Chapter II.
 

To What Extent Willis the Pilot Had Ideas on Certain Subjects--The Knights of the Ocean.

The storm continued to rage without intermission for three entire days. During this interval, not only was it impossible to send the canoe or pinnace to sea, but even to venture a step beyond the threshold, so completely had the tempest broken up the burning soil, the thirst of which the great Disposer of all things had proportioned to the deluges that were destined to assuage it.

All had at length yielded to bodily fatigue and mental anxiety, for the seeming eternity of these three days and three nights had been passed in prayer, and in the most fearful apprehensions as to the fate of the Nelson and her crew.

Nothing in the horizon as yet indicated that the thunders were tired of roaring, the clouds of rending themselves asunder, the winds of howling, or the waves of frantically beating on the cliffs.

Towards evening the ladies had retired to the sick-room with a view of seeking some repose. Becker, Willis, and the young men bivouacked in the hall, where some mattresses and bear-skins had been laid down. Here it was arranged that, for the common safety, each during the night should watch in turn. But about two in the morning, Ernest had no sooner relieved Fritz than, fatigue overcoming his sense of duty, the poor fellow fell comfortably asleep, and he was soon perfectly unconscious of all that was passing around him.

Becker awoke first--it was broad daylight. "Where is Willis?" he cried, on getting up.

"Holloa!" exclaimed Fritz, running towards the magazine, "the canoe has disappeared!"

In an instant all were on their feet.

"Some one of you has fallen asleep then," said Becker to his children; "for when the pilot watched I watched with him, and never lost sight of him for a moment."

"I am the culprit," said Ernest; "and if any mischief arises out of this imprudence, I shall never forgive myself. But who could have dreamt of any one being foolhardy enough to attempt the rescue of a ship in a nutshell that scarcely holds two persons?"

"I pray Heaven that your sleepy-headedness may not result in the loss of human life! You see, my son, that there is no amount of duty, be it ever so trifling in importance, that can be neglected with impunity. It is the concurrent devotion of each, and the sacrifices of one for another, that constitutes and secures the mutual security. Society on a small, as on a large scale, is a chain of which each individual is a link, and when one fails the whole is broken."

"I will go after him," said Ernest.

"Fritz and I will go with you," added Frank.

"No," said Ernest; "I alone am guilty, and I wish alone to remedy my fault--that is, as far as possible."

"I could not hide the canoe," observed Fritz, "but I hid the oars, and I find them in their place."

"That, perhaps, will have prevented him embarking," remarked one of the boys.

"A man like Willis," replied Becker, "is not prevented carrying out his intentions by such obstacles; he will have taken the first thing that came to hand; but let us go."

"What, father, am I not then to go alone, and so bear the penalty of my own fault?"

"No, Ernest, that would be to inflict two evils upon us instead of one; it is sufficient that you have shown your willingness to do so. Besides, three will not be over many to convince Willis, even if yet in time."

"And mother? and the ladies?" inquired Fritz.

"I shall leave Frank and Jack to see to them; a mere obstinate freak, or a catastrophe, it will be time enough, when over, to inform them of this new idea of the Pilot's."

"It is something more than an idea this time," remarked Jack.

Just as Becker and his two sons were issuing from the grotto, the report of a cannon-shot resounded through the air.

Awoke and startled by the explosion, Becker's wife and Mrs. Wolston came running towards them. As for the girls, their guardian angel had too closely enveloped them in its wings to admit of their sleep being disturbed.

"The sloop on the coast!" said Frank; "for the sound is too distinct to come from a distance."

"Unless Willis has got upon Shark's Island," objected Fritz, running towards the terrace, armed with a telescope. "Just so; he is there, I see him distinctly; he is recharging our four-pounder."

"God be praised! you relieve my conscience of a great burden," said Ernest, placing his hand on his breast.

"He is going to discharge it," cried Fritz--boom. Then a second shot reverberated in the air.

"If Captain Littlestone be within hearing of that signal, he will be sure to reply to it." said Becker. "Listen!"

They hushed themselves in silence, each retaining his respiration, as if their object had been to hear the sound of a fly's wing rather than the report of a cannon.

