Huish had bundled himself up from the glare of the day — his face to the house, his knees retracted. The frail bones in the thin tropical raiment seemed scarce more considerable than a fowl’s; and Davis, sitting on the rail with his arm about a stay, contemplated him with gloom, wondering what manner of counsel that insignificant figure should contain. For since Herrick had thrown him off and deserted to the enemy, Huish, alone of mankind, remained to him to be a helper and oracle.
He considered their position with a sinking heart. The ship was a stolen ship; the stores, either from initial carelessness or ill administration during the voyage, were insufficient to carry them to any port except back to Papeete; and there retribution waited in the shape of a gendarme, a judge with a queer-shaped hat, and the horror of distant Noumea. Upon that side, there was no glimmer of hope. Here, at the island, the dragon was roused; Attwater with his men and his Winchesters watched and patrolled the house; let him who dare approach it. What else was then left but to sit there, inactive, pacing the decks — until the Trinity Hall arrived and they were cast into irons, or until the food came to an end, and the pangs of famine succeeded? For the Trinity Hall Davis was prepared; he would barricade the house, and die there defending it, like a rat in a crevice. But for the other? The cruise of the Farallone, into which he had plunged only a fortnight before, with such golden expectations, could this be the nightmare end of it? The ship rotting at anchor, the crew stumbling and dying in the scuppers? It seemed as if any extreme of hazard were to be preferred to so grisly a certainty; as if it would be better to up-anchor after all, put to sea at a venture, and, perhaps, perish at the hands of cannibals on one of the more obscure Paumotus. His eye roved swiftly over sea and sky in quest of any promise of wind, but the fountains of the Trade were empty. Where it had run yesterday and for weeks before, a roaring blue river charioting clouds, silence now reigned; and the whole height of the atmosphere stood balanced. On the endless ribbon of island that stretched out to either hand of him its array of golden and green and silvery palms, not the most volatile frond was to be seen stirring; they drooped to their stable images in the lagoon like things carved of metal, and already their long line began to reverberate heat. There was no escape possible that day, none probable on the morrow. And still the stores were running out!
Then came over Davis, from deep down in the roots of his being, or at least from far back among his memories of childhood and innocence, a wave of superstition. This run of ill luck was something beyond natural; the chances of the game were in themselves more various; it seemed as if the devil must serve the pieces. The devil? He heard again the clear note of Attwater’s bell ringing abroad into the night, and dying away. How if God . . .?
Briskly, he averted his mind. Attwater: that was the point. Attwater had food and a treasure of pearls; escape made possible in the present, riches in the future. They must come to grips, with Attwater; the man must die. A smoky heat went over his face, as he recalled the impotent figure he had made last night and the contemptuous speeches he must bear in silence. Rage, shame, and the love of life, all pointed the one way; and only invention halted: how to reach him? had he strength enough? was there any help in that misbegotten packet of bones against the house?
His eyes dwelled upon him with a strange avidity, as though he would read into his soul; and presently the sleeper moved, stirred uneasily, turned suddenly round, and threw him a blinking look. Davis maintained the same dark stare, and Huish looked away again and sat up.
‘Lord, I’ve an ‘eadache on me!’ said he. ‘I believe I was a bit swipey last night. W’ere’s that cry-byby ‘Errick?’
‘Gone,’ said the captain.
‘Ashore?’ cried Huish. ‘Oh, I say! I’d ‘a gone too.’
‘Would you?’ said the captain.
‘Yes, I would,’ replied Huish. ‘I like Attwater. ‘E’s all right; we got on like one o’clock when you were gone. And ain’t his sherry in it, rather? It’s like Spiers and Ponds’ Amontillado! I wish I ‘ad a drain of it now.’ He sighed.
‘Well, you’ll never get no more of it — that’s one thing,’ said Davis, gravely.
“Ere! wot’s wrong with you, Dyvis? Coppers ‘ot? Well, look at me! I ain’t grumpy,’ said Huish; ‘I’m as plyful as a canary-bird, I am.’
‘Yes,’ said Davis, ‘you’re playful; I own that; and you were playful last night, I believe, and a damned fine performance you made of it.’
“Allo!’ said Huish. “Ow’s this? Wot performance?’
‘Well, I’ll tell you,’ said the captain, getting slowly off the rail.
