The Ebb-Tide, by Robert Louis Stevenson and Lloyd Osbourne

Chapter 2.

Morning on the Beach — The Three Letters

The clouds were all fled, the beauty of the tropic day was spread upon Papeete; and the wall of breaking seas upon the reef, and the palms upon the islet, already trembled in the heat. A French man-of-war was going out, homeward bound; she lay in the middle distance of the port, an ant heap for activity. In the night a schooner had come in, and now lay far out, hard by the passage; and the yellow flag, the emblem of pestilence, flew on her. From up the coast, a long procession of canoes headed round the point and towards the market, bright as a scarf with the many-coloured clothing of the natives and the piles of fruit. But not even the beauty and the welcome warmth of the morning, not even these naval movements, so interesting to sailors and to idlers, could engage the attention of the outcasts. They were still cold at heart, their mouths sour from the want of steep, their steps rambling from the lack of food; and they strung like lame geese along the beach in a disheartened silence. It was towards the town they moved; towards the town whence smoke arose, where happier folk were breakfasting; and as they went, their hungry eyes were upon all sides, but they were only scouting for a meal.

A small and dingy schooner lay snug against the quay, with which it was connected by a plank. On the forward deck, under a spot of awning, five Kanakas who made up the crew, were squatted round a basin of fried feis, and drinking coffee from tin mugs.

‘Eight bells: knock off for breakfast!’ cried the captain with a miserable heartiness. ‘Never tried this craft before; positively my first appearance; guess I’ll draw a bumper house.’

He came close up to where the plank rested on the grassy quay; turned his back upon the schooner, and began to whistle that lively air, ‘The Irish Washerwoman.’ It caught the ears of the Kanaka seamen like a preconcerted signal; with one accord they looked up from their meal and crowded to the ship’s side, fei in hand and munching as they looked. Even as a poor brown Pyrenean bear dances in the streets of English towns under his master’s baton; even so, but with how much more of spirit and precision, the captain footed it in time to his own whistling, and his long morning shadow capered beyond him on the grass. The Kanakas smiled on thie performance; Herrick looked on heavy-eyed, hunger for the moment conquering all sense of shame; and a little farther off, but still hard by, the clerk was torn by the seven devils of the influenza.

The captain stopped suddenly, appeared to perceive his audience for the first time, and represented the part of a man surprised in his private hour of pleasure.

‘Hello!’ said he.

The Kanakas clapped hands and called upon him to go on.

‘No, SIR!’ said the captain. ‘No eat, no dance. Savvy?’

‘Poor old man!’ returned one of the crew. ‘Him no eat?’

‘Lord, no!’ said the captain. ‘Like-um too much eat. No got.’

‘All right. Me got,’ said the sailor; ‘you tome here. Plenty toffee, plenty fei. Nutha man him tome too.’

‘I guess we’ll drop right in,’ observed the captain; and he and his companions hastened up the plank. They were welcomed on board with the shaking of hands; place was made for them about the basin; a sticky demijohn of molasses was added to the feast in honour of company, and an accordion brought from the forecastle and significantly laid by the performer’s side.

‘Ariana,” said he lightly, touching the instrument as he spoke; and he fell to on a long savoury fei, made an end of it, raised his mug of coffee, and nodded across at the spokesman of the crew. ‘Here’s your health, old man; you’re a credit to the South Pacific,’ said he.

With the unsightly greed of hounds they glutted themselves with the hot food and coffee; and even the clerk revived and the colour deepened in his eyes. The kettle was drained, the basin cleaned; their entertainers, who had waited on their wants throughout with the pleased hospitality of Polynesians, made haste to bring forward a dessert of island tobacco and rolls of pandanus leaf to serve as paper; and presently all sat about the dishes puffing like Indian Sachems.

‘When a man ‘as breakfast every day, he don’t know what it is,’ observed the clerk.

‘The next point is dinner,’ said Herrick; and then with a passionate utterance: ‘I wish to God I was a Kanaka!’

