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At Portsmouth, in a tavern dark,
One day of windy weather,
A crew of reckless sailors sat,
And drank their grog together.
Loud was the talk, and rude the joke,
So deep the jovial din
They did not mark a lean, wild shape
Who shivering enter'd in:
A beggar wight, who hugg'd his rags,
And chatter'd with the cold;
Lean was his shape, his eyeballs dim,
Wrinkled his cheek, and old.
In a dark corner of the room
He sat with sorry cheer,
Not list'ning, till a word, a name,
Fell on his frozen ear.
'James Avery!' and as he spake
One pointed thro' the pane
At a great playbill on the wall
Of the damp and oozy lane.
On the dead wall the letters great
Made tempting bright display:
James Avery, the Pirate King,
Was posted that night's play.
'Ay!' cried a tar, reading aloud,
'Well might they call him so!
The Pirate King — I grudge his luck!'
Then, with an oath, 'I'll go.'
Another cried, 'Ah, that's the life
To suit a sailor's style
Ben Conway saw his palace, mates,
On Madagascar Isle;
'And on a throne, in red and gold,
Jem sat like any king,
With dark-eyed donnas all around,
As fresh as flowers in spring!
'They brought him wine in cups of gold,
And each knelt on her knee —
Each mother-naked, smooth as silk —
Ah, that's the life for me!'
Then spake a third, 'I sailed with Jem
On board the "Hurricane";
When he deserted I ne'er thought
To hear of him again.
'And now it's long since last I heard
His name, and p'raps he's dead.'
'Not so; he only takes a nap!'
A grizzly war's-man said.
'He has a fleet of fighting ships,
Swifter than ours tenfold;
Last spring he took six Indiamen,
Laden with gems and gold.
'There's not a corner of the main
But knows the skull and bones —
Up goes the flag! and down comes Jem,
As sure as Davy Jones.
'But let him have his fling; some day
We'll catch him at his trade —
Short shrift! a rope! and up he goes,
And all his pranks are played.'
All laughed; 'But not so fast,' cried one;
'It's not too late, I vow;
His Majesty would pardon him,
If he'd surrender now.
'The pardon's in the newspapers,
In black and white it's there;
If pirate Jem will cease his games,
They'll spare his life, they swear.'
All laugh'd again — 'Jem's wide awake —
You don't catch birds with chaff —
Come back to biscuit and salt junk?
He is too 'cute by half.
'Leave all his gold and precious stones,
His kingdom, and all that,
Bid all them dark-eyed girls farewell
For labour, — and the cat?'
Ev'n as they speak, a wretched form
Springs up before their eyes.
'Give me the paper! let me read!'
The famished creature cries.
They thrust him back with jeer and laugh,
So wild and strange is he. . . .
'Why, who's this skeleton?' . . . A voice
Answers, 'James Avery!'
Louder they laugh — 'He's mad! he's mad!'
They round him in a ring.
'Jem here in rags! no, he's in luck,
As grand as any king!'
But soon he proves his story true
With eager words and tones;
Then, as he ends, 'Bread, give me bread!
I'm starving, mates!' he moans.
'Nay, drink!' they cry; and his lean hands
Clutch at the fiery cup.
'Here's to the King who pardons me!'
He cries, and drinks it up.
He tells them of his weary days
Since that dark hour he fled,
A hunted thing, without a home
Wherein to lay his head.
Through some mysterious freak of fate,
His name abroad was spread,
And not a wondrous deed was done
But that wild name was said;
And all the time James Avery dwelt
An outcast, gaunt and grim,
Till creeping home that day he heard
His King had pardoned him.
The wild drink mounted to his brain,
He revell'd maniac-eyed,
'Come to the playhouse — 'twill be sport
To see thyself! ' they cried.
Between them, down the narrow street
They led his scarecrow form —
The wind blew chill from off the sea,
Before the rising storm.
They sat and saw the mimic play,
Till late into the night: —
The happy Pirate, crown'd with gold,
And clad in raiment bright.
The actor swagger'd on the stage
And drank of glorious cheer, . . .
James Avery gazed! his hungry laugh
Was pitiful to hear!
They parted. . . . As the chill white dawn
Struck down a lonely lane,
It flashed upon the rainy wall
And made the play-bill plain.
James Avery, the Pirate King!
The mocking record said —
Beneath, James Avery's famish'd form
Lay ragged, cold, and dead!
(From Miscellaneous Poems and Ballads, 1878-83.)
Last modified 27 September 2002