And now, with sails declined,
The wandering vessel drove before the
Toss’d and retoss’d aloft,
and then alow;
Nor port they seek, nor certain course
But every moment wait the coming blow.
Three days after the Aspasia
had taken a fresh departure from the Western Isles,
a thick fog came on, the continuance of which prevented
them from ascertaining their situation by the chronometer.
The wind, which blew favourably from the south-east,
had, by their dead reckoning, driven them as far north
as the latitude of Ushant, without their once having
had an opportunity of finding out the precise situation
of the frigate. The wind now shifted more to
the eastward, and increasing to a gale, Captain M –
determined upon making Cape Clear, on the southern
coast of Ireland; but having obtained sights for the
chronometers it was discovered that they were far
to the westward of the reckoning, and had no chance
of making the point of land which they had intended.
For many days they had to contend against strong
easterly gales, with a heavy sea, and had sought shelter
under the western coast of Ireland.
The weather moderating, and the wind
veering again to the southward, the frigate’s
head was put towards the shore, that they might take
a fresh departure; but scarcely had they time to congratulate
themselves upon the prospect of soon gaining a port,
when there was every appearance of another gale coming
on from the south-west. As this was from a quarter
which, in all probability, would scarcely allow the
frigate to weather Mizen-head, she was hauled off
on the larboard tack, and all sail put on her which
prudence would permit in the heavy cross sea, which
had not yet subsided.
“We shall have it all back again,
I am afraid, sir,” observed the master, looking
to windward at the horizon, which, black as pitch,
served as a background to relieve the white curling
tops of the seas. “Shall we have the trysails
up, and bend them?”
“The boatswain is down after
them now, Pearce,” said the first-lieutenant.
“The weather is indeed threatening,”
replied the captain, as he turned from the weather
gangway, where he had been standing, and wiped the
spray from his face, with which the atmosphere was
charged; “and I perceive that the glass is very
low. Send the small sails down out of the tops;
as soon as the staysail is on her, lower the gaff,
and furl the spanker; the watch will do. When
we go to quarters, we’ll double-breech the guns.
Let the carpenter have his tarpaulins ready for battening
down send for the boatswain, and let the
boats on the booms be well secured. Is that
eight bells striking? Then pipe to supper first;
and, Mr Hardy,” added Captain M –,
as he descended the companion-ladder, “they
may as well hook the rolling-tackles again.”
“Ay, ay, sir,” replied
Hardy, as the captain disappeared. “I say,
master, the skipper don’t like it I’ll
swear that by his look as he turned from the gangway.
He was as stern as the figure-head of the Mars.”
“That’s just his way;
if even the elements threaten him, he returns the
look of defiance.”
“He does so,” replied
the master, who appeared to be unusually grave (as
if in sad presentiment of evil). “I’ve
watched him often. But it’s no use they
mind but one.”
“Very true neither
can you conciliate them by smiling; the only way to
look is to look sharp out. Eh, master?”
said the first-lieutenant, slapping him familiarly
on the back.
“Come, no skylarking, Hardy it’s
easy to tell the skipper isn’t on deck.
I expect as much sleep to-night as a dog vane these
south-westers generally last their three days.”
“I am glad to hear that,”
said Merrick, a youngster, with an oval laughing face,
who, being a favourite with both the officers, had
ventured to the weather-side of the quarter-deck in
the absence of the captain.
“And why, Mr Merrick?” inquired the master.
“Oh! it’s my morning watch
to-morrow. We shall be all snug; no sails to
trim, no sails to set, and no holystoning the deck nothing
to do but to keep myself warm under the weather bulwarks.”
“Ah, you idle scamp,” said the first-lieutenant,
“So, young man, you wish us
to be on deck all night, that you may have nothing
to do in the morning. The day will come when
you will know what responsibility is,” retorted
“If you’re up all night,
sir,” replied the boy, laughing, “you’ll
want a cup of coffee in the morning watch. I
shall come in for my share of that, you know.”
“Ah, well, it’s an ill
wind that blows nobody good,” observed Pearce,
“but you are young to be selfish.”
