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

Chapter 10.

The Open Door

The captain and Herrick meanwhile turned their back upon the lights in Attwater’s verandah, and took a direction towards the pier and the beach of the lagoon.

The isle, at this hour, with its smooth floor of sand, the pillared roof overhead, and the prevalent illumination of the lamps, wore an air of unreality like a deserted theatre or a public garden at midnight. A man looked about him for the statues and tables. Not the least air of wind was stirring among the palms, and the silence was emphasised by the continuous clamour of the surf from the seashore, as it might be of traffic in the next street.

Still talking, still soothing him, the captain hurried his patient on, brought him at last to the lagoon- side, and leading him down the beach, laved his head and face with the tepid water. The paroxysm gradually subsided, the sobs became less convulsive and then ceased; by an odd but not quite unnatural conjunction, the captain’s soothing current of talk died away at the same time and by proportional steps, and the pair remained sunk in silence. The lagoon broke at their feet in petty wavelets, and with a sound as delicate as a whisper; stars of all degrees looked down on their own images in that vast mirror; and the more angry colour of the Farallone’s riding lamp burned in the middle distance. For long they continued to gaze on the scene before them, and hearken anxiously to the rustle and tinkle of that miniature surf, or the more distant and loud reverberations from the outer coast. For long speech was denied them; and when the words came at last, they came to both simultaneously. ‘Say, Herrick . . .‘the captain was beginning.

But Herrick, turning swiftly towards his companion, bent him down with the eager cry: ‘Let’s up anchor, captain, and to sea!’

‘Where to, my son?’ said the captain. ‘Up anchor’s easy saying. But where to?’

‘To sea,’ responded Herrick. ‘The sea’s big enough! To sea — away from this dreadful island and that, oh! that sinister man!’

‘Oh, we’ll see about that,’ said Davis. ‘You brace up, and we’ll see about that. You’re all run down, that’s what’s wrong with you; you’re all nerves, like Jemimar; you’ve got to brace up good and be yourself again, and then we’ll talk.’

‘To sea,’ reiterated Herrick, ‘to sea tonight — now — this moment!’

‘It can’t be, my son,’ replied the captain firmly. ‘No ship of mine puts to sea without provisions, you can take that for settled.’

‘You don’t seem to understand,’ said Herrick. ‘The whole thing is over, I tell you. There is nothing to do here, when he knows all. That man there with the cat knows all; can’t you take it in?’

‘All what?’ asked the captain, visibly discomposed. ‘Why, he received us like a perfect gentleman and treated us real handsome, until you began with your foolery — and I must say I seen men shot for less, and nobody sorry! What more do you expect anyway?’

Herrick rocked to and fro upon the sand, shaking his head.

‘Guying us,’ he said, ‘he was guying us — only guying us; it’s all we’re good for.’

‘There was one queer thing, to be sure,’ admitted the captain, with a misgiving of the voice; ‘that about the sherry. Damned if I caught on to that. Say, Herrick, you didn’t give me away?’

‘Oh! give you away!’ repeated Herrick with weary, querulous scorn. ‘What was there to give away? We’re transparent; we’ve got rascal branded on us: detected rascal — detected rascal! Why, before he came on board, there was the name painted out, and he saw the whole thing. He made sure we would kill him there and then, and stood guying you and Huish on the chance. He calls that being frightened! Next he had me ashore; a fine time I had! THE TWO WOLVES, he calls you and Huish. — WHAT IS THE PUPPY DOING WITH THE TWO WOLVES? he asked. He showed me his pearls; he said they might be dispersed before morning, and ALL HUNG BY A HAIr — and smiled as he said it, such a smile! O, it’s no use, I tell you! He knows all, he sees through all; we only make him laugh with our pretences — he looks at us and laughs like God!’

There was a silence. Davis stood with contorted brows, gazing into the night.

‘The pearls?’ he said suddenly. ‘He showed them to you? he has them?’

‘No, he didn’t show them; I forgot: only the safe they were in,’ said Herrick. ‘But you’ll never get them!’

‘I’ve two words to say to that,’ said the captain.

