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

Part II

The Quartette

Chapter 7.

The Pearl-Fisher

About four in the morning, as the captain and Herrick sat together on the rail, there arose from the midst of the night in front of them the voice of breakers. Each sprang to his feet and stared and listened. The sound was continuous, like the passing of a train; no rise or fall could be distinguished; minute by minute the ocean heaved with an equal potency against the invisible isle; and as time passed, and Herrick waited in vain for any vicissitude in the volume of that roaring, a sense of the eternal weighed upon his mind. To the expert eye the isle itself was to be inferred from a certain string of blots along the starry heaven. And the schooner was laid to and anxiously observed till daylight.

There was little or no morning bank. A brightening came in the east; then a wash of some ineffable, faint, nameless hue between crimson and silver; and then coals of fire. These glimmered a while on the sea line, and seemed to brighten and darken and spread out, and still the night and the stars reigned undisturbed; it was as though a spark should catch and glow and creep along the foot of some heavy and almost incombusti- ble wall-hanging, and the room itself be scarce menaced. Yet a little after, and the whole east glowed with gold and scarlet, and the hollow of heaven was filled with the daylight.

The isle — the undiscovered, the scarce believed-in — now lay before them and close aboard; and Herrick thought that never in his dreams had he beheld anything more strange and delicate. The beach was excellently white, the continuous barrier of trees inimitably green; the land perhaps ten feet high, the trees thirty more. Every here and there, as the schooner coasted northward, the wood was intermitted; and he could see clear over the inconsiderable strip of land (as a man looks over a wall) to the lagoon within — and clear over that again to where the far side of the atoll prolonged its pencilling of trees against the morning sky. He tortured himself to find analogies. The isle was like the rim of a great vessel sunken in the waters; it was like the embankment of an annular railway grown upon with wood: so slender it seemed amidst the outrageous breakers, so frail and pretty, he would scarce have wondered to see it sink and disappear without a sound, and the waves close smoothly over its descent.

Meanwhile the captain was in the forecross-trees, glass in hand, his eyes in every quarter, spying for an entrance, spying for signs of tenancy. But the isle continued to unfold itself in joints, and to run out in indeterminate capes, and still there was neither house nor man, nor the smoke of fire. Here a multitude of sea-birds soared and twinkled, and fished in the blue waters; and there, and for miles together, the fringe of cocoa-palm and pandanus extended desolate, and made desirable green bowers for nobody to visit, and the silence of death was only broken by the throbbing of the sea.

The airs were very light, their speed was small; the heat intense. The decks were scorching underfoot, the sun flamed overhead, brazen, out of a brazen sky; the pitch bubbled in the seams, and the brains in the brain-pan. And all the while the excitement of the three adventurers glowed about their bones like a fever. They whispered, and nodded, and pointed, and put mouth to ear, with a singular instinct of secrecy, approaching that island underhand like eavesdroppers and thieves; and even Davis from the cross-trees gave his orders mostly by gestures. The hands shared in this mute strain, like dogs, without comprehending it; and through the roar of so many miles of breakers, it was a silent ship that approached an empty island.

At last they drew near to the break in that interminable gangway. A spur of coral sand stood forth on the one hand; on the other a high and thick tuft of trees cut off the view; between was the mouth of the huge laver. Twice a day the ocean crowded in that narrow entrance and was heaped between these frail walls; twice a day, with the return of the ebb, the mighty surplusage of water must struggle to escape. The hour in which the Farallone came there was the hour of flood. The sea turned (as with the instinct of the homing pigeon) for the vast receptacle, swept eddying through the gates, was transmuted, as it did so, into a wonder of watery and silken hues, and brimmed into the inland sea beyond. The schooner looked up close-hauled, and was caught and carried away by the influx like a toy. She skimmed; she flew; a momentary shadow touched her decks from the shore-side trees; the bottom of the channel showed up for a moment and was in a moment gone; the next, she floated on the bosom of the lagoon, and below, in the transparent chamber of waters, a myriad of many-coloured fishes were sporting, a myriad pale-flowers of coral diversified the floor.

