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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesJohn Deane Of Nottingham: Historic Adventures By Land And Sea - Chapter 22. First Sea-Fight
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John Deane Of Nottingham: Historic Adventures By Land And Sea - Chapter 22. First Sea-Fight Post by :Zoderami Category :Long Stories Author :William H. G. Kingston Date :May 2012 Read :3393

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John Deane Of Nottingham: Historic Adventures By Land And Sea - Chapter 22. First Sea-Fight

CHAPTER TWENTY TWO. FIRST SEA-FIGHT

John Deane had soon the opportunity he had long wished for, of engaging in a naval fight. As the "Weymouth" was cruising in the Channel, a sail was seen on the lee bow. Captain Jumper immediately ordered the ship to be kept away, and clapped on all the canvas she could carry in chase. The stranger, on seeing this, bore away, but the "Weymouth" was a fast ship, and rapidly came up with her. The drum beat to quarters, and the ship was prepared for action. Shot were brought up from below and placed in the racks ready for use. The powder-magazine was opened, and the powder-boys were sent up with their tubs and arranged in rows along the deck, ready to supply the seamen who fought the guns with powder. The slow-matches were got ready, and pistols, boarding-pikes, and hangers served out to the men. Jackets and shirts were discarded, and the crew stood ready, dressed alone in their trousers, with belts round their waists in which their pistols were stuck, and their hangers attached. There could be no doubt that the stranger was an enemy, though he had not yet shown his colours.

Few would have supposed that the crew who now stood at their guns were about in a short time to be engaged in deadly fight. Jokes of all sorts were passed along the decks, and peals of laughter were indulged in, till silenced when they became too uproarious by the officers. Jack found Smedley standing close to him, both having been appointed to the same gun. A handkerchief was bound round his head to keep his hair, which in the fashion of seamen in those days was worn long, away from his eyes. He was as cool and collected as the rest of his shipmates, but did not seem inclined to join in the jokes in which they were indulging.

"You seem somewhat out of spirits, Jem!" said John Deane. "What makes you so grave? we're sure to thrash the enemy, however big he may be."

"Just the thoughts of home, Jack," answered Smedley. "I was thinking just now whether I should not have been better off attending to my father's business, with the prospect of marrying pretty Mary Smithers, than out here, stripped to the waist, with a chance of having my head carried off before the day's over!"

"Nonsense, Jem!" answered Deane; "you should not let such thoughts trouble you. Your head is as firm on your shoulders as that of any other man on board."

"Ay, but how many other men will lose theirs?" said Smedley. "I cannot help thinking of home at all events, and though I may come out of this day's fight unscathed, I often wish I had remained quietly at home, without hankering after the sea. It all comes of that wild life we boys led in the forest. We did many things we ought not to have done, and it's to those I owe being out here. However, I will try to do my duty and bring no discredit on our native town."

"I am sure you will not do that," said Jack; "and I hope I shall see you throw up your cap with the rest of us, when the enemy strikes to our flag."

As the "Weymouth" drew near the stranger it was seen that she was a very large ship, considerably larger than the former, and probably carrying many more guns, with a more numerous crew. Still this in no way daunted the courage of the British seamen, but only made them the more eager for the attack. Most of them had already engaged in many a hard-fought battle with superior numbers, and come off victorious. They knew what British pluck and British muscle could do, and that if they could handle their guns twice as fast as the enemy could haul in and out theirs, that even should they have only half the number of their antagonist, they might still hope to beat her.

Jack had frequently spoken to the man whose countenance he thought he knew when he first came on board, but the latter denied ever having seen him before. Jack now saw him standing at a gun not far from the one where he was stationed. The man looked very pale, and, like Smedley, was not joining in the jokes of his shipmates. Jack watched his countenance, and now was more convinced than ever that he was Burdale.

