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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesJames Braithwaite, The Supercargo - Chapter 10. An Anxious Time
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James Braithwaite, The Supercargo - Chapter 10. An Anxious Time Post by :spearce000 Category :Long Stories Author :William H. G. Kingston Date :May 2012 Read :1369

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James Braithwaite, The Supercargo - Chapter 10. An Anxious Time

CHAPTER TEN. AN ANXIOUS TIME

Our anxiety to ascertain the fate of those on board the ship which the _Mignonne had brought in as a prize induced me, with my brother William and Trundle, to make another expedition to the French settlement. We ventured much nearer during daylight than we had done the first time, as we were certain that the people would be watching the arrival of the privateer and her prize. We were able, indeed, to reach a spot overlooking the harbour, where, among some thick bushes, we concealed ourselves before the ships came to an anchor. William had brought his telescope, and we could almost see the countenances of the people on the decks of the ships. The large one was, we saw at once, an Indiaman outward bound. We knew that by the number of young men and the young ladies on board, and their clear ruddy complexions. Had she been homeward bound, there would be old yellow-faced generals and judges, black nurses, sickly ladies, and little children.

We anxiously watched the proceedings of those on board. The passengers were walking up and down in a very disconsolate mood: the crew were clustered forward. By their looks and gestures as they cast their eyes towards the privateer, we thought that even then they were about to attack the Frenchman, and attempt to regain their liberty.

"I hope they will. I should like to help them," exclaimed William and Trundle, starting up simultaneously.

I drew them back. "Nonsense! we could not help them, and they will not make the attempt," I said. "See, the Frenchmen are going on board armed. They know what they are about."

Two large boats with armed men were pulling from the privateer to the Indiaman to strengthen her prize crew, while Captain La Roche was going on board her in his gig. He was soon up her side, and began bowing and scraping away most politely to the passengers, especially to the ladies. We could almost fancy that we heard him apologising to them for the inconvenience and disappointment he was causing them, with a spice of mockery in his tone, suggesting that it was the fortune of war, and that another day their turn might come uppermost. The crew of the Indiaman were then sent down the side, and rowed off to one of the hulks, while the passengers were conveyed to another.

"Then those hulks are prison ships after all," observed William, when the operation was concluded. "We may get on board them and let out the prisoners some day."

In this I partly agreed with him, though I could not help seeing the difficulties in the way. Even this hope was likely to be frustrated, for as we watched the Frenchmen who came on shore, we saw that they were joined by several men whom we had little difficulty in recognising as the crew of the wrecked ship, the very people who had lately deserted us. The mate was with them, but we did not see the captain. Perhaps, drunkard as he was, he was ashamed to go over to the enemy. All the party now entered a drinking-house together, being evidently on the most friendly terms.

We had therefore no longer any doubt that our existence would be made known to the privateer's men, and that the difficulty of surprising them would consequently be much greater than we had calculated on. We found that it was time to retrace our steps, all we had gained from our expedition being the knowledge that many of our countrymen and countrywomen were in even a worse condition than we were. Our report when we got back to the tents put our companions very much out of spirits. What were we to do? was the question. Some proposed that we should go at once and deliver ourselves up to the French, petitioning for their clemency. O'Carroll strongly opposed this.

"We are at liberty now, boys: if we once get into the hands of these French they will be our masters, and make us do what they like," he observed; and his influence, supported as he was by us, carried the point.

We wondered that Jacotot did not betake himself to his countrymen; but he laughed and said that he was now an English subject, that he should then be only one among many, that he was with us not only the principal cook, but the only man worthy to be called a cook; indeed, that he was perfectly content to continue to share our fortunes.

