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Chapter 8

BETTER ACQUAINTANCE

The boat was gone again, and already half-way to the Farallone,
before Herrick turned and went unwillingly up the pier. From
the crown of the beach, the figure-head confronted him with
what seemed irony, her helmeted head tossed back, her formidable
arm apparently hurling something, whether shell or
missile, in the direction of the anchored schooner. She seemed a
defiant deity from the island, coming forth to its threshold with
a rush as of one about to fly, and perpetuated in that dashing
attitude. Herrick looked up at her, where she towered above
him head and shoulders, with singular feelings of curiosity and
romance, and suffered his mind to travel to and fro in her life-
history. So long she had been the blind conductress of a ship
among the waves; so long she had stood here idle in the violent
sun, that yet did not avail to blister her; and was even this the
end of so many adventures? he wondered, or was more behind? And
he could have found in his heart to regret that she was not
a goddess, nor yet he a pagan, that he might have bowed down
before her in that hour of difficulty.

When he now went forward, it was cool with the shadow of
many well-grown palms; draughts of the dying breeze swung
them together overhead; and on all sides, with a swiftness
beyond dragon-flies or swallows, the spots of sunshine flitted,
and hovered, and returned. Underfoot, the sand was fairly solid
and quite level, and Herrick's steps fell there noiseless as in
new-fallen snow. It bore the marks of having been once weeded
like a garden alley at home; but the pestilence had done its
work, and the weeds were returning. The buildings of the
settlement showed here and there through the stems of the
colonnade, fresh painted, trim and dandy, and all silent as the
grave. Only, here and there in the crypt, there was a rustle and
scurry and some crowing of poultry; and from behind the house
with the verandahs, he saw smoke arise and heard the crackling
of a fire.

The stone houses were nearest him upon his right. The first
was locked; in the second, he could dimly perceive, through a
window, a certain accumulation of pearl-shell piled in the far
end; the third, which stood gaping open on the afternoon, seized
on the mind of Herrick with its multiplicity and disorder of
romantic things. Therein were cables, windlasses and blocks of
every size and capacity; cabin windows and ladders; rusty tanks,
a companion hutch; a binnacle with its brass mountings and its
compass idly pointing, in the confusion and dusk of that shed,
to a forgotten pole; ropes, anchors, harpoons, a blubber dipper
of copper, green with years, a steering wheel, a tool chest with
the vessel's name upon the top, the Asia: a whole curiosity-shop
of sea curios, gross and solid, heavy to lift, ill to break,
bound with brass and shod with iron. Two wrecks at the least must
have contributed to this random heap of lumber; and as Herrick
looked upon it, it seemed to him as if the two ships' companies
were there on guard, and he heard the tread of feet and
whisperings, and saw with the tail of his eye the commonplace
ghosts of sailor men.

This was not merely the work of an aroused imagination, but
had something sensible to go upon; sounds of a stealthy
approach were no doubt audible; and while he still stood staring
at the lumber, the voice of his host sounded suddenly, and with
even more than the customary softness of enunciation, from
behind.

'Junk,', it said, 'only old junk! And does Mr Hay find a
parable?'

'I find at least a strong impression,' replied Herrick, turning
quickly, lest he might be able to catch, on the face of the
speaker, some commentary on the words.

Attwater stood in the doorway, which he almost wholly filled;
his hands stretched above his head and grasping the architrave.
He smiled when their eyes Met, but the expression was
inscrutable.

'Yes, a powerful impression. You are like me; nothing
so affecting as ships!' said he. 'The ruins of an empire would
leave me frigid, when a bit of an old rail that an old shellback
leaned on in the middle watch, would bring me up all standing.
But come, let's see some more of the island. It's all sand and
coral and palm trees; but there's a kind of a quaintness in the
place.'

'I find it heavenly,' said Herrick, breathing deep, with head
bared in the shadow.

'Ah, that's because you're new from sea,' said Attwater. 'I
dare say, too, you can appreciate what one calls it. It's a
lovely name. It has a flavour, it has a colour, it has a ring and
fall to it; it's like its author--it's half Christian! Remember
your first view of the island, and how it's only woods and water;
and suppose you had asked somebody for the name, and he had
answered--nemorosa Zacynthos!'

'Jam medio apparet fluctu!' exclaimed Herrick. 'Ye gods, yes,
how good!'

'If it gets upon the chart, the skippers will make nice work
of it,' said Attwater. 'But here, come and see the diving-shed.'

