Petrel and the
Black Swan by
Never, surely, did the cry fall upon more welcome ears, save and
except those of men becalmed in a boat upon the open sea. For
twelve weary days and nights had we, the officers and men of H.M.S.
Petrel (six guns, Commander B. R. Neville), been cooped up in our
iron prison, patrolling one of the hottest sections of the terrestrial
globe, on the lookout for slavers. From latitude 4 deg. north to
latitude 4 deg. south was our beat, and we dared not venture beyond
these limits. Our instructions were to keep out of sight of land
and try to intercept some of the larger vessels, which, it was
suspected, carried cargoes of slaves from the —— coast. The ship,
the sea, the cloudless sky—there was nothing else to see, nothing
else to think of. Work, study, play even, were alike impossible in
that fierce, scorching heat. If you touched a bit of iron on deck
it almost burned your hand. If you lay down between-decks covered
with a sheet, you awoke in a bath of perspiration.
The man, in his excitement, repeated the shout before he could be
hailed from the deck.
"Where away?" sang out the captain.
"Two points on the weather-bow, sir," was the reply.
That phrase about the "weather-bow" was a nautical fiction, for
there was no wind to speak of, and what there was was nearly dead
"Keep her away two points," said Commander Neville; and the order
was promptly obeyed.
In a few seconds the news had spread through the ship, and the men
clustered on the bulwarks, straining their eyes to get a glimpse of
the stranger. Even the stokers, poor fellows, showed their sooty
faces at the engine-room hatchway. Of course the stranger might
be, and probably was, an innocent trader; but then she might be a
slaver; and golden visions of prize-money floated before the eyes
of every man and boy on board the Petrel.
We did not steam very fast, as of course our supply of coal was
limited; and it was about two hours before sundown when we fairly
sighted the stranger. She was a long three-masted schooner, with
tall raking masts, lying very low in the water. All her canvas was
set; and as a little wind had sprung up, she was slipping through
the water at a fair pace.
"She looks for all the world like a slaver, sir," remarked Mr.
Brabazon, the first lieutenant, to the commander.
Neville said nothing, but his lips were firmly compressed, and a
gleam of excitement was in his eyes.
"Fire a blank cartridge, Mr. O'Riley," said he to the second
lieutenant; "and signal her to ask her nationality and her code
This was done; and in answer to the signal the schooner slowly
hoisted the American colours.
"She has eased away her sheets, and luffed a point or two, sir,"
said the quartermaster, touching his cap.
The captain merely answered this by a nod.
"Put a shot in your gun, Mr. O'Riley," said he. "Lower your hoist
and make a fresh hoist demanding her name."
This was done, but the American took no notice.
"Fire a shot, Mr. O'Riley—wide, of course," said the commander.
Again the deafening report of the big gun sounded in our ears; and
we could see the splash of the shot as it struck the water about
fifty yards from the schooner. Immediately a flag was run up, then
another and another; and we saw that she was not giving us her
code number, but was spelling out her name, letter by letter—The
"Just look that up in the United States Merchant Registry," said
the captain to the first lieutenant. And in half a minute he
had reported—"No such name, sir." This was something more than
suspicious. And the wind was rising.
"Hoist the signal for her to heave to!" cried Commander Neville.
"Take a boat and half a dozen hands, Mr. O'Riley," he continued;
"board her, inspect her papers, and come back to report. If her
papers are not in order," added he, "you may search for slaves;
but if they are you had better do nothing further. You know it is
clearly set down in the Protocol that we are not entitled to search
the hold if the papers are in order; and there have been complaints
lately against some over-zealous officers, who have got into trouble
in consequence. So be careful. But keep your eyes open. Note any
suspicious circumstances, and come back and report."
Before Lieutenant O'Riley reached the ship he saw that everything
about her had been sacrificed to speed. Her spars, especially, were
unusually heavy for a craft of her size.
The British officer was received by a little, thin, elderly man
wearing a Panama hat and speaking with a strong Yankee accent.
"Produce your papers, if you please," said O'Riley. They were handed
out at once, and seemed to be perfectly regular.
"What have you got on board?" was the next question.
"General cargo—dry goods, and so on."
