NORTH latitude 23.5, 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 coloured 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 labour, 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 first note in each bar.
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 water-butts 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 — nineteen thousand eight hundred and six chests, sixty half chests, fifty 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 quarterdeck, 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 the tide.
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 mizen peak for him, and kept a sharp look out. 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 quarter-deck, 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!” &c., 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, &c.
“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 top-sails 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 ran up with a luff tackle and secured; the ship’s head cast to port.
“Up with the jib — man the taupsle halliards — 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 passengers.
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 first boat brought Colonel Kenealy, Mr. Fullalove, and a prodigious negro, who all mounted by the side-ropes. But the whip was rigged for the next boat, and the Honourable Mrs. Beresford and poodle hoisted on board, item her white maid, item her black nurse, item her little boy and male Oriental in charge thereof, the strangest compound of dignity and servility, and of black and white, being clad in snowy cotton and japanned to the nine.
Mrs. Beresford was the wife of a member of council in India. She had been to Macao for her boy’s health, intending to return to Calcutta: but meantime her husband was made a director, and went home: so she was going to join him. A tall, handsome lady, with too curved a nose.
Like most aquiline women, she was born to domineer a bit; and, for the last ten years, Orientals clinging at her knee and Europeans flattering at her ear had nursed this quality highs and spoiled her with all their might. A similar process had been applied to her boy Frederick from infancy; he was now nearly six. Arrogance and caprice shone so in both their sallow faces, and spoke so in every gesture, that as they came on board, Sharpe, a reader of passengers, whispered the second mate: “Bayliss, we have shipped the devil.”
“And a cargo of his imps,” grunted Mr. Bayliss.
Mr. Fullalove was a Methodist parson — to the naked eye: grave, sober, lean, lank-haired. But some men are hidden fires. Fullalove was one of the extraordinary products of an extraordinary nation, the United States of America. He was an engineer for one thing, and an inventive and practical mechanician; held two patents of his own creating, which yielded him a good income both at home and in Great Britain. Such results are seldom achieved without deep study and seclusion; and, accordingly, Joshua Fullalove, when the inventive fit was on, would be buried deep as Archimedes for a twelvemonth, burning the midnight oil: then, his active element predominating, the pale student would dash into the forest or the prairie, with a rifle and an Indian, and come out bronzed, and more or less bepanthered or bebuffaloed; thence invariably to sea for a year or two. There, Anglo–Saxon to the backbone, his romance had ever an eye to business; he was always after foreign mechanical inventions — he was now importing a excellent one from Japan — and ready to do lucrative feats of knowledge: thus he bought a Turkish ship at the bottom of the Dardanelles for twelve hundred dollars, raised her cargo (hardware), and sold it for six thousand dollars; then weighed the empty ship, pumped her, repaired he; and navigated her himself into Boston harbour, Massachusetts. On the way he rescued, with his late drowned ship, a Swedish vessel, and received salvage. He once fished eighty elephants’ tusks out of a craft foundered in the Firth of Forth, to the disgust of elder Anglo–Saxons looking on from the shore. These unusual pursuits were varied by a singular recreation: he played at elevating the African character to European levels. With this view he had bought Vespasian for eighteen hundred dollars; whereof anon. America is fertile in mixtures: what do we not owe her? Sherry cobbler, gin sling, cocktail, mint julep, brandy smash, sudden death, eye openers. Well, one day she outdid herself, and mixed Fullalove: Quaker, Nimrod, Archimedes, Philanthropist, decorous Red Rover, and What Not
The passenger boats cast loose.
“All hands make sail.”
The boatswain piped, the light-heeled topsmen sped up the rathines and lay out the yards, while all on deck looked up as usual to see them work. Out bellied sail after sail aloft; the ship came curtseying round to the southward, spread her snowy pinions high and wide, and went like a bird over the wrinkled sea — homeward bound.
It was an exhilarating start, and all faces were bright — but one. The captain looked somewhat grave and thoughtful, and often scanned the horizon with his glass; he gave polite but very short answers to his friend Colonel Kenealy, who was firing nothings in his ear, and sent for the gunner.
