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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 seaway; 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
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
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
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
I wrought like a fiend, for I expected every moment to be 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
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
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
"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 to 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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The Cruise of the Coracle
IT was broad day when I awoke and found myself tossing at the south-west
end of Treasure Island. The sun was up but was still hid from me behind
the great bulk of the Spy-glass, which on this side descended almost to
the sea in formidable cliffs.
Haulbowline Head and Mizzen-mast Hill were at my elbow, the hill bare and
dark, the head bound with cliffs forty or fifty feet high and fringed with
great masses of fallen rock. I was scarce a quarter of a mile to seaward,
and it was my first thought to paddle in and land.
That notion was soon given over. Among the fallen rocks the breakers
spouted and bellowed; loud reverberations, heavy sprays flying and
falling, succeeded one another from second to second; and I saw myself, if
I ventured nearer, dashed to death upon the rough shore or spending my
strength in vain to scale the beetling crags.
Nor was that all, for crawling together on flat tables of rock or letting
themselves drop into the sea with loud reports I beheld huge slimy
monsters—soft snails, as it were, of incredible bigness—two or
three score of them together, making the rocks to echo with their
I have understood since that they were sea lions, and entirely harmless.
But the look of them, added to the difficulty of the shore and the high
running of the surf, was more than enough to disgust me of that
landing-place. I felt willing rather to starve at sea than to confront
In the meantime I had a better chance, as I supposed, before me. North of
Haulbowline Head, the land runs in a long way, leaving at low tide a long
stretch of yellow sand. To the north of that, again, there comes another
cape—Cape of the Woods, as it was marked upon the chart—buried
in tall green pines, which descended to the margin of the sea.
I remembered what Silver had said about the current that sets northward
along the whole west coast of Treasure Island, and seeing from my position
that I was already under its influence, I preferred to leave Haulbowline
Head behind me and reserve my strength for an attempt to land upon the
kindlier-looking Cape of the Woods.
There was a great, smooth swell upon the sea. The wind blowing steady and
gentle from the south, there was no contrariety between that and the
current, and the billows rose and fell unbroken.
Had it been otherwise, I must long ago have perished; but as it was, it is
surprising how easily and securely my little and light boat could ride.
Often, as I still lay at the bottom and kept no more than an eye above the
gunwale, I would see a big blue summit heaving close above me; yet the
coracle would but bounce a little, dance as if on springs, and subside on
the other side into the trough as lightly as a bird.
I began after a little to grow very bold and sat up to try my skill at
paddling. But even a small change in the disposition of the weight will
produce violent changes in the behaviour of a coracle. And I had hardly
moved before the boat, giving up at once her gentle dancing movement, ran
straight down a slope of water so steep that it made me giddy, and struck
her nose, with a spout of spray, deep into the side of the next wave.
I was drenched and terrified, and fell instantly back into my old
position, whereupon the coracle seemed to find her head again and led me
as softly as before among the billows. It was plain she was not to be
interfered with, and at that rate, since I could in no way influence her
course, what hope had I left of reaching land?
I began to be horribly frightened, but I kept my head, for all that.
First, moving with all care, I gradually baled out the coracle with my
sea-cap; then, getting my eye once more above the gunwale, I set myself to
study how it was she managed to slip so quietly through the rollers.
I found each wave, instead of the big, smooth glossy mountain it looks
from shore or from a vessel's deck, was for all the world like any range
of hills on dry land, full of peaks and smooth places and valleys. The
coracle, left to herself, turning from side to side, threaded, so to
speak, her way through these lower parts and avoided the steep slopes and
higher, toppling summits of the wave.
"Well, now," thought I to myself, "it is plain I must lie where I am and
not disturb the balance; but it is plain also that I can put the paddle
over the side and from time to time, in smooth places, give her a shove or
two towards land." No sooner thought upon than done. There I lay on my
elbows in the most trying attitude, and every now and again gave a weak
stroke or two to turn her head to shore.
It was very tiring and slow work, yet I did visibly gain ground; and as we
drew near the Cape of the Woods, though I saw I must infallibly miss that
point, I had still made some hundred yards of easting. I was, indeed,
close in. I could see the cool green tree-tops swaying together in the
breeze, and I felt sure I should make the next promontory without fail.
