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Sea StoriesAncient Ships And Navigators
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As we have been led, in writing about ships of the n...
"Twenty of those confounded Yankees give me more trouble than three
decks full of Frenchmen," remarked Captain Brower of the prison-ship
Spartan, one of the fleet of dismantled battle-ships that thronged
the harbor of Plymouth, England.
Lieutenant Barnard, commanding the neat little sloop of war Sparrow,
then on the guard station, laughed.
"They are troublesome beggars, sure enough," he said; "but the funny
thing is that they behave almost exactly the way our fellows do, or at
least would under the same circumstances; that I verily believe."
"Well, such insolence and impudence I never saw in my life," returned
Brower. "I shall be glad when I get rid of this last batch and will
rest easy when they have been sent ashore to Dartmoor. You should have
seen the way they behaved about two weeks ago. Let me see, it was the
evening of the fourth, I believe. In fact the whole day through they
were at it--skylarking and speech-making and singing."
It was July, 1814. Many vessels in the government service of Great
Britain, returning from America, or from the high seas, brought into
Plymouth crews of American vessels, and not a few of the troops
captured about the Lakes and on the Canadian frontier had been brought
over also. They were usually kept on board one of the prison hulks for
three or four months; sometimes it was a year or more before they were
transferred to the military prisons, the largest of which was situated
at Dartmoor, and the second in size at Stapleton, not far from the town
of Gloucester. Although the prison-ships and the prisons themselves
were crowded with Frenchmen, the Yankees were three or four times as
much trouble to control and to command. When they were not planning to
escape, they were generally bothering the sentinels, drawing up
petitions, or having some row or other, if only for the fun of turning
out the guard.
"I wish somebody else had this position," grumbled Captain Brower,
pouring out a glass of port. "I don't think that I was made for it.
When I am left alone, I am liable to become too lenient, and when I am
angered, perhaps I may be too hasty.... At any rate, I wish some one
else was here in my place.... I had to laugh the other day, though; you
know old Bagwigge of the Germanicus, here alongside, what a
hot-tempered, testy old fellow he is? Well, the other day he was
walking up and down his old quarter-deck, and about fourscore of my
Yankee prisoners were up on deck for air and exercise. Suddenly they
began singing. Now, I don't object to that; if they'd never do anything
worse, I'd be happy. They've only cut four holes through different
parts of this ship, and once well-nigh scuttled her; but never mind; to
go on: Bagwigge, he walks to the side and shouts across to my vessel:
'Hi, there! you confounded Yankees! avast that everlasting row.' I
didn't see that it was any of his business, as it was on my own ship;
but the Yankees--I wish you had seen them, Barnard, upon my soul."
"What did they do? Slanged him, I suppose, terrible."
"Well, you see," continued Captain Brower, "the potatoes had just been
given out for the use of the prison mess cooks, and three big baskets
of them lay there on the deck. One of the Yankees threw a potato that
caught old Captain B. fair and square on the side of his head,
capsizing his hat and nearly fetching away his ear. 'You insolent
villains!' he cried, almost jumping up on the rail, 'I'll make you
sweat your blood for this.' Well, ha, ha, not only one potato was
thrown this time, but about half a bushel. I' faith, but those rascals
were good shots. Old Bagwigge, he was raked fore and aft. Turning, he
ran for it, and dove in the cabin."
The younger man laughed. The officer about whom the tale had been told
was not popular in the service. He had had no Americans on board his
prison hulk, and the Frenchmen who were temporarily his guests trembled
at his frown and cringed at his gesture. He was an overbearing,
hot-tempered martinet, and was hated accordingly. But this was not the
end of Captain Brower's story, and as soon as the Lieutenant had
stopped laughing, he resumed:--
"Let me go on, for I haven't finished yet. When Bagwigge returned, he
had with him a file of marines. Up he marches 'em, and the Yankees
greeted them with a cheer, and then seeing that the Captain was going
to speak to them, they desisted to let him talk.
"'Now,' he said, 'you impudent scoundrels, below with you; every
mother's son of you, or I'll----' He hadn't got any farther than that
when the same fellow who threw the first potato hit him again. He was
only about forty feet away, you know, and with such force was the
vegetable thrown that it nearly took his head off his shoulders.
'Fire!' he roared. 'Fire at them!' I doubt whether the marines could
have taken aim, they were so busy dodging potatoes, and as for Bagwigge
himself, he was jumping, bubbling, and sizzling like a blob of butter
in a skillet. I rushed forward and jumped on to the forecastle rail.
