The Coral Island/Chapter 7
For several days after the excursion related in the last chapter we did not wander far from our encampment, but gave ourselves up to forming plans for the future and making our present abode comfortable.
There were various causes that induced this state of comparative inaction. In the first place, although everything around us was so delightful, and we could without difficulty obtain all that we required for our bodily comfort, we did not quite like the idea of settling down here for the rest of our lives, far away from our friends and our native land. To set energetically about preparations for a permanent residence seemed so like making up our minds to saying adieu to home and friends for ever that we tacitly shrank from it, and put off our preparations, for one reason and another, as long as we could. Then there was a little uncertainty still as to there being natives on the island, and we entertained a kind of faint hope that a ship might come and take us off. But as day after day passed, and neither savages nor ships appeared, we gave up all hope of an early deliverance, and set diligently to work at our homestead.
During this time, however, we had not been altogether idle. We made several experiments in cooking the cocoa-nut, most of which did not improve it. Then we removed our goods and took up our abode in the cave, but found the change so bad that we returned gladly to the bower. Besides this, we bathed very frequently, and talked a great deal—at least Jack and Peterkin did; I listened. Among other useful things, Jack, who was ever the most active and diligent, converted about three inches of the hoop-iron into an excellent knife. First, he beat it quite flat with the axe; then he made a rude handle, and tied the hoop-iron to it with our piece of whip-cord, and ground it to an edge on a piece of sandstone. When it was finished he used it to shape a better handle, to which he fixed it with a strip of his cotton handkerchief—in which operation he had, as Peterkin pointed out, torn off one of Lord Nelson’s noses. However, the whip-cord, thus set free, was used by Peterkin as a fishing-line. He merely tied a piece of oyster to the end of it. This the fish were allowed to swallow, and then they were pulled quickly ashore. But as the line was very short and we had no boat, the fish we caught were exceedingly small.
One day Peterkin came up from the beach, where he had been angling, and said in a very cross tone, “I’ll tell you what, Jack, I’m not going to be humbugged with catching such contemptible things any longer. I want you to swim out with me on your back, and let me fish in deep water!”
“Dear me, Peterkin!” replied Jack; “I had no idea you were taking the thing so much to heart, else I would have got you out of that difficulty long ago. Let me see;” and Jack looked down at a piece of timber, on which he had been labouring, with a peculiar gaze of abstraction which he always assumed when trying to invent or discover anything.
“What say you to building a boat?” he inquired, looking up hastily.
“Take far too long,” was the reply; “can’t be bothered waiting. I want to begin at once!”
Again Jack considered. “I have it!” he cried. “We’ll fell a large tree and launch the trunk of it in the water, so that when you want to fish you’ve nothing to do but to swim out to it.”
“Would not a small raft do better?” said I.
“Much better; but we have no ropes to bind it together with. Perhaps we may find something hereafter that will do as well, but in the meantime let us try the tree.”
This was agreed on; so we started off to a spot, not far distant, where we knew of a tree that would suit us which grew near the water’s edge. As soon as we reached it Jack threw off his coat, and wielding the axe with his sturdy arms, hacked and hewed at it for a quarter of an hour without stopping. Then he paused, and while he sat down to rest I continued the work. Then Peterkin made a vigorous attack on it; so that when Jack renewed his powerful blows, a few minutes’ cutting brought it down with a terrible crash.
“Hurrah! Now for it!” cried Jack. “Let us off with its head!”
So saying, he began to cut through the stem again at about six yards from the thick end. This done, he cut three strong, short poles or levers from the stout branches, with which to roll the log down the beach into the sea; for, as it was nearly two feet thick at the large end, we could not move it without such helps. With the levers, however, we rolled it slowly into the sea.
Having been thus successful in launching our vessel, we next shaped the levers into rude oars or paddles, and then attempted to embark. This was easy enough to do; but after seating ourselves astride the log, it was with the utmost difficulty we kept it from rolling round and plunging us into the water. Not that we minded that much; but we preferred, if possible, to fish in dry clothes. To be sure, our trousers were necessarily wet, as our legs were dangling in the water on each side of the log; but as they could be easily dried, we did not care. After half-an-hour’s practice, we became expert enough to keep our balance pretty steadily. Then Peterkin laid down his paddle, and having baited his line with a whole oyster, dropped it into deep water.
“Now, then, Jack,” said he, “be cautious; steer clear o’ that seaweed. There! that’s it; gently, now—gently. I see a fellow at least a foot long down there coming to — Ha! that’s it! Oh bother! he’s off!”
“Did he bite?” said Jack, urging the log onwards a little with his paddle.
“Bite? Ay! he took it into his mouth, but the moment I began to haul he opened his jaws and let it out again.”
“Let him swallow it next time,” said Jack, laughing at the melancholy expression of Peterkin’s visage.
“There he’s again!” cried Peterkin, his eyes flashing with excitement. “Look out! Now, then! No! Yes! No! Why, the brute won’t swallow it!”
