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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesFrom Powder Monkey To Admiral: A Story Of Naval Adventure - Chapter 18. The Frigate In Action--Bill Shows That He Can Be Of Use
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From Powder Monkey To Admiral: A Story Of Naval Adventure - Chapter 18. The Frigate In Action--Bill Shows That He Can Be Of Use Post by :BizOpKing Category :Long Stories Author :William H. G. Kingston Date :May 2012 Read :2210

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From Powder Monkey To Admiral: A Story Of Naval Adventure - Chapter 18. The Frigate In Action--Bill Shows That He Can Be Of Use


The stranger, which had apparently been beating down Channel, now put up her helm, and setting studden sails stood to the eastward before the wind. She failed also to answer the private signal; no doubt, therefore, remained that she was French, and wished to avoid an action, though, as she appeared to be as large as the English frigate, if not larger, this was somewhat surprising.

"Perhaps she has some consorts to the eastward, and wishes to lead us into their midst during the night," observed Mr Saltwell.

"She will find that she's mistaken. We will keep too bright a look-out to be so caught," said the captain.

The first lieutenant, as he was walking forward, caught sight of Bill and Jack.

"Why, lads, where do you come from?" he asked.

As he spoke he recognised Bill.

"Are you not the lad who gave notice of the plot of the American captain to capture our ship?" he asked.

Bill acknowledged that such was the case.

"I am truly glad that you have escaped. I promised our late captain that I would keep an eye on you," he continued, "and I shall now have the opportunity. I thought you, with the rest of our poor fellows, had been lost when our ship blew up."

Bill briefly described their adventures, and the lieutenant seemed much interested. He said he would have them at once entered on the ship's books, for as they were likely soon to be engaged with the enemy, it might be of importance to them.

He accordingly sent for the purser, to whom he gave the proper directions. Bill and Jack then made their way below.

On passing the galley they saw a boy busily employed, assisting the cook's mate in cleaning pots and pans. He looked up at them and started, letting drop the pot at which he was scrubbing.

"What! Bill! Jack! I thought you had gone to Davy Jones's locker," he exclaimed. "Are you really yourselves?"

"No doubt about it, Tom," answered Bill and in a few words they again told their adventures.

Tom soon recovered from his astonishment. He appeared somewhat ashamed of his present occupation. He had got into a scrape, he acknowledged, and had been ordered to assist the cook's mate.

"I wish you would tell him, Tom, that we are very hungry, as we have had a long pull, and that if he would give us something to eat we should be very much obliged to him. If he's a good-natured fellow, I daresay he will."

Tom undertook to plead for them with the cook himself, who just then put his head out of the galley. The cook, without hesitation, on hearing their story, gave them each a basin of broth and a handful of biscuit.

While they were eating they asked Tom to tell them how he had escaped.

"I've no very clear notion about the matter," he answered; "I must have been in the water, for I found myself lying at the bottom of a boat wet to the skin, and more dead than alive. There were a dozen or more of our fellows in her, and Mr Saltwell, our first lieutenant, who had been picked up, I supposed, as I had been. They thought I was done for, and, as the boat was overloaded, they were about to heave me overboard, when I opened my eyes, and sang out, 'Don't;' so they let me remain, and after some time pulled alongside a cutter, on board which we were taken and looked after below. Shortly afterwards we went in chase of a French craft of the same rig as ours, but she got away, and we then steered for Plymouth. We were at first taken on board the guardship, where we remained some time, and then I was transferred with others to this frigate, the _Thisbe_, of which, to my great satisfaction, I found that Mr Saltwell had been appointed first lieutenant. Thinking that, as we had shared a common misfortune, he would stand my friend, I went up to him, and telling him that I was a gentleman's son, begged he would have me put on the quarter-deck. He told me that if I did my duty I should have as good a chance as others; but here I am set to scrape potatoes and clean pots and pans. It's a shame, a great shame, and I can't stand it."

Bill and Jack had a tolerably correct notion why Tom was not better off, but they did not say so, as they did not wish to hurt his feelings, and were grateful to him for having obtained for them the broth and biscuits.

They had scarcely finished their meal when the order came to extinguish the galley fire.

A short time afterwards the drum beat to quarters, and every one was employed in getting the ship ready for action.

