"Ah! if only she would, sir!" I ejaculated, with such intensity of feeling that the captain laughed.
"Why, I declare you are developing into a regular fire-eater!" he exclaimed.
"Think of the passengers, sir, some of them women, most likely!" I said.
"I am thinking of them, sir!" answered the captain through his clenched teeth, and with a sudden glitter in his eye that foreboded evil to the brigantine's people, should we be fortunate enough to get within striking distance of them.
I turned away and walked forward to where I saw Black Peter, the whilom servant of the midshipmen's mess aboard the Althea. He was one of those whom we had found still alive in the launch, and he had picked up wonderfully since then, having become almost his old self again. He was lounging on the forecastle near the port cat-head, with his bare, brawny arms crossed on the rail as he gazed ahead at the two craft, with which we were slowly closing.
"Peter," said I, "get the grindstone ready. And Green, get the cutlasses up on deck and give them a thorough good sharpening. We may want them by and by."
"Ay, ay, sir," answered Green, with a grin, as he shambled away to get the weapon, while Peter bestirred himself with alacrity to prepare the grindstone for its work by drawing a bucket of water and pouring it into the trough. A few minutes later Peter, his eyes gleaming with excitement and every one of his ivories bared in a broad grin of delight, was whirling the handle round at a furious speed, as Green and another hand stood on either side of the stone, each pressing a bare blade to its fiercely buzzing disc.
We continued to drift along at an exasperatingly slow pace before the languid breeze until we had arrived within about four miles of the two craft, when the skipper gave orders to clear the decks and cast loose the guns; but he instructed me that the galley fire was not to be extinguished and the magazine opened until the last moment. Apparently he had his doubts as to the probability of the brigantine attacking us. And, if so, his doubts were soon confirmed; for when we had reduced the distance by another mile the lookout aloft reported that the brigantine was filling away; and in another minute or two she turned her stern to us, rigged out her studding-sail booms, and went off before the wind, setting her studding-sails as she went.
"Ah!" ejaculated the captain, "it is as I feared! She smells a rat, and does not mean to wait for us! Hoist out the gig at once, Mr Courtenay, and pull for your life to that ship; too probably it is a case of the Wyvern over again, and if there are any people left aboard her they must be saved. Let the men go fully armed, but do not take more than the boat's proper complement, as you are not likely to have any fighting to do, while you may want all the room in the boat that you can spare."
We were by this time moving so slowly that it was unnecessary to heave- to in order to hoist out the gig. No time, therefore, was lost in getting her into the water, and within five minutes of the issuing of the order by the captain we were afloat and away from the schooner, with the men—a picked crew, consisting of the strongest and smartest men in the ship—bending their backs as they drove the beautifully modelled boat at racing speed through the water.
We had barely got away, however, before I detected light wreaths of smoke curling up between the masts of the distant ship; and at the same moment I observed that although her mainyards were still braced aback she seemed to be no longer hove-to, for, as I watched, her bows fell off until she was nearly before the wind, and she went drifting slowly away to leeward, sometimes heading in one direction and sometimes in another, yawing about all over the place, with a difference of fully four points on either side of the general direction in which she was driving. This was most exasperating, as although she was drifting slowly she was still drifting, and that, too, in the same general direction that we were steering, thus prolonging the time that must necessarily elapse ere we could overtake her, while it would greatly increase the expenditure of energy on the part of the oarsmen to enable us to get alongside.
"Give way with a will, men," I cried. "The rascals have not only set fire to the ship, but they have also cast loose her wheel, so that she is now running away from us to leeward. The harder you pull the sooner shall we catch her, and the better chance will there be for us to put out the fire. And remember, for aught that we know, her crew may be lying there upon her deck, bound hand and foot, utterly helpless, to roast alive, unless we can get alongside in time to save them!"
This appeal was not without effect upon the men; hard as they had been pulling, they now put out every available ounce of strength they possessed, their brawny muscles standing out like ropes upon their bare arms, while the perspiration literally poured off them, and the stout ash blades bent like wands, as they all but lifted the gig clean out of the water at every stroke. We tore along over the low, oil-like ridges of the swell at the speed of the dolphin, leaving the schooner as though she were at anchor; yet to my eager impatience our headlong pace seemed to be little better than a crawl, for the light wreaths of smoke that I had seen winding lazily upward from the ship's hull and twining about her spars increased in volume with startling rapidity, while it momentarily grew darker in colour, until, within ten minutes of its first appearance, it had become a dense cloud of dun-coloured smoke, completely enveloping the ship, in the heart of which long, forking tongues of flickering flame presently appeared. They had apparently set fire to the poor old barkie in at least half a dozen places, and she was burning like match-wood.
"Pull, men, pull!" I cried, "or we shall be too late; she is well alight even now, and in another quarter of an hour she will be a blazing furnace if she goes on at her present rate. Heaven above! if there are people aboard her what must their feelings be now?"
A groan of sympathy burst from the men in response to this ejaculation of mine, and they tugged at the oars with a strength and energy that filled me with amazement. We were coming up with the ship hand over hand; but, fast as the boat flew, the fire grew still faster, and presently I saw the flames climbing aloft by way of the well-tarred shrouds until they reached the sails, when there arose a sudden blaze of flame among the spars, and in two or three minutes every shred of canvas had been consumed, and the crawling tongues of fire were circling about the masts and yards, feebly at first, but steadily increasing until they were all ablaze. Meanwhile the ship, deprived of her canvas, gradually fell broadside-on to the wind, and from that position as gradually drifted round until she lay bows-on to us. By this time we were within three-quarters of a mile of her, and now that she was no longer driven to leeward by her sails, we neared her rapidly. But my heart sank within me as I watched her, for the destruction of her sails, which I had at first thought a fortunate circumstance,—inasmuch as she no longer blew away from us,—I now recognised as a dreadful happening; for, stationary as she now lay on the water, the light draught of wind had full power to fan the fire that raged aboard her, and by the time that we drew up under her bows and hooked on to her bobstay, she was a roaring mass of flames from stem to stern.
I shinned up the bobstay and so got on to her bowsprit, and from there made my way into her head; but I could go no farther, for the fore part of her deck was a sheet of fire, upon which no living thing could exist for more than a few seconds of unspeakable torment, and even where I stood the heat was all but unendurable. I could not see very far aft for the flames and smoke. Her fore-scuttle was open, and a pillar of flame roared out of it as from a chimney on fire; and some ten feet abaft it was her foremast, ablaze from the deck to the truck; and immediately abaft it again was the blazing framework of what had shortly before been a deck-house. Beyond that I could see nothing. One thing was quite certain, and that was that if there were living people still aboard her—which I could not believe possible—they must be aft, and it was there that we must seek them. So I scrambled down into the gig again, and ordered the men to back off and pull round under the ship's stern.
They lost no time in obeying my order; and it was well for us all that they exhibited so much alacrity, for as we swept round and gave way an ominous cracking and rending sound was heard aboard the ship, and a moment later her blazing foremast toppled over and fell with a crash into the sea, missing the gig by a bare boathook's length.
"Look out for the other masts; they'll be comin' down too in a jiffy!" sang out one of the men; and they all pulled for their lives. But the alarm was a false one, the main and mizzen masts standing for full ten minutes longer.
But when we got under the ship's stern it became perfectly clear that no living thing could be aboard her, for she was even more fiercely ablaze aft than she was for'ard, the whole of her, from the mainmast to the taffrail, being a veritable furnace of roaring flame, with tongues and jets of fire leaping from her cabin windows and from every port and scuttle. It was impossible to board her in this direction; it would have simply been an act of suicide to have attempted it; even her outside planking, right down to the water's edge, was so hot that it was unbearable to the touch; and it was beyond all doubt that if those fiends in the brigantine had left the crew, or any portion of them, on board, the unhappy creatures must have perished long ere we had reached the ill-fated craft. I therefore took a note of her name,—the Kingston Trader of Bristol,—and reluctantly gave the word to haul off to a safe distance to wait until the schooner should run down and pick us up.
This occurred about a quarter of an hour later, and the moment that the gig was fairly clear of the water we crowded sail after the brigantine; but, fast as the schooner was, the pirate craft easily ran away from us, and by sunset had vanished below the horizon.
