The Coral Island, by R. M. Ballantyne

Chapter Twenty Nine.

The Effect of a Cannon-Shot — A Happy Reunion of a Somewhat Moist Nature — Retrospect and Explanations — An Awful Dive — New Plans — The Last of the Coral Island.

I almost fell upon the deck with the tumult of mingled emotions that filled my heart as I gazed ardently towards my beautiful island. It was still many miles away, but sufficiently near to enable me to trace distinctly the well-remembered outlines of the two mountains. My first impulse was to utter an exclamation of gratitude for being carried to my former happy home in safety; my second, to jump up, clap my hands, shout, and run up and down the deck, with no other object in view than that of giving vent to my excited feelings. Then I went below for the telescope, and spent nearly ten minutes of the utmost impatience in vainly trying to get a focus, and in rubbing the skin nearly off my eyes, before I discovered that having taken off the large glass to examine the phosphoric water with, I had omitted to put it on again.

After that I looked up impatiently at the sails, which I now regretted having lowered so hastily, and for a moment thought of hoisting the main topsail again; but recollecting that it would take me full half-a-day to accomplish, and that, at the present rate of sailing, two hours would bring me to the island, I immediately dismissed the idea.

The remainder of the time I spent in making feverish preparations for arriving and seeing my dear comrades. I remembered that they were not in the habit of rising before six, and as it was now only three, I hoped to arrive before they were awake. Moreover, I set about making ready to let go the anchor, resolving in my own mind that as I knew the depth of water in the passage of the reef and within the lagoon, I would run the schooner in and bring up opposite the bower. Fortunately the anchor was hanging at the cat-head, otherwise I should never have been able to use it. Now I had only to cut the tackling, and it would drop of its own weight. After searching among the flags, I found the terrible black one, which I ran up to the peak. While I was doing this a thought struck me. I went to the powder-magazine, brought up a blank cartridge, and loaded the big brass gun, which, it will be remembered, was unhoused when we set sail; and as I had no means of housing it, there it had stood, bristling alike at fair weather and foul all the voyage. I took care to grease its mouth well, and before leaving the fore part of the ship, thrust the poker into the fire.

All was now ready. A steady five-knot breeze was blowing, so that I was now not more than quarter of a mile from the reef. I was soon at the entrance; and as the schooner glided quickly through, I glanced affectionately at the huge breaker as if it had been the same one I had seen there when I bade adieu, as I feared for ever, to the island. On coming opposite the Water Garden, I put the helm hard down. The schooner came round with a rapid, graceful bend, and lost way just opposite the bower. Running forward, I let go the anchor, caught up the red-hot poker, applied it to the brass gun, and saluted the mountains with a bang such as had only once before broke their slumbering echoes!

Effective although it was, however, it was scarcely equal to the bang with which, instantly after, Peterkin bounded from the bower, in scanty costume, his eyeballs starting from his head with surprise and terror. One gaze he gave, one yell, and then fled into the bushes like a wild cat. The next moment Jack went through exactly the same performance, the only difference being that his movements were less like those of Jack-inthe-box, though not less vigorous and rapid than those of Peterkin.

“Hallo!” I shouted, almost mad with joy. “What ho! Peterkin! Jack! hallo! it’s me!”

My shout was just in time to arrest them. They halted and turned round, and the instant I repeated the cry I saw that they recognised my voice by both of them running at full speed towards the beach. I could no longer contain myself. Throwing off my jacket, I jumped overboard at the same moment that Jack bounded into the sea. In other moment we met in deep water, clasped each other round the neck, and sank, as a matter of course, to the bottom! We were well-nigh choked, and instantly struggled to the surface, where Peterkin was spluttering about like a wounded duck, laughing and crying by turns, and choking himself with salt water!

It would be impossible to convey to my reader, by description, an adequate conception of the scene that followed my landing on the beach, as we stood embracing each other indiscriminately in our dripping garments, and giving utterance to incoherent rhapsodies, mingled with wild shouts. It can be more easily imagined than described; so I will draw a curtain over this part of my history, and carry the reader forward over an interval of three days.

