Willis the Pilot by Johanna Spyri
On the Watch--Fecundity of Plants and Animals--Latest News from the Moon--A Death-Knell every Second--The Inconveniences of being too near the Sun--Narcotics--Willis contralto--Hunting turned upside down--Electric Clouds--Partialities of Lightning--Bells and Bellringers--Conducting Rods--The Return--The Two Sisters--Toby becomes a Dragoman.
As is usual in tropical climates, a blazing hot day was succeeded by an intensely dark night. The fire that the hunters had made on shore cast a lurid glare on the prominent objects round about. The flames, as they fitfully lit up the landscape into that dim distinctness termed by artists the chiar oscuro, made the bushes and trunks of trees appear like monsters issuing stealthily from the forest that lined the background. There seemed to be some attraction, however, elsewhere for the real monsters, not a single wild beast having as yet appeared on the scene.
The two young men were eagerly straining their eyes from the stern of the pinnace, whilst the dogs kept diligently wagging their tails in expectation of a signal for the onset. The position of Willis could be ascertained now and then by an eye of fire, which opened and shut as he inhaled or exhaled the fumes of his Maryland. The ripple beat gently on the sea-line of the boat, which oscillated with the regularity and softness of a cradle.
"It is always so," said Jack, impatiently; "if we don't want wild beasts, there are shoals of them to be seen; but if we do want them, then they are all off to their dens."
"Perhaps, there are none now," suggested Willis.
"Say rather," observed Fritz, "that there ought to be thousands; for on the one hand they multiply rapidly, and on the other there is no one to destroy them. Spaniards once left a few cattle on St. Domingo, and they increased at such a rate, that the island very soon would not have been able to support them, had they not been kept down by constant slaughter."
"Besides," remarked Jack, "the bovine race reproduce themselves more slowly than other animals; a single sow, according to a calculation made by Vauban, if allowed to live eleven years, would produce six millions of pigs."
"What a cargo of legs of pork and sides of bacon!" exclaimed Willis, laughing.
"Then fish; there are more than a hundred and sixty thousand eggs in a single carp. A sturgeon contains a million four hundred and sixty-seven thousand eight hundred and fifty, whilst in some codfish the number exceeds nine millions."
"Oh, you need not favor us with the 'Mariner's March,' Willis; what my brother says is perfectly correct."
"What, then, do these shoals of creatures live upon?"
"The big ones upon the little ones; fish devour each other."
"A beautiful harmony of Nature," remarked Fritz drily.
"Then plants," continued Jack, "are still more prolific than animals. Some trees can produce as many of their kind as they have branches, or even leaves. An elm tree, twelve years old, yields sometimes five hundred thousand pods; and, by the way, Willis, to encourage you in carrying on the war against the mosquitoes, a single stalk of tobacco produces four thousand seeds."
"The leaves, however, are of more use to me than the seeds," replied Willis.
"This admirable proportion between the productiveness of the two kingdoms demonstrates the far-seeing wisdom of Providence. If the power of multiplication in vegetables had been less considerable, the fields, gardens, and prairies would have been deserts, with only a plant here and there to hide the nakedness of the land. Had God permitted animals to multiply in excess of plants, the entire vegetation would soon have been devoured, and then the animals themselves would of necessity have ceased to exist."
"How is it, then," inquired Willis, "with this continual multiplication always going on, the inhabitants of land and sea do not get over-crowded?"
"Why, as regards man, for example, if thirteen or fourteen human beings are born within a given period, death removes ten or eleven others; but though this leaves a regular increase, still the population of the globe always continues about the same."
"It may be so, Master Jack, but when I was a little boy at school, I generally came in for a whipping, if I made out two and two to be anything else than four."
"And served you right too, Willis; but if the human family did not continually increase, if the number of deaths exceeded continually that of the births, at the end of a few centuries the world would be unpeopled."
"Very good; but if, on the other hand, there is a continual increase, how can the population continue the same?"
