"So your marriage with little Dot Venour depends on your commanding something with a pennant fluttering above, does it? Lord!" roared the commodore, bursting into deep sea laughter, "and you want to hoist your juvenile broad pennant on this rock, and then you'll want to claim all sorts of privileges, you young dog! I didn't think that baby was old enough to be married yet, nor you either. Get along with you! I don't know what my old friend Venour would say if I'd be a party to this mad purpose of yours by giving you the command of this expedition. There, lad, go to your duty; I'll think about it," added the commodore, exploding with mirth again.
He thought so well about it, however, that when all preparations had been made, to the very great disgust of the older officers of the ship, he detailed Maurice to the command of the party. On account of his lack of rank, his junior officers were all midshipmen. He and the four midshipmen and one hundred and twenty men and boys, including some of the best seamen, composed the landing party, with four months' supply of provisions and ammunition. As the Centaur got under way and beat up toward Fort Royal, Maurice tore open an envelope the commodore had handed him when he bade him good-by. It was a commission and orders to command H. B. M.'s sloop-of-war Diamond Rock, five guns and one hundred and twenty men! He almost fell over the precipice in surprise and delight at the situation.
The rock was entirely barren except on the north-west side, where a little depression existed in which there was a group of stunted wild fig-trees. There were two or three caves half-way up to the summit, dry and airy, the floors covered with fine sand, of which the officers chose the smallest, the men another, and all hands made themselves very much at home. The crew was divided into watches, a station bill made out, lookouts appointed, and the regular routine of a man-of-war begun.
They had not long to wait to demonstrate their usefulness. Two days after the departure of the Centaur the lookout on the top of the rock saw a frigate under a tremendous press of canvas endeavoring to run between the rock and the shore and make for Fort Royal. Far away, and coming along like a gigantic white cloud, was a ship which was presently made out to be the Centaur. A drummer-boy, not the least important member of the crew of the Diamond Rock, beat to quarters, the men sprang to their stations, and the huge guns were loaded and carefully trained on the unsuspicious French ship. She came booming along at a terrific pace. Maurice, with a coolness remarkable in one so young, waited until she was well in range, and then, taking careful aim, with the long twenty-four half-way up the summit, ignited the priming.
With a terrific roar the ball sped straight to its mark. They were too far away to hear the crash as it struck the fore-topmast, but the fall of the mast and the confusion on the ship were plainly visible. With hearty British cheers the rest of the battery let drive at the oncoming frigate. One of the eighteens carried away the jib-stay and the jib-halliards. There was great consternation on the French frigate. No one had dreamed of an enemy in that quarter, and before they could make up their minds what to do a second broadside was poured upon them from the rock. Clearly the pass was untenable. The captain of the frigate was a good seaman, and he promptly turned about and made for the sea again. He hoped to escape the Centaur by his speed, but the old ship-of-the-line had the wind and heels of him now and she came rushing down upon the frigate. After a long pursuit and a gallant endeavor the French captain found himself under the Centaur's guns. There was nothing to do but to surrender. Throwing a prize crew on board, the Centaur ran off toward the rock. When near enough to be seen a string of flags fluttered out from the mizzen-topgallant yard-arm, and the delighted youngsters on the rock read the following:
"Well done, Captain Maurice!"
The men on the Centaur might have almost heard the cheers with which the men and boys on the rock greeted the signal. It had leaked out somehow that the young lieutenant whom they all loved, and to whose forethought the manning of the rock was due, was in some way fighting for his sweetheart as well as his country, and, above all men, the sailor loves a lover.
Scarcely a week passed without a brush with the enemy, and some months elapsed before the French learned that the passage which they had used with so much skill and success was finally closed to them, and, save at night, no vessels attempted the channel – not many then. There had been plenty of excitement during this period, but now all was changed. The Centaur and other ships sailed away, and the crew on the rock had little or no communication with the shore for over a year longer. Their provisions and water were replenished every quarter by a frigate, which was despatched for the purpose. Otherwise they seemed to have been forgotten. The novelty of the situation had worn off, and the monotony had begun to pall upon them dreadfully. Maurice and his young officers were at their wit's end to find employment for the men and keep them in good spirits. The discipline was, of course, sternly maintained, but, sailor-like, the men tired of the shore and pined for the unsteady deck of a ship; in addition, Maurice longed for Dorothy. He had not been able to send a word, nor had he received a line from that young lady. He was too proud to write to the commodore by one of the provisioning ships, and ask for relief.
