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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesHurricane Hurry - Chapter 23
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Hurricane Hurry - Chapter 23 Post by :24HourCash Category :Long Stories Author :William H. G. Kingston Date :May 2012 Read :3615

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Hurricane Hurry - Chapter 23

CHAPTER TWENTY THREE

ADVANCE OF ARMY UP JAMES RIVER.--I COMMAND A FLOTILLA OF BOATS UP NANSIMOND RIVER.--A DARK NIGHT.--SURROUND A HOUSE.--INTERVIEW WITH MADELINE.--WARNED OF PLAN TO CAPTURE US.--O'DRISCOLL AT HOME.--RAPID PULL FOR LIBERTY.--MACKEY'S MILLS.--PEOPLE WIDE-AWAKE.--HOT FIRE.-- REGAIN SHIP.

The new year of 1781 commenced with the advance of the whole army, under General Arnold, up the banks of the James river, protected by three ships of war--the Charlestown, Bonetta, and Swift. No attack was made on us; indeed, there was no force of the enemy, it was believed, in the neighbourhood in any way capable of impeding our progress. That evening I was again sent for, and, in order to ascertain that important fact, I was directed to take command of five boats and to proceed up the Nansimond river. "You will learn, also, what shipping is in the river," said my captain; "and, Mr Hurry, you will not forget to see how they can best be cut out." Having received this brief professional admonition, I took my departure.

I had the Charon's cutter, the Thames's long-boat, and three other boats, each commanded by a lieutenant or master's mate. I gave them all, in the clearest way, their instructions, for I felt that we were about to engage in an expedition which might prove extremely hazardous, though but little honour was to be reaped from it. The Nansimond river is about twenty-five miles long, and generally about half a mile wide; but in some places, as high up as the west branch, it narrows to about fifty yards. Not far from the entrance is the town of Nansimond, and higher up a place called Mackey's Mills. Nearly at the source is a town or village called Suffolk. This information I had obtained from the prisoners we had taken on our previous expedition.

Darkness had long settled down before my five boats collected alongside the Charon. Never was I out in a more pitchy night. Dense clouds covered the sky, and not a star was visible. On first stepping into my boat, after leaving the light of the cabin, I could see nothing.

"You all understand what we are to do, gentlemen?" said I to the officers under me. "Follow closely in my wake. Let not a word be spoken. If we are discovered and attacked, we are to put about and pull down the stream; if not, wait till I give the order to return. Shove off!"

