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The Merchantman And The Pirate
North Latitude 23 1/2, 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;
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 ponderous bump on the
last 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 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
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 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 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 mid-ship
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!" 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 port:
"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 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 _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 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 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 Dolddrums. A dead calm, and nothing to do but kill
time. . . .
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 reassure
"Oh, the tempest! the tempest!" she cried. "AND TO BE DROWNED IN THE
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