The Slapping Sal

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The Slapping Sal
by Arthur Conan Doyle

The text is taken from McClure's Magazine/Volume 1, Number 3, August 1893, pp.206-212. The illustrations were by "A. Brennan" who has not otherwise been identified.

The Slapping Sal, and Hairy Hudson.jpg

lt was in the days when France's power was already broken upon the seas, and when more of her three-deckers Iay rotting in the Medway than were to be found in Brest Harbor. But her frigates and corvettes still scoured the ocean, closely followed ever by those of her rival. At the uttermost ends of the earth these dainty vessels, with sweet names of girls or of flowers, mangled and shattered each other for the honor of the four yards of bunting that flapped from their gaffs.

It had blown hard in the night, but the wind had dropped with the dawning, and now the rising sun tinted the fringe of the storm wrack as it dwindied into the west, and glinted on the endless crests of the long green waves. To north and south and west lay a skyline which was unbroken, save by the spout of foam when two of the great Atlantic seas dashed each other into spray. To the east was a rocky island, jutting out into craggy points, with a few scattered clumps of palm-trees, and a pennant of mist streaming out from the bare conical hill which capped it. A heavy surf beat upon the shore, and at a safe distance from it the British 32-gun frigate "Leda," Captain A. P. Johnson, raised her black, glistening side upon the crest of a wave, or swooped down into au emerald valley, dipping away to the nor'ard under easy sail. On her snow-white quarter-deck stood a stiff, little, brown-faced nqan, who swept the horizon with his glass.

"Mr. Wharton," he cried, with a voice like a rusty hinge.

A thin, knock-kneed officer shambled across the poop to him.

"Yes, sir."

"I've opened the sealed orders, Mr. Wharton."

A glimmer of curiosity shone upon the meagre featnres of the first lieutenant. The "Leda" had sailed with her consort the "Dido" from Antigua the week before, and the admiraI's orders had been contained in a sealed envelope.

"We were to open them on reaching the deserted island of Sombriero, lying in north latitude eighteen, thirty-six, west longitude sixty-three, twenty-eight. Sombriero bore four miles to the northeast from our port bow when the gale cleared, Mr. Wharton."

The Iieuteuant bowed stiffly. He and the captain had been bosom friends from childhood. They had gone to school together, joined the navy together, fought again and again together, and married into each other's families; but as long as their feet were on the poop the iron discipline of the service struck all that was human out of them, and left only the superior and the subordinate. Captain Johnson took a blue paper from his pocket, which crackled as he unfolded it.

Captain Johnson and Mr. Wharton, The Slapping Sal.jpg

"The 32-gun frigates, 'Leda' and 'Dido' (Captains A. P. Johnson and James Munro), are to cruise from the point at which these instructions are read to the mouth of the Caribbean Sea, in the hope of encountering the French frigate 'La Gloire' (48), which has recently harassed our merchant ships in that quarter. H. M. frigates are also directed to hunt down the piratical craft known sometimes as the 'Slapping Sal' and sometimes as the 'Hairy Hudson,' which has plundered the British ships as per margin, inflicting barbarities upon their crews. She is a small brig carrying ten light guns, with one twenty-four pound carronade forward. She was last seen upon the 23d ult., to the north-east of the island of Sombriero."
H. M. S. "Colossus," Antigua.

"We appear to have lost our consort," said Captain Johnson, folding up his instructions and again sweeping the horizon with his glass. "She drew away after we reefed down. It would be a pity if we met this heavy Frenchman without the 'Dido,' Mr. Wharton, eh ?"

The lieutenant twinkled and smiled.

"She has eighteen-pounders on the main and twelves on the poop, sir," said the captain. "She carries four hundred to our two hundred and thirty-one. Captain de Milon is the smartest man in the French service. O Bobby, boy, I'd give my hopes of my flag to rub my side up against her!" He turned on his heel, ashamed of his momentary lapse. "Mr. Wharton," said he, looking back sternly over his shoulder, "get those square sails shaken out, and bear away a point more to the west."

"A brig on the port bow," came a voice from the forecastle.

"A brig on the port bow," said the lieutenant.

