His Majesty's Ship Atlas
My Lord Admiral,
Last Thursday our lookout spied a strange sail; coming up on her, we recognized her as the Medusa, a famous pirate playing havoc with the shipping all up and down the West Indies. Declining to fight like a yellow coward, although she bore a full 14 guns to our mere 28, the pirate at once turned tail and ran downwind.
We pursued her all that day, the Inviolate gaining steadily, and near nightfall we beat to quarters, thinking we should soon bring her to bay. We had drawn near, our broadsides already firing to find their range, when a run of bad luck befell us.
First Robert Giffiths, our first lieutenant, tripped and broke his leg. We were quite unable to determine the obstruction that had caused the injury; the decks had been cleared for action, and Griffiths has been at sea since he was ten years old. Just after he had been carried below one of the starboard guns broke loose from its tackling and careened across the deck, crushing James Tweed's foot and flattening Tom Callahan, killing him dead. We were lucky to avoid further injury. Then Richard Smith, rated landsman, somehow managed to fall over the larboard rail, and the unfortunate man can not swim. Although his blood was high to take the pirate, Captain Swift ordered us to heave to and rescue the unfortunate soul.
As we were pulling aboard poor Richard Smith (hemorrhaging seawater from his lungs but otherwise well), and again piling on sail to resume the pursuit-the chase having drawn away from us-the lookout spied strange weather ahead. Approaching, we saw it was a bank of mist hanging like a curtain across our path, although the sun and wind should have scattered it. The Medusa vanished into it, and we followed.
Inside the mist it was almost dark as night and as damp as a rainstorm. I was captain of the foremost starboard gun crew; the men stared around them, husbanding their slow-matches against the damp, and growing increasingly anxious as the fog persisted.
"This ain't no natural fog," whispered someone in the crew of gun four.
"Take that man's name," snapped John Marshall, second lieutenant, but the truth is none of us had ever seen a fog quite like this one, and no man of us liked it. Except Captain Swift, of course, who stood looking into the fog as pretty as gazing into a lady's eyes-begging your pardon, sir.
We had all thought we should be through the fog bank in a few minutes, but we sailed through it for what seemed like hours, and all the time ghostly Medusas seemed to loom suddenly above us out of the mist and then swirl away again, making the men jump.
We took in sail and inched along; we could see neither sun nor stars to navigate, and we could not even tell how long we had been in the mist, for the careening gun had somehow shattered the hourglass, and all the watches aboard had stopped. Coincidence, of course-it must have something to do with the barometric pressure and the damp-but dammed inconvenient.
Suddenly the Medusa herself loomed out of the fog-the real Medusa this time-and passed before us, firing a raking broadside all down our length. She finished her pass and vanished again into the fog, but we knew she would be turning to repeat the maneuver; her broadside had mauled us sadly. We turned, hoping to bring our larboard broadside to bear on her next pass-and then every man aboard heard the dreaded sound: the screaming of timbers as the Inviolate ran aground. The pirate, damn her eyes, had led us onto shoals.
The next wave heeled us hard over on the starboard beam. And then, curse her, the Medusa appeared again, firing a broadside that holed us three times below the waterline. When the wave receded and we rolled back in the other direction we could all hear the water coming in.
"We'll take her with us!" Captain Swift roared, ordering us to fire. We obeyed, resolving to sell our lives dearly. That was when my cannon exploded.
I had been standing well away of the gun, commanding the crew; perhaps that was why I was thrown clear. I remember hitting the water, the seawater filling my lungs. With my last breath I thought how lucky I had been to serve my King and country, however briefly. I remember nothing more.
When I awoke I lay on a sandy beach, my arms still wrapped around the spar that had saved my life. It was a clear, sunny day, no sign of the fog. I cannot tell how far I had drifted from the wreck.
Walking up and down the beach I found no survivors, and I saw no signs of the captain or any of the other officers. I feared they were all dead, either drowned in the breakup of the unfortunately-named Inviolate or murdered by the pirates when they came to pick her bones.
