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Chapter 3

THE SEA FIGHT.


     The gallant vessels side by side did lie,
     Yard-arm and yard-arm, and the murd'rous guns
     Belch'd forth their flame and shot, 'till the white decks
     Ran like a sea with blood. Uncertain still
     The victory stood, 'till Perry, waving
     His bright sword o'er his head, cried, "Follow me!"
     A hundred shouts responded to this call,
     Then with one spring he bounded on the deck
     Of his determined foe.—Oxd Play.

As the motives which had induced Captain Paul to visit the coast of Brittany had no relation with our history, excepting as far as regards the events which we have related, we shall leave our readers in the same state of uncertainty as were the inhabitants of Fort Louis; and although our' vocation and our sympathies naturally incline us to terra-firma, we must follow our hero for a few days in his adventurous course upon the ocean. The weather was as beautiful as it generally is on the western coast of France, at the commencement of autumn. The Indienne sailed gaily on with as fair a wind as could blow for her. The ship's crew, excepting those actually employed in manoeuvring the vessel, were availing themselves of the fine weather and occupied in their own matters, as caprice directed them, or were idly lounging about the ship, when all at once a voice which appeared to descend from the sky, called out, "Below, there!"

"Hullo, there!" replied the quarter-master, who was standing near the helm.

"Sail, ho!" cried the seaman who was on the lookout, at the head-mast.

"Sail, ho!" repeated the quarter-master. "Officer of the deck, be so good as to inform the captain there is a sail in sight."

"A sail! a sail!" re-echoed the crew from different parts of the deck; for at that moment a wave, having raised the vessel which appeared upon the horizon, had for an instant rendered her visible to the eyes of the ship's company.

"A sail!" exclaimed a young man of five-and-twenty, springing upon the quarter deck from the cabin stairs; "ask Mr Arthur what he thinks of her."

"Mast head, there!" cried the lieutenant, using his speaking trumpet; "the captain wants to know, Mr. Arthur, what you make of the strange sail."

Arthur, the young midshipman, had gone aloft immediately upon hearing a sail announced. He replied, "She looks like a large square-rigged vessel, close hauled, and steering for us."

"Yes, yes," said the young man, to whom Walter had given the title of captain, "she has as good eyes as we have, and she has seen us."

"Very well, if she wishes for a little chat, she will find us ready to talk to her. Besides, our guns must be almost choked from having their mouths stopped so long."

After some little time, the midshipman again hailed the officer on deck, and told him that the strange ship had just set her mainsail, and had altered her course a little, so as to cross their bow.

"Sir," said the captain, addressing the lieutenant, "get ready to beat to quarters, we must prepare for this fellow; he looks rather suspicious." And then calling out to the midshipman, "How does the ship seem to sail, Mr. Arthur? what do you think of her?"

"She seems to be a fast sailer, and is a man-of-war, I should think, by the squareness of her yards; and although I cannot see her flag, I would wager that she bears King George's commission."

"I should not wonder," observed the captain to the first lieutenant, "and that she has orders to give chase to a certain frigate called the Indienne, and that her commander is promised good promotion should he succeed in capturing her. Ha! ha! now she is loosing her top gallant sails. The blood hound has scented us, and is decidedly about to give us chase. Set our top gallant sails, too, Mr. Walter, and let us keep our course without varying a point. We shall see whether they will dare to come athwart our hawse."

The captain's orders were instantly repeated by the lieutenant, and in a few minutes the ship which had been running under her top sails, felt the influence of her top gallant sails, heeled over under this new pressure and bounded along as if animated by the sight of an enemy, and dashing away the spray from either bow with eager impetuosity.

For some time there was hardly a word uttered on board. Every one appeared to wait anxiously the termination of this state of suspense, and we shall profit by this momentary quiet, to call the attention of our readers to the person of the officer to whom the lieutenant had given the title of captain.

It was no longer either the young and sceptical lieutenant whom we have seen accompanying the Count d'Auray on board the ship, nor the old sea-wolf with his stooping gait, and harsh and snappish answers, who had received him in the cabin. He was a handsome young man, from twenty to twenty-five years of age, as we have said before, who, having thrown off all disguise, appeared at length in his own person, and dressed in the fanciful uniform which he always wore when upon the wide ocean. It was a sort of great coat of black velvet, with gold shoulder knots and fastened with hooks and eyes of the same metal. Round his waist he wore a Turkish belt, in which was placed a pair of elegant duelling pistols, richly inlaid and ornamented, apparently more for show than defence. His pantaloons were of white kerseymere, with boots which reached nearly to his knees. Round his neck, a cravat of transparent India muslin, embroidered with flowers in their natural colors, was loosely tied; his hair, no longer disfigured by powder, and black as ebony, flowed about his cheeks, which were tanned by exposure to the sun; his eyes beamed with hope and animation. Near him, upon a gun, was placed a steel helmet which fastened by a curb chain under the chin. This was his battle dress, and the only defensive armour which he wore. Some deep indentations in his helmet proved that it had more than once-saved the head which it protected from those severe wounds inflicted by those terrible cutlasses used by seamen when boarding. As to the ship's company, they wore the elegant though plain uniform of the French navy.

