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

Chapter 3.

The Old Calaboose — Destiny at the Door

The old calaboose, in which the waifs had so long harboured, is a low, rectangular enclosure of building at the corner of a shady western avenue and a little townward of the British consulate. Within was a grassy court, littered with wreckage and the traces of vagrant occupation. Six or seven cells opened from the court: the doors, that had once been locked on mutinous whalermen, rotting before them in the grass. No mark remained of their old destination, except the rusty bars upon the windows.

The floor of one of the cells had been a little cleared; a bucket (the last remaining piece of furniture of the three caitiffs) stood full of water by the door, a half cocoanut shell beside it for a drinking cup; and on some ragged ends of mat Huish sprawled asleep, his mouth open, his face deathly. The glow of the tropic afternoon, the green of sunbright foliage, stared into that shady place through door and window; and Herrick, pacing to and fro on the coral floor, sometimes paused and laved his face and neck with tepid water from the bucket. His long arrears of suffering, the night’s vigil, the insults of the morning, and the harrowing business of the letter, had strung him to that point when pain is almost pleasure, time shrinks to a mere point, and death and life appear indifferent. To and fro he paced like a caged brute; his mind whirling through the universe of thought and memory; his eyes, as he went, skimming the legends on the wall. The crumbling whitewash was all full of them: Tahitian names, and French, and English, and rude sketches of ships under sail and men at fisticuffs.

It came to him of a sudden that he too must leave upon these walls the memorial of his passage. He paused before a clean space, took the pencil out, and pondered. Vanity, so hard to dislodge, awoke in him. We call it vanity at least; perhaps unjustly. Rather it was the bare sense of his existence prompted him; the sense of his life, the one thing wonderful, to which he scarce clung with a finger. From his jarred nerves there came a strong sentiment of coming change; whether good or ill he could not say: change, he knew no more — change, with inscrutable veiled face, approaching noiseless. With the feeling, came the vision of a concert room, the rich hues of instruments, the silent audience, and the loud voice of the symphony. ‘Destiny knocking at the door,’ he thought; drew a stave on the plaster, and wrote in the famous phrase from the Fifth Symphony. ‘So,’ thought he, ‘they will know that I loved music and had classical tastes. They? He, I suppose: the unknown, kindred spirit that shall come some day and read my memor querela. Ha, he shall have Latin too!’ And he added: terque quaterque beati Queis ante ora patrum.

He turned again to his uneasy pacing, but now with an irrational and supporting sense of duty done. He had dug his grave that morning; now he had carved his epitaph; the folds of the toga were composed, why should he delay the insignificant trifle that remained to do? He paused and looked long in the face of the sleeping Huish, drinking disenchantment and distaste of life. He nauseated himself with that vile countenance. Could the thing continue? What bound him now? Had he no rights? — only the obligation to go on, without discharge or furlough, bearing the unbearable? Ich trage unertragliches, the quotation rose in his mind; he repeated the whole piece, one of the most perfect of the most perfect of poets; and a phrase struck him like a blow: Du, stolzes Herz, A hast es ja gewolit. Where was the pride of his heart? And he raged against himself, as a man bites on a sore tooth, in a heady sensuality of scorn. ‘I have no pride, I have no heart, no manhood,’ he thought, ‘or why should I prolong a life more shameful than the gallows? Or why should I have fallen to it? No pride, no capacity, no force. Not even a bandit! and to be starving here with worse than banditti — with this trivial hell-hound!’ His rage against his comrade rose and flooded him, and he shook a trembling fist at the sleeper.

A swift step was audible. The captain appeared upon the threshold of the cell, panting and flushed, and with a foolish face of happiness. In his arms he carried a loaf of bread and bottles of beer; the pockets of his coat were bulging with cigars.

He rolled his treasures on the floor, grasped Herrick by both hands, and crowed with laughter.

‘Broach the beer!’ he shouted. ‘Broach the beer, and glory hallelujah!’

‘Beer?’ repeated Huish, struggling to his feet. ‘Beer it is!’ cried Davis. ‘Beer and plenty of it. Any number of persons can use it (like Lyon’s tooth-tablet) with perfect propriety and neatness. Who’s to officiate?’

