Chapter 10 | The Enemy | Blue Jackets

Chapter Ten.

“Oh, I say, do wake up and come on deck. It’s such a lark.”

“What is?” I said, rolling out of the berth, with my head feeling all confused and strange, to stare at Barkins.

“Why, everything. You never saw such a miserable old rag-bag of a ship in your life.”

I hurriedly dressed and went on deck, to find the preparations complete, and I could not help thinking that, if the pirates mistook the Teaser for a man-of-war now, they must be clever indeed.

For on the previous day I had only seen the alterations in bits, so to speak, but now everything was done, even to having a quantity of coal on deck, and the clean white planks besmirched with the same black fuel. The paint-pots had altered everything; the figure-head was hidden with tarpaulin; the rigging, instead of being all ataunto, was what Smith called “nine bobble square,” and one sail had been taken down and replaced by an old one very much tattered, so that up aloft we looked as if we had been having a taste of one of the typhoons which visit the Chinese seas. These preparations, with the men’s clothes hanging to dry, the boats badly hauled up to the davits, and the fish hanging over the stern (after the fashion practised in west-country fishing-boats), completely altered the aspect of everything. Then I found that the officers were all in tweeds, with yachting or shooting caps; the bulk of the crew below, and my twenty men and lads all carefully got up with painted heads and pigtails complete, under the charge of Ching, who was bustling about importantly, and he came to me at once and began whispering—

“Captain say, Ching takee care allee men, and show himself evelywhere.”

“Yes, of course,” I said. “Yes. You wanted to say something?”

“Yes, Ching want say something.”

“Well, what is it? Quick, I must go.”

“Ching want you tell sailor boy be velly careful. Take care of Ching when pilate come.”

“All right,” I said; “but they haven’t come yet.”

“Think big junk pilate.”

“Which one? where?” I said.

He pointed forward to where, about five miles off the lee-bow, a great junk was slowly sailing in the same direction as we were.

“Is that the one which passed us in the night?” I said.


“Why do you think she is a pirate?”

“Ching tink why she no sail light away and not stop while man-o’-war clawl along velly slow. You tellee captain.”

I nodded, and found that there was no need, for the captain was carefully observing the junk from where he was hidden by a pile of casks, and Mr Reardon was with him.

“Here, Mr Herrick,” he cried, “your eyes are young. Have a look at that junk. Take your uniform cap off, my lad, and, as soon as you have done, take off your jacket and put on a coloured suit.”

I had a good look through the glass at the junk, and made my report.

“I think it’s only a big trader, sir,” I said. “Looks like the boats we saw at Amoy, and as if she were going up to Wanghai.”

“Yes, that’s it, I think,” said Captain Thwaites to Mr Reardon. Then he sharply turned to me and gave me a dry look. “Well, Mr Herrick, you see I have taken your advice, and put my ship in this disgraceful state.”

“Yes, sir,” I said eagerly; “and I hope it will prove successful.”

“So do I,” he said drily. “That will do, Herrick. Now, Mr Reardon, I think we will keep on just as we are, just about four knots an hour. It gives the idea of our being in trouble; and if we keep on close outside the islands, it may draw the scoundrels—that is, if they are there.”

“Yes, sir, if they are there,” said the lieutenant.

“How long do you reckon it will take us to get abreast of the reef where that barque lay?”

“We ought to be there by noon, sir, I should say.”

“That will do. We shall seem to be making for Wanghai.”

I heard no more, but went below, and directly after breakfast reappeared in white flannels and a cricketing cap, a transformation which satisfied the first lieutenant, but displeased Barkins and Smith, who had orders to keep below in uniform.

“I hate so much favouritism,” grumbled Barkins. “Who are you, Gnat? You’re our junior; and here are we kept below, and my lord you parading about the deck, and seeing everything.”

“Why, you’re in the reserve,” I said banteringly, “and will have all the fighting to do.”

“Who wants all the fighting to do?” cried Smith. “I don’t. I suppose if we do take a lot of pirate junks, you’ll be promoted, and we shan’t get a word.”

“Stuff!” I said. “How can I get promoted?”

“But I want to know why you’re to be picked out,” cried Barkins.

“Go and ask the skipper,” I said. “Now, look here both of you; if you’re not civil, I won’t come and report everything. If you are, I’ll come down as often as I can to tell you all that is going on.”

“Oh then, I suppose we must be civil, Smithy,” said Barkins sourly, “but we’ll serve the beggar out afterwards.”

I went up on deck again to find that our speed had been slightly increased, but we drew no nearer to the junk, which sailed on exactly in the same course as we were taking, and that seemed strange; but beyond watching her through the telescopes, and seeing that she had only about a dozen men on board—all blue-frocked Chinamen—no further notice was taken of her.

