The Coral Island, by R. M. Ballantyne

Chapter Twenty Four.

Bloody Bill is Communicative and Sagacious — Unpleasant Prospects — Retrospective Meditations Interrupted by Volcanic Agency — The Pirates Negotiate with a Feejee Chief — Various Etceteras that are Calculated to Surprise and Horrify.

It was many days after the events just narrated ere I recovered a little of my wonted spirits. I could not shake off the feeling for a long time that I was in a frightful dream, and the sight of our captain filled me with so much horror that I kept out of his way as much as my duties about the cabin would permit. Fortunately he took so little notice of me that he did not observe my changed feelings towards him, otherwise it might have been worse for me.

But I was now resolved that I would run away the very first island we should land at, and commit myself to the hospitality of the natives rather than remain an hour longer than I could help in the pirate schooner. I pondered this subject a good deal, and at last made up my mind to communicate my intention to Bloody Bill; for during several talks I had had with him of late, I felt assured that he too would willingly escape if possible. When I told him of my design he shook his head. “No, no, Ralph,” said he; “you must not think of running away here. Among some of the groups of islands you might do so with safety; but if you tried it here, you would find that you had jumped out of the fryin’-pan into the fire.”

“How so, Bill?” said I. “Would the natives not receive me?”

“That they would, lad; but they would eat you too.”

“Eat me!” said I in surprise. “I thought the South Sea Islanders never ate anybody except their enemies.”

“Humph!” ejaculated Bill. “I ‘spose ’twas yer tender-hearted friends in England that put that notion into your head. There’s a set o’ soft-hearted folk at home that I knows on who don’t like to have their feelin’s ruffled; and when you tell them anything they don’t like — that shocks them, as they call it — no matter how true it be, they stop their ears and cry out, ‘Oh, that is too horrible! We can’t believe that!’ An’ they say truth. They can’t believe it, ‘cause they won’t believe it. Now, I believe there’s thousands o’ the people in England who are sich born drivellin’ won’t believers that they think the black fellows hereaways, at the worst, eat an enemy only now an’ then out o’ spite; whereas I know for certain, and many captains of the British and American navies know as well as me, that the Feejee Islanders eat not only their enemies but one another — and they do it not for spite, but for pleasure. It’s a fact that they prefer human flesh to any other. But they don’t like white men’s flesh so well as black; they say it makes them sick.”

“Why, Bill,” said I, “you told me just now that they would eat me if they caught me!”

“So I did, and so I think they would. I’ve only heard some o’ them say they don’t like white men so well as black; but if they was hungry they wouldn’t be particular. Anyhow, I’m sure they would kill you. You see, Ralph, I’ve been a good while in them parts, and I’ve visited the different groups of islands oftentimes as a trader. And thorough-goin’ blackguards some o’ them traders are — no better than pirates, I can tell you. One captain that I sailed with was not a chip better than the one we’re with now. He was trading with a friendly chief one day aboard his vessel. The chief had swam off to us with the things for trade tied atop of his head, for them chaps are like otters in the water. Well, the chief was hard on the captain, and would not part with some o’ his things. When their bargainin’ was over they shook hands, and the chief jumped overboard to swim ashore; but before he got forty yards from the ship, the captain seized a musket and shot him dead. He then hove up anchor and put to sea, and as we sailed along the shore he dropped six black fellows with his rifle, remarkin’ that ‘that would spoil the trade for the next-comers.’ But, as I was sayin’, I’m up to the ways o’ these fellows. One o’ the laws o’ the country is that every shipwrecked person who happens to be cast ashore, be he dead or alive, is doomed to be roasted and eaten. There was a small tradin’ schooner wrecked off one of these islands when we were lyin’ there in harbour during a storm. The crew was lost — all but three men, who swam ashore. The moment they landed, they were seized by the natives and carried up into the woods. We knew pretty well what their fate would be; but we could not help them, for our crew was small, and if we had gone ashore they would likely have killed us all. We never saw the three men again. But we heard frightful yelling and dancing and merrymaking that night; and one of the natives, who came aboard to trade with us next day, told us that the long pigs, as he called the men, had been roasted and eaten, and their bones were to be converted into sail-needles. He also said that white men were bad to eat, and that most o’ the people on shore were sick.”

