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

Chapter 6.

The Partners

Each took a side of the fixed table; it was the first time they had sat down at it together; but now all sense of incongruity, all memory of differences, was quite swept away by the presence of the common ruin.

‘Gentlemen,’ said the captain, after a pause, and with very much the air of a chairman opening a board-meeting, ‘we’re sold.’

Huish broke out in laughter. ‘Well, if this ain’t the ‘ighest old rig!’ he cried. ‘And Dyvis, ‘ere, who thought he had got up so bloomin’ early in the mornin’! We’ve stolen a cargo of spring water! Oh, my crikey!’ and he squirmed with mirth.

The captain managed to screw out a phantom smile.

‘Here’s Old Man Destiny again,’ said he to Herrick, ‘but this time I guess he’s kicked the door right in.’

Herrick only shook his head.

‘O Lord, it’s rich!’ laughed Huish. ‘it would really be a scrumptious lark if it ‘ad ‘appened to somebody else! And wot are we to do next? Oh, my eye! with this bloomin’ schooner, too?’

‘That’s the trouble,’ said Davis. ‘There’s only one thing certain: it’s no use carting this old glass and ballast to Peru. No, SIR, we’re in a hole.’

‘O my, and the merchand’ cried Huish; ‘the man that made this shipment! He’ll get the news by the mail brigantine; and he’ll think of course we’re making straight for Sydney.’

‘Yes, he’ll be a sick merchant,’ said the captain. ‘One thing: this explains the Kanaka crew. If you’re going to lose a ship, I would ask no better myself than a Kanaka crew. But there’s one thing it don’t explain; it don’t explain why she came down Tahiti ways.’

‘Wy, to lose her, you byby!’ said Huish.

‘A lot you know,’ said the captain. ‘Nobody wants to lose a schooner; they want to lose her ON HER COURSE, you skeericks! You seem to think underwriters haven’t got enough sense to come in out of the rain.’

‘Well,’ said Herrick, ‘I can tell you (I am afraid) why she came so far to the eastward. I had it of Uncle Ned. It seems these two unhappy devils, Wiseman and Wishart, were drunk on the champagne from the beginning — and died drunk at the end.’

The captain looked on the table.

‘They lay in their two bunks, or sat here in this damned house,’ he pursued, with rising agitation, ‘filling their skins with the accursed stuff, till sickness took them. As they sickened and the fever rose, they drank the more. They lay here howling and groaning, drunk and dying, all in one. They didn’t know where they were, they didn’t care. They didn’t even take the sun, it seems.’

‘Not take the sun?’ cried the captain, looking up. ‘Sacred Billy! what a crowd!’

‘Well, it don’t matter to Joe!’ said Huish. ‘Wot are Wiseman and the t’other buffer to us?’

‘A good deal, too,’ says the captain. ‘We’re their heirs, I guess.’

‘It is a great inheritance,’ said Herrick.

‘Well, I don’t know about that,’ returned Davis. ‘Appears to me as if it might be worse. ‘Tain’t worth what the cargo would have been of course, at least not money down. But I’ll tell you what it appears to figure up to. Appears to me as if it amounted to about the bottom dollar of the man in ‘Frisco.’

‘‘Old on,’ said Huish. ‘Give a fellow time; ‘ow’s this, umpire?’

‘Well, my sons,’ pursued the captain, who seemed to have recovered his assurance, ‘Wiseman and Wishart were to be paid for casting away this old schooner and its cargo. We’re going to cast away the schooner right enough; and I’ll make it my private business to see that we get paid. What were W. and W. to get? That’s more’n I can tell. But W. and W. went into this business themselves, they were on the crook. Now WE’RE on the square, we only stumbled into it; and that merchant has just got to squeal, and I’m the man to see that he squeals good. No, sir! there’s some stuffing to this Farallone racket after all.’

‘Go it, cap!’ cried Huish. ‘Yoicks! Forrard! ‘Old ‘ard! There’s your style for the money! Blow me if I don’t prefer this to the hother.’

