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The “great Eastern”
The Escape Of Symington
Captain Myron Symington was a long-legged Yankee. There was no
mistaking him for anything else but an out-and-out downeaster. As to
the length of his underpinning, that was apparent also. When seated, he
did not appear above the average height; but when erect he stood head
and shoulders above the crowd, so of course it was in his legs.
Symington spoke English with a lazy drawl, and conversation ebbed from
him much after the manner that smoke issues from a tall chimney on a
perfectly still day--it rolled forth in slow volumes. But Symington's
French was very different; he could be clearly understood, for he spoke
it well; but he discharged every word like a pistol shot, and he paused
between each sentence as if he had to load and prime, and cast loose
for the next.
Since the beginning of the war Symington had not been to America. But
he had sent many messages thither; and although his headquarters were
at Brest when ashore, and the English Channel and the Bay of Biscay
when afloat, his name had become well known in the United States, and
he had done a thriving international business on his own account--which
may require some explaining.
The little privateer Rattler (of which he was owner and commander)
had sent home no less than twenty vessels that had been snapped up when
almost under the guns of England's coastwise fortresses. Whenever he
needed provisioning or recruiting, Symington would make for one of the
French ports, run the blockade that the English had established the
whole length of the coast, drop his anchor in the harbor, and then get
anything he chose for the mere asking for it; for Symington's name was
as good and in fact better than the promise of some governments. Years
before the outbreak of the war Symington had commanded the fastest and
luckiest Yankee craft engaged in the European trade that sailed from
Baltimore or Boston. He was a good seaman, it was reputed that he was
immensely wealthy, and many believed also that he possessed some charm
or fetich that insured success. Certainly it had crowned his endeavors
to divert the direction of Great Britain's proper freight ships.
Symington was sitting at a table in one of the cafes off the Rue
Bonaparte in the city of Brest, and he had just finished a very heavy
noonday meal. Suddenly glancing up, he saw a man go past the door
leading from the hallway into the garden. Lengthening himself to his
full height by a succession of jerks, in a couple of strides he had
caught the man by the elbow and almost pulled him back into the room.
"Just back, ain't ye, Captain Edgar?" he drawled.
"Post haste," the man replied, "from Paris."
"Well, I should say there was. By Hickey, Captain, Napoleon's jig is
up! Already the people are showing the white cockade, and those who yet
fly the tricolor have the other in their pocket."
"So!" exclaimed Symington, prolonging the syllable until it sounded
like a yawn; "then our friends the English will have a finger in the
pie in short order. It is a shame that they will have to break up such
a harmless and profitable business, this Channel cruising."
It was April of the year 1814. Europe had completed the humiliation of
the little great man who had come nigh to conquering her, unaided. And
as soon as the last of his ramparts were down, any one with common
sense could see what would be the outcome of it all. The exiled King,
Louis the Eighteenth, who had been hiding in London, would be placed
upon the throne! To Great Britain more than to any other power he would
owe his translation from debt, poverty, and seclusion to position,
affluence, and a crown. From being England's enemy, France would become
her ally. Could it be expected of her to continue to harbor in her
ports those ocean pests, the Yankee privateers, who had compelled
England to give the services of two-thirds of her fighting force to
convoying and guarding her merchant fleets?
Symington and his friend, the short man, seated themselves at a table
and continued the conversation.
"I'd put to sea to-morrow if I had enough of a crew to work the old
Siren," said the little Captain. "I had hard enough work getting
into port after manning all my prizes. But if I could get four more
good hands, I'd have enough."
"There are just fourteen men-o'-war and three battle-ships off the
harbor mouth, and what chance would ye have of gettin' through this
open weather?" grumbled Symington. "We'll have to wait until we get a
good blow out of the southeast; that'll scatter 'em, and then, by Hick,
we can make a try for it. Two weeks longer, and we'll probably have no
"I'll be startin' for Boston town some dark night this week, Captain
Symington, just as soon as I get men enough to handle the Siren's
main sheet, as I told ye."
"And I, too, Captain Edgar, as soon as I get enough hands to get up the
Rattler's anchor. But I'll choose my weather, sir!"
