As soon as Jones had gained sufficient distance, he smartly filled away again and headed the clumsy Richard at the Serapis; but the slow old vessel was not equal to the demands of her commander. The Richard only succeeded in striking the Serapis on the port quarter very far aft. To have attempted boarding from such a position would have been madness. There are only two positions from which a ship can be boarded advantageously. In one case, when two ships are laid side by side, by massing the crew at some point of the long line of defense necessitated by the relative position of the vessels, it may be possible to break through and effect a lodgment on the enemy's deck. The other case is when the ship desirous of boarding succeeds in crossing the bows of her enemy so that the latter vessel is subjected to a raking fire from the battery of the attacking ship, which beats down opposition and sweeps everything before it, thus affording a chance for favorable attack. Neither of these opportunities was presented at this time.
Jones, nevertheless, mustered his boarders on the forecastle at this moment, heading them himself, but the English appeared in such force at the point of contact that the attempt was of necessity abandoned. The two ships hung together a moment, then separated, and, the Serapis going ahead, the Richard backing off, they formed a line ahead, the bow of the Richard following the stern of the Serapis. There was not a single great gun which bore on either ship. The roar of the battle died away, and even the crackle of the small arms ceased for a space. At this moment Pearson hailed the Richard. Having been subjected to the battering of his superior force for so long a time, Pearson concluded that it was time for the Richard to surrender. He was right in theory--in practice it was different. His own ship had suffered severely in the yardarm to yardarm fight, and he realized that the loss upon the Richard must have been proportionately greater. Even the most unskilled seaman had learned by this time the difference in the power of the two vessels. Therefore, taking advantage of the momentary cessation of the battle, he sprang up on the rail of the Serapis in the moonlight and called out:
"Have you struck?"
And to this interrogation Paul Jones returned that heroic answer, which since his day has been the watchword of the American sailor:
" begun to fight!" he cried with gay audacity.
The ringing tones of his voice carried his answer not only to the ears of the English captain, but threw it far up into the high tops where the eager seamen had so busily plied their small arms. The men on the gun deck heard it with joy. It even penetrated to the gloomy recesses of the gun room, which had been the scene of such misfortune and disaster as would have determined the career of any other ship. The wounded caught the splendid inspiration which was back of the glorious declaration, and under the influence of it stifled their groans, forgot their wounds, and strove to fight on. It told the dying that their lives were not to be given in vain. Nay, those mighty words had a carrying power which lifted them above the noise of the conflict, which sent them ringing over the narrow seas, until they reverberated in the Houses of Parliament on the one side and the Court of Versailles on the other. They had a force which threw them across the thousand leagues of ocean until they were heard in every patriot camp, and repeated from the deck of every American ship, until they became a part of the common heritage of the nation as eternal as are its Stripes and Stars! The dauntless phrase of that dauntless man:
"I have not yet begun to fight!"
It was no new message. The British had heard it as they tramped again and again up the bullet-swept slopes of Bunker Hill; Washington rang it in the ears of the Hessians on the snowy Christmas morning at Trenton; the hoof beats of Arnold's horse kept time to it in the wild charge at Saratoga; it cracked with the whip of the old wagoner Morgan at the Cowpens; the Maryland troops drove it home in the hearts of their enemies with Greene at Guilford Courthouse, and the drums of France and England beat it into Cornwallis' ears when the end came at Yorktown. There, that night in that darkness, in that still moment of battle, Paul Jones declared the determination of a great people. His was the expression of an inspiration on the part of a new nation. From this man came a statement of an unshakable determination at whatever cost to be free! A new Declaration of Independence, this famous word of warning to the British king. Give up the contest now, O monarch! A greater majesty than thine is there!
I imagine a roar of wild exultation quivering from truck to keelson, a gigantic Homeric laugh rising from the dry throats of the rough men as yet unharmed on the Richard as they caught the significance of their captain's reply. "It was a joke, the character of which those blood-stained ruffians could well appreciate; but the captain was in no mood for joking. He was serious, and in the simplicity of the answer lay its greatness. Strike! Not now, nor never! Beaten! The fighting is but just begun! The preposterous possibility of surrender can not even be considered. What manner of man this, with whom you battle in the moonlight, brave Pearson! An unfamiliar kind to you and to most; such as hath not been before, nor shall be again. Yet all the world shall see and understand at this time.
"'I have not yet begun to fight!'
"Surprising answer! On a ship shattered beyond repair, her best guns exploded and useless, her crew decimated, ringed about with dead and dying, the captain had not yet begun to fight! But there was no delay after the answer, no philosophizing, no heroics. The man of action was there. He meant business. Every moment when the guns were silent wasted one."