R. M. Ballantyne
Jarwin and Cuffy
Adrift on the Ocean
On a certain morning, not very long ago, the sun, according to his ancient and admirable custom, rose at a very early hour, and casting his bright beams far and wide over the Pacific, lighted up the yellow sands and the verdant hills of one of the loveliest of the islands of that mighty sea.
It was early morning, as we have said, and there was plenty of life—animal as well as vegetable—to be seen on land and sea, and in the warm, hazy atmosphere. But there were no indications of man’s presence in that beautiful scene. The air was perfectly calm, yet the gentle swell of the ocean terminated in great waves, which came rolling in like walls of glass, and fell on the coral-reef like rushing snow-wreaths with a roar as loud as thunder.
Thousands of sea-birds screamed and circled in the sky. Fish leaped high out of their native element into the air, as if they wished to catch the gulls, while the gulls, seemingly smitten with a similar desire, dived into the water as if they wished to catch the fish. It might have been observed, however, that while the fish never succeeded in catching the gulls, the latter very frequently caught the fish, and, without taking the trouble to kill them, bolted them down alive.
Cocoanut-palms cast the shadows of their long stems and graceful tops upon the beach, while, farther inland, a dense forest of tropical plants—bread-fruit trees, bananas, etcetera—rose up the mountain-sides. Here and there open patches might be seen, that looked like fields and lawns, but there were no cottages or villas. Droves of pigs rambled about the valleys and on the hill-sides, but they were wild pigs. No man tended them. The bread-fruits, the cocoanuts, the bananas, the plantains, the plums, all were beautiful and fit for food, but no man owned them or used them, for, like many other spots in that sea of coral isles and savage men, the island was uninhabited.
In all the wide expanse of ocean that surrounded that island, there was nothing visible save one small, solitary speck on the far-off horizon. It might have been mistaken for a seagull, but it was in reality a raft—a mass of spars and planks rudely bound together with ropes. A boat’s mast rose from the centre of it, on which hung a rag of sail, and a small red flag drooped motionless from its summit. There were a few casks on the highest part of the raft, but no living soul was visible. Nevertheless, it was not without tenants. In a hollow between two of the spars, under the shadow of one of the casks, lay the form of a man. The canvas trousers, cotton shirt, blue jacket, and open necktie, bespoke him a sailor, but it seemed as though there were nothing left save the dead body of the unfortunate tar, so pale and thin and ghastly were his features. A terrier dog lay beside him, so shrunken that it looked like a mere scrap of door-matting. Both man and dog were apparently dead, but they were not so in reality, for, after lying about an hour quite motionless, the man slowly opened his eyes.
Ah, reader, it would have touched your heart to have seen those eyes! They were so deep set, as if in dark caverns, and so unnaturally large. They gazed round in a vacant way for a few moments, until they fell on the dog. Then a gleam of fire shot through them, and their owner raised his large, gaunt, wasted frame on one elbow, while he gazed with a look of eagerness, which was perfectly awful, at his dumb companion.
“Not dead yet!” he said, drawing a long sigh.
There was a strange, incongruous mixture of satisfaction and discontent in the remark, which was muttered in a faint whisper.
Another gleam shot through the large eyes. It was not a pleasant look. Slowly, and as if with difficulty, the man drew a clasp-knife from his pocket, and opened it. As he did so, his brows lowered and his teeth became clenched. It was quite plain what he meant to do. As he held the open knife over the dog’s head, he muttered, “Am I to die for the sake of a dog!”
Either the terrier’s slumbers had come to an end naturally, at a fortunate moment, or the master’s voice had awakened it, for it opened its eyes, raised its head, and looked up in the sailor’s face. The hand with the knife drooped a little. The dog rose and licked it. Hunger had done its work on the poor creature, for it could hardly stand, yet it managed to look in its master’s face with that grave, simple gaze of self-forgetting love, which appears to be peculiar to the canine race. The savage glare of the seaman’s eyes vanished. He dropped the knife.