As the "Weymouth" drew near, the stranger hoisted French colours, and finding that escape was impossible, hauled up her courses, and fired a gun in defiance, which was answered by one from the "Weymouth." Both of the shots, however, fell short of their aim. The combatants, without again firing, now rapidly drew near each other, with their flags and streamers flying and their trumpets loudly sounding. Men armed with muskets were stationed in the large heavy round-tops, each holding a dozen or more soldiers, while others were stationed in the topgallant forecastle, and others at the poop. Guns were also placed inside the forecastle, as also under the poop, with their muzzles turned in-board, so that should the enemy attempt to board, the decks might be swept by their fire. These guns, however, were not loaded with round-shot, but with langrage, which, by scattering around, might kill a number of persons at each discharge. The wind was moderate, the sea tolerably smooth. Captain Jumper stood in the mizen-rigging directing the movements of his ship, while the other officers were stationed in different parts in command of the guns, some on the upper and main-deck, others on the forecastle and poop. The surgeons were below in the cock-pit, getting ready their instruments, and lint, and bandages, and preparing the tables on which amputation when necessary might be performed. Here also were restoratives arranged, for those who might faint from loss of blood. They had taken a look at the enemy, and aware from her superior size that the fight would be a desperate one, were coolly talking over the amount of work in store for them. Not a word was now spoken along the decks, for all jokes were silenced by command of the officers. The captains of the guns stood ready with their slow-matches in their hands, prepared to fire at the signal being given. Already the two antagonists were within range of each other's artillery, but both waited to get still nearer that the greater effect might be produced by their fire. John Deane could not help holding his breath, as did many a brave man on board, not from any sensation of fear, but from intense eagerness for the moment when the combat was to begin. They had not long to delay. Captain Jumper had contrived to place his ship in the position which British officers of all ages have wished to hold with regard to the enemy--that is, broadside to broadside; and now he saw that the wished-for moment had arrived. "Fire!" he shouted. The word was echoed along the decks. The trumpets now brayed out their loudest sounds of defiance. The captains of the guns applied their matches, and the loud roar of artillery broke the silence which had hitherto reigned over the water. The Frenchmen were not slow to answer, and their shot came crashing on board with terrible effect. Many a fine fellow who had been laughing and joking with the rest was laid low. The white splinters were flying on either side, and ropes which had just before been trim and taut hung in festoons or flew out in the breeze, while many a shot-hole was seen through the sails. Without a moment's delay the guns were hauled in. The powder-boys sprang up from their tubs and handed out the powder, which being quickly rammed home, the shot was thrown into the muzzle. Again the guns were run out. No order was now required for firing, but as rapidly as the guns could be loaded they were discharged towards the enemy.

Thus for some time the English ship ran alongside her huge antagonist. Her name painted on her stern was the "Fougueux," and thirty ports were counted on each side. Jack Deane stood at his gun, hauling it in with right good will, and running it out still more eagerly as fast as his arms and those of his mates could work it, thinking of nothing else, and not looking round, even to see what had become of any of those near him. Now and then he heard a groan or a cry, and as he turned round to hand on the powder or the shot, he saw perchance a poor fellow amidst the smoke struggling on the deck. Next moment there was a loud crash close to him, and he found himself sprinkled over from head to foot with blood. He felt no pain, and scarcely knew whether it was his own or that of a shipmate. No sound was heard, but he saw that the man who had stood next to him the moment before was no longer there, but a few feet off a human being lay stretched on the deck. He was about to stoop down to help the man during the interval that the charge was being rammed home.

"Let him alone," said the captain of the gun; "he has drunk his last glass of grog. See, that's his blood which has turned you into a red Indian. Hurrah, lads! we'll revenge him, and all those who lose the number of their mess to-day!"

All this time the small-arm men were not idle. Showers of bullets were flying from the tops and forecastle, returned from those of the enemy.

Now an attempt was made by the "Fougueux," by bracing up her yards, to cross under the stern of the "Weymouth." This, however, was quickly prevented by Captain Jumper, by a similar manoeuvre, as he had no intention of giving up the advantageous position he held.

It was impossible to ascertain the effect which the fire of the British ship was producing among the French crew, but Jack could not help fearing that a considerable number of his shipmates were either killed or wounded. Those who were wounded were immediately carried below, while the killed were borne to the other side of the deck, and slipped overboard through the ports, in order to avoid discouraging the survivors. Still the fight continued with unabated fury.

"Fire away, my lads!" cried Captain Jumper; and his words were echoed by the officers in all directions. "We will sink the enemy or go down with our own colours flying. Never let it be said that the `Weymouth' had to strike to a Frenchman!"

The speech was a very short one, but it had its effect in encouraging the crew. Scarcely a minute afterwards a fearful sound was heard. It was that of an explosion. And the ship trembled from stem to stern, while those on the quarter-deck saw the poop lifting up into the air, sending some of those on it overboard, and killing several others.

"Fire, fire!" was shouted; "the ship's on fire!"

"We have water enough alongside, my lads, to extinguish it!" cried the captain, in an undaunted tone; and in an instant those of the crew not actually working the guns were hurried up with buckets, with which they soon put out the flames. The Frenchmen shouted, thinking that they were about to gain the victory, but they were answered by a loud cheer of defiance from the British seamen.

