A Roving Commission: or, Through the Black Insurrection at Hayti
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The Frenchman was, when the Agile delivered her last broadside, running nearly before the wind, and it was speedily evident that the injury to her rudder had been fatal, for although she attempted by trimming her sails again to bear up, each time she fell off, though not before some of her shot had hulled her active opponent. Seeing, however, that he must now be easily outman?uvred, the Frenchman made no further effort to change his course, but continued doggedly on his way, the topmen swarming aloft and shaking out more canvas. The Agile followed the frigate's example, and placing herself on her stern quarter, kept up a steady fire, yawing when necessary to bring all her guns to bear, the French replying occasionally with one of their stern guns. Owing to the accelerated speed at which both vessels were now going, the Indiamen had been left behind. Half an hour later the frigate's mizzen-mast, which had been severely wounded by the first broadside, went over her side. Cheer after cheer rose from the Agile; her opponent was now at her mercy. She had but to repeat the tactics with which she had begun the fight. Just as Nat gave the order to do so, musket shots were heard in the distance. The crew of one of the merchantmen had been allowed to remain on deck, as, being under the guns of the frigate, there was no possibility of their attempting to overpower their captors. As soon, however, as it became evident that the frigate was getting the worst of it, they had been hurried below, and the hatches dropped over them. From the port-holes, however, they could obtain a view of what was going on ahead of them, and as soon as they saw the frigate's mast go by the board, they armed themselves with anything that would serve as weapons, managed to push up the after-hatch, and rushed on deck. The prize crew were all clustered forward watching the fight; a shout from the helmsman apprised them of their danger, and they rushed aft. They were, however, less numerous than the British sailors, and no better armed, for, believing that the frigate would easily crush her tiny assailant, they were unprepared to take any part in the fight.
The contest was a very short one. Knowing that the frigate was crippled, and that the brigantine would soon be free to return to them, the Frenchmen saw that they must eventually be taken, and the officer in command being knocked senseless with a belaying-pin, they threw down their knives and surrendered. The other Indiaman at once put down her helm on seeing that the British flag was being run up on her consort.
"We must not let that fellow get away," Nat said; "we can leave the frigate alone for half an hour. We will give him two more broadsides with grape through his stern windows, and then bear up after that lumbering merchantman. We shall be alongside in half an hour."
In less than that time they were within pistol-shot of the West Indiaman, and the prize crew at once hauled down their flag.The Agile went alongside, released the prisoners, who had been securely fastened in the hold, and replaced them by the French crew. The Indiaman's officers had been allowed to remain on deck.
"Now, captain," Nat said to the English master, "please keep every sail full and follow us. It will not be long before we settle with the frigate, and we shall then run down to Barbados."
The master, who was greatly surprised at the youth of the officer who had so ably handled his ship against an immensely superior foe, said:
"Allow me to congratulate you on the splendid way in which you have handled your vessel. I could scarcely believe my eyes when you opened fire on the frigate. It seemed impossible that you should have thought of really engaging such an opponent."
"You see, we had the weather gauge of her, captain, and the brigantine is both fast and handy. But I must be off now before they have time to get into fighting trim again."
In another half-hour he was in his old position under the frigate's quarter, and was preparing to resume his former tactics, when the French flag fluttered down amid the cheers of the Agile's crew, which were faintly repeated by the two merchantmen a mile astern.
"I am heartily glad that they have surrendered," Nat said to Turnbull; "it would have been a mere massacre if they had been obstinate. Now, will you go on board and see what state she is in. Do not accept the officers' swords. They have done all that they could, but they really never had a chance after we had once got in the right position. Order all unwounded men below. As soon as you return with your report as to the state of things, I will send you off again with twenty men to take command. You had better bring the officers back with you. Mr. Lippincott, hoist a signal to the merchantmen to lie to as soon as they get abreast of us."
Mr. Turnbull returned in twenty minutes.
