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Chapter Twelve.
Punishment interrupted—Preparations for action—Boat off the enemy—A confession—I am proved to be innocent—Capture two prizes—Ordered home in one of them—Deserted by our consort—Spring a leak—Mutiny of prisoners.

“Strip!” said the captain.

I prepared to lay my shoulders bare to receive the lash.

“The Indiamen to windward are signalling to us, sir,” shouted the signal midshipman, turning over the pages of the signal-book. “An enemy in sight on the weather-beam.”

“Master-at-arms, take charge of the prisoner; punishment is deferred,” cried the captain, springing on to the poop.

I was led below. I almost wished that the punishment was over. I had nerved myself up to bear it, dreadful as it was, without flinching. Now I knew not for how long it might be postponed, but I had no hopes of escaping it altogether.

In another minute, the stirring cry of “Prepare ship for action!” was passed along the decks. Every one in a moment was full of activity. The cabin bulk-heads were knocked away, fire-screens were put up, the doors of the magazine were thrown open, and powder and shot were being handed up on deck.

For some time I was left alone, with a sentry only stationed over me. I longed to be set free. I trusted that I was not to remain a prisoner during the action which it was expected was about to take place. I thought that if I could but send a message to the captain, and entreat that I might be allowed to do my duty at my gun, he would liberate me while the action lasted.

For a long time, not an officer came near me. At length, to my great satisfaction, I saw Dr McCall. He was on his way to see that all proper preparations had been made in the space devoted to his service on the orlop deck for the reception of the wounded.

“Dr McCall,” I cried out to him. “I would not have ventured to have spoken to you, situated as I now am, under any other circumstances, but I have a great favour to ask of you, sir.”

He stopped and listened.

“I need not say that I trust you do not believe me guilty, and I would entreat you to go to the captain and to ask him to allow me to return to my duty during the action. Tell him only what you think of me, and he will, I am sure, give me my freedom till the fight is over. I do not wish to avoid punishment, but it would be a double one to remain manacled here while my shipmates are fighting the enemy.”

“I’ll go,” said the doctor, who had quietly listened to all I said. “I do not believe you guilty. There is little time to lose, though.”

How anxiously I awaited the result of my petition! Every moment I expected to hear the first shot fired, and to find that the action had begun. About three minutes passed. I fancied six times the period had elapsed, when a master’s mate and two men came below.

“The captain gives you leave, Weatherhelm, to return to your duty,” said the officer. “He hopes that you will show you are worthy of the favour.”

“Indeed I will, sir,” I answered as the men knocked the handcuffs off my wrists.

“We’ve a tough job in hand, depend on that.”

“Thank you, sir, thank you,” I exclaimed, as I sprang to my feet and followed my liberators to the upper deck, where the sentry joined his comrades.

The moment I reached the deck I looked out for the enemy. Just out of gun-shot appeared a seventy-four gun ship and two frigates. They were firing away at the Indiamen, which were still within range of their guns. The greater number were, however, clustering together, and standing down to leeward of us, so that those nearer the Frenchmen were not idle, and were bravely returning shot for shot.

The three ships came on, the Frenchmen little doubting that we should continue on the same course we were then holding; but our captain was determined to get the weather-gage, and just as their shot came aboard us, he tacked and stood to the northward, which brought the two frigates nearer to us than the line-of-battle ship. One of them bravely stood on till she got close under our guns. The order was given to fire. Our shot took the most deadly effect on her, and she completely heeled over as our whole broadside went crashing in through her decks and sides. Of the three hundred men or more, who an instant before stood up full of life and strength, fall fifty must have been struck down, many never to rise again, while her spars and rigging went tumbling down in terrible confusion over her deck.

Again we tacked, and this brought our starboard broadside to bear on the second frigate. While we were especially engaged with the first, she had fired two or three broadsides at us, and as we tacked she managed to rake us, to our no little damage. The success attending our first effort inspirited us to give due effect to the second. Every shot we fired seemed to tell. Besides numbers of men killed and wounded, the foremast of the frigate came toppling down on her deck almost before the smoke which hung around us had cleared away.

