Under the Meteor Flag Log of a Midshipman during the French Revolutionary War
By Harry Collingwood This is well-written and full of action. The formula is very much the same as Kingston's—gales, shipwrecks, rafts, hand-to-hand battles, and above all, a super-smart midshipman who doesn't even shave yet, but who has influence in the Navy.
It is a good yarn, but there are a couple of things I do not like about it. One is the habit of giving people surnames that are also parts of the ship. I know that Marryat did it once or twice, and Kingston did it, but it jars each time. I suppose the virtue of doing this is that you are unlikely to find anyone in real life with that surname, so confusion with actual people is avoided.
The other thing I don't like is the bringing-in of descriptions almost word for word from other books by the same author. I suppose that's better than bringing in descriptions by other authors.
A very strange thing is the title of the book. The word "meteor" is mentioned only once, and on that occasion the meteor flag was waving while they committed someone's body to the deep. I do think the title ought to have something to do with the book, but at the time this book was written there didn't seem to be a strong rule about it.
It is a longish book, and the audiobook is easy to listen to, but the action goes so fast that you must not let your mind drift while you are listening. NH. UNDER THE METEOR FLAG LOG OF A MIDSHIPMAN DURING THE FRENCH REVOLUTIONARY WAR
BY HARRY COLLINGWOOD
On board the "Scourge."
On the 9th of March, 1793, his Britannic Majesty's gun-brig "Scourge" weighed, and stood out to sea from the anchorage at Spithead, under single-reefed topsails, her commander having received orders to cruise for a month in the chops of the Channel. The "Scourge" was a 16-gun brig, but having been despatched to sea in a great hurry, after receiving somewhat extensive repairs at the dockyard, she had only eight long 6-pounders mounted, and, for the same reason, she was considerably short-handed, her crew amounting only to seventy men and boys, of whom quite one half were eminently "green" hands. War with France had just been once more declared, the various dockyards were busy night and day preparing and turning out ships for service, and the officers were glad to get hold of almost any class of men for their ships, provided only that they were strong and able-bodied.
In this dashing little brig, I—Ralph Chester—held the exalted and responsible post of midshipman; my appointment, on the morning in question, being exactly one week old. I had only joined the ship, however, three days before, and in the interval had been made the victim of almost every practical joke which the ingenuity of my fellow-mids could devise. It is not my purpose to recount these tricks, for stirring times were at hand, and adventures of a sterner and far more interesting nature were to meet me at the very outset of my career, crowding thick and fast upon each other's heels; and it is in the recital of these adventures that I hope to excite and gratify the curiosity of my readers. A few—and only a few—words are necessary by way of personal introduction. My father—the Reverend Henry Chester—was rector of the parish of —, which, as everybody knows, enjoys the advantage of being located in the heart of the loveliest scenery in Hampshire. Our family was not a large one; there were only four of us—two boys and two girls—exclusive of my parents; which was a decidedly fortunate circumstance, for if my father's family was moderate, his income was still more so, and my poor mother's ingenuity was often taxed to the utmost to make both ends meet, and at the same time maintain for us all such outward tokens of respectability as became the rector's family.
My elder brother, Henry, was destined to follow in the paternal footsteps by entering the church. My sisters Florence and Amy (my juniors respectively by two and four years) would, it was hoped, contract in due time suitable marriages, with the friendly aid and countenance of some of our more wealthy relations; and, for myself, my dear father was most anxious that I should devote the few abilities with which I had been endowed by nature to the study of the law. Personally about the most unambitious man who ever lived, my father's ambition for his children was absolutely boundless; and I believe, could the truth have been arrived at, he quite hoped in course of time to see his sons, the one Primate of England, and the other in possession of the woolsack.
But the prospect of spending my days in groping through musty law-books, hunting up obscure precedents, convincing an enlightened jury, through the medium of my persuasive arguments and impassioned eloquence, of the innocence of rascals carrying the word "rogue" legibly imprinted upon their countenances, and other operations of a kindred nature, had no attractions whatever for me; my tastes and proclivities were all in favour of an active outdoor existence; and, though I was prepared to yield obedience if my father chose to insist upon my following so uncongenial an occupation, I felt that it was only due to myself to point out to him that it would be utterly out of my power to infuse any spirit or enthusiasm into my pursuit of it.
My father, on learning how utterly distasteful to me were his plans for my future, at once waived his own inclinations, and came to the point by inviting me to state specifically what occupation I should prefer; and, after taking a little time to give the question my most careful consideration, I informed him that I had made up my mind to go into the navy, if he saw no objection, and if I could get there. My decision gave great concern to both my parents, and indeed I may say to the whole family; but as time went on and it became every day more apparent that I had set my heart upon going to sea, it was at length decided to yield to my wishes; and the only question which then remained was how to get me afloat under the most favourable auspices.
This question, fortunately for me, admitted of an easy solution. An uncle of my mother—Sir Peregrine Portfire, K.B., Vice-admiral of the Red, etcetera, etcetera—was applied to; and within a fortnight I was directed to join the "Scourge" forthwith. A letter arrived by the same post from my great-uncle, containing an enclosure addressed to Commander George Brisac, soliciting his good service in my behalf, which enclosure I was instructed to present to the gentleman addressed on joining the ship.
I will not detain my readers by introducing them to the officers of the "Scourge;" my sojourn on board that ship was but a short one, so short, indeed, that I scarcely had time to become acquainted with them myself; and, as I never fell in with any of them again in after-life, what little it is necessary for the reader to know concerning them he will glean in the progress of the narrative. And now to resume the thread of my story.
The "Scourge," when we left her, was standing out to sea under single- reefed topsails. The wind was about W.N.W., blowing strong, with frequent squalls of mingled rain and sleet. The sky was entirely obscured by dull, dirty, ragged-looking clouds, which hung so low that they seemed to touch our trucks as they swept rapidly along overhead. The sea under the shelter of the land was of course smooth, but as we drew rapidly off the shore (the brig proving to be a wonderfully fast little craft, to the intense satisfaction of all hands), we soon got into rougher water; and then to the original miseries of rain and cold were added the discomfort of frequent and copious showers of icy spray, which, coming in over the weather bow, flew right aft and out over the lee quarter, treating everybody, with the utmost impartiality, to a good drenching on its way. All hands, from the skipper downward, disregarding appearances, carefully enwrapped their carcases from head to foot in oilskin; and if anything had been needed to complete the all- pervading aspect of cold and wretchedness which the scene presented, it would have been found in contemplation of the wet and shiny appearance of the crew, each with a little stream of water trickling off the flap of his sou'-wester down his back, and with hair and whiskers blowing drenched and bedraggled about his pinched and purple visage.
The crowning misery of all—sea-sickness—I was happily spared, and I was thus enabled to go about my duty without experiencing a wish that some kindly sea would wash me overboard and end my life and my wretchedness together; but, as it was, the circumstances attendant upon my first experience of active service were such as might well have damped the ardour of one even more enthusiastic than myself. My pride, or my obstinacy, however, were such, that having once put my hand to the plough, I was quite determined that nothing short of actual physical incapacity should compel me to turn back.
We stretched off the land, close-hauled upon the starboard tack, the whole of that day, and the greater part of the succeeding night; the skipper's object being, as I gathered from a remark or two which I overheard between him and the first lieutenant, to get well over toward the French coast; where, if fortune favoured us, we might be lucky enough to pick up a prize or two.
As the day wore on, the wind increased considerably in strength, and at the end of the first dog-watch orders were given to take down another reef in the topsails, and to stow the courses. The topsail yards were accordingly lowered down upon the caps, and the crew proceeded aloft to execute this duty, some of the green hands evincing a very marked disinclination to go more than half-way up the lower rigging; and when at length, by dint of mingled force and persuasion, they were got as high as the tops, two or three refused point-blank to lay out upon the yards. The first lieutenant raved at them, stamped furiously upon the deck, and threatened unutterable things if they did not lay out forthwith; and the captains of the tops, not to be behindhand, proceeded vigorously to "freshen their way" with a rope's end. This latter persuasive appeared to have the desired effect; and, slowly and with excessive caution, the men proceeded to lay out. Suddenly the foot of one of them on the main-yard slipped; he clung convulsively for a moment to the yard, and then whirled off backwards, striking the main-rigging on the weather side, and rebounding into the sea.
