Or, The Naval Officer
We do not intend to review our own work; if we did it justice we might be accused of partiality, and we are not such fools as to abuse it. We leave that to our literary friends who may have so little taste as not to appreciate its merits. Not that there would be anything novel in reviewing our own performances–that we have discovered since we have assumed the office of editor; but still it is always done _sub rosa_, whereas in our position we could not deny our situation as editor and author. Of _Peter Simple_, therefore, we say nothing, but we take this opportunity of saying a few words to the public…. _The Naval Officer_ was our first attempt, and its having been our first attempt must be offered in extenuation of its many imperfections; it was written hastily, and before it was complete we were appointed to a ship. We cared much about our ship and little about our book. The first was diligently taken care of by ourselves, the second was left in the hands of others to get on how it could. Like most bantlings put out to nurse, it did not get on very well. As we happen to be in a communicative vein, it may be as well to remark that, being written in the autobiographical style, it was asserted by friends, and believed in general, that it was a history of the author’s life. Now, without pretending to have been better than we should have been in our earlier days, we do most solemnly assure the public that had we run the career of vice of the hero of the _Naval Officer_, at all events we should have had sufficient sense of shame not to have avowed it. Except the hero and heroine, and those parts of the work which supply the slight plot of it as a novel, the work in itself is materially true, especially in the narrative of sea adventure, most of which did (to the best of our recollection) occur to the author. We say to the best of our recollection, as it behoves us to be careful. We have not forgotten the snare in which Chamier found himself by asserting in his preface that his narrative was fact. In _The Naval Officer_ much good material was thrown away; but we intend to write it over again some day of these days, and _The Naval Officer_, when corrected, will be so improved that he may be permitted to stand on the same shelf with _Pride and Prejudice_ and _Sense and Sensibility_.[A]
[Footnote A: The improvement was never made.–ED.]
“The confounded licking we received for our first attempts in the critical notices is probably well known to the reader–at all events we have not forgotten it. Now, with some, this severe castigation of their first offence would have had the effect of their never offending again; but we felt that our punishment was rather too severe; it produced indignation instead of contrition, and we determined to write again in spite of all the critics in the universe; and in the due course of nine months we produced _The King’s Own_. In _The Naval Officer_ we had sowed all our wild oats; we had _paid off_ those who had ill-treated us, and we had no further personality to indulge in. _The King’s Own_, therefore, was wholly fictitious in characters, in plot, and in events, as have been its successors. _The King’s Own_ was followed by _Newton Forster, Newton Forster_ by _Peter Simple_. These are _all_ our productions. Reader, we have told our tale.”
This significant document was published by Captain Marryat in the _Metropolitan Magazine_ 1833, of which he was at that time the editor, on the first appearance of _Peter Simple_, in order, among other things, to disclaim the authorship of a work entitled the _Port Admiral_, which contained “an infamous libel upon one of our most distinguished officers deceased, and upon the service in general.” It repudiates, without explaining away, certain unpleasant impressions that even the careful reader of to-day cannot entirely avoid. Marryat made Frank Mildmay a scamp, I am afraid, in order to prove that he himself had not stood for the portrait; but he clearly did not recognise the full enormities of his hero, to which he was partially blinded by a certain share thereof. The adventures were admittedly his own, they were easily recognised, and he had no right to complain of being confounded with the insolent young devil to whom they were attributed. It would, however, be at once ungracious and unprofitable to attempt any analysis of the points of difference and resemblance; any reader will detect the author’s failings by his work; other coincidences may be noticed here.
It has been said, in the general introduction, that Marryat’s cruises in the _Imperieuse_ are almost literally described in _Frank Mildmay_. We have also independent accounts of certain personal adventures there related.
The episode, chap, iv., of being bitten by a skate–supposed to be dead–which is used again in _Peter Simple_, came from Marryat’s own experience; and he declared that he ran away from school on account of the very indignity–that of being compelled to wear his elder brother’s old clothes–which Frank Mildmay pleads as an excuse for sharing at least the sentiments of Cain. Marryat, again, was trampled upon and left for dead when boarding an enemy (see chap, v.); he saved the midshipman who had bullied him, from drowning, though his reflections on the occasion are more edifying than those recounted in chap. v. “From that moment,” he says, “I have loved the fellow as I never loved friend before. All my hate is forgotten. I have saved his life.” The defence of the castle of Rosas, chap, vii., is taken straight from his private log-book; while Marshall’s Naval Biography contains an account of his volunteering during a gale to cut away the main-yard of the _Aeolus_, which scarcely pales before the vigorous passage in chap. xiv.:–
“On the 30th of September, 1811, in lat. 40 deg. 50′ N., long. 65 deg. W. (off the coast of New England), a gale of wind commenced at S.E., and soon blew with tremendous fury; the _Aeolus_ was laid on her beam ends, her top-masts and mizen-masts were literally blown away, and she continued in this extremely perilous situation for at least half-an-hour. Directions were given to cut away the main-yard, in order to save the main-mast and right the ship, but so great was the danger attending such an operation considered, that not a man could be induced to attempt it until Mr Marryat led the way. His courageous conduct on this occasion excited general admiration, and was highly approved of by Lord James Townsend, one of whose company he also saved by jumping overboard at sea.”
