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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Red Rover: A Tale - Chapter 30
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The Red Rover: A Tale - Chapter 30 Post by :Andrewww Category :Long Stories Author :James Fenimore Cooper Date :May 2012 Read :653

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The Red Rover: A Tale - Chapter 30

Chapter XXX

--"Front to front,
Bring thou this fiend----
Within my sword's length set him; if he 'scape,
Heaven forgive him too!"--_Macbeth._

"You have brought the grateful submission of the pirate to my offers!" exclaimed the sanguine Commander of the "Dart" to his messenger, as the foot of the latter once more touched his deck.

"I bring nothing but defiance!" was the unexpected reply.

"Did you exhibit my statement? Surely, Mr Ark so material a document was not forgotten!"

"Nothing was forgotten that the warmest interest in his safety could suggest, Captain Bignall. Still the chief of yonder lawless ship refuses to hearken to your conditions."

"Perhaps, sir, he imagines that the 'Dart' is defective in some of her spars," returned the hasty old seaman, compressing his lips, with a look of wounded pride; "he may hope to escape by pressing the canvas on his own light-heeled ship."

"Does that look like flight?" demanded Wilder, extending an arm towards the nearly naked spars and motionless hull of their neighbour. "The utmost I can obtain is an assurance that he will not be the assailant."

"'Fore George, he is a merciful youth! and one that should be commended for his moderation! He will not run his disorderly, picarooning company under the guns of a British man-of-war, because he owes a little reverence to the flag of his master! Hark ye, Mr Ark, we will remember the circumstance when questioned at the Old Bailey. Send the people to their guns, sir, and ware the ship round, to put an end at once to this foolery, or we shall have him sending a boat aboard to examine our commissions."

"Captain Bignall," said Wilder, leading his Commander still further from the ears of their inferiors, "I may lay some little claim to merit for services done under your own eyes, and in obedience to your orders. If my former conduct may give me a title to presume to counsel one of your great experience, suffer me to urge a short delay."

"Delay! Does Henry Ark hesitate, when the enemies of his King, nay more, the enemies of man, are daring him to his duty!"

"Sir, you mistake me. I hesitate, in order that the flag under which we sail may be free from stain, and not with any intent of avoiding the combat. Our enemy, _my enemy knows that he has nothing now to expect, for his past generosity, but kindness, should he become our captive. Still, Captain Bignall, I ask for time, to prepare the 'Dart' for a conflict that will try all her boasted powers, and to insure a victory that will not be bought without a price."

"But should he escape"--

"On my life he will not attempt it. I not only know the man, but how formidable are his means of resistance. A short half hour will put us in the necessary condition, and do no discredit either to our spirit or to our prudence."

The veteran yielded a reluctant consent, which was not, however, accorded without much muttering concerning the disgrace a British man-of-war incurred in not running alongside the boldest pirate that floated, and blowing him out of water, with a single match. Wilder, who was accustomed to the honest professional bravados that often formed a peculiar embellishment to the really firm and manly resolution of the seamen of that age, permitted him to make his plaints at will, while he busied himself in a manner that he knew was now of the last importance and in a duty that properly came under his more immediate inspection, in consequence of the station he occupied.

The "order for all hands to clear ship for action" was again given, and received in the cheerful temper with which mariners are wont to welcome any of the more important changes of their exciting profession. Little remained, however, to be done; for most of the previous preparations had still been left, as at the original meeting of the two vessels. Then came the beat to quarters, and the more serious and fearful-looking preparations for certain combat. After these several arrangements had been completed, the crew at their guns, the sail-trimmers at the braces, and the officers in their several batteries, the after-yards were swung, and the ship once more put in motion.

During this brief interval, the vessel of the Rover lay, at the distance of half a mile, in a state of entire rest, without betraying the smallest interest in the obvious movements of her hostile neighbour. When, however, the "Dart" was seen yielding to the breeze, and gradually increasing her velocity, until the water was gathering under her fore-foot in a little rolling wave of foam, the bows of the other fell off from the direction of the wind, the topsail was filled, and, in her turn, the hull was held in command, by giving to it the impetus of motion. The "Dart" now set again at her gaff that broad field which had been lowered during the conference, and which had floated in triumph through the hazards and struggles of a thousand combats. No answering emblem, however was exhibited from the peak of her adversary.

