And Yeo went about his gunnery, as one who knew how to do it, and had the most terrible mind to do it thoroughly, and the most terrible faith that it was God's work.
So all fell to; and though there was comparatively little to be done, the ship having been kept as far as could be in fighting order all night, yet there was "clearing the decks, lacing the nettings, making of bulwarks, fitting of waist-cloths, arming of tops, tallowing of pikes, slinging of yards, doubling of sheets and tacks," enough to satisfy even the pedantical soul of Richard Hawkins himself.
Amyas took charge of the poop, Gary of the forecastle, and Yeo, as gunner, of the main deck, while Drew, as master, settled himself in the waist; and all was ready, and more than ready, before the great ship was within two miles of them.
And now, while the mastiffs of England and the bloodhounds of Spain are nearing and nearing over the rolling surges, thirsting for each other's blood, let us spend a few minutes at least in looking at them both, and considering the causes which in those days enabled the English to face and conquer armaments immensely superior in size and number of ships, and to boast that in the whole Spanish war but one queen's ship, the _Revenge_, and (if I recollect right) but one private man-of-war, Sir Richard Hawkins' _Dainty_, had ever struck their colors to the enemy.
What was it which enabled Sir Richard Grenvil's _Revenge_, in his last fearful fight off the Azores, to endure, for twelve hours before she struck, the attack of eight Spanish armadas, of which two (three times her own burden) sank at her side; and after all her masts were gone, and she had been boarded three times without success, to defy to the last the whole fleet of fifty-four sail, which lay around, her, waiting for her to sink, "like dogs around the dying forest king?"
What was it that enabled young Richard Hawkins' _Dainty_, though half her guns were useless through the carelessness or treachery of the gunner, to maintain for three days a running fight with two Spaniards of equal size with her, double weight of metal, and ten times the number of men?
What enabled Sir George Gary's illustrious ship, the _Content_, to fight single-handed, from seven in the morning till eleven at night, with four great armadas and two galleys, though her heaviest gun was but one nine-pounder, and for many hours she had but thirteen men fit for service?
What enabled, in the very year of which I write, those two valiant Turkey merchantmen of London, the _Merchant Royal_ and the _Tobie_, with their three small consorts, to cripple, off Pantellaria in the Mediterranean, the whole fleet of Spanish galleys sent to intercept them, and return triumphant through the Straits of Gibraltar?
And lastly, what in the fight of 1588, whereof more hereafter, enabled the English fleet to capture, destroy, and scatter that Great Armada, with the loss (but not the capture) of one pinnace, and one gentleman of note?
There were more causes than one: the first seems to have lain in the build of the English ships; the second in their superior gunnery and weight of metal; the third (without which the first would have been useless) in the hearts of the English men.
The English ship was much shorter than the Spanish; and this (with the rig of those days) gave them an ease in manoeuvring, which utterly confounded their Spanish foes. "The English ships in the fight of 1588," says Camden, "charged the enemy with marvellous agility, and having discharged their broadsides, flew forth presently into the deep, and levelled their shot directly, without missing, at those great ships of the Spaniards, which were altogether heavy and unwieldy." Moreover, the Spanish fashion, in the West Indies at least, though not in the ships of the Great Armada, was, for the sake of carrying merchandise, to build their men-of-war flush decked, or as it was called "race" (razes), which left those on deck exposed and open; while the English fashion was to heighten the ship as much as possible at stem and stern, both by the sweep of her lines, and also by stockades ("close fights and cage-works") on the poop and forecastle, thus giving to the men a shelter, which was further increased by strong bulkheads ("co-bridgeheads") across the main-deck below, dividing the ship thus into a number of separate forts, fitted with swivels ("bases, fowlers and murderers") and loopholed for musketry and arrows.
But the great source of superiority was, after all, in the men themselves. The English sailor was then, as now, a quite amphibious and all-cunning animal, capable of turning his hand to everything, from needlework and carpentry to gunnery or hand-to-hand blows; and he was, moreover, one of a nation, every citizen of which was not merely permitted to carry arms, but compelled by law to practice from childhood the use of the bow, and accustomed to consider sword-play and quarter-staff as a necessary part and parcel of education, and the pastime of every leisure hour. The "fiercest nation upon earth," as they were then called, and the freest also, each man of them fought for himself with the self-help and self-respect of a Yankee ranger, and once bidden to do his work, was trusted to carry it out by his own wit as best he could. In one word, he was a free man.
