The King of France was walking on the terrace of Versailles; the fairest, not only of Queens, but of women, hung fondly on the Royal arm; while the children of France were indulging in their infantile hilarity in the alleys of the magnificent garden of Le Notre (from which Niblo’s garden has been copied in our own Empire city of New York), and playing at leap-frog with their uncle, the Count of Provence; gaudy courtiers, emlazoned with orders, glittered in the groves, and murmured frivolous talk in the ears of high-bred beauty.
“Marie, my beloved,” said the ruler of France, taking out his watch, “’tis time that the Minister of America should be here.”
“Your Majesty should know the time,” replied Marie Antoinette, archly, and in an Austrian accent; “is not my Royal Louis the first watchmaker in his empire?”
The King cast a pleased glance at his repeater, and kissed with courtly grace the fair hand of her who had made him the compliment. “My Lord Bishop of Autun,” said he to Monsieur de Talleyrand Perigord, who followed the royal pair, in his quality of arch-chamberlain of the empire, “I pray you look through the gardens, and tell his Excellency Doctor Franklin that the King waits.” The Bishop ran off, with more than youthful agility, to seek the United States’ Minister. “These Republicans,” he added, confidentially, and with something of a supercilious look, “are but rude courtiers, methinks.”
“Nay,” interposed the lovely Antoinette, “rude courtiers, Sire, they may be; but the world boasts not of more accomplished gentlemen. I have seen no grandee of Versailles that has the noble bearing of this American envoy and his suite. They have the refinement of the Old World, with all the simple elegance of the New. Though they have perfect dignity of manner, they have an engaging modesty which I have never seen equalled by the best of the proud English nobles with whom they wage war. I am told they speak their very language with a grace which the haughty Islanders who oppress them never attained. They are independent, yet never insolent; elegant, yet always respectful; and brave, but not in the least boastful.”
“What! savages and all, Marie?” exclaimed Louis, laughing, and chucking the lovely Queen playfully under the royal chin. “But here comes Doctor Franklin, and your friend the Cacique with him.” In fact, as the monarch spoke, the Minister of the United States made his appearance, followed by a gigantic warrior in the garb of his native woods.
Knowing his place as Minister of a sovereign state, (yielding even then in dignity to none, as it surpasses all now in dignity, in valor, in honesty, in strength, and civilization,) the Doctor nodded to the Queen of France, but kept his hat on as he faced the French monarch, and did not cease whittling the cane he carried in his hand.
“I was waiting for you, sir,” the King said, peevishly, in spite of the alarmed pressure which the Queen gave his royal arm.
“The business of the Republic, sire, must take precedence even of your Majesty’s wishes,” replied Dr. Franklin. “When I was a poor printer’s boy and ran errands, no lad could be more punctual than poor Ben Franklin; but all other things must yield to the service of the United States of North America. I have done. What would you, Sire?” and the intrepid republican eyed the monarch with a serene and easy dignity, which made the descendant of St. Louis feel ill at ease.
“I wished to — to say farewell to Tatua before his departure,” said Louis XVI., looking rather awkward. “Approach, Tatua.” And the gigantic Indian strode up, and stood undaunted before the first magistrate of the French nation: again the feeble monarch quailed before the terrible simplicity of the glance of the denizen of the primaeval forests.
The redoubted chief of the Nose-ring Indians was decorated in his war-paint, and in his top-knot was a peacock’s feather, which had been given him out of the head-dress of the beautiful Princess of Lamballe. His nose, from which hung the ornament from which his ferocious tribe took its designation, was painted a light-blue, a circle of green and orange was drawn round each eye, while serpentine stripes of black, white, and vermilion alternately were smeared on his forehead, and descended over his cheek-bones to his chin. His manly chest was similarly tattooed and painted, and round his brawny neck and arms hung innumerable bracelets and necklaces of human teeth, extracted (one only from each skull) from the jaws of those who had fallen by the terrible tomahawk at his girdle. His moccasins, and his blanket, which was draped on his arm and fell in picturesque folds to his feet, were fringed with tufts of hair — the black, the gray, the auburn, the golden ringlet of beauty, the red lock from the forehead of the Scottish or the Northern soldier, the snowy tress of extreme old age, the flaxen down of infancy — all were there, dreadful reminiscences of the chief’s triumphs in war. The warrior leaned on his enormous rifle, and faced the King.
“And it was with that carabine that you shot Wolfe in ‘57?” said Louis, eying the warrior and his weapon. “’Tis a clumsy lock, and methinks I could mend it,” he added mentally.
“The chief of the French pale-faces speaks truth,” Tatua said. “Tatua was a boy when he went first on the war-path with Montcalm.”
