Willis the Pilot by Johanna Spyri
Willis falls in with the Sloop on terra firma, instead of at the bottom of the Sea, as might have been expected--Admiral Cicero--The Defunct not yet Dead.
The corvette, notwithstanding the multitude of British cruisers scattered about the ocean, and the other dangers that beset her, held on the even tenor of her way. A gale sprung up now and then, but they only tended to give a filip to the common-place incidents recorded in the log. This quietude was not, however, enjoyed by all the persons on board. Willis was a prey to violent emotions; and so it often happens, in the midst of the profoundest calm, storms often rage in the heart of man.
Whether in reality or in a dream, Willis declared that Captain Littlestone paid him a visit every night, and invariably asked him precisely the same questions. On these occasions, Willis asserted that he distinctly heard the door open and shut whilst a shadow glided through. That he might once, or even twice, have been the dupe of his own imagination, is probable enough; but a healthy mind does not permit a delusion to be indefinitely prolonged--it struggles with the hallucination, and eventually shakes it off; providing always the mind has a shadow, and not a reality, to deal with, and that the patient is not a monomaniac. The dilemma was consequently reduced to this position--either Willis was mad, or Captain Littlestone was on board the Boudeuse.
In all other respects, Willis was perfectly sane. He himself searched every corner of the ship, but without other result than a confirmation of his own impression that there were no officers on board other than those of the corvette; and yet, notwithstanding his own conviction in daylight, he still continued to assert the reality of his interviews with Captain Littlestone during the night. The Italians say, La speranza e il sogno d'an uomo svegliato. Was Willis also dreaming with his eyes open? Might not the wish be father to the thought, and the thought produce the fancy? There is only one other supposition to be hazarded--could it be possible, in spite of all his researches, that Willis did see what he maintained with so much pertinacity he had seen?
These questions are too astute to admit of answers without due consideration and reflection; therefore, with the reader's permission, we shall leave the replies over for the present.
On the 12th June a voice from the mast-head called "Land ahoy!" much to the delight of the voyagers. The land in question was the island of St. Helena. This sea-girt rock had not at that time become classic ground. It had not yet become the prison and mausoleum of Napoleon the Great. The petulant squabbles between Sir Hudson Lowe and his illustrious prisoner had not been heard of. Little wotted then the proud ruler of France the fate that awaited him, for, when the Boudeuse touched at the island, all Europe, with the single exception of England, was kneeling at his feet.
On the 30th the Island of Ascension was reached. Here, in accordance with a usage peculiar to French sailors, a bottle, containing a short abstract of the ship's log, was committed to the deep. Willis thought this ceremony, under existing circumstances, would have been better observed in the breach than the observance, for, said he, if a British cruiser picked up that bottle within twenty-four hours, she stood a chance of picking up the Boudeuse as well.
On the 15th July the peak of Teneriffe hove in sight This remarkable basaltic rock rises to the extraordinary height of three thousand eight hundred yards above the level of the sea; it is consequently seen at a considerable distance, and constitutes a valuable landmark for navigators in these seas. Six weeks later the Boudeuse dropped anchor in the Havre roads.
Here the three adventurers had to encounter by far the greatest misfortune that had as yet befallen them. The continental system of Napoleon was then in force. The importation of everything English or Indian was strictly prohibited. The cargo the young men had brought with them from New Switzerland, which already had escaped so many perils, was, therefore, declared contraband, and seized by the French fisc--an institution that rarely permitted such a prize to quit its rapacious grasp.
Behold now our poor friends, Fritz and Jack, in a strange land, deprived at once of their fortune and their chance of returning home--the two beacons that had cheered them on their way! All their bright hopes of the future were thus annihilated at one fell swoop. Their fortitude almost gave way under the severity of this blow; the excess of their distress alone saved them. Grief requires leisure to give itself free vent; but when we are compelled, by absolute necessity, to earn our daily bread, we cannot find time for tears; and such was the case with Willis and his two friends; they were here without a friend and without resources of any kind whatever.
