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Chapter Fourteen. A Grand Tree-climber.
The castaways having made a repast on chicks instead of eggs, as they had been expecting, were for the time satisfied, so far as concerned their appetites. But aware that these would ere long recommence their craving, they could not be contented to remain inactive. It would be necessary to procure some other kind of provisions, and, if possible, a permanent stock on which they could rely until ready to set out on their journey, with a surplus to carry them some way along it.

Although in Borneo there are many kinds of strange birds, and some of them large ones, they are not to be found everywhere, and when seen, not so easily caught or shot. There are some large quadrupeds too, as the Indian rhinoceros, and the Sumatran tapir; and although the flesh of these great thick-skinned animals is neither tender nor delicate, yet men who can get no other soon find themselves in a position to relish it, despite its toughness and its coarse texture. But neither rhinoceros nor tapir was seen by our castaways; neither seemed to frequent that part of the coast, as no tracks of them were observed during their excursions. If they had fallen in with a rhinoceros, they would have had some difficulty in killing it; seeing that this enormous brute is as large as a small elephant, its body protected by a thick hide embossed with hard knob-like protuberances, like those upon shields, giving to the animal the appearance of being encased in a full suit of ancient armour.

The Sumatran tapir, too, is a creature that does not readily succumb to its assailant, being larger and stronger than its namesake of South America.

There are two species of deer known in Borneo; one of them, the “rusa,” a fine large animal.

Captain Redwood was in hopes he might meet with an individual of either species; and with this object in view, he continued to make short excursions into the woods, taking his rifle along with him, occasionally accompanied by Murtagh, with the ship’s musket.

But they always returned empty-handed, and a good deal down-hearted, having seen nothing that could be converted into venison.

Saloo had again tried for eggs and shell-fish, but was unsuccessful in his search after both; evidently there were no more depositories of maleos’ eggs, nor Singapore oysters, nor, indeed, any kind of shell-fish, on that part of the shore. They did not again see any of the mound-making birds—not even those they had despoiled; for it is not the habit of the megapodes to return to their eggs, but to leave them to be hatched under the hot sand, and the chicks to scratch their way upward to the surface, thus taking care of themselves from the very moment of their birth, and, indeed, we may say, before it, since it can scarcely be said they are born before breaking through the shell; and this they have to do for themselves, else they would never see daylight. Talk of precocious chicks! There are none anywhere to be compared with the megapodean pullets of the Malayan Archipelago, no birds half so “early” as they.

For some days, after eating up the last chicken of the flock, our castaways could get nothing to live upon but durions; and although these formed a diet sufficiently agreeable to the palate, they were not very strengthening. Besides, they were not so easily gathered; the few they had found on some trees, which Saloo had conveniently climbed, being quickly exhausted. The large durion-tree under which they had first encamped was well furnished with fruit. But its tall stem, nearly a hundred feet, without a branch, and with a bark smooth as that of a sycamore, looked as if no mortal man could ascend it. Captain Redwood had fired several rounds of his chain-shot up into it, and brought down many of the grand spinous pericarps; but this cost an expenditure of ammunition; and, circumstanced as they were, they saw it would never do to waste it in such whimsical fashion. Still, for want of food, the fruit must be obtained some way or other, and the question was how to “pluck” it.

In their dilemma the Malay once more came to their aid. Fortunately for all, Saloo was a native of Sumatra, and had been brought up among its forests, much resembling those of Borneo. He was skilled in the wood-craft common to both islands; and, perhaps, of all the crew of the castaway ship, not one could have survived whose services would have been of more value to Captain Redwood and his party than those of the brown-skinned pilot;—especially since it had been their fate to be cast upon the shores of Borneo. His companions had already experienced the benefit to be derived from his knowledge of the country’s productions, and were beginning to consult him in almost every difficulty that occurred. He appeared capable of accomplishing almost anything.

For all this, they were no little surprised and somewhat incredulous when he declared his intention of climbing the great durion-tree. Murtagh was very much inclined to deny that he could do it.

“The nigger’s makin’ game of us, captin,” he said. “It would be as much as a squirrel could do to speel up that tall trunk. Why, it’s as smooth as the side of a copper-bottomed ship, an’ nothin’ to lay howlt on. He’s jokin’.”

“No jokee, Mista Multa. Saloo that tlee climb soon. You help you see.”

“Oh, be aisy now! I’ll help you all I can, if that’ll do any good. How do you mane to set about it?”

To this Saloo made no verbal rejoinder, but laying hold of a small axe, that had been brought away in the boat, he walked off toward a clump of bamboos growing near the spot where they had made their camp.