The English officers, too, as now, lived on terms of sympathy with their men unknown to the Spaniards, who raised between the commander and the commanded absurd barriers of rank and blood, which forbade to his pride any labor but that of fighting. The English officers, on the other hand, brought up to the same athletic sports, the same martial exercise, as their men, were not ashamed to care for them, to win their friendship, even on emergency to consult their judgment; and used their rank, not to differ from their men, but to outvie them; not merely to command and be obeyed, but like Homer's heroes, or the old Norse vikings, to lead and be followed.
Drake touched the true mainspring of English success when he once (in his voyage round the world) indignantly rebuked some coxcomb gentleman-adventurers with, "I should like to see the gentleman that will refuse to set his hand to a rope. I must have the gentlemen to hale and draw with the mariners." But those were days in which her Majesty's service was as little overridden by absurd rules of seniority as by that etiquette which is at once the counterfeit and the ruin of true discipline. Under Elizabeth and her ministers, a brave and a shrewd man was certain of promotion, let his rank or his age be what they might; the true honor of knighthood covered once and for all any lowliness of birth; and the merchant service (in which all the best sea-captains, even those of noble blood, were more or less engaged) was then a nursery, not only for seamen, but for warriors, in days when Spanish and Portuguese traders (whenever they had a chance) got rid of English competition by salvoes of cannon-shot.
Hence, as I have said, that strong fellow-feeling between officers and men; and hence mutinies (as Sir Richard Hawkins tells us) were all but unknown in the English ships, while in the Spanish they broke out on every slight occasion. For the Spaniards, by some suicidal pedantry, had allowed their navy to be crippled by the same despotism, etiquette, and official routine by which the whole nation was gradually frozen to death in the course of the next century or two; forgetting that, fifty years before, Cortez, Pizarro, and the early conquistadores of America had achieved their miraculous triumphs on the exactly opposite methods; by that very fellow-feeling between commander and commanded by which the English were now conquering them in their turn.
Their navy was organized on a plan complete enough; but on one which was, as the event proved, utterly fatal to their prowess and unanimity, and which made even their courage and honor useless against the assaults of free men. "They do, in their armadas at sea, divide themselves into three bodies; to wit, soldiers, mariners, and gunners. The soldiers and officers watch and ward as if on shore; and this is the only duty they undergo, except cleaning their arms, wherein they are not over curious. The gunners are exempted from all labor and care, except about the artillery; and these are either Almaines, Flemings, or strangers; for the Spaniards are but indifferently practiced in this art. The mariners are but as slaves to the rest, to moil and to toil day and night; and those but few and bad, and not suffered to sleep or harbor under the decks. For in fair or foul weather, in storms, sun, or rain, they must pass void of covert or succor."
This is the account of one who was long prisoner on board their ships; let it explain itself, while I return to my tale. For the great ship is now within two musket-shots of the _Rose_, with the golden flag of Spain floating at her poop; and her trumpets are shouting defiance up the breeze, from a dozen brazen throats, which two or three answer lustily from the _Rose_, from whose poop flies the flag of England, and from her fore the arms of Leigh and Cary side by side, and over them the ship and bridge of the good town of Bideford. And then Amyas calls:
"Now, silence trumpets, waits, play up! 'Fortune my foe!' and God and the Queen be with us!"
Whereon (laugh not, reader, for it was a fashion of those musical as well as valiant days) up rose that noble old favorite of good Queen Bess, from cornet and sackbut, fife and drum; while Parson Jack, who had taken his stand with the musicians on the poop, worked away lustily at his violin.
"Well played, Jack; thy elbow flies like a lamb's tail," said Amyas, forcing a jest.
"It shall fly to a better fiddle-bow presently, sir, if I have the luck--"
"Steady, helm!" said Amyas. "What is he after now?"
The Spaniard, who had been coming upon them right down the wind under a press of sail, took in his light canvas.
"He don't know what to make of our waiting for him so bold," said the helmsman.
"He does, though, and means to fight us," cried another. "See, he is hauling up the foot of his mainsail; but he wants to keep the wind of us."
"Let him try, then," quoth Amyas. "Keep her closer still. Let no one fire till we are about. Man the starboard guns; to starboard, and wait, all small-arm men. Pass the order down to the gunner, and bid all fire high, and take the rigging."
Bang went one of the Spaniard's bow guns, and the shot went wide.
Then another and another, while the men fidgeted about, looking at the priming of their muskets, and loosened arrows in the sheaf.
"Lie down, men, and sing a psalm. When I want you, I'll call you.
Closer still, if you can, helmsman, and we will try a short ship against a long one. We can sail two points nearer the wind than he."