Herrick stood transported. In the gratified lust of his eye, he forgot the past and the present; forgot that he was menaced by a prison on the one hand and starvation on the other; forgot that he was come to that island, desperately foraging, clutching at expedients. A drove of fishes, painted like the rainbow and billed like parrots, hovered up in the shadow of the schooner, and passed clear of it, and glinted in the submarine sun. They were beautiful, like birds, and their silent passage impressed him like a strain of song.

Meanwhile, to the eye of Davis in the cross-trees, the lagoon continued to expand its empty waters, and the long succession of the shore-side trees to be paid out like fishing line off a reel. And still there was no mark of habitation. The schooner, immediately on entering, had been kept away to the nor’ard where the water seemed to be the most deep; and she was now skimming past the tall grove of trees, which stood on that side of the channel and denied further view. Of the whole of the low shores of the island, only this bight remained to be revealed. And suddenly the curtain was raised; they began to open out a haven, snugly elbowed there, and beheld, with an astonishment beyond words, the roofs of men.

The appearance, thus ‘instantaneously disclosed’ to those on the deck of the Farallone, was not that of a city, rather of a substantial country farm with its attendant hamlet: a long line of sheds and store-houses; apart, upon the one side, a deep- verandah’ed dwelling-house; on the other, perhaps a dozen native huts; a building with a belfry and some rude offer at architectural features that might be thought to mark it out for a chapel; on the beach in front some heavy boats drawn up, and a pile of timber running forth into the burning shallows of the lagoon. From a flagstaff at the pierhead, the red ensign of England was displayed. Behind, about, and over, the same tall grove of palms, which had masked the settlement in the beginning, prolonged its root of tumultuous green fans, and turned and ruffled overhead, and sang its silver song all day in the wind. The place had the indescribable but unmistakable appearance of being in commission; yet there breathed from it a sense of desertion that was almost poignant, no human figure was to be observed going to and fro about the houses, and there was no sound of human industry or enjoyment. Only, on the top of the beach and hard by the flagstaff, a woman of exorbitant stature and as white as snow was to be seen beckoning with uplifted arm. The second glance identified her as a piece of naval sculpture, the figure-head of a ship that had long hovered and plunged into so many running billows, and was now brought ashore to be the ensign and presiding genius of that empty town.

The Farallone made a soldier’s breeze of it; the wind, besides, was stronger inside than without under the lee of the land; and the stolen schooner opened out successive objects with the swiftness of a panorama, so that the adventurers stood speechless. The flag spoke for itself; it was no frayed and weathered trophy that had beaten itself to pieces on the post, flying over desolation; and to make assurance stronger, there was to be descried in the deep shade of the verandah, a glitter of crystal and the fluttering of white napery. If the figure-head at the pier end, with its perpetual gesture and its leprous whiteness, reigned alone in that hamlet as it seemed to do, it would not have reigned long. Men’s hands had been busy, men’s feet stirring there, within the circuit of the clock. The Farallones were sure of it; their eyes dug in the deep shadow of the palms for some one hiding; if intensity of looking might have prevailed, they would have pierced the walls of houses; and there came to them, in these pregnant seconds, a sense of being watched and played with, and of a blow impending, that was hardly bearable.

The extreme point of palms they had just passed enclosed a creek, which was thus hidden up to the last moment from the eyes of those on board; and from this, a boat put suddenly and briskly out, and a voice hailed.

‘Schooner aboy!’ it cried. ‘Stand in for the pier! In two cables’ lengths you’ll have twenty fathoms water and good holding ground.’

The boat was manned with a couple of brown oarsmen in scanty kilts of blue. The speaker, who was steering, wore white clothes, the full dress oi the tropics; a wide hat shaded his face; but it could be seen that be was of stalwart size, and his voice sounded like a gentleman’s. So much could be made out. It was plain, besides, that the Farallone had been descried some time before at sea, and the inhabitants were prepared for its reception.

