Sea Stories

The Escape Of Symington

Captain Myron Symington was a long-legged Yankee. There was no mistaking him for anything else but an out-and-out downeaster. As to the length of his underpinning, that was apparent also. When seated, he did not appear above the average height; but when erect

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

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