Jack and Bill expected that they would be employed in their former occupation of powder-monkeys, though, having been awake all the previous night, and in active exertion the whole of the day, notwithstanding the expectation of a battle, they could with difficulty keep their eyes open. They were going with the rest of the boys to the powder-magazine, when they heard their names called out, and the ship's corporal appearing, told them that the first lieutenant had directed that they should turn in below and take some sleep.

A couple of hammocks were slung for them forward, and they very gladly obeyed the order.

Bill made an effort to keep awake, that he might turn out again should the ship go into action, but in less than two minutes drowsiness overtook him, and he went fast asleep.

He dreamed, however, that he heard the guns firing, and the crew shouting, and that he got up and found that the frigate had taken the Frenchman.

Meantime, however, the wind falling light, the frigate made but slow progress, though she still kept the enemy in sight.

When Bill really awoke, the light was streaming down through the fore-hatchway. He roused up Jack, as there was no one below to call them, and on going on deck they discovered the crew at their quarters, and the French frigate almost within range of their guns.

She was to leeward, for the wind was still in its former quarter, and she had just then hauled up and backed her main-topsail to await their coming.

She was now seen to carry four more guns than the _Thisbe_, and to be apparently considerably larger, her bright, polished sides showing that she had not been long out of harbour.

When a ship goes into action, sail is generally shortened, but Captain Martin kept all the _Thisbe's set, and stood on, bearing down directly for the enemy.

Jack had been sent to join the other boys, who were employed in bringing up the powder as required from the magazine, but the first lieutenant directed Bill to remain near him.

Jack took his seat as a matter of course on his tub, and, as it happened, next to Tom.

"How are you feeling?" asked Tom, who looked rather pale.

"Much as I generally do, only I am rather peckish," answered Jack. "I wish we had had time for breakfast before thrashing the mounseers, but I hope that won't take us very long."

"I hope not," said Tom; "only they say that the French ship is the bigger of the two."

"What's the odds of that, provided we can work our guns twice as fast as they can?" observed Jack; "that's the way we licked the Frenchmen before, and, of course, we shall lick them again; but I say, Tom, what makes you look so melancholy?"

"Do I? Well, if you want to know, I was thinking of home, and wishing I had not run off to sea. I've had a miserable life of it since I came on board this frigate. It was my own fault that I did not go back when I was last on shore. I had the chance, but was ashamed to show my face."

"There's no use thinking about that sort of thing now," said Jack. "We shall be fighting the Frenchmen in a few minutes, and the round and grape shot and bullets will be flying about our ears."

"That's what I don't quite like the thoughts of," replied Tom. "I hope neither you nor I will be hit, Jack."

"Of course not," said Jack; "it wouldn't be pleasant, though we must do our duty, and trust to chance, or rather trust in Providence, like the rest."

"I don't envy Bill up on deck there," remarked Tom. "I wonder what the first lieutenant wants with him."

"Perhaps he intends to turn him into a midshipman," suggested Jack.

"Into a midshipman! a London street boy, who scarcely knows who his father was," ejaculated Tom. "I should think he would have made me one before him."

"The first lieutenant doesn't care a rap what he or his father was. He remembers only the way Bill saved the ship from being taken by the American skipper, and he seemed highly pleased at our having escaped from France. I tell you I shouldn't be at all surprised if Bill is placed on the quarter-deck," said Jack.

Tom gave a grunt of dissatisfaction. The conversation had a good effect, as far as he was concerned, as it made him forget the fears he had entertained about his personal safety.

In the meantime Bill remained on deck watching what was going forward. He heard Captain Martin tell the first lieutenant that he intended to engage the enemy to leeward, in order to prevent her escape; but as the _Thisbe approached the French ship, the latter, suspecting his intention, so as to frustrate it, wore round on the starboard tack.

After much skilful seamanship on both sides, Captain Martin, finding that he could not succeed, ranged up to windward of the enemy within pistol shot, both ships being on the larboard tack, two or three points off the wind.

They now simultaneously opened their broadsides, the shot of the _Thisbe telling with considerable effect, while not a few of those of the enemy came on board in return, cutting up her rigging, and laying low three or four of her men.

The French ship now passed under the stern of the _Thisbe_, firing her larboard broadside with great precision. A second time she attempted to repeat the manoeuvre, but the crew of the _Thisbe_, having quickly rove new braces, her sails were thrown aback, and gathering sternway, her starboard quarter took the larboard bow of the French frigate.

The French on this made several attempts to board, but the marines, who were drawn up on deck, opened so warm a fire that they were driven back with considerable loss.

