Hoarse o'er her side the rustling cable rings- The sails are furled—and anchoring, round she swings; And gathering loiterers on the land discern Her boat descending from the latticed stern. 'Tis mann'd—the oars keep concert to the strand, Till grates her keel upon the shallow sand.—Byron.
Toward the close of a fine evening in the month of October, 1779, the most inquisitive among the inhabitants of the small town of Fort Louis, had assembled on the point of land immediately opposite to that on which stands the city of Lorient. The object which attracted their attention, and which was the subject of their inquiries, was a noble beautiful frigate, carrying 32 guns, which had been anchored for about a week, not in the port, but in a small cove in the roadstead, and which had been perceived for the first time early one morning, like an ocean flower which had suddenly blossomed during the night. From the elegant and coquettish appearance of this frigate, it was imagined that this was the first time of her putting to sea; she bore the French flag, for the three golden fleur-de-lis were seen glittering in the last rays of the setting sun.
That which, above all, appeared to excite the curiosity of the admirers of this spectacle, so frequent, and notwithstanding, always so interesting in a seaport, was the uncertainty as to the country in which this vessel had been built; for, having all her sails clewed up and snugly stowed around her yards, showed in the setting sun the graceful outline of her hull, and a minute elegance as to her running rigging. Some thought they could discern in her the bold and taunt masts used by the Americans, but the perfection exemplified in the finish which distinguished the rest of her construction, was in perfect contrast with the barbarous rudeness of those rebellious children of England. Others, deceived by the flag she had hoisted, were endeavouring to divine in what port of France she had been launched, but their national pride soon gave way to the conviction that she was not built in France, for they sought in vain for those heavy galleries, ornamented with sculpture, which is the compulsory decoration of the stern of every daughter of the ocean, or of the Mediterranean, born on the stocks of Brest or of Toulon; others, again, knowing that the flags were frequently used as a mask to hide the real face, maintained that the lion and the towers of Spain would have more properly been placed upon the ensign waving from her peak, than the three fleur-de-lis of France: but the latter were asked whether the straight and elegant sides and quarters of the frigate all resembled the bulging build of Spanish galleons. In short, there were some among them who would have sworn that this beautiful fairy of the waters had been brought to life among the frogs of Holland, had not the dangerous boldness of her masts and rigging fully contradicted the suggestion that she could have been built by those old but prudent sweepers of the seas. But, as we have said, for eight whole days, and ever since the first appearance of this splendid vision upon the coast of Brittany, she had been the constant theme of wonder and of conversation, for nothing had happened to give them any positive information, as not an individual from the crew had landed from the ship, under any pretext whatever. They might, indeed, have doubted whether she had a crew or not, had not they now and then seen the head of a sentinel, or of the officer of the watch, peering above the bulwarks. It appeared, however, that this vessel, although she had not communicated with the shore, could not have any hostile intention; her arrival had not seemed to give the least uneasiness to the public authorities of Lorient, for she had run under the guns of a small fort, which the recent declaration of war between England and France had caused to be put in order, and which displayed a battery of long guns of heavy calibre.
Among this crowd of idlers, however, there was a young man, who was remarked for the anxious eagerness of his inquiries:—without any one being able to devise the cause, it was easily perceived that he felt some direct interest in this mysterious vessel. His brilliant uniform was that of the mousquetaires, and as these royal guards rarely left the capital, he had, at first, directed a portion of the public curiosity to himself, but it was soon discovered that this person, whom they thought a stranger, was the young Count d'Auray, the last scion of one of the most ancient families of Brittany. The castle inhabited by his family rose above the shores of the Golf of Morbihan, at six or seven leagues, distance from Fort Louis. The family consisted of the Marquis d'Auray, a poor insane old man, who for twenty years had never been seen beyond the boundaries of his estates; of the Marchioness d'Auray, whose rigid morality, and whose ancient nobility, could alone excuse her haughty and aristocratic bearing; of the young Marquerite, a sweet girl of seventeen or eighteen years of age, delicate and pale as the flower whose name she bore; and of Count Emanuel, whom we have mentioned above, and around whom the crowd had gathered, carried away, as it always is, by a sounding title, a brilliant uniform, and noble and lordly manners.
