James Braithwaite, the Supercargo; The Story of his Adventures Ashore and Afloat, by W.H.G. Kingston.
This is a typical Kingston book, very skilfully written, with lots of difficult situations very well described. But what is worth remembering is that it is probably the last book Kingston ever wrote, for he had already been diagnosed with a rapid and terminal illness, which I suppose to have been cancer. Yet, despite the position that redoubtable author found himself in, he still gave us one of his very best well-written adventure stories.
A supercargo is a position in the ship's crew analogous to the ship's clerk. His work consists of knowing exactly where every item of the cargo is stowed, so that it can be put in the right place for it to be most conveniently taken out on its arrival at its destination.
Do read it and judge for yourself. You will find it worth the short seven hours it takes to read aloud.
JAMES BRAITHWAITE, THE SUPERCARGO; THE STORY OF HIS ADVENTURES ASHORE AND AFLOAT, BY W.H.G. KINGSTON.
IN SEARCH OF THE "BARBARA."
"What's the name of the craft you want to get aboard, sir?" asked old Bob, the one-legged boatman, whose wherry I had hired to carry me out to Spithead.
"The Barbara," I answered, trying to look more at my ease than I felt; for the old fellow, besides having but one leg, had a black patch over the place where his right eye should have been, while his left arm was partially crippled; and his crew consisted of a mite of a boy whose activity and intelligence could scarcely make up for his want of size and strength. The ebb tide, too, was making strong out of Portsmouth Harbour, and a fresh breeze was blowing in, creating a tumbling, bubbling sea at the mouth; and vessels and boats of all sizes and rigs were dashing here and there, madly and without purpose it seemed to me, but at all events very likely to run down the low narrow craft in which I had ventured to embark. Now and then a man-of-war's boat, with half-a-dozen reckless midshipmen in her, who looked as if they would not have the slightest scruple in sailing over us, would pass within a few inches of the wherry; now a ship's launch with a party of marines, pulling with uncertain strokes like a huge maimed centipede, would come right across our course and receive old Bob's no very complimentary remarks; next a boatful of men-of-war's men, liberty men returning from leave. There was no use saying anything to them, for there wasn't one, old Bob informed me, but what was "three sheets in the wind," or "half seas over,"—in other words, very drunk; still, they managed to find their way and not to upset themselves, in a manner which surprised me. Scarcely were we clear of them when several lumbering dockyard lighters would come dashing by, going out with stores or powder to the fleet at Spithead.
Those were indeed busy times. Numerous ships of war were fitting out alongside the quays, their huge yards being swayed up, and guns and stores hoisted on board, gruff shouts, and cries, and whistles, and other strange sounds proceeding from them as we passed near. Others lay in the middle of the harbour ready for sea, but waiting for their crews to be collected by the press-gangs on shore, and to be made up with captured smugglers, liberated gaol-birds, and broken-down persons from every grade of society. Altogether, what with transports, merchantmen, lighters, and other craft, it was no easy matter to beat out without getting athwart hawse of those at anchor, or being run down by the still greater number of small craft under way. Still it was an animated and exciting scene, and all told of active warfare.
On shore the bustle was yet more apparent. Everybody was in movement. Yellow post-chaises conveying young captains of dashing frigates, or admirals' private secretaries, came whirling through the streets as if the fate of the nation depended on their speed. Officers of all grades, from post-captains with glittering epaulets to midshipmen with white patches on their collars and simple cockades in their hats, were hurrying, with looks of importance, through the streets. Large placards were everywhere posted up announcing the names of the ships requiring men, and the advantages to be obtained by joining them: plenty of prize money and abundance of fighting, with consequent speedy promotion; while first lieutenants, and a choice band of old hands, were near by to win by persuasion those who were protected from being pressed. Jack tars, many with pig-tails, and earrings in their ears, were rolling about the streets, their wives or sweethearts hanging at their elbows, dressed in the brightest of colours, huge bonnets decked with flaunting ribbons on their heads, and glittering brass chains, and other ornaments of glass, on their necks and arms. As I drove down the High Street I had met a crowd surrounding a ship's gig on wheels. Some fifty seamen or more were dragging it along at a rapid rate, leaping and careering, laughing and cheering. In the stern sheets sat a well-known eccentric post-captain with the yoke lines in his hands, while he kept bending forward to give the time to his crew, who were arranged before him with oars outstretched, making believe to row, and grinning all the time in high glee from ear to ear. It was said that he was on his way to the Admiralty in London, the Lords Commissioners having for some irregularity prohibited him from leaving his ship except in his gig on duty. Whether he ever got to London I do not know.
On arriving at Portsmouth, I had gone to the Blue Posts, an inn of old renown, recommended by my brother Harry, who was then a midshipman, and who had lately sailed for the East India station. It was an inn more patronised by midshipmen and young lieutenants than by post-captains and admirals. I had there expected to meet Captain Hassall, the commander of the Barbara, but was told that, as he was the master of a merchantman, he was more likely to have gone to the Keppel's Head, at Portsea. Thither I repaired, and found a note from him telling me to come off at once, and saying that he had had to return on board in a hurry, as he found that several of his men had no protection, and were very likely to be pressed, one man having already been taken by a press-gang, and that he was certain to inform against the others. Thus it was that I came to embark at the Common Hard at Portsea, and had to beat down the harbour.
"Do you think as how you'd know your ship when you sees her, sir?" asked old Bob, with a twinkle in his one eye, for he had discovered my very limited amount of nautical knowledge, I suspect. "It will be a tough job to find her, you see, among so many."
Now I had been on board very often as she lay alongside the quay in the Thames. I had seen all her cargo stowed, knew every bale and package and case; I had attended to the fitting-up of my own cabin, and was indeed intimately acquainted with every part of her interior. But her outside—that was a very different matter, I began to suspect. I saw floating on the sea, far out in the distance, the misty outlines of a hundred or more big ships; indeed, the whole space between Portsmouth and the little fishing village of Ryde seemed covered with shipping, and my heart sank within me at the thought of having to pick out the Barbara among them.
The evening was drawing on, and the weather did not look pleasant; still I must make the attempt. The convoy was expected to sail immediately, and the interests of my employers, Garrard, Janrin and Company, would be sacrificed should the sailing of the ship be delayed by my neglect. These thoughts passed rapidly through my mind and made me reply boldly, "We must go on, at all events. Time enough to find her out when we get there."
We were at that time near the mouth of the harbour, with Haslar Hospital seen over a low sandbank, and some odd-looking sea-marks on one side, and Southsea beach and the fortifications of Portsmouth, with a church tower and the houses of the town beyond. A line of redoubts and Southsea Castle appeared, extending farther southward, while the smooth chalk-formed heights of Portsdown rose in the distance. As a person suddenly deprived of sight recollects with especial clearness the last objects he has beheld, so this scene was indelibly impressed on my mind, as it was the last near view I was destined to have of old England for many a long day. For the same reason I took a greater interest in old Bob and his boy Jerry than I might otherwise have done. They formed the last human link of the chain which connected me with my native land. Bob had agreed to take my letters back, announcing my safe arrival on board—that is to say, should I ever get there. My firm reply, added to the promise of another five shillings for the trouble he might have, raised me again in his opinion, and he became very communicative.
We tacked close to a buoy off Southsea beach. "Ay, sir, there was a pretty blaze just here not many years ago," he remarked. "Now I mind it was in '95—that's the year my poor girl Betty died—the mother of Jerry there. You've heard talk of the Boyne—a fine ship she was, of ninety-eight guns. While she, with the rest of the fleet, was at anchor at Spithead, one morning a fire broke out in the admiral's cabin, and though officers and men did their best to extinguish it, somehow or other it got the upper hand of them all; but the boats from the other ships took most of them off, though some ten poor fellows perished, they say. One bad part of the business was, that the guns were all loaded and shotted, and as the fire got to them they went off, some of the shots reaching Stokes Bay, out there beyond Haslar, and others falling among the shipping. Two poor fellows aboard the Queen Charlotte were killed, and another wounded, though she and the other ships got under way to escape mischief. At about half-past one she burnt from her cables, and came slowly drifting in here till she took the ground. She burnt on till near six in the morning, when the fire reached the magazine, and up she blew with an awful explosion. We knew well enough that the moment would come, and it was a curious feeling we had waiting for it. Up went the blazing masts and beams and planks, and came scattering down far and wide, hissing into the water; and when we looked again after all was over, not a timber was to be seen."
Bob also pointed out the spot where nearly a century before the Edgar had blown up, and every soul in her had perished, and also where the Royal George and the brave Admiral Kempenfeldt, with eight hundred men, had gone down several years before the destruction of the Boyne. "Ay, sir, to my mind it's sad to think that the sea should swallow up so many fine fellows as she does every year, and yet we couldn't very well do without her, so I suppose it's all right. Mind your head-sheets, Jerry, or she'll not come about in this bobble," he observed, as we were about to tack round the buoy.
