The Coral Island/Chapter 17

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The Coral Island by R. M. Ballantyne
Chapter 17
A monster wave and its consequences—The boat lost and found—Peterkin’s terrible accident—Supplies of food for a voyage in the boat—We visit Penguin Island, and are amazed beyond measure—Account of the penguins.

One day, not long after our little boat was finished, we were sitting on the rocks at Spouting Cliff, and talking of an excursion which we intended to make to Penguin Island the next day.

“You see,” said Peterkin, “it might be all very well for a stupid fellow like me to remain here and leave the penguins alone; but it would be quite inconsistent with your characters as philosophers to remain any longer in ignorance of the habits and customs of these birds, so the sooner we go the better.”

“Very true,” said I. “There is nothing I desire so much as to have a closer inspection of them.”

“And I think,” said Jack, “that you had better remain at home, Peterkin, to take care of the cat; for I’m sure the hogs will be at it in your absence, out of revenge for your killing their great-grandmother so recklessly.”

“Stay at home!” cried Peterkin. “My dear fellow, you would certainly lose your way, or get upset, if I were not there to take care of you.”

“Ah, true!” said Jack gravely; “that did not occur to me. No doubt you must go. Our boat does require a good deal of ballast; and all that you say, Peterkin, carries so much weight with it that we won’t need stones if you go.”

Now, while my companions were talking, a notable event occurred, which, as it is not generally known, I shall be particular in recording here.

While we were talking, as I have said, we noticed a dark line, like a low cloud or fog-bank, on the seaward horizon. The day was a fine one, though cloudy, and a gentle breeze was blowing; but the sea was not rougher, or the breaker on the reef higher, than usual. At first we thought that this looked like a thundercloud, and as we had had a good deal of broken weather of late, accompanied by occasional peals of thunder, we supposed that a storm must be approaching. Gradually, however, this line seemed to draw nearer without spreading up over the sky, as would certainly have been the case if it had been a storm-cloud. Still nearer it came, and soon we saw that it was moving swiftly towards the island; but there was no sound till it reached the islands out at sea. As it passed these islands we observed, with no little anxiety, that a cloud of white foam encircled them, and burst in spray into the air; it was accompanied by a loud roar. This led us to conjecture that the approaching object was an enormous wave of the sea; but we had no idea how large it was till it came near to ourselves. When it approached the outer reef, however, we were awestruck with its unusual magnitude; and we sprang to our feet, and clambered hastily up to the highest point of the precipice, under an indefinable feeling of fear.

I have said before that the reef opposite Spouting Cliff was very near to the shore, while just in front of the bower it was at a considerable distance out to sea. Owing to this formation, the wave reached the reef at the latter point before it struck at the foot of Spouting Cliff. The instant it touched the reef we became aware, for the first time, of its awful magnitude. It burst completely over the reef at all points with a roar that seemed louder to me than thunder, and this roar continued for some seconds while the wave rolled gradually along towards the cliff on which we stood. As its crest reared before us we felt that we were in great danger, and turned to flee; but we were too late. With a crash that seemed to shake the solid rock, the gigantic billow fell, and instantly the spouting-holes sent up a gush of waterspouts with such force that they shrieked on issuing from their narrow vents. It seemed to us as if the earth had been blown up with water. We were stunned and confused by the shock, and so drenched and blinded with spray that we knew not for a few moments whither to flee for shelter. At length we all three gained an eminence beyond the reach of the water. But what a scene of devastation met our gaze as we looked along the shore! This enormous wave not only burst over the reef, but continued its way across the lagoon, and fell on the sandy beach of the island with such force that it passed completely over it and dashed into the woods, levelling the smaller trees and bushes in its headlong course.

On seeing this, Jack said he feared our bower must have been swept away, and that the boat, which was on the beach, must have been utterly destroyed. Our hearts sank within us as we thought of this, and we hastened round through the woods towards our home. On reaching it we found, to our great relief of mind, that the force of the wave had been expended just before reaching the bower; but the entrance to it was almost blocked up by the torn-up bushes and tangled heaps of seaweed. Having satisfied ourselves as to the bower, we hurried to the spot where the boat had been left; but no boat was there. The spot on which it had stood was vacant, and no sign of it could we see on looking around us.

“It may have been washed up into the woods,” said Jack, hurrying up the beach as he spoke. Still no boat was to be seen, and we were about to give ourselves over to despair when Peterkin called to Jack and said:

“Jack, my friend, you were once so exceedingly sagacious and wise as to make me acquainted with the fact that cocoa-nuts grow upon trees. Will you now be so good as to inform me what sort of fruit that is growing on the top of yonder bush? for I confess to being ignorant, or at least doubtful, on the point.”

