George Henty.

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

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"Ay, ay, sir. You hear the orders, gentlemen. Mr. Curtis, you land with fifteen men on the starboard side, and do you, Mr. Glover, take the party that lands to port. Clear the scoundrels out – give no quarter!"

The boats had just returned. The two midshipmen leapt into them, and a few strokes took them ashore.

"Up the hill, lads!" Nat shouted. "Don't fire until you are at close quarters. Give them one volley if they are together, then sling your guns, and go at them with the cutlass!"

There was but little fighting, however, for there were only ten or twelve pirates on either side, as their main force was distributed between the batteries and the ships. They were therefore very easily driven off, five or six of them being killed and the rest flying with all speed towards their village, where those who had escaped from the batteries were already going off in boats to the ships. The two midshipmen therefore returned to the schooner.

"Don't come on board!" Mr. Playford shouted. "See if you can free one end of the boom. If so we will go in and engage one of those craft."

It was found that the boom was fastened at Nat's side, and the chain was soon unwound from the stump of a large tree. Then the two boats together got hold of the end of the boom and swung it round so that the schooner could pass. The enemy kept up a heavy fire upon them while they were doing this, and just as the job was completed, Curtis's boat was smashed to pieces by a round shot. The breeze was very light, but it was in the right direction.

"Shall we tow, sir?" Nat called to his commander.

"Certainly not. Get your men on board at once."

The sails, which had been loosely furled, were dropped again, and the brigantine stole past the batteries, which saluted her with a rousing cheer, while the guns were worked with redoubled energy to keep down the fire of the pirates. The Cerf was swept with round shot and grape by the guns of the three piratical craft, but the distance to be traversed was so small, and the fire from the battery to which the pirates working their guns were exposed was so heavy, that the men fired wildly, and the Cerf suffered less than might have been expected while crossing the intervening two hundred yards of water. She was steered straight for the schooner, and as her bowsprit ran in between the pirate's masts the crew, who had been crouching forward, leapt down on to her deck, headed by their commander and the two midshipmen.

The pirates, although they had suffered heavily, were still in sufficient force to offer an efficient resistance, but their courage had been shaken by the suddenness of the attack. They had lain down to sleep with the assurance that the port was unknown and unsuspected, that the batteries that guarded it could sink any hostile ship that attempted to enter, and their dismay when these batteries were attacked and carried by an enemy who seemed to spring out of the earth, and their only retreat cut off, was overwhelming.

Already the heavy guns of the battery had done terrible execution.

Two of the guns on that side had been dismounted, and a third of the crew killed; consequently, although a small portion of the number led by their captain fought desperately, and were killed to the last man, the majority leapt overboard at once and swam ashore. Leaving ten men in charge of the prize, the lieutenant called all the rest back on board the Cerf, which remained in the position in which she had run head on to the schooner, and she was now able to bring her broadsides into play upon the brigantines, the pieces forward raking them from stem to stern, while the batteries continued their terrible fire. In a few minutes the pirates began to take to the boats, which were lying by their sides just as they had come off from the shore. Once begun, the movement spread rapidly. The boats were soon crowded, and those who could not find places in them leapt overboard.

"Take the boat and a dozen men, Mr. Curtis, and haul down the black flag of the craft to starboard; and you, Mr. Glover, take one of the prize's boats and do the same to the other brigantine."

They turned to execute the order when all on board the Cerf were hurled to the deck – one of the brigantines had blown up with a tremendous explosion, that brought most of the huts on the hillside to the ground, carried away both masts of the Cerf, and drove fragments of wreckage high into the air, whence they fell partly in the pool, partly on shore. Fortunately for the Cerf only a few fragments of any size struck her deck, the pieces for the most part falling in a wider circle. Numbers of the pirates who had just landed from their boats were killed, and many more were injured by being hurled down on to the rocks, dazed and half-stunned. Those on board the Cerf who had escaped severe injury rose to their feet.

Not more than twenty-five did so. Lieutenant Playford lay dead, crushed under a mast; Curtis had been hurled against one of the guns and his brains dashed out; ten of the sailors had been killed either by the falling masts or by being dashed against the bulwarks; twelve had fallen under the enemy's fire as the Cerf crossed the pool; twelve others were hurt more or less either by the enemy's missiles or by the shock. It was three or four minutes before the silence that followed was broken. Then Mr. Hill hailed across the water:

"Cerf ahoy! have you suffered much?"

