Story type: Literature
A REPORTED TALE OF TWO FRIGATES AND TWO LUGGERS
I dare say you’ve never heard tell of my wife’s grandfather, Captain John Tackabird–or Cap’n Jacka, as he was always called. He was a remarkable man altogether, and he died of a seizure in the Waterloo year; an earnest Methody all his days, and towards the end a highly respected class-leader. To tell you the truth, he wasn’t much to look at, being bald as a coot and blind of one eye, besides other defects. His mother let him run too soon, and that made his legs bandy. And then a bee stung him, and all his hair came off. And his eye he lost in a little job with the preventive men; but his lid drooped so, you’d hardly know ’twas missing. He’d a way, too, of talking to himself as he went along, so that folks reckoned him silly. It was queer how that maggot stuck in their heads; for in handling a privateer or a Guernsey cargo–sink the or run it straight–there wasn’t his master in Polperro. The very children could tell ‘ee.
I’m telling of the year ‘five, when the most of the business in Polperro–free-trade and privateering–was managed (as the world knows) by Mr. Zephaniah Job. This Job he came from St. Ann’s–by reason of his having shied some person’s child out of a window in a fit of temper–and opened school at Polperro, where he taught rule-of-three and mensuration; also navigation, though he only knew about it on paper. By-and-by he became accountant to all the free-trade companies and agent for the Guernsey merchants; and at last blossomed out and opened a bank with 1l. and 2l. notes, and bigger ones which he drew on Christopher Smith, Esquire, Alderman of London.
Well, this Job was agent for a company of adventurers called the “Pride o’ the West,” and had ordered a new lugger to be built for them down at Mevagissey. She was called the Unity, 160 tons (that would be about fifty as they measure now), mounting sixteen carriage guns and carrying sixty men, nice and comfortable. She was lying on the ways, ready to launch, and Mr. Job proposed to Cap’n Jacka to sail over to Mevagissey and have a look at her.
Cap’n Jacka was pleased as Punch, of course. He’d quite made up his mind he was to command her, seeing that, first and last, in the old Pride lugger, he had cleared over 40 per cent, for this very Company. So they sailed over and took thorough stock of the new craft, and Jacka praised this and suggested that, and carried on quite as if he’d got captain’s orders inside his hat–which was where he usually carried them. Mr. Job looked sidelong down his nose–he was a leggy old galliganter, with stiverish grey hair and a jawbone long enough to make Cap’n Jacka a new pair of shins–and said he, “What do’ee think of her?”
“Well,” said Jacka, “any fool can see she’ll run, and any fool can see she’ll reach. I reckon she’ll come about as fast as th’ old Pride, and if she don’t sit nigher the wind than the new revenue cutter it’ll be your sailmaker’s fault.”
“That’s a first-class report,” said Mr. Job. “I was thinking of offering you the post of mate in her.”
Cap’n Jacka felt poorly all of a sudden. “Aw,” he asked, “who’s to be skipper, then?”
“The Company was thinkin’ of young Dick Hewitt.”
“Aw,” said Cap’n Jacka again, and shut his mouth tight. Young Dick Hewitt’s father had shares in the Company and money to buy votes beside.
“What do’ee think?” asked Mr. Job, still slanting his eye down his nose.
“I’ll go home an’ take my wife’s opinion,” said Cap’n Jacka.
So when he got home he told it all to his funny little wife that he doted on like the apple of his one eye. She was a small, round body, with beady eyes that made her look like a doll on a pen-wiper; and she said, of course, that the Company was a parcel of rogues and fools together.
“Young Dick Hewitt is every bit so good a seaman as I be,” said Cap’n Jacka.
“He’s a boaster.”
“So he is, but he’s a smart seaman for all.”
“I declare if the world was to come to an end you’d sit quiet an’ never say a word.”
“I dessay I should. I’d leave you to speak up for me.”
“Baint’ee goin’ to say nothin‘, then?”
