Willis the Pilot by Johanna Spyri
The Tears of Childhood and Rain of the Tropics--Charles' Wain--Voluntary Enlistment--A Likeness Guaranteed--The World at Peace--Alas, poor Mary!--The same Breath for two Beings--The first Pillow--The Logic of the Heart--How Fritz supported Grief--A Grain of Sand and the Himalaya.
At daybreak next morning, all the eyes in the colony were busily engaged in scrutinizing the sky. This time the operation seemed satisfactory, for immediately afterwards, all the hands were, with equal diligence, occupied in packing up and making other preparations for the meditated excursion to the remote dependencies of New Switzerland.
The dense veil that the day before had shrouded them in gloom was now broken up into shreds. The azure depths beyond had assumed the appearance of a blue tunic bespattered with white, and the clouds suggested the idea of a celestial shepherd, driving myriads of sheep to the pasture. Children alone can dry up their tears with the rapidity of Nature in the tropics; perhaps we may have already made the remark, and must, therefore, beg pardon for repeating the simile a second time.
In a short time, the two families were assembled on the lawn, in front of the domestic trees of Falcon's Nest, ready to start on their journey. The cow and the buffalo were yoked to the carriage, which was snugly covered over with a tarpauling, thrown across circular girds, like the old-fashioned waggons of country carriers. Frank mounted the box in front; Mrs. Becker, Wolston, and Sophia got inside; whilst Ernest and Jack, mounted on ostriches that had been trained and broken in as riding horses, took up a position on each side, where the doors of the vehicle ought to have been. These dispositions made, after a few lashes from the whip, this party started off at a brisk rate in the direction of Waldeck.
It had been previously arranged that one half of the expedition should go by land, and the other half by water, and that on their return this order should be reversed, so that both the interior and the coast might be inspected at one and the same time. The only exception was made in favor of Willis, who was permitted both to go and return by sea.
The second party, consisting of Mrs. Wolston, Becker, Mary, and Fritz, started on foot in the direction of the coast. They had not gone far before Becker observed a large broadside plastered on a tree.
"What is that?" he inquired.
Nobody could give a satisfactory reply.
"Perhaps," suggested Mrs. Wolston, "paper grows ready made on the trees of this wonderful country."
"They all approached, and, much to their astonishment, read as follows:--
"The renowned Professor Ernest Becker is about to enlighten the benighted inhabitants of this country, by giving a course of lectures on optics. The agonizing doubts that have hitherto enveloped astronomical science, particularly as regards the interiors of the moon and the stars, have arisen from the absurd practice of looking at them during the night. These doubts are about to be removed for ever by the aforesaid professor, as he intends to exhibit the luminaries in question in open day. He will also place Charles's Wain[C] at the disposal of any one who is desirous of taking a drive in the Milky Way. The learned professor will likewise stand for an indefinite period on his head; and whilst in this position will clearly demonstrate the rotundity of the earth, and the tendency of heavy bodies to the centre of gravity. In order that the prices of admission may be in accordance with the intrinsic value of the lectures, nothing will be charged for the boxes, the entrance to the pit will be gratis, and the gallery will be thrown open for the free entry of the people. The audience will be expected to assume a horizontal position. Persons given to snoring are invited to stay at home."
"I rather think I should know that style," remarked Willis.
"It is a pity Ernest is not with us," observed Fritz; "but the placard will keep for a day or two."
"They say laughing is good for digestion," remarked Mrs. Wolston; "and if so, it must be confessed that Master Jack is a useful member of the colony in a sanitary point of view."
The party had scarcely advanced a hundred paces farther, when Fritz called out,
"Holloa! there is another broadside in sight."
