Willis the Pilot by Johanna Spyri
Wherein Willis the Pilot proves "Irrefragably" that Ephemerides die of Consumption and Home-Sickness--The Canoe and its Young ones--The Search after the Sloop--Found--The Sword-Fish--Floating Atoms--Admiral Socrates.
When they had come within a short distance of the bay, Jack thought he saw a large black creature moving in the bushes that lined the shore.
"A sea monster!" he cried, levelling his musket; "I discovered it, and have the right to the first shot."
"No, sir," said Fritz, whose keen eye was a sort of locomotive telescope, "I object to that, for I do not want you to kill or wound my canoe."
"Nonsense, it moves."
"Whether it moves or not, we shall all see by and by; but do you not observe this monster's young ones gambolling by its side?"
"Which proves I am right, unless you mean to say your canoe has been hatching," and Jack again levelled his rifle.
"Don't fire, it is the hat and jacket of Willis!"
"What!" exclaimed Ernest, "is the Pilot a triton then, that he could dispense with the canoe?"
"Well, yes, unless the canoe has found its way back of its own accord, which would indeed make it an intelligent creature."
"The Pilot has evidently reached Shark's Island by swimming, in spite of surf and breakers--a feat almost without a parallel."
"Bah!" said Ernest, parodying Jack's witticism about the oars, "what does a pilot care about surf and breakers?"
Strongly moored in a creek of the Jackal River, and protected by a bluff, forming a screen between it and the sea, the pinnace had in no way suffered from the storm.
The swell was so violent, that they had a world of trouble in making the island; as they approached, Willis, who had made a speaking-trumpet by joining his hands round his mouth, was roaring out alternately, "starboard," "larboard," "hard-a-port," just as if these terms had not been Hebrew to the impromptu mariners.
At last, tired of holloaing, "Stop a bit," he said, "I shall find a quicker way;" with that he threw himself directly into the sea, and cut through the waves towards them as if his arms had been driven by a steam engine.
Arrived on board, he gave a vigorous turn to the tiller, laid hold of the sheet, let out a reef here, took in another there; the pinnace was soon completely at his command, and behaved admirably; true, she pitched furiously, and the gunwale was under water at every plunge. He headed along the coast till the point beyond which Fritz had first observed the Nelson was fairly doubled; some days before this point was called Cape Deliverance, it was now, perhaps, about to acquire the term of Cape Disappointment, but for the moment its future designation was in embryo.
Leaping on the poop, Willis carefully scanned the horizon as the boat rose upon the summit of the waves; but seeing nothing, he at last leapt down again with an expression of rage that, under other circumstances, would have been irresistibly comic. Abandoning the direction of the pinnace, he went and sat down on a bulk-head, and covered his face with his hands, in an attitude of profound desolation.
"Willis! Willis!" cried Jack, "I shall tell Sophia."
But there was neither the soft voice there, the caressing hand, nor the sweet fascination of the young girl's presence, and Willis continued immovable.
Becker saw that his was one of those minds that grew less calm the more they were urged, and the excitement of which must be permitted to wear itself out; he therefore beckoned his sons to leave him to his own reflections.
The wind still blew a gale, and the pinnace pitched heavily; but the sun was now beginning to break through the masses of lurid cloud, and the air was becoming less and less charged with vapor.
"I can descry nothing either," said Becker; "and yet this is the direction the storm must have driven the sloop."
"The sea is very capricious," suggested Fritz.
"True, but not to the extent of carrying a ship against the wind."
"Unfortunately," said Jack, "it is not on sea as on land, where the slightest indications of an object lost may lead to its discovery; a word dropped in the ear of a passer-by might put you on the track, but here it is no use saying, 'Sir, did you not see the Nelson pass this way?'"
"Fire a shot," said Ernest; "it may perhaps be heard, now that the air is less humid."
The two-pounder was ready charged; Fritz struck a light and set fire to a strip of mimosa bark, with which he touched the piece, and the report boomed across the waters.
Willis raised his head and listened anxiously, but soon dropped it again, and resumed his former attitude of hopeless despair.
"It may be," said Ernest, "that the Nelson hears our signal, though we do not hear hers."
"How can that be?" inquired Jack.
"Why, very easily. Sound increases or diminishes in intensity according as the wind carries it on or retards it."
"What, then, is sound, that the wind can blow it about, most learned brother?"