Seldom had greater execution been effected in so short a time, but our ship was thoroughly well maimed, and every one of us had been well trained at our guns. We knew what we were about, and had strength to do it. Leaving the two frigates almost helpless, we stood on to meet our larger opponent. With her, to all appearance, we were thoroughly well matched. While we had been engaged with the frigates, she had severely handled some of the Indiamen. She had now, however, to look after herself.

Our captain, as soon as we got clear of the frigates, signalled to the Indiamen to go and attack them. This he did in the hope that they would be prevented from repairing damages and be enabled to escape. The Indiamen to leeward, in the most spirited way, instantly began to beat up towards the frigates.

We had not escaped altogether free of harm. Though no material damage had been done to the ship, we had already several men killed and wounded by the shot from our two first antagonists. As we closed with the line-of-battle ship she opened fire on us. We soon found that we had an opponent which would require all our strength and perseverance to overcome, but every man stood to his gun, as British seamen always will stand when well commanded, however great may be the odds against them.

We passed each other on opposite tacks as the line-of-battle ship stood on towards the frigates. As our respective guns were brought to bear, we discharged them into each other’s sides. We all cheered loudly and heartily as we saw the result of our fire, but the enemy were not idle. The shot from their broadside came crashing on board us with fearful effect, while the marines in the tops, poop, and forecastle, kept up a heavy fire of musketry. Blocks and spars came tumbling down from aloft; splinters were flying in every direction; round shot were whizzing through the ports and across the decks; the smoke from the guns hung over us in dense masses, obscuring the sky and scarcely enabling us to see from one side of the ship to the other.

Many a poor fellow sank to rise no more; numbers were sorely wounded; the heads of some, the arms and legs of others, were shot away; groans and shrieks arose from those who were struck, while the rest of the crew uttered shouts of defiance and anger. All of us were stripped to the waist, begrimed with smoke, and often sprinkled with our own blood or that of our comrades; our handkerchiefs bound round our heads, and our countenances, with the muscles strained to the utmost, exhibiting the fierce passions which animated our hearts.

Yet, though I have attempted to describe the scene, no words can do adequate justice to its savage wildness. I felt, I doubt not, like the rest. In a moment all recollection of the past vanished; I thought only of punishing the foe, of gaining the victory. I saw others killed and wounded near me, but it never occurred to me that at any moment their fate might be mine. As our foremost guns had been fired, they had been instantly run in and loaded, and directly the enemy had passed us, putting down our helm, we luffed up and passed under her stern, raking her fore and aft, to the very great surprise of the Frenchmen, who little expected that we should so quickly again be able to deliver our fire.

The rapidity with which we worked our guns was the chief cause of our success. Instead of tacking, as the enemy fancied we were going to do, we once more filled and ran after him. A loud shout burst from our crew. The Frenchman’s fore-topmast came tumbling down on deck. We quickly came up after him and gave him a full dose of our larboard broadside.

The two frigates, seeing how their consort had been handled, and that several of the Indiamen were crowding sail towards them, now set all the canvas they could spread in the hope of making their escape, very indifferent to the fate of their big consort, whom they seemed to think was powerful enough to take very good care of herself. She, meantime, was signalling to them to remain to render her assistance while she brought us up towards them.

We, by this time, had been pretty severely handled. We had fully twenty killed and twice as many wounded, while several of our spars had been shot away, and we were much cut up in sails and rigging. Night, too, was coming on, and it was important to keep our convoy together. We could not tell whether other French ships were near at hand, and if so, not only we, but many of the merchantmen under our charge might have been captured. All these things I thought of afterwards, but not then, depend on it. Flushed with our success, we fully expected that we were going to make all the three Frenchmen strike. The enemy’s line-of-battle ship sailed well, and she quickly led us up in chase, so that we were exposed to the fire of her consorts as well as to hers.

Under other circumstances, I believe that our captain was the last man to have left a victory half won; but just as we were once more getting within range of the enemy’s guns, we hove-to, and he signalled to the convoy to collect together and to continue their course to the southward.

