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The Ebb-Tide: A Trio And Quartette

Robert Louis Stevenson

  Produced by Dianne Bean



  By Robert Louis Stevenson and Lloyde Osbourne

  'There is a tide in the affairs of men.'

  Part I.


  Throughout the island world of the Pacific, scattered men of manyEuropean races and from almost every grade of society carry activity anddisseminate disease. Some prosper, some vegetate. Some have mounted thesteps of thrones and owned islands and navies. Others again must marryfor a livelihood; a strapping, merry, chocolate-coloured dame supportsthem in sheer idleness; and, dressed like natives, but still retainingsome foreign element of gait or attitude, still perhaps with some relic(such as a single eye-glass) of the officer and gentleman, they sprawlin palm-leaf verandahs and entertain an island audience with memoirs ofthe music-hall. And there are still others, less pliable, less capable,less fortunate, perhaps less base, who continue, even in these isles ofplenty, to lack bread.

  At the far end of the town of Papeete, three such men were seated on thebeach under a purao tree.

  It was late. Long ago the band had broken up and marched musically home,a motley troop of men and women, merchant clerks and navy officers,dancing in its wake, arms about waist and crowned with garlands. Longago darkness and silence had gone from house to house about the tinypagan city. Only the street lamps shone on, making a glow-worm halo inthe umbrageous alleys or drawing a tremulous image on the waters of theport. A sound of snoring ran among the piles of lumber by the Governmentpier. It was wafted ashore from the graceful clipper-bottomed schooners,where they lay moored close in like dinghies, and their crews werestretched upon the deck under the open sky or huddled in a rude tentamidst the disorder of merchandise.

  But the men under the purao had no thought of sleep. The sametemperature in England would have passed without remark in summer; butit was bitter cold for the South Seas. Inanimate nature knew it, and thebottle of cocoanut oil stood frozen in every bird-cage house aboutthe island; and the men knew it, and shivered. They wore flimsy cottonclothes, the same they had sweated in by day and run the gauntlet of thetropic showers; and to complete their evil case, they had no breakfastto mention, less dinner, and no supper at all.

  In the telling South Sea phrase, these three men were ON THE BEACH.Common calamity had brought them acquainted, as the three most miserableEnglish-speaking creatures in Tahiti; and beyond their misery, they knewnext to nothing of each other, not even their true names. For each hadmade a long apprenticeship in going downward; and each, at some stage ofthe descent, had been shamed into the adoption of an alias. And yet notone of them had figured in a court of justice; two were men of kindlyvirtues; and one, as he sat and shivered under the purao, had a tatteredVirgil in his pocket.

  Certainly, if money could have been raised upon the book, Robert Herrickwould long ago have sacrificed that last possession; but the demandfor literature, which is so marked a feature in some parts of the SouthSeas, extends not so far as the dead tongues; and the Virgil, which hecould not exchange against a meal, had often consoled him in his hunger.He would study it, as he lay with tightened belt on the floor of theold calaboose, seeking favourite passages and finding new ones only lessbeautiful because they lacked the consecration of remembrance. Or hewould pause on random country walks; sit on the path side, gazing overthe sea on the mountains of Eimeo; and dip into the Aeneid, seekingsortes. And if the oracle (as is the way of oracles) replied with novery certain nor encouraging voice, visions of England at leastwould throng upon the exile's memory: the busy schoolroom, the greenplaying-fields, holidays at home, and the perennial roar of London, andthe fireside, and the white head of his father. For it is the destiny ofthose grave, restrained and classic writers, with whom we make enforcedand often painful acquaintanceship at school, to pass into the blood andbecome native in the memory; so that a phrase of Virgil speaks not somuch of Mantua or Augustus, but of English places and the student's ownirrevocable youth.

