The more corrupt the state, the more numerous the laws. — Tacitus

Midshipman Farragut - James Barnes




An Exchange of Crews

The wind that had carried the cruiser out of the bay held some three hours strong and fair, but the strange vessel ahead had proved herself a clever traveler, and the Essex, Jr., gained but little. All at once the wind changed and they caught it from different directions. Then followed what is often seen at sea—one vessel carrying the wind abeam, and another only a short distance in advance, wishing to hold the same course, carrying it on the quarter. This lasted a few minutes, during which time the Essex, Jr., pulled up rapidly.

As quickly as the counter breeze had sprung to life, however, it died away, and there the pursuer and pursued lay about a mile apart, idly drifting on the motionless surface.

As the evening came on, preparations were made on board the Yankee cruiser for getting out the boats and finding something definite about the chase, and as soon as it was dark two cutters were lowered silently over the side. Lieutenant Downes was in charge of one and David Farragut sat in the stern sheets of the other. Getting the direction of the strange vessel, they pulled away. Their oars were wrapped in the rowlocks and made no noise.

All during the pursuit of the day the Essex, Jr., had flown the British flag, which had been answered by the stranger's displaying the same. Surprise is a great element of success in a boarding expedition in small boats, and it would have been foolish to have attempted reconnoitring in broad daylight.

David's cutter was slow, and although his men labored strongly at the oars, they could not keep pace with the lighter boat. It had grown very dark, and suddenly it was discovered that Captain Downes had disappeared. It would never do to hail, as they had traversed half the distance, in David's estimation, that lay between his ship and the stranger. So he called for "oars." The men ceased rowing; not a sound could be heard, and they started forward once again. For an hour they pulled ahead, occasionally stopping and listening, but without result. At last, hearing no shouts or firing, David presumed that the other boat had also missed the way or had returned to the Essex, Jr.

There was nothing to do now but wait for daylight. Making themselves as comfortable as they could, the men sat there in silence. It had been cloudy up aloft and there were no stars shining, which was a remarkable circumstance for the tropics, and David had noticed, as he had gone through the cabin before leaving the ship, that the barometer was falling rapidly.

All at once a vivid gleam lit up the horizon. It shot and quivered into the sky and was reflected through the clouds that apparently hung low to the southward. In that brief flash the men in the boat had seen ahead of them the dark outlines of the hull and spars of a ship not half a cable's length away; but whether it was their own vessel or the one they had set out to reconnoitre, they could not tell. Hawley, the boatswain's mate, was at the tiller. David turned to him.

"Was that lightning, Hawley?" he asked in a whisper; "and did you see the ship?"

"I did, sir," the man replied, "but I never saw lightning like that before."

As he spoke another gleam arose, red and straight, as though out of a lantern. It vibrated for a moment and then as suddenly went out. Once more the craft ahead stood out in strong relief. So calm was it that she might have been aground. The sails hung in straight lines from the yards; there was not a creak, or a movement, or a sound of life from her. After the second flash of light Hawley leaned forward.

"It is one of them burning mountains, Mr. Farragut," he said.

David had heard of volcanoes but had never seen one; he did not know how far the reflection would carry, and that the light he saw was a hundred miles away. But there were other things to think of now.

"We are going to board that vessel, Hawley," he whispered.

"Very good, sir. It's coming on to blow, I think," said the boatswain.

David shook the man nearest to him, who was asleep on the thwarts.

"Pass the word to get out your oars silently," he said.

"Hawley, have you the direction of that vessel?"

"Aye, aye, sir," was the answer in a whisper.

The men were settling the oars in the rowlocks and stirring themselves sleepily. David stood up. He could hardly see the faces of those nearest him, but he made a little speech, pronouncing his words slowly and distinctly, just above his breath.

"Men," he said, "there's a vessel straight ahead. We don't know what she is, but we are going to take her. If she wants fight, she'll get it. If she surrenders, well and good."

He gave orders for two or three long, slow strokes to be pulled. Then called for "oars" again. The heavy cutter had gained headway and drifted slowly.

"Boat your oars!" said Midshipman Farragut.

