So soon as they had left the building the enemy concentrated their batteries upon it. At the sound of the explosion Sir Sidney Smith, with the sailors and marines of his guard, at once rushed through the streets to the tower.
"Bravo, the Turks!" Wilkinson exclaimed, as he and Edgar ran along by the side of the sailors. "Listen to their musketry fire! It is clear that they are standing their ground anyhow, and that there is no panic this time."
Sir Sidney was greatly relieved when, on his arrival at the tower, he found that, although shaken and shattered, it still stood an obstacle to an entry into the town. He went along the wall, warmly praising the Turkish officers and men for their courage.
"That is a weight off my mind, colonel," he said to Phelypeaux. "I have been scarcely able to close an eye for the last week. That mine has been a perfect nightmare to me. There was no saying when it was going to explode, and although the Turks have worked hard at that countermine we set them to dig, I had little hope that you would be in time, as you had to take it right under the foundations of the tower. I think that we must congratulate ourselves heartily that it has been no worse."
"I think so, indeed, Sir Sidney. The Turks have certainly behaved admirably to-day. I thought they would when they once got over their idea that the French were invincible. They have always proved themselves splendid soldiers when well led, and I have no doubt the example of your men, and their carelessness of danger, have animated them with a determination to show that they too can fight."
From the time of their entering Palestine the French had been amply supplied with provisions of all sorts by the natives. As soon as he crossed the frontier from Egypt, Bonaparte had sent proclamations broadcast among the people. A large proportion of the inhabitants of the hill country were Christians, and the assurances that he came to free them from the domination of the Turks, just as he had freed Egypt, was received with enthusiasm by the simple and ignorant people, who knew very little of what was passing in the world around them. The consequence was, that as he marched north from Jaffa, deputations met him, comprising most of the leading men. These received presents, and promises that they should never again fall under the dominion of the Turks; while they, on their part, promised to supply cattle, corn, wine, and wood to the utmost extent of their resources. These promises they faithfully kept, and also did good service in aiding the transport of stores landed at Jaffa.
Sir Sidney now endeavoured to counteract the effect of Napoleon's proclamations, and by means of native emissaries landed by the ship's boats at various points along the coast, sent out a large quantity of addresses of his own, telling them that Napoleon was, it was true, at war with the Sultan, but that this was no question of religion, and that he was but endeavouring to pass through Syria, in order to make his way to Europe, his retreat by sea having been cut off; and that he would be perfectly ready at any time to make terms with the Sultan, and would leave them, without a moment's thought, to the vengeance of the Turks, against whom they were now helping him. He added, that Djezzar Pasha, being convinced that they had been deceived by Bonaparte, and were acting in ignorance of the true state of things, promised solemnly that all who, now that the truth was told to them, withdrew their aid from the French, should be pardoned for the course that they had hitherto taken.
These papers soon bore fruit. The English were known to be favourable to the Syrian Christians, and the assurances of Sir Sidney Smith had great weight, and there was soon a sensible decrease in the amount of provisions and supplies brought into the French camp.
The breach widened under the heavy fire kept up continuously upon it by the French batteries, and as it was evident that other assaults would be made at that spot, the engineers began to throw out a ravelin, or advanced work, from the foot of the walls on each side of the breach, so as to take any assaulting party in flank. On the 1st of May the French, thinking that the breach must now be practicable, advanced for the fourth time.
A heavy gale had blown all day, the ships of war and gun-boats were rolling heavily at their anchorage, and it was doubtless thought that they would be unable to use their guns. In the afternoon, therefore, a body of men ran forward with six scaling-ladders; crossing the moat as before, they planted their ladders and attempted to mount the breach. They were, however, assailed by so heavy a fire of musketry from the Turks that the leading party were literally swept away. In spite of the heavy weather, the ships joined their fire to that of the batteries, and a storm of shot and shell was rained upon the trenches, and the 2000 men who had been seen to advance in readiness for the assault, finding it impossible to issue from their shelter, retired to their camp. The marines of the two men-of-war had manned the new works, and their fire contributed much to the repulse of the French.
Sir Sidney Smith, in his despatches home, expressed his regret at the heavy loss of life encountered by the French in their desperate attempts to perform the impossible feat of entering by a breach that could only be reached by scaling-ladders. The point of attack had certainly been badly chosen, for, while the masonry of the upper chamber tower was very rotten, that of the lower part was excellent; whereas the walls themselves were, in most places, badly built, and could have been demolished in a very short time by the heavy guns the French now had in their batteries. Thirty of these had been landed at Jaffa, and brought up to the front.
In addition to the sortie of the 16th April, Sir Sidney Smith kept the besiegers constantly on the alert by landing parties from the ships' boats on the flanks of their lines of trenches. The attacks were sometimes pushed home, the earthworks were overthrown, the fascines carried off for use in the redoubts, guns spiked, and intrenching tools captured, and these attacks greatly added to the labour imposed upon the besiegers, who were compelled not only to keep strong bodies in the advanced trenches but to defend the whole line of attack against flank surprises by their enterprising foes.
The Turks vied with the British in activity, making frequent night attacks on the trenches, and generally succeeding in carrying off a number of fascines, which were greatly needed, and were of special utility in the construction of the ravelin. The day after the repulse of the fourth attack the garrison suffered a heavy loss in the death of Colonel Phelypeaux, who died of fever brought on by want of rest and exposure to the sun. On the same day another, and almost as serious a loss, was sustained, for Captain Wilmot was killed by a musket shot while in the act of mounting a gun in the breach.
The midshipmen had, two days before, lost one of their comrades named Morris, who, with three seamen, was killed in one of the sorties, eight other blue-jackets of the Tigre being wounded at the same time. On the night of the 2nd of May the enemy made two desperate attempts to capture the English ravelins, but the marines in charge, aided by the fire from the walls and ships, held their ground, and repulsed the French with much loss. Every day the fighting increased in fury. Between the 1st and 9th the French made no less than five attacks upon the breach; these were all beaten off with very heavy loss; while the defenders, on their part, made frequent sorties to compel the assailants to stand on the defensive, and to interfere with their attempts to carry the approaches up to the foot of the walls.
The fire of the vessels was still maintained, but the besiegers had so raised and strengthened the earthworks protecting their traverses and trenches that they were now able to go backwards and forwards to the front with but little danger from the ships' fire.
Edgar had now lost the companionship both of Condor and Wilkinson. These had both gone back to their ship, for the death of Morris and the wounding of Forbes and Lieutenant Knight had left the ship short of officers. Condor acted as junior lieutenant until the latter was fit for service again, and both he and Wilkinson took part in the boat attacks and the sorties from the town. Edgar was therefore now in command of the blue-jackets on shore, who were held always in readiness to run to the aid of the garrison at any spot where there might be sudden danger.
It was believed that the French were again mining in several places, and although Colonel Douglas, who had succeeded Phelypeaux in command of the engineering operations, set parties at work to drive countermines, the work progressed slowly, and it was difficult to ascertain the precise direction in which the enemy were driving their galleries. Edgar still acted as interpreter to Sir Sidney Smith, and was the bearer of his orders to the Turkish officers. He was very glad that it was but seldom that he was called upon to accompany his chief in his visits to the tower, for the stench here from the unburied bodies of the French and of the Turks overwhelmed by the explosion was overpowering. Numbers of the Turks stationed here were attacked by mortal illness, others became delirious, and it was necessary to change the force holding it at very frequent intervals.
On the evening of the 7th of May there was immense satisfaction in the town, as a number of sail were seen on the horizon. It was certain that this was the force under Hassan Bey, which had been originally intended for Egypt, but had been diverted from its course by Sir Sidney Smith's orders. Its arrival had been anxiously looked for during the last month, but it had been detained by calms and other causes at Rhodes, and it was only a portion of the force that now, on the fifty-first day of the siege, made its appearance.
From the enemy's camp on the hills the fleet was made out as soon as from the town, and the effect was in a very short time apparent by the fire of the enemy's batteries being redoubled, and it was apparent that Bonaparte had determined to make a great effort to capture the town before the arrival of the reinforcements; and in a short time a great column was seen advancing to the attack.
Two of the Tigre's 68-pounders, mounted on native craft lying in the little port near the water-gate, opened upon them with shells, while two guns, manned by British sailors, one on the castle of the lighthouse, the other on one of the ravelins, poured grape into them. But the column moved on. The tremendous cannonade from their batteries overpowered that from the guns on the walls, and they suffered but little from the fire from the ravelins, as they had, the night before, constructed two breastworks from the end of their trenches to the breach, the materials used being sandbags and the bodies of their own slain.
In spite of the efforts of the defenders the French effected a lodgment in the tower. Its upper story had now been entirely destroyed by the enemy's fire, and the fragments had so increased the heap at the foot of the breach that the assailants were able to mount without the use of ladders. This was the most critical moment in the siege.
Hassan's troops were already in their boats, and were rowing to shore.
