George Henty.

A Roving Commission: or, Through the Black Insurrection at Hayti

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"This man is your prisoner," he said. "Keep him between you, one on each side and the other two behind. If he makes the slightest movement to escape, or if the blacks behind approach any nearer, send your four bullets into his brain."

The men took up their stations as directed.

"Now, Biassou," he went on, lowering his own pistol, "you can continue your conference with Toussaint."

"You see, Biassou," Toussaint said, "you have only rendered yourself ridiculous. I repeat what I said before, this officer is here in answer to my invitation sent to him after Fran?ois and you had agreed that it was advantageous to learn what the objects of the English were. If you question him you will find that it is as I say. We have had our conference, have expressed our views, and he will repeat what I have said to the British governor of Jamaica; and I think that, whatever the result may be, it is well that the English should understand that we have resolved that, whether they or the French are the possessors of this island, slavery is abolished for ever here. He will return at once to the coast, and will then sail direct for Jamaica. Now, if you have any observation to make, I shall be glad to hear it."

"I do not doubt what you say," Biassou replied sullenly; "but it must be settled by what Fran?ois says when we rejoin him."

"So be it," Toussaint said. "And now, I pray you, let there be no quarrel between us. I have been forced to withstand you, because I was bound by a sacred promise. Any divisions will be fatal to our cause. For the moment you may be in superior force, but another time those who love and follow me might be the more numerous. You well know that I am as faithful to the cause as you are, and we must both set an example to our followers, that while we may differ as to the methods by which success is to be gained, we are at one in our main object."

"I admit that I was wrong," the great negro said frankly. "I drank more than was good for me before I started, and my blood has been heated by the speed with which we followed you. I am sober now, for which I have to thank," he added with a grim smile, "this young officer; though I own that I do not like his method. Let us think no more of it;" and he held out his hand to Toussaint, which the latter took.

A shout of satisfaction rose from the negroes on both sides. The determined attitude of Toussaint's men, the fact that they had four whites among them, and that almost all of them had muskets, had cooled the courage of Biassou's followers, who, as soon as their leader was captured, saw that even if they gained the victory, it would be at the cost of at least half their number. There was no prospect of plunder or of any advantage, and they knew that, beloved and respected as Toussaint was, it was very possible that those who did survive the fight would fall victims to the indignation that would be aroused at the news of an attack being made upon him.

"Now that it is all settled we may as well be starting for the coast, Toussaint," Nat said.

"There is nothing more for us to arrange, and as our presence here might possibly lead to further trouble, the sooner we are off the better."

"I will not ask you to stay," the negro said. "I do not think that we shall have any more trouble, but there is no saying. Several of Biassou's men have wine-skins with them, and a quarrel might arise when they had drunk more. I will send you down under the same escort as before."

"I do not think that we shall need so many. I should not like to weaken you so far."

"There is no fear for me," Toussaint said decidedly. "Arriving in hot blood they might have attacked me, but I am sure they will not do so now. They know well enough that I should be terribly avenged were they to do so. It is quite necessary that you should take as many men as before, for it is possible that some of Biassou's men might steal away and follow you."

A few minutes afterwards Nat set out with his men and his guard of twelve blacks. It was still some hours before the time at which he was to be met by the boat. They therefore halted when within a mile of the shore, and there waited until it was dark. Then he went on alone with the four sailors to the beach, and in a few minutes after they arrived there they heard the sound of the oars of the gig.

"I am heartily glad to see you back again," Turnbull said as Nat stepped on to the deck. "Lippincott and I have been horribly uneasy about you all day. Did everything go off quietly?"

"Yes, except for two or three minutes, when that bloodthirsty scoundrel Biassou came upon the scene with a hundred and fifty of his followers. There was very nearly a shindy then, but it passed off; for he did not like looking down the muzzle of my pistol at a few inches from his head, and my four men made him a prisoner until affairs had taken a friendly turn, which was not long after. For when the leader of a party is a prisoner, and his guards have orders to shoot him instantly if there is any trouble, it is astonishing how quick people are in coming to an understanding."

"Yes, I should say so," Turnbull laughed. "However, as it has turned out well, and you have fulfilled your mission, it doesn't matter to us; and I hope that we have now done with this creeping alongshore work."


