A Middy of the King, by Harry Collingwood.
The young hero of this tale is Dick Delamere, who was already a midshipman, on leave, but who receives a letter from the Captain of the Europa, recalling him to join the ship at Portsmouth. The date of the events that ensue is the very late eighteenth century.
The first few chapters cover the events while the Europa is on patrol in the Chops of the Channel and the Bay of Biscay. The British are hostile to the French and to the Dutch, and there are engagements with vessels of these nations. Thereafter the vessel sails to the West Indies, where one of the problems is to exterminate the pirates infesting those waters. The book describes, possibly fairly accurately, the life of a midshipman of those days and in those waters. At one point Dick receives a very serious head-wound, but recovers with good treatment in the Naval Hospital. On the whole the book has echoes of the immortal works of Captain Marryat, which I am sure our author had studied very carefully.
Collingwood has exceptional powers of description, and this book makes a good read, and, of course, a good audiobook.
_____________ A MIDDY OF THE KING, BY HARRY COLLINGWOOD.
I had just dismounted before the rather imposing main entrance to Delamere Hall, situate close to the west Dorset coast, and had handed over my horse to Tom Biddlecome, the groom who had accompanied me in my before-breakfast ride down to the beach for my morning dip, when my father appeared in the portico.
"Good morning, Dick," he greeted me. "I suppose you have been for your swim, as usual. How did you find the water?"
"Grand, sir," I replied; "just the right temperature to put new life into one. Another week, at this rate, ought to see me as well as ever I was."
"Well, your present appearance is scarcely that of an invalid, I must confess," he remarked laughingly. "If you were called upon to submit to a medical examination, I fancy the verdict would be that there is not very much the matter with you. And I am very glad that it is so; for I have just received a letter from my friend Vavassour, in which he informs me that he has been posted to the new frigate Europa, launched last week at Portsmouth and now fitting-out; that he has entered your name on her books; and that, if you feel sufficiently recovered to resume duty, he would very strongly advise you to proceed to Portsmouth at once and assist in the operation of fitting-out, as he is of opinion that by doing so you will gain a considerable amount of knowledge that will be of the utmost value to you when you come to sit for your examination. Now, what is your opinion? Do you think you are sufficiently recovered to do as Vavassour suggests; or should I write and ask him to—"
"By no means, my dear father," I interrupted hastily. "I am quite well, and perfectly fit for duty in every respect; indeed, I feel sure that, having advanced so far along the road to recovery, a return to a life of greater activity than that which I have been living of late will be positively beneficial to me. Of course I shall be very sorry to leave you again to a life of solitude."
"Do not think of that, Dick," interrupted my father in his turn. "I assure you that my life here is not nearly so lonely as you seem to imagine. True, there are not many neighbours, but what there are, are eminently satisfactory; also I have my horses, my dogs, my gun, and my rod for outdoor companions, and books to exorcise the loneliness of my evenings; so that you see I am not at all badly off. No doubt I shall miss you after you are gone, my son; but this is not the time to study one's own feelings. Britain just now needs every one of her sons who can strike a blow in her defence; and when I look at your empty chair I shall at least have the pride and satisfaction of knowing that, wherever you may be, you are upholding the honour of your country and your name. Well, well," he sighed, "let us get indoors and to breakfast. There is a letter also for you from Vavassour, and you will be curious to learn what he has to say to you."
Whereupon, linked arm in arm, my father and I entered and made our way to the breakfast room, where we seated ourselves, and were soon busy with the viands placed before us. The letter to which my father had referred lay beside my plate; and, having obtained his permission, I at once broke the seal and glanced at its contents, for I was full of curiosity to learn in detail the splendid news which my father had outlined to me as he stood in the portico.
But before proceeding further with this veracious history it will be well that I should say a word or two about myself, by way of formally introducing myself as it were to the reader, in order that if he feels inclined to follow my fortunes, as set forth in the following pages, he may know just who I am and how matters were standing with me at the moment when this story opens.
To begin, then, I was the only son of Sir Richard Delamere, of Delamere Hall, in the county of Dorsetshire; Baronet, Justice of the Peace, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera; and some sixteen and a half years before the date at which this story starts I had received the name of Richard, after my father, at the baptismal font in the fine old church in the village of Delamere, that nestles snugly in the valley about a mile to the north-eastward of the Hall.
I never knew my mother, for she died in giving me birth; and my father, who adored her living, and revered her memory, was some years older before he fully forgave me for being the unwitting cause of her premature departure from this world. And in this I could sympathise with him as soon as I came to years of understanding, for she was not only, as everybody who had known her asserted, of a most amiable and loveable disposition, but—as her portrait in the big library bore witness—a most lovely woman.
But although I was unfortunate enough never to have known a mother's love, I do not think I was actually very much the worse for the loss; for upon my mother's death her place was most ably and conscientiously filled by my aunt Griselda, my father's maiden sister, who faithfully did her duty both by my father and me until she too passed away when I was about eleven years old, by which time my father had completely conquered his original resentment toward me, and we had become all that father and son ought to be to each other.
Then, after receiving the best education that it was at that time possible for a lad to receive, I had entered the navy as a midshipman, at the age of fourteen, and had gone out to the Mediterranean in the old Colossus, two-decker, under the command of Sir Percy Fitzgerald, where, for some two and a half years, we spent our time partly in chasing the French up and down the great inland sea, and partly in blockading the port of Toulon, under Sir John Jervis. It was while engaged upon this latter service that I was so seriously wounded in the head by a flying splinter that I was invalided home to recover, the Colossus being opportunely ordered to England at the same time to undergo a general overhaul and refit.
Of course I had not been in the navy for more than two years without making a few friends, among the staunchest of whom I reckoned Mr Henry Vavassour, the first lieutenant of the Colossus, and also a friend of my father. This officer was a very dashing fellow, a prime seaman, and a cool, courageous, resolute leader of men—he had frequently been mentioned in dispatches—and I was therefore not at all surprised to learn, as I now did, that he had gained his post rank and had been given the command of a fine ship. His letter to me ran as follows:
"My dear Delamere—I think you will be glad to learn that their Lordships have been pleased to promote me, bestow upon me post rank, and give me the command of the new frigate Europa, just launched at Portsmouth. She is an exceedingly fine ship of 1216 tons, mounting 38 guns; and, with smart officers and a good crew, I think she ought, given ordinary luck, to render an excellent account of herself.
"I have been allowed to nominate all my own officers, and I have therefore entered you on the ship's books, not only for your father's sake, but also on account of your excellent behaviour while aboard the Colossus; and if, as I hope, you have sufficiently recovered to join, you will again meet one or two of your former shipmates on the quarter-deck of the new ship.
"If you feel fit for duty I would very strongly advise you to join at the earliest possible moment, as at present the Europa has only her three lower-masts stepped. She is in the hands of the riggers, and I am of opinion that it would be of the utmost service to you if you could be on the spot to witness the process of rigging; you would thus obtain at first hand an insight into details, which will assuredly stand you in good stead when you come to present yourself for examination. I ought, perhaps, to inform you that in the event of your deciding to act upon my advice it will be necessary for you to take up your quarters temporarily aboard the receiving hulk, but this inconvenience will be more than compensated by the knowledge that you will gain. For myself, I am putting up at the 'George' in the High Street, and it will be well for you to report yourself to me there upon your arrival. I have written to your father, explaining everything; I need therefore add nothing to this beyond the expression of the hope that you may be able to avail yourself to the fullest extent of this splendid opportunity for gaining a great deal of most useful knowledge in a very short time.—Yours sincerely, Henry Vavassour."
When I had finished the perusal of this exceedingly kind and friendly letter I passed it over to my father, who in his turn read it carefully through, and then passed it back to me with the question:
"Well, Dick, my boy, what do you think of it?"
"Simply, sir, that if you approve I will at once write to Captain Vavassour, thanking him heartily for his very great kindness, and telling him that I will start for Portsmouth to-morrow," I said.
My father regarded me, rather wistfully I thought, for a few moments, and then said:
"Very well; be it so. Write your letter, by all means, and I will enclose a few lines in it. And,"—suddenly, in a much more cheerful tone of voice, as an idea seemed to suggest itself to him—"I'll tell you what I'll do, Dick, I'll run over to Portsmouth with you, and stay for a few days. A little change will do me good; and I should like very much to see this new ship of yours, as well as to meet Vavassour again, whom I have not seen for quite a number of years. Yes, certainly, I will go over with you."
Thus it was arranged. We wrote and dispatched our letters, spent the remainder of the day in making our preparations, and started on our journey soon after ten o'clock the next morning, posting it all the way to Portsmouth, where we arrived at six o'clock the same evening, and put up at the "George," where Captain Vavassour had established himself. Of course, it was scarcely in accordance with strict naval etiquette for me, a mere midshipman, to presume to quarter myself in the hotel that my captain honoured with his patronage, but the circumstances were exceptional in so far as that I was with my father; moreover, it was to be for but one night, and the skipper was far too fine and manly a fellow to take notice of so insignificant a breach of the unwritten law as I was committing. My father and I dined with him that night, incidentally making the acquaintance of Mr Malcolm Adair, the Europa's first lieutenant; and on the following morning, immediately after breakfast, I proceeded on board the receiving hulk, reported myself, then returned to the shore and made my way to Number 3 basin, in which the frigate was undergoing the process of being rigged and prepared for sea.
