Monday, November 16, 2015

Under the Black Ensign - Chapter 8 - The Last Hurrah of Pirate Captain Bristol

A busy fourteen pages before we wrap up the story.

Bristol enters Nevis' harbor aboard the Terror, towing the Falcon, so that unless someone looks close enough to notice the not-whiteness of its crew, people should mistake him for a victorious British ship with a captured pirate vessel.  It helps that it's foggy and early enough that nobody has to fly the "morning colors" or announce themselves, it's the time of day that you just sail into port all quiet and inconspicuous.  I guess that's a thing?  It would be a suspiciously convenient protocol to make up, this "we just woke up and aren't paying close attention" hour.

The pirates make it all the way next to the anchored man-o'-war before the sun burns off the fog, someone gets a good look at the Terror's crew and shouts the alarm.  That Black Ensign goes up, broadsides are exchanged, and Bristol soon realizes that Ewell deceived him - there are enough men at Charlestown to operate Bryce's captured vessel after all.  If only our hero had waterboarded the lieutenant, then he would've gotten more reliable intelligence.

Now, here's the trouble with constantly reminding us of the ethnicity of Bristol's sailors.

Bristol ran his ship in close to her. His port guns were ready to let drive. His black gunners held their matches in steady hands, blowing on the hemp to keep the fire going.

"Fire!" cried Bristol.

Three rows of black snouts leaped out of sight, replaced instantly by a slashing horizontal column of smoke.

It reads like Bristol's crew just let out an almighty sneeze at the enemy.

Anyway, boats shoot at each other and the man-o'-war limps away, not to run, but to block Bristol's exit from the harbor.  And it's at this point that our hero realizes that he may be boned - he's outnumbered and now trapped in a hostile port.  His only hope is to rush Charlestown's palace and try to seize the governor, thereby winning the match and forcing the other team to concede.  But of course there's too many bad guys, such a feat would be impossible, etc.

Without nary a "it must be chanced," Bristol gives his men the order to beach the Terror and storm the harbor.  He won't be doing this unopposed, however, there are hostiles preparing barricades and readying themselves to resist him.  And oddly enough,

Bristol saw with surprise that most of these men were black.  Was it possible that the planters had sent forth their slaves to do their fighting for them?  Did Sir Charles think the English regulars too good to risk their necks?  Disgust welled up in Bristol - disgust for a feudal system that had come down from the medieval days, when men were mere beasts of burden.

He's not racist, guys.  Though this does make the ensuing brief paragraph of combat a bit confusing, as the narrator has to distinguish between "The blacks" diving into the water after Bristol and the "black from shore" he stabs while rushing into Charlestown.

With that minor speedbump overcome, Bristol runs towards a building which he "took it to be an arsenal," which means it's actually something else.  Swords are swung, musket balls are fired, and the reader is left to do the heavy lifting for this exciting pirate action scene.  The important thing is that Bristol hears someone calling to him and discovers Bryce beating on a barred door - he's not in an arsenal, but the prison!

Bristol gets some keys to release Bryce, who of course is in fighting shape after enduring days of imprisonment by the cruel British.  Even better, there's three hundred other prisoners caged with him, who are all equally willing and able to fight.  And the good luck continues when the heroes find crates of sabers confiscated from the Spanish, all stored conveniently in the colony's prison.  Sure is a good thing that Bristol inexplicably abandoned his plan to grab the governor and went for a gated building he could "hold out" in, huh?

So the British batter into the arsenal that Bristol's pirates have seized, only to just as quickly be routed by the feeble and malnourished prisoners swinging greasy swords just out of their packaging.  Bristol has everyone follow him up the hill to the palace, and nobody reacts when a cannon mounted over the place's gates "carved a straight line" through the mob of pirates.  They've got good morale, I'll give them that.

Bristol has a pair of his "blacks" throw him onto the wall next to the gun crew, heralding a rain of buccaneers that seizes the fortifications.  The cannon is predictably captured and spun around to blast open the palace gates, and... huh, it doesn't look like there's any real defenders besides that gun crew and a "crew at the gate."  No snipers firing from the palace itself, no bodyguards putting up a barricade in the entrance hall.  Hmm.

With such paltry resistance, Bristol only takes Bryce "and a few of the blacks" with him to confront the book's villain.  Sir Charles Stukely is astonishingly still sitting at his desk, dressed in a fancy blue coat.  When Bristol wittily asks why the governor didn't invite him to the wedding, Stukely gulps and comes close to correcting this oversight before realizing that he's being messed with.  And I have to say, when the bad guy is this pathetic, the protagonist starts to feel less like a hero and more like a bully.

Yeah, it's supposed to be karma or whatever when Bristol declares his intent to give the governor a hundred lashes of the cat-o'-nine-tails, making the other man shriek "But it's death!" and then wail that he'll do anything Bristol demands after the first strike - even though Sir Charles is so fat that "the lash could not have hurt him."  Well, I'm inferring this since the narration doesn't mention Bristol purposefully swinging gently when the thing "cracked down upon the cringing Sir Charles."  Point is, it may be karmic, but it doesn't feel heroic.  Particularly when the author spends such efforts making Bristol a noble pirate in contrast with the "civilized" people he fights against.

No sooner does Sir Charles fold like a bag of pudding than a side door opens to admit Lady Jane Campbell, wearing a billowing white satin gown.  She recognizes and rushes at Bristol, and it's weird, but they don't actually hug.  There's evidence that they hugged, when the orchids of her corsage are crushed, except the sequences goes as follows: she runs at him and cries out his name, Bristol "held her away from him," and then he notices the crushed flowers.  See, no contact.  Or maybe it was too racy to explicitly describe a hug between a man and a woman in 1936.

Let's spend the last two and a half pages talking and writing.  Lady Jane declares that Bristol needs to see some papers she has, ones she used her influence as lady-in-waiting to the Queen of England to send for, and which she was trying to pick up at Charlotte Amalie before getting kidnapped.  They're a letter from King Charles II issuing a royal decree pardoning Captain Thomas Bristol and making him a Commodore in the Royal Navy.  Neat.

Bristol takes a moment to digest this, then forces Sir Charles to write up a letter to His Majesty explaining how he (Sir Charles) hereby resigns his position as governor of Nevis in favor of a restorative holiday to Jamaica, and is giving the new Commodore Bristol temporary control of the island.  Bristol also promises to give Bryce a privateering commission to work against the Spanish in the Pacific, and then he figures that if Lady Jane came to Nevis to marry its Lord High Governor, maybe she still feels up to it.  She agrees, Bristol laughs, and then orders Bryce to "Send those pirates of yours and my crew into the barracks to clean themselves up.  And spread the news through the town and the fort, and to the waiting man-o'-war, that the Lord High Governor invites them all to his wedding."

And that's the end of the story.  Captain Bristol has gone from a condemned sailor to a pirate to a military governor in charge of the very men he just finished fighting against.  Bryce's crimes have been forgiven so long as he promises to kill the right people from now on.  And a bunch of pirates, sailors and townspeople who had recently been doing their best to murder each other are now expected to wash up and behave themselves at a wedding.  I hope they can put out the fires and clean up the bodies before the ceremony, it's awfully unlucky for a bride to trip on a corpse on her way up the aisle.

I guess like how pulps are good literature only if you don't think about them too much, this is a happy ending if you don't try to figure out how everyone's expected to deal with each other the next day.


Back to Part 7

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