We looked towards the bush indicated, and there, to our surprise, beheld our little boat snugly nestled among the leaves. We were very much overjoyed at this, for we would have suffered any loss rather than the loss of our boat. We found that the wave had actually borne the boat on its crest from the beach into the woods, and there launched it into the heart of this bush, which was extremely fortunate; for had it been tossed against a rock or a tree, it would have been dashed to pieces, whereas it had not received the smallest injury. It was no easy matter, however, to get it out of the bush and down to the sea again. This cost us two days of hard labour to accomplish.

We had also much ado to clear away the rubbish from before the bower, and spent nearly a week in constant labour ere we got the neighbourhood to look as clean and orderly as before; for the uprooted bushes and seaweed that lay on the beach formed a more dreadfully confused-looking mass than one who had not seen the place after the inundation could conceive.

Before leaving the subject I may mention, for the sake of those who interest themselves in the curious natural phenomena of our world, that this gigantic wave occurs regularly on some of the islands of the Pacific once, and sometimes twice, in the year. I heard this stated by the missionaries during my career in those seas. They could not tell me whether it visited all of the islands, but I was certainly assured that it occurred periodically in some of them.

After we had got our home put to rights, and cleared of the débris of the inundation, we again turned our thoughts to paying the penguins a visit. The boat was therefore overhauled and a few repairs done. Then we prepared a supply of provisions, for we intended to be absent at least a night or two—perhaps longer. This took us some time to do; for, while Jack was busy with the boat, Peterkin was sent into the woods to spear a hog or two, and had to search long, sometimes, ere he found them. Peterkin was usually sent on this errand when we wanted a pork chop (which was not seldom), because he was so active and could run so wonderfully fast that he found no difficulty in overtaking the hogs; but being dreadfully reckless, he almost invariably tumbled over stumps and stones in the course of his wild chase, and seldom returned home without having knocked the skin off his shins. Once, indeed, a more serious accident happened to him. He had been out all the morning alone, and did not return at the usual time to dinner. We wondered at this, for Peterkin was always very punctual at the dinner-hour. As supper-time drew near we began to be anxious about him, and at length sallied forth to search the woods. For a long time we sought in vain; but a little before dark we came upon the tracks of the hogs, which we followed up until we came to the brow of a rather steep bank or precipice. Looking over this, we beheld Peterkin lying in a state of insensibility at the foot, with his cheek resting on the snout of a little pig, which was pinned to the earth by the spear. We were dreadfully alarmed, but hastened to bathe his forehead with water, and had soon the satisfaction of seeing him revive. After we had carried him home, he related to us how the thing had happened.

“You must know,” said he, “I walked about all the forenoon, till I was as tired as an old donkey, without seeing a single grunter—not so much as a track of one; but as I was determined not to return empty-handed, I resolved to go without my dinner, and—”

“What!” exclaimed Jack, “did you really resolve to do that?”

“Now, Jack, hold your tongue,” returned Peterkin. “I say that I resolved to forego my dinner and to push to the head of the small valley, where I felt pretty sure of discovering the hogs. I soon found that I was on the right scent, for I had scarcely walked half-a-mile in the direction of the small plum-tree we found there the other day when a squeak fell on my ear. ‘Ho, ho,’ said I, ‘there you go, my boys;’ and I hurried up the glen. I soon started them, and singling out a fat pig, ran tilt at him. In a few seconds I was up with him, and stuck my spear right through his dumpy body. Just as I did so, I saw that we were on the edge of a precipice—whether high or low, I knew not; but I had been running at such a pace that I could not stop, so the pig and I gave a howl in concert and went plunging over together. I remembered nothing more after that till I came to my senses, and found you bathing my temples, and Ralph wringing his hands over me.”

But although Peterkin was often unfortunate in the way of getting tumbles, he was successful on the present occasion in hunting, and returned before evening with three very nice little hogs. I also was successful in my visit to the mud-flats, where I killed several ducks. So that when we launched and loaded our boat at sunrise the following morning, we found our store of provisions to be more than sufficient. Part had been cooked the night before, and on taking note of the different items, we found the account to stand thus:

10 Bread-fruits (two baked, eight unbaked). 20 Yams (six roasted, the rest raw). 6 Taro-roots. 50 Fine large plums. 6 Cocoa-nuts, ripe. 6 Ditto, green (for drinking). 4 Large ducks and two small ones, raw. 3 Cold roast pigs, with stuffing.