He opened a door, and Herrick saw a large display of
apparatus neatly ordered: pumps and pipes, and the leaded
boots, and the huge snouted helmets shining in rows along the
wall; ten complete outfits.

'The whole eastern half of my lagoon is shallow, you must
understand,' said Attwater; 'so we were able to get in the dress
to great advantage. It paid beyond belief, and was a queer sight
when they were at it, and these marine monsters'--tapping the
nearest of the helmets--'kept appearing and reappearing in the
midst of the lagoon. Fond of parables?' he asked abruptly.

'O yes!' said Herrick.

'Well, I saw these machines come up dripping and go down
again, and come up dripping and go down again, and all the
while the fellow inside as dry as toast!' said Attwater; 'and
I thought we all wanted a dress to go down into the world in,
and come up scatheless. What do you think the name was?' he
inquired.

'Self-conceit,' said Herrick.

'Ah, but I mean seriously!' said Attwater.

'Call it self-respect, then!' corrected Herrick, with a laugh.

'And why not Grace? Why not God's Grace, Hay?' asked
Attwater. 'Why not the grace of your Maker and Redeemer, He
who died for you, He who upholds you, He whom you daily
crucify afresh? There is nothing here,'--striking on his bosom--
'nothing there'--smiting the wall--'and nothing there'--
stamping--'nothing but God's Grace! We walk upon it, we
breathe it; we live and die by it; it makes the nails and axles
of the universe; and a puppy in pyjamas prefers self-conceit!'
The huge dark man stood over against Herrick by the line of the
divers' helmets, and seemed to swell and glow; and the next
moment the life had gone from him. 'I beg your pardon,' said
he; 'I see you don't believe in God?'

'Not in your sense, I am afraid,' said Herrick.

'I never argue with young atheists or habitual drunkards,'
said Attwater flippantly. 'Let us go across the island to the
outer beach.'

It was but a little way, the greatest width of that island scarce
exceeding a furlong, and they walked gently. Herrick was like
one in a dream. He had come there with a mind divided; come
prepared to study that ambiguous and sneering mask, drag out
the essential man from underneath, and act accordingly;
decision being till then postponed. Iron cruelty, an iron
insensibility to the suffering of others, the uncompromising
pursuit of his own interests, cold culture, manners without
humanity; these he had looked for, these he still thought he saw.
But to find the whole machine thus glow with the reverberation of
religious zeal, surprised him beyond words; and he laboured in
vain, as he walked, to piece together into any kind of whole his
odds and qnds of knowledge--to adjust again into any kind of
focus with itself, his picture of the man beside him.

'What brought you here to the South Seas?' he asked
presently.

'Many things,' said Attwater. 'Youth, curiosity, romance, the
love of the sea, and (it will surprise you to hear) an interest
in missions. That has a good deal declined, which will surprise
you less. They go the wrong way to work; they are too parsonish,
too much of the old wife, and even the old apple wife. CLOTHES,
CLOTHES, are their idea; but clothes are not Christianity, any
more than they are the sun in heaven, or could take the place of
it! They think a parsonage with roses, and church bells, and nice
old women bobbing in the lanes, are part and parcel of religion.
But religion is a savage thing, like the universe it illuminates;
savage, cold, and bare, but infinitely strong.'

'And you found this island by an accident?' said Herrick.

'As you did!' said Attwater. 'And since then I have had a
business, and a colony, and a mission of my own. I was a man
of the world before I was a Christian; I'm a man of the world
still, and I made my mission pay. No good ever came of
coddling. A man has to stand up in God's sight and work up to
his weight avoirdupois; then I'll talk to him, but not before. I
gave these beggars what they wanted: a judge in Israel, the
bearer of the sword and scourge; I was making a new people
here; and behold, the angel of the Lord smote them and they.
were not!'

With the very uttering of the words, which were accompanied
by a gesture, they came forth out of the porch of the palm wood
by the margin of the sea and full in front of the sun which was
near setting. Before them the surf broke slowly. All around, with
an air of imperfect wooden things inspired with wicked activity,
the crabs trundled and scuttled into holes. On the right, whither
Attwater pointed and abruptly turned, was the cemetery of the
island, a field of broken stones from the bigness of a child's
hand to that of his head, diversified by many mounds of the
same material, and walled by a rude rectangular enclosure.
Nothing grew there but a shrub or two with some white flowers;
nothing but the number of the mounds, and their disquieting
shape, indicated the presence of the dead.

