Willis the Pilot by Johanna Spyri
The Utility of Adversity--An Encounter--The Hoboken--Bill alias Bob.
A light but favorable breeze carried them away from land, and they were once again on the open sea. Willis, after a prolonged investigation of the sun's position, taken in relation to some observations he had made the day before, concluded that the best course to pursue, under existing circumstances, was to steer for the Marian Islands.[H] In addition to the distance they had originally to traverse, all the way lost during the storm was now before them. As regards provisions, they had little to fear; they could rely upon falling in with a boobie or sea-cow occasionally, and fresh fish were to be had at any time. Their supply of water, however, gave them some uneasiness, for the quantity was limited, and they might be retarded by calms and contrary winds. The chances of meeting a European ship were too slender to enter for anything into their calculations.
"It appears to me," said Jack, one beautiful evening, when they were some hundreds of miles from any habitable spot, "that, having escaped so many dangers, the watchful eye of Providence must be guarding us from evil."
"Very possibly," replied Fritz; "one of the early chroniclers of the Christian Church says that Lazarus, whom our Saviour resuscitated at the gates of Jerusalem, became afterwards one of the most popular preachers of Christianity, and in consequence the Jews regarded him with implacable hatred."
"But what, in all the world, has that to do with the Pacific Ocean?" inquired Jack.
"Very little with the Pacific in particular, but a great deal with the ocean in general. Lazarus, his sisters, and some of his friends, were thrown into prison, tried, and condemned."
"And stoned or crucified," added Jack.
"No; the high priest of the temple had a great variety of punishments on hand besides these. He resolved to expose them to the mercy of the waves, without provisions, and without a mast, sail, or rudder."
"Thank goodness, we are not so badly off as that."
"He, for whom Lazarus suffered, and who is the same that nourishes the birds of the air and feeds the beasts of the field; watched over the forlorn craft; under his guidance, the little colony of martyrs were wafted in safety to the fertile coasts of Provence. They landed, according to the tradition, at Marseilles, of whom Lazarus was the first bishop, and has always been the patron saint. Who knows?--the same good fortune may perhaps await us."
"We are not martyrs."
"True; but Providence does not always measure its favors by the merits of those upon whom they are bestowed--misfortune, alone, is often a sufficient claim; so it is well for us to be patient under a little suffering, for sweet often is the reward."
"A little hardship, now and then," added Jack, "is, no doubt, salutary. The Italians say: 'Le avversita sono per l'animo cio ch' e un temporale per l'aria.' Suffering teaches us to prize health and happiness; were there no such things as pain and grief, we should be apt to regard these blessings as valueless, and to estimate them as our legitimate rights. For my own part, I was never so happy in my whole life as when I embraced you the other day, after escaping out of the clutches of the savages."
"There are many charms in life that are almost without alloy: the perfume of flowers--music--the singing of birds--the riches of art--the intercourse of society--the delights of the family circle--the treasures of imagination and memory. Some of the most beneficent gifts of Nature we only know the existence of when we are deprived of them; occasional darkness alone enables us to appreciate the unspeakable blessing of light. Man has a multitude of enjoyments at his command; but so many sweets would be utterly insipid without a few bitters."
"The rheumatism, for example," said Willis, rubbing his shoulders.
"Many enjoyments," continued Fritz, "spring from the heart alone; the affections, benevolence, love of order, a sense of the beautiful, of truth, of honesty, and of justice."
"On the other hand," said Willis, "there are dishonesty, injustice, disappointment, and blighted hopes; but you are too young to know much about these. When you have seen as much of the world on sea and on land as I have, perhaps you will be disposed to look at life from another point of view. In old stagers like myself, the tender emotions are all used up; it is only when we are amongst you youngsters that we forget the present in the past; when we see you struggling with difficulties, it recalls our own trials to our mind, rouses in us sentiments of commiseration, and softens the asperities of our years."
"According to you, then," said Fritz, levelling his rifle at a petrel, "the misfortunes of the one constitute the happiness of the other?"
"Unquestionably," said Jack; "for instance, if you miss that bird, so much the worse for you, and so much the better for the petrel."
"It is very rarely, brother, that you do not interrupt a serious conversation with some nonsense."
