The French, everywhere victors on land, now made an alliance with Spain, with the help of whose large navy they hoped to be able to beat the British at sea.
At Toulon a powerful squadron was being made ready. Genoa signed a treaty with the all-conquering Frenchmen, who were now so powerful that the British fleet was for a time forced to leave the Mediterranean. Bastia was abandoned; the Island of Elba was kept for a short time, but even Elba had to be given up after a little. Before this took place, however, Nelson had a sharp action while on the frigate Minerve, which showed that our sailors were still what he declared they always ought to be, "almost invincible."
The Minerve, after a hot fight, captured the Spanish frigate La Sabina, whose captain, Don Jacobo Stuart, a descendant of the unlucky royal house of Britain, was taken prisoner.
While the Minerve was taking possession of her prize, two ships of the line and another Spanish frigate came in sight. A sharp chase followed, and the little Minerve, her masts and sails damaged during her late fight, was hard put to it before she could shake off her pursuers and reach a place of safety in the port of Ferrajo.
Don Jacobo had remained a prisoner on board during the pursuit; but no sooner was the Minerve safe than Nelson returned him his sword and sent him back under a flag of truce to Spain. Such a generous deed was contrary to the usual custom of war, but Nelson felt it to be worthy of "the dignity of his country" to treat one of their exiled royal family with this respect. The Stuarts all were brave men, whatever their faults, and this Stuart was no exception.
"He was the best officer in Spain, and his men were worthy of such a commander," said Nelson, who always honoured a brave man even though he was an enemy.
Nelson received much praise for this brilliant little action and "dignified retreat," as the admiral called it, before a much larger force of the enemy. It was the first sign of more brilliant victories to follow.
Shortly afterwards the Minerve had another exciting escape from the enemy.
Slipping out of Gibraltar in order to join Jervis and his ships, the little vessel was espied by the whole Spanish fleet, which quickly started off in pursuit. They gained fast; one huge ship was already quite close, and Nelson, fairly brought to bay, had already given the order to "clear for action."
"Before the Dons get hold of that bit of bunting I will have a struggle with them," he said, pointing to his flag; "and sooner than give up the frigate I'll run her ashore."
At this anxious moment a shout of "Man overboard" was heard, and Lieutenant Hardy, in whose arms Nelson died at Trafalgar, on the instant lowered a boat and started to save the drowning seaman. Soon those on the Minerve saw that the boat, which had by this time picked up the sailor, could not regain the frigate, try as hard as they might.
The leading Spaniard was already within gun-shot; to stop meant almost certain loss of the ship. Nelson's mind was made up on the instant; come what might, he would not desert a shipmate in danger.
"By God, I'll not lose Hardy!" he shouted; "back the mizzen topsail!"
The order was quickly obeyed; the frigate slowed down in face of her pursuers. The Spaniards, astonished at this daring act, for some strange reason failed to press on and the Minerve, with Hardy and the rescuing party safe on board, went on her way unharmed.
That same night, in a haze, the little frigate, which seemed to bear a charmed life, had an even more thrilling and mysterious adventure.
Suddenly she found herself sailing in the very midst of a large fleet, which they knew could not be that of Jervis. Partly hidden by the fog, Nelson continued on his way, obeying, the Spanish admiral's signals, and behaving just as though the Minerve were one of the enemy's frigates.
It was a time of breathless excitement. Should the fog lift, and the enemy discover the strange ship in their midst, Nelson knew that he would have no mercy shown him and no chance of escape.
Whether he was with the Spanish main fleet or only a portion of it he had no means in the darkness of finding out. He himself thought that he was in company with a squadron on its way to the West Indies. In this case his mind was made up; unprepared as the Minerve was for such a long voyage, she would have to sail at her best speed, ahead of the enemy, and trust to reach the islands in time to warn them to be ready to meet an attack.
The suspense was growing greater every minute, with the prospect of dawn and the mist clearing. Suddenly the ships went about and pointed towards Cadiz: the Indies was not their object.
