Willis the Pilot by Johanna Spyri
Bacon and Biscuit--Let Sleeping Dogs Lie--The Paternal Benediction--An Apparition--A Mother not easily deceived--The Adieu--The Emperor Constantine--hoc signo vinces--The Sailor's Postscript--Cæsar and his Fortunes--Recollections--Mrs. Becker plucks Stockings and Knits Ortolans--How delightful it is to be Scolded--The Bodies vanish, but the Souls remain.
On their return from Shark's Island, Fritz and Jack were deeply affected, not by the dread of the perils they were destined to encounter--these never gave them a moment's uneasiness--but by the knowledge that a merciless vulture was preying upon the vitals of their beloved mother.
Willis on the contrary, appeared as lively as if he had just received notice of promotion; but whether the idea of again dwelling on the open sea had really elevated his spirits, or whether this gaiety was only assumed to encourage Becker and his sons, was best known to himself.
It was arranged amongst them that no one, under any circumstances, should be made acquainted with the design they had in contemplation. By this means all opposition would be vanquished, and the regrets of separation would, in some degree, be avoided. Besides, if the project were divulged, might not Frank and Ernest insist upon their right to share its dangers? This eventuality alone was sufficient to impress upon them all the urgency of secrecy. The really strong man knows his weakness, and therefore dislikes to run the risk of exposing it, so Becker dreaded the tears and entreaties that this desperate undertaking would inevitably exercise, were it generally known beforehand to the rest of the family; whereas, if once the pinnace were fairly at sea, it could not be recalled, and time would do the rest.
Since, then, all the preparations had to be made in such a way as not to excite suspicion that any thing extraordinary was on foot, the progress was necessarily slow. Willis, under pretext of amusing himself, refitted the pinnace, and strengthened it so far as he could without impairing its sailing efficiency. He called to mind that, when Captain Cook reached Batavia, after his first voyage round the world, he observed with astonishment that a large portion of the sides of his famous ship the Endeavor was, under the water line, no thicker than the sole of a shoe.
As soon as the weather had settled, and the tropical heats set in, the Wolstons resumed their abode at Falcon's Nest; whilst, under some plausible pretext or other, Willis, Fritz, and Jack took up their quarters at Rockhouse. This arrangement gave the destined navigators the means of carrying on their operations unobserved, especially as regards salting provisions and baking for the voyage.
Along with the stores, a portion of the valuables, that still remained in the magazines of Rockhouse, were placed on board the pinnace; for, though gold and precious stones were not of much value in New Switzerland, Becker had not forgotten that such was not the case in other portions of the world; he reflected that his sons must be furnished with the means of returning to the colony with comfort. There was also a man of science and education to be bought, and that, he knew, could not be done without as the French proverb has it, having some hay in one's boots.
Storms are usually heralded by some premonitory symptoms: the atmosphere becomes oppressive, the clouds increase in density, the sky gradually becomes obscure and large drops of rain begin to fall, then follows the deluge, and the elements commence their strife. It is much the same with impending misfortunes: gloom gathers on the countenance, our movements become constrained, our thoughts wander, and a tear lingers in the corner of the eye. Fritz and Jack endeavored in vain to appear unconcerned, but, in spite of their efforts, it was painfully evident that their minds were burdened by some heavy weight. They were more tender and more affectionate, particularly towards their mother. Towards evening, when they quitted the family circle for Rockhouse, their adieus were so earnest, so warm, and so often repeated, that it almost appeared as if they were laying in a stock of them for their voyage, to store up and preserve with the bacon and biscuits. Even the animals came in for an extra share of caresses, and, if they were capable of reflection, it must have puzzled them sorely to account for all the endearments that were lavished upon them by the two brothers.
Becker himself was no less affected than his sons; sometimes, when the latter were busily occupied with some preparation for the voyage, he would fix his eyes sadly upon them, just as if every trait of these cherished features had not already been deeply graven on his soul.
During the preceding rainy season, the two young men felt the days long and tedious, and wished in their inmost hearts that they would pass away more swiftly; now, the hours seemed to fly with unaccountable rapidity, and they would gladly have lengthened them if they had had the power. But no one can arrest
Le temps, cette image mobile De l'immobile eternite.
