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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Ebb-tide: A Trio And Quartette - PART II. THE QUARTETTE - Chapter 7. THE PEARL-FISHER
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The Ebb-tide: A Trio And Quartette - PART II. THE QUARTETTE - Chapter 7. THE PEARL-FISHER Post by :sundayodunsi Category :Long Stories Author :Robert Louis Stevenson Date :April 2012 Read :1914

Click below to download : The Ebb-tide: A Trio And Quartette - PART II. THE QUARTETTE - Chapter 7. THE PEARL-FISHER (Format : PDF)

The Ebb-tide: A Trio And Quartette - PART II. THE QUARTETTE - Chapter 7. THE PEARL-FISHER

About four in the morning, as the captain and Herrick sat together on
the rail, there arose from the midst of the night in front of them the
voice of breakers. Each sprang to his feet and stared and listened. The
sound was continuous, like the passing of a train; no rise or fall
could be distinguished; minute by minute the ocean heaved with an equal
potency against the invisible isle; and as time passed, and Herrick
waited in vain for any vicissitude in the volume of that roaring, a
sense of the eternal weighed upon his mind. To the expert eye the isle
itself was to be inferred from a certain string of blots along the
starry heaven. And the schooner was laid to and anxiously observed till
daylight.

There was little or no morning bank. A brightening came in the east;
then a wash of some ineffable, faint, nameless hue between crimson and
silver; and then coals of fire. These glimmered a while on the sea line,
and seemed to brighten and darken and spread out, and still the night
and the stars reigned undisturbed; it was as though a spark should
catch and glow and creep along the foot of some heavy and almost
incombustible wall-hanging, and the room itself be scarce menaced. Yet
a little after, and the whole east glowed with gold and scarlet, and the
hollow of heaven was filled with the daylight.

The isle--the undiscovered, the scarce believed-in--now lay before them
and close aboard; and Herrick thought that never in his dreams had he
beheld anything more strange and delicate. The beach was excellently
white, the continuous barrier of trees inimitably green; the land
perhaps ten feet high, the trees thirty more. Every here and there, as
the schooner coasted northward, the wood was intermitted; and he could
see clear over the inconsiderable strip of land (as a man looks over a
wall) to the lagoon within--and clear over that again to where the far
side of the atoll prolonged its pencilling of trees against the morning
sky. He tortured himself to find analogies. The isle was like the rim
of a great vessel sunken in the waters; it was like the embankment of
an annular railway grown upon with wood: so slender it seemed amidst the
outrageous breakers, so frail and pretty, he would scarce have wondered
to see it sink and disappear without a sound, and the waves close
smoothly over its descent.

Meanwhile the captain was in the forecross-trees, glass in hand, his
eyes in every quarter, spying for an entrance, spying for signs of
tenancy. But the isle continued to unfold itself in joints, and to run
out in indeterminate capes, and still there was neither house nor
man, nor the smoke of fire. Here a multitude of sea-birds soared and
twinkled, and fished in the blue waters; and there, and for miles
together, the fringe of cocoa-palm and pandanus extended desolate, and
made desirable green bowers for nobody to visit, and the silence of
death was only broken by the throbbing of the sea.

The airs were very light, their speed was small; the heat intense. The
decks were scorching underfoot, the sun flamed overhead, brazen, out
of a brazen sky; the pitch bubbled in the seams, and the brains in the
brain-pan. And all the while the excitement of the three adventurers
glowed about their bones like a fever. They whispered, and nodded, and
pointed, and put mouth to ear, with a singular instinct of secrecy,
approaching that island underhand like eavesdroppers and thieves; and
even Davis from the cross-trees gave his orders mostly by gestures. The
hands shared in this mute strain, like dogs, without comprehending it;
and through the roar of so many miles of breakers, it was a silent ship
that approached an empty island.