Having kept well to the eastward, we were now laying up to windward of the fleet. There were line-of-battle ships, and frigates, and corvettes, and huge Indiamen as big-looking as many line-of-battle ships, and large transports, and numberless merchantmen—ships and barques, and brigs and schooners; but as to what the Barbara was like I had not an idea. I fixed on one of the largest of the Indiamen, but when I told old Bob the tonnage of the Barbara he laughed, and said she wasn't half the size of the ship I pointed out.
It was getting darkish and coming on to blow pretty fresh, and how to find my ship among the hundred or more at anchor I could not possibly tell.
"Well, I thought from your look and the way you hailed me that you was a sea-faring gentleman, and on course you'd ha' known your own ship," said old Bob, with a wink of his one eye. "Howsomever, we can beat about among the fleet till it's dark, and then back to Portsmouth; and then, do ye see, sir, we can come out to-morrow morning by daylight and try again. Maybe we shall have better luck. The convoy is sure not to sail in the night, and the tide won't serve till ten o'clock at earliest."
"This comes of dressing in nautical style, and assuming airs foreign to me," I thought to myself, though I could not help fancying that there was some quiet irony in the old man's tone. His plan did not at all suit my notions. I was already beginning to feel very uncomfortable, bobbing and tossing about among the ships; and I expected to be completely upset, unless I could speedily put my foot on something more stable than the cockleshell, or rather bean-pod, of a boat in which I sat. I began to be conscious, indeed, that I must be looking like anything but "a sea-faring gentleman."
"But we must find her," I exclaimed, with some little impetuosity; "it will never do to be going back, and I know she's here."
"So the old woman said as was looking for her needle in the bundle of hay," observed old Bob, with provoking placidity. "On course she is, and we is looking for her: but it's quite a different thing whether we finds her or not, 'specially when it gets dark; and if, as I suspects, it comes on to blow freshish there'll be a pretty bobble of a sea here at the turn of the tide. To be sure, we may stand over to Ryde and haul the boat up there for the night. There's a pretty decentish public on the beach, the Pilot's Home, where you may get a bed, and Jerry and I always sleeps under the wherry. That's the only other thing for you to do, sir, that I sees on."
Though very unwilling to forego the comforts of my cabin and the society of Captain Hassall, I agreed to old Bob's proposal, provided the Barbara was not soon to be found. We sailed about among the fleet for some time, hailing one ship after another, but mine could not be found. I began to suspect at last that old Bob did not wish to find her, but had his eye on another day's work, and pay in proportion, as he might certainly consider that he had me in his power, and could demand what he chose. I was on the point of giving up the search, when, as we were near one of the large Indiamen I have mentioned, a vessel running past compelled us to go close alongside. An officer was standing on the accommodation-ladder, assisting up some passengers. He hailed one of the people in the boat, about some luggage. I knew the voice, and, looking more narrowly, I recognised, I thought, my old schoolfellow, Jack Newall. I called him by name. "Who's that?" he exclaimed. "What, Braithwaite, my fine fellow, what brings you out here?"
When I told him, "It is ten chances to one that you pick her out to-night," he answered. "But come aboard; I can find you a berth, and to-morrow morning you can continue your search. Depend on it your ship forms one of our convoy, so that she will not sail without you."
I was too glad to accept Jack Newall's offer. Old Bob looked rather disappointed at finding me snatched from his grasp, and volunteered to come back early in the morning, and take me on board the Barbara, promising in the meantime to find her out.
The sudden change from the little boat tumbling about in the dark to the Indiaman's well-lighted cuddy, glittering with plate and glass, into which my friend introduced me—filled, moreover, as it was, with well-dressed ladies and gentlemen—was very startling. She was the well-known Cuffnells, a ship of twelve hundred tons, one of the finest of her class, and, curiously enough, was the very one which, two voyages before, had carried my brother Frederick out to India.
I had never before been on board an Indiaman. Everything about her seemed grand and ponderous, and gave me the idea of strength and stability. If she was to meet with any disaster, it would not be for want of being well found. The captain remembered my brother, and was very civil to me; and several other people knew my family, so that I spent a most pleasant evening on board, in the society of the nabobs and military officers, and the ladies who had husbands and those who had not, but fully expected to get them at the end of the voyage, and the young cadets and writers, and others who usually formed the complement of an Indiaman's passengers in those days. Everything seemed done in princely style on board her. She had a crew of a hundred men, a captain, and four officers, mates, a surgeon, and purser; besides midshipmen, a boatswain, carpenter, and other petty officers. I was invited to come on board whenever there was an opportunity during the voyage.
"We are not cramped, you see," observed Newall, casting his eye over the spacious decks, "so you will not crowd us; and if you cannot bring us news, we can exchange ideas."
True to his word, old Bob came alongside the next morning, and told me that he had found out the Barbara, and would put me on board in good time for breakfast.
I found Captain Hassall very anxious at my non-appearance, and on the point of sending the second officer on shore to look for me, as it was expected that the convoy would sail at noon; indeed, the Active frigate, which was to convoy us, had Blue Peter flying at her mast-head, as had all the merchantmen.
"You'd have time to take a cruise about the fleet, and I'll spin you no end of yarns if you like to come, sir," said old Bob, with a twinkle in his eye, as his wherry was see-sawing alongside in a manner most uncomfortable to a landsman.
"No, thank you, Bob; I must hear the end of your yarns when I come back again to old England; I'll not forget you, depend on it."
Captain Hassall had not recovered his equanimity of temper, which had been sorely ruffled at having had two of his best men taken off by a press-gang. He had arrived on board in time to save two more who would otherwise also have been taken. He inveighed strongly against the system, and declared that if it was continued he would give up England and go over to the United States. It certainly created a very bad feeling both among officers and men in the merchant service. While we were talking, the frigate which was to convoy us loosed her topsails and fired a gun, followed soon after by another, as a signal to way. The merchantmen at once began to make sail, not so quick an operation as on board the man-of-war. The pipe played cheerily, round went the capstan, and in short time we, with fully fifty other vessels, many of them first-class Indiamen, with a fair breeze, were standing down Channel; the sky bright, the sea blue, while their white sails, towering upwards to the heavens, shone in the sunbeams like pillars of snow.
The Barbara proved herself a fast sailer, and could easily keep up with our Active protector, which kept sailing round the majestic-looking but slow-moving Indiamen, as if to urge them on, as the shepherd's dog does his flock. We hove-to off Falmouth, that other vessels might join company. Altogether, we formed a numerous convoy— some bound to the Cape of Good Hope, others to different parts of India—two or three to our lately-established settlements in New South Wales, and several more to China.
I will not dwell on my feelings as we took our departure from the land, the Lizard lights bearing north half east. I had a good many friends to care for me, and one for whom I had more than friendship. We had magnificent weather and plenty of time to get the ship into order; indeed I, with others who had never been to sea, began to entertain the notion that we were to glide on as smoothly as we were then doing during the whole voyage. We were to be disagreeably undeceived. A gale sprang up with little warning about midnight, and hove us almost on our beam-ends; and though we righted with the loss only of a spar or two, we were tumbled about in a manner subversive of all comfort, to say the least of it.
When morning broke, the hitherto trim and well-behaved fleet were scattered in all directions, and several within sight received some damage or other. The wind fell as quickly as it had risen, and during the day the vessels kept returning to their proper stations in the convoy. When night came on several were still absent, but were seen approaching in the distance. Our third mate had been aloft for some time, and when he came into the cabin he remarked that he had counted more sail in the horizon than there were missing vessels. Some of the party were inclined to laugh at him, and inquired what sort of craft he supposed they were, phantom ships or enemy's cruisers.
"I'll tell you what, gentlemen,—I think that they are very probably the latter," said the captain. "I have known strange things happen; vessels cut out at night from the midst of a large convoy, others pillaged and the crews and passengers murdered, thrown overboard, or carried off. We shall be on our guard, and have our guns loaded, and if any gentry of this sort attempt to play their tricks on us they will find that they have caught a tartar."
I may as well here give an account of the Barbara, and how I came to be on board her. Deprived of my father, who was killed in battle just as I was going up to the University, and left with very limited means, I was offered a situation as clerk in the counting-house of a distant relative, Mr Janrin. I had no disinclination to mercantile pursuits. I looked on them, if carried out in a proper spirit, as worthy of a man of intellect, and I therefore gladly accepted the offer. As my mother lived in the country, my kind cousin invited me to come and reside with him, an advantage I highly appreciated. Everything was conducted in his house with clock-work regularity. If the weather was rainy, his coach drew up to the door at the exact hour; if the weather was fine, the servant stood ready with his master's spencer, and hat, and gloves, and gold-headed cane, without which Mr Janrin never went abroad. Not that he required it to support his steps, but it was the mark of a gentleman. It had superseded the sword which he had worn in his youth. I soon got to like these regular ways, and found them far pleasanter than the irregularity of some houses where I had visited. I always accompanied Mr Janrin when he walked, and derived great benefit from his conversation, and though he offered me a seat in the coach in bad weather, I saw that he was better pleased when I went on foot. "Young men require exercise, and should not pamper themselves," he observed; "but, James, I say, put a dry pair of shoes in your pocket—therein is wisdom; and don't sit in your wet ones all day."
