A True and Amazing Adventure in the Life of a Lady Pirate, Erstwhile a Fallen Gentlewoman
An introduction to this work's Author, such as you will find her.
On my features is a singular mar -- a small scar, a line about a half-inch long, along the underside of my chin, a reminder of a story of adventure and passions, a story long kept hidden. Recent interest into the lives of Lady Pirates, and my life specifically, has moved me to uncover and describe it for the interested Reader.
The seas were a treacherous place in 1719. Ships carrying valuable goods between the West Indies and England were open quarry for pirates to overtake, raid and plunder. And such plundering we did! Precious sugar, yards and yards of fine fabrics and, of course, that nectar we call rum.
By the time I was twenty-one, I had command of my own ship, the Scorpio. She was a fine vessel, with men chosen as much for their bonny faces and elocution as their fighting prowess and cunningness at the sails and masts. They loved me as much as my enemies feared me, but both my men and my foes called me by the same name: Gentle Captain Jenny.
"Gentle" was a name so given to me because of my high birth, not my disposition. It was a name that inspired dread in the hearts of pirates and soldiers and sailors alike all over the Caribbean. All knew to stay clear of the Scorpio. If they saw from afar so much as my red scarf fluttering in the wind or the glint off my well-polished cutlass, or heard the chanting of my men at their stations -- "Full fathom five thy father lies; of his bones are coral made..." -- they knew that very soon they would find themselves in the deepest embrace of their lovely mistress, the sea.
I sailed with impunity for nigh three years, my riches outstripped only by my reputation. All sailors and pirates told tales of Gentle Jenny, lithe as a cat, brown and raven-haired, fearsome in her skill with the blade, the gun, and the lyric as well as the epic forms of poetry. "Even Italian poetry," they whispered below decks when storms raged on the sea. "They say she has several translations of Dante that have circulated in manuscript form. And the pages of her books! They are cut with clean precision -- never any frayed edges. She reads with her dagger by her side."
But then Wicked Will returned.
Recounting the history of Gentle Jenny and Wicked Will, in which we learn something of Jenny's character.
I had not seen Wicked Will for some six months. I had assumed he had died when my men and I raided his ship, The Swallow, set our blades and bullets into his crew -- an obnoxious, foul-smelling lot -- set fire to the sails, and watched it sink.
I realized later that if I had been intent on seeing Will dead, I would have sought him out more diligently and run my blade through his faithless heart. But I all I cared about, so I told myself, what was in the hold of his ship -- goods from an English trading ship that were rightfully mine.
Of course I had no true right to loot Will's ship, but amongst the goods in his hold was a hefty stock of books that the new governor of Barbados had ordered for his library -- not that he read his books; they were purely for show -- including the full five-canto edition of Alexander Pope's The Rape of the Lock. Reader, understand that this was the most recent edition of 1717, in which the Author had added a new speech for the Heroine. I desired it most ardently, for I had been making do with the two canto edition of 1712. Furthermore, all the pirate captains, and indeed the trade ship captains, knew that books were my particular area of plunder.
Will knew this most of all. Indeed, no one knew me so well as he did. If I teased him over his pursuits of pretty faces, he would laugh and say, "Come now. If anyone understands the -- ah, how shall one say? -- truly inspiring qualities of a lovely face, it's you, with all those poems and wavy-haired poets with which you surround yourself." He'd wink, adding, "And your crew of bonny boys."
So Will and I had been friends. And yet he used base trickery to steal my books, to steal the full five-canto edition of The Rape of the Lock so new that it still had the smell of ink on its pages!
I blamed myself for having told Will of my plan. For having told Will anything of myself. For having come to Caribbean at all, instead of living in ignominy in England. Fallen woman though I was, surely I would not have had to raid ships in order to procure books!
But most of all, I blamed myself, for how I found myself the morning of his treachery: I woke in Will's room at our favorite Barbados haunt, the Rising Phoenix, in a terrible state of disarray and with niggling suspicion that, though I kept giggling to myself like an unschooled girl, I had done something the night before of which I ought to be very ashamed.
Will, who had been in the room with me, was then nowhere to be found.
A rake proves a counterfeit Jenny.
I thought that Will must have either confused our some of our clothes or taken mine on purpose. Whichever it was, I left his room in the Rising Phoenix in a coat slightly too large in the shoulders and one stocking that lacked a ribbon. Will had taken my hat but not left his own. My scarf was also missing.
"He spared my sword, at least," I muttered as I strapped my belt around my hips, and just to be certain, I counted my money. Not a was coin missing.