However eager might have been the desire of those he addressed to satisfy his curiosity, they could only answer his questions in a vague and undecided manner; all they knew of the frigate being mere conjecture. The count was about retiring from the jetty, when he perceived a six-oared boat approaching it. At a moment when curiosity had been so much excited, this incident could not fail to attract all eyes. In the stern of the boat sat a young man, who appeared to be from twenty to twenty-two years of age, and who was dressed in the uniform of a lieutenant of the royal navy—he was sitting, or rather lying, upon a bearskin, one hand reclining carelessly on the tiller of the small boat, while the coxswain, who, thanks to the caprice of his officer, had nothing to do, was sitting in the bow. From the moment that it first made its appearance, every eye was directed towards it, as if it contained the means of solving the mystery which had so much puzzled them. The boat, urged on by the last efforts of its oarsmen, took the ground at eight or ten feet distance from the beach, there being too little water in that place to allow it to come nearer. Two of the sailors jumped into the sea up to their knees. The young lieutenant then rose up in a careless way, walked to the bow of the boat, and allowed the two sailors to carry him in their arms to the beach, so that not a drop of salt water should soil his elegant uniform. He then ordered his men to double the point of land which advanced about three hundred feet into the sea, and to go and wait for him on the opposite side of the battery. As for himself, he stopped a moment on the beach to arrange his dress, which had been a little disordered by the rough mode of transport he had been compelled to adopt, and then he advanced, humming a French air, towards the gate of a small fort, which he passed, after having slightly returned the military salute of the sentinel on duty.
Although nothing could, in a seaport, be more natural than that a naval officer should cross the roads and walk into a fort, the minds of the lookers-on had been so much occupied with the foreign vessel, that there was hardly one among the crowd who did not imagine that this visit to the commandant of the fort had some relation to her, so that when the young officer issued from it, he found himself surrounded so closely by the crowd, that for a moment he appeared half inclined to use the rattan which he carried in his hand, to make way through it. However after having flourished it with impertinent affectation above the heads of those who were nearest him, he appeared all at once to change his mind, and perceiving Count Emanuel, whose distinguished appearance, and elegant uniform, contrasted strikingly with the vulgar air and habiliments of the persons who surrounded him, he made a few steps towards him at the same moment that the count had advanced to meet him. The two officers merely exchanged a rapid glance, but that look at once assured both that they were persons of rank and station. They immediately saluted each other with that easy grace and affable politeness which characterized the young nobility of that period.
"By Heaven!" exclaimed the young midshipman; "my dear countryman, for I suppose that like myself you are a Frenchman, although I meet you in a seemingly hyperborean land, and in regions which, if not absolutely savage, appear sufficiently barbarous—will you have the goodness to tell me what there is so extraordinary about me, that I seem to cause quite a revolution in the country? Or is the appearance of an officer of the navy an event so rare and so extraordinary at Lorient, that his mere presence excites, in so singular a degree, the curiosity of the natives of Lower Brittany? By solving this mystery, you will render me a service which I shall be happy to reciprocate, should any opportunity present itself in which I can be useful to you."
"This will be so much the more easy," replied Count Emanuel, "as this curiosity is not founded in any feeling which you would consider offensive to your uniform or hostile to your person—and the proof of this is, my dear comrade—for I see by your epaulettes that we are of equal rank in the service of his majesty—that I participate with these honest Britons in the curiosity which they evince, although, perhaps, my motives are more weighty than theirs, in endeavouring to obtain a solution of the problem which has occupied us."
"If I can be of any assistance to you, in the inquiries which you have undertaken, I place all the algebra I possess at your disposal. Only the position we are in is not a comfortable one to carry out mathematical demonstrations. Will it please you to remove to a small distance from these honest people, whose presence would only tend to confuse our calculations."
"Certainly," replied the mousquetaire, "and the more readily, as, if I do not deceive myself, by walking this way I shall lead you nearer to your boat and your sailors."
"Oh! that is not of the slightest consequence; should this path not be convenient to you we can take another. I have plenty of time; and my men are less eager to, return on board than I am. Therefore, we will about ship, if such is your good pleasure."
