Paul Gerrard, The Cabin Boy, by W.H.G. Kingston. Here is another book in the true Kingston style - lots of swimming, sharks, wrecks, battles, pirates, woundings.
Paul goes to sea in the first place because his father has lost a legal case in which the Devereux family had been claiming his estates and land. To Paul's surprise, who should be in the midshipman's mess but a young man called Devereux, whose life Paul was able to save following his serious wounding. So we just need to keep in mind that Paul is always looking slightly askance at Devereux. Eventually they become great friends.
It makes a good audiobook. PAUL GERRARD, THE CABIN BOY, BY W.H.G. KINGSTON.
Darkness had set in. The wind was blowing strong from the southwest, with a fine, wetting, penetrating rain, which even tarpaulins, or the thickest of Flushing coats, would scarcely resist. A heavy sea also was running, such as is often to be met with in the chops of the British Channel during the month of November, at which time of the year, in the latter part of the last century, a fine frigate was struggling with the elements, in a brave attempt to beat out into the open ocean. She was under close-reefed topsails; but even with this snug canvas she often heeled over to the blast, till her lee-ports were buried in the foaming waters. Now she rose to the summit of a white-crested sea; now she sunk into the yawning trough below; and ever and anon as she dashed onward in spite of all opposition, a mass of water would strike her bows with a clap like that of thunder, and rising over her bulwarks, would deluge her deck fore and aft, and appear as if about to overwhelm her altogether. A portion of the officers and crew stood at their posts on deck, now and then shaking the water from their hats and coats, after they had been covered with a thicker shower than usual of rain or spray, or looking up aloft at the straining canvas, or out over the dark expanse of ocean; but all of them taking matters very composedly, and wishing only that their watch were over, that they might enjoy such comforts as were to be found below, and take part in the conviviality which, in spite of the gale, was going forward.
It was Saturday night, and fore and aft the time-honoured toast of "sweethearts and wives" was being enthusiastically drunk,—nowhere more enthusiastically than in the midshipmen's berth; and not the less so probably, that few of its light-hearted inmates had in reality either one or the other. What cared they for the tumult which raged above their heads? They had a stout ship and trusted officers, and their heads and insides were well accustomed to every possible variety of lurching and pitching, in which their gallant frigate the Cerberus was at that moment indulging. The Cerberus, a fine 42-gun frigate, commanded by Captain Walford, had lately been put in commission, and many of her officers and midshipmen had only joined just before the ship sailed, and were thus comparatively strangers to each other. The frigate was now bound out to a distant station, where foes well worthy of her, it was hoped, would be encountered, and prize-money without stint be made.
The midshipmen's berth of the Cerberus was a compartment of somewhat limited dimensions,—now filled to overflowing with mates, midshipmen, masters'-assistants, assistant-surgeons, and captain's and purser's clerks,—some men with grey heads, and others boys scarcely in their teens, of all characters and dispositions, the sons of nobles of the proudest names, and the offspring of plebeians, who had little to boast of on that score, or on any other; but the boys might hope, notwithstanding, as many did, to gain fame and a name for themselves. The din of tongues and shouts of laughter which proceeded out of that narrow berth, rose even above the creaking of bulkheads, the howling of the wind, and the roar of the waves.
The atmosphere was somewhat dense and redolent of rum, and could scarcely be penetrated by the light of the three purser's dips which burned in some battered tin candlesticks, secured by lanyards to the table. At one end of the table over which he presided as caterer, sat Tony Noakes, an old mate, whose grog-blossomed nose and bloodshot eyes told of many a past debauch.
"Here's to my own true love, Sally Pounce," he shouted in a husky voice, lifting to his lips a stiff glass of grog, which was eyed wistfully by Tilly Blake, a young midshipman, from whose share of rum he had abstracted its contents.
"Mrs Noakes that is to be," cried out Tilly in a sharp tone. "But I say, she'll not stand having her grog drunk up."
"That remark smells of mutiny, youngster," exclaimed Noakes, with a fierce glance towards the audacious midshipman.
"By the piper, but it's true, though," put in Paddy O'Grady, who had also been deprived of the larger portion of his grog.
Most of the youngsters, on finding others inclined to stand up for their rights, made common cause with Blake and O'Grady. Enraged at this, Noakes threatened the malcontents with condign punishment.
"Yes, down with all mutiny and the rights of man or midshipmen," exclaimed in a somewhat sarcastic tone a good-looking youth, who himself wore the uniform of a midshipman.
"Well said, Devereux. We must support the rights and dignity of the oldsters, or the service will soon go to ruin," cried the old mate, whose voice grew thicker as he emptied glass after glass of his favourite liquor. "You show your sense, Devereux, and deserve your supper, but—there's no beef on the table. Here boy—boy Gerrard—bring the beef; be smart now—bring the beef. Don't stand staring there as if you saw a ghost."
The boy thus summoned was a fine lad of about fourteen, his shirt collar thrown back showing his neck, which supported a well-formed head, with a countenance intelligent and pleasant, but at that moment very pale, with an expression denoting unhappiness, and a feeling of dislike to, or dread of, those on whom he was waiting. A midshipmen's boy has seldom a pleasant time of it under any circumstances. Boy Gerrard, as he was called, did his best, though often unsuccessfully, to please his numerous masters.
"Why do you stand there, staring like a stuffed pig?" exclaimed Devereux, who was near the door. "It is the beef, not your calf's head we want. Away now, be smart about it."
The sally produced a hoarse laugh from all those sufficiently sober to understand a joke.
"The beef, sir; what beef?" asked boy Gerrard in a tone of alarm.
"Our beef," shouted old Noakes, heaving a biscuit at the boy's head. It was fortunate that no heavy missile was in his hand. "Take that to sharpen your wits."
Devereux laughed with others at the old mate's roughness. The boy gave an angry glance at him as he hurried off to the midshipmen's larder to execute the order.
Before long, boy Gerrard was seen staggering along the deck towards the berth with a huge piece of salt beef in his hands, and endeavouring to keep his legs as the frigate gave a heavy lurch or pitched forward, as she forced her way over the tumultuous seas. Boy Gerrard gazed at the berth of his many masters. He thought that he could reach it in another run. He made the attempt, but it was down hill, and before he could save himself he had shot the beef, though not the dish, into the very centre of the table, whence it bounded off and hit O'Grady, the Irish midshipman, a blow on the eye, which knocked him backward. Poor Gerrard stood gazing into the berth, and prepared for the speedy punishment which his past experience had taught him would follow.
"By the piper, but I'll teach you to keep a taughter gripe of the beef for the future, you spalpeen," exclaimed O'Grady, recovering himself, and about to hurl back the joint at the head of the unfortunate boy, when his arm was grasped by Devereux, who cried out, laughing,—"Preserve the beef and your temper, Paddy, and if boy Gerrard, after proper trial, shall be found to have purposely hurled the meat at your wise caput, he shall be forthwith delivered over to condign punishment."
"Oh, hang your sea-lawyer arguments; I'll break the chap's head, and listen to them afterwards," cried O'Grady, attempting to spring up to put his threat into execution.
Devereux again held him back, observing, "Break the boy's head if you like; I have no interest in preserving it, except that we may not find another boy to take his place; but you must listen to my arguments before you commence operations."
"Hear, hear! lawyer Devereux is about to open his mouth," cried several voices.
"Come, pass me the beef, and let me put some of it into my mouth, which is open already," exclaimed Peter Bruff, another of the older mates, who having just descended from the deck, and thrown off his dripping outer coat, had taken his seat at the table. His hair and whiskers were still wet with spray, his hands showed signs of service, and his fine open countenance—full of good-nature, and yet expressive of courage and determination, had a somewhat weather-worn appearance, though his crisp, curling, light hair showed that he was still in the early prime of manhood.
"Listen, gentlemen of the jury, and belay your jaw-tackles you who have no business in the matter, and Bruff being judge, I will plead boy Gerrard's cause against Paddy O'Grady, Esquire, midshipman of his Majesty's frigate Cerberus," cried Devereux, striking the table with his fist, a proceeding which obtained a momentary silence. "To commence, I must go back to first causes. You understand, gentlemen of the jury, that there is a strong wind blowing, which has kicked up a heavy sea, which is tossing about our stout ship in a way to make it difficult for a seaman, and much more for a ship's boy, to keep his legs, and therefore I suggest—"
"Belay all that, Master Long-tongue," shouted Noakes; "if the boy is to be cobbed, why let's cob him; if not, why let him fill the mustard-pot, for it's empty."
Others now joined in; some were for cobbing poor Gerrard forthwith; others, who had not had their supper, insisted on the mustard-pot being first replenished.
