The Black Spot
About noon I stopped at the captain’s door with some cooling drinks and medicines. He was lying very much as we had left him, only a little higher, and he seemed both weak and excited.
“Jim,” he said, “you’re the only one here that’s worth anything, and you know I’ve been always good to you. Never a month but I’ve given you a silver fourpenny for yourself. And now you see, mate, I’m pretty low, and deserted by all; and Jim, you’ll bring me one noggin of rum, now, won’t you, matey?”
“The doctor—” I began.
But he broke in cursing the doctor, in a feeble voice but heartily. “Doctors is all swabs,” he said; “and that doctor there, why, what do he know about seafaring men? I been in places hot as pitch, and mates dropping round with Yellow Jack, and the blessed land a-heaving like the sea with earthquakes—what to the doctor know of lands like that?—and I lived on rum, I tell you. It’s been meat and drink, and man and wife, to me; and if I’m not to have my rum now I’m a poor old hulk on a lee shore, my blood’ll be on you, Jim, and that doctor swab”; and he ran on again for a while with curses. “Look, Jim, how my fingers fidges,” he continued in the pleading tone. “I can’t keep ’em still, not I. I haven’t had a drop this blessed day. That doctor’s a fool, I tell you. If I don’t have a drain o’ rum, Jim, I’ll have the horrors; I seen some on ’em already. I seen old Flint in the corner there, behind you; as plain as print, I seen him; and if I get the horrors, I’m a man that has lived rough, and I’ll raise Cain. Your doctor hisself said one glass wouldn’t hurt me. I’ll give you a golden guinea for a noggin, Jim.”
He was growing more and more excited, and this alarmed me for my father, who was very low that day and needed quiet; besides, I was reassured by the doctor’s words, now quoted to me, and rather offended by the offer of a bribe.
“I want none of your money,” said I, “but what you owe my father. I’ll get you one glass, and no more.”
When I brought it to him, he seized it greedily and drank it out.
“Aye, aye,” said he, “that’s some better, sure enough. And now, matey, did that doctor say how long I was to lie here in this old berth?”
“A week at least,” said I.
“Thunder!” he cried. “A week! I can’t do that; they’d have the black spot on me by then. The lubbers is going about to get the wind of me this blessed moment; lubbers as couldn’t keep what they got, and want to nail what is another’s. Is that seamanly behaviour, now, I want to know? But I’m a saving soul. I never wasted good money of mine, nor lost it neither; and I’ll trick ’em again. I’m not afraid on ’em. I’ll shake out another reef, matey, and daddle ’em again.”
As he was thus speaking, he had risen from bed with great difficulty, holding to my shoulder with a grip that almost made me cry out, and moving his legs like so much dead weight. His words, spirited as they were in meaning, contrasted sadly with the weakness of the voice in which they were uttered. He paused when he had got into a sitting position on the edge.
“That doctor’s done me,” he murmured. “My ears is singing. Lay me back.”
Before I could do much to help him he had fallen back again to his former place, where he lay for a while silent.
“Jim,” he said at length, “you saw that seafaring man today?”
“Black Dog?” I asked.
“Ah! Black Dog,” says he. “He’s a bad un; but there’s worse that put him on. Now, if I can’t get away nohow, and they tip me the black spot, mind you, it’s my old sea-chest they’re after; you get on a horse—you can, can’t you? Well, then, you get on a horse, and go to—well, yes, I will!—to that eternal doctor swab, and tell him to pipe all hands—magistrates and sich—and he’ll lay ’em aboard at the Admiral Benbow—all old Flint’s crew, man and boy, all on ’em that’s left. I was first mate, I was, old Flint’s first mate, and I’m the on’y one as knows the place. He gave it me at Savannah, when he lay a-dying, like as if I was to now, you see. But you won’t peach unless they get the black spot on me, or unless you see that Black Dog again or a seafaring man with one leg, Jim—him above all.”
“But what is the black spot, captain?” I asked.
“That’s a summons, mate. I’ll tell you if they get that. But you keep your weather-eye open, Jim, and I’ll share with you equals, upon my honour.”
He wandered a little longer, his voice growing weaker; but soon after I had given him his medicine, which he took like a child, with the remark, “If ever a seaman wanted drugs, it’s me,” he fell at last into a heavy, swoon-like sleep, in which I left him. What I should have done had all gone well I do not know. Probably I should have told the whole story to the doctor, for I was in mortal fear lest the captain should repent of his confessions and make an end of me. But as things fell out, my poor father died quite suddenly that evening, which put all other matters on one side. Our natural distress, the visits of the neighbours, the arranging of the funeral, and all the work of the inn to be carried on in the meanwhile kept me so busy that I had scarcely time to think of the captain, far less to be afraid of him.
