An adventure which at first promised to be the most unfortunate, and eventually proved the most fortunate in my life.
As Sir James O'Connor would have to remain at least a fortnight longer at Chatham, until his ship was paid off, I made Lady O'Connor promise to write to me, and then started for Deal. I found Bramble and Bessy as usual delighted to see me, and Mrs. Maddox was as talkative as ever. I received a letter from Lady O'Connor, and also one from Dr. Tadpole, written at the request of my father, informing me that by a letter from Mrs. St. Felix there was little prospect of her return to Greenwich. I had not been a week at Deal when a large ship dropped her anchor in the Downs, and made the signal for a pilot.
"Well, Tom," said Bramble, "I think I shall take a turn now, for I want to go up and see old Anderson."
"I will take her through, if you please, father; and you may go as a passenger. You don't want money, and I do."
"All's right, Tom—well, then, I'll go as a passenger, and you shall be pilot."
"Why must you go at all, father? Why not go to Greenwich by the stage?" exclaimed Bessy. "When will you leave off, my dear father? Surely you've enough now, and might let Tom go without you."
"Quite enough money, but not quite enough of the salt water yet, Bessy," replied Bramble; "and when I do travel, I won't go by land, when I can sail under canvas."
"Well, you may go this time, father, but this is the last. If you won't leave off, I will not stay here, that's positive; so when you come on shore some fine day you may expect to find me absent without leave."
"Very well; then I'll send Tom to look after you: he'll soon bring you back again."
"Tom! he wouldn't take the trouble to look after me."
"Very true," replied I. "Every woman who requires looking after is not worth the trouble; but I've no fear but we shall find you when we come back."
"Tom, I hate you," replied Bessy. "Why do you not join me in persuading father to stay on shore?"
"Well, if you hate me, Bessy, it proves, at all events, that I'm not indifferent to you," said I, laughing; "but really and truly, Bessy, I do not consider there is any very great risk in your father going up the river with me, as he will be in smooth water before dark."
"Well, but, allowing that, why should father go at all?"
"I want to see old Anderson, my love," replied Bramble, taking his pipe out of his mouth.
"Yes, and if you once begin again, you'll not leave off—I know it well. You will never come home except to get clean linen, and be off again; and I shall be in a constant state of alarm and misery. How selfish of you, father! You had better by far have left me to drown on the Goodwin Sands—it would have been more kind," replied Bessy, weeping.
"Bessy," said Bramble, "it's my opinion that you are in love."
"In love!" cried Bessy, coloring to her throat.
"Yes, in love, my dear, or you would not talk such nonsense."
"If loving you as my father is being in love, I am, unfortunately."
"That's only half of the story; now give us the other," said Bramble, smiling.
"What do you mean?" inquired Bessy, turning to him.
"Why, how do you love Tom?"
"Not half so much as I love her," said I.
"Well, if that's the case," replied Bramble, "we may as well publish the bans; for Bessy's in love right over the ankles."
"Father, this may be very pleasant mockery; but I think it is not kind to breed ill-will between those who live under the same roof. Now you may go away; and if the knowledge that you have made me unhappy will add to the pleasure of your journey, I can assure you that you have succeeded." Bessy, having said this, immediately left the room and went upstairs.
"Well," said Bramble, after a pause, "I'm glad that I never was in love; for people so situated do make themselves very silly, that's a fact. Tom, if you're going, it's time to be off."
"Why—" replied I, hesitatingly.
"I know—but I tell you, Tom, no such thing. She'll have a good cry, and then she'll come down as well as ever. Leave her alone till we come back."
Bramble and I then left the cottage, jumped into the galley, and were soon on board of the ship.
On our arrival on board we found that the vessel was a Dutch Indiaman, which had been captured by one of our cruisers on her voyage home from Java. She was laden very deeply with cinnamon, nutmegs, cloves, and other spices, besides pepper, and was valued at four hundred thousand pounds sterling. She had come home from the island of St. Helena, with convoy, and was now proceeding up the river, to be given in charge of the prize agents in London. Not only her hold, but even her main deck, as far aft as the mainmast, was filled up with her cargo; in short, she was a very valuable prize, and although when I came on board the pepper made me sneeze for ten minutes, the officer in charge told me very truly that she was a prize "not to be sneezed at." She was manned by a lieutenant and eighteen men belonging to the frigate which had captured her—hardly sufficient for so large a vessel, but no more could be spared.
"We'll up anchor as soon as you please, pilot," said the lieutenant, "for I shall not be sorry to get rid of my charge, I assure you."
