Willis the Pilot by Johanna Spyri
Lying-to--Heart and Instinct--Sparrows viewed as Consumers--Migrations--Posting a Letter in the Pacific--Cannibals--Adventures of a Locket.
The glimpse of moonshine only lasted a second, but it was sufficient to light up the valley of the shadow of death. All around was again enveloped in obscurity. The moon, like a modest benefactor who hides himself from those to whose wants he has ministered, concealed itself behind its screen of blackness.
The pinnace was thrown into stays, and they resolved to lie-to till daybreak. There might be rocks to windward as well as to leeward; at all events, they felt that their safest course lay in maintaining, as far as possible, their actual position; and, after having returned thanks for their almost miraculous escape, they made the usual arrangements for passing the night.
Next morning they found themselves in the midst of a labyrinth of rocks, from which, with the help of Providence, they succeeded in extricating themselves. The rocks, or rather reefs, amongst which they were entangled, are very common in these seas. As they are scarcely visible at high water, they are extremely dangerous, and often baffle the skill of the most expert navigator.
Whilst Willis steered the pinnace amongst the islands and rocks of the Hawaian Archipelago, Fritz kept a look-out for savages, fresh water, and eligible landing-places. And Jack, after having posted up his log, set about inditing a letter for home.
"The voyage," said he, "has lately been so prolific in adventure, that I scarcely know where to begin."
"Begin by saluting them all round," suggested Fritz.
"But, brother of mine, that is usually done at the end of the letter," objected Jack.
"What then? you can repeat the salutations at the end, and you might also, for that matter, put them in the middle as well."
"I have written lots of letters on board ship for my comrades," remarked Willis, "and I invariably commenced by saying--I take a pen in my hand to let you know I am well, hoping you are the same."
"What else could you take in your hand for such a purpose, O Rono?" inquired Jack.
"Sometimes, after this preamble, I added, 'but I am afraid.'"
"I thought you old salts were never afraid of anything, short of the Flying Dutchman."
"Yes; but the letters I put that in were for young lubbers, who, instead of sending home half their pay, were writing for extra supplies, and were naturally in great fear that their requests would be refused."
"I scarcely think I shall adopt that style, Willis, even though it were recognized by the navy regulations."
"Do you think the pigeon will find its way with the letter from here to New Switzerland?" inquired Willis.
"I have no doubt about that," replied Fritz, "it naturally returns to its nest and its affections. If you had wings, would you not fly straight off in the direction of the Bass Rock or Ailsa Craig, to hunt up your old arm-chair?"
"Don't speak of it; I feel my heart go pit-pat when I think of home, sweet home."
"So do the birds. When they soften the grain before they throw it into the maw of their fledgelings--when they fly off and return laden with midges to their nests--when they tear the down from their breasts to protect their eggs and their young, do you think their hearts do not beat as well as yours?"
"But all that is said to be instinct."
"Heart or instinct, where is the difference? The Abbe Spallanzani saw two swallows that were carried to Milan return to Pavia in fifteen minutes, and the distance between the two cities is seven leagues."
"That I can easily believe."
"When you see a little, insignificant bird flying backwards and forwards, perching on one branch and hopping off to another, whistling, carolling, perching here and there, you think that it has no cares, that it does not reflect, and that it does not love!"
"Well, I have heard in my time a great many wonderful stories of robin-redbreasts and jenny-wrens, but I always understood that they were intended only to amuse little boys and girls."
"You consider, doubtless, that a field-sparrow is not a creature of much importance; but do you know that he consumes half a bushel of corn annually?"
"If that is his only merit, the farmers, I dare say, would be glad to get rid of him."
"But it is not his only merit. What do you think of his killing three thousand insects a week."
"That is more to the purpose. But, to return to the pigeon, supposing it is possible for it to find its way, how long do you suppose it will take to get there?"
"It is estimated that birds of passage fly over two hundred miles a day, if they keep on the wing for six hours."
"Two hundred miles in six hours is fast sailing, anyhow."
"Swallows have been seen in Senegal on the 9th of October, that is, eight or nine days after they leave Europe; and that journey they repeat every year."