And he did: at full length, with every wounding epithet and absurd detail repeated and emphasised; he had his own vanity and Huish’s upon the grill, and roasted them; and as he spoke, he inflicted and endured agonies of humiliation. It was a plain man’s masterpiece of the sardonic.
‘What do you think of it?’ said he, when he had done, and looked down at Huish, flushed and serious, and yet jeering.
‘I’ll tell you wot it is,’ was the reply, ‘you and me cut a pretty dicky figure.’
‘That’s so,’ said Davis, ‘a pretty measly figure, by God! And, by God, I want to see that man at my knees.’
‘Ah!’ said Huish. “Ow to get him there?’
‘That’s it!’ cried Davis. ‘How to get hold of him! They’re four to two; though there’s only one man among them to count, and that’s Attwater. Get a bead on Attwater, and the others would cut and run and sing out like frightened poultry — and old man Herrick would come round with his hat for a share of the pearls. No, SIR! it’s how to get hold of Attwater! And we daren’t even go ashore; he would shoot us in the boat like dogs.’
‘Are you particular about having him dead or alive?’ asked Huish.
‘I want to see him dead,’ said the captain.
‘Ah, well!’ said Huish, ‘then I believe I’ll do a bit of breakfast.’
And he turned into the house.
The captain doggedly followed him.
‘What’s this?’ he asked. ‘What’s your idea, anyway?’
‘Oh, you let me alone, will you?’ said Huish, opening a bottle of champagne. ‘You’ll ‘ear my idea soon enough. Wyte till I pour some chain on my ‘ot coppers.’ He drank a glass off, and affected to listen. ‘‘Ark!’ said he, ‘‘ear it fizz. Like ‘am fryin’, I declyre. ‘Ave a glass, do, and look sociable.’
‘No!’ said the captain, with emphasis; ‘no, I will not! there’s business.’
‘You p’ys your money and you tykes your choice, my little man,’ returned Huish. ‘Seems rather a shyme to me to spoil your breakfast for wot’s really ancient ‘istory.’
He finished three parts of a bottle of champagne, and nibbled a corner of biscuit, with extreme deliberation; the captain sitting opposite and champing the bit like an impatient horse. Then Huish leaned his arms on the table and looked Davis in the face.
‘W’en you’re ready!’ said he.
‘Well, now, what’s your idea?’ said Davis, with a sigh.
‘Fair play!’ said Huish. ‘What’s yours?’
‘The trouble is that I’ve got none,’ replied Davis; and wandered for some time in aimless discussion of the difficulties in their path, and useless explanations of his own fiasco.
‘About done?’ said Huish.
‘I’ll dry up right here,’ replied Davis.
‘Well, then,’ said Huish, ‘you give me your ‘and across the table, and say, “Gawd strike me dead if I don’t back you up.”’
His voice was hardly raised, yet it thrilled the hearer. His face seemed the epitome of cunning, and the captain recoiled from it as from a blow.
‘What for?’ said he.
‘Luck,’ said Huish. ‘Substantial guarantee demanded.’
And he continued to hold out his hand.
‘I don’t see the good of any such tomfoolery,’ said the other.
‘I do, though,’ returned Huish. ‘Gimme your ‘and and say the words; then you’ll ‘ear my view of it. Don’t, and you won’t.’
The captain went through the required form, breathing short, and gazing on the clerk with anguish. What to fear, he knew not; yet he feared slavishly what was to fall from the pale lips.
‘Now, if you’ll excuse me ‘alf a second,’ said Huish, ‘I’ll go and fetch the byby.’
‘The baby?’ said Davis. ‘What’s that?’
‘Fragile. With care. This side up,’ replied the clerk with a wink, as he disappeared.
He returned, smiling to himself, and carrying in his hand a silk handkerchief. The long stupid wrinkles ran up Davis’s brow, as he saw it. What should it contain? He could think of nothing more recondite than a revolver.
Huish resumed his seat.
‘Now,’ said he, ‘are you man enough to take charge of ‘Errick and the niggers? Because I’ll take care of Hattwater.’
‘How?’ cried Davis. ‘You can’t!’
‘Tut, tut!’ said the clerk. ‘You gimme time. Wot’s the first point? The first point is that we can’t get ashore, and I’ll make you a present of that for a ‘ard one. But ‘ow about a flag of truce? Would that do the trick, d’ye think? or would Attwater simply blyze aw’y at us in the bloomin’ boat like dawgs?’