"Nothing!" said Becker sadly, at the expiration of a few minutes.

"Nothing!" reiterated successively all the voices.

"How in all the world did Willis contrive to get transported to Shark's Island?" inquired Mrs. Becker.

"Simply, wife, by watching when asleep, whilst one of our gentlemen slept when he watched."

"Yes, mother," said Ernest, "and if you would not have me blush before Mrs. Wolston, you will not insist upon an explanation of the mystery."

"Mrs. Wolston," she replied, "is not so exacting as you seem to think, Master Ernest--the only difference that her presence here should make amongst you is that you have two mothers instead of one."

"That is," said Mrs. Wolston smiling, "if Mrs. Becker has no objections to dividing the office with me."

"Shall I not have compensation in your daughters?" said Mrs. Becker, taking her by the hand.

"Still," interrupted Fritz, "I cannot yet conceive how Willis managed to reach Shark's Island in a wretched canoe, without oars, through waves that ought to have swallowed him up over and over again."

"Bah!" exclaimed Jack; "what use has a pilot for oars?"

"There is a question! You, who modestly call yourself the best horseman on the island, how would you do, if you had nothing to ride upon?"

"I could at least fall back upon broomsticks," retorted the imperturbable Jack. "Besides, in Willis's case, the canoe was the steed, the oars the saddle--nothing more."

"We shall not stay here to solve the riddle," said Becker; "the storm seems disposed to abate; and the more that it was unreasonable to face certain destruction in a vain endeavor to assist a problematical shipwreck, the more it is incumbent upon us now to go in quest of the Nelson."

"But the sea will still be very terrible!" quickly added Mrs. Becker.

"If all danger were over, wife, the enterprise would do us little credit. It is our duty to do the best we can, according to the strength and means at our command. Fritz, Ernest, and Jack, go and put on your life-preservers--we shall take up Willis in passing."

"I must not insist," said Mrs. Becker; "the sacrifice would, indeed, be no sacrifice, if it could be easily borne; and yet--"

"Remember the time, wife, when I was obliged, in order to secure the precious remains of our ship, to venture with our eldest sons on a float of tubs, leaving you exposed, alone with a child of seven, to the chance of eternal isolation!"

"That is very true, husband: I am unjust towards Providence, which has never ceased blessing us; but I am only a weak woman, and my heart often gets the better of my head."

"To-day I leave Frank with you; but, instead of your being his protector, as was the case fifteen years ago, he will be yours. Then there is Mrs. Wolston, her daughters, and husband, quite a new world of sympathies and consolations, by which our island has been so miraculously peopled."

"Go then, husband, and may God bring back in safety both the pinnace and the Nelson!"

"By the way, Mrs. Wolston, how does our worthy invalid get on? We live in such a turmoil of events and consternations, that I must beg a thousand pardons for not having asked after him before."

"His sleep appears untroubled; and, notwithstanding all the terrors of the last few days, I entertain sanguine hopes of his immediate recovery."

"You will at least return before night?" said Mrs. Becker to her husband.

"Rely upon my not prolonging my stay beyond what the exigencies of the expedition imperiously require."

"Good gracious! what are these?" exclaimed Mrs. Wolston as the three brothers entered, equipped in seal-gut trowsers, floating stays of the same material, and Greenland caps.

"The Knights of the Ocean," replied Jack gravely, "who, like the heroes of Cervantes, go forth to redress the wrongs done by the tempest, and to break lances--oars, I mean--in favor of persecuted sloops."

Mrs. Becker herself could scarcely refrain from smiling.

Such is the power of the smile that, in season or out of season, it often finds its way to the most pallid lips, in the midst of the greatest disasters and the deepest grief. It appears as if always listening at the door ready to take its place on the slightest notice. This diversion had the good effect of mixing a little honey with--if the expression may be used--the bitterness of the parting adieus. Becker took the lead in hiding his sorrow; the three young Greenlanders tore themselves from the maternal embrace, and affectionately kissed the hand held out to them by Mrs. Wolston.

Then, between those that departed and those that remained behind, there was nothing more than the ties of recollection, the common sadness, and the endless links of mutual affection.