One evening about the middle of May, 1805, when the provision-ship was about due on its quarterly trip, the watchers on the rock saw a great fleet of sixteen sail-of-the-line, seven frigates, three corvettes, and a number of smaller vessels, all flying the French flag, running through the channel toward Fort Royal. With joy in their hearts at the opportunity for action, the five guns on the stony sloop-of-war promptly opened fire upon the great French and Spanish fleet of M. de Villeneuve, who was prosecuting his attempt to befool Nelson by giving him that mad chase across the Atlantic and back which ended at Trafalgar.
The French ships returned the fire as they came within range of the rock, and their tremendous broadsides kicked up a deal of noise and cut up the face of the rock somewhat, but did no other damage. The crew of the rock made excellent practice, and, considering their force, rendered the passage interesting to the French. The ennui of the intervening months was forgotten. Villeneuve was furious. Never before had one lieutenant, four midshipmen, and one hundred-odd men (some of them had died during the sojourn) engaged successfully a splendid fleet of line-of-battle-ships. Toward evening one belated Spanish ship unsuspiciously attempted to anchor near the rock, but she was soon driven off with much loss. The elated Englishmen saw the fleet anchor at Fort Royal, now called, in deference to the republican form of government of France, Fort de France. Villeneuve, who was furiously angry, learned from the French at Fort de France that the formidable barrier was held by a handful of men, so he determined to capture the rock, and for that purpose, on the 29th of May, he detached a squadron consisting of the Pluton and Berwick, 74's, the frigate Sirene, 36, the Argus, 16, an armed schooner, and eleven gun-boats under the command of Commodore Cosmao, of the Pluton, with four hundred troops-of-the-line.
The rock had been blockaded ever since the arrival of the fleet at Martinique. When Maurice saw the ships bearing down upon him at break of day on the 31st of June, 1805, he knew what to expect. Owing to the fact that the supply-ship, which was due, had not arrived, – because of the blockade, doubtless, and the presence of the great French fleet, – Maurice unfortunately found himself with but a scanty supply of powder and shot. He determined to abandon two of the lower guns and concentrate his force about the eighteen-pounders and the twenty-four-pounder half-way up. Spiking the lower guns, thus destroying the battery, he withdrew to the summit of his command. For two days the ships were anchored near by, the mild weather permitting them to come close in. During this period the French poured an unremitting hail of shot upon the stone batteries of the rocky vessel. Maurice and his men answered the fire slowly but with great precision from their three remaining guns. Three of the gun-boats and two other small boats were sunk, and the larger ships were much cut up. The young captain might have protracted his defence indefinitely had not his powder entirely failed him. Observing the English fire to slacken, the French finally landed their troops on the beach at the foot of the rock. The last charge of the twenty-four hurled its iron missive of death among the Frenchmen huddled on the beach. Then, like a flock of goats, they sprang at the cliffs and clambered up the steep sides of the rock, which the fire of the ships cleared with showers of grape-shot. A feeble musketry-fire, for the small cartridges had been torn to contribute powder for the great guns, met them, but they came boldly on. As they swarmed over the rock Maurice and some of the older men struck at the advancing French with their swords. The two men nearest him were killed and he himself was badly wounded. There was nothing left but surrender. A French officer hauled down the English flag. The young captain had lost his first command. H. B. M.'s sloop-of-war Diamond Rock had passed into the hands of Admiral Villeneuve.
When the young captain recovered his senses in the cabin of the Bucentaur, the flag-ship of the French admiral, bound for Europe again, he did not know whether or not he had won Dorothy Venour.
Early in November, a week or so after the great battle of Trafalgar, which the young captain witnessed from the deck of the French ship, from which in the confusion he escaped to the Victory, where he did good service until the close of the action, he was landed at Portsmouth once more. In his pocket he bore two documents, one dated a year and a half back, and the other but yesterday. Led by an instinct which he could not explain, instead of going up to Captain Venour's house on the hill, he made his way through the town and along the beach toward that sheltered little cove from which he had taken his departure two years before. As he turned the point of rocks he saw a lonesome little figure seated on the sand, resting her chin in her hand and looking mournfully out over the sea. It was Dorothy. He stole up behind her, caught her under the arms, lifted her to her feet, and kissed her before she could utter a scream. When she recovered, however, she made up for her startled silence.