"Keep your temper, Fritz; I am about to propose a serious question myself. How is it that the petrel you are aiming at does not come and perch itself quietly on the barrel of your rifle?"
"Jack, Jack, you are incorrigible."
"Did you ever see a hare or a pheasant come and stare you in the face when you were going to shoot it?"
"Stunsails and tops!" cried Willis, "if I do not see something stranger than that staring us in the face."
"The sea-serpent, perhaps," said Jack.
"I thought it was a sea-bird at first," said Willis, "but they do not increase in size the longer you look at them."
"They naturally appear to increase as they approach," observed Fritz.
"Yes, but the increase must have a limit, and I never saw a bird with such singular upper-works before. Just take a cast of the glass yourself, Master Fritz."
"Halls of AEolus!" cried Fritz, "these wings are sails."
"So I thought!" exclaimed Willis, throwing his sou'-wester into the air, and uttering a loud hurrah.
"If it is the Nelson" said Jack, "it would be a singular encounter."
"The Nelson!" sighed Willis, "in the latitude of Hawai; no, that is impossible."
"She is bearing down upon us," said Fritz.
"Just let me see a moment whether I can make out her figure-head," said Willis. "Aye, aye!"
"Can you make it out?"
"No; but, from the sheer of the hull, I think the ship is British built."
"Thank God!" exclaimed both the young men.
"Yes, you may say 'Thank God;' but, if it turns out to be a man-of-war, I must report myself on board, and I doubt whether my story will go down with the captain."
"But if it is the Nelson?" insisted Jack.
"Aye, aye; the Nelson," replied Willis, "is not going to turn up here to oblige us, you may take my word for that."
"I have better eyes than you, Willis; just let me see if I can make her out. No, impossible; nothing but the hull and sails."
"It is just possible," persisted Jack, "that the Nelson may have been detained at the Cape, and afterwards blown out of her course like ourselves."
"All I can say is," replied Willis, "that if Captain Littlestone be on board that ship, it will make me the happiest man that ever mixed a ration of grog. But these things only turn up in novels, so it is no use talking."
"She has hoisted a flag at the mizzen," cried Fritz.
"Can you make it out?"
"Well, let me see--yes, it must be so."
"What, the Union Jack?" cried Willis.
"No, a red ground striped with blue."
"The United States, as I am a sinner!" cried Willis. "Well, it might have been worse. We can go to America; there are surgeons there as well as in Europe--at all events, we can get a ship there for England. But let me see, we must hoist a bit of bunting; unfortunately, we have only British colors aboard, and I am afraid they are not in particularly high favor with our Yankee cousins just now."
"Never mind a flag," said Fritz.
"Oh, that will never do, they have hoisted a flag and are waiting a reply. But let me see," added Willis, rummaging amongst some stores, "here is one of our Shark's Island signals--that, I think, will puzzle the Yankee considerably."
The Pilot's signal was answered by a gun, the report of which rang through the air. The strange ship's sails were thrown back and she stood still. A boat then put off with a young man in uniform and six rowers on board.
"Pinnace ahoy!" cried the officer through a speaking trumpet, "who are you?"
"Shipwrecked mariners," cried Fritz, in reply.
"What is the name of your craft?"
"I was not aware that Switzerland was a naval power," observed Willis.
"She has no sea-port," said Jack, "but she has a fleet--of row boats."
"Where do you hail from?" inquired the officer.
"That gentleman is very curious," observed Jack.
Here a silence of some minutes ensued; the officer seemed at fault in his geography.
"Where away?" at last resounded from the trumpet.
"Bound for Europe," replied Fritz.
This reply elicited an expression of doubt, accompanied with such a tremendous exjurgation as made both Fritz and Jack almost shrink into the hold.
A few minutes after the Yankee in command stepped on board, and explanations were entered into that perfectly satisfied the republican officer. He continued, however, to eye Willis curiously.
The Hoboken, for that was the name of the strange ship, was an American cruiser, carrying twelve ship guns and a long paixhan. She was attached to the Chinese station, but had recently obtained information that war had been declared between England and the States. She was now making her way to the west by a circuitous route to avoid the British squadron, and, at the same time, with a view to pick up an English merchantman or two.
