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

Chapter 4.

The Yellow Flag

The schooner Farallone lay well out in the jaws of the pass, where the terrified pilot had made haste to bring her to her moorings and escape. Seen from the beach through the thin line of shipping, two objects stood conspicuous to seaward: the little isle, on the one hand, with its palms and the guns and batteries raised forty years before in defence of Queen Pomare’s capital; the outcast Farallone, upon the other, banished to the threshold of the port, rolling there to her scuppers, and flaunting the plague-flag as she rolled. A few sea birds screamed and cried about the ship; and within easy range, a man-of-war guard boat hung off and on and glittered with the weapons of marines. The exuberant daylight and the blinding heaven of the tropics picked out and framed the pictures.

A neat boat, manned by natives in uniform, and steered by the doctor of the port, put from shore towards three of- the afternoon, and pulled smartly for the schooner. The fore-sheets were heaped with sacks of flour, onions, and potatoes, perched among which was Huish dressed as a foremast hand; a heap of chests and cases impeded the action of the oarsmen; and in the stern, by the left hand of the doctor, sat Herrick, dressed in a fresh rig of slops, his brown beard trimmed to a point, a pile of paper novels on his lap, and nursing the while between his feet a chronometer, for which they had exchanged that of the Farallone, long since run down and the rate lost.

They passed the guard boat, exchanging hails with the boat-swain’s mate in charge, and drew near at last to the forbidden ship. Not a cat stirred, there was no speech of man; and the sea being exceeding high outside, and the reef close to where the schooner lay, the clamour of the surf hung round her like the sound of battle.

‘Ohe la goelette!’ sang out the doctor, with his best voice.

Instantly, from the house where they had been stowing away stores, first Davis, and then the ragamuffin, swarthy crew made their appearance.

‘Hullo, Hay, that you?’ said the captain, leaning on the rail. ‘Tell the old man to lay her alongside, as if she was eggs. There’s a hell of a run of sea here, and his boat’s brittle.’

The movement of the schooner was at that time more than usually violent. Now she heaved her side as high as a deep sea steamer’s, and showed the flashing of her copper; now she swung swiftly toward the boat until her scuppers gurgled.

‘I hope you have sea legs,’ observed the doctor. ‘You will require them.’

Indeed, to board the Farallone, in that exposed position where she lay, was an affair of some dexterity. The less precious goods were hoisted roughly in; the chronometer, after repeated failures, was passed gently and successfully from hand to hand; and there remained only the more difficult business of embarking Huish. Even that piece of dead weight (shipped A.B. at eighteen dollars, and described by the captain to the consul as an invaluable man) was at last hauled on board without mishap; and the doctor, with civil salutations, took his leave.

The three co-adventurers looked at each other, and Davis heaved a breath of relief.

‘Now let’s get this chronometer fixed,’ said he, and led the way into the house. It was a fairly spacious place; two staterooms and a good-sized pantry opened from the main cabin; the bulkheads were painted white, the floor laid with waxcloth. No litter, no sign of life remained; for the effects of the dead men had been disinfected and conveyed on shore. Only on the table, in a saucer, some sulphur burned, and the fumes set them coughing as they entered. The captain peered into the starboard stateroom, where the bed-clothes still lay tumbled in the bunk, the blanket flung back as they had flung it back from the disfigured corpse before its burial.

‘Now, I told these niggers to tumble that truck overboard,’ grumbled Davis. ‘Guess they were afraid to lay hands on it. Well, they’ve hosed the place out; that’s as much as can be expected, I suppose. Huish, lay on to these blankets.’

‘See you blooming well far enough first,’ said Huish, drawing back.

‘What’s that?’ snapped the captain. ‘I’ll tell you, my young friend, I think you make a mistake. I’m captain here.’

‘Fat lot I care,’ returned the clerk.

‘That so?’ said Davis. ‘Then you’ll berth forward with the niggers! Walk right out of this cabin.’

‘Oh, I dessay!’ said Huish. ‘See any green in my eye? A lark’s a lark.’

‘Well, now, I’ll explain this business, and you’ll see (once for all) just precisely how much lark there is to it,’ said Davis. ‘I’m captain, and I’m going to be it. One thing of three. First, you take my orders here as cabin steward, in which case you mess with us. Or second, you refuse, and I pack you forward — and you get as quick as the word’s said. Or, third and last, I’ll signal that man-of-war and send you ashore under arrest for mutiny.’

‘And, of course, I wouldn’t blow the gaff? O no!’ replied the jeering Huish.

‘And who’s to believe you, my son?’ inquired the captain. ‘No, sir! There ain’t no lark about my captainising. Enough said. Up with these blankets.’

Huish was no fool, he knew when he was beaten; and he was no coward either, for he stepped to the bunk, took the infected bed-clothes fairly in his arms, and carried them out of the house without a check or tremor.

‘I was waiting for the chance,’ said Davis to Herrick. ‘I needn’t do the same with you, because you understand it for yourself.’

‘Are you going to berth here?’ asked Herrick, following the captain into the stateroom, where he began to adjust the chronometer in its place at the bed-head.

‘Not much!’ replied he. ‘I guess I’ll berth on deck. I don’t know as I’m afraid, but I’ve no immediate use for confluent smallpox.’

‘I don’t know that I’m afraid either,’ said Herrick. ‘But the thought of these two men sticks in my throat; that captain and mate dying here, one opposite to the other. It’s grim. I wonder what they said last?’

