He was beginning to think his daring enterprise successful, when a sailor on the forecastle cried:
"A ship?" cried James.
"Yes, on the larboard side."
The fog had cleared off, and a large frigate was seen making towards the pass, in order to obstruct the passage of the Dolphin. It was necessary, cost what it might, to distance her, and urge the steam-engine to an increase of speed, or all was lost.
"Port the helm at once!" cried the Captain.
Then he sprang on to the bridge above the engine. By his orders one of the screws was stopped, and under the action of the other the Dolphin, veering with an extraordinary rapidity, avoided running foul of the frigate, and advanced like her to the entrance of the pass. It was now a question of speed.
James Playfair understood that in this lay his own safety, Miss Jenny's, her father's, and that of all his crew.
The frigate was considerably in advance of the Dolphin. It was evident from the volumes of black smoke issuing from her chimneys that she was getting up her steam. James Playfair was not the man to be left in the background.
"How are the engines?" cried he to the engineer.
"At the maximum speed," replied the latter; "the steam is escaping by all the valves."
"Fasten them down," ordered the Captain.
And his orders were executed at the risk of blowing up the ship.
The Dolphin again increased her speed; the pistons worked with frightful rapidity; the metal plates on which the engine was placed trembled under the terrific force of their blows. It was a sight to make the boldest shudder.
"More pressure!" cried James Playfair; "put on more pressure!"
"Impossible!" replied the engineer. "The valves are tightly closed; our furnaces are full up to the mouths."
"What difference! Fill them with cotton soaked in spirits; we must pass that frigate at any price."
At these words the most daring of the sailors looked at each other, but did not hesitate. Some bales of cotton were thrown into the engine-room, a barrel of spirits broached over them, and this expensive fuel placed, not without danger, in the red-hot furnaces. The stokers could no longer hear each other speak for the roaring of the flames. Soon the metal plates of the furnaces became red-hot; the pistons worked like the pistons of a locomotive; the steamgauge showed a frightful tension; the steamer flew over the water; her boards creaked, and her chimneys threw out volumes of smoke mingled with flames. She was going at a headlong speed, but, nevertheless, she was gaining on the frigate - passed her, distanced her, and in ten minutes was out of the channel.
"Saved!" cried the Captain.
"Saved!" echoed the crew, clapping their hands.
Already the Charleston beacon was disappearing in the south-west; the sound of firing from the batteries grew fainter, and it might with reason be thought that the danger was all past, when a shell from a gun-boat cruising at large was hurled whizzing through the air. It was easy to trace its course, thanks to the line of fire which followed it.
Then was a moment of anxiety impossible to describe; every one was silent, and each watched fearfully the arch described by the projectile. Nothing could be done to escape it, and in a few seconds it fell with a frightful noise on the fore-deck of the Dolphin.
The terrified sailors crowded to the stern, and no one dared move a step, whilst the shell was burning with a brisk crackle.
But one brave man alone among them ran up to the formidable weapon of destruction. It was Crockston; he took the shell in his strong arms, whilst showers of sparks were falling from it; then, with a superhuman effort, he threw it overboard.
Hardly had the shell reached the surface of the water when it burst with a frightful report.
"Hurrah! hurrah!" cried the whole crew of the Dolphin unanimously, whilst Crockston rubbed his hands.
Some time later the steamer sped rapidly through the waters of the Atlantic; the American coast disappeared in the darkness, and the distant lights which shot across the horizon indicated that the attack was general between the batteries of Morris Island and the forts of Charleston Harbour.