Showing the importance, on board ship, of a rope's end well applied.
The next morning, as we expected, the orders came down for the Indiaman to go round to the river. The wind was fair, but light; we hove up and made sail, stemming the last of the ebb. When the flood made, the wind died away, so that we made but little progress, much to the annoyance of those on board, who were naturally impatient to land after so tedious a voyage. Toward the evening it fell calm, and a fog-bank rose on the horizon to the eastward. There were still two hours of daylight, when, as I was sweeping the horizon with my glass, I discovered the three masts of a vessel with no sails set on them. As she was a long way off I went half-way up the main rigging to have a better view of her, and made her out to be a large lugger. I went down to the poop, where Bramble stood smoking a cheroot with some of the officers of the ship. "Father," says I, "there's a large lugger on our beam, with her sails lowered down. I caught her masts with the glass just now."
"Then she's a French privateer, you may depend upon it," replied Bramble, "and she means to try to take us by surprise to-night."
The officers went down and reported it to the captain: the glasses were fixed upon her, and there was little doubt as to what she was.
"Lucky you discovered her, boy, for we might have been surprised, that's a fact," said the captain; "however, now she shall catch a Tartar."
"She's waiting for the fog, captain," said Bramble, "which will come rolling down with the shift of wind in about an hour or two, I expect; and then we must allow her another hour to get alongside of us. Depend upon it she has plenty of men, and intends to try to board us in the fog."
Everybody was now on the qui vive; the women were, as usual, frightened; the men passengers looked grave, the Lascars rather unsteady; but we had forty English seamen and a hundred invalid soldiers on board, who could all be depended upon. The guns were loaded and shotted, and the invalid soldiers were mustered; muskets and ammunition handed up; the bayonets fixed, unfixed again; and then they were ordered to remain on the booms with their accouterments on and their muskets by their sides. The officers still kept their glasses on the lugger, until at last the fog came down and we could see her no more.
The officers who commanded the invalids, after a consultation with the captain at which Bramble assisted, told off their men into two parties, one of them being appointed to assist the seamen with their bayonets in repelling the boarders (should the attempt be made), and the other to fire upon them and into the deck of the vessel when she came alongside. The Lascars were stationed at the guns, in case they might be required; but no great dependence was placed upon their services.
By the time that these arrangements had been made, the fog had reached the Indiaman, and we were at the same time taken aback with the easterly breeze which brought it down to us; being near to the land, we put the ship's head off shore. The wind continued light and the water smooth, but the fog thickened every minute: at last we could hardly see as far as the foremast of the vessel.
"He'll be puzzled to find us, I think," said the captain.
"He'll find us, never fear," replied Bramble. "He has calculated the time of the fog reaching us, and he knows that we must lay our head off-shore—to be sure, we might give him the go-by if we bore up and ran back again to the Downs."
"I think I see myself bearing up and running away from a rascally French privateer," said the captain. "Keep a sharp lookout there forward."
"Ay, ay, sir," replied the chief officer.
Half an hour more passed, and by our calculation the privateer should have been on board of us, but we could see nothing of her, although the fog had cleared up a little. The soldiers were now ordered to load their muskets. I was on the poop with Bramble, when, happening to turn and look aft (the very opposite direction from which the privateer was to be expected), I saw her three lugsails looming in the mist, just on the quarter, not half a cable's length from us. I jumped down to where the captain was standing, and said to him, "There she is, sir, close on our lee quarter." The captain sprang on the poop, saw the vessel, and ordered the men to come aft in silence. The tramp of the soldiers' feet was scarcely over when the lugger was alongside of us, her masts banging against our main and mizzen chains as she rolled with the swell under our lee. The Frenchmen gave a cheer, which told us how very numerous they were: they climbed up the side and into the chains like cats, and in a few seconds all was noise, confusion, and smoke. It was impossible to know what the result was to be for about a minute, when the cheers from our own men announced that the assailants had been beaten back. But hardly had the cheering ceased on our side when another cheer was heard from the lugger, and the attempt to gain our decks was repeated. This time the Frenchmen fought more obstinately than before, and it was nearly five minutes before they were repelled. It was not yet dark (although the fog was thick), and you could make out their countenances pretty clear; a more wild reckless set of fellows I never beheld, and they certainly fought very gallantly, but they were driven back again; and once more were the cheers from the British seamen and soldiers mixed up with the execrations and shouts of the still contending, although retreating, Frenchmen.
