The Coral Island, by R. M. Ballantyne

Chapter Twenty One.

Sagacious and Moral Remarks in Regard to Life — A Sail! — An Unexpected Salute — The End of the Black Cat — A Terrible Dive — An Incautious Proceeding and a Frightful Catastrophe.

Life is a strange compound. Peterkin used to say of it that it beat a druggist’s shop all to sticks; for whereas the first is a compound of good and bad, the other is a horrible compound of all that is utterly detestable. And indeed the more I consider it, the more I am struck with the strange mixture of good and evil that exists, not only in the material earth, but in our own natures. In our own Coral Island we had experienced every variety of good that a bountiful Creator could heap on us. Yet on the night of the storm we had seen how almost, in our case — and altogether, no doubt, in the case of others less fortunate — all this good might be swept away for ever. We had seen the rich fruit-trees waving in the soft air, the tender herbs shooting upwards under the benign influence of the bright sun; and the next day we had seen these good and beautiful trees and plants uprooted by the hurricane, crushed and hurled to the ground in destructive devastation. We had lived for many months in a clime, for the most part, so beautiful that we had often wondered whether Adam and Eve had found Eden more sweet; and we had seen the quiet solitudes of our paradise suddenly broken in upon by ferocious savages, and the white sands stained with blood and strewed with lifeless forms, yet among these cannibals we had seen many symptoms of a kindly nature. I pondered these things much, and while I considered them there recurred to my memory those words which I had read in my Bible: “The works of God are wonderful, and His ways past finding out.”

After these poor savages had left us we used to hold long and frequent conversations about them, and I noticed that Peterkin’s manner was now much altered. He did not, indeed, jest less heartily than before, but he did so less frequently; and often there was a tone of deep seriousness in his manner, if not in his words, which made him seem to Jack and me as if he had grown two years older within a few days. But indeed I was not surprised at this when I reflected on the awful realities which we had witnessed so lately. We could by no means shake off a tendency to gloom for several weeks afterwards; but as time wore away, our usual good spirits returned somewhat, and we began to think of the visit of the savages with feelings akin to those with which we recall a terrible dream.

One day we were all enjoying ourselves in the Water Garden preparatory to going on a fishing excursion, for Peterkin had kept us in such constant supply of hogs that we had become quite tired of pork and desired a change. Peterkin was sunning himself on the ledge of rock, while we were creeping among the rocks below. Happening to look up, I observed Peterkin cutting the most extraordinary capers and making violent gesticulations for us to come up; so I gave Jack a push and rose immediately.

“A sail! a sail — Ralph, look — Jack, away on the horizon there, just over the entrance to the lagoon!” cried Peterkin as we scrambled up the rocks.

“So it is — and a schooner, too!” said Jack as he proceeded hastily to dress.

Our hearts were thrown into a terrible flutter by this discovery, for if it should touch at our island, we had no doubt the captain would be happy to give us a passage to some of the civilised islands, where we could find a ship sailing for England or some other part of Europe. Home, with all its associations, rushed in upon my heart like a flood; and much though I loved the Coral Island and the bower which had now been our home so long, I felt that I could have quitted all at that moment without a sigh. With joyful anticipations we hastened to the highest point of rock near our dwelling and awaited the arrival of the vessel, for we now perceived that she was making straight for the island under a steady breeze.

In less than an hour she was close to the reef, where she rounded-to and backed her topsails in order to survey the coast. Seeing this, and fearing that they might not perceive us, we all three waved pieces of cocoa-nut cloth in the air, and soon had the satisfaction of seeing them beginning to lower a boat and bustle about the decks as if they meant to land. Suddenly a flag was run up to the peak, a little cloud of white smoke rose from the schooner’s side, and before we could guess their intentions, a cannon-shot came crashing through the bushes, carried away several cocoa-nut trees in its passage, and burst in atoms against the cliff a few yards below the spot on which we stood.

With feelings of terror we now observed that the flag at the schooner’s peak was black, with a Death’s-head and cross-bones upon it. As we gazed at each other in blank amazement, the word “pirate” escaped our lips simultaneously.

“What is to be done?” cried Peterkin as we observed a boat shoot from the vessel’s side and make for the entrance of the reef. “If they take us off the island, it will either be to throw us overboard for sport or to make pirates of us.”

I did not reply, but looked at Jack, as being our only resource in this emergency. He stood with folded arms, and his eyes fixed with a grave, anxious expression on the ground. “There is but one hope,” said he, turning with a sad expression of countenance to Peterkin. “Perhaps, after all, we may not have to resort to it. If these villains are anxious to take us, they will soon overrun the whole island. But come, follow me.”

Stopping abruptly in his speech, Jack bounded into the woods, and led us by a circuitous route to Spouting Cliff. Here he halted, and advancing cautiously to the rocks, glanced over their edge. We were soon by his side, and saw the boat, which was crowded with armed men, just touching the shore. In an instant the crew landed, formed line, and rushed up to our bower.

In a few seconds we saw them hurrying back to the boat, one of them swinging the poor cat round his head by the tail. On reaching the water’s edge he tossed it far into the sea, and joined his companions, who appeared to be holding a hasty council.

“You see what we may expect,” said Jack bitterly. “The man who will wantonly kill a poor brute for sport will think little of murdering a fellow-creature. Now, boys, we have but one chance left — the Diamond Cave.”

“The Diamond Cave!” cried Peterkin. “Then my chance is a poor one, for I could not dive into it if all the pirates on the Pacific were at my heels.”

“Nay, but,” said I, “we will take you down, Peterkin, if you will only trust us.”

As I spoke, we observed the pirates scatter over the beach, and radiate, as if from a centre, towards the woods and along shore.

