Sea Stories


The word "Dartmoor" means little to the ear of the American of this generation, for it is the name of a town on the bleak open stretches back from the sea in Devonshire. But during our war with England, and for a long

time afterward, the word "Dartmoor" brought up much the same kind of recollections that "Andersonville" or "Libby" does to-day. It was the prison where England kept in confinement those unfortunates that the fate of war had thrown upon her hands. It was a safe seclusion, indeed, and for the better explanation of the story that is to be told here, it might be well worth the while to tell in a few words what manner of place it was. Surrounding an enclosure, circular in shape, and containing about eight acres, was a high stone wall, where the sentries patrolled their beats, where they could look down into the courtyards of the gloomy prison buildings some twenty feet below them. The enclosure was divided into three partitions, by walls that crossed the main space diagonally, and through which there were grated gateways leading from one department to the other. The buildings, seven in number, radiated from a common point like wheel spokes. They were built of brick, with small iron-barred windows, and in the entrance archway, leading from one yard to another (each building had a separate yard), there were always stationed after sunset two armed sentries with primed muskets. While the occupants of any one building had access to all parts of it and to the others during the daytime, it was difficult, indeed, to make a journey, or pay a visit, after nightfall. Here were confined six thousand prisoners, and here were suffered hardships without number. There would be scarcely space to tell of the prison life, but some there were there who had been immured so long that they had almost forgotten that they had lived anywhere else. They had become so resigned to the lot of a prisoner of war, that they had begun to doubt if they should ever see their own beautiful country again. From the upper windows of the prisons, the view above the walls was nothing but a stretch of bleak, rolling country, treeless and barren--the Dartmoor heaths. The inmates had formed a government among themselves; as was done in most military prisons, many worked at their trades, as well as they could; they had markets in which they sold their wares; they had theatrical companies, which served to keep up their spirits, and lighten the dreary hours; but there was one thought in the hearts of all: the day when they should receive their liberty. Many were never to see that day. There was a young sailor confined in the prison building known as No. 5. His strong constitution and his youth had kept him in a fair state of health for one who had been so long in close confinement, for he had been captured in a privateer in the first year of the war. Many times had he thought of his far-away home on the hills above the old town of Salem. He was popular with his fellow-prisoners, and had been a leader among them in their sports and pastimes. George Abbott was his name. He was but six and twenty years of age, and yet he had followed the sea for over twelve. When he had been captured there had been taken with him a young lad of but eighteen, who had run away from a comfortable home and a loving family, to enlist on board the privateer, but he was not of the tough fibre of which the sailor should be made, and since his arrival in prison he had been gradually succumbing to the effects of his long imprisonment. Between Abbott and this young man there had grown up a deep affection. The sailor had shielded the landsman from much of the rough treatment of the forecastle while on board ship, and now that they were prisoners together, they had been constant companions; but it was plain to see that the younger of the two would not last long enough to see the dawn of liberty unless it came quickly. He had grown so weak that by the middle of February, 1815, it was expected by all that every day he would be taken from the prison buildings and sent to the Depot Hospital, from which, alas, few ever returned. But Abbott nursed him carefully, and watched over him with all the care of an elder brother, trying to be always cheerful. March came, and with it the gloomy mists that rose from all around settled down on the gloomy heaths, shrouding the prison buildings in impenetrable clouds. It was hard to keep either dry or warm. Those fortunates who owned little stoves would huddle around their handful of fire, but the prisons being unheated and unprovided with chimneys, the stoves were very small, their little pipes being led out of the windows. Lying in a hammock that had been swung low, so that its occupant almost lay upon the floor, was the young landsman. He stretched out his hand toward the roughly made brazier of sheet iron, and so thin were they that they looked more like claws than the fingers of a human being. "Lord help us and deliver us," he murmured. "Hallo, Harvey," cried a voice, breaking in upon his prayer. "I didn't expect to be so long. We've waited a long time, but here it is, my lad, and now let's begin. Shall I pitch in first? I ain't much of a reader." He held aloft in his hand a copy of a smudgy, dog-eared book, smirched and torn by constant handling. "We've been waiting our turn on this for three weeks, now. Sam Jordan, he promised to get it for me though, and so he did." "What's the name?" inquired the pinched-faced lad in the hammock. "It's R-a-s-s-e-l-a-s," was the response. "I dunno how to