‘No,’ said Davis, ‘I don’t believe he would.’
‘No more do I,’ said Huish; ‘I don’t believe he would either; and I’m sure I ‘ope he won’t! So then you can call us ashore. Next point is to get near the managin’ direction. And for that I’m going to ‘ave you write a letter, in w’ich you s’y you’re ashamed to meet his eye, and that the bearer, Mr J. L. ‘Uish, is empowered to represent you. Armed with w’ich seemin’ly simple expedient, Mr J. L. ‘Uish will proceed to business.’
He paused, like one who had finished, but still held Davis with his eye.
‘How?’ said Davis. ‘Why?’
‘Well, you see, you’re big,’ returned Huish; ‘‘e knows you ‘ave a gun in your pocket, and anybody can see with ‘alf an eye that you ain’t the man to ‘esitate about usin’ it. So it’s no go with you, and never was; you’re out of the runnin’, Dyvis. But he won’t be afryde of me, I’m such a little un! I’m unarmed — no kid about that — and I’ll hold my ‘ands up right enough.’ He paused. ‘If I can manage to sneak up nearer to him as we talk,’ he resumed, ‘you look out and back me up smart. If I don’t, we go aw’y again, and nothink to ‘urt. See?’
The captain’s face was contorted by the frenzied effort to comprehend.
‘No, I don’t see,’ he cried, ‘I can’t see. What do you mean?’
‘I mean to do for the Beast!’ cried Huish, in a burst of venomous triumph. ‘I’ll bring the ‘ulkin’ bully to grass. He’s ‘ad his larks out of me; I’m goin’ to ‘ave my lark out of ‘im, and a good lark too!’
‘What is it?’ said the captain, almost in a whisper.
‘Sure you want to know?’ asked Huish.
Davis rose and took a turn in the house.
‘Yes, I want to know,’ he said at last with an effort.
‘We’n you’re back’s at the wall, you do the best you can, don’t you?’ began the clerk. ‘I s’y that, because I ‘appen to know there’s a prejudice against it; it’s considered vulgar, awf’ly vulgar.’ He unrolled the handkerchief and showed a four-ounce jar. ‘This ‘ere’s vitriol, this is,’ said he.
The captain stared upon him with a whitening face.
‘This is the stuff!’ he pursued, holding it up. ‘This’ll burn to the bone; you’ll see it smoke upon ‘im like ‘ell fire! One drop upon ‘is bloomin’ heyesight, and I’ll trouble you for Attwater!’
‘No, no, by God!’ exclaimed the captain.
‘Now, see ‘ere, ducky,’ said Huish, ‘this is my bean feast, I believe? I’m goin’ up to that man single-‘anded, I am. ‘E’s about seven foot high, and I’m five foot one. ‘E’s a rifle in his ‘and, ‘e’s on the look-out, ‘e wasn’t born yesterday. This is Dyvid and Goliar, I tell you! If I’d ast you to walk up and face the music I could understand. But I don’t. I on’y ast you to stand by and spifflicate the niggers. It’ll all come in quite natural; you’ll see, else! Fust thing, you know, you’ll see him running round and owling like a good un . . .’
‘Don’t!’ said Davis. ‘Don’t talk of it!’
‘Well, you ARE a juggins!’ exclaimed Huish. ‘What did you want? You wanted to kill him, and tried to last night. You wanted to kill the ‘ole lot of them and tried to, and ‘ere I show you ‘ow; and because there’s some medicine in a bottle you kick up this fuss!’
‘I suppose that’s so,’ said Davis. ‘It don’t seem someways reasonable, only there it is.’
‘It’s the happlication of science, I suppose?’ sneered Huish.
‘I don’t know what it is,’ cried Davis, pacing the floor; ‘it’s there! I draw the line at it. I can’t put a finger to no such piggishness. It’s too damned hateful!’
‘And I suppose it’s all your fancy pynted it,’ said Huish, ‘w’en you take a pistol and a bit o’ lead, and copse a man’s brains all over him? No accountin’ for tystes.’
‘I’m not denying it,’ said Davis, ‘It’s something here, inside of me. It’s foolishness; I dare say it’s dam foolishness. I don’t argue, I just draw the line. Isn’t there no other way?’