‘I do not understand,’ said Herrick. ‘I have to ask you to excuse. me; I do not understand.’

‘Well now, see here, Herrick,’ said Davis, ‘I’m going to have a word with you anyway upon a different matter, and it’s good that Huish should hear it too. We’re done with this boozing business, and we ask your pardon for it right here and now. We have to thank you for all you did for us while we were making hogs of ourselves; you’ll find me turn-to all right in future; and as for the wine, which I grant we stole from you, I’ll take stock and see you paid for it. That’s good enough, I believe. But what I want to point out to you is this. The old game was a risky game. The new game’s as safe as running a Vienna Bakery. We just put this Farallone before the wind, and run till we’re well to looard of our port of departure and reasonably well up with some other place, where they have an American Consul. Down goes the Farallone, and good-bye to her! A day or so in the boat; the consul packs us home, at Uncle Sam’s expense, to ‘Frisco; and if that merchant don’t put the dollars down, you come to me!’

‘But I thought,’ began Herrick; and then broke out; ‘oh, let’s get on to Peru!’

‘Well, if you’re going to Peru for your health, I won’t say no!’ replied. the captain. ‘But for what other blame’ shadow of a reason you should want to go there, gets me clear. We don’t want to go there with this cargo; I don’t know as old bottles is a lively article anywheres; leastways, I’ll go my bottom cent, it ain’t Peru. It was always a doubt if we could sell the schooner; I never rightly hoped to, and now I’m sure she ain’t worth a hill of beans; what’s wrong with her, I don’t know; I only know it’s something, or she wouldn’t be here with this truck in her inside. Then again, if we lose her, and land in Peru, where are we? We can’t declare the loss, or how did we get to Peru? In that case the merchant can’t touch the insurance; most likely he’ll go bust; and don’t you think you see the three of us on the beach of Callao?’

‘There’s no extradition there,’ said Herrick.

‘Well, my son, and we want to be extraded,’ said the captain.

‘What’s our point? We want to have a consul extrade us as far as San Francisco and that merchant’s office door. My idea is that Samoa would be found an eligible business centre. It’s dead before the wind; the States have a consul there, and ‘Frisco steamers call, so’s we could skip right back and interview the merchant.’

‘Samoa?’ said Herrick. ‘It will take us for ever to get there.’

‘Oh, with a fair wind!’ said the captain.

‘No trouble about the log, eh?’ asked Huish.

‘No, SIR,’ said Davis. ‘Ligbt airs and baffling winds. Squalls and calms. D. R.: five miles. No obs. Pumps attended. And fill in the barometer and thermometer off of last year’s trip.’ ‘Never saw such a voyage,’ says you to the consul. ‘Thought I was going to run short . . .’ He stopped in mid career. “Say,’ he began again, and once more stopped. ‘Beg your pardon, Herrick,’ he added with undisguised humility, ‘but did you keep the run of the stores?’

‘Had I been told to do so, it should have been done, as the rest was done, to the best of my little ability,’ said Herrick. ‘As it was, the cook helped himself to what he pleased.’

Davis looked at the table.

‘I drew it rather fine, you see,’ he said at last. ‘The great thing was to clear right out of Papeete before the consul could think better of it. Tell you what: I guess I’ll take stock.’

And he rose from table and disappeared with a lamp in the lazarette.

“Ere’s another screw loose,’ observed Huish.

‘My man,’ said Herrick, with a sudden gleam of animosity, ‘it is still your watch on deck, and surely your wheel also?’

‘You come the ‘eavy swell, don’t you, ducky?’ said Huish. ‘Stand away from that binnacle. Surely your w’eel, my man. Yah.’

He lit a cigar ostentatiously, and strolled into the waist with his hands in his pockets.

In a surprisingly short time, the captain reappeared; he did not look at Herrick, but called Huish back and sat down.

