Willis the Pilot by Johanna Spyri
Jupiter Tonans--The Thunders of the Pilot--Worshippers of the Far West--A late Breakfast--Rono the Great--A Polynesian Legend--Manners and Customs of Oceanica Mr. and Mrs. Tamaidi--Regal Pomp--Elbow Room--Katzenmusik--Queen Tonico and the Shaving Glass--Consequences of a Pinch of Snuff--Disgrace of the Great Rono--Marins--Coriolanus--Hannibal--Alcibiades--Cimon--Aristides--A Sop for the Thirsty--Air something else besides Oxygen and Hydrogen--Maryland and Whitechapel--Half-way up the Cordilleras--Human Machines--Star of the Sea, pray for us!
Was he on his way to the Capitol or to the Gemoniae? The solution of this question became, for the moment, of greater importance to Willis than the "to be or not to be" of Hamlet to the State of Denmark. This incertitude was all the more painful, that it was accompanied by myriads of insects, created by the recent rains; these swarmed in the air to such an extent, that it was utterly impossible to inhale the one without swallowing the other. The sailor, notwithstanding his elevated and somewhat perilous position, true to his instincts and tormented by the flies, took out his pipe, filled it, and struck a light. As soon as the first column of smoke issued from his mouth, the cavalcade halted spontaneously, the natives fell on their faces, their noses touching the ground, and in an attitude of the profoundest fear and apprehension. Jupiter thundering never created such a sensation as Willis smoking. The savages seemed glued to the earth with terror. If the Pilot had thought it advisable to escape, he might have walked over the prostrate bodies of his captors, not one of whom would have been bold enough to follow what appeared to be a human volcano, vomiting fire and smoke,--the fire of course being understood.
Willis, however, now saw that he possessed in his pipe a ready means of awing them. Besides, it was clear that, through some fortunate coincidence, the natives had mistaken him for a divinity. There was, consequently, no immediate danger to be apprehended; he therefore became himself again, and began to enjoy the novelty of his new dignity.
It was certainly a curious contrast. Willis, seated on a sort of throne, crowned with a waving plume of feathers, shrouded in a fiery mantle, and surrounded by a crowd of prostrate figures, was quietly puffing ribbons of smoke from the tips of his lips. There he sat, for all the world like a crane in a duck-pond. From time to time the more daring of the worshippers slightly raised their heads to see whether Jupiter was still thundering; but when their eye caught a whiff of smoke, they speedily resumed their former posture. Some of them even thrust their heads into holes, or behind stones, as if more effectually to shelter themselves from the fury of the fiery furnace. At last the eruption ceased, Willis knocked the ashes out of his pipe, replaced it in his pocket, and the convoy resumed its route. After half an hour's march, the procession halted near a clump of plantains, in front of a structure more ambitious than any of those in the neighborhood. A female, laden with rude ornaments, was standing at the door. This lady, who rivalled the celebrated Daniel Lambert in dimensions, would have created quite a furore at Bartholomew Fair; according to Jack, she was so amazingly fat, that it would have taken full five minutes to walk round her. She took the Pilot respectfully by the hand, and led him into the interior of the building, which was crowded with images of various forms, and was evidently a temple. Willis, at a sign from his conductress, seated himself in a chair, raised on a dais, and surmounted by a terrific figure similar to the one already described, but draped in white feathers instead of red.
The fat lady, or rather the high priestess--for she was the reigning potentate in this magazine of idols--took a sucking pig that was held by one of the priests. After muttering a prayer or homily of some sort, she strangled the poor animal, and returned it to the priest. By and by, the pig was brought in again cooked, and presented with great ceremony to Willis. There were likewise sundry dishes of fruit, nuts, and several small cups containing some kind of liquid. One of the priests cut up the pig, and lifted pieces of it to Willis's mouth; these, however, he refused to eat. The fat priestess, observing this, chewed one or two mouthfuls, which she afterwards handed to the Pilot. This was putting the sailor's gallantry to rather a rude test. He was equal to the emergency, and did not refuse the offering. But he must have felt at the time, that being a divinity was not entirely without its attendant inconveniences.
