Merchantman and the Pirate by Charles Reade
(From Hard Cash.)
North Latitude 23½, Longitude East 113; the time March of this same
year; the wind southerly; the port Whampoa in the Canton River. Ships
at anchor reared their tall masts here and there; and the broad stream
was enlivened and colored by junks and boats of all sizes and vivid
hues, propelled on the screw principle by a great scull at the stern,
with projecting handles for the crew to work; and at times a gorgeous
mandarin boat, with two great glaring eyes set in the bows, came
flying, rowed with forty paddles by an armed crew, whose shields hung
on the gunwale and flashed fire in the sunbeams; the mandarin, in
conical and buttoned hat, sitting on the top of his cabin calmly
smoking Paradise, alias opium, while his gong boomed and his boat flew
fourteen miles an hour, and all things scuttled out of his celestial
way. And there, looking majestically down on all these water ants, the
huge Agra, cynosure of so many loving eyes and loving hearts in
England, lay at her moorings; homeward bound.
Her tea not being yet on board, the ship’s hull floated high as a
castle, and to the subtle, intellectual, doll-faced, bolus-eyed
people, that sculled to and fro, busy as bees, though looking forked
mushrooms, she sounded like a vast musical shell: for a lusty harmony
of many mellow voices vibrated in her great cavities, and made the air
ring cheerily around her. The vocalists were the Cyclops, to judge by
the tremendous thumps that kept clean time to their sturdy tune. Yet
it was but human labor, so heavy and so knowing, that it had called in
music to help. It was the third mate and his gang completing his floor
to receive the coming tea chests. Yesterday he had stowed his dunnage,
many hundred bundles of light flexible canes from Sumatra and Malacca;
on these he had laid tons of rough saltpetre, in 200 lb. gunny-bags:
and was now mashing it to music, bags and all. His gang of fifteen,
naked to the waist, stood in line, with huge wooden beetles, called
commanders, and lifted them high and brought them down on the nitre in
cadence with true nautical power and unison, singing as follows, with
a ponderous bump on the last note in each bar:—
Here goes one, Owe me there one;
One now it is gone, There’s an-oth-er yet to
come, and a-way we’ll go to Flanders, A-mongst
our wood-en commanders, where we’ll get wine in
plen-ty, Rum, bran-dy, and Ge-na-vy.
Here goes two. Owe me there two, &c.
And so up to fifteen, when the stave was concluded with a shrill
“Spell, oh!” and the gang relieved streaming with perspiration. When
the saltpetre was well mashed, they rolled ton waterbutts on it, till
the floor was like a billiard table. A fleet of chop boats then began
to arrive, so many per day, with the tea chests. Mr. Grey proceeded to
lay the first tier on his saltpetre floor, and then built the chests,
tier upon tier, beginning at the sides, and leaving in the middle a
lane somewhat narrower than a tea chest. Then he applied a screw jack
to the chests on both sides, and so enlarged his central aperture, and
forced the remaining tea chests in; and behold the enormous cargo
packed as tight as ever shopkeeper packed a box—19,806 chests, 60 half
chests, 50 quarter chests.
While Mr. Grey was contemplating his work with singular satisfaction,
a small boat from Canton came alongside, and Mr. Tickell, midshipman,
ran up the side, skipped on the quarter-deck, saluted it first, and
then the first mate; and gave him a line from the captain, desiring
him to take the ship down to Second Bar—for her water—at the turn of
Two hours after receipt of this order the ship swung to the ebb.
Instantly Mr. Sharpe unmoored, and the Agra began her famous voyage,
with her head at right angles to her course; for the wind being foul,
all Sharpe could do was to set his topsails, driver, and jib, and keep
her in the tide way, and clear of the numerous craft, by backing or
filling as the case required; which he did with considerable
dexterity, making the sails steer the helm for the nonce: he crossed
the Bar at sunset, and brought to with the best bower anchor in five
fathoms and a half. Here they began to take in their water, and on the
fifth day the six-oared gig was ordered up to Canton for the captain.
The next afternoon he passed the ship in her, going down the river to
Lin Tin, to board the Chinese admiral for his chop, or permission to
leave China. All night the Agra showed three lights at her mizzen peak
for him, and kept a sharp lookout. But he did not come: he was having
a very serious talk with the Chinese admiral; at daybreak, however,
the gig was reported in sight: Sharpe told one of the midshipmen to
call the boatswain and man the side. Soon the gig ran alongside; two
of the ship’s boys jumped like monkeys over the bulwarks, lighting,
one on the main channels, the other on the midship port, and put the
side ropes assiduously in the captain’s hands; he bestowed a slight
paternal smile on them, the first the imps had ever received from an
officer, and went lightly up the sides. The moment his foot touched
the deck, the boatswain gave a frightful shrill whistle; the men at
the sides uncovered, the captain saluted the quarterdeck, and all the
officers saluted him, which he returned, and stepping for a moment to
the weather side of his deck, gave the loud command, “All hands heave
anchor.” He then directed Mr. Sharpe to get what sail he could on the
ship, the wind being now westerly, and dived into his cabin.
