Arthur Conan Doyle

         The "Slapping Sal"

     It was in the days  when France's power was already  broken upon the seas,
and  when  more of her three-deckers lay  rotting in the Medway than were to be
found in Brest harbour. But her frigates and corvettes still scoured the ocean,
closely followed ever by those of her rival. At the uttermost ends of the earth
these  dainty  vessels,  with  sweet  names of girls or of flowers, mangled and
shattered  each other for the honour of the four yards of bunting which flapped
from the end of their gaffs.
     It had blown hard in the night, but the wind had dropped with the dawning,
and now the rising sun tinted the fringe of the storm-wrack as it dwindled into
the  west  and glinted on the endless crests of the long, green waves. To north
and  south  and west lay a skyline which was unbroken save by the spout of foam
when  two  of the great Atlantic seas dashed each other into spray. To the east
was a rocky island, jutting out into craggy points, with a few scattered clumps
of  palm  trees and a pennant of mist streaming out from the bare, conical hill
which capped it. A heavy surf beat upon the shore, and, at a safe distance from
it, the British 32-gun frigate Leda,  Captain A. P. Johnson,  raised her black,
glistening  side  upon  the  crest  of  a wave, or swooped down into an emerald
valley,  dipping  away  to  the  nor'ard  under  easy  sail.  On her snow-white
quarter-deck  stood  a stiff little brown-faced man, who swept the horizon with
his glass.
     "Mr. Wharton!" he cried, with a voice like a rusty hinge.
     A thin, knock-kneed officer shambled across the poop to him.
     "Yes, sir."
     "I've opened the sealed orders, Mr. Wharton."
     A glimmer  of  curiosity  shone  upon  the  meagre  features of the  first
lieutenant.  The Leda had sailed with her consort,  the Dido,  from Antigua the
week before, and the admiral's orders had been contained in a sealed envelope.
     "We  were to open them on reaching the deserted island of Sombriero, lying
in   north   latitude   eighteen,   thirty-six,   west  longitude  sixty-three,
twenty-eight.  Sombriero  bore  four  miles to the north-east from our port-bow
when the gale cleared, Mr. Wharton."
     The  lieutenant  bowed  stiffly. He and the captain had been bosom friends
from  childhood.  They  had  gone to school together, joined the navy together,
fought again and again together, and married into each other's families, but so
long  as  their feet were on the poop the iron discipline of the service struck
all  that was human out of them and left only the superior and the subordinate.
Captain  Johnson  took  from  his  pocket  a  blue  paper, which crackled as he
unfolded it.
     "The  32-gun  frigates  Leda  and  Dido  (Captains A. P. Johnson and James
Munro) are to cruise from the point at which these instructions are read to the
mouth  of  the  Caribbean Sea,  in  the hope of encountering the French frigate 
La Gloire, which has recently  harassed our merchant  ships  in  that  quarter. 
H.M. frigates are  also  directed  to  hunt  down  the  piratical  craft  known 
sometimes as the Slapping Sal and sometimes  as  the  Hairy Hudson,  which  has 
plundered the British ships as per margin, inflicting  barbarities  upon  their 
crews. She is a small brig, carrying ten light guns, with one twenty-four pound 
carronade  forward.  She was last seen  upon the 23rd ult. to the north-east of 
the island of Sombriero."
     "(Signed) James Montgomery,"
     "(Rear-Admiral). H.M.S. Colossus, Antigua."
     "We appear to have lost our consort," said Captain Johnson, folding up his
instructions  and  again  sweeping  the  horizon with his glass. "She drew away
after we reefed down. It would be a pity if we met this heavy Frenchman without
the Dido, Mr. Wharton. Eh?"
     The lieutenant twinkled and smiled.
     "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
     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
     "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."
     "Ah, indeed!"
     "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  halfway.  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."
     With  a  rattle  of ropes and a creaking of blocks the four boats splashed
into  the  water. Their crews clustered thickly into them: bare-footed sailors,
stolid marines, laughing middies, and in the sheets of each the senior officers
with their stern schoolmaster faces.
     The  captain,  his elbows on the binnacle, still watched the distant brig.
Her  crew  were  tricing  up the boarding-netting, dragging round the starboard
guns,  knocking  new  portholes  for  them,  and making every preparation for a
desperate  resistance.  In the thick of it all a huge man, bearded to the eyes,
with a red nightcap upon his head,  was straining and stooping and hauling. The
captain watched him with a sour smile, and then snapping up his glass he turned
upon his heel. For an instant he stood staring.