And time is right in holding on the even tenor of its way; for if it once yielded to the desires of mortals, there would be no end of confusion and perplexity. It takes unto itself wings and flies away, say the fortunate; it lags at a snail's pace, say the unfortunate. The idler knows not how to pass it away. The man of action does not observe its progress. Those who are looking forward to some favorite amusement exclaim, "Would that it were to-morrow!" but how many there are that might well ejaculate, from the bottom of their souls, "Would that to-morrow may never arrive!" How, then, could such wishes be met in a way to satisfy all?
A day at length arrived when everything was ready for departure, and when nothing was wanted to weigh anchor but courage on the part of the voyagers. The pinnace was laden to the gunwale, the compass was in its place, the casks were filled with fresh water from the Jackal River, and Willis reported that both wind and sea were propitious for a start.
The morning of that day was lovely in the extreme. Willis, Fritz, and Jack were early at Falcon's Nest; the two families breakfasted together under the trees in the open air. After breakfast an adjournment to the umbrageous shade of the bananas was proposed and agreed to.
"Mother," said Fritz, taking Mrs. Becker's arm, "I want you all to myself."
"I object to that, if you please," cried Jack, taking her other arm.
"Why, you boys seem extravagantly fond of your mother to-day," said Mrs. Becker, gaily.
"Well, you see, mother, we have the right to have an idea now and then--Willis has one every week."
"So long as your ideas are about myself, I have no reason to object to them," said Mrs. Becker, smiling.
"We have always been dutiful sons, have we not, mother?" inquired Fritz.
"You are well pleased with us then?"
"We have never caused you any uneasiness, have we?" inquired Jack.
"That is to say, inadvertently," added Fritz; "designedly is out of the question."
"No, not even inadvertently," replied their mother.
"Were you very sorry when Frank and Ernest were going to leave us?"
"Yes, my children, the tears still burn my cheek."
"Nevertheless, you knew that it was for the common welfare, and you felt resigned to the separation."
"But why do you ask such a question now?"
"Well, a propos de rien, mother," replied Jack, "simply because we love you, and, like misers, we treasure your love."
Towards the afternoon both families were again assembled under the trees at Falcon's Nest This time it was dinner that brought them together; the repast consisted of cold meats of various kinds, but the chief dish was a wonderful salad, the rich, fresh odor of which perfumed the air. Wolston, Frank, and Ernest kept up a lively conversation, yet, though all seemed happy and pleased, there were bursting hearts at the table that day."
"I am going to take a turn in the pinnace to-morrow," said Willis, quietly; "who will go with me?"
"I will!" cried all the four brothers.
"I shall require you, Frank and Ernest, to take a look at the rice plantation to-morrow," said Becker, "so I wish you to put off the excursion till another time."
"We are at your orders, father," replied the two young men.
"Where are you going, Willis?" inquired Mrs. Wolston.
"Well, I am anxious to discover whether we inhabit an island or a continent, and may, consequently, extend the survey beyond the points already known; so you must not be disappointed should we not return the same night."
"But what is the good of such an expedition?" inquired Mrs. Becker.
"The country may be inhabited, or there may be inhabited islands in the vicinity," replied Willis.
"If there be natives anywhere near," said Mrs. Becker, "they have left us at peace hitherto, and, in my opinion, since the dog sleeps, it will be prudent for us to let it lie."
"It is not a question of creating any inconvenience," suggested Becker, "but only to ascertain more accurately our geographical position: such a knowledge can do us no possible harm, but, some day, it may be of immense service to us."
"What if you should fall in with a ship?" inquired Mrs. Wolston.
"In that case we shall give your compliments to the commander," replied Jack.
"You may do that if you like, but try and bring it back with you if you can."
"Do you wish to leave us?"
"I do not mean that," hastily added Mrs. Wolston, "but I am beginning to get anxious about my son, poor fellow. If the Nelson has not arrived at the Cape, then he will suppose we are all drowned, and I should like to fall in with some means of assuring him of our safety."
"Oh yes," cried the two girls, "do try and fall in with a ship; our poor brother will be so wretched."
"You might say our brother as well," added the two young men.
Here the two mothers interchanged a glance of intelligence, which might mean very little, but which likewise might signify a great deal.
