Willis the Pilot by Johanna Spyri
Inhabitant of the Moon, Anthropophagian or Hobgoblin?--The Lacedemonian Stew of Madame Dacier--Utile Dulci--Tête-à-tête between Willis and his Pipe--Tobacco versus Birch--Is it for Eating?--Mosquitoes--The Alarm--Toby--The Nocturnal Expedition--We've got him.
Some days passed without anything having occurred to ruffle the tranquil existence of the island families. Every morning the elite of the sea and land forces continued to divide themselves into three squadrons of observation; one of which remained at Rockhouse on some pretext or other, whilst the other two were occupied in exploring the country, or in carrying on the works at Falcon's Nest.
The mysterious stranger, whether shipwrecked seaman, savage, or hobgoblin, who kept all the bearded inhabitants of Rockhouse on the alert, had reappeared in his old quarters, where another litter of leaves had been miraculously strewn exactly in the same place the former had occupied.
Beyond this, however, and sundry gashes here and there--of which Fritz's knife was clearly guilty, but which could not have been perpetrated without an accomplice--nothing had transpired to enable them to arrive at a satisfactory conclusion as to who or what this personage could be.
Though the hypothesis was highly improbable, still Willis persisted in his theory of the shipwreck; he only doubted whether the individual on shore was a marine or the cabin-boy, an officer or a foremast man, and, if the latter, whether it was Bill, Tom, Bob, or Ned.
Ernest rather inclined to think that the invisible stranger was an inhabitant of the moon, who, in consequence of a false step, had tumbled from his own to our planet.
The warlike Fritz was impatient and irritated. He would over and over again have preferred an immediate solution of the affair, even were it bathed in blood, rather than be kept any longer in suspense.
Frank, on the contrary, took a metaphysical view of the case; and, believing that Providence had not entirely dispensed with miracles in dealing with the things of this world, came to the conclusion that it was no earthly visitor they had to deal with; and he even went so far as to hint that prayer was a more efficacious means of solving the mystery than the methods his brothers were pursuing.
Jack, coinciding in some degree with Ernest, shifted his view from an ape to an anthropophagian, and blamed the latter for not coming earlier; when he and his brothers were younger, and consequently more tender, they would have made a better meal, and been more easily digested.
As to what opinion Becker himself entertained, with regard to the occurrence at Falcon's Nest that kept his sons in a feverish state of anxiety, and had awakened all the fears of the Pilot for the safety of his friends on board the Nelson, nothing could be clearly ascertained; in so far as this matter was concerned he kept his own counsel; and, to use an expression of Madame de Sevigne, "had thrown his tongue to the dogs."
The close of the day had, as usual, collected all the members of the family round the domestic hearth; and it may be stated here that Mrs. Wolston, Mary, and Mrs. Becker alternately undertook the preparations of the viands for the diurnal consumption of the community. By this means, uniformity, that palls the appetite, was entirely banished from their dishes. One day they would have the cooked, or rather half-cooked, British joints of Mrs. Wolston and her daughter, varied occasionally, to the great delight of Willis, with a tureen of hotch-potch or cocky-leekie. The next there would be a display of the cosmopolite and somewhat picturesque cookery of Mrs. Becker; there was her famous peccary pie, with ravansara sauce, followed by her delicious preserved mango and seaweed jelly. Nor did she hesitate to draw upon the raw material of the colony now and then for a new hash or soup, taking care, however, to keep in view the maxim that prudence is the mother of safety--an adage that was rather roughly handled by the renowned French linguist, Madame Dacier, who, on one occasion nearly poisoned her husband with a Lacedemonian stew, the receipt for which she had found in Xenophon.
Luckily Becker's wife did not know Greek, consequently he ran no risk of being entertained with a classic dinner; but he was often reminded by his thoughtful partner of Meg Dod's celebrated receipt: before you cook your hare, first--catch it.
Sophia desired earnestly to have a share in the culinary government; but having shown on her first trial, too decided a leaning towards puddings and pancakes, her second essay was put off till she became more thoroughly penetrated with the value of the eternal precept utile dulci, which signifies that, before dessert it is requisite to have something substantial.
As soon as they had finished their afternoon meal, Willis departed on one of his customary mysterious excursions; and Jack, who, like the birds that no sooner hop upon one branch than they leap upon another, had also disappeared. It was not long, however, before he made his appearance again; he came running in almost out of breath, and cried at the top of his voice,
"I have discovered him!"
"Whom?" exclaimed half a dozen voices.
"The inhabitant of the moon?" inquired Ernest.
"I know," said Sophia playfully, "your go-cart and my doll."
"No, I have discovered Willis' secret."
"If you have been watching him, it is very wrong."
"No, father; seeing some thin columns of smoke rising out of a thicket, I thought a bush was on fire; but on going nearer, I saw that it was only a tobacco-pipe."
"Was the pipe alone, brother?"
"No, not exactly, it was in Willis' mouth; and there he sat, so completely immersed in ideas and smoke, that he neither heard nor saw me."