‘Leave me alone f6r that,’ said the clerk. He knocked the necks off with a lump of coral, and each drank in succession from the shell.

‘Have a weed,’ said Davis. ‘It’s all in the bill.’

‘What is up?’ asked Herrick.

The captain fell suddenly grave. ‘I’m coming to that,’ said he. ‘I want to speak with Herrick here. You, Hay — or Huish, or whatever your name is — you take a weed and the other bottle, and go and see how the wind is down by the purao. I’ll call you when you’re wanted!’

‘Hay? Secrets? That ain’t the ticket,’ said Huish.

‘Look here, my son,’ said the captain, ‘this is business, and don’t you make any mistake about it. If you’re going to make trouble, you can have it your own way and stop right here. Only get the thing right: if Herrick and I go, we take the beer. Savvy?’

‘Oh, I don’t want to shove my oar in,’ returned Huish. ‘I’ll cut right enough. Give me the swipes. You can jaw till you’re blue in the face for what I care. I don’t think it’s the friendly touch: that’s all.’ And he shambled grumbling out of the cell into the staring sun.

The captain watched him clear of the courtyard; then turned to Herrick.

‘What is it?’ asked Herrick thickly.

‘I’ll tell you,’ said Davis. ‘I want to consult you. It’s a chance we’ve got. What’s that?’ he cried, pointing to the music on the wall.

‘What?’ said the other. ‘Oh, that! It’s music; it’s a phrase of Beethoven’s I was writing up. It means Destiny knocking at the door.’

‘Does it?’ said the captain, rather low; and he went near and studied the inscription; ‘and this French?’ he asked, pointing to the Latin.

‘O, it just means I should have been luckier if I had died at horne,’ returned Herrick impatiently. ‘What is this business?’

‘Destiny knocking at the door,’ repeated the captain; and then, looking over his shoulder. ‘Well, Mr Herrick, that’s about what it comes to,’ he added.

‘What do you mean? Explain yourself,’ said Herrick.

But the captain was again staring at the music. ‘About how long ago since you wrote up this truck?’ he asked.

‘What does it matter?’ exclaimed Herrick. ‘I dare say half an hour.’

‘My God, it’s strange!’ cried Davis. ‘There’s some men would call that accidental: not me. That —’ and he drew his thick finger under the music —‘that’s what I call Providence.’

‘You said we had a chance,’ said Herrick.

‘Yes, SIR!’ said the captain, wheeling suddenly face to face with his companion. ‘I did so. If you’re the man I take you for, we have a chance.’

‘I don’t know what you take me for,’ was the reply. ‘You can scarce take me too low.’

‘Shake hands, Mr Herrick,’ said the captain. ‘I know you. You’re a gentleman and a man of spirit. I didn’t want to speak before that bummer there; you’ll see why. But to you I’ll rip it right out. I got a ship.’

‘A ship?’ cried Herrick. ‘What ship?’

‘That schooner we saw this morning off the passage.’

‘The schooner with the hospital flag?’

‘That’s the hooker,’ said Davis. ‘She’s the Farallone, hundred and sixty tons register, out of ‘Frisco for Sydney, in California champagne. Captain, mate, and one hand all died of the smallpox, same as they had round in the Paumotus, I guess. Captain and mate were the only white men; all the hands Kanakas; seems a queer kind of outfit from a Christian port. Three of them left and a cook; didn’t know where they were; I can’t think where they were either, if you come to that; Wiseman must have been on the booze, I guess, to sail the course he did. However, there HE was, dead; and here are the Kanakas as good as lost. They bummed around at sea like the babes in the wood; and tumbled end-on upon Tahiti. The consul here took charge. He offered the berth to Williams; Williams had never had the smallpox and backed down. That was when I came in for the letter paper; I thought there was something up when the consul asked me to look in again; but I never let on to you fellows, so’s you’d not be disappointed. Consul tried M’Neil; scared of smallpox. He tried Capirati, that Corsican and Leblue, or whatever his name is, wouldn’t lay a hand on it; all too fond of their sweet lives. Last of all, when there wasn’t nobody else left to offer it to, he offers it to me. “Brown, will you ship captain and take her to Sydney?” says he. “Let me choose my own mate and another white hand,” says I, “for I don’t hold with this Kanaka crew racket; give us all two months’ advance to get our clothes and instruments out of pawn, and I’ll take stock tonight, fill up stores, and get to sea tomorrow before dark!” That’s what I said. “That’s good enough,” says the consul, “and you can count yourself damned lucky, Brown,” says he. And he said it pretty meaningful-appearing, too. However, that’s all one now. I’ll ship Huish before the mast — of course I’ll let him berth aft — and I’ll ship you mate at seventy-five dollars and two months’ advance.’

