Various.

Great Sea Stories online

. (page 6 of 24)
Online LibraryVariousGreat Sea Stories → online text (page 6 of 24)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


over and over her, and it was evident she was not a man-of-war. We
peppered away - she could not even be a privateer; we were close under
her lee quarter, and yet she had never fired a shot; and her large
swaggering Yankee ensign was now run up to the peak, only to be hauled
down the next moment. Hurrah! a large cotton-ship from Charlestown to
Bordeaux - prize to H.M.S. _Torch_!

She was taken possession of, and proved to be the _Natches_, of four
hundred tons burden, fully loaded with cotton.

By the time we got the crew on board, and the second-lieutenant, with a
prize crew of fifteen men, had taken charge, the weather began to lour
again, nevertheless we took the prize in tow, and continued on our
voyage for the next three days, without anything particular happening.
It was the middle watch, and I was sound asleep, when I was startled by
a violent jerking of my hammock, and a cry "that the brig was amongst
the breakers." I ran on deck in my shirt, where I found all hands, and
a scene of confusion such as I never had witnessed before. The gale
had increased, yet the prize had not been cast off, and the consequence
was, that by some mismanagement or carelessness, the swag of the large
ship had suddenly hove the brig in the wind, and taken the sails aback.
We accordingly fetched stern way, and ran foul of the prize, and there
we were, in a heavy sea, with our stern grinding against the
cotton-ship's high quarter.

The mainboom, by the first rasp that took place after I came on deck,
was broken short off, and nearly twelve feet of it hove right in over
the taffrail; the vessels then closed, and the next rub ground off the
ship's mizzen channel as clean as if it had been sawed away. Officers
shouting, men swearing, rigging cracking, the vessels crashing and
thumping together, I thought we were gone, when the first lieutenant
seized his trumpet - "Silence, men; hold your tongues, you cowards, and
mind the word of command!"

The effect was magical. - "Brace round the foreyard - round with it; set
the jib - that's it - fore-top-mast staysail - haul - never mind if the
gale takes it out of the bolt-rope" - a thundering flap, and away it
flew in truth down to leeward, like a puff of white smoke. - "Never
mind, men, the jib stands. Belay all that - down with the helm,
now - don't you see she has stern way yet? Zounds! we shall be smashed
to atoms if you don't mind your hands, you lubbers - main-topsail sheets
let fly - there she pays off, and has headway once more - that's it:
right your helm, now - never mind his spanker-boom, the fore-stay will
stand it: there - up with helm, sir - we have cleared him - hurrah!" And
a near thing it was too, but we soon had everything snug; and although
the gale continued without any intermission for ten days, at length we
ran in and anchored with our prize in Five-Fathom Hole, off the
entrance to St. George's Harbour.

It was lucky for us that we got to anchor at the time we did, for that
same afternoon one of the most tremendous gales of wind from the
westward came on that I ever saw. Fortunately it was steady and did
not veer about, and having good ground-tackle down, we rode it out well
enough. The effect was very uncommon; the wind was howling over our
mast-heads, and amongst the cedar bushes on the cliffs above, while on
deck it was nearly calm, and there was very little swell, being a
weather shore; but half a mile out at sea all was white foam, and the
tumbling waves seemed to meet from north and south, leaving a space of
smooth water under the lee of the island, shaped like the tail of a
comet, tapering away, and gradually roughening and becoming more
stormy, until the roaring billows once more owned allegiance to the
genius of the storm.

There we rode, with three anchors ahead, in safety through the night;
and next day, availing of a temporary lull, we ran up and anchored off
the Tanks. Three days after this, the American frigate _President_ was
brought in by the Endymion and the rest of the squadron.

I went on board, in common with every officer in the fleet, and
certainly I never saw a more superb vessel; her scantling was that of a
seventy-four, and she appeared to have been fitted with great care. I
got a week's leave at this time, and, as I had letters to several
families, I contrived to spend my time pleasantly enough.

Bermuda, as all the world knows, is a cluster of islands in the middle
of the Atlantic. There are Lord knows how many of them, but the beauty
of the little straits and creeks which divide them no man can describe
who has not seen them. The town of St. George's, for instance, looks
as if the houses were cut out of chalk; and one evening the family
where I was on a visit proceeded to the main island, Hamilton, to
attend a ball there. We had to cross three ferries, although the
distance was not above nine miles, if so far. The 'Mudian women are
unquestionably beautiful - so thought Thomas Moore, a tolerable judge,
before me. By the by, touching this 'Mudian ball, it was a very gay
affair - the women pleasant and beautiful; but all the men, when they
speak, or are spoken to, shut one eye and spit; - a lucid and succinct
description of a community.

