Read MORTON : CHAPTER XX of An Old Sailor's Yarns , free online book, by Nathaniel Ames, on ReadCentral.com.

Master, let me take you a button hole lower; do you not see, Pompey
is uncasing for the combat? What mean you? you will lose your
reputation.

LOVE’S LABOR’S LOST.

The rising sun the next day beheld the good ship Albatross, under the impulse of a very gentle breeze, gliding towards the west; the Andes, over which the sun was darting his levelled beams, were distinctly visible. The flapping of the topsails against their masts, the pattering of the reef-points, and the smoothness of the water, indicated an approaching calm.

“Go aloft, one of you,” said Morton, who was the officer of the morning watch, “go aloft, and see if you can make out any sail astern of us under the land.”

The seaman who obeyed this order, after roosting for fifteen or twenty minutes on the main royal yard, came down and reported that he could see nothing; but that the sun shone so brightly on the water that, if any thing was within the range of sight, the reflection of the sunbeams would render it invisible. Morton could not repress a vague apprehension that there was some vessel in chace, though it would have sorely puzzled him to give his whys and wherefores. After having pointed his glass for the fiftieth time towards the eastern horizon, without seeing any thing but smooth water and the dim, blue, cloudy-looking mountains, the man at the wheel notified him that it was “eight bells,” or eight o’clock. Having gone below to compare the watch in the cabin with the half-hour glass in the binnacle, he returned to the quarter-deck and called out,

“Strike the bell eight call the watch.”

The bell was struck, and one of the watch on deck, after a preliminary thumping with the large end of a handspike upon the forecastle, vociferated down the fore scuttle,

“All the starboard watch, ahoy! Rouse out there, starbowlines show a leg or an arm!”

This last phrase designates the manner in which “turning out” of a hammock is accomplished, which hammock, a person unacquainted with such kind of sleeping accommodations, would never dream contained a live man, until one or the other of the aforementioned limbs was protruded. In a few minutes the wheel was relieved, and the crew were clustering around the galley with their tin pots, joking, and laughing, and shouting “scaldings!” as they hurried forward with their respective allowances of hot coffee.

In the mean time the quarter-deck received an accession of company. Mr. Walker came up the companion-way, gaping and rubbing his eyes, and carrying his jacket on his arm. With a short “good morning!” to Morton he threw his jacket upon the hen-coop, proceeded to the lee gangway, drew a bucket of water, and commenced his morning’s ablutions. Captain Williams next came on deck, and immediately looked round upon the weather with a troubled and disappointed air, for it was now almost quite a calm. Mr. Edwards and Dr. Bolton followed him not that they had any business on deck, or cared much about leaving the cabin or their respective state-rooms oftener than was necessary; but it is not, or was not, in my sea-going days, esteemed genteel for passengers, or any other “idlers,” to stay below while the steward was occupied with the mystery of arranging the breakfast-table. Lastly, and to the surprise of the whole company, Isabella, as lovely as the morning, and dressed in the proper habiliments of her sex, ascended the companion-ladder. She was greeted with paternal affection by the veteran commander, and with sparkling eyes and a silent pressure of the hand by Morton. She received and replied to their congratulations and compliments with crimsoned cheeks and downcast eyes. The supercargo and doctor, who had, with most commendable delicacy, kept out of the way the night before, were now introduced, and after a few minutes of general conversation, the steward informed Captain Williams that breakfast was ready.

The whole party, with the exception of Mr. Walker, who was now in his turn “officer of the deck,” accordingly descended to the cabin, where they found the table covered with coffee and tea, minus milk; cold salt beef, cut into slices, of a thickness that would horrify a whole community of fashionable ladies and gentlemen, allowing that so exceedingly vulgar an article of “provent” as salt beef did not previously throw them into hysterics as soon as presented to their eyes, but which slices seemed to have been cut with the prospective intention of filling up that vacuum that Nature, as far as I am acquainted with her, seems to abhor more cordially than any other vacuum whatever; that void space, I mean, that is apt to be found in a healthy human stomach after a twelve-hour’s fast. There was also a broiled chicken for the express use and behoof of their fair messmate; fried pork and potatoes; a large dish of fried fish, the produce of a fishing excursion the afternoon preceding; another of boiled eggs; a third composed of pilot-bread, soaked in hot water, toasted, and buttered; biscuit, butter, and cheese.