"They must surely make some preparations for such a lengthy excursion."
"When the period of departure approaches, they collect together in troops on the chimneys or roofs of houses, and on the tops of trees. During this operation, they keep up an incessant cry, which brings families of them from all quarters. The young ones try the strength of their wings under the eyes of the parents. Finally, they make some strategic dispositions, and elect a chief."
"You talk of the swallows as if they were an army preparing for battle, with flags flying, trumpets sounding, and ready to march at the word of command."
"The resemblance between flocks of birds and serried masses of men in martial array is striking. Wild ducks, swans, and cranes fly in a kind of regimental order; their battalions assume the form of a triangle or wedge, so as to cut through the air with greater facility, and diminish the resistance it presents to their flight.
"But how do you know it is for that?"
"What else could it be for? The leader gives notice, by a peculiar cry, of the route it is about to take. This cry is repeated by the flock, as if to say that they will follow, and keep the direction indicated. When they meet with a bird of prey whose attacks they may have to repulse, the ranks fall in so as to present a solid phalanx to the enemy."
"If they had a commissariat in the rear and a few sappers in front, the resemblance would be complete."
"If a storm arises," continued Fritz, without noticing Willis's commentary, "they lower their flight and approach the ground."
"Forgotten their umbrellas, perhaps."
"When they make a halt, outposts are established to keep a look out while the troop sleeps."
"And, in cases of alarm, the outposts fire and fall in as a matter of course."
"Great Rono," said Jack, "you are become a downright quiz. I have finished my letter whilst you have been discussing the poultry," he added, handing the pen to his brother, "and it only waits your postscriptum." Fritz having added a few lines, the epistle was sealed, and was then attached to one of the pigeons, which, after hovering a short time round the pinnace, took a flight upwards and disappeared in the clouds.
They were now in sight of a large island, which bore no traces of habitation. There was a heavy surf beating on the shore, but the case was urgent, so Willis and Jack embarked in the canoe, and, after a hard fight with the waves, landed on the beach.
Each of them were armed with a double-barrelled rifle, and furnished with a boatswain's whistle. The whistle was to signal the discovery of water, and a rifle shot was to bring them together in case of danger. These arrangements being made, Jack proceeded in the direction of a thicket, which stood at the distance of some hundred yards from the shore. He had no sooner reached the cover in the vicinity of the trees than he was pounced upon by two ferocious-looking savages. They gave him no time to level his rifle or to draw a knife. One of his captors held his hands firmly behind his back, whilst the other dragged him towards the wood. At this moment the Pilot's whistle rang sharply through the air. This put an end to any hopes that Jack might have entertained of being rescued through that means. Had he sounded the whistle, it would only have led Willis to suppose that he had heard the signal, and was on his way to join him.
Poor Jack judged, from the aspect of the men who held him, that they were cannibals, and consequently that his fate was sealed, for if his surmises were correct, there was little chance of the wretches relinquishing their prey. Jack had often amused himself at the expense of the anthropophagi, but here he was actually within their grasp. Though death terminates the sorrows and the sufferings of man, and though the result is the same in whatever shape it comes, yet there are circumstances which cause its approach to be regarded with terror and dismay. In one's bed, exhausted by old age or disease, the lips only open to give utterance to a sigh of pain; life, then, is a burden that is laid down without reluctance; we glide imperceptibly and almost voluntarily into eternity.
At twenty years of age, however, when we are full of health and ardor, the case is very different. Then we are at the threshold of hope and happiness; our illusions have not had time to fade, the future is a brilliant meteor sparkling in sunshine. At that age our seas are always calm, and the rocks and shoals are all concealed. Our barks glide jauntily along, the sailors sing merrily, the perils are shrouded in romance, and the flag flutters gaily in the breeze. Then life is not abandoned without a tear of regret.
To die in the midst of one's friends is not to quit them entirely. They come to see us through the marble or stone in which we are shrouded. It is another thing to have no other sepulchre than the aesophagus of a cannibal. How the recollections of the past darted into Jack's mind! He felt that he loved those whom he was on the point of leaving a thousand times more than he did before. What would he not have given for the power to bid them one last adieu? The idea of quitting life thus was horrible.
