Open main menu

The Coral Island/Chapter 18

It was evening before we left the island of the penguins. As we had made up our minds to encamp for the night on a small island whereon grew a few cocoa-nut trees, which was about two miles off, we lay-to our oars with some energy. But a danger was in store for us which we had not anticipated. The wind, which had carried us so quickly to Penguin Island, freshened as evening drew on to a stiff breeze, and before we had made half the distance to the small island, it became a regular gale. Although it was not so directly against us as to prevent our rowing in the course we wished to go, yet it checked us very much; and although the force of the sea was somewhat broken by the island, the waves soon began to rise and to roll their broken crests against our small craft, so that she began to take in water, and we had much ado to keep ourselves afloat. At last the wind and sea together became so violent that we found it impossible to make the island; so Jack suddenly put the head of the boat round, and ordered Peterkin and me to hoist a corner of the sail, intending to run back to Penguin Island.

“We shall at least have the shelter of the bushes,” he said as the boat flew before the wind, “and the penguins will keep us company.”

As Jack spoke, the wind suddenly shifted and blew so much against us that we were forced to hoist more of the sail in order to beat up for the island, being by this change thrown much to leeward of it. What made matters worse was that the gale came in squalls, so that we were more than once nearly upset.

“Stand by, both of you!” cried Jack in a quick, earnest tone. “Be ready to deuce the sail. I very much fear we won’t make the island after all.”

Peterkin and I were so much in the habit of trusting everything to Jack that we had fallen into the way of not considering things, especially such things as were under Jack’s care. We had, therefore, never doubted for a moment that all was going well, so that it was with no little anxiety that we heard him make the above remark. However, we had no time for question or surmise, for at the moment he spoke a heavy squall was bearing down upon us, and as we were then flying with our lee gunwale dipping occasionally under the waves, it was evident that we should have to lower our sail altogether. In a few seconds the squall struck the boat; but Peterkin and I had the sail down in a moment, so that it did not upset us. But when it was past we were more than half-full of water. This I soon bailed out, while Peterkin again hoisted a corner of the sail. But the evil which Jack had feared came upon us. We found it quite impossible to make Penguin Island. The gale carried us quickly past it towards the open sea, and the terrible truth flashed upon us that we should be swept out and left to perish miserably in a small boat in the midst of the wide ocean.

This idea was forced very strongly upon us, because we saw nothing in the direction whither the wind was blowing us save the raging billows of the sea; and indeed we trembled as we gazed around us, for we were now beyond the shelter of the islands, and it seemed as though any of the huge billows, which curled over in masses of foam, might swallow us up in a moment. The water also began to wash in over our sides, and I had to keep constantly bailing; for Jack could not quit the helm, nor Peterkin the sail, for an instant, without endangering our lives. In the midst of this distress Jack uttered an exclamation of hope, and pointed towards a low island or rock which lay directly ahead. It had been hitherto unobserved, owing to the dark clouds that obscured the sky and the blinding spray that seemed to fill the whole atmosphere.

As we neared this rock we observed that it was quite destitute of trees and verdure, and so low that the sea broke completely over it. In fact, it was nothing more than the summit of one of the coral formations, which rose only a few feet above the level of the water, and was, in stormy weather, all but invisible. Over this island the waves were breaking in the utmost fury, and our hearts sank within us as we saw that there was not a spot where we could thrust our little boat without its being dashed to pieces.

“Show a little bit more sail!” cried Jack as we swept past the weather side of the rock with fearful speed.

“Ay, ay!” answered Peterkin, hoisting about a foot more of our sail.

Little though the addition was, it caused the boat to lie over and creak so loudly, as we cleft the foaming waves, that I expected to be upset every instant; and I blamed Jack in my heart for his rashness. But I did him injustice; for although during two seconds the water rushed inboard in a torrent, he succeeded in steering us sharply round to the leeward side of the rock, where the water was comparatively calm and the force of the breeze broken.

“Out your oars now, lads! That’s well done! Give way!” We obeyed instantly. The oars splashed into the waves together. One good, hearty pull, and we were floating in a comparatively calm creek that was so narrow as to be barely able to admit our boat. Here we were in perfect safety, and as we leaped on shore and fastened our cable to the rocks, I thanked God in my heart for our deliverance from so great danger. But although I have said we were now in safety, I suspect that few of my readers would have envied our position. It is true we had no lack of food; but we were drenched to the skin; the sea was foaming round us, and the spray flying over our heads, so that we were completely enveloped, as it were, in water; the spot on which we had landed was not more than twelve yards in diameter, and from this spot we could not move without the risk of being swept away by the storm. At the upper end of the creek was a small hollow or cave in the rock, which sheltered us from the fury of the winds and waves; and as the rock extended in a sort of ledge over our heads, it prevented the spray from falling upon us.