At last they drew near to the break in that interminable gangway. A spur
of coral sand stood forth on the one hand; on the other a high and thick
tuft of trees cut off the view; between was the mouth of the huge laver.
Twice a day the ocean crowded in that narrow entrance and was heaped
between these frail walls; twice a day, with the return of the ebb, the
mighty surplusage of water must struggle to escape. The hour in which
the Farallone came there was the hour of flood. The sea turned (as
with the instinct of the homing pigeon) for the vast receptacle, swept
eddying through the gates, was transmuted, as it did so, into a wonder
of watery and silken hues, and brimmed into the inland sea beyond. The
schooner looked up close-hauled, and was caught and carried away by the
influx like a toy. She skimmed; she flew; a momentary shadow touched her
decks from the shore-side trees; the bottom of the channel showed up for
a moment and was in a moment gone; the next, she floated on the bosom of
the lagoon, and below, in the transparent chamber of waters, a myriad
of many-coloured fishes were sporting, a myriad pale-flowers of coral
diversified the floor.

Herrick stood transported. In the gratified lust of his eye, he forgot
the past and the present; forgot that he was menaced by a prison on the
one hand and starvation on the other; forgot that he was come to that
island, desperately foraging, clutching at expedients. A drove of
fishes, painted like the rainbow and billed like parrots, hovered up in
the shadow of the schooner, and passed clear of it, and glinted in the
submarine sun. They were beautiful, like birds, and their silent passage
impressed him like a strain of song.

Meanwhile, to the eye of Davis in the cross-trees, the lagoon continued
to expand its empty waters, and the long succession of the shore-side
trees to be paid out like fishing line off a reel. And still there was
no mark of habitation. The schooner, immediately on entering, had been
kept away to the nor'ard where the water seemed to be the most deep; and
she was now skimming past the tall grove of trees, which stood on that
side of the channel and denied further view. Of the whole of the low
shores of the island, only this bight remained to be revealed. And
suddenly the curtain was raised; they began to open out a haven, snugly
elbowed there, and beheld, with an astonishment beyond words, the roofs
of men.

The appearance, thus 'instantaneously disclosed' to those on the deck of
the Farallone, was not that of a city, rather of a substantial country
farm with its attendant hamlet: a long line of sheds and store-houses;
apart, upon the one side, a deep-verandah'ed dwelling-house; on the
other, perhaps a dozen native huts; a building with a belfry and some
rude offer at architectural features that might be thought to mark it
out for a chapel; on the beach in front some heavy boats drawn up, and
a pile of timber running forth into the burning shallows of the
lagoon. From a flagstaff at the pierhead, the red ensign of England was
displayed. Behind, about, and over, the same tall grove of palms,
which had masked the settlement in the beginning, prolonged its root
of tumultuous green fans, and turned and ruffled overhead, and sang its
silver song all day in the wind. The place had the indescribable but
unmistakable appearance of being in commission; yet there breathed from
it a sense of desertion that was almost poignant, no human figure was to
be observed going to and fro about the houses, and there was no sound of
human industry or enjoyment. Only, on the top of the beach and hard by
the flagstaff, a woman of exorbitant stature and as white as snow was to
be seen beckoning with uplifted arm. The second glance identified her
as a piece of naval sculpture, the figure-head of a ship that had long
hovered and plunged into so many running billows, and was now brought
ashore to be the ensign and presiding genius of that empty town.

The Farallone made a soldier's breeze of it; the wind, besides, was
stronger inside than without under the lee of the land; and the stolen
schooner opened out successive objects with the swiftness of a panorama,
so that the adventurers stood speechless. The flag spoke for itself; it
was no frayed and weathered trophy that had beaten itself to pieces on
the post, flying over desolation; and to make assurance stronger, there
was to be descried in the deep shade of the verandah, a glitter of
crystal and the fluttering of white napery. If the figure-head at the
pier end, with its perpetual gesture and its leprous whiteness, reigned
alone in that hamlet as it seemed to do, it would not have reigned long.
Men's hands had been busy, men's feet stirring there, within the circuit
of the clock. The Farallones were sure of it; their eyes dug in the deep
shadow of the palms for some one hiding; if intensity of looking might
have prevailed, they would have pierced the walls of houses; and there
came to them, in these pregnant seconds, a sense of being watched and
played with, and of a blow impending, that was hardly bearable.

The extreme point of palms they had just passed enclosed a creek, which
was thus hidden up to the last moment from the eyes of those on board;
and from this, a boat put suddenly and briskly out, and a voice hailed.

'Schooner ahoy!' it cried. 'Stand in for the pier! In two cables'
lengths you'll have twenty fathoms water and good holding ground.'