Just at this period of the conflict I was standing on the poop by Bramble, who had been watching the result, when he said, "Tom, come with me: do you jump into the main chains with a double part of the topsail halyards fall, and when the lugger's mast strikes against the chains as she rolls into us, pass the fall round it underneath the rigging, and hand the end in to me."
We both leaped off the poop; he gave me the bight of the halyards. I crept out of the port into the chains and passed it round the lugger's mainmast, as he told me, handing in the bight to him, which he belayed slack to the mainsheet kevel. At the time I perceived a man lying wounded or dead in the main chains, but I paid no attention to him until, as I was about to get on board, he attracted my attention by seizing my leg, and making his teeth meet in the small part of it, above the ankle. I could not help crying out, I was so taken by surprise with the pain; however, I kicked him off, and turning to look at him, I found it was a wounded Frenchman, who, perceiving what I was about, had paid me that compliment. As soon as I was on board I heard the captain say to Bramble, "Well, pilot, he has had enough of it."
"Yes, and he won't escape, captain, for Tom has got him fast by the masthead, and they dare not climb up to cut themselves adrift. All that you have to do now it to let the soldiers fire on his decks until they run below, and then our men can board and take possession of her."
The captain, perceiving that the vessel was made fast, gave the necessary orders. The soldiers lined the hammock nettings and chains, and such a shower of musketry was poured into her decks that the Frenchmen were soon driven below, and our seamen then slipped down her rigging, boarded, and took possession of her. The prisoners having been ordered up and passed into the forehold, the wounded men were then looked after. We had eleven wounded, but none killed; the Frenchman had eight killed and seventeen wounded; among others, the captain, who had headed the second attempt to board. She was called the "Pucelle d'Orleans," of twelve guns and a hundred and twenty-five men.
It was two or three hours before we were again all to rights, and a party sent on board of the prize; and then there was again another kind of confusion, from the congratulations, drinking healths, the women coming up on deck, etc.; however, the weather continued light, so it was of no consequence. That Frenchman bit very hard, and I limped for three or four days afterward.
"Well, Tom," said Bramble, "I see you've got nerve, so all's right. You had better go and lie down now, for you must be tired; I'll call you in the morning."
Very glad was I to limp to bed. All night I dreamed of nothing but volleys of musketry, and boarding and reboarding, and being wounded in the leg, and then I would awake with the smart of the Frenchman's teeth.
The next morning when I came on deck, the captain thanked me for my services, and said that the lugger would have escaped had it not been for me. I replied that it was Bramble who prevented her escape, as I should not have thought of making her fast if I had not been told.
"That's all true enough," replied the captain; "but how many of your age, having been told to do it, would have done it, Tom? I shall not forget you."
I went on the poop to Bramble, who, as usual, had his short pipe in his hand; and I certainly was pleased when I saw what a beautiful craft we had helped to capture. She sat like a swan on the water, and sailed round and round us with the greatest ease.
In the afternoon we anchored at the Nore, and sent away all the prisoners to Sheerness. I must not forget to say how very kind and generous the passengers were to me. They made a great many presents, some of value, as I afterward found out; and I was glad to receive them that I might give them to Virginia and those who had been friendly to me.
The next morning we arrived off Greenwich, and Bramble told me to go on shore and remain with my father and mother until he came down, which he would do in a few days, and pay a visit to his old friend Anderson. I landed with all my contraband articles in the boat, but no one thought of stopping or searching the former "Poor Jack." My insignificance was my protection; and I arrived safely at Fisher's Alley with all my curiosities and prohibited effects. When I entered the house, I perceived that there was a third person sitting in company with my mother and Virginia; but Virginia sprang to me, and I threw down my bundles with which I was loaded, and pressed her in my arms. Although I had been absent but four months, she appeared to be very much grown, and in every way improved. As soon as I had released her, I offered my hand to my mother, who took it very coldly, and then observed, "Tom, you will be so ungenteel; don't you see there is a gentleman here?"
"I beg his pardon, mother," replied I; "but I could only see my sister just then."
"And I admire your feeling, Tom," replied the party. "Mrs. Saunders, you must not scold him for that. How do you do, Tom, and how do you like your profession?" continued he, holding out his hand.
I took his hand, and looking at him I recognized him. "Oh, sir! you are the gentleman who was sitting in the room when we called upon Sir Hercules and her ladyship."
"I am so, Tom, and I promised Sir Hercules that I would have an eye to you all, and be of any use to you that I could. My name is Wilson, and I'm what the sailors call a shark, that is, I'm a lawyer."