“Why,” said Peterkin, beginning to feel cheery again, “it seems to me that we have got into a mermaid’s cave, for there is nothing but water all round us; and as for earth and sky, they are things of the past.”

Peterkin’s idea was not inappropriate, for what with the sea roaring in white foam up to our very feet, and the spray flying in white sheets continually over our heads, and the water dripping heavily from the ledge above like a curtain in front of our cave, it did seem to us very much more like being below than above water.

“Now, boys,” cried Jack, “bestir yourselves, and let’s make ourselves comfortable.—Toss out our provisions, Peterkin; and here, Ralph, lend a hand to haul up the boat. Look sharp!”

“Ay, ay, captain!” we cried as we hastened to obey, much cheered by the hearty manner of our comrade.

Fortunately the cave, although not very deep, was quite dry, so that we succeeded in making ourselves much more comfortable than could have been expected. We landed our provisions, wrung the water out of our garments, spread our sail below us for a carpet, and after having eaten a hearty meal, began to feel quite cheerful. But as night drew on our spirits sank again, for with the daylight all evidence of our security vanished away. We could no longer see the firm rock on which we lay, while we were stunned with the violence of the tempest that raged around us. The night grew pitchy dark as it advanced, so that we could not see our hands when we held them up before our eyes, and were obliged to feel each other occasionally to make sure that we were safe, for the storm at last became so terrible that it was difficult to make our voices audible. A slight variation of the wind, as we supposed, caused a few drops of spray ever and anon to blow into our faces; and the eddy of the sea, in its mad boiling, washed up into our little creek until it reached our feet and threatened to tear away our boat. In order to prevent this latter calamity, we hauled the boat farther up and held the cable in our hands. Occasional flashes of lightning shone with a ghastly glare through the watery curtains around us, and lent additional horror to the scene. Yet we longed for those dismal flashes, for they were less appalling than the thick blackness that succeeded them. Crashing peals of thunder seemed to tear the skies in twain, and fell upon our ears through the wild yelling of the hurricane as if it had been but a gentle summer breeze; while the billows burst upon the weather side of the island until we fancied that the solid rock was giving way, and in our agony we clung to the bare ground, expecting every moment to be whirled away and whelmed in the black, howling sea. Oh, it was a night of terrible anxiety! and no one can conceive the feelings of intense gratitude and relief with which we at last saw the dawn of day break through the vapoury mists around us.

For three days and three nights we remained on this rock, while the storm continued to rage with unabated fury. On the morning of the fourth day it suddenly ceased, and the wind fell altogether; but the waves still ran so high that we did not dare to put off in our boat. During the greater part of this period we scarcely slept above a few minutes at a time; but on the third night we slept soundly, and awoke early on the fourth morning to find the sea very much down, and the sun shining brightly again in the clear blue sky.

It was with light hearts that we launched forth once more in our little boat and steered away for our island home, which, we were overjoyed to find, was quite visible on the horizon, for we had feared that we had been blown out of sight of it altogether. As it was a dead calm, we had to row during the greater part of the day; but towards the afternoon a fair breeze sprang up, which enabled us to hoist our sail. We soon passed Penguin Island and the other island which we had failed to reach on the day the storm commenced; but as we had still enough of provisions, and were anxious to get home, we did not land—to the great disappointment of Peterkin, who seemed to entertain quite an affection for the penguins.

Although the breeze was pretty fresh for several hours, we did not reach the outer reef of our island till nightfall; and before we had sailed more than a hundred yards into the lagoon, the wind died away altogether, so that we had to take to our oars again. It was late, and the moon and stars were shining brightly when we arrived opposite the bower and leaped upon the strand. So glad were we to be safe back again on our beloved island that we scarcely took time to drag the boat a short way up the beach, and then ran up to see that all was right at the bower. I must confess, however, that my joy was mingled with a vague sort of fear lest our home had been visited and destroyed during our absence; but on reaching it we found everything just as it had been left, and the poor black cat curled up, sound asleep, on the coral table in front of our humble dwelling.