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THE following is the strange tale When the paper numbered 143 was
concerning a remarkable bit of opened, it was found to be a commission, 1 lost evidence, around which hangs giving the rank of captain in the navy of a chapter of recorded and unrecorded the United Colonies to one Gustavus American history—a drama rather, smack- Conyngham, appointing him to the coming of romance, filled with mysterious mand of the armed vessel Surprise. plotting and secret international diplo That was all-it was a simple bit of macy. By what might be called a “lucky old-fashioned printing. But—Gustavus strike " it is revived from an almost for. Conyngham! The Surprise! It seemed gotten past.
almost incredible that it should be true! Only a short time ago there appeared Before the mind's eye there came the in a catalogue of Charavay, an autograph slight, wiry figure of a young man in a and print seller in Paris, among scores of long blue coat with his black hair done in a other notices, the following:
queue down his back, walking the quarter143 Hancock (ohn), célèbre homme d'État deck of a tidy little vessel, at whose peak Américain, gouverneur du Massachusetts, sig. fluttered and whipped the cross-barred nataire de la Déclaration d l'Indépendance rattlesnake fag, while the Channel spray Pièce sig. comme président du congrès; Balti- dashed and glittered at the plunging bows. more, 1 mars 1777, 1 p. in-fol. Obl. Rare.
there came the billowing white smoke of The connection of names and dates of the old broadsides, the roar of the carcourse would, at the outset, attract the ronades, and the whir of the death-dealattention of any collector of Americana, ing splinters; and then there came the for, more than likely, they should have picture of a prisoner loaded with chains something to do with Franklin's sojourn in the gloom of an underground dungeon, in France. The price asked was much and there followed the recollection of a less than the principal signature alone gen- worn, crumbling tombstone (any one can erally brought in the autograph market, see it to-day in St. Peter's churchyard in and so it was included by the present Philadelphia) beneath which lies the body of owner in a list of small purchases ordered an old man who died in a measure from the from the catalogue.
wear and tear that follows a broken heart. Yes; there lay the long-missing paper and at last it was decided to abandon the that is mentioned by every writer who return voyage altogether, although more has dealt with the history of our Revolu- than once Captain Conyngham had been tionary navy! There was no doubt of tempted to take advantage of the thick the authenticity of the document; the weather and slip out into the Channel. well-known signatures of Hancock and But the Peggy was a slow sailer and Charles Thompson were substantiated by would have had little chance with the the fact that, upon comparison, the filling swift English cutters that were on guard in of the names was found to be in the outside. So Captain Conyngham, like handwriting of no one less than Benjamin many a Yankee shipmaster, found himselt Franklin himself !
stranded in Europe, on the lookout for Here was the excuse for the sailing of anything to fill up his spare moments and the little vessel that flew the cross-barred burning to do something for his country, flag! Here was the instrument that is He called it his country, although he had supposed to have saved a score of lives been born an alien, for his father had held forfeit to the British Crown! Here emigrated to America long before, and he was the missing evidence, for lack of himself had married in '73 Anne Hockley which a great case at law was lost and a the daughter of a Philadelphia merchant brave man's heart broken; for the name But we must digress a little and suddenly. on the old tombstone, woven into a curi. It was late in the midsummer of '76 ous acrostic, is the same that appears on when good Dr. Franklin, Minister Plenithe face of the commission.
potentiary to the Government of France, Up surges the whole of the strange sailed for Europe in the Reprisal, the first story, the adventures, the excitement, the American ship-of-war to ride the waves tragedy of it all!
of the English Channel. The news of How many have ever heard of this old- the Declaration of Independence had pretime sailorman? Few, perhaps; but the ceded her, however, brought by one or student of American naval history, he two private armed vessels from Delaware knows of him, and knows how throughout and New England, those risk-all dare his story runs the trail of the lost com- devils, half pirates, half patriots, whose mission, which for a century and a quarter day is past. Not only did the Reprisal has been—the Lord knows where. But bring the great hope of the struggling without further prologue let the play come colonies, for foreign aid was absolutely on.