"It is a result of the compression of the air, that from its elasticity extends and expands, and which causes a sort of trembling or undulation, similar to that which is observed in water when a stone is thrown into it."
"And you may add," said Becker, "that bodies striking the air excite sonorous vibrations in this fluid; thus it rings under the lash that strikes it with violence, and whistles under the rapid impulsion of a switch: it likewise becomes sonorous when it strikes itself with force against any solid body, as the wind when it blows against the cordage of ships, houses, trees, and generally every object with which it comes in contact."
"I can understand," replied Jack, "how this sonorous effect is produced on the particles of air in immediate contact with the object struck; but how this sound is propagated, I do not see."
"Very likely; but still it travels from particle to particle, in a circle, at the rate of three hundred and forty yards in a second."
"Three hundred and forty yards in a second!" said Willis, who was beginning by degrees to recover his self-possession. "Well, that is what I should call going a-head."
"And by what sort of compasses has this speed been measured, Master Ernest?"
"The first accurate measurement, Master Jack, was made at Paris in 1738. There are there two tolerably elevated points, namely, Montmartre and Montlhery--the distance between these, in a direct line, is 14,636 toises. Cannons were fired during the night, and the engineers on one of the elevations observed that an interval of eighty-six seconds and a half elapsed between the flash and the report of a cannon fired on the other."
"That half-second is very amusing," said Jack laughing; "if there had been only eighty or eighty-six net, one might still be permitted to entertain some doubts; but eighty-six and a half admits nothing of the kind. But why not three-quarters or six-eighths, they would do as well?"
"What is more natural than to reckon the fraction, if we are desirous of obtaining absolute precision? Is six months of your time of no value? Are thirty minutes more or less on the dial of your watch of no signification to you?"
"Your brother is perfectly right, Jack; you are not always successful in your jokes."
"Other experiments have been made since then," continued Ernest, "and the results have always been the same, making allowances for the wind, and a slight variation that is ascribed to temperature."
"To confirm the accuracy of this statement, the speed of light would have to be taken into consideration."
"True; but the velocity of light is so great, that the instant a cannon is fired the flash is seen."
"Whatever the distance?"
"Yes, whatever the distance. Bear in mind that the rays of the sun only require eight minutes to traverse the thirty-four millions of leagues that extend between us and that body. Hence it follows that the time light takes to travel from one point to another on the earth may be regarded as nil."
"That is something like distance and speed," remarked Willis, "and may be all right as regards the sun, but I should not be disposed to admit that there are any other instances of the same kind."
"Very good, Master Willis; and yet the sun is only a step from us in comparison to the distance of some stars that we see very distinctly, but which are, nevertheless, so remote, that their rays, travelling at the same rate as those of the sun, are several years in reaching us."
Willis rose abruptly, whistling "the Mariner's March," and went to join Fritz, who was steering the pinnace.
At this naive mark of disapprobation on the part of the Pilot, Becker, Ernest, and Jack burst involuntarily into a violent peal of laughter.
"Laugh away, laugh away." said Willis; "I will not admit your calculations for all that."
The sky had now assumed an opal or azure tint, the wind had gradually died away into a gentle breeze, the waves were now swelling gently and regularly, like the movements of the infant's cradle that is being rocked asleep. Never had a day, opening in the convulsions of a tempest, more suddenly lapsed into sunshine and smiles: it was like the fairies of Perrault's Tales, who, at first wrapped in sorry rags, begging and borne down with age, throw off their chrysalis and appear sparkling with youth, gaiety, and beauty, their wallet converted into a basket of flowers, and their crutch to a magic wand.
"Father" inquired Fritz, "shall we go any farther?"
Since the weather had calmed down, and there was no longer any necessity for exertion, the expedition had lost its charm for the young man.
"I think it is useless; what say you, Willis?"
"Ah," said the latter, taking Becker by the hand, "in consideration of the eight days' friendship that connects you even more intimately with Captain Littlestone than my affection for him of twenty years' standing, keep still a few miles to the east."
"If the sloop has been driven to a distance by the storm, and is returning towards us, which is very likely, I do not see that we can be of much use."
"But if dismasted and leaky?"
"That would alter the case, only I am afraid the ladies will be uneasy about us."
"But they were half prepared, father."
"Jack is right," added Fritz, whose energies were again called into play by the thought of the Nelson in distress; "let us go on."
"Besides, on the word of a pilot, the sea will be very calm and gentle for some time to come: there is not the slightest danger."