The boat was manned with a couple of brown oarsmen in scanty kilts of
blue. The speaker, who was steering, wore white clothes, the full dress
of the tropics; a wide hat shaded his face; but it could be seen that he
was of stalwart size, and his voice sounded like a gentleman's. So much
could be made out. It was plain, besides, that the Farallone had been
descried some time before at sea, and the inhabitants were prepared for
its reception.

Mechanically the orders were obeyed, and the ship berthed; and the three
adventurers gathered aft beside the house and waited, with galloping
pulses and a perfect vacancy of mind, the coming of the stranger who
might mean so much to them. They had no plan, no story prepared; there
was no time to make one; they were caught red-handed and must stand
their chance. Yet this anxiety was chequered with hope. The island being
undeclared, it was not possible the man could hold any office or be in a
position to demand their papers. And beyond that, if there was any truth
in Findlay, as it now seemed there should be, he was the representative
of the 'private reasons,' he must see their coming with a profound
disappointment; and perhaps (hope whispered) he would be willing and
able to purchase their silence.

The boat was by that time forging alongside, and they were able at last
to see what manner of man they had to do with. He was a huge fellow,
six feet four in height, and of a build proportionately strong, but
his sinews seemed to be dissolved in a listlessness that was more than
languor. It was only the eye that corrected this impression; an eye
of an unusual mingled brilliancy and softness, sombre as coal and
with lights that outshone the topaz; an eye of unimpaired health and
virility; an eye that bid you beware of the man's devastating anger.
A complexion, naturally dark, had been tanned in the island to a hue
hardly distinguishable from that of a Tahitian; only his manners and
movements, and the living force that dwelt in him, like fire in flint,
betrayed the European. He was dressed in white drill, exquisitely made;
his scarf and tie were of tender-coloured silks; on the thwart beside
him there leaned a Winchester rifle.

'Is the doctor on board?' he cried as he came up. 'Dr Symonds, I mean?
You never heard of him? Nor yet of the Trinity Hall? Ah!'

He did not look surprised, seemed rather to affect it in politeness;
but his eye rested on each of the three white men in succession with a
sudden weight of curiosity that was almost savage. 'Ah, THEN!' said he,
'there is some small mistake, no doubt, and I must ask you to what I am
indebted for this pleasure?'

He was by this time on the deck, but he had the art to be quite
unapproachable; the friendliest vulgarian, three parts drunk, would have
known better than take liberties; and not one of the adventurers so much
as offered to shake hands.

'Well,' said Davis, 'I suppose you may call it an accident. We had heard
of your island, and read that thing in the Directory about the PRIVATE
REASONS, you see; so when we saw the lagoon reflected in the sky, we put
her head for it at once, and so here we are.'

''Ope we don't intrude!' said Huish.

The stranger looked at Huish with an air of faint surprise, and looked
pointedly away again. It was hard to be more offensive in dumb show.

'It may suit me, your coming here,' he said. 'My own schooner is
overdue, and I may put something in your way in the meantime. Are you
open to a charter?'

'Well, I guess so,' said Davis; 'it depends.'

'My name is Attwater,' continued the stranger. 'You, I presume, are the
captain?'

'Yes, sir. I am the captain of this ship: Captain Brown,' was the reply.

'Well, see 'ere!' said Huish, 'better begin fair! 'E's skipper on deck
right enough, but not below. Below, we're all equal, all got a lay in
the adventure; when it comes to business, I'm as good as 'e; and what I
say is, let's go into the 'ouse and have a lush, and talk it over among
pals. We've some prime fizz,' he said, and winked.

The presence of the gentleman lighted up like a candle the vulgarity of
the clerk; and Herrick instinctively, as one shields himself from pain,
made haste to interrupt.

'My name is Hay,' said he, 'since introductions are going. We shall be
very glad if you will step inside.'

Attwater leaned to him swiftly. 'University man?' said he.

'Yes, Merton,' said Herrick, and the next moment blushed scarlet at his
indiscretion.

'I am of the other lot,' said Attwater: 'Trinity Hall, Cambridge. I
called my schooner after the old shop. Well! this is a queer place and
company for us to meet in, Mr Hay,' he pursued, with easy incivility to
the others. 'But do you bear out ... I beg this gentleman's pardon, I
really did not catch his name.'