He got downstairs next morning, to be sure, and had his meals as usual, though he ate little and had more, I am afraid, than his usual supply of rum, for he helped himself out of the bar, scowling and blowing through his nose, and no one dared to cross him. On the night before the funeral he was as drunk as ever; and it was shocking, in that house of mourning, to hear him singing away at his ugly old sea-song; but weak as he was, we were all in the fear of death for him, and the doctor was suddenly taken up with a case many miles away and was never near the house after my father’s death. I have said the captain was weak, and indeed he seemed rather to grow weaker than regain his strength. He clambered up and down stairs, and went from the parlour to the bar and back again, and sometimes put his nose out of doors to smell the sea, holding on to the walls as he went for support and breathing hard and fast like a man on a steep mountain. He never particularly addressed me, and it is my belief he had as good as forgotten his confidences; but his temper was more flighty, and allowing for his bodily weakness, more violent than ever. He had an alarming way now when he was drunk of drawing his cutlass and laying it bare before him on the table. But with all that, he minded people less and seemed shut up in his own thoughts and rather wandering. Once, for instance, to our extreme wonder, he piped up to a different air, a kind of country love-song that he must have learned in his youth before he had begun to follow the sea.
So things passed until, the day after the funeral, and about three o’clock of a bitter, foggy, frosty afternoon, I was standing at the door for a moment, full of sad thoughts about my father, when I saw someone drawing slowly near along the road. He was plainly blind, for he tapped before him with a stick and wore a great green shade over his eyes and nose; and he was hunched, as if with age or weakness, and wore a huge old tattered sea-cloak with a hood that made him appear positively deformed. I never saw in my life a more dreadful-looking figure. He stopped a little from the inn, and raising his voice in an odd sing-song, addressed the air in front of him, “Will any kind friend inform a poor blind man, who has lost the precious sight of his eyes in the gracious defence of his native country, England—and God bless King George!—where or in what part of this country he may now be?”
“You are at the Admiral Benbow, Black Hill Cove, my good man,” said I.
“I hear a voice,” said he, “a young voice. Will you give me your hand, my kind young friend, and lead me in?”
I held out my hand, and the horrible, soft-spoken, eyeless creature gripped it in a moment like a vise. I was so much startled that I struggled to withdraw, but the blind man pulled me close up to him with a single action of his arm.
“Now, boy,” he said, “take me in to the captain.”
“Sir,” said I, “upon my word I dare not.”
“Oh,” he sneered, “that’s it! Take me in straight or I’ll break your arm.”
And he gave it, as he spoke, a wrench that made me cry out.
“Sir,” said I, “it is for yourself I mean. The captain is not what he used to be. He sits with a drawn cutlass. Another gentleman—”
“Come, now, march,” interrupted he; and I never heard a voice so cruel, and cold, and ugly as that blind man’s. It cowed me more than the pain, and I began to obey him at once, walking straight in at the door and towards the parlour, where our sick old buccaneer was sitting, dazed with rum. The blind man clung close to me, holding me in one iron fist and leaning almost more of his weight on me than I could carry. “Lead me straight up to him, and when I’m in view, cry out, ‘Here’s a friend for you, Bill.’ If you don’t, I’ll do this,” and with that he gave me a twitch that I thought would have made me faint. Between this and that, I was so utterly terrified of the blind beggar that I forgot my terror of the captain, and as I opened the parlour door, cried out the words he had ordered in a trembling voice.
The poor captain raised his eyes, and at one look the rum went out of him and left him staring sober. The expression of his face was not so much of terror as of mortal sickness. He made a movement to rise, but I do not believe he had enough force left in his body.
“Now, Bill, sit where you are,” said the beggar. “If I can’t see, I can hear a finger stirring. Business is business. Hold out your left hand. Boy, take his left hand by the wrist and bring it near to my right.”
We both obeyed him to the letter, and I saw him pass something from the hollow of the hand that held his stick into the palm of the captain’s, which closed upon it instantly.
“And now that’s done,” said the blind man; and at the words he suddenly left hold of me, and with incredible accuracy and nimbleness, skipped out of the parlour and into the road, where, as I still stood motionless, I could hear his stick go tap-tap-tapping into the distance.
It was some time before either I or the captain seemed to gather our senses, but at length, and about at the same moment, I released his wrist, which I was still holding, and he drew in his hand and looked sharply into the palm.
“Ten o’clock!” he cried. “Six hours. We’ll do them yet,” and he sprang to his feet.
Even as he did so, he reeled, put his hand to his throat, stood swaying for a moment, and then, with a peculiar sound, fell from his whole height face foremost to the floor.