Nothing further of importance happened to us until our arrival at Port Royal, which occurred on the evening of the following day, when we just saved the last of the sea breeze into the harbour. The captain went ashore and reported himself that same night, dining with the admiral afterwards; but I did not go ashore until late the next day, as there was a great deal of business that I had to attend to. Captain Harrison was of course most anxious that our trial by court-martial for the loss of the frigate should take place as speedily as possible, because he could not hope for another command until that was over; and it happened by a quite exceptional piece of luck that there were enough ships in the harbour to allow of its being held at once. It was consequently arranged to take place on board the flag-ship, on the fourth day following our arrival. It was, of course, only a formal affair, the loss of the frigate being due to causes quite beyond our control,— unless, indeed, we had chosen to run from the two French ships instead of fighting them,—so it was soon over, and before noon we were all honourably acquitted, and our side-arms returned to us with much congratulatory handshaking on the part of the officers present. Captain Harrison, the doctor, Lindsay, and I were invited to dine with the admiral at his Pen that evening, and we accordingly drove out with the last of the daylight, arriving at the house just as the sun was setting over Hunt Bay. The admiral was the very soul of hospitality, and we were therefore a large party, several officers from Up Park Camp and a sprinkling of civilians being present "to take off the salt flavour" likely to prevail from a too exclusive gathering of the naval element, as our host laughingly put it.
Somewhat to my surprise, I found myself the lion of the evening, Captain Harrison having most generously made the utmost of my exploit in capturing the French schooner and my subsequent search for the frigate's boats; and so many compliments were paid me that, being still young and comparatively modest, I had much difficulty in maintaining my self- possession and making suitable replies.
After dinner, and while the rest of us were chatting and smoking over our wine, the admiral, apologising for being obliged to temporarily absent himself, withdrew, taking Captain Harrison with him. They were absent for nearly an hour, and when they returned there was noticeable in the skipper's manner a subdued but joyous exultation that told of good news. I did not, however, learn what it was until we had left the Pen and were driving back to our hotel in Kingston by the dazzling silver radiance of a tropical full moon. And, prior to that, the admiral had said to me, as I bade him good-night—
"Come and see me in my office to-morrow about noon, Mr Courtenay; I want to have a talk to you."
As soon as we were clear of the Pen grounds and fairly on our road to Kingston, the skipper said to me—
"Mr Courtenay, do you happen to have noticed that fine frigate, the Minerva, lying just inshore of the flag-ship?"
"Yes, sir, I have," said I. "She is a beauty, and is said to be a wonderful sailer, especially on a taut bowline. I heard yesterday that her captain is ashore, down with yellow fever."
"Very true," answered the skipper. "The poor fellow died this morning, and the admiral has been pleased to give the command of her to me."
"I congratulate you with all my heart, sir," said I. "I thought I could read good news in your face this evening when you returned to the dining-room. She is a magnificent vessel, and I sincerely hope that you will have abundant opportunity to distinguish yourself in her. And I hope, sir, that you will take me with you."
"Thank you, Courtenay, thank you!" exclaimed the skipper, evidently touched by the sincerity of my congratulations; "if we can only manage to fall in with the enemy frequently enough, never fear but I will distinguish myself—if I live. As to taking you with me, I would do so with the greatest pleasure, and as a matter of course, were I permitted to have my own way; but I believe, from what the admiral let drop to me to-night, that he has his own plans for you, and, if so, you may rest assured that they will be far more to your advantage than would be your accompanying me to the Minerva. Let me see—how much longer have you to serve before you are eligible for examination?"
"Only four days more, sir," I answered, with a laugh; "then I shall go up as early as possible."
"Only four days more?" exclaimed the skipper in surprise; "I thought it was more like two months!"
"Only four days, I assure you, sir," repeated I.
"Um! well, I suppose you know best," was the answer, given in a musing tone, to which was presently added, "So much the better! So much the better!"
"May I ask, sir, whether that remark has any reference to me?" I inquired.
"Certainly, Courtenay, certainly; there cannot be any possible objection to your asking, but I am not bound to answer, am I?" replied the skipper, with a laugh. "No," he continued, "I must not tell you anything, except that I have reason to believe that the admiral is very much pleased with your behaviour, and that he contemplates marking his approval in a manner which, I am sure, will be very pleasing to yourself."
And that was all I could get out of the gallant captain; but it was sufficient to cause me to pass a sleepless night of pleasurable speculation.
Prompt to the second I presented myself at the admiral's office next morning, and was at once shown into the great man's presence.
"Morning, Mr Courtenay!" exclaimed he, as I entered. "Bring yourself to an anchor for a minute or two, will ye, until I have signed these papers; then I shall be free to have a talk to you. Jenkins, clear away a chair for Mr Courtenay."
The orderly sergeant reverently removed a pile of books and papers from a chair, dusted it, and placed it near an open window, and I amused myself by looking out upon the busy scene in the harbour, while the admiral proceeded to scrawl his signature upon document after document.
"There!" he exclaimed, with a sigh of relief, as he signed the last one and pushed it away from him, "thank goodness that job is finished! Now, Mr Courtenay—by the way, Captain Harrison told me last night that he believed you would soon be eligible for your examination. Is that so?"
"Yes, sir," answered I; "I shall have served my full time in three days more."
"Three days!" exclaimed the admiral. "Is that all?"
I replied that it was.
"And I understand that you are a good seaman and navigator," resumed the admiral. "I suppose you have no fear of failing when you go up for your examination?" I modestly replied that I had not, provided that I was treated fairly, and had not a lot of catch-questions put to me.
"Just so," responded the admiral musingly. "Your navigation, I have no doubt, is all right," he continued, "and of course you can work a ship when she is all ataunto. But suppose you belonged, let us say, to a frigate, and at the end of an engagement you found yourself in command, and your ship unrigged, what is the first thing you would do?"
I considered for a moment, and then proceeded to describe the steps I should take under such circumstances, the admiral listening all the time intently, but uttering no word and giving no sign of any kind to indicate whether my reply was satisfactory or not, until I had finished, when he said—
"Very good, Mr Courtenay, very good indeed—on the whole. Have you ever helped to fit out a ship?"
"Yes, sir," answered I, "I was aboard the poor old Althea during the whole time that she was in the hands of the riggers."
"Ah!" he exclaimed, "and you heartily wished yourself anywhere else than there, I'll be bound. But it has done you good, young gentleman; you have profited by your experience, I can see, and will perhaps some day be deeply thankful for the knowledge you then gained. Now, supposing that you found yourself on a lee shore, in a heavy gale of wind, with all your masts gone, what steps would you take for the preservation of the ship and the lives of your crew?"
Again I replied at length, stating that I should anchor the moment that the ship drifted into a suitable depth of water, letting go both bowers, backing them up with the sheet anchors, and shackling the remainder of the bower cables on to those of the sheet anchors, which latter I should then veer away upon to within a few fathoms of the clinch.
"And suppose that, having done this, your ship dragged, or parted her cables, what then?" persisted the admiral.
"Then, sir," said I, "we could only trust in God's mercy, while standing by to take care of ourselves and each other as soon as the ship should strike."
"Good!" exclaimed the admiral; "a very excellent and proper answer, Mr Courtenay. Now," he continued, "I have been asking you these questions with a purpose. I wanted to ascertain for myself whether I should be justified in sending you away in command of that little schooner that you took so cleverly, and I think I shall. I believe you will do exactly for the work I have in my mind for you. Sickness and casualties together have played havoc among the officers on this station of late, to such an extent that I have not nearly as many as I want; consequently I am only too glad to meet with young gentlemen like yourself, who have made good use of their opportunities. These waters are swarming with the enemy's privateers,—with a sprinkling of pirates thrown in, it would appear, from what the skipper of the unfortunate Wyvern says,— and they must be put down—sunk, burned, destroyed by any means that can best be compassed, or, better still, captured. I therefore propose to fit out that little schooner of yours, and to place you in command of her, for the especial purpose of suppressing these pests, and incidentally capturing as many of the enemy's merchantmen as you can fall in with. Now, how d'ye think you'll like the job?"
I replied, delightedly, that nothing could possibly suit me better; that I was inexpressibly grateful for the confidence he was about to repose in me, and that I would leave nothing undone to prove that such confidence was justified.
"Very well, then, that is settled," observed the admiral genially. "We will have the schooner overhauled at once, and made ready for sea as quickly as may be. Then you can go to sea for a month; there will be an examination next month, for which you must arrange to be in port, and then—having passed, as I feel certain you will—you shall have your commission, and be off to sea again to win your next step."
WE CAPTURE A SPANISH INDIAMAN.
The schooner was turned over to the dockyard people that same afternoon, and duly surveyed; and on the following day, when I presented myself at the admiral's office, the old boy handed me a list, as long as the main bowline, setting forth the several alterations deemed necessary to fit the little craft for His Majesty's service.
"Here, Mr Courtenay, just run your eye over that list, and tell me what you think of it," he cried, as he passed it to me across the table.
I "ran my eye over it."
