Chapter XXX: The Last Fight of the Arabella
“VHY do you vait, my friend?” growled van der Kuylen.
“Aye--in God’s name!” snapped Willoughby.
It was the afternoon of that same day, and the two buccaneer ships rocked gently with idly flapping sails under the lee of the long spit of land forming the great natural harbour of Port Royal, and less than a mile from the straits leading into it, which the fort commanded. It was two hours and more since they had brought up thereabouts, having crept thither unobserved by the city and by M. de Rivarol’s ships, and all the time the air had been aquiver with the roar of guns from sea and land, announcing that battle was joined between the French and the defenders of Port Royal. That long, inactive waiting was straining the nerves of both Lord Willoughby and van der Kuylen.
“You said you vould show us zome vine dings. Vhere are dese vine dings?”
Blood faced them, smiling confidently. He was arrayed for battle, in back-and-breast of black steel. “I’ll not be trying your patience much longer. Indeed, I notice already a slackening in the fire. But it’s this way, now: there’s nothing at all to be gained by precipitancy, and a deal to be gained by delaying, as I shall show you, I hope.”
Lord Willoughby eyed him suspiciously. “Ye think that in the meantime Bishop may come back or Admiral van der Kuylen’s fleet appear?”
“Sure, now, I’m thinking nothing of the kind. What I’m thinking is that in this engagement with the fort M. de Rivarol, who’s a lubberly fellow, as I’ve reason to know, will be taking some damage that may make the odds a trifle more even. Sure, it’ll be time enough to go forward when the fort has shot its bolt.”
“Aye, aye!” The sharp approval came like a cough from the little Governor-General. “I perceive your object, and I believe ye’re entirely right. Ye have the qualities of a great commander, Captain Blood. I beg your pardon for having misunderstood you.”
“And that’s very handsome of your lordship. Ye see, I have some experience of this kind of action, and whilst I’ll take any risk that I must, I’ll take none that I needn’t. But...” He broke off to listen. “Aye, I was right. The fire’s slackening. It’ll mean the end of Mallard’s resistance in the fort. Ho there, Jeremy!”
He leaned on the carved rail and issued orders crisply. The bo’sun’s pipe shrilled out, and in a moment the ship that had seemed to slumber there, awoke to life. Came the padding of feet along the decks, the creaking of blocks and the hoisting of sail. The helm was put over hard, and in a moment they were moving, the Elizabeth following, ever in obedience to the signals from the Arabella, whilst Ogle the gunner, whom he had summoned, was receiving Blood’s final instructions before plunging down to his station on the main deck.
Within a quarter of an hour they had rounded the head, and stood in to the harbour mouth, within saker shot of Rivarol’s three ships, to which they now abruptly disclosed themselves.
Where the fort had stood they now beheld a smoking rubbish heap, and the victorious Frenchman with the lily standard trailing from his mastheads was sweeping forward to snatch the rich prize whose defences he had shattered.
Blood scanned the French ships, and chuckled. The Victorieuse and the Medusa appeared to have taken no more than a few scars; but the third ship, the Baleine, listing heavily to larboard so as to keep the great gash in her starboard well above water, was out of account.
“You see!” he cried to van der Kuylen, and without waiting for the Dutchman’s approving grunt, he shouted an order: “Helm, hard-a-port!”
The sight of that great red ship with her gilt beak-head and open ports swinging broadside on must have given check to Rivarol’s soaring exultation. Yet before he could move to give an order, before he could well resolve what order to give, a volcano of fire and metal burst upon him from the buccaneers, and his decks were swept by the murderous scythe of the broadside. The Arabella held to her course, giving place to the Elizabeth, which, following closely, executed the same manoeuver. And then whilst still the Frenchmen were confused, panic-stricken by an attack that took them so utterly by surprise, the Arabella had gone about, and was returning in her tracks, presenting now her larboard guns, and loosing her second broadside in the wake of the first. Came yet another broadside from the Elizabeth and then the Arabella’s trumpeter sent a call across the water, which Hagthorpe perfectly understood.
“On, now, Jeremy!” cried Blood. “Straight into them before they recover their wits. Stand by, there! Prepare to board! Hayton ... the grapnels! And pass the word to the gunner in the prow to fire as fast as he can load.”
He discarded his feathered hat, and covered himself with a steel head-piece, which a negro lad brought him. He meant to lead this boarding-party in person. Briskly he explained himself to his two guests. “Boarding is our only chance here. We are too heavily outgunned.”
Of this the fullest demonstration followed quickly. The Frenchmen having recovered their wits at last, both ships swung broadside on, and concentrating upon the Arabella as the nearer and heavier and therefore more immediately dangerous of their two opponents, volleyed upon her jointly at almost the same moment.
Unlike the buccaneers, who had fired high to cripple their enemies above decks, the French fifed low to smash the hull of their assailant. The Arabella rocked and staggered under that terrific hammering, although Pitt kept her headed towards the French so that she should offer the narrowest target. For a moment she seemed to hesitate, then she plunged forward again, her beak-head in splinters, her forecastle smashed, and a gaping hole forward, that was only just above the water-line. Indeed, to make her safe from bilging, Blood ordered a prompt jettisoning of the forward guns, anchors, and water-casks and whatever else was moveable.
Meanwhile, the Frenchmen going about, gave the like reception to the Elizabeth. The Arabella, indifferently served by the wind, pressed forward to come to grips. But before she could accomplish her object, the Victorieuse had loaded her starboard guns again, and pounded her advancing enemy with a second broadside at close quarters. Amid the thunder of cannon, the rending of timbers, and the screams of maimed men, the half-necked Arabella plunged and reeled into the cloud of smoke that concealed her prey, and then from Hayton went up the cry that she was going down by the head.
Blood’s heart stood still. And then in that very moment of his despair, the blue and gold flank of the Victorieuse loomed through the smoke. But even as he caught that enheartening glimpse he perceived, too, how sluggish now was their advance, and how with every second it grew more sluggish. They must sink before they reached her.
Thus, with an oath, opined the Dutch Admiral, and from Lord Willoughby there was a word of blame for Blood’s seamanship in having risked all upon this gambler’s throw of boarding.
“There was no other chance!” cried Blood, in broken-hearted frenzy. “If ye say it was desperate and foolhardy, why, so it was; but the occasion and the means demanded nothing less. I fail within an ace of victory.”