Published in All the Year Round, December 1860. Collins wrote Chapter IV, "The Seafaring Man." He also wrote parts of two other chapters. A Message from the Sea is also available at Project Gutenberg.
THE SEAFARING MAN
Who was the Seafaring Man? And what might he have to say for himself? He answers those questions in his own words:
I begin by mentioning what happened on my journey, northwards, from Falmouth in Cornwall, to Steepways in Devonshire. I have no occasion to say (being here) that it brought me last night to Lanrean. I had business in hand which was part very serious, and part (as I hoped) very joyful--and this business, you will please to remember, was the cause of my journey.
After landing at Falmouth, I travelled on foot; because of the expense of riding, and because I had anxieties heavy on my mind, and walking was the best way I knew of to lighten them. The first two days of my journey the weather was fine and soft, the wind being mostly light airs from south, and south and by west. On the third day, I took a wrong turning, and had to fetch a long circuit to get right again. Towards evening, while I was still on the road, the wind shifted; and a sea-fog came rolling in on the land. I went on through, what I ask leave to call, the white darkness; keeping the sound of the sea on my left hand for a guide, and feeling those anxieties of mine before mentioned, pulling heavier and heavier at my mind, as the fog thickened and the wet trickled down my face.
It was still early in the evening, when I heard a dog bark, away in the distance, on the right-hand side of me. Following the sound as well as I could, and shouting to the dog, from time to time, to set him barking again, I stumbled up at last against the back of a house; and, hearing voices inside, groped my way round to the door, and knocked on it smartly with the flat of my hand.
The door was opened by a slip-slop young hussey in a torn gown; and the first inquiries I made of her discovered to me that the house was an inn.
Before I could ask more questions, the landlord opened the parlour door of the inn and came out. A clamour of voices, and a fine comforting smell of fire and grog and tobacco, came out, also, along with him.
"The taproom fire's out," says the landlord. "You don't think you would dry more comfortable, like, if you went to bed?" says he, looking hard at me.
"No," says I, looking hard at him; "I don't."
Before more words were spoken, a jolly voice hailed us from inside the parlour.
"What's the matter, landlord?" says the jolly voice. "Who is it?"
"A seafaring man, by the looks of him," says the landlord, turning round from me, and speaking into the parlour.
"Let's have the seafaring man in," says the voice. "Let's vote him free of the Club, for this night only."
A lot of other voices thereupon said, "Hear! hear!" in a solemn manner, as if it was church service. After which there was a hammering, as if it was a trunk-maker's shop. After which the landlord took me by the arm; gave me a push into the parlour; and there I was, free of the Club.
The change from the fog outside to the warm room and the shining candles so completely dazed me, that I stood blinking at the company more like an owl than a man. Upon which the company again said, "Hear! hear!" Upon which I returned for answer, "Hear! Hear!"--considering those words to mean, in the Club's language, something similar to "How-d'ye-do." The landlord then took me to a round table by the fire, where I got my supper, together with the information that my bedroom, when I wanted it, was number four, up-stairs.
I noticed before I fell to with my knife and fork that the room was full, and that the chairman at the top of the table was the man with the jolly voice, and was seemingly amusing the company by telling them a story. I paid more attention to my supper than to what he was saying; and all I can now report of it is, that his story-telling and my eating and drinking both came to an end together.
"Now," says the chairman, "I have told my story to start you all. Who comes next?" He took up a teetotum, and gave it a spin on the table. When it toppled over, it fell opposite me; upon which the chairman said, "It's your turn next. Order! order! I call on the seafaring man to tell the second story!" He finished the words off with a knock of his hammer; and the Club (having nothing else to say, as I suppose) tried back, and once again sang out altogether, "Hear! hear!"
"I hope you will please to let me off," I said to the chairman, "for the reason that I have got no story to tell."
"No story to tell!" says he. "A sailor without a story! Who ever heard of such a thing? Nobody!"
"Nobody," says the Club, bursting out altogether at last with a new word, by way of a change.
I can't say I quite relished the chairman's talking of me as if I was before the mast. A man likes his true quality to be known, when he is publicly spoken to among a party of strangers. I made my true quality known to the chairman and company, in these words:
"All men who follow the sea, gentlemen, are sailors," I said. "But there's degrees aboard ship as well as ashore. My rating, if you please, is the rating of a second mate."
"Ay, ay, surely?" says the chairman. "Where did you leave your ship?"
"At the bottom of the sea," I made answer--which was, I am sorry to say, only too true.
"What! you've been wrecked?" says he. "Tell us all about it. A shipwreck-story is just the sort of story we like. Silence there all down the table!--silence for the second mate!"
The Club, upon this, instead of keeping silence, broke out vehemently with another new word, and said, "Chair!" After which every man suddenly held his peace, and looked at me.
I did a very foolish thing. Without stopping to take counsel with myself, I started off at score, and did just what the chairman had bidden me. If they had waited the whole night long for it, I should never have told them the story they wanted from me at first, having all my life been a wretched bad hand at such matters--for the reason, as I take it, that a story is bound to be something which is not true. But when I found the company willing, on a sudden, to put up with nothing better than the account of my shipwreck (which is not a story at all), the unexpected luck of being let off with only telling the truth about myself, was too much of a temptation for me--so I up and told it.
I got on well enough with the storm, and the striking of the vessel, and the strange chance, afterwards, which proved to be the saving of my life--the assembly all listening (to my great surprise) as if they had never heard anything of the sort before. But, when the necessity came next for going further than this, and for telling them what had happened to me after the saving of my life--or, to put it plainer, for telling them what place I was cast away on, and what company I was cast away in--the words died straight off on my lips. For this reason--namely--that those particulars of my statement made up just that part of it which I couldn't and durstn't, let out to strangers--no, not if every man among them had offered me a hundred pounds apiece, on the spot, to do it!
"Go on!" says the chairman. "What happened next? How did you get on shore?"
Feeling what a fool I had been to run myself headlong into a scrape, for want of thinking before I spoke, I now cast about discreetly in my mind for the best means of finishing off-hand without letting out a word to the company concerning those particulars before mentioned. I was some little time before seeing my way to this; keeping the chairman and company, all the while, waiting for an answer. The Club, losing patience in consequence, got from staring hard at me to drumming with their feet and then to calling out lustily, "Go on! go on! Chair! Order!"--and such like. In the midst of this childish hubbub, I saw my way to what I considered to be rather a neat finish--and got on my legs to ease them all off with it handsomely.
"Hear! hear!" says the Club. "He's going on again at last."
"Gentlemen!" I made answer; "with your permission I will now conclude by wishing you all good night." Saying which words, I gave them a friendly nod, to make things pleasant--and walked straight to the door. It's hardly to be believed--though nevertheless quite true--that these curious men all howled and groaned at me directly, as if I had done them some grievous injury. Thinking I would try to pacify them with their own favourite catch-word, I said, "Hear! hear!" as civilly as might be, whereupon, they all returned for answer, "Oh! oh!" I never belonged to a club of any kind, myself; and, after what I saw of that Club, I don't care if I never do.
My bedroom, when I found my way up to it, was large and airy enough, but not over-clean. There were two beds in it, not over-clean either. Both being empty, I had my choice. One was near the window, and one near the door. I thought the bed near the door looked a trifle the sweetest of the two; and took it.