pronounce it, but they say as how it's good reading. Say the word, and I'll fire away." He flung himself down on the floor and opened the pages. It was storming hard outside, and the rain beat against the roof and poured from the gutters down on the stone courtyard. There was just enough light to see the print, if one was not afraid of ruining one's eyes, and Abbott began:-- "'Ye who listen with credulity to the whispers of fancy and pursue'----" He had read as far as the first half-page, when suddenly the sick man put out his hand and touched him on the shoulder. "Listen," he said hoarsely, "what's that going on below?" Some one on the floor beneath had given a loud staccato whoop. It was followed by another, and then by an increasing murmur of voices. The sailor had risen to his knees and dropped the book. "Some skylarking or tomfoolery," he said; "or perhaps it's the Rough Alleys," he added. The "Rough Alleys" was the name given to the gangs of hard customers and those of the lower order of prisoners who had been compelled by their more circumspecting and better behaved companions to mess by themselves, and to generally toe the mark, as much as possible. Occasionally, however, they would break out in some sort of raid or riot that would require suppressing, and it was to this habit of theirs that Abbott referred. But this time he was mistaken. "Listen to that!" he cried, all at once springing to an erect position. A roaring, rousing cheer came up from below, and then from the other buildings they heard it echoed. The invalid arose from his hammock. "Stay here," cried Abbott; "I'll fetch the news to you." He hastened to the head of the stone stairway. A breathless man dressed in fantastic rags met him half-way up. "What's the row, Simeon?" asked Abbott, in excitement. "Heard the news, messmate?" the man cried in answer. "Heard the news? There's peace between America and England!" There came a strange sound from the head of the stairs. The young prisoner had heard the words, and Abbott was just in time to catch him in his arms as he plunged forward senseless. * * * * * What had these men expected? These prisoners who had danced and sung and gone wild with delight and joy at the message that had been brought to them that bleak March day? Why, liberty at once. They were going to return to their homes. It was freedom! And did they get it? Listen! There is more to tell. Here begins the story:-- Of course it was not to be supposed that the British government should at once set these prisoners free, as one might set free birds from a cage by opening the door and allowing them to fly. It was a grave question what was to be done with them, and there is no use denying the fact that the United States, or at least its representative in England, was in a great measure responsible for what subsequently occurred. Ten days went by, and there was nothing done. In that space of time the men's spirits sank to zero. Had their country deserted them? Had their fellow-citizens forgotten them? It was past believing that such things could be. And it was just at this time that there was most complaint, arising from the quality of the bread and the insufficiency of the food supplied by the prison authorities. The Governor of the Depot, as it was called by the English, was a Captain Shortland, a man so well hated and despised by those under him that if murderous looks had the power to kill, he would long ago have been under the sod. Many of the prisoners, as they had caught glimpses of him, had longed to sink their fingers into his throat, and now they hated him worse than ever before. In the beginning of the second week information was sent the rounds of the prison, that the delay was occasioned by the difficulty that the representative of the United States government found in obtaining cartels, or vessels, to bring the released ones back to their own again. But the delay was bitter. The poor sick boy had rallied a little during the first days after the arrival of the news of peace. Probably he supposed that he would be released at once, but as the days dragged on, and there were no signs of any change in their condition, he sank again into the unfortunate path of the men who slowly died because they had no hope. From a condition of joyousness, the majority of the prisoners had relapsed into sullen anger--anger at their own country, and an increased hatred for the red coats who guarded them. Among so many prisoners of all classes there were, of course, men of all kinds and character: there were the ignorant and degraded, and those who could well lay claim to education and enlightenment. Harvey Rich, who was now so weak that he could scarcely totter from his hammock to the head of the stairway, had been prepared to enter Harvard College, when he had caught the fever of adventure and had run away to sea. At the request of the inmates of Prison No. 5, he had drawn up a letter addressed to Mr. B.