Nor was this the only infliction of the kind he was doomed to withstand. One of the priests took up a piece of kava-root, put it into his mouth, chewed it, and then dropped a bit into each of the cups already noticed. One of these, containing this nectar, was presented to Willis by the fat Hebe who presided at the feast, and he had the fortitude to taste it. Another of the cups was handed to Jack.
"No, I thank you," said he, shaking his head; "I breakfasted rather late this morning."
Meantime, another personage had entered upon the scene. After having performed an obeisance to Willis like the rest, this individual backed himself to where Jack was standing, by this means adroitly avoiding both the kava and the nose-rubbings. He was distinguished from the other natives by an ornament round his waist, which fell to his knees. His skin seemed a trifle less dark, his features less marked; but his body was tattooed and stained after the common fashion.
The new comer turned out to be a Portuguese deserter, who had abandoned his ship twenty years before, and had married the daughter of a chief of the island on which he now was. At the present moment, he filled the part of prime minister to the king, an office be could not have held in his own ungrateful country, since he could neither read nor write. These accomplishments, it appeared, were not, however, absolutely indispensable in Polynesia. It has been found that when a savage is transferred to Europe, he readily acquires the habits of civilized life. By a similar adaptation of things to circumstances, this European had identified himself with the savages. He had adopted their manners, their customs, and their costume. When he thought of his own country, it was only to wonder why he ever submitted to the constraint of a coat, or put himself to the trouble of handling a fork and spoon. He had not, however, entirely forgotten his mother tongue, and, moreover, still retained in his memory a few English words. He was likewise very communicative, and told Jack that they were in the Island of Hawai; that the name of the king was Toubowrai Tamaidi, who, he added, intended visiting the pinnace with the queen next day, to pay his respects in person to the great Rono. "His Majesty," said the Portuguese, "would have been amongst the first to throw himself at his feet, but unfortunately the royal residence is a good way off; and though both the king and the queen are on the way, running as fast as they can, it may take them some time yet to reach the shore."
"But who is the great Rono?" inquired Jack.
"Well," replied the prime minister, "you ought to know best, since you arrived with him."
Jack felt that he was touching on delicate ground, and saw that it was necessary to diplomatise a little.
"True," said he; "but I am not acquainted with the position that illustrious person holds in relation to Hawai." The Portuguese then made a very long, rambling, and not very lucid statement, from which Jack gleaned the following details. About a hundred years before, during the reign of one of the first kings, there lived a great warrior, whose name was Rono. This chief was very popular, but he was very jealous. In a moment of anger he killed his wife, of whom he was passionately fond. The regret and grief that resulted from this act drove him out of his senses; he wandered disconsolately about the island, fought and quarrelled with every one that came near him. At last, in a fit of despair, he embarked in a large canoe, and, after promising to return at the expiration of twelve hundred moons, with a white face and on a floating island, he put out to sea, and was never heard of more.
This tradition, it appears, had been piously handed down from family to family. The natives of Hawai--who are not more extravagant in the matter of idols than some nations who boast a larger amount of civilization, but who do not destroy them so often--enrolled Rono amongst the list of their divinities. An image of him was set up, sacrifices were instituted in his honor. Every year the day of his departure was kept sacred, and devoted to religious ceremonies. The twelfth hundred moon had just set, when a large boat appeared in the bay, and a man came ashore. The high priest of the temple, Raou, and his daughter, On La, priestess of Rono, solemnly declared that the man in question was Rono himself, who had returned at the precise time named, and in the manner he promised.
It was, therefore, clear from this statement that Willis was to be henceforward Rono the Great.
