What is called matriarchy is simply moral anarchy, in which the mother alone remains fixed because all the fathers are fugitive and irresponsible. — G. K. Chesterton

Midshipman Farragut - James Barnes




Skirmishings

"Mr. Farragut, you will accompany me on shore this morning," said Commodore Porter to David as the latter stood alongside the cabin table. The sunlight that was coming in the after-ports gleamed along the chases of two cannon that made up part of the furniture..

Porter had just finished his breakfast. An opened note lay beside his coffee cup.

"You will put on your best uniform and go with me to the house of Mr. Blanco. I believe that I am to have the honor of meeting my old friend Captain Hillyar."

It was well known and had often been talked about through the ship that Hillyar and Porter had once been friends, and that the latter, before the outbreak of the war, had done the English captain some service by taking on, board his family and bringing them in his own vessel from Malta to Gibraltar. Their relations had always been of the most kindly character. It was a strange fate that had picked them out for antagonists.

"See that the men are in clean blue and white, and get out a new boat flag, Mr. Farragut," Porter continued.

David, saluting, hurried from the cabin at once.

He passed Lieutenant Cowel and Lieutenant McKnight entering. They were laughing laughter which was echoed a moment later from the deck above. David heard the sound of singing—a chorus of men's voices bawling the following verse to the tune of Yankee Doodle:

Oh, Johnny Bull, you've followed far,

We'll do our best to lick you;

Our eagle brave will twist your tail,

In proper fashion pick you.

Running up into the sunlight, David saw a remarkable sight. Midshipmen Isaacs, Ogden, and Odenheimer were standing, with broad grins on their faces, watching the men in the forecastle; they were gathered at the larboard bow and were being led in the chorus by no one less than old Kingsbury, who was for the nonce a visitor; his red face was redder than ever as he flourished his hand and beat time to the chorus:

The lion hears the eagle scream,

And thinks he's surely caught, sir;

But we will see what we will see—

The lion shall be taught, sir!

Then followed a confusion of Yankee Doodle and a mumble of words that ended in a roar of laughter.

Overhead at the main truck a huge flag was flying, and on the white ground was the motto in blue letters, Free Trade and Sailors' Rights."

A sudden silence fell in the forecastle. Their song had been answered by an indignant shout from the decks of the Phoebe. The two vessels were within ear-shot, and so close that the buttons of an officer on the quarter-deck of the latter could almost be counted as they flashed brightly in the sunlight.

The silence of the Yankee sailors had been occasioned by seeing a white bundle slowly creeping up to the main truck of the Phoebe. It was evidently a flag of some sort. There was a tug at the color halyards, and the bundle unfolded into a large white flag, even broader than the motto of the Essex.

As the wind whipped it out straight and square the men could make out, rippling against the sky, the following legend in red letters: "God and Country. British Sailors' Best Rights; Traders offend both."

A cheer arose from the decks of the English ship, and mutterings of anger rumbled through the group of American seamen.

"Here's Billy," shouted some one. A huge figure loomed up the forward hatchway. "Pumpkin Billy" had joined the crew of the Essex but had not been much in evidence, owing to a broken ankle that had kept him below.

"Talk to them, Billy," said some one, making room for the red-headed Yankee to reach the ship's side.

The man grinned, and, drawing a long breath, sent that wonderful voice of his out into space.

"Take down your dish rag!" he shouted.

The men laughed, and a chorus of curses was the response from the Englishmen.

Captain Porter at this juncture came out of the cabin. The smile faded out of his face as he saw the motto of the English flag.

"That's an insult," he said angrily, "a deliberate insult to our brave fellows." As he went down the side into the gig, a boat put out from beneath the Phoebe's quarter. In the stern sheets sat three or four officers, and the crew of the Essex's gig, as they let fall, looked over their shoulders. The oars caught the water with a single thump in the rowlocks.

"Give it to them, lads!" said Lieutenant McKnight, who, with Mr. Wilmer and Lieutenant Wilson and the captain, sat on the cushions of the gig.

The oars bent and the gig jumped forward; the blades flashed in and out, and the breaths of the men pulling, sounded together, deep and full. Every muscle showed on the brawny backs beneath the clean white shirts.

They crept up on the English gig as if she were standing still. Several of her crew had missed their stroke and they were evidently in no such practice or condition as the Americans. They plashed badly, and one of the officers cursed them loudly as a half bucketful of water came rattling into the stern sheets.

Another dozen strokes and the boats were abreast. A grin was on the faces of the Americans and a cheer broke out from the deck of the Essex, which was answered by a howl of derision from the Phoebe.

Lieutenant McKnight leaned forward.

"Look at our men," he said; "if looks could kill, they would have eaten that crew, boat and all."

