The Coral Island, by R. M. Ballantyne

Chapter Twenty Seven.

Reflections — The Wounded Man — The Squall — True Consolation — Death.

There is a power of endurance in human beings, both in their bodies and in their minds, which, I have often thought, seems to be wonderfully adapted and exactly proportioned to the circumstances in which individuals may happen to be placed — a power which, in most cases, is sufficient to carry a man through and over every obstacle that may happen to be thrown in his path through life, no matter how high or how steep the mountain may be, but which often forsakes him the moment the summit is gained, the point of difficulty passed, and leaves him prostrated, with energies gone, nerves unstrung, and a feeling of incapacity pervading the entire frame that renders the most trifling effort almost impossible.

During the greater part of that day I had been subjected to severe mental and much physical excitement, which had almost crushed me down by the time I was relieved from duty in the course of the evening. But when the expedition whose failure has just been narrated was planned, my anxieties and energies had been so powerfully aroused that I went through the protracted scenes of that terrible night without a feeling of the slightest fatigue. My mind and body were alike active and full of energy. No sooner was the last thrilling fear of danger past, however, than my faculties were utterly relaxed; and when I felt the cool breezes of the Pacific playing around my fevered brow, and heard the free waves rippling at the schooner’s prow, as we left the hated island behind us, my senses forsook me, and I fell in a swoon upon the deck.

From this state I was quickly aroused by Bill, who shook me by the arm, saying:

“Hallo, Ralph, boy! Rouse up, lad; we’re safe now! Poor thing! I believe he’s fainted.” And raising me in his arms he laid me on the folds of the gaff-topsail, which lay upon the deck near the tiller. “Here, take a drop o’ this; it’ll do you good, my boy,” he added in a voice of tenderness which I had never heard him use before, while he held a brandy-flask to my lips.

I raised my eyes gratefully as I swallowed a mouthful; next moment my head sank heavily upon my arm, and I fell fast asleep. I slept long, for when I awoke the sun was a good way above the horizon. I did not move on first opening my eyes, as I felt a delightful sensation of rest pervading me, and my eyes were riveted on and charmed with the gorgeous splendour of the mighty ocean that burst upon my sight. It was a dead calm; the sea seemed a sheet of undulating crystal, tipped and streaked with the saffron hues of sunrise, which had not yet merged into the glowing heat of noon; and there was a deep calm in the blue dome above that was not broken even by the usual flutter of the sea-fowl. How long I would have lain in contemplation of this peaceful scene I know not, but my mind was recalled suddenly and painfully to the past and the present by the sight of Bill, who was seated on the deck at my feet, with his head reclining, as if in sleep, on his right arm, which rested on the tiller. As he seemed to rest peacefully, I did not mean to disturb him; but the slight noise I made in raising myself on my elbow caused him to start and look round.

“Well, Ralph, awake at last, my boy? You have slept long and soundly,” he said, turning towards me.

On beholding his countenance I sprang up in anxiety. He was deadly pale, and his hair, which hung in dishevelled locks over his face, was clotted with blood. Blood also stained his hollow cheeks and covered the front of his shirt, which, with the greater part of his dress, was torn and soiled with mud.

“Oh Bill!” said I with deep anxiety, “what is the matter with you? You are ill. You must have been wounded.”

“Even so, lad,” said Bill in a deep, soft voice, while he extended his huge frame on the couch from which I had just risen. “I’ve got an ugly wound, I fear; and I’ve been waiting for you to waken to ask you to get me a drop o’ brandy and a mouthful o’ bread from the cabin lockers. You seemed to sleep so sweetly, Ralph, that I didn’t like to disturb you. But I don’t feel up to much just now.”

I did not wait till he had done talking, but ran below immediately, and returned in a few seconds with a bottle of brandy and some broken biscuit. He seemed much refreshed after eating a few morsels and drinking a long draught of water mingled with a little of the spirits. Immediately afterwards he fell asleep, and I watched him anxiously until he awoke, being desirous of knowing the nature and extent of his wound.

“Ha!” he exclaimed on awaking suddenly, after a slumber of an hour; “I’m the better of that nap, Ralph. I feel twice the man I was;” and he attempted to rise, but sank back again immediately with a deep groan.

“Nay, Bill, you must not move, but lie still while I look at your wound. I’ll make a comfortable bed for you here on deck, and get you some breakfast. After that you shall tell me how you got it. Cheer up, Bill!” I added, seeing that he turned his head away; “you’ll be all right in a little, and I’ll be a capital nurse to you, though I’m no doctor.”

I then left him, and lighted a fire in the caboose. While it was kindling, I went to the steward’s pantry and procured the materials for a good breakfast, with which, in little more than half-an-hour, I returned to my companion. He seemed much better, and smiled kindly on me as I set before him a cup of coffee and a tray with several eggs and some bread on it.

