The Coral Island/Chapter 26
Next morning I awoke with a feverish brow and a feeling of deep depression at my heart; and the more I thought on my unhappy fate, the more wretched and miserable did I feel.
I was surrounded on all sides by human beings of the most dreadful character, to whom the shedding of blood was mere pastime. On shore were the natives, whose practices were so horrible that I could not think of them without shuddering. On board were none but pirates of the blackest dye, who, although not cannibals, were foul murderers, and more blameworthy even than the savages, inasmuch as they knew better. Even Bill, with whom I had, under the strange circumstances of my lot, formed a kind of intimacy, was so fierce in his nature as to have acquired the title of “Bloody” from his vile companions. I felt very much cast down the more I considered the subject and the impossibility of delivery, as it seemed to me—at least, for a long time to come. At last, in my feeling of utter helplessness, I prayed fervently to the Almighty that He would deliver me out of my miserable condition; and when I had done so I felt some degree of comfort.
When the captain came on deck, before the hour at which the men usually started for the woods, I begged of him to permit me to remain aboard that day, as I did not feel well; but he looked at me angrily, and ordered me, in a surly tone, to get ready to go on shore as usual. The fact was that the captain had been out of humour for some time past. Romata and he had had some differences, and high words had passed between them, during which the chief had threatened to send a fleet of his war-canoes, with a thousand men, to break up and burn the schooner; whereupon the captain smiled sarcastically, and going up to the chief, gazed sternly in his face while he said, “I have only to raise my little finger just now, and my big gun will blow your whole village to atoms in five minutes!” Although the chief was a bold man, he quailed before the pirate’s glance and threat, and made no reply; but a bad feeling had been raised, and old sores had been opened.
I had, therefore, to go with the woodcutters that day. Before starting, however, the captain called me into the cabin and said:
“Here, Ralph; I’ve got a mission for you, lad. That blackguard Romata is in the dumps, and nothing will mollify him but a gift; so do you go up to his house and give him these whale’s teeth, with my compliments. Take with you one of the men who can speak the language.”
I looked at the gift in some surprise, for it consisted of six white whale’s teeth, and two of the same dyed bright red, which seemed to me very paltry things. However, I did not dare to hesitate, or to ask any questions; so gathering them up, I left the cabin, and was soon on my way to the chief’s house, accompanied by Bill. On expressing my surprise at the gift, he said:
“They’re paltry enough to you or me, Ralph, but they’re considered of great value by them chaps. They’re a sort o’ cash among them. The red ones are the most prized, one of them bein’ equal to twenty o’ the white ones. I suppose the only reason for their bein’ valuable is that there ain’t many of them, and they’re hard to be got.”
On arriving at the house we found Romata sitting on a mat, in the midst of a number of large bales of native cloth and other articles, which had been brought to him as presents from time to time by inferior chiefs. He received us rather haughtily; but on Bill explaining the nature of our errand, he became very condescending, and his eyes glistened with satisfaction when he received the whale’s teeth, although he laid them aside with an assumption of kingly indifference.
“Go,” said he with a wave of the hand— “go tell your captain that he may cut wood to-day, but not to-morrow. He must come ashore; I want to have a palaver with him.”
As we left the house to return to the woods, Bill shook his head.
“There’s mischief brewin’ in that black rascal’s head. I know him of old. But what comes here?”
As he spoke, we heard the sound of laughter and shouting in the wood, and presently there issued from it a band of savages, in the midst of whom were a number of men bearing burdens on their shoulders. At first I thought that these burdens were poles with something rolled round them, the end of each pole resting on a man’s shoulder; but on a nearer approach I saw that they were human beings, tied hand and foot, and so lashed to the poles that they could not move. I counted twenty of them as they passed.
“More murder!” said Bill in a voice that sounded between a hoarse laugh and a groan.
“Surely they are not going to murder them?” said I, looking anxiously into Bill’s face.
“I don’t know, Ralph,” replied Bill, “what they’re goin’ to do with them; but I fear they mean no good when they tie fellows up in that way.”
As we continued our way towards the woodcutters, I observed that Bill looked anxiously over his shoulder in the direction where the procession had disappeared. At last he stopped, and turning abruptly on his heel, said:
“I tell ye what it is, Ralph: I must be at the bottom o’ that affair. Let us follow these black scoundrels and see what they’re goin’ to do.”
I must say I had no wish to pry further into their bloody practices; but Bill seemed bent on it, so I turned and went. We passed rapidly through the bush, being guided in the right direction by the shouts of the savages. Suddenly there was a dead silence, which continued for some time, while Bill and I involuntarily quickened our pace until we were running at the top of our speed across the narrow neck of land previously mentioned. As we reached the verge of the wood we discovered the savages surrounding the large war-canoe, which they were apparently on the point of launching. Suddenly the multitude put their united strength to the canoe; but scarcely had the huge machine begun to move when a yell, the most appalling that ever fell upon my ear, rose high above the shouting of the savages. It had not died away when another and another smote upon my throbbing ear, and then I saw that these inhuman monsters were actually launching their canoe over the living bodies of their victims. But there was no pity in the breasts of these men. Forward they went in ruthless indifference, shouting as they went, while high above their voices rang the dying shrieks of those wretched creatures as, one after another, the ponderous canoe passed over them, burst the eyeballs from their sockets, and sent the life-blood gushing from their mouths. Oh reader, this is no fiction! I would not, for the sake of thrilling you with horror, invent so terrible a scene. It was witnessed. It is true—true as that accursed sin which has rendered the human heart capable of such diabolical enormities!