All on board were eager to see what was to happen. We thought that we were going to make sail after the Indiamen, but we had not yet quite done with the enemy. We replied by a loud cheer as the ship’s head was once more kept towards them, and then running along their line we delivered another crashing broadside into them. We got something in return, though, and the shot from all the three ships came more thickly about us than ever.

Not far from the gun at which I was serving I saw Saull Ley. Once he had disappeared, and I thought he had been wounded, but when the firing ceased he had come back to his gun. He had evidently attempted the same trick a second time, when we were once more unexpectedly brought into action, for a couple of men with rope’s ends were driving him back to his station. He had no help for himself but to remain, though fear had rendered his services of very little avail.

At last the shot he so much dreaded reached him, and I saw him struck down bleeding on the deck. He shrieked out with terror and pain when he found himself wounded.

“Oh, help me! help me! I shall die! I shall die! What will become of me?” he cried out.

“Why, you’ll have to go where many a better man has gone before you,” answered the rest of the crew of his gun, who, on account of his arrant cowardice, had no feeling of compassion for him. He was, however, lifted from the deck and carried below, to be placed under the doctor’s care.

The enemy, who had laid to for us, seeming to consider that nothing was to be gained by them if they continued the fight, but that they were far more likely to have to haul down their flags or to be sunk, once more filled and stood away from us to the northward. It seemed a question whether we should follow or not, and I am very certain that no one felt more regret than did our captain at having to allow the enemy to escape when he had almost secured the victory.

The property, however, entrusted to his care on board the fleet of Indiamen was of such vast amount that he could not venture to run the risk of any disaster. We had gallantly done our duty by beating off so far superior a force. The enemy was in fall flight—we might have overtaken them—but if we had, and captured them all, we should have so completely weakened our crew that we could not have ventured to continue our voyage, and should certainly have had to put into port to refit. Our helm was accordingly put up, and once more we stood to the southward after our convoy.

Having to leave the enemy was, I believe, a far greater trial and exertion of moral courage in our captain, than having to follow and attack them once more would have been.

Some officers I have known would have gone after them, and perhaps have risked the loss of the richly-laden merchantmen under their charge. Our crew, to a man, felt this, and not a complaint or a growl was heard at our allowing the enemy to escape.

Darkness soon hid them from our sight. The battle was over, but our work was not. All night long we were busy in repairing damages, and daylight still found us engaged in the same occupation. The magazine was once more closed, the blood-stained decks were washed down, and in the course of the day the ship resumed much of her wonted appearance, though it was no easy work to get rid of the traces of the severe conflict in which we had lately been engaged.

At length the hands were piped below, the watch on deck was set, and the others allowed to turn in and get some of that rest we so much needed. Then it was that the recollection of my painful position returned to me. I was a prisoner released for a time, with a severe punishment hanging over me. Suppose even the captain were to remit my punishment, in consequence of the way in which I knew that I had behaved in the fight, I should still be loaded with disgrace. I should be looked upon as a convicted thief. Such were the feelings with which I went to my hammock. I was just about to turn in, when I heard my name called.

“The doctor has sent for you, Weatherhelm,” said the messenger, who was one of the hospital attendants. “There is a man dying, and he wants to see you.”

I slipped on my clothes and hurried down to the orlop deck. I found the purser, with the chaplain, standing near the hammock of a seaman. The surgeon came up at the same time. “I am glad to see you, Weatherhelm,” he said in his usual kind way. “That poor wretch exonerates you from the charge he made against you, and begged to set you that he might ask your forgiveness.”

I drew near the hammock, and in the features of the dying man I recognised those of Saull Ley.

“Weatherhelm, I’m a great villain, I know I am,” he cried out as soon as he saw me. “There’s a greater, though, and he put me up to it. I would have let you be punished to save my own worthless carcase, and, oh! now I’m suffering greater pain than ever the cat could give me. I stole all the things—I’ve been telling Mr Nips. Then we persuaded those two silly lads that it was you, and when they saw me go and put them into your bag, they had no doubt about it, and so Iffley made them believe that they had seen you coming out of the store-room. That’s all about it. I’ve been speaking the truth and nothing but the truth. But you’ll forgive me, won’t you, Weatherhelm, and let me die easy?”

