Friday, November 6, 2015

Under the Black Ensign - Chapter 3 - The Ups and Downs of a Life of Piracy

Chapter 3 and we already have a "the days went swiftly" montage as Bristol adjusts to his new life as a pirate.  And what a wonderful life it is!

There are so many recruits that there's more than enough sailors to not only repair the Terror's battle damage, but keep the ship running in top condition and its decks scrubbed "whiter and cleaner than they ever had been in service of the King."  There are none of the "cruel orgies"... um... that Bristol had heard about, instead the crew is for the most part peaceful and disciplined without any need for a cat-o'-nine-tails, and any disputes are settled by a quartermaster and jury of impartial sailors, or in worst cases regulated duels on land.  They even can expect compensation from a company fund for any injuries sustained or limbs lost in the line of duty, something those so-called navies of the supposedly civilized empires never even considered.

Yes, "buccaneering was the sailor's dream of Valhalla."  Because when you think of peaceful sailors with progressive health insurance policies, the immediate comparison is to the old Norse afterlife of eternal bloodshed and rowdy feasting.

These men were not the scum of the ports or the sweepings of the sea.  They were average seamen who had tired of the filth and abuse suffered in the merchant fleets and the navies.  They wanted nothing more than a comfortable life, money to spend, brandy to drink, and a prospect of sometime being able to become planters or merchantmen in their own right.

They owed their fearsome reputation, for the most part, to cowardly captains who had defended their own valor by besmirching the behavior of the buccaneer, giving that as a reason for struck colors.

Phew!  For a moment I thought I would be expecting to root for some sort of gritty anti-hero, but it turns out the pirates were the good guys all along!  They're even cleaner than the Royal Navy, and if that doesn't prove they're alright, nothing does.  These guys aren't bowing to any upper-class sea captain or toiling away for employers who don't respect them, they're go-getters willing to buck convention to improve themselves, motivated entrepreneurs taking control of their lives and striking back against an oppressive political and economic system.

The fact that pirates by definition attack other people and steal their stuff seems strangely under-emphasized, though.

Whatever, Bristol feels like "a gentleman once again," and got the Lord High Governor's quarters and a pick of the loot, so he's wearing a wide-brimmed hat and pair of silver-mounted pistol that probably used to belong to a Spaniard.  While he's not the Terror's new captain, as navigator he's still pretty important, and I guess Ricardo didn't want what were probably the nicest quarters on the ship.

Jim the midshipman is hanging out with Bristol in his room, and our hero ponders why a young officer-to-be from the British Navy ended up with a crew of pirates, before deciding that the "lad was handsome enough, had a low, pleasant voice, and was certainly well educated."  He's got such big blue eyes, "frank and steady," and hair so yellow that it "made the eyes seem all the bluer," and just seems to naturally get along with Bristol... um...

Anyway, Bristol and Jim are talking about tomorrow's rendezvous with Captain Bryce off Martinico, and the latter mentions that Bryce is the only one able to control the "pistol-proof" Ricardo.  Jim also warns Bristol that Ricardo has been spreading rumors among the rest of the crew that Bristol is a "dainty little thing," because Ricardo resents "the fact that you wash your ears."  Bristol reminds the midshipman that bad-mouthing a guy in the cabin next door may be a bad idea, Jim is like 'what's he gonna do, open the door and lumber in?' and immediately the door opens and Ricardo lumbers in.  

When Bristol asks Ricardo "What's under your hatch?"  Um... anyway, the captain explains that he and the rest of the crew have been talking, see, and they're tired of doing Bryce's bidding when they're sure that one day he'll run off with all the loot.  So he wants Bristol to be their navigator as they start an independent operation.

But Bristol is loyal to the guy who a chapter ago saved his life, and refuses to cooperate.  So Ricardo draws a pistol, and we get an action scene.  But not an official Hubbard Action Scene, he's using paragraphs instead of a barrage of exclamations.

