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

Chapter 9.

The Dinner Party

They sat down to an island dinner, remarkable for its variety and excellence; turtle soup and steak, fish, fowls, a sucking pig, a cocoanut salad, and sprouting cocoanut roasted for dessert. Not a tin had been opened; and save for the oil and vinegar in the salad, and some green spears of onion which Attwater cultivated and plucked with his own hand, not even the condiments were European. Sherry, hock, and claret succeeded each other, and the Farallone champagne brought up the rear with the dessert.

It was plain that, like so many of the extremely religious in the days before teetotalism, Attwater had a dash of the epicure. For such characters it is softening to eat well; doubly so to have designed and had prepared an excellent meal for others; and the manners of their host were agreeably mollified in consequence.

A cat of huge growth sat on his shoulders purring, and occasionally, with a deft paw, capturing a morsel in the air. To a cat he might be likened himself, as he lolled at the head of his table, dealing out attentions and innuendoes, and using the velvet and the claw indifferently. And both Huish and the captain fell progressively under the charm of his hospitable freedom.

Over the third guest, the incidents of the dinner may be said to have passed for long unheeded. Herrick accepted all that was offered him, ate and drank without tasting, and heard without comprehension. His mind was singly occupied in contemplating the horror of the circumstances in which he sat. What Attwater knew, what the captain designed, from which side treachery was to be first expected, these were the ground of his thoughts. There were times when he longed to throw down the table and flee into the night. And even that was debarred him; to do anything, to say anything, to move at all, were only to precipitate the barbarous tragedy; and he sat spellbound, eating with white lips. Two of his companions observed him narrowly, Attwater with raking, sidelong glances that did not interrupt his talk, the captain with a heavy and anxious consideration.

‘Well, I must say this sherry is a really prime article,’ said Huish. “Ow much does it stand you in, if it’s a fair question?’

‘A hundred and twelve shillings in London, and the freight to Valparaiso, and on again,’ said Attwater. ‘It strikes one as really not a bad fluid.’

‘A ‘undred and twelve!’ murmured the clerk, relishing the wine and the figures in a common ecstasy: ‘O my!’

‘So glad you like it,’ said Attwater. ‘Help yourself, Mr Whish, and keep the bottle by you.’

‘My friend’s name is Huish and not Whish, sit,’ said the captain with a flush.

‘I beg your pardon, I am sure. Huish and not Whish, certainly,’ said Attwater. ‘I was about to say that I have still eight dozen,’ he added, fixing the captain with his eye.

‘Eight dozen what?’ said Davis.

‘Sherry,’ was the reply. ‘Eight dozen excellent sherry. Why, it seems almost worth it in itself; to a man fond of wine.’

The ambiguous words struck home to guilty consciences, and Huish and the captain sat up in their places and regarded him with a scare.

‘Worth what?’ said Davis.

‘A hundred and twelve shillings,’ replied Attwater.

The captain breathed hard for a moment. He reached out far and wide to find any coherency in these remarks; then, with a great effort, changed the subject.

‘I allow we are about the first white men upon this island, sir,’ said he.

Attwater followed him at once, and with entire gravity, to the new ground. ‘Myself and Dr Symonds excepted, I should say the only ones,’ he returned. ‘And yet who can tell? In the course of the ages someone may have lived here, and we sometimes think that someone must. The cocoa palms grow all round the island, which is scarce like nature’s planting. We found besides, when we landed, an unmistakable cairn upon the beach; use unknown; but probably erected in the hope of gratifying some mumbo jumbo whose very name is forgotten, by some thick-witted gentry whose very bones are lost. Then the island (witness the Directory) has been twice reported; and since my tenancy, we have had two wrecks, both derelict. The rest is conjecture.’

‘Dr Symonds is your partner, I guess?’ said Davis.

‘A dear fellow, Symonds! How he would regret it, if he knew you had been here!’ said Attwater.

“E’s on the Trinity ‘All, ain’t he?’ asked Huish.

‘And if you could tell me where the Trinity ‘All was, you would confer a favour, Mr Whish!’ was the reply.

‘I suppose she has a native crew?’ said Davis.

‘Since the secret has been kept ten years, one would suppose she had,’ replied Attwater.

‘Well, now, see ‘ere!’ said Huish. ‘You have everything about you in no end style, and no mistake, but I tell you it wouldn’t do for me. Too much of “the old rustic bridge by the mill”; too retired, by ‘alf. Give me the sound of Bow Bells!’

‘You must not think it was always so,’ replied Attwater, ‘This was once a busy shore, although now, hark! you can hear the solitude. I find it stimulating. And talking of the sound of bells, kindly follow a little experiment of mine in silence.’ There was a silver bell at his right hand to call the servants; he made them a sign to stand still, struck the bell with force, and leaned eagerly forward. The note rose clear and strong; it rang out clear and far into the night and over the deserted island; it died into the distance until there only lingered in the porches of the ear a vibration that was sound no longer. ‘Empty houses, empty sea, solitary beaches!’ said Attwater. ‘And yet God hears the bell! And yet we sit in this verandah on a lighted stage with all heaven for spectators! And you call that solitude?’