I was very much shocked and cast down in my mind at this terrible account of the natives, and asked Bill what he would advise me to do. Looking round the deck to make sure that we were not overheard, he lowered his voice and said, “There are two or three ways that we might escape, Ralph, but none o’ them’s easy. If the captain would only sail for some o’ the islands near Tahiti we might run away there well enough, because the natives are all Christians; an’ we find that wherever the savages take up with Christianity they always give over their bloody ways, and are safe to be trusted. I never cared for Christianity myself,” he continued in a soliloquising voice, “and I don’t well know what it means; but a man with half-an-eye can see what it does for these black critters. However, the captain always keeps a sharp lookout after us when we get to these islands, for he half-suspects that one or two o’ us are tired of his company. Then we might manage to cut the boat adrift some fine night when it’s our watch on deck, and clear off before they discovered that we were gone. But we would run the risk o’ bein’ caught by the blacks. I wouldn’t like to try that plan. But you and I will think over it, Ralph, and see what’s to be done. In the meantime it’s our watch below, so I’ll go and turn in.”

Bill then bade me good-night and went below, while a comrade took his place at the helm; but feeling no desire to enter into conversation with him, I walked aft, and leaning over the stern, looked down into the phosphorescent waves that gurgled around the rudder, and streamed out like a flame of blue light in the vessel’s wake. My thoughts were very sad, and I could scarce refrain from tears as I contrasted my present wretched position with the happy, peaceful time I had spent on the Coral Island with my dear companions. As I thought upon Jack and Peterkin, anxious forebodings crossed my mind, and I pictured to myself the grief and dismay with which they would search every nook and corner of the island in a vain attempt to discover my dead body; for I felt assured that if they did not see any sign of the pirate schooner or boat when they came out of the cave to look for me, they would never imagine that I had been carried away. I wondered, too, how Jack would succeed in getting Peterkin out of the cave without my assistance; and I trembled when I thought that he might lose presence of mind, and begin to kick when he was in the tunnel! These thoughts were suddenly interrupted and put to flight by a bright-red blaze, which lighted up the horizon to the southward and cast a crimson glow far over the sea. This appearance was accompanied by a low growling sound, as of distant thunder, and at the same time the sky above us became black, while a hot, stifling wind blew around us in fitful gusts.

The crew assembled hastily on deck, and most of them were under the belief that a frightful hurricane was pending; but the captain, coming on deck, soon explained the phenomena.

“It’s only a volcano,” said he. “I knew there was one hereabouts, but thought it was extinct. — Up, there, and furl topgallant sails! We’ll likely have a breeze, and it’s well to be ready.”

As he spoke, a shower began to fall, which, we quickly observed, was not rain, but fine ashes. As we were many miles distant from the volcano, these must have been carried to us from it by the wind. As the captain had predicted, a stiff breeze soon afterwards sprang up, under the influence of which we speedily left the volcano far behind us; but during the greater part of the night we could see its lurid glare and hear its distant thunder. The shower did not cease to fall for several hours, and we must have sailed under it for nearly forty miles — perhaps farther. When we emerged from the cloud, our decks and every part of the rigging were completely covered with a thick coat of ashes. I was much interested in this, and recollected that Jack had often spoken of many of the islands of the Pacific as being volcanoes, either active or extinct, and had said that the whole region was more or less volcanic, and that some scientific men were of opinion that the islands of the Pacific were nothing more or less than the mountain-tops of a huge continent which had sunk under the influence of volcanic agency.