As Amyas had calculated, the Spaniard would gladly enough have stood across the _Rose's_ bows, but knowing the English readiness, dare not for fear of being raked; so her only plan, if she did not intend to shoot past her foe down to leeward, was to put her head close to the wind, and wait for her on the same tack.
Amyas laughed to himself. "Hold on yet awhile. More ways of killing a cat than choking her with cream. Drew, there, are your men ready?"
"Ay, ay, sir!" and on they went, closing fast with the Spaniard, till within a pistol-shot.
"Ready about!" and about she went like an eel, and ran upon the opposite tack right under the Spaniard's stern. The Spaniard, astounded at the quickness of the manoeuvre, hesitated a moment, and then tried to get about also, as his only chance; but it was too late, and while his lumbering length was still hanging in the wind's eye, Amyas' bowsprit had all but scraped his quarter, and the _Rose_ passed slowly across his stern at ten yards' distance.
"Now, then!" roared Amyas. "Fire, and with a will! Have at her--archers, have at her, muskets all!" and in an instant a storm of bar and chainshot, round and canister, swept the proud Don from stem to stern, while through the white cloud of smoke the musket-balls, and the still deadlier clothyard arrows, whistled and rushed upon their venomous errand. Down went the steersman, and every soul who manned the poop. Down went the mizzen topmast, in went the stern windows and quarter galleries; and as the smoke cleared away, the gorgeous painting of the Madre Dolorosa, with her heart full of seven swords, which, in a gilded frame, bedizened the Spanish stern, was shivered in splinters; while, most glorious of all, the golden flag of Spain, which the last moment flaunted above their heads, hung trailing in the water. The ship, her tiller shot away, and her helmsman killed, staggered helplessly a moment, and then fell up into the wind.
"Well done, men of Devon!" shouted Amyas, as cheers rent the welkin.
"She has struck!" cried some, as the deafening hurrahs died away.
"Not a bit," said Amyas. "Hold on, helmsman, and leave her to patch her tackle while we settle the galleys."
On they shot merrily, and long ere the armada could get herself to rights again, were two good miles to windward, with the galleys sweeping down fast upon them.
And two venomous-looking craft they were, as they shot through the short chopping sea upon some forty oars apiece, stretching their long sword-fish snouts over the water, as if snuffing for their prey.
Behind this long snout, a strong square forecastle was crammed with soldiers, and the muzzles of cannon grinned out through port-holes, not only in the sides of the forecastle, but forward in the line of the galley's course, thus enabling her to keep up a continual fire on a ship right ahead.
The long low waist was packed full of the slaves, some five or six to each oar, and down the centre, between the two banks, the English could see the slave-drivers walking up and down a long gangway, whip in hand. A raised quarter-deck at the stern held more soldiers, the sunlight flashing merrily upon their armor and their gun-barrels; as they neared, the English could hear plainly the cracks of the whips, and the yells as of wild beasts which answered them; the roll and rattle of oars, and the loud "Ha!" of the slaves which accompanied every stroke, and the oaths and curses of the drivers; while a sickening musky smell, as of a pack of kennelled hounds, came down the wind from off those dens of misery.
No wonder if many a young heart shuddered as it faced, for the first time, the horrible reality of those floating hells, the cruelties whereof had rung so often in the English ears, from the stories of their own countrymen, who had passed them, fought them, and now and then passed years of misery on board of them. Who knew but what there might be English among those sun-browned, half-naked masses of panting wretches?
"Must we fire upon the slaves?" asked more than one, as the thought crossed him.
"Spare them all you can, in God's name; but if they try to run us down, rake them we must, and God forgive us."
The two galleys came on abreast of each other, some forty yards apart. To out-manoeuvre their oars as he had done the ship's sails, Amyas knew was impossible. To run from them, was to be caught between them and the ship.
He made up his mind, as usual, to the desperate game.
"Lay her head upon the wind, helmsman, and we will wait for them."
They were now within musket-shot, and opened fire from their bow-guns; but, owing to the chopping sea, their aim was wild. Amyas, as usual, withheld his fire.
The men stood at quarters with compressed lips, not knowing what was to come next. Amyas, towering motionless on the quarter-deck, gave orders calmly and decisively. The men saw that he trusted himself, and trusted him accordingly.
The Spaniards, seeing him wait for them, gave a shout of joy--was the Englishman mad? And the two galleys converged rapidly, intending to strike him full, one on each bow.
They were within forty yards--another minute, and the shock would come.