After falling asleep, it was the grey of the morning before I woke. When I had fairly opened my eyes and shook up my memory into telling me where I was, I made two discoveries. First, that the room was a deal colder in the new morning, than it had been over-night. Second, that the other bed near the window had got some one sleeping in it. Not that I could see the man from where I lay; but I heard his breathing, plain enough. He must have come up into the room, of course, after I had fallen asleep--and he had tumbled himself quietly into bed without disturbing me. There was nothing wonderful in that; and nothing wonderful in the landlord letting the empty bed if he could find a customer for it. I turned, and tried to go to sleep again; but I was out of sorts--out of sorts so badly, that even the breathing of the man in the other bed fretted and worried me. After tumbling and tossing for a quarter of an hour or more, I got up for a change; and walked softly in my stockings, to the window, to look at the morning.
The heavens were brightening into daylight, and the mists were blowing off, past the window, like puffs of smoke. When I got even with the second bed, I stopped to look at the man in it. He lay, sound asleep, turned towards the window; and the end of the counterpane was drawn up over the lower half of his face. Something struck me, on a sudden, in his hair, and his forehead; and, though not an inquisitive man by nature, I stretched out my hand to the end of the counterpane, in spite of myself.
I uncovered his face softly; and there, in the morning light, I saw my brother, Alfred Raybrock.
What I ought to have done, or what other men might have done in my place, I don't know. What I really did, was to drop back a step--to steady myself, with my hand, on the sill of the window--and to stand so, looking at him. Three years ago, I had said good-by to my wife, to my little child, to my old mother, and to brother Alfred here, asleep under my eyes. For all those three years, no news from me had reached them--and the underwriters, as I knew, must have long since reported that the ship I sailed in was lost, and that all hands on board had perished. My heart was heavy when I thought of my kindred at home, and of the weary time they must have waited and sorrowed before they gave me up for dead. Twice I reached out my hand, to wake Alfred, and to ask him about my wife and my child; and twice I drew it back again, in fear of what might happen if he saw me, standing by his bed-head in the grey morning, like Hugh Raybrock risen up from the grave.
I drew my hand back the second time, and waited a minute. In that minute he woke. I had not moved, or spoken a word, or touched him--I had only looked at him longingly. If such things could be, I should say it was my looking that woke him. His eyes, when they opened under mine, passed on a sudden from fast asleep to broad awake. They first settled on my face with a startled look--which passed directly. He lifted himself on his elbow, and opened his lips to speak, but never said a word. His eyes strained and strained into mine; and his face turned all over of a ghastly white. "Alfred!" I said, "don't you know me?" There seemed to be a deadly terror pent up in him, and I thought my voice might set it free. I took fast hold of him by the hands, and spoke again. "Alfred!" I said--
Oh, sirs! where can a man like me find words to tell all that was said and all that was thought between us two brothers? Please to pardon my not saying more of it than I say here. We sat down together, side by side. The poor lad burst out crying--and got vent that way. I kept my hold of his hands, and waited a bit before I spoke to him again. I think I was worst off, now, of the two--no tears came to help me--I haven't got my brother's quickness, any way; and my troubles have roughened and hardened me, outside. But, God knows, I felt it keenly; all the more keenly, maybe, because I was slow to show it.
After a little, I put the questions to him which I had been longing to ask, from the time when I first saw his face on the pillow. Had they all given me up at home, for dead (I asked)? Yes; after long, long hoping, one by one they had given me up--my wife (God bless her!) last of all. I meant to ask next if my wife was alive and well; but, try as I might, I could only say "Margaret?"--and look hard in my brother's face. He knew what I meant. Yes (he said), she was living; she was at home; she was in her widow's weeds--poor soul! her widow's weeds! I got on better with my next question about the child. Was it born alive? Yes. Boy or girl? Girl. And living now; and much grown? Living, surely, and grown--poor little thing, what a question to ask!--grown of course, in three years! And mother? Well, mother was a trifle fallen away, and more silent within herself than she used to be--fretting at times; fretting (like my wife) on nights when the sea rose, and the windows shook and shivered in the wind. Thereupon, my brother and I waited a bit again--I with my questions, and he with his answers--and while we waited, I thanked God, inwardly, with all my heart and soul, for bringing me back, living, to wife and kindred, while wife and kindred were living too.
My brother dried the tears off his face; and looked at me a little. Then he turned aside suddenly, as if he remembered something; and stole his hand in a hurry, under the pillow of his bed. Nothing came out from below the pillow but his black neck-handkerchief, which he now unfolded slowly, looking at me, all the while, with something strange in his face that I couldn't make out.
"What are you doing?" I asked him. "What are you looking at me like that for?"
Instead of making answer, he took a crumpled morsel of paper out of his neck-handkerchief, opened it carefully, and held it to the light to let me see what it was. Lord in Heaven!--my own writing--the morsel of paper I had committed, long, long since, to the mercy of the deep. Thousands and thousands of miles away, I had trusted that Message to the waters--and here it was now, in my brother's hands! A chilly fear came over me at the seeing it again. Scrap of paper as it was, it looked to my eyes like the ghost of my own past self, gone home before me invisibly over the great wastes of the sea.
My brother pointed down solemnly to the writing.
"Hugh," he said, "were you in your right mind when you wrote those words?"
"Tell me first," I made answer, "how and when the Message came to you. I can't quiet myself fit to talk till I know that."
He told me how the paper had come to hand--also, how his good friend, the captain, having promised to help him, was then under the same roof with our two selves. But there he stopped. It was not till later in the day that I heard of what had happened (through this dreadful doubt about the money) in the matter of his sweetheart and his marriage.
The knowledge that the Message had reached him by mortal means--on the word of a seaman, I half doubted it when I first set eyes on the paper!--eased me in my mind; and I now did my best to quiet Alfred, in my turn. I told him that I was in my right senses, though sorely troubled, when my hand had written those words. Also, that where the writing was rubbed out, I could tell him for his necessary guidance and mine, what once stood in the empty places. Also, that I knew no more what the real truth might be than he did, till inquiry was made, and the slander on father's good name was dragged boldly into daylight to show itself for what it was worth. Lastly, that all the voyage home, there was one hope and one determination uppermost in my mind--the hope, that I might get safe to England, and find my wife and kindred alive to take me back among them again--the determination, that I would put the doubt about father's five hundred pounds to the proof, if ever my feet touched English land once more.
"Come out with me now, Alfred," I said, after winding up as above; "and let me tell you in the quiet of the morning how that Message came to be written and committed to the sea."
We went down stairs softly, and let ourselves out without disturbing any one. The sun was just rising when we left the village and took our way slowly over the cliffs. As soon as the sea began to open on us, I returned to that true story of mine which I had left but half told, the night before--and, this time, I went through with it to the end.
I shipped, as you may remember (were my first words to Alfred), in a second mate's berth, on board the Peruvian, nine hundred tons' burden. We carried an assorted cargo, and we were bound, round the Horn to Truxillo and Guayaquil, on the western coast of South America. From this last port--namely, Guayaquil--we were to go back to Truxillo, and there to take in another cargo for the return voyage. Those were all the instructions communicated to me when I signed articles with the owners, in London city, three years ago.