“Indeed I am not selfish, sir,”
replied the boy, hurt at the rebuke from one who had
been kind to him, and to whom he was attached.
“I was only joking. I only meant,”
continued he, feeling deeply, but not at the moment
able to describe his feelings “I only
said oh! Damn the coffee.”
“And now you are only swearing,
I suppose,” replied the master.
“Well, it’s enough to
make a saint swear to be accused of being selfish,
and by you too.”
“Well, well, youngster, there’s
enough of it you spoke without thinking.
Go down to your tea now, and you shall have your share
of the coffee to-morrow, if there is any.”
After supper the watch was called,
and the directions given by the captain to the first-lieutenant
were punctually obeyed. The drum then beat to
quarters earlier than usual; the guns were doubly secured;
the dead-lights shipped abaft; the number of inches
of water in the well made known by the carpenter;
the sobriety of the men ascertained by the officers
stationed at their respective guns; and everything
that was ordered to be executed, or to be held in
readiness, in the several departments, reported to
“Now, Mr Hardy, we’ll
make her all snug for the night. Furl the fore
and mizen-topsail, and close-reef the main that,
with the foresail, fore-staysail, and trysail, will
be enough for her.”
“Had we not better reef the
foresail, sir?” said Pearce. “I suspect
we shall have to do it before twelve o’clock,
if we do not now.”
“Very right, Mr Pearce we
will do so. Is the main-trysail bent?”
“All bent, sir, and the sheet aft.”
“Then beat a retreat, and turn the hands up shorten
This duty was performed, and the hammocks
piped down as the last glimmering of daylight disappeared.
The gale increased rapidly during
the first watch. Large drops of rain mingled
with the spray, distant thunder rolled to windward,
and occasional gleams of lightning pierced through
the intense darkness of the night. The officers
and men of the watches below, with sealed eyes and
thoughtless hearts, were in their hammocks, trusting
to those on deck for security. But the night
was terrific, and the captain, first-lieutenant, and
master, from the responsibility of their situations,
continued on deck, as did many of the officers termed
idlers, such as the surgeon and purser, who, although
their presence was not required, felt no inclination
to sleep. By four o’clock in the morning
the gale was at its height. The lightning darted
through the sky in every direction, and the thunder-claps
for the time overpowered the noise of the wind as
it roared through the shrouds. The sea, striking
on the fore-channels, was thrown aft with violence
over the quarter-deck and waist of the ship, as she
laboured through the agitated sea.
“If this lasts much longer we
must take the foresail off of her, and give her the
main-staysail,” said Hardy to the master.
“We must, indeed,” replied
the captain, who was standing by them; “but
the day is breaking. Let us wait a little ease
“Ease her it is, sir.”
At daylight, the gale having rather
increased than shown any symptoms of abating, the
captain was giving directions for the foresail to be
taken off, when the seaman who was stationed to look
out on the lee-gangway, cried out, “A sail on
“A sail on the lee-beam, sir!”
reported the officer of the watch to the captain,
as he held on by a rope with one hand, and touched
his hat with the other.
“Here, youngster, tell the sentry
at the cabin door to give you my deck glass,”
said Captain M – to Merrick, who was
one of the midshipmen of the morning watch.
“She’s a large ship, sir main
and mizen masts both gone,” reported Hardy,
who had mounted up three or four ratlines of the main-rigging.
The midshipman brought up the glass;
and the captain, first passing his arm round the fore-brace,
to secure himself from falling to leeward with the
lurching of the ship, as soon as he could bring the
strange vessel into the field of the glass exclaimed,
“A line-of-battle ship, by Heavens! and if I
am any judge of a hull, or the painting of a ship,
she is no Englishman.” Other glasses were
now produced, and the opinion of the captain was corroborated
by that of the officers on deck.
“Keep fast the foresail, Mr
Hardy. We’ll edge down to her. Quarter-master,
see the signal halyards all clear.”