The boatswain piped three shrill pipes, and “All hands up anchor” was
thrice repeated forward, followed by private admonitions, “Rouse and
bitt!” “Show a leg!” etc., and up tumbled the crew with “homeward
bound” written on their tanned faces.
(Pipe.) “Up all hammocks!”
In ten minutes the ninety and odd hammocks were all stowed neatly in
the netting, and covered with a snowy hammock cloth; and the hands
were active, unbitting the cable, shipping the capstan bars, etc.
“All ready below, sir,” cried a voice.
“Man the bars,” returned Mr. Sharpe from the quarter-deck. “Play up,
fifer. Heave away!”
Out broke the merry fife with a rhythmical tune, and tramp, tramp,
tramp went a hundred and twenty feet round and round, and, with brawny
chests pressed tight against the capstan bars, sixty fine fellows
walked the ship up to her anchor, drowning the fife at intervals with
their sturdy song, as pat to their feet as an echo:
Heave with a will ye jolly boys,
We’re off from Chainee, jolly boys,
“Short stay apeak, sir,” roars the boatswain from forward.
“Unship the bars. Way aloft. Loose sails. Let fall!”
The ship being now over her anchor, and the topsails set, the capstan
bars were shipped again, the men all heaved with a will, the messenger
grinned, the anchor was torn out of China with a mighty heave, and
then run up with a luff tackle and secured; the ship’s head cast to
“Up with a jib! man the topsail halyards! all hands make sail!” Round
she came slow and majestically; the sails filled, and the good ship
bore away for England.
She made the Bogue forts in three or four tacks, and there she had to
come to again for another chop, China being a place as hard to get
into as Heaven, and to get out of as—Chancery. At three P.M. she was
at Macao, and hove to four miles from the land, to take in her
A gun was fired from the forecastle. No boats came off. Sharpe began
to fret: for the wind, though light, had now got to the N.W., and they
were wasting it. After a while the captain came on deck, and ordered
all the carronades to be scaled. The eight heavy reports bellowed the
great ship’s impatience across the water, and out pulled two boats
with the passengers. While they were coming, Dodd sent and ordered the
gunner to load the carronades with shot, and secure and apron them....
The Agra had already shown great sailing qualities: the log was hove
at sundown and gave eleven knots; so that with a good breeze abaft few
fore-and-aft-rigged pirates could overhaul her. And this wind carried
her swiftly past one nest of them at all events; the Ladrone Isles. At
nine P.M. all the lights were ordered out. Mrs. Beresford had brought
a novel on board, and refused to comply; the master-at-arms insisted;
she threatened him with the vengeance of the Company, the premier, and
the nobility and gentry of the British realm. The master-at-arms,
finding he had no chance in argument, doused the glim—pitiable
resource of a weak disputant—then basely fled the rhetorical
The northerly breeze died out, and light variable winds baffled the
ship. It was the 6th April ere she passed the Macclesfield Bank in
latitude 16. And now they sailed for many days out of sight of land;
Dodd’s chest expanded: his main anxiety at this part of the voyage lay
in the state cabin; of all the perils of the sea none shakes a sailor
like fire. He set a watch day and night on that spoiled child.
On the 1st of May they passed the great Nantuna, and got among the
Bornese and Malay Islands: at which the captain’s glass began to sweep
the horizon again: and night and day at the dizzy
foretop-gallant-masthead he perched an eye.
They crossed the line in longitude 107, with a slight breeze, but soon
fell into the Doldrums. A dead calm, and nothing to do but kill
After lying a week like a dead log on the calm but heaving waters,
came a few light puffs in the upper air and inflated the topsails
only: the ship crawled southward, the crew whistling for wind.
At last, one afternoon, it began to rain, and after the rain came a
gale from the eastward. The watchful skipper saw it purple the water
to windward, and ordered the topsails to be reefed and the lee ports
closed. This last order seemed an excess of precaution; but Dodd was
not yet thoroughly acquainted with his ship’s qualities: and the hard
cash round his neck made him cautious. The lee ports were closed, all
but one, and that was lowered. Mr. Grey was working a problem in his
cabin, and wanted a little light and a little air, so he just dropped
his port; but, not to deviate from the spirit of his captain’s
instructions, he fastened a tackle to it; that he might have
mechanical force to close it with should the ship lie over.