During this time, the vessel which had been described by the man at the mast head, and which had then appeared like a white speck upon the horizon, had become, little by little, a pyramid of sails and rigging. All eyes were fixed upon her, and although no order had been actually given, every one of the crew had taken the position which individually belonged to him, as though it had been determined that a combat should take place. There reigned then on board the Indienne that solemn and profound silence, which in a ship of war always precedes the decisive orders of the captain. Finally, the hull of the strange sail appeared rising out of the water, as her sails had successively done before. It was then clearly discernible that she was a larger ship than the Indienne, and that she carried thirty-six guns. She, however, showed no colors, and as her crew were carefully and completely concealed behind her bulwarks, it was impossible to ascertain, unless by some particular indications, to what nation she belonged. These two observations were made almost at the same moment by Captain Paul; the last, however, seemed to strike him the most forcibly.

"It appears," said he, addressing his lieutenant, "that we are going to have a scene of a masked ball. Order Arthur to bring us a few flags, and let us prove to this unknown, that the Indienne has several disguises at her disposal. And then, Mr. Walter, give orders that cutlasses and boarding pikes be distributed, for we can hardly expect, in these seas, to meet with any but enemy's ships."

The two orders were executed; as soon as given. In an instant the young midshipman had brought on deck a dozen flags of different nations, and Lieutenant Walter, having had the arm chest opened, had boarding pikes piled in different positions throughout the ship, and had distributed cutlasses and axes to the ship's company, he then returned to his place by the Captain's side. Every man again resumed his post by instinct rather than by order, for they had not yet beat to quarters; so that the apparent confusion which had existed for a moment ceased at once, and the frigate became once more, as it were, silent and attentive.

However, the two ships following their converging directions, continued to approach each other. When they were about the distance of three gun shots, "Mr. Walter," said the Captain, "I think it is time we should begin to mistify our good friend here. Let us show him the old Scotch flag."

The lieutenant gave a sign to the quartermaster, and the red Lion of Scotland, on a blue field, rose like a flame to the peak of the Indienne; but nothing on board the enemy's ship gave evidence of their paying the slightest attention to this manouvre.

"Yes, yes," murmured the captain, "the three leopards of England have so well filed the teeth and pared the claws of the Scottish lion, that they pay no attention to him, believing that he is tamed because he is defenceless. Show him some other color, Mr. Walter, and perhaps we shall succeed in loosening his tongue."

"What flag shall I hoist, captain?"

"Take the first one that comes; chance may perhaps favor us."

This order was scarcely given, when the Scotch flag was hauled down, and that of Sardinia took its place. The ship still remained mute.

"Well, well," said the captain, jestingly, "it appears that His Majesty, King George, is on good terms with his brother of Cyprus and Jerusalem. Do not let us bring them to loggerheads by carrying our joke farther, Mr. Walter, let us show the American flag, and prove that it is really the right one, by firing an unshotted gun."

The same manouvre was repeated. The Sardinian flag was hauled down, and the stars of the United States rose slowly towards the sky, and were certified by firing a gun.

What the captain had foreseen then happened immediately on the display of this symbol of rebellion rising insolently in the air. The unknown ship immediately betrayed its incognita by hoisting the British flag. At the same moment a cloud of smoke was seen issuing from the side of the royalist ship, and before the report was heard, a cannon ball was seen tipping from wave to wave, and fell about a hundred yards short of the Indienne.

"Beat to quarters, Mr. Walter, for you see we have guessed rightly. Come, my boys," cried he, to the crew, "hurrah for America! and death to England!"

This was answered by a general shout, and had not ceased, when they heard them beating to quarters on board the Drake, for that was the name of the English ship. The drums of the Indienne immediately replied, and every man ran to his post:—the gunners to their guns, the officers to their stations, and the sailors to their running rigging. As to the captain, he jumped upon the top of the companion, his speaking trumpet in his hand—the supreme symbol, the sceptre of nautical royalty, which the commander always wields in the hour of combat or during the raging of the tempest.