The second day of my sojourn was fine - the first fine day since our
arrival - and with several young ladies of the family, I was prowling
through the cedar wood above St. George's, when a dark good-looking man
passed us; he was dressed in tight worsted net pantaloons and Hessian
boots, and wore a blue frockcoat and two large epaulets, with rich
French bullion, and a round hat. On passing, he touched his hat with
much grace, and in the evening I met him in society. It was Commodore
Decatur. He was very much a Frenchman in manner, or, I should rather
say, in look, for although very well bred, he, for one ingredient, by
no means possessed a Frenchman's volubility; still, he was an
exceedingly agreeable and very handsome man.

The following day we spent in a pleasure cruise amongst the three
hundred and sixty-five Islands, many of them not above an acre in
extent - fancy an island of an acre in extent! - with a solitary house, a
small garden, a red-skinned family, a piggery, and all around clear
deep pellucid water. None of the islands, or islets, rise to any great
height, but they all shoot precipitously out of the water, as if the
whole group had originally been one huge platform of rock, with
numberless grooves subsequently chiselled out in it by art.

We had to wind our way amongst these manifold small channels for two
hours, before we reached the gentleman's house where we had been
invited to dine; at length, on turning a corner, with both lateen sails
drawing beautifully, we ran bump on a shoal; there was no danger, and
knowing that the 'Mudians were capital sailors, I sat still. Not so
Captain K - - -, a round plump little _homo_, - "Shove her off, my boys,
shove her off." She would not move, and thereupon he, in a fever of
gallantry, jumped overboard up to the waist in full fig; and one of the
men following his example, we were soon afloat. The ladies applauded,
and the captain sat in his wet _breeks_ for the rest of the voyage, in
all the consciousness of being considered a hero. Ducks and onions are
the grand staple of Bermuda, but there was a fearful dearth of both at
the time I speak of - a knot of young West India merchants, who, with
heavy purses and large credits on England, had at this time domiciled
themselves in St. George's, to batten on the spoils of poor Jonathan,
having monopolised all the good things of the place. I happened to be
acquainted with one of them, and thereby had less reason to complain;
but many a poor fellow, sent ashore on duty, had to put up with but
Lenten fare at the taverns. At length, having refitted, we sailed in
company with the Rayo frigate, with a convoy of three transports,
freighted with a regiment for New Orleans, and several merchantmen for
the West Indies.

"The still vexed Bermoothes" - I arrived at them in a gale of wind, and
I sailed from them in a gale of wind. What the climate may be in the
summer I don't know; but during the time I was there it was one storm
after another.

We sailed in the evening with the moon at full, and the wind at
west-north-west. So soon as we got from under the lee of the land the
breeze struck us, and it came on to blow like thunder, so that we were
all soon reduced to our storm staysails; and there we were, transports,
merchantmen, and men-of-war, rising on the mountainous billows one
moment, and the next losing sight of everything but the water and sky
in the deep trough of the sea, while the seething foam was blown over
us in showers from the curling manes of the roaring waves. But
overhead, all this while, it was as clear as a lovely winter moon could
make it, and the stars shone brightly in the deep blue sky; there was
not even a thin fleecy shred of cloud racking across the moon's disc.
Oh, the glories of a northwester!

But the devil seize such glory! Glory, indeed! with a fleet of
transports, and a regiment of soldiers on board! Glory! why, I daresay
five hundred rank and file, at the fewest, were all cascading at one
and the same moment, - a thousand poor fellows turned outside in, like
so many pairs of old stockings. Any glory in that? But to proceed.

