Ebooks, Fiction, Non-Fiction 1000s of Free books and stories online to read now ~ Main Page

 

 

 

Petrel and the Black Swan by Anonymous

 

"Sail, ho!"

Never, surely, did the cry fall upon more welcome ears, save and except those of men becalmed in a boat upon the open sea. For twelve weary days and nights had we, the officers and men of H.M.S. Petrel (six guns, Commander B. R. Neville), been cooped up in our iron prison, patrolling one of the hottest sections of the terrestrial globe, on the lookout for slavers. From latitude 4 deg. north to latitude 4 deg. south was our beat, and we dared not venture beyond these limits. Our instructions were to keep out of sight of land and try to intercept some of the larger vessels, which, it was suspected, carried cargoes of slaves from the —— coast. The ship, the sea, the cloudless sky—there was nothing else to see, nothing else to think of. Work, study, play even, were alike impossible in that fierce, scorching heat. If you touched a bit of iron on deck it almost burned your hand. If you lay down between-decks covered with a sheet, you awoke in a bath of perspiration.

"Sail, ho!"

The man, in his excitement, repeated the shout before he could be hailed from the deck.

"Where away?" sang out the captain.

"Two points on the weather-bow, sir," was the reply.

That phrase about the "weather-bow" was a nautical fiction, for there was no wind to speak of, and what there was was nearly dead astern.

"Keep her away two points," said Commander Neville; and the order was promptly obeyed.

In a few seconds the news had spread through the ship, and the men clustered on the bulwarks, straining their eyes to get a glimpse of the stranger. Even the stokers, poor fellows, showed their sooty faces at the engine-room hatchway. Of course the stranger might be, and probably was, an innocent trader; but then she might be a slaver; and golden visions of prize-money floated before the eyes of every man and boy on board the Petrel.

We did not steam very fast, as of course our supply of coal was limited; and it was about two hours before sundown when we fairly sighted the stranger. She was a long three-masted schooner, with tall raking masts, lying very low in the water. All her canvas was set; and as a little wind had sprung up, she was slipping through the water at a fair pace.

"She looks for all the world like a slaver, sir," remarked Mr.
Brabazon, the first lieutenant, to the commander.

Neville said nothing, but his lips were firmly compressed, and a gleam of excitement was in his eyes.

"Fire a blank cartridge, Mr. O'Riley," said he to the second lieutenant; "and signal her to ask her nationality and her code number."

This was done; and in answer to the signal the schooner slowly hoisted the American colours.

"She has eased away her sheets, and luffed a point or two, sir," said the quartermaster, touching his cap.

The captain merely answered this by a nod.

"Put a shot in your gun, Mr. O'Riley," said he. "Lower your hoist and make a fresh hoist demanding her name."

This was done, but the American took no notice.

"Fire a shot, Mr. O'Riley—wide, of course," said the commander.

Again the deafening report of the big gun sounded in our ears; and we could see the splash of the shot as it struck the water about fifty yards from the schooner. Immediately a flag was run up, then another and another; and we saw that she was not giving us her code number, but was spelling out her name, letter by letter—The Black Swan.

"Just look that up in the United States Merchant Registry," said the captain to the first lieutenant. And in half a minute he had reported—"No such name, sir." This was something more than suspicious. And the wind was rising.

"Hoist the signal for her to heave to!" cried Commander Neville. "Take a boat and half a dozen hands, Mr. O'Riley," he continued; "board her, inspect her papers, and come back to report. If her papers are not in order," added he, "you may search for slaves; but if they are you had better do nothing further. You know it is clearly set down in the Protocol that we are not entitled to search the hold if the papers are in order; and there have been complaints lately against some over-zealous officers, who have got into trouble in consequence. So be careful. But keep your eyes open. Note any suspicious circumstances, and come back and report."

Before Lieutenant O'Riley reached the ship he saw that everything about her had been sacrificed to speed. Her spars, especially, were unusually heavy for a craft of her size.

The British officer was received by a little, thin, elderly man wearing a Panama hat and speaking with a strong Yankee accent.

"Produce your papers, if you please," said O'Riley. They were handed out at once, and seemed to be perfectly regular.