"New gang of rigging fore and aft—new bulwarks, six feet high, fitted with hammock rail, etcetera, complete—deck strengthened by doubling the deck-beams—new coamings to hatchways,"—and so on, and so on, until my imagination had conjured up a picture of the trim little Susanne transmogrified out of recognition, and so stiffened and hampered by her extra deck-beams and new rigging, that we should have reason to deem ourselves fortunate should we ever succeed in screwing six knots out of her on a bowline.
The admiral must have beheld my face growing ever longer as I worked my way through this precious list to the end of it, for when I had finished it, and looked up at him blankly, he laughed aloud, as he exclaimed—
"Why, boy, what is the matter with you? Your face is as long as a fiddle!"
"Oh, sir," I exclaimed, in accents of despair, "you surely will not allow those—those—dockyard people to completely ruin the poor little hooker by making all these alterations and additions to her? She is a new vessel, sir—I understood from the mate of her that this was her first voyage. She is as sound and strong as wood and iron can make her, and any attempt to further strengthen her can only result in the destruction of her sailing powers. Then, as to those high bulwarks, sir, what will be the use of them? They will not afford us an atom of protection, while they will make her sag away to leeward like a barge! And this new gang of rigging—"
The admiral again burst out laughing. "There, there," he said soothingly, as he held up his hand to stop me, "don't distress yourself any further, Mr Courtenay; I'll go aboard her myself this afternoon, and see how much of this she really requires before signing the order. Meanwhile, go aboard yourself and draw up a list of such alterations and additions as you may think needful, and hand it to me when I come down to have a look round."
I did so, and the upshot of it all was that I eventually wheedled the admiral into consenting that the schooner should remain absolutely untouched above the deck, the only alterations made in her consisting in an extension of the cabin and forecastle accommodation, the enlargement of the magazine, and the substitution of iron ballast for the stones which the Frenchmen had considered good enough to keep the little hooker on her feet. I had some difficulty in gaining my patron's consent to the retention of the low, light bulwarks with which the craft was fitted, the admiral being strongly of opinion that they ought to be high enough and stout enough to shelter us from musketry fire. Moreover, I think he considered that we looked altogether too rakish and piratical as we then were; but I represented to him that under certain conditions this might be advantageous rather than otherwise, and in the end the kind-hearted old fellow indulgently let me have my way. The result of this was that within a fortnight of our arrival we were at sea again, with the little ship—rechristened by the name of the Tern—smelling outrageously of fresh paint, to the unmitigated disgust of the thirty- six stout fellows who were quartered in her forecastle. Young Lindsay, with many apologies to Captain Harrison, elected to unite his fortunes with mine, rather than turn over to the Minerva; and I was also given another lad—a very quiet, lady-like young fellow named Christie—to bear us both company and do duty as master. Black Peter, also came to the conclusion that there would be more scope for his talents aboard the schooner than in the frigate, and without asking anybody's leave, installed himself, unceremoniously and as a matter of course, in the position of cabin servant.
We weighed about five o'clock in the evening, with the last of the sea breeze,—a very smart, handsome privateer schooner named the Coquette being in company,—and just managed to sneak through the narrow channel between Gun and Rackum Cays, when the wind dropped dead, and left us in the East Channel in the midst of a glassy calm, rolling our rails under to the furious swell that came sweeping along past Plum Point. The Coquette was within biscuit-toss of us, and she too was rolling and tumbling about to such an extent that I every minute expected to see her roll her sticks away. This lasted for close upon two hours, during which the sun went down in a blaze of splendour and lavish magnificence of colour such as I have never beheld outside the limits of the West Indian waters. Then, just as the burning glories of the west were fading into sober grey, while Hesperus beamed softly out with momentarily increasing effulgence in the darkening blue of the eastern sky, a gentle breeze came stealing to us off the land, to which both schooners, with a mutual challenge to each other, gladly trimmed their canvas, and away we both went, hugging the Palisades closely, for the sake of the smoother water, until Plum Point was passed, when we gradually drew away from each other, the Coquette shaping a course for Morant Point, while I edged away for the island of Martinique, having formed the opinion that some of the more knowing of the enemy's homeward-bound merchant skippers might endeavour to slip out of the Caribbean between the islands of Martinique and Dominica, in the hope of thereby eluding our cruisers and privateers, most of which chose the neighbourhood of the Windward Passages for their cruising-ground. By the end of the second dog-watch the breeze had freshened so much that it became necessary to hand our royal and topgallant sail; and soon afterwards the wind hauled gradually round until it became the true trade wind, piping up to the strength of half a gale, and compelling us to haul down a single reef in our big mainsail and two reefs in our topsail, under which the little beauty lay down and thrashed through it with all the life and go of a thorough-bred racer. The Coquette was still in sight, some eight miles away to windward, and, famous as she was for her speed, I had the supreme delight of observing that we had head-reached upon her to the extent of quite two miles. And now we began to discover the great advantage of having exchanged our stone ballast for iron, the schooner being not only much stiffer under her canvas, but also more lively than before. It was grand sailing weather, the breeze, although strong, being perfectly steady, while the sea was long and regular, allowing the little hooker plenty of time to rise to each as it came rushing down upon her with hissing crest all agleam with sparkling sea-fire. And it was exhilarating to stand right away aft, close by the weather taffrail, and watch the little beauty as she tore along with breathless speed through the dusky night. The sky was clear as a bell, save for a few detached fleeces of trade-cloud that came swooping along at frequent intervals athwart the stars, so that there was plenty of light to see by; and it was as intoxicating as wine to merely stand abaft there, as I did, feeling the strong rush of the wind past me, and drinking in its invigorating freshness and coolness, as the deck heaved and plunged beneath my feet, and the bending masts swayed and reeled to and fro, the trucks sweeping long arcs among the dancing stars, and the wind piping high and shrill through the rigging, as the schooner leaped and plunged irresistibly forward, with a storm of spray flashing in over her weather cat-head and blowing aft as far as the mainmast at every buoyant upward leap of her to meet the sea, while a whole Niagara of hissing foam—with an under-stratum of whirling clouds of lambent green sea-fire—went swirling past the lee rail at a speed that made one giddy to look at. Five bells in the first watch saw us fairly abreast at Morant Point, and then, as the night was clear and the breeze steady, I went below and turned in.
Nothing of any importance occurred during the next few days, and, carrying on upon the schooner to the last stitch that she could stagger under, we arrived off the northern extremity of the island of Martinique exactly at midnight on the fifth night after leaving Port Royal. I considered that we had now reached our cruising-ground, and that there was consequently no need for any further hurry. We therefore shortened sail to double-reefed mainsail, fore staysail, and jib,—furling all our square canvas,—and leisurely passed through the channel between Martinique and Dominica until we were some sixty miles to windward of both islands, when we headed the little hooker to the northward and ratched as far as the latitude of Antigua, then heaving about and returning over the same ground again.
The first two days of our cruising proved utterly barren of results, but the time was by no means wasted, for, having sedulously exercised the crew in the working of the guns and in cutlass drill every day during our passage across from Port Royal, I now rigged up a floating target and gave them a little firing practice, taking care to have a man on the royal yard to give us timely notice of the appearance of any sail that perchance might be frightened away by the sound of firing; and I was soon gratified at the discovery that I numbered among my crew several very fairly clever marksmen.
It was within a few minutes of sunset, on the evening of the third day of our cruise, that, being again off the northern extremity of Martinique, and heading to the southward, the lookout aloft reported the upper canvas of what looked like a large ship standing out close-hauled between that island and Dominica. I immediately got the ship's telescope and went aloft with it, being just in good time to catch a glimpse of the royals and heads of the topgallant sails of a ship steering a course that would carry her some six miles to the northward of us. Having made as sure as I could of her bearing, distance, and course, I descended to the deck, and gave orders to wear ship, after executing which manoeuvre we hauled down all our canvas and lay in wait for the approaching craft, the schooner, although under bare poles, head-reaching at the rate of about two miles per hour. I estimated that the distance of the stranger from us was then some twenty-five miles, and if she was making a speed of eight knots—which was a fairly liberal allowance—it would afford us ample time to drift fairly athwart her hawse; and this I hoped to do undiscovered, as I believed that, from the cut of her canvas, she was a merchantman belonging to one or another of our enemies, and I was most anxious that she should not take fright and bear up for either of the islands, involving us in a long stern-chase, with possibly a cutting-out job at the end of it if she should succeed in reaching the refuge of a harbour.