Nelson, now satisfied that he had been sailing in the very middle of the Spanish Grand Fleet, turned and rejoined Jervis; and at seven that evening he went on board his own ship, the Captain.
All night the ships sailed in close order prepared for action, our sailors standing to their guns. At daybreak next morning the enemy were in sight, their twenty-seven ships of the line advancing in straggling array.
They were divided in squadrons, six ships in the lee division, the main body of twenty-one sail being in the weather division. Three ships from the larger division, however, quickly crossed over before the British could get near enough to engage them, and joined the leeward squadron.
The British were at first sailing in two columns, "line ahead," a half-dozen of their faster ships pressing on under full canvas to cut in between the gradually widening gap in the enemy's divisions.
Before the Spaniards had time to form a regular order of battle, and while they were still in confusion, Jervis had split their force in two. He was thus able to fling his whole fighting force on the larger Spanish squadron, before their friends to leeward could come to their aid. When they attempted to do so they were beaten back, after some rough handling.
Nelson, who was in the rear of the British line, now saw that the enemy's leading ships of the weather division were bearing up before the wind, and would in a short time either pass behind the British rear and join the lee division, or else avoid the fight by sailing away before the wind.
In a moment, and without orders, he made up his mind to spoil the foeman's plan. Giving orders to "wear ship," he turned and threw himself on the enemy's van.
He had disobeyed the admiral's orders, but the Spanish admiral's plans had been prevented. The Dons were brought to bay by one ship; it only remained for the other British vessels to hasten up and complete the enemy's ruin.
From the rear on the starboard tack the Captain now took the lead on the larboard, and single-handed she at first engaged the foe.
The Culloden, Blenheim, and the Excellent—the latter under the command of Collingwood—were the first to arrive and bring help to the Captain in her gallant fight against such odds.
When Collingwood, to use Nelson's own words, "disdaining the parade of taking possession of beaten enemies, with every sail set, pushed up to save his old messmate," Nelson's gallant vessel had suffered severely.
She had lost her fore-topmast, not a sail, shroud, or rope was left, her wheel was shot away.
Thus, unfit for further service in the line, and unable to pursue, there was only one thing left; and, putting her helm a-starboard, Nelson gave the order so dear to a British seaman, "Out cutlasses, and board!"
First into the San Nicholas the boarders leapt. Captain Miller had started to lead his men. "No, Miller, I must have that honour!" said Nelson, slipping in front of his junior officer, and heading the attack in person.
Many of our sailors, climbing to the yards which were locked in the Spaniard's main-rigging, dropped down on deck from above. The foe could not resist their furious charge—our seamen swept the decks. The enemy were driven below; such as still remained yielded, and the officers gave up their swords.
Leaving some men to guard the San Nicholas, Nelson now turned to the San Josef, lying alongside. Again the order to board was given, Nelson, with a shout of "Westminster Abbey, or victory!" leading the way.
Berry, the first man to get on the San Nicholas, was again in front, and with his own hand helped Nelson into the main-chains. Hardly had they reached the deck before the Spaniards surrendered, Nelson receiving their swords himself, and coolly handing them over to one of the old Agamemnon's crew, who had stuck by his side while the fight lasted.
Berry helped Nelson into the main-chains of the San Josef.
When the Victory, the admiral's flagship, passed a few moments later, both of the Spanish ships of the line had struck their flags to Nelson.
Cheer after cheer rose from the Victory, and the ringing huzzas were taken up by the whole fleet.
"Nothing in the world was ever more noble than the action of the Captain from beginning to end." So wrote Sir Gilbert Elliot, who was with the fleet during the fight.
At 4 p.m. the orders to cease fighting, and to cover the four prizes and the crippled Captain, were given. The defeated enemy sailed away, and Nelson went on board the flagship. There Sir John Jervis met him on the quarter-deck, and, taking him in his arms, told Nelson he scarcely knew how to thank him.
On Captain Calder saying that the Captain's wearing out of the line—which really won the battle—was an act of disobedience, the admiral replied, "It certainly was so; and if ever you commit such a breach of orders I shall forgive you also."