Instantly there arose the startling cry of "A man overboard!" I know not what possessed me, but in the excitement of the moment, and without in the least thinking of what I was doing, I no sooner saw the man strike the water than I rushed aft, leaped upon the taffrail, and, pausing a single instant to mark the spot where he fell, raised my hands above my head, and took a most scientific header into the boiling surge. As I was descending toward the water I heard a hearty cheer from the men, and then the icy cold waves closed over my head; there was a rushing sound in my ears, and darkness all around me.
When I rose to the surface, I found myself close to the drowning man, who was struggling feebly and in an aimless sort of way, apparently half stunned, and lying face downwards in the water. Swimming happened to be one of the very few accomplishments in which I excelled, otherwise I do not think it at all probable I should have leapt overboard so unhesitatingly; be that as it may, though I had never been in rough water before, and though, now that I was overboard, the sea seemed incomparably more tempestuous than it had appeared to be from the ship's deck, I felt perfectly at home. Paddling cautiously up to the man, I seized him by the hair, and turned him over on his back, then threw myself upon my back, and dragged his head up high enough upon my breast to lift his mouth out of water, supporting him and myself by vigorous strokes with my feet. Looking round, as we rose on the crest of a sea, I could dimly descry the brig through the rapidly increasing gloom; and to my horror she appeared to be a long distance away. I had time only, however, for a momentary glance, when we sank into the trough, and I lost sight of her. A few seconds afterwards I caught sight of her again, and this time she was displaying in her rigging a lantern, the sight of which I regarded (rightly, as it afterwards turned out) as a sign and token that every effort would be used to recover us, and truly the feeble gleam, appearing and disappearing as we rose and fell upon the agitated surface of the sea, was to me a very star of hope and encouragement.
My vigorous efforts to keep myself and the man afloat soon told upon me, and I began to fear that I should be obliged to abandon my prize in order to preserve my own life; luckily for us both, however, my companion had ceased to struggle, and now lay supported within my arms, to all appearance dead. As the time dragged heavily away, I grew more and more exhausted, and at length the man slipped from my relaxing grasp and began to sink. Happily at this instant I caught a momentary glimpse of a small object standing out black and distinct against the narrow belt of light lying along the western horizon, and I felt instinctively that it was a boat coming in search of us; the sight imparted new energy to my nerveless frame, and, recovering my grasp upon the man just as he was sinking beyond my reach, I determined to keep him above water until succour arrived, or go down with him.
How anxiously I kept watch upon the boat, and the desperate efforts I made to keep afloat, it would be impossible to describe. The dancing craft appeared to be lying at anchor upon the water, though in reality she was foaming down towards us before the wind and sea, propelled by the strong arms of eight of the stoutest oarsmen in the ship. At length, however, she was near enough to enable me to discern the bow man standing up, one hand shading his eyes, and the other grasping a boat- hook. Presently a hail came down upon the wind toward us from the boat, and directly afterwards another. I was by this time too weak to reply; and could only hope that they would pull on until close enough to see us; to my inexpressible horror, however, when some seven or eight lengths away, the boat's head swerved sharply aside, and the craft darted off upon a course at right angles to her former one. Then indeed I uttered a shriek loud enough to awake the seven sleepers, and immediately went under. I thought it was now all over with us both; but the love of life is strong, especially in the young, and a convulsive struggle brought us once more to the surface; but, blinded with salt water, and with my senses fast leaving me, I no longer looked round for the boat, but battled desperately, though more than half unconsciously, for life; still retaining, with the tenacious grasp of the drowning, my hold upon my companion. I at length heard faintly, and as though in a dream, a voice saying, "There they are! port, sir, hard!" and then all became an utter blank.
The first indication of returning consciousness was the sound of the surgeon's voice saying, "All right! he is coming to; and we shall save him yet."
"Thank God for that!" presently exclaimed another voice, which I recognised as the skipper's; "I would not have lost the lad for the worth of all that I possess. I never saw a more plucky thing in all my life; and, if he lives, he will grow up to be an ornament to the service."
At this point I opened my eyes, and found those of the speaker bent upon me with an expression of deep solicitude. I furthermore found that I had been stripped of my wet clothing, and was lying in the captain's own cot, with the doctor and one of the seamen rubbing my limbs and body so vigorously with their bare hands, in the endeavour to restore a brisk circulation, that I seemed to be in imminent danger of being flayed alive.
"How do you feel now, my boy?" inquired the skipper, as he bent over the side of the cot, and laid his hand kindly upon my own.
"Very much better, sir, thank you," I replied; though, to tell the truth, I was at that moment enduring the most acute pain in every nerve of my body—the physical suffering attendant upon the returning tide of life being actually much greater than that experienced while I was undergoing the process of drowning.
"That's right," returned he, in a cheery tone of voice; "I am glad to hear it, as every man in the ship will be. You have performed a right gallant action, and I am sure you will be glad to know that your efforts have not been in vain. The poor fellow whom you rescued is alive, and likely to do well."
I felt too weak to make any reply to this gratifying speech, a fact which the doctor instantly perceived, for he turned to the skipper and remarked, "With your permission, sir, we will now leave the lad in quiet to sleep off his exhaustion. I will just mix him a simple restorative, while your steward tucks him in and makes him comfortable for the night; after which I think we may safely leave the rest to nature, though, of course, I shall look in upon both of my patients from time to time, so as to make quite sure that they are going on all right."
If the worthy medico fulfilled his promise to "look in" upon me during the night—and I feel quite sure he did—I was blissfully unconscious of the fact, for under the soothing influence of the restorative draught, and the warmth of the blankets liberally heaped upon me by the captain's steward, I speedily sank into a deep, dreamless, refreshing slumber—a delicious oblivion—from which I awoke in the morning to find myself very little the worse for my exertions of the previous night.
When I opened my eyes I saw, through the open door of the state-room, that the sun was streaming brightly down through the skylight, lighting up the cosy little cabin, bringing out to the fullest advantage the flowing tints of three or four well-executed pictures, which were secured to the bulkheads, and altogether imparting a delightfully cheerful appearance to the apartment. The vessel, however, was in violent motion; I could, from my position in the cot, look out through the stern windows; and I saw that there was a heavy sea running, and the roar of the wind through the rigging, which was distinctly audible above the sound of creaking timbers, rattling doors, trampling feet, and the swish of heavy showers of spray upon the deck, told me it was blowing hard. I felt so greatly recovered, however, that I resolved to get up, and, springing out of the cot, I proceeded to dress myself with as much alacrity as the rolling and pitching of the ship would permit. While engaged in this occupation, the doctor entered the cabin.
"Hillo!" he exclaimed, "turning out, eh? Well done, young gentleman. Steady! you have not shipped your sea-legs yet, as our friend the first lieutenant would say; you must be cautious, or you will be thrown against something or other, and get a nasty knock. Well, and how do you feel this morning?"
"A trifle weak," I replied, "that's all. I dare say I shall be better when I have had breakfast."
"That's your sort," responded the jolly old medico; "if you are hungry, there is not much wrong with you; but you mentioned breakfast. Have you any notion what time it may happen to be?"
"Not much," I replied; "but I fear it is rather late."
"That depends upon what you call late," he retorted. "Some of your town-bred dandies are only in their first nap about this time. As a matter of absolute fact, however, it has just gone eight bells, or noon; so that you see, my young friend, breakfast is over long enough ago. But I dare say Patterson can find something for you all the same." He rang a small hand-bell which stood on the table, and the captain's steward made his appearance. "Patterson," said the doctor, "this young gentleman complains that he is hungry. Have you any trifle, such as the wing of a chicken, or something of that sort, in your pantry that you could give him?"
"No, sir," replied the man, with a grin, "I'm afraid I've not. But if a nice rasher of bacon and a cup of coffee will do—"
"Splendidly," I interrupted. "To tell you the truth, doctor, I am hungry enough to eat a horse, harness and all; so I shall be very glad to have either a rasher of bacon or anything else that is quickly obtainable."
Patterson was not long in getting ready the promised repast, which I cleared to the last morsel; after which I made my way on deck. The skipper was there, promenading the weather side of the quarter-deck, the first luff jogging fore and aft alongside of him. I was called up, a few kind inquiries made, together with a eulogistic remark or two upon my conduct of the previous evening; and the whole neatly finished off with an intimation that, having begun so well, great things would be expected of me in future, and that, having established a reputation for zeal and gallantry, it was hoped I would do my utmost to maintain it; after which I was dismissed. I soon found that my exploit had placed me upon quite a different footing in the ship from that which I had occupied before. The men treated me with real respect, instead of the good-humoured burlesque thereof which they had accorded me hitherto; and my fellow-mids at once received me into the berth upon a footing of perfect equality with themselves, each one striving to do me some little kindness or show me some little attention, in place of playing off disagreeable practical jokes upon me. They would not have been midshipmen had they not had a jocular remark or two to make upon the subject, but it was all said in good part. The wind continued to blow hard during the whole of that day, but toward sunset it moderated somewhat, and veered a point or two to the northward. The ship had been under close-reefed topsails and fore-topmast staysail ever since midnight of the night before.
