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Authors: James Fenimore Cooper

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As our sheets were all flying forward, and remained so for a few
minutes, it gave me leisure to look about. I soon saw both proas, and
glad enough was I to perceive that they had not approached materially
nearer. Mr. Kite observed this also, and remarked that our movements
had been so prompt as "to take the rascals aback." He meant, they did
not exactly know what we were at, and had not kept away with us.

At this instant, the captain and five or six of the oldest seamen
began to cast loose all our starboard, or weather guns, four in all,
and sixes. We had loaded these guns in the Straits of Banca, with
grape and canister, in readiness for just such pirates as were now
coming down upon us; and nothing was wanting but the priming and a hot
logger-head. It seems two of the last had been ordered in the fire,
when we saw the proas at sunset; and they were now in excellent
condition for service, live coals being kept around them all night by
command. I saw a cluster of men busy with the second gun from forward,
and could distinguish the captain pointing it.

"There cannot well be any mistake, Mr. Marble?" the captain observed,
hesitating whether to fire or not.

"Mistake, sir? Lord, Captain Robbins, you might cannonade any of the
islands astarn for a week, and never hurt an honest man. Let 'em have
it, sir; I'll answer for it, you do good."

This settled the matter. The loggerhead was applied, and one of our
sixes spoke out in a smart report. A breathless stillness
succeeded. The proas did not alter their course, but neared us
fast. The captain levelled his night-glass, and I heard him tell Kite,
in a low voice, that they were full of men. The word was now passed to
clear away all the guns, and to open the arm-chest, to come at the
muskets and pistols. I heard the rattling of the boarding-pikes, too,
as they were cut adrift from the spanker-boom, and fell upon the
deck. All this sounded very ominous, and I began to think we should
have a desperate engagement first, and then have all our throats cut
afterwards.

I expected now to hear the guns discharged in quick succession, but
they were got ready only, not fired. Kite went aft, and returned with
three or four muskets, and as many pikes. He gave the latter to those
of the people who had nothing to do with the guns. By this time the
ship was on a wind, steering a good full, while the two proas were
just abeam, and closing fast. The stillness that reigned on both sides
was like that of death. The proas, however, fell a little more astern;
the result of their own manoeuvring, out of all doubt, as they moved
through the water much faster than the ship, seeming desirous of
dropping into our wake, with a design of closing under our stern, and
avoiding our broad-side. As this would never do, and the wind
freshened so as to give us four or five knot way, a most fortunate
circumstance for us, the captain determined to tack while he had
room. The John behaved beautifully, and came round like a top. The
proas saw there was no time to lose, and attempted to close before we
could fill again; and this they would have done with ninety-nine ships
in a hundred. The captain knew his vessel, however, and did not let
her lose her way, making everything draw again as it might be by
instinct. The proas tacked, too, and, laying up much nearer to the
wind than we did, appeared as if about to close on our lee-bow. The
question was, now, whether we could pass them or not before they got
near enough to grapple. If the pirates got on board us, we were
hopelessly gone; and everything depended on coolness and judgment. The
captain behaved perfectly well in this critical instant, commanding a
dead silence, and the closest attention to his orders.

I was too much interested at this moment to feel the concern that I
might otherwise have experienced. On the forecastle, it appeared to us
all that we should be boarded in a minute, for one of the proas was
actually within a hundred feet, though losing her advantage a little
by getting under the lee of our sails. Kite had ordered us to muster
forward of the rigging, to meet the expected leap with a discharge of
muskets, and then to present our pikes, when I felt an arm thrown
around my body, and was turned in-board, while another person assumed
my place. This was Neb, who had thus coolly thrust himself before me,
in order to meet the danger first. I felt vexed, even while touched
with the fellow's attachment and self-devotion, but had no time to
betray either feeling before the crews of the proas gave a yell, and
discharged some fifty or sixty matchlocks at us. The air was full of
bullets, but they all went over our heads. Not a soul on board the
John was hurt. On our side, we gave the gentlemen the four sixes, two
at the nearest and two at the sternmost proa, which was still near a
cable's length distant. As often happens, the one seemingly farthest
from danger, fared the worst. Our grape and canister had room to
scatter, and I can at this distant day still hear the shrieks that
arose from that craft! They were like the yells of fiends in anguish.
The effect on that proa was instantaneous; instead of keeping on after
her consort, she wore short round on her heel, and stood away in our
wake, on the other tack, apparently to get out of the range of our
fire.