Thus it will be seen that I was treated by my worthy principal from the first as a relative, and a true friend he was to me. But I was introduced into the mysteries of mercantile affairs by Mr Gregory Thursby, the head clerk. He lived over the counting-house, and on my first appearance in it, before any of the other clerks had arrived, he was there to receive me. He took me round to the different desks, and explained the business transacted at each of them. "And there, Mr James, look there," he said, pointing to a line of ponderous folios on a shelf within easy distance of where he himself sat: "see, we have Swift's works, a handsome edition too, eh!" and he chuckled as he spoke.
"Why, I fancied that they were ledgers," said I. "Ha! ha! ha! so they are, and yet Swift's works, for all that, those of my worthy predecessor, Jeremiah Swift, every line in them written by his own hand, in his best style; so I call them Swift's works. You are not the first person by a great many I have taken in. Ha! ha! ha!"
This was one of the worthy man's harmless conceits. He never lost an opportunity of indulging in the joke to his own amusement; and I remarked that he laughed as heartily the last time he uttered it as the first.
I set to work diligently at once on the tasks given me, and was rewarded by the approving remarks of Mr Janrin and Mr Thursby. Mr Garrard had long ago left, not only the business but this world; the "Co." was his nephew, Mr Luttridge, who was absent on account of ill-health, and thus the whole weight of the business rested on the shoulders of Mr Janrin. But, as Thursby remarked, "He can well support it, Mr James. He's an Atlas. It's my belief that he would manage the financial affairs of this kingdom better than any Chancellor of the Exchequer, or other minister of State, past or present; and that had he been at the head of affairs we should not have lost our North American Colonies, or have got plunged over head and ears in debt as we are, alack! already; and now, with war raging and all the world in arms against us, getting deeper and deeper into the mire." Without holding my worthy principal in such deep admiration as our head clerk evidently did, I had a most sincere regard and respect for him.
Our dinner hour was at one o'clock, in a room over the office. Mr Janrin himself presided, and all the clerks, from the highest to the lowest, sat at the board. Here, however, on certain occasions, handsome dinners were given at a more fashionable hour to any friends or correspondents of the house who might be in London. Mr Thursby took the foot of the table, and I was always expected to be present. At length I completed two years of servitude in the house, and by that time was thoroughly up to all the details of business. I had been very diligent. I had never taken a holiday, and never had cause to absent myself from business on account of ill-health. On the very day I speak of we had one of the dinners mentioned. The guests were chiefly merchants or planters from the West Indies, with a foreign consul or two, and generally a few masters of merchantmen. The guests as they arrived were announced by Mr Janrin's own servant, Peter Klopps, who always waited on these occasions. Peter was himself a character. He was a Dutchman. Mr Janrin had engaged his services many years before during a visit to Holland. He had picked Peter out of a canal, or Peter had picked him out, on a dark night—I never could understand which had rendered the service to the other; at all events, it had united them ever afterwards, and Peter had afterwards nursed his master through a long illness, and saved his life. The most important secrets of State might have been discussed freely in Peter's presence. First, he did not understand a word that was said, and then he was far too honest and discreet to have revealed it if he had.
Several people had been announced. Ten minutes generally brought the whole together. I caught the name of one—Captain Hassall. He was a stranger, a strongly-built man with a sunburnt countenance and bushy whiskers; nothing remarkable about him, except, perhaps, the determined expression of his eye and mouth. His brow was good, and altogether I liked his looks, and was glad to find myself seated next to him. He had been to all parts of the world, and had spent some time in the India and China seas. He gave me graphic accounts of the strange people of those regions; and fights with Chinese and Malay pirates, battles of a more regular order with French and Spanish privateers, hurricanes or typhoons. Shipwrecks and exciting adventures of all sorts seemed matters of everyday occurrence. A scar on his cheek and another across his hand, showed that he had been, at close quarters, too, on some occasion, with the enemy.
Mr Janrin and Mr Thursby both paid him much attention during dinner. Allusions were made by him to a trading voyage he had performed in the service of the firm, and it struck me from some remarks he let drop that he was about to undertake another of a similar character. I was not mistaken. After dinner, when the rest of the guests were gone, he remained behind to discuss particulars, and Mr Janrin desired me to join the conclave. I was much interested in all I heard. A large new ship, the Barbara, had been purchased, of which Captain Hassall had become part owner. She was now in dock fitting for sea. She mounted ten carriage guns and four swivels, and was to be supplied with a proportionate quantity of small arms, and to be well manned. A letter of marque was to be obtained for her, though she was not to fight except in case of necessity; while her cargo was to be assorted and suited to various localities. She was to visit several places to the East of the Cape of Good Hope, and to proceed on to the Indian Islands and China.
"And how do you like the enterprise, James?" asked Mr Janrin, after the captain had gone.
"I have not considered the details sufficiently to give an opinion, sir," I answered. "If all turns out as the captain expects, it must be very profitable, but there are difficulties to be overcome, and dangers encountered, and much loss may be incurred."
I saw Mr Janrin and the head clerk exchange glances, and nod to each other. I fancy that they were nods of approval at what I had said.
"Then, James, you would not wish to engage in it in any capacity?" said Mr Janrin. "You would rather not encounter the dangers and difficulties of such a voyage?"
"That is a very different matter, sir," I answered. "I should very much like to visit the countries you speak of, and the difficulties I cannot help seeing would enhance the interest of the voyage."
Again the principal and clerk exchanged glances and nodded.
"What do you say, then, James, to taking charge of the venture as supercargo? My belief is that you will act with discretion and judgment as to its disposal, and that we shall have every reason to be satisfied with you. Mr Thursby agrees with me, do you not, Thursby?"
"I feel sure that Mr James will bring no discredit on the firm, sir," answered Mr Thursby, smiling at me. "On the contrary, sir, no young man I am acquainted with is so likely to conduce to the success of the enterprise."
I was highly gratified by the kind remarks of my friends, and expressed my thanks accordingly, at the same time that I begged I might be allowed two days for consideration. I desired, of course, to consult my mother, and was anxious also to know what another would have to say to the subject. She, like a sensible girl, agreed with me that it would be wise to endure the separation for the sake of securing, as I hoped to do, ultimate comfort and independence. I knew from the way that she gave this advice that she did not love me less than I desired. I need say no more than that her confidence was a powerful stimulus to exertion and perseverance in the career I had chosen. My mother was far more doubtful about the matter. Not till the morning after I had mentioned it to her did she say, "Go, my son; may God protect you and bless your enterprise!"
I was from this time forward actively engaged in the preparations for the voyage. My personal outfit was speedily ready, but I considered it necessary to examine all the cases of merchandise put on board, that I might be properly acquainted with all the articles in which I was going to trade. "It's just what I expected of him," I heard Mr Janrin remark to Mr Thursby, when one evening I returned late from my daily duties. "Ay, sir, there is the ring of the true metal in the lad," observed the head clerk.
Captain Hassall was as active in his department as I was in mine, and we soon had the Barbara ready for sea with a tolerably good crew. In those stirring days of warfare it was no easy thing to man a merchantman well, but Captain Hassall had found several men who had sailed with him on previous voyages, and they without difficulty persuaded others to ship on board the Barbara.
Our first officer, Mr Randolph, was a gentleman in the main, and a very pleasant companion, though he had at first sight, in his everyday working suit, that scarecrow look which tall gaunt men, who have been somewhat battered by wind and weather, are apt to get. Our second mate, Ben, or rather "Benjie" Stubbs, as he was usually called, was nearly as broad as he was long, with puffed-out brown cheeks wearing an invincible smile. He was a man of one idea: he was satisfied with being a thorough seaman, and was nothing else. As to history, or science, or the interior of countries, he was profoundly ignorant. As to the land, it was all very well in its way to grow trees and form harbours, but the sea was undoubtedly the proper element for people to live on; and he seemed to look with supreme contempt on all those who had the misfortune to be occupied on shore. The third mate, Henry Irby, had very little the appearance of a sailor, though he was a very good one. He was slight in figure, and refined in his manners, and seemed, I fancied, born to a higher position than that which he held. He had served for two years before the mast, but his rough associates during that time had not been able in any way to alter him. Our surgeon, David Gwynne, was, I need scarcely say, a Welshman. He had not had much professional experience, but he was an intelligent young man, and had several of the peculiarities which are considered characteristic of his people; but I hoped, from what I saw of him when he first came on board, that he would prove an agreeable companion. Curious as it may seem, there were two men among the crew who by birth were superior to any of us. I may, perhaps, have to say more about them by-and-bye. We mustered, officers and men, forty hands all told.
I will pass over the leave-takings with all the dear ones at home. I knew and felt that true prayers, as well as kind wishes, would follow me wherever I might go.