“I forgive you with all my heart, and I believe that I should have forgiven you even had I suffered the punishment awarded me,” I answered. “I would ask you but one thing. Why do you fancy that Iffley is desirous to get me falsely accused?”

“Because he hates you, he told me so,” he said. “He has a long score to wipe off against you, and he vowed if you escaped him this time, he would find means, before long, to be revenged on you.”

“You hear what the man says,” observed Dr McCall to the other officers present. “This is what I suspected, but had not the means of proving. We must not allow that ruffian Iffley to obtain his ends; for ruffian he is, notwithstanding his plausible manners. It’s an old story—Weatherhelm would rather it were not told—but there is nothing in it to do him discredit.”

“All I desire, sir, is, that I may be freed from the imputation cast on me, and that, thanks to your consideration in calling witnesses to hear this poor man’s dying confession, will, I am sure, be done.”

“Rest assured of that,” remarked the chaplain. “And now I would say a few words to Saull Ley. You spoke of dying with a quiet conscience if you got forgiveness from the man you might have so cruelly injured, had you not been struck down by the hand of an avenging God; but you have not only forgiveness to seek from man, but from One who is mighty to save, who has the power and the will to wash away all your sins, if you put your entire faith and trust in Him, and repent you heartily of your former life.”

“I cannot, I dare not. He wouldn’t listen to such a wretch as me. Don’t tell me to go to Him. Find some other means of saving me—isn’t there? There must be. Do tell me of it!”

“There is none—none whatever,” answered the chaplain. “Do not refuse the only means—a sure means—by which even the greatest of sinners may be saved.”

“Oh, go on, sir, go on; tell me all about it,” moaned the unhappy man. “I’ve often before now thought of giving up my bad ways. I wish that I had done it long ago.”

The chaplain looked at Dr McCall, to learn whether he might continue talking to the wounded man. The doctor signified that he might, but that it would be better if there were fewer persons present.

“Yes; but he must first sign the evidence he has given,” observed the purser, who was of necessity a good man of business. “Not only must the innocent escape punishment, but the guilty must be punished.”

He accordingly wrote down the statement made by the wounded seaman, and, after reading it to him, put a pen into his hand to sign it. Ley took the pen and hurriedly wrote his name. He did not speak. Suddenly the pen fell from his hand—a shudder came over his frame—without a groan he fell back in his hammock.

“What has happened?” asked the chaplain.

“He has gone to his long account,” answered Dr McCall.

Alas! how many die like him, talking and thinking about repentance, and saying that they will put their trust in Christ, but never go to Him, never repent!

With a heart truly thankful for the dangers I had escaped and the mercies vouchsafed to me, I returned to my hammock, and slept more soundly than I had done for many a night. The next morning, after breakfast was over, all hands were piped on deck, and the captain sent for me. I found him and all the officers assembled on the quarter-deck.

“I have sent for you, Weatherhelm,” said the captain, “to tell you that I am very glad you have escaped what would have been a very cruel and unjust punishment. My lads, you know that this man was accused not long ago of a very great crime. I rejoice to say that I have proof, undoubted, that he is entirely innocent. The man who accused him is dead, but he left evidence not only that this man is innocent, but that a most vile attempt has been made to accuse him falsely. I know the man; let him beware that he is not caught in the trap he has laid for another.”

While the captain was speaking, I caught sight of Iffley’s countenance. Again I observed on it that expression of hatred and baffled vengeance, and when he himself was so palpably alluded to, there was mixed with it no small amount of craven apprehension. The stern eye of the captain ranged over the countenances of the crew, it rested a moment on him. He quailed before it.

“Pipe down!” cried the captain.

Those of the crew not on duty went below. Many of the more steady men came up to me, and congratulated me on my escape, and I found in a short time that I had numbers of friends on board. Had it not been for the thought of my wife, and of my wish to return home, I should have been happy.

