DECATUR AND SOMERS
M. ELLIOT SEAWELL
AUTHOR OF PAUL JONES, LITTLE JARVIS, MIDSHIPMAN PAULDING, CHILDREN OF DESTINY, MAID MARIAN, THROCKMORTON, ETC.
D. APPLETON AND COMPANY
By D. APPLETON AND COMPANY.
Electrotyped and Printed
at the Appleton Press, U. S. A.
The blue and beautiful Delaware Bay, bathed in a faint haze, looked its loveliest, one evening about sunset, in June, 1798. The sky above was clear, and, although there was no moon, the stars were coming out brilliantly in the sky, that was of a darker blue than the water. The sun had gone down, but the west was rosy yet. The green, low-lying country around looked ineffably peaceful, and the only sound that broke the charmed silence was the rattling of the capstan as a noble frigate, lying in the stream, hove up her anchor.
Although the brief, enchanted twilight was over all the earth and sea, the graceful outlines of this lovely frigate were clearly defined against the opaline sky. She was stoutly sparred, but in such exquisite proportions that from her rail up she had the delicate beauty of a yacht. But one look at her lofty hull, and the menacing armament she carried showed that she could take care of herself in a fight, as well as run away when she had enough of it. Every rope and every spar was “ship-shape and Bristol fashion.” Her bright work shone like gold, and the rows of glistening hammocks in the nettings were as white as snow. Everything about her was painted an immaculate white, except the hull, which was a polished black. A gorgeous figure-head ornamented her keen bows, and across her stern, in great gold letters, was her name—United States. Such, indeed, was her official name, but from the day she had first kissed the water she had been nicknamed “Old Wagoner,” because of the steadiness with which she traveled. Other vessels might be delayed by vexing calms, but “Old Wagoner” was pretty sure to strike a favoring breeze that seemed specially reserved for her. And when old Boreas was in a rage, it was in vain that he poured out all the fury of his tempests upon her. She could go through a roaring gale like a stormy petrel, and come out of it without losing a sail or a spar.
A little way off from “Old Wagoner” lay a trim and handsome little sloop-of-war carrying twenty guns—the Delaware—a fit companion for the great frigate. On both ships were indications of speedy departure, and all the orderly bustle that accompanies making sail on a ship of war. The boats were all hoisted in except the first cutter, and that was being pulled rapidly through the fast-darkening water. In it was a very young lieutenant, who was afterward to distinguish himself as Commodore Stewart, and two young midshipmen, just joined, and each of the three was destined to add something to the reputation that “Old Wagoner” gained in after-years, of having been a nursery of naval heroes.
Both of these young midshipmen were about eighteen. One of them—Decatur—looked older, from his height and strength, as well as from his easy and confident address. The other one—Somers—seemed younger, because of a singularly quiet and diffident manner. The lieutenant, in the stern-sheets, engaged in steering the cutter through the mist upon the water without colliding with any of the fishing smacks with which the bay was dotted, yet found time to ask some questions of the young midshipmen, with whom he had long been well acquainted.
“I think you two have always been together, have you not?” he asked, keeping meanwhile a bright lookout.
“Yes,” answered Decatur, showing his white teeth in a smile. “We have been together ever since we were born, it seems to me. We both remember you when we were at school in Philadelphia, although you were so much older than we.”
“I recollect you both perfectly,” answered Stewart, “although you were such little fellows. Somers was the quietest fellow in the school, and you, Decatur, were the noisiest.”
“I believe you,” said Decatur, laughing. “I could have gone with my father on the Delaware,” pointing to the smart little sloop-of-war, “but I could not think of leaving Somers alone to fight it out in the steerage of the United States all by himself.”
At this Somers turned his eyes on Stewart, with a laugh in them. They were very black and soft, and full of humor, although Somers neither laughed nor talked much.
“Don’t mind Decatur, Mr. Stewart,” he said. “Captain Decatur didn’t want him on the Delaware.”
“I should think not,” replied Stewart. “I can’t imagine anything more uncomfortable than for a captain to have his own son among the junior officers. Captains, you know, have to understand what to see and what not to see. But a captain with his own son in the steerage would have to see everything.”
“Just what my father said,” added Decatur; “and, besides, he really did tell me he would like to keep Somers and me together for our first cruise, because Somers is such a steady old coach that he is fit to be the guardian of every midshipman in the navy.”
“I wish there were more like him, then,” said Stewart, with rather a grim smile, remembering what a larky set of youngsters the steerage of “Old Wagoner” harbored. “Let me give you each one piece of advice,” he added, as they drew close to the frigate’s great black hull, that loomed up darkly in the uncertain haze. “Decatur, do you be careful what you say to your messmates—Somers, do you be careful what you allow your messmates to say to you. Decatur will be too quick to take the other midshipmen up, and you, Somers, will be too slow.”
“Thank you, sir,” said both Somers and Decatur together, who appreciated Stewart’s few words of caution.
Just then the band on the poop of “Old Wagoner” burst into “The Girl I Left Behind Me.” The music rang over the darkening water with a charming sound, and the capstan rattled around at the liveliest possible rate, while the men worked, inspired by the melody. The boat was quickly brought alongside, and, just as Stewart and the two young midshipmen stepped on board, the officer of the deck called out the quick order: “Strike the bell eight! Call the watch!”
The boatswain, with his mates, had been standing ready, and as soon as eight bells struck he piped up “Attention!” and was answered by all his mates in quick succession. Then he blew a musical winding call, ending suddenly by singing out, in a rich bass, “All the watch!” This, too, was answered, every voice deeper than the other, and then the watch came tumbling up the hatchways. The wheel and chain were relieved, the officer of the deck perceived his own relief coming, and put on a cheerful smile. While all the busy commotion of relieving the watch was going on, Decatur and Somers were paying their respects to Commodore Barry, who commanded the ship—an old Revolutionary officer, handsome and seamanlike, who gloried in his beautiful ship, and was every inch a sailor.
The wind had been stealing up for some little time, and as soon as the anchor was lifted, “Old Wagoner” shook out all her plain sails and shaped her course for the open sea.
Decatur and Somers, on going below, were introduced to their messmates, Bainbridge, Spence, and others, and were shown where to sling their hammocks. Decatur directed everything in their joint arrangements, Somers quietly acquiescing—so much so that he overheard one of the midshipmen say knowingly to the others, “I think our new messmate is the sort of fellow who likes to be under the lee of the mizzenmast better than any other place on deck.” Somers did not quite take in that he was referred to, and went on very calmly stowing his traps away. Decatur did not hear the remark.
Dinner was served promptly in the steerage, and by that time “Old Wagoner” was dashing along in great style, with every sail drawing like a windlass.
At dinner the prospects of their cruise were freely discussed. The United States Government having on hand the quasi war with France, the frigate and the sloop of war were under orders to sail to the West Indies, and to clear out the great number of fleet French privateers that were playing havoc with American commerce. Each midshipman expressed the conviction that “we’ll meet some of those rattling good French frigates; and when ‘Old Wagoner’ barks up, they’ll either have to leg it faster than she can, or they’ll be chewed up—that’s certain.” Likewise all of them fully believed that they would return from the cruise covered with glory, and with a hundred thousand dollars each in prize money. The views of the older officers up in the wardroom were more conservative; but with a lot of merry, reckless young midshipmen the roseate hue always prevails.
Decatur, with his dashing manner, his fine figure, and his ready laugh, became instantly popular. Somers’s quietness was not very well understood, and before the day was out, Decatur was asked with the frankness of the steerage, if “Somers wasn’t a little—er—rather a milksop?”
“You think so?” answered Decatur, with a grin. “Very well. I’ve known Somers ever since I was born. We went to our first school together—and our last—and I tell you, for your own good, that you had better mind your p’s and q’s with that sort of a milksop.”
Everything progressed very pleasantly for the first day or two, but it was impossible that two new arrivals in the steerage could escape the “running” which, according to the code prevailing then, makes a man of a midshipman. Decatur achieved an instant popularity, so that the pranks played on him were comparatively mild, and were taken with laughing good nature. Somers was also amiable enough in regard to his “running.” In fact he was too amiable, for his messmates rather resented his want of spirit, as they mistakenly supposed. Therefore it was that, three times in one day, Somers was told that he was “too fond of the lee of the mizzenmast.”
“That means,” said Somers quietly, and looking the youngster in the face who last made the remark, “that you think I haven’t much spunk? Very well. We shall both be off duty until to-night. Couldn’t we go to some quiet place in the hold where we could have it out?”
“Fighting is strictly prohibited on board ship,” sung out Bainbridge, one of the older midshipmen, in a sarcastic voice.
“Squabbling, you mean,” chimed in another one. “That, I grant you, is unbecoming an officer and a gentleman; but when two fellows have a falling out in the steerage, why, the regulation squints exactly the other way; it means that the two fellows must have it out, like gentlemen, and no bad blood afterward.”
“Just what I think,” said Somers; “and as I hate fighting, I want to get through with all I shall have to do in that way in as short a time as possible; so I will settle with two other young gentlemen to-day against whom I have an account. Then, if I get my eye blacked, I will only have one hauling over the coals for three scrimmages.”
“You don’t mean to fight three fellows in one day?” asked Bainbridge in surprise.
“Yes,” answered Somers nonchalantly.—“Decatur, you settle the particulars,” and he walked off, as composed as ever.
“I told you fellows what a Trojan Somers was when he was started,” remarked Decatur, “and now you’ll see for yourselves. He is wiry and as strong as a buffalo, and he is first-class with his fists, and—— Well, you’ll see!”
As these little affairs were conducted strictly according to the code, they were arranged in a very business like manner. Fair play was the watchword, and all the midshipmen who were off duty assembled to see the fun. When Somers had knocked the wind out of his first adversary and brought him to apologize, it was proposed that the other affairs should be postponed; but Somers, being in for it, and the exercise rather warming his blood, invited his persecutor Number Two to “come on.” He came on, with disastrous results in the way of a good, wholesome pounding and a swelled nose. The third encounter following, Decatur begged Somers to be allowed to take his place.
“Why, I’m like Paul Jones!” cried Somers, laughing, as he sponged off his neck and head. “I haven’t begun to fight yet.”
True it was that Somers was then perfectly able to do up Number Three in fine style. As he stood astride over his opponent, who frankly acknowledged himself whipped, a mighty cheer went up from the surrounding audience of midshipmen, and every one of them, including his late opponents, came forward to shake Somers’s hand. The noise of the cheer penetrated from the hold up to the wardroom, where some of the lieutenants were sitting around. Stewart smiled significantly.
“I think I know what that means,” he said. “The fellows have been running a rig on Somers, and I predict he has come out ahead. That fellow has an indomitable spirit under that quiet outside.”
Some hours afterward, when Somers had to report on deck, he bore unmistakable marks of his encounters. His nose was considerably larger than usual, one eye had a black patch over it, and there was a bit of skin missing from his chin.
Stewart, looking at him attentively, could scarcely keep his face straight as he remarked:
“Falling down the ladder, I presume, Mr. Somers, from your appearance. You should be careful, though, not to fall down too often.”
“Yes, sir, I did fall down,” answered Somers, very diplomatically, without mentioning that, when he fell, a messmate was on top of him.
That day’s work established Somers’s popularity in the steerage, and the three midshipmen whom he had pommeled became his staunch friends. “And I’ll tell you what,” he announced, “this is the last fighting I’ll do while I am in this mess. You fellows may walk over me if you like, before I will take the trouble to lick any more of you.”
But nobody walked over him after that.
Decatur gave immediate promise of brilliancy as a seaman; but Somers was not far behind, and his uncommon steadiness recommended him highly to the lieutenants. Stewart, dining one night in the cabin with the commodore, was giving his impressions of the junior officers to the commander, who wished to appoint a master’s mate of the hold—a place always given to the most reliable and best informed of the midshipmen.
“They are all as fine a lot of youngsters, sir, as I ever saw. That young Decatur is a remarkable fellow. He finds out more than any of the rest, because he never has to ask the same thing twice. Before he had been on board a week he knew every rope and where each is belayed; and the clever youngster writes with a pencil, behind the rail, everything he is told. There’s a very good manual of seamanship written under the starboard rail, and Decatur and Somers may be seen every day, when they are not on duty, putting their heads together and studying it out.”
“And how about young Somers?” asked the commodore.
“Somers is the only one who rivals Decatur, and I must say I consider him the best-balanced young fellow of his age I ever knew. His messmates have nicknamed him ‘Old Reliable.’ He is not so brilliant a boy as Decatur, but he is steady to the utmost degree. Nothing flusters him. He is never too early, and never too late; he goes on his way quietly, and I do not think he has had a reproof since he has been on board. And he evidently studied seamanship thoroughly before he was commissioned—just what I should expect of such a long-headed fellow.”
“Then Somers shall be master’s mate of the hold,” said the commodore, decisively.
Next day Somers was sent for to the cabin and informed of the commodore’s choice. He merely said: “Thank you, sir; I shall do my best.” But Commodore Barry felt well assured that Somers’s “best” was a good “best.”
Somers went down to the midshipmen’s dinner that day, and said nothing of his appointment. Each of the reefers was eager to get the place of trust, and they began talking of it. Somers wished to tell them of his good fortune, but a kind of bashfulness restrained him. He turned red, though, and became more silent than usual. Decatur, who sat next him, looked keenly at him.
“Somers, something is up, I see; and I believe—I believe you are going to be master’s mate,” he said.
Somers blushed more than ever as he answered: “I am master’s mate. I was appointed to-day.”
Decatur, with one stretch of his powerful arm, raised his chum up standing.
“You good-for-nothing lubber, you are made master’s mate, while Bainbridge and Spence, and all the rest of us that are worth ten of you, are passed over! I’m going to prefer charges against the commodore for gross favoritism in giving you the appointment.”
Somers always submitted to this sort of horse-play from Decatur without the slightest resistance, and the effect was very comical. Decatur, after shaking him vigorously, plumped him back in his chair, when Somers calmly resumed his dinner as if nothing had occurred.
“Mr. Somers,” said Bainbridge politely—who was the oldest midshipman on board, and, as caterer of the mess, sat at the head of the table—“the officers of this mess have very grave doubts of your fitness for the place to which the unwarranted partiality of the commodore has elevated you; and we desire to form some idea of how extensive are your disqualifications. Suppose, sir, this ship were proceeding with a fair wind, under all sail except one topmast studding sail, and you were officer of the deck. Suppose again, sir, that the alarm were given, ‘Man overboard!’ and you should perceive that my dignified corporosity was the man overboard. Now, please state to me, Mr. Somers, categorically, what would be the first thing you would do in such an emergency?”
The new master’s mate.
Somers laid down his knife and fork, folded his arms and reflected for a few moments, and finally answered:
“This is what I should do, Mr. Bainbridge: I should immediately order the other topmast studding sail to be set, if she’d draw, with a view to increase the speed of the ship.”
A roar of laughter succeeded this, which was repressed by Bainbridge sternly rapping for order.
“Gentlemen, this is not the undignified cabin or the disorderly wardroom. This—please remember—is the model mess of the ship, the steerage mess, and order must be preserved, if I have to lick every one of you to get it.”
“Spence,” said Decatur, holding out his plate and trembling violently, “G-give me some of that salt horse. It may be the l-l-last time, dear Spence, that we shall ever eat salt horse together. When the discipline of this ship is so relaxed that Somers, who doesn’t know a marlin-spike from the mainmast, is promoted, it’s time we were all making our wills. Our time is short, Spence; so give me a good helping, old man.”
“I know more seamanship than all of you lubbers put together,” quietly remarked Somers, going on with his dinner.
“Hear! hear!” cried Bainbridge. “Mr. Somers, you are facetious to-day.”
Decatur, at this, got up and went to the nook that he and Somers occupied together. He came back with a black bottle labeled “Cherry bounce.”
“Gentlemen,” said he, “Mr. Somers feels so acutely your kind expressions of confidence in him, that he begs you will drink his health in this bottle of cherry bounce which he has been saving up for this auspicious occasion.”
Somers said nothing as his cherry bounce was liberally distributed, leaving only a very small glass of the dregs and heel-taps for himself; and his good nature under so much chaff made the reefers more jolly than ever. His health, with many pious wishes that he might learn to know a handy-billy when he saw it, was drunk with all honors; and as a great favor he was permitted to drink his one small glass in peace. In the midst of the jollity a commotion was heard overhead, and the cry of “Sail, ho!” In another moment every midshipman made a dash for the gangway and ran on deck.
Nearly every officer of the frigate was there too. Commodore Barry glass in hand, watched from the flying bridge, a sail off the starboard quarter. By the squareness of her yards and the symmetry of her sails she was evidently a ship of war, and was coming down fast. The Delaware, which sailed equally as well as “Old Wagoner,” was close by to starboard. On sighting the strange and menacing ship, the Delaware was seen to bear up and draw nearer her consort—for it was well known that a contest with a French ship would by no means be declined by any American ship. Commodore Barry, who was a veteran of the glorious days of Paul Jones and the gallant though infant navy of the Revolution, was more than willing to engage. Every moment showed more and more clearly the character and force of the stranger. The day was bright and cloudless, and, as they were in the sunny atmosphere of West India waters, objects could be seen at a great distance. The frigate was remarkably handsome and sailed well. The Americans counted more than twenty portholes, and very accurately guessed her to be one of the great fifty-gun frigates of which both the French and the English had many at that day. If she were French, it meant a fight; and so nearly matched were the two frigates that it would be the squarest sort of a fight.
The excitement on the ships was intense. Several of the more active officers clambered up the shrouds, while the rigging was full of men eager to make out the advancing ship, which was coming along at a good gait; and all were eager to know what colors the commodore would show.
“Mr. Ross,” said Commodore Barry, turning to his first lieutenant, “we will show French colors; if he is a ‘Mounseer,’ it will encourage him to make our acquaintance.”
The quartermaster, Danny Dixon, a handsome, fresh-faced sailor of middle age, who had served under the immortal Paul Jones, quickly produced French colors, and amid breathless silence he ran them up.
The stranger was now not more than a mile distant. She had worn no colors, but on seeing French colors run up at the American frigate’s peak, in another moment she too displayed the tricolored flag of France.
At that an involuntary cheer broke from the gallant fellows on “Old Wagoner.” Decatur, behind the commodore’s back, deliberately turned a double handspring, while even the dignified Somers executed a slight pirouette.
As for the men, they dropped down upon the deck like magic, and every man ran to his station. Commodore Barry straightened himself up, and the old fire of battle, that had slumbered since the glorious days of the Revolution, shone in his eyes under his shaggy brows.
“Mr. Ross,” said he, turning to his first lieutenant, “we are in good luck—in excellent good luck, sir. Signal to the Delaware to keep off. I think the officers and men of this ship would feel hurt if we should mar the beauty of the game we are about to play by having odds in our favor; and call the men to quarters without the tap of the drum. The first man who cheers until we have hailed will be sent below, to remain until after the engagement. I desire to come to close quarters, without telling any more about ourselves than our friend the enemy can find out.”
In the midst of a dead silence the signal was made to the Delaware. Only Decatur whispered to Somers, whose station was next his:
“Poor old dad! He’d give all his old boots if he could have a share in the scrimmage.”
The Delaware then hauled off, making a short tack, and going no farther away than she could help. The strange frigate, whose trim and ship-shape appearance grew plainer at every moment, was now nearly within hail. The American, preparing to bear up and run off as a preliminary to the action, the first lieutenant, under the commander’s eye, stood near the wheel, while Danny Dixon took the spokes.
In the midst of the breathless silence, while the strange frigate continued to advance, shortening sail meanwhile, and with her men at quarters and her batteries lighted up, Mr. Ross, watching the trim of “Old Wagoner’s” sails, sung out:
“Give her a good full, quartermaster!”
“A good full, sir,” answered old Danny steadily, and expecting the next order to be “Hard aport!”
But at that moment Commander Barry dashed his glass down with an impatient exclamation. “We are truly unfortunate, gentlemen. She is English. Look at her marines!”
At the same instant the stranger, discovering the American’s character, quickly hauled down her French colors and showed the union jack. A loud groan burst from the American sailors, who saw all their hopes of glory and prize money vanish; and it was answered by a corresponding groan from the British tars, who felt a similar disappointment, having taken the American to be a Frenchman.
Commodore Barry then ordered her to be hailed, and the first lieutenant called through the trumpet: “This is the American frigate United States, forty guns, Commodore Barry. Who are you?”
“This is His Britannic Majesty’s ship Thetis, fifty guns, Captain Langley.”
Both ships were on the same tack and going at about the same speed, about half a mile apart. Commodore Barry then hailed again, asking if the English captain had any news of two crack French frigates—L’Insurgente and La Vengeance—that were supposed to be cruising in that station. No answer was returned to this, although it was called out twice. This vexed Commodore Barry, as it did every officer and man aboard.
“Wot a pity,” growled Danny Dixon, the quartermaster, to his mates, “that somebody hadn’t ’a’ axerdentally—jist axerdentally, you know—pulled a lockstring and fired one o’ them starboard guns! The Britishers ain’t the sort to refuse a fight; they would ’a’ fired back cocksure, and we could ’a’ had a friendly tussle and found out which were the best ship, and then it could ’a’ been fixed up arterwards—’cause ’twould ’a’ been all a axerdent, you know.”
This was agreed with by all of Danny’s messmates, as they left their stations and gathered forward. The two ships were now abreast of each other, and the distance between them was being quickly decreased by Commodore Barry’s orders, who himself took the deck. They were not more than two cables’ lengths apart. The English frigate, which had taken in considerable of her canvas, now took in her royals. The American ship followed suit, so that in a little while both ships had come down to a five-knot gait, although there was a good breeze blowing. They were near enough to hear conversation and laughter on the English ship, and the men gathered on the fok’sl of the Thetis called out loudly to each other, as if to emphasize the rudeness of not returning the hails of the American ship. In the midst of a perfect silence on the United States, which was soon followed on the Thetis, Danny Dixon, who had a stentorian voice, swung himself in the forechains and began to sing as loud as he could bawl:
“Boney is a great man,
A soldier brave and true,
But the British they can lick him,
On land and water, too!”
This produced a roaring cheer from the British. The Americans, who knew what was coming next, waited, grinning broadly until the laugh should be on their side. The men gathered on the Thetis’s port side, and the officers hung over the rail to catch the next verse. As soon as the cheering was over, Danny fairly shouted, in a voice that could be heard a mile:
“But greater still, and braver far,
And tougher than shoe leather,
Was Washington, the man wot could
Have licked ’em both together!”
At this “Old Wagoner’s” deck fairly shook with the thunders of cheers from the Americans, the midshipmen joining in with leather lungs, the grave Somers yelling like a wild Indian, while Decatur executed a war-dance of triumph.
The Thetis, as if disgusted with the turn of affairs, set her royals and all her studding sails, and began to leg it at a lively pace. “Old Wagoner” followed her example, and the men sprang into the rigging and set exactly the same sails. But they found within five minutes that the American could sail better, both on and off the wind, as she followed the Thetis in her tacks. The Thetis then, keeping her luff, furled sail on the mizzen and took in royals and studding sails. The American did precisely the same thing, and, as she still sailed faster, an old sail containing kentledge was ostentatiously hung astern and acted as a drag, keeping the two ships together.
This evidently infuriated the British, but they had found out that the American could walk around the Thetis like a cooper around a cask. They did not care to test it further, and the Thetis therefore sailed sullenly along for half an hour more. The Americans were delighted, especially Commodore Barry, who handled his trumpet as gayly as if he were a midshipman on his first tour of duty as deck officer. He next ordered the topsails lowered. This brought the American down very slow indeed, and she rapidly fell astern of the Thetis. The English thought that their tormentors were now gone. The Americans, suspecting some ruse of the commodore’s, were all on the alert. Presently the commodore cried out jovially:
“Now’s the time for carrying all hard sail!” and in five minutes “Old Wagoner” seemed literally to burst into one great white cloud of canvas from truck to rail. Everything that would draw was set; and the breeze, which was every moment growing stronger, carried her along at a perfectly terrific pace. She shot past the Thetis, her gigantic spread of canvas eating the wind out of the Englishman’s sails and throwing them aback, and as she flew by another roaring cheer went up from the Americans.
The fun, however, was not over yet. Having got well in advance of the Thetis, “Old Wagoner” bore up, and, hauling her wind, dashed directly across the forefoot of the English ship as the Englishman came slowly on.
All the cheering that had preceded was as nothing when this neat manœuvre was accomplished. The old Commodore, giving the trumpet back to the officer of the deck, was greeted with three cheers and a tiger, and every officer and man on board gloried in the splendid qualities of the ship and her gallant old commander.