Jack was rather pleased than otherwise to learn that he was the companion of a real live divinity. It assured him, in the first place, that the danger of his being converted into a stew or a fricassee was not imminent. He did not forget, however, that the consequences might be perilous if, by any chance, the illusion ceased; for he knew that the greater the height from which a man falls, the less the mercy shown to him when he is down. As soon, therefore, as the ceremonies had a little relaxed, and Willis was left some freedom of action, Jack went forward, and knelt before him in his turn.
"O sublime Rono," said he, "I know now why your nose has escaped all the rubbings that mine has had to undergo."
"Do you?" said Willis; "glad to hear it, for I am as much in the dark as ever."
Jack then related to him the fabulous legend he had just heard.
After a while, Willis shook off his entourage as gently as possible, and succeeded in getting out of the temple. Accompanied by Jack, he proceeded towards the shore, receiving, as he went, the adoration of the people. The route was strewn with fruit, cocoa-nuts, and pigs, and the natives were highly delighted when any of their offerings were accepted by the deified Rono.
The islanders appeared mild, docile, and intelligent, notwithstanding the singular delusion that possessed them. Living from day to day, they were, doubtless, ignorant of those continual cares and calculations for the future that in the old world pursue us even into the hours of sleep. Were they happier in consequence? Yes, if the child is happier than the man, and if we admit that we often loose in tranquillity and happiness what we gain in knowledge and perfection: yes, if happiness is not exclusively attached to certain peoples and certain climates; yes, if it is true that, with contentment, happiness is everywhere to be found.
The houses of the Hawaians are singular structures, and scarcely can be called dwellings. They consist of three rows of posts, two on each side and one in the middle, the whole covered with a slanting roof, but without any kind of wall whatever.
They do not bury their dead, but swing them up in a sort of hammock, abundantly supplied with provisions. It is supposed that this is done with a view to enable the souls of the departed to take their flight more readily to heaven. The practice, consequently, seems to indicate that the natives possess a confused idea of a future state. When a child dies, flowers are placed in the hammock along with the provisions--a touch of the nature common to us all. They express deep grief by inflicting wounds upon their faces with a shark's tooth; and, when they feel themselves in danger of dying, they cut off a joint of the little finger to appease the anger of the Divinity. There was scarcely one of the adult islanders who was not mutilated in this way.
Though the worshippers of the great Rono appeared gentle and peaceable enough, there were to be seen here and there a human jaw-bone, seemingly fresh, with the teeth entire, suspended over the entrances to the huts. These ghastly objects sent a shudder quivering through Jack's frame, and made Willis aware that it would not be advisable rashly to throw off his sacred character.
As it was now late, and as they knew that Fritz would be uneasy about them, they put off laying in their stock of water till next day. Jack told the prime minister that the great Rono would be prepared to receive their majesties whenever they chose to visit him. This done, Willis and his companion seated themselves in the canoe, and rowed out to the pinnace.
"God be thanked, you have returned in safety!" cried Fritz; "I never was so uneasy in the whole course of my life."
"Well, brother, we have not been without our anxieties as well, and had we not happened to have had a divinity amongst us, we might not have come off scathless."
Jack then related their adventures, which gradually brought a smile to the pale lips of Fritz.
"But the water?" inquired Fritz, after he had heard the story.
"Oh, water; they offered us something to drink on shore that will prevent us being thirsty for a month to come, but we shall see to that to-morrow."
Towards dark, some fireworks were discharged on board the pinnace, by way of demonstrating that Willis's pipe was not the only fiery terror the great Rono had at his command.
Early next morning a flotilla of canoes were observed rounding one of the points that formed the bay. The one in advance was larger than the others, and was evidently the trunk of a large tree hollowed out. Jack's new friend, the Portuguese, hailed the pinnace, and announced the King and Queen of Hawai, who thereupon scrambled into the pinnace. His majesty King Toubowrai had probably felt it incumbent upon himself to do honor to the illustrious Rono, for he wore an old uniform coat, very likely the produce of a wreck, through the sleeves of which the angular knobs of his copper-colored elbows projected. He did not seem very much at his ease in this garment, which contrasted oddly with the tight-fitting tattooed skin that served him for pantaloons.
