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. "Hush," said Dodd doggedly; "the lady!"
Mrs. Beresford had just come on deck to enjoy the balmy morning.
"Sharpe," said Dodd, in a tone that conveyed no suspicion to the new-comer, "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 fate; and they literally jumped and jarred when Mrs. Beresford, her heart opened by the lovely day, broke in on their nerves with her light treble.
"What a sweet morning, gentlemen! After all, a voyage is a delightful thing. Oh, what a splendid sea! and the very breeze is warm. Ah! and there's a little ship sailing along: here, Freddy, Freddy darling, leave off beating the sailor's legs, and come here and see this pretty ship. What a pity it is so far off. Ah! ah! what is that dreadful noise?"
For her horrible small talk, that grated on those anxious souls like the mockery of some infantine fiend, was cut short by ponderous blows and tremendous smashing below. It was the captain staving in water-casks: the water poured out at the scuppers.
"Clearing the lee guns," said a middy, off his guard.
Colonel Kenealy pricked up his ears, drew his cigar from his mouth, and smelt powder "What, for action ?" said he briskly. "Where's the enemy?"
Fullalove made him a signal, and they went below.
Mrs. Beresford had not heard or not appreciated the remark: she prattled on till she made the mates and midshipmen shudder.
Realise 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 beet 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 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 be killed in hot blood than walk the plank in cold."
The officers cheered faintly; the captain's dogged resolution stirred up theirs.
The pirate had gained another quarter of a mile and more. The ship's crew were hard at their beef and grog, and agreed among themselves it was a comfortable ship. They guessed what was coming, and woe to the ship in that hour if the captain had not won their respect. Strange to say, there were two gentlemen in the Agra to whom the pirate's approach was not altogether unwelcome. Colonel Kenealy and Mr. Fullalove were rival sportsmen and rival theorists. Kenealy stood out for a smooth bore and a four-ounce ball; Fullalove for a rifle of his own construction. Many a doughty argument they had, and many a bragging match; neither could convert the other. At last Fullalove hinted that by going ashore at the Cape, and getting each behind a tree at one hundred yards, and popping at one another, one or other would be convinced
"Well, but," said Kenealy, "if he is dead, he will be no wiser. Besides, to a fellow like me, who has had the luxury of popping at his enemies, popping at a friend is poor insipid work."
"That is true," said the other regretfully. "But I reckon we shall never settle it by argument."
Theorists are amazing; and it was plain, by the alacrity with which these good creatures loaded the rival instruments, that to them the pirate came not so much as a pirate as a solution. Indeed, Kenealy, in the act of charging his piece, was heard to mutter, "Now, this is lucky." However, these theorists were no sooner loaded than something occurred to make them more serious. They were sent for in haste to Dodd's cabin; they found him giving Sharpe a new order.
"Shorten sail to the taupsles and jib, get the colours ready on the halyards, and then send the men aft."
Sharpe ran out full of zeal, and tumbled over Ramgolam, who was stooping remarkably near the keyhole. Dodd hastily bolted the cabin-door, and looked with trembling lip and piteous earnestness in Kenealy's face and Fullalove's. They were mute with surprise at a gaze so eloquent and yet mysterious.
He manned himself, and opened his mind to them with deep emotion, yet not without a certain simple dignity.
"Colonel," said he, "you are an old friend; you, sir, are a new one; but I esteem you highly, and what my young gentlemen chaff you about, you calling all men brothers, and making that poor negro love you instead of fear you, that shows me you have a great heart. My dear friends, I have been unlucky enough to bring my children's fortune on board this ship: here it is under my shirt. Fourteen thousand pounds! This weighs me down. Oh, if they should lose it after all! Do pray give me a hand apiece and pledge your sacred words to take it home safe to my wife at Barkington, if you, or either of you, should see this bright sun set to-day, and I should not."
"Why, Dodd, old fellow," said Kenealy cheerfully, "this is not the way to go into action."
"Colonel," replied Dodd, "to save this ship and cargo, I must be wherever the bullets are, and I will too."
Fullalove, more sagacious than the worthy colonel, said earnestly — "Captain Dodd, may I never see Broadway again, and never see Heaven at the end of my time, if I fail you. There's my hand."
"And mine," said Kenealy warmly.
They all three joined hands, and Dodd seemed to cling to them. "God bless you both! God bless you! Oh, what a weight your true hands have pulled off my heart. Good-bye, for a few minutes. The time is short. I'll just offer a prayer to the Almighty for wisdom, and then I'll come up and say a word to the men and fight the ship, according to my lights."
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, dishonours 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 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-manoeuvre 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 colours flying — run 'em up! — over our heads." (The ship's colours flew up to the fore, and the Union Jack to the mizen 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 say?"
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-reef'ed 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 gush of smoke, issued from his lee bow, and the ball flew screaming like a seagull over the Agra's mizen 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. "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 mizen 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 favour 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 worth 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 choved with shot, and peppered with grape, the channel opened; in five minutes more he could put her dead before the wind.
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 mizen 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 mizen 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 eighteen-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 deck.
"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, twelve-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 and their mates', replied with loud undaunted cheers and a 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 nothing proven."
The pirate, bold as he was, got sick of fair fighting first. He hoisted his mainsail and threw 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 deathblow 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 his long wings 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 mizen top: "Can you two hinder them from firing that gun?"
"I rather think we can," said Fullalove; "eh, Colonel?" and he tapped his long rifle.
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.
*Being disabled, the schooner's head had come round to windward, though she was drifting to leeward.
"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 sore strait."
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 both 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 manoeuvres that were sure to be at hand.
The wind was W.N.W: lie 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 mast and yards. The other, fresh, and thirsting for the easy prey, came up to weather on him and hang on his quarter, pirate fashion.
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 rapid 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 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, yawing 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, masterstroke to hurl his monster ship bodily on the other. Without a foresail she could never get out of her way. The pirate 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 harbour.
"Starboard!" said Dodd, in a deep calm voice, with a motion of his hand.
"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 the air.
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 grape.
"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! That awful moment parted the races on board her: the Papuans and Sooloos, their black faces livid and blue with horror, leaped yelling into the sea, or crouched and whimpered; the yellow Malays and brown Portuguese, though blanched to one colour now, turned on death like dying panthers, fired two cannon slap into the ship's bows, and snapped their muskets and matchlocks at their solitary executioner on the ship's gangway, and out flew their knives like crushed wasp's stings. CRASH! the Indiaman's cutwater 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 heaped off on the Agra, and were hacked to pieces almost ere they reached the deck — a surge, a chasm in the, sea, filled with an instant rush of engulphing 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 staring eyes.
Shot in two places, the head and the breast!
With a loud cry of pity and dismay, Sharpe, Fullalove, Kenealy, and others rushed to catch him; but ere they got near, the captain of the triumphant ship fell down on his hands and knees, his head sunk over the gangway, and his blood ran fast and pattered in the midst of them on the deck he had defended so bravely.