‘Wiseman and Wishart?’ said the captain. ‘Probably mighty small potatoes. That’s a thing a fellow figures out for himself one way, and the real business goes quite another. Perhaps Wiseman said, “Here old man, fetch up the gin, I’m feeling powerful rocky.” And perhaps Wishart said, “Oh, hell!”’

‘Well, that’s grim enough,’ said Herrick.

‘And so it is,’ said Davis. ‘There; there’s that chronometer fixed. And now it’s about time to up anchor and clear out.’

He lit a cigar and stepped on deck.

‘Here, you! What’s YOUR name?’ he cried to one of the hands, a lean-flanked, clean-built fellow from some far western island, and of a darkness almost approaching to the African.

‘Sally Day,’ replied the man.

‘Devil it is,’ said the captain. ‘Didn’t know we had ladies on board. Well, Sally, oblige me by hauling down that rag there. I’ll do the same for you another time.’ He watched the yellow bunting as it was eased past the cross-trees and handed down on deck. ‘You’ll float no more on this ship,’ he observed. ‘Muster the people aft, Mr Hay,’ he added, speaking unnecessarily loud, ‘I’ve a word to say to them.’

It was with a singular sensation that Herrick prepared for the first time to address a crew. He thanked his stars indeed, that they were natives. But even natives, he reflected, might be critics too quick for such a novice as himself; they might perceive some lapse from that precise and cut-and-dry English which prevails on board a ship; it was even possible they understood no other; and he racked his brain, and overhauled his reminiscences of sea romance for some appropriate words.

‘Here, men! tumble aft!’ he said. ‘Lively now! All hands aft!’

They crowded in the alleyway like sheep.

‘Here they are, sir,’ said Herrick.

For some time the captain continued to face the stern; then turned with ferocious suddenness on the crew, and seemed to enjoy their shrinking.

‘Now,’ he said, twisting his cigar in his mouth and toying with the spokes of the wheel, ‘I’m Captain Brown. I command this ship. This is Mr Hay, first officer. The other white man is cabin steward, but he’ll stand watch and do his trick. My orders shall be obeyed smartly. You savvy, “smartly”? There shall be no growling about the kaikai, which will be above allowance. You’ll put a handle to the mate’s name, and tack on “sir” to every order I give you. If you’re smart and quick, I’ll make this ship comfortable for all hands.’ He took the cigar out of his mouth. ‘If you’re not,’ he added, in a roaring voice, ‘I’ll make it a floating hell. Now, Mr Hay, we’ll pick watches, if you please.’

‘All right,’ said Herrick.

‘You will please use “sir” when you address me, Mr Hay,’ said the captain. ‘I’ll take the lady. Step to starboard, Sally.’ And then he whispered in Herrick’s ear: ‘take the old man.’

‘I’ll take you, there,’ said Herrick.

‘What’s your name?’ said the captain. ‘What’s that you say? Oh, that’s no English; I’ll have none of your highway gibberish on my ship. We’ll call you old Uncle Ned, because you’ve got no wool on the top of your head, just the place where the wool ought to grow. Step to port, Uncle. Don’t you hear Mr Hay has picked you? Then I’ll take the white man. White Man, step to starboard. Now which of you two is the cook? You? Then Mr Hay takes your friend in the blue dungaree. Step to port, Dungaree. There, we know who we all are: Dungaree, Uncle Ned, Sally Day, White Man, and Cook. All F.F.V.‘s I guess. And now, Mr Hay, we’ll up anchor, if you please.’

‘For Heaven’s sake, tell me some of the words,’ whispered Herrick.

An hour later, the Farallone was under all plain sail, the rudder hard a-port, and the cheerfully clanking windlass had brought the anchor home.

‘All clear, sir,’ cried Herrick from the bow.

The captain met her with the wheel, as she bounded like a stag from her repose, trembling and bending to the puffs. The guard boat gave a parting hail, the wake whitened and ran out; the Farallone was under weigh.

Her berth had been close to the pass. Even as she forged ahead Davis slewed her for the channel between the pier ends of the reef, the breakers sounding and whitening to either hand. Straight through the narrow band of blue, she shot to seaward: and the captain’s heart exulted as he felt her tremble underfoot, and (looking back over the taffrail) beheld the roofs of Papeete changing position on the shore and the island mountains rearing higher in the wake.

But they were not yet done with the shore and the horror of the yellow flag. About midway of the pass, there was a cry and a scurry, a man was seen to leap upon the rail, and, throwing his arms over his head, to stoop and plunge into the sea.

‘Steady as she goes,’ fhe captain cried, relinquishing the wheel to Huish.

The next moment he was forward in the midst of the Kanakas, belaying pin in hand.

‘Anybody else for shore?’ he cried, and the savage trumpeting of his voice, no less than the ready weapon in his hand, struck fear in all. Stupidly they stared after their escaped companion, whose black head was visible upon the water, steering for the land. And the schooner meanwhile slipt like a racer through the pass, and met the long sea of the open ocean with a souse of spray.

‘Fool that I was, not to have a pistol ready!’ exclaimed Davis. ‘Well, we go to sea short-handed, we can’t help that. You have a lame watch of it, Mr Hay.’

‘I don’t see how we are to get along,’ said Herrick.

‘Got to,’ said the captain. ‘No more Tahiti for me.’

Both turned instinctively and looked astern. The fair island was unfolding mountain top on mountain top; Eimeo, on the port board, lifted her splintered pinnacles; and still the schooner raced to the open sea.

‘Think!’ cried the captain with a gesture, ‘yesterday morning I danced for my breakfast like a poodle dog.’

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