His wife, Queen Tonico, princess-like was half stifled in a thick blanket or mat of cocoa-nut fibre. Her ears were heavily laden with teeth and ornaments of various kinds, made out of bone, mother of pearl, and tortoise-shell. Her nails were two or three inches long; and, to judge by the number of finger-joints that were wanting, she was either troubled with delicate nerves, or was slightly hypochondriac.
The royal pair were accompanied by a band of music: fortunately, this remained in the regal barge. It consisted of a flute with four holes, a nondescript instrument, seemingly made of stones; a drum made out of the hollow trunk of a tree, covered at each end with skin, of what kind it is needless to inquire. The sounds emitted by this orchestra were of an ear-rending nature, and of a kind graphically termed by the Germans Katzenmusik.
"Illustrious Rono," cried Jack, "for goodness sake, tell these gentlemen you are not a lover of sweet sounds."
"Belay there!" roared Willis.
This command, however, had no effect; the artists continued thumping and blowing away as before. Willis, thinking to make himself better heard, placed his hands on his mouth, and roared the same order through them. This action seemed to be received as a mark of approbation, for the noise became absolutely terrific.
"No use," said Willis: "I can make nothing of them. You try what you can do."
"Very good," said Jack, lighting what is technically termed an artichoke, but better known as a zig-zag cracker; "if they do not understand English, perhaps they may comprehend pyrotechnics."
The artichoke was thrown into the royal barge. At first there was only a slight whiz, finally it gave an angry bound and leaped into the midst of the musicians. Startled, they tried to get out of its way; but they were no sooner at what they thought to be a safe distance, than the thing was amongst them again. Their majesties, who were just then engaged in kissing the Rono's feet, started up in alarm; but when they saw the danger did not menace themselves, they burst into a hearty laugh at the antics of their suite.
This episode over, and the orchestra silenced, the Sovereign of Hawai proceeded to inspect the pinnace. He expressed his delight every now and then by uttering the syllables "ta-ta." Fritz handed one of those shaving glasses to the Queen that lengthen the objects they reflect. This astonished her Majesty vastly, and caused her to ta-ta at a great rate. She looked behind the mirror, turned it upside down, and at last, when she felt assured that it was the royal person it caricatured, she commenced measuring her cheeks to account for the extraordinary disproportion.
They next all sat down to a repast that was spread on deck. Their Majesties observing Rono use a fork, did so likewise; but though they stuck a piece of meat on the end of it, and held it in one hand, they continued carrying the viands to their mouths with the other. At the conclusion of the feast, Willis took a pinch of snuff out of a canister. Their Majesties insisted upon doing so likewise. Willis handed them the canister, and they filled their noses with the treacherous powder. Then followed a duet of sneezing, accompanied with facial contortions. The royal personages thinking, probably, that they were poisoned, leaped into the sea like a couple of frogs, and swam to the royal barge.
"Holloa, sire," cried Jack, "where are you off to?"
This was answered by the barge paddling away rapidly towards land. Hitherto, the whole affair had been a farce; but now the natives, who had collected in great numbers along the shore, seeing their king and queen leap into the water with a terrified air, supposed that an attempt had been made to cut short their royal lives, and, under this impression, discharged a cloud of arrows at the pinnace, and matters began to assume a serious aspect.
"What!" exclaimed Jack, "shooting at the great Rono!"
"That," said Fritz, "only proves they are men like ourselves. He who is covered with incense one day, is very often immolated the next."
"And that simply because Rono treated Mr. and Mrs. What's-their-names to a pinch of snuff. Serve them right to discharge the contents of the four-pounder amongst them."
"No, no," cried Willis; "the worthy people are, perhaps, fond of their king and queen."