"It is an awful sight," he said. "The captain and the two senior lieutenants are killed, and it was the third lieutenant who ordered the flag to be lowered. Her name is the Spartane. She carried a crew of three hundred men, of whom fifty were on board her prizes. She has lost ninety killed, and there are nearly as many more wounded, of whom at least half are hit with grape, and I fancy few of them will recover; the others are splinter wounds, some of them very bad. There are two surgeons at work. I told them that ours would come to their assistance as soon as he had done with our own wounded."
The third lieutenant and three midshipmen, who were the sole survivors of the officers of the Spartane, soon came on board.
"Gentlemen," Nat said, "I am sorry for your misfortune, but assuredly you have nothing to reproach yourselves with. You did all that brave men could do, and did not lower your flag until further resistance would have been a crime against humanity."
The officers bowed; they were too much depressed to reply. Their mortification was great at being overpowered by a vessel so much inferior in strength to their own, and the feeling was increased now by seeing that their conqueror was a lad no older than the senior of the midshipmen. Turnbull's cabin was at once allotted to the lieutenant, and a large spare cabin to the midshipmen. Leaving Lippincott in charge, with ten men, Nat went with Turnbull and the doctor on board the frigate, and the boat went back to fetch the rest of the crew. The merchantmen had been signalled to send as many men as they could spare on board the frigate, and not until these arrived did Nat feel comfortable. Of his own crew three had been killed and ten wounded; three of these were fit for duty, and formed part of Lippincott's party, and the twenty he had with him seemed lost on board the frigate. Although Turnbull had had hawsers coiled over the hatches, the thought that there were nearly a hundred prisoners there, and that there were enough comparatively slightly wounded to overpower the two men placed as sentries over each hatchway, was a very unpleasant one. The arrival, however, of thirty of the merchant sailors, armed to the teeth, altered the position of affairs.
The first duty was to clear the decks of the dead. These were hastily sewn up in their own hammocks, with a couple of round shot at their feet, and then launched overboard. Those of the wounded able to walk were then mustered, and one of the French surgeons bandaged all the less serious wounds. After being supplied with a drink of wine and water, they were taken below, and placed with their companions in the hold. Then the wreck of the mizzen was cut away, and the frigate was taken in tow by the Agile, her own sails being left standing to relieve the strain on the hawsers. The two merchantmen were signalled to reduce sail, and to follow, and on no account to lose sight of the stern light of the frigate after it became dusk. Nat returned, with four of his crew, to the Agile, and four days later towed the Spartane into the anchorage off Bridgetown, the chief port of Barbados, the two West Indiamen following. The Isis, a fine fifty-gun frigate, was lying there. She had arrived on the previous day, having been despatched with the news of the outbreak of war. As her captain was evidently the senior officer on the station, Nat was rowed on board.
"Are you the officer in command of that brigantine?" the captain asked in surprise.
"Yes, sir; my name is Glover."
"Well, Lieutenant Glover, what part did your ship bear in the fight with that Frenchman? I see by her sails that she was engaged. Whom had you with you?"
"We were alone, sir."
"What!" the captain said, incredulously, "do you mean to say that, with that little ten-gun craft, you captured a thirty-six-gun frigate single-handed?"
"That is so, sir."
"Well, I congratulate you on it heartily," the captain exclaimed, shaking Nat by the hand with great cordiality. "You must tell me all about it. It is an extraordinary feat. How many men do you carry?"
"We have forty seamen, sir, and two petty officers."
"And what are your casualties?"
"Three killed and ten wounded."
"What were the casualties of the Frenchmen?"
"Ninety killed, including the captain and the first and second lieutenants and five midshipmen, and eighty-three wounded."
"And how many prisoners?"
"In all, a hundred and thirty, sir, of whom five-and-twenty are on board each of those merchantmen, which had been captured by the frigate. The crew of one rose and mastered their captors as soon as they saw the frigate's mizzen-mast fall, and knew that we must take her. The prize crew in the other struck their flag as soon as we came within pistol-shot of her. I shall be glad to receive orders from you as to the disposal of the prisoners. I have had thirty men from the merchantmen on board the Spartane, for I could spare so few men that the prisoners might, without their assistance, have retaken her."