“Try to haul him up by the mouth, then!” cried Jack. “Do it gently.”
A heavy sigh and a look of blank despair showed that poor Peterkin had tried and failed again.
“Never mind, lad,” said Jack in a voice of sympathy; “we’ll move on and offer it to some other fish.” So saying, Jack plied his paddle; but scarcely had he moved from the spot when a fish with an enormous head and a little body darted from under a rock and swallowed the bait at once.
“Got him this time—that’s a fact!” cried Peterkin, hauling in the line. “He’s swallowed the bait right down to his tail, I declare! Oh, what a thumper!”
As the fish came struggling to the surface we leaned forward to see it, and overbalanced the log. Peterkin threw his arms round the fish’s neck, and in another instant we were all floundering in the water!
A shout of laughter burst from us as we rose to the surface, like three drowned rats, and seized hold of the log. We soon recovered our position, and sat more warily; while Peterkin secured the fish, which had well-nigh escaped in the midst of our struggles. It was little worth having, however. But, as Peterkin remarked, it was better than the smouts he had been catching for the last two or three days; so we laid it on the log before us, and having re-baited the line, dropped it in again for another.
Now, while we were thus intent upon our sport, our attention was suddenly attracted by a ripple on the sea, just a few yards away from us. Peterkin shouted to us to paddle in that direction, as he thought it was a big fish and we might have a chance of catching it. But Jack, instead of complying, said, in a deep, earnest tone of voice, which I never before heard him use, “Haul up your line, Peterkin; seize your paddle. Quick—it’s a shark!”
The horror with which we heard this may well be imagined; for it must be remembered that our legs were hanging down in the water, and we could not venture to pull them up without upsetting the log. Peterkin instantly hauled up the line, and grasping his paddle, exerted himself to the utmost, while we also did our best to make for shore. But we were a good way off, and the log being, as I have before said, very heavy, moved but slowly through the water. We now saw the shark quite distinctly swimming round and round us, its sharp fin every now and then protruding above the water. From its active and unsteady motions, Jack knew it was making up its mind to attack us; so he urged us vehemently to paddle for our lives, while he himself set us the example. Suddenly he shouted, “Look out! there he comes!” and in a second we saw the monstrous fish dive close under us and turn half-over on his side. But we all made a great commotion with our paddles, which, no doubt, frightened it away for that time, as we saw it immediately after circling round us as before.
“Throw the fish to him!” cried Jack in a quick, suppressed voice; “we’ll make the shore in time yet if we can keep him off for a few minutes.”
Peterkin stopped one instant to obey the command, and then plied his paddle again with all his might. No sooner had the fish fallen on the water than we observed the shark to sink. In another second we saw its white breast rising; for sharks always turn over on their sides when about to seize their prey, their mouths being not at the point of their heads like those of other fish, but, as it were, under their chins. In another moment his snout rose above the water; his wide jaws, armed with a terrific double row of teeth, appeared; the dead fish was engulfed, and the shark sank out of sight. But Jack was mistaken in supposing that it would be satisfied. In a very few minutes it returned to us, and its quick motions led us to fear that it would attack us at once.
“Stop paddling!” cried Jack suddenly. “I see it coming up behind us. Now, obey my orders quickly. Our lives may depend on it. Ralph—Peterkin—do your best to balance the log. Don’t look out for the shark. Don’t glance behind you. Do nothing but balance the log.”
Peterkin and I instantly did as we were ordered, being only too glad to do anything that afforded us a chance or a hope of escape, for we had implicit confidence in Jack’s courage and wisdom. For a few seconds, that seemed long minutes to my mind, we sat thus silently; but I could not resist glancing backward, despite the orders to the contrary. On doing so, I saw Jack sitting rigid like a statue, with his paddle raised, his lips compressed, and his eyebrows bent over his eyes, which glared savagely from beneath them down into the water.
I also saw the shark, to my horror, quite close under the log, in the act of darting towards Jack’s foot. I could scarce suppress a cry on beholding this. In another moment the shark rose. Jack drew his leg suddenly from the water and threw it over the log. The monster’s snout rubbed against the log as it passed, and revealed its hideous jaws, into which Jack instantly plunged the paddle and thrust it down its throat. So violent was this act that Jack rose to his feet in performing it; the log was thereby rolled completely over, and we were once more plunged into the water. We all rose, spluttering and gasping, in a moment.
“Now, then, strike out for shore!” cried Jack.—“Here, Peterkin, catch hold of my collar, and kick out with a will!”
Peterkin did as he was desired, and Jack struck out with such force that he cut through the water like a boat; while I, being free from all encumbrance, succeeded in keeping up with him. As we had by this time drawn pretty near to the shore, a few minutes more sufficed to carry us into shallow water; and finally, we landed in safety, though very much exhausted, and not a little frightened, by our terrible adventure.