1892-08-21 UNDER THE GARNET'S NOSE
New York Times, 21 August 1892, p. ??: UNDER THE GARNET'S NOSE. Sub-heading: A RUSSIAN NAVAL OFFICER'S STRATEGY -- HOW HE TOOK HIS VESSEL OUT OF NORFOLK HARBOR WHEN WAR WITH GREAT BRITAIN WAS THREATENING -- A CREW THAT WAS VERY FOND OF FRUIT AND GOT PLENTY OF IT.
A paragraph recently appeared in a New York journal concerning Commodore Skrydloff of the Russian Navy. This gentleman contributed a piquant incident to the engaging history of Virginian waters in 1887.
It will be remembered that in that year a war appeared to be impending between Great Britain and Russia. A declaration of war between those two powers, it is needless to recall, never came; but while it was hourly in prospect the interest in the question at Norfolk, Va. was enlivened by the arrival in its port of a Russian man-of-war, with a British one at her heels. The then "Commander" Skrydloff dropped anchor from his command, the Strelock, off Fort Norfolk, and an hour or two afterward Capt. Hand, Royal Navy, appeared in her Majesty's ship Garnet, and let out his cable only so much further from the fort that the vessels could clear each other in swinging with the tide.
Here was a matter for a May morning. It was known that two British men-of-war were following in the wake of this Russian sloop. The Garnet was one of them, a corvette. Her companion was hovering outside, or somewhere not far away. They had all three come from the West Indies.
Now of the Strelock and Garnet, which had thus arrived at Norfolk Harbor, and lay there side by side, the latter vessel would have had a conspicuous advantage in a battle. Both were wooden vessels, but the Garnet's size, the number of her crew, and the amount of her ordnance were possibly twice those of the Strelock. Our own officers at the navy yard perceived that the Strelock's were really the better guns, but that comparison only related to modernness and design -- the rifles were of smaller bore, and were fewer than the Garnet's. Perhaps the little Russian had one advantage, and that one that supersedes everything except dignity ‑‑ heels. But even this was not a certainty.
In the circumstances it would not have been presumed that the Russian commander would linger at Norfolk should war be declared between the British government and his while he remained in the harbor of a neutral power. International law would then allow him only a few hours' start of his enemy if he put to sea before her, of if the Garnet went out first, she with her consort would undoubtedly blockade Skrydloff within the Chesapeake as the alternative to running their dangerous gantlet [sic]. Skrydloff, by the way, probably would have done this later, as he is renowned as a daring officer as well as an able one. But that is aside. Notwithstanding these reasons which the Strelock had for getting out, she staid where she was with the Garnet beside her. In the newspapers the probability of the Anglo-Russian war alternately subsided and returned, and the men-of-war swung at their anchorages, eying each other day after day, week after week.
Meanwhile Capt. Hand and Commander Skrydloff were personal friends. They met on shore, where they were entertained by civilians in Norfolk, and by our officers at the navy yard on the other side. In company they gravitated to each other at times, to exchange a word or two in French, which was indirectly expressive of their mutual regard. On one of these occasions, in the course of a visit to the navy yard, said Hand to the Russian:
Here it happened that a lady interrupted them and carried off the Muscovite. Hand turned away and soon afterward he was talking with Commander C., United States Navy, who asked him to complete a theatre party for the next night.
"It will be the last performance of one of our best actors in his best play," said C. (It was Joseph Jefferson in "Rip van Winkle.") "Skrydloff is coming, and with Mrs. C. and two friends, who are visiting her, there will be a lady for each of us."
Hand agreed readily, and the box party was made up.
On the next evening, before leaving his ship, the Russian had a conversation with his executive officer.
"You have no doubt that you can drive the sticks into the bottom securely?" Skrydloff asked.
"The sounding assures me so," answered his Lieutenant. "The spars are long enough to support the lights just at the height of our own, and the bottom is soft and will hold them up."
"You will have to be silent."
"I shall have to be silent, Sir."
"Be careful to keep clear of those lights."
"Assuredly, Sir. Everything depends upon that."
"Remember that the tug I have hired to run lightly into the bow of the Garnet will do it at 10 o'clock, on the minute. Watch for her. That is the moment for you to put out the lights and light those on the spars. The attention of the watch aboard the Garnet will be forward when the tug strikes her away from us."
"That is the moment, Sir. I will await sounds from the Garnet intently and change the lights instantly."
"The tide will be half way out on the ebb."
"Yes, Sir, and then I shall be ready for your orders fifteen minutes later."
"I trust you," said the commander, taking his officer's hand with Russian zeal.
With that the latter saw him over the side.
At the theatre, Capt. Hand and the others had preceded him. Skrydloff found them in one of the boxes. He was received with pleasure. He is a charming man, and an enjoyable evening began. Jefferson was in excellent form, and the ladies were bright and the people in the circles and below looked at the commanders in the box.
"C'est tout charmant," said Skrydloff to Mrs. F.
"Ah, vous me [sic] comprenez pas Anglais," the lady regretted.
"Mais un peu, et concevez que je suis heureux en voyant le Theatre Americain avec vous, Madame, pour m'expliquer les particularités."
The scene went on, and the hour was 9. The interest was sustained on the stage, and in this particular party among themselves. It was thus that time had passed with the apparent rapidity of time unnoted, to 10 o'clock, when the curtain fell at the close of an act -- and the Russian rose.
"I have a most disagreeable apology to make," said Skrydloff to Mrs. C., who was his entertainer.
"You are not going?" she asked, with concern.
But Skrydloff was going. The lady reproached him as she gave him her hand. "And I expected you to supper on my right hand."
"Ah, Madame, you force me to feel my choice too much. I must hasten to leave you or I shall renounce my duty. I leave it to Commander C.," said Skrydloff, turning to him, "to defend my unhappy necessity -- he is an officer; and to Capt. Hand." He bowed to Hand.
Skrydloff withdrew, and Hand bade him goodnight friendly and regretfully with the rest. Mrs. C.'s supper, however, if the party was changed somewhat from the first design, was not deprived of its complement of men. C. saw one of Hand's Lieutenants whom he had met in the audience, and he proved obliging enough to be faute de mieux, vice Skrydloff, retired.
One cannot answer for the feelings of a disappointed hostess, but the evening was enjoyed undoubtedly by the others, and by none more than Capt. Hand and his officer. They spent the night on shore. In the morning when they returned on board the Garnet they heard a tale, for which something missed in the water view as they had rowed out to the vessel had prepared them. Where was the Strelock?
Russian strategy, in the person of Skrydloff, had gained the little man-of-war when he had left the theatre on the night before. He had been coalling and storing the ship under the nose of the Garnet from vessels that he caused to come alongside with cargoes of sea necessaries under surface loads of the fresh luxuries of the port. At dawn, after the dark night, the watch of the British corvette made out a green and a red light, burning pale in the morning dusk, supported on two spars sticking up in the water, from between which a brilliant officer had let his vessel drift out seaward with the tide before 11 o'clock on the previous night.
"Skrydloff, your men eat an unconscionable amount of fruit. A lighter of it is alongside of you almost every day."Skrydloff shrugged. "We have little of that kind of food at home," he answered, "and my men have grown fond of it since we have been in Southern latitudes."
It was not till the second day afterward that the Garnet was prepared for sea and followed. I believe that the Strelock came directly to New York, and the question of war passed away while she was here. Capt. Hand, too, turned up with the Garnet; but whether he called upon Skrydloff I am not informed. T. [?]
Provided by Stephen McLaughlin