AS soon as Ben Gunn saw the colours he came to a halt, stopped me by the arm, and sat down.
“Now,” said he, “there’s your friends, sure enough.”
“Far more likely it’s the mutineers,” I answered.
“That!” he cried. “Why, in a place like this, where nobody puts in but gen’lemen of fortune, Silver would fly the Jolly Roger, you don’t make no doubt of that. No, that’s your friends. There’s been blows too, and I reckon your friends has had the best of it; and here they are ashore in the old stockade, as was made years and years ago by Flint. Ah, he was the man to have a headpiece, was Flint! Barring rum, his match were never seen. He were afraid of none, not he; on’y Silver—Silver was that genteel.”
“Well,” said I, “that may be so, and so be it; all the more reason that I should hurry on and join my friends.”
“Nay, mate,” returned Ben, “not you. You’re a good boy, or I’m mistook; but you’re on’y a boy, all told. Now, Ben Gunn is fly. Rum wouldn’t bring me there, where you’re going—not rum wouldn’t, till I see your born gen’leman and gets it on his word of honour. And you won’t forget my words; ‘A precious sight (that’s what you’ll say), a precious sight more confidence’—and then nips him.”
And he pinched me the third time with the same air of cleverness.
“And when Ben Gunn is wanted, you know where to find him, Jim. Just wheer you found him today. And him that comes is to have a white thing in his hand, and he’s to come alone. Oh! And you’ll say this: ‘Ben Gunn,’ says you, ‘has reasons of his own.'”
“Well,” said I, “I believe I understand. You have something to propose, and you wish to see the squire or the doctor, and you’re to be found where I found you. Is that all?”
“And when? says you,” he added. “Why, from about noon observation to about six bells.”
“Good,” said I, “and now may I go?”
“You won’t forget?” he inquired anxiously. “Precious sight, and reasons of his own, says you. Reasons of his own; that’s the mainstay; as between man and man. Well, then”—still holding me—”I reckon you can go, Jim. And, Jim, if you was to see Silver, you wouldn’t go for to sell Ben Gunn? Wild horses wouldn’t draw it from you? No, says you. And if them pirates camp ashore, Jim, what would you say but there’d be widders in the morning?”
Here he was interrupted by a loud report, and a cannonball came tearing through the trees and pitched in the sand not a hundred yards from where we two were talking. The next moment each of us had taken to his heels in a different direction.
For a good hour to come frequent reports shook the island, and balls kept crashing through the woods. I moved from hiding-place to hiding-place, always pursued, or so it seemed to me, by these terrifying missiles. But towards the end of the bombardment, though still I durst not venture in the direction of the stockade, where the balls fell oftenest, I had begun, in a manner, to pluck up my heart again, and after a long detour to the east, crept down among the shore-side trees.
The sun had just set, the sea breeze was rustling and tumbling in the woods and ruffling the grey surface of the anchorage; the tide, too, was far out, and great tracts of sand lay uncovered; the air, after the heat of the day, chilled me through my jacket.
The Hispaniola still lay where she had anchored; but, sure enough, there was the Jolly Roger—the black flag of piracy—flying from her peak. Even as I looked, there came another red flash and another report that sent the echoes clattering, and one more round-shot whistled through the air. It was the last of the cannonade.
I lay for some time watching the bustle which succeeded the attack. Men were demolishing something with axes on the beach near the stockade—the poor jolly-boat, I afterwards discovered. Away, near the mouth of the river, a great fire was glowing among the trees, and between that point and the ship one of the gigs kept coming and going, the men, whom I had seen so gloomy, shouting at the oars like children. But there was a sound in their voices which suggested rum.
At length I thought I might return towards the stockade. I was pretty far down on the low, sandy spit that encloses the anchorage to the east, and is joined at half-water to Skeleton Island; and now, as I rose to my feet, I saw, some distance further down the spit and rising from among low bushes, an isolated rock, pretty high, and peculiarly white in colour. It occurred to me that this might be the white rock of which Ben Gunn had spoken and that some day or other a boat might be wanted and I should know where to look for one.
Then I skirted among the woods until I had regained the rear, or shoreward side, of the stockade, and was soon warmly welcomed by the faithful party.
I had soon told my story and began to look about me. The log-house was made of unsquared trunks of pine—roof, walls, and floor. The latter stood in several places as much as a foot or a foot and a half above the surface of the sand. There was a porch at the door, and under this porch the little spring welled up into an artificial basin of a rather odd kind—no other than a great ship’s kettle of iron, with the bottom knocked out, and sunk “to her bearings,” as the captain said, among the sand.