Mechanically the orders were obeyed, and the ship berthed; and the three adventurers gathered aft beside the house and waited, with galloping pulses and a perfect vacancy of mind, the coming of the stranger who might mean so much to them. They had no plan, no story prepared; there was no time to make one; they were caught red-handed and must stand their chance. Yet this anxiety was chequered with hope. The island being undeclared, it was not possible the man could hold any office or be in a position to demand their papers. And beyond that, if there was any truth in Findlay, as it now seemed there should be, he was the representative of the ‘private reasons,’ he must see their coming with a profound disappointment; and perhaps (hope whispered) he would be willing and able to purchase their silence.

The boat was by that time forging alongside, and they were able at last to see what manner of man they had to do with. He was a huge fellow, six feet four in height, and of a build proportionately strong, but his sinews seemed to be dissolved in a listlessness that was more than languor. It was only the eye that corrected this impression; an eye of an unusual mingled brilliancy and softness, sombre as coal and with lights that outshone the topaz; an eye of unimpaired health and virility; an eye that bid you beware of the man’s devastating anger. A complexion, naturally dark, had been tanned in the island to a hue hardly distinguishable from that of a Tahitian; only his manners and movements, and the living force that dwelt in him, like fire in flint, betrayed the European. He was dressed in white drill, exquisitely made; his scarf and tie were of tender-coloured silks; on the thwart beside him there leaned a Winchester rifle.

‘Is the doctor on board?’ he cried as he came up. ‘Dr Symonds, I mean? You never heard of him? Nor yet of the Trinity Hall? Ah!’

He did not look surprised, seemed rather to affect it in politeness; but his eye rested on each of the three white men in succession with a sudden weight of curiosity that was almost savage. ‘Ah, THEN!’ said he, ‘there is some small mistake, no doubt, and I must ask you to what I am indebted for this pleasure?’

He was by this time on the deck, but he had the art to be quite unapproachable; the friendliest vulgarian, three parts drunk, would have known better than take liberties; and not one of the adventurers so much as offered to shake hands.

‘Well,’ said Davis, ‘I suppose you may call it an accident. We had heard of your island, and read that thing in the Directory about the PRIVATE REASONS, you see; so when we saw the lagoon reflected in the sky, we put her head for it at once, and so here we are.’

‘‘Ope we don’t intrude!’ said Huish.

The stranger looked at Huish with an air of faint surprise, and looked pointedly away again. It was hard to be more offensive in dumb show.

‘It may suit me, your coming here,’ he said. ‘My own schooner is overdue, and I may put something in your way in the meantime. Are you open to a charter?’

‘Well, I guess so,’ said Davis; ‘it depends.’

‘My name is Attwater,’ continued the stranger. ‘You, I presume, are the captain?’

‘Yes, sir. I am the captain of this ship: Captain Brown,’ was the reply.

‘Well, see ‘ere!’ said Huish, ‘better begin fair! ‘E’s skipper on deck right enough, but not below. Below, we’re all equal, all got a lay in the adventure; when it comes to business, I’m as good as ‘e; and what I say is, let’s go into the ‘ouse and have a lush, and talk it over among pals. We’ve some prime fizz,’ he said, and winked.

The presence of the gentleman lighted up like a candle the vulgarity of the clerk; and Herrick instinctively, as one shields himself from pain, made haste to interrupt.

‘My name is Hay,’ said he, ‘since introductions are going. We shall be very glad if you will step inside.’

Attwater leaned to him swiftly. ‘University man?’ said he.

‘Yes, Merton,’ said Herrick, and the next moment blushed scarlet at his indiscretion.

‘I am of the other lot,’ said Attwater: ‘Trinity Hall, Cambridge. I called my schooner after the old shop. Well! this is a queer place and company for us to meet in, Mr Hay,’ he pursued, with easy incivility to the others. ‘But do you bear out . . . I beg this gentleman’s pardon, I really did not catch his name.’