The evening was fine, with a moderate breeze from about east-north-east, and not very much sea running. The swell, however, was high enough to hide us for at least half the time, and although the stars soon beamed forth brilliantly, while a thin silver sickle of moon hung high aloft, the conditions generally seemed fairly promising for success. Of course I gave the most stringent orders that no lights whatever should be permitted to show aboard the schooner, and I was careful to remain on deck myself to see that these orders were rigorously observed. The canvas of the stranger seemed to grow upon the horizon very slowly, and the time of waiting for her approach appeared long; but at length, by four bells in the first watch, she had drawn up to within about three miles of us, and I gave the word to see all clear for sheeting home and hoisting away at a moment's notice; for the time had now arrived when, if anything like a proper lookout was being kept on board her, we might be discovered at any instant. But minute after minute passed, and she still came steadily on, heeling slightly to the steady trade wind, and bowing solemnly over the undulating swell, with a curl of white foam under her bluff bows that made her appear to be travelling at about three times her actual speed. We had by this time fore-reached athwart her fore-foot, and were edging along at a pace that promised to place us about half a mile to windward of her by the time that she would be crossing our stern, and now I kept the night-glass immovably bearing upon her, watching for the sudden yaw that should indicate the discovery of a possible enemy in her path. I had by this time made up my mind that she was a Spaniard, and the mere fact of her adventuring, herself thus alone, instead of availing herself of a convoy, was to me sufficient assurance that she went heavily armed and manned. It also suggested the possibility that she might be carrying an exceptionally- rich freight, it sometimes happening that the skipper of such a ship, especially if he chanced to be a man of daring and courage, preferred to take his chance of making the voyage alone rather than risk being cut off from the convoy by the swarm of privateers and picaroons that hovered upon its skirts almost from the moment of its sailing to that of its arrival.
Our people were by this time all at their stations, with sheets and halliards in their hands, ready to sway away at the first word of an order from me; and it was not so dark but that I was able to see, out of the corner of my eye, the nudges and gestures of delight which they interchanged as the great, stately Indiaman swept at length athwart our stern, dark and silent as a phantom.
"Up helm and wear her round," I shouted, all necessity for further concealment being now at an end; "sheet home and hoist away for'ard— hold on aft with your peak and throat halliards until we are fairly round! Starboard braces round in! trim aft the starboard headsheets! Now hoist away your mainsail! Ah, they see us at last! There she bears away. Steady there with your lee helm, my man; do not let her come to just yet. Keep the chase upon your weather bow; she must not be allowed to get to leeward of us. Mr Lindsay, just pitch a shot athwart her hawse as a hint that we wish her to heave-to."
The shot was fired, and another, and yet a third, but the stranger took no notice whatever, the object of her captain being apparently to bear away across our bows and so get before the wind, when, of course, the cloud of studding-sails that her rig allowed would afford her a very important advantage over the schooner. But I was not going to permit that if I could help it, and it soon became perfectly clear that we could, the schooner having the heels of the ship, although we were soon under the lee of the latter, with her sails partially becalming ours. At length, finding that we could outsail the Indiaman, I luffed close in under her lee and hailed, in the best Spanish that I could muster—
"Ho, the ship ahoy! Heave-to, and strike, sir, to His Britannic Majesty's schooner Tern!"
The only reply to this was a rattling volley of musketry, evidently aimed at me as I stood on the weather rail, just abaft the main rigging, for I heard the bullets whistling all round my head.
"If you don't heave-to, sir," I exclaimed angrily, "by heaven, I will fire into and sink you!"
"Schooner ahoy! who are you?" now came a hail, in very indifferent English, from the ship; and in the dim starlight I could just make out the shape of a shadowy figure standing by the mizzen rigging.
"This schooner, sir, is His Britannic Majesty's schooner Tern, as I have already had the honour to inform you. Do you intend to heave-to, sir, or will you compel me to fire into you?" I retorted, in English this time.
The figure vanished from the lee rail of the ship without making any reply to my question; and, annoyed at being treated in this curious fashion, I turned my face inward and shouted—
"Let her go off a little, Mr Lindsay,—just far enough to enable us to fire at his rigging,—and then see whether a broadside will bring the fellow to his senses."
I leapt down off the rail, and turned to walk aft, when the figure suddenly popped into view again aboard the Indiaman, and shouted—
"No, no, senor; do not fire, for the love of God! We have several ladies aboard here, and I will surrender, rather than that they should be hurt! I surrender, sir, I surrender!"
And the next instant I heard the same voice shouting, in Spanish, an order for the crew to lay aft and back the mainyard.
As the broad mainsail of the ship collapsed and shrivelled into massive festoons to the hauling of the crew upon the clew-garnets, buntlines, and leech-lines, preparatory to backing the maintopsail, we too shortened sail in readiness to heave-to at the same moment as the prize; and five minutes later I found myself, with my sword drawn and a dozen stout fellows, armed to the teeth, at my heels, standing upon the quarter-deck of the stranger, with a little crowd of well-dressed men— evidently Spaniards—curiously regarding me and my following by the light of a couple of lanterns that someone had placed on the capstan- head.
"Bueno!" exclaimed a fine, sailorly-looking, elderly man, "all is well; they are undoubtedly English, and we have therefore nothing to fear!"
And so saying, he stepped forward and handed me his sheathed sword.
As I doffed my hat and held out my hand to receive the weapon, I could not help saying—
"Pardon, senor, but may I be permitted to ask an explanation of that remark?"
"Assuredly, noble sir," answered the Spaniard, returning my bow, with a dignified grace that excited my keenest envy; "the explanation is perfectly simple. The fact is, that when your schooner suddenly appeared just now, as though she had risen from the bottom of the sea, my first impression was that we had been unfortunate enough to stumble across the path of my detested countryman, Pedro Morillo; and I was determined to sink with my ship and all on board her rather than surrender to him."
"And pray, senor, who is this man Pedro Morillo, of whom you speak? and why should he require a countryman of his own to surrender to him? and why should you be so very strongly averse to falling into his power?" demanded I.
"Ah, senor, it is easy to see that you are a stranger to these waters, or you would not need to ask for information respecting that fiend Morillo," answered the Spaniard. "He is a cruel, avaricious, and bloodthirsty pirate, sparing neither man nor woman, friend nor foe. But little is really known about him, senor, for those who meet him rarely survive to tell the tale; but there have been one or two who, by a miracle, have escaped him, and it is from them that we have gained the knowledge that it is better to perish by his shot than to fall alive into his hands."
"Is the vessel by means of which he perpetrates his piracies a brigantine, very handsome, and wonderfully fast?" I inquired, suddenly bethinking me of poor Captain Tucker and his story.
"Certainly, senor, that answers perfectly to the description of the accursed Guerrilla. Have you seen her of late? But no, of course you have not, or you would not now be here; for Morillo is said to be especially vindictive against the English, inflicting the most atrocious tortures upon all who fall into his hands. In the dim light we at first mistook your schooner for the Guerrilla, and that is why we fired upon you as we did. Permit me, senor, to express my profound regret at my so unfortunate mistake, and my extreme gratification that it was not followed by a disastrous result."
At this compliment we of course exchanged bows once more; after which I took the liberty of addressing to this very polite and polished skipper a few questions with regard to his ship, coupled with a hint that I was anxious to complete without delay my arrangements for placing a prize crew on board and bearing up for Jamaica.
Our prize, I then learned, was the Dona Dolores of Cadiz, a Spanish West Indiaman of eleven hundred and eighty-four tons register, homeward- bound from Cartagena, Maracaibo, and La Guayra, with a very valuable general cargo and twenty-eight passengers, ten of whom were ladies. Captain Manuel Fernandez—the skipper—was most polite, and anxious to meet my views in every way; at least, so he informed me. He conducted me into the ship's handsome saloon and introduced me to his passengers,—the female portion of which seemed to be frightened nearly out of their wits,—and was kind enough to promise me that, if it would be agreeable to me, the whole of his people should assist my prize crew to work the ship. This suggestion, however, did not happen to be agreeable to me, so I was compelled to explain, as politely as I could phrase it, that my duty compelled me not only to decline his magnanimous offer, but to secure the whole of his crew, officers and men, below, and also to remove all arms of every description from the ship; after which, if he would give me his parole, it would afford me much pleasure to receive him as a guest on board the schooner. I could see that this was a bitter pill for the haughty don to swallow, but I was politely insistent, and so of course he had to yield, which he eventually did with the best grace he could muster; and an hour later the Dolores, with Christie, the master's mate, in command, and ten of our lads as a prize crew, was bowling along before the wind with studding-sails set aloft and alow, while the Tern followed almost within hail; it being my intention to escort so valuable a prize into port, and thus take every possible precaution against her recapture.
WE ENCOUNTER AND FIGHT THE GUERRILLA.
