The Coral Island/Chapter 23
Three weeks after the conversation narrated in the last chapter I was standing on the quarter-deck of the schooner, watching the gambols of a shoal of porpoises that swam round us. It was a dead calm—one of those still, hot, sweltering days so common in the Pacific, when nature seems to have gone to sleep, and the only thing in water or in air that proves her still alive is her long, deep breathing in the swell of the mighty sea. No cloud floated in the deep blue above, no ripple broke the reflected blue below. The sun shone fiercely in the sky, and a ball of fire blazed with almost equal power from out the bosom of the water. So intensely still was it, and so perfectly transparent was the surface of the deep, that had it not been for the long swell already alluded to, we might have believed the surrounding universe to be a huge, blue, liquid ball, and our little ship the one solitary material speck in all creation floating in the midst of it.
No sound broke on our ears save the soft puff now and then of a porpoise, the slow creak of the masts as we swayed gently on the swell, the patter of the reef-points, and the occasional flap of the hanging sails. An awning covered the fore and after parts of the schooner, under which the men composing the watch on deck lolled in sleepy indolence, overcome with excessive heat. Bloody Bill, as the men invariably called him, was standing at the tiller; but his post for the present was a sinecure, and he whiled away the time by alternately gazing in dreamy abstraction at the compass in the binnacle and by walking to the taffrail in order to spit into the sea. In one of these turns he came near to where I was standing, and leaning over the side, looked long and earnestly down into the blue wave.
This man, although he was always taciturn and often surly, was the only human being on board with whom I had the slightest desire to become better acquainted. The other men, seeing that I did not relish their company, and knowing that I was a protégé of the captain, treated me with total indifference. Bloody Bill, it is true, did the same; but as this was his conduct to every one else, it was not peculiar in reference to me. Once or twice I tried to draw him into conversation, but he always turned away after a few cold monosyllables. As he now leaned over the taffrail, close beside me, I said to him:
“Bill, why is it that you are so gloomy? Why do you never speak to any one?”
Bill smiled slightly as he replied, “Why, I s’pose it’s because I hain’t got nothin’ to say!”
“That’s strange,” said I musingly. “You look like a man that could think, and such men can usually speak.”
“So they can, youngster,” rejoined Bill somewhat sternly; “and I could speak too if I had a mind to, but what’s the use o’ speakin’ here? The men only open their mouths to curse and swear, and they seem to find it entertainin’; but I don’t, so I hold my tongue.”
“Well, Bill, that’s true, and I would rather not hear you speak at all than hear you speak like the other men. But I don’t swear, Bill; so you might talk to me sometimes, I think. Besides, I’m weary of spending day after day in this way, without a single soul to say a pleasant word to. I’ve been used to friendly conversation, Bill, and I really would take it kind if you would talk with me a little now and then.”
Bill looked at me in surprise, and I thought I observed a sad expression pass across his sunburned face.
“An’ where have you been used to friendly conversation?” said Bill, looking down again into the sea. “Not on that Coral Island, I take it?”
“Yes, indeed,” said I energetically. “I have spent many of the happiest months in my life on that Coral Island;” and without waiting to be further questioned, I launched out into a glowing account of the happy life that Jack and Peterkin and I had spent together, and related minutely every circumstance that befell us while on the island.
“Boy, boy,” said Bill in a voice so deep that it startled me, “this is no place for you!”
“That’s true,” said I. “I am of little use on board, and I don’t like my comrades; but I can’t help it, and at any rate I hope to be free again soon.”
“Free?” said Bill, looking at me in surprise.
“Yes, free,” returned I. “The captain said he would put me ashore after this trip was over.”
“This trip! Hark’ee, boy,” said Bill, lowering his voice, “what said the captain to you the day you came aboard?”
“He said that he was a trader in sandal-wood, and no pirate, and told me that if I would join him for this trip he would give me a good share of the profits, or put me on shore in some civilised island if I chose.”
Bill’s brows lowered savagely as he muttered, “Ay, he said truth when he told you he was a sandal-wood trader, but he lied when—”
“Sail ho!” shouted the lookout at the masthead.
“Where away?” cried Bill, springing to the tiller; while the men, startled by the sudden cry, jumped up and gazed round the horizon.
“On the starboard quarter, hull down, sir,” answered the lookout.
At this moment the captain came on deck, and mounting into the rigging, surveyed the sail through the glass. Then sweeping his eye round the horizon, he gazed steadily at the particular point.
“Take in topsails!” shouted the captain, swinging himself down on the deck by the main-back stay.
“Take in topsails!” roared the first mate.
“Ay, ay, sir-r-r!” answered the men as they sprang into the rigging and went aloft like cats.