Next morning the gale still continued, and when the day broke there was
the frigate standing across our bows, rolling and pitching, as she tore
her way through the boiling sea, under a close-reefed main-topsail and
reefed foresail, with top-gallant-yards and royal masts, and everything
that could be struck with safety in war-time, down on deck. There she
lay, with her clear black bends, and bright white streak, and long tier
of cannon on the maindeck, and the carronades on the quarterdeck and
forecastle grinning through the ports in the black bulwarks, while the
white hammocks, carefully covered by the hammock-cloths, crowned the
defences of the gallant frigate fore and aft, as she delved through the
green surge - one minute rolling and rising on the curling white crest
of a mountainous sea, amidst a hissing snowstorm of spray, with her
bright copper glancing from stem to stern, and her scanty white canvas
swelling aloft, and twenty feet of her keel forward occasionally hove
into the air and clean out of the water, as if she had been a sea-bird
rushing to take wing - and the next, sinking entirely out of
sight - hull, masts, and rigging - behind an intervening sea, that rose
in hoarse thunder between us, threatening to overwhelm both us and her.
As for the transports, the largest of the three had lost her
foretopmast, and had bore up under her foresail; another was also
scudding under a close-reefed fore-topsail; but the third or
head-quarter ship was still lying to windward, under her storm
staysails. None of the merchant vessels were to be seen, having been
compelled to bear up in the night, and to run before it under bare
poles.

At length, as the sun rose, we got before the wind, and it soon
moderated so far that we could carry reefed topsails and foresail; and
away we all bowled, with a clear, deep, cold, blue sky, and a bright
sun overhead, and a stormy leaden-coloured ocean with whitish
green-crested billows, below. The sea continued to go down, and the
wind to slacken, until the afternoon, when the commodore made the
signal for the _Torch_ to send a boat's crew, the instant it could be
done with safety, on board the dismasted ship to assist in repairing
damages and in getting up a jury-foretopmast.

The damaged ship was at this time on our weather-quarter; we
accordingly handed the fore-topsail, and presently she was alongside.
We hailed her, that we intended to send a boat on board, and desired
her to heave-to, as we did, and presently she rounded to under our lee.
One of the quarter-boats was manned, with three of the carpenter's
crew, and six good men over and above her complement; but it was no
easy matter to get on board of her, let me tell you, after she had been
lowered, carefully watching the rolls, with four hands in. The moment
she touched the water, the tackles were cleverly unhooked, and the rest
of us tumbled on board, shin leather growing scarce, when we shoved
off. With great difficulty, and not without wet jackets, we, the
supernumeraries, got on board, and the boat returned to the _Torch_.
The evening when we landed in the lobster-box, as Jack loves to
designate a transport, was too far advanced for us to do anything
towards refitting that night; and the confusion and uproar and
numberless abominations of the crowded craft, were irksome to a greater
degree than I expected, after having been accustomed to the strict and
orderly discipline of a man-of-war. The following forenoon the _Torch_
was ordered by signal to chase in the south-east quarter, and, hauling
out from the fleet, she was soon out of sight.




THE MERCHANTMAN AND THE PIRATE

From "Hard Cash," BY CHARLES READE


North Latitude 23 1/2, Longitude East 113; the time March of this same
year; the wind southerly; the port Whampoa in the Canton River. Ships at
anchor reared their tall masts, here and there; and the broad stream was
enlivened and colored by junks and boats of all sizes and vivid hues,
propelled on the screw principle by a great scull at the stern, with
projecting handles for the crew to work; and at times a gorgeous mandarin
boat, with two great glaring eyes set in the bows, came flying, rowed
with forty paddles by an armed crew, whose shields hung on the gunwale
and flashed fire in the sunbeams; the mandarin, in conical and buttoned
hat, sitting on the top of his cabin calmly smoking Paradise, alias
opium, while his gong boomed and his boat flew fourteen miles an hour,
and all things scuttled out of his celestial way. And there, looking
majestically down on all these water ants, the huge _Agra_, cynosure of
so many loving eyes and loving hearts in England, lay at her moorings;
homeward bound.

Her tea not being yet on board, the ship's hull floated high as a castle,
and to the subtle, intellectual, doll-faced, bolus-eyed people, that
sculled to and fro, busy as bees, though looking forked mushrooms, she
sounded like a vast musical shell: for a lusty harmony of many mellow
voices vibrated in her great cavities, and made the air ring cheerily
around her. The vocalists were the Cyclops, to judge by the tremendous
thumps that kept clean time to their sturdy tune. Yet it was but human
labor, so heavy and so knowing, that it had called in music to help. It
was the third mate and his gang completing his floor to receive the
coming tea chests. Yesterday he had stowed his dunnage, many hundred
bundles of light flexible canes from Sumatra and Malacca; on these he had
laid tons of rough saltpetre, in 200 lb. gunny-bags: and was now mashing
it to music, bags and all. His gang of fifteen, naked to the waist,
stood in line, with huge wooden beetles, called commanders, and lifted
them high and brought them down on the nitre in cadence with true
nautical power and unison, singing as follows, with ponderous bump on the
last note in each bar: -

[Illustration: Song sung by labor gang.]

