It was most provoking.
"Hang the old fellow!" cried the elder between his clenched teeth. "I'll have him yet;" and, thinking to deceive the animal's wariness by pretending to give up the chase, he sat down in one of the nests of the albatross, whence he could command a good view around of the several thickets of grass and brushwood, asking Eric to continue driving the goats towards him while he lay here concealed.
This Eric did, after first shooting the plumpest-looking of the females, which had the effect of scaring the rest and making them run in the direction where Fritz was lying in ambush.
The goats, however, went faster than either of the brothers expected; so Fritz, seeing them coming out of a clump of brushwood in the distance just after Eric had brought down his selected victim, immediately crouched down in his retreat. Hearing soon afterwards, however, the sound of the animals' hoofs, he was afraid of raising his head to make an observation as to their whereabouts until they should come closer, thinking that his sudden appearance might cause them race off again in another direction and lose him the chance of a shot.
He had not to wait long, for the goats came closer and closer—too close, indeed, to be pleasant!
"Look out, Fritz! look out, brother! they're right on top of you," shouted out Eric from the distance, away behind the flock, now coming up at a gallop, and still headed by the venerable "Kaiser Billy."
Fritz at once scrambled to his feet, rifle in hand, cocking the weapon as he rose up; but, at the same instant that he stood on his legs, a blow like a battering ram struck him in the small of the back, sending him down flying to the ground again on his face and pitching the cocked rifle out of his hands.
This was not the end of it, either; for, the weapon went off with a loud bang as it fell beside him, the bullet penetrating his leg just below the knee in an upward direction and narrowly escaping his head. As for "Kaiser Billy," who had butted him as he rose up, and thus did the damage, he galloped off with a loud "baa" of triumph, as if shouting a paean of victory.
"Himmel! are you hurt, Fritz?" called out Eric, hastening up on hearing the report of the rifle. He was alarmed at seeing his brother lying motionless on the ground.
But, there was no answer; nor did Fritz even move at the sound of his voice!
In another minute Eric arrived where his brother was lying; when, throwing himself on his knees, he bent over him anxiously. "Oh, Fritz, are you badly hurt?" he cried: and, still receiving no answer, he burst into a passion of sobs. "He's dead, he's dead!" he wailed in a broken voice—"dead, never to speak to me more!"
"No, laddie, not quite dead yet," whispered Fritz faintly. The sudden blow in the back from the goat's horns, striking him as it did at the base of the spine, had rendered him for the moment unconscious; the unexpected attack had injured him terribly—more so, indeed, than the bullet wound through his leg. Besides, he was lying face downwards, and so was unable to turn over, which fact prevented him from speaking more plainly when he recovered his senses.
"Not dead? Oh, I am so glad!" shouted out Eric joyously, in sudden revulsion of feeling. "I was afraid that you were killed!"
"I feel pretty near it," said Fritz, although he spoke now in a stronger tone, Eric having partly raised him up, by putting his arm under his neck. "Gently, laddie, gently," he called out, however, as his brother lifted him, "my poor back hurts fearfully!"
"I thought it was your leg, Fritz, for it is bleeding awfully. Your trousers are wet with blood!"
"That's nothing, laddie—nothing to speak of," said Fritz.
"Oh, isn't it?" cried the other, who had been busily cutting away the trouser leg and stocking with his sheath knife. "Why, the bullet has gone through the fleshy part of your calf."
"I wish it had gone through the horny part of that horrid old goat," said Fritz grimly, smiling at his own joke, which made Eric laugh.
"The old brute! But, you would go after him, you know."
"Yes; still, I am suffering now, and perhaps justly, for not leaving the poor animal alone. He never harmed me before I tried to harm him, so it only serves me right! It's a bad job, Eric; I'm afraid I shan't be able to get down to the hut again. You will have to rig me up some sort of shelter here."
"Oh, no, that won't be necessary," said Eric, glad that his brother seemed to be getting more like his old calm self and able to look matters in the face.
"Why, how can I move? Do you think I shall be able to climb down that abominable tussock-grass ladder in this condition, especially when I was hardly able to manage it while sound in wind and limb—which I can't say is the case at present?"
"I didn't think of your getting down that way, old fellow," said the lad, after a moment's reflection. "I've got another plan in my noddle— a better one than yours I think."
"And what is that?" asked Fritz.
"Why, you know where you are now, don't you?"
"Yes, I should think I did; I haven't quite lost my consciousness yet!"
"You are close to the western side of the coast, just near where the plateau slopes down to the sea by our sealing ground."
"Well, what of that?"
"Why, don't you see through my plan yet, brother? Can I not pull the whale-boat round from our bay, and then manage to lift you down the incline here into it—thus getting you back home easily in that way?"
"Himmel, Eric, you're a grand fellow," exclaimed Fritz, in honest admiration of the proposal. "I declare I never thought of such a simple thing as that. Of course it can be done. What a stupid I was, not to think of it! That old goat must have knocked all my seven senses out of my head; for, I declare I never recollected that there was any other way of getting down from here save by the waterfall gully!"
"Ah, well, there is another way," said Eric, laughing joyously. "But, really we must now see about using it, for I don't want you to remain up here all night when you may be so much more comfortable in the hut. I will scramble down and fetch round the boat at once, if there is nothing more I can do for you before I go—is there anything you wish?"
"No, nothing, now that you've raised my head and propped it up so nicely with your coat. I should be glad, though, if you will bring a can of water with you when you come back with the boat."
"Stay, I'll get some for you now!" cried the lad; and, flying across the plateau, he was soon half-way down a niche in the gully whence he could reach the cascade. In a few minutes more, he was up again on the tableland and by the side of Fritz, with his cap full of the welcome water, which tasted to the sufferer, already feverish from the bullet wound—which Eric had bandaged up to stop the bleeding—more delicious than nectar, more strengthening than wine. It at once brought the colour back to his cheek and the fire to his eye.
"Ha!" Fritz exclaimed, "that draught has made a new man of me, laddie. You may be off as soon as you please, now, to fetch the boat; while I will wait patiently here until you can bring it round the headland. How's the wind?"
"South-east and by south," cried the young sailor promptly.
"That will be all in your favour, then. Go now, laddie, and don't be longer than you can help."
"You may depend on that," cried Eric, pressing his brother's hand softly; and, in another moment, he was racing again across the plateau to the point where the two had ascended from the gully by the waterfall.
Ere long, Eric had brought round the whale-boat to the haunt of the seals on the west beach; when, after a good deal of labour, in which he could not help hurting Fritz somewhat, he succeeded in getting the sufferer down the sloping rocks. Thence, he lifted him bodily into the stern-sheets of the boat, where he had prepared a comfortable couch by piling up on the bottom grating all the blankets and rugs from the hut.
Eric had a hard pull back against the wind and tide round the headland, there being none to help him with an oar; but, naturally indomitable, he bravely accomplished the task at last, arriving back at the bay before sunset with his almost unconscious burden, who was now unable to move or assist him in the least.
Fortunately, the most arduous part of the transportation was now accomplished, the remainder being "all plain sailing," as Eric said.
The lad certainly had a most inventive mind; for, as soon as they reached their own little bay, he once more astonished Fritz—who was glad enough to get so far, but puzzled as to how he would ever arrive at the hut, knowing that the lad would never be able to carry him there.
"Now, brother," cried Eric, "you just stop quietly where you are a minute or two while I get the carriage ready."
"The carriage?" cried Fritz, more puzzled than ever. "What do you mean, laddie?"
"The wheelbarrow, of course," answered Eric, laughing. "See, I have put the door of our hut across it; and, with the bedding on top of this, I shall be able to wheel you, without the slightest jolting, right up to the cottage."
"Donnerwetter!" exclaimed Fritz—"you're a wonderful lad; you seem to think of everything."
"Nonsense! Silence, now—you mustn't talk; it might bring on fever perhaps!" exclaimed Eric, to stop his brother's grateful expressions. Then, lifting him out carefully from the boat, he placed the invalid on the novel ambulance wagon he had so ingeniously improvised; and, rolling the wheelbarrow along the little pathway up the incline that led to the hut, he proceeded carefully to transport him home. Arrived here, Eric at once put Fritz to bed, so that he might be able to examine his injuries more closely and apply proper bandages to the wounded leg and back, in place of the temporary appliances he had made shift with when first attending to the wounded hero, who was now able to direct him what to do and how to do it.
Eric could not help thinking what an unlucky fellow that elder brother of his was!
The cliff seemed fatal to him; for, the first time he ascended it, he sprained his ankle, which laid him up for three weeks; and now he had hurt himself even worse. Really, the sailor lad wished there were no crags at all; but, should that devout consummation not be feasible, then he wished there were no means of getting to the summit, for then Fritz would never incur any danger through climbing there.
Little did Eric think, as these hasty reflections passed through his mind, that, in a very short while, his last wish would be gratified—and that in a way, too, which would seriously affect them both!
The very next morning, indeed, he was glad enough to go up the cliff by the tussock-grass ladder, in order to fetch the young goat he had shot the day before, which, in the excitement of Fritz's accident, had been left behind on the plateau; and, as he was coming down the gully again, he saw the old goat "Kaiser Billy," and shook his fist at him.
