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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Three Midshipmen - Chapter 29. The Night Battle
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The Three Midshipmen - Chapter 29. The Night Battle Post by :Aragon2005 Category :Long Stories Author :William H. G. Kingston Date :May 2012 Read :2264

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The Three Midshipmen - Chapter 29. The Night Battle

CHAPTER TWENTY NINE. THE NIGHT BATTLE


The Chinese pirates were so busily employed in the agreeable occupation of plundering the American brig, that they did not observe the two midshipmen leaping in among them. Jack and Alick had on, it must be remembered, turbans and Chinese jackets and trousers like the rest, so in the confusion they easily passed unnoticed.

"I really think that we might drive the scoundrels out of the brig and retake her," observed Jack as he sprang on.

"No, no, sare, one ting at a time, if oo please," answered Jos the Malay, who heard his remark.

Jos was right, as Jack afterwards confessed, for though they might have swept off the heads of a good many pirates engaged in collecting booty, the rest would soon have come to their senses and cut off theirs.

Again the female cry was heard. Jack and Murray sprang into the main cabin. It was full of Chinese rifling the lockers and searching in bed-places or wherever anything could be stowed away. No females were there, but there was a hatchway and a ladder leading to the deck below. The cries proceeded from thence, so they jumped down, leaving Jos and Hoddidoddi, who had joined them, to guard the entrance. There, in dim uncertain light, they distinguished two ladies, apparently one old and stout, the other young, struggling in the hands of half a dozen or more pirates, who were endeavouring to draw the rings from their fingers, and their earrings from their ears. One lady was somewhat stout and oldish, the other was young and slight, and Jack thought very pretty. Whether ugly or pretty would not have mattered just then. She and the old lady were in distress, and that was enough to make the midshipmen eager to fight for them, whoever they were. They were very much terrified, but not so much so as to prevent them from endeavouring to repel the indignities offered them.

Not a moment was to be lost. There was no room to use their swords without running a great risk of wounding the ladies, so Jack knocked one fellow down with his fist, and another with the butt end of his pistol. Murray did the same. They then both planted such thorough honest English blows under the ribs of the other two miscreants, that they sent them reeling backwards among the casks and packages which filled the after-hold, and there they lay sprawling, unable to get up again.

"It won't do to stop here, Alick," cried Jack. "Haul along the old lady, I'll carry the young one; and we'll stow them away in our berth till we see what's best to be done. Come along, miss. Beg pardon-- hadn't time to ask your leave; it's all right, though." Jack said this after he had lifted the young lady in his arms, and was carrying her up the ladder. As he remarked, there was no time for ceremony. Everything depended on the rapidity with which they could accomplish their enterprise.

"Thank you, thank you, sir; I trust you," said the young lady in a foreign accent.

Murray, who always admired Jack's plans when anything dashing was to be done, followed as fast as he could, helping the old lady along. He would have had great difficulty in making progress, had not Jos the Malay comprehended what was required. So he seized her under one arm, while Alick lifted her under the other, and thus, without molestation, they followed Jack on board the junk.

Jack rushed into their cabin, and placed his fair burden on a chair, when Alick and Jos bundled the old lady in after her, with a very scant ceremony; indeed there was no time for any; and then they closed the door and walked a little way off, and tried to look as unconcerned as if they had done nothing to merit the anger of the pirates.

"I begged the young lady not to be alarmed, and entreated her to try and keep the old one quiet, promising to defend them with our lives," observed Jack.

"Of course we will do so, and Jos will stick by us, won't you, Jos?" said Murray.

"Yes, sare," answered the Malay; "but if Chinese come aboard, dey cut all our throats. Stay do--Jos know what he do."

There was a peculiar, fierce, vindictive look on the countenance of the Malay as he spoke, which boded mischief. Without uttering another word he sprang on board the brig, and disappeared among the crowd who were hurrying to and fro below, removing the cargo.

Just then Murray pointed out to Jack the brave captain and mate of the brig sitting on deck, lashed with their hands behind them to the mainmast.