Down came the gale with a whoo, and made all crack. The ship lay over
pretty much, and the sea poured in at Mr. Grey’s port. He applied his
purchase to close it. But though his tackle gave him the force of a
dozen hands, he might as well have tried to move a mountain: on the
contrary, the tremendous sea rushed in and burst the port wide open.
Grey, after a vain struggle with its might, shrieked for help; down
tumbled the nearest hands, and hauled on the tackle in vain.
Destruction was rushing on the ship, and on them first. But meantime
the captain, with a shrewd guess at the general nature of the danger
he could not see, had roared out, “Slack the main sheet!” The ship
righted, and the port came flying to, and terror-stricken men breathed
hard, up to their waists in water and floating boxes. Grey barred the
unlucky port, and went aft, drenched in body, and wrecked in mind, to
report his own fault. He found the captain looking grim as death. He
told him, almost crying, what he had done, and how he had
miscalculated the power of the water.
Dodd looked and saw his distress. “Let it be a lesson, sir,” said he,
sternly. “How many ships have been lost by this in fair weather, and
not a man saved to tell how the craft was fooled away?”
“Captain, bid me fling myself over the side, and I’ll do it.”
“Humph! I’m afraid I can’t afford to lose a good officer for a fault
It blew hard all night and till twelve the next day. The Agra showed
her weak point: she rolled abominably. A dirty night came on. At eight
bells Mr. Grey touched by Dodd’s clemency, and brimful of zeal,
reported a light in Mrs. Beresford’s cabin. It had been put out as
usual by the master-at-arms; but the refractory one had relighted it.
“Go and take it away,” said Dodd.
Soon screams were heard from the cabin. “Oh! mercy! mercy! I will not
be drowned in the dark.”
Dodd, who had kept clear of her so long, went down and tried to
“Oh, the tempest! the tempest!” she cried. “And to be drowned in the
“Tempest? It is blowing half a gale of wind; that is all.”
“Half a gale! Ah, that is the way you always talk to us ladies. Oh,
pray give me my light, and send me a clergyman!”
Dodd took pity, and let her have her light, with a midshipman to watch
it. He even made her a hypocritical promise that, should there be one
grain of danger, he would lie to; but said he must not make a foul
wind of a fair one for a few lee lurches. The Agra broke plenty of
glass and crockery though with her fair wind and her lee lurches.
Wind down at noon next day, and a dead calm.
At two P.M. the weather cleared; the sun came out high in heaven’s
centre; and a balmy breeze from the west.
At six twenty-five, the grand orb set calm and red, and the sea was
gorgeous with miles and miles of great ruby dimples: it was the first
glowing smile of southern latitude. The night stole on so soft, so
clear, so balmy, all were loth to close their eyes on it: the
passengers lingered long on deck, watching the Great Bear dip, and the
Southern Cross rise, and overhead a whole heaven of glorious stars
most of us have never seen, and never shall see in this world. No
belching smoke obscured, no plunging paddles deafened; all was
musical; the soft air sighing among the sails; the phosphorescent
water bubbling from the ship’s bows; the murmurs from little knots of
men on deck subdued by the great calm: home seemed near, all danger
far; Peace ruled the sea, the sky, the heart: the ship, making a track
of white fire on the deep, glided gently yet swiftly homeward, urged
by snowy sails piled up like alabaster towers against a violet sky,
out of which looked a thousand eyes of holy tranquil fire. So melted
the sweet night away.
Now carmine streaks tinged the eastern sky at the water’s edge; and
that water blushed; now the streaks turned orange, and the waves below
them sparkled. Thence splashes of living gold flew and settled on the
ship’s white sails, the deck, and the faces; and with no more
prologue, being so near the line, up came majestically a huge, fiery,
golden sun, and set the sea flaming liquid topaz.
Instantly the lookout at the foretop-gallant-masthead hailed the deck
“Strange sail! Right ahead!”
The strange sail was reported to Captain Dodd, then dressing in his
cabin. He came soon after on deck and hailed the lookout: “Which way
is she standing?”
“Can’t say, sir. Can’t see her move any.”
Dodd ordered the boatswain to pipe to breakfast; and taking his deck
glass went lightly up to the foretop-gallant-mast-crosstrees. Thence,
through the light haze of a glorious morning, he espied a long low
schooner, lateen-rigged, lying close under Point Leat, a small island
about nine miles distant on the weather bow; and nearly in the Agra’s
course then approaching the Straits of Gaspar, 4 Latitude S.
