"They are pirates," said Beth tensely, clutching the rail next to him. "My father described that noise to me. They'll be dancing, too - they call it 'vaporing' - it's meant to frighten us."
It's effective in that, thought Chandagnac; but to Beth he grinned and said, "It would frighten me, if they were in more of a vessel or we in less."
"Coming over!" came an authoritative call from one of the lower decks, and below him to his right Chandagnac saw the helmsman and another man pushing the whipstaff hard to starboard, and at the same moment there was a racket of squealing and creaking from overhead as the long horizontal poles of the yards, and the bellied sails they carried, slowly twisted on the axes of the masts, the high ones more widely than the low ones.
All morning the ship had been leaning slightly to starboard; now it straightened to level and then, without pausing there, heeled so far over to port that Chandagnac flung one arm around Beth and the other around a taut length of standing rigging, his hand clutching the limp ratline, and braced his knees against the gunwale as the deck rose behind them and the breakfast table skidded and then tumbled down it to collide with the rail a yard from Beth. The plates and silverware and deformed napkins spun away in the sudden shadow of the hull and splashed directly below where Chandagnac and Beth were clinging.
"Damn me!" grated Chandagnac through clenched teeth as the ship stayed heeled over and he squinted straight down at the choppy sea, "I don't believe the pirates can kill us, but our captains certainly having a try!" He had to tilt his head back to look up at the horizon, and it so chilled his stomach to do it that after a few moments he wrenched his gaze back down to the water - but he'd seen the whole vista shifting from right to left, and the pirate vessel, no longer distant, wheeling with the seascape out away from the bow to a position closer and closer to exactly abeam; and though he'd seen it nearly head on, he'd noticed that it was indeed a sloop, a single-masted, gaff-rigged vessel with two shabby, much-patched triangular sails, one tapering back along the boom, the other forward past the bow to the end of the extra-long bowsprit. The gunwales were crowded with ragged figures who did seem to be dancing.
Then the deck was pressing against the soles of his boots and the horizon was falling as the ship righted itself, with the wind and the sun at the starboard quarter now. Keeping his arm around her, Chandagnac hustled Beth toward the companion ladder. "Got to get you out of here!" he shouted.
Her father was clambering up the ladder from the quarterdeck just as they got there, and even in this crisis Chandagnac stared at him, for the old man was wearing a formal vest and long coat and even a powdered wig. He was pulling himself up the ladder by hooking the rungs with the butt of a pistol he gripped in his only hand, and there were at least half a dozen more thrust into the loops of a sash slung over his shoulder. "I'll take her below!" the old man roared, standing up on the poop deck and nudging Beth toward the ladder with his knee. She started down, and the old man was right behind her, peering at her over his shoulder as he followed her. "Carefully!" he shouted. "Carefully, God damn it!"
For one irrational moment Chandagnac wondered if old Hurwood had found time to melt lead and cast some pistol balls in the minute or two since the alarm, for the old man certainly smelled of heated metal ... but then Hurwood and Beth had disappeared below, and Chandagnac had to skip back across the poop deck to get out of the way of several sailors who were scrambling up the ladder. He retreated to the breakfast table, which stuck out like a little partition from where it was wedged in the railing, and he hoped he was out of everybody's way, wondering all the while what it would feel like when the twelve-pounders were fired, and why the captain was delaying their firing.
Three distinct booms shook the deck under his boots. Was that them? he wondered, but when he spun to look out over the rail to port he saw no smoke or splashes.
What he did see was the pirate sloop - which had just swerved east, close-hauled into the steady wind - tack and then continue around so that it was coming up on the Carmichael from astern on the port side.
Why in hell, he thought with mounting anxiety, didn't we fire when they were coming straight at us, or when they turned east and showed us their profile? He watched the busy men hurrying past him until he spotted the burly figure of Captain Chaworth on the quarterdeck below, way up by the forecastle ladder, and Chandagnac's stomach felt suddenly hollow when he saw that Chaworth too was surprised by the silence of the guns. Chandagnac edged around the table and hurried to the rail by the ladder to see better what was going on down in the waist.
He saw Chaworth run to the gun deck companionway just as a billow of thick black smoke gushed up from it, and he heard the dismayed shouts of the sailors: "Jesus, one of the guns blew up!" "Three of 'em did, they're all dead below!" "To the boats! The powder'll go next!"