Downstairs, my boys slept beautifully, though they were sprawled on tables and chairs, or curled around table legs. Will and his men were nowhere to be seen. I headed to the docks, certain I'd find him on this ship. It was early yet, the sun just risen.
And in the distance, skimming over calm waters was The Swallow. I knew in an instant he had gone after my treasure.
"Will, you wretched lout!" I shrieked after the departing ship. Through my spyglass, I spied Will himself on the aft deck, waving my own hat at me. My red scarf fluttered around his neck. When he saw that I was watching him, he posed with one hand on an out-thrust hip and pursed his lips.
He was pretending to be me. And though Will cut a jaunty, striking figure--his wavy brown hair ruffled by the wind, the sun bright on his bronzed skin--he was carrying on this farce it without any of the kind of finesse that might have lightened my mood toward him.
His plan could not have been more clear: He learned of trade ship from me, then plied my men and me with spirits, seduced me (the shame to succumbing to Will as if I were an inexperienced convent girl was more than I could bear that morning!), then stole my clothes to pretend to be me. In this way, he would inspire fear in the crew that guarded the precious books, and then take the booty -- my copy of The Rape of the Lock included -- for himself.
"You filthy fiend!" I shouted at him. "You are an indecent pirate! Indecent!"
But he continued to wave, quite pleased with himself.
Reader, you know how it ends. I returned to the Phoenix, rousing my boys with quick switches to their lovely bottoms with my scabbarded sword. They woke like drowsy cherubs, but were quick to action when they saw their captain -- enraged, bare-headed, fiery-cheeked.
"Get to your posts," I told them. "Today, my bonny boys, you will be men."
An adventure at sea, resulting in no good end, with some pragmatic philosophizing by the Author.
As foul as Will's men were, my boys and I got no pleasure out of killing them. There is no joy in killing creatures, and so many pirates forget in these violent times that what is important is not whom one kills, but what one plunders. However, it is an unfortunate fact that people often place themselves between one and what one desires to plunder. In this case, Will and his filthy crew formed an odoriferous barrier between myself and the copy of The Rape of the Lock that I regarded as mine.
Reader, you may regard it as very unladylike for a woman of such tender years to have taken the lives of so many men, no matter their personal hygiene. And of course your genteel scruples are not misleading you. My deeds have certainly been unladylike. Indeed, they would be ungentlemanly if I were a member of that sex which is more readily allowed such acts of violence. But if I may be so bold as to educate you, I must make it clear that the life of a pirate is something quite different from even the most scandalous events that take place in country manors and London townhouses.
But it is not so very different from the horrid and base things that take place in less polite and poorer places which would have been my home had I remained in England in disgrace. It is very difficult for society to forgive a young woman a slip, as all our best moralizers tell us, though they blame young women and not society for this. I will let the reader make of this statement what he or she will. I only ask, is it better for a young woman to live in degradation, sacrificing her soul to save her life, or for her to live with dignity and fulfillment, though admittedly with the same eternal consequence resulting?
I chose the latter and did not regret it, not even when, after felling at least a score of Will's men, I saw their captain himself jump overboard into the warm Caribbean. "Coward!" I shouted, but I did not pursue him. Finding the volume for which I had spilled blood was of more concern to me.
However, search as my boys and I might, we could not find among the morality pamphlets and the unavoidable copies of The Pilgrim's Progress that coveted tome. I was convinced Will had taken it with him, and had quite ruined it with water, along with my red scarf and a hat of which I was quite fond.
I was very vexed indeed.
The crew of the Scorpio returns to Barbados, seemingly with no ill effects.
I had been patrolling the trade routes for some weeks, finding little worth the attention of my crew and myself. Wariness of Will's revenge was the reason I gave for my avoidance of ports, but I suspect my men knew that their captain had proven no less susceptible to the charms of Wicked Will than any other of her sex , for they knew I feared no fight.
I had recently allowed my crew to overtake and plunder a ship with a fine haul of textiles from the Orient. Men must have something to occupy their time and bring joy to their hearts. The beauty of the silk managed to light in me some of my old spark; unlike matters of the heart, in matters of adornment I am not ashamed to claim the sensibilities of womanhood. I allowed the sewing of a new wardrobe to serve as my excuse for shutting myself in my quarters. But alas, no new frocks, and not even The Faerie Queene could rouse me from the melancholy that had fallen upon me. Besides, sewing has never been a task in which I have excelled. So finally I called my first mate to announce that we were to sail to port.
"Mr. Molko," I announced, "I am in need of a seamstress. Set a course for Bridgetown."