     "Call  back  the boats!" he cried in his thin, creaking voice. "Clear away
for  action  there!  Cast loose those main-deck guns. Brace back the yards, Mr.
Smeaton, and stand by to go about when she has weigh enough."
     Round  the curve of the estuary was coming a huge vessel. Her great yellow
bowsprit and white-winged figure-head were jutting out from the cluster of palm
trees,  while  high  above  them towered three immense masts with the tricolour
flag  floating  superbly  from  the mizzen. Round she came, the deep-blue water
creaming  under her fore foot, until her long, curving, black side, her line of
shining copper beneath and of snow-white hammocks above, and the thick clusters
of men who peered over her bulwarks were all in full view. Her lower yards were
slung,  her  ports  triced up, and her guns run out all ready for action. Lying
behind  one  of  the  promontories of the island, the lookout men of the Gloire
upon  the  shore  had  seen  the cul de sac into  which the British frigate was
headed, so that Captain de Milon had served the Leda as Captain Johnson had the 
Slapping Sal.
     But the splendid discipline of the British service was at its best in such
a crisis. The boats flew back; their crews clustered aboard; they were swung up
at  the  davits  and  the  fall-ropes  made  fast. Hammocks were brought up and
stowed,  bulkheads  sent down, ports and magazines opened, the fires put out in
the  galley,  and  the drums beat to quarters. Swarms of men set the head-sails
and  brought the frigate round, while the gun-crews threw off their jackets and
shirts,  tightened  their  belts,  and ran out their eighteen-pounders, peering
through  the open portholes at the stately French man. The wind was very light.
Hardly  a  ripple  showed  itself upon the clear blue water, but the sails blew
gently  out  as  the  breeze came over the wooded banks. The Frenchman had gone
about  also,  and  both  ships  were  now  heading  slowly  for  the  sea under
fore-and-aft  canvas,  the Gloire a hundred yards in advance.  She luffed up to
cross  the  Leda's  bows,  but  the  British  ship came round also, and the two
rippled  slowly  on  in  such  a silence that the ringing of the ramrods as the
French marines drove home their charges clanged quite loudly upon the ear.
     "Not much sea-room, Mr. Wharton," remarked the captain.
     "I have fought actions in less, sir."
     "We must keep our distance and trust to our gunnery.  She is very  heavily
manned, and if she got alongside we might find ourselves in trouble."
     "I see the shakoes of soldiers aboard other."
     "Two  companies  of  light  infantry  from  Martinique.  Now  we have her!
Hard-a-port, and let her have it as we cross her stern!"
     The keen eye of the little commander had  seen the surface  ripple,  which
told of a passing breeze. He had  used it to dart  across the big Frenchman and
to  rake  her  with every gun as he passed. But, once past her, the Leda had to
come  back  into the wind to keep out of shoal water. The manoeuvre brought her
on  to  the starboard side of the Frenchman, and the trim little frigate seemed
to  heel  right  over  under the crashing broadside which burst from the gaping
ports.  A  moment later her topmen were swarming aloft to set her top-sails and
royals,  and  she  strove  to  cross  the Gloire's bows and rake her again. The
French  captain,  however,  brought  his frigate's head round, and the two rode
side by side within easy pistol-shot, pouring broadsides into each other in one
of  those  murderous  duels which, could they all be recorded, would mottle our
charts with blood.
     In  that  heavy  tropical  air, with so faint a breeze, the smoke formed a
thick  bank  round  the  two  vessels,  from which the topmasts only protruded.
Neither  could  see  anything  of  its  enemy  save  the  throbs of fire in the
darkness,  and the guns were sponged and trained and fired into a dense wall of
vapour.  On  the  poop and the forecastle the marines, in two little red lines,
were  pouring  in  their volleys, but neither they nor the seamen-gunners could
see  what  effect  their  fire was having. Nor, indeed, could they tell how far
they  were  suffering  themselves, for, standing at a gun, one could but hazily
see that upon the right and the left. But above the roar of the cannon came the
sharper  sound  of  the  piping  shot,  the  crashing  of riven planks, and the
occasional  heavy  thud  as  spar  or  block  came hurtling on to the deck. The
lieutenants  paced  up  and down the line of guns, while Captain Johnson fanned
the smoke away with his cocked-hat and peered eagerly out.