"Because the increase supposes a normal state; that is to say, the births are only estimated as compared with deaths from disease or old age. But then there are shipwrecks, inundations, plagues, and war, which sometimes exterminate entire communities at one fell swoop. Then whole nations die out and give place to the redundant populations of others; phenomena now observed in the cases of the aborigines of Australia and America."
"No signs of furs yet," cried Fritz, who was every now and then levelling his rifle at the phantoms on shore.
"We need not dread," continued Jack, "ever being hustled or jostled on the earth; life will fail us before space. There are now eight hundred millions of human beings in existence, and, according to the most moderate computation, room enough for twice that number. As it is, the most fertile sections of the earth are not the most populous; there are four hundred millions in Asia, sixty millions in Africa, forty in America, two hundred and thirty in Europe, and only seventy millions in the islands and continent of Oceanica!"
"To which," remarked Fritz, "you may add the eleven inhabitants of New Switzerland."
"Assuming, then, this calculation to be nearly accurate, though authorities vary materially in their computations of the earth's inhabitants, and regarding it in connexion with the average duration of human life, a thousand millions of mortals must perish in thirty-three years; to descend to detail, thirty millions every year, three thousand four hundred every hour, sixty every minute, or ONE EVERY SECOND."
"Aye," remarked Willis, "we are here to-day and gone to-morrow."
"Suppose, then, that the population of the earth were twice as great, cultivation would be extended, territories that are now lying waste would be teeming with life and covered with fertile fields, but the same beautiful equilibrium would be maintained."
"And the inhabitants of the planets," said Fritz, "what are they about?"
"What planets do you mean?" inquired Willis.
"Well, all in general; the moon, for example, in particular."
"The moon," replied Jack, "has, in the first place, no atmosphere. This we know, because the rays of the stars passing behind her are not, in the slightest degree, refracted; and this proves that neither men, nor animals, nor vegetables of any kind, are to be found in that planet, for they could not exist without air."
"That should settle the question," remarked Willis.
"Yes," remarked Fritz; "but some theorists, nevertheless, insist that there may be living creatures in the moon, for all that--of course, differently constituted from the inhabitants of our earth, and susceptible of existing without air. There is, however, no evidence of any kind to support such a theory; it is a mere fancy, the dream of an imaginative brain. Upon the same grounds, it may be argued, that the interior of the earth is inhabited, and that elves and gnomes are possible beings. Besides, the telescope has been brought to so high a degree of perfection, that objects the size of a house can now be detected in the moon."
"It seems, I am afraid," remarked Jack, who, like his brother, was getting annoyed by the phantasmagoria on shore, "that we were about as well supplied with wild beasts here as they are with men in the planets."
"In speaking of the moon, however," continued Fritz, "I do not imply all the planets; for, certain as we are that the moon has no atmosphere, so we are equally certain that some of the planets possess that attribute. Still there are other circumstances that render the notion of their being inhabited by beings like ourselves exceedingly improbable. Mercury, for example, is so embarrassed by the solar rays, that lead must always be in a state of fusion, and water, if not reduced to a state of vapor, will be hot enough to boil the fish that are in it. Uranus, at the other extremity of the system, receives four hundred times less heat and light than we do, consequently neither water nor any thing else can exist there in a liquid state; what is fluid on our earth must be frozen up into a solid mass. Good, I declare my brother has fallen asleep!"
"It is very--interesting--however," said Willis, making ineffectual efforts to smother a yawn.
"The same difficulty with comets; there must have been some very urgent necessity for human beings in order to have peopled them. When they pass the perihelion--"
"The what?" inquired Willis.
"The point where they approach nearest the sun--when they pass the perihelion, I was going to say, the heat they endure must be terrific; when on the other hand, at their extreme distance from that body, the cold must be intense. The comet of 1680 did not approach within five thousand myriametres of the sun."
"Friends coming within that distance of each other should at least shake hands," said Willis.
"Still, even at that distance, the heat, according to Newton, must be like red-hot iron, and if constituted like our earth, when heated to that degree, must take fifty thousand years to cool."
