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The Coral Island/Chapter 34

For a long, long month we remained in our dark and dreary prison, during which dismal time we did not see the face of a human being except that of the silent savage who brought us our daily food.

There have been one or two seasons in my life during which I have felt as if the darkness of sorrow and desolation that crushed my inmost heart could never pass away until death should make me cease to feel. The present was such a season.

During the first part of our confinement we felt a cold chill at our hearts every time we heard a footfall near the cave, dreading lest it should prove to be that of our executioner. But as time dragged heavily on we ceased to feel this alarm, and began to experience such a deep, irrepressible longing for freedom that we chafed and fretted in our confinement like tigers. Then a feeling of despair came over us, and we actually longed for the time when the savages would take us forth to die. But these changes took place very gradually, and were mingled sometimes with brighter thoughts; for there were times when we sat, in that dark cavern on our ledge of rock, and conversed almost pleasantly about the past until we well-nigh forgot the dreary present. But we seldom ventured to touch upon the future.

A few decayed leaves and boughs formed our bed, and a scanty supply of yams and taro, brought to us once a day, constituted our food.

“Well, Ralph, how have you slept?” said Jack in a listless tone on rising one morning from his humble couch. “Were you much disturbed by the wind last night?”

“No,” said I. “I dreamed of home all night, and I thought that my mother smiled upon me and beckoned me to go to her; but I could not, for I was chained.”

“And I dreamed too,” said Peterkin; “but it was of our happy home on the Coral Island. I thought we were swimming in the Water Garden. Then the savages gave a yell, and we were immediately in the cave at Spouting Cliff, which, somehow or other changed into this gloomy cavern; and I awoke to find it true.”

Peterkin’s tone was so much altered by the depressing influence of his long imprisonment that, had I not known it was he who spoke, I should scarcely have recognised it, so sad was it, and so unlike to the merry, cheerful voice we had been accustomed to hear. I pondered this much, and thought of the terrible decline of happiness that may come on human beings in so short a time; how bright the sunshine in the sky at one time, and in a short space bow dark the overshadowing cloud! I had no doubt that the Bible would have given me much light and comfort on this subject if I had possessed one, and I once more had occasion to regret deeply having neglected to store my memory with its consoling truths.

While I meditated thus, Peterkin again broke the silence of the cave by saying, in a melancholy tone, “Oh, I wonder if we shall ever see our dear island more!”

His voice trembled, and covering his face with both hands, he bent down his head and wept. It was an unusual sight for me to see our once joyous companion in tears, and I felt a burning desire to comfort him; but, alas! what could I say? I could hold out no hope; and although I essayed twice to speak, the words refused to pass my lips. While I hesitated Jack sat down beside him and whispered a few words in his ear, while Peterkin threw himself on his friend’s breast and rested his head on his shoulder.

Thus we sat for some time in deep silence. Soon after we heard footsteps at the entrance of the cave, and immediately our jailer entered. We were so much accustomed to his regular visits, however, that we paid little attention to him, expecting that he would set down our meagre fare as usual and depart. But, to our surprise, instead of doing so, he advanced towards us with a knife in his hand, and going up to Jack, he cut the thongs that bound his wrists; then he did the same to Peterkin and me! For fully five minutes we stood in speechless amazement, with our freed hands hanging idly by our sides. The first thought that rushed into my mind was that the time had come to put us to death; and although, as I have said before, we actually wished for death in the strength of our despair, now that we thought it drew really near I felt all the natural love of life revive in my heart, mingled with a chill of horror at the suddenness of our call.

But I was mistaken. After cutting our bonds the savage pointed to the cave’s mouth, and we marched, almost mechanically, into the open air. Here, to our surprise, we found the teacher standing under a tree, with his hands clasped before him, and the tears trickling down his dark cheeks. On seeing Jack, who came out first, he sprang towards him, and clasping him in his arms, exclaimed:

“Oh my dear young friend, through the great goodness of God you are free!”

“Free?” cried Jack.

“Ay, free!” repeated the teacher, shaking us warmly by the hands again and again—“free to go and come as you will. The Lord has unloosed the bonds of the captive, and set the prisoners free. A missionary has been sent to us, and Tararo has embraced the Christian religion! The people are even now burning their gods of wood! Come, my dear friends, and see the glorious sight!”

