The Coral Island, by R. M. Ballantyne

Chapter Eight.

The Beauties of the Bottom of the Sea Tempt Peterkin to Dive — How he Did it — More Difficulties Overcome — The Water Garden — Curious Creatures of the Sea — The Tank — Candles Missed Very Much, and the Candle-Nut Tree Discovered — Wonderful Account of Peterkin’s First Voyage — Cloth Found Growing on a Tree — A Plan Projected, and Arms Prepared for Offence and Defence — A Dreadful Cry.

Our encounter with the shark was the first great danger that had befallen us since landing on this island; and we felt very seriously affected by it, especially when we considered that we had so often unwittingly incurred the same danger before while bathing. We were now forced to take to fishing again in the shallow water until we should succeed in constructing a raft. What troubled us most, however, was that we were compelled to forego our morning swimming-excursions. We did, indeed, continue to enjoy our bathe in the shallow water; but Jack and I found that one great source of our enjoyment was gone when we could no longer dive down among the beautiful coral groves at the bottom of the lagoon. We had come to be so fond of this exercise, and to take such an interest in watching the formations of coral and the gambols of the many beautiful fish amongst the forest of red and green seaweeds, that we had become quite familiar with the appearance of the fish and the localities that they chiefly haunted. We had also become expert divers. But we made it a rule never to stay long under water at a time. Jack told me that to do so often was bad for the lungs, and instead of affording us enjoyment, would ere long do us a serious injury. So we never stayed at the bottom as long as we might have done, but came up frequently to the top for fresh air, and dived down again immediately. Sometimes, when Jack happened to be in a humorous frame, he would seat himself at the bottom of the sea on one of the brain-corals, as if he were seated on a large paddock-stool, and then make faces at me in order, if possible, to make me laugh under water. At first, when he took me unawares, he nearly succeeded, and I had to shoot to the surface in order to laugh; but afterwards I became aware of his intentions, and being naturally of a grave disposition, I had no difficulty in restraining myself. I used often to wonder how poor Peterkin would have liked to be with us; and he sometimes expressed much regret at being unable to join us. I used to do my best to gratify him, poor fellow, by relating all the wonders that we saw; but this, instead of satisfying, seemed only to whet his curiosity the more, so one day we prevailed on him to try to go down with us. But although a brave boy in every other way, Peterkin was very nervous in the water; and it was with difficulty we got him to consent to be taken down, for he could never have managed to push himself down to the bottom without assistance. But no sooner had we pulled him down a yard or so into the deep, clear water than he began to struggle and kick violently; so we were forced to let him go, when he rose out of the water like a cork, gave a loud gasp and a frightful roar, and struck out for the land with the utmost possible haste.

Now all this pleasure we were to forego, and when we thought thereon, Jack and I felt very much depressed in our spirits. I could see, also, that Peterkin grieved and sympathised with us; for, when talking about this matter, he refrained from jesting and bantering us upon it.

As, however, a man’s difficulties usually set him upon devising methods to overcome them, whereby he often discovers better things than those he may have lost, so this our difficulty induced us to think of searching for a large pool among the rocks, where the water should be deep enough for diving, yet so surrounded by rocks as to prevent sharks from getting at us. And such a pool we afterwards found, which proved to be very much better than our most sanguine hopes anticipated. It was situated not more than ten minutes’ walk from our camp, and was in the form of a small, deep bay or basin, the entrance to which, besides being narrow, was so shallow that no fish so large as a shark could get in-at least, not unless he should be a remarkably thin one.

Inside of this basin, which we called our Water Garden, the coral formations were much more wonderful, and the seaweed plants far more lovely and vividly coloured, than in the lagoon itself. And the water was so clear and still that, although very deep, you could see the minutest object at the bottom. Besides this, there was a ledge of rock which overhung the basin at its deepest part, from which we could dive pleasantly, and whereon Peterkin could sit and see not only all the wonders I had described to him, but also see Jack and me creeping amongst the marine shrubbery at the bottom, like — as he expressed it —“two great white sea-monsters.” During these excursions of ours to the bottom of the sea we began to get an insight into the manners and customs of its inhabitants, and to make discoveries of wonderful things, the like of which we never before conceived. Among other things, we were deeply interested with the operations of the little coral insect, which, I was informed by Jack, is supposed to have entirely constructed many of the numerous islands in the Pacific Ocean. And certainly, when we considered the great reef which these insects had formed round the island on which we were cast, and observed their ceaseless activity in building their myriad cells, it did at first seem as if this might be true; but then, again, when I looked at the mountains of the island, and reflected that there were thousands of such (many of them much higher) in the South Seas, I doubted that there must be some mistake here. But more of this hereafter.