"Fifty thousand years!" said Willis, yawning from ear to ear.
"The central position between these extremes, which would either congeal our earth into a mass of ice or burn it up into a heap of cinders, is therefore the most congenial to such beings as ourselves. Whence I conclude--"
Here the crimson flashes of Willis's pipe, which had been gradually diminishing in brilliance suddenly ceased; contralto notes issued from the profundities of his breast, and it became evident to the orator that all his audience were sound asleep.
"Whence I conclude," said Fritz, addressing himself, "that my orations must be somewhat soporiferous."
Being thus left alone to keep a look-out on shore, his thoughts gradually receded within his own breast, where all was rose-colored and smiling, for at his age rust has not had time to corrupt, nor moths to eat away. And it was not long before he himself, like his two companions, was fast locked in the arms of sleep.
How long this state of things lasted the chronicle saith not; but the three sleepers were eventually awakened by a simultaneous howl of the dogs. They were instantly on their feet, with their rifles levelled.
It was too late; day had broken, and there was light enough to convince them that nothing was to be seen. The sheep's quarters had, however, entirely disappeared, and they had the satisfaction of knowing that they had politely given the denizens of the forest a feast gratis.
"Ah, they shall pay us for it yet," said Jack.
"This is a case of the hunters being caught instead of the game," remarked Fritz.
"The poor sheep! If Ernest had been here, he would have erected a monument to its memory."
"I doubt that; epitaphs are generally made rather to please the living than to compliment the defunct. But, Willis, we must deprive you of your office of huntsman in chief--I shall go into the forest and revenge this insult."
"I have no objection to abdicate the office of huntsman, but must retain that of admiral, in which capacity I announce to you that there will be a storm presently, and that we shall just have time to make Rockhouse before it overtakes us."
"That is rather a reason for our remaining where we are."
"We have come for skins, and skins we must have."
"Besides, we are two to one, and in all constitutional governments the majority rules."
"Have you both made up your minds?" inquired Willis.
"Yes, we are quite decided."
"In that case," said Willis, "let us hoist the anchor and be off home."
"Home! but we are determined to have the skins first."
"No, you are not," said Willis; "I know you better than you know yourselves. You are both brave fellows, but I know you would not, for all the skins in the world, have your good mother suppose that you were buffeted about by the waves in a storm."
"True; up with the anchor, Willis," said Fritz.
"Be it so," said Jack, shaking his fist menacingly at the silent forest, "but we shall lose nothing by waiting."
The sailor had not erred in his calculations, for they had scarcely unfurled the sail before they heard the distant rumbling of the storm. As soon as the first flash of lightning shot across the sky, Jack put his forefinger of one hand on the wrist of the other, and began counting one--two--three.
"Do you feel feverish?" inquired Willis.
"No, not personally," replied Jack; "I am feeling the pulse of the storm--twenty-four--twenty-five--twenty-six--it is a mile off."
"Aye! how do you make that out?"
"Very easily; you recollect Ernest telling us that light travelled so rapidly, that the time it occupied in passing from one point to another of the earth's surface was scarcely perceptible to our senses?"
"Yes, but I thought he was spinning a yarn at the time."
"You were wrong, Willis; he likewise told us that sound travels at the rate of four hundred yards in a second."
"Have patience, Willis! When the lightning flashes, the electric spark is discharged, is it not?"
"Well, I was never high enough aloft to see."
"But others have been; Newton and Franklin have seen it. Now, if the sound reaches our ears a second after the flash, it has travelled four hundred yards. If we hear it twelve or thirteen seconds after, it has travelled twelve or thirteen times four hundred yards, or about half a mile, and so on."
"But what has that to do with your pulse?"
"In the first place, I am in perfect health, am I not?"
"I hope so, Master Jack."
"Then when our systems are in good order, the pulse, keeping fractions out of view, beats once in every second; and consequently, though we do not always carry a watch, we always have our arteries about us, and may therefore always reckon time."