On arriving at Kingston Nat went on board the flag-ship, and reported to the admiral the particulars of his visit to Toussaint.

"He is evidently a long-headed fellow," the admiral said, "and from his point of view his proposal is a fair one; but I am afraid our people at home would never give such an undertaking. It would be impossible for us to have one island where the blacks were free, while in all others they would remain slaves. It would be as much as saying to them, 'If you want freedom you must fight for it;' and even if the people at home could bring themselves to pay the immense amount of money that would be required to emancipate the slaves by indemnifying their owners, it would nevertheless be the ruin of the islands, and all connected with them. However, I will take you ashore to the governor, after my clerk has made a copy of your report."

"I have made two copies, sir."

"All the better. Then we will go at once."

The governor heard Nat's story, and received his report.

"It is at least satisfactory," he said, "to have learnt from one of themselves what the views of the principal leaders are, and I consider that you have performed your commission exceedingly well, Lieutenant Glover, and, undoubtedly, at a great deal of risk to yourself. As to the matter of the communication, it will of course receive serious attention. It is far too important a business for anyone to give off-hand an opinion upon it. I fancy, sir, that you are likely to have more active work before long, for I think there is no doubt that war will very shortly be declared with France, and her privateers will be swarming about these seas."

It was nearly six months before any special incident took place. No vessel had been missing since the capture of the Agile, and it was evident that any pirates there might have been among the islands had moved to waters where they could carry on their trade with less interruption. The Agile cruised about among the islands, and although she had a pleasant time, officers and men alike grew impatient at the uneventful nature of their work. Things were but little changed in Hayti. Biassou had been deprived of his command, and it was surmised that he had been murdered, but at any rate he was never heard of again. Fran?ois and Toussaint commanded, but the former came to be so jealous of Toussaint's popularity that the latter was obliged to retire, and to cross the frontier into the Spanish part of the island. There he was well received, and showed great ability in various actions against the French, with whom Spain was then at war. He and many other negroes had declared for Spain, upon the singular ground that they had always been governed by a king, and preferred to be ruled by the king of Spain rather than by a republic.

With only six hundred men Toussaint drove fifteen hundred French out of a strong post which they occupied in the Spanish town of Raphaelita, and afterwards took several other posts and villages. It was for these successes that he gained the name of L'Ouverture, or opener, and the Marquis D'Hermona gave him the rank of lieutenant-general. The three French commissioners had returned to France, and had been succeeded by two others, Santhonax and Poveren, the former a ruffian of the same type as those who were deluging the soil of France with its best blood, and who made themselves odious to both parties by their brutality and greed. At last, at the end of February, 1793, came the news of the execution of the king of France, and the certainty that war was imminent.

"Now we shall have more lively times," Turnbull said. "It has been dull enough of late."

"There has been nothing to grumble at," the surgeon said. "What would you have? Haven't we been sailing about like gentlemen, with nothing to do but to drink and sleep, and look at the islands, and take things easy altogether?"

"Don't you talk, Doyle," Turnbull said, laughing. "There is no one who has grumbled more than yourself."

"That is in the cause of science," the Irishman retorted. "How can I ever become a distinguished man, and show what is in me, and make all sorts of discoveries, if there is never a chance that comes in my way? There are my instruments all ready for use, they might as well be at the bottom of the sea. I hone them once a week, and well-nigh shed tears because of the good work they ought to be doing. It is all very well for you, Turnbull, you won't forget how to kill a man when the time comes; but let me tell you that any fellow who doesn't know his A B C can kill a man, whereas it takes a man of science to cure him."

"There is a good deal in that, Doyle," Nat said, when the laugh had subsided, "though I don't know that I considered it in that light before; but that, perhaps, is because I have tried one and never tried the other."

"It's a fine thing," Doyle said, "to be a surgeon. There you see a man with his legs shot off. If it was not for you he would die. You take him in hand, you amputate a bit higher up, you make him tidy and comfortable, and there he is walking about almost as well as if he had two legs; and although he is not fit for ship service again, he would be as good a man in a fight with a cudgel as ever he was. Now I ask you fairly, what is there that you can do to compare with that?"