‘There’s one thing sure,’ said the captain. ‘I’m about desperate, I’d rather hang than rot here much longer.’ And with the word he took the accordion and struck up. ‘Home, sweet home.’

‘O, drop that!’ cried Herrick, ‘I can’t stand that.’

‘No more can I,’ said the captain. ‘I’ve got to play something though: got to pay the shot, my son.’ And he struck up ‘John Brown’s Body’ in a fine sweet baritone: ‘Dandy Jim of Carolina,’ came next; ‘Rorin the Bold,’ ‘Swing low, Sweet Chariot,’ and ‘The Beautiful Land’ followed. The captain was paying his shot with usury, as he had done many a time before; many a meal had he bought with the same currency from the melodious-minded natives, always, as now, to their delight.

He was in the middle of ‘Fifteen Dollars in the Inside Pocket,’ singing with dogged energy, for the task went sore against the grain, when a sensation was suddenly to be observed among the crew.

‘Tapena Tom harry my,’ said the spokesman, pointing.

And the three beachcombers, following his indication, saw the figure of a man in pyjama trousers and a white jumper approaching briskly from the town.

‘Captain Tom is coming.’

‘That’s Tapena Tom, is it?’ said the captain, pausing in his music. ‘I don’t seem to place the brute.’

‘We’d better cut,’ said the clerk. “E’s no good.,

‘Well,’ said the musician deliberately, ‘one can’t most generally always tell. I’ll try it on, I guess. Music has charms to soothe the savage Tapena, boys. We might strike it rich; it might amount to iced punch in the cabin.’

‘Hiced punch? O my!’ said the clerk. ‘Give him something ‘ot, captain. “Way down the Swannee River”; try that.’

‘No, sir! Looks Scotch,’ said the captain; and he struck, for his life, into ‘Auld Lang Syne.’

Captain Tom continued to approach with the same business-like alacrity; no change was to be perceived in his bearded face as he came swinging up the plank: he did not even turn his eyes on the performer.

‘We twa hae paidled in the burn
Frae morning tide till dine,’

went the song.

Captain Tom had a parcel under his arm, which he laid on the house roof, and then turning suddenly to the strangers: ‘Here, you!’ he bellowed, ‘be off out of that!’

The clerk and Herrick stood not on the order of their going, but fled incontinently by the plank. The performer, on the other hand, flung down the instrument and rose to his full height slowly.

‘What’s that you say?’ he said. ‘I’ve half a mind to give you a lesson in civility.’

‘You set up any more of your gab to me,’ returned the Scotsman, ‘and I’ll show ye the wrong side of a jyle. I’ve heard tell of the three of ye. Ye’re not long for here, I can tell ye that. The Government has their eyes upon ye. They make short work of damned beachcombers, I’ll say that for the French.’

‘You wait till I catch you off your ship!’ cried the captain: and then, turning to the crew, ‘Good-bye, you fellows!’ he said. ‘You’re gentlemen, anyway! The worst nigger among you would look better upon a quarter-deck than that filthy Scotchman.’

Captain Tom scorned to reply; he watched with a hard smile the departure of his guests; and as soon as the last foot was off the plank; turned to the hands to work cargo.

The beachcombers beat their inglorious retreat along the shore; Herrick first, his face dark with blood, his knees trembling under him with the hysteria of rage. Presently, under the same purao where they had shivered the night before, he cast himself down, and groaned aloud, and ground his face into the sand.

‘Don’t speak to me, don’t speak to me. I can’t stand it,’ broke from him.

The other two stood over him perplexed.

‘Wot can’t he stand now?’ said the clerk. ‘‘Asn’t he ‘ad a meal? I’M lickin’ my lips.’

Herrick reared up his wild eyes and burning face. ‘I can’t beg!’ he screamed, and again threw himself prone.

‘This thing’s got to come to an end,’ said the captain with an intake of the breath.

‘Looks like signs of an end, don’t it?’ sneered the clerk.

‘He’s not so far from it, and don’t you deceive yourself,’ replied the captain. ‘Well,’ he added in a livelier voice, ‘you fellows hang on here, and I’ll go and interview my representative.’

