The Coral Island/Chapter 33
As the time for our meditated flight drew near, we became naturally very fearful lest our purpose should be discovered, and we spent the whole of the following day in a state of nervous anxiety. We resolved to go ashore and ramble about the village, as if to observe the habits and dwellings of the people, as we thought that an air of affected indifference to the events of the previous day would be more likely than any other course of conduct to avert suspicion as to our intentions. While we were thus occupied, the teacher remained on board with the Christian natives, whose powerful voices reached us ever and anon as they engaged in singing hymns or in prayer.
At last the long and tedious day came to a close, the sun sank into the sea, and the short-lived twilight of those regions, to which I have already referred, ended abruptly in a dark night. Hastily throwing a few blankets into our little boat, we stepped into it, and whispering farewell to the natives in the schooner, rowed gently over the lagoon, taking care to keep as near to the beach as possible. We rowed in the utmost silence and with muffled oars, so that had any one observed us at the distance of a few yards, he might have almost taken us for a phantom boat or a shadow on the dark water. Not a breath of air was stirring; but fortunately the gentle ripple of the sea upon the shore, mingled with the soft roar of the breaker on the distant reef, effectually drowned the slight plash that we unavoidably made in the water by the dipping of our oars.
A quarter of an hour sufficed to bring us to the overhanging cliff under whose black shadow our little canoe lay, with her bow in the water, ready to be launched, and most of her cargo already stowed away. As the keel of our little boat grated on the sand, a hand was laid upon the bow, and a dim form was seen.
“Ha!” said Peterkin in a whisper as he stepped upon the beach; “is that you, Avatea?”
“Yis, it am me,” was the reply.
“All right—Now, then, gently—Help me to shove off the canoe,” whispered Jack to the teacher.—“And, Peterkin, do you shove these blankets aboard; we may want them before long.—Avatea, step into the middle: that’s right.”
“Is all ready?” whispered the teacher.
“Not quite,” replied Peterkin.—“Here, Ralph, lay hold o’ this pair of oars, and stow them away if you can. I don’t like paddles. After we’re safe away, I’ll try to rig up rowlocks for them.”
“Now, then, in with you and shove off!”
One more earnest squeeze of the kind teacher’s hand, and with his whispered blessing yet sounding in our ears, we shot like an arrow from the shore, sped over the still waters of the lagoon, and paddled as swiftly as strong arms and willing hearts could urge us over the long swell of the open sea.
All that night and the whole of the following day we plied our paddles in almost total silence and without a halt, save twice to recruit our failing energies with a mouthful of food and a draught of water. Jack had taken the bearing of the island just after starting, and laying a small pocket-compass before him, kept the head of the canoe due south, for our chance of hitting the island depended very much on the faithfulness of our steersman in keeping our tiny bark exactly and constantly on its proper course. Peterkin and I paddled in the bow, and Avatea worked untiringly in the middle.
As the sun’s lower limb dipped on the gilded edge of the sea Jack ceased working, threw down his paddle, and called a halt.
“There!” he cried, heaving a deep, long-drawn sigh; “we’ve put a considerable breadth of water between us and these black rascals, so now we’ll have a hearty supper and a sound sleep.”
“Hear, hear!” cried Peterkin. “Nobly spoken, Jack!—Hand me a drop of water, Ralph.—Why, girl, what’s wrong with you? You look just like a black owl blinking in the sunshine!”
Avatea smiled. “I sleepy,” she said; and as if to prove the truth of this, she laid her head on the edge of the canoe and fell fast asleep.
“That’s uncommon sharp practice,” said Peterkin with a broad grin. “Don’t you think we should awake her to make her eat something first? Or perhaps,” he added with a grave, meditative look—“perhaps we might put some food in her mouth, which is so elegantly open at the present moment, and see if she’d swallow it while asleep.—If so, Ralph, you might come round to the front here and feed her quietly, while Jack and I are tucking into the victuals. It would be a monstrous economy of time.”