"I don't doubt you, sir," replied Bramble. "Well, you've not much further to go."
We weighed with the young flood; the weather was fine, but, as usual at that time of the year, thick fogs prevailed. We had, however, a leading wind, and had well rounded the North Foreland, and entered the Queen's Channel, when it came on very thick.
"Tom, have you the bearings?" said Bramble; "if not, take them at once, for the fog will soon be over the land."
"I have them," replied I, "and we may as well put them down on the log-board—North Foreland Light N.N.W. 1/4 W. Why, we should see the Tongue buoy. Now we'll drop the anchor and furl the sails, if you please, sir—we can do nothing at present." We did so: the fog came on thicker than before, and with it a drizzling rain and wind from the S. At dusk there was no change, or prospect of it. The men went down to supper, and the watch was set. Bramble and I did not turn in: we lay down on the lockers of the cabin, and every now and then went on deck to see how the weather was. About eleven o'clock we were awakened by a noise: we both started up, and went on deck. To our surprise it was full of men—we had been boarded by a French privateer, and they had gained possession of the deck without any alarm being given, for the men who had the watch had sheltered themselves from the rain down the hatchway. As soon as we came up, we were collared and seized.
"Pilot," said Bramble.
"Pilot," said I.
They then asked us in English how many men were on board.
As it was no use concealing the fact, we replied: a portion of the privateer's men then went down, and surprised them all in their beds. In about five minutes they came up again, leading the lieutenant and his men, in their shirts. By the directions of the French captain they were immediately passed over the side into the privateer, and Bramble and I were the only two Englishmen left on board of the ship.
The French captain then asked us if we knew where we were, and whether there was any danger. We replied that we were among the sands, and that it would be difficult to get her out of them with that wind, and impossible until the tide turned.
"When will the tide turn?" said the captain.
"In an hour or less," replied Bramble, appealing to me.
I replied in the affirmative.
"Well, then, you will take this vessel clear of the shoals, my men; and if you do not, your lives are worth nothing.—Hold pistols to their heads," continued he to the officer, "and the moment that the ship touches, blow their brains out."
Here Bramble, to my astonishment, went on his knees.
"Spare our lives," said he, "and we will take the vessel safe to the French coast;" at the same time he gave me a pinch.
"If you do not you shall not live a minute," said the captain (another pinch from Bramble). I now understood him, and I also went down on my knees, and pretended to cry. "We can't take her out if this weather lasts," said I, whimpering. "It's impossible."
"No, no! not if this weather lasts," said Bramble, "but as soon as it changes we will do it."
"Very well, so long as you do it when you can, that is all I ask. Now," said he to the officer he had before addressed, "you'll have twenty men—keep a sharp lookout—and don't lose a moment in getting under way as soon as you can."
The captain then returned to the privateer with the rest of the men, leaving the ship in charge of the prizemaster. The privateer was boomed off; but whether she dropped her anchor near to us, or remained under way, I could not tell. The men who had held the pistols to our heads now went away with the others to plunder, according to the manners and customs of all privateers' men, of whatever nation they may happen to be. Bramble and I walked aft.
"Pinned once more, by all that's blue! Well, it can't be helped—but we're not in a French prison yet."
"Why did you go down on your knees to those fellows?" said I, rather sulkily.
"Why, because I wished them to think we were chicken-hearted, and that we should not be watched, and might have a chance—who knows?"
"Two against twenty are heavy odds," replied I.
"That depends upon whether you trust to your head or your arms. It must be headwork this time. You see, Tom, we have so far a chance that we cannot weigh till it clears up—they know that as well as we do. I'm pretty sure it will be thick all to-morrow, and perhaps longer; so you see something may turn up by that time. We are well in, and right in the Channel, for vessels up or down. I say again we are not in a French prison yet. They can't take her out of this—we must do it; and we may run on shore if we like: and I tell you what, Tom, if it wasn't for Bessy, I'd just as soon that my brains should be blown out as that these French fellows should take such a rich prize. Now let's go below—we mustn't be seen talking together too much; but look out sharp, Tom, and watch my motions."