I had not served for two and a half years in the Mediterranean without learning something of what constituted a good model of a ship, and I no sooner set eyes upon the Europa than I fell violently in love with her. She had been launched flying light, and then had been hauled under the masting-sheers to have her three lower-masts stepped, after which it had been necessary to move her to another part of the basin in order to make way for another ship. She had occupied her new berth five days when I first saw her, during which the carpenters, joiners, and painters had been busily employed in finishing off her internal fittings; and when first I beheld her the dockyard people were in the act of warping her across the basin to still another berth, where she was to receive her ballast; thus when my eyes first rested upon her she was floating high out of the water, and I was afforded an excellent opportunity to view and criticise her lines. She was somewhat shallow of hull and flat in the floor, to give her a light draught of water, but to compensate for this she was extraordinarily "beamy," which had the twofold effect of imparting great stiffness under canvas, and affording fine roomy decks. Her sides were as round as an apple—not an inch of "straight" anywhere in them—and, despite her unusual breadth, her lines were the finest and most beautiful that I had ever seen. She carried a full poop, the interior of which constituted the captain's quarters—roomy, light, and airy; and as I noted the length and solidity of her lower-masts the idea occurred to me that, if the remainder of her spars were to be in proportion, her sail-spread, combined with her perfect lines, ought to give her such exceptional speed as would enable her to do just as she pleased with an adversary.
As soon as she was alongside and made fast I went on board and had a good look at her interior, not forgetting to inscribe my name legibly on the most conveniently situated locker in the midshipmen's berth, after which I watched the operation of shipping and stowing her ballast. There was not much of interest or instruction in this part of the work, but when, on the following day, I witnessed the execution of the apparently impossible task of getting the tops aloft and over the mastheads, and was afterwards initiated into the mysteries of measuring for and laying off rigging, getting it into position and setting it up; and beheld the rapidity and assured certainty with which the three bare lower spars were equipped with shrouds, stays, caps, etcetera; the topmasts rose into place, were rigged and fidded; how the yards were sent aloft and secured; and how, in short, the entire fabric became rapidly converted from a mere empty shell into a complicated yet marvellously perfect structure that needed but smart officers, a well-disciplined crew, and the breathing of the winds of heaven to make of her, not only the most beautiful and wonderful product of human skill, but also a formidable self-contained engine of warfare, I mentally confessed that not only was seamanship a most fascinating science, but also that sailors were the most ingenious and adaptable specimens of the entire human race.
The work of fitting-out was pushed forward with all possible expedition. A bare three weeks, therefore, from the day of my arrival in Portsmouth, saw the Europa all ataunt, with royal-yards across, sails bent, stores of all descriptions on board and stowed, water-tanks filled, guns mounted, and, in fact, ready for sea in every respect, except that her crew were not on board, and her magazines were empty. Then she was warped out of the basin, her crew turned over to her from the receiving hulk, and she was taken out to Spithead to receive her powder. During all this time my father had remained at Portsmouth, quartered at the "George," spending as much as possible of his time with me in the dockyard; and after the work of the day was over I generally— by favour of Mr Adair, the first lieutenant—dined and spent the evening with him, the discipline of the receiving hulk not being very severe, and nobody caring much at what time I went aboard at night so long as I was present at muster next morning. But on the day that the crew were turned over, and the ship was taken out to Spithead, these little indulgences came to an end; for the frigate was no sooner at anchor than, before the powder hoy arrived alongside, Captain Vavassour came off, the crew were mustered, and he read his commission and hoisted his pennant, from which moment the strictest naval discipline became the order of the day. Nevertheless, when at the conclusion of the above-mentioned ceremony the skipper ordered his gig and returned to the shore, I obtained leave to accompany him, upon condition that I reported myself on board again by eight o'clock. I therefore again, and for the last time during that cruise, dined with my father, after which he accompanied me to the Hard, bade me a most affectionate good-bye, and stood watching the wherry which was conveying me off to the ship, until the boat passed out of the harbour and we vanished from his sight. Not until long afterward did I know that, instead of starting for home the next morning, as he had talked of doing, he crossed over to Gosport the first thing after breakfast, walked to Haslar, and stationed himself on the beach at Gilkicker Point, watching the frigate until she had got under way and passed out of sight to the southward and eastward.
The next morning, at daylight, Blue Peter was hoisted at the fore-royal masthead and a gun fired as a signal that the ship was about to sail; boats were hoisted in and stowed, stock was brought alongside, and the order was given to clear the ship of strangers—sailors' wives and sweethearts who had come off to say a last good-bye, bumboat women who were making a final desperate effort to obtain a settlement of their accounts, and tradesmen of all kinds engaged upon the same errand or intent upon palming off upon the men otherwise unsaleable stock.
Shortly after ten o'clock Captain Vavassour came on board, immediately after which the hands were piped to "up anchor"; and within half-an-hour we were under way and standing out toward Saint Helens, under all plain sail, before a light northerly breeze.
We had not been under way a quarter of an hour before it became apparent to everybody on board that the Europa was going to more than justify the exceedingly favourable opinion that we had already formed of her; for, light as was the wind, she slid through the water at a speed that fairly astonished us, her keen stem cleaving the short Channel surges cleanly and with very little noise or fuss, and leaving behind her a wake so smooth and so little disturbed that at a distance of a quarter of a mile it vanished altogether. And when, an hour or so later, having made a good offing, the skipper ordered her to be hauled to the wind on a taut bowline for a short time, to test her speed under those conditions, and then put her about, she went to windward and tacked like a yacht.
Our cruising-ground was a fairly extensive one, stretching from the longitude of Cape la Hague on the one hand to longitude 10 degrees West on the other, and from latitude 50 degrees North to Cape Finisterre; in other words, it embraced the chops of the Channel and the whole of the Bay of Biscay; and our duty was to protect British commerce on the high seas, and harry the enemy generally. The wide limits of our cruising-ground, and the fact that, for the moment at least, we were free to go whither we pleased within those limits, was a source of the keenest gratification to all hands, for it was just within that area that the privateers of the enemy were then displaying the most activity and doing the greatest amount of mischief; and we were all looking forward hopefully to the prospect of making plenty of captures and recaptures. But those of us who had been shipmates together in the old Colossus found an additional source of gratification in the speed of our new craft; for whereas in the Colossus—which was possibly the slowest ship ever launched—we had done plenty of chasing, we had never been able to catch anything unless all the conditions were strongly in our favour; while now we hoped to find the state of affairs very much the opposite.
It was not only upon the speed of the Europa, however, that we built our hopes of success; for not only was she an unusually fast vessel, but she carried an exceptionally heavy armament for a ship of her class, namely, twenty-four long 24-pounders on her main-deck, and fourteen long 8-pounders on her quarter-deck and forecastle; while, to crown all, her crew consisted of two hundred and ninety-two men—every one of whom had voluntarily entered. Furthermore, of those two hundred and ninety-two men, no less than one hundred and sixty-five had been aboard the Colossus, and had joined after being paid off from that craft; while, on the quarter-deck, the skipper, Mr Galway the second lieutenant, Mr Trimble the master, Maxwell the master's-mate, Gascoigne a midshipman, Mr Purvis the gunner, and myself had all been shipmates together in the same craft.
Having manoeuvred the ship for close upon two hours, with the view of testing her speed and handiness in varying circumstances, so far as was possible under the existing conditions of wind and sea, we bore up and shaped a course for Cape la Hague, which we made just before nightfall. Then, as the breeze seemed inclined to freshen a trifle, rendering the ship more manageable in the strong tides that sweep that part of the coast, the Captain determined to search the bight at the bottom of which lies the French port of Saint Malo, just then notorious for the number of privateers which it fitted out and sent to sea. We accordingly passed in about half-way between Alderney and the mainland, maintaining an offing from the latter of about eight miles, and took in our royals and topgallantsails.
Passing inside the Chausey Islands, breakfast-time the next morning found us off the town, in the harbour of which we saw a number of small fishing and coasting craft, but nothing of importance; we therefore hauled up to the westward, set our topgallantsails, and boarded the fore and main tacks, in order to work out clear of Brehat and secure a good offing; for the glass was dropping, the breeze freshening, there was a "greasy" look about the sky to windward that seemed to portend a blow, and we were on a lee-shore.
As the morning advanced the portents became more pronounced; the wind increased to such an extent that we first had to stow our topgallantsails again and then single-reef the topsails, and a very nasty short, choppy sea quickly got up, into which the frigate plunged viciously to the height of her figurehead, sending deluges of spray over her weather cathead and into the hollow of her foresail until the canvas was darkened with wet half-way up to the yard, while it thickened up away to windward until it became impossible to distinguish anything beyond the distance of a mile, and the wind backed on us until it was out from about North-North-West, with the result that, when at length we made the land, it stretched right athwart our hawse and reached away to windward, as far as the eye could penetrate the mist.
There was nothing for it but to 'bout ship and haul off on the other tack; the crew were therefore piped to stations and the helm eased down, when the ship swept grandly up into the wind and went round like a top, holding her way in a style that delighted as much as it surprised us, and staying almost as quickly as the men could swing the yards.
