Chapter Twenty-five : I Strike the Jolly Roger
I HAD scarce gained a position on the bowsprit when the flying jib flapped and filled upon the other tack, with a report like a gun. The schooner trembled to her keel under the reverse, but next moment, the other sails still drawing, the jib flapped back again and hung idle.
This had nearly tossed me off into the sea; and now I lost no time, crawled back along the bowsprit, and tumbled head foremost on the deck.
I was on the lee side of the forecastle, and the mainsail, which was still drawing, concealed from me a certain portion of the after-deck. Not a soul was to be seen. The planks, which had not been swabbed since the mutiny, bore the print of many feet, and an empty bottle, broken by the neck, tumbled to and fro like a live thing in the scuppers.
Suddenly the Hispaniola came right into the wind. The jibs behind me cracked aloud, the rudder slammed to, the whole ship gave a sickening heave and shudder, and at the same moment the main-boom swung inboard, the sheet groaning in the blocks, and showed me the lee after-deck.
There were the two watchmen, sure enough: red-cap on his back, as stiff as a handspike, with his arms stretched out like those of a crucifix and his teeth showing through his open lips; Israel Hands propped against the bulwarks, his chin on his chest, his hands lying open before him on the deck, his face as white, under its tan, as a tallow candle.
For a while the ship kept bucking and sidling like a vicious horse, the sails filling, now on one tack, now on another, and the boom swinging to and fro till the mast groaned aloud under the strain. Now and again too there would come a cloud of light sprays over the bulwark and a heavy blow of the ship’s bows against the swell; so much heavier weather was made of it by this great rigged ship than by my home-made, lop-sided coracle, now gone to the bottom of the sea.
At every jump of the schooner, red-cap slipped to and fro, but—what was ghastly to behold—neither his attitude nor his fixed teeth-disclosing grin was anyway disturbed by this rough usage. At every jump too, Hands appeared still more to sink into himself and settle down upon the deck, his feet sliding ever the farther out, and the whole body canting towards the stern, so that his face became, little by little, hid from me; and at last I could see nothing beyond his ear and the frayed ringlet of one whisker.
At the same time, I observed, around both of them, splashes of dark blood upon the planks and began to feel sure that they had killed each other in their drunken wrath.
While I was thus looking and wondering, in a calm moment, when the ship was still, Israel Hands turned partly round and with a low moan writhed himself back to the position in which I had seen him first. The moan, which told of pain and deadly weakness, and the way in which his jaw hung open went right to my heart. But when I remembered the talk I had overheard from the apple barrel, all pity left me.
I walked aft until I reached the main-mast.
“Come aboard, Mr. Hands,” I said ironically.
He rolled his eyes round heavily, but he was too far gone to express surprise. All he could do was to utter one word, “Brandy.”
It occurred to me there was no time to lose, and dodging the boom as it once more lurched across the deck, I slipped aft and down the companion stairs into the cabin.
It was such a scene of confusion as you can hardly fancy. All the lockfast places had been broken open in quest of the chart. The floor was thick with mud where ruffians had sat down to drink or consult after wading in the marshes round their camp. The bulkheads, all painted in clear white and beaded round with gilt, bore a pattern of dirty hands. Dozens of empty bottles clinked together in corners to the rolling of the ship. One of the doctor’s medical books lay open on the table, half of the leaves gutted out, I suppose, for pipelights. In the midst of all this the lamp still cast a smoky glow, obscure and brown as umber.
I went into the cellar; all the barrels were gone, and of the bottles a most surprising number had been drunk out and thrown away. Certainly, since the mutiny began, not a man of them could ever have been sober.
Foraging about, I found a bottle with some brandy left, for Hands; and for myself I routed out some biscuit, some pickled fruits, a great bunch of raisins, and a piece of cheese. With these I came on deck, put down my own stock behind the rudder head and well out of the coxswain’s reach, went forward to the water-breaker, and had a good deep drink of water, and then, and not till then, gave Hands the brandy.