If they had only known Greek and Latin; if they had only been half doctors or three-quarter barristers, or if even they had been doctors and lawyers complete, it would have sorely puzzled their skill to have raised a single sous in hard cash. Fortunately, however, whilst cultivating their minds, they had acquired the art of handling a saw and wielding a hammer. The blouse of the workman, consequently, fitted them as well as the gown of the student, and they set themselves manfully to earn a living by the sweat of their brow. They were carpenters and blacksmiths by turns, regulating their occupations by the grand doctrines of supply and demand.
Jack alone of the three was defective in steadiness; he only joined Willis and his brother at mid-day. What he did with himself during the forenoon was a profound mystery. He rose before daybreak, and disappeared no one knew where, or for what purpose. His companions in adversity endeavored in vain to discover his secret; he was determined to conceal his movements, and succeeded in baffling their curiosity. To judge, however, by the ardor with which he worked, he was engaged in some one of those schemes that are termed follies before success, but which, after success, are universally acknowledged to be brilliant and praiseworthy instances of industrial enterprise.
If, after a hard day's work, when assembled together in the little room that served them for parlor, kitchen, and hall, the power of regret vanquished fatigue, and sadness drove away sleep, then Jack, who compared himself to Peter the Great, when a voluntary exile in the shipyards of Saardam, would endeavor to infuse a little mirth into the lugubrious party. If all his efforts to make them merry failed, all three would join together in a humble prayer to their Heavenly Father, who bestowed resignation upon them instead.
If Willis and his two friends were not accumulating wealth, at all events they were earning the bread they ate honestly and worthily. They had all three laid their shoulders vigorously to the wheel and kept it jogging along marvellously for a month. By that time, a detailed report of the seizure of their property had been placed before the director of the Domaine Extraordinaire, who was the sovereign authority in all matters pertaining to the exchequer of the empire. He saw at once that this capture was extremely harsh, and probably thought that, if it became known, it would raise a storm of indignation about the ears of his department. Here were two young men--Moseses, as it were, saved from the bulrushes. Lost in the desert from the period of their birth, and ignorant of the dissensions then raging in Europe, they were unquestionably beyond the ordinary operation of the law. This will never do, he probably said to himself; the civilization which these two young men have come through so many perils to seek ought not to appear to them, the moment they arrived in Europe, in the form of spoliation and barbarism.
The name of this extraordinary director of Domaine Extraordinaire was M. de la Boullerie, and, when we fall in with the name of a really good-hearted man, we delight to record it. He felt that the two young men had been hardly dealt with, but he had not the power to order a restitution of the property, now that the seizure had been made, and sundry perquisities, of course, deducted by the excise officials. Accordingly, he referred the matter to the Emperor, who commanded the goods to be immediately restored intact. Napoleon, at the same time, praised the functionary we have named for calling his attention to the merits of the case, and thanked him for such an opportunity of repairing an injustice.[I]
There are many such instances of generosity as the foregoing in the career of the great Emperor--mild rays of the sun in the midst of thunderstorms; sweet flowers blowing here and there, in the bosom of the gigantic projects of his life--which many will esteem more highly than his miracles of strategy and the renown of his battles. As nothing that tends to elevate the soul is out of place in this volume, we may be permitted to insert one or two of these anecdotes.
In 1806, Napoleon was at Potsdam. The Prussians were humbled to the dust, and the outrage of Rossbach had been fearfully avenged. A letter was intercepted, in which Prince Laatsfeld, civil governor of Berlin, secretly informed the enemy of all the dispositions of the French army. The crime was palpable, capital, and unpardonable. There was nothing between the life and death of the prince, except the time to load half a dozen muskets, point them to his breast, and cry--Fire. The princess flew to the palace, threw herself at the feet of the Emperor, beseeched, implored, and seemed almost heart-broken. "Madam," said Napoleon, "this letter is the only proof that exists of your husband's guilt. Throw it into the fire." The fatal paper blazed, crisped, passed from blue to yellow, and the treachery of Prince Laatsfeld was reduced to ashes.