"Why isn't your name on the register?"
"Ain't it now? Well, I guess it must be because this is a new ship.
We can't put our name on by telegraph, mister."
"Just tell your men to knock off the hatches. I want to have a look
at your cargo."
The skipper shook his head.
"I've been delayed long enough," said he, "and have lost a great
part of the only wind we've had in this darned latitude for a week."
"I'll do it myself, then!" cried O'Riley.
"Not now, sir; not with six men while I have fifteen. You have no
right to search the hold of a respectable merchantman and disturb
her cargo. Do you take me for a slaver, or what? Ef you must have
the hatches up, send back to your man-of-war for a larger crew, so
as to overpower me, you understand, and you may do it with pleasure.
Bet I guess there'll be a complaint lodged at Washington, and you
folks in London will have to pay for it. That's all, mister. I only
want things fair and square, within my treaty rights."
And having delivered himself of this long speech, the Yankee skipper
turned on his heel.
Of course O'Riley could only return to the Petrel and report all
this to his commander. "I'm convinced she is a slaver, sir," said
he in conclusion.
"But you have no evidence of it; and you say the papers were all
"Apparently they were, sir."
"Then I'm afraid I can do nothing," said the commander. And to the
deep disgust of the whole ship's crew, the order was given for the
Petrel to return to her course.
All that night, however, Commander Neville was haunted by a doubt
whether he had not better have run the risk of a complaint and a
reprimand, rather than forego the overhauling of so suspicious-looking
a craft; and in the morning a rumour reached his ears that the
cockswain, who had accompanied Mr. O'Riley to The Black Swan, had
noticed something about her of a doubtful nature. The man was sent
for and questioned; and he said that, while the lieutenant was on
board, the boat of which he was in charge had dropped a little way
astern; and that he had then noticed that the name of the vessel
had been recently painted out, but that the last two letters were
distinctly visible. And these letters were LE, not AN.
"The scoundrel said she was a new ship!" cried the commander. "'Bout
"We can't possibly catch her up, sir," said the first lieutenant,
"I don't know that, Mr. Brabazon," answered Neville. "There has
been hardly any wind, and we know the course she was steering. She
could not expect to see us again; so in all probability she has
kept to that course. By making allowances, we may intercept her;
I am convinced of it."
The hope of again encountering The Black Swan, faint as it was,
caused quite a commotion in our little world. The day passed without
our sighting a single sail; but when the morning dawned Lieutenant
Brabazon was forced to own that the commander's judgment had
proved better than his own. By the greatest good luck we had hit
upon the right track. There, right in front of us, was the American
schooner, her sails lazily flapping against her masts.
"Full speed ahead, and stand by!" shouted the captain down the
"Signal to her to heave to, and if she does not obey, fire a shot
right across her bows, Mr. O'Riley," continued the commander.
"Mr. Brabazon, you take a boat and thirty men well armed. Board
her, and have her hatches off at once. You'll stand no nonsense,
"All right, sir," cried the lieutenant, an active, somewhat imperious
officer, of the Civis Romanus sum type. He had been unusually
disgusted at his commander's decision to leave The Black Swan without
searching her; and he was delighted that a more active policy had
"I say, Brabazon," whispered the commander to him, as he was going
over the side, "you know I'm stepping a bit beyond bounds, and
I'm just a little anxious. If she turns out to be a slaver, as
we suspect, step to the taffrail and wave your handkerchief, will
"I will, sir; I'm certain it will be all right," cheerfully responded
the first lieutenant.
A tall, slim, youngish man, in white linen, received the British
officer as he set foot on the deck of The Black Swan.
"I am at present in command of this craft, sir," said the young
American. "The skipper is not fit just at present. We had a visit
from you two days ago, I think. Can I do anything for you?"
"Yes; I want you to take off your hatches," said the lieutenant,
"Well, sir," began the Yankee, "I guess your demand is beyond your
"I know all about that. I must have the hatches off."
"And you are detaining me and overhauling my cargo on no grounds
"Will you do it at once?" broke in the British officer.
"I repeat—ON NO GROUNDS WHATEVER; will cause an in—ter—na—tional
difficulty, and may bring re—markably unpleasant con—sequences
to your captain. Now—"
"Off with your hatches!" cried the lieutenant.
