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Chapter 4

THE YELLOW FLAG

The schooner Farallone lay well out in the jaws of the pass,
where the terrified pilot had made haste to bring her to her
moorings and escape. Seen from the beach through the thin line
of shipping, two objects stood conspicuous to seaward: the little
isle, on the one hand, with its palms and the guns and batteries
raised forty years before in defence of Queen Pomare's capital;
the outcast Farallone, upon the other, banished to the threshold
of the port, rolling there to her scuppers, and flaunting the
plague-flag as she rolled. A few sea birds screamed and cried
about the ship; and within easy range, a man-of-war guard boat
hung off and on and glittered with the weapons of marines. The
exuberant daylight and the blinding heaven of the tropics picked
out and framed the pictures.

A neat boat, manned by natives in uniform, and steered by
the doctor of the port, put from shore towards three of- the
afternoon, and pulled smartly for the schooner. The fore-sheets
were heaped with sacks of flour, onions, and potatoes, perched
among which was Huish dressed as a foremast hand; a heap of
chests and cases impeded the action of the oarsmen; and in the
stern, by the left hand of the doctor, sat Herrick, dressed in a
fresh rig of slops, his brown beard trimmed to a point, a pile of
paper novels on his lap, and nursing the while between his feet
a chronometer, for which they had exchanged that of the
Farallone, long since run down and the rate lost.

They passed the guard boat, exchanging hails with the
boat-swain's mate in charge, and drew near at last to the
forbidden ship. Not a cat stirred, there was no speech of man;
and the sea being exceeding high outside, and the reef close to
where the schooner lay, the clamour of the surf hung round her
like the sound of battle.

'Ohe la goelette!' sang out the doctor, with his best voice.

Instantly, from the house where they had been stowing away
stores, first Davis, and then the ragamuffin, swarthy crew made
their appearance.

'Hullo, Hay, that you?' said the captain, leaning on the rail.
'Tell the old man to lay her alongside, as if she was eggs.
There's a hell of a run of sea here, and his boat's brittle.'

The movement of the schooner was at that time more than
usually violent. Now she heaved her side as high as a deep sea
steamer's, and showed the flashing of her copper; now she
swung swiftly toward the boat until her scuppers gurgled.

'I hope you have sea legs,' observed the doctor. 'You will
require them.'

Indeed, to board the Farallone, in that exposed position where
she lay, was an affair of some dexterity. The less precious goods
were hoisted roughly in; the chronometer, after repeated
failures, was passed gently and successfully from hand to hand;
and there remained only the more difficult business of embarking
Huish. Even that piece of dead weight (shipped A.B. at eighteen
dollars, and described by the captain to the consul as an
invaluable man) was at last hauled on board without mishap;
and the doctor, with civil salutations, took his leave.

The three co-adventurers looked at each other, and Davis
heaved a breath of relief.

'Now let's get this chronometer fixed,' said he, and led the
way into the house. It was a fairly spacious place; two
staterooms and a good-sized pantry opened from the main cabin;
the bulkheads were painted white, the floor laid with waxcloth.
No litter, no sign of life remained; for the effects of the dead
men had been disinfected and conveyed on shore. Only on the
table, in a saucer, some sulphur burned, and the fumes set them
coughing as they entered. The captain peered into the starboard
stateroom, where the bed-clothes still lay tumbled in the bunk,
the blanket flung back as they had flung it back from the
disfigured corpse before its burial.

'Now, I told these niggers to tumble that truck overboard,'
grumbled Davis. 'Guess they were afraid to lay hands on it. Well,
they've hosed the place out; that's as much as can be
expected, I suppose. Huish, lay on to these blankets.'

'See you blooming well far enough first,' said Huish, drawing
back.

'What's that?' snapped the captain. 'I'll tell you, my young
friend, I think you make a mistake. I'm captain here.'

'Fat lot I care,' returned the clerk.

'That so?' said Davis. 'Then you'll berth forward with the
niggers! Walk right out of this cabin.'

'Oh, I dessay!' said Huish. 'See any green in my eye? A lark's
a lark.'

'Well, now, I'll explain this business, and you'll see (once for
all) just precisely how much lark there is to it,' said Davis.
'I'm captain, and I'm going to be it. One thing of three. First,
you take my orders here as cabin steward, in which case you mess
with us. Or second, you refuse, and I pack you forward--and
you get as quick as the word's said. Or, third and last, I'll
signal that man-of-war and send you ashore under arrest for
mutiny.'

'And, of course, I wouldn't blow the gaff? O no!' replied the
jeering Huish.

'And who's to believe you, my son?' inquired the captain.
'No, sir! There ain't no lark about my captainising. Enough
said. Up with these blankets.'

Huish was no fool, he knew when he was beaten; and he was
no coward either, for he stepped to the bunk, took the infected
bed-clothes fairly in his arms, and carried them out of the house
without a check or tremor.

'I was waiting for the chance,' said Davis to Herrick. 'I
needn't do the same with you, because you understand it for
yourself.'

'Are you going to berth here?' asked Herrick, following the
captain into the stateroom, where he began to adjust the
chronometer in its place at the bed-head.

'Not much!' replied he. 'I guess I'll berth on deck. I don't
know as I'm afraid, but I've no immediate use for confluent
smallpox.'

'I don't know that I'm afraid either,' said Herrick. 'But the
thought of these two men sticks in my throat; that captain and
mate dying here, one opposite to the other. It's grim. I wonder
what they said last?'