"'If you dare fire, Captain Bagwigge,' I cried, 'you'll swing for it!'
At this, he dove down the companionway again, with his marines after
him. I turned to the prisoners and ordered them below, where they went
readily enough. As to Bagwigge, I don't suppose that I'll hear from him
again; I hope that he will attend to his own vessel and leave mine
All this conversation, or at least the relation of Captain Brower's
story, had taken place in the Spartan's cabin, and when the two
officers left, a detail of the prisoners was on the deck, walking
briskly back and forth under the eyes of armed sentries, who guarded
the gangways and patrolled narrow board walks, raised some two or three
feet above the hammock-nettings.
"Do you see that tall, brown fellow, there?" asked Captain Brower,
pointing. "He is the one who did such sharp shooting with the
"A strange-looking creature, surely," responded the Commander of the
Sparrow. "He looks a half-tamed man. Well, I wish you less trouble
and all success. Good day to you; I have to return to my ship."
Brower turned and went back into his cabin. Although he did not know
it, and would have denied it if he had been told the truth, he was
exactly the man for the position, for he was just and painstaking,
humane and careful. Although there had been all sorts of attempts to
escape formulated among the Yankees, and almost carried into successful
execution, Brower had not lost a single prisoner, and his presence
among them could restore order and quell a disturbance better than the
parading of a file of soldiers.
They were a strange lot, these captives. They came from all walks of
life, and from every sort of place. Raw militiamen, who had been
surrendered by Hull (the army Hull, mark you, not the brave Commodore),
privateersmen, captured in all sorts of crafts and dressed in all
fashions, but now principally in rags, and men-of-warsmen who had given
themselves up while serving on board English ships rather than fight
against their country. These last held themselves rather aloof from the
others and messed by themselves. Poor devils, they had never had the
satisfaction, even, of having struck a blow. They had turned from one
kind of slavery to another; that was all.
The tall, odd-looking figure that Captain Brower had pointed out,
belonged to the wildest mess on the orlop deck. His appearance might,
perhaps, be called startling; he was far from ill-looking, with
straight aquiline features, deep-set and quick black eyes that could
laugh or look cruel almost at the same moment. His teeth were
beautifully white and even, and although he was not heavy or compact
looking, he was as strong almost as any two other men on board the
ship. He spoke English without an accent, but with an odd form and
phrasing that would have attracted attention to him anywhere. His clear
skin was the color of new copper sheathing, and his straight black hair
that was gathered sailor fashion into a queue was as coarse as a
horse's mane. The grandson of a chief he was, a descendant of the line
of kings that had ruled the Narragansett tribes--a full-blooded Indian.
But he rejoiced in no fine name. A sailor before the mast he had been
since his sixteenth year, and he had appeared on the books of the
privateer brig Teaser as John Vance, A.B. It is a wrong supposition
that an Indian will never laugh or that he is not a fun-maker. John
Vance was constantly skylarking, and he was a leader in that, as he was
in almost all the games of skill or strength. Every one liked him, and
to a certain extent he was feared, for a tale was told in which John
and a knife figured extensively. The flash that would come into his eye
gave warning often when the danger limit was being approached, yet he
was popular, and even the detested marine guard treated him with some
deference. In the last attempt to escape, the Narragansett had been
captured after he had swum half-way to the shore and had dived more
than twenty times to escape musket-balls from the guard-ships. Suddenly
the order came "Prisoners below"--and the ship-bell struck eight
sonorous strokes. As the last four or five men left the deck, the
Indian touched one of them upon the shoulder.
"Watch me," he said, "and say nothing."
There was a narrow door in a bulkhead close to the companionway, but
out of reach unless there was something like a box or barrel on which
to stand. It was closed by a padlock thrust through two iron staples.
As John descended, he caught the combing of the hatch and drew himself
up to a level with his chin. Holding himself there with one arm, he
reached forward and caught the padlock in his brown, sinewy fingers.
Slowly he turned his hand. The iron bent and gave a little. A grin
crossed his face. Swinging himself forward, he landed on a man's
shoulders beneath him, and with a wild warwhoop he tumbled a half-dozen
down the rest of the ladder, and they sprawled in a heap on the deck.
Disdaining to notice the half-humorous curses, he sprang to his feet.
Three other men who belonged to his mess followed him.
"Can you do it, Red?" asked one.
"Yes, surely," John replied. "So I can to-night."
The whole of the gun-deck forward of the forecastle hatch had been
divided, by a strong partition, into a sort of storeroom. There was one
entrance into it from above from the topgallant forecastle, where part
of the marine guard were stationed, and the other opening onto the
hatchway, to be used in case of emergency.
