The Coral Island, by R. M. Ballantyne

Chapter Three.

The Coral Island — Our First Cogitations After Landing and the Result of Them — We Conclude that the Island is Uninhabited.

There is a strange and peculiar sensation experienced in recovering from a state of insensibility which is almost indescribable: a sort of dreamy, confused consciousness; a half-waking, half-sleeping condition, accompanied with a feeling of weariness, which, however, is by no means disagreeable. As I slowly recovered, and heard the voice of Peterkin inquiring whether I felt better, I thought that I must have overslept myself, and should be sent to the masthead for being lazy; but before I could leap up in haste, the thought seemed to vanish suddenly away, and I fancied that I must have been ill. Then a balmy breeze fanned my cheek; and I thought of home, and the garden at the back of my father’s cottage with its luxuriant flowers, and the sweet-scented honeysuckle that my dear mother trained so carefully upon the trellised porch. But the roaring of the surf put these delightful thoughts to flight, and I was back again at sea, watching the dolphins and the flying-fish, and reefing topsails off the wild and stormy Cape Horn. Gradually the roar of the surf became louder and more distinct. I thought of being wrecked far, far away from my native land, and slowly opened my eyes to meet those of my companion Jack, who, with a look of intense anxiety, was gazing into my face.

“Speak to us, my dear Ralph!” whispered Jack tenderly. “Are you better now?”

I smiled and looked up, saying, “Better! Why, what do you mean, Jack? I’m quite well.”

“Then what are you shamming for, and frightening us in this way?” said Peterkin, smiling through his tears; for the poor boy had been really under the impression that I was dying.

I now raised myself on my elbow, and putting my hand to my forehead, found that it had been cut pretty severely, and that I had lost a good deal of blood.

“Come, come, Ralph,” said Jack, pressing me gently backward, “lie down, my boy; you’re not right yet. Wet your lips with this water; it’s cool and clear as crystal. I got it from a spring close at hand. There, now, don’t say a word — hold your tongue,” he said, seeing me about to speak. “I’ll tell you all about it, but you must not utter a syllable till you have rested well.”

“Oh, don’t stop him from speaking, Jack!” said Peterkin, who, now that his fears for my safety were removed, busied himself in erecting a shelter of broken branches in order to protect me from the wind — which, however, was almost unnecessary, for the rock beside which I had been laid completely broke the force of the gale. “Let him speak, Jack; it’s a comfort to hear that he’s alive after lying there stiff and white and sulky for a whole hour, just like an Egyptian mummy. — Never saw such a fellow as you are, Ralph — always up to mischief. You’ve almost knocked out all my teeth and more than half-choked me, and now you go shamming dead! It’s very wicked of you, indeed it is.”

While Peterkin ran on in this style my faculties became quite clear again, and I began to understand my position. “What do you mean by saying I half-choked you, Peterkin?” said I.

“What do I mean? Is English not your mother-tongue? or do you want me to repeat it in French by way of making it clearer? Don’t you remember?”

“I remember nothing,” said I, interrupting him, “after we were thrown into the sea.”

“Hush, Peterkin!” said Jack; “you’re exciting Ralph with your nonsense. — I’ll explain it to you. You recollect that, after the ship struck, we three sprang over the bow into the sea? Well, I noticed that the oar struck your head and gave you that cut on the brow which nearly stunned you, so that you grasped Peterkin round the neck without knowing apparently what you were about. In doing so, you pushed the telescope — which you clung to as if it had been your life — against Peterkin’s mouth —”

“Pushed it against his mouth!” interrupted Peterkin; “say crammed it down his throat! Why, there’s a distinct mark of the brass rim on the back of my gullet at this moment!”

“Well, well, be that as it may,” continued Jack, “you clung to him, Ralph, till I feared you really would choke him. But I saw that he had a good hold of the oar; so I exerted myself to the utmost to push you towards the shore, which we luckily reached without much trouble, for the water inside the reef is quite calm.”

“But the captain and crew, what of them?” I inquired anxiously.

Jack shook his head.

“Are they lost?”