Our oars were muffled, so that not a sound was heard as we pulled away through the darkness towards the mouth of the Nansimond river. We had a pilot with us who professed to know the navigation, and we believed that we could trust him. By degrees my eyes began to grow accustomed to the darkness, and I could distinguish the outline of the shore. We entered the river about ten o'clock, and slowly groped our way up the stream, one boat following the other in line, like a long snake wriggling its way through the grass. On we pulled. Sharp eyes, indeed, must have been those which could have discovered us from the shore. But few lights were streaming from the windows of the houses of Nansimond as we passed that town. Early hours were kept by the colonists in those primitive days, and most of the inhabitants had retired to rest--not aware that an enemy was so close to them, or dreaming of danger. As long as we continued in the wider part of the river we had no fear of being detected. However, as our object was to obtain information, I resolved to land near the first house we could see on the shore. My plan was then to surround it, keep all the inmates captive, carry them up the river with us, and land them again on our return, so as to prevent them from giving notice of our expedition, much in the same way that we had done on our march to Hampton. The darkness, however, made this no easy matter, for not the sign of a house could we distinguish on the shore. Sometimes we pulled towards one bank and sometimes towards the other, but to no purpose. If houses there were, they must have been among the trees, and the inhabitants must have gone to bed and extinguished all their lights. At last I resolved to land, and, with part of one boat's crew, to explore the country on foot. Grampus, Rockets, and two other men accompanied me, while the boats pulled slowly along, ready to come to my assistance should I be surprised. I walked two or three miles in this way, stumbling along through woods and swamps and other impediments; but, though we crossed several ploughed fields, no houses could we discover. At last, from very weariness, I was compelled to take to the boat again. Several times we landed, but with the same want of success as at first. We came in time to Mackey's Mills. I had made up my mind to catch Mr Mackey, at all events, and make him serve our purpose. Accordingly we landed, and having lighted our lanterns to save ourselves from tumbling into the mill-dams or traps, which we supposed would everywhere abound, we surrounded the buildings, and proceeded to search for the miller and his men; but neither Mr Mackey nor any of his people were to be found. The mill appeared to be deserted, so we had our trouble for nothing. Once more we took to the boats. The river was here, for some distance, very narrow, but it widened out again as we proceeded upwards. Again and again we landed, always keeping the most profound silence. I had duly impressed on the minds of the people the fact that our lives and the success of the enterprise depended on our so doing. We were all, however, beginning to get rather vexed at our want of success, especially as we had no safety-valve in the expression of our feelings. At times it appeared as if the river flowed through the centre of some large forest. On either side the tall trees rose up, forming a dark wall, with the sky overhead and the smooth black current of the river on which we floated flowing beneath. I trusted that none of the enemy had discovered us, for I thought to myself, if they have, this is just the place they will select to attack, and very little chance we shall have, in that case, of successfully running the gauntlet and getting off scot-free. However, our business was to push up the river as far as we could go till we discovered the vessels we were to look for, taking care, only, that we had time to return before daylight should discover us to our foes. On we went, till we reached a part of the river called the West Branch. It appeared to me that the night had become less dark than at first. Perhaps it was that the banks were freer from trees. We kept carefully examining either shore. I fancied as we pulled on that I could distinguish a rough sort of landing-place.

"A house will not be far-off from it," I said to myself, so I gave the order to pull in for it. My eyes had not deceived me. There was a regular formal landing-place, and not three hundred yards from it I thought that I saw a house. Leaving two men in each boat I drew up my party and gave the order to advance that we might immediately surround the house, if such, as I suspected, there was. With the same precautions which we had hitherto used we advanced as rapidly as we could venture to move towards what I took to be a building. I soon found that I was not mistaken. The barking of a dog also told me that the place was inhabited, and at the same time warned us that the inmates were very likely to be aroused by our approach. I had charged all those under my command on no account to use violence, whatever might occur, unless in our own defence, should we be attacked by the enemy.

As we drew near I saw that the house was a large one, and that it had all the appearance of a gentleman's country seat. We found ourselves also in a good road leading apparently into the interior. I therefore called a halt, and, leaving some of the men where we were, I led the rest round so as closely to surround the premises on the land side. I also bethought me of placing a guard to watch the approach by the river, for I thought it very likely that if any one wished to escape there would be a boat concealed under the banks by which they might effect their object. While I was making these dispositions the barking of the dog continued, but as he did not rush out on us I concluded that he was chained. He had, however, aroused the inmates, for as I passed through the garden I saw a light in one of the rooms down-stairs and other lights, passing the windows of the upper storey. From the situation of the lower room down-stairs I suspected that it must be the drawing-room or one of the sitting-rooms, and, halting my men under the shadow of a shrubbery, with directions to remain there till I summoned them, I approached the window for the purpose of trying if I could see any of the people within. There were two windows to the room. The blind before one of them was drawn down, so I went to the other. The lower shutter to that was also closed, but by standing up on the window-sill I could look into the room. What was my surprise to see a lady sitting at a table, on which stood a lamp, with a book in her hand, reading. Her back was towards me, but from her figure and dress I thought she was young. What surprised me was to find a lady sitting up at that hour, for it was now between two and three o'clock in the morning. Something unusual must, I suspected, be going on in the house. I was afraid that the sudden appearance of a body of armed men would seriously frighten the lady, and so I resolved to enter the house alone and take my chance of meeting with opposition from any man who might be there. A door opened into the garden. It was not bolted. I lifted the latch and entered. A light stood in the hall. I was not mistaken as to the character of the house; it was evidently that of people of fortune. On my right hand was a door which I conceived led into the room where I had seen the lady. An impulse I could not resist induced me to open it. The noise caused by my so doing made the lady turn her head. Her countenance was very pale and tearful. She looked up at me; her eye brightened: I sprang forward and threw myself at her feet. Madeline Carlyon was before me. So astonished and overcome by numberless conflicting feelings was she that I thought she would have fainted. She uttered my name in a tone of doubt and hesitation, as if she did not believe in the reality of what she saw before her. I took her hand and pressed it to my lips.

