"Well, with your knowledge of languages you ought to be able to do better than go into a London office. You might be very useful to me, and if you like to go with me to Constantinople, where I am bound, I will give you a midshipman's rating. You may have an opportunity of seeing some more service, and when this affair is over you could, of course, leave the navy if you thought fit and rejoin your father. What do you say? I will give you five minutes to think it over."
It required less time than this for Edgar to take his resolution. He had no fancy whatever for work in a London office, and the prospect of serving on board ship, the chance of seeing Constantinople and other places, and possibly of active service against the French, was vastly more pleasant. Before the end of that time he went up to the captain, touched his hat, and said that he thankfully accepted his offer.
"Very well, then, that is settled," the officer said kindly. "I will give you ten minutes to row back to the brig and return with your clothes."
In ten minutes Edgar was on board again, having explained to the astonished captain that he was going as interpreter on board the British ship. As soon as he stepped on deck again orders were shouted, the sails trimmed, and the Tigre proceeded on her way. An officer came up to Edgar.
"What is your name, sir?"
"Edgar Blagrove, sir."
"I remember the name," the officer said. "I put into Alexandria some ten months ago to get some repairs done, and I remember that your father undertook them." He beckoned to a lad of about the same age as Edgar. "Mr. Wilkinson," he said, "you may take this young gentleman, Mr. Blagrove, down to the cockpit and introduce him to your messmates. He is entered on board the ship as a midshipman by Sir Sidney Smith's orders."
The midshipman took him below without a word. There were two other lads in the cabin.
"Allow me," Edgar's guide said with a theatrical flourish of the hand, "to introduce to you Mr. Blagrove, a fellow midshipman and messmate."
"Really, Wilkinson, one never knows whether you are in earnest or playing the fool," growled one of the others, who was a master's mate some nineteen years old.
"On the present occasion I am in earnest, Mr. Condor," Wilkinson replied.
"Where did he spring from?"
"He has just come on board from that little brig that we made lie to just now."
"I come from Alexandria," Edgar said quietly.
"From Alexandria!" Condor repeated in surprise, for he had not been on deck when the Italian captain had answered the hail.
"I was accidentally left behind when most of the English inhabitants left when the French ships came in sight."
"What did they do to you? Have you been in prison ever since?"
"Fortunately they never laid hands on me. A sheik of one of the Arab tribes was a friend of mine, and I have been staying with him ever since."
"How did you make them understand what you wanted?"
"I can talk Arabic as well as I can English," Edgar replied.
"Still you must have felt it awfully slow stopping at an Arab camp all this time."
"It has not been by any means slow. The tribe harassed the French on their march. We were present at the battle of the Pyramids, though we did not take any active part in it; for when the Mamelukes were defeated the Arabs knew that alone they had no chance of success. Then we came down to the place where they generally encamp, some twelve miles from Alexandria, and I had the good luck to see Nelson's fleet destroy the French in Aboukir Bay."
"That was luck!" Wilkinson said warmly. "I would have given anything to have been in that fight."
"You are taking late to the sea," the midshipman who had not yet spoken remarked.
"I have no intention of taking to the sea for good," Edgar replied. "My father has one of the largest businesses in Alexandria, and as soon as the French leave Egypt I shall go back there. Sir Sidney Smith asked me to come, as I talk French and Italian as well as Arabic, and he thought that I should be useful to him as an interpreter, and said he would rate me as a midshipman. I was very glad to accept, as I should have nothing particular to do if I had gone home, and I thought that it would be far more pleasant to have two or three years of active service."
"Have you been in England?" Wilkinson asked.
"Yes, I was there nearly three years, and only returned a few months before the French landed."
"Well, it seems a rum start," Condor said, "but I suppose Sir Sidney knows what he is doing."
"I should imagine he did," Edgar said quietly. "Possibly, if you like to question him he will be good enough to explain the matter to your satisfaction."
"Look here, youngster!" Condor growled. "You have come in here as a midshipman, and let me tell you that whether a fellow is an interpreter or not we don't allow cheek here."
"But you allow rudeness, eh?" Edgar said quietly. "I am new to ship's manners, but at school, anyhow, a fellow was just as likely to get thrashed for rudeness as he was for cheek."
"Come, Condor," Wilkinson said, as the master's mate sprang to his feet, "you won't do yourself any good by quarrelling with a fellow who has just come on board. He has certainly said nothing offensive to you. Moreover, it is quite possible that the captain may want to ask him questions about Egypt, and if he had any marks on the face you may be pretty sure you would get such a wigging that you would never want another, and possibly you might never have a chance of getting one."
"Very well," Condor said, sitting down again, "you are safe for a day or two; but mind, the first time I get an opportunity I will give you the soundest thrashing that you ever had."
"I am sorry that it must be postponed," Edgar said quietly, "but I daresay it will keep."
"Come on deck, Blagrove," Wilkinson said, putting his arm into that of Edgar. "He is an ill-tempered brute," he went on as soon as they had left the cockpit. "He only passed his examination a week before we sailed, and we all heartily wish that he had failed. He is a regular bully, and as none of us are older than I am he has pretty well his own way, for he is a strong chap, and, as I heard from a fellow who sailed with him, knows how to use his fists, and none of us would have any chance with him. It is a great nuisance, for we should all be very pleasant together if it were not for him. However, I don't expect he will dare touch you, for the captain may, at any time, want you to put questions to craft he may overhaul, and Condor would certainly get it hot if he found out that he had been interfering with you."
"I can assure you that I do not want the captain's assistance in the matter. Boxing is a branch of my education which has not been neglected, and I fancy that Mr. Condor will not find that he has it all his own way."
"Well, if you could lick him we should all regard you as a benefactor, Blagrove; but I am afraid you will find him a great deal too strong and heavy for you."
"Well, we shall see, as he says, on the first opportunity. I don't think that I am at all a quarrelsome chap, but I am certainly not going to put up with being bullied by a fellow like that."
At this moment the boatswain came up. "Mr. Blagrove," he said, "I have the first lieutenant's orders to take you to the tailor to be measured for your uniform—an undress suit, he said. The tailor can manage that, but you will have to get the rest of your kit later on."
"You will find me on deck, Blagrove," Wilkinson said, as Edgar followed the boatswain, who led the way to the lower deck, where, by the light of a couple of lanterns, two or three tailors were at work.
"Hall, the first lieutenant's orders are that you are to measure this young gentleman for a midshipman's undress uniform, and you are to put everything else by and push it forward."
"Very well," the man replied. "It makes no odds to me what I does first. I doubt whether the first lieutenant will be pleased to-morrow; he tore his trousers yesterday, and sent them down to me to be mended."
"Well, one of your hands can finish that," the boatswain said. "Anyhow, you have got to do this suit, or you will hear of it."
Edgar was measured for his uniform by the head tailor, who was a cockney who had been carried off by the press-gang. It was soon found that he was of no use as a sailor, but as he was by trade a tailor he was given a rating below, and it was not long before he gave such satisfaction that he was made chief of the little party employed on that work.
Returning on deck Edgar rejoined Wilkinson, and was introduced by him to several other midshipmen, who were all predisposed to like him, as Wilkinson had informed them of his little encounter with Condor, and of his readiness to fight the bully of the mess. This was considered, however, a sign of pluck rather than wisdom, and one of them expressed the general sentiment when he said, "You see he has been brought up among these Egyptian chaps, who have no idea whatever of fighting. He may have licked some of them easily, and that may have made him think he can fight; he will find the difference when he stands up against a fellow like Condor."
The first lieutenant presently sent for Edgar to come to the quarter-deck.
"I quite understand, Mr. Blagrove, that although you are given a midshipman's rating, it is really as an interpreter that Sir Sidney Smith has engaged you. Would you wish to perform midshipman's duties also? I have asked him what are his wishes in the matter, and he left it entirely with you, saying that the very nominal pay of a midshipman was really no remuneration for the services of a gentleman capable of interpreting in three or four languages, but that as the rules of the service made no provision for the engagement of an interpreter, except under special circumstances, and as you said that you did not think it likely you should make the sea your profession, you might not care to undertake midshipman's duties in addition to those of interpreter."
"Thank you, sir; but I should certainly wish to learn my duties as midshipman, and to take my share in all work. My duties as interpreter must be generally very light, and I should find the time hang heavily on my hands if I had nothing else to do. I hope, therefore, sir, that you will put me to work, and have me taught my duty just as if I had joined in the regular way."
"Very well, Mr. Blagrove, I think that you are right. I will put you in the starboard watch. I am sure that Mr. Bonnor, the third lieutenant, will be glad to keep a special eye on you. Do you understand anything about handling a boat?"
"Yes, sir. I have been accustomed to sailing, rowing, and steering as long as I can remember."
"That is something gained at any rate. Do you know the names of the various ropes and sheets?"