Devereux had gained his point in setting his messmates by the ears, and Peter Bruff seeing his object, sent off Gerrard for a supply of the required condiment. It was O'Grady's next watch on deck; and thus before Gerrard returned, he had been compelled to leave the berth. Devereux, however, immediately afterwards turned on Gerrard and scolded him harshly for not keeping steady while waiting at the door of the berth. At length the master-at-arms came round, the midshipmen were sent to their hammocks, and Paul Gerrard was allowed to turn into his. He felt very sick and very miserable. It was the commencement of his sea life, a life for which he had long and enthusiastically yearned, and this was what it proved to be. How different the reality from what he had expected! He could have cried aloud for very bitterness of heart, but that he was ashamed to allow his sobs to be heard.
"He treat me thus! he by birth my equal! to speak to me as if I was a slave! he who might have been in my place, had there been justice done us, while I should have been in his. A hard fate is mine; but yet I chose it, and I'll bear it."
With such thoughts passing through his mind, the young ship-boy fell asleep, and for a time forgot his cares and suffering. He dreamed of happier times, when he with his parents and brothers and sisters enjoyed all the luxuries which wealth could give, and he was a loved and petted child. Then came a lawsuit, the subject of which he could not comprehend. All he knew was, that it was with the Devereux family. It resulted in the loss to his father of his entire fortune, and Paul remembered hearing him say that they were beggars. "That is what I will not be," he had exclaimed; "I can work—we can all work—I will work."
Paul was to be tried severely. His father died broken-hearted. It seemed too probable that his mother would follow him ere long. Paul had always desired to go to sea. He could no longer hope to tread the quarter-deck as an officer, yet he still kept to his determination of following a life on the ocean.
"I will enter as a cabin-boy; I will work my way upwards. Many have done so, why should not I?" he exclaimed with enthusiasm; "I will win wealth to support you all, and honours for myself. 'Where there's a will there's a way.' I don't see the way very clearly just now; but that is the opening through which I am determined to work my way onward."
Paul's mother, though a well-educated and very excellent person, knew nothing whatever of the world. She would, indeed, have hesitated, had she known the real state of the case, and what he would have to go through, ere she allowed her son to enter before the mast on board a man-of-war; but she had no one on whom she could rely, to consult in the matter. Mrs Gerrard had retired to the humble cottage of a former servant in a retired village, where she hoped that the few pounds a year she had left her would enable her to support herself and her children, with the aid of such needlework as she might obtain. Little did she think, poor woman, to what trying difficulties she would be exposed. Not only must she support herself, but educate her children. She had saved a few books for this purpose, and some humble furniture for her little cottage; everything else had been sold to raise the small sum on the interest of which she was to live.
"Mother! mother! do let me at once go to sea!" exclaimed Paul, who understood tolerably well the state of affairs. "I can do nothing at home to help you, and only eat up what should feed others; if I go to sea, I shall get food and clothing, and pay and prize-money, and be able to send quantities of gold guineas home to you. Reuben Cole has been telling me all about it; and he showed me a purse full of great gold pieces, just the remains of what he came ashore with a few weeks ago. He was going to give most of it to his sister, who has a number of children, and then go away to sea again, and, dear mother, he promised to take me with him if you would let me go. Mary and Fred will help all the better, when I am away, to teach Sarah and John and Ann, and Fred is so fond of books that he is certain to get on some day, somehow or other."
What could the poor widow say to these appeals often repeated? What could she hope to do for her boy? There was a romance attached in those times to a sea life felt by all classes, which scarcely exists at the present day. She sent for Reuben Cole, who, though a rough sailor, seemed to have a kind heart. He promised to act the part of a father towards the boy to the best of his power, undertaking to find a good ship for him without delay. The widow yielded, and with many an earnest prayer for his safety, committed Paul to the charge of Reuben Cole. The honest sailor was as good as his word. He could scarcely have selected a better ship than the Cerberus. He volunteered to join, provided Paul was received on board; his terms were accepted, and he thought that he was doing well for his young charge when he got him the appointment of midshipmen's boy. The employment was very different from what Paul had expected, but he had determined to do his duty in whatever station he might be placed. The higher pay and perquisites would be of value to him, as he might thus send more money to his mother, and he hoped soon to become reconciled to his lot. One day, however, the name of a midshipman who had just joined struck his ear,—it was that of Devereux, the name of the family with whom his father had so long carried on the unsuccessful lawsuit.
From some remarks casually made by one of the other midshipmen while he was waiting in the berth, Paul was convinced that Gilbert Devereux was a son of the man who had, he conceived, been the cause of his father's ruin and death. Paul, had he been asked, would have acknowledged how he ought to feel towards young Devereux, but he at times allowed himself to regard him with bitterness and dislike, if not with downright hatred. He well knew that this feeling was wrong, and he had more than once tried to overcome the feeling when, perhaps, some careless expression let drop by Gilbert Devereux, or some order given by him, would once more arouse it. "I could bear it from another, but not from him," Paul over and over again had said to himself after each fresh cause of annoyance given by young Devereux, who all the time was himself utterly ignorant that he had offended the boy. Of course he did not suspect who Paul was; Paul had determined to keep his own secret, and had not divulged it even to Reuben. Reuben was somewhat disappointed with Paul. "I cannot make out what ails the lad," he said to himself, "he was merry and spirited enough on shore; I hope he's not going to be afraid of salt-water."
Poor Paul was undergoing a severe trial. It might prove for his benefit in the end. While the frigate was in harbour, he bore up tolerably well, but he had now for the first time in his life to contend with sea-sickness; while he was also at the beck and call of a dozen or more somewhat unreasonable masters. It was not, however, till that Saturday night that Paul began really to repent that he had come to sea. Where was the romance? As the serpent, into which Aaron's rod was changed, swallowed up the serpents of the Egyptian magicians, so the stern reality had devoured all the ideas of the romance of a sea life, which he had till now entertained.
Yet sleep, that blessed medicine for human woes, brought calm and comfort to his soul. He dreamed of happier days, when his father was alive, and as yet no cares had visited his home. He was surrounded by the comforts which wealth can give. He was preparing, as he had long hoped to do, for sea, with the expectation of being placed as a midshipman on the quarter-deck. His uniform with brass buttons, his dirk and gold-laced hat, lay on a table before him, with a bright quadrant and spy-glass; and there was his sea-chest ready to be filled with his new wardrobe, and all sorts of little comforts which a fond mother and sisters were likely to have prepared for him. He heard the congratulations of friends, and the prophecies that he would some day emulate the deeds of England's greatest naval heroes. He dreamed on thus till the late events of his life again came into his thoughts, and he recollected that it was not his own, but the outfit of another lad about to go to sea which he had long ago inspected with such interest, and at length the poor ship-boy was awakened to the stern reality of his present condition by the hoarse voice of a boatswain's mate summoning all hands on deck. Paul felt so sea-sick and so utterly miserable that he thought that he would rather die where he lay in his hammock than turn out and dress. The ship was tumbling about more violently than ever; the noise was terrific; the loud voices of the men giving utterance to coarse oaths as they awoke from their sleep; their shouts and cries; the roaring of the wind as it found its way through the open hatches down below; the rattling of the blocks; the creaking of timbers and bulkheads, and the crash of the sea against the sides of the ship, made Paul suppose that she was about to sink into the depths of the ocean. "I'll die where I am," he thought to himself. "Oh, my dear mother and sisters, I shall never see you more!" But at that instant a kick and a blow inflicted by Sam Coulson, one of the boatswain's mates, made him spring up.
"What, skulking already, you young hedgehog," exclaimed the man; "on deck with your or your shoulders shall feel a taste of my colt."
Although Paul was as quick in his movements as his weak state would allow, a shower of blows descended on his back, which brought him on his knees, when, ordering him to pick himself up and follow, on pain of a further dose of the colt, Sam Coulson passed on. The sharp tattoo of a drum beaten rapidly sounded at the same time through the ship; but what it signified Paul in his ignorance could not tell, nor was there any one near him to ask. Bewildered and unable to see in the darkness, he tried in vain to gain the hatchway. He groped his way aft as fast as he could, for fear of encountering the boatswain's mate. "If the ship sinks I must go down with her; but anything is better than meeting him," he thought to himself. "Besides, I cannot be worse off than those on deck, I should think."
He worked his way aft till he found himself near the midshipmen's chests; there was a snug place between two of them in which he had more than once before ensconced himself when waiting to be summoned by his masters. "Here I'll wait till I find out what is happening," he said to himself as he sank down into the corner. The din continued, the frigate tumbled about as much as before, but he was very weary, and before long he forgot where he was, and fell fast asleep.
