Silence was his only answer. He hammered again on the door so that it shook in its frame. It did not open and there was still no response.
“The responsibility lies with you, Slidell. I am a military officer doing his duty. I have orders to follow and follow them I will.”
When there was still no response Fairfax turned and stamped angrily away, the midshipman scurrying ahead as he went back on deck. A group of passengers had come on deck as well and stared at him as he crossed to the rail and leaned over to shout his orders down to the boat.
“Sergeant — I want your men up here at once. All of them.”
“I protest!” Captain Moir called out.
“Noted,” Fairfax said turning his back on the man, treating the captain just as he had been treated.
Heavy boots slammed on the decking as the blue-clad marines scrambled aboard.
“Right shoulder… shift!” the sergeant bellowed and the muskets slammed into position.
“Sergeant, have your men fix their bayonets,” was Fairfax’s next command. He needed as strong a show of force as possible, hoping to avoid any untoward incidents this way. The sergeant shouted the commands and sharp steel glittered in the sunlight. The watching sailors shuffled back at the sight of it: even the captain was silent now. Only the Southern passengers who had now come on deck displayed their feelings.
“Pirates!” one of the men shouted as he shook his fist. “Murderous Yankee bastards.” Others joined the shouting and started forward.
“Stop there!” Lieutenant Fairfax ordered. “Sergeant — have your men prepare to fire if these people get any closer.”
This threat damped down the Southern enthusiasm. There were muttered complaints as they moved slowly back from the leveled bayonets. Fairfax nodded.
“See you stay that way. I’ll take the corporal and two men below, Sergeant.”
Marine boots thundered on the steps, stamped down the passageway. Fairfax led them forward, pointed to the cabin door.
“Use your musket butt, Corporal. Don’t break it down yet — but I damn well want them to know that we are here.”
Once, twice, thrice, the butt slammed thunderously on the thin wood before Fairfax waved him aside, called out loudly.
“I have armed marines here and they will do their duty if this door is not unlocked at once. I understand there are women in there so I do not wish to use violence. But I will use force to enter this cabin — if the door is not unsealed instantly. The choice is yours.”
The heavy breathing of the waiting men was the only sound to break the silence. Fairfax felt his patience was at an end and had just opened his mouth to give the order when there was a rattling at the door. It opened a scant inch — then stopped.
“Ready your weapons,” Fairfax ordered. “Use them only if we meet resistance. Follow me.” He threw the door wide and went in. Halted abruptly at the sound of the shrill screaming.
“Stop right there!” the angry woman called out, holding the three girls to her ample bosom. A boy was at her side, shivering with fear.
“I mean you no harm,” Fairfax said. The screaming died away to mournful sobbing. “Are you Mrs. Slidell?” Her answer was only a quick, angry nod. He looked about the luxurious cabin, saw the other door and pointed toward it. “It is your husband I wish to address. Is he there?”
John Slidell had his ear pressed hard against the panel in the door. He turned as there was a soft knock on the door across the cabin from him that led to the companionway. He hurried to it, whispered hoarsely.
“It’s us, John — unlock this thing at once.”
Mason pushed his way in, Eustin and Macfarland hurrying after him. “What is happening?” Mason asked.
“They are inside with my family. A naval officer, armed marines, we delayed them as long as we could. The papers…?”
“Are in safe hands. Your delaying action was vital for our one small victory in this battle at sea. The Mail Officer, a retired Royal Navy commander as I told you, has taken the papers under his personal control. Locked them away and says he will not take out the key to his safe until he sees England’s shores. He even said that threat of death itself would not sway him. Our papers are as safe as the letters in the Royal Mail.”
“Good. Let us go in there now. My family has suffered enough indignity as it is.”
The sobbing died away when the connecting door opened. A marine pointed his bayonet and stepped forward; Lieutenant Fairfax waved him back.
“There is no need for violence — as long as the traitors obey orders.”
Fairfax watched coldly as the four men entered the room. The first man through called out to the huddle of women.
“L’est-ce que tout va bien? ”
“Oui, ça va.”
“Are you John Slidell?” Lieutenant Fairfax said. His only answer was a curt nod. “Mr. Slidell it is my understanding that you have been appointed as the special Rebel commissioner to France …”
“Your language is insulting, young man. I am indeed a member of the government of the Confederacy.”
The lieutenant ignored his protestations, turned to the other politician. “And you will be James Murray Mason sent to the United Kingdom on the same mission. You will both accompany me, your assistants as well…”
“You have no right to do this!” Mason boomed out.
“Every right, sir. You as a former member of the American government know that very well. You have all rebelled against your flag and country. You are all traitors and are all under arrest. You will come with me.”
It was not an easy thing to do. Slidell had an endless and emotional conversation in French with his Louisiana Creole wife, filled with tearful interruptions by his daughters. Their son fell back against the wall, pale and trembling, looking ready to faint. Mason made a thundering protest that no one listened to. The matter continued this way until almost an hour had passed and there was still no end in sight. Fairfax’s anger grew until he shouted aloud for silence.
“This most grave matter is descending into a carnival and I will not allow it. You will all follow my orders. Corporal — have your marines accompany these two men, Eustin and Macfarland, to their cabins. There they will each pack one bag of their clothing and possessions and will be taken on deck at once. Have them ferried across to the San Jacinto. When the boat returns the other prisoners will be waiting on deck.”
The logjam was broken — but it was mid-afternoon before the transfers were completed. Mason and Slidell were escorted up to the deck, but would not leave the ship until all their personal effects were packed and brought to them. In addition to their clothes they insisted upon taking the thousands of cigars that they had purchased in Cuba. While these were being transferred Captain Moir insisted that they would need dozens of bottles of sherry, pitchers and basins and other conveniences of the toilet that would not be found aboard a man-of-war. There was even more delay as these items were found and brought on deck.
It was after four in the afternoon before the prisoners and their belongings had been transferred to the San Jacinto. The warship raised steam and turned west toward the American shore.
When Captain Moir on the Trent had seen his remaining passengers safely in their cabins he mounted to the bridge and ordered his ship under way again. The American warcraft was only a dot on the horizon now and he had to resist the urge to shake his fist in her direction.
“This has been a bad day’s work,” he said to his first officer. ” England will not be humiliated by this rebellious colony. Something has begun here that will not be easily stopped.”
He did not realize how very prophetic his words would prove to be.
THE EXECUTIVE MANSION, WASHINGTON