During the greater part of that period Peterkin did nothing but roast pigs, taro, and bread-fruit, and ply me with plantains, plums, potatoes, and cocoa-nuts, while I related to him and Jack the terrible and wonderful adventures I had gone through since we last met. After I had finished the account, they made me go all over it again; and when I had concluded the second recital I had to go over it again, while they commented upon it piecemeal. They were much affected by what I told them of the probable fate of Avatea, and Peterkin could by no means brook the idea of the poor girl being converted into a long pig! As for Jack, he clenched his teeth, and shook his fist towards the sea, saying at the same time that he was sorry he had not broken Tararo’s head, and he only hoped that one day he should be able to plant his knuckles on the bridge of that chief’s nose! After they had ‘pumped me dry,’ as Peterkin said, I begged to be informed of what had happened to them during my long absence, and particularly as to how they got out of the Diamond Cave.

“Well, you must know,” began Jack, “after you had dived out of the cave, on the day you were taken away from us, we waited very patiently for half-an-hour, not expecting you to return before the end of that time. Then we began to upbraid you for staying so long when you knew we would be anxious; but when an hour passed we became alarmed, and I resolved at all hazards to dive out and see what had become of you, although I felt for poor Peterkin, because, as he truly said, ‘If you never come back, I’m shut up here for life.’ However, I promised not to run any risk, and he let me go — which, to say truth, I thought very courageous of him!”

“I should just think it was,” interrupted Peterkin, looking at Jack over the edge of a monstrous potato which he happened to be devouring at the time.

“Well,” continued Jack, “you may guess my consternation when you did not answer to my halloo. At first I imagined that the pirates must have killed you, and left you in the bush or thrown you into the sea; then it occurred to me that this would have served no end of theirs, so I came to the conclusion that they must have carried you away with them. As this thought struck me, I observed the pirate schooner standing away to the nor’ard, almost hull down on the horizon, and I sat down on the rocks to watch her as she slowly sank from my sight. And I tell you, Ralph, my boy, that I shed more tears that time at losing you than I have done, I verily believe, all my life before —”

“Pardon me, Jack, for interrupting,” said Peterkin; “surely you must be mistaken in that. You’ve often told me that when you were a baby you used to howl and roar from morning to —”

“Hold your tongue, Peterkin!” cried Jack. —“Well, after the schooner had disappeared, I dived back into the cave, much to Peterkin’s relief, and told him what I had seen. We sat down and had a long talk over this matter, and then we agreed to make a regular, systematic search through the woods, so as to make sure at least that you had not been killed. But now we thought of the difficulty of getting out of the cave without your help. Peterkin became dreadfully nervous when he thought of this; and I must confess I felt some alarm, for, of course, I could not hope alone to take him out so quickly as we two together had brought him in. And he himself vowed that if we had been a moment longer with him that time, he would have had to take a breath of salt water. However, there was no help for it, and I endeavoured to calm his fears as well as I could; ‘for,’ said I, ‘you can’t live here, Peterkin,’ to which he replied, ‘Of course not, Jack; I can only die here, and as that’s not at all desirable, you had better propose something.’ So I suggested that he should take a good, long breath, and trust himself to me.

“‘Might we not make a large bag of cocoa-nut cloth, into which I could shove my head, and tie it tight round my neck?’ he asked with a haggard smile. ‘It might let me get one breath under water!’

“‘No use,’ said I; ‘it would fill in a moment and suffocate you. I see nothing for it, Peterkin, if you really can’t keep your breath so long, but to let me knock you down, and carry you out while in a state of insensibility.’

“But Peterkin didn’t relish this idea. He seemed to fear that I would not be able to measure the exact force of the blow, and might, on the one hand, hit him so softly as to render a second or third blow necessary, which would be very uncomfortable; or, on the other hand, give him such a smash as would entirely spoil his figurehead, or mayhap knock the life out of him altogether! At last I got him persuaded to try to hold his breath, and commit himself to me; so he agreed, and down we went. But I had not got half-way through when he began to struggle and kick like a wild bull, burst from my grasp, and hit against the roof of the tunnel. I was therefore obliged to force him violently back into the cave again, where he, rose panting to the surface. In short, he had lost his presence of mind, and —”

“Nothing of the sort!” cried Peterkin indignantly; “I only lost my wind, and if I had not had presence of mind enough to kick as I did, I should have bu’st in your arms!”