“She is hove to,” said Dodd, very gravely.
At eight o’clock, the stranger lay about two miles to windward; and
still hove to.
By this time all eyes were turned upon her, and half a dozen glasses.
Everybody, except the captain, delivered an opinion. She was a Greek
lying to for water: she was a Malay coming north with canes, and short
of hands: she was a pirate watching the Straits.
The captain leaned silent and sombre with his arms on the bulwarks,
and watched the suspected craft.
Mr. Fullalove joined the group, and levelled a powerful glass, of his
own construction. His inspection was long and minute, and, while the
glass was at his eye, Sharpe asked him half in a whisper, could he
make out anything?
“Wal,” said he, “the varmint looks considerably snaky.” Then, without
moving his glass, he let drop a word at a time, as if the facts were
trickling into his telescope at the lens, and out at the sight.
“One—two—four—seven, false ports.”
There was a momentary murmur among the officers all round. But British
sailors are undemonstrative: Colonel Kenealy, strolling the deck with
a cigar, saw they were watching another ship with maritime curiosity,
and making comments; but he discerned no particular emotion nor
anxiety in what they said, nor in the grave low tones they said it in.
Perhaps a brother seaman would though.
The next observation that trickled out of Fullalove’s tube was this:
“I judge there are too few hands on deck, and too
many—white—eyeballs—glittering at the portholes.”
“Confound it!” muttered Bayliss, uneasily; “how can you see that?”
Fullalove replied only by quietly handing his glass to Dodd. The
captain, thus appealed to, glued his eye to the tube.
“Well, sir; see the false ports, and the white eyebrows?” asked
“I see this is the best glass I ever looked through,” said Dodd
doggedly, without interrupting his inspection.
“I think he is a Malay pirate,” said Mr. Grey.
Sharpe took him up very quickly, and, indeed, angrily: “Nonsense! And
if he is, he won’t venture on a craft of this size.”
“Says the whale to the swordfish,” suggested Fullalove, with a little
The captain, with the American glass at his eye, turned half round to
the man at the wheel: “Starboard!”
“Starboard it is.”
“Steer South South East.”
“Ay, ay, sir.” And the ship’s course was thus altered two points.
This order lowered Dodd fifty per cent in Mr. Sharpe’s estimation. He
held his tongue as long as he could: but at last his surprise and
dissatisfaction burst out of him, “Won’t that bring him out on us?”
“Very likely, sir,” replied Dodd.
“Begging your pardon, captain, would it not be wiser to keep our
course, and show the blackguard we don’t fear him?”
“When we do? Sharpe, he has made up his mind an hour ago whether to
lie still, or bite; my changing my course two points won’t change his
mind; but it may make him declare it; and I must know what he does
intend, before I run the ship into the narrows ahead.”
“Oh, I see,” said Sharpe, half convinced.
The alteration in the Agra’s course produced no movement on the part
of the mysterious schooner. She lay to under the land still, and with
only a few hands on deck, while the Agra edged away from her and
entered the straits between Long Island and Point Leat, leaving the
schooner about two miles and a half distant to the N.W.
Ah! The stranger’s deck swarms black with men.
His sham ports fell as if by magic, his guns grinned through the gaps
like black teeth; his huge foresail rose and filled, and out he came
The breeze was a kiss from Heaven, the sky a vaulted sapphire, the sea
a million dimples of liquid, lucid, gold....
The way the pirate dropped the mask, showed his black teeth, and bore
up in chase, was terrible: so dilates and bounds the sudden tiger on
his unwary prey. There were stout hearts among the officers of the
peaceable Agra; but danger in a new form shakes the brave; and this
was their first pirate: their dismay broke out in ejaculations not
loud but deep....
“Sharpe,” said Dodd, in a tone that conveyed no suspicion of the
newcomer, “set the royals, and flying jib.—Port!”
“Port it is,” cried the man at the helm.
“Steer due South!” And, with these words in his mouth, Dodd dived to
the gun deck.
By this time elastic Sharpe had recovered the first shock; and the
order to crowd sail on the ship galled his pride and his manhood; he
muttered, indignantly, “The white feather!” This eased his mind, and
he obeyed orders briskly as ever. While he and his hands were setting
every rag the ship could carry on that tack, the other officers,
having unluckily no orders to execute, stood gloomy and helpless, with
their eyes glued, by a sort of sombre fascination, on that coming
Realize the situation, and the strange incongruity between the senses
and the mind in these poor fellows! The day had ripened its beauty;
beneath a purple heaven shone, sparkled, and laughed a blue sea, in
whose waves the tropical sun seemed to have fused his beams; and
beneath that fair, sinless, peaceful sky, wafted by a balmy breeze
over those smiling, transparent, golden waves, a bloodthirsty Pirate
bore down on them with a crew of human tigers; and a lady babble
babble babble babble babble babble babbled in their quivering ears.