A moment of intense anxiety had now arrived for Becker and his two sons; they could scarcely refrain from shedding tears, but they felt that the slightest imprudence of that nature would divulge everything.
"Come now, my lads, look alive," cried Willis, in a voice which he meant to be gruff; "if you intend to take a few hours' repose before we start in the morning, it is time to be off."
Fritz and Jack, had it been to save their lives, could not now have helped throwing more than usual energy into their parting embraces that particular afternoon; but they passed through the ordeal with tolerable firmness, and then with heavy hearts turned towards the door.
"I think I will walk with you as far as Rockhouse," said Becker.
All four then departed; and when the party were about fifty yards from Falcon's Nest, Fritz and Jack turned round and waved a final adieu to those loved beings whom probably, they might never see again.
"It is well," said Becker. "I am satisfied with your conduct throughout this trying interval."
It was now an hour when there is something indescribably sombre about the country; day was declining, the outlines of the larger objects in the landscape were becoming less distinct, and the trees were assuming any sort of fantastical shape that the mind chose to assign to them. Here and there a bird rustled in the foliage, but otherwise the silence was only broken by footsteps of the four men.
In ordinary life children quit the parental home by easy and almost imperceptible gradations. First, there is the school, then college; next, perhaps, the requirements of the profession they have adopted. Thus they readily abandon the domestic hearth; friends, intercourse, and society divide their affection, and the separation from home rarely, if ever, costs them a pang. Not so with Becker's two sons; their world was New Switzerland; therefore, like the rays of the sun absorbed by the mirror of Archimedes, all their affections were concentrated on one point.
On the former occasion when the family ties were on the eve of being rent asunder, the case was very different. It is true, Frank and Ernest were about to leave for an indefinite period of time; but then, every comfort that the most fastidious voyager could desire was awaiting them on board the Nelson; for a well-appointed ship is like a well-appointed inn on shore, all your wants are ministered to with the utmost celerity. Besides, Captain Littlestone had taken the young men under his special protection, and had promised to see them properly introduced and cared for in Europe. How dissimilar was the position of Fritz and his brother; they were about to tumble into the old world should they be so fortunate as to reach it, much as if they had dropped from the skies, without a guide and without a friend. They were about to entrust themselves to the ocean, separated from its treacherous floods by a few wretched planks; to be exposed for months, almost unsheltered, to wind, rain, and the mercy of pitiless storms.
"If God in His mercy preserves you, my sons," said Becker, breaking at last the silence, "you will find yourselves launched in an ocean still more turbulent than that you have escaped--an ocean where falsehood and cunning assume the names of policy and tact; where results always justify the means, whatever these may be; where everything is sacrificed to personal interest and ambition; where fortune is honored as a virtue that dispenses with all others, and where profligacies of the most odious kinds are decorated with gay and seductive colors. It is difficult for me to foresee the various circumstances amidst which you may be placed; but there are certain rules of conduct that provide for nearly every emergency. I have no need to urge loyalty or courage--these qualities are inseparable from your hearts. Strive only for what is just and honest. Submit to be cheated rather than be cheats yourselves; ill-gotten gains never made any one rich. Put your trust in Providence. Seek aid from on high, when you find yourselves surrounded with difficulties. Never forget that there is no corner on the earth's surface, however obscure, that the eyes of the Lord are not there to behold your actions. Act promptly and with energy. Bear in mind that every moment lost will be to your mother an age of suffering, and that her life is suspended on the fragile thread of your return."
The party had now reached the banks of the Jackal River, where the pinnace was moored. Fritz and Jack were shedding tears unrestrainedly, and had dropped on their knees at their father's feet.
"I call," said Becker, in a trembling voice, "the benediction of Heaven upon your heads, my sons."
"Oh, but they must not go!" cried Mrs. Becker, rushing out from behind some tall brushwood that hid her from their view; "they shall not go!"
Fritz and Jack were instantly inclosed within their mother's arms.
"Ah!" cried she, pushing aside the hair from their brows, the better to observe their features, "you thought to deceive your mother, did you?"
"Pardon!" exclaimed both the young men.
Here Becker thought it necessary to interfere; and, summoning all the courage he could muster to the task, said--
"Why should they not go? Is this the first expedition they have undertaken?"