The edition of 1873 contained a brief memoir of the author, by “Florence Marryat,” frequently reprinted.
_Frank Mildmay_, originally called _The Naval Officer; or, Scenes and Adventures in the Life of Frank Mildmay_, is here printed from the first edition published in 1829 by Henry Colborn, with the following motto on the title-page:–
My muse by no means deals in fiction; She gathers a repertory of facts,
Of course with some reserve and slight restriction, But mostly traits of human things and acts. Love, war, a tempest–surely there’s variety; Also a seasoning slight of lubrication; A bird’s-eye view, too, of that wild society; A slight glance thrown on men of every station
These are the errors, and these are the fruits of misspending our prime youth at the schools and universities, as we do, either in learning mere words, or such things chiefly as were better unlearned.–MILTON.
My father was a gentleman, and a man of considerable property. In my infancy and childhood I was weak and sickly, but the favourite of my parents beyond all my brothers and sisters, because they saw that my mind was far superior to my sickly frame, and feared they should never raise me to manhood; contrary, however, to their expectations, I surmounted all these untoward appearances, and attracted much notice from my liveliness, quickness of repartee, and impudence: qualities which have been of much use to me through life.
I can remember that I was both a coward and a boaster; but I have frequently remarked that the quality which we call cowardice in a child, is no more than implying a greater sense of danger, and consequently a superior intellect. We are all naturally cowards: education and observation teach us to discriminate between real and apparent danger; pride teaches the concealment of fear, and habit renders us indifferent to that from which we have often escaped with impunity. It is related of the Great Frederick that he misbehaved the first time he went into action; and it is certain that a novice in such a situation can no more command all his resources than a boy when first bound apprentice to a shoemaker can make a pair of shoes. We must learn our trade, whether it be to stand steady before the enemy, or to stitch a boot; practice alone can make a Hoby or a Wellington.
I pass on to my school-days, when the most lasting impressions are made. The foundation of my moral and religious instruction had been laid with care by my excellent parents; but, alas! from the time I quitted the paternal roof not one stone was added to the building, and even the traces of what existed were nearly obliterated by the deluge of vice which threatened soon to overwhelm me. Sometimes, indeed, I feebly, but ineffectually endeavoured to stem the torrent; at others, I suffered myself to be borne along with all its fatal rapidity. I was frank, generous, quick, and mischievous; and I must admit that a large portion of what sailors call “devil” was openly displayed, and a much larger portion latently deposited in my brain and bosom. My ruling passion, even in this early stage of life, was pride. Lucifer himself, if he ever was seven years old, had not more. If I have gained a fair name in the service, if I have led instead of followed, it must be ascribed to this my ruling passion. The world has often given me credit for better feelings, as the source of action, but I am not writing to conceal, and the truth must be told.
I was sent to school to learn Latin and Greek, which there are various ways of teaching. Some tutors attempt the _suaviter in modo_, my schoolmaster preferred the _fortiter in re_; and, as the boatswain said, by the “instigation” of a large knotted stick, he drove knowledge into our skulls as a caulker drives oakum into the seams of a ship. Under such tuition, we made astonishing progress; and whatever my less desirable acquirements may have been, my father had no cause to complain of my deficiency in classic lore. Superior in capacity to most of my schoolfellows, I seldom took the pains to learn my lesson previous to going up with my class: “the master’s blessing,” as we called it, did occasionally descend on my devoted head, but that was a bagatelle; I was too proud not to keep pace with my equals, and too idle to do more.
Had my schoolmaster being a single man, my stay under his care might have been prolonged to my advantage; but unfortunately, both for him and for me, he had a helpmate, and her peculiarly unfortunate disposition was the means of corrupting those morals over which it was her duty to have watched with the most assiduous care. _Her_ ruling passions were suspicion and avarice, written in legible characters in her piercing eyes and sharp-pointed nose. She never supposed us capable of telling the truth, so we very naturally never gave ourselves the trouble to cultivate a useless virtue, and seldom resorted to it unless it answered our purpose better than a lie. This propensity of Mrs Higginbottom converted our candour and honesty into deceit and fraud. Never believed, we cared little about the accuracy of our assertions; half-starved, through her meanness and parsimony, we were little scrupulous as to the ways and means, provided we could satisfy our hunger; and thus we soon became as great adepts in the elegant accomplishments of lying and thieving, under her tuition, as we did in Greek and Latin under that of her husband.