I may here remark that the stuffing had been devised by Peterkin specially for the occasion. He kept the manner of its compounding a profound secret, so I cannot tell what it was; but I can say, with much confidence, that we found it to be atrociously bad, and after the first tasting, scraped it carefully out and threw it overboard. We calculated that this supply would last us for several days; but we afterwards found that it was much more than we required, especially in regard to the cocoa-nuts, of which we found large supplies wherever we went. However, as Peterkin remarked, it was better to have too much than too little, as we knew not to what straits we might be put during our voyage.

It was a very calm, sunny morning when we launched forth and rowed over the lagoon towards the outlet in the reef, and passed between the two green islets that guarded the entrance. We experienced some difficulty and no little danger in passing the surf of the breaker, and shipped a good deal of water in the attempt; but once past the billow, we found ourselves floating placidly on the long, oily swell that rose and fell slowly as it rolled over the wide ocean.

Penguin Island lay on the other side of our own island, at about a mile beyond the outer reef, and we calculated that it must be at least twenty miles distant by the way we should have to go. We might, indeed, have shortened the way by coasting round our island inside of the lagoon, and going out at the passage in the reef nearly opposite to Penguin Island; but we preferred to go by the open sea—first, because it was more adventurous, and secondly, because we should have the pleasure of again feeling the motion of the deep, which we all loved very much, not being liable to sea-sickness.

“I wish we had a breeze,” said Jack.

“So do I,” cried Peterkin, resting on his oar and wiping his heated brow; “pulling is hard work. Oh dear, if we could only catch a hundred or two of these gulls, tie them to the boat with long strings, and make them fly as we want them, how capital it would be!”

“Or bore a hole through a shark’s tail and reeve a rope through it, eh?” remarked Jack. “But, I say, it seems that my wish is going to be granted, for here comes a breeze. Ship your oar, Peterkin. — Up with the mast, Ralph; I’ll see to the sail. Mind your helm; look out for squalls!”

This last speech was caused by the sudden appearance of a dark-blue line on the horizon, which, in an incredibly short space of time, swept down on us, lashing up the sea in white foam as it went. We presented the stern of the boat to its first violence, and in a few seconds it moderated into a steady breeze, to which we spread our sail and flew merrily over the waves. Although the breeze died away soon afterwards, it had been so stiff while it lasted that we were carried over the greater part of our way before it fell calm again; so that when the flapping of the sail against the mast told us that it was time to resume the oars, we were not much more than a mile from Penguin Island.

“There go the soldiers!” cried Peterkin as we came in sight of it. “How spruce their white trousers look this morning! I wonder if they will receive us kindly?—D’you think they are hospitable, Jack?”

“Don’t talk, Peterkin, but pull away, and you shall see shortly.”

As we drew near to the island, we were much amused by the manoeuvres and appearance of these strange birds. They seemed to be of different species: for some had crests on their heads, while others had none; and while some were about the size of a goose, others appeared nearly as large as a swan. We also saw a huge albatross soaring above the heads of the penguins. It was followed and surrounded by numerous flocks of sea-gulls. Having approached to within a few yards of the island, which was a low rock, with no other vegetation on it than a few bushes, we lay on our oars and gazed at the birds with surprise and pleasure, they returning our gaze with interest. We now saw that their soldierlike appearance was owing to the stiff erect manner in which they sat on their short legs—“bolt-upright,” as Peterkin expressed it. They had black heads, long, sharp beaks, white breasts, and bluish backs. Their wings were so short that they looked more like the fins of a fish, and indeed we soon saw that they used them for the purpose of swimming under water. There were no quills on these wings, but a sort of scaly feathers, which also thickly covered their bodies. Their legs were short, and placed so far back that the birds, while on land, were obliged to stand quite upright in order to keep their balance; but in the water they floated like other water-fowl. At first we were so stunned with the clamour which they and other sea-birds kept up around us that we knew not which way to look, for they covered the rocks in thousands; but as we continued to gaze, we observed several quadrupeds (as we thought) walking in the midst of the penguins.

“Pull in a bit,” cried Peterkin, “and let’s see what these are. They must be fond of noisy company to consort with such creatures.”

To our surprise, we found that these were no other than penguins which had gone down on all fours, and were crawling among the bushes on their feet and wings, just like quadrupeds. Suddenly one big old bird, that had been sitting on a point very near to us, gazing in mute astonishment, became alarmed, and scuttling down the rocks, plumped or fell, rather than ran, into the sea. It dived in a moment, and, a few seconds afterwards, came out of the water far ahead with such a spring, and such a dive back into the sea again, that we could scarcely believe it was not a fish that had leaped in sport.