'My name is 'Uish, sir,' returned the clerk, and blushed in turn.

'Ah!' said Attwater. And then turning again to Herrick, 'Do you bear out
Mr Whish's description of your vintage? or was it only the unaffected
poetry of his own nature bubbling up?'

Herrick was embarrassed; the silken brutality of their visitor made
him blush; that he should be accepted as an equal, and the others thus
pointedly ignored, pleased him in spite of himself, and then ran through
his veins in a recoil of anger.

'I don't know,' he said. 'It's only California; it's good enough, I
believe.'

Attwater seemed to make up his mind. 'Well then, I'll tell you what: you
three gentlemen come ashore this evening and bring a basket of wine with
you; I'll try and find the food,' he said. 'And by the by, here is a
question I should have asked you when I come on board: have you had
smallpox?'

'Personally, no,' said Herrick. 'But the schooner had it.'

'Deaths?' from Attwater.

'Two,' said Herrick.

'Well, it is a dreadful sickness,' said Attwater.

''Ad you any deaths?' asked Huish, ''ere on the island?'

'Twenty-nine,' said Attwater. 'Twenty-nine deaths and thirty-one cases,
out of thirty-three souls upon the island.--That's a strange way to
calculate, Mr Hay, is it not? Souls! I never say it but it startles me.'

'Oh, so that's why everything's deserted?' said Huish.

'That is why, Mr Whish,' said Attwater; 'that is why the house is empty
and the graveyard full.'

'Twenty-nine out of thirty-three!' exclaimed Herrick, 'Why, when it came
to burying--or did you bother burying?'

'Scarcely,' said Attwater; 'or there was one day at least when we gave
up. There were five of the dead that morning, and thirteen of the dying,
and no one able to go about except the sexton and myself. We held a
council of war, took the... empty bottles... into the lagoon, and buried
them.' He looked over his shoulder, back at the bright water. 'Well,
so you'll come to dinner, then? Shall we say half-past six. So good of
you!'

His voice, in uttering these conventional phrases, fell at once into
the false measure of society; and Herrick unconsciously followed the
example.

'I am sure we shall be very glad,' he said. 'At half-past six? Thank you
so very much.'

'"For my voice has been tuned to the note of the gun

That startles the deep when the combat's begun,"'

quoted Attwater, with a smile, which instantly gave way to an air
of funereal solemnity. 'I shall particularly expect Mr Whish,' he
continued. 'Mr Whish, I trust you understand the invitation?'

'I believe you, my boy!' replied the genial Huish.

'That is right then; and quite understood, is it not?' said Attwater.
'Mr Whish and Captain Brown at six-thirty without fault--and you, Hay,
at four sharp.'

And he called his boat.

During all this talk, a load of thought or anxiety had weighed upon the
captain. There was no part for which nature had so liberally endowed
him as that of the genial ship captain. But today he was silent and
abstracted. Those who knew him could see that he hearkened close to
every syllable, and seemed to ponder and try it in balances. It
would have been hard to say what look there was, cold, attentive, and
sinister, as of a man maturing plans, which still brooded over the
unconscious guest; it was here, it was there, it was nowhere; it was now
so little that Herrick chid himself for an idle fancy; and anon it was
so gross and palpable that you could say every hair on the man's head
talked mischief.

He woke up now, as with a start. 'You were talking of a charter,' said
he.

'Was I?' said Attwater. 'Well, let's talk of it no more at present.'

'Your own schooner is overdue, I understand?' continued the captain.

'You understand perfectly, Captain Brown,' said Attwater; 'thirty-three
days overdue at noon today.'

'She comes and goes, eh? plies between here and...?' hinted the captain.

'Exactly; every four months; three trips in the year,' said Attwater.

'You go in her, ever?' asked Davis.

'No, one stops here,' said Attwater, 'one has plenty to attend to.'

'Stop here, do you?' cried Davis. 'Say, how long?'

'How long, O Lord,' said Attwater with perfect, stern gravity. 'But it
does not seem so,' he added, with a smile.

'No, I dare say not,' said Davis. 'No, I suppose not. Not with all your
gods about you, and in as snug a berth as this. For it is a pretty snug
berth,' said he, with a sweeping look.

