Chapter 7 - A Southern General
The Dolphin, on arriving at the Charleston quay, had been saluted by the cheers of a large crowd. The inhabitants of this town, strictly blockaded by sea, were not accustomed to visits from European ships. They asked each other, not without astonishment, what this great steamer, proudly bearing the English flag, had come to do in their waters; but when they learned the object of her voyage, and why she had just forced the passage Sullivan, when the report spread that she carried a cargo of smuggled ammunition, the cheers and joyful cries were redoubled.
James Playfair, without losing a moment, entered into negotiation with General Beauregard, the military commander of the town. The latter eagerly received the young Captain of the Dolphin, who had arrived in time to provide the soldiers with the clothes and ammunition they were so much in want of. It was agreed that the unloading of the ship should take place immediately, and numerous hands came to help the English sailors.
Before quitting his ship James Playfair had received from Miss Halliburtt the most pressing injunctions with regard to her father, and the Captain had placed himself entirely at the young girl’s service.
“Miss Jenny,” he had said, “you may rely on me; I will do the utmost in my power to save your father, but I hope this business will not present many difficulties. I shall go and see General Beauregard to-day, and, without asking him at once for Mr. Halliburtt’s liberty, I shall learn in what situation he is, whether he is on bail or a prisoner.”
“My poor father!” replied Jenny, sighing; “he little thinks his daughter is so near him. Oh that I could fly into his arms!”
“A little patience, Miss Jenny; you will soon embrace your father. Rely upon my acting with the most entire devotion, but also with prudence and consideration.”
This is why James Playfair, after having delivered the cargo of the Dolphin up to the General, and bargained for an immense stock of cotton, faithful to his promise, turned the conversation to the events of the day.
“So,” said he, “you believe in the triumph of the slave-holders?”
“I do not for a moment doubt of our final success, and, as regards Charleston, Lee’s army will soon relieve it: besides, what do you expect from the Abolitionists? Admitting that which will never be, that the commercial towns of Virginia, the two Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama, fall under their power, what then? Will they be masters of a country they can never occupy? No, certainly not; and for my part, if they are ever victorious, they shall pay dearly for it.”
“And you are quite sure of your soldiers?” asked the Captain. “You are not afraid that Charleston will grow weary of a siege which is ruining her?”
“No, I do not fear treason; besides, the traitors would be punished remorselessly, and I would destroy the town itself by sword or fire if I discovered the least Unionist movement. Jefferson Davis confided Charleston to me, and you may be sure that Charleston is in safe hands.”
“Have you any Federal prisoners?” asked James Playfair, coming to the interesting object of the conversation.
“Yes, Captain,” replied the General, “it was at Charleston that the first shot of separation was fired. The Abolitionists who were here attempted to resist, and, after being defeated, they have been kept as prisoners of war.”
“And have you many?”
“About a hundred.”
“Free in the town?”
“They were until I discovered a plot formed by them: their chief succeeded in establishing a communication with the besiegers, who were thus informed of the situation of affairs in the town. I was then obliged to lock up these dangerous guests, and several of them will only leave their prison to ascend the slope of the citadel, where ten confederate balls will reward them for their federalism.”
“What! to be shot!” cried the young man, shuddering involuntarily.
“Yes, and their chief first of all. He is a very dangerous man to have in a besieged town. I have sent his letters to the President at Richmond, and before a week is passed his sentence will be irrevocably passed.”
“Who is this man you speak of?” asked James Playfair, with an assumed carelessness.
“A journalist from Boston, a violent Abolitionist with the confounded spirit of Lincoln.”
“And his name?”
“Poor wretch!” exclaimed James, suppressing his emotion. “Whatever he may have done, one cannot help pitying him. And you think that he will be shot?”
“I am sure of it,” replied Beauregard. “What can you expect? War is war; one must defend oneself as best one can.”
“Well, it is nothing to me,” said the Captain. “I shall be far enough away when this execution takes place.”
“What! you are thinking of going away already.”
“Yes, General, business must be attended to; as soon as my cargo of cotton is on board I shall be out to sea again. I was fortunate enough to enter the bay, but the difficulty is in getting out again. The Dolphin is a good ship; she can beat any of the Federal vessels for speed, but she does not pretend to distance cannon-balls, and a shell in her hull or engine would seriously affect my enterprise.”
“As you please, Captain,” replied Beauregard; “I have no advice to give you under such circumstances. You are doing your business, and you are right. I should act in the same manner were I in your place; besides, a stay at Charleston is not very pleasant, and a harbour where shells are falling three days out of four is not a safe shelter for your ship; so you will set sail when you please; but can you tell me what is the number and the force of the Federal vessels cruising before Charleston?”
James Playfair did his best to answer the General, and took leave of him on the best of terms; then he returned to the Dolphin very thoughtful and very depressed from what he had just heard.
“What shall I say to Miss Jenny? Ought I to tell her of Mr. Halliburtt’s terrible situation? Or would it be better to keep her in ignorance of the trial which is awaiting her? Poor child!”
He had not gone fifty steps from the governor’s house when he ran against Crockston. The worthy American had been watching for him since his departure.
James Playfair looked steadily at Crockston, and the latter soon understood he had no favourable news to give him.
“Have you seen Beauregard?” he asked.
“Yes,” replied James Playfair.
“And have you spoken to him about Mr. Halliburtt?”
“No, it was he who spoke to me about him.”
“Well, I may as well tell you everything, Crockston.”
“General Beauregard has told me that your master will be shot within a week.”
At this news anyone else but Crockston would have grown furious or given way to bursts of grief, but the American, who feared nothing, only said, with almost a smile on his lips:
“Pooh! what does it matter?”
“How! what does it matter?” cried James Playfair. “I tell you that Mr. Halliburtt will be shot within a week, and you answer, what does it matter?”
“And I mean it — if in six days he is on board the Dolphin, and if in seven days the Dolphin is on the open sea.”
“Right!” exclaimed the Captain, pressing Crockston’s hand. “I understand, my good fellow, you have got some pluck; and for myself, in spite of Uncle Vincent, I would throw myself overboard for Miss Jenny.”
“No one need be thrown overboard,” replied the American, “only the fish would gain by that: the most important business now is to deliver Mr. Halliburtt.”
“But you must know that it will be difficult to do so.”
“Pooh!” exclaimed Crockston.
“It is a question of communicating with a prisoner strictly guarded.”
“And to bring about an almost miraculous escape.”
“Nonsense,” exclaimed Crockston; “a prisoner thinks more of escaping than his guardian thinks of keeping him; that’s why, thanks to our help, Mr. Halliburtt will be saved.”
“You are right, Crockston.”
“But now what will you do? There must be some plan: and there are precautions to be taken.”
“I will think about it.”
“But when Miss Jenny learns that her father is condemned to death, and that the order for his execution may come any day — ”
“She will know nothing about it, that is all.”
“Yes, it will be better for her and for us to tell her nothing.”
“Where is Mr. Halliburtt imprisoned?” asked Crockston.
“In the citadel,” replied James Playfair.
“Just so! . . . On board now?”
“On board, Crockston!”