‘There is a tide in the affairs of men.’
Throughout the island world of the Pacific, scattered men of many European races and from almost every grade of society carry activity and disseminate disease. Some prosper, some vegetate. Some have mounted the steps of thrones and owned islands and navies. Others again must marry for a livelihood; a strapping, merry, chocolate-coloured dame supports them in sheer idleness; and, dressed like natives, but still retaining some foreign element of gait or attitude, still perhaps with some relic (such as a single eye-glass) of the officer and gentleman, they sprawl in palm-leaf verandahs and entertain an island audience with memoirs of the music-hall. And there are still others, less pliable, less capable, less fortunate, perhaps less base, who continue, even in these isles of plenty, to lack bread.
At the far end of the town of Papeete, three such men were seated on the beach under a purao tree.
It was late. Long ago the band had broken up and marched musically home, a motley troop of men and women, merchant clerks and navy officers, dancing in its wake, arms about waist and crowned with garlands. Long ago darkness and silence had gone from house to house about the tiny pagan city. Only the street lamps shone on, making a glow-worm halo in the umbrageous alleys or drawing a tremulous image on the waters of the port. A sound of snoring ran among the piles of lumber by the Government pier. It was wafted ashore from the graceful clipper-bottomed schooners, where they lay moored close in like dinghies, and their crews were stretched upon the deck under the open sky or huddled in a rude tent amidst the disorder of merchandise.
But the men under the purao had no thought of sleep. The same temperature in England would have passed without remark in summer; but it was bitter cold for the South Seas. Inanimate nature knew it, and the bottle of cocoanut oil stood frozen in every bird-cage house about the island; and the men knew it, and shivered. They wore flimsy cotton clothes, the same they had sweated in by day and run the gauntlet of the tropic showers; and to complete their evil case, they had no breakfast to mention, less dinner, and no supper at all.
In the telling South Sea phrase, these three men were ON THE BEACH. Common calamity had brought them acquainted, as the three most miserable English-speaking creatures in Tahiti; and beyond their misery, they knew next to nothing of each other, not even their true names. For each had made a long apprenticeship in going downward; and each, at some stage of the descent, had been shamed into the adoption of an alias. And yet not one of them had figured in a court of justice; two were men of kindly virtues; and one, as he sat and shivered under the purao, had a tattered Virgil in his pocket.
Certainly, if money,could have been raised upon the book, Robert Herrick would long ago have sacrificed that last possession; but the demand for literature, which is so marked a feature in some parts of the South Seas, extends not so far as the dead tongues; and the Virgil, which he could not exchange against a meal, had often consoled him in his hunger. He would study it, as he lay with tightened belt on the floor of the old calaboose, seeking favourite passages and finding new ones only less beautiful because they lacked the coinsecration of remembrance. Or he would pause on random country walks; sit on the path side, gazing over the sea on the mountains of Eimeo; and dip into the Aeneid, seeking sortes. And if the oracle (as is the way of oracles) replied with no very certain nor encouraging voice, visions of England at least would throng upon the exile’s memory: the busy schoolroom, the green playing-fields, holidays at home, and the perennial roar of London, and the fireside, and the white head of his father. For it is the destiny of those grave, restrained and classic writers, with whom we make enforced and often painful acquaintanceship at school, to pass into the blood and become native in the memory; so that a phrase of Virgil speaks not so much of Mantua or Augustus, but of English places and the student’s own irrevocable youth.
Robert Herrick was the son of an intelligent, active, and ambitious man, small partner in a considerable London house. Hopes were conceived of the boy; he was sent to a good school, gained there an Oxford scholarship, and proceeded in course to the Western University. With all his talent and taste (and he had much of both) Robert was deficient in consistency and intellectual manhood, wandered in bypaths of study, worked at music or at metaphysics when he should have been at Greek, and took at last a paltry degree. Almost at the same time, the London house was disastrously wound up; Mr Herrick must begin the world again as a clerk in a strange office, and Robert relinquish his ambitions and accept with gratitude a career that he detested and despised. He had no head for figures, no interest in affairs, detested the constraint of hours, and despised the aims and the success of merchants. To grow rich was none of his ambitions; rather to do well. A worse or a more bold young man would have refused the destiny; perhaps tried his future with his pen; perhaps enlisted. Robert, more prudent, possibly more timid, consented to embrace that way of life in which he could most readily assist his family. But he did so with a mind divided; fled the neighbourhood of former comrades; and chose, out of several positions placed at his disposal, a clerkship in New York.
