Poor Jack

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We have great hopes of not seeing the inside of a french prison, but we are disappointed.

"Well, Tom, this is a bad job," said Bramble to me, taking his seat upon the hencoop aft. "By to-morrow noon, unless we fall in with a cruiser—and I see little chance of that—we shall be locked up in a French prison; ay, and Heaven knows how long we may stay there! What's to become of poor little Bessy? I'm sure I don't know. I must contrive to write over to lawyer Wilson, and put him in charge of everything. But I'm sorry for you, my poor lad; it's hard for you to be locked up, perhaps for years, when you might have been making money for yourself."

"Well, it can't be helped, father; we must make the best of it," replied I, with a deep sigh, for I was anything but happy at the prospect.

"If it had not been for that swaggering coward this might not have happened," replied Bramble. "It's somewhat my own fault. I was so anxious to frighten him about nothing that at last I run us into real danger, and I might have known that he never would have fought, although I certainly had no idea of falling in with a privateer. Well, Tom, we must not lose a chance."

"How do you mean?"

"I mean that if there is any possibility of getting away, I shall; and you, of course, will not stay behind. I don't know where they are going to, but you see, Tom, our only chance of getting off is while we are on the coast; if once we are marched into the interior, why, then it will be almost hopeless. What we must try for is to get away at the port where we land. We shall see."

"I am afraid that there's very little chance for us," replied I; "but I'm ready to attempt anything."

"We shall see, Tom—where there's a will there's a way. However, it's no use talking about it just now." Here Bramble filled his pipe, took out his flint and steel, and lighted it.

After smoking for ten minutes, during which I stood by him, he said, "I wonder where they will take us to—St. Malo's or Morlaix; for the course they are steering will fetch, I should think, thereabout. One thing is certain—they've got a good prize, and they mean to keep it if they can; and, my eyes! if they won't make a fuss about it! A ship with twelve guns taken by a lugger with only six! They'll make the ship mount eighteen or twenty guns, and have a hundred and fifty men on board, and they'll swear they fought us for three hours. They have something to boast of, that's certain; and I suspect that French captain is a brave sort of chap, from the sneer he gave when our cowardly English lubber gave him so fine a speech. Well, it's our disgrace!"

Here Bramble was silent for some time, when I said to him, "You were stating to the men how a Leith smack beat off a privateer the other day. I never heard of it."

"Yes, I heard it when I was up above Greenwich. I met an old friend who was on board of her, for he took his passage in her from London.

"'Why,' says he to me, 'Bramble, I thought we never should have got away from the river, for the old captain, who was as big round as a puncheon, and not unlike one, declared that he would not sail until the powder came up from Woolwich; for the "Queen Charlotte" (that was the name of the smack) carried six eighteen-pound carronades. We waited nearly a week for the powder, and many a laugh we all had about it, thinking old Nesbitt was not much of a fighter, from his making so much fuss. Well, at last we boomed her off from the wharf, and about seven that night got clear of the Thames; it was a fair breeze all night, and we ran through the Swin by the lead, which is what every one won't attempt. Next morning we were off Yarmouth Roads, with the water as yellow as pea soup: never saw it otherwise, and I'm an old collier; reason why, the swells of the ocean thrashes up the sands off there—ay, and shifts them too occasionally, which is of more consequence. Well, Bramble,' says he, 'well, on we went; hauled in through Harborough Gut; then the sun had so much power—for it was in the Dog Days—that it eat up the wind, and we were obliged to content ourselves with getting four knots out of her. Just as we made the Dudgeon Lightboat, old Nesbitt's son comes aft to his father, who was steering the craft, and says, "Father, do you see that 'ere brig crowding all sail after us? I think it be the New Custom House brig trying his rate of sailing with us."

"'"Never you mind what she is, boy," says the captain, "but away up and furl the gaff-topsail."

"'Meanwhile the brig overhauled us fast, and old Nesbitt kept a-looking round at her every two or three minutes. At last he says to the mate, "Take the wheel a bit," and he goes first and looks over the quarter. "I see," says he; "I say, you sergeant and corporal" (for we had a recruiting party on board), "suppose now you just help us to load our guns and work them a little, for I expect this here craft will give us plenty to do."

"'Well, Bramble, as I stand here, if six of them lobsters didn't say nothing, but just walk down below; but the sergeant was a trump of a fellow, and so was his wife. He threw off his coat and cap covered with ribbons, tied a handkerchief round his head, and set to work with a will; and his wife backed him to the last, handing the powder and everything else. Well, we had with us ten men who all stood to guns; but the passengers went down below with the soldiers. Well, on comes the brig upon our starboard quarter as if to board; all her fore rigging, and forechains, and forecastle being full of men as bees in a swarm.

"Are you all ready, my men?" said the captain.

"Yes, all ready, sir."

"Yes, and I be ready too, massa!" cried the black cook, bringing out from the caboose the red-hot poker.

"Well, then, up on the wind with her, and fire when the guns bear."