“No, they are not lost, I hope; but, I fear, there is not much chance of their being saved. The ship struck at the very tail of the island on which we are cast. When the boat was tossed into the sea it fortunately did not upset, although it shipped a good deal of water, and all the men managed to scramble into it; but before they could get the oars out, the gale carried them past the point and away to leeward of the island. After we landed I saw them endeavouring to pull towards us; but as they had only one pair of oars out of the eight that belonged to the boat, and as the wind was blowing right in their teeth, they gradually lost ground. Then I saw them put about and hoist some sort of sail — a blanket, I fancy, for it was too small for the boat — and in half-an-hour they were out of sight.”

“Poor fellows!” I murmured sorrowfully.

“But the more I think about it I’ve better hope of them,” continued Jack in a more cheerful tone. “You see, Ralph, I’ve read a great deal about these South Sea Islands, and I know that in many places they are scattered about in thousands over the sea, so they’re almost sure to fall in with one of them before long.”

“I’m sure I hope so,” said Peterkin earnestly. “But what has become of the wreck, Jack? I saw you clambering up the rocks there while I was watching Ralph. Did you say she had gone to pieces?”

“No, she has not gone to pieces; but she has gone to the bottom,” replied Jack. “As I said before, she struck on the tail of the island and stove in her bow; but the next breaker swung her clear, and she floated away to leeward. The poor fellows in the boat made a hard struggle to reach her, but long before they came near her she filled and went down. It was after she had foundered that I saw them trying to pull to the island.”

There was a long silence after Jack had ceased speaking, and I have no doubt that each was revolving in his mind our extraordinary position. For my part, I cannot say that my reflections were very agreeable. I knew that we were on an island, for Jack had said so; but whether it was inhabited or not, I did not know. If it should be inhabited, I felt certain, from all I had heard of South Sea Islanders, that we should be roasted alive and eaten. If it should turn out to be uninhabited, I fancied that we should be starved to death. “Oh,” thought I, “if the ship had only struck on the rocks we might have done pretty well, for we could have obtained provisions from her, and tools to enable us to build a shelter; but now — alas! alas! we are lost!” These last words I uttered aloud in my distress.

“Lost, Ralph!” exclaimed Jack, while a smile overspread his hearty countenance. “Saved, you should have said. Your cogitations seem to have taken a wrong road, and led you to a wrong conclusion.”

“Do you know what conclusion I have come to?” said Peterkin. “I have made up my mind that it’s capital — first-rate — the best thing that ever happened to us, and the most splendid prospect that ever lay before three jolly young tars. We’ve got an island all to ourselves. We’ll take possession in the name of the king. We’ll go and enter the service of its black inhabitants. Of course we’ll rise, naturally, to the top of affairs: white men always do in savage countries. You shall be king, Jack; Ralph, prime minister; and I shall be-”

“The court-jester,” interrupted Jack.

“No,” retorted Peterkin; “I’ll have no title at all. I shall merely accept a highly responsible situation under government; for you see, Jack, I’m fond of having an enormous salary and nothing to do.”

“But suppose there are no natives?”

“Then we’ll build a charming villa, and plant a lovely garden round it, stuck all full of the most splendiferous tropical flowers; and we’ll farm the land, plant, sow, reap, eat, sleep, and be merry.”

“But to be serious,” said Jack, assuming a grave expression of countenance — which, I observed, always had the effect of checking Peterkin’s disposition to make fun of everything —“we are really in rather an uncomfortable position. If this is a desert island, we shall have to live very much like the wild beasts; for we have not a tool of any kind — not even a knife.”

“Yes, we have that,” said Peterkin, fumbling in his trousers pocket, from which he drew forth a small penknife with only one blade, and that was broken.

“Well, that’s better than nothing. — But come,” said Jack, rising; “we are wasting our time in talking instead of doing. — You seem well enough to walk now, Ralph. — Let us see what we have got in our pockets; and then let us climb some hill and ascertain what sort of island we have been cast upon, for, whether good or bad, it seems likely to be our home for some time to come.”

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