Chapter 12: Chinese Pirates and a Romance

THE period between the winter of 1918 and my return to Ireland, early in 1920, was one of constant flux. I returned with the Medway from Iquique, Chile, the passage creating a record for windjammers between the famous nitrate port and Capetown. With a fair wind most of the way, we made the African port in fifty-four days—a mark that may never be altered by a sailing-ship, now that the old bark is such a rarity in the tramp trade. From Capetown we carried coal to Colombo, Ceylon, later heading for Penang in the Straits, Singapore, and Hong Kong. At the latter port the Medway was sold, and her crew shipped back to England.

China being a country about which I knew little, I decided to settle for a while and engage in the coastal and river shipping trade. Accordingly, leaving the Medway with many regrets, I took quarters ashore in Hong Kong, attending the Navigation School so that I might secure my mate’s ticket.

Two episodes in China stand out vividly in my memory. One was a promise of adventure with the pirates; the second a romance without the happy ending or, as the cinema critic would say, without a satisfactory denouement.

The Medway was laid up at the Taiku dockyard, Hong Kong, and it was my sad task to help dismantle her. She was a splendid ship, seaworthy and a fine race-horse in the wind; but steam had conquered sail, and even on the ocean the laws of economics permit no sentiment.

Leaving the dockyard late one evening, I was accosted by a character known to every white and yellow in the coast trade, a skipper by the name of “Whisky Brown.” No one knew his real name, and even the chits he signed bore the familiar nom de liquor.

“McGuinness,” he ordered abruptly, “come and have a drink.”

“Certainly. But what might be the meaning of this special honor?” I countered.

“If you come over to the ‘ King Edward,’ you’ll find out.”

It was tiffin time, and the business men and naval officers were sipping tea and smoking. The social habits of the Englishman have always puzzled me. He demands tea at four o’clock the world over, and religiously dresses for dinner whatever the climate may be. However, Brown and I found a secluded corner where we drank a few shots of “Canadian Club.”

His problem, briefly explained, was simple. He had been asked to navigate a freak junk down the coast to Singapore, and take with him a horde of yellow cutthroats as crew. Would I go along as mate?

Of course I would. I was distinctly curious to see the craft, the very sight of which frightened away deep-sea sailors. I wondered if a Lloyd’s inspector would ever approve insurance on it.

After breakfast the following morning I accompanied Brown to the shipyard. “Whisky,” it appeared, had supervised the reconstruction job, and he certainly worked without precedent. The ship was a graft of two huge teakwood junks that had run the coast since the days of Captain Cook. The bow of one and the stern of the other had been chopped off, and the two hulls dovetailed together with the aid of massive teakwood strengthening beams. Additional side-keels were bolted fore and aft to steady the freak in a heavy sea; and steady she was, when the test came. The rigging and gear were a mixture of Chinese and European equipment, and a source of annoyance to the brigands who handled the sails and ropes.

Our pirate crew was indeed the pick of the Gulf of Bias, a notorious stronghold for sea-bandits. Piracy, by the way, is a sort of Robin Hood business in China, and the members of the bands infesting the Gulf of Bias were specially noted for their skill as seamen. Hence their services were in fair demand, for at times it is good politics to hire a pirate crew. The chance of robbery on the high seas is lessened thereby, while a particularly vicious bunch of fighters proves advantageous should another “non union” pirate band try conclusions. Besides, “Whisky Brown” enjoyed a high rating among them; any ship he commanded was practically immune from attack. And moreover—a strange thing, but, I learned, it true one—a “Chink” pirate’s word is his bond. A white streak, shall I say, among the yellow I

Brown introduced me to the crew, speaking a mixture of Chinese and the pidgin argot of the Hong Kong water-front. What he said I never found out, but appeared to meet with the tacit approval of the men, and “Number One Chink” insisted that a holiday must be declared on my behalf to appease the gods.

The appeasing of the gods was an extravagant affair. It took the form of throwing rice and cakes overboard, burning joss-sticks, and pouring samsu down the bow. Music was needed too: one-stringed fiddles whanged, and flutes piped shrilly. In the name of charity—or so I took it—beggars on the dock were fed.

And then, late in the day, “Number One Chink” declared that the auguries were favorable to the trip, and that McGuinness (in Chinese) was quite acceptable to the gods. The following morning, after an evening spent with fan-tan and opium pipe, the joss-sign, something like a union label on a hat or suit of clothes, was painted on the side of the ship as a piratical symbol to warn off competition.

I was beginning to suspect that our “job” was a raiding expedition on the rich shipping down the coast. Brown laughed and shook his head, but quite frankly I did not believe him until actually we turned over the craft to her Chinese purchaser at Singapore.

From that moment I understood how Morgan, Drake, and Blood conducted their piracies on the Caribbean without a pang of conscience, for I, too, felt a keen pang of disappointment at the prosaic finish of the voyage.

The hybrid ship was a good sailor. Her canvas caught and held the wind, and her high stern received a good push when we ran before it. It was a seaworthy junk, despite the low “hang forward.” She seldom shipped water, though we encountered several heavy squalls.

She carried sufficient cutlery, guns, and ammunition to start a revolution. Every Chink was armed with a sword about three feet long, and carried a long-barreled pistol strangely reminiscent of Chinese Gordon’s campaign, or the Taeping uprising. My own arsenal consisted of two modern Lee-Enfield rifles and twin Colt revolvers, with plenty of ammunition. It was understood, however, that these new pieces would disappear when we docked at Singapore, and “Number One Chink” personally cleaned and burnished them. As a friendly gesture, I gave him a few hints on sighting the rifles, and he was as grateful as any pirate could be; at the risk of losing caste, he made himself my personal valet for the rest of the voyage.