"I do in a vessel of ordinary size, sir. I was so often on board craft that were in my father's hands for repair that I learned a good deal about them, and at any rate can trust myself to go aloft."
"Well, Mr. Wilkinson is in your watch, and as I put you in his charge to start with, I will tell him to act as your instructor in these matters. Please ask him to step here.
"Mr. Wilkinson," he went on, as the midshipman came up, "I shall be obliged if you will do what you can to assist Mr. Blagrove in learning his duties. He has been knocking about among boats and merchant craft since his childhood, and already knows a good deal about them; but naturally there is much to learn in a ship like this. You will, of course, keep your watches as usual at night, but I shall request Mr. Bonnor to release you from all other duties for the present, in order that you may assist Mr. Blagrove in learning the names and uses of all the ropes, and the ordinary routine of his duty. He will, of course, attend the master's class in navigation. There will be no occasion for him to go through the whole routine of a freshly-joined lad in other respects; but he must learn cutlass and musketry drill from the master-at-arms, and to splice and make ordinary knots from the boatswain's mate. Thank you, that will do for the present."
Lieutenant Bonnor came up to Wilkinson a few minutes later, and told him that he was to consider himself relieved from all general duties at present.
"I hope you won't find this a nuisance, Wilkinson," Edgar said.
"Not at all," the other laughed; "quite the contrary. It gets one off of all sorts of disagreeable routine work, and as you know something about it to begin with, I have no doubt that you will soon pick up your work. A lot of the things that one has to learn when one first joins are not of much use afterwards, and may not have to be done once a year. However, I can lend you books, and if you really want to pick up all the words of command you can study them when you have nothing else to do; and I can tell you there are plenty of times when one is rather glad to have something to amuse one; when one is running with a light wind aft, like this, for instance, we may go on for days without having to touch a sail. Well, we will begin at once. We won't go aloft till you have got your togs; a fellow going aloft in landsmen's clothes always looks rather a duffer. Now, let us see what you know about things."
As the names of the halliards, sheets, and tacks are the same in any square-rigged vessel, Edgar answered all questions readily, and it was only the precise position assigned to each on deck that he had to learn, so that, even on the darkest night, he could at once lay hands on them without hesitation; and in the course of a couple of days he knew these as well as his instructor. On the third morning he put on his midshipman's clothes for the first time.
"You are a great deal stronger fellow than I should have taken you for," Wilkinson said, as he watched him dressing. "You have a tremendous lot of muscle on the shoulders and arms, and on the back too."
"I took a lot of exercise when I was at school in England," Edgar replied, "and I have been accustomed to riding ever since I was a boy, and for the last five months have almost lived in the saddle. I have done a good deal of rowing too, for I have had the use of a boat as long as I can remember. Of course, I have done a lot of bathing and swimming—you see, the water is so warm that one can stay in it for a long time, and one can bathe all the year round. I cannot even remember being taught to swim, I suppose it came naturally to me. I am sure that my father would never have let me go out in boats as I used to do if he had not known that I was as much at home in the water as out of it."
"Now we will go aloft," Wilkinson said.
Edgar ran up almost as quickly as his companion. He had not only been accustomed to ships in the port of Alexandria, but on the voyage to England and back he had spent much of his time aloft, the captains being friends of his father, and allowing him to do as he liked, as soon as they saw that he was perfectly capable of taking care of himself.
"This is not the first time that you have been aloft, sir," one of the top-men said, as he followed Wilkinson's example, instead of going up through the lubber's hole.
"It is the first time that I have ever gone up the mast of a man-of-war," Edgar replied; "but everything is so big and solid here, that it seems easy after being accustomed to smaller craft. It is a wonderful spread of sail, Wilkinson, after having been on board nothing bigger than a brig. I used to help reef the sails on my way back from England; but these tremendous sails seem altogether too big to handle."
"So they would be without plenty of hands, but you see we have a great many more men in proportion here than there are on board a merchant craft. Will you go up higher?"
"Certainly." And they went up until nothing but the bare pole, with the pennant floating from its summit, rose above them. "You don't feel giddy at all, Blagrove?"
"Not a bit. If she were rolling heavily perhaps I might be, but she is going on so steadily that I don't feel it at all."
"Then I will begin by giving you a lesson as to what your duties would be if the order were given to send down the upper spars and yards. It is a pleasure teaching a fellow who is so anxious to learn as you are, and who knows enough to understand what you say."
For two hours he sat there explaining to Edgar exactly where his position would be during this operation, and the orders that he would have to give.
"When we get down below," he said, when he had finished, "I will give you all the orders, and you can jot them down, and learn them by heart. The great point, you see, is to fire them off exactly at the right moment. A little too soon or a little too late makes all the difference. It is generally a race between the top-men of the different masts, and there is nothing that the men think more of than smartness in getting down all the upper gear. When you have got all the words of command by heart perfectly, you shall come with me the first time the order is given to send down the spars and yards, so as to see exactly where the orders come in. It is a thing that we very often practise. In fact, as a rule, it is done every evening when we are cruising, or in harbour, or at Spithead, or that sort of thing. When it is a race between the different ships of a squadron, it is pretty bad for the top-men who are the last to get their spars down. But, you see, as we are on a passage I don't suppose we shall send down spars till we get to Constantinople."
"What are we going there for?"
"As far as I can understand, the captain is going on a sort of diplomatic mission. His brother is our ambassador there, and he is appointed to act with him in some sort of diplomatic way, I suppose, to arrange what troops the Sultan is going to send against the French, and what we are to do to help him, and what subvention is to be paid him, and all that sort of thing. I expect you will be pretty busy while we are there. Do you understand Turkish?"
"Yes, it is very like Arabic. All the officials and upper classes in Egypt are Turks, and one hears more Turkish than Arabic, except among the Bedouin tribes."
While they were talking they were leisurely descending the shrouds side by side. As soon as they gained the deck, the captain's steward came up to Edgar, and said that Sir Sidney Smith would be glad to see him and Mr. Wilkinson to dinner that evening. The captain had abstained from inviting him until he should have got his uniform, thinking that he would find it uncomfortable sitting down in civilian dress. The fact that he was going to dine late in no way interfered with Edgar's enjoyment of his mid-day meal. During the two days he had been on board, he had got on friendly terms with all his messmates excepting Condor, who studiously abstained from noticing him in any way. The younger midshipmen he bullied unmercifully, and had a general dictatorial way with the others that made Edgar frequently long for the opportunity of giving him a lesson.
He had no doubt that Condor had determined to postpone the occasion until they had left the Pireus, at which point they were to call, as his service might be required there to interpret. Once away from the island, he would not be likely to be called upon to translate until they arrived at Constantinople.
It was a pleasant dinner in Sir Sidney Smith's cabin. There were present the first and third lieutenants, the captain of the marines, the doctor, Wilkinson, and Edgar. Sir Sidney Smith was a delightful host; he possessed a remarkable charm of manner, was most thoughtful and kind to all his subordinates, and, though strict in all matters of discipline, treated his officers as gentlemen and on terms of equality in his own cabin. He had already accomplished many dashing exploits in the Baltic and elsewhere, and was beloved both by the sailors and officers. It was a time when life in the navy was very rough, when the lash was unsparingly used for the smallest offences, and when too many ships were made floating hells by the tyranny of their commanders.
"I should have asked you to dinner on the day that you came on board, Mr. Blagrove," Sir Sidney said kindly, as the two midshipmen entered, "but I thought that you might prefer my not doing so until you got your uniform. It has been some privation for myself, for I am anxious to hear from you some details as to what has been doing in Egypt, of which, of course, we know next to nothing at home."
During dinner no questions were asked, but after the cloth had been removed and the decanters were placed upon the table, he said:
"Now, Mr. Blagrove, we shall be glad if you will give us details of how you came to be left behind, of your personal adventures, and what you yourself witnessed, and your opinion of the situation in Egypt. This is desirable, not only as a matter of general information, but because it will be really useful to me to understand the situation fully, for the purposes of my mission."
Edgar began his story, but was interrupted almost at the outset by Sir Sidney asking him how he came to be so intimate with these Bedouins. He was therefore obliged to relate how he had rescued the sheik's son from an attack by two of the lowest class of Europeans in Alexandria. Edgar told the story modestly, making as little as possible of his share in it.
"And were these fellows armed, Mr. Blagrove?"
"They had their knives, but they had not time to use them. These fellows have no idea of boxing, and a straight hit is a mystery to them. The thing was all over in less than a minute."
"Then, I suppose, you can box?" Sir Sidney said, with a smile.
"I was taught it in England, sir. My father thought that it would be useful, for the population of Alexandria is a rough one."
Sir Sidney said no more, and Edgar told his story without further interruption, and then answered many questions as to the proceedings of the French, the rising in Cairo—of which Sir Sidney now heard for the first time, and the prospect of a general insurrection.