After we had been, I think, a week at sea, I heard from the first mate--who had himself heard it from the captain--that the supercargo we were taking with us, on the outward voyage, was to be left at Truxillo, and that another supercargo (also connected with our firm, and latterly employed by them as their foreign agent) was to ship with us at that port, for the voyage home. His name on the captain's instructions was, Mr. Lawrence Clissold. None of us had ever set eyes on him to our knowledge, and none of us knew more about him than what I have told you here.
We had a wonderful voyage out--especially round the Horn. I never before saw such fair weather in that infernal latitude, and I never expect to see the like again. We followed our instructions to the letter; discharging our cargo in fine condition, and returning to Truxillo to load again as directed. At this place, I was so unfortunate as to be seized with the fever of the country, which laid me on my back, while we were in harbour; and which only let me return to my duty after we had been ten days at sea, on the voyage home again. For this reason, the first morning when I was able to get on deck, was also the first time of my setting eyes on our new supercargo, Mr. Lawrence Clissold.
I found him to be a long, lean, wiry man, with some complaint in his eyes which forced him to wear spectacles of blue glass. His age appeared to be fifty-six of thereabouts; but he might well have been more. There was not above a handful of grey hair, altogether, on his bald head--and, as for the wrinkles at the corners of his eyes and the sides of his mouth, if he could have had a pound apiece in his pocket for every one of them, he might have retired from business from that time forth. Judging by certain signs in his face, and by a suspicious morning tremble in his hands, I set him down, in my own mind (right enough, as it afterwards turned out), for a drinker. In one word, I didn't like the looks of the new supercargo--and, oh the first day when I got on deck, I found that he had reasons of his own for paying me back in my own coin, and not liking my looks, either.
"I've been asking the captain about you," were his first words to me in return for my civilly wishing him good morning. "Your name's Raybrock, I hear. Are you any relation to the late Hugh Raybrock, of Barnstaple, Devonshire?"
"Rather a near relation," I made answer. "I am the late Hugh Raybrock's eldest son."
There was no telling how his eyes looked, because they were hidden by his blue spectacles--but I saw him wince at the mouth, when I gave him that reply.
"Your father ended by failing in business, didn't he?" was the next question the supercargo put to me.
"Who told you he failed?" I asked, sharply enough.
"Oh! I heard it," says Mr. Lawrence Clissold, both looking and speaking as if he was glad to have heard it, and he hoped it was true.
"Whoever told you my father failed in business, told you a lie," I said. "His business fell off towards the last years of his life--I don't deny it. But every creditor he had was honestly paid at his death, without so much as touching the provision left for his widow and children. Please to mention that, next time you hear it reported that my father failed in business."
Mr. Clissold grinned to himself--and I lost my temper.
"I'll tell you what," I said to him, "I don't like your laughing to yourself, when I ask you to do justice to my father's memory--and, what is more, I didn't like the way you mentioned that report of his failing in business, just now. You looked as if you hoped it was true."
"Perhaps I did," says Mr. Clissold, coolly. "Shall I tell you why? When I was a young man, I was unlucky enough to owe your father some money. He was a merciless creditor; and he threatened me with a prison if the debt remained unpaid on the day when it was due. I have never forgotten that circumstance; and I should certainly not have been sorry if your father's creditors had given him a lesson in forbearance, by treating him as harshly as he once treated me."
"My father had a right to ask for his own," I broke out. "If you owed him the money and didn't pay it--"
"I never told you I didn't pay it," says Mr. Clissold, as coolly as ever.
"Well, if you did pay it," I put in, "then you didn't go to prison--and you have no cause of complaint now. My father wronged nobody; and I won't believe he ever wronged you. He was a just man in all his dealings; and whoever tells me to the contrary--!"
"That will do," says Mr. Clissold, backing away to the cabin stairs. "You seem to have not quite got over your fever yet. I'll leave you to air yourself in the sea-breezes, Mr. Second Mate; and I'll receive your excuses when you are cool enough to make them."
"It is a son's business to defend his father's character," I answered; "and, cool or hot, I'll leave the ship sooner than ask your pardon for doing my duty!"
"You will leave the ship," says the supercargo, quietly going down into the cabin. "You will leave at the next port, if I have any interest with the captain."
That was how Mr. Clissold and I scraped acquaintance on the first day when we met together! And as we began, so we went on to the end. But, though he persecuted me in almost every other way, he did not anger me again about father's affairs: he seemed to have dropped talking of them at once and for ever. On my side I nevertheless bore in mind what he had said to me, and determined, if I got home safe, to go to the lawyer at Barnstaple who keeps father's old books and letters for us, and see what information they might give on the subject of Mr. Lawrence Clissold. I, myself, had never heard his name mentioned at home--father (as you know, Alfred) being always close about business-matters, and mother never troubling him with idle questions about his affairs. But it was likely enough that he and Mr. Clissold might have been concerned in money-matters, in past years, and that Mr. Clissold might have tried to cheat him, and failed. I rather hoped it might prove to be so--for the truth is, the supercargo provoked me past all endurance; and I hated him as heartily as he hated me.
All this while the ship was making such a speedy voyage down the coast, that we began to think we were carrying back with us the fine weather we had brought out. But, on nearing Cape Horn, the signs and tokens appeared which told us that our run of luck was at an end. Down went the barometer, lower and lower; and up got the wind, in the northerly quarter, higher and higher. This happened towards nightfall--and at daybreak next day, we found ourselves forced to lay-to. It blew all that day and all that night; towards noon the next day, it lulled a little, and we made sail again. But at sunset, the heavens grew blacker than ever; and the wind returned upon us with double and treble fury. The Peruvian was a fine stout roomy ship, but the unhandiest vessel at laying-to I ever sailed in. After taking tons of water on board and losing our best boat, we had nothing left for it but to turn tail, and scud for our lives. For the next three days and nights we ran before the wind. The gale moderated more than once in that time; but there was such a sea on, that we durstn't heave the ship to. From the beginning of the gale none of us officers had a chance of taking any observations. We only knew that the wind was driving us as hard as we could go in a southerly direction, and that we were by this time hundreds of miles out of the ordinary course of ships in doubling the Cape.
On the third night--or rather, I should say, early on the fourth morning--I went below, dead beat, to get a little rest, leaving the vessel in charge of the captain and the first mate. The night was then pitch-black--it was raining, hailing, and sleeting, all at once--and the Peruvian was wallowing in the frightful seas, as if she meant to roll the masts out of her. I tumbled into bed the instant my wet oilskins were off my back, and slept as only a man can who lays himself down dead beat.
I was woke--how long afterwards I don't know--by being pitched clean out of my berth on to the cabin floor; and, at the same moment, I heard the crash of the ship's timbers, forward, which told me it was all over with us.
Though bruised and shaken by my fall, I was on deck directly. Before I had taken two steps forward, the Peruvian forged ahead on the send of the sea, swung round a little, and struck heavily at the bows for the second time. The shrouds of the foremast cracked one after another, like pistol-shots; and the mast went overboard. I next felt our people go tearing past me, in the black darkness, to the lee-side of the vessel; and I knew that, in their last extremity, they were taking to the boats. I say I felt them go past me, because the roaring of the sea and the howling of the wind deafened me, on deck, as completely as the darkness blinded me. I myself no more believed the boats would live in the sea, than I believed the ship would hold together on the reef--but, as the rest were running the risk, I made up my mind to run it with them.