Three days after passing the volcano, we found ourselves a few miles to windward of an island of considerable size and luxuriant aspect. It consisted of two mountains, which seemed to be nearly four thousand feet high. They were separated from each other by a broad valley, whose thick-growing trees ascended a considerable distance up the mountain-sides; and rich, level plains or meadow-land spread round the base of the mountains, except at the point immediately opposite the large valley, where a river seemed to carry the trees, as it were, along with it down to the white, sandy shore. The mountain-tops, unlike those of our Coral Island, were sharp, needle-shaped, and bare, while their sides were more rugged and grand in outline than anything I had yet seen in those seas. Bloody Bill was beside me when the island first hove in sight.

“Ah!” he exclaimed, “I know that island well. They call it Emo.”

“Have you been there before, then?” I inquired.

“Ay, that I have, often, and so has this schooner. ’Tis a famous island for sandal-wood. We have taken many cargoes of it already — and have paid for them, too, for the savages are so numerous that we dared not try to take it by force. But our captain has tried to cheat them so often that they’re beginnin’ not to like us overmuch now. Besides, the men behaved ill the last time we were here, and I wonder the captain is not afraid to venture. But he’s afraid o’ nothin’ earthly, I believe.”

We soon ran inside the barrier coral reef, and let go our anchor in six fathoms water, just opposite the mouth of a small creek, whose shores were densely covered with mangroves and tall umbrageous trees. The principal village of the natives lay about half-a-mile from this point. Ordering the boat out, the captain jumped into it, and ordered me to follow him. The men, fifteen in number, were well armed; and the mate was directed to have Long Tom ready for emergencies.

“Give way, lads!” cried the captain.

The oars fell into the water at the word, the boat shot from the schooner’s side, and in a few minutes reached the shore. Here, contrary to our expectation, we were met with the utmost cordiality by Romata, the principal chief of the island, who conducted us to his house and gave us mats to sit upon. I observed in passing that the natives, of whom there were two or three thousand, were totally unarmed.

After a short preliminary palaver, a feast of baked pigs and various roots was spread before us, of which we partook sparingly, and then proceeded to business. The captain stated his object in visiting the island, regretted that there had been a slight misunderstanding during the last visit, and hoped that no ill-will was borne by either party, and that a satisfactory trade would be accomplished.

Romata answered that he had forgotten there had been any differences between them, protested that he was delighted to see his friends again, and assured them they should have every assistance in cutting and embarking the wood. The terms were afterwards agreed on, and we rose to depart. All this conversation was afterwards explained to me by Bill, who understood the language pretty well.

Romata accompanied us on board, and explained that a great chief from another island was then on a visit to him, and that he was to be ceremoniously entertained on the following day. After begging to be allowed to introduce him to us, and receiving permission, he sent his canoe ashore to bring him off. At the same time he gave orders to bring on board his two favourites, a cock and a paroquet. While the canoe was gone on this errand, I had time to regard the savage chief attentively. He was a man of immense size, with massive but beautifully moulded limbs and figure, only parts of which — the broad chest and muscular arms — were uncovered; for although the lower orders generally wore no other clothing than a strip of cloth called maro round their loins, the chief, on particular occasions, wrapped his person in voluminous folds of a species of native cloth made from the bark of the Chinese paper-mulberry. Romata wore a magnificent black beard and moustache, and his hair was frizzed out to such an extent that it resembled a large turban, in which was stuck a long wooden pin! I afterwards found that this pin served for scratching the head, for which purpose the fingers were too short without disarranging the hair. But Romata put himself to much greater inconvenience on account of his hair; for we found that he slept with his head resting on a wooden pillow, in which was cut a hollow for the neck, so that the hair of the sleeper might not be disarranged.