"And what if there were?" replied Fritz.
"Well, Willis, I shall give up the pinnace to you till dark," said Becker, "and may God guide us; we shall return to-night, so as to arrive at Rockhouse early in the morning."
"Hurrah for the captain!" cried Willis, throwing a cap into the air.
The evolutions of a cap, thrown up towards the sky or down upon the ground, were very usual modes with Willis of expressing his joy or sorrow.
This homage rendered to Becker, he hastened to let a reef out of the sheet, and the pinnace, for a moment at rest, redoubled its speed, like post-horses starting from the inn-door under the combined influence of a cheer from the postillion and a flourish of the whip.
"There is a cockle-shell that skips along pretty fairly," said Willis; "but it wants two very important things."
"A caboose and a nigger."
"A caboose and a nigger?"
"Yes, I mean a pantry and a cook; a gale for breakfast is all very well, one gets used to it, it is light and easily digested; but the same for dinner is rather too much of a good thing in one day."
"I observed your thoughtful mother hang a sack on one of your shoulders, which appeared tolerably well filled--where is it?"
"Here it is," said Jack, issuing from the hatchway; "here are our stores: a ham, two Dutch cheeses, two callabashes full of Rockhouse malaga, and there is plenty of fresh water in the gourds; with these, we have wherewithal to defy hunger till to-morrow."
"Capital!" said Willis.
This time, however, a cap did not appear in the air, as the last one had not been seen since the former ovation.
"Let us lay the table," said Jack, arranging the coils of rope that crowded the deck. "Well, you see, Willis, we want for nothing on board the pinnace, not even a what-do-you-call-it?"
"A caboose, Master Jack."
"Well, not even a caboose."
"Quite true; and if the Nelson were in the offing, I would not exchange my pilot's badge for the epaulettes of a commodore; but, alas! she is not there."
"Cheer up, Willis, cheer up; one is either a man or one is not. What is the good of useless regrets?"
"Very little, but it is hard to be yard-armed while absent at my time of life--and afterwards--your health, Mr. Becker."
"That would be hard at any age, Willis; but I rather think it has not come to that yet."
"When it has come to it, there will be very little time left to talk it over."
"Did you not say, brother, that the Nelson might hear our signals without our hearing hers? If so, there is a chance for Willis yet."
"Certainly, Jack, because she has the wind in her favor to act as a speaking-trumpet, whilst we had it against us acting as a deafener."
"Is there any other influence that affects sound besides the wind?"
"Yes, I have already mentioned that temperature has something to do with it. Sound varies in intensity according to the state of the atmosphere. If, for example, we ring a small bell in a closed vessel filled with air, it has been observed that, as the air is withdrawn by the pump, the sound gradually grows less and less distinct."
"And if a vacuum be formed?"
"Then the sound is totally extinguished."
"So, then," objected Willis, "if two persons were to talk in what you call a vacuum, they would not hear each other?"
"Two persons could not talk in a vacuum," replied Ernest.
"Because they would die as soon as they opened their mouths."
"Ah, that alters the case."
"If, on the contrary, a quantity of air or gas were compressed into a space beyond what it habitually held, then the sound," continued Ernest, "would be more intense than if the air were free."
"In that case a whisper would be equal to a howl!"
"You think I am joking, Willis; but on the tops of high mountains, such as the Himalaya and Mont Blanc, where the air is much rarified, voices are not heard at the distance of two paces."
"Awkward for deaf people!"
"Whilst, on the icy plains of the frozen regions, where the air is condensed by the severe cold, a conversation, held in the ordinary tone, may be easily carried on at the distance of half a league."
"Awkward for secrets!"
"And how does sound operate with regard to solid bodies?" inquired Jack.
"According to the degree of elasticity possessed by their veins or fibres."
"That is, solid bodies, whose structure is such that the vibration communicated to some of their atoms circulates through the mass, are susceptible of conveying sound."
"Give us an instance."
"Apply your ear to one end of a long beam, and you will hear distinctly the stroke of a pin's head on the other; whilst the same stroke will scarcely be heard through the breadth of the wood."
"So that, in the first case, the sound runs along the longitudinal fibres where the contiguity of parts is closer, than when the body is taken transversely?"
"And across water?"
"It is heard, but more feebly."
For some time Fritz had been closely observing with the telescope a particular part of the horizon, when all at once he cried, "This time I see him distinctly; he is bearing down upon us."