“That beats everything!” said Peterkin, rubbing his nose, and screwing up his face with an expression of exasperated amazement. “I’ve heard of a thing being neither fish, flesh, nor fowl; but I never did expect to live to see a brute that was all three together—at once—in one! But look there!” he continued, pointing with a look of resignation to the shore—“look there! there’s no end to it. What has that brute got under its tail?”

We turned to look in the direction pointed out, and there saw a penguin walking slowly and very sedately along the shore with an egg under its tail. There were several others, we observed, burdened in the same way; and we found afterwards that these were a species of penguin that always carried their eggs so. Indeed, they had a most convenient cavity for the purpose, just between the tail and the legs. We were very much impressed with the regularity and order of this colony. The island seemed to be apportioned out into squares, of which each penguin possessed one, and sat in stiff solemnity in the middle of it, or took a slow march up and down the spaces between. Some were hatching their eggs, but others were feeding their young ones in a manner that caused us to laugh not a little. The mother stood on a mound or raised rock, while the young one stood patiently below her on the ground. Suddenly the mother raised her head and uttered a series of the most discordant cackling sounds.

“She’s going to choke,” cried Peterkin.

But this was not the case, although, I confess, she looked like it. In a few seconds she put down her head and opened her mouth, into which the young one thrust its beak and seemed to suck something from her throat. Then the cackling was renewed, the sucking continued, and so the operation of feeding was carried on till the young one was satisfied; but what she fed her little one with we could not tell.

“Now, just look yonder!” said Peterkin in an excited tone. “If that isn’t the most abominable piece of maternal deception I ever saw! That rascally old lady penguin has just pitched her young one into the sea, and there’s another about to follow her example.”

This indeed seemed to be the case, for on the top of a steep rock close to the edge of the sea we observed an old penguin endeavouring to entice her young one into the water; but the young one seemed very unwilling to go, and notwithstanding the enticements of its mother, moved very slowly towards her. At last she went gently behind the young bird and pushed it a little towards the water, but with great tenderness, as much as to say, “Don’t be afraid, darling; I won’t hurt you, my pet!” But no sooner did she get it to the edge of the rock, where it stood looking pensively down at the sea, than she gave it a sudden and violent push, sending it headlong down the slope into the water, where its mother left it to scramble ashore as it best could. We observed many of them employed in doing this, and we came to the conclusion that this is the way in which old penguins teach their children to swim.

Scarcely had we finished making our remarks on this, when we were startled by about a dozen of the old birds hopping in the most clumsy and ludicrous manner towards the sea. The beach here was a sloping rock, and when they came to it some of them succeeded in hopping down in safety, but others lost their balance and rolled and scrambled down the slope in the most helpless manner. The instant they reached the water, however, they seemed to be in their proper element. They dived, and bounded out of it and into it again with the utmost agility; and so, diving and bounding and sputtering—for they could not fly—they went rapidly out to sea.

On seeing this, Peterkin turned with a grave face to us and said, “It’s my opinion that these birds are all stark, staring mad, and that this is an enchanted island. I therefore propose that we should either put about ship and fly in terror from the spot, or land valorously on the island and sell our lives as dearly as we can.”

“I vote for landing; so pull in, lads!” said Jack, giving a stroke with his oar that made the boat spin. In a few seconds we ran the boat into a little creek, where we made her fast to a projecting piece of coral, and running up the beach, entered the ranks of the penguins, armed with our cudgels and our spear. We were greatly surprised to find that instead of attacking us, or showing signs of fear at our approach, these curious birds did not move from their places until we laid hands on them, and merely turned their eyes on us in solemn, stupid wonder as we passed. There was one old penguin, however, that began to walk slowly towards the sea; and Peterkin took it into his head that he would try to interrupt its progress, so he ran between it and the sea and brandished his cudgel in its face. But this proved to be a resolute old bird. It would not retreat; nay, more, it would not cease to advance, but battled with Peterkin bravely, and drove him before it until it reached the sea. Had Peterkin used his club he could easily have felled it, no doubt; but as he had no wish to do so cruel an act merely out of sport, he let the bird escape.

We spent fully three hours on this island in watching the habit of these curious birds; but when we finally left them, we all three concluded, after much consultation, that they were the most wonderful creatures we had ever seen, and further, we thought it probable that they were the most wonderful creatures in the world!