NIGHT ON THE BEACH
Throughout the island world of the Pacific, scattered men of
many European races and from almost every grade of society
carry activity and disseminate disease. Some prosper, some
vegetate. Some have mounted the steps of thrones and owned
islands and navies. Others again must marry for a livelihood; a
strapping, merry, chocolate-coloured dame supports them in
sheer idleness; and, dressed like natives, but still retaining
some foreign element of gait or attitude, still perhaps with some
relic (such as a single eye-glass) of the officer and gentleman,
they sprawl in palm-leaf verandahs and entertain an island
audience with memoirs of the music-hall. And there are still
others, less pliable, less capable, less fortunate, perhaps less
base, who continue, even in these isles of plenty, to lack bread.
At the far end of the town of Papeete, three such men were
seated on the beach 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. Long ago darkness and silence had
gone from house to house about the tiny pagan city. Only the
street lamps shone on, making a glow-worm halo in the umbrageous
alleys or drawing a tremulous image on the waters of the
port. A sound of snoring ran among the piles of lumber by the
Government pier. It was wafted ashore from the graceful
clipper-bottomed schooners, where they lay moored close in like
dinghies, and their crews were stretched upon the deck under
the open sky or huddled in a rude tent amidst the disorder of
But the men under the purao had no thought of sleep. The
same temperature in England would have passed without
remark in summer; but it was bitter cold for the South Seas.
Inanimate nature knew it, and the bottle of cocoanut oil stood
frozen in every bird-cage house about the island; and the men
knew it, and shivered. They wore flimsy cotton clothes, the same
they had sweated in by day and run the gauntlet of the tropic
showers; and to complete their evil case, they had no breakfast
to 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 miserable English-speaking creatures in Tahiti; and
beyond their misery, they knew next to nothing of each other,
not even their true names. For each had made a long
apprenticeship in going downward; and each, at some stage of the
descent, had been shamed into the adoption of an alias. And yet
not one of them had figured in a court of justice; two were men
of kindly virtues; and one, as he sat and shivered under the
purao, had a tattered Virgil in his pocket.
Certainly, if money,could have been raised upon the book,
Robert Herrick would long ago have sacrificed that last
possession; but the demand for literature, which is so marked a
feature in some parts of the South Seas, extends not so far as
the dead tongues; and the Virgil, which he could 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 the old
calaboose, seeking favourite passages and finding new ones only
less beautiful because they lacked the coinsecration of
remembrance. Or he would pause on random country walks; sit on
the path side, gazing over the sea on the mountains of Eimeo; and
dip into the Aeneid, seeking sortes. And if the oracle (as is
the way of oracles) replied with no very certain nor encouraging
voice, visions of England at least would throng upon the exile's
memory: the busy schoolroom, the green playing-fields, holidays
at home, and the perennial roar of London, and the fireside, and
the white head of his father. For it is the destiny of those
grave, restrained and classic writers, with whom we make enforced
and often painful acquaintanceship at school, to pass into the
blood and become native in the memory; so that a phrase of
Virgil speaks not so much of Mantua or Augustus, but of
English places and the student's own irrevocable youth.
Robert Herrick was the son of an intelligent, active, and
ambitious man, small partner in a considerable London house.
