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

Chapter 8.

Better Acquaintance

The boat was gone again, and already half-way to the Farallone, before Herrick turned and went unwillingly up the pier. From the crown of the beach, the figure-head confronted him with what seemed irony, her helmeted head tossed back, her formidable arm apparently hurling something, whether shell or missile, in the direction of the anchored schooner. She seemed a defiant deity from the island, coming forth to its threshold with a rush as of one about to fly, and perpetuated in that dashing attitude. Herrick looked up at her, where she towered above him head and shoulders, with singular feelings of curiosity and romance, and suffered his mind to travel to and fro in her life- history. So long she had been the blind conductress of a ship among the waves; so long she had stood here idle in the violent sun, that yet did not avail to blister her; and was even this the end of so many adventures? he wondered, or was more behind? And he could have found in his heart to regret that she was not a goddess, nor yet he a pagan, that he might have bowed down before her in that hour of difficulty.

When he now went forward, it was cool with the shadow of many well-grown palms; draughts of the dying breeze swung them together overhead; and on all sides, with a swiftness beyond dragon-flies or swallows, the spots of sunshine flitted, and hovered, and returned. Underfoot, the sand was fairly solid and quite level, and Herrick’s steps fell there noiseless as in new-fallen snow. It bore the marks of having been once weeded like a garden alley at home; but the pestilence had done its work, and the weeds were returning. The buildings of the settlement showed here and there through the stems of the colonnade, fresh painted, trim and dandy, and all silent as the grave. Only, here and there in the crypt, there was a rustle and scurry and some crowing of poultry; and from behind the house with the verandahs, he saw smoke arise and heard the crackling of a fire.

The stone houses were nearest him upon his right. The first was locked; in the second, he could dimly perceive, through a window, a certain accumulation of pearl-shell piled in the far end; the third, which stood gaping open on the afternoon, seized on the mind of Herrick with its multiplicity and disorder of romantic things. Therein were cables, windlasses and blocks of every size and capacity; cabin windows and ladders; rusty tanks, a companion hutch; a binnacle with its brass mountings and its compass idly pointing, in the confusion and dusk of that shed, to a forgotten pole; ropes, anchors, harpoons, a blubber dipper of copper, green with years, a steering wheel, a tool chest with the vessel’s name upon the top, the Asia: a whole curiosity-shop of sea curios, gross and solid, heavy to lift, ill to break, bound with brass and shod with iron. Two wrecks at the least must have contributed to this random heap of lumber; and as Herrick looked upon it, it seemed to him as if the two ships’ companies were there on guard, and he heard the tread of feet and whisperings, and saw with the tail of his eye the commonplace ghosts of sailor men.

This was not merely the work of an aroused imagination, but had something sensible to go upon; sounds of a stealthy approach were no doubt audible; and while he still stood staring at the lumber, the voice of his host sounded suddenly, and with even more than the customary softness of enunciation, from behind.

‘Junk,’, it said, ‘only old junk! And does Mr Hay find a parable?’

‘I find at least a strong impression,’ replied Herrick, turning quickly, lest he might be able to catch, on the face of the speaker, some commentary on the words.

Attwater stood in the doorway, which he almost wholly filled; his hands stretched above his head and grasping the architrave. He smiled when their eyes Met, but the expression was inscrutable.

‘Yes, a powerful impression. You are like me; nothing so affecting as ships!’ said he. ‘The ruins of an empire would leave me frigid, when a bit of an old rail that an old shellback leaned on in the middle watch, would bring me up all standing. But come, let’s see some more of the island. It’s all sand and coral and palm trees; but there’s a kind of a quaintness in the place.’

‘I find it heavenly,’ said Herrick, breathing deep, with head bared in the shadow.

‘Ah, that’s because you’re new from sea,’ said Attwater. ‘I dare say, too, you can appreciate what one calls it. It’s a lovely name. It has a flavour, it has a colour, it has a ring and fall to it; it’s like its author — it’s half Christian! Remember your first view of the island, and how it’s only woods and water; and suppose you had asked somebody for the name, and he had answered — nemorosa Zacynthos!’

‘Jam medio apparet fluctu!’ exclaimed Herrick. ‘Ye gods, yes, how good!’

‘If it gets upon the chart, the skippers will make nice work of it,’ said Attwater. ‘But here, come and see the diving-shed.’