For this brilliant victory Jervis was made a peer, with the title of Lord St. Vincent. Nelson was offered a baronetcy, which he was too poor to accept, so he was made instead a Knight of the Garter.
Jervis made him a present which he valued highly—the sword of the Spanish rear-admiral. This gift he sent to the city of Norwich, saying that "he knew no place where it would give him or his family more pleasure to have it kept than in the chief city of the county where he was born."
His father wrote that "tears of joy had trickled down his aged cheeks" to read of his son's bravery. "The name and services of Nelson have sounded from the common ballad-singer to the public theatre," he add.
The Captain had been so knocked about in the battle as to be of no further use, so Sir Horatio, now a Rear-Admiral of the Blue, shifted his flag to the Theseus, a fine ship which had just come from England.
On Nelson's first going to the Theseus there was some doubt how the crew would behave. There had lately been a mutiny in England among the sailors, in which the Theseus had taken part. Nelson was so beloved that it was felt he was the captain to take command of discontented men.
His tact and kindness, as well as his bravery and renown, won the day.
Very soon after he came on board he received a packet which was dropped one night on the deck, and which enclosed a paper signed by the whole crew, containing these words:—
"Success attend Admiral Nelson! God bless Captain Miller! We thank them for the officers they have placed over us. We are happy and comfortable; and will shed every drop of blood in our veins to support them."
The paper ended by promising that the name of the Theseus should be as famous as that of her captain; and the brave sailors kept their word, nor did they ever give trouble by their conduct.
Sir Horatio was now put in command of an in-shore squadron, which had orders to blockade Cadiz. There was a lot of work in small boats, and some fierce fights took place between the little craft on both sides.
At no time in his life was Nelson's bravery greater than in these hand-to-hand conflicts. The danger suited him, for he loved fighting for fighting's sake. Once his barge was boarded by a number of Spaniards, and in the hand-to-hand struggle John Sykes, his faithful coxswain, twice at great risk saved his admiral's life.
During the blockade news came that the Spanish treasure-ships from Mexico had heard that Lord St. Vincent was in wait for them, and had taken refuge at Teneriffe. This was found to be untrue, but a homeward-bound Manilla ship had put into Santa Cruz, and Nelson was told to command an assault on the town, and secure the treasure.
The attack was beaten back, though Nelson and his men fought with splendid bravery.
Nelson, while leading the force, was struck in the right arm by a grape-shot. His step-son, son, Josiah Nisbet, into whose arms he had fallen, with great skill and coolness bound the wound; otherwise he must have bled to death.
Returning to the ship, the wounded admiral refused all help, and, steadying himself with one hand, jumped up the ship's side. Arrived on deck, he called for the surgeon, and quietly told him "to get his instruments ready, for he knew he must lose his arm, and that the sooner it was off the better."
He bore the operation without a murmur, and never even mentioned his own wound in his despatches home. What he minded more was the failure of the attack; and what with fretting over this, and the pain of his wound, he became very ill.
"I am become," he said, "a burden to my friends, and useless to my country." To Lord St. Vincent he wrote: "I hope you will be able to give me a frigate to convey the remains of my carcass to England: a left-handed admiral will never again be considered as useful."
When he reached home, Nelson was greatly cheered by the splendid welcome he got. The freedom of the cities of London and Bristol was given to him, while the king received him most graciously, and decorated him with the Order of the Bath, besides giving him a pension of £1000 a year.
After a time the wound which had caused him so much suffering healed, and Nelson wrote to a London clergyman, begging him to announce in church the next Sunday: "An officer desires to return thanks to Almighty God for his perfect recovery from a severe wound, and also for many mercies bestowed upon him."
As soon as he was well he was given command of the Vanguard, 74 guns, in which he sailed to join the squadron off Cadiz. "I do assure you that the arrival of Admiral Nelson has given me new life," wrote St. Vincent, who, now an old man and in failing health, joyfully welcomed the return of the brilliant seaman he so trusted and admired.