I thought we were lost, again, but Providence once more saved us. All this time the leading English frigate and the two Frenchmen were fast approaching each other. In a few minutes, they must engage, while the Speedy was left further and further astern of her consort. At this critical instant, one of the Frenchmen fired a gun of defiance. That report seemed to arouse the Speedy as from a trance. Her head-yards came furiously round, all the officers vanished from her taffrail, and down went both fore and main-tacks, and to the mast-head rose all three of her top-gallant-sails. Thus additionally impelled, the lively craft dashed ahead, and was soon in her allotted berth, or half a cable's-length astern of the Black Prince, as I afterwards heard was the name of the commanding English ship, on this occasion. I may as well add here, that the French Commodore's ship was named La Desiree, and her consort Le Cerf. Mons. Menneval was senior officer of the French, and Sir Hotham Ward of the English. I never knew the name of the other French captain; or, if I did, I have forgotten it.
My object had been, in bearing up, to get as far as possible from the Speedy, in order that she might not recognise us, and especially that she might not read the name on our stern. But this running off so much to leeward, was not precisely the berth that one would wish to occupy, when a sea-fight is going on directly to windward, and within half gun-shot. No sooner was my Lord Harry Dermond in motion again, therefore, than we hauled the Dawn up with her head to the westward, with a view to get as soon as possible out of the probable range of the fire. It was true, the combatants might vary their manoeuvres, so as to render all parts of the periphery of a certain circle around them, anything but agreeable; but the chances were greatly in favour of the battle's beginning, with one party to windward of the other.
Our ship behaved well on this occasion, getting out of the way with sufficient rapidity. While this was in the course of execution, I had an opportunity to look after the corvette and the lugger. The last was still leading, having managed, by means of short tacks, to work up considerably to windward of the two French frigates. Here she had made a last tack to the eastward, intending to run for the coast. The sloop-of-war was still in her wake, and was following on her heels, at a rapid rate.
"You and I have known, sir." "At sea, I think." "We have, sir." "You have done well by water." "And you by land."
Antony and Cleopatra.
The reader will understand that I offer to his view a shifting panorama. As soon as the Dawn had got about a mile and a half from the English frigates, a distance that was a little increased by the advance of the last towards their enemies, we again backed our top-sails, for I had an ungovernable desire to be a spectator of what was to follow. This feeling was common to all four of us, it being next to impossible to get either Neb, or Diogenes, to pull a rope, for gazing at the frigates. As for steering, it would have been out of the question, I really believe, as no one among us could keep his eyes long enough from the combatants to look after our own ship.
Some persons may think it was foolish not to make the most of our time in endeavouring to get as far as possible from the Speedy. Perhaps it was; but, two miles distant, there was really less to apprehend than might at first appear. It was not probable the English would abandon the French vessels as long as they could stick by them, or, until they were captured; and I was not so completely ignorant of my trade as to imagine that vessels like those of la Grande Nation, which were in sight, were to be taken without doing their adversaries a good deal of harm. Then, the prizes themselves would require looking after, and there were many other chances of our now going scot-free, while there was really very small ground of danger. But, putting aside all these considerations, curiosity and interest were so active in us all, as to render it almost morally impossible we should quit the place until the battle was decided. I am not absolutely certain the Dawn would have moved, had we been disposed to make her. With these brief explanations, then, we will turn our attention exclusively to the frigates.
By the time we had got the Dawn just where we wished her to be, the combatants were drawing quite near to each other. The Speedy had carried sail so long, as to be a little to windward of her consort's wake, though half a cable's-length astern of her. The French were in still closer order, and they would soon be far enough advanced to bring the leading ship on each side, under fire. I supposed the opposing vessels would pass about a cable's-length apart. All four were under their top-sails, jibs, and spankers, with the courses in the brails. The Black Prince and the Speedy had their top-gallant-sails clewed up, while la Desiree and le Cerf had theirs still sheeted home, with the yards on the caps. All four vessels had sent down royal-yards. This was fighting sail, and everything indicated that Monsieur Menneval intended to make a day of it.
The first gun was fired, on this occasion, from the Desiree, the leading French ship. It was directed at the Black Prince, and the shot probably told, as Sir Hotham Ward immediately kept away, evidently with a desire to escape being raked. The French did the same to keep square with their adversaries, and the four vessels now ran on parallel lines, though going different ways, and a short cable's-length asunder. La Desiree followed up her single gun with each division as it would bear, until her whole broadside was delivered. The Black Prince stood it all without answering, though I could see that she was suffering considerably, more especially aloft. At length Sir Hotham Ward was heard in the affair. He let fly his whole broadside, almost simultaneously; and a spiteful, threatening roar it was. The smoke now began to hide his ship, though la Desiree, by moving towards us, kept ahead of her own sulphurous canopy.
The Speedy soon opened on the French Commodore; then, by the roar astern, I knew Le Cerf was at work in the smoke. All four ships shivered their top-sails, to pass more slowly; and there was a minute during which, as it appeared to me, all four actually stopped under the fiery cloud they had raised, in order to do each other all the harm they could. The Frenchmen, however, soon issued from behind the curtain, and the cessation in the firing announced that the ships had parted. I could not see much of the English, at first, on account of the smoke; but their antagonists came out of the fray, short as it had been, with torn sails, crippled yards, and Le Cerf had her mizen top-mast actually hanging over to leeward. Just as I got a view of this calamity, I caught a glimpse of the Black Prince, close-hauled, luffing up athwart the wake of her enemies, and manifestly menacing to get the wind. The Speedy followed with the accuracy of clock-work, having rather closed with her leader, instead of falling farther behind. Presently, the Black Prince tacked; but, in so doing, down came her main-top-gallant-mast, bringing with it the yard and the sail, as a matter of course. This was a sign that Mr. Menneval had not been firing a salute.
The French stood on, after this first rude essay with their enemies, for several minutes, during which time we could see their people actively, but irregularly, employed, in clearing away the wrecks, stoppering rigging, and otherwise repairing damages. Le Cerf, in particular, was much troubled with the top-mast that was dangling over her lee-quarter; and her people made desperate and tolerably well-directed efforts to get rid of it. This they effected; and about ten minutes after the firing had ceased, the French ships put their helms up, and went off to the northward, dead before the wind, as if inviting their enemies to come on and fight it out fairly in that manner, if they felt disposed to pursue the affair any farther.
It was time something of this sort was done, for the delay had brought all four of the vessels so far to the westward, as to leave them within a mile of the Dawn; and I saw the necessity of again getting out of the way. We filled and stood off, as fast as possible. It was time something of the sort was done, in another sense, also. When M. Menneval bore up, his antagonists were closing fast on his weather-quarter, and unless he meant to fight to leeward, it was incumbent on him to get out of the way, in his turn.
Sir Hotham Ward, however, was too skilful a seaman to neglect the advantage Mons. Menneval had given him. The instant the French kept away, he did the same; but instead of falling broad off before the wind, he luffed again in time, not having touched a brace, and crossed the wakes of his enemies, giving a most effective broadside into the cabin-windows of Le Cerf. To my surprise, La Desiree held on her course, until the Speedy had repeated the dose. The English then wore short round, and were seemingly on the point of going over the same thing, when Mons. Menneval, finding this a losing game, hauled up, firing as his guns bore, and Le Cerf did the same, with her head the other way, destroying everything like concert in their movements. The English closed, and, in a minute, all four of the ships were enveloped in a common cloud of white smoke. All we could now see, were the masts, from the trucks down, sometimes as low as the tops, but oftener not lower than the top-sail-yards. The reports of the guns were quite rapid for a quarter of an hour, after which they became much less frequent, though a hundred pieces of ordnance were still at work behind that cloudy screen.
Several shot flew in our direction; and two actually passed between our masts. Notwithstanding, so keen was the interest we continued to feel, that the top-sail was again backed, and there we lay, lookers-on, as indifferent to the risks we ran, as if we had been ashore. Minute passed after minute, until a considerable period had been consumed; yet neither of the combatants became fairly visible to us. Occasionally a part of a hull pushed itself out of the smoke, or the wind blew the latter aside; but at no time was the curtain sufficiently drawn, to enable us to tell to which nation the vessel thus seen belonged. The masts had disappeared,— not one remaining above the smoke, which had greatly enlarged its circle, however.
In this manner passed an hour. It was one of the most intensely interesting of my whole life; and to me it seemed a day, so eager was I to ascertain some result. I had been several times in action, as the reader knows; but, then, the minutes flew: whereas, now, this combat appeared drawn out to an interminable length. I have said, an hour thus passed before we could even guess at the probable result. At the end of that time, the firing entirely ceased. It had been growing slacker and slacker for the last half-hour, but it now stopped altogether. The smoke which appeared to be packed on the ocean, began to rise and disperse; and, little by little, the veil rose from before that scene of strife.
The vessel first seen by us was our old acquaintance, the Speedy. All three of her top-masts were gone; the fore, just below the cross-trees; and the two others near the lower caps. Her main-yard had lost one yard-arm, and her lower rigging and sides were covered with wreck. She had her fore-sail, mizen, and fore-stay-sail, and spanker set, which was nearly all the canvass she could show.
