Willis the Pilot by Johanna Spyri
A Landscape--Sad Houses and Smiling Houses--Politeness in China--Eight Soups at Dessert--Wind Merchants--Another Idea of the Pilot's--Susan, vice Sophia.
Towards five o'clock next morning everything about Rockhouse was beginning to assume life and motion--within, all its inhabitants were already astir--without, little remained of the recent storm and inundation except that refreshing coolness, which, conjointly with the purified air, infuses fresh vigor, not only into men, but also into every living thing. The citrous, the aloes, and the Spanish jasmines perfumed the landscape. The flexible palms, the tall bananas, with their unbrageous canopy, the broad, pendant-leaved mangoes, and all the rank but luxuriant vegetation that clothed the land to the water's edge, waved majestically under the gentle breeze that blew from the sea. The Jackal River unfolded its silvery band through the roses, bamboos, and cactii that lined its banks. The sun--for that luminary plays an important part in all Nature's festivals--darted its rays on the soil still charged with vapor. Diamond drops sparkled in the cups of the flowers and on the points of the leaves. In the distance, pines, cedars, and richly-laden cocoa-nut trees filled up the background with their dark foliage. The swans displayed their brilliant plumage on the lake, the boughs of the trees were alive with parroquets and other winged creatures of the tropics. Add to the charms of this scene, Mrs. Becker returning from the prairie with a jar of warm, frothy milk--Mrs. Wolston and Mary busied in a multiplicity of household occupations, to which their white hands and ringing voices gave elegance and grace--Sophia tying a rose to the neck of a blue antelope which she had adopted as a companion--Frank distributing food to the ostriches and large animals, and admit, if there is a paradise on earth, it was this spot.
Compare this scene with that presented by any of our large cities at the same hour in the morning. In London or Paris, our dominion rarely extends over two or three dreary-looking rooms--a geranium, perhaps, at one of the windows to represent the fields and green lanes of the country; above, a forest of smoking chimneys vary the monotony of the zig-zag roofs; below, a thousand confused noises of waggons, cabs, and the hoarse voices of the street criers; probably the lamps are just being extinguished, and the dust heaps carted away, filling our rooms, and perhaps our eyes, with ashes; the chalk-milk, the air, and the odors are scarcely required to fill up the picture.
Breakfast was spread a few paces from Mr. Wolston's bed, whom the two young girls were tending with anxious solicitude, and whose sickness was almost enviable, so many were the cares lavished upon him.
"You are wrong, Mrs. Becker," said Mrs. Wolston, "to make yourself uneasy, the sea has become as smooth as a mirror since their departure."
"Ah, yes, I know that, my dear Mrs. Wolston, but when one has already undergone the perils of shipwreck, the impression always remains, and makes us see storms in a glass of water."
"I am certain," remarked Mr. Wolston, "the cause of their delay is a concession made to Willis."
"Very likely he would not consent to return, unless they went as far as possible."
"By the way, madam," said Mary, "now that you have got two great girls added to your establishment, I hope you are going to make them useful in some way--we can sew, knit, and spin."
"And know how to make preserves," added Sophia.
"Yes, and to eat them too," said her mother.
"If you can spin, my dears, we shall find plenty of work for you; we have here the Nankin cotton plant, and I intend to dress the whole colony with it."
"Delightful!" exclaimed Sophia, clapping her hands; "Nankin dresses just as at the boarding-school, with a straw hat and a green veil."
"To be sure, it must be woven first," reflected Mrs. Becker; "but I dare say we shall be able to manage that."
"By the way, girls," said Mrs. Wolston, "have you forgotten your lessons in tapestry?"
"Not at all, mamma; and now that we think of it, we shall handsomely furnish a drawing-room for you."
"But where are the tables and chairs to come from?" inquired Mrs. Becker.
"Oh, the gentlemen will see to them."
"And the room, where is that to be?"
"There is the gallery, is there not?"
"And the wool for the carpet?"
"Have you not sheep?"
"That is true, children; you speak as if we had only to go and sit down in it."
"The piano, however, I fear will be wanting, unless we can pick up an Erard in the neighboring forest."
