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Chapter VI The Rubicon

WHEN Christian reached his cabin he threw himself upon his sea-chest—almost the only article of furniture that the place contained—and cursed aloud his wretched existence. He thought of the long voyage before him, each day wearisome enough even if spent in agreeable companionship with his fellows, but a very purgatory with such a man as Bligh to goad him every hour with foul language and petty insults.

His gloomy reflections were broken in upon by a voice asking permission for the speaker to enter.

“What do you want?” he asked angrily.

A seaman drew aside the canvas screen.

“The captain sends his compliments, sir, and requests the pleasure of your company to supper.”

Christian sprang to his feet, his face flaming with passion. “Tell him to go to the devil and take his supper in the only company he is fit for.”

Alexander Smith, the sailor who had brought the message, for a moment stared in astonishment, yet

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waited in respectful silence. This was the first time during all the long voyage that an officer had so far forgotten himself as to express his feelings about the commander before a common seaman. With the seamen themselves such outbursts were frequent enough, but here was an officer—the senior master's mate, the third man in rank in the ship—ordering a common sailor to tell his commander to go to the devil, the only fit company for him!

Smith was a young man of twenty-two, the son of a Thames lighterman; but he had been born with brains, and had taught himself to read and write, while his mother had brought him up to do his duty and respect his superiors in that old fashion which is good. This was his first voyage in a King's ship, but he knew what was due from Christian to his commander.

So, instead of smiling, either openly or covertly, at Christian's rage, he thought for a moment, pulled awkwardly at a lock of his hair, gave a slight cough, and said—

“Begging your pardon, Mr. Christian, did you say that I was to tell the captain you felt too poorly, and kindly asked to be excused?”

Christian glanced quickly at him, and then forgot his anger. The sailor was not much to look at, a strongly-built fellow below the middle height, with his face pitted deeply from the effects of small-pox, and his naked chest disfigured with tatoo marks—a coarse, rough seaman in dress and appearance, a gentleman in instincts—and, above all, a man.

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“Smith, you're a good fellow to bring me up with a round turn like that! Give me your hand, and deliver your own message, and accept my gratitude!” And the officer grasped the sailor's hand and wrung it warmly.

“Aye, aye, sir,” and Smith's honest tones trembled with pleasure, for he liked and respected the young man, and felt proud of having thus won his confidence. “A few months longer, sir, and it'll be all serene with us.” Then, with a respectful salute, he was gone.

The master's mate sat down again on the chest, and leant his cheek upon his hands. The last words of Smith—“a few months longer”—had once more set his brooding mind to work.

He rose to his feet again; the close, hot atmosphere of his stuffy quarters seemed to oppress and choke him, and his brain was dulled and aching with the misery in his heart. He stepped out, and, gaining the deck quietly, leant upon the bulwarks and looked moodily over the star-lit ocean to where the steep cone of Tofoa upreared its darkened form three thousand feet in the air. It was the first dog-watch, when on ship-board men sing and make merry; but on this ship came no sounds of violin or choruses of seamen, for all, officers and men alike, were sullen and gloomy, and brooded over the incidents of the past few days.

The wind was very light, and the ship scarce held steerage way; everything was still, and the grave-like silence oppressed the man. Now and then a

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gleam of red, smoky flame would flash in the sky to the eastward, and a strange, dulled muttering would be borne over the waters as the raging forces pent up in black Tofoa boiled and seethed within its groaning heart. The sight possessed a fascination for him, and for nearly half an hour he stood and watched the shooting dull-red flame and listened to the awful sounds which broke from the mountain in the violence of its convulsions.

Presently he changed his attitude of dejection, and his eye lightened.

“Ten miles away,” he muttered, gazing at the dark shape of Tofoa, “and there are beaches on the west side where landing is easy, and a network of low islets within another six leagues. By heavens, I'll risk it! Anything is better than this—better, even, the jaws of a shark!”

He went quietly forward and collected a number of boat-oars and some hand-spikes from the racks; these he brought to a place in the after part of the ship, where he was not likely to be seen, and began to lash them together.