He was at length awoke by a crashing sound, as if the timbers were being rent apart. What could it be? He started up, scarcely knowing where he was. Had the ship struck on a rock, or could she be going down? There was then a loud report; another and another followed. The reports became louder; they were directly over his head. The main-deck guns were being fired. The ship must be engaged with an enemy, there could be no doubt about that. The light from a ship's lantern fell on the spot where he lay. The gunner and his crew were descending to the magazine. His duty he had been told would be in action to carry up powder to the crew; he ought to arouse himself. The surgeon and his assistants now came below to prepare the cockpit for the reception of the wounded. More lights appeared. The carpenter and his crew were going their rounds through the wings. Men were descending and ascending, carrying up shot from the lockers below. All were too busy to discover Paul. The sea had by this time gone down, and the ship was less tumbled about than before. Sleep, too, had somewhat restored his strength, and with it his spirits and courage.
"What am I about, skulking here? I ought to be ashamed of myself; have all my once brave thoughts and aspirations come to this? I will be up and do my duty, and not mind Sam Coulson, or the enemy's shot, or anything else." Such were the thoughts which rapidly passed through his mind; he sprang to his feet, and, as he hoped, unobserved reached the main-deck. He fortunately remembered that his friend Reuben Cole was captain of one of the main-deck guns, and that Reuben had told him that that was the gun he was to serve. The deck was well lighted up by the fighting-lanterns, and he had thus no difficulty in finding out his friend. The men, mostly stripped to their waists, stood grouped round their guns with the tackles in their hands, the captains holding the slow matches ready to fire. Paul ran up to Reuben, who was captain of his gun.
"What am I to do?" he asked; "you said you would tell me."
"So I will, lad; and I am glad to see you, for I was afraid that you had come to harm," answered Reuben, in a kind tone. "I said as how I was sure you wasn't one to skulk. Where was you, boy?"
Paul felt conscience-stricken, and he dared not answer; for utter a falsehood to excuse himself he would not. "Tell me what I am to do, and I'll try to do it," he said, at length.
"Why, then, do you go down with Tom Buckle to the powder-magazine with that tub there, and get it filled and come back and sit on it till we wants it," replied his friend, who possibly might have suspected the truth.
"Then I am about to take part in a real battle," thought Paul, as, accompanying the boy Tom Buckle, he ran down to the magazine. In a moment, sickness, fatigue, and fear were banished. He was the true-hearted English Boy, and he felt as brave as he could wish, and regardless of danger. Paul knew he was doing his duty. His tub was quickly filled, and he was soon again at Reuben's gun, behind which he was told to sit—one of a row of boys employed in the same manner. Many of his companions were laughing and joking, as if nothing unusual was occurring, or as if it was impossible that a shot could find them out.
Paul was now, for the first time, able to make inquiries as to the state of affairs. Reuben told him that, at about midnight, the lights of two ships had been seen. It was possible that they might be those of the look-out frigates of an enemy's squadron, at the same time as they might be British, and as Captain Walford had resolved that nothing should drive him back, the Cerberus was kept on her course. Whatever they were, the strangers seemed determined to become better acquainted. As they drew nearer, signals were exchanged; but those of the stranger's were not understood. The drum on this beat to quarters, and the ship was prepared for battle. The two ships approached, and soon gave the Cerberus a taste of their quality by pouring their broadsides into her; but, in consequence of the heavy sea which was then running, very few of their shot had taken effect. Two, however, which had struck her hull, had passed through the bulwarks and killed two of her men, whose bodies now lay stark and stiff on the main-deck, near where they had stood as their mates were now standing, full of life and manly strength. Paul's eyes fell on them. It was the first time he had seen death in its most hideous form. He shuddered and turned sick. Reuben observed the direction in which his glance was turned.
"Paul, my lad, you mustn't think of them now," he cried out. "They've done their duty like men, and it's our business to try to do ours. We've got some pretty sharp work before us; but it's my belief that we'll beat off our enemies, or take one or both of them, maybe. Hurrah! lads. That's what we've got to do."
The crews of the guns within hearing uttered a cheerful response. "All ready!"
"Let 'em come on!"
"The more the merrier!"
"We'll give 'em more than we'll take!"
These, and similar expressions, were heard from the seamen, while now and then a broad joke or a loud laugh burst from the lips of the more excited among them. But there was no Dutch courage exhibited. One and all showed the most determined and coolest bravery. The officers whose duty it was to be on the main-deck kept going their rounds, to see that the men were at their stations, and that all were supplied with powder and shot and all things necessary. Then the first-lieutenant, Mr Order, came down.
"My lads," he exclaimed, "the captain sends to you to say that we have, perhaps, tough work before us; but that he is sure you all will do your duty like men, and will help him to thrash the enemy, as he hopes to do by daylight, when he can see them better."
A loud cheer rang out from the throats of the seamen, fore and aft. Mr Order felt satisfied that they were in the right temper for work. He returned again on deck. It was still very dark, and nothing could be seen through the open ports. Every now and then, however, the crest of a sea washed in and deluged the decks, washing from side to side till it could escape through the scuppers. Any moment the order to fire might be heard, or the shot of the enemy might come crashing through the sides. It was a trying time for old salts, who had fought in many a previous battle; much more so for young hands. Paul sat composedly on his tub. Not far off from him stood Gilbert Devereux, in command of a division of guns.
"If a shot were to take his head off, there would be one of our enemies out of the way," thought Paul; but directly afterwards his conscience rebuked him. "No, no; that is a wicked feeling," it said; "I would rather be killed myself, if it were not for my poor mother and all at home—they would be so sorry."
Still, Paul could not help eyeing the aristocratic-looking young midshipman, who, with a firm, proud step, trod the deck, eager for the fight, and little aware that he was watched with so much interest by the humble ship's boy. Peter Bruff, who had the next division of guns under his charge, came up to Gilbert.
"Well, Devereux, how do you like this fun?" he asked. "Have you ever before been engaged?"
"Never; but I like the idea of the sport well enough to wish to begin," answered Devereux. "Where are our enemies?"
"Not far off, and they will not disappoint us," answered Bruff. "We shall have pretty tough work of it, depend on that."
"The tougher the better," answered Devereux, in a somewhat affected tone. "I've never been in a battle, and I really want to see what it is like."
"He's wonderfully cool," thought Paul. "He hasn't seen the dead men there, forward. It would be some satisfaction if he would show himself to be a coward, after all. I could throw it in his teeth when he attempts to tyrannise over me."
Paul's feelings were very far from right; but they were natural, unfortunately. Gilbert's firm step and light laugh showed that there was little chance of Paul's wishes being realised. Now a rumour spread from gun to gun that the enemy were again drawing near. The men took a firmer hold of the gun-tackles, hitched up their trousers, drew their belts tighter round their waists, or gave some similar sign of preparation for the coming struggle.
"Silence, fore and aft!" cried the officer in command of the deck.
He was repeating the order which the captain had just given above. The frigate plunged on heavily through the seas. The awful moment was approaching. There was neither jest nor laughter now. The men were eagerly looking through the ports. The lights from two ships were seen on the weather beam. In smooth water the enemy having the weather-gauge would have been to the disadvantage of the Cerberus; but with the heavy sea which then ran it mattered, fortunately, less.
"Starboard guns! Fire! fire!" was shouted by the officers.
"Hurrah, lads! We have the first of it this time, and it's my belief we hit the mounseer," cried Reuben Cole, as he discharged his gun.
Scarcely had the smoke cleared off from the deck when the roar of the enemy's guns was heard, and several shot came crashing against the side. One, coming through a port, passed close above Paul's head, and though it sent the splinters flying about in every direction, no one was hurt.
"I've an idea there'll be work for the carpenters, to plug the shot-holes," cried Reuben, as the guns, being rapidly run in, loaded, and run out again, he stood ready for the command to fire.
It soon came, and the whole broadside of the Cerberus was poured, with good aim, into the bows of the leading Frenchman, which had attempted to pay her the same compliment. For a few moments at a time Paul could catch sight of the lights of the enemy's ships through the ports; but the smoke from their own guns quickly again shut out all objects, except the men standing close to him. Paul had plenty to do; jumping up to deliver the powder, and running down to the magazine for more when his tub was empty. He discovered that, small as he was, he was taking a very active part in the battle, and doing considerably more than the midshipmen, who had to stand still, or only occasionally to run about with orders. This gave him infinite satisfaction.
"After all, I am doing as much as he is," he thought, looking towards Devereux.
The firing became very rapid, and the enemy were close to the frigate; for not only round-shot flew on board, but the rattle of musketry was heard, and bullets came pattering through the ports. Such a game could not be played without loss. Fore and aft the men were struck down,— some never to rise again; cut in two, or with their heads knocked off. Others were carried below; and others, binding up their wounds, returned eagerly to their guns. Now there was a cessation of firing. The smoke cleared off. There stood Devereux, unharmed, and as cool as at the commencement of the action, though smoke-begrimed as the rest of the crew; but as Paul glanced round and saw the gleam of the lanterns on the blood-stained decks, and the pale faces of the dead, and the bandaged heads and limbs of the wounded, he again turned sick, and wished, as many a person has wished before, that there was no such thing as fighting and slaughtering one's fellow-creatures.