When it was over I turned round and fell upon the grass with a deep groan; but Bill seized me by the arm, and lifting me up as if I had been a child, cried:
“Come along, lad; let’s away!” And so, staggering and stumbling over the tangled underwood, we fled from the fatal spot.
During the remainder of that day I felt as if I were in a horrible dream. I scarce knew what was said to me, and was more than once blamed by the men for idling my time. At last the hour to return aboard came. We marched down to the beach, and I felt relief for the first time when my feet rested on the schooner’s deck.
In the course of the evening I overheard part of a conversation between the captain and the first mate, which startled me not a little. They were down in the cabin, and conversed in an undertone; but the skylight being off; I overhead every word that was said.
“I don’t half-like it,” said the mate. “It seems to me that we’ll only have hard fightin’ and no pay.”
“No pay!” repeated the captain in a voice of suppressed anger. “Do you call a good cargo all for nothing no pay?”
“Very true,” returned the mate; “but we’ve got the cargo aboard. Why not cut your cable and take French leave o’ them? What’s the use o’ tryin’ to kill the blackguards when it’ll do us no manner o’ good?”
“Mate,” said the captain in a low voice, “you talk like a fresh-water sailor. I can only attribute this shyness to some strange delusion, for surely”—his voice assumed a slightly sneering tone as he said this —“surely I am not to suppose that you have become soft-hearted! Besides, you are wrong in regard to the cargo being aboard; there’s a good quarter of it lying in the woods, and that blackguard chief knows it, and won’t let me take it off. He defied us to do our worst yesterday.”
“Defied us! did he?” cried the mate with a bitter laugh. “Poor, contemptible thing!”
“And yet he seems not so contemptible but that you are afraid to attack him.”
“Who said I was afraid?” growled the mate sulkily. “I’m as ready as any man in the ship. But, captain, what is it that you intend to do?”
“I intend to muffle the sweeps and row the schooner up to the head of the creek there, from which point we can command the pile of sandal-wood with our gun. Then I shall land with all the men except two, who shall take care of the schooner and be ready with the boat to take us off. We can creep through the woods to the head of the village, where these cannibals are always dancing round their suppers of human flesh; and if the carbines of the men are loaded with a heavy charge of buck-shot, we can drop forty or fifty at the first volley. After that the thing will be easy enough. The savages will take to the mountains in a body, and we shall take what we require, up anchor, and away.”
To this plan the mate at length agreed. As he left the cabin, I heard the captain say:
“Give the men an extra glass of grog, and don’t forget the buck-shot.”
The reader may conceive the horror with which I heard this murderous conversation. I immediately repeated it to Bill, who seemed much perplexed about it. At length he said:
“I’ll tell you what I’ll do, Ralph. I’ll swim ashore after dark and fix a musket to a tree not far from the place where we’ll have to land, and I’ll tie a long string to the trigger, so that when our fellows cross it they’ll let it off, and so alarm the village in time to prevent an attack, but not in time to prevent us gettin’ back to the boat.—So, Master Captain,” added Bill with a smile that, for the first time, seemed to me to be mingled with good-natured cheerfulness, “you’ll be balked at least for once in your life by Bloody Bill.”
After it grew dark, Bill put this resolve in practice. He slipped over the side with a musket in his left hand, while with his right he swam ashore and entered the woods. He soon returned, having accomplished his purpose, and got on board without being seen, I being the only one on deck.
When the hour of midnight approached, the men were mustered on deck, the cable was cut, and the muffled sweeps got out. These sweeps were immensely large oars, each requiring a couple of men to work it. In a few minutes we entered the mouth of the creek, which was indeed the mouth of a small river, and took about half-an-hour to ascend it, although the spot where we intended to land was not more than six hundred yards from the mouth, because there was a slight current against us, and the mangroves which narrowed the creek impeded the rowers in some places. Having reached the spot, which was so darkened by overhanging trees that we could see with difficulty, a small kedge-anchor attached to a thin line was let softly down over the stern.
“Now, lads,” whispered the captain as he walked along the line of men, who were all armed to the teeth, “don’t be in a hurry, aim low, and don’t waste your first shots.”
He then pointed to the boat, into which the men crowded in silence. There was no room to row; but oars were not needed, as a slight push against the side of the schooner sent the boat gliding to the shore.
“There’s no need of leaving two in the boat,” whispered the mate as the men stepped out; “we shall want all our hands. Let Ralph stay.”