'The rude forefathers of the hamlet sleep!'

quoted Attwater as he entered by the open gateway into that
unholy close. 'Coral to coral, pebbles to pebbles,' he said,
'this has been the main scene of my activity in the South
Pacific. Some were good, and some bad, and the majority (of
course and always) null. Here was a fellow, now, that used to
frisk like a dog; if you had called him he came like an arrow
from a bow; if you had not, and he came unbidden, you should have
seen the deprecating eye and the little intricate dancing step.
Well, his trouble is over now, he has lain down with kings and
councillors; the rest of his acts, are they not written in the
book of the chronicles? That fellow was from Penrhyn; like all
the Penrhyn islanders he was ill to manage; heady, jealous,
violent: the man with the nose! He lies here quiet enough. And so
they all lie.

"And darkness was the burier of the dead!"'

He stood, in the strong glow of the sunset, with bowed head;
his voice sounded now sweet and now bitter with the varying
sense.

'You loved these people?' cried Herrick, strangely touched.

'I?' said Attwater. 'Dear no! Don't think me a philanthropist.
I dislike men, and hate women. If I like the islands at all, it
is because you see them here plucked of their lendings, their
dead birds and cocked hats, their petticoats and coloured hose.
Here was one I liked though,' and he set his foot upon a mound.
'He was a fine savage fellow; he had a dark soul; yes, I liked
this one. I am fanciful,' he added, looking hard at Herrick, 'and
I take fads. I like you.'

Herrick turned swiftly and looked far away to where the
clouds were beginning to troop together and amass themselves
round the obsequies of day. 'No one can like me,' he said.

'You are wrong there,' said the other, 'as a man usually is
about himself. You are attractive, very attractive.'

'It is not me,' said Herrick; 'no one can like me. If you knew
how I despised myself--and why!' His voice rang out in the
quiet graveyard.

'I knew that you despised yourself,' said Attwater. 'I saw the
blood come into your face today when you remembered Oxford.
And I could have blushed for you myself, to see a man, a
gentleman, with these two vulgar wolves.'

Herrick faced him with a thrill. 'Wolves?' he repeated.

'I said wolves and vulgar wolves,' said Attwater. 'Do you
know that today, when I came on board, I trembled?'

'You concealed it well,' stammered Herrick.

'A habit of mine,' said Attwater. 'But I was afraid, for all
that: I was afraid of the two wolves.' He raised his hand slowly.
'And now, Hay, you poor lost puppy, what do you do with the
two wolves?'

'What do I do? I don't do anything,' said Herrick. 'There
is nothing wrong; all is above board; Captain Brown is a
good soul; he is a ... he is . . .' The phantom voice of Davis
called in his ear: 'There's going to be a funeral' and the sweat
burst forth and streamed on his brow. 'He is a family man,' he
resumed again, swallowing; 'he has children at home--and a
wife.'

'And a very nice man?' said Attwater. 'And so is Mr Whish,
no doubt?'

'I won't go so far as that,' said Herrick. 'I do not like Huish.
And yet ... he has his merits too.'

'And, in short, take them for all in all, as good a ship's
company as one would ask?' said Attwater.

'O yes,' said Herrick, 'quite.'

'So then we approach the other point of why you despise
yourself?' said Attwater.

'Do we not all despise ourselves?' cried Herrick. 'Do not
you?'

'Oh, I say I do. But do I?' said Attwater. 'One thing I know at
least: I never gave a cry like yours. Hay! it came from a bad
conscience! Ah, man, that poor diving dress of self-conceit is
sadly tattered! Today, now, while the sun sets, and here in this
burying place of brown innocents, fall on your knees and cast
your sins and sorrows on the Redeemer. Hay--'

'Not Hay!' interrupted the other, strangling. 'Don't call
me that! I mean. . . For God's sake, can't you see I'm on the
rack?'

'I see it, I know it, I put and keep you there, my fingers are on
the screws!' said Attwater. 'Please God, I will bring a penitent
this night before His throne. Come, come to the mercy-seat! He
waits to be gracious, man--waits to be gracious!'

He spread out his arms like a crucifix, his face shone with the
brightness of a seraph's; in his voice, as it rose to the last
word, the tears seemed ready.

