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Shipwreck!

A Tale of Desert Island Discord

There’s a cold wind blowing in the east and a roaring fire in the grate, so put a fine glass of porter in my hand, boys, and I’ll tell you a story of seafaring and adventuring.

On the ninth day of October, in the year AD ----, it happened that a fast clipper five days out of Liverpool, and a gaff-rigged schooner tacking due east from St Kitts, were caught in a big blow some miles to the west of Cape Verde. The schooner demasted and pitched over, while the clipper fought to make headway but was swept onto hidden rocks and broke up.

The schooner had two passengers, bankers by the name of Wilcox and Small, who were decanted in the ocean and found themselves clinging together for dear life onto a broken mizzen beam. Well, perhaps not for dear life, since they held on with just one hand apiece, while in the other each holding a sizable bag of gold coins, the provenance of which, whether fair or foul, was never rightly determined. Poseidon must have smiled on these men of substance, for they managed to make landfall on the west side of a small uncharted island. However, not being by nature, it seems, agreeable fellows, it wasn’t long before they discovered this plain fact for themselves, and they vowed to go their separate ways, one to the north and the other to the south.

Mr Wilcox went north, taking his money with him and announcing his intention to find a suitable spot on the beach in order to sit it out until help should arrive. It appears that Mr Wilcox remained defiant in this resolve, for he sat at his post for some weeks, until the crabs got him. Sad to tell, his money gave him no assistance whatsoever, but sat mutely beside him in the sand. It’s still there to this day, I shouldn’t wonder, and hasn’t moved a mussel since, if you’ll pardon the levity.

Mr Small, going south, had somewhat better fortune. He happened upon a party of sailors who were washed up from the wreck of the clipper and already, as sailors are wont to be, drunk as skunks on a salvaged barrel of grog. They were good-hearted souls, and once they had sobered up and taken stock they agreed readily to his suggestions, for it was clear to all that as a banker and a man of learning it was only right and proper that he should take charge of things in the matter of provisions and organisation. Now, Mr Small being a fair-minded and honest businessman, he said, and not wishing to drive the men into arduous labour for no return, he proposed to draw up a contract in order to pay the sailors from his bag of coins for their work, so much to build him a house, so much to hunt and fish, and likewise for whatever manner of other tasks he deemed appropriate. In their turn, and in proper respect for civilised trading agreements, the sailors undertook to yield to him all produce of their labours, and to buy back from him such as might be necessary for their upkeep, be it rent, vittals or any other thing covered by the contractual arrangement.

Things passed well enough for a while, until the sailors began to grumble that Mr Small seemed to have the best of it all, the best food, the best house, the best foragings, while they seemed to have very little, and all the money they earned seemed to end up right back in the banker’s pocket. Considering that it was they who were doing all the work, muttered the sailors, this did not seem altogether above board. They collected at the banker’s palatial hut one day and put the matter to him. Mr Small heard them out patiently, and then when they had finished, made his reply. See, he said, how well we have done here! We have houses, food, clothes, everything that we could reasonably wish for. And who has done all this? Why, I of course! Have I not paid you fair and square for every undertaking? Is it not the wealth that I alone brought to this island which has seen the food onto your plates and the clothes onto your backs? Do you begrudge me my small profit when it is my wealth that created all the wealth you see? Unable to fathom this, the sailors fell to arguing amongst themselves. Indeed it wasn’t long before the arguing became fighting, and Mr Small’s party being the better paid, there were quite a few dissenters strung up and others chased off. However it fell out I know not exactly, but I can tell you, as sure as I’m sitting here drinking this fine ale, there wasn’t one blessed soul of the lot of them left alive by the time the rescue ship turned up.

And how comes it that I am here to tell this tale, you may ask? Well, it’s no mystery, for I was among the third party to escape from that fateful storm, another group of sailors from the clipper who reached shore on the far side of the island. Washed up on the surf amid broken spars we were and, as luck would have it, a full barrel of grog and no officers about, so aye, first things first we too got ourselves as drunk as a box of Bilbao herring. But when we had sobered up, the next morning, we set about us to building shelters, and to hunting, fishing, and likewise acquiring all the creature comforts with our own hands, for we said to ourselves, like as not t’would be a season or two before we’d see dear old Liverpool again. In truth it wasn’t a bad old life, and not too much labour either, after we had things straight. We passed tolerably well, on the whole, and scratched our heads in amazement when one day a starved refugee reached our shore and told us of his flight from Mr Small’s village, and of the goings-on in that benighted place.

And now I’ll take another stoup of ale if you please, for there is my brief tale all but told. Rescue came in the fullness of time, and we thanked the grace of God we’d had no outbreaks of the flux while we were there. Game was in fair supply, the weather mild, and no savage indigenes intent on war and murder. T’is many a long year since last I saw that island, but not a day goes by that I don’t think of her, set in that sea of azure in the radiant light of the tropics. And I never fail to offer up a quiet prayer to the Almighty, to thank Him for not setting us ashore with a banker.

Witnessed and attested by PJS, April, AD -----