Hopes were conceived of the boy; he was sent to a good school,
gained there an Oxford scholarship, and proceeded in course to
the Western University. With all his talent and taste (and he had
much of both) Robert was deficient in consistency and
intellectual manhood, wandered in bypaths of study, worked at
music or at metaphysics when he should have been at Greek, and
took at last a paltry degree. Almost at the same time, the London
house was disastrously wound up; Mr Herrick must begin the
world again as a clerk in a strange office, and Robert relinquish
his ambitions and accept with gratitude a career that he detested
and despised. He had no head for figures, no interest in affairs,
detested the constraint of hours, and despised the aims and the
success of merchants. To grow rich was none of his ambitions;
rather to do well. A worse or a more bold young man would
have refused the destiny; perhaps tried his future with his pen;
perhaps enlisted. Robert, more prudent, possibly more timid,
consented to embrace that way of life in which he could most
readily assist his family. But he did so with a mind divided;
fled the neighbourhood of former comrades; and chose, out of
several positions placed at his disposal, a clerkship in New
His career thenceforth was one of unbroken shame. He did
not drink, he was exactly honest, he was never rude to his
employers, yet was everywhere discharged. Bringing no interest
to his duties, he brought no attention; his day was a tissue of
things neglected and things done amiss; and from place to place
and from town to town, he carried the character of one
thoroughly incompetent. No man can bear the word applied to
him without some flush of colour, as indeed there is none other
that so emphatically slams in a man's face the door of self-
respect. And to Herrick, who was conscious of talents and
acquirements, who looked down upon those humble duties in
which he was found wanting, the pain was the more exquisite.
Early in his fall, he had ceased to be able to make remittances;
shortly after, having nothing but failure to communicate, he
ceased writing home; and about a year before this tale begins,
turned suddenly upon the streets of San Francisco by a vulgar
and infuriated German Jew, he had broken the last bonds of
self-respect, and upon a sudden Impulse, changed his name and
invested his last dollar in a passage on the mail brigantine, the
City of Papeete. With what expectation he had trimmed his flight
for the South Seas, Herrick perhaps scarcely knew. Doubtless
there were fortunes to be made in pearl and copra; doubtless
others not more gifted than himself had climbed in the island
world to be queen's consorts and king's ministers. But if Herrick
had gone there with any manful purpose, he would have kept
his father's name; the alias betrayed his moral bankruptcy; he
bad struck his flag; he entertained no hope to reinstate himself
or help his straitened family; and he came to the islands (where
he knew the climate to be soft, bread cheap, and manners easy)
a skulker from life's battle and his own immediate duty. Failure,
he had said, was his portion; let it be a pleasant failure.
It is fortunately not enough to say 'I will be base.' Herrick
continued in the islands his career of failure; but in the new
scene and under the new name, he suffered no less sharply than
before. A place was got, it was lost in the old style; from the
long-suffering of the keepers of restaurants he fell to more open
charity upon the wayside; as time went on, good nature became
weary, and after a repulse or two, Herrick became shy. There
were women enough who would have supported a far worse
and a far uglier man; Herrick never met or never knew them: or
if he did both, some manlier feeling would revolt, and he
preferred starvation. Drenched with rains, broiling by day,
shivering by night, a disused and ruinous prison for a bedroom,
his diet begged or pilfered out of rubbish heaps, his associates
two creatures equally outcast with himself, he had drained for
months the cup of penitence. He had known what it was to be
resigned, what it was to break forth in a childish fury of
rebellion against fate, and what it was to sink into the coma of
despair. The time had changed him. He told himself no longer
tales of an easy and perhaps agreeable declension; he read his
nature otherwise; he had proved himself incapable of rising, and
he now learned by experience that he could not stoop to fall.
Something that was scarcely pride or strength, that was perhaps
only refinement, withheld him from capitulation; but he looked
on upon his own misfortune with a growing rage, and sometimes
wondered at his patience.