Mr. Molko is the best of first mates, loyal and quick, with a boyish face, and shiny dark hair of which he is rather vain. He also possesses that most necessary attribute of a good first mate: the ability to read his captain's moods and that of the crew and to be the intermediate between them. Before Mr. Molko dashed off to carry out my order, he gave me a small, reassuring smile, for he I knew was hesitant to return to Bridgetown, and even more loath to return to the Rising Phoenix.
However, he also knew my men were eager to once more find ease at their favorite establishment and that I, as a good captain, would not want my melancholy mood to infect my crew. I told myself that a captain who commands so many able men must overcome personal weaknesses, and I led them with an air of feigned merriment. And to tell the truth, I was pleased myself to find the Rising Phoenix to be still a familiar, friendly place. The bottles were passed around, and that night I slept soundly in my room upstairs, which the proprietress of the Phoenix, a Mrs. Fielding whose story deserves telling as much as mine, had prepared as soon as the Scorpio had been spied upon the horizon.
An old friend, lately an enemy, reappears.
The reader will be forgiven if she has concluded that I possess something of a quick temper. As this is a work of true events, I feel no need to hide my true character. If my purloined translations of La Divina Commeddia have taught me nothing else, it is that my reigning deadly sin is that of Wrath.
I awoke the morning (very late in the morning, reader -- if I have adopted truth as my guide, this too must be admitted) after a night carousing with my crew with no predisposition to anger. The melancholy spirit that had possessed me had dissolved in a potent solution of rum and good company, and I looked forward to the strong tea that Mrs. Fielding was to bring up to my room. I have often found that spirits prove no friend to my own spirit, making the spleen rise in my humors. But I had been in such a state of melancholy adust that I surmised the shock to my system could do naught else but good. It was not a mood that would last, however.
Reader, you have seen me vexed in this narrative before. However, my vexation at the misappropriation of my favorite scarf and hat, and at the theft and ruination of my precious tome was unmatched by the vexation that was to overcome me when I opened the door of my room.
For the person I found behind that door was not Mrs. Fielding. Instead, my tray balanced upon his fingertips, my red scarf tied 'round his hips, in the cheeky posture of a rake, about him an air of abandon, stood Wicked Will.
A long section, containing a brawl.
A cry emerged from my lips before I could check it. My hand rose, trembling in the air for a moment, and then Will received a box to the ear such that he will never forget. The tray fell to the floor with a crash. The tea I had so look forward to spilled from the smashed tea pot, and the covered plate clattered upon the wood floor. While Will staggered from the blow, I quickly grabbed my cutlass from where it rested against the foot of the bedstead.
Having just risen from sleep, I was in quite a state of dishabille, my hair loose and wild, my feet bare, my nightdress falling from my shoulders. This worked quite to my advantage, for even when Will had recovered from the box to his ear, he stared at me in a state of rapture, not finding his tongue until I had demanded of him several times what business he had and how he dared show his face to me when he knew I would slice it to ribbons.
"Madam," he said, finally, "whatever disagreements we have had in the past, I entreat you --"
"I do not care to hear your entreaties, Will!" cried I. "You are a scoundrel. You have robbed from me what you knew to be most precious to me!"
"I beg you, Jenny --"
My name coming from the mouth of such a man was the pique that finally induced me to rage. Will was not unarmed; his sword hung at his side, and he should have drawn it long before, so I felt no dishonor in striking at him with mine. I was in no state to be accurate, however. Will easily ducked under my slice; my sword struck the wood of the doorframe, splintering it. He ran past me, into my chamber, and still I swung my sword at him. Will jumped upon my bed, and in throwing at my blade the pillows and quilts obscured my vision with flying feathers and down long enough for him to unsheathe his sword.
"I had not meant for us to meet like this, Good Captain Jenny, but you leave me no choice."
He posed once again, fop-like, in the frame of the window, feathers settling around him and the sun lighting his silhouette. A water ewer stood on a table to my right, and my sword being in my left hand, (I favor, as the French say, le sinistre), I seized the ewer with my right hand and pitched it at the clear outline of Will's head. It struck him squarely, breaking, and he tottered on his feet for a moment. In gaining his balance, he waved his arms wildly, his sword cutting the air and finally connecting with the window pane. The glass shattered and tinkled as it hit the floor, and I used Will's confusion to charge him. He managed to block my blow, however, and push me to the floor. In my fall, I grabbed the curtain of the bedstead on impulse. The gauze ripped, fell about me, and my limbs and sword became entangled in it. When I managed to extract myself, Will was standing above me, sword extended.
