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“She’s not slowing, sir,” Fairfax said.

“A solid shot across her bows should induce her master to take proper action.”

Moments later the gun boomed out; the Trent had to have seen it but they chose to ignore it.

“Very well,” Captain Wilkes said. “Fire the pivot gun.”

This gun was loaded with an explosive shell that burst close beside the British packet’s bow. As the white cloud of smoke dispersed the bow wave on the Trent died away as her engines stopped. Captain Wilkes nodded grim approval.

“Lower the boat, Lieutenant Fairfax. You will take a squad of marines with you, muskets and bayonets. Use them if needs be. You know whom we are looking for.”

“I do indeed, sir.”

Wilkes watched in silence as the oars dipped and the boat pulled smartly toward the other ship. He betrayed none of the doubts that racked him. The broken orders, the desperate pursuit, the guesses and decisions, were part of the past. But everything he had done would be worth it if the wanted men were aboard. If they weren’t… He preferred not to think of the consequences.

As soon as the boarding ladder was dropped, Fairfax climbed up to the Trent’s deck. Wilkes could clearly see him talking to an officer there. Then he turned about to face the American warship and took a white kerchief from his sleeve. Moved it in the agreed signal from chin to waist and back again.

They were aboard!

Eustin pushed through the cabin door and slammed it behind him.

“What is happening?” Madam Slidell asked. He just shook his head and ran across the cabin to the adjoining chamber, pushed into it.

“It’s us — the Yankees are after us!” He stammered as he spoke, face pale with fear.

“Did they mention our names?”

“They did, Sir, said they were after John Slidell and William Murray Mason. Didn’t mention me nor Macfarland. But the officer, he did talk some about you gentlemen’s assistants so they know that we’re aboard.”

Slidell did not like this. He rubbed at his big, red nose angrily, stomped the length of the cabin and back. “They just can’t do this, stop a British ship at sea, board her — this sort of behavior — it cannot be done.”

“Easy to say, John,” Mason said. “But as I live and breathe it sure looks like it has been done. Now we must think of the papers we are carrying, our warrants — the letters from Jefferson Davis. All the letters to the English and Scotch shipyards about the privateers they are building for us. Remember that we also have personal letters to the Queen and Louis Napoleon. They must not be taken!”

“Throw them overboard!” Slidell said.

“Too late for that — there is the good possibility that they would float, be seen. We need a better plan. And I have it.” The first fear was gone and Mason was his old and arrogant self again, brushing the back of his hand across his gray, bushy brows in a gesture long familiar to his fellow senators in Washington.

“John, you will stay here with your family and buy us time — a holding action.”


“Because I know what to do with the papers. Give yours to Eustin immediately. Macfarland, get to my cabin and get the lot. We will meet in the mail room. Go!”

They went. Mason paused before he followed them, waiting as Slidell threw papers onto the bed in a flurry of activity. “You must think of something, stall them somehow — you are a politician so that pontification, obfuscation and filibustering should come naturally. And lock this door behind me. I am well acquainted with the Mail Officer, and am aware of the fact that he is a retired Royal Navy commander. A real old salt. We have talked long over whiskey and cigars and I have heard many a nautical tale. And he dislikes the Yankees as much as we do. I am sure that he will aid us.”

He followed Eustin, heavily laden with the documents, out of the door and heard the key turn in the lock behind him. Eustin stumbled and a sheaf of papers fell to the companionway floor.

“Steady, man,” Mason said. “No, leave them, I’ll pick them up. Go ahead.”

Macfarland was waiting at the Mail Room door, his face drawn and white.

“It’s locked!”

“Bang on it, you idiot!” He thrust the papers he was carrying into the other man’s arm and hammered on the door with his fist, stepped back when it opened.

“Why Mr. Mason — what is it?” The door was opened by an elderly man with white mutton-chop whiskers, his face tanned by a lifetime at sea.

“Yankees, sir. They have fired at this ship, stopped her, sir.”

“But — why?”

“It is their expressed desire to makes us their prisoners, to seize us against our will, clap us in irons and carry us off to some foul cell. And perhaps even worse. But you can help us.”

The officer’s face tightened in grim anger. “Of course — but what can I do? If you hide — ”

“That would be cowardly, and we would be found.” Mason seized a handful of papers and held them out. “It is not our fate that can be altered. But here are our credentials, our documents, our secrets. It would be disaster if the Yankees seized them. Would you preserve them for us?”

“Of course. Bring them inside.”

He led the way across the room to a massive safe, took a key from his pocket and unlocked it.

“Put them in here, with the government post and specie.”

When this was done, the safe door swung shut and was locked. The Mail Officer returned the key to his pocket and patted it.

“Gentlemen, though I am retired now I have never turned from my duty as a naval officer. I am now a bulldog in your defense. Threats of death will not sway me. I will keep this key in my pocket and it will not come out until we are in safe harbor in England. They must pass over my body before they enter this room. Your papers are as safe as the letters of the Royal Mail.”

“I thank you, sir. You are an officer and a gentleman.”

“I am but doing my duty…” He looked up at the sound of muffled shouting from the deck above, and the march of heavy boots. “I must lock the door.”

“Hurry,” Mason said. “And we must get to the cabin before the bluebellies do.”

“I must protest this action, protest it strongly,” Captain James Moir said. “You have fired on a British ship, halted her at sea at gunpoint, piracy — ”

“This is not piracy, Captain,” Fairfax broke in. “My country is at war and I am diligent in her service, sir. You have informed me that the two traitors, Mason and Slidell, are aboard this vessel. You will see that I am unarmed. I ask only to satisfy myself of their presence.”

“And then?”

The American did not respond, knowing full well that anything he said would only add to the English captain’s seething anger. This situation was too delicate, too laden with the possibility of international complications, for him to make any mistakes. The captain would have to decide for himself.

“Midshipman!” Moir snapped, turning his back rudely on the lieutenant. “Take this person below. Show him to the cabin of his countrymen.”

Fairfax contained his own anger at this ungentlemanly behavior and followed the lad belowdecks. The steam packet was spacious and comfortable. Dark wood paneling lined the companionway and there were brass fittings on the cabin doors. The midshipman pointed to the nearest one.

“This will be it, sir. American gentleman name of Slidell, him and his family.”


“Wife, sir, and son. Three daughters.”

Fairfax hesitated only for an instant. The presence of Slidell’s family made no difference; there could be no going back. He knocked loudly.

“John Slidell — are you there?”

He could hear whispered voices through the door, people moving about. He tried the handle. It was locked.

“I call to you again, sir. I am Lieutenant Fairfax of the United States Navy. I call upon you to open this door at once.”