Another time, a young man, named Von der Sulhn, journeyed from Dresden to Paris; unless you are told, you could scarcely imagine for what purpose. There are people who travel for amusement, for business, for a change of air, or merely to be able to say they have been at such and such a place. Some go abroad for instruction, others, perhaps, with no other object in view than to eat frogs in Paris, bouillabaisse at Marseilles, a polenta at Milan, macaroni at Naples, an olla podrida in Spain, or conscoussou in Africa. Von der Sulhn travelled to assassinate the Emperor. Like Scaevola and Brutus, he, no doubt, imagined the crime would hand down his name to posterity. In youth, all of us have erred in judgment more or less. Sulhn thought the Emperor ought to be slain. Unfortunately for him, the Duke of Rovigo, the then minister of police, entertained a different opinion. He thought, in point of fact, that the Emperor ought not to be killed: hence it was that the young Saxon found himself in chains, and that the Duke went to ask the Emperor what he should do with him. We ought, however, to mention that the young man, in his character of an enlightened German, testified his regret that he had not succeeded in carrying out his project, and protested that, in the event of regaining his liberty, he would renew the attempt. "Never mind," said the Emperor to the duke, "the young man's age is his excuse. Do not make the affair public, for, if it is bruited about, I must punish the headstrong youth, which I have no wish to do. I should be sorry to plunge a worthy family into grief by immolating such a scapegrace. Send him to Vincennes, give him some books to read, and write to his mother." In 1814, the young man obtained his liberty, his family, and his Germany, and it is to be hoped that he afterwards became a respectable pater-familias, a sort of Aulic councillor, and that, during the troublesome times in the land of Sauerkraut, he was before, and not behind, the barricades of his darling patria. If he be dead, it is to be supposed that, instead of lying a headless trunk ignominiously in a ditch, or in the unconsecrated cemetery of Clamort, he is reposing entire in the paternal tomb.
On the 15th of March, 1815, the Emperor landed at Cannes--he had returned from the island of Elba. On the beach he was joined by one man, at Antibes by a company, at Digne by a battalion, at Gap by a regiment (that of Labedoyer), at Grenoble by an army. The hearts of the soldiers of France went to him like steel to the loadstone--first a drop, and then a torrent; the Empire, like a snowball, increased as it progressed. At Lyons, the Count of Artois, the setting sun, is obliged to go out of one gate the moment that Napoleon, the rising sun, comes in at another. Smiles, orations, triumphal arches, and even the discourses that had been prepared to welcome the Bourbons, were used to congratulate their successor on his return. Cockades and flags were altered to suit the occasion, by inserting a stripe of red here and another of blue there. One national guard, but only one, remained faithful to the Bourbons; he would neither alter his cockade nor his colors, and remained true to his patrons in the hour of disaster. Everybody asked, what would the Emperor do with him? Would he be imprisoned or banished? Neither; the Emperor sent him a cross of the order of merit! It is, no doubt, grand to have overthrown the brilliant army of Murad Bey in Egypt; to have vanquished Melas, Wurmser, and Davidowich in Italy; Bragation, Kutusoff, and Barclay de Tolly in Russia; Mack in Germany; and thus to have reduced the entire continent of Europe to subjection. But it appears to us that a still greater feat was the victory he gained over himself, when, in the midst of the fever excited by his return, and the animosity of parties, he gave this cross to the solitary adherent of misfortune. Having made these slight digressions into the future, it is proper that we should return to our story.
The mysterious roads of Providence do not always lead to the places they seem to go; it often happens that, when we expect to be swallowed up by the breakers that surround us, we are wafted into a harbor, and that we encounter success where we only anticipated disappointment. The rigorous enactments of the continental system, that the other day had ruined the two brothers, became all at once the source of unlooked-for wealth; for, on account of the scarcity of colonial produce, a scarcity dating from the prohibitory laws promulgated in 1807, the merchandise of the young men had more than quadrupled in value.