The crack of a pistol shot cut through the rising babble, and Chandagnac saw the man who'd advocated abandoning ship rebound from the capstan barrel and sprawl to the deck, his head smashed gorily open by a pistol ball. Looking away from the corpse, Chandagnac saw that it was the usually good-natured Chaworth who held the smoking pistol.
"You'll go to the boats when I order it!" Chaworth shouted. "No gun blew up, nor's there a fire! Just smoke - "
As if to verify the statement, a dozen violently coughing men came stumbling up the companionway through the smoke, their clothes and faces blackened with something like soot.
" - And it's still just a sloop," the captain went on, "so man the swivels and break out muskets and pistols! Cutlasses hold ready."
A sailor shoved Chandagnac aside to get at one of the swivel guns, and he hurried back to the relative shelter of the jammed table, feeling wildly disoriented. Damn me, he thought bewilderedly as he crouched behind it, is this seagoing warfare? The enemy dancing and blowing horns, men in blackface rushing up from belowdecks like extras in a London stage comedy, the only serious shot fired by our captain to kill one of his own crew?
There were now several sailors standing near him, tensely ready to manipulate the sheets and halliards, and a couple more had sprinted up to the two swivel guns mounted on the poop deck's port rail, one on either side of Chandagnac, and after checking the loads and priming they just waited, watching the pirate sloop and, every few seconds, blowing on the smoldering ends of their slow matches.
Chandagnac crouched to peer between the stanchions rather than over the rail, and he too watched the low, shallow-draft boat gain on the ship. The sloop carried several fairly sizeable cannon, but the capering pirates were ignoring them and hefting pistols, cutlasses and sabers, and grappling hooks.
They must want to capture the Carmichael undamaged, Chandagnac thought. If they somehow do, I wonder if they'll ever know how lucky they were that some mephitic catastrophe incapacitated our gunners.
Benjamin Hurwood came struggling back up to the poop deck now, and he absolutely bristled with pistols - there were still six in his sash and one in his hand, and he now had another half-dozen thrust under his belt. Peering over the table edge and seeing the determined look on the one-armed professor's face, Chandagnac had to concede that there was, in this perilous situation, at least, more of dignity than ludicrousness in the man.
The sailor at the aft swivel gun, grasping the ball at the end of the long handle, turned his gun astern and lowered the muzzle to sight along the barrel. He raised his slow match carefully. He was only about five feet from Chandagnac, who was watching him with tense confidence.
Chandagnac tried to picture the gun going off, all the swivel guns going off, muskets and pistols too, lashing lead and scrap shot down into the crowded little pirate boat, two or three volleys perhaps, until a cloud of gunpowder smoke veiled the listing, helpless vessel, on which a few pirates would be glimpsed crawling stunned over the ripped-up corpses of their fellows, as the Carmichael came back about onto course and resumed its interrupted journey. Chaworth would have had a bad fright, thinking about his insurance-evasion trick, and would be readier than ever for that beer.
But the gunshot crack came from behind Chandagnac, and the sailor he'd been watching was kicked forward over his gun, and before he tumbled away over the rail Chandagnac had seen the fresh, bloody hole in his back. There was a heavy metallic clank on the deck and then another gunshot, instantly followed by the same clank.
Chandagnac shifted around and peeked over his oak rectangle in time to see old Hurwood draw a third pistol and fire it directly into the astonished face of one of the two men who'd been handling the spanker sheet. The sailor arced backward to whack the back of his shattered head against the deck, and the other man yiped, ducked, and ran for the ladder. Hurwood dropped the pistol to snatch out another, and the fired one clanked still smoking to the deck. His next shot split the belaying pin the spanker sheet was looped around, and the released line snaked up and down through the bouncing blocks, and then the thirty-foot-tall sail, uncontrolled, bellied and swung its heavy boom to port, tearing through the lines of the standing rigging as though they were rotten yarn; the suddenly unmoored shrouds and ratlines flew upward, the ship shuddered as the mizzen mast leaned to starboard, and from above came the rending crack of overstrained yards giving way.
The man who'd been at the other swivel gun lay face down on the deck, apparently the target of Hurwood's second shot.
Hurwood hadn't noticed Chandagnac behind the table - he drew a fresh pistol, stepped to the head of the ladder and calmly aimed down into the disordered crowd on the quarterdeck.