necessary to a continuance of war, but Late in the fall of the year 1775 Cap- she carried into port three English mertain Gustavus Conyngham sailed from chantmen picked up on the way, the first Philadelphia in the brig Charming Peggy, Yankee prizes to be brought into the bound for Holland. He was an Irishman harbors of a foreign country. by birth, having been born during the hard time did the good Doctor have uneasy days of '47, in Letter Kenney in of it at first, for the English Ambassador the County of Donegal. It was his inten- to France, Lord Stormont, was up in tion to bring out from Holland a cargo of arms. If the prizes remained in French saltpeter and clothing, and, if possible, ports, he would quit the country; if "the arms and munitions of war to aid the Arch Traitor and Conspirator” reached colonies that had already begun the strug- Paris, he would likewise! But marvelous gle against the mother country. Numer- are the methods of French statecraft, and ous were his adventures. Once he was subtle the manners of intrigue! captured just after entering the Channel The prizes did leave French portsby a watchful English cruiser, but he rose ordered out instanter in no doubtful terms against the prize crew, recaptured his —but they were sold with their contents little craft, and brought her safely into The “just outside" to French merchants. Hague. However, the character of her The messenger sent to stop the youngcargo being ascertained, the British repre- hearted old philosopher, with his papers sentatives made complaint to the Dutch in his capacious pockets, missed his way authorities and her sailing was prevented. what a dolt of a messenger !-and of One of her owners, a Mr. Nesbit, of Phil- course French politeness, sense of hospiadelphia, was in Holland at the time, tality, and love of justice prevented a
masque etlaterra des Analowe
PORTRAIT OF CONYNGHAM, FROM A FREXCH PRINT PUBLISHED IN 1779
From the collection of Captain John S. Barnes.
harmless old gentleman, who could but over wine-glass rims, and of these days amuse and instruct people, being asked and dealings Franklin wrote afterward, to leave when once he had passed the “Of course no minates could be kept." city gates. Thus, in substance, wrote M. So the play went on. France could Le Comte de Vergennes, the king's Prime not openly aid the enemy of a friendly Minister. So Franklin stopped in Paris, power, but there was nothing to prevent a and Lord Stormont swallowed his anger commercial house from giving credit to and wrote warning letters to his Govern- private individuals who assumed the risk ment
of sending out cargoes liable to capture It was just at this time that Conyng- on the high seas. So there was formed ham arrived at Dunkirk from The Hague, the sagacious house of Roderigo, Hortalez and almost immediately upon landing & Co.: General Manager, Beaumarchais; there he met a friend of his named Ross, sleeping partner, M. le Comte de Verfrom whom he learned a great deal of the gennes ; principal stockholders, the Court, state of affairs in America and of the King Louis and Queen Marie Antoinette, doings at the French capital. Through et al.; there followed the historic loan of Ross he also met a Mr. Hodge and his 200,000 livres, the shipment of thirty-five friend Allan, both of whom were well thousand stand of arins and eighty canacquainted with the American Commis- non. There was a little money yet left sioners, Dr. Franklin, Arthur Lee, and over. It was decided that it should not Silas Deane. Not long after this Conyng- remain idle. Conyngham was asked to ham was sent for by Mr. Hodge, who come to Dr. Franklin's house, and there, requested him to repair at once to Paris, as he states in his sworn testimony, Dr. where he might learn of something much Franklin gave him, with his own hands, to his advantage.
a commission as a captain in the navy of Although the Captain kept a diary, in the United Colonies, and immediately he which were entered most minutely his returned to Dunkirk. subsequent adventures, he says very little Now let us see what the Father of of this journey ; it was probably under- American Naval History says in this contaken in strict secrecy. At all events, he nection. must have been informed of the mysteri- “In the spring of 1777," writes Cooper, ous arrangements then existing between “an agent was sent to Dover by the the French Ministry and the American American Commission, where he purCommissioners, and there is no doubt chased a fine fast-sailing English cutter and that he was admitted to the inner circle had her carried across to Dunkirk. Here of the intriguers.
she was privately equipped as a cruiser It was a remarkable condition of affairs and named the Surprise. To the command indeed that Conyngham found. The of this vessel Captain Gustavus ConyngFrench Government, under the direction ham was appointed by filling up a blank of that wonderful leader of old-fashioned commission from John Hancock, the diplomacy, M. le Comte de Vergennes, President of Congress. This commission was playing fast and loose with the repre- bore the date of March 1, 1777, and it sentative of the English Court. King would seem as fully entitled Mr. ConyngLouis was not ready for war, but in the ham to the rank of captain in the navy success of the revolted colonies France as any that was ever issued by the same saw the means to strike a heavy blow at authority.” her natural enemy across the Channel, Armed with this necessary document, it and at the same time to safeguard her did not take Captain Conyngham long to possessions beyond the seas. She had recruit his crew. In the main they were not forgotten the loss of Canada-she American seamen held in French ports feared for Louisiana. The old gentleman by the embargo, and, like their leader, who played chess at his little house in they were only too eager to cruise against Passy played deep in another game. the commerce of England. But think of Weighty sentences were spoken over it ! One little vessel starting out alone extended snuff-boxes. Messages and into King George's private sailing-ground! decisions meaning almost life or death to Just about this time the vessel that had the new-born nation were bandied lightly brought Franklin to Europe, under com