His career thenceforth was one of unbroken shame. He did not drink, he was exactly honest, he was never rude to his employers, yet was everywhere discharged. Bringing no interest to his duties, he brought no attention; his day was a tissue of things neglected and things done amiss; and from place to place and from town to town, he carried the character of one thoroughly incompetent. No man can bear the word applied to him without some flush of colour, as indeed there is none other that so emphatically slams in a man’s face the door of self- respect. And to Herrick, who was conscious of talents and acquirements, who looked down upon those humble duties in which he was found wanting, the pain was the more exquisite. Early in his fall, he had ceased to be able to make remittances; shortly after, having nothing but failure to communicate, he ceased writing home; and about a year before this tale begins, turned suddenly upon the streets of San Francisco by a vulgar and infuriated German Jew, he had broken the last bonds of self-respect, and upon a sudden Impulse, changed his name and invested his last dollar in a passage on the mail brigantine, the City of Papeete. With what expectation he had trimmed his flight for the South Seas, Herrick perhaps scarcely knew. Doubtless there were fortunes to be made in pearl and copra; doubtless others not more gifted than himself had climbed in the island world to be queen’s consorts and king’s ministers. But if Herrick had gone there with any manful purpose, he would have kept his father’s name; the alias betrayed his moral bankruptcy; he bad struck his flag; he entertained no hope to reinstate himself or help his straitened family; and he came to the islands (where he knew the climate to be soft, bread cheap, and manners easy) a skulker from life’s battle and his own immediate duty. Failure, he had said, was his portion; let it be a pleasant failure.
It is fortunately not enough to say ‘I will be base.’ Herrick continued in the islands his career of failure; but in the new scene and under the new name, he suffered no less sharply than before. A place was got, it was lost in the old style; from the long-suffering of the keepers of restaurants he fell to more open charity upon the wayside; as time went on, good nature became weary, and after a repulse or two, Herrick became shy. There were women enough who would have supported a far worse and a far uglier man; Herrick never met or never knew them: or if he did both, some manlier feeling would revolt, and he preferred starvation. Drenched with rains, broiling by day, shivering by night, a disused and ruinous prison for a bedroom, his diet begged or pilfered out of rubbish heaps, his associates two creatures equally outcast with himself, he had drained for months the cup of penitence. He had known what it was to be resigned, what it was to break forth in a childish fury of rebellion against fate, and what it was to sink into the coma of despair. The time had changed him. He told himself no longer tales of an easy and perhaps agreeable declension; he read his nature otherwise; he had proved himself incapable of rising, and he now learned by experience that he could not stoop to fall. Something that was scarcely pride or strength, that was perhaps only refinement, withheld him from capitulation; but he looked on upon his own misfortune with a growing rage, and sometimes wondered at his patience.
It was now the fourth month completed, and still there was no change or sign of change. The moon, racing through a world of flying clouds of every size and shape and density, some black as ink stains, some delicate as lawn, threw the marvel of her Southern brightness over the same lovely and detested scene: the island mountains crowned with the perennial island cloud, the embowered city studded with rare lamps, the masts in the harbour, the smooth mirror of the lagoon, and the mole of the barrier reef on which the breakers whitened. The moon shone too, with bull’s-eye sweeps, on his companions; on the stalwart frame of the American who called himself Brown, and was known to be a master mariner in some disgrace; and on the dwarfish person, the pale eyes and toothless smile of a vulgar and bad-hearted cockney clerk. Here was society for Robert Herrick! The Yankee skipper was a man at least: he had sterling qualities of tenderness and resolution; he was one whose hand you could take without a blush. But there was no redeeming grace about the other, who called himself sometimes Hay and sometimes Tomkins, and laughed at the discrepancy; who had been employed in every store in Papeete, for the creature was able in his way; who had been discharged from each in turn, for he was wholly vile; who had alienated all his old employers so that they passed him in the street as if he were a dog, and all his old comrades so that they shunned him as they would a creditor.