"If you don't, by George, I will!"
"You know clearly what you're doing, sir?"
"And you know the risk you run?"
"I do. No more palaver. Off with them at once, or I'll break them
Further resistance was useless. The thing was done; and the moment
the first hatch was raised the sickening effluvium that issued from
the hold proclaimed the truth. Nearly three hundred slaves were
packed between-decks, many of the poor creatures standing so close
that they could not lie down.
With a look of speechless contempt at the young mate of the
schooner, the lieutenant walked to the side of the ship and waved
his handkerchief. That instant a loud British cheer rang over the
water, given by the blue-jackets, who could be seen clustering in
the rigging like bees.
"I told our skipper judgment would overtake us," said the Yankee.
"Say, mister," he added, in another tone, "seeing that the game's
up, suppose we have a glass of iced champagne downstairs?"
The lieutenant hesitated. To drink with the mate of a slaver!
Slowly he moved toward the companionway. "I don't mind if I do,"
he said, at length; "and you may as well bring up your papers with
the drinks, for I shall carry them on board the Petrel. Of course
you understand that you are my prize."
And having set a guard at the hatchways, the lieutenant descended
the cabin stairs.
The iced champagne was duly forthcoming, and under its genial
influence Lieutenant Brabazon began to feel something like pity
for the young mate who had been so early seduced into the paths of
crime. Probably he had a mother or a sweetheart somewhere in the
States who imagined that he was already on his way home, whereas
now his character was ruined, even if he escaped a long term of
This feeling was strengthened as he saw that his companion was
gazing mournfully at his glass without speaking a word. At length
the young man lifted his head.
"Say, mister, what'll they do to me, do you think?"
"I can't tell. Of course you know that what you have been engaged
in is a kind of piracy?"
"I believe so. Cargo and crew are confiscated, of course. What
they will do with you I can't tell."
"They won't hang me, will they?"
"Probably not," said the lieutenant; "but let this be a warning
to you. You see what it is to wander off the straight course and
hanker after forbidden gains. Lead an honest life in future, when
you are released from custody. Avoid vicious companions—But what's
this?" he cried, as his eye fell on an empty scabbard hanging on the
wall. It looked very like a United States service sword scabbard,
and immediately the thought darted through his mind that this
hypocritical young Yankee (who had been pretending to wipe away a
tear as he listened to the lieutenant's good advice) had been doing
something worse, or at least more heavily punished, than running
cargoes of slaves.
The British officer looked round the cabin. A United States navy
cap was lying on a plush-covered bench.
"Ah! you've been having a brush with an American man-of-war!" cried
Lieutenant Brabazon. "You will have to tell my superior officer
how you came into possession of these articles. I most place you
under arrest!" And, bitterly regretting that he had sat down to
table with the fellow, the British officer rushed on deck.
"Quartermaster," he cried, "bring up a guard of four men, and take
this man," pointing to the Yankee, who had followed him on deck,
"to the Petrel. If he tries to escape, shoot him at once!"
The quartermaster advanced to seize the prisoner; but before
he reached him he involuntarily stopped short. A roar of laughter
sounded in his ears. The American mate and his companions were
shrieking and staggering about the deck; even the crew of the
slaver were, every man Jack of them, grinning from ear to ear. The
lieutenant was dumfounded.
"Excuse me, sir; but the joke was too good," said the Yankee, coming
forward and holding out his hand. "I am the first lieutenant of the
United States war-ship Georgia, in command of a prize crew on board
this vessel, taking her to —— to have her condemned. We seized
her yesterday. Hearing that you had been on a visit to her the
day before, and had gone away without doing anything, I couldn't
resist the temptation of taking you in. Hope you don't bear malice?
Let's finish that magnum of champagne."
It was evidently the best thing to be done; but the lieutenant was
not a first-rate companion on that occasion.
"Give my respects to your commander," called out the United States
officer, as his guest went down into his boat, "and advise him
from me not to be so jolly particular another time. And I'll try
to take your kind advice and sail a straight course in future!" he
cried, as her Majesty's boat shot away for the last time from the
side of The Black Swan.