The captain went down to his cabin,
while the frigate was kept away as he directed, the
master standing at the conn. He soon came up
again: “Hoist Number 3 at the fore, and
Number 8 at the main. We’ll see if she
can answer the private signal.”
It was done, and the frigate, rolling
heavily in the trough of the sea, and impelled by
the furious elements, rapidly closed with the stranger.
In less than an hour they were within half a mile of
her; but the private signal remained unanswered.
“Now then, bring her to the
wind, Mr Pearce,” said Captain M –,
who had his glass upon the vessel.
The frigate was luffed handsomely
to the wind, not however without shipping a heavy
sea. The gale, which, during the time that she
was kept away before the wind, had the appearance,
which it always has, of having decreased in force,
now that she presented her broadside to it, roared
again in all its fury.
“Call the gunner clear
away the long gun forward try with the rammer
whether the shot has started from the cartridge, and
then fire across the bows of that vessel.”
The men cast loose the gun, and the
gunner taking out the bed and coin, to obtain the
greatest elevation to counteract the heel of the frigate,
watched the lurch, and pitched the shot close to the
forefoot of the disabled vessel, who immediately showed
French colours over her weather-quarter.
“French colours, sir!” cried two or three
at a breath.
“Beat to quarters, Mr Hardy,” said Captain
“Shall we cast loose the main-deck guns?”
“No, no that will
be useless; we shall not be able to fire them, and
we may have them through the sides. We’ll
try her with the carronades.”
It was easy to perceive, without the
assistance of a glass, that the men on board the French
line-of-battle ship were attempting, in no very scientific
manner, to get a jury-mast up abaft, that, by putting
after-sail on her, they might keep their vessel to
the wind. The foresail they dared not take off,
as, without any sail to keep her steady, the remaining
mast would in all probability have rolled over the
side; but without after-sail, the ship would not keep
to the wind, and the consequence was, that she was
two points off the wind, forging fast through the
water, notwithstanding that the helm was hard a-lee.
“Where are we now, Mr Pearce?”
interrogated the captain “about eight
or nine leagues from the land?”
“Say seven leagues, sir, if
you please,” replied the master, “until
I can give you an exact answer,” and he descended
the companion ladder to work up his reckoning.
“She’s leaving us, Mr
Hardy keep more away, and run abreast of
her. Now, my lads, watch the weather roll, round
and grape don’t throw a shot away aim
at the quarter-deck ports. If we can prevent
her from getting up her jury-masts, she is done for.”
“As for the matter of that,”
said the quarter-master, who was captain of one of
the quarter-deck guns, “we might save our shot.
They haven’t nous enough to get them
up if left all to themselves however, here’s
a slap at her.”
The frigate had now closed within
three cables’ length of the line-of-battle ship,
and considering the extreme difficulty of hitting
any mark under such disadvantages, a well-directed
fire was thrown in by her disciplined seamen.
The enemy attempted to return the fire from the weather
main-deck guns, but it was a service of such difficulty
and danger, that he more than once abandoned it.
Two or three guns disappearing from the ports, proved
that they had either rolled to leeward, or had been
precipitated down the hatchways. This was indeed
the case, and the French sailors were so much alarmed
from the serious disasters that had already ensued,
that they either quitted their quarters, or, afraid
to stand behind the guns when they were fired, no
aim was taken, and the shots were thrown away.
Had the two ships been equally manned, the disadvantage,
under all the misfortunes of the Frenchman, would
have been on the side of the frigate; but the gale
itself was more than sufficient employment for the
undisciplined crew of the line-of-battle ship.
The fire from the frigate was kept
up with vigour, although the vessel lurched so heavily
as often to throw the men who were stationed at the
guns into the lee scuppers, rolling one over the other
in the water with which the decks were floated; but
this was only a subject of merriment, and they resumed
their task with the careless spirit of British seamen.
The fire, difficult as it was to take any precise aim,
had the effect intended, that of preventing the French
vessel from rigging anything like a jury-mast.
Occasionally the line-of-battle ship kept more away,
to avoid the grape, by increasing her distance; but
the frigate’s course was regulated by that of
her opponent, and she continued her galling pursuit.