It was now the fourth month completed, and still there was
no change or sign of change. The moon, racing through a world
of flying clouds of every size and shape and density, some black
as ink stains, some delicate as lawn, threw the marvel of her
Southern brightness over the same lovely and detested scene: the
island mountains crowned with the perennial island cloud, the
embowered city studded with rare lamps, the masts in the
harbour, the smooth mirror of the lagoon, and the mole of the
barrier reef on which the breakers whitened. The moon shone
too, with bull's-eye sweeps, on his companions; on the stalwart
frame of the American who called himself Brown, and was
known to be a master mariner in some disgrace; and on the
dwarfish person, the pale eyes and toothless smile of a vulgar
and bad-hearted cockney clerk. Here was society for Robert
Herrick! The Yankee skipper was a man at least: he had sterling
qualities of tenderness and resolution; he was one whose hand
you could take without a blush. But there was no redeeming
grace about the other, who called himself sometimes Hay and
sometimes Tomkins, and laughed at the discrepancy; who had
been employed in every store in Papeete, for the creature was
able in his way; who had been discharged from each in turn, for
he was wholly vile; who had alienated all his old employers so
that they passed him in the street as if he were a dog, and all
his old comrades so that they shunned him as they would a
Not long before, a ship from Peru had brought an influenza,
and it now raged in the island, and particularly in Papeete. From
all round the purao arose and fell a dismal sound of men
coughing, and strangling as they coughed. The sick natives, with
the islander's impatience of a touch of fever, had crawled from
their houses to be cool and, squatting on 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 from farm to
farm, accesses of coughing arose, and spread, and died in the
distance, and sprang up again. Each miserable shiverer caught the
suggestion from his neighbour, was torn for some minutes by that
cruel ecstasy, and left spent and without voice or courage when
it passed. If a man had pity to spend, Papeete beach, in that
cold night and in that infected season, was a place to spend it
on. And of all the sufferers, perhaps the least deserving, but
surely the most pitiable, was the London 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 was besides
infirm; the disease shook him to the vitals; and his companions
watched his endurance with surprise. A profound commiseration
filled them, and contended with and conquered their abhorrence.
The disgust attendant on so ugly a sickness magnified this
dislike; at the same time, and with more than compensating
strength, shame for a sentiment so inhuman bound them the more
straitly to his service; and even the evil they knew of him
swelled their solicitude, for the thought of death is always the
least supportable when it draws near to the merely sensual and
selfish. Sometimes they held him up; sometimes, with mistaken
helpfulness, they beat him between the shoulders; and when the
poor wretch lay back ghastly and spent after a paroxysm of
coughing, they would sometimes peer into his face, doubtfully
exploring it for any mark of life. There is no one but has some
virtue: that of the clerk was courage; and he would make haste to
reassure them in a pleasantry not always decent.
'I'm all right, pals,' he gasped once: 'this is the thing to
strengthen the muscles of the larynx.'
'Well, you take the cake!' cried the captain.
'O, I'm good plucked enough,' pursued the sufferer with a broken
utterance. 'But it do seem bloomin' hard to me, that I should be
the only party down with this form of vice, and the only one to
do the funny business. I think one of you other parties might
wake up. Tell a fellow something.'
'The trouble is we've nothing to tell, my son,' returned the
'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 I ain't dead.'
Herrick took up his parable, lying on his face and speaking
slowly and scarce above his breath, not like a man who has
anything to say, but like one talking against time.
'Well, I was thinking this,' he began: 'I was thinking I lay on
Papeete beach one night--all moon and squalls and fellows
coughing--and I was cold and hungry, and down in the mouth, and
was about ninety years of age, and had spent two hundred and
twenty of them on Papeete beach. And I 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. I knew
you made a ring of skulls, for I had seen that in the
Freischultz: and that you took off your coat and turned up your
sleeves, for I had seen Formes do that when he was playing
Kaspar, and you could see (by the way he went about it) it was a
business he had studied; and that you ought to have something to
kick up a smoke and a bad smell, I dare say a 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 a pariu, 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, and all 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 so hard. I remembered
that we had some of that cough mixture the American consul 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, and
stood 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 my hand, for all our plate is at the bankers." So I
thought the old party came up, and the nearer he came, the less I
took to him. But I had passed my word, you see.'
'Wot is this bloomin' drivel?' interrupted the clerk. 'It's like
the rot there 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
'Well,' continued Herrick, 'I had no sooner given him the
cough mixture than he seemed to straighten up and change, and
I saw he wasn't a Tahitian after all, but some kind of Arab, and
had a long beard on his chin. "One good turn deserves another,"
says he. "I am a magician out of the Arabian Nights, and this
mat that I have under my arm is the original carpet of
Mohammed Ben Somebody-or-other. Say the word, and you
can have a cruise upon the carpet." "You don't mean to say this
is the Travelling Carpet?" I cried. "You bet I do," said he.