"Well, you don't appear as if you would bite, sir," replied I, as I looked at his venerable and kind face.
"No, no, we never frighten people by our looks. We don't carry our teeth with us; but I have several rows of them, all upon shelves in my chambers, called the 'Statute at Large,' and by other names."
He then entered into conversation with me, and I told him most of what had passed, of course not forgetting that the Indiaman we had brought up the river had captured a privateer. He sat about an hour, and then went away, desiring me to call upon him. I was not sorry when he went, as I wished to show my presents to Virginia, and give her those which she liked best. When Virginia had selected for herself, or rather I had forced upon her all she most admired, I gave a cut ivory card-case, a filigree needle-case, and a small red scarf to my mother, who, for the first time in her life, appeared pleased with me, and said that they were very genteel, and she was much obliged to me. The remainder I put away in my room upstairs, intending to keep some for Bessy, and give the others to Mrs. St. Felix, the doctor, and old Nanny.
I then went to the hospital and found out my father, old Anderson and Ben. I narrated to them much more circumstantially than I did to the old lawyer the particulars of the capture of the privateer. Anderson put a great many inquiries to me, as to my liking my profession, and also concerning little Bessy, whose history I communicated to him. After my father and Ben had left, he gave me a great deal of advice, all of which I trust that I treasured up.
"I hear," said he, "that Spicer has been talking a good deal about you, and inquiring very often when you were expected to return. Were you very intimate with that man?"
I replied in the negative, and then narrated the whole history of the spy-glass, the erasure of the name by Mrs. St, Felix, and the recognition of it by Spicer.
"You did right to leave him in his error relative to where you received the glass from," said Peter Anderson; "there is some mystery there which time may unravel, but do not say a word of it to any one, Tom. I am glad that you have told me, as, in case you are away, and anything should occur, I shall know how to act."
I must acknowledge that I now walked proudly through the streets of Greenwich. I was no longer Poor Jack, but I was earning my livelihood in my profession. I had reason to be still prouder when, two days afterward, Mr. Wilson came to my mother's with the newspaper in his hand in which there was a long account of the capture of the privateer, and the conduct of Bramble and of me spoken of in the highest terms. This he read aloud to my mother and Virginia. I watched my sister. The tears filled her eyes as she listened, and when Mr. Wilson had done her arms were round my neck, and her smiles were mixed with her tears, and sometimes she would laugh as she cried. Oh! how I loved her then, for I felt how dearly she loved me; even my mother appeared gratified, although she said nothing, but continued to repair the lace veil upon which she had been employed. That evening I went with Virginia to call upon Mrs, St. Felix, taking with me the presents I had laid aside for her. She welcomed me as usual, and accepted what I brought for her without hesitation and with many thanks.
"Well, Mr. Tom," said she, "I'll just put away all your nice little remembrances, and then I'll tell you that I've heard all about your behavior in the fight with the privateer, and I've no doubt but that, if you continue to go on as you have begun, you will one day have a leg the less, as your father has before you."
"I hope not," replied I; "two legs are better than one."
"Yes, when you want to run away, that's true. I see now why you're so anxious to save your legs."
"But, Mrs. St. Felix, if it had not been for that good spy-glass you gave me, I never should have discovered the privateer, and we should not have been prepared for her."
"Well, that's fortunate; it didn't prove a glass too much, anyhow, or you'd have seen double. I suppose, then, all these pretty things are my share of the prize-money."
"No, they are no value, except to prove to you that Poor Jack has not forgotten your kindness, and never will."
"That I believe; and, believing that, I suppose you have not forgotten old Nanny."
"No; but I have not seen her yet. I intend to go to-morrow; but I have something for the doctor. He is not at home; will you give it to him?"
"Certainly; you know I am as good as a mother to him."
"I think the doctor would rather you'd be a wife to him."
"That's a foolish idea that's in many people's heads, Tom, which I'll thank you to contradict. I never intend to change my name."
"Don't make too sure," replied I; and I added at a venture (why, I know not, but I had formed the idea in my mind that St. Felix was not her proper name), "you may change it yet for your real name."
"Tom, Tom," cried the widow, "what do you mean?" "Nothing," replied I, "I was only joking." "Well, then, don't talk such nonsense, or I shall send you out of the shop."
I had, however, it appeared, struck upon a chord which jarred, and all the spirits of Mrs. St. Felix vanished at once. So Virginia and I wished her a good-evening and returned home.