In ten minutes the canoe returned, bringing the other chief, who certainly presented a most extraordinary appearance, having painted one half of his face red and the other half yellow, besides ornamenting it with various designs in black! Otherwise he was much the same in appearance as Romata, though not so powerfully built. As this chief had never seen a ship before — except, perchance, some of the petty traders that at long intervals visit these remote islands — he was much taken up with the neatness and beauty of all the fittings of the schooner. He was particularly struck with a musket which was shown to him, and asked where the white men got hatchets hard enough to cut the tree of which the barrel was made! While he was thus engaged, his brother-chief stood aloof, talking with the captain, and fondling a superb cock and a little blue-headed paroquet — the favourites of which I have before spoken. I observed that all the other natives walked in a crouching posture while in the presence of Romata. Before our guests left us, the captain ordered the brass gun to be uncovered and fired for their gratification; and I have every reason to believe he did so for the purpose of showing our superior power, in case the natives should harbour any evil designs against us. Romata had never seen this gun before, as it had not been uncovered on previous visits, and the astonishment with which he viewed it was very amusing. Being desirous of knowing its power, he begged that the captain would fire it; so a shot was put into it. The chiefs were then directed to look at a rock about two miles out at sea, and the gun was fired. In a second the top of the rock was seen to burst asunder, and to fall in fragments into the sea.

Romata was so delighted with the success of this shot that he pointed to a man who was walking on the shore, and begged the captain to fire at him, evidently supposing that his permission was quite sufficient to justify the captain in such an act. He was therefore surprised, and not a little annoyed, when the captain refused to fire at the native and ordered the gun to be housed.

Of all the things, however, that afforded matter of amusement to these savages, that which pleased Romata’s visitor most was the ship’s pump. He never tired of examining it and pumping up the water. Indeed, so much was he taken up with this pump that he could not be prevailed on to return on shore, but sent a canoe to fetch his favourite stool, on which he seated himself, and spent the remainder of the day in pumping the bilge-water out of the ship!

Next day the crew went ashore to cut sandal-wood, while the captain, with one or two men, remained on board, in order to be ready, if need be, with the brass gun, which was unhoused and conspicuously elevated, with its capacious muzzle directed point-blank at the chief’s house. The men were fully armed, as usual; and the captain ordered me to go with them, to assist in the work. I was much pleased with this order, for it freed me from the captain’s company, which I could not now endure, and it gave me an opportunity of seeing the natives.

As we wound along in single file through the rich, fragrant groves of banana, cocoa-nut, bread-fruit, and other trees, I observed that there were many of the plum and banyan trees, with which I had become familiar on the Coral Island. I noticed, also, large quantities of taro — roots, yams, and sweet potatoes growing in enclosures. On turning into an open glade of the woods, we came abruptly upon a cluster of native houses. They were built chiefly of bamboos, and were thatched with the large, thick leaves of the pandanus; but many of them had little more than a sloping roof and three sides with an open front, being the most simple shelter from the weather that could well be imagined. Within these and around them were groups of natives — men, women, and children — who all stood up to gaze at us as we marched along, followed by the party of men whom the chief had sent to escort us. About half-a-mile inland we arrived at the spot where the sandal-wood grew, and while the men set to work I clambered up an adjoining hill to observe the country.

About midday the chief arrived with several followers, one of whom carried a baked pig on a wooden platter, with yams and potatoes on several plantain leaves, which he presented to the men, who sat down under the shade of a tree to dine. The chief sat down to dine also; but, to my surprise, instead of feeding himself, one of his wives performed that office for him! I was seated beside Bill, and asked him the reason of this.

“It is beneath his dignity, I believe, to feed himself,” answered Bill; “but I dare say he’s not particular, except on great occasions. They’ve a strange custom among them, Ralph, which is called tabu, and they carry it to great lengths. If a man chooses a particular tree for his god, the fruit o’ that tree is tabued to him; and if he eats it, he is sure to be killed by his people — and eaten, of course, for killing means eating hereaway. Then, you see that great mop o’ hair on the chief’s head? Well, he has a lot o’ barbers to keep it in order; and it’s a law that whoever touches the head of a living chief or the body of a dead one, his hands are tabued. So in that way the barbers’ hands are always tabued, and they daren’t use them for their lives, but have to be fed like big babies — as they are, sure enough!”

“That’s odd, Bill. But look there,” said I, pointing to a man whose skin was of a much lighter colour than the generality of the natives. “I’ve seen a few of these light-skinned fellows among the Feejeeans. They seem to me to be of quite a different race.”

