We are all apt to speak inaccurately. Mamma did not mean that the subject was a comical one, but that it was remarkable that the children should have started it at dessert, when the grown-up people had been discussing it at dinner.
They had not been talking about Robinson Crusoe’s wave, but about the loss of an Australian vessel, in sad circumstances which were in every one’s mouth. A few people only had been saved. They had spent many days in an open boat in great suffering, and the particular question discussed at dinner was, whether the captain of a certain vessel which had passed without rescuing them had been so inhuman as to see and yet to leave them.
“How could he help seeing them?” Mamma had indignantly asked. “It was daylight, and of course somebody was on the deck, even if the captain was still in bed. Don’t talk to me, Peregrine! You would say black is white for the sake of argument, especially if it was to defend somebody. But little as I know about the sea, I know that it’s flat.”
“And that’s flat!” interposed Papa.
“It’s all very well making fun of me,” Mamma had continued with good-humoured vehemence, “but there were no Welsh hills and valleys to block the view of castaway fellow-creatures not a mile off, and it was daylight, and he must have seen them.”
“I’m not quite sure about the hills and valleys,” Cousin Peregrine had replied; “and hills of water are quite as troublesome to see through as hills of earth.”
At this moment the dining-room door had opened to admit the children, Maggie coming first, and making her courtesy in the doorway, with the old fat, brown-calf-bound Robinson Crusoe under her arm. It opened without the slightest difficulty at the picture of the big wave, and the children appealed to Cousin Peregrine as has been related.
Maggie was a little taken aback by a decision which was in favour of her brother’s judgment. She was apt to think rather highly of her own, and even now she pondered, and then put another question–
“But if the waves were so very, very big, Cousin, they would swallow up the ships!”
“No, Maggie, not if the sailors manage their ship properly, and turn her about so that she meets the wave in the right way. Then she rides over it instead of being buried under it.”
“It would be dreadful if they didn’t!” said Maggie.
“I remember being in a ship that didn’t meet one of these waves in the right way,” said Cousin Peregrine.
“Tell us all about it,” said Fred, settling himself with two or three severe fidgets into the seat of his chair.
“I was going to have protested against the children asking you for another story so soon, Peregrine,” said Mamma, “but now I feel selfish, for your wave-story will be quite as much for me as for the little ones.”
“Where was it, Cousin Peregrine?”
“Where was the wave, do you mean? It was in the great South Seas. As to where I was, I was in a sailing-vessel bound for South Australia. To begin at the beginning, I must explain to you that this vessel was one of those whose captains accepted the instruments offered by the Board of Trade to any ship that would keep a meteorological log. I was fond of such matters, and I took the trouble off the captain’s hands, by keeping his meteorological log for him.”
“What is a meteorological log, Cousin?”
“A kind of diary, in which you put down the temperature of the sea and air, how cold or hot they are–the way the wind blows, how the barometer is, and anything special and interesting about the weather overhead or the currents in the sea. Now I must tell you that there had been a good deal of talk about currents of warm water in the Southern Ocean, like the Gulf Stream of the Atlantic, which keeps the west coasts of Great Britain so warm. But these South Sea currents had not been very accurately observed, and information on the subject was desired. Well, one day we got right into a warm current.”