“Iss; I’m goin’ to lay it before the Lord.”
So down ‘pon their knees these old souls went upon the limeash, and asked for guidance, and Cap’n Jacka, after a while, stretched out his hand to the shelf for Wesley’s Hymns. They always pitched a hymn together before going to bed. When he’d got the book in his hand he saw that ’twasn’t Wesley at all, but another that he never studied from the day his wife gave it to him, because it was called the “Only Hymn Book,”[A] and he said the name was as good as a lie. Hows’ever, he opened it now, and came slap on the hymn:–
[Footnote A: Probably “Olney.”]
Tho’ troubles assail and dangers affright,
If foes all should fail and foes all unite,
Yet one thing assures us, whatever betide,
I trust in all dangers the Lord will provide.
They sang it there and then to the tune of “O all that pass by,” and the very next morning Cap’n Jacka walked down and told Mr. Job he was ready to go for mate under young Dick Hewitt.
More than once, the next week or two, he came near to repenting; for Cap’n Dick was very loud about his promotion, especially at the Three Pilchards; and when the Unity came round and was fitting–very slow, too, by reason of delay with her letters of marque–he ordered Cap’n Jacka back and forth like a stevedore’s dog. “There was to be no ‘nigh enough’ on this lugger”–that was the sort of talk; and oil and rotten-stone for the very gun-swivels. But Jacka knew the fellow, and even admired the great figure and its loud ways. “He’s a cap’n, anyhow,” he told his wife; “‘twon’t be ‘all fellows to football’ while he’s in command. And I’ve seen him handle the Good Intent, under Hockin.”
Mrs. Tackabird said nothing. She was busy making sausages and setting down a stug of butter for her man’s use on the voyage. But he knew she would be a disappointed woman if he didn’t contrive in some honest way to turn the tables on the Company and their new pet. For days together he went about whistling “Tho’ troubles assail … “; and the very night before sailing, as they sat quiet, one each side of the hearth, he made the old woman jump by saying all of a sudden, “Coals o’ fire!”
“What d’ee mean by that?” she asked.
“Nothin’. I was thinkin’ to myself, and out it popped.”
“Well, ’tis like a Providence! For, till you said that, I’d clean forgot the sifter for your cuddy fire. Mustn’t waste cinders now that you’re only a mate.”
Being a woman, she couldn’t forego that little dig; but she got up there and then and gave the old boy a kiss.
She wouldn’t walk down to the quay, though, next day, to see him off, being certain (she said) to lose her temper at the sight of Cap’n Dick carrying on as big as bull’s beef, not to mention the sneering shareholders and their wives. So Cap’n Jacka took his congees at his own door, and turned, half-way down the street, and waved a good-bye with the cinder-sifter. She used to say afterwards that this was Providence, too.
The Unity ran straight across until she made Ushant Light; and after cruising about for a couple of days, in moderate weather (it being the first week in April) Cap’n Dick laid her head east and began to nose up Channel, keeping an easy little distance off the French coast. You see, the Channel was full of our ships and neutrals in those days, which made fat work for the French privateers; but the Frenchies’ own vessels kept close over on their coast; and even so, the best our boys could expect, nine times out of ten when they’d crossed over, was to run against a chasse-maree dodging between Cherbourg and St. Malo or Morlaix, with naval stores or munitions of war.
However, Cap’n Dick had very good luck. One morning, about three leagues N.W. of Roscoff, what should he see but a French privateering craft of about fifty tons (new measurement) with an English trader in tow–a London brig, with a cargo of all sorts, that had fallen behind her convoy and been snapped up in mid-channel. Cap’n Dick had the weather-gauge, as well as the legs of the French chasse-maree. She was about a league to leeward when the morning lifted and he first spied her. By seven o’clock he was close, and by eight had made himself master of her and the prize, with the loss of two men only and four wounded, the Frenchman being short-handed, by reason of the crew he’d put into the brig to work her into Morlaix.