He opened a door, and Herrick saw a large display of apparatus neatly ordered: pumps and pipes, and the leaded boots, and the huge snouted helmets shining in rows along the wall; ten complete outfits.

‘The whole eastern half of my lagoon is shallow, you must understand,’ said Attwater; ‘so we were able to get in the dress to great advantage. It paid beyond belief, and was a queer sight when they were at it, and these marine monsters’— tapping the nearest of the helmets —‘kept appearing and reappearing in the midst of the lagoon. Fond of parables?’ he asked abruptly.

‘O yes!’ said Herrick.

‘Well, I saw these machines come up dripping and go down again, and come up dripping and go down again, and all the while the fellow inside as dry as toast!’ said Attwater; ‘and I thought we all wanted a dress to go down into the world in, and come up scatheless. What do you think the name was?’ he inquired.

‘Self-conceit,’ said Herrick.

‘Ah, but I mean seriously!’ said Attwater.

‘Call it self-respect, then!’ corrected Herrick, with a laugh.

‘And why not Grace? Why not God’s Grace, Hay?’ asked Attwater. ‘Why not the grace of your Maker and Redeemer, He who died for you, He who upholds you, He whom you daily crucify afresh? There is nothing here,’— striking on his bosom — ‘nothing there’— smiting the wall —‘and nothing there’— stamping —‘nothing but God’s Grace! We walk upon it, we breathe it; we live and die by it; it makes the nails and axles of the universe; and a puppy in pyjamas prefers self-conceit!’ The huge dark man stood over against Herrick by the line of the divers’ helmets, and seemed to swell and glow; and the next moment the life had gone from him. ‘I beg your pardon,’ said he; ‘I see you don’t believe in God?’

‘Not in your sense, I am afraid,’ said Herrick.

‘I never argue with young atheists or habitual drunkards,’ said Attwater flippantly. ‘Let us go across the island to the outer beach.’

It was but a little way, the greatest width of that island scarce exceeding a furlong, and they walked gently. Herrick was like one in a dream. He had come there with a mind divided; come prepared to study that ambiguous and sneering mask, drag out the essential man from underneath, and act accordingly; decision being till then postponed. Iron cruelty, an iron insensibility to the suffering of others, the uncompromising pursuit of his own interests, cold culture, manners without humanity; these he had looked for, these he still thought he saw. But to find the whole machine thus glow with the reverberation of religious zeal, surprised him beyond words; and he laboured in vain, as he walked, to piece together into any kind of whole his odds and qnds of knowledge — to adjust again into any kind of focus with itself, his picture of the man beside him.

‘What brought you here to the South Seas?’ he asked presently.

‘Many things,’ said Attwater. ‘Youth, curiosity, romance, the love of the sea, and (it will surprise you to hear) an interest in missions. That has a good deal declined, which will surprise you less. They go the wrong way to work; they are too parsonish, too much of the old wife, and even the old apple wife. CLOTHES, CLOTHES, are their idea; but clothes are not Christianity, any more than they are the sun in heaven, or could take the place of it! They think a parsonage with roses, and church bells, and nice old women bobbing in the lanes, are part and parcel of religion. But religion is a savage thing, like the universe it illuminates; savage, cold, and bare, but infinitely strong.’

‘And you found this island by an accident?’ said Herrick.

‘As you did!’ said Attwater. ‘And since then I have had a business, and a colony, and a mission of my own. I was a man of the world before I was a Christian; I’m a man of the world still, and I made my mission pay. No good ever came of coddling. A man has to stand up in God’s sight and work up to his weight avoirdupois; then I’ll talk to him, but not before. I gave these beggars what they wanted: a judge in Israel, the bearer of the sword and scourge; I was making a new people here; and behold, the angel of the Lord smote them and they. were not!’

With the very uttering of the words, which were accompanied by a gesture, they came forth out of the porch of the palm wood by the margin of the sea and full in front of the sun which was near setting. Before them the surf broke slowly. All around, with an air of imperfect wooden things inspired with wicked activity, the crabs trundled and scuttled into holes. On the right, whither Attwater pointed and abruptly turned, was the cemetery of the island, a field of broken stones from the bigness of a child’s hand to that of his head, diversified by many mounds of the same material, and walled by a rude rectangular enclosure. Nothing grew there but a shrub or two with some white flowers; nothing but the number of the mounds, and their disquieting shape, indicated the presence of the dead.