"No, it is not the first expedition they have undertaken, but it is the first time their eyes and their looks betokened an eternal adieu. It is the first time that I felt they were forsaking me for ever, and it is the first time you ever addressed them with the words you just now uttered."
Becker saw that it was useless to attempt to carry deceit any further; he therefore withdrew his eyes from the piercing glance of his wife. Willis, caught in the act, as it were, was completely thrown off his guard, and had not a word to say for himself. Fritz and Jack had again fallen on their knees, this time at the feet of their mother.
"Ah! I begin to understand," she screamed, as she glanced around on the scared group that surrounded her, like a wounded lioness whose cubs were being carried off; "now the bandage begins to drop from my eyes. A thousand inexplicable things dart into my mind. You are sending the boys on an impracticable voyage to secure the safety of their mother; but you did not think that in order to prolong my existence for a few years, you would kill me instantly with grief! What right have you to impose a remedy upon me that is a thousand times worse than the malady? Have I ever complained? May my sufferings not be agreeable to me? May I not like them? Is pain and suffering not our lot from the cradle to the tomb? But I am not ill, I was never better in my life than I am at this moment."
Here she was seized with a paroxysm of nervous tremors that convulsed her frame most fearfully, and completely belied her words. Becker rushed forward and held her firmly in his arms.
"God give me strength!" he murmured. "Go, my children, where your duty calls you; go, my friend, do not prolong this terrible scene an instant longer."
Not another word was spoken, the pinnace was unmoored; Fritz, Jack, and Willis embarked. When at some little distance from the shore, there was just light enough for Fritz to notice that his father was directing the feeble steps of his mother in the direction of Falcon's Nest. In a few moments more all the objects on shore were one confused mass of unfathomable shadow. The pinnace dropped anchor at Shark's Island, where some few final preparations for the voyage had to be made. Fritz here took a pen and wrote:
"We part. We are gone. When you read this letter, the sea, for some distance, will extend between us. We shall live and move elsewhere, but our hearts still with you. We wish that Ernest and Frank would erect a flagstaff on the spot where we last parted with our parents. It may be to us what the celestial standard bearing the scroll, in hoc signo vinces was to the Emperor Constantine. The place is already sacred, and may be hallowed by your prayers for us. Our confidence in the divine mercy is boundless. Do not despair of seeing us again. We have no misgivings, not one of us but anticipates confidently the period when we shall return and bring with us health, happiness, and prosperity to you all.
"Let me add a word," said Jack.
"The sea is calm, our hearts are firm, our enterprise is under the protection of Heaven--there never was an undertaking commenced under more favorable auspices. Farewell then, once more, farewell. All our aspirations are for you.
"P.S.--Willis was going to write a line or two when, lo and behold! a big tear rolled upon the paper. 'Ha!' said he, 'that is enough, I will not write a word, they will understand that, I think,' and he threw down the pen."
"How is the letter to be sent on shore?" inquired Fritz.
"There is a cage of pigeons on board the pinnace," replied Jack, "but I do not want them to know that, for, if they should expect to hear from us, and some accident happen to the pigeons, they might be dreadfully disappointed."
"We can return on shore," observed Willis, "and place it on the spot, where we embarked; they are sure to be there to-morrow."
This suggestion was incontinently adopted. The letter was attached to a small cross, and fixed in the ground. The voyagers had all re-embarked in the pinnace, which was destined to bear even more than Caesar and his fortunes. Willis had already loosened the warp, when, a thought crossed the mind of Fritz.
"I must revisit Falcon's Nest once more," said he.
"What!" cried Willis, "you are not going to get up such another scene as we witnessed an hour or two ago?"
"No, Willis, I mean to go by stealth like the Indian trapper, so as to be seen by no mortal eye. I wish to take one more look at the old familiar trees, and endeavor to ascertain whether my mother has reached home in safety."
"But the dogs?" objected Willis.
"The dogs know me too well to give the slightest alarm at my approach. I shall not be long gone; but really I must go, the desire is too powerful within me to be resisted."
"I will go with you," said Jack.
Here Willis shook his head and reflected an instant.
"You are not angry with us, Willis, are you?"
"Not at all," he replied, "and I think the best thing I can do, under the circumstances, is to go too."
