Thursday, November 5, 2015

Under the Black Ensign - Chapter 2 - Welcome Aboard

Remember that ship Bristol spotted early last chapter, but didn't say anything about?  Well, in that moment between the cat-o'-nine-tails hissing back in preparation to strike and it actually connecting with Bristol's back, someone else spots that boat, yells "Sail ho!", and everyone instantly forgets about the flogging.  A lucky break, that.

Men leaped to the rail.  The haze of light cast up by the sun on water momentarily blinded them.  And then they saw the ship.  It was sailing against the morning sun, full-rigged, tall-masted, gilded sterncastle sparkling.  It was a bark of about sixty guns.  Against the light, its sails looked black.

Even as they stared at it, a roll of bunting went up the truck and burst.  Its identity was unmistakable.  A grinning skull against an ebon field.

Okay, wait.  The Terror is bringing the Lord High Governor back, presumably from England, to the island of Nevis, so they're going west or southwest.  The pirate ship isn't sailing into the sun, but "against" it, so that its rear is visible.  This would mean that it's traveling parallel to the Terror... and Bristol last chapter saw it to the south of them... wait, if it's against the sun to the east, how could it be alongside the westward-headed Terror

The Lieutenant Ewell tries to earn that promotion to Captain Obvious by crying "A pirate!"  For his part, Captain Mannville emulates his puffed-up superiors by getting offended that some scurvy seadog would dare show his colors to a British warship, and orders the attack.  The narration mentions the ocean spray leaping, "glistening like pearls," as the Terror changes course, though it doesn't spell out that the ship is basically doing a U-turn..  And in all the bustle, Bristol looks down at the abandoned cat-o'-nine-tails, laying on the deck "like a den of snakes," and kicks it further away.

We get about two pages of straight narration describing the warship's pursuit and preparation for combat, and I have to say, even if the term is historically accurate, you probably shouldn't use "powder monkeys" to refer to crewmen bringing gunpowder to the ship's weapons, it just detracts from the tension.  During it all, Hubbard through Bristol decides to become a historical commentator, musing that only a decade ago the Terror would probably have "dipped its own colors and continued smoothly upon its way" instead of engaging the pirate, since at the time such privateers had been preying on the rival Spanish Empire.  But now this poor scalawag has been driven out of Port Royal by a "suddenly righteous" government, and all the great powers of the sea have united against their former pirate proxies.  It's really society's fault that pirates turned out the way they did, see, and since the nations of the world are such hypocrites it'll be okay when Bristol goes pirate himself.

So the Terror closes with the pirate ship, which is moving away from them, but not fleeing all that quickly.  So was it headed east or northeast the whole - screw it.  About the time the narration (but not any crew members) wonders if the pirate is up to something, the buccaneer turns into the wind and suddenly slows.  The Terror doesn't react in time to use its sea brakes and shoots forward, and thus "presented an oblique to the pirate broadside."  The British man-o'-war is pounded by twenty cannons, taking heavy damage to the mast, sails and rigging, but by the time it can fire its own guns in response, it's "slipped sideways to the bark" and the cannons hit nothing but ocean.

I wish I had some graphical skill to try to work this out with imagery, but as best as I can figure: the Terror was following behind the pirate ship, which suddenly slowed, forcing the Terror to break off at a slight angle to avoid rear-ending the other boat.  The pirate ship was ready for this and took a shot as the Terror passed, and by the time the Terror was able to return fire, the target wasn't alongside them anymore.

How did the British Empire come to rule the seas, again?  Are the Spanish and French absolutely hopeless sailors?

We're told that it will take half an hour to reload the cannons thus fired, which I have trouble believing, but obviously Hubbard knows something I don't.  So the Terror's captain has no choice but to try to get in a broadside with its unfired port guns, but before he gets the chance, the pirates close and board in "an avalanche of furious color."  The 'battle' lasts for all of two paragraphs and consists of the British sailors either dying or throwing down their weapons and begging for quarter.

I'm now wondering how the British managed to cross the seas.

Through the wraiths of powder smoke came a gigantic figure, like the devil himself was striding through the fumes of brimstone.  On his head was a plumed hat and about his shoulders there swirled a red cloak.  A naked rapier, dripping scarlet, was held in his bejeweled hand.

But no parrot?

Captain Nicehat has his men crowd the prisoners together and demands which of them is in charge.  Captain Mannville steps forward to give his surrender, but the pirate captain has some men search the ship's quarters until they drag out the Lord High Governor, who drops to his knees and begs for mercy.  The pirate captain is dubious that the king would pay any sort of ransom for the quivering pansy and turns his back.  And Bristol, who has been tied to the mast the whole time, laughs.  This makes the pirates suddenly notice him, because I guess you wouldn't expect a ship to go into battle with a guy tied to the mainmast, and so you have trouble believing it even if you see it.

A young midshipman, smooth of face, probably--or so thought Bristol--about fifteen, came close to him.  The midshipman's sword quickly severed the ropes that bound him.  Bristol rubbed his arms.

Pirate chick.  I haven't read ahead, but I'm calling it.  After all, we need a woman around to keep any main character on a ship full of men from coming down with a case of the Gay.

The pirate captain asks what the H, the midshipman responds in a "singularly gentle" voice (pirate chick) that Bristol obviously was about to be flogged, and indirectly introduces the pirates' leader as Captain Bryce.  Bristol explains that he was about to be punished for trying to kill Sir Charles with a marlinespike - and this is a good use of a technical truth, I approve of it.  He introduces himself as the former first mate of the Randolph, and wouldn't you know it, but Captain Bryce happens to have need for a skilled navigator, since he's trying to expand his franchise into a proper fleet.

Across Bristol's mind flashed the hardships he had suffered as a British sailor. Scurvy, bad food, gunshot, indifferent medical attention, no shore leave, no pay.

"Sign on?" said Bristol. "Why, of course I'll sign on!"

See, as a pirate, he'll still run the risk of scurvy, and be forced to put up with bad food, and has an increased chance of getting shot since he's throwing in his lot with a bunch of lawless murderers, who probably don't have a good health plan either.  But hey, he'll get a share of the booty, and a chance to spend it on more booty.

So the now-pirate Bristol will stay on the Terror, and is introduced to his new captain, the barrel-chested, long-armed, bearded, scarred Ricardo: "Well get along.  I'm what they call pistol-proof, in case we don't."  Oh, and the "slender midshipman" (pirate chick) named "Jim" will also be on board, as Bryce's agent and presumably Bristol's love interest.  And that's about it, all the other British sailors are put on the boats and set free.

"And you," cried Sir Charles, catching sight of Bristol, and feeling secure in his boat, "I'll see you swing from my Execution Dock the next time we meet!"

"I wish you luck!" cried Bristol.

Oh good, our hero gets to keep his Chapter One nemesis, presumably for a later, more satisfying, final showdown.

1 comment:

  1. I've read scenes that managed to keep up tension despite the phrase "powder monkeys", but... in full honesty, it's probably 50/50 on whether I've just become oblivious to the weirdness of the phrase or Hubbard just can't keep up tension full stop.