On the morning but one succeeding the capture of the Dolores,—the schooner and her prize then being some two hundred and forty miles to the westward of Dominica,—a sail was discovered at daybreak some twelve miles to the southward and westward of us, beating up against the trade wind, close-hauled upon the starboard tack; and a few minutes later she was made out to be a brigantine. We paid but scant attention to her at first, craft of her rig being frequently met with in the Caribbean, trading to and fro between the islands; but when the stranger, almost immediately after her rig had been identified, tacked to the northward, as though with the intention of getting a closer look at us, I at once scented an enemy, and, possessing myself of the telescope, forthwith made my way into the fore crosstrees for the purpose of subjecting her to a rigorous examination, wondering, meanwhile, whether by any adverse chance the stranger might eventually turn out to be the notorious pirate Morillo in his equally notorious brigantine the Guerrilla. I had no sooner got the craft fairly within the field of the instrument than I discovered my conjecture to be correct, a score of trifling details of rig and equipment becoming instantly recognisable as identical with similar peculiarities already noticed by me when I before saw the pirate vessel.
Such is the perversity of blind fortune! Under ordinary circumstances nothing would have pleased me better than to meet this audacious outlaw and his cut-throat crew in a clear sea, and to try conclusions with them. But now I was hampered with the possession of a valuable prize which I was most anxious to take safely into port, while my little force was seriously weakened by the withdrawal of the prize crew which I had been obliged to put on board the Dolores. It was therefore not wholly without apprehension that, under these untoward circumstances, I witnessed the approach of the formidable brigantine. I would have preferred to have met her, if possible, upon somewhat more equal terms; but there she was, doubtless bent upon the capture of the Dolores, and there was nothing for it but to prepare for her as warm a reception as it was in our power to give. I therefore descended to the deck and gave orders to call all hands and clear for action, at the same time signalling to Christie that the stranger in sight was a pirate, and that he was to keep out of harm's way during the impending action, keeping on upon his course, and leaving us in the schooner to deal with the intruder.
Our preparations were soon complete, but none too soon; for, approaching each other as we were at a good pace, the space between the brigantine and ourselves narrowed very rapidly. Nevertheless there was time, when all was done, to say a few words to the men; so, as I anticipated that the struggle upon which we were about to engage would be a tough one, I called them aft and said—
"My lads, you have all heard of the atrocious pirate Morillo who haunts these waters; you have heard something of his doings from those poor fellows belonging to the Wyvern who were picked up by us when we were searching for the Althea's boats, and you saw for yourselves a specimen of his handiwork in the blazing hull of the Kingston Trader, the unfortunate crew of which ship only too probably perished with her. The scoundrel and his gang of cold-blooded murderers are aboard that brigantine; and after what you have heard and seen, I need not tell you what is likely to be the fate of any of us, or of those aboard the Dolores, should we be so unfortunate as to fall into their hands. They are undoubtedly about to attempt the capture of the Spaniard. Now, it is for you to say whether they shall do so, or whether you will send them all to the bottom of the sea instead. Which is it to be, men?"
"Put us alongside of her, Mr Courtenay, sir, and we'll soon show you— and them too—which it's to be," answered one of the men, the rest instantly corroborating the remark by such exclamations as, "Ay, ay; we'll give 'em their gruel, never fear."
"Well spoke, Tommy; true for you, my son," and so on.
"Very well," said I, "that is the answer I expected. Now go to your guns, men; and see that you make every shot tell."
While clearing for action we had also made sail and shot ahead of the Dolores; and within five minutes of the moment when the crew went back to their guns, we were within half a mile of the brigantine, which craft was then crossing our bows, tearing through the long, low swell like a racing yacht, with a storm of diamond spray flashing up over her weather bow at every graceful plunge of her into the trough. She was a beautiful vessel, long and low, with enormously taunt, raking masts and a phenomenal spread of canvas—a craft well worth fighting for; and I thought what a proud day it would be for me if perchance I should be fortunate enough to capture and take her triumphantly into Port Royal harbour. She was now well within range, so I sang out to Lindsay, who was looking after matters on the forecastle, to know whether the nine- pounder pivot gun was ready.
"All ready, sir, and bearing dead on the brigantine," was the answer.
"Then heave a shot across the rascal's fore-foot at once," shouted I; "and you, my man, hoist away the ensign at the flash of the gun," I continued to the fellow who was standing by the peak signal halliards.
As the words left my lips there was a ringing report and a smart concussion; and, springing upon the weather rail, I was just in time to see the shot neatly strike the water immediately under the brigantine's figure-head, the spray from it leaping up and leaving a dark stain upon the foot of her foretopmast staysail.
"Well aimed!" exclaimed I exultantly; "if you will all do as well as that throughout the fight, lads, you will soon give a good account of her."
While I was still speaking there came an answering flash from the brigantine, which at the same moment boldly ran up a black flag at her gaff-end; and ere the report had time to reach us, a nine-pound shot crashed fair into our bows, raking us fore and aft, and carrying off the top of our unfortunate helmsman's head as it flew out over our taffrail. The poor fellow sank to the deck all in a heap, without a groan, without a quiver of the body, and I sprang to the wheel just in time to save the schooner from broaching-to.
"Anyone hurt there, for'ard?" I shouted; for I saw two or three men stooping as though to help someone.
"Yes, sir," answered one of the men; "poor Tom Parsons have had his chest tore open, and I doubt it's all over with him!"
"You must avenge him, then," I shouted back. "Load again, and give it her between wind and water if you can."
They were already reloading the gun, even as I spoke, and a minute later the piece again rang out, the shot striking the brigantine's covering- board fair and square, close to her midship port, and making the splinters fly in fine style. We were now so close to her that we could see that her decks seemed to be full of men, and I thought I heard a shriek as our shot struck. Her reply was almost instantaneous, her whole starboard broadside being let fly as she shot into the wind in stays; and once more the shot—five nine-pounders—came crashing in through our bulwarks, filling the air with a perfect storm of splinters, but happily hurting no one but myself. A large jagged splinter struck me in the left shoulder, lacerating the flesh rather badly; but one of the men sprang to my assistance and quickly bound it up.
"Up helm, my man, and let her go off until our starboard broadside bears," said I to the man who now relieved me at the wheel, adding in a shout to the crew—
"Stand by your starboard guns, and fire as they come to bear upon her!"
Bang! bang! bang! Our modest broadside of three six-pounders spoke out almost simultaneously. I did not see the shot strike anywhere, but almost immediately afterwards down came her maintopmast and the peak of her mainsail. Her main-masthead had been shot away, and the Dolores at least was safe; for the pirates, having lost their after-sail, would now be compelled to make a running fight of it before the wind, which would enable Christie to haul his wind and get out of danger. Our men raised a cheer at their lucky shot, and I, determined not to throw away the least advantage, gave orders to port the helm and bring the schooner to the wind on the starboard tack, so getting the weather-gage of the brigantine. As we rounded-to our antagonist fell off, the two craft thus presenting their larboard broadsides to each other; and, both being ready, we fired at precisely the same moment, the report of the two discharges being so absolutely coincident that I did not know the brigantine had fired until her shot came smashing in through our bulwarks, wounding five men and rendering one of our six-pounders useless by dismounting it. So close were we to each other by this time that before we could load again the brigantine had passed astern of us, and none of our guns would bear upon her or hers upon us. Her crew were doing their utmost to keep her close to the wind, but with the peak of her mainsail down she would not lay any higher than within about eight points; and I determined to take the utmost advantage of her comparatively helpless position while I might, for a lucky shot on her part might make her case ours at any moment. I therefore signed to the helmsman to put down his helm, and at the same moment gave the order—
"Ready about! helm's a-lee!"
The nimble little schooner spun round upon her heel as smartly as a dancing girl, presenting her starboard broadside to the brigantine.
"Stand by your starboard broadside, and fire as your guns bear!" shouted I; and as we swept round almost square athwart our antagonist's stern the six-pounders once more spoke out, one shot striking the stern of her fair amidships and smashing her wheel to pieces, while the other two took her in the larboard quarter at an angle that must have caused them to traverse very nearly three-quarters of the length of her deck before they passed out through her starboard bulwarks.
The brigantine, no longer under the control of her helm, fell off until she was running dead before the wind, when the pirates trimmed their yards square; and a moment later I saw a number of her hands in the fore rigging swarming aloft. The moment that her starboard broadside could be brought to bear upon us she fired; and the next moment our bowsprit and foretopmast both went, the former, with the flying-jib, towing under the bows, while the latter dangled to leeward by its rigging, with the royal towing in the water alongside. Our lads, having by this time reloaded the starboard guns, again fired, hulling the pirate, and then, by my orders, left their guns to clear away the wreck; for, encumbered as we now were, with the jib under the bows and the square canvas hanging over the side, the schooner was gradually coming-to, although her helm was hard a-weather.