"You old rascal!" he cried—"had it not been for you and your nasty horns, poor Fritz would be now all right."
He then fired a shot at the animal in the distance; but, the knowing fellow, who must have noticed the lad's deadly aim the previous afternoon—when he had slain one of his family while she was galloping along beside him—now kept carefully out of the range of Eric's rifle, so that the bullet did not fall any way near him, so the lad had to descend the tussock-grass ladder in a somewhat disappointed frame of mind.
He had not wished actually to hurt the old goat, but merely to give him a sort of mild lesson anent his impudent treatment of Fritz. However, the astute animal declined learning even from so gentle an instructor as Eric, despite the possibility of the lad having his welfare at heart!
This was the last time the sailor lad ever had the chance to climb up or down the face of the cliff by means of the much-abused ladder-way; for, within the next few days, a sudden mishap happened that cleared the tangled masses of grass away in a jiffy, leaving the precipitous pass through the gorge bare—the grim rocks thenceforth disclosing themselves in all their naked ruggedness, for, there were no friendly tendrils hanging down whereby to escalade the heights.
The accident occurred in this wise.
When clearing the land for the garden, a large amount of brushwood and weeds had to be removed from its surface. These, when cut down and dug up, made a large heap of rubbish, which, for the sake of neatness and being out of the way, was piled up at the bottom of the gorge adjoining the waterfall—the embrasure of the gully making a capital dust-hole, as Eric had suggested.
From the effects of the hot sun, this rubbish was now as dry as straw; so, one afternoon, when Fritz had so far recovered from his injuries as to be able to crawl out of the hut and sit on a bench outside, which the two had constructed under a rude sort of porch, Eric determined to signalise his brother's convalescence by having a bonfire in honour of the event.
To the impulsive lad it was all one to think of such a thing and to carry out the idea. In a moment, rushing from Fritz's side, he had drawn his inseparable box of matches from his pocket, struck a light, and ignited the pile of rubbish.
"Doesn't it flare up splendidly?" he cried with glee as he watched the tongue-like flames darting upwards, the whole body of dry material being soon in a red fiery glow, so hot and scorching that the lad had to move away from the vicinity; and, returning to the front of the hut he stood for a time by the side of Fritz, gazing with great admiration at the blaze, which, mounting higher and higher, quickly enveloped the gorge with clouds of that light, pungent smoke which wood fires always give out.
"Yes, it burns well enough," said the calm, methodical Fritz; "but, perhaps, laddie, it will spread farther than you intend. I fear it will burn up the little wood to the right of our garden, with all the poor thrushes and other birds in it. It is easy enough to start a fire, you know: the difficulty is to limit its action and put it out when you wish!"
"Oh, there's no fear about that," replied Eric with great nonchalance. "The wind is blowing from the north-east and will only carry the flames against the cliff, where there is nothing to harm."
Was there not?
Higher and higher rose the smoke, ascending pyramidically up the chimney-like gorge; and, the quick-darting tongues of flame could be seen spreading through the hazy veil, while the crackle and roar of the fire sounded fiercer and fiercer. Presently, growing bolder in its strength, the fire advanced outwards from the cleft in the rock where it was first kindled, spreading to the right and left of the gully. Next, it began to clamber up the face of the cliff, burning away gaily even right under the waterfall, which seemed powerless to stay its rapid progress.
"Look, Eric," cried Fritz, "it has caught the tussock grass now close to our ladder. I told you it would do mischief!"
"Bother it all, so it has!" exclaimed the lad, darting off with the vain intention of trying to stop the conflagration.
He might just as well have attempted to arrest the flow of the sea in the little bay below by the aid of his much-detested spade!
Crackle, crackle—puff—whish; and, in another few moments, the whole cliff seemed on fire, the flames licking every particle of herbage off the face of the rock.
The heat soon made the solid stone glow like molten iron; while the columns of white smoke, as they rose up, were swept by the wind over the tableland, frightening away several of the albatross, which hovered over the scene of devastation on poised wing, wondering apparently what all the fuss was about!
The fire gradually burnt itself out when there was nothing more to consume, only an angry pile of smouldering embers remaining below the waterfall, which still danced and tumbled itself over the blackened edges of the crags, no longer festooned with the tussock-grass and shrubs which had previously given the brothers handhold and foothold when climbing to the summit of the cliff.
The ladder up to Eric's look-out station being now irremediably destroyed, henceforth the sphere of action of the brother crusoes would be limited to the confined valley in which they had landed and built their home; for, there was now no means of reaching the tableland, save by the pass on the western side near their sealing station, to reach which they would have to use the whale-boat and venture out to sea, round the eastern or western headland.
They were now really shut completely within their little valley, without a chance of escaping in any sudden emergency, except by taking to the water!
The destruction of the ladder-way was a sad calamity; but, that was not the worst of the damage done by Eric's bonfire!
It was late in the afternoon when the lad first lit up the pile of rubbish and night came ere the fire had died out, its blazing light, reflected back by the glistening surface of the cliff, shining out to sea from the bay, like a beacon welcoming the passing mariner to friendly shores—instead of which, the cruel crags that encircled the island only grinned through the surf, like the pointed teeth of a pack of snarling wolves, waiting to rend and tear any hapless craft that should make for them!
In addition to this, there was yet another peril to any ship in the vicinity; for, the wind from the north-east had risen to a gale as the evening set in, bringing with it a heavy, rolling swell that thundered in upon the beach with a harsh, grating roar, throwing up columns of spray over the projecting peaks of the headlands on either hand.
"I hope no vessel will mistake your bonfire for a beacon," said Fritz, as the darkness increased. "If so, and they should chance to approach the land, God help them, with this wind and sea on!"
"I trust not," replied Eric sadly, already regretting his handiwork; "it would be a bad look-out for them!"
But, as he spoke the words, the sound of a cannon could be heard coming from seaward over the water; and the lad shuddered with apprehension.
CHAPTER THIRTY ONE.
THE WRECK OF THE BRIG.
"Himmel!" exclaimed Fritz, rising up from the bench on which he was sitting and clutching on to the side of the hut for support, being still very feeble and hardly able to stand upright. "There must be a ship out there approaching the island. If she should get too close inshore, she is doomed!"
But, Eric did not answer him. The lad had already rushed down to the beach; and, climbing on to a projecting boulder, was peering into the offing, endeavouring to make out the vessel whose signal gun had been heard in the distance.
The darkness, however, was too great. The heavens were overcast with thick, drifting clouds, while the sea below was as black as ink—except where the breakers at the base of the cliffs broke in masses of foam that gave out a sort of phosphorescent light for the moment, lighting up the outlines of the headlands during the brief interval, only for them to be swallowed up the next instant in the sombre gloom that enwrapped the bay and surrounding scene. Eric, consequently, could see nothing beyond the wall of heaving water which the rollers presented as they thundered on the shingle, dragging back the pebbles in their back-wash with a rattling noise, as if the spirits of the deep were playing with dice in the depths below under the waves!
At his back, the lad could see the bonfire still blazing, casting the foreground in all the deeper shadow from its flickering light; and, never did he regret anything more in his life than the sudden impulse which had led him into so dangerous a freak, as that of lighting the bonfire.
Who knew what further terrible peril that treacherous fire might not lead to, besides the mischief it had already done?
Bye-and-bye, there came the sound of another gun from the sea. The report sounded nearer this time; still, Eric could see nothing in sight on the horizon when some break in the clouds allowed him a momentary glimpse of the angry ocean—nothing but the huge billows chasing each other in towards the land and the seething foam at the base of the crags, on which they broke themselves in impotent fury when they found their further course arrested by the rocky ramparts of the island.
Nor could the lad hear anything beyond the crash of the breakers and splash of the eddying water, which sometimes washed up to his feet, as he stood on the boulder gazing out vainly to sea, the sound of the breaking billows being mingled with the shriek of the wind as it whistled by overhead.
Nothing but the tumult of the sea, stirred into frenzy by the storm- blast of angry Aeolus!
After a time, Eric suddenly recollected that his brother could not move far from the hut and must be wondering what had become of him; and, recognising as well the fact that he was powerless alone to do anything where he was, even if a ship should be in danger, he returned towards the cottage to rejoin Fritz, his path up the valley being lit up quite clearly by the expiring bonfire, which still flamed out every now and then, as the wind fanned it in its mad rush up the gorge, stirring out the embers into an occasional flash of brilliancy.
Fritz, usually so calm, was in a terribly anxious state when his brother reached him.
"Well, have you seen anything?" he asked impatiently.
"No," said Eric sorrowfully. "There's nothing to be seen."
"But you heard another cannon, did you not?"
"Oh yes, and it seemed closer in."
"So I thought, too," said the other, whom the sound of the heavy guns, from his old experience in war, appeared to affect like a stimulant. "Can't we do anything? It is terrible to stand idly here and allow our fellow-creatures to perish, without trying to save them!"
"What could we do?" asked Eric helplessly, all the buoyancy gone out of him. He seemed to be quite another lad.
"You couldn't launch the boat without me, eh?"
"No," answered Eric; "I couldn't move it off the beach with all my strength—I tried just now."
Fritz ground his teeth in rage at his invalid condition.