From the grade of hard-working mechanics they were suddenly promoted to the rank of wealthy merchants. They consequently abandoned the laborious employments that for a month had enabled them to live, and to keep despair and misery at bay. Willis, greatly to his inconvenience, found himself transformed into a gentleman at large, which caused him to make some material alterations in the manipulation and quality of his pipes.
Fritz busied himself in collecting in, the by no means inconsiderable sums, which their property realised. He did not value the gold for its glitter or its sound, he valued it only as a means of enabling himself and his brother to return promptly to their ocean home. Jack undertook the task of finding a scalpel to save his mother--doubtless a difficult task; for how was he to induce a surgeon of standing to abandon his connexion, his family, and his fame, and to undertake a perilous voyage to the antipodes, for the purpose of performing an operation in a desert, where there were neither newspapers to proclaim it, academicians to discuss it, nor ribbons to reward it? As for the gentlemen of the dentist and barber school, like Drs. Sangrado and Fontanarose of Figaro, the remedy was even worse by a great deal than the disease. But, as we have said, Jack promised to find a surgeon, and the research was so arduous, that he was scarcely ever seen during the day by either Willis or his brother.
To Willis was confided the office of chartering a ship for the homeward voyage, and there were not a few obstacles to overcome in order to accomplish this. French ship-masters at that time engaged in very little legitimate business; they embarked their capital in privateering, prefering to capture the merchantmen of England to risking their own. One morning, Willis started as usual in search of a ship, but soon returned to the inn where they had established their head-quarters in a state of bewilderment; he threw himself into a chair, and, before he could utter a word, had to fill his pipe and light it.
"Well," said he, "I am completely and totally flabbergasted."
"What about?" inquired the two brothers.
"You could not guess, for the life of you, what has happened."
"Perhaps not, Willis, and would therefore prefer you to tell us at once what it is."
"After this," continued Willis, "no one need tell me that there are no miracles now-a-days."
"Then you have stumbled upon a miracle, have you, Willis?"
"I should think so. That they do not happen every day, I can admit; but I have a proof that they do come about sometimes."
"Very probably, Willis."
"It is my opinion that Providence often leads us about by the hands, just as little children are taken to school, lest they should be tempted to play truant by the way."
"Not unlikely, Willis; but the miracle!"
"I was going along quietly, not thinking I was being led anywhere in particular, when, all at once, I was hove up by--If a bullet had hit me right in the breast, I could not have been more staggered."
"Whatever hove you up then, Willis?"
"I was hove up by the sloop."
"Was it taking a walk, Willis?" inquired Jack.
"Have you been to sea since we saw you last?" asked Fritz.
"If I had fallen in with the craft at sea, Master Fritz, I should not have been half so much astonished. The sea is the natural element of ships; we do not find gudgeons in corn fields, nor shoot hares on the ocean. But it was on land that I hailed the Nelson."
"Was it going round the corner of a street that you stumbled upon it, Willis?" inquired Jack.
"Not exactly; but to make a long story short--"
"When you talk of cutting anything short, we are in for a yarn," said Jack.
"And you are sure to interrupt him in the middle of it," said Fritz.
"Well, in two words," said Willis, knocking the ashes out of his pipe, "I was cruising about the shipyards, looking if there was a condemned craft likely to suit us--some of them had gun-shot wounds in their timbers, others had been slewed up by a shoal--and, to cut the matter short--"
"Another yarn," suggested Jack.
"I luffed up beside the hull of a cutter-looking craft that had been completely gutted. But, changed and dilapidated as that hull is, I recognized it at once to be that of the Nelson. Now do you believe in miracles?"
"But are you sure, Willis?"
"Suppose you met Ernest or Frank in the street to-morrow, pale, meagre, and in rags, would you recognize them?"
"Well, by the same token, sailors can always recognize a ship they have sailed in. They know the form of every plank and the line of every bend. There are hundreds of marks that get spliced in the memory, and are never forgotten. But in the present case there is no room for any doubt, a portion of the figure head is still extant, and the word Nelson can be made out without spectacles."
