Complete Poetical Works

Off Scarborough

(September, 1779)

Bret Harte


“HAVE a care!” the bailiffs cried
    From their cockleshell that lay
Off the frigate’s yellow side,
    Tossing on Scarborough Bay,
While the forty sail it convoyed on a bowline stretched away.
“Take your chicks beneath your wings,
    And your claws and feathers spread,
Ere the hawk upon them springs,—
    Ere around Flamborough Head
Swoops Paul Jones, the Yankee falcon, with his beak and talons red.”


How we laughed!—my mate and I,—
    On the “Bon Homme Richard’s” deck,
As we saw that convoy fly
    Like a snow-squall, till each fleck
Melted in the twilight shadows of the coast-line, speck by speck;
And scuffling back to shore
    The Scarborough bailiffs sped,
As the “Richard” with a roar
    Of her cannon round the Head,
Crossed her royal yards and signaled to her consort: “Chase ahead”


But the devil seize Landais
    In that consort ship of France!
For the shabby, lubber way
    That he worked the “Alliance
In the offing,—nor a broadside fired save to our mischance!—
When tumbling to the van,
    With his battle-lanterns set,
Rose the burly Englishman
    ’Gainst our hull as black as jet,—
Rode the yellow-sided “Serapis,” and all alone we met!


All alone, though far at sea
    Hung his consort, rounding to;
All alone, though on our lee
    Fought our “Pallas,” stanch and true!
For the first broadside around us both a smoky circle drew:
And, like champions in a ring,
    There was cleared a little space—
Scarce a cable’s length to swing—
    Ere we grappled in embrace,
All the world shut out around us, and we only face to face!


Then awoke all hell below
    From that broadside, doubly curst,
For our long eighteens in row
    Leaped the first discharge and burst!
And on deck our men came pouring, fearing their own guns the worst.
And as dumb we lay, till, through
    Smoke and flame and bitter cry,
Hailed the “Serapis:” “Have you
    Struck your colors?” Our reply,
“We have not yet begun to fight!” went shouting to the sky!


Roux of Brest, old fisher, lay
    Like a herring gasping here;
Bunker of Nantucket Bay,
    Blown from out the port, dropped sheer
Half a cable’s length to leeward; yet we faintly raised a cheer
As with his own right hand
    Our Commodore made fast
The foeman’s head-gear and
    The “Richard’s” mizzen-mast,
And in that death-lock clinging held us there from first to last!


Yet the foeman, gun on gun,
    Through the “Richard” tore a road,
With his gunners’ rammers run
    Through our ports at every load,
Till clear the blue beyond us through our yawning timbers showed.
Yet with entrails torn we clung
    Like the Spartan to our fox,
And on deck no coward tongue
    Wailed the enemy’s hard knocks,
Nor that all below us trembled like a wreck upon the rocks.


Then a thought rose in my brain,
    As through Channel mists the sun.
From our tops a fire like rain
    Drove below decks every one
Of the enemy’s ship’s company to hide or work a gun:
And that thought took shape as I
    On the “Richard6;s” yard lay out,
That a man might do and die,
    If the doing brought about
Freedom for his home and country, and his messmates’ cheering shout!


Then I crept out in the dark
    Till I hung above the hatch
Of the “Serapis,”—a mark
    For her marksmen!—with a match
And a hand-grenade, but lingered just a moment more to snatch
One last look at sea and sky!
    At the lighthouse on the hill!
At the harvest-moon on high!
    And our pine flag fluttering still!
Then turned and down her yawning throat I launched that devil’s pill!


Then a blank was all between
    As the flames around me spun!
Had I fired the magazine?
    Was the victory lost or won?
Nor knew I till the fight was o’er but half my work was done:
For I lay among the dead
    In the cockpit of our foe,
With a roar above my head,—
    Till a trampling to and fro,
And a lantern showed my mate’s face, and I knew what now you know!

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