"It serves me right to be crippled in this fashion!" he cried. "It all results from my making such a fool of myself the other day, after that goat on the plateau. I ought to have known better."
"You need not vex yourself, brother, about that," said Eric. "If there were twenty of us to get the boat into the water, instead of two, she could not live in the heavy sea that is now running. She would be swamped by the first roller that came in upon us, for the wind is blowing dead on shore!"
"That may be," replied Fritz; "still, I should like to do something, even if I knew it would be useless!"
"So should I," said Eric, disconsolately.
In silence, the two continued to pace up and down the little platform they had levelled in front of their hut, trying to pierce the darkness that now entirely obscured the sea, the north-easter having brought up a thick fog in its train, perhaps from the far-distant African coast, which shut out everything on that side; although, the light of the bonfire still illumined the cliff encircling the valley where they had pitched their homestead, disclosing the inmost recesses of this, so that they could see from where they stood, the wood, which the conflagration had spared, as well as their garden and the tussock-grass rookery of the penguins beyond, not a feature of the landscape being hid.
Again came the booming, melancholy sound of the minute guns from sea, making the brothers more impatient than ever; and, at that moment, the fog suddenly lifted, being rapidly wafted away to leeward over the island, enabling the two anxious watchers to see a bit of bright sky overhead, with a twinkling star or two looking down on the raging ocean, now exposed to their gaze—all covered with rolling breakers and seething foam as far as the eye could reach, to the furthest confines of the horizon beyond the bay.
Still, they could perceive nothing of the ship that had been firing the signals of distress, till, all at once, another gun was heard; and the flash, which caught their glance at the same moment as the report reached them, now enabled them to notice her imminent peril. This, the people on board could only then have noticed for the first time, the fog having previously concealed their danger; for they distinctly heard, above the noise of the sea and wind, a hoarse shout of agonised, frantic alarm, wafted shorewards by the wind in one of its wild gusts.
The vessel was coming up under close-reefed topsails, bow on to the headland on the western side of the bay; and, almost at the very instant the brothers saw her, she struck with a crash on the rocks, the surf rushing up the steep face of the cliff and falling back on the deck of the ill-fated craft in sheets of spray like soapsuds.
Fritz and Eric clasped their hands in mute supplication to heaven; but, at the same moment, the spars of the vessel—she was a brig, they could see—fell over her side with a crash. There was a grinding and rending of timbers; and then, one enormous wave, as of three billows rolled into one, poured over her in a cataract.
One concentrated shriek of horror and agony came from the seething whirlpool of broken water, and, all was over; for, when the foam had washed away with the retreating wave, not a single vestige could be seen of the hapless craft!
She had sunk below the sea with those on board.
"Oh, brother, it is awful!" cried Eric.
Fritz could not answer. His throat was filled with a great gulping lump which prevented him from drawing his breath; while his eyes were suffused with tears that no unmanly feelings had called forth.
Eric was starting off again down to the beach, to see whether any one had escaped from the wreck and been swept into the bay, in which case he might have been of use in trying to drag them from the clutch of the cruel waves, when Fritz called him back.
"Don't leave me behind, brother," he cried out passionately. "Wheel me down, in the barrow, so that I may help, too!"
The lad stopped in a instant, comprehending his brother's request; and, flying back, in and out of the hut as if he had been galvanised, he quickly placed the old door on top of the wheelbarrow as a sort of platform, with a mattress on top. He then lifted Fritz on the superstructure as if he were a child, the excitement having given him tenfold strength; and, wheeling the barrow down at a run, the two arrived on the beach almost sooner than a boat could have pulled ashore from the point where the catastrophe to the vessel had occurred.
But, although it was now light enough to scan the surface of the restless sea for some distance out, no struggling form could be seen battling with the waves; nor was there a single fragment of the wreck noticeable, tossing about on the billows that still rolled in thunderingly on the beach, marking out the contour of the bay with a line of white surf, which shone out in contrast to the glittering black sand that was ever and anon displayed as the back-wash of the waves swept out again in a downward curve preparatory to the billows hurling themselves in shore once more with renewed force.
"Poor chaps, they must all have gone down!" said Eric, half crying. He had made sure that some one would have escaped, if only for him to rescue at the last moment—perhaps just when the sinking swimmer might require a helping hand to drag him from the clutches of the grasping billows that sought to overwhelm him as he was getting beyond their reach!
"There's no doubt of that," echoed Fritz, who had got off his platform on the wheelbarrow with much more agility than he had been capable of a short time before. "The sea has swallowed up those who were not dashed to pieces on the headland! I hardly know which fate was the least preferable of the two?"
"I do hope that the bonfire did not lead to their misfortune," said Eric presently. "If so, I should consider myself to be the cause of their death!"
"No, I don't think it was, laddie," replied Fritz, to cheer him, the lad being greatly distressed at the thought of having occasioned the catastrophe. "You see, the ship must have been coming from the other side of the headland, whose height would shut all view of our valley entirely from the sea."
"Well, I only hope so," replied Eric, only half consoled. "I'm afraid, however, the people on board took the flame of the burning grass to be some beacon to warn them."
"In that case, they would have kept away from it, of course," said Fritz decidedly; "so, no blame can be attached to you. The wind, you see, was blowing a gale from the north-east; and, probably, they were driving on before it, never thinking they were near Inaccessible Island, nor believing that there was such a place anywhere within miles of them, or land at all, for that matter, till they should reach the South American coast!"
"Perhaps so," rejoined Eric, in a brighter tone; "but then, again, they might have thought the light to be a ship on fire, and, in going out of their way to lend assistance, they possibly met with their doom, eh?"
"Ah, that would be sad to believe," said Fritz. "However, I don't think we should worry ourselves over the dispensations of providence. Poor fellows, whoever they are, or whatever they were about at the time of the disaster, I'm sorry for them from the bottom of my heart!"
"And so am I," chimed in his brother. "But now, old fellow," added Eric, "it is time for you to be getting back indoors, with your poor back and wounded leg."
"Yes, I shan't be sorry to lie down now; for, I've exerted myself more than I should have done. Oh," continued Fritz, as the lad helped him on to the wheelbarrow platform, again preparing to return to the hut, "I shall never forget the sight of that doomed vessel dashing against the rocks. I fancy I can now see the whole hideous panorama before my eyes again, just as we saw it when the mist cleared away, disclosing all the horrors of the scene!"
"I shan't forget it either, brother," said Eric, as he commenced to wheel back Fritz homeward, neither uttering another word on the way.
Both went to bed sadly enough; for, the calamity that had just occurred before their eyes made them more depressed than they had ever been before—aye, even in the solitude of their first night alone on the island.
Next morning, the gale had blown itself out, the wind having toned down to a gentle breeze; while the sea was smiling in the sunshine, so innocently that it seemed impossible it could have been lashed into the fury it exhibited the previous night. There it was, rippling and prattling away on the beach in the most light-hearted fashion, oblivious, apparently, of all thought of evil!
All trace of the wreck, too, had disappeared, nothing being subsequently cast ashore but one single plank, on which the hieroglyphic letters, "PF Bordeaux," were carved rudely with a chisel; so, the mystery of the brig's name and destination remained unsolved to the brothers, as it probably will continue a mystery, until that day when the ocean gives up its secrets and yields up its dead to life!
CHAPTER THIRTY TWO.
"NEWS FROM HOME."
For some time after the wreck, the brothers seemed to experience a strange dreariness about the place which they never felt before.
They were now shut in entirely, being confined, as it were, to the little valley of the waterfall through the destruction of the tussock- grass ladder, which previously had opened the tableland on top of the crags to them, giving greater liberty of action; although the ascent had not been by any means an easy matter for Fritz.
Now, however, restricted to their scanty domain, bounded by the bare cliff at the back and encompassed by lofty headlands on either side, they were prevented from wandering beyond the limits of the bay, save by taking to their boat; and this, the strong winds which set in at the latter end of March rendered utterly impossible of achievement.
Consequently, they began to realise more fully their solitary condition, recognising the fact that they were crusoes indeed!
No event of any importance happened after the episode of the bonfire and the storm in which the crew of the brig perished, for some weeks, nothing occurring to break the monotony of the solitary life they were leading; until, one morning, without any warning, the penguins, which had been their constant companions from the commencement of their self- chosen exile up to now, suddenly left the island.
This was in the month of April.
Never was a migration more unexpected.
On the evening before, the birds, so long as daylight lasted, were seen still playing about in the bay and arranging themselves in lines along the rough escarpment of the headlands, where they were drawn up like soldiers on parade and apparently dressed in the old-fashioned uniform that is sometimes still seen on the stage. Really, their black and white plumage exactly resembled the white buckskin breeches and black three-cornered hats of the whilom mousquetaires; while their drooping flappers seemed like hands down their sides in the attitude of "attention!"—the upper portions of the wings, projecting in front, representing those horrible cross-belts that used to make the men look as if they wore stays.
The penguins seemed so much at home on the island that it looked as if they never intended leaving it, albeit the brothers noticed that the birds barked and grumbled more discordantly than they had done of late. No doubt there was something on hand, they thought; but they never dreamt that this grand pow-wow was their leave-taking of the rookery; but, lo and behold! when Eric came out of the hut next morning to pay his customary matutinal visit to the beach, there was not a single penguin to be seen anywhere in the vicinity, either out in the water or on land!
