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Sea StoriesWooden And Iron Walls
The birth of the British Navy may be said to have ta...
He said that he had been impressed into the English service from the
brig Susan Butler, of New York. But what grounds the boarding officer
had taken in supposing him to be a British subject would puzzle most.
The cocked-hats generally left a merchant vessel's side with the pick
of the unfortunate crew. The qualifications necessary for a peaceable
Yankee merchant sailor to change his vocation and become a servant of
King George were plain and simple in 1810: ruddy cheeks--crisp curling
hair--youth, health, and strength, why! of English birth and parentage
most certainly! What use the papers stating that his name was Esek
Cobb, or Hezekiah Brown? His home port or natal town Portsmouth, N.H.,
Bath, Me., or Baltimore? He spoke the mother tongue; he was an A.B. His
services were needed to fight old England's enemies, and away he would
go in the stern sheets of the press boat, bitter curses on his lips and
irons on his wrists.
But this straight-haired, Indian-featured, narrow-shouldered half-man
who stood there on the Constitution's deck, with his soaked, scanty
clothes, clinging to his thin, big-jointed limbs, why in the name of
the Lion or the Unicorn, or the Saint or the Dragon, for that matter,
had they chosen him? He told his tale in a low, whimpering voice, with
his eyes shifting from one deck-seam to another--Five years in the
Royal British Navy!--Five years of glorious service of the one who
rules the common heritage of all the peopled earth--Five years of
Not six cable-lengths away, a dark shape against the lights of the
town, lay the great ship from whose side he had lowered himself in the
darkness to swim to the shelter of the smart, tall-sparred frigate,
over whose taffrail he had watched his country's flag swinging in the
sunlight, tempting him all the day. He had fought against the swiftly
running tide until at last--just as his strength had left him--he had
been hauled on board by the anchor watch, and now his one prayer was
that they would not give him up. The men who stood about looked
pityingly at his shivering figure. A middy, attracted by the commotion,
had hastened aft to find the officer of the deck. The forecastle people
murmured among themselves.
"Captain Hull won't give you up, lad," said one, laying his hand on the
poor fellow's shoulder.
"This ship is not the Chesapeake," said another; "don't ye fear,
"Here's the Leftenant," put in another--"'tention!"
"What's going on here?" asked a low voice.
The sailor who had last spoken touched his cap.
"I was down making the running-boat fast to the boom, sir, when I hears
a faint cry, and I sees a man in the water just alongside, sir. I lays
hold of him, and thinkin' it's one of our crew, sir, we gets him
quietly at the forechains; then we sees as how he ain't one of us,
"That'll do; let him speak for himself. Where did you come from, my
"From the Poictiers, yonder, sir. For the sake of mercy don't give me
"Are you an American?"
"Yes, sir; God's truth, I am."
"Where were you born, McGovern?"
The stern, matter-of-fact inquiry could scarce conceal the pity in the
tone; but it was the officer-voice speaking.
"In Water Street, New York, sir, not far from the big church--Oh, for
the love of----"
"You speak like an Irishman."
"My parents were Irish, your honor, but I was born in the little house
fourth from the corner. You won't let them---- Oh, God help me!"
The sturdy rocking beat of oars near to hand off the port quarter
caused an interruption. The fugitive gave a quick glance full of terror
in the direction of the sound; then he dropped forward upon his knees;
his whimpering changed to a hoarse weeping whisper.
"Don't give me up; I'd rather die--save me--save me," he croaked.
One of the watch came hurrying aft. "There's a cutter here at the
gangway," he said in a low voice, saluting the Lieutenant.
"Very good, my lad," responded the latter. "Take this man below, give
him dry clothes and a place to sleep."
Two men helped the abject creature to his feet and led him sobbing to
the forward hatchway. The Lieutenant stepped to the side.
"On board the cutter there," he called, "what do you want at this hour
of night?" Well he knew, and he spoke as if the answer had been given.
"On board the frigate," was the reply. "We're looking for a deserter;
he started to swim off to you; has he reached here?"
The Lieutenant disdained deception. "We fished a half drowning man out
of the water a few minutes since," he replied quietly, leaning over the
"He's a deserter from my ship; I'll be obliged if you will hand him
over.--This is Lieutenant Colson, of the Poictiers."
"Sorry not to grant Lieutenant Colson's request; the man claims
protection as an American. Captain Hull will have to look into the
matter.--This is Lieutenant Morris, of the Constitution."
"I should like to see Captain Hull at once. In bow there, make fast to
"Hold hard, sir. The Captain is asleep; I cannot waken him."
"I demand you do--you are in one of His Majesty's ports."