“Thanks, Cuffy; thanks for stoppin’ me. It would have been murder! No, no, my doggie, you and I shall die together.”
His voice sank into a murmur, partly from weakness and partly from the ideas suggested by his concluding words.
“Die together!” he repeated, “surely it ain’t come to that yet. Wot, John Jarwin, you’re not goin’ to give in like that, are you? to haul down your colours on a fine day with a clear sky like this overhead? Come, cheer up, lad; you’re young and can hold out a good while yet. Hey, old dog, wot say you?”
The dog made a motion that would, in ordinary circumstances, have resulted in the wagging of its tail, but the tail was powerless to respond.
At that moment a gull flew towards the raft; Jarwin watched it eagerly as it approached. “Ah,” he muttered, clasping his bony hand as tightly over his heart as his strength would allow and addressing the gull, “if I only had hold of you, I’d tear you limb from limb, and drink your blood!”
He watched the bird intently as it flew straight over him. Leaning back, he continued slowly to follow its flight, until his head rested on the block of wood which had served him for a pillow. The support felt agreeable, he forgot the gull, closed his eyes, and sank with a deep sigh into a slumber that strongly resembled death.
Presently he awoke with a start, and, once more raising himself, gazed round upon the sea. No ship was to be seen. How often he had gazed round the watery circle with the same anxious look only to meet with disappointment! The hills of the coral island were visible like a blue cloud on the horizon, but Jarwin’s eyes were too dim and worn out to observe them.
“Come,” he exclaimed, suddenly, scrambling to his feet, “rouse up, Cuffy; you an’ I ain’t a-goin’ to die without a good fight for life. Come along, my hearty; we’ll have another glass of grog—Adam’s grog it is, but it has been good grog to you an’ me, doggie—an’ then we shall have another inspection o’ the locker; mayhap there’s the half of a crumb left.”
The comparatively cheery tone in which the sailor said this seemed to invigorate the dog, for it rose and actually succeeded in wriggling its tail as it staggered after its master—indubitable sign of hope and love not yet subdued!
Jarwin went to a cask which still contained a small quantity of fresh water. Three weeks before the point at which we take up his story, a storm had left him and his dog the sole survivors on the raft of the crew of a barque which had sprung a leak, and gone to the bottom. His provision at the time was a very small quantity of biscuit and a cask of fresh water. Several days before this the last biscuit had been consumed but the water had not yet failed. Hitherto John Jarwin had husbanded his provisions, but now, feeling desperate, he drank deeply of the few remaining drops of that liquid which, at the time, was almost as vital to him as his life-blood. He gave a full draught also to the little dog.
“Share and share alike, doggie,” he said, patting its head, as it eagerly lapped up the water; “but there’s no wittles, Cuffy, an’ ye don’t care for baccy, or ye should be heartily welcome to a quid.”
So saying, the sailor supplied his own cheek with a small piece of his favourite weed, and stood up on the highest part of the raft to survey the surrounding prospect. He did so without much hope, for “hope deferred” had at last made his heart sick. Suddenly his wandering gaze became fixed and intense. He shaded his eyes with one hand, and steadied himself against the mast with the other. There could be no doubt of it! “Land ho!” he shouted, with a degree of strength that surprised himself, and even drew from Cuffy the ghost of a bark. On the strength of the discovery Jarwin and his dumb friend immediately treated themselves to another glass of Adam’s grog.
But poor Jarwin had his patience further tried. Hours passed away, and still the island seemed as far off as ever. Night drew on, and it gradually faded from his view. But he had unquestionably seen land; so, with this to comfort him, the starving tar lay down beside his dog to spend another night—as he had already spent many days and nights—a castaway on the wide ocean.