In this manner the two ships "gathered way," as it is expressed in nautical language, watching each other with eyes as jealous as though they had been two rival monsters of the great deep, each endeavouring to conceal from his antagonist the evolution contemplated next. The earnest, serious manner of Wilder had not failed to produce its influence on the straight-minded seaman who commanded the 'Dart;' and, by this time, he was as much disposed as his lieutenant to approach the conflict leisurely, and with proper caution.

The day had hitherto been cloudless, and a vault of purer blue never canopied a waste of water, than the arch which had swept for hours above the heads of our marine adventurers. But, as if nature frowned on their present bloody designs, a dark, threatening mass of vapour was blending the ocean with the sky, in a direction opposed to the steady currents of the air, These well-known and ominous signs did not escape the vigilance of those who manned the hostile vessels, but the danger was still deemed too remote to interrupt the higher interests of the approaching combat.

"We have a squall brewing in the west," said the experienced and wary Bignall, pointing to the frowning symptoms as he spoke; "but we can handle the pirate, and get all snug again, before it works its way up against this breeze."

Wilder assented; for, by this time, high professional pride was swelling in his bosom also, and a generous rivalry was getting the mastery of feelings that were possibly foreign to his duty, however natural they might have been in one as open to kindness as himself.

"The Rover is sending down even his lighter masts!" exclaimed the youth; "it would seem that he greatly distrusts the weather."

"We will not follow his example; for he will wish they were aloft again, the moment we get him fairly under the play of our batteries. By George our King, but he has a pretty moving boat under him. Let fall the main-course, sir; down with it, or we shall have it night before we get the rogue a-beam."

The order was obeyed; and then the "Dart," feeling the powerful impulse, quickened her speed like an animated being, that is freshly urged by its apprehensions or its wishes. By this time, she had gained a position on the weather-quarter of her adversary who had not manifested the smallest desire to prevent her attaining so material an advantage. On the contrary, while the "Dolphin" kept the same canvas spread, she continued to lighten her top-hamper bringing as much of the weight as possible, from the towering height of her tall masts, to the greater security of the hull. Still, the distance between them was too great, in the opinion of Bignall, to commence the contest, while the facility with which his adversary moved a-head threatened to protract the important moment to an unreasonable extent, or to reduce him to a crowd of sail that might prove embarrassing while enveloped in the smoke, and pressed by the urgencies of the combat.

"We will touch his pride, sir, since you think him a man of spirit," said the veteran, to his faithful coadjutor: "Give him a weather-gun, and show him another of his Master's ensigns."

The roar of the piece, and the display of three more of the fields of England, in quick succession, from different parts of the "Dart," failed to produce the slightest evidence, even of observation, aboard their seemingly insensible neighbour. The "Dolphin" still kept on her way, occasionally swooping up gracefully to touch the wind, and then deviating from her course again to leeward, as the porpoise is seen to turn aside from his direction to snuff the breeze, while he lazily sports along his briny path.

"He will not be moved by any of the devices of lawful and ordinary warfare," said Wilder, when he witnessed the indifference with which their challenge had been received.

"Then try him with a shot."

A gun was now discharged from the side next the still receding "Dolphin." The iron messenger was seen bounding along the surface of the sea, skipping lightly from wave to wave, until it cast a little cloud of spray upon the very deck of their enemy, as it boomed harmlessly past her hull. Another, and yet another, followed, without in any manner extracting signal or notice from the Rover.

"How's this!" exclaimed the disappointed Bignall. "Has he a charm for his ship, that all our shot sweep by him in rain! Master Fid, can you do nothing for the credit of honest people, and the honour of a pennant? Let us hear from your old favourite; in times past she used to speak to better purpose."

"Ay, ay, sir," returned the accommodating Richard who, in the sudden turns of his fortune, found himself in authority over a much-loved and long-cherished piece. "I christened the gun after Mistress Whiffle, your Honour, for the same reason, that they both can do their own talking. Now, stand aside, my lads, and let clattering Kate have a whisper in the discourse."