They now seem to have made an exchange of parts, for the English appeared impatient, and the Americans affected calmness. The ships were hardly within gun shot, when a long line of smoke was seen issuing from the side of the English vessel, and a report similar to loud thunder was heard, and the iron messengers sent to deal death among the rebels, having in their impetuosity, miscalculated the distance, fell harmless before reaching the sides of the frigate. The latter, however, as if refusing to reply to so premature an attack, continued to haul to the wind, as if to spare the enemy too long a course.

At this moment the captain turned, as if to give a last look round his ship, and his astonished gaze was attracted by the appearance of a new personage on the deck, who had selected this dangerous and exciting moment to make his entrance upon the scene.

It was a young man, somewhere about twenty-two or twenty-three years of age. His face was pale and mild; he was plainly, but elegantly dressed, and whom the captain had not before seen on board. He was leaning against the mizen-mast, his arms folded over his chest, and looking with melancholy indifference at the English vessel which was approaching them under a heavy press of canvas. The calmness at such a moment, and in a man who appeared a stranger to nautical combats, forcibly struck the captain. He then remembered the prisoner, whom the Count d'Auray had announced to him, and who had been brought on board during the last night he had passed at the anchorage of Port Louis.

"Who allowed you to come on deck, sir?" said he, softening as much as possible, the tone of his enquiry, so that it would have been difficult to ascertain whether this was addressed as a mere question, or as a reproach.

"No one, sir," replied the prisoner, in a soft and sorrowful voice; "but I had hoped that under the present circumstances, you would less severely observe the orders by which I became your prisoner."

"Have you forgotten that you were forbidden to hold any communication with the ship's company."

"I did not come here for the purpose of holding communication with the ship's company, sir; I came to see whether some friendly cannon ball would do me a good' turn."

"You may, but too soon, have your desire accomplished, if you remain where you are now standing; therefore, believe me, you had better remain below."

"Is this your advice; or an order, captain?"

"You have full liberty to construe it as you please."

"In that case," replied the young man, "I thank you—I will remain here."

At this instant, another loud report was heard; but the two ships had by this time neared each other so much, that they were within gun-shot, and the whole tempest of shot passed through the sails of the Indienne. Two splinters fell from the masts; and the groans and stifled cries of some of the ship's company were heard. The captain, at that moment, had his eyes fixed upon the prisoner, above whose head, a cannon ball had passed within two feet, grazing the mizen mast, against which he was leaning; but notwithstanding this death warning, he remained calm and unmoved, in the same attitude as if he had not felt the wing of the exterminating angel waft above his head. The captain knew how to appreciate courage—this incident was sufficient to assure him of the undaunted bravery of the man who stood before him.

"Tis well, sir," said he to him; "remain where you are, and when we come to boarding, if you should be tired of remaining with your arms crossed, take up a cutlass, or an axe, and give us a helping hand. You will excuse me not payings you more attention at this moment, for I have other things to do."

"Fire!" cried he, in a voice of thunder, through his speaking trumpet, "now, give it her: fire!"

"Fire!" repeated the officers like an echo, at their different stations.

At the instant, the Indienne trembled from her keel, to her royal mast head, as she poured her broadside into the enemy—a cloud of smoke spread itself like a veil, along the starboard-side, which was soon carried to leeward. The captain, standing upon the companion, impatiently awaited its clearing off, that he might ascertain the effect which the broadside had produced upon the enemy's vessel. When his gaze could penetrate through the smoke, he perceived that the enemy's main top mast had fallen, and had, with its sails, encumbered the after-part of the Drake's deck, and that her other sails were cut to ribbons. Then putting his speaking trumpet to his mouth, he cried—

"Well done! my lads. Now watch her closely. They will be too busy in clearing away the wreck of their mast, to think of raking us—fire—as you can—and this time shave close!"

The crew hastened to obey this order—the frigate veered round, and as the guns were brought to bear upon the enemy, they were discharged with terrible effect; and, as the captain had imagined, without any hindrance from the Drake. The Indienne once more trembled like a volcano, and, as a volcano, vomited forth her flame and smoke.

This time the gunners had followed the orders of their captain to the letter, (and the broadside had been fired point blank) striking the hull and the lower masts. Both her masts were still standing; but on all sides the sails were hanging in tatters. It appeared that some more considerable damage had been done, which it was impossible to ascertain at that distance; for some time, the broadside was not returned; at length it was, and instead of raking the Indienne, it struck her in a diagonal direction. It was not the less terrible, for it swept off many a brave fellow from the deck; but by a chance which appeared positively magical, touched neither of the masts. Some of the running rigging was cut, but nothing that prevented her manoeuvring as before. At one glance, Paul ascertained that he had only lost some men. His heart bounded with joy. He once more placed the speaking-trumpet to his mouth.