The floors of the Rising Phoenix are quite well-maintained, despite the motley guests who find shelter under its roof, so I was able to slide away from Will on the polished surface as he thrust his sword toward me. I grabbed a handful of the down that lay on the floor and threw it at his face, where it stuck grotesquely in the blood that had run from a wound on his head produced by the ewer. I scrambled to my feet, but could not find my footing quickly enough to evade him once again. His rapier slashed at my throat, breaking the skin just under my chin. I raised my hand to the wound, and it came away bloody. I looked at Will in astonishment.
His eyes were wide with something very like terror. "I am sorry!" he cried. "Parley, Captain Jenny! We must parley!"
"You fiend!" I screamed, rising and grabbing from the small table next to the bed the matching basin to the ewer. This, I smashed over his already wounded head and followed it with the small table itself.
Will dropped his sword and to his knees, his eyes crossed and his mouth twisted in a foolish grin. He began to giggle.
"What is there in this to find amusing?" I demanded, but he only continued to laugh quietly. His shoulders shook and twitched; he kicked at the floor.
Mr. Molko, hearing the commotion, had arrived in my doorway at this moment. "Why, it's Wicked Will!" he cried. "And he is mad! You have driven Wicked Will to distraction!"
"Oh, I have had quite enough of this," I said, thoroughly exasperated. I sheathed my sword, crossed the few steps to Will, and began to question him, each interrogation and exclamation point a blow with my scabbard.
"You fiend! You fiend! How dare you laugh? How dare you come here? How dare you steal my precious book? How many engravings are in that book, Will? How many? Let us count them, shall we? One! Two! Three! Four! Five! Six! Six engravings! Including the frontispiece!"
Will curled up, clutching his stomach and groaning. "There --" he said weakly, "look." He gestured toward the fallen tray in the doorway. "Beneath the lid. Look."
"Do you think I care about my breakfast?" I demanded, preparing another blow.
"No!" Will cried. And then in a voice almost tender: "Truly, Jenny, look beneath the plate's lid."
I looked at the fallen plate, the lid of which had miraculously remained atop it, then at Mr. Molko, who bent to remove it.
"No," I whispered. "It is some trick. Run."
Mr. Molko ran.
"No trick, Madam," Will whispered in return. "If you have never trusted me before, please trust me now." His fit of laughter had ceased and he drew himself up to lean against the bedstead. He coughed, producing a small flurry of feathers. "Please."
I looked from him to the covered plate and then, setting down my sword and kneeling upon the floor, drew the object that Will was so intent upon toward me.
A short section, revealing a cunning plan gone quite awry.
Reader, if you have not guessed what will come next, I am quite disappointed in your powers of deduction. In the telling, events often reveal to have much sense in them, but one never can perceive this when one is in the midst of living through them. So when I lifted the lid off the plate and found beneath it, a sprig of flowers bound to it with a black ribbon, the very copy of The Rape of the Lock that I had thought lost forever, I could not understand why. I dared not to touch it, as my hands were still sticky with my blood. Quite speechless, I looked to Will for an explanation.
"What is this madness?"
Will brushed the bloody feathers from his face. "It was a gift, my lady. My vanity and pride pricked me to the action -- I was to plunder the ship that bore it and present to you the spoils, thus proving myself to deserve you. Alas, all did not go as I planned."
"Oh," said I, reaching toward him. "You wicked man. You terribly wicked man."
Will was quite pale, and the wounds in his head continued to bleed profusely. He began to laugh again, quietly but with the desperation of one who cannot catch his breath. Between his gasps he managed to ask me, "You are not badly hurt?"
"No," I replied. "It is only a scratch. See?" I lifted my head so that he might see the small wound.
"Oh... good," he said weakly, and then fainted dead away.
The end, with a Moral.
The Rape of the Lock thus restored to me, I took up my old enterprises with the enthusiasm such activities deserve, and soon was easily able to pay Mrs. Fielding for the damage Will and I had done to her inn, as well as endeavor to deserve Will by replacing his ship and crew, which I had so mercilessly destroyed.
We are often guests at the Rising Phoenix, its proprietress treating what she has dubbed our "lover's quarrel" with good humor and discretion. In the chamber where that violent scene took place we have found much pleasure, but I have also found there much time for reading and contemplation. I have found in the adventures and misadventures of my unusual life that improvement of the mind is no less a struggle than the preservation of the body, and no less necessary; that, indeed, one must be willing to fight and to die for the means to success in this struggle.
Will, looking over my shoulder as I write, asks me now, "What of Love, then, my scholar captain? Must one be willing to fight and die for that?"
I must, reader, lay down my quill to supply Will with his answer, but I hope that the preceding adventure that I have related shall, in part, be an answer to you, and that in this regard, at least, you will follow the worthy example of Gentle Jenny and her Wicked Will.