Eight bells of the afternoon watch had just struck when, the weather clearing suddenly, we made the island of Guernsey, some eight miles ahead, and Jersey somewhat more distant, two points before our starboard beam; and at the same moment two craft were made out, about six miles away from us and broad on our weather-beam, coming down before the wind under a heavy press of sail, and heading as though bound for Saint Malo. They were within half a mile of each other, and appeared to be in company.
The instant that they were seen there was a general rush for telescopes on the part of all the officers on deck; and after a protracted scrutiny of them the general consensus of opinion was that they were a French privateer and a British merchantman which she had captured. Coming down toward us, end-on as they were, it was not easy at first to determine their rig, but both were large ships, one of them being of about six hundred tons, while the other appeared to be fully as big as ourselves. That their eyes were as sharp as our own very soon became evident; for while we were still peering at them through our glasses, we saw a string of flags go soaring aloft on board the smaller craft of the two, and immediately afterward both vessels slightly altered their course, the bigger of the two hauling up a couple of points to the southward and shaping a course that would carry her across our stern at a distance of about two miles, while the other very smartly clewed up her topgallantsails, took a single-reef in her topsails, and slightly hauled her wind, as though with the purpose of intercepting us. This action on their part at once confirmed our suspicions as to their respective characters, and at the same time enabled us to determine that they were both full-rigged ships.
"The smaller will be the privateer, and, therefore, in all probability the faster vessel of the two, Mr Adair," said the skipper. "We will accordingly tackle him first; for I think we can polish him off in time to catch the other fellow before he can get into port. Beat to quarters, if you please, sir, and show our colours."
The first lieutenant gave the order, the drum rattled out its summons, and the ship at once became a hive of activity; the decks were cleared of everything that could possibly interfere with the efficient working of the guns; the guns themselves were cast loose, the half-ports knocked out, screens put up, the magazine opened, powder and shot passed up on deck, cutlasses and pistols served out to the crew, and, in short, every preparation made for battle. Our ensign was streaming out in the breeze, as flat as a board, from the mizen peak, but neither of the strangers had thus far condescended to show us the colour of their bunting. They had now definitely parted company, the larger of the two edging in for the land with the evident intention of reaching a port, while the other, having hauled her wind, was as evidently preparing to cover the retreat of her prize by engaging us in a running fight and drawing us off-shore to the northward.
THE PRIVATEER AND HER PRIZE.
The smaller of the two craft, having hauled close to the wind, upon the same tack as ourselves, and about two miles dead to windward of us, now hoisted French colours, and fired a gun of defiance, the shot from which, however, fell a long way short of us. We did not attempt to reply to this challenge, for although our long 24-pounders would probably have reached the other ship, the skipper considered the distance too great for our fire to be effective, while the motion of the frigate was so violent that the chances were against our being able to make a hit at all, and Captain Vavassour was noted for the strength of his objection to the wasteful firing away of ammunition. For the moment, therefore, he contented himself with testing the respective speed and weatherliness of the two ships.
We very soon discovered that, so far as these two qualities were concerned, we had caught a Tartar; for although within the first ten minutes of the test it became apparent that we were head-reaching upon the craft to windward, our advantage was so slight that we could scarcely hope to get within effective range of her in less than two hours at least, while during the whole of that time the bigger of the two strangers would be proceeding in the opposite direction at such a rate as would render her ultimate escape a practical certainty.
The skipper looked long and anxiously, first at one craft, then at the other, and finally at the barometer; then he rejoined the first lieutenant, who was giving his attention almost exclusively to the chase to windward.
"This won't do at all, Mr Adair," he said. "That fellow is going through the water almost as fast as we are, and is holding as good a luff. At this rate we shall not get to grips with him before dark, which will probably mean losing the big fellow, if not both of them. I see that the barometer is inclined to rise; we will, therefore, shake the reef out of the topsails, and set the fore and main-topgallant sails. If it becomes a question of 'carrying-on,' I think we ought to have the best of it by a long way."
"Ay, I'm no sayin' ye may no be richt, sir," answered the first lieutenant; "but it'll be an unco strain upon the spars to set thae to'gallants'ls; our new rigging has stretched until it's all hangin' in bights, as ye may see for yoursel' by lookin' at it. Still, it may be worth the tryin': but will ye no see what we can do under whole topsails before settin' the to'gallants'ls?"
"I think not," said the skipper. "We have not the time to spare for tentative measures; and although, as you truly say, the rigging has badly stretched, I think it has scarcely stretched sufficiently seriously to imperil the spars. We shall sail all the better for a little spring and whip in the masts, unless I am greatly mistaken; therefore have the goodness to make sail at once, sir, if you please."
In the face of so decided an opinion as this there was of course nothing further to be said, and five minutes later the Europa was leaping and plunging madly through the short, choppy Channel seas, with her topmasts and topgallant-masts whipping like fishing rods under the strain of the increased canvas, while the whole of her fore-deck was deluged with the spray that came in over the weather cathead, in cataracts that leapt almost as high as the foreyard. The chase lost not a moment in following our example, and setting the same canvas as ourselves; but scarcely ten minutes had elapsed before the correctness of the Captain's judgment became manifest, for within that brief space of time it was seen that we were fast head-reaching and weathering upon the Frenchman, who was evidently overpowered by his too heavy press of canvas.
A quarter-of-an-hour later Captain Vavassour gave the order to tack; and while the frigate was in stays, plunging bows under, and quivering to her keel with the furious slatting of her canvas as she swept up into the wind, we had the satisfaction of seeing the Frenchman's mizen-topmast go over the side.
"Now we have him!" ejaculated the Captain, in a tone of exultation. "With his mizen-topsail gone he will no longer be able to maintain so close a luff as ourselves, and within half-an-hour we shall be able to do as we please with him."
That the stranger was strong-handed, and that she carried a thoroughly well-disciplined crew was evident; for by the time that we had paid off on the other tack and had swung our foreyard, her mizen rigging was full of men busy upon the task of clearing away the wreck of the topmast, while others were equally busy in clewing-up and furling the fore-topgallantsail and hauling down and stowing her flying-jib, to enable her to maintain as good a luff as possible. But desperate as were their efforts they could do nothing with us now, at least upon a wind; therefore when we next tacked—which was the moment that we were fairly in her wake—she suddenly put up her helm, squared away dead before the wind, and proceeded to set studdingsails on both sides.
The Captain rubbed his hands and chuckled with delight as he saw this.
"Up helm and after her, Mr Adair," he exclaimed. "It is the very thing I could have wished for; she must be a veritable witch at sailing, if she can beat us before the wind. But we will set our port studdingsails only, to start with, if you please; for if, as I expect, we have the heels of her, I will haul up a point or two and endeavour to close with her to point-blank range."
Another three minutes saw us both sweeping away to leeward like meteors, the chase about a mile distant, broad on our port beam, with studdingsails set on both sides, from her royals down; while we, with studdingsails set to port only, were edging rapidly in upon her, while fully holding our own with her in other respects. And, oh, what a relief it was to feel the long, easy, floating motion and the level keel of a ship running before wind and sea, in exchange for the short, savage digging into a head sea, with its accompaniments of drenching showers of spray, sickening lee lurches, and a whole gale of wind buffeting one in the face and doing its utmost to drive one's teeth down one's throat.
The Captain's expectations relative to the frigate's behaviour on the new point of sailing were quickly verified; so quickly, indeed, that within a quarter of an hour we found ourselves within easy range of the chase—a fact which was brought home to us by a shot from her passing within a foot of our hammock rail and whizzing between our fore and mainmast.
"Now, Mr Adair," said the skipper, "you may see what you can do with her. Let the captains of the guns try their hands upon her individually, doing their best to cut up her spars and rigging. We want to capture, not to sink her; she is far too fine a ship to be sent to the bottom, therefore spare her hull as much as possible."
The first lieutenant went down on the main-deck and personally repeated the Captain's instructions; and before he returned to the quarter-deck the first of our long 24-pounders spoke its message, the shot passing through the stranger's foresail and narrowly missing the mast. Then our 8-pounders got to work, and very soon we saw loose ropes'-ends streaming out on board her, showing that our fire had not been wholly in vain, although, so far, no damage worth speaking of had been done. Nor were the Frenchmen idle; on the contrary, they fired about four guns to every one of ours, but after that first shot of theirs they appeared to have become flurried and excited, and their aim correspondingly wild; at all events, although some of their shot came near us, while one or two actually flew over us, not one of them came near enough to do us a ropeyarn's worth of damage.
With our own men it was very different; the more often they fired the cooler did they seem to become; and it was amusing to see the eagerness with which, after firing, they watched the effect of each shot, with the evident purpose of correcting their aim next time. The result of this caution on their part soon became apparent, for we had scarcely fired a dozen shots when we saw the stranger's fore-topmast go swooping over the bows; and the next minute she broached-to, losing her main-topgallant-mast and snapping every one of her studdingsail booms in the process.
"Cease firing!" shouted the skipper. "In studdingsails, Mr Adair; clew up and furl your royals and topgallantsails; in flying-jib; and then haul your wind, if you please. The fellow will surely not hold out any longer."