  Robert Herrick was the son of an intelligent, active, and ambitious man,small partner in a considerable London house. Hopes were conceivedof the boy; he was sent to a good school, gained there an Oxfordscholarship, and proceeded in course to the Western University. With allhis talent and taste (and he had much of both) Robert was deficientin consistency and intellectual manhood, wandered in bypaths of study,worked at music or at metaphysics when he should have been at Greek, andtook at last a paltry degree. Almost at the same time, the London housewas disastrously wound up; Mr Herrick must begin the world again asa clerk in a strange office, and Robert relinquish his ambitions andaccept with gratitude a career that he detested and despised. He hadno head for figures, no interest in affairs, detested the constraint ofhours, and despised the aims and the success of merchants. To grow richwas none of his ambitions; rather to do well. A worse or a more boldyoung man would have refused the destiny; perhaps tried his future withhis pen; perhaps enlisted. Robert, more prudent, possibly more timid,consented to embrace that way of life in which he could most readilyassist his family. But he did so with a mind divided; fled theneighbourhood of former comrades; and chose, out of several positionsplaced at his disposal, a clerkship in New York.

  His career thenceforth was one of unbroken shame. He did not drink,he was exactly honest, he was never rude to his employers, yet waseverywhere discharged. Bringing no interest to his duties, he broughtno attention; his day was a tissue of things neglected and things doneamiss; and from place to place and from town to town, he carried thecharacter of one thoroughly incompetent. No man can bear the wordapplied to him without some flush of colour, as indeed there isnone other that so emphatically slams in a man's face the doorof self-respect. And to Herrick, who was conscious of talents andacquirements, who looked down upon those humble duties in which he wasfound wanting, the pain was the more exquisite. Early in his fall, hehad ceased to be able to make remittances; shortly after, having nothingbut failure to communicate, he ceased writing home; and about a yearbefore this tale begins, turned suddenly upon the streets of SanFrancisco by a vulgar and infuriated German Jew, he had broken the lastbonds of self-respect, and upon a sudden Impulse, changed his name andinvested his last dollar in a passage on the mail brigantine, the Cityof Papeete. With what expectation he had trimmed his flight for theSouth Seas, Herrick perhaps scarcely knew. Doubtless there were fortunesto be made in pearl and copra; doubtless others not more gifted thanhimself had climbed in the island world to be queen's consorts andking's ministers. But if Herrick had gone there with any manful purpose,he would have kept his father's name; the alias betrayed his moralbankruptcy; he had struck his flag; he entertained no hope to reinstatehimself or help his straitened family; and he came to the islands (wherehe knew the climate to be soft, bread cheap, and manners easy) a skulkerfrom life's battle and his own immediate duty. Failure, he had said, washis portion; let it be a pleasant failure.

  It is fortunately not enough to say 'I will be base.' Herrick continuedin the islands his career of failure; but in the new scene and under thenew name, he suffered no less sharply than before. A place was got, itwas lost in the old style; from the long-suffering of the keepers ofrestaurants he fell to more open charity upon the wayside; as time wenton, good nature became weary, and after a repulse or two, Herrick becameshy. There were women enough who would have supported a far worse and afar uglier man; Herrick never met or never knew them: or if he did both,some manlier feeling would revolt, and he preferred starvation. Drenchedwith rains, broiling by day, shivering by night, a disused and ruinousprison for a bedroom, his diet begged or pilfered out of rubbish heaps,his associates two creatures equally outcast with himself, he
haddrained for months the cup of penitence. He had known what it was tobe resigned, what it was to break forth in a childish fury of rebellionagainst fate, and what it was to sink into the coma of despair. The timehad changed him. He told himself no longer tales of an easy and perhapsagreeable declension; he read his nature otherwise; he had provedhimself incapable of rising, and he now learned by experience that hecould not stoop to fall. Something that was scarcely pride or strength,that was perhaps only refinement, withheld him from capitulation; buthe looked on upon his own misfortune with a growing rage, and sometimeswondered at his patience.