There was not a sound as the heavy sweeps were laid on the thwarts. Suddenly there came a strange sensation. There was a little whispering in the bow and the cutter's headway stopped. The men on the port side were fending off with their hands, and so close was the hull of the silent vessel that David touched it also.

"It's our own ship, sir," said one of the men.

"Stop your jaw!" said Hawley. "It's not, Mr. Farragut. It's the stranger."

They were abreast of the chains, and bidding the men follow, David hauled himself out of the seat. A cheer broke out and the cutter's crew tumbled over the bulwarks.

It was a strange sight they saw. The binnacle light threw into dim relief a solitary figure at the wheel. David came close to him. The man did not move at first. Suddenly his face broadened into a grin.

"Well, by gosh!" he said. "Ye ain't no Britishers now, be ye?"

There was no mistaking the New Hampshire drawl.

"We are Americans," said David. "Where's your crew and who are you?"

"Captain Cyrus Peters," the man replied, "of the Yankee ship Albatross, and my crew is somewhere out there trying to cut your vessel out, by gosh! We never thought ye was a Yankee man-o'-war."

He threw his head back, and a laugh that might at least have been heard half a mile doubled him up like a jackknife.

"What vessel do you belong to, my young gentleman?" he inquired.

David responded by telling his ship, and, in a few words, what the squadron had been doing.

The men had been standing around chuckling and laughing among themselves when suddenly the skipper interrupted the goings on. He lifted his hand warningly.

"Hold on, by gum!" he said. "I thought that something was going to happen."

There had come a puff of heated air that lifted the great sails once and dropped them listlessly. The jibs rattled, and the ship's head paid off.

"We are going to have a blow," the captain said. "I feared it."

He jumped to the side and, making a trumpet of his hands, shouted out into the darkness:

"Ho, you Albatross's boats! Back to the ship, and lively!"

There came no answer. Then the hail was again repeated. This time a faint sound was heard, an answering call, and off to the north a small red spurt of flame ripped against the darkness. An instant later the report of a gun came booming over the water.

"That's a signal the signal to return, Captain Peters," said David. "Have you a gun with which we can answer?"

"Aye, sir, there's one on the forecastle. I'm a little afeared of the two we have in the waist. But they're all loaded to the muzzle, sir. My crew is extra large, and we have been on half rations. I picked up a wrecked whaler in the Behring Sea."

A grizzled old tar (one of the three men that had remained with the captain on board the Albatross) disappeared into the galley. He came running out with a live coal between two sticks of wood.

"Now let the eagle scream!" he said.

The gun on the forecastle roared out, and a hail of scrap iron went hurtling and scattering over the sea. As if in answer to the flash, once more the red glare spread along the horizon to the south.

"We git answer from the old volcano," said Captain Peters with a grin. "By hemlock, here comes the wind!"

Again the yards had lifted and the foresail backed against the mast. The captain shouted out some orders. The men stood fast. A lantern had been lit at the entrance to the galley, and old Hawley approached David.

"The crew would rather take their orders from you, sir, if you please," he said, saluting.

The skipper had overheard it.

"Never mind me, youngster," he replied. "Come, bawl away! We'll git those headsails in. Snakes! I hope your vessel picked up my three boats; if not, Lord help them!"

David's shrill voice rang out. Hawley stepped to the wheel and Captain Peters was the first one to step to the loosened sheets. The men, with half a cheer for "Old Long Shanks," followed. It was not a moment too soon. As if it had been shot from the mouth of a cannon the wind came down upon them, and as suddenly as the toss of a huge blanket the sea rose up on every side. It was most unaccountable. Where such great waves could jump from it was hard to imagine. In an instant the vessel seemed to be in the midst of a caldron. The heavy cutter at her side was dashed to pieces, and, almost on her beam ends, she answered her helm and forged up into the wind.

The men had come in from the bowsprit and were sliding down from aloft. Under the trysail and storm staysail, and the rest bare poles, the Albatross had now turned about and was going on the wind. So deep had she dipped into the tossing water that she had taken on board a huge sea forward, and Captain Peters, dripping wet, made his way aft.