It became now absolutely necessary for the "Weymouth" to stand away from the enemy for a short time to repair damages. The only fear of the British sailors was that in the meantime the enemy might attempt to escape.

"No fear of that, lads!" cried the brave captain, who knew what they were speaking of. "See, we have made too many shot-holes between `wind and water,' and in a few minutes the main-mast will go by the board, if the wind increases."

This was very evident, for while the "Weymouth" put her helm down, to stand away from the "Fougueux" for a short distance, the other immediately ceased firing. The survivors of her crew were probably engaged in attempting to repair the damages she had received. This gave the English leisure to perform their own work without interruption.

Jack as he was leaving his gun to go aloft, looked round him. Of those who had stood but lately by his side, several were missing. Smedley was nowhere to be seen. He inquired among the crew of his gun.

"Yes; a shot struck him and he was carried below, but whether mortally wounded or not, no one could tell."

As he passed up the hatchway, the man whom he took to be Burdale lay on the deck. A bullet which had found its way through a port had struck him down. He was bleeding also from a wound in his shoulder. Jack sprang forward to assist him, but just at that instant the men who were appointed to carry the wounded below, lifted him off the deck, and bore him from his sight.

The decks now presented a very different scene to that which they did a short hour ago. Fore and aft they were covered with blood, and in many places they were blackened and torn up by the shot which had ploughed its way across them. The beams and stanchions in every direction were shattered and broken, and the whole ship showed the severity of the action in which she had been engaged.

"We may be in a bad state enough," Jack heard an old seaman say, "but if you were to go on board the enemy, you would see matters ten times worse. Their decks, depend upon it, are slippery with gore all over, and for one man we have lost, they have lost five."

There was little time, however, for talking. The officers were shouting here and there, giving their directions, and the men were springing aloft to obey them, or running wherever they were summoned. In a short time the ropes were knotted, the yards braced up, the damage done to the poop partially repaired, and the "Weymouth" again stood towards her opponent. As she approached she was received with a hot fire, which she returned with interest, while the big guns once more with loud roars sent forth their shot. The soldiers and small-arm men rattled away with their musketry, and the swivels, culverins, and other small guns, in rapid succession added to the uproar by their sharper reports. Bullets, round-shot, and langrage were flying thickly around.

"Depress your guns and fire at her hull!" cried the captain, seeing the effect that had already been produced on the enemy.

As the Frenchmen's fire grew slacker, that of the English became more and more brisk. Scarcely had a gun been discharged when it was again hauled in and once more sent forth its deadly missile into the hull of the enemy. Just as the action re-commenced, the enemy's main-mast went by the board. A loud shout burst from the throats of the British seamen. Scarcely had it died away when the mizen-mast followed; and now the stout ship was seen to be heeling over. A cry ran along the decks, "She's sinking, she's sinking!" Still her guns continued to send forth her shot, though with far less frequency than at first. Another and another broadside was fired into her; and now it became evident that there was truth in the belief that she was about to go down.

"Cease firing!" cried the English captain. "Not another shot will she discharge at us."

As he spoke the bow of the "Fougueux" was seen to rise out of the water. Loud shrieks and cries rose from her decks. Her stern gradually sank.

"Lower the boats!" cried the English captain. "Be smart, my lads: we must save the poor fellows' lives."

Unhappily, several of the English boats had been almost knocked to pieces. Those which could yet swim were immediately lowered. John Deane jumped into one of the first that reached the water. Ere, however, they could get up to the foundering ship, the sea had washed over her deck. Down--down she went, carrying with her all her wounded and a large number of those who had escaped unhurt. The rest had thrown themselves into the water, some to swim, some holding on to planks or broken spars: but of these, many who had delayed leaving to the last, were drawn down in the vortex of the sinking ship. As the first English boat reached the spot, the streamer at her fore-royal-mast-head was alone to be seen fluttering for a moment above the eddying waters, and then downwards it was drawn after the mast to which it had been attached. Some were still striking out bravely towards their late antagonists. The boats were soon among them, taking up all they met. Many, however, sunk before the very eyes of the English sailors, as they pulled towards them. The boats were soon loaded, and returned to the "Weymouth," fearing lest they should be swamped should they take on board any more of the struggling wretches. Having handed up those they had saved, they once more returned; but, in the meantime, many of those they desired to help had sunk beneath the waves: and out of a crew of six or seven hundred who had lately manned that tall ship, scarcely three-score remained alive. They confessed that upwards of a hundred had been killed and wounded since the commencement of the action, owing, as they acknowledged, to the rapidity with which the English fired at them. Thus the hard-won prize was lost.

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