Richard, who had coolly taken his sight, while speaking, now deliberately applied the match with his own hand, and, with a philosophy that was sufficiently to be commended in a mercenary, sent what he boldly pronounced to be "a thorough straight-goer" across the water, in the direction of his recent associates. The usual moments of suspense succeeded and then the torn fragments, which were seen scattered in the air, announced that the shot had passed through the nettings of the "Dolphin." The effect on the vessel of the Rover was instantaneous, and nearly magical. A long stripe of cream-coloured canvas, which had been artfully extended, from her stem to her stern, in a line with her guns, disappeared as suddenly as a bird would shut its wings, leaving in its place a broad blood-red belt, which was bristled with the armament of the ship. At the same time, an ensign of a similar ominous colour, rose from her poop, and, fluttering darkly and fiercely for a moment, it became fixed at the end of the gaff.

"Now I know him for the knave that he is!" cried the excited Bignall; "and, see! he has thrown away his false paint, and shows the well-known bloody side, from which he gets his name. Stand to your guns, my men! the pirate is getting earnest."

He was still speaking, when a sheet of bright flame glanced from out that streak of red which was so well adapted to work upon the superstitious awe of the common mariners, and was followed by the simultaneous explosion of nearly a dozen wide-mouthed pieces of artillery. The startling change, from inattention and indifference, to this act of bold and decided hostility, produced a strong effect on the boldest heart on board the King's cruiser. The momentary interval of suspense was passed in unchanged attitudes and looks of deep attention; and then the rushing of the iron storm was heard hurtling through the air, as it came fearfully on. The crash that followed, mingled, as it was, with human groans, and succeeded by the tearing of riven plank, and the scattering high of splinters, ropes, blocks, and the implements of war, proclaimed the fatal accuracy of the broadside. But the surprise, and, with it, the brief confusion, endured but for an instant. The English shouted, and sent back a return to the deadly assault they had just received, recovering manfully and promptly from the shock which it had assuredly given.

The ordinary and more regular cannonading of a naval combat succeeded. Anxious to precipitate the issue, both ships pressed nigher to each other the while, until, in a few moments, the two white canopies of smoke, that were wreathing about their respective masts, were blended in one, marking a solitary spot of strife, in the midst of a scene of broad and bright tranquillity. The discharges of the cannon were hot, close, and incessant. While the hostile parties, how ever, closely mutated each other in their zeal in dealing out destruction, a peculiar difference marked the distinction in character of the two crews. Loud, cheering shouts accompanied each discharge from the lawful cruiser, while the people of the rover did their murderous work amid the deep silence of desperation.

The spirit and uproar of the scene soon quickened that blood, in the veins of the veteran Bignall, which had begun to circulate a little slowly by time.

"The fellow has not forgotten his art!" he exclaimed as the effects of his enemy's skill were getting but too manifest, in the rent sails, shivered spars, and tottering masts of his own ship. "Had he but the commission of the King in his pocket, one might call him a hero!"

The emergency was too urgent to throw away the time in words. Wilder answered only by cheering his own people to their fierce and laborious task. The ships had now fallen off before the wind, and were running parallel to each other, emitting sheets of flame, that were incessantly glancing through immense volumes of smoke. The spars of the respective vessels were alone visible, at brief and uncertain intervals. Many minutes had thus passed, seeming to those engaged but a moment of time, when the mariners of the "Dart" found that they no longer held their vessel in the quick command, so necessary to their situation. The important circumstance was instantly conveyed from the master to Wilder, and from Wilder to his superior. A hasty consultation on the cause and consequences of this unexpected event was the immediate and natural result.

"See!" cried Wilder, "the sails are already banging against the masts like rags; the explosions of the artillery have stilled the wind."

"Hark!" answered the more experienced Bignall: "There goes the artillery of heaven among our own guns.--The squall is already upon us--port the helm, sir, and sheer the ship out of the smoke! Hard a-port with the helm, sir, at once!--hard with it a-port I say."

