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Chapter Thirteen. Chicks quick to take Wing.
Two more days passed without any occurrence of an unusual nature, though the castaways made several short excursions and explorations into the forest, and also up and down the shore, keeping, however, close to the edge of the timber. These ended without any important discovery being made, but confirmed them in their conjecture that the coast on which they had been cast was uninhabited, at least for a considerable distance on each side of the place where they had landed.

The most disappointing thing about these exploratory trips was their fruitlessness in obtaining food, the chief object for which they had been made. Excepting some stray roots and berries of an esculent nature, they had nothing to eat after the maleos’ eggs were consumed; and these had lasted them only into the second day. It is true the durion stood near, and its fruit would for a time keep them from starving. Still it would do little for the restoration of their strength; and upon such diet it would be a long time before they could undertake the arduous journey contemplated with any fair prospect of being able to finish it. No more Singapore oysters could be found, no fish caught; and such birds and beasts of the forest as Captain Redwood had accidentally got a glimpse of, had either flown or fled away without giving him as much as the chance of a snap shot.

At night they again heard the stridulous clamour of the maleos, and every morning looked out for them; but these fine fowls did not put in another appearance, much less deposit three dozen eggs right under their eyes, and in a convenient spot for being gathered.

Saloo, however, who knew all about their habits, believed he might yet find another ovarium; and with this view, on the morning of the third day, after giving up all further attempts at getting shell-fish, he started upon a “prospecting” expedition after eggs, the others going with him.

Their route led along the shore, and among the dry sand-wreaths, swirled up near the selvedge of the woods. If another egg depository existed, it was there it should be found. He told his companions that not only did different gangs of the maleos bury their eggs in different places, but the same tribe or flock had the habit of returning to the beach at different times, each time laying their collected eggs in a new and separate pit. That, moreover, these curious birds, guided by instinct or cunning, are accustomed to conceal the place of deposit, which might be easily recognised by their tracks and scratchings. This they do by scoring the ground in other places, and giving to the surface the same appearance as it bears over the spot where their eggs have been left to the hatching of the sun.

In this searching excursion Saloo had brought with him a boat-hook; and it was not long before he had an opportunity of proving the truth of his words. A place where the sand was very much tracked by the huge feet of the megapodes soon presented itself, exactly resembling the spot where they had procured the first supply of eggs. But on probing it with the boat-hook, Saloo at once pronounced it one of the sham nests.

After all, the creatures did not show too much cunning; for the presence of this pretended place of deposit told the Malay that a real one would not be far off; and, sure enough, another was soon after discovered, which, on being sounded by the iron point of the boat-hook, gave back a firm feel and a sharp metallic click, that told him there were eggs underneath.

The sand as before, was carefully removed—Murtagh having brought with him an oar for the purpose—when, for the second time, nearly three dozen beautiful salmon-coloured eggs were disclosed to their view.

These were carefully taken up, and carried back to the place of encampment, where they were left lying upon the ground, the party resuming their quest, in hope of being able to lay in a larger and more permanent supply.

As it chanced, another considerable receptacle was struck, giving back sweet music to the probing of the boat-hook; and its contents were also added to the larder.

As the last lot had been found under sand that appeared but recently stirred, it followed that they were fresher than those of the second finding, and therefore was it determined upon that they should be first eaten.

The egg-gatherers having been now several hours engaged, and again become almost as hungry as when first cast upon the shore, once more kindled a fire, set the huge shells upon it, and using the one as a boiling-pot, and the other as a frying-pan, prepared themselves a meal of two courses—oeuf bouillé and omelette.

Next day they again went in search of other eggs, intending to lay in a store against the eventuality of any possible period of famine.

But although they discovered several scratched places, and carefully “sounded” them, no more maleos’ eggs could be found; and they came to the conclusion that they had despoiled all the “incubator” beds existing on that section of the Bornean coast.

By reason of their rapidly-increasing strength, their appetites were by this time almost insatiable. They were, therefore, not long in using up all the “setting” last gathered, and were about to begin upon the other lot that did not seem so “newly laid.” These had been kept separate, and permitted to lie where they had first placed them—out on the open surface of the sand, some fifteen or twenty yards beyond the shadow of the tree. Negligently, and somewhat unwisely, had this been done; for during the day the hot sun shining down upon them would naturally have a tendency to spoil and addle them. Still the time had not been very long; and as no one thought of their being damaged, they were preparing to turn them into eggs poached, fried, boiled, or otherwise.

Saloo had rekindled the fire, and got ready his pots and pans; while Murtagh, who had stepped out to the “larder”, was about to take up one of the eggs, and carry it to the “kitchen.” But at that moment a sight met the eyes of the Irishman, that not only astonished, but caused him to sing out so excitedly as at once to attract the attention of the others to the same singular spectacle.

It was that of an egg rolling, as it were, spontaneously over the ground? And not only one egg; for, as they continued to gaze a while, the whole lot, as if taking their cue from it, commenced imitating the movement, some with a gentle, others a more violent motion! Murtagh sprang back affrighted, and stood with his red hair on end, gazing at the odd and inexplicable phenomenon. The others were as much puzzled as he—all except the Malay, who at a glance understood the philosophy of the movement.

“Young malee inside,” he cried in explanation. “We no eat egg, we get chickee. Wait little minnit. You him see come out full featha.”

Truly enough the “chicks” did come out, not as down-covered helpless creatures, but pults in full plumage, as Saloo had predicted: at all events, full enough to enable them to fly; for as the shells one after another commenced crackling—burst outward by the young birds’ strength—each showed a perfect fledgling; that, springing forth from the shivered encasement, like Jack out of his box, at once flapped its little wings, and essayed short flights over the surface of the sand.

So much were the spectators taken by surprise, that one and all of the new-born but completely equipped birds, would have winged their way into the forest and been lost, had it not been for Saloo, who, accustomed to such transformations, was in no way discomposed, but preserved his coolness and equanimity.

Fortified by these, and armed with the boat-hook, which he had suddenly seized, he struck down the precocious chicks one after another, and put an end to their aspiring flights by laying them lifeless upon the sand.

In the end it was neither eggs nor omelettes, but tender, delicate “squabs” the castaways had for their prandial repast.


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