‘Me mate? Why, I’m a landsman!’ cried Herrick.

‘Guess you’ve got to learn,’ said the captain. ‘You don’t fancy I’m going to skip and leave you rotting on the beach perhaps? I’m not that sort, old man. And you’re handy anyway; I’ve been shipmates with worse.’

‘God knows I can’t refuse,’ said Herrick. ‘God knows I thank you from my heart.’

‘That’s all right,’ said the captain. ‘But it ain’t all.’ He turned aside to light a cigar.

‘What else is there?’ asked the other, with a pang of undefinable alarm.

‘I’m coming to that,’ said Davis, and then paused a little. ‘See here,’ he began, holding out his cigar between his finger and thumb, ‘suppose you figure up what this’ll amount to. You don’t catch on? Well, we get two months’ advance; we can’t get away from Papeete — our creditors wouldn’t let us go — for less; it’ll take us along about two months to get to Sydney; and when we get there, I just want to put it to you squarely: What the better are we?’

‘We’re off the beach at least,’ said Herrick.

‘I guess there’s a beach at Sydney,’ returned the captain; ‘and I’ll tell you one thing, Mr Herrick — I don’t mean to try. No, SIR! Sydney will never see me.’

‘Speak out plain,’ said Herrick.

‘Plain Dutch,’ replied the captain. ‘I’m going to own that schooner. It’s nothing new; it’s done every year in the Pacific. Stephens stole a schooner the other day, didn’t he? Hayes and Pease stole vessels all the time. And it’s the making of the crowd of us. See here — you think of that cargo. Champagne! why, it’s like as if it was put up on purpose. In Peru we’ll sell that liquor off at the pier-head, and the schooner after it, if we can find a fool to buy her; and then light out for the mines. If you’ll back me up, I stake my life I carry it through.’

‘Captain,’ said Herrick, with a quailing voice, ‘don’t do it!’

‘I’m desperate,’ returned Davis. ‘I’ve got a chance; I may never get another. Herrick, say the word; back me up; I think we’ve starved together long enough for that.’

‘I can’t do it. I’m sorry. I can’t do it. I’ve not fallen as low as that,’ said Herrick, deadly pale.

‘What did you say this morning?’ said Davis. ‘That you couldn’t beg? It’s the one thing or the other, my son.’

‘Ah, but this is the jail!’ cried Herrick. ‘Don’t tempt me. It’s the jail.’

‘Did you hear what the skipper said on board that schooner?’ pursued the captain. ‘Well, I tell you he talked straight. The French have let us alone for a long time; It can’t last longer; they’ve got their eye on us; and as sure as you live, in three weeks you’ll be in jail whatever you do. I read it in the consul’s face.’

‘You forget, captain,’ said the young man. ‘There is another way. I can die; and to say truth, I think I should have died three years ago.’

The captain folded his arms and looked the other in the face. ‘Yes,’ said he, ‘yes, you can cut your throat; that’s a frozen fact; much good may it do you! And where do I come in?’

The light of a strange excitement came in Herrick’s face. ‘Both of us,’ said he, ‘both of us together. It’s not possible you can enjoy this business. Come,’ and he reached out a timid hand, ‘a few strokes in the lagoon — and rest!’

‘I tell you, Herrick, I’m ‘most tempted to answer you the way the man does in the Bible, and say, “Get thee behind me, Satan!”’ said the captain. ‘What! you think I would go drown myself, and I got children starving? Enjoy it? No, by God, I do not enjoy it! but it’s the row I’ve got to hoe, and I’ll hoe it till I drop right here. I have three of them, you see, two boys and the one girl, Adar. The trouble is that you are not a parent yourself. I tell you, Herrick, I love you,’ the man broke out; ‘I didn’t take to you at first, you were so anglified and tony, but I love you now; it’s a man that loves you stands here and wrestles with you. I can’t go to sea with the bummer alone; it’s not possible. Go drown yourself, and there goes my last chance — the last chance of a poor miserable beast, earning a crust to feed his family. I can’t do nothing but sail ships, and I’ve no papers. And here I get a chance, and you go back on me! Ah, you’ve no family, and that’s where the trouble is!’