---- (the American agent), requesting him to make all haste; and, at least, if he could do no more, to secure to them an additional supply of provisions, or make a monthly allowance of some kind to save the men from actual starvation. Anxiously was an answer awaited, but none came. One day late in the month, when, for a wonder, the sun was shining brightly, there was a strange group gathered near one of the open windows on the top floor of Prison No. 5. Propped up by blankets, so as to get as much of the sunshine that came in at the grated window as possible, was Harvey Rich. Beside him sat the young seaman, and squatted on the floor near by was a remarkable-looking human being. His face was black, his dark hair was shorn close to his head, and a bandage made of a torn bandanna handkerchief was pushed up on his forehead. At first glance, one would have taken him for a negro, although his features showed no trace of African descent. The torn shirt that he wore was unloosed and open at the bosom. The skin which showed through from underneath was fair and white. Every now and then he would give a nervous start and look back over his shoulder. "They almost had you last night, Simeon," said Abbott to the half-black man. "Yes," returned the other; "I thought my jig was up, for sure; but, confound it! now that there is peace, I don't see why they wish to hound me any more. 'Tis that brute,--Shortland. He's angry at his lack of success as a man-catcher. I'd like to get my hands upon him,--only once, just once,--that's all." Abbott happened to look out of the window at this instant. "Egad!" said he, "your friends are out again." From the grated bars, a view of the neighboring courtyard could be obtained. There was a sight that, when seen, used to make the prisoners' blood boil hotly. Three men, heavily manacled, were walking with weak steps to and fro along the narrow space enclosed between the high brick walls. The clanking of their chains could be heard as they moved. But as if this were not enough, beside them walked three sentries, with bayonets fixed. For half an hour each day, they made this sorrowful parade. It was their only glimpse of the sky and the sunlight, their one breath of fresh air during the twenty-four; and, as soon as it was over, they were hustled back to their place of confinement,--a dungeon known as the Cachet,--where no light could penetrate, and the only air that reached them was through the shaft of a disused chimney. No wonder that their eyes blinked and the tears rolled down their cheeks when they emerged into God's bright sunlight. No wonder that their haggard, pale faces grew each day more deathlike. These men were being killed by inches. For what crime? It will be shown. The man whom Abbott had addressed as "Simeon" had crawled to the window and was peeping cautiously out. A wild curse broke from him, as he viewed the sight. "Look at poor Whitten," he said; "take note of him; he's not for long. He used to tell me that he knew that he was going mad. He's that already. See the poor devil jabbering." He gave a shudder. It was only six weeks since he had walked to and fro in that same courtyard. There was a grated gateway at one end. It came within a few feet of the archway at the top. A silent crowd of prisoners were gathered there, closely watching the unfortunates. Well did they all remember the day when there were four of them; that day when, just as the prisoners turned, in following the footsteps of the sentries, one of them had left his companions, and, making a great leap of it, had clambered up the iron gate, and, manacled as he was, had thrown himself down among them. Immediately they had carried him into one of the prison houses, where they had filed and removed his shackles, and had since hidden and protected him at great cost and sacrifice. Many of their privileges had been withdrawn because they would not give up this man; they had been routed out at night by files of soldiers; they had been counted and mustered, over and over again, and yet, among the many thousand who knew where Simeon Hays was hiding, there was not one so base as to betray him, not one to point the directing finger. All honor to them. Many were the disguises that Simeon had been forced to assume. He had been a mulatto mess-cook, speaking with the French accent of Louisiana; he had appeared as a black-faced yawping Sambo, who had cracked guffawing jokes on the heads of the searchers; he had passed a day and a night in a coffin-like space between the floor-beams, when they had him cornered, and yet they had not caught him. And for what crime were these men treated thus? For a crime that was never proved against them. They had been taken by a British frigate from a recaptured prize, and shortly afterward the vessel had been found to be on fire. These men had been accused of attempting to blow up the ship and her company, and when they were sent to Dartmoor they were under sentence to close confinement. Here was Shortland's opportunity. His cruel and vindictive spirit rejoiced in carrying out the order, and it chagrined him deeply that one should have made his escape, and every day he attempted to locate his hiding-place and return him to the prison--to the torture of the dreaded Cachet. Soon the half-hour's breathing space had expired, and the manacled ones had been withdrawn from sight. The prisoners flocked to their buildings for their midday meal. Hays, who had descended to the courtyard, had made all haste to return to No. 5, where he was then supposed to be hiding, although, owing to his bold disposition, he oftentimes made the range of the lot; and as he passed by the open space on this day, although he did not know it, a turnkey recognized him, and soon those in No. 5 Prison were alarmed by the cry "The guard is coming! Lie low, lie low!" But they found that the entrances were held by a squad of armed soldiers, and that this time Hays appeared certain to be apprehended. But search here or there, the soldiers could not find him. Many times had they stepped over his hiding-place in the floor. Captain Shortland, who had been afraid to enter the building to personally conduct