"Terribly," Nat shouted back; "Lieutenant Playford and Mr. Curtis are both killed. We have only twenty-five men in any way fit for service left."

"If you have got a boat that will swim send it ashore."

Nat looked over the side, the boat had been stove by a falling fragment; then he crossed to the prize, and found that one of the boats was uninjured. Four men were just getting into it, when Mr. Hill hailed again:

"Let them bring a rope with them, Mr. Glover; we will tow you over here."

The end of a hawser was put into the boat, and the men rowed with it to the battery.

"Mr. Glover!" the lieutenant again hailed.

"Yes, sir."

"I am sending the boat back again. I think that had they put a slow match in the magazine of the other brigantine it would have exploded before this. However, you had better remain where you are for a quarter of an hour, to be sure; then, before you move, board the brigantine and flood the magazine. Otherwise, as soon as you have left, some of these desperadoes might swim off to her and put a match there."

"Very well, sir, I will go at once if you like."

"No, there is no use running any unnecessary risk. You had better flood the schooner's magazine first."

"Ay, ay, sir."

Taking half a dozen hands with buckets, Nat went on board the prize and soon flooded the magazine; then he and those who were able to help did all they could for the wounded, several of whom, who had only been stunned, were presently on their legs again. When the quarter of an hour had passed he asked for volunteers. All the survivors stepped forward.

"Four men will be enough," he said. "Bring buckets with you."

It was not without a feeling of awe that Nat and the four sailors stepped on to the deck of the brigantine, for although he was convinced that had a match been lighted the explosion would have taken place long before, as it was now five-and-twenty minutes since the crew had deserted her, neither he nor the men had entirely recovered from the severe shock of the explosion. He led the way below; all was quiet; the door of the magazine was open, but there was no smell of burning powder, and they entered fearlessly.

"All right, lads; now as quick as you like with your buckets."

An abundance of water was thrown in; then, to make quite certain, Nat locked the door of the magazine, and put the key in his pocket. A cheer broke from the men in the battery as he and his companions again took their places in the boat and rowed to the Cerf. He was hailed again by Mr. Hill.

"I have changed my mind, Mr. Glover; now that I know there is no risk of another explosion, I think perhaps you had best remain where you are. We will give you a pull to get you free of the schooner, then you had better range the Cerf alongside of her; keep your guns and those of the brigantine both loaded with grape; send your boat ashore to fetch off the wounded."

"I have two boats now, sir; one of the brigantine's was left behind, and is uninjured."

"Then send them both ashore, the sooner we get the wounded off the better. I am going to move forward with all my men; we have spiked the guns here, and if they should come down into the batteries again you can clear them out. You will, of course, help us, if we meet with strong resistance, with your guns on the shore-side."

"Ay, ay, sir."

The two boats were sent ashore, and the wounded came off with Dr. Bemish. As soon as they all came on board Nat said:

"I will leave you with the wounded here, doctor, with four of my men to help you. We are so littered up that we could hardly work the guns, and as you see, three of them were dismounted by the explosion; besides, the prize alongside would hamper us, therefore I will take the rest of the men on board the brigantine."

"I think that will be a very good plan, my lad," the doctor replied. "I quite agree with you, that with the spars and wreckage on one side and the prize on the other, you are practically helpless."

The men were at once set to work bringing up powder cartridges from the magazine; grape and round-shot they would find on board the brigantine.

In ten minutes the guns of that craft were reloaded. The two bodies of men from the batteries had by this time reached the storehouses. Not a shot had been fired, but a minute later there was a loud word of command, followed by a fierce yell, and in a moment both parties were engaged, a heavy fire being opened upon them from every spot of vantage on the hillside in front of them.

"Now, my lads, give them a dose of grape!" Nat shouted. "I expect they are two to one to our fellows still. Train them carefully."