But the lazy motion of the vessel did not answer to the impatience of those who directed her movements nor did it meet the pressing exigencies of the moment. In the mean time, while Bignall, and the officers whose duties kept them near his person, assisted by the sail-trimmers, were thus occupied, the people in the batteries continued their murderous employment. The roar of cannon was still constant, and nearly overwhelming, though there were instants when the deep ominous mutterings of the atmosphere were too distinctly audible to be mistaken. Still the eye could lend no assistance to the hearing, in determining the judgment of the mariners. Hulls, spars, and sails were alike enveloped in the curling wreaths which wrapped heaven, air, vessels, and ocean, alike, in one white, obscure, foggy mantle. Even the persons of the crew were merely seen at instants, labouring at the guns, through brief and varying openings.

"I never knew the smoke pack so heavy on the clerk of a ship before," said Bignall, with a concern that even his caution could not entirely repress. "Keep the helm a-port--jam it hard, sir! By Heaven Mr Wilder, those knaves well know they are struggling for their lives!"

"The fight is all our own!" shouted the second lieutenant, from among the guns, stanching, as he spoke, the blood of a severe splinter-wound in the face, and far too intent on his own immediate occupation to have noticed the signs of the weather. "He has not answered with a single gun, for near a minute."

"'Fore George, the rogues have enough!" exclaimed the delighted Bignall. "Three cheers for vic----"

"Hold, sir!" interrupted Wilder, with sufficient decision to check his Commander's premature exultation; "on my life, our work is not so soon ended. I think, indeed, his guns are silent;--but, see! the smoke is beginning to lift. In a few more minutes, if our own fire should cease, the view will be clear."

A shout from the men in the batteries interrupted his words; and then came a general cry that the pirates were sheering off. The exultation at this fancied evidence of their superiority was, however, soon and fearfully interrupted. A bright, vivid flash penetrated through the dense vapour which still hung about them in a most extraordinary manner, and was followed by a crash from the heavens, to which the Simultaneous explosion of fifty pieces of artillery would have sounded feeble.

"Call the people from their guns!" said Bignall, in those suppressed tones that are only more portentous from their forced and unnatural calmness: "Call them away at once, sir, and get the canvas in!"

Wilder, startled more at the proximity and apparent weight of the squall than at words to which he had been long accustomed, delayed not to give an order that was seemingly so urgent. The men left their batteries, like athletae retiring from the arena, some bleeding and faint, some still fierce and angry, and all more or less excited by the furious scene in which they had just been actors. Many sprung to the well-known ropes, while others, as they ascended into the cloud which still hung on the vessel became lost to the eye in her rigging.

"Shall I reef, or furl?" demanded Wilder, standing with the trumpet at his lips, ready to issue the necessary order.

"Hold, sir; another minute will give us an opening."

The lieutenant paused; for he was not slow to see that now, indeed, the veil was about to be drawn from their real situation. The smoke, which had lain upon their very decks, as though pressed down by the superincumbent weight of the atmosphere first began to stir; was then seen eddying among the masts; and, finally, whirled wildly away before a powerful current of air. The view was, indeed, now all before them.

In place of the glorious sun, and that bright, blue canopy which had lain above them a short half-hour before, the heavens were clothed in one immense black veil. The sea reflected the portentous colour, looking dark and angrily. The waves had already lost their regular rise and fall, and were tossing to and fro, as if awaiting the power that was to give them direction and greater force. The flashes from the heavens were not in quick succession; but the few that did break upon the gloominess of the scene came in majesty, and with dazzling brightness. They were accompanied by the terrific thunder of the tropics in which it is scarcely profanation to fancy that the voice of One who made the universe is actually speaking to the creatures of his hand. On every side, was the appearance of a fierce and dangerous struggle in the elements. The vessel of the Rover was running lightly before a breeze, which had already come fresh and fitful from the cloud, with her sails reduced, and her people coolly, but actively, employed in repairing the damages of the fight.

Not a moment was to be lost in imitating the example of the wary freebooters. The head of the "Dart" was hastily, and happily, got in a direction contrary to the breeze; and, as she began to follow the course taken by the "Dolphin," an attempt was made to gather her torn and nearly useless causes to the yards. But precious minutes had been lost in the smoky canopy, that might never be regained. The sea changed its colour from a dark green to a glittering white; and then the fury of the gust was heard rushing along the water with fearful rapidity, and with a violence that could not he resisted.