It was high time, for I now began to be tortured with thirst. The glow of
the sun from above, its thousandfold reflection from the waves, the
sea-water that fell and dried upon me, caking my very lips with salt,
combined to make my throat burn and my brain ache. The sight of the trees
so near at hand had almost made me sick with longing, but the current had
soon carried me past the point, and as the next reach of sea opened out, I
beheld a sight that changed the nature of my thoughts.
Right in front of me, not half a mile away, I beheld the HISPANIOLA under
sail. I made sure, of course, that I should be taken; but I was so
distressed for want of water that I scarce knew whether to be glad or
sorry at the thought, and long before I had come to a conclusion, surprise
had taken entire possession of my mind and I could do nothing but stare
The HISPANIOLA was under her main-sail and two jibs, and the beautiful
white canvas shone in the sun like snow or silver. When I first sighted
her, all her sails were drawing; she was lying a course about north-west,
and I presumed the men on board were going round the island on their way
back to the anchorage. Presently she began to fetch more and more to the
westward, so that I thought they had sighted me and were going about in
chase. At last, however, she fell right into the wind's eye, was taken
dead aback, and stood there awhile helpless, with her sails shivering.
"Clumsy fellows," said I; "they must still be drunk as owls." And I
thought how Captain Smollett would have set them skipping.
Meanwhile the schooner gradually fell off and filled again upon another
tack, sailed swiftly for a minute or so, and brought up once more dead in
the wind's eye. Again and again was this repeated. To and fro, up and
down, north, south, east, and west, the HISPANIOLA sailed by swoops and
dashes, and at each repetition ended as she had begun, with idly flapping
canvas. It became plain to me that nobody was steering. And if so, where
were the men? Either they were dead drunk or had deserted her, I thought,
and perhaps if I could get on board I might return the vessel to her
The current was bearing coracle and schooner southward at an equal rate.
As for the latter's sailing, it was so wild and intermittent, and she hung
each time so long in irons, that she certainly gained nothing, if she did
not even lose. If only I dared to sit up and paddle, I made sure that I
could overhaul her. The scheme had an air of adventure that inspired me,
and the thought of the water breaker beside the fore companion doubled my
Up I got, was welcomed almost instantly by another cloud of spray, but
this time stuck to my purpose and set myself, with all my strength and
caution, to paddle after the unsteered HISPANIOLA. Once I shipped a sea so
heavy that I had to stop and bail, with my heart fluttering like a bird,
but gradually I got into the way of the thing and guided my coracle among
the waves, with only now and then a blow upon her bows and a dash of foam
in my face.
I was now gaining rapidly on the schooner; I could see the brass glisten
on the tiller as it banged about, and still no soul appeared upon her
decks. I could not choose but suppose she was deserted. If not, the men
were lying drunk below, where I might batten them down, perhaps, and do
what I chose with the ship.
For some time she had been doing the worse thing possible for me—standing
still. She headed nearly due south, yawing, of course, all the time. Each
time she fell off, her sails partly filled, and these brought her in a
moment right to the wind again. I have said this was the worst thing
possible for me, for helpless as she looked in this situation, with the
canvas cracking like cannon and the blocks trundling and banging on the
deck, she still continued to run away from me, not only with the speed of
the current, but by the whole amount of her leeway, which was naturally
But now, at last, I had my chance. The breeze fell for some seconds, very
low, and the current gradually turning her, the HISPANIOLA revolved slowly
round her centre and at last presented me her stern, with the cabin window
still gaping open and the lamp over the table still burning on into the
day. The main-sail hung drooped like a banner. She was stock-still but for
For the last little while I had even lost, but now redoubling my efforts,
I began once more to overhaul the chase.
I was not a hundred yards from her when the wind came again in a clap; she
filled on the port tack and was off again, stooping and skimming like a
My first impulse was one of despair, but my second was towards joy. Round
she came, till she was broadside on to me—round still till she had
covered a half and then two thirds and then three quarters of the distance
that separated us. I could see the waves boiling white under her forefoot.
Immensely tall she looked to me from my low station in the coracle.
And then, of a sudden, I began to comprehend. I had scarce time to think—scarce
time to act and save myself. I was on the summit of one swell when the
schooner came stooping over the next. The bowsprit was over my head. I
sprang to my feet and leaped, stamping the coracle under water. With one
hand I caught the jib-boom, while my foot was lodged between the stay and
the brace; and as I still clung there panting, a dull blow told me that
the schooner had charged down upon and struck the coracle and that I was
left without retreat on the HISPANIOLA.