“The Smuggler’s Broadside” by Paul R. Hardy

Dark waters lap a broken rhythm against creaking boards. Drooping sails hang motionless from a fore-and-aft rig. Anxious whispers slip across the waves and vanish into the moonless night.

A light is struck. A lantern lit. A chart consulted on the deck of the revenue cutter HMC Otter, astray in the narrow, winding channels of the River Crouch. They have not only lost their way, but also their prey: the smuggler Sea Snail, known to land illicit brandy upon the myriad inlets of the Essex coast.

But their prey has not lost them.

A hundred yards distant in the mud-slick channel, the master of the smuggler ship spies the little light on the deck of the Otter. Hezekiah Staines could take the Sea Snail right past the revenue cutter without them noticing, even though his converted fishing smack rides low in the water with a heavy burden; and yet Hezekiah waits, grim-eyed and glaring in the dark.

He has business with the revenue this night.

The Otter has haunted his every crossing these last two months, chasing him all the way from Holland and only losing him in the shrouding fogs and narrow channels of the Crouch. Other revenue captains give up long before they risk such treacherous waters, but not this one. Not Commander Peregrin. A half-dozen of Hezekiah’s fellow smuggler-captains bear witness to that, for Peregrin has seized their ships and cargo and led them before the magistrates to be sentenced to transportation or hanging.

Hezekiah has no intention of suffering the same fate. Nor will he give up his livelihood and that of his men. No, not even though they whisper that this revenue captain must have some new magic, perhaps a charm or a spell that the navy have been using in the war against France. And so Hezekiah made his preparations for this encounter not upon the waters of the North Sea, but in the heat of a tavern deep in the heart of Covent Garden, where he laid out all his coin on a secret weapon–with which he will demonstrate that turn-about is the fairest play.

“Steady lads,” whispers Hezekiah. “Keep those broadsides dry and ready.”

He needs only to be within earshot to spring his trap. He could make his approach quickly if he wished–oars could be stretched out into the river-water–but then the Otter’s crew would hear his approach, and he needs must take them unawares. So the wind it must be. And at last it comes: a breath of air whistling up the river to fill the sails of both ships. Hezekiah grins like a fiend; for he knows the ways of the Crouch and is ready for the gust, while the Otter’s crew can only let the wind spill from their sails.

The smuggler closes in, slow and silent. A fat mouse stalking a blind fox.

“Steady, steady,” hisses Hezekiah once more. “We must beach them on the mudflats or they’ll plague us forever!” For if the Otter is trapped in the mud, far from its assigned patrol in the open sea, then Commander Peregrin will be humiliated and reassigned to some other duty, far from the River Crouch. “There’s nothing to fear, lads. They’ve no broadsides to match ours.”

A cry rings out from the revenue cutter–“douse that light!” And darkness shrouds their deck once more. But it’s too late now. The Sea Snail is almost alongside the Otter, and still unnoticed.

Hezekiah spits into the river. “Come into my waters, will ye, Peregrin?” he mutters. “Think to drive me off the river, do ye? I’ll throw you on the shore and pay your duty in Essex mud!” He turns to his men. “Lay bare the lamps!”

Tarpaulin covers are whipped off a line of lanterns all along the side of the Sea Snail, revealing the smugglers as they stand close packed, shoulder to shoulder. The men aboard the Otter barely have time for a desperate cry of “beat to quarters!” before the smugglers raise pamphlets folded from broadside sheets of paper. It matters not that only half the smugglers can read. The words upon the pamphlets shimmer in the lamplight, eager to be sung.

Hezekiah cries: “Let’s give ’em a true broadside ballad!”

He claps three times for the rhythm, and the smugglers raise up their voices:

Come, come, let us drink!
‘Tis in vain to think
Like fools, on grief or sadness!
Let our money fly
And our sorrows die
All worldly care is madness!

The words beat into the side of the revenue cutter, shuddering its timbers and knocking it back in the water.  The blue-coated captain–for surely it must be Peregrin–clutches tight to the mast while one man falls from the tops and two others scramble to pull in the sails before the combination of wind and song thrust the cutter upon the muddy shore.

“Give ’em the next verse, lads!” cries the master of the Sea Snail.

But wine and good cheer
Will in spite of our fear
Inspire our hearts with mirth, boys!
The time we live
To wine let us give
Since all must turn to earth, boys!

Sailors on the revenue cutter tumble across the deck, snatching at handholds as the song throws them off their feet. But Peregrin cries out: “To the sides! To the sides, as ’twas rehearsed!”

The smugglers laugh. “Rehearse, he says!” cries Hezekiah. “What could the revenue rehearse? The navy keeps all the best broadsides and leaves ’em no coin to buy any other, not while Napoleon rides roughshod on Spain! Let ’em hear another verse!”