"'The men kept their eyes on the guns; and when they cried "Fire!" the cook set them all off, one after another, with the hot poker, and no small mischief did these three guns do. His forecastle was cleared of men in no time; down came his gaff and foretopsail, and being now right on our beam, he put his helm up to lay us on board; but we were too quick for him—we wore round too, and gave him the three other guns, which did him no good.

"'Well, he came after us on the other tack, and pelted us with musketry in a cruel way. The mate was hit in the head, and taken down below; and poor old Nesbitt, who was at the wheel, steering the craft beautifully, had a bullet right into his bow-window, as they call it. "Well," the old fellow says, "here's a shot between wind and water, I reckon—we must have a plug;" so he puts his flippers into his waistband, and stuffs his flannel jacket into the hole. Then we throws her up in the wind again, and rakes him with our three guns well into him, and carries away more of his gear, and stops his sailing—and so we goes on for a whole hour and thirty-five minutes; and, to make a long story short, we beat him off, and he turned tail and ran for it with both pumps going.'

"Now you see, Tom, that's the account of the affair given to me by a man who I can trust; and there you see what can be done if men are resolute and determined to fight. Some little difference between that affair and this one, Tom."

"Did old Nesbitt die or recover?"

"I asked that question. He was doing well when my friend left. Somehow or another no vital part was injured, and he has had many presents made him for his gallant conduct, and the sergeant was well rewarded also. Well, my pipe's out, and it's not far from midnight; I should think we may just as well try for a little sleep, Tom, for perhaps we may not get any for some time to come."

Bramble coiled himself up under the bulwark, I did the same; and in a few minutes we both had forgotten whether we were in our beds at our house at Deal or prisoners bound for the French coast.

At daylight the next morning Bramble roused me up.

"Here we are now, Tom! here's the French coast not four leagues from us; but it's hazy, and I cannot make it out very clear; however, the sun will soon drive all this away, and we shall have a fine day; but the wind has gone down, and I think we shall have still less of it."

And so it proved; for, as the sun rose, the wind became very light, so that we did not go through the water more than three knots. We were looking at the coast, when the report of a gun saluted our ears. It was from the privateer. We turned to that quarter, and found that there was a cutter about two miles from the privateer, crowding all sail toward us.

"Tom!" cried Bramble, "there's a chance for us yet—that's an English privateer, and she will try to retake us for the sake of the salvage. But here's a boat coming from the Frenchman—what can that be for?"

The boat rowed alongside of us, and out jumped the captain of the French privateer with twenty of his best men, and the boat was then dropped astern.

The Frenchman immediately cast loose the guns, went down for the powder, and prepared for action.

"I see, Tom," said Bramble, "he's a clever fellow, this skipper. He knows that this ship and cargo is worth a dozen of his little privateer, and his object is to get her in—so he's come with all his best men on board of us, leaving his first officer to make the best fight with the privateer that he can. Well, he's right; and if it wasn't that I don't like to go to prison, I wish he may succeed, for he has got sense as well as courage, I think."

The ship was now kept away two points more, that she might go through the water as fast as she could; and in the meantime the action commenced between the English cutter and the French privateer, the latter evidently attempting to cripple the masts and rigging of the former. The cutter, however, steered right for us, and evidently came up fast; the French privateer, weak-handed as she must have been, behaved very well, throwing herself across the cutter's bows, and doing everything she could to prevent her coming up with us. Both vessels were very much cut up before the cutter came within three cables' lengths of us, when the French captain ordered French colors to be hoisted, and, rounding to, poured in a well-directed broadside, which quite astonished the English privateer, who imagined that we were an unarmed merchantman. The action now became very warm; we standing on, and every now and then rounding to and raking the cutter, while the French privateer engaged her broadside to broadside. The French captain was abaft, giving his orders with the greatest coolness and ability, when a shot from the cutter came in on deck, and a large splinter which it tore off knocked him down on his back. Bramble and I both ran to him and helped him up—we could not help it, although he was an enemy. He was not hurt, and as soon as he was on his legs he laughed, and thanked us in French. The cutter still continued the fight until we were within three miles of the coast, when, all her spars and sails being cut to pieces, she hauled to the wind and stood out to the offing.

"Well, Tom, there's all our hopes ended," said Bramble; "so now I'll light my pipe. Well, I say it's been a good fight on both sides."

Here the captain came up to us and said, "Bien oblige—tank you."

The cutter did not, however, stand out for more than a few minutes, when she hove to and repaired damages, evidently intending to renew the action. I pointed this out to Bramble. "I see, I see," replied he; "she intends to try and cut us off from Morlaix, which is to windward, and oblige us to fight or run for St. Malo's, which is a long way to leeward. In either case she will be able to attack us again, as she out-sails us. Perhaps the fight is not over yet."