Before Bristol could gather himself, Jim's small boot lashed out and cracked against Ricardo's knuckles.  Ricardo bellowed with rage.  His open hand swooped down.  The palm cracked loudly against Jim's cheek.  Crumpling up, Jim slid into the far corner of the cabin.  The jaunty cap fell off and the yellow hair streamed down on either side of the handsome face.  The mark of the blow was as red as blood on the white cheek.

It's also not a Hubbard Action Sequence because it isn't the bad guy who's getting his ass handed to him.  Or her ass, in this case.

Faces were peering in through the door, but Bristol gave them no heed.  Both he and Ricardo were staring at Jim.  Something about the way the hair fluffed out, something about the way the jacket lay against the throat-

"My God," cried Bristol, "she's a girl!"

Or an elf.  But since this isn't a fantasy novel, yeah, you're probably right.

While Bristol is distracted by the relief that he doesn't harbor latent homosexual tendencies after all, Ricardo is still on the ball, and swings his pistol around for a shot at Bristol.  Our hero draws his rapier and lunges, Ricardo parries with his bare hand but bleeds for it, only for Bristol to bury his blade in the rogue captain's chest.  Ricardo foams a bit of blood before expiring on the floor.

Unfortunately, this all happened with the cabin door open and the rest of the crew watching, so the quartermaster steps forward, asks Bristol to surrender his weapons, and places him under arrest for killing Ricardo and "harboring a woman in disguise aboard this ship."  Wimmen are bad luck at sea, of course, though I never understood this nautical convention - you'd think that a group of men spending months away from shore might be eager for some female companionship.  Or maybe sailors are wise enough to anticipate the sort of conflict that might arise from a pack of fellas romantically pursuing a small number of ladies in a confined space, and decided that the best recourse would be to do without women entirely.  And maybe engage in some situational homosexuality.

Anyway, the other sailors leave - guess Bristol's under house arrest - and when "Jim" wakes up, Bristol explains that she's going to be dropped off shortly while Bristol will be either executed or marooned.  And being a delicate female, "Jim" immediately starts crying that she's being abandoned after months of service and they're about to "kill the only man I ever respected."

It's at this point that Bristol asks who exactly "Jim" is, and it turns out she's really Lady Jane Campbell, former lady-in-waiting to the Queen of England and Sir Charles' wife-to-be!  Very economical, Hubbard - there was exactly one female previously mentioned in the story, so that's who Jim is.  Yes, when Lady Jane was being carried from England to Nevis, Captain Bryce attacked, and Jane decided to dress herself up in a midshipman's uniform to protect herself, since she knew her "fate at the hands of the crew wouldn't be so good."

Now wait a minute, Hubbard.  I thought these pirates were jolly, disciplined sailors who respected and looked out for each other.  But you just showed that a bunch of them were traitorous mutineers, and implied that they would have mistreated a woman prisoner.  My simple, pulp-loving mind is confused.

Anyway, Jane was quite happy to be Jim and Bryce was willing to train her (it's unclear whether he knew she was female or not).  See, she would have only been marrying Sir Charles because her king commanded her, she'd met the man before and was not at all impressed "with his manly conduct."  But now it's all gone wrong - the still-nameless quartermaster returns and informs them that they're just off Nevis, and a boat and allotment of gold are waiting for Jane.  The other sailors nod politely as she passes, since they don't actually dislike her, just the fact that she's a woman aboard their boat.  And off she rows, calling goodbye to Bristol, who salutes as they part ways.

As for Bristol, he's due to be marooned somewhere in the Anegada Passage, as the Terror continues to regroup with Captain Bryce.  And that's where we end the chapter.

Wait a minute, if the rest of the crew doesn't mistreat Jane as she's dropped off, was she ever in any danger to begin with?  And they're still going to meet up with Captain Bryce even though Ricardo talked them around into abandoning their former captain?  So the mutiny is over?  Then why is Ricardo getting killed - after drawing first - a bad thing?  At best you could say that they're ignoring the fact that they saw Bristol's surprised reaction to Jane's gender so they can get rid of them, but they don't really have a motive for that, so-

Ah, screw it.  We can't tell a pirate story without someone getting marooned.  Now pretend to be worried how our hero is going to get out of this predicament even though there's still fifty pages left in the story.

Back to Chapter 2

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