Breakfast proceeded much as sea breakfasts generally do that is to say, the company ate heartily: even Isabella, who had sufficient excuse for low spirits and want of appetite, yielded to the demands of hunger the most unromantic, and, in vulgar language, “spoilt the looks” of the broiled fowl before her. The meal was drawing to a close, when the steward came below with information, that Mr. Walker had seen, from the main topmast head, with his glass, a square-rigged vessel right astern, and coming up with a fresh breeze. Captain Williams and Morton exchanged looks of intelligence, but said nothing; their fair passenger, fortunately, understood not a word of the steward’s intelligence; and the merchant and doctor were of that happy and enviable description of men, who, when they sit down to a well-furnished table, seem to adopt, with a slight variation, the sentiment of the poet,

“Far from my thoughts, vain world, begone,
And let my ‘eating’ hours alone,”

The two seamen, however anxious they might feel, finished their breakfast very composedly, and went on deck without hurry; Morton recommending to his fair deliverer to remain below for some time. In half an hour the chace was distinctly visible from the quarter-deck, and from the peculiar darkness of the water in that direction, it was evident that she had a good breeze. It was then that conjectures as to the character of the stranger were numerous, wild, and contradictory; no one thought for an instant that it was the Venganza, because they had seen her the day before with her fore-yard down and sent on shore the idea that there might possibly be found a spare spar in the dock-yard that would answer pro tem. never, for an instant, presenting itself to their minds. A few minutes more, however, convinced them that it was indeed that “terrible ship with a terrible name;” and orders were immediately given to prepare for action as silently as possible. These orders were obeyed with joyous alacrity. A feeling of romantic gratitude to their lovely passenger was accompanied by a most chivalrous determination to “do or die” in her defence, and these sentiments pervaded the whole ship’s company. Added to this exciting cause was that natural propensity to strife that Flora Mac Ivor says all men feel when placed in opposition to each other, or, as Titus Livius Patavinus hath it, they were “suopte ingenio féroces.”

The clews of the topsails were lashed to the lower yard-arms; the topsail-yards slung with iron chains; round, grape, and cannister shot got up from the hold; the boarding-pikes taken down from the racks and laid at hand; the arm-chests unlocked, and their murderous contents of muskets, bayonets, pistols, cutlasses, and tomahawks or pole-axes produced; powder-horns and flasks, for priming the guns, filled and placed in readiness; rammers, sponges, and priming-wires distributed to the guns; preventer braces rove, and stoppers for the rigging sent up into the tops, or placed in different parts of the deck. The carpenter got ready his shot-plugs and top-maul; the armorer examined the locks of the fire-arms; the gunner paraded his wads, and opened the magazine beneath the cabin floor. Morton, to whom Captain Williams had deputed the charge of the two females, descended to the steerage, attended by two or three seamen, and hauled all the spare sails out of the sail-room, with which he formed a small hollow coil in the cable tier. These sails, being formed into long hard rolls and placed upon the cables, formed a rampart that, from its non-elasticity, would more effectually check the progress of a round shot than a greater thickness of oak plank.

Having finished the castle, he could not forbear passing into the cabin to see its future occupant. Isabella received him with a blush and a smile.

“What is the meaning of all this noise and bustle overhead?” said she.

“There is a strange ship in sight,” said Morton, after a pause, “and we are almost sure that she has hostile intentions towards us.” Isabella became pale as marble. “It is, in short, the man-of-war that was in St. Blas when we left there.”

“Good God!” said the young lady, clasping her hands in agony, “what will become of us?”

“Do not allow yourself to be overcome with causeless alarm; we shall, if possible, run away; but if not, we must resort to certain arguments to convince her commander and crew of the impropriety and rudeness of their interfering in an affair that does not concern them.”

“But if we are taken, what will become of you?”

“I suspect, dearest Isabella, that you will search in vain through the Albatross to find a single person, man or boy, that is prepared to admit the probability, nay, even the possibility, of such a conclusion. We are nominally inferior, but in reality superior, to our antagonist. In the mean time, I have been preparing a place of safety for you and Transita, where it is next to impossible that you should be in the way of danger.”

“But you,” said she, looking at him with tearful eyes.

“My life, my sweet girl, is in the hands of Him that gave it; and to His watchful care and boundless goodness I cheerfully and confidingly commit it.”

“But if you are taken such a thing is at least possible.”

“Such an event is, as you say, possible. In that case, your Mexican friends must be content to work their revenge upon my dead body, for I am determined that the living Charles Morton shall never become an object for Spanish vengeance to exhaust its ingenuity upon. But I must leave you for the present. I will come below again in a few minutes, to conduct you to your citadel.”