In which our hero, as usual, gets into the very middle of it.
ON the eleventh day the Rebiera entered the Straits, and the Rock of Gibraltar was in sight as the sun went down; after which the wind fell light, and about midnight it became calm, and they drifted up. At sunrise they were roused by the report of heavy guns, and perceived an English frigate about eight miles farther up the Straits, and more in the mid-channel, engaging nine or ten Spanish gunboats, which had come out from Algesiras to attack her. It still continued a dead calm, and the boats of the frigate were all ahead towing her, so as to bring her broadside to bear upon the Spanish flotilla. The reverberating of the heavy cannon on both sides over the placid surface of the water—the white smoke ascending as the sun rose in brilliancy in a clear blue sky—the distant echoes repeated from the high hills—had a very beautiful effect for those who are partial to the picturesque. But Jack thought it advisable to prepare for action instead of watching for tints—and in a short time all was ready.
“They’ll not come to us, Mr. Easy, as long as they have the frigate to hammer at; but still we had better be prepared, for we cannot well pass them without having a few shot. When I came up the Straits in the privateer we were attacked by two, and fought them for three hours; their shot dashed the water over our decks till they were wet fore and aft, but somehow or another they never hit us—we were as low as they were. I’ll be bound but they’ll hull the frigate though. Mrs. Oxbelly and Billy were on deck the whole time—and Billy was quite delighted, and cried when they took him down to breakfast.”
“Why, Mrs. Oxbelly must be very courageous.”
“Cares neither for shot nor shell, sir, laughs when they whiz over her head, and tells Billy to hark. But, sir, it’s not surprising; her father is a major, and her two brothers are lieutenants in the bombardiers.”
“That, indeed,” replied Jack—“but see, there is a breeze springing up from the westward.”
“Very true, Mr. Easy, and a steady one it will be, for it comes up dark and slow; so much the better for the frigate, for she’ll get little honour and plenty of mauling at this work.”
“I hope we shall take it up with us,” observed Jack; “how far do you reckon the gun-boats from the shore?”
“I should think about five miles, or rather less.”
“Trim sails, Mr. Oxbelly—perhaps we may cut one or two of these off—steer inshore of them.”
“Exactly. Up there, my lads, set top-gallant studding sails, top-mast studdings to hand-rig out the booms—keep as you go now, my lad—we shall be well inshore of them, and out of the range of the batteries.”
The breeze came down fresh, and all sail was set upon the Rebiera. She took the wind down with her, and it passed her but little—half a mile ahead of them all was still and smooth as a glass mirror, and they neared and gained inshore at the same time. The gun-boats were still engaging the frigate, and did not appear to pay any attention to the Rebiera coming down. At last the breeze reached them and the frigate, light at first and then gradually increasing, while the Rebiera foamed through the water and had now every chance of cutting off some of the gun-boats. The frigate trimmed her sails and steered towards the flotilla, which now thought proper to haul off and put their heads inshore, followed by the frigate firing her bow-chasers. But the Rebiera was now within half gun-shot, inshore, and steering so as to intercept them. As she rapidly closed, the flotilla scarcely knew how to act; to attack her would be to lose time, and allow the frigate to come up and occasion their own capture; so they satisfied themselves with firing at her as she continued to run down between them and the land. As they neared, Jack opened his fire with his eighteen-pound carronades and long nines. The gun-boats returned his fire, and they were within a quarter of a mile, when Jack shortened sail to his top-sails, and a warm engagement took place, which ended in one of the gun-boats being in a few minutes dismasted. The frigate, under all canvas, came rapidly up, and her shot now fell thick. The flotilla then ceased firing, passing about two cables’ lengths ahead of the Rebiera, and making all possible sail for the land. Jack now fired at the flotilla as they passed, with his larboard broadside, while with his starboard he poured in grape and canister upon the unfortunate gun-boat which was dismasted, and which soon hauled down her colours. In a few minutes more the remainder were too far distant for the carronades, and, as they did not fire, Jack turned his attention to take possession of his prize, sending a boat with ten men on board, and heaving-to close to her to take her in tow. Ten minutes more and the frigate was hove-to a cable’s length from the Rebiera, and our hero lowered down his other quarter boat to go on board.
“Have we any men hurt, Mr. Oxbelly?” inquired Jack.
“Only two; Spearling has lost his thumb with a piece of langrage, and James has a bad wound in the thigh.”
“Very well; I will ask for the surgeon to come on board.”
Jack pulled to the frigate and went up the side, touched his hat in due form, and was introduced by the midshipmen to the other side, where the captain stood.
“Mr. Easy!” exclaimed the captain.
“Captain Sawbridge?” replied our hero with surprise.
“Good heavens! what brought you here!” said the captain; “and what vessel is that?”
“The Rebiera, letter of marque, commanded and owned by Mr. Easy,” replied Jack, laughing.