But before I followed the crew to leeward, I went below again for a minute--not to save money or clothes, for, with death staring me in the face, neither were of any account, now--but to get my little writing-case which mother had given me at parting. A curl of Margaret's hair was in the pocket inside it, with all the letters she had sent me when I had been away on other voyages. If I saved anything I was resolved to save this--and if I died, I would die with it about me.
My locket was jammed with the wrenching of the ship, and had to be broken open. I was, maybe, longer over this job than I myself supposed. At any rate, when I got on deck again with my case in my breast, it was useless calling, and useless groping about. The largest of the two boats, when I felt for it, was gone; and every soul on board was beyond a doubt gone with her.
Before I had time to think, I was thrown off my feet, by another sea coming on board, and a great heave of the vessel, which drove her farther over the reef, and canted the after-part of her up like the roof of a house. In that position the stern stuck, wedged fast into the rocks beneath, while the fore-part of the ship was all to pieces and down under water. If the after-part kept the place it was now jammed in, till daylight, there might be a chance--but if the sea wrenched it out from between the rocks, there was an end of me. After straining my eyes to discover if there was land beyond the reef, and seeing nothing but the flash of the breakers, like white fire in the darkness, I crawled below again to the shelter of the cabin stairs, and waited for death or daylight.
As the morning hours wore on, the weather moderated again; and the after-part of the vessel, though shaken often, was not shaken out of its place. A little before dawn, the winds and the waves, though fierce enough still, allowed me, at last, to hear something besides themselves. What did I hear, crouched up in my dark corner, was a heavy thumping and grinding, every now and then, against the side of the ship to windward. Day broke soon afterwards; and, when I climbed to the deck, I clawed my way up to windward first, to see what the noise was caused by.
My first look over the bulwark showed me that it was caused by the boat which my unfortunate brother-officers and the crew had launched and gone away in when the ship struck. The boat was bottom upwards, thumping against the ship's side on the lift of the sea. I wanted no second look at it to tell me that every mother's son of them was drowned.
The main and mizen masts still stood. I got into the mizen rigging, to look out next to leeward--and there, in the blessed daylight, I saw a low, green, rocky little island, lying away beyond the reef, barely a mile distant from the ship! My life began to look of some small value to me again, when I saw land. I got higher up in the rigging to note how the current set, and where there might be a passage through the reef. The ship had driven over the rocks through the worst of the surf, and the sea between myself and the island, though angry and broken in places, was not too high for a lost man like me to venture on--provided I could launch the last, and smallest, boat still left in the vessel. I noted carefully the likeliest-looking channel for trying the experiment, and then got down on deck again to see what I could do, first of all, with the boat.
At the moment when my feet touched the deck, I heard a dull knocking and banging just under them, in the region of the cabin. When the sound first reached my ears, I got such a shock of surprise that I could neither move nor speak. It had never yet crossed my mind that a single soul was left in the vessel beside myself--but now, there was something in the knocking noise which started the hope in me that I was not alone. I shook myself up, and got down below directly.
The noise came from inside one of the sleeping berths, on the far side of the main cabin; the door of which was jammed, no doubt, just as my locker had been jammed, by the wrenching of the ship. 'Who's there?' I called out. A faint, muffled kind of voice answered something through the air-grating in the upper part of the door. I got up on the overthrown cabin furniture; and, looking in through the trelliswork of the grating, found myself face to face with the blue spectacles of Mr. Lawrence Clissold, looking out!
God forgive me for thinking it--but there was not a man in the vessel I wouldn't sooner have found alive in her than Mr. Clissold! Of all that ship's company, we two, who were least friendly together, were the only two saved.
I had a better chance of breaking out the jammed door from the main cabin, than he had from the berth inside; and in less than five minutes he was set free. I had smelt spirits already through the air-grating--and now, when he and I stood face to face, I saw what the smell meant. There was an open case of spirits by the bedside--two of the bottles out of it were lying broken on the floor--and Mr. Clissold was drunk.
"What's the matter with the ship?" says he, looking fierce, and speaking thick.
"You shall see for yourself," says I. With which words I took hold of him, and pulled him after me up the cabin stairs. I reckoned on the sight that would meet him, when he first looked over the deck, to sober his drunken brains--and I reckoned right: he fell on his knees, stockstill and speechless as if he was turned to stone.
I lashed him up safe to the cabin rail, and left it to the air to bring him round. He had, likely enough, been drinking in the sleeping berth for days together--for none of us, as I now remembered, had seen him since the gale set in--and even if he had had sense enough to try to get out, or to call for help, when the ship struck, he would not have made himself heard in the noise and confusion of that awful time. But for the lull in the weather, I should not have heard him myself, when he attempted to get free in the morning. Enemy of mine as he was, he had a pair of arms--and he was worth untold gold, in my situation, for that reason. With the help I could make him give me, there was no doubt now about launching the boat. In half an hour I had the means ready for trying the experiment; and Mr. Clissold was sober enough to see that his life depended on his doing what I told him.
The sky looked angry still--there was no opening anywhere--and the clouds were slowly banking up again to windward. The supercargo knew what I meant when I pointed that way, and worked with a will when I gave him the word. I had previously stowed away in the boat such stores of meat, biscuit, and fresh water as I could readily lay hands on; together with a compass, a lantern, a few candles, and some boxes of matches in my pocket, to kindle light and fire with. At the last moment, I thought of a gun and some powder and shot. The powder and shot I found, and an old flint pocket-pistol in the captain's cabin--with which, for fear of wasting precious time, I was forced to be content. The pistol lay on the top of the medicine-chest--and I took that also, finding it handy, and not knowing but what it might be of use. Having made these preparations, we launched the boat, over down the steep of the deck, into the water over the forward part of the ship which was sunk. I took the oars ordering Mr. Clissold to sit still in the stern-sheets--and pulled for the island.
It was neck or nothing with us more than once, before we were two hundred yards from the ship. Luckily, the supercargo was used to boats; and muddled as he still was, he had sense enough to sit quiet. We found our way into the smooth channel which I had noted from the mizen rigging--after which, it was easy enough to get ashore.
We landed on a little sandy creek. From the time of our leaving the ship, the supercargo had not spoken a word to me, nor I to him. I now told him to lend a hand in getting the stores out of the boat, and in helping me to carry them to the first sheltered place we could find in shore on the island. He shook himself up with a sulky look at me, and did as I had bidden him. We found a little dip or dell in the ground, after getting up the low sides of the island, which was sheltered to windward--and here I left him to stow away the stores, while I walked farther on, to survey the place.
According to the hasty judgment I formed at the time, the island was not a mile across, and not much more than three miles round. I noted nothing in the way of food but a few wild roots and vegetables, growing in ragged patches amidst the thick scrub which covered the place. There was not a tree on it anywhere; nor any living creatures; nor any signs of fresh water that I could see. Standing on the highest ground, I looked about anxiously for other islands that might be inhabited; there were none visible--at least none in the hazy state of the heavens that morning. When I fairly discovered what a desert the place was; when I remembered how far it lay out of the track of ships; and when I thought of the small store of provisions which we had brought with us, the doubt lest we might only have changed the chance of death by drowning for the chance of death by starvation was so strong in me, that I determined to go back to the boat, with the desperate notion of making another trip to the vessel for water and food. I say desperate, because the clouds to windward were banking up blacker and higher every minute, the wind was freshening already, and there was every sign of the storm coming on again wilder and fiercer than ever.
