Nathaniel had never seen so many of them before. They came in their dozens, flooding in, all wanting the best of everything – the most expensive suits, the priciest bowlers…standing behind the counter, the young man wondered what in the world these ragged seamen could hope to find in a store such as Gentry’s Wardrobe. From what he could tell, the great majority of them were completely inebriated – the reek of strong ale on their breaths could be smelt from over twenty feet away.
Turning to consult his ledger, the astounded shop assistant tried to hide his anxiety. As Nathaniel fought to supress the sense of paralytic fear rising within him, his usual wit managed to take over. “We have a shipment of stock to come in by the next boat, my good sirs,” he said after a moment, hoping that the pirates (if that was what they were) had sobered a little as they had grown accustomed to their new surroundings. One of the men closest to Nathaniel leaned over the counter, stopping only when his face was just an inch away from the young man’s. His chin was coated with a week’s worth of stubble, and the smell of his breath – cheap alcohol mixed with the foul stink of rotting teeth – filled the air between them. “By the next boat, you say,” he said, eyes narrowing as his mouth quirked up into an amused smirk, “and what might she look like?”
As Nathaniel McCarthy made his way back home through the deserted London streets, he thought about the mysterious visit from the unshaven, cutlass-wielding army of men who had stormed into Gentry’s Wardrobe that afternoon. If his owner found out that they had even set foot in the shop, he would be livid. But something about their very presence confused him. Pirates, in London, drunk and in a store like Gentry’s Wardrobe? Something just did not add up, and Nathaniel felt, despite his better judgement, that he needed to find out what.
Unlocking the door to his flat, the young shop assistant let himself into his humble abode, hanging up his coat and hat. He trudged up the stairs to his room, lost in thought, nearly stumbling over the worn mat placed at the top of the stairs. “Hello, dear,” his landlady said, walking past him down the stairs, “rough day?”
Nathaniel smiled at the elderly woman hobbling down the staircase. He would not say for certain that she would be capable of this much longer, and the thought pained him. With his mother dead and his father never known to him, she had been his mother and friend for several years now.
“You could say that, ma’am. Busy, in any case, what with Mr Oakfield out of town,” he smiled. The woman looked at him with a peculiar smile, before shaking her head, “My dear boy,” she said a length, sighing fondly, “do you know what you need? A nice young lady friend, that’s what. I’m getting old, you’re of age, and I’d like to see you settle down before the day comes that – ”
“Ma’am, please!” Nathaniel said quickly, not caring that he had quite rudely interrupted her, “Please don’t say that! You’ll live to be a hundred, I’m sure.”
His landlady shook her head sadly but said no more, bidding him goodnight and continuing her own struggle down the stairs.
Nathaniel McCarthy awoke the next morning to sunlight filtering in through the small window of his bedroom. Stretching and blinking as his eyes adjusted to the light, he reluctantly but immediately got out of his bed and went to look in the mirror. As his synapses caught up with him, he remembered exactly what it was that had sparked his speedy arousal this Saturday morning. Today was the day he would make the trip down to London Docks – the trip that would explain the conundrum of the intoxicated pirates and possibly be the only bold and adventurous thing that this lanky, dull shop assistant of average height and income would ever do in his entire life.
Dressing quickly, Nathaniel ran his fingers through his unruly locks in a habitual but pointless attempt to tame them. Today, he had exchanged his waistcoat for a simple tweed coat and swapped his pocket watch for one of those awful cigars he kept about the flat as a precaution for the rare occurrence that a visitor might drop by. It was hardly an impression he was proud of, but one had to look the part. Jogging down the stairs, he muttered a hurried greeting to his landlady who was already up and pottering about the kitchen, slipping on his shoes at the door and leaving the flat with a spring in his step for the first time since he had moved into the complex.
Today was going to be different, Nathaniel could feel it in his bones. If his wit and determination persisted, he would get to the bottom of this riddle, and perhaps lighten the feeling of guilt that came with the knowledge that – somewhere out on the high seas – a ship of innocent traders was in danger of being attacked as a result of his initially harmless white lie.
When Nathaniel arrived at the London Docks, the place was teeming with the usual morning confusion: horses, carts and people of all classes and purposes milled around, while sharp-eyed pickpockets darted in between them. As he battled his way through a melee of unshaven ruffians, Nathaniel’s eyes settled on the one sight he had come in search of. Tucked behind the larger cargo ships, its wooden masts protruding just above the smokestacks of the other boats, hid a great, wooden ship. The flag of the wooden vessel had been lowered to half-mast, but the black and white pattern was just perceivable as the battered sheet fluttered odiously in the salty breeze.