Morning dawned, and the sailor rose with difficulty. He had forgotten, for a moment, the discovery of land on the previous night, but it was brought suddenly to his remembrance by the roar of breakers near at hand. Turning in the direction whence the sound came, he beheld an island quite close to him, with heavy “rollers” breaking furiously on the encircling ring of the coral-reef. The still water between the reef and the shore, which was about a quarter of a mile wide, reflected every tree and crag of the island, as if in a mirror. It was a grand, a glorious sight, and caused Jarwin’s heart to swell with emotions that he had never felt before; but his attention was quickly turned to a danger which was imminent, and which seemed to threaten the total destruction of his raft, and the loss of his life.
A very slight breeze—a mere zephyr—which had carried him during the night towards the island, was now bearing him straight, though slowly, down on the reef, where, if he had once got involved in the breakers, the raft must certainly have been dashed to pieces; and he knew full well, that in his weak condition, he was utterly incapable of contending with such a surf.
Being a man of promptitude, his first act, on making this discovery, was to lower the sail. This was, fortunately, done in time; had he kept it up a few minutes longer, he must inevitably have passed the only opening in the reef that existed on that side of the island. This opening was not more than fifty yards wide. To the right and left of it the breakers on the reef extended, in lines of seething foam. Already the raft was rolling in the commotion caused by these breakers, as it drifted towards the opening.
Jarwin was by no means devoid of courage. Many a time, in days gone by, when his good ship was tossing on the stormy sea, or scudding under bare poles, had he stood on the deck with unshaken confidence and a calm heart, but now he was face to face with the seaman’s most dreaded enemy—“breakers ahead!”—nay, worse, breakers around him everywhere, save at that one narrow passage, which appeared so small, and so involved in the general turmoil, as to afford scarcely an element of hope. For the first time in his life Jarwin’s heart sank within him—at least so he said in after years while talking of the event—but we suspect that John was underrating himself. At all events, he showed no symptoms of fear as he sat there calmly awaiting his fate.
As the raft approached the reef, each successive roller lifted it up and dropped it behind more violently, until at last the top of one of the glittering green walls broke just as it passed under the end of the raft nearest the shore. Jarwin now knew that the next billow would seal his fate.
There was a wide space between each of those mighty waves. He looked out to sea, and beheld the swell rising and taking form, and increasing in speed as it came on. Calmly divesting himself of his coat and boots, he sat down beside his dog, and awaited the event. At that moment he observed, with intense gratitude to the Almighty, that the raft was drifting so straight towards the middle of the channel in the reef, that there seemed every probability of being carried through it; but the hope thus raised was somewhat chilled by the feeling of weakness which pervaded his frame.
“Now, Cuffy,” said he, patting the terrier gently, “rouse up, my doggie; we must make a brave struggle for life. It’s neck or nothing this time. If we touch that reef in passing, Cuff, you an’ I shall be food for the sharks to-night, an’ it’s my opinion that the shark as gits us won’t have much occasion to boast of his supper.”
The sailor ceased speaking abruptly. As he looked back at the approaching roller he felt solemnised and somewhat alarmed, for it appeared so perpendicular and so high from his low position, that it seemed as if it would fall on and overwhelm the raft. There was, indeed, some danger of this. Glancing along its length, Jarwin saw that here and there the edge was lipping over, while in one place, not far off, the thunder of its fall had already begun. Another moment, and it appeared to hang over his head; the raft was violently lifted at the stern, caught up, and whirled onward at railway speed, like a cork in the midst of a boiling cauldron of foam. The roar was deafening. The tumultuous heaving almost overturned it several times. Jarwin held on firmly to the mast with his right arm, and grasped the terrier with his left hand, for the poor creature had not strength to resist such furious motion. It all passed with bewildering speed. It seemed as if, in one instant, the raft was hurled through the narrows, and launched into the calm harbour within. An eddy, at the inner side of the opening, swept it round, and fixed the end of one of the largest spars of which it was composed on the beach.
