The Coral Island/Chapter 22
My heart seemed to leap into my throat at the words; and turning round, I beheld a man of immense stature and fierce aspect regarding me with a smile of contempt. He was a white man—that is to say, he was a man of European blood, though his face, from long exposure to the weather, was deeply bronzed. His dress was that of a common seaman, except that he had on a Greek skull-cap, and wore a broad shawl of the richest silk round his waist. In this shawl were placed two pairs of pistols and a heavy cutlass. He wore a beard and moustache, which, like the locks on his head, were short, curly, and sprinkled with grey hairs.
“So, youngster,” he said with a sardonic smile, while I felt his grasp tighten on my shoulder, “the villains have been balked of their prey, have they? We shall see—we shall see. Now, you whelp, look yonder!” As he spoke, the pirate uttered a shrill whistle. In a second or two it was answered, and the pirate boat rowed round the point at the Water Garden and came rapidly towards us. “Now, go make a fire on that point; and hark’ee, youngster, if you try to run away I’ll send a quick and sure messenger after you,” and he pointed significantly at his pistols.
I obeyed in silence; and as I happened to have the burning-glass in my pocket, a fire was speedily kindled, and a thick smoke ascended into the air. It had scarcely appeared for two minutes when the boom of a gun rolled over the sea, and looking up, I saw that the schooner was making for the island again. It now flashed across me that this was a ruse on the part of the pirates, and that they had sent their vessel away, knowing that it would lead us to suppose that they had left altogether. But there was no use of regret now. I was completely in their power; so I stood helplessly beside the pirate, watching the crew of the boat as they landed on the beach. For an instant I contemplated rushing over the cliff into the sea; but this, I saw, I could not now accomplish, as some of the men were already between me and the water.
There was a good deal of jesting at the success of their scheme, as the crew ascended the rocks and addressed the man who had captured me by the title of “Captain”. They were a ferocious set of men, with shaggy beards and scowling brows. All of them were armed with cutlasses and pistols, and their costumes were, with trifling variations, similar to that of the captain. As I looked from one to the other, and observed the low, scowling brows that never unbent even when the men laughed, and the mean, rascally expression that sat on each face, I felt that my life hung by a hair.
“But where are the other cubs?” cried one of the men with an oath that made me shudder. “I’ll swear to it there were three at least, if not more.”
“You hear what he says, whelp: where are the other dogs?” said the captain.
“If you mean my companions,” said I in a low voice, “I won’t tell you.”
A loud laugh burst from the crew at this answer.
The pirate captain looked at me in surprise. Then drawing a pistol from his belt, he cocked it and said, “Now, youngster, listen to me. I’ve no time to waste here. If you don’t tell me all you know, I’ll blow your brains out! Where are your comrades?”
For an instant I hesitated, not knowing what to do in this extremity. Suddenly a thought occurred to me.
“Villain,” said I, shaking my clenched fist in his face, “to blow my brains out would make short work of me, and be soon over; death by drowning is as sure, and the agony prolonged. Yet I tell you to your face, if you were to toss me over yonder cliff into the sea, I would not tell you where my companions are; and I dare you to try me!”
The pirate captain grew white with rage as I spoke. “Say you so?” cried he, uttering a fierce oath.—“Here, lads, take him by the legs and heave him in—quick!”
The men, who were utterly silenced with surprise at my audacity, advanced and seized me; and as they carried me towards the cliff, I congratulated myself not a little on the success of my scheme, for I knew that once in the water I should be safe, and could rejoin Jack and Peterkin in the cave. But my hopes were suddenly blasted by the captain crying out, “Hold on, lads, hold on! We’ll give him a taste of the thumb-screws before throwing him to the sharks. Away with him into the boat. Look alive! the breeze is freshening.”
The men instantly raised me shoulder-high, and hurrying down the rocks, tossed me into the bottom of the boat, where I lay for some time stunned with the violence of my fall.
On recovering sufficiently to raise myself on my elbow, I perceived that we were already outside the coral reef and close alongside the schooner, which was of small size and clipper-built. I had only time to observe this much when I received a severe kick on the side from one of the men, who ordered me, in a rough voice, to jump aboard. Rising hastily, I clambered up the side. In a few minutes the boat was hoisted on deck, the vessel’s head put close to the wind, and the Coral Island dropped slowly astern as we beat up against a head sea.