"Nothing in that way, I must admit," Nat laughed, "Well, you may be having an opportunity of showing your superiority before long. This is just the ground the French privateers are likely to choose. There are plenty of French ports for them to put into, hundreds of bays where they could lie hidden, and lots of shipping to plunder. No doubt they will be thick in the channel and down the straits, but our merchantmen will not think of going there unless in large fleets or under convoy of ships of war; while here, though they might be guarded on their way across the Atlantic, they would have to scatter as soon as they were among the islands. Well, we must look out that we are not caught napping. Of course, until we get news that war is declared we can't fire upon a Frenchman; while if one arrived with the news before we got it, he might sail up close by us and pour in a broadside."

"At any rate we are likely to take some prizes," Lippincott said, "for the instant we get the news we can pounce upon any French merchantman."

"Yes; those homeward-bound could hardly hear the news as soon as we do, while of those coming out many slow sailers will have left before war is declared, and may not be here for weeks after we hear of it. The great thing will be for us to put ourselves on the main line of traffic. As we have received no special orders we can cruise where we like. I should say that coming from France, they would be likely to keep down the coast of Spain and on to Madeira before they strike across, as in that way they would be altogether out of the line of the Gulf Stream. Then, if they were making for Hayti, they would probably be coming along west on or about the 20th parallel north; while, if making for Guadeloupe or Martinique, they would be some three or four degrees farther south. Probably privateers would follow the same lines, as before commencing operations they would want to take in provisions and water, to learn where our cruisers are likely to be, to pick up pilots, and so on. So I should say that we can cruise about these waters for another fortnight safely, and then go through the Caribbean Islands and cruise some seventy or eighty miles beyond them, carefully avoiding putting into any of our own islands as we pass."

"Why should you do that?" Turnbull asked.

"Because the chances are that we should find, either at Barbados or St. Lucia or Dominica – or, in fact, at any of the other islands, one of our frigates, or at any rate, some officer senior to me; and in that case, as we have no fixed orders from the admiral, we might be detained or sent off in some direction that might not suit us at all."

"Good!" Doyle said. "It is always a safe rule to keep out of the way of a bigger man than yourself. I have always observed that a captain of a man-of-war or of a frigate is sure to be down on small craft, if he gets a chance. It is like a big boy at school fagging a little one; he could do quite as well without him, but it is just a matter of devilment and to show his authority. Heaven protect us against falling in with a frigate. If she were a Frenchman she would sink us; if she were a Britisher she would bully us."

They reached the ground on which Nat had decided to cruise. Three days later the look-out at the mast-head shouted "Sail ho!" the words acting like an electric shock to those on deck.

"How does it bear?"

"About east by north, sir. There are three vessels; I can only see their topsails at present. Two of them are a bit bigger than the third. They look to me to be merchantmen. I should say the other, by the cut of his sails, is a Frenchman."

A low cheer broke from the men. "Now, if that fellow brings news that war is declared, we are in luck," Nat said. "Either he is convoying two French merchantmen he has overtaken, or he has two British prizes he has picked up. If they are English, we shall not get so much prize-money; but then we shall have less difficulty with the privateer, if privateer she is, because she must have put a good many of her hands an board the prizes. So we can in either case count upon doing well. At any rate they are not likely to suspect that we are English, being French-built and French-rigged. Even if they have a doubt, they will be satisfied as soon as they see the name on our bows. We will not get up any more sail."

"I will go up and have a look at her," Turnbull said; and slinging his glass over his shoulder he went aloft.

"I think," he called down, after a long look at them, "that the middle ship is a good deal larger than she looks; and the others are carrying every stitch of canvas, but she has neither royals nor topgallant-sails. Her yards have a wide spread, and I am inclined to think that she is a frigate or a large corvette – certainly a French one. As to the others, I cannot say with certainty, but I rather fancy they are English; in which case she has captured them on the way, and, being much faster than they are, has to go under easy sail to keep with them."

"Well, I hope she is not too big for us," Nat said, as Turnbull rejoined him.

"What should you call too big, sir?" Turnbull asked with a smile.

"Well, I should say that a fifty was too big."

"I should think so indeed. A twenty-gun sloop would be a pretty formidable opponent."

"Yes, a twenty would about suit us, especially as she may have fifty of her men on board the other craft – that is, if they are her prizes. It is the men that I am more afraid of than the guns. Two to one are no great odds in guns, especially as we generally work ours faster than the French do; but when it comes to a hundred and fifty men or so against forty, it may be very unpleasant if we get a spar knocked away and they come alongside of us. We may as well get the French flag up at once. With a good glass they could make it out a long way off. Let the men have their breakfast, it is a bad thing to fight fasting."