The captain assented, and ordered me to stand in readiness with the boat-hook, to shove ashore at a moment’s notice if they should return, or to shove off if any of the savages should happen to approach. He then threw his carbine into the hollow of his arm, and glided through the bushes, followed by his men. With a throbbing heart I awaited the result of our plan. I knew the exact locality where the musket was placed, for Bill had described it to me, and I kept my straining eyes fixed upon the spot. But no sound came, and I began to fear that either they had gone in another direction or that Bill had not fixed the string properly. Suddenly I heard a faint click, and observed one or two bright sparks among the bushes. My heart immediately sank within me, for I knew at once that the trigger had indeed been pulled, but that the priming had not caught. The plan, therefore, had utterly failed. A feeling of dread now began to creep over me as I stood in the boat, in that dark, silent spot, awaiting the issue of this murderous expedition. I shuddered as I glanced at the water that glided past like a dark reptile. I looked back at the schooner; but her hull was just barely visible, while her tapering masts were lost among the trees which overshadowed her. Her lower sails were set, but so thick was the gloom that they were quite invisible.
Suddenly I heard a shot. In a moment a thousand voices raised a yell in the village; again the cry rose on the night air, and was followed by broken shouts as of scattered parties of men bounding into the woods. Then I heard another shout, loud and close at hand; it was the voice of the captain cursing the man who had fired the premature shot. Then came the order, “Forward!” followed by a wild hurrah of our men as they charged the savages. Shots now rang in quick succession, and at last a loud volley startled the echoes of the woods. It was followed by a multitude of wild shrieks, which were immediately drowned in another hurrah from the men, the distance of the sound proving that they were driving their enemies before them towards the sea.
While I was listening intently to these sounds, which were now mingled in confusion, I was startled by the rustling of the leaves not far from me. At first I thought it was a party of savages who had observed the schooner, but I was speedily undeceived by observing a body of natives—apparently several hundreds, as far as I could guess in the uncertain light—bounding through the woods towards the scene of battle. I saw at once that this was a party who had outflanked our men, and would speedily attack them in the rear. And so it turned out; for in a short time the shouts increased tenfold, and among them I thought I heard a death-cry uttered by voices familiar to my ear.
At length the tumult of battle ceased, and from the cries of exultation that now arose from the savages, I felt assured that our men had been conquered. I was immediately thrown into dreadful consternation. What was I now to do? To be taken by the savages was too horrible to be thought of; to flee to the mountains was hopeless, as I should soon be discovered; and to take the schooner out of the creek without assistance was impossible. I resolved, however, to make the attempt, as being my only hope, and was on the point of pushing off, when my hand was stayed and my blood chilled by an appalling shriek, in which I recognised the voice of one of the crew. It was succeeded by a shout from the savages. Then came another and another shriek of agony, making my ears to tingle, as I felt convinced they were murdering the pirate crew in cold blood. With a bursting heart and my brain whirling as if on fire, I seized the boat-hook to push from shore when a man sprang from the bushes.
“Stop! Ralph, stop! There, now, push off!” he cried, and bounded into the boat so violently as nearly to upset her. It was Bill’s voice! In another moment we were on board—the boat made fast, the line of the anchor cut, and the sweeps run out. At the first stroke of Bill’s giant arm the schooner was nearly pulled ashore, for in his haste he forgot that I could scarcely move the unwieldy oar. Springing to the stern, he lashed the rudder in such a position as that, while it aided me, it acted against him, and so rendered the force of our strokes nearly equal. The schooner now began to glide quickly down the creek; but before we reached its mouth, a yell from a thousand voices on the bank told that we were discovered. Instantly a number of the savages plunged into the water and swam towards us; but we were making so much way that they could not overtake us. One, however, an immensely powerful man, succeeded in laying hold of the cut rope that hung from the stern, and clambered quickly upon deck. Bill caught sight of him the instant his head appeared above the taffrail. But he did not cease to row, and did not appear even to notice the savage until he was within a yard of him; then dropping the sweep, he struck him a blow on the forehead with his clenched fist that felled him to the deck. Lifting him up, he hurled him overboard, and resumed the oar. But now a greater danger awaited us; for the savages had outrun us on the bank, and were about to plunge into the water ahead of the schooner. If they succeeded in doing so, our fate was sealed. For one moment Bill stood irresolute. Then drawing a pistol from his belt, he sprang to the brass gun, held the pan of his pistol over the touch-hole, and fired. The shot was succeeded by the hiss of the cannon’s priming; then the blaze and the crashing thunder of the monstrous gun burst upon the savages with such deafening roar that it seemed as if their very mountains had been rent asunder.
This was enough. The moment of surprise and hesitation caused by the unwonted sound gave us time to pass the point; a gentle breeze, which the dense foliage had hitherto prevented us from feeling, bulged out our sails; the schooner bent before it, and the shouts of the disappointed savages grew fainter and fainter in the distance as we were slowly wafted out to sea.