"Be lively, men!" shouted Bignall himself, in the exigency in which his vessel was placed; "Roll up the cloth; in with it all--leave not a rag to the squall! 'Fore George, Mr Wilder, but this wind is not playing with us; cheer up the men to their work; speak to them cheerily, sir!"

"Furl away!" shouted Wilder. "Cut, if too late, work away with knives and teeth--down, every man of you, down--down for your lives, all!"

There was that in the voice of the lieutenant which sounded in the ears of his people like a supernatural cry. He had so recently witnessed a calamity similar to that which again threatened him, that perhaps his feelings lent a secret horror to the tones. A score of forms was seen descending swiftly, through an atmosphere that appeared sensible to the touch. Nor was their escape, which might be likened to the stooping of birds that dart into their nest, too earnestly pressed. Stripped of all its rigging, and already tottering under numerous wounds, the lofty and overloaded spars yielded to the mighty force of the squall, tumbling in succession towards the hull, until nothing stood but the three firmer, but shorn and nearly useless, lower masts. By far the greater number of those aloft reached the deck in time to insure their safety, though some there were too stubborn, and still too much under the sullen influence of the combat, to hearken to the words of warning. These victims of their own obstinacy were seen clinging to the broken fragments of the spars, as the "Dart," in a cloud of foam, drove away from the spot where they floated, until their persons and their misery were alike swallowed in the distance.

"It is the hand of God!" hoarsely exclaimed the veteran Bignall, while his contracting eye drunk in the destruction of the wreck. "Mark me, Henry Ark; I will forever testify that the guns of the pirate have not brought us to this condition."

Little disposed to seek the same miserable consolation as his Commander, Wilder exerted himself in counteracting, so far as circumstances would allow, an injury that he felt, however, at that moment to be irreparable. Amid the howling of the gust, and the fearful crashing of the thunder, with an atmosphere now lurid with the glare of lightning, and now nearly obscured by the dark canopy of vapour, and with all the frightful evidences of the fight still reeking and ghastly before their eyes, did the crew of the British cruiser prove true to themselves and to their ancient reputation. The voices of Bignall and his subordinates were heard in the tempest, uttering those mandates which long, experience had rendered familiar, or encouraging the people to their duty. But the strife of the elements was happily of short continuance The squall soon swept over the spot, leaving the currents of the trade rushing into their former channels, and a sea that was rather stilled, than agitated by the counteracting influence of the winds.

But, as one danger passed away from before the eyes of the mariners of the "Dart," another, scarcely less to be apprehended, forced itself upon their attention, All recollection of the favours of the past, and every feeling of gratitude, was banished from the mind of Wilder, by the mountings of powerful professional pride, and that love of glory which becomes inherent in the warrior, as he gazed on the untouched and beautiful symmetry of the "Dolphin's" spars, and all the perfect, and still underanged, order of her tackle. It seemed as if she bore a charmed fate, or that some supernatural agency had been instrumental in preserving her unharmed, amid the violence of a second hurricane. But cooler thought, and more impartial reflection, compelled the internal acknowledgment, that the vigilance and wise precautions of the remarkable individual who appeared not only to govern her movements, but to control her fortunes, had their proper influence in producing the result.

Little leisure, however, was allowed to ruminate on these changes, or to deprecate the advantage of their enemy. The vessel of the Rover had already opened many broad sheets of canvas; and, as the return of the regular breeze gave her the wind, her approach was rapid and unavoidable.

"'Fore George, Mr Ark, luck is all on the dishonest side to-day," said the veteran, so soon as he perceived by the direction which the "Dolphin" took, that the encounter was likely to be renewed. "Send the people to quarters again, and clear away the guns; for we are likely to have another bout with the rogues."

"I would advise a moment's delay," Wilder earnestly observed, when he heard his Commander issuing an order to his people to prepare to deliver their fire, the instant their enemy should come within a favourable position. "Let me entreat you to delay; we know not what may be his present intentions."

"None shall put foot on the deck of the 'Dart,' without submitting to the authority of her royal master," returned the stern old tar. "Give it to him, my men! Scatter the rogues from their guns! and let them know the danger of approaching a lion, though he should be crippled!"

