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Chapter Seventeen.
In sight of the foe—The enemy get clear—Return to England—I lose my letter too late—We again sail—Action with the Cleopatra—Tough work with British tars—A last effort—Death of the French captain—On board the prize—Steer a course for the Isle of Wight—Our reception—My hopes and fears—Leave or no leave?—We run into Portsmouth harbour.

We continued our course under all sail to the eastward, and next evening caught sight of two sail, which we took to be French, standing up Channel.

We made chase, but lost sight of them in the night. Next morning, however, there they were, hull down, right ahead. We continued the pursuit along the French coast, but had the disappointment of seeing them at last take refuge in Cherbourg harbour. Knowing that they were not likely to come out again, we stood across channel, the Venus running into Plymouth to land her wounded men and repair damages, while we stood on for Falmouth.

Again I was disappointed in not being able to despatch my letter, for after we knew where the Venus was bound for, no communication was held with her.

I had got the letter written and addressed, but had not closed it, as I wished to add a few more words at latest. For safety’s sake, I kept it in my bag, as it might have got wetted and soiled in my pocket. Until we were off Falmouth, I did not know that we were to stand in. I was then too much engaged in shortening sail to get out my letter. When I was at last able to go below, I hurried to my bag, intending to add a postscript, but what was my dismay to be unable to find it.

I felt again and again, and then turned out all my things, but could nowhere discover the missing epistle. I hastened to try and obtain another sheet of paper from the purser’s steward, but he was just then too much engaged to attend to me, and directly after I got it my watch was called and I had to return on deck.

The moment my watch was over, I went below and, as well as I could, began writing. It was no easy matter in the dim light and hubbub going on around me. I finished it, however, telling my dear wife all that had occurred, how miserable I was at being separated from her, and my hopes, while I remained in the Channel cruiser, of being allowed to get on shore some day, even though we might be together but for a few short hours. The letter was closed and wafered; I rushed on deck with it, but only to find that the last boat from the shore had shoved off, and the next instant the hands were turned up to make sail.

I felt more inclined than I had ever done since my childhood to burst into tears. I think I should have done so from very vexation and disappointment, had I not been obliged to hurry to my station, putting my letter in my pocket as I did so.

It was trying, every one will allow, for all this time my dear wife could not tell what had become of me. My other friends might think me dead, but I knew that she would never believe that to be the case until she had strong evidence of the fact. Even if she had, I felt sure nothing would ever induce her to marry again.

The wind was fair up Channel. Arriving nearly abreast of the Start Point, we ran out to the southward, the captain hoping to fall in with one of the two French frigates which a short time before we and the Venus had chased into Cherbourg. One of the two was, as I before said, the Sémillante, the other was the Cleopatra.

On the morning of the 18th of June, just as day broke, the Start bearing east by north, distant five or six leagues, we discovered a sail in the south-east quarter, and immediately afterwards bore up in chase, carrying all the canvas we could set. As we approached the stranger, we felt nearly sure that she was the very French frigate we were in search of. She was under all sail, some of us thought, for the purpose of getting away.

“We shall have another long chase, and if that there craft has a fast pair of heels, she’ll get into Cherbourg and make us look foolish,” said Dick Hagger as we watched her.

We stood on, and soon had the satisfaction of discovering that we were sailing faster than the stranger. The captain and several of the other officers were examining her through their glasses.

In a short time they formed the opinion that she was no other than the Cleopatra which had before got away from us, and such we afterwards found to be the case.

A shout rose from our deck when we observed her haul up her foresail and lower her topgallant sails, showing that she had made up her mind to fight us.

In about two hours and a half, we got so near that we heard some one from her quarter-deck hail us.

Captain Pellew, on this, not making out distinctly what was said, shouted, “Ahoy! ahoy!” when our crew gave three cheers, and right hearty ones they were, and shouted, “Long live King George.”

As yet, not a shot had been fired, and it might have been supposed that we were two friendly ships meeting. On hearing our cheer, the French captain—his name we afterwards heard was Mullon—came on to the gangway, and waving his hat, exclaimed, “Vive la Nation!” on which his crew tried to give three cheers, as we had done; but it was a very poor imitation, I can vouch for it.

They had no one to lead them off, and they uttered shrieks rather than cheers, which, when we gave them, came out with a hearty ringing sound.