"Run down to the landing-place, Mr. Blagrove," Sir Sidney said, "take my gig, and row out to meet the boats, and order them to come round to the port here, instead of landing at the other end of the town. There is not a moment to be lost; the Turks are losing heart."
Edgar had just brought up the little party of sailors, and leaving them to the leading of the petty officer with them, ran down at the top of his speed to the landing-place. The gig's crew were standing near the boat, listening anxiously to the terrible din of the conflict.
"Jump in, men, and row for your lives!" Edgar exclaimed; "every minute is of consequence. The French will be in the town in five minutes. I want to meet the boats, coxswain."
The sailors, who had already guessed that his errand was urgent by the speed at which Edgar dashed down to the boat, stretched themselves to their oars and rowed as if racing, and met the Turkish boats a quarter of a mile from the shore.
"I am sent by the commander-in-chief, Sir Sidney Smith, to order you to row round to the mole and land there. Order the men to row their hardest. Every moment is of consequence. The French are on the point of entering the town."
At once the flotilla of boats changed its course, the soldiers cheered, filled with the excitement of the moment, and the sailors tugged at their oars; and, headed by the gig, in ten minutes the boats reached the landing-place by the mole, and as the troops leaped out, Edgar, burning with impatience and anxiety, led them to the breach. It was still held. Some of the Turks, as the French entered the tower, had been seized with a panic and fled, but a few remained at their post. While some hurled down stones from above on to the column ascending the breach, others met them hand to hand at the top of the heap. Here Sir Sidney Smith himself took his place with three or four of his officers and the handful of blue-jackets.
The combat was a desperate one. The swords of the officers, the cutlasses of the sailors, the pikes of the Turks, clashed against the bayonets of the French. Soon an important ally arrived. The news had speedily reached Djezzar that Sir Sidney and his officers were themselves defending the breach. The old pasha had hitherto taken no personal part in the conflict, but had, as was the Turkish custom, remained seated on his divan every day, receiving reports from his officers, giving audience to the soldiers who brought in the heads of enemies, and rewarding them for their valour. Now, however, he leapt to his feet, seized his sabre, and ran to the breach, shouting to the soldiers to follow him. On his arrival at the scene of conflict he rushed forward and pulled Sir Sidney and his officers forcibly back from the front line.
"You must not throw away your lives," he said; "if my English friends are killed, all is lost."
Fortunately, the shouts of the pasha, as he ran, caused a number of soldiers to follow him, and these now threw themselves into the fray, and maintained the defence until Edgar ran up with the soldiers who had just landed.
The reinforcements, as they arrived, were greeted with enthusiastic shouts from the inhabitants, numbers of whom, men and women, had assembled at the landing-place on hearing of the approach of the boats. The garrison, reanimated by the succour, ran also to the breach, and the combat was now so stoutly maintained that Sir Sidney was able to retire with the pasha, to whom he proposed that one of the newly-arrived regiments, a thousand strong, armed with bayonets and disciplined in the European method, should make a sally, take the enemy in flank, or compel them to draw off.
The pasha at once assented, a gate was opened, and the Turks rushed out. Their orders were to carry the enemy's nearest trench, and to shift the gabions and fascines to the outward side, and to maintain themselves there. The new arrivals, however, were not yet inured to fighting, and as the French batteries opened upon them, and the soldiers, leaping on to the parapets, poured volley after volley into their midst, they faltered, and presently turned and fled back to the gate, their retreat being protected by heavy discharges of grape from the 68-pounders in the port. The sortie, however, had its effect. The French had suffered heavily from the flanking fire as soon as they had shown themselves on the parapet, and the assaulting column, knowing from the din of battle that a serious sortie had been made, fell back from the breach, their retreat being hastened by the discharge of a number of hand-grenades by a midshipman of the Theseus on the top of the tower.
But the assault was not yet over. Napoleon, with several of his generals and a group of aides-de-camp, had been watching the fight from an eminence known as Richard Coeur de Lion's Mount, and had been compelled to shift their position several times by shells thrown among them from the ships. Their movements were clearly visible with a field-glass. Bonaparte was seen to wave his hand violently, and an aide-de-camp galloped off at the top of his speed. Edgar, who was standing near Sir Sidney Smith, was watching them through a telescope, and had informed Sir Sidney of what he had seen.
"Doubtless he is ordering up reinforcements. We shall have more fighting yet."
He then held a consultation with the pasha, who proposed that this time they should carry out a favourite Turkish method of defence—allow the enemy to enter the town, and then fall upon them. The steps were removed from the walls near the tower, so that the French, when they issued from the top of the ruined building, would be obliged to follow along the wall, and to descend by those leading into the pasha's garden. Here two hundred Albanians, the survivors of a corps a thousand strong who had greatly distinguished themselves in the sorties, were stationed, while all the garrison that could be spared from other points, together with the newly-arrived troops, were close at hand. The Turks were withdrawn from the breach and tower, and the attack was confidently awaited.
It came just before sunset, when a massive column advanced to the breach. No resistance was offered. They soon appeared at the top of the ruin, which was now no higher than the wall itself, and moved along the rampart. When they came to the steps leading into the pasha's garden, a portion of them descended, while the main body moved farther on, and made their way by other steps down into the town. Then suddenly the silence that had reigned was broken by an outburst of wild shouts and volleys of musketry, while from the head of every street leading into the open space into which the French had descended, the Turkish troops burst out. In the pasha's garden the Albanians threw themselves, sabre in one hand and dagger in the other, upon the party there, scarce one of whom succeeded in escaping, General Rombaud, who commanded, being among the slain, and General Lazeley being carried off wounded.
The din of battle at the main scene of conflict was heightened by the babel of shouts and screams that rose throughout the town. No word whatever of the intention to allow the French to enter the place had been spoken, for it was known that the French had emissaries in the place, who would in some way contrive to inform them of what was going on there, and the success of the plan would have been imperilled had the intentions of the defenders been made known to the French. The latter fought with their usual determination and valour, but were unable to withstand the fury with which they were attacked from all sides, and step by step were driven back to the breach. Thus, after twenty-four hours of fighting, the position of the parties remained unaltered.
Bonaparte, in person, had taken part in the assault, and when the troops entered the town had taken up his place at the top of the tower. Kleber, who commanded the assault, had fought with his accustomed bravery at the head of his troops, and for a time, animated by his voice and example, his soldiers had resisted the fiercest efforts of the Turks. But even his efforts could not for long maintain the unequal conflict. As the troops fell back along the walls towards the breach, the guns from elevated positions mowed them down, many of the shot striking the group round Bonaparte himself. He remained still and immovable, until almost dragged away, seeming to be petrified by this terrible disaster, when he deemed that, after all his sacrifices and losses, success was at last within his grasp.
During the siege he had lost five thousand men. The hospitals were crowded with sick. The tribesmen had ceased to send in provisions. Even should he succeed in taking the town after another assault, his force would be so far reduced as to be incapable of further action. Its strength had already fallen from sixteen thousand to eight thousand men. Ten of his generals had been killed. Of his eight aides-de-camp, four had been killed and two severely wounded.
The next evening the Turkish regiment that had made a sortie on the night of their landing, but had been unable to face the tremendous fire poured upon them, begged that they might be allowed to go out again in order to retrieve themselves.
Permission was given, and their colonel was told to make himself master of the nearest line of the enemies' trenches, and to hold them as directed on the occasion of his previous sortie. The work was gallantly done. Unheeding the enemy's fire the Turks dashed forward with loud shouts, leapt into the trenches, and bayonetted their defenders; but instead of setting to work to move the materials of the parapet across to the other side, carried away by their enthusiasm they rushed forward, and burst their way into the second parallel. So furiously did they fight that Kleber's division, which was again advancing to make a final attempt to carry the breach, had to be diverted from its object to resist the impetuous Turks. For three hours the conflict raged, and although the assailants were greatly outnumbered they held their ground nobly. Large numbers fell upon both sides, but at last the Turks were forced to fall back again into the town.
The desperate valour with which they had just fought hand to hand without any advantage of position showed the French troops how hopeless was the task before them; and Kleber's grenadiers, who had been victors in unnumbered battles, now positively refused to attempt the ascent of the fatal breach again.
Receiving news the next day that three French frigates had just arrived off Caesarea, Sir Sidney determined to go in pursuit of them, but the pasha was so unwilling that the whole force of British should depart that he sent off the Theseus with two Turkish frigates that had accompanied the vessels bringing the troops.
The voyage was an unfortunate one. Captain Miller, as the supply of shot and shell on board the men-of-war was almost exhausted, had for some time kept his men, when not otherwise engaged at work, collecting French shell which had fallen, without bursting, in the town. A number of these he had fitted with fresh fuses, and a party of sailors were engaged in preparing the others for service, when from some unknown cause one of them exploded, and this was instantly followed by the bursting of seventy others. The men had been at work on the fore part of the poop, near Captain Miller's cabin, and he and twenty-five men were at once killed and the vessel set on fire in five places. Mr. England, the first lieutenant, at once set the crew to work, and by great exertions succeeded in extinguishing the flames. He then continued the voyage, and drove the three French frigates to sea.
