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Chapter Sixteen.
On board the Nymph—A hot engagement—Escape of the enemy—I am transferred to the Pelican—Action off the Isle of Bas—I fancy myself with a wooden leg—We put into Plymouth—Writing under difficulties—A sad disappointment—We sail—A chase—Trying time—Action between the Venus and Sémillante—In search of the enemy.

Captain Edward Pellew, who commanded the Nymph, was, I was told, one of the smartest officers in the British navy.

“Where there is anything to do, he’ll do it; and if there is nothing to do, he’ll find something,” was the opinion expressed of him on board.

He had during the last war been first lieutenant of the Apollo, Captain Pownoll.

“I belonged to her at the time,” said my messmate Dick Hagger. “We were in company with the Cleopatra, Captain Murray, who, one morning, sent us in chase of a cutter seen in the north-west quarter. About half-past ten, when we had got nearly within gun-shot of the cutter, we saw a large ship standing out from the land. That she was an enemy, there was no doubt; so Captain Pownoll at once did his best to close her. The wind was about north-east, and the stranger, standing to the nor’ard on the starboard tack, was enabled to cross our bows. Soon afterwards she tacked to the eastward, and we also hove about until, she being on our weather quarter, we again tacked, as did also the stranger. We exchanged broadsides with her in passing, when we once more tacked and brought her to close action about noon. It was the hottest fight I had ever then been engaged in. We tossed our guns in and out, determined to win. It was sharp work; numbers of our men were falling, several killed and many wounded. Among the former was our brave captain, who was shot down about an hour after the action commenced, when our first lieutenant, Edward Pellew, who was now our captain, took command of the ship. You may be sure that he continued the fight bravely, cheering us on. What we might have thought about the matter had another man been in his place, I don’t know; but we knew him, and felt sure that he would keep it up as long as we had a stick standing or a shot in the locker.

“We were now edging away off the wind towards Ostend. It was soon seen that it was the intention of the enemy to run ashore. We had by this time made her out to be the Stanislaus, a French thirty-two gun frigate, though she was only carrying at the time, so we afterwards found out, twenty-six long twelve-pounders, so that she was no match for us.

“Our young commander now did his best to prevent the Stanislaus from running ashore by crossing and recrossing her bows; but on heaving the lead, we found that we were in little more than twenty feet of water, and that if we stood on, we ourselves must be aground before long.

“The master and other officers now came up to Mr Pellew, and strongly advised him to wear ship. You may be sure we were very sorry when we had to bring the Apollo to the wind, with her head off shore; and a few minutes afterwards the Stanislaus took the ground, when her foremast and main-topmast fell over the side. Still greater was our disappointment when we heard that Ostend was neutral ground, and that we should be violating what was called the neutrality of the port by renewing the engagement. I am not certain that our commander would not have run all risks, had not the enemy fired a gun to leeward to claim the protection of the Dutch. It is but right to say that the French fought well, for besides our captain, we hid five poor fellows killed and twenty wounded. Our rigging was cut to pieces, and we had three feet of water in the hold. The French loss was much more severe.

“Mr Pellew got his promotion to the rank of commander for this action. I next served with him on board the Pelican, a fourteen gun brig to which he was soon afterwards appointed. We were off the Isle of Bas, towards the end of April 1782, I mind, when we made out several vessels at anchor in the roads.

“Our commander at once resolved to attack them, and for this purpose stood inshore, when we saw two privateers—a brig and a schooner, each of equal force to the Pelican—spring their broadsides towards the entrance of the roads, to prevent us entering. Our commander was not the man to be stopped by threats of that sort. Standing on, we opened a brisk fire on the two privateers, and soon drove them, as well as a third which appeared inside, on shore, close under the shelter of some heavy batteries, whose guns at once began blazing away at us. We were struck several times, and two of our men were wounded, but no one was killed. It was about as pretty and well-executed an affair as I ever saw, and we were all right glad to hear that our commander had obtained his post rank for it. So you see, Will, we’ve got a man to be proud of.”

I agreed with Hagger, but yet my heart was too sore to feel any satisfaction at knowing this, and I would a thousand times rather have been on shore with my dear wife; and who, under my circumstances, would not? Still I might hope by some means or other to be able to rejoin her. The frigate, I found, had been fitted out at Portsmouth, and to Portsmouth she would in all probability return. I would thankfully have received a wound sufficiently severe to have sent me to hospital. Then, if I once got home, discharged from the ship, I determined to take very good care not again to be pressed. It would be hard indeed if Charles Iffley should discover me. In the meantime, I resolved, as I had done before, to perform my duty.

I prayed, for my wife’s sake, should we go into action, that my life might be preserved. For myself, just then, I cared very little what might become of me.

I remember, however, laughing as I thought, if my right leg were to be shot away, how Uncle Kelson and I should go stumping about Southsea Common together,—he had lost his left leg,—now our heads almost knocking against each other, now going off at tangents. I pictured to myself the curious figure we should cut.

Hagger thought, as he looked at me, that I had gone daft.

“What is the matter, Will?” he asked. I told him.

“Don’t let such fancies get hold of your mind, man,” he answered. “You’ll keep your two legs and get safely on shore one of these days, when we have well trounced the mounseers. Ever bear in mind that ‘there’s a sweet little cherub who sits up aloft, to take care of the life of poor Jack.’

“He’ll take care of both your legs for your wife’s sake, as I doubt not it would be better for you to keep them on.”

After cruising up and down the Channel for some time, we put into Plymouth, where we found the Venus frigate. Commander Israel Pellew, our captain’s brother, came on board to keep his brother company, he having no command at the time.