The shop assistant looked hesitantly over his shoulder before boarding the pirate ship. Unarmed and clueless, he would have been the perfect target – and, therefore, had the best chance at learning exactly what was going on in the world of rogues that had resulted in these rum-reeking cutthroats openly parading the British streets.
As he carefully descended onto the deck of the ship, continually glancing about him, Nathaniel became aware of the distinct sound of snoring from below the ship’s deck. That explained why the ship had not already left port. There was also another sound, coming from deep within the boat. Nathaniel could be sure of this because it was barely audible – little more than a muffled thudding. Warily navigating his way around the ship, the salesclerk began the descent to the hold of the pirates’ vessel, slightly apprehensive of what he would find hidden in the shadows.
“Lay down ya weapons and surrender, boy.”
Nathaniel McCarthy, twenty five and living as a citizen of the greatest empire on Earth, never thought he would see this day. Down in the ship’s hold, he was being held at gunpoint by a pirate who seemed to be the very one he had fooled the night before with mentions of a boatload of expensive goods headed for the docks. However, being a man of good conscience, that was the least of Nathaniel’s current problems. The sight was enough to make him sick. All around him in the infested hold of the ship, women lay, bound and gagged. The worst of it was not that they were women…but that they all appeared to be with child.
“Thought we were sleepin’ off the booze, didn’t ya? Thought you could fool the mighty warrior of the seas, didn’t ya?” The pirate grinned, yellow teeth flashing as he tore the cutlass from his belt. Nathaniel’s mind made the connections fast. “I don’t believe it!” he cried, shaking his head in disgust, “I’ve heard of assaults and lootings and the slave trade, but this… this is low, even for you!”
The pirate captain – or at least, that is the position he appeared to hold – laughed without mirth. “We are pirates, my dear lad! The scourge of the seas, a force to be reckoned with!” The edge of his sword stopped just short of Nathaniel’s chin as he leaned forward. “Don’t ya think we’ve sold our hostages, ransomed our enemies? But this, my lad, pays ’andsomely! And we’re doing our bit for those ol’ folks up in the cities. They want the little bundles; we want the big cash.”
Nathaniel was more and more horrified by the minute. “Have you no brains whatsoever? You’re trading women as surrogates! Do you count them as loot now, too? Have you any idea what the price on your heads will be if the British government hears of this?” By now, the man was beginning to realise exactly what he had got himself into… a new and wicked business that these rogues would do anything in their power to protect and advance.
The pirate’s mouth curled up into a malicious smirk, “But they won’t find out, will they, boy? Who’s gonna tell ’em? They ain’t gonna be any the wiser for years! Not till we’ve bought ’em all out – every single one of ’em pollies in the big red chairs!”
The salesclerk swallowed, but squared his shoulders. “You’re right, Captain. There’s no one to tell them. You will become the highest power of the seas – the richest, the most feared. The clever are with you – the fools alone are against you.”
“And which might ya be yourself, lad?” was the interested reply. Nathaniel looked upwards, meeting the pirate’s gaze with unwavering determination and what he hoped was sincerity, “Those who know me like to say I’m sharper than a cutlass.”
This time, the pirate grinned, but the look in his eyes was unreadable. “Take him to a cabin an’ lock him up!”
Another pirate materialised out of the shadows behind the shop assistant, roughly grabbing and binding his wrists. When he had secured him, this pirate – shorter and scruffier than his captain – led him off, shoving him harshly into a small room and causing him to stumble. Only when the thud of the heavy oaken door slamming shut reached his ears did the sales assistant begin to worry.
Nathaniel waited for the footsteps of the departing pirate to die away before he looked around his room. It was entirely devoid of any type of furnishing or ornamentation, and the only feature of the vacant cabin was a small, square window in the side of the room. However, it was little help, as it faced the expanse of ocean rather than the busy docklands. Even if Nathaniel yelled his lungs out, his cries would only be washed out to sea. When the ship started moving again, it would be even more hopeless, as – even if anyone were to hear him – no sailor in their right mind would near a pirate vessel if they could help it. Nathaniel – and the women aboard – were trapped.
Hours passed and night began to settle in. Nathaniel’s shoulder throbbed painfully but the unrelenting door did not sport a single dent. Exhausted, he slumped against the wall, burying his head in his hands. To his temporary relief, the boat had not started moving yet, so there was a chance that they would not set sail until the following morning. But even then, the case appeared to be hopeless.
