The Blockade Runners/IX
BETWEEN TWO FIRES
The boat, pulled by six robust oarsmen, flew over the water. The fog was growing dense, and it was with difficulty that James Playfair succeeded in keeping to the line of his bearings. Crockston sat at the bows, and Mr. Halliburtt at the stern, next the Captain. The prisoner, only now informed of the presence of his servant, wished to speak to him, but the latter enjoined silence.
However, a few minutes later, when they were in the middle of the harbour, Crockston determined to speak, knowing what thoughts were uppermost in Mr. Halliburtt's mind.
"Yes, my dear master," said he, "the gaoler is in my place in the cell, where I gave him two smart blows, one on the head and the other on the stomach, to act as a sleeping draught, and this when he was bringing me my supper; there is gratitude for you. I took his clothes and his keys, found you, and let you out of the citadel, under the soldiers' noses. That is all I have done."
"But my daughter—?" asked Mr. Halliburtt.
"Is on board the ship which is going to take you to England."
"My daughter there! there!" cried the American, springing from his seat.
"Silence!" replied Crockston, "a few minutes, and we shall be saved."
The boat flew through the darkness, but James Playfair was obliged to steer rather by guess, as the lanterns of the Dolphin were no longer visible through the fog. He was undecided what direction to follow, and the darkness was so great that the rowers could not even see to the end of their oars.
"Well, Mr. James?" said Crockston.
"We must have made more than a mile and a half," replied the Captain. "You don't see anything, Crockston?"
"Nothing; nevertheless, I have good eyes; but we shall get there all right. They don't suspect anything out there."
These words were hardly finished when the flash of a gun gleamed for an instant through the darkness, and vanished in the mist.
"A signal!" cried James Playfair.
"Whew!" exclaimed Crockston. "It must have come from the citadel. Let us wait."
A second, then a third shot was fired in the direction of the first, and almost the same signal was repeated a mile in front of the gig.
"That is from Fort Sumter," cried Crockston, "and it is the signal of escape. Urge on the men; everything is discovered."
"Pull for your lives, my men!" cried James Playfair, urging on the sailors, "those gun-shots cleared my route. The Dolphin is eight hundred yards ahead of us. Stop! I hear the bell on board. Hurrah, there it is again! Twenty pounds for you if we are back in five minutes!"
The boat skimmed over the waves under the sailors' powerful oars. A cannon boomed in the direction of the town. Crockston heard a ball whiz past them.
The bell on the Dolphin was ringing loudly. A few more strokes and the boat was alongside. A few more seconds and Jenny fell into her father's arms.
The gig was immediately raised, and James Playfair sprang on to the poop.
"Is the steam up, Mr. Mathew?"
"Have the moorings cut at once."
A few minutes later the two screws carried the steamer towards the principal channel, away from Fort Sumter.
"Mr. Mathew," said James, "we must not think of taking the Sullivan Island channel; we should run directly under the Confederate guns. Let us go as near as possible to the right side of the harbour out of range of the Federal batteries. Have you a safe man at the helm?"
"Have the lanterns and the fires on deck extinguished; there is a great deal too much light, but we cannot help the reflection from the engine-rooms."
During this conversation the Dolphin was going at a great speed; but in altering her course to keep to the right side of the Charleston Harbour she was obliged to enter a channel which took her for a moment near Fort Sumter; and when scarcely half a mile off all the guns bearing on her were discharged at the same time, and a shower of shot and shell passed in front of the Dolphin with a thundering report.
"Too soon, stupids," cried James Playfair, with a burst of laughter. "Make haste, make haste, Mr. Engineer! We shall get between two fires."
The stokers fed the furnaces, and the Dolphin trembled all over with the effort of the engine as if she was on the point of exploding.
At this moment a second report was heard, and another shower of balls whizzed behind the Dolphin.
"Too late, stupids," cried the young Captain, with a regular roar.
Then Crockston, who was standing on the poop, cried, "That's one passed. A few minutes more, and we shall have done with the Rebs."
"Then do you think we have nothing more to fear from Fort Sumter?" asked James.
"Nothing at all, but everything from Fort Moultrie, at the end of Sullivan Island; but they will only get a chance at us for half a minute, and then they must choose their time well, and shoot straight if they want to reach us. We are getting near."
"Right; the position of Fort Moultrie will allow us to go straight for the principal channel. Fire away then, fire away!"
At the same moment, and as if in obedience to James Playfair, the fort was illuminated by a triple line of lightning. A frightful crash was heard; then a crackling sound on board the steamer.
"Touched this time!" exclaimed Crockston.
"Mr. Mathew!" cried the Captain to his second, who was stationed at the bows, "what has been damaged?"
"The bowsprit broken."
"Well, then, the masts may go to Jericho. Straight into the pass! Straight! and steer towards the island."
"We have passed the Rebs!" cried Crockston; "and, if we must have balls in our hull, I would much rather have the Northerners; they are more easily digested."
In fact, the Dolphin could not yet consider herself out of danger; for, if Morris Island was not fortified with the formidable pieces of artillery which were placed there a few months later, nevertheless its guns and mortars could easily have sunk a ship like the Dolphin.