"I don't think that there is much chance of that, sir. The defeat of the Mamelukes led them to believe that the French were invincible. The destruction of their fleet showed that this was not the case, and led to the rising at Cairo, but their easy defeat there, and the terrible slaughter inflicted upon them, will certainly cow them for a long time, and as long as the whole French army remains there, I don't think there will be much further trouble, but if a portion were to march away, no doubt they might muster up courage to attack those that remained. Mourad Bey, with a considerable force of Mamelukes, still keeps the field, and the Arab tribes would certainly join him if they saw a chance of defeating the invaders."
"And the two men you had that trouble with, have you ever come across them again, Mr. Blagrove?" the first lieutenant asked.
"We came across them in Cairo, sir," Edgar replied reluctantly. "I was with my friend, the sheik's son. They did not recognize me, being in my Arab dress, but they knew him at once and pounced upon him, and were dragging him into a house. Of course, I took his part and there was a fight."
"And what was the result, Mr. Blagrove?"
"The result was that they were both killed," Edgar said quietly. "They attacked us with knives, and we had to use ours. My friend killed one of them and I killed the other. It was unfortunate, but it was their lives or ours, and if we hadn't done it then, the thing would have happened again, and next time we might have been stabbed before we had a chance of defending ourselves."
"I can quite understand that, Mr. Blagrove," Sir Sidney said kindly, while the others smiled at the matter-of-fact way in which Edgar related what must have been a very dangerous business.
"I see that, whatever else we may have to teach you, it will not be how to use your weapons. Indeed, it seems to me that you are getting on very fast. I saw you go up the shrouds to-day, and I can see that you will very soon be as much at home there as any of my midshipmen. And now, gentlemen, we have had rather a long sitting, for it is nearly ten o'clock; but I am sure that you must have been as interested as I have been myself, in the information Mr. Blagrove has been good enough to give us."
"By Jove, Blagrove," Wilkinson said when they had left the cabin, "if you had told me all this before I should not have felt so doubtful about your fight with Condor. So you can really use your fists well?"
"I learnt for over two years from some of the best light-weights in London," Edgar replied, "and unless he has had wonderfully good teachers I ought to have no trouble about the matter."
Two days later the Tigre left the Pireus. To Sir Sidney Smith's disappointment, he had not found Lord Nelson there, as he had expected to do, and he was the more disappointed inasmuch as he had missed Lord St. Vincent, who was commander-in-chief in the Mediterranean, at Gibraltar.
Finding that the last news from Lord Nelson was that he was sailing to join the fleet blockading Toulon, Sir Sidney Smith remained but a couple of days at the Pireus, and then continued his voyage to Constantinople. They had had no intercourse with any of the natives, and Edgar's services had consequently not been called into requisition.
In the afternoon Condor came up to Edgar, who was talking with some of the other midshipmen, and said:
"Now, Mr. Blagrove, if you really meant what you said, I think this is a good opportunity to settle our affair. Your valuable services are not likely to be required for a few days, and if you don't wish to back out you had better come with me below."
"With pleasure," Edgar said quietly. "I have had some difficulty in waiting, and have several times been on the verge of stopping your pleasant habit of bullying youngsters."
"Well, you need not say any more," Condor said savagely; "let us see what you can do."
Wilkinson and two or three others who were off duty went down at once with Edgar, and as the news spread among the others, every midshipman who could possibly get away unnoticed, stole off also, and joined them on the lower deck. Half a dozen lanterns were lighted and hung up from the beams. A few of the sailors, seeing so many midshipmen going down there, guessed that there was a fight coming off, and descending the hatchway forward, stole noiselessly aft to watch it.
Wilkinson had said nothing to the others of what he had heard in the cabin. The general belief was that although Edgar, no doubt, would make a plucky fight of it, he had no chance whatever with an opponent nearly three years his senior, two or three stone heavier, and with a reputation for being able to use his fists well.
The opponents stripped to the waist and faced each other. Wilkinson acted as Edgar's second; none of the older ones would act for Condor, but a lad of fifteen, who dared not refuse his request, did so.
The combat is best described in the language in which one of the tars who witnessed it related it to his comrades.
"I never seed such a thing in all my born days," he said. "It did not look a fair thing, for it was like a man against a boy. Condor is about three inches taller than the young 'un, and much more strongly built. The young 'un stripped well, and looked a wonderfully wiry young chap; there was a determined look about his face, and I guessed that he was game to the backbone; but his chance did not seem worth speaking of. Well, they stood up. The young one moved about quick on his pins for a moment, and then, it was so quick that you could scarce see how it was done, he gave a sort of bound, and hit out with his right, and the next moment Condor was on his back.
"I never saw such a clean, knock-down blow in all my life. The mids, they all cheered, and it was plain enough to see which way their 'pinions went. Condor was not down a moment; up he jumped again, looking as savage as a bull, but somewhat dazed. He meant mischief this time, and went with a rush at the young 'un; but lor, the latter just jumped out of his way, and hit him such a smack in the eye that it staggered him altogether. But he did not lose his legs this time, and made another rush. It was the same thing over and over again. The young 'un did just what he liked with him, and after five minutes he knocked him silly, his eyes were beginning to close, he was just bleeding like a pig at the nose; but it was a cut on the mouth that finished him, and knocked him out of time altogether, and the young 'un had never been as much as touched once.
"You should have heard how the middies cheered. As to the young 'un, he seemed to take it as a matter of course, and said, 'There is nothing in it. Condor fought pluckily enough, but he knows next to nothing of boxing, while, though I say it myself, I am a first-rate boxer. I ought to be, having been taught by the best masters in London for a couple of years.'
"They had to chuck some water on Condor's face to get him round, for the force with which he struck the deck stunned him. When he was helped to his feet, the young 'un went up to him and held out his hand. 'I hope there will be no more ill-feeling between us, Condor,' he said. 'You have made a bad mistake, and have had to pay for it. Only I say this, that as long as I am on board there shall be no more bullying in the cockpit. We are all gentlemen, I hope. As long as we are on duty, of course, we obey the orders of our superiors, and, as our senior officer, we should all obey you; but when off duty we are equals. And if anyone attempts to bully anyone else, he has got me to reckon with.
"'There is no reason why we should not have a pleasant time when we are below, and I will do my best to see that we do have it. You are the senior of the mess, and as such have to keep order; but beyond that you have no right to interfere. Now let us shake hands and say no more about it.'
"Condor shook hands without saying a word, and then slipped away. I have seen many a fight since I first took to the sea, but never such a fight as this before. It were just a massacre of the innercents, and I don't think a fellow was ever more thoroughly sucked in than Master Condor when he undertook the job."
Condor had to go on the sick-list half an hour after the fight was over. His eyes were almost closed, his face was enormously swollen, and he had lost three teeth—the effect of the blow that had brought the conflict to a close.
"Did you know how it was going to be, Wilkinson?" one of the other seniors said as they went up on the deck again.
"I guessed pretty well, from what Blagrove was telling Sir Sidney when he dined with him, that Condor would meet his match, but I did not think that it was going to be a hollow thing like that."
"What do you mean, sir, by skulking below?" the second lieutenant angrily asked one of the midshipmen of his watch as he returned on deck.
"I just slipped below for a few minutes, sir," the lad said.
"Well, you had better be careful, or you will find yourself at the mast-head," the lieutenant said sharply.
"I fancy there has been a fight," the first lieutenant said as Mr. Knight passed him, grumbling to himself. "I noticed just now that there were only two midshipmen on deck. Do you see, they are coming up the hatchway, one by one, looking as innocent as a cat that has been at the cream-jug. They seem to be pretty nearly all here now, but I don't see any signs in any of their faces that they have been in trouble.
"Well, well, midshipmen are only boys, and boys will quarrel. I expect we both had our share of it before we got our epaulettes."
The other laughed. "I suppose so," he said; "and after all it does them no harm, and it is much better, if two boys do quarrel, that they should fight it out and have done with it, instead of always wrangling."
"I thought it might have been Blagrove," the first lieutenant said. "A new hand generally has a fight before he has been on board a fortnight. After that he finds his level. However, it is not him, for there he is, looking as cool as a cucumber. It must have been some sort of meeting to discuss some fancied grievance. I daresay we shall hear something about it sooner or later."
Half an hour afterwards the doctor came on deck. There was a smile on his face as he went up to the first lieutenant.
"One of your officers is on the sick list, Mr. Canes."
"What is the matter with him?"
"I should say that it would come under the head of contusions."
The lieutenant laughed.
"Rather more serious than is usual in these cases. Face greatly swelled, eyes closed, very great enlargement of the nose, lips puffed and badly cut, three front teeth missing."
"By Jove, that is severe punishment! Who is it?"
"Master's mate Condor."
"Why, who has he been fighting with?"
The doctor laughed. "I could hardly believe it when I heard. I waylaid young Jocelyn, who was executing a war-dance of delight, and questioned him. It is your last acquisition, Blagrove."