The officer who had charge of the vessel now came on deck, and looked round him: he could speak English sufficient to carry on a conversation. The weather was very thick, and the rain drove down with the wind: he saw that it was impossible that the ship could be moved. He told us that we should have a hundred guineas each and our liberty if we took the ship safe either to Ostend or any French port. We replied that we should be very glad to do so, as it would be ten times as much as we should have received for piloting her up the Thames; and then we went down below. In the meantime the men were sent for on deck, divided into watches, and when the watch was set the others went down below again. After taking a glass or two of wine, for the Frenchmen had soon rummaged out what there was to be drunk in the cabin, Bramble and I returned on deck. We found the Frenchmen in charge of the watch diligent: one was looking out forward, another at the taffrail; the remaining three were walking the deck. Bramble went to the gangway, and I followed him.
"Tom, I see the hatchway grating is on deck—I only wish we once had them all beneath it."
"I only wish we had all but the watch—I'd have a try for it then," replied I.
"No, no, Tom, that wouldn't do; but we must trust to Providence and a sharp lookout. See where you can put your hand upon a crowbar or handspike, in case you want it; but don't touch it. Come, there's nothing to be done in any way just now, so let's go down and take a snooze for an hour or two; and, Tom, if they ask us to drink, drink with them, and pretend to be half fuddled."
We went down again, and found the privateer's men getting very jolly; but they did not offer us anything to drink, so we laid on some spare sails outside the cabin, and tried to go to sleep, but I could not, for I was very unhappy. I could see no chance of our escape, as nothing but a man-of-war would be likely to interfere and recapture us. I thought of Virginia and Lady O'Connor, and then I thought of poor Bessy, and having left her in such an unfriendly way, perhaps to remain in a French prison for years. Bramble and I were fully aware that the promises of the prizemaster were only to cajole us, and that once in a French port, had we claimed the fulfillment of them, a kick would have been all which we should, in all probability, receive for our pains.
About one o'clock in the morning I rose and went on deck. The watch had been relieved, the weather also looked brighter, as if it were going, to clear up, and I became still more depressed. Bramble soon followed me.
"It's clearing up," said I, "but I don't think it will last."
"Never a bit," replied Bramble; "in half an hour it will be thicker than ever, so now I'll go and call the officer, and tell him he had better get under way: that will make him have less suspicion of us."
Bramble did so. The officer came on deck, the men were turned out, and the windlass was manned; for, although so large a vessel, she had no capstan. The men hove in the cable in silence, and were short stay apeak, when, as we had foreseen, it came on thicker than ever. Bramble pointed it out to the officer, who was perfectly satisfied that nothing could be done; the cable was veered out again, and the men sent below.
"We hope you'll think of your promise to us, sir," said Bramble to the officer, as he was going down.
"Yes, I will, I swear," replied he, slapping Bramble on the back.
The morning broke, and the weather continued the same; it was not possible to see ten yards clear of the ship, and, of course, in such weather it was not likely that any other vessels would be attempting to pass through the Channel. At noon it cleared up a little, and the windlass was again manned; but in a short time the fog became thicker than ever. The Frenchmen now became very impatient, but there was no help for it; they walked about the deck, swearing and stamping, and throwing out invectives against the fog and rain as they looked up at it. The night closed in; the men were kept on deck until eleven o'clock, when the flood time made, and then they were sent down again, as nothing could be done until the ebb. At twelve o'clock the weather became worse, the wind freshened considerably, and veered more to the southward, the rain poured down in torrents, and the men of the watch sheltered themselves down the hatchway. The officer came up on the deck, and called Bramble, who had been down below. Bramble told him, what was very true, that the wind would probably shift and the weather clear up in a few hours, and that we should be able to weigh with the coming down of the ebb. He asked Bramble whether he thought it would blow hard. Bramble could not say, but it would be better that the men should not turn in, as they might be wanted; and that if the fore-topmast staysail was hoisted, she would lie better at her anchor, and in case of parting, he would be able to manage her till sail was set. This advice was followed, and all the men sat up in the cabin drinking, those who had the watch occasionally coming down to refresh themselves.
They gave us a glass of grog each that night, a proof that they had drunk until they were good-natured. Bramble said to me, as we sat down outside, "It will be clear to-morrow morning, Tom, that's sartain—it must be to-night or never. I've been thinking of lowering the quarter boat down, when they are a little more mizzled; they are getting on pretty fast, for Frenchmen haven't the heads for drinking that Englishmen have. Now it pours down beautifully, and here they come down again for shelter."
For three hours we watched; it was then four o'clock, and the men were most of them asleep or more than half drunk. Those of the middle watch came down dripping wet, and called the others to relieve them, but only two of them answered to the call. They who had come down began to drink freely, to warm themselves after their ducking, and by half-past four, except the two men on deck, every Frenchman was either fast asleep or muddled.