The _Thisbe had now her enemy fast to her quarter. In order to keep her there, Captain Martin and some of his crew endeavoured to lash her bowsprit to his mizenmast; while others were engaged in bringing a gun to bear, out of a port which the carpenters quickly cut through the stern windows and quarter gallery.

While they were thus engaged, the enemy kept up a hot fire on them, several men being killed and wounded; but the gun was at length brought into position.

"Now fire, my lads!" cried the second lieutenant, who was superintending the operation.

After the first, discharge, no sooner had the smoke cleared away, than full twenty Frenchmen were seen stretched on the deck.

Bill had been standing near the first lieutenant. A marine had just loaded his musket, but was knocked over before he had time to fire it. Bill at that moment saw a French seaman run along the bowsprit with a musket in his hand. Bill, springing forward, seized that of the marine, and, as he did so, he observed the Frenchman taking aim at the head of Mr Saltwell, whose eyes were turned in a different direction.

There was not a moment for deliberation. Without ceremony pushing the lieutenant aside, he fired at the Frenchman, who, as he did so, discharged his musket, but immediately fell overboard, the ball tearing away the rim of Mr Saltwell's hat, but without hurting him.

The first lieutenant, turning round, perceived the way by which his life had been saved.

"Thank you, my lad," he said, "I see how you did it, and I'll not forget the service you have rendered me."

There was no time just then for saying more, for a party of Frenchmen were attempting to fire a carronade on their forecastle. Before they could succeed, the marines had picked off the greater number. Others took their places, but every man of them was treated in the same manner. At last the attempt to fire the gun was abandoned.

The French ship now getting a breeze, began to forge ahead. This enabled the _Thisbe's crew to bring their aftermost gun on the starboard side to bear, the first discharge from which cut away the gammoning of the French frigate's bowsprit.

The two ships now separated, but were soon again abreast of each other exchanging broadsides; but so rapidly did the English crew work their guns that they managed to fire three to the Frenchman's two.

A loud cheer burst from their throats as they saw the enemy's maintopmast go over the side. The _Thisbe now forged ahead clear of her adversary, and the breeze dying away, the firing ceased on both sides. Still the Frenchmen kept their colours flying.

The English crew were busily employed in knotting and splicing the rigging which had been cut away, and repairing other damages.

"I hope they've had enough of it, and that the fighting is over," exclaimed Tom.

"Not so sure of that," said Jack. "The French take a good deal of drubbing, and don't always know when they are beaten."

Tom felt, at all events, that he had had enough of it, as he looked along the deck and saw numbers of the men who had been slightly hurt binding up each other's wounds. Several lay stiff and stark, whose bodies were dragged on one side, while not a few, severely hurt, had been carried below to the cockpit, where the surgeon and his mates had ample employment.

Among the killed was the second lieutenant, a master's mate, and two young midshipmen; altogether of the two hundred and fifty men who that morning were in health and strength, forty were either killed outright or were severely wounded.

Just then, however, the survivors were too much occupied to think about the matter; every man and boy was wanted to get the ship to rights, and all were eagerly looking out for a breeze that they might again attack the enemy. Bill was as eager as any one for the fight. He felt that he was somebody, as he could not help reflecting that he had done good service in saving the life of the first lieutenant, though he did not exactly expect any reward in consequence. It seemed to him that he had grown suddenly from a powder monkey into a man. Still the calm continued, and the two ships lay with their sails against the masts, the water shining like a polished mirror.

The calm was to the advantage of the French, who had thus longer time to repair their damages. The English were soon ready to renew the action.

What, however, might not happen in the meantime?

Both the captain and Mr Saltwell thought it possible that the French squadron might be to the eastward, and should the firing have been heard, and a breeze spring up from that direction, which it was very likely to do, the Frenchmen in overwhelming force might be down upon them.

The captain walked the deck, looking anxiously out in every direction for signs of a breeze. Occasionally reports were brought to him of the way the wounded men were getting on. The surgeons had as much work as they could get through, cutting off arms and legs, setting broken limbs, and binding up flesh wounds. Such are the horrors of war! How many might be added ere long to the number of the killed and wounded!

It was nearly noon when the captain exclaimed, "Here comes a breeze! Trim sails, my lads!" The men flew to the braces. The canvas blew out, and the frigate began slowly to move towards her antagonist.

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