"James," said my kind employer as I parted from him, "I trust you thoroughly as I would my own son if I had one. I shall not blame you if the enterprise does not succeed; so do not take it to heart, for I know that you will do your best, and no man can do more." Mr Thursby considered that it was incumbent on him to take a dignified farewell of me, and to impress on me all the duties and responsibilities of my office; but he broke down, and a tear stood in his eye as he wrung my hand, and said in a husky voice, "You know all about it, my dear boy; you'll do well, and we shall have you back here, hearty and strong, with information successfully to guide Garrard, Janrin and Company in many an important speculation; and, moreover, I hope, to lay the foundation of your own fortune. Good-bye, good-bye; heaven bless you, my boy!"
I certainly could not have commenced my undertaking under better auspices. Having obtained the necessary permission of the Honourable East India Company to trade in their territories, the Barbara proceeded to Spithead, and I ran down to pay a flying visit to my friends, which was the cause of my joining the ship at Spithead in the way I have described, and where I left my readers to give these necessary explanations.
The convoy was standing on under easy sail to allow the scattered vessels to come up, and as long as there was a ray of daylight they were seen taking up their places. Now and then, after dark, I could see a phantom form gliding by; some tall Indiaman, or heavy store-ship, or perhaps some lighter craft, to part with us after crossing the line, bound round Cape Horn. The heat was considerable, and as I felt no inclination to turn in, I continued pacing the deck till it had struck six bells in the first watch. [Note 1.] Mr Randolph, the senior mate, had charge of the deck. He, I found, was not always inclined to agree with some of the opinions held by our captain.
"He's a fine fellow, our skipper, but full of fancies, as you'll find; but there isn't a better seaman out of the port of London," he observed, as he took a few turns alongside me. "I have a notion that he believes in the yarns of the Flying Dutchman, and of old Boody, the Portsmouth chandler, and in many other such bits of nonsense, but as I was saying—"
"What, don't you?" I asked, interrupting him; "I thought all sailors believed in those tales."
The captain had been narrating some of them to us a few evenings before.
"No, I do not," answered the first mate, somewhat sharply. "I believe that God made this water beneath our feet, and that He sends the wind which sometimes covers it over with sparkling ripples, and at others stirs it up into foaming seas, but I don't think He lets spirits or ghosts of any sort wander about doing no good to any one. That's my philosophy. I don't intend to belief in the stuff till I see one of the gentlemen; and then I shall look pretty sharply into his character before I take my hat off to him."
"You are right, Mr Randolph, and I do not suppose that the captain differs much from you. He only wishes to guard against mortal enemies, and he has shown that he is in earnest in thinking that there is some danger, by having come on deck every half-hour or oftener during the night. There he is again."
Captain Hassall stood before us: "Cast loose and load the guns, Mr Randolph, and send a quartermaster to serve out the small arms to the watch," he said quietly; "there has been a sail on our quarter for some minutes past, which may possibly be one of the convoy, but she may not. Though she carries but little canvas she is creeping up to us."
The mate and I while talking had not observed the vessel the captain pointed out. "The skipper has sharp eyes," said the first mate, as he parted from me to obey the orders he had received. Our crew had been frequently exercised at the guns. Having loaded and run them out, the watch came tumbling aft to the arm-chest. Cutlasses were buckled on and pistols quickly loaded, and boarding-pikes placed along the bulwarks ready for use. The men did not exactly understand what all this preparation was for, but that was nothing to them. It signified fighting, and most British seamen are ready for that at any time. The captain now joined me in my walk. "It is better to be prepared, though nothing come of it, than to be taken unawares," he observed. "It is the principle I have gone on, and as it is a sound one, I intend to continue it as long as I live." I agreed with him. We walked the deck together for twenty minutes or more, engaged in conversation. His eye was constantly during the time looking over our starboard quarter. Even I could at length distinguish the dim outline of a vessel in that direction. Gradually the sails of a ship with taut raking masts became visible.
"That craft is not one of our convoy, and I doubt that she comes among us for any good purpose," exclaimed the captain. "I should like to bring the frigate down upon the fellow, but we should lose our share of the work, and I think that we can manage him ourselves. Call the starboard watch, Mr Stubbs."
The men soon came tumbling up from below, rather astonished at being so soon called. The other officers were also soon on deck Mr Randolph agreed that the stranger, which hung on our quarter like some ill-omened bird of prey, had an exceedingly suspicious appearance, and that we were only acting with ordinary prudence in being prepared for him.
"The fellow won't fire, as he would bring the frigate down upon him if he did," observed the first mate; "he will therefore either run alongside in the hopes of surprising us, and taking us by boarding before we have time to fire a pistol, which would attract notice, or, should the wind fall light, he may hope to cut us out with his boats."
Eight bells struck. We could hear the sound borne faintly over the waters from two of the Indiamen to windward of us, but no echo came from the deck of the stranger. The men were ordered to lie down under the bulwarks till wanted. Had Captain Hassall thought fit, he might, by making sail, have got out of danger, but he had hopes that instead of being taken by the stranger he might take him. It struck me that we might be running an unwarrantable risk of getting the vessel or cargo injured by allowing ourselves to be attacked.
"Not in the least," answered the captain; "we serve as a bait to the fellow, and shall benefit directly by catching him. If we were to give the alarm he would be off like a shot, and depend on it he has a fast pair of heels, or he would not venture in among us, so that the frigate would have little chance of catching him."
The truth is, Captain Hassall had made up his mind to do something to boast of. Orders were now given to the men to remain perfectly silent; the stranger was drawing closer and closer; grapnels had been got ready to heave on board him, and to hold him fast should it be found advisable. It was, however, possible that his crew might so greatly outnumber ours that this would prove a dangerous proceeding. As to our men, they knew when they shipped that they might have to fight, and they all now seemed in good heart, so that we had no fear on the score of their failing us. Our officers were one and all full of fight, though each exhibited his feelings in a different way. The surgeon's only fear seemed to be that the stranger would prove a friend instead of a foe, and that there would be no skirmish after all.
"She's some craft one of the other vessels has fallen in with, and she has just joined company for protection," he observed. "For my part I shall turn in, as I am not likely to be wanted, either to fight or to dress wounds."
The wind, which had much fallen, had just freshened up again. "Whatever he is, friend or foe, here he comes," exclaimed Mr Randolph. "Steady, lads!" cried the captain, "don't move till I give the word."
As he spoke the stranger glided up, her dark sails appearing to tower high above ours. We kept on our course as if she was not perceived. With one sheer she was alongside, there was a crash as her yards locked with ours, and at the same moment numerous dark forms appeared in her rigging and nettings about to leap on to our deck. "Now give it them!" cried our captain. Our men sprang to their feet and fired a broadside through the bulwarks of the enemy. The cries and shrieks which were echoed back showed the havoc which had been caused. Shouts and blows, the clash of cutlasses, the flash of pistols, immediately followed. I felt a stinging sensation in my shoulder, but was too excited to think anything of it as I stood, cutlass in hand, ready to repel our assailants. Many of those who were about to board us must have sprung back, or fallen into the water; a few only reached our deck, who were at once cut down by our people. One man sprang close to where I stood. I was about to fire my pistol at him, when I saw that he was unarmed, so I dragged him across the deck out of harm's way. The next instant the vessels parted.
"Give it them, my lads! Load and fire as fast as you can, or they will escape us," cried the captain in an excited tone.
"Wing them! wing them! knock away their spars, lads!" He next ordered the helm to be put down, the tacks hauled aboard, and chase to be made after our flying foe, while a blue light was burned to show our locality, and to prevent the frigate from firing into us when she followed, as we hoped she would.
We had no doubt that the enemy, when he met with the warm reception we had given him, took us for a man-of-war corvette, and on this came to the conclusion that prudence was the best part of valour. There could be little doubt, however, that he would soon discover that our guns were of no great size; and then possibly he might turn on us, and give us more of his quality than would be desirable. Still we kept on peppering away at him as fast as we could, in the hopes of bringing down one of his masts, and enabling the frigate to come up. The lights of the convoy were, however, by this time almost lost sight of. In vain we looked out for a signal of the approach of the frigate. No gun was heard, no light was seen. We were afraid of losing the convoy altogether, and certainly it would have been against the spirit of our instructions to have attempted to deal single-handed with our opponent. Giving the enemy a parting shot most reluctantly, Captain Hassall therefore ordered the helm to be put up, and we ran back in the direction in which we expected to find the convoy.
Note 1. This ordinary watch consists of four hours, and the bell is struck every half-hour. As the first watch commences at eight, it was then eleven. There are two dog-watches from four to six and from six to eight p.m., in order that the same men may not be on duty at the same hours each day.
"GOOD-BYE" TO THE CONVOY.
"Hillo! who have we here?" I heard one of the mates exclaim, as I was taking a last look of our receding antagonist. "Is this a dead man?"
"No, not entirely, as yet," said a voice which proceeded, I found, from a person lying on the deck.
I remembered my prisoner, and ran to lift him up. He recognised my voice. "If it hadn't been for you I should have been dead enough by this time," he said, getting on his feet.
"Who are you?" I asked, "a friend or a foe?"
"A friend; or I wouldn't be here at all," he answered, in a tone which made me feel certain that he spoke the truth.
"Well, come into the cabin, and tell me all about the matter," I said; for though he spoke broad Irish, I saw by his manner that he was above the rank of a common seaman. His appearance when he came into the light justified me in my opinion.