“Well, well, so be it,” resumed Jack with a smile. —“But the upshot of it was that we had to hold another consultation on the point; and I really believe that had it not been for a happy thought of mine, we should have been consulting there yet.”

“I wish we had!” again interrupted Peterkin with a sigh. —“I’m sure, Ralph, if I had thought that you were coming back again I would willingly have awaited your return for months rather than have endured the mental agony which I went through. — But proceed.”

“The thought was this,” continued Jack —“that I should tie Peterkin’s hands and feet with cords, and then lash him firmly to a stout pole about five feet long, in order to render him quite powerless and keep him straight and stiff. You should have seen his face of horror, Ralph, when I suggested this! But he came to see that it was his only chance, and told me to set about it as fast as I could; ‘for,’ said he, ‘this is no jokin’, Jack, I can tell you, and the sooner it’s done the better.’ I soon procured the cordage and a suitable pole, with which I returned to the cave, and lashed him as stiff and straight as an Egyptian mummy; and, to say truth, he was no bad representation of what an English mummy would be, if there were such things, for he was as white as a dead man.

“‘Now,’ said Peterkin in a tremulous voice, ‘swim with me as near to the edge of the hole as you can before you dive; then let me take a long breath; and as I sha’n’t be able to speak after I’ve taken it, you’ll watch my face, and the moment you see me wink — dive! And oh,’ he added earnestly, ‘pray don’t be long!’

“I promised to pay the strictest attention to his wishes, and swam with him to the outlet of the cave. Here I paused. ‘Now, then,’ said I, ‘pull away at the wind, lad.’

“Peterkin drew in a breath so long that I could not help thinking of the frog in the fable, that wanted to swell itself as big as the ox. Then I looked into his face earnestly. Slap went the lid of his right eye; down went my head, and up went my heels. We shot through the passage like an arrow, and rose to the surface of the open sea before you could count twenty.

“Peterkin had taken in such an awful load of wind that, on reaching the free air, he let it out with a yell loud enough to have been heard a mile off; and then the change in his feelings was so sudden and great that he did not wait till we landed, but began, tied up as he was, to shout and sing for joy as I supported him with my left arm to the shore. However, in the middle of a laugh that a hyena might have envied, I let him accidentally slip, which extinguished him in a moment.

“After this happy deliverance, we immediately began our search for your dead body, Ralph; and you have no idea how low our hearts sank as we set off; day after day, to examine the valleys and mountain-sides with the utmost care. In about three weeks we completed the survey of the whole island, and had at least the satisfaction of knowing that you had not been killed. But it occurred to us that you might have been thrown into the sea; so we examined the sands and the lagoon carefully, and afterwards went all round the outer reef. One day, while we were upon the reef, Peterkin espied a small, dark object lying among the rocks, which seemed to be quite different from the surrounding stones. We hastened towards the spot, and found it to be a small keg. On knocking out the head we discovered that it was gunpowder.”

“It was I who sent you that, Jack,” said I with a smile.

“Fork out!” cried Peterkin energetically, starting to his feet and extending his open hand to Jack. “Down with the money, sir, else I’ll have you shut up for life in a debtor’s prison the moment we return to England!”

“I’ll give you an I.O.U. in the meantime,” returned Jack, laughing, “so sit down and be quiet. — The fact is, Ralph, when we discovered this keg of powder Peterkin immediately took me a bet of a thousand pounds that you had something to do with it, and I took him a bet of ten thousand that you had not.”

“Peterkin was right, then,” said I, explaining how the thing had occurred.

“Well, we found it very useful,” continued Jack, “although some of it had got a little damp; and we furbished up the old pistol, with which Peterkin is a crack shot now. But to continue. We did not find any other vestige of you on the reef, and finally gave up all hope of ever seeing you again. After this the island became a dreary place to us, and we began to long for a ship to heave in sight and take us off. But now that you’re back again, my dear fellow, it looks as bright and cheerful as it used to do, and I love it as much as ever.

