August 3rd, 2020

Death Chess

The Current Carrying Men to Infamy



On a hot beach, far from home, a destitute Englishman comforts himself with a tattered collection of Virgil. What path in life led him from university to poverty? The same that leads him further down the spiral in The Ebb-Tide, an 1894 novel by Robert Louis Stevenson and Lloyd Osbourne. A tale of unscrupulous men on a desperate sea adventure, it reads a bit like a darker, more mature version of Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island. There's treasure and stolen cargo, there's a mysterious and grim atmosphere in the beautiful language, much like Treasure Island, but there are also ruminations on human worth and the meaning of moral value ascribed to actions. It's a fascinating and disturbing work, particularly for being the last completed novel Louis Stevenson worked on.

Herrick, the Englishman, befriends two other desperate men--an American sea captain named Davis and a cockney reprobate called Huish. Although circumstances have driven Herrick to compromise his self image as a gentleman, Davis nonetheless trusts him enough to make him first mate when a seagoing opportunity arises. Despite Davis himself having no good reputation for having lost another ship under suspicious circumstances, he's given command of a ship bearing a cargo of champagne when no-one else is willing to take her. The ship, the Farallone, had fallen prey to smallpox, which had killed the previous crew. Only the very dregs of the unemployed beachcombers could be coerced into crewing her now.

But like the scoundrels they are, Davis and Huish soon plan something more ambitious while behaving with less discipline, deciding to commandeer the ship and cargo for themselves to fetch a higher price, but also, compulsively, drinking quantities of that same precious cargo.

In the cabin at one corner of the table, immediately below the lamp, and on the lee side of a bottle of champagne, sat Huish. 'What's this? Where did that come from?' asked the captain.

'It's fizz, and it came from the after-'old, if you want to know,' said Huish, and drained his mug.

'This'll never do,' exclaimed Davis, the merchant seaman's horror of breaking into cargo showing incongruously forth on board that stolen ship. 'There was never any good came of games like that.'

'You byby!' said Huish. 'A fellow would think (to 'ear him) we were on the square! And look 'ere, you've put this job up 'ansomely for me, 'aven't you? I'm to go on deck and steer while you two sit and guzzle, and I'm to go by nickname, and got to call you “sir” and “mister.” Well, you look here, my bloke: I'll have fizz ad lib., or it won't wash. I tell you that. And you know mighty well, you ain't got any man-of-war to signal now.'

Davis was staggered. 'I'd give fifty dollars this had never happened,' he said weakly.

'Well, it 'as 'appened, you see,' returned Huish. 'Try some; it's devilish good.'

The Rubicon was crossed without another struggle. The captain filled a mug and drank.


Herrick finds himself cast further and further from his bright past now that his lot is cast with this murky and deplorable future. What else could he have done but join this voyage?

'That's the dreadful part of it!' cried Herrick. 'Another week and I'd have murdered someone for a dollar! God! and I know that? And I'm still living? It's some beastly dream.'

'Quietly, quietly! Quietly does it, my son. Take your pea soup. Food, that's what you want,' said Davis.

The soup strengthened and quieted Herrick's nerves; another glass of wine, and a piece of pickled pork and fried banana completed what the soup began; and he was able once more to look the captain in the face.

'I didn't know I was so much run down,' he said.

'Well,' said Davis, 'you were as steady as a rock all day: now you've had a little lunch, you'll be as steady as a rock again.'

'Yes,'was the reply, 'I'm steady enough now, but I'm a queer kind of a first officer.'

'Shucks!' cried the captain. 'You've only got to mind the ship's course, and keep your slate to half a point. A babby could do that, let alone a college graduate like you. There ain't nothing TO sailoring, when you come to look it in the face. And now we'll go and put her about. Bring the slate; we'll have to start our dead reckoning right away.'


Dead reckoning is easy enough to explain in words or on paper but Herrick soon finds practical experience is required to do it properly. This is one of the ways the book discusses class and resentment periodically manifests between Huish and Herrick alternately with wary respect. The concept of a poor man gorging himself on champagne is a potent enough symbol of class transgression, mirroring Herrick's own circumstance. In the second half of the novel, the Farallone encounters an island where an English gentleman called Attwater is hoarding a bounty of pearls. Herrick's internal conflict becomes quite external as he's forced to choose between the Attwater and the drunken pirates. But instead of choosing between good and evil he finds the choice is between two kinds of brutality. He realises his life has finally brought him to a point where he no longer feels he is free to choose between killing and not killing but only between which men to murder.

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.

The progression of the story is remarkably like a noir at times. It's an engrossing, unsettling, and conflicted book filled with complex, colourfully rendered characters. And like a noir its central drama turns on just how much control a man really has of his life and his actions.

Twitter Sonnet #1380

A button veils a lever plugged to life.
Between the chairs a table sets the tone.
Collapsing plates reveal the dinner strife.
But growing legs decide they're almost grown.
The idle tracks were tapping rock and sod.
Another train was passing webs and wings.
The summer poison simmers 'round the pod.
The exo-chorus chatters loud and sings.
The action sequence built a sparking bridge.
For safer passage walk the dripping coals.
Observers score the move from 'long the ridge.
The smartest feet were strapped to wooden poles.
The frozen dreams could melt and slowly run.
With icy sweets the hours munch the sun.