"Not at all; on the contrary, let us go on, the nearer we are to the beach the better we can discuss the matter in question. Let us, therefore, walk upon this strip of land as far as we can."
The young seamen, without replying a word, conti-nued to walk on, like a man to whom the direction he was to take was perfectly indifferent, and these two young men, who had thus met for the first time, walked arm in arm, as though they had been friends from infancy, towards the end of the promontory. When they had reached the extreme point, Count Emanuel paused, and pointed towards the frigate, saying, "Do you know what ship that is?"
The young seaman threw a rapid and scrutinizing glance upon the mousquetaire, and then looked towards the ship: "Yes," replied he, negligently, "it is a pretty frigate carrying two and thirty guns, with her sails bent and her starboard anchor atrip, ready to sail at the first signal given."
"Excuse me," replied Emanuel, smiling; "that is not what I ask of you. It signifies little to me how many guns she carries, or by what anchor she is holding—is not that your technical mode of speaking?"
The lieutenant smiled: in turn. "But," continued Emanuel, "what I wish to know is, to what nation she actually belongs, the port, that she is bound to, and the name of her captain."
"As to the nation she belongs to," replied the lieutenant,
"She has taken care to give us that information herself, or she is, an outrageous liar; Do you not see her flag flying from her peak? It is the flag without a stain, rather worn out from being too much used that's all. As to the place she is bound to, it is as the commandant of the fort told you, when, you asked him,—Mexico." Emanuel looked with astonishment at the young lieutenant. "And finally, as to her captain, that is a much more difficult matter.. There are some people who would swear he is a young man about my own age or yours, for; I, believe we left the cradle pretty closely the one after, the other, although the professions we follow may place a long interval between our graves. There are others who pretend he is of the same age with my uncle the Count d'Estaing, who as you doubtless know, has just been made an admiral, and who is at: this moment affording every assistance to the rebels of America, as some people, even in France, still call them. But, in short, as to his name, that is quite another thing; it is said he does not know it himself; and until some fortunate occurrence shall apprise him of it, he calls himself Paul."
"Yes, Captain Paul."
"Paul, of the Providence, of the Banger, of the Alliance, according to the name of the ship he commands. Are there not also in France some of our young nobles, who, finding their family name too short, lengthen it out by the name of an estate, and surmount the whole with a knight's casque, or a baron's coronet: so that their seals or their carriages bear the evidence of belonging to some ancient family, quite delightful to reflect upon? Well! so it is with him. At this moment he calls himself, I believe, Paul, of the Indienne, and he is proud of the appellation; if I may judge front my naval sympathies, I do not think he would exchange his frigate for the finest estate to be found between the Port of Brest and the mouth of the Rhone."
"But, tell me," rejoined Emanuel, after reflecting for a moment on the singular mixture of simplicity and sarcasm which pervaded the answers of his companion; "what is the character of this man?"
"His character—but, my dear baron—count—marquis"—
"Count," replied Emanuel, bowing.
"Well, my dear count, then, I was about to say that you pursued me from one abstraction to another, and that when I placed at you disposal all my knowledge in algebra, I did not intend that we should enter into a research of the unknown. His character! good heaven, my dear count, who can speak knowingly of the character of a man, unless it be himself—and even then—but hold—I, myself, as you now see me, have ploughed for twenty years, at one time with the keel of a brig, at another with that of a frigate, this vast expanse, which now extends itself before us. My eyes, for so I may express myself, discerned the ocean almost at the same moment that they saw the sky above it; since my tongue was able to join two words together, or my comprehension could combine two ideas, I have interrogated and studied the caprices of the ocean, and yet I do not, even to this time, know its character—and there are only four principal winds and thirty-two breezes which agitate it—that's all. How, then, can you expect that I should judge of man, torn as he is by his thousand passions."
"Nor did I ask you, my dear—duke—marquis—count?"—
"Lieutenant," replied the young sailor, bowing, as Emanuel had done before.
"I was about to say, then, my dear lieutenant, I do not ask a physiological lecture on the passions of Captain Paul. I only wish to inform myself upon two points. Firstly, whether you consider him a man of honor?"
"We must first of all understand each other as to the meaning of words, my dear count—what is your precise definition of the word honor?"