HOW WE LOST HER.
The sun was just sinking below the horizon, his parting beams lighting up gorgeously a heavy bank of clouds which hung low down in the western quarter, when the lookout man aloft hailed, "A sail on the weather bow!"
Everybody was instantly on the alert.
"What do you make her out to be?" hailed Mr Sennitt, the first lieutenant; while the skipper turned to me and said,—
"Mr Chester, be good enough to slip down into my cabin, and bring up my telescope, if you please."
As I made a dive down the companion, I heard the lookout hail again: "She is a large lugger, sir; I can make her out quite plainly; she is just in the wake of the sun."
"All hands make sail," was the next order, given as quick as lightning.
I got the glass, and hurrying on deck with it, placed it in the skipper's hands. The men were by this time lying out on the yards, shaking a couple of reefs out of the topsails, and loosing the courses. Captain Brisac slung the telescope over his shoulder, and, springing into the rigging, made his way aloft to the crosstrees, where the lookout still sat, with one hand grasping the topgallant shrouds, and the other shading his eyes. The skipper braced himself firmly against the topmost head, raised the telescope to his eye, and took a good long look at the stranger, closed the glass sharply, and descended to the deck again with all the agility of a monkey—or a midshipman.
"She is a lugger, sure enough; and a large one too," he remarked, as he rejoined the first lieutenant. "There can be no doubt that she is French; and I have a strong suspicion that she is a privateer on the lookout for some of our homeward-bound vessels. I do not think they have made us out yet; when I saw her she was jogging easily along under her fore and mizzen lugs and a small jib. If she does not see us within the next five minutes, the chances are that she will not make us out at all until the moon rises, which will not be for quite another hour; by which time I hope we shall have drawn pretty close up to her."
The lookout was hailed from time to time, to inquire whether the lugger had made any more sail or not; and each time the cheering reply was, "Not yet, sir." At length the reply was, "It is too dark to see her now, sir; but she had not when I lost sight of her."
The brig was now tearing along under single-reefed topsails, courses, fore-topmast staysail, jib, and spanker, her lee side buried deep in the foaming brine, and the sea coming bodily in over her bows by tons at a time. She no longer rose lightly over the opposing waves, but dashed headlong into them; rushing forward upon her way like a startled courser.
Every night-glass in the ship was brought into requisition by the eager officers, in their endeavours to catch an occasional glimpse of the stranger; but the night had settled down pitchy dark, the sky having rapidly become obscured by a thick veil of clouds immediately after the disappearance of the sun below the horizon, so that not so much as a solitary star was visible; all efforts to get a sight of the chase were consequently quite in vain. So dark was it that, standing by the taffrail, it was impossible to see as far as the bows of the ship. Not a light of any description was permitted on board the "Scourge;" even the binnacle lights were carefully masked, and Captain Brisac soon began to manifest a great deal of anxiety at the risk which he was undoubtedly incurring in thus driving his ship at racing speed through the thick darkness, without a warning light of any description to indicate her presence to other craft. He contented himself, however, with placing five of the sharpest-sighted men on the lookout; namely, one on the flying-jibboom-end, one on each cat-head, and one on each of the fore- yardarms.
The bearings of the chase had of course been very accurately taken the last thing before losing sight of her, when she was estimated to be ten miles distant, and about two points on the weather bow, going along upon an easy bowline.
The "Scourge" was an exceedingly smart little brig under her canvas; and when the additional sail had been set and every brace, sheet, tack, and bowline trimmed with the utmost nicety, it was the general opinion that she was going a good honest eleven knots. The chase was thought to be travelling at the rate of four knots at most; it was hoped, therefore, that when the moon rose we should find ourselves within three or four miles of her.
The suspense, which we were compelled to endure as best we might, caused the time to drag heavily on; at length, however, a brightening of the sky in the eastern quarter proclaimed the welcome approach of the moon. Slowly—very slowly—the brightness increased, the veil of cloud breaking up before it, and revealing the sky beyond, all luminous with silvery radiance. A few more anxious minutes, and the round white disc of the moon rose slowly upwards into view, flinging a broad path of light across the tumbling billows, and gleaming pale and ghostly on the sails of the lugger, which now appeared directly ahead of us, and about five miles distant.
Instantly every glass in the ship was levelled at the chase; and a general exclamation of annoyance arose, as, while still engaged in taking their first long look at her, the pursuers observed a sudden fluttering of canvas about the mainmast which speedily resolved itself unmistakably into a lofty well-set mainsail.
"Ah!" ejaculated the skipper, stamping his foot impatiently on the deck, "they evidently have sharp eyes on board yonder lugger; they must have seen us the moment that the moon rose."
"Yes," returned the first lieutenant, with his eye still glued to his glass; "and the sharp eyes appear to belong to an equally sharp crew; they are shaking out their reefs fore and aft and shifting their jib, all at the same time. Depend upon it, sir, we shall have to work for that craft before we get her."
"We shall catch her, Mr Sennitt, never fear," was the cheery response; "she cannot be above half our size, and will have no chance with us in such a breeze as this. And I do not anticipate that she is any more heavily armed than we are, though she may possibly carry a few more men. Her skipper will of course escape if he can! and when he finds that impossible, he will, equally of course, fight, and very likely fight well. Still, I do not think we shall have much difficulty in taking him."
"In the meantime, however," remarked Sennitt, who had his glass constantly at his eye, "unless I am greatly mistaken, he is gradually creeping away from us; his rigging does not show out as plainly as it did ten minutes ago, yet there is more light."
Another long and anxious observation of the chase by both officers followed; and, imitating their example, I also brought my glass to bear upon the flying craft. Flying she literally seemed to be rather than sailing. At one moment her hull was completely hidden by an intervening wave-crest, her sails only being visible; the next she would rush into view, her low hull deluged with spray which glanced in the moonlight like a shower of diamonds as it flew over her almost to the height of her low mast-heads and dissipated itself in the sea to leeward; while her masts bent like willow wands, inclining at what seemed to me a fearfully perilous angle with the horizon.
"Upon my word, Sennitt, I fear you are right," at last said the skipper, bringing his glass reluctantly down into the hollow of his arm. "Let us lay our glasses aside for half an hour, we shall then be better able to judge which ship is gaining upon the other, and if we find that we are losing ground, there will be nothing for it but to shake the remaining reef out of our topsails, and get the flying-jib on her; our spars are good, and the rigging new; both ought to be quite capable of standing a little extra strain."
"It will be rather a risky business to increase the strain already laid upon the spars," said the first lieutenant, glancing anxiously aloft at the topmasts, which were springing and buckling at every plunge of the ship, with the enormous pressure of the tightly distended topsails; "still it is perhaps worth trying; it would be a fine feather in our caps if we could send into port the first prize of the war."
The stipulated half-hour passed away; and at the end of that period the unwelcome conviction forced itself upon every one that the lugger was having the best of it.
"There is no help for it, Mr Sennitt," said the skipper, "shake that reef out of the topsails, and set the flying-jib; she must bear it."
Excited by the exhilarating influence of the chase, the hands sprang aloft with the utmost alacrity, and in an incredibly short space of time had the reel out and the topsails distended to their fullest extent; the flying-jib flapped wildly in the wind for a moment or two, and then yielded to the restraint of the sheet, at which it tugged as though it would tear away the cleat to which it was secured.
The effect of these additions to the before heavy pressure of canvas upon the ship was immediate, and, to my inexperience, highly alarming. The brig now lay over upon her side to such an extent that it was with the utmost difficulty I could retain my footing upon the steeply- inclined and slippery plane of the deck. The lee sail was completely buried in the sea, which boiled in over the lee bow and surged aft along the deck like a mill-race; while ever and anon an ominous crack aloft told of the severity of the strain upon the overtaxed spars.
Mr Sennitt kept glancing uneasily upward, as these portentous sounds smote upon his ear; which Captain Brisac observing, he turned to the first lieutenant and said,—
"Do not be alarmed, Sennitt; it is only the spars settling into their berths; they—"
Crash! I sprang instinctively aft to the taffrail, out of the way of the wreck, and then looked up to see both topmasts, snapped off like carrots just above the caps, go swooping over to leeward, to hang by their rigging under the lee of the courses; while the ship, with a sharp shock, as though she had touched upon some unseen rock, recovered herself and floated once more upon an almost even keel.