He must have drunk a gill before he took the bottle from his mouth.
“Aye,” said he, “by thunder, but I wanted some o’ that!”
I had sat down already in my own corner and begun to eat.
“Much hurt?” I asked him.
He grunted, or rather, I might say, he barked.
“If that doctor was aboard,” he said, “I’d be right enough in a couple of turns, but I don’t have no manner of luck, you see, and that’s what’s the matter with me. As for that swab, he’s good and dead, he is,” he added, indicating the man with the red cap. “He warn’t no seaman anyhow. And where mought you have come from?”
“Well,” said I, “I’ve come aboard to take possession of this ship, Mr. Hands; and you’ll please regard me as your captain until further notice.”
He looked at me sourly enough but said nothing. Some of the colour had come back into his cheeks, though he still looked very sick and still continued to slip out and settle down as the ship banged about.
“By the by,” I continued, “I can’t have these colours, Mr. Hands; and by your leave, I’ll strike ’em. Better none than these.”
And again dodging the boom, I ran to the colour lines, handed down their cursed black flag, and chucked it overboard.
“God save the king!” said I, waving my cap. “And there’s an end to Captain Silver!”
He watched me keenly and slyly, his chin all the while on his breast.
“I reckon,” he said at last, “I reckon, Cap’n Hawkins, you’ll kind of want to get ashore now. S’pose we talks.”
“Why, yes,” says I, “with all my heart, Mr. Hands. Say on.” And I went back to my meal with a good appetite.
“This man,” he began, nodding feebly at the corpse “—O’Brien were his name, a rank Irelander—this man and me got the canvas on her, meaning for to sail her back. Well, he’s dead now, he is—as dead as bilge; and who’s to sail this ship, I don’t see. Without I gives you a hint, you ain’t that man, as far’s I can tell. Now, look here, you gives me food and drink and a old scarf or ankecher to tie my wound up, you do, and I’ll tell you how to sail her, and that’s about square all round, I take it.”
“I’ll tell you one thing,” says I: “I’m not going back to Captain Kidd’s anchorage. I mean to get into North Inlet and beach her quietly there.”
“To be sure you did,” he cried. “Why, I ain’t sich an infernal lubber after all. I can see, can’t I? I’ve tried my fling, I have, and I’ve lost, and it’s you has the wind of me. North Inlet? Why, I haven’t no ch’ice, not I! I’d help you sail her up to Execution Dock, by thunder! So I would.”
Well, as it seemed to me, there was some sense in this. We struck our bargain on the spot. In three minutes I had the Hispaniola sailing easily before the wind along the coast of Treasure Island, with good hopes of turning the northern point ere noon and beating down again as far as North Inlet before high water, when we might beach her safely and wait till the subsiding tide permitted us to land.
Then I lashed the tiller and went below to my own chest, where I got a soft silk handkerchief of my mother’s. With this, and with my aid, Hands bound up the great bleeding stab he had received in the thigh, and after he had eaten a little and had a swallow or two more of the brandy, he began to pick up visibly, sat straighter up, spoke louder and clearer, and looked in every way another man.
The breeze served us admirably. We skimmed before it like a bird, the coast of the island flashing by and the view changing every minute. Soon we were past the high lands and bowling beside low, sandy country, sparsely dotted with dwarf pines, and soon we were beyond that again and had turned the corner of the rocky hill that ends the island on the north.
I was greatly elated with my new command, and pleased with the bright, sunshiny weather and these different prospects of the coast. I had now plenty of water and good things to eat, and my conscience, which had smitten me hard for my desertion, was quieted by the great conquest I had made. I should, I think, have had nothing left me to desire but for the eyes of the coxswain as they followed me derisively about the deck and the odd smile that appeared continually on his face. It was a smile that had in it something both of pain and weakness—a haggard old man’s smile; but there was, besides that, a grain of derision, a shadow of treachery, in his expression as he craftily watched, and watched, and watched me at my work.