The brilliant visions of the midshipmen of yardarm-and-yardarm fights with French frigates, with promotion, and prize money galore, failed to materialize, although they had several sharp encounters with fleet French privateers that infested the waters of the French West Indies. With them it was a trial of seamanship, because, if ever a privateer got under the guns of “Old Wagoner,” small was her chance of escape. But the American proved to be a first-class sailer, and nothing that she chased got away from her. Several privateers were captured, but the midshipmen groaned in spirit over the absence of anything like a stand-up fight.
It did not seem likely that they would make a port for some time to come. Early in February, cruising to windward of Martinique, they ran across the French privateer Tartuffe—and Tartuffe she proved. She was a beautiful little brigantine, with six shining brass guns, and her captain evidently thought she could take care of herself; for when the United States gave chase and fired a gun from her bow-chasers, the saucy little privateer fired a gun back and took to her heels.
The sinking of the French privateer.
It was on a bright February afternoon that the chase began. The midshipmen, elated by their triumph in sailing with the great English frigate, thought it would be but child’s play to overhaul the Frenchman. But they had counted without their host, and they had no fool to play with. In vain did “Old Wagoner” crowd on sail; the Tartuffe managed to keep just out of gunshot. All the afternoon the exciting chase continued, and when night fell a splendid moon rose which made the sea almost as light as day. Both ships set every stitch of canvas that would draw, and at daybreak it was found that the frigate had in all those hours gained only a mile or two on the brigantine. However, that was enough to bring her within range of “Old Wagoner’s” batteries. The American then fired another gun as a signal for the Frenchman to haul down his colors. But, to their surprise, the Tartuffe went directly about, her yards flying round like a windmill, and her captain endeavored to run directly under the broadside of the United States before the heavier frigate could come about. One well-directed shot between wind and water stopped the Frenchman’s bold manœuvre. She began at once to fill and settle, and her ensign was hauled down.
Commodore Barry, on seeing this, cried out:
“Lower away the first cutter!” and Decatur, being the officer in charge of that boat, dropped into her stern sheets and pulled for the Frenchman. Commodore Barry, leaning over the side, called out, laughing, to Decatur:
“I wish you to treat the Frenchman as if he were the captain of a forty-four-gun frigate coming aboard to surrender her. He has made a gallant run.”
Decatur, bearing this in mind, put off for the brigantine. The sun was just rising in glory, and as he saw, in the clearness of the day, the plight of the pretty brigantine, he felt an acute pity. Her company of sixty men crowded to the rail, while her captain stood on the bridge, giving his orders as coolly as if his ship were coming to anchor in a friendly port. Decatur, seeing that his boat would be swamped if he came near enough for the men to jump in, called out to the captain, saluting him meanwhile, and asking if he would come off in one of the brigantine’s boats, while the Tartuffe’s helm could be put up, as she was still able to get alongside the United States, and her people could be transferred.
“Sairtainly, sir—sairtainly,” answered the French captain, politely, in his queer English.
In a few moments the boat containing the captain came alongside the cutter, and the Frenchman stepped aboard. He took his seat very coolly by Decatur in the stern-sheets, and then, putting a single eyeglass in his eye, he cried out, with a well-affected start of surprise: “Is zat ze American flag I see flying? And am I captured by ze Americans?”
“Yes,” answered Decatur, trying not to smile.
“But I did not know zat ze United States was at war wiz France.”
“Perhaps not,” replied Decatur. “But you found out, probably, from the American merchant vessels you captured, that France was at war with the United States.”
At that the Frenchman laughed in spite of his defeat.
“I can stand a leetle thing like this,” he said. “I have had much good luck, and when I tell my countrymen it took your cracque frigate fourteen hours to catch me—parbleu, zey will not think I have done ill.”
“You are quite right, sir,” answered Decatur. “You gave us more trouble to overhaul than a ‘cracque’ English frigate.”
The commodore and his officers all treated the brave French captain as if he had been captain of a man-of-war; and as he proved to be a pleasant, entertaining fellow, he enlivened the ship very much.
But Commodore Barry was anxious to get rid of so many prisoners, which encumbered the ship, and he determined to stand for Guadeloupe, in the hope of effecting an exchange of prisoners. He therefore entered Basseterre Roads, on a lovely morning a few days after capturing and sinking the Tartuffe. A white flag flying at the gaff showed that he was bent on a peaceful errand. Everything, however, was in readiness in case the men should have to go to quarters. Although the ports were open the guns were not run out, nor were their tompions withdrawn. The French captain, standing on the quarter-deck in his uniform, was easily recognizable.
The beautiful harbor of Guadeloupe, with its circlet of warlike forts, looked peculiarly attractive to the eyes of seamen who had been cruising for many long months. “Old Wagoner” had been newly painted, and as she stood in the Roads, under all her square canvas, she was a perfect picture of a ship. Just as they came abreast of the first fort, however, the land battery let fly, and a shower of cannon balls plowed up the water about two hundred yards from the advancing ship.
“Haul down that white flag!” thundered Commodore Barry, and Danny Dixon rushed to the halyards and dragged it down in a jiffy, and in another minute the roll of the drums, as the drummer boys marched up and down beating “quarters,” resounded through the ship. The French captain, mortified at the treacherous action of the forts, quickly drew his cap over his eyes and went below.
The United States then, with every gun manned and shotted, sailed within gunshot of the first fort that had offered the insult, and, backing her topsails, gave a broadside that sent the masonry tumbling about the ears of the garrison and dismounting several guns. This was followed up by another and another broadside, all accurately aimed, and knocking the fort considerably to pieces. Then, still under short canvas, she slowly sailed around the whole harbor, paying her compliments to every fort within gunshot, but without firing a gun into the helpless town. And when “Old Wagoner” drew off and made her way back to the open ocean, it was conceded that she had served the Frenchmen right for their unchivalrous proceeding.
The whole spring was spent in cruising, and it was the first of June when, on a Sunday morning, the ship being anchored, the boatswain and his eight mates, standing in line on the port gangway, piped up that sound so dear to every sailor’s heart, “All hands up anchor for home!” At the same moment the long red pennant, that signifies the ship is homeward bound, was joyfully hoisted at the main, and “Old Wagoner” turned her nose toward home. Just one year from the time they had left the Delaware, Decatur and Somers set foot again upon the green shore of the beautiful bay—happier, wiser, and better fellows for their year in the steerage of the fine old frigate.
The leave enjoyed by Decatur and Somers was brief, and before the summer of 1801 was out they were forced to part. For the first time in their young lives their paths were to diverge for a short while, and to be reunited in the end. But their separation was for a reason honorable to both. Decatur was appointed first lieutenant in the frigate Essex—like most of those early ships of the American navy, destined to a splendid career. She was commanded by Captain Bainbridge, whose fate was afterward strangely linked with that of his young first lieutenant. The Essex was one of a squadron of three noble frigates ordered to the Mediterranean, under the command of Commodore Richard Dale; and this Richard Dale had been the first lieutenant of Paul Jones, the glory of the American navy, in the immortal fight between the Bon Homme Richard and the Serapis. The association with such a man as Commodore Dale was an inspiration to an enthusiast like Decatur; and as he found that Danny Dixon was one of the quartermasters on the Essex, it was not likely that there would be any lack of reminiscences of Paul Jones.
Somers’s appointment was to the Boston, a fine sloop-of-war carrying twenty-eight guns, commanded by Captain McNeill. He was destined to many adventures before again meeting Decatur, for Captain McNeill was one of the oddities of the American navy, who, although an able seaman and a good commander, preferred to conduct his cruise according to his own ideas and in defiance of instructions from home. This Somers found out the instant he stepped upon the Boston’s deck at New York. The Essex was at New York also, and the two friends had traveled from Philadelphia together. Out in the stream lay the President, flying a commodore’s broad pennant.
“And although, ‘being grand first luffs,’ we can’t be shipmates, yet we’ll both be in the same squadron, Dick!” cried Decatur.
“True,” answered Somers, “and a Mediterranean cruise! Think of the oldsters that would like to go to Europe, instead of us youngsters!”
So their anticipations were cheerful enough, each thinking their separation but temporary, and that for three years certainly they would serve in the same squadron.
The two friends reached New York late at night, and early next morning each reported on board his ship. The Essex was a small but handsome frigate, mounting thirty-two guns, and was lying close by the Boston at the dock. As the two young lieutenants, neither of whom was more than twenty-one, came in sight of their ships, each hugged himself at the contemplation of his luck in getting so good a one. Decatur’s interview with Captain Bainbridge was pleasant, although formal. Captain Bainbridge knew Captain Decatur well, and made civil inquiries about Decatur’s family and congratulations upon James Decatur—Stephen’s younger brother—having lately received a midshipman’s appointment. Captain Bainbridge introduced him to the wardroom, and Decatur realized that at one bound he had cleared the gulf between the first place in the steerage and the ranking officer in the wardroom.
All this took but an hour or two of time, and presently Decatur found himself standing on the dock and waiting for Somers, who had left the Boston about the same time. As Somers approached, his usual somber face was smiling. Something ludicrous had evidently occurred.
“What is it?” hallooed Decatur.
Somers took Decatur’s arm before answering, and as they strolled along the busy streets near the harbor he told his story amid bursts of laughter:
“Well, I went on board, and was introduced into the captain’s cabin. There sat Captain McNeill, a red-headed old fellow, with a squint; but you can’t help knowing that he is a man of force. He talks through his nose, and what he says is like himself—very peculiar.
“‘Now, Mr. Somers,’ said he, drawling, ‘I daresay you look forward to a devil of a gay time at the Mediterranean ports, with all that squadron that Dale has got to show off with.’ I was a good deal taken aback, but I said Yes, I did. ‘Very well, sir, make up your mind that you won’t have a devil of a gay time with that squadron.’ I was still more taken aback, and, being anxious to agree with the captain, I said it didn’t make any difference; I looked for more work than play on a cruise. This didn’t seem to please the captain either, so he banged his fist down on the table, and roared: ‘No, you don’t, sir—no, you don’t! You are no doubt longing this minute to be on that ship’—pointing out of the stern port at the President—‘and to have that broad pennant waving over you. But take a good look at it, Mr. Somers—take a good long look at it, Mr. Somers, for you may not see it again!’
“You may fancy how astonished I was; but when I went down into the wardroom and talked with the officers I began to understand the old fellow. It seems he hates to be under orders. He has always managed to have an independent command, but this time the navy officials were too smart for him, and he was ordered to join Commodore Dale’s squadron. But he managed to get orders so that he could join the squadron in the Mediterranean, instead of at Hampton Roads, where the other ships are to rendezvous; and the fellows in the wardroom say they wouldn’t be surprised if they never saw the flagship from the time they leave home until they get back.”
“That will be bad for you and me, Dick,” said Decatur simply.
“Very bad,” answered Somers. Their deep affection was sparingly soluble in language, but those few words meant much.
Within a week the Boston was to sail, and one night, about nine o’clock, the wind and tide serving, she slipped down the harbor to the outer bay, whence at daylight she was to set sail on her long cruise. Decatur bade Somers good-by on the dock, just as the gang-plank was being drawn in. They had but few parting words to say to each other; their lives had been so intimate, they knew each other’s thoughts so completely, that at the last there was nothing to tell. As they stood hand in hand in the black shadow cast by the Boston’s dark hull, Decatur, whose feelings were quick, felt the tears rising to his eyes; while Somers, the calm, the self-contained, suddenly threw his arms about his friend and gave Decatur a hug and a kiss, as if his whole heart were in it; then running up the gang-plank, the next moment he was giving the orders of his responsible position in a firm tone and with perfect alertness. Decatur turned, and, going a little distance off, watched while the frigate slowly swung round and headed for the open bay, stealing off like a ghostly ship in the darkness. He felt the strongest and strangest sense of loss he had ever known in his life. He had many friends. James, his brother, who had entered the navy, was near his own age, but Somers was his other self. Unlike as they were in temperament, no two souls ever were more alike in the objects aimed at. Each had a passion for glory, and each set before himself the hope of some great achievement, and ordered his life accordingly.
This strange loneliness hung upon Decatur, and although his new duties and his new friends were many, there were certain chambers of his heart that remained closed to the whole world except Somers. He found on the Essex a modest young midshipman, Thomas Macdonough, who reminded him so much of Somers that Decatur became much attached to him. Macdonough, like Somers and Decatur, lived to make glorious history for his country.
Within a few days the Essex sailed, in company with the President, flagship, the Philadelphia, and the schooner Enterprise. This cruise was the beginning of that warfare against the pirates of Tripoli that was to win the commendation of the whole world. They made a quick passage, for a squadron, to the Mediterranean, and on a lovely July night, with the flagship leading, they passed Europa Point and stood toward the lionlike form of the Rock of Gibraltar that rose in stupendous majesty before them. A glorious moon bathed all the scene with light—the beautiful harbor, with a great line-of-battle ship, the Thunderer, flying British colors; while half a dozen fair frigates looked like sloops alongside of this warlike monster, which carried a hundred and twenty guns and a crew of nearly a thousand men.
At the extremity of the harbor lay a handsome frigate and a brig, both flying the crescent of Tripoli. The large ship also flew the pennant of an admiral. There being good anchorage between the Tripolitan and the British line-of-battle ship, Commodore Dale stood in, and the American squadron anchored between the two.
Early next morning Decatur went ashore in the first cutter, by Captain Bainbridge’s orders, to find out the state of affairs with Tripoli. He also hoped to hear something of Somers, who had sailed a week in advance. He heard startling news enough about the Barbary pirates. The flagstaff of the American legation at Tripoli had been cut down, and war was practically declared. But as the information had not reached the United States before the squadron left, the commodore was not justified in beginning hostilities until he had received formal notice of the declaration of war from the home Government. Nevertheless, the Tripolitans and the Americans watched each other grimly in the harbor. As for Somers, Decatur was bitterly disappointed not to see him. The Boston had been quietly at anchor the day before, when a clipper ship that outsailed the American squadron, which was in no particular hurry, gave notice that the ships were coming. Instantly Captain McNeill gave orders to get under way; officers were hurriedly sent ashore to collect those of the ship’s company on leave or liberty, and before nightfall the Boston was hull down going up the straits. When Decatur brought the news on board, Captain Bainbridge frowned, and laughed too.
“The commodore will have harder work to catch the Boston than anything else he is likely to give chase to,” he said.
Commodore Dale determined to await orders at Gibraltar before making a regular attack on Tripoli, but he caused it to be boldly announced by the American officers, meanwhile, that if the Tripolitans wanted to fight, all they had to do was to lift their anchors, go outside and back their topsails, and he would be ready for them.
The British naval officers, at that time, treated the American officers with studied ill-will, for they had not yet learned to look with pride upon the United States as a country made by themselves, and which Great Britain found unconquerable because its people were of the same sturdy stock as her own. The cooler heads and better hearts among the English officers at Gibraltar counseled courtesy, but among the younger men it was sometimes difficult to avoid clashes. Especially was this the case as regards Commodore Dale’s squadron, for he was connected with an episode hateful to the British, but glorious to both themselves and the Americans—the capture of the Serapis by Paul Jones. The squadron was kept in the highest state of drill and efficiency, not only as a matter of necessary precaution, but as one of professional pride and duty; and the trim American officers and the clean and orderly American seamen made a brave showing alongside of those belonging to England, the Mistress of the Seas.
One night, a week or two after their arrival, as Decatur was pacing the deck of the Essex, he heard a splash at the bow, and going forward he saw a man swimming rapidly away from the ship. Suspecting this to be a deserter, he at once had a boat lowered; and as Macdonough, Decatur’s favorite midshipman, was about swinging himself into it, Danny Dixon came up.
“Mr. Decatur,” said he, touching his cap, “that ’ere man is a deserter, sir, and he’ll be making for the Thunderer, sure. His name is John Hally, and he come from New York State, and he’s been a scamp ever since I knowed him—and that’s ten year ago. He’s a thief, and he’s stole a mort o’ things; but he ain’t been caught yet. I told him this arternoon I was agoin’ to report him for gittin’ into the men’s ditty-bags; and you see, sir, he’s showin’ us his heels.”
“Jump in the boat, then,” said Decatur. “You may help to identify him.”
The Thunderer lay about four hundred yards away, and the deserter’s course in the water was perfectly visible every foot of the distance. He evidently saw the boat following, and dived once or twice to throw his pursuers off the track. The noise made by the boat aroused the attention of the people on the Thunderer. They came to the rail peering through the darkness of the night, and presently a lantern was waved over the side. Decatur, who watched it all with interest, was convinced that this was done by order of an officer, and the object was to help the deserter from the American frigate. Sure enough, as soon as the swimmer reached the great line-of-battle ship a line was thrown him, and he was dragged bodily through an open port on the berth deck. Almost at the same moment the Essex’s boat came alongside, and young Macdonough ran up the gangway and stepped on the quarter-deck.
Captain Lockyer, who commanded the Thunderer, happened to be on deck, and to him Macdonough addressed himself. This young midshipman, like most of the gallant band of officers in the infant navy, afterward earned a name great in the history of his country. But he was always of a peculiarly gentle and even diffident manner, and his mildness, like that of Somers, was sometimes mistaken for want of spirit. It was in this instance; for when he saluted Captain Lockyer, and modestly asked that the deserter be delivered to him, he was only answered by a curt order to have the man brought on deck, adding, “Your ships, sir, are full of British subjects, and if this man is one I shall retain him.”
Macdonough flushed redly, but feeling it to be more dignified to say nothing, he held his tongue. The captain took a turn up and down the deck, without deigning any further notice of him. Macdonough, not thinking the rudeness of the captain would extend to the officers, turned to a young lieutenant, who happened to be Captain Lockyer’s son, lounging on the rail, and said:
“I am very thirsty. Will you be good enough to order me a glass of water?”
“Yonder is the scuttle-butt,” coolly responded the officer, pointing to the water-butt with its tin dipper.
Macdonough, without a word, folded his arms, and made no move toward the water-butt. The other British officers, standing about, looked rather uncomfortable at the discourtesy shown the young midshipman, but none of them attempted to repair it or to teach manners to the captain’s son. Macdonough, who not many years after captured seventeen British ensigns in one day, stood, insulted and indignant, in silence, upon the deck of the British ship.
In a few moments the deserter, who had been supplied with dry clothes, appeared on deck. As he was an able-bodied fellow, he would be very acceptable among the crew of the Thunderer, so the captain addressed him in very mild terms:
“Well, my man, are you a British or an American citizen?”
“British, sir,” responded the deserter boldly.
“This man,” said Macdonough to Captain Lockyer, “is an American citizen from the State of New York. He enlisted as an American citizen, and I can prove it by one of our quartermasters in the boat.—Here, Dixon!”
Danny Dixon, hearing his name, now appeared over the side, touching his cap politely.
“Do you not know this man, John Hally, to be an American citizen?” asked Macdonough.
“Yes, sir,” replied the quartermaster. “I’ve knowed him for ten year, and sailed two cruises with him. He’s got a family on Long Island. He ain’t no more British nor I am.”
“Perhaps you are, then,” said Captain Lockyer. “Your crews are full of British subjects.”
“No, sir,” answered Danny, very civilly. “I was born in Philadelphy, and I’ve been in the ’Merican navy ever since I were eleven year old, when I was a powder-monkey aboard o’ the Bunnum Richard, that ’ere old hulk with forty-two guns, when she licked the bran-new S’rapis, fifty guns. The Richard had Cap’n Paul Jones for a cap’n.”
Angry as Macdonough was, he could scarcely keep from laughing at Danny’s sly dig. But Captain Lockyer was furious.
“Is this the state of discipline prevailing among your crew—allowing them to harangue their superiors on the quarter-deck?” he asked cuttingly, of Macdonough.
“Captain Bainbridge, sir, of the Essex, is fully capable of maintaining discipline without any suggestion from the officers of the Thunderer,” answered Macdonough firmly, “and the question to be decided is, whether the word of the officers and men of the Essex is to be taken, or this man’s, regarding his citizenship.”
“It is the practice in the British navy to take the word of the man himself, as being most likely to know the facts in the case,” said Captain Lockyer, “and I decline to give up this man.”
True it was that such was the practice in the British navy, because it had the power to make good its high-handed measure.
“I do not feel myself qualified to deal with the question any further, then,” said Macdonough, “and I shall return on board the Essex and report to Captain Bainbridge,” and in another moment he had bowed formally and entered his boat.
When he reached the Essex, Captain Bainbridge was not on board, having gone ashore early in the evening, so Decatur was in command. Decatur’s anger knew no bounds. He stormed up and down the deck, sent a messenger off to the captain, and altogether was in just the sort of rage that an impetuous young officer would be in under like circumstances. But retaliation was nearer at hand than he imagined. While he and the other officers were collected in groups on deck, discussing the exasperating event, Danny Dixon, his face wreathed in smiles, approached.
“Mr. Decatur,” said he, unable to repress a grin of delight, “one o’ the finest-lookin’ sailor men I ever see, hearin’ ’em say on the Thunderer as how ’twas a rule to take a man’s word ’bout the country he belongs to, jist sneaked into our boat, sir, and hid hisself under the gunwale; and when we was h’istin’ the boat in, out he pops, sir, and swears he’s a ’Merican that was pressed into the British sarvice.”
Now, a man might very well have concealed himself in the boat, by the connivance of the men, without Macdonough’s seeing him, but how Danny Dixon could have avoided knowing it was a miracle. Nevertheless, he remarked solemnly:
“Didn’t a man in the boat see him, neither, sir—so they say; and, bein’ sailor men, ’tain’t likely they’d lie about it, sir.”
Decatur and Macdonough, charmed with this state of affairs, could hardly refrain from winking at one another; but Decatur only said: “Very well, Dixon; if he says he’s an American, mind, we’ll keep him.”
“He’ll say so, sir,” answered Danny, making no effort at all to suppress his enjoyment.
Good luck followed good luck. Within ten minutes the rattle of hoisting out a boat from the Thunderer was heard, and in a little while it was seen pulling across the dark water in which the stars were faintly reflected. The man’s getting into the American boat had been suspected, and his absence discovered. But no midshipman had been sent after him. Lieutenant Lockyer, the officer who had been so rude to Macdonough, and who, in spite of his bad manners, was a young officer of experience and determination, was sent in the first cutter. As soon as he stepped on deck Decatur greeted him politely, but all the other officers maintained an unbroken silence. Lockyer began at once, in a dictatorial manner:
“One of our men, sir, Moriarity by name, slipped into your boat a bit ago, and is probably on board now, and I have come to request, in Captain Lockyer’s name, that this man be delivered to me.”
Lockyer’s “request” sounded very much like “demand.”
“Certainly,” replied Decatur, with much suavity. “If the man acknowledges himself a British subject, he shall be delivered to you at once, to be punished as a deserter. But it is the rule in the American navy to take the word of the man in question respecting his citizenship, upon which he is likely to be the person best informed.”
This rule was improvised for the occasion, but Decatur was not the man to be taken at a disadvantage, and he quoted Captain Lockyer’s words to Macdonough with a sarcastic emphasis that was infuriating to the young lieutenant.
Decatur then turned to Danny Dixon and said, “Bring the man Moriarity on deck, if he is on the ship.”
Danny touched his hat, and in a few moments appeared with a young sailor, of splendid physique, but with a bright red head, and the first word he uttered was in a brogue that could be cut with a knife.
“Are you a British or an American citizen?” asked Decatur.
“Amurican, sorr,” almost shouted Moriarity. “I and all me posterity was born in Ameriky, begorra, and I niver was in ould Oireland, God bless her!”
Decatur could scarcely keep his countenance, and the other officers were all seized at the same time with coughing spells.
“Who said anything about Ireland?” asked Lieutenant Lockyer sharply. “You are as Irish as potatoes, and you were never out of Ireland in your life until you enlisted on the Thunderer.”
“Bedad, sorr, I’d be proud to be an Oirishman,” responded Moriarity with a grin. “It’s not denyin’ of it I’d be, but me mother was of a noble Italian family, in rejuced circumstances, be the name of Murphy, and me father was a Spanish gintleman be the name of Moriarirty, and I was born in Ameriky, sorr, and pressed into the Thunderer”; and, turning to Decatur, he added, “And I claims the protection of the Amurican flag.”
Lockyer was silent with rage and chagrin, but Decatur spoke up with undisturbed blandness:
“You see, sir, how this matter stands. I must take this man’s word, and you are at liberty to keep the fellow that deserted from us. Your boat waits, and I have the honor to bid you good-evening.”
Lockyer, thus practically ordered off the ship, bowed slightly and walked rapidly down the ladder and got into his boat.
Scarcely had he pushed off when Captain Bainbridge’s boat appeared, and in a few minutes he stepped on deck.
“Anything happened, Mr. Decatur?” he asked, as soon as he caught sight of his young first lieutenant.