It was supposed that the enemy had hauled off to repair damages. The crew of the Cerberus were accordingly called away from their guns to repair those she had received, as far as could be done in the darkness. Not much time was allowed them. Again their enemies returned to the attack. Each ship was pronounced to be equal in size to the Cerberus, if not larger than it. She had already suffered severely; the men were again ordered to their quarters. The suspense before the firing should recommence was trying,—the very silence itself was awful. This time it was broken by the enemy, but their fire was speedily returned by a broadside from the Cerberus. Now, as rapidly as the guns on both sides could be loaded, they were run out and fired, for the British had an enemy on either beam, and each man knew that he must exert himself to the utmost to gain the victory. When did English sailors ever fail to do that? There could be no doubt, however, that the Cerberus was hard pressed.
Dreadful was the scene of havoc and carnage; the thunder of the guns; the rattle of the musketry; the crashing of the enemy's shot as they tore the stout planks asunder; the roar of the seas as they dashed against the sides, and the cries of the wounded, while the shouts of the men, who, as the fight grew more bloody, were more and more excited, became louder and louder; bright flashes, and wreaths of dark smoke, and splinters flying about, and men falling, and blood starting from their wounds, made up that horrid picture. Paul had seen old Noakes carried below; O'Grady followed, badly hurt; others of his masters were killed or wounded. Devereux seemed to bear a charmed life. No! no man's life is charmed. One moment he was standing full of life, encouraging his men; the next he lay wounded and bleeding on the wet and slippery deck. As he saw the handsome youth carried writhing in agony below, Paul's feelings of animosity instantly vanished. He would have sprung forward to help him, but he had his own duty to attend to, and he knew that he must not neglect it, even though it was only to sit on a tub.
From the exclamations of the men, Paul thought that the battle was going against them; still the crew fought on as bravely as at first. "Fire! fire!" What dreadful cry is that? "The ship is on fire!"
"All is lost!" No; the firemen leave their guns and run forward to where some hay is blazing. The enemy have discovered what has occurred and redouble their efforts. The fire must be got under in spite of shot and bullets. The men rush up to the flames fearlessly. Buckets upon buckets of water are thrown on them; the burning fragments of timber are hove overboard. The fire is reported to be got under. The British seamen cheer, and good reason have they to do so now, for flames are seen bursting from the ports and hatchways of their most determined opponent. Still all three ships tear on over the foaming ocean. Thus closes that fearful night, and so must we our first chapter.
The Cerberus, stout frigate that she was, plunged onward across the foam-covered ocean. On one side was the burning ship, at which not a shot had been fired since her condition was discovered; on the other was a still active enemy. With the latter, broadside after broadside was rapidly exchanged, but without much damage being sustained. From the burning ship a few shots continued for a short time to be fired, but as the fire increased, the crew must have deserted their guns, and as the flames gained the mastery, they burned through the ropes and attacked the sails, and the ship fell off and rolled helplessly in the trough of the sea, where the two combatants soon left her far astern.
"I wish as how we could heave-to and send a boat to help them poor fellows," cried Reuben Cole, looking at the burning ship.
"To my mind, the mounseer out there would be doing better if he was to cry, Peccavi, and then go and look after his countrymen, instead of getting himself knocked to pieces, as he will be if he keeps on long at this game."
The sentiment was highly applauded by his hearers. There was not a man indeed on board the frigate who was not eager to save the lives of the hapless crew of the burning ship, which they had till now striven so hard to destroy.
The firing had ceased; the grey dawn broke over the waste of waters; astern was seen the smoke from the burning ship, with bright flashes below it, and away to leeward their other antagonist making all sail to escape. The battle was over, though the victor could boast but of a barren conquest. The guns were run in and secured, and the weary crew instantly set to work to repair damages. As the wind had fallen and the sea had considerably gone down, the work was performed without much difficulty. Captain Walford had narrowly watched his flying foe, in the hopes that she might go to the assistance of her late consort. Her royals had not long sunk below the horizon when once more the Cerberus was in a condition to make sail.
Captain Walford considered whether he should go in pursuit of the enemy, or attempt to save the lives of the unfortunate people from the burning ship. In the first case he might possibly capture an enemy's ship, but ought he for the chance of so doing to leave his fellow-creatures to perish miserably?
"No, I will risk all consequences," he said to his first-lieutenant after a turn on deck. And the Cerberus stood towards the wreck.
The wind had fallen so much that her progress was very slow. The English now wished for more wind, for every moment might be of vital consequence to their late enemies. Not a man on board felt the least enmity towards them; even the wounded and dying when told of their condition looked on them as brothers in misfortune.
War is sad work, sad for those at home, sad for those engaged in it, and the only way to mitigate its horrors is to treat the fallen or the defeated foe as we should ourselves wish to be treated.
While the frigate sailed on, the crew were repairing as far as possible the damages she had received; for at that season of the year it was probable that another gale might spring up, which she was as yet ill-prepared to encounter. The men were nearly dropping with fatigue, but they worked on bravely, as true-hearted seamen always do work when necessity demands their exertions.
Meantime Paul was summoned below. The midshipmen who were not required on deck were again assembled in the berth; but the places of several were vacant. They were eating a hurried meal which Paul had placed on the table, and discussing the events of the fight. One or two of the youngsters were rather graver than usual, but Paul thought that the rest took matters with wonderful indifference. He was anxious to know what had happened to Devereux, whom he had seen carried below badly wounded. Nobody mentioned him; perhaps he was dead; and he did not feel sorry at the thought. After a time, though, he had some compunctions of conscience. He was thinking that he would find his way towards the sick bay, where the wounded midshipmen and other junior officers were placed, when one of the assistant-surgeons came towards the berth.
"Here, boy Gerrard, I can trust you, I think," he exclaimed. "I want you to stay by Mr Devereux, and to keep continually moistening his lips, fomenting his wound as I shall direct. He is very feverish, and his life may depend on your attention."
Paul felt as he had never felt before, proud and happy at being thus spoken to, and selected by the surgeon to perform a responsible office, even though it was for one whom he had taught himself to look upon in the light of an enemy. He was soon by the side of the sufferer. The sight which met his eyes was sufficient to disarm all hostility. The young midshipman, lately so joyous, with the flush of health on his cheeks, lay pale as death, groaning piteously; his side had been torn open, and a splinter had taken part of the scalp from his head. The assistant-surgeon showed him what to do, and then hurried away, for he had many wounded to attend to, as the chief surgeon had been killed by a shot which came through one of the lower ports.
Gerrard felt greatly touched at Devereux's sufferings. "Poor fellow! he cannot possibly live with those dreadful wounds, and yet I am sure when the fight began that he had not an idea that he was to be killed, or even hurt," he said to himself more than once. Paul was unwearied in following the surgeon's directions. Devereux, however, was totally unconscious, and unaware who was attending on him. He spoke now and then, but incoherently, generally about the home he had lately left. Once Paul heard him utter the name of Gerrard.
"We beat them, though they kept us long out of our fortune, and now they are beggars as they deserve. Hard for the young ones, though, I think; but it cannot be helped—must not think about them."
Such expressions dropped at intervals from the lips of Devereux. How he came to utter them at that time Paul could not guess. Did he know him, or in any way associate his name with the family of whom he was speaking?
"He has some sympathy, at all events, poor fellow, with our misfortunes," thought Paul. "I wish that I had not thought so ill of him. I hope he won't die. I will pray that God will spare his life; even if he were my enemy I should do that."
The surgeon, when he came his rounds, expressed his approval of the way Paul had managed his patient.
"Will he live, sir?" asked Paul, in a trembling voice.
"That is more than the wisest of us can say," was the answer.
Paul was at length relieved from his charge by a marine who acted as Devereux's servant. He was, however, very unwilling to quit his post. He was feeling more interest in the wounded midshipman than he could have supposed possible.
Paul, as soon as he could, made his way on deck. He wanted to know what had become of the burning ship. He looked around; she was nowhere to be seen. He inquired what had happened to her. She had blown up; and probably nearly all on board had sunk beneath the waves. There were men aloft, however, looking out, and now they were pointing in the direction of where the burning ship had gone down. A speck on the ocean was observed; it was probably part of the wreck, and perhaps some of the crew might be clinging to it. The captain ordered a boat to be lowered, for the wind was so light that the frigate would take a much longer time than it would to reach the spot. The boat pulled away; the men in the rigging and all on deck eagerly watched her progress. It seemed, however, doubtful whether any one of their late foes had escaped destruction. The crew in the boat made no sign that they saw any one. At length, however, they reached the spot towards which they were rowing.
"Anyhow, they've got something," cried a topman.
The boat made a wide circuit round the fatal spot. After some time she was seen returning to the ship.