Gun after gun sent showers of grape among the hidden foe, who were for the most part lying behind the cactus hedges of the gardens that surrounded the huts. The three forward guns assisted Mr. Hill's party, while the others aided that commanded by Needham. Although but four men to a gun, the sailors worked so hard that the pieces were discharged as rapidly as if they had been manned by a full complement, and their effect was visible in the diminution of the enemy's fire, and by the line of smoke gradually mounting the hill, showing that the pirates were falling back, while the cheers of the sailors and marines as they pressed steadily upwards, rapidly plying their muskets, rose louder and louder. Near the upper edge of the cleared ground the pirates made a stand, but the fire of the guns proved too much for them, and they took to the forest. Presently a sailor ran down to the shore.

"The first lieutenant says, sir, will you please continue your fire into the forest. He is going to cut down all the hedges and fire the huts, so that they will have to pass over open ground if they attack again."

"Tell Mr. Hill I will do so," Nat shouted back.

It was not long after the fire had been turned in that direction before the puffs of smoke that darted out from the edge of the forest ceased altogether. The sailors could now be seen slashing away with their cutlasses at the lines of cactus hedge, while the huts that still stood were speedily in flames. Numbers of women and children now came down to the shore, where they were placed in charge of six of the marines and a non-commissioned officer. A quarter of an hour later, while Nat was watching what was going on on shore, one of the men touched him.

"Look, sir, they are going down to the batteries!"

The men were at once ordered across to the guns on the other side, and these opened with grape upon two bodies of pirates, each some seventy or eighty strong, who were rushing down to the batteries. The discharge of the six guns did terrible execution, but the survivors without pausing dashed down to the works. Cries of disappointment and rage broke out from them on finding the guns spiked, and before they could be reloaded they ran up the hill again, and were in shelter in the forest.

"I fancy that is about the end of it," Nat said to the petty officer standing by his side. "I don't think that above fifty of either party got safely away."

"Not more than that, sir. I expect it has taken the fight out of them."

"It was a hopeless attempt, for although, if the guns had been loaded, they might have sunk us, our fellows on shore would soon have been upon them again, and it would have come to the same thing."

"Yes, sir, the same thing to the pirates, but not the same thing to us."

"No, you are right there; those twenty-four guns loaded with ball would have sent us to the bottom in no time. You see, our men only used grape before, and aimed at the decks."

Mr. Hill now hailed from the shore again:

"Mr. Glover!"

"Ay, ay, sir!"

"Have the goodness to send your boat ashore, I want to send a note off to the captain. On their way the men must stop at the boats on the other side of the island, and tell the boat keepers to bring them round here at once."

Four men were sent ashore in the boat, and one of the petty officers took his place in the stern, with a hasty note which the first lieutenant had written in pencil stating that the loss had been very heavy, that the work of rooting out the pirates had not yet been completed, and that he should be glad of some more men to occupy the village while he searched the woods. The boat started at once, and twenty minutes later the captain's gig shot into the cove. As soon as the report of the first gun was heard on board the frigate, and there was no longer any motive for remaining at a distance, her head had been turned to the island, and the boat had met her but half a mile away from the entrance.

After reading the note, Captain Crosbie sent one of the gigs to order the boats round to the inlet, and proceeded in his own boat to investigate the state of affairs, ordering the Cerf's boat to row ahead of the frigate, which was to work in under very reduced sail, sounding as she went, and was, if the water was deep enough, to anchor off the mouth of the cove.

"Then you found all the pirates here, Mr. Hill?" the captain said as he landed.

"Yes, sir, but they blew up one of their craft when they left her."

"Yes, of course we heard the report; it shook the frigate as if she had struck on a rock. It must have been tremendous here."

"Yes, sir, she must have had an immense deal of powder in her magazine; the shock was something terrible. Although we were over there in that battery, every one of us was thrown to the ground and several were killed. Two of the guns were dismounted."

"It was a veritable battle for a time, Mr. Hill. It sounded like a naval engagement on a large scale."

"Yes, we had twenty-four guns in the batteries all at work, and the guns of the Cerf, while the three pirates had the same number in their broadsides, besides two heavy swivel-guns."

"You say the loss is heavy. What does it amount to?"

"I cannot tell you exactly, sir. There were twenty-five killed on board the Cerf, in addition to Mr. Playford and Mr. Curtis. The two officers and about half the men were, Mr. Glover reported, killed by the explosion, which, as you see, dismasted her."

"Dear me! That is heavy indeed, and I most deeply regret the death of the two officers."

