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  ― 91 ―

The Protection of the ‘Sparrowhawk.’

MANY people have their special antipathies. There are instances on record of one fainting at the scent of heliotrope; of another becoming hysterical at the mewing of a cat; and so on, and so on, ad infinitum. The Scotch, as a rule, are anything but a nervously susceptible nation, taken either collectively or individually. Nor have I heard that those members of it who follow the sea as a calling are more so than their shorekeeping compatriots.

Still, to the present day, and probably to the day of his departure, John M‘Cracken, retired master mariner, of Aberdeen, becomes signally and powerfully moved by the cry of the domestic duck, rendered universally and approximately as ‘Quack!’ His red face grows redder, his light blue eyes glower menacingly, and his hands open and close nervously, as if longing for some missile wherewith to annihilate the unconscious fowl—or its human imitator.

The Sparrowhawk, barque, M‘Cracken master, was chartered to convey returning Chinese passengers from Singapore to Amoy.




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I think the regulations as to space, numbers, etc., etc., could not, in those days, have been very strict. Be this as it may, Skipper M‘Cracken filled up until he could fill no more. The 'tween deck was like a freshly-opened sardine tin; on the main deck they lay in double tiers. Many roosted in the tops. The boats on the davits and the long-boat on the skids swarmed with the home-going children of the Flowery Land. The better class, merchants, tradesmen, etc., had secured everything aft, from the captain's cabin to the steward's pantry, for which accommodation fabulous sums found their way into the pockets of M‘Cracken and his mates. For'ard, the crew had vacated the forecastle in consideration of sundry handfuls per man of dollars, which they had subsequently discovered to be ‘chop.’

The mild-eyed heathen in his leisure moments had amused himself by punching pellets of good silver out of them, and filling the holes up with lead. From taffrail to bowsprit-heel, from waterways to keelson, the Sparrowhawk seethed and stank with a sweltering mass of yellow humanity. Every soul had a square of matting and a water-jar, also an umbrella. They also all had money— more or less. The fellows aft, with the flowing silk gowns and long finger-nails, owned chests of it, all in silver specie, stowed snugly away in the lazarette. The herd carried their little fortunes, hardly earned by years of incessant toil as sampan men, porters, or what not, in the great border city on the sea, hidden upon their persons.

The vessel looked grotesque to a degree. She was flying light, and towered loftily out of the water. Upon


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her deck, amidships, rose two big arrangements after the nature of boilers. These were for cooking rice, and were occasionally the scenes of fierce fighting, during which the Europeans would clamber into the rigging, leaving a clear field, and applaud vociferously. They were a harmless people, and fought like sheep-dogs, rarely doing one another much harm.

From the barque's side protruded curious cage-like structures connected with the sanitary affairs of the multitude. This last lay everywhere, pervaded everything. If you wanted a rope you had to dislodge half-a-dozen grunting, naked bodies. Trimming the yards o' nights the watches tripped and fell amongst the prostrate ranks.

The passengers, however, bore it all placidly. They had paid M‘Cracken so many dollars per head for a piece of his deck, and the situation of it was quite immaterial. Moreover, were they not homeward bound after years of separation from wives and little ones with fortunes made beyond the sea? Men in such circumstances are apt to be good-tempered. A heavy squall would probably have caused the loss of the Sparrowhawk and all on board. But Captain M‘Cracken took the risk—and the dollars. He slept on an old sail folded across the cuddy skylight. His mattress he had leased along with his state-room to one of the merchants who, he understood, was a convert to Christianity. The wind kept light, with showers at intervals. At the first drop, up would go every umbrella; and, looking from aloft, the sight was a queer one.

On leaving Singapore the skipper had been warned


  ― 94 ―
that pirates were still to be met with in Chinese waters, and, short though the passage was, advised to arm, at all events in some sort, his ship and crew. This he did. At a marine store he bought, second-hand, a couple of cannon—three pounders—also several dozen of grape shot. In exchange for a worn mizzen-topsail and the fat saved by the cook (of usage the latter's perquisite) on the passage out, he procured some old Tower muskets, a few boarding-pikes, and three horse-pistols for his own and his officers' especial use. These last had flintlocks and mouths like a bell. Thus equipped, he declared himself ready for any piratical attack.

The ship's agents smiled meaningly, and winked at each other; but, knowing their man, forbore further advice, well recognising the inutility of it. A Scotchman who owns a full half interest in his ship, who hails from Aberdeen, and habitually comes ashore in latitude 0 with a Glengarry cap on, no umbrella, and naked feet, is not a being to stand argument.

One night the moon rose full, and right aft. She rose, too, with a big black spot in her disc that had no right to be there.

