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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesJames Braithwaite, The Supercargo - Chapter 2. The Fight
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James Braithwaite, The Supercargo - Chapter 2. The Fight Post by :kippstips Category :Long Stories Author :William H. G. Kingston Date :May 2012 Read :2038

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James Braithwaite, The Supercargo - Chapter 2. The Fight

CHAPTER TWO. THE FIGHT

I may as well here give an account of the _Barbara_, and how I came to be on board her. Deprived of my father, who was killed in battle just as I was going up to the University, and left with very limited means, I was offered a situation as clerk in the counting-house of a distant relative, Mr Janrin. I had no disinclination to mercantile pursuits. I looked on them, if carried out in a proper spirit, as worthy of a man of intellect, and I therefore gladly accepted the offer. As my mother lived in the country, my kind cousin invited me to come and reside with him, an advantage I highly appreciated. Everything was conducted in his house with clock-work regularity. If the weather was rainy, his coach drew up to the door at the exact hour; if the weather was fine, the servant stood ready with his master's spencer, and hat, and gloves, and gold-headed cane, without which Mr Janrin never went abroad. Not that he required it to support his steps, but it was the mark of a gentleman. It had superseded the sword which he had worn in his youth. I soon got to like these regular ways, and found them far pleasanter than the irregularity of some houses where I had visited. I always accompanied Mr Janrin when he walked, and derived great benefit from his conversation, and though he offered me a seat in the coach in bad weather, I saw that he was better pleased when I went on foot. "Young men require exercise, and should not pamper themselves," he observed; "but, James, I say, put a dry pair of shoes in your pocket--therein is wisdom; and don't sit in your wet ones all day."

Thus it will be seen that I was treated by my worthy principal from the first as a relative, and a true friend he was to me. But I was introduced into the mysteries of mercantile affairs by Mr Gregory Thursby, the head clerk. He lived over the counting-house, and on my first appearance in it, before any of the other clerks had arrived, he was there to receive me. He took me round to the different desks, and explained the business transacted at each of them. "And there, Mr James, look there," he said, pointing to a line of ponderous folios on a shelf within easy distance of where he himself sat: "see, we have Swift's works, a handsome edition too, eh!" and he chuckled as he spoke.

"Why, I fancied that they were ledgers," said I. "Ha! ha! ha! so they are, and yet Swift's works, for all that, those of my worthy predecessor, Jeremiah Swift, every line in them written by his own hand, in his best style; so I call them Swift's works. You are not the first person by a great many I have taken in. Ha! ha! ha!"

This was one of the worthy man's harmless conceits. He never lost an opportunity of indulging in the joke to his own amusement; and I remarked that he laughed as heartily the last time he uttered it as the first.

I set to work diligently at once on the tasks given me, and was rewarded by the approving remarks of Mr Janrin and Mr Thursby. Mr Garrard had long ago left, not only the business but this world; the "Co." was his nephew, Mr Luttridge, who was absent on account of ill-health, and thus the whole weight of the business rested on the shoulders of Mr Janrin. But, as Thursby remarked, "He can well support it, Mr James. He's an Atlas. It's my belief that he would manage the financial affairs of this kingdom better than any Chancellor of the Exchequer, or other minister of State, past or present; and that had he been at the head of affairs we should not have lost our North American Colonies, or have got plunged over head and ears in debt as we are, alack! already; and now, with war raging and all the world in arms against us, getting deeper and deeper into the mire." Without holding my worthy principal in such deep admiration as our head clerk evidently did, I had a most sincere regard and respect for him.

Our dinner hour was at one o'clock, in a room over the office. Mr Janrin himself presided, and all the clerks, from the highest to the lowest, sat at the board. Here, however, on certain occasions, handsome dinners were given at a more fashionable hour to any friends or correspondents of the house who might be in London. Mr Thursby took the foot of the table, and I was always expected to be present. At length I completed two years of servitude in the house, and by that time was thoroughly up to all the details of business. I had been very diligent. I had never taken a holiday, and never had cause to absent myself from business on account of ill-health. On the very day I speak of we had one of the dinners mentioned. The guests were chiefly merchants or planters from the West Indies, with a foreign consul or two, and generally a few masters of merchantmen. The guests as they arrived were announced by Mr Janrin's own servant, Peter Klopps, who always waited on these occasions. Peter was himself a character. He was a Dutchman. Mr Janrin had engaged his services many years before during a visit to Holland. He had picked Peter out of a canal, or Peter had picked him out, on a dark night--I never could understand which had rendered the service to the other; at all events, it had united them ever afterwards, and Peter had afterwards nursed his master through a long illness, and saved his life. The most important secrets of State might have been discussed freely in Peter's presence. First, he did not understand a word that was said, and then he was far too honest and discreet to have revealed it if he had.