"What have you got on board?" was the next question.

"General cargo—dry goods, and so on."

"Why isn't your name on the register?"

"Ain't it now? Well, I guess it must be because this is a new ship.
We can't put our name on by telegraph, mister."

"Just tell your men to knock off the hatches. I want to have a look at your cargo."

The skipper shook his head.

"I've been delayed long enough," said he, "and have lost a great part of the only wind we've had in this darned latitude for a week."

"I'll do it myself, then!" cried O'Riley.

"Not now, sir; not with six men while I have fifteen. You have no right to search the hold of a respectable merchantman and disturb her cargo. Do you take me for a slaver, or what? Ef you must have the hatches up, send back to your man-of-war for a larger crew, so as to overpower me, you understand, and you may do it with pleasure. Bet I guess there'll be a complaint lodged at Washington, and you folks in London will have to pay for it. That's all, mister. I only want things fair and square, within my treaty rights."

And having delivered himself of this long speech, the Yankee skipper turned on his heel.

Of course O'Riley could only return to the Petrel and report all this to his commander. "I'm convinced she is a slaver, sir," said he in conclusion.

"But you have no evidence of it; and you say the papers were all in order."

"Apparently they were, sir."

"Then I'm afraid I can do nothing," said the commander. And to the deep disgust of the whole ship's crew, the order was given for the Petrel to return to her course.

All that night, however, Commander Neville was haunted by a doubt whether he had not better have run the risk of a complaint and a reprimand, rather than forego the overhauling of so suspicious-looking a craft; and in the morning a rumour reached his ears that the cockswain, who had accompanied Mr. O'Riley to The Black Swan, had noticed something about her of a doubtful nature. The man was sent for and questioned; and he said that, while the lieutenant was on board, the boat of which he was in charge had dropped a little way astern; and that he had then noticed that the name of the vessel had been recently painted out, but that the last two letters were distinctly visible. And these letters were LE, not AN.

"The scoundrel said she was a new ship!" cried the commander. "'Bout ship!"

"We can't possibly catch her up, sir," said the first lieutenant, drily.

"I don't know that, Mr. Brabazon," answered Neville. "There has been hardly any wind, and we know the course she was steering. She could not expect to see us again; so in all probability she has kept to that course. By making allowances, we may intercept her; I am convinced of it."

The hope of again encountering The Black Swan, faint as it was, caused quite a commotion in our little world. The day passed without our sighting a single sail; but when the morning dawned Lieutenant Brabazon was forced to own that the commander's judgment had proved better than his own. By the greatest good luck we had hit upon the right track. There, right in front of us, was the American schooner, her sails lazily flapping against her masts.

"Full speed ahead, and stand by!" shouted the captain down the engine-room tube.

"Signal to her to heave to, and if she does not obey, fire a shot right across her bows, Mr. O'Riley," continued the commander. "Mr. Brabazon, you take a boat and thirty men well armed. Board her, and have her hatches off at once. You'll stand no nonsense, I know."

"All right, sir," cried the lieutenant, an active, somewhat imperious officer, of the Civis Romanus sum type. He had been unusually disgusted at his commander's decision to leave The Black Swan without searching her; and he was delighted that a more active policy had been begun.

"I say, Brabazon," whispered the commander to him, as he was going over the side, "you know I'm stepping a bit beyond bounds, and I'm just a little anxious. If she turns out to be a slaver, as we suspect, step to the taffrail and wave your handkerchief, will you?"

"I will, sir; I'm certain it will be all right," cheerfully responded the first lieutenant.

A tall, slim, youngish man, in white linen, received the British officer as he set foot on the deck of The Black Swan.

"I am at present in command of this craft, sir," said the young American. "The skipper is not fit just at present. We had a visit from you two days ago, I think. Can I do anything for you?"

"Yes; I want you to take off your hatches," said the lieutenant, sharply.

"Well, sir," began the Yankee, "I guess your demand is beyond your treaty powers."

"I know all about that. I must have the hatches off."

"And you are detaining me and overhauling my cargo on no grounds whatever—"

"Will you do it at once?" broke in the British officer.