"I know that well enough--keep off the side, sir." There was a moment's
silence, and then the same level tone was heard addressing some one on
the deck. "Call the guard; let no one come on board the ship to-night."
There was the sound of some movement on the Constitution's deck;
the fast ebb tide clopped and gurgled about the vessel's counter
mirthfully. The Englishman, standing erect in the stern sheets of the
little cutter bobbing against the frigate's side, hesitated.
"On board the frigate, there!"
"Well, sir, in the cutter!"
"Heark'ee! You'll repent this rashness, I can warrant you that, my
friend; you will pay high for your damned Yankee insolence, mark my
words. Shove off there forward" (this to the bowman)--"shove off there,
you clumsy fool! Let fall!"
There had been no reply from the bulwarks to the Englishman's burst of
temper; but Lieutenant Morris stood there drumming with his fingers on
the hilt of his sword, and looking out into the darkness. Then an odd
smile that was near to being scornful crossed his face, and he turned
quietly and began the slow swinging pace up and down the quarter-deck.
That Captain Hull would sanction and approve his conduct, he did not
have the least suspicion of a doubt; if not on general principles, on
account of a certain specific reason--to be told in a few short
It had happened that three days previous to the very evening, a steward,
who had been accused of robbing the ward-room mess of liquor, and
incidentally of drunkenness arising from the theft, was up for
punishment--somehow he had managed to take French leave by jumping
out of a lower port. He had been picked up by the running-boat of the
flagship. At once he had claimed to be a subject of King George, and,
needless to record, the statement was accepted without question--whether
he was or not bore little weight, and cuts no figure in this tale.
Suffice it: Captain Hull's polite request for the man's return was
laughed at, very openly laughed at, and the Admiral's reply was a
thinly veneered sneer--why, the very idea of such a thing!
Now here was a chance for that soul-satisfying game of turn and turn
about. Lieutenant Morris, as he paced the broad quarter-deck, felt sure
he had voiced Captain Hull's feelings, and then he began a little
mental calculation, and as he did so, slightly quickened his stride,
and came a few paces further forward until he was opposite the port
gangway. There he stopped and looked out at the swinging anchor lights.
Six hundred odd guns against forty-four! And then there were the land
batteries and the channel squadron probably outside. But actually, what
mattered the odds? On the morrow there was going to be something to
talk about, that was fact, and Lieutenant Morris smiled as brave men do
when they look forward to contest, and know they have right with them.
The poor, whimpering dog who had claimed protection was probably not
worth his salt, and was certainly not needed; but rather than give him
up, Isaac Hull would go to the bottom (in his very best, brand-new
uniform, Morris knew that well enough), and with him would go four
hundred sturdy lads by the right of their own manly choice.
"And egad they'd have company," Morris reasoned out loud, with that
strange smile of his.
Captain Hull heard the news and all about it at breakfast, and the only
sign that it interested him in the least was the fact that he rubbed
his heavy legs in their silk stockings (he generally wore silk in port)
contentedly together beneath the table, and disguised a wide smile with
a large piece of toast.
"Have the man given a number and assigned to a watch, Mr. Morris," was
his only comment to the Lieutenant's story.
That was simple enough. But the heavy, red-faced Commodore, although
prone to extravagant indulgence in expansive shirt frills, jewelry, and
gold lace, usually went at matters in the simplest manner and after the
most direct fashion. There did not appear to be any question on this
present occasion; he to all appearances dismissed the subject from his
mind; but Morris knew better--"Wait," said he to himself, "and we will
see what we will see." And although this is the tritest remark in the
world, it was more or less fitting, as will be shortly proved.
At nine o'clock a letter arrived from the English Admiral. It was
couched in the usual form, it was full of "best compliments," and
bristled with references to "courtesy and distinguished conduct in the
past," and it was signed "Obd't servant." But it said and meant plainly
enough: "Just take our advice and hand this fellow over, Captain
Hull,--right away please, no delay; don't stop for anything. He
deserves to be abolished for presuming that he has a country that will
The word had flown about the decks that the English cutter was
alongside with a message from the flagship. The crew had all tumbled up
from below, and a hum of voices arose from the forecastle.
"Bill Roberts, here, he was on watch when they hauled 'im on board,
warent ye, Bill?--I seed him when they brought 'im below--he had the
shakes bad, didn't he, Bill?" The speaker was a short, thickset man,
who had a way of turning his head quickly from side to side as he
spoke. His long, well-wrapped queue that hung down his back would whip
across from one shoulder to the other.
"We thought it was one of yesterday's liberty party trying to get back
to the ship," responded the man addressed as Bill. "But when we got him
on deck we seed as how he warent one of us, as I told the First Luf.