I also became much taken up with the manners and appearance of the anemones, and starfish, and crabs, and sea-urchins, and such-like creatures; and was not content with watching those I saw during my dives in the Water Garden, but I must needs scoop out a hole in the coral rock close to it, which I filled with salt water, and stocked with sundry specimens of anemones and shell-fish, in order to watch more closely how they were in the habit of passing their time. Our burning-glass, also, now became a great treasure to me, as it enabled me to magnify, and so to perceive more clearly, the forms and actions of these curious creatures of the deep.

Having now got ourselves into a very comfortable condition, we began to talk of a project which we had long had in contemplation — namely, to travel entirely round the island, in order, first, to ascertain whether it contained any other productions which might be useful to us; and, second, to see whether there might be any place more convenient and suitable for our permanent residence than that on which we were now encamped. Not that we were in any degree dissatisfied with it. On the contrary, we entertained quite a home-feeling to our bower and its neighbourhood; but if a better place did exist, there was no reason why we should not make use of it. At any rate, it would be well to know of its existence.

We had much earnest talk over this matter. But Jack proposed that, before undertaking such an excursion, we should supply ourselves with good defensive arms; for, as we intended not only to go round all the shore, but to descend most of the valleys, before returning home, we should be likely to meet in with — he would not say dangers— but at least with everything that existed on the island, whatever that might be.

“Besides,” said Jack, “it won’t do for us to live on cocoa-nuts and oysters always. No doubt they are very excellent in their way, but I think a little animal food now and then would be agreeable as well as good for us; and as there are many small birds among the trees, some of which are probably very good to eat, I think it would be a capital plan to make bows and arrows, with which we could easily knock them over.”

“First-rate!” cried Peterkin. “You will make the bows, Jack, and I’ll try my hand at the arrows. The fact is, I’m quite tired of throwing stones at the birds. I began the very day we landed, I think, and have persevered up to the present time, but I’ve never hit anything yet.”

“You forget,” said I, “you hit me one day on the shin.”

“Ah, true!” replied Peterkin; “and a precious shindy you kicked up in consequence. But you were at least four yards away from the impudent paroquet I aimed at, so you see what a horribly bad shot I am.”

“But, Jack,” said I, “you cannot make three bows and arrows before tomorrow; and would it not be a pity to waste time, now that we have made up our minds to go on this expedition? — Suppose that you make one bow and arrow for yourself, and we can take our clubs?”

“That’s true, Ralph. The day is pretty far advanced, and I doubt if I can make even one bow before dark. To be sure, I might work by firelight after the sun goes down.”

We had, up to this time, been in the habit of going to bed with the sun, as we had no pressing call to work o’ nights; and, indeed, our work during the day was usually hard enough — what between fishing, and improving our bower, and diving in the Water Garden, and rambling in the woods — so that when night came we were usually very glad to retire to our beds. But now that we had a desire to work at night, we felt a wish for candles.

“Won’t a good blazing fire give you light enough?” inquired Peterkin.

“Yes,” replied Jack, “quite enough; but then it will give us a great deal more than enough of heat in this warm climate of ours.”

“True,” said Peterkin; “I forgot that. It would roast us.”

“Well, as you’re always doing that at any rate,” remarked Jack, “we could scarcely call it a change. But the fact is, I’ve been thinking over this subject before. There is a certain nut growing in these islands which is called the candle-nut, because the natives use it instead of candles; and I know all about it, and how to prepare it for burning —”

“Then why don’t you do it?” interrupted Peterkin. “Why have you kept us in the dark so long, you vile philosopher?”

“Because,” said Jack, “I have not seen the tree yet, and I’m not sure that I should know either the tree or the nuts if I did see them. You see, I forget the description.”

“Ah! that’s just the way with me,” said Peterkin with a deep sigh. “I never could keep in my mind for half-an-hour the few descriptions I ever attempted to remember. The very first voyage I ever made was caused by my mistaking a description — or forgetting it, which is the same thing. And a horrible voyage it was. I had to fight with the captain the whole way out, and made the homeward voyage by swimming!”

“Come, Peterkin,” said I, “you can’t get even me to believe that.”

“Perhaps not, but it’s true notwithstanding,” returned Peterkin, pretending to be hurt at my doubting his word.

“Let us hear how it happened,” said Jack, while a good-natured smile overspread his face.