‘The rude forefathers of the hamlet sleep!’

quoted Attwater as he entered by the open gateway into that unholy close. ‘Coral to coral, pebbles to pebbles,’ he said, ‘this has been the main scene of my activity in the South Pacific. Some were good, and some bad, and the majority (of course and always) null. Here was a fellow, now, that used to frisk like a dog; if you had called him he came like an arrow from a bow; if you had not, and he came unbidden, you should have seen the deprecating eye and the little intricate dancing step. Well, his trouble is over now, he has lain down with kings and councillors; the rest of his acts, are they not written in the book of the chronicles? That fellow was from Penrhyn; like all the Penrhyn islanders he was ill to manage; heady, jealous, violent: the man with the nose! He lies here quiet enough. And so they all lie.

‘And darkness was the burier of the dead!’

He stood, in the strong glow of the sunset, with bowed head; his voice sounded now sweet and now bitter with the varying sense.

‘You loved these people?’ cried Herrick, strangely touched.

‘I?’ said Attwater. ‘Dear no! Don’t think me a philanthropist. I dislike men, and hate women. If I like the islands at all, it is because you see them here plucked of their lendings, their dead birds and cocked hats, their petticoats and coloured hose. Here was one I liked though,’ and he set his foot upon a mound. ‘He was a fine savage fellow; he had a dark soul; yes, I liked this one. I am fanciful,’ he added, looking hard at Herrick, ‘and I take fads. I like you.’

Herrick turned swiftly and looked far away to where the clouds were beginning to troop together and amass themselves round the obsequies of day. ‘No one can like me,’ he said.

‘You are wrong there,’ said the other, ‘as a man usually is about himself. You are attractive, very attractive.’

‘It is not me,’ said Herrick; ‘no one can like me. If you knew how I despised myself — and why!’ His voice rang out in the quiet graveyard.

‘I knew that you despised yourself,’ said Attwater. ‘I saw the blood come into your face today when you remembered Oxford. And I could have blushed for you myself, to see a man, a gentleman, with these two vulgar wolves.’

Herrick faced him with a thrill. ‘Wolves?’ he repeated.

‘I said wolves and vulgar wolves,’ said Attwater. ‘Do you know that today, when I came on board, I trembled?’

‘You concealed it well,’ stammered Herrick.

‘A habit of mine,’ said Attwater. ‘But I was afraid, for all that: I was afraid of the two wolves.’ He raised his hand slowly. ‘And now, Hay, you poor lost puppy, what do you do with the two wolves?’

‘What do I do? I don’t do anything,’ said Herrick. ‘There is nothing wrong; all is above board; Captain Brown is a good soul; he is a . . . he is . . .’ The phantom voice of Davis called in his ear: ‘There’s going to be a funeral’ and the sweat burst forth and streamed on his brow. ‘He is a family man,’ he resumed again, swallowing; ‘he has children at home — and a wife.’

‘And a very nice man?’ said Attwater. ‘And so is Mr Whish, no doubt?’

‘I won’t go so far as that,’ said Herrick. ‘I do not like Huish. And yet . . . he has his merits too.’

‘And, in short, take them for all in all, as good a ship’s company as one would ask?’ said Attwater.

‘O yes,’ said Herrick, ‘quite.’

‘So then we approach the other point of why you despise yourself?’ said Attwater.

‘Do we not all despise ourselves?’ cried Herrick. ‘Do not you?’

‘Oh, I say I do. But do I?’ said Attwater. ‘One thing I know at least: I never gave a cry like yours. Hay! it came from a bad conscience! Ah, man, that poor diving dress of self-conceit is sadly tattered! Today, now, while the sun sets, and here in this burying place of brown innocents, fall on your knees and cast your sins and sorrows on the Redeemer. Hay —’

‘Not Hay!’ interrupted the other, strangling. ‘Don’t call me that! I mean . . . For God’s sake, can’t you see I’m on the rack?’

‘I see it, I know it, I put and keep you there, my fingers are on the screws!’ said Attwater. ‘Please God, I will bring a penitent this night before His throne. Come, come to the mercy-seat! He waits to be gracious, man — waits to be gracious!’

He spread out his arms like a crucifix, his face shone with the brightness of a seraph’s; in his voice, as it rose to the last word, the tears seemed ready.