Iffley never came near me. He seemed to dread me far more than I dreaded him. I could not conceive what harm he could possibly do me now that he was known, and must have been aware that he was watched. Still I felt that it would be wiser to be on my guard against him.

When the excitement of the occurrences I have described had passed away, a reaction took place, and I once more began to feel the misery of my position. It seemed like some horrid dream, and sometimes I almost hoped that I should awake and find that I was at home all the time, and that the scenes I was going through were but the effects of a dreadful nightmare.

I frequently found myself reasoning on the subject, but there was a vividness and reality about everything which made me too justly doubt the soundness of my hopes. I had, before I was pressed, more than once been afflicted with a dream so like the present reality, that, as I say, I nearly persuaded myself that I was dreaming now. I had been torn away from my wife without being able to tell her where I was going. I sailed over strange seas without a kit, and without any preparation for the voyage; cast upon strange lands among savages, and had barely escaped with my life; I had wandered about among a variety of extraordinary scenes, and I had found on awaking that scarcely an hour had passed since I fell asleep. But day after day went by, and at length I felt very well assured that I was not dreaming a dream, but living through the sad reality. My great desire was to write home, at least to say where I was, and that I was well; but no opportunity occurred, not a homeward-bound ship did we pass.

We had been several weeks at sea, when one morning two sail were reported in sight from the masthead. They were standing towards us. The idea was that they were two homeward-bound English merchantmen. I accordingly got ready a letter to send home by one of them to my wife.

As they drew near, however, they showed French colours. It was clear, we thought, that they had mistaken us for a French squadron. We accordingly hoisted French colours, and they ran on close under our guns. We then changed our colours for English, and fired a shot across their bows. They were evidently taken by surprise, and did not seem to know what to do. We fired another shot to quicken their imagination. On this they hove-to and hauled down their colours.

Directly afterwards a boat came alongside from each or the strangers. The masters of the ships apparently were in them. They came on deck, and inquired what we wanted, and why we fired at them? They spoke tolerably good English, though in the French fashion.

“Why, gentlemen, I am sorry for your sakes to say that war has again broken out between England and France, and that we purpose to make prizes of your ships.”

The poor Frenchmen looked very indignant, and then very unhappy, and stamped and swore and plucked the hair in handfuls from their heads. I thought they would have gone out of their minds, they seemed so miserable and furious; but they were allowed to rage on, and no one interfered with them.

At last our captain observed that it was the fortune of war, and a misfortune to which many brave men were subject; whereon they re-echoed the sentiment, shrugged their shoulders, and in ten minutes were laughing and singing as if everything had turned out exactly as they could have wished it.

The captain ordered two of the midshipmen to go on board the prizes to carry them home. How the sound of the order set my heart beating! I had my letter ready to send. Could I but form one of their crews. I could scarcely venture to ask the favour.

Several men were chosen for each vessel. I understood that their numbers were complete. Again my heart sank within me. My hopes had vanished. I was standing with my letter in my hand, when I saw Dr McCall go up to the captain. Directly afterwards I was called up.

“I understand, my man,” said our captain, “that you have strong reasons for wishing to return home. You shall go in one of the prizes; get your bag ready.”

How I blessed him for his kind words. In ten minutes I was on board the largest prize. She was ship-rigged, called the Mouche, and bound from the Isle of France to Bordeaux. Mr Randolph was the name of the midshipman sent in charge of her.

As I left the side of the Albion, I saw Charles Iffley looking out at one of the ports. His features bore more strongly than ever the marks of hatred and anger, and when he saw that I was for a time beyond his reach, he shook his fist at me with impotent rage.

The mates and some of the French crews were sent on board the Albion; but two or three blacks and several Frenchmen remained on board the ships to help to navigate them. Still we were all together but very short-handed.

The other prize was the Nautile. She was a very handsome ship, and soon gave evidence that her sailing qualities were superior to those of the Mouche.