It was just past the midnight watch when four stealthy figures crept
out from the shadows into the light of the dingy lantern that hung at
the foot of the companionway. At night there was only one sentry
stationed there, and he generally sat halfway up the ladder, and it was
impossible for the prisoners to tell without crossing the dead-line
that was drawn at night whether he was asleep or not. This was the risk
that had to be undertaken; for if the man should see any one pass
beneath that old rope that was drawn across the deck, he would have a
right to fire. If the fellow was asleep, yet to gain the deck above,
the venturesome prisoner would have to pass within arm's length of him.
Perhaps John Vance had inherited from his long line of red ancestors
the peculiar knack of moving without sound, the art of crawling on his
belly like a snake, perhaps he had a acquired it by constant practice
since he had been a prisoner. For it was his boast, and one that had
been proved to be true, that contrary to rules he had visited every
part of the ship, and after hours; as has been told, he had been
retaken a number of times when just on the point of making good his
The three seamen who accompanied him on this occasion could see the
legs of the sentry from the knee down, as he sat on the steps of the
ladder leading to the berth-deck above. They could also see the butt of
his musket as it rested beside him. Vance had disappeared in the black
shadow that lay along the starboard side, and now the watchers saw a
curious thing take place. The sentry's musket suddenly tilted forward,
as if of its own volition, and then disappeared backward into the
darkness, without a sound, much in the manner of a vanishing slide in a
magic lantern. The man's legs did not move.
"He is asleep," whispered Ned Thornton to Bill Pratt.
"He's asleep," reiterated Bill Pratt to Gabe Sackett, who made the
fourth one of the "constant plotters," as they were termed by the other
But in one minute that sentry was seen to be very wide awake indeed.
That is, if movement signified wakefulness. His legs shot out in two
vicious and sudden kicks. A hand, with wide-spread, reaching fingers,
stretched out as if searching for the missing musket. The man wriggled
from one side to another and floundered helplessly, with his body
half-way off the edge of the ladder. But not one sound did he utter!
"Red's got hold of him," croaked Thornton, and with the assurance of
hunters who had watched their quarry step into the trap that held him
fast, they stepped forward without fear or caution.
It was as Thornton had said. The poor sentry's head was wedged against
the steps. Around his throat were clasped the fingers of two sinewy,
bronze-colored hands that held the victim as closely and in as deadly a
clasp as might the strap of the Spanish garrote. The scene was really
horrible. Sackett leaned about the edge of the ladder, and then he saw
what a wonderful thing the Narragansett had done. The combing of the
hatchway was fully six feet from where the sentry sat. Below yawned the
black abyss into the mid-hold. Across this Vance had been forced to
lean, balancing himself with one hand when he relieved the sentry of
his musket, and then springing forward he had caught him from behind,
about the throat. There the Indian hung as a man might hang over the
mouth of a well. No wonder the unfortunate marine had been unable to
"Let go of him, Red," whispered Gabe. "You've choked him enough." The
Indian stretched out one of his feet and hooked it over the hatch
combing. With a supple movement and without a stumble, he stood erect
upon the deck. The sentry would have plunged over into the hold, had
not the two others grasped him firmly by the shoulders. They carried
him to one side and laid him in the deep shadow against a bulkhead. He
was breathing, but insensible.
The rest of the escape can be told in a few words: The lock of the door
leading into the storeroom was wrenched away, and noiselessly the four
entered, closing it behind them. They had been just in time, for they
could hear, on the deck above, the new watch coming on. A port on one
side of the storeroom was guarded by three flimsy iron bars. There was
enough light outside from the young moon to show the direction of the
Vance bent the irons double at the first attempt. They were almost
twenty feet above the water, for the old hulk floated high. But
everything seemed working for the furtherance of their plan. There was
a new coil of rope on the deck, and looking out of the port right
beneath them, they could see a ship's dingy with the oars in it.
Sackett slid down first; the other two followed, and Vance remained
until the last. No sooner had he made the boat in safety than a great
hubbub and confusion sounded through the ship. There came a sharp blare
of a bugle, the rolling of the alarm drum, and they could hear the
slamming of the heavy hatches that prevented communication from one
part of the vessel to the other. The prisoners, cooped up below, knew
what it all meant. Some one was out, and there in the pitch darkness
they fell to cheering.
But to return to the "constant plotters," in the dingy: they had made
but a dozen boat's-lengths when they were discovered, for there was
light enough to see objects a long distance across the water. There
came a quick hail, followed by a spurt of flame.
