Willis the Pilot by Johanna Spyri
The Pioneers--Excursion to Coromandel--Hindoo Fancies--A Caged Hunter--Louis XI and Cardinal Balue--A Furlong of News--Carnage--The Baronet and his seventeen Tigers--Fifty-four feet of Celebrity--Sterne's Window--Promenade of the Consciences--Emulation and Vanity.
When a country is released from the presence of an enemy that annoyed and harassed them, the people feel as if a weight had been taken off their shoulders; so the inhabitants of New Switzerland had breathed more freely since the capture of the chimpanzee.
The works at Falcon's Nest were completed, and the two families had taken possession of their aerial dwellings, where they were perched like a pair of rookeries within call of each other.
The confined air of towns has a tendency to plunge men into lethargy and indolence, and to precipitate the decadence of a constitution in which the seeds of disease have been sown; whilst, on the other hand, the pure air of the country braces the nerves, excites a healthy action in the system, and invigorates a shattered frame; so it was with Mr. Wolston--under the benign influences of the genial climate and the refreshing sea breeze, he gradually, but steadily, recovered health and strength.
A larger breadth of land had been cleared and fitted for receiving grain, which it was susceptible of reproducing a hundred-fold. Such is the sublime contract God has made with man, that, in exchange for his labor and skill, a single grain of wheat will produce seven or eight stalks, each bearing an ear containing fifty grains; a single grain has been known to yield twenty-eight ears, and Pliny states that Nero received a grain bearing the enormous number of three hundred and sixty ears. Strange that such a singular instance of fecundity should present itself during the domination of a man, or rather monster, who dared to wish that the Roman people had only one head, so that he might cut it off at a single blow!
Willis and the Wolstons were as yet ignorant of the extent and limits of the colony; there were two inclosed and cultivated sections, named respectively Waldeck and Prospect Hill, which they had not yet inspected. With a view to enable them to form a more accurate conception of the boundaries of the territory they inhabited, a grand excursion was decided upon that would enable them leisurely to investigate every nook and cranny of the settlement.
The storehouse was accordingly overhauled, and the ladies called in to prepare viands for the journey; they were likewise invited to furnish a supply of certain enchanted travelling bags, in which the gentlemen were often astonished to find, during their distant expeditions, a thousand and one useful things that they would never have dreamt of bringing with them of their own accord.
Becker, Wolston, Ernest, and Frank set about the construction of a vehicle on four wheels for the luggage and the ladies; they did not contemplate erecting a machine with elastic springs and gilded panels, like the Lord Mayor's state coach--their object was to produce a machine that would ease, without dislocating, the limbs of the travellers, and that would move at least more gently than a gardener's cart, loaded with hampers of greens for Covent Garden Market. It may readily be supposed that Ernest's Latin was not of much service in these operations, for even Wolston's mechanical skill was sorely tried in elaborating the design.
Fritz, Willis, and Jack had already started as pioneers of the expedition to examine the buildings, and to see that no more apes or other piratical marauders had established themselves on their premises; and, in compliance with a request made by Willis, who strongly objected to becoming a bushranger, they had gone by water. It was further arranged that, on their return, all should start together--the entire community in one cavalcade, like an army on the march.
The young ladies were as much pleased in anticipation with this journey as if the destination of the travellers had been Brighton or Ramsgate. To children of their age, change is always pleasing. Often, in consequence of a death, the collapse of a bank, the loss of a law-suit, or some dire disaster of that sort, parents have seen themselves compelled to abandon the home of their fathers, endeared to them by many gentle recollections, perhaps to embark for some far distant land; they stifle their sighs, and bid a mute farewell to each stone and each tree, familiar to them as household words; they depart with reluctance, and often turn to cast a lingering look behind at objects so dear to their memory. Not so the children; they issue from the door like a flock of caged pigeons just let loose; they sing and leap and laugh with glee; the old house has no charms for them, they are as glad to depart as their elders are wishful to stay; the trunk desires to multiply its roots on the soil, but the buds prefer to blow elsewhere--for the latter life resolves itself into the word FUTURE, and for the former into the word PAST.
Leaving Wolston, Becker, and his two sons hard at work on the carriage, let us turn to the pinnace which was now making its way along the shore under the guidance of the Pilot.
"I should like much," said Fritz, "to present Mr. and Mrs. Wolston with a couple of bear, leopard, or tiger skins."
