“She has eighteen-pounders on the main and twelves on the poop, sir,” said the captain. “She carries four hundred to our two hundred and thirty-one. Captain de Milon is the smartest man in the French service. Oh, Bobby boy, I’d give my hopes of my flag to rub my side up against her!” He turned on his heel, ashamed of his momentary lapse. “Mr. Wharton,” said he, looking back sternly over his shoulder, “get those square sails shaken out and bear away a point more to the west.”
“A brig on the port-bow,” came a voice from the forecastle.
“A brig on the port-bow,” said the lieutenant.
The captain sprang upon the bulwarks and held on by the mizzen-shrouds, a strange little figure with flying skirts and puckered eyes. The lean lieutenant craned his neck and whispered to Smeaton, the second, while officers and men came popping up from below and clustered along the weather-rail, shading their eyes with their hands—for the tropical sun was already clear of the palm trees. The strange brig lay at anchor in the throat of a curving estuary, and it was already obvious that she could not get out without passing under the guns of the frigate. A long, rocky point to the north of her held her in.
“Keep her as she goes, Mr. Wharton,” said the captain. “Hardly worth while our clearing for action, Mr. Smeaton, but the men can stand by the guns in case she tries to pass us. Cast loose the bow-chasers and send the small-arm men to the forecastle.”
A British crew went to its quarters in those days with the quiet serenity of men on their daily routine. In a few minutes, without fuss or sound, the sailors were knotted round their guns, the marines were drawn up and leaning on their muskets, and the frigate’s bowsprit pointed straight for her little victim.
“Is it the Slapping Sal, sir?”
“I have no doubt of it, Mr. Wharton.”
“They don’t seem to like the look of us, sir. They’ve cut their cable and are clapping on sail.”
It was evident that the brig meant struggling for her freedom. One little patch of canvas fluttered out above another, and her people could be seen working like madmen in the rigging. She made no attempt to pass her antagonist, but headed up the estuary. The captain rubbed his hands.
“She’s making for shoal water, Mr. Wharton, and we shall have to cut her out, sir. She’s a footy little brig, but I should have thought a fore-and-after would have been more handy.”
“It was a mutiny, sir.”
“Yes, sir, I heard of it at Manilla: a bad business, sir. Captain and two mates murdered. This Hudson, or Hairy Hudson as they call him, led the mutiny. He’s a Londoner, sir, and a cruel villain as ever walked.”
“His next walk will be to Execution Dock, Mr. Wharton. She seems heavily manned. I wish I could take twenty topmen out of her, but they would be enough to corrupt the crew of the ark, Mr. Wharton.”
Both officers were looking through their glasses at the brig. Suddenly the lieutenant showed his teeth in a grin, while the captain flushed a deeper red.
“That’s Hairy Hudson on the after-rail, sir.”
“The low, impertinent blackguard! He’ll play some other antics before we are done with him. Could you reach him with the long eighteen, Mr. Smeaton?”
“Another cable length will do it, sir.”
The brig yawed as they spoke, and as she came round a spurt of smoke whiffed out from her quarter. It was a pure piece of bravado, for the gun could scarce carry half-way. Then with a jaunty swing the little ship came into the wind again, and shot round a fresh curve in the winding channel.
“The water’s shoaling rapidly, sir,” repeated the second lieutenant.
“There’s six fathoms by the chart.”
“Four by the lead, sir.”
“When we clear this point we shall see how we lie. Ha! I thought as much! Lay her to, Mr. Wharton. Now we have got her at our mercy!”
The frigate was quite out of sight of the sea now at the head of this river-like estuary. As she came round the curve the two shores were seen to converge at a point about a mile distant. In the angle, as near shore as she could get, the brig was lying with her broadside towards her pursuer and a wisp of black cloth streaming from her mizzen. The lean lieutenant, who had reappeared upon deck with a cutlass strapped to his side and two pistols rammed into his belt, peered curiously at the ensign.
“Is it the Jolly Rodger, sir?” he asked.
But the captain was furious.
“He may hang where his breeches are hanging before I have done with him!” said he. “What boats will you want, Mr. Wharton?”
“We should do it with the launch and the jolly-boat.”
“Take four and make a clean job of it. Pipe away the crews at once, and I’ll work her in and help you with the long eighteens.”