"They have got a man, I do believe," exclaimed one of the men.
"No; to my mind it is only a mounseer midshipmite," observed Reuben Cole, looking down from his work into the boat.
"They've picked up a few other things, though, but it's a poor haul, I fear."
When the boat came alongside, a fine young boy in a French uniform was handed up and placed on the deck. He looked around with a bewildered air, as if not knowing where he was. Captain Walford then took him kindly by the hand, and told him that he should be well cared for, and that he would find friends instead of those he had lost. The boy sighed.
"What! are all, all gone?" he asked in French.
"I fear so," answered the captain. "But you are cold and wet, and you must go below to the surgeon, who will attend to you."
The poor young stranger was, however, very unwilling to leave the deck, and kept looking up into the countenances of the bystanders as if in search of some of his missing friends. Paul watched him with interest.
"Poor boy!" he said to himself; "I thought that I was very forlorn and miserable; but I have Reuben Cole and others who are kind to me, and he has no one here who can care for him. How fortunate that I learned French, because now I can talk to him and be useful to him."
When the humane Captain Walford found that all the rest of the hapless crew of his late antagonist were lost, he ordered all the sail to be made which the frigate in her present crippled state could carry, in chase of his other opponent, having noted carefully the direction in which she was steering when last seen.
"I thought that we had done with fighting for the present," said Paul to Reuben Cole, who told him that they were looking out for the other frigate.
"No, boy, that we haven't, and what's more, I expect we shan't, as long as the flag of an enemy of old England flies over the salt sea. You'll live, I hope, Paul, to help thrash many of them. I liked the way in which you behaved in the action just now. You was cool and active, which is just what you should be. It won't be my fault if you don't make a first-rate seaman some day."
Paul was again much pleased with Reuben's commendations. He was sure that he would keep his promise, and he resolved to profit by his instructions, as far as his duties in the midshipmen's berth would allow him. Before long, the young Frenchman made his appearance on deck, dressed in the uniform of an English midshipman who had been killed. He lifted his hat in the politest manner to the captain and officers, and thanked them for the courtesy they had shown him. He was in the middle of his speech, which was very pathetic, when his eye fell on some of the articles which had been picked up and had not been taken below. Among them was a long narrow case. He sprang towards it with a shout of joy.
"C'est a moi! c'est a moi!" he exclaimed, as he produced a key from a lanyard round his neck. He opened the case and drew forth a violin and bow. The case had been well made and water-tight; he applied the instrument to his chin. At first, only slow melancholy sounds were elicited; but by degrees, as the strings got dry, the performer's arms moved more rapidly, and he at last struck up a right merry tune.
The effect was curious and powerful. The captain unconsciously began to move his feet, the officers to shuffle, and the men, catching the infection, commenced a rapid hornpipe, which Mr Order, the first-lieutenant, in vain attempted to stop. The young Frenchman, delighted at finding that his music was appreciated, played faster and faster, till everybody on deck was moving about in a fashion seldom seen on the deck of a man-of-war.
"Stop, stop!" shouted the first-lieutenant; "knock off that nonsense, men; stop your fiddling, I say, youngster—stop your fiddling, I say."
The discipline of the ship was very nearly upset; the men, however, heard and obeyed; but the young Frenchman, not comprehending a word, and delighted moreover to get back his beloved violin, continued playing away as eagerly as at first, till Mr Order, losing patience, seized his arm, and by a significant gesture, ordered him to desist. His musical talent, and his apparent good-nature, gained for the French lad the goodwill of the crew, and of most of the officers also.
"What is your name, my young friend?" asked Captain Walford.
"Alphonse Montauban," was the answer.
"Very well; you will be more at your ease in the midshipmen's berth, I suspect. Take him below, Mr Bruff, and say that I beg the young gentlemen will accommodate him and treat him with kindness. You'll get a hammock slung for him."
"Ay, ay, sir," answered Bruff, taking Alphonse by the hand. "Come along, youngster."
Bruff was anxious to say something kind to the poor boy, but there was a bar to this, as neither understood each other's language. Paul followed, guessing this, and hoping that his knowledge of French might be put into requisition. Alphonse, with his fiddle tucked under his arm, entered the berth.
"Here's a young chap who is a first-rate hand with the catgut, and if any of you can tell him that he is welcome in his own lingo, I wish you would, mates," said Bruff.
"Mounseer, you are mucho welcomo to our bertho," exclaimed Blake. "Here's to your healtho, Mounseer. I hope, Bruff, this is first-rate French."
"It doesn't sound like it, but maybe he understands you, for he's bowing to you in return," answered Bruff.
Similar attempts at speaking French were made; but, as may be supposed, the young foreigner was as unable as at first to understand what was said.
"How very ignorant they are," thought Paul. "I wish that they would let me speak to him."
The young Frenchman, who was of an excitable disposition, at last thinking that the English boys were laughing at him, began to lose temper, and so did they, at what they considered his unexampled stupidity.
Paul, who was standing near the door, mustering courage, at length interpreted what was said into very fair French. The young stranger, with a pleased smile, asked—
"What! can a poor boy like you speak my dear language?"
"Yes, I learned it of my sisters at home," answered Paul.
"Then we must be friends, for you can sympathise with me more than can these," said Alphonse.
"Do not say so to them," observed Paul; "they may not like it. I am but a poor ship's boy and their servant."
"Misfortune makes all people equal, and your tone of voice and the way you speak French, convince me that you are of gentle birth," said Alphonse.
It is possible that the midshipmen might have looked at Paul with more respect from hearing him speak a language of which they were ignorant, though some sneered at him for talking the Frenchman's lingo.
Paul, as soon as he could leave the berth, hurried to the side of Devereux. He found the surgeon there.
"Ah! come to look after your patient, boy?" said Mr Lancet. "You have performed your duty so well, that I have begged Mr Order to relieve you from your attendance on the young gentlemen, and to give you to me altogether."
Paul thanked Mr Lancet, but told him frankly, that though he was very glad to be of service to Mr Devereux, or to any other wounded shipmate, he wished to learn to be a sailor, and therefore that he would rather be employed on deck; still he was gratified at what Mr Lancet had said.
He devoted himself, however, to Devereux, by whose side he spent every moment not absolutely required for sleep or for his meals. Mr Order sent another boy, Tom Buckle, to attend on the young gentlemen, who came to the conclusion that he was a perfect lout after Paul.
"There is something in that youngster after all," observed Bruff, who resolved to try what he was really worth, and to befriend him accordingly.
Meantime, the Cerberus continued in chase of the French frigate, which Alphonse told Captain Walford was the Alerte, and perhaps to induce him to give up the chase, he remarked that she was very powerfully armed and strongly manned, and would prove a dangerous antagonist. Captain Walford laughed.
"It is not a reason for abandoning the chase which would weigh much with any one on board this ship, I hope, though it will make them the more eager to come up with her," he answered.
Alphonse also let drop that the two frigates were bound out to the West Indies with important despatches. It was most probable, therefore, that the Alerte, in obedience to orders, would make the best of her way there. Captain Walford resolved to follow in that direction.
The Alerte had probably not received as much injury in her rigging as was supposed, and as Alphonse said that she was very fast, there was little expectation on board the Cerberus that they would come up with her before she got to her destination. Still, Captain Walford was not a man to abandon an object as long as there remained a possibility of success. He was a good specimen of a British naval officer. Brave, kind, and considerate, his men adored him; and there was no deed of daring which he would not venture to undertake, because he knew that his crew would follow wherever he would lead. He never swore at or abused those under him, or even had to speak roughly to them. Every officer who did his duty knew that he had in him a sincere friend; and his men looked upon him in the light of a kind and wise father, who would always do them justice, and overlook even their faults, if possible.
Mr Lancet took an opportunity of speaking to the captain of the boy Gerrard, and remarked that he was far better educated than were lads generally of his class.
"I will keep my eye on the lad, and if he proves worthy, will serve him if I can," was the answer.
Devereux continued in great danger; the surgeon would not assert that he would recover. It was some time before he remarked Paul's attention to him.
"You are boy Gerrard, I see," he observed faintly. "You are very good to me, and more than I deserve from you; but I never meant you ill, and I got you off a cobbing once. I have done very few good things in the world, and now I am going to die, I am afraid. You'll forgive me, Gerrard, won't you?"
"Oh, yes, yes, sir!" answered Paul, with tears in his eyes; "even if you had wronged me much more than you have done; but it wasn't you, it was your father and those about him."
"My father! What do you mean, boy; who are you?" exclaimed Devereux, in a tone of astonishment, starting up for a moment, though he immediately sank back exhausted; while he muttered to himself,—"Gerrard! Gerrard! can it be possible?" He then asked quietly—
"Where do you come from, boy?"