He did, though, pluckily maintaining a fire upon us with two guns run out through his stern ports—evidently hoping to disable us, while his crew worked like demons in their efforts to clear away the wreckage; and it was not until we ranged up on his weather quarter, within biscuit-toss, and threatened him with the whole of our starboard broadside, that he hauled down his colours and surrendered.
The heavy sea that was now running rendered the task of taking possession of the prize exceedingly difficult; nevertheless, by the exercise of the utmost skill and care, the first and second cutters, under the command of Mr Howard, our second lieutenant, and O'Brien, one of the midshipmen, at length managed to get alongside and put a prize-crew of thirty-two men on board her. The boats quickly returned to the ship with the intelligence that the prize was the twenty-six-gun privateer Belle Marie of Saint Malo, carrying a total crew of two hundred and thirty men, of whom eighty-seven were at the moment away in prizes, forty of them being on board the British East Indiaman Masulipatam—the ship which had by this time passed out of sight in the southern board. The weather conditions being unfavourable for the transfer of the Frenchmen from the prize to the frigate, without the loss of a great deal of valuable time, Captain Vavassour hailed Mr Howard, instructing him to confine the prisoners below, and then, with the aid of the carpenter's crew which we were about to send him, to repair damages as well as he could, and make the best of his way to Portsmouth. It was almost dark by the time that all the necessary arrangements were completed and the boats once more hoisted in, when we wore round and shaped a course which we hoped would enable us to intercept and recapture the Indiaman before she could reach Saint Malo.
This course brought the wind about three points abaft the starboard beam; it was consequently a leading wind, therefore, the business being pressing, we not only showed all plain sail, to our topgallantsails, but also set topmast and lower studdingsails to windward, the yards being braced slightly forward. This was a heavy press of canvas to pile upon the ship, with the wind where it was, and so heavy a sea running, but the Captain evidently considered—as, indeed, did we all—that the circumstances justified a certain measure of recklessness, for we had all observed that the Masulipatam was, at all events when going free, almost as fast a ship as the Belle Marie; and haste was necessary if we would overtake her before she reached her port.
By four bells in the first watch the wind had moderated sufficiently to permit of our setting all three royals, as well as the weather topgallant studdingsails; and half-an-hour later we sighted the craft of which we were in pursuit about four points on our starboard-bow. She was then about twelve miles distant, and only just distinguishable with the aid of our best night glasses; and the fact that we were still so far astern of her seemed to render it exceedingly doubtful whether she would not, after all, make good her escape. The fear that she would do so was still further strengthened when at midnight we made Cape Frehel light, with the chase still leading by a full eight miles; the only chance in our favour being that, as the bearing of the light proved, the Indiaman was some three miles to windward of her course, and would have to bear away for it, while we were heading for Saint Malo as straight as we could go. As the night passed on, however, our hopes rose somewhat, for the weather cleared, while the wind softened down; and with the softening of the wind it became apparent that we were gaining more rapidly.
As the time wore on so did the chase grow increasingly exciting, our hopes every moment strengthening, until at length, by three bells in the middle watch, they had merged into a conviction that nothing short of a miracle could save the Indiaman from recapture. Some such conviction must also have forced itself upon the mind of the officer in charge of her, for just after four bells had been struck we saw him suddenly take in his studdingsails and haul his wind, having apparently decided that he must inevitably be taken if he persisted in his endeavour to get into Saint Malo. By the direction in which he was now steering it seemed probable that he had determined to seek shelter in one of the indentations to the westward of Frehel, many of which were at that time defended by earthwork batteries for the protection of the French coasting craft from our cruisers and privateers.
This move on the part of the Indiaman's prizemaster proved the man to be possessed of both sagacity and foresight, for it threw us at once some four miles to leeward of him and compelled us forthwith to take in our studdingsails and brace sharp up in order to follow him, while he was now so close to the land that there was every prospect of his being able to get in and anchor under the shelter of a battery before we could overtake him. And that, in the end, was precisely what occurred; for when at length we weathered Cape Frehel we were just in time to see him entering Pleher Bay, where he presently rounded-to, clewed up his canvas, and let go his anchor.
Naturally, Captain Vavassour was not the sort of man to see a possible rich prize riding at anchor in the enemy's waters without making a determined attempt to secure possession of her; we therefore stood boldly in after the Indiaman until we arrived within half a mile of the entrance of the bay—at that point about two miles across—when two batteries of six guns each, built upon opposite headlands forming the entrance to the bay, opened fire upon us, and with such effect that within five minutes we had been hulled seven times, and had lost two men killed and five wounded. This afforded the skipper all the information that he just then required, namely, the fact that batteries existed, and also the exact position and strength of them—it now appearing that they were armed with 32-pounders. We therefore hove about and got out of range again as quickly as possible; for, as the Captain said, it was no good returning the fire of earthwork batteries; we might have plumped into them every shot we had on board without doing them a farthing's-worth of damage, while, had we attempted to force a passage into the bay with the frigate, they might easily have sunk us.
But the fun was not yet over; as a matter of fact it had really not begun—the affair of the batteries was merely the overture of the little drama which was taking shape in the skipper's brain. We stretched off the land until we were about three miles distant from the mouth of the bay, and then the ship was hove-to and preparation was made for the dispatch of a cutting-out expedition; that is to say, an attack upon the Indiaman by the frigate's boats, with the object of overpowering her prize-crew, cutting her cables, and bringing her out of the harbour.
The launch, yawl, and the two cutters were the boats told off by the Captain for this service, and as soon as the frigate was hove-to the fighting crews of these boats—consisting of the very pick of the ship's crew—were piped away, the boats hoisted out, and the preparation of the craft for the service which they were about to undertake proceeded with. Each of the boats named possessed, as part of her fighting equipment, a gun mounted in the bows upon fore-and-aft slides, those belonging to the launch and yawl being 18-pounder carronades, while the first and second cutters each mounted a 12-pounder. As soon as the boats were in the water they were taken charge of temporarily by their respective coxswains—the best four men in the ship—who at once proceeded to supervise the shipping and mounting of the guns, each coxswain assuring himself, by personal inspection, that this important piece of work was properly executed. The amount of shot likely to be required was next passed down into the boats and carefully stowed upon the bottom-boards, every precaution being taken to provide against it breaking adrift with the rolling and pitching of the boats. The chests containing cartridges for the guns and ammunition for the small-arms were next passed in and stowed, and finally a couple of beakers of water were placed in each boat, together with a small quantity of spirits for use, if necessary, in reviving the wounded. This completed the preparation of the boats for the projected expedition, and was done by the ordinary crews of the boats, the fighting crews meanwhile busying themselves in examining the flints of their pistols, fitting new ones where necessary, loading the pistols and sharpening their cutlasses.
At length the coxswains reported the boats ready, whereupon the officers told off to command them went down the side and carefully inspected them, satisfying themselves that nothing had been forgotten. Then the members of the expedition were mustered on the quarter-deck and inspected by the first lieutenant, who examined each man's weapons and equipment before passing him for service. The officers appointed to proceed upon the expedition were Mr Adair, the first lieutenant, in charge of the launch and in supreme command of the entire expedition; Mr Trimble, the master, in charge of the yawl; Mr Purvis, the gunner, in the first cutter; and Mr O'Donnel, the boatswain, in the second. In addition to these there also went Mr Burroughs, the assistant surgeon, and myself in the launch, and a midshipman in each of the other boats. As I anticipated the possibility of hot work before all was done, I took the precaution to discard my dirk and to provide myself, in place thereof, with a ship's cutlass and a pair of loaded pistols.
The inspection at length satisfactorily ended, the first lieutenant reported to the Captain that all was ready; the Captain—who had already arranged his plans with the officers commanding—gave the word to man boats and shove off, and in another couple of minutes we had started, and the frigate had filled away and was heading to seaward.
Not so the boats. The Captain and Mr Adair, discussing together the plan of operations, had come to the conclusion that it would not be of the slightest use to attempt to bring out the Indiaman in the face of those two batteries which had already given us so convincing a taste of their quality; it had therefore been arranged that, upon shoving off, the boats should be formed into two divisions for the purpose of attacking the batteries and spiking the guns. This, accordingly, was now done, the launch and first cutter forming the starboard division, destined to attack the battery on the western headland, while the yawl and the second cutter, led by the master, constituted the port division, the mission of which was to silence effectively the battery on the eastern headland of the harbour. The first lieutenant and the master made a few brief final arrangements, and then the divisions separated, each steering for its own proper headland, the senior officer leading and the other following close behind, so as to show as inconspicuously as might be on the dark surface of the water, and thus, if luck favoured us, take the Frenchmen unawares.
Meanwhile, the night was passing rapidly away; for we had scarcely got clear of the frigate when seven bells of the middle watch was struck, and, it being then the middle of August, we might expect daylight very shortly, when a surprise would at once become an impossibility; the word was therefore passed for the oarsmen to give way at top speed, and away we all went, as if for a wager, the two divisions heading respectively south-west and south-east, in the hope that we might get close enough in with the land to escape detection, and even possibly to land, before the coming dawn betrayed us.
