It is enclosed between Morris Island on the south and Sullivan Island on the north. At the time when the Dolphin attempted to force the blockade Morris Island already belonged to the Federal troops, and General Gillmore had caused batteries to be erected overlooking the harbour. Sullivan Island, on the contrary, was in the hands of the Confederates, who were also in possession of Moultrie Fort, situated at the extremity of the island; therefore it would be advantageous to the Dolphin to go as close as possible to the northern shores to avoid the firing from the forts on Morris Island.
Five channels led into the estuary, Sullivan Island Channel, the Northern Channel, the Overall Channel, the Principal Channel, and lastly, the Lawford Channel; but it was useless for strangers, unless they had skilful pilots on board, or ships drawing less than seven feet of water, to attempt this last; as for Northern and Overall Channels, they were in range of the Federalist batteries, so that it was no good thinking of them. If James Playfair could have had his choice, he would have taken his steamer through the Principal Channel, which was the best, and the bearings of which were easy to follow; but it was necessary to yield to circumstances, and to decide according to the event. Besides, the Captain of the Dolphin knew perfectly all the secrets of this bay, its dangers, the depths of its water at low tide, and its currents, so that he was able to steer his ship with the greatest safety as soon as he entered one of these narrow straits. The great question was to get there.
Now this work demanded an experienced seaman, and one who knew exactly the qualities of the Dolphin.
In fact, two Federal frigates were now cruising in the Charleston waters. Mr. Mathew soon drew James Playfair's attention to them.
"They are preparing to ask us what we want on these shores," said he.
"Ah, well! we won't answer them," replied the Captain, "and they will not get their curiosity satisfied."
In the meanwhile the cruisers were coming on full steam towards the Dolphin, who continued her course, taking care to keep out of range of their guns. But in order to gain time James Playfair made for the south-west, wishing to put the enemies' ships off their guard; the latter must have thought that the Dolphin intended to make for Morris Island Channel. Now there they had batteries and guns, a single shot from which would have been enough to sink the English ship; so the Federals allowed the Dolphin to run towards the south-west, contenting themselves by observing her without following closely.
Thus for an hour the respective situations of the ships did not change, for James Playfair, wishing to deceive the cruisers as to the course of the Dolphin, had caused the fires to be moderated, so that the speed was decreased. However, from the thick volumes of smoke which escaped from the chimneys, it might have been thought that he was trying to get his maximum pressure, and, consequently his maximum of rapidity.
"They will be slightly astonished presently," said James Playfair, "when they see us slip through their fingers!"
In fact, when the Captain saw that he was near enough to Morris Island, and before a line of guns, the range of which he did not know, he turned his rudder quickly, and the ship resumed her northerly course, leaving the cruisers two miles to windward of her; the latter, seeing this manoeuvre, understood the steamer's object, and began to pursue her in earnest, but it was too late. The Dolphin doubled her speed under the action of the screws, and distanced them rapidly. Going nearer to the coast, a few shell were sent after her as an acquittal of conscience, but the Federals were outdone, for their projectiles did not reach half-way. At eleven o'clock in the morning, the steamer ranging near Sullivan Island, thanks to her small draft, entered the narrow strait full steam; there she was in safety, for no Federalist cruiser dared follow her in this channel, the depth of which, on an average, was only eleven feet at low tide.
"How!" cried Crockston, "and is that the only difficulty?"
"Oh! oh! Master Crockston," said James Playfair, "the difficulty is not in entering, but in getting out again."
"Nonsense!" replied the American, "that does not make me at all uneasy; with a boat like the Dolphin and a Captain like Mr.