The first thing he did was to cut down five or six of the largest of these canes, some of them being several inches in diameter, directing Murtagh to drag them off, and deposit them close to the durion-tree.

As soon as he had felled what he deemed a sufficient number, he returned to the spot where the Irishman had deposited them, and commenced chopping them into pieces of about eighteen inches in length. In this the ship-carpenter, by reason of his calling, was able to give him efficient aid; and the ground was soon strewed with disjointed bamboos. Each of the pieces was then split into two, and sharply pointed at one end, so as to resemble a peg designed for being driven into the ground. But it was not into the ground Saloo intended driving them, as will be presently seen.

While Murtagh was engaged in splitting and sharpening the sections of bamboo, the Malay went off once more into the woods, and soon came back again, bearing in his arms what looked like a quantity of rough packing-cord. The freshly-cut ends of it, however, with their greenish colour and running sap, told it to be some species of creeping-plant—one of the parasites, or epiphytes, that abound everywhere in the forests of Borneo, as in those of all tropical countries, and render the trade of the ropemaker altogether superfluous.

Throwing down his bundle of creepers, Saloo now took up one of the pointed pegs, and, standing by the trunk of the durion, drove it into the soft sapwood, a little above the height of his own head. The axe, which was a light one, and had a flat hammer-shaped head, served him for a mallet.

As soon as the first peg had been driven to the depth of several inches, he threw aside the axe, and laid hold of the stake with both hands. Then drawing his feet from the ground, so that all his weight came upon the peg, he tried whether it would sustain him without yielding. It did, and he was satisfied.

His next movement was another excursion into the forest, where he found some bamboo stems of a slenderer kind than those already cut, but quite as tall. Having selected three or four of these, he chopped them down, and dragged them up to the durion. Then taking one, he set it upright on its butt-end, parallel to the trunk of the tree, and at such a distance from it as to strike near the outer extremity of the peg already driven home, close to the end of which he had already cut a couple of notches.

Some of the vegetable twine was next prepared by him, and taking a piece of the proper length, he made the upright bamboo fast to the horizontal peg by a knowing knot, such as only a savage or sailor can tie.

Captain Redwood and his ship-carpenter having now obtained an inkling of his design, stood by to render every assistance, while the young people as spectators were very much interested in the proceeding.

As soon as the upright cane was securely lashed to the cross piece, and also made safe against shifting by having its lower end “stepped” or embedded in the ground, Saloo prepared to ascend, taking with him several of the pegs that had been sharpened. Murtagh “gave him a leg,” and he stood upon the first “round” of the ladder.

Then reaching up, he drove in a second peg—not quite so far above the first as this was from the ground. With another piece of creeper he made it also fast to the perpendicular pole, and the second round was formed, upon which he had to climb without any helping hand, and with the agility of an ape.

A third step was similarly established; then a fourth and fifth, and so on, till the pegs and cordage carried up with him gave out, when he came back to the ground to provide himself with a second supply. Obtaining this, he once more ascended, and continued to carry aloft his singular “shrouds.”

The next thing to be exhausted was the upright piece, which, being only about thirty feet in length, and requiring a surplus to be left, of course came far short of reaching to the lowest limbs of the durion. Another similar stem of bamboo had to be added on by splicing; but for this he did not need to descend, as Murtagh, stretching to his arm’s length, handed it up to him, so that he was enabled to lay hold of and draw it up of himself.

Giving the two pieces a good length of double for the splice, he bound them securely together, and then went on with the driving of his pegs, to complete the remaining rounds of the ladder.

In a space of time that did not in all exceed twenty minutes, he had got up to within ten or twelve feet of the lower branches of the durion—to such a height as caused those looking at him from below to feel giddy as they gazed. It was, indeed, a strange and somewhat fearful spectacle—that slight human form, sixty or seventy feet above their heads, at such a vast elevation so diminished in size as to appear like a child or a pigmy, and the more fearful to them who could not convince themselves of the security of the slender stair upon which he was standing. They were half expecting that, at any moment, one of the pegs would give way, and precipitate the poor fellow to the earth, a crushed and shapeless mass!

It was just as when some courageous workman in a manufacturing town—bricklayer or carpenter—ascends to the top of one of its tall factory chimneys, to repair some damage done by fire-crack or lightning, and the whole populace of the place rushes out of doors, to look up at the strange spectacle, and admire the daring individual, while trembling in fear for his fate.

So stood the little party under the tall durion-tree, regarding the ascent of Saloo.


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