‘My name is ‘Uish, sir,’ returned the clerk, and blushed in turn.

‘Ah!’ said Attwater. And then turning again to Herrick, ‘Do you bear out Mr Whish’s description of your vintage? or was it only the unaffected poetry of his own nature bubbling up?’

Herrick was embarrassed; the silken brutality of their visitor made him blush; that he should be accepted as an equal, and the others thus pointedly ignored, pleased him in spite of himself, and then ran through his veins in a recoil of anger.

‘I don’t know,’ he said. ‘It’s only California; it’s good enough, I believe.’

Attwater seemed to make up his mind. ‘Well then, I’ll tell you what: you three gentlemen come ashore this evening and bring a basket of wine with you; I’ll try and find the food,’ he said. ‘And by the by, here is a question I should have asked you when I come on board: have you had smallpox?’

‘Personally, no,’ said Herrick. ‘But the schooner had it.’

‘Deaths?’ from Attwater.

‘Two,’ said Herrick.

‘Well, it is a dreadful sickness,’ said Attwater.

“Ad you any deaths?’ asked Huish, ‘‘ere on the island?’

‘Twenty-nine,’ said Attwater. ‘Twenty-nine deaths and thirty-one cases, out of thirty-three souls upon the island. — That’s a strange way to calculate, Mr Hay, is it not? Souls! I never say it but it startles me.’

‘Oh, so that’s why everything’s deserted?’ said Huish.

‘That is why, Mr Whish,’ said Attwater; ‘that is why the house is empty and the graveyard full.’

‘Twenty-nine out of thirty-three!’ exclaimed Herrick, ‘Why, when it came to burying — or did you bother burying?’

‘Scarcely,’ said Attwater; ‘or there was one day at least when we gave up. There were five of the dead that morning, and thirteen of the dying, and no one able to go about except the sexton and myself. We held a council of war, took the . . . empty bottles . . . into the lagoon, and buried them.’ He looked over his shoulder, back at the bright water. ‘Well, so you’ll come to dinner, then? Shall we say half-past six. So good of you!’

His voice, in uttering these conventional phrases, fell at once into the false measure of society; and Herrick unconsciously followed the example.

‘I am sure we shall be very glad,’ he said. ‘At half-past six? Thank you so very much.’

‘“For my voice has been tuned to the note of the gun

That startles the deep when the combat’s begun,”’

quoted Attwater, with a smile, which instantly gave way to an air of funereal solemnity. ‘I shall particularly expect Mr Whish,’ he continued. ‘Mr Whish, I trust you understand the invitation?’

‘I believe you, my boy!’ replied the genial Huish.

‘That is right then; and quite understood, is it not?’ said Attwater. ‘Mr Whish and Captain Brown at six-thirty without fault — and you, Hay, at four sharp.’

And he called his boat.

During all this talk, a load of thought or anxiety had weighed upon the captain. There was no part for which nature had so liberally endowed him as that of the genial ship captain. But today he was silent and abstracted. Those who knew him could see that he hearkened close to every syllable, and seemed to ponder and try it in balances. It would have been hard to say what look there was, cold, attentive, and sinister, as of a man maturing plans, which still brooded over the unconscious guest; it was here, it was there, it was nowhere; it was now so little that Herrick chid himself for an idle fancy; and anon it was so gross and palpable that you could say every hair on the man’s head talked mischief.

He woke up now, as with a start. ‘You were talking of a charter,’ said he.

‘Was I?’ said Attwater. ‘Well, let’s talk of it no more at present.’

‘Your own schooner is overdue, I understand?’ continued the captain.

‘You understand perfectly, Captain Brown,’ said Attwater; ‘thirty-three days overdue at noon today.’

‘She comes and goes, eh? plies between here and . . .?’ hinted the captain.

‘Exactly; every four months; three trips in the year,’ said Attwater.

‘You go in her, ever?’ asked Davis.

‘No, one stops here,’ said Attwater, ‘one has plenty to attend to.’