Did you see his back, Tom, when we peeled his shirt off?"
"God a' mercy! I seed it."
Well those marks were known. Deep red scars, crisscrossed with heavy,
unhealed, blue-rimmed cuts, feverish and noisome.
"He was whipped through the fleet ten days ago. So he says. I don't
know what for, exactly; says he found a midshipman's handkerchief on
deck, and not knowin' whose 'was, put it into his ditty box--some such
yarn.--Jack here, he tells of somethin' like that, when he was
impressed out of the Ariadne into the old Southampton, don't ye,
"Yes, but damn the yarn--this fellow--where is he now?" asked a tall,
light-haired foretopman, around whose muscular throat was tattooed a
chain and locket, the latter with a very red-cheeked and exceedingly
blue-eyed young person smiling out through the opening in his shirt.
"He's hidin' somewhere down in the hold, I reckon," answered a little,
nervous man; "nobody could find him this morning; guess he's had all
the spunk licked out of him."
"I've heard tell of that before," remarked the tall foretopman. "His
Just at this moment the English Lieutenant who had borne the message
from the Admiral hurried up from the cabin where he had been in
consultation with Captain Hull. His face was very red, and he gave a
hasty glance at the crowded forecastle, as if trying to enumerate the
men and their quality. Then he hastened down the side, and when he had
rowed off some dozen strokes he gave the order to cease rowing. Then
standing up he looked back at the frigate he had left, taking in all
her points, the number of her guns, and marking her heavy scantling
with a critic's eye. Then he seated himself again, and pulled away for
His departure had been watched by four hundred pairs of eyes, and this
last act of his had not been passed by unnoticed.
"Takin' our measure," observed Bill Roberts, cockswain of the Captain's
gig, turning to Tom Grattan, the thickset, black-headed captain of the
maintop. The latter grinned up at him.
"There'll be the Divil among the tailors," he said.
The tall foretopman, who was standing near by, folded his heavy arms
across his chest.
"We'll have some lively tumbling here in about a minute, take my word
for that, mates," he chuckled, "or my name's not Jack Lange"; and as he
spoke, Captain Hull, followed by all of his lieutenants, came up on
deck. The Captain turned and spoke a few words to Mr. Cunningham, the
ship's master. The latter, followed by three or four midshipmen,
hurried forward. Some of the men advanced to meet him.
"All of you to your stations," he ordered quietly. "Gunners, prepare to
cast loose and provide port and starboard main-deck guns. The rest
stand by ready to make sail if we get a wind off shore."
He gave the orders for the capstan bars to be fitted, and turning to
the ship armorer he told him to provide cutlasses and small-arms for
Quietly boarding-nettings were made ready to be spread, the magazines
were opened, even buckets of sand were brought and placed about; sand
to be used in case the decks became too slippery from the blood. Down
in the cockpit the doctor had laid out his knives and saws on the
table. In five minutes the Constitution had been prepared for
action. And all this had been accomplished without a sound, without a
shouted order or the shrilling of a pipe!
Captain Hull inspected ship. Silent, deep-breathing men watched him as
he passed along. At every division he stopped and said a few words.
"Lads, we are not going to give this man up upon demand. Remember the
Chesapeake. We are going to defend ourselves if necessary, and
be ready for it." He made the same speech in about the same words at
least half a dozen times. Then he went into his cabin and donned his
best new uniform, with a shining pair of bullion epaulets. This done,
he gave a touch to his shirt frills before the glass and went on deck.
Signals were flying in the British fleet, and now the forts were
displaying little lines of striped bunting. There was scarce breeze
enough to toss them in the air. The sleepy old town of Portsmouth
looked out upon the harbor. Soon it might be watching a sight that it
never would forget. Perhaps history would be made here in the next few
minutes, and all this time the fugitive lay cowering among the
water-butts in the mid-hold.
A breeze sprang up by noon, and the two nearest vessels of the fleet, a
thirty-eight-gun frigate, and a razee of fifty, slipped their moorings
and came down before it. A hum of excitement ran through the Yankee
ship. There was not sufficient wind to move her through the water; but
the capstan was set agoing, and slowly she moved up to her anchor. As
the smaller English vessel drifted down, it was seen that her men were
at quarters. It was the same with the razee. But without a hail they
dropped their anchors, one on each side of the Constitution's bows,
at about the distance of a cable's length. There they waited, in grim
silence. The men made faces at one another, and grimaced and gestured
through the open ports. The officers, gathered in groups aft, paid no
attention to their neighbors.