Captain Brisac was much too gentlemanly to swear. He simply turned to the first lieutenant and said, "We have rather overdone it this time, Sennitt; however, it is no use crying over spilt milk, so turn the hands up, please, and let them clear away the wreck, and repair damages as soon as possible."
The boom of a distant gun told us that the crew of the lugger had not been unobservant of our misfortune, and that they were willing to expend a charge of powder in acquainting us with their exultation thereat.
By daybreak next morning we had everything ataunt again; the chase, however, had run completely out of sight, hours before, and was, at all events for the present, hopelessly lost to us.
The wind had gone down very considerably during the night, and had hauled round to about due north; the sea went rapidly down; the sky was cloudless and intensely blue; the air became keen and frosty; and when the sun rose, it found us standing to the westward under topgallant- sails, without a single sail of any kind in sight.
The adage that "it is an ill wind that blows nobody good" maintained its reputation for truth, even in the case of the seemingly unmitigated disaster of the previous night—that is to say, at least, as far as I was concerned; inasmuch as the knowledge and experience which I acquired of my profession during the operation of clearing away the wreck, recovering the sails, rigging, and undamaged spars, fitting the new topmasts into their places, and restoring the ship generally to her former condition, gave me an advantage which I could scarcely have hoped to secure in less than six months of the ordinary run of active service. I watched with unflagging interest the progress of every operation as the work went forward, with the result that I learned by actual observation, coupled with the best use of my reasoning faculties, and frequent questions to Mr Sennitt (who, I may say, heard and answered my inquiries with quite astonishing patience), the position and use of every rope that I saw fitted, the mode of working the yards, and much other valuable knowledge.
It is surprising how speedily human curiosity becomes quickened and aroused, if the individual devotes himself earnestly to the study of an art or science. The thirst for knowledge increases with its acquisition—at least, such is my experience—and is not to be satisfied until every mystery connected with such art or science has been mastered, and made the inalienable property of the student. It was so with me in relation to everything connected with my profession. Having gained a certain amount of knowledge concerning the mysteries of seamanship, I craved for more; and throwing all my energies into the discharge of my daily round of duties, made such rapid progress as astonished everybody, myself included.
The "Scourge," meanwhile, was slowly pursuing her course down channel; the wind, after the recent blow, having fallen light and baffling; it was not, therefore, until the morning of the 13th that she reached her cruising-ground, Scilly bearing at the time about N.E., distant 26 miles.
The day broke clear and cloudless, with a light air of wind from the southward; the water being smooth, save for the long, rolling swell of the Atlantic, which at the spot in question made itself very distinctly felt. The air was mild and springlike, the unclouded sunbeams struck with a perceptible sensation of warmth, and every one on board, forgetting the recent misery of cold and wet, greeted the welcome change with a corresponding flow of exuberant animal spirits.
The hands had just been piped to breakfast, when the lookout aloft reported, "A sail right ahead!"
Recalling to mind the skipper's request on a previous occasion, I at once ran down into the cabin for his telescope, which I brought on deck and handed to him.
"Thank you, Mr Chester," said he. "I have remarked with very great pleasure your real in the discharge of your duties. Go on as you have begun, my boy, and you will soon become a valuable and efficient officer."
Captain Brisac did not, however, himself go aloft this time; Mr Clewline, the second lieutenant, happened to be on deck at the moment, and the skipper handed him the glass, with a polite request that he would "see what he could make of her."
Mr Clewline, I thought, seemed rather to resent the suggestion as an affront to his dignity; he, however, made no demur, but proceeded aloft with great deliberation, and, seating himself upon the fore-topsail yard, took a very leisurely observation of the stranger.
Having devoted about a quarter of an hour to this occupation, he slowly closed the telescope, and carefully slinging it over his shoulder, descended to the deck with the same deliberation which had characterised his ascent. It was not until he had regained the skipper's side that he condescended to make his report; when, handing back the glass with a stiff bow, he said, "I make out the stranger to be, sir, a brig, apparently French, of about our own size; she is standing directly toward us, upon the starboard tack, under topgallant-sails."
"Thank you, sir," returned the skipper shortly; then turning upon his heel he went below to his cabin, Patterson having come on deck a minute or two before, to announce that breakfast was ready.
The news quickly spread through the ship that the sail in sight was supposed to be a Frenchman; and as the two vessels were approaching each other, and an action, in the event of Mr Clewline's supposition proving correct, inevitable, a considerable amount of excitement prevailed. The men bolted their breakfast in less than half the time usually devoted to that meal, and returned to the deck the moment they had disposed of their last morsel; while the officers betrayed at least an equal amount of eagerness, two or three of them hastily swallowing a cup of scalding coffee, and munching up a biscuit, without giving themselves time even to sit down.
"Old Sennitt"—as he was irreverently termed in the midshipmen's berth— was one of the earliest to put in an appearance after breakfast, and his first act was to go straight aloft with his glass. He devoted more time even than Mr Clewline to the examination of the stranger, and it was not until Captain Brisac had returned to the deck and hailed him that he made a move.
As he came aft and joined his superior upon the quarter-deck, exultation was visible in his face, and in every movement of his body.
"It is all right, sir," he exclaimed; "she is French beyond all possibility of doubt. The cut of her canvas is alone sufficient evidence of her nationality; but in order that there may be no room for question of it, she has furled her royals, and has run up the tricolour to her main-royal-mast-head. She is a brig, as far as I can make out her rig, coming end-on to us as she is, and seems about our size, or perhaps a trifle larger. I suppose we may as well clear for action at once?"
"If you please, Mr Sennitt; and, not to be behindhand with them, let them see the colour of our bunting before you do anything else."
The order to clear for action was received with enthusiasm; and the little round ball which immediately soared aloft, breaking abroad and displaying the naval ensign as it touched the main truck, was greeted with a rousing cheer. The "green" hands were by this time not quite so verdant as they had been a few days before, Mr Sennitt having drilled them most remorselessly at every available opportunity—and as they had been very judiciously intermingled with the experienced "salts," in appointing them to their various stations, the work went on with, as Captain Brisac remarked, "very creditable celerity." In little more than half an hour, the yards had been slung, bulkheads knocked down, the magazine opened, guns cast loose, loaded, and run out, and every other preparation completed.
Meanwhile the two brigs had been slowly drawing together, and by 10 a.m. were within a couple of miles of each other. There had been a little manoeuvring on each side to secure the weather-gage; but our skipper, perceiving that the action was likely to be thereby delayed, speedily yielded the point, and allowed the Frenchman to take the coveted position.
"It will make very little difference, five minutes after we are engaged," he remarked to the first lieutenant, who, after having gone the rounds and personally seen that everything was ready, had rejoined him aft, just as the order had been given to the helmsman of the "Scourge" to "keep away."
"There is one thing which we have not yet done," he continued, "it seems quite unnecessary, but we may as well avoid all possibility of mistake by showing the private signal."
The private signal was accordingly shown but evoked, as was expected, no response. It was consequently hauled down again, and now everybody made himself finally ready for the impending conflict. My readers will naturally feel curious to know whether on this, the first occasion of my "smelling gunpowder," I experienced any sensation of fear. I am old enough now, and have seen enough of service, to have no misapprehension of being misunderstood, or rather misjudged; I will therefore confess the truth, and candidly acknowledge that, for a few minutes after the completion of our preparations, I felt most horribly frightened. I knew that I was about to be involved in a scene of death and destruction, of sickening slaughter, and of even more sickening physical suffering; I anticipated seeing my fellow-men struck down right and left, their limbs torn away, and, quite possibly, their bodies cut in two by the cruel chain-shot; I looked round upon the order and cleanliness which everywhere prevailed on board our ship, and contrasted the existent condition of things with the picture which my imagination conjured up of impending blood and carnage; and I admit that for a few minutes my heart almost failed me. That state of feeling, however, soon passed away, and was succeeded by a condition of painful excitement and impatience, which lasted until the first shot was fired, when it abruptly subsided, leaving me as cool and collected as I am at the present moment.
I was not too frightened, however, to notice and admire the perfect sang-froid with which Captain Brisac and Mr Sennitt contemplated the approach of our antagonist. They stood side by side, just abaft the main-rigging, scrutinising every movement on board the French ship, and exchanging critical remarks upon the smartness of her crew in shortening sail and executing the various manoeuvres usual on board a ship going into action; and I gathered, with no very comfortable feelings, that, from what they observed, they quite anticipated a hard fight.