Wilder saw that remonstrance was now too late for a fresh broadside was hurled from the "Dart," to defeat any generous intentions that the Rover might entertain. The ship of the latter received the iron storm, while advancing, and immediately deviated gracefully from her course, in such a way as to prevent its repetition. Then she was seen sweeping towards the bows of the nearly helpless cruiser of the King, and a hoarse summons was heard ordering her ensign to be lowered.

"Come on, ye villains!" shouted the excited Bignall "Come, and perform the office with your own hands!"

The graceful ship, as if sensible herself to the taunts of her enemy, sprung nigher to the wind, and shot across the fore-foot of the "Dart," delivering her fire, gun after gun, with deliberate and deadly accuracy, full into that defenceless portion of her Antagonist. A crush like that of meeting bodies followed and then fifty grim visages were seen entering the scene of carnage, armed with the deadly weapons of personal conflict. The shock of so close and so fatal a discharge had, for the moment, paralyzed the efforts of the assailed; but no sooner did Bignall, and his lieutenant, see the dark forms that issued from the smoke on their own decks, than, with voices that had not even then lost their authority each summoned a band of followers, backed by whom, they bravely dashed into the opposite gang-ways of their ship, to stay the torrent. The first encounter was fierce and fatal, both parties receding a little, to wait for succour and recover breath."

"Come on, ye murderous thieves!" cried the dauntless veteran, who stood foremost in his own band, conspicuous by the locks of gray that floated around his naked head, "well do ye know that heaven is with the right!"

The grim freebooters in his front recoiled and opened; then came a sheet of flame, from the side of the "Dolphin," through an empty port of her adversary bearing in its centre a hundred deadly missiles. The sword of Bignall was flourished furiously and wildly above his head, and his voice was still heard crying, till the sounds rattled in his throat,--

"Come on, ye knaves! come on!--Harry--Harry Ark! O God!--Hurrah!"

He fell like a log, and died the unwitting possessor of that very commission for which he had toiled throughout a life of hardship and danger. Until now Wilder had made good his quarter of the deck though pressed by a band as fierce and daring as his own; but, at this fearful crisis in the combat, a voice was heard in the melee, that thrilled on all his nerves, and seemed even to carry its fearful influence over the minds of his men.

"Make way there, make way!" it said, in tones clear, deep, and breathing with authority, "make way, and follow; no hand but mine shall lower that vaunting flag!"

"Stand to your faith, my men!" shouted Wilder in reply. Shouts, oaths, imprecations, and groans formed a fearful accompaniment of the rude encounter, which was, however, far too violent to continue long. Wilder saw, with agony, that numbers and impetuosity were sweeping his supporters from around him. Again and again he called them to the succour with his voice, or stimulated them to daring by his example.

Friend after friend fell at his feet, until he was driven to the utmost extremity of the deck. Here he again rallied a little band, against which several furious charges were made, in vain.

"Ha!" exclaimed a voice he well knew; "death to all traitors! Spit the spy, as you would a dog! Charge through them, my bullies; a halbert to the hero who shall reach his heart!"

"Avast, ye lubber!" returned the stern tones of the staunch Richard. "Here are a white man and a nigger at your service, if you've need of a spit."

"Two more of the gang!" continued the General aiming a blow that threatened to immolate the topman as he spoke.

A dark half-naked form was interposed to receive the descending blade, which fell on the staff of a half-pike and severed it as though it had been a reed. Nothing daunted by the defenceless state in which he found himself, Scipio made his way to the front of Wilder, where, with a body divested to the waist of every garment, and empty handed, he fought with his brawny arms, like one who despised the cuts, thrusts and assaults, of which his athletic frame immediately became the helpless subject.

"Give it to 'em, right and left, Guinea," cried Fid: "here is one who will come in as a backer, so soon as he has stopped the grog of the marine."

The parries and science of the unfortunate General were at this moment set at nought, by a blow from Richard, which broke down all his defences, descending through cap and skull to the jaw.

"Hold, murderers!" cried Wilder, who saw the numberless blows that were falling on the defenceless body of the still undaunted black. "Strike here! and spare an unarmed man!"

The sight of our adventurer became confused, for he saw the negro fall, dragging with him to the deck two of his assailants; and then a voice, deep as the emotion which such a scene might create, appeared to utter in the very portals of his ear,--"Our work is done! He that strikes another blow makes an enemy of me."

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