"It's just this; I was first mate of a fine brig, the Kathleen. We had been down in the eastern seas, and away into the Pacific, over to America, trading for some time with the natives, and bringing hides, seal-skins, and sandal-wood to the Chinamen; and at last, having made a successful voyage, we were on our homeward passage, when yonder piratical craft fell in with us. Each man had been promised a share of the profits, so that we had something to fight for. Fight our poor fellows did, till there was scarcely one of them left unhurt. We none of us thought of striking, though; but at last the rascally pirates ran us aboard, and as they swarmed along our decks cut down every man who still stood on his legs. How I escaped without a hurt I don't know. I soon had other troubles; for, being uninjured, I was at once carried aboard our captor, but before the Frenchmen could secure their prize, she blew up, with every soul on board, and there was I left a prisoner alone. I almost envied the fate of our crew. The loss of the prize, which had cost them so many lives and so much trouble, made the Frenchmen very savage, especially their captain, who is about as daring a villain as ever ploughed salt water. This determined him, when he fell in with your convoy, to try and cut one of them out. He fixed on you because you were of a size which he thought he could tackle easily, and he hoped to take you by surprise. Why he did not kill me outright I do not know, for he treated me like a brute from the moment he got me in his power; and when we ran you alongside he made me get into the rigging that I might be shot at; and I thought to myself, The safest plan is to jump aboard, and if I escape a knock on the head I may stow myself away before any one sees me. Such is the end of my history at present."
The name of the vessel which had attacked us was the Mignonne, privateer, of twenty guns and eighty men, Captain Jules La Roche, of the port of Brest, we learned from the stranger. "And your own name, my friend?" I asked, not feeling very sure that the truth had been told us. "Dennis O'Carroll. My name will tell you where I hail from, and you may look at me as a specimen of one of the most unfortunate men in the world," he answered. If O'Carroll's account of the size of our antagonist was correct, we had good reason to be thankful that we had escaped so easily. Our chief anxiety was now about finding the fleet. We had no business to have separated from them; for though we might easily have run out to the East without encountering an enemy, yet, should any accident have happened to us, our insurers might have considered our charter invalidated, and Garrard, Janrin and Company would have been the sufferers.
We were much relieved by seeing a blue light suddenly burst forth in the darkness. It came from the deck of the frigate, which had stood after us to ascertain the cause of the firing. Our adventure had the effect of keeping the convoy much closer together; for no one could tell when Captain La Roche would take it into his head to pounce down upon us and pick up a stray bird, should the frigate be at a distance. He would have had no chance, however, with the Indiamen, whose officers were in a very combative mood. Not long before a very gallant action had been performed by a squadron of them in the Eastern seas—indeed, no country ever possessed a body of officers in her mercantile marine equal to those of the Honourable East India Company.
I heard all about the action on board the Cuffnells. One morning, when I went on deck, I found that there was what might well be called a calm; the sails of the ships hung up and down the masts without moving, except every now and then, as they slowly rolled from side to side to give a loud thundering clap, and once more to subside into sullen silence. The sea, smooth as a mirror, shone like burnished silver, its surface ever and anon broken by the fin of some monster of the deep, or by a covey of flying fish, which would dart through the air till, their wings dried by the sun, they fell helpless again into their native element.
Looking round I recognised the Cuffnells not far off, and, remembering my promise, asked for a boat to go on board. I was received in the most friendly manner, and was asked to stop to tiffin and to dinner, if I could remain as long.
"Yes, sir, he richly deserved it; every rupee he got—that's my opinion," observed a yellow-faced gentleman in nankeens and white waistcoat, sitting at the other end of the table. "I was on board the Earl Camden on my way home, and I know that, including public and private investments, the cargoes of our ships could not have been of less value than eight millions of pounds sterling. We had fifteen Indiamen and a dozen country ships, with a Portuguese craft and a brig, the Ganges; Captain Dance, our captain, was commodore. This fleet sailed from Canton on the 31st January, 1804. After sighting Pulo Auro, near the Straits of Malacca, the Royal George, one of the Indiamen, made the signal for four strange sail in the south-west. On this the commodore directed four of the Indiamen to go down and examine them. Lieutenant Fowler, of the navy, who was a passenger on board the Earl Camden, offered to go also in the Ganges to inspect the strangers more nearly. It was a time of no small anxiety, you may be sure. The Ganges was a fast sailer, and before long Lieutenant Fowler came back, with the information that the squadron in sight was French, and consisted of a line-of-battle ship, three frigates, and a brig. The question was now, Should we fight or not? If we attempted to make our escape the enemy would pursue us, and very likely pick us off in detail. Our safest plan was to put a bold face on the matter, and show that we were prepared for fighting. This was our gallant commodore's opinion, and all the other captains agreed with him, especially Captain Timins, of the Royal George, who acted as his second in command. The look-out ships were now recalled by signal, and the line of battle formed in close order. As soon as the enemy could fetch in our wake they put about, and we kept on our course under easy sail. At near sunset they were close up with our rear, which it seemed as if they were about to attack. On seeing this Captain Dance prepared with other ships to hasten to the assistance of that part of our line. Just as the day was closing, however, the French, not liking our looks, and unwilling to risk a night engagement, hauled their wind. Lieutenant Fowler was now sent in the Ganges to station the country ships on our lee bow, by which means we were between them and the enemy. He brought back some volunteers, whose assistance was acceptable. We lay to all night—our men at their quarters. At daybreak of the 15th we saw the enemy also lying to, and so, hoisting our colours, we offered them battle if they chose to come down. At nine, finding that they would not accept our challenge, we formed the order of sailing, and steered our course under easy sail. The enemy on this filled their sails and edged down towards us. Now was the time that the mettle of our merchant skippers was to be tried. Did they, flinch?—Not a bit of it! The commodore, finding that the enemy proposed to attack and cut off our rear, made the signal for the fleet to tack and bear down on him, and engage in succession—the Royal George being the leading ship, the Ganges next, and then the Earl Camden. This manoeuvre was beautifully performed, and we stood towards the Frenchmen under a press of sail. The enemy then formed in a very close line and opened fire on the headmost ships, which was not returned till they got much closer. What do you think of it? Two merchantmen and a brig engaging a line-of-battle ship, two frigates, and two other ships of war—for the rest of the fleet had not yet got up. The Royal George bore the brunt of the action, for Captain Timins took his ship as close to the enemy as they would let him, and the Ganges and Earl Camden opened their fire as soon as their guns could take effect. Before, however, any of the other ships could get into action the Frenchmen hauled their wind and stood away to the eastward, under all the sail they could set. On this, at about two p.m., the signal was made for a general chase, and away went the fleet of merchantmen after the men-of-war. We pursued them for two hours, when the commodore, fearing that we might be led too far from the mouth of the straits, made the signal to tack, and in the evening we anchored ready to pass through the straits in the morning. We afterwards found that the squadron we had engaged was that of Admiral Linois, consisting of the Marengo, 84 guns, the Belle Poule and Semillante, heavy frigates, a corvette of 28 guns, and a Batavian brig of 18 guns. That the Frenchmen either took some of our big ships for men-of-war, or fancied that some men-of-war were near at hand and ready to come to our assistance, is very probable, but that does not detract from the gallantry of the action. The Patriotic Fund voted swords and plate to Captain Dance and other officers, and the East India Company presented him with 2,000 guineas and a piece of plate worth 500, and Captain Timins 1,000 guineas and a piece of plate, and all the other captains and officers and men rewards in plate or money, the whole amounting to not less than 50,000. But they deserved it, sir—they deserved it; and I suspect that Admiral Linois and his officers must have pulled out the best part of their hair when they discovered the prize they had lost. Besides the reward I have mentioned, Commodore Dance was very properly knighted. In its result," continued the speaker, "the action was most important."