"Impossible, Doctor! There is the lad himself, without the slightest sign of having been engaged in a fight. I have been looking at them all rather closely, for they nearly all disappeared about half an hour ago, and one knows what that generally means. Mr. Knight was very angry about it, so when they came back again I glanced at them; and as none of them were marked in any way, or showed any signs of their having been engaged in a bout of fisticuffs, I came to the conclusion that there had been no fight. And you mean to say that Blagrove punished Condor in that fashion without receiving a mark himself? Condor is a powerful fellow, and must be nearly three years older than the lad. It seems well-nigh impossible!"
"I was astonished myself, but, if you remember, he told us the other evening at the captain's table that he had earned the good-will of those Arabs by rescuing the sheik's son from an attack by two European ruffians. He certainly told it in a very modest tone; but that a lad could thrash two men armed with knives seemed to me to border on romancing. Young Jocelyn said that the fight did not last more than five minutes, and that Blagrove did not receive a scratch. His delight was excessive, and I fancy Condor is rather a bully. You see there is nobody else in the mess anywhere near his weight and age, and he took advantage of it accordingly. The boy said that after it was over and they shook hands, Blagrove told Condor that there should be no bullying in the mess in future.
"I asked what the affair was about. Jocelyn did not know, but said that he heard that something had happened when Blagrove first came on board, and that they all knew that there was going to be a fight, but he thinks that it was put off until they left the Pireus for some reason or other."
"That young fellow must be a marvellously good boxer to be able to punish a fellow so superior in age and weight without showing a mark himself. The lesson is certainly likely to do Condor good. I have heard from Mr. Bonnor, who was in the same ship with him on his last commission, that the fellow had a bad name as a bully, but that, unlike most fellows of that sort, he had pluck, and could fight, which makes Blagrove's victory all the more surprising. However, of course we shall take no notice of it. I have merely your official report that Mr. Condor is on the sick-list suffering from severe contusions. I suppose it will be some days before he can show up?"
"I should say that it will be a week before he is fit to come on deck. As to the loss of his teeth, it will be a serious disfigurement until he gets home again and can be fitted with some fresh ones. Well, at any rate this will give Blagrove a good standing among the others. It is always awkward for a lad who joins a good bit later than usual."
It was not only among the midshipmen that the defeat of Condor established Edgar as the most popular member of the mess. During the voyage out, Condor had already rendered himself obnoxious to the men by the roughness of his tone when speaking to them, and by his domineering manner whenever the officer of the watch was engaged elsewhere, and the report of the manner in which he had been punished excited great delight among them, and rendered Edgar a most popular personage. They had noticed his behaviour the first time that he had gone aloft, and had agreed that the new middy was a good sort and no greenhorn.
"He will make a first-rate officer," one old tar said. "You mark my words if he don't. New hand as he is, you will see that he will show up well on the first opportunity."
The fight, too, raised rather than lowered Condor in their opinion. The men who had seen it all agreed that, although he had not a shadow of chance from the first, he had fought with unflinching pluck, and struggled on most gamely until knocked out of time. Consequently, when he returned to duty he was treated with the same respect as before, and with none of the covert grins that he had expected to notice among them.
The young fellow was not a fool, and while in the sickbay had thought matters over a good deal. It was of course mortifying to have been thrashed by an antagonist he despised, but he was conscious that he had brought the punishment upon himself. Hitherto he had not, since he first joined the service, met with his match among those of his own age and standing, and had come to think himself an exceptional sort of fellow; but the discovery that he was but a child in the hands of a really good boxer, while it humiliated him, was extremely useful. A lesson of this kind is sure to have an effect, good or bad. Among some it sours the temper, produces an active hatred of the person who gave it, and renders a lad savage and morose. On the other hand, among more generous natures it has an opposite effect. Thinking matters over, a lad will feel that he has been going in the wrong direction, that he has been puffed up with an exaggerated idea of his own powers, and he will determine to get into a better groove, and to break himself of his faults.
Condor belonged to the latter class. As he lay in bed he saw clearly that he had made a great mistake, that his successes had been won simply because those he licked were less skilled or strong than himself, and that, in point of fact, instead of being, as he believed, a good boxer, he knew next to nothing about it.
Edgar had, after the first day, gone in regularly to have a chat with him. He had been somewhat doubtful as to how his advances would be received, but had determined to do his best to become friends with Condor, whom he felt, rather remorsefully, he had punished terribly severely.
"I hope, Condor," he said the first time he entered, "that you will believe that I have come in because I am really sorry that you have been hurt so much, and not from any idea of triumphing over you. It was only natural that I should have got the best of it. I knew beforehand that I was sure to do so. I learned boxing for over two years from some of the best light-weight fighters in London. I worked very hard, and at the end of that time, except that I was of course their inferior in strength, I could hold my own very fairly with them. That was more than a year ago, and since then I have gained a lot in height, in length of reach, and in strength, so you really need not feel mortified that you were so easily beaten, because I consider that if you had been twice as strong as you are, and four or five years older, it would have come to the same thing. A man who can box only in what you may call a rough-and-ready way has practically no chance whatever with a really scientific pugilist, which I may say I am. I hope you bear me no malice, and that we shall be friends in future."
"I hope so too, Blagrove. I feel that I deserve what I have got, and it will be a lesson that I shall not forget. You have taken me down a great many pegs in my own estimation, and I shall try and make a fresh start when I am about again."
"I am very glad to hear it," Edgar said warmly. "I am sure it must be very much more pleasant to be liked by everyone than to be disliked; and one is just as easy as the other."
"I don't know that I ever thought of it before," Condor said, "but I suppose it must be. I will try the experiment when I get up. I shall feel very small among the others."
"I don't see why you should. You did all that you could, and no one could have done better who had not been taught as I have, and I am sure that no one will think the least degree the worse of you because you had no chance with me. Why, I thrashed a couple of ruffians in Alexandria, armed with knives, in a quarter of the time that it took me to beat you."
"At any rate I shall know better in future," Condor said, with a poor attempt to smile with his swollen lips. "I have learned not to judge from appearances. Who would have thought that a fellow brought up in Egypt would have been able to fight like a professional pugilist. You said that you had been a couple of years at school in England, but that didn't go for much. We have all been at school in England, and yet not many of us know much of boxing. How was it that you came to learn?"
"Well, you see that there is a very rough population in Alexandria—Greek, Maltese, and Italian, in fact the scum of the Mediterranean—and my father, who is a very sensible man, thought that the knowledge of how to use my fists well might be of much greater value to me than anything else I could learn in England, so he asked my uncle, with whom I lived when I was at school, to get me the best masters in boxing that he could find. I got to be very fond of it, and worked very hard. I had three lessons a week all the time I was at school, and the last year changed my master three times, and so got all their favourite hits. Of course I used to get knocked about, for some boxers can't help hitting hard, and to the end I used to get punished pretty heavily, because though I might hit them as often as they hit me, they were able to hit much harder than I was, but I fancy now that they would find it pretty hard work to knock me out of time. My father used to say that being really a good boxer kept a man or a boy out of trouble. A man who knows that he can fight well can afford to be good-tempered and put up with things that another man wouldn't, and if he is driven to use his fists gets off without being knocked about; and besides, as soon as it is known that he can fight, others don't care about quarrelling with him. I know that it was so with me. I had a fight or two at first, but I very quickly improved, and after that I never had a quarrel for the rest of the nearly three years I was at school."
"One thing is certain, Blagrove, you are not likely to have another quarrel as long as you remain on board the Tigre. You will come and see me again, won't you?"
"Certainly I will. I can see that it hurts you to talk now, but you will soon get over that, and then we can have some good chats."
During the voyage up to the Dardanelles, the Tigre encountered changeable weather; the sails had often to be shifted. When he was on watch, Edgar always went aloft with his friend Wilkinson and took his place beside him, listened to the orders that he gave, and watched him at work. In a few days he was able to act independently and to do his duty regularly, and to aid in tying down a reef when a sudden squall came on.
They caught sight of many islands as they passed through the Aegean. Edgar was disappointed with the Dardanelles, but delighted with his first view of Constantinople. It was on the day that they cast anchor that Condor for the first time put in an appearance at mess. His face had resumed its normal appearance, save that there were greenish-yellow patches under the eyes. Wilkinson, who was by a week or two the senior midshipman, and had occupied the president's chair with reluctance, at once left it. They had not expected him until the next day, or he would not have taken it. Edgar had that morning particularly asked the others as a personal favour to give Condor a hearty welcome on his return.
"I think you will find him a much more pleasant fellow than he was before," he said. "At any rate he has been punished heavily, and I think that you ought to welcome him heartily."
Wilkinson and two or three of the older midshipmen had gone in several times to see Condor, and had been pleased at the friendly way in which he had spoken of Blagrove. There had, however, been little talk between them, for Condor had not seemed disposed for conversation. Condor walked to his accustomed seat at the head of the table.