"Tom," said Bramble, "now's our time. Slip up on deck, go forward if no one is there, and saw through the cable as quickly as you can; it won't take long, for it's a coir rope. As soon as you have got through two strands out of the three, come aft."
I went on deck, and looked round; I could not see the two men, it was so dark. I then walked forward, and looking well round to see that they were not on the forecastle, I sat down before the windlass and commenced operations. In a couple of minutes I had divided the two strands, and I went aft, where I found Bramble at the binnacle, in which a light was burning.
"I have done it," said I, "and if the wind freshens at all, she will part."'
"All's right," said Bramble, "those two fellows are fast asleep under the taffrail, covered up with the trysail, which lies there. Now, Tom, for a bold push: go down once more, and see how they are getting on in the cabin."
I went down: every man was asleep—some on the locker, some with their heads on the table. I came on deck: it rained harder than ever.
"This will be a clearing shower, Tom, depend upon it; and the wind is freshening up again. Now, have you looked out for a handspike or crowbar?"
"Yes, I know where there are two."
"Then come with me: we must unship the ladder, and pull it up on deck, and then put on the grating; after that we must take our chance: we may succeed, and we may not—all depends upon their not waking too soon."
We went to the hatchway, cut the cleat-lashings, hauled the ladder on deck, and then put on the grating.
"That will do, Tom, for the present. Now do you take the helm, with a crowbar all ready by your side. I will go forward and cut the cable: if those fellows rouse up while I am forward, you must do your best. I leave you, Tom, because you are more powerful than I am."
"I'll manage them both, never fear," whispered I.
"When she swings, mind you put the helm a-starboard, Tom," said Bramble in my ear.
This was the most nervous part of the whole transaction: the men abaft might wake, and I should have to master them how I could—and even if I did, the scuffle might awake those below, who were not yet secured; although, for a time, it would be difficult for them to get on deck. But fortune favored us: the cable was severed, the ship swung round, and Bramble returned aft and took the helm.
"Now is the time to see if I'm a pilot or not, Tom," said he. "I think I can steer her through by compass, now that it's nearly high water—luck's all. It was fortunate that we got the staysail hoisted for us, or we could have made nothing of it."
"It's clearing up fast," said I, as I kept my eyes upon where the men were lying abaft; "and there'll be plenty of wind."
"Yes, and we'll have daylight soon. Tom, I don't want you. I should like you to step aft, and stand over those two chaps; if they wake, knock them senseless—don't kill them, as you can easily bind them while they are stupefied. And, Tom, look about you for some seizings all ready. I wish they would wake, for we are not safe while they are not secure. Put a handspike by me, and, if necessary, I will leave the helm for a minute, and help you: it's better that she should go on shore than they should master us. We're pretty safe now, at all events. I see the land—all's right."
It was now daylight. After this whispering with Bramble, I went aft with a handspike in my hand; and I had not been there more than two minutes when one of the privateer's men turned the canvas on one side, and looked up. The handspike came down upon his head, and he dropped senseless; but the noise roused up the other, and I dealt him a blow more severe than the first. I then threw down my weapon, and, perceiving the deep-sea lead-line coiled up on the reel, I cut off sufficient, and in a short time had bound them both by the hands and feet. They groaned heavily, and I was afraid that I had killed them; but there was no help for it.
"They are safe," said I, returning to Bramble.
"I thought I heard you, but I did not look round at the time. Half an hour more, Tom, and, even with this wind, we shall be safe—and, Tom, our fortune's made. If they wake below, we must fight hard for it, for we've a right to salvage, my boy—one-eighth of the whole cargo—that's worth fighting for. Depend upon it, they'll be stirring soon; so, Tom, go aft, and drag the trysail here, and put it on the hatchway grating—its weight will prevent their lifting it up in a hurry. If we can only hold our own for twenty minutes longer she is ours, and all right."
As soon as I had stowed the trysail on the hatchway grating, I looked about to see what else I could put on the skylight, which they might also attempt to force up. I could find nothing but the coils of rope, which I piled on; but, while I was so doing, a pistol was fired at me from below, and the ball passed through the calf of my leg; it was, however, not a wound to disable me, and I bound it up with my handkerchief.
"They're all alive now, Tom, so you must keep your eyes open. However, we're pretty safe—the light vessel is not a mile off. Keep away from the skylight—you had better stand upon the trysail, Tom—you will help to keep the hatchway down, for they are working at it."
Another pistol was now fired at Bramble, which missed him.
