The Tory Lover -- Contents
The Tory Lover by Sarah Orne Jewett
.Chapter XXIII
THE SALUTE TO THE FLAG

"Nor deem that acts heroic wait on chance,
. . . . . . . . .
The man's whole life preludes the single deed
   That shall decide if his inheritance
Be with the sifted few of matchless breed."
 

     In midwinter something happened that lifted every true heart on board. There had been dull and dreary weeks on board the Ranger, with plots for desertion among the crew, and a general look of surliness and reproach on all faces. The captain was eagerly impatient in sending his messengers to Nantes when the Paris post might be expected, and was ever disappointed at their return. The discipline of the ship became more strict than before, now that there was little else to command or insist upon. The officers grew tired of one another's company, and kept to their own quarters, or passed each other without speaking. It was easy, indeed, to be displeased with such a situation, and to fret at such an apparently needless loss of time, even if there were nothing else to fret about.

     At last there was some comfort in leaving Nantes, and making even so short a voyage as to the neighboring Breton port of L'Orient, where the Ranger was overhauled and refitted for sea; yet even here the men grumbled at their temporary discomforts, and above all regretted Nantes, where they could amuse themselves better ashore. It was a hard, stormy winter, but there were plenty of rich English ships almost within hand's reach. Nobody could well understand why they had done nothing, while such easy prey came and went in those waters, from Bordeaux and the coast of Spain, even from Nantes itself.

     On a certain Friday orders were given to set sail, and the Ranger made her way along the coast to Quiberon, and anchored there at sunset, before the bay's entrance, facing the great curve of the shores. She had much shipping for company: farther in there lay a fine show of French frigates with a convoy, and four ships of the line. The captain scanned these through his glass, and welcomed a great opportunity: he had come upon a division of the French navy, and one of the frigates flew the flag of a rear admiral, La Motte Piqué.

     The wind had not fallen at sundown. All night the Ranger tossed about and tugged at her anchor chains, as if she were impatient to continue her adventures, like the men between her sides. All the next day she rode uneasily, and clapped her sailcloth and thrummed her rigging in the squally winter blast, until the sea grew quieter toward sundown. Then Captain Paul Jones sent a boat to the King's fleet to carry a letter.

     The boat was long gone. The distance was little, but difficult in such a sea, yet some of the boats of the country came out in hope of trading with the Ranger's men. The poor peasants would venture anything, and a strange-looking, swarthy little man who got aboard nobody knew how, suddenly approached the captain where he stood, ablaze with impatience, on the quarter. At his first word Paul Jones burst with startling readiness into Spanish invective, and then, with a look of pity at the man's poverty of dress in that icy weather, took a bit of gold from his pocket. "Barcelona?" said he. "I have had good days in Barcelona, myself," and bade the Spaniard begone. Then he called him back and asked a few questions, and, summoning a quartermaster, gave orders that he should take the sailor's poor gear, and give him a warm coat and cap from the slop chests.

     "He has lost his ship, and got stranded here," said the captain, with compassion, and then turned again to watch for the boat. "You may roll the coat and cap into a bundle; they are quaint-fashioned things," he added carelessly, as the quartermaster went away.

     The bay was now alive with small Breton traders, and at a short distance away there was a droll little potato fleet making hopefully for the Ranger. The headmost boat, however, was the Ranger's own, with an answer to the captain's letter. He gave an anxious sigh and laid down his glass. He had sent to say frankly to the rear admiral that he flew the new American flag, and that no foreign power had yet saluted it, and to ask if his own salute to the Royal Navy of France would be properly returned. It was already in the last fluster of the February wind, and the sea was going down; there was no time to be lost. He broke the great seal of his answer with a trembling hand, and at the first glance pressed the letter to his breast.

     The French frigates were a little apart from their convoy, and rolled sullenly in a solemn company, their tall masts swaying like time-keepers against the pale winter sky. The low land lay behind them, its line broken here and there by strange mounds, and by ancient altars of the druids, like clumsy, heavy-legged beasts standing against the winter sunset. The captain gave orders to hoist the anchor, nobody knew why, and to spread the sails, when it was no time to put to sea. He stood like a king until all was done, and then passed the word for his gunners to be ready, and steered straight in toward the French fleet.

     They all understood now. The little Ranger ran slowly between the frowning ships, looking as warlike as they; her men swarmed like bees into the rigging; her colors ran up to salute the flag of his most Christian Majesty of France, and she fired one by one her salute of thirteen guns.

     There was a moment of suspense. The wind was very light now; the powder smoke drifted away, and the flapping sails sounded loud overhead. Would the admiral answer, or would he treat this bold challenge like a handkerchief waved at him from a pleasure boat? Some of the officers on the Ranger looked incredulous, but Paul Jones still held his letter in his hand. There was a puff of white smoke, and the great guns of the French flagship began to shake the air, - one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine; and then were still, save for their echoes from the low hills above Carnac and the great druid mount of St. Michael.

     "Gardner, you may tell the men that this was the salute of the King of France to our Republic, and the first high honor to our colors," said the captain proudly to his steersman. But they were all huzzaing now along the Ranger's decks, - that little ship whose name shall never be forgotten while her country lives.

     "We hardly know what this day means, gentlemen," he said soberly to his officers, who came about him. "I believe we are at the christening of the greatest nation that was ever born into the world."

     The captain lifted his hat, and stood looking up at the Flag.


Notes

"Nor deem that acts heroic wait on chance,
. . . . . . . . .
The man's whole life preludes the single deed
   That shall decide if his inheritance
Be with the sifted few of matchless breed": from James Russell Lowell's "Poem Read at Cambridge on the Hundredth Anniversary of Washington's Taking Command of the American Army, 3d July, 1775," the opening of Section VI, Part 3.

A noble choice and of immortal seed!
Nor deem that acts heroic wait on chance
Or easy were as in a boy's romance;
The man's whole life preludes the single deed
That shall decide if his inheritance
Be with the sifted few of matchless breed,
Our race's sap and sustenance,
Or with the unmotived herd that only sleep and feed.

http://www.fullbooks.com/The-Complete-Poetical-Works-of-James-Russell16.html.
    (Research: Patricia Rattray)
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plots for desertion: According to Ezra Green's journal, later on after the Ranger arrived at Brest, on March 8, 1778, eight men jumped ship, seven of whom were captured and returned.
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La Motte Piqué: When Jones arrived at Brest, he met a French escort commanded by Chef d'Escadre La Motte Piquet, and there exchanged the first formal salute of a foreign commander to the American stars and stripes, in several ways an important symbolic event (Morison 129-30).
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time-keepers:  If Jewett is referring to a metronome, this device was not invented until about 1812, when it was conceived by the Dutch inventor, Dietrich Niklaus Winkel.  It was patented in 1816 by a German, Johann Nepomuk Maelzel, according to the Encarta Encyclopedia.  It may be that Jewett uses this odd phrase to refer to a pendulum clock.
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his most Christian Majesty of France: Louis XVI.
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The Tory Lover -- Contents