More cry than wool—bramble would dig a pit for another, and tumbles in along with him.
It was in the month of March, 1805, when the easterly winds prevailed, and vessels were detained in the Chops of the Channel, that I agreed with Bramble that we would return together and halve the pilotage. About eight leagues from the Lizard Point we boarded a small ship which had hoisted the signal, the weather at that time being fine and the wind variable. When we went on board it was but just daylight, and the captain was not yet on deck, but the mate received us. We were surprised to find that she mounted twelve brass guns, remarkably well fitted, and that everything was apparently ready for action, rammers and sponges, shot and wadding being all up and at hand.
"A prime morning, shipmate," said Bramble; then casting his eye over the deck, "A letter of marque, I presume?"
"Yes," replied the mate, "we have the papers, but still she has never run without convoy since I have been in her; we lost our convoy three days back, and the captain has been rather uneasy ever since."
"Uneasy! why, I should think that you could beat off a good stout privateer with these guns of yours?"
"Well, I don't know but what we might, but our cargo is valuable, and we might be overpowered."
"Very true, and the captain must be anxious. Where are you from?"
"What's your cargo?"
"Why, we have raw silk and drysalters' goods chiefly. D'ye think we shall have a fair wind? I don't care how soon, for we've at least twenty passengers on board, and our provisions and water are running rather short. Here's the skipper."
The captain, who now made his appearance, was a tall good-looking young man about thirty, dressed rather fantastically, as I thought, having a laced cap on his head and a party-colored silk sash round his waist, such as they wear in the Mediterranean.
"Well, pilot, what do you think of the wind?"
"Well, sir, I expect we'll have a slant which will enable us to fetch well to windward of the Lizard, at all events, and then, when the tide turns inshore, we must stand out again."
"Mr. Stubbs, turn the hands up to make sail."
"Ay, ay, sir," replied the mate.
The men came on deck, but the captain roared out for the idlers; these were the passengers who had agreed to work during the passage: at last they came up, a queer-looking set, and the captain sending down for his speaking-trumpet, sail was made on the ship.
"Why, captain," said Bramble, "you do it in man-of-war fashion."
"Well, I've not served the King for seven years for nothing," replied he, "and I hope, sir, not heard the bullets whistling about my head like hail in a hailstorm without knowing how to take care of my ship. I like everything man-of-war fashion, and then one's always prepared. Where's the boatswain? Pipe to breakfast."
"You've plenty of hands on board, mate," said Bramble.
"Yes, plenty of them, such as they are; we've twenty of the ship's company, and twenty-five passengers from Malta."
After breakfast the captain ordered up the small-arm men; five seamen and fifteen of the passengers made their appearance with their muskets, which were examined, and they were dismissed. At eleven o'clock, as we neared the land, the men were ordered to quarters, the guns cast loose, and they were exercised as on board of a man-of-war, the captain giving his orders with his speaking-trumpet. "Double-shot your guns! Run out! Point your guns! Fire! Repel boarders on the bow! Repel boarders on the quarter!" etc. This continued for more than two hours, when the guns were again secured.
"Well, pilot," said the captain to Bramble, "what do you think? do you fancy a privateer could take us in a hurry?"
"Why, captain, if the men fight, I should say not; but, you see, these guns, handsome as they are, won't fight of themselves."
"I'll answer for the men fighting; they'll have but their choice—fight, or the contents of my pistol through the first man's head who quits his gun. I'll nail the colors to the mast, and see who will be the man who will haul them down. Why, pilot, this vessel is insured at thirty thousand pounds."
"Then she'll be a famous prize, if they should contrive to take her, that's all," said Bramble. "Halloo! what vessel's that coming down? Tom, hand your glass here."
"I haven't got it with me."
"Well, give me that one on the skylight. I can't make her out, but I don't much like the looks of her."
"Heh! what's that?" said the captain. "Let me look—oh, she's a square-rigged vessel, ain't she?"
"Can't tell," said Bramble.
The mate, who had fetched his glass from below, looked at her, and said it was a coasting schooner.
"Are you sure of that?" said the captain. "Let me see. Well, I don't know what to say—she does look rakish. I'll go forward and make her out."
"Why, it's a coaster, Bramble," said I, as the captain walked forward.
"I know that," replied Bramble, with a wink.
The captain returned, probably satisfied that it was only a coaster, but he did not choose to say so, "Well, I don't know what to make of her, but at all events there's nothing like being ready. She's coming down fast upon us; Mr. Stubbs, we'll beat to quarters."