‘Look for yourself,’ said Huish. ‘I ain’t wedded to this, if you think I am; I ain’t ambitious; I don’t make a point of playin’ the lead; I offer to, that’s all, and if you can’t show me better, by Gawd, I’m goin’ to!’
‘Then the risk!’ cried Davis.
‘If you ast me straight, I should say it was a case of seven to one and no takers,’ said Huish. ‘But that’s my look-out, ducky, and I’m gyme, that’s wot I am: gyme all through.’
The captain looked at him. Huish sat there, preening his sinister vanity, glorying in his precedency in evil; and the villainous courage and readiness of the creature shone out of him like a candle from a lantern. Dismay and a kind of respect seized hold on Davis in his own despite. Until that moment, he had seen the clerk always hanging back, always listless, uninterested, and openly grumbling at a word of anything to do; and now, by the touch of an enchanter’s wand, he beheld him sitting girt and resolved, and his face radiant. He had raised the devil, he thought; and asked who was to control him? and his spirits quailed.
‘Look as long as you like,’ Huish was going on. ‘You don’t see any green in my eye! I ain’t afryde of Attwater, I ain’t afryde of you, and I ain’t afryde of words. You want to kill people, that’s wot YOU want; but you want to do it in kid gloves, and it can’t be done that w’y. Murder ain’t genteel, it ain’t easy, it ain’t safe, and it tykes a man to do it. ‘Ere’s the man.’
‘Huish!’ began the captain with energy; and then stopped, and remained staring at him with corrugated brows.
‘Well, hout with it!’ said Huish. “Ave you anythink else to put up? Is there any other chanst to try?’
The captain held his peace.
‘There you are then!’ said Huish with a shrug.
Davis fell again to his pacing.
‘Oh, you may do sentry-go till you’re blue in the mug, you won’t find anythink else,’ said Huish.
There was a little silence; the captain, like a man launched on a swing, flying dizzily among extremes of conjecture and refusal.
‘But see,’ he said, suddenly pausing. ‘Can you? Can the thing be done? It — it can’t be easy.’
‘If I get within twenty foot of ‘im it’ll be done; so you look out,’ said Huish, and his tone of certainty was absolute.
‘How can you know that?’ broke from the captain in a choked cry. ‘You beast, I believe you’ve done it before!’
‘Oh, that’s private affyres,’ returned Huish, ‘I ain’t a talking man.’
A shock of repulsion struck and shook the captain; a scream rose almost to his lips; had he uttered it, he might have cast himself at the same moment on the body of Huish, might have picked him up, and flung him down, and wiped the cabin with him, in a frenzy of cruelty that seemed half moral. But the moment passed; and the abortive crisis left the man weaker. The stakes were so high — the pearls on the one hand — starvation and shame on the other. Ten years of pearls! The imagination of Davis translated them into a new, glorified existence for himself and his family. The seat of this new life must be in London; there were deadly reasons against Portland, Maine; and the pictures that came to him were of English manners. He saw his boys marching in the procession of a school, with gowns on, an usher marshalling them and reading as he walked in a great book. He was installed in a villa, semi-detached; the name, Rosemore, on the gateposts. In a chair on the gravel walk, he seemed to sit smoking a cigar, a blue ribbon in his buttonhole, victor over himself and circumstances, and the malignity of bankers. He saw the parlour with red curtains and shells on the mantelpiece — and with the fine inconsistency of visions, mixed a grog at the mahogany table ere he turned in. With that the Farallone gave one of the aimless and nameless movements which (even in an anchored ship and even in the most profound calm) remind one of the mobility of fluids; and he was back again under the cover of the house, the fierce daylight besieging it all round and glaring in the chinks, and the clerk in a rather airy attitude, awaiting his decision.
He began to walk again. He aspired after the realisation of these dreams, like a horse nickering for water; the lust of them burned in his inside. And the only obstacle was Attwater, who had insulted him from the first. He gave Herrick a full share of the pearls, he insisted on it; Huish opposed him, and he trod the opposition down; and praised himself exceedingly. He was not going to use vitriol himself; was he Huish’s keeper? It was a pity he had asked, but after all! . . . he saw the boys again in the school procession, with the gowns he had thought to be so ‘tony’ long since . . . And at the same time the incomparable shame of the last evening blazed up in his mind.