He was interrupted suddenly by Young. “What the h—l are you doing, Christian?”

“I am making a raft.”

“A raft?”

“Yes, a raft.”

“Why? What for?”

“Because, Young, I can stand this no longer. I am about to try and make Tofoa on this raft.”

“Madness! You could never reach there, even

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if there were no sharks. There is a fearful current setting to the westward.”

“I don't care. Sharks are better company than this infernal tyrant. Why, do you know, Young, that the damned, pitiful scoundrel actually invited me to sup with him to-night, no doubt thinking to propitiate me for the insults of this afternoon.”

“Oh, well, you've suffered no more than I. But still, this is sheer madness, Christian. You are not, surely, such a fool as to incur all the odium of becoming a deserter, for what?—to be turned into shark's meat!”

“Don't argue with me, Young,” he answered fiercely. “I've made up my mind to get out of this floating hell, and I mean to leave the ship either in the first or middle watch. You know of my intention. If you think it your duty, tell the gentle Bligh.”

Young laughed. “Not I, Christian. I'll not move in the matter, except to dissuade you from such folly.”

“Cease, cease, my dear fellow; it is too late. Either this, or I put an end to my life. But if your sympathies are with me, do me this favour—go to the steward and on some pretence or other get me food. Put it in a bag with some nails and hoop-iron and beads, or anything likely to take the fancy of the natives, and bring it to me.”

Young at once went away, and procuring a canvas bag put in it food, some bottles of water, and a few articles for barter. But at the same time he told the boatswain's mate of Christian's watch and the officers

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in charge of the first and middle watches, and begged them to keep the matter secret, but on no account to give the young man an opportunity of carrying out his rash project, “for,” said he earnestly, “Mr. Christian is not in a fit state to leave the ship; the man is ill in mind and body, and not responsible for his actions.”

Slowly the night passed, and more than once Christian came on deck with the intention of putting his idea of escape into practice; but he always found some one ready to talk to him, and so no opportunity came. At half-past three he gave up all further attempts, and sick in mind, lay down in his bunk. Then eight bells struck, and he was called by Stewart to take the morning watch.

As Stewart turned to go on deck he pressed Christian's hand sympathetically, and said in a low voice, “Mr. Christian, I know your design. For God's sake, sir, try to have patience, and give up your intention. If you carry it out, it only means a dreadful death.”

“I will make no further attempt to-night, at least,” he answered, in a strange, husky voice; but he gave the midshipman's hand a firm grip.

For some minutes he sat upon his sea-chest, with his face buried in his hands, thinking; and the darkness of the night, the hoarse mutterings and muffled thunder from distant Tofoa, found a responsive echo in his maddened brain.

The signs of dawn were reddening the horizon as Christian reached the deck; and the black pall of smoke

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which had hovered over Tofoa's lofty peak was vanishing before the breath of a light air which was coming over the water from the south-east but had not yet stirred the Bounty's canvas.

Thomas Hayward, the midshipman of the watch, had mustered his men; the wheel had been relieved, the look-out stationed, and those of the watch who were not needed had gone forward to lay about the deck to doze or sleep.

Leaning over the forecastle rail the look-out stood watching the movement of a huge shark that swam to and fro, close to the ship's port side. Presently Young, whose attention was drawn to the monster by the seaman, leant over the waist and watched also, and shuddered as he thought of Christian and his raft; then, knowing that Christian would not disturb him, he lay down between two guns.

Pacing to and fro on the starboard side of the little poop the master's mate was waiting for the breeze to reach the ship, to give the order to brace the yards round to meet it. Perhaps had that light, cooling air which was now sweeping away sulphurous smoke from Tofoa's black sides, reached the silent ship and sent the crew hurrying about her decks, the desperate deed that was so soon to follow would never have been done. But as Christian looked aloft, he saw the pendant topsails give a feeble flap or two and then hang limp and dead as before; a faint breath of air touched his burning temples, and then silence, deep and oppressive, fell upon the ship again.