Instantly all was bustle on board the hitherto quiet schooner. The topsails were taken in and stowed, the men stood by the sheets and halyards, and the captain gazed anxiously at the breeze, which was now rushing towards us like a sheet of dark blue. In a few seconds it struck us. The schooner trembled, as if in surprise at the sudden onset, while she fell away; then, bending gracefully to the wind, as though in acknowledgment of her subjection, she cut through the waves with her sharp prow like a dolphin, while Bill directed her course towards the strange sail.
In half-an-hour we neared her sufficiently to make out that she was a schooner, and from the clumsy appearance of her masts and sails we judged her to be a trader. She evidently did not like our appearance, for the instant the breeze reached her she crowded all sail and showed us her stern. As the breeze had moderated a little, our topsails were again shaken out; and it soon became evident—despite the proverb, “A stern chase is a long one”—that we doubled her speed, and would overhaul her speedily. When within a mile we hoisted British colours, but receiving no acknowledgment, the captain ordered a shot to be fired across her bows. In a moment, to my surprise, a large portion of the bottom of the boat amidships was removed, and in the hole thus exposed appeared an immense brass gun. It worked on a swivel, and was elevated by means of machinery. It was quickly loaded and fired. The heavy ball struck the water a few yards ahead of the chase, and ricochetting into the air, plunged into the sea a mile beyond it.
This produced the desired effect. The strange vessel backed her topsails and hove-to, while we ranged up and lay-to about a hundred yards off.
“Lower the boat!” cried the captain.
In a second the boat was lowered and manned by a part of the crew, who were all armed with cutlasses and pistols. As the captain passed me to get into it he said, “Jump into the stern-sheets, Ralph; I may want you.” I obeyed, and in ten minutes more we were standing on the stranger’s deck. We were all much surprised at the sight that met our eyes. Instead of a crew of such sailors as we were accustomed to see, there were only fifteen blacks, standing on the quarter-deck, and regarding us with looks of undisguised alarm. They were totally unarmed, and most of them unclothed. One or two, however, wore portions of European attire. One had on a pair of duck trousers, which were much too large for him, and stuck out in a most ungainly manner; another wore nothing but the common, scanty, native garment round the loins and a black beaver hat; but the most ludicrous personage of all, and one who seemed to be chief, was a tall, middle-aged man, of a mild, simple expression of countenance, who wore a white cotton shirt, a swallow-tailed coat, and a straw hat, while his black, brawny legs were totally uncovered below the knees.
“Where’s the commander of this ship?” inquired our captain, stepping up to this individual.
“I is cap’in,” he answered, taking off his straw hat and making a low bow.
“You!” said our captain in surprise. “Where do you come from, and where are you bound? What cargo have you aboard?”
“We is come,” answered the man with the swallow-tail, “from Aitutaki; we was go for Rarotonga. We is native miss’nary ship; our name is de Olive Branch; an’ our cargo is two tons cocoa-nuts, seventy pigs, twenty cats, and de Gosp’l.”
This announcement was received by the crew of our vessel with a shout of laughter, which, however, was peremptorily checked by the captain, whose expression instantly changed from one of severity to that of frank urbanity as he advanced towards the missionary and shook him warmly by the hand.
“I am very glad to have fallen in with you,” said he, “and I wish you much success in your missionary labours. Pray take me to your cabin, as I wish to converse with you privately.”
The missionary immediately took him by the hand, and as he led him away I heard him saying, “me most glad to find you trader; we t’ought you be pirate. You very like one ’bout the masts.”
What conversation the captain had with this man I never heard; but he came on deck again in a quarter of an hour, and shaking hands cordially with the missionary, ordered us into our boat and returned to the schooner, which was immediately put before the wind. In a few minutes the Olive Branch was left far behind us.
That afternoon, as I was down below at dinner, I heard the men talking about this curious ship.
“I wonder,” said one, “why our captain looked so sweet on yon swallow-tailed supercargo o’ pigs and Gospels? If it had been an ordinary trader, now, he would have taken as many o’ the pigs as he required and sent the ship with all on board to the bottom.”
“Why, Dick, you must be new to these seas if you don’t know that!” cried another. “The captain cares as much for the Gospel as you do (an’ that’s precious little); but he knows, and everybody knows, that the only place among the southern islands where a ship can put in and get what she wants in comfort is where the Gospel has been sent to. There are hundreds o’ islands, at this blessed moment, where you might as well jump straight into a shark’s maw as land without a band o’ thirty comrades armed to the teeth to back you.”
“Ay,” said a man with a deep scar over his right eye. “Dick’s new to the work. But if the captain takes us for a cargo o’ sandal-wood to the Feejees, he’ll get a taste o’ these black gentry in their native condition. For my part, I don’t know, and I don’t care, what the Gospel does to them; but I know that when any o’ the islands chance to get it, trade goes all smooth and easy. But where they ha’n’t got it, Beelzebub himself could hardly desire better company.”
“Well, you ought to be a good judge,” cried another, laughing, “for you’ve never kept any company but the worst all your life!”
