The Blockade Runners/V
THE SHOT FROM THE IROQUOIS, AND MISS JENNY'S ARGUMENTS
Until now the navigation of the Dolphin had been very fortunate. Not one ship had been signalled before the sail hailed by the man on watch.
The Dolphin was then in 32° 51' lat., and 57° 43' W. longitude. For forty-eight hours a fog, which now began to rise, had covered the ocean. If this mist favoured the Dolphin by hiding her course, it also prevented any observations at a distance being made, and, without being aware of it, she might be sailing side by side, so to speak, with the ships she wished most to avoid.
Now this is just what had happened, and when the ship was signalled she was only three miles to windward.
When James Playfair had reached the cross-trees, he saw distinctly, through an opening in the mist, a large Federal corvette in full pursuit of the Dolphin.
After having carefully examined her, the Captain came down on deck again, and called to the first officer.
"Mr. Mathew," said he, "what do you think of this ship?"
"I think, Captain, that it is a Federal cruiser, which suspects our intentions."
"There is no possible doubt of her nationality," said James Playfair. "Look!"
At this moment the starry flag of the North United States appeared on the gaff-yards of the corvette, and the latter asserted her colours with a cannon-shot.
"An invitation to show ours," said Mr. Mathew. "Well, let us show them; there is nothing to be ashamed of."
"What's the good?" replied James Playfair. "Our flag will hardly protect us, and it will not hinder those people from paying us a visit. No; let us go ahead."
"And go quickly," replied Mr. Mathew, "for, if my eyes do not deceive me, I have already seen that corvette lying off Liverpool, where she went to watch the ships in building: my name is not Mathew, if that is not the Iroquois on her taffrail."
"And is she fast?"
"One of the fastest vessels of the Federal marine."
"What guns does she carry?"
"Oh, don't shrug your shoulders, Captain," said Mr. Mathew, in a serious tone; "two out of those eight guns are rifled, one is a sixty-pounder on the forecastle, and the other a hundred-pounder on deck."
"Upon my soul!" exclaimed James Playfair, "they are Parrott's, and will carry three miles."
"Yes, and farther than that, Captain."
"Ah, well! Mr. Mathew, let their guns be sixty or only four-pounders, and let them carry three miles or five hundred yards, it is all the same if we can go fast enough to avoid their shot. We will show this Iroquois how a ship can go when she is built on purpose to go. Have the fires drawn forward, Mr. Mathew."
The first officer gave the Captain's orders to the engineer, and soon volumes of black smoke curled from the steamer's chimneys.
This proceeding did not seem to please the corvette, for she made the Dolphin the signal to lie to, but James Playfair paid no attention to this warning, and did not change his ship's course.
"Now," said he, "we shall see what the Iroquois will do; here is a fine opportunity for her to try her guns. Go ahead full speed!"
"Good!" exclaimed Mr. Mathew; "she will not be long in saluting us."
Returning to the poop, the Captain saw Miss Halliburtt sitting quietly near the bulwarks.
"Miss Jenny," said he, "we shall probably be chased by that corvette you see to windward, and as she will speak to us with shot, I beg to offer you my arm to take you to your cabin again."
"Thank you, very much, Mr. Playfair," replied the young girl, looking at him, "but I am not afraid of cannon-shots."
"However, miss, in spite of the distance, there may be some danger."
"Oh, I was not brought up to be fearful; they accustom us to everything in America, and I assure you that the shot from the Iroquois will not make me lower my head."
"You are brave, Miss Jenny."
"Let us admit, then, that I am brave, and allow me to stay by you."
"I can refuse you nothing, Miss Halliburtt," replied the Captain, looking at the young girl's calm face.
These words were hardly uttered when they saw a line of white smoke issue from the bulwarks of the corvette; before the report had reached the Dolphin a projectile whizzed through the air in the direction of the steamer.
At about twenty fathoms from the Dolphin the shot, the speed of which had sensibly lessened, skimmed over the surface of the waves, marking its passage by a series of water-jets; then, with another burst, it rebounded to a certain height, passed over the Dolphin, grazing the mizzen-yards on the starboard side, fell at thirty fathoms beyond, and was buried in the waves.
"By Jove!" exclaimed James Playfair, "we must get along; another slap like that is not to be waited for."
"Oh!" exclaimed Mr. Mathew, "they will take some time to reload such pieces."
"Upon my honour, it is an interesting sight," said Crockston, who, with arms crossed, stood perfectly at his ease looking at the scene.
"Ah! that's you," cried James Playfair, scanning the American from head to foot.
"It is me, Captain," replied the American, undisturbed. "I have come to see how these brave Federals fire; not badly, in truth, not badly."