I could scarcely believe my senses when I found myself actually on board a ship homeward-bound. I might in a few short weeks once more be united to my wife, instead of being kept away from her as I expected perhaps for years. The sudden turn of fortune almost overcame me.

As I had had some difficulty in believing in the reality of my misery, now I felt it scarcely possible to trust in the reality of my happiness. Too great for me seemed the joy. Yet I never anticipated for a moment that any evil could possibly be in store for me at the end of my voyage. I brought what I thought would be the reality clearly before my eyes. I pictured to myself my wife in our quiet little home, looking out on the ever-animated waters of the Solent, and the fleets of men-of-war and Indiamen and large merchantmen of all sorts brought up at Spithead. I thought of her, anxiously waiting to receive news of me; and then she rose up to my sight, as I thought she would be when she received notice that I had once more returned safe in limb and health to my native land. I had no doubt that I should be able to pay for a substitute, and thus be free from the risk of being again pressed and sent to sea. All before me appeared bright and encouraging.

Mr Randolph, the officer sent in charge of the Mouche, although still a midshipman, had seen a good deal of service, and was a brave young man. He had a difficult duty to perform. The Mouche turned out a very slow sailer, and was excessively leaky, so that we always had to keep three or four hands employed at a time at the pumps. Of course we made the Frenchmen do this work, at which they grumbled not a little; but we told them that had their ship not been leaky, they would not have had to pump, and that they had no reason to complain. They did not much like our arguments, for they said that if we had not made prize of their vessel, they should have been quietly continuing their voyage.

Including the blacks, there were eight Frenchmen on board, while, with Mr Randolph, we only mustered seven in all. We had therefore to keep a very constant look-out over them, lest they should attempt to take the vessel from us, a trick which more than once had before been played, and sometimes with success.

I had always thought Mr Randolph a good-natured, merry, skylarking youngster; but the moment he took charge of the prize, he became a most diligent, careful officer. He was always on deck, always on the look-out, at all hours of the day and night.

I cannot say so much in favour of the officer who had charge of the Nautile. He was a mate, and consequently superior in rank to Mr Randolph. Unfortunately they had had some dispute of long standing, and Mr Simon, the mate I speak of, never lost an opportunity of showing his enmity and dislike to his younger brother officer. Here we had a practical example of how detrimental to the interest of the service are any disputes between officers.

To return, however, to the time when we first got on board our respective prizes, as they lay hove-to close to the Albion. The signal to us to make sail to the northward was hoisted from her masthead, and while she stood away after the tea-chests, we shaped a course for England.

How different must our feelings have been to those of the unfortunate Frenchmen, who saw the ships sailing away from them, while they had to go back to be landed they could not tell where, many months elapsing before they would again return to their families!

The trade winds were at this time blowing across our course,—indeed almost ahead, so that we made but very slow progress. At first we kept close enough together, though there was no interchange of civilities between the two crews. When we were within hail, and the Nautile was going along with her main-topsail yard on the cap, while we had every sail set, and our yards braced sharp up, her people jeered and laughed at us, and called us slow coaches, and offered to give us a tow, and asked what messages they should take to our wives and families in England. This they only did when the officers were below. We replied that it was no fault of ours, that if they liked to exchange ships, we could say the same to them, but that we would not, for we could tell them that it was not pleasant to be taunted for nothing.

At last Mr Simon, standing one day on his taffrail, speaking-trumpet in hand, hailed and asked Mr Randolph if he could not manage to make his ship walk along somewhat faster, for at this rate they would never get to England.

“Greater haste, worst speed, Simon,” answered Mr Randolph. “I’ve been doing my best to make the Mouche move faster, but she’s a slow fly, and I cannot do it. Besides, she is very leaky, and we have had hard work to keep her afloat.”

“Let her sink, then,” answered Mr Simon; “I do not see why she should be delaying us, and giving us a double chance of being retaken by the enemy.”

“While I live and have a man who will stick by me, I’ll stick by the ship put under my charge,” replied Mr Randolph; “still I must beg you to remain by us. My own people and I will do our best to keep he afloat. When we find we can do so no longer, we will claim your assistance, and get you to take us on board.”