Now, although we were travelling at racing pace, our progress was practically noiseless, the only sounds being the dip of oars in the water and the lap and gurgle of the water about the boats' bows, Captain Vavassour having already had the oars of these boats fitted to work in rope grummets shipping over a single stout pin, instead of in the usual rowlocks, and since much care had been used to render the grummets tight-fitting, while the leathers had been well greased, there was none of the usual rattle of oars in rowlocks,—a sound which in quiet weather may often be heard at an almost incredible distance,—nor, thanks to the greasing of the leathers, was there any creaking or grinding of the oars against the pins; and of course no conversation was permitted beyond an occasional whispered order to the coxswain.
In this fashion, then, we pulled shoreward, the distance to be traversed being about three miles; and when at length the dawn broke and there was light enough to enable us to see where we were, we—the starboard division—found ourselves about a quarter of a mile distant from the beach, with both batteries shut out from our view by a slightly projecting bluff; and, thus far, nothing had occurred to lead us to suppose that we had been either heard or seen. As for the frigate, she had disappeared, probably behind Cape Frehel; there was nothing, therefore, so far as we could see, to put the French on the alert, or to alarm them in any way. We, therefore, now headed the boats straight in for the beach, catching a momentary glimpse as we did so of the other division, apparently doing the same thing.
The beach for which we were heading was composed of firm red sand, sloping rather steeply down into the water, and the sea was smooth; we, therefore, rushed them in until they were high and dry for nearly a quarter of their length, the men leapt out over the bows on to the dry sand, and then, with two boat-keepers in each boat to look after them, they were shoved off again, with orders to keep afloat, and, if threatened, to pull off to a safe distance and await our return.
Our little party, officers included, mustered forty-one men, the second division consisting of three less; and no sooner were we all landed than Mr Adair led us right up to the foot of the low cliffs that bordered the beach, so that it was impossible for any one to detect our presence unless by standing on the very verge of the cliff and looking directly down upon us.
The next thing to be done was to reconnoitre the battery that we intended to attack, and ascertain the easiest way to get inside it. This duty was confided to me, I being the youngest and, presumably, the most active of the party, while—as I afterwards learned—the Captain had assured Mr Adair that both my courage and my discretion might be relied upon.
"Ye clearly understan', noo, Maister Delamere, precisely what ye hae to dae?" observed the first luff, when concluding his instructions to me. "Oor business is tae tak' yon wee bit battery, and to spike the guns. But we're to dae't wi'oot loss o' life on oor ain part, if possible; ye'll therefore approach the place cannily and get as close up to it as maybe wi'oot bein' discovert; and, that done, ye'll be pleased tae keek roun' and ascertain if there's ony way o' gettin' intil it wi'oot haein' to stor-r-m it. If we can creep up and tak' the gairrison by surprise, sae muckle the better. Noo, gang awa' wi' ye, laddie; tak' care o' yersel! and get back as soon as ye can, no forgettin' that if ye fin' yoursel' in trouble, ye're to fire a pistol, and we'll come to your help."
I touched my hat and, turning upon my heel, proceeded forthwith to scramble up the steep face of the cliff, helping myself up by driving my drawn cutlass deep into the stiff clay soil of which the cliff was composed. Reaching the top without much difficulty, I found myself upon somewhat uneven ground, the surface of which sloped slightly down toward the land. The soil was clothed with short, thick grass and closely overgrown with dense clumps of furze bushes, which I at once perceived would afford excellent cover for the approach of our men. Somewhat to my discomfiture, however, I saw a flock of sheep grazing at no great distance inland, while about a mile away to the south-west was a small village, in the single street of which I could perceive people already moving about. Clearly, we had no time to lose if we wished to take our friends the enemy by surprise; availing myself, therefore, to the utmost extent of the cover of the furze bushes, I set off in the direction of the battery, which I presently sighted about half a mile away. Stooping low as I ran from bush to bush, and peering cautiously round each before venturing to start for the next, I soon found myself within about thirty yards of the battery, which I saw to be a crescent-shaped affair, facing eastward and thus in conjunction with the battery on the opposite point, completely commanding the entrance of the bay. It was in reality a brick-work structure, consisting of four chambers with arched roofs supporting a gun platform protected by a parapet pierced with embrasures, the brick-work in its turn being protected by an earth-bank thrown up in front of it in the form of a glacis. It mounted six 64-pounders; and the chambers beneath the gun platform I took to be the magazine, general store-room, and soldiers' quarters. The gun platform was approached at either end by a good wide flight of steps; and beside each gun was a goodly pile of shot, while sponges, rammers, handspikes, and the rest of the paraphernalia for loading and training the guns reposed in brackets fixed to the inner face of the parapet. Two sentries were stationed upon the gun platform, pacing to and fro, and evidently keeping a sharp lookout to seaward, and a number of artillerymen were performing their morning ablutions, brushing their clothes, etcetera, in the paved space before the chambers. Strangely enough, the back of the battery was left perfectly open and unprotected by either wall or fence; there was therefore absolutely nothing to prevent its being rushed from the land side. I counted the men in sight to the number of thirty-three, but concluded that there must be others somewhere inside the chambers; and then, having acquired all the information possible under the circumstances, made the best of my way back to where Mr Adair and the rest of our party impatiently awaited me.
A CUTTING-OUT EXPEDITION.
In as few words as possible I reported to the first lieutenant the extent of my discoveries, and, in return, received his tersely-expressed commendation of my efforts; after which he briefly addressed his followers, explaining to them the importance of making the attack as complete a surprise as possible, and pointing out the necessity for availing ourselves to the utmost possible extent of the cover afforded us by the gorse bushes while approaching the battery. Then, having told off six of the men for the especial duty of spiking the guns—one man to each gun—he directed me to lead the way, stationing himself alongside me.
Three minutes later the entire party were on top of the cliffs, where we paused for a moment to reconnoitre the ground afresh, and get our breath after the exertion of climbing; then we moved slowly and cautiously forward again, allowing plenty of time for each man to creep across the open spaces from one patch of cover to the next, until in the course of some twenty-five minutes all hands of us were lying down behind a large clump of bushes, some twenty yards from the battery, which I had previously fixed upon as a convenient point from which to start our final rush. Here another brief pause was made, which Mr Adair, kneeling behind a bush, utilised to count heads and make sure that all hands had come up; when, having satisfied himself upon this point, he drew his sword, flourished it over his head as a signal, and, springing to his feet, led us all at top speed in a charge upon the unprotected rear of the battery.
The wild cheer of our lads as they broke cover and rushed across the narrow open space which still separated them from the battery was evidently the first intimation to the garrison that anything was wrong, for our sudden appearance seemed to take them absolutely by surprise, with the result that something very like a panic ensued among them. A few, after staring at us agape and motionless for a second or two, as though unable to comprehend what we were after, came to life and took to their heels, attempting to bolt out of the battery before we could reach it. But our lads quickly stopped them by spreading out in front of them and driving them back at the point of the cutlass; others, seeing the impossibility of retreat in that direction, dashed into one of the chambers beneath the gun platform, slamming the door behind them, regardless of the fact that they were shutting out many of their comrades, and barricading themselves against attack, as we could hear by the sounds proceeding from the inside; while, as for the two sentries on the platform, they simply fired their muskets in the air, flung them down, and vaulted over the parapet on to the glacis, thus making good their escape. The six men charged with the duty of spiking the guns dashed straightway up the steps leading to the gun platform, and at once proceeded to the execution of their task, leaving their comrades below to deal with the garrison; and in less than five minutes the battery was in our possession, and the six guns effectually spiked. True, a few of the artillerymen who had retreated to the interior of the structure thrust muskets through the windows of the chamber and snapped them off at us; but they speedily gave that up and surrendered at discretion upon my approaching a broken window and shouting through it, by Mr Adair's orders, the information that we were about to explode the magazine, and that they had better come out if they did not wish to perish amid the ruins.
When all hands upon both sides were mustered it was found that we had gained possession of the battery without the least injury to either side. The French officer was then directed to march his men—who were of course disarmed—to the village which I had seen earlier in the morning, and which we now learned was called Erquy; and as soon as they were fairly out of the battery the magazine was broken open, the powder barrels rolled together in the middle of the room, the heads knocked out, and a train laid from barrel to barrel, while another party of our men was busily engaged in bringing the six spiked guns together in a cluster immediately over the magazine. A quarter-of-an-hour sufficed to complete these preparations, when one end of a long fuse was buried in one of the barrels of powder, the remainder of the fuse being carried as far as it would go across the paved yard. The men then fell in and, under my command, marched out of the yard and took the way along the cliffs toward the boats, while Mr Adair and the gunner remained behind to fire the fuse and ensure the destruction of the battery. We had been gone about ten minutes, and had almost reached the spot where we were to make our descent to the beach, when the earth shook and jarred violently beneath our feet, a dull, heavy boom burst upon the morning silence, a fierce gust of wind suddenly swept over us, and, looking back, we saw an enormous dim-coloured cloud, heavily charged with hurtling debris, dismounted cannon, and masses of shattered brick-work, hovering over the spot where the battery had been. Two minutes later the first luff and the gunner, breathless and panting, came running up to us, and we all plunged down the cliff-face together. The boat-keepers, seeing us coming, headed the boats in toward the beach; and within another five minutes we were once more afloat and pulling quietly alongshore toward the mouth of the bay, intently watching, meanwhile, for some indication of the whereabouts of the other division. We had not long to wait, for we had scarcely pulled a quarter of a mile when the battery on the other headland blew up; and presently the yawl and second cutter came into view from behind the point, pulling hard for the mouth of the bay.