Whereupon he turned on his heel, and set off at a swinging sailor’s walk towards Papeete.

It was some half hour later when he returned. The clerk was dozing with his back against the tree: Herrick still lay where he had flung himself; nothing showed whether he slept or waked.

‘See, boys!’ cried the captain, with that artificial heartiness of his which was at times so painful, ‘here’s a new idea.’ And he produced note paper, stamped envelopes, and pencils, three of each. ‘We can all write home by the mail brigantine; the consul says I can come over to his place and ink up the addresses.’

‘Well, that’s a start, too,’ said the clerk. ‘I never thought of that.’

‘It was that yarning last night about going home that put me up to it,’ said the captain.

‘Well, ‘and over,’ said the clerk. ‘I’ll ‘ave a shy,’ and he retired a little distance to the shade of a canoe.

The others remained under the purao. Now they would write a word or two, now scribble it out; now they would sit biting at the pencil end and staring seaward; now their eyes would rest on the clerk, where he sat propped on the canoe, leering and coughing, his pencil racing glibly on the paper.

‘I can’t do it,’ said Herrick suddenly. ‘I haven’t got the heart.’

‘See here,’ said the captain, speaking with unwonted gravity; ‘it may be hard to write, and to write lies at that; and God knows it is; but it’s the square thing. It don’t cost anything to say you’re well and happy, and sorry you can’t make a remittance this mail; and if you don’t, I’ll tell you what I think it is — I think it’s about the high-water mark of being a brute beast.’

‘It’s easy to talk,’ said Herrick. ‘You don’t seem to have written much yourself, I notice.’

‘What do you bring in me for?’ broke from the captain. His voice was indeed scarce raised above a whisper, but emotion clanged in it. ‘What do you know about me? If you had commanded the finest barque that ever sailed from Portland; if you had been drunk in your berth when she struck the breakers in Fourteen Island Group, and hadn’t had the wit to stay there and drown, but came on deck, and given drunken orders, and lost six lives — I could understand your talking then! There,’ he said more quietly, ‘that’s my yarn, and now you know it. It’s a pretty one for the father of a family. Five men and a woman murdered. Yes, there was a woman on board, and hadn’t no business to be either. Guess I sent her to Hell, if there is such a place. I never dared go home again; and the wife and the little ones went to England to her father’s place. I don’t know what’s come to them,’ he added, with a bitter shrug.

‘Thank you, captain,’ said Herrick. ‘I never liked you better.’

They shook hands, short and hard, with eyes averted, tenderness swelling in their bosoms.

‘Now, boys! to work again at lying!’ said the captain.

‘I’ll give my father up,’ returned Herrick with a writhen smile. ‘I’ll try my sweetheart instead for a change of evils.’

And here is what he wrote:

‘Emma, I have scratched out the beginning to my father, for I think I can write more easily to you. This is my last farewell to all, the last you will ever hear or see of an unworthy friend and son. I have failed in life; I am quite broken down and disgraced. I pass under a false name; you will have to tell my father that with all your kindness. It is my own fault. I know, had I chosen, that I might have done well; and yet I swear to you I tried to choose. I could not bear that you should think I did not try. For I loved you all; you must never doubt me in that, you least of all. I have always unceasingly loved, but what was my love worth? and what was I worth? I had not the manhood of a common clerk, I could not work to earn you; I have lost you now, and for your sake I could be glad of it. When you first came to my father’s house — do you remember those days? I want you to — you saw the best of me then, all that was good in me. Do you remember the day I took your hand and would not let it go — and the day on Battersea Bridge, when we were looking at a barge, and I began to tell you one of my silly stories, and broke off to say I loved you? That was the beginning, and now here is the end. When you have read this letter, you will go round and kiss them all good-bye, my father and mother, and the children, one by one, and poor uncle; And tell them all to forget me, and forget me yourself. Turn the key in the door; let no thought of me return; be done with the poor ghost that pretended he was a man and stole your love. Scorn of myself grinds in me as I write. I should tell you I am well and happy, and want for nothing. I do not exactly make money, or I should send a remittance; but I am well cared for, have friends, live in a beautiful place and climate, such as we have dreamed of together, and no pity need be wasted on me. In such places, you understand, it is easy to live, and live well, but often hard to make sixpence in money. Explain this to my father, he will understand. I have no more to say; only linger, going out, like an unwilling guest. God in heaven bless you. Think of me to the last, here, on a bright beach, the sky and sea immoderately blue, and the great breakers roaring outside on a barrier reef, where a little isle sits green with palms. I am well and strong. It is a more pleasant way to die than if you were crowding about me on a sick-bed. And yet I am dying. This is my last kiss. Forgive, forget the unworthy.’