‘Well,’ he began, ‘I’ve taken stock — roughly.’ He paused as if for somebody to help him out; and none doing so, both gazing on him instead with manifest anxiety, he yet more heavily resumed. ‘Well, it won’t fight. We can’t do it; that’s the bed rock. I’m as sorry as what you can be, and sorrier. We can’t look near Samoa. I don’t know as we could get to Peru.’

‘Wot-ju mean?’ asked Huish brutally.

‘I can’t ‘most tell myself,’ replied the captain. ‘I drew it fine; I said I did; but what’s been going on here gets me! Appears as if the devil had been around. That cook must be the holiest kind of fraud. Only twelve days, too! Seems like craziness. I’ll own up square to one thing: I seem to have figured too fine upon the flour. But the rest — my land! I’ll never understand it! There’s been more waste on this twopenny ship than what there is to an Atlantic Liner.’ He stole a glance at his companions; nothing good was to be gleaned from their dark faces; and he had recourse to rage. ‘You wait till I interview that cook!’ he roared and smote the table with his fist. ‘I’ll interview the son of a gun so’s he’s never been spoken to before. I’ll put a bead upon the —’

‘You will not lay a finger on the man,’ said Herrick. ‘The fault is yours and you know it. If you turn a savage loose in your store-room, you know what to expect. I will not allow the man to be molested.’

It is hard to say how Davis might have taken this defiance; but he was diverted to a fresh assailant.

‘Well!’ drawled Huish, ‘you’re a plummy captain, ain’t you? You’re a blooming captain! Don’t you, set up any of your chat to me, John Dyvis: I know you now, you ain’t any more use than a bloomin’ dawl! Oh, you “don’t know”, don’t you? Oh, it “gets you”, do it? Oh, I dessay! W’y, we en’t you ‘owling for fresh tins every blessed day? ‘Ow often ‘ave I ‘eard you send the ‘ole bloomin’ dinner off and tell the man to chuck it in the swill tub? And breakfast? Oh, my crikey! breakfast for ten, and you ‘ollerin’ for more! And now you “can’t ‘most tell”! Blow me, if it ain’t enough to make a man write an insultin’ letter to Gawd! You dror it mild, John Dyvis; don’t ‘andle me; I’m dyngerous.’

Davis sat like one bemused; it might even have been doubted if he heard, but the voice of the clerk rang about the cabin like that of a cormorant among the ledges of the cliff.

‘That will do, Huish,’ said Herrick.

‘Oh, so you tyke his part, do you? you stuck-up sneerin’ snob! Tyke it then. Come on, the pair of you. But as for John Dyvis, let him look out! He struck me the first night aboard, and I never took a blow yet but wot I gave as good. Let him knuckle down on his marrow bones and beg my pardon. That’s my last word.’

‘I stand by the Captain,’ said Herrick. ‘That makes us two to one, both good men; and the crew will all follow me. I hope I shall die very soon; but I have not the least objection to killing you before I go. I should prefer it so; I should do it with no more remorse than winking. Take care — take care, you little cad!’

The animosity with which these words were uttered was so marked in itself, and so remarkable in the man who uttered them that Huish stared, and even the humiliated Davis reared up his head and gazed at his defender. As for Herrick, the successive agitations and disappointments of the day had left him wholly reckless; he was conscious of a pleasant glow, an agreeable excitement; his head seemed empty, his eyeballs burned as he turned them, his throat was dry as a biscuit; the least dangerous man by nature, except in so far as the weak are always dangerous, at that moment he was ready to slay or to be slain with equal unconcern.

Here at least was the gage thrown down, and battle offered; he who should speak next would bring the matter to an issue there and then; all knew it to be so and hung back; and for many seconds by the cabin clock, the trio sat motionless and silent.

Then came an interruption, welcome as the flowers in May.

‘Land ho!’ sang out a voice on deck. ‘Land a weatha bow!’

‘Land!’ cried Davis, springing to his feet. ‘What’s this? There ain’t no land here.’