There was too much samshoo aboard for a very sharp look-out to be kept for'ard. That native spirit gets into men's eyes and weakens them. But aft the skipper caught sight of the object.

‘It'll be a junk, I'm thinkin'!’ he said presently, after working away for a while with his glass; ‘an a muckle ane at that. She's fetchin' a breezie wi' her, whilk 's a comfort.’




  ― 95 ―

Some of the long-nailed aristocrats were lounging about the poop. They needed no glass to make out the approaching vessel. Gathering in a group, they cackled noisily, pointing and gesticulating among themselves.

Then, coming up to the captain, one—it was his Christian friend—plucked him by the arm and uttered laconically, with extended digit, ‘Prat!’

‘Weel, Johnnie,’ replied old M‘Cracken coolly, as he gathered the other's meaning, ‘pireet, or no pireet, gin he come a wee closer, we'll just pepper the hide o' him wi' cauld airn.’

Without more ado, the Chinaman dived into his cabin and in a minute or two reappeared with a most hideous idol and a bundle of perfumed paper. Placing the thing right under the skipper's nose, he lit a yard of paper and began to screech an invocation. As of good Presbyterian stock, M‘Cracken was irritated and shocked.

‘Mon, mon,’ he exclaimed, ‘what wad ye be at! Hae ye niver been tauld that a' graven eemages is an abomination in the sicht o' the Lord? An' I thocht ye was a Christian.’ So saying, he seized the joss and flung it far overboard into the silvery water, just rippling under the coming breeze. The worshipper uttered a yell of dismay. But there was no time to lose, and, rushing below, he brought up another god, ten times as hideous as the first one, and, descending to the main deck, aroused the ship with his devotions.

Then arose the sound of a multitude waking in fear— an impressive sound and a catching. Up the open hatchways from the steaming, fœtid 'tween decks they


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streamed in hundreds, like disturbed ants, with cries of alarm and grief, and strong callings upon their gods. In a minute the ship was alive with lights burning before idols of every description. A thousand half-naked figures crouched cowering from the break of the poop right for'ard. Aft, a handful of rugged Scotch seamen gazed quietly at the black spot over the water. Presently the two little guns were crammed half up to the muzzle with powder and grape, and placed each in a socket cut out for it after leaving Singapore. The remainder of the weapons were, with a stock of ammunition, divided amongst the crew. Hot irons were put in the galley fire; and the skipper, having thus placed his ship in a thorough state of defence, felt complacent, and half-inclined to shorten sail, wait for the pirates to come up, and then give them a lesson. Old seaman though he was, he was a new hand in these Eastern waters.

Confiding his notion to the second mate, who was also carpenter, also sailmaker, a grizzled ancient shellback of much experience and endless voyaging, the other laughed aloud, but not mirthfully.

‘If,’ said he, ‘yon's a “prat,” as Johnnie there ca's it, we'll a' be meat for the fishes afore the sun's risen!’

‘Hoots!’ exclaimed the skipper angrily, ‘whaur s yer pluck, Davie, mon! I didna think ye'd be for showin' the white feather a'ready, an' ye a Newburgh lad as weel's mysel'! What's a handfu' o' naked salvages like yon, in compare wi' us an' oor arteelery?’

‘An' hoo mony men micht she carry yonder, div ye think?’ queried the other, taking a squint at the junk,


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whose huge oblong sails shone whitely under the moon-beams.

‘Mebbe a score or sae,’ replied M‘Cracken, ‘airmed maistley wi' spears, an' skeens, sic, as I've been tauld, bein' their usual weepons.’

The other chuckled hoarsely as he said, ‘If she's a pireet, she'll hae at the vera leest a guid twa 'unnered aboord, a' airmed wi' muskets an' swords, forbye things they ca' gingals, takin' a sax-ounce ball, to say nothin' o' stinkpots an' ither deviltries. Mon, I've seen 'em wi' guns they cannonies there wadna mak' rammars for. But if that chap has ony, I doubt we sud ha' heard frae him ere the noo.

‘I was ance,’ continued he, ‘lyin' in Hongkong Harbour, when they cut oot the Cashmere, a bouncin' ocean steamer, in the braid daylicht, an' murthered ivery soul on boord o' her. Na, na, skipper; let her but get a haud on us, and ye'll see the deil gang o'er Jock Wabster sure aneuch.’

The skipper listened silently. Then, wetting his finger and holding it up, he said,—

‘Perhaps, after a', Davie, mon, ye might 's weel set they t'g'nt stun's'ls, gin ye can get them up, wi' sic an awfu' rabble as is aboot the deck.’