I doubt if we touched a man in the nearest proa. At any rate, no noise
proceeded from her, and she came up under our bows fast. As every gun
was discharged, and there was not time to load them, all now depended
on repelling the boarders. Part of our people mustered in the waist,
where it was expected the proa would fall alongside, and part on the
forecastle. Just as this distribution was made, the pirates cast their
grapnel. It was admirably thrown, but caught only by a ratlin. I saw
this, and was about to jump into the rigging to try what I could do to
clear it, when Neb again went ahead of me, and cut the ratlin with his
knife. This was just as the pirates had abandoned sails and oars, and
had risen to haul up alongside. So sudden was the release, that twenty
of them fell over by their own efforts. In this state the ship passed
ahead, all her canvass being full, leaving the proa motionless in her
wake. In passing, however, the two vessels were so near, that those
aft in the John distinctly saw the swarthy faces of their enemies.

We were no sooner clear of the proas than the order was given, "ready
about!" The helm was put down, and the ship came into the wind in a
minute. As we came square with the two proas, all our larboard guns
were given to them, and this ended the affair. I think the nearest of
the rascals got it this time, for away she went, after her consort,
both running off towards the islands. We made a little show of
chasing, but it was only a feint; for we were too glad to get away
from them, to be in earnest. In ten minutes after we tacked the last
time, we ceased firing, having thrown some eight or ten round-shot
after the proas, and were close-hauled again, heading to the
south-west.

It is not to be supposed we went to sleep again immediately. Neb was
the only man on board who did, but he never missed an occasion to eat
or sleep. The captain praised us, and, as a matter of course in that
day, he called all hands to "splice the main-brace." After this, the
watch was told to go below, as regularly as if nothing had happened.
As for the captain himself, he and Mr. Marble and Mr. Kite went prying
about the ship to ascertain if anything material had been cut by what
the chief-mate called "the bloody Indian matchlocks." A little
running-rigging had suffered, and we had to reeve a few new ropes in
the morning; but this terminated the affair.

I need hardly say, all hands of us were exceedingly proud of our
exploit. Everybody was praised but Neb, who, being a "nigger," was in
some way or other overlooked. I mentioned his courage and readiness
to Mr. Marble, but I could excite in no one else the same respect for
the poor fellow's conduct, that I certainly felt myself. I have since
lived long enough to know that as the gold of the rich attracts to
itself the gold of the poor, so do the deeds of the unknown go to
swell the fame of the known. This is as true of nations, and races,
and families, as it is of individuals; poor Neb belonging to a
proscribed colour, it was not in reason to suppose he could ever
acquire exactly the same credit as a white man.

"Them darkies do sometimes blunder on a lucky idee," answered
Mr. Marble to one of my earnest representations, "and I've known chaps
among 'em that were almost as knowing as dullish whites; but
everything out of the common way with 'em is pretty much chance. As
for Neb, however, I will say this for him; that, for a nigger, he
takes things quicker than any of his colour I ever sailed with. Then
he has no sa'ce, and that is a good deal with a black. White sa'ce is
bad enough; but that of a nigger is unbearable."

Alas! Neb. Born in slavery, accustomed to consider it arrogance to
think of receiving even his food until the meanest white had satisfied
his appetite, submissive, unrepining, laborious and obedient—the
highest eulogium that all these patient and unobtrusive qualities
could obtain, was a reluctant acknowledgment that he had "no sa'ce."
His quickness and courage saved the John, nevertheless; and I have
always said it, and ever shall.