The loss of Captain Miller, who had been indefatigable in his exertions during the siege, was a great blow to Sir Sidney Smith. He appointed Lieutenant Canes, who had been in charge of the Tigre during his absence on shore, to the command of the Theseus, and transferred Lieutenant England to the place of first lieutenant of the Tigre.
It was generally felt that after the tremendous loss he suffered in the last of the eleven assaults made by the French that Napoleon could no longer continue the siege. Not only had the numerical loss been enormous in proportion to the strength of the army, but it had fallen upon his best troops. The artillery had suffered terribly, the grenadiers had been almost annihilated, and as the assaults had always been headed by picked regiments, the backbone of the army was gone. It was soon ascertained indeed that Napoleon was sending great convoys of sick, wounded, and stores down the coast, and on the 20th the siege was raised, and the French marched away.
AN INDEPENDENT COMMAND.
The departure of the French had been hastened by the rapidly-increasing discontent and insubordination among the troops. During the later days of the siege Sir Sidney Smith had issued great numbers of printed copies of a letter from the Sultan authorizing him to offer a safe passage to France to the French army if it would surrender. This offer was a tempting one indeed to the soldiers. They had suffered hardships of all kinds since they had disembarked at Alexandria. They had been parched with thirst, half-choked with blinding dust, and had seen their comrades fall in numbers smitten by sunstroke. They counted but little the losses they had suffered in the battles in Egypt—that was in the ordinary way of the business of a soldier; but the dread of assassination whenever they ventured out from their lines, whether in camp or on the march, had weighed heavily upon them. Then had come the plague that had more than decimated them at Jaffa, and now they were reduced to well-nigh half their strength by the manner in which they had been sent time after time against the breach in the wall of an insignificant town, which would have been of no use to them if taken, as they could have been shelled out of it by the British men-of-war and gun-boats.
Sir Sidney Smith had passed through the terrible siege without a scratch, although freely exposing himself, and two attempts at assassination by the French emissaries in the town had also failed. The Tigre sailed at once to place herself between Jaffa and Damietta, and so cut off the retreat of the French army by sea. Not anticipating that this would be the case, Napoleon, on his arrival at Jaffa, embarked the twenty-three guns he had brought with him, on board ship, together with all the sick and wounded who were unequal to the desert march.
So great was the haste, that the vessels were despatched short of hands, and without provisions or water. As soon as the Tigre was made out the vessels all steered for her, confiding in the well-known humanity of the British to their prisoners. They were not mistaken. Sir Sidney had abundance of supplies and water put on board them, and he convoyed them to Damietta, where they received from their countrymen the surgical and medical aid that was beyond his power to afford them. Edgar was not on board the Tigre when she fell in with the convoy of wounded. Sir Sidney had, early on the morning after the departure of the French, informed him that he should, in his despatches, report most favourably of the assistance that he had rendered him both as interpreter and aide-de-camp during the siege.
"For the present," he went on, "I shall have no great need for an interpreter, as I shall probably have little to do for some time beyond cruising backwards and forwards on the coast of Egypt to prevent ships from France entering the ports with stores and ammunition, therefore I shall be able to give you employment which I think that you will like. One of the gun-boats captured from the French is a fast sailer. Hassan Bey tells me that when he was at Rhodes he heard great complaints of the piracy that was being carried on among the islands. The Turkish troops in most of these were withdrawn by him to swell his force as he sailed south, and there are now no vessels of war in those waters. The French flag has been driven from the sea, while our work has been too serious to admit of our paying any attention to the Aegean, although, as I knew before I left London, the complaints of merchants and ship-owners of the capture of merchantmen trading with Constantinople and other eastern ports were numerous. At the present moment I can well spare one of the gun-boats; the others will go down to watch the Egyptian coast. I shall therefore commission the Foudre, and re-name her the Tigress. I shall appoint Mr. Wilkinson to the command. Mr. Condor would, of course, have had it, but he has been transferred as third lieutenant to the Theseus, and as Wilkinson is senior midshipman, he will have her. I shall appoint you his second in command. She carries eight guns, and has room for two more, which I shall place on board from those on the walls. Her own guns are fourteen-pounders, and with two eighteens she will be heavily armed. Her complement was fifty-two men. I will give you forty from the Tigre, and will draw fifteen from the Theseus, and five from the Alliance. You will need a stronger crew with two extra guns; besides, you may want to send landing-parties on shore, or to cut out piratical craft, and ought therefore to be strong-handed."
"Thank you very much, sir. I shall be very glad to be employed on such service."
"Please send Mr. Wilkinson to me, Mr. Blagrove. I have his instructions written out for him."
"Sir Sidney Smith wants you, Wilkinson," Edgar said as he went into the next house.
"What is up?"
"There is a report that you have been making love to a Turkish girl; you will get it hot."
"Bosh!" Wilkinson said, laughing, as he put on his cap. "I have not spoken to a feminine of any kind since we left England."
In a quarter of an hour he returned.
"Hurrah, Blagrove! this is glorious. I am all the more pleased that you are going with me. How lucky Condor being promoted to the Theseus, or of course he would have had it. Then Knight, being still unfit for duty from the effects of the wounds he received in the sortie, and our first lieutenant being new to the ship, the third lieutenant cannot be spared. Sir Sidney spoke very kindly. He said that it was a heavy responsibility for so young an officer, but that he trusted I should prove equal to it, and that I must remember that prudence was just as necessary as courage and dash. He gave me a good deal of advice, which I shall think over and try to act on when I sober down a bit. Now we are both relieved from other duty, so we will pack up our kit.
"Sir Sidney is going on board the Tigre in five minutes, and he said that we could go on board with him, and we had better do so, as there was no time to be lost. Mason, one of the gunner's mates, is to go with us. We are to have sixty blue-jackets and five marines for sentries, and so on. He thinks that we can't do better than take the Turk who has been cooking for him, and our cook here. They are both very good fellows. One will be our steward and cook, and the other cook for the men. The boatswain's mate and the purser are to go with us to the brig, and see what is required in the way of stores. Everything has to be got on board by to-night, as Sir Sidney sails early to-morrow morning, so there is no time to be wasted."
While he was talking the two midshipmen were throwing their spare clothes into the kit-bags, in which they had brought them ashore. One of the sailors slung them across his shoulder and followed them down to the landing-place. The bags were stowed under the thwarts forward, and the lads waited until their commander came down.
"Remember, Mr. Wilkinson," the latter said as he took his seat in the boat, "you and Mr. Blagrove must be here at seven o'clock this evening, for I am landing at that hour to pay a final adieu to the pasha, and he asked me to bring you both with me. I mention it now, as it might slip my memory. The men you had on shore all gave you satisfaction, didn't they?"
"Yes, sir, they were all willing and ready for work at any hour, day or night."
"Then you may as well have them as a body. Some twenty of them have been killed, wounded, or laid up by fever, but with the men now on board they will make the crew up to its full strength."
The gig was now on her way, and the shore party of sailors and marines were gathering round the cutter that had been sent to take them on board. Before leaving the quarters that they had occupied, the midshipmen had made hasty arrangements with the two Turks, who had gladly accepted their offer. They had been told that one or other of the midshipmen would be sure to be on shore some time during the day. Therefore they were to hold themselves in readiness to embark at once. On arriving on board, the lieutenant was requested by Sir Sidney to tell off five marines to form part of the complement of the gun-boat. Ten minutes after their arrival the two midshipmen started with two petty officers to inspect the stores of the gun-boat.
"She is a very pretty craft, Blagrove!" Wilkinson said with delight as he regarded with pride his new command.
"Yes. I doubt whether we should have ever taken her if she had not been so deep in the water with the guns and stores she had on board. The French certainly know how to build ships; there is no question about that. I doubt whether we have such a good-looking gun-boat in the service. Anyhow I have not seen one."
The petty officer who commanded the gun-boat saluted as Wilkinson came up to the side and announced that he had come to take command of the boat.
"Am I to remain on board, Mr. Wilkinson?"
"Yes, Mr. Philpot. I am to have two petty officers, and Sir Sidney said that as you knew all about the brig you would be very useful to me. All the men are to remain here. Now we must overhaul the stores. What have you got on board?"
"We have a very short supply of powder and ball, not above ten rounds for each gun, and there is hardly any small-arm ammunition. There are twelve barrels of salt junk, eight of flour; there is a cask of rum that was broached last week, half a cask of sugar, and some bags of coffee. I have not sounded the water-tank, but I don't think that there is much in there."