Captain Sawbridge gave him his hand. “Come down with me in the cabin, Mr. Easy; I am very glad to see you. Give you great credit for your conduct, and am still more anxious to know what has induced you to come out again. I knew that you had left the service.”
Jack, in a very few words, told his object in fitting out the Rebiera; “but,” continued Jack, “allow me to congratulate you upon your promotion, which I was not aware of. May I ask where you left the Harpy, and what is the name of your frigate?”
“The Latona! I have only been appointed to her one month, after an action in which the Harpy took a large corvette, and am ordered home with despatches to England. We sailed yesterday evening from Gibraltar, were becalmed the whole night, and attacked this morning by the gun-boats.”
“How is Captain Wilson, sir?”
“I believe he is very well, but I have not seen him.”
“How did you know, then, that I had left the service, Captain Sawbridge?”
“From Mr. Gascoigne, who is now on board.”
“Gascoigne!” exclaimed our hero.
“Yes, he was sent up to join the Aurora by the Governor, but she had left the fleet, and having served his time, and a passing day being ordered, he passed, and thought he might as well go home with me and see if he could make any interest for his promotion.”
“Pray, Captain Sawbridge, is the gun-boat our prize or yours?”
“It ought to be wholly yours; but the fact is, by the regulations, we share.”
“With all my heart, sir. Will you send an assistant-surgeon on board to look after two of my men who are hurt?”
“Yes, directly; now send your boat away, Easy, with directions to your officer in command. We must go back to Gibraltar, for we have received some injury, and, I am sorry to say, lost some men. You are going then, I presume, to stay on board and dine with me: we shall be at anchor before night.”
“I will, with pleasure, sir. But now I will send my boat away and shake hands with Gascoigne.”
Gascoigne was under the half-deck waiting to receive his friend, for he had seen him come up the side from his station on the forecastle. A hurried conversation took place, after our hero had dismissed his boat with the assistant-surgeon in it to dress the two wounded men. Jack then went on deck, talked with the officers, looked with pleasure at the Rebiera with the gun-boat in tow, keeping company with the frigate, although only under the same canvas—promised Gascoigne to spend the next day with him either on shore or on board of the Rebiera, and then returned to the cabin, where he had a long conference with Captain Sawbridge.
“When you first entered the service, Easy,” said Captain Sawbridge, “I thought that the sooner the service was rid of you the better; now that you have left it, I feel that it has lost one, who, in all probability, would have proved a credit to it.”
“Many thanks, sir,” replied Jack; “but how can I be a midshipman with eight thousand pounds a year?”
“I agree with you that it is impossible:—but dinner is serving; go into the after-cabin and the steward will give you all you require.”
Our hero, whose face and hands were not a little grimed with the gunpowder, washed himself, combed out his curly black hair, and found all the party in the fore-cabin. Gascoigne, who had not been asked in the forenoon, was, by the consideration of Captain Sawbridge, added to the number. Before dinner was long off the table, the first lieutenant reported that it was necessary to turn the hands up, as they were close to the anchorage. The party, therefore, broke up sooner than otherwise would have been the case; and as soon as the Latona’s sails were furled Captain Sawbridge went on shore to acquaint the Governor with the results of the action. He asked Jack to accompany him, but our hero, wishing to be with Gascoigne, excused himself until the next day.
“And now, Easy,” said Gascoigne, as soon as the captain had gone over the side, “I will ask permission to go on board with you—or will you ask?”
“I will ask,” replied Jack; “a gentleman of fortune has more weight with a first lieutenant than a midshipman.”
So Jack went up to the first lieutenant, and with one of his polite bows hoped, “if duty would permit, he would honour him by coming on board that evening with some of his officers, to see the Rebiera and to drink a bottle or two of champagne.”
The first lieutenant, as the Rebiera was anchored not two cables’ lengths from him, replied, “that as soon as he had shifted the prisoners and secured the gun-boat, he would be very glad;” so did three or four more of the officers, and then Jack begged as a favour that his old friend, Mr. Gascoigne, might be permitted to go with him now, as he had important packages to entrust to his care to England. The first lieutenant was very willing, and Gascoigne and our hero jumped into the boat, and were once more in all the confidence of tried and deserved friendship.
“Jack, I’ve been thinking of it, and I’ve made up my mind,” said Gascoigne. “I shall gain little or nothing by going home for my promotion: I may as well stay here, and as I have served my time and passed, my pay is now of little consequence. Will you take me with you?”
“It is exactly what I was thinking of, Ned. Do you think that Captain Sawbridge will consent?”
“I do; he knows how I am circumstanced, and that my going home was merely because I was tired of looking after the Aurora.”
“We’ll go together and ask him to-morrow,” replied Jack.
“At all events, you’ll have a more gentlemanly companion than Mr. Oxbelly.”
“But not so steady, Ned.”
The first lieutenant and officers came on board, and passed a merry evening. There’s nothing passes time more agreeably away than champagne, and if you do not affront this regal wine by mixing him with any other, he never punishes you next morning.