A Drummer of Warburton's by Percie W. Hart

How a Boy Held Fort George at Cape Canso, in 1757

A few hours ago I found an odd-shaped bit of blackened brass. The thing lies before me now as I write. It is a drum-hook. I know this for the simple reason that I was once a drummer-boy myself, and could not be mistaken regarding such a familiar object. I found this drum-hook among a lot of other odds and ends at the bottom of a well in an old, long-abandoned fortification. The poor scrap of silent metal brings to mind the tale of Rupert Haydon, drummer-boy in one of the old line regiments. His deed of heroism was performed at this same old fort which I have to-day been ransacking. Perhaps this drum-hook was once used by him! It is not at all unlikely.

By turning to your map of North America you can easily distinguish Cape Canso, at the eastern extremity of the mainland of Nova Scotia. Upon an island, about a mile from the shore and forming with it the harbor of Canso, is the grass-grown fortress which I have mentioned. The name of the island is George’s; the fort has had several high-sounding titles. Why should it not? It is old—older perhaps than others with claims of easier proof. In 1518, over a century before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth, legend says that Baron de Lery threw up the first embankments and claimed the country for the crown of France. Several times this fort has been besieged and captured, at heavy loss of life. New England sent expeditions against it. The bloodthirsty Indians repeatedly raided the place. In 1745 Pepperell and his valiant little army of Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Connecticut militia remained here for some weeks, in order to acquire drill and discipline before moving upon the boasted Louisburg. And many another martial display has this neglected old fort witnessed, and personages celebrated in our history have walked within its ramparts upon occasion.

In the year 1757 Fort George, as it was then called, had as its garrison a small detachment from Colonel Warburton’s regiment of foot. This trifling force was compelled to watch over a wide extent of territory in addition to the special place they occupied. France and England were again at war, and both regular expeditions and lawless guerillas abounded.

On a certain day in midsummer the garrison embarked upon a small vessel and sailed away to the relief of a threatened settlement. Rupert Haydon, the drummer-boy, was left in charge of the fort. With him were several women, wives of soldiers, and their small children.

“We shall be gone but a week at most, drummer,” Captain Peabody had announced. “It suits me not to leave women and stores so ill protected, but the commands of my superiors must be obeyed. However, it is scarce likely that the enemy will have knowledge of the fort’s weakness in time to profit thereby.”

The drummer-boy stood at attention and saluted as the soldiers marched out through the covered way. With the aid of the women he hoisted the drawbridge and closed the massive timber gates. Then, scrambling up on top of the parapet, he watched the little sailing craft, her decks all bright with the scarlet-coated warriors, pass out through the narrow harbor entrance and disappear from view around the first headland. Scarcely had the transport so vanished, when Rupert’s keen eyes discovered another vessel making for the harbor from the opposite side.

Mere supposition was useless. The newcomer might prove to be a friend. If an enemy, the chance of being let alone was problematical. It was now too late to recall the recently departed garrison. Upon the drummer’s young shoulders lay the whole burden of maintaining the dignity of the English flag.

 Rupert Haydon was only a poorly educated boy, but he must have had a great deal of latent talent. Even while gazing in consternation at the fast-approaching vessel, he mentally mapped out a plan of campaign. Hastily gathering the women about him, he explained the matter to them, and secured their aid. They were all well used to the happening of the unexpected, and inured to danger and fatigue. The wife of a British soldier has never had an easy lot. These rugged-looking though golden-hearted women donned some uniforms left behind by their husbands, and became, in outward appearance at least, full-fledged soldiers. The six small cannon mounted in the fort’s bastions were loaded, small-arms served out, and ammunition placed conveniently to hand. One of the soldier-women mounted guard upon the ramparts, and marched up and down, in plain view, with musket upon shoulder. The English ensign was, of course, flying from the tall staff in the centre of the redoubt.

As the vessel drew nearer, the little garrison began to bustle with activity, and continued in the same fashion for some while. Two of the soldier-women would come out of the fort, stroll down to the shore, examine the stranger with an apparently mild curiosity, and then walk off together over the hills. Meanwhile the others, including Rupert, would come and go, disappearing and reappearing in all directions with the aid of the rocky ravines and clumps of trees upon the island. The idea of all this was to convince the new-comers, whoever they might be, that the fort’s garrison remained unimpaired, and took no special notice of a single vessel. That the scheme had a certain effect was shown in the fact that the stranger came to anchor far down the harbor, well out of range of Fort George’s cannon. It looked very much as if the appearance of these redcoats coming and going about the island had impressed her commander unfavorably.

