Willis the Pilot by Johanna Spyri
The Colony--Reflections on the Past--Ideas of Willis the Pilot--Sophia Wolston.
The early adventures of the Swiss family, who were wrecked on an unknown coast in the Pacific Ocean, have already been given to the world. There are, however, many interesting details in their subsequent career which have not been made public. These, and the conversations with which they enlivened the long, dreary days of the rainy season, we are now about to lay before our readers.
Becker, his wife, and their four sons had been fifteen years on this uninhabited coast, when a storm drove the English despatch sloop Nelson to the same spot. Before this event occurred, the family had cleared and enclosed a large extent of country; but, whether the territory was part of an island or part of a continent, they had not yet ascertained. The land was naturally fertile; and, amongst other things that had been obtained from the wreck of their ship, were sundry packages of European seeds: the produce of these, together with that of two or three heads of cattle they had likewise rescued from the wreck, supplied them abundantly with the necessaries of life. They had erected dwellings here and there, but chiefly lived in a cave near the shore, over the entrance to which they had built a sort of gallery. This structure, conjointly with the cave, formed a commodious habitation, to which they had given the name of Rockhouse. In the vicinity, a stream flowed tranquilly into the sea; this stream they were accustomed to call Jackal River, because, a few days after their landing, they had encountered some of these animals on its banks. Fronting Rockhouse the coast curved inwards, the headlands on either side enclosing a portion of the ocean; to this inlet they had given the name of Safety Bay, because it was here they first felt themselves secure after having escaped the dangers of the storm. In the centre of the bay there was a small island which they called Shark's Island, to commemorate the capture of one of those monsters of the deep. Safely Bay, had, a second time, acquired a legitimate title to its name, for in it Providence had brought the Nelson safely to anchor.
By unwearying perseverance, indefatigable industry, and an untiring reliance on the goodness of God, Becker and his family had surrounded themselves with abundance. There was only one thing left for them to desire, and that was the means of communicating with their kindred; and now this one wish of their hearts was gratified by the unexpected appearance of the Nelson on their shore. The fifteen years of exile they had so patiently endured was at once forgotten. Every bosom was filled with boundless joy; so true it is, that man only requires a ray of sunshine to change his most poignant griefs into smiles and gladness.
The first impressions of their deliverance awakened in the minds of the young people a flood of projects. The mute whisperings that murmured within them had divulged to their understandings that they were created for a wider sphere than that in which they had hitherto been confined. Europe and its wonders--society, with its endearing interchanges of affection--that vast panorama of the arts and of civilization, of the trivial and the sublime, of the beautiful and terrible, that is called the world--came vividly into their thoughts. They felt as a man would feel when dazzled all at once by a spectacle, the splendor of which the eyes and the mind can only withstand by degrees. They had spelt life in the horn-book of true and simple nature--they were now about to read it fluently in the gilded volume of a nature false and vitiated, perhaps to regret their former tranquil ignorance.
Becker himself had, for an instant, given way to the general enthusiasm, but reflection soon regained her sway; he asked himself whether he had solid reasons for wishing to return to Europe, whether it would be advisable to relinquish a certain livelihood, and abandon a spot that God appeared to bless beyond all others, to run after the doubtful advantages of civilized society.
His wife desired nothing better than to end her days there, under the beautiful sky, where, from the bosom of the tempest, they had been guided by the merciful will of Him who is the source of all things. Still the solitude frightened her for her children. "Might it not," she asked herself, "be egotism to imprison their young lives in the narrow limits of maternal affection?" It occurred to her that the dangers to which they were constantly exposed might remove them from her; to-day this one, to-morrow another; what, then, would be her own desolation, when there remained to her no bosom on which to rest her head--no heart to beat in unison with her own--no kindly hand to grasp--and no friendly voice to pray at her pillow, when she was called away in her turn!