'The spot, as you are good enough to indicate, is not entirely
intolerable,' was the reply.

'Shell, I suppose?' said Davis.

'Yes, there was shell,' said Attwater.

'This is a considerable big beast of a lagoon, sir,' said the captain.
'Was there a--was the fishing--would you call the fishing anyways GOOD?'

'I don't know that I would call it anyways anything,' said Attwater, 'if
you put it to me direct.'

'There were pearls too?' said Davis.

'Pearls, too,' said Attwater.

'Well, I give out!' laughed Davis, and his laughter rang cracked like a
false piece. 'If you're not going to tell, you're not going to tell, and
there's an end to it.'

'There can be no reason why I should affect the least degree of secrecy
about my island,' returned Attwater; 'that came wholly to an end with
your arrival; and I am sure, at any rate, that gentlemen like you and Mr
Whish, I should have always been charmed to make perfectly at home. The
point on which we are now differing--if you can call it a difference--is
one of times and seasons. I have some information which you think I
might impart, and I think not. Well, we'll see tonight! By-by, Whish!'
He stepped into his boat and shoved off. 'All understood, then?' said
he. 'The captain and Mr Whish at six-thirty, and you, Hay, at four
precise. You understand that, Hay? Mind, I take no denial. If you're not
there by the time named, there will be no banquet; no song, no supper,
Mr Whish!'

White birds whisked in the air above, a shoal of parti-coloured fishes
in the scarce denser medium below; between, like Mahomet's coffin, the
boat drew away briskly on the surface, and its shadow followed it over
the glittering floor of the lagoon. Attwater looked steadily back
over his shoulders as he sat; he did not once remove his eyes from the
Farallone and the group on her quarter-deck beside the house, till
his boat ground upon the pier. Thence, with an agile pace, he hurried
ashore, and they saw his white clothes shining in the chequered dusk of
the grove until the house received him.

The captain, with a gesture and a speaking countenance, called the
adventurers into the cabin.

'Well,' he said to Herrick, when they were seated, 'there's one good job
at least. He's taken to you in earnest.'

'Why should that be a good job?' said Herrick.

'Oh, you'll see how it pans out presently,' returned Davis. 'You go
ashore and stand in with him, that's all! You'll get lots of pointers;
you can find out what he has, and what the charter is, and who's the
fourth man--for there's four of them, and we're only three.'

'And suppose I do, what next?' cried Herrick. 'Answer me that!'

'So I will, Robert Herrick,' said the captain. 'But first, let's see all
clear. I guess you know,' he said with an imperious solemnity, 'I guess
you know the bottom is out of this Farallone speculation? I guess you
know it's RIGHT out? and if this old island hadn't been turned up right
when it did, I guess you know where you and I and Huish would have
been?'

'Yes, I know that,' said Herrick. 'No matter who's to blame, I know it.
And what next?'

'No matter who's to blame, you know it, right enough,' said the captain,
'and I'm obliged to you for the reminder. Now here's this Attwater: what
do you think of him?'

'I do not know,' said Herrick. 'I am attracted and repelled. He was
insufferably rude to you.'

'And you, Huish?' said the captain.

Huish sat cleaning a favourite briar root; he scarce looked up from that
engrossing task. 'Don't ast me what I think of him!' he said. 'There's a
day comin', I pray Gawd, when I can tell it him myself.'

'Huish means the same as what I do,' said Davis. 'When that man came
stepping around, and saying "Look here, I'm Attwater"--and you knew it
was so, by God!--I sized him right straight up. Here's the real
article, I said, and I don't like it; here's the real, first-rate,
copper-bottomed aristocrat. 'AW' I DON'T KNOW YE, DO I? GOD DAMN YE, DID
GOD MAKE YE?' No, that couldn't be nothing but genuine; a man got to be
born to that, and notice! smart as champagne and hard as nails; no kind
of a fool; no, SIR! not a pound of him! Well, what's he here upon this
beastly island for? I said. HE'S not here collecting eggs. He's a palace
at home, and powdered flunkies; and if he don't stay there, you bet he
knows the reason why! Follow?'

'O yes, I 'ear you,' said Huish.

