that came from Fritz—a decision which, from his quick look of satisfaction, Eric most cordially shared in. "We did not appear to get on together very well before, and I certainly do not care to associate with any one who does not keep his word!"
"I guess this here island don't belong to you, mister?" said Nat Slater sneeringly, on purpose apparently to make Fritz angry; but the young German remained perfectly cool and collected.
"I never said it did," he answered. "Of course, you have every right to settle here if you like; but I and my brother decline having any association with you."
"Oh, jist as you like, mister," replied the American, now showing himself in his true colours, having evidently nourished a spite against the two brothers on account of Captain Brown's friendship for them. "I'm durned if I kinder kear now to hang out along with you, as I sed at first; I'd rayther a durned sight stick to these good chaps haar, as hev more friendly feelins than a pair o' blessed foreign coons that don't know how to treat a free-born American citizen like a man! I guess, though, I'll spile your sealing for you, if I hev any influence with the islanders."
"You are welcome to do your worst," said Fritz; and then, as young Glass was not amongst the Tristaners—who now seemed, either from the deck hand's threat or on account of some other reason, to look upon them in rather a hostile manner—he and Eric withdrew from the party. Retiring at once to their boat, they returned to their own little settlement in the eastern bay, with the resolve of not coming out after the seals again until after the islanders had left the coast, so as not to risk any further altercation with them.
"It's a great nuisance, though," grumbled Eric, who was especially annoyed by the fact of their going back to the hut with an empty boat instead of the full cargo he expected, similar to their first day's experience of sealing. "I should like to pay out that mean Yankee for his spite. He's not like a true sailor, for he wasn't worth his salt aboard the Pilot's Bride; and I've heard the skipper say that he only took him out of good nature and nothing else!"
"Yes, I know he only allowed him to come in order to save him from ruin at home," Fritz said. "But, he might just as well have left him at Providence, for all the good the voyage has done him!"
"Well, he has spoilt our sealing, as he said he would," observed Eric after a bit, when they were rounding the western promontory of their own little bay, and their cottage home was just in sight.
"Only to-day, or, at the worst, for but a short time longer," replied Fritz. "The islanders will not stay for any period after they've filled their boat; and, of course, he will return with them to Tristan. He's too lazy to stop here and shift for himself, although he would have been glad to sponge upon us."
"Joy go with him when he leaves!" cried Eric heartily on the keel of their whale-boat touching the beach, when they then proceeded to draw her up on the shingle and take all their traps and gear out of her. They did this in case their American friend might persuade the islanders to come round to the bay and make a raid on their property, so as to prevent them from interfering with their sealing—that being the only grievance which they could possibly have against them.
However, as next morning, the whale-boat lay intact where they had left her, their suspicions of the Tristaners' bad faith proved to be quite unfounded.
Still, the brothers were glad to find, from Eric's observations on the tableland, whence he kept a constant watch on the visitors' movements, that, after a ten days' stay they left the little island once more to them alone; although, as they also discovered to their grief a short time after their departure, the Tristaners took away with them the greater number of the goats on the plateau, or else killed them for their sustenance whilst they remained.
This was a sad discovery. The islanders were quite welcome to the pigs, thought the brother crusoes; but the flesh of the goats was so delicate and needful besides, as a change of diet to their ordinary salt provision, that any diminution of their numbers was a serious loss to them.
It was not until a week at least after the Tristaners had left, that Eric reported the presence of seals again on the west beach, where, probably, the fact of the islanders camping on the spot had quite as much to do with scaring away the timid creatures from the coast as the warfare waged upon them. Fortunately, however, the poor animals had an affection for the place; for, having now observed, no doubt from some of their number sent out as scouts, that their enemies had departed, they once more returned to the rock caverns they had before frequented.
"There are some of those 'elephants,' as you call them, amongst them, too," said Eric when he came down the cliff with the news to Fritz. "There are a great many more than I saw last time."