They had disappeared, as if by magic, in one single night. In the evening before, they were with them; when day dawned, they were gone!
Fritz and Eric had got so accustomed to the birds by this time, studying their habits and watching the progress of many of the adult penguins from the egg to representative birdom, as they passed through the various gradations of hatching and moulting, that they quite missed them for the first few days after their departure.
The cliffs, without their presence to enliven them, appeared never so stern and bleak and bare as now; the headlands never so forbidding and impassable; the valley never so prison-like, to the brothers, shut in as they were and confined to the bay!
However, the winter season coming on apace, the two soon had plenty to do in preparing for its advent. This served to distract their attention from becoming morbid and dwelling on their loneliness, which was all the more dismal now from the fact of their being debarred from their hunting-ground on the plateau—Fritz having got strong and well again after the wreck, and being now able to start on a second expedition in pursuit of "Kaiser Billy," did he so wish, if the access to the tableland above the cliffs by way of the gully were only still open to them.
Goat-shooting, therefore, being denied them, the brothers busied themselves about other matters, as soon as the increasing coldness of the air and an occasional snow-storm warned them that winter would soon visit the shores of the island.
"I tell you what," said Fritz, when the first few flakes of snow came fluttering down one afternoon as they were standing outside the hut, the sun having set early and darkness coming on. "We're going to have some of the old weather we were accustomed to at Lubeck."
"Ah; but, we can have no skating or slides here!" replied Eric, thinking of the canals and frozen surface of the sea near his northern home, when the frost asserted its sway, ruling with a sceptre of ice everywhere.
"No, and we don't want them either," rejoined the practical Fritz. "I am pondering over a much more serious matter; and that is, how we shall keep ourselves warm? My coat, unfortunately, is getting pretty nearly worn-out!"
"And so is mine," cried Eric, exhibiting the elbows of his reefing jacket, in which a couple of large holes showed themselves. The rest of the garment, also, was so patched up with pieces of different coloured cloth that it more resembled an old-clothes-man's sack than anything else!
"Well, what do you think of our paying our tailor a visit?" said Fritz all at once, after cogitating a while in a brown study.
Eric burst out into a loud fit of laughing; so hearty that he nearly doubled himself up in the paroxysms of his mirth.
"Ha, ha, ha, what a funny fellow you are, Fritz!" he exclaimed. "I wonder where we are going to find a tailor here?"
"Oh, I know one," said his brother coolly, in such a matter-of-fact way that the lad was quite staggered with surprise.
"Do you?" he asked in astonishment. "Who is he?"
"Your humble servant," said Fritz, with a low bow. "Can I have the pleasure of measuring you for a new suit, meinherr?"
Eric began laughing again.
"You can measure away to your heart's content," he replied; "but, I fancy it will puzzle even your lofty intellect to discover the wherewithal to make clothes with—that is, except sailcloth, which would be rather cold wear for winter, I think, eh, Master Schneider?"
"How about those two last sealskins we didn't salt down, or pack up with the rest in the puncheon?" enquired Fritz with a smile.
"O-oh!" exclaimed Eric, opening his mouth wide with wonder.
"A-ah," rejoined his brother. "I think they'll do very well to make a couple of good coats for us; they'll be warm and serviceable."
"Of course they will," said Eric, jumping at the idea. "And, they will be fashionable too! Why, sealskin jackets are all the rage in Berlin and Hanover; so, we'll be regular dandies!"
"Dandies of the first water, oh yes," replied Fritz quizzingly. "I wonder what they would think of us at, Lubeck if they could just see us now!"
"Never mind, brother, we'll astonish them when we go back with our pockets full of money," said Eric in his happy fashion; and then, without further delay, the two set to work making themselves winter garments, as Fritz had suggested, from the sealskins.
These had been dried, instead of being salted down with the rest, in the ordinary way whalers preserve them for the furriers; so, now, all that remained for the brothers to do was to make the skins limp and pliable.
This they managed to effect by rubbing grease over the inner surface of the skins with a hard piece of lava slab selected from the volcanic debris at the foot of the cliff, in the same way, as Eric explained, that sailors holystone the decks of a ship; and, after the pelts of the seals were subjected to this process, they underwent a species of tanning by being steeped in a decoction of tea leaves, keeping, however, the hair out of the liquor. Lastly, the outside portion of the skins was dressed by pulling off the long fibrous exterior hairs, concealing the soft fur below that resembled the down beneath a bird's rough feathers.
The skins being now thoroughly prepared, all that remained to do was to cut out the coats, a feat the crusoes accomplished by using their old garments for patterns; and then, by the aid of the useful little housewife which Celia Brown had given Eric, after an immense amount of stitching, the brothers were able at last to clothe themselves in a couple of fur jackets. These, although they were perhaps roughly made, the good people at home could not have turned up their noses at, for the articles were certainly intrinsically worth more than the best-cut masterpiece of the best outfitter, even if not of so perfect a fit or style!
Fritz was the chief tailor in this operation; but, while he was busily engaged with needle and thread, Eric was employed in another way, equally for the good of both.
The hut had been found somewhat cold and damp in consequence of the sun's power beginning to wane by reason of its shifting further north, through the periodic revolution of the earth; so it was determined to build a fireplace within the dwelling.
This had not been necessary before, all their cooking operations having been carried on without the hut at an open-air campaigner's stove designed by soldier Fritz.
Now, however, Master Eric devoted himself to the task of improving their household economy, accomplishing the feat so well that, wonderful to relate, the place never smoked once after the fire had been lit in the new receptacle for it, excepting when the wind blew from the westward. Then, indeed, coming from over the top of the plateau above, it whirled down the gorge, roaring through the lad's patent chimney like a cyclone.
From May, until the end of July—during which time the extreme severity of the winter lasted—the brothers did little, save stop indoors and read, or play dominoes.
Really, there was nothing else for them to occupy their minds with; for, it was impossible to cultivate the garden, while the weather was too rough for them to venture out in the whale-boat.
Early in August, however, the penguins returned.
The birds did this as suddenly as they had left; although they did not come all together, as at the period of their migrating from the island.
It need hardly be said that Fritz and Eric welcomed them joyfully as the early swallows of the coming summer; for, as the summer advanced, their life would be more varied, and there would be plenty for them to do.
Besides, the brothers had not forgotten Captain Brown's promise to return at this period and visit them with the Pilot's Bride, the arrival of which vessel might be expected in a couple of months or so.
The male penguins were the first to make their reappearance in the bay, Eric returning to the hut with the news of this fact one morning in August.
"I say, Fritz," he called out, when yet some distance off from their dwelling—"I've just seen two penguins down by the sea!"
"Have you?" exclaimed the other eagerly. "That's good news."
"Is it?" said Eric. "I didn't think you cared about them so much."
"Ah, I'm looking out for their eggs," replied Fritz.
"Why, you never seemed to fancy them last year, old fellow," said the sailor lad surprised. "What means this change of view on your part?"
"Well, you know, when we arrived here first, the birds were already sitting; and, I certainly confess I did not care about the eggs then, for they would probably have been half addled! Now, however, if we look out each day, we can get them quite fresh, when they'll be ever so much better. Young Glass told us, as you ought to remember, that they tasted very nice and not in the least fishy."
"Oh, yes, I recollect," said Eric. "I will keep a good look-out for them now you say they're worth looking after!"
And he did.
The two male birds, who first came, were succeeded on the following day by half a dozen more, a large number coming later on the same afternoon.
All these penguins were in their best plumage, and very fat and lazy, contenting themselves with lolling about the beach for a day or two, as if to recover from the fatigues of their journey.
Then, after a solemn conference together close to the rookery, the birds began to prepare their nests, so as to be ready for the reception of the females, which did not make their appearance for nearly a month after the first male penguins were seen.
A fortnight later, there was in almost each nest an egg of a pale blue colour, very round in shape and about the size of a turkey's—the sight of which much gratified Master Eric, who, fearless of consequences, made a point of investigating the tussock-grass colony every morning. He called the birds habitat his "poultry yard," seeming to be quite unmindful of his mishap there the previous year; although now, as the penguins had not begun regularly to sit yet, they were not so noisy or troublesome as when he then intruded on their domain. Besides, as the sailor lad argued, the eggs were uncommonly good eating, and well worth risk getting them.
September came; and the brother crusoes were all agog with excitement, watching for the expected coming of the old Yankee skipper.
"Do you know what to-day is?" asked Fritz one morning, as Eric woke him up in turning out.
"What a fellow you are for dates!" exclaimed the other. "You ought to go and live in the East, where they cultivate them, brother! No, I can't say I recollect what day it is. Tuesday, is it not?"
"I don't mean that," said Fritz petulantly. "I alluded to the sort of anniversary, that's all."
"Anniversary of what?"
"Our landing here last year," replied Fritz.
"Oh, I forgot that!" exclaimed Eric.
"It strikes me you forget a good many things," said his brother in his dry way. "Still, what I was thinking of was, that we might now really begin to look out for Captain Brown. What a pity it is that you can't ascend to your old signalling station on top of the gully."
