The Annotated "Privateersman"/Chapter X

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Captain Levee and I engage with the French Privateer—We come off victorious—My revenge against the French Lady—We take our Prize to Liverpool.

The wind was light, and we did not gain the mouth of the river till near sun-down, when the pilot left us; and as soon as we were three miles in the offing, I hauled down the flag of truce in the sight of the French privateer, who was following us close, and was not more than four miles from us. To avoid mistake, I had agreed with Captain Levee that should I be coming out after dark, I would carry a light at the peak, and this light I now hoisted. It enabled the French privateer to follow me, and appeared only as a mark of contempt towards him. I stood on in the direction where I was to find Captain Levee, and could make out the Frenchman following me, and gradually nearing me. As it became dark, I made more sail to keep him further off till I had joined the Arrow, but the light at my peak pointed out to him where I was. All this seemed a mystery to my officers and men, until, having run out about four leagues, I desired them to keep a sharp look-out for the Arrow.

About half-past eight o’clock we perceived her lying-to; she had furled her sails after dark, as usual. The light I bore told her who I was, and I ran close to her, and, hailing Captain Levee, desired him to prepare for action, and that I would come on board to speak to him. This, of course, created a great bustle on board of the Arrow, and I hastened on board that they might not show any lights. I then informed Captain Levee of all that had passed, and that the Frenchman was not more than five miles from us. We agreed that I should still keep up the light, and bear away a little to draw the Frenchman to leeward of the port, and also to leeward of the Arrow;—that the Arrow should lower her sails again, so as not to be perceived until I had drawn the Frenchman past him, and that then I should commence the action under sail, and fight till the Arrow came up to my assistance. This being arranged, I hastened on board of my schooner, and, keeping away four points, I waited for the coming up of my antagonist. In half an hour we could perceive him through the gloom, not more than a mile from us, under all sail, standing steadily for the light which we carried at our peak.

As I had already discovered that my little schooner sailed faster than my opponent, I allowed her to come up within a quarter of a mile of me, when I rounded-to; and, desiring my men to aim at his rigging, so as to dismantle him, poured in my broadside of grape and langridge, and then shifted my helm and resumed my course, putting more sail on, so as to increase my distance to what it was before. This manoeuvre I executed three times with success, and I had the satisfaction of perceiving that his foretop-mast was shot away; but when I rounded-to the fourth time, he did the same, and we exchanged broadsides. The effect of his superior artillery was evident, for my rigging and sails were much damaged; happily nothing so serious as to impede our speed, and I again put before the breeze as before, and increased my distance previous to again rounding-to; for, as the water was very smooth, I knew that if I was crippled she would lay me by the board immediately, and I might be taken and hanged before the Arrow could come up to my assistance. I therefore continued a running fight at such a distance as rendered me less liable to suffer from his guns.

It is true that this distance made my guns even more ineffective, but I was decoying my Frenchman off from the land, and placing the Arrow between him and his port, so that his return would be intercepted. This continued for about an hour, when I perceived that the Frenchman had got up a new foretop-mast, and had set the sail upon it. He now ran out his bow-chasers, and continued to fire upon me with them alone, not choosing to lose ground by rounding-to, to give me a broadside; and as his canvass was all out, and I was occasionally rounding-to to dismantle him, we retained much the same distance from one another. At last a shot from his bow-chaser struck off the head of my mainmast, and my gaff came down.

This was serious. We hastened to reef the mainsail and hoist it up again upon the remainder of the mast, but having no gaff-topsail our speed was necessarily decreased, and the enemy appeared to be gradually closing with us. I looked out for the Arrow, but could perceive no signs of her; indeed it was too dark to see farther than half a mile. Finding that on the point of sailing we were on I had no chance, I determined to alter my course, and put my schooner right before the wind so that I might set the square mainsail, which would give time for the Arrow to arrive; indeed at this time I was in a state of great anxiety. However, I had made up my mind not to be taken alive, and to sell my life as dearly as I could.

When the enemy perceived that we had put before the wind, he did the same, and, as we were about half a mile from each other, we continued to exchange broadsides as we ran, she gradually nearing us so as to make her heavy artillery more effective. This portion of the contest continued for an hour, during which my little schooner had received much injury, and we were constantly repairing damages. At last, much to my delight, the day began to dawn, and I then discovered the Arrow about a mile and a half from us, right astern, under a press of sail.

I pointed her out to my officers and men, who were inspired with fresh courage at the sight. The enemy also perceived her, and appeared determined to bring the combat to an issue previous to her coming up, and I feared that, at all events, I might swing at the yard-arm, let the issue of the coming combat be what it might. She neared, steering a course so as to cut me off, and I continued to pour in my broadsides to cripple her if possible, as she did not now fire, but ran steadily for me, and my chances were bad.