“Now, then, Bill,” said I cheerfully, sitting down beside him on the deck, “let’s fall to. I’m very hungry myself, I can tell you. But — I forgot — your wound,” I added, rising; “let me look at it.”

I found that the wound was caused by a pistol-shot in the chest. It did not bleed much, and as it was on the right side, I was in hopes that it might not be very serious. But Bill shook his head. “However,” said he, “sit down, Ralph, and I’ll tell you all about it.

“You see, after we left the boat an’ began to push through the bushes, we went straight for the line of my musket, as I had expected. But by some unlucky chance it didn’t explode, for I saw the line torn away by the men’s legs, and heard the click o’ the lock; so I fancy the priming had got damp and didn’t catch. I was in a great quandary now what to do, for I couldn’t concoct in my mind, in the hurry, any good reason for firin’ off my piece. But they say necessity’s the mother of invention; so just as I was giving it up and clinchin’ my teeth to bide the worst o’t and take what should come, a sudden thought came into my head. I stepped out before the rest, seemin’ to be awful anxious to be at the savages, tripped my foot on a fallen tree, plunged head foremost into a bush, an’ ov coorse my carbine exploded! Then came such a screechin’ from the camp as I never heard in all my life. I rose at once, and was rushin’ on with the rest when the captain called a halt.

“‘You did that a purpose, you villain!’ he said with a tremendous oath, and drawin’ a pistol from his belt, let fly right into my breast. I fell at once, and remembered no more till I was startled and brought round by the most awful yell I ever heard in my life — except, maybe, the shrieks o’ them poor critters that were crushed to death under yon big canoe. Jumpin’ up, I looked round, and through the trees saw a fire gleamin’ not far off; the light of which showed me the captain and men tied hand and foot, each to a post, and the savages dancin’ round them like demons. I had scarce looked for a second when I saw one o’ them go up to the captain flourishing a knife, and before I could wink he plunged it into his breast, while another yell, like the one that roused me, rang upon my ear. I didn’t wait for more, but bounding up, went crashing through the bushes into the woods. The black fellows caught sight of me, however, but not in time to prevent me jumpin’ into the boat, as you know.”

Bill seemed to be much exhausted after this recital, and shuddered frequently during the narrative; so I refrained from continuing the subject at that time, and endeavoured to draw his mind to other things.

“But now, Bill,” said I, “it behoves us to think about the future, and what course of action we shall pursue. Here we are, on the wide Pacific, in a well-appointed schooner, which is our own — at least, no one has a better claim to it than we have — and the world lies before us. Moreover, here comes a breeze, so we must make up our minds which way to steer.”

“Ralph, boy,” said my companion, “it matters not to me which way we go. I fear that my time is short now. Go where you will; I’m content.”

“Well, then, Bill, I think we had better steer to the Coral Island and see what has become of my dear old comrades, Jack and Peterkin. I believe the island has no name, but the captain once pointed it out to me on the chart, and I marked it afterwards; so, as we know pretty well our position just now, I think I can steer to it. Then, as to working the vessel, it is true I cannot hoist the sails single-handed, but luckily we have enough of sail set already; and if it should come on to blow a squall, I could at least drop the peaks of the main and fore sails, and clew them up partially without help, and throw her head close into the wind, so as to keep her all shaking till the violence of the squall is past. And if we have continued light breezes, I’ll rig up a complication of blocks and fix them to the topsail halyards, so that I shall be able to hoist the sails without help. ’Tis true I’ll require half-a-day to hoist them, but we don’t need to mind that. Then I’ll make a sort of erection on deck to screen you from the sun, Bill; and if you can only manage to sit beside the tiller and steer for two hours every day, so as to let me get a nap, I’ll engage to let you off duty all the rest of the twenty-four hours. And if you don’t feel able for steering, I’ll lash the helm and heave-to while I get you your breakfasts and dinners; and so we’ll manage famously, and soon reach the Coral Island.”

Bill smiled faintly as I ran on in this strain.

“And what will you do,” said he, “if it comes on to blow a storm?”

This question silenced me, while I considered what I should do in such a case. At length I laid my hand on his arm and said, “Bill, when a man has done all that he can do, he ought to leave the rest to God.”

“Oh Ralph,” said my companion in a faint voice, looking anxiously into my face, “I wish that I had the feelin’s about God that you seem to have, at this hour. I’m dyin’, Ralph; yet I, who have braved death a hundred times, am afraid to die. I’m afraid to enter the next world. Something within tells me there will be a reckoning when I go there. But it’s all over with me, Ralph. I feel that there’s no chance o’ my bein’ saved.”