“A dead calm still,” he muttered to himself; “I

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wish to God a squall would put us on our beam ends or founder the ship—anything but this.” And then he stepped to the side and watched, with a curious sense of fascination, the sullen mass of the burning mountain.

The utter impossibility of his leaving the ship unless to die by the teeth of the sharks was now forced upon his mind, for there beneath the counter he saw swimming to and fro a brute that would have made short work of him upon the fragile raft on which he had thought to venture his life. But yet—and his hands clenched savagely—submission to his lot was not possible—better death itself than endure it longer.

Then his thoughts went back to a night on the white beach at Tahiti, the murmuring sway and rustle of pluméd palms, and the soft symphony of the throbbing surf on the distant reef, as Mahina's starlike eyes, dimmed with her farewell tears, looked past his own into the cloudless vault of heaven above them; and her passionate pleadings as she placed her trembling hands upon his arm seemed even now to be borne to him across the sea, and made the quick, hot blood or youth surge madly through his veins. Madness to think of her now! Yes, he knew that; but yet she loved him—would give her life for him, even. A savage! And he a King's officer, yet a slave to a vindictive tyrant—his life one daily round of insult and shame.… A savage, yet a gloriously beautiful woman, whom only his duty to his King and country made him forget.

Then his face flushed hotly. Forget her! What folly to try to deceive himself! He loved her! …

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He struck his clenched hand on the rail, and then his brain caught fire, his breath came in short, quick gasps, and the WAY OUT flashed into his mind.

What would be his life at sea? Bligh, even if suffered until the ship returned to England, was not the only coarse, cruel tyrant in the Service. And it would be at least seven months ere the voyage was ended—seven months of torture, shame and misery. And over there, far beyond the sea-rim lay at least happiness with one who loved him.

What did it matter after all? Perhaps after long, long years of service he would be put aside for other and younger men who had influence and social position. But then, he thought, he was an officer, a man of good family. The insults he had received might be forgotten were he one of the rough, coarse seamen for'ard—such a man, for instance, as Quintal who, when brutally flogged by Bligh, swore he would kill his oppressor. But a seaman forgot and forgave a flogging, and an officer and a gentleman must forget and—no, not forgive—an insult from his superior.

So, as he paced to and fro on the little poop and as the dawn began to break he sought to get rid of the devil tempting him; but he sought in vain. Again and again Mahina's soft voice and choking sobs sounded in his ears. “I will love thee for ever and ever and ever; how canst thou leave me?”

Then the WAY OUT came into his heart again. It was so easy of accomplishment, too. He stopped suddenly in his hurried pacing to and fro and his quick mutterings; for the man at the wheel was regarding him curiously.

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“My God!” he muttered to himself, then cried aloud “I'll do it!” He stepped to the break of the poop.

“Hayward,” he called in a hoarse whisper.

Hayward jumped up from the hatch where he had been lying and came to the foot of the poop ladder.

“Did you call me, sir?”

“Yes”—and his voice seemed like the voice or another man to the speaker himself—“come up here and look after her. I want to go below and lash up my hammock.”

The midshipman looked inquiringly at him. “You are ill, sir,” he said; “better get into your hammock instead. Hallet is sleeping on deck. Let me call him to relieve you.”

“No,” and his voice had a strange, sharp ring in it; “come up here.”

“You are not thinking of that raft again, Mr. Christian? There's been a shark swimming round the ship all night.”

“Damn you, come up here when I tell you.”

“Very well, sir,” said Hayward in a changed voice, and he walked aft to the binnacle without another word.

Christian ran forward. The men of his watch lay sleeping on the fore-hatch, and among them he was quick to recognise two seamen, Quintal and McCoy, men who had been severely punished for trivial offences by Bligh. Both were good seamen, and, with Alexander Smith, had a particular liking for Christian, who had treated them with a great deal of kindness. The master's mate, now that he had

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determined to take the plunge, seemed to have rapidly sketched in his mind a feasible plan of action. He stooped down and awakened both of them quietly.