Several people had been announced. Ten minutes generally brought the whole together. I caught the name of one--Captain Hassall. He was a stranger, a strongly-built man with a sunburnt countenance and bushy whiskers; nothing remarkable about him, except, perhaps, the determined expression of his eye and mouth. His brow was good, and altogether I liked his looks, and was glad to find myself seated next to him. He had been to all parts of the world, and had spent some time in the India and China seas. He gave me graphic accounts of the strange people of those regions; and fights with Chinese and Malay pirates, battles of a more regular order with French and Spanish privateers, hurricanes or typhoons. Shipwrecks and exciting adventures of all sorts seemed matters of everyday occurrence. A scar on his cheek and another across his hand, showed that he had been, at close quarters, too, on some occasion, with the enemy.

Mr Janrin and Mr Thursby both paid him much attention during dinner. Allusions were made by him to a trading voyage he had performed in the service of the firm, and it struck me from some remarks he let drop that he was about to undertake another of a similar character. I was not mistaken. After dinner, when the rest of the guests were gone, he remained behind to discuss particulars, and Mr Janrin desired me to join the conclave. I was much interested in all I heard. A large new ship, the _Barbara_, had been purchased, of which Captain Hassall had become part owner. She was now in dock fitting for sea. She mounted ten carriage guns and four swivels, and was to be supplied with a proportionate quantity of small arms, and to be well manned. A letter of marque was to be obtained for her, though she was not to fight except in case of necessity; while her cargo was to be assorted and suited to various localities. She was to visit several places to the East of the Cape of Good Hope, and to proceed on to the Indian Islands and China.

"And how do you like the enterprise, James?" asked Mr Janrin, after the captain had gone.

"I have not considered the details sufficiently to give an opinion, sir," I answered. "If all turns out as the captain expects, it must be very profitable, but there are difficulties to be overcome, and dangers encountered, and much loss may be incurred."

I saw Mr Janrin and the head clerk exchange glances, and nod to each other. I fancy that they were nods of approval at what I had said.

"Then, James, you would not wish to engage in it in any capacity?" said Mr Janrin. "You would rather not encounter the dangers and difficulties of such a voyage?"

"That is a very different matter, sir," I answered. "I should very much like to visit the countries you speak of, and the difficulties I cannot help seeing would enhance the interest of the voyage."

Again the principal and clerk exchanged glances and nodded.

"What do you say, then, James, to taking charge of the venture as supercargo? My belief is that you will act with discretion and judgment as to its disposal, and that we shall have every reason to be satisfied with you. Mr Thursby agrees with me, do you not, Thursby?"

"I feel sure that Mr James will bring no discredit on the firm, sir," answered Mr Thursby, smiling at me. "On the contrary, sir, no young man I am acquainted with is so likely to conduce to the success of the enterprise."

I was highly gratified by the kind remarks of my friends, and expressed my thanks accordingly, at the same time that I begged I might be allowed two days for consideration. I desired, of course, to consult my mother, and was anxious also to know what another would have to say to the subject. She, like a sensible girl, agreed with me that it would be wise to endure the separation for the sake of securing, as I hoped to do, ultimate comfort and independence. I knew from the way that she gave this advice that she did not love me less than I desired. I need say no more than that her confidence was a powerful stimulus to exertion and perseverance in the career I had chosen. My mother was far more doubtful about the matter. Not till the morning after I had mentioned it to her did she say, "Go, my son; may God protect you and bless your enterprise!"

I was from this time forward actively engaged in the preparations for the voyage. My personal outfit was speedily ready, but I considered it necessary to examine all the cases of merchandise put on board, that I might be properly acquainted with all the articles in which I was going to trade. "It's just what I expected of him," I heard Mr Janrin remark to Mr Thursby, when one evening I returned late from my daily duties. "Ay, sir, there is the ring of the true metal in the lad," observed the head clerk.

Captain Hassall was as active in his department as I was in mine, and we soon had the _Barbara ready for sea with a tolerably good crew. In those stirring days of warfare it was no easy thing to man a merchantman well, but Captain Hassall had found several men who had sailed with him on previous voyages, and they without difficulty persuaded others to ship on board the _Barbara_.

Our first officer, Mr Randolph, was a gentleman in the main, and a very pleasant companion, though he had at first sight, in his everyday working suit, that scarecrow look which tall gaunt men, who have been somewhat battered by wind and weather, are apt to get. Our second mate, Ben, or rather "Benjie" Stubbs, as he was usually called, was nearly as broad as he was long, with puffed-out brown cheeks wearing an invincible smile. He was a man of one idea: he was satisfied with being a thorough seaman, and was nothing else. As to history, or science, or the interior of countries, he was profoundly ignorant. As to the land, it was all very well in its way to grow trees and form harbours, but the sea was undoubtedly the proper element for people to live on; and he seemed to look with supreme contempt on all those who had the misfortune to be occupied on shore. The third mate, Henry Irby, had very little the appearance of a sailor, though he was a very good one. He was slight in figure, and refined in his manners, and seemed, I fancied, born to a higher position than that which he held. He had served for two years before the mast, but his rough associates during that time had not been able in any way to alter him. Our surgeon, David Gwynne, was, I need scarcely say, a Welshman. He had not had much professional experience, but he was an intelligent young man, and had several of the peculiarities which are considered characteristic of his people; but I hoped, from what I saw of him when he first came on board, that he would prove an agreeable companion. Curious as it may seem, there were two men among the crew who by birth were superior to any of us. I may, perhaps, have to say more about them by-and-bye. We mustered, officers and men, forty hands all told.

