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The Cruise Of The Coracle






It was broad day when I awoke, and found myself tossing at the
southwest end of Treasure Island. The sun was up, but was still hid
from me behind the great bulk of the Spy-glass, which on this side
descended almost to the sea in formidable cliffs.
Haulbowline Head and Mizzenmast Hill were at my elbow; the hill bare
and dark, the head bound with cliffs forty or fifty feet high, and
fringed with great masses of fallen rock. I was scarce a quarter of a
mile to seaward, and it was my first thought to paddle in and land.

That notion was soon given over. Among the fallen rocks the breakers
spouted and bellowed; loud reverberations, heavy sprays flying and
falling, succeeded one another from second to second; and I saw
myself, if I ventured nearer, dashed to death upon the rough shore, or
spending my strength in vain to scale the beetling crags.

Nor was that all; for crawling together on flat tables of rock, or
letting themselves drop into the sea with loud reports, I beheld huge
slimy monsters--soft snails, as it were, of incredible bigness--two or
three score of them together, making the rocks to echo with their
barkings.

I have understood since that they were sea-lions, and entirely
harmless. But the look of them, added to the difficulty of the shore
and the high running of the surf, was more than enough to disgust me
of that landing-place. I felt willing rather to starve at sea than to
confront such perils.

In the meantime I had a better chance, as I supposed, before me. North
of Haulbowline Head, the land runs in a long way, leaving, at low
tide, a long stretch of yellow sand. To the north of that, again,
there comes another cape--Cape of the Woods, as it was marked upon the
chart--buried in tall green pines, which descended to the margin of the
sea.

I remembered what Silver had said about the current that sets
northward along the whole west coast of Treasure Island; and seeing
from my position that I was already under its influence, I preferred
to leave Haulbowline Head behind me, and reserve my strength for an
attempt to land upon the kindlier-looking Cape of the Woods.

There was a great, smooth swell upon the sea. The wind blowing steady
and gentle from the south, there was no contrariety between that and
the current, and the billows rose and fell unbroken.

Had it been otherwise, I must long ago have perished; but as it was,
it is surprising how easily and securely my little and light boat
could ride. Often, as I still lay at the bottom, and kept no more than
an eye above the gunwale, I would see a big blue summit heaving close
above me; yet the coracle would but bounce a little, dance as if on
springs, and subside on the other side into the trough as lightly as a
bird.

I began after a little to grow very bold, and sat up to try my skill
at paddling. But even a small change in the disposition of the weight
will produce violent changes in the behavior of a coracle. And I had
hardly moved before the boat, giving up at once her gentle dancing
movement, ran straight down a slope of water so steep that it made me
giddy, and struck her nose, with a spout of spray, deep into the side
of the next wave.

I was drenched and terrified, and fell instantly back into my old
position, whereupon the coracle seemed to find her head again, and led
me as softly as before among the billows. It was plain she was not to
be interfered with, and at that rate, since I could in no way
influence her course, what hope had I left of reaching land?

I began to be horribly frightened, but I kept my head, for all that.
First, moving with all care, I gradually baled out the coracle with my
sea-cap; then getting my eye once more above the gunwale, I set myself
to study how it was she managed to slip so quietly through the
rollers.

I found each wave, instead of the big, smooth, glossy mountain it
looks from shore, or from a vessel's deck, was for all the world like
any range of hills on the dry land, full of peaks and smooth places
and valleys. The coracle, left to herself, turning from side to side,
threaded, so to speak, her way through these lower parts, and avoided
the steep slopes and higher, toppling summits of the waves.

"Well, now," thought I to myself, "it is plain I must lie where I am,
and not disturb the balance; but it is plain, also, that I can put the
paddle over the side, and from time to time, in smooth places, give
her a shove or two towards land." No sooner thought upon than done.
There I lay on my elbows, in the most trying attitude, and every now
and again gave a weak stroke or two to turn her head to shore.

It was very tiring, and slow to work, yet I did visibly gain ground;
and, as we drew near the Cape of the Woods, though I saw I must
infallibly miss that point, I had still made some hundred yards of
easting. I was, indeed, close in. I could see the cool, green
tree-tops swaying together in the breeze, and I felt sure I should
make the next promontory without fail.

It was high time, for I now began to be tortured with thirst. The glow
of the sun from above, its thousand-fold reflection from the waves,
the sea-water that fell and dried upon me, caking my very lips with
salt, combined to make my throat burn and my brain ache. The sight of
the trees so near at hand had almost made me sick with longing; but
the current had soon carried me past the point; and, as the next reach
of sea opened out, I beheld a sight that changed the nature of my
thoughts.