The men were not long over their meal; by the time they came on deck again the strangers were within five or six miles. The wind was in the north-east, and the Agile was almost close-hauled, while the others had the wind broad on their quarters. There was now no longer any doubt that the outside vessels were two large British West Indiamen, and the fact that they were in company with what was undoubtedly a French frigate was regarded as absolute proof that war had been declared, and that the French ship of war on her way out to the colonies with the news had overtaken and captured the two British ships, which were probably sailing in company. As they approached, the Agile was luffed up more into the wind in order to pass between the Frenchman and the prize within a few cables' length to starboard of him.

"How many guns do you make her out to be, Mr. Lippincott?"

"I think that she has eighteen guns on a broadside."

"The odds are pretty strongly against us," Nat said; "but we shall have the weather-gauge, that counts for a good deal. Anyhow, we shall be able to annoy her, and possibly, if we hang on to her, the sound of firing will bring up one of our cruisers from Barbuda or Antigua."

An awning which was stretched over the quarter-deck had not been taken down, and as the brigantine approached the French frigate, there was no sign that her intentions were not of a peaceable nature. The French ensign floated from the peak, the sailors on deck were lounging about, some with their jackets on, others in their shirts, and only a few with hats on seemed to be watching with idle curiosity the approaching vessels. Nat and the officers retained their uniforms, for as only their heads and shoulders showed over the rail, there was nothing to distinguish them from those of a fine French privateer, for these generally adopted a regular naval dress. The two vessels were but fifty yards apart as they met. Nat sprang on to the rail, and in reply to the hail from the Frenchman, "What ship is that?" raised his cap in salute and shouted:

"The Agile of Bordeaux. Have you any news from France, sir?"

"Yes, war has been declared with England."

"Thank you, that is good news indeed," and he leapt down on to the deck.

The vessels were both travelling at a speed of about eight knots an hour, and were already passing one another fast, when, as Nat waved his hand, the French flag was run down, an English ensign already fastened to the halyards was simultaneously run up, and a moment later the five guns, which had previously been trained to bear aft and double-shotted, poured their broadside into the quarters of the French frigate. Shouts of surprise and fury rose from her; no thought that the little craft so fearlessly approaching her was an enemy had crossed the mind of any on board, still less that if British she would venture to fire upon so vastly superior a foe.

"About ship!" Nat said, the instant the guns had been fired. The sail-trimmers were at their places, the Agile shot up into the wind, her head paid off, and she swept round on the other tack, crossing the stern of the Frenchman, her guns on the starboard side sending their shot in through his stern windows, and raking his whole length as they were brought to bear; then she wore round on her heel, the guns on the larboard side were reloaded, and she again raked the Frenchman. So far not a single shot had been fired in return. The din on board the frigate was prodigious, as the guns had to be cast loose, magazines opened, powder and shot carried up, and the sails trimmed to enable her to bear up so as to show her broadside to her puny foe.

Before she could do so the Agile, true to her name, was again round. The Frenchmen, confused by the variety of orders issued, were slow at their work, and as their opponent came up into the wind the brigantine was again astern of them, and raked them this time with heavy charges of grape. A chorus of shrieks and cries from the frigate told how terrible was the effect.

"By St. Patrick," the surgeon exclaimed to Lippincott, "it is grand! But it looks as if the captain wasn't going to give me a chance, and all me instruments laid out ready for action."

"Never mind, doctor, you will be able to practise on the Frenchmen," Lippincott laughed.

But the French captain knew his business, and putting his helm over again, ran off the wind, so that the two vessels were now on the same tack, with the Agile on her opponent's quarter. Several of the French guns were now brought to bear, but their discharge was too hurried, and owing to the brigantine lying so much lower in the water, the shot flew between her masts or made holes in her mainsail. In a moment she was round again, and crossed her opponent's stern at a distance of some thirty yards, the word being passed along that the gunners were to aim at the rudder-post and to double-shot the guns. A loud cheer rose as two of the shots struck the mark. The Frenchman replied with a volley of musketry from the marines gathered on her poop. Three of the sailors fell, and several others were hit.

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