The captain sprang up on the bulwarks, and held on by the mizzen shrouds, a strange little figure with flying skirts and puckered eyes. The lean lieutenant craned his neck and whispered to Smeaton, the second, while officers and men came popping up from below and clustered along the weatherrail, shading their eyes with their hands for the tropical sun was already clear of the pahn trees. The strange brig lay at anchor in the throat of a curving estuary, and it was already obvious that she could not get out without passing under the guns of the frigate. A long rocky point to the north of her held her in.

"Keep her as she goes, Mr. Wharton," said the captain. "Hardly worth while clearing for action, Mr. Smeaton, but the men can stand by the guns in case she tries to pass us. Cast loose the bowchasers, and send the small arm men on to the forecastle."

A British crew went to its quarters in those days with the quiet serenity of men on their daily routine. In a few minutes, without fuss or sound, the sailors were knotted round their guns, the marines were drawn up and leaning on their muskets, and the frigate's bowsprit pointed straight for her little victim.

"Is it the 'Slapping Sal,' sir?"

"I have no doubt of it, Mr. Wharton."

"They don't seem to like the look of us, sir. They've cut their cable and are clapping on sail."

It was evident that the brig meant struggling for her freedom. One little patch of canvas fluttered out above an other, and her people could be seeu working like mad men in the rigging. She made no attempt to pass her antagonist, but headed up the estuary. The captain rubbed his hands.

"She's making for shoal water, Mr. Wharton, and we shall have to cut her out, sir. She's a footy little brig, but I should have thought a fore-and-after would have been more handy."

"It was a mutiny, sir."

"Ah, indeed!"

"Yes, sir, I heard of it at Manilla--a bad business, sir. Captain and two mates murdered. This Hudson, or Hairy Hudson, as they call him, led the mutiny. He's a Londoner, sir, but a cruel villain as ever walked."

"His next walk will be to Execution Dock, Mr. Wharton. She seems heavily manned. I wish I could take twenty topmen out of her, but they would be enough to corrupt the crew of the ark, Mr. Wharton."

Both officers were looking through their glasses at the brig. Suddenly the lieutenant showed his teeth in a grin, while the captain flushed to a deeper red.

"That's Hairy Hudson on the after-rail, sir."

"The low, impertinent blackguard! He'll play some other antics before we are done with him. Could you reach him with the tong eighteen, Mr. Smeaton ?"

"Another cable length will do it, sir."

The brig yawed as they spoke, and as she came round, a spurt of smoke whiffed out from her quarter. It was a pure piece of bravado, for the gun could scarce carry half way. Then with a jaunty swing the little ship came into the wind again and shot round a fresh curve of the winding channel.

"The water's shoaling rapidly, sir," reported the second lieutenant.

"There's six fathoms, by the chart."

"Four, by the lead, sir."

"When we clear this point we shall see how we lie. Ha! I thought as much! Lay her to, Mr. Wharton. Now we have got her at our mercy."

The frigate was quite out of sight of the sea now, at the head of this riverlike estuary. As she came round the curve the two shores were seen to converge at a point about a mile distant. In the angle, as near shore as she could get, the brig was lying with her broadside towards her pursuer, and a wisp of black cloth streaming from her mizzen. The lean lieutenant, who had reappeared upon deck with a cutlass strapped to his side and two pistols rammed into his belt, peered curinusly at the ensign.

"Is it the 'Jolly Roger,' sir?" he asked.

But the captain was furious. "He may hang where his breeches are hanging before I have done with him," said he. "What boats will you want, Mr. Wharton ?"

"We should do it with the launch and the jolly-boat."

"Take four and make a clean job of it. Pipe away the crews at once, and I'll work her in and help you with the long eighteens."

With a rattle of ropes and a creaking of blocks the four boats splashed into the water. Their crews clustered thickly into them--bare-footed sailors, stolid marines, laughing middies, and in the sheets of each the senior officers with their stern, schoolmaster faces. The captain, his elbows on the binnacle, still watched the distant brig. Her crew were tricing up the boarding netting, dragging round the starboard guns, knocking new portholes for them, and making every preparation for a desperate resistance. In the thick of it all a huge man, bearded to the eyes, with a red night-cap upon his head, was straining and stooping and hauling. The captain watched him with a sour smile, and then snapping up his glass he turned upon his heel. For an instant he stood staring.