Again the people were called up and the guns cast loose; the powder was handed up, and all was preparation. I did not think, however, that the passengers appeared at all zealous; but that I was not surprised at: the captain harangued them, calling them Britons, etc., and, hoping that they would show what stuff they were made of; talked about the honor of Old England, and a great deal more, and then examined the vessel again with his glass. "We'll give her the starboard broadside, and then wear round his stern and give her the other. Hoist the colors!"
As soon as we hoisted the colors, the schooner hoisted English colors also.
"English colors, sir!" said the mate, grinning.
"English colors, heh? Very well; but that may be a feint—keep to your guns, my lads."
The vessel now ran by us; she was deeply laden, and as broad as she was long.
"No privateer this time, captain," said Bramble, laughing.
"No, all's right; secure the guns, my lads. We'd have given her a nice peppering if she'd been a French privateer."
The captain then went down below to put away his sword and pistols, which the cabin-boy had brought on deck.
"It's my opinion, Tom," said Bramble, "that this skipper ain't quite so fond of fighting as he pretends to be. I'll see if I can't frighten him a little."
As soon as the captain came on deck again, Bramble said, "We'll go about, if you please."
"What! about already? why, we're good three leagues from the shore."
"Yes, sir, but the tide has made, and we must now make a long stretch-out toward the French coast. We won't tack again till about dark."
"Not tack till dark, pilot? Surely we will do better keeping on the English coast."
"No, no, sir; if we were not so well manned and so well armed I should do it; but, as we are a match for any privateer, why, we may as well make a long leg—we shall be up Channel sooner."
"Well, I don't know what to say. I've a heavy responsibility with such a valuable cargo."
"Well, tack if you please, sir," said Bramble, shortly.
"Oh, certainly. Hands, about ship."
The vessel's head was put off-shore, and with a smart breeze we walked away fast from the land. At twelve o'clock the captain proposed standing inshore again, but Bramble refused. At three o'clock he became very uneasy, and expostulated with Bramble, who replied, "Well, sir, I'm doing all for the best, but if you are afraid—"
"Afraid?" cried the captain; "afraid of what, I should like to know? No, I'm not afraid, but it appears to me that we ought to make the land again before night."
"I'll answer for knowing where we are, sir, if that is your reason; at all events, I wish to stand out till six o'clock."
"Well, do so, then, if you choose—I'm sure I don't care if you stand to within gunshot of the French coast;" and the captain, evidently very much annoyed, went down into the cabin.
About half-past four o'clock the mate came aft and took up the glass, saying that there was an awkward-looking craft on the weather bow. He came aft again, and said, "Pilot, I wish you would take a squint at that craft, for I don't much like the look of her."
Bramble went forward, and I followed him. "I say, Tom, that's a French privateer, as sure as we stand here," said he. "Look at her. Well, now we shall see what these guns are made of."
"Don't put too much trust in them," said the mate. "I know what sort of people we have here. Had we only ten good men I wouldn't care for a privateer, but I'm afraid that we have not many we can trust to. However, we'll do our best, and we can do no more. I'll go down and tell the captain."
"It is a Frenchman," replied I, "and no mistake—every rope and every sail on her are French;" for the vessel, which was a lugger, was not more than four miles from us.
"Well," replied Bramble, "it would be odd if we were to be taken into a French port after all, wouldn't it? not very pleasant, though."
"We've men enough to beat her off, or two of her, if that's all," replied I.
"Yes, Tom, but I doubt the captain, and without example men don't fight well. However, we'll do our best, and if he flinches we won't."
The captain now came forward as red as a turkey-cock; he said nothing, looked at the vessel, and then turned as white as a sheet.
"She's more than our match, if she's an enemy," said he.
"I should rather think not, sir," replied Bramble. "All you have to do is to make your men fight, and nail your colors to the mast."
"That's very true when there's a fair chance of success, but it's useless sacrificing the men against so very superior a force," replied the captain.
"But it ain't superior, nor in guns is she your equal, if I know anything about a vessel. At all events, I suppose you'll have a trial for it. Won't you beat to quarters, captain?"
"Oh, to be sure. Mr. Stubbs, beat to quarters. I think it would not be a bad thing to fire off our broadsides now, and let them see that we are well armed."