"With a good-humored relish, too," Captain Porter added, looking over his shoulder.

At the same time the English officers raised their hats and the salute was returned by the Americans. They exchanged curious glances.

Never did David feel such a strange, nervous tension. It was so odd, rowing peacefully along as though racing, when these very men would be dealing death and destruction to one another—yes, and before long.

Porter's gig reached the landing first. The officers stepped ashore and the commander turned.

"Men," he said, "I don't want a word exchanged with the crew of that boat. Back to your ship as soon as possible!"

The bowman pushed off just as the Phoebe's gig came dashing up toward shore. The men obeyed the letter of the order, but David, looking back, saw a curious sight. Every man Jack of the Americans was pulling with one hand at the oar as the other boat passed, but the disengaged hand was held aloft and the thumb was placed at the tip of the nose.

Had it not been for the presence of the officers the Englishmen would have retorted in some manner, and mayhap a fine row would have started, in which oars and fists and boat-stretchers would have played conspicuous parts.

Captain Hillyar was fuming with anger as he landed, and the rest of his party were in the same frame of mind. This was evident from their attitudes as they followed the American officers up the street. David glanced up at Commodore Porter's face; he felt as if he were walking beside a powder mine.

The American officers had been at Mr. Blanco's house, which was about half a mile from the landing place, some minutes before the English party arrived. Captain Hillyar and Captain Porter greeted each other with evident cordiality. The former introduced a handsome, slender man who accompanied him as Captain Tucker, of the Cherub.

After the usual civilities and a glass of wine, informal conversation was indulged in about the table. Porter inquired, in his usual method of coming directly to the point, with a half-smile on his face, if Captain Hillyar intended to recognize the neutrality of the port; to which the latter replied with much emphasis and earnestness:

"You have paid so much respect to the neutrality laws that I feel myself bound in honor to respect them also."

"Then," said Porter, with a look of relief, this assurance is sufficient. "We can take our eyes off one another, and I shall no longer feel it necessary to be always prepared for action."

The conversation drifted to their former meeting in the Mediterranean. David, being a midshipman, was not noticed by anybody, and he sat there listening to the conversation, but of course taking no part in it.

The meeting, however, was not over before some asperity was shown on both sides. David, who had been looking out of the window, noticed that Captain Porter's voice was rising, and he turned.

"The motto on your flag, Captain Hillyar, is aimed directly at us."

"So may our guns be," replied the Englishman. "Good!" said Porter, bowing. "May they be answered!"

"A promise of much further conversation, Captain Porter."

"But there are no traitors on board my ship."

"It is a reply to your 'Free Trade and Sailors' Rights," said Hillyar, "which gives great offense to the British navy; and whenever you hoist that, I shall not fail to hoist the other."

Porter was getting angry.

"The motto you refer to is intended to please ourselves and not to hurt the feelings of others." Hillyar shrugged his shoulders.

But a minute later good humor seemed to have been restored, and they parted with expressions of mutual pleasure at having met again.

As they went through the companion way when they returned to the ship, Porter, who had not spoken after leaving the house, ordered David to find the sail maker and send him at once to the cabin. This having been complied with, the rest of the afternoon was spent by the ship's tailors preparing a huge motto flag that was thrown to the breezes at daylight the next morning.

"God, our Country and Liberty—Tyrants offend them!" read the line against the clouds.

Three cheers were given by the crew of the Phoebe, and returned by the Essex.

The nervous tension that all hands had felt at first was wearing slowly away. The greeting of the crews of the vessels and the meeting of the officers on shore took on a more good-natured tone, although the songs and jokes still kept the men amused.

Of course, it was seen that this state of affairs could not last long; that sooner or later a movement would be made which would precipitate the long-expected action. All sorts of rumors and talk were rife.

Midshipman Ogden had heard the officers talking in the wardroom one day, and hastened down into the steerage, his face ablaze with news.

"Do you know, the old man "(it was Captain Porter who was referred to in this irreverent manner) "told Hillyar if he sent away the Cherub he would go out and fight him in the Essex?"

"Well?" interjected Midshipman Farragut anxiously.

"And the Englishman refused," went on Ogden. "He said he would take no risk when he had us on the hip."

"I don't believe we will ever get at it," put in Midshipman Isaacs, "unless something stirs them up."

Something did stir them up in the course of the next few days. The ringleaders among the prisoners in the conspiracy at Nukahiva had been kept in close confinement on board the flagship. One of these men, accused of a plot to poison, managed in some way to free himself, rushed to the side and plunged overboard. Before a boat could be launched, a passing English cutter picked him up and took him on board the Phoebe.

Some rather bitter correspondence now passed between the two commanders. Soon the friendly intercourse must be broken if such things continued.