"Who? the sloop?" cried Willis, starting up and letting fall the glass he had in his hand.
"What an extraordinary pace! he bounds into the air, then plumps into the water, then leaps up again, just like an India-rubber ball, that touches the ground only to take a fresh spring!"
"Impossible, Master Fritz; the Nelson tops the waves honestly and gallantly; but as to leaping into the air, she is a little too bulky for that."
"Ah, poor Willis, it is not the Nelson that is under my glass at present, but an enormous fish, ten or twelve feet in length."
"Oh, how you startled me!"
"Father! Ernest! prepare to fire! Jack, the harpoon! he is coming this way."
Fritz stood at the stern of the pinnace, his rifle levelled, following with his eyes the movements of the monster; when within reach, he fired with so much success and address that he hit the creature on the head. It then changed its course, leaving behind a train of blood.
"Let us after him, Willis; quick!"
The Pilot turned the head of the pinnace, and Jack immediately threw his harpoon.
"Struck!" cried he joyfully.
By the hissing of the line, and then the rapid impulsion of the pinnace, it was felt that the monster had more strength than the craft and its crew together.
Ernest and his father fired at the same time; the ball of the former was lost in the animal's flesh, that of the latter rebounded off a horny protuberance that armed the monster's upper lip.
Fritz had time to recharge his rifle; he levelled it a second time, and the ball went to join the former; but, for all that, the pinnace continued to cleave the water at a furious rate.
Becker seized an axe and cut the rope.
"Oh, father, what a pity! such a splendid capture for our museum of natural history!"
"It is a sword-fish, children; a monster of a dangerous species, and of extreme voracity. If, by way of reciprocity, the fish have a museum at the bottom of the sea, they will have some fine specimens of the human race that have become the prey of this creature; and it may be that we were on the way to join the collection."
"Did you observe the formidable dentilated horn?"
"It is by means of this horn or sword, from which it takes its name, that it wages a continual war with the whale, whose only mode of escape is by flourishing its enormous tail; but the sword-fish, being very agile, easily avoids this, bounds into the air as Fritz saw it doing just now, then, falling down upon its huge adversary, pierces him with its sword."
"By the way, talking about the whale," said Jack, "all naturalists seem agreed, and we ourselves are convinced from our own observation, that its throat is very narrow, and that it can only swallow molluscs, or very small fishes--what, in that case, becomes of the history of Jonah?"
"It is rather unfortunate," replied Becker, "that the whale has been associated with this miracle. There is now no possibility of separating the whale from Jonah, or Jonah from the whale; yet, in the Greek translation of the Chaldean text, there is Ketos--in the Latin, there is Cete--and both these words were understood by the ancients to signify a fish of enormous size, but not the whale in particular. The shark, for example, can swallow a man, and even a horse, without mangling it."
"I have heard," said Jack, "of navigators who have landed on the back of a whale, and walked about on it, supposing it a small island."
"There is nothing impossible about that," observed Willis.
"One thing is certain, that we had just now within reach a sea monster who has carried off four leaden bullets in his body without seeming to be in the least inconvenienced by them; on the contrary, he seemed to move all the quicker for the dose."
"Life is a very different thing with those fellows than with us. The carp is said to live two hundred years, and it is supposed that a whale might live for ten centuries if the harpoon did not come in the way to shorten the period."
"Ah!" exclaimed Willis, with a sigh that might have moved a train of waggons, "these fellows have no cares."
"And the ephemeride, that dies an instant after its birth, do you suppose that it dies of grief?"
"Who knows, Master Jack?"
"The ephemeride does not die so quickly as you think," said Becker; "it commences by living three years under water in the form of a maggot. It afterwards becomes amphibious, when it has a horny covering, on which the rudiments of wings may be observed. Then, four or five months after this first metamorphosis, generally in the month of August, it issues from its skin, almost as rapidly as we throw off a jacket; attached to the rejected skin are the teeth, lips, horns, and all the apparatus that the creature required as a water insect; then it is no sooner winged, gay, and beautiful, than, as you observe, it dies--hence it is called the day-fly, its existence being terminated by the shades of night."
"I was certain of it," said Willis.
"Certain of what?"
"That it died of grief at being on land. When one has been accustomed to the water, you see, under such circumstances life is not worth the having."
"The day-fly," continued Becker, "is an epitome of those men who spend a life-time hunting after wealth and glory, and who perish themselves at the moment they reach the pinnacle of their ambitious desires. Whence I conclude, my dear children, that there are nothing but beginnings and endings of unhappiness in this world, and that true felicity is only to be hoped for in another sphere."