After a few words more the two skippers shook hands and left the cafe,
each bound to the waterfront by a different direction. It was certainly
a peculiar position that the Yankee craft found themselves occupying
about this time in European waters. Sometimes they would be in a port
where lay eight or ten half-dismantled frigates, and over twice as many
smaller cruisers and merchantmen belonging to the Empire, all cooped up
and kept in there by four or five English sloops of war, or perhaps a
guard ship of fifty or sixty guns patrolling up and down the harbor
mouth. On the other side of the water, however, the English had
succeeded in blockading but one American frigate, the Constellation,
early in the war. Afterwards for a few months they hemmed in the
United States, the Macedonian, and the little Hornet in the
harbor of New London; but what would not the United States have given
to have possessed those thousands of idle guns that lay in the French
naval stations? She would have manned the helms, spread the sails, and
put those great hulks into motion. She might even have done a little
"fleet sailing" on her own account.
But there was some excuse for France. Napoleon had depleted his
seacoasts to fill his armies. There were not sufficient able seamen to
answer the demand, and besides, so long had the French run away from
the English at sea, that a thirty-eight-gun frigate of the Empire had
been known to escape a meeting with a British twenty-gun sloop by
turning tail and making off. The French flag was a rarity afloat. So
every time the Yankee privateers entered or left a port it was
necessary to run the blockade that the British had established at the
entrance. As this was the state of the home ports also, they had become
quite used to it. Seldom or never were they caught in the act.
But the day came, as the Yankee captains had agreed it would, when
Napoleon succumbed entirely. Out came the white cockades; the tricolor
disappeared. No longer was it "the Emperor," but "the King," and the
first request that England made was that the Yankee shipping in French
ports should be confiscated and the privateers detained. Great was the
consternation of the skippers; some who had crews sufficient in number
to man their vessels put to sea instanter and were taken in by the
Channel squadron forthwith. Others remained waiting for the weather to
thicken and trusting that King Louis would hesitate long enough to give
them a chance for life. But the order came at last. The privateers were
to be allowed to leave the harbor any time they found a chance to do
so; but before they left, the French King, who was holding fast to his
rickety throne, and was merely kept in place by the supporting arms of
England, Russia, and Germany, issued a decree. It was to the effect
that the vessels should sail unarmed; that their broadsides should be
taken from them, their cutlasses and small-arms removed, and thus shorn
of their teeth and claws, they should be allowed to depart. As every
merchantman, almost without exception, in those days carried at least
four or five guns handy on the spar deck, this decree was equivalent to
presenting them to any English vessel that might get range of them.
Before the order could be executed more of the vessels got to sea, and
not a few were gobbled up at once by the English cruisers; some were
forced to put back again, and only one or two ever reached the shores
The day the news arrived early in May, Captain Edgar was one of the
first to get his anchor in and make out past the headland as soon as
dusk had settled. In a few minutes Symington, also, although his vessel
was very short-handed, was getting up his mainsail, and he too would
have sailed no doubt, had there not suddenly arisen a sound of firing
from the offing. Of course there being now peace between France and
England, it was possible for the English ships to anchor beside the
Americans if they had chosen to do so, and in fact in some of the
harbors so penned in were the privateers, that, as one captain
expressed it, "they would have to sail across the deck of a
seventy-four to escape to sea." England had respected the neutrality of
the French ports thus far; but if an American vessel was seen preparing
to get under way, she would be watched carefully, and if not
accompanied by an English ship, her going out would be signalled to the
blockaders off the shore. As the cannonading was kept up for so long a
time, Captain Symington supposed, or at least hoped, that the Siren
had escaped her enemies. Perhaps the confusion that followed would be a
good moment for him to take advantage of, and he determined to sail out
But it was not to be; for hardly had he got under way when he was
boarded by a cutter filled with armed men, under the command of a
Frenchman, dressed in a voluminous coat and a huge cocked hat, who
described himself in a breathless sentence as "Monsieur le Capitaine
Georges Binda, Inspector of the Port for His Majesty, King Louis." But
a few months previously he had been at Napoleon's beck and call, having
been one of the recruiting officers of the district.
Captain Symington's expostulations were of no avail, although owing to
his peculiar manner of speech, they appealed to the whole harbor.
His long twelve-pounder was taken from him, and his neat little battery
of carronades, six on a side, were confiscated also. Before noon of the
next day the Rattler had been changed from a tiger cat to a harmless
The discomforting news also arrived that Captain Edgar had been blown
out of the water, after he had almost succeeded in getting past the
English line. This was most disheartening, and that very day many of
the Americans, despairing of ever getting free, attempted to dispose of
their ships by sale. But not so with Symington. He determined not to
give up until compelled to; to hold out until the very last minute.