But now the captain came bustling on deck, eyed the loftier sails, saw
they were drawing well, appointed four midshipmen a staff to convey
his orders; gave Bayliss charge of the carronades, Grey of the
cutlasses, and directed Mr. Tickell to break the bad news gently to
Mrs. Beresford, and to take her below to the orlop deck; ordered the
purser to serve out beef, biscuit, and grog to all hands, saying, “Men
can’t work on an empty stomach: and fighting is hard work;” then
beckoned the officers to come round him. “Gentlemen,” said he,
confidentially, “in crowding sail on this ship I had no hope of
escaping that fellow on this tack, but I was, and am, most anxious to
gain the open sea, where I can square my yards and run for it, if I
see a chance. At present I shall carry on till he comes up within
range: and then, to keep the Company’s canvas from being shot to rags,
I shall shorten sail; and to save ship and cargo and all our lives, I
shall fight while a plank of her swims. Better to be killed in hot
blood than walk the plank in cold.”
The officers cheered faintly: the captain’s dogged resolution stirred
“Shorten sail to the taupsles and jib, get the colors ready on the
halyards, and then send the men aft....”
Sail was no sooner shortened, and the crew ranged, than the captain
came briskly on deck, saluted, jumped on a carronade, and stood erect.
He was not the man to show the crew his forebodings.
(Pipe.) “Silence fore and aft.”
“My men, the schooner coming up on our weather quarter is a Portuguese
pirate. His character is known; he scuttles all the ships he boards,
dishonors the women, and murders the crew. We cracked on to get out of
the narrows, and now we have shortened sail to fight this blackguard,
and teach him not to molest a British ship. I promise, in the
Company’s name, twenty pounds prize money to every man before the mast
if we beat him off or out-manœuvre him; thirty if we sink him; and
forty if we tow him astern into a friendly port. Eight guns are clear
below, three on the weather side, five on the lee; for, if he knows
his business, he will come up on the lee quarter: if he doesn’t, that
is no fault of yours nor mine. The muskets are all loaded, the
cutlasses ground like razors—”
“We have got women to defend—”
“A good ship under our feet, the God of justice overhead, British
hearts in our bosoms, and British colors flying—run ’em up!—over our
heads.” (The ship’s colors flew up to the fore, and the Union Jack to
the mizzen peak.) “Now lads, I mean to fight this ship while a plank
of her (stamping on the deck) swims beneath my foot and—what do you
The reply was a fierce “hurrah!” from a hundred throats, so loud, so
deep, so full of volume, it made the ship vibrate, and rang in the
creeping-on pirate’s ears. Fierce, but cunning, he saw mischief in
those shortened sails, and that Union Jack, the terror of his tribe,
rising to a British cheer; he lowered his mainsail, and crawled up on
the weather quarter. Arrived within a cable’s length, he double reefed
his foresail to reduce his rate of sailing nearly to that of the ship;
and the next moment a tongue of flame, and then a gash of smoke,
issued from his lee bow, and the ball flew screaming like a seagull
over the Agra’s mizzen top. He then put his helm up, and fired his
other bow-chaser, and sent the shot hissing and skipping on the water
past the ship. This prologue made the novices wince. Bayliss wanted to
reply with a carronade; but Dodd forbade him sternly, saying, “If we
keep him aloof we are done for.”
The pirate drew nearer, and fired both guns in succession, hulled the
Agra amidships, and sent an eighteen pound ball through her foresail.
Most of the faces were pale on the quarter-deck; it was very trying to
be shot at, and hit, and make no return. The next double discharge
sent one shot smash through the stern cabin window, and splintered the
bulwark with another, wounding a seaman slightly.
“Lie down forward!” shouted Dodd, through his trumpet. “Bayliss, give
him a shot.”
The carronade was fired with a tremendous report, but no visible
effect. The pirate crept nearer, steering in and out like a snake to
avoid the carronades, and firing those two heavy guns alternately into
the devoted ship. He hulled the Agra now nearly every shot.
The two available carronades replied noisily, and jumped as usual;
they sent one thirty-two pound shot clean through the schooner’s deck
and side; but that was literally all they did worth speaking of.
“Curse them!” cried Dodd; “load them with grape! they are not to be
trusted with ball. And all my eighteen-pounders dumb! The coward won’t
come alongside and give them a chance.”