"Now I understand."
"Ah! then we are to escape this time without the 'Mariner's March.'"
"It appears, Master Jack, that you have turned philosopher as well as your brothers. Can you tell me what causes lightning?"
"Yes, I can, Willis. You must know, in the first place, that all the layers of the atmosphere are, more or less, charged with electricity."
"Ask him how," said Fritz drily.
"Ah, you hope to puzzle me," replied Jack, "but thanks to Mr. Wolston, I am too well up in physics to be easily driven off my perch, and therefore may safely take my turn in philosophising."
"Well, we are listening."
"The air, by means of the vapor it contains, absorbs electricity from terrestrial bodies, and so becomes a sort of reservoir of this invisible fluid. All chemical combinations evolve electricity, the air collects it and stores it up in the clouds. There, worshipful brother, your question is answered."
"Good, go on."
"Well, Willis, you must know, in the second place, the clouds are very good fellows, and share with each other the good things they possess. When one cloud meets another, the one over-supplied with this fluid and the other in its normal state, there is an immediate interchange of courtesies, the negative electricity of the one is exchanged for the positive of the other."
"There does not appear, however, to be much generosity in this transaction, since the surcharged cloud does not cede its superfluous abundance without a consideration."
"It is very rarely that philanthropy amongst us goes much further," remarked Fritz.
"No, everybody is not like Willis," rejoined Jack, "who acts like a prince, and gives legs of mutton gratis to hyenas and tigers. The discharges of electricity from one cloud to another are the flashes of lightning, and it is to be observed that the thunder is nothing more than the noise made by the fluid rushing through the air."
"What, then, is the thunderbolt?"
"There is no such thing as what is popularly understood by the term thunderbolt. The lightning itself, however, often does mischief. This happens when the discharge, instead of being between two clouds in the air, takes place between a cloud and the ground--a cloud surcharged with electricity understood. Then all intervening objects are struck by the fluid."
"There, however, you are wrong," said Fritz. "All objects are not struck; on the contrary, the fluid avoids some things and searches out others, even moving in a zig-zag direction to manifest these caprices; it often discharges itself on or into hard substances, and passes by those which are soft or feeble."
"I might say this arose from a sentiment of generosity," added Jack, "but I have other reasons to assign."
"So much the better," said Fritz, "as I should scarcely be satisfied with the first."
"Well," continued Jack, "lightning has its likings and dislikings."
"Like men and women," suggested Willis.
"It has a partiality for metal."
"An affection that is not returned, however," observed Fritz.
"If the fluid enters a room, for example, it runs along the bell wires, inspects the works of the clock, and sometimes has the audacity to pounce upon the money in your purse, even though a policeman should happen to be in the kitchen at the time."
"Perhaps," remarked Willis, "it is Socialist or Red Republican in its notions."
"It does not, however, patronise war," replied Jack; "I once heard of it having melted a sword and left the scabbard intact."
"That, to say the least of it, is improbable," remarked Fritz. "The hilt, or even the point, might have been fused; but even supposing the electric fluid to have been capable of such flagrant preference, the scabbard could not have held molten metal without being itself consumed."
"Aye," remarked Willis, "there are plenty of non-sensical stories of that kind in circulation, because nobody takes the trouble to test their truth. Still, according to your own account, a man or woman runs no danger from the lightning."
"I beg your pardon there, Willis; the electric fluid does not go out of its way to attack a human being, but if one should-happen to be in its way, it does not take time to request that individual to stand aside, it simply passes through him, and leaves him or her, as the case may be, a coagulated mass of inanimate tissues."
"What a variety of ways there are of getting out of the world!" said Willis lugubriously.
"Again," continued Jack, "anything that happens to be in the vicinity of the clouds when this interchange of courtesies is going on, is apt to draw the storm upon itself, hence the continual war that is carried on between the lightning and the steeples."
"Something like an individual coming within range of a cloud of mosquitoes," suggested Willis.