We saw the French captain talking to his crew, and waving a cap of liberty which he held in his hand. He then gave it to one of the men, who ran up the rigging and screwed it to the masthead.

“We’ll soon bring that precious cap of yours down, my boys,” cried Dick.

We were all this time at our guns, stripped to the waist, ready and eager to begin the game; and if the Frenchmen behaved as they seemed inclined to do, it would be, we felt sure, pretty sharp work.

The French captain now coming to the gangway, waved his hat. Our captain did the same, and passed the word along the deck that we were not to fire until we saw him raise his hat to his head.

Eagerly watching for the signal, we stood on, gradually nearing the French frigate, both of us running before the wind, until our foremost larboard guns could be brought to bear on the starboard quarter of the Cleopatra.

The captain raised his hat. Almost before it was on his head, the foremost gun was fired, the others being rapidly discharged in succession.

We were not to have the game all on our own side, for the French ship at once returned the compliment, and her shot came crashing on board of us.

We now, being within rather less than hailing distance of each other, kept blazing away as fast as we could run our guns in and out. We were doing considerable damage to the Frenchman, we could sea, but we were suffering not a little ourselves. Two of our midshipmen had fallen, killed while steadily going about their duty. Soon afterwards I saw another poor young fellow knocked over. Then the boatswain, in the act of raising his whistle to his mouth, had his head shot away; and some of the men declared that they heard it sounding notwithstanding, as it flew overboard. I saw three or four of our jollies—as we called the marines—drop while firing away from the forecastle. A round shot also striking our mainmast, I every instant expected to see it fall.

Though badly wounded, it was not cut through, however, and the carpenter and his crew set to work immediately to fish it.

We had been engaged some twenty minutes or so, when we saw the Cleopatra haul up some eight points from the wind.

We followed her closely, having no intention of allowing her to escape, if such was the expectation of her commander.

After blazing away some little time longer, down came her mizenmast; directly afterwards her wheel was shot away. She was thus rendered unmanageable, though for some time her crew endeavoured to keep her on her course by trimming sails; but our shot soon cutting away her braces, she played round off, and came stem on towards us, her jibboom passing between our fore and main masts, pressing so hard against the already wounded mainmast that I expected every instant to see it fall, especially as we had lost the main and spring stays. It was a question which would first go, our mainmast or the Frenchman’s jibboom.

Fortunately for us, the latter was carried away, and our mainmast stood. The moment our captain saw the stem of the Cleopatra strike us, supposing that the French were about to board, he shouted out, “Boarders, repel boarders!” But the Frenchmen hadn’t the heart to do it, and instead of their boarding us, we boarded them.

One party, led by our first lieutenant, rushed on the enemy’s forecastle; while another division, headed by the master, got through his main-deck ports.

Although the Cleopatra’s jibboom had given way, her larboard main-topmast studding-sail boom-iron had hooked on to the leech rope of our main-topsail, and was producing so powerful a strain on the mast that it seemed as if it could not possibly stand a minute longer. Seeing this, a brave fellow named Burgess, a maintop man, sprang aloft, and, in spite of the bullets aimed at him by some of the French marines stationed aft, cut the leech rope from the end of the main-yard.

Our third lieutenant had in the meantime cut away our best bower anchor, which had hooked on to the enemy’s ship.

I was one of those who had got through the main-deck ports. Following our gallant master, we fought our way aft, the Frenchmen for some time defending themselves bravely; but they could not resist the impetuosity of our charge, our cutlasses slashing and hewing, and our pistols going off within a few inches of their heads. At last many of them began to cry for quarter.

Although they numbered eighty more men than we did, most of them, throwing down their weapons, leapt below, tumbling head over heels upon each other. The rest fled aft, and seeing we had won the day, made no further resistance. Remarking that the Frenchman’s flag was still flying, I sprang aft to the halyards, and down I hauled it, cheering lustily as I did so, the cheer being taken up by the remaining crew of the Nymph.

