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But the captain was furious.
"He may hang where his breeches are hanging before I have done with him!" said he. "What boats will you want, Mr. Wharton?"
"We should do it with the launch and the jolly-boat."
"Take four and make a clean job of it. Pipe away the crews at once, and I'll work her in and help you with the long eighteens."
With a rattle of ropes and a creaking of blocks the four boats splashed into the water. Their crews cl.u.s.tered thickly into them: bare-footed sailors, stolid marines, laughing middies, and in the sheets of each the senior officers with their stern schoolmaster faces. The captain, his elbows on the binnacle, still watched the distant brig. Her crew were tricing up the boarding-netting, dragging round the starboard guns, knocking new portholes for them, and making every preparation for a desperate resistance. In the thick of it all a huge man, bearded to the eyes, with a red nightcap upon his head, was straining and stooping and hauling. The captain watched him with a sour smile, and then snapping up his gla.s.s he turned upon his heel. For an instant he stood staring.
"Call back the boats!" he cried in his thin, creaking voice.
"Clear away for action there! Cast loose those main-deck guns.
Brace back the yards, Mr. Smeaton, and stand by to go about when she has weigh enough."
Round the curve of the estuary was coming a huge vessel. Her great yellow bowsprit and white-winged figure-head were jutting out from the cl.u.s.ter of palm trees, while high above them towered three immense masts with the tricolour flag floating superbly from the mizzen. Round she came, the deep-blue water creaming under her fore foot, until her long, curving, black side, her line of shining copper beneath and of snow-white hammocks above, and the thick cl.u.s.ters of men who peered over her bulwarks were all in full view. Her lower yards were slung, her ports triced up, and her guns run out all ready for action.
Lying behind one of the promontories of the island, the lookout men of the _Gloire_ upon the sh.o.r.e had seen the _cul de sac_ into which the British frigate was headed, so that Captain de Milon had served the _Leda_ as Captain Johnson had the _Slapping Sal_.
But the splendid discipline of the British service was at its best in such a crisis. The boats flew back; their crews cl.u.s.tered aboard; they were swung up at the davits and the fall-ropes made fast. Hammocks were brought up and stowed, bulkheads sent down, ports and magazines opened, the fires put out in the galley, and the drums beat to quarters.
Swarms of men set the head-sails and brought the frigate round, while the gun-crews threw off their jackets and shirts, tightened their belts, and ran out their eighteen-pounders, peering through the open portholes at the stately French man. The wind was very light. Hardly a ripple showed itself upon the clear blue water, but the sails blew gently out as the breeze came over the wooded banks. The Frenchman had gone about also, and both ships were now heading slowly for the sea under fore-and-aft canvas, the _Gloire_ a hundred yards in advance.
She luffed up to cross the _Leda's_ bows, but the British ship came round also, and the two rippled slowly on in such a silence that the ringing of the ramrods as the French marines drove home their charges clanged quite loudly upon the ear.
"Not much sea-room, Mr. Wharton," remarked the captain.
"I have fought actions in less, sir."
"We must keep our distance and trust to our gunnery. She is very heavily manned, and if she got alongside we might find ourselves in trouble."
"I see the shakoes of soldiers aboard other."
"Two companies of light infantry from Martinique. Now we have her!
Hard-a-port, and let her have it as we cross her stern!"
The keen eye of the little commander had seen the surface ripple, which told of a pa.s.sing breeze. He had used it to dart across the big Frenchman and to rake her with every gun as he pa.s.sed. But, once past her, the _Leda_ had to come back into the wind to keep out of shoal water. The manoeuvre brought her on to the starboard side of the Frenchman, and the trim little frigate seemed to heel right over under the crashing broadside which burst from the gaping ports. A moment later her topmen were swarming aloft to set her top-sails and royals, and she strove to cross the _Gloire's_ bows and rake her again. The French captain, however, brought his frigate's head round, and the two rode side by side within easy pistol-shot, pouring broadsides into each other in one of those murderous duels which, could they all be recorded, would mottle our charts with blood.
In that heavy tropical air, with so faint a breeze, the smoke formed a thick bank round the two vessels, from which the topmasts only protruded. Neither could see anything of its enemy save the throbs of fire in the darkness, and the guns were sponged and trained and fired into a dense wall of vapour. On the p.o.o.p and the forecastle the marines, in two little red lines, were pouring in their volleys, but neither they nor the seamen-gunners could see what effect their fire was having. Nor, indeed, could they tell how far they were suffering themselves, for, standing at a gun, one could but hazily see that upon the right and the left. But above the roar of the cannon came the sharper sound of the piping shot, the crashing of riven planks, and the occasional heavy thud as spar or block came hurtling on to the deck.
