"Mr Fortescue," said the skipper, "you know more about yonder vessel than any of the rest of us, therefore you shall take the second cutter, with her crew fully armed, and proceed on board to take possession."
"Ay, ay, sir," answered I; and running down the poop ladder I gave the order for the boatswain to pipe the second cutter away while I went below to buckle on my sword and thrust a pair of pistols into my belt. By the time that the boat's crew were mustered, and the boat made ready for lowering, we were hove-to within biscuit-toss of the other vessel's weather quarter, and were able to read with the naked eye the words "Virginia, New Orleans," legibly painted across the turn of her counter.
"D'ye see that, Mr Fortescue?" questioned the skipper, pointing to the inscription. "I hope there is no mistake as to the accuracy of your information; because, if there is, you know, we shall have got ourselves into a rather awkward mess by firing upon and winging that craft!"
"Never fear, sir," answered I confidently; "I know the secret of that trick, as you shall see very shortly."
"Very well," said he, "off you go. And as soon as you have secured possession let me know, and I will send the carpenter and a strong gang aboard to help you to clear away the wreck and get another topmast on end before it falls dark."
Five minutes later I was alongside the prize, which, as on the occasion of my previous visit, I was compelled to board by way of the lee main chains, no side ladder having been put over for my accommodation. My Yankee friend and his mate were on the poop watching us, and I thought the former turned a trifle pale as he noted the strength of the crew that I had brought with me.
"All hands out of the boat, and veer her away astern!" ordered I as we swept alongside; and the next moment I and my party were over the rail and on deck. I had already made my plans during the short passage of the boat between the two vessels; consequently the moment that we were all aboard young Copplestone, who had come with me, led a party of men forward to drive the slaver's crew below, while I, with a couple of sturdy seamen to back me up, ascended to the poop.
"Look 'e hyar, young feller," began the Yankee skipper, as I set foot on the poop, "I wanter know what's the meanin' of this outrage. D'ye see that there flag up there? That's the galorious—"
"Stars and Stripes," I cut in. "Yes; I recognise it. But I may as well tell you at once that I know this ship has no right to hoist those colours. She is the Preciosa, a slaver hailing from Havana, and sailing under Spanish colours; consequently she is the lawful prize of his Britannic Majesty's ship Eros; and I am here to take possession of her."
I saw the man turn pale under his tan, and for a moment he was speechless, while his mate Silas whispered something in his ear. But he would not listen. Instead, he pushed the man roughly away, angrily exclaiming, "Hold yer silly tongue, ye blame fool!" Then, turning to me, he demanded:
"Who's been makin' a fool of ye this time, stranger?"
"Nobody," answered I curtly. "I acknowledge that you did the trick very handsomely when I boarded you on a former occasion; but there is going to be no fooling this time I assure you."
"Well, I'll be goldarned!" exclaimed the man, suddenly recognising me. "If it ain't the young Britisher that—jigger my buttons if I didn't think I'd seen yer before, stranger. Well, you know, you've got to prove what you say afore you can do anything, haven't ye?"
"Yes," I answered; "and if you will be good enough to hand me over your keys I will soon do so, to my own satisfaction if not to yours."
"Very well," he said, producing the keys; "the game's up, I can see, so I s'pose it's no use kickin'. There's the keys, stranger. But I'd give a good deal to know who let ye into the secret."
"No doubt," returned I, with a laugh. "Adams and Markham, just mount guard over these two men, and do not let them stir off the poop until I return."
So saying, I descended the poop ladder and, entering the cabin, made my way to the skipper's state-room, and, opening a desk which I found there, soon discovered the genuine set of papers declaring the ship's name to be the Preciosa, her port of registry Havana, and her ownership Spanish. Her Spanish crew we soon found snugly hidden away in spacious quarters beneath the lazaret; and, as to the name on her stern, we found that the piece of wood on which it was carved and painted was reversible, having Virginia, New Orleans, carved on one side of it and Preciosa, Havana, on the other, and that it could be unbolted and reversed in a few minutes by lifting a couple of movable planks in the after cabin. I called a couple of hands into the cabin and had this done forthwith, much to the relief of Captain Perry, as I afterward learned. She had a full cargo, consisting of seven hundred and thirty negroes, all young males, on board; and as she was a remarkably fast and well-built ship she was a prize worth having, to say nothing of the credit that we should win by putting a stop to her vagaries. We transferred her double crew to the Eros, where they were carefully secured in the hold on top of the ballast, and, a strong prize crew being put on board by Captain Perry, we were not long in clearing away the wreck and putting everything back into place again, being ready to make sail by one bell in the first watch.
Being a prize of such exceptional value, Captain Perry decided to accompany her in the Eros to Sierra Leone, where we arrived without adventure five days later. In due course she was adjudicated upon and condemned by the Mixed Commission; but I did not remain at Sierra Leone for that to take place; for upon our arrival we found that a packet had come in from England a few days previously bringing letters for me, acquainting me with the sad news of my father's death and urging me to proceed home immediately to supervise the winding up of his affairs, and to assume the management of the very important property that he had left behind him. I therefore at once applied for leave, and, having obtained it, secured a passage in a merchant vessel that was on the point of sailing for Liverpool, where I duly arrived after an uneventful passage of twenty-seven days. I discovered, upon reaching home, that it would be quite impossible for me to manage my property and at the same time follow the sea; at my mother's earnest entreaty, therefore, I gave up the latter; and am now a portly grey-headed county squire, a J.P., M.F.H., and I know not what beside, to whom my experiences as a Middy of the Slave Squadron seem little more than a fevered dream.