We could scarcely credit our senses. So long had we been accustomed, in our cavern, to dream of deliverance, that we imagined for a moment this must surely be nothing more than another vivid dream. Our eyes and minds were dazzled, too, by the brilliant sunshine, which almost blinded us after our long confinement to the gloom of our prison, so that we felt giddy with the variety of conflicting emotions that filled our throbbing bosoms; but as we followed the footsteps of our sable friend, and beheld the bright foliage of the trees, and heard the cries of the paroquets, and smelt the rich perfume of the flowering shrubs, the truth—that we were really delivered from prison and from death—rushed with overwhelming power into our souls, and with one accord, while tears sprang to our eyes, we uttered a loud, long cheer of joy.

It was replied to by a shout from a number of the natives who chanced to be near. Running towards us, they shook us by the hand with every demonstration of kindly feeling. They then fell behind, and forming a sort of procession, conducted us to the dwelling of Tararo.

The scene that met our eyes here was one that I shall never forget. On a rude bench in front of his house sat the chief. A native stood on his left hand, who from his dress seemed to be a teacher. On his right stood an English gentleman, who I at once, and rightly, concluded was a missionary. He was tall, thin, and apparently past forty, with a bald forehead and thin grey hair. The expression of his countenance was the most winning I ever saw, and his clear grey eyes beamed with a look that was frank, fearless, loving, and truthful. In front of the chief was an open space, in the centre of which lay a pile of wooden idols, ready to be set on fire; and around these were assembled thousands of natives, who had come to join in or to witness the unusual sight. A bright smile overspread the missionary’s face as he advanced quickly to meet us, and he shook us warmly by the hands.

“I am overjoyed to meet you, my dear young friends,” he said. “My friend and your friend, the teacher, has told me your history; and I thank our Father in heaven with all my heart, that He has guided me to this island and made me the instrument of saving you.”

We thanked the missionary most heartily, and asked him, in some surprise, how he had succeeded in turning the heart of Tararo in our favour.

“I will tell you that at a more convenient time,” he answered, “meanwhile we must not forget the respect due to the chief. He waits to receive you.”

In the conversation that immediately followed between us and Tararo, the latter said that the light of the Gospel of Jesus Christ had been sent to the island, and that to it we were indebted for our freedom. Moreover, he told us that we were at liberty to depart in our schooner whenever we pleased, and that we should be supplied with as much provision as we required. He concluded by shaking hands with us warmly, and performing the ceremony of rubbing noses.

This was indeed good news to us, and we could hardly find words to express our gratitude to the chief and to the missionary.

“And what of Avatea?” inquired Jack.

The missionary replied by pointing to a group of natives, in the midst of whom the girl stood. Beside her was a tall, strapping fellow, whose noble mien and air of superiority bespoke him a chief of no ordinary kind. “That youth is her lover. He came this very morning in his war-canoe to treat with Tararo for Avatea. He is to be married in a few days, and afterwards returns to his island home with his bride.”

“That’s capital!” said Jack as he stepped up to the savage and gave him a hearty shake of the hand. “I wish you joy, my lad!—And you too, Avatea!”

As Jack spoke, Avatea’s lover took him by the hand and led him to the spot where Tararo and the missionary stood, surrounded by most of the chief men of the tribe. The girl herself followed and stood on his left hand, while her lover stood on his right, and commanding silence, made the following speech, which was translated by the missionary:

“Young friend, you have seen few years, but your head is old. Your heart, also, is large and very brave. I and Avatea are your debtors; and we wish, in the midst of this assembly, to acknowledge our debt, and to say that it is one which we can never repay. You have risked your life for one who was known to you only for a few days. But she was a woman in distress, and that was enough to secure to her the aid of a Christian man. We, who live in these islands of the sea, know that the true Christians always act thus. Their religion is one of love and kindness. We thank God that so many Christians have been sent here: we hope many more will come. Remember that I and Avatea will think of you, and pray for you and your brave comrades, when you are far away.”

To this kind speech Jack returned a short, sailor-like reply, in which he insisted that he had only done for Avatea what he would have done for any woman under the sun. But Jack’s forte did not lie in speech-making, so he terminated rather abruptly by seizing the chief’s hand and shaking it violently, after which he made a hasty retreat.

“Now, then, Ralph and Peterkin,” said Jack as we mingled with the crowd, “it seems to me that, the object we came here for having been satisfactorily accomplished, we have nothing more to do but get ready for sea as fast as we can, and hurrah for old England!”

“That’s my idea precisely,” said Peterkin, endeavouring to wink; but he had wept so much of late, poor fellow, that he found it difficult. “However, I’m not going away till I see these fellows burn their gods.”

Peterkin had his wish, for in a few minutes afterwards fire was put to the pile, the roaring flames, ascended, and amid the acclamations of the assembled thousands, the false gods of Mango were reduced to ashes!