"But how did it get there?"
"You know, Master Fritz, it could not have told me, even if I had taken the trouble to inquire."
"Very true, Willis."
"I was determined, however, to find it out some other way, so I steered for a cafe near the harbor, where the pilots and long-shore captains go to play at dominoes. I was in hopes of picking up some stray waif of information, and, sooth to say, I was not altogether disappointed."
"Another meeting, I'll be bound," said Jack.
"My falling in with the Nelson astonished you, did it not?"
"Then I'll bet my best pipe that this one will surprise you still more. You recollect my comrade, Bill, alias Bob, of the Hoboken?"
"Then I met him."
"What! the man who had both his legs shot off, and died in consequence of his wounds?" inquired Jack.
"And that was afterwards thrown overboard with a twenty-four pound shot tied to his feet!" exclaimed Fritz.
At this astonishing assertion the young men regarded Willis with an air of apprehension.
"You think I am mad, no doubt, do you not?"
"Whatever can we think, Willis?"
"I admit that my statement looks very like it at first sight, but still you are wrong, as you will see by-and-by. I could scarcely believe my eyes when I saw him. 'Is that you, Bill Stubbs,' says I, 'at last?'
"'Lor love ye!' says he, 'is that you, Pilot?'
"He then took hold of my hand, and gave it such a shake as almost wrenched it off.
"'Where in all the earth did you hail from?' he said. 'I thought you were dead and gone?'
"'And I thought you were the same,' said I, 'and no mistake.'
"'Alive and hearty though, as you see, Pilot; only a little at sea amongst the mounseers.'
"'But what about the Hoboken?' says I.
"'What Hoboken?' says he.
"'Were you not aboard a Yankee cruiser some months back?'
"'Never was aboard a Yankee in all my life,' says Bill.
"And no more he was, for he never left the Nelson till she was high and dry in Havre dockyard; so, the short and the long of it is, that I must have been wrong in that instance."
"So I should think," remarked Fritz.
"Yet the resemblance was very remarkable; the only difference was a carbuncle on the nose, which the real Bill has and the other has not, but which I had forgotten."
"Like Cicero," remarked Jack.
"Another Admiral?" inquired Willis, drily.
"No, he was only an orator."
"Bill soon satisfied me that he was the very identical William Stubbs, and that the other was only a very good imitation."
"He did not receive you with a punch in the ribs, at all events, like the apocryphal Bill," remarked Jack.
"No; but what is more to the purpose, he told me that, after having struggled with the terrible tempest off New Switzerland--which you recollect--the Nelson found herself at such a distance, that Captain Littlestone resolved to proceed on his voyage, and to return again as speedily as possible.
"'We arrived at the Cape all right,' added Bill, 'landed the New Switzerland cargo, and sailed again with the Rev. Mr. Wolston on board. A few days after leaving the Cape, we were pounced upon by a French frigate; the Nelson, with its crew, was sent off as a prize to Havre, and here I have been ever since,' said Bill, 'a prisoner at large, allowed to pick up a living as I can amongst the shipping.'"
"And the remainder of the crew?" inquired Fritz.
"Are all here prisoners of war."
"And the Rev. Mr. Wolston and the captain?"
"Are prisoners on parole."
"What! in Havre?"
"Yes, close at hand, in the Hotel d'Espagne."
"And we sitting here," cried Jack, snatching up his hat and rushing down stairs four steps at a time.
Willis and Fritz followed as fast as they could.
When they all three reached the bottom of the stairs.
"If Captain Littlestone is here, Willis," said Jack, "he could not have been on board the Boudeuse."
"That is true, Master Jack."
"In that case, Great Rono, you must have been dreaming in the corvette as well as in the Yankee."
"No," insisted Willis, "it was no dream, I am certain of that."
"Explain the riddle, then."
"I cannot do that just at present, but it may be cleared up by-and-by, like all the mysteries and miracles that surround us."
[I] This circumstance is historical, and will be found at length in the Memoirs of Napoleon, by Amedee Goubard.