"I've seen it before," he said—"once before in the harbor of Lisbon—kick up this same to-do. It is an earthquake, Captain Midshipman. You see we're in shallow water here."

He had shouted these words into David's ear. The latter, holding fast to the wheel with Hawley, tried to answer, but a fiercer gust blew the words away. There was a ripping sound, a loud report, and the staysail blew out in ribbons.

The stern of the Albatross seemed to lift into the air and her bow was buried so deeply that tons of water came roaring over into the waist. The captain had grasped the spokes of the wheel, and he and Hawley, by exerting all their strength, swung her head tip a little. It was lucky that this had happened, for even in the darkness they could see a huge shape just to leeward of the point of the bowsprit.

"Missed her by the toss of a cap, Mr. Farragut," said Hawley. Every one had called aloud in fear.

Up to this time there had been no lightning, but a great flash burst from overhead and they could see that the Essex, Jr., was alongside, almost yardarm to yardarm. She had drifted athwart their bows. A roar of thunder followed and then all was silent but for the tearing of the wind aloft.

"We will give her a wider berth," said Captain Peters, turning a spoke or two of the wheel. "No weather for kites, messmate!" he cried to Hawley.

"Heaven grant they have my men aboard your vessel!"

On into the darkness forged the Albatross; in an hour or so dawn spread, and back to windward they could just make out the Essex, Jr., pitching and tossing in the heavy seas.

Before noon the wind and sea went down and land was sighted to the westward from the masthead. The Albatross squared away on a new course and sail was shortened.

The anxiety of the Yankee skipper had increased until he could do nothing but walk up and down the deck, working his long fingers nervously. Whether or not his boats had been picked up, he did not know and it was painful to watch his expression as the Essex, Jr., drew up closer in the wake of the merchantman.

At last she was within hailing distance, and, following the etiquette of the service, David had to wait for his senior to speak him first.

Captain Peters could scarce contain himself now. His hands trembled so he could hardly hold the telescope to his eyes; but suddenly he gave a whoop—

"Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!" he cried. There's Pumpkin Billy, the carpenter. I can't mistake that face, by Davy Jones."

The bulwarks of the cruiser were crowded with heads, and in the foremast shrouds a dark knot of men were waiting.

Suddenly a tall man with a trumpet leaned out from the quarter-deck.

"Albatross, there! are our men on board of you?"

David had Captain Peters's trumpet to his lips; it hid half his face.

"All right, sir! All on board!" he called shrilly. "Have you the people of this ship?"

"Yes, safe and sound," was the answer.

A cheer broke out from the listening crews.

"I knowed it as soon as I saw Billy's phiz," said Captain Peters, cutting off a huge quid of tobacco.

By this time the two vessels were abreast of one another, and a great broad-shouldered man on the Essex, Jr.'s, forecastle lifted his elbows from the rail. His round face was almost twice the expanse of an ordinary person's, and, as if to heighten the effect, it was surrounded by bushy whiskers the color of a golden pumpkin for all the world.

Farragut on the Essex
THE ESSEX CUTS OUT THE BARK.


He opened his lips and his voice crossed the wide space as if he were only a few feet away. Even Kingsbury's would have sounded like a piping child beside him.

"Oh, Cap'n Cy'," he said, "did ye get a wett'n'? We captured this ere craft. What'll we do with her?"

A roar of laughter broke out in which David joined. Captain Peters at his elbow chuckled and whispered:

"They say that Billy was going out to sea to be gone two years, and when they were a mile offshore he hallooed back and asked a girl to marry him. She waved a pocket handkerchief, and when he came back they was married."

David laughed again.

The land ahead was being rapidly raised, and now both ships broke out their light sails. It became a race to seek the anchorage. The masts of Commodore Porter's fleet could be seen, and the familiar peaks of Nukahiva towered up against the sky.

The Essex, Jr., slowly drew ahead, however, and entered the harbor, first by only a few cables' lengths.

In the course of the explanations that followed, the rather amusing fact was developed that the Albatross's boats met the other cutter from the Essex, Jr., almost under the bows of the latter vessel, and that the anxiety felt during the sudden storm was only alleviated by the momentary glimpse of the Albatross that the flash of lightning gave.