  It was now the fourth month completed, and still there was no changeor sign of change. The moon, racing through a world of flying cloudsof every size and shape and density, some black as ink stains, somedelicate as lawn, threw the marvel of her Southern brightness over thesame lovely and detested scene: the island mountains crowned with theperennial island cloud, the embowered city studded with rare lamps, themasts in the harbour, the smooth mirror of the lagoon, and the mole ofthe barrier reef on which the breakers whitened. The moon shone too,with bull's-eye sweeps, on his companions; on the stalwart frame of theAmerican who called himself Brown, and was known to be a mastermariner in some disgrace; and on the dwarfish person, the pale eyesand toothless smile of a vulgar and bad-hearted cockney clerk. Here wassociety for Robert Herrick! The Yankee skipper was a man at least: hehad sterling qualities of tenderness and resolution; he was one whosehand you could take without a blush. But there was no redeeming graceabout the other, who called himself sometimes Hay and sometimes Tomkins,and laughed at the discrepancy; who had been employed in every store inPapeete, for the creature was able in his way; who had been dischargedfrom each in turn, for he was wholly vile; who had alienated all his oldemployers so that they passed him in the street as if he were a dog, andall his old comrades so that they shunned him as they would a creditor.

  Not long before, a ship from Peru had brought an influenza, and it nowraged in the island, and particularly in Papeete. From all round thepurao arose and fell a dismal sound of men coughing, and stranglingas they coughed. The sick natives, with the islander's impatience of atouch of fever, had crawled from their houses to be cool and, squattingon the shore or on the beached canoes, painfully expected the new day.Even as the crowing of cocks goes about the country in the night fromfarm to farm, accesses of coughing arose, and spread, and died inthe distance, and sprang up again. Each miserable shiverer caught thesuggestion from his neighbour, was torn for some minutes by that cruelecstasy, and left spent and without voice or courage when it passed. Ifa man had pity to spend, Papeete beach, in that cold night and in thatinfected season, was a place to spend it on. And of all the sufferers,perhaps the least deserving, but surely the most pitiable, was theLondon clerk. He was used to another life, to houses, beds, nursing,and the dainties of the sickroom; he lay there now, in the cold open,exposed to the gusting of the wind, and with an empty belly. He wasbesides infirm; the disease shook him to the vitals; and his companionswatched his endurance with surprise. A profound commiseration filledthem, and contended with and conquered their abhorrence. The disgustattendant on so ugly a sickness magnified this dislike; at the sametime, and with more than compensating strength, shame for a sentiment soinhuman bound them the more straitly to his service; and even the evilthey knew of him swelled their solicitude, for the thought of death isalways the least supportable when it draws near to the merely sensualand selfish. Sometimes they held him up; sometimes, with mistakenhelpfulness, they beat him between the shoulders; and when the poorwretch lay back ghastly and spent after a paroxysm of coughing, theywould sometimes peer into his face, doubtfully exploring it for anymark of life. There is no one but has some virtue: that of the clerk wascourage; and he would make haste to reassure them in a pleasantry notalways decent.

  'I'm all right, pals,' he gasped once: 'this is the thing to strengthenthe muscles of the larynx.'

  'Well, you take the cake!' cried the captain.

  'O, I'm good plucked enough,' pursued the sufferer with a brokenutterance. 'But it do seem bloomin' hard to me, that I should be theonly party down with this form of vice, and the only one to do the funnybusiness. I think one of you other parties might wake up. Tell a fellowsomething.'

  'The trouble is we've nothing to tell, my son,' returned the captain.

  'I'll tell you, if you like, what I was thinking,' said Herrick.

  'Tell us anything,' said the clerk, 'I only want to be reminded that Iain't dead.'

  Herrick took up his parable, lying on his face and speaking slowly andscarce above his breath, not like a man who has anything to say, butlike one talking against time.

