Thursday, 28 January 2010

Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson

The classic pirate adventure, Treasure Island introduced the world (and myself as a young boy) to Long John Silver, the Black Spot and X marks the spot. Stevenson’s novel is full of characters described as a "true sea-dog" and a "real old salt" and such like. With pedigree like that it can be rightly assumed that the book is soused in rum.

The author’s attitude to the sailors’ favourite tipple is actually rather damning: nobody who indulges in rum comes to any good. (The only abstemious pirate is old Long John himself, who is sober enough to save his skin when he’s given the Black Spot by convincing his would be executioners that they have damned themselves by ripping a page from the Bible for their summons.)

The novel starts with the arrival of Billy Bones at the Admiral Benbow inn. Once first mate to the infamous pirate Flint, Bones is now a derelict old soak with one eye permanently over his shoulder. The book’s narrator, Jim Hawkins, remembers him holding court in the bar at night, knocking back the drink:

There were nights when he took a deal more rum and water than his head would carry; and then he would sometimes sit and sing his wicked, old, wild sea-songs, minding nobody; but sometimes he would call for glasses round and force all the trembling company to listen to his stories or bear a chorus to his singing. Often I have heard the house shaking with "Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum," all the neighbours joining in for dear life... Nor would he allow anyone to leave the inn till he had drunk himself sleepy and reeled off to bed.

Too much rum isn’t good for a man, especially if he’s upset his old friends. Attacked by a scurvy old tar by the name of Black Dog, Bones has a stroke; although all he can think about is one more drink:

"Jim," says he, "rum"; and as he spoke, he reeled a little, and caught himself with one hand against the wall. "Are you hurt?" cried I. "Rum," he repeated. "I must get away from here. Rum! Rum!"

The doctor reads him the riot act:

“...what I have to say to you is this; one glass of rum won't kill you, but if you take one you'll take another and another, and I stake my wig if you don't break off short, you'll die—do you understand that?—die, and go to your own place, like the man in the Bible.”

Bones isn’t convinced, and begs Jim for a glass of the old poison:

“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... 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."

Rattling with the DTs, Bones’ number is about to come up. When Blind Pew tips him the Black Spot a few days later, he drops dead of stroke number two. Everyone else blames the rum, of course...

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