"When those wretches have glutted themselves with booty, they will indulge their evil tempers by tormenting those poor fellows. Could we not manage to release them while no one is watching us, and let them hide themselves on board their junk? We may, perhaps, by and by be able to form some plan to escape together."

"With all my heart," answered Jack. "No time like the present. Here goes."

Saying this, he and Murray seized their swords, which they had stuck into the bulwarks, and a few springs brought them up to where the captain and mate were sitting. In an instant the knives were at work, and the ropes were cut.

"Leap on board the junk, my men, we'll cover your retreat."

The captain and mate did as they were directed, and had just reached the junk when several of the pirates saw what had happened and sprang after them.

Had not the midshipmen undertaken to defend them, their heads would have been off that moment. Jack and Alick had fortunately gained the side of the vessel, and there stood at bay. They had cut down three of their assailants, but others were coming on, when the Malay rushed past them, crying out, "Leap, leap on board; cast off, or we shall all blow up." A back-handed blow which he gave with his short sword cut down the nearest of their assailants, and enabled them to accomplish his advice. He and they, without questions asked, instantly cast off the grapnels, and shoved the junk away from the brig before the Chinese saw what they were about.

Scarcely were they free, when a rush of flame burst out of the hold of the merchantman, and up went her decks with a terrific explosion, carrying masts, and spars, and sails, and cargo, and the many hundred human beings, who, like ants in a granary, were swarming in every direction, rifling her of the treasures she contained. The numerous junks surrounding her did not escape; some were blown up, others had their sides blown in, and several caught fire or were more or less injured. For a moment there was perfect silence; every one stood aghast, and then down came clattering on their heads, limbs, and trunks, and heads of human beings, and fragments of spars, and burning bales, and canvas, and packages burst open like shells, scattering their contents on every side. Next arose shrieks, and groans, and shouts, a hubbub most terrific, the cries of the wounded, and the imprecations of those who had escaped and been baulked of their prey.

"Dat is just what I tort it would be," said Jos, quite coolly, watching the effects of the catastrophe, as he assisted to shove the junk out from among the crowd of burning vessels. The pirate captain and crew, most of whom had got on board, thought that they were very much indebted to him and the white men for having been the means of saving their vessel. As they also had been the most busily at work, and had collected a good deal of booty, they did not at all take to heart the accident which had happened to their pirate companions. They shrugged their shoulders, and blinked their little pig-eyes, and seemed to think that it was just as well as it was, seeing that they themselves had come off better than anybody else. A few more junks having blown up, and others burnt to the water's edge or sunk, those that had escaped sent their boats, not so much for the chance of saving any fellow-creatures who might be struggling for existence, as to pick up any articles of value which might be still floating. The fleet then made sail away from the spot, lest the explosion might be the means of bringing down an enemy upon them to interfere with their proceedings.

The midshipmen were now placed in a somewhat difficult position with regard to the ladies in their cabin. How to account for their being there was one puzzle, and how to save them from annoyance or insult was another. The pirates seemed inclined to treat the American captain and mate as well as they had done the midshipmen. They had seen them very active in saving the junk, but it was probably not gratitude so much as the hope of obtaining a ransom which made them civil. Jos having intimated that they were hungry, in a short time a mess of food was brought for the whole party to the upper raised deck in the afterpart of the vessel. While discussing this meal, they also discussed the means likely to be most serviceable to the ladies. The American captain told them that his brig was the _Wide Awake_, that his name was William Willock, that of his mate, Joe Hudson; that they were bound to Sydney in Australia, where the two ladies, who were French, and mother and daughter, were proceeding.

"I know what!" cried Jack, as if a bright thought had struck him. "The pirates seem to treat men civilly enough; could we not manage to rig up the ladies in men's clothes? There is a chest of Chinamen's coats and trousers in our cabin, and the old lady would make a very tolerable mandarin."

"I should think it would very speedily be discovered what they are," answered Murray. "It will be better if we get Jos to talk over the old pirate skipper, and having excited his cupidity in suggesting a good ransom, produce our captives, and charge him to treat them well. What do you say. Captain Willock?"