Decatur told him briefly what had occurred. When he finished, Captain Bainbridge, who was a tall, powerful man, gave him a thwack upon the shoulder that nearly knocked him down.
“Good for you!” he cried. “You boy officers have as much sense as we oldsters. I would not take a year’s pay for what has happened this night!”
Captain Bainbridge, though, had reason to be still more proud of his boy officers in what followed concerning Moriarity. The Thunderer’s people were determined to get Moriarity back, and watched their chance for days. They knew it was impossible to get him off the Essex, and their opportunity was when the man went ashore on liberty. About two weeks after this, one bright August day, Captain Bainbridge having gone ashore on official business and Decatur being again in command, he noticed a great commotion in a British boat that was pulling off toward the Thunderer. A man was struggling in the bottom of the boat, and his loud cries and fierce efforts to free himself and jump overboard were clearly heard on the Essex. Decatur, whose eyesight was wonderfully keen, called to Macdonough, who was near him:
“Is not that voice Moriarity’s?”
“Yes,” cried Macdonough, “and he was given liberty this morning, I happen to know.”
It took Decatur but a moment to act. “Lower the second cutter!” he cried—the fastest of all the boats; “and you, Macdonough, if possible—if possible, do you hear?—reach that boat before it touches the ship, and bring me that man!”
Scarcely were the words out of Decatur’s mouth before the boat began to descend from the davits, and the boat’s crew, with Danny Dixon as coxswain, dropped in her as she touched the water. Macdonough, his dark eyes blazing, and almost wild with excitement under his calm exterior, was the first man in the boat.
“Give way, men!” he said, in a voice of suppressed agitation. “We must get that man, or never hold up our heads as long as we are at Gibraltar.”
The men gave way with a will and a cheer, and Macdonough, in the stern sheets, steered straight for the Thunderer’s boat. The British tars, realizing what was up, bent to their oars and dashed the diamond spray in showers around them. Both were about evenly matched, and the question was whether the Americans could reach the British boat before she got under the lee of the ship—and then, whether Moriarity could be recaptured. The American sailors, their oars flashing with the steadiness and precision of a machine, were gaining a little on the British boat; but it was plain, if they could intercept it at all, it would be directly under the quarter of the great line-of-battle ship. Several officers were in the Thunderer’s boat, and Macdonough recognized among them Lockyer, the insolent lieutenant. Moriarity, completely overpowered, lay handcuffed in the bows of the boat.
Decatur, on the deck of the Essex, watched the two cutters speeding across the dazzling blue of the harbor with an intensity as if his life depended on it. He had instantly chosen Macdonough to represent the Essex, and said to himself, involuntarily: “If any one can do it, it is Macdonough. He is like Somers, quiet and determined. He can’t—he sha’n’t fail!”
His excitement was shared by every officer and man on the Essex, and also on the Thunderer. Cries and cheers were heard from each ship. At last, as the two boats neared each other, Macdonough, motioning to Danny Dixon, gave him the tiller and took a place in the bow of the cutter. He spoke a word to the men, and they, as if they had reserved the strength in their brawny arms for a final effort, laid to their oars so that the boat fairly flew across the water, and in two minutes she had closed up on the bow of the British boat. As quick as a flash, Macdonough, who was a tall fellow, leaned forward, and, catching Moriarity by the waistband of his trousers, lifted him bodily into the American boat. In the suddenness of the movement not one of the dozen oars raised to strike Macdonough touched, and in another moment the Americans had sheered off, and the men were cheering wildly, while they still worked their oars sturdily. Lockyer, standing up in the British boat, shouted:
“The Thunderer will blow you out of the water for that!”
“No doubt she is fully able to do it,” cried Macdonough in reply; “but we will never give up this man as long as our ship will float!”
Decatur, on the deck of the Essex, fairly jumped with delight.
“Somers—Somers,” he cried to himself, without knowing what he was saying, “I knew that brave young Macdonough was like you!”
Cheers resounded. The American tars, gathered on the fok’sl, danced with delight. The Thunderer’s boat had made some effort to follow the American, but the latter had come about so quickly that she gained too long a lead to be overtaken, and after a few minutes her adversary sullenly put about and returned to the Thunderer. The Americans did not relax their efforts, though, and in a little while were landed on the Essex’s deck. Decatur embraced Macdonough and fairly kissed him, much to Macdonough’s embarrassment.
“You remind me of the most gallant fellow that lives—Dick Somers!” cried Decatur, “and that’s praise enough for any man. Send the armorer here to take Moriarity’s handcuffs off.”
“Av ye plaze, sorr,” said Moriarity, “maybe it ’ud be safer to keep the bracelets on, and to give me a pair o’ leg irons to decorate me legs wid; for I shall be axin’ for liberty, sure, if I’m ’lowed around, and then I’ll be captured by thim Johnny Bulls. So, av ye plaze, sorr, put me in double irons while we’re in port, and that’s the only way to kape me from gittin’ into a peck o’ trouble agin, sorr.”
“You’ll not be put in irons, but you’ll get no more liberty while you’re at Gibraltar,” answered Decatur, laughing.
“Thanky, sorr,” responded Moriarity. “If ye’ll kape to that, maybe I can do widout the double irons.”
When Captain Bainbridge came on board, Decatur eagerly told him of Macdonough’s gallant exploit, and the captain’s delight was unbounded.
“By heavens!” he chuckled, “these boy officers of mine manage to do something handsome every time I leave them to themselves. If I stayed on shore altogether, I believe they’d lick everything in sight, in one way or another!”
Several weeks had now passed, and, owing to the slowness of communication from home, no official declaration of war had reached them. The squadron cruised about the Mediterranean, giving convoy, and ready to begin active hostilities as soon as called upon. The Tripolitan pirates were still at work, whenever they dared, but the watchful energy of the American squadron kept them from doing much harm. Meanwhile the Boston was cruising over the same ground; but whenever the squadron put into port, either the Boston had just left, or she arrived just as the squadron disappeared. This was very exasperating to Commodore Dale; but as Captain NcNeill was ostensibly in hot pursuit of the squadron, and always had some plausible excuse for not falling in with it, the commodore could do nothing but leave peremptory orders behind him and in advance of him, which invariably reached Captain McNeill just a little too late or too early.
It was a cruel disappointment to both Decatur and Somers, who had expected to be almost as much together as if on the same ship. When they had been thus dodging each other for months, Decatur found at Messina, where the Essex touched, the following letter from Somers:
“My dear Decatur: Here we are, going aloft, with a fair wind, while I am perfectly sure that the sail reported off the starboard quarter is one of the squadron—perhaps the Essex! As you know, Captain McNeill is apparently the most anxious man imaginable to report to his commanding officer; but if Commodore Dale wins in this chase, he will be a seaman equal to Paul Jones himself. For Captain McNeill is one of the very ablest seamen in the world, and, much as his eccentricities annoy us, his management of the ship is so superb that we can’t but admire the old fellow. But I tell you privately that he has no notion of taking orders from anybody, and the commodore will never lay eyes on him during the whole cruise. Nevertheless, he is doing good service, giving convoy, and patrolling the African coast so that the Barbary corsairs are beginning to be afraid to show their noses when the Boston is about.”
Here a break occurred, and the letter was continued on the next page:
“Just as I had written the last word, another sail was reported off the starboard quarter, and all of us are convinced that it is your squadron. I even think I recognize the rig of the Essex, among the four ships now visible. But old McNeill, sending his favorite lookout—an old sailor, Jack Bell, the captain of the maintop—aloft, we know very well that you will soon be hull down, and we ripping it as fast as we can leg it, on the opposite tack. Jack Bell, you must know, understands the captain’s peculiarity, and never sees anything the captain doesn’t wish to see. So he has just come down with the report that, of the four ships, not one is square enough in her rig to be a war ship, and that he thinks they are French transports! You can’t imagine with what a straight face he says this, and how infuriated we are. The captain then turns and says to us: ‘Gentlemen, this is most unfortunate. I was in hopes this was Commodore Dale’s squadron, but it is evidently not.’ And now we are bearing away due north, with every stitch of canvas set that will draw! I said that all of us are infuriated. That is not quite correct, for two or three odd fish among us have become infected with the captain’s mania, and declare that, for the credit of the thing, they don’t wish to be caught, for it is really a chase and a pursuit.
“In regard to my shipmates, I find them pleasant fellows, but still I feel, as I always shall, the loss of your companionship, my dear Decatur. Perhaps, had I a father or a mother, I should feel differently, but your parents are the persons who have treated me with the most paternal and maternal affection. As for you, we have lived so long in intimacy, that I can scarcely expect to form another such friendship, and, indeed, it would be impossible. I am glad that you are becoming fond of young Macdonough. Several of the midshipmen on this ship know him, and speak of him as a young officer of wonderful nerve and coolness. Well did you come off in your dispute with the Thunderer! I only hope that Macdonough, as young as he is, may exercise some of that restraint over you which you have always charged me with, Decatur. You are much too rash, and I wish I could convince you that there are occasions in every officer’s life when prudence is the very first and greatest virtue. Of course, you will laugh at this, and remind me of many similar warnings I have given you, but I can not help advising you; you know I have been doing that ever since we were lads together at Dame Gordon’s school. I heard a story of the great Nelson, the other day, that reminded me of you. When he was a very young child he went one day to his mother and said to her: ‘I hear people speak of “fear,” of “being afraid.” What is it? What is fear?’ The child was, indeed, father of the man in that case.”
The Enterprise capturing the Tripolitan pirate.
Here came another break, and a new date.
“I was about to close my letter, when one of our officers got a letter from a friend on the Enterprise; and as it shows how the Barbary corsairs fight, I will tell you a part of it. While running for Malta, on the 1st of August, the Enterprise came across a polacca-rigged ship, such as the Barbary corsairs usually have, with an American brig in tow. It had evidently been captured and her people sent adrift. Sterrett, who commands the Enterprise, as soon as he found the position of affairs, cleared for action, ran out his guns, and opened a brisk fire on the Tripolitan. He got into a raking position, and his broadside had a terrific effect upon the pirate. But—mark the next—three times were the Tripolitan colors hauled down, and then hoisted again as soon as the fire of the Enterprise ceased. After the third time, Sterrett played his broadside on the pirate with the determination to sink him for such treachery; but the Tripolitan rais, or captain, appeared in the waist of his ship, bending his body in token of submission, and actually threw his ensign overboard. Sterrett could not take the ship as prize, because no formal declaration of war had reached him from the United States; but he sent Midshipman Porter—you remember David Porter, who, with Rodgers, carried the French frigate L’Insurgente into port after Commodore Truxtun had captured her—aboard of the pirate, to dismantle her. He had all her guns thrown overboard, stripped her of everything except one old sail and a single spar, and let her go, with a message to the Bashaw of Tripoli that such was the way the Americans treated pirates. I understand that when the rais got to Tripoli with his one old sail, he was ridden through the town on a jackass, by order of the Bashaw, and received the bastinado; and that since then the Tripolitans are having great trouble in finding crews to man their corsair ships because of the dread of the ‘Americanos.’ One more thing—I must tell you about our red-headed captain. There was a great dinner given at Messina to the officers of a Swedish frigate and ourselves. You know how the Swedes drink! Well, Captain McNeill, in addition to his other virtues, is very abstemious. So, the night of the dinner, when the Swedish officers began to pass the decanters, Captain McNeill lay back in his chair scowling, and the next thing he was sound asleep. After he had snored about two hours, he suddenly waked up and bawled out, ‘Have those d——d Swedes got through with their guzzling and tippling yet?’ Imagine our feelings!
“Now I must tell you a piece of news almost too good to be true. I hear the Government is building four beautiful small schooners, to carry sixteen guns, for use in the Tripolitan war, which is to be pushed very actively; and that you, my dear Decatur, will command one of these vessels, and I another! I can write nothing more exhilarating after this; so, I am, as always,
“Your faithful friend,
Many letters passed between the two friends, but they did not once meet during the whole cruise. Captain McNeill, true to his intention, never allowed himself to be overhauled by his superior officer, and at the end of two years returned to the United States without ever having seen the flagship of the squadron to which he was attached. He had done good work, though, and so the authorities winked at his odd cruise, and the brave old captain enjoyed his triumph.
Never had the blue Mediterranean and the quaint old town of Syracuse and its fair harbor looked more beautiful than on a certain sunny September afternoon in 1803. The green shores of Sicily stretched as far as the eye could reach; the white-walled town, with its picturesque and half-ruined castle, lay in the foreground; while looming up on the farthest horizon was the shadowy cone of Etna with its crown of fire and smoke. The harbor contained a few fishing vessels, most of them with their white lateen sails furled, and motionless upon the water. A large pleasure boat, with a gay red awning, moved lazily across the “lesser harbor,” while two or three fruit-laden vessels were beating in or out of the offing under a “soldier’s wind”—that is, a wind which enables a ship to go in any direction she wishes.
But in the midst of all this placid beauty lay a war ship—the majestic Constitution—the darling frigate of her country, looking as if she commanded everything in sight. Never was there a more warlike-looking ship than Old Ironsides. Her towering hull, which was higher than the masts of most of the vessels in the sunlit harbor, was, like all American ships, painted black. In contrast to this were her polished decks, her shining masts and spars, and her snowy canvas, whose whiteness was visible although tightly clewed up. Her ports were open to admit the air, and through them could be seen a double row of wicked-looking muzzles, like the grin of a mastiff. The other vessels rocked with the tide and wind, but the great frigate seemed to lie perfectly still, as if defying both wind and tide. Her colors, too, caught some wandering puff of air, and “Old Glory” fluttered out proudly, while the other flags in sight drooped languidly. At anchor near her were two small but beautiful schooner-rigged vessels, which also flew American colors. They were precisely alike in their lines, their rig, and the small but serviceable batteries they carried. On the stern of one was gilded “Nautilus,” while on the other was “Siren.” These were indeed the gallant little vessels that Somers had written to Decatur about, and his dream was realized. He commanded the Nautilus, while Decatur commanded the Argus, a sister vessel, which was hourly expected.
The perfect quiet of the golden afternoon was broken when around the headland came sailing another small but beautiful cruiser, schooner-rigged, and wearing American colors. As soon as she had weathered the point of land, and had got fully abreast of the Constitution, her guns barked out a salute to the commodore’s pennant flying on the Constitution, which the frigate acknowledged. The schooner had a handsome figurehead, and on her stern was painted, in gold letters, “Argus.” She came to anchor in first-class man-of-war style, close under the Constitution’s quarter, and in a wonderfully short time her sails were furled, and her anchor had kissed the ground, the cable emitting sparks of fire as it rushed out of the hawse-hole. In a quarter of an hour her gig was lowered, and her young commander, Stephen Decatur, stepped into the boat and was pulled toward the Constitution. At that time neither he nor Somers was turned of twenty-four, although both were commanding officers.
As the boat shot past the Nautilus, Decatur stood up and waved his cap at the officers, but he observed that Somers was not among them. A captain’s gig, though, looking like a mere speck under the great quarter of the Constitution, made Decatur surmise that Somers was at that moment on board the flagship. The two had parted only six weeks before, when, Somers’s vessel being ready in advance of Decatur’s, he had sailed to join Commodore Preble’s squadron in the Mediterranean. The prospect of seeing Somers again raised Decatur’s naturally gay and jovial spirits to the highest pitch, and he tried to distinguish among the officers scattered about the Constitution’s decks the handsome, lithe figure of his friend. While watching the frigate as he advanced toward it, he saw another boat come alongside; an officer stepped out and ran lightly up the ladder, while the boat pulled back to the shore. Decatur was struck by the fact that this officer, who was obviously a young man, wore two epaulets. In those days only flag officers were allowed to wear two—all others wearing but one. Commodore Preble was, in fact, the only man in the whole American fleet then in European waters who was entitled to wear two epaulets. Decatur was much puzzled by the officer’s uniform, and the only explanation that occurred to him was that the gallant Preble had been superseded—an event which would have filled him with regret. Although the commodore was a stranger to him, Decatur had conceived the highest respect for his abilities, and had heard much of his vigor and enterprise, to say nothing of his untamable temper, which at first the officers chafed under, but had soon come to regard as “Old Pepper’s way,” for so the midshipmen had dubbed Commodore Preble.
The deck was full of officers, standing about enjoying the lovely afternoon, and they all watched with interest the Argus’s boat, knowing it contained Decatur. While it was still a hundred yards off Decatur recognized the figure of Somers running down the ladder, and in a few minutes Decatur literally jumped into Somers’s arms. Their affectionate way of meeting amused their shipmates very much, and even Danny Dixon, who was Decatur’s coxswain, grinned slyly at the men in the boat, and whispered, as the two young captains went up the ladder together, their arms entwined like schoolboys:
“They’re lovyers, them two be. They keeps locks o’ each other’s hair, and picters in their bosoms!”
The officers greeted Decatur warmly, among them Macdonough, now a tall young fellow of eighteen; but Decatur noticed that all of them seemed convulsed with laughter. Lieutenant Trippe, who was officer of the deck, laughed to himself as he walked up and down. A little way off, Moriarity, who was quartermaster, was standing just as near the dividing line between the quarter-deck and the forecastle as the regulations allowed, his mouth stretched from ear to ear, and even the stolid marine who stood guard at the hatchway wore a broad smile. Two or three midshipmen loitering about grinned appreciatively at each other.
“Why, what’s the meaning of this hilarity, Somers?” cried Decatur, observing a smile even on his friend’s usually grave countenance.
“Matter enough,” responded Somers, bursting out into a shout of laughter. “The commodore needed a surgeon’s mate for this ship, so he succeeded in getting a little Sicilian doctor for the place. He was entered on the ship’s books regularly under an acting appointment and ordered to prepare his uniforms and outfit and report on board this afternoon. Well, just now he came aboard, in full regalia, with cocked hat and side arms, but instead of having one epaulet, he has two; and the commodore isn’t the man to permit any equality between himself and a surgeon’s mate. The little fellow has gone below, and—ha! ha!—we are waiting for the explosion.”
There was one of the midshipmen, though, the youngest and smallest of them all, a bright-faced lad of fourteen, who laughed as much as the rest, but who looked undoubtedly a little frightened.
“Mr. Israel, there,” continued Somers, still laughing, “was the officer to whom the doctor applied for instructions about his uniforms, and we are apprehensive that the commodore may call upon Mr. Israel for an explanation.”
“I—I don’t know what I shall do,” faltered the little midshipman, “if old Pep—I mean the commodore—should ask me. I’m sure I’d never have the nerve to own up, and I certainly can’t deny that I did tell the doctor he’d look well in a cocked hat and two epaulets.”
“Never mind, Pickle,” said Macdonough, clapping the boy on the shoulder, “you’re always in mischief anyhow, so a little more or less makes no difference.—Captain Decatur, we in the steerage do our best to reform Mr. Israel, but he has a positive genius for getting into scrapes.”
“Queer thing, that, for a midshipman,” answered Decatur, with a wink. “That was the way with Captain Somers when we were midshipmen together on ‘Old Wagoner.’ If it had not been for my watchful eye and discreet judgment, he would have been in trouble all the time.”
This was so conspicuously to the contrary of the truth, that Somers did not condescend to deny it, merely remarking:
“A likely yarn, that.”
Scarcely were the words out of Somers’s mouth before a wild yell was heard from below. The next moment the unlucky Sicilian dashed out of the cabin, hotly pursued by Commodore Preble himself. The commodore was six feet high, and usually of a grave and saturnine countenance. But there was nothing grave or saturnine about him then. He had been in the act of shaving when the surgeon’s mate with the two epaulets appeared, and he had not taken time to wipe the lather off his face or to take off his dressing-gown, nor was he conscious that he was flourishing a razor in his hand. The Sicilian, seeing the razor, and appalled by the reception he had met with, had taken to his heels; and the commodore, determined to have an explanation, had followed him, bawling:
“What the devil do you mean, you lubberly apothecary, by appearing before me in that rig? Two epaulets and a cocked hat for a surgeon’s mate! I got you, sir, to pound drugs in a mortar—not to insult your superiors by getting yourself up like a commodore. I’ll have you court-martialed, sir!—no, sir; I’ll withdraw your appointment, and take the responsibility of giving you the cat for your insolence!”
The poor Sicilian darted across the deck, and, still finding the enraged commodore at his heels, suddenly sprang over the rail and struck out, swimming for the shore.
Commodore Preble walked back to where the officers stood, who had watched the scene ready to die with laughter, and shouted:
“Mr. Israel, I believe you were the midshipman, sir, that I directed that miserable little pill-maker to go to for information respecting his uniforms?”
“Yes, sir,” answered Pickle in a weak voice, the smile leaving his countenance. The others had assumed as serious an expression as they were able, but kept it with difficulty. Not so poor Pickle, who knew what it was to fall into the commodore’s hands for punishment.
“And did you, sir, have the amazing effrontery, the brazen assurance, to recommend that little popinjay to have two epaulets and a cocked hat?” roared the commodore.
“I—I didn’t recommend him, sir,” replied Pickle, looking around despairingly, and seeing Decatur, Somers, Macdonough, and all the others with their handkerchiefs to their mouths, “but he asked me if I thought two epaulets would look well on him, and I said ‘Y-yes’—and—”
“Go on, sir!” thundered the commodore.
“And then I—I told him if he had two epaulets he ought to have a cocked hat.”
“Mr. Israel,” said the commodore in a deep voice, after an awful pause, “you will go below, and remain there until I send for you!”
Poor Pickle, with a rueful countenance, turned and went below, while Decatur, advancing with Somers, managed to recover his composure enough to say:
“Commodore Preble, I have the honor of presenting myself before you; and yonder is my ship, the Argus.”
It was now the commodore’s turn to be confused. With his strict notions of naval etiquette, the idea that he should appear on the quarter-deck half shaved and in his dressing-gown was thoroughly upsetting. He mumbled some apology for his appearance, in which “that rascally apothecary” and “that little pickle of a midshipman” figured, and, asking Captain Decatur’s presence in the cabin in a few moments, disappeared. As soon as the commodore was out of hearing the officers roared with merriment.
“That’s the same old Preble,” said Decatur, laughing, “that I have heard of ever since I entered the navy.”
“Yes,” answered Somers. “At first we hated him. Now, there is not an officer in the squadron who does not like and respect him. He is a stern disciplinarian, and he has a temper like fire and tow. But he is every inch a sailor and a gentleman, and all of us will one day be proud to say, ‘I served under Preble at Tripoli!’”
“Yes,” broke in Trippe. “On the outward voyage, one very dark night, we found ourselves suddenly about half a cable’s length off from a large ship of war. We hailed her, but got no answer. After a very little of this, the commodore sent the men to quarters, had the guns run out, and took the trumpet himself. Then he shouted:
“‘This is the United States frigate Constitution, forty-four guns. This is the last time I shall hail, and if you do not answer I will give you a shot. What ship is that?—Blow your matches, boys!’
“This brought an answer, you may be sure, and a voice out of the darkness replied:
“‘If you give us a shot, we will give you a broadside! But since you are so anxious to know, this is His Britannic Majesty’s ship Donegal, razee, eighty guns!’
“‘I don’t believe you!’ bawled back old Preble; ‘and I shall stick by you until daylight to find out what you are!’
“The men gave a great cheer then, and the officers joined in—for we couldn’t help cheering a man who with a forty-four gives the lie to another man with an eighty-gun ship. In a little while, though, a boat came alongside with a very polite explanation. The ship really was the Maidstone frigate, thirty-eight guns, and the delay in answering our hails came from suspecting that we might be French, and therefore they wanted to get their people at quarters. After that we all felt differently toward ‘Old Pepper,’ as the steerage fellows call him, and we know his heart is all right if his temper is all wrong.”
The conversation then turned upon the distressing news of the loss of the frigate Philadelphia, the handsomest in the world, and the capture of all her company by the Tripolitans. While commanded by Bainbridge, Decatur’s old captain in the Essex, the Philadelphia had run upon a rock at the entrance to the harbor of Tripoli, and, literally mobbed by a Tripolitan flotilla, she was compelled to surrender. All her guns had been thrown overboard, and every effort made to scuttle her, when the Americans saw that capture was inevitable, but it was with grief and shame that the officers of the Constitution told Decatur that the ship had been raised, her guns fished up, her masts and spars refitted, and she lay under the guns of the Bashaw’s castle in the harbor, flying the piratical colors of Tripoli at her peak. If anything could add to the misery of the four hundred officers and men belonging to her, it was the sight of her, so degraded, which they could not but witness from the windows of their dungeons in the Bashaw’s castle. Her recapture had been eagerly talked over and thought over, ever since her loss; and it was a necessary step in the conquest of the piratical power of the Barbary States, for she would be a formidable enemy to any ship, even the mighty Constitution herself.