Our eyes had barely time to examine the Speedy, ere the dark hull of Le Cerf made its appearance. This ship had been very roughly treated,—nothing standing on board her, twenty feet from the deck, but her foremast: and the head of that was gone, nearly down to the top. The sea all around her was covered with wreck; and no less than three of her boats were out, picking up men who were adrift on the spars. She lay about a cable's-length from the Speedy, and appeared to be desirous of being still farther off, as she had no sooner got her boats up, than she dropped her fore-sail, and stood off dead before it.
It was in watching the movements of Le Cerf, that we first got a glimpse of La Desiree. This ship reappeared almost in a line with her consort; and, like her, steering off before the wind. Their common object seemed to be, to get within close supporting distance of each other, and to increase the space between them and their enemies. Both these vessels had the tri-colored flag flying at the stumps of their masts. As respects the last, however, La Desiree was a little better off than her consort—having her foremast and main-mast standing entire;—though her mizen-mast was gone, close to the deck. What was a very bad affair for her, her fore-yard had been shot away in the slings, the two inner ends lying on the forecastle, while the yard-arms were loosely sustained by the lifts. This ship kept off under her main-sail and fore-stay-sail.
The Black Prince was the last to get clear of the smoke. She had everything in its place, from her top-mast cross-trees, down. The three top-gallant-masts were gone, and the wrecks were already cleared; but all the top-sail-yards were on the caps, and her rigging, spars and tops, were alive with men; as, indeed, were those of the Speedy. This was the secret of the cessation in the action;—the two English frigates having turned their hands up to secure their spars, while the Frenchmen, by running off dead before the wind, were in positions not to bring a broadside gun to bear; and the cabin-chasers of a frigate were seldom of much use in that day, on account of the rake of the stern. It always appeared to me, that the Spaniards built the best ships in this respect,—the English and Americans, in particular, seeming never to calculate the chances of running away. I do not say this, in reference to the Spanish ships, however, under any idea that the Spanish nation wants courage,—for a falser notion cannot exist,—but, merely to state their superiority in one point of naval architecture, at the very moment when, having built a fine ship, they did not know how to make use of her.
The first ten minutes after the four combatants were clear of the smoke, were actively employed in repairing damages, on the part of the French confusedly, and I make no doubt clamorously; on that of the English with great readiness and a perfect understanding of their business. Notwithstanding this was the general character of the exertions of the respective parties, there were exceptions to the rule. On board le Cerf, for instance, I observed a gang of men at work clearing the ship from the wreck of the main-mast, who proceeded with a degree of coolness, vigour and method, which showed what materials were thrown away in that service, for want of a good system; and chiefly, as I shall always think, because the officers did not understand the immense importance of preserving silence on board a crowded vessel. The native taciturnity of the English, increased by the social discipline of that well-ordered—perhaps over-ordered—nation, has won them as many battles on the ocean, as the native loquacity of their enemies—increased possibly during the reign of les citoyens by political exaggeration—has lost. It is lucky for us, that the American character inclines to silence and thoughtfulness, in grave emergencies: we are noisy, garrulous, and sputtering, only in our politics.
Perceiving that the storm was likely to pass to leeward, we remained stationary a little time, to watch the closing scene. I was surprised at the manner in which the Black Prince held aloof after the Speedy had bore up and was running down in the track of her enemies, sheering first upon one quarter of le Cerf, and then on the other, pouring in a close and evidently a destructive fire. At length Sir Hotham Ward bore up, and went off before the wind also, moving three feet to the Speedy's two, in consequence of being able to carry all three of her top-sails. It would seem that Monsieur Menneval was not satisfied with the manner in which his consort was treated; for, instead of waiting to be assailed in the same way, he put his helm to port and came by the wind, delivering a broadside as his ship luffed, that soon explained the reason of the Black Prince's delay. That ship had been getting up preventers to save her masts, and something important must have been cut by this discharge from la Desiree, as her main-mast went immediately after she received the fire, dragging down with it her mizen-top-mast. The English ship showed stuff, however, under circumstances so critical. Everything on the foremast still drew, and she continued on, heading direct for her enemy, nor did she attempt to luff until within two hundred yards of her, when she came by the wind slowly and heavily; a manoeuvre that was materially aided by the fore-top-mast's following the spars aft, just as her helm must have been put to-port. Le Cerf finding the battle was again to be stationary, also came by the wind, and then all four of the ships went at it again, as ardently as if the affair had just commenced.
It would not be easy to relate all the incidents of this second combat. For two hours the four ships lay within a cable's-length of each other, keeping up as animated a contest as circumstances would allow. I was particularly struck with the noble behaviour of the Black Prince, which ship was compelled to fire through the wreck of her masts notwithstanding which, she manifestly got the best of the cannonading, as against Tier particular antagonist, la Desiree. I cannot say that either of the four vessels failed of her duty, though, I think, as a whole, Sir Hotham Ward showed the most game; probably from the fact that he had the most need of it. Encumbered by so much wreck, of which it was impossible to get rid, while exposed to so heavy a fire, the Black Prince, however, was finally dropped by her adversary, la Desiree drawing gradually ahead, until neither of those two vessels could bring a gun to bear. The English now turned to, to clear away wreck again, while the Frenchman bent a new fore-course, and a new spanker; those that had been standing being reduced to rags.
The Speedy and Cerf had not been idle the while. The French vessel played her part manfully, nor was there much to choose between them, when the latter wore round, and followed her consort, exchanging a fire with the Black Prince in passing her.
Had not the real superiority of the English over the French on the ocean, now come in play, this combat would have been a drawn battle, though accompanied by the usual characteristics of such struggles, at the close of the last and the beginning of the present century; or the latter considering an escape ti sort of victory. But both parties were reduced to the necessity of repairing damages, and this was the work to prove true nautical skill. Any man may load and fire a gun, but it needs a trained seaman to meet the professional emergencies of warfare. A clodhopper might knock a mast out of a vessel, but a sailor must replace it. From the beginning of this affair, all of us in the Dawn had been struck with the order, regularity and despatch with which the Black Prince and Speedy had made and shortened sail, and the quickness and resource with which they had done all that seamanship required in securing wounded spars and torn sails; while, there had been no end to Marble's sneers and comments on the bungling confusion of the French. This difference now became doubly apparent, when there was no smoke nor any cannonading to divert the attention of the respective crews. In half an hour the Black Prince was clear of the wreck, and she had bent several new sails, while the difficulties on board her antagonist appeared just then to be at their height. This same difference existed between the two other vessels, though, on the whole, le Cerf got out of her distress sooner and more skilfully than her consort. As to the Speedy, I must do my old acquaintance, Lord Harry Dermond, the justice to say, that he both fought his ship, and repaired his damages, in a highly seaman-like manner. I'll answer for it, the Hon. Lieut. Powlett had not much to do with either. He had much better been in his mother's drawing-room, that day, and permitted a more fitting man to fill his place. Sennit was then on his way to Barbadoes, however, nor do I believe your master of a press-gang ever does much before an enemy.
Fully two hours passed, during which the combatants were busy in repairing damages. At the end of this time, La Desiree and le Cerf had drawn more than a mile to the eastward of the English ships; the latter following them, as soon as clear of their wrecks, but under diminished sail. The Black Prince had actually got up three spare top-masts, in the interval, and was now ready to set their sails. The Speedy was less active, or less skilful, though she, too, had not been idle. Then the English drove fast towards their enemies. Mons. Menneval bore up in good season, this time, edging away, and opening the fire of both ships on his adversaries, when they were about half a mile distant. The effect of this early movement was soon apparent, it being a great mistake to reserve a ship's fire, as against an enemy that approaches nearly bows on. M'Donough owed his victory in Plattsburg Bay, to having improved so favourable a chance; and the French were beaten at the Nile, because they did not; though Nelson probably would have overcome them, under any circumstances; the energy imparted by one of his character, more than counterbalancing any little advantage in tactics.
On the present occasion, we could see the fire of the French taking effect on the Black Prince's spars, as soon as they opened her batteries. As the mattter was subsequently explained in the official account, that ship's lower masts were badly wounded before she sent up the new top-masts, and, receiving some further injuries, stick began to come down after stick, until nothing was left of all her hamper, but three stumps of lower masts, the highest less than twenty feet above the deck. Sir Hotham Ward was now in the worst plight he had been, in that day, his ship being unable to advance a foot, her drift excepted, until everything was cut away. To the landsman it may appear a small job to cut ropes with axes, and thus liberate a vessel from the encumbrance and danger of falling spars; but the seaman knows it is often a most delicate and laborious piece of duty. The ocean is never quiet; and a vessel that is not steadied by the pressure of her sails, frequently rolls in a way to render it no slight task even to maintain one's footing on her decks; frigates and ships of the line frequently proving more inconvenient than smaller vessels, under such circumstances.