"I will go ashore with you presently and see the governor, and ask whether he can take charge of them. If he cannot, you can hand over the greater part of them to me. I shall sail for Jamaica this evening. As to the prize, I should advise you to see if you cannot get some spars and rig a jury-mast; there are sure to be some in the dockyard. While that is being done you can go through the formalities of inspecting the Indiamen, for whose salvage you will get a very handsome sum. At any rate, if I were you I should keep them here until I was ready to sail, and then go with them and your prize to Kingston. I should go in in procession, as you did here. It is a thing that you have a right to be proud of."
"We need lose no time about the mast, sir. We stripped the gear off and got it on board the Spartane, and towed her mast behind her, thinking that perhaps we might not get a suitable spar here. Of course the lower mast will be short, but that will matter comparatively little. What is more serious is that her rudder is smashed."
"I doubt whether you can get that remedied here. I should advise you to rig out a temporary rudder. I'll tell you what I will do – I will send a couple of hundred men on board at once under my second officer. That will make short work of it, and I am sure that there is not a man on board who would not be glad to lend a hand in fitting up a prize that has been so gallantly won."
He called his officers, who had been standing apart during this conversation, and introduced Nat to them, saying:
"Gentlemen, I never heard Lieutenant Glover's name until a few minutes ago, but I can with confidence tell you that no more gallant officer is to be found in the service; and when I say that, with that little ten-gun brigantine and a crew of forty men, he engaged the French frigate that you see behind her and forced her to strike, after a fight in which she had a hundred and seventy men killed or wounded, that he took a hundred and thirty prisoners, and recaptured those two West Indiamen which were her prizes, I think you will all agree that I am not exaggerating. He is naturally very anxious to be off. The frigate's mizzen-mast is lying astern of her, and will make an excellent jury-mast, as all the gear is on board, and only requires shortening. Her rudder is smashed, and a temporary one must be rigged up; and, knowing that all on board will be ready and glad to help when they hear what I have told you, I am going to send two hundred men off at once to lend a hand. Will you take command, Mr. Lowcock? You will take with you, of course, the boatswain and his mates and the carpenters."
"I should be glad to go too, sir," the first lieutenant said.
"You and I will go together, Mr. Ferguson, after we have had a glass of wine and heard from Mr. Glover the details of this singular action."
The order was at once given to lower the boats. The story that the French frigate and her two prizes had been captured single-handed by the brigantine speedily circulated, and the men hastened into the boats with alacrity. With them went the surgeon and his assistant to see if they could be of any help on board, while the captain, his first lieutenant, and Nat went into the cabin, and the latter related the details of the action.
"Skilfully managed indeed, Mr. Glover!" the captain said when he had finished; "no one could have done better. It was fortunate indeed that your little craft was so fast and handy, for if that frigate had brought her guns to bear fully upon her she ought to have been able to fairly blow you out of the water with a single broadside. May I ask if this is your first action?"
"No, sir; I was in a tender of the Orpheus frigate when she captured a very strong pirate's hold near the port of Barcela in Caracas, destroying the place and capturing or blowing up three of their ships."
"I remember the affair," the captain said, "and a very gallant one it was; for, if I am right, the frigate could not get into the entrance, but landed her men, captured two of the pirates' batteries, and turned the guns on their ships, while a schooner she had captured a few days before sailed right in and engaged them, and was nearly destroyed when one of the pirates blew up. The officer in command of her was killed, and a midshipman was very highly spoken of, for he succeeded to the command, and gallantly went on board another pirate and drowned their magazine."
"Much more was said about it than necessary," Nat said.
The captain looked surprised.
"By the way," the lieutenant broke in, "I remember the name now. Are you the Mr. Glover mentioned in the despatches?"
"Yes, sir; but, as I said, the captain was good enough to make more of the affair than it deserved."