“So they are,” answered Bill. “These fellows come from the Tongan Islands, which lie a long way to the eastward. They come here to build their big war-canoes; and as these take two, and sometimes four, years to build, there’s always some o’ the brown-skins among the black sarpents o’ these islands.”

“By the way, Bill,” said I, “your mentioning serpents reminds me that I have not seen a reptile of any kind since I came to this part of the world.”

“No more there are any,” said Bill, “if ye except the niggers themselves. There’s none on the islands but a lizard or two, and some sich harmless things; but I never seed any myself. If there’s none on the land, however, there’s more than enough in the water; and that reminds me of a wonderful brute they have here. But come, I’ll show it to you.” So saying, Bill arose, and leaving the men still busy with the baked pig, led me into the forest. After proceeding a short distance we came upon a small pond of stagnant water. A native lad had followed us, to whom we called and beckoned him to come to us. On Bill saying a few words to him, which I did not understand, the boy advanced to the edge of the pond and gave a low, peculiar whistle. Immediately the water became agitated, and an enormous eel thrust its head above the surface and allowed the youth to touch it. It was about twelve feet long, and as thick round the body as a man’s thigh.

“There!” said Bill, his lip curling with contempt; “what do you think of that for a god, Ralph? This is one o’ their gods, and it has been fed with dozens o’ livin’ babies already. How many more it’ll get afore it dies is hard to say.”

“Babies!” said I with an incredulous look.

“Ay, babies,” returned Bill. “Your soft-hearted folk at home would say, ‘Oh, horrible! Impossible!’ to that, and then go away as comfortable and unconcerned as if their sayin’ ‘Horrible! impossible!’ had made it a lie. But I tell you, Ralph, it’s a fact. I’ve seed it with my own eyes the last time I was here; an’ mayhap, if you stop awhile at this accursed place and keep a sharp lookout, you’ll see it too. They don’t feed it regularly with livin’ babies, but they give it one now and then as a treat. — Bah, you brute!” cried Bill in disgust, giving the reptile a kick on the snout with his heavy boot that sent it sweltering back in agony into its loathsome pool. I thought it lucky for Bill — indeed for all of us — that the native youth’s back happened to be turned at the time, for I am certain that if the poor savages had come to know that we had so rudely handled their god we should have had to fight our way back to the ship. As we retraced our steps I questioned my companion further on this subject.

“How comes it, Bill, that the mothers allow such a dreadful thing to be done?”

“Allow it? the mothers do it! It seems to me that there’s nothing too fiendish or diabolical for these people to do. Why, in some of the islands they have an institution called the Areoi, and the persons connected with that body are ready for any wickedness that mortal man can devise. In fact, they stick at nothing; and one o’ their customs is to murder their infants the moment they are born. The mothers agree to it, and the fathers do it. And the mildest ways they have of murdering them is by sticking them through the body with sharp splinters of bamboo, strangling them with their thumbs, or burying them alive and stamping them to death while under the sod.”

I felt sick at heart while my companion recited these horrors.

“But it’s a curious fact,” he continued after a pause, during which we walked in silence towards the spot where we had left our comrades —“it’s a curious fact that wherever the missionaries get a footin’ all these things come to an end at once, an’ the savages take to doin’ each other good and singin’ psalms, just like Methodists.”

“God bless the missionaries,” said I, while a feeling of enthusiasm filled my heart so that I could speak with difficulty. “God bless and prosper the missionaries till they get a footing in every island of the sea!”

“I would say Amen to that prayer, Ralph, if I could,” said Bill, in a deep, sad voice; “but it would be a mere mockery for a man to ask a blessing for others who dare not ask one for himself. But, Ralph,” he continued, “I’ve not told you half o’ the abominations I have seen durin’ my life in these seas. If we pull long together, lad, I’ll tell you more; and if times have not changed very much since I was here last, it’s like that you’ll have a chance o’ seeing a little for yourself before long.”

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