There was one fortunate occurrence to the British, connected with this disaster. The French had been so thoroughly bent on dismasting the Black Prince, that they paid little attention to the Speedy; that ship actually passing a short distance to windward of her consort, unnoticed and unharmed. As the French were going to leeward the whole time, it enabled the Speedy to get out of the range of their guns, before she bore up. As soon as this was effected, she followed her enemies, under twice as much canvass as they carried themselves. Of course, in less than half an hour, she was enabled to close with le Cerf, coming up on one of her quarters, and opening a heavy fire close aboard her. All this time, the Black Prince remained like a log upon the water, trying to get clear of her wreck, the combat driving slowly away from her to leeward. Her men worked like ants, and we actually heard the cheers they raised, as the hull of their ship forged itself clear of the maze of masts, yards, sails, and rigging, in which it had been so long enveloped. This was no sooner done, than she let fall a sail from her sprit-sail-yard, one bent for the occasion, and a top-gallant-sail was set to a light spar that had been rigged against the stump of the main-mast; the stick that rose highest from her deck.
As the battle, like a gust in the heavens, was passing to leeward, Marble and I determined to fill, and follow the combatants down, the course being precisely that we wished to steer. With a view, however, to keep out of the range of shot, we hauled the Dawn up to the eastward, first, intending to keep her away in the wake of the Black Prince. Of course we were in no hurry, it now being in our power to go six feet to that ship's one.
In executing our purpose, we passed close to the wreck of the English frigate's spars. There they were rolling about on the troubled water, and we actually saw the body of a man caught in some of the rigging, as the sea occasionally tossed it to the surface. The poor fellow had probably gone over with the mast and been drowned before assistance could be rendered. With an enemy escaping, man-of-war's-men are not very particular about picking up the bodies of their dead.
I did not venture to run the Dawn directly down in the Englishman's wake, but we kept her off and on, rather, taking good care not to go within a mile of her. All this time the Speedy was playing upon the Cerf's quarter. The latter ship becoming too crippled to luff, while Mons. Menneval was travelling off to leeward, unmolested, having obtained an advantage in the way of speed, that he was unwilling to put in any jeopardy, by coming again under fire. This officer did not want for spirit, but the French had got to be so accustomed to defeat, in their naval encounters with the English, that, like several other nations on the land, they Had begun to look upon victory as hopeless. The Cerf was very nobly fought. Notwithstanding the disadvantages under which she laboured, that ship held out until the Black Prince had actually given her a close broadside on her larboard quarter; the Speedy being kept the whole time on her starboard, with great skill, pouring in a nearly unresisted fire. The Cerf struck only as she found that the battle was to be two to one, and under so many other disadvantages, in the bargain.
This closed the affair, so far as the fighting was concerned. La Desiree standing on unmolested, though, as I afterwards learned, she was picked up next morning by a homeward-bound English two-decker, hauling down her colours without any resistance.
The reader may feel some curiosity to know how we fell on board the Dawn, during the five hours that elapsed between the firing of the first and the last guns, on this occasion; what was said among us, and how we proceeded as soon as the victory was decided. The last he will learn, in the regular course of the narrative; as for the first, it is soon told. It was not easy to find four men who were more impartial, as between the combatants, than those in the Dawn. My early preferences had certainly been in favour of England, as was very generally the case among all the better-educated Americans of my period, at least as low down as the war of 1812. But going beyond the scene of internal political discussion, and substituting observation for the eulogies and sophisms of the newspapers, had wrought divers changes in my opinion. England was then no more to me than any other nation; I was not of the French school of politics, however, and kept myself as much aloof from one of these foreign schools of political logicians as from the other. I may be said to have been born a Federalist; but this change of sentiment had prevented my ever giving a Federal vote since attaining my majority.
Marble had entertained a strong dislike for England, ever since the Revolution. But, at the same time, he had inherited the vulgar contempt of his class for Frenchmen; and I must own that he had a fierce pleasure in seeing the combatants destroy each other. Had we been near enough to witness the personal suffering inflicted by the terrible wounds of a naval combat, I make no doubt his feelings would have been different; but, as things were, he only saw French and English ships tearing each other to pieces. During the height of the affair, he observed to me:—"If this Monsieur Gallois, and his bloody lugger, could only be brought into the scrape, Miles, my mind would be contented. I should glory in seeing the corvette and the Polisson scratching out each other's eyes, like two fish-women, whose dictionaries have given out."
Neb and Diogenes regarded the whole thing very much as I suppose the Caesars used to look upon the arena, when the gladiators were the most blood-thirsty. The negroes would laugh, cry "golly!" or shake their heads with delight, when half-a-dozen guns went off together; receiving the reports as a sort of evidence that crashing work was going on, on board the vessels. But I overheard a dialogue between these two children of Africa, that may best explain their feelings:
"Which you t'ink whip, Neb?" Diogenes asked, with a grin that showed every ivory tooth in his head.
"I t'ink 'em bot' get it smartly," answered my fellow. "You see how a Speedy make quick work, eh?"
"I wish 'em go a leetle nearer, Neb.—Some shot nebber hit, at all."
"Dat always so, cook, in battle. Dere! dat a smasher for John Bull!"
"He won't want to press more men just now. Eh! Neb?"
"Now you see Johnny Crepaud catch it! Woss! Dat cracks 'e cabin winders!"
"What dat to us, Neb? S'pose he eat one anoder, don't hurt us!"
Here the two spectators broke out into a loud fit of laughter, clapping their hands, and swinging their bodies about, as if the whole thing were capital fun. Diogenes was so much delighted when all the Black Prince's spars went, that he actually began to dance; Neb regarding his antics with a sort of good-natured sympathy. There is no question that man, at the bottom, has a good deal of the wild beast in him, and that he can be brought to look upon any spectacle, however fierce and sanguinary, as a source of interest and entertainment. If a criminal is to be executed, we always find thousands, of both sexes and all ages, assembling to witness a fellow-creature's agony; and, though these curious personages often have sentimental qualms during the revolting spectacle itself, they never turn away their eyes, until satisfied with all that there is to be seen of the terrible, or the revolting.
A word must be added concerning an acquaintance-Monsieur Gallois. Just as the Black Prince's masts went, I saw him, a long way to windward, stretching in towards the coast, and carrying sail as hard as his lugger would bear. The corvette was still close at his heels; and Marble soon after drew my attention towards him, to observe the smoke that was rising above the sloop-of-war. The distance was so great, and the guns so light, that we heard no reports; but the smoke continued to rise until both vessels went out of sight, in the south-western board. I subsequently learned that the lugger escaped, after all. She was very hard pressed, and would have been captured, had not the English ship carried away her main-top-gallant-mast, in her eagerness to get alongside. To that accident, alone, did M. Gallois owe his escape. I trust he and M. le Gros had a happy meeting.
"The sea wax'd calm, and we discovered Two ships from far making amain to us, Of Corinth that, of Epidaurus this: But on they came,—O, let me say no more! Gather the sequel by that went before."
Comedy of Errors.
It was high time for the Dawn to be doing. Of all the ships to leeward, the Speedy, the vessel we had most reason to apprehend, was in the best condition to do us harm. It was true that, just then, we might outsail her, but a man-of-war's crew would soon restore the balance of power, if it did not make it preponderate against us. I called to my mate, and we went aft to consult.
"It will not do for us to remain any longer here, Moses," I began; "the English are masters of the day, and the Speedy's officers having recognised us, beyond all doubt, she will be on our heels the moment she can."
"I rather think, Miles, her travelling, for some hours to come, is over. There she is, however, and she has our crew on board her, and it would be a good thing to get some of them, if possible. If a body had a boat, now, I might go down with a flag of truce, and see what tarms could be made."
I laughed at this conceit, telling Marble he would be wise to remain where he was. I would give the Speedy four hours to get herself in tolerable sailing trim again, supposing her bent on pursuit. If in no immediate hurry, it might occupy her four-and-twenty hours.
"I think she may be disposed to follow the other French frigate, which is clearly making her way towards Brest," I added, "in which case we have nothing to fear. By George! there goes a gun, and here comes a shot in our direction—you can see it, Moses, skipping along the water, almost in a line between us and the frigate.—Ay, here it comes!"
All this was literally true. The Speedy lay with her bows towards us, and she had suddenly fired the shot to which I alluded, and which now came bounding from wave to wave, until it struck precisely in a line with the ship, about a hundred yards distant.
"Halloo!" cried Marble, who had levelled his glass towards the frigates.—"There's the deuce to pay down there, Miles—one boat pulling this-a-way, for life or death, and another a'ter it. The shot was intended for the leading boat, and not for us."
This brought my glass down, too. Sure enough, there was a small boat pulling straight for us, and of course directly to windward of the frigate; the men in it exerting every nerve. There were seven seamen in this boat; six at the oars, and one steering. The truth flashed on me in a moment. These were some of our own people, headed by the second-mate, who had availed themselves of the circumstance of one of the Speedy's boats being in the water, without a crew, to run away with it in the confusion of the moment. The Black Prince had taken possession of the prize, as we had previously noted, and that with a single boat, and the cutter in pursuit appeared to me to be coming from the Frenchman. I immediately acquainted Marble with my views of the matter, and he seized on the idea eagerly, as one probable and natural.
