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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

The Letter of Marque

By Caroline Frances Orne (1818–1905)

[Born in Cambridge, Mass., 1818. Died there, 1905. Morning Songs of American Freedom. 1876.]

WE had sailed out a Letter of Marque,

Fourteen guns and forty men;

And a costly freight our gallant barque

Was bearing home again.

We had ranged the seas the whole summer-tide,

Crossed the main, and returned once more;

Our sails were spread, and from the mast-head

The lookout saw the distant shore.

“A sail! a sail on the weather bow!

Hand over hand, ten knots an hour!”

“Now God defend it ever should end

That we should fall in the foeman’s power!”

’Twas an English frigate came bearing down,

Bearing down before the gale,

Riding the waves that sent their spray

Dashing madly o’er mast and sail.

Every stitch of our canvas set,

Like a frightened bird our good barque flew;

The wild waves lashed and the foam crests dashed,

As we threaded the billows through.

The night came down on the waters wide,—

“By Heaven’s help we’ll see home once more,”

Our captain cried, “for nor-nor-west

Lies Cape Cod Light, and the good old shore.”

A sudden flash, and a sullen roar

Booming over the stormy sea,

Showed the frigate close on our track,—

How could we hope her grasp to flee?

Our angry gunner the stern-chaser fired;

I hardly think they heard the sound,

The billows so wildly roared and raged,

As we forward plunged with furious bound.

“All our prizes safely in

Shall we fall a prize to-night?

The Shoal of George’s lies sou-south-east,

Bearing away from Cape Cod Light.”

Our captain’s face grew dark and stern,

Deadly white his closed lips were.

The men looked in each other’s eyes,—

Not a look that spoke of fear.

“Hard up!”
Hard up the helm was jammed.

The wary steersman spoke no word.

In the roar of the breakers on either side

Murmurs of wonder died unheard.

Loud and clear rose the captain’s voice,—

A bronzed old sea-dog, calm and cool,

He had been in sea-fights oft,

Trained eye and hand in danger’s school.

“Heave the lead!”
The lead was hove;

Sharp and short the quick reply;

Steady rose the captain’s voice,

Dark fire glowed his swarthy eye.

Right on the Shoal of George’s steered,

Urged with wild, impetuous force,

Lost, if on either side we veered

But a hand’s breadth from our course.

On and on our good barque drove,

Leaping like mad from wave to wave

Hissing and roaring ’round her bow,

Hounding her on to a yawning grave.

God! ’twas a desperate game we played!

White as the combing wave grew each cheek;

Our hearts in that moment dumbly prayed,

For never a word might our blenched lips speak.

On and on the frigate drove,

Right in our track, close bearing down;

Our captain’s face was still and stern,

Every muscle too rigid to frown.

On and on the frigate drove,

Swooping down in her glorious pride;

Lord of Heaven! what a shriek was that

Ringing over the waters wide!

Striking swift on the sunken rocks,

Down went the frigate beneath the wave;

All her crew in an instant sunk,

Gulfed in the closing grave!

We were alone on the rolling sea;

Man looked to man with a silent pain;

Sternly our captain turned away;

Our helmsman bore on our course again.

Into the harbor we safely sailed

When the red morn glowed o’er the bay:

The sinking ship, and the wild death-cry,

We shall see, and hear, to our dying-day.