There followed more signalling. A twelve-oared barge left the flagship
for the admiralty pier. From the direction of the town came the sounds
of a bugle and the steady thrumming of drums. A long red line trailed
by one of the street corners. Already crowds began to gather on the
housetops and the water-front. Some clouds formed in the west that
looked as if a breeze might be forthcoming. Hull watched the sky
The midday meal was served with the men still at their posts. There was
no movement made on either side. Toward evening the wind came. No
sooner had it ruffled the surface of the water than the Constitution,
whose cable had been up and down all the day, lifted her anchor from
the bottom, and with her main topsail against the mast, she backed away
from her close proximity to her neighbors. Then, turning on her heel,
she pointed her bow for the harbor mouth. It was necessary for her to
sail past every vessel in the fleet. Drums rolled as she approached.
Men could be seen scurrying to and fro, and as she passed by the
flagship, a brand-new seventy-four, her three tiers of guns frowned
evilly down, and a half-port dropped with a clatter. A sigh of relief
went up as the Constitution passed by unchallenged.
There were but three vessels now to pass,--a sloop of war, a large
brig, and a forty-four-gun frigate that lay well to the mouth of
the harbor. The latter, apparently in obedience to signals, was
getting in her anchor and preparing to get under way; but before the
Constitution had reached her the breeze died down, and before
twilight was over it was dead calm. Hull dropped his anchor, and close
beside him, the Englishman dropped his. He was at least two minutes
longer taking in his topsails. It continued calm throughout the early
watches of the night. At three o'clock in the morning there was a sound
of many oars. The officers were on the alert. "They are coming down to
attack us in small boats," suggested one of the junior lieutenants. But
soon it was perceived that such was not the intention, for in the dim
light the big brig could be seen approaching, towed by a dozen boat's
crews working at the oars. There was no reason for longer maintaining
any secrecy, and Hull called his crew to quarters in the usual fashion.
The sounds might have been heard on shore; but the brig, when she had
once reached a berth on the American's quarter, dropped her anchor
With the gray of morning came a new wind from the westward, and with it
the Constitution slipped out of port, the two vessels that had
menaced her all night long not making a movement to prevent her going.
Once well out in the channel, the feeling of suspense was succeeded by
one of relief and joy. The fugitive, soaked with bilge water, shivering
and hungry, emerged from his hiding-place as he felt the movement of
the vessel's sailing.
"How is that man McGovern doing?" asked Captain Hull of Lieutenant
Morris, who was dining with him in the cabin. "He ought to be of some
use after the trouble and worry he has caused us."
"I'm sorry to say he isn't," responded Morris, shrugging his shoulders.
"He isn't worth powder. Why, even the forecastle boys cuff him about
and bully him! He not only lacks spirit, but he is one of those men, I
think, who are somehow born cowards. But he has been a sailor at some
time or other, I take it, although he told me that he was only cook's
helper in the galley on board the Poictiers. That's his billet now on
board of us, by the way."
It was true: McGovern not only bore the name of a coward, but he looked
it, every inch of him. His shifty eyes would lift up for an instant,
and then slide away. His elbow was always raised as if to ward off a
blow. He acted as if he expected to have things thrown at him. He
invited ill treatment by his every look, and he received many blows,
and many things were thrown at him. And the unthinking made fun of all
this, and used him for their dirty work, and he did not resent it. He
took orders from the powder-monkeys, and cringed to the steerage
steward. As to the officers and midshipmen, he trembled when they
approached him, and after they had passed he would spring forward and
hide somewhere, panting, as if he had escaped some danger. The sight of
the boatswain deprived him of the power of speech. He acted like a cur
that had been whipped, and in fact he lived a dog's life. And yet for
this man, those who despised him would have gone to the bottom. Aye,
and cheerfully, for behind him lay the question soon to be cause enough
for the shedding of much blood.
When the Constitution reached New York, McGovern disappeared.
* * * * *
It was early in the month of June, 1812. There was evidence of a
feeling of great uneasiness that prevailed throughout the length and
breadth of the country. In the coffee-houses and taverns, at the
corners of the streets, in the gatherings in drawing-room or kitchen,
there was but one subject talked about--the approaching war with
England. It was inevitable, naught could prevent it, was the opinion of
some; while others, more cautious, saw nothing in the approaching
strife but the dimming of the American star of commerce which had
arisen, and death to progress in arts and manufactures. Their flag
would be swept from off the sea; the little navy of a handful of ships
would have to be dragged up into the shallows, and there dismantled and
perhaps never be set afloat again. Little did they know of the glorious
epoch awaiting. The makers of it were the sailormen in whose cause the
country was soon to rise.