A thorough examination was now made. An exact inventory of the provisions was taken, and the amount of water on board was ascertained, the boatswain's stores were gone over, and were found to be well supplied with rope, sail-cloth, and other necessaries. A calculation was then made as to the amount that would be required for the future strength of the crew for a three months' cruise. The boat was then rowed back to the Tigre. As soon as they arrived there, and reported to the first lieutenant what was required, a signal was made to the gun-boat to send one of her boats ashore at once with water-casks, and to fill up the tanks. A party was set to work to hoist up the barrels of stores, according to the list handed in by Wilkinson, while Edgar was sent on shore with forty men, with an order to the Turkish commander of artillery, to hand over to him two 18-pounders and as much ammunition for them and the 14-pounder guns as could be provided.
Mason, the gunner's mate, who was to sail in the Tigress, accompanied him to aid him to get the guns down to the boat. The Turkish officer at once handed over the guns, but was able to supply but little ammunition, for which, now that the French had retreated, there was no longer any use at Acre. However, he told off twenty men to aid the sailors in getting the guns and ammunition down, and in two hours the whole had been placed on board the boats, bringing them down very low in the water. When the last party were on their way down, Edgar hurried to his old quarters and had a consultation with the two Turks, who were ordered to purchase a supply of wine, meat, and such other stores as they could find for the cabin use, and were told to have everything at the landing-place, and to be in readiness to go on board themselves, by four o'clock in the afternoon.
Had the order been given two days before, there would have been little for the Turks to have purchased; but the town was already full of natives from the hills, many chiefs having come down to assure the pasha of their fidelity, and to inform him that bands of their horsemen were hanging on the rear of the retreating French. Great numbers of the villagers had come in to inspect the scene of the desperate struggle that had for upwards of two months gone on unceasingly. Many were anxious to obtain employment in the work of burying the dead and clearing away the ruins. Almost all brought in something to sell—sheep, goats, and chickens, eggs and vegetables. Of the latter Edgar had ordered that a large supply should be brought for the use of the crew; for although native boats from the north had, while the siege went on, often arrived with fresh provisions, the supply had been insufficient for the demand, and many of the sailors were suffering alike from the want of fresh food and from their hard work, and most of all from the horrible effluvia from the unburied bodies that bestrewed the ground over which the fighting had taken place.
As the heavily-laden boats rowed out to the brig they were overtaken by the water-boats, which were now making their third trip; they reported to Edgar that what they now carried would completely fill up the tanks. Wilkinson was on board, having come off with the boats with the stores from the Tigre. It had been a hard morning's work, but both were well satisfied with it; and as they sat down to a lunch composed of a loaf of bread and a bottle of wine Edgar had brought off with him, they chatted over the future prospect in high glee.
"This is not so spacious as the room you have been occupying for the last two months," Wilkinson said, "but it beats the cockpit hollow."
"Yes, it is a very snug little cabin, and the French skipper evidently knew how to make himself comfortable. It is lucky that everyone has been so busy since we took her that no one has thought of stripping it. There are his telescope, a big roll of charts, and two brace of pistols, all in their places. I know the French officers were all permitted to take their clothes away with them; so no doubt the lockers are empty."
This, however, on examination, proved not to be the case, for in them were found three or four dozen of wine, two dozen of brandy, a good supply of chocolate, coffee, and other cabin stores.
"I see, Mr. Philpot," Wilkinson said when they went on deck, "you have husbanded the captain's stores most carefully."
"Yes, sir; no orders were given to me about them, and I knew that I might be relieved any day. I think I have had three bottles of brandy. I used to take a tot every night, thinking that there could be no harm in that."
"No harm at all," Wilkinson said. "I suppose properly, under ordinary circumstances, the stores should have been handed over at once to the Tigre; but as no orders were given about it, I think you were perfectly right in taking toll, though I don't know that it would have been justified by the regulations. However, certainly I shall risk it myself."
"Of course, sir, as commander of the ship, it is a different thing altogether. I was only put here to look after the men working the guns."
For some hours the crew were hard at work lowering down the stores into the hold, packing the ammunition in the magazine, hoisting up the two eighteen-pounders and their carriages, and getting them into position. At half-past three a boat was sent ashore, and returned with the two Turks and a quantity of provisions. The carcases of three sheep were handed over to the crew, with the greater portion of the vegetables, one sheep being kept for the use of the cabin and the petty officers, together with a supply of vegetables sufficient for some days. A good supply of fruit had been brought, which was also divided. As soon as the deck was cleared, all hands were set to wash it down.
"They need not scrub until to-morrow morning, Mr. Philpot," Wilkinson said. "The men have had a hard day's work; they can clean her properly the first thing to-morrow. Have you taken a look at the rigging?"
"Yes, sir, everything is in first-rate condition."
"No doubt she was thoroughly fitted out before she sailed. She certainly looks like it," Wilkinson replied as he glanced at the coils of ropes. "We shall get up anchor at daybreak. I want to be under sail before the Tigre. It would not look smart for a line-of-battle ship to be under weigh before a brig."
At half-past six, Wilkinson and Edgar, both in full uniform—for the latter had provided himself with a full kit, having bought the outfit of one of the midshipmen of the Theseus who had been killed, and who happened to be about his own height and size—took their places in a boat and rowed ashore. In a few minutes Sir Sidney Smith arrived.
"Nearly ready for sea, Mr. Wilkinson?"
"Yes, sir, we shall be ready to sail to-morrow morning. Everything may not be quite ship-shape yet, but a few hours' work on the way will get everything in order."
"Very good work!" Sir Sidney said approvingly. "I hardly thought that you would have got your guns on board to-day."
"The commandant gave us a complement of Turks to help to carry them down, sir, which made short work of it."
"I expect that you will be having a more lively time of it than I shall. I may pick up a few store-ships, but blockading is always dull work. However, I hope before very long they will be sending a force out from England to finish with the French in Egypt. You must remember that you can't be too careful with those Greek and Moslem pirates; one is as bad as the other, and from what I hear they generally work two or three together, and though their craft may be small they carry a number of men; therefore, boat expeditions against them should always be strong-handed. You must bear in mind that although a command like this is a fine opportunity for a young officer to distinguish himself, upon the other hand, if he meets with a misfortune it tells against him. If I had not seen you and Mr. Blagrove both frequently under a heavy fire I should scarcely have ventured to appoint you to such a charge; but I know that you are both cool and steady, and being so short of officers as we are, and feeling that it is of urgent importance to do something to put a stop to the alarming increase of piracy, I consider myself justified in making these appointments."
By this time they had reached the pasha's palace. The latter evidently considered the visit to be a ceremonious one, and a guard of honour was drawn up in the court-yard who saluted as they passed in. For a time the pasha and Sir Sidney exchanged compliments in the usual oriental style, Edgar translating their speeches.
"Without you and your brave sailors the town would have fallen on the first day the French opened fire," the pasha said. "My men were thoroughly dispirited by the events of Jaffa, and to tell you the truth, I myself absolutely despaired of resistance, and should have left before the French arrived had not your ships come into the bay. If Jaffa, which was very much stronger than this place, and with a garrison of 8000 men in good heart, fell at the first assault, what could be done here, where the defences needed but a few shot to fall in ruins, and the garrison were panic-stricken and believed the enemy to be absolutely invincible?"
"No troops could have fought better than yours towards the end of the siege, pasha. The way in which they threw themselves sabre in hand upon the French bayonets was splendid, and my own sailors could have fought no better than they did when the French entered the town."
"Yes, yes, they did well then, but at the beginning their hearts were water, and a hundred French grenadiers could have taken the place. I hope you will return here soon."
"I fancy that there is little chance of that, pasha, unless it be that I hear that those three French frigates the Theseus chased a few days ago are on the coast again, in which case I may run across and try to catch them. Certainly there is no fear of the French coming here again; the news of what has taken place here will cause such excitement among the Egyptians that Bonaparte will have as much as he can do to maintain his hold on the province. I shall take care to do justice to yourself and your soldiers in sending my report of the siege to the Sultan, my sovereign's ally, and in whose service I hold rank."
The old pasha smiled. "At any rate, Sir Sidney Smith, I shall take care that the Sultan shall not send you hither to capture Acre instead of defending it. I have had a lesson that my troops are not so formidable as I had deemed, and he shall have no further reason for complaint against me. And now, young gentlemen," he went on, turning to the midshipmen, "I hear that you are going to sail in one of the gun-boats captured by your commander, to endeavour to punish some of the pirates that are doing so much mischief, not only to the trade among the islands, but to vessels trading from our ports and others with Stamboul. You, young sir, have rendered me, as well as Sir Sidney Smith, great service throughout this siege by interpreting between us and thus enabling me to understand his wishes, instead of being obliged to learn them through those who might have reported their substance to the French. Likewise you have daily carried his orders to my officers, and often through heavy fire. Had you been an officer of mine I should have known how to recognize your services. I could have given you much promotion, and, for such is the custom in our army, have presented you with so many purses. As you are not, I have no power to give you promotion, and Sir Sidney Smith tells me that as a British officer you could not receive gifts in money even from a foreign monarch. He has said, however, that, as a personal present, and as a token of my regard for the services that you have rendered me, he considers that you could accept such a present in the form of a jewel as I might think it right to offer you."