At length, after mature deliberation, it was resolved that Becker himself, his wife, Fritz and Jack, two of their sons, should remain where they were, whilst the two other young men should return to Europe with a cargo of cochineal, pearls, coral, nutmegs, and other articles that the country produced of value in a commercial point of view. It was, however, understood that one of the two should return again as soon as possible, and bring back with him any of his countrymen who might be induced to become settlers in this land of promise, Becker hoping, by this means, to found a new colony which might afterwards flourish under the name of New Switzerland. The mission to Europe was formally confided to Frank and Ernest, the two most sedate of the family.
Besides the captain and crew, there was on board the ship now riding at anchor in the bay a passenger, named Wolston, with his wife and two daughters. This gentleman was on his way to join his son at the Cape of Good Hope, but had been taken seriously ill previous to the Nelsons arrival on the coast. He and his family were invited on shore by Becker, and had taken up their quarters at Rockhouse. Wolston was an engineer by profession, but his wife belonged to a highly aristocratic family of the West of England; she had been brought up in a state of ease and refinement, was possessed of all the accomplishments required in fashionable society, but she was at the same time gifted with strong good sense, and could readily accommodate herself to the circumstances in which she was now placed. Her two daughters, Sophia the youngest, a lively child of thirteen, and Mary the eldest, a demure girl of sixteen, had been likewise carefully, but somewhat elaborately, educated. Attracted no less by the hearty and warm reception of the Swiss family, than determined by the state of his health and the pure air of the country, Wolston resolved to await there the return of the sloop, the official destination of which was the Cape of Good Hope, where it had to land despatches from Sidney.
Captain Littlestone, of H.B.M.'s sloop Nelson, had kindly consented to all these arrangements; he agreed to convey Ernest and Frank Becker and their cargo to the Cape, to aid them there with his experience, and, finally, to recommend them to some trustworthy correspondents he had at Liverpool. He likewise promised to bring back young Wolston with him on his return voyage.
Everything being prepared, the departure was fixed for the next day: the sloop, with the blue Peter at the fore, was ready, as soon as the anchor was weighed, to continue her voyage. The cargo had been stowed under hatches. Becker had just given the farewell dinner to Captain Littlestone and Lieutenant Dunsley, his second in command. These two gentlemen had discreetly taken their leave, not to interrupt by their presence the final embraces of the family, the ties of which, after so many long years of labor and hardship, were for the first time to be broken asunder.
During the voyage, Wolston had formed an intimacy with the boatswain of the Nelson, named Willis, and he, on his side, held Wolston and his family in high esteem. Willis was likewise a great favorite with his captain--they had served in the same ship together when boys; Willis was known to be a first-rate seaman; so great, indeed, was his skill in steering amongst reefs and shoals, that he was familiarly styled the "Pilot," by which cognomen he was better known on board than any other. At the particular request of Wolston, who had some communications to make to him respecting his son, Willis remained on shore, the captain promising to send his gig for him and his two passengers the following morning.
Whilst Wolston was busy charging the pilot with a multitude of messages for his son, Mrs. Becker was invoking the blessings of Heaven upon the heads of her two boys; praying that the hour might be deferred that was to separate her from these idols of her soul. Becker himself, upon whom his position, as head of the family, imposed the obligation of exhibiting, at least outwardly, more courage, instilled into their minds such principles of truth and rules of conduct as the solemnity of the moment was calculated to engrave on their hearts.
The dial now marked three o'clock, tropical time. Willis, wiping, with the cuff of his jacket, a drop that trickled from the corner of his eye, laid hold of his seal-skin sou'-wester as a signal of immediate departure. Ernest and Frank were bending their heads to receive the parting benediction of their parents, when suddenly a fierce torrent of wind shook the gallery of Rockhouse to its foundation, and uprooted some of the bamboo columns by which it was supported.
"Only a squall," said Willis quietly.
"A squall!" exclaimed Becker, "what do you call a hurricane then?"
"Oh, a hurricane, I mean a downright reefer, all square and close-hauled, that is a very different affair; but, after all, this begins to look very like the real article."