"True, mamma, all the overtures that we have had so much trouble in learning will have to go for nothing."
"But," said Mrs. Becker, "by way of compensation, there is the vegetable and fruit garden, the pantry, the kitchen, the dairy, and the poultry yard; these are all my charges, and you may have some of them if you like."
"Excellent, each shall have her own kingdom and subjects."
"It being understood," suggested Mrs. Wolston, "that you are not to eat everything up, should the fruit garden or pantry come under your charge."
"That is not fair, mamma; you are making us out to be a couple of cannibals."
"You see," continued Mrs. Wolston, "these young people have not the slightest objection to my parading their accomplishments, but the moment I touch their faults they feel aggrieved."
"I am persuaded," rejoined Mrs. Becker laughing, "that there are no calumniators in the world like mothers."
"Therefore, mamma, to punish you we shall come and kiss you."
And accordingly Mrs. Wolston was half stifled under the embraces of her two daughters.
"I am certainly not the offender," said Mrs. Becker, "but I should not object to receive a portion of the punishment; these great boys--pointing to Frank--are too heavy to hang on my neck now; you will replace them, my dears, will you not?"
"Most willingly, madam; but not to deprive them of their places in your affection."
"In case you should lose that, Master Frank," said Mrs. Wolston, "you must have recourse to mine."
"But now, my friends, what do you say to going down to the shore to meet the pinnace, and perhaps the Nelson?" said Mrs. Becker.
"Ah, yes," said Sophia; "and I will stay at home to wait upon father."
"No," said Mary; "I am the eldest--that is my right."
"Well, my children, do not quarrel about that," said Wolston; "I feel rather better; and I dare say a walk will do me good. Perhaps, when I get tired, Frank will lend me his arm."
"Better than that," hastily added Frank; "I shall saddle Blinky; and lead him gently, and you will be as comfortable as in an arm-chair."
"What is that you call Blinky?"
"Oh, one of our donkeys."
"Ah, very good; I was afraid you meant one of your ostriches, and I candidly admit that my experiences in equitation do not extend to riding a winged horse."
"In that case," said Mrs. Becker, "to keep Blinky's brother from being jealous, I, shall charge him with a basket of provisions; and we shall lay a cloth under the mangoes, so that our ocean knights, as Jack will have it, may have something to refresh themselves withal as soon as they dismount."
The little caravan was soon on the march; the two dogs cleared the way, leaping, bounding, and scampering on before, sniffing the bushes with their intelligent noses; then, returning to their master, they read in his face what was next to be done. Mary walked by the side of Blinky, amusing her father with her prattle. Sophia, with her antelope, was gambolling around them, the one rivalling the other in the grace of their movements, not only without knowing it, but rather because they did not know it. The two mothers were keeping an eye on the donkey; whilst Frank, with his rifle charged, was ready to bring down a quail or encounter a hyena.
Some hours after the pinnace hove in sight, the voyagers landed, and received the warm congratulations of those on shore. When Willis had secured the boat, he took a final survey of the coast, penetrating with his eyes every creek and crevice.
"Is there no trace of the Nelson?" inquired Wolston.
"Well, I had all along thought you would find it so; the wind for four days has been blowing that it would drive the Nelson to her destination. Captain Littlestone, being charged with important despatches, having already lost a fortnight here, has, no doubt, taken advantage of the gale, and made sail for the Cape, trusting to find us all alive here on his return voyage."
"Yes," said the Pilot, "I know very well that you have all good hearts, and that you are desirous of giving me all the consolation you can."
"Would you not have acted, under similar circumstances, precisely as we suppose Captain Littlestone to have done?"
"I admit that the thing, is not only possible, but also that, if alive, it is just what he would have done. I trust, if it be so, that when he gets into port he will report me keel-hauled?"
"Yes, I mean dead. It is a thousand times better to pass for a dead man than a deserter."
"The wisest course he could pursue, it appears to me, would be to hold his tongue--probably you will not be missed."