"You've been to America since last I read the Arabian Nights,"
said I, a little suspicious. "I should think so," said he. "Been
everywhere. A man with a carpet 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 to tell me I can get on
that carpet and go straight to London, England?" I said,
"London, England," captain, because he seemed to have been
so long in your part of the world. "In the crack of a whip," said
he. I figured 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 London about noon; and the idea tickled me
immensely. "There's only one bother," I said, "I haven't a
copper cent. It would be a pity to go to London and not buy the
morning Standard." "O!" said he, "you don't realise the
conveniences of this carpet. You see this pocket? you've only got
to stick your hand in, and you pull it out filled with
'Double-eagles, wasn't iff inquired the captain.
'That was what it was!' cried Herrick. 'I thought they seemed
unusually big, and I remember now I had to go to the
money-changers at Charing Cross 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
a whip,' said Herrick. 'The one minute I was here on the beach
at three in the 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 the smallest change; the roar of the Strand
and the roar of the reef were like the same: hark to it now, and
you can hear the cabs and buses rolling and the streets resound!
And then at last I could look about, and there was the old place,
and no mistake! With the statues in the square, and St Martin's-
in-the-Fields, and the bobbies, and the sparrows, and the hacks;
and I can't tell you what I felt like. I felt like crying, I
believe, or dancing, or jumping clean over the Nelson Column. I
was like a fellow caught up out of Hell and flung down into the
dandiest part of Heaven. Then I spotted for a hansom with a
spanking horse. "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 a trifle to the carpet; and in nineteen
minutes and a half I was at the door.'
'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 his words. 'And w'y didn't you take the carpet there instead
of trundling in a 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
the clerk. 'Crikey, it's like Ministering Children! I can tell
you there would be more beer and skittles about my little jaunt.
I would go and have a B. and S. for luck. Then I would get a big
ulster with astrakhan fur, and take my cane and do the la-de-la
down Piccadilly. Then I would go 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 whitebait first--and green
gooseberry tart, and 'ot coffee, and some of that form of 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
'ome till morning, till daylight doth appear. And the next day
I'd have water-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
would have none of your fancy rigs with the man driving from
the mizzen cross-trees, but a plain fore-and-aft hack cab of the
highest registered tonnage. First of all, I would bring up at the
market and get a turkey and a sucking-pig. Then I'd go to a
wine merchant's and get a dozen of champagne, 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'd bear up for
a toy-store, and lay out twenty dollars in assorted toys for the
piccaninnies; and then to a confectioner's and take in cakes and
pies and fancy bread, and that stuff with the plums in it; and
then to a 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 discovering himself to Anna-Mariar and the escape
of the Lady Maude from the private madhouse; and then I'd tell
the fellow to drive home.'
'There ought to be some syrup for the kids,' suggested Herrick;
'they like syrup.'
'Yes, syrup for the kids, red syrup at that!' said the captain.
'And those 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 tree combined. Great Scott, but I would like to
see the kids! I guess they would light right out of the house,
when they saw daddy driving up. My little 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 the captain.
'They can't be worse off than we are, and that's one comfort,'
returned the clerk. 'I defy the devil to make me worse off.'
It seemed as if the devil heard him. The light of the moon had
been some time cut off and they had talked in darkness. Now
there was heard a roar, which drew impetuously nearer; the face
of the lagoon was seen to whiten; and before they had staggered
to their feet, a squall burst in rain upon the outcasts. The rage
and volume of that avalanche one must have lived in the tropics
to conceive; a man panted in its assault, as he might pant under
a shower-bath; and the world seemed whelmed in night and water.
They fled, groping for their usual shelter--it might be almost
called their home--in the old calaboose; came drenched into its
empty chambers; and lay down, three sops of humanity on the
cold coral floors, and presently, when the squall was overpast,
the others could hear in the darkness the chattering of the
'I say, you fellows,' he walled, 'for God's sake, lie up and try
to warm me. 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 by the coughing of the clerk.