"Will," my mother used to say, "you will rot your brain with those adventure stories. How will Robinson Crusoe help you when you are in Parliament?" I am happy to recount that she was entirely wrong, for within two hours I was well engaged in weaving myself a shelter out of branches, having resolved to make the best of my time on this island until help arrived or I could signal a ship. But I soon reconsidered; no difficulty in the construction, of course, nothing easier than to pull branches from a thick unfamiliar jungle and wrestle them into a shape fit for human habitation, but I considered that the weather was warm and my heart strong in the service of His Majesty. For the same reason I left off building my bonfire, although it would have been quite a cheerful blaze. No doubt the wood was damp anyway, for I am certain that rubbing the sticks together should have been far more effective than it was.
Night descended. I stayed close to the water in case a ship should happen to pass in the night; the strange noises coming from the jungle-which could have been any number of deadly animals-bothered me not at all. I am happy to be able to report the perfect truth of the adage that one's duty keeps one warm. My duty burned in my heart, better than any bonfire. However, my extremities-being farther from the blaze, you understand-grew rather chilled. And no one has ever gone so far as to claim that duty matches a side of beef and a glass of port for sustenance.
I was roused from my sleep in the middle of the freezing night by the sound of voices. At first I nearly cried aloud in joy, but then I recalled the stories of native tribes in these parts, savages who will gut you and pop you into their cookpots as easy as kiss my hand. I reflected that Captain Swift would no doubt counsel that discretion is the better part of valor. I remained hidden at first, but my spirit of adventure-my own form, I like to think, of that dauntless courage that characterizes Britannia's people, that has spread her banner across the known world-soon drew me from my hiding place. And also the crackle of a fire and smell of roasting meat. It was my duty to King and country to investigate these things, to leave no spit unturned in their service.
There were two of them, a man and a woman, and my stomach turned-it was hardly a growl at all, I protest-as I realized that these were pirates, no doubt from the same crew that had destroyed my ship, my livelihood, and all my hopes for a satisfying supper served punctually. They were roasting a wild pig over a bonfire, talking carelessly as its lovely juices ran into the fire, wasted.
"Is it true, what they say about the sea hags?" the woman said.
"No one can say," the man said, leaning back and swirling his wine around in its cup. My mouth watered. "They say there are three of them, sisters, as hideous as you could wish. They live in a cave on the far side of Dead Man's Island from the Captain's settlement. If anyone knows who they are and where they came from I've never heard it, but it's rumored that their servants are damned."
The woman shivered; it was strange, to see such hardened killers unnerved. "I see no reason to deal with such creatures," she said. "Bad-luck jacks are one thing, but hags and the damned? Give me a pistol and a heaving deck in a storm any day."
She stroked the hilt of the sword at her waist. My blood began pounding as I recognized it: Captain Swift's saber. I could not be mistaken; it was a gift from his father, and I had often seen him stroke its hilt in just such a way when preparing to take the Inviolate into action.
"Poor fools," the woman said, regarding the sword. "It was almost a pity to wreck them-almost too easy."
"You know what was a pity?" growled the man. "Losing the ship. A pretty present for Tess, that would have been, sailing into Dead Man's Isle with that at the Medusa's heels."
"What need has he of ships?" the woman said. "They say he has enough treasure that every pirate in these seas could retire-"
"-assuming we'd want to," the man said, and they laughed.
"With his treasure, he could buy all the pretty frigates he wants," the woman went on. "He could bloody well buy the bloody throne of England."
"But how many other pirate crews will sail in with prizes at their heels? Something like that might put us ahead of the competition."
The woman cocked her head, considering. "Perhaps. We'll have to make do with what we can scavenge from the wreckage. There is no time for further prize-taking."
"It will be soon, then?" the man said.
"They say Tess is ready."
My heart dearly longed to challenge them, but upon reflection I decided it would be unfair to steal the glory from my compatriots, who would be eager to spill the wretches' blood after the wreck of the Inviolate.
I turned and crept away from the fire, using all the woodcraft I developed in my boyhood to avoid detection. And I would have succeeded, if I had not stepped on the snake. It hissed at me in the most dreadful way, its eyes shining with reflected firelight; although I am certain that my scream was barely audible, the pirates were upon me in a flash. There was a third pirate I had not seen-their sentry in the jungle, no doubt. They dragged me into the circle of firelight and threw me down, looking me up and down.