Now came a succession of gusts, each succeeding one more powerful than its predecessor, till every beam of the gallery bent and quivered; dense copper-colored clouds appeared in the atmosphere, rolling against each other, and disengaging by their shock, the thunder and lightnings. Then fell, not the slender needles of water we call rain, but veritable floods, that were to our heaviest European showers what the cataracts of the Rhine, at Staubach, or the falls of Niagara, are to the gushings of a sylvan rivulet. In a few minutes the Jackal river had converted the valley into a lake, in which the plantations and buildings appeared to be afloat, and rendering egress from Rockhouse nearly impossible.
However much of a colorist Willis might be, he could not have painted a storm with the eloquence of the elements that had cut short his observation.
"You will not attempt to embark in weather like this?" inquired Mrs. Becker anxiously.
"My duty it is to be on board," replied the Pilot.
"The craft that ventures to take you there will get swamped twenty times on the way," observed Becker.
"The worst of it is, the wind is from the east, and evidently carries waterspouts with it. These waterspouts strike a ship without the slightest warning, play amongst the rigging, whirl the sails about like feathers--sometimes carry them off bodily, or, if they do not do that, tear them to shreds and shiver the masts. In either case, the consequences are disagreeable."
"A reason for you to be thankful you are safe on shore with us!" remarked Mrs. Wolston.
"It is all very well for you, Mrs. Wolston, and you, Mrs. Becker, to talk in that way; your business in life is that of wives and mothers. But what will the Lords of the Admiralty say, when they hear that the sloop Nelson was wrecked whilst Master Willis, the boatswain, was skulking on shore like a land-rat?"
"Oh, they would only say there was one useful man more, and a victim the less," replied Fritz.
"Why, not exactly, Master Fritz; they would say that Willis was a poltroon or a deserter, whichever he likes; they would very likely condemn him to the yard-arm by default, and carry out the operation when they get hold of him. But I will not endanger any one else; all I want is the use of your canoe."
"What! brave this storm in a wretched seal-skin cockle-shell like that?"
"Would it not be offending Providence," hazarded Mary Wolston, "for one of God's creatures to abandon himself to certain death?"
"It would, indeed," added Mrs. Wolston; "true courage consists in facing danger when it is inevitable, but not in uselessly imperiling one's life; there stops courage, and temerity begins."
"If it is not pride or folly. I do not mean that with reference to you, Willis," hastily added Wolston; "I know that you are open as day, and that all your impulses arise from the heart."
"That is all very fine--but I must act; let me have the canoe. I want the canoe: that is my idea."
"Having lived fifteen years cut off from society," gravely observed Becker, "it may be that I have forgotten some of the laws it imposes; nevertheless, I declare upon my honor and conscience--"
"Let me have the canoe, otherwise I must swim to the ship."
"I declare," continued Becker, "that Willis exaggerates the requirements of his duty. There are stronger forces to which the human will must yield. It is one thing to desert one's post in the hour of danger, and another to have come on shore at the express desire of a superior officer, when the weather was fine, and nothing presaged a storm."
"If there is danger," continued the obstinate sailor, whom the united strength of the four men could scarcely restrain, "I ought to share it; that is my duty and I must."
"But," said Wolston, "all the boatswains and pilots in the world can do nothing against hurricanes and waterspouts; their duty consists in steering the ship clear of reefs and quicksands, and not in fighting with the elements."
"There is one thing you forget, Mr. Wolston."
"And what is that, Willis?"
"It is to be side by side with your comrades in the hour of calamity, to aid them if you can, and to perish with them if such be the will of Fate. At this moment, poor Littlestone may be on the point of taking up his winter quarters in the body of a shark. But there, if the sloop is lost while I am here on shore, I will not survive her; all that you can say or do will not prevent me doing myself justice."
At this moment Jack, who had disappeared during this discussion, unobserved, came in saturated to the skin with water, and in a state difficult to describe. Like the boots of Panurge, his feet were floating in the water that flowed from the rim of his cap.
"What is this?" exclaimed his mother. "You wilful boy, may I ask where, in all the world, you have been?"