"Oh, Jim dear!" she cried, precipitating herself into his arms with a shriek of delight, "you look like a real man now!"
"I am a man, Dot darling," he replied, his eyes brightening as he saw her radiant face peeping out from the brown curls near his shoulder.
"Well, sir," exclaimed the deep voice of Captain Venour, coming down the beach, – singular how he always happened to be around at inopportune moments, – "you may be a man, but have you a command?"
"Oh, grandfather, he has command of me," cried Dorothy, archly, breaking away from her lover. "Won't I do?"
The old captain whistled.
"I've had command of a ship-of-the-line and I've tried to command one woman, but give me the ship-of-the-line," he answered, reflectively. "No, you won't do."
"Captain Venour," remarked the young man, gravely, "I have had a command, sir, and in accordance with your agreement I have come to claim your granddaughter."
"What was your command, my lad?" asked the captain, facetiously, "a dinghy or a jolly-boat?"
"A cutter, then?"
"A brig or a sloop-of-war?"
"Good heavens!" exclaimed the captain; "you don't mean to say you have been in charge of a frigate or a ship-of-the-line, a boy like you?"
"No, sir, not quite," said the young man.
"Well, what did you command? Did it have two masts?"
"It didn't have any masts, sir."
"No, sir; it was a rock."
"Good Lord!" ejaculated the old man, sitting down feebly and staring. "A rock? What do you mean? Are you trifling with me? That is no way to gain the lass."
"Well, sir," answered Maurice, gravely, "here are my orders authorizing me to command His Majesty's sloop-of-war Diamond Rock, five guns and one hundred and twenty men. It's a great stone hill off Martinique. I commanded it for one year and six months, at the end of which we beat off M. de Villeneuve's great fleet, and were only captured when our powder gave out, by a heavy squadron which bombarded us for two days. I was wounded – "
"Oh, Jim, wounded!" cried Dorothy, with a shriek of alarm, rushing toward him, while the dazed old man made no movement to prevent her.
"It is nothing, Dot darling," said the young fellow, manfully, but not making the slightest effort to avoid the caress. "I was wounded and taken on board the French flag-ship Bucentaur, from which I escaped to the Victory at Trafalgar, where Nelson beat the French fleet."
"Hey? What?" cried the old man. "Beat the French? But, of course, we always do that."
"I saw him killed, sir," added young Maurice.
"Who killed?" exclaimed Captain Venour, in astonishment.
"Lord Nelson, sir; right in the height of the battle."
"Good God!" cried Captain Venour. "Nelson gone? He was a reefer under me on the Hinchinbrook. It can't be possible!"
"Yes, sir, it is," replied the young captain.
There was a long pause.
"What next, sir?" asked Captain Venour.
"Well, sir, I swung myself on board the Victory in the action. Captain Hardy recognized me and gave me a gun division whose lieutenant had been killed, and – and that's all. No, sir; here's a paper from Lord Collingwood, who succeeded to the command after Lord Nelson died, recommending me to be appointed post-captain, and – and – that's all, sir. May I have Dorothy now, sir?"
"You may," answered the captain, feebly, utterly overcome by the astonishing recital. "Any man who has commanded a six-million-ton rock and fought at Trafalgar can have anything he wants, – if Dorothy is willing."
Dorothy signified unmistakably that she was willing.
"Poor Nelson!" continued the old captain. He rose slowly to his feet and turned away again, saying, —
"I will turn my back once more, young people, and mind, do it softly!"
"When lovely woman stoops to folly,
And finds too late that men betray,
What charm can soothe her melancholy?
What art can wash her guilt away?"
