The most deserted portion of the Pacific Ocean is this vast expanse of water bounded by Asia and America to the west and to the east, and by the Aleutian Islands and the Sandwiches to the north and to the south. Merchant vessels hardly ever venture on this sea. There is no port of call and the currents there are capricious. The ocean going vessels which carry the produce of New Holland 1 to the western part of America travel at lower latitudes; only the traffic between Japan and California enlivens this northern part of the Pacific but there is not much of that. The trans Pacific line which connects Yokohama to San Francisco follows a somewhat lower great circle route. The region between the fortieth and fiftieth north latitude can hence be called “the desert." Perhaps some whaler sometimes chances on this nearly unknown sea; but he hurries to cross the belt of the Aleutian Islands in order to reach the Bering Strait, beyond which large whales take refuge from vivid pursuit by fishermen’s harpoons.
Do unknown islands still exist on this sea which is the size of Europe? Does Micronesia 2 extend up to this latitude? This cannot be affirmed or denied. An island is a small thing in the midst of this large liquid area. Such a nearly imperceptible point could easily escape the explorers who venture on these waves. Perhaps some more important but still unknown island will be found one day. It is a fact that in this part of the globe two natural phenomena cause new islands to appear; on the one hand plutonic action can suddenly lift land above the waves. On the other hand, the constant work of the infusoria 3 are little by little creating coral banks which in several hundred thousand years will form a sixth continent in this part of the Pacific. However on the 25th of March 1861, the portion of the Pacific just described was not absolutely deserted. A vessel was floating on its surface. It was not the steamer of a transocean line, nor a warship keeping watch over northern fishing grounds, nor a commercial vessel trafficing the products of the Moluccas or of the Phillipines which only a windstorm would have thrown off its path, nor even a fishing boat. It was a frail boat with a simple foresail. It was trying to reach land about nine or ten miles 4 windward. Hence it was tacking and trying to make headway by sailing close to the wind against a contrary breeze. Unfortunately the rising tide, always weak in the Pacific, was of little help in this maneuver.
The weather however was fine though a little cold. A few light clouds were dispersed in the sky. The sun lit up the foamy crest of some waves here and there. A long swell rocked the boat without however subjecting it to too many strong shocks. The sail was completely unfurled in order to better catch the wind which occasionally listed the light vessel to the point where water grazed its railing. But it soon righted itself and moved into the wind while approaching the coast.
After due consideration, a sailor would have recognized that this boat was of American construction, made with Canadian fir. Besides, on its rear nameplate one could read these two words: Vancouver-Montreal, which indicated its nationality.
This boat carried six people. At the helm was stationed a man between thirty five and forty years of age, certainly with much sea experience, who directed his vessel with an incomparable firm hand. He was a vigorously constituted individual with large shoulders, strong muscles and in the prime of life. He had the look of a Frenchman, the glance of an open-minded person. His expression showed great kindness. From his coarse clothes, his callous hands, something uncultivated imprinted on his entire appearance, to the continual whistling which escaped from his lips, it was easy to see that he did not belong to the upper class. From the way in which he handled the boat, there was no doubt that he was a sailor, but only a simple seaman, not an officer. As to his nationality, one could more easily determine that. He certainly was not an Anglo-Saxon. He had neither the harshness nor the rigid movements of the men of that race. One saw in him a certain natural grace, not the course rudeness of the Yankee of New England. If this man was not a Canadian, a descendant of those hardy pioneers who left their Gallic imprint, then he had to be a Frenchman, a little Americanized doubtless, but definitely a Frenchman, one of those shrewd chaps, bold, kind, obliging, ready for any challenge, never inconvenienced by anything, naturally confident and insensitive to fear such as one often finds in the country of France.
This sailor was seated to the rear of the boat. His gaze left neither the sea nor the sail. He watched one and the other simultaneously: the sail when some fold indicated that it was carrying too much wind, the sea when he had to gently change the direction of the boat to avoid some wave.
From time to time a word or rather a suggestion escaped his lips and from his pronunciation one detected a certain accent which could never have been produced in the throat of an Anglo-Saxon.
“Put your minds at ease, my children,” he said. “The situation is not very good, but it could be worse. Put your minds at ease and lower your heads, we are going to tack.” And the worthy sailor brought his boat into the wind. The sail passed noisily over the bent heads and the boat inclined to the other side, approaching the coast little by little.
To the rear, near the vigorous helmsman, was a woman about thirty six years of age, who hid her face under her shawl. This woman was crying but she tried to hide her tears in order not to depress the children who were pressing close to her.
This woman was the mother of the four children which the boat carried with her. The oldest of these children was seventeen years old. He was a tall fellow who would one day become a vigorous man. His black hair and his face tanned by the sea breeze suited him. His red eyes were still moist with tears but anger as much as sorrow had brought on his tears. He was standing in the forward part of the boat near the mast, looking at the land still in the distance. Turning at times, he cast a sad and an annoyed look at the western horizon. His face then paled and he held back a show of anger. He then looked at the man at the helm, and the latter, with a smile, made a small reassuring nod.