Jack Lange was hurrying along Front Street; he had been transferred
from the Constitution to the Wasp. It was but a moment before that
he had landed. He had the tall water-roll in his gait. He was very
jaunty in appearance, with his clean, white breeches very much belled
at the bottom, his short blue jacket and glazed cap, and from the smile
on his face one could see that he was very well pleased with himself.
The half-fathom of ribbon that hung over his left ear would
occasionally trail out behind like a homing pennant. He was bound for
Brownjohn's wharf, where he knew he might fall in with some of his old
messmates and gather up the news. As he luffed sharp about a corner he
passed some one hurrying in the opposite direction. It was a man of
about thirty years of age. His arms were held stiff at his side, and
his face was twitching nervously. His eyes were rolling in excitement.
Jack Lange turned, and lifting one hand to the side of his mouth, he
shouted: "Ship ahoy, there!" The other man whirled quickly, and the two
stood looking at one another for an instant before either spoke. Then
the big sailor advanced.
"What's the hurry, messmate?" he said. "This is McGovern, isn't it?
Don't you remember me?"
"Sure I remember you," returned the other in a voice with a touch of a
rich brogue. "Have you heard the news?" he added suddenly, his hand
trembling as he touched Lange on the arm.
"What is it--about war?" asked Jack, eagerly.
"Aye, the war, d'ye mind that? There'll be great doings before long!"
"I suppose they'll lay the navy up in ordinary, and we poor fellows
will join the sorefoots with a musket over our shoulders."
"Not a bit of it; they're going to outfit and sail to meet 'em,"
responded McGovern. "I'm off to tell my folks."
The news was all about the town. People were running hither and
thither, clapping on their hats, women called to one another from the
windows of the houses, crowds commenced to gather. Suddenly Jack
hesitated. Surely it was a cheer, a rousing, sailors' cheer, off to the
left down the alley! He listened again, and giving a hitch to his
breeches, he started in a lumbering, clumsy gait, swinging his cap
about his head. "Hurray!" he bellowed at top lung as he saw in a crowd
gathered before one of the little taverns the uniforms of some of the
Constitution's men, and recognized also Bill Roberts, and his old
When the Wasp sailed again, she carried between her decks as fine a
crew as ever hauled a rope or manned a yard. Some of the men who had
served on board the Constitution now swung their hammocks in the
crowded forecastle of the little sloop.
Grattan and Roberts were in the same watch, the port, which was in
charge of young Lieutenant James Biddle. Jack Lange was in the other
watch, and with him were two of the Constitution's men,--the little,
black-eyed gunner, and a heavy, thickset man, who at first glance
appeared to be too fat and clumsy ever to be a topman; yet he was, and
one of the best.
Lange was stowing away his hammock but a few hours after the Wasp had
gotten under way, when the short, thickset man approached him.
"D'ye see who is on board with us?" he asked. He pointed forward.
There, sitting with his back against the bulwarks was the Coward, his
eyes staring straight before him, and his fingers and toes--for he was
bare-footed--working nervously. Soon there came an order to shorten
sail. There was a scramble to the shrouds, and among the first to reach
them was McGovern. Close beside him was the fat topman.
"Out of the way, you swab!" he cursed, striking out with his elbow.
"This is man's work," he added. "Out of the way, can't you!"
The hot blood rushed to McGovern's face. He hesitated. At that moment
some one pushed him from behind, and before he knew it he had been
hustled off the bulwarks to the deck. Without a glance behind him he
slunk down the hatchway. And so he went back to rinsing the dishes in
Inside of three months the Wasp was back in port again. Once more
McGovern disappeared. No one missed him, and no one thought about it.
On the 13th of October Captain Jacob Jones set sail again in his trim
vessel, but just before the Wasp had left her moorings a boat rowed
with quick, nervous strokes put out from shore. The man at the oars was
doing his best to catch the sloop of war before she should gain
headway. In the stern sheets sat an old woman. Now and then she would
encourage the man pulling at the oars. There was a short, choppy sea,
and both figures in the little boat were soaked with spray.
Suddenly the topsails filled, the headsails blew out with a vicious
snap, and just as the sloop lurched forward, the little boat was
abreast the forechains. The man dropped the oars, and, springing
outboard, managed to catch the lower shroud; with agility he hauled
himself up arm's length and sprawled over the bulwarks, down on deck.
It was McGovern, and his strange coming on board had been observed by
many. He arose quickly and gaining the shrouds once more, he waved his
hand. "Good-by, mither!" he cried, and then he turned back to greet a
burst of laughter. But all hands were too busy with the getting under
way to pay much attention to him, and he disappeared below.
