“Too soon, stupids,” cried James Playfair, with a burst of laughter. “Make haste, make haste, Mr. Engineer! We shall get between two fires.”
The stokers fed the furnaces, and the Dolphin trembled all over with the effort of the engine as if she was on the point of exploding.
At this moment a second report was heard, and another shower of balls whizzed behind the Dolphin.
“Too late, stupids,” cried the young Captain, with a regular roar.
Then Crockston, who was standing on the poop, cried, “That’s one passed. A few minutes more, and we shall have done with the Rebs.”
“Then do you think we have nothing more to fear from Fort Sumter?” asked James.
“Nothing at all, but everything from Fort Moultrie, at the end of Sullivan Island; but they will only get a chance at us for half a minute, and then they must choose their time well, and shoot straight if they want to reach us. We are getting near.”
“Right; the position of Fort Moultrie will allow us to go straight for the principal channel. Fire away then, fire away!”
At the same moment, and as if in obedience to James Playfair, the fort was illuminated by a triple line of lightning. A frightful crash was heard; then a crackling sound on board the steamer.
“Touched this time!” exclaimed Crockston.
“Mr. Mathew!” cried the Captain to his second, who was stationed at the bows, “what has been damaged?”
“The bowsprit broken.”
“Well, then, the masts may go to Jericho. Straight into the pass! Straight! and steer towards the island.”
“We have passed the Rebs!” cried Crockston; “and, if we must have balls in our hull, I would much rather have the Northerners; they are more easily digested.”
In fact, the Dolphin could not yet consider herself out of danger; for, if Morris Island was not fortified with the formidable pieces of artillery which were placed there a few months later, nevertheless its guns and mortars could easily have sunk a ship like the Dolphin.
The alarm had been given to the Federals on the island, and to the blockading squadron, by the firing from Forts Sumter and Moultrie. The besiegers could not make out the reason of this night attack; it did not seem to be directed against them. However, they were obliged to consider it so, and were ready to reply.
It occupied James Playfair’s thoughts whilst making towards the passes of Morris Island; and he had reason to fear, for in a quarter of an hour’s time lights gleamed rapidly through the darkness. A shower of small shell fell round the steamer, scattering the water over her bulwarks; some of them even struck the deck of the Dolphin, but not on their points, which saved the ship from certain ruin. In fact, these shell, as it was afterwards discovered, could break into a hundred fragments, and each cover a superficial area of a hundred and twenty square feet with Greek fire, which would burn for twenty minutes, and nothing could extinguish it. One of these shell alone could set a ship on fire. Fortunately for the Dolphin, they were a new invention, and as yet far from perfect. Once thrown into the air, a false rotary movement kept them inclined, and, when falling, instead of striking on their points, where is the percussion apparatus, they fell flat. This defect in construction alone saved the Dolphin. The falling of these shells did her little harm, and under the pressure of her over-heated boilers she continued to advance into the pass.
At this moment, and in spite of his orders, Mr. Halliburtt and his daughter went to James Playfair on the poop; the latter urged them to return to their cabins, but Jenny declared that she would remain by the Captain. As for Mr. Halliburtt, who had just learnt all the noble conduct of his deliverer, he pressed his hand without being able to utter a word.
The Dolphin was speeding rapidly towards the open sea. There were only three miles more before she would be in the waters of the Atlantic; if the pass was free at its entrance, she was saved. James Playfair was wonderfully well acquainted with all the secrets of Charleston Bay, and he guided his ship through the darkness with an unerring hand.