"Larboard the helm," cried he, "and board her on the larboard side! Boarders, to your stations—be ready! Give her one more broadside."

At the first movement of the Indienne, the enemy at once perceived the intention, and endeavoured to neutralize it by it similar movement, but at the instant of attempting to execute it, a dreadful crash was heard on board her, and the mainmast, which had been nearly cut through by the last discharge from the Indienne, trembled, for a few seconds like an uprooted tree, and fell forward, covering the deck with the mainsail and the rigging. Captain Paul at once comprehended what had delayed the return of the broadside.

"Now, she is ours, my lads!" cried he; "we have only to take her. One last broadside within pistol shot, and then we'll board her!"

The Indienne obeyed her helm, as does a well trained horse the bridle, and unopposed, advanced towards her enemy, for the latter had no steerage-way upon her, and her guns were consequently useless. The Drake was therefore at the mercy of her adversary, who by remaining at a distance and playing at long bowls, might have riddled her and sunk her, but disdaining this too easy victory, sent in a last broadside; and then, before seeing the effect it had produced, the frigate ran in upon her larboard quarter, and threw her grappling-irons on board. On the instant, the tops and forecastle of the Indienne blazed as with fireworks on a holiday, and flaming grenades were showered upon the deck of the Drake with the rapidity of hailstones.

"Courage, my lads, courage, lash the bowsprit to her quarter rails. Well done! now, to your two forecastle carronades—fire!"

All these orders were executed with magical celerity: the two ships were as securely lashed together as if by iron chains—the two carronades which had not been fired during the combat, thundered in there turn, and swept the enemy's deck with a cloud of grape shot, and then another cry was heard, uttered by the same stentorian voice—

"Now, board her!!!"

And, adding example to precept, the captain of the Indienne threw aside his speaking trumpet, now of no longer use, placed his helmet on his head, fastening the clasp beneath his chin; placed the sabre which he usually wore in his belt between his teeth, and rushed upon the bowsprit to jump thence upon the deck of the enemy.

Although this movement followed the order he had given with as great rapidity as the thunder succeeds the lightning, he was only the second upon the English deck: he was preceded by the young prisoner with whom he had conversed, who had thrown aside his coat, and armed only with a hatchet, was the first to encounter death or victory.

"You are not conversant with the discipline of my ship," said Paul, laughing; "it is my place to be the first to board a ship I am attacking. I forgive you this time, but take care it does not again happen."

At the same instant, the seamen of the Indienne rushed from their own ship to the enemy's, taking advantage of every point of contact, some from the bowsprit, others from the end of the yards, and nettings, and fell upon the deck like ripe fruit falling from a tree when shaken by the wind. Then the English, who had retreated to their forecastle, unmasked a carronade which they had had time to turn upon their enemy. A volley of fire and iron was vomited forth on the assailants. One fourth of the crew of the Indienne fell killed or mutilated on the enemy's deck, in the midst of cries and maledictions. But above the cries and blasphemous oaths, a voice resounded, crying:

"Forward—all of you!"

Then ensued a scene of appalling confusion—a combat hand to hand—a general duel. To the roar of cannon, to the report of musketry, to the explosion of hand grenades, had succeeded the struggle with cold steel, less noisy but more sure, above all with seamen, who have retained for their sole use this inheritance from the giants, proscribed for more than two centuries on the field of battle. It was with hatchets that they cleaved each other's sculls; it was with cutlasses they wounded each other's breasts; it was with boarding-pikes that they nailed each other to the deck and masts. From time to time, in the midst of this mute carnage, a stray pistol shot was heard, but isolated, and as if ashamed of taking part in such a butchery. It lasted nearly a quarter of an hour, and amidst a confusion it would be impossible to describe. And then the British flag was lowered, and the crew of the Drake being driven below, there remained on deck only the conquerors, the wounded and the dead; in the midst of whom was the captain of the Indienne, surrounded by his crew, with his foot upon the breast of the captain of the enemy's ship, having on his right his first lieutenant, Walter, and on his left his young prisoner, whose shirt, steeped in blood, witnessed the share he had in the victory.

"Now, all is over," said Paul, stretching out his hand; "and he who strikes another blow will have to deal with me."

Then holding out his hand to his young prisoner, "Sir," said he, "you will relate to me, to-night, how it was that you were made my prisoner, will you not! For there must be some cowardly machination in this affair. The infamous only are transported to Cayenne, and you are too brave to be infamous."



Alexandre Dumas pere

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