“And shot a Wolfe at the first fire!” said the King.
“The English are braves, though their faces are white,” replied the Indian. “Tatua shot the raging Wolfe of the English; but the other wolves caused the foxes to go to earth.” A smile played round Dr. Franklin’s lips, as he whittled his cane with more vigor than ever.
“I believe, your Excellency, Tatua has done good service elsewhere than at Quebec,” the King said, appealing to the American Envoy: “at Bunker’s Hill, at Brandywine, at York Island? Now that Lafayette and my brave Frenchmen are among you, your Excellency need have no fear but that the war will finish quickly — yes, yes, it will finish quickly. They will teach you discipline, and the way to conquer.”
“King Louis of France,” said the Envoy, clapping his hat down over his head, and putting his arms a-kimbo, “we have learned that from the British, to whom we are superior in everything: and I’d have your Majesty to know that in the art of whipping the world we have no need of any French lessons. If your reglars jine General Washington, ’tis to larn from HIM how Britishers are licked; for I’m blest if YU know the way yet.”
Tatua said, “Ugh,” and gave a rattle with the butt of his carabine, which made the timid monarch start; the eyes of the lovely Antoinette flashed fire, but it played round the head of the dauntless American Envoy harmless as the lightning which he knew how to conjure away.
The King fumbled in his pocket, and pulled out a Cross of the Order of the Bath. “Your Excellency wears no honor,” the monarch said; “but Tatua, who is not a subject, only an ally, of the United States, may. Noble Tatua, I appoint you Knight Companion of my noble Order of the Bath. Wear this cross upon your breast in memory of Louis of France;” and the King held out the decoration to the Chief.
Up to that moment the Chief’s countenance had been impassible. No look either of admiration or dislike had appeared upon that grim and war-painted visage. But now, as Louis spoke, Tatua’s face assumed a glance of ineffable scorn, as, bending his head, he took the bauble.
“I will give it to one of my squaws,” he said. “The papooses in my lodge will play with it. Come, Medecine, Tatua will go and drink fire-water;” and, shouldering his carabine, he turned his broad back without ceremony upon the monarch and his train, and disappeared down one of the walks of the garden. Franklin found him when his own interview with the French Chief Magistrate was over; being attracted to the spot where the Chief was, by the crack of his well-known rifle. He was laughing in his quiet way. He had shot the Colonel of the Swiss Guards through his cockade.
Three days afterwards, as the gallant frigate, the “Repudiator,” was sailing out of Brest Harbor, the gigantic form of an Indian might be seen standing on the binnacle in conversation with Commodore Bowie, the commander of the noble ship. It was Tatua, the Chief of the Nose-rings.
Leatherlegs and Tom Coxswain did not accompany Tatua when he went to the Parisian metropolis on a visit to the father of the French pale-faces. Neither the Legs nor the Sailor cared for the gayety and the crowd of cities; the stout mariner’s home was in the puttock-shrouds of the old “Repudiator.” The stern and simple trapper loved the sound of the waters better than the jargon of the French of the old country. “I can follow the talk of a Pawnee,” he said, “or wag my jaw, if so be necessity bids me to speak, by a Sioux’s council-fire and I can patter Canadian French with the hunters who come for peltries to Nachitoches or Thichimuchimachy; but from the tongue of a Frenchwoman, with white flour on her head, and war-paint on her face, the Lord deliver poor Natty Pumpo.”
“Amen and amen!” said Tom Coxswain. “There was a woman in our aft-scuppers when I went a-whalin in the little ‘Grampus’— and Lord love you, Pumpo, you poor land-swab, she WAS as pretty a craft as ever dowsed a tarpauling — there was a woman on board the ‘Grampus,’ who before we’d struck our first fish, or biled our first blubber, set the whole crew in a mutiny. I mind me of her now, Natty — her eye was sich a piercer that you could see to steer by it in a Newfoundland fog; her nose stood out like the ‘Grampus’s’ jibboom, and her woice, Lord love you, her woice sings in my ears even now:— it set the Captain a-quarrelin with the Mate, who was hanged in Boston harbor for harpoonin of his officer in Baffin’s Bay; — it set me and Bob Bunting a-pouring broadsides into each other’s old timbers, whereas me and Bob was worth all the women that ever shipped a hawser. It cost me three years’ pay as I’d stowed away for the old mother, and might have cost me ever so much more, only bad luck to me, she went and married a little tailor out of Nantucket; and I’ve hated women and tailors ever since!” As he spoke, the hardy tar dashed a drop of brine from his tawny cheek, and once more betook himself to splice the taffrail.