"Them's our fellows, Miles!" he exclaimed; "we must fill, and meet 'em half-way!"
It was certainly in our power to lessen the distance the fugitives had to run, by standing down to meet the leading boat. This could not be done, however, without going within reach of the English guns; the late experiment showing unanswerably, that we lay just without the drop of their shot, as it was. I never saw men in a greater excitement, than that which now came over us all in the Dawn. Fill we did immediately; that, at least, could do no harm, whereas it might do much good. I never supposed for a moment the English were sending boats after us, since, with the wind that was blowing, it would have been easy for the Dawn to leave them miles behind her, in the first hour. Each instant rendered my first conjecture the most likely to be true. There could be no mistaking the exertions of the crews of the two boats; the pursuers seemingly doing their best, as well as the pursued. The frigate could no longer fire, however, the boats being already in a line, and there being equal danger to both from her shot.
The reader will understand that large ships seldom engage, when the ocean will permit it, without dropping one or more of their boats into the water; and that warm actions at sea rarely occur, without most of the boats being, more or less, injured. It often happens that a frigate can muster only one or two boats that will swim, after a combat; and frequently only the one she had taken the precaution to lower into the water, previously to engaging. It was owing to some such circumstance that only one boat followed the fugitives in the present instance. The race must necessarily be short; and it would have been useless to send a second boat in pursuit, could one be found, after the first two or three all-important minutes were lost.
The Dawn showed her ensign, as a sign we saw our poor fellows struggling to regain us, and then we filled our main-top-sail, squaring away and standing down directly for the fugitives. Heavens! how that main-yard went round, though there were but three men at the braces. Each of us hauled and worked like a giant. There was every inducement of feeling, interest and security to do so. With our present force, the ship could scarcely be said to be safe; whereas, the seven additional hands, and they our own people, who were straining every nerve to join us, would at once enable us to carry the ship direct to Hamburg.
Our old craft behaved beautifully. Neb was at the wheel, the cook on the forecastle, while Marble and I got ropes cleared away to throw to the runaways, as soon as they should be near enough to receive them. Down we drove towards the boat, and it was time we did, for the cutter in pursuit, which pulled ten oars, and was full manned, was gaining fast on the fugitives. As we afterwards learned, in the eagerness of starting, our men had shipped the crest of a sea, and they were now labouring under the great disadvantage of carrying more than a barrel of water, which was washing about in the bottom of their cutter, rendering her both heavy and unsteady.
So intense was the interest we all felt in the result of this struggle, that our feelings during the battle could not be compared to it. I could see Marble move his body, as a sitter in a boat is apt to do, at each jerk of the oars, under the notion it helps the party along. Diogenes actually called out, and this a dozen times at least, to encourage the men to pull for their lives, though they were not yet within a mile of us. The constant rising and setting of the boats prevented my making very minute observations with the glass; but I distinguished the face of my second-mate, who was sitting aft, and I could see he was steering with one hand and bailing with the other. We now waved our hats, in hopes of being seen, but got no answering signal, the distance being still too great.
At that moment I cared nothing for the guns of the English ship, though we were running directly for them. The boat—the boat, was our object! For that we steered as unerringly as the motion of the rolling water would allow. It blew a good working breeze; and, what was of the last importance to us, it blew steadily. I fancied the ship did not move, notwithstanding, though the rate at which we drew nearer to the boat ought to have told us better. But, anxiety had taken the place of reason, and we were all disposed to see things as we felt, rather than as we truly found them.
There was abundant reason for uneasiness; the cutter astern certainly going through the water four feet, to the other's three. Manned with her regular crew, with everything in order, and with men accustomed to pull together, the largest boat, and rowing ten oars to the six of my mate's, I make no doubt that the cutter of the Black Prince would have beaten materially in an ordinary race, more especially in the rough water over which this contest occurred. But, nearly a tenth full of water, the boat of the fugitives had a greatly lessened chance of escape.
Of course, we then knew no more than we could see; and we were not slow to perceive how fast the pursuers were gaining on the pursued, I really began to tremble for the result; and this so much the more, as the larger cutter was near enough, by this time, to permit me to discover, by means of the glass, the ends-of several muskets, rising out of her stern-sheets. Could she get near enough for her officers to use these weapons, the chance of our people was gone,—since it was not to be even hoped they had any arms.
The end approached. The Dawn had got good way on her—Marble and Diogenes having dragged down the main-top-gallant sheets, and hoisted the sail. The water foamed under our bows; and the boat was soon so near, it became indispensable to haul our wind. This we did with the ship's head to the westward, without touching a brace, though we luffed sufficiently to throw the wind out of all the square sails. The last was done to deaden the vessel's way, in order that the fugitives might reach her.
The struggle became frightful for its intenseness! Our men were so near, we could recognise them without the aid of a glass; with it, I could read the glowing anxiety that was in my second-mate's countenance. Each instant, the pursuers closed, until they were actually much nearer to the pursued than the latter were to the Dawn. For the first time, now, I suspected the truth, by the heavy movement of the flying cutter, and the water that the second-mate was constantly bailing out of her, using his hat. Marble brought up the muskets left by the privateersmen, and began to renew their primings. He wished to fire at once on the pursuing boat—she being within range of a bullet; but this I knew would not be legal. I promised to use them should the English attempt to board the ship, but did not dare to anticipate that movement.
Nearer and nearer came the boats, the chasing gaining always on the chased; and now, the Black Prince and the Speedy each threw a shot quite over us. We were about a mile from the three frigates—rather increasing than lessening that distance, however, as they drifted to leeward, while we were slightly luffing, with our yards a little braced up, the leeches lifting. Neb steered the ship, as one would have guided a pilot-boat. He had an eye for the boats, as well as for the sails—knew all that was wanted, and all that to be done. I never saw him touch a wheel with so delicate a hand, or one that better did its duty. The Dawn's way was so much deadened as to give the fugitives every opportunity to close, while she was steadily coming up abreast of their course, in readiness to meet them.
At this instant, the officer in the Black Prince's cutter fired into that of the Speedy; and one of our men suddenly dropped his oar. He was hit. I thought the poor fellow's arm was broken, for I could see him lay a hand on the injured part, like a man who suffered pain. He instantly changed places with the second-mate, who, however, seized his oar, and began to use it, with great power. Three more muskets were fired, seemingly without doing any harm. But the leading boat lost by this delay, while its pursuers held steadily on. Our own people were within a hundred and fifty yards of us—the English less than twenty behind them. Why the latter did not now fire, I do not actually know; but I suppose it to be, because their muskets were all discharged, and the race was now too sharp to allow their officer to re-load. Possibly he did not wish to take life unnecessarily, the chances fast turning to his side.
I called out to Marble to stand by with a rope. The ship was slowly drawing ahead, and there was no time to be lost. I then shouted to my second-mate to be of good heart, and he answered with a cheer. The English hurrahed, and we sent back the cry from the ship.
"Stand by in the boat, for the rope!" I cried—"Heave, Moses—Heave!"
Marble hove from the mizen chains, the rope was caught, and a motion of my hand told Neb to keep the ship off, until everything drew. This was done, and the rattling of the clew-garnet blocks announced that Diogenes was hauling down the main-tack with the strength of a giant. The sail opened, and Moses and I hauled in the sheet, until the ship felt the enormous additional pressure of this broad breadth of canvass. At this instant there was a cheer from the boat. Leaping upon the taffrail, I saw the men erect, waving their hats, and looking toward the pursuing cutter, then within a hundred feet of them, vainly attempting to come up with a boat that was now dragging nearly bows under, and feeling all the strength of our tow. The officer cheered his men to renewed exertion, and he began to load a musket. At this moment the tow-line slipped from the thwart of the boat, and we shot away, as it seemed to me, a hundred feet, on the send of the very next sea. There was not time for the Americans to get seated at their oars again, before the other cutter grappled. All that had been gained was lost, and, after so near and close a chance of recovering the most valuable portion of my crew, was I again left on the ocean with the old four to manage the Dawn!
The English lieutenant knew his business too well, to abandon the ship while there was a chance of recovering her. The wind lulled a little, and he thought the hope of success worth an effort. Merely taking all the oars out of the Speedy's cutter, he dashed on in our wake. At first he gained, nor was I unwilling he should, for I wished to speak him. The main and fore-sheets were eased off, and Neb was told to keep the top-sails lifting. Thus favoured, he soon got within fifty yards of us, straining every nerve to get nearer. The officer pointed a musket at me, and ordered me to heave-to. I jumped off the taffrail, and, with my body covered to the shoulders, pointed one of the French muskets at him, and warned him to keep off.
"What have you done with the prize-crew put on board you from the Speedy, the other day?" called out the lieutenant.
"Sent them adrift," I answered. "We've had enough of prize-crews in this ship, and want no more."
"Heave-to, sir, on the pain of being treated as a pirate also."
"Ay, ay—" shouted Marble, who could keep silent no longer—"first catch a pirate. Fire, if you are tired of your cruise. I wish them bloody Frenchmen had stopped all your grog!"