He took a box of Turkish make that stood on the table beside him.
"This," he said, "is an aigrette which I myself have worn in battle; and no more appropriate present could be made to one whom I have seen standing unflinchingly in a fire that might well have appalled veterans."
Then he turned to Wilkinson. "You, sir, have throughout the siege been on service on shore here, and during the first part of the siege commanded the little body of sailors who checked the first attempt of the enemy to capture the tower. I saw you fighting bravely during that terrible struggle in the breach when it so nearly fell into the hands of the French. I therefore present you with a ring of honour similar to those that I have requested Sir Sidney Smith to have the kindness to give in my name to the officers who distinguished themselves most greatly in the defence of my town."
Edgar translated the pasha's speech, and then opened the box presented to himself. It contained a superb aigrette, mounted upon a brooch-like ornament by which it was fastened to a turban. This ornament, which was some four inches in diameter, was composed entirely of precious stones, with an emerald of great size in the centre. He looked at Sir Sidney Smith.
"It is too valuable altogether," he said.
"You can take it," his commander said with a smile; "he showed it to me this morning."
Edgar then expressed his thanks in suitable terms to the pasha, and also those of Wilkinson, whose ring contained a diamond of great beauty; then at a sign from Sir Sidney they left the room, leaving him to conclude his interview with the pasha alone. In a quarter of an hour he joined them outside the palace.
"I congratulate you on your presents," he said. "Yours, Blagrove, is undoubtedly very valuable, and had you intended to remain permanently in the service I do not know that I could have allowed you to accept it. As it is, I see no harm in it. I may tell you that the pasha asked me if I thought that you would remain in his service. He says your knowledge of several languages would be of much value to him, and that he should like to have one about him on whose courage, as well as fidelity, he could rely. I told him that I knew that you had other plans, and that you would probably leave the navy as soon as the French evacuated Egypt, and were, I knew, anxious to return to your parents in England. I have no doubt, Mr. Blagrove, that he would have been willing to give you terms you could hardly have hoped for elsewhere; but the pasha is an old man, you would have been an object of jealousy to his officers and officials, and he is at times guilty of cruelties at which I know you would revolt, and your position therefore would have been a precarious one, and your enemies might not improbably endeavour to remove so formidable a rival in their master's favour by assassination, so I thought that for your own interest it is better that I should take upon myself to decline the offer."
"Thank you, sir. I should not have liked to enter his service at all. It would be an idle life as well as an unpleasant one, and, besides, I know that my father wishes me to take his place in Alexandria."
"Djezzar has behaved very handsomely," Sir Sidney said. "He obtained from me a list of all the officers of the three ships and of the petty officers who have specially distinguished themselves. He has given me jewels to hand to all the officers in his name, and also purses of money for the petty officers. He is, you know, immensely rich. The old fellow was really grieved that he could not offer anything to me; he said as much, but I at once pointed out that, putting everything else aside, it would be an unheard-of thing for the commander-in-chief of the Sultan's army to receive a present from one, however high in rank, who was under his orders. He just now insisted, however, that we should exchange rings, and as he had absolutely tears in his eyes when he spoke, I could not refuse, though mine was but a signet-ring with my crest, and his a diamond worth, I should say, a thousand pounds if it is worth a penny."
They had by this time reached the landing-place.
"Now, lads, we part here for the present; I hope that you will have a prosperous cruise, and do credit to my choice. You understand, Mr. Wilkinson, that you will remain on your station among the islands until you receive other orders from me."
After seeing Sir Sidney off, the two midshipmen took their places in their boat, and were rowed off to the Tigress.
"That was an unexpected piece of luck, Blagrove," Wilkinson said when they had started. "I thought, perhaps, that he might make you a present, for you have seen him every day, and besides interpreting, have carried orders to his officers under a heavy fire, and done all sorts of things, but except that I landed several times to take part in the sorties, and was lucky enough to be on shore at that fight at the breach and when the French got in, I did no active work. I had no hopes of getting anything beyond perhaps a mention in the chief's despatches."
"I feel quite ashamed at having so much more valuable a present, Wilkinson."
"Oh! I am sure that no one could begrudge it to you," Wilkinson replied. "You don't get any special pay for being an interpreter, and it gives you a tremendous lot of work; besides, going about as you do with Sir Sidney, you were constantly under fire. Besides, the pasha saw a great deal more of you than he did of anyone else, except the chief himself. I congratulate you upon it heartily; if you ever want to turn it into money it will be quite a small fortune. Luckily my father is in a position to make me a good allowance, so I have no intention of ever parting with this ring, it will be a remembrance of the siege, and the sort of thing to wear on grand occasions."
They found that during their absence the men had worked hard, and that, except for a final scrub, the brig was now ship-shape and in good order. At four o'clock in the morning the crew were again on deck It was still dark, but the men set to with a will to scrub the decks, for, as they said, if they passed near the Tigre they should not like the decks to look like those of a trader in ballast. An hour's hard work and they had finished, just as the look-out reported that the Tigre's men were going aloft to loosen sails. It was light now, and in a very few minutes the canvas was spread and the anchor catted. The Tigre, with her great sail spread, was not yet under way, and the brig, as she laid her course west, passed a hundred yards under her stern. The Tigress ran up her ensign, for the sun was just showing, and dipped it in salute. The midshipmen waved their hands to their comrades on board, and saluted more formally Sir Sidney, who stood at the bulwarks watching the craft as she passed, and who returned the salute with a cheery shout of "Well done, Tigress!"
Then she went on her course, after the exchange of a cheer between the crews clustered by the bulwarks of the Tigress and in the tops of the man-of-war.
"Now we are fairly off," Edgar said, "what do your written instructions say?"
"I am to go to Rhodes, there to make inquiries of the port authorities as to any outrages that have been lately reported, and to be guided by what I hear. In fact, the matter is left entirely in my hands, after we once get there. I don't know how we had better divide the watches. It would hardly be the thing for me, as skipper, to take a watch, and yet that would be the most satisfactory way of arranging it. I could take the gunner and you the boatswain. In fact, I think it would be ridiculous to work it in any other way."
"Just as you like, Wilkinson, but I have no doubt that the boatswain would do just as well or better than I should."
"No, I will take a watch, at any rate until we see how the petty officers get on. It is ticklish navigation among these islands, and I certainly should not feel comfortable if neither you nor I were on deck. There is the Tigre fairly under way, steering south by west. We are walking along, ain't we? This breeze just suits her, and she is a very different craft now to what she was when we overhauled her, laden down pretty nearly to her covering-board. I don't think, in a breeze like this, that the Tigre would be able to catch us, although, of course, if the wind strengthened much her weight would tell. However, there is no doubt at all that this craft is fast. I hope ere long we shall try our speed against one of these pirates. I expect that off the wind with those big lateen sails of theirs they are very fast, but on the wind they would have no chance with us. When we get away from Rhodes we will disguise her a bit, put a yellow streak to her, and give her the look of a trader. They are much more likely to find us than we are to find them."
"Where are we to send our prizes, that is, if we take any?"
"If they are small craft we are to burn them, but if we take any that would be likely to be of use to the chief in the blockade we are to sell them. Any prisoners we take we are to hand over to the pasha at Smyrna if they are Moslems; if they are Greeks, the fewer prisoners we take the better. It would be infinitely more merciful to shoot them down in fair fight than to hand them over to the tender mercies of the Turks, but Sir Sidney said that he would largely leave the matter to my discretion. I would rather that he had given me positive orders in writing on the subject, for it is an awkward thing for a midshipman to have a thing like this left to his discretion, especially as at other times superior officers don't seem to think that midshipmen possess any discretion whatever."
A PIRATE HOLD.
On arriving at Rhodes, Wilkinson and Edgar rowed ashore as soon as the anchor was dropped, and called upon the Turkish governor. They were received with much honour, and the governor was delighted to hear the news, which they were the first to bring, that the French had abandoned the siege of Acre and were retreating in all haste to Egypt. He gave orders for a salute to be fired at once in honour of this great success, and then asked Wilkinson what he could do for him, assuring him that he would put all the resources of the island at his disposal. Edgar, as interpreter, assured the governor that they had no occasion to avail themselves largely of the offer, but that, in consequence of the amount of ammunition expended in the siege they were short of both powder, ball, and musketry ammunition, and would be very much obliged for as large a supply as he could spare them. He gave orders at once for the issue to him of as much as they required. Edgar then went on:
"The object of our coming here, sir, is to endeavour to check the piracy that is now being carried on among the islands. Numerous complaints have reached Sir Sidney Smith from Turkish, British, and Greek merchants; ships are constantly missing, and there is no doubt that they have been captured and scuttled, and their crews massacred."
"Your ship is a small one for such a purpose," the governor said, for from the divan on which he was sitting he commanded a view of the port.