There were fifty yards or so of sandy coral-reef between the beach outside, that faced the sea, and the beach inside, which faced the land; yet how great the difference! The one beach, buffeted for ever, day and night, by the breakers—in calm by the grand successive rollers that, as it were, symbolised the ocean’s latent power—in storm by the mad deluge of billows which displayed that power in all its terrible grandeur. The other beach, a smooth, sloping circlet of fair white sand, laved only by the ripples of the lagoon, or by its tiny wavelets, when a gale chanced to sweep over it from the land.
Jarwin soon gained this latter beach with Cuffy in his arms, and sat down to rest, for his strength had been so much reduced that the mere excitement of passing through the reef had almost exhausted him. Cuffy, however, seemed to derive new life from the touch of earth again, for it ran about in a staggering drunken sort of way; wagged its tail at the root,—without, however, being able to influence the point,—and made numerous futile efforts to bark.
In the midst of its weakly gambols the terrier chanced to discover a dead fish on the sands. Instantly it darted forward and began to devour it with great voracity.
“Halo! Cuffy,” shouted Jarwin, who observed him; “ho! hold on, you rascal! share and share alike, you know. Here, fetch it here!”
Cuffy had learned the first great principle of a good and useful life—whether of man or beast—namely, prompt obedience. That meek but jovial little dog, on receiving this order, restrained its appetite, lifted the fish in its longing jaws, and, carrying it to his master, humbly laid it at his feet. He was rewarded with a hearty pat on the head, and a full half of the coveted fish—for Jarwin appeared to regard the “share-and-share-alike” principle as a point of honour between them.
The fish was not good, neither was it large, and of course it was raw, besides being somewhat decayed; nevertheless, both man and dog ate it, bones and all, with quiet satisfaction. Nay, reader, do not shudder! If you were reduced to similar straits, you would certainly enjoy, with equal gusto, a similar meal, supposing that you had the good fortune to get it. Small though it was, it sufficed to appease the appetite of the two friends, and to give them a feeling of strength which they had not experienced for many a day.
Under the influence of this feeling, Jarwin remarked to Cuffy, that “a man could eat a-most anything when hard put to it,” and that “it wos now high time to think about goin’ ashore.”
To which Cuffy replied with a bark, which one might imagine should come from a dog in the last stage of whooping-cough, and with a wag of his tail—not merely at the root thereof, but a distinct wag—that extended obviously along its entire length to the extreme point. Jarwin observed the successful effort, laughed feebly, and said, “Brayvo, Cuffy,” with evident delight; for it reminded him of the days when that little shred of a door-mat, in the might of its vigour, was wont to wag its tail so violently as to convulse its whole body, insomuch that it was difficult to decide whether the tail wagged the body, or the body the tail!
But, although Jarwin made light of his sufferings, his gaunt, wasted frame would have been a sad sight to any pitiful spectator, as with weary aspect and unsteady gait he moved about on the sandy ridge in search of more food, or gazed with longing eyes on the richly-wooded island.
For it must be remembered that our castaway had not landed on the island itself, but on that narrow ring of coral-reef which almost encircled it, and from which it was separated by the lagoon, or enclosed portion of the sea, which was, as we have said, about a quarter of a mile wide.
John Jarwin would have thought little of swimming over that narrow belt of smooth water in ordinary circumstances, but now he felt that his strength was not equal to such a feat. Moreover, he knew that there were sharks in these waters, so he dismissed the idea of swimming, and cast about in his mind how he should manage to get across. With Jarwin, action soon followed thought. He resolved to form a small raft out of portions of the large one. Fortunately his clasp-knife had been attached, as seamen frequently have it, to his waist-belt, when he forsook his ship. This was the only implement that he possessed, but it was invaluable. With it he managed to cut the thick ropes that he could not have untied, and, in the course of two hours—for he laboured with extreme difficulty—a few broken planks and spars were lashed together. Embarking on this frail vessel with his dog, he pushed off, and using a piece of plank for an oar, sculled himself over the lagoon.