This was neither dignified nor politic, and I ordered my mate to be silent. In a good-natured tone I inquired for the names of the late combatants, and the losses of the different ships, but this was too cool for our pursuer's humour, and I got no answer. He did not dare fire, however, finding we were armed, and, as I supposed, seeing there was no prospect of his getting easily on board us, even should he get alongside, he gave up the chase, returning to the captured boat. We again filled and trimmed everything, and went dashing through the water at the rate of seven knots.
The frigates did not fire at us, after the guns already mentioned. Why, I cannot positively say; but I thought, at the time, that they had too many other things to attend to, besides seeing the little chance there was of overtaking us, should they even happen to cripple a spar or two.
Great was the disappointment on board the Dawn, at the result of the final incidents of this eventful day. Marble swore outright; for no remonstrances of mine could cure him of indulging in this habit, especially when a little excited. Diogenes grinned defiance, and fairly shook his fists at the boat; while Neb laughed and half-cried in a breath—the sure sign the fellow's feelings were keenly aroused.
As for myself, I felt as much as any of the party, but preserved more self-command. I saw it was now necessary to quit that vicinity, and to take some definite steps for the preservation of my own ship and property. There was little to apprehend, however, from the frigates, unless indeed it should fall calm. In the latter case, they might board us with their boats, which an hour or two's work would probably enable them to use again. But I had no intention of remaining in their neighbourhood, being desirous of profiting by the present wind.
The sails were trimmed accordingly, and the ship was steered northwesterly, on a course that took us past the three vessels of war, giving them so wide a berth as to avoid all danger from their batteries. As soon as this was done, and the Dawn was travelling her road at a good rate, I beckoned to Marble to come near the wheel, for I had taken the helmsman's duty on myself for an hour or two: in other words, I was doing that which, from my boyish experience on the Hudson, I had once fancied it was not only the duty, but the pleasure, of every ship-master to do, viz: steering! Little did I understand, before practice taught me the lesson, that of all the work on board ship, which Jack is required to do, his trick at the wheel is that which he least covets, unless indeed it may be the office of stowing the jib in heavy weather.
"Well, Moses," I began, "this affair is over, and we've the Atlantic before us again, with all the ports of Europe to select from, and a captain, one mate, the cook, and one man to carry the ship where we please to take her."
"Ay, ay—'t has been a bad job, this last. I was as sure of them lads, until the lieutenant fired his musket, as ever I was of a good land-fall with a fair wind. I can't describe to you, Miles, the natur' of the disapp'intment I felt, when I saw 'em give up. I can best compare it to that which came over me, when I discovered I was nothing but a bloody hermit, after all my generalizing about being a governor and a lord high admiral of an island, all to myself, as it might be."
"It can't be helped, and we must take things as we find them. The question is, what is to be done with the ship? Should we venture into the channel, yonder chaps will be after us with the news of a Yankee, on board of whom they put a prize-crew, being adrift without the men; and there are fifty cruisers ready to pick us up. The news will spread all over the channel in a week, and our chances of getting through the Straits of Dover will be so small as not to be worth naming: nay, these fellows will soon repair damages, and might possibly overtake us themselves. The Speedy is only half-crippled."
"I see—I see. You've a trick with you, Miles, that makes a few words go a great way. I see, and I agree. But an idee has come to my mind, that you're welcome to, and after turning it over, do what you please with it. Instead of going to the eastward of Scilly, what say you to passing to the westward, and shaping our course for the Irish Channel? The news will not follow us that-a-way, for some time; and we may meet with some American, or other, bound to Liverpool. Should the worst come to the worst, we can pass through between Ireland and Scotland, and work our way round Cape Wrath, and go into our port of destination. It is a long road, I know, and a hard one in certain seasons of the year, but it may be travelled in midsummer, comfortably enough."
"I like your notion well enough, Marble, and am ready to carry it out, as far as we are able. It must be a hard fortune, indeed, that will not throw us in the way of some fisherman, or coaster, who will be willing to let us have a bend or two, for double wages."
"Why, on that p'int, Miles, the difficulty is in the war, and the hot press that must now be going. The English will be shy in visiting the opposite coast; and good men are hard to find, just now, I'm thinking, floating about the coasts of England, unless they are under a pennant."
"A hand, or two, that can steer, will be an immense relief to us, Moses, even though unable to go aloft. Call Neb to the wheel, then, and we'll go look at the chart, so as to lay our course."
All was done, accordingly. In half an hour, the Dawn was steering for the western coast of England, with everything set we thought it prudent to carry. Two hours after we began to move away from the spot where they lay, the frigates had sunk behind the curvature of the earth, and we lost sight of them altogether. The weather continued good, the breeze steady and fresh, and the Dawn did her duty admirably. We began to get accustomed to our situations, and found them less arduous than had been apprehended. The direction of the wind was so favourable, that it kept hope alive; though we trebled our distance by going round the British islands, instead of passing directly up channel. Twenty-four hours were necessary to carry us as far north as the Land's End, however; and I determined to be then governed by circumstances. Should the wind shift, we always had the direct route before us; and I had my doubts whether putting a bold face on the matter, running close in with the English shore, and appearing to be bound for London, were not the wisest course. There certainly was the danger of the Speedy's telling our story, in which case there would be a sharp look-out for us; while there was the equal chance that she might speak nothing for a week. Eight-and-forty hours ahead of her, I should not have feared much from her account of us.
It is unnecessary to dwell minutely on the events of the next few days. The weather continued good, the wind fair and our progress was in proportion. We saw nothing until we got within two leagues of Scilly Light, when we were boarded by a pilot-boat out from those islands. This occurred at sunrise, with the wind light at north-east, and one sail in sight to windward, that had the appearance of a brig-of-war, though she was still hull down, and not heading for us.
I saw that the smallness of our crew, and the course we were steering, struck these pilots, the moment they had time to ascertain the first fact. It was not usual, in that day, nor do I suppose it is now, for deep-laden Americans to pass so near England, coming from the south-east and steering to the north-west. A remark to this effect fell from the mouth of the principal pilot, as soon as I told him I did not wish to go in to any of the neighbouring ports.
"I am short of hands, and am desirous of obtaining three or four good men," I said, "who shall be well paid for their services, and sent back, without cost, to the place whence they came."
"Ay, I see you've a small crew for so stout a craft, master," the pilot answered. "May I ask what has happened to bring you down so low?"
"Why, you know how it is among your cruisers, in war-time—an English frigate carried away all hands, with the exception of these you see."
Now, this was true to the ear, at least, though I saw, plainly enough, that I was not believed.
"It's not often His Majesty's officers shave so close," the pilot answered, with a sort of sneer I did not like. "They commonly send in hands with a ship, when they find it necessary to take her own men."
"Ay, I suppose the laws require this with English vessels; with Americans, they are less particular; at all events, you see the whole of us, and I should be very glad to get a hand or two, if possible, out of your cutter."
"Where are you bound, master?—Before we ship, we'd like to know the port we sail for."
"Hamburg! Why, master, you're not heading for Hamburg, at all, which lies up the English, not up the Irish channel."
"I am well aware of all that. But I am afraid to go into the English channel so short-handed. Those narrow waters give a man trouble, unless he has a full crew."
"The channel is a good place to find men, master. However, none of us can go with you, and no words be necessary. As you've no occasion for a pilot, we must be off a'ter something else."
The fellow now left me, without more words, and I saw there was no use in attempting to detain him. He had got a league from us, and we were jogging on our course, before we discovered he was making signals to the brig, which had kept dead away, and had set studding-sails on both sides. As this was carrying much more sail than we could venture to show, I thought our chance of escape small indeed. There was the whole day before us, with a light, and doubtless fast-sailing cruiser in chase of a heavily-loaded merchantman. As a stern-chase is, proverbially, a long chase, however, I determined to do all we could to avoid the gentleman. Sail was made, accordingly, so far as we dared, and the ship was steered a little off, as her best mode of sailing, in her present trim. We saw the brig speak the pilot-boat, and, from that moment, were certain her commander had all the conjectures of the Scilly man added to his own. The effect was soon to be noted, for when the two separated, the cutter stood in for her own rocks, while the brig renewed her chase.
That was an uneasy day. The man-of-war gained, but it was quite slowly. She might beat us by a knot in the hour, and, being ten miles astern, there was still the hope of its falling dark before she could close. The wind, too, was unsteady, and towards noon it grew so light, as to reduce both vessels to only two or three knots way. Of course, this greatly lessened the difference in our rate of sailing, and I had now strong hopes that night might come, before our pursuers could close.
Nor was I disappointed. The wind continued light until sunset, when it came out a fine breeze at north-west, bringing us dead to windward of the brig, which was then distant some six miles. We got the proper sail on the ship, as fast as we could, though the cruiser was dashing ahead under everything she could carry, long before we could get through with the necessary work. When we did get at it, notwithstanding, I found she had not much the advantage of us, and now began to entertain some hopes of shaking her off in the course of the night. Marble was confident of it, and his confidence, on points of seamanship, was always entitled to respect.