the search, remained outside with a strong guard. The disappointed officer reported at last that he was unsuccessful. "Why don't you drive them from the building, then?" Shortland thundered. "They are sailors, sir, and will not be driven by soldiers, they say. They seem to treat the whole affair as a great joke, laughing and scampering ahead of my men, and paying no attention to my orders." "Run them through then," Shortland returned. "A little cold steel will teach a serviceable lesson!" At this minute one of the turnkeys approached. "I beg your pardon, sir," he said, saluting; "if you let me turn the men out in the usual manner, I think they will leave quietly, but you must withdraw the soldiers." Reluctantly, Shortland gave the order, and the red coats filed out, drawing up in line, behind which he carefully placed himself. The turnkey entered the building alone. He had been an old boatswain in the service, and drawing a silver whistle from his pocket he piped all hands. Then in a stentorian voice he ordered the prisoners into the yard. They all obeyed, crowding out to the number of one thousand or more, and they filed past the soldiers in a compact body. One of the last to leave the building was Harvey Rich. He tottered down, alone, and joined the crowd, that stood packed in a sullen body, crowded within a few paces of the handful of soldiers, who stood with their muskets cocked and ready. Soon the officer returned from his fruitless search. "The man cannot be found, sir," he said. Shortland swore viciously. "Turn them back in the building, then," he roared, "and keep them there without water. That will fetch them to their senses.--Back through that doorway, all of you," pointing with the heavy stick which he always carried, for he was a gouty man. But the prisoners had heard his threat, and not one of them moved a step. There was a large trough of clear water in the yard, to which they had free access. The weather was warm and clear. Suddenly one of them stepped forward. All eyes turned upon him. It was George Abbott. "We will not return there, under those conditions," he said loudly. "We will stay here, and die, first, every man Jack of us." A movement began among the prisoners. They crowded in closer in the narrow space, and a murmur as of a subdued cheer arose among them. Shortland was furious. "Seize that man," he cried; "seize him! He shall go without bread and water both." No one moved. "You cowards," he muttered. "I'll do it myself, then; make way here!" He crowded through the file of soldiers and approached the sailor, who was standing there calmly, with folded arms. But before he had taken three short steps, something most unexpected happened. Harvey Rich, who was standing but a few feet away, stooped swiftly and picking up a loosened bit of the stonework of the courtyard, he hurled it full at Shortland's head. It would have killed him had it struck him, but it only grazed his cheek. Shortland halted and retreated hurriedly. "Fire on them," he cried. "Take aim and fire." Thirty or forty muskets were brought to the shoulder. But the young officer in command of the detachment kept his senses. Calmly he walked out to the front. He knocked up the muzzles with his unsheathed sword. "Steady," he said. "As you were." Shortland flung an oath at him, and turning to the red coats he screeched at the top of his voice:-- "Fire, you rascals, fire!" Again the officer sprang forward and threw up the points of the muskets again. "As you were; steady, men." That cool authoritative tone saved a frightful scene; for had the volley been delivered at such close range, there is no telling how much slaughter had followed. But mark this: there would have been enough men left to strew the dismembered bodies of the red coats about the yard with no other weapons but their naked hands! Shortland, stamping and fuming in anger, turned upon his heel, and hastened out through the gate. Immediately, the Lieutenant called his men to a shoulder arms, and marched them after him, he himself remaining until the last of the squad had passed under the archway. Then he drew a thankful breath. One or two of the sailors nearest the entrance saluted him. Gravely he touched his heavy bearskin hat. There was not a cheer or a sound of the usual merriment that might have accompanied the discomfiture of the "lobster backs." Every one had been too much impressed with the seriousness of the matter in hand. Yet, there was no one to chide Rich for his impetuous action. Silently they all returned to the prison, and once more Simeon Hays emerged from his hiding-place. This night news was brought to the prisoners that the United States government was going to allow them the sum of seven shillings sixpence per head in addition to their rations given them by the Crown; also the news was circulated that the first cartel would start the following week, and the detachment of those going in her would be read at the morning's muster. The names were to be taken in alphabetical order. Again there followed great rejoicing in all of the prison buildings. Men whose names began with the first letters of the alphabet were in high spirits. They were congratulated and made much of; while the poor chaps who were to tail off the list were correspondingly depressed. A rather important occurrence took place on this night, also. Simeon Hays, who, as a special treat and in honor of the occasion, had washed the smut from his face, had been recognized and taken. Poor fellow, before his friends could interfere, he had been hurried