"Worthy people or not," said Fritz, drawing out an arrow that had sunk into the capstan, "it is very likely that if this dart had hit one of us, there would only have been two instead of three in the crew of the pinnace."
"Well," said Willis, "Master Jack thought the voyage rather dull; now something has turned up to relieve the monotony of his log."
"We are still without fresh water though, Willis; I wish you could say that had turned up as well."
"It will be prudent to go in search of that somewhere else now," said Willis, unfurling the sails. "Fortunately the wind is fresh, and we can make considerable headway before night."
As they steered gently out of the bay a second cloud of arrows was sent after them, but this time they fell short.
"The belief in Rono is about to be seriously compromised," remarked Fritz; "I should advise the priestess to retire into private life."
"Because she is too fat to live in an ordinary house, she could only breathe in a temple. But, O human vicissitudes!" added Jack, rolling himself up in a sail after the manner of the Roman senators; "behold Rono the Great banished from his country, and compelled to go and pillow his head on a foreign sail, like Marius at Minturnus--like Coriolanus amongst the Volcians--like Hannibal at the house of Antiochus--like Alcibiades at the castle of Grunium in Phrygia, given to him out of charity by the benevolent Pharnabazus, and in which he was burnt alive by his countrymen--like Cimon, voted into exile by ballot and universal suffrage--like Aristides, whom the people got tired of hearing called the Just, and many others."
"Who are all these personages?" inquired Willis.
"They were worthies of another age," replied Fritz; "very excellent men in their way, and you are in no way dishonored by being numbered amongst them."
"Yesterday," continued Jack, "an entire people were upon their knees before you; they offered up sacrifices, and poured out incense on their altars for you; fruit and pigs were scattered in heaps, like flowers, upon your path; the crowd were prostrated by the fumes of your pipe. To-day--alas, the change!--a cloud of arrows, and not a single glass of cold water!"
"That gives you an opportunity of quenching your thirst with the nectar offered to you yesterday," said Fritz; "as for myself, I have no such resource."
"Yes, that was a posset to quench one's thirst withal; I only wish I had a cupful to give you. I do not regret having had an opportunity of becoming acquainted with the people though. They have enabled me to rectify some erroneous notions I formerly entertained. If, for example, I were to ask you what air consists of? you would, no doubt, reply that is a compound body made of oxygen and hydrogen or azote, in the proportion of twenty-one of the one to seventy-nine of the other."
"Yes, most undoubtedly."
"Well, such is not the case; there are other elements in the air besides these."
"If you mean that the air accidentally, or even permanently, holds in solution a certain quantity of water, or a portion of carbonic acid gas, and possibly some particles of dust arising from terrestrial bodies, then I grant your premises."
"No; what I mean is, that the air of Hawai is composed of three distinct elements."
"Possibly; but if so, the air in question is not known to chemists."
"These three elements are oxygen, hydrogen, and insects."
"Ah, insects! I might have fancied you were driving at some hypothesis of that sort."
"I intend to communicate this discovery to the first learned society we fall in with."
"In the Pacific Ocean?"
"Yes: there or elsewhere."
"I always understood," observed Willis, "that air was a sort of cloud, one and indivisible."
"A cloud if you like, Willis; but do you know the weight of it you carry on your shoulders?"
"Well, it cannot be very great, otherwise I should feel it."
"What do you say to a ton or so, old fellow?"
"If you wish me to believe that, you will have to explain how, where, when, why, and wherefore."
"Very good. Willis; you have bathed sometimes?"
"In the sea?"
"Do you know what water weighs?"
"No, but I know that it is heavy."
"Well, a square yard of air weighs two pounds and a half, but a square yard of water weighs two thousand pounds. Now, can you calculate the weight of the water that is on your back and pressing on your sides when you swim?"
"No, I cannot."
"You are not sufficiently up in arithmetic to do that, Willis?"
"Nor am I either, Willis; but let me ask you how it is that the waves do not carry you along with them?"
"Because one wave neutralises the effect of another."