About ten, both vessels were on the starboard tack, standing to the southward and westward, or out towards the broad Atlantic, with the brig about a league under the Dawn's lee, and a little forward of her beam. This was the most favourable position for us to be in, in order to effect our purpose, since the cruiser had already passed her nearest point to us, on that tack. The horizon to windward, and all along the margin of the sea at the northward, was covered with clouds, which threatened, by the way, a capfull of wind. This dark back-ground would be likely to prevent our being seen; and the instant the night shut in the outline of the brig's canvass, I ordered our helm put down.
It was lively business, tacking such a ship as the Dawn, under so much canvass, and in such a breeze, with four men! The helm was lashed hard down, and at it we went, like so many tigers. The after-yards swung themselves though the main-tack and sheet gave us a good deal of trouble. We braced everything aft, sharp up, before we left it, having first managed to get the fore-yard square. When this was done, we filled all forward, and dragged the yards and bow-lines to their places, with a will that seemed irresistible.
There were no means of knowing whether the brig came round, about this time, or not. Agreeably to the rule of chasing, she should have tacked when directly abeam, unless she fancied she could eat us out of the wind by standing on. We knew she did not tack when directly abeam, but we could not see whether she came round after us, or not. At all events, tack or not, she must still be near a league under our lee; and we drove on, towards the English coast, until the day reappeared, not a man of us all sleeping a wink that night. How anxiously we watched the ocean astern, and to leeward, as the returning light slowly raised the veil of obscurity from before us! Nothing was in sight, even when the sun appeared, to bathe the entire ocean in a flood of glory. Not even a white speck in-shore; and as for the brig, we never saw or heard more of her. Doubtless she stood on, on the old course, hoping gradually to close with us, or to draw so far ahead and to windward, as to make certain of her prey in the morning.
According to our reckoning, the ship was now heading well up towards the coast of Wales, which we might expect to make in the course of the next four-and-twenty hours, should the wind stand. I determined, therefore, to make the best of the matter, and to go directly up the Irish channel, hoping to fall in with some boat from the north shore, that might not have as apt intellects on board it, as those of our Scilly pilot had proved to be. We stood on, consequently, all that day; and another sun set without our making the land. We saw several vessels at a distance, in the afternoon; but we were now in a part of the ocean where an American ship would be as little likely to be disturbed as in any I know. It was the regular track of vessels bound to Liverpool,—and these last were as little molested as the want of men would at all permit. Could we get past that port, we should then be in the way of picking up half a dozen Irishmen.
"Och! botheration—'T is a beautiful coost All made up of rocks and deep bays; Ye may sail up and down, a marvellous host, And admire all its beautiful ways."
Little did we, or could we, anticipate all that lay before us. The wind held at north-west until the ship had got within twenty miles of the Welsh coast; then, it came out light, again, at the southward. We were now so near Liverpool, that I expected, every hour, to make some American bound in. None was seen, notwithstanding, and we stood up channel, edging over towards the Irish coast at the same time, determined to work our way to the northward as well as we could. This sort of weather continued for two days and nights, during which we managed to get up as high as Whitehaven, when the wind came dead ahead, blowing a stiff breeze. I foresaw from the commencement of this new wind, that it would probably drive us down channel, and out into the Atlantic once more, unless we could anchor. I thought I would attempt the last, somewhere under the Irish coast, in the hope of getting some assistance from among the children of St. Patrick. We all knew that Irish sailors, half the time, were not very well trained, but anything that could pull and haul would be invaluable to us, in heavy weather. We had now been more than a week, four of us in all, working the ship, and, instead of being in the least fagged, we had rather got settled into our places, as it might be, getting along without much trouble; still, there were moments when a little extra force would be of great moment to us, and I could see by the angry look of the skies, that these moments were likely to increase in frequency and in the magnitude of their importance to us.
The waters we were in were so narrow, that it was not long before we drew close in with the Irish coast. Here, to my great joy, we saw a large fishing-boat, well out in the offing, and under circumstances that rendered it easy for those in it to run close under our lee. We made a signal, therefore, and soon had the strangers lying-to, in the smooth water we made for them, with our own main-yard aback. It is scarcely necessary to say, that we had gradually diminished our own canvass, as it became necessary, until the ship was under double-reefed top-sails, the fore-course, jib and spanker. We had brought the top-sails down lower than was necessary, in order to anticipate the time when it might be indispensable.
The first of the men who came on board us was named Terence O' something. His countenance was the droll medley of fun, shrewdness, and blundering, that is so often found in the Irish peasant, and which appears to be characteristic of entire races in the island.
"A fine marnin', yer honour," he began, with a self-possession that nothing could disturb, though it was some time past noon, and the day was anything but such a one as a seaman likes. "A fine marnin', yer honour, and as fine a ship! Is it fish that yer honour will be asking for?"
"I will take some of your fish, my friend, and pay you well for them."
"Long life to yees!"
"I was about to say, I will pay you much better if you can show me any lee, hereabouts, which has good holding-ground, where a ship might ride out the gale that is coming."
"Shure yer honour!—will I not? Shure, there's nivver the lad on the coost, that knows betther what it is yer honour wants, or who'll supply yees, with half the good will."
"Of course you know the coast; probably were born hereabouts?"
"Of coorse, is it? Whereabouts should Terence O' something, be born, if it's not hereabouts? Is it know the coost, too? Ah, we're ould acquaintances."
"And where do you intend to take the ship, Terence?"
"It's houlding ground, yer honour asked for?"
"Certainly.—A bottom on which an anchor will not drag."
"Och! is it that? Well, all the bottom in this counthry is of that same natur'. None of it will drag, without pulling mighty hard. I'll swear to any part of it."
"You surely would not think of anchoring a ship out here, a league from the land, with nothing to break either wind or sea, and a gale commencing?"
"I anchor! Divil the bit did I ever anchor a ship, or a brig, or even a cutther. I've not got so high up as that, yer honour: but yon's ould Michael Sweeny, now; many's the anchor he's cast out, miles at a time, sayin' he's been a sayman, and knows the says from top to bottom. It's Michael ye'll want, and Michael ye shall have."
Michael was spoken to, and he clambered up out of the boat, as well as he could; the task not being very easy, since the fishermen with difficulty kept their dull, heavy boat out of our mizen chains. In the mean time, Marble and I found time to compare notes. We agreed that Mr. Terence McScale, or O' something,—for I forget the fellow's surname,—would probably turn out a more useful man in hauling in mackerel and John Dorys, than in helping us to take care of the Dawn. Nor did Michael, at the first glance promise anything much better. He was very old,—eighty. I should think,—and appeared to have nullified all the brains he ever had, by the constant use of whiskey; the scent of which accompanied him with a sort of parasitical odour, as that of tannin attends the leather-dresser. He was not drunk just then, however, but seemed cool and collected. I explained my wishes to this man; and was glad to find he had a tolerable notion of nautical terms, and that he would not be likely to get us into difficulty, like Terence, through any ignorance on this score.
"Is it anchor ye would, yer honour?" answered Michael, when I had concluded. "Sure, that's aisy enough, and the saison is good for that same; for the wind is getting up like a giant. As for the guineas yer honour mintions, it's of no avail atween fri'nds. I'll take 'em, to obleege ye, if yer honour so wills: but the ship should be anchored if there niver was a grain of goold in the wur-r-r-ld. Would ye like a berth pratty well out, or would yer honour choose to go in among the rocks, and lie like a babby in its cradhle?"
"I should prefer a safe roadstead, to venturing too far in, without a professed pilot. By the look of the land in-shore, I should think it would be easy to find a lee against this wind, provided we can get good holding-grounds That is the difficulty I most apprehend."
"Trust ould Ireland for that, yer honour, yes, put faith in us, for that same. Ye've only to fill your top-sail, and stand in; ould Michael and ould Ireland together, will take care of yees."
I confess I greatly disliked the aspect of things in-shore, with such a pilot; but the aspect of things outside was still worse. Short-handed as we were, it would be impossible to keep the ship in the channel, should the gale come on as heavily as it threatened; and a single experiment satisfied me, the four men in the boat would be of very little use in working her: for I never saw persons who knew anything of the water, more awkward than they turned out to be on our decks. Michael knew something, it is true; but he was too old to turn his knowledge to much practical account, for when I sent him to the wheel, Neb had to remain there to assist him in steering. There was no choice, therefore, and I determined to stand close in, when, should no suitable offer, it would always be in our power to ware offshore. The fishing-boat was dropped astern, accordingly, the men were all kept in the ship, and we stood in nearer to the coast: the Dawn bending to the blasts, under the sail we carried, in a way to render it difficult to stand erect on her decks.
The coast promised well as to formation, though there was much to apprehend on the subject of the bottom. Among rocks an anchor is a ticklish thing to confide in, and I feared it might be a difficult matter to find a proper bottom, as far out as I deemed it prudent to remain. But Michael, and Terence, and Pat, and Murphy, or whatever were the names of our protesting confident friends, insisted that 'ould Ireland' would never fail us. Marble and I stood on the forecastle, watching the formation of the coast, and making our comments, as the ship drove through the short seas, buried to her figure-head. At length, we thought a head-land that was discernible a little under our lee-bow, looked promising, and Michael was called from the wheel and questioned concerning it. The fellow affirmed he knew the place well, and that the holding-ground on each side of it was excellent, consenting at once to a proposition of mine to bring up under its lee. We edged off, therefore, for this point, making the necessary preparations for bringing up.