"I hope things will go on better than they have done," he said gruffly. "All I can say is, it sha'n't be my fault if they don't;" and without more words he proceeded to cut up the salt meat placed in front of him. For a short time the conversation was constrained, and it was evident that those who spoke were talking for the sake of talking; but this soon wore off, and by the end of the meal even the youngest mids were talking and laughing with a feeling that somehow a change had come over the place. A quarter of an hour after the meal had ended, a boat was lowered.
"Mr. Wilkinson, you will take charge," the first officer said. "Mr. Blagrove, you will accompany the captain on shore."
A few minutes later they reached the landing-place. A number of men at once crowded round to proffer their services, and the captain said:
"Choose one of them for a guide, Mr. Blagrove. Ask him to take us to our embassy."
Edgar at once chose a quiet-looking Turk, and, to the latter's surprise, addressed him in his own language. The others fell back disappointed, and the guide soon conducted them to the embassy.
"I shall not want you here, Blagrove. I shall be engaged for at least a couple of hours. You can either stroll about and have a look round or go back to the boat as you please. It is now two o'clock; call again here for me at four."
Cairo had prepared Edgar for Constantinople, and indeed he thought the former city more picturesque in the variety of costume than the latter. The views from the hill of Pera, whether looking up the Golden Horn, across it at Stamboul, over to Scutari and the shores of the Sea of Marmora, or up the Bosphorus, were beautiful beyond anything that he had ever seen, and leaving the exploration of the city for another day, he sat down under the shade of some cypress trees close to a Turkish cemetery and entered into a conversation with the guardian of the tombs, who pointed out the various mosques and places of interest to him. At the end of two hours he repaired to the embassy. Presently a dragoman came down and asked him if his name was Blagrove, and on his replying in the affirmative, said that Sir Sidney Smith had ordered him to say that he could return in the boat to the ship, for that he would dine ashore, and the boat was to be at the wharf at ten o'clock.
Sir Sidney Smith remained two months at Constantinople. His duty, in conjunction with his brother, Mr. Seymour Smith, was to engage the Sultan in an active alliance with England, and to concert, as a naval officer, the best plan to be pursued to render that alliance effective. The former portion of the commission had already been carried almost to a successful termination by his brother, and the treaty was signed on the first week of January, 1799. The details of the latter were arrived at in the course of several meetings between Sir Sidney Smith and the Turkish pasha and admiral. To these latter meetings Edgar always accompanied his chief as interpreter, Sir Sidney preferring his services to those of the dragoman of the embassy, as he was better able to understand and explain the naval points discussed.
The Porte, indeed, was able to do but little towards aiding in the naval operations. Two bomb ships and seventeen gun-boats were all the vessels that they were able to produce, but it was some time before they would agree to place these entirely under Sir Sidney Smith's command. Ahmed Pasha, or, as he was generally called, Djezzar Pasha—Djezzar meaning the butcher, from the cruel and brutal nature of the man—the Governor of Syria, was in Constantinople at the time, and was present at these meetings. He was aware that Napoleon was marching against him; and although usually he paid but little attention to the Porte, or recognized any orders received from it, he had now hurried there to represent the situation and ask for assistance.
Bonaparte lost no time after hearing that Djezzar had sent forward a force to occupy the fort of El-A'rich in the desert, between Syria and Egypt, and on the 8th of February set out with 12,428 men for the conquest of Syria. Djezzar, who had returned to his pachalik, having early news of the movement, despatched a force, consisting principally of cavalry, to support the garrison of El-A'rich, and they were joined there by Ibrahim Bey with a force of Mamelukes. The march of the French was painful, and they suffered greatly from thirst. However, they defeated the Turk and Mameluke cavalry with heavy loss, and El-A'rich at once surrendered. The garrison were allowed to depart on undertaking not to serve again, and four days later the army entered Palestine, and believed that their fatigues and sufferings were at an end.
Two days later, however, a cold rain set in, and the troops, who had been suffering greatly from heat, felt the change painfully. On the 3rd of March they arrived in front of Jaffa. A Turk was sent in to summon the garrison to surrender. The commandant simply ordered his head to be struck off and sent no reply. The fire of the field artillery in a few hours effected breaches at several points. The French, in spite of opposition, burst into the town, which was given up to sack, and a large number of the inhabitants, as well as the soldiers, were massacred. Between 3000 and 4000 prisoners were taken, among these doubtless were some of those who had been allowed to march away from El-A'rich. The difficulties in the way of provisioning the army were great. Many were ill from the effects of the change of climate, and the position was becoming serious.
To feed 3000 or 4000 prisoners added greatly to the difficulties, and Napoleon took a step which has been a foul blot on his reputation. They were marched into a vast square formed of French troops; as soon as all had entered the fatal square the troops opened fire upon them, and the whole were massacred. The terrible slaughter occupied a considerable time; and when their cartridge-boxes were emptied, the French soldiers had to complete the massacre with their bayonets. Of the whole of these victims one only, a mere youth, asked for mercy; the rest met their fate with heroic calmness and resolution. Napoleon's excuse for this hideous massacre was that the soldiers had broken the engagement they took at El A'rich, but this applied to only a very small proportion of the garrison, and the massacre was wholly indefensible, for if unable to feed his prisoners, they should have been allowed to depart unarmed to seek subsistence for themselves.
The effects of this horrible massacre recoiled upon those who perpetrated it. The great number of dead bodies speedily tainted the air, and the maladies from which the troops suffered became vastly more serious, and the plague broke out among them and carried off a considerable number. Kleber's division made a reconnaissance towards Jerusalem, but the people of Nablous and the mountaineers assailed them with so terrible a fire, as they endeavoured to make their way up the narrow valleys, that they were forced to retire and join the main body of the army. When the French marched from Jaffa there were still many of their men stricken with the plague in hospital. Napoleon has been accused of having had these poisoned.
The statement has been repeated over and over again, and has been as often vehemently denied, among others by Bonaparte himself. It still remains, and always will remain, doubtful. There can be no doubt that the transport of plague-stricken men would have been a source of danger to the whole army; and as very few of those once attacked by the plague ever recovered, but few would have benefited by the operation, while the condition of the great majority would have been rendered still more hopeless and painful by the journey. Upon the other hand, had they been left behind they would assuredly have been massacred by the inhabitants, who had suffered so terribly at the hands of the French. Rather than be so left, the unfortunate men would assuredly have vastly preferred some painless form of death at the hands of their friends. The probabilities are that all the sick, whose final recovery was considered by the surgeons as within the limits of probability, were taken on, and that those whose cases were absolutely hopeless were not allowed to fall alive into the hands of their foes.
Napoleon's position was an extremely difficult one. He had shown much solicitude for the wounded. When the whole army were panic-stricken at the outbreak, he had himself visited the hospitals, been present at operations, talked encouragingly to the sick, and had done all in his power to relieve their condition. But he could keep the army no longer in the tainted air of Jaffa. He could not take men at the point of death away with him to communicate the malady to those who had so far escaped, nor could he leave them to be murdered in their beds by the infuriated population. It is uncertain really what course was taken; but it must be assumed that Napoleon, who was always anxious to win the affection and regard of his troops, would, putting all other matters aside, not have perpetrated any act that would have been condemned by the soldiers of his army.
At last all was satisfactorily arranged. By the terms of the convention, Sir Sidney Smith was appointed to the command, not only of the Turkish fleet, but of the Turkish army in Syria, a most important point, as the Porte had no confidence whatever in Djezzar, who, like many others of the pashas of the outlying possessions of Turkey, almost openly defied the authority of the sovereign. Djezzar was already at Acre, and some Turkish gun-boats, under Hassan Bey, had also been despatched thither towards the end of February. The welcome order was issued for the Tigre to sail on the 1st of March. Her destination was Alexandria, which, as forming part of the Sultan's possessions, came under the terms of the convention; under the terms of which it had been agreed that two British men-of-war and three frigates should be stationed in Eastern waters to give such aid as was possible to Djezzar, both in active operations, and by capturing store-ships destined for the use of the French army.
The Theseus, of 84 guns, commanded by Captain Miller, was already at Acre; and her captain and Colonel Phelypeaux were giving great assistance to the pasha in putting the place into a better state of defence, while his presence there animated the pasha and his troops to determine upon a stout defence.
It was with deep satisfaction that the officers and men of the Tigre received the orders to prepare for sailing at once. They had now been nearly two months in Constantinople; the novelty of the scene had worn off, and all were impatient for active service. Things had been going on pleasantly among the midshipmen. Condor had shown by his behaviour that either he sincerely regretted the conduct that had made him so unpopular, or that the lesson that he had received had been so severe that he would not risk any repetition of it. At any rate there was peace and comfort in the cockpit.