Little had been left besides the framework of the house, but in one corner there was a stone slab laid down by way of hearth and an old rusty iron basket to contain the fire.
The slopes of the knoll and all the inside of the stockade had been cleared of timber to build the house, and we could see by the stumps what a fine and lofty grove had been destroyed. Most of the soil had been washed away or buried in drift after the removal of the trees; only where the streamlet ran down from the kettle a thick bed of moss and some ferns and little creeping bushes were still green among the sand. Very close around the stockade—too close for defence, they said—the wood still flourished high and dense, all of fir on the land side, but towards the sea with a large admixture of live-oaks.
The cold evening breeze, of which I have spoken, whistled through every chink of the rude building and sprinkled the floor with a continual rain of fine sand. There was sand in our eyes, sand in our teeth, sand in our suppers, sand dancing in the spring at the bottom of the kettle, for all the world like porridge beginning to boil. Our chimney was a square hole in the roof; it was but a little part of the smoke that found its way out, and the rest eddied about the house and kept us coughing and piping the eye.
Add to this that Gray, the new man, had his face tied up in a bandage for a cut he had got in breaking away from the mutineers and that poor old Tom Redruth, still unburied, lay along the wall, stiff and stark, under the Union Jack.
If we had been allowed to sit idle, we should all have fallen in the blues, but Captain Smollett was never the man for that. All hands were called up before him, and he divided us into watches. The doctor and Gray and I for one; the squire, Hunter, and Joyce upon the other. Tired though we all were, two were sent out for firewood; two more were set to dig a grave for Redruth; the doctor was named cook; I was put sentry at the door; and the captain himself went from one to another, keeping up our spirits and lending a hand wherever it was wanted.
From time to time the doctor came to the door for a little air and to rest his eyes, which were almost smoked out of his head, and whenever he did so, he had a word for me.
“That man Smollett,” he said once, “is a better man than I am. And when I say that it means a deal, Jim.”
Another time he came and was silent for a while. Then he put his head on one side, and looked at me.
“Is this Ben Gunn a man?” he asked.
“I do not know, sir,” said I. “I am not very sure whether he’s sane.”
“If there’s any doubt about the matter, he is,” returned the doctor. “A man who has been three years biting his nails on a desert island, Jim, can’t expect to appear as sane as you or me. It doesn’t lie in human nature. Was it cheese you said he had a fancy for?”
“Yes, sir, cheese,” I answered.
“Well, Jim,” says he, “just see the good that comes of being dainty in your food. You’ve seen my snuff-box, haven’t you? And you never saw me take snuff, the reason being that in my snuff-box I carry a piece of Parmesan cheese—a cheese made in Italy, very nutritious. Well, that’s for Ben Gunn!”
Before supper was eaten we buried old Tom in the sand and stood round him for a while bare-headed in the breeze. A good deal of firewood had been got in, but not enough for the captain’s fancy, and he shook his head over it and told us we “must get back to this tomorrow rather livelier.” Then, when we had eaten our pork and each had a good stiff glass of brandy grog, the three chiefs got together in a corner to discuss our prospects.
It appears they were at their wits’ end what to do, the stores being so low that we must have been starved into surrender long before help came. But our best hope, it was decided, was to kill off the buccaneers until they either hauled down their flag or ran away with the Hispaniola. From nineteen they were already reduced to fifteen, two others were wounded, and one at least—the man shot beside the gun—severely wounded, if he were not dead. Every time we had a crack at them, we were to take it, saving our own lives, with the extremest care. And besides that, we had two able allies—rum and the climate.
As for the first, though we were about half a mile away, we could hear them roaring and singing late into the night; and as for the second, the doctor staked his wig that, camped where they were in the marsh and unprovided with remedies, the half of them would be on their backs before a week.
“So,” he added, “if we are not all shot down first they’ll be glad to be packing in the schooner. It’s always a ship, and they can get to buccaneering again, I suppose.”
“First ship that ever I lost,” said Captain Smollett.
I was dead tired, as you may fancy; and when I got to sleep, which was not till after a great deal of tossing, I slept like a log of wood.
The rest had long been up and had already breakfasted and increased the pile of firewood by about half as much again when I was wakened by a bustle and the sound of voices.
“Flag of truce!” I heard someone say; and then, immediately after, with a cry of surprise, “Silver himself!”
And at that, up I jumped, and rubbing my eyes, ran to a loophole in the wall.