“Well, you must know,” began Peterkin, “that the very day before I went to sea I was greatly taken up with a game at hockey, which I was playing with my old school-fellows for the last time before leaving them. — You see I was young then, Ralph.” Peterkin gazed, in an abstracted and melancholy manner, out to sea. —“Well, in the midst of the game, my uncle, who had taken all the bother and trouble of getting me bound ‘prentice and rigged out, came and took me aside, and told me that he was called suddenly away from home, and would not be able to see me aboard, as he had intended. ‘However,’ said he, ‘the captain knows you are coming, so that’s not of much consequence; but as you’ll have to find the ship yourself, you must remember her name and description. D’ye hear, boy?’ I certainly did hear, but I’m afraid I did not understand; for my mind was so taken up with the game, which I saw my side was losing, that I began to grow impatient, and the moment my uncle finished his description of the ship and bade me good-bye I bolted back to my game, with only a confused idea of three masts, and a green-painted taffrail, and a gilt figurehead of Hercules with his club at the bow. Next day I was so much cast down with everybody saying good-bye, and a lot o’ my female friends cryin’ horribly over me, that I did not start for the harbour, where the ship was lying among a thousand others, till it was almost too late. So I had to run the whole way. When I reached the pier, there were so many masts, and so much confusion, that I felt quite humble-bumbled in my faculties. ‘Now,’ said I to myself, ‘Peterkin, you’re in a fix.’ Then I fancied I saw a gilt figurehead and three masts belonging to a ship just about to start; so I darted on board, but speedily jumped on shore again when I found that two of the masts belonged to another vessel and the figurehead to a third! At last I caught sight of what I made sure was it — a fine large vessel just casting off her moorings. The taffrail was green. Three masts — yes, that must be it — and the gilt figurehead of Hercules. To be sure, it had a three-pronged pitchfork in its hand instead of a club; but that might be my uncle’s mistake, or perhaps Hercules sometimes varied his weapons. ‘Cast off!’ roared a voice from the quarter-deck. ‘Hold on!’ cried I, rushing frantically through the crowd. ‘Hold on! hold on!’ repeated some of the bystanders, while the men at the ropes delayed for a minute. This threw the captain into a frightful rage; for some of his friends had come down to see him off, and having his orders contradicted so flatly was too much for him. However, the delay was sufficient. I took a race and a good leap; the ropes were cast off; the steam-tug gave a puff, and we started. Suddenly the captain walks up to me: ‘Where did you come from, you scamp, and what do you want here?’

“‘Please, sir,’ said I, touching my cap, ‘I’m your new ‘prentice come aboard.’

“‘New ‘prentice!’ said he, stamping; ‘I’ve got no new ‘prentice. My boys are all aboard already. This is a trick, you young blackguard! You’ve run away, you have!’ And the captain stamped about the deck and swore dreadfully; for, you see, the thought of having to stop the ship and lower a boat and lose half-an-hour, all for the sake of sending a small boy ashore, seemed to make him very angry. Besides, it was blowin’ fresh outside the harbour, so that to have let the steamer alongside to put me into it was no easy job. Just as we were passing the pier-head, where several boats were rowing into the harbour, the captain came up to me.

“‘You’ve run away, you blackguard!’ he said, giving me a box on the ear.

“‘No, I haven’t!’ said I angrily, for the box was by no means a light one.

“‘Hark’ee, boy, can you swim?’

“‘Yes,’ said I.

“‘Then do it!’ and seizing me by my trousers and the nape of my neck, he tossed me over the side into the sea. The fellows in the boats at the end of the pier backed their oars on seeing this; but observing that I could swim, they allowed me to make the best of my way to the pier-head. — So you see, Ralph, that I really did swim my first homeward voyage.”

Jack laughed, and patted Peterkin on the shoulder.

“But tell us about the candle-nut tree,” said I. “You were talking about it.”

“Very true,” said Jack; “but I fear I can remember little about it. I believe the nut is about the size of a walnut; and I think that the leaves are white, but I am not sure.”

“Eh! ha! hum!” exclaimed Peterkin; “I saw a tree answering to that description this very day.”

“Did you?” cried Jack. “Is it far from this?”

“No, not half-a-mile.”

“Then lead me to it,” said Jack, seizing his axe.

In a few minutes we were all three pushing through the underwood of the forest, headed by Peterkin.

We soon came to the tree in question, which, after Jack had closely examined it, we concluded must be the candle-nut tree. Its leaves were of a beautiful silvery white, and formed a fine contrast to the dark-green foliage of the surrounding trees. We immediately filled our pockets with the nuts, after which Jack said:

“Now, Peterkin, climb that cocoa-nut tree and cut me one of the long branches.”