"Permit me to remark, my dear lieutenant, that this question is a most singular one. Honor! Why, honor—is—honor."
"That's it precisely—a word without a definition, like the word God! God—is God! and every one creates a God after his own fashion. The Egyptians adored him under the form of a scorpion—the Israelites, under that of a golden calf. So it is with honor. There is the honor of Camillus, and that of Coriolanus—that of the Cid, and that of Count Julian. Define your question better if you wish me to reply to it."
"I ask, then, whether his word may be relied upon?"
"I do not believe he ever failed in that regard. His enemies—and no one can arrive to his station without having them—even his enemies, I say, have never doubted that he would keep, even unto death, an oath which he had sworn to. This point is, therefore, believe me, fully settled. In this respect, he is a man of honor. Let us pass, therefore, to your second question, for if I do not deceive myself, you wish to know something farther."
"Yes, I wish to know whether he would faithfully obey an order given by his Majesty?"
"Really, my dear lieutenant, you affect a difficulty of comprehension which would better suit the gown of a sophist, than a naval uniform."
"Why so? You accuse me of cavilling, because, before replying, I wish to know precisely what I have to answer. We have, at this? present time, eight or ten majesties, seated securely or otherwise, upon the different thrones of Europe. We have his Catholic Majesty—a feeble majesty, who allows the inheritance, left him by Charles, the Fifth, to be torn from him piece by piece;—we have his Britannic Majesty—a headstrong majesty, who clings to his America, as Cyingetus to the Persian ship, and whose hands we shall cut off, if he does not loose his hold;—we have his Christian Majesty, whom I venerate and honor"—
"Well—it is of him I wish to speak," said Emanuel,
"Do you believe that Captain Paul would feel disposed to obey an order which I should deliver from him?"
"Captain Paul," replied the lieutenant, "would, as every captain ought to do, obey every order emanating from a power which has the right of commanding him—unless indeed he be an accursed pirate, or some damned privateersman, some buccaneer, who owes no allegiance, and which I should doubt from the appearance of the frigate he commands, and from the way she is fitted. He must have then in some drawer of his cabin, a commission signed by some power or other. Well! should this commission bear the name of Louis, and be sealed with the fleur-de-lis of France, there can be no doubt that he would obey any order sealed, and signed by the same name."
"This is all then that I wish to be informed of," replied the young mousquetaire, who began to grow impatient at the strange and evasive answers given by his companion. "I will only ask you one more question." "I am ready to obey your wishes in that, as I have in the rest, count," returned the lieutenant.
"Do you know any way of getting on board of that ship?"
"There is one," replied the lieutenant, pointing towards his own boat, which lay rocked, by the waves, in a small creek close to them.
"That boat! why, is it yours?"
"Well! I will take you on board."
"You know this Captain Paul, then?"
"I? not in the least! But as nephew of an admiral, I am naturally acquainted with every officer of a ship, from a boatswain, who pipes the hands aloft, to the rear admiral, who commands a squadron. Besides which, we sailors have secret signs among us, a certain masonic language, by which we know one another as brothers in whatever part of the ocean we may meet. You may, therefore, accept my proposal with the same frankness in which I offer it. I, my rowers, and my boat, are at your disposal."
"Do me this service, then," said Emanuel, "and"—
"You will forgive me the annoyance I have caused by my tergiversations, will you not?" said the lieutenant. "You cannot be surprised at it," continued he smiling, "my dear count, the solicitude of a seaman's life has given to us children of the sea, the habit of soliloquising. During a calm, we invoke the winds! During the tempest, we invoke the calm; and during the night we address ourselves to God."
Emanuel again looked doubtingly at his companion, who met his gaze with that apparent good tempered simplicity, which had appeared to spread over his features every time he had become the object of investigation, to the mousquetaire. The latter was surprised at this mixture of contempt for human things, and of poetic feeling toward the works of God. But finding that this singular man was disposed to render him, although in a strange manner, the service he had asked of him, he accepted his proffered assistance. Five minutes afterwards, the two young men were advancing towards the unknown vessel with as much rapidity as the vigor of six stout rowers could give to the light bark in which they were seated. Their oars rose and fell with so regular a movement, that it appeared rather impelled by some powerful machine, than by the combination of human strength.