Mr. Clissold, when I passed him on my way back to the beach, had got the stores pretty tidy, covered with the tarpaulin which I had thrown over them in the bottom of the boat. Just as I looked down at him in the hollow I saw him take a bottle of spirits out of the pocket of his pilot-coat. He must have stowed the bottle away there, as I suppose, while I was breaking open the door of his berth. "You'll be drowned, and I shall have double allowance to live upon here," was all he said to me, when he heard I was going back to the ship. "Yes! and die, in your turn, when you've got through it," says I, going away to the boat. It's shocking to think of now--but we couldn't be civil to each other, even on the first day when we were wrecked together!
Having previously stripped to my trousers, in case of accident, I now pulled out. On getting from the channel into the broken water again, I looked over my shoulder to windward, and saw that I was too late. It was coming!--the ship was hidden already in the horrible haze of it. I got the boat's head round to pull back--and I did pull back, just inside the opening in the reef which made the mouth of the channel--when the storm came down on me like death and judgment. The boat filled in an instant; and I was tossed head over heels into the water. The sea, which burst into raging surf upon the rocks on either side, rushed in one great roller up the deep channel between them, and took me with it. If the undertow, afterwards, had lasted for half a minute, I should have been carried into the white water, and lost. But a second roller followed the first, almost on the instant, and swept me right up on the beach. I had just strength enough to dig my arms and legs well into the wet sand; and though I was taken back with the backward shift of it, I was not taken into deep water again. Before the third roller came, I was out of its reach, and was down in a sort of swoon, on the dry sand.
When I got back to the hollow, in shore, where I had left my clothes under shelter with the stores, I found Mr. Clissold snugly crouched up, in the driest place, with the tarpaulin to cover him. "Oh!" says he, in a state of great surprise, "you're not drowned?" "No," says I; "you won't get your double allowance, after all." "How much shall I get?" says he, rousing up and looking anxious. "Your fair half share of what is here," I answered him. "And how long will that last me?" says he. "The food, if you have sense enough to eke it out with what you may find in this miserable place, barely three weeks," says I; "and the water (if you ever drink any) about a fortnight." At hearing that, he took the bottle out of his pocket again, and put it to his lips. "I'm cold to the bones," says I, frowning at him for a drop. "And I'm warm to the marrow," says he, chuckling, and handing me the bottle empty. I pitched it away at once--or the temptation to break it over his head might have been too much for me--I pitched it away, and looked into the medicine-chest, to see if there was a drop of peppermint, or anything comforting of that sort, inside. Only three physic bottles were left in it, all three being neatly tied over with oilskin. One of them held a strong white liquor, smelling like hartshorn. The other two were filled with stuff in powder, having the names in printed gibberish, pasted outside. On looking a little closer, I found, under some broken divisions of the chest, a small flask covered with wicker-work. 'Ginger-Brandy' was written with pen and ink on the wicker-work, and the flask was full! I think that blessed discovery saved me from shivering myself to pieces. After a pull at the flask, which made a new man of me, I put it away in my inside breast-pocket; Mr. Clissold watching me with greedy eyes, but saying nothing.
All this while, the rain was rushing, the wind roaring, and the sea crashing, as if Noah's Flood had come again. I sat close against the supercargo, because he was in the driest place; and pulled my fair share of the tarpaulin away from him, whether he liked it or not. He by no means liked it; being in that sort of half-drunken, half-sober state (after finishing his bottle), in which a man's temper is most easily upset by trifles. The upset of his temper showed itself in the way of small aggravations--of which I took no notice, till he suddenly bethought himself of angering me by going back again to that dispute about father, which had bred ill-blood between us, on the day when we first saw each other. If he had been a younger man, I am afraid I should have stopped him by a punch on his head. As it was, considering his age and the shame of this quarrelling betwixt us when we were both cast away together, I only warned him that I might punch his head, if he went on. It did just as well--and I'm glad now to think that it did.
We were huddled so close together, that when he coiled himself up to sleep (with a growl), and when he did go to sleep (with a grunt), he growled and grunted into my ear. His rest, like the rest of all the regular drunkards I have ever met with, was broken. He ground his teeth, and talked in his sleep. Among the words he mumbled to himself, I heard as plain as could be father's name. This vexed, but did not surprise me, seeing that he had been talking of father before he dropped off. But when I made out next among his mutterings and mumblings, the words "five hundred pound," spoken over and over again, with father's name, now before, now after, now mixed in along with them, I got curious, and listened for more. My listening (and serve me right, you will say) came to nothing: he certainly talked on, but I couldn't make out a word more that he said.
When he woke up, I told him plainly he had been talking in his sleep--and mightily taken aback he looked when he first heard it. "What about?" says he. I made answer, "My father, and five hundred pound; and how do you come to couple them together, I should like to know?"
"I couldn't have coupled them," says he, in a great hurry-- "what do I know about it? I don't believe a man like your father ever had such a sum of money as that, in all his life." "Don't you?" says I, feeling the aggravation of him, in spite of myself; "I can just tell you my father had such a sum when he was no older a man than I am--and saved it--and left it for a provision, in his will, to my mother, who has got it now--and, I say again, how came a stranger like you to be talking of it in your sleep?" At hearing this, he went about on the other tack directly. "Was that all your father left, after his debts were paid?" says he. "Are you very curious to know?" says I. He took no notice--he only persisted with his question. "Was it just five hundred pound, no more and no less?" says he. "Suppose it was," says I; "what then?" "Oh, nothing?" says he, and turns sharp round from me, and chuckles to himself. "You're drunk!" says I. "Yes," says he; "that's it--stick to that--I'm drunk"--and he chuckles again. Try as I might, and threaten as I might, not another word on the matter of the five hundred pound could I get from him. I bore it well in mind, though, for all that--it being one of my slow ways, not easily to forget anything that has once surprised me, and not to give up returning to it over and over again, as time and occasion may serve for the purpose.
The hours wore on, and the storm raged on. We had our half rations of food, when hunger took us (I being much the hungrier of the two); and slept, and grumbled, and quarrelled the weary time out somehow. Towards dusk the wind lessened; and, when I got up, out of the hollow to look out, there was a faint watery break in the western heavens. At times, through the watches of the long night, the stars showed in patches for a little while, through the rents that opened and closed by fits in the black sky. When I fell asleep towards the dawning, the wind had fallen to a moan, though the sea, slower to go down, sounded as loud as ever. From what I could make of the weather, the storm had, by that time, as good as blown itself out.
I had been wise enough (knowing who was near me) to lay myself down, whenever I slept, on the side of me which was next to the flask of ginger-brandy, stowed away in my breastpocket. When I woke at sunrise, it was the supercargo's hand that roused me up, trying to steal my flask while I was asleep. I rolled him over headlong among the stores--out of which I had the humanity to pull him again, with my own hands.
"I'll tell you what," says I, "if us two keep company any longer, we shan't get on smoothly together. You're the oldest man--and you stop here, where we know there is shelter. We will divide the stores fairly, and I'll go and shift for myself at the other end of the island. Do you agree to that?"
"Yes," says he; "and the sooner the better."
I left him for a minute, and went away to look out on the reef that had wrecked us. The splinters of the Peruvian, scattered broadcast over the beach, or tossing up and down darkly, far out in the white surf, were all that remained to tell of the ship. I don't deny that my heart sank, when I looked at the place where she struck, and saw nothing before me but sea and sky.