I will pass over the leave-takings with all the dear ones at home. I knew and felt that true prayers, as well as kind wishes, would follow me wherever I might go.

"James," said my kind employer as I parted from him, "I trust you thoroughly as I would my own son if I had one. I shall not blame you if the enterprise does not succeed; so do not take it to heart, for I know that you will do your best, and no man can do more." Mr Thursby considered that it was incumbent on him to take a dignified farewell of me, and to impress on me all the duties and responsibilities of my office; but he broke down, and a tear stood in his eye as he wrung my hand, and said in a husky voice, "You know all about it, my dear boy; you'll do well, and we shall have you back here, hearty and strong, with information successfully to guide Garrard, Janrin and Company in many an important speculation; and, moreover, I hope, to lay the foundation of your own fortune. Good-bye, good-bye; heaven bless you, my boy!"

I certainly could not have commenced my undertaking under better auspices. Having obtained the necessary permission of the Honourable East India Company to trade in their territories, the _Barbara proceeded to Spithead, and I ran down to pay a flying visit to my friends, which was the cause of my joining the ship at Spithead in the way I have described, and where I left my readers to give these necessary explanations.

The convoy was standing on under easy sail to allow the scattered vessels to come up, and as long as there was a ray of daylight they were seen taking up their places. Now and then, after dark, I could see a phantom form gliding by; some tall Indiaman, or heavy store-ship, or perhaps some lighter craft, to part with us after crossing the line, bound round Cape Horn. The heat was considerable, and as I felt no inclination to turn in, I continued pacing the deck till it had struck six bells in the first watch. (Note 1.) Mr Randolph, the senior mate, had charge of the deck. He, I found, was not always inclined to agree with some of the opinions held by our captain.

"He's a fine fellow, our skipper, but full of fancies, as you'll find; but there isn't a better seaman out of the port of London," he observed, as he took a few turns alongside me. "I have a notion that he believes in the yarns of the _Flying Dutchman_, and of old Boody, the Portsmouth chandler, and in many other such bits of nonsense, but as I was saying--"

"What, don't you?" I asked, interrupting him; "I thought all sailors believed in those tales."

The captain had been narrating some of them to us a few evenings before.

"No, I do not," answered the first mate, somewhat sharply. "I believe that God made this water beneath our feet, and that He sends the wind which sometimes covers it over with sparkling ripples, and at others stirs it up into foaming seas, but I don't think He lets spirits or ghosts of any sort wander about doing no good to any one. That's my philosophy. I don't intend to belief in the stuff till I see one of the gentlemen; and then I shall look pretty sharply into his character before I take my hat off to him."

"You are right, Mr Randolph, and I do not suppose that the captain differs much from you. He only wishes to guard against mortal enemies, and he has shown that he is in earnest in thinking that there is some danger, by having come on deck every half-hour or oftener during the night. There he is again."

Captain Hassall stood before us: "Cast loose and load the guns, Mr Randolph, and send a quartermaster to serve out the small arms to the watch," he said quietly; "there has been a sail on our quarter for some minutes past, which may possibly be one of the convoy, but she may not. Though she carries but little canvas she is creeping up to us."

The mate and I while talking had not observed the vessel the captain pointed out. "The skipper has sharp eyes," said the first mate, as he parted from me to obey the orders he had received. Our crew had been frequently exercised at the guns. Having loaded and run them out, the watch came tumbling aft to the arm-chest. Cutlasses were buckled on and pistols quickly loaded, and boarding-pikes placed along the bulwarks ready for use. The men did not exactly understand what all this preparation was for, but that was nothing to them. It signified fighting, and most British seamen are ready for that at any time. The captain now joined me in my walk. "It is better to be prepared, though nothing come of it, than to be taken unawares," he observed. "It is the principle I have gone on, and as it is a sound one, I intend to continue it as long as I live." I agreed with him. We walked the deck together for twenty minutes or more, engaged in conversation. His eye was constantly during the time looking over our starboard quarter. Even I could at length distinguish the dim outline of a vessel in that direction. Gradually the sails of a ship with taut raking masts became visible.