"It is I, Madeline, who have never ceased thinking of you since we parted," I exclaimed,--"one whose only wish has been to find means to make you his own when the blessings of peace have been restored to our country--one whose earthly hopes are all centred in you. You are indulging in no dream--no fancy--I am really and truly before you."

However, I need not repeat all I said on the occasion. I had no great difficulty in persuading Madeline that I was really before her; but when she inquired how it was that I came to be there, unwilling indeed I felt to tell her that I had come in hostile guise. At last, however, I had to confess the truth.

"Then I understand it all," she exclaimed hurriedly. "Oh, believe me, you are beset with dangers. I ought not to betray the councils of my countrymen, and yet I cannot let you fall into the trap which has been laid for you. Your arrival in the river was immediately known, and a plan was forthwith formed to cut you off. The whole country has been for some hours alarmed. My own father heads the force, consisting, I heard, of more than four hundred men, who are about to take post at Mackey's Mills to cut off your retreat. Silently as you may have come up the river, your progress has been, without doubt, closely watched. Perhaps even now your presence here is known, and anxiety on my father's account prevented me from retiring to rest, and little did I think who was in command of the British boats. I knew not even that you were on the coast. But I must not lose time in talking. What advice can I give you? Stay, oh, let me consider! The party must already have nearly reached Mackey's Mills. They will be there before you can possibly pass that narrow part of the river. Oh, this cruel, cruel war! What ought to be done? I am sure that my father himself would deeply grieve to find that stern duty had compelled him to injure you, and yet how could even I ask him to act otherwise than he will do? I know that I ought not, as a patriot, to give you the warning that I now do. Let me collect my thoughts and consider by what plan I can best secure your safety. It would be useless, I fear, to advise you to deliver yourselves up as prisoners of war, and thus avoid bloodshed. Yet how can you escape from the trap into which you have run? You smile and shake your head. I know--I know. You would say that you must try to fight your way through a host of rebels rather than yield yourselves prisoners. Your safety consists in the rapidity of your movements."

She was silent for some minutes and then continued--

"There are, as high up as Suffolk, several vessels--a ship, a sloop, and a brig. Let it be known by any people whom you can fall in with that you are aware of this fact, and it will naturally be supposed that you have gone up the river to bring them off or to destroy them. The plan was to detain you by various stratagems in the river till daylight, when it was expected that you would easily be cut off and destroyed if you should attempt to fight your way through the crowds of riflemen lining each bank of the river, or otherwise that you would be compelled to give yourselves up as prisoners. I fear me much, I repeat, that this latter course you will not follow--I know you will not. Then you have only your speed on which to rely. You will have to run a terrible gauntlet between well-practised sharpshooters. Start without a moment's delay. The militia will, I fear, have reached Mackey's Mills before you can get there; but if, as I hope, they will believe that you have gone up the stream, they may not be on the watch for you, and you may push by without being perceived."

Such was the tenor of the words the agitated and alarmed girl poured out. I felt sure that I could follow no better plan than the one she suggested. Still it was heart-breaking thus to leave her. I have not intruded any part of our conversation on my readers relating more especially to ourselves. She had said all that I could wish to assure me that her heart was still mine, and I had poured out my own long-pent-up feelings into her ears. I had been sitting by her side. She started. A sound was heard in the house--scuffling of feet--a loud scream--people running here and there. The dog barked loudly outside. Two black girls rushed into the room.