‘Have it your own way!’ he said hoarsely.
‘Oh, I knew you would walk up,’ said Huish. ‘Now for the letter. There’s paper, pens and ink. Sit down and I’ll dictyte.’
The captain took a seat and the pen, looked a while helplessly at the paper, then at Huish. The swing had gone the other way; there was a blur upon his eyes. ‘It’s a dreadful business,’ he said, with a strong twitch of his shoulders.
‘It’s rather a start, no doubt,’ said Huish. ‘Tyke a dip of ink. That’s it. William John Hattwater, Esq., Sir’: he dictated
‘How do you know his name is William John?’ asked Davis.
‘Saw it on a packing case,’ said Huish. ‘Got that?’
‘No,’ said Davis. ‘But there’s another thing. What are we to write?’
‘O my golly!’ cried the exasperated Huish. ‘Wot kind of man do YOU call yourself? I’M goin’ to tell you wot to write; that’s my pitch; if you’ll just be so bloomin’ condescendin’ as to write it down! WILLIAM JOHN ATTWATER, ESQ., SIR’: he reiterated. And the captain at last beginning half mechanically to move his pen, the dictation proceeded:
It is with feelings of shyme and ‘artfelt contrition that I approach you after the yumiliatin’ events of last night. Our Mr ‘Errick has left the ship, and will have doubtless communicated to you the nature of our ‘opes. Needless to s’y, these are no longer possible: Fate ‘as declyred against us, and we bow the ‘ead. Well awyre as I am of the just suspicions with w’ich I am regarded, I do not venture to solicit the fyvour of an interview for myself, but in order to put an end to a situytion w’ich must be equally pyneful to all, I ‘ave deputed my friend and partner, Mr J. L. Huish, to l’y before you my proposals, and w’ich by their moderytion, Will, I trust, be found to merit your attention. Mr J. L. Huish is entirely unarmed, I swear to Gawd! and will ‘old ‘is ‘ands over ‘is ‘ead from the moment he begins to approach you. I am your fytheful servant, John Davis.
Huish read the letter with the innocent joy of amateurs, chuckled gustfully to himself, and reopened it more than once after it was folded, to repeat the pleasure; Davis meanwhile sitting inert and heavily frowning.
Of a sudden he rose; he seemed all abroad. ‘No!’ he cried. ‘No! it can’t be! It’s too much; it’s damnation. God would never forgive it.’
‘Well, and ‘oo wants Him to?’ returned Huish, shrill with fury. ‘You were damned years ago for the Sea Rynger, and said so yourself. Well then, be damned for something else, and ‘old your tongue.’
The captain looked at him mistily. ‘No,’ he pleaded, ‘no, old man! don’t do it.’
“Ere now,’ said Huish, ‘I’ll give you my ultimytum. Go or st’y w’ere you are; I don’t mind; I’m goin’ to see that man and chuck this vitriol in his eyes. If you st’y I’ll go alone; the niggers will likely knock me on the ‘ead, and a fat lot you’ll be the better! But there’s one thing sure: I’ll ‘ear no more of your moonin’, mullygrubbin’ rot, and tyke it stryte.’
The captain took it with a blink and a gulp. Memory, with phantom voices, repeated in his cars something similar, something he had once said to Herrick — years ago it seemed.
‘Now, gimme over your pistol,’ said Huish. ‘I ‘ave to see all clear. Six shots, and mind you don’t wyste them.’
The captain, like a man in a nightmare, laid down his revolver on the table, and Huish wiped the cartridges and oiled the works.
It was close on noon, there was no breath of wind, and the heat was scarce bearable, when the two men came on deck, had the boat manned, and passed down, one after another, into the stern-sheets. A white shirt at the end of an oar served as a flag of truce; and the men, by direction, and to give it the better chance to be observed, pulled with extreme slowness. The isle shook before them like a place incandescent; on the face of the lagoon blinding copper suns, no bigger than sixpences, danced and stabbed them in the eyeballs; there went up from sand and sea, and even from the boat, a glare of scathing brightness; and as they could only peer abroad from between closed lashes, the excess of light seemed to be changed into a sinister darkness, comparable to that of a thundercloud before it bursts.