The breeze had died away again. There was only just enough of it to keep the sails full. The fresh canvas, however, sent the Sparrowhawk through the water half a knot faster, and she was beginning to perceptibly leave the junk astern, when suddenly out from her sides flashed a long row of sweeps, under


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whose impulse she recovered her lost ground very quickly. If there had been any doubt about the character of the stranger, there remained none now; and the uproar, which had partially ceased, arose with tenfold vigour.

Some of the passengers went down into the lazarette and commenced to stow as many dollars as they could about their clothing. Others divided their attention between their idols and the skipper, running frantically from one to the other. Curiously enough the junk appeared satisfied to maintain her distance, although, had she so desired, she could with her sweeps have easily overhauled the barque.

Now, from away on the port hand, where lay the outline of the Chinese coast, black beneath the moon, came a gentle mist hanging low and thick upon the water. As it gradually enveloped the ship, hiding all but close objects from view, she was kept away three or four points. But, presently, with the haze, what wind there was left her, the sails gave a few ominous flaps, and then hung limply down. At this moment a Chinaman, uttering a loud yell of fright, pointed over the starboard quarter. There, close aboard, loomed up a dark mass almost, high as she was, on a level with the Sparrowhawk's poop-railing. It was the junk.

‘The het poker, quick!’ shouted the captain. Some one brought it and, unheeding the skipper, dabbed it straightway on the touch-hole of the little cannon pointing directly, as it happened, at the pirate.

The powder being damp, fizzed for a minute, and,


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just as M‘Cracken sung out, ‘More pouther; she's fluffed 'i the pan!’ with a roar the thing went off. Off and up as well, for it sprung six feet in the air, and descended with a crash into the binnacle.

‘Fetch the ither ane,’ shouted M‘Cracken, an' gie 'em anither dose i' the wame. Hear till 'em,’ he continued, as a most extraordinary noise arose from the junk now just abreast of the mizzen-rigging. ‘Hear till 'em scraighin', the thievin' heathen pireets. They havena muckle likin' for sic a med'cin'. It gives them the mirligoes. Pit yer fut on her, Tam Wulson, whiles I send her aff,’ he went on, addressing a sailor, as the other gun was brought over and shipped.

‘Pit yer ain fut on her, captain,’ answered the man. ‘I dinna a'thegither like the notion. She'll lat oot like ony cuddy, judgin' frae her mate.’ But the skipper was too excited to argue, and, applying the hot iron, spit—fizzle—bang, and the piece went up, and, this time, clean overboard.

A thousand capering madmen were yelling at the top of their voices on board the Sparrowhawk; but high and shrill above even that clamour could be heard the screech from the junk at that last discharge. The fog was still thick around the latter, and the ship's sails being aback, she was making a stern board towards the enemy, to whom M‘Cracken, exulting, determined to administer a coup de grace.

‘Noo then, a'thegither,’ he cried, and the old muskets and the bell-muzzled pistols roared and kicked and sent a leaden shower somewhere, while, amidst an indescribable


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medley of yells and cheers, the defeated pirate vanished into the mist.

Someone cried out that she had sunk. But presently the sound of her sweeps could be heard in the distance.

Then the skipper, flushed and elated with victory, snapped his fingers in the second mate's face, as he exclaimed,—

‘That for yer Chinese pireets, Davie M‘Phairson! Whaurs a' their muskets an' gingals an' sic-like the noo? Gin they had ony, they were ower frichted to make use o' them I expeck! But,’ growing serious, ‘my name's nae Sandy M‘Cracken gin I dinna chairge Tam Wulson two pun ten shillin'—whilk is the price o' her at cost— for lettin' the wee bit cannonie gang overboord. I tellt him to keep her down wi' his feet, and he wadna.’

Swatow at last; and the Sparrowhawk surrounded with a thousand sampans whose occupants welcomed their returned friends and relatives by trying to emulate Babel.

M‘Cracken was deified. His cabin could not hold the presents—mostly in kind—that he received. Also, his grateful passengers, having set apart a day for special rejoicing and thanksgiving, returned, and, willy nilly, decorated the Sparrowhawk after the manner of their land with banners and lanterns, and had a high old time on board under the leadership of the convert, who bewailed his backsliding, and privately asked M‘Cracken to baptise him anew.

The story of the fight ran all up and down the sea-board.


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Hongkong heard of it, or a version of it, and the Gazette published a long story headed in big caps: ‘Another Piratical Outrage.—The Sparrowhawk turns on her Pursuer—Conspicuous Bravery of the Captain and Crew—The Pirate Beaten off with Great Loss.’ Singapore heard it, and the Straits Times followed suit with ‘Four Junks and Terrible Slaughter.’ This latter item, as we shall presently see, being pretty near the mark.

But what cripple is this that, in a couple of days, comes staggering up to the Swatow anchorage with her mat sails full of holes and her decks covered with scarcely dry blood, and whose crew dance and screech a wild defiance at the Sparrowhawk as she passes on to the inner harbour?