Immediately after coming aboard, the crew were too busily engaged in working the ship and getting in the boat to attend to me; so I remained leaning against the bulwarks close to the gangway, watching their operations. I was surprised to find that there were no guns or carronades of any kind in the vessel, which had more the appearance of a fast-sailing trader than a pirate. But I was struck with the neatness of everything. The brass-work of the binnacle and about the tiller, as well as the copper belaying-pins, were as brightly polished as if they had just come from the foundry. The decks were pure white and smooth. The masts were clean-scraped and varnished, except at the cross-trees and truck, which were painted black. The standing and running rigging was in the most perfect order, and the sails white as snow. In short, everything, from the single narrow red stripe on her low, black hull to the trucks on her tapering masts, evinced an amount of care and strict discipline that would have done credit to a ship of the Royal Navy. There was nothing lumbering or unseemly about the vessel, excepting, perhaps, a boat, which lay on the deck with its keel up between the fore and main masts. It seemed disproportionately large for the schooner; but when I saw that the crew amounted to between thirty and forty men, I concluded that this boat was held in reserve in case of any accident compelling the crew to desert the vessel.
As I have before said, the costumes of the men were similar to that of the captain. But in head-gear they differed, not only from him, but from each other—some wearing the ordinary straw hat of the merchant service, while others wore cloth caps and red worsted nightcaps. I observed that all their arms were sent below, the captain only retaining his cutlass and a single pistol in the folds of his shawl. Although the captain was the tallest and most powerful man in the ship, he did not strikingly excel many of his men in this respect; and the only difference that an ordinary observer would have noticed was a certain degree of open candour, straightforward daring, in the bold, ferocious expression of his face, which rendered him less repulsive than his low-browed associates, but did not by any means induce the belief that he was a hero. This look was, however, the indication of that spirit which gave him the pre-eminence among the crew of desperadoes who called him captain. He was a lion-like villain, totally devoid of personal fear, and utterly reckless of consequences, and therefore a terror to his men, who individually hated him, but unitedly felt it to be to their advantage to have him at their head.
But my thoughts soon reverted to the dear companions whom I had left on shore; and as I turned towards the Coral Island, which was now far away to leeward, I sighed deeply, and the tears rolled slowly down my cheeks as I thought that I might never see them more.
“So you’re blubbering, are you, you obstinate whelp?” said the deep voice of the captain as he came up and gave me a box on the ear that nearly felled me to the deck. “I don’t allow any such weakness aboard o’ this ship. So clap a stopper on your eyes, or I’ll give you something to cry for.”
I flushed with indignation at this rough and cruel treatment, but felt that giving way to anger would only make matters worse; so I made no reply, but took out my handkerchief and dried my eyes.
“I thought you were made of better stuff,” continued the captain angrily. “I’d rather have a mad bulldog aboard than a water-eyed puppy. But I’ll cure you, lad, or introduce you to the sharks before long. Now go below, and stay there till I call you.”
As I walked forward to obey, my eye fell on a small keg standing by the side of the mainmast, on which the word gunpowder was written in pencil. It immediately flashed across me that as we were beating up against the wind, anything floating in the sea would be driven on the reef encircling the Coral Island. I also recollected—for thought is more rapid than the lightning—that my old companions had a pistol. Without a moment’s hesitation, therefore, I lifted the keg from the deck and tossed it into the sea! An exclamation of surprise burst from the captain and some of the men who witnessed this act of mine.
Striding up to me, and uttering fearful imprecations, the captain raised his hand to strike me, while he shouted, “Boy! whelp! what mean you by that?”
“If you lower your hand,” said I in a loud voice, while I felt the blood rush to my temples, “I’ll tell you. Until you do so, I’m dumb.”
The captain stepped back and regarded me with a look of amazement.
“Now,” continued I, “I threw that keg into the sea because the wind and waves will carry it to my friends on the Coral Island, who happen to have a pistol but no powder. I hope that it will reach them soon; and my only regret is that the keg was not a bigger one. Moreover, pirate, you said just now that you thought I was made of better stuff. I don’t know what stuff I am made of—I never thought much about that subject; but I’m quite certain of this—that I am made of such stuff as the like of you shall never tame, though you should do your worst!”
To my surprise, the captain, instead of flying into a rage, smiled, and thrusting his hand into the voluminous shawl that encircled his waist, turned on his heel and walked aft, while I went below.
Here, instead of being rudely handled, as I had expected, the men received me with a shout of laughter; and one of them, patting me on the back, said, “Well done, lad! You’re a brick, and I have no doubt will turn out a rare cove. Bloody Bill there was just such a fellow as you are, and he’s now the biggest cut-throat of us all.”
“Take a can of beer, lad,” cried another, “and wet your whistle after that speech o’ your’n to the captain. If any one o’ us had made it, youngster, he would have had no whistle to wet by this time.”