The captain had come upon this errand for any one of a dozen reasons, the last of which was desire for its success. Superstition rules all men; semi-ignorant and gross natures, like that of Davis, it rules utterly. For murder he had been prepared; but this horror of the medicine in the bottle went beyond him, and he seemed to himself to be parting the last strands that united him to God. The boat carried him on to reprobation, to damnation; and he suffered himself to be carried passively consenting, silently bidding farewell to his better self and his hopes. Huish sat by his side in towering spirits that were not wholly genuine. Perhaps as brave a man as ever lived, brave as a weasel, he must still reassure himself with the tones of his own voice; he must play his part to exaggeration, he must out-Herod Herod, insult all that was respectable, and brave all that was formidable, in a kind of desperate wager with himself.
‘Golly, but it’s ‘ot!’ said he. ‘Cruel ‘ot, I call it. Nice d’y to get your gruel in! I s’y, you know, it must feel awf’ly peculiar to get bowled over on a d’y like this. I’d rather ‘ave it on a cowld and frosty morning, wouldn’t you? (Singing) “‘Ere we go round the mulberry bush on a cowld and frosty mornin’.” (Spoken) Give you my word, I ‘aven’t thought o’ that in ten year; used to sing it at a hinfant school in ‘Ackney, ‘Ackney Wick it was. (Singing) “This is the way the tyler does, the tyler does.’ (Spoken) Bloomin’ ‘umbug. ‘Ow are you off now, for the notion of a future styte? Do you cotton to the tea-fight views, or the old red ‘ot boguey business?’
‘Oh, dry up!’ said the captain.
‘No, but I want to know,’ said Huish. ‘It’s within the sp’ere of practical politics for you and me, my boy; we may both be bowled over, one up, t’other down, within the next ten minutes. It would be rather a lark, now, if you only skipped across, came up smilin’ t’other side, and a hangel met you with a B. and S. under his wing. ‘Ullo, you’d s’y: come, I tyke this kind.’
The captain groaned. While Huish was thus airing and exercising his bravado, the man at his side was actually engaged in prayer. Prayer, what for? God knows. But out of his inconsistent, illogical, and agitated spirit, a stream of supplication was poured forth, inarticulate as himself, earnest as death and judgment.
‘Thou Gawd seest me!’ continued Huish. ‘I remember I had that written in my Bible. I remember the Bible too, all about Abinadab and parties. Well, Gawd!’ apostrophising the meridian, ‘you’re goin’ to see a rum start presently, I promise you that!’
The captain bounded.
‘I’ll have no blasphemy!’ he cried, ‘no blasphemy in my boat.’
‘All right, cap,’ said Huish. ‘Anythink to oblige. Any other topic you would like to sudgest, the rynegyge, the lightnin’ rod, Shykespeare, or the musical glasses? ‘Ere’s conversation on a tap. Put a penny in the slot, and . . . ‘ullo! ‘ere they are!’ he cried. ‘Now or never is ‘e goin’ to shoot?’
And the little man straightened himself into an alert and dashing attitude, and looked steadily at the enemy. But the captain rose half up in the boat with eyes protruding.
‘What’s that?’ he cried.
‘Wot’s wot?’ said Huish.
‘Those — blamed things,’ said the captain.
And indeed it was something strange. Herrick and Attwater, both armed with Winchesters, had appeared out of the grove behind the figure-head; and to either hand of them, the sun glistened upon two metallic objects, locomotory like men, and occupying in the economy of these creatures the places of heads — only the heads were faceless. To Davis between wind and water, his mythology appeared to have come alive, and Tophet to be vomiting demons. But Huish was not mystified a moment.
‘Divers’ ‘elmets, you ninny. Can’t you see?’ he said.
‘So they are,’ said Davis, with a gasp. ‘And why? Oh, I see, it’s for armour.’
‘Wot did I tell you?’ said Huish. ‘Dyvid and Goliar all the w’y and back.’
The two natives (for they it was that were equipped in this unusual panoply of war) spread out to right and left, and at last lay down in the shade, on the extreme flank of the position. Even now that the mystery was explained, Davis was hatefully preoccupied, stared at the flame on their crests, and forgot, and then remembered with a smile, the explanation.
Attwater withdrew again into the grove, and Herrick, with his gun under his arm, came down the pier alone.