The smugglers launch into song once more:

Pass around the bowl
The delight of my soul
And to my hand commend it!
A fig for chink!
‘Twas made to buy drink!
And ‘fore we go hence we’ll spend it!

But even as the words beat into the Otter, the revenue men scramble to their feet, open up pamphlets of their own and sing back across the waves–not a naval broadside, but the very same melody and lyrics that came from the smugglers’ lips!

Come, come, let us drink!
‘Tis in vain to think
Like fools, on grief or sadness!

“What is this–” cries Hezekiah as the words of the first verse reflect the power of the broadside back upon its source, tipping the Sea Snail dangerously far to one side. “Keep singing!” he cries, and the smugglers return to the first verse even as the revenue men continue on.

Let our money fly
And our sorrows die
All worldly care is madness!

Hezekiah gasps as he understands the trap he has sailed into: for the song they sing is no mere ballad. A matter of signal importance was missing in the broadsheets he bought for the ship’s defense in a dark London tavern. They failed to mention that the song is of the kind known as a round, or a catch, or a perpetual canon, meant to be repeated halfway through the verse by a second voice, redoubling its strength in a resonata incantata–turning the perpetual canon back upon the ship that sang it first!

The Sea Snail lists far to one side as the song beats into its timbers, shattering the harmony of the smuggler-singers. They tumble back across the slanting deck while Hezekiah clutches onto the wheel. And then the ship strikes the edge of the channel, breaking his grip and throwing him down into the chilly ooze along with his men.

They cry out for rescue from the sucking mud and the tide that will soon sweep up the estuary. Their wish is granted–but it comes at the price of iron shackles clapped to their wrists as soon as they are dragged from the mire. Guards shove Hezekiah to his muddy knees upon the creaking deck, and he can only watch as his enemies haul their plunder aboard in triumph: three hundred barrels of good French cognac, of a value that would have paid for another dozen expeditions, and the broadsides too.

Hezekiah looks up in fury as Peregrin marches past, inspecting the work with a lantern in his hand. “Where’d you get ’em from, Peregrin?” he cries.

The revenue captain halts in his tracks, showing naught but his blue-coated back to the smuggler.

“The Navy will not grant their broadsides to the Revenue,” says Hezekiah. “So where’d you get ’em from, eh? Did you buy ’em? Where’d you find the money, you with your two hundred a year from the crown?”

“Where did I find the money?” asks Peregrin as he turns, his lantern low and his countenance still in shadow. “Why, from you, Hezekiah Staines!”

“From me?” laughs Hezekiah, incredulous.

“From you,” says Peregrin, raising up his lantern to reveal his face. “Do you not recognise me?”

Hezekiah gasps–for he knows this man. Hooded eyes and hollow cheeks, with a thin mouth curling in a smile. Just like… “Bowlby?”

Commander Peregrin tips his cocked hat. For he had indeed been introduced to Hezekiah as Bowlby–a copyist who could supply any script, score or libretto, whether of the theatrical kind or the deadly, magical sort.

There, in the smoke and fug of the Coal Hole Tavern in Covent Garden, among actors guzzling brandy and betting round the cockpit, Hezekiah thought him no more than a Grub-Street hack making a pretty penny by copying out secret songs that should by rights have been in the hands of the navy alone. Now he knows that Bowlby and Peregrin are one, and Hezekiah is the truest fool that ever lived.

“You revenue dog!” he raves. “You and all your kind! I hope you rot in hell, the lot of you!”

“If we are to rot in hell, then we must take some preservative,” says Peregrin and calls out to his men: “A barrel of brandy for every man! For ’tis a terrible shame how much was lost to the river.” They cheer as they roll the barrels across the deck to be gulped down into the hold.

Peregrin smiles down at Hezekiah. “Come, come,” he says. “Let us drink.”


Paul R. Hardy lived in the UK with a coffee habit, a laptop, and various health problems. He worked at a major NHS hospital, which is handy for the health problems, and wrote speculative fiction for venues such as Fireside ,Escape PodDiabolical Plots, and Deep Magic E-Zine, as well as the fifth and sixth Unidentified Funny Objects anthologies. He did not own any pets.

Paul said: The lyrics in this story are taken from “Come, Let Us Drink“, a song by Henry Purcell (1659-1695). Those lyrics were, in turn, adapted from a poem by Alexander Brome (1620-1666). Copyright law did not exist during their lifetimes, but the works of both artists are now in the public domain.

The featured clip-art is by Daniel Chadwick sourced from openclipart.org

Truancy 9, July 2021