“Don’t say that, Bill,” said I in deep compassion; “don’t say that. I’m quite sure there’s hope even for you, but I can’t remember the words of the Bible that make me think so. Is there not a Bible on board, Bill?”

“No; the last that was in the ship belonged to a poor boy that was taken aboard against his will. He died, poor lad — I think through ill-treatment and fear. After he was gone, the captain found his Bible and flung it overboard.”

I now reflected, with great sadness and self-reproach, on the way in which I had neglected my Bible, and it flashed across me that I was actually, in the sight of God, a greater sinner than this blood-stained pirate; for, thought I, he tells me that he never read the Bible and was never brought up to care for it, whereas I was carefully taught to read it by my own mother, and had read it daily as long as I possessed one, yet to so little purpose that I could not now call to mind a single text that would meet this poor man’s case and afford him the consolation he so much required. I was much distressed, and taxed my memory for a long time. At last a text did flash into my mind, and I wondered much that I had not thought of it before.

“Bill,” said I in a low voice, “‘Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved.’”

“Ay, Ralph, I’ve heard the missionaries say that before now; but what good can it do me? It’s not for me, that; it’s not for the likes o’ me.”

I knew not now what to say, for although I felt sure that that word was for him as well as for me, I could not remember any other word whereby I could prove it.

After a short pause, Bill raised his eyes to mine and said, “Ralph, I’ve led a terrible life. I’ve been a sailor since I was a boy, and I’ve gone from bad to worse ever since I left my father’s roof. I’ve been a pirate three years now. It is true I did not choose the trade, but I was inveigled aboard this schooner and kept here by force till I became reckless and at last joined them. Since that time my hand has been steeped in human blood again and again. Your young heart would grow cold if I— But why should I go on? ’Tis of no use, Ralph; my doom is fixed.”

“Bill,” said I, “‘Though your sins be red like crimson, they shall be white as snow.’ Only believe.”

“Only believe!” cried Bill, starting up on his elbow. “I’ve heard men talk o’ believing as if it was easy. Ha! ’tis easy enough for a man to point to a rope and say, ‘I believe that would bear my weight;’ but ’tis another thing for a man to catch hold o’ that rope and swing himself by it over the edge of a precipice!”

The energy with which he said this, and the action with which it was accompanied, were too much for Bill. He sank back with a deep groan. As if the very elements sympathised with this man’s sufferings, a low moan came sweeping over the sea.

“Hist, Ralph!” said Bill, opening his eyes; “there’s a squall coming, lad! Look alive, boy! Clew up the foresail! Drop the mainsail peak! Them squalls come quick sometimes.”

I had already started to my feet, and saw that a heavy squall was indeed bearing down on us. It had hitherto escaped my notice, owing to my being so much engrossed by our conversation. I instantly did as Bill desired, for the schooner was lying motionless on the glassy sea. I observed with some satisfaction that the squall was bearing down on the larboard bow, so that it would strike the vessel in the position in which she would be best able to stand the shock. Having done my best to shorten sail, I returned aft, and took my stand at the helm.

“Now, boy,” said Bill in a faint voice, “keep her close to the wind.”

A few seconds afterwards he said, “Ralph, let me hear those two texts again.”

I repeated them.

“Are ye sure, lad, ye saw them in the Bible?”

“Quite sure,” I replied.

Almost before the words had left my lips the wind burst upon us, and the spray dashed over our decks. For a time the schooner stood it bravely, and sprang forward against the rising sea like a war-horse. Meanwhile clouds darkened the sky, and the sea began to rise in huge billows. There was still too much sail on the schooner, and as the gale increased, I feared that the masts would be torn out of her or carried away, while the wind whistled and shrieked through the strained rigging. Suddenly the wind shifted a point, a heavy sea struck us on the bow, and the schooner was almost laid on her beam-ends, so that I could scarcely keep my legs. At the same moment Bill lost his hold of the belaying-pin which had served to steady him, and he slid with stunning violence against the skylight. As he lay on the deck close beside me, I could see that the shock had rendered him insensible; but I did not dare to quit the tiller for an instant, as it required all my faculties, bodily and mental, to manage the schooner. For an hour the blast drove us along, while, owing to the sharpness of the vessel’s bow and the press of canvas, she dashed through the waves instead of breasting over them, thereby drenching the decks with water fore and aft. At the end of that time the squall passed away, and left us rocking on the bosom of the agitated sea.

My first care, the instant I could quit the helm, was to raise Bill from the deck and place him on the couch. I then ran below for the brandy-bottle, and rubbed his face and hands with it, and endeavoured to pour a little down his throat. But my efforts, although I continued them long and assiduously, were of no avail; as I let go the hand which I had been chafing, it fell heavily on the deck. I laid my hand over his heart, and sat for some time quite motionless; but there was no flutter there — the pirate was dead!

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