"Call back the boats !" he cried, in his thin, creaking voice. "Ctear away for action there! Cast loose those main-deck guns. Brace back the yards, Mr. Smeaton, and stand by to go about when she has weigh enough."

Round the curve of the estuary was coming a huge vessel. Her great yellow bowsprit and whiteLwinged figurehead were jutting out from the cluster of palm-trees, while high above them towered three immense masts, with the tricolor flag floating superbly from the mizzen. Round she came, the deep-blue water creaming under her forefoot, until her long, curving, black side, her line of shining copper beneath, and of snow-white hammocks above, and the thick clusters of men who peered over her bulwarks were all in full view.

The Action, The Slapping Sal.jpg Her lower yards were slung, her ports triced up, and her guns run out all ready for action. Lying behind one of the promontories of the island the look-out men of the "Gloire" upon the shore had seen the cul-de-sac into which the British frigate had headed, so that Captain de Milon had observed the "Leda" as Captain Johnson had the "Slapping Sal."

But the splendid discipline of the British service was at its best in such a crisis. The boats flew back, their crews clustered aboard, they were swung up at the davits, and the fall-ropes made fast. Hammocks were brought up and stowed, bulkheads sent down, ports and magazines opened, the fires put out in the galley, and the drums beat to quarters. Swarms of men set the head-sails and brought the frigate round, while the gun-crews threw off their jackets and shirts, tightened their belts, and ran out their eighteen-pounders, peering throngh the open portholes at the stately Frenchman. The wind was very light. Hardly a ripple showed itself upon the clear blue water, but the sails blew gently out as the breeze came over the wooded banks. The Frenchman had gone about also, and both ships were now heading slowly for the sea under fore-and-aft canvas, the "Gloire" a hundred yards in advance. She luffed up to cross the "Leda's" bows, but the British ship* came round also, and the two rippled slowly on in such a silence that the ringing of the ramrods, as the French marines drove home their charges, clanged quite loudly upon the ear.

Aboard the Leda, The Slapping Sal.jpg "Not much sea room, Mr. Wharton," remarked the captain.

"I have fought actions in less, sir."

"We must keep our distance, and trust to our gunnery. She is very heavily manned, and if she got alongside we might find ourselves in trou ble."

"I see the shakoes of soldiers aboard of her--two companies of light infantry from Martinique. Now we have her! Hard a port, and let her have it as we cross her stern!"

The keen eye of the little commander had seen the surface ripple which told of a passing breeze. He had used it to dart across behind the big Frenchman and to rake her with every gun as he passed. But, once past her, the "Leda" had to come back into the wind to keep out of shoal water. The maneeuvre brought her on the starboard side of the Frenchman, and the trim little frigate seemed to heel right over under the crashing broadside which burst from the gaping ports. A moment later her topmen were swarming aloft to set her topsails and royals, and she strove to cross the "Gloire's" bows and rake her again. The French captain, however, brought his frigate's head round, and the two rode side by side within easy pistol shot, pouring broadsides into each other in one of those murderous duels which, could they all be recorded, would mottle our charts with blood.

In that heavy tropical air, with so faint a breeze, the smoke formed a thick bank round the two vessels, from which the topmasts only protruded. Neither could see anything of its enemy save the throbs of fire in the darkhess, and the guns were sponged and trained and fired into a dense wall of vapor. On the poop and the forecastle the marines, in two little red lines, were pouring in their volleys, but neither they nor the seamen-gunners could see what effect their fire was having. Nor, indeed, could they tell how far they were suffering themselves, for standing at a gun one could but hazily see that upon the right and left. But above the roar of the cannon came the sharper sound of the piping shot, the crashing of riven planks, and the occasional heavy thud as spar or block came hurtling onto the deck. The lieutenants paced up and down behind the line of guns, while Captain Johnson fanned the smoke away with his cocked hat, and peered eagerly out.