Without pausing to think, Chandagnac stood up and covered the distance to him in two long strides and drove his shoulder into the small of Hurwood's back just as the old man fired. The shot went harmlessly wide and both men fell down the ladder.
Chandagnac tucked his knees up to somersault in midair and land on his feet, and when he hit the deck he rolled and collided hard with a sailor, bowling the man over. He bounced to his feet and looked back to see how Hurwood had fallen, but in the press of panicking sailors he couldn't see him. Gunfire cracked and boomed irregularly, and the pyang of ricochets had people ducking and cringing, but Chandagnac couldn't see who was shooting or being shot at.
Then, preceded by a snapping of cordage overhead, a thick spar came spinning down to crash into the deck, jolting the whole ship and smashing a section of rail near Chandagnac before rebounding away over the side, and just inboard of him a man who'd fallen from aloft hit the deck hard, with a sound like an armful of large books flung down; but it was the next thing landing near him that snapped him out of his horrified daze - a grappling hook came sailing over the rail, its line drawn in as it fell so that its flukes gripped the rail before it could even touch the deck.
A sailor ran forward to yank it free in the moment before weight was put on it, and Chandagnac was right behind him, but a pistol ball from behind punched the sailor off his feet, and Chandagnac tripped over him. Coming up into a crouch against the gunwale, Chandagnac looked around wildly for Hurwood, certain that the one-armed old man had killed the sailor; but when a ball from ahead blew splinters out of the deck in front of his feet and he jerked his head around to see where it had come from, he saw Leo Friend, Beth's fat and foppishly dressed physician, standing on the raised forecastle deck ten yards away and aiming a fresh pistol directly at him.
Chandagnac jackknifed out across the littered deck as the pistol ball tore a hole in the gunwale where he'd been leaning, and he rolled to his feet and ducked and scurried through the crowd all the way across to the starboard rail.
A sailor lay near him curled up on the deck in a shifting puddle of fresh blood, and Chandagnac hastily rolled him over to get at the two primed pistols whose butts he could see sticking up from his belt. The man opened his eyes and tried to speak through splintered teeth, but Chandagnac had for the moment lost all capacity for sympathy. He took the pistols, nodded reassuringly to the dying man, and then turned toward the forecastle.
It took him a few seconds to locate Friend, for the ship was broadside to the wind and rolling and Chandagnac kept having to shuffle to stay upright. Finally he spied the fat man leaning on the waist-facing forecastle rail, dropping a spent pistol and calmly lifting a fresh one out of a box he held in the crook of his left arm.
Chandagnac forced himself to relax. He crouched a little to keep his balance better, and then when the ship paused for a moment at the far point of a roll to port, he raised one of the pistols and took careful aim, squinting over his thumb knuckle at the center of Friend's bulging torso, and squeezed the trigger.
The gun went off, almost spraining his wrist with the recoil, but when the acrid smoke cleared, the fat physician was still standing there, still carefully shooting into the mob of sailors below him.
Chandagnac tossed away the fired pistol and raised the remaining one in both hands and, scarcely aware of what he was doing, walked halfway across the deck toward Friend and from a distance of no more than fifteen feet fired the gun directly up at Friend's stomach.The fat man, unharmed, turned for a moment to smile contemptuously down at Chandagnac before selecting still another pistol from his box and taking aim at someone else below. Through the smells of burned powder and fear-sweat and fresh-torn wood, Chandagnac caught again a whiff of something like overheated metal.
A moment later Friend put the pistol back into his box unfired, though, for the fight was over. A dozen of the pirates had clambered aboard, and more were swinging over the rail, and the surviving sailors had dropped their weapons.
Chandagnac dropped his pistol and walked slowly backward to the starboard rail, his eyes fixed incredulously on the pirates. They were cheerful, their eyes and yellow teeth flashing in faces that, except for their animation, would have looked like polished mahogany, and a few of them were still singing the song they'd been singing during the pursuit. They were dressed, Chandagnac reflected dazedly, like children who'd been interrupted while ransacking a theater's costume closet; and in spite of their obviously well-used pistols and swords, and the faded scars splashed irregularly across many of the faces and limbs in random patterns of pucker and pinch, they seemed to Chandagnac as innocently savage as predatory birds compared to the coldly methodical viciousness of Hurwood and Friend.