off to the confinement of the Cachet. Before this news had circulated through the building, Rich and Abbott had held a long conversation. The former was objecting strenuously and earnestly to a proposition that the young sailor had made. "I cannot think of such a thing," he remonstrated. "It would not be right----" Abbott interrupted him, "What is the use, mess-mate, of talking about right, in such a case?" He lowered his voice, "Do you think I could go out and look any man square up and down if I left ye here? You've got to do it." Rich shook his head weakly, "I can't think of doing such a thing," he murmured. "We'll stow all further conversation," was the reply, and with that he got up and left Rich alone. The next morning, in each prison, a number of names were read off until two hundred had been called. Abbott's was the first read in Prison No. 5. The lucky ones were told to get their dunnage ready and report at the prison entrance at half past ten. At the hour named, all were there. "George Abbott," called out the officer in charge of the guard-room. "Here," answered a weak voice, and to the surprise of those who knew him, Harvey Rich stepped forward. A moment later, and he had passed forth into the free air outside. Abbott answered to his friend's name at the roll-call, and thereafter passed by the name of Rich. They would come to his name on the list some day, he reasoned, and he knew well enough that another week or so of prison life would have finished his young friend for good and all. On the 3d of April, owing to the prison authorities trying to change the fare from soft bread to hardtack, there was a small riot among the prisoners, which, however, resulted in their obtaining their object by breaking down the barriers and raiding the bread-room. This did not increase Shortland's good humor, nor did the taunts levelled at the soldiery tend to improve the feeling existing between them and the triumphant sailors. On the sixth of the month, it was fine, clear weather, and the prisoners were put in good spirits by the news that Hays and his companions, the word of whose condition had reached higher ears than Shortland's, had been liberated and had left the prison. From all the various yards there was shouting and singing. The morning's "Liberty Party," as the sailors called the lucky ones who were to start for America, had been seen off, with rousing cheers. Those left behind were trying to amuse themselves by games and horseplay. A score or more were playing ball against the cross-wall dividing the barrack yard of the soldiers from that of No. 7. In some way, the ball, thrown by a careless hand, sailed across the barrier and fell almost at the feet of a sentry on the opposite side. "Hi, there, Johnny Bull! heave it back to us," requested one of the men, through the iron grating. The sentry paid no attention, and soon there was a clamoring crowd surrounding the opening, beseeching the imperturbable red coat in all sorts of terms to "Be a good fellow, and toss back the ball." "Just heave it over, Johnny," called one. "Don't you think you're strong enough?" The sentry whirled angrily. "Come and get it, if you want it," he said. "Can we?" shouted a half-dozen voices. "I won't touch it," the sentry responded. With that, he resumed his beat, cursing the ball players for "a lot of troublesome Yankee blackguards." Half laughing, the sailors had loosened one of the stones close against the wall, and by luck found that the ground was soft and yielding. The mortar, too, they were able to remove easily, and with such objects as they could pick up to help them, they fell to burrowing like rabbits. The sentry, who did not know what was going on, or how his words had been taken up, was surprised when suddenly he saw a man's head and shoulders appear at the base of the wall on his side. "The prisoners are digging out!" he roared, firing his musket. At once, the soldiers on the walls began firing, forming into squads and keeping up a constant shooting as long as any prisoners were in sight. Those in the central yard, known as the Market, not knowing the reason for the fusilade, and wondering why the alarm bell was ringing, did not retreat into their buildings; and the first thing they knew, Shortland himself appeared, entering the big gate at the head of a company of soldiers with fixed bayonets. They advanced at a double-quick step, the prisoners were so crowded together that they could not escape. Some, not seeing why they should be charged in this fashion, stood their ground. Shortland had lost all control of himself. "Halt! Aim!" And before the astounded victims knew what was going to happen, he had given the word to fire. A crashing volley sounded. When the smoke cleared away, wounded and dying men filled the yard. The rest, panic-stricken, had retreated into the buildings. Seven were killed and fifty-six were wounded! Poor Abbott, who had been trying to urge his comrades to hasten, was among the first to fall, shot through the lungs. As no one told of his exchange of names, he was buried under the name he had assumed, Harvey Rich. And what of the real owner of that name? Alas, he, poor fellow, also, did not live to see his home in the New Hampshire hills, for he died at sea not long after the cartel in which he was returning had set sail. He was sent overboard in the sailor's canvas shroud, and the name "George Abbott" was stricken from the list of liberated ones. Few knew the truth, and, perhaps, few there were who cared.

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