There was, of course, no possibility of further secrecy in regard to our movements, for the blowing-up of the two batteries would sufficiently advertise the presence of an enemy in the neighbourhood, while the fact of having been chased by the frigate during the preceding night would give the Indiaman's prize-crew a tolerably accurate idea of where we came from, and what were our ultimate intentions. We, therefore, made no pretence of concealing ourselves, but—a nice little westerly breeze having sprung up with the rising of the sun—boldly laid in our oars, stepped the boats' masts, and hoisted the sails, by doing which we reckoned upon getting over the ground at greater speed while conserving the strength of our contingent for the attack upon the Indiaman. The master and his party were unable to follow our lead in this respect, for the wind which was fair for us was dead in their teeth; but, on the other hand, we had about two miles more than they to cover. It thus happened that the two divisions of boats arrived at the entrance practically at the same instant, the port division leading only by just barely time enough to step their masts and set their canvas for the run into the bay before we joined them.
The Indiaman was anchored well inshore, about a mile and a half inside the headlands; and as we reached along toward her under sail, with the boats in line abreast, and about thirty fathoms apart, we saw that the prize-crew were busily engaged in preparing to resist our attack, the guns being all run out, while an attempt was being made to fix up a boarding netting on the ship's starboard, or seaward, side. I had brought my telescope along with me in the boat, believing that it might possibly prove useful, and I now focussed it upon the Indiaman with the object of getting some definite idea of the extent of the preparations being made against us. I had no sooner done so than I made the discovery that there was no netting triced up on the port or shoreward side of the vessel, the Frenchmen apparently taking it for granted that we should dash alongside on the side nearest to us. I immediately reported this discovery to the first lieutenant, at the same time mentioning my idea as to the explanation of the omission, whereupon, having first satisfied himself as to the accuracy of my statement, he hailed the other boats, ordering them all to board the ship on her port side.
When we had arrived within about three-quarters of a mile of our quarry she opened fire upon us with round and grape, first firing single guns, and finally whole broadsides, whereupon we diverged well to port and starboard, compelling her to train her guns so far fore and aft, that at length only her two bow guns could be brought effectively to bear, and although a few shot passed through our sails, while the first cutter's mast was shot away, the boats themselves were untouched, and finally the two divisions passed respectively athwart her bows and stern, and shot up alongside her on her inshore side without a single casualty.
The launch hooked on under her bows, and the first cutter made fast to her fore chains, while the yawl grappled her by the mizen chains, and the second cutter by the main. She stood high out of the water, though not so high but that one way or another we were all able to scramble into her channels, from whence it was not difficult to make our way inboard. The French must have felt very foolish when they found us attacking them upon their unprotected side, yet they defended their prize with the utmost gallantry, and for nearly ten minutes the fight raged with great fury. But when once our lads had all contrived to scale the ship's high bulwarks and establish themselves upon her decks they would take no refusal; there was a tremendous popping of pistols and muskets for the first minute or two, and a good deal of smoke drifting hither and thither; then, with wild hurrahs, the Europas dashed forward, cutlass in hand, cutting, slashing, and pointing; the air resounded with cheers, oaths, execrations, and shrill screams of pain; the decks grew slippery with blood, prostrate bodies tripped us up here and there, and then, suddenly, the Frenchmen flung away their weapons and dived below, leaving us the victors of the fight and in undisputed possession of the ship.
To disarm those prisoners who had not already abandoned their weapons, and to secure them in the forecastle, was the work of but a few minutes, after which our boats were veered astern and secured by their painters; the hands jumped aloft and loosed the canvas, then slid down to the deck by way of the backstays to sheet home and hoist away; the cable was cut, and a few minutes later the ship had canted and was standing out to seaward under topsails, topgallantsails, jib, and spanker, while the wounded were being separated from the dead and carefully tended by Burroughs, the assistant surgeon, and a small party told off to help him.
Then came the question of the "butcher's bill," upon going into which we found that we had one man killed and five wounded—two of them rather seriously; while the French casualties amounted to four killed and eleven wounded—three of the latter so seriously that Burroughs questioned whether they would outlast the day.
A few minutes after we had cleared the harbour the frigate appeared in sight from behind Cape Frehel, and half-an-hour later our prize—the H.E.I. Company's ship, Masulipatam, of 1196 tons register, with a full cargo of Indian produce, homeward-bound from Bombay to London—was hove-to under her lee quarter, while Mr Adair had gone on board to make his report. Previous to this, however, I had gone below into the ship's saloons, at the first luff's order, to see how the passengers fared, we having gathered, from the crew of the Belle Marie, that they had been left on board. I found them all, to the number of forty-three, men, women, and children, including some half-dozen native nurses, securely locked in their several cabins; and glad enough were they to be released, and to learn that the ship was once more in British hands. It appeared that they had been captured three days before in the Bay of Biscay, and had been not too well treated by their captors, having been robbed by them of all their money, jewellery, and other valuables, to say nothing of other indignities to which they had been subjected. So far, however, as their stolen property was concerned, I was able to reassure them with the statement that Captain Vavassour would undoubtedly take immediate steps to have it found and restored to them. Having done which, and excused myself upon the plea of urgent business— coupled with a suggestion that the ladies should remain below until the more gruesome evidences of the recent conflict could be effaced—I hurried away to the other end of the ship and effected the release of her officers and crew, who at once ascended to the deck and assisted our own lads to put matters to rights. Fortunately, there were no damages to make good; within half-an-hour, therefore, of joining the frigate, Captain Vavassour had made all his dispositions, placing the prize in charge of Mr Galway, the third lieutenant, with a small prize-crew, in addition to the vessel's own officers and crew; and we made sail in company for Portsmouth, the skipper having decided to see our valuable prize safe into a British port before losing sight of her. This we happily accomplished, anchoring at Spithead shortly after ten o'clock in the morning of the following day, without having sighted anything in the shape of an enemy. We fell in, however, with the Belle Marie, off the Needles, Mr Howard having contrived to get up and rig excellent jury fore and mizen-topmasts during the passage; thus, by shortening sail somewhat upon the frigate and the Indiaman, we were enabled to complete the run to Spithead in company, the Europa making a brave show as she glided along to the anchorage, escorting her two valuable prizes, both captured within one short week from the beginning of our cruise.
The moment that the anchors were down Captain Vavassour ordered his gig, and went ashore to deliver his dispatches and make his report to the admiral, and I went with him, in charge of the boat, taking with me a letter which I had found time to write to my father, acquainting him with the good fortune that had befallen us. I walked up from the Sallyport to the admiral's office with the skipper, carrying his dispatch-box for him, and leaving the boat in charge of the coxswain; for although, under ordinary circumstances, such a proceeding would probably have resulted in the loss of the whole boat's crew, the amount of prize-money which we had made within the last two days completely banished all thought of desertion in the minds of the men.
Of course the fame of our brilliant double exploit soon spread all over the towns of Portsmouth and Gosport, and although men were at that moment very hard to get, several of the ships in harbour being so short-handed as to be unable to go to sea, it was no sooner made known that we required a few more hands to complete our complement than we had more offers than we had room for. We remained at Spithead only three days, during which we replenished our stock of water, provisions, and ammunition, and then we were once more dispatched by the admiral to our former cruising-ground.
But during that brief interval one or two interesting changes had occurred. In the first place the Belle Marie, having been surveyed, was reported to be a practically new ship, perfectly sound, and in every respect admirably adapted for service in the navy; she was therefore purchased by the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty, and ordered at once into harbour to undergo such alterations as were deemed necessary, and to refit. Next, Captain Vavassour had spoken so highly in his dispatches of the admirable tact and ability displayed by Mr Adair in his conduct of the expedition against the French batteries, and afterward in the cutting-out of the Indiaman, that our first luff had at once received his promotion and been appointed to the command of the prize—renamed the Sparta. This of course created a vacancy on board the Europa, which was filled by Mr Howard, who became our new first luff, while Mr Galway also stepped up a ratline and became second. The vacancy created by the promotion of Mr Galway was not filled, but we had no doubt that it would ultimately fall to O'Brien, our senior mid, who was within a month of having served his full time, and to whom an acting order was given. These several changes were in the highest degree satisfactory to all hands of us, for it obviated the necessity for the introduction of strangers among us, while we felt that promotion had gone to the right persons, namely, those who had actually earned it. It is true that, short as our acquaintance with him had been, we were all exceedingly sorry to lose Mr Adair, but our sorrow in this respect was quite counterbalanced by our pleasure in the knowledge that he thoroughly deserved his promotion, and that one more ship's company would be made happy under the rule of a good captain. In this connection I must not omit to mention that, thanks to the highly favourable report that Mr Adair had made of my conduct in the matter of reconnoitring the battery, and afterwards, Captain Vavassour had been pleased to name me in his dispatches, much to the delight of my father, as I subsequently learned.