"Midshipman," the woman said, wrinkling her nose. "I can tell by the smell."
The sentry put his nose near me and sniffed. He had crooked teeth and bad breath and looked like the story every mother tells her children to keep them from joining the Navy. Not that I listened to such stories, naturally. "Nobleman, too, if I smell aright," he croaked.
"Sir, I request that you remove your hands from me," I said. "I would demand satisfaction from you, if I thought I had any chance of getting it."
The sentry hawked and spit. "See what I mean?" he said.
"Now, now, don't frighten the lad," the woman said, smiling at me in a way no doubt meant to be sisterly. "From the Inviolate, are you, love?" she said to me.
Of course I told them nothing, only spit at their feet. They did not even have the civility to be offended, I regret to say; they only laughed.
"You must be terribly hungry," the woman went on. Sir, I regret to say that my body betrayed me. My stomach rumbled loudly.
"Here, love, come back to the fire," she said. They gave me slices of the pig-now finished roasting and delightfully tender-and wine, which I recognized as vintage from Captain Swift's own stores. My stomach turned at the taste, but I did my duty and nobly ate and drank what they put before me, knowing well that hunger only weakened my ability to serve fair Britannia.
Just as I was finished eating and beginning to think about destroying them, the woman nodded to the others. "Now for it, lads," she said, and the lot of them moved towards me.
I made to draw my sword, resolving to sell my life dearly, but somehow my sword was no longer at my side. I do not wish to make much of my humiliation; let us only say that I was stripped down to my drawers and trussed like a pig beside the fire, so tightly I could hardly move.
"Now," the woman said. "It's to be regretted, lad, but you've set foot on our land and spied on our doings, and we have no choice but to treat you accordingly."
"I am not afraid to die," I said, raising my head proudly-or, as proudly as a head can be raised, when it is atop a body stripped to its drawers, shivering, and somewhat inclined to doze after too much wine.
"He thinks we're savages!" said the first man in outrage.
"Now, lad," the woman said kindly, "you can be forgiven for not knowing our ways, but we'd beg you not to be insulting. No, you'll have every opportunity to defend yourself."
"A Tribunal, then?" asked the first man eagerly.
"I apologize, lad," she said to me. "I am afraid we cannot do it up right, for we have other business to attend to this evening, but the crew of the Medusa would never have it said that we neglected due process. Now, Scurvy Jack, if you would read the charges?"
The fearful-looking sentry stood up, puffed out his chest in a gross imitation of a London barrister, held his hand out in front of him as if reading from a book, tucked the other behind his back, and began.
"Be it known, yer honor, that the defendant stands accused of the followin': One, makin' war against the worthy pirates of the West Indian seas, them as have done no harm to him; two, attackin' our vessel, the Medusa, when she was only goin' about her normal business, like; three, spyin' on official pirate business; four, deprivin' our honorable comrades of sustenance-"
"You offered me food!" I cried.
Scurvy Jack shook his head. "Aye, but no one forced you to eat," he said sadly.
"This unseemly display does you no good in the eyes of the court," the woman said. "Shall we continue, or declare you in contempt of court?"
Not desiring to know what these rogues would do to me if I should be declared in contempt of court, I subsided. Scurvy Jack continued as if I had not spoken.
"-deprivin' our honorable comrades of sustenance by consumin' an amount of food more suited to a starvin' bear than a sailor; five, annoyin' a pirate crew outside the limits of human tolerance with his prattle."
"Thank you, Scurvy Jack," the woman said. "How do you plead?" she said to me.
"This is a farce," I said. "Are you to serve as judge as well as accuser? I demand to be released at once."
"Let the court records reflect that the defendant pleads innocent," she said. "Does the defendant wish to call any witnesses?"
I looked around me: fire, jungle, pirates. "Allow me to consider," I said, quite cuttingly. "Do you see anyone else here? The crew of my ships, perhaps? Whom should I call?"
"Defendant calls no witnesses," the woman said. "Does the prosecution wish to call any witnesses?"
"Prosecution calls Heartless Tom of the Medusa," said Scurvy Jack.