"Ah, we must try and catch some of the gentlemen this trip," remarked Fritz. "Perhaps it will be the last chance we may have of capturing sea elephants!"
"Right you are," replied the lad. "I'll do my best to kill them; but really, brother, they look awfully formidable fellows!"
"Oh, they're not half so dangerous as they look," said Fritz. "They're like your friends the penguins; their bark is worse than their bite!"
"Ha, ha!" laughed Eric good-temperedly; "you will continue to chaff me about those wretched birds I suppose! Never mind, though, I've got the joke about the billy-goat frightening you as a set-off, eh, brother?"
"That's nothing—nothing!" said Fritz in an off-hand way. "We'd better see about starting round after the seals, I think."
"Ah, it's all very well your trying to get out of it like that!" retorted Eric, going off, laughing, to haul the whale-boat down into the bay; when, as soon as she was afloat and all their preparations made, they set off again round the headland for the sealing ground.
They noticed, as they approached, that the animals were much more wary now than at the time of their first visit, many plunging into the water from off the outlying rocks on the boat nearing the shore; consequently, they had to use their rifles at once to secure any seals at all, without trusting to their harpoons.
Fritz fired six shots rapidly from the Remington he carried, Eric, who was not so handy in the use of the weapon, managing about half the number; and then, seeing that some of the animals which were only wounded were endeavouring to wriggle down the beach into the sea, the two dashed in at them with the harpoons and boat-hook—Master Eric selecting the latter weapon from his being more accustomed to its use.
They had a great scrimmage amongst the struggling seals, which roared and bellowed like so many bull calves, looking when they opened their mouths as if they would swallow up the brothers at one gulp; but, it was all bravado, for the poor things had not an ounce of fight in them. They suffered themselves to be knocked on the head without the slightest resistance, only bleating piteously when they received their death-blow and dropping down in their tracks at once.
One enormous sea elephant Fritz made for, just as he was on the point of sliding off into the sea from a little rocky jetty where he had ensconced himself.
The animal reared itself on its fore flappers and seemed to tower over the young German; but, on Fritz pluckily piercing it with his harpoon right through the chest, the warm blood gushed over him in a torrent and the portentous sea elephant sank down lifeless.
The creature was upwards of eighteen feet long, from the point of his queer-looking nose or snout, which was elongated like an elephant's trunk—hence its name of "sea elephant"—to the hind flappers; while it must have been pretty nearly ten feet in girth.
"Ah, here are eight barrels of oil at least!" shouted Fritz when he had given the monster his death-blow. "Fancy all that quantity from one sea elephant!"
"You don't say you've caught one of those fellows?" cried Eric, who was kneeling down and trying to detach a little cub seal from its dead mother. "I wish I had killed him, instead of my victim here. I wonder what this poor little baby thing will do without its parent?"
"You'd better knock it on the head," said Fritz. "It is safe to pine away, if left alone to take care of itself, now that its mother is dead."
"I'm sure I can't do that," replied the lad, turning away from the pitiful sight. "It would seem to me exactly like committing a murder in cold blood!"
"You are too tender-hearted for a sealer," said Fritz in his matter-of- fact way; and then, with one tap from the butt end of his harpoon on its nose, he settled the fate of the poor little beast.
The result of this day's sport was, some thirteen sealskins, in addition to that of the sea elephant, which, although much larger of course than the others, did not appear to be of the same quality of fur. From the number of animals they bagged, it was apparent that the bullets from their rifles must have penetrated more than one seal at a time, passing through the one aimed at and hitting some of those behind. This would be quite feasible if the leaden messenger of death did not come in contact with the bone, for the bodies of the mammals were very soft and yielding from the amount of adipose tissue they contained.
These sealskins, with those which they had previously obtained, made up their quota to thirty. The oil, likewise, extracted from the blubber filled up their remaining empty casks, so that they had now no receptacle wherein to stow any more should they succeed in killing more seals. But, the brothers need not have troubled themselves on this account, for their last onslaught on the breeding-ground had the effect of the final straw on the camel's back, not one of the cat-faced animals—as Eric called them, from their fancied resemblance to old Mouser—being to be seen in the neighbourhood of the coast for months afterwards, albeit the young crusoes were constantly on the watch for them!