And so up to fifteen, when the stave was concluded with a shrill "Spell,
oh!" and the gang relieved streaming with perspiration. When the
saltpetre was well mashed, they rolled ton waterbutts on it, till the
floor was like a billiard table. A fleet of chop boats then began to
arrive, so many per day, with the tea chests. Mr. Grey proceeded to lay
the first tier on his saltpetre floor, and then built the chests, tier
upon tier, beginning at the sides, and leaving in the middle a lane
somewhat narrower than a tea chest. Then he applied a screw jack to the
chests on both sides, and so enlarged his central aperture, and forced
the remaining tea chests in; and behold the enormous cargo packed as
tight as ever shopkeeper packed a box - 19,806 chests, 60 half chests, 50
quarter chests.

While Mr. Grey was contemplating his work with singular satisfaction, a
small boat from Canton came alongside, and Mr. Tickell, midshipman, ran
up the side, skipped on the quarter-deck, saluted it first, and then the
first mate; and gave him a line from the captain, desiring him to take
the ship down to Second Bar - for her water - at the turn of the tide.

Two hours after receipt of this order the ship swung to the ebb.
Instantly Mr. Sharpe unmoored, and the _Agra_ began her famous voyage,
with her head at right angles to her course; for the wind being foul, all
Sharpe could do was to set his topsails, driver, and jib, and keep her in
the tide way, and clear of the numerous craft, by backing or filling as
the case required; which he did with considerable dexterity, making the
sails steer the helm for the nonce: he crossed the Bar at sunset, and
brought to with the best bower anchor in five fathoms and a half. Here
they began to take in their water, and on the fifth day the six-oared gig
was ordered up to Canton for the captain. The next afternoon he passed
the ship in her, going down the river, to Lin Tin, to board the Chinese
admiral for his chop, or permission to leave China. All night the _Agra_
showed three lights at her mizzen peak for him, and kept a sharp lookout.
But he did not come: he was having a very serious talk with the Chinese
admiral; at daybreak, however, the gig was reported in sight: Sharpe told
one of the midshipmen to call the boatswain and man the side. Soon the
gig ran alongside; two of the ship's boys jumped like monkeys over the
bulwarks, lighting, one on the main channels, the other on the mid-ship
port, and put the side ropes assiduously in the captain's hands; he
bestowed a slight paternal smile on them, the first the imps had ever
received from an officer, and went lightly up the sides. The moment his
foot touched the deck, the boatswain gave a frightful shrill whistle; the
men at the sides uncovered, the captain saluted the quarter-deck, and all
the officers saluted him, which he returned, and stepping for a moment to
the weather side of his deck, gave the loud command, "All hands heave
anchor." He then directed Mr. Sharpe to get what sail he could on the
ship, the wind being now westerly, and dived into his cabin.

The boatswain piped three shrill pipes, and "All hands up anchor" was
thrice repeated forward, followed by private admonitions, "Rouse and
bitt!" "Show a leg!" etc., and up tumbled the crew with "homeward bound"
written on their tanned faces.

(Pipe.) "Up all hammocks!"

In ten minutes the ninety and odd hammocks were all stowed neatly in the
netting, and covered with a snowy hammock cloth; and the hands were
active, unbitting the cable, shipping the capstan bars, etc.

"All ready below, sir," cried a voice.

"Man the bars," returned Mr. Sharpe from the quarter-deck. "Play up,
fifer. Heave away!"

Out broke the merry fife with a rhythmical tune, and tramp, tramp, tramp
went a hundred and twenty feet round and round, and, with brawny chests
pressed tight against the capstan bars, sixty fine fellows walked the
ship up to her anchor, drowning the fife at intervals with their sturdy
song, as pat to their feet as an echo:

Heave with a will ye jolly boys,
Heave around:
We're off from Chainee, jolly boys,
Homeward bound.

"Short stay apeak, sir," roars the boatswain from forward.

"Unship the bars. Way aloft. Loose sails. Let fall!"

The ship being now over her anchor, and the topsails set, the capstan
bars were shipped again, the men all heaved with a will, the messenger
grinned, the anchor was torn out of China with a mighty heave, and then
run up with a luff tackle and secured; the ship's head cast to port:

"Up with a jib! man the topsail halyards! all hands make sail!" Round
she came slow and majestically; the sails filled, and the good ship bore
away for England.