Herrick made a vigorous call upon himself. ‘Attwater,’ he said, ‘you push me beyond bearing. What am I to do? I do not believe. It is living truth to you; to me, upon my conscience, only folk-lore. I do not believe there is any form of words under heaven by which I can lift the burthen from my shoulders. I must stagger on to the end with the pack of my responsibility; I cannot shift it; do you suppose I would not, if I thought I could? I cannot — cannot — cannot — and let that suffice.’

The rapture was all gone from Artwater’s countenance; the dark apostle had disappeared; and in his place there stood an easy, sneering gentleman, who took off his hat and bowed. It was pertly done, and the blood burned in Herrick’s face.

‘What do you mean by that?’ he cried.

‘Well, shall we go back to the house?’ said Attwater. ‘Our guests will soon be due.’

Herrick stood his ground a moment with clenched fists and teeth; and as he so stood, the fact of his errand there slowly swung clear in front of him, like the moon out of clouds. He had come to lure that man on board; he was failing, even if it could be said that he had tried; he was sure to fail now, and knew it, and knew it was better so. And what was to be next?

With a groan he turned to follow his host, who was standing with polite smile, and instantly and somewhat obsequiously led the way in the now darkened colonnade of palms. There they went in silence, the earth gave up richly of her perfume, the air tasted warm and aromatic in the nostrils; and from a great way forward in the wood, the brightness of lights and fire marked out the house of Attwater.

Herrick meanwhile resolved and resisted an immense temptation to go up, to touch him on the arm and breathe a word in his ear: ‘Beware, they are going to murder you.’ There would be one life saved; but what of the two others? The three lives went up and down before him like buckets in a well, or like the scales of balances. It had come to a choice, and one that must be speedy. For certain invaluable minutes, the wheels of life ran before him, and he could still divert them with a touch to the one side or the other, still choose who was to live and who was to die. He considered the men. Attwater intrigued, puzzled, dazzled, enchanted and revolted him; alive, he seemed but a doubtful good; and the thought of him lying dead was so unwelcome that it pursued him, like a vision, with every circumstance of colour and sound. Incessantly, he had before him the image of that great mass of man stricken down in varying attitudes and with varying wounds; fallen prone, fallen supine, fallen on his side; or clinging to a doorpost with the changing face and the relaxing fingers of the death-agony. He heard the click of the trigger, the thud of the, ball, the cry of the victim; he saw the blood flow. And this building up of circumstance was like a consecration of the man, till he seemed to walk in sacrificial fillets. Next he considered Davis, with his thick-fingered, coarse-grained, oat-bread commonness of nature, his indomitable valour and mirth in the old days of their starvation, the endearing blend of his faults and virtues, the sudden shining forth of a tenderness that lay too deep for tears; his children, Adar and her bowel complaint, and Adar’s doll. No, death could not be suffered to approach that head even in fancy; with a general heat and a bracing of his muscles, it was borne in on Herrick that Adar’s father would find in him a son to the death. And even Huish showed a little in that sacredness; by the tacit adoption of daily life they were become brothers; there was an implied bond of loyalty in their cohabitation of the ship and their passed miseries, to which Herrick must be a little true or wholly dishonoured. Horror of sudden death for horror of sudden death, there was here no hesitation possible: it must be Attwater. And no sooner was the thought formed (which was a sentence) than his whole mind of man ran in a panic to the other side: and when he looked within himself, he was aware only of turbulence and inarticulate outcry.

In all this there was no thought of Robert Herrick. He had complied with the ebb-tide in man’s affairs, and the tide had carried him away; he heard already the roaring of the maelstrom that must hurry him under. And in his bedevilled and dishonoured soul there was no thought of self.

For how long he walked silent by his companion Herrick had no guess. The clouds rolled suddenly away; the orgasm was over; he found himself placid with the placidity of despair; there returned to him the power of commonplace speech; and he heard with surprise his own voice say: ‘What a lovely evening!’

‘Is it not?’ said Attwater. ‘Yes, the evenings here would be very pleasant if one had anything to do. By day, of course, one can shoot.’

‘You shoot?’ asked Herrick.

‘Yes, I am what you would call a fine shot,’ said Attwater. ‘It is faith; I believe my balls will go true; if I were to miss once, it would spoil me for nine months.’

‘You never miss, then?’ said Herrick.