"But it was scarcely so annoying to the enemy as another in which some Indiamen were engaged in 1800," observed a military officer, laying down his knife and fork, and wiping his moustache. "I was on my passage out on board the Exeter, one of the Indiamen of 1,200 tons, commanded by Captain Meriton. We had in company the Bombay Castle, Coutts, and Neptune, of the same tonnage, besides other ships under the convoy of the Belligeux, of 64 guns, Captain Bulteel. A French squadron of three large frigates, it appeared, after committing a good deal of mischief on the coast of Africa, had crossed over to Rio de la Plata to refit, and had just again put to sea, when, early in the morning, they made out a part, and some of the lighter ships, probably, of our convoy. Hoping to pick up some prizes, the Frenchmen stood towards us, and we, quite ready for the encounter, bore down towards them. No sooner, however, did the Frenchmen see our big China ships, with their two tiers of ports and warlike look, than they bore up under a press of sail, and by signal separated. While the Belligeux steered for the largest of the French ships, she signalled to the Indiamen I have mentioned to proceed in chase of the others, we and the Bombay Castle of one of them, the Medee, and the other two of the Franchise. We, at the time, were nearer the Medee than was the Bombay Castle, and we also sailed better. The chase was a long one, but we kept the enemy in sight, and it was near midnight before we came up with her. The Bombay Castle was a long way astern, and the frigate might have handled us very severely, if not knocked us to pieces, before she could have come up to our assistance. Captain Meriton was not a man to be daunted. With the decks lighted and all our ports up, he ran alongside the Frenchman—'Strike, monsieur, to a superior force, to his Britannic Majesty's ship Thunderaboo' he shouted out. 'Strike, I say, or—' We did not know whether the Frenchman would reply with a broadside, which would have greatly staggered us. Instead of that the Frenchman politely replied that he yielded to the fortune of war. 'Come aboard immediately,' was the order our bold captain next gave. Not to be surpassed by the Frenchman, we had a guard ready to assist the captain up our high side. With the profoundest of bows he delivered his sword, and he was then asked into the cabin. Immediately we had him safe, keeping the frigate under our guns, we sent armed boats on board, and brought away part of her people. When the Bombay Castle came up she received the remainder, and we then placed a prize crew on board. Meantime the suspicions of the French captain had been aroused. He had observed the small size of our guns. The appearance of the Indiaman's cuddy and the gentlemen and lady passengers—not that there were many of the latter—must have raised curious doubts in his mind. Suddenly he jumped up and asked to what ship he had struck.
"'To the Honourable East India Company's ship Exeter,' answered Captain Meriton, with a bow which beat the Frenchman's.
"'What, to a merchantman?' exclaimed the Frenchman, with a look of dismay.
"'Yes, monsieur, to a merchantman,' said Captain Meriton, with a gentle smile, which it would have been difficult to repress.
"'It is not fair; it is vile! it is a cheat!' exclaimed the Frenchman, beginning to stalk up and down the cabin, to grind his teeth, and to pull out his hair. 'I say it is a cheat; give me back my ship, send on board my men, and I will fight you bravely. You will soon see if you take me again.'
"'I am ready to acknowledge that you would very likely take me, as I should certainly deserve to be taken for my folly in agreeing to your proposal. You will excuse me if I therefore decline it,' was the answer. Though we pitied the feelings of the poor man, it was very difficult to keep our countenance as he uttered his expressions of indignation and anger. He did not recover his spirits till his frigate was out of sight."
This anecdote was followed by several others. Those were pleasant hours I spent on board the old Indiaman. My visits to her were indeed an agreeable change from the sea-life routine of my own ship. I was amused by the progress in intimacy made among themselves by the younger portion of the passengers since I first went aboard at Spithead. The captain confided to me the fact that it cost him much more trouble to maintain discipline in the cuddy than among his crew. "What with my young ladies and my chronometers, it is as much as an elderly gentleman can well accomplish to keep all things straight," he observed, glancing at several young couples who were pacing the deck, the gentlemen being cadets or writers. "The friends of those girls now—nice young creatures they are too,—have sent them out fully expecting that they would marry nabobs or colonels at least, and in spite of all my precautions, they have gone and engaged themselves to those young fellows who have only just got their feet on the ratlines. Small blame to the gentlemen, however, for a more charming consignment I never had, only the more charming the more difficult to manage."
While the calms lasted, I paid daily visits to my friends, but at length a breeze springing up we proceeded on our voyage, as I must with my narrative, or I may chance not to get to the end of it. We called off the beautiful island of Madeira, with its picturesque town of Funchal— more attractive on the outside than within; we procured, however, a welcome supply of fresh meat, vegetables, and fruits. On our crossing the line, Neptune and his Tritons came on board and played their usual pranks. Jack little thinks that on such occasions he is performing a very ancient ceremony, practised by those bold voyagers, the Carthaginians; to them there is little doubt that the secret of the mariner's compass was known. On sailing between the Pillars of Hercules into the wide Atlantic they were visited, not by Hercules himself, but by his representative priests, to whom they were wont to deliver certain votive offerings that the propitiated divinity might protect them on their perilous voyage. The custom of performing ceremonies of a like description was continued to later times by the mariners of the Levant, Greece, and Italy, long after the temple of Hercules was in ruins. When they, and those northern seamen who had learned the scientific parts of navigation from them, extended their voyages across the line, they continued the practices, substituting Neptune for Hercules, and adding a few caricatures to suit their own more barbarous taste.
Having crossed the line, and there being no longer much risk of our meeting the cruisers of the enemy, Captain Hassall, who had long fumed at being kept back by the slow sailing of our companions, determined to part company. We accordingly hoisted our colours, gave a salute of nine guns in acknowledgment of the civilities we had received, and under all sail soon ran the dignified moving convoy out of sight. Light and contrary winds and calms kept us so long under the sun of the tropics that the seams of our decks began to open, and, to get them caulked and other repairs executed, we bore up for Saint Salvador on the coast of Brazil, belonging to Portugal. We saluted the fort on entering, and paid every necessary respect to the authorities; but we soon found that they either suspected our character, or were not inclined, for some other reason, to treat us in a friendly spirit. A guard was put on board, and we were told that neither officers nor crew must leave the ship.
We were still ignorant of the cause of this treatment, when the master of an English whaler came alongside with his men armed to the teeth. He told us that he had a letter of marque, and that on the strength of it, having fallen in with a Spanish merchantman some way to the south-west, he had chased and captured her, and found a large number of dollars on board. Having come into Saint Salvador he found there no less than seven other Spanish vessels, the masters and crews of which were favoured by the Portuguese, and he heard that they threatened to follow him out and capture him and his prize. Our arrival had turned the scales in his favour, and he offered to remain if we would accompany him out when we were ready. This Captain Hassall readily promised to do. As the whaler was strongly manned, a good-sized crew had been put on board the prize, and thus our three vessels were somewhat of a match for the Spaniards, we hoped. At length the Governor of the place ordered the officers of the ship to appear before him. Accordingly Captain Hassall, the first mate, and I, accompanied by Dennis O'Carroll, who seemed to be able to speak every language under the sun except pure English, as interpreter, went on shore under an escort. The Governor, a fat, swarthy personage in the full dress uniform of a general, received us in a haughty manner, and cross-questioned us in the most minute and tedious manner. Dennis somewhat puzzled him by the style of his answers, which were anything but literal translations of what Captain Hassall said. The result, however, was favourable, and we were allowed to go wherever we chose about the city, and to get the necessary repairs of our ships executed, and to obtain all the stores and provisions we required.
Much relieved, we made our bows, and then took a turn through the place before going on board. I was much struck with the number of churches, of priests and monks, and black slaves, the latter habited in the most scanty garments, and the former perambulating the streets in parties, dressed up in the richest attire of coloured silks and gold, with banners and crosses, and statues of saints, or representations of events mentioned in the Scriptures, the figures as large as life. A large number of friars in black, or brown, or grey gowns of coarse cloth, with ropes round their waists, were going about two and two, with small figures of saints on money boxes. The figures they literally thrust into the faces of the passers-by to be kissed. We saw no one refuse to drop a coin into the box.
"These must be a very religiously disposed people," I observed to Dennis.
"If you knew what I do you wouldn't say that," he answered. "They're fond of sinning, and they are ready to pay for it. The reason that all these priests and monks flourish is this—they have succeeded in teaching the people that they can buy pardon for all the sins they commit. The only scrap of real religion the poor people are allowed to possess is the knowledge that sin must be punished if not forgiven. Instead, however, of showing them how forgiveness can alone be obtained, they make them believe that money can buy it through the prayers of the saints; but when they've got the money in their own pockets, it's very little trouble they give the saints about the matter at all."
"How did you learn all this, Mr O'Carroll?" I asked.
"Just because I believed it all myself," he answered quickly. "I'll tell you some day how I came to find out that I had been sailing on a wrong tack; but you think me now a harum-scarum Irishman, and I'm afraid to talk about the matter."
On our way we passed through the dockyard, where a fifty-gun ship was building, and several smaller vessels of war. We were looking at one repairing alongside the quay, when I saw O'Carroll start, and look eagerly at the people on board.
"That's her, I'm certain of it!" he exclaimed. "She has got into trouble since she parted from you, or you may have done her more harm than you thought for, and she has put in here with false papers and under false colours to repair damages."
"What vessel do you mean?" I asked.
"Why, the Mignonne to be sure, or by what other name she may go," he answered. "Probably she is now the San Domingo, or some other saint under Spanish colours, and hailing from some port on the other side of the Horn. Our friend, Captain Brown, of the whaler, had better make haste, or she will be after him and his prize."
"Why not after us then?" I asked.
"Because Captain La Roche has had enough of your quality, I suspect," he replied. "He is a fellow who only fights when he is sure of booty, and though I daresay that he would like to send you to the bottom, he would not go out of his way either for revenge or glory."
To satisfy ourselves we examined the stranger as narrowly as we could, and O'Carroll was thoroughly convinced that he was right in his suspicions. While thus employed a man appeared at the companion watch.
"Why, there is La Roche himself!" he cried out. Scarcely had he spoken than a bullet whizzed by his head. "That settles the matter," he said, quite coolly. "Let us be out of this, or he will be following up this compliment." We hurried out of the dockyard. I proposed making a complaint to the authorities.