Just at first, two or three of the younger middies were disposed to take advantage of the altered state of things, but Wilkinson, Edgar, and the other two seniors supported Condor, and told them that if the latter did not keep them in order, they would do so themselves, after which threat matters went on quietly. The change from salt provisions to fresh meat, with an abundance of fruit and vegetables, had been very pleasant, and added to the good temper and harmony that prevailed. Edgar had not felt time hang heavily on his hands, for he was constantly on shore with Sir Sidney Smith, who found his services as interpreter of great value. Had it been an ordinary case, the other midshipmen of older standing would have felt somewhat jealous, but they knew that he went as interpreter rather than as midshipman, and as some of them had leave to go ashore every day, they could amuse themselves according to their liking, while he was kept hard at work translating documents, examining the state of stores, or attending prolonged meetings between his commander and the Turkish naval officials. They had therefore no reason for envying him his post.
He himself was glad of an occasional holiday at the rare intervals when Sir Sidney had no business on land, and made excursions to his brother up the Bosphorus, or to towns on the Sea of Marmora, when Edgar was able to join parties who, hiring horses at the landing-place, took long rides over the country, starting sometimes from Pera, and sometimes from Scutari on the other side of the water. He was certainly not less glad than his comrades when the order came to prepare for sailing. The wind was favourable, the voyage was a speedy one, and the Tigre arrived off Alexandria on the 7th of March. Here they remained for some days. News had already been received by sea from Jaffa of the capture of El-A'rich, and of the approach of the French army to Jaffa.
This had caused no uneasiness, as the town, having a garrison of 8000 men, was believed to be able to resist any assault. When, however, on the fifth day after the arrival of the Tigre off Alexandria, a small Turkish vessel brought the news that Jaffa had been captured, and some 3000 of the garrison killed in cold blood, besides a large number of the inhabitants, Sir Sidney decided to start instantly, in order to aid in the defence of the important stronghold of Acre, which would certainly be the next object of assault by the French. Committing to the captain of the Lion the charge of continuing the blockade with the gun-boats under his command, sail was at once hoisted, and the Tigre started for Acre.
On her way she picked up the Theseus, which was out cruising, and the two men-of-war arrived off Acre on the 15th of March, and, to the satisfaction of all, found that Napoleon had not yet appeared before the town; Sir Sidney Smith, owing to the terms of the convention, at once assumed the command of the operations. The arrival of the men-of-war excited great enthusiasm among the garrison and inhabitants, who, now, for the first time, believed in the possibility of beating off the French, and of being spared the horrors that had befallen Jaffa.
On the following morning the French were seen marching along between the lower slopes of Mount Carmel and the sea, and the men-of-war boats, running in close to the shore, opened fire upon them, and compelled them hastily to change their course and to ascend the hill until beyond the range of the guns.
As no attempt had been made to return the fire by the artillery, Sir Sidney Smith was convinced the French must be unprovided with a siege train. Having learned from people who had escaped by boat from Jaffa, that only field-pieces had there been employed to batter the wall, he ordered a constant watch to be kept for any ships seen approaching, as Bonaparte would hardly have hoped to take so strong a place as Acre without heavy guns, and had doubtless arranged for a battering-train to be sent from Alexandria by sea. This would probably be ordered to make either for Jaffa, or for Caiffa, a small port a few miles south of Acre. The Theseus was at once sent down to Jaffa, to prevent any landing of guns or stores being effected there, while the Tigre's boats were placed at intervals between Caiffa and Acre.
The next day a corvette and nine gun-boats were seen rounding the promontory of Mount Carmel. The signal was made for the recall of the boats, and the Tigre at once got under sail and started in pursuit, picking up her boats as they came alongside. Bonaparte had been ignorant that there were any British vessels on the coast, or he would hardly have sent the boats from Alexandria without a stronger escort, and the corvette and gun-boats no sooner caught sight of the Tigre than they made out to sea. The chase lasted for some hours, and one by one seven of the gun-boats were picked up, surrendering in each case as soon as the Tigre's guns opened upon them. The corvette and the other two gun-boats succeeded in making their escape, but their commander, believing it hopeless to attempt to carry out his mission in the face of a British man-of-war, sailed direct to France.
The capture was a most valuable one, for the possession of the gun-boats enabled a blockade of the coast to be carried on much more effectually than could otherwise have been done, and on board were found, as expected, the guns and battering-train intended for the siege of Acre. The Tigre returned with her prizes to the port, and the crew were at once employed in transporting the captured guns and ammunition on shore, when they were conveyed by the Turkish troops to the batteries, which were before very deficient in guns, and the capture added, therefore, much to the strength of the defences.
Edgar's services as an interpreter were again called into requisition. Mr. Canes was sent on shore with a party of sailors to assist the Turks in moving the guns to their new positions, and half an hour before landing he sent for Edgar and told him that he had arranged with Sir Sidney Smith that he was to accompany him.
"A good deal of the hard work will have to be done by the Turks, and it will save much trouble if you are with me to translate my orders to them, or rather to their officers. Sir Sidney is of opinion that there will be a great deal more for you to do on shore than on board. He will, of course, be much on shore himself, and I am carrying a note to the pasha, requesting him to assign a suitable house for him to take up his abode there and which he will make his headquarters. Lieutenant Beatty will be posted there with twenty marines, furnishing a guard, and for other purposes. A room is to be assigned to you. You will then be handy whenever the captain is on shore, and at other times will assist me or other officers with working parties. Of course two or three natives will be engaged as servants. One of them will be a cook, and Lieutenant Beatty and you will establish a small mess together. You will, of course, have shore allowances. I think that you may consider yourself fortunate, for you will have an opportunity for seeing all that goes on, while the others will of course only come ashore by turns."
"Thank you, sir," Edgar said, much pleased. "I shall like it very much."
The Turkish soldiers worked well, tugging at ropes, while the sailors used levers to get the guns up steep places. Edgar was kept busy translating the first lieutenant's orders to the Turkish officers, and for the first three days had hardly time to snatch a meal until the sailors returned at nightfall to the ship. He got on very well with the lieutenant of the marines, who was a pleasant young fellow. On the day after they landed they heard heavy firing, and going up to the highest point of the rocky promontory on which Acre stood, could make out that a number of gun-boats were cannonading Caiffa. The place appeared to make no reply to the fire, and at last two gun-boats, believing that there could be but few French troops there, sailed up the harbour.
Lambert, the French officer in command, had, however, a howitzer and a small gun, and eighty French troops, but he gave orders that these should not reply to the fire of the gun-boats, and that not a musket should be discharged until he gave the word. The two small gun-boats came on confidently, until, when at a distance of only a hundred yards from the shore, where they intended to land and set fire to the French storehouses and to do as much damage as possible, a heavy fire was suddenly poured in. The two guns, loaded to the muzzle with grape, swept their decks, and the heavy volley of musketry did much damage. Lieutenant Beatty, who had brought a telescope on shore with him, exclaimed:
"By Jove! those two little gun-boats have caught it hot. See, there is one of them putting about, but the other seems to be drifting towards the shore."
This was indeed the fact; she was slightly in advance of the other, and was the principal target of the fire. The midshipman who commanded her, and most of her crew, were killed, and before the few survivors could recover themselves from the surprise into which they had been thrown by the unexpected attack, the vessel had grounded. The heavy fire of musketry continued, the guns again poured in their fire, and as escape was impossible, the few men who remained alive at once hauled down their flag and surrendered. The capture was a valuable one to the French. The gun-boat carried a 32-pounder, and as Napoleon's heaviest guns were but 10-pounders, the cannon was invaluable.
As soon as its capture was known, some artillery horses were sent to the port and transported it to the batteries, at which the French were already hard at work. For the first day or two it was almost useless, for, with the exception of a few shot taken with it, they had none that would fit it; but as soon as the besieged began to fire they obtained an ample supply of cannon balls, which were eagerly collected by the soldiers, a small reward being paid for every shot that was brought in. In a short time, however, the French were in a better position for carrying on the siege with vigour, for as it became necessary to retain the Tigre and Theseus to assist in the defence of the town, French vessels were able to land artillery at Jaffa and other points, and they had ere long an ample supply for their batteries.
"There is no doubt," Lieutenant Beatty said, "that that gun-boat has been captured, and from her not attempting to go round and sail out as her companion did, I am afraid that the crew must have been almost annihilated by the enemy's fire. It was a very risky thing to send those two small craft in alone, even though the place had not replied to their fire, for even if the French had no guns, they might have had many hundreds of men in the town, against whom the crew of those two boats could have done nothing whatever. However, the loss is not serious except in the matter of the crew. I don't suppose she carried more than one gun."
"But even that is important," Edgar said, "for I know they have pretty heavy guns on board those boats, and in the hands of the French it would give us some trouble."
