Swiss Family Robinson Chapter 48

Chapter 48

A gentle wind swelled our sails, and the current carried us rapidly into the open sea. I then seated myself at the helm, and employed the little knowledge I had gained during our voyage from Europe in directing our bark, so that we might avoid the rocks and coral banks that surrounded our island. My two oldest sons, overcome with fatigue, had no sooner seated themselves on a bench, than they fell into a profound sleep, notwithstanding their sorrows. Jack held out the best; his love of the sea kept him awake, and I surrendered the helm to him till I took a momentary slumber, my head resting against the stern. A happy dream placed me in the midst of my family in our dear island; but a shout from Ernest awoke me, he was calling on Jack to leave the helm, as he was contriving to run the vessel among the breakers on the coast. I seized the helm, and soon set all right, determined not to trust my giddy son again.

Jack, of all my sons, was the one who evinced most taste for the sea; but being so young when we made our voyage, his knowledge of nautical affairs was very scanty. My elder sons had learnt more. Ernest, who had a great thirst for knowledge of every kind, had questioned the pilot on all he had seen him do. He had learned a great deal in theory, but of practical knowledge he had none. The mechanical genius of Fritz had drawn conclusions from what he saw; this would have induced me to place much trust in him in case of that danger which I prayed Heaven might be averted. What a situation was mine for a father! Wandering through unknown and dangerous seas with my three sons, my only hope, in search of a fourth, and of my beloved helpmate; utterly ignorant which way we should direct our course, or where to find a trace of those we sought. How often do we allay the happiness granted us below by vain wishes! I had at one time regretted that we had no means of leaving our island; now we had left it, and our sole wish was to recover those we had lost, to bring them back to it, and never to leave it more. I sometimes regretted that I had led my sons into this danger. I might have ventured alone; but I reflected that I could not have left them, for Fritz had said, “If the natives had carried off the pinnace, I would have swum from isle to isle till I had found them.” My boys all endeavoured to encourage and console me. Fritz placed himself at the rudder, observing that the pinnace was new and well built, and likely to resist a tempest. Ernest stood on the deck silently watching the stars, only breaking his silence by telling me he should be able by them to supply the want of the compass, and point out how we should direct our course. Jack climbed dexterously up the mast to let me see his skill; we called him the cabin-boy, Fritz was the pilot, Ernest the astronomer, and I was the captain and commander of the expedition. Daybreak showed us we had passed far from our island, which now only appeared a dark speck. I, as well as Fritz and Jack, was of opinion that it would be advisable to go round it, and try our fortune on the opposite coast; but Ernest, who had not forgotten his telescope, was certain he saw land in a direction he pointed out to us. We took the glass, and were soon convinced he was right. As day advanced, we saw the land plainly, and did not hesitate to sail towards it.

As this appeared the land nearest to our island, we supposed the natives might have conveyed their captives there. But more trials awaited us before we arrived there. It being necessary to shift the sail, in order to reach the coast in view, my poor cabin-boy, Jack, ran up the mast, holding by the ropes; but before he reached the sail, the rope which he held broke suddenly; he was precipitated into the sea, and disappeared in a moment; but he soon rose to the surface, trying to swim, and mingling his cries with ours. Fritz, who was the first to see the accident, was in the water almost as soon as Jack, and seizing him by the hair, swam with the other hand, calling on him to try and keep afloat, and hold by him. When I saw my two sons thus struggling with the waves, that were very strong from a land wind, I should, in my despair, have leaped in after them; but Ernest held me, and implored me to remain to assist in getting them into the pinnace. He had thrown ropes to them, and a bench which he had torn up with the strength of despair. Fritz had contrived to catch one of the ropes and fasten it round Jack, who still swam, but feebly, as if nearly exhausted. Fritz had been considered an excellent swimmer in Switzerland; he preserved all his presence of mind, calling to us to draw the rope gently, while he supported the poor boy, and pushed him towards the pinnace. At last I was able to reach and draw him up; and when I saw him extended, nearly lifeless, at the bottom of the pinnace, I fell down senseless beside him. How precious to us now was the composed mind of Ernest! In the midst of such a scene, he was calm and collected; promptly disengaging the rope from the body of Jack, he flung it back to Fritz, to help him in reaching the pinnace, attaching the other end firmly to the mast. This done, quicker than I can write it, he approached us, raised his brother so that he might relieve himself from the quantity of water he had swallowed; then turning to me, restored me to my senses by administering to me some drops of rum, and by saying, “Courage, father! you have saved Jack, and I will save Fritz. He has hold of the rope; he is swimming strongly; he is coming; he is here!”

He left me to assist his brother, who was soon in the vessel, and in my arms. Jack, perfectly recovered, joined him; and fervently did I thank God for granting me, in the midst of my trials, such a moment of happiness. We could not help fancying this happy preservation was an augury of our success in our anxious search, and that we should bring back the lost ones to our island.

“Oh, how terrified mamma would have been,” said Jack, “to see me sink! I thought I was going, like a stone, to the bottom of the sea; but I pushed out my arms and legs with all my strength, and up I rose.”