The next morning it blew a heavy gale, and for four days the wind
lasted, and even after the danger had passed the day broke with a heavy
swell on the sea and the weather yet boisterous. The Wasp's previous
cruise had been uneventful. She had failed to fall in with the enemy,
and now this continued stress of weather made the sailors, ever prone
to find reasons in their superstitions, to think that they must have
aboard with them a Jonah; some one who brought ill luck, and why they
should have settled upon poor McGovern it would be hard to tell.
Perhaps he was ignorant of the reason for the new meaning of the looks
of dislike and suspicion that were cast at him, or perhaps he failed to
notice them. At any rate he made no comment.
Surely it was not his fault if the second day out, during the height of
the storm, the jibboom had carried away, and two of the starboard watch
went with it and were lost.
There was a great deal of excitement attending this particular
daybreak, the morning of the 18th, for the night before, after the
clouds had cleared away and the stars had shone brightly forth, several
large sails had been reported to the eastward. Captain Jones had laid
his course to get to windward of them, so as to have the weather-gage
when day came. The vessels had disappeared as the weather had thickened
a little, and now all hands had gathered on deck, and the sloop was
romping along through the slight drizzle, almost dipping her yard arms
at times in the heavy seas that raced past.
"There they are.--Sails off the lee bow, two points away!" shouted a
lookout from the forecastle. It had cleared a trifle, and there they
were, sure enough, seven vessels, and nearer to, was a trim man-of-war
brig. She was edging up slowly, taking in sail as she did so, and the
Wasp swung off to meet her.
"English, begad!" exclaimed Captain Jones. "Have the drummer beat to
quarters, Mr. Biddle, as soon as you get down the topgallant yard and
"Very good, sir.--Hello, she shows the Spanish flag."
"Never mind that; she's English, I'll bet a thousand."
Biddle bawled out the orders, and the usual helter-skelter rush, from
which emerges such careful work and such wonderful precision, followed.
But the first man to gain the weather shrouds this time was McGovern.
Since the news that the enemy had been sighted had been passed below,
he had been very much in evidence. Instead of his greasy scullion's
rags, he wore a clean suit of canvas. His white shirt was trimmed with
blue silk, and his long hair, that usually straggled down his cheeks,
was twisted into a neat queue down his back. He paid no attention to
the questions addressed to him, took no heed of the merriment (for men
will jest on strange occasions); but kept his eyes shifting from the
group of officers on the quarter-deck, to the oncoming vessel that was
plunging heavily in the great seas. When he had seen the Spanish flag,
his face had fallen; but Bill Roberts was standing close beside him.
"Never mind that, my lads!" he roared to those about him. "No one but a
John Bull or a Yankee would bring his ship along like that; take my
word for it, my hearties!" and then had come the order to shorten sail.
McGovern was across the deck like a shot, at least three feet in
advance of the next man, who, as luck would have it, was the short, fat
topman before referred to. Whatever he may have thought was McGovern's
proper sphere and natural instincts, it required but a glance to show
that he knew what he was about as he started clearing away the parel
lashings and then unreeving the running-gear. It requires but two men
at the masthead to make fast the downhauls and look out for the lifts,
and on this occasion there were two pairs of skilful hands at work. The
older seamen looked into McGovern's face wonderingly; but the latter
was going silently about his work, occasionally looking out across the
rolling white of the sea at the little brig that would soon be within
gunshot. He could plainly make out the red coats of the marines grouped
along the rail. "Sway away!" and the topgallant yards came safely down
to the deck. The men were at quarters now, and the matches were
"Well done, McGovern!" exclaimed the fat sailor, with a shamefaced
smile. "Well done, McGovern!" called one of the midshipmen, grasping
him by the arm. "Here, take No. 2 at this twelve-pounder. Do you know
the orders, lad?"
"Yes, sir, yes," answered the Coward, excitedly. "I was captain of a
gun once, o' truth I was."
But a pistol shot's distance now separated the two vessels. Captain
Jones hailed through his trumpet. Down came the Spanish flag, and there
was the red cross of England! The brig let go a broadside; but just
before she did so, the sound of a cheer had come down on the wind.
There is no time to describe the details of the action. But few of the
Wasp's crew had been in actual combat before. Soon there were deep
red spots on the deck; there were groans and curses, and much sulphur
smoke. Occasionally the muzzles of the guns would dip deep into the
water as the Wasp hove down into the hollow of the surge. A sharp
crack aloft, and down came the main topmast, and with it fell the
topsail yard. It tangled in the braces, and rendered the headsails
useless. The Englishman was playing havoc with the rigging, braces,
and running-gear of the Wasp. Grape and round shot were mangling
There had been a few men in the foretop when the action had commenced.