Herrick made a vigorous call upon himself. 'Attwater,' he
said, 'you push me beyond bearing. What am I to do? I do not
believe. It is living truth to you; to me, upon my conscience,
only folk-lore. I do not believe there is any form of words under
heaven by which I can lift the burthen from my shoulders. I must
stagger on to the end with the pack of my responsibility; I
cannot shift it; do you suppose I would not, if I thought I
could? I cannot--cannot--cannot--and let that suffice.'

The rapture was all gone from Artwater's countenance; the
dark apostle had disappeared; and in his place there stood an
easy, sneering gentleman, who took off his hat and bowed. It
was pertly done, and the blood burned in Herrick's face.

'What do you mean by that?' he cried.

'Well, shall we go back to the house?' said Attwater. 'Our
guests will soon be due.'

Herrick stood his ground a moment with clenched fists and
teeth; and as he so stood, the fact of his errand there slowly
swung clear in front of him, like the moon out of clouds. He
had come to lure that man on board; he was failing, even if
it could be said that he had tried; he was sure to fail now,
and knew it, and knew it was better so. And what was to be
next?

With a groan he turned to follow his host, who was standing
with polite smile, and instantly and somewhat obsequiously led
the way in the now darkened colonnade of palms. There they
went in silence, the earth gave up richly of her perfume, the air
tasted warm and aromatic in the nostrils; and from a great way
forward in the wood, the brightness of lights and fire marked
out the house of Attwater.

Herrick meanwhile resolved and resisted an immense temptation to
go up, to touch him on the arm and breathe a word in
his ear: 'Beware, they are going to murder you.' There would
be one life saved; but what of the two others? The three lives
went up and down before him like buckets in a well, or like
the scales of balances. It had come to a choice, and one that
must be speedy. For certain invaluable minutes, the wheels
of life ran before him, and he could still divert them with a
touch to the one side or the other, still choose who was to
live and who was to die. He considered the men. Attwater
intrigued, puzzled, dazzled, enchanted and revolted him; alive,
he seemed but a doubtful good; and the thought of him lying
dead was so unwelcome that it pursued him, like a vision, with
every circumstance of colour and sound. Incessantly, he had
before him the image of that great mass of man stricken down
in varying attitudes and with varying wounds; fallen prone,
fallen supine, fallen on his side; or clinging to a doorpost with
the changing face and the relaxing fingers of the death-agony.
He heard the click of the trigger, the thud of the, ball, the cry
of the victim; he saw the blood flow. And this building up
of circumstance was like a consecration of the man, till he
seemed to walk in sacrificial fillets. Next he considered Davis,
with his thick-fingered, coarse-grained, oat-bread commonness
of nature, his indomitable valour and mirth in the old days
of their starvation, the endearing blend of his faults and
virtues, the sudden shining forth of a tenderness that lay too
deep for tears; his children, Adar and her bowel complaint, and
Adar's doll. No, death could not be suffered to approach that
head even in fancy; with a general heat and a bracing of his
muscles, it was borne in on Herrick that Adar's father would
find in him a son to the death. And even Huish showed a little
in that sacredness; by the tacit adoption of daily life they were
become brothers; there was an implied bond of loyalty in their
cohabitation of the ship and their passed miseries, to which
Herrick must be a little true or wholly dishonoured. Horror of
sudden death for horror of sudden death, there was here no
hesitation possible: it must be Attwater. And no sooner was
the thought formed (which was a sentence) than his whole
mind of man ran in a panic to the other side: and when he
looked within himself, he was aware only of turbulence and
inarticulate outcry.

In all this there was no thought of Robert Herrick. He had
complied with the ebb-tide in man's affairs, and the tide had
carried him away; he heard already the roaring of the maelstrom
that must hurry him under. And in his bedevilled and dishonoured
soul there was no thought of self.

For how long he walked silent by his companion Herrick had
no guess. The clouds rolled suddenly away; the orgasm was over;
he found himself placid with the placidity of despair; there
returned to him the power of commonplace speech; and he
heard with surprise his own voice say: 'What a lovely evening!'

'Is it not?' said Attwater. 'Yes, the evenings here would be
very pleasant if one had anything to do. By day, of course, one
can shoot.'

'You shoot?' asked Herrick.

'Yes, I am what you would call a fine shot,' said Attwater. 'It
is faith; I believe my balls will go true; if I were to miss
once, it would spoil me for nine months.'

'You never miss, then?' said Herrick.