This was first-rate business. To begin with, the brig (she was called the Martha Edwards, of London) would yield a tidy little sum for salvage. The wind being fair for Plymouth, Cap’n Dick sent her into that port–her own captain and crew working her, of course, and thirty Frenchmen on board in irons. And at Plymouth she arrived without any mishap.
Then came the chasse-maree. She was called the Bean Pheasant,[A] an old craft and powerful leaky; but she mounted sixteen guns, the same as the Unity, and ought to have made a better run from her; but first, she hadn’t been able to make her mind to desert her prize pretty well within sight of port; and in the second place her men had a fair job to keep her pumps going. Cap’n Dick considered, and then turned to old Jacka.
[Footnote A: Probably Bienfaisant.]
“I’m thinking,” said he, “I’ll have to put you aboard with a prize crew to work her back to Polperro.”
“The Lord will provide,” said Jacka, though he had looked to see a little more of the fun.
So aboard he went with all his belongings, not forgetting his wife’s sausages and the stug of butter and the cinder-sifter. Towards the end of the action about fifteen of the Johnnies had got out the brig’s large boat and pulled her ashore, where, no doubt, they reached, safe and sound. So Jacka hadn’t more than a dozen prisoners to look after, and prepared for a comfortable little homeward trip.
“I’ll just cruise between this and Jersey,” said Cap’n Dick; “and at the week-end, if there’s nothing doing, we’ll put back for home and re-ship you.”
So they parted; and by half-past ten Cap’n Jacka had laid the Bean Pheasant’s head north-and-by-west, and was reaching along nicely for home with a stiff breeze and nothing to do but keep the pumps going and attend to his eating and drinking between whiles.
The prize made a good deal of water, but was a weatherly craft for all that, and on this point of sailing shipped nothing but what she took in through her seams; the worst of the mischief being forward, where her stem had worked a bit loose with age and started the bends. Cap’n Jacka, however, thought less of the sea–that was working up into a nasty lop–than of the weather, which turned thick and hazy as the wind veered a little to west of south. But even this didn’t trouble him much. He had sausages for breakfast and sausages for dinner, and, as evening drew on, and he knew he was well on the right side of the Channel, he knocked out his pipe and began to think of sausages for tea.
Just then one of the hands forward dropped pumping, and sang out that there was a big sail on the starboard bow. “I b’lieve ’tis a frigate, sir,” he said, spying between his hands.
So it was. She had sprung on them out of the thick weather. But now Cap’n Jacka could see the white line on her and the ports quite plain, and not two miles away.
“What nation?” he bawled.
“I can’t make out as she carries any flag. Losh me! if there bain’t another!”
Sure as I’m telling you, another frigate there was, likewise standing down towards them under easy canvas, on the same starboard tack a mile astern, but well to windward of the first.
“Whatever they be,” said Cap’n Jacka, “they’re bound to head us off, and they’re bound to hail us. I go get my tea,” he said; “for, if they’re Frenchmen, ’tis my last meal for months to come.”
So he fetched out his frying-pan and plenty sausages and fried away for dear life–with butter too, which was ruinous waste. He shared round the sausages, two to each man, and kept the Bean Pheasant to her course until the leading frigate fired a shot across her bows, and ran up the red-white-and-blue; and then, knowing the worst, he rounded-to as meek as a lamb.
The long and short of it was that, inside the hour the dozen Frenchmen were free, and Cap’n Jacka and his men in their place, ironed hand and foot; and the Bean Pheasant working back to France again with a young gentleman of the French navy aboard in command of her.
But ’tis better be lucky born, they say, than a rich man’s son. By this time it was blowing pretty well half a gale from sou’-sou’-west, and before midnight a proper gale. The Bean Pheasant being kept head to sea, took it smack-and-smack on the breast-bone, which was her leakiest spot; and soon, being down by the head, made shocking weather of it. ‘Twas next door to impossible to work the pump forward. Towards one in the morning old Jacka was rolling about up to his waist as he sat, and trying to comfort himself by singing “Tho’ troubles assail,” when the young French gentleman came running with one of his Johnnies and knocked the irons off the English boys, and told them to be brisk and help work the pumps, or the lugger–that was already hove to–would go down under them.