This one was headed by a smart conflict between two ferocious looking hussars, and was couched in the following terms:--
"All the inhabitants of this colony capable of bearing arms, who are panting after glory, are invited to the Fig Tree, at Falcon's Nest, there to enrol themselves in the registry of Fritz Becker, who is about to undertake the conquest of the world. Nobody is compelled to volunteer, but those who hold back will be reckoned contumacious, and will be taken into custody, and kept on raw coffee till such time as they evince a serious desire to enlist. There will be no objection to recruits returning home at the end of the war, if they come out of it alive. Neither will there be any objections to the survivors bringing back a marshal's baton, if they can get one. The Commander-in-chief will charge himself with the fruits of the victory. Surgical operations will be performed at his cost, and cork legs will be served out with the rations. In the event of a profitable campaign, a monument will be erected to the memory of the defunct, by way of a reward for their heroism on the field of battle."
"Well, Fritz," said Becker, with a merry twinkle in his eye, "you were sorry that Ernest was not present to hear the last placard read; fortunately, you are on the spot yourself this time."
Fritz tried to look amused, but the attempt was a decided failure.
When the party had gone a little farther, another announcement met their gaze; all were curious to know whose turn was come now; as they approached, the following interesting question, in large letters, stared them in the face:--
"HAVE YOU HAD YOUR PORTRAIT TAKEN YET?
"It has been reserved for the present age, and for this prolific territory, so exuberant in cabbages, turnips, and other potables, to produce the greatest of living artists--real genius--who is destined to outshine all the Michel Angelos and Rubenses of former ages. Not that these men were entirely devoid of talent, but because they could do nothing without their palette and their paint brushes. Now that illustrious maestro, Mr. Jack Becker, has both genius and ingenuity, for he has succeeded in dispensing with the aforementioned troublesome auxiliaries of his art. His plan which has the advantage of not being patented, consists in placing his subject before a mirror, where he is permitted to stay till the portrait takes root in the glass. By this novel method the original and the copy will be subject alike to the ravages of time, so that no one, on seeing a portrait, will be liable to mistake the grand-mother for the grand-daughter. Likenesses guaranteed. Payments, under all circumstances, to be made in advance.
"Ah, well," said Becker, laughing, "it appears that the scapegrace has not spared himself."
"I hope there is not a fourth proclamation," said Mrs. Wolston.
"There are no more trees on our route, at all events," replied Becker.
"Glad to hear that; Jack must respect the avocation chosen by Frank, since he sees nothing in it to ridicule."
As they drew near the Jackal River, in which the pinnace was moored, Mary and Fritz were a little in advance of the party.
"Are you really determined to turn the world upside down, Master Fritz?"
"At present, Miss Wolston, I am myself the sum and substance of my army, in addition to which I have not yet quite made up my mind."
"It is an odd fancy to entertain to say the least of it."
"Does it displease you?"
"In order that it could do that, I must first have the right to judge your projects."
"And if I gave you that right?"
"I should find the responsibility too great to accept it. Besides, a determination cannot be properly judged, without putting one's self in the position of the person that makes it. You imagine happiness consists in witnessing the shock of armies, whilst I fancy enjoyment to consist in the calm tranquility of one's home. You see our views of felicity are widely different."
"Not so very widely different as you seem to think, Miss Wolston. As yet my victories are nil; I have not yet come to an issue with my allies; to put my troops on the peace establishment I have only to disembody myself, and I disembody myself accordingly."
"Oh!" exclaimed Mary, "you are very easily turned from your purpose."
"Easily! no, Miss Wolston, not easily; you cannot admit that an objection urged by yourself is a matter of no moment, or one that can be slighted with impunity."
"Ah! here we are at the end of our journey."
"Already! the road has never appeared so short to me before."
"What!" exclaimed Mrs. Wolston, coming up to her daughter, "you appear very merry."
"Well, not without reason, mamma; I have just restored peace to the world."
The pinnace was soon launched, and, under the guidance of Willis, was making way in the direction of Waldeck. The sea had not yet recovered from the effects of the recent storm; it was still, to use an expression of Willis, "a trifle ugly." Occasionally the waves would catch the frail craft amidships, and make it lurch in an uncomfortable fashion, especially as regarded the ladies, which obliged Willis to keep closer in shore than was quite to his taste. The briny element still bore traces of its recent rage, just as anger lingers on the human face, even after it has quitted the heart.