"What a curious series of transformations! First an aquatic insect, next amphibious, then throwing away the organs for which it has no further use, and becoming provided with those suited to its new state!"
"Yes, my dear Fritz; and yet those complicated and beautiful operations of Nature have not prevented philosophers from asserting that the world resulted from floating atoms, which, by force of combination, and after an infinity of blind movements, conglomerate into plants, animals, men, heaven, and earth."
"I am only a plain sailor," said Willis "yet the eye of a worm teaches me more than these philosophers seem to have imagined in their philosophy."
"Such a system could only have originated in Bedlam or Charenton."
"No, Ernest, it is the system of Epicurus and Lucretius. Without going so far back, there are a thousand others quite as ridiculous, with which it is unnecessary to charge your young heads."
"All madmen are not in confinement, and it may be that Epicurus and Lucretius had arrived at those limits of human reason, where genius begins in some and folly in others."
"It is not that, Fritz; but if men, says Malebranche somewhere,[A] are interested in having the sides of an equilateral triangle unequal, and that false geometry was as agreeable to them as false philosophy, they would make the problems equally false in geometry as in morality, for this simple reason, that their errors afford them gratification, whilst truth would only hurt and annoy them."
"Very good," observed Willis; "this Malebranche, as you call him, must have been an admiral?"
"No, Willis, nothing more than a simple philosopher, but one of good faith, like Socrates, who admitted that what he knew best was, that he knew nothing."
The sun had gradually disappeared in the midst of purple tinged clouds, leaving along the horizon at first a fringe of gold, then a simple thread, and finally nothing but the reflection of his rays, sent to the earth by the layers of atmosphere,[B] like the adieu we receive at the turning of a road from a friend who is leaving us.
There was a festival in the sky that night; the firmament brought out, one by one, her circlet of diamonds, till the whole were sparkling like a blaze of light; the pinnace also left a fiery train in her wake, caused partly by electricity and partly by the phosphorescent animalculae that people the ocean.
"Willis," said Becker, "I leave it entirely to you to decide the instant of our return."
The Pilot changed at once the course of the boat, without attempting to utter a word, so heavy was his heart at this unsuccessful termination of the expedition.
"It will be curious," observed Fritz, "if we find the Nelson, on our return, snugly at anchor in Safety Bay."
"I have a presentiment," said Jack; "and you will see that we have been playing at hide-and-seek with the Nelson."
Willis shook his head.
"Are there not a thousand accidents to cause a ship to deviate from her route?"
"Yes, Master Ernest, there are typhoons, and the waterspouts of which I spoke to you before. In such cases, ships often deviate from their route, but generally by going to the bottom."
Willis concluded this sentence with a gesture that defies description, implying annihilation.
"Remember Admiral Socrates, Willis," said Jack; "what I know best is, that I know nothing, and avow that God has other means of accomplishing his decrees besides typhoons and waterspouts."
"My excellent young friends, I know you want to inspire me with hope, as they give a toy to a child to keep it from crying, and I thank you for your good intentions. Now, for three days you have, so to speak, had no rest, and I insist on your profiting by this night to take some repose; and you also, Mr. Becker; I am quite able to manage the pinnace alone."
"Yes providing you do not play us some trick, like that of this morning, for instance."
"All stratagems are justifiable in war. Master Ernest had fair warning that I had an idea to work out. Besides, a prisoner, when under hatches, has the right to escape if he can: under parole, the case is quite different."
"Well, Willis, if you give me your simple promise to steer straight for New Switzerland, and awake me in two hours to take the bearings--"
"I give it, Mr. Becker."
The three Greenlanders then descended into the hold, for tropical nights are as chilly as the days are hot, and Becker, rolling himself up in a sail, lay on deck.
In less than five minutes they were all fast asleep, and Willis paced the deck, his arms crossed, and mechanically gazing upon a star that was mirrored in the water.
"Several years to come to us, and that at the rate of seventy thousand leagues a second--that is a little too much."
Then he went to the rudder, his head leaning upon his breast, and glancing now and then with distracted eye at the course of the boat, buried in a world of thought, sad and confused, doubtless beholding in succession visions of the Nelson, of Susan, and of Scotland.
[A] "Search after Truth," book ix.
[B] The twilight is entirely owing to this.