“And now,” continued Jack, “I have a great desire to visit some of the other islands of the South Seas. Here we have a first-rate schooner at our disposal, so I don’t see what should hinder us.”

“Just the very thing I was going to propose!” cried Peterkin. “I vote for starting at once.”

“Well, then,” said Jack, “it seems to me that we could not do better than shape our course for the island on which Avatea lives, and endeavour to persuade Tararo to let her marry the black fellow to whom she is engaged instead of making a ‘long pig’ of her. If he has a spark of gratitude in him, he’ll do it. Besides, having become champions for this girl once before, it behoves us, as true knights, not to rest until we set her free; at least, all the heroes in all the story-books I have ever read would count it foul disgrace to leave such a work unfinished.”

“I’m sure I don’t know or care what your knights in story-books would do,” said Peterkin; “but I’m certain that it would be capital fun, so I’m your man whenever you want me.”

This plan of Jack’s was quite in accordance with his romantic, impulsive nature; and having made up his mind to save this black girl, he could not rest until the thing was commenced.

“But there may be great danger in this attempt,” he said at the end of a long consultation on the subject. “Will you, lads, go with me in spite of this?”

“Go with you!” we repeated in the same breath.

“Can you doubt it?” said I.

“For a moment?” added Peterkin.

I need scarcely say that having made up our minds to go on this enterprise, we lost no time in making preparations to quit the island; and as the schooner was well laden with stores of every kind for a long cruise, we had little to do except to add to our abundant supply a quantity of cocoa-nuts, bread-fruit, taro, yams, plums, and potatoes, chiefly with the view of carrying the fragrance of our dear island along with us as long as we could.

When all was ready, we paid a farewell visit to the different familiar spots where most of our time had been spent. We ascended the mountain-top, and gazed for the last time at the rich green foliage in the valleys, the white sandy beach, the placid lagoon, and the barrier coral reef with its crested breakers. Then we descended to Spouting Cliff, and looked down at the pale-green monster which we had made such fruitless efforts to spear in days gone by. From this we hurried to the Water Garden, and took a last dive into its clear waters and a last gambol amongst its coral groves. I hurried out before my companions, and dressed in haste, in order to have a long examination of my tank, which Peterkin, in the fulness of his heart, had tended with the utmost care, as being a vivid remembrancer of me rather than out of love for natural history. It was in superb condition: the water as clear and pellucid as crystal; the red and green seaweed of the most brilliant hues; the red, purple, yellow, green, and striped anemones fully expanded, and stretching out their arms as if to welcome and embrace their former master; the starfish, zoophytes, sea-pens, and other innumerable marine insects, looking fresh and beautiful; and the crabs, as Peterkin said, looking as wide-awake, impertinent, rampant, and pugnacious as ever. It was, indeed, so lovely and so interesting that I would scarcely allow myself to be torn away from it.

Last of all, we returned to the bower and collected the few articles we possessed — such as the axe, the pencil-case, the broken telescope, the penknife, the hook made from the brass ring, and the sail-needle, with which we had landed on the island; also the long boots and the pistol, besides several curious articles of costume which we had manufactured from time to time.

These we conveyed on board in our little boat, after having carved our names on a chip of iron-wood, thus:

JACK MARTIN
RALPH ROVER
PETERKIN GAY

This we fixed up inside of the bower. The boat was then hoisted on board and the anchor weighed, which latter operation cost us great labour and much time, as the anchor was so heavy that we could not move it without the aid of my complex machinery of blocks and pulleys. A steady breeze was blowing off-shore when we set sail, at a little before sunset. It swept us quickly past the reef and out to sea. The shore grew rapidly more indistinct as the shades of evening fell, while our clipper bark bounded lightly over the waves. Slowly the mountain-top sank on the horizon until it became a mere speck. In another moment the sun and the Coral Island sank together into the broad bosom of the Pacific.

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