"I hope that she is large enough," Edgar replied; "she is heavily armed for her size, and she is a fast sailer. Sir Sidney Smith had no larger vessel at his disposal, as he needs the two men-of-war and the small frigate for watching the Egyptian coast, and, indeed, had he been able to send a larger craft, it would not have been so well suited for the purpose, for the pirates would hardly have ventured to attack her. We shall, after we have put out to sea, disguise the brig and rig her as a merchantman in order to tempt them out. We shall not do it until we are well away, for the pirates may have friends here who might send them information. We shall head for the south, and shall give out that we are to rejoin our commander off Alexandria, as we have only come round here to give you news of the retreat of the French. We shall be glad if you will furnish us with two men having a thorough knowledge of the islands, and of the spots where the piratical craft are most likely to harbour. They must be trusty men who will not open their lips here as to our designs."
"I can find you two such men," the governor said. "They both used to be captains of craft that traded among the islands, but now own several vessels; some of these have disappeared, and they are continually coming up here and pestering us with their complaints, though I have told them again and again that I can do nothing in the matter; I know that they would very gladly go with you in order to aid in the punishment of the pirates."
Such indeed turned out to be the case. Edgar had a long talk with them, and learned from them the spots where it was supposed that the pirates had their rendezvous, as many vessels whose course had lain near them had disappeared. He asked them to go into the town and gather what further information they could from men whose craft had been chased but had succeeded in getting away, and told them to be at the landing-place after dark so that their passage to the ship would be unnoticed, for they agreed with him that undoubtedly many of the pirates had agents at Rhodes and other important ports, and that intelligence was carried by small, quick-sailing craft, to the pirates, of vessels likely to be valuable prizes. An abundant supply of ammunition was taken off to the brig in the course of the afternoon, and the supply of fresh provisions replenished.
The two young officers dined with the governor, who had a large party in their honour, including many of the military authorities. The next morning they started at six, and held their course south until they were sure that the brig could no longer be seen even from the highest point on the island, and at four bells in the afternoon changed their course, and, sailing between Scarpanto and Carso, headed north and passed before nightfall between Slazida and Placa. The crew had been busy painting a broad yellow line round the brig, in slackening the rigging, and giving the vessel the appearance of a slovenly merchant brig. They had learned from the Turks that although undoubtedly acts of piracy took place in the Western Archipelago, these were comparatively isolated acts committed upon small vessels becalmed near one or other of the islands, the attacks being made in boats, but that it was among the numerous islands lying off the coast of Asia Minor between Nicaria and Samos on the north, and Serrest and Piscopia on the south, that piracy was most frequent.
As a rule, they said, vessels coming down from the Dardanelles kept well west of Mitylene and Chios, rounded Naxos and Syra and bore south to Santorin before shaping their course east, if bound for Syria, so as to avoid the dangerous neighbourhood. To begin with, they advised that the course should be laid so as to pass a short distance east of Astropalaia. This, they said, had long been one of the headquarters of piracy. It had, before the war began, been several times attacked by Turkish or European ships of war, the craft found there burnt, and the coast villages destroyed; but since then it was believed that it had again become the headquarters of pirates from some of the other islands, as its position was a favourable one for attack, lying in the direct lines of traffic between both Constantinople and Greece and the eastern trades with Rhodes, Cyprus, Syria, or Egypt.
The night was fine, with a gentle breeze. A sharp look-out was kept for two groups of tiny islands that were scarce more than rocks, that had to be passed before nearing Astropalaia. The breeze died away at daybreak, and left the vessel becalmed at a distance of some six miles from the island.
"We could not be better placed," one of the Turks said. "You see the group of islands at the mouth of that bay; they are called the Pirate Rocks, and in the old days every one of those rocks was the stronghold of a pirate ship. Thirty years ago four Turkish frigates caught eighteen piratical craft lying at anchor behind their shelter, and destroyed every one of them, but it was not long before others took their places."
"If there were a good wind blowing, Edgar, I should like nothing better than to sail right in there," Wilkinson said, "but in this light breeze those fellows would run away from us with their big sails and their sweeps."
"If there are any of them in there now," one of the Turks remarked as Wilkinson closely surveyed the islets through his glass, "most likely they have made you out before this. I only hope there will not be too many of them."
"The more the merrier!" Wilkinson laughed as Edgar translated this. "With ten guns and sixty blue-jackets we ought to be able to beat off any number of the scoundrels. Ask him how many guns these fellows generally mount?"
The Turk shook his head.
"They are of all sizes; some are only row-boats, without guns at all, and carrying perhaps not more than a dozen men. Two will row, and the rest lie down in the bottom. They will have some fruit, perhaps, piled up in the stern, and as they row up to a small craft at anchor or becalmed, there are no suspicions of their real character until they get close alongside. Then they leap up, and carry the vessel before the crew have time to arm themselves. If she is very small and useless to them, they will take out everything of value, fasten the prisoners down below, and scuttle her; if she is larger, they will tow her into some little bay and take out the cargo in boats at their leisure, cut the throats of the prisoners, alter the appearance of the ship so that she cannot be recognized, engage a dozen more hands, and set up on a larger scale.
"Some of the craft are used as fishing-boats when times are quiet and there are ships of war about, while the larger ones may go into trade. Some of the smaller craft will carry a couple of guns, the larger ones eight or ten, but these are generally much smaller than yours, though sometimes they are armed with cannon taken from prizes; but, as a rule, they do not trust at all to their guns. They do not wish to draw attention by their sound to what is going on, and they either attack at night and carry their prey by boarding, or, if it be in the day, the crew are sent below, the guns hidden, and they have so peaceful an aspect that it is only when they change their course suddenly, when within a few hundred yards, that any alarm is excited, and they are alongside before a trader can load his guns, and, as they are crowded with men, carry her before any serious resistance can be offered."
At Rhodes they had taken on board a dozen bucket-loads of earth. The night before, some of these had been emptied into a large tub, which was then filled up with water and stirred briskly, after which the sailors had gone aloft and wetted the sails with muddy water, rendering their appearance dingy in the extreme. Here and there white patches had been left, which gave the sails the appearance of being old and recently mended, and with the yards set at different angles and slackened rigging, the Tigress would not have been recognized as the smart craft that had, twenty-four hours before, sailed from Rhodes. The sailors were all in high glee. After the hard work they had had at Acre they looked upon this as a holiday, and entered with the greatest zest into the work of disguising the ship.
"Now, lads, you must sit down," Wilkinson said, "and only five or six heads must be shown above the bulwarks. They doubtless have some good glasses taken from the ships they have captured, and if they saw that we had an unusually strong crew they might smell a rat."
It was now a dead calm, the sails hung idly down, and the brig lay almost motionless on a waveless sea.
"I am pretty sure that I can make out the upper spars of two or three craft behind that long, low islet, Wilkinson," Edgar said after, for the twentieth time, gazing long and earnestly through his telescope.
"I fancied so two or three times, Edgar, but I am by no means sure that it is not fancy. I felt more sure of it at first than I do now, for there is a slight mist rising from the water. If they don't come out to us by the afternoon we will go in and have a look at them. We have got half a dozen sweeps on board, and with those and the boats we could work her in in a couple of hours."
"I hope we sha'n't have to do that," Edgar replied. "They would guess what we were at once, and would be scattering in all directions. We might pick up one or two, the rest would get off and carry news of us to all the islands round."
"Perhaps you are right," Wilkinson agreed. "It would certainly be unfortunate to begin by giving them a scare."
"Besides," Edgar went on, "if the calm holds till night, they may come out and try to take us by surprise."
The day passed very slowly. The heat was great, and the men picked out spots on the deck where the sails threw a shade, and dosed off to sleep. They had, long before, made every preparation; the cutlasses had been ground, the boarding-pikes sharpened, and the pistols loaded and primed. Piles of shot lay by the side of the guns, and it needed only to fetch up the powder cartridges from the magazine to be ready for action. The marines had cleaned and loaded all the muskets, and placed them in the racks. At two o'clock, after dinner had been eaten, Wilkinson said to the boatswain:
"The starboard-watch can sling their hammocks and turn in if they like. If these fellows mean to come out and attack us, they will hardly do it before it becomes dark; perhaps not until two or three o'clock in the morning, and as we shall have to be watchful, there is no occasion for both watches to stay on deck now. The port watch shall go off from two bells till eight; as they take the first watch they will be all the brighter for a snooze beforehand."
"I wish the beggars would come out and have done with it," he went on to Edgar, as the boatswain turned away and blew his whistle. "I think I may as well go down, as it is your watch on deck. Have me roused when they change at two bells if I don't wake of my own accord."
Contrary to their usual custom in a calm, the earnest desire of all on board was that it should continue, for should a breeze spring up they would be forced to sail away, and the pirates might not pursue them. As soon as it got dark, Wilkinson told the boatswain that it would be as well that a song should be started occasionally, but that not more than five or six men were to join in chorus. If, as they came out, they heard a dead silence they might think it unnatural, and it was quite possible that a boat would come on ahead of them to try and make out what they really were. In the intervals between the songs silence reigned, and all on deck listened intently.