"No matter, sir," answered Paul, afraid of agitating Devereux. "I will tell you another time, for I hope that you will get well soon, and then you may be able to listen to what I have to say; but the doctor says that at present you must be kept perfectly quiet, and talk as little as possible."
Devereux, who was still very weak, did not persist in questioning Paul, who had time to reflect how far it would be wise to say anything about himself. He was not compelled to be communicative; and he considered that Devereux ill, and expecting to die, and Devereux well, might possibly be two very different characters. "If I were to tell him, he might bestow on me a sort of hypocritical compassion, and I could not stand that," he thought to himself. Whatever were Paul's feelings, he did not relax in his care of Devereux.
Day after day came, and the first question asked of the morning watch was, "Is there anything like the Alerte yet ahead?" All day, too, a bright look-out was kept from the mast-heads for her; but in vain, and some began to think that she must have altered her course and returned to the coast of France.
Paul was not sorry when he heard this, for he had seen enough of the effects of fighting to believe that it was not a desirable occupation; and he, moreover, felt for young Alphonse, who naturally earnestly hoped that the Cerberus would not fall in with the Alerte.
No one rejoiced more than did Paul when one day Mr Lancet pronounced Devereux to be out of danger, and that all he required was care and attention. Paul redoubled his efforts to be of use. Alphonse missed him very much from the berth, as he was the only person who could interpret for him, and whenever he wanted anything he had to find him out and to get him to explain what he required. Before long, therefore, the young Frenchman found his way to the sick bay, where Devereux and others lay. Devereux was the only midshipman who could speak French, though not so well as Paul.
The ship had now reached a southern latitude, and the balmy air coming through an open port contributed to restore health and strength to the sick and wounded. When Devereux heard Alphonse addressing Paul, and the latter replying in French, he lifted up his head.
"What, boy Gerrard, where did you learn French?" he asked.
"At home, sir," answered Paul, quietly.
"Yes, he speaks very good French, and is a very good boy," remarked Alphonse.
"And you, monsieur, you speak French also?"
Devereux replied that he did a little.
"That is very nice, indeed," said the young Frenchman. "We will talk together, and I shall no longer fear dying of ennui."
After this, Alphonse was constantly with Devereux, and when the latter was better, he brought his fiddle and played many a merry tune to him. Indeed, the young Frenchman, by his light-hearted gaiety, his gentleness, and desire to please, became a general favourite fore and aft.
"Ah, mounseer, if there was many like you aboard the frigate which went down, I for one am sorry that I had a hand in sending her there," exclaimed Reuben Cole one day, in a fit of affectionate enthusiasm.
Alphonse, who understood him, sighed. "There were many, many; but it was the fortune of war."
"But, suppose, Reuben, we come up with the other, and have to treat her in the same way, what will you say then?" asked Paul.
"Why, you see, Paul, the truth is this: if the captain says we must fight and sink her, it must be done, even if every one on us had a mother's son aboard. I stick up for discipline, come what may of it."
The ship was within one or two days' sail of the West Indies, when, as Paul was on deck, he heard the man at the mast-head shout out, "A sail on the lee-bow standing for the westward."
"It is the Alerte," thought Paul, "and we shall have more fighting." Others were of the same opinion. Instantly all sail was made in chase. The crew of the Cerberus had been somewhat dull of late, except when the little Mounseer, as they called Alphonse, scraped his fiddle. They were animated enough at present. Even the sick and wounded were eager to come on deck. Devereux especially insisted that he was able to return to his duty. Mr Lancet said that he might not suffer much, but that he had better remain out of harm's way, as even a slight wound might prove fatal. He would listen to no such reasoning, and getting Paul to help him on with his uniform, he crawled on deck.
"Gerrard," he said as he was dressing, "if I am killed, you are to be my heir as regards my personal effects. I have written it down, and given the paper to Mr Lancet, witnessed by Mr Bruff, so it's all right. I have an idea who you are, though you never told me."
Captain Walford was surprised at seeing Devereux on deck, and though he applauded his zeal, he told him that he had better have remained below.
As soon as the stranger discovered the Cerberus, she made all sail to escape. It was questioned whether or not she was the Alerte, but one thing was certain, that the Cerberus was overhauling her, and had soon got near enough to see her hull from aloft. It was now seen, that though she was a large ship, she was certainly not a frigate; it was doubted, indeed, whether she was French. The opinion of Alphonse was asked.
"She is not the Alerte, she is a merchantman and French; she will become your prize. I am sorry for my poor countrymen, but it is the fortune of war," he answered as he turned away with a sigh.
A calm, of frequent occurrence in those latitudes, came on, and there lay the two ships, rolling their sides into the water, and unable to approach each other.
"If the stranger gets a breeze before us she may yet escape," observed the captain. "Out boats, we must attack her with them."
The sort of work proposed has always been popular among seamen. There was no lack of volunteers. The boats were speedily manned; the second-lieutenant went in one boat; old Noakes, though badly wounded, was sufficiently recovered to take charge of another; Peter Bruff had a third. Paul was seized with a strong desire to go also. In the hurry of lowering the boats, he was able to slip into the bows of the last mentioned, and to hide himself under a sail thrown in by chance. Reuben Cole went in the same boat. Devereux watched them away, wishing that he could have gone also. The boats glided rapidly over the smooth, shining ocean. Their crews were eager to be up with their expected prize. The sun beat down on their heads, the water shone like polished silver, not a breath of air came to cool the heated atmosphere; but they cared not for the heat or fatigue, all they thought of was the prize before them. Paul lay snugly under his shelter, wondering when they would reach the enemy's side. He soon began to repent of his freak; he could hear the remarks of the men as they pulled on. The ship was from her appearance a letter of marque or a privateer, and such was not likely to yield without a severe struggle, he heard. Paul could endure the suspense no longer, and creeping from under his covering, he looked out over the bows.
"Hillo, youngster, what brings you here?" sung out Mr Bruff. "If you come off with a whole skin, as I hope you will, you must expect a taste of the cat to remind you that you are not to play such a trick again."
The reprimand from the kind-hearted mate might have been longer, but it was cut short by a shot from the enemy, which almost took the ends off the blades of the oars of his boat. The men cheered and dashed forward. At the same moment eight ports on a side were exposed, and a hot fire opened on the boats from as many guns, and from swivels and muskets. Hot as was the fire, it did not for a moment stop the boats. Paul wished that he had remained on board. The deck of the enemy seemed crowded with men.
"Hurrah, lads!" cried Peter Bruff when he saw this, "they'll only hamper each other and give us an easier victory."
The boats dashed alongside. Langrage and grape and round-shot were discharged at them, and boarding-pikes, muskets, and pistols were seen protruding through the ports ready for their reception. The boats hooked on, and, in spite of all opposition, the British seamen began to climb up the side. Some were driven back and hurled into the boats, wounded, too often mortally; the rest persevered. Again and again the attempt was made, the deck was gained, a desperate hand-to-hand combat began. It could have but one termination, the defeat of the attackers or the attacked. Paul climbed up with the rest of his shipmates. It is surprising that human beings could have faced the bristling mass of weapons which the British seamen had to encounter. Paul followed close behind Reuben, who kept abreast of Mr Noakes. Pistols were fired in their faces, cutlasses were clashing, as the seamen were slashing and cutting and lunging at their opponents. In spite of all opposition the deck was gained; the enemy, however, still fought bravely. Mr Larcom, the second-lieutenant of the Cerberus, fell shot through the head. Several men near him were killed or badly wounded; it seemed likely that after all the boarders would be driven back. Old Noakes saw the danger; there was still plenty of British pluck in him in spite of the pains he took to wash away all feeling; the day must be retrieved. "On, lads, on!" he shouted, throwing himself furiously on the enemy; "follow me! death or victory!"
Again the Frenchmen gave way; at first inch by inch they retreated, then more rapidly, leaving many of their number wounded on the deck. Bruff had faced about and driven the enemy aft; Noakes and Reuben still pushed forward. Paul, following close at their heels with an officer's sword which he had picked up, observed, fallen on the deck, a man, apparently a lieutenant, whose eye was fixed on Noakes, and whose hand held a pistol; he was taking a steady aim at Noakes's head. Paul sprang forward, and giving a cut at the man's arm, the muzzle of the pistol dropping, the contents entered the deck.
"Thanks, boy, you've saved my life, I'll not forget you," cried Noakes. "On, on, on!"
"Well done, Gerrard, well done!" exclaimed Reuben. "You've saved your hide, boy."
The Frenchmen, finding that all was lost, leaped down the fore-hatchway, most of them singing out for quarter. A few madly and treacherously fired up from below, which so exasperated the seamen, that nearly half of them were killed before their flag was hauled down and the rest overpowered. The frigate was by this time bringing up a breeze to the prize.
"It's a pity it didn't come a little sooner; it might have saved the lives of many fine fellows," observed Bruff, as he glanced round on the blood-stained deck.
