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

Chapter 12.


On a very bright, hot, lusty, strongly blowing noon, a fortnight after the events recorded, and a month since the curtain rose upon this episode, a man might have been spied, praying on the sand by the lagoon beach. A point of palm trees isolated him from the settlement; and from the place where he knelt, the only work of man’s hand that interrupted the expanse, was the schooner Farallone, her berth quite changed, and rocking at anchor some two miles to windward in the midst of the lagoon. The noise of the Trade ran very boisterous in all parts of the island; the nearer palm trees crashed and whistled in the gusts, those farther off contributed a humming bass like the roar of cities; and yet, to any man less absorbed, there must have risen at times over this turmoil of the winds, the sharper note of the human voice from the settlement. There all was activity. Attwater, stripped to his trousers and lending a strong hand of help, was directing and encouraging five Kanakas; from his lively voice, and their more lively efforts, it was to be gathered that some sudden and joyful emergency had set them in this bustle; and the Union Jack floated once more on its staff. But the suppliant on the beach, unconscious of their voices, prayed on with instancy and fervour, and the sound of his voice rose and fell again, and his countenance brightened and was deformed with changing moods of piety and terror.

Before his closed eyes, the skiff had been for some time tacking towards the distant and deserted Farallone; and presently the figure of Herrick might have been observed to board her, to pass for a while into the house, thence forward to the forecastle, and at last to plunge into the main hatch. In all these quarters, his visit was followed by a coil of smoke; and he had scarce entered his boat again and shoved off, before flames broke forth upon the schooner. They burned gaily; kerosene had not been spared, and the bellows of the Trade incited the conflagration. About half way on the return voyage, when Herrick looked back, he beheld the Farallone wrapped to the topmasts in leaping arms of fire, and the voluminous smoke pursuing him along the face of the lagoon. In one hour’s time, he computed, the waters would have closed over the stolen ship.

It so chanced that, as his boat flew before the wind with much vivacity, and his eyes were continually busy in the wake, measuring the progress of the flames, he found himself embayed to the northward of the point of palms, and here became aware at the same time of the figure of Davis immersed in his devotion. An exclamation, part of annoyance, part of amusement, broke from him: and he touched the helm and ran the prow upon the beach not twenty feet from the unconscious devotee. Taking the painter in his hand, he landed, and drew near, and stood over him. And still the voluble and incoherent stream of prayer continued unabated. It was not possible for him to overhear the suppliant’s petitions, which he listened to some while in a very mingled mood of humour and pity: and it was only when his own name began to occur and to be conjoined with epithets, that he at last laid his hand on the captain’s shoulder.

‘Sorry to interrupt the exercise,’ said he; ‘but I want you to look at the Farallone.’

The captain scrambled to his feet, and stood gasping and staring. ‘Mr Herrick, don’t startle a man like that!’ he said. ‘I don’t seem someways rightly myself since . . .’ he broke off. ‘What did you say anyway? O, the Farallone,’ and he looked languidly out.

‘Yes,’ said Herrick. ‘There she burns! and you may guess from that what the news is.’

‘The Trinity Hall, I guess,’ said the captain.

‘The same,’ said Herrick; ‘sighted half an hour ago, and coming up hand over fist.’

‘Well, it don’t amount to a hill of beans,’ said the captain with a sigh.

‘O, come, that’s rank ingratitude!’ cried Herrick.

‘Well,’ replied the captain, meditatively, ‘you mayn’t just see the way that I view it in, but I’d ‘most rather stay here upon this island. I found peace here, peace in believing. Yes, I guess this island is about good enough for John Davis.’

‘I never heard such nonsense!’ cried Herrick. ‘What! with all turning out in your favour the way it does, the Farallone wiped out, the crew disposed of, a sure thing for your wife and family, and you, yourself, Attwater’s spoiled darling and pet penitent!’

‘Now, Mr Herrick, don’t say that,’ said the captain gently; ‘when you know he don’t make no difference between us. But, O! why not be one of us? why not come to Jesus right away, and let’s meet in yon beautiful land? That’s just the one thing wanted; just say, Lord, I believe, help thou mine unbelief! And He’ll fold you in His arms. You see, I know! I’ve been a sinner myself!’

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