The Coral Island, by R. M. Ballantyne

Chapter Nine.

Prepare for a Journey Round the Island — Sagacious Reflections — Mysterious Appearances and Startling Occurrences.

Scarcely had the sun shot its first ray across the bosom of the broad Pacific when Jack sprang to his feet, and hallooing in Peterkin’s ear to awaken him, ran down the beach to take his customary dip in the sea. We did not, as was our wont, bathe that morning in our Water Garden, but in order to save time, refreshed ourselves in the shallow water just opposite the bower. Our breakfast was also despatched without loss of time, and in less than an hour afterwards all our preparations for the journey were completed.

In addition to his ordinary dress, Jack tied a belt of cocoa-nut cloth round his waist, into which he thrust the axe. I was also advised to put on a belt and carry a short cudgel or bludgeon in it, for, as Jack truly remarked, the sling would be of little use if we should chance to come to close quarters with any wild animal. As for Peterkin, notwithstanding that he carried such a long and, I must add, frightful-looking spear over his shoulder, we could not prevail on him to leave his club behind; “for,” said he, “a spear at close quarters is not worth a button.” I must say that it seemed to me that the club was, to use his own style of language, not worth a button-hole; for it was all knotted over at the head, something like the club which I remember to have observed in picture-books of Jack the Giant-killer, besides being so heavy that he required to grasp it with both hands in order to wield it at all. However, he took it with him, and in this manner we set out upon our travels.

We did not consider it necessary to carry any food with us, as we knew that wherever we went we should be certain to fall in with cocoa-nut trees — having which we were amply supplied, as Peterkin said, with meat and drink and pocket-handkerchiefs! I took the precaution, however, to put the burning-glass into my pocket lest we should want fire.

The morning was exceedingly lovely. It was one of that very still and peaceful sort which made the few noises that we heard seem to be quiet noises (I know no other way of expressing this idea)— noises which, so far from interrupting the universal tranquillity of earth, sea, and sky, rather tended to reveal to us how quiet the world round us really was. Such sounds as I refer to were the peculiar, melancholy — yet, it seemed to me, cheerful — plaint of sea-birds floating on the glassy waters or sailing in the sky; also the subdued twittering of little birds among the bushes, the faint ripples on the beach, and the solemn boom of the surf upon the distant coral reef. We felt very glad in our hearts as we walked along the sands, side by side. For my part, I felt so deeply overjoyed that I was surprised at my own sensations, and fell into a reverie upon the causes of happiness. I came to the conclusion that a state of profound peace and repose, both in regard to outward objects and within the soul, is the happiest condition in which man can be placed; for although I had many a time been most joyful and happy when engaged in bustling, energetic, active pursuits or amusements, I never found that such joy or satisfaction was so deep or so pleasant to reflect upon as that which I now experienced. And I was the more confirmed in this opinion when I observed — and, indeed, as told by himself — that Peterkin’s happiness was also very great; yet he did not express this by dancing, as was his wont, nor did he give so much as a single shout, but walked quietly between us with his eye sparkling and a joyful smile upon his countenance. My reader must not suppose that I thought all this in the clear and methodical manner in which I have set it down here. These thoughts did indeed pass through my mind; but they did so in a very confused and indefinite manner, for I was young at that time and not much given to deep reflections. Neither did I consider that the peace whereof I write is not to be found in this world — at least in its perfection — although I have since learned that, by religion, a man may attain to a very great degree of it.

I have said that Peterkin walked along the sands between us. We had two ways of walking together about our island. When we travelled through the woods we always did so in single file, as by this method we advanced with greater facility, the one treading in the other’s footsteps. In such cases Jack always took the lead, Peterkin followed, and I brought up the rear. But when we travelled along the sands, which extended almost in an unbroken line of glistening white round the island, we marched abreast, as we found this method more sociable and every way more pleasant. Jack, being the tallest, walked next the sea, and Peterkin marched between us, as by this arrangement either of us could talk to him or he to us, while if Jack and I happened to wish to converse together we could conveniently do so over Peterkin’s head. Peterkin used to say, in reference to this arrangement, that had he been as tall as either of us, our order of march might have been the same; for, as Jack often used to scold him for letting everything we said to him pass in at one ear and out at the other, his head could, of course, form no interruption to our discourse.

We were now fairly started. Half-a-mile’s walk conveyed us round a bend in the land which shut out our bower from view, and for some time we advanced at a brisk pace without speaking, though our eyes were not idle, but noted everything — in the woods, on the shore, or in the sea — that was interesting. After passing the ridge of land that formed one side of our valley — the Valley of the Wreck — we beheld another small vale lying before us in all the luxuriant loveliness of tropical vegetation. We had indeed seen it before from the mountain-top, but we had no idea that it would turn out to be so much more lovely when we were close to it. We were about to commence the exploration of this valley when Peterkin stopped us, and directed our attention to a very remarkable appearance in advance along the shore.