After some delay the ship hoisted a French ensign, and a small boat put off from her side and headed for the fort landing. This boat contained three men—two rowing, and one in the stern holding aloft a piece of white cloth. It was evidently a flag of truce, coming to parley.

Although his worst fears were now realized, and they plainly had a formidable enemy to deal with, Rupert never wavered, but proceeded to dispose of his forces in the best manner possible. Leaving only the sentry upon the parapet, he marched out of the fort at the head of the others, as if they merely constituted a suitable escorting party. One of the squad he had equipped beforehand with a flag of truce similar to that carried by the man in the boat. The drummer drew up his little company in a single rank upon the glacis, about half-way between the intrenchments and the water’s edge. At such a distance their disguises could not be discovered. Alone he advanced to the border of the pebble-strewn strand, and there awaited the coming of the emissary.

The latter was wary of approaching too hastily. He bade his oarsmen back the skiff stern first to within ten or fifteen yards of the shore. Then he stopped them, and, while they kept the boat in position with gentle strokes, he held converse with the intrepid drummer by means of lusty shoutings.

“I wish to speak with your Commandant,” began the stranger, using good English, yet with a decided Gallic accent. “You are only a child.... A drummer-boy?... Am I not right?... I judged so by your small stature and pretty coat.... Inform the Commandant of your fort that I desire a few words with him.”

“It is impossible,” replied Rupert, coolly.

“What? Impossible?”

“Yes; I regret to say that the Commandant will not be able to see you at present. But I am his representative, and can also act as your messenger if you have something of importance to transmit.”

“O-ho! We are very high and mighty, it seems!” retorted the stranger, angrily. “Like should have like for meals. I will not be so civil as I first intended. Tell your Commandant that my name is Rabentine—Captain Rabentine. I have the honor of commanding La Belle Cerise, privateer, of St. Malo.”

“A French privateer!” ejaculated Rupert.

“Just so,” went on Captain Rabentine, looking from the drummer to his escort, up at the fort, and back again to the drummer, with some appearance of suspicion.

“I had thought you were a navy frigate,” rejoined Rupert, promptly. “We are getting rusty for the want of a little fighting.”

The other seemed slightly taken aback at this statement.

“Perhaps you may have such a chance even yet,” he growled.

“Well, Captain Rabentine,” cried the boy, courteously, “what else am I to say to the Commandant? For surely you took not all this trouble merely to let us know whom our visitor might be?”

“Inform him,” shouted the privateer Captain, waxing wroth, “that I had intended simply to lay in harbor here and weather out the coming gale. That a good prize-ship is more to my liking than an empty fort! Perhaps there might even have been a case of rare wine sent ashore by way of compliment. But as he chooses to be so distant, and sends a drummer-boy as fitting ambassador to a French Captain, I shall give myself the pleasure of—But, pshaw! there is no money in this for my owners. Inform your Commandant that I have a mind to anchor farther up the harbor, where the shelter is good, for a few days. That I will not molest him if he leaves me alone. There you have it in a nutshell. Go, and haste quickly with the answer.”

Gravely turning on his heel the drummer strode back up the hill, joined his waiting escort, and marched with them to the fort. He was gone upon this pretended mission some little time; quite long enough further to exasperate the privateer Captain.

“Truly ’tis a matter of wonderful ceremony,” he sneered, when Rupert, after repeating the former precautionary measures with his escort, was once more at speaking distance. “All this folderol is wearisome. Your Commandant may regret not having sent an officer before we are through with the thing. Did you sufficiently impress him with the fact that I am not one to be trifled with? Does he realize that his garrison can scarcely outnumber my crew? La Belle Cerise carries one hundred and fifty-four as natty sailors as ever swung boarding-pikes, and at a pinch we can spare a round hundred for landing-party and still have enough on board to work our biggest guns. He should be thankful that I show an inclination to leave his puny fort untouched. What has he to say?”

“Our two nations being at war at the present time,” announced the drummer, guardedly, “I am to tell you that we can offer no harbor unless you care to surrender yourself and crew as prisoners, and your ship as lawful prize. Failing this, you must—”

“What? Zounds!” howled the easily excited Frenchman. “Your Commandant may think this good jesting, but I do not share his opinions. Tell him to look to his defences. The flag of France shall once more wave above them. We will attack at once, and for every poor fellow I lose in this worthless assault, two of your survivors shall be strung up to die. Give way, my boys!” he cried, addressing his oarsmen.