"So should I," said Jack.
"I wish you could think of some other sort of gift," suggested Willis; "what do you say to a couple of seal or shark skins?"
"Won't do," replied both Fritz and Jack in one voice. "What objections have you to the others?"
"Well, you are in some sort consigned to my care; I should like you to return to your parents with your own skins entire."
"Then you think it is a terrific affair to kill a tiger or two? You have been accustomed to the sea, and fancy landsmen are good for nothing but shooting crows and wild-cats; that is a mistake, however; we are familiar with larger game."
"Shiver my timbers! do you call bears and tigers game?"
"I am afraid, Willis, you are a bit of a milksop."
"Avast heaving there, Master Fritz! as it is, I am a half-hanged man already, so death has now no terrors Dov me; it is the first pang that is most felt."
"Yes; but in the case of tigers, they never give you time to feel a second pang; miss your aim, and it is all over with you."
"True; and therefore I wish you would give up the project. As for myself, I would face anything with a four-pounder, but rifle practice on board ship is mostly confined to the marines; it is not that, however, I am troubled about; I am certain your worthy father would never forgive me if I countenance this project."
"You need not tell him anything about it."
"Where, then, are the skins to come from? Can you say you bought them at the furrier's? You must really hit upon some other fancy."
"But it is not a fancy, Willis, it is a necessity; it is not our own amusement we are consulting. Just imagine yourself what will happen during the excursion now being arranged. Our parents will, of course, offer their bear skins to Mr. and Mrs. Wolston; there will be refusals on the one side and entreaties on the other."
"And, as is usual in these sort of discussions," added Jack, "Mrs. Wolston will call her carriage."
"Yes," continued Fritz, "and my mother will most certainly deprive herself of a covering that is absolutely indispensable during the cold nights of this climate."
"There is reason in what you say," observed Willis, scratching his ear.
"You see, Willis, the thing ought and must be done."
"As you put it, yes; but it will take time to prepare the skins."
"They will not be ready in time for this expedition certainly, and my mother must do without her skin this journey; but it is our duty to prevent anything of the sort happening in future."
"Were I to consent to this project," said Willis, "there is still something more required."
"Why, the tigers and what's-a-names; it is necessary to find the brute before you can get its skin."
"Granted; there would be a difficulty in the case had we not here quite handy a magnificent covering of wild animals, all ready to kill or to be killed. Just steer a point to the east, Willis; there, that will do. Just beyond that bluff you see yonder, there is a low flat plain covered with brushwood and tufted with trees; on the left, this prairie is bounded by a chain of low hills, and on the right a broad river, which last we have named the St. John, because it bears some resemblance to a stream of that name in Florida; beyond this plain there is a swamp."
"And," added Jack, "behind this swamp there is a magnificent forest of cedars, peopled with the finest furs imaginable, but garnished, however, with formidable claws and rows of teeth."
"I was not aware," said Willis, "that we were within reach of such amiable neighbors."
"Oh, they cannot reach us; thanks to the conformation of that chain of hills you see yonder, there is only one pass that opens into our settlement, and that we have taken care to shut up and fortify."
"It appears then," said Willis, "that there will be no difficulty in finding the animals, but--"
"Come, Willis, no more buts; you hunt in your own way from morning till night, let us for once hunt in ours."
"I go a-hunting?"
"Yes, there you are, charging your piece just now."
"Oh, my pipe you mean; but look at the difference; mosquitoes bite human beings, they don't eat them!"
"And, you may add, their skins don't make bed-clothes. Besides, if my mother takes rheumatism or the ague, it will be you that is to blame."
"I would rather face all the tigers in Bengal and all the lions in Africa than incur such a responsibility. I will, therefore, take a part in your cruise, and if any accident happens to either of you, I shall stay in the forest till nothing is left of me but my cap and my bones. In this way I will escape all reproach in this world, and I may as well, after all, rejoin my old commander, Captain Littlestone, by this road as by any other."
In the meantime, they had reached the coast of Waldeck, and having landed, they found the outhouses and sheds that had been erected there in satisfactory order; the apes had not forgotten a battue that had once been got up for their special behoof, as not an individual was to be seen in the neighborhood. A morass of the district that had been converted into a rice plantation, promised an abundant crop; and the cotton plants, that Frank had once mistaken for flakes of snow, reared their woolly blossoms, looking for all the world like the powdered heads of our ancestors. After a slight repast, the pinnace was once more in motion, and the party steering for Prospect Hill.