“What’s yon, think you?” said he, levelling his spear as if he expected an immediate attack from the object in question, though it was full half-a-mile distant.

As he spoke, there appeared a white column above the rocks, as if of steam or spray. It rose upwards to a height of several feet, and then disappeared. Had this been near the sea, we would not have been so greatly surprised, as it might in that case have been the surf, for at this part of the coast the coral reef approached so near to the island that in some parts it almost joined it. There was, therefore, no lagoon between, and the heavy surf of the ocean beat almost up to the rocks. But this white column appeared about fifty yards inland. The rocks at the place were rugged, and they stretched across the sandy beach into the sea. Scarce had we ceased expressing our surprise at this sight when another column flew upwards for a few seconds, not far from the spot where the first had been seen, and disappeared; and so, at long, irregular intervals, these strange sights recurred. We were now quite sure that the columns were watery, or composed of spray; but what caused them we could not guess, so we determined to go and see.

In a few minutes we gained the spot, which was very rugged and precipitous, and, moreover, quite damp with the falling of the spray. We had much ado to pass over dry-shod. The ground, also, was full of holes here and there. Now, while we stood anxiously waiting for the reappearance of these waterspouts, we heard a low, rumbling sound near us, which quickly increased to a gurgling and hissing noise, and a moment afterwards a thick spout of water burst upwards from a hole in the rock and spouted into the air with much violence, and so close to where Jack and I were standing that it nearly touched us. We sprang aside, but not before a cloud of spray descended and drenched us both to the skin.

Peterkin, who was standing farther off; escaped with a few drops, and burst into an uncontrollable fit of laughter on beholding our miserable plight.

“Mind your eye!” he shouted eagerly; “there goes another!” The words were scarcely out of his mouth when there came up a spout from another hole, which served us exactly in the same manner as before.

Peterkin now shrieked with laughter; but his merriment was abruptly put a stop to by the gurgling noise occurring close to where he stood.

“Where’ll it spout this time, I wonder?” he said, looking about with some anxiety and preparing to run. Suddenly there came a loud hiss or snort; a fierce spout of water burst up between Peterkin’s legs, blew him off his feet, enveloped him in its spray, and hurled him to the ground. He fell with so much violence that we feared he must have broken some of his bones, and ran anxiously to his assistance; but fortunately he had fallen on a clump of tangled herbage, in which he lay sprawling in a most deplorable condition.

It was now our turn to laugh; but as we were not yet quite sure that he was unhurt, and as we knew not when or where the next spout might arise, we assisted him hastily to jump up and hurry from the spot.

I may here add that, although I am quite certain that the spout of water was very strong, and that it blew Peterkin completely off his legs, I am not quite certain of the exact height to which it lifted him, being somewhat startled by the event, and blinded partially by the spray, so that my power of observation was somewhat impaired for the moment.

“What’s to be done now?” asked Peterkin ruefully.

“Make a fire, lad, and dry ourselves,” replied Jack.

“And here is material ready to our hand,” said I, picking up a dried branch of a tree as we hurried up to the woods.

In about an hour after this mishap our clothes were again dried. While they were hanging up before the fire we walked down to the beach, and soon observed that these curious spouts took place immediately after the fall of a huge wave, never before it; and, moreover, that the spouts did not take place excepting when the billow was an extremely large one. From this we concluded that there must be a subterraneous channel in the rock into which the water was driven by the larger waves, and finding no way of escape except through these small holes, was thus forced up violently through them. At any rate, we could not conceive any other reason for these strange waterspouts, and as this seemed a very simple and probable one, we forthwith adopted it.

“I say, Ralph, what’s that in the water? Is it a shark?” said Jack just as we were about to quit the place.

I immediately ran to the overhanging ledge of rock, from which he was looking down into the sea, and bent over it. There I saw a very faint, pale object of a greenish colour, which seemed to move slightly while I looked at it.

“It’s like a fish of some sort,” said I.

“Hallo, Peterkin!” cried Jack. “Fetch your spear; here’s work for it!”

But when we tried to reach the object, the spear proved to be too short.

“There, now,” said Peterkin with a sneer; “you were always telling me it was too long.”

Jack now drove the spear forcibly towards the object, and let go his hold. But although it seemed to be well aimed, he must have missed, for the handle soon rose again; and when the spear was drawn up, there was the pale-green object in exactly the same spot, slowly moving its tail.

“Very odd!” said Jack.

But although it was undoubtedly very odd, and although Jack and all of us plunged the spear at it repeatedly, we could neither hit it nor drive it away, so we were compelled to continue our journey without discovering what it was. I was very much perplexed at this strange appearance in the water, and could not get it out of my mind for a long time afterwards. However, I quieted myself by resolving that I would pay a visit to it again at some more convenient season.

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