When the ships had approached each other within a quarter of a mile, we were able, for the first time, to ascertain the actual armament of our foe. Mr Sennitt was the first to seize the opportunity of counting her ports, and he it was who announced, loud enough for everybody to hear, that she showed six guns of a side, making her entire battery heavier than our own by four guns. "Which makes her a very fair match for us," he contentedly remarked.
"We will engage her at close quarters, Mr Sennitt," said the skipper; "be good enough, therefore, to have every gun double-shotted. Let no man fire until I give the word; we will wait until we are fairly abreast of her, and then give her our whole larboard broadside at once. Luff, you may!" to the master, who had taken the wheel. "Luff, and shave her as closely as you can, without actually touching her. Steady—so; that will do very nicely."
As the French ship came up, she fired every gun along her larboard broadside, commencing from forward, the moment they could be brought to bear; and the shot came tearing in through our bulwarks, making the splinters fly in all directions. In my ignorance I expected to see about half our crew go down before that first discharge, but to my unbounded surprise not a man was hurt.
The Frenchman was by this time so close that we could not only see with the utmost distinctness the crew reloading their guns, but could hear the confused jabber of excited conversation which appeared to be going on unchecked on board. What a contrast to our own ship, where every man stood at his post, steady and silent as a statue!
At last the two ships came up fairly abreast of each other, and were passing so closely that an active man might have jumped from the one to the other, when the skipper uttered the word "Fire!"
The four guns of our larboard broadside rang out simultaneously, the concussion of the air causing the two ships to heel outwards; and through the noise of the explosion I distinctly heard the crashing of timbers, and the piercing shrieks of the wounded.
"That's one to us; we draw first blood," chuckled a voice behind me; and I looked round to observe young Harvey, a fellow-mid, rubbing his hands with an air of great satisfaction.
"Hard up with your helm," exclaimed the skipper; "shiver your main- topsail and let her wear short round; stand by your guns there on the starboard broadside, and fire as you bring each to bear."
The effect of this manoeuvre was to lay our ship almost directly athwart the stern of the Frenchman, and so smartly was it executed that we had pretty effectually raked him before he was able to bear up, and give us another broadside, the whole of which flew over us harmlessly, except for a hole or two in our sails.
The fight now became a running one, both ships going off before the wind, and the Frenchman rather evincing a disposition to keep us at a distance. He did not seem to like the taste he'd had of our quality, as I heard the Irish captain of the after-gun, on the port side, remark. But we possessed rather the advantage of him in the matter of speed, and slowly edged down upon him until we were once more close alongside, when the ships exchanged broadsides, both firing at the same moment. We could see the white marks in our antagonist's sides, where our shot had struck, but either from defective aim, or because he wanted to shoot away our spars, all his shot again flew high, with no worse result than the severing of the starboard main-topsail-brace, a casualty which it took but a minute or two to repair.
Two or three more broadsides were exchanged without visible effect, and then an unlucky shot wounded our fore-topmast so badly that, after tottering for a minute or two, it went over the bows, dragging the main- topgallant-mast down with it.
Captain Brisac proved himself quite equal to the occasion. He could not prevent the "Scourge" from broaching-to, so, ordering the helm to be put hard-a-port, he luffed us right athwart the Frenchman's stern, pouring in the larboard broadside, which had been disengaged since our opening fire, with such good effect that the French ship's main-yard was shot away, and the mainmast-head badly wounded.
A strong gang was immediately set to work board on each ship to repair damages; but as the Frenchman, by reason of the loss of his after-sail, was unable to bring his ship upon a wind, he had no alternative but to run dead before it, fully exposed, meanwhile, to the raking effects of our larboard guns, which were kept playing upon him until he had passed out of range, not one of his guns during that time being able to reply.
It took us rather over one hour to clear away the wreck, and get another topmast on end, fully rig it, and make sail once more. Mr Sennitt, who personally superintended the work, insisted that it should be thoroughly well done—as well done in fact as though we had not been in the presence of an enemy. The French had, in the meantime, been quite as active as ourselves, and if their work was not so neatly done as our own, still it was done after a fashion, and they were ready to make sail a few minutes before us, an advantage of which they availed themselves with such alacrity that it became evident their chief anxiety was to place, in the shortest possible time, the greatest possible distance between us and themselves.
This project, however, by no means met the views of us "Scourges," and the instant that it was possible, every available stitch of canvas was packed upon our ship, with the view of closing with the enemy again as promptly as possible.
Then began that most wearisome of all wearisome businesses, a stern chase in a light breeze, during which the whole crew, from the skipper downwards, whistled most devoutly for a wind.
Slowly—very slowly we gained upon the chase, the master, who had resigned the wheel at the cessation of the action, standing upon the forecastle with his sextant, measuring, about once every five minutes, the angle between the mast-head and the water-line of the chase, to ascertain which ship gained upon the other. At last "I think we are within range now, sir; shall we try a shot from our bow-chasers?" said Mr Sennitt.
"We can scarcely reach him yet, I am afraid," said the skipper; "but there will be no harm in trying."
The order was given, and old Tompion, the gunner, undertook in person the task of levelling the gun. He went about the work with much deliberation and a great display of science, and at length, watching a favourable opportunity, fired. In another moment a white sear started into view near the Frenchman's rudder and close to the water's edge.
"Hulled him! by all that's clever," exclaimed the first luff, while the gratified Tompion looked slowly round upon his messmates, with modest pride beaming from every feature.
"Returned, with thanks," murmured young Harvey, who was stationed close beside me, as a puff of smoke veiled for an instant the stern of our antagonist; and then the shot was seen bounding toward us, its path marked by the jets of water which flew up wherever the ball struck. At last it was seen to scurry along the surface for a short distance; finally disappearing within about fifty fathoms of our bows.
"Try another shot there, forward," said the skipper, "and aim for his spars. A guinea to the first man who knocks away a spar big or little."
Every man in the ship was of course anxious to try his hand, and Mr Sennitt was obliged to interfere, with the view of allowing the best shots to have the first chance.
Some curiously indifferent shooting now ensued, the very eagerness of the men seeming to render them unsteady. I had strolled forward to watch the game, and, after several most exasperating misses, exclaimed, "I should like very much to try; I believe I could do better than that."
"Then try you shall, youngster," said Mr Sennitt; "the first shot a man ever fires is often a very lucky one, and perhaps yours may be so. You shall fire the next shot."
While the gun was being loaded, Tompion availed himself of the opportunity to deliver a short lesson on gunnery, for my especial benefit, of which all that I remember was that he attached great importance to the "trajectory," and was eloquent on the subject of the "parabolic curve."
I had watched with much impatience the very scrupulous nicety with which most of the men pretended to lay the gun, and I was strongly impressed with the conviction that over-carefulness had much to do with their repeated failures; I took very little trouble, therefore, beyond seeing that the muzzle of the gun had a good elevation, after which I simply waited, squinting along the sights, until I saw that the weapon was just about to come in line with the Frenchman's masts, when I pulled the trigger-line smartly, and was dragged forcibly backwards by the collar, just in time to avoid a serious blow from the recoiling gun.
I turned angrily round to ascertain what reckless individual it was who had thus dared to lay unholy hands upon me, when my thoughts were diverted by a ringing cheer from all hands. My shot had lodged in the Frenchman's mainmast-head, just above the cap; and, while we still looked, away went the main-topmast dragging the fore-topgallant-mast down with it. I received a vast amount of praise for my exploit, but of course it was merely a lucky shot, with which skill had nothing whatever to do.
THE FIRST CAPTURE.
After this we rapidly overhauled the chase, and by the time that her crew had got the wreck cleared out of the way, were once more alongside.
The French crew had ceased firing their stern-chasers upon the fall of their main-topmast, and it was the opinion of many that they had struck, their flag coming down with their topmast, and not being re-hoisted; we therefore ceased firing also, but before we were fairly alongside they had rigged a small staff out over their taffrail, and had run their flag up again.
We were approaching the Frenchman upon his starboard quarter, with the intention of pouring in our larboard broadside directly the two ships were fairly abreast, when our antagonist suddenly ported his helm, and threw himself right athwart our hawse, the evolution being performed exactly at the instant which rendered a collision unavoidable. Our helm was immediately put hard-a-starboard, with the intention of passing under his stern if possible, but there was not sufficient room, and we struck him just abaft his main chains, the shock bringing down his mainmast, which had previously been badly wounded; while at the same moment his starboard broadside came crashing in through our bows with most destructive effect; one of our guns being dismounted, the foremast struck in two places within a foot of each other, and the wheel smashed to pieces. Singularly enough the helmsman escaped without a scratch, but one poor fellow fell forward upon his gun, disembowelled.