The Rattler was light in ballast, and in trim for fast sailing. There
were enough men now on board of her to handle her at a pinch, and she
could have shown a clean pair of heels to any one of the English
cruisers then afloat. Although not altogether a beauty to look at, for
she was a comparatively old vessel, she was marvellously quick in
stays, and came about like a sharpie. In pointing, too, she was a
marvel, and once given the windward gage she could choose her own
distance. No man could sail the Rattler the way Symington could, and
no skipper ever knew the capacities or character of his craft better
than did the lank Yankee. She was his pet; why give her up to be sailed
by a lubberly Frenchman? The very first chance he saw he was going to
take. It arrived no later than the second evening after the despoiling.
The moon came up early in the morning; but about an hour or so before
the time for her appearance a soft gray fog blew in from the sea. At
first the great outline of a British troop-ship close alongside on the
Rattler's port hand disappeared gradually. Then the numerous anchor
lights and the lanterns of the town that had been twinkling brightly in
the darkness became but hazy blurs of light through the thickening
mist. But when the moon began to cast her silvery light, a marvellous
thing happened that caused the second mate, who was on watch, to hurry
down into the cabin and call Captain Symington to the deck. The rays of
moonlight in the fog caused an opaque, impenetrable veil to surround
the ship. So thick was it, that the sensation was as if a white cloth
had been tied across the eyes. The masts disappeared a few feet above
the deck. If one turned around, it was impossible to tell in which
direction the vessel extended. The Rattler lay but a few hundred
feet astern of a big French brig that was anchored with a stream anchor
over her side to keep her from swinging in toward a point of rocks
which was surmounted by a small battery. As soon as Captain Symington
reached the deck he stepped across to the bulwarks, and lowering
himself down as far as he could go by the chains he perceived what
often happens in thick weather: the fog was lifted some feet from the
surface of the water, and close to the water objects could be discerned
at some distance. There was not wind enough to sail; to use the sweeps
would have called down on him a fleet of armed small craft in an
instant! Well he knew that rather than see him escape, the transport
would go afoul of him and try to explain matters afterwards.
Now Captain Symington had a remarkably retentive memory. It was said
that he never had to look at a chart more than twice; that he could
take a vessel over shoals where he had been only once before, and that,
years previously. Now this gift stood him in good stead. Just ahead of
him lay the big French brig. Within a cable's length of her, a large
French man-of-war, but half dismantled; beyond, an English sloop; then
two more vessels. Once outside of them, and there was nothing to
prevent him from gaining the mouth of the harbor! How was it to be
done? The fog might last for two or three hours, and yet again it might
disappear at any moment. But Symington was not discouraged; a brilliant
idea came to him; the crew were called into the cabin, and there by the
dim light of a lantern Captain Symington explained his plan.
The men listened in astonishment. Many stories of wonderful escapes had
they heard, and many adventures had they been through; but such a bold
plan of action they had never heard proposed before.
When all hands returned to the deck, there was not a sound. Although
having almost to feel their way, a light new cable was brought up and
flaked neatly up and down the deck. Then Captain Symington took the end
of it into the stern sheets of his gig, which was silently dropped into
the water, and with four men pulling at the carefully muffled oars he
made off from beneath the bows, heading for the big French brig, the
cable noiselessly paying out into the water over the Rattler's bows.
It did not take him long to make fast to the moorings of the brig. This
done, he waited anxiously.
"They are heaving away now, sir," whispered one of the men in the bow
of the boat. Sure enough, the cable had tautened under the strain that
was being put upon it. Symington at first feared that some attention
might be attracted on board the Frenchman; but there came no sound, and
he knew that his people on board the Rattler had silently slipped
moorings and that she had way upon her.
On board the privateer's deck, barefooted men were walking away with
the cable over their shoulders and causing their light vessel to come
boldly along through the water. At a certain length from where the
cable was to be made fast, a bit of marline had been tied, and when
this came inboard the orders were to 'vast heaving, belay, and drop the
anchor that had been only "hove short"; that is, lifted from the sand.
Soon this point was reached. Symington, cast loose, came on board; a
second cable was prepared and spliced to the first, and off he started
to make fast to the next vessel lying farther out.
And thus did Symington warp himself beyond the mouth of the inner
harbor to a place where he considered it safe enough to get out his
sweeps. Manning these, for an hour and more he kept at it. But it was
dangerous work. The tides were going down, and although he kept the
lead going, he might run on one of the sand-bars at any moment. That he
was well out of the channel he knew to a certainty. So at last he
dropped anchor, silently, and patiently waited for the fog that had
saved him so far, to clear up enough for him to get his bearings.