Whilst the pinnace was in the midst of a series of irregular gyrations, a shrill scream suddenly rent the air, and at the same instant Fritz and Willis leaped overboard.
Mary had fallen into the sea.
Becker strained every nerve to stay the boat. Mrs. Wolston fell on her knees with outstretched hands, but, though in the attitude of prayer, not a word escaped her pallid lips.
The two men floated for a moment over the spot where the poor girl had sunk; suddenly Fritz disappeared, his keen eye had been of service here, for it enabled him to descry the object sought. In a few seconds he rose to the surface with Mary's inanimate body in his left arm. Willis hastened to assist him in bearing the precious burden to the boat, and Becker's powerful arms drew it on deck.
The joy that all naturally would have felt when this was accomplished had no time to enter their breasts, for they saw that the body evinced no signs of life, and a fear that the vital spark had already fled caused every frame to shudder. They felt that not a moment was to be lost; the resources of the boat were hastily put in requisition; mattresses, sheets, blankets, and dry clothes were strewn upon the deck. Mrs. Wolston had altogether lost her presence of mind, and could do nothing but press the dripping form of her daughter to her bosom.
"Friction must be tried instantly," cried Becker; "here, take this flannel and rub her body smartly with it--particularly her breast and back."
Mrs. Wolston instinctively followed these directions.
"It is of importance to warm her feet," continued Becker; "but, unfortunately, we have no means on board to make a fire."
Mrs. Wolston, in her trepidation, began breathing upon them.
"I have heard," said the Pilot, "that persons rescued from drowning are held up by the feet to allow the water to run out."
"Nonsense, Willis; a sure means of killing them outright. It is not from water that any danger is to be apprehended, but from want of air, or, rather, the power of respiration. What we have to do is to try and revive this power by such means as are within our reach."
The Pilot, meantime, endeavored to introduce a few drops of brandy between the lips of the patient. Fritz stood trembling like an aspen leaf and deadly pale; he regarded these operations as if his own life were at stake, and not the patient's.
"There remains only one other course to adopt, Mrs. Wolston," said Becker, "you must endeavor to bring your daughter to life by means of your own breath."
"Only tell me what to do, Mr. Becker, and, if every drop of blood in my body is wanted, all is at your disposal."
"You must apply your mouth to that of your daughter, and, whilst her nostrils are compressed, breathe at intervals into her breast, and so imitate the act of natural respiration."
Stronger lungs than those of a woman might have been urgent under such circumstances, but maternal love supplied what was wanting in physical strength.
The Pilot had turned the prow of the pinnace towards home; he felt that, in the present case at least, the comforts of the land were preferable to the charms of the sea.
"This time it is not my breath, but her own," said Mrs. Wolston.
"Her pulse beats," said Becker; "she lives."
"Thank God!" exclaimed Fritz and Willis in one voice.
A quarter of an hour had scarcely yet elapsed since the patient's first immersion in the sea; but this brief interval had been an age of agony to them all. As yet, her head lay quiescent on her mother's bosom, that first pillow, common alike to rich and poor, at the threshold of life.
The%signs of returning animation gradually became more and more evident; at length, the patient gently raised her head, and glanced vacantly from one object to another; then, her eyes were turned upon herself, and finally rested upon Fritz and Willis, who still bore obvious traces of their recent struggle with the waves. Here she seemed to become conscious, for her body trembled, as if some terrible thought had crossed her mind. After this paroxysm had passed, she feebly inclined her head, as if to say--"I understand--you have saved my life--I thank you." Then, like those jets of flame that are no sooner alight than they are extinguished, she again became insensible.
As soon as they reached the shore, Fritz hastened to Rockhouse, and made up a sort of palanquin of such materials as were at hand, into which Mary was placed, and thus was conveyed, with all possible care and speed, on the shoulders of the men to Falcon's Nest. A few hours afterwards she returned to consciousness and found herself in a warm bed, surrounded with all the comforts that maternal anxiety and Becker's intelligent mind could suggest.