"Ah," sighed Willis, "I wish we had only Sir Marmaduke Travers' cage here."
"Cage!" cried Fritz, laughing, "what, to shut up the game first and shoot it afterwards?" "No, quite the reverse: to shut up the hunters."
"Ah, you would serve us in the same way as Louis XI. served Cardinal Balue."
"I know nothing of either Louis XI. or Cardinal Balue; but the cage I speak of was an excellent invention, for all that."
"Which you would like to prove to us by caging ourselves, eh?"
"Sir Marmaduke Travers," continued Willis, "was an English gentleman, and he was travelling in Coromandel, no one knew why or for what purpose."
"For the fun of the thing, probably," suggested Jack; the English are said to be great oddities."
"At that time there happened to be a Hindoo widow somewhere in those parts. This lady was very rich, very young, very beautiful, and very fond of tormenting her admirers. And, as fate would have it, the travelling Englishman was completely taken captive by this dark beauty; and taking advantage of the hold she had obtained upon his heart, she amused herself by making him do all sorts of out of the way things. Sometimes she would bid him let his moustache grow, then she would order him to cut it off; he had to worship Brahma, adopt the fashion of the Hindoos, and had even to undergo the indignity of having his head tied up in a dirty pocket-handkerchief."
"That is to say," remarked Jack, "that the lady, not having a pug or a monkey, made Sir Marmaduke a substitute for both."
"Very likely, but still Sir Marmaduke was no fool; he was, on the contrary, a gentleman and a philosopher."
"I doubt that," said Jack.
"You are wrong, then. You have been brought up in an out of the way part of the world, and are not familiar with the usages of civilized society. When once a man has allowed the tender passion to take root in his breast, it cannot afterwards be extinguished at will; it grows and grows like an oil spot, so that what might easily have been mastered at first, makes us in time its devoted slave."
"I cannot admit," said Fritz, "that any sensible man would allow himself to be treated in the way you state."
"The wisest and bravest have often, for all that, been obliged to bend their heads to such circumstances; in fact, those only escape whose hearts have been steeled by time or adversity. Well, nothing would please the lady in one of her caprices short of Sir Marmaduke's going alone to the jungle and killing a tiger or two for her. This caused him some little uneasiness."
"I should think so," remarked Jack, "unless he had been accustomed to face the animals."
"However, the widow's hand was to be the reward of the achievement, and the thing must consequently be done. Being, however, as I have said, a bit of a philosopher, he considered with himself that if, by chance, he should perish in the attempt he would lose the widow all the same, and that he could not think of with any thing like equanimity. To extricate himself from this dilemma he sent a despatch to an enterprising friend of his, then stationed with his regiment at Calcutta, requesting his advice."
"And this friend, no doubt, sent him a couple of tigers all ready trussed?"
"No, better than that; he sent him a strong iron cage fifteen feet square, very solid. This was shipped on board a cutter commanded by Captain Littlestone, and I was entrusted with the task of erecting it on shore, whilst an express was sent off to Sir Marmaduke."
"Ah!" said Jack, "I begin to understand now."
"Well, he rigged himself in tiger-hunting costume, went and bade the lady good-bye, who coolly wished him good sport, mounted a horse, and rode off to conquer a lady who, as a proof of her affection, had so cavalierly consigned him to the tender mercies of the wild beasts."
"Why, it was dooming him to certain destruction," said Fritz.
"In the meantime the cage had been conveyed to a valley surrounded with mountains, the caves of which were known to shelter entire colonies of tigers. Here also came Sir Marmaduke. The cage was firmly embedded in the soil, the exterior was thickly studded over with sharp spikes screwed into the bars; inside were placed a table and a sofa, with crimson velvet cushions."
"A lady's boudoir in the wilderness," said Jack.
"In one corner there was a case containing a dozen bottles of pale ale, and as many of champagne; in another was a second case containing curry pies and a variety of preserved meats; in a third case were five and twenty loaded rifles, together with a complete magazine in miniature of powder and shot. On the table were sundry cases of havannahs, a box of allumettes, the last number of the Edinburgh Review, and a copy of the Times."
"What is the Times?" inquired Jack.