"Oh, missie, missie! murder, murder! thieves, thieves!" they cried out. "Dey be here--dey be everywhere!"

Just then they caught sight of me. Instead of screaming, they stood as if petrified. At last, pointing at me, they exclaimed, "Oh, missie, who dat?"

The question was a difficult one to answer, but Madeline showed her presence of mind by replying calmly--

"A friend who little expected to find me here, but he will take care that no harm happens to any one in this house. We may be thankful that he and his followers are here to protect us. Now go and tell the rest of the people who remain in the house that they must not be alarmed. Let them assemble in the hall. I will go and speak to them after I have seen Mrs Elbank and Miss Porter. Go--run! Be good girls, and do as I tell you."

The quick, firm manner with which she spoke had a wonderful effect on the negresses, and instinctively off they ran, perfectly satisfied, to obey her orders. She explained, briefly, that Mrs Elbank was an old lady, the owner of the house where she and her father were staying.

As soon as the girls had disappeared she took my hand with perfect frankness and maiden modesty, while she looked up into my face with an expression which showed me the true feelings of her heart.

"Farewell, farewell!" she exclaimed. "Let me entreat you not to remain a moment longer. Every instant's delay may produce danger, and, too probably, bloodshed. Should, by any chance, the militia discover that you are here, they would come back with an overwhelming force and cut you off. Go--oh, go!"

As she spoke these words her feelings overcame her and her sobs choked her utterance. I would have given worlds to have been able to stay and comfort her. I did all I could. I took her in my arms and imprinted a kiss on her brow. It might be the last, but I dared not think so. No, I felt that we should meet again. "I obey you now, dearest," I cried, in a tone intended to reassure her. "Fear not, I shall escape the danger you dread, and I will return perhaps before long."

I added some solemn words of comfort, and then I rushed from the room and hurried into the garden where I had left my men. I found from them that O'Driscoll had captured an old negro servant, who, hearing the dog bark, had come out to see what was the matter, and that, conducted by him, he had entered the house where he now was. This accounted for the disturbance I had heard. I accordingly went back to the front door, which was obligingly opened by our friend the negro, who seemed by his manner to have long-expected me. With many bows he led me into a handsome dining-hall, when what was my surprise to find O'Driscoll and another officer seated at a table with an abundance of viands spread before them, and wine of various sorts sparkling in decanters by their side.

"Really, these rebels treat us very well," said O'Driscoll as I entered. "When we caught that old gentleman he told us that supper was all ready, and that he had been ordered to invite us in to partake of it, and to beg us to remain as long as we felt inclined."

"I do not doubt it, Mr O'Driscoll," I answered sternly. "But, sir, we have duties to perform, and our orders were to proceed up the river as far as we could go. Now I have discovered that there are several vessels at Suffolk, four miles above this. We must go and try to cut them out. Thank the owners of the house for their hospitality, but we cannot stay to benefit by it," said I to the negro, giving him a dollar. "Keep that for yourself, and remember that all Englishmen are not cannibals and savages."

Having directed O'Driscoll to call in the rest of the other parties guarding the approaches to the house, we quickly assembled at the rendezvous I had appointed outside the gates, whence we set off as fast as we could for the boats. I could not help having some dread lest they should have been attacked during our absence, and if so, I knew that we should at once be made prisoners. I did not, however, express my fears to any one. The way to the boats appeared very long. I thought more than once that we must have mistaken our road. Great was my relief therefore, when I found that we had at length reached the spot where they lay concealed. I now called the other lieutenants round me, and briefly explained to them the information I had obtained. I did not think it necessary to say whence I had obtained it. They unanimously concurred with me that we had done all that could be required of us, and that our only proper course was at once to proceed down the river, and to endeavour to pass our enemies before they could expect us, or were prepared to impede our progress.