'Not unless I mean to,' said Attwater. 'But to miss nicely is
the art. There was an old king one knew in the western islands,
who used to empty a Winchester all round a man, and stir his
hair or nick a rag out of his clothes with every ball except the
last; and that went plump between the eyes. It was pretty
practice.'

'You could do that?' asked Herrick, with a sudden chill.

'Oh, I can do anything,' returned the other. 'You do not
understand: what must be, must.'

They were now come near to the back part of the house. One
of the men was engaged about the cooking fire, which burned
with the clear, fierce, essential radiance of cocoanut shells. A
fragrance of strange meats was in the air. All round in the
verandahs lamps were lighted, so that the place shone abroad
in the dusk of the trees with many complicated patterns of
shadow.

'Come and wash your hands,' said Attwater, and led the way
into a clean, matted room with a cot bed, a safe, or shelf or
two of books in a glazed case, and an iron washing-stand.
Presently he cried in the native, and there appeared for a moment
in the doorway a plump and pretty young woman with a clean
towel.

'Hullo!' cried Herrick, who now saw for the first time the
fourth survivor of the pestilence, and was startled by the
recollection of the captain's orders.

'Yes,' said Attwater, 'the whole colony lives about the house,
what's left of it. We are all afraid of devils, if you please!
and Taniera and she sleep in the front parlour, and the other boy
on the verandah.'

'She is pretty,' said Herrick.

'Too pretty,' said Attwater. 'That was why I had her married.
A man never knows when he may be inclined to be a fool about
women; so when we were left alone, I had the pair of them
to the chapel and performed the ceremony. She made a lot of
fuss. I do not take at all the romantic view of marriage,' he
explained.

'And that strikes you as a safeguard?' asked Herrick with
amazement.

'Certainly. I am a plain man and very literal. WHOM GOD HATH
JOINED TOGETHER, are the words, I fancy. So one married them,
and respects the marriage,' said Attwater.

'Ah!' said Herrick.

'You see, I may look to make an excellent marriage when I go
home,' began Attwater, confidentially. 'I am rich. This safe
alone'--laying his hand upon it--'will be a moderate fortune,
when I have the time to place the pearls upon the market. Here
are ten years' accumulation from a lagoon, where I have had as
many as ten divers going all day long; and I went further than
people usually do in these waters, for I rotted a lot of shell,
and did splendidly. Would you like to see them?'

This confirmation of the captain's guess hit Herrick hard, and
he contained himself with difficulty. 'No, thank you, I think
not,' said he. 'I do not care for pearls. I am very indifferent
to all these . . .'

'Gewgaws?' suggested Attwater. 'And yet I believe you ought
to cast an eye on my collection, which is really unique, and
which--oh! it is the case with all of us and everything about
us!--hangs. by a hair. Today it groweth up and flourisheth;
tomorrow it is cut down and cast into the oven. Today it is here
and together in this safe; tomorrow--tonight!--it may be
scattered. Thou fool, this night thy soul shall be required of
thee.'

'I do not understand you,' said Herrick.

'Not?' said Attwater.

'You seem to speak in riddles,' said Herrick, unsteadily. 'I do
not understand what manner of man you are, nor what you are
driving at.'

Attwater stood with his hands upon his hips, and his head
bent forward. 'I am a fatalist,' he replied, 'and just now (if
you insist on it) an experimentalist. Talking of which, by the
bye, who painted out the schooner's name?' he said, with mocking
softness, 'because, do you know? one thinks it should be done
again. It can still be partly read; and whatever is worth doing,
is surely worth doing well. You think with me? That is so nice!
Well, shall we step on the verandah? I have a dry sherry that I
would like your opinion of.'

Herrick followed him forth to where, under the light of the
hanging lamps, the table shone with napery and crystal; followed
him as the criminal goes with the hangman, or the sheep
with the butcher; took the sherry mechanically, drank it, and
spoke mechanical words of praise. The object of his terror had
become suddenly inverted; till then he had seen Attwater trussed
and gagged, a helpless victim, and had longed to run in and save
him; he saw him now tower up mysterious and menacing, the
angel of the Lord's wrath, armed with knowledge and threatening
judgment. He set down his glass again, and was surprised to
see it empty.

'You go always armed?' he said, and the next moment could
have plucked his tongue out.

'Always,' said Attwater. 'I have been through a mutiny here;
that was one of my incidents of missionary life.'

And just then the sound of voices reached them, and looking
forth from the verandah they saw Huish and the captain
drawing near.

Robert Louis Stevenson

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