The men sprang to their feet and would have called the rest of the sleeping watch, but with a warning gesture Christian stopped them. Then he motioned them to follow him to the waist of the ship.

“Listen,” said he, speaking quickly; “I have determined to take charge of this ship. Captain Bligh is no longer fit to command her. You two know him—and you know me!

The seamen, half dazed at the suddenness of the question, hesitated a moment. “My God, men!” he said hoarsely, “answer me. Heavens! Why do you hesitate? Are you men or cowards? You, Quintal, will you help me?”

“Help you, sir?” and Matthew Quintal, a young man of scarce twenty-one years, seized his jumper on either side with his brawny hands and showed his broad, tattooed chest. “I don't know what you mean, sir, but I'll follow you to hell.”

“Good; and now, McCoy, you?”

A grim smile flickered over McCoy's features. Like Quintal he was tattooed on both chest and arms, and was a broad-shouldered, strongly-made man, with deep-set eyes and a face denoting undaunted courage and resolution.

“I am with you, sir, and with Mat Quintal.”

“Go you then, McCoy, and rouse the armourer. Tell him I want the key of the arm-chest to shoot a shark. You, Quintal, rouse up Churchill, Muspratt,

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and Millward, and remind them of the flogging Bligh gave them at Tahiti; then bring them quietly to me.”

The men stepped softly below to the 'tween decks to carry out their orders. As soon as their backs were turned young Smith, who, unobserved by Christian, lay awake upon the main-hatch, rose and came towards the officer.

“What are you about to do, Mr. Christian?” he said in whispered tones. “I heard your orders. Stop them, sir, before it is too late, for God's sake!”

“Ah, Smith, is that you? It is too late, too late now. Will you sail under my orders, or will you make me shoot you, as I certainly will do if you give the alarm?”

The young seaman's face paled. “Your threat, sir, would not stop me if I had not already decided. I don't like to join in a mutiny, but it is your act, sir, and not mine; and you will have to answer for it, not me. Captain Bligh is no friend of mine; and I'll never desert a gentleman like you for him. You can count on me, sir.”

Christian took his hand and gripped it fiercely. Then McCoy returned with the key of the arm-chest, which was kept aft; following him up the ladder came Quintal, accompanied by a fair-haired lad named Ellison, and Millward, one of the three for whom Quintal had gone below—all in a state of suppressed excitement.

“It's all right,” said Quintal; “Muspratt and Churchill are coming. They are with us, but they are below bringing up some of the others.”

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For one brief moment the madness of the deed flashed across Christian's brain as he saw the figures of the seamen coming up from the 'tween decks; but the phrase “they are with us” reminded him that he was now a mutineer, and too far on his fatal course to draw back. He set his teeth and, in another minute, followed by his associates in the desperate venture, was serving out weapons to his party from the arm-chest.

The noise made by the clank of the arms, slight as it was, had by this time wakened all the watch on deck; and Hayward, sitting on the wheel grating, was suddenly astounded to see Christian running towards him, cutlass in hand, followed by a number of armed seamen. The watch came tramping aft, and Christian, with a maddening sense of triumph in his heart, felt that the supreme moment had arrived.

Quick as lightning he spoke some hot words to McCoy and Quintal, who repeated them to the thronging and excited sailors; Quintal and Ellison then rapidly passed weapons to four or five of the watch. These, stepping apart from the others, at once ranged themselves with Christian and his party.

Still, despite the fierce, eager mutterings and the clash of arms from those on deck, there had been no great noise or confusion, and none of those who slept below were awakened; the mutineers, from ready force of habit, obeying unhesitatingly the orders of the passionate man who was once their officer and now their ringleader.

There was a moment's pause; a dozen armed men,

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grim and determined, stood around their leader, waiting. As the sun leapt, a flaming ball of blood-red fire, from out the sleeping sea, Christian looked into the dark and working faces of the crew and waved his cutlass in the air; then, following their leader, the desperate men made a dash for Bligh's cabin.