With Hong Kong fourteen days behind, we dropped anchor in the crowded creek of the Chinese quarter of Singapore, surrounded by a myriad of sampans, which clung to our sides like harbor vermin. Brown and I met the new owner, and, after exchanging courtesies, received the sum agreed upon for delivery, my share being forty-five pounds. Two days later we took passage back to Hong Kong, and no sooner had I settled down at the hotel there than my second and more romantic adventure began.

Like most romances it opened out from a most matter-of-fact beginning. In this case it was my introduction to a certain prominent ship operator who, for charitable reasons, I shall call O’Mara. He was a wealthy Chinaman, and one of the shrewdest ship-owners in the Far East. He became friendly, and exhibited much pride in his Celtic lineage. His father, I learned, was the son of a wild goose of Erin who, three generations ago, set out for Saigon and there married a Chinese mandarin’s daughter whose mother was French. O’Mara himself had married a Portuguese half-caste from Macao, and had a residence in Saigon and another at Canton. It was a fine Eurasian blend of blood, but the Oriental was dominant in Q’Mara’s features.

Later, in Canton, I met the Chinaman’s two daughters, vivacious girls with faces as fragile as porcelain figures. Tutors had been imported from France in order to supply finesse in continental manners, and the O’Mara girls undoubtedly were splendid linguists despite their cloistered lives. I was astounded by their knowledge of world affairs, and the cosmopolitan charm of their speech, equally fluent in French, English, or the native Cantonese.

O’Mara had given me a job as chief officer on one of the four vessels he owned, the Nem Wah, but as she would be under repair for several weeks yet, he offered me an invitation meanwhile to stay with him and his family.

I shall never forget the fortnight I spent in the company of Inez and her sister Isobel. Inez’s eyes, with the slightly Oriental angle, were adorable. She inherited beauty from each strain of Celt, French, and Portuguese. She had more sparkle in her eyes and more curiosity than her sister Isobel, who, though quite attractive, was very reticent.

Inez, at the time of my visit, was fascinated with the subject of Ireland. She had read several descriptive books of the country. Most of her information was of a superlative character, so I preserved the illusion, even tinting the rainbow. I told her of the ancestral halls of Erin, her moss-covered ruins, her round towers, and her great heroes like Finn and Cuchulain. The girl would probably never see Ireland, so why should I spoil everything by telling her of the one-room shebeens that sometimes shelter man and beast, the poverty and misery of the poor, and the feuds of North and South ?

Inez and her relations were Catholics, and had the benefit of a private chapel and personal confessor. I imagined my presence was not acceptable to the venerable padre, who cherished a loathing of sailors as a breed foredamned to perdition. I believe he was more than anxious to see me aboard ship with a one-way ticket, and disturbed Inez with his dark prophecies.

But it happened all the same. We fell head over heels in love, and for long hours wandered through the Eden-like gardens surrounding the house, building castles for the future. To me it only was a dream. Every moment I expected a pinch to waken me. She was too beautiful to be real, the romance too good to be true.

“Charles,” she whispered one evening under an amber moon, when the perfumed gardens filled the heart with a drug, ” if you marry me you can be a captain in my father’s fleet, and eventually a great merchant like him.”

“But what would your father think of the idea?”

“He thinks that would be a splendid plan. He likes you, and when we are married he says we can visit Ireland for our honeymoon.”

I made no answer to that. The suggestion was disturbing. I preferred that she should cherish the Erin of her dreams, much as I love my own land and the beauties of its rivers, lakes, and mountains.

Two weeks later I went to my ship, the Nem Wah, and left Inez still in the ecstasy of first love.

Six months later the romance ended in a bitter blight. I could never, never settle down to a life on the Chinese coast, no matter how attractive the horizons might be for a life of luxury with Inez. Parting was difficult— the most difficult task of my existence. Inez broke down, and was prostrate for a few days from the shock. For my part I quit the Nem Wah and got drunk, a condition that numbed my brain until I regained my senses on a ship bound for Shimonoseki, Japan.

Several years later I went back to Canton to pay the family a visit, but they had moved to Saigon, where O’Mara had another estate. Whether Inez or Isobel married I do not know, though I hope devoutly that they both found mates worthy of their affection.

Various ships carried me to and from Keelung, Formosa, Nagasaki, Shimonoseki, and Yokohama, but always the tearful face of Inez haunted me like a spectre. Leaving the Orient I crossed to Vancouver, and engaged in the Pacific Coast lumber trade for a brief period, but it was a dull, routine existence—hard work and bad whisky.

At Manila I heard the first rumble of a rebellion in Ireland. The facts were few, but I was anxious to get home for the beginning of the fracas that was brewing. I joined a huge four-masted bark, the Daylight, a Standard Oil ship bound for ‘Frisco, then changed to another bark bound for Ipswich, England. It was the Yankee bark Annie M. Reid, owned by Mayor Rolph, now Governor of the State of California.

We reached the Downs, east of Dover, in 103 days, via the Panama Canal. Despite my years at sea, it was my first view of the big ditch, a godsend to the sailor, as it saved our windbag some fifty days in transit across the Pacific and South Atlantic. Despite our good sailing speed, however, it had been a tedious journey for one anxious to reach Dublin before the revolution started in earnest.

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