While that personage, a crusty old Niler called Monk, is cleaning himself to go on the quarter-deck, peep we into captain Dodd’s troubled mind, and into the circumstances which connect him with the heart of this story, despite the twelve thousand miles of water between him and the lovers at Barkington.
It had always been his pride to lay by money for his wife and children, and, under advice of an Indian friend, he had, during the last few years, placed considerable sums, at intervals, in a great Calcutta house, which gave eight per cent for deposits: swelled by fresh capital and such high interest, the hoard grew fast. When his old ship, sore battered off the Cape, was condemned by the company’s agents at Canton, he sailed to Calcutta, intending to return thence to England as a passenger. But while he was at Calcutta, the greatest firm there suspended payment carrying astonishment and dismay into a hundred families. At such moments the press and the fireside ring for a little while with the common-sense cry,7 “Good interest means bad security.” As for Dodd, who till then had revered all these great houses with nautical or childlike confidence, a blind terror took the place of blind trust in him; he felt guilty towards his children for risking their money (he had got to believe it was theirs, not his), and vowed, if he could only get hold of it once more, he would never trust a penny of it out of his own hands again, except, perhaps, to the Bank of England. But should he ever get it? It was a large sum. He went to Messrs. Anderson & Anderson, and drew for his fourteen thousand pounds. To his dismay, but hardly to his surprise, the clerks looked at one another, and sent the cheque into some inner department. Dodd was kept waiting. His heart sank with him: there was a hitch.
7 The Duke of Wellington (the iron one) is the author of this saying.
Meantime came a Government officer, and paid in an enormous sum in notes and mercantile bills, principally the latter.
Presently Dodd was invited into the manager’s room.
“Leaving the country, Captain Dodd?”
“You had better take some of your money in bills at sight on London.”
“I would rather have notes, sir,” faltered Dodd.
“Oh, bills by Oliveira upon Baring are just as good, even without our endorsement. However, you can have half and half. Calcutta does but little in English bank-notes, you know.”
They gave him his money. The bills were all manifestly good. But he recognised one of them as having just been paid in by the civilian. He found himself somehow safe in the street clutching the cash, with one half of his great paternal heart on fire, and the other half freezing. He had rescued his children’s fortune, but he had seen destruction graze it. The natural chill at being scraped by peril soon passed, the triumphant glow remained. The next sentiment was precaution: he filled with it to the brim; he went and bought a great broad pocket-book with a key to it; though he was on dry land,. he covered it with oiled silk against the water; and sewed the whole thing to his flannel waistcoat, and felt for it with his hand a hundred times a day: the fruit of his own toil, his children’s hoard, the rescued treasure he was to have the joy of bringing home safe to the dear partner of all his joys.
Unexpectedly he was ordered out to Canton to sail the Agra to the Cape. Then a novel and strange feeling came over him like a cloud; that feeling was, a sense of personal danger: not that the many perils of the deep were new to him: he had faced them this five-and-twenty years: but till now they were little present to his imagination: they used to come, be encountered, be gone: but now, though absent, they darkened the way. It was the pocket-book. The material treasure, the hard cash, which had lately set him in a glow, seemed now to load his chest and hang heavy round the neck of his heart. Sailors are more or less superstitious, and men are creatures of habit, even in their courage. Now David had never gone to sea with a lot of money on him before. As he was a stout-hearted man, these vague forebodings would, perhaps, have cleared away with the bustle, when the Agra set her studding sails off Macao, but for a piece of positive intelligence he had picked up at Lin–Tin. The Chinese admiral had warned him of a pirate, a daring pirate, who had been lately cruising in these waters: first heard of south the line, but had since taken a Russian ship at the very mouth of the Canton river, murdered the crew in sight of land, and sold the women for slaves, or worse. Dodd asked for particulars: was he a Ladroner, a Malay, a Bornese? In what latitude was he to be looked for? The admiral on this examined his memoranda: by these it appeared little was known as yet about the miscreant, except that he never cruised long on one ground; the crew was a mixed one: the captain was believed to be a Portuguese, and to have a consort commanded by his brother: but this was doubtful; at all events, the pair had never been seen at work together.