About half-way down he halted and hailed the boat.
‘What do you want?’ he cried.
‘I’ll tell that to Mr Attwater,’ replied Huish, stepping briskly on the ladder. ‘I don’t tell it to you, because you played the trucklin’ sneak. Here’s a letter for him: tyke it, and give it, and be ‘anged to you!’
‘Davis, is this all right?’ said Herrick.
Davis raised his chin, glanced swiftly at Herrick and away again, and held his peace. The glance was charged with some deep emotion, but whether of hatred or of fear, it was beyond Herrick to divine.
‘Well,’ he said, ‘I’ll give the letter.’ He drew a score with his foot on the boards of the gangway. ‘Till I bring the answer, don’t move a step past this.’
And he returned to where Attwater leaned against a tree, and gave him the letter. Attwater glanced it through.
‘What does that mean?’ he asked, passing it to Herrick.
‘Oh, I suppose so!’ said Herrick.
‘Well, tell him to come on,’ said Attwater. ‘One isn’t a fatalist for nothing. Tell him to come on and to look out.’
Herrick returned to the figure-head. Half-way down the pier the clerk was waiting, with Davis by his side.
‘You are to come along, Huish,’ said Herrick. ‘He bids you look out, no tricks.’
Huish walked briskly up the pier, and paused face to face with the young man.
‘W’ere is ‘e?’ said he, and to Herrick’s surprise, the low-bred, insignificant face before him flushed suddenly crimson and went white again.
‘Right forward,’ said Herrick, pointing. ‘Now your hands above your head.’
The clerk turned away from him and towards the figure-head, as though he were about to address to it his devotions; he was seen to heave a deep breath; and raised his arms. In common with many men of his unhappy physical endowments, Huish’s hands were disproportionately long and broad, and the palms in particular enormous; a four-ounce jar was nothing in that capacious fist. The next moment he was plodding steadily forward on his mission.
Herrick at first followed. Then a noise in his rear startled him, and he turned about to find Davis already advanced as far as the figure-head. He came, crouching and open-mouthed, as the mesmerised may follow the mesmeriser; all human considerations, and even the care of his own life, swallowed up in one abominable and burning curiosity.
‘Halt!’ cried Herrick, covering him with his rifle. ‘Davis, what are you doing, man? YOU are not to come.’
Davis instinctively paused, and regarded him with a dreadful vacancy of eye.
‘Put your back to that figure-head, do you hear me? and stand fast!’ said Herrick.
The captain fetched a breath, stepped back against the figure-head, and instantly redirected his glances after Huish.
There was a hollow place of the sand in that part, and, as it were, a glade among the cocoa palms in which the direct noonday sun blazed intolerably. At the far end, in the shadow, the tall figure of Attwater was to be seen leaning on a tree; towards him, with his hands over his head, and his steps smothered in the sand, the clerk painfully waded. The surrounding glare threw out and exaggerated the man’s smallness; it seemed no less perilous an enterprise, this that he was gone upon, than for a whelp to besiege a citadel.
‘There, Mr Whish. That will do,’ cried Attwater. ‘From that distance, and keeping your hands up, like a good boy, you can very well put me in possession of the skipper’s views.’
The interval betwixt them was perhaps forty feet; and Huish measured it with his eye, and breathed a curse. He was already distressed with labouring in the loose sand, and his arms ached bitterly from their unnatural position. In the palm of his right hand, the jar was ready; and his heart thrilled, and his voice choked,as he began to speak.
‘Mr Hattwater,’ said he, ‘I don’t know if ever you ‘ad a mother . . .’
‘I can set your mind at rest: I had,’ returned Attwater; ‘and henceforth, if I might venture to suggest it, her name need not recur in our communications. I should perhaps tell you that I am not amenable to the pathetic.’
‘I am sorry, sir, if I ‘ave seemed to tresparse on your private feelin’s,’ said the clerk, cringing and stealing a step. ‘At least, sir, you will never pe’suade me that you are not a perfec’ gentleman; I know a gentleman when I see him; and as such, I ‘ave no ‘esitation in throwin’ myself on your merciful consideration. It IS ‘ard lines, no doubt; it’s ‘ard lines to have to hown yourself beat; it’s ‘ard lines to ‘ave to come and beg to you for charity.’
