The Ebb-tide Runs
THE coracle--as I had ample reason to know before I was
with her--was a very safe boat for a person of my height
weight, both buoyant and clever in a sea-way; but she was
most cross-grained, lop-sided craft to manage. Do as you
she always made more leeway than anything else, and turning
round and round was the manoeuvre she was best at.
Even Ben Gunn himself has admitted that she was "queer
till you knew her way."
Certainly I did not know her way. She turned in every direction
but the one I was bound to go; the most part of the time
broadside on, and I am very sure I never should have made
ship at all but for the tide. By good fortune, paddle as
the tide was still sweeping me down; and there lay the
HISPANIOLA right in the fairway, hardly to be missed.
First she loomed before me like a blot of something yet
than darkness, then her spars and hull began to take shape,
and the next moment, as it seemed (for, the farther I went,
the brisker grew the current of the ebb), I was alongside
hawser and had laid hold.
The hawser was as taut as a bowstring, and the current
she pulled upon her anchor. All round the hull, in the
the rippling current bubbled and chattered like a little
stream. One cut with my sea-gully and the HISPANIOLA
would go humming down the tide.
So far so good, but it next occurred to my recollection
that a taut hawser, suddenly cut, is a thing as dangerous
as a kicking horse. Ten to one, if I were so foolhardy
as to cut the HISPANIOLA from her anchor, I and the coracle
would be knocked clean out of the water.
This brought me to a full stop, and if fortune had not
particularly favoured me, I should have had to abandon
But the light airs which had begun blowing from the south-east
and south had hauled round after nightfall into the south-west.
Just while I was meditating, a puff came, caught the
and forced her up into the current; and to my great joy,
the hawser slacken in my grasp, and the hand by which I
dip for a second under water.
With that I made my mind up, took out my gully, opened
with my teeth, and cut one strand after another, till the
swung only by two. Then I lay quiet, waiting to sever these
when the strain should be once more lightened by a breath
All this time I had heard the sound of loud voices from
but to say truth, my mind had been so entirely taken up
with other thoughts that I had scarcely given ear. Now,
when I had nothing else to do, I began to pay more heed.
One I recognized for the coxswain's, Israel Hands, that
Flint's gunner in former days. The other was, of course,
of the red night-cap. Both men were plainly the worse of
and they were still drinking, for even while I was listening,
one of them, with a drunken cry, opened the stern window
and threw out something, which I divined to be an empty
But they were not only tipsy; it was plain that they were
angry. Oaths flew like hailstones, and every now and then
there came forth such an explosion as I thought was sure
in blows. But each time the quarrel passed off and the
grumbled lower for a while, until the next crisis came
in its turn passed away without result.
On shore, I could see the glow of the great camp-fire burning
warmly through the shore-side trees. Someone was singing,
a dull, old, droning sailor's song, with a droop and a
at the end of every verse, and seemingly no end to it at
but the patience of the singer. I had heard it on the voyage
more than once and remembered these words:
"But one man of her crew alive,
What put to sea with seventy-five."
And I thought it was a ditty rather too dolefully appropriate
for a company that had met such cruel losses in the morning.
But, indeed, from what I saw, all these buccaneers were
as the sea they sailed on.
At last the breeze came; the schooner sidled and drew nearer
in the dark; I felt the hawser slacken once more, and with
tough effort, cut the last fibres through.
The breeze had but little action on the coracle, and I
almost instantly swept against the bows of the
At the same time, the schooner began to turn upon her heel,
spinning slowly, end for end, across the current.
I wrought like a fiend, for I expected every moment tobe
swamped; and since I found I could not push the coracle
directly off, I now shoved straight astern. At length I
clear of my dangerous neighbour, and just as I gave
the last impulsion, my hands came across a light cord
that was trailing overboard across the stern bulwarks.
Instantly I grasped it.
Why I should have done so I can hardly say. It was at first
mere instinct, but once I had it in my hands and found
curiosity began to get the upper hand, and I determined
have one look through the cabin window.
I pulled in hand over hand on the cord, and when I judged
near enough, rose at infinite risk to about half my height
commanded the roof and a slice of the interior of the cabin.
By this time the schooner and her little consort were gliding
pretty swiftly through the water; indeed, we had already
fetched up level with the camp-fire. The ship was talking,
as sailors say, loudly, treading the innumerable ripples
with an incessant weltering splash; and until I got my
above the window-sill I could not comprehend why the watchmen
had taken no alarm. One glance, however, was sufficient;
and it was only one glance that I durst take from that
skiff. It showed me Hands and his companion locked together
in deadly wrestle, each with a hand upon the other's throat.
I dropped upon the thwart again, none too soon, for I was
near overboard. I could see nothing for the moment
but these two furious, encrimsoned faces swaying together
under the smoky lamp, and I shut my eyes to let them
grow once more familiar with the darkness.
The endless ballad had come to an end at last,
and the whole diminished company about the camp-fire
had broken into the chorus I had heard so often:
"Fifteen men on the dead man's chest--
Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!
Drink and the devil had done for the rest--
Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!"
I was just thinking how busy drink and the devil were
at that very moment in the cabin of the HISPANIOLA,
when I was surprised by a sudden lurch of the coracle.
At the same moment, she yawed sharply and seemed to change
her course. The speed in the meantime had strangely increased.
I opened my eyes at once. All round me were little ripples,
combing over with a sharp, bristling sound and slightly
phosphorescent. The HISPANIOLA herself, a few yards
in whose wake I was still being whirled along, seemed to
in her course, and I saw her spars toss a little against
of the night; nay, as I looked longer, I made sure she
was wheeling to the southward.
I glanced over my shoulder, and my heart jumped against
There, right behind me, was the glow of the camp-fire.
had turned at right angles, sweeping round along with it
the tall schooner and the little dancing coracle; ever
ever bubbling higher, ever muttering louder, it went spinning
through the narrows for the open sea.
Suddenly the schooner in front of me gave a violent yaw,
perhaps, through twenty degrees; and almost at the same
one shout followed another from on board; I could hear
pounding on the companion ladder and I knew that the two
drunkards had at last been interrupted in their quarrel
awakened aeto a sense of their disaster.
I lay down flat in the bottom of that wretched skiff and
recommended my spirit to its Maker. At the end of the straits,
I made sure we must fall into some bar of raging breakers,
where all my troubles would be ended speedily; and though
I could, perhaps, bear to die, I could not bear to look
upon my fate
as it approached.
So I must have lain for hours, continually beaten to and
upon the billows, now and again wetted with flying sprays,
and never ceasing to expect death at the next plunge.
Gradually weariness grew upon me; a numbness, an occasional
stupor, fell upon my mind even in the midst of my terrors,
until sleep at last supervened and in my sea-tossed coracle
I lay and dreamed of home and the old Admiral Benbow.
Top of Page
Room | TREASURE