She made the Bogue forts in three or four tacks, and there she had to
come to again for another chop, China being a place as hard to get into
as Heaven, and to get out of as - Chancery. At three P. M. she was at
Macao, and hove to four miles from the land, to take in her passengers.

A gun was fired from the forecastle. No boats came off. Sharpe began to
fret: for the wind, though light, had now got to the N.W., and they were
wasting it. After a while the captain came on deck, and ordered all the
carronades to be scaled. The eight heavy reports bellowed the great
ship's impatience across the water, and out pulled two boats with the
passengers. While they were coming, Dodd sent and ordered the gunner to
load the carronades with shot, and secure and apron them. . . .

The _Agra_ had already shown great sailing qualities: the log was hove at
sundown and gave eleven knots; so that with a good breeze abaft few
fore-and-aft-rigged pirates could overhaul her. And this wind carried
her swiftly past one nest of them at all events; the Ladrone Isles. At
nine P. M. all the lights were ordered out. Mrs. Beresford had brought a
novel on board, and refused to comply; the master-at-arms insisted; she
threatened him with the vengeance of the Company, the premier, and the
nobility and gentry of the British realm. The master-at-arms, finding he
had no chance in argument, doused the glim - pitiable resource of a weak
disputant - then basely fled the rhetorical consequences.

The northerly breeze died out, and light variable winds baffled the ship.
It was the 6th April ere she passed the Macclesfield Bank in latitude 16.
And now they sailed for many days out of sight of land; Dodd's chest
expanded: his main anxiety at this part of the voyage lay in the state
cabin; of all the perils of the sea none shakes a sailor like fire. He
set a watch day and night on that spoiled child.


On the 1st of May they passed the great Nantuna, and got among the
Bornese and Malay Islands: at which the captain's glass began to
sweep the horizon again: and night and day at the dizzy
foretop-gallant-masthead he perched an eye.

They crossed the line in longitude 107, with a slight breeze, but soon
fell into the Dolddrums. A dead calm, and nothing to do but kill
time. . . .

After lying a week like a dead log on the calm but heaving waters came a
few light puffs in the upper air and inflated the topsails only: the ship
crawled southward, the crew whistling for wind.

At last, one afternoon, it began to rain, and after the rain came a gale
from the eastward. The watchful skipper saw it purple the water to
windward, and ordered the topsails to be reefed and the lee ports closed.
This last order seemed an excess of precaution; but Dodd was not yet
thoroughly acquainted with his ship's qualities: and the hard cash round
his neck made him cautious. The lee ports were closed, all but one, and
that was lowered. Mr. Grey was working a problem in his cabin, and
wanted a little light and a little air, so he just dropped his port; but,
not to deviate from the spirit of his captain's instructions, he fastened
a tackle to it; that he might have mechanical force to close it with
should the ship lie over.

Down came the gale with a whoo, and made all crack. The ship lay over
pretty much, and the sea poured in at Mr. Grey's port. He applied his
purchase to close it. But though his tackle gave him the force of a
dozen hands, he might as well have tried to move a mountain: on the
contrary, the tremendous sea rushed in and burst the port wide open.
Grey, after a vain struggle with its might, shrieked for help; down
tumbled the nearest hands, and hauled on the tackle in vain. Destruction
was rushing on the ship, and on them first. But meantime the captain,
with a shrewd guess at the general nature of the danger he could not see,
had roared out, "Slack the main sheet!" The ship righted, and the port
came flying to, and terror-stricken men breathed hard, up to their waists
in water and floating boxes. Grey barred the unlucky port, and went aft,
drenched in body, and wrecked in mind, to report his own fault. He found
the captain looking grim as death. He told him, almost crying, what he
had done, and how he had miscalculated the power of the water.

Dodd looked and saw his distress. "Let it be a lesson sir," said he,
sternly. "How many ships have been lost by this in fair weather, and not
a man saved to tell how the craft was fooled away?"

"Captain, bid me fling myself over the side, and I'll do it."

"Humph! I'm afraid I can't afford to lose a good officer for a fault
he - will - never - repeat."

It blew hard all night and till twelve the next day. The _Agra_ showed



Online LibraryVariousGreat Sea Stories → online text (page 6 of 24)