Boiling down the blubber was, certainly, a tedious operation.
The brothers had made a rocky bed for their cauldron, near the hut, with an ingeniously constructed fireplace beneath it which had a cross-cut trench for creating a draught, in the way Fritz noticed that the soldiers made their camp fires during the war—the whole affair when finished looking like one of those "coppers" placed in back kitchens for washing days. Over this laboratory, the two were busy enough for some days, making themselves so black with smoke and begrimed with oil that they resembled a couple of chimney sweepers, or engine fitters for the nonce!
Eric, who superintended the details by reason of the superior knowledge which his whaling experience gave him, first cut up the blubber into long thin strips, which Fritz again subdivided into smaller portions with the aid of his sheath knife. These strips of blubber were then heaped into the pot, under which a roaring fire was kept up, the operation being continued until the cauldron was full; when, as it came to the boil, the refuse matter and pieces of flesh adhering to the fat were skimmed off from the top, and the melted oil allowed to cool gradually, after which it was emptied into the casks kept ready by the side of the hut.
The brothers were very glad when the job was ended, for the blubber smelt terribly fishy and almost suffocated them with its fumes as the pot came to the boiling point; but, they persevered with their task until their casks were all full and headed up, when they proceeded to dress their sealskins roughly and salt them down in a large puncheon which they had reserved especially for their storage.
Next, they had a grand clean up, putting the hut and place in order, the blubber boiling having covered everything with a deposit of oily soot; and, the morning after they had made things comfortable again, they proceeded down to the garden to see how matters were progressing there, not having visited the spot since the day they had started on their last sealing excursion.
"I say, brother," observed Eric, as they directed their steps towards the little wood beyond the waterfall, where they could hear the thrushes chirping and whistling as they came near; for, the penguins were not so noisy now, having hatched their eggs and abandoned the nests they used to make such a fuss over. "I say, brother, how are the days going—it must be nearly the end of December now, eh?"
Fritz thought for a moment.
He was the methodical member of the family and had always been looked up to as having the best memory for dates at home.
"Himmel!" he exclaimed. "What day do you think it is?"
"I'm sure I can't imagine," replied Eric. "All the days go alike here; why, it seems more than a year already since good Captain Brown left us, although I know it's only a few months."
"Only, think, Eric, it is—"
"No, never!" said the lad, interrupting his brother and guessing that the answer he was going to give would confirm his own conjecture. "It cannot be, really, eh?"
While saying this, Eric stopped abruptly as they were entering the little grove of buckthorn trees, where the thrushes and finches were hopping about amongst their branches as merry as grigs in the sunshine; for, the weather was as warm as our June, although it was then December—the seasons in southern latitudes being the reverse of what we are accustomed to in Europe.
"Yes, you've guessed right, laddie," replied Fritz, looking into his face with a smile. "It is, without doubt, Christmas Day!"
"What, to-day?" said Eric, incredulous in spite of himself.
"Yes, to-day," repeated his brother.
"Well, that is wonderful!" exclaimed Eric; adding a moment afterwards, however, in a tone of the greatest dismay, "only think, though, we haven't prepared a Christmas tree, or anything!"
"Never mind," said Fritz consolingly. "Those sort of arrangements for the festival would be a little out of place here."
"Would they?" cried Eric. "Ah, we'll see about that!"
CHAPTER TWENTY NINE.
FRITZ GOES HUNTING.
After his last remark, Eric, silent for a little while, as if buried in deep thought, followed behind his brother to the garden patch, which was found in the most flourishing state.
The potatoes were all in full flower and the haulms of sturdy growth promised well for the crop of tubers beneath, some indeed being already half withered, as if fit for digging; while pods were thick on the two rows of peas planted, and the scarlet runners were a mass of bloom and brilliancy.