“But where be you going?” he sings out–or French to that effect. For Jacka was moving aft towards the cuddy there.
Jacka fetched up his best smuggling French, and answered: “This here lugger is going down. Any fool can see that, as you’re handling her. And I’m going down on a full stomach.”
With that he reached an arm into the cuddy, where he’d stacked his provisions that evening on top of the frying-pan. But the labouring of the ship had knocked everything there of a heap, and instead of the frying-pan he caught hold of his wife’s cinder-sifter.
At that moment the Frenchman ran up behind and caught him a kick. “Come out o’ that, you old villain, and fall in at the after pump!” said he.
“Aw, very well,” said Jack, turning at once–for the cinder-sifter had given him a bright idea; and he went right aft to his comrades. By this time the Frenchmen were busy getting the first gun overboard.
They were so long that Jacka’s boys had the after-pump pretty well to themselves, and between spells one or two ran and fetched buckets, making out ’twas for extra baling; and all seemed to be working like niggers. But by-and-by they called out all together with one woeful voice, “The pump is chucked! The pump is chucked!”
At this all the Frenchmen came running, the young officer leading, and crying to know what was the matter.
“A heap of cinders got awash, sir,” says Jacka. “The pump’s clogged wi’ em, and won’t work.”
“Then we’re lost men!” says the officer; and he caught hold by the foremast, and leaned his face against it like a child.
This was Jacka’s chance. “‘Lost,’ is it? Iss, I reckon you be lost!–and inside o’ ten minutes, unless you hearken to rayson. Here you be, not twenty mile from the English coast, as I make it, and with a fair wind. Here you be, three times that distance and more from any port o’ your own, the wind dead on her nose, and you ram-stamming the weak spot of her at a sea that’s knocking the bows to Jericho. Now, Mossoo, you put her about, and run for Plymouth. She may do it. Pitch over a couple of guns forr’ad, and quit messing with a ship you don’t understand, an’ I’ll warn she will do it.”
The young Frenchy was plucky as ginger. “What! Take her into Plymouth, and be made prisoner. I’ll sink first!” says he.
But you see, his crew weren’t navy men to listen to him; and they had wives and families, and knew that Cap’n Jacka’s was their only chance. In five minutes, for all the officer’s stamping and morblewing they had the Bean Pheasant about and were running for the English coast.
Now I must go back and tell you what was happening to the Unity in all this while. About four in the afternoon Cap’n Dick, not liking the look of the weather at all, and knowing that, so long as it lasted, he might whistle for prizes, changed his mind and determined to run back to Polperro, so as to re-ship Cap’n Jacka and the prize crew almost as soon as they arrived. By five o’clock he was well on his way, the Unity skipping along quite as if she enjoyed it; and ran before the gale all that night.
Towards three in the morning the wind moderated, and by half-past four the gale had blown itself out. Just about then the look-out came to Cap’n Dick, who had turned in for a spell, and reported two ships’ lights, one on each side of them. The chances against their being Frenchmen, out here in this part of the Channel, were about five to two; so Cap’n Dick cracked on; and at daybreak–about a quarter after five–found himself right slap between the very two frigates that had called Jacka to halt the evening before.
One was fetching along on the port tack, and the other on the weather side of him, just making ready to put about. They both ran up the white ensign at sight of him; but this meant nothing. And in a few minutes the frigate to starboard fired a shot across his bows and hoisted her French flag.