"We shall have hot work of it presently, Blagrove. The walls are absolutely rotten, and it would be absurd to call them fortifications; and if the French open fire at close quarters, they will make a breach in no time. If Phelypeaux's plans had been carried out, the place would have been in a position to make a serious defence; but I hear that he and Captain Miller of the Theseus have been trying in vain to get the Turks to carry out their plans.
"Djezzar was always saying that what they wanted should be done, but it went no further than that; and what little has been accomplished has been done by the men of the Theseus; and I believe that the dragging of the guns we captured to their places was the first job on which the Turkish soldiers really worked; but, of course, Sir Sidney had a good deal more influence than Miller had, as he is commander-in-chief of the Turkish army, and if Djezzar did not give him the help he asked for, he would have the power to take the matter altogether out of his hands. His troops have no love for him, for, as his nickname shows, he is as cruel as he is ambitious.
"There can be no doubt that he intended to throw off the authority of the Sultan altogether. The position of the guns show that. I hear that when the Theseus arrived there was not a single gun mounted on the face of the town on the land side, every one being planted on the walls to seaward. However, I believe he is personally plucky, but as this place is nothing like so strong as Jaffa was, he must see that, as a garrison of 8000 there could not resist the enemy, the 3000 men under him would not have a shadow of a chance were it not for our help. Even we could do nothing if it were not that the position of the town enables us to cover the land approaches."
The position of Acre, the ancient Ptolemais, was indeed very favourable for its protection by a fleet. It stood on a projecting promontory almost square in shape; three sides were entirely washed by the sea; the north-eastern side had no natural protection, but at an angle of the wall a tower, which was the strongest point of the defences, covered it to some extent. Near the tower, and with its garden abutting against the wall, stood the pasha's palace. The masonry of the greater part of the wall was old and crumbling. From the sea to the north of the town vessels anchored there could cover the approaches to the northern side by their fire, while these could similarly be swept by ships anchored in the Bay of Acre on the south side of the fortress.
The water here, however, was too shallow for the men-of-war to anchor in. The Tigre, therefore, was moored more than a mile from the shore; next to her was the Alliance sloop. Three of the gun-boats captured from the French, and two Turkish gun-boats, lay nearer to the shore, and the fire of all these vessels swept the ground across which it was already evident that the French main attack would be directed. This was also covered by the fire of the Theseus and three of the captured French gun-boats. The French had, on their arrival, promptly seized a village within half a mile of the wall, and pushed forward their trenches with vigour, establishing four or five batteries, which at once opened fire.
Napoleon calculated that he should be master of the town in three days at the utmost, and this no doubt would have been the case had he only Turkish resistance to overcome. As soon as the Tigre returned from her short cruise, Sir Sidney Smith took up his residence on shore. He brought with him Condor and Wilkinson, to act as his aides-de-camp, and fifty sailors were established in an adjoining house in readiness for any emergency. Here the mess was now established, although Lieutenant Beatty and Edgar continued to sleep in Sir Sidney Smith's house, the one to be near his men, the other in readiness to attend upon his commander at any moment night or day.
As far as possible the midshipmen's mess adhered to regular hours for their meals, but Sir Sidney Smith took his at any time when he could snatch them. One or other of the midshipmen came ashore each day with a boat's crew, so that at any moment orders could be sent to the Tigre or the Theseus. Except at the evening meal, when the fire generally slackened, it was seldom that more than two of the midshipmen's mess sat down together, being constantly employed either in carrying messages or orders, or in keeping a watch at threatened points, in order that Sir Sidney should at once be made acquainted with any movements of the enemy.
The French had lost no time, for on the 25th their batteries opened fire against this tower, and, after four hours' firing, a breach, considered by the French to be practicable, had been effected.
The Turkish guns had returned the fire, aided by two mortars worked by British sailors, but the Turks believed that their walls were strong enough to stand a prolonged siege, and as the French fire was heavy against the tower, those near it had betaken themselves to safer positions. Sir Sidney Smith was on board the Tigre. Djezzar seldom stirred from his palace. He had no capable officer under him, and no one was in the slightest degree aware of the serious damage the French battery was inflicting upon the tower, and there was no thought that an attack could be made upon the town for a considerable time. Edgar had been engaged all the morning with Sir Sidney, and when the latter went on board ship he went into the next house, where he found the others at dinner.
After that was over he proposed a stroll down to the corner against which the French fire was directed. Wilkinson and Beatty agreed to accompany him, but Condor, who had been all day at work seeing guns placed in position, said that he did not care about going out again. On reaching the wall facing the French position they found that there was little doing. A few of the guns were being worked, throwing their shot into the garden between the French batteries and the town. Along the rest of the line the Turks were squatting under the parapet, smoking and talking.
"What are the French firing at?" Edgar asked a Turkish officer.
"They are firing at the tower. They will do no harm. Some of the shots came in at the loopholes; so, as the soldiers there could do no good by staying, they have come out."
"That seems rather a careless way of doing business," Edgar remarked as he translated what the officer said, to his companions. "Well, at any rate we may as well go and see what the effect of their fire is. Their battery is not a heavy one, but as it is not more than four or five hundred yards from the tower it may really be doing some damage."
As they neared the tower at the angle of the wall they found that the ramparts there had been entirely deserted by the Turks.
"This is a rum way of defending a town," Wilkinson remarked. "If this is the way the Turks are going to behave, the sooner we are all on board ship the better."
The French fire was brisk, the thuds of the balls, as they struck the tower, occurring five or six times a minute. The three officers entered the tower. Two or three holes appeared in the wall of the floor by which they entered it.
"The masonry must be very rotten," Beatty said, "or they would not have knocked holes in it as soon as this."
They descended the stairs into the story below, and uttered a simultaneous exclamation of alarm. A yawning hole some eight feet wide appeared.
"This is serious, Wilkinson. Let us take a look down below."
"Look out!" Wilkinson shouted as a ball passed just over their heads and struck the wall behind them. "Stand back here a moment."
He ran forward and looked down.
"By Jove!" he exclaimed, "there is a breach down to the bottom of the tower level with the lower storey ground, and a heap of rubbish at the foot outside. I don't think it is high enough yet for anyone to get up to the opening, but it will soon be practicable if it is not now. Look! look! I can see a large body of French among the trees there. They are about to advance to storm the breach. Run, Blagrove, and wake up the Turks. We will go back and fetch up the marines and blue-jackets. The enemy may be in the place in five minutes."
Leaving the tower, Edgar ran along the wall.
"Take your men to the tower at once!" he shouted to the first Turkish officer he saw. "The French are crossing the ditch."
Instead, however, of obeying him the officer and his men ran to one of the steps leading up to the wall, and commenced shouting, "The French are in the town!"
Edgar saw that he had told the news too suddenly, and that it was hopeless for him to try to stop the flood, therefore ran along the wall until he reached the stairs leading down to the open space in front of Djezzar's palace. As he had been frequently there before, he made his way straight to the apartments where Djezzar transacted business.
"The French have breached the tower, pasha," he said, "and their storming party was about to cross the ditch when I came away. There are no troops there to defend the breach, and those on the wall are flying. Unless you yourself go out and rally the men to the defence the town is lost."
Djezzar was thunderstruck at the news. He had showed himself brave in battle, but with the fate of Jaffa in his mind he now lost heart altogether.
"It is too late!" he said, and catching up his sword he ran out of the palace, and directed his flight towards the landing-place.
Edgar ran towards the breach again, and on the way came upon his two companions running along, with the marines and blue-jackets after them. Fortune, however, had done more for the town than its defenders. Led by an officer with sixteen sappers, and followed by twenty-five grenadiers, the French party prepared to mount to the assault. Their orders were to mount the breach and hold it, and the moment this was done the main body of the storming party were at once to follow. But they met with an unexpected obstacle. Instead of finding, as they had expected, merely a shallow ditch, they found themselves at the edge of a counterscarp, the wall being fifteen feet in depth, with a regular moat filled with water between them and the foot of the breach.
They had brought with them only two or three short ladders, which were intended to be used, if necessary, to aid them in clambering up the heap of rubbish to the breach. The French had no idea of the existence of the counterscarp. The ladders that they had brought were too short to enable them to descend it, and the officer in command hesitated as to what course to adopt. The mysterious silence maintained by the enemy was disquieting. That the Turks had all fled and the tower was undefended did not occur to the officer in command, and he feared that they must have placed mines in the breach, and were for the present abstaining from showing themselves or firing a shot, in hopes of tempting him to make an assault. Before he could decide what was best to be done there was a loud tramp of feet inside the tower, and then the British sailors and marines showed themselves suddenly at the openings on each floor, and at once opened a heavy fire.
