Chapter 36 - The Tiger Hunter by Mayne Reid

Unpleasant Swimming Companions.

A shark may be driven off for a time by the efforts of a human enemy, but his natural voracity will soon impel him to return to the attack. When the Indian therefore rose to the surface of the water—remembering his old practice as a pearl-diver—he cast around him a glance of caution. Having shouted back to his companion in misfortune some words which the latter had indistinctly heard, he placed his knife between his teeth, and swam straight onward.

It was not fear that caused him to take this precaution. It was merely an act of habitual prudence.

As he struck out from the canoe, he perceived that two monsters of the deep, far more formidable than those of the forest, were proceeding in the same direction as himself. One was about twenty feet from him on the right; the other appeared at an equal distance on his left; and both were evidently attending upon him!

Unpleasant as two such companions might be deemed, the swimmer at first paid but slight attention to their movements. His mind was pre-occupied with a variety of other thoughts—especially with the doubt as to whether he might be able to find the barges. On the wide surface of the sea, and in the midst of the profound darkness, it would be but too easy to pass without perceiving them, and very difficult indeed to find them. This apprehension, combined with those fearless habits in the water, which he had contracted while following the life of a pearl-diver—and furthermore his belief in a positive fatalism—all united in rendering the Zapoteque indifferent to the presence of his two terrible attendants.

Only at intervals, and then rather from prudence than fear, he turned his head to the right or left, and glanced in the direction of his compagnons du voyage. He could not help perceiving moreover that at each instant the sharks were drawing nearer to him!

By a vigorous stroke on the water he now raised his body high over the surface; and, there balancing for a moment, glanced forward. It was an eager glance; for he was looking for that object on the finding of which his life must depend. He saw only the line of the horizon of dull sombre hue—no object visible upon it, except here and there the white crests of the waves.

A sudden glance to the right, and another to the left, showed him the two fearful creatures, now nearer than ever. Neither was more than ten feet from his body!

Still the swimmer was not dismayed by their presence. Far more was he daunted by the immense solitude of the watery surface that surrounded him.

However bold a man may be, there are moments when danger must necessarily cause him fear. Costal was in a position sufficiently perilous to have unnerved most men. Swimming in the midst of a rising sea—beyond sight of land, or any other object—escorted by two voracious sharks—with a dark sky overhead, and no precise knowledge of the direction in which he was going—no wonder he began to feel something more than inquietude.

However strong may be a swimmer, he cannot fail after long keeping up such vigorous action as it requires, to become fatigued, and worn out: the more so when, like Costal, he carries a knife between his teeth—thus impeding his free respiration. But the ex-pearl-diver did not think of parting with the weapon—his only resource, in case of being attacked by the sharks—and still keeping his lips closed upon it, he swam on.

After a time, he felt his heart beating violently against his ribs. He attributed this circumstance less to fear than to the efforts he was making; and, taking the knife from his mouth, he carried it in one of his hands.

The pulsations of his heart were not the less rapid: for it may be acknowledged, without much shame to him, that Costal now really felt fear. Moreover, swimming with one hand closed, it was necessary for him to strike more rapidly with the other.

The precaution of holding his knife ready in hand, was not likely to prove an idle one. The two sharks appeared gradually converging upon the line which the swimmer must take, if he continued to swim directly onward.

On observing this convergence of his silent and persevering pursuers, Costal suddenly obliqued to the right. The sharks imitated his movement on the instant, and swam on each side of him as before!

For a few minutes—long and fearful minutes—he was forced to keep on in this new direction. He began to fancy he was swimming out of the way he should have taken; and was about to turn once more to the left, when an object came before his eyes that prompted him to utter an ejaculation of joy.

In spite of himself, he had been guided into the right direction, by the very enemies from whom he was endeavouring to escape; and it was the sight of the barges that had drawn from him the joyful exclamation.

The moment after, he uttered a louder cry, hailing the boats.

He had the satisfaction of hearing a response; but as no one saw him through the darkness, it was necessary for him to continue swimming onwards.