The boat sped off to the vessel. The drummer and his little party returned within the fort, and prepared as best they could for what was to follow.

Almost immediately after the arrival of the privateer Captain on board his ship, three great pinnaces were lowered to the water and filled with men. The glitter from naked cutlasses, inlaid pistols, and carefully held muskets could easily be distinguished among them. This flotilla was soon ready, and at once started for the fort landing. Luckily for the trivial band of defenders the wind was increasing to such an extent that Captain Rabentine did not consider it wise to attempt manœuvring his ship in an unbuoyed and dangerous harbor. Therefore the flotilla was without any aid from the guns of La Belle Cerise. Moreover, the waves were commencing to run high, and the overloaded boats labored heavily. It was necessary to keep them headed to the seas as much as possible, and, in consequence, their progress towards the shore was rendered extremely slow.

Rupert Haydon and his improvised garrison were all ready. The loaded cannon were trained as nearly as could be upon the approaching boats. The women soldiers had kissed their children a fond good-bye, and shut them up in the bomb-proof magazine, away from danger of flying projectiles.

When the flotilla had arrived within easy range, the young drummer commenced discharging the battery as fast as he could pull the lanyards. After him hurried the women, reloading the heated cannon. The roar of the discharge came re-echoing back from the rocky cliffs repeated over and over again, and the smoke-clouds temporarily hid the fort from view.

This unskilful volley went wide of the mark, as was to be expected under the circumstances, and yet inflicted great damage upon the privateersmen. The thing came about after the following fashion: Upon the very beginning of the cannonade, the officer in command of the leading boat had bade his rowers swing their craft directly head on to the fort, thus presenting as small a target as possible. Those in the second boat, however, more intent upon watching the course of the projectiles than anything else, had not noticed this manœuvre, and so, before anything could be done to prevent it, came smashing against the other’s gunwale. In the heavy sea then running this was specially disastrous. The stricken boat had her side stove in, and the on-comer was overturned. Both crews quickly found themselves struggling in the water. Well convinced of the hopelessness of continuing their present assault, the men in the remaining pinnace confined their efforts to rescuing drowning comrades and getting out of range again as quickly as possible.

The gale had now increased considerably, and its gathering force gave promise of still fiercer might. By the time the survivors of the boat expedition had returned to their ship the day was drawing close to twilight. Captain Rabentine well realized his double danger. Failing shelter, which could only be found farther up the harbor, and in range of the fort’s cannon, he must put to sea. He was wild with anger at his repulse. What would have been his condition of mind if he had known that the defenders consisted merely of a boy and a few women dressed in soldier clothes?

Hastily ordering the cable slipped, Captain Rabentine saw to the spreading of some small storm-sails, and tried to beat out of the inhospitable harbor. But even here fortune seemed to be against him. The full flood-tide was running, and although La Belle Cerise strutted bravely, she could make no perceptible offing. The only road to safety lay directly past the fort and out the other entrance. The privateer Captain well knew that one lucky shot might disable his ship, and cause him to lose control over her. In such a wind and upon such a coast this meant almost certain death and destruction. But it appeared to be his only chance, and he had to take it.

Down on the wind swept the privateer. Her decks were awash with foam. She rolled and pitched like a mad thing. Her guns were lashed fast to the deck ring-bolts. It would have been suicidal to try to use them in such a sea. The crew clung to shrouds and railings, gazing ruefully upon the nearing battlements which they had so unsuccessfully attempted to assail. In a few minutes they were almost abreast of the green hill. Scarcely a hundred yards distant were the grinning embrasures, from which protruded the muzzles of cannon in plain view.


Within the fort Rupert Haydon stood ready, lanyard in hand. The guns had been more carefully sighted this time, and he felt sure that they could not all miss such a monstrous mark. One pull upon the blackened cord and the chances for a prosperous voyage of La Belle Cerise of St. Malo would be small. For a second he hesitated. Then dropping the lanyard, cried:

“No, no. It would be murder, not battle.”

Seizing the white flag of truce that had already been used in the preliminary negotiations, and leaping upon the parapet, he waved it to and fro.

The meaning was instantly comprehended on board of the privateer. Not to be outdone in courtesy, some sailors, at risk of life and limb, scrambled aft to their own halyards. As the ship swept by, the proud ensign of France descended to the deck in salute to the drummer-boy of Warburton’s. Ere it was hoisted again, La Belle Cerise was a receding speck upon the darkening, storm-swept ocean.