“Oh, is that what you calculate on? We’ll see about it,” was Mr Simon’s very unsatisfactory reply.

“We’ll trust to you not deserting us,” sung out Mr Randolph. “If a gale were to spring up, we should have hard work to keep her afloat; remember that.”

“What’s that you say? I can’t hear,” answered Mr Simon, as his ship shot ahead of ours.

“He heard well enough, but does not intend to heed, I fear,” said Mr Randolph, turning round and walking hurriedly up and down the deck. “We must trust to our own energies, and my lads will stick by me, I know that.”

Our cargo consisted of sugar, coffee, and rice, and other valuable but bulky articles produced in the East, so that we could not move them to get at the leaks. A very steady man, Thomas Andrews, a quarter-master, was acting as first mate, and he having spoken well of me to Mr Randolph, I was appointed to do duty as second mate, or, I might say more justly, to take charge of a watch. Mr Randolph seemed to put a good deal of confidence in me, and he now summoned Andrews and me, and consulted us what it might be best to do towards stopping the leaks.

“It is bad enough now,” he observed, “but it will be much worse should a gale spring up and cause the ship to labour heavily.”

Andrews and I offered to hunt about to try and find out where the worst leaks existed. We accordingly worked our way down into the bows of the ship in every direction, at no little risk of being suffocated, and at length we assured ourselves from the appearance of the planking, which looked as if the bows had been stove in, that she had run against the butt-end of a piece of timber. It seemed a miracle how the ship could have kept afloat with so large a fracture in her bottom. We reported our discovery to Mr Randolph, who descended with us to examine the danger.

“Well, if the worst comes to the worst, we can but get on board the Nautile,” he observed. “In the meantime, we’ll do our best to keep the old ship afloat.”

Mr Randolph directed me to take charge of the ship, and to keep an eye on the proceedings of the Frenchmen, while he and Andrews, with two men, descended below with all the planks and carpenter’s tools to be found, to try and repair, as far as they could, the damage. Night was coming on, so that it was important to get the work done as speedily as possible. I meantime turned my eye every now and then at our consort, for she was evidently getting further ahead than she was accustomed to do. I hoped, however, that she would soon shorten sail or lay to for us, as she had always done at nightfall. Still she stood on.

Darkness was coming down rapidly on us, and at length I could scarcely distinguish her. I did not like to tell Mr Randolph, for of course this would only interrupt the work in which he was engaged; but I marked well the point by the compass in which I had last seen the Nautile, that we might know where to look for her in the morning.

Three hours passed away before Mr Randolph and Andrews returned on deck. They said that they had been able to patch up the leak far better than they expected, and that, if the weather held moderate, we might hope to carry the ship into Plymouth.

The night passed by much as usual. The French prisoners had hitherto behaved very well, and seemed so inclined to be peaceable and orderly that insensibly our vigilance over them relaxed. It was my morning watch on deck, I looked out anxiously for the Nautile when daylight dawned. Brighter and brighter grew the day, but in vain I rubbed my eyes. Not a sign of her was to be seen.

Mr Simon had, then, cruelly and shamefully deserted us. Complaints, and more than complaints, both loud and deep, were uttered. He knew our condition,—he knew that we were any moment liable to founder,—and still he had made sail and left us merely to get home a few days sooner, or to run some little less risk himself of recapture. It is very seldom that I have heard of conduct so selfish in the navy, or, indeed, in the merchant service.

I do not want to make out that seamen are better than other men, but I maintain that they are certainly not worse, and that in many respects they are as honest and free from vice as any other class of men. One thing was very certain, we could not hope to overtake him. We must therefore take care of ourselves as best we could. The leak had been partially stopped, and if we continued to enjoy fine weather, we might get into port very well; and, as Andrews observed, “The prize is not always to the strong, nor the race to the swift.” Our consort might run his head into the very dangers he was so anxious to avoid.