Marian Fletcher was certainly beautiful enough to excuse the jealousy of any man who loved her, – which, by the way, most men who knew her did! She was sufficiently a woman also to realize her own beauty – indeed, did ever daughter of Eve possess a charm of which she lacked knowledge? Even the most absolute ingénue is conscious that she is an ingénue, and Marian Fletcher was by no means that. And her wit and humor were not the least of her charms. She was gayety personified, light-hearted, healthy and red-cheeked, and joyous – quite a new woman for 1815, in fact; and that, too, in an artificial age in which languor and pallor, megrims and vapors were the fashion, "Nice customs curt'sy to" – beautiful women, and Marian had a fashion of her own. One word described the sum of her qualities, – fascination!
Even her best friends were forced to admit that she was a bit of a coquette, however. Indeed, if the truth were told, from the crown of her black hair, which brought to mind the usual simile of the raven's wing, down to her beautiful little feet, she was all of a coquette. She loved liberty, she loved love, she loved lovers. In addition to all of these things it might be said that, in her secret heart, she loved Robert Gardner. Whether she loved him more than she did the other three was a question which she had not settled to her own satisfaction, and about which Gardner himself was fearfully undecided.
She had said – but then she made many perjuries before the laughing Jove. She had permitted him to enjoy the fleeting and most unsatisfying pleasure of pressing his lips upon her brow. He believed that this was a step farther – he would have resented furiously any suggestion to the contrary – than any other suitor had gone. It was. She had allowed him to persuade her into a sort of an engagement, but the tie resulting was about as indefinite as could be imagined. With him – he was a sailor and his similes were nautical – it was a hempen cable which held him to her like a ship to a bower anchor. With her it was a daisy chain, ready to part at the first strain, and the strain was near at hand.
To celebrate the closing of the war of 1812, Colonel Fletcher, an old Revolutionary veteran and the father of the fair Marian, had assembled a house-party at his fine old place on the Hudson. He was a widower with a son and a daughter. The son had been an officer in Scott's army – a major – who had greatly distinguished himself in the Niagara campaign. Among others who had gladly accepted the veteran colonel's hospitality were two friends of young Major Fletcher, who had been college-mates with him at Harvard. One was Robert Gardner, a young lieutenant in the navy, and the other was John Mason, a young Virginian, who was a captain in the army. The young men had been guests of Colonel Fletcher before the war, and they had known Marian, whom they both loved, for several years. Their wooing, interrupted by the demands of the service, was at once renewed under the favorable circumstances of their meeting. Gardner was a gay, athletic, dashing young sailor, – blue-eyed, curly-haired, sunny in disposition; Mason, on the contrary, was tall and very slender, dignified and quiet, with a temper as dark as his complexion. One was impulsive, bold, impetuous; the other cool and determined, with an undercurrent of sleeping passion in his being; both were in the highest sense gentlemen.
The relations between the two men, at first friendly, had become markedly strained as their courtship proceeded, though no open rupture had yet occurred. Mason could not but be aware of Marian's preference for Gardner; yet, as she had not allowed the latter to announce their engagement, with dogged persistency the Virginian continued to proffer his attentions. Truth to say, these latter were not so unwelcome to the fair Marian as might be imagined. She had entered into a quasi-engagement with Gardner, yet she was by no means averse to the devotion of her melancholy yet handsome suitor, and her conduct between the two was not altogether above reproach. It was a joyous and delightful game, – also a dangerous!
On the evening in question it seemed that she had gone quite too far, and that even the hempen cable would not stand the strain which tautened it. During the day a pretty little lover's quarrel, which she had wilfully brought about to test her power, had culminated in an open rupture. Laughing at Gardner's pleas, she had devoted herself to Mason, – or had allowed Mason to devote himself to her, rather, – raising that young man to the seventh heaven of delight. She had ridden with him in the afternoon, gone to supper with him at night, and danced with him most of the evening at the party which had been arranged.
Manœuvring her out on the porch toward the close of the evening, Gardner unwisely endeavored to take her to task. Goaded beyond his power of restraint by her flirtation, he assumed an authority over her for which he had no warrant. Where he should have pleaded and entreated, he threatened and commanded. Miss Marian snapped her fingers at him metaphorically – she was too well bred to do such a thing physically. Rendered desperate by her obduracy, his anger passed all bounds and his words followed suit. The mock quarrel on her part became a real one. She repudiated him entirely, broke her engagement flatly, declared frankly that she did not love him, – and in the act of declaration she was convinced that she did, – and with her head high in the air, a brilliant flush on her cheek, and a sparkle of defiance in her eye, left him. He leaped from the porch and disappeared under the trees; she ran right into the arms of John Mason coming out of the house to seek her.