Toward daylight a slight breeze sprang up, and to his alarm Symington
found that a stretch of low beach was under his lee, and it behooved
him well to work the Rattler farther out. Getting sail enough up to
enable him to trip his anchor, he drew away from shore. Slowly the fog
closed down upon him again quite as thick as it had been some hours
previously; but all at once the First Mate, who was forward, cried out
"Starboard your helm! Hard a starboard!"
The Rattler's bow fell off a few points, and at that instant there
came the shock of a collision, followed by a hail in good sea-faring
English, seemingly from up in the air.
"What are you doing there? What vessel is that?" Then there was some
bawling and much noise of movement and another hail in a voice that had
not yet spoken.
"On board that vessel! answer me, or I'll blow you out of the water!"
By this time Captain Symington was firing off his explosive French
sentences, which, as it is impossible to give their full force even in
the language in which they were spoken, we will translate.
"Who are you and what are you doing here? Answer."
"The Cigalle of Havre. I try to get into the harbor here."
There came a laugh from the direction of the strange vessel. "Strange
sort of weather for a Frenchman to be sailing in, sir," some one
observed. "More than likely one of the Yankees trying to get out."
That was exactly what Captain Symington was trying to do, but the
collision with the stranger had carried away his port cathead, and with
it the anchor had gone to the bottom. By the effect of this unfortunate
accident, and the force of the tide, which was now against her, the
Rattler's head was swung around again, and before anything could
prevent it, she once more went afoul of the big vessel, whose decks
towered higher than her cross-trees. There she hung, under the other's
lee, while the English commander, sometimes in French and sometimes in
English, was cursing Symington for a clumsy Frenchman and threatening
to send a shot on board of him.
It was daylight almost and the wind was freshening. Clearer and clearer
the outlines of the great vessel could be seen.
She was an English seventy-four, that, trying to make the harbor, had
been headed off by darkness and had anchored in the roads.
In ten minutes after the breeze began to blow, the air was free from
mist. There was no use in trying to indulge in any deception now. The
character of the small vessel had been discovered by the big one. A
crowd of laughing officers lined the rail, and on her gallery appeared
a number of ladies bound most probably for the new court of the new
King. The wind was off shore. From the shrilling of whistles and
babbling of orders it was seen that the battle-ship was getting under
way. A man in gold lace leaned out over the rail and said in an
"On board the Yankee there! Keep under our lee and return to the
harbor, or we'll sink you instantly; play no tricks, if you value your
safety. Mark you that."
Why it was that the Englishman did not drop a boat and put a prize crew
on board the Rattler, it might be hard to guess. Symington feared
that this would happen, and, although he gave no answer to the
imperious order, he set about obeying it with every evidence of haste
But such clumsy work had never been seen before on board a Yankee
privateer. Often in naval actions in the old sailing days, when orders
were blared through a speaking-trumpet, and not given by little
electric bells and signals, as now we have them, the "rule of contrary"
was passed in order to deceive the enemy who might overhear and thus
"Hard a port" meant "hard a starboard." A vessel that was supposed to
be on the point of luffing would bear away, sheets flying.
Now, on board the Rattler, although no such order had been passed,
the men had understood well enough the whispered word. It is a
well-known fact that the fore-and-aft rig was best understood in
America, where it had really been brought to perfection. The English,
after they had captured a vessel of the Rattler's class, never
succeeded in getting the same sailing qualities out of her, and the
upshot of it was that they generally changed her rigging and cut down
her masts and sail plan. But no crew was ever clumsier than was the
privateer's on this occasion. They tumbled over one another, they got
the halliards twisted, they pretended to be breaking their backs in
getting in the anchor when they were not lifting a pound, and all the
time the First Mate was running hither and thither like the busy man at
the circus, chattering a jargon made up of scraps of Portuguese, Dutch,
and Spanish, while above all the confusion, Captain Symington's
explosive French adjectives rang out like snaps of a whip.
There had not been the least doubt in the English officers' minds a
moment since that the little vessel they were looking down upon was an
American; but now they were somewhat puzzled, and the whole scene was
so laughable that very soon the taffrail was lined again with a
tittering crowd, who discussed, in very audible tones, their varying
But lazily the great ship was swinging about with a great creaking of
yards and flapping of sails. Soon she was moving through the water. A
few minutes later and the Rattler was in her wake, and Captain
Symington, who certainly did not look French, despite his wonderful
vocabulary, made a proud and elaborate bow, and lifted his great beaver
hat to the ladies who were now on the quarter-deck enjoying the sight.