The alarm had been given to the Federals on the island, and to the blockading squadron, by the firing from Forts Sumter and Moultrie. The besiegers could not make out the reason of this night attack; it did not seem to be directed against them. However, they were obliged to consider it so, and were ready to reply.
It occupied James Playfair's thoughts whilst making towards the passes of Morris Island; and he had reason to fear, for in a quarter of an hour's time lights gleamed rapidly through the darkness. A shower of small shell fell round the steamer, scattering the water over her bulwarks; some of them even struck the deck of the Dolphin, but not on their points, which saved the ship from certain ruin. In fact, these shell, as it was afterwards discovered, could break into a hundred fragments, and each cover a superficial area of a hundred and twenty square feet with Greek fire, which would burn for twenty minutes, and nothing could extinguish it. One of these shell alone could set a ship on fire. Fortunately for the Dolphin, they were a new invention, and as yet far from perfect. Once thrown into the air, a false rotary movement kept them inclined, and, when falling, instead of striking on their points, where is the percussion apparatus, they fell flat. This defect in construction alone saved the Dolphin. The falling of these shells did her little harm, and under the pressure of her over-heated boilers she continued to advance into the pass.
At this moment, and in spite of his orders, Mr. Halliburtt and his daughter went to James Playfair on the poop; the latter urged them to return to their cabins, but Jenny declared that she would remain by the Captain. As for Mr. Halliburtt, who had just learnt all the noble conduct of his deliverer, he pressed his hand without being able to utter a word.
The Dolphin was speeding rapidly towards the open sea. There were only three miles more before she would be in the waters of the Atlantic; if the pass was free at its entrance, she was saved. James Playfair was wonderfully well acquainted with all the secrets of Charleston Bay, and he guided his ship through the darkness with an unerring hand. He was beginning to think his daring enterprise successful, when a sailor on the forecastle cried:
"A ship?" cried James.
"Yes, on the larboard side."
The fog had cleared off, and a large frigate was seen making towards the pass, in order to obstruct the passage of the Dolphin. It was necessary, cost what it might, to distance her, and urge the steam-engine to an increase of speed, or all was lost.
"Port the helm at once!" cried the Captain.
Then he sprang on to the bridge above the engine. By his orders one of the screws was stopped, and under the action of the other the Dolphin, veering with an extraordinary rapidity, avoided running foul of the frigate, and advanced like her to the entrance of the pass. It was now a question of speed.
James Playfair understood that in this lay his own safety, Miss Jenny's, her father's, and that of all his crew.
The frigate was considerably in advance of the Dolphin. It was evident from the volumes of black smoke issuing from her chimneys that she was getting up her steam. James Playfair was not the man to be left in the background.
"How are the engines?" cried he to the engineer.
"At the maximum speed," replied the latter; "the steam is escaping by all the valves."
"Fasten them down," ordered the Captain.
And his orders were executed at the risk of blowing up the ship.
The Dolphin again increased her speed; the pistons worked with frightful rapidity; the metal plates on which the engine was placed trembled under the terrific force of their blows. It was a sight to make the boldest shudder.
"More pressure!" cried James Playfair; "put on more pressure!"
"Impossible!" replied the engineer. "The valves are tightly closed; our furnaces are full up to the mouths."
"What difference! Fill them with cotton soaked in spirits; we must pass that frigate at any price."
At these words the most daring of the sailors looked at each other, but did not hesitate. Some bales of cotton were thrown into the engine-room, a barrel of spirits broached over them, and this expensive fuel placed, not without danger, in the red-hot furnaces. The stokers could no longer hear each other speak for the roaring of the flames. Soon the metal plates of the furnaces became red-hot; the pistons worked like the pistons of a locomotive; the steamgauge showed a frightful tension; the steamer flew over the water; her boards creaked, and her chimneys threw out volumes of smoke mingled with flames. She was going at a headlong speed, but, nevertheless, she was gaining on the frigate—passed her, distanced her, and in ten minutes was out of the channel.
"Saved!" cried the Captain.
"Saved!" echoed the crew, clapping their hands.
Already the Charleston beacon was disappearing in the south-west; the sound of firing from the batteries grew fainter, and it might with reason be thought that the danger was all past, when a shell from a gun-boat cruising at large was hurled whizzing through the air. It was easy to trace its course, thanks to the line of fire which followed it.
Then was a moment of anxiety impossible to describe; every one was silent, and each watched fearfully the arch described by the projectile. Nothing could be done to escape it, and in a few seconds it fell with a frightful noise on the fore-deck of the Dolphin.
The terrified sailors crowded to the stern, and no one dared move a step, whilst the shell was burning with a brisk crackle.
But one brave man alone among them ran up to the formidable weapon of destruction. It was Crockston; he took the shell in his strong arms, whilst showers of sparks were falling from it; then, with a superhuman effort, he threw it overboard.
Hardly had the shell reached the surface of the water when it burst with a frightful report.
"Hurrah! hurrah!" cried the whole crew of the Dolphin unanimously, whilst Crockston rubbed his hands.
Some time later the steamer sped rapidly through the waters of the Atlantic; the American coast disappeared in the darkness, and the distant lights which shot across the horizon indicated that the attack was general between the batteries of Morris Island and the forts of Charleston Harbour.