At such a glorious sight, Eric could remain silent no longer.
"This is capital," he exclaimed in high delight; "why, we've got a regular harvest, brother!"
"Yes, the great Mother Earth has rewarded our exertions," said Fritz thoughtfully. "It is wonderful how she yields to those who cultivate her properly! I can see that we'll have bushels of potatoes—enough to last us through the winter."
"Aye, and peas and beans, too," chorussed Eric. "Look, here, at this lot, Fritz! I believe we can have a dish of them to-day."
"What, to keep up the festival with?" said his brother, smiling. "I see you are still thinking of that; but, methinks, green peas at Christmas will be rather an anachronism!"
"Hang the what-do-you-call-it—oh, anachronism!" cried the lad impulsively. "When we're at Rome we must do as Rome does."
"I don't remember, though, that the citizens of 'The city on the seven hills' ate peas in December, as far as my reading of the classics go," remarked Fritz ironically.
He liked to "pick up" his brother sometimes in fun.
"Ah, that was because they were pagans, and didn't keep up our Christmas ceremonies!" cried Eric triumphantly. "Still, Romans or no Romans, I declare we'll have a rare banquet to-day, brother, eh!"
"No roast beef, I hope!"
"Oh no, bother it—something better than that! You just let me alone and you'll see bye-and-bye!"
"All right, laddie, I don't mind leaving the cooking in your hands, now," said Fritz kindly, wishing to blot out the recollection of his last remark. "You have had experience since your first memorable attempt, which I must say was perhaps excusable under the circumstances."
"You are a brick, old fellow," responded Eric, much pleased at this speech. "Only trust matters to my hands and, I promise you I'll not let you have any opportunity to find fault with me a second time!"
"Very good; that's agreed," said Fritz; and, after thus settling matters, the two then went about the garden, gathering its produce—the elder digging up some new potatoes for trial, while Eric picked all the early peas that seemed fit, quite filling a good-sized basket which he had brought with him; although Fritz, who had not been so thoughtful, had to put his potatoes in a handkerchief.
On their way home, the brothers passed through the deserted penguin rookery, with never a bark or a grumble from the whilom excited birds as they tramped the well-worn paths which they had made from the thicket to the beach.
The inhabitants of the feathered colony were now educating their little ones in the art of fishing; and, the scene in front of the bay was quite enlivening as the birds swam about gracefully in curves, losing in the sea that ungainliness and ugly, awkward appearance which seemed inseparable from them on land, and prosecuting their task, without any of the noise that had distinguished them while breeding.
Birds were darting about—here, there, and everywhere in the water; some, swimming after each other as if in a race, like a shoal of fish; others, again, chasing one another on the surface, on which they seemed to run, using the ends of their wings, or flappers, to propel them like oars, for they dipped in the tips of their pinions and scattered the spray in their progress. To add to the charm, the calm expanse of sea reflected the pure ultramarine blue of the sky above, being illumined at the same time by the bright sunlight, which brought out in strong relief the twin headlands embracing the little bay with their outstretching arms.
Nothing, indeed, could be more unlike the crusoes' old associations of Christmas and Christmas-tide than this prospect presented, nothing less suggestive of: home; and yet, standing there, on the shore of their lonely sea-girt and cliff-embattled island home, gazing across the ocean that spanned the horizon, the thoughts of both strayed away to their little native town on the Baltic—where, probably, the housetops were then covered with snow and the waters bound in chains of ice; but where, also, troops of children were singing Christmas hymns and Christmas bells were ringing, while prayers were no doubt being offered up for them, so distant and yet so near in spirit!
Eric, however, was not long pensive. The day was too bright and fine for him to be sorrowful or reflective for any length of time; so, after staying by the side of Fritz for a short while on the shore, sharing his thoughts about the dear ones far away—although neither uttered a word on the subject the one to the other—his impulsive nature quickly asserted itself, as usual.
