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 spirit-murdering slavery. 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, man." "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, sir,--he says." "That'll do; let him speak for himself. Where did you come from, my man?" "From the Poictiers, yonder, sir. For the sake of mercy don't give me up!" "Are you an American?" "Yes, sir; God's truth, I am." "Your name?" "McGovern, sir." "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 gangway railing. "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 the gangway." "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 words:-- 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 protect him." 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, Jack?" "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 spirit's broke." 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 the flagship. 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 the crew. 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 anxiously. 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 quietly. 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 messmate Grattan. 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 the galley. 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 shorten sail." "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 lighted. "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 everything aloft. 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 shrouds. "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 matches. 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.
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