By this time the two sharks had closed on each side, and were gliding along so near, that only a narrow way was open between them. Costal felt that he had not sufficient strength to make a détour; and the only course left him, was to swim straight for the nearest boat. He kept on therefore, his heart beating against his ribs, and with his knife firmly held in his grasp—ready to bury the weapon in the throat of the first that should assail him. With the last efforts of his strength he lunged out right and left, by voice and gesture endeavouring to frighten off the two monsters that flanked him; and he proceeded onward in this way like some doomed ship, struggling between black masses of rocky breakers.

By good fortune his efforts proved successful. The hideous creatures, glaring upon him with glassy eyeballs, were nevertheless frightened by his menacing gestures, and for the moment diverged a little out of his way.

Costal took advantage of this precious moment; and, swimming rapidly forward, succeeded in clutching the side of one of the barges.

A dozen friendly arms instantly drew him aboard; but as his comrades bent over him upon the deck, they perceived that he was unconscious. The effort had been too much for his strength. He had sunk into a syncope.

The presence of Costal in such sad plight sufficiently revealed the fate of the canoe and its occupants. Words could not have made the history of their misfortune more clear.

“It is no use remaining longer here,” said the soldier-admiral. “The canoe must have gone to the bottom. Now, my braves! we shall pull straight for the isle.”

Then raising his sombrero in a reverential manner, he added—

“Let us pray for the souls of our unfortunate comrades—above all, for Captain Lantejas. We have lost in him a most valiant officer.”

And after this laconic oration over Don Cornelio, the barges were once more set in motion, and rowed directly towards the isle of Roqueta.

Meanwhile the unhappy Lantejas sat upon the keel of the broken canoe, contemplating with horrible anxiety the waves of the ocean constantly surging around him, and gradually growing fiercer and higher. Now they appeared as dark as Erebus; anon like ridges of liquid fire, as the lightning flashed athwart the sky, furrowing the black clouds over his head.

He listened attentively. He heard the wind whistling against the waves, and lashing them into fury—as a horseman rouses his steed with whip and spur; he heard the groaning of the surge, like an untamed horse rebelling against his rider.

Fortunately for him, it was yet but the prologue of the storm to which he was listening; and he was still able to maintain his seat upon the frail embarkation.

At short intervals he shouted with all his might, but the wind hurled back his cries, mingled with the spray that was dashed in his face.

No succour appeared within sight or hearing. Costal had no doubt been either drowned or devoured; and the unhappy officer had arrived at the full conviction, that such was to be his own fate; when, all of a sudden, some object came under his eyes that caused him to quiver with joy. Under the glare of the lightning, the barges were visible mounted on the crest of a huge dark wave!

Only a momentary glance did he obtain of them; for, after the flash had passed, the boats were again shrouded in the obscurity of the night.

Do Cornelio raised a loud cry, and listened for the response. No voice reached him. His own was drowned; midst the roaring of the waters, and could not have been heard by the people on board the boats.

He shouted repeatedly, but with the like result—no response.

Once more was he plunged into the deepest anxiety—approaching almost to despair—when on the next flashing of lightning he once more beheld the barges at a little distance from him, but in a direction altogether opposite! They had passed him in the darkness, and were now rowing away!

This was his reflection, though it was an erroneous one. The boats were still in the same direction as at first, but now appeared in the opposite quarter. This deception arose from Don Cornelio himself having turned round on the broken canoe, which kept constantly spinning about upon the waves.

At this moment a rocket shooting up into the dark sky inspired the castaway with fresh hope; and he once more raised his voice, and shouted with all the concentrated power of throat and lungs. After delivering the cry, he remained in breathless expectation, equally concentrating all his strength in the act of listening.

This time a responsive cry came back—a sound all the more joyful to his ears from his recognising it as the voice of Costal.

Don Cornelio now repeated his cries, thick and fast after each other, until his throat and jaws almost refused to give out the slightest sound. Nevertheless he kept on shouting, until one of the barges, bounding over the waves, forged close up to the side of the canoe. Then he felt himself seized by strong arms—they were those of Costal and Galeana—and the moment after he was lifted into the boot, where, like the ex-pearl-diver, but from a very different cause, he fell fainting upon the deck.

It was fortunate for Don Cornelio that Costal had remained only a short time under the influence of his syncope. Recovering from it, the Indian had, in a few words, revealed the situation of the canoe. The signal agreed upon was at once made; and led, as described, to the rescue of his companion from his perilous position.