We had refitted, and been four days at sea, on our voyage to Jamaica,
when the gun-room officers gave our mess a blow out.
The increased motion and rushing of the vessel through the water, the
groaning of the masts, the howling of
the gale, and the frequent trampling of the watch on deck, were prophetic of wet jackets to some of us; still, midshipman-like, we were as happy as a good dinner and some wine could make us, until the old gunner shoved his weather beaten phiz and bald pate in at the door. "Beg pardon Mr. Splinter, but if you will spare Mr. Cringle on the forecastle an hour, until the moon rises."--("Spare," quotha, "is his majesty's officer a joint stool?")--"Why, Mr. Kennedy, why? here, man, take a glass of grog." "I thank you sir." "It is coming on a roughish night, sir; the running ships should be crossing us hereabouts; indeed, more than once I thought there was a strange sail close aboard of us, the scud is flying so low, and in such white flakes; and none of us have an eye like Mr. Cringle, unless it be John Crow, and he is all but frozen." "Well, Tom, I suppose you will go."--Anglice, from a first lieutenant to a mid-- "Brush instanter." Having changed my uniform for shag trowsers, pea-jacket and a south-west cap, I went forward and took my station, in no pleasant humor, on the stowed jib, with my arm around the stay. I had been half an hour there, the weather was getting worse, the rain was beating in my face, and the spray from the stern was splashing over me, as it roared through the waste of sparkling and hissing waters. I turned my back to the weather for a moment to press my hands on my straining eyes. When I opened them, I saw the gunner's gaunt and high-featured visage thrust anxiously forward; his profile looked as if rubbed over with phosphorus, and his whole person as if we had been playing at snap dragon. "What has come over you Mr. Kennedy? who's burning the blue light now?" "A wiser man than I must tell you that; look forward Mr. Cringle--look there; what do your books say to that?" I looked forth, and saw at the extreme end of the jib-boom, what I have read of, certainly, but never expected to see, a pale, greenish, glow-worm colored flame, of the size and shape of the frosted glass shade over the swinging lamp in the gun-room. It drew out and flattened as the vessel pitched and rose again, and as she sheered about, it wavered round the point that seemed to attract it, like a soap suds bubble blown from a tobacco-pipe, before it is shaken into the air; at the core it was comparatively bright, but faded into a halo. It shed a baleful and ominous light on the surrounding objects; the group of sailors on the forecastle looked like spectres, and they shrunk together, and whispered when it began to roll slowly along the spar where the boatswain was sitting at my feet. At this instant something slid down the stay, and a cold clammy hand passed around my neck. I was within an ace of losing my hold and tumbling overboard.--"Heaven have mercy on me what's that?" "It's that sky-larking son of a gun, Jem Sparkle's monkey, sir. You Jem, you'll never rest till that brute is made shark's bait of." But Jacko vanished up the stay again, chuckling and grinning in the ghastly radiance, as if he had been 'the spirit of the Lamp.' The light was still there, but a cloud of mist, like a burst of vapor from a steam boiler, came down upon the gale and flew past, when it disappeared. I followed the white mass as it sailed down the wind; it did not, as it appeared to me, vanish in the darkness, but seemed to remain in sight to leeward, as if checked by a sudden flaw; yet none of our sails were taken aback. A thought flashed on me. I peered still more intensely into the night. I was not certain.--"A sail, broad on the lee bow." The captain answered from the quarter-deck--"Thank you, Mr. Cringle. How shall we steer?" "Keep her away a couple of points, sir, steady." "Steady," sung the man at the helm; and a slow melancholy cadence, although a familiar sound to me, now moaned through the rushing wind, and smote upon my heart as if it had been the wailing of a spirit. I turned to the boatswain, who was now standing beside me, "is that you or Davy steering, Mr. Nipper? if you had not been there bodily at my side, I could have sworn that was your voice." When the gunner made the same remark, it started the poor fellow; he tried to take it as a joke, but could not. "There may be a laced hammock with a shot in it, for some of us ere morning." At this moment, to my dismay, the object we were chasing shortened,--gradually fell abeam of us, and finally disappeared. "The flying Dutchman." "I can't see her at all now."