Right in front of me, not half a mile away, I beheld the Hispaniola
under sail. I made sure, of course, that I should be taken; but I was
so distressed for want of water, that I scarce knew whether to be glad
or sorry at the thought; and, long before I had come to a conclusion,
surprise had taken entire possession of my mind, and I could do
nothing but stare and wonder.

The Hispaniola was under her mainsail and two jibs, and the beautiful
white canvas shone in the sun like snow or silver. When I first
sighted her, all her sails were drawing; she was lying a course about
north-west; and I presumed the men on board were going round the
island on their way back to the anchorage. Presently she began to
fetch more and more to the westward, so that I thought they had
sighted me and were going about in chase. At last, however, she fell
right into the wind's eye, was taken dead aback, and stood there a
while helpless, with her sails shivering.

"Clumsy fellows," said I; "they must still be drunk as owls." And I
thought how Captain Smollett would have set them skipping.

Meanwhile, the schooner gradually fell off, and filled again upon
another tack, sailed swiftly for a minute or so, and brought up once
more dead in the wind's eye. Again and again was this repeated. To and
fro, up and down, north, south, east, and west, the Hispaniola sailed
by swoops and dashes, and at each repetition ended as she had begun,
with idly-flapping canvas. It became plain to me that nobody was
steering. And, if so, where were the men? Either they were dead drunk,
or had deserted her, I thought, and perhaps if I could get on board, I
might return the vessel to her captain.

The current was bearing coracle and schooner southward at an equal
rate. As for the latter's sailing, it was so wild and intermittent,
and she hung each time so long in stays, that she certainly gained
nothing, if she did not even lose. If only I dared to sit up and
paddle, I made sure that I could overhaul her. The scheme had an air
of adventure that inspired me, and the thought of the water beaker
beside the fore companion doubled my growing courage.

Up I got, was welcomed almost instantly by another cloud of spray, but
this time stuck to my purpose; and set myself, with all my strength
and caution, to paddle after the unsteered Hispaniola. Once I shipped
a sea so heavy that I had to stop and bale, with my heart fluttering
like a bird; but gradually I got into the way of the thing, and guided
my coracle among the waves, with only now and then a blow upon her
bows and a dash of foam in my face.

I was now gaining rapidly on the schooner; I could see the brass
glisten on the tiller as it banged about; and still no soul appeared
upon her decks. I could not choose but suppose she was deserted. If
not, the men were lying drunk below, where I might batten them down,
perhaps, and do what I chose with the ship.

For some time she had been doing the worst thing possible for
me--standing still. She headed nearly due south, yawing, of course, all
the time. Each time she fell off her sails partly filled, and these
brought her, in a moment, right to the wind again. I have said this
was the worst thing possible for me; for helpless as she looked in
this situation, with the canvas cracking like cannon, and the blocks
trundling and banging on the deck, she still continued to run away
from me, not only with the speed of the current, but by the whole
amount of her leeway, which was naturally great.

But now, at last, I had my chance. The breeze fell, for some seconds,
very low, and the current gradually turning her, the Hispaniola
revolved slowly round her centre, and at last presented me her stern,
with the cabin window still gaping open, and the lamp over the table
still burning on into the day. The mainsail hung drooped like a
banner. She was stock-still, but for the current.

For the last little while I had even lost; but now redoubling my
efforts, I began once more to overhaul the chase.

I was not a hundred yards from her when the wind came again in a clap;
she filled on the port tack, and was off again, stooping and skimming
like a swallow.

My first impulse was one of despair, but my second was towards joy.
Round she came, till she was broadside on to me--round still till she
had covered a half, and then two-thirds, and then three-quarters of
the distance that separated us. I could see the waves boiling white
under her forefoot. Immensely tall she looked to me from my low
station in the coracle.

And then, of a sudden, I began to comprehend. I had scarce time to
think--scarce time to act and save myself. I was on the summit of one
swell when the schooner came stooping over the next. The bowsprit was
over my head. I sprang to my feet, and leaped, stamping the coracle
under water. With one hand I caught the jib-boom, while my foot was
lodged between the stay and the brace; and as I still clung there
panting, a dull blow told me that the schooner had charged down upon
and struck the coracle, and that I was left without retreat on the
Hispaniola.





Next: The Landing On The Island

Previous: Treasure Island



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