When Decatur entered the cabin, nothing could have been a greater contrast to the scene he had lately witnessed. Commodore Preble was handsomely shaved and dressed, and was a model of dignity and courtesy. He made no allusion to what had just happened, but at once began questioning Decatur as to their present and future plans.
“I have a plan, sir,” said Decatur, after a while, with a slight smile—“just formed since I have been on this ship, but nevertheless enough developed for me to ask your permission. It is, to cut out the Philadelphia as she now lies in the harbor at Tripoli. I hear that when Captain Bainbridge was compelled to haul down his flag he ordered the ship scuttled. Instead of that, though, only a few holes were bored in her bottom, and there was no difficulty in patching them and raising her.”
As Decatur spoke, some inward voice seemed to cry out to him, “Hold on to this plan, for that way lies immortality!” His dark eyes gleamed with a strange light, and he seemed to hear such words as “Glory! immortality!” thundering in his ears.
As soon as he spoke, Commodore Preble answered him quickly and firmly:
“Certainly, the ship must be destroyed, for the honor of the flag, and it will also be a measure of prudence in the coming campaign against the fleet and town of Tripoli. But as to cutting her out, that is an impossible thing.”
“I think not, sir,” answered Decatur, with equal firmness.
“You think not, Captain Decatur, because you are not yet twenty-five years old. I think to the contrary, because I am more than forty. The flag will be vindicated if the Philadelphia is destroyed, and never permitted to sail under Tripolitan colors. Anything else would be quixotic to attempt.”
“At all events,” said Decatur, “I may ask the honor of being the one to make the attempt. My father was the Philadelphia’s first commander, and if I can rescue her it will be glory enough for a lifetime.”
“No doubt all my beardless captains will ask the same thing,” answered the commodore with a grim smile; “but as you have spoken first, I shall consider you have the first claim.”
“Thank you, sir,” answered Decatur, rising. “Whenever you are ready to discuss a plan I shall be gratified.” He then went on deck again.
As Decatur felt obliged to return to his ship, Somers went with him, and saying good-by to the officers on the Constitution, with the hope that the little midshipman would get off from the commodore’s wrath, the two friends were soon pulling across the placid harbor. The last rays of the sun were reflected on the water, turning it all red and gold, while in the sky a pale opaline glow still lingered.
The two friends had only been separated a few weeks, but they had much to talk about. At dinner, as they sat opposite each other in the cabin, with a hanging lamp between, Decatur, who was overflowing with spirits, noticed that Somers was more than usually grave.
“What ails you, man?” cried Decatur. “Those lantern jaws of yours have not opened with a smile since we left the flagship. Are you disappointed about anything?”
“Yes,” answered Somers, continuing his dinner with a very rueful countenance. “You will be the one to go upon the Philadelphia expedition. The rest of us will have to hang on to our anchors, while you are doing the thing we all want to do.”
“How do you know about that?” asked Decatur, with sparkling eyes and a brilliant smile.
“Oh,” answered Somers, resignedly, pushing his plate away, “I had a presentiment as soon as you went down in the commodore’s cabin. Here are the rest of us, who have been wanting to speak of this thing for weeks, and watching each other like hawks, but all afraid to beard the lion in his den; when you, with your cool impudence, just arrived, never saw the commodore in your life before, you go and plump out what you want at your first interview, and get it too. Oh, I guessed the whole business as soon as I saw you come out of the cabin!”
“You are too prudent by half, Dick,” cried Decatur, laughing at Somers’s long face. “Now, if I had taken your advice about prudence I never would have got the better of you. The commodore, too, has enough and to spare of prudence—that beggarly virtue. When I offered to go into the harbor of Tripoli with the Argus and bring the Philadelphia out, he said No, she must be destroyed, as it would be too risky to attempt to cut her out. Think of the misery of old Bainbridge and his men when they look out and see this beauty of a ship lying at the mole, with a gang of Tripolitan pirates at work on her!”
“I’ll never say a word in favor of prudence again,” groaned Somers, still thinking of his disappointment. Then began questions about their shipmates. Decatur was lucky enough to have as his first lieutenant James Lawrence, who was afterward to give the watchword to the American navy, “Don’t give up the ship!” James Decatur was also in the squadron, although not on the Argus; Decatur also had Danny Dixon as his first quartermaster; while Somers had as his quartermaster, Moriarity, who “never was in ould Ireland, God bless her!” The two young officers went on deck, where they found Danny, whom Somers went forward to greet. Danny was delighted to see him, and could not touch his cap often enough to express his respect for Somers’s new rank.
“Lord, Cap’n Somers, when I remember you and Cap’n Decatur as reefers aboard o’ ‘Old Wagoner,’ and now I sees you both commandin’ smart vessels, like the Airgus and the Nartilus, I says to myself, I must be a-gittin’ old. I ain’t very old, sir; you know I warn’t but a little shaver when I was on the Bunnum Richard with Cap’n Paul Jones——”
“Yes, yes,” interrupted Somers hastily, remembering that once, started on Cap’n Paul Jones and the Bunnum Richard, Danny was difficult to stop. “We have a fine lot of young reefers here now.”
“Yes, sir; Mr. Macdonough, he’s a fine young gentleman, and there’s a little ’un, they calls Mr. Pickle Israel, ’cause he’s allus in a scrape o’ some sort. But he ain’t got no flunk at all in him, and the men says as how, when it’s work or fightin’ to be done, that this little midship-mite is right on top. ’Course, there ain’t no Paul Joneses among ’em, axin’ your pardon, sir—there never was but one Cap’n Paul Jones—but we’ve got as fine a lot o’ young officers as ever I see, and no ladybirds among ’em—all stormy petrels, sir.”
Somers presented Danny with a pound of tobacco, which was shown in the fok’sl with great pride, accompanied with more reminiscences of “Cap’n Paul Jones.” Some days passed in giving the men on the Argus liberty and in making ready for a cruise to Tripoli, which was to precede the great attack. The bomb-vessels, shells, and many of the preparations necessary for the gigantic struggle with the pirates were not completed, and would not be for some time; but Commodore Preble wisely concluded to give the Tripolitans a sight of his force, and also to encourage Captain Bainbridge and his companions in captivity by the knowledge that their country had not forgotten them. The commodore had determined to wait for the return of the Siren, under Lieutenant-Commandant Stewart, which had been sent to Gibraltar for some stores and to have some slight repairs made. The Siren, however, did not return as promptly as was expected, which annoyed Commodore Preble excessively. The officers, all of whom were Stewart’s friends, were fearful that it might hurt him very much in the commodore’s opinion. His arrival, therefore, was looked for anxiously, and every hour of the day the question was asked, “Has anything been heard of Stewart?” and every day Commodore Preble’s vexation became more evident. At last, one morning, seeing a very fine merchant ship that was bound for Gibraltar making her way out of the harbor, the commodore signaled to her and sent a boat with a letter to Captain Stewart. The letter was written in the commodore’s most fiery vein and with his curtest decision. It simply directed Stewart to sail at once, without waiting for further repairs.
A day or two afterward, when the usual inquiries were made about Stewart, Trippe answered dolefully:
“The commodore has just had a letter from him saying his mainmast is so badly sprung that it is unserviceable, and he is having a new one made. Was there ever anything so unlucky? Of course, he can’t get here for a considerable time, and all that time ‘Old Pepper’ will be lashing himself into a rage; and on top of this Stewart gets the commodore’s orders to sail at once.”
Things seemed black enough for Stewart, and as they were all looking forward to the chance of distinction in the approaching attack on Tripoli, it seemed more unfortunate than ever. However, one morning, only a day or two after this, a vessel which looked very like the Argus, a sister ship to the Siren, was discerned, and a few minutes revealed her to be the Siren. But she had no mainmast, and her appearance with only one mast was grotesque in the extreme.
“What can it be that Captain Stewart is towing?” asked Pickle Israel of Lieutenant Trippe, as the two watched the Siren’s approach from the deck of the flagship.
Trippe examined it carefully, but before he could make out what the object was, the commodore walked up, and, handing Trippe his glass, asked him:
“Will you be kind enough, Mr. Trippe, to examine the Siren and see what sort of a spar she is towing?”
Trippe took the glass, and, after a minute’s survey, he could not refrain from smiling as he answered the commodore:
“It is undoubtedly the Siren’s mainmast, sir. As you see, she has only her foremast standing, and the spar is much too big and too long for anything but the mainmast.”
Commodore Preble’s mouth twitched; he had never seen a ship of war in such a plight before. He remembered his peremptory orders to Stewart to sail at once. Stewart had evidently taken him at his word, and had sailed with one mast and was towing the other.
The good news that Old Pepper had smiled instead of scowling at Stewart’s device quickly communicated itself to the officers and gave them great satisfaction. The reception of the Siren’s captain, when he came aboard the Constitution soon after, was comparatively mild, and his explanation so satisfactory, that he was invited to prolong his visit and have luncheon with the commodore.
Decatur and Somers, standing together on the deck of the Nautilus, and seeing that Stewart did not return from the frigate, concluded that he would either be sent home or given a chance for promotion; and much relieved they were at the news brought them that “Old Pepper grinned when Stewart told him about the mainmast, and said that was the way he liked to have his orders obeyed.”
The fleet was now assembled for the first demonstration against Tripoli; and not until Commodore Preble had himself seen the Philadelphia and her position in the Tripolitan harbor would he finally fix upon any plan, although Decatur had a promise that he should have the honor of commanding the expedition.
One morning, in response to a signal from the Constitution, all the captains—Decatur, Somers, Hull, and Stewart—assembled on the flagship to hold their first council of war with the commodore. As the four young captains met on the quarter-deck, the extreme youth of every one of them seemed to strike them simultaneously. After a moment’s pause Somers remarked:
“Decatur will be the only one of us with assurance enough to parley with the commodore.”
“Somers,” said Decatur with unwonted gravity, “I do not feel as if I could make a suggestion, or argue with Commodore Preble, if my life depended upon it.”
“Heaven help the rest of us, then!” said Stewart dismally.
As the four young captains entered the cabin they passed a gentleman of middle age, who was a guest of the commodore’s on board of the flagship. Captain Hull saluted him as Colonel Lear, the American consul at Tangiers, and with a bow to the assembled officers the consul retired.
After the usual formalities, which Old Pepper was careful to observe, unless he happened to be in a choleric humor, the captains seated themselves around the table, the commodore at the head. Commodore Preble then opened his plan of campaign, which was listened to with the most respectful attention. He next asked each of the youthful commanders for an individual opinion. Each hastened to agree with that of the commodore.
The commodore then asked if any one of them had a suggestion to offer. Somers looked at Decatur, and Decatur looked gravely at Somers. Hull and Stewart looked straight before them. After hemming a little, each one in turn protested that he had no suggestion to make. “Old Pepper,” with a glance around the table, rose suddenly.
“Gentlemen,” said he, “this council is over. I regret to say that I have not had, in any way, the slightest assistance from you. Good-morning!”
The four young captains filed out in the same order in which they had entered, but very much quicker, and looking like whipped schoolboys.
Some hours after, Colonel Lear, entering the cabin, found Commodore Preble sitting at the table, leaning his head on his hands in an attitude of the deepest dejection.
“Lear,” said he, raising himself up, “I have been indiscreet in accepting the command of this squadron, with the duty of punishing Tripoli. Had I known how I was to be supported, I certainly should have declined it. The Government has sent me here a lot of schoolboys as commanders of all my vessels, and not one of them but is afraid to open his mouth before me!”
Nevertheless, the commodore went on with his preparations, and about the middle of December he set sail.
The squadron kept fairly well together for some days. Then a heavy gale arose, and for several days more they did not see each other. Toward night, on the afternoon that the gale abated, Decatur, while off the Tripolitan coast, caught sight of a low vessel with lateen sails and flying Tripolitan colors. He at once gave orders for the pursuit; but the ketch—for such it was—showed herself a fairly good sailer, and it took several hours to overhaul her. She was skillfully navigated and ran very close in shore, hoping to induce the Argus to follow her. But Decatur was wary, and, keeping well off the shore, declined to trust his ship upon the treacherous rocks and shoals toward which the Tripolitans would have led him. At last, just as a faint moon rose in a murky sky, the Argus got to windward of the ketch, and, bearing down on her, opened fire with deadly precision. The Tripolitans at once hauled down their colors; but Decatur, remembering their treachery as told him by Somers, and knowing that the pirates preferred hand-to-hand fighting, did not slacken his fire, but, standing on, ranged up alongside. The call for boarders had been sounded, and, of the Argus’s small company of eighty men, two thirds were ready to spring aboard the Tripolitan at the word. In another minute the two vessels were broadside to broadside. Decatur himself gave the order to board, and as the Americans sprang over the side they were met by every available man in a crew as numerous as their own, and armed with the terrible curved sword of the Barbary pirates.
The fight on the deck of the ketch was furious but short. The Tripolitans fought desperately, but in disorder, and within fifteen minutes they were beaten. Decatur, in examining his prize, found that she had sustained but little injury; and bearing in mind, as he had done ever since the first day he had heard of the Philadelphia’s loss, the destruction of the frigate, he determined that the ketch would be of great use on the expedition, and he would therefore take her back to the rendezvous at Syracuse with him.
“She is of a build and rig common in the Mediterranean,” he said to his first lieutenant, James Lawrence, who had lately joined, “and in arranging a surprise it would be best to have a Mediterranean vessel, which would not be readily suspected.”
Lawrence agreed with his young captain. Leaving the prisoners on board, a midshipman was put in command of the ketch, with a prize crew, and sent back to Syracuse. Decatur then joined the rest of the squadron, and they proceeded to Tripoli, where, lying off the town, they gave it a bombardment by way of a promise of what was to come. The lack of small vessels to enter the tortuous and rocky harbor prevented much damage being done; but the Bashaw saw the fine fleet the Americans could muster, and it was conveyed to him that it would return in a few months with guns, vessels, and bombards to sail in and attack the town in earnest.
To Captain Bainbridge and the poor prisoners with him in the dungeons of the castle the sight of “Old Glory” fluttering from the gallant little fleet in the far distance was an assurance of hope, and the cannonade, which was merely a defiance, was sweet music to the captives. The sight of the great Philadelphia riding at anchor under the guns of the castle and the fort, and degraded by wearing the Tripolitan colors, was a sore one for the American officers and sailors. But Decatur, during all the days of the cannonade, kept his eyes fixed on the frigate whenever he could, studying her position, examining charts, and thinking out his scheme for destroying the ship to save her honor. Every time he saw her his heart beat with a strange premonition, and he felt with rapture the presentiment that he was destined to glory in that undertaking.
Upon the return of the squadron to Syracuse, preparations went on vigorously for the attempt upon the Philadelphia. Decatur’s first plan, which he held to eagerly, of going in boldly and cutting out the frigate, was flatly forbidden by Commodore Preble as being too rash. Decatur’s second plan—going in with the ketch, disguised, and destroying the frigate—was approved of by Commodore Preble, who had, in fact, first suggested the idea to Decatur. He and “Old Pepper” spent many long hours in the cabin of the Constitution perfecting the details of this glorious but hazardous expedition, and the commodore’s respect for his “schoolboy captains” increased every day that they served under him. Particularly was he gratified at the spirit of instant acquiescence they showed when, after the keenest rivalry among them all for the honor of supporting Decatur, the privilege was accorded Captain Stewart, in the Siren, which was the fastest and most weatherly of the brigs and schooners. Somers felt the deepest disappointment, but, with his usual calm good sense, he allowed no impatient word to escape him. On the day that the use of the ketch was determined upon, Commodore Preble said to Decatur:
“And now, Captain Decatur, what shall be the name of this craft?”
“The Intrepid, sir,” answered Decatur promptly.
“Good!” was the commodore’s instant reply.
When Decatur and Somers were together that night—for no day passed without their seeing each other—Decatur spoke of the name of the ketch.
“Do you know,” said Somers, thoughtfully, “that was the very name that occurred to me?—and as I, too, long for a chance for glory, when you have returned in her I shall ask for her to carry out a plan of mine. I will not tell you of it until you come back—and you will come back, that I feel; but then you must give me all your time and abilities to help me with my scheme.”
“I will,” answered Decatur, “and I warrant it is something ten times more difficult, more desperate, than what I shall attempt; for, when it comes to taking chances, I know of no man who takes such odds as you, Dick Somers, for all your long face and continual preaching to me.”
The ships were to remain at Syracuse all winter. Meanwhile every effort was made to communicate with Captain Bainbridge and his officers imprisoned at Tripoli. A large reward was offered for the conveyance of letters to and from the prisoners, and two letters were thus conveyed to Captain Bainbridge, and answers received.
One afternoon, as Decatur and Somers were strolling along a mountain path that led to the famed fountain of Cyane, above the city, a man wearing the costume of a Sicilian peasant came up to them, and, touching his cap, said, in the lingua franca which both Somers and Decatur understood:
“Signors, are you not American naval officers?”
“Yes,” answered Decatur, while Somers eyed the man closely.
“Then I have a communication for you from the American captain now held at Tripoli.”
“Give it to us, then,” said Decatur.
“It is not here,” answered the man, with a sly look. “But if you will come to-night, at nine o’clock, to the tavern of the Three Doves, up a little higher beyond the fountain of Cyane, I will introduce you to a pilot, brother of Salvatore Catalano, who is employed by the American squadron. This other Catalano is a pilot too, and, wishing to oblige the Americans, as you have taken his brother into your service, he managed to communicate with the American captain. He has a letter for you, from him, and he will bring it to the Three Doves to-night, at eight. Shall I tell him you will be there?”
“Certainly, without fail!” replied Decatur.
The Sicilian then touched his cap again, and disappeared in a path by the side of the mountain road.
“Do you know,” said Somers, who had taken no part in the colloquy, “that I have much doubt whether such a person as Catalano’s brother exists? and I am perfectly certain that our peasant friend is really a sailor.”
“Why?” asked Decatur, surprised.
“First—well, I can only say, as the sailors do, ‘by the cut of his jib.’ Besides, he did not bow, as these peasants do here; and the way he touched his cap was very like a salute. And you perceive he made no demand for money. Now, that is the only thing that would induce these people to take the risk of communicating with Captain Bainbridge.”
Decatur stopped in his walk, much struck by what Somers said.
“And did you notice,” continued Somers, “that although he was dark and had black eyes, like the Sicilians, he was of altogether different build? He was larger and stouter, and his features were aquiline. His eyes were of a sleepy black, like a Turk’s—not soft and bright, like these handsome peasants about here.”
“At all events,” said Decatur, “we can not refuse to keep our appointment, for it is possible that these suspicions may be only suspicions after all, and we could not lose the chance of hearing from Captain Bainbridge.”
They determined, however, to seek out the pilot, Catalano, and ask if he had a brother such as the Sicilian described. But on inquiry they found that the pilot had got a few days’ leave, and had gone into the country to visit his family.
Somers and Decatur, however, concluded that it would be only prudent to go armed upon such an expedition, as Sicily was then much infested with brigands. About seven o’clock they started. The evening was warm and murky, and a fine mist shrouded the town and the water. They could only see the Constitution looming up like a great black shadow in the harbor, while the smaller vessels were mere patches of darkness.
As they were making their way, in the gloomy half-light, up the rocky path that led through a straggling wood of ilex trees, they suddenly came upon Macdonough and Pickle Israel, coming down the mountain from the little tavern for which Decatur and Somers were bound. It was a resort of the better kind, and not much frequented by seafaring men of the Salvatore Catalano class.
Somers stopped the two young midshipmen and made some inquiries, mentioning at the same time that they were in hopes of getting news of Captain Bainbridge. After parting with them, Decatur looked back and saw the midshipmen following them at a respectful distance.
“Look at those two fellows!” said Decatur to Somers, laughing. “They are afraid we will get into mischief, and they are following us—to protect us, I suppose!”
Somers, too, could not help laughing at the idea of little Pickle, who was not much more than four feet high, imagining he could protect anything. Macdonough was, indeed, a stalwart fellow, and might be of service. Somers called out, half joking:
“So you young gentlemen are dogging our footsteps, so as to take care of us.”
Macdonough did not know what to say, but Pickle, coming up the path at a run, answered in his shrill boyish treble:
“Yes, sir. We thought something might happen——”
“And you’d be there with that brawny arm of yours to help us out, eh?” asked Decatur. “Very kind of you, I’m sure; so come along. After we get the letters at the tavern we will have some supper, and will get on board ship before ‘lights out.’”
As they were toiling up the slippery path Decatur remarked to Somers:
“This seems like a safe enough sort of business, but yet I wish I had brought my dirk with me instead of my sword.”
Somers said nothing, but in his heart he echoed the wish. He, too, was only armed with his sword.
“I’m a prudent fellow, I am,” cried little Pickle, wagging his head triumphantly. “I brought my dirk; I always wear it, Captain Somers, and here it is.”
Pickle took out his midshipman’s dirk and flourished it around.
“Hide that thing,” said Somers. “I hope we sha’n’t have to murder anybody on this expedition.”
They were still some distance away from the tavern, from whose low windows, half a mile higher up, they could see a faint gleam, and the two young midshipmen who had fallen behind were concealed by a turn of the path, when some one stepped out of the bushes, and said quietly:
“You are the Americanos, are you not?”
Both Somers and Decatur recognized their acquaintance of that afternoon.
“Yes,” answered Somers, “and we have come to receive the letter from the American officers at Tripoli that Catalano, the pilot, has brought.”
In the meantime four men had approached silently and surrounded the two American officers. Somers, coolly putting his back to a stone wall that ran along the path, said:
“Where is Catalano?”
“One moment,” said the supposed Sicilian with a wolfish smile. “Have you ever heard of Mahomet Rous?”
“Yes,” answered Decatur—“the Tripolitan captain who hauled his colors down three times and then threw them overboard.”
“And when he got back to Tripoli the Bashaw rode him through the town on a jackass and gave him the bastinado,” added Somers.
Scarcely were the words out of the young captain’s mouth before the supposed Sicilian made a dash at him, and, as in a flash, both Somers and Decatur realized that they were caught in a trap. Decatur, whose powerful frame made him a match for two ordinary men, turned and grappled with Mahomet Rous, and the two men rolled over, fighting together on the ground. Somers, with his back to the wall, was set upon by the three; but at that moment the two young midshipmen, hearing the clash of swords in the darkness, rushed forward. Macdonough went to Somers’s assistance, while Pickle Israel, seeing Decatur struggling desperately with the Tripolitan pirate, drew his dirk, and with one well-directed blow pinned the arm of Mahomet Rous to the earth. Decatur, thus freed, rose. The other brigands were being well taken care of by Somers and Macdonough, and seeing Decatur on his feet, concluded they had had enough of it, and took to their heels, disappearing quickly among the shadows of the stunted ilex trees. Mahomet Rous, half killed by Decatur’s powerful arm, lay on the ground swearing frightfully at all “Americanos.” The people from the tavern, hearing the noise of the brawl, came out with lanterns and torches; but the four young officers, glad to escape from such an adventure, ran down the mountain path as fast as their legs would carry them. As soon as they reached the outskirts of the town they stopped for breath, and to repair damages as far as they could. While Pickle Israel was industriously rubbing the mud off Decatur’s back he could not forbear saying, with a mischievous grin:
“Well, Captain Decatur, I—I—believe we did manage to look out for you and Captain Somers.”
“You did, indeed,” answered Decatur, laughing. “That dirk of yours did good service. You left it sticking in the pirate’s arm, but I’ll give you another one that will always be a reminder of this night.—Somers, we shall have to learn from these cautious reefers how to take care of ourselves.”
“We will indeed,” answered Somers gravely.
Macdonough was old enough not to take this chaff seriously, but Pickle fairly swelled with pride as he marched along through the town at the heels of the two young captains.
The general plans of Decatur’s expedition were now known among the American officers and privately discussed. “Old Pepper” gave Decatur one last warning.
“You may dream, Captain Decatur, that you could bring out a frigate of the Philadelphia’s draft through that tortuous harbor at night, under the fire of every battery in the town, of the castle, and the whole fleet in the harbor. Very well, sir; if you attempt it and get out alive, you shall be sent home at once under charges; for, look you, Captain Decatur, it is as dangerous to do too much when you are under my orders as it is to do too little.”
Decatur very wisely held his tongue, and realized that the destruction of the ship was all he could aim at.