"A learned German--one of us," said the scapegrace, laughing, "calculated, in 1783, that in the space of thirty-three years there had been, to his own knowledge, three hundred and eighty-six spires struck, and a hundred and twenty bell-ringers killed by lightning, without reckoning a much larger number wounded."
"And yet," remarked Willis, "I never heard of an insurance against accidents by lightning."
"There are plenty of them, however, in Roman Catholic countries," said Fritz. "Every village has one, and the charge is almost nominal."
"How, then, do these companies make it pay?"
"They find it answer somehow, and they never collapse."
"Then everybody ought to insure."
"Yes, but there are some obstinate people who do not see the good of it."
"If my life had not already been forfeited, I should insure it. But how is it done?"
"Well, you have only to go into a church, fall down on your knees before the priest, he will make you invulnerable by a sign of the cross; then, come storms that pulverize the body or crush the mind, you are perfectly safe."
"Ah! that is the way you insure your lives, is it, trusting to the priests rather than to Providence? For my own part, I should prefer a policy of insurance--that is to say, if my life were of any value."
"Next to steeples," continued Jack, "come tall trees, such as poplars and pines. Should you ever be caught by a storm in the open country, Willis, never take shelter under a tree; face the storm bravely, and submit to be deluged by the rain. Dread even bushes, if they are isolated. An entire forest is less dangerous than a single reed when it stands alone."
"But you forget, brother, that when a man stands alone he is quite as prominent an object as the trunk of a tree four or five feet high, particularly in an open plain."
"Quite so. It is therefore advisable, when severe storms are close upon us, to lie down flat on the ground."
"Suppose," remarked Fritz, smiling, "a brigade of soldiers on the march suddenly to collapse in this way, as if before a discharge of grape."
"And why not? If it is done in the case of grape-shot, why may it not be done when the artillery is a thousand times more effective?"
"Well, I suspect it would rather astonish the commanding officer, that is all."
"Then, Willis," continued Jack, "you must not run during a storm, because the air you put in motion by so doing may draw the electricity into the current."
"Do the conductors not prevent the lightning from doing harm?"
"Yes, but you cannot carry one of them on your hat. These rods are only useful in protecting buildings, and then to nothing more than double the area of their length; it is for this last reason that roofs of public buildings have them projecting in all directions."
"They are a sort of trap set for the lightning, are they not?"
"Yes, and into which it is pretty sure to fall. Franklin, of whom I spoke just now, was the first to suggest that bars of steel would draw lightning out of a cloud surcharged with electricity."
"What becomes of it when it is caught?"
"Keeping in view its partiality for bell-pulls, a wire is attached to the rod down which the unconscious fluid glides."
"Like a powder-monkey from the main-top."
"Exactly; till it enters a well, and there it is left at the bottom in company with Truth."
A practical storm had begun to mix itself up with the theory as developed by Jack, but not before they had very nearly reached their destination, where they were waited for with the greatest anxiety.
No sooner had they landed than Sophia ran to meet Willis, who was advancing with Jack.
"Ah, sweetheart," she said, "Susan has been so uneasy about you."
"You are a good girl, Miss Soph--Susan."
"Oh, if you only knew how frightened we have been!"
"What, do you admit fear to be one of your accomplishments, Miss Sophia?" inquired Jack.
"Certainly, when others are concerned, Master Jack. But, by the way, do you recollect the chimpanzee?"
"Yes, what about the rascal?"
"Oh, I must not tell you, mamma would call me a chatterbox; you will know by-and-by."
In the meanwhile Mary, on her side, was congratulating Toby, who kept scampering between herself and Fritz, at one moment receiving the caresses of the one and at the next of the other, with every demonstration of joy. This had become an established mode of communication between the young people when Fritz arrived from a lengthened ramble; the intelligent, brute, in point of fact, had assumed the office of dragoman.
"Ah, ah, Becker, glad to see you again," said Willis. "Your sons are fountains of knowledge, whilst I am--"
"A very worthy fellow, Willis, and I know it," replied Becker, shaking him heartily by the hand.