"Lord!" Pratt, who was pulling stroke oar with Sackett alongside of
him, groaned; "I caught that in the shoulder." One of his arms drooped
helplessly, but he continued rowing with the other.
"Let go," grunted Sackett; "I can work it alone--lie down in the stern
There were three or four vessels, mostly prison or sheer hulks, to be
passed before they gained the shore. From each one there came a volley.
Poor Sackett received a ball through his lungs and fell into the bottom
of the boat, bleeding badly. And now the boats were after them!
Vance and Thornton pulled lustily at the oars; but the others gained a
foot in every four. The dingy was splintered by the hail of
musket-balls. One of the prison hulks--the last they had to pass--let
go a carronade loaded with grape. It awoke the echoes of the old town.
So close was the charge delivered that it had hardly time to scatter,
and churned the water into foam just astern of the little boat as if
some one had dumped a bushel of gravel stones into the waters of the
harbor. Not three hundred feet ahead of the foremost pursuing boat, the
dingy's keel grated on the shingle.
The Narragansett sprang out, Thornton after him. Sackett could not be
raised. Pratt, holding his wounded and disabled arm, staggered up the
incline towards some stone steps leading to the roadway above. But he
had hardly reached the foot when there came another shot. He fell face
downward and made no attempt to rise. Sackett and he would join in no
more plots; but Vance and Thornton were now running down a side street.
They dodged about a corner into an alley; crossed a small common, and
just as they reached the other side they ran, bows on, into a heavy
cloaked figure, who, seeing their haste, hailed them peremptorily, and
sprang a huge rattle, making much the same noise that a small boy does
when he runs down a picket fence with a stick. Thornton was laboring
ahead like a wherry in a tideway. But the Indian was striding along
like a racehorse, with the easy, springing gait inherited from his own
father, "Chief Fleetfoot," who, if the story told be true, could run
down a red deer in the woods. He turned to assist his comrade by taking
hold of him and giving him a tow. But as he did so, Thornton's foot
struck a round stone and he fell forward, and lay there groaning.
"Run on, Red! run on!" he cried breathlessly. "I've broken a leg;
something's carried away in my pins; on with you!"
"Come you with me too," answered the Narragansett, pulling Thornton to
his feet with one hand; but the poor lad groaned and fell again.
"Run ahead, curse you!" he said. "Don't stay here and be taken!"
The watchman's rattle had attracted the notice of the people in the
houses. Windows were opened and heads were thrust forth, and from about
a corner came another cloaked figure carrying a lantern, and a big pike
was in his hand.
There was nothing else to do, and, obeying Thornton's angry order, the
Indian struck out again into his long distance-covering gait. Which way
he ran it made little matter to him. He did not know the country; he
had no plans; but the feel of the springy earth beneath his feet was
good to him. The sight of the stars shining through the branches of the
trees overhead--for he had soon reached the open country and left the
town behind him--made him breathe the air in long, deep breaths, and
tempted him to shout. It was freedom; liberty! The dim moonlight
softened everything, and to his mind he seemed to be flying. He passed
by great stone archways leading to private parks and great estates.
Twice he had avoided little hamlets of thatched cottages. Once he had
run full speed through the streets of a little village, and had been
hailed by the watchman, who sprang his harmless rattle. But it was
growing light. He must find some place to hide, for travel during the
daytime he knew he could not. Leaping a fence, he made his way into an
adjoining field and lay down, panting, beneath some bushes.
Soon cocks began to crow; daylight widened; a bell in an ivy-covered
tower tolled musically. Insects commenced their morning hum; birds
twittered, and people moved out to their toil. From his hiding-place
the Narragansett watched the unusual sight. In a field below him--for
he lay at the top of a small hill--he could see some men and women
working in a field of grain. One of the girls had placed a basket
beneath the shade of a bush. The Indian was hungry. It required little
trouble to snake himself through the grass and secure the contents of
the little hamper, a loaf of bread and a large piece of cheese. Then he
carefully replaced the cover and stole back to his former hiding-place.
Soon he observed, in the road below him, a man riding along at a fast
gait; he pulled in his horse and shouted something to the workers in
the field. This done, he rode at top speed into the village. Very soon
another horseman appeared, and soon quite a little band of them, among
whom was a mounted soldier or two, and three or four in the pink coats
of the hunting-field.
But near footsteps sounded. A man in leather gaiters, with a
fowling-piece over his shoulder, was coming down a little path from
some deep woods on the right. A setter dog played in front of him. The
man was reading a freshly printed notice. The ink was smeared from
handling. The man spelled it out aloud. "Escaped from the hulks; a
dangerous prisoner; a wild American Indian; ten pounds reward," and
much more of it.