I was too busy in getting in canvas to note the progress of the ship for the next twenty minutes. It took all four of us to stow the jib, leaving Michael at the wheel the while. And a tremendous job it was, though (I say it in humility) four better men never lay out on a spar, than those who set about the task on this occasion. We got it in, however, but, I need scarcely tell the seaman, it was not "stowed in the skin." Marble insisted on leading the party, and never before had I seen the old fellow work as he did on that day. He had a faculty of incorporating his body and limbs with the wood and ropes, standing, as it might be, on air, working and dragging with his arms and broad shoulders, in a way that appeared to give him just as much command of his entire strength, as another man would possess on the ground.
At length we reduced the canvass to the fore-top-mast stay-sail, and main-top-sail, the latter double-reefed. It was getting to be time that the last should be close reefed, (and we carried four reefs in the Dawn), but we hoped the cloth would hold out until we wanted to roll it up altogether. The puffs, however, began to come gale-fashion, and I foresaw we should get it presently in a style that would require good looking to.
The ship soon drove within the extremity of the head-land, the lead giving us forty fathoms of water. I had previously asked Michael what water we might expect, but this he frankly owned he could not tell. He was certain that ships sometimes anchored there, but what water they found was more than he knew. He was no conjuror, and guessing might be dangerous, so he chose to say nothing about it. It was nervous work for a ship-master to carry his vessel on a coast, under such pilotage as this. I certainly would have wore round as it was, were it not for the fact that there was a clear sea to leeward, and that it would always be as easy to run out into the open water, as the wind was at that moment.
Marble and I now began to question our fisherman as to the precise point where he intended to fetch up. Michael was bothered, and it was plain enough his knowledge was of the most general character. As for the particulars of his calling, he treated them with the coolest indifference. He had been much at sea in his younger days, it is true; but it was in ships of war, where the ropes were put into his hands by captains of the mast, and where his superiors did all the thinking. He could tell whether ships did or did not anchor near a particular spot, but he knew no reason for the one, or for the other. In a word, he had just that sort of knowledge of seamanship as one gets of the world by living in a province, where we all learn the leading principles of humanity, and trust to magazines and works of fiction for the finesse of life.
The lead proved a better guide than Michael, and seeing some breakers in-shore of us, I gave the order to clew up the main-top-sail, and to luff to the wind, before the ship should lose her way. Our Irishmen pulled and hauled well enough, as soon as they were directed what to do; which enabled Marble and myself each to stand by a stopper. We had previously got the two bowers a-cock-bill, (the cables were bent as soon as we made the land); and nothing remained but to let run. Neb was at the wheel, with orders to spring to the cables as soon as he heard them running out, and everything was in readiness. I shouted the order to "let run," and down both our anchors went, at the same instant, in twenty-two fathoms' water. The ship took cable at a fearful rate; but Marble and Diogenes being at one bower, and Neb and I at the other, we succeeded in snubbing her, with something like twenty fathoms within the hawse-holes. There was a minute, when I thought the old bark would get away from us; and when, by desperate efforts, we did succeed in checking the mass, it seemed as if she would shake the windlass out of her. No time was lost in stoppering the cables, and in rolling up the main-top-sail.
Michael and his companions now came to wish us good luck, get the guineas, and to take their leave. The sea was already so rough that the only mode that remained of getting into their boat was by dropping from the end of the spanker boom. I endeavoured to persuade two or three of these fellows to stick by the ship, but in vain. They were all married, and they had a certain protection against impressment in their present manner of life; whereas, should they be found at large, some man-of-war would probably pick them up; and Michael's tales of the past had not given them any great zest for the sort of life he described.
When these Irish fishermen left us, and ran in-shore, we were thrown again altogether on our own resources. I had explained to Michael our want of hands, however, attributing it to accidents and impressments, and he thought he could persuade four or five young fellows to come off, as soon as the gale abated, on condition we would take them to America, after discharging at Hamburg. These were to be mere peasants, it is true, for seamen were scarce in that part of the world; but they would be better than nothing. Half a dozen athletic young Irishmen would relieve us seamen from a vast deal of the heavy, lugging work of the ship, and leave us strength and spirits to do that which unavoidably fell to our share. With the understanding that he was to receive, himself, a guinea a-head for each sound man thus brought us, we parted from old Michael, who probably has never piloted a ship since, as I strongly suspect he had never done before.
"The power of God is everywhere, Pervades all space and time: The power of God can still the air, And rules in every clime;— Then bow the heart, and bend the knee, And worship o'er both land and sea."
I never knew precisely the point on the coast of Ireland where we anchored. It was somewhere between Strangford and Dundrum Bay; though the name of the head-land which gave us a sort of protection, I did not learn. In this part of the island, the coast trends north and south, generally; though at the place where we anchored, its direction was nearly from north-north-east to south-south-west,—which, in the early part of the gale, was as close as might be the course in which the wind blew. At the moment we brought up, the wind had hauled a little further to the northward, giving us a better lee; but, to my great regret, Michael had scarcely left us, when it shifted to due north-east, making a fair rake of the channel. This left us very little of a lee—the point ahead of us being no great matter, and we barely within it. I consulted such maps as I had, and came to the conclusion that we were off the county Down, a part of the kingdom that was at least civilized, and where we should be apt to receive good treatment, in the event of being wrecked. Our fishermen told us that they belonged to a Bally-something; but what the something was I have forgotten, if I ever understood them. "Told us," I say out of complaisance, but "tould" would be the better word, as all they uttered savoured so much of the brogue, that it was not always easy to get at their meaning.
It was past noon when the Dawn anchored; and the wind got more to the eastward, about half an hour afterwards. It was out of the question to think of getting under way again, with so strong a wind, and with our feeble crew. Had it been perfectly smooth water, and had there been neither tide, nor air, it would have taken us half a day, at least, to get out two bowers. It was folly, therefore, to think of it, situated as we were. It only remained, to ride out the gale in the best manner we could.
Nothing occurred, for several hours, except that the gale increased sensibly in violence. Like an active disease, it was fast coming to a crisis. Towards sunset, however, a little incident took place, that gave me great uneasiness of itself, though I had forebodings of evil from the commencement of that tempest. Two sail appeared in sight, to windward, being quite near us, close in with the Irish coast before either was observed on board the Dawn. The leading vessel of the two was a man-of-war cutter, running nearly before it, under a close-reefed square-sail,—canvass so low that it might easily be confounded with the foam of the sea, at a little distance. She rounded the head-land, and was edging away from the coast, apparently for sea-room, when she took a sudden sheer in our direction. As if curious to ascertain what could have taken so large a square-rigged vessel as the Dawn, into her present berth, this cutter actually ran athwart our hawse, passing inside of us, at a distance of some fifty yards. We were examined; but no attempt was made to speak us. I felt no uneasiness at the proximity of these two cruisers, for I knew a boat could not live,—our ship fairly pitching her martingale into the water at her anchors.
The frigate followed the cutter, though she passed us outside, even nearer than her consort. I got my first accurate notion of the weight of the gale, by seeing this large ship drive past us, under a reefed fore-sail, and a close-reefed main-top-sail, running nearly dead before it. As she came down, she took a sheer, like a vessel scudding in the open ocean; and, at one moment, I feared she would plunge directly into us, though she minded her helm in time to clear everything. A dozen officers on board her were looking at us, from her gangway, her quarter-deck guns, and rigging. All were compelled to hold on with firm grasps; and wonder seemed painted in every countenance. I could see their features for half a minute only, or even a less time; but I could discern this expression in each face. Some looked up at our spars, as if to ascertain whether all were right; while others looked back at the head-land they had just rounded, like those who examined the roadstead. Most shook their heads, as remarks passed from one to the other. The captain, as I took him to be, spoke us. "What are you doing here?" came to me through a trumpet, plainly enough; but answering was out of the question. Before I could even get a trumpet to my mouth, the frigate had gone foaming by, and was already beyond the reach of the voice. Heads appeared over her taffrail for some time, and we fancied these man-of-war's men regarded us as the instructed are apt to regard the ignorant, whom they fancy to be in danger. Marble sneered a little at the curiosity betrayed by these two crafts; but, as for myself, it caused great uneasiness. I fancied they acted like those who were acquainted with the coast, manifesting surprise at seeing a stranger anchored in the berth we occupied.
I slept little that night. Marble kept me company most of the time, but Neb and Diogenes were as tranquil as if sleeping on good French mattresses—made of hair, not down—within the walls of a citadel. Little disturbed these negroes, who followed our fortunes with the implicit reliance that habit and education had bred in them, as it might be, in and in. In this particular, they were literally dyed in the wool, to use one of the shop expressions so common among us.