The wind being light, the shock of the collision was very gentle, and did no damage to the hull of either vessel. The two brigs dropped alongside each other, head and stern, and would soon have scraped clear again, but the French threw their grapnels into our rigging the instant that we dropped alongside, and immediately boarded.
The whole thing was so sudden that Captain Brisac was for a single instant confused; he rallied the next, however, and shouting "Boarders, repel boarders!" put himself at the head of our men.
The French captain led on his boarding party with magnificent dash and resolution, and for the first minute our men were driven irresistibly back. Then came the turn of the tide, the English, maddened at the disgrace of being forced to yield their ground to their hated enemies, recovered themselves, and in their turn pressed the French back again, every inch of the deck being fiercely contested. Captain Brisac and the French captain soon singled each other out, and after a few unavailing efforts succeeded in reaching each other and crossing swords. Our skipper was a slight man of middle height and no very great personal strength, while the Frenchman was a perfect giant; the fight between them therefore was a very unequal one, especially as Captain Brisac possessed but little skill with the sword. A few passes were made without any effect on either side, and then the Frenchman made a downward cut at his antagonist's head, with such tremendous force that the skipper's guard was fairly beaten down, and had not his adversary's cutlass turned its edge he would, in all probability, have been cloven to the chin; as it was, he received a heavy blow on the head with the back of the weapon which partially stunned him, and placed him completely at the French captain's mercy.
The cutlass was instantly raised to repeat the stroke, when, in an agony of apprehension at the imminent danger which threatened the man who had shown me so much kindness, I drew a pistol from my belt, and, thrusting its muzzle into the Frenchman's face, pulled the trigger. The man flung up his arms and fell backwards dead, his distorted features, all blood- bespattered, presenting a hideous sight which haunted me for many a day afterwards. The sight of blood is said to madden some animals, and I am sure it maddened me, for, furious with excitement, I forthwith dashed headlong into the thickest of the melee, quite regardless of consequences, using with such savage freedom a cutlass which I snatched out of the hand of a wounded man, that the French recoiled on every side with looks of dismay, while our own men, pressing forward with renewed vigour, at length drove the enemy back to their own ship.
"Hurrah, lads! after them!" I exclaimed, far too excited to give a thought to the singularity of a newly-made midshipman presuming to assume the leadership in the presence of his superiors. Our men caught my enthusiasm, responding with a ringing cheer; and after them we went, helter-skelter, so rapidly that English and French tumbled over the bulwarks together. There was a momentary effort on the part of the French to make a stand on reaching their own deck; but they were, as a crew, now thoroughly demoralised, and our lads, their blood at last completely roused, gave them no time to rally, but cut down every man who offered the slightest opposition. Seeing that their case was hopeless, the French crew flung down their arms and cried for quarter, and in less than two minutes from the instant of boarding, we found ourselves masters of the "Sans-Culotte" privateer, mounting eight long 8-pounders and four 12-pound carronades, and with a crew originally of eighty-one men, of whom nine were killed and twenty wounded; our own loss being one man killed and one wounded. The action lasted three hours, and proved to be the first engagement of the war, much to the gratification of Mr Sennitt, who was intensely anxious for the distinction of sending in the first prize.
The first duty was of course to secure possession, after which, the weather appearing likely to continue fine, the hands were piped to dinner—such dinner, that is, as could be procured on the spur of the moment, the galley fire having been extinguished at the time of clearing for action. Captain Brisac allowed an hour for this meal and a little repose, at the expiration of which all hands were set to work to clear away the wreck and repair damages, a task which kept us busy until considerably after sunset. By eight p.m., however, our preparations were complete, a prize crew was placed on board the "Sans-Culotte," and a nice little breeze having in the meantime sprung up from the westward, we made sail in company, shaping a course for Plymouth, off which we arrived about noon the next day.
The prize, now being safe from all chance of recapture, was sent in, while the "Scourge," hauling her wind upon the starboard tack, reached off the land on her way back to her appointed cruising-ground.
On the following day, about an hour before the time for serving dinner in the cabin, Patterson, the captain's steward, popped his head in at the door of the midshipmen's berth and announced,—
"Captain's compliments, and he will be glad to have the pleasure of Mr Chester's company at dinner."
"Tell Captain Brisac with my compliments that I am much obliged for his courteous invitation, which I accept with very great pleasure," I responded, looking up from the "Day's Work" upon which I was busy with my slate and pencil.
"You're a lucky dog, Chester!" exclaimed young Harvey; "you seem to have dropped plump into the skipper's good books all at once. It is not often that we mids are honoured with an invitation to the cabin-table, I can tell you."
"Oh! come now, Harvey, I protest against your imposing upon the unfortunate Chester in that manner," interposed little Markham (nicknamed "Goliath" because he measured exactly three feet, six inches in his stockings). "You know as well as I do that he is invited into the cabin to-night, in order that the skipper may give him a good wigging for that boarding business yesterday. I hope he won't be very hard upon you, old chap," he added, in a tone of deep sympathy, turning to me, "for somehow I have taken quite a liking to you, and if I had been at your elbow yesterday, instead of that over-grown lout, Harvey, I would have kept you out of the serape. You must be very quiet and submissive when he pitches into you, and plead ignorance—say you will be a good boy and not do it again, you know."
"But have I really done anything very dreadful?" I inquired, more than half taken in by the young monkey's serious manner.
"Oh, Lord! hold me, somebody, while I faint!" he exclaimed, turning up the whites of his eyes like a dying duck in a thunder-storm, and flinging himself so suddenly backwards into the arms of Harvey that the latter went down stern foremost, landing on the deck with one hand in the beef-kid and the other in the blacking-box, while Markham rolled on the top of him, kicking spasmodically, and simulating the feeble struggles of an expiring person.
Luckily for "Goliath," it was the ludicrous side of this episode which presented itself most strongly to his victim, or a sound thrashing would, in all probability, have been his portion; as it was, the pair scrambled to their feet again with a hearty laugh, as good friends as ever.
"I declare, Chester, you'll be the death of me some day, if you go on like this," resumed my would-be tormentor; "your touching innocence would move a brass monkey to tears. Why," he continued, looking round and addressing in low, measured tones, intended to express overwhelming astonishment, the fragment of glass which still clung to one corner of its frame, and, hanging suspended against the bulkhead, did duty as a mirror—"he asks if he has really done anything very dreadful!! Is it actually possible, my gentle infant, that you are ignorant of the fact that you yesterday took the command out of your superior officers' hands, and that the punishment for such a crime—when it happens to be a first offence—is keelhauling, while a repetition thereof is visited with the extreme penalty of the law?"
"And pray what is keelhauling?" I inquired, beginning to perceive that my mercurial friend was merely indulging in a joke at my expense.
"Keelhauling, sir," he replied, "is a form of punishment which consists in being lashed to a stout rope which is passed under the ship's bottom, and whereby the unhappy criminal is dragged along the keel from forward, aft; he being required, during the journey, to gather a sufficiency of barnacles off the ship's bottom to furnish a satisfying breakfast for the captain next morning. If the unfortunate wretch fails, the process is to be repeated, with this addition, that on the second occasion the quantity of barnacles provided is to be sufficient for both the captain and the first lieutenant."
"Good gracious, how horrible!" I exclaimed, assuming as well as I could an expression of serious concern. "I had no idea I was exposing myself to the risk of such a fearful punishment. What would you advise me to do?"
"Well, that is by no means an easy question to answer," he replied. "I'll tell you what I'll do, though. I should like to help you out of the scrape if I can, and I'll take an opportunity of speaking to the skipper before he goes down to dinner, and asking him not to pass sentence of punishment upon you for the present. Then, if you'll keep my watch for me to-night, I'll get another interview with him on the quiet while you are doing so. I have some little influence with him—my modesty forbids me to say how I got it—and if I ask him for my sake to forgive you, he may very possibly do so. I expect he'll make some reference to the affair while at dinner though, and if he does, your only chance will be to keep him in a good-humour, which you can easily do if you only know how."
"But unfortunately I don't know how!" I exclaimed, infusing as much anxiety as I could into my tone and manner.
"No?" returned he. "Well, I'll tell you, if you solemnly engage never, under any circumstances, to divulge the source of your information."
I thought this extremely good, with Harvey sitting by, demurely listening to the conversation, but, instead of saying so, I gravely entered into the required engagement.