But what was the use of standing and looking? It was a deal better to rouse myself by doing something. I returned to Mr. Clissold--and then and there divided the stores into two equal parts, including everything down to the matches in my pocket. Of these parts I gave him first choice. I also left him the whole of the tarpaulin to himself--keeping in my own possession the medicine-chest, and the pistol; which last I loaded with powder and shot, in case any sea-birds might fly within reach. When the division was made, and when I had moved my part out of his way and out of his sight, I thought it uncivil to bear malice any longer, now that we had agreed to separate. We were cast away on a desert island, and we had death, as well as I could see, within about three weeks' hail of us--but that was no reason for not making things reasonably pleasant as long as we could. I was some time (in consequence of my natural slowness where matters of seafaring duty don't happen to be concerned) before I came to this conclusion. When I did come to it, I acted on it.
"Shake hands, before parting," I said, suiting the action to the word.
"No!" says he; "I don't like you."
"Please yourself," says I--and so we parted.
Turning my back on the west, which was his territory according to agreement, I walked away towards the south-east, where the sides of the island rose highest. Here I found a sort of half rift, half cavern, in the rocky banks, which looked as likely a place as any other--and to this refuge I moved my share of the stores. I thatched it over as well as I could with scrub, and heaped up some loose stones at the mouth of it. At home in England, I should have been ashamed to put my dog in such a place--but when a man believes his days to be numbered, he is not over-particular about his lodgings, and I was not over-particular about mine.
When my work was done, the heavens were fair, the sun was shining, and it was long past noon. I went up again to the high ground, to see what I could make out in the new clearness of the air. North, east, and west there was nothing but sea and sky--but, south, I now saw land. It was high, and looked to be a matter of seven or eight miles off. Island, or not, it must have been of a good size for me to see it as I did. Known or not known to mariners, it was certainly big enough to have living creatures on it--animals or men, or both. If I had not lost the boat in my second attempt to reach the vessel, we might have easily got to it. But situated as we were now, with no wood to make a boat of but the scattered splinters from the ship, and with no tools to use even that much, there might just as well have been no land in sight at all, so far as we were concerned. The poor hope of a ship coming our road, was still the only hope left. To give us all the little chance we might get that way, I now looked about on the beach for the longest morsel of a wrecked spar that I could find; planted it on the high ground; and rigged up to it the one shirt I had on my back for a signal. While coming and going on this job, I noted with great joy that rain water enough lay in the hollows of the rocks above the sea line, to save our small store of fresh water for a week at least. Thinking it only fair to the supercargo to let him know what I had found out, I went to his territories, after setting up the morsel of a spar, and discreetly shouted my news down to him without showing myself. "Keep to your own side!" was all the thanks I got for this piece of civility. I went back to my own side immediately, and crawled into my little cavern, quite content to be alone. On that first night, strange as it seems now, I once or twice nearly caught myself feeling happy at the thought of being rid of Mr. Lawrence Clissold.
According to my calculations--which were made by tying a fresh knot every morning in a piece of marline--we two men were just a week, each on his own side of the island, without seeing or communicating, anyhow, with one another. The first half of the week, I had enough to do with cudgelling my brains for a means of helping ourselves, to keep my mind steady.
I thought first of picking up all the longest bits of spars that had been cast ashore, lashing them together with ropes twisted out of the long grass on the island, and trusting to raft-navigation to get to that high land away in the south. But when I looked among the spars, there were not half a dozen of them left whole enough for the purpose. And even if there had been more, the short allowance of food would not have given me time sufficient, or strength sufficient, to gather the grass, to twist it into ropes, and to lash a raft together big enough and strong enough for us two men. There was nothing to be done, but to give up this notion--and I gave it up. The next chance I thought of was to keep a fire burning on the shore every night, with the wood of the wreck, in case vessels at sea might notice it, on one side--or the people of the high land in the south (if the distance was not too great) might notice it, on the other. There was sense in this notion, and it could be turned to account the moment the wood was dry enough to burn. The wood got dry enough before the week was out. Whether it was the end of the stormy season in those latitudes, or whether it was only the shifting of the wind to the west, I don't know--but now, day after day, the heavens were clear and the sun shone scorching hot. The scrub on the island (which was of no great account) dried up--but the fresh water in the hollows of the rocks (which was, on the other hand, a serious business) dried up too. Troubles seldom come alone; and on the day when I made this discovery, I also found out that I had calculated wrong about the food. Eke it out as I might with scurvy grass and roots, there would not be above eight days more of it left when the first week was past--and, as for the fresh water, half a pint a day, unless more rain fell, would leave me at the end of my store, as nearly as I could guess, about the same time.
This was a bad look-out--but I don't think the prospect of it upset me in my mind, so much as the having nothing to do. Except for the gathering of the wood, and the lighting of the signal-fire, every night, I had no work at all, towards the end of the week, to keep me steady. I checked myself in thinking much about home, for fear of losing heart, and not holding out to the last, as became a man. For the same reasons I likewise kept my mind from raising hopes of help in me which were not likely to come true. What else was there to think about? Nothing but the man on the other side of the island--and be hanged to him!
I thought about those words I heard him say in his sleep; I thought about how he was getting on by himself; how he liked nothing but water to drink, and little enough of that; how he was eking out his food; whether he slept much or not; whether he saw the smoke from my fire at night, or not; whether he held up better or worse than I did; whether he would be glad to see me, if I went to him to make it up; whether he or I would die first; whether if it was me, he would do for me, what I would have done for him--namely, bury him, with the last strength I had left. All these things, and lots more, kept coming and going in my mind, till I could stand it no longer. On the morning of the eighth day, I roused up to go to his territories, feeling it would do me good to see him and hear him, even if we quarrelled again the instant we set eyes on each other.
I climbed up to the grassy ground--and, when I got there, what should I see but the supercargo himself, coming to my territories, and wandering up and down in the scrub through not knowing where to find them!
It almost knocked me over, when we met, the man was changed so. He looked eighty years old; the little flesh he had on his miserable face hung baggy; his blue spectacles had dropped down on his nose, and his eyes showed over them wild and red-rimmed; his lips were black, his legs staggered under him. He came up to me with his eyes all of a glare, and put both his hands on my breast, just over the pocket in which I kept that flask of ginger-brandy which he had tried to steal from me.
"Have you got any of it left?" says he, in a whisper.
"About two mouthfuls," says I.
"Give us one of them, for God's sake," says he.
Giving him one of those mouthfuls was just about equal to giving him a day of my life. In the case of a man I liked, I would not have thought twice about giving it. In the case of Mr. Clissold, I did think twice. I would have been a better Christian, if I could--but just then, I couldn't.
He thought I was going to say, No. His eyes got cunning directly. He reached his hands to my shoulders, and whispered these words in my ear:
'I'll tell you what I know about the five hundred pound, if you'll give me a drop."
I determined to give it to him, and pulled out the flask. I took his hand, and poured the drop into the hollow of it, and held it for a moment.
"Tell me first," I said, "and drink afterwards."
He looked all round him, as if he thought there were people on the island to hear us. "Hush!" he said; "let's whisper about it." The next question and answer that passed between us, was louder than before on my side, and softer than ever on his. This was the question:
"What do you know about the five hundred pound?"