We went on very well for two or three days longer, and then I could not help remarking that there was a considerable change in the manner of the Frenchmen. They were far less obedient and civil than they had been, and when ordered to perform any duty, they went about it in a sulky, disagreeable manner.

Mr Randolph, I thought, did not observe the change, but I mentioned the subject to Andrews.

“I’ll keep my eye on the fellows,” said he. “They’ll find it rather difficult to catch a weasel asleep.”

A few days after this we fell in with a westerly breeze, which increased rapidly into a strong gale, and away we ran before it much faster than the old Mouche had yet been made to fly.

Unfortunately the sea got up, and the ship began to labour very much. The consequence was, as we had expected, the leak we had patched up once more burst open, and it became necessary to keep all hands, watch and watch, at the pumps. Mr Randolph took his spell like the rest of us, and no one seemed to work with a more hearty goodwill.

I watched with some anxiety to see what the Frenchmen would do. First one of them fell down while working at the pumps, and when we picked him up he said that he was so ill he could not labour any more, but must go to his hammock. Then another followed his example, and then a third, and a fourth, till only one remained besides the three blacks, who went on working away as merrily as ever.

The fifth Frenchman seemed suddenly to get into very good humour, and to exert himself as much as any of us. Had the gale continued, I believe that we should all of us really have been knocked up, but happily we very quickly ran out of it, and once more we had smooth water and a fair breeze.

While the sea was still running high, the only Frenchman who remained on deck, as he was coming aft, slipped and fell. Two of the blacks only were near him. They picked him up, while he cried out with pain, asserting that he had either broken his arm or put it out of joint. He insisted on being carried to his hammock, and when Mr Randolph offered to try and doctor him, he shrieked out and declared that he could not bear the pain of being touched. At last we were obliged to let him alone, and then we had all our five prisoners laid up and apparently useless.

It thus became more important than ever to try once more to stop the leak. Mr Randolph and Andrews accordingly set about it as they had done the first time, taking with them two hands. This left only two others, besides me, on deck, and the three blacks. Negroes have, I have always fancied, very little command over their countenances, and if a person is accustomed to watch them, he will always be able to discover, almost as easily as he would among a party of children, whether there is anything in the wind. Now, as I saw the negroes moving about the decks, I felt very sure from the roll of their eyes and the way in which every now and then they exhibited their teeth, that they had a grand secret among them. I stepped aft, and telling the man at the helm to be on his guard, I called Sam Jones, the only other man left on deck, and sent him down into the cabin to collect all the arms he could find, to load the pistols and muskets, and to place them just inside the companion-hatch, so that I could get at them in a moment.

“Now,” said I to Jones, “just go forward as if you were thinking of nothing particular, and then slip quietly down below and tell Mr Randolph that I think there’s something wrong, that he had better be on his guard and return on deck as quickly as possible. Do you jump up again without a moment’s delay. Get a handspike or anything you can lay hold of, and keep guard over the fore-hatchway, and see that neither the blacks nor any of the Frenchmen go down there.”

“But the Frenchmen, they can’t do any harm; they are all sick in bed,” observed Jones.

“Don’t be too certain of their sickness,” I observed. “They may be sick, but it is just possible that they are shamming, and it is well to be on the safe side.”

Without further delay, Jones went forward to do as I directed him. I meanwhile stood by the companion-hatch, ready to hand a musket up to Thompson, the man at the helm, should occasion arise to require it. The Frenchmen, I ought to have said, all slept together in a part of the hold which was planked off for their accommodation. I kept watching the blacks narrowly. I saw their eyes turned every now and then towards the main hatchway. I was convinced that no time was to be lost if bloodshed was to be prevented.

“A heavy squall coming on,” I shouted out. “Hands aloft and furl topsails! Here, Sambo, Julius, Quasha, aloft with you quickly and furl the main-topsail.” They pretended not to hear me, but once more looked down the hatchway. “Do you hear? Up with you, you scoundrels!” I shouted out at the top of my voice, loud enough, I thought, at all events, for Jones to hear me. At that moment the heads of three Frenchmen appeared above the combing of the main hatchway.


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