At the next discharge the pirate chipped the mizzen mast, and knocked
a sailor into dead pieces on the forecastle. Dodd put his helm down
ere the smoke cleared, and got three carronades to bear, heavily laden
with grape. Several pirates fell, dead or wounded, on the crowded
deck, and some holes appeared in the foresail; this one interchange
was quite in favor of the ship.
But the lesson made the enemy more cautious; he crept nearer, but
steered so adroitly, now right astern, now on the quarter, that the
ship could seldom bring more than one carronade to bear, while he
raked her fore and aft with grape and ball.
In this alarming situation, Dodd kept as many of the men below as
possible; but, for all he could do four were killed and seven wounded.
Fullalove’s word came too true: it was the swordfish and the whale: it
was a fight of hammer and anvil; one hit, the other made a noise.
Cautious and cruel, the pirate hung on the poor hulking creature’s
quarters and raked her at point blank distance. He made her pass a
bitter time. And her captain! To see the splintering hull, the parting
shrouds, the shivered gear, and hear the shrieks and groans of his
wounded; and he unable to reply in kind! The sweat of agony poured
down his face. Oh, if he could but reach the open sea, and square his
yards, and make a long chase of it; perhaps fall in with aid. Wincing
under each heavy blow, he crept doggedly, patiently on, towards that
one visible hope.
At last, when the ship was cloven with shot, and peppered with grape,
the channel opened: in five minutes more he could put her dead before
No. The pirate, on whose side luck had been from the first, got half a
broadside to bear at long musket shot, killed a midshipman by Dodd’s
side, cut away two of the Agra’s mizzen shrouds, wounded the gaff: and
cut the jib stay; down fell that powerful sail into the water, and
dragged across the ship’s forefoot, stopping her way to the open sea
she panted for; the mates groaned; the crew cheered stoutly, as
British tars do in any great disaster; the pirates yelled with
ferocious triumph, like the devils they looked.
But most human events, even calamities, have two sides. The Agra being
brought almost to a standstill, the pirate forged ahead against his
will, and the combat took a new and terrible form. The elephant gun
popped, and the rifle cracked, in the Agra’s mizzen top, and the man
at the pirate’s helm jumped into the air and fell dead: both Theorists
claimed him. Then the three carronades peppered him hotly; and he
hurled an iron shower back with fatal effect. Then at last the long
18-pounders on the gun-deck got a word in. The old Niler was not the
man to miss a vessel alongside in a quiet sea; he sent two round shot
clean through him; the third splintered his bulwark, and swept across
“His masts! fire at his masts!” roared Dodd to Monk, through his
trumpet; he then got the jib clear, and made what sail he could
without taking all the hands from the guns.
This kept the vessels nearly alongside a few minutes, and the fight
was hot as fire. The pirate now for the first time hoisted his flag.
It was black as ink. His crew yelled as it rose: the Britons, instead
of quailing, cheered with fierce derision: the pirate’s wild crew of
yellow Malays, black chinless Papuans, and bronzed Portuguese, served
their side guns, 12-pounders, well and with ferocious cries; the white
Britons, drunk with battle now, naked to the waist, grimed with
powder, and spotted like leopards with blood, their own and their
mates’, replied with loud undaunted cheers, and deadly hail of grape
from the quarter-deck; while the master gunner and his mates, loading
with a rapidity the mixed races opposed could not rival, hulled the
schooner well between wind and water, and then fired chain shot at her
masts, as ordered, and began to play the mischief with her shrouds and
rigging. Meantime, Fullalove and Kenealy, aided by Vespasian, who
loaded, were quietly butchering the pirate crew two a minute, and
hoped to settle the question they were fighting for; smooth bore v.
rifle: but unluckily neither fired once without killing; so “there was
The pirate, bold as he was, got sick of fair fighting first; he
hoisted his mainsail and drew rapidly ahead, with a slight bearing to
windward, and dismounted a carronade and stove in the ship’s
quarter-boat, by way of a parting kick.
The men hurled a contemptuous cheer after him; they thought they had
beaten him off. But Dodd knew better. He was but retiring a little way
to make a more deadly attack than ever: he would soon wear, and cross
the Agra’s defenceless bows, to rake her fore and aft at pistol-shot
distance; or grapple, and board the enfeebled ship two hundred strong.
Dodd flew to the helm, and with his own hands put it hard a weather,
to give the deck guns one more chance, the last, of sinking or
disabling the Destroyer. As the ship obeyed, and a deck gun bellowed
below him, he saw a vessel running out from Long Island, and coming
swiftly up on his lee quarter.
It was a schooner. Was she coming to his aid?