"And be detained here several weeks and gain nothing in the end," he answered, shaking his head. "My advice is, get ready for sea as fast as you can, and if you wish to serve Captain Brown see him safe out of sight of land before the Mignonne can follow. We'll keep a watch on him in the meantime, or he'll play us some trick or other. Above all things, don't be on shore after dark. La Roche has plenty of friends here, depend on that, and he will find means to pick us off if he thinks that we are likely to inconvenience him."
Following O'Carroll's suggestions I immediately returned on board. Captain Hassall at first scarcely credited the account we gave him— indeed, he did not, I saw, put thorough confidence in O'Carroll. However, he agreed that we ought to warn Captain Brown, and that it would be well for us also to sail before the supposed privateer was ready for sea.
THE "BARBARA" ON FIRE.
We had got our decks caulked, our rigging set up, and other repairs finished, when, one forenoon, O'Carroll, who had at length ventured on shore, returned in a great hurry with the information that there was much bustle on board the Mignonne, and that her people were evidently hurrying to the utmost to get ready for sea. Had Captain Hassall followed his own inclinations, he would have given the piratical Frenchman the opportunity of trying his strength with the Barbara; but as that would have been decidedly objected to by Garrard, Janrin and Company, we, with the whaler and her prize, and another English vessel, cleared out as secretly as we could, and, with a fair breeze, put to sea. We had to lay to for the other vessels, and after they had joined us Captain Brown hailed us, to say that the look-out from his main-topgallant mast-head had seen a large ship coming out of the harbour under all sail, and that he thought it possible she might be the Mignonne. As, however, a mist had soon afterwards arisen, she was concealed from sight. We promised, however, to stand to the northward with Captain Brown during the night, and in the morning, should no enemy be in sight, let him and his consorts proceed on their voyage homewards, while we kept on our course for the Cape of Good Hope. Nothing could have given our people greater satisfaction than to have found the Frenchman close to us at daybreak. I spent most of the night in writing letters home, to send by the whaler. When morning dawned, not a sail, except our own little squadron, was to be seen. We kept company till noon, and then, with mutual good wishes, stood away on our respective courses. We hoped that the Mignonne would follow the Barbara rather than our friends, should she really have sailed in chase of any of us. The possibility of our being pursued created much excitement on board. At early dawn, till the evening threw its mantle over the ocean, we had volunteers at the mastheads looking out for a strange sail. At the end of four or five days all expectation of again meeting with the Mignonne ceased, somewhat to the disappointment of most of the crew, who were wonderfully full of fight. Having beaten the Frenchman once, they were very sure that they could beat him again. We had other good reasons for having our eyes about us—first, to avoid in time any foe too big to tackle; and then, as we had the right to capture any Spanish vessels we might fall in with, to keep a look-out for them. However, the ocean is very broad, and though we chased several vessels, they all proved to be Portuguese. After sighting the little rocky and then uninhabited island of Tristan da Cunha, we made the Cape of Good Hope, and, entering Table Bay, dropped our anchor off Capetown.
The colony had lately been recaptured from the Dutch by Sir David Baird and Sir Home Popham, with a well-appointed force of 5,000 men. The two armies met on the plain at the foot of Table Mountain; but scarcely had the action been commenced by General Ferguson, at the head of the Highland brigade, than the wise Hollanders, considering that the English were likely to prove as good masters as the French, retreated, and soon after offered to capitulate, which they were allowed to do with all the honours of war. The Dutch, French, and English were now living on very friendly terms with each other. The Cape colony, with its clean, well-laid-out English capital, its Table Mountain and Table Cloth, its vineyards, its industrious and sturdy Boers, its Hottentot slaves, and its warlike Kaffirs, is too well-known to require a description. I did a good deal of trading—a matter of private interest to Garrard, Janrin and Company, so I will not speak of it. The ship was put to rights, we enjoyed ourselves very much on shore, and were once more at sea. Strong easterly winds drove us again into the Atlantic, and when we had succeeded in beating back to the latitude of Capetown, the weather, instead of improving, looked more threatening than ever. I had heard of the peculiar swell off the Cape, but I had formed no conception of the immense undulations I now beheld. They came rolling on slow and majestically, solid-looking, like mountains of malachite, heaving up our stout ship as if she were a mere chip of deal cast on the face of the ocean. We were alone on the waste of waters, no other objects in sight besides these huge green masses, which, as the clouds gathered, were every instant becoming of a darker and more leaden hue.
"We shall get a breeze soon, and I hope that it will be from the right quarter for us," I remarked to Benjie Stubbs, the second mate, who had charge of the deck.
"We shall have a breeze, and more than we want, Pusser," (intended for Purser, a name Benjie always persisted in giving me), he answered, glancing round the horizon. "You've not seen anything like this before, eh? A man must come to sea to know what's what. There are strange sights on the ocean."
"So I have always heard," I remarked.
"Yes, you'd have said so if you had been on deck last night in the middle watch," he observed, in a low tone.
"How so? what happened?" I asked.
"Why, just this," he answered. "There was not more wind than there is now, and the sky was clear, with a slice of a moon shining brightly, when, just as I was looking along its wake, what did I see but a full-rigged, old-fashioned ship, under all sail, bearing down towards us at a tremendous rate. When she got within a couple of hundred fathoms of us she hove-to and lowered a boat. I guessed well enough what she was, so, running forward, I cast loose one of the guns and pointed at the boat. They aboard the stranger knew what I was after; the boat was hoisted in again, and away she went right in the teeth of the wind."
"Did you see this last night?" I asked, looking the mate in the face. "I should like to speak to some of the men who saw it at the same time."
"I don't say all saw it. You may ask those who did, and you won't get a different story from what I've told you," he replied.
"And what think you was the ship you saw?" I asked.
"The Flying Dutchman, of course, and no manner of doubt about the matter," he answered promptly. [Note 1.] "If you had been on the look-out you would have seen him as clearly as I did. Remember, Pusser, if you ever fall in with him, don't let him come aboard, that's all. He'll send you to the bottom as surely as if a red-hot shot was to be dropped into the hold."
"Who is this Flying Dutchman?" I asked, wishing to humour Benjie by pretending to believe his story.
"Why, as to that, there are two opinions," he answered, as if he was speaking of authenticated facts. "Some say that he was an honest trader, that he was bound in for Table Bay, when he was ordered off by the authorities, and that, putting to sea, he was lost; others say that he was a piratical gentleman, and that on one occasion, when short of provisions, being driven off the land by contrary winds, he swore a great oath that he would beat about till the day of doom, but that get in he would. He and all his crew died of starvation, but the oath has been kept; and when gales are threatening, or mischief of any kind brewing, he is to be met with, trying in vain to accomplish his vow."
I smiled at Benjie's account, whereat he pretended to look very indignant, as if I had doubted his veracity. I afterwards made inquiries among the seamen. Two or three asserted that they had witnessed an extraordinary sight during the night, but they all differed considerably in their accounts. It may be supposed that they were trying to practise on the credulity of a greenhorn. My belief is that they really fancied that they had seen what they described.
The clouds grew thicker and thicker till they got as black as ink. The sea became of a dark leaden hue, and the swell increased in height, so that when we sank down into the intermediate valley, we could not see from the deck beyond the watery heights on either side of us.
"Ah, the skipper is right; we shall have it before long, hot and furious."
This remark, made by Benjie Stubbs, followed the captain's order to send down all our lighter spars, and to make everything secure on deck, as well as below. The ship was scarcely made snug before the tempest broke on us. The high, smooth rollers were now torn and wrenched asunder as it were, their summits wreathed with masses of foam, which curled over as they advanced against the wind, and breaking into fragments, blew off in masses of snowy whiteness to leeward. I scarcely thought that a fabric formed by human hands could have sustained the rude shocks we encountered till the ship was got on her course, and we were able to scud before the gale. Often the sea rose up like a dead wall, and seemed as if it must fall over our deck and send us to the bottom. The scene was trying in the daytime, but still more so when darkness covered the face of the deep, and it needed confidence in the qualities of our ship, and yet greater in God's protecting power, not to feel overcome with dread. There was a grandeur in the spectacle which kept me on deck, and it was not till after the steward had frequently summoned me to supper that I could tear myself from it. Curious was the change to the well-lighted, handsome cabin, with the supper things securely placed between fiddles and puddings [Note 1.] on the swing table. The first mate had charge of the deck. Stubbs was busily employed fortifying his nerves. "You now know, Pusser, what a gale off the Cape is," he observed, looking up with his mouth half full of beef and biscuit.
"Yes, indeed," said I. "Fine weather, too, for your friend the Dutchman to be cruising."
"Ay, and likely enough we shall see him, too," he answered. "It was just such a night as this, some five years back, that we fell in with him off here; and our consort, as sound a ship as ever left the Thames, with all hands, was lost. It's my belief that he put a boat aboard her by one of his tricks." I saw Captain Hassall and Irby exchange glances. Stubbs was getting on his favourite subject.