“Stop your clapper, Jack!” vociferated a third. “Give the boy a junk o’ meat. Don’t you see he’s a’most goin’ to kick the bucket?”
“And no wonder,” said the first speaker with an oath, “after the tumble you gave him into the boat! I guess it would have broke your neck if you had got it.”
I did indeed feel somewhat faint, which was owing, doubtless, to the combined effects of ill-usage and hunger; for it will be recollected that I had dived out of the cave that morning before breakfast, and it was now near midday. I therefore gladly accepted a plate of boiled pork and a yam, which were handed to me by one of the men from the locker on which some of the crew were seated eating their dinner. But I must add that the zest with which I ate my meal was much abated in consequence of the frightful oaths and the terrible language that flowed from the lips of these godless men, even in the midst of their hilarity and good-humour. The man who had been alluded to as Bloody Bill was seated near me, and I could not help wondering at the moody silence he maintained among his comrades. He did indeed reply to their questions in a careless, off-hand tone, but he never volunteered a remark. The only difference between him and the others was his taciturnity and his size, for he was nearly, if not quite, as large a man as the captain.
During the remainder of the afternoon I was left to my own reflections, which were anything but agreeable; for I could not banish from my mind the threat about the thumbscrews, of the nature and use of which I had a vague but terrible conception. I was still meditating on my unhappy fate when, just after nightfall, one of the watch on deck called down the hatchway:
“Hallo, there! One o’ you tumble up and light the cabin lamp, and send that boy aft to the captain—sharp!”
“Now, then, do you hear, youngster? the captain wants you. Look alive!” said Bloody Bill, raising his huge frame from the locker on which he had been asleep for the last two hours. He sprang up the ladder, and I instantly followed him, and going aft, was shown into the cabin by one of the men, who closed the door after me.
A small silver lamp which hung from a beam threw a dim, soft light over the cabin, which was a small apartment, and comfortably but plainly furnished. Seated on a camp-stool at the table, and busily engaged in examining a chart of the Pacific, was the captain, who looked up as I entered, and in a quiet voice bade me be seated, while he threw down his pencil, and rising from the table, stretched himself on a sofa at the upper end of the cabin.
“Boy,” said he, looking me full in the face, “what is your name?”
“Ralph Rover,” I replied.
“Where did you come from, and how came you to be on that island? How many companions had you on it? Answer me, now, and mind you tell no lies.”
“I never tell lies,” said I firmly.
The captain received this reply with a cold, sarcastic smile, and bade me answer his questions.
I then told him the history of myself and my companions from the time we sailed till the day of his visit to the island—taking care, however, to make no mention of the Diamond Cave. After I had concluded, he was silent for a few minutes; then looking up, he said, “Boy, I believe you.”
I was surprised at this remark, for I could not imagine why he should not believe me. However, I made no reply.
“And what,” continued the captain, “makes you think that this schooner is a pirate?”
“The black flag,” said I, “showed me what you are; and if any further proof were wanting, I have had it in the brutal treatment I have received at your hands.”
The captain frowned as I spoke; but, subduing his anger, he continued, “Boy, you are too bold. I admit that we treated you roughly, but that was because you made us lose time and gave us a good deal of trouble. As to the black flag, that is merely a joke that my fellows play off upon people sometimes in order to frighten them. It is their humour, and does no harm. I am no pirate, boy, but a lawful trader—a rough one, I grant you; but one can’t help that in these seas, where there are so many pirates on the water and such murderous blackguards on the land. I carry on a trade in sandal-wood with the Feejee Islands; and if you choose, Ralph, to behave yourself and be a good boy, I’ll take you along with me and give you a good share of the profits. You see, I’m in want of an honest boy like you to look after the cabin, and keep the log, and superintend the traffic on shore sometimes. What say you, Ralph: would you like to become a sandal-wood trader?”
I was much surprised by this explanation, and a good deal relieved to find that the vessel, after all, was not a pirate; but instead of replying, I said, “If it be as you state, then why did you take me from my island, and why do you not now take me back?”
The captain smiled as he replied, “I took you off in anger, boy, and I’m sorry for it. I would even now take you back, but we are too far away from it. See, there it is,” he added, laying his finger on the chart; “and we are now here—fifty miles, at least. It would not be fair to my men to put about now, for they have all an interest in the trade.”
I could make no reply to this; so, after a little more conversation, I agreed to become one of the crew—at least, until we could reach some civilised island where I might be put ashore. The captain assented to this proposition; and after thanking him for the promise, I left the cabin and went on deck with feelings that ought to have been lighter, but which were, I could not tell why, marvellously heavy and uncomfortable still.