He saw her agitation, of course, and in her anger she let slip words which gave him a perfect clew to the cause of it. Before she realized what she did, she said that which she would have given worlds to recall – afterwards; then she was too much excited and indignant to care. Gardner had insulted her. She hated him.
"I hate him, too," said Mason, bending his head, his black eyes aflame in the shadow of the porch, "and the depth of my hatred is proportioned by my love for you, Marian. Give me leave, dearest, to make your cause mine."
His voice with its soft Southern tones was very persuasive and thrilling in the moonlight; there was such passion and yet such respect and adoration in its accents. He bent before her so deferentially and so pleadingly. There was such a contrast in his gentleness to the hectoring she had just undergone, that she yielded in spite of herself. With bent head she murmured words – she hardly knew what. Faintly resisting him, he swept her to his breast and pressed a kiss, not upon her forehead, but upon her lips.
At the instant a step on the porch interrupted them. Marian, already repentant, sprang from Mason's encircling arms and turned to see Gardner coming toward them. He had wandered about the grounds miserably after they had parted and had returned to sue for pardon, but what he had just seen had changed his mind. His face was convulsed with passion. Disregarding Marian, he stepped toward Mason, his hand upraised as if he would strike him down. There was murder in his heart. The girl screamed and then turned and fled in dismay. She had broken her engagement with a man whom she now realized she loved with all her heart, and she had promised herself to a man whom she knew she did not love. She had been bitterly unjust, in her folly, to both men.
The dancing for the evening was already over. The women of the party were retiring to their rooms, and Marian, sick at heart, slipped away and sought her chamber also. Throwing herself dressed upon her bed, she thought it over. Nothing would happen until the morning, she reasoned, and then she would make a clean breast of it to her father. He would extricate her from her difficulties.
Mason on the porch was already master of himself.
"Don't strike me!" he said to Gardner, "or I shall kill you where you stand! Besides, 'tis not necessary. I understand your feelings and I intend to give you satisfaction, but the cause of our quarrel must not be known. The reputation of the woman – I intend to make my wife must not be the subject of public comment. Control yourself, sir, I beg of you," he added, smiling triumphantly, as the other stamped his foot. "Let us repair to the house. The ladies will have retired, and we can easily manufacture sufficient public cause for a quarrel. I will take it upon myself. Come no nearer!" he said, thrusting his hand into the pocket of his coat as Gardner swayed toward him. "I warn you that I am armed. On my word, I will shoot you like a mad dog! I will submit to nothing from you. I am giving you a chance for your life and affording you every satisfaction as it is."
Gardner controlled himself with a mighty effort.
"You are right," he gasped; "'tis not through fear that I do not strike you, but, as you say, Miss Fletcher's name must not become the subject of gossip. You shall never marry her! I intend to kill you!"
"That's as may be," answered the other; "let us not come to blows about it. I am not used to such. 'Tis vulgar brawling. Control yourself. I take your arm, so. Though 'tis hateful to both of us, we must appear to be on friendly terms."
Arm in arm the two rivals entered the hall and no one dreamed of the deadly hatred which sundered them. After the departure of the women Colonel Fletcher and his guests sat down to spend the rest of the evening – morning rather – between cards and the bottle. Chance, or their own contrivance, made Mason and Gardner partners. Neither of the two partook of the wine. As the heat of Gardner's passion abated, he realized the necessity for acquiring his wonted calmness. He was a famous shot with the pistol, a weapon with which Mason was not so familiar, and he believed that if he had an opportunity he could kill him. He fully intended to do so.
It was an age in which duels were common and life was cheap. Mason was to afford the provocation and give the challenge. He said he would do so and he was a man of his word. Then, as the challenged party, Gardner would have the choice of weapons. As the game proceeded, Mason, who had made several irritating remarks upon his partner's playing, finally remarked, sneeringly:
"That's a cowardly deal, Gardner. Why don't you play more boldly, sir?"
"Cowardly!" cried Gardner, rising.
"That's what I said. But then what could you expect from a man who had been an officer on the Chesapeake?"