"I expect that he was the best judge of that," the captain said. "Well, after that?"
"After that, sir, I had the command of a little four-gun schooner which was cruising along the coast of Hayti to pick up fugitives, when I came across the brigantine I now command in the act of plundering a merchantman she had just captured. She left her prize and followed me. I was faster and more weatherly than she was, and having had the luck to smash the jaws of her gaff after a running fight of seven or eight miles, was able to get back to the prize and recapture her before the pirate came up. The crew of the prize came up and manned their guns, and between us we engaged the brigantine and carried her by boarding. On taking her into Kingston the admiral gave me the command, and raised my crew from twenty to forty. We have now been cruising for four or five months, but not until we sighted the frigate and her prizes have we had the luck to fall in with an enemy."
"Well, sir," the captain said, "even admitting that you have had some luck, there is no question that you have utilized your opportunities and have an extraordinary record, and if you don't get shot I prophesy that you will be an admiral before many officers old enough to be your father. Now, I am sure you must be anxious to get on board your prize as soon as possible, so we will take you to her at once."
In a few minutes they were on the deck of the Spartane. It was a scene of extraordinary activity. The lower mast had already been parbuckled on to the deck, where sheer-legs had been erected by another party. The mast was soon in its place, and the wedges driven in, the shrouds had been shortened, and men were engaged in tightening the lanyards. The topmast was on deck ready to be hoisted. The carpenters were busy constructing a temporary rudder with a long spar, to one end of which planks were being fixed, so that it looked like a gigantic paddle. As soon as this was completed, the other end of the spar was lashed to the taffrail. Strong hawsers were then to be fastened to the paddle, and brought in one on each quarter and attached to the drum of the wheel.
"Now, Mr. Glover," the captain said, after watching the work for some little time, "I will go ashore with you to the governor; you ought to pay your respects to him. Fortunately you will not require any assistance from him, for unless I am greatly mistaken these jobs will be finished this evening; the masts and rigging will certainly be fixed before dusk, and the carpenters must stick to their job till it is done. Like all make-shifts, it will not be so good as the original, but I think it will serve your turn, for there is little likelihood of bad weather at this time of year. I suppose you intend to keep the merchant seamen on board? If not, I will spare you some hands."
"I am much obliged, sir, but I think we shall do very well. It is a fine reaching wind, and we shall scarcely have to handle a sail between this and Jamaica."
"Very well, I understand your feeling, you would like to finish your business without help. That is very natural; I should do the same in your place."
"How about the merchantman's papers, sir?"
"I shall tell the governor that I have ordered them to be taken to Kingston, where there is a regular prize court, and therefore it will not be necessary to trouble with their manifests here."
"Then, if I have your permission, captain, I will row off to them at once and tell them to get under sail now; we shall overhaul them long before they get to Jamaica. They mount between them six-and-twenty guns, and, keeping together, no French privateer, if any have arrived, would venture to attack them, especially as they cannot have received news yet that war is declared."
"I think that would be a very good plan," the captain said, "for if you were to start with them it is clear that you would only be able to go under half sail. It is evident by your account that you are faster than the frigate, but with a reaching wind I suppose there is not more than a knot between you, and if the wind freshens you would find it hard to keep up with her."
The visit was paid. The governor agreed that it would be better that the Indiamen should sail at once. Indeed, they had already started, and were two or three miles away before Nat and the captain arrived at the governor's house. When on shore Nat ordered two or three barrels of rum to be sent off in another boat to the frigate, and on its arrival an allowance was served out to all the workers. Before nightfall, save that the mizzen-mast was some twenty feet lower than usual, and that her stern and quarters were patched in numerous places with tarred canvas, the Spartane presented her former appearance. When the majority of the crew had finished their work, the prisoners were transferred to the Isis. Two hours later the carpenters and boatswain's party had securely fixed the temporary rudder, and at daybreak the next morning the two frigates and the brigantine started on their westward voyage.