This ended the fight, for when I next found time to look at the brigantine she had studding-sail booms rigged out on both sides and her people were busy getting the studding-sails upon her, while the straight wake that she was making showed that they had already contrived to rig up some temporary contrivance for steering her. Seeing this, I at once hove the schooner to, and went to work to repair damages; for, now that I had had the opportunity to discover the stuff of which Senor Morillo was made, it struck me as by no means improbable that the moment he had repaired his damages he would return and attack us afresh.
Altogether the fight had not lasted longer than some eight or ten minutes at the utmost, but during that short time we had lost two men, killed outright, while six—including myself—were wounded, four of them severely. Christie, recognising that his duty was to take care of the prize, had hauled his wind when we passed ahead of him, and was now about a mile to windward, with his maintopsail to the mast; but when he saw that the fight was over he filled away and came booming down to us, sweeping close athwart our stern and heaving-to close to leeward of us. As he bore down upon us I saw him in the mizzen rigging, speaking- trumpet in hand; and when he was within hailing distance he hailed to ask if he could be of any assistance, adding that one of the passengers professed to be a doctor and had chivalrously offered his services, should they be required. This was good news to me indeed, for, being a small craft, we carried no surgeon, and but for this proffered help our poor wounded lads would have been obliged to trust pretty much to chance and such unskilled help as we could have afforded them among ourselves. I hailed back, expressing my thanks for the offer, and at once sent away a boat for the medico, not caring that Christie should run the risk of sending away a boat's crew out of his own scanty company.
In about ten minutes the boat returned, bringing in her a little, swarthy, burnt-up specimen of a Spaniard, and a most portentous-looking case of surgical instruments. But, although by no means handsome, Senor Pacheco soon proved himself to be both warm-hearted and skilful, ministering to the wounded with the utmost tenderness and with a touch as light and gentle as a woman's. When he had attended to the others I requested him to oblige me so far as to bind up my shoulder afresh, which he at once did, informing me at the same time that it was an exceedingly ugly wound, and that I must be particularly careful lest gangrene should supervene, in which case, if my life could be saved at the expense of my arm, I should have reason to esteem myself exceptionally fortunate. He remained on board, chatting with me for about an hour, after he had coopered me up, and very kindly promised to visit me and his other patients again in the afternoon, if I would send a boat for him: but he declined my invitation to breakfast, upon the plea that he had already taken first breakfast, while it was still too early for the second. He was full of polite compliments and congratulations upon our having beaten off such a desperado as Morillo was known to be, and graphically described the consternation that had prevailed in the cabins of the Dolores when the brigantine was identified as the notorious Guerrilla.
Contrary to my expectations, and greatly to my relief, the pirates did not return to attack us; and as a measure of precaution,—in case the idea should occur to Morillo later on,—as soon as our damages were repaired I stood to the northward and westward all that day, shaping a fresh course for Morant Point at sunset that evening. The sun went down in a heavy bank of clouds that had been gathering on the western horizon all the afternoon and slowly working up against the wind,—an almost certain precursor of a thunderstorm,—and as the dusk closed down upon us the wind began to grow steadily lighter, until by the end of the first dog-watch the air was so scant as to barely give us steerage-way. The night closed down as dark as a wolf's mouth—so dark, indeed, that, standing at the taffrail, I could only barely, and with the utmost difficulty, trace the position of the main rigging against the intense blackness of the sky. As for the Dolores, we lost sight of her altogether, and could only determine her position by the dim, uncertain haze of light that faintly streamed above her high bulwarks from the skylight of her saloon, or by the momentary gleam of a lantern passing along her decks and blinking intermittently through her open ports. This intense darkness lasted only about half an hour, however, when sheet-lightning began to flicker softly low down upon the western horizon, causing the image of the ship—now some two miles astern of us—to stand out for an instant like a cunningly wrought model in luminous bronze against the ebony blackness of the sky behind her.
With the setting-in of the lightning the last faint breathing of the wind died away altogether, leaving us and the Spaniard to box the compass in the midst of a glassy calm, the sweltering heat of which was but partially relieved by the flapping of our big mainsail as the schooner heaved languidly upon the low swell that came creeping down upon us from the north-east. The night seemed preternaturally still, the silence which enveloped us being so profound that the noises of the ship—the occasional heavy flap of her canvas, accompanied by a rain- like pattering of reef-points; the creak of the jaws of the mainboom or of the gaff overhead on the mast; the jerk of the mainsheet tautening out suddenly to the heave of the schooner; the kicking of the rudder, and the gurgling swirl of water about it and along the bends—only served to emphasise while they broke in upon it with an irritating harshness altogether disproportionate to their volume. So intense was the silence outside the ship that one seemed constrained to listen intently for some sound, some startling cry, to come floating across the glassy water to break it; and the suspense and anxiety of waiting, despite one's better judgment, for such a sound, caused the discordant noises inboard to quickly become acutely distressing. At least such was my feeling at the time, a feeling that possibly may have grown out of the increasing smart of my wound, which was now giving me so much pain that I had little hope of getting any sleep that night, especially as the heat below was absolutely stifling.
Gradually—so gradually that its approach was scarcely perceptible—the storm worked its way in our direction, the brighter glimmer and increasing frequency of the sheet-lightning alone indicating that it was nearing us, until just about eight bells in the dog-watch the first faint mutterings of distant thunder became audible, while the vast piles of sooty cloud that overhung us seemed momentarily to assume new and more menacing shapes, as the now almost continuous quivering of the lightning revealed them to us. Anon, low down in the western sky there flashed out a vivid, sun-bright stream of fire that, distant as it was, lighted up the whole sea from horizon to horizon, tipping the ridges of the swell with twisted lines of gold, and transfiguring the distant Dolores into a picture of indescribable, fairy-like beauty, as it brought sharply into momentary distinctness every sail and spar and delicate web of rigging tracery. A low, deep rumble of thunder followed, which was quickly succeeded by another flash, nearer and more dazzlingly brilliant than the first; and now the storm seemed to gather apace, the lightning-flashes following each other so rapidly that very soon the booming rumble of the thunder became continuous, as did the blaze of the sheet-lightning, which was now flickering among the clouds in half a dozen places at once, bringing out into powerful relief their titanic masses, weirdly changing shapes, and varied hues, and converting the erstwhile Cimmerian darkness into a quivering, supernatural light, that caused the ocean to glow like molten steel, and revealed every object belonging to the ship as distinctly as though it had been illuminated by a port-fire. So vivid and continuous was the light that I not only distinctly saw the fin of a shark fully half a mile distant, but was also able to watch his leisurely progress until he had increased his distance so greatly as to be no longer distinguishable. The continuous quivering flash of the sheet-lightning among the clouds afforded, of itself, a superbly magnificent spectacle, but the beauty of the display was soon still further increased by a wonderfully rapid coruscating discharge of fork-lightning between cloud and cloud, as though the fleecy giants were warring with each other and exchanging broadsides of jagged, white-hot steel; the thunder that accompanied the discharge giving forth a fierce crackling sound far more closely resembling that of an irregular volley of musketry than it did the deep, hollow, booming crash that followed the spark-like stream of fire that lanced downward from cloud to ocean.
A few minutes more and the storm was right overhead, with the lightning hissing and flashing all about us, and the thunder crackling and crashing and booming aloft with a vehement intensity of sound that came near to being terrifying. The whole atmosphere seemed to be aflame, and the noise was that of a universe in process of disruption.
Suddenly the schooner seemed to be enveloped in a vast sheet of flame, at the same instant that an ear-splitting crash of thunder resounded about us; there was a violent concussion; and when, a few seconds later, I recovered from the stunning and stupefying effect of that terrific thunderclap, it was to become aware that the foremast was over the side, and the stump of it fiercely ablaze. There was no necessity to pipe all hands, for the watch below now came tumbling up on deck, alarmed at the shock; and in a few minutes we had the buckets passing along. Fortunately we were able to effectively attack the fire before it had taken any very firm hold, and a quarter of an hour of hard work saw the flames extinguished; but it was a narrow escape for the schooner and all hands of us. The most serious part of it was the loss of our foremast, which completely disabled us for the moment. We went to work, however, to save the sails, yards, rigging, and so on, attached to the shivered mast; and before morning we had got a jury-lower-mast on end and secured, by which time the storm had cleared away, the wind had sprung up again, and the Dolores had borne down and taken us in tow. Fortunately the wind was fair for us, and it held; and, still more fortunately, no enemy hove in sight to take advantage of our crippled condition. We consequently arrived safely in Fort Royal harbour, in due course, on the eighth day after the occurrence of the accident, and forthwith received our full share of congratulations and condolences from all and sundry, from the admiral downward; the congratulations, of course, being upon our good luck in having effected the capture of so valuable a prize as the Dolores, while the condolences were offered pretty equally upon our having met with the accident, and our having failed to capture Morillo and his wonderful brigantine.