A day after the affair of the proas, all hands of us began to
brag. Even the captain was a little seized with this mania; and as for
Marble, he was taken so badly, that, had I not known he behaved well
in the emergency, I certainly should have set him down as a
Bobadil. Rupert manifested this feeling, too, though I heard he did
his duty that night. The result of all the talk was to convert the
affair into a very heroic exploit; and it subsequently figured in the
journals as one of the deeds that illustrate the American name.

From the time we were rid of the proas, the ship got along famously
until we were as far west as about 52°, when the wind came light from
the southward and westward, with thick weather. The captain had been
two or three times caught in here, and he took it into his head that
the currents would prove more favourable, could he stand in closer to
the coast of Madagascar than common. Accordingly, we brought the ship
on a bowline, and headed up well to the northward and westward. We
were a week on this tack, making from fifty to a hundred miles a day,
expecting hourly to see the land. At length we made it, enormously
high mountains, apparently a long distance from us, though, as we
afterwards ascertained, a long distance inland; and we continued to
near it. The captain had a theory of his own about the currents of
this part of the ocean, and, having set one of the peaks by compass,
at the time the land was seen, he soon convinced himself, and
everybody else whom he tried to persuade, Marble excepted, that we
were setting to windward with visible speed. Captain Robbins was a
well-meaning, but somewhat dull man; and, when dull men, become
theorists, they usually make sad work with the practice.

Ail that night we stood on to the northward and westward, though
Mr. Marble had ventured a remonstrance concerning a certain head-land
that was just visible, a little on our weather-bow. The captain
snapped his fingers at this, however; laying down a course of
reasoning, which, if it were worth anything, ought to have convinced
the mate that the weatherly set of the current would carry us ten
leagues to the southward and westward of that cape, before morning. On
this assurance, we prepared to pass a quiet and comfortable night.

I had the morning watch, and when I came on deck, at four, there was
no change in the weather. Mr. Marble soon appeared, and he walked into
the waist, where I was leaning on the weather-rail, and fell into
discourse. This he often did, sometimes so far forgetting the
difference in our stations
afloat
—not
ashore
;
there
I had
considerably the advantage of him—as occasionally to call me "sir." I
always paid for this inadvertency, however, it usually putting a stop
to the communications for the time being. In one instance, he took
such prompt revenge for this implied admission of equality, as
literally to break off short in the discourse, and to order me, in his
sharpest key, to go aloft and send some studding-sails on deck, though
they all had to be sent aloft again, and set, in the course of the
same watch. But offended dignity is seldom considerate, and not always
consistent.

"A quiet night, Master Miles"—
this
the mate
could
call
me, as it implied superiority on his part—"A quiet night, Master
Miles," commenced Mr. Marble, "and a strong westerly current,
accordin' to Captain Robbins. Well, to my taste gooseberries are
better than currents, and
I'd
go about. That's my manner of
generalizing
."

"The captain, I suppose, sir, from that, is of a different opinion?"

"Why, yes, somewhatish,—though I don't think he knows himself exactly
what his own opinion is. This is the third v'y'ge I've sailed with the
old gentleman, and he is half his time in a fog or a current. Now,
it's his idee the ocean is full of Mississippi rivers, and if one
could only find the head of a stream, he might go round the world in
it. More particularly does he hold that there is no fear of the land
when in a current, as a stream never sets on shore. For my part, I
never want any better hand-lead than my nose."

"Nose, Mr. Marble?"

"Yes, nose, Master Miles. Haven't you remarked how far we smelt the
Injees, as we went through the islands?"

"It is true, sir, the Spice Islands, and all land, they say—"

"What the devil's that?" asked the mate, evidently startled at
something he
heard
, though he appeared to
smell
nothing,
unless indeed it might be a rat.

"It sounds like water washing on rocks, sir, as much as anything I
ever heard in my life!"

BOOK: Afloat and Ashore
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