Presently off comes a mandarin and a guard of soldiers and hales M‘Cracken ashore, protesting and threatening.

The British Consul is just dead of enteric fever. There is, however, a French one, and in his room the complaint of Sum Kum On, master of the Delight of the Foaming Seas, is heard. The tribunal is a mixed one, consisting of two mandarins and the Consul. The first witness called is Sum Kum On. He states that his vessel is a coaster, engaged mostly in the poultry trade. That, on the present trip, he left Kin Fo, a small port four days' sail from Swatow, laden with a deck cargo of ducks for the Swatow and Chee Foo markets. Had on board one passenger, a wealthy tea-grower of Honan, who, carrying with him many dollars, was naturally nervous, and afraid


  ― 102 ―
of pirates. Sighting the big vessel, the tea-grower, now in court, and prepared to give evidence, prayed him (Sum Kum On) to keep close to it for protection from said pirates.

He did so. But in the calm and mist he unwittingly, and without evil intent (being, as their Highnesses could see, only a poor trader) came too near, when to his amazement showers of bullets and great cannon balls tore his sails to pieces; and, but for the coops being piled high on deck, assuredly every soul must have perished.

In spite of explanations and shouts for mercy he was repeatedly fired into, all his cargo killed, sixty new coops of the best bamboo knocked to atoms; one of his crew desperately wounded, his vessel irretrievably damaged. His claim was for five hundred dollars; and he retired, secure in the knowledge that the Heaven-Born Son of the great foreign nation who, that day, with the Twin Lights of Justice, occupied the judgment-seat, would mete out compensation with an unsparing hand.

The dealer gave evidence much to the same effect. Then the wounded sailor, whose scalp had been furrowed by a ball, ghastly with bandages and the gore which he had liberally smeared over his features, told his tale. To wind up with, the unlucky jumping cannon, which had pitched on to the deck of the junk, was produced as evidence of identity. Outside, in piles, lay other witnesses—hundreds of fine fat ducks, stiff and ‘high.’

Around the building the fickle crowd could be heard raging for the blood of the unfortunate M‘Cracken, so


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lately their hero. The Consul, who spoke English well, was obviously ill at ease. The two mandarins glared sourly at the poor skipper.

‘I think, captain, you'd better pay at once,’ said the Consul. ‘Evidently a most unfortunate mistake has been made; and that is the only way out of it that I can see,’

‘I'll see him dom'd afore I do!’ exclaimed the skipper. ‘Five hundred dollars! Why, it's a hundred pun sterlin' o' oor money! An' a' for a wheen dukes an' a crackit heid! Na, na! Tell the skirlin' fule I'll gie him fifty dollars, and that's mair than a' his gear's worth. I'll gang to preesin suner than pay as muckle siller as he's askin'!’

Outside the ‘Children of far Cathay' could be heard yelling louder than ever for the heart, liver, and entrails of the white devil. The Consul's face grew graver as he listened to the wounded sailor, just below the open window haranguing the crowd.

‘What's a' that claver aboot?’ asked the skipper.

‘They are demanding,’ replied the Consul, ‘that these gentlemen'—indicating the mandarins—‘should have you crucified at once. And, upon my word, captain, if you don't soon make up your mind, they'll do it. I am powerless to assist you in any way beyond finding you the money.’

M‘Cracken turned blue. It was like parting with his life, the parting with that hundred pounds. But he could see no escape. As the Consul quickly told him, this was no question of imprisonment, but one of cash


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down. So he paid; and, presently, followed by a coolie carrying the little cannon, made his way to the boat between lines of grinning soldiery, over whose shoulders the rabble, derisive now, quacked itself hoarse. And amongst the noisest of them he caught sight of his Christian passenger.

The Sparrowhawk took no freight from Swatow. She sailed for Rangoon speedily; but there it was just as bad. The joke was too good not to circulate. In every eastern port she and her people were greeted with volleys of ‘quacks' by the native population both on land and water. Legions of imps, black and copper-coloured, and all quacking with might and main, formed the skipper's retinue if he went ashore anywhere between Yokohama and Bombay.

Native masters of country wallahs, lying within hail, would grin, and ask him for the protection of the Sparrowhawk to their next port of call. It became unbearable. India, China and Japan seemed to turn into duck-pens at his approach.

So he took the Sparrowhawk out of those waters altogether, and shortly afterwards gave up the sea. But, although there are no ducks within a mile of his house on the Aythen, there are urchins—Scotch urchins—and he has not perfect peace. The story is too well known.

As for his crew, even yet, if one should, with intent, imitate the cry of that fowl disastrous where two or three of them happen to be foregathered, they will come at you with the weapons nearest.

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