"It is a furlong of paper, folded up and covered with news, advertisements, and letters from the oldest inhabitant of everywhere. Leaving, then, Sir Marmaduke seated in the centre of his cage, we towards night returned to the cutter, first scattering two or three quarters of fresh beef in the vicinity of the cage."
"That should have assembled all the tigers in Coromandel," said Fritz.
"Anyhow, it brought enough. Towards midnight Sir Marmaduke could count thirty noble brutes capering in the moonlight and feasting upon the beef that had been provided for them."
"What did the Englishman do then?"
"He took aim at the most magnificent specimen of the herd and fired. No sooner had he done this than the whole pack came scampering towards the cage, thinking, doubtless, they had nothing to do but scrunch the bones of the solitary hunter. This was the signal for a regular slaughter. Sir Marmaduke discharged his rifles point blank in the noses of the animals that environed him on all sides; those who were not wounded by the balls were severely injured by the spikes of the cage in their furious efforts to seize their enemy. The howling, yelling, and fury was quite a new sensation for Sir Marmaduke; he rather enjoyed the thing whilst the excitement lasted. However, all things must have an end; when the sun appeared on the horizon the wounded retired, leaving the dead masters of the situation."
"I suppose, in the meantime," remarked Fritz, "that the amiable Hindoo was considering whether or not, under the circumstances, she should wear mourning for her defunct cavalier."
"Be that as it may, the defunct made his appearance, safe and sound, that same day, whilst the cutter stood out to sea with every vestige of the cage except the dead tigers. Shortly after, the widow was astonished to see an army of coolies marching in procession towards her door, all, like the slaves of Aladdin, heavily laden; and she was not awakened from her surprise till the master of the ceremonies had placed the following letter in her hands:
"Madam,--With this you will receive seventeen fall-grown tigers, which I have had the honour of shooting for you.
"That was a choice bijou for a lady," said Jack.
"Yes," added Fritz; "and if the ladies of Coromandel have stands in their drawing-rooms, to display the tributes to their charms, Sir Marmaduke's present afforded abundant material for adorning those of the widow."
"Well, the consequence was, that Sir Marmaduke's name rung from one end of India to the other. The feat of killing, single-handed, seventeen tigers, converted him into a hero of the first magnitude. No festival was complete without him, he was courted by the fashionables and worshipped by the mob; some enthusiasts even proposed to erect a tomb for him, that being the way they honor their great men in eastern nations."
"Every country," remarked Fritz, "has its own peculiarities in this respect. The memory of the illustrious men of Greece and Rome was perpetuated in the intrinsic merit of the works of art erected in their names. In England quantity takes the place of quality; there is said to be in London a statue of a hero disguised as Achilles, six yards in height, and perched upon a pedestal twelve yards high."
"Making in all," remarked Jack, "exactly eighteen yards of fame."
"The handsome Hindoo," continued Willis, "was proud of the feat her charms had inspired. She gloried in showing off the redoubtable tiger-slayer at her reunions, and ended in being completely fascinated herself with her former slave. The match that she had formerly sneezed at she now earnestly desired, and, as Sir Marmaduke did not declare himself so speedily as she desired, she determined to give him a little encouragement by sending one of the most inviting and most odoriferous of notes."
"Sir Marmaduke must then have considered himself one of the happiest of men," said Fritz.
"Well," continued Willis, "neither man nor woman can, in affairs of this kind, depend upon themselves for two consecutive hours. The aspirations of a whole life-time may be dispelled in five minutes, and the wishes of to-day may become the detestations of to-morrow. The new sensations awakened in Sir Marmaduke by the affair of the cage--his recollection of the ferocious brutes as they clung with expiring energy to the bars of the cage, their streaked skins streaming with blood, the fearful howling and terrific death yells, the formidable claws that were often within an inch of his face--had, somehow or other, chased the passion he had felt for the widow completely out of his breast."
"Oh, the scamp of a Travers!" said Jack, energetically.
"He began to ask himself coolly what a lady, who had made such extraordinary demands upon him before marriage, might not require him to do after; and the result of his cogitations is expressed in the following reply that he sent to the now smiling widow:--
"'Sir Marmaduke Travers is highly flattered by the charming note of the adorable daughter of Brahma; he shall gladly continue to bask in the sunshine of her smiles, out his ambition desires and will accept nothing more.'"
"Flowery and laconic," said Fritz.
"Well," inquired Willis, "was I not right in wishing to have the cage of Sir Marmaduke here?"