As several days passed and we received no visit from the Frenchmen, we began to hope that the seamen had not betrayed us. So far that was satisfactory, but had they remained faithful, I think that there is little doubt that we should have attempted the rescue of the prisoners. At last once more we saw the _Mignonne put to sea; and immediately on this, with O'Carroll and Sam Kelson in company, after watching for some time without seeing anything of the English sailors, we therefore conjectured that either they had quarrelled with the French and been put in prison, or had gone on board the privateer--too probably the latter. After a consultation, we agreed that we would, at all events, pay a visit to the passengers of the Indiaman. The French could scarcely think it necessary to keep guards constantly watching them, and we might therefore easily accomplish the undertaking. We accordingly set off to move round the harbour, intending to conceal ourselves in some spot near the Indiaman, that we might watch our opportunity for getting on board. We had gone on for some distance, and were approaching the spot, concealing ourselves carefully as we advanced, when sounds of laughter reached our ears--honest English laughter. We stole on, very much inclined to join in it, considering that we had not had a good laugh for some time, when from some rocks up which we climbed we saw below us a large party of ladies and gentlemen engaged in discussing a dinner in picnic fashion on the grass. They all seemed remarkably merry and happy. The younger gentlemen were running about helping the ladies, and doing the polite in the most approved fashion.

Trundle smacked his lips so loudly at the sight that some of the party turned a hasty glance in the direction where we lay hidden, supposing probably that the noise was made by some bird in the foliage above their heads. In a short time one of the young gentlemen was called on for a song. He without hesitation complied. I forget the strain. It was a right merry one. Another followed him, and then another.

"I say, Braithwaite," whispered Toby Trundle, "just let me go down and introduce myself, and then you know I can introduce you all, and I'm sure that they will be glad to make your acquaintance."

I nodded to Toby, and in an instant he slid down the rock, and was in the very midst of the party before any one observed where he had come from. Their looks of astonishment at finding an English midshipman among them were amusing.

"Why, where have you dropped from, youngster?" exclaimed a civilian, a judge returning from--what was more unusual in those days than at present--a visit to England. "The clouds?"

"Not exactly; 'tis but from up there, where I have a number of friends who would be glad to make your acquaintance," answered Toby promptly. "May I introduce them?"

"By all means--very happy to see them," answered the nabob, as all civil servants of the Company were called in those days if they were well up the tree, and had made money. "Bring them down at once."

"I have not a gun, sir, or I might do it; but I'll hail them, which will answer the purpose," answered Master Toby, with a twinkle in his eye.

We scarcely waited for his call, but tumbling down one after the other, we stood before the assembled company, to whom Toby, looking as grave as a judge, introduced us formally by name, finishing off with "Sam Kelson, boatswain's mate of his Britannic Majesty's frigate _Phoebe_."

"The very ship we spoke the day before we were captured," observed our friend the judge. "She was on the look-out for Captain La Roche and his merry men, and if she falls in with them, they will have a hard matter to escape; but sit down, gentlemen, we are very glad to make your acquaintance. We are companions in misfortune, though in some respects you have the advantage over us, by being at liberty."

We found that the passengers were allowed to live as before on board the Indiaman, and were under no sort of restraint, they having given their word not to attempt to escape from the island while the French had possession of it. We were treated in the most friendly manner by all the party, Sam Kelson finding a companion in a corporal, the servant of a military officer going out to rejoin his regiment Trundle soon let out to our new friends the intention we had entertained of trying to release them. They thanked us, but said that the attempt would have been useless, as the mouth of the harbour was strongly guarded. There were a good many other people on board the ships, while the officers and seamen remained strictly guarded, and were not allowed to visit the shore, except when the _Mignonne or some other privateer ship of war was in the harbour. Their only fear was that they might run short of provisions before they were released, or that at all events they should have to live on very coarse and scanty food. They advised us to keep out of the Frenchmen's sight, lest we should be pounced on and treated as seamen and belligerents; this we very readily promised to do. Altogether we had a very pleasant and merry meeting, and were sorry when our friends told us that the hour for their return on board had arrived. It was arranged that they should have another picnic party in the same spot in three days, and they kindly invited us to join them. On our way back we had, as may be supposed, plenty of subjects for conversation.

"That Miss Mary Mason," said Toby, "is a sweetly pretty girl. I would go through fire and water to serve her."