‘Do you think he would have been so easy at table, unless he was prepared?’ cried Herrick. ‘The servants were both armed. He was armed himself; he always is; he told me. You will never deceive his vigilance. Davis, I know it! It’s all up; all up. There’s nothing for it, there’s nothing to be done: all gone: life, honour, love. Oh, my God, my God, why was I born?’

Another pause followed upon this outburst.

The captain put his hands to his brow,

‘Another thing!’ he broke out. ‘Why did he tell you all this? Seems like madness to me!’

Herrick shook his head with gloomy iteration. ‘You wouldn’t understand if I were to tell you,’ said he.

‘I guess I can understand any blame’ thing that you can tell me,’ said the captain.

‘Well, then, he’s a fatalist,’ said Herrick.

‘What’s that, a fatalist?’ said Davis.

‘Oh, it’s a fellow that believes a lot of things,’ said Herrick, ‘believes that his bullets go true; believes that all falls out as God chooses, do as you like to prevent it; and all that.’

‘Why, I guess I believe right so myself,’ said Davis.

‘You do?’ said Herrick.

‘You bet I do!’ says Davis.

Herrick shrugged his shoulders. ‘Well, you must be a fool,’ said he, and he leaned his head upon his knees.

The captain stood biting his hands.

‘There’s one thing sure,’ he said at last. ‘I must get Huish out of that. HE’S not fit to hold his end up with a man like you describe.’

And he turned to go away. The words had been quite simple; not so the tone; and the other was quick to catch it.

‘Davis!’ he cried, ‘no! Don’t do it. Spare ME, and don’t do it — spare yourself, and leave it alone — for God’s sake, for your children’s sake!’

His voice rose to a passionate shrillness; another moment, and he might be overheard by their not distant victim. But Davis turned on him with a savage oath and gesture; and the miserable young man rolled over on his face on the sand, and lay speechless and helpless.

The captain meanwhile set out rapidly for Attwater’s house. As he went, he considered with himself eagerly, his thoughts racing. The man had understood, he had mocked them from the beginning; he would teach him to make a mockery of John Davis! Herrick thought him a god; give him a second to aim in, and the god was overthrown. He chuckled as he felt the butt of his revolver. It should be done now, as he went in. From behind? It was difficult to get there. From across the table? No, the captain preferred to shoot standing, so as you could be sure to get your hand upon your gun. The best would be to summon Huish, and when Attwater stood up and turned — ah, then would be the moment. Wrapped in his ardent prefiguration of events, the captain posted towards the house with his head down.

‘Hands up! Halt!’ cried the voice of Attwater.

And the captain, before he knew what he was doing, had obeyed. The surprise was complete and irremediable. Coming on the top crest of his murderous intentions, he had walked straight into an ambuscade, and now stood, with his hands impotently lifted, staring at the verandah.

The party was now broken up. Attwater leaned on a post, and kept Davis covered with a Winchester. One of the servants was hard by with a second at the port arms, leaning a little forward, round-eyed with eager expectancy. In the open space at the head of the stair, Huish was partly supported by the other native; his face wreathed in meaningless smiles, his mind seemingly sunk in the contemplation of an unlighted cigar.

‘Well,’ said Attwater, ‘you seem to me to be a very twopenny pirate!’

The captain uttered a sound in his throat for which we have no name; rage choked him.

‘I am going to give you Mr Whish — or the wine-sop that remains of him,’ continued Attwater. ‘He talks a great deal when he drinks, Captain Davis of the Sea Ranger. But I have quite done with him — and return the article with thanks. Now,’ he cried sharply. ‘Another false movement like that, and your family will have to deplore the loss of an invaluable parent; keep strictly still, Davis.’

Attwater said a word in the native, his eye still undeviatingly fixed on the captain; and the servant thrust Huish smartly forward from the brink of the stair. With an extraordinary simultaneous dispersion of his members, that gentleman bounded forth into space, struck the earth, ricocheted, and brought up with his arms about a palm. His mind was quite a stranger to these events; the expression of anguish that deformed his countenance at the moment of the leap was probably mechanical; and he suffered these convulsions in silence; clung to the tree like an infant; and seemed, by his dips, to suppose himself engaged in the pastime of bobbing for apples. A more finely sympathetic mind or a more observant eye might havc remarked, a little in front of him on the sand, and still quite beyond reach, the unlighted cigar.