Many of the French fell at once, and seeing that there was nothing to be done, the officer gave the order for the rest to retreat, which they did hastily. Djezzar was furious when he heard what had happened, and questioned Edgar; and, on hearing that the tower had been altogether deserted, as well as the adjacent portion of the wall, he ordered the instant execution of six of the officers and a number of the men for this gross neglect of their duty. He was exasperated that he himself should have shared in the panic that had seized them when informed that the French were assaulting the breach, and that no resistance had been offered by his men; and Edgar congratulated himself that he was not one of his officers. When the old pasha, however, recovered from the state of fury into which he had fallen, he complimented the three British officers highly on the quickness that they had shown, which had, as he rightly said, saved the town, for, had the French found themselves still unobserved, they would assuredly have managed to get down the counterscarp, and to establish themselves in the tower in force before any suspicion of what was going on took place.
The French, whose operations were hidden by the gardens, at once proceeded to drive a gallery in order to blow up the counterscarp, upon which their guns could not be brought to bear, and on the 29th the mine was sprung. It did some damage, but it had not been driven quite far enough. Led by an officer of the staff named Mailly, the French rushed forward as soon as the mine exploded. They clambered down over the breach that had been made on the counterscarp, crossed the fosse by three ladders they had brought with them, and reached the foot of the breach. There was, however, too great a distance between the pile of rubbish at the foot of the wall and the great hole above it for them to enter without fixing their ladders.
As they were in the act of doing this the Turks, who had at their first appearance again been seized with a panic, but had been brought back by a number of their officers, who adjured them to stand, saying that it was better to die fighting the infidel than to be shot by Djezzar, opened a heavy fire. Mailly was killed, several of the grenadiers and sappers fell round him, and the rest retired, meeting, as they climbed the counterscarp, two battalions who had joined them as soon as the breach was reported practicable; but upon hearing from the grenadiers that this was not the case they fell back again after losing their commanding officer and many men from the Turkish fire.
This success greatly encouraged the Turks, who had heard from those who had escaped from Jaffa that no obstacles were sufficient to daunt the French, and from this time Sir Sidney Smith began to entertain hope that the town could be held, of which, owing to the supineness of Djezzar and his troops, he had hitherto been very doubtful. The French at once recommenced mining. In eight days they completely blew up the counterscarp, and on the twelfth carried their gallery under the ditch with the intention of blowing up the whole tower.
By this time the besieged were aware that the French were at work mining. Colonel Phelypeaux had, during the interval since the last attempt, worked indefatigably. The breach had been filled up with combustible materials, a number of shells had been placed on the platform of the tower, with fuses attached in readiness to hurl down into the midst of a storming party, heaps of great stones had been piled there for the same purpose, and the Turkish soldiers, seeing the readiness and alacrity with which the British worked, had gained confidence. The faint sound of mining under the tower brought about a consultation between Sir Sidney Smith, Captain Wilmot, Colonel Phelypeaux, and the pasha. The engineer officer pointed out to the pasha that it was impossible to say what the result of the firing of the mine might be, as it would depend upon the quantity of powder employed.
"If a large quantity is used," he said, "it may entirely blow down the tower and a considerable quantity of the walls adjoining it, and leave so large a breach that the French would be able to pour in in such force that your troops, who might well be panic-stricken at the explosion, would not be able to make any effective opposition."
"But what can we do to prevent it?" the pasha asked.
"Nothing can be directly done," Sir Sidney said; "but if we make a sally in force we might drive the French back, discover the mine, and carry out the greater part of the powder, and place a small portion under the ditch, and, exploding it, allow the water to run in; or, if the men carry with them a number of fascines, we might establish a work fifty yards from the foot of the wall. This would put a stop to their mining. An enemy attacking it would, as he advanced, be swept by the guns of the two men-of-war and the gun-boats, and the garrison would further be covered by the fire from the tower and walls. I propose that we should sally out in three columns. The central column, which will be composed of the marines and sailors of our ships, will make straight for the mouth of the mine and force its way in; the other two columns will attack the enemy's trenches on right and left."
"The plan seems to me to be a good one," the pasha said; "it shall be done as you propose."
On the night of the 15th of April two columns of men were gathered at midnight in the street leading to the water-gate, a short distance to the right of the tower, the third column close to a gate some little distance to its left. Lieutenant Beatty was, with his party of marines, to join the landing force, but to their disappointment neither Condor nor the midshipmen were to take part in the sortie, as the little party of seamen were to be held in reserve. Sir Sidney Smith himself intended to take his place on the tower, whence he could watch the operations. Wilkinson and Edgar were to act as his aides-de-camp, the latter to carry messages to the Turkish officers commanding the two columns, while Wilkinson was to perform the same office to the central column.
"You and Mr. Condor may probably have opportunities of distinguishing yourselves later on," he said; "the other midshipmen may have their turn to-night."
A DESPERATE SIEGE.
Just as day began to break, the gates were opened, and the columns moved out one after the other. The order that the strictest silence was to be observed was obeyed by the sailors and marines; but the Turks, who were wrought up to a pitch of enthusiasm, made so great a noise that the moment they issued from the gate shots were fired by the advanced pickets, and a few seconds later the roll of drums in the French lines broke out, and it was clear that the whole camp was alarmed. Sir Sidney Smith uttered an exclamation of anger. As concealment was useless, he then sent the two midshipmen to order all the batteries to open fire upon the French trenches, and as the first gun boomed out the ships and gun-boats on both flanks also opened fire, and the trenches by which the French must advance from the village were swept by a storm of shot. The French batteries joined in the din, while the infantry in the advanced trenches opened a heavy musketry fire.
"By Jove, the Turks mean fighting this time!" Wilkinson said, when he and Edgar had both returned from carrying their orders. "Look at them, they are going at the French trenches in gallant style."
The dark masses could be plainly made out in the gray light that was now stealing over the sky. Undaunted by the heavy fire of the French, the Turks rushed at the earthworks, scaled them, and engaged in a desperate hand-to-hand fight with their defenders. But the chief attention of the little group on the tower, where Captain Wilmot and Colonel Phelypeaux had also stationed themselves, was riveted upon the fight going on in front of them. Already the French were thronging down from their trenches, and the blue-jackets and marines were engaged in a fierce fight. Knight, second of the Tigre, received two balls in his left arm as he advanced, but upon arriving at the top of the shaft of the mine he and the pioneers at once leapt down into it.
One ran forward to see if it was charged, and brought back news that it was not. Lieutenant Knight and the little party of sailors worked desperately to pull down the props that supported the roof of the gallery, but they had little time allowed them for doing so. Had it not been that the noise made by the Turks had given the alarm so long before they reached the spot the work might have been completed. As it was, they had performed but a small portion of it when an officer ran in to say that they must at once come up, as the party could no longer keep back the swarming throng of the enemy. Colonel Douglas, who was in command, cheered on his hardly-pressed men, who had found the resistance of the French so desperate that they had been unable to drive them out from their advanced trench.
Lieutenant Knight, exhausted by the loss of blood, and his efforts to aid the pioneers, had to be assisted from the gallery and carried off by the seamen. Major Oldfield, who commanded the marines of Theseus, was killed, with two of his men. Mr. Janverin, midshipman of the Tigre, and eleven men were wounded. Beatty, and Forbes, a midshipman of the Theseus, were both slightly wounded, as were five marines of that ship, and a seaman and two marines of the Alliance. As soon as the party began to draw off, a heavy fire was opened on the French by the Turkish troops on the wall. The batteries opened with renewed vigour, while the bugles sounded to order the retreat of the two Turkish corps. All gained the gates unmolested. The Turks were in high spirits. According to their custom at the time, they had cut off the heads of their fallen foes and brought in sixty of these trophies.
The French loss had been considerably greater, for from the desperate nature of the fighting the Turks had been unable to decapitate the greater part of their fallen foes. In addition to the heads they also brought in a great number of muskets and some intrenching tools. The last were an extremely valuable prize, as the garrison had been much hampered in their work by the small number of available picks and shovels. Although, so far as the main object of the sortie, it had been a failure, the result was, upon the whole, a satisfactory one. The Turks had met the French in fair fight, and had held their own against them, and they were so pleased that during the rest of the siege they never once wavered. The attack, too, showed the French that their enemy was not to be despised, and compelled them to take much greater precautions than before, and to maintain, at all times, a strong force in their advanced trenches.
On the 25th a tremendous explosion was heard, and the troops from all quarters rushed towards the tower to repel the expected assault. Had the mine been carried a few feet farther, the whole tower would have been destroyed, but the French miners had come across a vault which projected a little distance beyond the tower above it, and believing that its wall was that of the tower itself, they had placed the charge against it. Although therefore a partial failure, the effect was tremendous. A portion of the outer wall of the tower was blown down, some two hundred Turks, who formed its garrison, and some pieces of cannon, were buried in the ruins. A small party of French rushed forward before the smoke had cleared away and established themselves in the lower stories. The Turks, however, rallied very quickly from the shock, and opened so tremendous a fire from the walls, aided by the cross-fire from the ships, that no reinforcements could reach the party in the tower, and the next morning early they evacuated the place, which was rendered untenable by the fire of the Turks in the story above them.