The gunner arrived and saluted the quarter-deck; the captain on this saluted him, and beckoned him to the weather side. On this the other officers kept religiously to leeward.
“Mr. Monk,” said Dodd, “you will clean and prepare all the small arms directly.”
“Ay, ay, sir,” said the old Niler, with a gleam of satisfaction.
“How many of your deck-guns are serviceable?”
This simple question stirred up in one moment all the bile in the poor old gentleman’s nature.
“My deck-guns serviceable! how the —— can they when that son of a sea-cook your third mate has been and lashed the water butts to their breechings, and jammed his gear in between their nozzles, till they can’t breathe, poor things, far less bark. I wish he was lashed between the devil’s hind-hocks with a red hot cable as tight as he has jammed my guns.
“Be so good as not to swear, Mr. Monk,” said Dodd. “At your age sir, I look to you to set an example to the petty officers.”
“Well, I won’t swear no more, sir, d — d if I do!” He added very loudly, and with a seeming access of ire, “And I ax your pardon, captain, and the deck’s.”
When a man has a deep anxiety, some human midge or mosquito buzzes at him. It is a rule. To Dodd, heavy with responsibility, and a dark misgiving he must not communicate, came delicately, and by degrees, and with a semigenuflexion every three steps, one like a magpie; and, putting his hands together, as our children do to approach the Almighty, delivered himself thus, in modulated tones, and good Hindostanee. “The Daughter of light, in whose beams I, Ramgolam, bask, glows with an amicable desire to see the lord commander of the ship resembling a mountain; and to make a communication.”
Taught by sad experience how weighty are the communications the daughters of light pour into nautical commanders at sea, Dodd hailed Mr. Tickell, a midshipman, and sent him down to the lady’s cabin. Mr. Tickell soon came back reddish, but grinning, to say that nothing less than the captain would do.
Dodd sighed, and dismissed Monk with a promise to inspect the gun-deck himself; then went down to Mrs. Beresford and found her indignant. Why had he stopped the ship miles and miles from Macao, and given her the trouble and annoyance of a voyage in that nasty little boat? Dodd opened his great brown eyes, “Why, madam, it is shoal water off Macao; we dare not come in.”
“No evasion, sir. What have I to do with your shoal water? It was laziness, and want of consideration for a lady who has rented half your ship.”
“Nothing of the kind, madam, I assure you.”
“Are you the person they call Gentleman Dodd?”
“Then don’t contradict a lady, or I shall take the liberty to dispute your title.”
Dodd took no notice of this, and with a patience few nautical commanders would have shown, endeavoured to make her see that he was obliged to give Macao shoals a wide berth, or cast away the ship. She would not see it. When Dodd saw she wanted, not an explanation, but a grievance, he ceased to thwart her. “I am neglecting my duties to no purpose,” said he, and left her without ceremony. This was a fresh offence; and, as he went out, she declared open war. And she made it too from that hour: a war of pins and needles.
Dodd went on the gun-deck and found that the defence of the ship had, as usual in these peaceful days, been sacrificed to the cargo. Out of twenty eighteen-pounders she carried on that deck, he cleared three, and that with difficulty. To clear any more he must have sacrificed either merchandise or water: and he was not the man to do either on the mere chance of a danger so unusual as an encounter with a pirate. He was a merchant captain, not a warrior.
Meantime the Agra had already shown him 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 consequences.
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 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 mast-head 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 time. Dodd had put down Neptune: that old blackguard could no longer row out on the ship’s port side and board her on the starboard, pretending to come from ocean’s depths; and shave the novices with a rusty hoop and dab a soapy brush in their mouths. But champagne popped, the sexes flirted, and the sailors span fathomless yarns, and danced rattling hornpipes, fiddled to by the grave Fullalove. “ If there is a thing I can dew, it’s fiddle,” said he. He and his friend, as he systematically called Vespasian, taught the crew Yankee steps, and were beloved. One honest saltatory British tar offered that Western pair his grog for a week. Even Mrs. Beresford emerged, and walked the deck, quenching her austere regards with a familiar smile on Colonel Kenealy, her escort. This gallant good-natured soldier flattered her to the nine, and, finding her sweeten with his treacle, tried to reconcile her to his old friend Dodd. Straight she soured, and forbade the topic imperiously.