But if the English officers had been puzzled at first and amused
afterwards, there was one person on board H.M.S. Ajax who had enjoyed
the same sensations in a more intensified fashion. He was looking out
of one of the stern ports on the lower gun-deck. A short, thickset man,
who did not belong to the battle-ship's company, for he was a prisoner.
It was Captain Edgar, and it was the Ajax that had picked up the
Siren in a sinking condition after she had sustained the fusillade of
two nights previously. But every foot the Rattler sailed brought her
further into the harbor and lessened the ultimate chances for escape.
But that there was a plan in Captain Symington's mind, Edgar did not
doubt. He knew that the Rattler was as handy as a whip, and he kept
his eyes open for any sudden development. He did not have to wait long;
there came an unexpected shift of the wind more to the southward just
as the Ajax was slowly heaving about to go off on the other tack. It
caught her all aback; the great sails clattered, and her headway
stopped. She had missed stays.
It is no laughing matter for a big ship to have this happen to her when
approaching a harbor or nearing shallow water. At once the boatswain's
whistle began piping away; orders were shouted, and there was trouble
below and aloft.
But what happened to the clumsily handled craft astern? She was
immediately under the port galleries, within half a cable's length,
doddering along under foresail and mainsail. At the first sign of what
had occurred to the battle-ship there ensued a transformation scene.
Have you ever seen an unwilling dog accompanying its master on a walk?
how he sneaks close at the heels, watching his chance when the
attention is not directed to him? How suddenly he turns tail, and after
a few cautious movements that bring him beyond the reach of stick or
arm, he breaks into a run at full speed, disdaining call or whistle,
and puts back for home? That is exactly what the Rattler did.
Scarcely had the canvas of the Ajax begun the ominous fluttering
that showed the change of the wind's direction, than the privateer
swung off to meet it.
Slowly at first and then with a rush she came about like a peg top.
Without an order being given, out broke the great foresail, the
topsails dropped from the gaskets and were sheeted home, and with a
lurch to leeward the Rattler stretched out back over her course
for the harbor entrance, setting her flying kites as she bowled along!
So busy was everybody on board the three-decker, who had troubles of
her own to look after, that no one noticed the sudden manoeuvre of the
privateer; no one except one of the ladies who happened to be the wife
of the Admiral, for the Ajax was a flagship. She, after a minute,
succeeded in attracting the attention of one of the lieutenants, who
with the rest had gone forward to the break of the poop and was
watching what was going on below and above him.
"The little ship," she inquired innocently, "where is she going?"
The officer turned and immediately had to beg the lady's pardon most
abjectly, for he broke forth into an oath.
"Tricked, after all!" he exclaimed, grasping one of his companions by
the arm and pointing.
But there was one other person who had noticed all these goings on. It
was the prisoner on the lower spar-deck.
"You can soak me for a squilgee if that weren't neat," he chuckled, and
then lifting his hands to his cheeks, he roared out something through
The Rattler's Captain, who was at the wheel, had jumped as if the
Ajax had suddenly whirled about and let fly a broadside at him, for
he heard the words as plain as could be.
"Good-by, Captain Symington! Give my regards to all at home!"
He recognized his old friend Edgar's voice, and it gave him a thrill of
pleasure to know that he was alive even if he was a prisoner.
The Ajax was still in stays; but her commander found time to fire his
battery of stern-chasers, the balls whistling harmlessly past the
Rattler's stern, missing her widely. In reply to this Captain
Symington again lifted his old beaver hat.
Far away to the leeward were the sails of the blockading squadron.
Attracted by the firing of the Ajax, they flew their little flags and
crowded on their canvas. But by this time the Rattler had doubled the
point and was making out into the dancing waters of the Channel. And
who was going to touch her where she had sea-room? As if anxious to
have everything understood, Symington raised his ensign. The English
captain, who had been forced to boxhaul his great vessel in order to
avoid running on the shoals, cursed beneath his breath. One of the
ladies turned to the Admiral's wife.
"I wonder why we did not start after her, Madame?" she asked.
"Oh, because we couldn't turn round quick enough, I suppose," she
rejoined. Then turning to her spouse she asked:--
"Was not that it, Sir John?"
"Yes, my dear," responded the Admiral, grimly; "that was just it."
Down below, Captain Edgar had not yet recovered from his laughing fit;
and when he and Captain Myron Symington met again, as they did many
times afterwards, they used to laugh over it together.
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