"Very well, make fast that warp again, and come along."
The party then disappeared amongst the brushwood.
"Some time ago," remarked Fritz, "we followed this track about the same hour; there was danger to be apprehended, but the enterprise was bloodless, though successful."
"You mean the chimpanzee affair," said Willis.
"Yes; this time we have only an emotion to conquer, but I am afraid it is too strong for us."
"These are the trees," said Jack, as they debouched upon the road, "that I stuck my proclamations upon. We had very little to think of in those days."
As the party drew near Falcon's Nest, the dogs approached and welcomed them with the usual canine demonstrations of joy.
"I have half a mind to carry off Toby," said Fritz; "but I fear Mary would miss him."
Externally all appeared tranquil at Falcon's Nest; this satisfied the young men that their mother had succeeded in reaching home, at least, in safety; a light streaming through the window of Becker's dwelling, however, showed that the family had not yet retired for the night.
"If they only knew we were so near them!" remarked Jack.
The entire party then sat down upon a rustic bench, shrouded with flowering orchis and Spanish jasmine.
"How often, on returning from the fields or the chase, we have seen our mother at work on this very seat," observed Fritz.
"Aye," added Jack; "once I observed she had fallen asleep whilst knitting stockings. I advanced on tip-toe, removed gently her knitting apparatus, stockings, and all, and placed on her lap some ortolans that I had caught and strangled; but I first plucked one of them, and scattered the feathers all about, and then retreated into a thicket to watch the denouement of my scheme. She awoke, put down her hand to take up a stocking, and laid hold of a bird. She stared, rubbed her eyes, stared again, looked about, and could find nothing but the ortolan feathers. I then ran forward and embraced her, looking as if I had just come from unearthing turnips. 'Well, I declare,' she said with a bewildered air, 'I could have sworn that I was knitting just now, and here I find myself plucking ortolans; and what is more, I have not the slightest idea where, in all the world, the birds have come from!' Of course, I looked as innocent as possible; so that the more she stared and reflected, the less she could make the matter out. At last, she went on plucking the birds, and when this was done she stuck them on the spit. When the ortolans were roasted and ready to be served up, I went into the kitchen, carried them off, and put my mother's knitting apparatus on the spit. Imagine her surprise when she beheld her worsted and stockings at the fire, knowing, at the same time, that four hungry stomachs were waiting for their dinners! At last, fearing that she was going to ascribe the metamorphosis to some hallucination of her own, I went up to her, threw my arms round her neck, told her the whole story, and we both of us enjoyed a hearty laugh over it."
"Aye, Jack, those were laughing times," said Fritz, sadly.
"Not only that, but our mother was always so even--tempered; she was never ruffled in the slightest degree by my nonsense; though she often had the right to be very angry, yet she never once took offence. On another occasion, Mary and Sophia Wolston were working here at those mysterious embroideries which they always hid when we came near."
"Toby's collar, I suppose," remarked Fritz.
"My tobacco pouch," suggested Willis.
"I approached," continued Jack, "with the muffled softness of a cat, and was just on the point of discovering their secret, when my monkey, Knips, who was cracking nuts at their feet, made a spring, and drew a bobbin of silk after it; this caused them to look round, and great was my astonishment to find myself caught at the very moment I expected to surprise them. They commenced scolding me at an immense rate, but then it was so delightful to be scolded!"
"Aye," murmured Fritz, "that is all over now."
Like a file of sheep, one recollection dragged another after it, so that the whole of the past recurred to their memories. Some faint streaks of light now warned them that day was about to break; the cocks began to crow one after the other, and to fill the air with their shrill voices.
"Now," said Willis, "it is high time to be off."
Jack hastily gathered two bouquets of flowers, which he suspended to the lintel of each dwelling.
"These," said he, "will show them that we have paid them another visit."
They then bent down all three on their knees, uttered a short prayer, and afterwards disappeared amidst the shadows of the chestnut trees.
"Listen!" said Willis, seeing that his companions were about to make a halt, "if you stop again, or speak of returning any more, I will cease to regard you as men."
Half an hour afterwards, on the morning of the 8th March, 1812, the pinnace bore out to sea, and when day broke, the crew could not descry a single trace of New Switzerland on any point of the horizon.