     "This  is  rare,  Bobby!"  said  he,  as  the lieutenant joined him. Then,
suddenly restraining himself, "What have we lost, Mr. Wharton?"
     "Our maintopsail yard and our gaff, sir."
     "Where's the flag?"
     "Gone overboard, sir."
     "They'll  think we've struck! Lash a boat's ensign on the starboard arm of
the mizzen cross-jack-yard."
     "Yes, sir."
     A round-shot  dashed the binnacle to pieces between them. A second knocked
two  marines  into a bloody  palpitating mash. For a moment the smoke rose, and
the  English  captain  saw  that  his adversary's heavier metal was producing a
horrible  effect.  The Leda  was a shattered wreck. Her deck was  strewed  with
corpses.  Several  of  her  portholes  were  knocked  into  one, and one of her
eighteen-pounder  guns had been thrown right back on to her breech, and pointed
straight  up  to  the sky. The thin line of marines still loaded and fired, but
half the guns were silent, and their crews were piled thickly round them.
     "Stand by to repel boarders!" yelled the captain.
     "Cutlasses, lads, cutlasses!" roared Wharton.
     "Hold your volley till they touch!" cried the captain of marines.
     The huge loom of the Frenchman was seen bursting through the smoke.  Thick
clusters of boarders  hung upon her sides and shrouds. A final broad-side leapt
from  her  ports,  and the main-mast of the Leda, snapping short off a few feet
above  the deck, spun into the air and crashed down upon the port guns, killing
ten  men  and putting the whole battery out of action. An instant later the two
ships scraped together, and the starboard bower anchor of the Gloire caught the
mizzen-chains  of  the Leda upon the port side.  With a yell the black swarm of
boarders steadied themselves for a spring.
     But  their  feet  were  never  to reach that blood-stained deck. From some
where  there  came  a  well-aimed whiff of grape, and another, and another. The
English  marines  and seamen, waiting with cutlass and musket behind the silent
guns,  saw  with  amazement the dark masses thinning and shredding away. At the
same time the port broadside of the Frenchman burst into a roar.
     "Clear  away  the  wreck!"  roared  the  captain. "What the devil are they
firing at?"
     "Get the guns clear!" panted the lieutenant. "We'll do them yet, boys!"
     The wreckage  was  torn and hacked and splintered  until first one gun and
then  another  roared  into  action  again. The Frenchman's anchor had been cut
away,  and  the Leda  had  worked  herself  free  from that fatal hug. But now,
suddenly,  there  was  a  scurry  up  the  shrouds of the Gloire, and a hundred
Englishmen  were shouting themselves hoarse: "They're running! They're running!
They're running!"
     And  it  was  true.  The Frenchman had ceased to fire, and was intent only
upon  clapping  on  every  sail  that he could carry. But that shouting hundred
could  not claim it all as their own. As the smoke cleared it was not difficult
to  see  the  reason.  The ships had gained the mouth of the estuary during the
fight,  and  there, about four miles out to sea, was the Leda's consort bearing
down under full sail to the sound of the guns.
     Captain de Milon  had done his part for one day,  and presently the Gloire
was drawing off swiftly to the north,  while the Dido was bowling  along at her
skirts, rattling away with her bow-chasers, until a headland hid them both from
     But the Leda lay  sorely  stricken,  with her mainmast gone,  her bulwarks
shattered,  her  mizzen-topmast  and  gaff shot away, her sails like a beggar's
rags,  and  a  hundred of her crew dead and wounded. Close beside her a mass of
wreckage floated upon the waves. It was the stern-post of a mangled vessel, and
across it, in white letters on a black ground, was printed, "The Slapping Sal."
     "By the Lord! it was the brig that saved us!"  cried Mr. Wharton.  "Hudson
brought her into action with the Frenchman, and was blown out of the water by a
     The little captain turned on his heel and paced up and down the deck.
     Already  his  crew were plugging the shot-holes, knotting and splicing and
mending.  When he came back,  the lieutenant saw a softening of the stern lines
about his eyes and mouth.
     "Are they all gone?"
     "Every man. They must have sunk with the wreck."
     The  two  officers  looked  down at the sinister name, and at the stump of
wreckage  which floated in the discoloured water. Something black washed to and
fro  beside  a splintered gaff and a tangle of halliards. It was the outrageous
ensign, and near it a scarlet cap was floating.
     "He was a villain,  but  he  was a Briton!"  said the captain at last. "He
lived like a dog, but, by God, he died like a man!"


     К списку авторов     В кают-компанию