The Cleopatra was ours. Never did I witness a more fearful sight. The decks fore and aft were slippery with gore, and covered with the dead and dying. During the short time we had been engaged, upwards of sixty had been struck down who, not an hour before, full of health and spirits, had attempted to reply to our cheer. Among them, on one side of the quarter-deck, lay the gallant Captain Mullon, surrounded by a mass of gore, for a round shot had torn open his back and carried away the greater part of his left hip. In one hand he was holding a paper, at which, strange as it may seem, he was biting away and endeavouring to swallow. I, with two other men, went up to him to ascertain what he was about. In the very act his hand fell, his jaw dropped, and there was the paper sticking in his mouth. He was dead. It evidently, however, was not the paper he intended to destroy, but, as it turned out, was his commission; for in his right pocket was found the list of coast signals used by the French, which, with his last gasp, he was thus endeavouring to prevent falling into the hands of the British.

Without loss of time one hundred and fifty prisoners were removed on board the Nymph, and just as the last had stepped on board the ships separated.

The third lieutenant, who had been sent on board with a prize crew, at once set to work to repair the damages which the Cleopatra had received, while all hands in the Nymph were actively employed in the game way. When we came to look at our watches, we found that we had dished up the enemy in just fifty minutes from the time the first shot had been fired at her until her flag was hauled down.

“Pretty quick work,” said Dick Hagger to me as we were working together repairing the rigging. “I told you the captain would be sharp about it; he always is at all he undertakes.”

On making up the butcher’s bill, however, as the purser called it, we found that although the Frenchmen out of three hundred and twenty men and boys had lost sixty-three, we, out of our two hundred and forty, had had no less than twenty-three killed and twenty severely wounded, making fifty in all. Of these, the gentlemen belonging to the midshipmen’s berth had suffered most severely, for four of them had been killed and two wounded. Of the senior officers, none had been killed; but the second lieutenant had been wounded, as was the lieutenant of marines, with six of his men.

As soon as sail could be got on the two frigates, we, to my great joy, steered a course for the Isle of Wight. I now felt more thankful than ever that I had escaped, as there seemed every probability that I should be able to see my dear wife, or at all events communicate with her. As soon as I went below, though I could with difficulty keep my eyes from closing, I opened my letter and added a few lines describing the action, and then placed it in my pocket, ready to send off on the first opportunity.

In spite of the poor fellows suffering below, and the number of shipmates we had lost, we felt very happy as with a fair breeze we sailed in through the Needles, our well-won prize following in our wake.

Never did those high-pointed rocks look more white and glittering or the downs more green and beautiful, while the blue sea sparkling in the sunlight seemed to share our joy. The people on the shore, as we passed the little town of Yarmouth, waved to us, and threw up their hats, and the flags from many a flagstaff flew out to the breeze.

As soon as we brought up at Spithead, I eagerly looked out for a boat going to the shore, by which to send my letter, hoping to have it delivered at once, instead of letting it go through the post office; but, as it was late in the evening, no shore boats came off, and I had to wait all the night, thinking how little my dear wife supposed I was so near her.

I turned out at daybreak, before the hammocks were piped up, that I might take a look at the spot where I thought she was living. Suddenly a sickness came over me. What if she should have been taken ill when I was so rudely torn from her! Perhaps she had never recovered, and was even now numbered among the dead. I could scarcely refrain from jumping overboard and trying to swim to Southsea beach. It seemed so near, and yet I knew that I could not do it. Then I thought I would go boldly up to the first lieutenant and tell him how treacherously I had been carried off,—snatched, as it were, from the arms of my young wife,—and ask him to give me leave for a few hours, promising faithfully to come back at the time he might name. Then I reflected that the ship was short-handed, that we had the prisoners to guard, and that until she had been brought up safe in Portsmouth harbour, every man would be required for duty.

“It would be useless to ask him,” I groaned out. “He’ll remember I’m a pressed man, and would not trust me. It is too common for men to break their word and desert, indifferent to what others may suffer in consequence. No,” I thought, “I’ll try to send my letter first, and then wait with all the patience I can muster until I can get an answer.”

Before long the hands were turned up, and we all set about our usual duties, washing down decks and giving them a double allowance of holystoning, to try and get out more of the blood stains before, visitors should come on board.

Scarcely was this work over than the order was given to get up the anchor and make sail, as, tide and wind being favourable, we were to run into harbour.

My heart bounded at the thought, I sprang with eagerness to my station, the ship gathered way and, followed by our prize, we stood towards the well-known entrance of Portsmouth harbour.


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