Anxious that the Arrow should close as soon as possible, I hauled down my square mainsail, that we might not run from her, and prepared for an obstinate resistance if boarded. At last the Frenchman was within a cable’s length, and at this critical moment the Arrow was about a mile to windward. We poured in our last broadside, and hastened to seize our pikes and cutlasses to repel the boarders, when to my satisfaction I found that one of our shot had cut his gaff in two. I immediately rounded to the wind; and as my antagonist was within pistol-shot of me, with her men all ready for the leap on board, I put my helm down, went round in stays, and crossed her so near to windward that you might have thrown a biscuit on board.

This manoeuvre prevented his boarding, and I may say saved my life, for his gaff being shot away he could not heave in stays to follow me, but was obliged to wear round after me, which increased his distance at least a cable’s length to leeward. A furious broadside, however, which he poured in, crippled me altogether. Everything came running down upon the decks, and I was left a complete wreck; but I was to windward of him, and although he might sink me, he could not board or take possession until he had refitted his after-sail.

But now his time was come. A fresh antagonist, with equal weight of metal, was close to him, and he had to decide whether he would fight or run. Whether he conceived that running was useless, which it certainly was, or was determined to take us both or die, I know not; certain it is that he did not put his vessel before the wind, but waited with determination the coming up of the Arrow. Captain Levee passed under the Frenchman’s stern, raking him with a broadside that almost unrigged him, and then engaged him to leeward, so as to cut off all chance of his escape.

The Frenchman returned the fire with spirit, and I took my men from my guns that we might set some sail upon the vessel, for after the Arrow commenced her fire no further notice was taken of me by the Frenchman. After a contest well maintained for half an hour, the mainmast of the Frenchman went by the board, and this almost settled the question, as he could not keep his vessel to the wind, and consequently she fell off; and received a raking fire from the Arrow. At last her bowsprit was between the main and fore rigging of the Arrow, and her decks were swept by the Arrow’s raking fire. I had got some sail up forward, and was anxious to be at the close of the action. I perceived that the Frenchman was attempting to board the lugger, and was pouring all his people on the forecastle, and I therefore edged down to him that I might, with my people, board him on the quarter, which would place him, as we say, between two fires. The conflict was at its highest, the French attempting and the Arrow’s crew repelling them, when I laid my schooner on her quarter, and leaped on board of her with my few remaining men. The Frenchmen turned to repel my attack, and thus weakened their party opposed to the Arrow’s men; the consequence was, that they were first beaten back, and then boarded by Captain Levee and his crew.

As soon as I had gained the deck of the Frenchman, I thought of nothing but to single out the French captain. At first I could not see him, but as his crew retreated from Captain Levee and his men, I perceived him, pale and exhausted, but still attempting to rally them. As my object was to take him alive, I rushed in advance at him, wrestled, and threw him on his back on the deck. There I held him, while the combatants, fighting and retreating, tumbled over us one after another, and bruised us severely with their weight. At last the French were beaten below, and I had time to breathe; calling to two of my men, I desired them to take charge of the French captain, and, as they valued their lives, not to let him escape, or destroy himself but to take him into our vessel and guard him carefully in my cabin. Having done this, I went to Captain Levee, and we embraced.

“You did not come a minute too soon,” I said, wiping the blood from my face.

“No, indeed; and, but for your clever manoeuvre you would have been beaten. Your vessel is a mere nutshell compared to this;—you did well, more than well, to maintain the combat so long. Have you lost many men?”

“We had ten sent below before we boarded; what may have followed since I do not know: I have the French captain safe in my cabin.”

“I saw the men hand him over:— well, now to repair damages, and then I will tell you what you shall do. I must send on board and help you; the Arrow has not suffered much considering, and I can spare the men. As soon as we have cleared up the decks a little, we will breakfast together, and talk the matter over.”

It required two hours before we could clear the decks of our vessels, for we had separated, and the Arrow had taken charge of the prize. Before I took the boat to go on board the Arrow, I went down into my cabin, where the French captain lay bound and watched by two of the men.

“You are prepared to pay the penalty agreed upon, Monsieur?” said I.

“I am, Sir,” he replied. “I now understand what you meant when you said that I should meet with my match. I have no one to blame but myself. I urge you to the conditions, expecting an easy and certain conquest with my superior vessel. I have fallen into my own net, and there’s an end of the matter—except that when things go wrong, a woman is certain to be at the bottom of it.”

“I am aware, Sir,” I replied, “that your wife instigated you to act as you did, or you would never have so behaved. In attempting to revenge the death of one husband she has lost two.”

C’est vrai,” replied the Frenchman, composedly, and I then quitted the cabin, and went on board of the Arrow.

“Well, Elrington,” said Captain Levee, “what do you intend to do with the French captain? Is he to pay the forfeit, and awing at the yard-arm?”

“I don’t like hanging a man, especially a brave man, in cold blood,” I replied. “It was all his wife’s doing, and he has confessed as much.”

“He would certainly have hanged you,” replied Levee.

“Yes, that I believe; but it would have been that he might have a quiet life at home—not from any resentment against me. Now I have no feeling of that kind to actuate me.”

“What will you do, then?”

“Not hang him, certainly; and yet I should like to punish her.”