Fritz and Jack being citizens of a sister republic, and subjects of a neutral power, were received on board with a hearty welcome, and with the hospitality due to their interesting position. Willis also received some attention, and was treated with all the courtesy that could be shown to the native of an enemy's country.
The pinnace was taken in tow till the young men made up their minds as to the course they would adopt. A free passage to the States was kindly offered to them, and even pressed upon their acceptance; but the captain left the matter entirely to their own option.
Fritz and Jack were delighted with the warmth of their reception; and, after being so long cooped up in the narrow quarters of the pinnace, looked upon the Yankee cruiser, with its men and officers in uniform, as a sort of floating palace. The Nelson having been only a despatch-boat, it had given them but an indifferent idea of a man-of-war. On board the Yankee every thing was kept in apple-pie order. Discipline was maintained with martinet strictness. The fittings shone like a mirror. The brass cappings glistened in the sun. Complicated rolls of cable were profusely scattered about, but without confusion. The deck always seemed as fresh as if it had been planked the day before. The sails overhead seemed to obey the word of command of their own accord. The boatswain's whistle seemed to act upon the men like electricity. The seamen's cabins, six feet long by six feet broad, in which a hammock, locker, and lashing apparatus were conveniently stowed, were something very different from the accommodation on board the pinnace. These things were regarded by Fritz and Jack with great interest; and nowhere is the genius of man so brilliantly displayed as on board a well-appointed ship of war.
The young men, however, when they sat down to dinner in the captain's cabin, and beheld a long table flanked with cushioned seats, commanded at each end by arm-chairs, the side-board plentifully garnished with plate and crystal of various kinds, fastened with copper nails to prevent damage from the ship's pitching, they did not reflect that they were in the crater of a volcano, and that two paces from where they sat there was powder enough to blow the ship and all its crew up into the air.
They were likewise highly amused by the perpetual "guessing," "calculating," "reckoning," and inexhaustible curiosity of the crew; but their admiration of the ship, her guns, her stores, and her tackle, were boundless; they felt that their pinnace was a mere toy in comparison. The urbanity of the officers also was a source of much gratification to them; Jack even declared that all the civilization of Europe had been shipped on board the Hoboken, and in so far as that was concerned, they had no occasion to go on much further.
The object of this expedition, however, was a surgeon. There was one on board. Would he go to New Switzerland? Jack determined to try, and accordingly he walked straight off to the personage in question.
"Doctor," said he, "would you do myself and my brother a great favor?"
"Certainly; and, if it is in my power, you may consider it done."
"Well, will you embark with us for New Switzerland?"
"For what purpose, my friend?"
"My mother is laboring under a malady, which there is every reason to fear is cancer."
"And suppose a fever was to break out in this ship whilst I am absent, what do you imagine is to become of the officers and crew?"
"There are no symptoms of disease on board; but my mother is dying."
"You forget, young man, that disease may make its appearance at any moment. There are many sons on board whose lives are as dear to their mothers as your mother's is to you, and for every one of these lives I am officially accountable."
Jack hung down his head and was silent.
"No, my good friend, it is impossible for me to grant such a request; but, from what I know of your history, and the means at your command, you may be able to obtain the services of a competent medical man. I would, therefore, recommend you to abandon your boat, and proceed with us to our destination."
After a lengthy consultation, the two brothers and Willis determined to adopt this course. The cargo of the pinnace was accordingly transferred to the hold of the Hoboken. A short summary of their history was written, corked up in a bottle, and fastened to the mast of the Mary, which was then cut adrift. A tear gathered on the cheeks of the young men as they saw their old friend in adversity dropping slowly behind, and they did not withdraw their eyes from it till every vestige of its hull was lost in the shadows of the waters.
As Fritz and Jack were thus engaged in gazing listlessly on the ocean, and reflecting upon their altered prospects, and perhaps trying to penetrate the veil of the future, Willis came towards them rubbing his breast, as if he had been seized with a violent internal spasm.
"Hilloa," cried Jack, "the Pilot is sea-sick! Shall I run for some brandy, Willis?"
"No, stop a bit; we were in hopes of falling in with Captain Littlestone, were we not?"
"Yes; but what then?"
"We were disappointed, were we not?"
"Yes. That has not made you ill, has it?"