"I'm off, old fellow," said the young sailor, slinging the basket of freshly picked peas on his arm and leaving the bundle of potatoes for Fritz to carry. "It is getting near the noonday hour, and time for me to be thinking of preparing dinner!"
"All right, laddie, go on and I will follow you soon," replied the other, but, still, without making any move from his seat on the shingle.
"Mind, and don't forget the potatoes," cried Eric, who was already half- way towards their hut. "I shall want them soon!"
"All right," replied the other, but the mention of the potatoes, which had been an anxious consideration with Fritz all along, seemed to have the effect of banishing his sad reflections; for, in another minute, he, with his bundle on arm, followed Eric up the incline that led to the cottage.
Considering all things, the two had a capital Christmas dinner. Indeed, Eric, the cook, so greatly distinguished himself on this occasion that he blotted out all recollection of his previous mishaps when undertaking a similar role.
What say you to a splendid ham, one of those given them by Captain Brown; green peas, fresh and tender and dressed to perfection; and, new potatoes?
Many a person might have a worse meal on a warm summer day, like it was this anniversary of the festival on Inaccessible Island!
Nor was this all; for, after the more substantial portion of the feast, Eric introduced a wonderfully savoury compound in the confectionery line, which he had manufactured with some care. This consisted of flour and sugar made into a thick paste, with some of those very preserved peaches which had figured so prominently in the despised stew that had been Eric's first essay in cooking, placed within the envelope, the compound being then boiled in a saucepan until thoroughly done.
During the early months of the new year, the brothers had little to do save attending to their garden, digging up the remaining potatoes when ripe, and then storing them in a corner of their hut. They also cleared some more land and planted out the little seedling cabbages in long rows, so that in time they had a fine show of this vegetable, which was especially valuable as an antiscorbutic to the continuous use of salt meat,—now their main nutriment with the exception of a few birds which Fritz brought down occasionally with his fowling piece.
Once or twice they went round the promontory in their boat, in pursuit of stray single seals; but, the animals were so shy that only a long shot could be had at them. This made it a risky and almost needless task to waste gunpowder in their pursuit; for, in the event of the animals being merely wounded and not killed right out at once, they invariably slipped off the rocks, disappearing in deep water before the brothers had time to row up to them and haul them into the boat.
Under these circumstances, therefore, although they expended a considerable number of bullets, they had only two more sealskins to show in return to add to their great hauls at the commencement of the season; so, after a third unsuccessful expedition early in the new year, they made up their minds to leave the animals alone until the following summer. Then, they determined to begin their campaign before the Tristaners should forestall them, hoping to secure a large number by a newly-organised system of capture—Eric assailing them from the shore by way of the descent from the tableland on the western coast, while Fritz attacked them by sea in the boat.
"Talking of expeditions," said Eric, while the two were thus planning together their future seal campaign—"we haven't been up on the cliffs for a long time now; suppose we ascend the plateau and see how the pigs and goats are getting on, eh?"
"That's a very good idea," replied his brother. "The garden is in good order now, needing nothing further to be done to it for some time; while, as for reading, I'm sure I have devoured every book in our little library, including Shakespeare, which I know by heart—so, there's nothing to occupy my mind with."
"I'm in the same position precisely," said Eric. "You therefore agree to our hunting expedition, eh?"
"Yes; the more especially as I wish to try and pot that old billy-goat. He is such an artful old fellow that he always keeps just out of range of my weapon, as if he knows the distance it carries. He will thus offer good sport. That other kid too, that we saw, must be grown up by now."
"He shall be my prey," cried Eric, proceeding immediately to polish his rifle, so as to be ready for the excursion.
A day or two afterwards, the two ascended the cliff by the now familiar tussock-grass ladder; but, although Eric could almost have gone up blindfold this time, the ascent was quite as difficult as it had been at first to Fritz, who had never climbed it once since the day he sprained his ankle in coming down, having left the look-out department entirely to the sailor lad, on account, as he said, of its "being more in his line!"
