Willis the Pilot by Johanna Spyri
Where there's a Will there's a Way--Mucius Scævola--What's to be done?--Brutus Torquatus and Peter the Great--Australia, Botany Bay, and the Flying Dutchman--New Guinea and the Buccaneer--Vancouver's Island--White Skins--Danger of Landing on a Wave--Hanged or Drowned--Route to Happiness--Omens.
The old saw, Where there's a will there's a way, means--if it means anything--that a great deal may be effected by energy. A man without energy is a helpless character, and invariably lags behind his fellow mortals in the stream of life; like a cork in an eddy, he is rebuffed here and jostled there, and goes on travelling in a circle to the end of the chapter. Not so the man of action; no jostling thwarts him, no rebuffs retard him; he breaks through all sorts of obstacles, and floats along with the current.
Such a man was Becker. Though surrounded with dangers, and harassed by the elements, almost alone he had converted a wilderness into fertile fields; he pursued the track that his judgment suggested, and followed it up with invincible resolution; he manfully resisted the severest trials, and cheerfully bore the heaviest burdens; his reliance on Truth or Virtue and on God were unfaltering; but had he provided for every emergency? Is mortal power capable of overcoming every difficulty? We shall see.
A day or two after the entertainment at Rockhouse, Becker whispered to the Pilot--
"Willis, take a rifle, and come along with me; I have something to say to you."
They walked a quarter of an hour or so without uttering a word, when Willis broke the silence.
"You seem sad, Mr. Becker."
"Yes, Willis, I am almost distracted."
"Still, you seem well enough; you are as hale and hearty as if you had just been keel-hauled and got a new rig."
"It is not my body that is suffering, Willis; it is my mind."
"Whatever is the matter?"
"Willis, my wife is dying."
And so it was. For a long period Becker's wife had been a prey to racking pains, which, so to speak, she hid from herself, the better to conceal them from others, just as if suffering had been a crime. After having resisted for fourteen years the afflictions of exile, long and perilous expeditions, nights passed under tents, humid winters and fierce burning summers, her health had, at length, succumbed, not all at once, like fabrics sapped by gunpowder, but little by little, like those that are demolished piecemeal with the pickaxe of the workman. Day by day she grew more and more feeble, without those who were constantly by her side observing the insidious workings of disease. Like Mucius Scaevola, who held his hands in a burning brazier without uttering a word, she so effectually hid her griefs within the recesses of her own bosom, that no one even suspected her illness.
"But, Mr. Becker," said Willis, "I saw your wife this morning, and she seemed as well as usual."
"Yes, seemed, Willis, that is true enough; not to give us pain, she has concealed her illness from us all. It is only within the last twelve hours that I accidentally discovered that she has been long laboring under some fearful malady."
"Do you know the nature of the disease?"
"No, that I have no means of ascertaining; it may be a distinct form of disease, or it may be a complication of disorders, which I know not."
"It would not signify about the name if we only knew a remedy."
"True; but I dread some malady of a cancerous type, which could not be eradicated without surgical skill."
"I wish I had been born a doctor instead of a pilot," sighed Willis.
"I cannot see her perish before my eyes."
"Certainly not, Mr. Becker; it would never do to allow a ship to sink if she can be saved."
"Well, what is to be done?"
"There lies the difficulty; had it been a question of anything that floats on the water, I might have suggested a remedy; but, in this case, I am fairly run aground."
"I know too well what must be done, Willis. In cases of ordinary maladies, with care and due precaution, proper nourishment and time, Nature will generally effect a cure."
"Nature has no diploma, but she accomplishes more cures than those that have."
"Unfortunately this is not a malady that can be cured by such means; and, unless its progress be checked in time, it may ultimately assume a form that will render a cure impossible."
"Is death, then, inevitable?"
"A patient may retain a languishing life under such circumstances for some time; but if the disease be cancer, a cure is hopeless without instruments and scientific skill."
"I thought I was the only wretched being in the colony," said Willis, sighing, "but I find I am not alone."
"There are no hopes of the Nelson, are there?" inquired Becker.
"None now; for some time Mr. Wolston and yourself almost persuaded me that she had escaped; but had she reached the Cape, we should have heard of her ere now."
"The probabilities of another vessel touching here are small, are they not?"