All of a sudden the dog stopped; then with a short bark, he sprang
forward. At the same instant the gamekeeper dropped the printed notice
that had been handed to him but a minute previously by a horseman on
the road. Surely he could not be mistaken, something had dodged down
behind yonder hedge; and as the setter sprang forward, barking
viciously, a strange figure arose, a man with a copper-colored face,
and streaming, unkempt, black locks; he wore big gold ear-rings, and he
was clad in a torn canvas shirt and trousers, with a sailor's
neckerchief around his throat. The dog was bounding forward when
suddenly the figure raised its arm. No cricketer that ever played on
the village green could throw with such unerring force. A large stone
struck the dog and took the fight out of him. Yelping, he sneaked back
to his master's heels. The startled gamekeeper raised his gun and
fired. Whether it was because of his sudden fright or the quickness
with which the agile figure dropped at the flash, the charge whistled
harmlessly through the leaves. But the sound of the shot had attracted
the attention of the people in the fields. A cry arose, as a weird
figure broke from the bushes and dashed down the hill, making for the
"Gone away! gone away! whoop, hi!"--the view hallo of the huntsman.
A man in a red coat had sighted the chase. He leaped a fence, and four
or five other horsemen followed. Soon there came the shrill yelping of
the dogs as they found the plain trail of the barefoot man running for
It was a great run, that man-hunt, and one remembered to this day. Over
fence and hedge, across ditch and stream, the Narragansett led them. No
trained hurdler that ever ran across country in the county of
Devonshire could have held the pace that Vance kept up. Twice he threw
them off the scent by running up a stream and doubling on his tracks.
But the whole countryside was out and after him. The dogs were gaining
on him swiftly, and at last at the foot of a great oak they had him
cornered. He fought them off with a broken branch, and soon the pack
surrounded him in a yelping circle, not daring to come nearer.
Up came the huntsmen. They halted at some distance and talked among
themselves. Who among them was brave enough to go up and lay hold of
this strange wild man? They called off the dogs and waited for the
soldiers. Eight or ten yokels and some farmer folks joined the gaping
crowd. Five men appeared with muskets, and one with a long coil of
rope. But all this time the Narragansett had stood there with his back
against an oak tree, with a sneer on his thin lips. They talked aloud
as to how they should capture him. Some were for shooting him down at
once; but as yet no one had addressed a word to him direct. Surely, he
must speak an outlandish foreign tongue! Suddenly, the fugitive took a
step forward and raised his hand.
"Englishmen," he said, "listen to me."
All started back in astonishment. Why, this wild man spoke their own
"Who is the chief here? Who is the captain?" Every one looked at a
middle-aged man astride a sturdy brown cob. He was the Squire, and
magistrate of the neighborhood.
"Well, upon my soul," he began, "I suppose----"
But the Narragansett interrupted him. "To you I give myself," he said,
advancing. He glanced at the others with supreme contempt. As he came
forward, he held out his hand, and involuntarily the man on horseback
stretched forth his. It was a strange sight, that greeting. The crowd
gave way a little, and three or four mounted dragoons came tearing up
hill. They stopped in astonishment.
"You gave us a good run," said the Squire, with some embarrassment, not
knowing what to say.
"You are too many; I am your prisoner," was the answer.
No one laid hands on him. Walking beside the Squire's horse down to the
road, followed by the gaping, gabbling crowd, who still, however, kept
aloof, the Narragansett walked proudly erect. When he reached the
highway, he turned. There was a cart standing there. The Squire
dismounted from his horse and spoke a few words to the driver. Then he
mounted to the seat. John Vance sprang up beside him. At a brisk pace
they started down the road towards Portsmouth, the soldiers and the
horsemen trailing on behind them. At the landing where the boat from
the old Spartan met them--for a horseman had ridden on with the
news--was waiting a sergeant of marines. He advanced with a pair of
"None of that!" exclaimed the Squire. "This man has given me his word."
"The word of a chief's son," put in the Narragansett. The two men shook
hands again; then proudly John Vance stepped into the boat, and
unmanacled sat there in the stern sheets.
In twenty minutes he was once more down in the close, foul-smelling
The only notice taken of the Narragansett's break for liberty was the
fact that he was numbered among the next detail bound for Dartmoor; but
the tradition of the man-hunt of Squire Knowlton's hounds, and its
curious ending, lives in Devonshire to-day.
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