"Yes, it was all on account of the grass burning that our ladder got spoilt and—"
"Of course you didn't set it on fire, eh?" interposed Fritz.
"Ah well, it's of no use our talking about that now; words will not mend matters," said Eric. "We'll have look out from here!"
The wind latterly had been from the east, blowing right into the bay. On account of this, the brothers could not venture out in the boat and thus get round the headland, so as to climb the plateau from the other side of the island and scan the offing from thence.
Still, no amount of looking out on their part—or lack of observation, whichever way the matter was put—seemed to effect the arrival of the expected ship; for, the month passed away in daily counted days without a trace of a sail being seen on the horizon.
At last, just when the brothers had given up in despair all hope of hearing from home, Eric, one morning in October, reported that there was something in sight to windward of the bay; although, he said, he did not think she looked like the Pilot's Bride.
Hastily jumping into his clothes—for Fritz, sad to relate, could never practise early rising, in which good habit day after day Eric set him a praiseworthy example—the elder followed the younger lad again to the shore of the bay; from which point, well away out to sea, and her hull just rising from the rolling plane of water, could be seen a vessel. She was steering for the island apparently, with the wind well on her beam.
"It isn't Captain Brown's ship," said Eric now decisively, his sailor eye having distinguished while she was yet in the distance that the vessel was a fore-and-aft-rigged schooner, although Fritz could not then tell what sort of craft she was. "It is one of those small whalers that ply amongst the islands, such as I saw down at Kerguelen."
"What can have become of the skipper, then?" cried Fritz, quite disappointed. "I hope nothing has happened to him."
"We'll soon know," replied Eric. "If I mistake not this very schooner, which is evidently going to call here, is the Jane. I know her by that queer patch in her jib; and, if that's the case, she is one of the consorts of the Pilot's Bride and will be bound to be able to tell us something about her."
"I sincerely hope so," said Fritz.
The two then remained silent for some time, watching the approaching vessel; but they took the precaution to run down their whale-boat to the beach, so as to be ready to put off as soon as the visitor should come near enough for them to board her.
In a short time, bowling up before a good breeze, although it seemed hours to them, they were so anxious, the schooner lay-to off the bay, hoisting her flag as a signal that she wished to communicate. But, long before the bunting had been run up to the masthead, the brothers had launched their boat and were pulling out towards the vessel, which did not anchor, for there was a heavy ground swell on—this latter, indeed, cost them, too, some trouble in getting their little craft out to sea, the rolling surge first lifting her up and then plunging her down so that everything was hidden from them for the moment by a wall of water on either side.
However, they managed to get through the waves somehow; and, presently, they were alongside the schooner,—pulling in under her stern, whence a rope was hove them to get on board by.
An active-looking, slim, seamanlike young fellow advanced to them as they scrambled on the schooner's deck; and Eric appeared to recognise him.
"Hullo, Captain Fuller," he said, "where's the Pilot's Bride and the old skipper?"
"I'm sorry you won't see him this trip," replied the other. "The barque got damaged in a gale off the African coast a month ago: so, she had to put into the Cape of Good Hope for repairs, which'll take such a time that Captain Brown couldn't manage to come along here and see you as he promised. Howsomever, the old skipper has sent me in his stead, to bring you some letters and take home any cargo you might have ready in sealskins and oil. He told me, likewise, to let you have any provisions you may want; but, I'm sorry to say, while coming here I helped an American ship that was short, and now I only have a little flour left to spare."
"Thank you, all the same," said Fritz, who had been waiting patiently while the master of the schooner gave this explanation. "I'm very sorry at not seeing Captain Brown; however, I suppose he'll come for us next year, as he said, won't he?"
"Oh yes," answered the other cordially. "I'm sure he will, for it seemed a great disappointment to him not to be able to do so now. He told me to be certain to say that, 'blow great guns and small arms or not, he'll be at Inaccessible Island next year!' But, you must be anxious about your letters. Here they are," and the nice-looking young fellow, whom Fritz had quite taken a fancy to, handed a little packet to him, adding, "I am afraid I'll have to hurry you up about your return messages, as the wind is getting up from the eastwards and I shan't be able to remain here long."
Fritz at once broke the seal of a thick letter, which Captain Brown had enclosed in one of his own. This he saw came from Lubeck, although it had the Capetown post mark on it, and he glanced hurriedly over the front page and then at the end.
"All right at home, thank God!" he said aloud for Eric's benefit, the lad staring at his brother with eager eyes. "And now, Captain Fuller, I'm ready to attend to you. I shall be glad of a barrel of flour if you can spare it, but our other provisions can hold out. Will you let a man or two come ashore to help get our freight aboard?"
"How much have you got to ship?" asked the other.
"Thirty sealskins and twenty barrels of oil," replied Fritz at once; he and Eric had counted over their little store too often for him not to have their tally at his fingers' ends!
"Come now," said Captain Fuller encouragingly. "That's not bad work for a couple of novices as their first take here! Next year, you'll be able to fill up the Pilot's Bride, 'I reckon,' as the old skipper would say."
"Not quite that," replied Fritz, while he and Eric joined in the other's laugh; "still, I've no doubt we'll do better than this, for we'll take care to be beforehand with some folks!"
The commander of the schooner looking puzzled by the latter part of this speech, Fritz proceeded to tell the young seaman all about Nat Slater and the Tristaners, anent which he became very indignant.
"I'll take care to call at the island and spoil the mean fellow's game for him, so that you shan't be troubled in the same way again!" cried their new friend, with much heartiness; "but, do, please, let these men go ashore with you now and fetch your produce at once, or else we'll have to be off without it! Here, Harris and Betkins," he sang out to two of the schooner's men, "go along with these gentlemen in their boat and bring off some cargo they'll point out to you!"
"I don't think we can stow all in one boat," said Eric.
"Then, we must make two or three trips till we do," answered the other, equal to the occasion; and this procedure was adopted until all the brothers' sealskins and barrels of oils were shipped in the schooner. The goods were consigned to Captain Brown, who had undertaken to dispose of all the produce of their expedition; and, when the freight was all shipped, the schooner, filling her sails, bore away from the island on her return trip to the Cape—not without a hearty farewell to Fritz and Eric from those on board.
This visit of the little craft cheered them up wonderfully, reconciling them cheerfully to another year's sojourn in their island home; for, had not the schooner brought them comfort and hope, and, above all else, what was to their longing hearts like manna to the Israelites in the wilderness, water to a dry ground, warmth to those shivering with cold— in other words, "good news from home?"
Aye, that she had!
CHAPTER THIRTY THREE.
A DIRE PERIL.
Oh, those dear letters from home!
Did not Fritz pore over them, when he and Eric got back to their little hut, glad to sit down and be quiet again, all to themselves after the excitement of the schooner's visit and the fatigue of shipping the produce of their labours during the past?
Madame Dort's missive was a long, voluminous epistle of ever so many pages, written in their dear mother's clear hand, without a blot or a scratch out, or any tedious crossing of the pages to make the writing indistinct. She had been a teacher, and able to write well, if only because she had formerly to instruct others? The letter was public property for both, being addressed to Eric as well as Fritz, and it contained much loving news—news that caused the elder brother frequently to pause in his reading and Eric to dash away the quick tears from his bright eyes; while, anon, it made them both laugh by some funny allusion to household arrangements as they recalled the well-remembered little home scene in the old-fashioned house in which the two had been brought up, in the Gulden Strasse at Lubeck.
The communication was so lengthy that it was almost a journal, Madame Dort recounting all the haps and mishaps of the family since Fritz had gone away, taking it for granted that he would have informed Eric of all that had transpired during the lad's previous absence.
The letter mentioned, too, that the neighbours were all interested in the brothers' adventures and called frequently to ask her about them. Herr Grosschnapper, she also related, had especially told her that he had never employed so accurate a book-keeper as Fritz; for, the new clerk had, like a new broom, swept so clean that he had swept himself out of favour, the old merchant longing to have the widow's son back in his counting-house again.
"I don't wonder at that," exclaimed Eric, interrupting the reading here. "He should have known when he was well off and kept your place open for you until your return from the war!"
"So he did, brother, he waited as long as he could," said Fritz, taking the part of the absent, although the matter was still a sore subject with him; and, then, he continued reading out his mother's letter, which went on to detail Lorischen's many dreams about the children of her nursing—how she prophesied that Eric would be such a big strapping fellow that the house would not be able to contain him, and how Mouser had developed such an affection for Gelert, that he even followed the dog, when the latter went out to take his walks abroad, in the most fearless manner possible, trusting evidently to the kindness of his canine protector to prevent other obnoxious animals like Burgher Jans terrier from molesting him! Oh, and while mentioning the little fat man's dog, Madame Dort said she had such a wonderful story to relate. What would they think of Lorischen—
"I said it would turn out so!" cried Eric, interrupting his brother a second time. "I always said it would turn out so, in spite of all our old nurse's cruel treatment of the little Burgher."
"What did you say, Mr Prophet?" asked Fritz good-humouredly.
"That he and Lorischen would make a match of it yet," replied Eric, clapping his hands in high glee. "What fun that would be! Is it not so, brother?"