"That he does not smoke here," remarked Becker, "I can easily understand; but why conceal it?"
"Ah," replied Mrs. Wolston, "you do not know Willis yet;--beneath that rough exterior there are feelings that would grace a coronet: he is, no doubt, afraid of leading your sons into the habit."
"That is very thoughtful and considerate on his part."
"He was always smoking on board ship, and it must have been a great sacrifice for him to leave it off to the extent he has done lately."
"Then we shall not allow him to punish himself any longer; and as for the danger of contagion from his smoking here, that evil may perhaps be avoided."
"Do not be afraid, father; it will not be necessary to establish either a quarantine or a lazaretto on our account."
"Besides, any of the boys," said Mrs. Becker, "that acquire the habit, will, by so doing, voluntarily banish themselves from my levees."
"It is an extraordinary habit that, smoking," observed Mrs. Wolston.
"Yes," said Becker; "and what makes the habit more singular is, that it holds out no allurements to seduce its votaries. Generally, the path to vice, or to a bad habit, is strewn with roses that hide their thorns, but such is not the case with smoking; in order to acquire this habit, a variety of disagreeable difficulties have to be overcome, and a considerable amount of disgust and sickness must be borne before the stomach is tutored to withstand the nauseous fumes."
"In point of fact," observed Wolston, "if, instead of being made part and parcel of the appliances of a fashionable man, cigars and meershaums were classed in the pharmacopoeia with emetics and cataplasms, there is not a human being but would bemoan his fate if compelled to undergo a dose."
"Just so," added Becker; "the great and sole attraction of tobacco to young people consists in its being to them a forbidden thing; the apple of Eve is of all time--it hangs from every tree, and takes myriads of shapes. If I had the honor of being principal of a college I should no more think of forbidding the pupils to use tobacco than I should think of commanding them not to use the birch for purposes of self-chastisement."
"Perhaps you would be quite right."
"Instead of lecturing them on the pernicious effects of tobacco, I should hang up a pipe of punishment in the class-room, and oblige offending pupils to inhale a fixed number of whiffs proportionate to the gravity of their delinquency."
"An excellent idea," observed Wolston; "for it is often only necessary to show some things in a different light in order to give them a new aspect and value. This puts me in mind of an illustration in point; these two girls, when children, were the parties concerned, and I will relate the circumstance to you."
"In that case," said Mary, "I shall go and feed the fowls."
"And I," said Sophia, "must go and water the flowers."
"Oh, then," cried Jack laughing, "it is another doll story, is it?"
"No, Master Jack, it is not a doll story; and, besides, we girls were no bigger at the time than that."
On saying this Sophia placed her two hands about a foot and a half from the floor and then the two girls vanished.
"When Mary was about six years old," began Wolston, "a slight rash threatened to develope itself, and the doctor ordered a small blister to be applied to one of her arms. Now, there was likely to be some difficulty about getting her to submit quietly to this operation, so, after an instant's reflection, I called both her and her sister, and told them that the most diligent of the two should have a vesicatory put on her arm at night. 'Oh,' cried both the girls quite delighted, 'it will be me, papa, I shall be so good. Mamma, mamma--such a treat--papa has promised us a vesicatory for to-night!'"
"That was simplicity itself," said Mrs. Becker, laughing till the tears came into her eyes.
"The day passed, the one endeavoring to excel the other in the quantity of leaves they turned over; and, from time to time, I heard the one asking the other in a low voice, 'Have you ever seen a vesicatory? What is it made of? Is it for eating? And each in turn regarded her arms, to judge in advance the effect of the marvellous ornament."
"I should like much to have seen them."
"Night came, and I declared gravely that the eldest was fairly entitled to the prize. The latter jumped about with joy, and Sophia began to cry. 'Don't cry,' said Mary, 'if you are good, papa will, perhaps, give you one to-morrow, too,' Then the joyful patient, turning to me, said, 'On which arm, papa?' and I told her that the ceremony of placing it on must take place when she was in bed. To bed accordingly she went, the ornament was applied, she looked at it, was pleased with it, thanked me for it, and fell asleep as happy as a queen. But, alas! like that of many queens, the felicity did not last long; before morning, I heard her saying to her sister, in a doleful tone, 'Soffy, will you have my vesicatory?' 'Oh, yes, just lend it to me for a tiny moment.' At this I hurried to the spot, and, as you may readily suppose, opposed the transfer."
"Yes; she was quite heart-broken, and said, sobbing, 'It is always Mary that gets everything, nobody ever gives anything to me.'"
Next day, Willis laid hold of his sou'-wester, and was starting off on his customary pilgrimage, when Becker stopped him.
"Willis," said he, "have you any objections to state what the engagements are, that require you to leave us at pretty much the same hour every day?"
"I merely go for a walk, Mr. Becker."
"You see I require to take a turn just after dinner for the sake of my health."
"A habit that you contracted on board ship; eh, Willis?"
"On board ship; yes Mr. Becker, that is to say--"
"Just so," observed Mrs. Wolston; "and by the way, Willis, I regret that you do not smoke now; they say there is plenty of tobacco on the island."