"No; somebody else has turned up; there is one of the Nelson's crew on board this ship."
"One of the Nelson's crew?"
"Aye, and if you only knew how my heart beat when I saw him."
"I can easily conceive your feelings," said Jack, "for my own heart has almost leaped into my mouth."
"And I am thunderstruck," added Fritz.
"I went towards my old friend," continued Willis, "with tears in my eyes, threw my arms round him, and gave him a hearty but affectionate hug."
"And what did he say?"
"Nothing, at first; but, as soon as I left his arms at liberty, he gave me such a punch in the ribs as almost doubled me in two; it was enough to knock the in'ards out of a rhinoceros--ugh!"
"A blow in earnest?" exclaimed Fritz in astonishment.
"Yes; there was no mistake about it; it was a real, good, earnest John Bull knock-down thump; it put me in mind of Portsmouth on a pay day--ugh!"
"Extremely touching," said Jack, smiling.
"Then, when I called him by his name Bill Stubbs, and asked what had become of the sloop, he said that he knew nothing at all about the sloop, and swore that he had never set his eyes on my figure-head before, the varmint--ugh!"
"Odd," remarked Jack.
"Are you sure of your man?" inquired Fritz.
"But you say his name is Bill, whilst he declares his name is Bob."
"Aye, he has evidently been up to some mischief, and changed his ticket."
"Then what conclusion do you draw from the affair."
"I am completely bewildered, and scarcely know what to think; perhaps the crew has mutinied, and turned Captain Littlestone adrift on a desert island. That is sometimes done. Perhaps--"
"It is no use perhapsing those sort of melancholy things," said Fritz; "we may as well suppose, for the present, that Captain Littlestone is safe, and that your friend has been put on shore for some misdemeanour."
"May be, may be, Master Fritz; and I hope and trust it is so. But to have an old comrade amongst us, who could give us all the information we want, and yet not to be able to get a single thing out of him--"
"Except a punch in the ribs," suggested Jack.
"Exactly; and a punch that will not let me forget the lubber in a hurry," added Willis, clenching his fist; "but I intend, in the meantime, to keep my weather eye open."
A few weeks after this episode the Hoboken was slowly wending her way along the bights of the Bahamas. Fritz, Jack, and Willis were walking and chatting on the quarter-deck. The sky was of a deep azure. The sea was covered with herbs and flowers as far as the eye could reach--sometimes in compact masses of several miles in extent, and at other times in long straight ribbons, as regular as if they had been spread by some West Indian Le Notre. The ship seemed merely displaying her graces in the sunshine, so gentle was she moving in the water. The air was laden with perfumes, and a soft dreamy languor stole over the friends, which they were trying in vain to shake off. In one direction rose the misty heights of St. Domingo, and in another the cloud-capped summits of Cuba. Sometimes the highest peaks of the latter pierced the veil that enveloped them, and seemed like islands floating in the sky, or heads of a race of giants.
"The air here is almost as balmy and fragrant as that of New Switzerland," remarked Fritz.
"Aye, aye," said the Pilot; "but it is not all gold that glitters: in these sweet smells a nasty fever is concealed, with which I have no wish to renew my acquaintance."
"By the way, talking about acquaintances, Willis, have you obtained any further intelligence from your friend Bill, alias Bob?" inquired Jack.
"No, not a syllable; the viper is as cunning as a fox, and keeps his mouth as close as a mouse-trap."
"He seems as obstinate as a mule, and as obdurate as a Chinaman into the bargain."
"All that, and more than that; but," added Willis, "I have found out from the mate that he was pressed on board this ship at New Orleans."
"Pressed on board?" said Fritz, inquiringly.
"Yes; that is a mode of recruiting for the navy peculiar to England and the United States. Would you like to hear something about how the system is carried out?"
"Yes, Willis, very much."
"The transactions, however, that I shall have to relate are in no way creditable, either to myself or anybody else connected with them; and I am afraid, when you hear the particulars, you will be ready to turn round and say, your friend the Pilot is no good after all."
"Have you, then, been desperately wicked, Willis?"
"Well, that depends entirely upon the view you take of what I am to tell you. Listen."
[H] Sometimes called the Ladrones or Archipelago of Saint Lazarus.