Horror! A black flag floated from her foremast head.
While Dodd’s eyes were staring almost out of his head at this
death-blow to hope, Monk fired again; and just then a pale face came
close to Dodd’s, and a solemn voice whispered in his ear: “Our
ammunition is nearly done!”
Dodd seized Sharpe’s hand convulsively, and pointed to the pirate’s
consort coming up to finish them; and said, with the calm of a brave
man’s despair, “Cutlasses! and die hard!”
At that moment the master gunner fired his last gun. It sent a chain
shot on board the retiring pirate, took off a Portuguese head and spun
it clean into the sea ever so far to windward, and cut the schooner’s
foremast so nearly through that it trembled and nodded, and presently
snapped with a loud crack, and came down like a broken tree, with the
yard and sail; the latter overlapping the deck and burying itself,
black flag and all, in the sea; and there, in one moment, lay the
Destroyer buffeting and wriggling—like a heron on the water with its
long wing broken—an utter cripple.
The victorious crew raised a stunning cheer.
“Silence!” roared Dodd, with his trumpet. “All hands make sail!”
He set his courses, bent a new jib, and stood out to windward close
hauled, in hopes to make a good offing, and then put his ship dead
before the wind, which was now rising to a stiff breeze. In doing this
he crossed the crippled pirate’s bows, within eighty yards; and sore
was the temptation to rake him; but his ammunition being short, and
his danger being imminent from the other pirate, he had the self
command to resist the great temptation.
He hailed the mizzen top: “Can you two hinder them from firing that
“I rather think we can,” said Fullalove, “eh, colonel?” and tapped his
The ship no sooner crossed the schooner’s bows than a Malay ran
forward with a linstock. Pop went the colonel’s ready carbine, and the
Malay fell over dead, and the linstock flew out of his hand. A tall
Portuguese, with a movement of rage, snatched it up, and darted to the
gun; the Yankee rifle cracked, but a moment too late. Bang! went the
pirate’s bow-chaser, and crashed into the Agra’s side, and passed
nearly through her.
“Ye missed him! Ye missed him!” cried the rival theorist, joyfully. He
was mistaken: the smoke cleared, and there was the pirate captain
leaning wounded against the mainmast with a Yankee bullet in his
shoulder, and his crew uttering yells of dismay and vengeance. They
jumped, and raged, and brandished their knives, and made horrid
gesticulations of revenge; and the white eyeballs of the Malays and
Papuans glittered fiendishly; and the wounded captain raised his sound
arm and had a signal hoisted to his consort, and she bore up in chase,
and jamming her fore lateen flat as a board, lay far nearer the wind
than the Agra could, and sailed three feet to her two besides. On this
superiority being made clear, the situation of the merchant vessel,
though not so utterly desperate as before Monk fired his lucky shot,
became pitiable enough. If she ran before the wind, the fresh pirate
would cut her off: if she lay to windward, she might postpone the
inevitable and fatal collision with a foe as strong as that she had
only escaped by a rare piece of luck; but this would give the crippled
pirate time to refit and unite to destroy her. Add to this the failing
ammunition, and the thinned crew!
Dodd cast his eyes all round the horizon for help.
The sea was blank.
The bright sun was hidden now; drops of rain fell, and the wind was
beginning to sing; and the sea to rise a little.
“Gentlemen,” said he, “let us kneel down and pray for wisdom, in this
He and his officers kneeled on the quarter-deck. When they rose, Dodd
stood rapt about a minute; his great thoughtful eye saw no more the
enemy, the sea, nor anything external; it was turned inward. His
officers looked at him in silence.
“Sharpe,” said he, at last, “there must be a way out of them with
such a breeze as this is now; if we could but see it.”
“Ay, if,” groaned Sharpe.
Dodd mused again.
“About ship!” said he, softly, like an absent man.
“Ay, ay, sir!”
“Steer due north!” said he, still like one whose mind was elsewhere.
While the ship was coming about, he gave minute orders to the mates
and the gunner, to ensure co-operation in the delicate and dangerous
manœuvres that were sure to be on hand.
The wind was W.N.W.: he was standing north: one pirate lay on his lee
beam stopping a leak between wind and water, and hacking the deck
clear of his broken masts and yards. The other fresh, and thirsting
for the easy prey, came up to weather on him and hang on his quarter,
When they were distant about a cable’s length, the fresh pirate, to
meet the ship’s change of tactics, changed his own, luffed up, and
gave the ship a broadside, well aimed but not destructive, the guns
being loaded with ball.