‘Stop here, do you?’ cried Davis. ‘Say, how long?’

‘How long, O Lord,’ said Attwater with perfect, stern gravity. ‘But it does not seem so,’ he added, with a smile.

‘No, I dare say not,’ said Davis. ‘No, I suppose not. Not with all your gods about you, and in as snug a berth as this. For it is a pretty snug berth,’ said he, with a sweeping look.

‘The spot, as you are good enough to indicate, is not entirely intolerable,’ was the reply.

‘Shell, I suppose?’ said Davis.

‘Yes, there was shell,’ said Attwater.

‘This is a considerable big beast of a lagoon, sir,’ said the captain. ‘Was there a — was the fishing — would you call the fishing anyways GOOD?’

‘I don’t know that I would call it anyways anything,’ said Attwater, ‘if you put it to me direct.’

‘There were pearls too?’ said Davis.

‘Pearls, too,’ said Attwater.

‘Well, I give out!’ laughed Davis, and his laughter rang cracked like a false piece. ‘If you’re not going to tell, you’re not going to tell, and there’s an end to it.’

‘There can be no reason why I should affect the least degree of secrecy about my island,’ returned Attwater; ‘that came wholly to an end with your arrival; and I am sure, at any rate, that gentlemen like you and Mr Whish, I should have always been charmed to make perfectly at home. The point on which we are now differing — if you can call it a difference — is one of times and seasons. I have some information which you think I might impart, and I think not. Well, we’ll see tonight! By-by, Whish!’ He stepped into his boat and shoved off. ‘All understood, then?’ said he. ‘The captain and Mr Whish at six-thirty, and you, Hay, at four precise. You understand that, Hay? Mind, I take no denial. If you’re not there by the time named, there will be no banquet; no song, no supper, Mr Whish!’

White birds whisked in the air above, a shoal of parti-coloured fishes in the scarce denser medium below; between, like Mahomet’s coffin, the boat drew away briskly on the surface, and its shadow followed it over the glittering floor of the lagoon. Attwater looked steadily back over his shoulders as he sat; he did not once remove his eyes from the Farallone and the group on her quarter-deck beside the house, till his boat ground upon the pier. Thence, with an agile pace, he hurried ashore, and they saw his white clothes shining in the chequered dusk of the grove until the house received him.

The captain, with a gesture and a speaking countenance, called the adventurers into the cabin.

‘Well,’ he said to Herrick, when they were seated, ‘there’s one good job at least. He’s taken to you in earnest.’

‘Why should that be a good job?’ said Herrick.

‘Oh, you’ll see how it pans out presently,’ returned Davis. ‘You go ashore and stand in with him, that’s all! You’ll get lots of pointers; you can find out what he has, and what the charter is, and who’s the fourth man — for there’s four of them, and we’re only three.’

‘And suppose I do, what next?’ cried Herrick. ‘Answer me that!’

‘So I will, Robert Herrick,’ said the captain. ‘But first, let’s see all clear. I guess you know,’ he said with an imperious solemnity, ‘I guess you know the bottom is out of this Farallone speculation? I guess you know it’s RIGHT out? and if this old island hadn’t been turned up right when it did, I guess you know where you and I and Huish would have been?’

‘Yes, I know that,’ said Herrick. ‘No matter who’s to blame, I know it. And what next?’

‘No matter who’s to blame, you know it, right enough,’ said the captain, ‘and I’m obliged to you for the reminder. Now here’s this Attwater: what do you think of him?’

‘I do not know,’ said Herrick. ‘I am attracted and repelled. He was insufferably rude to you.’

‘And you, Huish?’ said the captain.

Huish sat cleaning a favourite briar root; he scarce looked up from that engrossing task. ‘Don’t ast me what I think of him!’ he said. ‘There’s a day comin’, I pray Gawd, when I can tell it him myself.’