“Ralph Rover!” shouted a voice down the hatchway; “captain wants you, aft.”
Springing up the ladder, I hastened to the cabin, pondering as I went the strange testimony borne by these men to the effect of the Gospel on savage natures—testimony which, as it was perfectly disinterested, I had no doubt whatever was strictly true.
On coming again on deck I found Bloody Bill at the helm, and as we were alone together, I tried to draw him into conversation. After repeating to him the conversation in the forecastle about the missionaries, I said:
“Tell me, Bill: is this schooner really a trader in sandal-wood?”
“Yes, Ralph, she is; but she’s just as really a pirate. The black flag you saw flying at the peak was no deception.”
“Then how can you say she’s a trader?” asked I.
“Why, as to that, she trades when she can’t take by force; but she takes by force when she can, in preference. Ralph,” he added, lowering his voice, “if you had seen the bloody deeds that I have witnessed done on these decks, you would not need to ask if we were pirates. But you’ll find it out soon enough. As for the missionaries, the captain favours them because they are useful to him. The South Sea Islanders are such incarnate fiends that they are the better of being tamed, and the missionaries are the only men who can do it.”
Our track after this lay through several clusters of small islets, among which we were becalmed more than once. During this part of our voyage the watch on deck and the lookout at the masthead were more than usually vigilant, as we were not only in danger of being attacked by the natives (who, I learned from the captain’s remarks, were a bloody and deceitful tribe at this group), but we were also exposed to much risk from the multitudes of coral reefs that rose up in the channels between the islands—some of them just above the surface, others a few feet below it. Our precautions against the savages, I found, were indeed necessary.
One day we were becalmed among a group of small islands, most of which appeared to be uninhabited. As we were in want of fresh water, the captain sent the boat ashore to bring off a cask or two. But we were mistaken in thinking there were no natives; for scarcely had we drawn near to the shore when a band of naked blacks rushed out of the bush and assembled on the beach, brandishing their clubs and spears in a threatening manner. Our men were well armed, but refrained from showing any signs of hostility, and rowed nearer in order to converse with the natives; and I now found that more than one of the crew could imperfectly speak dialects of the language peculiar to the South Sea Islanders. When within forty yards of the shore we ceased rowing, and the first mate stood up to address the multitude; but instead of answering us, they replied with a shower of stones, some of which cut the men severely. Instantly our muskets were levelled, and a volley was about to be fired when the captain hailed us in a loud voice from the schooner, which lay not more than five or six hundred yards off the shore.
“Don’t fire!” he shouted angrily. “Pull off to the point ahead of you!”
The men looked surprised at this order, and uttered deep curses as they prepared to obey; for their wrath was roused, and they burned for revenge. Three or four of them hesitated, and seemed disposed to mutiny.
“Don’t distress yourselves, lads,” said the mate, while a bitter smile curled his lip. “Obey orders. The captain’s not the man to take an insult tamely. If Long Tom does not speak presently, I’ll give myself to the sharks.”
The men smiled significantly as they pulled from the shore, which was now crowded with a dense mass of savages, amounting probably to five or six hundred. We had not rowed off above a couple of hundred yards when a loud roar thundered over the sea, and the big brass gun sent a withering shower of grape point-blank into the midst of the living mass, through which a wide lane was cut; while a yell, the like of which I could not have imagined, burst from the miserable survivors as they fled to the woods. Amongst the heaps of dead that lay on the sand just where they had fallen, I could distinguish mutilated forms writhing in agony; while ever and anon one and another rose convulsively from out the mass, endeavoured to stagger towards the wood, and ere they had taken a few steps, fell and wallowed on the bloody sand. My blood curdled within me as I witnessed this frightful and wanton slaughter; but I had little time to think, for the captain’s deep voice came again over the water towards us: “Pull ashore, lads, and fill your water-casks!” The men obeyed in silence, and it seemed to me as if even their hard hearts were shocked by the ruthless deed. On gaining the mouth of the rivulet at which we intended to take in water, we found it flowing with blood; for the greater part of those who were slain had been standing on the banks of the stream, a short way above its mouth. Many of the wretched creatures had fallen into it; and we found one body, which had been carried down, jammed between two rocks, with the staring eyeballs turned towards us, and his black hair waving in the ripples of the blood-red stream. No one dared to oppose our landing now, so we carried our casks to a pool above the murdered group, and having filled them, returned on board. Fortunately a breeze sprang up soon afterwards, and carried us away from the dreadful spot; but it could not waft me away from the memory of what I had seen.
“And this,” thought I, gazing in horror at the captain, who, with a quiet look of indifference, leaned upon the taffrail, smoking a cigar and contemplating the fertile green islets as they passed like a lovely picture before our eyes—“this is the man who favours the missionaries because they are useful to him and can tame the savages better than any one else can do it!” Then I wondered in my mind whether it were possible for any missionary to tame him!