"Tom, see if there's no bunting aft, and, if so, just throw some over this part of the skylight, it will blind them, at all events; otherwise I'm just a capital mark for them."
I ran aft, and gathered some flags, which I brought and laid over the skylight, so as to intercept their view of Bramble; but while I was so doing another pistol-shot was fired—it passed me, but hit Bramble, taking off one of his fingers.
"That's no miss, but we've got through the worst of it, Tom—I don't think they can see me now—don't put that English ensign on, but hoist it Union downward. I shall round-to now; there's the men-of-war in the Medway. Why don't the fools look out, and they will see that they can't escape?"
"They've only the stern windows to look out of: the quarter-galleries are boarded up."
"Then, Tom, just look if they have not beat them out, for you know they may climb on deck by them."
It was fortunate that Bramble mentioned this. I went aft with the handspike in my hand, and when I was about to look over, I met face to face a Frenchman, who had climbed out of the starboard quarter-gallery, and was just gaming the deck. A blow with the handspike sent him overboard, and he went astern; but another was following him, and I stood prepared to receive him. It was the officer in command, who spoke English. He paused at the sight of the other man falling overboard and my uplifted handspike; and I said to him, "It's of no use—look at the English men-of-war close to you: if you do not go back to the cabin, and keep your men quiet, when the men-of-war's men come on board we will show you no quarter."
We were now entering the Medway; and the Frenchman perceived that they could not escape, and would only bring mischief on themselves by any farther assaults, so he got into the quarter-gallery again, and spoke to his men. As soon as I perceived that he was entering, I ran over to the other side to the larboard quarter-gallery, and there again I found a Frenchman had nearly gained the deck. I levelled the handspike at his head, but he dodged, and returned to the cabin by the way he came; and after that there were no more attempts at recovering the vessel. In five minutes more we were abreast of the Euphrosyne, Sir James O'Connor's frigate, which was now lying, with only her lower masts in, alongside of the hulk. I hailed for assistance, and let fly the foretop-mast staysail sheet, while Bramble rounded the ship to. The boats were sent on board immediately; and as we had not a cable bent, they made the ship fast to the hulk astern of them. We stated our case in few words to the officer; and having ascertained that Sir James O'Connor was on board, requested that we might be sent to the frigate.
"Is it you?" said Sir James, as I came on the gangway; "what is it all about—are you hurt? Come down in the cabin."
Bramble and I followed him down into the cabin; and I stated the whole particulars of the capture and re-capture.
"Excellent—most excellent! I wish you both joy; but first we must have the surgeon here" Sir James rang the bell; and when the surgeon came he went on deck to give orders.
The ball had passed through my leg, so that the surgeon had little to do to me. Bramble's finger was amputated, and in a few minutes we were all right, and Sir James came down again.
"I should say, stay on board till you are able to get about again; but the ship will be paid off to-morrow, so I had better send you up to Chatham directly. You are entitled to salvage if ever men were, for you have earned it gloriously; and I will take care that you are done justice to. I must go now and report the vessel and particulars to the admiral, and the first lieutenant will send you to Chatham in one of the cutters. You'll be in good hands, Tom, for you will have two nurses."
We were taken up to Chatham to the hotel, where we found Lady O'Connor and Virginia very much surprised, as may be imagined, at our being brought there wounded. However, we were neither of us ill enough to go to bed, and had a sitting-room next to theirs.
This recapture made a great deal of noise. At first the agent for the prize wrote down a handsome letter to us, complimenting us upon our behavior and stating that he was authorized to present us each with five hundred pounds for our conduct. But Sir James O'Connor answered the letter, informing him that we claimed, and would have, our one-eighth, as entitled to by law, and that he would see us righted. Mr. Wilson, whom we employed as our legal adviser, immediately gave the prize agent notice of an action in the Court of Admiralty, and, finding we were so powerfully backed, and that he could not help himself, he offered forty thousand pounds, which was one-eighth, valuing the cargo at three hundred and twenty thousand pounds. The cargo proved to be worth more than four hundred thousand pounds, but Mr. Wilson advised us to close with the offer, as it was better than litigating the question; so we assented to it, and the money was paid over.
In a fortnight we were both ready to travel again. Sir James O'Connor had remained a week longer than he intended to have done at Chatham on our account. We now took leave of them, and having presented Virginia with five thousand pounds, which I had directed Mr. Wilson to settle upon her, we parted, the O'Connors and Virginia for Leamington, and Bramble and I for Deal.