It was known that a draft of officers was to be made from the Constitution, and the wildest excitement prevailed in the steerage, where every midshipman thought himself cocksure of being one of the lucky ones to go. Pickle Israel, in his anxiety to curry favor with Decatur, who had the selection of the officers, stopped at nothing. At the same time he felt convinced—from his prowess on the night of the adventure with the brigands, and from Decatur’s present to him of a beautiful dirk to replace the lost one—that he would undoubtedly be permitted to go. Whenever Decatur came on board the Constitution, the first object he would see would be Pickle, who would bow to the deck and make the most insinuating inquiries about his health. Decatur was sure to find Pickle, cap in hand, at every turn. The other midshipmen saw through it, and determined to get a “rig” on Pickle. One day, at dinner, therefore, Laws, one of the older midshipmen, casually remarked that he had seen Captain Decatur on shore that day with a box of frogs and lizards. “And you know,” said he, turning half round so that Pickle might not see him winking at the rest, “Captain Decatur has a craze for frogs and lizards. He’s making a collection to take home with him. I gave him a tree-toad to-day, and you’d have thought from the way he thanked me that I had given him a forty-four-gun frigate. The fellows that want to go on the Intrepid can take the hint.”
That was enough for Pickle. The next day he got shore leave, and in the afternoon, as the result of his day on shore, he returned with a box about a foot square full of frogs and snails and lizards. This, he himself took on board the Enterprise, and, asking to see Captain Decatur, was very much disappointed to find that the captain was not on the ship. He left his box, though, and returned to the Constitution.
Again, at dinner, more tales were told respecting Decatur’s extravagant fondness for frogs, and Pickle chuckled to himself on his astuteness in sending the captain a whole boxful. At last he burst out with—
“I tell you what it is, fellows, I’ve got ahead of all of you! I went ashore to-day, and I got a dozen of the biggest bull-toads you ever clapped your eyes on, and I sent ’em to Captain Decatur with my compliments!”
“Pickle,” remarked Laws solemnly, “something ails you that doesn’t often afflict a midshipman: you’re too long-headed by half.”
“Yes,” said Morris, another of the midshipmen, “and soon we’ll see the effect of Pickle’s sharpness. Captain Decatur will say to himself: ‘Now, there’s that little Pickle Israel, he’s a very sharp fellow—knows a lizard when he sees one, and isn’t afraid of a jumping frog. Likely as not he isn’t afraid of a jumping pirate either. He’ll be a good fellow to have on the Intrepid, so here goes!’ Then the captain will take out his list and put your name down, and you’ll go and cover yourself with glory as with a mantle, and get promoted to be lieutenant, and be at the top of the list, ahead of all us poor devils, and all on account of sending Captain Decatur a box of frogs.”
Pickle could not forbear grinning with delight at this pleasing prospect, but thought it proper to disclaim his future distinction by cocking his head knowingly, and saying:
“Oh, well, you fellows stand just as good a chance as I do, but it was pretty clever of me to do that frog business so neatly!”
Pickle waited in vain for a note of enthusiastic thanks from Decatur, including an invitation to dinner, but none came. At last, about a week afterward, Decatur being on the Constitution’s deck one day, and Pickle, as usual, hanging around, he turned to the little midshipman with a very quizzical smile, and said:
“I think, Mr. Israel, that some one has been playing a joke at your expense. I received, the other day, a box of frogs and lizards and what not, with your compliments. Of course I had them dumped overboard, and determined to ask you about them.”
Pickle’s black eyes grew wide with amazed disappointment.
“I heard, sir—I heard you liked frogs,” he managed to stammer, and then stopped short, appalled by the reflection that perhaps, after all, he had injured his chances of going in the Intrepid.
“And suppose I do like frogs,” said Decatur, laughing; and then, eyeing the boy closely, he continued: “I know now, Mr. Israel, that some one has been playing on you. I understand you are very anxious to go upon the expedition to Tripoli.”
“Yes, sir,” cried Pickle, eagerly, “I want to go more than I can say, though all the other fellows want to go too; but, Captain Decatur, if you’ll take me——”
Decatur put his hand kindly upon the boy’s shoulder.
“Now, my young friend, dismiss the idea from your mind. You are entirely too young——”
“I’m fourteen, sir,” cut in Pickle, straightening himself up, “and I look as old as some fellows at sixteen.”
“Nevertheless it is not my intention to take any of the very young midshipmen. If I did, I should certainly take you, for I have perfect confidence in your determination and coolness. But remember, we expect to have a hand-to-hand fight with the Tripolitans; and although they are neither good seamen nor even tolerable gunners, they are superb as hand-to-hand fighters, and for that reason I shall choose the strongest and oldest of the midshipmen. I feel sorry for you”—for Pickle’s eyes had begun to fill with tears—“but your turn will come some day, and then I have not the slightest doubt you will give a good account of yourself.”
The expedition was to start about the 1st of February, and during the last days of January the excitement among the junior officers was intense as to which would have the honor of being selected. Decatur consulted with Somers, and with his help, after much deliberation, made out a list of the officers he desired, which he submitted to the commodore. The men of the Argus were to compose the crew, and they were to be asked to volunteer. Decatur found himself unable to make a choice among his three lieutenants—Lawrence, Thorn, and Bainbridge, the nephew of Captain Bainbridge—and felt obliged to take them all.
Somers and Decatur were constantly together during these last days, and Decatur was ably assisted by Somers’s extraordinarily good judgment in matters of detail, especially regarding the disguising of the ketch and her company. Every officer and man was to be provided with a jacket and trousers such as the Maltese sailors wear—for the Intrepid was to steal in as a fruit-laden vessel from Malta. At last, every preparation being well forward, on the afternoon of the 3d of February, Decatur, with Somers, was pulled to the Constitution, where they found Stewart. Every officer and man in the ship, by some strange mental process, knew that the choice of officers was to be made that day, and all were on hand, so as not to miss the chance of going upon an expedition of so much glory.
Decatur went immediately to the commodore’s cabin, when he submitted his list, and every name was approved. As he appeared upon the quarter-deck with the commodore, he could not but smile at the ill-concealed eagerness of the officers, who could scarcely restrain their impetuosity.
The commodore looked around and smiled. Not an officer was missing. He took his station near the gangway, and an instant hush fell upon them. The boatswain’s call to “Attention!” was a mere form.
“Gentlemen,” said he, “you perhaps know that it is in contemplation to send an expedition, under the command of Captain Decatur, to Tripoli, for the purpose of destroying the Philadelphia, which has been raised, refitted, and now flies the Tripolitan colors. Captain Stewart, of the Siren, is to support Captain Decatur with his whole force. The ketch so gallantly captured by Captain Decatur is to be used, as being of a build and rig often seen in Mediterranean ports, and therefore not likely to excite suspicion. She has been fitly named the Intrepid. Her ammunition is now aboard of her, and she sails at daylight. Captain Decatur has the selection of his brave assistants. I can only say that his choice, like mine, of the ships and the captains to do the work, will be made solely upon the ground of availability. If willingness to go were the only test, there could be no choice; but in other respects there is a choice, which Captain Decatur has made with my approval.”
The commodore then read off the first name, “Midshipman Izard.”
An electric thrill seemed to run through the group of midshipmen as the names followed in quick succession: “Midshipmen Morris, Laws, Davis, and Rowe.”
The older officers looked acutely disappointed; many of them had hoped to go, but they gave the lucky five a rousing cheer, while the “stay-at-homes” among the midshipmen joined in, and all shook hands cordially with their more fortunate messmates. Decatur could not but notice little Israel, the boy’s face was so doleful. He turned to the lad and said kindly:
“Mr. Israel forgets that his stature is not as great as his spirit; but some day he will have a chance, and no doubt he will make glorious use of it.”
These kind words consoled Pickle a little, but except the lucky five, it was a disappointed lot of reefers who stood on the Constitution’s quarter-deck and magnanimously cheered the more fortunate of their number.
The ketch was anchored close in shore, with the red flag flying at her fore, showing that she was taking on powder. Decatur then ordered his boat, and said farewell to the commodore and the assembled officers. He directed the midshipmen to report on board the Intrepid at daylight, and then, inviting Somers and Stewart to go to his ship with him, all three were pulled to the Argus. It was about four o’clock on a lovely afternoon in February, which is a springlike month in Sicily. On the Argus, too, there was the tension of expectation, as they knew from the state of forwardness in the preparations of the ketch that the time of adventure was at hand.
The three young captains came over the side together, and immediately Decatur ordered the boatswain and his mates to pipe “All hands to muster!” Almost before the sound had died away the men crowded up the hatchways, and the officers quickly ranged themselves on the quarterdeck. “All up and aft!” was reported, and Decatur advanced with the list in his hand.
“Gentlemen,” said he to his officers, in his usual impetuous way, “you know, perhaps, that an expedition leaves at daylight to-morrow morning, in the ketch Intrepid, to destroy the Philadelphia in the harbor of Tripoli. I have the honor of commanding the ketch, while Captain Stewart, in the Siren, commands the supporting force. I have selected the officers to accompany me from the Constitution and the Argus. My selection was governed by expediency only. All will wish to go”—a murmur of assent was here heard—“but all can not go. Hence I select those who seem to me best adapted to bear the hardships and to withstand the peculiar fighting methods of the Tripolitans. I have concluded to make no choice among my lieutenants, but to take them all, and Midshipman Macdonough and Dr. Heerman, surgeon.”
A rousing cheer, as on the Constitution, greeted this announcement, and the five officers were warmly congratulated. Decatur then turned to the men:
“Of you, my men,” he said, “I will name one who may go—the pilot, Salvatore Catalano. I wish sixty-one men out of the ship’s company, and I shall take the first sixty-one that volunteer. Let each man who wishes to go advance two steps.”
As if moved by a common impulse, every man and boy on the ship, including two or three just out of the sick-bay, who had not yet reported for duty, advanced two steps.
Decatur stood looking at them, his fine face lighted up with pleasure.
“My men,” he said, “it is impossible that all should go. Let those who are not physically strong, and those under twenty and over forty, step back.”
Not a man moved. In the midst of the dead pause Danny Dixon spoke up, touching his hat:
“Please, sir,” he said, “ain’t none of us more’n forty or less’n twenty. And ain’t a one of us that ain’t jist as healthy and strong as a bull whale.”
Decatur managed to take this without smiling, but replied: “Very well; pipe down, boatswain! Within an hour I shall have a list made out of sixty-one men that I wish to accompany me.”
Summoning Lawrence, his first lieutenant, Decatur, with Stewart and Somers, disappeared in the cabin, and the men were dismissed.
Next morning, at daylight, the five officers from the Argus, the five midshipmen from the Constitution, the sixty-one petty officers and seamen, and the pilot Catalano, were assembled on the deck of the ketch. The accommodations were bad, and not more than one half the officers could sling their hammocks at one time; but not a word of complaint was heard. Early as it was, Somers was on hand to bid his friend good-by. Just as the pale pink flush of dawn lightened the dark water, the Intrepid, hoisting one lateen sail, got under way, and Somers, wringing Decatur’s hand, dropped into his boat alongside. As the ketch caught the morning breeze and began to glide rapidly out toward the offing, Decatur ran aft and waved his cap at Somers, standing up in the boat, who returned it, and then pulled away to his own vessel. The Siren, being a fast sailer, did not leave until the sun was well up, when she, too, spread her white wings and flew.
Several days of delightful weather followed. The officers amused themselves with rehearsing the proposed strategy by which they were to make the Tripolitans believe them to be Maltese sailors and the ketch a Maltese trading vessel. Catalano was to do the hailing, prompted by Decatur, when they had got, as they hoped, to the Philadelphia’s side. Except a few men, the vessel’s company was to remain below, but ready at a signal to leap on deck. The Intrepid proved to be a better sailer than was thought at first, and on a lovely afternoon, four days after leaving Syracuse, anchor was cast about a mile to windward of Tripoli. The Siren followed some distance behind. She, too, was disguised, her ports being closed, her guns covered with tarpaulins, and her sails daubed with lampblack, and patches painted on them to represent old and worn canvas. Nothing could disguise the beauty of her lines; but for want of paint on her hull, and by devices of various sorts, she looked like a staunch American or English merchantman after a long voyage. Having got the Intrepid in a good position without being discovered, Decatur was eager for night to fall, that the desperate adventure might be made. Right out before them lay the large though dangerous harbor of Tripoli, the frowning castle, and the numerous forts that protected the town. Among all the shipping collected at the mole, the dark and towering hull of the Philadelphia was most conspicuous, and from her peak flew the crescent of Tripoli.
“There she is, my men!” cried Decatur, as he pointed her out. “All her guns are kept double shotted, and when we make a bonfire of her she will give the rascals a broadside that will make them squeal.”
While waiting for the brief twilight of Africa, Decatur noticed a boy about twelve years old standing by the mast. Two or three of the boys on the Argus had been brought along to act as helpers, and who could be left in the ketch while the rest of the crew made the proposed dash for the Philadelphia. Decatur, passing by at the time, was struck by the little fellow’s bright face, and stopped to ask him what he wished to say.
“Please, sir,” said the boy, in a piping treble, “I belongs to the Argus, but because I was so little they never put my name on the ship’s books. I hear ’em say, sir, for’ard, as how there’ll be a big lot o’ prize money to divide arter we has blowed the Philadelphy up; and Mr. Dixon, the quartermaster, sir, says as I won’t get no prize money unless my name is entered reg’lar; and so I axes you to enter me.”
“Certainly I will,” replied Decatur, laughing at the boy, who was evidently a victim of fok’sl wit, but who had the spirit to ask for what he thought his due. “What is your name?”
“Jack Creamer, sir, apprentice boy.”
“Very well, Jack Creamer, apprentice boy, you shall be regularly entered in the ship’s books, and you’ll get your share of whatever goes round.”
The wind had been rising for some little time, and just then it blew violently from the southwest. The sky became overcast, and suddenly darkness seemed to envelop them. This Decatur thought rather favorable to his scheme; but Catalano, the pilot, who knew every foot of the harbor, came up at that moment.
“Sir,” he said in fluent English, but with a strong Italian accent, “it will be impossible to take the ketch in to-night. The water is no doubt now breaking clear across the reef of the western passage, and even if I could get in, there would be no chance of getting out. I know this harbor well, sir, and the water must be moderately smooth before it is safe to go near the reefs.”
Decatur was of too impetuous a nature to accept all at once this decision.
“I will have the cutter lowered, and I desire you, with Mr. Morris, to go and examine the entrance, and, if possible, the ketch shall go in to-night,” he said.
The cutter was lowered and manned, and pulled away in the fast gathering darkness. They could see at a little distance that the Siren’s boats were hoisted out and manned and only awaited the signal to advance. But every moment the wind increased, and at last Decatur began to feel seriously uneasy regarding the absent cutter. It was obviously impossible to attempt the attack that night, and the Intrepid accordingly so signaled the Siren. After a while the cutter was seen approaching, tossed about on the great waves, and every man in her drenched to the skin. The storm was now on them, and the cutter was brought up with difficulty, and her company clambered into the ketch; but in hoisting the boat in she was dashed violently against the ship, and her side completely stove in. This was a trifle; but when the anchor was weighed it was found to be broken in three pieces. The wind had now become a roaring gale, and soon the Intrepid was stretching out to sea. It was observed, though, that the Siren was having trouble with her anchor, too. She was rolling her gunwales under water, and the anchor held firmly on the bottom.
“Stewart is well able to look out for himself, while it is as much as we can do to take care of ourselves,” said Decatur, as he gave orders to claw off the land.
For six days the storm raged. The brig, which had finally been obliged to leave her anchor and cable, managed to keep in company with the ketch, which threatened to founder at every moment. Their provisions were soaked, and in cold and wet and hunger these brave men weathered the gale. But at last, on the morning of the 15th of February, the weather moderated, the wind fell, and a bright sun shone. The ketch and brig found themselves in the Gulf of Sydra. Good weather promising for some days, Decatur signaled the Siren to bear away for Tripoli, and began to make his preparations for the attack.
Toward evening they found themselves in sight of the town, with its circle of forts crowned by the frowning castle. The great hull of the Philadelphia, larger than any in the harbor, stood out in bold relief, her masts and spars clearly defined against the dazzling blue of the African sky. Two frigates, anchored about two cables’ lengths apart, lay between her and the castle, while nineteen gunboats and a few galleys lay near her. From the castle and the batteries one hundred and fifteen guns could be trained upon an attacking force; but the bold tars on the Intrepid took all chances cheerfully, and even gayly. Every man had been instructed in his duty, and the crew was not mustered, for fear of awaking distrust. The watchword “Philadelphia” was passed around. The men quietly took their places below the hatches, while half a dozen officers sat or lay about on deck. Catalano took the wheel, while Decatur, in a common sailor’s jacket and fez, stood by him.
The breeze had become light and baffling in the offing and the Siren, which kept well away from the Intrepid in order to avoid suspicion, was evidently unable to get any nearer until the wind should change; but at the entrance to the harbor it was very fresh, and carried the ketch forward at a lively rate. Decatur saw that his best hope was to make a bold dash then, without waiting for the gallant little brig, which was almost becalmed. At the moment when the steersman made straight for the western entrance of the harbor, Decatur addressed a few last words to his officers and men.
“You see,” he said in a firm, clear voice, perfectly audible to all, although not loud, “that Stewart and his gallant crew can not assist us. Very well; the fewer the number, the greater the honor. Our brave shipmates now in prison have been forced for many months to see the shameful spectacle of an American frigate wearing the colors of her pirate captors. Please God, it shall be so no longer after this night. Let every man think of this—let him think of his country; and though we can not hoist ‘Old Glory’ at the Philadelphia’s peak, we can at least send her to the bottom, rather than let her float disgraced by a pirate flag!”
A half-suppressed cheer greeted Decatur’s brave words, and every officer and man felt himself possessed by that noble enthusiasm which works miracles of courage. Jack Creamer allowed his voice to get so far the better of the instructions given him to keep quiet, that he screeched out a boyish cheer, for which Danny Dixon came near chucking him overboard.
It was not desired to get in before ten o’clock, but at the rate they were going, under a good breeze, would have got them in before sunset. Afraid of attracting attention by shortening sail, Decatur had all the vessel’s buckets, spare sails, etc., towed behind, so that she moved very slowly through the water. About nine o’clock, when they were a mile off the town, a brilliant moon rose trembling in the heavens. Decatur noticed it.
“Just the light for us,” he said.
The scene was one of perfect peace and beauty. All the shipping in the harbor lay quietly at anchor, and the water was so smooth that their lights were as stationary as those that twinkled in the town and the Bashaw’s castle.
The Intrepid stole quietly in, leaving the Siren farther and farther astern. The moon was now high, flooding the sea with glory, and making the harbor lights mere twinkling points of flame. The Intrepid steered directly for the Philadelphia’s bows, and this caused her to be hailed while still a considerable distance off. A number of Tripolitans were seen lounging about the Philadelphia’s decks, and an officer smoking a long pipe leaned over the rail and called out:
“What vessel is that?”
“The ketch Stella, from Malta,” responded Catalano in Italian, which is the lingua franca of the East. “We were caught in the gale and nearly wrecked. We lost our anchors, and our commander would like the favor of riding by you during the night.” Decatur, in his round jacket and fez, lounged near Catalano, and whispered to him what to say.
“Your request is rather unusual,” replied the officer.
“Bananas and oranges, with a few bales of raw silk,” answered Catalano, pretending that he had understood the Tripolitan to ask what the Stella’s cargo was. The ketch continued to draw rapidly near, and from the Philadelphia could be seen the supposed Italian mariners moving lazily about and gesticulating to one another.
“Mule-head and son of a jackass,” cried the Tripolitan, “it is nothing to me what you are laden with! I say it is dangerous to have you dogs of Christians made fast to us. If you get on board, you will steal anything you lay your hands on.”
“That’s not a very pleasant way to meet men who have been in a whole gale for six days, with all our provisions spoiled, and on short allowance of water, and expecting every moment to go to the bottom. On the voyage we met with a xebec of your country with her captain ill and half the crew down with scurvy. We broke our cargo to give them fresh fruit, and took the captain on board and landed him at Tunis.” So answered Catalano, in an injured voice, the ketch still advancing steadily.
“Then you may lie by us until daylight,” answered the officer. At the same time he ordered a boat with a fast to be lowered. Then he called out again, his voice resounding over the smooth water, now lighted by the moon, that had climbed high in the deep blue of the night sky:
“What vessel is that in the offing?”
“The Transfer,” answered Catalano, prompted by Decatur.
This was a small frigate lately purchased of the British at Malta, and which the Tripolitans were anxiously looking for.
“Good!” said the officer.
“The wind died out before she could get in,” continued Catalano, “and she asked us to report her.”
Not the slightest suspicion had yet entered the minds of the Tripolitans that the Intrepid was anything but a trading vessel, and luckily enough for Decatur and his dauntless company; for at that moment a puff of wind came, the Intrepid’s head fell off, and she drifted directly under the Philadelphia’s broadside.
At this appalling moment the least hint of the Intrepid’s real character would have meant death to every man on board. Decatur, with his unshakable coolness, ordered a boat out, with Lawrence and three seamen, carrying a hawser, which they quietly fastened to the forechains of the Philadelphia. The ketch meanwhile was drifting under the port batteries of the frigate, toward the stern, where, if she had escaped the guns on broadside, the stern chasers could have annihilated her. But every man on board shared Decatur’s calm self-possession at this critical moment.
The frigate’s boat containing the fast had now put out. Lawrence, rowing back to the ketch, met the Tripolitan boat.
“Give us your fast,” he said, “so we can let go another hawser. We lost our best cables with the anchors, and our hawsers are so small that it will take two to hold us in case the wind should rise during the night.”
The Tripolitans handed out the fasts, which Lawrence coolly carried on board the Intrepid. The men on deck, catching hold of the fast, then drew the ketch close to the frigate’s huge black hull, and were soon breasting along under her port side.
The shadow cast by the Philadelphia’s hull was of immense help to the Intrepid’s men, but near her stern was a great patch of white moonlight, and any object passing through this glittering and shimmering belt could be seen as plainly as in daytime. As the ketch glided steadily along and into this brilliant light, her anchors, with their cables coiled up, were seen on her decks.
“Keep off!” shouted the Tripolitan officer, suddenly taking the alarm; “you have deceived us—you have not lost your anchors, and we do not know your character,” and at the same moment he ordered men with the axes to cut the fasts. But, as if by enchantment, the deck of the Intrepid was alive with men, whose strong arms brought her grinding up against the frigate’s side in a moment’s time. Then a great yell went up from the frigate:
“Americanos! Americanos!” cried the Tripolitans.
The next instant Decatur, who was standing ready, made a powerful spring, and jumped at the Philadelphia’s chain-plates, shouting at the same moment:
Morris and Laws, two of the midshipmen of the Constitution, were at Decatur’s side clinging to the frigate’s plates. Morris and Decatur both sprang at the rail, and Morris, being little more than a boy, and very lithe and agile, his foot touched the quarter-deck first. But Decatur was second. Laws had dashed at an open porthole, and would have been the first on the frigate, but his boarding belt, with his pistols in it, caught between the gun and the port, so that he was third.
Instantly, in the dazzling moonlight, turbaned heads appeared over the rail and at every port. The Americans came pouring over the side, and as the Tripolitans rushed above they found the quarter-deck already in possession of the “Americanos.” The Tripolitans ran forward and to starboard. The Americans, quickly forming a line across the deck, and headed by Decatur, dashed at them, and, caught between an advancing body of resolute seamen and the ship’s rail, those who were not cut down, after a short but desperate resistance, leaped overboard. The Americans were more than a match for them in hand-to-hand fighting, at which they excelled, and they fought in disorder. In five minutes the spar deck was cleared and in possession of the Americans.
Below there was a more prolonged struggle. The Tripolitans, with their backs to the ship’s side, made a fierce resistance, but were clearly overmatched from the beginning; and as it is their practice never to fall alive into the hands of an enemy, those who were not cut down on the spot ran to the ports and jumped overboard, and within five minutes more there was not a Tripolitan on the frigate except the dead and wounded. Not until then did the batteries, the castle, the two frigates moored near the Philadelphia, and the gunboats, take the alarm.
The ketch, however, fastened close under the overhanging quarter-gallery of the frigate, and completely in the shadow, still escaped detection. Lights began to flash about from the ships and the batteries, but not enough could be discerned to justify the Tripolitans in firing upon their own ship. Warning had been given, though, and it was now only a question of a few moments how long the Americans could work undisturbed.
Decatur now appeared upon the quarter-deck to have the powder on the ketch rapidly transferred to the frigate. Lawrence was with him. When the moment came that Decatur must give the order for the destruction of the frigate, his resolution to obey orders almost failed him.
He turned to his lieutenant, and, grasping him by the shoulders, cried out in an agonized voice:
“Ah, Lawrence, why can not this gallant ship be cut out and carried off, a glorious trophy of this night?”
“She has not a sail bent nor a yard crossed,” answered Lawrence firmly. “The tide will not serve to take so large a ship out now; and remember, it is as dangerous to do too much under Commodore Preble’s orders as to do too little.”
“I care nothing for that——”
“Then, if you value your reputation, give the order at once to hand up the powder!” exclaimed Lawrence. “See! the frigate off the port quarter is lighting up her batteries.”