This was soon done; but it cost some trouble, for the stem was very high, and as Peterkin usually pulled nuts from the younger trees, he was not much accustomed to climbing the high ones. The leaf or branch was a very large one, and we were surprised at its size and strength. Viewed from a little distance, the cocoa-nut tree seems to be a tall, straight stem, without a single branch except at the top, where there is a tuft of feathery-looking leaves that seem to wave like soft plumes in the wind. But when we saw one of these leaves or branches at our feet, we found it to be a strong stalk, about fifteen feet long, with a number of narrow, pointed leaflets ranged alternately on each side. But what seemed to us the most wonderful thing about it was a curious substance resembling cloth, which was wrapped round the thick end of the stalk where it had been cut from the tree. Peterkin told us that he had the greatest difficulty in separating the branch from the stem on account of this substance, as it was wrapped quite round the tree, and, he observed, round all the other branches, thus forming a strong support to the large leaves while exposed to high winds. When I call this substance cloth I do not exaggerate. Indeed, with regard to all the things I saw during my eventful career in the South Seas, I have been exceedingly careful not to exaggerate, or in any way to mislead or deceive my readers. This cloth, I say, was remarkably like to coarse brown cotton cloth. It had a seam or fibre down the centre of it, from which diverged other fibres, about the size of a bristle. There were two layers of these fibres, very long and tough, the one layer crossing the other obliquely, and the whole was cemented together with a still finer fibrous and adhesive substance. When we regarded it attentively, we could with difficulty believe that it had not been woven by human hands. This remarkable piece of cloth we stripped carefully off, and found it to be above two feet long by a foot broad, and we carried it home with us as a great prize.

Jack now took one of the leaflets, and cutting out the central spine or stalk, hurried back with it to our camp. Having made a small fire, he baked the nuts slightly and then peeled off the husks. After this he wished to bore a hole in them, which, not having anything better at hand at the time, he did with the point of our useless pencil-case. Then he strung them on the cocoa-nut spine, and on putting a light to the topmost nut we found, to our joy, that it burned with a clear, beautiful flame, upon seeing which Peterkin sprang up and danced round the fire for at least five minutes in the excess of his satisfaction.

“Now, lads,” said Jack, extinguishing our candle, “the sun will set in an hour, so we have no time to lose. I shall go and cut a young tree to make my bow out of, and you had better each of you go and select good strong sticks for clubs, and we’ll set to work at them after dark.”

So saying, he shouldered his axe and went off; followed by Peterkin; while I took up the piece of newly discovered cloth, and fell to examining its structure. So engrossed was I in this that I was still sitting in the same attitude and occupation when my companions returned.

“I told you so!” cried Peterkin with a loud laugh. —“Oh Ralph, you’re incorrigible! See, there’s a club for you. I was sure, when we left you looking at that bit of stuff, that we would find you poring over it when we came back, so I just cut a club for you as well as for myself.”

“Thank you, Peterkin,” said I. “It was kind of you to do that instead of scolding me for a lazy fellow, as I confess I deserve.”

“Oh, as to that,” returned Peterkin, “I’ll blow you up yet if you wish it; only it would be of no use if I did, for you’re a perfect mule!”

As it was now getting dark we lighted our candle, and placing it in a holder made of two crossing branches inside of our bower, we seated ourselves on our leafy beds and began to work.

“I intend to appropriate the bow for my own use,” said Jack, chipping the piece of wood he had brought with his axe. “I used to be a pretty fair shot once. — But what’s that you’re doing?” he added, looking at Peterkin, who had drawn the end of a long pole into the tent, and was endeavouring to fit a small piece of the hoop-iron to the end of it.

“I’m going to enlist into the Lancers,” answered Peterkin. “You see, Jack, I find the club rather an unwieldy instrument for my delicately formed muscles, and I flatter myself I shall do more execution with a spear.”

“Well, if length constitutes power,” said Jack, “you’ll certainly be invincible.”

The pole which Peterkin had cut was full twelve feet long, being a very strong but light and tough young tree, which merely required thinning at the butt to be a serviceable weapon.

“That’s a very good idea,” said I.

“Which — this?” inquired Peterkin, pointing to the spear.

“Yes,” I replied.

“Humph!” said he; “you’d find it a pretty tough and matter-of-fact idea if you had it stuck through your gizzard, old boy!”

“I mean the idea of making it is a good one,” said I, laughing. “And, now I think of it, I’ll change my plan too. I don’t think much of a club, so I’ll make me a sling out of this piece of cloth. I used to be very fond of slinging, ever since I read of David slaying Goliath the Philistine, and I was once thought to be expert at it.”