The first man stood and stepped forward. "Everything Jack says is true," he said, and sat down.
"There you have it, yer honor," Scurvy Jack said.
"Fair Justice hides her eyes in the face of such mockery," I said, but they ignored me.
"Any further witnesses?" the woman inquired.
"The prosecution further calls-the pig!" Scurvy Jack said, pointing at the carcass of the pig, still suspended from the pit.
"What?" I said in disbelief.
"Look at him," Scurvy Jack said sadly, pointing to the pig, "picked clean to the bone, his condition a mute testament to the ravening destruction of Englishmen in general, and our fine midshipman here particular-like."
The other two pirates were nodding in appreciation of this testimony. "Why don't you call the wine-jug to the stand?" I said.
"That wine-jug might have sev'ral incriminatin' things to say of you, laddie," said Scurvy Jack. "But we are not heartless; well, except for Tom here. The prosecution rests."
"The court will now deliberate," the woman said. Deliberation consisted of passing the aforementioned wine jug around the circle and quaffing liberally from it. They offered it to me, but I bravely refrained, although my mouth was quite dry.
"The court is prepared to announce its decision," the woman said after a protracted interval. "Wake up, Scurvy Jack." Scurvy Jack had indeed fallen asleep by the fire with his mouth wide open, making him if anything even more disgusting. She kicked him in the ribs to wake him and fed him another long sip of wine to fortify him for the coming pronouncement.
"The court pronounces the defendant-"
"I love this part," said Heartless Tom, licking his lips.
"Guilty!" the woman announced gleefully.
"I am shocked," I said, with heavy irony, which of course they did not appreciate, being ill-bred savages.
Fully expecting to meet my end momentarily, I cast my eyes to the heavens. If could have, I would have stood to meet the final blow, but alas, my cruel bonds prevented me. "It is my privilege and honor to die in the name of my country," I declared. "Every man should be so lucky as to give his life bravely in the service of a noble cause." In that moment, I wished only that my final words could live on to inspire future generations of seamen-but naturally the unreasoning philistines did not appreciate my rhetoric.
"Lad, if we had more time, I would teach you a lesson for your insults," the woman said. "But I am afraid we must carry out your sentence swiftly."
They dragged me down to the beach, still trussed from head to toe. At every moment I expected to meet my end, but instead they threw me into a tiny rowboat, removed the oars, and pushed me out beyond the breakers. They left me a little bread and water, only to taunt me.
"A few days on the open sea will improve your smell!" they called, waving to me.
The tide was on the ebb, and I was carried out to sea in my little boat. Although I am certain they meant for me to die, I cleverly managed to extricate myself from my bonds, although they were tied cruelly. Their little joke served to sustain me when I ate the bread and drank the water. But by this time I was far out to sea, and I had no means to navigate or steer the boat.
I cannot say how long I drifted on the breast of the flood. But at last I was picked up by a boat from His Majesty's Ship Atlas, scouring these waters for survivors from the Inviolate. There, it was my great joy to learn that Captain Swift and most of the crew had survived, rescued by the Atlas. What joy, to be united with captain and crew! What joy, to be able to share with my captain the vital intelligence I had gathered!
I fear I have taxed your patience, sir, but I believe the importance of the news I carry will be clear. Your humble servant, &tc &tc,
[Appended to the account above]
My Lord Admiral,
I beg your lordship's pardon for troubling you with this letter, but the boy would not stop pestering me until I agreed to have it sent. Will Hadley is my nephew, sir, admitted to my crew as a favor to my sister; he is wild for the sea and the service. I had high hopes for him, but I regret to say that so far I have found that his obsequiousness is exceeded only by his imagination.
As to his account of the loss of the Inviolate, that is true as far as it goes; your lordship will find my own report appended. And it is true that pirate activity has greatly increased of late. Will was found adrift in a small boat the morning after the wreck, but there were no signs of any ropes used to bind him (he claims to have thrown them overboard, of course), and if he was indeed tied, it must have been but loosely, for he has no rope-burns. I suspect his story is hogwash. I enclose it in the no doubt futile hopes that your lordship will find in it something of use. I have the pleasure to be,
Your humble servant
Captain James Swift