"That's all right," he remarked. "Now listen attentively to me. The skipper has one overpowering weakness, and that is a fondness for a comic song. Let him be ever so exasperated, a comic song—a good comic song, mind you—never fails to soothe him. Therefore, if he should happen to-night, by any chance, to refer to your unfortunate lapse of duty yesterday, listen patiently and respectfully to all that he has to say, and when he has finished, even if what he says strikes you as being of a laudatory character—he is a very curious fellow in that respect, often beginning by praising a man, when he means to end by blowing him up sky-high—just bow to him and say, 'With your permission, sir, I will now change the subject by singing a comic song,' and strike up boldly at once. I may safely venture to say you will be supremely astonished at the effect you will produce, and if—"
"Mr Clewline wishes to see you on deck at once, please, Mr Markham," said a marine, popping his head in at the door.
"Oh! all right," returned Markham. "I'll be up in a minute or two. It's a great nuisance, but I assure you, my dear Chester, that poor, old Clewline is positively at sea, unless he has me constantly at his right hand to—"
"Mr Clewline said, if you didn't come at once, Mr Markham, I was to just fetch ye," said the marine, introducing his head once more.
"Very well, lead on, fellow, I follow," ejaculated he of Gath in a voice expressive of deep disgust, and he forthwith disappeared up the steep ladder, followed by a hearty peal of laughter from us, his late audience.
"What a fellow it is!" exclaimed Harvey presently. "I am very glad to see that you understand him, Chester. Otherwise, I am afraid he would have got you into no end of scrapes. Not that he means any harm, far from it. He is one of the best-natured fellows alive, but he is so wedded to practical joking that I believe nothing will ever break him of it. He keeps the whole ship alive, as you will have seen by this time; but he is always in disgrace, and during the last cruise may be said to have taken up his permanent abode at the mast-head: I daresay he is there now."
It was even so, for when I went aft to the cabin, in compliance with the captain's invitation, a glance aloft revealed him comfortably perched on the crosstrees, from which commanding position he reminded me pantomimically of the potent charm to be found in a comic song.
The dinner-party, that evening, consisted of Captain Brisac, Mr Sennitt, old Bolus the doctor, and myself. The table was liberally furnished, the wine good, and the party in excellent spirits, as was natural after securing a prize so speedily. Moreover, Captain Brisac was a thorough gentleman, and knew exactly how to make his guests feel at ease, which is not always the case where the superior is also the host. The conversation turned pretty frequently, as might be expected, on technical matters, but there were frequent divergences in the shape of laughter-provoking anecdotes, in which the doctor shone forth conspicuously.
It was not, however, until after the cloth had been removed that the skipper made any reference to the occurrences of the previous day. Then, addressing himself to me, he said, "Let me take this opportunity, Mr Chester, of thanking you for saving my life yesterday. But for your timely interposition, I must infallibly have been killed; and I thank you very sincerely for the promptitude with which you acted. Sailors are not in the habit of making overmuch of such services; we perform them for each other, and think very little about it; but the fact remains, all the same, and I shall not forget it. I have also to thank you for the conspicuous gallantry you displayed in boarding the prize, gallantry which evidently had a strong effect upon the men, and contributed in no inconsiderable degree to our success. So pleased am I with your conduct that I have felt justified in making special mention of you in the despatch which I sent in with the prize, and I think I may venture to promise you that what I have said will be found to exercise a favourable influence on your future prospects. Go on as you have begun, and you will do well. Above all things, study hard; you will find it uphill work at first, no doubt, but every step you take will make those which succeed it easier, until you will at length find that you can acquire naturally and without effort all the knowledge that is required to make you proficient in your profession. Of course I do not mean that you should give your whole time to study, a little recreation now and then is not only allowable, but beneficial; but do not give your whole thoughts to play, as I am sadly afraid your messmate Markham does."
This mention of my mercurial friend brought back so vividly to my mind the recent scene in our berth that I was—as the newspaper reporters say—"risibly affected," a circumstance which did not fail to attract general attention.
Captain Brisac looked both disconcerted and annoyed. "What is it, Mr Chester? What have I said to afford you so much amusement?" he asked.
"I beg your pardon, sir," I replied. "I was not laughing at anything you said, but your mention of Mr Markham reminded me of something ridiculous which he said. I hope you will be pleased to excuse me, sir. I should be extremely sorry to do anything having the appearance of rudeness or disrespect."
"I feel quite sure you would," returned the skipper, his brow clearing once more, and an amused look coming into his eyes.
"But let us hear what that jocular young gentleman has been saying; it is not a state secret, I suppose, is it?"
"Oh dear no, sir; at the same time I know he would never have said it, had he had the least idea it would ever reach your ears; it was only a little bit of fun on his part—an attempt, in fact, to impose upon me."
"Out with it, Mr Chester," exclaimed the doctor, his eyes fairly dancing with fun; "I'll be sworn he has been in some way taking your name in vain, sir," he continued, turning to the captain.
"I think it more than likely, but it is quite impossible to feel offended with the lad, he is always so utterly devoid of anything like evil intention."
Seeing that my narrative would not be likely to do any harm, I thereupon proceeded to tell my story, which proved productive of a great deal of laughter. At its conclusion the skipper said, "Pour yourself out another glass of wine, Mr Chester, and then, I suppose, I must excuse you. Mr Sennitt will not easily forgive me, if I prevent you from keeping your proper watch."
On reaching the deck I found that the wind had hauled round to about W.N.W., bringing with it a raw and dismal fog, which speedily saturated with moisture everything with which it came in contact. As the night wore on, it became more and more dense, and by midnight it had become so thick that it was impossible to see from one end of the ship to the other, and Captain Brisac gave orders for the "Scourge" to be hove-to. The vessel was accordingly brought to the wind on the starboard tack, with her head pointing in the direction of the French coast, and the watch, with the exception of half-a-dozen of the smartest hands, who were placed on the lookout, were allowed to dispose themselves about the deck in the most sheltered spots they could find.
The fog lasted all through the first watch, and when I went on deck at midnight to take my turn of duty, it was thicker than ever. The vapour came sweeping down upon the ship in great opaque masses, some of which were so dense that it was barely possible to distinguish objects on the opposite side of the deck, while the lower yards were only visible from the deck at very rare periods. The few men moving about loomed more like gigantic shadows than human beings, and the binnacle lamps (the only lights visible) emitted a feeble and ghostly glimmer which hardly sufficed to render visible the features of the man who stood by the wheel. No lights of any kind were exhibited on board the "Scourge," Captain Brisac preferring to trust to a good lookout, and the precautions adopted by other vessels, for our safety from collision, rather than run the risk of betraying our presence to an enemy by the exhibition of lights. For the same reason he had given orders that the ship's bell should on no account whatever be struck during the continuance of the thick weather.
Somehow I could not help thinking that the skipper's precautions exposed us to a great deal of danger. Supposing, for example, that some other ship, practising the same "precautions," happened to be in our immediate neighbourhood and approaching us on the opposite tack, what would be the result? Why, in all probability the two craft would fall on board each other, inflicting serious mutual damage, amounting perhaps to the complete destruction of one or both. The idea made me very uneasy, so much so, indeed, that, my imagination at length becoming excited, I was on the point of giving an alarm at least a dozen times, thinking every now and then that I could discern the dim outline of a strange ship sweeping silently down upon us like a gigantic ghost. So strong, indeed, did the illusion at length become, that I could have sworn I caught a momentary glimpse of a light to windward, and, after hesitating a few minutes, I became so convinced that I had seen a light, that I went up to Mr Sennitt and reported it.
"A light, Mr Chester. Where away?" said he rather anxiously.
"Here, sir," I replied; "broad on our starboard quarter."
He gazed steadfastly in the direction I had indicated for two or three minutes, and then turned away, saying,—
"You did quite right, my lad, to speak to me, but I really think you must have been mistaken. Why, if it had really been so, the stranger must have been close aboard of us; it would be impossible to see an ordinary light at a much greater distance than a hundred fathoms in such a fog as this; why, it is thick enough to cut with a knife, the old barkie can scarcely force her way through it."
As he finished speaking I seemed to catch another glimpse of the light, just for a single instant, and I breathlessly exclaimed, "There it is again, sir!"
"I can see nothing," he returned somewhat impatiently, after taking another long look. "Here, let us go round and examine the lookout men."