“Now, Peterkin,” said Jack in a solemn tone, “you must make up your mind to do it, or we must make up our minds to die in your company.”

“Oh Jack, my dear friend!” cried Peterkin, turning pale, “leave me; I don’t believe they’ll think it worth while to kill me. Go, you and Ralph, and dive into the cave.”

“That will not I,” answered Jack quietly, while he picked up a stout cudgel from the ground. —“So now, Ralph, we must prepare to meet these fellows. Their motto is ‘No quarter.’ If we can manage to floor those coming in this direction, we may escape into the woods for a while.”

“There are five of them,” said I; “we have no chance.”

“Come, then!” cried Peterkin, starting up and grasping Jack convulsively by the arm; “let us dive. I will go.”

Those who are not naturally expert in the water know well the feelings of horror that overwhelm them, when in it, at the bare idea of being held down even for a few seconds — that spasmodic, involuntary recoil from compulsory immersion which has no connection whatever with cowardice; and they will understand the amount of resolution that it required in Peterkin to allow himself to be dragged down to a depth of ten feet, and then, through a narrow tunnel, into an almost pitch-dark cavern. But there was no alternative. The pirates had already caught sight of us, and were now within a short distance of the rocks.

Jack and I seized Peterkin by the arms.

“Now, keep quite still — no struggling,” said Jack, “or we are lost!”

Peterkin made no reply; but the stern gravity of his marble features, and the tension of his muscles, satisfied us that he had fully made up his mind to go through with it. Just as the pirates gained the foot of the rocks, which hid us for a moment from their view, we bent over the sea and plunged down together, head foremost. Peterkin behaved like a hero. He floated passively between us like a log of wood, and we passed the tunnel and rose into the cave in a shorter space of time than I had ever done it before.

Peterkin drew a long, deep breath on reaching the surface, and in a few seconds we were all standing on the ledge of rock in safety. Jack now searched for the tinder and torch which always lay in the cave. He soon found them, and lighting the torch, revealed to Peterkin’s wondering gaze the marvels of the place. But we were too wet to waste much time in looking about us. Our first care was to take off our clothes and wring them as dry as we could. This done, we proceeded to examine into the state of our larder, for, as Jack truly remarked, there was no knowing how long the pirates might remain on the island.

“Perhaps,” said Peterkin, “they may take it into their heads to stop here altogether, and so we shall be buried alive in this place.”

“Don’t you think, Peterkin, that it’s the nearest thing to being drowned alive that you ever felt?” said Jack with a smile. “But I have no fear of that. These villains never stay long on shore. The sea is their home, so you may depend upon it that they won’t stay more than a day or two at the furthest.”

We now began to make arrangements for spending the night in the cavern. At various periods Jack and I had conveyed cocoa-nuts and other fruits, besides rolls of cocoa-nut cloth, to this submarine cave, partly for amusement, and partly from a feeling that we might possibly be driven one day to take shelter here from the savages. Little did we imagine that the first savages who would drive us into it would be white savages — perhaps our own countrymen! We found the cocoa-nuts in good condition, and the cooked yams; but the bread-fruits were spoiled. We also found the cloth where we had left it, and on opening it out, there proved to be sufficient to make a bed — which was important, as the rock was damp. Having collected it all together, we spread out our bed, placed our torch in the midst of us, and ate our supper. It was indeed a strange chamber to feast in; and we could not help remarking on the cold, ghastly appearance of the walls, and the black water at our side with the thick darkness beyond, and the sullen sound of the drops that fell at long intervals from the roof of the cavern into the still water, and the strong contrast between all this and our bed and supper, which, with our faces, were lit up with the deep-red flame of the torch.

We sat long over our meal, talking together in subdued voices, for we did not like the dismal echoes that rang through the vault above when we happened to raise them. At last the faint light that came through the opening died away, warning us that it was night and time for rest. We therefore put out our torch and lay down to sleep.

On awaking, it was some time ere we could collect our faculties so as to remember where we were, and we were in much uncertainty as to whether it was early or late. We saw by the faint light that it was day, but could not guess at the hour; so Jack proposed that he should dive out and reconnoitre.

“No, Jack,” said I; “do you rest here. You’ve had enough to do during the last few days. Rest yourself now, and take care of Peterkin, while I go out to see what the pirates are about. I’ll be very careful not to expose myself, and I’ll bring you word again in a short time.”

“Very well, Ralph,” answered Jack; “please yourself. But don’t be long. And if you’ll take my advice, you’ll go in your clothes; for I would like to have some fresh cocoa-nuts, and climbing trees without clothes is uncomfortable — to say the least of it.”

“The pirates will be sure to keep a sharp lookout,” said Peterkin; “so, pray, be careful.”

“No fear,” said I. “Good-bye.”

“Good-bye,” answered my comrades.

And while the words were yet sounding in my ears, I plunged into the water, and in a few seconds found myself in the open air. On rising, I was careful to come up gently and to breathe softly, while I kept close in beside the rocks; but as I observed no one near me, I crept slowly out and ascended the cliff, a step at a time, till I obtained a full view of the shore. No pirates were to be seen — even their boat was gone; but as it was possible they might have hidden themselves, I did not venture too boldly forward. Then it occurred to me to look out to sea, when, to my surprise, I saw the pirate schooner sailing away almost hull down on the horizon! On seeing this I uttered a shout of joy. Then my first impulse was to dive back to tell my companions the good news; but I checked myself, and ran to the top of the cliff in order to make sure that the vessel I saw was indeed the pirate schooner. I looked long and anxiously at her, and giving vent to a deep sigh of relief, said aloud, “Yes, there she goes; the villains have been balked of their prey this time at least!”

“Not so sure of that!” said a deep voice at my side, while at the same moment a heavy hand grasped my shoulder and held it as if in a vice.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31