He as well as Fritz was quite wet. I had by chance brought some changes of clothes, which I made them put on, after giving each a little rum. They were so much fatigued, and I was so overcome by my agitation, that we were obliged to relinquish rowing, most unwillingly, as the skies threatened a storm. We gradually began to distinguish clearly the island we wished to approach; and the land-birds, which came to rest on our sails, gave us hopes that we should reach it before night; but, suddenly, such a thick fog arose, that it hid every object from us, even the sea itself, and we seemed to be sailing among the clouds. I thought it prudent to drop our anchor, as, fortunately, we had a tolerably strong one; but there appeared so little water, that I feared we were near the breakers, and I watched anxiously for the fog to dissipate, and permit us to see the coast. It finally changed into a heavy rain, which we could with difficulty protect ourselves from; there was, however, a half-deck to the pinnace, under which we crept, and sheltered ourselves. Here, crowded close together, we talked over the late accident. Fritz assured me he was never in any danger, and that he would plunge again into the sea that moment, if he had the least hope that it would lead him to find his mother and Francis. We all said the same; though Jack confessed that his friends, the waves, had not received his visit very politely, but had even beat him very rudely.

“But I would bear twice as much,” said he, “to see mamma and dear Francis again. Do you think, papa, that the natives could ever hurt them? Mamma is so good, and Francis is so pretty! and then, poor mamma is so lame yet; I hope they would pity her, and carry her.”

Alas! I could not hope as my boy did; I feared that they would force her to walk. I tried to conceal other horrible fears, that almost threw me into despair. I recalled all the cruelties of the cannibal nations, and shuddered to think that my Elizabeth and my darling child were perhaps in their ferocious hands. Prayer and confidence in God were the only means, not to console, but to support me, and teach me to endure my heavy affliction with resignation. I looked on my three sons, and endeavoured, for their sakes, to hope and submit. The darkness rapidly increased, till it became total; we concluded it was night. The rain having ceased, I went out to strike a light, as I wished to hang the lighted lantern to the mast, when Ernest, who was on deck, called out loudly, “Father! brothers! come! the sea is on fire!” And, indeed, as far as the eye could reach, the surface of the water appeared in flames; this light, of the most brilliant, fiery red, reached even to the vessel, and we were surrounded by it. It was a sight at once beautiful, and almost terrific. Jack seriously inquired, if there was not a volcano at the bottom of the sea; and I astonished him much by telling him, that this light was caused by a kind of marine animals, which in form resembled plants so much, that they were formerly considered such; but naturalists and modern voyagers have entirely destroyed this error, and furnished proofs that they are organized beings, having all the spontaneous movements peculiar to animals. They feel when they are touched, seek for food, seize and devour it; they are of various kinds and colours, and are known under the general name of zoophytes.

“And this which glitters in such beautiful colours on the sea, is called pyrosoma,” said Ernest. “See, here are some I have caught in my hat; you may see them move. How they change colour orange, green, blue, like the rainbow; and when you touch them, the flame appears still more brilliant; now they are pale yellow.”

They amused themselves some time with these bright and beautiful creatures, which appear to have but a half-life. They occupied a large space on the water, and their astonishing radiance, in the midst of the darkness of the atmosphere, had such a striking and magnificent effect, that for a few moments we were diverted from our own sad thoughts; but an observation from Jack soon recalled them.

“If Francis passed this way,” said he, “how he would be amused with these funny creatures, which look like fire, but do not burn; but I know he would be afraid to touch them; and how much afraid mamma would be, as she likes no animals she does not know. Ah! how glad I shall be to tell her all about our voyage, and my excursion into the sea, and how Fritz dragged me by the hair, and what they call these fiery fishes; tell me again, Ernest; py py ”

“Pyrosoma, Mr. Peron calls them,” said Ernest. “The description of them is very interesting in his voyage, which I have read to mamma; and as she would recollect it, she would not be afraid.”

“I pray to God,” replied I, “that she may have nothing more to fear than the pyrosoma, and that we may soon see them again, with her and Francis.”

We all said Amen; and, the day breaking, we decided to weigh the anchor, and endeavour to find a passage through the reefs to reach the island, which we now distinctly saw, and which seemed an uncultivated and rocky coast. I resumed my place at the helm, my sons took the oars, and we advanced cautiously, sounding every minute. What would have become of us if our pinnace had been injured! The sea was perfectly calm, and, after prayer to God, and a slight refreshment, we proceeded forward, looking carefully round for any canoe of the natives it might be, even our own; but, no! we were not fortunate enough to discover any trace of our beloved friends, nor any symptom of the isle being inhabited; however, as it was our only point of hope, we did not wish to abandon it. By dint of searching, we found a small bay, which reminded us of our own. It was formed by a river, broad and deep enough for our pinnace to enter. We rowed in; and having placed our vessel in a creek, where it appeared to be secure, we began to consider the means of exploring the whole island.

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