"I repeat—ON NO GROUNDS WHATEVER; will cause an in—ter—na—tional difficulty, and may bring re—markably unpleasant con—sequences to your captain. Now—"

"Off with your hatches!" cried the lieutenant.

"Sir!"

"If you don't, by George, I will!"

"You know clearly what you're doing, sir?"

"I do."

"And you know the risk you run?"

"I do. No more palaver. Off with them at once, or I'll break them open."

Further resistance was useless. The thing was done; and the moment the first hatch was raised the sickening effluvium that issued from the hold proclaimed the truth. Nearly three hundred slaves were packed between-decks, many of the poor creatures standing so close that they could not lie down.

With a look of speechless contempt at the young mate of the schooner, the lieutenant walked to the side of the ship and waved his handkerchief. That instant a loud British cheer rang over the water, given by the blue-jackets, who could be seen clustering in the rigging like bees.

"I told our skipper judgment would overtake us," said the Yankee. "Say, mister," he added, in another tone, "seeing that the game's up, suppose we have a glass of iced champagne downstairs?"

The lieutenant hesitated. To drink with the mate of a slaver!
But—iced champagne!

Slowly he moved toward the companionway. "I don't mind if I do," he said, at length; "and you may as well bring up your papers with the drinks, for I shall carry them on board the Petrel. Of course you understand that you are my prize."

And having set a guard at the hatchways, the lieutenant descended the cabin stairs.

The iced champagne was duly forthcoming, and under its genial influence Lieutenant Brabazon began to feel something like pity for the young mate who had been so early seduced into the paths of crime. Probably he had a mother or a sweetheart somewhere in the States who imagined that he was already on his way home, whereas now his character was ruined, even if he escaped a long term of imprisonment.

This feeling was strengthened as he saw that his companion was gazing mournfully at his glass without speaking a word. At length the young man lifted his head.

"Say, mister, what'll they do to me, do you think?"

"I can't tell. Of course you know that what you have been engaged in is a kind of piracy?"

"No!"

"I believe so. Cargo and crew are confiscated, of course. What they will do with you I can't tell."

"They won't hang me, will they?"

"Probably not," said the lieutenant; "but let this be a warning to you. You see what it is to wander off the straight course and hanker after forbidden gains. Lead an honest life in future, when you are released from custody. Avoid vicious companions—But what's this?" he cried, as his eye fell on an empty scabbard hanging on the wall. It looked very like a United States service sword scabbard, and immediately the thought darted through his mind that this hypocritical young Yankee (who had been pretending to wipe away a tear as he listened to the lieutenant's good advice) had been doing something worse, or at least more heavily punished, than running cargoes of slaves.

The British officer looked round the cabin. A United States navy cap was lying on a plush-covered bench.

"Ah! you've been having a brush with an American man-of-war!" cried Lieutenant Brabazon. "You will have to tell my superior officer how you came into possession of these articles. I most place you under arrest!" And, bitterly regretting that he had sat down to table with the fellow, the British officer rushed on deck.

"Quartermaster," he cried, "bring up a guard of four men, and take this man," pointing to the Yankee, who had followed him on deck, "to the Petrel. If he tries to escape, shoot him at once!"

The quartermaster advanced to seize the prisoner; but before he reached him he involuntarily stopped short. A roar of laughter sounded in his ears. The American mate and his companions were shrieking and staggering about the deck; even the crew of the slaver were, every man Jack of them, grinning from ear to ear. The lieutenant was dumfounded.

"Excuse me, sir; but the joke was too good," said the Yankee, coming forward and holding out his hand. "I am the first lieutenant of the United States war-ship Georgia, in command of a prize crew on board this vessel, taking her to —— to have her condemned. We seized her yesterday. Hearing that you had been on a visit to her the day before, and had gone away without doing anything, I couldn't resist the temptation of taking you in. Hope you don't bear malice? Let's finish that magnum of champagne."

It was evidently the best thing to be done; but the lieutenant was not a first-rate companion on that occasion.

"Give my respects to your commander," called out the United States officer, as his guest went down into his boat, "and advise him from me not to be so jolly particular another time. And I'll try to take your kind advice and sail a straight course in future!" he cried, as her Majesty's boat shot away for the last time from the side of The Black Swan.