SENOR JOSE GARCIA.
Meanwhile, my wounded shoulder had been giving me a great deal of trouble, becoming very inflamed, and refusing to heal; so that upon my arrival in Port Royal I was compelled to at once go into the hospital, where for a whole week it remained an open question whether it would not be necessary to amputate the arm. Fortunately for me, the head surgeon—Sandy McAlister—was a wonderfully clever fellow, of infinite patience and inflexible determination; and, having expressed the opinion that the limb could be saved, he brought all the skill and knowledge of which he was possessed to the task of saving it, with the result that, in the end, he was successful. But it meant for me three weeks in the hospital, at the end of which time I was discharged, not as cured, but as in a fair way to be, provided that I took the utmost care of myself and strictly adhered to the regimen which the worthy McAlister prescribed for me.
By the time that I was free of the hospital the saucy little Tern was beginning, under the hands of the repairers, to look something like her old self again, and I was kept busy from morning to night attending to a hundred and one details connected with her refit. Nevertheless I found time to present myself for examination, and, having passed with flying colours, next day found myself a full-fledged lieutenant, thanks to the very kindly interest taken in me by my genial old friend the admiral. To that same kindly interest I was also indebted for the friendly overtures made by, and the hospitable invitations without number received from, the planters and other persons of importance belonging to the island; but I had my duty to attend to and my wound to think of, and I therefore very sparingly accepted the invitations that came pouring in upon me. Nevertheless I made many new friends, and enjoyed my short spell ashore amazingly.
The admiral was, as I have already said, particularly kind to me in every way, and in nothing more so than in the unstinting commendation which he bestowed upon my conduct during my first brief cruise in the Tern. Yet, despite all this, it was not difficult for me to perceive that the reflection that Morillo and his gang were still at large greatly nettled him, and that I could not find a surer way to his continued favour than by finding and capturing or destroying the audacious pirate.
Accordingly I made what inquiries I could relating to the whereabouts of the fellow's headquarters, and also instructed Black Peter to try his luck in the same direction; but, up to within twenty-four hours of the time when the schooner would again be ready for sea, neither of us had met with the slightest success. When, however, the twenty-four hours had dwindled down to ten, I received the welcome intimation that Black Peter had at length contrived to get upon Morillo's trail. The information was brought to me by Black Peter himself, who, having secured an afternoon's liberty, which he broke by coming aboard about ten-thirty instead of at six o'clock p.m., presented himself— considerably the worse for liquor, I regret to say—at my cabin door, beaming hilariously all over his sable countenance as he stuttered—
"We-e-ll, M-mistah Cour'-nay, I g-got him a' las', sah!"
"Got who, you black rascal? And what do you mean, sir, by breaking your leave, and then presenting yourself in this disgraceful condition? You are drunk, sir; too drunk to stand steadily, too drunk to speak plainly; and I should only be giving you your deserts if I were to turn you over to the master-at-arms. What have you to say for yourself, eh, sir?" I fiercely demanded.
"Wha' have I to s-s-say for 'shelf, Mistah C-Cour'-nay? Ha! ha! I has p-plenty to s-s-shay. Why, sah, I—I—I've g-got him, sah!"
"Got who, you villain? Got who?" I reiterated.
"Why—why—M-M- Mor—the pirate!" blurted Peter, finding himself unable to successfully pronounce Morillo's name.
"Do you mean to say that you have succeeded in obtaining news of Morillo, Peter?" I demanded eagerly, my anger at the fellow's condition at once giving way to the keenest curiosity.
"I—just dat, sah; no less," answered Peter, nodding his head as he leered at me with a drunken look of preternatural smartness.
"Then," said I, "go and get somebody to pump cold water upon your head until you are sober, after which you may come back here and tell me all about it. And if you fail to give a good account of yourself, stand clear, my man! I fancy a taste of the cat will do you no harm."
Peter regarded me with horror for a moment as the sinister meaning of this threat dawned upon his muddled senses; then he drew himself up to his full height, saluted with drunken gravity, and vanished into the outer darkness, as he stumblingly made his way up the companion ladder and for'ard.
About a quarter of an hour later he returned, comparatively sober, and, saluting again, stood in the doorway, waiting for me to question him.
"So there you are again, eh?" remarked I. "Very well. Now, Peter, if you are sober enough to speak plainly, I should like to know what you meant by saying that you have 'got' Morillo, the pirate. Do you mean that you have actually found and captured the fellow?"
"Well, no, Mistah Courtenay, I don't dissactly mean that; no such luck, sah! But I'se got de next best t'ing, sah; I'se got a man who says he knows where Morillo's to be foun'," answered Peter.
"Um! well that is better than nothing—if your friend is to be trusted," said I. "Who is he, and where did you run athwart him?"
"He ain't no friend ob mine," answered Peter, virtuously indignant at so insulting an insinuation; "he's jus' a yaller man—a half-breed—dat I met at a rum shop up in Kingston. I heard him mention Morillo's name, so I jined him in a bottle ob rum,—which I paid for out ob my own pocket, Mistah Courtenay,—and axed him some questions. He wouldn't say much, but he kep' on boastin' dat he knew where Morillo could be found any time—excep' when he was at sea. So I made him drunk wid my rum, Mistah Courtenay, and den brought him aboard here instead ob puttin' him aboard his own footy little felucca in Kingston harbour."
"I see. And where is the fellow now, Peter?" inquired I.
"Where is he now, sah?" repeated Peter. "Why, sah, he is on deck, comfortably asleep between two ob de guns, where I put him when I come aboard."
"Very good, Peter; I begin to think you were not so very drunk after all," answered I, well pleased. "But it will not do to leave him on deck all night," I continued; "he will get sober, and give us the slip. So, to make quite sure of him, stow him away down below, and have a set of irons clapped on him. When we are fairly at sea to-morrow, I will have him up on deck, and see what can be made of him. Meanwhile, Peter, he is your prisoner, remember, and I shall hold you responsible for him. Now go and turn in, and beware how you appear before me drunk again."
Early next morning I presented myself at the admiral's office, timing myself so as to catch the old gentleman immediately upon his arrival from Kingston, when, having reported the Tern as ready for sea, I received my orders to sail forthwith, and also written instructions in reference to the especial object of my cruise. These, I was by no means surprised to find, indicated that, while doing my utmost to harass the enemy, I was to devote myself especially to the task of hunting down and cutting short the career of Morillo the pirate and his gang of cut- throats.
We weighed shortly before noon, beating out against a sea breeze that roared through our rigging with the strength of half a gale; and when we were fairly clear of the shoals I gave orders for Black Peter's prisoner of the previous night to be brought on deck. A minute or two later the fellow—a half-caste Spanish negro—stood before me; and when I beheld what manner of man he was, I could readily believe him to be on terms of friendly intimacy not only with Morillo but with all the human scum of the Caribbean. The rascal presented a not altogether unpicturesque figure, as he stood in the brilliant sunlight, poising himself with the careless, easy grace of the practised seaman upon the heaving, lurching deck of the plunging schooner; for he was attired in a white shirt, with broad falling collar loosely confined at the neck by a black silk handkerchief, blue dungaree trousers rolled up to the knee and secured round the waist by a knotted crimson silk sash, and his head was enfolded in a similar sash, the fringed ends of which drooped upon his left shoulder. But it was the fellow's countenance that riveted my attention despite myself; it was of itself ugly enough to have commanded attention anywhere, but to its natural ugliness there was added the further repulsiveness of expression that bespoke a character notable alike for low, unscrupulous cunning and the most ferocious cruelty. But for the fact that he had been encountered upon ground whereon neither Morillo nor any of his gang would have dared to show themselves, I could readily have believed that he not only had a pretty intimate knowledge of the movements and haunts of the pirates, but that he was probably a distinguished member of the gang.
"Well, my fine fellow, pray what may your name be?" I demanded in English, as he was led up and halted before me.
"Too mosh me no speakee Anglish!" he promptly replied, shrugging his shoulders until they touched the great gold rings that adorned the lobes of his ears, and spreading out his hands, palms upward, toward me.
"What do you speak, then?" I demanded, still in English, for somehow I did not for a moment believe the rascal's statement.
"Me Espanol," he answered, with another shrug and flourish of his hands.
"Good, then!" remarked I, in Spanish; "I will endeavour to converse with you in your own tongue. What is your name?"
"I am called Jose Garcia, senor," he answered.
"And you were born—?" I continued interrogatively.
"In the city of Havana, thirty-two years ago, senor," was the reply.
"Then if you are a Spaniard—and consequently an enemy of Great Britain—what were you doing in Kingston?" I demanded.
"Ah no, senor," he exclaimed protestingly; "I am no enemy of Great Britain, although born a Spaniard. I have lived in Jamaica for the last fifteen years, earning my living as a fisherman."