There was a little relaxation in the force of the gale in the middle of the night; but, with the return of day, came the winds howling down upon us, in a way that announced a more than common storm. All hands of us were now up, and paying every attention to the vessel. My greatest concern had been lest some of the sails should get adrift, for they had been furled by few and fatigued men. This did not happen, however, our gaskets and lashings doing all of their duty. We got our breakfasts, therefore, in the ordinary way, and Marble and myself went and stood on the forecastle, to watch the signs of the times, like faithful guardians, who were anxious to get as near as possible to the danger.
It was wonderful how the ship pitched! Frequently her Aurora was completely submerged, and tons of water would come in upon the forecastle, washing entirely aft at the next send, so that our only means of keeping above water was to stand on the windlass-bitts, or to get upon the heart of the main-stay. Dry we were not, nor did we think of attempting to be so, but such expedients were necessary to enable us to remain stationary; often to enable us to breathe. I no longer wondered at the manner in which the cutter and frigate had examined our position. It was quite clear the fishermen knew very little about finding a proper berth for a ship, and that we might pretty nearly as well have brought up in the middle of St. George's channel, could our ground-tackle reach the bottom, as to have brought up where we were.
Just about nine o'clock, Marble and I had got near each other on the fife-rail, and held a consultation on the subject of our prospects. Although we both clung to the same top-sail-sheet, we were obliged to hallow to make ourselves heard, the howling of the wind through the rigging converting the hamper into a sort of tremendous Eolian Harp, while the roar of the water kept up a species of bass accompaniment to this music of the ocean. Marble was the one who had brought about this communication, and he was the first to speak.
"I say, Miles," he called out, his mouth within three feet of my ear—"she jumps about like a whale with a harpoon in it! I've been afraid she'd jerk the stem out of her."
"Not much fear of that, Moses—my great concern is that starboard bower-cable; it has a good deal more strain on it than the larboard, and you can see how the strands are stretched."
"Ay, ay—'t is generalizing its strength, as one may say. S'pose we clap the helm a-port, and try the effects of a sheer?"
"I've thought of that; as there is a strong tide going, it may possibly answer"—
These words were scarcely out of my mouth, when three seas of enormous height came rolling down upon us, like three great roistering companions in a crowd of sullen men, the first of which raised the Dawn's bows so high in the air, as to cause us both to watch the result in breathless silence. The plunge into the trough was in a just proportion to the toss into the air; and I felt a surge, as if something gave way under the violent strain that succeeded. The torrent of water that came on the forecastle prevented any thing from being seen; but again the bows rose, again they sunk, and then the ship seemed easier.
"We are all adrift, Miles!" Marble shouted, leaning forward to be heard. "Both bowers have snapped like thread, and here we go, head-foremost, in for the land!"
All this was true enough! The cables had parted, and the ship's head was falling off fast from the gale, like the steed that has slipped his bridle, before he commences his furious and headlong career. I looked round for the negroes; but Neb was already at the wheel. That noble fellow, true as steel, had perceived the accident as soon as any of us, and he sprang to the very part of the vessel where he was most needed. He had a seaman's faculties in perfection, though ratiocination was certainly not his forte. A motion of my hand ordered him to put the helm hard up, and the answering sign let me know that I was obeyed. We could do no more just then, but the result was awaited in awful expectation.
The Dawn's bows fell off until the ship lay broadside to the gale, which made her reel until her lee lower yard-arms nearly dipped. Then she overcame the cauldron of water that was boiling around her, and began to draw heavily ahead. Three seas swept athwart her decks, before she minded her helm in the least, carrying with them every thing that was not most firmly lashed, or which had not animal life to direct its movements, away to leeward. They swept off the hen-coops, and ripped four or five water-casks from their lashings, even, as if the latter had been pack-thread. The camboose-house went also, at the last of these terrific seas; and nothing saved the camboose itself, but its great weight, added to the strength of its fastenings. In a word, little was left, that could very well go, but the launch, the gripes of which fortunately held on.
By the time this desolation was completed, the ship began to fall off, and her movement through the water became very perceptible. At first, she dashed in toward the land, running, I make no doubt, quite half a mile obliquely in that direction, ere she got fairly before the wind; a course which carried her nearly in a line with the coast. Marble and myself now got aft without much trouble, and put the helm a little to starboard, with a view to edge off to the passage as far as possible. The wind blew so nearly down channel, that there would have been no immediate danger, had we an offing; but the ship had not driven before the gale more than three or four hours, when we made land ahead; the coast trending in this part of the island nearly north and south. Marble suggested the prudence of taking time by the forelock, and of getting the main-top-sail on the ship, to force her off the land, the coast in the neighbourhood of Dublin lying under our lee-bow. We had taken the precaution to close-reef everything before it was furled, and I went aloft myself to lower this sail. If I had formed a very respectful opinion of the power of the gale, while on deck, that opinion was materially heightened when I came to feel its gusts, on the main-top-sail-yard. It was not an easy matter to hold on at all; and to work, required great readiness and strength. Nevertheless, I got the sail loose, and then I went down and aided Marble and the cook to drag home the sheets. Home, they could not be dragged by us, notwithstanding we got up a luff; but we made the sail stand reasonably well.
The ship immediately felt the effect of even this rag of canvass. She drove ahead at a prodigious rate, running, I make no question, some eleven or twelve knots, under the united power collected by her hamper and this one fragment of a sail. Her drift was unavoidably great, and I thought the current sucked her in towards the land; but, on the whole, she kept at about the same distance from the shore, foaming along it, much as we had seen the frigate do, the day before. At the rate we were going, twelve or fifteen hours would carry us down to the passage between Holy Head and Ireland, when we should get more sea-room, on account of the land's trending again to the westward.
Long, long hours did Marble and I watch the progress of our ship that day and the succeeding night, each of us taking our tricks at the wheel, and doing seaman's duty, as well as that of mate and master. All this time, the vessel was dashing furiously out towards the Atlantic, which she reached ere the morning of the succeeding day. Just before he light returned we were whirled past a large ship that was lying-to, under a single storm-stay-sail, and which I recognised as the frigate that had taken a look at us at our anchorage. The cutter was close at hand, and the fearful manner in which these two strong-handed vessels pitched and lurched, gave me some idea of what must be our situation, should we be compelled to luff to the wind. I supposed they had done so, in order to keep as long as possible, on their cruising ground, near the chops of the Irish channel.
A wild scene lay around us, at the return of light. The Atlantic resembled a chaos of waters, the portions of the rolling sheet that were not white with foam, looking green and angry. The clouds hid the sun, and the gale seemed to be fast coming to its height. At ten, we drove past an American, with nothing standing but his foremast. Like us, he was running off, though we went three feet to his two. Half an hour later, we had the awful sight before our eyes of witnessing the sudden disappearance of an English brig. She was lying-to, directly on our course, and I was looking at her from the windlass, trying to form some opinion as to the expediency of our luffing-to, in order to hold our own. Of a sudden, this brig gave a plunge, and she went down like a porpoise diving. What caused this disaster I never knew; but, in five minutes we passed as near as possible over the spot, and not a trace of her was to be seen. I could not discover so much as a handspike floating, though I looked with intense anxiety, in the hope of picking up some fellow-creature clinging to a spar. As for stopping to examine, one who did not understand the language might as well hope to read the German character on a mile-stone, while flying past it in a rail-road car.
At noon, precisely, away went our fore-top-sail out of the gaskets. One fastening snapped after another, until the whole sail was adrift. The tugs that this large sheet of canvass gave upon the spars, as it shook in the wind, threatened to jerk the foremast out of the ship. They lasted about three minutes, when, after a report almost as loud as that of a small piece of ordnance, the sail split in ribands. Ten minutes later, our main-top-sail went. This sail left us as it might be bodily, and I actually thought that a gun of distress was fired near us, by some vessel that was unseen, The bolt-rope was left set; the sheets, earings, and reef points all holding on, the cloth tearing at a single rent around the four sides of the sail. The scene that followed I scarcely know how to describe. The torn part of the main-top-sail flew forward, and caught in the after-part of the fore-top, where it stood spread, as one might say, held by the top, cat-harpins, rigging, and other obstacles. This was the feather to break the camel's back. Bolt after bolt of the fore-rigging drew or broke, each parting with a loud report, and away went everything belonging to the foremast over the bows, from the deck up. The main-top-mast was dragged down by this fearful pull, and that brought the mizen-top-gallant-mast after it. The pitching of so much hamper under the bows of the ship, while her after-masts stood, threw the stern round, in spite of the manner in which Marble steered; and the ship broached-to. In doing this, the sea made a fair breach over her, sweeping the deck of even the launch and camboose, and carrying all the lee-bulwarks, in the waist, with them. Neb was in the launch at the time, hunting for some article kept there; and the last I saw of the poor fellow, he was standing erect in the bows of the boat, as the latter drove over the vessel's side, on the summit of a wave, like a bubble floating in a furious current. Diogenes, it seems, had that moment gone to his camboose, to look after the plain dinner he was trying to boil, when probably seizing the iron as the most solid object near him, he was carried overboard with it, and never reappeared. Marble was in a tolerably safe part of the vessel, at the wheel, and he kept his feet, though the water rose above his waist; as high, indeed, as his arms. As for myself, I was saved only by the main-rigging, into which I was driven, and where I lodged.