"Well, gentlemen, to our boats without delay," I said--not speaking, however, above a whisper, for I thought it very likely that we might have listeners in ambush. "Rapidly and silently, like Indians on a war trail, let us make the best of our way down the stream. If any boat is disabled, let the one ahead of her take her in tow. If fired at, do not attempt to fire in return, but pull away for our lives. Now shove off."

Away we went. I took the lead, keeping the centre of the river. Strange as it may appear, I thought much more of the meeting I had just had with Madeline, of all she had said to me, and of all I had said to her, or wished that I had said, than of the terrific danger to which we were exposed. I use the word advisedly. Let any one fancy what it would be to pass down a channel fifty yards wide, each bank being lined with four hundred, or, for what I could tell, twice that number of sharpshooters. The latter hours of the night continued as dark as had been the earlier part; there was a slight rain, or rather mist, which increased the obscurity, while the wind had got up, and its low moaning among the trees assisted to conceal the sound made by the boats as they clove their way through the water. We had also come up with the flood; the tide had now turned, and there was a strong current which much assisted our progress. These circumstances gave me hopes that we might yet successfully run the gauntlet of our enemies. There was another circumstance to be dreaded, which might prove fatal to us. Should the enemy have time to collect any boats and attack us on the river, we could scarcely hope to cut our way past them as well as the riflemen on shore. When any great danger is to be incurred, it is a great relief to be able to speak. This was now denied us, and each man was left to his own thoughts. Mine, I may say, were not gloomy--very far from it. Sometimes they were bright and almost joyous. On we went. When I brought my thoughts back to the present, I could not help feeling that any moment we might see the flashes of a hundred rifles, and hear their sharp cracks as they opened on us. We had got to the southern end of the West Branch, but, as yet, not a sound from the shore had been heard. We were approaching the narrow reach, on the banks of which Mackey's Mill is situated. Most of us, I believe, felt an inclination to hold our breath as we pulled on. The current here was very strong. I kept as nearly as I could in the centre, the other boats following. I could just distinguish the dark outline of the building we had before visited against the sky ahead of us, when a voice, I knew not whence it came, shouted, "There they are! Fire!"

In an instant the whole line of the shore burst into flame--rapidly sounded the cracks of the rifles, and thickly about our heads flew the bullets. At that moment I thought I saw a canoe dart away down the river, and I doubted not that our enemies had stationed her there to watch for us. Thicker and thicker came the leaden shower, several shots going through the boats' sides, though as yet no one was hit. Still I had no notion of giving in. "Now, my lads, give way for your lives!" I exclaimed in a loud whisper. "Many a man has passed through hotter fire than this unscathed."

I scarcely think I was speaking the truth when I said this. So dark was it, however, that I did not believe that we could be seen from the shore, though the flashes of the firearms lighted up the dark woods, the red-brick mill and its out-houses, and threw a lurid glare over the whirling current as it hurried by its overhanging banks, while ever and anon we could clearly distinguish the glancing arms and the figures of our enemies as they stood drawn up along the banks, pouring their fire down upon us.