For a moment or two, as Lawrence watched Decatur’s agitated face, he almost feared that his young captain literally could not give the order to destroy the ship, so intense was his desire to bring her out. But after a moment or two Decatur recovered himself; the opposition of so fearless a man as Lawrence convinced him, against his will, that it was impossible; and by a powerful effort he gave the order, and the men began rapidly hoisting the kegs of gunpowder over the side and carrying them along the decks. In a few moments the gun-room, the magazine scuttle, the cockpit, and the forward storerooms were filled with combustibles, and smoke was already pouring from the ports on the gun deck before those in the lower parts of the ship had time to get up. They ran to the forward ladders, and when the last firing party reached the spar deck the men were jumping into the ketch—all except Decatur and a small party of his own. Two eighteen-pounders, double shotted, had been dragged amidships and pointed down the main hatch, in order to blow the ship’s bottom out; and a port fire, with a train of powder, had been started so as to fire these two guns with certain effect. The sailors then, seeing their glorious work well done, dropped quickly over the side into the ketch, the officers followed, and Decatur, taking one last look at the doomed frigate, now enveloped in curling smoke, was about to leave her deck—his the last foot ever to tread it—when he saw little Jack Creamer trying to drag a wounded Tripolitan across the deck. But the boy was scarcely able to do it, and the man, who was large and heavy, was too badly wounded to help himself, and Decatur stepped forward to assist.
“I found him under the hammock netting,” Jack gasped, “and I took him, sir—I captured him.”
“Bear a hand here!” shouted Decatur, cutting Jack’s magnificent claim short; and the next moment Danny Dixon’s brawny arms were around the wounded man, while Jack Creamer hopped lightly into the ketch. And then—the frigate being quickly enveloped in fire and smoke, with little tongues of flame beginning to touch the rigging—Decatur leaped from the Philadelphia’s deck into the ketch’s rigging, and, the sixteen sweeps being already manned, the order was given to cast off. At that very moment the guns from the Bashaw’s castle, half gunshot off, boomed over the heads of the Americans.
In this instant of triumph, though, they incurred their greatest danger of that perilous night. The headfast having been cast off, the ketch fell astern of the frigate, out of whose ports the flames were now blazing. The Intrepid’s jigger flapped against the blazing quarter gallery, while on her deck, just under it, lay all her ammunition, only covered by a tarpaulin. To increase their danger, the sternfast became jammed, and they were fixed firmly to the blazing frigate, while the ships as well as the shore batteries now opened a tremendous fire upon them.
There was no axe at hand; but Decatur, Lawrence, and the other officers managed, by the most tremendous efforts with their swords, to cut the hawser; and just as they swung clear, the flames rushed up the tar-soaked rigging of the Philadelphia, and the two eighteen-pounders roared out their charges into the bottom of the burning ship.
The Intrepid was now plainly visible, in the light of the blazing Philadelphia to every man on board the aroused fleet and batteries, and of the crowds collected on the shore. Then the thunder of a furious cannonade began. And now, after this unparalleled achievement, the Americans gave one last proof of their contempt of danger. As the Intrepid worked out in the red blaze that illuminated the whole harbor, a target for every gun in the Tripolitan batteries, the men at her sweeps stopped rowing, every officer and man rose to his feet, and with one impulse they gave three thundering American cheers.
When this was done they settled down to getting out of the way.
The expedition to destroy the Philadelphia.
As they drew farther from the shore they were in more and more danger from the batteries; but although every shot threw showers of spray over them, the Americans only gave back derisive cries and cheers. A rapid count showed that not a man was missing. Jack Creamer, however, shouted proudly:
“Cap’n Decatur, please, sir, besides capturin’ that there man, one o’ them wuthless Turks throwed his pistil at me and knocked me down, and I expects some smart money for this ’ere cut.”
Here Jack displayed with great satisfaction a small cut, that would not have hurt a baby, behind his left ear. A roar of laughter from the men followed, while Decatur smiled, and said:
“You shall have your smart money, sure.”
As they pulled with powerful strokes toward the offing, where they could see the vague outline of the Siren and her boats, fully manned, lying like black shadows on the water, the harbor and town were as light as day with the reflection from the blazing frigate and the silvery radiance of the moon. The Philadelphia seemed to be burning in every spot at the same moment. Flames poured from her ports, and her fifty guns, all double shotted, began to go off in every direction as her blazing hull drifted helplessly with wind and tide. Many of the shot from her guns crashed into the fleet around her, while at almost every turn she poured a furious cannonade into the castle. As her decks fell in, the guns were lowered at the breech, and their hot shot went farther and farther, even into the town itself. One shot from the castle passed through the to’gallant sail of the ketch; but the men only laughed, while Catalano, the pilot, sang out in his Italian-English:
“Eet ees a peety we can not get a piece of Meester Bashaw’s trousers for to mend our sail! Next time we come to Tripoli, Meester Bashaw, we will get you, and your trousers too, sair.”
They were now well out of the range of firing, and close to the launch and cutter of the Siren. Decatur hailed the cutter, which was very fast.
“Bring up alongside,” he cried, “and take me aboard!”
The cutter quickly drew alongside. Decatur jumped on board, and the boat shot ahead of the slower ketch. As they neared the Siren, Decatur by the light of the moon perceived Stewart at the gangway anxiously peering into the darkness. Stewart could only see the officer in command of the boat in uniform, and he did not recognize Decatur disguised in the jacket of an Italian sailor. When the boat got near enough, Decatur made a spring at the hawser that hung astern, and in another moment he had sped along the deck and clapped Stewart on the shoulder.
“Didn’t she make a glorious bonfire?” he cried, “and we came off without losing a man!”
Stewart, astonished, turned round, and recognizing Decatur, could only wring his hand, while the other officers crowded around and overwhelmed Decatur with congratulations. In a little while the Intrepid neared them and hailed, asking that the wounded Tripolitan be taken aboard the Siren, as there was no place on the ketch in which he could be made decently comfortable.
The man was hoisted on board, and as Jack Creamer claimed the honor of capturing him, the boy was allowed to be one of the helpers. The Tripolitan had kept so quiet that Dr. Heerman, who had come with him, flashed a lantern into his face to see if he were alive or dead, and Decatur, who was looking on, to his surprise recognized Mahomet Rous. Mahomet opened his eyes and shut them again quickly, but there was no doubt that he was very much alive.
“He’s a-playin’ possum, sir,” said Jack Creamer, who was holding up the Tripolitan’s head. “When he s’rendered to me——”
An involuntary shout of laughter followed this, as Jack’s little figure was contrasted with Mahomet Rous’s brawny form.
“When he s’rendered, sir,” kept on Jack stoutly, “he was bleedin’ from a wound in the leg, and one arm was hangin’ down like ’twas broke, and if I hadn’t captured him when I did he’d ’a’ jumped overboard, as sure’s my name’s Jack Creamer. He give me his sword and pistil, leastways,” Jack added, blushing. “I took ’em from him, ’cause he couldn’t hold on to ’em no longer, and I’ve got ’em hid in a pork-barrel on the ketch, and I axes, sir—” turning to Decatur and Stewart, who could not help laughing at him—“if I can’t be allowed to keep ’em, and I’ll take ’em instid o’ smart money for my wound, if I can’t have both.”
Jack here gravely displayed his scratched ear, which Dr. Heerman examined with equal gravity.
“I’ll tell you what you ought to do for this ear: go and wash it,” said the surgeon; at which Jack, unable to stand the laughter of the officers and the grins of the men, dropped Mahomet’s head and disappeared forward. But Decatur called after him:
“You shall have the sword and pistol, and the smart money too.”
The wind still held, and, the Siren getting up her anchor, Decatur took Jack Creamer with him and returned on board the ketch, and all sail was made for Syracuse.
On the morning of the 19th of February, just fifteen days after they had left Syracuse, the Intrepid and the Siren stood into the harbor. Stewart, from motives of delicacy, kept his fast-sailing brig astern of the ketch. The Nautilus lay farther out than the Constitution, and Somers, taking his morning walk on the quarter-deck, saw the ketch and the brig approaching, and the next moment the lookout sang out, “Sail, ho!”
Instinctively Somers knew that it was Decatur and Stewart. The morning was one of those clear, brilliant days when the earth and sea seem like paradise. In the bright blue air he could see the white canvas of the brig, now cleaned and fresh, and the low hull of the ketch with her lateen sails. Soon they were near enough to be hailed, and, with a joy and thankfulness not to be described, Somers saw Decatur standing on the bow of the ketch, waving his cap—a signal meaning success, that had been agreed on between them.
The next instant they were seen from the Constitution, and as soon as it was certain that they were observed an ensign was run up to every masthead on the Intrepid. This was enough—it meant complete success. At once the commodore gave orders for a salute to be fired, and the guns of the Constitution roared out their welcome. This was taken up by the Nautilus, and by the Sicilian forts on shore—for Sicily, too, had her grudge against Tripoli. In the midst of the thundering salutes, and in a cloud of blue smoke, the brig and the ketch came to anchor. Somers had ordered his boat lowered, and had made for the Constitution, in order to be the first to meet Decatur. His boat and the Intrepid’s, which carried Decatur and Lawrence, came to the ladder at the same moment. Decatur sprang out and caught Somers in his arms, and they hugged each other very much as they had done in their midshipman days, when both were larking together in “Old Wagoner’s” steerage. Somers then went over the side, in order that he might witness Decatur’s triumphal entry. The commodore and all the Constitution’s officers were waiting at the gangway to salute Decatur. Somers greeted the commodore and the other officers hurriedly and walked aside, as Decatur stepped upon the quarter-deck, followed by his first lieutenant. Decatur wore a perfectly new naval uniform, with a handsome sword. His fine black eyes were sparkling, and he had a happy air of success. He bowed low to the commodore. “Old Pepper” grasped Decatur’s hand warmly, and, taking off his cap, cried:
“If every plank in the Philadelphia is destroyed, you shall have my best efforts to make you a post-captain for it!”
“Every plank is destroyed, sir; every gun is burst and at the bottom of the harbor; and the ship, after burning to the water’s edge, exploded, and you could not have told the place where she lay,” answered Decatur, in a quiet voice.
At this a mighty hurrah went up from the officers and men on the Constitution.
“Not a man was lost——” continued Decatur, but at that another storm of cheering cut him short. Somers, the quietest and most self-contained man on the squadron, was cheering wildly, and literally dancing in his excitement. The commodore hurried Decatur into the cabin to get the particulars. Lawrence told the glorious story on the quarter-deck; while Danny Dixon, who was coxswain, got permission to leave the Intrepid’s boat, and to a listening crowd of blue-jackets on the fok’sl he narrated the noble adventures of the Intrepid.
When Decatur returned to the deck to get into his boat he found the rigging full of men, and as he left the ship, taking Somers with him, that they might have their usual long and intimate talk, the yards were manned, and three rousing American cheers shook the Constitution’s deck in honor of the Intrepid’s young commander.
Amid all the felicitations on the outcome of the expedition, the modesty and calmness of Decatur under his weight of splendid achievement were remarked upon—especially as he was so young and so impetuous. But when he and Somers were alone in the cabin of the Argus, they suddenly threw aside their dignity and acted like a couple of crazy schoolboys. They hugged and pounded each other, they laughed, they cried, they joked, they sang, and at last the only thing that quieted them was the usually grave Somers shoving Decatur into a chair and shouting:
“Now, you lucky rascal, don’t dare to move from that chair until you have told me all about the fight!”
On the morning of the 3d of August, 1804, began that immortal series of five assaults on the town, the fortresses, and the fleets of Tripoli that were destined to forever destroy this piratical and barbarous power. The force of the Americans was but little. With one heavy frigate—the glorious old Constitution—three brigs, three schooners, two bomb vessels, and three gunboats, manned by one thousand and sixty officers and men, Commodore Preble stood boldly in to attack the town defended by the Bashaw’s castle, not less than a dozen powerful forts, a fleet of three cruising vessels, two galleys, and nineteen gunboats, manned by twenty-five thousand Turks and Arabs. The harbor was, moreover, protected by a line of shoals and reefs perfectly well known to the Tripolitans, but very imperfectly known to the Americans, and which the Constitution could not approach very closely without incurring the fate of the unfortunate Philadelphia. But whatever “Old Pepper” lacked in ships and guns he made up in men; for every soul in the American fleet was worthy to serve under the flag that flew from the mastheads.
In considering the claims of his different officers in leading the attack, Commodore Preble had at last determined upon Decatur and Somers. The larger vessels were to cover the advance of the gunboats, which were to do the real fighting, and these gunboats were divided into two divisions—the first under Decatur, the second under Somers. Besides the natural fitness of these two young captains for this dangerous honor, the commodore knew their perfect understanding of each other and the entire absence of jealousy between them; and with two officers acting in concert this harmony of ideas and feelings was of great value. But few officers were to be taken in the gunboats, and none of the midshipmen from the Constitution were permitted to leave her. The frigate’s situation would not be nearly so exposed as the boat divisions, yet she was the force to support them all, and would require much and skillful manœuvring. Commodore Preble, therefore, had use for all his officers. These brave young men accepted the inevitable, and only little Pickle Israel begged and pleaded unavailingly with both Somers and Decatur to take him.
“Now, Captain Decatur,” said Pickle, in a wheedling voice, finding himself in the cabin of the Nautilus with both Somers and Decatur the morning of the attack, “I’m nearly fifteen years old, sir.”
“And a great help you’d be,” cried Decatur, laughing, and much amused by Pickle’s persistence. “If a strapping great big Turk were to board us, I should at once sing out: ‘Where is Mr. Israel? Let him tackle this fellow; he’s too much for me!’”
Pickle looked very solemnly into the laughing faces of the two young captains, and then gloomily remarked:
“I’m afraid you’re joking, Captain Decatur.”
“Not at all,” answered Decatur, winking at Somers. “Didn’t that little apprentice boy, Jack Creamer, capture a whole live Tripolitan by himself the night of the destruction of the Philadelphia?”
As Jack Creamer’s claim of having captured Mahomet Rous was a joke in the whole squadron, Pickle did not feel Decatur’s remark as any encouragement. So he turned to Somers, and said earnestly:
“Well, Captain Somers, if Captain Decatur won’t let me go with him——”
“That’s very ungrateful of Decatur, too,” interrupted Somers, quite seriously, “considering the way you and Macdonough came to our assistance the night of our adventure with the brigands at Syracuse. And Macdonough is going in the boats.”
Here Decatur, seeing that the little midshipman was really in earnest, thought they had amused themselves at his expense quite enough; so he said kindly:
“Now, Mr. Israel, let us talk common sense. You are as brave a little fellow as ever stepped—both Captain Somers and I know that—but you could be picked up and thrown overboard like a handspike by any full-grown man. Macdonough is several years older than you, and as strong and able to take care of himself as any lieutenant in the squadron. Never you mind, though. Just as soon as your body grows up to your spirit, you will have your chance at distinction.”
“And then,” added Somers, looking at the boy with a strange interest, “every officer who has a desperate enterprise on hand will want you.”
Poor Pickle had to go back on the Constitution fortified only by this promise.
James Decatur, Stephen’s younger brother, was put in Somers’s division, which consisted of three gunboats, while Decatur’s consisted also of three boats, and each was armed with a single long twenty-four-pounder. The two friends had spent many days and weeks in perfecting their plans, and when, at noon on the 3d of August, the Constitution flung out the signal of battle, each knew exactly what was to be done.
It was a beautiful August day, and the white-walled city, with its circle of grim forts, its three smart cruisers lying under the guns of the castle, crowned with heavy mortars, and its fleet of gunboats, manned by sailors in quaint costumes, made a beautiful and imposing picture. The American fleet looked small to grapple with such a force, but, although it was estimated as about one to five of the Tripolitans’ force, every man went into action with a coolness and determination not to be excelled.
At half past twelve o’clock the Constitution ran in, with a good breeze, about three miles from the town. She wore ship, with her head off the land, and signaled to the brigs, schooners, gunboats, and bomb vessels to prepare for the attack, and at the same moment the frigate herself was cleared for action.
It was seen that the Tripolitan batteries were manned, and the cruising vessels had lifted their anchors, so that the Americans knew that they would have a warm reception. At the moment that the Constitution wore with her head pointing out of the harbor, the Bashaw of Tripoli was watching the fleet with a glass from one of the windows of the castle, and haughtily remarked:
“They will mark their distance for tacking. These Americanos are a sort of Jews, who have no notion of fighting!” But Captain Bainbridge and his officers and men, who watched the scene with the eager eyes of prisoners hoping for release, knew perfectly well that every manœuvre made by the Americans that day would be only to get closer to the enemy.
By half past one o’clock the gunboats were manned, and separated into two divisions. Somers led the first, with young James Decatur commanding the boat next him, while Stephen Decatur led the second division. Danny Dixon was, as usual, acting as coxswain, and with him was a brawny young sailor, Reuben James, who had captivated Danny by his admiration for Captain Paul Jones. Danny had, in consequence, recommended him highly to Decatur. “For, cap’n,” he said, “a man as thinks as highly o’ Cap’n Paul Jones as Reuben James does, and kin listen oncet in a while to my yarns ’bout the fight between the Bunnum Richard and the S’rapis, is apt to be a mighty good sailor. And if one o’ them murderin’ pirates was to do for me, sir, I’d like to think there’d be a good man to take my place. I’m a-thinkin’, Cap’n Decatur, this ain’t goin’ to be no picnic, but good hard fightin’. ’Course ’twon’t be like fightin’ the Britishers on the S’rapis——”
“I’d rather fight the Britishers ten to one,” answered Decatur, cutting short Danny’s reminiscences, which otherwise would have been interminable. “The British are seamen and gentlemen, while these wretches are corsairs and pirates. But Reuben James may be with you, if you want him.”
“Thanky, sir,” responded Danny; and Reuben was the first man Decatur saw when he stepped aboard the gunboat.
Somers had for his coxswain Moriarity, who, while waiting for his young commander, remarked, with a wink to his messmates who were resting on their oars:
“Begorra, although ould Oireland is a good counthry, Oi’m roight glad, Oi am, that I was born and bred in Ameriky. There’s goin’ to be great doin’s this day, and Misther Somers—or Cap’n, as I should say—is one o’ them young gintlemen as has a grip like a bulldog on a enemy. And Oi promise ivery wan of yez that if yez follows Misther Somers—or Cap’n, I should say—ye’ll git into a warm place, shure; and ye won’t come out of it, nayther, as soon as ye’d like; for Misther Somers—or Cap’n, I should say—for all he be as soft as a May mornin’, is got more fight in him nor any murtherin’ Turk as iver smoked a poipe or tould a lie.”
Which was perfectly true.
As the two divisions of three boats each formed and pulled away, they saw two divisions of Tripolitan gunboats, much larger, stronger, and more fully manned, pull slowly out from behind the line of reefs. The windward division consisted of nine gunboats, and the leeward of five, while a reserve of five others lay just inside her harbor, protected by the reefs.
As Somers took his place in the gunboat he said to the man at the tiller:
“Do you see that division of five boats to leeward? Steer straight for it and within pistol shot of it, when I will give you further orders.”
The breeze was easterly, and the one lateen sail drawing well, the boat was soon covering the distance between her and her enemies across the blue water. The firing had begun, and a terrific roar, as the Constitution barked out all her great guns in broadside, showed that the ball was opened. Somers watched until his boat was abreast of the Tripolitan’s, when, himself sighting the long gun amidships, he fired, and saw the shot had instant and terrible effect. Just then Moriarity leaned over and whispered in his ear:
“Sorr, the flagship is showin’ a signal of recall.”
“Moriarity,” answered Somers quietly, and without turning his head, “I thought you had too much sense to see a signal of recall in action!”
“Thrue for you, sorr,” said Moriarity, with a grin, “but I jist mintioned it to you, sorr, so you wouldn’t turn your head that way. Why, it’s a mishtake, be the powers! but Cap’n Blake, in the next boat, seen it—bad luck to it!—and he’s gone and obeyed it.”
Somers turned around, and, carefully avoiding looking toward the flagship, saw the next boat to his, under Lieutenant Blake, a brave young officer, drawing off, obeying the signal of recall; and the very next moment the third boat, commanded by James Decatur, caught a puff of wind that brought her head round and carried her directly into the other division of boats, which was dashing forward to attack the nine Tripolitan gunboats.
“Very well,” said Somers, with his usual calm smile, “as Decatur says, ‘The fewer the number the greater the honor!’ So we’ll go ahead, boys.”
The sailors gave a cheer, and in another moment they were under the fire of the five gunboats. The situation of Somers was now critical in the extreme, but he gave no sign of it in his manner, which was as cool as if he were exercising at boat drill. He opened a steady and well-directed fire, that soon began to weaken the attack of the Tripolitan boats, and not one of them dared to come near enough to attempt boarding him. Still, he was drawing nearer and nearer the batteries. Commodore Preble, who was watching him from the Constitution’s quarter-deck, exclaimed:
“Look at that gallant fellow Somers! I would recall him, but he will never see the signal.”
At that the commodore heard a boyish voice at his elbow, and there stood little Pickle Israel.
“If you please, sir,” said he, with the air of one making a great discovery, “I don’t believe Captain Somers wants to see any signal.”
“You are right, my boy!” cried “Old Pepper,” who was in high good humor over the gallant behavior of his “schoolboy captains;” “but, at least, he shall be supported.”
With that he gave orders, and the ship, advancing slowly but as steadily as if working into the roadstead of a friendly port, delivered a tremendous fire upon the batteries that were now trying to get the range of the daring little boat.
In spite of Somers’s efforts to keep from drifting too far toward the reefs and the reserve squadron by backing his sweeps astern, he soon found himself directly under the guns of one of the larger forts. The Constitution was thundering at the forts, but this one was a little too near, and her shot fell over it. The situation of Somers was now desperate, but his indomitable coolness stood him in good stead.
“If we can knock down the platform that holds those guns, my men, we shall be all right,” he cried, “and see, it is very rickety!”
Then, ordering a double charge put in the long gun, he sighted it himself. A shot went screaming over the water, and immediately a cloud of dust, bricks, and mortar showed that it had struck the right spot. The platform was destroyed, and the battery tumbled down among the ruins.
Somers then turned his attention to the five gunboats, that he could now drive still closer to the reef, and on which every shot was telling. At this moment Moriarity whispered anxiously in Somers’s ear:
“For the love of Heaven, sorr, don’t look toward the flagship! They’re flyin’ a signal as you’d be mighty onwillin’ to see, sorr.”
“Thank you, Moriarity,” answered Somers, smiling, who knew that the coxswain meant that the signal of recall had been sent up—this time in earnest. But, feared as Commodore Preble was by his young captains, he could not make them retire under the fire of an enemy.
“Look at Decatur over there!” cried Somers, pointing to the southern entrance to the reef, where there was heavy firing and a terrible struggle going on. “If we leave these gunboats, they will at once re-enforce their windward division; and Decatur already has as much on his hands as he can manage.”
And so, for an hour longer, did the little American boat, with her one gun, her resolute young captain, and her brave crew, hold in check a force of five times her own; and not until a general recall was ordered did she leave her perilous position, and retire under the guns of the frigate.
As Somers was unexpectedly weakened, so Decatur was unexpectedly strengthened by James Decatur’s boat. Decatur, under sails and sweeps, and making for the nine gunboats advancing to meet him, saw Somers’s desperately gallant attempt, and, turning impetuously to his men, shouted:
“Do you see, men, how Somers has turned like a lion on a whole division of gunboats? We must do our best this day, or else Somers and his boat will reap all the glory!”
The Tripolitans advanced boldly, keeping up a hot fire of grape and musketry, which Decatur returned with interest. In the midst of the smoke from the vessels and the batteries the Tripolitans could not quite make out where the Americanos were; but suddenly a boat was laid alongside of the first Tripolitan gunboat, and Decatur’s voice was heard ringing out, “Board!” and then they knew indeed where the Americanos were.
The Turkish gunboat was divided into two parts by a long, open hatchway extending from her port to her starboard side. The Tripolitans, taken by surprise, rushed to the farther end of the hatchway, while Decatur, joined by his lieutenant, Thorn, and his favorite midshipman, Macdonough, made a dash for them. Now, these pirates were celebrated for their hand-to-hand fighting, at which they were considered almost invincible; but they could not withstand the steady charge of the Americans, and the boat was carried with the first rush. Scarcely were the Tripolitan colors hauled down and the captured boat taken in tow, when in the midst of the drifting smoke an American gunboat was found to have ranged up directly under the stern of Decatur’s boat.
“What is the matter?” shouted Decatur.
“Lieutenant Decatur is wounded!” answered Midshipman Morris, the one whose foot had first touched the Philadelphia’s deck. He was standing on the gunwale of the boat, and the instant Decatur saw his agitated face he knew that his brother was desperately injured.