‘There is your Whitechapel carrion!’ said Attwater. ‘And now you might very well ask me why I do not put a period to you at once, as you deserve. I will tell you why, Davis. It is because I have nothing to do with the Sea Ranger and the people you drowned, or the Farallone and the champagne that you stole. That is your account with God, He keeps it, and He will settle it when the clock strikes. In my own case, I have nothing to go on but suspicion, and I do not kill on suspicion, not even vermin like you. But understand! if ever I see any of you again, it is another matter, and you shall eat a bullet. And now take yourself off. March! and as you value what you call your life, keep your hands up as you go!’

The captain remained as he was, his hands up, his mouth open: mesmerised with fury.

‘March!’ said Attwater. ‘One — two — three!’

And Davis turned and passed slowly away. But even as he went, he was meditating a prompt, offensive return. In the twinkling of an eye, he had leaped behind a tree; and was crouching there, pistol in hand, peering from either side of his place of ambush with bared teeth; a serpent already poised to strike. And already he was too late. Attwater and his servants had disappeared; and only the lamps shone on the deserted table and the bright sand about the house, and threw into the night in all directions the strong and tall shadows of the palms.

Davis ground his teeth. Where were they gone, the cowards? to what hole had they retreated beyond reach? It was in vain he should try anything, he, single and with a second-hand revolver, against three persons, armed with Winchesters, and who did not show an ear out of any of the apertures of that lighted and silent house? Some of them might have already ducked below it from the rear, and be drawing a bead upon him at that moment from the low-browed crypt, the receptacle of empty bottles and broken crockery. No, there was nothing to be done but to bring away (if it were still possible) his shattered and demorallsed forces.

‘Huish,’ he said, ‘come along.’

‘‘S lose my ciga’,’ said Huish, reaching vaguely forward.

The captain let out a rasping oath. ‘Come right along here,’ said he.

‘‘S all righ’. Sleep here ‘th Atty-Attwa. Go boar’ t’morr’,’ replied the festive one.

‘If you don’t come, and come now, by the living God, I’ll shoot you!’ cried the captain.

It is not to be supposed that the sense of these words in any way penetrated to the mind of Hulsh; rather that, in a fresh attempt upon the cigar, he overbalanced himself and came flying erratically forward: a course which brought him within reach of Davis.

‘Now you walk straight,’ said the captain, clutching him, ‘or I’ll know why not!’

‘‘S lose my ciga’,’ replied Huish.

The captain’s contained fury blazed up for a moment. He twisted Huish round, grasped him by the neck of the coat, ran him in front of him to the pier end, and flung him savagely forward on his face.

‘Look for your cigar then, you swine!’ said he, and blew his boat call till the pea in it ceased to rattle.

An immediate activity responded on board the Farallone; far away voices, and soon the sound of oars, floated along the surface of the lagoon; and at the same time, from nearer hand, Herrick aroused himself and strolled languidly up. He bent over the insignificant figure of Huish, where it grovelled, apparently insensible, at the base of the figure-head.

‘Dead?’ he asked.

‘No, he’s not dead,’ said Davis.

‘And Attwater?’ asked Herrick.

‘Now you just shut your head!’ replied Davis. ‘You can do that, I fancy, and by God, I’ll show you how! I’ll stand no more of your drivel.’

They waited accordingly in silence till the boat bumped on the furthest piers; then raised Huish, head and heels, carried him down the gangway, and flung him summarily in the bottom. On the way out he was heard murmuring of the loss of his cigar; and after he had been handed up the side like baggage, and cast down in the alleyway to slumber, his last audible expression was: ‘Splen’l fl’ Attwa’!’ This the expert construed into ‘Splendid fellow, Attwater’; with so much innocence had this great spirit issued from the adventures of the evening.