"Well, now, I've doubled this Cape a dozen times or more, and have never yet once set eyes on this Dutch friend of yours, Benjie," exclaimed O'Carroll. "Mind you call me if we sight his craft; I should like to 'ya, ya' a little with him, and just ask him where he comes from, and what he's about, and maybe if I put the question in a civil way I'll get a civil answer." By-the-bye, Captain Hassall and I had been so well pleased with O'Carroll, and so satisfied as to his thorough knowledge of the regions we were about to visit and the language of the people, that we had retained him on board as supernumerary mate.
"Don't you go and speak to him now, if you value the safety of the ship, or our lives," exclaimed Stubbs, in a tone of alarm. "You don't know what trick he'll play you if you do. Let such gentry alone, say I."
We all laughed at the second mate's earnestness, though I cannot say that all the rest of those present disbelieved in the existence of the condemned Dutchman. The state of the atmosphere, the strange, wild, awful look of the ocean, prepared our minds for the appearance of anything supernatural. The captain told me that I looked ill and tired from having been on deck so many hours, and insisted on my turning in, which I at length unwillingly did.
In spite of the upheaving motion of the ship, and the peculiar sensation as she rushed down the watery declivity into the deep valley between the seas, I fell asleep. The creaking of the bulkheads, the whistling of the wind in the rigging, the roaring of the seas, and their constant dash against the sides, were never out of my ears, and oftentimes I fancied that I was on deck witnessing the tumult of the ocean—now that the Flying Dutchman was in sight, now that our own good ship was sinking down overwhelmed by the raging seas.
"Mr Stubbs wants you on deck, sir; she's in sight, sir, he says, she's in sight," I heard a voice say, while I felt my elbow shaken. The speaker was Jerry Nott, our cabin-boy. I slipped on my clothes, scarcely knowing what I was about.
"What o'clock is it?" I asked. "Gone two bells in the morning watch," he answered. I sprang on deck. The dawn had broke. The wind blew as hard as ever. The sky and sea were of a leaden grey hue, the only spots of white were the foaming crests of the seas and our closely-reefed foretop sails. "There, there! Do you see her now?" asked Stubbs, pointing ahead. As we rose to the top of a giant sea I could just discover in the far distance, dimly seen amid the driving spray, the masts of a ship, with more canvas set than I should have supposed would have been shown to such a gale. While I was looking I saw another ship not far beyond the first. We were clearly nearing them.
"What do you think of that?" asked Stubbs.
"That there are two ships making very bad weather of it, Mr Stubbs," answered the captain, who at that moment had come on deck. He took a look through his glass.
"She is a large ship—a line-of-battle ship, I suspect," he observed.
"Looks like one," said Stubbs. "She'll look like something else by-and-by."
The rest of the officers had now joined us except Mr Randolph, who had the middle watch. We were all watching the strangers together. Now, as we sank down into the hollow, the masses of spray which blew off from the huge sea uprising between us and them, hid them from our sight. Some differed with the captain as to the size of the largest ship. One or two thought that she was an Indiaman. However, she was still so distant, and in the grey dawn so misty-looking and indistinct, that it was difficult to decide the question. The captain himself was not certain. "However, we shall soon be able to settle the matter," he observed, as the Barbara, now on the summit of a mountain billow, was about to glide down the steep incline. Down, down, we went—it seemed that we should never be able to climb the opposite height. We were all looking out for the strangers, expecting to settle the disputed point. "Where are they?" burst from the lips of all of us. "Where, where?" We looked, we rubbed our eyes—no sail was in sight. "I knew it would be so," said Stubbs, in a tone in which I perceived a thrill of horror. O'Carroll asserted that he had caught sight of the masts of a ship as if sinking beneath the waves.
"Very likely," observed Stubbs, "that was of the ship he was sending to the bottom,—the other was the Dutchman, and you don't see her now."
"No, no, they were craft carrying human beings, and they have foundered without a chance of one man out of the many hundreds on board being saved!" exclaimed the captain.
Stubbs shook his head as if he doubted it. We careered on towards the spot where the ships had gone down, for that real ships had been there no doubt could be entertained. A strict look-out was kept for anything that might still be floating to prove that we had not been deceived by some phantom forms. Those on the look-out forward reported an object ahead. "A boat! a boat!" shouted one of them. "No boat could live in such a sea," observed the captain. He was right. As we approached, we saw a grating, to which a human being was clinging. It was, when first seen, on the starboard bow, and it was, alas! evident that we should leave him at too great a distance even to heave a rope to which he might clutch. By his dress he appeared to be a seaman. He must have observed our approach; but he knew well enough that we could make no attempt to save him. He gazed at us steadily as we glided by—his countenance seemed calm—he uttered no cry—still he clung to his frail raft. He could not make up his mind to yield to death. It was truly a painful sight. We anxiously watched him till we left the raft to which he still clung far astern. No other person was seen, but other objects were seen—floating spars, planks, gratings—to prove that we were near a spot where a tall ship had gone down. "It is better so," observed the captain; "unless the sea had cast them on our deck we could not have saved one of them." We rushed on up and down the watery heights, Stubbs as firmly convinced as ever that the Flying Dutchman had produced the fearful catastrophe we had witnessed. On we went—the gale in no way abating. I watched the mountain seas till I grew weary of looking at them; still I learned to feel perfectly secure—a sensation I was at first very far from experiencing. Yet much, if not everything, depended on the soundness of our spars and rigging: a flaw in the wood or rope might be the cause of our destruction. I went below at meal-time, but I hurried again on deck, fascinated by the scene, though I would gladly have shut it out from my sight. At length, towards night, literally wearied with the exertion of keeping my feet and watching those giant seas, I went below and turned in. I slept, but the huge white-crested waves were still rolling before me, and big ships were foundering, and phantom vessels were sailing in the wind's eye, and I heard the bulkheads creaking, the wind whistling, and the waves roaring, as loudly as if I was awake; only I often assigned a wrong sign to the uproar. Hour after hour this continued, when, as I had at last gone off more soundly, a crash echoed in my ears, followed by shrieks and cries. It did not, however, awake me. It seemed a part of the strange dreams in which I was indulging. I thought that the ship had struck on a rock, that I escaped to the shore, had climbed up a lofty cliff, on the summit of which I found a wood fire surrounded by savages. They dragged me to it—I had the most fearful forebodings of what they were about to do. Then I heard the cry, "Fire! fire!" That was a reality—the smell of fire was in my nostrils—I started up—I was alone in the cabin. The ship was plunging about in an awful manner. I hurried on my clothes and rushed on deck. Daylight had broke. The ship lately so trim seemed a perfect wreck. The foremast had been carried away, shivered to the deck, and hung over the bows, from which part of the crew were endeavouring to clear it. The main and mizen-topmasts had likewise been carried away. Smoke was coming up the fore hatchway, down which the rest of the people were pouring buckets of water. I went forward to render assistance. The foremast had been struck by lightning, and the electric fluid, after shattering it, had descended into the hold and set the ship on fire. We worked with the desperation of despair. Should the fire once gain the mastery, no human power could save us. The sea was running as high as ever; it was with difficulty that the ship could be kept before it. I exchanged but a few words with my companions; a bucket was put into my hands, and I at once saw what I had to do. The smoke after a time had decreased, for as yet no flames had burst forth. "Now, lads, follow me," cried Randolph, the first officer, leaping below with his bucket and an axe in his hand. Irby and four men sprang after him. With his axe the mate cut a way to get at the heart of the fire. We handed down buckets to his companions, who kept emptying them round where he was working. The smoke was still stifling. Those below could scarcely be seen as they worked amidst it. The bulkhead was cut through. The seat of the mischief was discovered. Flames were bursting forth, but wet blankets were thrown on them. The buckets were passed rapidly down. The smoke was decreasing. "Hurrah, lads! we shall have it under!" cried the first mate, in an encouraging tone. We breathed more freely. The fire was subdued. The peril had indeed been great. We had now to clear the wreck of the mast, which threatened to stave in the bows. "The gale is breaking," cried the captain, after looking round the horizon; "cheer up, my lads, and we shall do well!" Encouraged by the captain the men laboured on, though from the violent working of the ship it was not without great difficulty and danger that the mass of spars, ropes, and canvas could be hauled on board or cast adrift. As a landsman my assistance was not of much value, though I stood by clinging to the bulwarks, to lend a hand in case I should be required. While glancing to windward, as I did every now and then, in hopes of seeing signs of the abatement of the gale, I caught sight of what seemed the wing of an albatross, skimming the summit of a tossing sea. I looked again and again. There it still was as at first. I pointed it out to the captain. "A sail running down towards us," he observed; "it is to be hoped that she is a friend, for we are in a sorry plight to meet with a foe." The captain's remark made me feel not a little anxious as to the character of the approaching stranger. After a time it became evident that the wind was really falling. The wreck of the mast was at last cleared away, but a calm sea would be required before we could attempt to get up a jury-mast. We had watched the approach of the stranger: she was steering directly for us. As she drew nearer I saw O'Carroll examining her narrowly through the glass. "Here comes the Flying Dutchman again," I observed to Stubbs.