One of them was Roberts. Suddenly glancing up from his gun, McGovern
saw a sight that made him start and cry out, pointing. There was Bill
trying weakly to haul himself over the edge of the top. Blood was
running from a wound in his forehead, and his left arm hung useless;
his leg was hurt also. But he was still alive and dimly conscious. At a
sudden lurch of the vessel, he almost pitched forward down to the deck.
Then as McGovern watched him, he appeared to give up hope, and,
twisting his hand into the bight of a rope, he lay there without
moving. But no man could live there long! Splinters were flying from
the masts; blocks were swinging free and dashing to and fro; new holes
were being torn every second in the roaring, flapping sails. It may
have been that no one else had time to think about it; but McGovern did
not hesitate. He threw down the sponge and jumped into the slackened
"Come out of that, you fool!" somebody shouted at him from below; but
he did not pause. A round shot whizzed by his elbow. A musket-ball
carried away a ratline above his head, just as he reached forward. He
felt as if a hot flame had licked across his shoulder, and in an
instant more his white shirt was white no longer, and was clinging to
his back. But it was nothing but a graze, and, undaunted, he kept on
ascending. He hauled himself into the top. There lay a dead marine,
shot through the temple. Now he bent over the prostrate sailor. Yes, he
was alive! Roberts was breathing faintly. Despite the interest and
excitement of the action men were watching him from below. But he must
work fast if he was to save a life--a bullet at any time might complete
the work already begun. He tried to lift the heavy figure on to his
shoulders, but found he could not. But good fortune! One of the
halliards had been shot away aloft, and hung dangling across the yard.
McGovern saw the opportunity. Passing the bitter end of it around
Roberts' body, close underneath the arms, he made it fast. Then passing
the rest of it through the shrouds he gave first a heave that swung the
prostrate figure clear of the blood-stained top, and then carefully he
lowered away until at last the body reached the deck.
Somehow the musket-balls had stopped their humming through the upper
rigging, and even the firing of the Wasp had slackened, as McGovern,
reaching for one of the stays, rode down it safely and reached the
deck. And now occurred a thing that has been unchronicled, and yet has
had its parallel in many instances of history. A cheer arose, a strong,
manly cheer,--it came from across the water; it preceded by an instant
the roaring of the hoarse voices close about him. But McGovern's ear
had caught it.
"Hark!" he cried, pushing his way forward to reach his station. "Hark,
they're cheerin'! They must have thought we've struck. We'll show 'em!"
He picked up his sponge again.
Now the firing became incessant. Steadily as the blows of a hammer were
delivered the telling shots from the Wasp's port divisions. The
flames of powder scorched the enemy's bows. All at once there came a
crash. The jibboom of the Englishman swept across the deck, tearing
away the shrouds and braces, and then with a heave and a lurch the
vessels came together, grinding and crunching with a sound of
splintering and tearing of timbers as they rolled in the heavy sea.
There was not a man on board the Wasp that did not expect to see
the English sailors come swarming over the bow of their vessel, and
drop down to fight in the old-fashioned way, hand to hand and eye to
eye. But there must have been some delay. For an instant there was a
silence except for the ripping of the Englishman's bow against the
Wasp's quarter. But the red-crossed flag was still flying.
Captain Jones saw his opportunity. The enemy lay in so fair a position
to be raked that some of the Wasp's guns extended through her bow
ports. The men, who, without waiting for orders had caught up cutlasses
and boarding-pikes, were ordered back to their stations, and at such
close quarters the broadside that followed shattered the enemy's
topsides as might an explosion on her 'tween decks. Two guns of the
after division, loaded with round and grape, swept her full length.
But some of the more impetuous of the crew had not heard, or perhaps
had not heeded the order to return to their stations. Jack Lange had
made a great leap of it, and had caught the edge of the Englishman's
netting. As an acrobat twists himself to circle his trapeze, he swung
himself by sheer strength on to the bowsprit, and gaining his feet, he
stood there an instant, then he jumped over the bulwarks on to the
enemy's deck and disappeared. The handful of men who had sought to
follow his leadership had all failed their object, for a slant of the
wind had hove the two vessels so far apart that they were almost clear
of the tangle of shrouds and top-hamper that had made them fast. But
one man had made a spring of it and had caught the bight of one of the
downhauls that was hanging free. Hand over hand he hauled himself up to
the nettings, and after considerable difficulty--for he was all but
exhausted--he succeeded in getting his body half-way across the
bulwarks, and then with a lurch he disappeared. During all this, not a
shot had been fired. Every one had watched with anxiety the strange
boarding party of two. What would be the outcome of it? Suddenly, as
the sails that had been tearing and flapping, filled, and the noise
subsided, a strange sound came down from the direction of the other
vessel. It was like a great chorused groan--the mingling of many voices
in a note of agony! Then with a crash they met again, the English ship
fouling hard and fast in the Wasp's mizzen rigging. Lieutenant
Biddle, followed by a score of armed boarders, jumped upon the bulwarks
and endeavored to reach the other vessel and be the first on board. In
this he would have succeeded had not little Midshipman Baker caught his
officers coat-tails and endeavored to emulate his eagerness. But at
last the Lieutenant and his followers gained the deck, there to be
witness of a wonderful sight.