Not long before, a ship from Peru had brought an influenza, and it now raged in the island, and particularly in Papeete. From all round the purao arose and fell a dismal sound of men coughing, and strangling as they coughed. The sick natives, with the islander’s impatience of a touch of fever, had crawled from their houses to be cool and, squatting on the shore or on the beached canoes, painfully expected the new day. Even as the crowing of cocks goes about the country in the night from farm to farm, accesses of coughing arose, and spread, and died in the distance, and sprang up again. Each miserable shiverer caught the suggestion from his neighbour, was torn for some minutes by that cruel ecstasy, and left spent and without voice or courage when it passed. If a man had pity to spend, Papeete beach, in that cold night and in that infected season, was a place to spend it on. And of all the sufferers, perhaps the least deserving, but surely the most pitiable, was the London clerk. He was used to another life, to houses, beds, nursing, and the dainties of the sickroom; he lay there now, in the cold open, exposed to the gusting of the wind, and with an empty belly. He was besides infirm; the disease shook him to the vitals; and his companions watched his endurance with surprise. A profound commiseration filled them, and contended with and conquered their abhorrence. The disgust attendant on so ugly a sickness magnified this dislike; at the same time, and with more than compensating strength, shame for a sentiment so inhuman bound them the more straitly to his service; and even the evil they knew of him swelled their solicitude, for the thought of death is always the least supportable when it draws near to the merely sensual and selfish. Sometimes they held him up; sometimes, with mistaken helpfulness, they beat him between the shoulders; and when the poor wretch lay back ghastly and spent after a paroxysm of coughing, they would sometimes peer into his face, doubtfully exploring it for any mark of life. There is no one but has some virtue: that of the clerk was courage; and he would make haste to reassure them in a pleasantry not always decent.
‘I’m all right, pals,’ he gasped once: ‘this is the thing to strengthen the muscles of the larynx.’
‘Well, you take the cake!’ cried the captain.
‘O, I’m good plucked enough,’ pursued the sufferer with a broken utterance. ‘But it do seem bloomin’ hard to me, that I should be the only party down with this form of vice, and the only one to do the funny business. I think one of you other parties might wake up. Tell a fellow something.’
‘The trouble is we’ve nothing to tell, my son,’ returned the captain.
‘I’ll tell you, if you like, what I was thinking,’ said Herrick.
‘Tell us anything,’ said the clerk, ‘I only want to be reminded that I ain’t dead.’
Herrick took up his parable, lying on his face and speaking slowly and scarce above his breath, not like a man who has anything to say, but like one talking against time.
‘Well, I was thinking this,’ he began: ‘I was thinking I lay on Papeete beach one night — all moon and squalls and fellows coughing — and I was cold and hungry, and down in the mouth, and was about ninety years of age, and had spent two hundred and twenty of them on Papeete beach. And I was thinking I wished I had a ring to rub, or had a fairy godmother, or could raise Beelzebub. And I was trying to remember how you did it. I knew you made a ring of skulls, for I had seen that in the Freischultz: and that you took off your coat and turned up your sleeves, for I had seen Formes do that when he was playing Kaspar, and you could see (by the way he went about it) it was a business he had studied; and that you ought to have something to kick up a smoke and a bad smell, I dare say a cigar might do, and that you ought to say the Lord’s Prayer backwards. Well, I wondered if I could do that; it seemed rather a feat, you see. And then I wondered if I would say it forward, and I thought I did. Well, no sooner had I got to WORLD WITHOUT END, than I saw a man in a pariu, and with a mat under his arm, come along the beach from the town. He was rather a hard-favoured old party, and he limped and crippled, and all the time he kept coughing. At first I didn’t cotton to his looks, I thought, and then I got sorry for the old soul because he coughed so hard. I remembered that we had some of that cough mixture the American consul gave the captain for Hay. It never did Hay a ha’porth of service, but I thought it might do the old gentleman’s business for him, and stood up. “Yorana!” says I. “Yorana!” says he. “Look here,” I said, “I’ve got some first-rate stuff in a bottle; it’ll fix your cough, savvy? Harry my and I’ll measure you a tablespoonful in the palm of my hand, for all our plate is at the bankers.” So I thought the old party came up, and the nearer he came, the less I took to him. But I had passed my word, you see.’