“She deserves it,” replied Captain Levee. “Now, Elrington, will you approve of my suggestion?”

“Let me hear it.”

“It is this: they do not know that I have assisted in taking the privateer, as they have no idea that I am here. As soon as we have refitted her and your vessel, I will remain where I am. You shall run into the mouth of the Garonne, with your colours flying, and the English Jack over the French flag on board of the prize. This will lead them to suppose that you have taken the vessel without assistance. When just out of gun-shot, heave-to, fire a gun, and then swing an effigy to the yard-arm, and remain there, to make them suppose that you have hung the French captain. At nightfall you can make sail and rejoin me. That will punish her, and annoy them generally.”

“I will do so; it is an excellent device, and she will never know the truth for a long time to come.”

We remained all that day refitting; in the evening I made sail, in company with the French schooner, which was manned by Captain Levee, and stood in shore. At break of the following day I ran in, standing for the harbour, without my colours being hoisted, and then it occurred to me that I would make their disappointment greater, by allowing them first to imagine that the victory was theirs; so, when about six miles off, I hoisted French colours on the French schooner, and French colours over English on board of my own.

I continued to stand on till within two miles and a half of the batteries, and could see crowds flocking down to witness the supposed triumphant arrival of their privateer into port; when of a sudden I hauled my wind, hove-to, brailed up my sails, and changed the colours, firing a gun in bravado. Allowing them half an hour to comment upon this disappointment, I then fired another gun, and hoisted up to the yard-arm the figure of a man, composed of clothes stuffed with hay, made to represent the French captain; and having so done, I remained during the whole forenoon, with my sails brailed up, that they might have a clear view of the hanging figure. At last we perceived a large boat, with a flag of truce, coming out of the river. I remained where I was, and, allowing it to come alongside, I perceived in it the French officer who had pledged himself to give the conditions of the combat to the lady; and seated by him was the French captain’s wife, with her head sunk down on her knees, and her face buried in her handkerchief.

I saluted the officer as he came on deck. He returned my bow, and then said, “Sir, the fortune of war has proved in your favour, and I perceive that the conditions of the issue of the combat have been adhered to on your side. Against that I have not a word to say, as my friend would have as rigidly adhered to them. But, Sir, we war not with the dead, and I have come off at the request of his miserable wife, to beg that you will, now that your revenge is satisfied, deliver up to her her husband’s body, that it may receive the rites of the Church, and Christian burial. You surely, as a brave man, will not deny this small favour to a woman whom you have twice deprived of her husband?”

“Sir,” I replied, “on condition that his lady will step on board and make the request herself, I will comply with it, but on no other terms.”

“It will be most painful, and her feelings might well have been spared such a trial as to meet your face again, and make the request in person; but, as you insist upon it, I will make known your terms.”

As he went into his boat I ran down into the cabin, and desired them to cast loose the French captain, saying to him, “Sir, your wife is here requesting your body, which she believes to be swinging at the yard-arm, for I have put that trick into execution to punish her. I never intended to take your life, and I shall now do more, I shall give you not only life but liberty—such shall be my revenge.”

The French captain stared as if confounded, but made no reply. I then went on deck, where I found the lady had been lifted up the side. They led her to me, and she fell on her knees, but the effort was too much for her, and she fainted away. I ordered her to be taken down into the cabin, and, without any explanation, desired the French officer to accompany her, not wishing to be present at the unexpected meeting. I therefore remained on deck, and ordering the men to lower down the effigy they did so, laughing at the French seamen in the boat, who for the first time perceived, for they had not looked up before, that it was only a sham captain. I looked over the side, and told them that the captain was alive and well, and would be in the boat very soon, at which they were greatly rejoiced. In the mean time the explanation took place in the cabin, and after a few minutes the French officer came up, and expressed his satisfaction at what I had done.

“You have given a lesson, Sir, without being guilty of barbarity. Your conduct has been noble.”

He was soon followed by the French captain and his lady, who was now all gratitude, and would have kissed my hands, but I prevented her, and said, “Madam, at least now you have no occasion to hate me. If I was so unfortunate, in self-defence, as to slay your first husband, I have restored to you your second. Let us, then, part in amity.”

The French captain squeezed my hand, but said nothing. I begged they would take some refreshment, but they were too anxious to return and undeceive their friends, and requested permission to go into the boat. Of course I consented, and as the boat pulled away the crew gave three huzzas, as a compliment to us. When they were a mile in shore, I hauled down the colours of both vessels, and made sail out to rejoin Captain Levee, which I did in the evening, and then related all that had passed.

He was much pleased with the result of the affair, and we then, having consulted, considered it advisable to run back to Liverpool with the prize, for she required so many hands to man her as to render us by no means efficient vessels. Moreover, I have omitted to state that, while I was in the Garonne, the Arrow had taken two good prizes, which she had manned and sent to Liverpool. We therefore made sail to the northward, and in a week were again in port, with our prize. We found that the other vessels had arrived safe, and the owner was much pleased with the result of this short and eventful cruise.