As he had not, therefore, seen it for so long, Fritz noticed a considerable change on going up.
The grass had grown very much taller, while the trees appeared more bushy; but, besides these alterations, the inhabitants of the plateau had become changed and more varied.
The droves of wild hogs had increased considerably; while the goats, headed by the old billy, who looked as lively and venerable as ever, had diminished—of course, through the ravages of the Tristaners, as mentioned before.
Still, not even the loss of these latter animals specially attracted his attention; what he particularly observed was, that the prairie tableland had a fresh class of visitors, which must have arrived with the new year, for they had not been there when he had previously ascended the cliff.
Eric was too much taken up with looking for seals to notice them, for he certainly never mentioned them on his return below to the hut; and, so, Fritz was doubly surprised now at seeing them.
These newcomers were the wandering albatross—the "Diomedia exulans," as naturalists term it—which sailors believe to float constantly in the upper air, never alighting on land or sea, but living perpetually on the wing!
Eric was firmly convinced of this from what he had been told when on board the Pilot's Bride; but Fritz, of course, expressed doubts of the bird having any such fabulous existence when it was pointed out to him while illustrating "flight without motion," as its graceful movement through the air might be described. Now, he had ocular demonstration of the fact that the albatross not only rests its weary feet on solid earth sometimes, but that it also builds a nest, and, marvellous to relate, actually lays eggs!
No sooner had Fritz set foot on the plateau, after a weary climb up the toilsome staircase which the tussock-grass and irregularities of the cliff afforded, than he startled one of these birds. It was straddling on the ground in a funny fashion over a little heap of rubbish, as the pile appeared to him. The albatross was quite in the open part of the tableland, and the reason why it selected such a spot for its resting- place, instead of amid the brushwood and tussock-grass thickets that spread over the plateau, was apparent at once when the bird was disturbed; for, it had to take a short run along the bare ground before it could get its pinions thoroughly inflated and rise in the air. Had it been amidst the trees or long grass, Fritz would have been able to approach it and knock it over before it could have sought safety in flight, on account of its long wings requiring a wide space for their expansion.
On proceeding to the little heap of rubbish, as Fritz thought it, from which the albatross had risen, he found it to be a nest. This was built, like that of an ostrich, about a foot high from the surface of the ground, on the exterior side, and three feet or so in diameter; while the interior was constructed of grass and pieces of stick woven together with clay. There was one large egg in the centre of this nest, a little bigger than that of a swan and quite white, with the exception of a band of small bright red spots which encircled the larger end.
In addition to the albatross, several nests of which were scattered about the open ground on the plateau to the number of a hundred or more, there were lots of mollymawks and terns, or "sea swallows." These latter were beautifully plumaged, Fritz thought, the wings and body being delicately harmonised in white and pale grey, while tiny black heads and red beaks and feet, further improved their dainty appearance.
After noticing these new arrivals carefully, although he would not fire at any of them, thinking it needless destruction to kill any creatures but such as were required for food or other purposes, such as the seals, Fritz made after the goats. These, he soon discovered, had removed themselves, under the leadership of "Kaiser Billy"—as his brother had christened the big old male which had frightened them both by his shadow on the cliff—to the further side of the tableland, placing the width of the plateau between the brothers and themselves.
"Artful old brute!" said Fritz on noticing this.
"Ah, he doesn't intend you to come near him to-day," observed Eric. "He's too wise to put himself within reach of your rifle."
"Is he?" replied the other, beginning to get vexed, as the goat dexterously managed to preserve the same distance between them by shifting round in a sidling fashion as he and Eric advanced. "I tell you what, laddie, you go round one way, and I shall take the reverse direction. By that means we will circumvent the cunning old gentleman."
These tactics were adopted; but, by some keen intuitive instinct which warned him which of the brothers was most to be feared, "Kaiser Billy," while allowing Eric many a time to get within range, still carefully kept out of Fritz's reach!