The allusion, of course, was to the capture of the American frigate Chesapeake by the British frigate Shannon, which was almost the solitary instance of English naval success in the war, but for which Gardner was in no way responsible.
"By gad, sir!" shouted Gardner, "if I play like a coward, you play like a booby! Your tactics are what one would naturally expect from a soldier whose chief exploit was in leading the flying troops from Bladensburg!" another American defeat and a disgraceful one at that, although Mason had there fought bravely until wounded.
"You shall wipe out this insult, sir!" responded Mason, rising in his turn.
"Yes," said the other, "in the only possible way."
"Gentlemen! Gentlemen!" interrupted some of the others.
"What's this?" exclaimed the colonel, leaving his table and approaching them. "Brawling in my house among my guests? I will have none of it!"
"Sir," cried Gardner, "you are a soldier. You are all soldiers here; I alone am a sailor. This person called me a coward, taunted me with the loss of the Chesapeake. By heavens, he shall apologize!"
"What?" said the colonel. "Did you make use of such intemperate language, Captain Mason?"
"I did, sir," responded the other, coolly, "and I may add that he accused me of leading the retreat at Bladensburg, which is a damnable lie, sir! I challenge him instantly!"
"He but anticipates my own desire," said Gardner. "You see, sir, the matter must be arranged. As the challenged party I name pistols, and if the time is agreeable I appoint this moment for the encounter. Major Fletcher will perhaps honor me by acting as my second."
"And Captain Lee," said Mason, turning to one of the others, "will, I am sure, act for me."
"Gentlemen," said the colonel, retiring with the seconds, "cannot this unhappy affair be arranged?"
"It is impossible, sir," replied Lee and his son, who had consulted a moment or two with their respective principals.
"There must be more behind this than appears."
"That's as may be, colonel; there is enough on the surface, anyway; the two men have deliberately insulted each other, and the duel must go on," replied Captain Lee.
"I entirely agree with Lee, father," assented Major Fletcher.
The preliminaries were soon arranged. The party had assembled in the dining-room. The long table was pushed to one side of the room. The colonel's duelling pistols had been loaded under the supervision of the seconds and each contestant had received his weapon. At one side of the apartment the men of the party were gathered; one of them held a lighted candelabrum high in the air to light both men equally. All other lights in the room had been extinguished. Pistol in hand at the table stood Colonel Fletcher. Six paces were measured in the centre of the room by the seconds, and marked off by two playing-cards laid on the floor. Mason and Gardner were placed opposite each other, each one with his right foot touching the card marking his station. It had been agreed between the seconds that the colonel should pronounce the words "one, two," and then "fire!" and that after the word "fire!" the combatants should fire at pleasure.
As is often the case, in the moment of danger Gardner's coolness came back to him. He believed that Marian had permitted herself to be inveigled into an engagement to Mason because of the quarrel and his behavior toward her. He felt confident that she loved him, and he intended to solve the dilemma in which she had placed herself by killing the other man. No feeling of pity, no intention to spare his rival, found even a momentary lodgment in his heart. As he stood thinking hard while the arrangements were being completed, he marked the very spot where the lace of Mason's coat crossed his heart, into which he intended to send his bullet. The soldier wore his usual uniform, and the frock coat loosely buttoned about his spare form gave him a stouter appearance than his proportions warranted.
It was Gardner's purpose to fire instantly upon the giving of the word, trusting to his quickness of movement and his accuracy of aim to kill his opponent before he had time to pull the trigger. As he looked at Mason standing so cool and so quiet before him, he felt that he would have need of all his skill and address to win the game, in which not only love, but life, were the stakes.
On Mason's part, while his desire to kill his opponent was as great as Gardner's, his tactics were different. Though ordinarily familiar with his weapon and able to give a good account of himself if he had his own time for firing, he knew that he would be at a tremendous disadvantage in a quick exchange of shots. He realized also that with his usual impetuosity Gardner would fire instantly the word was given. He determined, therefore, to submit to the fearful risk of receiving the hasty shot which he felt would come, and if he were then unharmed, deliberately take his time in returning it. He had no suspicion but that the acceptance of his suit had been genuine, and he longed to live with a double intensity on account of the depth of his passion.