So far he bad written, his paper was all filled, when there returned a memory of evenings at the piano, and that song, the masterpiece of love, in which so many have found the expression of their dearest thoughts. ‘Einst, O wunder!’ he added. More was not required; he knew that in his love’s heart the context would spring up, escorted with fair images and harmony; of how all through life her name should tremble in his ears, her name be everywhere repeated in the sounds of nature; and when death came, and he lay dissolved, her memory lingered and thrilled among his elements.

‘Once, O wonder! once from the ashes of my heart
Arose a blossom —’

Herrick and the captain finished their letters about the same time; each was breathing deep, and their eyes met and were averted as they closed the envelopes.

‘Sorry I write so big,’ said the captain gruffly. ‘Came all of a rush, when it did come.’

‘Same here,’ said Herrick. ‘I could have done with a ream when I got started; but it’s long enough for all the good I had to say.’

They were still at the addresses when the clerk strolled up, smirking and twirling his envelope, like a man well pleased. He looked over Herrick’s shoulder.

‘Hullo,’ he said, ‘you ain’t writing ‘ome.’

‘I am, though,’ said Herrick; ‘she lives with my father. Oh, I see what you mean,’ he added. ‘My real name is Herrick. No more Hay’— they had both used the same alias —‘no more Hay than yours, I dare say.’

‘Clean bowled in the middle stump!’ laughed the clerk. ‘My name’s ‘Uish if you want to know. Everybody has a false nyme in the Pacific. Lay you five to three the captain ‘as.’

‘So I have too,’ replied the captain; ‘and I’ve never told my own since the day I tore the title page out of my Bowditch and flung the damned thing into the sea. But I’ll tell it to you, boys. John Davis is my name. I’m Davis of the Sea Ranger.’

‘Dooce you are!’ said Hush. ‘And what was she? a pirate or a slyver?’

‘She was the fastest barque out of Portland, Maine,’ replied the captain; ‘and for the way I lost her, I might as well have bored a hole in her side with an auger.’

‘Oh, you lost her, did you?’ said the clerk. ‘‘Ope she was insured?’

No answer being returned to this sally, Huish, still brimming over with vanity and conversation, struck into another subject.

‘I’ve a good mind to read you my letter,’ said he. ‘I’ve a good fist with a pen when I choose, and this is a prime lark. She was a barmaid I ran across in Northampton; she was a spanking fine piece, no end of style; and we cottoned at first sight like parties in the play. I suppose I spent the chynge of a fiver on that girl. Well, I ‘appened to remember her nyme, so I wrote to her, and told her ‘ow I had got rich, and married a queen in the Hislands, and lived in a blooming palace. Such a sight of crammers! I must read you one bit about my opening the nigger parliament in a cocked ‘at. It’s really prime.’

The captain jumped to his feet. ‘That’s what you did with the paper that I went and begged for you?’ he roared.

It was perhaps lucky for Huish — it was surely in the end unfortunate for all — that he was seized just then by one of his prostrating accesses of cough; his comrades would have else deserted him, so bitter was their resentment. When the fit had passed, the clerk reached out his hand, picked up the letter, which had fallen to the earth, and tore it into fragments, stamp and all.

‘Does that satisfy you?’ he asked sullenly.

‘We’ll say no more about it,’ replied Davis.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 22:30