And as men may run from the chamber of a murdered corpse, the three ran forth out of the house and left their quarrel behind them, undecided.

The sky shaded down at the sea level to the white of opals; the sea itself, insolently, inkily blue, drew all about them the uncompromising wheel of the horizon. Search it as they pleased, not even the practisect eye of Captain Davis could descry the smallest interruption. A few filmy clouds were slowly melting overhead; and about the schooner, as around the only point of interest, a tropic bird, white as a snowflake, hung, and circled, and displayed, as it turned, the long vermilion feather of its tall. Save the sea and the heaven, that was all.

‘Who sang out land?’ asked Davis. ‘If there’s any boy playing funny dog with me, I’ll teach him skylarking!’

But Uncle Ned contentedly pointed to a part of the horizon, where a greenish, filmy iridescence could be discerned floating like smoke on the pale heavens.

Davis applied his glass to it, and then looked at the Kanaka. ‘Call that land?’ said he. ‘Well, it’s more than I do.’

‘One time long ago,’ said Uncle Ned, ‘I see Anaa all-e-same that, four five hours befo’ we come up. Capena he say sun go down, sun go up again; he say lagoon all-e-same milla.’

‘All-e-same WHAT?’ asked Davis.

‘Milla, sah,’ said Uncle Ned.

‘Oh, ah! mirror,’ said Davis. ‘I see; reflection from the lagoon. Well, you know, it is just possible, though it’s strange I never heard of it. Here, let’s look at the chart.’

They went back to the cabin, and found the position of the schooner well to windward of the archipelago in the midst of a white field of paper.

‘There! you see for yourselves,’ said Davis.

‘And yet I don’t know,’ said Herrick, ‘I somehow think there’s something in it. I’ll tell you one thing too, captain; that’s all right about the reflection; I heard it in Papeete.’

‘Fetch up that Findlay, then!’ said Davis. ‘I’ll try it all ways. An island wouldn’t come amiss, the way we’re fixed.’

The bulky volume was handed up to him, broken-backed as is the way with Findlay; and he turned to the place and began to run over the text, muttering to himself and turning over the pages with a wetted finger.

‘Hullo!’ he exclaimed. ‘How’s this?’ And he read aloud. ‘New Island. According to M. Delille this island, which from private interests would remain unknown, lies, it is said, in lat. 12 degrees 49’ 10” S. long. 113degrees 6’ W. In addition to the position above given Commander Matthews, H.M.S. Scorpion, states that an island exists in lat. 12 degrees 0’ S. long. 13 degrees 16’ W. This must be the same, if such an island exists, which is very doubtful, and totally disbelieved in by South Sea traders.’

‘Golly!’ said Huish.

‘It’s rather in the conditional mood,’ said Herrick.

‘It’s anything you please,’ cried Davis, ‘only there it is! That’s our place, and don’t you make any mistake.’

“‘Which from private interests would remain unknown,”’ read Herrick, over his shoulder. ‘What may that mean?’

‘It should mean pearls,’ said Davis. ‘A pearling island the government don’t know about? That sounds like real estate. Or suppose it don’t mean anything. Suppose it’s just an island; I guess we could fill up with fish, and cocoanuts, and native stuff, and carry out the Samoa scheme hand over fist. How long did he say it was before they raised Anaa) Five hours, I think?’

‘Four or five,’ said Herrick.

Davis stepped to the door. ‘What breeze had you that time you made Anaa, Uncle Ned?’ said he.

‘Six or seven knots,’ was the reply.

‘Thirty or thirty-five miles,’ said Davis. ‘High time we were shortening sail, then. If it is an island, we don’t want to be butting our head against it in the dark; and if it isn’t an island, we can get through it just as well by daylight. Ready about!’ he roared.

And the schooner’s head was laid for that elusive glimmer in the sky, which began already to pale in lustre and diminish in size, as the stain of breath vanishes from a window pane. At the same time she was reefed close down.

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