There followed a bar of silence, during which the captain sat mesmerised.

Then Attwater laughed softly. ‘These are the diversions of a lonely, man,’ he resumed, ‘and possibly not in good taste. One tells oneself these little fairy tales for company. If there SHOULD happen to be anything in folk-lore, Mr Hay? But here comes the claret. One does not offer you Lafitte, captain, because I believe it is all sold to the railroad dining cars in your great country; but this Brine-Mouton is of a good year, and Mr Whish will give me news of it.’

‘That’s a queer idea of yours!’ cried the captain, bursting with a sigh from the spell that had bound him. ‘So you mean to tell me now, that you sit here evenings and ring up . . . well, ring on the angels . . . by yourself?’

‘As a matter of historic fact, and since you put it directly, one does not,’ said Attwater. ‘Why ring a bell, when there flows out from oneself and everything about one a far more momentous silence? the least beat of my heart and the least thought in my mind echoing into eternity for ever and for ever and for ever.’

‘O look ‘ere,’ said Huish, ‘turn down the lights at once, and the Band of ‘Ope will oblige! This ain’t a spiritual seance.’

‘No folk-lore about Mr Whish — I beg your pardon, captain: Huish not Whish, of course,’ said Attwater.

As the boy was filling Huish’s glass, the bottle escaped from his hand and was shattered, and the wine spilt on the verandah floor. Instant grimness as of death appeared on the face of Attwater; he smote the bell imperiously, and the two brown natives fell into the attitude of attention and stood mute and trembling. There was just a moment of silence and hard looks; then followed a few savage words in the native; and, upon a gesture of dismissal, the service proceeded as before.

None of the party had as yet observed upon the excellent bearing of the two men. They were dark, undersized, and well set up; stepped softly, waited deftly, brought on the wines and dishes at a look, and their eyes attended studiously on their master.

‘Where do you get your labour from anyway?’ asked Davis.

‘Ah, where not?’ answered Attwater.

‘Not much of a soft job, I suppose?’ said the captain.

‘If you will tell me where getting labour is!’ said Attwater with a shrug. ‘And of course, in our case, as we could name no destination, we had to go far and wide and do the best we could. We have gone as far west as the Kingsmills and as far south as Rapa-iti. Pity Symonds isn’t here! He is full of yarns. That was his part, to collect them. Then began mine, which was the educational.’

‘You mean to run them?’ said Davis.

‘Ay! to run them,’ said Attwater.

‘Wait a bit,’ said Davis, ‘I’m out of my depth. How was this? Do you mean to say you did it single-handed?’

‘One did it single-handed,’ said Attwater, ‘because there was nobody to help one.’

‘By God, but you must be a holy terror!’ cried the captain, in a glow of admiration.

‘One does one’s best,’ said Attwater.

‘Well, now!’ said Davis, ‘I have seen a lot of driving in my time and been counted a good driver myself; I fought my way, third mate, round the Cape Horn with a push of packet rats that would have turned the devil out of hell and shut the door on him; and I tell you, this racket of Mr Attwater’s takes the cake. In a ship, why, there ain’t nothing to it! You’ve got the law with you, that’s what does it. But put me down on this blame’ beach alone, with nothing but a whip and a mouthful of bad words, and ask me to . . . no, SIR! it’s not good enough! I haven’t got the sand for that!’ cried Davis. ‘It’s the law behind,’ he added; ‘it’s the law does it, every time!’

‘The beak ain’t as black as he’s sometimes pynted,’ observed Huish, humorously.

‘Well, one got the law after a fashion,’ said Attwater. ‘One had to be a number of things. It was sometimes rather a bore.’

‘I should smile!’ said Davis. ‘Rather lively, I should think!’

‘I dare say we mean the same thing,’ said Attwater. ‘However, one way or another, one got it knocked into their heads that they MUST work, and they DID . . . until the Lord took them!’

‘‘Ope you made ‘em jump,’ said Huish.

‘When it was necessary, Mr Whish, I made them jump,’ said Attwater.

‘You bet you did,’ cried the captain. He was a good deal flushed, but not so much with wine as admiration; and his eyes drank in the huge proportions of the other with delight. ‘You bet you did, and you bet that I can see you doing it! By God, you’re a man, and you can say I said so.’

‘Too good of you, I’m sure,’ said Attwater.

‘Did you — did you ever have crime here?’ asked Herrick, breaking his silence with a pungent voice.

‘Yes,’ said Attwater, ‘we did.’

‘And how did you handle that, sir?’ cried the eager captain.

‘Well, you see, it was a queer case,’ replied Attwater. ‘it was a case that would have puzzled Solomon. Shall I tell it you? yes?’

The captain rapturously accepted.