'Wiseman and Wishart?' said the captain. 'Probably mighty
small potatoes. That's a thing a fellow figures out for himself
one way, and the real business goes quite another. Perhaps
Wiseman said, "Here old man, fetch up the gin, I'm feeling
powerful rocky." And perhaps Wishart said, "Oh, hell!"'

'Well, that's grim enough,' said Herrick.

'And so it is,' said Davis. 'There; there's that chronometer
fixed. And now it's about time to up anchor and clear out.'

He lit a cigar and stepped on deck.

'Here, you! What's YOUR name?' he cried to one of the hands,
a lean-flanked, clean-built fellow from some far western island,
and of a darkness almost approaching to the African.

'Sally Day,' replied the man.

'Devil it is,' said the captain. 'Didn't know we had ladies on
board. Well, Sally, oblige me by hauling down that rag there.
I'll do the same for you another time.' He watched the yellow
bunting as it was eased past the cross-trees and handed down
on deck. 'You'll float no more on this ship,' he observed.
'Muster the people aft, Mr Hay,' he added, speaking unnecessarily
loud, 'I've a word to say to them.'

It was with a singular sensation that Herrick prepared for the
first time to address a crew. He thanked his stars indeed, that
they were natives. But even natives, he reflected, might be
critics too quick for such a novice as himself; they might
perceive some lapse from that precise and cut-and-dry English
which prevails on board a ship; it was even possible they
understood no other; and he racked his brain, and overhauled his
reminiscences of sea romance for some appropriate words.

'Here, men! tumble aft!' he said. 'Lively now! All hands aft!'

They crowded in the alleyway like sheep.

'Here they are, sir,' said Herrick.

For some time the captain continued to face the stern; then
turned with ferocious suddenness on the crew, and seemed to
enjoy their shrinking.

'Now,' he said, twisting his cigar in his mouth and toying
with the spokes of the wheel, 'I'm Captain Brown. I command
this ship. This is Mr Hay, first officer. The other white man is
cabin steward, but he'll stand watch and do his trick. My orders
shall be obeyed smartly. You savvy, "smartly"? There shall be
no growling about the kaikai, which will be above allowance.
You'll put a handle to the mate's name, and tack on "sir" to
every order I give you. If you're smart and quick, I'll make this
ship comfortable for all hands.' He took the cigar out of his
mouth. 'If you're not,' he added, in a roaring voice, 'I'll make
it a floating hell. Now, Mr Hay, we'll pick watches, if you
please.'

'All right,' said Herrick.

'You will please use "sir" when you address me, Mr Hay,'
said the captain. 'I'll take the lady. Step to starboard, Sally.'
And then he whispered in Herrick's ear: 'take the old man.'

'I'll take you, there,' said Herrick.

'What's your name?' said the captain. 'What's that you say?
Oh, that's no English; I'll have none of your highway gibberish
on my ship. We'll call you old Uncle Ned, because you've got
no wool on the top of your head, just the place where the wool
ought to grow. Step to port, Uncle. Don't you hear Mr Hay has
picked you? Then I'll take the white man. White Man, step to
starboard. Now which of you two is the cook? You? Then Mr
Hay takes your friend in the blue dungaree. Step to port,
Dungaree. There, we know who we all are: Dungaree, Uncle
Ned, Sally Day, White Man, and Cook. All F.F.V.'s I guess. And
now, Mr Hay, we'll up anchor, if you please.'

'For Heaven's sake, tell me some of the words,' whispered
Herrick.

An hour later, the Farallone was under all plain sail, the
rudder hard a-port, and the cheerfully clanking windlass had
brought the anchor home.

'All clear, sir,' cried Herrick from the bow.

The captain met her with the wheel, as she bounded like a
stag from her repose, trembling and bending to the puffs. The
guard boat gave a parting hail, the wake whitened and ran out;
the Farallone was under weigh.

Her berth had been close to the pass. Even as she forged
ahead Davis slewed her for the channel between the pier ends of
the reef, the breakers sounding and whitening to either hand.
Straight through the narrow band of blue, she shot to seaward:
and the captain's heart exulted as he felt her tremble underfoot,
and (looking back over the taffrail) beheld the roofs of Papeete
changing position on the shore and the island mountains rearing
higher in the wake.

But they were not yet done with the shore and the horror of the
yellow flag. About midway of the pass, there was a cry and
a scurry, a man was seen to leap upon the rail, and, throwing
his arms over his head, to stoop and plunge into the sea.

'Steady as she goes,' fhe captain cried, relinquishing the wheel
to Huish.

The next moment he was forward in the midst of the Kanakas,
belaying pin in hand.

'Anybody else for shore?' he cried, and the savage trumpeting
of his voice, no less than the ready weapon in his hand, struck
fear in all. Stupidly they stared after their escaped companion,
whose black head was visible upon the water, steering for the
land. And the schooner meanwhile slipt like a racer through the
pass, and met the long sea of the open ocean with a souse of
spray.

'Fool that I was, not to have a pistol ready!' exclaimed Davis.
'Well, we go to sea short-handed, we can't help that. You have
a lame watch of it, Mr Hay.'

'I don't see how we are to get along,' said Herrick.

'Got to,' said the captain. 'No more Tahiti for me.'

Both turned instinctively and looked astern. The fair island
was unfolding mountain top on mountain top; Eimeo, on the
port board, lifted her splintered pinnacles; and still the
schooner raced to the open sea.

'Think!' cried the captain with a gesture, 'yesterday morning
I danced for my breakfast like a poodle dog.'

Robert Louis Stevenson

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