And this was the answer:
"It's Stolen Money!"
My hand dropped away from his, as if he had shot me. He instantly fastened on the drop of liquor in the hollow of his hand, like a hungry wild beast on a bone, and then looked up for more. Something in my face (God knows what) seemed suddenly to frighten him out of his life. Before I could stir a step, or get a word out, down he dropped on his knees, whining and whimpering in the high grass at my feet.
"Don't kill me!" says he; "I'm dying--I'll think of my poor soul. I'll repent while there's time--"
Beginning in that way, he maundered awfully, grovelling down in the grass; asking me every other minute for "a drop more, and a drop more;" and talking as if he thought we were both in England. Out of his wanderings, his beseechings for another drop, and his miserable beggar's-petitions for his "poor soul," I gathered together these words--the same which I wrote down on the morsel of paper, and of which nine parts out of ten are now rubbed off!
The first I made out--though not the first he said--was that some one, whom he spoke of as "the old man," was alive; and "Lanrean" was the place he lived in. I was to go there, and ask, among the old men, for "Tregarthen--"
(At the mention by me of the name of Tregarthen, my brother, to my great surprise, stopped me with a start; made me say the name over more than once; and then, for the first time, told me of the trouble about his sweetheart and his marriage. We waited a little to talk that matter over; after which, I went on again with my story, in these words:)
Well, as I made out from Clissold's wanderings, I was to go to Lanrean, to ask among the old men for Tregarthen, and to say to Tregarthen, "Clissold was the man. Clissold bore no malice: Clissold repented like a Christian, for the sake of his poor soul." No! I was to say something else to Tregarthen. I was to say, "Look among the books; look at the leaf you know of, and see for yourself it's not the right leaf to be there." No! I was to say, "The right leaf is hidden, not burnt. Clissold had time for everything else, but no time to burn that leaf. Tregarthen came in when he had got the candle lit to burn it. There was just time to let it drop from under his hand into the great crack in the desk, and then he was ordered abroad by the House, and there was no chance of doing more." No! I was to say none of these things to Tregarthen. Only this, instead: "Look in Clissold's Desk--and, if you blame anybody, blame miser Raybrock for driving him to it." And, oh, another drop--for the Lord's sake, give him another drop!
So he went on, over and over again, till I found voice enough to speak, and stop him.
"Get up, and go!" I said to the miserable wretch. "Get back to your own side of the island, or I may do you a mischief, in spite of my own self."
"Give me the other drop, and I will"--was all the answer I could get from him.
I threw him the flask. He pounced upon it with a howl. I turned my back--for I could look at him no longer--and climbed down again to my cavern on the beach.
I sat down alone on the sand, and tried to quiet myself fit to think about what I had heard. That father could ever have wilfully done anything unbecoming his character as an honest man, was what I wouldn't believe, in the first place. And that the wretched brute I had just parted from was in his right senses, was what I wouldn't believe, in the second place. What I had myself seen of drinkers, at sea and ashore, helped me to understand the condition into which he had fallen. I knew that when a man who has been a drunkard for years, is suddenly cut off his drink, he drops to pieces like, body and mind, for the want of it. I had also heard ship-doctors talk, by some name of their own, of a drink-madness, which we ignorant men call the Horrors. And I made it out, easy enough, that I had seen the supercargo in the first of these conditions; and that if we both lived long enough without help coming to us, I might soon see him in the second. But when I tried to get farther, and settle how much of what I had heard was wanderings and how much truth, and what it meant if any of it was truth, my slowness got in my way again; and where a quicker man might have made up his mind in an hour or two, I was all day, in sore distress, making up mine. The upshot of what I settled with myself was, in two words, this: --Having mother's writing-case handy about me, I determined first to set down for my own self's reminder, all that I had heard. Second, to clear the matter up if ever I got back to England alive; and, if wrong had been done to that old man, or to anybody else, in father's name (without father's knowledge), to make restoration for his sake.
All that day I neither saw nor heard more of the supercargo. I passed a miserable night of it, after writing my memorandum, fighting with my loneliness and my own thoughts. The remembrance of those words in father's will, saying that the five hundred pound was money which he had once run a risk with, kept putting into my mind suspicions I was ashamed of. When daylight came, I almost felt as if I was going to have the Horrors too, and got up to walk them off, if possible, in the morning air.
I kept on the northern side of the island, walking backwards and forwards for an hour or more. Then I returned to my cavern; and the first thing I saw, on getting near it, was other footsteps than mine marked on the sand. I suspected at once that the supercargo had been lurking about watching me, instead of going back to his own side; and that, in my absence, he had been at his thieving tricks again.
The stores were what I looked at first. The food he had not touched; but the water he had either drunk or wasted--there was not half a pint of it left. The medicine-chest was open, and the bottle with the hartshorn was gone. When I looked next for the pistol, which I had loaded with powder and shot for the chance of bird-shooting that never came, the pistol was gone too. After making this last discovery, there was but one thing to be done--namely--to find out where he was, and to take the pistol away from him.
I set off to search first on the western side. It was a beautiful clear, calm, sunshiny morning; and as I crossed the island, looking out on my left hand and my right, I stopped on a sudden, with my heart in my mouth, as the saying is. Something caught my eye, far out at sea, in the north-west. I looked again--and there, as true as the heavens above me, I saw a ship, with the sunlight on her topsails, hull down, on the water-line in the offing!
All thought of the errand I was bent on, went out of my mind in an instant. I ran as fast as my weak legs would carry me to the northern beach: gathered up the broken wood which was still lying there plentifully, and, with the help of the dry scrub, lit the largest fire I had made yet. This was the only signal it was in my power to make that there were men on the island. The fire, in the bright daylight, would never be visible to the ship; but the smoke curling up from it, in the clear sky, might be seen, if they had a look-out at the mast-head.
While I was still feeding the fire, and so wrapped up in doing it, that I had neither eyes nor ears for anything else, I heard the supercargo's voice on a sudden at my back. He had stolen on me along the sand. When I faced him, he was swinging his arms about in the air, and saying to himself over and over again, "I see the ship! I see the ship!"
After a little, he came close up to me. By the look of him, he had been drinking the hartshorn, and it had strung him up a bit, body and mind, for the time. He kept his right hand behind him, as if he was hiding something. I suspected that "something" to be the pistol I was in search of.
"Will the ship come here?" says he.
"Yes, if they see the smoke," says I, keeping my eye on him.
He waited a bit, frowning suspiciously, and looking hard at me all the time.
"What did I say to you yesterday?" he asked.
"What I have got written down here," I made answer, smacking my hand over the writing-case in my breast-pocket; "and what I mean to put to the proof, if the ship sees us and we get back to England."
He whipped his right hand round from behind him, like lightning; and snapped the pistol at me. It missed fire. I wrenched it from him in a moment, and was just within one hair's breadth of knocking him on the head with the butt-end, afterwards. I lifted my hand--then thought better, and dropped it again.
"No," says I, fixing my eyes on him steadily; "I'll wait till the ship finds us."
He slunk away from me; and, as he slunk, looked hard into the fire. He stopped a minute so, thinking to himself--then he looked back at me again, with some mad mischief in him, that twinkled through his blue spectacles, and grinned on his dry black lips.
"The ship shall never find you," he said. With which words, he turned himself about towards his own side of the island, and left me.