About nine o'clock Edgar exclaimed: "I can hear oars!"
"So can I," Wilkinson replied, after listening for a minute. "I don't think that they are sweeps. No, it is a boat rowed by either two or four men—four, I think."
In a minute or two they were satisfied that it was but a boat. The order was given for another song, after which three or four men were to talk and the rest to sit down below the bulwarks and to keep silence. The two Turks took their places near the officers. From the speed at which the boat was approaching it was certain that she was not deeply laden, and there was no fear, therefore, of a surprise being attempted. She passed within twenty yards of the tafrail, and they could make out that she was an ordinary fisherman's boat. There was a pile of nets in the stern, and four men were standing up rowing.
"I wish we could get a little wind!" one of them called out.
"We wish so, too," one of the Turks answered. "We have been lying becalmed all day."
"Bound for Constantinople, I suppose?" came from the boat.
"No, for Smyrna. We are bringing a cargo from Ancona, and shall load up at Smyrna with fruit."
With a Turkish good-night the men rowed on, and the singer forward at once began another song. For a quarter of an hour they could hear the sound of the oars growing fainter and fainter, then it ceased.
"They have rowed straight on till they think they are out of hearing," Wilkinson said. "Now they will make a circuit and go back to their friends with the news. There is no doubt we are in luck if we get a brush with them the first night after our arrival on our cruising ground."
About three o'clock in the morning a confused sound could be heard. In two or three minutes every man was at his post.
"There are only two, or at most three of them," Edgar said, in a tone of disappointment, "and I doubt whether they are not big rowing-boats. The strokes are too quick for either sweeps or for boats towing. What a beastly nuisance! I suppose when these fellows took back the report, that though we were a good-sized brig we did not seem to have many hands, they thought that it was not worth while to tow out a big craft when row-boats would do. They think that with twelve or fifteen hands in each boat, and the advantage of surprise, they would be able to overpower us at once."
"The surprise will be the other way," Wilkinson said angrily. "We shall send them all three to the bottom at the first broadside."
"I don't think I should do that, Wilkinson; for, if you do, there is an end of our chance of capturing any of their larger craft."
"Of course I see that; that is the annoying part of the business. What do you propose, then?"
"I should say that the best plan would be, not to hail them until they get close on board, then for a man forward to give a sudden shout, as if he had been asleep on his watch and had only just heard them. Then they will come tumbling on board, thinking that the ship is already theirs. We might divide our men, and keep them half forward and half aft. The moment they all get on board, rush down upon them. Tell off six men, with orders to jump down into their boats as soon as they can, and to push them off, so as to cut off their retreat. The boats will be very useful to us, for we can tow the brig in with them. The people in there will think that she has been captured, and we shall get right in the middle of them before they find out that they have caught a tartar."
"By Jove, that is a first-rate idea!"
To their surprise, the men were at once called away from their guns and divided into two parties. Edgar and the boatswain commanded that gathered forward, Wilkinson and the gunner that aft. Nine men were told off for the capture of the boats, for, as Edgar pointed out, when the pirates found that they were caught in a trap, a good many of them might leap overboard and try to get into the boats, and it might need fully three men to keep them off.
"Now, lads, you understand," Wilkinson said, as the parties were about to take up their places, "you must crouch down and keep yourselves perfectly quiet until the word is given; it is important to get them all on board. When they see no one on deck they will think that the one or two men who might be on the watch have run below. You can use your pistols freely when the fighting once begins. When the fellows find that they are trapped, they are likely enough to fight hard, and I don't want to lose any men. Keep your cutlasses in readiness, but trust principally to your boarding-pikes."
The boats were but four or five hundred yards away when the crew of the Tigress took up their position. A minute later one of the men in the bow shouted suddenly:
"There are boats coming!—quick, on deck!—pirates! pirates!"
Then four or five men down in the forecastle also shouted, ran up on deck, and then, with cries of alarm, ran below again, and then, but quietly this time, joined their comrades, who were crouching as closely together as possible forward of the bitts. There was a roar of voices from the boats. They could hear the oars plied desperately; then closely following this came three bumps against the side of the brig, and, clambering up the chains, the pirates poured tumultuously upon the deck, breaking into a shout of triumph as they met with no resistance. There was a pause of astonishment as the guns were seen; then their leader shouted that these could be but dummies, intended to run out and frighten people in the daytime.
"Down below, men!" one shouted; "finish with them first; it will be time to talk afterwards."
One of the Turks, who spoke a little French, crouching by the side of Wilkinson, translated his words. Some of the pirates rushed towards the forecastle, others aft to the cabins, where they would find the officers. Then some figures crawled out from below the tarpaulins that were loosely thrown over the guns, looked over the rail, and then sprang down into the boats, which were entirely deserted. As they did so there was a shout from Wilkinson; it was answered by Edgar, and then five-and-twenty seamen sprang up from each end of the vessel, and with a tremendous cheer flung themselves upon the pirates. Taken completely by surprise, and somewhat outnumbered, many of these were cut down or run through by the pikes before anything like serious resistance could be offered; then, headed by their leaders, they fought with the desperation of cornered animals.
All of them carried pistols as well as yataghans. Some few of them ran to the side, and with yells of fury leaped overboard to recapture the boats. Pistols cracked on both sides, cutlass and yataghan clashed together; but the British shouts rose high over the yells of the pirates. In three minutes the fighting was virtually over, the greater portion of the pirates lay dead on the deck; a few had jumped overboard, and the rest, throwing down their arms, fell on their knees and cried for mercy.
"That will do, men—that will do!" Wilkinson shouted; "scoundrels as they are, we cannot kill them in cold blood. Get some lengths of rope, boatswain, and tie them hand and foot."
The men who had leapt into the water and swam towards the boats did not attempt to climb in when they saw three sailors in each, standing with cutlass and pistol ready to oppose them, and they swam back towards the brig. A rope was thrown to them, and they were permitted to climb up one by one, being bound and laid by their comrades as they gained the deck. None of the sailors had been killed, though several had received ugly gashes.
"Now, boatswain, put the starboard watch into the boats; lower the two ship's boats also—we will get as many oars to work as possible till daylight."
Each of the captured boats rowed six oars, and thirty men were soon at work towing the vessel towards the bay. The port watch then set to work to clear the deck. The dead were all thrown overboard; the others were unbound, made to strip off their jackets, then bound again and carried down to the hold, the hatchway being closed on them. They found that most of the survivors were Greeks, the Turks having to a man fallen fighting.
"These mixed crews are worst of all," one of the Turks said. "The Turkish pirates are bad enough, and so are the Greeks—there is little to choose between them; but it is only the worst desperadoes who will consort together. You did wrong to spare a man."
"We could not kill them when they threw down their arms," Wilkinson said. "We will hand them over to your authorities, either at Smyrna or at Rhodes. They will make short work of them, I fancy."
As soon as the first gleam of dawn appeared in the sky the boats were called alongside. Those of the Tigress were hoisted up, and the men in the others were given the jackets of the prisoners, some having turbans and some the Greek headgear. These garments had also been stripped from the dead before the bodies were thrown overboard, and were laid in a heap in readiness for those on deck to put on when they approached the bay. When it became daylight they were not more than a mile and a half from the islands. The men in the boats had been warned not to row too regularly; and those on board had already put on their disguises. As they passed between two of the islets exclamations of satisfaction burst from Wilkinson and Edgar, for six vessels were anchored behind the largest of these. The brig's head was turned towards them, and as they approached shouts of welcome and exultation could be heard from their crews.
The craft were of various sizes, two of them were not above thirty tons burden, and each carried two light guns, the others were from fifty to a hundred and fifty tons, and carried from six to twelve guns. The Tigress was within about four hundred yards of the line when the helm was put down, as if to take her in between two of the largest craft. Then Wilkinson, who, with Edgar, were both in the Turkish disguises, waved his hand for the men in the boats to come alongside. As they did so there was a shout of surprise from the crew of the nearest vessel, for there was no mistaking the sailors' white trousers for the baggy integuments of the Turks. At the same moment the port-holes opened, the guns were run out, and before the last man had gained the deck, the ten guns poured in their broadsides.
By Wilkinson's orders three on each side were trained on the craft nearest to them, the remaining two on each broadside being aimed at the vessels next to these. The guns had all been double-shotted, and at the same moment the broadsides were fired the ensign was run up to the peak. A wild hubbub of shouts of astonishment, fury, and alarm rose from the pirate ships, and were re-echoed by numbers of men belonging to their crews, clustered on the shore, to see the prize brought in. Some ran to their guns and began to load them, others jumped into their boats or sprang overboard and swam towards the shore. As fast as the guns on board the Tigress could be loaded the fire was kept up, the forward ones sweeping the deck of the craft nearest to them with grape, while the others sent round-shot into those farther away.