‘Wot is this bloomin’ drivel?’ interrupted the clerk. ‘It’s like the rot there is in tracts.’
‘It’s a story; I used to tell them to the kids at home,’ said Herrick. ‘If it bores you, I’ll drop it.’
‘O, cut along!’ returned the sick man, irritably. ‘It’s better than nothing.’
‘Well,’ continued Herrick, ‘I had no sooner given him the cough mixture than he seemed to straighten up and change, and I saw he wasn’t a Tahitian after all, but some kind of Arab, and had a long beard on his chin. “One good turn deserves another,” says he. “I am a magician out of the Arabian Nights, and this mat that I have under my arm is the original carpet of Mohammed Ben Somebody-or-other. Say the word, and you can have a cruise upon the carpet.” “You don’t mean to say this is the Travelling Carpet?” I cried. “You bet I do,” said he. “You’ve been to America since last I read the Arabian Nights,” said I, a little suspicious. “I should think so,” said he. “Been everywhere. A man with a carpet like this isn’t going to moulder in a semi-detached villa.” Well, that struck me as reasonable. “All right,” I said; “and do you mean to tell me I can get on that carpet and go straight to London, England?” I said, “London, England,” captain, because he seemed to have been so long in your part of the world. “In the crack of a whip,” said he. I figured up the time. What is the difference between Papeete and London, captain?’
‘Taking Greenwich and Point Venus, nine hours, odd minutes and seconds,’ replied the mariner.
‘Well, that’s about what I made it,’ resumed Herrick, ‘about nine hours. Calling this three in the morning, I made out I would drop into London about noon; and the idea tickled me immensely. “There’s only one bother,” I said, “I haven’t a copper cent. It would be a pity to go to London and not buy the morning Standard.” “O!” said he, “you don’t realise the conveniences of this carpet. You see this pocket? you’ve only got to stick your hand in, and you pull it out filled with sovereigns.”
‘Double-eagles, wasn’t iff inquired the captain.
‘That was what it was!’ cried Herrick. ‘I thought they seemed unusually big, and I remember now I had to go to the money-changers at Charing Cross and get English silver.’
‘O, you went there?’ said the clerk. ‘Wot did you do? Bet you had a B. and S.!’
‘Well, you see, it was just as the old boy said — like the cut of a whip,’ said Herrick. ‘The one minute I was here on the beach at three in the morning, the next I was in front of the Golden Cross at midday. At first I was dazzled, and covered my eyes, and there didn’t seem the smallest change; the roar of the Strand and the roar of the reef were like the same: hark to it now, and you can hear the cabs and buses rolling and the streets resound! And then at last I could look about, and there was the old place, and no mistake! With the statues in the square, and St Martin’s- in-the-Fields, and the bobbies, and the sparrows, and the hacks; and I can’t tell you what I felt like. I felt like crying, I believe, or dancing, or jumping clean over the Nelson Column. I was like a fellow caught up out of Hell and flung down into the dandiest part of Heaven. Then I spotted for a hansom with a spanking horse. “A shilling for yourself, if you’re there in twenty minutes!” said I to the jarvey. He went a good pace, though of course it was a trifle to the carpet; and in nineteen minutes and a half I was at the door.’
‘What door?’ asked the captain.
‘Oh, a house I know of,’ returned Herrick.