We sailed again from Spithead on the fourth day after our arrival, and nothing of importance occurred for quite a fortnight, during which we were kicking about in the chops of the Channel, keeping a bright lookout all the while for anything that might chance to come in our way, whether in the shape of captured British merchantmen, privateers, French merchantmen, or otherwise. But luck seemed to be against us, for we sighted nothing but craft flying the British flag, and most of those were men-o'-war. At length, however, the skipper grew disgusted, and determined to see whether better fortune awaited us farther afield. Accordingly, having sighted Ushant broad on the lee-bow, and some ten miles distant, at eight o'clock on a certain morning, with the wind out at about North-West, we stood on until we had brought the island well over our lee quarter, when the helm was shifted, the ship kept away a couple of points, a small pull taken upon the weather braces, and away we went booming into the Bay of Biscay, heading toward Cape Finisterre. We had experienced fresh breezes, but fine, clear weather, from the moment when we had left the Isle of Wight astern; but on this particular day, shortly after noon, the sky became overcast and gloomy, with a thick, murky appearance to windward that portended a change for the worse. This, however, did not greatly trouble us, for with Ushant out of sight astern, the ship heading South-West by compass, and the wind two points free, we had nothing to fear beyond such discomfort as was inseparable from the heavy sea that was now fast getting up. As the day wore on, however, the mercury began to drop rather rapidly; the thickness to windward increased, and it began to rain; the wind freshened steadily, a high, steep sea got up, and everything appeared to threaten a particularly dirty and unpleasant night. By the end of the first dog-watch the wind had increased to half a gale, the sea had drawn abeam, and the ship was rolling her lee hammock-rails under. The Captain, therefore, ordered the topgallantsails to be clewed up and furled, the flying-jib to be stowed, and a couple of reefs to be taken in the topsails; for, as he remarked, we were not bound anywhere in particular, were in no hurry, and might as well snug the ship down for the night while we had daylight enough left to see what we were doing.
The night closed down upon us early, and so dark that we could not see as far as the length of the ship, there being no moon, while the light of the stars was completely obscured by the dense canopy of storm-wrack that overshadowed us, the only objects visible outside the bulwarks being the faintly phosphorescent heads of the breaking seas as they swept down menacingly upon us from to windward; the air was raw and chill, although it was only the first week in September; the decks were wet and sloppy with the driving rain and spray; and those of us who were on watch looked thoroughly miserable as, encased from head to foot in oilskins and sou'westers, we paced to and fro, availing ourselves to the utmost of such shelter as was afforded by the bulwarks and the boats stowed on the booms. By midnight the wind had further increased to such an extent that sail was still further reduced, the courses being taken off the ship, the jib stowed, and the mizen brailed in, leaving nothing set but the three double-reefed topsails and the fore and main-topmast staysails. Yet, unpleasant as was the weather, we had at least one consolation: the ship behaved splendidly, sailing fast through the water, and going along as dry as a bone, save for the spray that was blown from the crests of the waves and came driving athwart our decks in blinding and drenching showers.
When at length the day broke, it revealed the ship hove-to under close-reefed fore and main topsails, and fore-topmast staysail, the central object in the midst of a grey and desolate picture, the dreary character of which it would be difficult to surpass. It was now blowing a whole gale from the South-West, the wind having backed during the night; the sky was an unbroken expanse of dark, slate-coloured cloud athwart the face of which tattered shreds of dirty grey vapour rapidly swept; the sea, of an opaque greyish-green tint, ran high and steep, crested with great curling heads of pallid froth, flecked here and there with fragments of seaweed, and our horizon was restricted to a circle of little more than a mile in diameter by the driving mist and rain. It was, in short, a thoroughly disagreeable day, and I was by no means sorry that it was my forenoon watch below.
I had just finished breakfast when a cry of some sort from the deck reached us in the midshipmen's berth; but the straining of the ship, the howling of the wind through the rigging, and the constant crash and gurgle of the water outside rendered it indistinguishable. We heard the answering call of the officer of the watch—also indistinguishable—and were beginning to arrive at the conclusion that the matter, whatever it might be, did not concern us, when the shrilling of the boatswains' pipes, followed by the hoarse bellow of "Hands, make sail!" caused a general stampede for the deck, upon reaching which we learned that during a momentary clearance of the atmosphere a brief glimpse had been caught of a large ship, about a mile to leeward, steering north, under topgallantsails, and that from her general appearance, brief though the sight of her had been, she had been judged to be French. The officer of the watch had, of course, as in duty bound, reported the matter to the Captain, who was at the moment in his cabin, taking breakfast; and the skipper, having heard Mr Galway's story, had promptly given the order to bear up and make sail in chase.
The decks, which but a few minutes earlier had presented such a dreary, deserted appearance, now became in a moment a scene of the most animated bustle and activity. The Captain and first lieutenant—the latter with a speaking-trumpet in his hand—were both on deck, the skipper on the poop gazing eagerly into the thickness to leeward under the sharp of his hand in search of the now invisible stranger; barefooted seamen sprang nimbly hither and thither, some to the braces, some out on to the jib-booms, and others into the rigging on their way aloft to loose the furled canvas; the helm was put up, the fore yard swung, and the after yards squared as the ship paid off; and in less than a minute the yards were alive with men casting off gaskets, untying reef-points, overhauling gear, and generally preparing to clothe the frigate with canvas. By the time that she had paid square off before the wind all was ready, the loosened canvas was bellying out as though impatient to be doing its duty once more, loosened ropes were streaming in the gale, the men had laid in off the yards, and the three topsails went soaring away to the mastheads simultaneously; the fore and main tacks were boarded and the sheets hauled aft; the topgallantsails were in like manner all sheeted home and hoisted at the same instant, the two jibs went sliding up their stays, slatting thunderously the while and threatening to snap the booms, until their sheets were tautened, and away flew the Europa, like a started fawn, leaping and plunging through and over the mountainous seas, with a bow-wave roaring and foaming to the height of her hawse-pipes, and with the wind broad over her larboard quarter.
To any one unaccustomed to the sea the change thus wrought in the course of a few short minutes would have seemed marvellous, almost miraculous, indeed; for whereas while we were hove-to, head to wind and sea, the plunging of the ship had been so furious that it was only with the utmost difficulty even the most seasoned among us could maintain our footing; while the howling and shrieking of the wind aloft, and the savage force with which it struck us when the frigate rolled to windward, irresistibly suggested the idea that we were in the grip of a hurricane; now, when we were scudding away almost dead before it, the gale seemed to have suddenly softened to the strength of no more than a moderate breeze; there were no repetitions of those sickening lee lurches as the ship was flung aloft on the steep breast of a mountainous, swift-running sea, but, in place of it, a gentle, rhythmical, pendulum-like swinging roll, and a long, easy, gliding rush forward, with an acre of foam seething and hissing about our bows as those same steep, mountainous seas caught us under the quarter and hurled us headlong forward with our bow-wave roaring and boiling ahead of us, glass-smooth, and clear as crystal.
There were but two drawbacks to our satisfaction, one of which was that the weather still remained so exasperatingly thick that we had not been able to get a further glimpse of the strange ship, while the other was that we only knew our position very approximately, and that by dead reckoning only. This last would have given us no concern at all had we been heading to the southward, for in that direction there was plenty of sea room; but we had now turned round and were rushing back northward— north-north-east by compass, to be exact; and we knew that somewhere ahead of us—whether on the port or the starboard-bow we were not at all certain—were the terrible Penmarks; and, beyond them, the jutting Pointe du Raz, Douarnenez Bay, Pointe de Saint Mathieu, and the dangers that lurk between Ushant and the mainland, all bad enough in themselves, but with an added terror due to the furious currents that swirl round that part of the coast, and of the direction of which one can never be quite certain.
That some such thoughts as these were disturbing the skipper's equanimity soon became apparent, for after pacing the deck thoughtfully for some time he suddenly looked up, and seeing me standing half-way up the poop-ladder, straining my eyes into the thickness ahead in a vain endeavour to get a glimpse of the chase, he called me to him.
"Is it your watch, Mr Delamere?" said he.
"No, sir," answered I, touching my hat, "but I thought I should like to get a sight of the fellow we're after before going below."
"Thank you," he said; "your zeal is very commendable; but I daresay we can muster eyes enough to maintain a lookout without keeping you on deck in your watch below. However, since you are here, perhaps you will oblige me by finding the master and asking him if he has made up his reckoning to eight bells. If he has, request him to be good enough to bring it, with the chart, to me, here, on the quarter-deck. If he has not, say that I shall be obliged if he will do so at once."
"Ay, ay, sir," answered I, touching my hat again as I turned away to descend the hatchway.
THE FRENCH 50-GUN SHIP.
I found Mr Trimble in his cabin, in the very act of laying off the ship's position on the chart, after working up his reckoning. I delivered my message, and by way of reply the master rolled up his chart, tucked it under his arm, seized pencil, dividers, and parallel ruler, and started for the deck, with me close in his wake—for I shared the skipper's anxiety to know whereabout we were.
"Ah! here you are, Mr Trimble," exclaimed the Captain, as the master's head and shoulders rose above the combings of the hatchway. "Have you made up your reckoning?"
