Essay: “Merciful Plunder”, William Hope Hodgson, 1925.
This story was not published until 1925, so I’m not sure when Hodgson wrote it or if his wife touched it up for sale then. It has a vaguely World War One feeling to it though there is no mention of the war. I would suspect it was written during one of the Balkans Wars which started in 1912. That is supported by the first line:
Captain Mellor, trading along the Adriatic coast, had put in at one of those small seaports which found themselves involved in the wars so common in the Balkans.
The Captain is staying in a chalet belonging to a French friend of his.
The sounds of gunfire can be heard coming from the center of town,
the punishment . . . being carried out for twenty of the band of forty youths of the enemy who had been caught the day before fighting out of uniform—a youthful band of ‘death or glory’ irregulars.
An hour later, the French friend returns to the house and relates what he saw at the execution and says the other 20 men will be executed tomorrow.
“No, they won’t!”, says the Captain. It’s the first indication that he may not be the hard-hearted and unfeeling man he seems to be.
Shortly afterwards, he says, “I expect the boys got what was coming to them.”
His friend is rather taken aback by his callousness, but he does relate, in passing, details of the men’s imprisonment and guards.
They leave the house and walk about the town because Mellor is sailing that night. The friend points out the barred windows of the men’s cell on the top floor of the municipal hall.
“Sorry for ‘em. . . . But I guess they’ll be all right this time to-morrow!” says the Captain.
“You are of all the most hard men I ever speak to,” says the friend.
But the Captain has been keeping his eye open and, by his innocuous questions, learns all about the prisoners and the local geography.
They even visit the cells where they find the prisoners are all under eighteen, at “least half of them were boys of fourteen and fifteen”, and some are wounded or have been roughed up. I suspect Hodgson may have been thinking of his life as a teenager being abused at sea when he takes care to mention their ages.
When he gets back on his ship, Mellor calls Grey, the chief mate, and makes clear that he intends to rescue the men and reveals all the details he’s observed.
That night Mellor, the mate, and two other members of the crew go ashore. On the way to put their rescue into effect, they encounter a tearful woman whose son was executed that day – and who is to have another one executed the next day. There doesn’t seem to be any reason to have this encounter. The woman, a Greek woman we learn at the end of the story, doesn’t complicate the rescue operation at all. I suspect Hodgson stuck it in for padding and extra sentiment.
That rescue plan involves rigging a ship’s spar off a cliff and above the municipal hall. The bars are cut away from the windows and the men, after some trouble from the guards, are hoisted away using a sling hung from the mast.
The “merciful plunder” of the youths is accomplished.
The story ends on a humorous note:
Captain Mellor still trades along the Adriatic coast. And to this day, such is the irony of life’s rewards, the little Frenchman never meets him without a resentful memory of his grimly brutal harshness of heart.
Often he refers to the miraculous escape of the doomed boys. And always the captain grunts unsympathetically. Then the little Frenchman mutters as he crosses himself devoutly:
’But the good God was kinder than you.’