The captain went and walked in the waist with brief, irate turns; Herrick leaned his arms on the taffrail; the crew had all turned in. The ship had a gentle, cradling motion; at times a block piped like a bird. On shore, through the colonnade of palm stems, Attwater’s house was to be seen shining steadily with many lamps. And there was nothing else visible, whether in the heaven above or in the lagoon below, but the stars and their reflections. It might have been minutes or it might have been hours, that Herrick leaned there, looking in the glorified water and drinking peace. ‘A bath of stars,’ he was thinking; when a hand was laid at last on his shoulder.

‘Herrick,’ said the captain, ‘I’ve been walking off my trouble.’

A sharp jar passed through the young man, but he neither answered nor so much as turned his head.

‘I guess I spoke a little rough to you on shore,’ pursued the captain; ‘the fact is, I was real mad; but now it’s over, and you and me have to turn to and think.’

‘I will NOT think,’ said Herrick.

‘Here, old man!’ said Davis, kindly; ‘this won’t fight, you know! You’ve got to brace up and help me get things straight. You’re not going back on a friend? That’s not like you, Herrick!’

‘O yes, it is,’ said Herrick.

‘Come, come!’ said the captain, and paused as if quite at a loss. ‘Look here,’ he cried, ‘you have a glass of champagne. I won’t touch it, so that’ll show you if I’m in earnest. But it’s just the pick-me-up for you; it’ll put an edge on you at once.’

‘O, you leave me alone!’ said Herrick, and turned away.

The captain caught him by the sleeve; and he shook him off and turned on him, for the moment, like a demoniac.

‘Go to hell in your own way!’ he cried.

And he turned away again, this time unchecked, and stepped forward to where the boat rocked alongside and ground occasionally against the schooner. He looked about him. A corner of the house was interposed between the captain and himself; all was well; no eye must see him in that last act. He slid silently into the boat; thence, silently, into the starry water.

Instinctively he swam a little; it would be time enough to stop by and by.

The shock of the immersion brightened his mind immediately. The events of the ignoble day passed before him in a frieze of pictures, and he thanked ‘whatever Gods there be’ for that open door of suicide. In such a little while he would be done with it, the random business at an end, the prodigal son come home. A very bright planet shone before him and drew a trenchant wake along the water. He took that for his line and followed it. That was the last earthly thing that he should look upon; that radiant speck, which he had soon magnified into a City of Laputa, along whose terraces there walked men and women of awful and benignant features, who viewed him with distant commiseration. These imaginary spectators consoled him; he told himself their talk, one to another; it was of himself and his sad destiny.

From such flights of fancy, he was aroused by the growing coldness of the water. Why should he delay? Here, where he was now, let him drop the curtain, let him seek the ineffable refuge, let him lie down with all races and generations of men in the house of sleep. It was easy to say, easy to do. To stop swimming: there was no mystery in that, if he could do it. Could he? And he could not. He knew it instantly. He was aware instantly of an opposition in his members, unanimous and invincible, clinging to life with a single and fixed resolve, finger by finger, sinew by sinew; something that was at once he and not he — at once within and without him; — the shutting of some miniature valve in his brain, which a single manly thought should suffice to open — and the grasp of an external fate ineluctable as gravity. To any man there may come at times a consciousness that there blows, through all the articulations of his body, the wind of a spirit not wholly his; that his mind rebels; that another girds him and carries him whither he would not. It came now to Herrick, with the authority of a revelation. There was no escape possible. The open door was closed in his recreant face. He must go back into the world and amongst men without illusion. He must stagger on to the end with the pack of his responsibility and his disgrace, until a cold, a blow, a merciful chance ball, or the more merciful hangman, should dismiss him from his infamy. There were men who could commit suicide; there were men who could not; and he was one who could not.