‘I have indeed,’ said Herrick.

‘Yes, I know,’ said the captain, ‘you think so. But no man’s got a family till he’s got children. It’s only the kids count. There’s something about the little shavers . . . I can’t talk of them. And if you thought a cent about this father that I hear you talk of, or that sweetheart you were writing to this morning, you would feel like me. You would say, What matters laws, and God, and that? My folks are hard up, I belong to them, I’ll get them bread, or, by God! I’ll get them wealth, if I have to burn down London for it. That’s what you would say. And I’ll tell you more: your heart is saying so this living minute. I can see it in your face. You’re thinking, Here’s poor friendship for the man I’ve starved along of, and as for the girl that I set up to be in love with, here’s a mighty limp kind of a love that won’t carry me as far as ‘most any man would go for a demijohn of whisky. There’s not much ROmance to that love, anyway; it’s not the kind they carry on about in songbooks. But what’s the good of my carrying on talking, when it’s all in your inside as plain as print? I put the question to you once for all. Are you going to desert me in my hour of need? — you know if I’ve deserted you — or will you give me your hand, and try a fresh deal, and go home (as like as not) a millionaire? Say no, and God pity me! Say yes, and I’ll make the little ones pray for you every night on their bended knees. “God bless Mr Herrick!” that’s what they’ll say, one after the other, the old girl sitting there holding stakes at the foot of the bed, and the damned little innocents . . . He broke off. ‘I don’t often rip out about the kids,’ he said; ‘but when I do, there’s something fetches loose.’

‘Captain,’ said Herrick faintly, ‘is there nothing else?’

‘I’ll prophesy if you like,’ said the captain with renewed vigour. ‘Refuse this, because you think yourself too honest, and before a month’s out you’ll be jailed for a sneak-thief. I give you the word fair. I can see it, Herrick, if you can’t; you’re breaking down. Don’t think, if you refuse this chance, that you’ll go on doing the evangelical; you’re about through with your stock; and before you know where you are, you’ll be right out on the other side. No, it’s either this for you; or else it’s Caledonia. I bet you never were there, and saw those white, shaved men, in their dust clothes and straw hats, prowling around in gangs in the lamplight at Noumea; they look like wolves, and they look like preachers, and they look like the sick; Hulsh is a daisy to the best of them. Well, there’s your company. They’re waiting for you, Herrick, and you got to go; and that’s a prophecy.’

And as the man stood and shook through his great stature, he seemed indeed like one in whom the spirit of divination worked and might utter oracles. Herrick looked at him, and looked away; It seemed not decent to spy upon such agitation; and the young man’s courage sank.

‘You talk of going home,’ he objected. ‘We could never do that.’

‘WE could,’ said the other. ‘Captain Brown couldn’t, nor Mr Hay, that shipped mate with him couldn’t. But what’s that to do with Captain Davis or Mr Herrick, you galoot?’

‘But Hayes had these wild islands where he used to call,’ came the next fainter objection.

‘We have the wild islands of Peru,’ retorted Davis. ‘They were wild enough for Stephens, no longer agone than just last year. I guess they’ll be wild enough for us.’

‘And the crew?’

‘All Kanakas. Come, I see you’re right, old man. I see you’ll stand by.’ And the captain once more offered his hand.

‘Have it your own way then,’ said Herrick. ‘I’ll do it: a strange thing for my father’s son. But I’ll do it. I’ll stand by you, man, for good or evil.’

‘God bless you!’ cried the captain, and stood silent. ‘Herrick,’ he added with a smile, ‘I believe I’d have died in my tracks, if you’d said, No!’

And Herrick, looking at the man, half believed so also.

‘And now we’ll go break it to the bummer,’ said Davis.

‘I wonder how he’ll take it,’ said Herrick.

‘Him? Jump at it!’ was the reply.

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