"Ah! you think that her Majesty's blue jackets can disappear in that way, like musk-rats? But no such thing. When the captain in command at the station hails on board, every man and boy of the crew, from the powder-monkey to the first-lieutenant, are mustered in pipe-clay on the quarter-deck, and there, with the ship's commission in his hand, every one must report himself as he calls over the names.
"Then the captain will tell the simple truth."
"Well, you see, truth has nothing at all to do with the rules of the service, the questions printed in the orderly-book only will be asked, and he may not have an opportunity of stating the facts of the case; besides, discipline on board a ship in commission could not be maintained if irregularities could be patched up by a few words from the captain. When it is found that I had been left on shore, the questions will be, 'Was the Nelson in want of repairs?' 'No.' 'Did she require water?' 'No.' 'Provisions?' 'No.' 'Then Willis has deserted?' 'Yes.' And his condemnation will follow as a matter of course."
"In that case, the Captain would be more to blame than you are."
"So he would, and it is for that reason I hope he will be able to show by the log that I was seized with cholera, tied up in a sack, and duly thrown overboard with a four-pound shot for ballast."
"I cannot conceive," said Becker, "that the discipline of any service can be so cruelly unreasonable as you would have us believe."
"No, perhaps you think that just before the anchor is heaved, and the ship about to start on a long voyage, the cabin boys are asked whether they have the colic--that lubbers, who wish to back out have only to say the word, and they are free--that the pilot may go a-hunting if he likes, and that the officers may stay on shore and amuse themselves in defiance of the rules of the service? In that case the navy would be rather jolly, but not much worth."
When Willis was once fairly started there was no stopping him.
"Dead," he continued; "that is to say, without a berth, pay, or even a name, nothing! My wife will have the right to marry again, my little Susan will have another father, and I shall only be able to breathe by stealth, and to consider that as more than I deserve. You must admit that all this is rather a poor look-out a-head."
"Really, Willis," said Mrs. Wolston, "you seem to take a pride in making things worse than they are, conjuring up phantoms that have no existence."
"It is true, madam. I may be going upon a wrong tack. Judging from all appearances, the sloop, instead of being on her way to the Cape, is tranquilly reposing at the bottom of the sea. But it is only death for death; hanged by a court-martial or drowned with the sloop, it comes, in the end, to the same thing."
"I dare say, Willis, had there really been an accident, and you had been on board, you would not have felt yourself entitled to escape?"
"Certainly not, madam; unless the crew could be saved, it would look anything but well for the pilot to escape alone."
Willis, however, to do him justice, seemed trying to smother his grief; and, in the meanwhile, the two girls had been spreading a pure white cloth on a neighboring rock, cutting fruit plates out of the thick mangoe leaves, cooling the Rockhouse malaga in the brook, and giving to the repast an air of elegance and refinement which had the effect of augmenting the appetite of the company. The viands were not better than they had been on many similar occasions, but they were now more artistically displayed, and consequently more inviting.
Who has not remarked, in passing through a street of dingy-looking houses, one of them distinguished from the others by its fresh and cheerful aspect, the windows garnished with a luxuriant screen of flowers, with curtains on either side of snowy whiteness and elaborate workmanship? Very likely the passer-by has asked himself, Why is this house not as neglected, tattered, and dirty as its wretched neighbors? The answer is simple; there dwells in this house a young girl, blithe, frolicsome, and joyous, singing with the lark, and, like a butterfly, floating from her book to her work-box--from her mother's cheek to her father's, leaving an impress of her youthfulness and purity on whatever she touches.
For a like reason the al fresco dinner of this day had a charm that no such feast had been observed to possess before.
"We are not presentable," said Fritz, referring to his seal-gut uniform.
"Ah," replied Mrs. Wolston, "it is your costume of war, brave knights; and, for my part, I admire you more in it than in the livery of Hyde Park or Bond Street."
"In that case," said Ernest, "we shall do as they do in China."
"And what is that?"
"Well, the most profound remark of respect a host can pay to his guests, is to go and dress after dinner."
"Just when they are about to leave?"
"Exactly so, madam."
"That is very decidedly a Chinese observance. Are they not somewhat behind in cookery?"