I could not help smiling at Peterkin’s idea, which indeed, when I pondered it, seemed remarkably good in theory; nevertheless, I declined to put it in practice, being fearful of the result should the victuals chance to go down the wrong throat. But on suggesting this to Peterkin, he exclaimed:
“Down the wrong throat, man! Why, a fellow with half-an-eye might see that if it went down Avatea’s throat it could not go down the wrong throat!—unless, indeed, you have all of a sudden become inordinately selfish, and think that all the throats in the world are wrong ones except your own. However, don’t talk so much, and hand me the pork before Jack finishes it. I feel myself entitled to at least one minute morsel.”
“Peterkin, you’re a villain—a paltry little villain!” said Jack quietly as he tossed the hind legs (including the tail) of a cold roast pig to his comrade; “and I must again express my regret that unavoidable circumstances have thrust your society upon me, and that necessity has compelled me to cultivate your acquaintance. Were it not that you are incapable of walking upon the water, I would order you, sir, out of the canoe!”
“There! you’ve awakened Avatea with your long tongue,” retorted Peterkin, with a frown, as the girl gave vent to a deep sigh. “No,” he continued, “it was only a snore. Perchance she dreameth of her black Apollo.—I say, Ralph, do leave just one little slice of that yam! Between you and Jack I run a chance of being put on short allowance, if not—yei-a-a-ow!”
Peterkin’s concluding remark was a yawn of so great energy that Jack recommended him to postpone the conclusion of his meal till next morning—a piece of advice which he followed so quickly that I was forcibly reminded of his remark, a few minutes before, in regard to the sharp practice of Avatea.
My readers will have observed, probably, by this time, that I am much given to meditation: they will not, therefore, be surprised to learn that I fell into a deep reverie on the subject of sleep, which was continued without intermission into the night, and prolonged without interruption into the following morning. But I cannot feel assured that I actually slept during that time, although I am tolerably certain that I was not awake.
Thus we lay, like a shadow, on the still bosom of the ocean, while the night closed in, and all around was calm, dark, and silent.
A thrilling cry of alarm from Peterkin startled us in the morning, just as the grey dawn began to glimmer in the east.
“What’s wrong?” cried Jack, starting up.
Peterkin replied by pointing, with a look of anxious dread, towards the horizon; and a glance sufficed to show us that one of the largest-sized war-canoes was approaching us!
With a groan of mingled despair and anger, Jack seized his paddle, glanced at the compass, and in a suppressed voice commanded us to “Give way!” But we did not require to be urged. Already our four paddles were glancing in the water, and the canoe bounded over the glassy sea like a dolphin, while a shout from our pursuers told that they had observed our motions.
“I see something like land ahead,” said Jack in a hopeful tone. “It seems impossible that we could have made the island yet; still, if it is so, we may reach it before these fellows can catch us, for our canoe is light and our muscles are fresh.”
No one replied; for, to say truth, we felt that in a long chase we had no chance whatever with a canoe which held nearly a hundred warriors. Nevertheless, we resolved to do our utmost to escape, and paddled with a degree of vigour that kept us well in advance of our pursuers. The war-canoe was so far behind us that it seemed but a little speck on the sea, and the shouts to which the crew occasionally gave vent came faintly towards us on the morning breeze. We therefore hoped that we should be able to keep in advance for an hour or two, when we might perhaps reach the land ahead. But this hope was suddenly crushed by the supposed land, not long after, rising up into the sky, thus proving itself to be a fog-bank!
A bitter feeling of disappointment filled each heart, and was expressed on each countenance, as we beheld this termination to our hopes. But we had little time to think of regret. Our danger was too great and imminent to permit of a moment’s relaxation from our exertions. No hope now animated our bosoms; but a feeling of despair, strange to say, lent us power to work, and nerved our arms with such energy that it was several hours ere the savages overtook us. When we saw that there was indeed no chance of escape, and that paddling any longer would only serve to exhaust our strength without doing any good, we turned the side of our canoe towards the approaching enemy and laid down our paddles.