"I have just come from the bay. O father and mother! O Mr. and Mrs. Wolston! O Master Willis! if you had only seen! The sea is furious; sometimes the waves rise to the skies and mingle with the clouds, so that it is impossible to say where the one begins and the other ends. It is frightful, but it is magnificent!"
"And the sloop?" demanded Willis.
"She is not to be seen; she is no longer at anchor in the bay."
"Gone to the open sea, to avoid being driven ashore," said Wolston. "Captain Littlestone is not the man to remain in a perilous position whilst there remained a means of escape; besides, nothing that science, united with courage and presence of mind, could do, would have been neglected by him to save his ship."
"In addition to which," observed Becker, "if he had found himself in positive danger, he would have fired a gun; and in that case, though we are not pilots, every one of us would have hastened to his assistance."
"You see, Willis," said Mrs. Wolston, "God comes to ease your mind; were we to allow you to go to the sloop now, the thing is simply impossible."
"I have my own idea about that," insisted Willis, whilst he kept beating a tatoo on the isinglass window panes.
Whilst thus chafing like a caged lion, Wolston's youngest daughter went towards him, and gently putting her hand in his, said, "Sweetheart" (for so she had been accustomed to address him), "do you remember when, during the voyage, you used to look at me very closely, and that one evening I went boldly up to you and asked you why you did so?"
"Yes, Miss Sophia, I recollect."
"Do you remember the answer you gave me?"
"Yes, I told you that I had left in England, on her mother's bosom, a little girl who would now be about your own age, and that I could not observe the wind play amongst the curls of your fair hair without thinking of her, and that it sometimes made my breast swell like the mizen-top-sail before the breeze."
"Yes, and when I promised to keep out of your sight, not to reawaken your grief, you told me it was a kind of grief that did you more good than harm, and that the more it made you grieve, the happier you would be."
"All true:" replied the sailor, whose excitement was melting away before the soft tones of the child like hoar frost in the sunshine.
"Then I promised to come and talk to you about your Susan every day; and did I not keep my word?"
"Certainly, Miss Sophia; and it is only bare justice to say that you gracefully yielded to all my fatherly whims, and even went so far as to wear a brown dress oftener than another, because I said that my little Susan wore that color the last time I kissed her."
"Oh, but that is a secret, Willis."
"Yes, but I am going to tell all our secrets--that is an idea of mine. You then went and learned Susan's mother's favorite song, with which you would sometimes sing me to sleep, like a great baby that I am, and make me fancy that I was surrounded by my wife and daughter, and was comfortably smoking my pipe in my own cottage, with a glass of grog at my elbow."
Willis said this so earnestly, that the smile called forth by the oddness of the remark scarcely dared to show itself on the lips of the listeners.
"Very well," resumed the little damsel, "if you are not more reasonable, and if you keep talking of throwing your life away, I will never again place my hand in yours as now; I shall not love you any more, and shall find means of letting Susan's mother know that you went away and killed yourself, and made her a widow."
Men can only speak coldly and appeal to reason--logic is their panacea in argument. Women alone possess those inspirations, those simple words without emphasis, that find their way directly to the heart, and for which purpose God has doubtless endowed them with those soft, mild tones, whose melodies cause our most cherished resolutions to vanish in the air; like those massive stone gates we have seen in some of the old castles in Germany, that resist the most powerful effort to push them open, but which a spring of the simplest construction causes to move gently on their formidable hinges.
Willis was silent; but no openly-expressed submission could have been more eloquent than this mute acquiescence.
In the meantime the tempest raged with increased fury, the winds howled, and the water splashed; it appeared at each shock as if the elements had reached the utmost limit of the terrific; that the sea, as the poet says, had lashed itself into exhaustion! But, anon, there came another outburst more terrible still, to declare that, in his anger as in his blessings, the All-Powerful has no other limit than the infinite.
"If it is not in the power of human beings to aid the crew of the Nelson," said Mrs. Becker kneeling, "there are other means more efficacious which we are guilty in not having sought before."
Every one followed this example, and it was a touching scene to behold the rough sailor yield submissively to the gentle violence of the child's hand, and bend his bronzed and swarthy visage humbly beside her cherub head.