It was in the days when France's power was already broken upon the
seas, and when more of her three-deckers lay rotting in the Medway than
were to be found in Brest harbour. 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 honour of
the four yards of bunting which flapped from the end of 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
dwindled 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 an emerald valley, dipping
away to the nor'ard under easy sail. On her snow-white quarter-deck stood
a stiff little brown-faced man, 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.
"I've opened the sealed orders, Mr. Wharton."
A glimmer of curiosity shone upon the meagre features of the first
lieutenant. The _Leda_ had sailed with her consort, the _Dido_, from
Antigua the week before, and the admiral's orders had been contained in a
"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 north-east from our
port-bow when the gale cleared, Mr. Wharton."
The lieutenant 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 so 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 from his pocket a blue
paper, which crackled as he unfolded it.
"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 23rd ult. to the north-east of the island of Sombriero."
"(Signed) JAMES MONTGOMERY,"
"(_Rear-Admiral_). 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.
Oh, 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 upon 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 weather-rail, shading their eyes with their hands--for the
tropical sun was already clear of the palm 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 our clearing for action, Mr. Smeaton, but the men can stand by the
guns in case she tries to pass us. Cast loose the bow-chasers and send the
small-arm men 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 another, and her people could
be seen working like madmen 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."
"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, and 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 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 long 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 halfway. Then with a jaunty swing the little ship came
into the wind again, and shot round a fresh curve in the winding channel.
"The water's shoaling rapidly, sir," repeated 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
river-like 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 curiously at the ensign.
"Is it the Jolly Rodger, 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 nightcap 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. "Clear
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 white-winged figure-head were jutting out from the
cluster of palm trees, while high above them towered three immense masts
with the tricolour flag floating superbly from the mizzen. Round she came,
the deep-blue water creaming under her fore foot, 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. 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 lookout men of the _Gloire_ upon the shore had seen the
_cul de sac_ into which the British frigate was headed, so that Captain de
Milon had served 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 through the open portholes at the stately
French man. 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.
"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 trouble."
"I see the shakoes of soldiers aboard other."
"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 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
manoeuvre brought her on to 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 top-sails 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 darkness, and the guns were sponged and trained and fired into a
dense wall of vapour. 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 the 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 on to the deck. The lieutenants paced up and down 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 maintopsail 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."
A round-shot dashed the binnacle to pieces between them. A second
knocked two marines into a bloody palpitating mash. 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 on to 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 round 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
broad-side leapt from her ports, and the main-mast 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 some
where 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 he 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 bow-chasers, 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 hundred 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 shot-holes, knotting and splicing
and mending. When he came back, the lieutenant saw a softening of the
stern lines about his eyes and mouth.
"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 discoloured water. Something black washed
to and fro beside a splintered gaff and a tangle of halliards. 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 dog, but, by God, he died like a man!"