Silently, and with a look of bitter determination on his face, Jack lifted one of the light boat-oars that we had brought with us, and resting it on his shoulder, stood up in an attitude of bold defiance. Peterkin took the other oar and also stood up, but there was no anger visible on his countenance: when not sparkling with fun, it usually wore a mild, sad expression, which was deepened on the present occasion as he glanced at Avatea, who sat with her face resting in her hands upon her knees. Without knowing very well what I intended to do, I also arose and grasped my paddle with both hands.
On came the large canoe like a war-horse of the deep, with the foam curling from its sharp bow, and the spear-heads of the savages glancing in the beams of the rising sun. Perfect silence was maintained on both sides; and we could hear the hissing water, and see the frowning eyes of the warriors, as they came rushing on. When about twenty yards distant, five or six of the savages in the bow rose, and laying aside their paddles, took up their spears. Jack and Peterkin raised their oars, while, with a feeling of madness whirling in my brain, I grasped my paddle and prepared for the onset. But before any of us could strike a blow, the sharp prow of the war-canoe struck us like a thunderbolt on the side and hurled us into the sea!
What occurred after this I cannot tell, for I was nearly drowned; but when I recovered from the state of insensibility into which I had been thrown, I found myself stretched on my back, bound hand and foot, between Jack and Peterkin, in the bottom of the large canoe.
In this condition we lay the whole day, during which time the savages only rested one hour. When night came they rested again for another hour, and appeared to sleep just as they sat. But we were neither unbound nor allowed to speak to each other during the voyage, nor was a morsel of food or a draught of water given to us. For food, however, we cared little; but we would have given much for a drop of water to cool our parched lips. And we would have been glad, too, had they loosened the cords that bound us; for they were tightly fastened, and occasioned us much pain. The air, also, was unusually hot—so much so that I felt convinced that a storm was brewing. This also added to our sufferings. However, these were at length relieved by our arrival at the island from which we had fled.
While we were being led ashore, we caught a glimpse of Avatea, who was seated in the hinder part of the canoe. She was not fettered in any way. Our captors now drove us before them towards the hut of Tararo, at which we speedily arrived, and found the chief seated with an expression on his face that boded us no good. Our friend the teacher stood beside him, with a look of anxiety on his mild features.
“How comes it,” said Tararo, turning to the teacher, “that these youths have abused our hospitality?”
“Tell him,” replied Jack, “that we have not abused his hospitality, for his hospitality has not been extended to us. I came to the island to deliver Avatea, and my only regret is that I have failed to do so. If I get another chance, I will try to save her yet.”
The teacher shook his head. “Nay, my young friend, I had better not tell him that: it will only incense him.”
“I care not,” replied Jack. “If you don’t tell him that, you’ll tell him nothing, for I won’t say anything softer.”
On hearing Jack’s speech, Tararo frowned, and his eye flashed with anger.
“Go, presumptuous boy!” he said. “My debt to you cancelled. You and your companions shall die!”
As he spoke he rose and signed to several of attendants, who seized Jack and Peterkin and violently by the collars, and dragging us from the house of the chief, led us through the wood to the outskirts of the village. Here they thrust us into a species of natural cave in a cliff, and having barricaded the entrance, left us in total darkness.
After feeling about for some time—for our legs were unshackled, although our wrists were still bound with thongs—we found a low ledge of rock running along one side of the cavern. On this we seated ourselves, and for a long time maintained unbroken silence.
At last I could restrain my feelings no longer. “Alas! dear Jack and Peterkin,” said I, “what is to become of us? I fear that we are doomed to die.”
“I know not,” replied Jack in a tremulous voice—“I know not. Ralph, I regret deeply the hastiness of my violent temper, which, I must confess, has been the chief cause of our being brought to this sad condition. Perhaps the teacher may do something for us. But I have little hope.”