"Yes, sir," answered the master, "and pricked her off. We are just about here, by dead reckoning." And he made an effort to spread open the chart on the capstan-head. But the paper was stiff from being almost continuously rolled up; moreover, the wind was troublesome—the two circumstances combining to render it almost impossible for the good man to do as he wished unaided. I saw his difficulty, and, stepping forward, seized the two top corners of the chart and held them down, while the skipper gripped the third corner, and Trimble the fourth.
"There we are, sir—or thereabout," explained the master, pointing with his pencil to a dot surrounded by a small circle, on the paper, with the date written alongside it.
"I see," remarked the skipper thoughtfully, as he intently studied the open chart. "I suppose," he said presently, "you have made ample allowance for leeway, and for our drift while hove-to?"
"Yes, sir," answered the master. "I have allowed a point and a half for leeway, and three knots drift, both of which I reckon are above rather than below the mark."
"Y-e-es," agreed the skipper reflectively; "yes, she will not have made more than that, I should think. And you have, of course, also allowed for tide and current."
"For both, sir," assented the master; "but, of course, you clearly understand, Captain Vavassour, that the currents hereabout are very irregular. I therefore wish you to accept the position of the ship, as there laid down, as merely approximate."
"Yes, I quite understand," answered the skipper. "Now, assuming that position to be correct, Mr Trimble—and we can do nothing else, I think—how far are we from the Penmarks, and how do they bear?"
The master took his dividers, measured the distance, applied the instrument to the margin of the chart, and announced the distance—"Seventy-six miles."
"Good!" ejaculated the skipper. "And their bearing?"
The master laid his parallel ruler down on the chart, with its edge passing through the dot representing the ship's position, and also through the Penmarks; then he carefully slid the ruler along the surface of the chart until that same edge passed through the centre of the compass diagram, and read off the bearing—"No'th-east, half east."
The skipper turned sharply round to the quartermaster.
"How's her head, quartermaster?" he demanded.
The quartermaster glanced into the compass-bowl and answered, "No'-no'th-east, sir!"
"Excellent!" exclaimed the skipper. "Why, at that rate, Mr Trimble, we shall pass outside Ushant, if we keep on as we are going now."
"No doubt, sir," answered the master. "But in my opinion," he continued, "that's where the fellow we sighted a while ago is bound to," and he laid his forefinger on that part of the chart where the word Brest was legibly printed.
"Ah!" ejaculated the skipper, "you are likely enough to be right. But he shall never get there, even if I have to drive the frigate under water to stop him. Hang it! I wish the weather would clear, if only for a moment, and allow us to get a sight of him. Thank you, Mr Trimble; that will do." And he released his hold upon the chart, allowing the corner he had been holding to spring back and curl up. I did the same, and, as the ship took a somewhat heavier roll than usual, glanced out over the bulwarks at the racing, foam-capped surges that reared themselves alongside; and at that moment, as if in direct response to the skipper's forcibly expressed wish, the haze thinned away somewhat to starboard, revealing, square abeam, and apparently about a mile away, a dim, misty, grey shape faintly showing up through the thickness to starboard.
"Sail ho!" I cried excitedly, pointing her out; "there she is, sir." And even as the words passed my lips there came a shout from the lookout on the forecastle of "Sail ho! A large ship, broad on our starboard beam."
"Ay, ay, I see her—the glass, quick, Mr Delamere," answered the skipper. I jumped for the telescope, drew the tube, and handed it over to the impatient hand outstretched to receive it. By a piece of good fortune the atmosphere inshore of us just then thinned away still more for a few minutes, enabling us to get a tolerably distinct view of the stranger. Captain Vavassour, glass in hand, sprang up the poop-ladder, and, with feet planted wide apart to give himself a good grip of the heaving deck, applied the telescope to his eye. I followed him, that I might be at hand if required. For a long two minutes he stood intently studying the stranger, and speaking to himself the while. "A 50-gun ship," I heard him mutter, "and a Frenchman at that—steering a parallel course to ourselves; yes, very likely making for Brest. Rather a stiff customer to tackle, perhaps, but I'll not let that stop me."
He removed the instrument from his eye, and, seeing me at his elbow, handed it back to me. "Thank you, Mr Delamere," he said. "I shall not require you again, so you had better go below, especially as there is a probability that we may have a busy afternoon." Then he descended to the quarter-deck, where the second lieutenant and the master were standing talking together near the capstan, and gave the quartermaster the order to keep away a point to the eastward, which would have the effect of causing us to converge gradually upon the Frenchman.
When I went on deck at eight bells it was to find that the atmosphere had thickened again, to such an extent, indeed, that although it was estimated that we must now be within half a mile of the French ship, there was not the faintest trace of her to be seen. The skipper, however, considered that he was now as close to her as he desired to be; he therefore ordered the course to be changed back to North-North-East, and, at the moment when I gained the deck, was giving Mr Howard instructions to let the men have their dinner, and then to put out the fires and clear for action.
The keenness of the crew to get to work was evidenced by the fact that although the men's dinner was now ready, it was with the utmost difficulty that they could be persuaded to go below and eat it; and when at length they went, in obedience to the Captain's imperative orders, they returned to the deck in less than ten minutes, and at once set to work of their own accord to put the ship into fighting trim.
It was evident to me that the master was greatly disappointed at not having been able to get a sight of the sun at noon, and I could not help thinking that, as the time passed on, he was not only disappointed but was beginning to grow more than a trifle anxious, especially as shortly after midday the weather became more gloomy and the wind freshened very considerably. He betook himself to the poop, up and down which he paced rapidly, with his hands behind his back, and his eyes fixed abstractedly on the deck, except when he raised them from time to time to gaze long and piercingly ahead.
At length four bells struck, and almost immediately afterward, with a further freshening of the wind, the atmosphere cleared sufficiently to afford us another glimpse of the French ship, which suddenly appeared, with almost startling distinctness, about three-quarters of a mile distant, bearing one point before our starboard beam. A dozen eager voices at the same moment reported her reappearance, and the Captain sprang up on the poop to get another look at her. He was immediately joined by the master, who seemed to be making some very earnest representation to him; but what it was I could not hear, for I was now down on the quarter-deck and had no valid excuse for approaching any nearer. However, whatever it may have been, Captain Vavassour was evidently disinclined to listen to it, for I saw him once or twice shake his head most determinedly, pointing at the same time at the French ship, which still remained distinctly in view. Finally the skipper left the poop and joined Mr Howard on the quarter-deck, conversing very animatedly with him for about five minutes. It was while he was thus engaged that the master suddenly called down to him the intelligence that the stranger had hoisted French colours, upon which he gave the order for our own colours to be hoisted, and, jumping up on the poop, I went to the flag-locker, drew out our big ensign, bent it on to the halliards, and, with the assistance of the master, ran it up to the mizen peak.
Meanwhile, our men had long been at quarters, and the ship ready for action. I was, therefore, not surprised to see the first lieutenant descending to the main-deck, evidently for the purpose of conveying the skipper's final instructions to the captains of the guns. It was going to be a running fight, and we were about to open the ball. But the Frenchmen snatched that honour from us, for as I was descending from the poop to the quarter-deck after having hoisted the ensign, I saw a jet of flame and a cloud of smoke burst from the stranger's port side, and immediately afterwards a heavy shot flew humming high over our mastheads. Almost immediately afterward three of our starboard main-deck guns spoke simultaneously, and, as the smoke from them swept away ahead of us, I heard the captain of the aftermost quarter-deck gun cry out that all three shots had hulled the French ship, for he had seen the splinters fly in three distinct places. Then, at brief intervals, the remaining guns of our starboard main-deck battery were fired; but seemingly without doing very much damage.
The firing now became brisk on both sides, but the French fired much quicker than we did, the reason being—as I afterward learned—that our Captain had given the most imperative orders to the first lieutenant that the gun-captains were not to fire until they had made sure of their aim; and the wisdom of this soon became manifest; for while the French fired upon an average three shots to our one, the damage sustained by us was very trifling, while it was not long before the French ship's sails and rigging became a good deal cut up—to such an extent, indeed, that we were obliged to clew up our topgallantsails, in order to avoid running too far ahead of our adversary.
Suddenly, the simultaneous discharge of three or four of our main-deck guns was followed by a cheer of delight from our lads, and, jumping upon the carriage of one of the quarter-deck guns, I was just in time to see the French ship's mizenmast fall forward, dragging down the main-topgallant-mast with it and passing through the main topsail and mainsail in its fall, splitting them from head to foot. There was at once great confusion on board the Frenchman, and, being thus deprived in a moment of all her after-sail, she immediately fell square off before the wind, or about three points more to the eastward than the course we were steering.
"Hurrah! we have her now," exclaimed the skipper, delightedly rubbing his hands. "Up with your helm, quartermaster, and follow her. Weather braces, Mr Galway; square the yards, and set your topgallantsails again. The land cannot be far off, and now she must strike or we will drive her ashore. Jump down on to the main-deck, Mr Delamere, and request Mr Howard to train his starboard guns as far forward as they will go, and then to rake her every time we luff." (The change in the relative positions of the two vessels caused by both of us squaring away dead before the wind was that the French ship was now almost stern-on to us, broad on our starboard-bow, and about half a mile distant.)