"We are not in the direct track to anywhere; therefore, unless a ship has been driven out of her course by a gale, there is not a chance."
"Unfortunate that I am!" exclaimed Becker, covering his face with his hands. "Brutus, Manlius Torquatus, and Peter the Great, condemned their sons to death, but they were guilty; still the sacrifice must be made."
Here Willis stared aghast, and began to fear Becker's intellect had been affected by his troubles.
"I do not exactly understand you, Mr. Becker."
"Two of my sons have gone on before us; they were to embark in the canoe for Shark's Island, and wait for us there. I must have courage, and you also, Willis."
This exordium did not tend to alter the Pilot's impression. They walked on for some time in silence towards the coast.
"Do you know the latitude and longitude of this coast, Willis?"
"Good!" thought the Pilot, "he has changed the subject."
"Yes; we are in the South Sea, and no great distance from the line."
"What continent is nearest us?"
"We cannot be very far off the south coast of New Holland, or, as it is named in some charts, Australia. You know that the Nelson hailed from Botany Bay, or Sydney, as the convict colony which the English Government has just founded there is called."
"How far do you suppose we are from Sydney?"
"Well, I should say, with a fair wind and a smart craft, Sydney is not above two months' sail, if so much."
"Is the coast inhabited?"
"What character do the inhabitants bear?"
"According to the Dutch sailors, who have been on the coast, they are the most plundering and lubberly set of rascals to be met with anywhere."
"They are not acquainted with the use of fire-arms, are they?"
"No not of fire-arms; but they have a machine of their own that they call a waddy, or something of that sort, which they throw like a harpoon; but the thing takes a twist in the air, and strikes behind them."
"Is the coast accessible?"
"No; it is fringed with reefs, and, in some places, the surf runs for miles out to sea."
"The navigation along shore, then, is extremely perilous?"
"Whatever can he be driving at?" thought Willis.
"Yes; such a lee shore in a gale would terrify the Flying Dutchman himself."
Here Becker shook his head dolefully, and they walked on a little further in silence.
"What islands do you suppose are nearest us, Willis?"
"I should say we are in or near the group marked in the chart Papuasia; beyond them is the territory of New Guinea, and a point to nor'ard are a whole nest of islands discovered by the celebrated buccaneer, Dampiere."
"And their inhabitants?"
"Oh, some of them are pretty fair; but, taking them in the lump, they are a bad lot."
"The islands to the west are those discovered by Cook, Vancouver, and Bougainville, are they not?"
"They are marked Polynesia in the charts."
"Do you know of any European settlements on these islands?"
"Well, there is a fort of the Hudson's Bay Company on Vancouver's Island, but that is a long way north; and, I believe, a factory has recently been anchored in New Zealand, but that is a long way south."
"And what are the principal islands between?"
"There is New Caledonia, the New Hebrides, the Friendly Islands, the Societies' Islands, the Marquesas, Tahite, and the Pelew Islands; but each navigator gives them a new name, so that it is hard to say which is which; all you can do is to say that there is an island in latitude so and so and longitude so and so, but the name is almost out of the question."
"And the natives?"
"Some of them are remarkably tame, and trade freely with strangers; but others have strongly marked cannibal propensities, and dote upon a white-skin feast when they can get one."
Here Becker shuddered, and uttered an exclamation of horror.
"That would be a terrible fate, Willis."
"Whatever can he mean?" thought the Pilot.
"Willis, to reach Europe from here, what course do you think would be best?"
"Now I think I shall fix him at last," said the Pilot, levelling his rifle at an imaginary bird.
"You will only waste gunpowder," said Becker; "I see nothing."
"You asked me just now what course I should steer for Europe, did you not?"
"Well, the most direct course would be to make the Straits of Macassar, and then steer for Java."
"And when there?"
"You would then be fifteen or sixteen hundred leagues from the Cape."
"Yes, that is about the distance in a straight line across the Indian Ocean. When at the Cape, another fifteen days' sail will bring you to the line; five or six weeks after that St. Helena will heave in sight; then you fall in with the Island of Ascension; leaving which a week or two will bring you to the Straits of Gibraltar, where you get the first glimpse of Europe. But if you are bound for England, your daughter may commence working a pair of slippers for you; they will be ready by the time you get there."
They had now arrived at the point of the Jackal River where the pinnace was moored.
