We was on the southern part of the China station, when the “George Ranger” was ordered to the Straits of Malacca, to put down the pirates that had been showing themselves of late. It was in the forties, when ships was ships, not iron-kettles full of wheels, and other devilments, and there was a chance of hand-to-hand fighting – not being blown up in an iron cellar by you don’t know who. Ships was ships in them days!
There had been a lot of throat-cutting and scuttling, for them devils stopped at nothing. Some of us had been through the straits before, when we was in the “Polly Phemus,” seventy-four, going to the China station, and although we had never come to quarters with the Malays, we had seen some of their work, and knew what kind they was. So, when we had left Singapore in the “George Ranger,” for that was our saucy, little thirty-eight-gun frigate, – the place wasn’t in them days what it is now, – many and many ‘s the yarn was told in the fo’c’sle, and on the watches, of what the yellow devils could do, and had done. Some of us took it one way, and some another, but all, save a few, wanted to get into hand-grips with the pirates, for all their kreeses, and their stinkpots, and the devil’s engines what they used. There was some that didn’t mind cold steel of an ordinary kind, and would have faced cutlasses and boarding-pikes, any day, for a holiday, but that didn’t like the idea of those knives like crooked flames, and that sliced a man in two, and hacked through the bowels of him. Naturally, we didn’t take much stock of this kind; and many’s the joke we had on them, and some of them cruel enough jokes, too.
You may be sure there was good stories, with plenty of cutting, and blood, and tortures in them, told in their watches, and nigh the whole ship’s crew was busy, day and night, remembering and inventing things that’d make them gasp and grow white. I think that, somehow, the captain and the officers must have known what was goin’ on, for there came tales from the ward-room that was worse nor any of ours. The midshipmen used to delight in them, like the ship’s boys did, and one of them, that had a kreese, used to bring it out when he could, and show how the pirates used it when they cut the hearts out of men and women, and ripped them up to the chins. It was a bit cruel, at times, on them poor, white-livered chaps, – a man can’t help his liver, I suppose, – but, anyhow, there’s no place for them in a warship, for they’re apt to do more harm by living where there’s men of all sorts, than they can do by dying. So there wasn’t any mercy for them, and the captain was worse on them than any. Captain Wynyard was him that commanded the corvette “Sentinel” on the China station, and was promoted to the “George Ranger” for cutting up a fleet of junks that was hammering at the “Rajah,” from Canton, racing for Southampton with the first of the season’s tea. He was a man, if you like, a bulldog full of hellfire, when he was on for fighting; he wouldn’t have a white liver at any price. “God hates a coward,” he said once, “and under Her Britannic Majesty I’m here to carry out God’s will. Trice him up, and give him a dozen!” At least, that’s the story they tell of him when he was round Shanghai, and one of his men had held back when the time came for boarding a fire-junk that was coming down the tide. And with that he went in, and steered her off with his own hands.
Well, the captain knew what work there was before us, and that it weren’t no time for kid gloves and hair-oil, much less a bokey in your buttonhole and a top-hat, and he didn’t mean that there should be any funk on his ship. So you take your davy that it wasn’t his fault if things was made too pleasant aboard for men what feared fallin’ into the clutches of the Malays.
Now and then he went out of his way to be nasty over such folk, and, boy or man, he never checked his tongue on a hard word when any one’s face was pale before him. There was one old chap on board that we called “Old Land’s End,” for he came from that part, and that had a boy of his on the “Billy Ruffian,” when he sailed on her, and after got lost, one night, in cutting out a Greek sloop at Navarino, in 1827. We used to chaff him when there was trouble with any of the boys, for he used to say that his boy might have been in that trouble, too. And now, when the chaff was on about bein’ afeered of the Malay’s, we used to rub it into the old man; but he would flame up, and answer us that his boy died in his duty, and that he couldn’t be afeered of nought.
One night there was a row on among the midshipmen, for they said that one of them, Tempest by name, owned up to being afraid of being kreesed. He was a rare bright little chap of about thirteen, that was always in fun and trouble of some kind; but he was soft-hearted, and sometimes the other lads would tease him. He would own up truthfully to anything he thought, or felt, and now they had drawn him to own something that none of them would – no matter how true it might be. Well, they had a rare fight, for the boy was never backward with his fists, and by accident it came to the notice of the captain. He insisted on being told what it was all about, and when young Tempest spoke out, and told him, he stamped on the deck, and called out:
“I’ll have no cowards in this ship,” and was going on, when the boy cut in:
“I’m no coward, sir; I’m a gentleman!”
“Did you say you were afraid? Answer me – yes, or no?”
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