By this time the mates and midshipmen of the Agra had fathomed their captain. Mr. Tickell delivered the mind of the united midshipmen when he proposed Dodd’s health in their mess-room, “as a navigator, a mathematician, a seaman, a gentleman, and a brick, with three times three.”
Dodd never spoke to his officers like a ruffian, nor yet palavered them, but he had a very pleasant way of conveying appreciation of an officer’s zeal, by a knowing nod with a kindly smile on the heels of it. As for the men, they seldom came in contact with the captain of a well-officered ship: this crew only knew him at first as a good-tempered soul, who didn’t bother about nothing. But one day, as they lay becalmed south of the line, a jolly foretopman came on the quarter-deck with a fid of soup, and saluting and scraping, first to the deck, then to the captain, asked him if he would taste that.
“Yes, my man. Smoked!”
“Like —— and blazes, your honour, axing your pardon, and the deck’s.”
“Young gentleman,” said Dodd to Mr. Meredith, a midshipman, “be so good as to send the cook aft.”
The cook came, and received, not an oath nor a threat but a remonstrance, and a grim warning.
In the teeth of this he burnt the soup horribly the very next day. The crew sent the lucky foretopman aft again. He made his scrape and presented his fid. The captain tasted the soup, and sent Mr. Grey to bid the boatswain’s mate pipe the hands on deck and bring the cook aft.
“Quartermaster, unsling a fire-bucket and fill it from the men’s kids: Mr. Tickell, see the cook swallow his own mess. Bosen’s mate, take a bight of the flying jib sheet stand over him, and start him if he dailies with it.” With this the captain went below, and the cook, supping at the bucket delivered himself as follows: “Well, ye lubbers, it is first — rate. There’s no burn in it. It goes down like oil. Curse your ladylike stomachs; you ain’t fit for a ship; why don’t ye go ashore and man a gingerbread coach and feed off French frogs and Italian baccy-pipe stems? (Whack.) What the —— is that for?”
Boatswain’s mate. “Sup more, and jaw less.”
“Well, I am supping as fast as I can. (Whack, whack.) Bloody end to ye, what are ye about? (Whack, whack, whack.) Oh, Joe, Lord bless you, I can’t eat any more of it. (Whack.) I’ll give you my grog for a week only to let me fling the —— stuff over the side. (Whack, whack, whack.) Oh, good, kind, dear Mr. Tickell, do go down to the captain for me.” (Whack, whack.)
“Avast!” cried the captain, reappearing; and the uplifted rope fell harmless.
“Silence, fore and aft!”
“The cook has received a light punishment this time, for spoiling the men’s mess. My crew shall eat nothing I can’t eat myself. My care is heavier than theirs is; but not my work, nor my danger in time of danger. Mind that, or you’ll find I can be as severe as any master afloat. Purser.”
“Double the men’s grog: they have been cheated of their meal.”
“Ay, ay, sir.”
“And stop the cook’s and his mate’s for a week.”
“ Ay, ay, sir.”
“Bosen, pipe down.”
“Shipmates, listen to me,” said the foretopman. “This old Agra is a d —— d com-for — table ship.”
The oracular sentence was hailed with a ringing cheer. Still, it is unlucky the British seaman is so enamoured of theological terms; for he constantly misapplies them.
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 drooped 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 wretched 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.”
“Hummph! I’m afraid I can’t afford to lose a good officer for a fault he — will — never — repeat”
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 reassure her.
“Oh, the tempest! the tempest!” she cried. “AND TO BE DROWNED IN THE DARK!”
“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 chose 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 look-out at the foretop-gallant-mast-head hailed the deck below.
“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 fore-top-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 considerable snaky.” Then, without removing 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 his 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 Sharpe ironically.
“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 guttural laugh.
The captain, with the American glass at his eye, turned half round to the man at the wheel: “Starboard!”
“Starboard it is.”
“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 gums grinned through the gaps like black teeth; his huge foresail rose and filled, and out he came in chase.
The breeze was a kiss from Heaven, the sky a vaulted sapphire, the sea a million dimples of liquid, lucid gold.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:59