‘But it was a public-house!’ cried the clerk — only these were not his words. ‘And w’y didn’t you take the carpet there instead of trundling in a growler?’
‘I didn’t want to startle a quiet street,’ said the narrator.
‘Bad form. And besides, it was a hansom.’
‘Well, and what did you do next?’ inquired the captain.
‘Oh, I went in,’ said Herrick.
‘The old folks?’ asked the captain.
‘That’s about it,’ said the other, chewing a grass.
‘Well, I think you are about the poorest ‘and at a yarn!’ cried the clerk. ‘Crikey, it’s like Ministering Children! I can tell you there would be more beer and skittles about my little jaunt. I would go and have a B. and S. for luck. Then I would get a big ulster with astrakhan fur, and take my cane and do the la-de-la down Piccadilly. Then I would go to a slap-up restaurant, and have green peas, and a bottle of fizz, and a chump chop — Oh! and I forgot, I’d ‘ave some devilled whitebait first — and green gooseberry tart, and ‘ot coffee, and some of that form of vice in big bottles with a seal — Benedictine — that’s the bloomin’ nyme! Then I’d drop into a theatre, and pal on with some chappies, and do the dancing rooms and bars, and that, and wouldn’t go ‘ome till morning, till daylight doth appear. And the next day I’d have water-cresses, ‘am, muffin, and fresh butter; wouldn’t I just, O my!’
The clerk was interrupted by a fresh attack of coughing.
‘Well, now, I’ll tell you what I would do,’ said the captain: ‘I would have none of your fancy rigs with the man driving from the mizzen cross-trees, but a plain fore-and-aft hack cab of the highest registered tonnage. First of all, I would bring up at the market and get a turkey and a sucking-pig. Then I’d go to a wine merchant’s and get a dozen of champagne, and a dozen of some sweet wine, rich and sticky and strong, something in the port or madeira line, the best in the store. Then I’d bear up for a toy-store, and lay out twenty dollars in assorted toys for the piccaninnies; and then to a confectioner’s and take in cakes and pies and fancy bread, and that stuff with the plums in it; and then to a news-agency and buy all the papers, all the picture ones for the kids, and all the story papers for the old girl about the Earl discovering himself to Anna-Mariar and the escape of the Lady Maude from the private madhouse; and then I’d tell the fellow to drive home.’
‘There ought to be some syrup for the kids,’ suggested Herrick; ‘they like syrup.’
‘Yes, syrup for the kids, red syrup at that!’ said the captain. ‘And those things they pull at, and go pop, and have measly poetry inside. And then I tell you we’d have a thanksgiving day and Christmas tree combined. Great Scott, but I would like to see the kids! I guess they would light right out of the house, when they saw daddy driving up. My little Adar —’
The captain stopped sharply.
‘Well, keep it up!’ said the clerk.
‘The damned thing is, I don’t know if they ain’t starving!’ cried the captain.
‘They can’t be worse off than we are, and that’s one comfort,’ returned the clerk. ‘I defy the devil to make me worse off.’
It seemed as if the devil heard him. The light of the moon had been some time cut off and they had talked in darkness. Now there was heard a roar, which drew impetuously nearer; the face of the lagoon was seen to whiten; and before they had staggered to their feet, a squall burst in rain upon the outcasts. The rage and volume of that avalanche one must have lived in the tropics to conceive; a man panted in its assault, as he might pant under a shower-bath; and the world seemed whelmed in night and water.
They fled, groping for their usual shelter — it might be almost called their home — in the old calaboose; came drenched into its empty chambers; and lay down, three sops of humanity on the cold coral floors, and presently, when the squall was overpast, the others could hear in the darkness the chattering of the clerk’s teeth.
‘I say, you fellows,’ he walled, ‘for God’s sake, lie up and try to warm me. I’m blymed if I don’t think I’ll die else!’
So the three crept together into one wet mass, and lay until day came, shivering and dozing off, and continually re-awakened to wretchedness by the coughing of the clerk.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00