"It's an ill wind that blows no one good," remarked Noakes, looking at Mr Larcom's body. "If he had been alive, I shouldn't have gained my promotion, which I am now pretty sure of for this morning's work, besides the command of the prize."
"'There's many a slip between the cup and the lip.' I've found it so, and so have you, mate, I suspect," said Bruff; "yet, old fellow, I hope you'll get what you deserve."
There was no jealousy in honest Bruff's composition. He put his old messmate's gallantry in so bright a light privately before Captain Walford, that the captain felt himself bound to recommend Noakes for promotion to the Admiralty, and to place him in charge of the prize to take home. She was the Aigle, privateer, mounting sixteen guns, evidently very fast, but very low, with taut masts, square yards, and seemingly very crank. Most of the prisoners were removed, and Mr Noakes got leave to pick a crew. He chose, among others, Reuben Cole and Paul Gerrard. The surgeon advised that Devereux and O'Grady should go home, and Alphonse Montauban was allowed a passage, that he might be exchanged on the first opportunity.
"Be careful of your spars, Noakes," observed Mr Order, as he looked up at the Aigle's lofty masts, "remember that you are short-handed."
"Ay, ay, sir," answered the old mate as he went down the side, adding to himself, "I should think that I know how to sail a craft by this time; I'm no sucking baby to require a nurse."
Paul was very glad to find himself with Devereux and Alphonse, as also with Reuben, on board the prize. Mr Noakes did not forget the service he had rendered him, and was as kind as could well be. He called him aft one day.
"Gerrard, my boy, you want to be a seaman, and though I can't give you silver and gold, I can make you that, if you will keep your wits about you, and I'll teach you navigation myself. You are a gentleman by birth, and that's more than some of us can boast of being; but I don't advise you to aspire to the quarter-deck. Without money or friends, you may repent being placed on it, as I have often done; that's no reason, however, that you shouldn't become fit to take command of a ship; a privateer or a merchantman may fall in your way; at all events, learn all you can."
Paul resolved to follow his new friend's advice. A course was shaped for Plymouth, and the Aigle proceeded merrily on her way.
Noakes could give good advice to others, but he did not follow after wisdom himself. He had a great failing, from the effects of which he had often suffered. Drink was his bane, as it is that of thousands. Several casks of prime claret were found on board; it would not have done much harm by itself, but there were some casks of brandy also. By mixing the two with some sugar, Noakes concocted a beverage very much to his taste. He kept his word with Paul as long as he was able, and lost no opportunity in giving him instruction in seamanship and navigation; but in time the attractions of his claret-cup were so great, that he was seldom in a condition to understand anything clearly himself, much less to explain it to another. Devereux and O'Grady expostulated in vain. He grew angry and only drank harder. The prisoners observed matters with inward satisfaction. They might have entertained hopes of regaining their ship. Alphonse warned Devereux.
"They have not spoken to me, or I could not say this to you, but they may, so be prepared," he observed one day as they were on deck together, no one else being near.
Noakes was compelled to keep watch. He always carried on more than either of his companions ventured to do. It was night, and very dark; the first watch was nearly over; the weather, hitherto fine, gave signs of changing. Devereux, who had charge of the deck, was about to shorten sail, when Noakes came up to relieve him.
"Hold all fast," he sung out, adding, "Nonsense, Devereux, your wounds have made you weak and timid. We've a slashing breeze, and let's take advantage of it to reach the shores of old England."
"Too much haste the worst speed," observed Reuben to Paul; "our sticks are bending terribly, they'll be whipping over the sides presently, or will capsize the craft altogether. I don't like the look of things, that I don't, I tell you." Scarcely had he spoken, when a blast, fiercer than its predecessor, struck the ship.
"Let fly of all," shouted Noakes, sobered somewhat.
The crew ran to obey the orders, but it came too late. Over went the tall ship; down, down, the raging tempest pressed her.
"Axes, axes, cut, cut," was heard from several mouths.
"Follow me, Paul, and then cling on for your life," cried Reuben Cole, climbing through a weather port; "it's too late to save the ship."
"What are we to do now?" asked Paul, after he had secured his hold in the main-chains.
"Hold on, Jack, where you are, while I will go and try to help some of our shipmates," answered Reuben. "There's Mr Devereux, who can't do much to help himself; and the young Mounseer, I should like to save him."
Several men had already got to the upper side of the ship, some in the main, and others in the mizen-chains, while others were in the rigging. As the ship was light, she still floated high out of the water. Many might possibly, therefore, be alive below. Reuben had not been gone long, when he put his head through the port, singing out—
"Here, Paul, lend a hand and help up Mr Devereux."
Devereux had been partially stunned, but had happily clung to a stanchion, where Reuben had found him. Paul hauled him up, while Reuben again dived in search of some one else. He was gone for some time, and Paul began to fear that some accident had happened to him. At length his voice was again heard.
"Hurrah, Paul, here he is; and what is more, he has his fiddle, too, all safe and sound."
Sure enough, there was Alphonse and his beloved fiddle in its case, which he had contrived to get up from below at no little risk of being drowned himself.
"Ah! I would not part from this," he exclaimed, as he made himself secure in the chains. "It is my own dear friend; shall I play you a tune now?"
"No, thank ye, Mounseer, it might chance to get wet, and may be there are more poor fellows to help up here," answered Reuben.
"Ah! truly, I forgot what had happened," said Alphonse in a dreamy tone, showing that his mind was wandering, overcome by the sudden catastrophe. It was no time for laughter, or Paul would have laughed at the oddness of the young Frenchman's remark. Still, awful as was the scene, he felt very little sensation of fear. The night was very dark, the wind howled, the rain fell in torrents, the sea dashed over the wreck, nearly washing off those who clung to it, while vivid flashes of lightning darted from the clouds and went hissing along like fiery serpents over the summits of the waves. The party in the main-chains spoke but little. It seemed too probable that none of them would ever see another day. Indeed, even should the ship not go down, Paul feared that Devereux could scarcely endure the hardships of their situation. He asked Reuben if nothing could be done.
"If we could get at the axes, we might cut away the masts and the ship might right," answered Reuben. "But, you see, we want daylight and the officers to give the order, so that all may act together."
While he was speaking, a voice was heard apparently from the mizen rigging, shouting, "Cut, I say, all of you; cut, I say, and cut together."
It was that of Mr Noakes. Directly after, a flash of lightning revealed him standing in the mizen-top, holding on with one hand, while he waved the other wildly around. His nervous system had been completely weakened by drinking, and it was evident that he had lost his senses. He continued to shout louder and louder, and then to abuse the crew for not obeying his orders. Flash after flash of lightning revealed him still waving his arm; his hat had fallen off, and his long grizzly hair flew wildly about his head. He seemed unaware of the danger of his position and indifferent to the seas which frequently dashed over him. He was thus seen standing, when a sea rose high above the half-submerged hull, and rolling over the after part, struck the mizen-top. A loud shriek was heard, and by the glare of a flash of forked lightning, the unhappy officer, the victim of hard drinking, was seen borne away amid its foaming waters. In vain he stretched out his arms to catch at floating ropes; in vain he struck out boldly towards the ship, and shouted to his men to help him. His strength was as nothing, no aid could be given, and in another instant the waves closed for ever over his head. O'Grady was the only other officer not accounted for. He had been below, and it was to be hoped had got to the upper side and had thus escaped being drowned. While his messmates were inquiring for him, his voice was heard shouting for help. He had clambered up through a hatchway, scarcely knowing what had occurred. Reuben Cole and Paul helped him up to the main-chains. Devereux and Alphonse bore up wonderfully well. The former especially showed what spirit and courage ran do under difficulties and hardships.
"I wish that the day were come," said Paul more than once.
"It's what many have wished before, boy, and if has come in good time," answered Reuben.
"There's just only one thing for it, and that's patience, as Sandy McPherson, an old shipmate of mine, used to say whenever he was in trouble."
The dawn did come at last, but it was very grey and very cold; but the wind and sea had gone down and the ship was still afloat. Whether she could be saved was the first question asked by all. Devereux was now senior officer, but his experience was very limited.
"I wish that I had attended more to this sort of thing," he observed to O'Grady. "I never thought of the possibility of this happening to myself."
"Faith, I can't say that I ever thought much about it either," answered the other midshipman. "But I think that we couldn't do better than to follow old Noakes's last order, to cut away the masts. If the ship keeps on her side much longer, she'll go down, that's pretty certain."
"It's very well to give the order, but where are the axes to cut with?" asked Devereux.
"Well, to be sure, I didn't think about that," answered O'Grady. "But I'll volunteer to go and search for them, and probably others will come and help me."
"I will, sir," exclaimed Paul, who overheard the conversation.
"And so will I," said Reuben Cole; "and what is more, even if the ship does not go down, we shall starve if we don't, for there isn't a scrap of food among any of us."