No leave was granted, and very little communication held with the shore. I was unable to obtain a sheet of paper and a pen, the officers only having writing materials. I would willingly have given a guinea for a sheet of paper, a pen, and some ink; but it was not until we had been at anchor some time that I got a sheet from the purser’s steward, with a wretched pen and a small bottle of ink, for which I paid him five shillings. I was thankful to get it at that price, and immediately hurried down to write a letter to my wife. Bitterly to my disappointment, before I had finished it, I heard the boatswain’s shrill call summoning all hands on deck to heave up the anchor and make sail. Placing the half-finished letter in my bag, which I had brought from the Jane, I followed my shipmates.

We sailed in company with the Venus, Captain Faulknor, and stood down Channel in search of French cruisers. My earnest prayer was, that we might put into Spithead, whence I should have an opportunity of sending my letter on shore, even though I should be unable to get leave to go myself. As a pressed man, I knew that I should have a difficulty in obtaining that.

The Venus had been hurriedly fitted out. She had no marines on board, while she was twenty seamen short of her complement. She was rated as a thirty-two gun frigate, mounting twenty-four long twelve-pounders on the main-deck, with six eighteen-pounder carronades and eight long six-pounders on her quarter-deck and forecastle, which gave her a total of thirty-eight guns. Thus, except her carronades, her guns were of light calibre. We were somewhere about a hundred leagues north-west of Cape Finisterre when a sail was seen to the south-east. Captain Pellew, as senior officer, ordered Captain Faulknor (the Venus being much the nearer) to chase. We at the same time made out another sail to the eastward. Hoping that she might be an enemy, we immediately steered for her. She proved, however, to be an English frigate bound out with despatches to the West Indies. As her captain could not go out of his way to look after the Frenchman, we bore up alone to follow the Venus, hoping to get up in time to take part in the engagement, should she be fortunate enough to bring the stranger to action. We could calculate pretty accurately whereabouts to find our consort, when about noon the next day it came on calm for some hours, and though we set all sail, the ship made but little progress through the water.

Late in the evening, the sound of rapid firing reached our ears, and we knew that the Venus must be engaged, but whether or not with a ship of superior force, it was impossible to decide. It greatly tried our patience to hear the sound of the battle and yet not be able to take part in it. Even I was aroused, and for a time forgot my own troubles. The midshipmen went aloft to the mastheads, but still they were unable to catch sight of the combatants. The fast-coming gloom concealed the clouds of smoke which might have risen above the horizon and shown their position.

The officers walked the deck with hurried strides, their glasses in their hands, every now and then turning them in the direction from which the sound came, though they knew they were not likely to see anything.

The men stood about whistling for a wind until it seemed as if their cheeks would crack.

At last the breeze came; the order was given to trim sails. Never did men fly to their stations with more alacrity.

The days were long, and as night came down at last on the world of waters, we could hear the firing more distinctly than ever, but still we could not see the flashes of the guns.

Next morning a sail was sighted to the south-east. She was standing towards us, but alone.

“She may be the Venus, or she may be an enemy which has captured her, and is now coming on to fight us,” I observed to Dick Hagger.

He laughed heartily. “No, no, Will,” he answered. “Depend upon it, the Venus, if she is taken, which I don’t believe, would have too much knocked about an enemy to leave her any stomach for fighting another English ship.”

“But suppose she is not the ship with which the Venus engaged, but a fresh frigate standing out to fight us.”

“I only hope she may be; we’ll soon show her that slip has caught a Tartar. Depend on’t, we’ll not part company till we’ve taken her.”

The matter was soon set at rest, when, the stranger nearing us, we observed her crippled state, and recognised her as our consort.

“She’s had a pretty tough fight of it,” said Hagger as we gazed at her. Her fore-topgallant main and cross-jack yard were shot away, her yards, rigging, and sails sadly cut up, but what injuries her hull had received we could not make out.

On closing with each other, both ships hove-to, and our third lieutenant, Mr Pellowe, whose name curiously enough was very like that of our captain (we used to call the one the Owe, the other the Ew), went on board, accompanied by Commander Israel Pellew. I was one of the boat’s crew. We found, on getting up to her, that no small number of shot had struck her hull, some going through her sides, others her bulwarks, besides which she had received other damages.

Her people told us that they had had an action, which had lasted the best part of three hours, with a French frigate of forty guns, the Sémillante; and that, though they had suffered sharply, the Frenchman had been much more knocked about.

After engaging her for two hours, they had got up to within half a cable’s length of her, when, trimming their sails as well as they were able, they ranged up alongside with double-shotted guns and gave her a broadside.

Having shot ahead, they were going about to repeat their fire, when they discovered to leeward a large ship under French colours. The Sémillante, recognising the stranger, bore up to join her, when their captain, seeing that he should have no chance of victory, considering the way their ship had suffered, and that they might be taken, hauled close to the wind, and, making all the sail they could carry, stood away from their new enemy.

If it had not been for that, they declared they would have taken the Sémillante, and of this there seemed little doubt. They had had two seamen killed, and the master and nineteen seamen wounded.

We afterwards learned that the enemy had had twelve killed and twenty wounded.

Considering the disparity of force, the action was a gallant one, and we more than ever regretted that we had been prevented taking part in it; for we should, we felt sure, have captured one or both of the French ships.

As soon as the shot-holes in the Venus had been stopped and her rigging repaired, we made sail together in search of the enemy, we hoping to have an opportunity of tackling the fresh ship, while our consort attacked her old opponent.


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