"You might be further out in your guessing than that," said Fritz, going on to the denouement of the story told in his mother's letter. Yes, Madame Dort wrote, the little fat man had really, one day when Lorischen had received him more affably than usual and invited him to partake of some nice cheese-cakes she had just made, asked her to marry him! And, more wonderful still, in spite of all their old nurse used to say about the Burgher, and how she pretended to detest him, as they must remember well, Lorischen had finally agreed to an engagement with him, promising to unite her fate with his when Herr Fritz and Master Eric came home. "So now, dear boys both, you know how much depends on your return," concluded their mother in her quaint way, for she had a keen appreciation of humour. "If only to hasten the happiness of old Lorischen and her well-beloved little fat man, pray do not delay your coming back as soon as ever you can conveniently manage it. I say nothing about myself or of Madaleine, my new daughter; for, you must be able to imagine without the aid of any words of mine, how we are both longing and praying to see you again!"
"And now for sister Madaleine's letter," cried Eric, when he had kissed the signature to that of his mother's which Fritz handed over to him as soon as he had done reading it aloud. "It seems almost as big a one as mutterchen's and I dare say there'll be lots more news in it!"
"Ah, I think I'll read this first to myself," said Fritz dryly; adding a moment after when he noticed Eric's look of intense disgust: "you see, she only writes to me, you know."
"Oh yes, that's very fine!" exclaimed the other, in a highly aggrieved tone. "Never mind, though, I can pay you out sooner than you think, Master Fritz! See this little note here!"
"No—yes—what is it?" said Fritz, looking up in an absent way from the second of the home letters, which now lay open on his knee.
"Ah, wouldn't you like to know, Mr Selfish-keep-his-letters-to-himself sort of a brother, eh? Well, then, this note here contains some of the dearest words you ever saw penned! It was enclosed by Miss Celia Brown in a letter of her father's to you—which you've taken such little account of that you chucked it down on the floor in your ridiculous hurry to read that letter which you won't tell me about. Now, I did intend, Master Fritz, to give you this delightful little note, which I would not part with for the world, for you to read it your own self; but, now, I shan't let you once cast your eyes over it, there! It is only a little tiny note; still, I think much more of it than all your big letters from that Madaleine Vogelstein, who I don't believe is half as handsome as Celia!"
"All right then, we're both satisfied if such is the case," rejoined Fritz, in no way put out by this outburst, or alarmed at the terrible reprisals threatened by Eric, and then, the elder brother bowed his head again over the unfolded sheets of scented paper lying on his knee that came from his sweetheart across the sea.
The letter was all that the fondest lover could wish; and, with the omission of a few endearing terms, Fritz subsequently read it to Eric, who thereupon relented from his previous resolution and showed him Miss Celia Brown's note. This, however, contained nothing very remarkable, after all; unless a postscript, saying that the writer "expected to have a good time" when the sailor lad returned to Providence, deserves to be described in Eric's extravagant language.
The schooner's visit having settled their minds, so to speak, the brother crusoes were able after her departure to devote themselves anew, with all the greater zest, to what they now considered their regular work.
As in the previous year, before adventuring beyond their own special domain, the garden was dug up and replanted; the labour this time, of course, being far less than on the first occasion, for they had no longer virgin soil to tackle with as then.
A much larger lot of potatoes were put into the ground, the brothers having learnt by experience that, after once planting, these useful "apples of the earth" necessitated little further trouble, one good hoeing up when the sprouts had appeared above the surface and an occasional rake over to keep down the weeds being quite sufficient to make the plot look neat; while, should they have more than they required for themselves when harvest time came, they could easily store them up for the use of the Pilot's Bride crew, as a slight return for all Captain Brown's kindness.
A good crop of cabbages and onions was also provided for; while Eric did not forget his favourite peas and beans for their next Christmas banquet.
This task done and things tidied up about the hut, so as to make their immediate surroundings snug and comfortable, the brothers determined, the weather being now settled and fair, to have a cruise round the coast again. They were anxious to find out whether the seals were about yet, besides wishing to pay another visit to the tableland, which they had been debarred from exploring since the bonfire had burnt up their ladder at the beginning of the winter season.
They would, naturally, have made this expedition long before, had the wind and sea not been so boisterous—very unlike, indeed, the genial spell they had experienced in the previous year; but, really, from the month of August, a succession of gales had set in from different points of the compass and the navigation was so dangerous that it would not have been safe to have ventured out beyond the bay. Indeed, as it was, the whale-boat got so much knocked about by a heavy sea, which came rolling in on the beach one night when they had not drawn her up far enough, that she was now far too cranky for them to trust their lives in her in bad weather.
However, one fine day, late in November, with all their shooting and hunting gear, in addition to a supply of provisions for a week or ten days, they set sail from the bay bound westward round the headland, intending to have a regular outing.
Seals they found plentiful enough, the animals having returned to their breeding haunts much earlier than the year before. They seemed, besides, so tame that the new-comers must either have been quite a fresh family of the mammals, or else the brothers had stolen a march on the Tristaners and would therefore have the advantage of the first assault on the seals.
There was nothing like taking time by the forelock, and so, without frightening the animals by any display of hostility, the brothers quietly landed their traps in a little creek some distance away from the principal cove they frequented; and then, the two organised a regular campaign against their unsuspecting prey.
Eric with a rifle and harpoon got round the seals by way of the land; while Fritz, equally well provided with weapons, assailed them from the sea in the boat, both making a rush together by a preconcerted signal.
Their strategy was triumphant this time; for, after a very one-sided battle between the intrepid seal killers on the one hand and the terrified, helpless creatures on the other, eighty-five victims were counted on the field of battle—six of the animals being sea elephants, and five sea bears, or "lions," a species having a curious sort of curly mane round their necks, while the remainder of the slain consisted of specimens of the common seal of commerce.
"Why, brother, this is grand!" exclaimed Eric, as he and Fritz counted over the spoil. "But, how shall we get the blubber and skins round to the bay? Our boat will never carry them all in her leaky state."
"Well, laddie, I thought you were the inventive genius of the family," said the other. "Can't you think of an easier plan than lugging them round the headland all that way by sea?"
"I'm sure I can't," Eric replied, with a hopeless stare.
"Then, I'll tell you," said Fritz. "What think you of our just taking them up to the top of the plateau; and, after a short walk across the tableland, pitching our bundle of spoil down right in front of our hut— without first loading up the boat and then unloading her again, besides having the trouble of toiling all the way from the beach to the cottage afterwards?"
"Why, that's a splendid plan!" cried Eric; "almost good enough for me to have thought of it."
"I like your impudence!" said Fritz, laughing. "Certainly, a young sailor of my acquaintance has a very good opinion of himself!"
"Right you are," rejoined Eric, with his time-honoured phrase; and then the two, as usual, had a hearty laugh.
Skinning the seals and packing up the layers of blubber within the pelts was then the order of the day with them for some hours, Fritz pointing out, that, if they removed all the traces of the combat before nightfall, the seals would return to their old haunt the next day, the evening tide being sufficient to wash away the traces of blood on the rocks as well as bear to the bottom the bodies of the slain victims; otherwise, the sad sight of the carcases of their slain comrades still lying about the scene of battle would prevent the scared and timid animals from coming back.
Consequently, the brothers worked hard; and, practice having made them proficients in the knack of ripping off the coats of the seals with one or two dexterous slashes with a keen knife along the stomach and down the legs of the animals, they stripped off the skins in much less time than might be imagined.
Then, the pelts and layers of blubber were rolled up together in handy bundles and conveyed up to the plateau. This was a very tedious job, necessitating, first, a weary tramp to and from the beach to where the path led up to the summit of the tableland; and, secondly, a scramble up the rocky and wearisome ascent of the plateau, this latter part of their labour being rendered all the more difficult and disagreeable by the bundles of blubber and skins, which they had to carry up on their heads in the same fashion as negroes always convey their loads—a thing apparently easy enough to the blacks by reason of their strong craniums, but terribly "headachy" for Europeans unaccustomed to such burdens!
Fritz and Eric did not hurry over this job, however, deferring its completion till the morning. They camped out on the plateau so as to be out of the way of the seals, glad enough to rest after their day's labour, without going hunting after the goats, as they had intended at first doing, the same afternoon.
Next morning, seeing no seals about—the animals probably not having recovered from their fright yet—they continued carrying up the skins and blubber, until they had quite a respectable pile on the plateau; when, the next question arose about its transportation across the tableland to the eastern side, immediately over the gully by which they used to climb up, near their hut.
"I wish we had brought your carriage, Fritz," said Eric, alluding to the wheelbarrow, which had been so styled by the sailor lad after he had utilised it as an ambulance waggon.
"It's too late to wish that now," replied the other.
"I could soon go round in the boat and fetch it, brother," cried Eric, looking as if he were going to start off at the moment.
"No, stop, laddie; we could not spare the boat," said Fritz, laying his hand on his arm. "It would be more than likely that, the moment you were out of sight the seals would land again on the rocks, when we should miss the chance of taking them! I don't believe we shall have more than one other chance of getting their skins; for the Tristaners will soon be here again on their annual excursion, with that fellow Slater in their company, and, I confess, I should not like us to be here when they came."