On we pulled, silently as ever, and as fast as the men could lay their backs to the oars. We were, however, I knew too well, only at the commencement of the narrow passage, and I could not tell what opposition we might have to encounter before we got through it. My boat was light, and pulled easily, but some of the other boats were very slow--the Thames's long-boat especially--and rowed very heavily, and I kept anxiously turning round to ascertain that they were following me. For some time I could count them, one after the other in line, coming up after me. Then I turned my eyes on the banks of the river. By some means our enemies calculated our downward progress with great accuracy if they did not see us, for, while some were blazing away, I could see other bodies hurrying along the side of the river, to be ready, I doubted not, to attack us as we came down; some were on foot, but others were on horseback, who had much the advantage of us in speed. At last I found that I was getting ahead of the other boats, so I had to slacken my speed till the next boat came up to me. It was the Charon's cutter, commanded by Mr Bruton. When I looked back I found that the Thames's long-boat was nowhere to be seen. Bruton said she had only just dropped astern, so begged leave to go and tow her up. This I allowed him to do, telling him that I would remain till he and the other boats came up. I began to fear, however, that the missing boat might have been cut off. Away dashed the gallant fellows after her. Whatever might happen, I resolved not to attempt to escape myself unless I could bring off the rest of the boats or the survivors of their people with me, though, from the fastness of my own boat, I might possibly have effected that object. My men behaved admirably, though exposed to so hot a fire; not a murmur escaped them at the delay, while they lay on their oars waiting for the appearance of the missing boat. The other two boats I saw coming on, and they soon caught me up. Great was my relief to see Bruton, with the Thames's boat in tow, at the same time emerge from the darkness. Then, once more, away we all went together down the stream.

I own myself that, under other circumstances, I should have very much liked to have had a shot at our pertinacious foes, and I have no doubt so would my followers, but the knowledge that Madeline's father was among them restrained my arm, and I felt a curious satisfaction in being fired at without attempting to injure my assailants in return, and that I might hereafter be able to assure him that I had not knowingly lifted my hand against him.

We were not long about doing what I have been describing. Had we, I do not believe one of us would have escaped the leaden shower rattling through the air and splashing up the water on every side, literally wetting our faces. I could already feel several holes in the side of my boat close to me; then there was a deep groan of suppressed pain, but no one ceased rowing. On we went. A sharp cry from one of the boats astern of me showed me too clearly that another of my people was wounded. Still the boats dashed on with unabated speed. This success made me hope that we might still escape. We had passed, I thought, the greater part of the narrow portion of the river. I had not much fear, when we could reach the wider parts, that we should get through unless attacked, as I have said, by a flotilla of boats.

Never did I hear such a rattle or cracking of rifles as the four or five hundred militia and irregulars kept up on us. However, there was nothing derogatory to their character as marksmen that they had hitherto done so little execution, for had they been the best sharpshooters in the world, their science would have availed them nothing through the pitchy darkness which happily enveloped us.

At length I fancied that I could distinguish the stream widening away before us, and, judging from the flashes of the fire-arms, the banks were much farther apart than before. I was not mistaken. With a satisfaction I can scarcely express I saw that all our boats had come through, but still the enemy kept up a hot fire astern of us into empty space, evidently not knowing where we were. My men seemed inclined to shout when they found themselves in the wide reach of the river, but I restrained them, not knowing what enemies might be lurking about near us on the water. Then we continued pulling steadily on, till here and there I saw a light gleaming on the shore, which I calculated must come from the town of Nansimond. If a flotilla of boats were on the watch for us, I thought that we should probably here encounter them--not that I any longer despaired of escaping from them, even should they attack us. I had directed the officers not to attempt to retaliate unless actually boarded, but to employ all their energies in making their escape. This was, of course, the wisest policy.

On we went. The town was passed. No boats appeared. We were approaching the mouth of the river. Daylight was now breaking. I was only too thankful that we had not delayed till then to make our way down the river. Either we should all have been taken prisoners, or few if any of us would have survived the murderous fire to which we should have been exposed. At length we emerged from the river and finally arrived on board the Charon at about ten in the morning with only two people wounded, though the upper works of our boats were riddled like sieves.

Thus ended an expedition fraught with so much personal interest to me. We all also gained credit for our exploit. We had completely performed the duty for which we had been sent, having made ourselves thoroughly acquainted with the river, and ascertained that it would be impossible to cut out the vessels which had run up to Suffolk unless a very strong force, if not the whole army, was to proceed up for that purpose. More and more as I thought over what had occurred did I pray that the war might soon cease, and that, if Englishmen must be fighting, they might not be called on to cross their swords with their relatives and friends.

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