He only meant that saying to be a threat--but, bird of ill-omen that he was, it turned out as good as a prophecy! All my hard work with the fire proved work in vain; all hope was quenched in me, long before the embers I had set light to were burnt out. Whether the smoke was seen or not from the vessel, is more than I can tell. I only know that she filled away on the other tack, not ten minutes after the supercargo left me. In less than an hour's time the last glimpse of the bright topsails had vanished out of view.
I went back to my cavern--which was now likelier than ever to be my grave as well. In that hot climate, with all the moisture on the island dried up, with not quite so much as a tumbler-full of fresh water left, with my strength wasted by living on half rations of food--two days more at most would see me out. It was hard enough for a man at my age, with all that I had left at home to make life precious, to die such a death as was now before me. It was harder still to have the sting of death sharpened--as I felt it, then--by what had just happened between the supercargo and myself. There was no hope, now, that his wanderings, the day before, had more falsehood than truth in them. The secret he had let out was plainly true enough and serious enough to have scared him into attempting my life, rather than let me keep possession of it, when there was a chance of the ship rescuing us. That secret had father's good name mixed up with it--and here was I, instead of clearing the villanous darkness from off of it, carrying it with me, black as ever, into my grave.
It was out of the horror I felt at doing that, and out of the yearning of my heart towards you, Alfred, when I thought of it, that the notion came to comfort me of writing the Message at the top of the paper, and of committing it in the bottle to the sea. Drowning men, they say, catch at straws--and the straw of comfort I caught at was the one chance in ten thousand that the Message might float till it was picked up, and that it might reach you. My mind might, or might not, have been failing me, by this time--but it is true, either way, that I did feel comforted when I had emptied one of the two bottles left in the medicine-chest, had put the paper inside, had tied the stopper carefully over with the oilskin, and had laid the whole by in my pocket, ready, when I felt my time coming, to drop into the sea. I was rid of the secret, I thought to myself; and, if it pleased God, I was rid of it, Alfred, to you.
The day waned; and the sun set, all cloudless and golden, in a dead calm. There was not a ripple anywhere on the long-oily heaving of the sea. Before night came I strengthened myself with a better meal than usual, as to food--for where was the use of keeping meat and biscuit when I had not water enough to last along with them? When the stars came out and the moon rose, I gathered the wood together and lit the signal-fire, according to custom, on the beach outside my cavern. I had no hope from it--but the fire was company to me: the looking into it quieted my thoughts, and the crackling of it was a relief in the silence. I don't know why it was, but the breathless stillness of that night had something awful in it, and went near to frightening me.
The moon got high in the heavens, and the light of her lay all in a flood on the sand before me, on the rocks that jutted out from it, and on the calm sea beyond. I was thinking of Margaret--wondering if the moon was shining on our little bay at Steepways, and if she was looking at it too--when I saw a man's shadow steal over the white of the sand. He was lurking near me again! In a minute, he came into view. The moonshine glinted on his blue spectacles, and glimmered on his bald head. He stopped as he passed by the rocks and looked about for a loose stone: he found a large one, and came straight with it on tiptoe, up to the fire. I showed myself to him on a sudden, in the red of the flame, with the pistol in my hand. He dropped the stone, and shrank back, at the sight of it. When he was close to the sea, he stopped, and screamed out at me, "The ship's coming! The ship's coming! The ship shall never find you!" That notion of the ship, and that other notion of killing me before help came to us, seemed never to have left him. When he turned, and went back by the way he had come, he was still shouting out those same words. For a quarter of an hour or more, I heard him, till the silence swallowed up his ravings, and led me back again to my thoughts of home.
Those thoughts kept with me, till the moon was on the wane. It was darker now, and stiller than ever. I had not fed the signal-fire for half an hour or more, and had roused myself up, at the mouth of the cavern, to do it, when I saw the dying gleams of moonshine over the sea on either side of me change colour, and turn red. Black shadows, as from low-flying clouds, swept after each other over the deepening redness. The air grew hot--a sound came nearer and nearer, from above me and behind me, like the rush of wind and the roar of water, both together, and both far off. I ran out on to the sand and looked back. The island was on fire!
On fire at the point of it opposite to me--on fire in one great sheet of flame that stretched right across the island, and bore down on me steadily before the light westerly wind which was blowing at the time. Only one hand could have kindled that terrible flame--the hand of the lost wretch who had left me, with the mad threat on his lips and the murderous notion of burning me out of my refuge, working in his crazy brain. On his side of the island (where the fire had begun), the dry grass and scrub grew all round the little hollow in the earth which I had left to him for his place of refuge. If he had had a thousand lives to lose, he would have lost that thousand already!
Having nothing to feed on but the dry scrub, the flame swept forward with such a frightful swiftness, that I had barely time, after mastering my own scattered senses, to turn back into the cavern to get my last drink of water and my last mouthful of food, before I heard the fiery scorch crackling over the thatched-roof which my own hands had raised. I ran across the beach to the spur of rock which jutted out into the sea, and there crouched down on the farthest edge I could reach to. There was nothing for the fire to lay hold of between me and the top of the island-bank. I was far enough away to be out of the lick of the flames, and low enough down to get air under the sweep of the smoke. You may well wonder why, with death by starvation threatening me close at hand, I should have schemed and struggled as I did, to save myself from a quicker death by suffocation in the smoke. I can only answer to that, that I wonder too--but so it was.
The flames ate their way to the edge of the bank, and lapped over it as if they longed to lick me up. The heat scorched nearer than I had thought, and the smoke poured lower and thicker. I lay down sick and weak on the rock, with my face close over the calm cool water. When I ventured to lift myself up again, the top of the island was of a ruby red, the smoke rose slowly in little streams, and the air above was quivering with the heat. While I looked at it, I felt a kind of surging and singing in my head, and a deadly faintness and coldness crept all over me. I took the bottle that held the Message from my pocket, and dropped it into the sea--then crawled a little way back over the rocks, and fell forward on them before I could get as far as the sand. The last I remember was trying to say my prayers--losing the words--losing my sight--losing the sense of where I was--losing everything.
The day was breaking again, when I was roused up by feeling rough hands on me. Naked savages--some on the rocks, some in the water, some in two long canoes--were clamouring and crowding about on all sides. They bound me, and took me off at once to one of the canoes. The other kept company--and both were paddled back to that high land which I had seen in the south. Death had passed me by once more--and Captivity had come in its place.
The story of my life among the savages, having no concern with the matter now in hand, may be passed by here in few words. They had seen the fire on the island; and paddling over to reconnoitre, had found me. Not one of them had ever set eyes on a white man before. I was taken away to be shown about among them for a curiosity. When they were tired of showing me, they spared my life, finding my knowledge and general handiness as a civilised man useful to them in various ways. I lost all count of time in my captivity--and can only guess now that it lasted more than one year and less than two. I made two attempts to escape, each time in a canoe, and was balked in both. Nobody at home in England would ever, as I believe, have seen me again, if an outward-bound vessel had not touched at the little desert island for fresh water. Finding none there, she came on to the territory of the savages (which was an island too). When they took me on board, I looked little better than a savage myself, and I could hardly talk my own language. By the help of the kindness shown to me, I was right again by the time we spoke the first ship homeward-bound. To that vessel I was transferred; and, in her, I worked my passage back to Falmouth.
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