I ran to him at once, calling to my mother. But haste was all in vain. The captain had been struck dead by thundering apoplexy. It is a curious thing to understand, for I had certainly never liked the man, though of late I had begun to pity him, but as soon as I saw that he was dead, I burst into a flood of tears. It was the second death I had known, and the sorrow of the first was still fresh in my heart.
I lost no time, of course, in telling my mother all that I knew, and perhaps should have told her long before, and we saw ourselves at once in a difficult and dangerous position. Some of the man’s money—if he had any—was certainly due to us, but it was not likely that our captain’s shipmates, above all the two specimens seen by me, Black Dog and the blind beggar, would be inclined to give up their booty in payment of the dead man’s debts. The captain’s order to mount at once and ride for Doctor Livesey would have left my mother alone and unprotected, which was not to be thought of. Indeed, it seemed impossible for either of us to remain much longer in the house; the fall of coals in the kitchen grate, the very ticking of the clock, filled us with alarms. The neighbourhood, to our ears, seemed haunted by approaching footsteps; and what between the dead body of the captain on the parlour floor and the thought of that detestable blind beggar hovering near at hand and ready to return, there were moments when, as the saying goes, I jumped in my skin for terror. Something must speedily be resolved upon, and it occurred to us at last to go forth together and seek help in the neighbouring hamlet. No sooner said than done. Bare-headed as we were, we ran out at once in the gathering evening and the frosty fog.
The hamlet lay not many hundred yards away, though out of view, on the other side of the next cove; and what greatly encouraged me, it was in an opposite direction from that whence the blind man had made his appearance and whither he had presumably returned. We were not many minutes on the road, though we sometimes stopped to lay hold of each other and hearken. But there was no unusual sound—nothing but the low wash of the ripple and the croaking of the inmates of the wood.
It was already candle-light when we reached the hamlet, and I shall never forget how much I was cheered to see the yellow shine in doors and windows; but that, as it proved, was the best of the help we were likely to get in that quarter. For—you would have thought men would have been ashamed of themselves—no soul would consent to return with us to the Admiral Benbow. The more we told of our troubles, the more—man, woman, and child—they clung to the shelter of their houses. The name of Captain Flint, though it was strange to me, was well enough known to some there and carried a great weight of terror. Some of the men who had been to field-work on the far side of the Admiral Benbow remembered, besides, to have seen several strangers on the road, and taking them to be smugglers, to have bolted away; and one at least had seen a little lugger in what we called Kitt’s Hole. For that matter, anyone who was a comrade of the captain’s was enough to frighten them to death. And the short and the long of the matter was, that while we could get several who were willing enough to ride to Dr. Livesey’s, which lay in another direction, not one would help us to defend the inn.
They say cowardice is infectious; but then argument is, on the other hand, a great emboldener; and so when each had said his say, my mother made them a speech. She would not, she declared, lose money that belonged to her fatherless boy; “If none of the rest of you dare,” she said, “Jim and I dare. Back we will go, the way we came, and small thanks to you big, hulking, chicken-hearted men. We’ll have that chest open, if we die for it. And I’ll thank you for that bag, Mrs. Crossley, to bring back our lawful money in.”
Of course I said I would go with my mother, and of course they all cried out at our foolhardiness, but even then not a man would go along with us. All they would do was to give me a loaded pistol lest we were attacked, and to promise to have horses ready saddled in case we were pursued on our return, while one lad was to ride forward to the doctor’s in search of armed assistance.
My heart was beating finely when we two set forth in the cold night upon this dangerous venture. A full moon was beginning to rise and peered redly through the upper edges of the fog, and this increased our haste, for it was plain, before we came forth again, that all would be as bright as day, and our departure exposed to the eyes of any watchers. We slipped along the hedges, noiseless and swift, nor did we see or hear anything to increase our terrors, till, to our relief, the door of the Admiral Benbow had closed behind us.
I slipped the bolt at once, and we stood and panted for a moment in the dark, alone in the house with the dead captain’s body. Then my mother got a candle in the bar, and holding each other’s hands, we advanced into the parlour. He lay as we had left him, on his back, with his eyes open and one arm stretched out.
“Draw down the blind, Jim,” whispered my mother; “they might come and watch outside. And now,” said she when I had done so, “we have to get the key off that; and who’s to touch it, I should like to know!” and she gave a kind of sob as she said the words.
I went down on my knees at once. On the floor close to his hand there was a little round of paper, blackened on the one side. I could not doubt that this was the black spot; and taking it up, I found written on the other side, in a very good, clear hand, this short message: “You have till ten tonight.”
“He had till ten, Mother,” said I; and just as I said it, our old clock began striking. This sudden noise startled us shockingly; but the news was good, for it was only six.
“Now, Jim,” she said, “that key.”