Every man was found broad awake and keenly watchful, yet none of them had seen anything resembling a light, or indeed anything at all of a nature to lead them to suppose that there was another ship in close proximity to ourselves. I could not believe that my imagination had been playing me a trick, yet it required no very great penetration on my part to see that my superior thought but little of my assertion in comparison with the reports of the lookout men. We both returned to the spot from which we had started, and stood intently gazing to windward, until, for my part, I was almost ready to declare upon oath that the atmosphere was full of faint twinkling lights. The impression was beginning to force itself upon me that I had been making a fool of myself, and I was about to say so, when a faint and almost imperceptible sound seemed to float down to us out of the thick folds of impenetrable mist to windward.
"There, sir!" I exclaimed; "did you hear nothing then?"
"Why, to tell you the truth, Mr Chester, I half thought I did," replied Sennitt; "but after all I believe it is only fancy; your imagination has infected my own, and if we stand here much longer we shall fancy a whole French fleet there to windward. Luckily it is eight bells," he continued, consulting his watch by the light of the binnacle, "so we will turn the ship over to the care of a fresh set of eyes and ears. Let the watch be called as quietly as possible."
This was done, and so completely had I already acquired that confidence which is conveyed in the expression "Let those look out who have the watch," that, notwithstanding all my previous apprehensions, in another ten minutes I was fast asleep.
WE FLY FROM THE FRENCHMAN.
When I went on deck again at the change of the watches, it was still very thick, but the breeze was freshening, and it and the sun together promised soon to disperse the vapour. It was still so thick, however, that it was impossible to see more than three or four lengths away from the vessel, and the "Scourge" was consequently kept hove-to.
The skipper had made his appearance on deck for a few minutes before sitting down to breakfast, and about nine o'clock he came up again, just as the fog had begun to clear away in earnest, opening up like a curtain every now and then, and showing clear spaces of about half a mile or so in extent, then settling down again as thick as ever, but each time clearing away more thoroughly, and revealing larger and still larger open spaces. At length the mist lifted for a moment to such an extent that it became possible to see to a distance of perhaps a couple of miles, and as it did so there was a simultaneous hail from the lookout aloft and five or six of the hands on deck of "Sail ho!"
"Sail ho! sure enough," exclaimed the skipper and Mr Sennitt, as both caught sight of the stranger at the same moment. "A frigate! French, too, as I'm a living sinner," continued the first luff, taking a squint through his glass at the craft. "Ah! he is as sharp-sighted as we are," he went on, with the telescope still at his eye. "Up goes his helm, and there go the lads aloft to make sail, he's coming down to say 'how d'ye do' to us, sir. And there goes the tricolour up to his peak."
"Hard up with the helm, my man," said Captain Brisac very quietly to the helmsman. "Turn the hands up, and pack on her, Mr Sennitt; discretion is the better part of valour with us just now, and our only chance is to show Johnny Crapaud a clean pair of heels." Our lads flew aloft like lightning, and away we went staggering to leeward, with stunsails alow and aloft on the port side, steering a course which would take us pretty directly up Channel. So smart were the "Scourge" in making sail that they were all down on deck again, and every inch of our canvas dragging at us like a cart-horse, before the Frenchman had got his stunsail-booms fairly rigged out.
As soon as we had got the canvas fairly set, ropes all coiled down, and the decks generally cleared up, I slipped down into the berth for my telescope, with which I returned to the deck, and proceeded to make a deliberate inspection of our unwelcome neighbour.
She was about a mile and a half distant from us, bearing a couple of points on our weather quarter, and I thought I had never seen a more beautiful sight than she presented, as she came foaming after us, with the sun lighting up her snowy canvas and flashing brightly from her burnished copper as she rose on the crest of the swell, showing her cutwater half-way down to the keel. Her sails were evidently new—so new, indeed, that they had scarcely had time to stretch to their proper dimensions—and her paint looked fresh and clean; these circumstances impressing the acute Mr Sennitt with the conviction that the craft was fresh out of the dockyard from an extensive overhaul, or that she was a new vessel. The beautiful and graceful model of her hull, and the smart appearance of her spars and rigging, induced him to incline very strongly to the latter supposition.
It soon became evident that this beautiful craft was going nearly two feet to our one, but she was steered so shamefully that she had not materially decreased the distance between us at the end of the first hour; our hopes, therefore, which had sunk to zero with the imminent prospect of a French prison before our eyes, began once more to soar skyward as mile after mile slipped away beneath our flying keel, and every minute increased the probability of our falling in with one of our own cruisers. The skipper was dreadfully put out at being obliged to run away, but though the French frigate was very nearly dead astern she yawed about sufficiently to enable us to count sixteen ports of a side, and even Mr Sennitt—who was accounted the greatest fire-eater on board—was fain to acknowledge that this was just a gun or two too many for us.
By four bells every trace of the fog had cleared away, the sun shone brilliantly in a cloudless sky, the air had a decided feeling of warmth in it, the westerly breeze blew freshly, and the waves curled crisply and broke into foam at their crests under its enlivening influence; altogether it was a thoroughly delightful day, such as is occasionally to be met with toward the end of March—a day when winter and summer have fairly met to fight for the mastery, and summer is getting it all her own way. As time sped on, and still no friendly sail appeared, while the frigate astern drew more and more perceptibly up to us, anxiety once more resumed its sway, and frequent were the admonitions to the lookout aloft to "keep his weather eye lifting."
At length the Frenchmen decided to try the range of their guns, and opened fire upon us from their lee bow-chaser. The shot flew wide, but it went far enough beyond us to show that we were fairly within range. Another and another followed, and still we were unscathed. An interval of about a quarter of an hour elapsed before they again fired, and when they did the shot was somewhat better aimed, passing through the main and fore-topsails and falling into the sea a considerable distance ahead.
"I think we are now near enough to venture upon a return of the compliment, Mr Sennitt," said the skipper. "Let Tompion see what he can do with the stern-chaser, in the way of knocking away some of the fellow's spars. It seems a pity to spoil so pretty a picture, but better that than for us to experience the delights of a French prison."
Tompion was accordingly summoned and bid do his best to "wing" the Frenchman, a task to which he devoted himself with great gravity and a considerable assumption of importance. The gun, after being carefully loaded, was trained with the most scrupulous nicety, and then Tompion, trigger-line in hand, stood squinting along the sights until a favourable moment arrived, when—there was a concussion; the smoke cleared away, and a shot-hole was seen in the frigate's foresail, very nearly in a line with the mast.
"Very prettily shot, Tompion," said the skipper; "try again. A few inches nearer, and you would have buried that shot in his foremast. Wound the spars if you can; the breeze seems inclined to freshen; and if you can gouge a good substantial piece out of some of his lighter spars, the wind will do the rest for us by sending them handsomely over his bows."
In a few minutes more away sped a second of the worthy Tompion's messengers; it, too, passed through the foresail, close to the yard, but apparently without doing any further damage. In the meantime the Frenchmen were by no means idle with their guns, and our running-gear began to be somewhat cut up; luckily, however, the damage was of an unimportant character, and such as could be put right in a few minutes, with the aid of a marline-spike and a grease-shoe. The firing now became more rapid on both sides; but though the spars on each side had several narrow escapes, none had, so far, fallen, and the damage done seemed in each case to be but of the most trifling description.
At length Mr Sennitt walked aft and said, "Let me try my hand, Tompion; I used to be considered rather a crack shot on board the old 'Dido.'"
Tompion, of course, resigned his place to his superior officer, though it was evident from the expression of his phiz that he had no great faith in the first luff's shooting powers. But our worthy "first" speedily justified his boast; for his shot struck the boom-iron at the Frenchman's larboard fore-yard-arm, snapping it off, unshipping the boom, and creating a very pretty state of confusion with the topmast and lower stunsails and their gear.
A ringing cheer was raised on board the "Scourge" at this success, and Sennitt was about to try his hand a second time, when the frigate was seen to yaw broad off her course; a thin streak of flame flashed along her side, a veil of white fleecy smoke started into view, and was wafted aside by the wind, and sixteen twelve-pound shot—the entire contents of her starboard broadside—came whistling about our ears. I was standing aft, close to the taffrail, on the port side, at the moment, and one of the shot came crashing in at the stern-port nearest me, striking the stanchion heavily, and making the splinters fly in all directions, one of them striking me on the left temple, ripping up the skin and baring my poor unfortunate skull for a length of some four inches. The blow stunned me just for a moment, and I fell to the deck; but before any one had time to pick me up, I had recovered and staggered to my feet again, feeling a trifle confused, and somewhat sick—if the truth may be told— at the sight of my own blood, which streamed down over my face copiously, rendering me, I have no doubt, a truly ghastly spectacle; but otherwise I felt not much the worse.