‘When, if things had only gone right, the whole place was as good as your own?’ suggested Attwater. ‘I can understand the feeling.’
‘You are judging me, Mr Attwater,’ said the clerk, ‘and God knows how unjustly! THOU GAWD SEEST ME, was the tex’ I ‘ad in my Bible, w’ich my father wrote it in with ‘is own ‘and upon the fly leaft.’
‘I am sorry I have to beg your pardon once more,’ said Attwater; ‘but, do you know, you seem to me to be a trifle nearer, which is entirely outside of our bargain. And I would venture to suggest that you take one — two — three — steps back; and stay there.’
The devil, at this staggering disappointment, looked out of Huish’s face, and Attwater was swift to suspect. He frowned, he stared on the little man, and considered. Why should he be creeping nearer? The next moment, his gun was at his shoulder.
‘Kindly oblige me by opening your hands. Open your hands wide — let me see the fingers spread, you dog — throw down that thing you’re holding!’ he roared, his rage and certitude increasing together.
And then, at almost the same moment, the indomitable Huish decided to throw, and Attwater pulled the trigger. There was scarce the difference of a second between the two resolves, but it was in favour of the man with the rifle; and the jar had not yet left the clerk’s hand, before the ball shattered both. For the twinkling of an eye the wretch was in hell’s agonies, bathed in liquid flames, a screaming bedlamite; and then a second and more merciful bullet stretched him dead.
The whole thing was come and gone in a breath. Before Herrick could turn about, before Davis could complete his cry of horror, the clerk lay in the sand, sprawling and convulsed.
Attwater ran to the body; he stooped and viewed it; he put his finger in the vitriol, and his face whitened and hardened with anger.
Davis had not yet moved; he stood astonished, with his back to the figure-head, his hands clutching it behind him, his body inclined forward from the waist.
Attwater turned deliberately and covered him with his rifle.
‘Davis,’ he cried, in a voice like a trumpet, ‘I give you sixty seconds to make your peace with God!’
Davis looked, and his mind awoke. He did not dream of self-defence, he did not reach for his pistol. He drew himself up instead to face death, with a quivering nostril.
‘I guess I’ll not trouble the Old Man,’ he said; ‘considering the job I was on, I guess it’s better business to just shut my face.’
Attwater fired; there came a spasmodic movement of the victim, and immediately above the middle of his forehead, a black hole marred the whiteness of the figure-head. A dreadful pause; then again the report, and the solid sound and jar of the bullet in the wood; and this time the captain had felt the wind of it along his cheek. A third shot, and he was bleeding from one ear; and along the levelled rifle Attwater smiled like a Red Indian.
The cruel game of which he was the puppet was now clear to Davis; three times he had drunk of death, and he must look to drink of it seven times more before he was despatched. He held up his hand.
‘Steady!’ he cried; ‘I’ll take your sixty seconds.’
‘Good!’ said Attwater.
The captain shut his eyes tight like a child: he held his hands up at last with a tragic and ridiculous gesture.
‘My God, for Christ’s sake, look after my two kids,’ he said; and then, after a pause and a falter, ‘for Christ’s sake, Amen.’
And he opened his eyes and looked down the rifle with a quivering mouth.
‘But don’t keep fooling me long!’ he pleaded.
‘That’s all your prayer?’ asked Attwater, with a singular ring in his voice.
‘Guess so,’ said Davis.
So?’ said Attwater, resting the butt of his rifle on the ground, ‘is that done? Is your peace made with Heaven? Because it is with me. Go, and sin no more, sinful father. And remember that whatever you do to others, God shall visit it again a thousand- fold upon your innocents.’
The wretched Davis came staggering forward from his place against the figure-head, fell upon his knees, and waved his hands, and fainted.
When he came to himself again, his head was on Attwater’s arm, and close by stood one of the men in divers’ helmets, holding a bucket of water, from which his late executioner now laved his face. The memory of that dreadful passage returned upon him in a clap; again he saw Huish lying dead, again he seemed to himself to totter on the brink of an unplumbed eternity. With trembling hands he seized hold of the man whom he had come to slay; and his voice broke from him like that of a child among the nightmares of fever: ‘O! isn’t there no mercy? O! what must I do to be saved?’
‘Ah!’ thought Attwater, ‘here’s the true penitent.’
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00