Though the brave frigate lay off Havre de Grace, she was not idle. The gallant Bowie and his intrepid crew made repeated descents upon the enemy’s seaboard. The coasts of Rutland and merry Leicestershire have still many a legend of fear to tell; and the children of the British fishermen tremble even now when they speak of the terrible “Repudiator.” She was the first of the mighty American war-ships that have taught the domineering Briton to respect the valor of the Republic.
The novelist ever and anon finds himself forced to adopt the sterner tone of the historian, when describing deeds connected with his country’s triumphs. It is well known that during the two months in which she lay off Havre, the “Repudiator” had brought more prizes into that port than had ever before been seen in the astonished French waters. Her actions with the “Dettingen” and the “Elector” frigates form part of our country’s history; their defence — it may be said without prejudice to national vanity — was worthy of Britons and of the audacious foe they had to encounter; and it must be owned, that but for a happy fortune which presided on that day over the destinies of our country, the chance of the combat might have been in favor of the British vessels. It was not until the “Elector” blew up, at a quarter past three P.M., by a lucky shot which fell into her caboose, and communicated with the powder-magazine, that Commodore Bowie was enabled to lay himself on board the “Dettingen,” which he carried sword in hand. Even when the American boarders had made their lodgment on the “Dettingen’s” binnacle, it is possible that the battle would still have gone against us. The British were still seven to one; their carronades, loaded with marline-spikes, swept the gun-deck, of which we had possession, and decimated our little force; when a rifle-ball from the shrouds of the “Repudiator” shot Captain Mumford under the star of the Guelphic Order which he wore, and the Americans, with a shout, rushed up the companion to the quarter-deck, upon the astonished foe. Pike and cutlass did the rest of the bloody work. Rumford, the gigantic first-lieutenant of the “Dettingen,” was cut down by Commodore Bowie’s own sword, as they engaged hand to hand; and it was Tom Coxswain who tore down the British flag, after having slain the Englishman at the wheel. Peace be to the souls of the brave! The combat was honorable alike to the victor and the vanquished; and it never can be said that an American warrior depreciated a gallant foe. The bitterness of defeat was enough to the haughty islanders who had to suffer. The people of Herne Bay were lining the shore, near which the combat took place, and cruel must have been the pang to them when they saw the Stars and Stripes rise over the old flag of the Union, and the “Dettingen” fall down the river in tow of the Republican frigate.
Another action Bowie contemplated: the boldest and most daring perhaps ever imagined by seaman. It is this which has been so wrongly described by European annalists, and of which the British until now have maintained the most jealous secrecy.
Portsmouth Harbor was badly defended. Our intelligence in that town and arsenal gave us precise knowledge of the disposition of the troops, the forts, and the ships there; and it was determined to strike a blow which should shake the British power in its centre.
That a frigate of the size of the “Repudiator” should enter the harbor unnoticed, or could escape its guns unscathed, passed the notions of even American temerity. But upon the memorable 26th of June, 1782, the “Repudiator” sailed out of Havre Roads in a thick fog, under cover of which she entered and cast anchor in Bonchurch Bay, in the Isle of Wight. To surprise the Martello Tower and take the feeble garrison thereunder, was the work of Tom Coxswain and a few of his blue-jackets. The surprised garrison laid down their arms before him.
It was midnight before the boats of the ship, commanded by Lieutenant Bunker, pulled off from Bonchurch with muffled oars, and in another hour were off the Common Hard of Portsmouth, having passed the challenges of the “Thetis” and the “Amphion” frigates, and the “Polyanthus” brig.
There had been on that day great feasting and merriment on board the Flag-ship lying in the harbor. A banquet had been given in honor of the birthday of one of the princes of the royal line of the Guelphs — the reader knows the propensity of Britons when liquor is in plenty. All on board that royal ship were more or less overcome. The Flag-ship was plunged in a deathlike and drunken sleep. The very officer of the watch was intoxicated: he could not see the “Repudiator’s” boats as they shot swiftly through the waters; nor had he time to challenge her seamen as they swarmed up the huge sides of the ship.
At the next moment Tom Coxswain stood at the wheel of the “Royal George”— the Briton who had guarded, a corpse at his feet. The hatches were down. The ship was in possession of the “Repudiator’s” crew. They were busy in her rigging, bending her sails to carry her out of the harbor. The well-known heave of the men at the windlass woke up Kempenfelt in his state-cabin. We know, or rather do not know, the result; for who can tell by whom the lower-deck ports of the brave ship were opened, and how the haughty prisoners below sunk the ship and its conquerors rather than yield her as a prize to the Republic!
Only Tom Coxswain escaped of victors and vanquished. His tale was told to his Captain and to Congress, but Washington forbade its publication; and it was but lately that the faithful seaman told it to me, his grandson, on his hundred-and-fifteenth birthday.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00