It was in vain that he tried to shake off his assailants; his adolescent strength was as nothing in the arms of steel that bound him. He saw that he was powerless in their hands, and at length ceased making any further attempts to escape.
The savages, finding that he had relaxed his struggles, commenced to rifle and strip him. They tore off his upper garments, and discovered a small locket, containing a medallion of his mother, which the unfortunate youth wore round his neck. This prize, which the savages no doubt regarded as a talisman of some sort, they both desired to possess. They quarrelled about it, and commenced fighting over it. Jack's hands were left at liberty. In an instant he had seized his rifle. He ran a few paces back, turned, took deliberate aim at the most powerful of his adversaries, who, with a shriek, fell to the ground. The other savage, scared by the report of the shot and its effects upon his companion, took to flight, but he carried off the locket with him.
Jack had now regained his courage. He felt, like Telemachus in the midst of his battles, that God was with him, and he flew, perhaps imprudently, after the fugitive. Seeing, however, that he had no chance with him as regards speed, he discharged his second rifle. The shot did not take effect, but the report brought the savage to his knees. The frightened wretch pressed his hands together in an attitude of supplication. Jack stopped at a little distance, and, by an imperious gesture, gave him to understand that he wanted the locket. The sign was comprehended, for the savage laid the talisman on the ground.
"Now," said Jack, "in the name of my mother I give you your life."
By another sign, he signified to the man that he was at liberty, which he no sooner understood than he vanished like an arrow.
Great was the consternation of Fritz when he heard the reports; he feared that the whole island was in commotion, and that both his brother and the Pilot were surrounded by a legion of copper-colored devils. From the conformation of the coast he could see nothing, and, like Sisiphus on his rock, he was tied by imperious necessity to his post.
The Pilot, on hearing the first shot, ran to the spot, and both he and Jack arrived at the same instant, where the savage lay bleeding on the ground.
"You are safe and sound, I hope?" said Willis, anxiously.
"With the exception of some slight contusions, and the loss of my clothes, thank God, I am all right, Willis."
"We are born to bad luck, it seems."
"Say rather we are the spoilt children of Providence. I have just passed through the eye of a needle."
"Is this the only savage you have seen?"
"No, there were two of them; and, to judge from their actions, I verily believe the rascals intended to eat me. As for this one, he is more frightened than hurt."
And so it was, he had escaped with some slugs in his shoulders; but he seemed, by the contortions of his face, to think that he was dying.
"Fortunately," said Jack, "my rifle was not loaded with ball. I should be sorry to have the death of a human being on my conscience."
"Well," said Willis, "I am not naturally cruel, but, beset as you have been, I should have shot both the fellows without the slightest compunction."
"Still," said Jack, giving the wounded savage a mouthful of brandy, "we ought to have mercy on the vanquished--they are men like ourselves, at all events."
"Yes, they have flesh and bone, arms, legs, hands, and teeth like us; but I doubt whether they are possessed of souls and hearts."
"The chances are that they possess both, Willis; only neither the one nor the other has been trained to regard the things of this world in a proper light. Their notions as to diet, for example, arise from ignorance as to what substances are fit and proper for human food."
"As you like," said Willis; "but let us be off; there may be more of them lurking about."
"What! again without water?"
"No, this time I have taken care to fill the casks; the canoe is laden with fresh water."
"Fritz must be very uneasy about us; but this man may die if we leave him so."
"Very likely," said the Pilot; "but that is no business of ours."
"Good bye," said Jack, lifting up the wounded savage, and propping him against a tree; "I may never have the pleasure of seeing you again, and am sorry to leave you in such a plight; but it will be a lesson for you, and a hint to be a little more hospitable for the future in your reception of strangers."
The savage raised his eyes for an instant, as if to thank Jack for his good offices, and then relapsed into his former attitude of dejection.
Twenty minutes later the canoe was aboard the pinnace.
"Fritz," said Jack, throwing his arms round his brother's neck, "I am delighted to see you again; half an hour ago I had not the shadow of a chance of ever beholding you more."