It was late at night, certainly past midnight, that Nathaniel was once again attempting to break the lock on the cabin door. His elbow ached from thumping against the metal, and he rested against the door for a second, trying to get his breath back. Nathaniel was staring at the wooden-planked floor, when a tiny, jewelled instrument – no more than the size of his finger – slipped into the room via the gap at the bottom of the door. Surprised but wary, the salesclerk kneeled and picked it up, inspecting it carefully. He might not have had much experience in women’s accessories, but from a single glance, Nathaniel McCarthy could tell that the small object in his hands was a hairpin.
Click. The young man could have cried out in pure exaltation as the lock slid back and the door was unbolted. But of course, he did not. Were he to open the door and find a pirate waiting for him on the other side, his efforts would have been in vain. Deemed a liar, he would most likely be executed in whatever form amused the pirates most. Instead, Nathaniel waited patiently on the other side of the door, listening for footsteps and doing his best to pick up any heavy breathing.
When he was fairly certain that no one was on the other side, Nathaniel drew the door back without a sound and furtively peered around it. He was met with an empty passageway, and the sounds of hearty merrymaking from above. He must act now, or never. Quickly, he ran to the ladder that led to the hold, careful that none of the floorboards creaked under his weight.
On his way past the drugged, pained women, Nathaniel stopped to kneel by the side of one. She seemed at a first glance to be only semi-conscious also, but the pattern of her breathing soon told Nathaniel otherwise. Perhaps the drugs they had administered to her had worn off, or perhaps she was resistant to the substance – either way, it did not make a difference. All that mattered was the fact that, though the clothing she wore (most probably the same that she had been captured in) may have been torn and soiled, the silk was most certainly of a costly variety. Her skin was fair and clear, and all else about her spoke of a comfortable life and an upper class upbringing. The pin had to have been hers.
Gently, he placed the hairpin in her hand, and smiled surreptitiously as her fingers moved covertly to grip it. He whispered his plan in her ear, and then, aware that time was of the essence, he was off again. Reaching the ladder, he sighed in relief as the boat began to sink slightly. On his way out of the cabin, Nathaniel had displaced one of the wooden planks which made up the flooring, and water was very slowly filling up the hold. The pirates would feel it in no time. Now, the salesclerk hid behind the empty barrels of rum up on the deck, watching the pirates.
Already tipsy, the band of ruffians were dancing and singing and rejoicing over their latest hostage. It was about a minute, therefore, before one of them shouted, “Aye, she’s got a leak! She’s got a leak! Tom, bring ‘er up on the land!”
Smirking triumphantly, Nathaniel waited patiently until the boat was moored properly, before he quickly lit one of those horrendous – but extremely handy – cigars, and dropped it into a barrel. Not a moment had passed before flames began erupting from within the wooden drum. All chaos broke loose.
“Fire! Did you not hear me?! Fire! Off the ship! Boys, off the ship, if you value your lives!”
“Fire! Put her out!”
“No chance – we can’t save her! She’s already aflame!”
While the pirates dashed for their lives – some even jumping overboard into the water, Nathaniel acted fast. He leapt off the ship and nicked an empty cart, and swiftly loaded the women who had assembled on the deck (as per his instructions) onto the makeshift wagon. Pulling himself up into the saddle, he flicked the reigns, and they were galloping at breakneck speed out of the dicey environment.
Looking in the mirror, Nathaniel adjusted his bowtie and straightened his waistcoat. His landlady stopped to regard him with an approving smile. “You look like the right gentleman you are, Nathaniel. Off to see Miss Clemonte again, are we?”
“As a matter of fact, I am,” the other answered, a light rose-coloured hue tinting his cheeks. “She says that she still can’t comprehend how much I’ve done for her, and how I managed to get her out of that wretched prison before any of the pirates touched her.”
“You’ve always been quite the hero in my eyes, Nathaniel,” the woman said with a kind smile, patting his shoulder. “Good luck today.”
“Thank you, ma’am. I’m confident everything will go just fine.”
“As you should be. See you this evening.”
When the landlady had shambled off, Nathaniel McCarthy turned back to the mirror with a light smile, regarding himself for the second time in the space of a week. Something had definitely changed. He still earned a mediocre income, he was not any taller than he had been last time, and his frame was still gangly and lean. But despite this, when Nathaniel took a closer look, he found exactly where the change had taken place. The change had occurred in his eyes. Once a little distant, they had now become focused and alert – reflecting that bright, sharp brain of his and the wit and bravery he managed to demonstrate in times of hardship. Nathaniel McCarthy was finally someone – and he was a hero.
Still ordinary? Maybe. Still dull? Definitely not. Nathaniel may not have stopped the slave trade, but he had managed to save lives, and at the end of the day, that was all that mattered.
The Australian Literature Review