Dodd, instead of replying immediately, put his helm hard up and ran
under the pirate’s stern, while he was jammed up in the wind, and with
his five eighteen-pounders raked him fore and aft, then paying off,
gave him three carronades crammed with grape and canister; the almost
simultaneous discharge of eight guns made the ship tremble, and
enveloped her in thick smoke; loud shrieks and groans were heard from
the schooner; the smoke cleared; the pirate’s mainsail hung on deck,
his jib-boom was cut off like a carrot and the sail struggling; his
foresail looked lace, lanes of dead and wounded lay still or writhing
on his deck, and his lee scuppers ran blood into the sea. Dodd squared
his yards and bore away.
The ship rushed down the wind, leaving the schooner staggered and all
abroad. But not for long; the pirate wore and fired his bow chasers at
the now flying Agra, split one of the carronades in two, and killed a
Lascar, and made a hole in the foresail; this done, he hoisted his
mainsail again in a trice, sent his wounded below, flung his dead
overboard, to the horror of their foes, and came after the flying
ship, yawning and firing his bow chasers. The ship was silent. She had
no shot to throw away. Not only did she take these blows like a
coward, but all signs of life disappeared on her, except two men at
the wheel, and the captain on the main gangway.
Dodd had ordered the crew out of the rigging, armed them with
cutlasses, and laid them flat on the forecastle. He also compelled
Kenealy and Fullalove to come down out of harm’s way, no wiser on the
smooth-bore question than they went up.
The great patient ship ran environed by her foes; one destroyer right
in her course, another in her wake, following her with yells of
vengeance, and pounding away at her—but no reply.
Suddenly the yells of the pirates on both sides ceased, and there was
a moment of dead silence on the sea.
Yet nothing fresh had happened.
Yes, this had happened: the pirates to windward, and the pirates to
leeward, of the Agra, had found out, at one and the same moment, that
the merchant captain they had lashed, and bullied, and tortured, was a
patient but tremendous man. It was not only to rake the fresh schooner
he had put his ship before the wind, but also by a double, daring,
master-stroke to hurl his monster ship bodily on the other. Without a
foresail she could never get out of his way. Her crew had stopped the
leak, and cut away and unshipped the broken foremast, and were
stepping a new one, when they saw the huge ship bearing down in full
sail. Nothing easier than to slip out of her way could they get the
foresail to draw; but the time was short, the deadly intention
manifest, the coming destruction swift. After that solemn silence came
a storm of cries and curses, as their seamen went to work to fit the
yard and raise the sail; while their fighting men seized their
matchlocks and trained the guns. They were well commanded by an heroic
able villain. Astern the consort thundered; but the Agra’s response
was a dead silence more awful than broadsides.
For then was seen with what majesty the enduring Anglo-Saxon fights.
One of that indomitable race on the gangway, one at the foremast, two
at the wheel, conned and steered the great ship down on a hundred
matchlocks, and a grinning broadside, just as they would have conned
and steered her into a British harbor.
“Starboard!” said Dodd, in a deep calm voice, with a motion of his
“Starboard it is.”
The pirate wriggled ahead a little. The man forward made a silent
signal to Dodd.
“Port!” said Dodd, quietly.
“Port it is.”
But at this critical moment the pirate astern sent a mischievous shot,
and knocked one of the men to atoms at the helm.
Dodd waved his hand without a word, and another man rose from the
deck, and took his place in silence, and laid his unshaking hand on
the wheel stained with that man’s warm blood whose place he took.
The high ship was now scarce sixty yards distant: she seemed to
know: she reared her lofty figure-head with great awful shoots into
But now the panting pirates got their new foresail hoisted with a
joyful shout: it drew, the schooner gathered way, and their furious
consort close on the Agra’s heels just then scourged her deck with
“Port!” said Dodd, calmly.
“Port it is.”
The giant prow darted at the escaping pirate. That acre of coming
canvas took the wind out of the swift schooner’s foresail; it flapped:
oh, then she was doomed!... Crash! the Indiaman’s cut-water in thick
smoke beat in the schooner’s broadside: down went her masts to leeward
like fishing-rods whipping the water; there was a horrible shrieking
yell; wild forms leaped off on the Agra, and were hacked to pieces
almost ere they reached the deck—a surge, a chasm in the ear, filled
with an instant rush of engulfing waves, a long, awful, grating,
grinding noise, never to be forgotten in this world, all along under
the ship’s keel—and the fearful majestic monster passed on over the
blank she had made, with a pale crew standing silent and awestruck on
her deck; a cluster of wild heads and staring eyeballs bobbing like
corks in her foaming wake, sole relic of the blotted-out Destroyer;
and a wounded man staggering on the gangway, with hands uplifted and