Ching was seated right forward, with his blue frock showing well up against the grey white of one of the hanging-down sails, and he had been furnished with a pipe, which he smoked slowly and thoughtfully; half-a-dozen men were in the fore-rigging, making believe to repair damages up aloft; and soon after four more were sent up to begin tinkering at the topmast, which they made great efforts to lower down on deck, but of course got no further.

They had orders from the first lieutenant to take it coolly, and coolly they took it, looking like a lazy, loafing set of Chinese sailors, whose intentions were to do as little as they could for their pay.

Mr Reardon, in a shooting-suit and straw hat, went about giving orders, and the captain and Mr Brooke had cane seats on the quarter-deck, with a bottle and glasses, and sat sipping beer and smoking cigars, as if they were passengers.

Then came long hours of patient—I should say impatient—crawling along over the same course as we had followed the previous day, with no sail in sight but the big junk, which took not the slightest notice of us, nor we of it.

There was no doubt whatever, though, of her actions. She kept sailing on at about the same rate as we steamed, evidently for the sake of being in company, and to have a European vessel close at hand to close up to in case of danger from the shores of the mainland, or one of the islands we should pass, for it was an established fact that the pirates seldom attacked ships that were in company.

All through the early part of the morning the novelty of the affair interested the men, and there was a constant burst of eager conversation going on, but as noon came, and matters were in the same position, and we still far away from the spot where the barque had been burned, every one grew weary, and I fidgeted myself into a state of perspiration.

“It will all turn out wrong,” I thought, “and then they will blame me.”

With these fancies to worry me, I kept away from my messmates as much as I could; and when by accident I encountered either of my superiors, I saw that they looked—or I fancied they did—very stern.

“All these preparations for nothing,” I said to myself, as I saw the guns all ready, but covered over with tarpaulins, cartridges and shells waiting, and the crews armed and impatient.

Dinner had been long over, and I need hardly say that I did not enjoy mine. Some of the men were having a nap, and the heat below must have been very great, for it was scorching on deck.

At last we were abreast of the rocky islands dotted here and there, and upon the reef I could just make out a few pieces of the burned vessel.

But as I swept the rocky islets and channels and then the horizon, I could not make out a sail, only our companion the junk, with her bows and stern high out of the water, sailing easily along that fine afternoon.

Another hour passed, and there were rocky islands on our starboard bow and two astern, but not a sign of inhabitant, only high bluffs, rugged cliffs, and narrow channels between reefs whitened by the constant breaking upon them of a heavy swell.

“Rather slow work, Reardon,” said the captain, as they two came by where I was at the bulwark, using a small glass. “See anything, Mr Herrick?”

“No, sir,” I said.

“No, sir, indeed; of course you don’t,” cried the captain impatiently. “Nice trick you’ve played me, sir. Made me dress up my men and the ship in this tomfool way. There you are using your glass. What have you got to say for yourself, eh?”

I could not tell whether he was speaking banteringly or really angrily, and, keeping my glass to my eye in the hope of seeing something to report, I mumbled out some excuse about meaning it for the best.

“Best, indeed!” he said pettishly. “Nice objects we look. What do you think the First Lords of the Admiralty would say to me if they could see Her Majesty’s gunboat—the finest clipper in the service—in this state? Eh? Why don’t you answer, sir?”

“I suppose, sir,” I cried desperately, “that they would say you were doing your best for the sake of trying to catch the pirates.”

“Humph! do you, indeed? Well? Anything to report? What’s the use of holding that glass to your eye if you can’t see anything? Anything to report, I say?”

“Yes, sir,” I cried breathlessly, and with my heart throbbing heavily, “the junk has run up a little pennon to her mast-head.”

“She has?” cried Mr Reardon excitedly, and he raised his own glass. “Yes, you’re right. Well done, Herrick! There, sir, I told you the lad was right.”

“Right? when they are signalling to us for water or a bag of rice.”

“When they have only to heave-to and let us overhaul them, sir,” cried Mr Reardon, swinging his glass round and narrowly missing my head. “No, sir, they’re signalling to the shore; and before long we shall see another junk come swooping out from behind one of those headlands, to take us in the rear. If they don’t, I’m a Dutchman.”

“Then Dutchman you are, Reardon,” said the captain, smiling. “I only wish they would.”

“Here they come, sir,” I cried excitedly— “one—two—yes, there are three.”

“What? Where?”

“You can only see the tops of their sails, sir, over that flat, low island this side of the big cliffs.”

“Eh! yes.”

Only those two words, as the captain sighted the slowly-moving objects just indistinctly seen, but they were enough to send a thrill all through the ship.

For there was no mistaking the matter. The junk that had been hanging by us all night was a pirate after all, and she had signalled to companions on shore. I could see, too, that she was slightly altering her course.

The enemy was at last in sight.