"I wouldn't mind a row at all!" cried Eric defiantly; "still, as you don't want me to go for the wheelbarrow, how do you suggest that we should carry the skins across this dreary expanse here?"
"Let us make a stretcher with the oars," said Fritz.
"Bravo, the very thing," replied Eric. "Why, you are the inventive genius this time!"
"Well, one must think of something sometimes," said Fritz, in his matter-of-fact way; and the two then proceeded to carry out the plan of the elder brother, which simplified their labour immensely. They only had to make some three journeys across the plateau with the skins, which, when the bundles were all transported to the eastern side of the tableland, were incontinently tumbled over to the foot of the cliff below, alighting quite close to the cauldron in which the blubber would be subsequently "tried out" into oil.
Then, and not till then, did they pick up their guns and think of the goats, which had hitherto led a charmed life as far as they were concerned.
They soon noticed, however, that, in lieu of the large number they had observed when they last saw them, the flock had been now reduced to five. The Tristaners must evidently have paid another visit to the west coast since they had met them there when going sealing the previous season; and, this second visit the brothers put down to the instigation of the whilom "deck hand," who had no doubt incited the islanders to do everything they could to annoy them.
Fritz only shot one goat, leaving "Kaiser Billy" and the other three, on the chance of their numbers being afterwards increased. He and Eric then went for a hunt after the wild pigs, killing a fine young porker, which they roasted on the plateau and made a feast of at their camp. The flesh, however, was very coarse, tasting fishy and rank, probably on account of the pigs feeding on the penguins, the young of which they could easily secure by going down to the beach by the same pathway that the brothers had climbed.
Fritz and Eric stayed ten days on the western shore; but during all the time they remained they only were able to capture eleven more seals, which made up their quota to ninety-six. Eric longed to run it up to the even hundred, but they did not see another single mammal, although they remained a day longer on the coast than they had intended.
This delay led to the most disastrous consequences; for, a gale sprang up right in their teeth when they were on their way back to the bay with the goat and the remaining sealskins, which they had not taken the trouble of transporting across the plateau, but took along with them in the boat.
It was something wonderful to notice the sea, which a short time previously had been so placid, presently running high with mighty rollers, that threatened each moment to engulf their little craft; and they had to allow her to run before the wind some little time for fear of getting her swamped.
This danger avoided, a worse one arose, which Fritz had not thought of, but which soon became apparent to the sailor lad, his intelligence heightened by his former painful experience when adrift in a boat at sea, out of sight of land.
"I say, Fritz," he cried; "we are leaving the land!"
"What?" asked the other, not understanding him.
"We are getting away too far from the island; and if we go on like this, we'll never get back."
"Good heavens, what shall we do?" said Fritz.
"I'm sure, I can't say," replied Eric despondently.
"Can't we put back?"
"No; we'd be upset in an instant, if we attempted it."
"Then, we're lost!" exclaimed Fritz. "The land is now growing quite faint in the distance and each moment it sinks lower and lower!"
This was not the worst, either.
The afternoon was drawing to a close; and, the sky being overcast, darkness threatened presently to creep over the water and shut out everything from their gaze.
CHAPTER THIRTY FOUR.
The boat continued driving before the wind for some little time, until the mountain cliffs of Inaccessible Island gradually lost their contour. They had become but a mere haze in the distance, when Eric, who had been intently gazing upward at the sky since Fritz's last speech of alarm, and seemed buried in despondency, suddenly appeared to wake up into fresh life.
He had noticed the clouds being swept rapidly overhead in the same direction in which the boat was travelling; but, all at once, they now appeared to be stationary, or else, the waves must be bearing their frail little craft along faster than the wind's speed. What could this puzzling state of things mean? Eric reflected a moment and then astonished Fritz as they both sat in the stern-sheets, by convulsively grasping his hand.
"The wind has turned, brother!" he cried out in a paroxysm of joy.
Fritz thought he was going mad. "Why, my poor fellow, what's the matter?" he said soothingly.
"Matter, eh?" shouted out Eric boisterously, wringing his brother's hand up and down. "I mean that the wind has changed! It is chopping round to the opposite corner of the compass, like most gales in these latitudes, that's what's the matter! See those clouds there?"
Fritz looked up to where the other pointed in the sky—to a spot near the zenith.
"Well," continued the lad, "a moment ago those clouds there were whirling along the same course as ourselves. Then, when I first called out to you, they stopped, as if uncertain what to do; while now, as you can notice for yourself, they seem to be impelled in the very opposite direction. What do you think that means?"
Fritz was silent, only half convinced, for the send of the sea appeared to be rolling their unhappy boat further and further from the island, which, only a bare speck on the horizon, could be but very faintly seen astern, low down on the water.
"It means," said Eric, answering his own question, without waiting longer for his brother's reply, "that the same wind which bore us away from our dear little bay is about to waft us back again to it; still, we must look out sharply to help ourselves and not neglect a chance. Oars out, old fellow!"
"But, it is impossible to row amidst these waves," the other expostulated.
"Bah, nothing is impossible to brave men!" cried the sailor lad valiantly. "I only want to get her head round to sea. Perhaps, though, my old friend that served me in such good stead when the Gustav Barentz foundered may serve my turn better now; we'll try a floating anchor, brother, that's what we'll do, eh?"
"All right, you know best," replied Fritz, who, to tell the truth, had very little hopes of their ever seeing the island again. He thought that, no matter what Eric might attempt, all would be labour in vain.
The sailor lad, on the contrary, was of a different opinion. He was not the one to let a chance slip when there seemed a prospect of safety, however remote that prospect might be!
Rapidly attaching a rope round the bale of sealskins that were amidships, thinking these more adapted for his purpose than the oars, which he had first intended using, he hove the mass overboard, gently poising it on the side and letting it slip gradually into the water. He did this in order that he might not disturb the balance of the boat, which any sudden rash movement would have done, causing her probably to heel over—for the waves, when they raced by, came level with her gunwale, and an inch more either way would have swamped her.
In a few seconds after this impromptu anchor was tried, the effect on the whale-boat's buoyancy became marvellous.
Swinging round by degrees, Eric helping the operation by an occasional short paddle with one of the oars he had handy, the little craft presently rode head to sea, some little distance to leeward of the sealskins whose weight sunk them almost to the level of the water; and then, another unexpected thing happened.
The oil attached to the still reeking skins came floating out on the surface of the sea, so calming the waves in their vicinity that these did not break any longer, but glided under the keel of the boat with a heavy rolling undulation.
"This is more than I hoped!" exclaimed Eric joyfully. "Why, we'll be able to ride out the gale capitally now; and, as soon as the wind chops round—as it has already done in the upper currents of air, a sure sign that it will presently blow along the water from the same quarter—why, we can up anchor and away home!"
"How shall we ever know the proper direction in which to steer?" asked Fritz, who was still faint-hearted about the result of the adventure.
"We won't steer at all," said Eric. "There are no currents to speak of about here; and as we have run south-westwards before the north-easter, if we run back in an opposite direction before the south-wester, which is not far off now from setting in, why we must arrive pretty nearly at the same point from which we started."
"But we may then pass the island by a second time and be as badly off as we are now."
"What an old croaker you are!" cried Eric impatiently. "Won't I be on the look-out to see that such an accident as that shan't happen? We'll have to be very careful in turning the boat however—so as to bring the wind abeam when we get up abreast of the island, in order to beat into the bay—for the poor craft is so leaky and cranky now that she'll not stand much buffeting about."
"Can't I do anything?" asked Fritz, beginning to regain his courage and bestir himself, now that he reflected that their chances of getting back to the island were not so precarious and slight as he had at first imagined.
"Yes, you can bale out the boat, if you like," said Eric. "She's nearly half full of water now and continues leaking like a sieve. The seams strain and yawn awfully when she rides, even worse than when she was flying along at the mercy of the wind and waves. Still, we must try to keep her clear if possible, as the lighter and more buoyant she is, the better chance have we of getting out of this mess."
"I'll do the baling gladly," rejoined Fritz, really pleased at doing something, and beginning at once with the job, using a large tin pannikin that they had taken with them.
"Then, fire away," said Eric. "It will be as much as I can do to attend to the steering of the boat. Look sharp, old fellow, and get some of the light ballast out of her! I see a light scud creeping up from leeward, behind us, with the waves fringing up into a curl before it. The wind has chopped round at last and we'll have to cut and run as soon as it reaches us."
Fritz baled away with the tin pannikin for dear life.
"Now, brother," cried Eric, a moment later, "get your knife ready, and go forwards into the bows. I want you, the instant I sing out, to give a slash across the painter holding us to our moorings."
"What, and lose our bundle of sealskins!" exclaimed the practical Fritz.
"Lose them? Of course! Do you think we'd have time to lug them into the boat before we'd be pooped! What are the blessed things worth in comparison with our lives?"
"I beg your pardon," said Fritz humbly, always ready to acknowledge when he was in the wrong. "I spoke unthinkingly; besides, if we lose these, we've got plenty more under the cliff by our hut."