The Captain was going to answer Crockston sharply, but at this moment a second shot struck the sea on the starboard side.
"Good!" cried James Playfair, "we have already gained two cables on this Iroquois. Your friends sail like a buoy; do you hear, Master Crockston?"
"I will not say they don't," replied the American, "and for the first time in my life it does not fail to please me."
A third shot fell still farther astern, and in less than ten minutes the Dolphin was out of range of the corvette's guns.
"So much for patent-logs, Mr. Mathew," said James Playfair; "thanks to those shot we know how to rate our speed. Now have the fires lowered; it is not worth while to waste our coal uselessly."
"It is a good ship that you command," said Miss Halliburtt to the young Captain.
"Yes, Miss Jenny, my good Dolphin makes her seventeen knots, and before the day is over we shall have lost sight of that corvette."
James Playfair did not exaggerate the sailing qualities of his ship, and the sun had not set before the masts of the American ship had disappeared below the horizon.
This incident allowed the Captain to see Miss Halliburtt's character in a new light; besides, the ice was broken, henceforward, during the whole of the voyage; the interviews between the Captain and his passenger were frequent and prolonged; be found her to be a young girl, calm, strong, thoughtful, and intelligent, speaking with great ease, having her own ideas about everything, and expressing her thoughts with a conviction which unconsciously penetrated James Playfair's heart.
She loved her country, she was zealous in the great cause of the Union, and expressed herself on the civil war in the United States with an enthusiasm of which no other woman would have been capable. Thus it happened, more than once, that James Playfair found it difficult to answer her, even when questions purely mercantile arose in connection with the war: Miss Jenny attacked them none the less vigorously, and would come to no other terms whatever. At first James argued a great deal, and tried to uphold the Confederates against the Federals, to prove that the Secessionists were in the right, and that if the people were united voluntarily they might separate in the same manner. But the young girl would not yield on this point; she demonstrated that the question of slavery was predominant in the struggle between the North and South Americans, that it was far more a war in the cause of morals and humanity than politics, and James could make no answer. Besides, during these discussions, which he listened to attentively, it is difficult to say whether he was more touched by Miss Halliburtt's arguments or the charming manner in which she spoke; but at last he was obliged to acknowledge, among other things, that slavery was the principal feature in the war, that it must be put an end to decisively, and the last horrors of barbarous times abolished.
It has been said that the political opinions of the Captain did not trouble him much. He would have sacrificed his most serious opinion before such enticing arguments and under like circumstances; he made a good bargain of his ideas for the same reason, but at last he was attacked in his tenderest point; this was the question of the traffic in which the Dolphin was being employed, and, consequently, the ammunition which was being carried to the Confederates.
"Yes, Mr. James," said Miss Halliburtt, "gratitude does not hinder me from speaking with perfect frankness; on the contrary, you are a brave seaman, a clever merchant, the house of Playfair is noted for its respectability; but in this case it fails in its principles, and follows a trade unworthy of it."
"How!" cried James, "the house of Playfair ought not to attempt such a commercial enterprise?"
"No! it is taking ammunition to the unhappy creatures in revolt against the government of their country, and it is lending arms to a bad cause."
"Upon my honour, Miss Jenny, I will not discuss the right of the Confederates with you; I will only answer you with one word: I am a merchant, and as such I only occupy myself with the interests of my house; I look for gain wherever there is an opportunity of getting it."
"That is precisely what is to be blamed, Mr. James," replied the young girl; "profit does not excuse it; thus, when you supply arms to the Southerners, with which to continue a criminal war, you are quite as guilty as when you sell opium to the Chinese, which stupefies them."
"Oh, for once, Miss Jenny, this is too much, and I cannot admit—"
"No; what I say is just, and when you consider it, when you understand the part you are playing, when you think of the results for which you are responsible, you will yield to me in this point, as in so many others."
James Playfair was dumfounded at these words; he left the young girl, a prey to angry thoughts, for he felt his powerlessness to answer; then he sulked like a child for half an hour, and an hour later he returned to the singular young girl who could overwhelm him with convincing arguments with quite a pleasant smile.
In short, however it may have come about, and although he would not acknowledge it to himself, Captain James Playfair belonged to himself no longer; he was no longer commander-in-chief on board his own ship.
Thus, to Crockston's great joy, Mr. Halliburtt's affairs appeared to be in a good way; the Captain seemed to have decided to undertake everything in his power to deliver Miss Jenny's father, and for this he would be obliged to compromise the Dolphin, his cargo, his crew, and incur the displeasure of his worthy Uncle Vincent.