“Severely wounded?” asked Decatur, turning pale.
“Yes, sir,” answered Morris in a low voice.
“Mortally?” asked Decatur.
To this Morris made no answer for a moment; then he said huskily:
“He had boarded a Turkish boat yonder, and the flag had been hauled down, when, as he advanced across the deck, the Tripolitan captain drew a pistol and shot him. We carried him to our own boat. The Turk escaped, and there is his boat now within the enemy’s line.”
Decatur knew his duty to his country and to the brave men under him—whose lives and reputations depended upon his judgment and coolness—too well to spend a moment indulging his private grief.
“I can not go to him yet,” he cried in an agonized voice; “but I can punish the treachery of the wretch who shot him!”
The Tripolitan boat was now well in the line of the rest, a few hundred yards away; but the Americans, bending to their sweeps and unshipping their bowsprit, in a little while had reached the boat and had run aboard of it. They could see that it was strongly manned, and its decks were crowded with turbaned heads. Decatur had put his pistol in his pocket, and had taken a boarding pike in his hand to parry the Turkish scimitars. As the two boats neared each other, Decatur—whose heart was torn with grief for his brother, and filled with the determination to punish the enemies of his country—recognized the treacherous Tripolitan captain, a man of gigantic frame and ferocious countenance, standing near the bow. The next moment he noticed the young sailor, Reuben James, at his side, who threw with unerring skill a grappling iron aboard of the Tripolitan boat, and the Americans, dragging on the chain, drew the boat toward them. There was no need to call away the boarders. Every man that could be spared from the sweeps was up and ready to spring. Next Decatur stood Macdonough, and immediately behind him were Danny Dixon and Reuben James. Before the boats had touched, the Americans leaped over the side and found themselves on the Tripolitans’ deck, surrounded by twice their number of enemies.
Then began a hand-to-hand fight to which all that had gone before was as child’s play. The Americans, keeping together as much as possible, fought from one end of the deck to the other, while Decatur made a dash for the Turkish captain. Decatur was a tall and athletic fellow, but the Turk was a giant. As the young American captain charged with his pike, the Turk caught it and wrested it out of his hands. The Turk then standing up on tiptoe to bring the pike down with terrific force, Decatur had time to draw his sword. The blade flashed over his head for a moment, and then the heavy iron pike, descending, broke it short off at the hilt. Decatur felt the sharp point of the pike enter his breast, but tearing it out in a moment, covered with blood, he suddenly clinched with the Turk, who, although a much larger and stronger man than Decatur, was taken by surprise, and went down on the deck, locked with Decatur in a mortal embrace.
Seeing the desperate plight of their young captain, the Americans rallied around him, but they were followed by the Tripolitans, and were forced to defend themselves at every step. Fifty scimitars were leveled against them, and the noise and clash of arms were deafening. In the midst of it, Reuben James, who was almost surrounded, saw a Tripolitan raise his curved blade above Decatur, lying prostrate on the deck and struggling with the pirate captain. There was no time for the young sailor to use his cutlass, but dashing forward he threw up his left arm and caught the descending blow. It nearly cut the arm in two, but it saved Decatur’s life.
Meanwhile Decatur, almost overmastered by the brawny Tripolitan, managed to put his hand in his trousers pocket, and, drawing his pistol cocked it and fired into the captain’s shoulder. With a scream the Tripolitan relaxed his hold, rolled over, and Decatur sprang to his feet. That was the turning point. The Americans, seeing their captain on his feet, and having been kept together by the coolness of Macdonough and the steadiness of Danny Dixon, now charged the Tripolitans. This last onslaught was too much for them. They retreated, fighting to the last, and when driven into the after part of the boat, were disarmed. The reserve of the Tripolitan gunboats, inside the reefs, then tried to come out, but the Constitution, hauling her wind, poured a heavy fire into the opening in the rocks through which they attempted to make their way, and they were driven back. The brigs and schooners also kept up the cannonade, and at half past four o’clock, the Tripolitans having drawn off, the American gunboats and their captured prizes were towed out into the offing.
Somers’s boat was the first to reach the frigate’s side when he heard of James Decatur’s mortal wound. Somers loved James Decatur like a younger brother, and was deeply distressed at the news. Commodore Preble had his own barge manned, and as soon as Decatur reached the Constitution and reported on deck the commodore said:
“Captain Decatur, there is my barge. Take any officer you wish, and bring your brother on the Constitution.”
Decatur, too overcome to reply, bowed silently, and motioned to Somers. The two friends, without speaking a word, got into the barge together. Decatur unconsciously gripped Somers’s hand hard, as he had often done in the old days when they had been schoolmates together, and in this hour of grief Somers seemed closer to him than ever before.
They soon reached the gunboat, and found James Decatur lying on the deck, where he had gallantly fallen, still alive but unconscious. His handsome boyish head was supported by Midshipman Morris, of whom he had been very fond, and around him the sailors gathered in sympathetic silence, and showing in their humble way the grief they felt at the death of their brave young commander.
The sailors then, lifting James Decatur tenderly, placed him in the Constitution’s barge. Morris followed and still supported him, helped by Somers, while Decatur for the first time gave way to his grief, and, holding his brother’s fast-chilling hand, sobbed aloud. James Decatur did not seem to be in pain as his breath grew fainter and fainter. Somers looked apprehensively at Morris, who shook his head sadly in response to Somers’s glances of anxious inquiry. The men, although worn with the labors of that glorious day, pulled with a will. They were about fifty yards away from the frigate, when James Decatur opened his eyes, and they rested on his brother for a moment. A faint smile passed over his face, and he said in a pleasant voice, “Good-night,” and with one gasp all was over.
Decatur was the first to realize it. Neither Somers nor Morris could restrain his tears; but Decatur, regaining his composure, said, “I loved him so much that I would rather see him as he is than living with any cloud upon him.”
In a few moments James Decatur’s body was carried on board the frigate by the sailors, and followed by Decatur, Somers, and Morris. The bodies of thirteen other brave men who had died gloriously for their country that day, were also taken on board; and the Constitution, after having inflicted terrible damage on her enemies, hauled off, and in company with the rest of the squadron ran out of gun-shot.
The frigate was much cut up aloft, and had lost her main royal yard, but otherwise the tremendous onslaught of her guns upon the enemy had brought no corresponding injury to herself. The brigs, schooners, gun-vessels, and bombards had also escaped comparatively unharmed; while the Tripolitans had had three gunboats sunk, three captured, one of their strongest batteries destroyed, and all the defenses much battered.
At sunset the whole squadron came to anchor three leagues from the town. The bodies of the thirteen seamen, and James Decatur, the only officer, were decently dressed in uniform, covered with ensigns, and laid upon shot-boxes arranged on the quarter-deck. All during the short August night Decatur watched by the body of his brother, and Somers kept that solemn vigil with him. As the hours passed on, with the silence of the star-lit August night, broken only by the regular step of the deck officer and the occasional striking of the ship’s bells, Somers began to say some things that had long dwelt in his heart.
“Why should we pity him, Decatur?” he asked, pointing to the body of James Decatur, wrapped in the flag, “Can you imagine a better death than to die for one’s country and for the good of humanity?—for the conquest of these pirates will save many innocent lives, and release many thousands of prisoners who are suffering like our own countrymen. The feeling has been on me for a long time that there is but one thing worth living for or fighting for, and that is our duty. You love pleasure better than I; and, so many things that you value seem worthless to me. I acknowledge an ambition to leave an honorable name behind me, and to do something for my country that will be remembered; and if, in trying to do this, I should lose my life in this far-off land, recollect I lose it willingly.”
Somers spoke in a prophetic voice; and as Decatur, in the shadowy half-light, looked into his friend’s eyes, he saw an expression there as if Somers were already gazing into another world.
Just as the radiant sunrise turned the blue Mediterranean into a sea of gold, the solemn call resounded through the Constitution, “All hands to bury the dead!” The ensign flew at half-mast, the yards were set cock-a-bill, the sails half furled, the ropes hung in bights; everything was arranged to express mourning and distress. Commodore Preble himself read the service at the open gangway; and as the awful words were uttered, “We therefore commit their bodies to the deep, looking for their resurrection when the sea shall give up its dead,” the bodies of James Decatur and the thirteen gallant seamen who were his companions in death as in glory slid over the rail and sank swiftly into the sapphire sea. In another moment the drums beat a double roll, the bugler sounded a cheerful call; as if by magic the yards were squared, the sails were clewed up, the ropes hauled taut, the flag hoisted; for among men who put their lives daily and hourly in peril at the service of their country it is considered that those who die gloriously are not to be mourned, but envied. So felt Somers, as, taking Decatur’s arm, he said to him with strange prescience:
“Let no one mourn for me if it should be my fate to die bravely, like your brother. Rather let those who love me rejoice that so noble an exit was permitted me.”
Only a breathing-spell of a few days was allowed the squadron, but in that time the tone of the Bashaw changed wonderfully. He wanted the Americans to send in a flag of truce; but this Commodore Preble refused, with the menace that, if a hair of the heads of the imprisoned Americans should be injured, the Bashaw should be made to pay such a price for it as he would remember the longest day of his life.
On the 7th of August, repairs having been completed and the captured Tripolitan boats refitted, another attack was made, about two o’clock in the afternoon. The gunboats, of which there were now nine, were again in two divisions, commanded by Somers and Decatur. Covered by the guns of the brigs and schooners, they dashed boldly in. Immediately a terrific cannonade was opened on them from the forts, the castle, and the Tripolitan fleet of gun-vessels that were ranged directly across the harbor. The Americans, however, returned it warmly, and over five hundred solid shot and fifty shells were fired at the forts. The batteries were very nearly silenced, the gunners driven away from their guns, and the masonry almost demolished.
The Tripolitan gunboats no longer gave the Americans a chance to board them, but remained at a prudent distance within the reefs, preferring to fight at long range. While the divisions were advancing, Somers, who was leaning against the flagstaff of his boat, turned around as Moriarity, the coxswain, uttered an exclamation. The second boat in Decatur’s division had been struck by a Tripolitan shell. It exploded, and for a moment or two the unfortunate vessel and her brave crew were lost in a cloud of smoke and the water thrown up around it. When the boat became again visible the after part was already shattered and under water. Upon the forward part, which still floated, were a young midshipman and eleven men. They had been engaged in reloading the long twenty-four-pounder she carried, and at this terrible moment the gun captain, under the midshipman’s orders, was coolly applying the match.
“That’s Mr. Spence, sorr,” said Moriarity, pointing to the little midshipman.
The gun roared out, and the shot struck the muzzle of a gun in the battery of Fort English, breaking it into a hundred pieces. The bow of the boat was beginning to sink, but, before thinking of saving themselves, the men, led by the midshipman, gave three hearty American cheers. Then Decatur’s boat approaching, they leaped into the water, and were hauled on board.
“Hurrah!” shouted Somers, standing up and waving his cap at Decatur, who was doing the same thing at him.
Hardly were the words out of his mouth, when he suddenly felt himself seized around the waist by Moriarity’s strong arms and thrown down on the deck. The next moment a shot struck the flagstaff against which Somers had been leaning and cut it off short at the very spot where but a moment before his head had been.
“Beg your parding, sorr,” said Moriarity, as the two scrambled to their feet, “but I seen her comin’, and ’twarn’t no time for to be axin’ what the regulations is ’bout gittin’ a orficer’s head out o’ the way when a shot is a-comin’ straight for it, sorr.”
“No apologies are necessary,” cried Somers, shaking Moriarity’s hand, “for saving a man’s life as you did mine.”
The attack was so spirited, and so much damage was done, that on the next day came an offer from the Bashaw to surrender the officers and crew of the Philadelphia for five hundred dollars each.
“Tell your master,” said Commodore Preble to the envoy, “that I will yet have every officer and man belonging to the Philadelphia, but without paying one dollar of ransom for them.”
This was supplemented by a night attack on the 18th of August, which Somers and Decatur both urged upon the commodore. But finding that it was more risky and not so effective as the day attacks, Commodore Preble told his two young captains that thereafter the attacks would be by daylight.
The Tripolitans now began to be very much alarmed, and made several offers to treat; but Commodore Preble would listen to nothing but the unconditional surrender of the officers and crew of the Philadelphia.
On the 24th and 28th of August two more attacks were made, which as usual were led by Somers and Decatur. After every attack came renewed offers from the Bashaw; but Commodore Preble meant to destroy, at once and forever, the power of this barbarous nation of pirates and corsairs.
In the first days of September another attack in force was determined upon. It was the third in which the Constitution had taken an active part, and the magnificent way that the stout and beautiful frigate withstood the bombardment of all the guns of the forts and vessels, gained for her the name of “Old Ironsides”—a name she has now borne gloriously for nearly a hundred years. At daylight on the 4th of September the Tripolitans were awakened by the roar of a cannonade, and the eyes of the captive officers and men of the Philadelphia were gladdened by seeing the gunboats advancing boldly in the first flush of dawn, supported by the brigs and schooners, while Old Ironsides was standing in, her men on the yards shortening sail as deliberately as if she were working into a friendly port. Arrived at a point opposite the mole, she backed her topsails and then let fly her thirty great guns in broadside. In vain the forts pounded her. Moving slowly, and occasionally throwing her topsail aback, she skillfully avoided being raked, and, except for some slight damage aloft, she came out of the action without injury and without losing a man.
Meanwhile the Tripolitan gunboats had advanced to the reefs, and just as the sun rose the divisions under Somers and Decatur went at them fiercely. The brigs and schooners also directing their fire toward the Tripolitan flotilla, Commodore Preble was sanguine that it would be utterly destroyed. The Tripolitans, though, whose vessels drew less water than the Americans’, and who knew the intricate maze of reefs and shoals perfectly well, ran into shoal water, where they could not be followed. Somers sank two boats, while Decatur managed to bring off three. As soon as the frigate hauled off and made for the offing, the gun-vessels were towed off, and when they were well out of gunshot the whole squadron came to anchor, about three o’clock in the day.
Somers was the first captain to report on board the flagship. As soon as he caught sight of “Old Pepper” on the Constitution’s quarter-deck he knew that something had gone wrong. The commodore, while fighting his own ship, could give but little attention to the boat divisions, but seeing the Tripolitans almost surrounded by the American boats, with the brigs and schooners closing up, he had expected the whole flotilla to be captured. When, therefore, he saw it making back into the harbor with the loss of only five boats, and not knowing the shoalness of the water at that point, he could not understand the conduct of the American boats, and was deeply disappointed for the first time in his “boy captains.” As Somers approached and made his report in a few words, he was received in angry silence, and the only words the commodore said were, “I shall have something to say on this matter when Captain Decatur reports.”
Somers, although annoyed, yet knew that, when the circumstances were explained, the commodore would do both Decatur and himself justice—for Commodore Preble’s heart was as just as his temper was fiery. But knowing Decatur’s high spirit, he could not but be fearful of a meeting between the two in “Old Pepper’s” state of mind. He had but little time to think, though, for at that instant Decatur stepped over the side. He had on a short jacket, in which he had been through the fight, and he was grimed with powder, besides being stained with blood from a slight wound he had received. Advancing with his usual alert step to the commodore, he raised his cap and said quietly, “Well, commodore, I have brought you out three of the gunboats.”
At that, “Old Pepper” suddenly seized him with both hands by the collar, and, shaking him violently as if he were a refractory boy, cried out:
“Ay, sir, and why did you not bring me more?”
The officers stared, paralyzed with astonishment. Decatur involuntarily put his hand on his sword; and the next moment the commodore turned on his heel and went into the cabin.
Decatur, pale with anger, walked to the gangway. Somers caught him by the arm and cried earnestly:
“Decatur, where are you going?”
“Away from this ship,” answered Decatur in a voice of suppressed rage.
“No,” said Somers, holding him, “you must not—you shall not go! The commodore has misunderstood what you have done to-day. He met me with almost equal anger; but you know how excitable he is—but how just, brave, and magnanimous. Do nothing that is insubordinate, and I’ll warrant the commodore will make you every amend.”
Somers could always exercise a powerful influence over Decatur, whom he actually held to prevent from leaving the ship. The other officers gathered around, trying to reason with Decatur, who, although a captain, was still only a boy in Commodore Preble’s eyes. Just then the commodore’s orderly appeared with a message.
“Commodore Preble desires Captain Decatur’s presence in the cabin.”
“I will not go!” was Decatur’s determined answer.
Somers gave the man a significant look, which meant that he was not to repeat the message, and then began pleading with Decatur. He led his friend to one side, and said to him solemnly:
“You know what is planned for four nights from this? Remembering that this may be my last request of you, I ask you, therefore, to go to Commodore Preble, and not to sully by one single act of disobedience the glorious record you have made.”
The appeal touched Decatur deeply, and he could not say No. Somers went with him to the cabin door, saw him enter, and the door close after him.
Fifteen minutes passed, and Decatur did not return. Somers, whose anxiety was by no means over when he had brought these two impetuous spirits together, began to be very unhappy. He walked back and forth, uncertain what to do; but at last, remembering that his rank gave him the right to seek the commodore even when not sent for, and taking his courage in both hands, he knocked gently at the cabin door. No reply was made, but he ventured to open the door slightly.
Seated near each other were the gray-haired commodore and his young captain, both in tears. Somers, softly closing the door, moved off without being noticed. Half an hour later, when the commodore appeared, he was leaning affectionately upon Decatur’s arm.
And now, after a series of heroic ventures which had raised the American name to the highest point of honor, was to come another—the last, the most glorious, and the most melancholy of them all. Three officers and ten men enlisted in this enterprise, and offered the choice between life and honor, each one of them chose the better part.
It had been known for some time that, as the season would soon compel the American squadron to leave Tripoli for the winter, Commodore Preble was anxious that one great and decisive blow might be struck before he left. True, the Bashaw was anxious to negotiate, but Commodore Preble was not the man to treat with pirates and brigands as long as four hundred American captives were imprisoned in Tripolitan dungeons. He was the more anxious to strike this great blow because he had discovered that the Tripolitans were almost out of gunpowder—a commodity which, at that time of general European warfare, was of much value and not always easy to get. The Americans, though, were well supplied, and this put the thought into Somers’s mind of attempting a desperate assault upon the shipping and forts by means of a fire-ship, or “infernal.”
He first broached the plan to Decatur, the night after the last attack on Tripoli. The two young captains were sitting in the cabin of the Nautilus, Decatur having come in answer to a few significant words from Somers. When the two were seated at the table, Somers unfolded his plan.
It was a desperate one, and as Somers lucidly explained it, Decatur felt a strange sinking of the heart. Somers, on the contrary, seemed to feel a restrained enthusiasm, as if he had just attained a great opportunity, for which he had long hoped and wished.
“You see,” said Somers, leaning over the table and fixing a pair of smiling dark eyes upon Decatur, “it is an enterprise that means liberty to four hundred of our countrymen and messmates. Who could hesitate a moment?”
“Not you, Somers.”
“I hope not. The beauty of my plan is, that it requires but the risking of a few lives—two boats to tow the fire-ship in, four men in my boat and six in another boat, and one officer besides myself—in all, twelve men. Did ever so small a number have so great a chance for serving their country?”
Decatur made no reply to this, and Somers went on to explain the details of his scheme. Decatur aided him at every turn, advising and discussing with a freedom that their devoted intimacy permitted. But, instead of the gay impetuosity that generally characterized Decatur, Somers was surprised to find him grave, and almost sad; while the sober Somers was for once as full of enthusiasm as Decatur usually was.
After two hours’ conversation, and it being not yet nine o’clock, Somers asked Decatur to go with him to the flagship, where the plan might be laid before the commodore.
As soon as Commodore Preble heard that two of his young captains wished to see him, he at once desired that they be shown into the cabin. When Somers and Decatur entered, they both noticed the somber and careworn look on the commodore’s face. He had done much, and the force under him had performed prodigies of valor; but he had not succeeded in liberating his old friend and shipmate Bainbridge and his gallant company.
When they were seated around the cabin table, Somers produced some charts and memoranda and began to unfold his idea. It was, on the first dark night to take the ketch Intrepid—the same which Decatur had immortalized—put on her a hundred barrels of gunpowder and a hundred shells, tow her into the harbor through the western passage as near as she could be carried to the shipping, hoping that she would drift into the midst of the Tripolitan fleet, and then, setting her afire, Somers and his men would take their slender chances for escape.
Commodore Preble heard it all through with strict attention. When Somers had finished, the commodore looked him fixedly in the eye, and said:
“But suppose for one moment the explosion should fail, the ketch should be captured, and a hundred barrels of gunpowder should fall into the hands of the Bashaw? That would prolong the war a year.”
“Have no fear, sir,” answered Somers calmly. “I promise you that, rather than permit such a thing, I myself will fire the ‘infernal,’ if there is no alternative but capture. And I will take no man with me who is not willing to die before suffering so much powder to be captured and used against our own squadron.”
“Are you willing, Captain Somers, to take that responsibility?”
“Perfectly willing, sir. It is no greater responsibility than my friend Captain Decatur assumed when in that very ketch he risked the lives of himself and sixty-two companions in the destruction of the Philadelphia.”
“Old Pepper,” leaning across the table, suddenly grasped a hand each of his two young captains.
“My boys,” he said with shining eyes, “the first day you sat with me at this table the sight of your youth, and the knowledge of the duties you had to perform, gave me one of the most terrible fits of depression I ever suffered. I deeply regretted that I had assumed charge of such an expedition with what I bitterly called then a parcel of schoolboy captains. Now I can only say that you have all turned out the best boys I ever saw—for I can not yet call you men.”
This outburst, so unlike Commodore Preble’s usual stern and somewhat morose manner, touched both Decatur and Somers; and Decatur said, laughing, but with moisture in his eyes:
“You see, commodore, it is because we have had such a good schoolmaster in the art of war.”
The conversation that followed was long and animated, and when Decatur and Somers left the ship and were rowed across the dark water the commodore’s permission had been given. On the Enterprise, the very next morning, the squadron being well out of sight of the town and at anchor, the preparation of the ketch began.
The day was a bright and beautiful one, although in September, which is a stormy month in the Mediterranean. The ketch was laid alongside of “Old Ironsides,” and the transfer of the powder and shells was begun at sunrise; for it was characteristic of Somers to do quickly whatever he had to do, and time was of great consequence to him then. The men worked with a will, knowing well enough that some daring expedition was on hand. Wadsworth, Somers’s first lieutenant, with the assistance of Decatur, directed the preparation of the fire-ship; while Somers, in the cabin of the Nautilus, arranged his private affairs and wrote his will, remembering well that he might never return from that night’s awful adventure. He wrote several letters and sealed them, and then the last one, inclosing his will, was to Decatur. The other letters were long, but that to Decatur was brief. It only said:
“Herein is my will, which I charge you to see executed if I should never come back. For yourself, dear Decatur, I have no words that I can say. To other men I may express my affection, and ask their forgiveness for any injury I may have done them; but between you and me there is nothing to forgive—only the remembrance of our brotherhood, ever since we were young and innocent boys. If I were to think long on this it would make me too tender-hearted, and when this thought comes to me, I can only say, Good-by and God bless you!
The golden noon had come, and as Somers glanced through the cabin windows of the smart little Nautilus he could see the preparations going on aboard the ketch. Anchored directly under the quarter of the splendid frigate, men were busy passing the powder and arranging the shells, doing it all with the cool caution of those accustomed to desperate risks. Decatur’s tall figure was seen on the Constitution’s deck. He paced up and down with the commodore, and was really unable to tear himself away from the ship. Tears came into Somers’s eyes as he watched Decatur. Somers had no brother, no father, and no mother, and Decatur had been more to him all his life than he could express.
Meanwhile it was well understood on the other ships that, except the first lieutenant of the Nautilus, Mr. Wadsworth, who was to command the second boat, no other officer would be permitted to go. Although any and all of them would have been rejoiced to share in the dangers of this expedition, they knew it would be useless to ask—that is, all except Pickle Israel, who marched boldly up to the commodore, as he was pacing the deck, and, touching his cap, suddenly plumped out with—
“Commodore Preble, may I go with Captain Somers on the Intrepid to-night?”
“Old Pepper,” coolly surveying Pickle, who was rather small for his fourteen years, and reprobating the little midshipman’s assurance, sternly inquired:
“What did I understand you to say, sir?”
The Commodore’s tone and countenance were altogether too much for Pickle’s self-possession. He stammered and blushed, and finally, in a quavering voice, managed to get out—
“If—if—you please, sir—m-may I go——” and then came to a dead halt, while Decatur could not help smiling at him slyly behind the commodore’s back.
“May you go aloft and stay there for a watch?” snapped “Old Pepper,” who suspected very shrewdly what Pickle was trying to ask. “Am I to understand that is what you are after?”