--"She will be a fore and aft rigged vessel that has tacked, sir." And sure enough, after a few seconds, I saw the white object lengthened and drew out again abaft our beam. "The chase has tacked, sir; put the helm down, or she will go to windward of us." We tacked also, and time it was we did so, for the rising moon now showed us a large schooner with a crowd of sail. We edged down on her, when finding her manoeuvre detected, she brailed up her flat sails and bore up before the wind. This was our best point of sailing, and we cracked on, the captain rubbing his hands--"It's my turn to be the big un this time." Although blowing a strong north-wester, it was now clear moonlight, and we hammered away from our bow guns, but whenever a shot told amongst the rigging, the injury was repaired as if by magic. It was evident we had repeatedly hulled her, from the glimmering white streaks across her counter and along her stern, occasioned by the splintering of the timber, but it seemed to produce no effect. At length we drew well upon her quarter. She continued all black hull and white sail, not a soul to be seen on deck, except a dark object which we took for the man at the helm. "What schooner is that?" No answer. "Heave to, or I'll sink you." Still all silent. "Serjeant Armstrong, do you think you can pick off that chap at the wheel?" The mariner jumped on the forecastle, and levelled his piece, when a musket-shot from the schooner crushed through his skull, and he fell dead. The old skipper's blood was up. "Forecastle there! Mr. Nipper, clap a canister of grape over the round shot in the bow gun, give it to him." "Ay, ay, sir!" gleefully rejoined the boatswain, forgetting the augury, and everything else, in the excitement of the moment. In a twinkling the square foresail--topgallant--royal and studding-sail haulyards, were let go on board the schooner, as if to round to. "Rake him, sir, or give him the stern. He has not surrendered. I know their game. Give him your broadside, sir, or he is off to windward of you, like a shot. No, no, we have him now; heave to Mr. Splinter, heave to!" We did so, and that so suddenly, that the studding sail booms snapped like pipe shanks short off by the irons. Notwithstanding, we had shot two hundred yards to the leeward, before we could lay our maintopsail to the mast. I ran to windward. The schooner's yards and rigging were now black with men, clustering like bees swarming, her square sails were being close furled, her fore and aft sails set, and away she was, dead to windward of us. "So much for undervaluing our American friends," grumbled Mr. Splinter. We made all sail in chase, blazing away to little purpose; we had no chance on a bowline, and when our 'Amigo' had satisfied himself of his superiority by one or two short tacks, he deliberately took a reef in his mainsail, hauled down his flying jib and gaff-topsail, triced up the bunt of his foresail, and fired his long thirty-two at us. The shot came in our third aftermost port on the starboard side, and dismounted the carronade, smashing the slide and wounding three men. The second missed, and as it was madness to remain to be peppered, probably winged, whilst every one of ours fell short, we reluctantly kept away on our course, having the gratification of hearing a clear well blown bugle on board the schooner play up "Yankee Doodle." As the brig fell off, our long gun was run out to have a parting crack at her, when the third and last shot from the schooner struck the sill of the midship port, and made the white splinters fly from the solid oak like bright silver sparks in the moonlight. A sharp, piercing cry rose in the air--my soul identified that death-shriek with the voice that I had heard, and I saw the man who was standing with the lanyard of the lock in his hand drop heavily across the breech, and discharge the gun in his fall. Thereupon a blood-red glare shot up in the cold blue sky, as if a volcano had burst forth from beneath the mighty deep, followed by a roar, and a scattering crash, and a mingling of unearthly cries and groans, and a concussion of the air and the water as if our whole broadside had been fired at once.--Then a solitary splash here, and a dip there, and short sharp yells, and low choking bubbling moans, as the hissing fragments of the noble vessel we had seen, fell into the sea, and the last of her gallant crew vanished forever beneath that pale broad moon. We were alone; and once more all was dark, wild and stormy. Fearfully had that ball sped fired by a dead man's hand. But what is it that clings, black and doubled, across the fatal cannon, dripping and heavy, and choking the scuppers with clotting gore, and swaying to and fro with the motion of the vessel, like a bloody fleece? "Who is it that was hit at the gun there?" "Mr. Nipper, the boatswain, sir, the last shot has cut him in two."
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