But the Frenchman also understood what he was about, and he now steered a course. When we were about two miles from the land, and about the same distance from the cutter, the latter kept away so as to oblige the ship to come to action again before she reached Morlaix; but, before she closed with us, we discovered that we were entering a small French port, which had not been visible to us, called (I think) Lanion, situated between Isle Bichat and Morlaix. When within half a mile of the land, French over English was hoisted at our peak, and a French pennant over an English pennant at our main.

"I told you so," said Bramble; "they have made a man-of-war out of us, and now there'll be no end to the lies that they will tell; for though these French fellows do not fight quite so well as we do, at lying they'll beat us hollow, any day of the week. Never mind, Tom, we must keep a sharp lookout, and there's no saying—keep your eyes open as we go into the harbor—I never was here before, but I suspect it's nothing better than a poor fishing town."

In a quarter of an hour the ship and privateer were both made fast to an old stone pier which ran out from the town; but there were no other vessels in the harbor except two small coasting chasses marées, and about a dozen fishing-boats.

The harbor was formed by the mouth of a small river, which ran down through a very narrow alluvial flat, backed by precipitous rocks. On the right side of the river on entering, and on the level ground above mentioned, which extended back perhaps two hundred yards, until it was met by the rocky cliffs, was situated the village which, centuries back, must have been the town of Lanion. It consisted of perhaps one hundred to one hundred and twenty houses, few of them of any size, the major portion with walls built of mud and whitewashed over. The only remains of the former town were a stone-built market-place, the portion of the Hôtel de Ville in which the mayor resided, and the old church, which, although perfect in its walls, was sadly dilapidated in the roof. It had long been deserted, and a small chapel had been built in lieu of it, in which the only cure of the place performed the service. The massive stones of which the now neglected pier had once been built proved that at one time considerable expense had been incurred in the formation of this small harbor.

A battery mounting two guns at the end of the pier protected the mouth of the harbor; and there was a guard of a sergeant and twelve invalids, who were stationed there to man the guns upon the approach of an enemy.

It would be difficult to describe the confusion which took place as soon as the two vessels were fairly alongside the wharf, and made fast with hawsers to the massive iron rings which had for centuries been fixed in the ponderous stones of which the pier was composed. There was the mayor with his cocked hat on, but his leather apron still tied in front, for he had been working at his calling; there was the sergeant of the invalids, who, perhaps, was a greater man than the mayor, all beard and mustachios, but so thin in his person that he looked as if a stout breeze would have blown him away; and there were the soldiers leaning on their muskets. These were the most important personages, but they were backed by the whole population of the town, amounting to about three hundred men, women, and children, all talking, jabbering, and screaming. Add to them the captain of the privateer, so important that he could not attend to even the mayor or the sergeant; and the privateer's men, dressed in every fashion, armed to the teeth, all explaining, or pushing away, or running here and there obeying orders; then the wounded men—for they had several men killed and others hurt in the conflict with the cutter—handed up one by one, bandaged here and there, and exciting the compassion and even screams of the women; the prisoners, who had been ordered to come on deck, half dressed and chapfallen; the sails of the vessels only clewed up, and still fluttering; ensigns and pennants hoisted upon every mast, and waving over the heads of the crowd assembled at the pier—and you may have some idea of the confused and bustling scene.

At last, as there appeared no chance of anything being arranged while the people crowded round, the captain of the privateer ordered his men to draw their weapons and drive back the crowd, which was soon effected, notwithstanding many oaths, and more screaming on the part of the fairer sex; and when the crowd had been thus driven the men were stationed so as to keep them back. At first this gave offense to all parties—to the crowd, because they didn't like to be driven away—to the mayor, who remained with the sergeant and invalids in the area which had been cleared by the privateer's people, because he thought that they had interfered with his civil authority—and to the sergeant of invalids, because he thought that the marine force had interfered with his military authority; but the captain of the privateer having taken off his hat and bowed, first to the mayor and then to the sergeant, and saying how much he was obliged to them for their assistance, both parties were satisfied; and now a consultation was held between them how to proceed, while the privateer's men, who kept back the crowd, amused them by giving a detail of the two desperate actions which had been fought—no two accounts agreeing, certainly, but that was of no consequence.

The first question to be canvassed was, what was to be done with the prisoners? Morlaix was the nearest town in which they would be under safe keeping, but that was twenty miles distant, and it would be necessary to send over an express, so that a sufficient force might be dispatched to Lanion to escort the prisoners there. This Mr. Mayor undertook to do immediately; a boy was summoned to take over the communication, and the mayor went up to write his letter to the authorities, while the wounded men were carried away, and by the direction of the cure, who had just arrived and joined the consultation, billeted upon different houses in the town. The express having been dispatched, and the wounded safely housed and under the care of the village Æsculapius, who never had such a job in his whole life, the next point of consultation was how to dispose of the prisoners until the force should arrive from Morlaix. Here the sergeant became the principal person, being military commandant; forty-seven prisoners were a heavy charge for twelve invalids; and as for the privateer's men, there was no dependence upon them, for, as the captain said, they had had enough to do to take them, and it was the business of the authorities to look after them now, while the privateer's men made merry.

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