There was a wounded man limply leaning against the wheel. Three
officers were huddled near the taffrail--but one was able to stand upon
his feet; the other two were badly wounded. Jack Lange and McGovern the
Coward had possession of the ship. But somehow, overcome by the sight,
they had not left the forecastle, and it was Lieutenant Biddle's own
hand that lowered away the flag.
His Majesty's sloop of war Frolic was a prize. Frightful had been the
carnage! But twenty of the English crew were fit for duty. She was a
charnel ship. The Wasp had lost but five men killed, and but five men
wounded. Among the latter was Bill Roberts. Although he was shot three
times, the surgeon declared that he would live.
To and fro the boats plied busily. The Frolic's masts fell shortly
after she had been boarded, and now every effort was made to repair
damages and take care of the many wounded and the dying.
Every one talked about McGovern, he who had been the Coward; he who
had cringed to the loblolly boys, and who had taken orders from the
ward-room steward; who had washed dishes and dodged blows; he was the
hero of the day. And how did he take all this new glory, the admiring
glances and the remarks of his messmates? Not as a vainglorious seeker
of reputation, not as a careless daredevil who had risked recklessly
his life for the mere excitement; but as a cool-headed, brave-hearted
man, who while there was yet work to do found no time to think of what
had been done. He was reincarnate, as if during the fire and smoke,
when the hand of death was everywhere, the spirit to do, and dare, had
been born within him. Forgotten had been the red scars of the
disgracing cat that seared his back. Here was his chance to show what
was in him; to even up matters with the power that had almost crushed
his soul. Every shot from the Wasp's side made his heart beat with
joy. The born fighter had been awakened. He craved for more, and
animated by this feeling he went about his work with a half-delirious
strength that made him accomplish the task of two men. All eyes were on
him. His officers had marked him.
"Sail ho!" called down one of the men who was clearing away the
wreckage aloft. "Sail ho! off the starboard bow."
Driven by the strong breeze that had blown throughout the morning a
great sail was bearing down, looming larger and larger every minute.
The Wasp cleared for action. The Frolic, aided by the little jury
masts that had been hastily rigged, was ordered to bear away to the
southward before the wind. The Wasp, wounded and bedraggled as she
was, bore up to meet the oncomer.
Slowly the great shape rose out of the water, sail by sail. A tier of
guns! another! and a third!--a seventy-four! With two ridges of white
foam playing out from her broad bow, she bowled along and passed so
close that her great yard arms almost overshadowed the little wounded
sloop. There came the sound of a single gun, and at this imperious
order the Wasp's flag fluttered to the deck. It had not needed this
sight of the red cross curling and uncurling across the white expanse
of new sail to mark her as one of the great guard ships of old England.
English she was from truck to keelson, and long before she fired that
disdainful shot the gunners of the Wasp had put out their smoking
And McGovern had watched her come with an ever-changing expression in
his eyes. His face, flushed with excitement and victory, had paled.
Once he had started as if to run below and hide. There was something
familiar in those towering masts and that gleaming white figurehead,
and as she sailed on to retake the little Frolic, McGovern was
compelled to hold fast to the bitts to prevent himself from falling.
The ports were crowded with jeering faces. The quarter-deck rail was
lined with laughing officers, in cocked hats and white knee-breeches.
Under her stern gallery he read the word Poictiers! From that he
glanced up at the main yard arm. Men had swung there at the end of a
rope--yes, he had once seen a convulsive, struggling figure black
against the sky. Men would swing there again! The maxim that 'a
deserter has no defence' recurred to him. He glanced about. Close by
was a chain-shot, two nine-pound solid shot connected by a foot of
heavy links. Like one afraid of being seen, he skulked across the deck
as he had skulked in the days before. He reached the side where part of
the bulwarks had been torn away, and crouching there he passed the end
of his heavy belt through a link of the chain, and without a sound
lurched forward, all huddled up, and struck sideways in the water.
Next: The Scapegoat
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