"A very good plan, I guess," was the answer; "there is nothing like making it the interest of a man to do what you want him. Just let the ladies show themselves. I suppose Chinamen have hearts like other people, and will have some compassion on them, when they see their distress."

"But how are we to account for their being on board, and in our cabin?" asked Jack.

"Let your Malay friend, then, settle that; he'll know what will be most likely to go down with the Chinamen," answered Captain Willock.

"I think, rather, that we should boldly say that we brought them, and claim them as our share of the loot as the Indians call it--the booty," said Murray. "Now all the miserable wretches from whom we rescued them have, in all probability, been destroyed, there will be no one, unless any of our own crew saw our proceedings, to witness against us. When the pirates find that they are to get a ransom for the ladies, they will be very much obliged to us for having saved them, and, depend on it, will treat them properly."

Murray's plan, which was certainly the wisest, as it was the most straightforward, was agreed to. They, however, said nothing till late in the evening, when the fleet of junks dropped their ponderous wooden anchors close to the shore in a beautiful little bay, surrounded by green hills covered to the water's edge with trees.

"The pirates are fellows of some taste to choose this beautiful spot for their harbour," observed Jack, looking round.

"Not they," answered Captain Willock with a laugh. "I guess now they choose it because it hides them pretty securely, and they can sweep out and pounce down on any unfortunate craft which they may catch unprepared for them in the neighbourhood. But here's our skipper; Fi Tan you call him, don't you? Well, he's a mild, decent, quiet old gentleman; don't look as if his trade was cutting throats. You'd better tell him about the ladies, or he will be finding it out himself."

Jack and Alick agreed to this, and calling Jos, begged him to open the subject to the pirate captain, which he did with no little circumlocution; and very considerable departure from the real facts of the case, notwithstanding Jack's charge to him to adhere to them. The Malay had two reasons for this. In the first place, he had got so completely into the way of telling falsehoods, that he could scarcely speak the truth had he tried; and in the second place, he knew that, speak the truth or not, he should not be believed. Old Fi Tan having heard Jos to an end, and watched the dumb-show of the midshipmen and Americans, desired to have the cabin-door opened. The old lady, who had thrown herself into a bed, started up, and was going to shriek out, when Captain Willock's voice reassured her. Her daughter, who had been watching while she slept, stood trembling by her side, but tried to look as composed as she could. Captain Willock and the midshipmen soon made them understand what had occurred, and begging them to be no longer alarmed, promised that they would do their best, either to effect their escape, or to obtain their ransom.

"Oh! but our friends are all in Australia; we have no one at Canton to care for us," cried the young lady, wringing her hands.

"Never fear, miss," said Jack. "I beg your pardon, but I don't know your name; but I don't doubt the merchants there will come down with all that is required; and if not, the midshipmen on the station would be delighted to pay your ransom, and take it out of the pirates afterwards, when we catch them."

The young lady, who did not exactly understand who midshipmen were, or what taking it out of the pirates meant, nevertheless thought Jack a very polite young gentleman, and thanking him warmly, told him that her name was Cecile Dubois, and that her mother was Madame Dubois, but that she only spoke French, and as she was now too old to learn English, she hoped he would learn French to talk to her. Jack, with a flourish of his turban, which head-covering he and Murray wore instead of their caps, which they had lost, assured her that he should have unbounded pleasure in so doing, if she would undertake to teach him. "But, Miss Cecile," added Jack, "now I know your name, it is pleasant to call you by it; before we begin, wouldn't you like a little food? You and your mamma must be peckish, I suspect, and she doesn't look as if she was accustomed to starve." This want being made known to Jos, he in a short time procured an inexplicable sort of mess not altogether unattractive, to which, at all events, the old lady seemed perfectly ready to do justice, though the younger one, with a taste which Jack admired, only ate some of the rice, and the less oleaginous morsels.