Alphonse also expressed his readiness to go on the expedition, but O'Grady begged that he would remain and take care of Devereux. No time was to be lost. As soon as there was sufficient light for them to see, securing themselves by ropes, they slipped through a port and disappeared. Devereux, who was unfit for any exertion, remained in the chains. Some minutes passed. He became at last very anxious about his companions. He shouted to them, but no one replied. It appeared to him that the ship was turning over more, and settling deeper than before in the water.
"They have only gone a short time before me," he thought. "It matters but little, yet how unfit I am to die. But I must not yield without a struggle. People in our circumstances have formed rafts and escaped; why should not we? Though without food, or water, or compass, or chart, we shall be badly off." He proposed his plan to Alphonse and the people near him. All promised to obey his directions. They were on the point of climbing along the masts to get at the lighter spars, when Paul poked his head through a port, flourishing above it an axe.
"We've found them, we've found them," he shouted; "but there's no time to be lost, for the water is already making its way through the hatches."
The rest of the party appearing, corroborated this statement. Devereux roused up his energies and distributed his crew, some at the masts, and the rest at the shrouds.
"Cut off all, and cut together!" he shouted. In a minute every shroud and stay and mast was cut through. The effect was instantaneous. The ship rolled up on an even keel so rapidly, that Devereux and those with him could with difficulty climb over the bulwarks to regain the deck. Their condition was but little improved, for so much water had got down below, that it seemed improbable the ship could swim long, and there she lay a dismasted wreck in the middle of the wide Atlantic. The young commander's first wish was to endeavour to clear the ship of water, but the pumps were choked, and long before the water could be bailed out, another gale might spring up and the ship go down, even supposing there was no leak. It was probable, however, that from the quantity of water in her she had already sprung a serious leak. Every boat on board had been washed away or destroyed when the ship went over. Blank dismay was visible on the countenances of even some of the boldest of the crew. The masts and spars were, however, still hanging by the lee rigging alongside.
"We could make a stout raft anyhow," observed Reuben.
The idea was taken up by the rest. There was a chance of life. Devereux gave orders that a raft should be formed.
"But we'll be starving entirely, if we don't get up some provisions," observed O'Grady.
"May I go and collect them?" asked Paul. "Stronger people than I can be working at the raft."
"And I will go too," said Alphonse, when Paul had obtained the permission asked.
They found, however, that most of the casks and jars in the officers' cabins had been upset and their contents washed away, while there was already so much water in the hold, that they could not get up anything from it. A cheese, some bottles of spirits, and a small cask of wet biscuit, were all they could collect. While groping about in the hold, it appeared to them that the water was rising; if so, the ship must have sprung a serious leak. With the scanty supply of provisions they had obtained, they hurried on deck to report what they had remarked. Considerable progress had been made with the raft, but without food and water it could only tend to prolong their misery. Reuben, with three other men, were therefore ordered below, to get up any more provisions which they could find. They very soon returned with the only things they could reach,—a small cask of pork, another of biscuit, and a keg of butter. Water was, however, most required, and it was not to be obtained. It was evident, too, that the ship was settling down more and more, and that no time must be lost in getting the raft finished. All hands now worked with the knowledge that their lives depended on their exertions, rapidly passing the numerous lashings in a way of which sailors alone are capable. Even before it was completed, the small amount of provisions which had been collected were placed on it, for all knew that at any moment it might prove their only ark of safety.
Devereux had no occasion to urge his men to increased exertion. A sail and spars for a mast, and yards and rudder were got ready. At length all the preparations were concluded.
"To the raft! to the raft!" was the cry, for the ship had sunk so low that the water was already running through the scuppers. Gradually she went down; the raft was slightly agitated by the vortex formed as the waters closed over her, and then it floated calmly on the wide ocean.
The crew looked at each other for some time without speaking. Devereux was very young to be placed in so trying a position, still he saw that he must maintain discipline among those under his command, and prevent them from sinking into a state of despondency. There was much to be done; the mast to be rigged, the sail to be fitted, and a rudder formed. It was necessary also to secure the articles on the raft, and all being done, he steered a course for the west, hoping to reach one of the West India Islands.
Paul had often when at home pictured such a scene as that in which he was now taking a part, but how far short did the scene he had drawn come of the reality! Scarcely had the ship disappeared than the wind fell and the sea became like glass, while the sun shone with intense heat on the unprotected heads of the seamen.
"Reuben, can I ask for a mug of water, do you think? I am dreadfully thirsty," said Paul.
Reuben looked at him with compassion. "Every drop of water we've got is worth its weight in gold and many times more," he answered. "It will be served out to us in thimblefuls, and each officer and man will share alike. It will be well for us if it even thus lasts till we make the land or get picked up."
Not a mouthful of food had been eaten since the previous evening.
"It's mighty like starving we are," observed O'Grady; "we had better begin to eat a little, or we shall grow so ravenous, that it will be no small allowance will satisfy us."
"You are right, Paddy," said Devereux, rousing himself up. "Ascertain what quantity we have, and calculate how long it will last."
O'Grady commenced the examination as directed. He soon reported that there was enough food to support life for eight, or perhaps, ten days.
"And water?" asked Devereux.
"Not for eight," was the answer.
"Heaven preserve us!" ejaculated Devereux. "It will take us double that time to reach the land!"
The provisions were served out with the greatest care and in equal portions. The people on the raft suffered more from heat than from any other cause. The sea remained perfectly calm, the sun sank down, and darkness reigned over the ocean. It was their first night on the raft. Who could say how many more they might have to spend on it? Devereux did his best to keep up the courage of his men, but in spite of all he could say, the spirits of many sank low. He encouraged them to tell stories, to narrate their adventures, to sing songs, and he himself took every opportunity of talking of the future, and spoke confidently of what he would do when they should reach the shore. Paul felt very unhappy. He was hungry and thirsty, and that alone lowers the spirits. The men were grouped round their officers in the centre of the raft. Paul was sitting near Reuben.
"I don't think that I shall ever live through this," he said, taking his friend's hand. "You are strong, Reuben, and you may weather it out. If you do, you'll go and tell my poor mother and sisters how it all happened and what became of me. Tell them that if I had lived I might, perhaps, have been placed on the quarter-deck and become a captain or an admiral; but that dream is all over now."
"As to that being a dream, a dream it is, Paul," said Reuben; "but as to your living and turning out a good seaman, I've no fear about that, my boy," he added cheerfully. "You see, there's One above cares for us, and if we pray to Him He'll send us help."
The night passed on, the stars shone brightly down from the pure sky, the waters flashed with phosphorescence, the inhabitants of the deep came up to the surface to breathe, while not a breath of air ruffled the face of the ocean. Except two appointed to keep watch, all on the raft soon sank into a deep sleep. They were awoke by the hot sun beating down on their heads; then they again wished for night. As the rays of the sun came down with fiercer force their thirst increased, but no one asked for more than his small share of water. Those only who have endured thirst know the intensity of the suffering it causes. Devereux had no more able supporter than Alphonse, who had saved his well-beloved violin. The moment the young Frenchman saw that the spirits of the people were sinking, he pulled it from its case, and putting it to his chin, began scraping away with right good will; now a merry, now a pathetic air. The excitable state of the nerves of the seamen was shown by the effect he produced. On hearing the merry tunes they burst into shouts of laughter; with the pathetic, even the roughest melted into tears. Alphonse played on till his arm ached, and scarcely was he rested before they begged him to go on again. Before the day closed, however, several of the party appeared to be sinking into a state of apathy, scarcely knowing where they were, or what they were saying. Some clamoured loudly for food, but Devereux mildly but firmly refused to allow any one to have more than his allotted share. Paul looked at him with a respect he had never before felt. He seemed so cool and collected, so different from the careless, thoughtless midshipman he had appeared on board the frigate. He had evidently risen to the difficulties of his position. He well knew, indeed, that the lives of all the party would depend in a great measure on his firmness and decision; at the same time, he knew that all he could do might avail them nothing. He also felt compassion for Paul, who was the youngest person on the raft. He had brought him away from the frigate, and it was very probable that he would be one of the first to sink under the hardships to which they were exposed. Paul was not aware that Devereux, when serving out the food, gave him a portion of his own scanty share, in the hopes that his strength might be thus better supported and his life prolonged. Another night passed by, and when the sun rose, it shone as before on a glassy sea. There was no sign of a breeze, and without a breeze no ship could approach the raft, nor could the raft make progress towards the land. Still Devereux persevered as before in endeavouring to keep up the spirits of his men. Alphonse and his fiddle were in constant requisition, and in spite of his own suffering, as long as he could keep his bow moving, he played on with right good will. When Alphonse grew weary, Devereux called for a tale; now for a song; now he told one of his own adventures, or some adventure he had heard.