"And Julia Arundel is one of the most lively, animated girls I have met for a long time," remarked William, with a sigh. I had observed O'Carroll in conversation with a lady who seemed to be a former acquaintance. He told me that he had known her in her younger and happier days, that she had married an officer in India, had come home with three children, who had all died, and that she was now on her way to rejoin her husband.

"Her case is a very hard one," he remarked.

"So I suspect we shall find are the cases of many," I answered. "Sad indeed are the effects of war! The non-combatants suffer more even than the combatants. That is to say, a far greater number of people suffer who have nothing to do with the fighting than those who actually carry on the murderous work. Oh, when will war cease throughout the world?"

"Not until the depraved heart of man is changed, and Satan himself is chained, unable further to hurt the human race," answered O'Carroll. "What has always struck me, besides the wickedness of war, is its utter folly. Who ever heard of a war in which both sides did not come off losers? The gain in a war can never make amends for the losses, the men slain, the physical suffering, the grief: the victorious side feel that only in a less degree than the losers."

I cordially agreed with him. Yet how many hundreds were daily falling at that time in warfare--how many thousands and tens of thousands were yet to fall, to gratify the insane ambition of a single man, permitted to be the fearful scourge that he was to the human race? We said as little about our expedition as we could, for the emigrants, as soon as they heard of so many of their countrymen being in the neighbourhood, were eager to set out to see them. We, however, persuaded them to remain where they were, for a visit of so large a party would not fail to be discovered by the French, and greatly increase the annoyances of our position. We, however, paid our second visit to the passengers of the Indiaman, and found them on shore at the place where we had first met them. Their spirits, however, had already begun to flag; their guards had been less courteous than at first, sickness had attacked two or three, gloomy apprehensions were troubling the minds of many. Still we had a pleasant dinner, and the song and the jest went round as before. The two midshipmen were the merriest of the party, and paid, as may be supposed, the most devoted attention to the two young ladies whom they thought fit to admire. Their happiness was, however, disagreeably interrupted by the appearance in our midst of half-a-dozen armed Frenchmen. They nodded familiarly at us. "Bien, messieurs; you have saved us the trouble of going to fetch you," said one of them, in a sarcastic tone. "You will not leave this, but as you are seamen, you will accompany us to the prison ship."

We soon found that they had been made acquainted by the seamen of the _Kangaroo of our being on the island, and had only waited for leisure to go and bring us to the settlement. Another party had already been dispatched to bring in the emigrants, and from the rough unmannerly way in which these treated our new friends, we could not but feel the gravest apprehensions as to the indignities to which they might be subjected. Our own existence in the hands of lawless ruffians would be very different from what it had hitherto been. The appearance of these unwelcome visitors completely broke up the picnic party, and while our friends returned to their ship, we were marched off towards one of the hulks. We soon had evidence of the bad disposition of our captors towards us, for Toby Trundle, who was very indignant at being thus caught, beginning to saunter along as if he had no intention of hurrying himself to please them, one of them threatened to give him a prog with his bayonet. As we were walking along as slowly as Trundle could contrive to go, the sound of a shot reached our ears. It came from the sea. Our guards started and talked rapidly to each other. Several other shots followed in succession, some close together.

"There are two at it, of that I am sure," exclaimed O'Carroll.

The Frenchmen continued their gesticulations with increased animation. They were evidently eager to get to the mouth of the harbour, whence they could look seaward.

"They think that there is something in the wind, depend on that," observed Trundle.

Presently the firing became more and more rapid, seeming to our ears to come nearer and nearer. The Frenchmen could no longer restrain their eagerness to learn the cause of the firing, and totally disregarding, probably indeed forgetting us, off they set running towards the shore as fast as their legs could carry them. We waited for a few minutes to let them have a fair start, and then followed in their wake for some distance, turning off, however, after a time, to the right, so that, should they come back to look for us, we might not so easily be found. We in a short time reached a high rocky mound, whence we got a view of the sea spread out before us. Within a mile and a half of the land were two ships, both with topgallant sails set, standing in close-hauled towards the harbour. The wind was somewhat off the land, but yet, if it continued steady, it was possible that they might fetch the harbour-mouth. Such, it appeared evident, was the object of the one, while to prevent her so doing was the aim of the other, which was the larger and nearer to us. As soon as the two midshipmen set eyes on the latter, they clapped their hands like children with delight, exclaiming at the top of their voices, "The _Phoebe_! the _Phoebe_! hurrah! hurrah!" O'Carroll took a more steady glance at the other ship, and then shouted, with no less delight, "And that's the _Mignonne_, and La Roche's day has come at last."