Fritz was unceasing in his exertions; no amount of fatigue seemed to wear him out. As soon as he saw that everything had been done for the invalid that their united skill could accomplish, he bridled an untrained ostrich, and rode or rather flew off in search of the land portion of the expedition.
"Mary is saved," he cried, as he came up with them.
"From what?" inquired Wolston, anxiously.
"From the sea, that was about to swallow her up."
"And by whom?"
"By Willis, myself, and us all."
The same evening, the two families were again assembled at Falcon's Nest, and thus, for a second time, the long talked-of expedition was brought to an abrupt conclusion.
"Ah," said Willis, "we must cast anchor for a bit; yesterday it was the sky, to-day it was the sea, to-morrow it will be the land, perhaps--the wind is clearly against us."
How often does it not happen, in our pilgrimage through life, that we have the wind against us? We make a resolute determination, we set out on our journey, but the object we seek recedes as we advance; it is no use going any farther--the wind is against us. We re-commence ten, twenty, a hundred times, but the result is invariably the same. How is this? No one can tell. What are the obstacles? It is difficult to say. Perhaps, we meet with a friend who detains us; perhaps, a recollection that our memory has called, induces us to swerve from the path--the blind man that sung under our window may have something to do with it--perhaps, it was merely a fly, less than nothing.
It is not our minor undertakings, but rather our most important enterprises, that are frustrated by such trifles as these; for it must be allowed that we strive less tenaciously against an obstacle that debars us from a pleasure, than against one that separates us from a duty--in the one case we have to stem the torrent, in the other we sail with the current.
When we observe some deplorable instance of a wrecked career--when we see a man starting in life with the most brilliant prospects collapsing into a dead-weight on his fellows, we are apt to suppose that some insurmountable barrier must have crossed his path--some Himalaya, or formidable wall, like that which does not now separate China from Tartary; but no such thing. Trace the cause to its source, and what think you is invariably found? A grain of sand; the unfortunate wretch has had the wind against him--nothing more.
Rescued from the sea, Mary Wolston was now a prey to a raging fever. Ill or well, at her age there is no medium, either exuberant health or complete prostration; the juices then are turbulent and the blood is ardent.
Somehow or other, a good action attaches the doer to the recipient; so, in the case of Fritz, apart from the brotherly affection which he had vaguely vowed to entertain for the two young girls that had so unexpectedly appeared amongst them, he now regarded the life of Mary as identical with his own, and felt that her death would inevitably shorten his own existence; "for," said he to himself, "should she die, I was too late in drawing her out of the water." In his tribulation and irreflection, he drew no line between the present and the past, but simply concluded, that if he saved her too late, he did not save her at all. Hope, nevertheless, did not altogether abandon him. He would sometimes fancy her restored to her wonted health, abounding in life and vigour. Then the pleasing thought would cross his mind that, but for himself, that charming being, in all probability, would have been a tenant of the tomb. Would that those who do evil only knew the delight that sometimes wells up in the breasts of those who do good!
The first day of Mary's illness, Fritz bore up manfully. On the second, he joined his father and brothers in their field labors; but, whilst driving some nails into a fence, he had so effectually fixed himself to a stake that it was only with some difficulty that he could be detached. The third day, at sunrise, he called Mary's dog, shouldered his rifle, and was about to quit the house.
"Where are you going?" inquired Jack.
"I don't know--anywhere."
"Anywhere! Well, I am rather partial to that sort of place; I will go with you."
"But I must do something that will divert my thoughts. There may be danger."
"Well I can help you to look up a difficulty."
Every day the two brothers departed at sunrise, and returned together again in the evening. Mrs. Becker felt acutely their sufferings. She watched anxiously for the return of the two wanderers, and generally went a little way to meet them when they appeared in the distance.
"She does not run to meet us," said Fritz, one day; "that is a bad sign."
"Not a bit of it," replied Jack. "If she had any bad news to give us, she would not come at all."
[C] The constellation known in astronomy as the Great Bear is in, some parts of England termed the Plough, and in others Charles's Wain or Waggon. It may be added, that the same constellation is popularly known in France as the Chariot of David.