"Aye, if we ever reach there!" replied Eric grimly. Although taking advantage of every possible device to reach the island again, as a sailor he was fully conscious of the dire peril they were in. "Now, Fritz," he called out presently, as a big white wave came up astern, "cut away the painter, and just give a hoist to the jib and belay the end of the halliards, half-way up. There, that will do. Lie down for the present, old fellow. The wind has reached us at last; so, it's a case of neck or nothing now!"
Hardly had Eric uttered the last words, when a sudden rush of wind struck the boat's stern like a flail, seeming to get underneath and lift it out of the water. The next instant the little craft sank down again as if she were going to founder stern foremost; but, at the same moment, the wind, travelling on, caught the half-set jib, and blowing this out with a sound like the report of a cannon, the small sail soon began to drive the boat through the swelling waves at racing speed.
Onward speeded the boat, faster and yet faster. Fortunately, the mast was a strong spar, or otherwise it would have broken off like a carrot; as, even with the half-hoisted jib, it bent like a whip, thus yielding to the motion of the little craft as she rose from the trough of the sea and leaped from one wave crest to another. The boat appeared just to keep in advance of the following rollers that vainly endeavoured to overtake her, and only broke a yard or so behind her stern—which, on account of her being a whale-boat, was built exactly like her bows and thus offered a smaller target for the billows to practise on, as they sent their broken tops hurtling after her in a shower of thick foam.
Eric had an oar out to leeward steering, while Fritz crouched down amidships, with the belayed end of the jib halliards in his hand, ready to let them go by the run when his brother gave the word; and, as the boat tore on through the water like a mad thing, the darkness around grew thicker and thicker, until all they could distinguish ahead was the scrap of white sail in the bows and the occasional sparkle of surf as a roller broke near them.
Should they not be able to see where they were going, they might possibly be dashed right on to the island in the same way as they had seen the unfortunate brig destroyed. It was a terrible eventuality to consider!
Presently, however, the moon rose; and, although the wind did not abate its force one jot, nor did the sea subside, still, it was more consoling to see where they were going than to be hurled on destruction unawares.
Eric was peering out over the weather side of the boat, when, all of a sudden, on the starboard bow, he could plainly distinguish the island, looking like a large heavy flat mass lifting itself out of the sea.
"There it is!" he cried out to Fritz, who at once looked up, rising a little from the thwart on which he had been lying.
"To your right, old fellow; but, still ahead. Now, we must see whether we can make the boat go our way, instead of her own. Do you think you could manage to haul up the jib by yourself? Take a half-turn round one of the thwarts with the bight of the halliards, so that it shall not slip."
Fritz did what was requested; when Eric, keeping the boat's head off the wind, sang out to his brother to "hoist away."
The effect was instantaneous, for the boat quivered to her keel, as if she had scraped over a rock in the ocean, and then made a frantic plunge forwards that sent her bows under.
"Gently, boat, gently," said Eric, bringing her head up again to the wind, upon which she heeled over till her gunwale was nearly submerged, but she now raced along more evenly. "Sit over to windward as much as you can," he called out to Fritz, shifting his own position as he spoke.
Almost before they were aware of it, they were careering past the western headland of the bay, when Eric, by a sudden turn of his steering oar, brought the bows of the whale-boat to bear towards the beach. The little craft partly obeyed the impetus of his nervous arm, veering round in the wished-for direction, in spite of the broken water, which just at that point was in a terrible state of commotion from a cross current that set the tide against the wind.
But, it was not to be.
The doom of the boat was sealed in the very moment of its apparent victory over the elements!
A return wave—curling under from the base of the headland, against whose adamant wall it had hurled itself aloft, in the vain attempt to scale the cliff—falling back angrily in a whirling whish of foam, struck the frail craft fair on the quarter. The shock turned her over instantly, when she rolled bottom upwards over and over again. The sea then hurled her with the force of a catapult upon the rocks that jutted out below the headland; and Fritz and Eric were at once pitched out into the seething surf that eddied around, battling for their lives.
How they managed it, neither could afterwards tell; but they must have struck out so vigorously with their arms and legs at this perilous moment, in the agony of desperation, that, somehow or other, they succeeded in getting beyond the downward suction of the undertow immediately under the overhanging headland. Otherwise, they would have shared the fate of the boat, for their bodies would have been dashed to pieces against the cruel crags.
Providentially, however, the strength of the struggling strokes of both the young fellows just carried them, beyond the reach of the back-wash of the current, out amidst the rolling waves that swept into the bay from the open in regular succession; and so, first Eric and then Fritz found themselves washed up on the old familiar beach, which they had never expected to set foot on again alive.
Here, scrambling up on their hands and knees, they quickly gained the refuge of the shingle, where they were out of reach of the clutching billows that tried to pull them back.
As for the boat, it was smashed into matchwood on the jagged edges of the boulders, not a fragment of timber a foot long being to be seen.
The brothers had escaped by almost a miracle!
"That was a narrow squeak," cried Eric, when he was able to speak and saw that Fritz was also safe.
"Yes, thank God for it!" replied the other. "I had utterly given up hope."
"So had I; but still, here we are."
"Aye, but only through the merciful interposition of a watchful Hand," said Fritz; and then both silently made their way up the incline to their little hut by the waterfall, unspeakably grateful that they were allowed to behold it again.
Never had the cottage seemed to their tired eyes more homelike and welcome than now; and they were glad enough to throw themselves in bed and have some necessary rest:— they were completely worn-out with all they had gone through since the previous morning, for the anxious night had passed by and it was broad daylight again before they reached shore.
Not a particle of the boat or anything that had been in her was ever washed up by the sea; consequently, they had to deplore the loss, not only of the little craft itself, the sole means they had of ever leaving the bay, but also of the carcase of the goat they were conveying home to supply them with fresh meat, as a change from their generally salt diet. The sea, too, had taken from them their last haul of sealskins, which had cost them more pains to procure than the much larger lot they had pitched down from the plateau, and which fortunately were safe.
Nor was this the worst.
Their two rifles and the fowling piece—which Fritz had taken with him, as usual, in his last hunting expedition, for the benefit of the island hen and other small birds—as well as the harpoons, and many other articles, whose loss they would feel keenly, were irrevocably gone!
But, on the other side of the account, as the brother crusoes devoutly remembered, they had saved their lives—a set-off against far greater evils than the destruction of all their implements and weapons!
The first week or two of their return from this ill-fated expedition, Fritz and Eric had plenty to do in preparing the bundles of sealskins they had secured in their first foray, and which they found safe enough at the bottom of the gully where they had cast them down from above; although they little thought then of the peril they would subsequently undergo and the narrow chance of their ever wanting to make use of the pelts.
Still, there the skins were, and there being no reason why they should not now attend to them, they set to work in the old fashion of the previous year, scraping and drying and then salting them down in some fresh puncheons Captain Fuller of the Jane had supplied them with, as well as a quantity of barrels to contain their oil, in exchange for the full ones he had taken on board.
After the skins were prepared, the blubber had to be "tried out" in the cauldron, with all the adjuncts of its oily smoke and fishy smell, spoiling everything within reach; and, when this was done, there was the garden to attend to, their early potatoes having to be dug up and vegetables gathered, besides the rest of the land having to be put in order.
They had no time to be idle!
Christmas with them passed quietly enough this time. The loss of the boat and the escape they had of their own lives just preceded the anniversary, so they felt in no great mood for rejoicing. In addition to that, the festival had too many painful memories of home, for which they now longed with an ardent desire that they had not felt in their first year on the island.
The fact was, that, now the whale-boat was destroyed, they were so irrevocably confined to the little valley where their hut was planted— shut in alike by land and sea, there being no chance of escape from it in any emergency that might arise, save through the unlikely contingency of some stray passing vessel happening to call in at the bay—that the sense of being thus imprisoned began to affect their spirits.
This was not all.
Their provisions lately had been diminishing in a very perceptible manner; so much so, indeed, that there was now no fear of their being troubled with that superabundance of food which Eric had commented on when they were taking the inventory of their stores!
But for some flour which Captain Fuller had supplied them with, they would have been entirely without any article in the farinaceous line beyond potatoes, their biscuits being all gone. The hams and other delicate cabin stores Captain Brown had originally given them were now also consumed; so that, with the exception of two or three pieces of salt pork still remaining and a cask of beef, they had nothing to depend on save the produce of their garden and some tea—all their other stores as well as their coffee and sugar having long since been "expended," as sailors say.
The months passed by idly enough, with nothing to do, and they watched for the approach of winter with some satisfaction; for, when that had once set in, they might look for the return of the Pilot's Bride to rescue them from an exile of which they were becoming heartily weary.
The penguins departed in April, as before, leaving them entirely solitary and more crusoe-like than ever, when thus left alone themselves; and, then, came the winter, which was much sharper than previously, there being several heavy falls of snow, while the waterfall froze up down the gorge, hanging there like a huge icicle for weeks.
It was dreary enough, and they hardly needed the wintry scene to make their outlook worse; but, one bitter morning they made a discovery which filled them with fresh alarm.
They had finished eating all their salt pork, but had never once opened the cask of beef since Eric abstracted the piece he roasted the year before "for a treat"; and, now, on going to get out a good boiling piece, in order to cook it in a more legitimate fashion, they found to their grief that, whether through damp, or exposure to the air, or from some other cause, the cask of beef was completely putrid and unfit for human food!