‘Not unless I mean to,’ said Attwater. ‘But to miss nicely is the art. There was an old king one knew in the western islands, who used to empty a Winchester all round a man, and stir his hair or nick a rag out of his clothes with every ball except the last; and that went plump between the eyes. It was pretty practice.’

‘You could do that?’ asked Herrick, with a sudden chill.

‘Oh, I can do anything,’ returned the other. ‘You do not understand: what must be, must.’

They were now come near to the back part of the house. One of the men was engaged about the cooking fire, which burned with the clear, fierce, essential radiance of cocoanut shells. A fragrance of strange meats was in the air. All round in the verandahs lamps were lighted, so that the place shone abroad in the dusk of the trees with many complicated patterns of shadow.

‘Come and wash your hands,’ said Attwater, and led the way into a clean, matted room with a cot bed, a safe, or shelf or two of books in a glazed case, and an iron washing-stand. Presently he cried in the native, and there appeared for a moment in the doorway a plump and pretty young woman with a clean towel.

‘Hullo!’ cried Herrick, who now saw for the first time the fourth survivor of the pestilence, and was startled by the recollection of the captain’s orders.

‘Yes,’ said Attwater, ‘the whole colony lives about the house, what’s left of it. We are all afraid of devils, if you please! and Taniera and she sleep in the front parlour, and the other boy on the verandah.’

‘She is pretty,’ said Herrick.

‘Too pretty,’ said Attwater. ‘That was why I had her married. A man never knows when he may be inclined to be a fool about women; so when we were left alone, I had the pair of them to the chapel and performed the ceremony. She made a lot of fuss. I do not take at all the romantic view of marriage,’ he explained.

‘And that strikes you as a safeguard?’ asked Herrick with amazement.

‘Certainly. I am a plain man and very literal. WHOM GOD HATH JOINED TOGETHER, are the words, I fancy. So one married them, and respects the marriage,’ said Attwater.

‘Ah!’ said Herrick.

‘You see, I may look to make an excellent marriage when I go home,’ began Attwater, confidentially. ‘I am rich. This safe alone’— laying his hand upon it —‘will be a moderate fortune, when I have the time to place the pearls upon the market. Here are ten years’ accumulation from a lagoon, where I have had as many as ten divers going all day long; and I went further than people usually do in these waters, for I rotted a lot of shell, and did splendidly. Would you like to see them?’

This confirmation of the captain’s guess hit Herrick hard, and he contained himself with difficulty. ‘No, thank you, I think not,’ said he. ‘I do not care for pearls. I am very indifferent to all these . . .’

‘Gewgaws?’ suggested Attwater. ‘And yet I believe you ought to cast an eye on my collection, which is really unique, and which — oh! it is the case with all of us and everything about us! — hangs. by a hair. Today it groweth up and flourisheth; tomorrow it is cut down and cast into the oven. Today it is here and together in this safe; tomorrow — tonight! — it may be scattered. Thou fool, this night thy soul shall be required of thee.’

‘I do not understand you,’ said Herrick.

‘Not?’ said Attwater.

‘You seem to speak in riddles,’ said Herrick, unsteadily. ‘I do not understand what manner of man you are, nor what you are driving at.’

Attwater stood with his hands upon his hips, and his head bent forward. ‘I am a fatalist,’ he replied, ‘and just now (if you insist on it) an experimentalist. Talking of which, by the bye, who painted out the schooner’s name?’ he said, with mocking softness, ‘because, do you know? one thinks it should be done again. It can still be partly read; and whatever is worth doing, is surely worth doing well. You think with me? That is so nice! Well, shall we step on the verandah? I have a dry sherry that I would like your opinion of.’

Herrick followed him forth to where, under the light of the hanging lamps, the table shone with napery and crystal; followed him as the criminal goes with the hangman, or the sheep with the butcher; took the sherry mechanically, drank it, and spoke mechanical words of praise. The object of his terror had become suddenly inverted; till then he had seen Attwater trussed and gagged, a helpless victim, and had longed to run in and save him; he saw him now tower up mysterious and menacing, the angel of the Lord’s wrath, armed with knowledge and threatening judgment. He set down his glass again, and was surprised to see it empty.

‘You go always armed?’ he said, and the next moment could have plucked his tongue out.

‘Always,’ said Attwater. ‘I have been through a mutiny here; that was one of my incidents of missionary life.’

And just then the sound of voices reached them, and looking forth from the verandah they saw Huish and the captain drawing near.

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