Cap’n Dick feigned to take the hint. He shortened sail and rounded at a nice distance under the lee of the enemy–both frigates now lying-to quite contentedly with their sails aback, and lowering their boats. But the first boat had hardly dropped a foot from the davits when he sung out, “Wurroo, lads!” and up again went the Unity’s great lug-sail in a jiffy. The Frenchmen, like their sails, were all aback; and before they could fire a gun the Unity was pinching up to windward of them, with Cap’n Dick at the helm, and all the rest of the crew flat on their stomachs. Off she went under a rattling shower from the enemy’s bow-chasers and musketry, and was out of range without a man hurt, and with no more damage than a hole or two in the mizzen-lug. The Frenchmen were a good ten minutes trimming sails and bracing their yards for the chase; and by that time Cap’n Dick had slanted up well on their weather bow. Before breakfast-time he was shaking his sides at the sight of seven hundred-odd Johnnies vainly spreading and trimming more canvas to catch up their lee-way (for at first the lazy dogs had barely unreefed courses after the gale, and still had their topgallant masts housed). Likely enough they had work on hand more important than chasing a small lugger all day; for at seven o’clock they gave up and stood away to the south-east, and left the Unity free to head back homeward on her old course.
‘Twas a surprising feat, to slip out of grasp in this way, and past two broadsides, any gun of which could have sent him to the bottom; and Cap’n Dick wasn’t one to miss boasting over it. Even during the chase he couldn’t help carrying on in his usual loud and cheeky way, waving good-bye to the Mossoos, offering them a tow-rope, and the like; but now the deck wasn’t big enough to hold his swagger, and in their joy of escaping a French prison, the men encouraged him, so that to hear them talk you’d have thought he was Admiral Nelson and Sir Sidney Smith rolled into one.
By nine o’clock they made out the Eddystone on their starboard bow; and a little after—the morning being bright and clear, with a nice steady breeze–they saw a sail right ahead of them, making in for Plymouth Sound. And who should it be but the old Bean Pheasant, deep as a log! Cap’n Dick cracked along after her, and a picture she was as he drew up close! Six of her guns had gone; her men were baling in two gangs, and still she was down a bit by the head, and her stern yawing like a terrier’s tail when his head’s in a rabbit-hole. And there at the tiller stood Cap’n Jacka, his bald head shining like a statue of fun, and his one eye twinkling with blessed satisfaction as he cocked it every now and then for a glance over his right shoulder.
“Hullo! What’s amiss?” sang out Cap’n Dick, as the Unity fetched within hail.
“Aw, nothin’, nothin’. ‘Tho’ troubles assail an’ dangers’–Stiddy there, you old angletwitch!–She’s a bit too fond o’ smelling the wind, that’s all.”
As a matter of fact she’d taken more water than Jacka cared to think about, now that the danger was over.
“But what brings ‘ee here? An’ what cheer wi’ you?” he asked.
This was Cap’n Dick’s chance. “I’ve had a run between two French frigates,” he boasted, “in broad day, an’ given the slip to both!”
“Dear, now!” said Cap’n Jacka. “So have I–in broad day, too. They must ha’ been the very same. What did ‘ee take out of ’em?”
“Take! They were two war frigates, I tell ‘ee!”
“Iss, iss; don’t lose your temper. All I managed to take was this young French orcifer here; but I thought, maybe, that you–having a handier craft–“
Jacka chuckled a bit; but he wasn’t one to keep a joke going for spite.
“Look-y-here, Cap’n,” he said; “I’ll hear your tale when we get into dock, and you shall hear mine. What I want ‘ee to do just now is to take this here lugger again and sail along in to Plymouth with her as your prize. I wants, if possible, to spare the feelin’s of this young gentleman, an’ make it look that he was brought in by force. For so he was, though not in the common way. An’ I likes the fellow, too, though he do kick terrible hard.”
* * * * *
They do say that two days later, when Cap’n Jacka walked up to his own door, he carried the cinder-sifter under his arm; and that, before ever he kissed his wife, he stepped fore and hitched it on a nail right in the middle of the wall over the chimney-piece, between John Wesley and the weather-glass.