It was but for a short time that the pirates thought of fighting; their light guns were no match for the heavy metal of those on board the brig, and in a quarter of an hour after the first shot was fired the largest of their craft had been sunk, and the other five were entirely deserted. The boats were manned, the brig's head was first pulled round until her broadside bore on the shore, then the anchor was dropped, and the guns on the port side opened with grape upon the pirates on shore, and at five or six houses that were perched high on the rock. Leaving the boatswain in charge, Wilkinson and Edgar both took their places in the boats and rowed from ship to ship. All were found empty, and as they agreed that only two of the largest were worth taking away, the other three were burned.
When they were fairly on fire the boats returned to the brig. Not a pirate was to be seen on the island, though they were sure that although numbers of them had been killed, there must still be fully two hundred of them there, but they must either have hidden among rocks or made their way down to the seaward face. As several boatloads might have rowed away to other islets, it was decided to take a landing party of five-and-thirty men on shore, for as their operations would be covered by the guns of the brig, there was little probability of the pirates attempting to attack them. As soon as they landed, the sailors, led by the two midshipmen, climbed rapidly up the hill, and without a shot being fired approached the houses on the top. From these a heavy musketry fire suddenly broke out. The men would have rushed forward at once, but Wilkinson called out to them to throw themselves down behind shelter, and as they did so a shell flew overhead, struck the largest of the houses and exploded.
Shot followed shot rapidly, the fire of the pirates ceased, then Wilkinson gave the word, and the sailors leapt up and with a cheer rushed forward. Save for a few women the houses were entirely deserted, but some fifty men were seen running down the seaward face. A couple of volleys were poured into these, and then, placing a dozen of the men on guard, the midshipmen entered the houses. The shells had worked great damage. Over a score of men lay dead within them, and as many others wounded. The women had been in the cellars, and they were glad to find that none of them had been hurt. These cellars were very extensive, each house having one. Several of them were crammed with goods of all sorts, evidently the proceeds of prizes, and of such varied description that they judged that each house formed a storehouse to one vessel, as otherwise the more valuable goods would have been collected together, instead of sails, ship-gear, bales of valuable silks and embroideries from Constantinople, Broussa, Smyrna, Chios, Alexandria, and Syria being mixed promiscuously together.
Here too were a quantity of European manufactures, showing that it was not only native craft that had suffered from their depredations. There were numbers of barrels of Greek wine, puncheons of rum, cases of bottled wines of different kinds evidently taken from English ships, great quantities of Smyrna figs, and of currants, Egyptian dates, and sacks of flour.
"This will bring us in a nice lot of prize-money, Blagrove," Wilkinson said, after they had roughly examined the contents of the great subterranean storehouses. Presently a still larger find was made. There was, close to the houses, what appeared to be a well. One of the sailors let down a bucket, and hauling it up found, to his surprise, that it was salt water. The well was deep, but certainly not deep enough to reach down to the sea level, and he carried the bucket to Wilkinson and pointed out where he had got the water from.
"There is something curious about this," the latter said. "Lower me down in the bucket, lads." As he descended he saw that the well was an ancient one, and probably at one time had been carried very much lower than at present. In some places the masonry had fallen in. At one of these points there was an opening cut into the rock. He called to those above to hoist him up again, and procuring a lamp at one of the houses, he and Edgar descended together. Entering the passage they found that it widened into a great chamber some forty feet square and thirty high, which was literally crammed with goods.
"I should never have given the fellows credit for having taken the trouble to cut out such a place as this," Wilkinson said.
"I have no doubt that it is ancient work," Edgar remarked. "I should say that at some time, perhaps when the Genoese were masters here, a castle may have stood above, and this was cut either as a storehouse or as a place of confinement for prisoners, or one where the garrison might hide themselves, with provisions enough to last for a long time, in case the place was captured. The pirates may have discovered it in going down to see if the well could be cleared out, and saw that it would make a splendid place of concealment."
"But how about the salt water, Edgar?"
"I should say that they cemented the bottom or rammed it with clay to make it water-tight, and that as fresh water was scarce they brought up sea water, so that anyone who happened to look down would see that there was water in it. If, as was probable, it would be the Turks who captured the place, they would, when they found that it was salt, not trouble their heads further about the matter. Possibly even these pirates may know nothing of the existence of this store, which may have lain here since the last time the Turks broke up this nest of pirates, and who, you may be sure, left none of them alive to tell the tale. Well, this is a find."
A thorough search was now made of the island, but it was found that the whole of the pirates had made their escape in boats. These had rowed away from the seaward face of the island, so that they were unseen by those on board the brig. Before taking any step to carry away the goods, the other islets were all visited and found to be deserted. Five or six more magazines of spoil were discovered. These were emptied of their most valuable contents, and the houses all burned to the ground. This operation took two days, and it required six more to transfer the contents of the cellars and great store cavern to the brig. Boats had come off on the first day of their arrival from various villages in the bay, conveying one or more of the principal inhabitants, who assured Wilkinson that they had no connection whatever with the pirates, and that they were extremely glad that their nest had been destroyed.
Wilkinson had little doubt that, although they might not have been concerned in the deeds committed by these men, they must have been in constant communication with them, and have supplied them with fruit and fresh meat and vegetables. However, he told them that he should report their assurances to the Turkish authorities, who would, when they had a ship of war available, doubtless send down and inquire into the whole circumstances, an intimation which caused them considerable alarm, as they had no doubt that, if no worse befell them, they would be made to pay heavy fines.
"The only way that you have to show your earnestness in the matter," Wilkinson said, "is to organize yourselves. You have no doubt plenty of boats, and the first time that a pirate comes in here row out from all your villages, attack and burn it, and don't leave a man alive to tell the tale. In that way the pirates will very soon learn that they'd better choose some other spot for their rendezvous, and the authorities will be well content with your conduct."
The amount of spoil taken was so great that the Tigress, when she set sail again, was nearly a foot deeper in the water than when she entered the bay. The prisoners had been the subject of much discussion. It was agreed that they were probably no worse than their comrades who had escaped, and they did not like the thought of handing them over to be executed. They were, therefore, on the third day after the arrival of the brig, brought up on deck. Three dozen lashes were administered to each, then they were given one of the boats in which they had attacked the ship, and told to go.
Before sailing, the yellow band was painted out, for the pirates who escaped would probably carry the news of what had happened over the whole archipelago. Ten men were put on board each of the prizes, and the Tigress sailed up through the islands and escorted them to Smyrna, where the pasha, after hearing an account of their capture, at once gave permission for them to be sold as prizes, and as the news of the retreat of the French had given a considerable impetus to trade, they fetched good prices. As soon as this was arranged, the Tigress sailed away again. For some months they cruised among the islands, putting into every little bay and inlet, boarding every craft found there, and searching her thoroughly to see if there was any property belonging to plundered vessels on board.
Once or twice she came upon two or three large craft together, and had some hard fighting before she captured or sank them; but, as a rule, the crews rowed ashore as soon as they saw the real nature of the new-comer. Some thirty craft were sent as prizes into Smyrna or Rhodes, and there sold, as many more were sunk or burned. They had, in no case, found spoil at all equal to that which had been captured at Astropalaia, but the total was nevertheless considerable. Once or twice they were attacked by boats when anchored in quiet bays, but as a vigilant watch was always kept they beat off their assailants with heavy loss. The rig of the brig was frequently altered. Sometimes she was turned into a schooner with yards on her foremast, sometimes into a fore-and-aft craft; and as the time went on and captures became fewer and fewer, it was evident that she had established a thorough scare throughout the archipelago, and that for the time the pirates had taken to peaceful avocations, and were indeed completely crippled by the loss of so large a number of their craft.
The Tigress had but one awkward incident during the voyage. The day was bright and clear. The two Turks had been, as was their custom, squatting together on the deck, smoking their pipes. Wilkinson and Edgar were pacing together up and down, when the latter said:
"Look at these two native craft; they have both let their lateen sails run down. I am sure I don't know why; there is not a cloud in the sky, except that little white one over there."
They were passing the Turks at the moment, and Edgar said to one of them:
"The two craft over there have just let their sails run down. What can that mean?"
The Turk leapt to his feet with a quickness very unusual to him.
"It is a white squall!" he shouted. "Down with every stitch of canvas, sir. Quick, for your lives! the squall will be upon us in five minutes."
It was Wilkinson's first experience of the terribly sudden squall of the Levant, but he had heard of them and knew their danger, and he shouted at the top of his voice:
"All hands take in sail! Quick, lads, for your lives!"
The boatswain's whistle rang loudly in the air, and he repeated the order at the top of his voice. The men on deck, who had been engaged on various small jobs since they came up from dinner, looked astounded at the order, but without hesitation ran up the ratlines at the top of their speed, while the watch below looked equally surprised as they glanced upwards and around at the deep blue of the sky.