"I should hope so, indeed," cried Trundle; "depend on it the _Phoebe won't have done with him till she has made him eat a big dish of humble pie."

The frigate kept firing rapidly her foremost guns at the Frenchman, who replied to them in a spirited manner with his aftermost ones, as they could be brought to bear. He was all the time luffing up, trying to eat into the wind, as it were; but as that was scant, it gave the _Phoebe_, which was well to windward, a great advantage, and she was now rapidly coming up with him. As she did so, she every now and then luffed up for an instant, and let fly her whole broadside, doing considerable execution. We eagerly watched the effect of the shot. The Frenchman's sails were soon riddled, and several of his spars seemed to be wounded, many of his ropes, too, hanging in festoons. At last, directly after another broadside, down came his spanker gaff, shot away in the jaws, while the mizen topsail braces shared the same fate. In vain the crew ran aloft to repair the damage; the ship rapidly fell off, and all prospect of her fetching up to the harbour was lost, unless by a miracle the wind should suddenly shift round. The instant the sail came down, the midshipmen gave vent to their feelings of exultation in a loud "Hip, hip, hurrah!" in which we could not help joining them, and the crew of the _Phoebe_, whom we could fancy at the moment doing the same thing.

"Don't be too sure that the _Mignonne is taken, however," cried O'Carroll. "I never saw a faster craft, and see, she is keeping away, and going to try what her heels can do for her, dead before the wind."

The _Mignonne_, however, could not keep away without being raked by the _Phoebe_, whose shot, now delivered low, must have told with fearful effect along her decks. This done, the _Phoebe instantly bore up in chase, and not having lost a spar, though her sails had several shot-holes through them, rapidly gained on her. The Frenchmen, to give themselves every chance of escape, were now busily employed in getting out studden-sail booms, in spite of the shot which went whizzing after them. In a marvellously short space of time a wide spread of canvas was exhibited on either side, showing that, though many of her men had fallen, she had a numerous and well-trained crew.

"They are smart fellows, indeed," I remarked. "Many of them fight with halters round their necks."

"That makes fellows smart in more senses than one," answered O'Carroll.

The _Phoebe_, of course, had to set her studden-sails, and away the two ships glided before the freshening breeze. We watched them with breathless interest. Their speed at first seemed so equal that the chased had still, it seemed, a chance of escaping.

"Trust to our captain, he'll stick to her till he has made her strike, or he will chase her round the world," said the two midshipmen, in the same breath.

The _Mignonne was firing away all the time with her stern chasers, while the frigate was replying from those at her bows. They were both firing at each other's spars, the one hoping, by crippling her opponent, to escape, the other to prevent her doing so. What had become of our guards all this time we had not for a moment thought, while we hoped that they had equally forgotten us. The chase, indeed, probably absorbed their attention as it did ours. Few of us doubted that the English frigate would ultimately capture the Frenchman; but should she do so would she of necessity come back with her prize to our island, or would she sail away, and, perhaps ignorant of our existence, leave us to our fate? One thing was evident, that we ought to guard ourselves against the insolence of the French garrison. The men were evidently the scum of society, and should they find themselves without restraint, it was impossible to say what atrocities they might not commit. Anxious as we were to know the result of the chase, we agreed at once to go back to our friends to give them warning, and to consult with them what steps to adopt. Before leaving our look-out place we took one more anxious glance at the two ships. Both O'Carroll and the midshipmen declared that the _Phoebe was positively overhauling the _Mignonne_, and that in a short time we should see the latter haul down her flag. I doubted it.

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