THE CORVETTE "CLAYMORE."
ENGLAND AND FRANCE.
In the spring of 1793, at the time when France, attacked on all her frontiers at once, was touchingly diverted by the fall of the Girondists, this is what took place in the Channel Islands.
One evening, the first of June, in Jersey, in the little lonely bay of Bonne-nuit, about an hour before sunset, during one of those fogs convenient for escape, because they are dangerous for navigation, a corvette was preparing to set sail. The crew of this vessel was French, but it belonged to the English fleet stationed on the lookout at the eastern point of the island. The Prince of la Tour-d'Auvergne, who belonged to the house of Bouillon, commanded the English Fleet, and it was by his orders, and for an urgent and special service, that the corvette had been detached.
This corvette, enrolled at Trinity House as the "Claymore," was to all appearances a merchant ship, but in reality was a sloop of war. She had the clumsy, peaceful aspect of a merchantman; this was a mere blind, however. She had been built for a double purpose, deception and strength: to deceive, if possible; to fight, if necessary. For the service that she had to perform this night, her cargo between decks had been replaced by thirty carronades of heavy calibre. Either because a storm was in prospect, or to give an innocent appearance to the vessel, these thirty carronades were shut in, that is securely fastened within by triple chains, and the mouths pushed up against the closed port-holes; there was nothing to be seen from the outside; the port-holes were concealed; the lids closed; it was as if the corvette wore a mask. These carronades had wheels with bronze spokes, an ancient model, called "modèle radié."
Corvettes usually have no cannons except on the upper deck; this one, constructed for surprise and stratagem, had no guns on the upper deck and as we have just seen, had been built in such a way as to be able to carry a battery between decks.
The "Claymore" was of a heavy, dumpy build, and yet she was a good sailor. Her hull was one of the most solid in all the English navy, and in battle she was almost equal to a frigate, although her mizzen-mast was small, with merely a brigantine rig. Her rudder, of rare scientific shape, had a uniquely curved frame, which had cost fifty pounds sterling in the dockyards of Southampton.
The crew, all French, was composed of emigrant officers and deserted sailors. They were picked men, not one of them was not a good seaman, good soldier, and good royalist. They had a threefold fanaticism: the ship, the sword, and the king.
Half a battalion of marines, which could be disembarked in case of necessity, was scattered among the crew.
The captain of the corvette "Claymore" was a chevalier of Saint-Louis, the Count de Boisberthelot, one of the best officers of the old Royal Navy; the second officer was the chevalier de la Vieuville, who had commanded the company of the French guards, in which Hoche was the sergeant, and her pilot was Philip Gacquoil, the most intelligent sailor in Jersey.
It was evident that this vessel had some extraordinary service before her. Indeed, a man had just gone on board, who had every appearance of starting on an adventure. He was a tall old man, straight and sturdy, with a stern face, whose age it would have been difficult to tell exactly. because he seemed at once old and young; one of those men, full of years and strength, with white locks on his brow and fire in his eye; forty years in point of vigor, and eighty in point of authority.
At the moment he set foot on the corvette, his sea-cloak flew open, and it could be seen that underneath this cloak he was dressed in the wide breeches called bragoubras, top boots, and a vest of goat-skin, showing the upper side of the leather embroidered with silk, and the under side with the hair in its rough, natural state, the complete costume of the Breton peasant.
These old-fashioned Breton vests served a double purpose, being worn for festivals as well as work days, and were reversible, showing as was desirable either the hairy or the embroidered side; goat-skin all the week, gala dress on Sunday.
As if to add a studied and exact truthfulness to the peasant costume worn by the old man, it was threadbare at the elbows and knees, and appeared to have been in use a long time, and his cloak, made of coarse material, resembled that of a fisherman. This old man had on the round hat of the day, with high crown and broad brim, which when turned down gives it a rustic appearance, and when caught up with a cord and cockade has a military air. He wore this hat after the peasant fashion with the rim flattened out, without cord or cockade.
Lord Balcarras, governor of the island, and the Prince of la Tour-d'Auvergne, had accompanied him in person and installed him on board the vessel. Gélambre, the secret agent of the princes, and formerly one of the bodyguard of the Count d'Artois, had himself seen to the arrangement of his cabin, extending his care and attention, although himself an excellent gentleman, so far as to carry the old man's valise. On leaving him to go ashore again, M. de Gélambre had made a profound bow to this peasant; Lord Balcarras had said to him: "Good luck, general," and the Prince of la Tour-d'Auvergne had said: "Au revoir, cousin."
"The peasant" was the name by which the crew began at once to designate their passenger, in the short conversations seamen have together; but without knowing more about him, they understood that this peasant was no more a peasant than the man-of-war was a merchant man.
There was little wind. The "Claymore" left Bonnenuit, passed in front of Boulay Bay, and was for some time in sight, running along the shore, then she became dim in the increasing darkness, and was lost to view.
An hour later, Gélambre, having returned home to Saint-Hélier, despatched by the Southampton express to the Count d'Artois, at the Duke of York's headquarters, the following four lines,—
"Monseigneur, she has just sailed. Success certain. In a week the whole coast will be on fire from Granville to Saint-Malo."
Four days before, Prieur, the representative of Marne, on a mission to the army on the coast of Cherbourg, and for the time being residing at Granville, had received a message in the same handwriting as the preceding despatch, reading thus,—
"Citizen representative, June 1st, at flood-tide the sloop of war, "Claymore," with masked battery, will set sail, to carry to the coast of France a man whose description is as follows: tall, old, white hair, peasant's dress, aristocratic hands. I will send you more details to-morrow. He will land on the second, in the morning. Send word to the cruisers, capture the corvette, have the man guillotined."