“No, sir,” answered Pickle, plucking up his courage and putting on a defiant air as he caught sight of Decatur’s smile; while Danny Dixon, who had been sent on a message and had come back to report, stood grinning broadly at the little midshipman—“No, sir,” repeated Pickle, with still more boldness. “I came to ask if I might go on the Intrepid, with Captain Somers, to-night.”
“Has Captain Somers asked for your services, Mr. Israel?” inquired the commodore blandly.
“N—no, sir,” faltered Pickle, turning very red, and unconsciously beginning to practice the goose step in his embarrassment.
“Very well, sir,” replied the commodore, still excessively polite, “until Captain Somers asks for an officer of your age and experience, I shall not request him to take you or any other midshipman in the squadron.”
“The truth is, commodore,” said Decatur, who could not but respect the boy’s indomitable pluck, “Mr. Israel has the courage and spirit of a man, and he forgets that he is, after all, a very young gentleman.” A very young gentleman meant really a boy.
The commodore smiled at this, and looking into Pickle’s disappointed face he said:
“Never mind, Mr. Israel. Although I can not let you go on this expedition, your gallant desire to go has not hurt you in my esteem; and the day will come when your country will be proud of you—of that I feel a presentiment at this moment.”
True it was, and sooner, far sooner than any of them dreamed at that moment.
Pickle turned away, his eyes filled with tears of disappointment. As he was going sadly below, he heard a step following him, and there was Danny Dixon’s hale and handsome face close behind him.
“Mr. Israel, sir,” said Danny, touching his hat, “I wants to say as how I likes your spirit; and when you’re a cap’n you’ll find the men mighty willin’ to sarve under you, sir, for they likes a orficer with a spirit. You oughter been in the fight with Cap’n Paul Jones, on the Bunnum Richard.”
“I wish I had been, Dixon,” answered Pickle, almost crying with vexation.
“Never you mind, Mr. Israel,” said Danny, with an encouraging wink, “all the orficers and men knows you ain’t got no flunk in you; and if you hadn’t been such a little ’un—beg your parding, sir—you’d ’a’ had a chance at somethin’, sure.”
Pickle, not exactly pleased with being called “a little ’un,” marched off in high dudgeon, angry with Danny, with the commodore, with Decatur—with the whole world, in fact, which seemed bent on balking his dreams of glory. However, after an hour or two of bitter reflection, it suddenly occurred to him as a forlorn hope that he might yet ask Somers. As if in answer to his wish, at that very moment he was ordered to take a boat with a message to Somers, saying that at four o’clock—eight bells—a call would be made for volunteers to man the boats.
Pickle swung himself into the boat with the agility of a monkey, and in a few moments the stout arms of the sailors had pulled across the blue water to where the lovely Nautilus lay, rocking gently on the long, summer swells of the sea. Pickle skipped over the side and up to Somers on the deck, like a flash of blue light, in his trim midshipman’s uniform. His message was delivered in a few words, and then Pickle artfully continued:
“And as there’s to be a call for volunteers, Captain Somers, I wish, sir”—here Pickle drew himself up as tall as he could—“to offer my services.”
“I am very much obliged, Mr. Israel,” answered Somers courteously, and refraining from smiling. “Your courage now, as always, does you infinite credit. But as only one officer besides myself is needed, I have promised my first lieutenant, Mr. Wadsworth, that honor.”
Poor Pickle’s face grew three quarters of a yard long. He suddenly dropped his lofty tone and manner, and burst out, half crying:
“That’s what all of the officers say, Captain Somers; and the next thing, maybe, the war will be over, and I sha’n’t have had a single chance of distinguishing myself—or—or—anything; and it’s a hardship, I say—it’s a hardship!”
Somers put his hand kindly on the boy’s shoulder.
“But you have already distinguished yourself as one of the smartest and brightest midshipmen in the squadron; and this gallant spirit of yours will yet make you famous.”
Pickle turned away, and was about to go over the side, when Somers said:
“Wait a few moments, and see that there are others as brave and as disappointed as you.—Boatswain, pipe all hands on deck, aft!”
The boatswain, who was ready, piped up, and in a few minutes every man of the eighty that formed the company of the handsome brig was reported “up and aft.”
Somers then, with a glow upon his fine face, addressed the men, the officers standing near him.
“My men,” he said, “you see that ketch yonder—rightly named the Intrepid, after the glorious use to which our brave Decatur put her. She has on board one hundred barrels of gunpowder, one hundred shells, and all the apparatus for lighting these combustibles; and to-night, if wind and tide serve, she is to be taken into the harbor of Tripoli and exploded among the shipping. I have obtained the honor of taking charge of this expedition, and I wish my boat manned by four men who would rather die than be captured; for the pirates are short of gunpowder, and they can get no more from Europe, so that unless they capture this, it will be easy work to reduce them next spring, when we shall take another and a last whack at them. But—the Intrepid must not be captured! The commodore, on this condition only, gave it me. I do not disguise from you that the enterprise is one full of danger, but fuller of glory. No man shall be ordered to go; but I want four men to volunteer who are ready, if necessary, to die for their country this very night; and let them hold up their right hands and say ‘Ay!’”
Every man in the brig’s company held up his hand, and their deep voices, like the roar of the sea, shouted out, “Ay, sir!”
Somers shook his head and smiled but his eyes shone with pleasure at the readiness of his brave crew.
“Ah,” he cried, “I might have known! My men, I can only take four of you. I shall take the four that are most able-bodied, and who have no wife or family.—You, Moriarity,” he said to the quartermaster, “I know, are alone in the world. I want you.”
“Thankee, sorr,” answered Moriarity, stepping out of the line with a grin.
“And you—and you—and you,” said Somers, walking along the line, as he picked out three more men; and every man smiled, and said, “Thankee, sir.”
“You understand perfectly well, then,” said Somers, addressing the four, “that this is an undertaking of the utmost hazard. We may, in the performance of our solemn duty, have to light the fire that will blow us all into eternity. There will be twelve of us, and it is better that our lives should be sacrificed than that hundreds, perhaps, of valuable and gallant lives be required to subdue the pirates in a longer and severer struggle. So, think well over your engagement; and if you are of the same determined mind, follow my example, and leave all your worldly affairs in order. And then, make your peace with Almighty God, for we may all meet Him face to face before the sun rises on another day.”
Somers’s solemn words had a great effect on the men. While not in the least dampening their enthusiasm, their tone and manner changed from the jaunty gayety with which sailors meet danger to a serious and grave consideration of their situation. Moriarity acted as spokesman:
“We thankee, sorr, for remindin’ us o’ what we has got to face. We’ve done a heap o’ wrong, but maybe the Cap’n up above, if we has to report to him to-night, ’ll say: ‘Them chaps died a-doin’ o’ their duty to their country; mark their shortcoming off the list, master-at-arms!’ And he’ll let us in, bekase we means to do our duty—don’t we, men?”
“We does!” answered the three sailors all together.
A hearty American cheer rang out at this, and Somers shook hands with the four men. He then ordered his boat, and in a few moments, was pulling toward the frigate.
Somers’s words had inspired another heart besides that of the four sailors. Pickle Israel, with his dark eyes fixed on the bright horizon, felt a longing, a consuming desire, tugging at his heart. A voice seemed to be repeating to him the sailor’s words, “We means to do our duty.” Pickle, being only a boy, could not exactly see the reason why he should not be allowed to go on the expedition—and some strange and overmastering power seemed impelling him to go. It was not mere love of adventure. It was Moriarity’s untutored words, “Them chaps died for their country.” Well, he had but one life to give his country, thought Pickle, and there was no better time or place to give it than that very night. However, Pickle said not one word more to anybody about his disappointment; but his face cleared up, as if he had formed a resolution.
On reaching the Constitution, the men were mustered, and Commodore Preble made a short speech to them before calling for volunteers. “And I consider it my duty,” he said, “to tell every one of you, from Captain Somers down, that this powder must not be suffered to fall into the enemy’s hands. For my own part, it is with pride and with fear that I shall see you set forth; but, although I value your lives more than all Tripoli, yet not even for that must the pirates get hold of this powder. I have not asked this service from any of you. Every man, from your captain down, has volunteered. But if you choose to take the honorable risk, all I can say is, ‘Go, and God protect you!’”
As Commodore Preble spoke, tears rolled down his face, and the men cheered wildly. As on the Nautilus, the whole ship’s company volunteered, and six had to be chosen. To Danny Dixon’s intense chagrin, he was not among them. When the men were piped down, Pickle Israel caught sight of the handsome old quartermaster going forward with a look of bitter disappointment on his face. Pickle could not but remember Danny’s glib consolation to him only a few hours before; so he sidled up to Danny, and said with a smile:
“Never mind, Dixon. If you weren’t so old you’d have been allowed to go. All the officers know you haven’t got any flunk in you. And we—I mean those that come back—will have some yarns to spin equal to yours about Captain Paul Jones and the Bon Homme Richard!”
For answer, Danny looked gloomily in the little midshipman’s face, and said, in a much injured manner:
“It do seem hard, sir, as when a old sailor, sir, as fought with Cap’n Paul Jones, is disapp’inted in goin’ on a expedition, to have the young gentlemen on the ship a-pullin’ his leg.”
“That’s the way you comforted me!” chuckled Pickle in high glee.
By sunset everything was ready. Decatur was with Somers on the Nautilus, and just as the sun was sinking they stood together at the gangway. It was a clear and beautiful September evening, with no moon, but a faint and lovely starlight. Over the dark bosom of the sea was a light haze, that was the thing most desired by Somers, to conceal the Intrepid as she made her perilous way toward the city of the corsairs. A soft breeze ruffled the water and gently rocked the tall ships. As the two friends stood watching the dying glow in the west, Decatur was pale and agitated, while Somers, instead of his usual gravity, wore an air of joy, and even gayety.
“Does not this remind you, Decatur, of Delaware Bay, and the first evening we ever spent together as midshipmen? The water is almost as blue at home as it is here, and I can quite imagine that ‘Old Ironsides’ is ‘Old Wagoner,’ and that the Siren over there is your father’s ship, the Delaware. It seems only the other day, and it is more than six years ago.”
Decatur, unable to speak, looked at Somers with a sort of passion of brotherly love shining out of his eyes. He felt, as sure as that he was then living, that he would never see his friend again.
The boat being ready, Moriarity and his three companions were called forward. As they advanced, Somers smiling, said to them:
“There is bound to be some disappointment among you. Each one of you has come privately to ask that he may be the one to apply the match; but that honor, my fine fellows, I have reserved for myself.”
Somers and Decatur then went down the ladder, followed by the four seamen; and at the same moment, as if by magic, the yards of the Nautilus were manned and three cheers rang over the quiet water.
The boat pulled first to the Constitution, where the second boat was waiting. Commodore Preble was standing on the quarter-deck. Somers, with an air of unwonted gayety, came over the side. Going up to the commodore, he said pleasantly, “Well, commodore, I have come for my last instructions.”
Commodore Preble could only clasp his young captain’s hand and say:
“I have given all that I have to give. I know your prudence and your resolute courage. You are in the hands of the great and good God, and no matter what the result of this night’s work may be, your country will never forget you.”
As Somers, still wearing his pleasant smile, left the Constitution, the men also manned the yards and cheered him. With Decatur he went on board the fire-ship, to take one last look, and to wait for complete darkness, which was now approaching. On the ketch were Captain Stewart and Lieutenant Wadsworth, first, of the Nautilus, and these four spent this last hour together. Wadsworth, a man of vigor and determination, like Somers, was perfectly easy and cheerful. Stewart and Decatur, who were to follow the ketch as far in the offing as was prudent, were both strangely silent. Decatur had a terrible foreboding that he and Somers would never meet again in this world.
Meanwhile the Constitution’s cutter had been lowered, and with the Nautilus’s boat had been made fast to the frigate’s side, directly under a port in the steward’s pantry. Somers having determined to wait another half hour for the blue fog which was steadily rising on the water to conceal him entirely, the men had been permitted to leave the boat. Danny Dixon, taking advantage of this, was in the Constitution’s cutter, making a last examination, for his own satisfaction, of the oars, rowlocks, etc., when above the lapping of the water against the great ship’s side, he heard a whisper overhead of—
“Dixon! I say, Dixon!”
Danny glanced up, and saw, poked out of the pantry window, in the dusky half light, Pickle Israel’s curly head.
“Now, whatsomdever are you up to, Mr. Israel?” began Danny; but a violent shaking of the head, and a “Sh-sh-sh!” checked him.
“Turn your lantern round,” whispered Pickle.
Danny turned the dark side round, and then drew the boat up close to the port. When the boat was just below the port, and Danny had raised his head to hear Pickle’s mysterious communication, the little midshipman quickly wriggled himself out, and, swinging himself down by his hands, landed silently in the boat.
Danny was so surprised that he could not speak a word, but he at once suspected Pickle’s design—to go on the expedition.
“Now, Dixon,” said Pickle, in a wheedling voice, “don’t go and tell on me. In fact, as your superior officer, I direct you, on leaving this boat, to go immediately forward, and stay there unless you are sent for.”
Danny grinned broadly at this, and grasping Pickle’s hand in his own brawny one, he nearly wrung the boy’s arm off.
“I knows, sir—I knows!” said he, in a delighted whisper. “But I ain’t a-goin’ to blow the gaff on you. I likes these ’ere venturesome youngsters that’s allers ready for to risk their lives for their country. That’s the sort as Cap’n Paul Jones loved. But, Mr. Israel, I’ll have to git out o’ this ’ere boat, ’cause if any o’ them foremast men seen me in here, when you is missed they’ll all say as how Dixon, the quartermaster, was a-talkin’ with you, and then the Commodore will take my hide, sure. But good-by, Mr. Israel, and God bless you, as the commodore says; and if you ain’t but a little shaver, let me tell you, sir, you’ve got a sperrit that’s fittin’ to sarve under the greatest man as ever sailed blue water—Cap’n Paul Jones!”
With that Danny wrung the little midshipman’s hand again, and with a spring he noiselessly gained the ladder and disappeared.
Pickle, being very small, crawled under the gunwale of the boat, where there was an extra coil of rope, spare lanterns, and other things necessary to repair damages, all covered with a tarpaulin. These things he carefully distributed along the boat, under the gunwales, and then, covering himself up with the tarpaulin, made himself as small as possible in the place of the ropes and lanterns. He had left a little hole in the tarpaulin through which he could see; and as he curled himself up comfortably and fixed his eyes on this opening, there was never a happier boy. He had succeeded perfectly, so far, in his scheme. He thought, if any of the men suspected he was on board, they would be inclined to wink at it, like Danny Dixon; and as soon as they cast off and got the Intrepid in tow, there would be no earthly way, as Pickle gleefully remembered, to get rid of him. At this idea he almost laughed aloud; and then, he thought, when they came back in triumph, and Captain Somers and Mr. Wadsworth were being congratulated and almost embraced, on the Constitution’s deck, by the commodore and all the officers of the squadron, and the men cheering like mad, as at Decatur’s return, then would he be brought forward—Midshipman Israel! and his name would be in the report sent home, and everybody would know what prodigies of valor he had performed, and he would no doubt receive a sword like Decatur’s and be made a lieutenant. Lieutenant Israel! How charming was the sound! Pickle was so comfortable and so happy that unconsciously his eyelids drooped. How faint were the stars shining in the quiet skies, and how gently the boat rocked on the water! It was like being rocked to sleep when he was a little boy, not so long ago, in his mother’s arms. And in five minutes the little midshipman was sleeping soundly.
An hour afterward he was wakened by the boat drawing up to the side of the fire-ship. Ahead, he could see the Constitution’s boat carrying the towline. The mist was denser still on the water, through which the hulls and spars of the ships loomed with vague grandeur. The Siren and the Argus were getting under way; and standing at the low rail of the ketch were two dark figures—Somers and Decatur.
Somers had taken a ring from his finger, and, breaking it in two, gave one half to Decatur and put the other half in the breast of his jacket.
“Keep that, Decatur,” he said, “in case we should never meet again. I need not ask you to remember me——” Here Somers could say no more.
Decatur put both hands on Somers’s shoulders, and his lips moved, but no sound came. Utterly overcome with emotion, he turned silently away, got into his boat, and was quickly on board his ship, where, in his cabin, for a few moments he gave way to a burst of tears, such as he had not known since he could remember.
Somers descended into his boat, the towline was made fast, and, with the ketch’s sails set to catch the faint breeze, soon the “infernal” was making fast through the dark water. The Siren and Argus, having got up their anchors, followed the ketch at a distance, under short canvas.
The boats and the “infernal” were fast leaving the brigs astern in the murky night, when Somers, who was sitting in the stern sheets, felt something moving close by him, and, glancing down, he recognized in the uncertain light Pickle Israel’s laughing eyes peering up mischievously at him.
“Why—what is this?” he asked, amazed.
“Nothing, Captain Somers, only me,” answered Pickle, scrambling up from under the gunwale. “I wanted to go, sir, very much, on this expedition, just as I did on Captain Decatur’s, and nobody would let me; so I took French leave, and came by myself.”
Somers, although vexed with the boy, and alarmed at having him on board, yet could not but admire his pluck.
“Did any man on this boat help you to get aboard?” he asked.
“No, sir,” chirped Pickle gayly. “Not one of them knew I was aboard until just now.”
“Please, sorr,” said Moriarity, who was sitting next Pickle’s hiding-place, “I thought as how the lantherns and things was moighty ristless under there, and wanst I thought I heard ’em snaze, but I sez, sez I, ‘Moriarity, me man, yez never heard of a snazin’ lanthern;’ and the next minute, here comes Misther Israel, and it warn’t the lantherns, afther all!”
Somers could not help smiling at Moriarity and Pickle too; but he said gravely to the little midshipman:
“Do you understand the terrible risk we run in this attempt, and that it will be our duty, if in danger of capture, to blow up the ketch?”
“Perfectly, sir,” answered Pickle. He now sat up straight in the boat, and his eyes were shining so that Somers could see them even in the gloom. “I know that we have only a few chances for our lives; but—but—we have a great many chances for immortality; and, Captain Somers, although I am only a midshipman, and you are a captain, I am as willing, even as eager, to risk my life for our country and for our shipmates in prison as you are.”
“I believe you,” answered Somers, in a sweet and thrilling voice; “you are a brave boy, and, be it life or death, we will be together.”
They soon entered the offing, and drawing rapidly ahead, helped by wind and tide, they reached the western passage of the harbor. There they rested for a few minutes. Before them, in the misty night, lay the black masses of the town, and the encircling forts, over which the Bashaw’s castle reared its pile of towers and bastions. They saw the twinkling lights of the town, and those on the mastheads of the shipping in the harbor. Near the entrance lay three low gunboats that looked unnaturally large through the dim and ghostly fog that lay upon the water, but left the heavens clear and darkly blue. Behind them they could see the outline of the two American brigs, on which, as a precaution, not a light was shining. The fire-ship, as black as midnight, was stationary on the water for a moment. Somers, rising in his boat, uncovered his head, and every man in both boats, understanding that he was making a solemn prayer, removed his hat and prayed likewise. Little Israel, with his midshipman’s cap in his hand, stood up, with his eyes fixed on the stars overhead. He made his prayer briefly but reverently, and then, pointing to a brilliant group of stars, that blazed with splendor far down on the horizon, he said to Somers with a smile:
“The stars, I believe, mean glory. That is why we steer by them.”
The breeze had then died out, and the men took to their oars, which were muffled. Like a black shadow moving over the water the ketch advanced. The darkness of the night favored their escaping the gunboats. They crept past the rocks and reefs, entered the western passage, and were within the harbor of Tripoli. The lights of the town grew plain, and they could still see the stars, although they seemed to be alone in a world of fog.
Suddenly and silently three shadows loomed close upon them—one on each side and one on their bows. The men, without a word, seized the towline and drew themselves noiselessly back toward the ketch.
Exploding the “infernal” at Tripoli.
As the two American boats disappeared like magic, and as if they had vanished from the face of the water, the Tripolitan gunboats closed up, and in another moment the Americans found themselves surrounded on all sides but one by the corsairs, and that one side was next the fire-ship. The Tripolitans, with a yell of triumph, prepared to spring over the side.
“Are you ready to stand to your word, men?” asked Somers, standing up in the boat, with a lighted torch in his hand.
“Ay, ay, sir!” promptly answered every man in both boats, laying down his oars.
“And I!” called out Wadsworth.
“And I!” said Pickle Israel, in his sweet, shrill, boyish voice.
“Then may God bless our country, and have mercy on us!” said Somers solemnly, and throwing the torch upon the Intrepid’s deck.
The next moment came an explosion as if the heavens and the earth were coming together. The castle rocked upon its mighty base like a cradle. The ships in the harbor shivered from keel to main truck, and many of them careened and almost went over. The sky was lighted up with a red glare that was seen for a hundred miles, and the deafening crash reverberated and almost deafened and paralyzed all who heard it.
Those on the American ships heard the frightful roar of the hundred barrels of gunpowder that seemed to explode in an instant of time, and, stunned by the concussion, they could only see a mast and sail of the ketch as they flew, blazing, up to the lurid sky, and then sank in the more lurid water.
To this succeeded an appalling blackness and stillness. Every light on the shipping and in the castle and the town had been extinguished by the force of the explosion. Not a cry, not a groan was heard from the harbor, upon which the dense mist of the fog had again settled; but floating on the dark bosom of the water were thirteen blackened and lifeless bodies—the thirteen brave men who had cheerfully rendered up their lives, when it was all they could do for their country.
All night, at intervals, a moaning gun was heard from the frigate, in the vain hope that some of those heroic men might yet be living. All night Decatur swung on the forechains of his ship, flashing a lantern across the water, and listening vainly and in agony for some sound, some token, from the friend he was never again to see. But the gray dawn brought with it despair to him. For Somers and his brave companions had another morning, and another and more glorious sunrise.
* * * * * * * *
Six years after this, one evening in September, 1810, the Constitution, which had been standing off and on Tripoli for several days, approached the town. Since her last visit the Tripolitans had been effectually conquered, and peace had long prevailed; and so highly was the American name respected, that an American officer could go safely and alone all about the town and its suburbs.
The captain’s gig was lowered and manned, and Danny Dixon was its coxswain. Presently Decatur, in the uniform of a post captain, came down the ladder and seated himself in the stern sheets. The gig was then rapidly pulled toward the beach at the end of the town. Here Decatur left the boat, and, telling Danny that he would be back within an hour, walked quickly along to a little clump of trees outside the wall.
It was just such an evening as that six years before. The sun had gone down, and there was no moon, but, as if led by some invisible power, Decatur walked straight along the path to where the few straggling and stunted trees made a shadow against the white walls of the town and the white sand of the beach.
When he reached the spot, he saw, by the light of the stars that glinted faintly through the leaves, a little group of three graves, and farther off a larger group. These were the resting places of Somers and his men. At the first of the three graves together, there were four stones laid; at the second, two stones; while at the third and smallest, in which Israel, the little midshipman, slept, was only one stone.
Decatur stood with folded arms at the head of Somers’s grave. As in a dream the whole of his early life with his friend rose and passed before him. He remembered their boyhood together; then their happy days as careless and unthinking midshipmen, and the great scenes and adventures through which they had passed before Tripoli. That night, six years before, they had parted to meet no more in this world. Every incident of the night returned to him—the horror of the explosion, the long hours he spent hanging in the brig’s forechains, the agony of daybreak, when not a man or a boat or even a spar could be seen.
As Decatur stood by this lonely grave, he felt as if he were still conversing with his friend.
“No one has ever been, no one could ever be to me what you were, Somers,” he almost said aloud—“the bravest, the most resolute, and the gentlest of men.”
He then stood for a moment by Wadsworth’s mound. “You, too, were brave and generous, and worthy to die with Somers,” he thought. And then he went to the head of the smallest grave of all. The tears were falling from his eyes, but he smiled, too. He seemed to see the little midshipman’s merry eyes, and to hear faintly, from the far-off world of spirits, his boyish laughter. He thought that Pickle must have gone smiling to his death, in his white-souled youth. “How can I feel sorry for you?” thought Decatur, as he stooped and pulled some of the odorous and beautiful jasmine blossoms that grew on the small grave, which was almost hidden under their straggling leaves. “You lived purely and died bravely. Your life, though brief, was glorious. You, too, were worthy to die with Somers—the best and bravest!”
Decatur turned again to Somers’s grave, but he could not see it for the mist of tears.
About an hour afterward a young moon climbed into the blue-black sky, and just as its radiance touched the three graves, Decatur turned and walked away, without once looking behind at the spot where slept his friend.
Silently corrected obvious typographical errors.
Non-standard spellings and dialect unchanged.