The lieutenants paced up and down the line of guns, while Captain Johnson fanned the smoke away with his c.o.c.ked-hat and peered eagerly out.
"This is rare, Bobby!" said he, as the lieutenant joined him.
Then, suddenly restraining himself, "What have we lost, Mr. Wharton?"
"Our maintopsail yard and our gaff, sir."
"Where's the flag?"
"Gone overboard, sir."
"They'll think we've struck! Lash a boat's ensign on the starboard arm of the mizzen cross-jack-yard."
A round-shot dashed the binnacle to pieces between them. A second knocked two marines into a b.l.o.o.d.y palpitating mash. For a moment the smoke rose, and the English captain saw that his adversary's heavier metal was producing a horrible effect. The _Leda_ was a shattered wreck. Her deck was strewed with corpses. Several of her portholes were knocked into one, and one of her eighteen-pounder guns had been thrown right back on to her breech, and pointed straight up to the sky.
The thin line of marines still loaded and fired, but half the guns were silent, and their crews were piled thickly round them.
"Stand by to repel boarders!" yelled the captain.
"Cutla.s.ses, lads, cutla.s.ses!" roared Wharton.
"Hold your volley till they touch!" cried the captain of marines.
The huge loom of the Frenchman was seen bursting through the smoke.
Thick cl.u.s.ters of boarders hung upon her sides and shrouds. A final broad-side leapt from her ports, and the main-mast of the _Leda_, snapping short off a few feet above the deck, spun into the air and crashed down upon the port guns, killing ten men and putting the whole battery out of action. An instant later the two ships sc.r.a.ped together, and the starboard bower anchor of the _Gloire_ caught the mizzen-chains of the _Leda_ upon the port side. With a yell the black swarm of boarders steadied themselves for a spring.
But their feet were never to reach that blood-stained deck. From some where there came a well-aimed whiff of grape, and another, and another.
The English marines and seamen, waiting with cutla.s.s and musket behind the silent guns, saw with amazement the dark ma.s.ses thinning and shredding away. At the same time the port broadside of the Frenchman burst into a roar.
"Clear away the wreck!" roared the captain. "What the devil are they firing at?"
"Get the guns clear!" panted the lieutenant. "We'll do them yet, boys!"
The wreckage was torn and hacked and splintered until first one gun and then another roared into action again. The Frenchman's anchor had been cut away, and the _Leda_ had worked herself free from that fatal hug.
But now, suddenly, there was a scurry up the shrouds of the _Gloire_, and a hundred Englishmen were shouting themselves hoa.r.s.e: "They're running! They're running! They're running!"
And it was true. The Frenchman had ceased to fire, and was intent only upon clapping on every sail that he could carry. But that shouting hundred could not claim it all as their own. As the smoke cleared it was not difficult to see the reason. The ships had gained the mouth of the estuary during the fight, and there, about four miles out to sea, was the _Leda's_ consort bearing down under full sail to the sound of the guns. Captain de Milon had done his part for one day, and presently the _Gloire_ was drawing off swiftly to the north, while the _Dido_ was bowling along at her skirts, rattling away with her bow-chasers, until a headland hid them both from view.
But the Leda lay sorely stricken, with her mainmast gone, her bulwarks shattered, her mizzen-topmast and gaff shot away, her sails like a beggar's rags, and a hundred of her crew dead and wounded. Close beside her a ma.s.s of wreckage floated upon the waves. It was the stern-post of a mangled vessel, and across it, in white letters on a black ground, was printed, "_The Slapping Sal_."
"By the Lord! it was the brig that saved us!" cried Mr. Wharton.
"Hudson brought her into action with the Frenchman, and was blown out of the water by a broadside!"
The little captain turned on his heel and paced up and down the deck.
Already his crew were plugging the shot-holes, knotting and splicing and mending. When he came back, the lieutenant saw a softening of the stern lines about his eyes and mouth.
"Are they all gone?"
"Every man. They must have sunk with the wreck."
The two officers looked down at the sinister name, and at the stump of wreckage which floated in the discoloured water. Something black washed to and fro beside a splintered gaff and a tangle of halliards. It was the outrageous ensign, and near it a scarlet cap was floating.
"He was a villain, but he was a Briton!" said the captain at last.
"He lived like a dog, but, by G.o.d, he died like a man!"