For perhaps a minute, there raged in his mind the coil of this discovery; then cheerless certitude followed; and, with an incredible simplicity of submission to ascertained fact, he turned round and struck out for shore. There was a courage in this which he could not appreciate; the ignobility of his cowardice wholly occupying him. A strong current set against him like a wind in his face; he contended with it heavily, wearily, without enthusiasm, but with substantial advantage; marking his progress the while, without pleasure, by the outline of the trees. Once he had a moment of hope. He heard to the southward of him, towards the centre of the lagoon, the wallowing of some great fish, doubtless a shark, and paused for a little, treading water. Might not this be the hangman? he thought. But the wallowing died away; mere silence succeeded; and Herrick pushed on again for the shore, raging as he went at his own nature. Ay, he would wait for the shark; but if he had heard him coming! . . . His smile was tragic. He could have spat upon himself.

About three in the morning, chance, and the set of the current, and the bias of his own right-handed body, so decided it between them that he came to shore upon the beach in front of Attwater’s. There he sat down, and looked forth into a world without any of the lights of hope. The poor diving dress of self-conceit was sadly tattered! With the fairy tale of suicide, of a refuge always open to him, he had hitherto beguiled and supported himself in the trials of life; and behold! that also was only a fairy tale, that also was folk-lore. With the consequences of his acts he saw himself implacably confronted for the duration of life: stretched upon a cross, and nailed there with the iron bolts of his own cowardice. He had no tears; he told himself no stories. His disgust with himself was so complete that even the process of apologetic mythology had ceased. He was like a man cast down from a pillar, and every bone broken. He lay there, and admitted the facts, and did not attempt to rise.

Dawn began to break over the far side of the atoll, the sky brightened, the clouds became dyed with gorgeous colours, the shadows of the night lifted. And, suddenly, Herrick was aware that the lagoon and the trees wore again their daylight livery; and he saw, on board the Farallone, Davis extinguishing the lantern, and smoke rising from the galley.

Davis, without doubt, remarked and recognised the figure on the beach; or perhaps hesitated to recognise it; for after he had gazed a long while from under his hand, he went into the house and fetched a glass. It was very powerful; Herrick had often used it. With an instinct of shame, he hid his face in his hands.

‘And what brings you here, Mr Herrick-Hay, or Mr Hay-Herrick?’ asked the voice of Attwater. ‘Your back view from my present position is remarkably fine, and I would continue to present it. We can get on very nicely as we are, and if you were to turn round, do you know? I think it would be awkward.’

Herrick slowly rose to his feet; his heart throbbed hard, a hideous excitement shook him, but he was master of himself. Slowly he turned, and faced Attwater and the muzzle of a pointed rifle. ‘Why could I not do that last night?’ he thought.

‘Well, why don’t you fire?’ he said aloud, with a voice that trembled.

Attwater slowly put his gun under his arm, then his hands in his pockets.

‘What brings you here?’ he repeated.

‘I don’t know’ ‘ said Herrick; and then, with a cry: ‘Can you do anything with me?’

‘Are you armed?’ said Attwater. ‘I ask for the form’s sake.’

‘Armed? No!’ said Herrick. ‘O yes, I am, too!’ And he flung upon the beach a dripping pistol.

‘You are wet,’ said Attwater.

‘Yes, I am wet,’ said Herrick. ‘Can you do anything with me?’

Attwater read his face attentively.

‘It would depend a good deal upon what you are,’ said he.

‘What I am? A coward!’ said Herrick.

‘There is very little to be done with that,’ said Attwater. ‘And yet the description hardly strikes one as exhaustive.’

‘Oh, what does it matter?’ cried Herrick. ‘Here I am. I am broken crockery; I am a burst drum; the whole of my life is gone to water; I have nothing left that I believe in, except my living horror of myself. Why do I come to you? I don’t know; you are cold, cruel, hateful; and I hate you, or I think I hate you. But you are an honest man, an honest gentleman. I put myself, helpless, in your hands. What must I do? If I can’t do anything, be merciful and put a bullet through me; it’s only a puppy with a broken leg!’

‘If I were you, I would pick up that pistol, come up to the house, and put on some dry clothes,’ said Attwater.

‘If you really mean it?’ said Herrick. ‘You know they — we — they . . . But you know all.’

‘I know quite enough,’ said Attwater. ‘Come up to the house.’

And the captain, from the deck of the Farallone, saw the two men pass together under the shadow of the grove.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00