"This is rare, Bobby," said he, as the lieutenant joined him. Then, suddenly restraining himself, "What have we lost, Mr. Wharton ?"

"Our main-topsail yard and our gaff, sir."

"Where's the flag?"

"Gone overboard, sir."

"They'll think we've struck. Lash a boat's ensign on the starboard arm of the mizzen cross jack-yard."

"Yes, sir."

A round shot dashed the binnacle to pieces between them. A second knocked two marines into a bloody, palpitating mass. For a moment the smoke rose, and the English captain saw that his adversary's heavier metal was producing a horrible effect. The "Leda" was a shattered wreck. Her deck was strewed with corpses. Several of her portholes were knocked into one, and one of her eighteen-pounder guns had been thrown right back onto her breech, and pointed straight up to the sky. The thin line of marines still loaded and fired, but half the guns were silent, and their crews were piled thickly around them.

"Stand by to repel boarders !" yelled the captain.

"Cutlasses, lads, cutlasses !" roared Wharton.

"Hold your volley till they touch !" cried the captain of marines.

The huge loom of the Frenchman was seen bursting through the smoke. Thick clusters of boarders hung upon her sides and shrouds. A final broadside leapt from her ports, and the mainmast of the "Leda," snapping short off a few feet above the deck, spun into the air and crashed down upon the port guns, killing ten men and putting the whole battery out of action. An instant later the two ships scraped together, and the starboard bower anchor of the "Gloire" caught the mizzen chains of the "Leda" upon the port side. With a yell the black swarm of boarders steadied themselves for a spring.

But their feet were never to reach that blood-stained deck. From somewhere there came a well-aimed whiff of grape, and another, and another. The English marines and seamen, waiting with cutlass and musket behind the silent guns, saw with amazement the dark masses thinning and shredding away. At the same time the port broadside of the Frenchman burst into a roar.

"Clear away the wreck !" roared the captain. "What the devil are they firing at ?"

"Get the guns clear!" panted the lieutenant. "We'll do them yet, boys !"

The wreckage was torn and hacked and splintered until first one gun and then another roared into action again. The Frenchman's anchor had been cut away, and the "Leda" had worked herself free from that fatal hug. But now suddenly there was a scurry up the shrouds of the "Gloire," and a hundred Englishmen were shouting themselves hoarse.

"They're running! They're running! They're running!"

And it was true. The Frenchman had ceased to fire, and was intent only upon clapping on every sail that she could carry.

But that shouting hundred could not claim it all as their own. As the smoke cleared, it was not difficult to see the reason. The ships had gained the mouth of the estuary during the fight, and there, about four miles out to sea, was the "Leda's" consort bearing down under full sail to the sound of the guns. Captain de Milon had done his part for one day, and presently the "Gloire" was drawing off swiftly to the north, while the "Dido" was bowling along at her skirts, rattling away with her bowchasers, until a headland hid them both from view.

But the "Leda" lay sorely stricken, with her mainmast gone, her bulwarks shattered, her mizzen topmast and gaff shot away, her sails like a beggar's rags, and a huudred of her crew dead and wounded. Close beside her a mass of wreckage floated upon the waves. It was the stern post of a mangled vessel, and across it, in white letters on a black ground, was printed "The Slapping Sal."

"By the Lord, it was the brig that saved us!" cried Mr. Wharton. "Hudson brought her into action with the Frenchman, and was blown out of the water by a broadside."

The little captain turned on his heel and paced up and down the deck. Already his crew were plugging the shotholes, knotting and splicing and mending. When he came back the lieutenant saw a softening of the stern lines about his mouth and eyes.

"Are they all gone?"

"Every man. They must have sunk with the wreck."

The two officers looked down at the sinister name and at the stump of wreckage which floated in the discolored water. Something black washed to and fro beside a splintered gaff and a tangle of halyards. It was the outrageous ensign, and near it a scarlet cap was floating.

"He was a villain, but he was a Briton," said the captain at last. "He lived like a clog, but, by God, he died like a man !"

The Slapping Sal, concluding image.jpg