The younger brother of this lad was not more than fifteen years old. His large head was crowned with reddish hair. He moved about, anxious, impatient, sometimes seated, sometimes standing. He could not calm down. This boat did not move fast enough for him; land was not approaching rapidly enough. He already wanted to set foot on this shore, even if it meant that he would want to be somewhere else as soon as he reached it. But when he cast a glance at his mother, when he heard the sighs which filled the chest of this poor woman, he went to her, he put his arms around her, he lavished his best kisses, and the unfortunate woman pressed him to her heart: “Poor child! Poor children!” she murmured.
She then looked at the sailor seated at the helm. The latter had never neglected to motion to her with a sign that very certainly signified: “But all goes well, Madam, and we will manage our affairs.”
However, on observing the southwest, this man saw large clouds rising above the horizon, which foretold nothing good for his travelling companion and her young children. The wind threatened to freshen, and a very strong breeze would be fatal to this fragile undecked boat. But the sailor kept this worry to himself not wanting to reveal the fears that were bothering him.
The two other children were a small boy and a small girl. The small boy, with blonde hair, was eight years old. His lips were pale with fatigue, his blue eyes were half closed, and his cheeks, which should have been fresh and pink were drab from the tears. His small hands were painful from the cold and he hid under his mother’s shawl. His sister near him, a seven year old girl, had her arms around her mother. She was overwhelmed by the jolts of the swell and half asleep, her head bounced with the rolling of the boat.
As noted, the weather was cold on this day of the 25th of March. The wind out of the north was a glacial wind. These unfortunates, abandoned in this boat, were very lightly dressed for resisting the cold. Evidently they had been surprised by a catastrophe, a shipwreck or a collision, which had forced them to throw themselves into this boat; besides, one could see that they carried few provisions with them, some sea biscuits and two or three pieces of salted meat placed in a box in front.
When the small boy, half awake, passed his hands over his eyes, he murmured these words: “Mother, I am hungry.” The helmsman immediately got up and took a piece of biscuit from the box. He offered it to the child and with a jolly smile he said to him: “Eat, my child, eat! By the time this is all gone, we may have more!”
The child, thus encouraged, bit his fine teeth into the hard crust and then put his head back on his mother’s shoulder.
However, the unfortunate woman, seeing that her two children were shivering under their clothing, had removed her own. She lifted her shawl to cover them with more warmth and then one could see her beautiful figure, her large black eyes solemn and thoughtful, her appearance so deeply marked with maternal tenderness and devotion. She was a “mother” in the full sense of the word, a mother who could have been the mother of a Washington, of a Franklin or of an Abraham Lincoln, a woman of the Bible, strong and courageous, a combination of all virtues and all tendernesses. But to see her so dishevelled with all consuming tears, one would think she had received a mortal blow. She evidently struggled against this despair, but the tears in her eyes showed what was in her heart. Like her elder son she turned to the horizon from time to time, searching this sea for some invisible object: but seeing nothing but an immense desert she fell back into the boat, poor woman, her lips still refusing to pronounce these words of evangelic submission: “Lord, thy will be done!”
This mother covered two of her children with her shawl, but she was barely covered herself. A thin woolen dress could barely protect her against this biting March wind which easily blew under her wide-brimmed hat. Three of her children wore wool jackets, trousers, vests and oiled cloth caps. But over these clothes there should have been some well made jacket with a double lined cap and some traveling coat made with a thick material. However, these children did not complain of the cold. Doubtless they did not wish to cause their mother more despair.
As to the sailor, he wore a pair of cotton velvet trousers and a brown wool pea jacket, insufficient protection against the biting wind. But this worthy man possessed a warm heart, a veritable furnace allowing him to react vigorously against physical suffering. In fact, the distress of the others gave him more pain than his own. Looking at the poor woman who took off her shawl to cover her children, he saw that she was shivering and that her teeth were clacking in spite of herself.
Soon he returned her shawl, covering the mother’s shoulders, and carefully placed his own warm jacket over the two children.
The mother resisted this action. “I’m overheated,” the sailor simply replied, wiping his brow with his handkerchief as if he were steaming in sweat.
The poor woman extended her hand to this man which he fondly held without saying a word.
At this moment, the oldest of the children jumped up to the small upper deck which formed the front of the boat and carefully observed the western part of the sea. He put his hand over his eyes to protect them from the sun’s glare and to see better. But the ocean scintillated from this direction and the line of the horizon was lost in this intense radiation. Under these conditions, a rigorous observation was difficult.
Nevertheless, the child kept looking for a rather long time while the sailor shook his head, seeming to say that if help should come their way, it would be from a higher source.
At this moment the young girl, just waking up, left her mother’s arms, revealing her pale face. Then, looking at the boat’s passengers, she asked, “Where is father?”
No answer was made to this simple question. The children’s eyes filled with tears and the mother, hiding her face in her hands, began to sob.
The sailor looked silently on this deep sorrow. He could no longer speak his words of comfort to these poor abandoned people, but his powerful arm gripped the helm.