"Smoke!" cried Willis, raising his ears like a war-horse at the sound of the trumpet, "why so, Mrs. Wolston?"
"Because we are dreadfully tormented with those horrid mosquitoes, and you might help us to get rid of them. You smoked at sea, did you not?"
"Yes, madam; but then my constitution--"
"Bah!" said Wolston, "I thought you were as strong as a horse, Willis."
"Well, I have no cause to complain neither; but then they say tobacco would kill even a horse."
"Of course, Willis, your health is a most necessary consideration."
"Still for all that, if the mosquitoes really do annoy Mrs. Wolston, I should have no objection to take a whiff now and then."
"You must not put yourself about though, on our account, Willis."
"About; no, it would not put me about."
"Very good; then it only remains to be seen whether there is a pipe in the colony."
"Ah," said Willis, feeling his pockets, "yes, exactly--here is one."
"Curious how things do turn up, isn't it, Willis?" said Becker; "but the mosquitoes would not be frightened away by the smoke, if applied at long intervals, so you will have to repeat the dose at least two or three times every day, always supposing it does not affect your constitution."
"Sailors, you see," replied Willis, "are like chimneys, they always smoke when you want them, and sometimes a great deal more than you want them," And on turning round, he beheld Sophia holding a light, and a good-sized case of Maryland, which had been preserved from the wreck.
Ever after that time the mosquitoes had a most persevering enemy in Willis; and, notwithstanding his health, his daily walks entirely ceased.
For some time the Pilot and the four young men passed the night in a tent erected about midway between Rockhouse and the Jackal River. The apparent reason for this modification of their plans was the greater facility it afforded for their all meeting at daybreak, breakfasting together, and setting out for Falcon's Nest before the temperature reached ninety degrees in the shade, which junction could not be so easily effected with one party encamped at Rockhouse and the other bivouacked on Shark's Island, with an arm of the sea between them.
The real motive, however, was that all might be within hail of each other, and prepared for every emergency, in the event of the stranger appearing in a more palpable shape, and assuming a hostile attitude. We say the stranger, because, judging from the indications, there was only one--still that did not prove that there might not be several.
One night, as Fritz was lying with one eye open, he observed Mary's little black terrier suddenly prick up the fragments of its ears, and begin sniffing at the edge of the tent. This shaggy little cur was called Toby; it had accompanied the Wolstons on their voyage, and was Mary's exclusive property; but Fritz had found the way to the animal's heart as usual through its stomach, and Mary was in no way jealous of his attentions to her favorite, but rather the reverse.
Fritz, feeling convinced by the actions of the dog, which was of the true Scotch breed, that something extraordinary was passing outside the tent, seized his rifle, hastened out, and was just in time to distinguish a human figure on the opposite bank of the Jackal River, which, on seeing him, took to its heels and disappeared in the forest.
He was soon joined by the Pilot and his brothers; the dogs leaped about them, and the alarm became general throughout the encampment. Fritz re-established order, enjoined silence, and said,
"I am determined this time to follow the affair up; who will accompany me?"
"I will!" said all the four voices at once.
"Scouting parties ought not to be numerous," said Fritz; "I will, therefore, take Willis, in case this mystification has anything to do with the Nelson."
"And me," said Jack, "to serve as a dessert, in case the individual should turn out to be an anthropophagian."
"Be it so; but no more. Frank and Ernest will remain to tranquilize our parents, in case we should not return before they are up."
"And if so, what shall we say?"
"Tell them the truth. We shall proceed direct to Falcon's Nest; and if the stranger--confiding in our habit of sleeping during the night--be there as usual, we shall do ourselves the honor of helping him to get up."
"Providing he does not nightly change his quarters like Oliver Cromwell--not so much to avoid enemies, as to calm his uneasy conscience."
"Well, we shall be no worse than before; we shall have tried to restore our wonted quietude, and, if we fail, we can say, like Francis I. at Pavia, 'All is lost except our honor.'"
Some minutes after this conversation, three shadows might have been seen stealing through the glades in the direction of Falcon's Nest. Nothing was to be heard but the rustling of the leaves--the deafened beating of the sea upon the rocks--and, to use the words of Lamartine, "those unknown tongues that night and the wind whisper in the air." The trees were mirrored in the rays of the moon, and the ground, at intervals, seemed strewn with monstrous giants; their hearts beat, not with fear, but with that feverish impatience that anticipates decisive results.
When they arrived at the foot of the tree on which the aerial dwelling was situated, Fritz opened the door, and resolutely, but stealthily, ascended.
Willis and Jack followed him with military precision.
They reached the top of the staircase, and held the latch of the door that opened into the apartment.
A train of mice, in the strictest incognito, could not have performed these operations with a greater amount of secretiveness. On opening the door they stood and listened.
Not a sound. Jack fired off a pistol, and the fraudulent occupier of the room instantly started up on his feet. Fritz rushed forward, and clasped him tightly round the body.
"Ho, ho, comrade," said he, "this time you do not get off so easily!"