"Very good; but how is it that these ponderous waves, coming down upon you, do not crush you to atoms by their mere weight?"
"Well, I suppose that liquids do not operate in the same way as solids: perhaps there is something in our bodies that counterbalances the effect of the water."
"Very likely; and if such be the case as regards water, may it not be so also as regards air?"
"But I do not feel air; whereas, if I go into water, I not only feel it, but taste it sometimes, and I cannot force my way through it without considerable exertion."
"That is because you are organized to live in air and not in water. You ask the smallest sprat or sticklebake if it does not, in the same way feel the air obstruct its progress."
"But would the stickleback answer me, Master Fritz?"
"Why not, if it is polite and well bred?"
"By the way, Willis," inquired Jack, "do you ever recollect having lived without breathing?"
"Can't say I do."
"Very well, then; had you felt the weight of the air at any given moment, it must have produced an impression you never felt before, but you have not, because circumstances have never varied. A sensation supposes a contrast, whilst, ever since you existed, you have always been subject to atmospheric pressure."
"Ah, now I begin to get at the gist of your argument. You mean, for example, that I would never have appreciated the delicate flavor of Maryland or Havanna, had I not been accustomed to smoke the cabbage-leaf manufactured in Whitechapel."
"Precisely so; and take for another example the farm of Antisana, which is situated about midway up the Cordilleras, mountains of South America. When travellers, arriving there from the summits which are covered with perpetual snow, meet others arriving from the plain where the heat is intense, those that descend are invariably bathed in perspiration, whilst those that have come up are shivering with cold and covered with furs. The reason of this is, that we cannot feel warm till we have been cold, and vice versa."
"Our bodies," resumed Fritz, "however much the thermometer descends, never mark less than thirty-five degrees above zero. In winter the skin shrinks, and becomes a bad conductor of heat from without; but, at the same time, does not allow so much gas and vapor to escape from within. In summer, on the contrary, the skin dilates and allows perspiration to form, a process that consumes a considerable amount of latent heat. Starting from this principle, it has been calculated that a man, breathing twenty times in a minute, generates as much heat in twenty-four hours as would boil a bucket of water taken at zero."
"If means could be found," remarked Jack, "to furnish him with a boiler, by fixing a piston here and a pipe there man might be converted into one of the machines we were talking about the other day."
"Were I disposed to philosophize," added Fritz, "I might prove to you that for a long time men have been little else than mere machines."
Before night they had run about thirty miles further to the north-east, without seeing any thing beyond a formidable bluff, guarded by a fringe of breakers, that would soon have swallowed up the Mary had she ventured to reach the land. It was necessary however to obtain fresh water at any price before they resumed their voyage.
It was to be feared that all the islanders of the Pacific were not in expectation of a great Rono, consequently Willis suggested that it would be as well to search for an uninhabited spot. The only question was, how long they might have to search before they succeeded; for they knew that there were plenty of small islands in these latitudes unencumbered by savages, and furnished with pools and springs of water.
Night at length closed in upon them, and with it came a dense mist, that enveloped the Mary as if in a triple veil of muslin.
"Willis," inquired Jack, "what difference is there between a mist and a cloud?"
"None that I know of," replied the Pilot, "except that a cloud which we are in is mist, and mist that we are not in is a cloud. And now, my lads," he added, "you may turn in, for I intend to take the first watch."
Before turning in, however, all three joined in a short prayer. The young men had not yet forgotten the pious precepts of their father. Prayer is beautiful everywhere, but nowhere is it so beautiful as on the open sea, with infinity above and an abyss beneath. Then, when all is silent save the roar of the waves and the howling of the winds, it is sublime to hear the humble voice of the sailor murmuring, "Star of the night, pray for us!"
That night the star of the night did pray for the three voyagers, for the rays of the moon burst through the darkness and the mist, and fell upon a long line of reefs under the lee of the pinnace. Had they held on their course a few minutes longer, our story would have been ended.