Altogether the midshipmen were pretty well satisfied with the turn affairs had taken; but poor Captain Willock had to mourn over the loss of his ship and cargo, as also, probably, most of his crew. Some he had seen taken prisoners, and dragged off on board the junks. Whether their throats had been cut, or whether they were to be found among the pirate fleet, he could not tell; others he had too great reason to fear had been blown up. "They were cowards some of them to be sure, or they would have stuck by us, and we should have beaten off the pirates; but still I cannot bear to think of them all being cruelly murdered," observed the captain to his mate.

"I guess you're not far wrong, captain," answered Joe Hudson. "If it hadn't been for these British officers, we should have been where they are, pleasant or unpleasant."

"We only did for you what I am sure you would have done for us," answered Murray. "We liked to see the brave way you met the pirates, and we are very glad to have assisted any Americans, whom we look upon as cousins, the next thing to our own countrymen."

"Thank you, sir, thank you," said Captain Willock warmly, taking Alick's hand. "If the Britishers and Yankees were always together, we might flog all the world, I guess, who might try to oppose us." Thus harmony prevailed among the captives.

For the next two days the fleet lay at anchor, those junks which had suffered by the explosion of the brig being engaged in repairing damages.

Jack got on very rapidly with his French, for, having nothing else to do, he studied very hard, and Mademoiselle Cecile happened to have a copy of _Paul and Virginia in her pocket when the vessel was attacked. It served as a capital lesson-book.

As Murray already knew French, he did not require Miss Cecile's lessons, and so he was able to look philosophically on, and, like a wise monitor, he told Jack to take care what he was about, neither to take possession of the young lady's heart nor to lose his own. Whether he would have taken this advice, which was sage and sound, it is impossible to say; but other stirring events happened which put a stop to the French lessons.

One evening the midshipmen observed the pirates in a great state of commotion. Those who were on shore came off and armed themselves after their fashion, by sticking pistols and daggers in their belts, and hanging swords over their necks, and then all hands set busily to work to get their ships into fighting order. Jos, who had been on shore, came off among the others, and informed them that another pirate fleet had hove in sight, and that it was expected that it would come into the bay to attack them for the sake of making them disgorge the booty they had collected.

"Pretty scoundrels," said Jack; "there is not even honour among these thieves themselves."

"No, sare," answered Jos quietly. "Big man in dis country always cut little man's throat, if little man got any ting worth having."

"Pleasant," remarked Jack; "I would rather be an English ploughman than a Chinese mandarin."

While the midshipmen were talking to Jos, Captain Fi Tan came up, and intimated to the latter that he should expect his prisoners to take an active part in the battle, and to assist in defending the junk.

"A cool request," remarked Jack; "however, as fight we must probably to defend our own lives and those of the two ladies, we may as well make a virtue of necessity. You agree with me, Murray, and so do you. Captain and Mr Hudson? Well, then, Jos, tell Captain Fi Tan that we will fight for him, but that he must give us any recompense we may demand."

Jos spoke to the pirate captain, and immediately said that he would agree to their terms.

"That's to say, he'll take the fighting out of us first, and then, if he finds it convenient, change his mind," remarked Captain Willock. "I know the way of the Chinese. You cannot trust them."

"Perhaps when we have taught them to trust us they may learn to be trustworthy themselves," observed Murray; "besides, these fellows are professed pirates. What can you expect of them?"

"They are all alike, all alike; all rogues and vagabonds together," answered the skipper.

After this somewhat sweeping condemnation of a whole people, their conversation was interrupted by the pirates bringing them a heap of pistols, daggers, knives, and swords, with which to cover their persons in Chinese fashion to be ready for battle. Darkness now came on, and in a short time lights were seen in a pretty dense line, reaching across the entrance of the harbour. The dark outlines of a fleet of junks soon after this appeared through the gloom, and forthwith gongs and cymbals began to clash, and shrieks and shouts ascended, and guns, and jingalls, and pistols went off, while fire-balls, and rockets, and stink-pots, and other Chinese devices for warfare, filled the air, and truly made "night hideous."

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