‘Well,’ drawled Attwater, ‘here is what it was. I dare say you know two types of natives, which may be called the obsequious and the sullen? Well, one had them, the types themselves, detected in the fact; and one had them together. Obsequiousness ran out of the first like wine out of a bottle, sullenness congested in the second. Obsequiousness was all smiles; he ran to catch your eye, he loved to gabble; and he had about a dozen words of beach English, and an eighth-of-an-inch veneer of Christianity. Sullens was industrious; a big down-looking bee. When he was spoken to, he answered with a black look and a shrug of one shoulder, but the thing would be done. I don’t give him to you for a model of manners; there was nothing showy about Sullens; but he was strong and steady, and ungraciously obedient. Now Sullens got into trouble; no matter how; the regulations of the place were broken, and he was punished accordingly — without effect. So, the next day, and the next, and the day after, till I began to be weary of the business, and Sullens (I am afraid) particularly so. There came a day when he was in fault again, for the — oh, perhaps the thirtieth time; and he rolled a dull eye upon me, with a spark in it, and appeared to speak. Now the regulations of the place are formal upon one point: we allow no explanations; none are received, none allowed to be offered. So one stopped him instantly; but made a note of the circumstance. The next day, he was gone from the settlement. There could be nothing more annoying; if the labour took to running away, the fishery was wrecked. There are sixty miles of this island, you see, all in length like the Queen’s Highway; the idea of pursuit in such a place was a piece of single-minded childishness, which one did not entertain. Two days later, I made a discovery; it came in upon me with a flash that Sullens had been unjustly punished from beginning to end, and the real culprit throughout had been Obsequiousness. The native who talks, like the woman who hesitates, is lost. You set him talking and lying; and he talks, and lies, and watches your face to see if he has pleased you; till at last, out comes the truth! It came out of Obsequiousness in the regular course. I said nothing to him; I dismissed him; and late as it was, for it was already night, set off to look for Sullens. I had not far to go: about two hundred yards up the island, the moon showed him to me. He was hanging in a cocoa palm — I’m not botanist enough to tell you how — but it’s the way, in nine cases out of ten, these natives commit suicide. His tongue was out, poor devil, and the birds had got at him; I spare you details, he was an ugly sight! I gave the business six good hours of thinking in this verandah. My justice had been made a fool of; I don’t suppose that I was ever angrier. Next day, I had the conch sounded and all hands out before sunrise. One took one’s gun, and led the way, with Obsequiousness. He was very talkative; the beggar supposed that all was right now he had confessed; in the old schoolboy phrase, he was plainly ‘sucking up’ to me; full of protestations of goodwill and good behaviour; to which one answered one really can’t remember what. Presently the tree came in sight, and the hanged man. They all burst out lamenting for their comrade in the island way, and Obsequiousness was the loudest of the mourners. He was quite genuine; a noxious creature, without any consciousness of guilt. Well, presently — to make a long story short — one told him to go up the tree. He stared a bit, looked at one with a trouble in his eye, and had rather a sickly smile; but went. He was obedient to the last; he had all the pretty virtues, but the truth was not in him. So soon as he was up, he looked down, and there was the rifle covering him; and at that he gave a whimper like a dog. You could bear a pin drop; no more keening now. There they all crouched upon the ground, with bulging eyes; there was he in the tree top, the colour of the lead; and between was the dead man, dancing a bit in the air. He was obedient to the last, recited his crime, recommended his soul to God. And then. . .’

Attwater paused, and Herrick, who had been listening attentively, made a convulsive movement which upset his glass.

‘And then?’ said the breathless captain.

‘Shot,’ said Attwater. ‘They came to ground together.’

Herrick sprang to his feet with a shriek and an insensate gesture.

‘It was a murder,’ he screamed. ‘A cold-hearted, bloody-minded murder! You monstrous being! Murderer and hypocrite — murderer and hypocrite — murderer and hypocrite —’ he repeated, and his tongue stumbled among the words.

The captain was by him in a moment. ‘Herrick!’ he cried, ‘behave yourself! Here, don’t be a blame’ fool!’

Herrick struggled in his embrace like a frantic child, and suddenly bowing his face in his hands, choked into a sob, the first of many, which now convulsed his body silently, and now jerked from him indescribable and meaningless sounds.

‘Your friend appears over-excited,’ remarked Attwater, sitting unmoved but all alert at table.

‘It must be the wine,’ replied the captain. ‘He ain’t no drinking man, you see. I— I think I’ll take him away. A walk’ll sober him up, I guess.’

He led him without resistance out of the verandah and into the night, in which they soon melted; but still for some time, as they drew away, his comfortable voice was to be heard soothing and remonstrating, and Herrick answering, at intervals, with the mechanical noises of hysteria.

“E’s like a bloomin’ poultry yard!’ observed Huish, helping himself to wine (of which he spilled a good deal) with gentlemanly ease. ‘A man should learn to beyave at table,’ he added.

‘Rather bad form, is it not?’ said Attwater. ‘Well, well, we are left tete-a-tete. A glass of wine with you, Mr Whish!’

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