The men were summoned up to quarters, and very unwillingly did they obey. Some said that they did not come on board to fight, others that they had agreed to work the passage home, but not to stand to be shot at; and some were actually going down below again, when Bramble and the mate spoke to them and persuaded them to remain on deck. Still there was no willingness shown; and although Bramble told them how many privateers had been beaten off, and mentioned particularly the Leith smack having the other day fought with one an hour and a half, and knocked her all to pieces, they still appeared uneasy and wavering.
In the meantime the privateer was within a mile of us, and had hoisted French colors.
"We'll keep away and give her the first broadside," cried the captain.
"You'd better hoist your colors first," observed Bramble, quietly.
"Hoist the colors, Mr. Stubbs! Port the helm! Look out, my men! Point the guns to the object! Fire!"
Off went all the guns, not only on the starboard side, in the direction of the privateer, but all those on the larboard side as well; and this circumstance probably gave the people on board of the privateer some idea of the state of confusion we were in. She now rounded to, and gave us her broadside of three guns: they were well directed, and did us some damage in the upper works and rigging; but still more in frightening the people, who were now running down below, notwithstanding the exertions of the mate, Bramble, one or two of the seamen, and myself; but our fate was soon decided by the captain, who cried out, "It's useless contending against such a superior force." With this observation he ran aft and hauled down the colors. As soon as the men perceived this they all left the guns; at another broadside from the privateer they all scampered down below, and at the same time the captain went down into his cabin. There was none but the mate, the boatswain, Bramble, and myself left on deck.
"Pleasant," said Bramble. "I thought as much. Well, Tom, here we are, in for it. Come with me to the helm, for these French fellows will board, and they make very free with their cutlasses, even after colors are hauled down. Well," said he, as he walked aft, "I did not think to see the English flag so disgraced. Poor Bessy, too! Well, never mind. I say, mate, just let go the weather main-braces and bow-lines, and square the yards, for it's better to be as humble as possible, now that we can't help ourselves; and do you and the boatswain go down below, for they cut right and left, these fellows. They do pay a little more civility to pilots, as they aren't belonging to the ship."
This advice of Bramble's, which was very good, was followed by the mate and boatswain.
"Shall I run down and look after our kits?" said I to Bramble.
"No, Tom, don't have anything in your hand, or they will take it from you, and most likely give you a rap on the head with a cutlass at the same time; for privateer-men of all nations are little better than pirates, and don't how to behave in victory. Just keep where you are—look as if you had nothing to do with the ship except the steering of her. Here they come!"
As he spoke the lugger touched our weather side, at the same time lowering down her foresail and mainsail with no little noise and confusion; in a second or two there were thirty of their men on our decks, flourishing their cutlasses, and looking round with their pistols ready cocked in their left hands for somebody to let fly at. At last they came aft. "Pilot!" cried Bramble, taking off his hat. I did the same. With reiterated sacres and diables of every description some now rushed down into the cabin, while others went down the fore-hatchway, while more of the men from the lugger poured upon our decks; but none of them molested Bramble or me, as we continued standing at the wheel. In about ten minutes order was to a certain degree restored by the captain of the privateer, who had come on board. I perceived him express his surprise to his officers who were with him at the armament of the ship, and he appeared very much pleased: it was not necessary to understand French for that. He then came up to Bramble, and spoke to him in French; but Bramble only pointed to me and then to himself, and said "Pilot." The captain called for a young Frenchman who could speak English, and then asked Bramble what was the cargo.
Bramble, to please him, replied that it was silk and other goods to the value of thirty thousand pounds English.
"How many men?"
The French captain rubbed his hands with ecstasy, as well he might. Just at this moment the English captain came upon deck, followed by two of the privateer's men, one of whom had taken possession of his laced cap, and the other of his silk sash. He brought his sword in his hand, and presented it to the captain of the privateer, saying, "It is no disgrace for one brave man to deliver up his sword to another."
"Que dit il?" said the captain of the privateer to the young man who interpreted. The young man translated this fine speech, upon which the French captain called the English one by a very contemptuous title, and turned away. The privateer's men now made their appearance from below, having helped themselves to everything they could find; the orders were then given for the prisoners to be brought upon deck; they were driven up, many of them bleeding from wounds received in attempts to rescue their personal property, and were handed over to the lugger. A prize-master with twenty men was put on board; the lugger was hauled off, the only Englishmen allowed to remain in the captured vessel being Bramble and myself. As soon as the vessels were clear they made sail, running about two points free for the French coast.