"That craft is not one of our convoy, and I doubt that she comes among us for any good purpose," exclaimed the captain. "I should like to bring the frigate down upon the fellow, but we should lose our share of the work, and I think that we can manage him ourselves. Call the starboard watch, Mr Stubbs."

The men soon came tumbling up from below, rather astonished at being so soon called. The other officers were also soon on deck Mr Randolph agreed that the stranger, which hung on our quarter like some ill-omened bird of prey, had an exceedingly suspicious appearance, and that we were only acting with ordinary prudence in being prepared for him.

"The fellow won't fire, as he would bring the frigate down upon him if he did," observed the first mate; "he will therefore either run alongside in the hopes of surprising us, and taking us by boarding before we have time to fire a pistol, which would attract notice, or, should the wind fall light, he may hope to cut us out with his boats."

Eight bells struck. We could hear the sound borne faintly over the waters from two of the Indiamen to windward of us, but no echo came from the deck of the stranger. The men were ordered to lie down under the bulwarks till wanted. Had Captain Hassall thought fit, he might, by making sail, have got out of danger, but he had hopes that instead of being taken by the stranger he might take him. It struck me that we might be running an unwarrantable risk of getting the vessel or cargo injured by allowing ourselves to be attacked.

"Not in the least," answered the captain; "we serve as a bait to the fellow, and shall benefit directly by catching him. If we were to give the alarm he would be off like a shot, and depend on it he has a fast pair of heels, or he would not venture in among us, so that the frigate would have little chance of catching him."

The truth is, Captain Hassall had made up his mind to do something to boast of. Orders were now given to the men to remain perfectly silent; the stranger was drawing closer and closer; grapnels had been got ready to heave on board him, and to hold him fast should it be found advisable. It was, however, possible that his crew might so greatly outnumber ours that this would prove a dangerous proceeding. As to our men, they knew when they shipped that they might have to fight, and they all now seemed in good heart, so that we had no fear on the score of their failing us. Our officers were one and all full of fight, though each exhibited his feelings in a different way. The surgeon's only fear seemed to be that the stranger would prove a friend instead of a foe, and that there would be no skirmish after all.

"She's some craft one of the other vessels has fallen in with, and she has just joined company for protection," he observed. "For my part I shall turn in, as I am not likely to be wanted, either to fight or to dress wounds."

The wind, which had much fallen, had just freshened up again. "Whatever he is, friend or foe, here he comes," exclaimed Mr Randolph. "Steady, lads!" cried the captain, "don't move till I give the word."

As he spoke the stranger glided up, her dark sails appearing to tower high above ours. We kept on our course as if she was not perceived. With one sheer she was alongside, there was a crash as her yards locked with ours, and at the same moment numerous dark forms appeared in her rigging and nettings about to leap on to our deck. "Now give it them!" cried our captain. Our men sprang to their feet and fired a broadside through the bulwarks of the enemy. The cries and shrieks which were echoed back showed the havoc which had been caused. Shouts and blows, the clash of cutlasses, the flash of pistols, immediately followed. I felt a stinging sensation in my shoulder, but was too excited to think anything of it as I stood, cutlass in hand, ready to repel our assailants. Many of those who were about to board us must have sprung back, or fallen into the water; a few only reached our deck, who were at once cut down by our people. One man sprang close to where I stood. I was about to fire my pistol at him, when I saw that he was unarmed, so I dragged him across the deck out of harm's way. The next instant the vessels parted.

"Give it them, my lads! Load and fire as fast as you can, or they will escape us," cried the captain in an excited tone.

"Wing them! wing them! knock away their spars, lads!" He next ordered the helm to be put down, the tacks hauled aboard, and chase to be made after our flying foe, while a blue light was burned to show our locality, and to prevent the frigate from firing into us when she followed, as we hoped she would.

We had no doubt that the enemy, when he met with the warm reception we had given him, took us for a man-of-war corvette, and on this came to the conclusion that prudence was the best part of valour. There could be little doubt, however, that he would soon discover that our guns were of no great size; and then possibly he might turn on us, and give us more of his quality than would be desirable. Still we kept on peppering away at him as fast as we could, in the hopes of bringing down one of his masts, and enabling the frigate to come up. The lights of the convoy were, however, by this time almost lost sight of. In vain we looked out for a signal of the approach of the frigate. No gun was heard, no light was seen. We were afraid of losing the convoy altogether, and certainly it would have been against the spirit of our instructions to have attempted to deal single-handed with our opponent. Giving the enemy a parting shot most reluctantly, Captain Hassall therefore ordered the helm to be put up, and we ran back in the direction in which we expected to find the convoy.

-------------

Note 1. This ordinary watch consists of four hours, and the bell is struck every half-hour. As the first watch commences at eight, it was then eleven. There are two dog-watches from four to six and from six to eight p.m., in order that the same men may not be on duty at the same hours each day.

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