"Yes, but we cannot get it. We have no ingenious trend at Calcutta to send us such a machine, and furnish it with crimson-cushioned sofas and pale ale, so we shall have to rest satisfied with our own ingenuity, tact, and agility."
Fritz and Jack were justified in relying upon their own resources. They had been often sorely tried, and never had been found wanting in cases of emergency. Since the arrival of the Wolstons their courage had become almost temerity; previous to that event, they had been content to meet danger bravely when it was inevitable, and never went deliberately in search of it. Now, however, if we apply the glass of which Sterne speaks to their breasts and spy what is passing therein, we shall fad that an imperious desire to become heroes had taken possession of their inward souls--a determination to make themselves conspicuous at all hazards was burning within them; that, in fact, they were courting the admiration of the new audience that Providence had sent to the colony, the praise of which found more favor in their hearts than the paternal admonitions.
This was far from being commendable; but, although emulation and vanity have some features in common, still they must not be confounded: the former consists in generous efforts to equal or surpass some one in something praiseworthy; the second is a kind of self-love, that seeks to purchase respect or flattery at no matter what cost;--the one is a vice, the other a virtue.
Fritz and Jack were not actuated by vanity; they were urged on by their impulses, without weighing the circumstances that gave them rise; and indeed they were not even conscious of being more desirous of renown now than they had been hitherto.
The temperament of Ernest and Frank was of another kind. Their natures were much less excitable, and it did not appear that the recent arrivals had altered their outward demeanor in the slightest degree; they continued calm, staid, and reflective, as they had ever been.
All four were a singular mixture of the child and the man--knowing many things that young people are ignorant of, they were yet almost totally unacquainted with the ordinary attributes of social life--unsophisticated and naive to an extreme degree, they would have appeared in a fashionable drawing-room downright fools. On the other hand, they possessed great clearness of perception, presence of mind in danger, promptitude in action, and the utmost coolness in the face of apparently insurmountable obstacles--qualities that would have utterly confounded the young men who shine in the saloons of Europe, whose chief merit often consists in their being familiar with the unmeaning conventionalisms of fashionable life.
At Prospect Hill they found the outhouses and plantations in much the same position as at Waldeck. Here the crimson flowers of the caper plant, the white flowers of the tea plant, and the rich blossoms of the clove tree, perfumed the air and promised a fragrant harvest. This was a charming caravansary, all ready with its smiles to welcome the illustrious colonists as soon as they presented themselves.
These points being settled to the satisfaction of the three pioneers, a sheep was taken on board the pinnace at the request of Willis--who seemed to have taken a violent fancy for mutton chops--and they set sail towards the east.
In the first instance they made for a projecting head-land that seemed to bar their progress in that direction, and, much to the astonishment of the Pilot, they entered a cavern that formed the entrance to a natural tunnel. This, besides being an interesting feature in the coast scenery, was one of the treasures of the colony, for it contained vast quantities of edible birds' nests, so much prized by the Chinese. The voyagers did not, however, tarry here; these were not the objects they were now in search of. Nautilus Bay and the Bay of Pearls were likewise traversed unheeded, nor could the attractive banks of the St. John, fringed with verdant foliage, divert them from the project they had in contemplation.
Wise men, when they indulge in folly, are often more foolish than real fools; so it was with Willis: now that he had joined in the scheme, he evinced more ardor in its execution than the young men themselves. He said that it would not be enough to capture skins for Mr. and Mrs. Wolston, they must also capture one a-piece for Mary and Sophia likewise, and talked as if the adventure of Sir Marmaduke and his seventeen tigers had been a bagatelle.
Some hours before dark they landed at a spot well known to both Fritz and Jack; it was a place where Becker and his sons had some time before been engaged in deadly conflict with a herd of lions, and where one of their dogs had fallen a victim to the enraged monarchs of the forest.
"My plan," said Willis, "is to kill the sheep and place the quarters on the shore, just as bait is thrown into the water to bring the fish within the net."
"A reminiscence of Sir Marmaduke," said Jack.
"Then," continued Willis, "we shall light a fire to take the place of the sun, who is about to retire for the night. This done, I propose that we should return to the pinnace, keep the mutton within rifle range, and riddle the skins that come to feast upon it."
After some opposition on the part of Fritz and Jack, who preferred to encounter their antagonists on more equal terms, the proposal of Willis was ultimately agreed to.