  'Well, I was thinking this,' he began: 'I was thinking I lay on Papeetebeach one night--all moon and squalls and fellows coughing--and I wascold and hungry, and down in the mouth, and was about ninety years ofage, and had spent two hundred and twenty of them on Papeete beach. AndI was thinking I wished I had a ring to rub, or had a fairy godmother,or could raise Beelzebub. And I was trying to remember how you did it. Iknew you made a ring of skulls, for I had seen that in the Freischutz:and that you took off your coat and turned up your sleeves, for I hadseen Formes do that when he was playing Kaspar, and you could see (bythe way he went about it) it was a business he had studied; and that youought to have something to kick up a smoke and a bad smell, I dare saya cigar might do, and that you ought to say the Lord's Prayer backwards.Well, I wondered if I could do that; it seemed rather a feat, you see.And then I wondered if I would say it forward, and I thought I did.Well, no sooner had I got to WORLD WITHOUT END, than I saw a man in apariu, and with a mat under his arm, come along the beach from the town.He was rather a hard-favoured old party, and he limped and crippled, andall the time he kept coughing. At first I didn't cotton to his looks,I thought, and then I got sorry for the old soul because he coughed sohard. I remembered that we had some of that cough mixture the Americanconsul gave the captain for Hay. It never did Hay a ha'porth of service,but I thought it might do the old gentleman's business for him, andstood up. "Yorana!" says I. "Yorana!" says he. "Look here," I said,"I've got some first-rate stuff in a bottle; it'll fix your cough,savvy? Harry my and I'll measure you a tablespoonful in the palm of myhand, for all our plate is at the bankers." So I thought the old partycame up, and the nearer he came, the less I took to him. But I hadpassed my word, you see.'

  'Wot is this bloomin' drivel?' interrupted the clerk. 'It's like the rotthere is in tracts.'

  'It's a story; I used to tell them to the kids at home,' said Herrick.'If it bores you, I'll drop it.'

  'O, cut along!' returned the sick man, irritably. 'It's better thannothing.'

  'Well,' continued Herrick, 'I had no sooner given him the cough mixturethan he seemed to straighten up and change, and I saw he wasn't aTahitian after all, but some kind of Arab, and had a long beard on hischin. "One good turn deserves another," says he. "I am a magician outof the Arabian Nights, and this mat that I have under my arm is theoriginal carpet of Mohammed Ben Somebody-or-other. Say the word, and youcan have a cruise upon the carpet." "You don't mean to say this is theTravelling Carpet?" I cried. "You bet I do," said he. "You've beento America since last I read the Arabian Nights," said I, a littlesuspicious. "I should think so," said he. "Been everywhere. A man with acarpet like this isn't going to moulder in a semi-detached villa." Well,that struck me as reasonable. "All right," I said; "and do you mean totell me I can get on that carpet and go straight to London, England?" Isaid, "London, England," captain, because he seemed to have been so longin your part of the world. "In the crack of a whip," said he. Ifigured up the time. What is the difference between Papeete and London,captain?'

  'Taking Greenwich and Point Venus, nine hours, odd minutes and seconds,'replied the mariner.

  'Well, that's about what I made it,' resumed Herrick, 'about nine hours.Calling this three in the morning, I made out I would drop into Londonabout noon; and the idea tickled me immensely. "There's only onebother," I said,
"I haven't a copper cent. It would be a pity to goto London and not buy the morning Standard." "O!" said he, "you don'trealise the conveniences of this carpet. You see this pocket? you'veonly got to stick your hand in, and you pull it out filled withsovereigns."

  'Double-eagles, wasn't iff inquired the captain.

  'That was what it was!' cried Herrick. 'I thought they seemed unusuallybig, and I remember now I had to go to the money-changers at CharingCross and get English silver.'

  'O, you went there?' said the clerk. 'Wot did you do? Bet you had a B.and S.!'

  'Well, you see, it was just as the old boy said--like the cut of awhip,' said Herrick. 'The one minute I was here on the beach at three inthe morning, the next I was in front of the Golden Cross at midday.At first I was dazzled, and covered my eyes, and there didn't seem thesmallest change; the roar of the Strand and the roar of the reef werelike the same: hark to it now, and you can hear the cabs and busesrolling and the streets resound! And then at last I could look about,and there was the old place, and no mistake! With the statues inthe square, and St Martin's-in-the-Fields, and the bobbies, and thesparrows, and the hacks; and I can't tell you what I felt like. I feltlike crying, I believe, or dancing, or jumping clean over the NelsonColumn. I was like a fellow caught up out of Hell and flung down intothe dandiest part of Heaven. Then I spotted for a hansom with a spankinghorse. "A shilling for yourself, if you're there in twenty minutes!"said I to the jarvey. He went a good pace, though of course it was atrifle to the carpet; and in nineteen minutes and a half I was at thedoor.'