"What do you think of this boat?" inquired Becker.
"The pinnace is well enough for fair weather; but it is not the sort of craft I should like to command in a storm at sea."
"So that to venture to sea in it would be to incur imminent danger?"
"There is no denying that, Mr. Becker; if she shipped a moderately heavy sea, down she must go to the bottom, like a four and twenty pound shot; and if she should spring a leak, you cannot land to put her to rights; the waves are by no means solid."
"Just as I thought!" exclaimed Becker; "I was right in judging that it would be a sacrifice. It is almost certain death; but they must go."
"Where?" inquired Willis.
"To Europe if need be, if God in his mercy spares the pinnace."
"I have the means of purchasing surgical skill, and I must use all the sacrifices at my command to obtain it."
"Avast heaving, Mr. Becker," cried Willis; "now I understand; the thing is as clear as the tackle of the best bower, and when a resolution is once formed, nothing like paying it out at the word of command. When shall we start?"
"I am not talking of either you or myself, Willis."
"Of whom then, may I ask?"
"Fritz and Jack. Fritz knows something of navigation; and if they succeed, they will have saved their mother; if they perish, they will have died to save her."
"Fritz, as you say, does know something of navigation, particularly as regards coasting; but here you have a pilot, accustomed to salt water, quite handy, why not engage him also?"
"Willis, you have yourself said that the undertaking is perilous in the extreme, and your life is not bound up like theirs in that of their mother."
"True; but do you not see that I am sick of dry land, and that I am getting rusty for the want of a little sea air?"
"I felt ashamed to ask you to share in so desperate an enterprise, otherwise I would have proposed it to you, Willis."
"But you might have seen that I was growing thin, absolutely pining away, and drying up on land. There are ducks that can live without water, but I am not one of them."
"Am I, then, to understand that you offer to risk your life in this forlorn hope?"
"Certainly, Mr. Becker; a man condemned to be hanged, running the risk of being drowned is no great sacrifice."
"Willis, I accept your offer, to share in the dangers of this enterprise, most gratefully. I thank you in the name of my sons and of their mother, and trust that God may enable me to recompense you for your devotion to them and to myself."
"You forget," added Willis, wiping a tear from the corner of his eye, that he ascribed to a grain of dust, "you forget that I was on the point of venturing out to sea in the canoe, had you yourself and Mr. Wolston not prevented me. There is work to be done, I admit; and it is not impossible to cross even the Indian Ocean in the pinnace. But we may find a doctor, perhaps, at some of the settlements--for instance, at Manilla, in the Philippines."
"That is not to be hoped for, Willis; there is, probably, only one skilful medical man in each colony, and he will be prevented leaving by Government engagements."
"True; then we had better hoist sail for Europe direct, and trust to falling in with a ship now and then."
"Alas!" sighed Becker, "in a path so wide as the ocean, it would be unwise to trust to such chances; you will have to rely, I fear, entirely upon the resources of the pinnace alone."
"Well, I dare say, though we may have to put up with half rations, we shall not starve on the voyage, at all events."
They had unmoored the pinnace, and were on their way to Shark's Island.
"You are about to announce to your sons their departure?" said Willis, inquiringly.
"Yes; but my heart almost fails me."
"The iron must be struck while it is hot. Will you commission me to whisper a few words in their ear?"
"Thanks, Willis; but what right have I to expect courage from them, if I exhibit weakness myself? No, my friend, I may shed tears in your presence, but not before them."
"A man ought never to allow his feelings to get the better of his courage," said Willis, in whose eyes, however, the dust was evidently playing sad havoc.
"These boys have almost never been absent from me. I have watched them grow up from infancy to adolescence, and from adolescence to manhood; they have always been dutiful and obedient, and with gratitude I have blessed them every night of their lives. But stern are the decrees of Fate; I must command them to depart from me--perhaps for ever!"
"There are evils that lead to good," said Willis, "even though these evils be the Straits of Magellan or the storms of the Indian Ocean."
Here the pinnace reached the offing of Shark's Island, where Fritz and Jack, leaning on the battery, watched the progress of the boat.
"Do you observe how downcast my father looks?" said Fritz.
"Willis does not look much gayer," remarked Jack.
"Do you believe in omens, Jack?"
"Now and then."
"Well, mark me, there is a screw loose somewhere, or I am no oracle."