‘Huish means the same as what I do,’ said Davis. ‘When that man came stepping around, and saying “Look here, I’m Attwater”— and you knew it was so, by God! — I sized him right straight up. Here’s the real article, I said, and I don’t like it; here’s the real, first-rate, copper-bottomed aristocrat. ‘AW’ I DON’T KNOW YE, DO I? GOD DAMN YE, DID GOD MAKE YE?’ No, that couldn’t be nothing but genuine; a man got to be born to that, and notice! smart as champagne and hard as nails; no kind of a fool; no, SIR! not a pound of him! Well, what’s he here upon this beastly island for? I said. HE’S not here collecting eggs. He’s a palace at home, and powdered flunkies; and if he don’t stay there, you bet he knows the reason why! Follow?’

‘O yes, I ‘ear you,’ said Huish.

‘He’s been doing good business here, then,’ continued the captain. ‘For ten years, he’s been doing a great business. It’s pearl and shell, of course; there couldn’t be nothing else in such a place, and no doubt the shell goes off regularly by this Trinity Hall, and the money for it straight into the bank, so that’s no use to us. But what else is there? Is there nothing else he would be likely to keep here? Is there nothing else he would be bound to keep here? Yes, sir; the pearls! First, because they’re too valuable to trust out of his hands. Second, because pearls want a lot of handling and matching; and the man who sells his pearls as they come in, one here, one there, instead of hanging back and holding up — well, that man’s a fool, and it’s not Attwater.’

‘Likely,’ said Huish, ‘that’s w’at it is; not proved, but likely.’

‘It’s proved,’ said Davis bluntly.

‘Suppose it was?’ said Herrick. ‘Suppose that was all so, and he had these pearls — a ten years’ collection of them? — Suppose he had? There’s my question.’

The captain drummed with his thick hands on the board in front of him; he looked steadily in Herrick’s face, and Herrick as steadily looked upon the table and the pattering fingers; there was a gentle oscillation of the anchored ship, and a big patch of sunlight travelled to and fro between the one and the other.

‘Hear me!’ Herrick burst out suddenly.

‘No, you better hear me first,’ said Davis. ‘Hear me and understand me. WE’VE got no use for that fellow, whatever you may have. He’s your kind, he’s not ours; he’s took to you, and he’s wiped his boots on me and Huish. Save him if you can!’

‘Save him?’ repeated Herrick.

‘Save him, if you’re able!’ reiterated Davis, with a blow of his clenched fist. ‘Go ashore, and talk him smooth; and if you get him and his pearls aboard, I’ll spare him. If you don’t, there’s going to be a funeral. Is that so, Huish? does that suit you?’

‘I ain’t a forgiving man,’ said Huish, ‘but I’m not the sort to spoil business neither. Bring the bloke on board and bring his pearls along with him, and you can have it your own way; maroon him where you like — I’m agreeable.’

‘Well, and if I can’t?’ cried Herrick, while the sweat streamed upon his face. ‘You talk to me as if I was God Almighty, to do this and that! But if I can’t?’

‘My son,’ said the captain, ‘you better do your level best, or you’ll see sights!’

‘O yes,’ said Huish. ‘O crikey, yes!’ He looked across at Herrick with a toothless smile that was shocking in its savagery; and his ear caught apparently by the trivial expression he had used, broke into a piece of the chorus of a comic song which he must have heard twenty years before in London: meaningless gibberish that, in that hour and place, seemed hateful as a blasphemy: ‘Hikey, pikey, crikey, fikey, chillingawallaba dory.’

The captain suffered him to finish; his face was unchanged.

‘The way things are, there’s many a man that wouldn’t let you go ashore,’ he resumed. ‘But I’m not that kind. I know you’d never go back on me, Herrick! Or if you choose to — go, and do it, and be damned!’ he cried, and rose abruptly from the table.

He walked out of the house; and as he reached the door, turned and called Huish, suddenly and violently, like the barking of a dog. Huish followed, and Herrick remained alone in the cabin.

‘Now, see here!’ whispered Davis. ‘I know that man. If you open your mouth to him again, you’ll ruin all.’

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