"So do I indeed, sir. Mr. Playford was an excellent officer, and as good a fellow as ever walked. Mr. Curtis would have made, I am sure, a good officer in time. I hardly thought he would when he first joined, but he was improving greatly, and he showed great courage in working to remove the boom under a very heavy fire from the pirates, which sunk his boat under him."

"Your division, Mr. Hill – what are your casualties?"

"We took the batteries almost without loss, sir, but in the duel with the pirates we lost in the two batteries fourteen killed; nine more were killed by the explosion; we sent eighteen off to the Cerf all seriously wounded; as to contusions and minor hurts, I should say that there is not a man who escaped them."

"Well, well, that is a heavy bill indeed; forty-eight men killed and two officers – why, we should probably have lost less in an action against a frigate of our own size! However, we have destroyed this nest of pirates, and have captured three of their four ships, the other is blown up. Now, what is the state of things here?"

"There are, I believe, some hundred and fifty or two hundred of the pirates still on the island. They are divided into two parties, and the last firing you heard was when they rushed down into the batteries, thinking, no doubt, to take revenge by sinking the brigantine and the two prizes. Mr. Glover opened fire upon them with grape with great effect. When they got into the battery they found that I had spiked the guns, which I did when I left them, thinking they might make just such a move. I sent off to you, sir, in order that the storehouses and buildings might be held while we cleared the wood on one side down to the mouth of the cove. When we have done that we can do the same on the other side."

"Did you have any casualties in taking the village?"

"Several wounded, sir, none killed. Mr. Glover drove them out with grape, and so rendered our work comparatively easy. I am sorry to say that almost the last shot fired by them hit Mr. Needham high up in the left arm. The doctor came ashore a few minutes ago, after attending to the wounded sent on board the Cerf. He examined the arm, and tells me that the bone is completely smashed, and that he must amputate it half-way between the elbow and shoulder."

"That is bad indeed. However, it is better than if it had been his right arm. Mr. Harpur," said the captain to the midshipman who had come ashore with him, "take the gig off and meet the boats. Tell the launch and pinnace to go alongside the frigate, and request Mr. Normandy to send Mr. Marston ashore with fifty more men. What on earth are we to do with these poor creatures?" he went on to the first lieutenant as the gig rowed away. "Of course we must take them to Jamaica. Theirs is a terrible position. No doubt they have all been captured in the prizes the villains have taken, and most of them must have seen their husbands or fathers murdered before their eyes. Some of them may have been here long enough to become accustomed to their lot, many of them may have been captured lately. What is to become of them I don't know.

"You have not opened any of the storehouses yet?"

"No, sir, we have been pretty busy, you see. We cut down all the cactus hedges round the huts high up on the hill, so as to keep the pirates from working down and making a fresh attack upon us. As to the other houses, I have given strict orders that no one is to enter them. The men have piled arms and are lying down by them; many of them have not completely recovered from the shock of the explosion, and all are bruised more or less by being hurled on to the rocks or against the guns. I fancy the doctor will have his hands full for many a day."

"Well, you must pick out twenty or so from those most fit for duty. They can join the men I sent for and finish the business. The rest can be on guard here, in case the party on the other side take it into their heads to make an attack."


While waiting for the arrival of the reinforcements, Captain Crosbie went on board the Cerf. The wounded had all been carried below, where cots had been slung for them. After their wounds were dressed, he went round saying a few words to each, enquiring into the nature of their injuries. No attempt had been made to remedy the confusion on deck, except that the bodies of those that could be moved had been laid side by side. That of Mr. Playford and the others who had been crushed by the falling masts still lay beneath them, as the four men left on board were unable to do anything to extricate them until help arrived. The captain then went on board the prize.

"Mr. Hill has spoken in the highest terms of the service that you have rendered, Mr. Glover, though I have not yet heard the full details. As the only surviving officer of the Cerf, you had better, when you have time, draw out a full report for me of the work done by her. It will be another half-hour before we again commence operations against the pirates, and I shall be obliged if you will go on board the Cerf with your men and endeavour to get the body of Mr. Playford and the others from underneath the masts. Nothing more can be done at present, but it is painful that they should be lying there. I fancy that with hand-spikes you will have no very great difficulty in raising the butt of the mast high enough to draw the bodies from under it. As soon as you have done that, bring the men back here. When the advance begins you will shell the wood ahead of it."

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