No. 15.—Falsebeard the Pirate, Part 2.
(Continued from Part 1.)
IMMEDIATELY I ROUNDED up my men, ignoring for the moment the stench of bubble gum on their breath, and brought them all back to the Mary Livingstone as quickly as our launches could carry them. But how would we prepare for an attack by the notorious Falsebeard? With other pirates, it would simply be a matter of manning the cannons and directing the ship’s orchestra to play something lively by Wagner or Liszt. But Falsebeard relied on infiltration rather than overt violence in his depredations. I will not say that my heart sank—the heart of a ship’s captain must necessarily be unsinkable—but it was definitely taking on water as I reflected that, even now, Falsebeard was most probably already aboard my ship, employing one of his devious disguises to conceal himself, perhaps even under the form of one of my own men. Indeed, the more I considered the matter, the more certain I was that one of my crew, no matter how apparently innocuous, must be the crafty pirate Falsebeard.
My first step, therefore, must be to interview every member of my crew. It was a tedious process, but one by one I called each man into my own quarters and asked him a few probing questions, which I had devised expressly for the purpose of unmasking any impostor among us. My first question was quite direct, since there was no time for circumlocution: “Are you Falsebeard the pirate?” A positive answer to this question would, of course, have terminated my investigation; all but one of my crew, however, answered in the negative. Higgs, the boatswain, at first thought he might be Falsebeard, but on some reflection decided that he probably was not, and became quite certain when I attempted to remove his face to see whether it might be a mask.
Since everyone answered the first question in the negative, it was necessary to move on to the second question, viz., “Are you positively certain that you are not Falsebeard the pirate?” Receiving negative answers to this one as well, I was compelled to think up a number of other questions, such as “Are you lying right now?” and “How much are seventeen and twenty-three?” (pirates being notoriously bad at ciphering, a skill at which all true navy men excel). I thoroughly interviewed every man on board until it was well past nightfall. I even interviewed the ship’s cat, whom the men called Maisie; I did not recall her as being ten feet long from nose to tail and standing nearly four feet high at the shoulder, but then it was true that I normally had little interaction with the creature. Finally, to leave no stone unturned, I interviewed myself, standing in front of the full-length mirror in my quarters. My answers, I must confess, were disappointingly evasive. I did nothing but repeat my own questions like a Rogerian therapist; and I was beginning to grow deeply suspicious of myself, when suddenly an alarm was raised outside.
“It’s Falsebeard the pirate!” I heard voices shouting. “We’ve found him!”
I dashed out on the deck, where most of my crew were gathered, shouting and gesticulating in a confused and agitated manner. At first I was unable to comprehend anything they were saying, but at last my boatswain Higgs managed to silence the rabble and make himself understood.
“Thar he be, Cap’n,” said Higgs in his colorful nautical vernacular. “Bald pate shinin’ like the moon, just like you told us.” He pointed to the horizon, where a nearly full moon had just risen above the scraggy palms of Palmes Jaunes.
Patiently I explained to the men that, in the description we have been given by the Admiralty, the words “a bald pate that shone like the moon” were not to be interpreted in the literal sense, but rather in the allegorical sense, reminding them of the hermeneutical instruction I had given them on previous occasions when questions arose about the meaning of orders from the Admiralty. I commended them for their vigilance, but advised them to limit their search to the terrestrial sphere. Having encouraged them with a few more words of inspiration, I retired once again to my quarters, where my reflection in the full-length mirror greeted me with a few derisive remarks.
That my own reflection should be so ill-bred as to treat a captain of Her Majesty’s fleet with contempt renewed my former suspicions, and I reached into the mirror to grasp the offending image by the lapels. That no glass stood in my way was, upon reflection (so to speak), even more suspicious.
The image fought back manfully as the ship’s orchestra struck up the lively central section of Les préludes, and I was not at all surprised when my moustache and eyebrows—or rather the identical moustache and eyebrows on my reflection—fell away, revealing the hitherto unseen face of Falsebeard the pirate. I soon gained the upper hand in our contest, and with a mighty thrust sent my opponent reeling back into the closet from which he had sprung.
Reduced to desperation and obviously cornered, Falsebeard had recourse to his usual expedient, pelting me with eggs. Here, however, I was truly one step ahead of him: knowing as I did his propensity for resorting to egg-throwing as a last resort, I had taken the precaution of replacing all the eggs in the ship’s larder with egg-shaped stones; so that, instead of covering me with a runny, sticky mess, Falsebeard merely pelted me black and blue.
Even so, I know not what the outcome of our contest might have been, had not Maisie, the ship’s cat, chosen that moment to amble through the door. Seeing Falsebeard moving in a lively and animated manner, her interest was attracted. With one vigorous sweep of her paw, she knocked the wicked pirate senseless; and she might well have done him even more mischief, had I not admonished her severely.
Little remains to be told of Falsebeard the pirate. He was tried, convicted, and sentenced to a course in Investment Banking for Beginners at the Community College of the Antipodes. Maisie was awarded the Order of the Silver Whisker, the highest commendation a ship’s cat can receive in Her Majesty’s navy. I must add, for the benefit of any young captains who may be reading this narration, that the breed of cat found along the Bengali coast, where my crew informed me they had acquired Maisie, is a loyal and useful addition to any ship’s crew; and that, furthermore, the animal’s unusual orange coat, with its striking pattern of vertical black stripes, makes it an ornamental as well as useful acquisition for any ship.