"By no means, madam; on the contrary, they have attained a very high degree of perfection in that branch of the arts. It is customary, at every ceremonious dinner, to serve up fifty-two distinct dishes. And when that course is cleared off, what do you think is produced next?"
"The dessert, I suppose."
"Eight kinds of soup, never either one more or one less. If the number were deficient, the guests would consider themselves grossly insulted, the number of dishes denoting the degree of respect entertained by the host for his guests."
"I beg, Mrs. Wolston," said Mrs. Becker laughing, "that you will not estimate our esteem for you by the dinner we offer you."
"Well," replied Mrs. Wolston in the same tone, "let me see; to be treated as we ought to be, there are fifty-seven dishes wanting, therefore we must go and dine at home. John, call my carriage."
At this sally they all laughed heartily, and even Willis chimed in with the general hilarity.
"Then, after the soups," continued Ernest, "comes the tea, and with that the dessert, as also sixty square pieces of silver paper to wipe the mouth. It is then that the host vanishes, to reappear in a brilliant robe of gold brocade and a vest of satin."
"These people ought all to perish of indigestion."
"No; they are moderate eaters, their dishes consist of small saucers, each containing only a few mouthfuls of meat, and, as for Europeans, the want of forks and spoons--"
"What! have they no forks?"
"Not at table--nor knives either; but, on the other hand, they are exceedingly expert in the use of two slender sticks of ivory, which they hold in the first three fingers of the right hand, and with which they manage to convey solids, and even liquids, to their mouths."
"Ah! I see," said Jack; "the Europeans would be obliged, like Mrs. Wolston, to call their carriage, in spite of the fifty-two saucers of meat: it puts me in mind of the stork inviting the fox to dine with her out of a long-necked jar."
"We are apt to judge the Chinese by the pictures seen of them on their own porcelain, and copied upon our pottery," said Becker; "but this conveys only a ludicrous idea of them. They are the most industrious, but at the same time the vainest, most stupid, and most credulous people in the world; they worship the moon, fire, fortune, and a thousand other things; people go about amongst them selling wind, which they dispose of in vials of various sizes."
"That is a trade that will not require an extraordinary amount of capital."
"True; and besides, as they carry on their trade in the open air, they have no rent to pay."
"Their bonzes or priests," continued Becker, "to excite charity, perambulate the streets in chains, sometimes with some inflammable matter burning on their heads, whilst, instead of attempting to purify the souls of dying sinners, they put rice and gold in their mouths when the vital spark has fled. They have a very cruel mode of punishing renegade Lamas: these are pierced through the neck with a red-hot iron."
"What is a Lama, father?"
"It is a designation of the Tartar priests."
For some time Willis had been closely examining a particular point in the bay with increasing anxiety; at last he ran towards the shore and leapt into the sea. Becker and his four sons were on the point of starting off in pursuit of him.
"Stop," said Wolston, "I have been watching Willis's movements for the last ten minutes, and I guess his purpose--let him alone."
Willis swam to some object that was floating on the water, and returned in about a quarter of an hour, bringing with him a plank.
"Well," he inquired, on landing, "was I wrong?"
"Wrong about what?" inquired Wolston.
"The Nelson is gone."
"The proof, Willis."
"Well, what about the plank?"
"I recognise it."
"How! Well," replied the obstinate pilot, "fish don't breed planks, and--and--I scarcely think this one could escape from a dockyard, and float here of its own accord."
"Then, Willis, according to you, there are no ships but the Nelson, no ships wrecked but the Nelson, and no planks but the Nelson's. Willis, you are a fool."
"Every one has his own ideas, Mr. Wolston."
Towards evening, when they were on their way back to Rockhouse, Sophia confidentially called Willis aside, and he cheerfully obeyed the summons.
"Pilot," said she, "I have made up my mind about one thing."
"And what is that, Miss Sophia?"
"Why, this--in future, when we are alone, as just now, you must call me Susan, as you used to call your own little girl when at home, not Miss Susan."
"Oh, I cannot do that, Miss Sophia."
"But I insist upon it."
"Well, Miss Sophia, I will try."
"What did you say?"
"Susan, I mean."
"There now, that will do."