"Fifteen years!" I repeated. "Strange that you should have lived so long among English-speaking people without acquiring some knowledge of their language; and still more strange that you should have spoken English last night in the grog shop in the presence and hearing of my steward! How do you account for so very singular a circumstance as that?"
The fellow was so completely taken aback that for a few seconds he could find no reply. Then, seemingly convinced that further deception was useless, he suddenly gave in, exclaiming, in excellent English—
"Ah, sir, forgive me; I have been lying to you!"
"With what purpose?" I demanded. "Instinct, perhaps," he answered, with a short, uneasy laugh. "The moment I was brought on deck I recognised that I was aboard a British ship-of-war, and I smelt danger."
"Ah," I remarked, "you afford another illustration of the adage that 'a guilty conscience needs no accuser.' What have you been doing that you should 'smell' danger upon finding yourself aboard a British man-o'- war?"
"I have been doing nothing; but I feared that you intended to impress me," answered the fellow.
"So I am," returned I, "but not for long, if you behave yourself. And when you have rendered the service which I require of you, you shall be richly rewarded, according as you serve me faithfully or otherwise."
"And—and—what is this service, sir?" demanded he, with some slight uneasiness of manner.
"You last night boasted that you could at anytime find Morillo—unless he happened to be at sea," I said. "Now, I want to find Morillo. Tell me where I may meet with him, and you shall receive fifty pounds within an hour of the moment when I shall have carried his ship a prize into Port Royal harbour."
"Morillo? who is Morillo?" he demanded, trying unsuccessfully to assume an air of ignorance and indifference at the mention of the name.
"He is the pirate of whom you were speaking last night," I answered sharply, for I suspected that he was about to attempt further deception with me.
"I must have been drunk indeed to talk about a man of whom I have never heard," he exclaimed, with a hollow pretence at a laugh.
"Do you mean to tell me that you do not know Morillo, or anything about him?" I demanded angrily. "Now, take time to consider your answer. I want the truth, and the truth I am determined to have by one means or another. You have attempted to deceive me once, beware how you make such an attempt a second time. Now, what do you know of Morillo the pirate?"
"Nothing!" the fellow answered sullenly. But there was a shrinking of himself together, and a sudden grey pallor of the lips, that told how severe a tax upon his courage it was—under the circumstances—to utter the lie.
"Think again!" I said, pulling out my watch. "I will give you five minutes in which to overhaul your memory. If by the end of that time you fail I must endeavour to find means to refresh it."
"What will you do?" demanded the fellow, with a scowl that entirely failed to conceal the trepidation which my remark had caused him.
I made no reply whatever, but rose, walked to the binnacle, took a squint at the compass, and then a long look aloft as I turned over in my mind the idea that had suggested itself to me, asking myself whether I should be justified in carrying it into action. I believed I now pretty well understood the kind of man I had to deal with; I took him to be a treacherous, unscrupulous, lying scoundrel, and a coward withal,—as indeed such people generally are,—and it was his cowardice that I proposed to play upon in order to extort from him the information I desired to obtain. In a word, my plan was to seize him up and threaten to flog him if he refused to speak. My only difficulty arose from a doubt as to how I ought to proceed in the event of my threat failing to effect the desired result. Should I be justified in actually carrying my threat into execution? For, after all, the fellow really might not know anything about Morillo; his remarks to Black Peter on the previous night might be nothing more than boastful lies. And if they were, all the flogging I might give him could not make him tell that of which he had no knowledge. But somehow I had a conviction that he could tell me a great deal that I should be glad to know, if he only chose; so I finally decided that if he continued contumacious I would risk giving him a stroke or two, being guided in my after conduct by his behaviour under the lash.
By the time that I had fully arrived at this resolution the five minutes' grace had expired, and I returned to where the fellow still stood, guarded by a Jack with drawn cutlass.
"Well," I demanded, "which is it to be? Will you speak freely, or must I compel you?"
"I have nothing to say; and I demand to know by what authority I have been kidnapped and brought aboard this accursed schooner?" was the reply.
"Did I not tell you a few minutes ago that you are impressed?" I answered. "You have been brought aboard here in order that you may render me a service, which I am convinced you can render if you will. When that service has been faithfully performed, I will not only set you free again but I will also handsomely reward you. You know what the service is that I require of you. Once more, will you or will you not render it?"
"I repeat that I have nothing to say. Put me in irons again if you choose; you cannot make a man tell that which he does not know," answered Garcia; and as he spoke he turned away, seeming to consider that the dialogue was at an end.
"Here, not so fast, my joker," interrupted the seaman who had the fellow in charge, seizing Garcia unceremoniously by the back of the neck and twisting him round until he faced me again, "it ain't good manners, sonny, to turn your back upon your superiors until they tells you that they've done with you, and that you can go."
The half-breed turned upon his custodian with a snarl, and a drawing back of his upper lip that exposed a whole row of yellow fangs, while his hand went, as from long habit, to his girdle, as though in quest of a knife; but the look of contemptuous amusement with which the sailor regarded him cowed the fellow, and he again faced me, meekly enough.
"Now," said I, "your little fit of petulance being over, let me ask you once more, and for the last time, will you or will you not afford me the information I require?"
"No, Senor Englishman, I will not! I am a Spaniard and Morillo is a Spaniard, and nothing you can do shall induce me to betray a fellow- countryman! Is that plain enough for you?"
"Quite," I answered, "and almost as satisfactory as though you had replied to my question. You have as good as admitted that you can, if you choose, tell me what I want to know; now it remains for me to see whether there are any means of compelling you to speak. Take him away for'ard, and keep a sharp eye upon him," I continued, to the sailor who had him in charge. "And as you go pass the word for the carpenter to rig the grating. Perhaps a taste of the cat may loosen this gentleman's tongue."
"The cat?" exclaimed the half-breed, wheeling suddenly round as he was being led away; "do you mean that you are going to flog me?"
"Certainly, unless you choose to speak of your own free will," answered I.
"Very well, then, I will speak; and your blood be on your own head!" he hissed through his clenched teeth. "I will direct you how to find Morillo, and when you have found him he will amply avenge your insult to me, and your audacity in seeking him; he will make your life such an unendurable torment to you that you will pray him, with tears of blood, to put you out of your misery. And I shall be there to see you suffer, and to laugh in your face as he refuses to grant you the boon of a speedy death."
"That is all right," I answered cheerfully, "I must take the risk of the fate you have so powerfully suggested. And now, that matter being disposed of, I shall be glad to hear from you how I am to find your friend."
The fellow regarded me in stupid surprise for a moment, as though he could not understand his failure to terrify me by his vaguely awful threat; then, with a gesture that I interpreted as indicative of his final abandonment of me to the destruction that I seemed determined to court, he said—
"Do you know anything of the Grenadines, senor?"
"No," I answered, "nothing, except that they exist, and that they form a practically unbroken chain of islets stretching between the islands of Saint Vincent and Grenada."
"That is so," he assented. "One of the most important of these islets is situate about thirteen miles to the northward of Grenada, and is called Cariacou. It is supposed to be uninhabited, but it is nothing of the kind; Morillo has taken possession of it, and established quite a little settlement upon it. There is a snug harbour at its south-western extremity, affording perfect shelter and concealment for his brigantine, and all round the shore of the harbour he has built storehouses and residences for himself and his people. I pray only that he may be at home to give you a fitting reception."
"I am much obliged for your kind wish," I replied drily. "And now, just one question more—is this harbour of which you speak difficult of access? Are there any rocks or shoals at its entrance or inside?"
"No, none whatever; it can safely be entered on the darkest night," was the answer.
"Good," I returned; "that will do for the present, Senor Garcia, and many thanks for your information. You will observe that I have accepted as true every word that you have spoken; but I should like you to think everything over again, and satisfy yourself that you have made no mistake. Because I warn you that if you have you will be shot on the instant. You may go!"
He was forthwith marched away and placed in close confinement below,— for my interview with him had convinced me that the fellow was as malignantly spiteful as a snake, and would willingly destroy the ship and all hands if an opportunity were afforded him,—after which I retired to my cabin, got out the chart, and set the course for the island of Cariacou, a course which we could just comfortably lay with yards braced taut against the lee rigging and all sheets well flattened in. The trade wind was blowing fresh enough to compel us to furl our topgallant sail, but it was steady, and under a whole topsail and mainsail the little hooker drove ahead over the long, regular ridges of swell at a good, honest, nine-knot pace hour after hour, as steadily as the chronometer itself. We sighted the island, some sixteen miles distant, on the evening of our fourth day out, and I at once shortened sail and hove-to, in order that I might carry out a little plan which I had concocted during our run across.