'He's been doing good business here, then,' continued the captain. 'For
ten years, he's been doing a great business. It's pearl and shell, of
course; there couldn't be nothing else in such a place, and no doubt
the shell goes off regularly by this Trinity Hall, and the money for it
straight into the bank, so that's no use to us. But what else is there?
Is there nothing else he would be likely to keep here? Is there nothing
else he would be bound to keep here? Yes, sir; the pearls! First,
because they're too valuable to trust out of his hands. Second, because
pearls want a lot of handling and matching; and the man who sells his
pearls as they come in, one here, one there, instead of hanging back and
holding up--well, that man's a fool, and it's not Attwater.'

'Likely,' said Huish, 'that's w'at it is; not proved, but likely.'

'It's proved,' said Davis bluntly.

'Suppose it was?' said Herrick. 'Suppose that was all so, and he had
these pearls--a ten years' collection of them?--Suppose he had? There's
my question.'

The captain drummed with his thick hands on the board in front of him;
he looked steadily in Herrick's face, and Herrick as steadily looked
upon the table and the pattering fingers; there was a gentle oscillation
of the anchored ship, and a big patch of sunlight travelled to and fro
between the one and the other.

'Hear me!' Herrick burst out suddenly.

'No, you better hear me first,' said Davis. 'Hear me and understand me.
WE'VE got no use for that fellow, whatever you may have. He's your kind,
he's not ours; he's took to you, and he's wiped his boots on me and
Huish. Save him if you can!'

'Save him?' repeated Herrick.

'Save him, if you're able!' reiterated Davis, with a blow of his
clenched fist. 'Go ashore, and talk him smooth; and if you get him and
his pearls aboard, I'll spare him. If you don't, there's going to be a
funeral. Is that so, Huish? does that suit you?'

'I ain't a forgiving man,' said Huish, 'but I'm not the sort to spoil
business neither. Bring the bloke on board and bring his pearls along
with him, and you can have it your own way; maroon him where you
like--I'm agreeable.'

'Well, and if I can't?' cried Herrick, while the sweat streamed upon his
face. 'You talk to me as if I was God Almighty, to do this and that! But
if I can't?'

'My son,' said the captain, 'you better do your level best, or you'll
see sights!'

'O yes,' said Huish. 'O crikey, yes!' He looked across at Herrick with
a toothless smile that was shocking in its savagery; and his ear caught
apparently by the trivial expression he had used, broke into a piece of
the chorus of a comic song which he must have heard twenty years before
in London: meaningless gibberish that, in that hour and place, seemed
hateful as a blasphemy: 'Hikey, pikey, crikey, fikey, chillingawallaba
dory.'

The captain suffered him to finish; his face was unchanged.

'The way things are, there's many a man that wouldn't let you go
ashore,' he resumed. 'But I'm not that kind. I know you'd never go back
on me, Herrick! Or if you choose to--go, and do it, and be damned!' he
cried, and rose abruptly from the table.

He walked out of the house; and as he reached the door, turned and
called Huish, suddenly and violently, like the barking of a dog. Huish
followed, and Herrick remained alone in the cabin.

'Now, see here!' whispered Davis. 'I know that man. If you open your
mouth to him again, you'll ruin all.'

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The boat was gone again, and already half-way to the Farallone, beforeHerrick turned and went unwillingly up the pier. From the crown ofthe beach, the figure-head confronted him with what seemed irony,her helmeted head tossed back, her formidable arm apparently hurlingsomething, whether shell or missile, in the direction of the anchoredschooner. She seemed a defiant deity from the island, coming forth toits threshold with a rush as of one about to fly, and perpetuated inthat dashing attitude. Herrick looked up at her she towered abovehim head and shoulders, with singular feelings of curiosity and romance,and suffered his mind to travel
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Each took a side of the fixed table; it was the first time they had satdown at it together; but now all sense of incongruity, all memory ofdifferences, was quite swept away by the presence of the common ruin.'Gentlemen,' said the captain, after a pause, and with very much the airof a chairman opening a board-meeting, 'we're sold.'Huish broke out in laughter. 'Well, if this ain't the 'ighest old rig!'he cried. 'And Dyvis, 'ere, who thought he had got up so bloomin' earlyin the mornin'! We've stolen a cargo of spring water! Oh, my crikey!'and he squirmed with mirth.The captain managed
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