I felt in his pockets, one after another. A few small coins, a thimble, and some thread and big needles, a piece of pigtail tobacco bitten away at the end, his gully with the crooked handle, a pocket compass, and a tinder box were all that they contained, and I began to despair.
“Perhaps it’s round his neck,” suggested my mother.
Overcoming a strong repugnance, I tore open his shirt at the neck, and there, sure enough, hanging to a bit of tarry string, which I cut with his own gully, we found the key. At this triumph we were filled with hope and hurried upstairs without delay to the little room where he had slept so long and where his box had stood since the day of his arrival.
It was like any other seaman’s chest on the outside, the initial “B” burned on the top of it with a hot iron, and the corners somewhat smashed and broken as by long, rough usage.
“Give me the key,” said my mother; and though the lock was very stiff, she had turned it and thrown back the lid in a twinkling.
A strong smell of tobacco and tar rose from the interior, but nothing was to be seen on the top except a suit of very good clothes, carefully brushed and folded. They had never been worn, my mother said. Under that, the miscellany began—a quadrant, a tin canikin, several sticks of tobacco, two brace of very handsome pistols, a piece of bar silver, an old Spanish watch and some other trinkets of little value and mostly of foreign make, a pair of compasses mounted with brass, and five or six curious West Indian shells. I have often wondered since why he should have carried about these shells with him in his wandering, guilty, and hunted life.
In the meantime, we had found nothing of any value but the silver and the trinkets, and neither of these were in our way. Underneath there was an old boat-cloak, whitened with sea-salt on many a harbour-bar. My mother pulled it up with impatience, and there lay before us, the last things in the chest, a bundle tied up in oilcloth, and looking like papers, and a canvas bag that gave forth, at a touch, the jingle of gold.
“I’ll show these rogues that I’m an honest woman,” said my mother. “I’ll have my dues, and not a farthing over. Hold Mrs. Crossley’s bag.” And she began to count over the amount of the captain’s score from the sailor’s bag into the one that I was holding.
It was a long, difficult business, for the coins were of all countries and sizes—doubloons, and louis d’ors, and guineas, and pieces of eight, and I know not what besides, all shaken together at random. The guineas, too, were about the scarcest, and it was with these only that my mother knew how to make her count.
When we were about half-way through, I suddenly put my hand upon her arm, for I had heard in the silent frosty air a sound that brought my heart into my mouth—the tap-tapping of the blind man’s stick upon the frozen road. It drew nearer and nearer, while we sat holding our breath. Then it struck sharp on the inn door, and then we could hear the handle being turned and the bolt rattling as the wretched being tried to enter; and then there was a long time of silence both within and without. At last the tapping recommenced, and, to our indescribable joy and gratitude, died slowly away again until it ceased to be heard.
“Mother,” said I, “take the whole and let’s be going,” for I was sure the bolted door must have seemed suspicious and would bring the whole hornet’s nest about our ears, though how thankful I was that I had bolted it, none could tell who had never met that terrible blind man.
But my mother, frightened as she was, would not consent to take a fraction more than was due to her and was obstinately unwilling to be content with less. It was not yet seven, she said, by a long way; she knew her rights and she would have them; and she was still arguing with me when a little low whistle sounded a good way off upon the hill. That was enough, and more than enough, for both of us.
“I’ll take what I have,” she said, jumping to her feet.
“And I’ll take this to square the count,” said I, picking up the oilskin packet.
Next moment we were both groping downstairs, leaving the candle by the empty chest; and the next we had opened the door and were in full retreat. We had not started a moment too soon. The fog was rapidly dispersing; already the moon shone quite clear on the high ground on either side; and it was only in the exact bottom of the dell and round the tavern door that a thin veil still hung unbroken to conceal the first steps of our escape. Far less than half-way to the hamlet, very little beyond the bottom of the hill, we must come forth into the moonlight. Nor was this all, for the sound of several footsteps running came already to our ears, and as we looked back in their direction, a light tossing to and fro and still rapidly advancing showed that one of the newcomers carried a lantern.
“My dear,” said my mother suddenly, “take the money and run on. I am going to faint.”
This was certainly the end for both of us, I thought. How I cursed the cowardice of the neighbours; how I blamed my poor mother for her honesty and her greed, for her past foolhardiness and present weakness! We were just at the little bridge, by good fortune; and I helped her, tottering as she was, to the edge of the bank, where, sure enough, she gave a sigh and fell on my shoulder. I do not know how I found the strength to do it at all, and I am afraid it was roughly done, but I managed to drag her down the bank and a little way under the arch. Farther I could not move her, for the bridge was too low to let me do more than crawl below it. So there we had to stay—my mother almost entirely exposed and both of us within earshot of the inn.