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| Home | Reading Room TREASURE ISLAND

by Robert Louis Stevenson

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The Ebb-tide Runs



THE coracle--as I had ample reason to know before I was done


with her--was a very safe boat for a person of my height and


weight, both buoyant and clever in a sea-way; but she was the


most cross-grained, lop-sided craft to manage. Do as you pleased,


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 to handle


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 we were


broadside on, and I am very sure I never should have made the


ship at all but for the tide. By good fortune, paddle as I pleased,


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 blacker


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 of her


hawser and had laid hold.




The hawser was as taut as a bowstring, and the current so strong


she pulled upon her anchor. All round the hull, in the blackness,


the rippling current bubbled and chattered like a little mountain


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 again


particularly favoured me, I should have had to abandon my design.


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 HISPANIOLA,


and forced her up into the current; and to my great joy, I felt


the hawser slacken in my grasp, and the hand by which I held it


dip for a second under water.




With that I made my mind up, took out my gully, opened it


with my teeth, and cut one strand after another, till the vessel


swung only by two. Then I lay quiet, waiting to sever these last


when the strain should be once more lightened by a breath


of wind.




All this time I had heard the sound of loud voices from the cabin,


but to say truth, my mind had been so entirely taken up


with other thoughts that I had scarcely given ear. Now, however,


when I had nothing else to do, I began to pay more heed.




One I recognized for the coxswain's, Israel Hands, that had been


Flint's gunner in former days. The other was, of course, my friend


of the red night-cap. Both men were plainly the worse of drink,


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 bottle.


But they were not only tipsy; it was plain that they were furiously


angry. Oaths flew like hailstones, and every now and then


there came forth such an explosion as I thought was sure to end


in blows. But each time the quarrel passed off and the voices


grumbled lower for a while, until the next crisis came and


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 quaver


at the end of every verse, and seemingly no end to it at all


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 callous


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 a good,


tough effort, cut the last fibres through.




The breeze had but little action on the coracle, and I was


almost instantly swept against the bows of the HISPANIOLA.


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 was


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 it fast,


curiosity began to get the upper hand, and I determined I should


have one look through the cabin window.




I pulled in hand over hand on the cord, and when I judged myself


near enough, rose at infinite risk to about half my height and thus


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 eye


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 unsteady


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 stagger


in her course, and I saw her spars toss a little against the blackness


of the night; nay, as I looked longer, I made sure she also


was wheeling to the southward.




I glanced over my shoulder, and my heart jumped against my ribs.


There, right behind me, was the glow of the camp-fire. The current


had turned at right angles, sweeping round along with it


the tall schooner and the little dancing coracle; ever quickening,


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, turning,


perhaps, through twenty degrees; and almost at the same moment


one shout followed another from on board; I could hear feet


pounding on the companion ladder and I knew that the two


drunkards had at last been interrupted in their quarrel and


awakened aeto a sense of their disaster.




I lay down flat in the bottom of that wretched skiff and devoutly


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 fro


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.



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