So I set to work to manufacture a sling. For a long time we all worked very busily without speaking. At length Peterkin looked up. “I say, Jack, I’m sorry to say I must apply to you for another strip of your handkerchief to tie on this rascally head with. It’s pretty well torn at any rate, so you won’t miss it.”

Jack proceeded to comply with this request, when Peterkin suddenly laid his hand on his arm and arrested him.

“Hist, man!” said he; “be tender! You should never be needlessly cruel if you can help it. Do try to shave past Lord Nelson’s mouth without tearing it, if possible! Thanks. There are plenty more handkerchiefs on the cocoa-nut trees.”

Poor Peterkin! with what pleasant feelings I recall and record his jests and humorous sayings now!

While we were thus engaged we were startled by a distant, but most strange and horrible, cry. It seemed to come from the sea, but was so far away that we could not clearly distinguish its precise direction. Rushing out of our bower, we hastened down to the beach and stayed to listen. Again it came, quite loud and distinct on the night air — a prolonged, hideous cry, something like the braying of an ass. The moon had risen, and we could see the islands in and beyond the lagoon quite plainly; but there was no object visible to account for such a cry. A strong gust of wind was blowing from the point whence the sound came, but this died away while we were gazing out to sea.

“What can it be?” said Peterkin in a low whisper, while we all involuntarily crept closer to each other.

“Do you know,” said Jack, “I have heard that mysterious sound twice before, but never so loud as to-night. Indeed, it was so faint that I thought I must have merely fancied it; so, as I did not wish to alarm you, I said nothing about it.”

We listened for a long time for the sound again; but as it did not come, we returned to the bower and resumed our work.

“Very strange!” said Peterkin quite gravely. —“Do you believe in ghosts, Ralph?”

“No,” I answered, “I do not. Nevertheless, I must confess that strange, unaccountable sounds, such as we have just heard, make me feel a little uneasy.”

“What say you to it, Jack?”

“I neither believe in ghosts nor feel uneasy,” he replied. “I never saw a ghost myself, and I never met with any one who had; and I have generally found that strange and unaccountable things have almost always been accounted for, and found to be quite simple, on close examination. I certainly can’t imagine what that sound is; but I’m quite sure I shall find out before long, and if it’s a ghost I’ll — I’ll —”

“Eat it!” cried Peterkin.

“Yes, I’ll eat it! — Now, then, my bow and two arrows are finished; so, if you’re ready, we had better turn in.”

By this time Peterkin had thinned down his spear, and tied an iron point very cleverly to the end of it; I had formed a sling, the lines of which were composed of thin strips of the cocoa-nut cloth, plaited; and Jack had made a stout bow, nearly five feet long, with two arrows, feathered with two or three large plumes which some bird had dropped. They had no barbs; but Jack said that if arrows were well feathered they did not require iron points, but would fly quite well if merely sharpened at the point, which I did not know before.

“A feathered arrow without a barb,” said he, “is a good weapon, but a barbed arrow without feathers is utterly useless.”

The string of the bow was formed of our piece of whip-cord, part of which, as he did not like to cut it, was rolled round the bow.

Although thus prepared for a start on the morrow we thought it wise to exercise ourselves a little in the use of our weapons before starting, so we spent the whole of the next day in practising. And it was well we did so, for we found that our arms were very imperfect, and that we were far from perfect in the use of them. First, Jack found that the bow was much too strong, and he had to thin it. Also the spear was much too heavy, and so had to be reduced in thickness, although nothing would induce Peterkin to have it shortened. My sling answered very well; but I had fallen so much out of practice that my first stone knocked off Peterkin’s hat, and narrowly missed making a second Goliath of him. However, after having spent the whole day in diligent practice, we began to find some of our former expertness returning, at least Jack and I did. As for Peterkin, being naturally a neat-handed boy, he soon handled his spear well, and could run full tilt at a cocoa-nut, and hit it with great precision once out of every five times.

But I feel satisfied that we owed much of our rapid success to the unflagging energy of Jack, who insisted that since we had made him captain, we should obey him; and he kept us at work from morning till night, perseveringly, at the same thing. Peterkin wished very much to run about and stick his spear into everything he passed; but Jack put up a cocoa-nut, and would not let him leave off running at that for a moment except when he wanted to rest. We laughed at Jack for this, but we were both convinced that it did us much good.

That night we examined and repaired our arms ere we lay down to rest, although we were much fatigued, in order that we might be in readiness to set out on our expedition at daylight on the following morning.

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