  'What door?' asked the captain.

  'Oh, a house I know of,' returned Herrick.

  'But it was a public-house!' cried the clerk--only these were not hiswords. 'And w'y didn't you take the carpet there instead of trundling ina growler?'

  'I didn't want to startle a quiet street,' said the narrator.

  'Bad form. And besides, it was a hansom.'

  'Well, and what did you do next?' inquired the captain.

  'Oh, I went in,' said Herrick.

  'The old folks?' asked the captain.

  'That's about it,' said the other, chewing a grass.

  'Well, I think you are about the poorest 'and at a yarn!' cried theclerk. 'Crikey, it's like Ministering Children! I can tell you therewould be more beer and skittles about my little jaunt. I would go andhave a B. and S. for luck. Then I would get a big ulster with astrakhanfur, and take my cane and do the la-de-la down Piccadilly. Then I wouldgo to a slap-up restaurant, and have green peas, and a bottle of fizz,and a chump chop--Oh! and I forgot, I'd 'ave some devilled whitebaitfirst--and green gooseberry tart, and 'ot coffee, and some of that formof vice in big bottles with a seal--Benedictine--that's the bloomin'nyme! Then I'd drop into a theatre, and pal on with some chappies,and do the dancing rooms and bars, and that, and wouldn't go 'ometill morning, till daylight doth appear. And the next day I'd havewater-cresses, 'am, muffin, and fresh butter; wouldn't I just, O my!'

  The clerk was interrupted by a fresh attack of coughing.

  'Well, now, I'll tell you what I would do,' said the captain: 'I wouldhave none of your fancy rigs with the man driving from the mizzencross-trees, but a plain fore-and-aft hack cab of the highest registeredtonnage. First of all, I would bring up at the market and get a turkeyand a sucking-pig. Then I'd go to a wine merchant's and get a dozen ofchampagne, and a dozen of some sweet wine, rich and sticky and strong,something in the port or madeira line, the best in the store. Then I'dbear up for a toy-store, and lay out twenty dollars in assorted toysfor the piccaninnies; and then to a confectioner's and take in cakes andpies and fancy bread, and that stuff with the plums in it; and then toa news-agency and buy all the papers, all the picture ones for the kids,and all the story papers for the old girl about the Earl discoveringhimself to Anna-Mariar and the escape of the Lady Maude from the privatemadhouse; and then I'd tell the fellow to drive home.'

  'There ought to be some syrup for the kids,' suggested Herrick; 'theylike syrup.'

  'Yes, syrup for the kids, red syrup at that!' said the captain. 'Andthose things they pull at, and go pop, and have measly poetry inside.And then I tell you we'd have a thanksgiving day and Christmas treecombined. Great Scott, but I would like to see the kids! I guess theywould light right out of the house, when they saw daddy driving up. Mylittle Adar--'

  The captain stopped sharply.

  'Well, keep it up!' said the clerk.

  'The damned thing is, I don't know if they ain't starving!' cried thecaptain.

  'They can't be worse off than we are, and that's one comfort,' returnedthe clerk. 'I defy the devil to make me worse off.'

  It seemed as if the devil heard him. The light of the moon had beensome time cut off and they had talked in darkness. Now there was heard aroar, which drew impetuously nearer; the face of the lagoon was seen towhiten; and before they had staggered to their feet, a squall burst inrain upon the outcasts. The rage and volume of that avalanche one musthave lived in the tropics to conceive; a man panted in its assault, ashe might pant under a shower-bath; and the world seemed whelmed in nightand water.

  They fled, groping for their usual shelter--it might be almost calledtheir home--in the old calaboose; came drenched into its empty chambers;and lay down, three sops of humanity on the cold coral floors, andpresently, when the squall was overpast, the others could hear in thedarkness the chattering of the clerk's teeth.

  'I say, you fellows,' he walled, 'for God's sake, lie up and try to warmme. I'm blymed if I don't think I'll die else!'

  So the three crept together into one wet mass, and lay until day came,shivering and dozing off, and continually re-awakened to wretchedness bythe coughing of the clerk.