“Ah no!” said Peterkin with a heavy sigh; “I am sure he can’t help us. Tararo doesn’t care more for him than for one of his dogs.”
“Truly,” said I, “there seems no chance of deliverance, unless the Almighty puts forth His arm to save us. Yet I must say I have great hope, my comrades; for we have come to this dark place by no fault of ours—unless it be a fault to try to succour a woman in distress.”
I was interrupted in my remarks by a noise at the entrance to the cavern, which was caused by the removal of the barricade. Immediately after three men entered, and taking us by the collars of our coats, led us away through the forest. As we advanced we heard much shouting and beating of native drums in the village, and at first we thought that our guards were conducting us to the hut of Tararo again. But in this we were mistaken. The beating of drums gradually increased, and soon after we observed a procession of the natives coming towards us. At the head of this procession we were placed, and then we all advanced together towards the temple where human victims were wont to be sacrificed!
A thrill of horror ran through my heart as I recalled to mind the awful scenes that I had before witnessed at that dreadful spot. But deliverance came suddenly from a quarter whence we little expected it. During the whole of that day there had been an unusual degree of heat in the atmosphere, and the sky assumed that lurid aspect which portends a thunderstorm. Just as we were approaching the horrid temple, a growl of thunder burst overhead, and heavy drops of rain began to fall.
Those who have not witnessed gales and storms in tropical regions can form but a faint conception of the fearful hurricane that burst upon the island of Mango at this time. Before we reached the temple the storm burst upon us with a deafening roar; and the natives, who knew too well the devastation that was to follow, fled right and left through the woods in order to save their property, leaving us alone in the midst of the howling storm. The trees around us bent before the blast like willows, and we were about to flee in order to seek shelter when the teacher ran toward us with a knife in his hand.
“Thank the Lord,” he said, cutting our bonds, “I am in time! Now, seek the shelter of the nearest rock.”
This we did without a moment’s hesitation, for the whistling wind burst, ever and anon, like thunderclaps among the trees, and tearing them from their roots, hurled them with violence to the ground. Rain cut across the land in sheets, and lightning played like forked serpents in the air, while high above the roar of the hissing tempest the thunder crashed and burst and rolled in awful majesty.
In the village the scene was absolutely appalling. Roofs were blown completely off the houses in many cases, and in others the houses themselves were levelled with the ground. In the midst of this the natives were darting to and fro—in some instances saving their goods, but in many others seeking to save themselves from the storm of destruction that whirled around them. But terrific although the tempest was on land, it was still more tremendous on the mighty ocean. Billows sprang, as it were, from the great deep, and while their crests were absolutely scattered into white mist, they fell upon the beach with a crash that seemed to shake the solid land. But they did not end there. Each successive wave swept higher and higher on the beach until the ocean lashed its angry waters among the trees and bushes, and at length, in a sheet of white, curdled foam, swept into the village and upset and carried off, or dashed into wreck, whole rows of the native dwellings! It was a sublime, an awful scene, calculated, in some degree at least, to impress the mind of beholders with the might and majesty of God.
We found shelter in a cave that night and all the next day, during which time the storm raged in fury. But on the night following, it abated somewhat; and in the morning we went to the village to seek for food, being so famished with hunger that we lost all feeling of danger and all wish to escape in our desire to satisfy the cravings of nature. But no sooner had we obtained food than we began to wish that we had rather endeavoured to make our escape into the mountains. This we attempted to do soon afterwards; but the natives were now able to look after us, and on our showing a disposition to avoid observation and make towards the mountains, we were seized by three warriors, who once more bound our wrists and thrust us into our former prison.
It is true Jack made a vigorous resistance, and knocked down the first savage who seized him with a well-directed blow of his fist, but he was speedily overpowered by others. Thus we were again prisoners, with the prospect of torture and a violent death before us.