A large orchard, fields, garden, and poultry-yard, attached to the establishment, were under the care and superintendence of the mistress, who usually selected one of the boys as her prime minister and confidential adviser. This boy, for whose education his parents were paying some sixty or eighty pounds per annum, was permitted to pass his time in gathering up the windfalls; in watching the hens, and bringing in their eggs, when their cackling throats had announced their safe accouchement; looking after the broods of young ducks and chickens, _et hoc genus omne_; in short, doing the duty of what is usually termed the odd man in the farmyard. How far the parents would have been satisfied with this arrangement, I leave my readers to guess; but to us who preferred the manual to mental exertion, exercise to restraint, and any description of cultivation to that of cultivating the mind, it suited extremely well; and accordingly no place in the gift of government was ever the object of such solicitude and intrigue, as was to us schoolboys the situation of collector and trustee of the eggs and apples.
I had the good fortune to be early selected for this important post, and the misfortune to lose it soon after, owing to the cunning and envy of my schoolfellows and the suspicion of my employers. On my first coming into office, I had formed the most sincere resolutions of honesty and vigilance; but what are good resolutions, when discouraged on the one hand by the revilings of suspicion, and assailed on the other by the cravings of appetite? My morning’s collection was exacted from me to the very last nut, and the greedy eyes of my mistress seemed to inquire for more. Suspected when innocent, I became guilty out of revenge; was detected and dismissed. A successor was appointed, to whom I surrendered all my offices of trust, and having perfect leisure, I made it my sole business to supplant him.
It was an axiom in mathematics with me at that time, though not found in Euclid, that wherever I could enter my head, my whole body might follow. As a practical illustration of this proposition, I applied my head to the arched hole of the hen-house door, and by scraping away a little dirt, contrived to gain admittance, and very speedily transferred all the eggs to my own chest. When the new purveyor arrived, he found nothing but “a beggarly account of empty boxes;” and his perambulations in the orchard and garden, for the same reason were equally _fruitless_. The pilferings of the orchard and garden I confiscated as droits; but when I had collected a sufficient number of eggs to furnish a nest, I gave information of my pretended discovery to my mistress, who, thinking she had not changed for the better, dismissed my successor, and received me into favour again. I was, like many greater men, immediately reinstated in office when it was discovered that they could not do without me. I once more became chancellor of the hen-roost and ranger of the orchard, with greater power than I had possessed before my disgrace. Had my mistress looked half as much in my face as she did into my hatful of eggs, she would have read my guilt; for at that unsophisticated age I could blush, a habit long since discarded in the course of my professional duties.
In order to preserve my credit and my situation, I no longer contented myself with windfalls, but assisted nature in her labours, and greatly lightened the burthen of many a loaded fruit-tree; by these means, I not only gratified the avarice of my mistress at her own expense, but also laid by a store for my own use. On my restoration to office, I had an ample fund in my exchequer to answer all present demands; and by a provident and industrious anticipation, was enabled to lull the suspicions of my employers, and to bid defiance to the opposition. It will readily be supposed that a lad of my acuteness did not omit any technical management for the purpose of disguise; the fruits which I presented were generally soiled with dirt at the ends of the stalks, in such a manner as to give them all the appearance of “_felo de se_,” i.e. fell of itself. Thus, in the course of a few months, did I become an adept of vice, from the mismanagement of those into whose hands I was intrusted to be strengthened in religion and virtue.
Fortunately for me, as far as my education was concerned, I did not long continue to hold this honourable and lucrative employment. One of those unhappy beings called an usher peeped into my chest, and by way of acquiring popularity with the mistress and scholars, forthwith denounced me to the higher powers. The proofs of my peculation were too glaring, and the amount too serious to be passed over; I was tried, convicted, condemned, sentenced, flogged, and dismissed in the course of half-an-hour; and such was the degree of turpitude attached to me on this occasion, that I was rendered for ever incapable of serving in that or any other employment connected with the garden or farm; I was placed at the bottom of the list, and declared to be the worst boy in the school.
This in many points of view was too true; but there was one boy who bade fair to rival me on the score of delinquency; this was Tom Crauford, who from that day became my most intimate friend. Tom was a fine spirited fellow, up to everything; loved mischief, though not vicious; and was ready to support me in everything through thick and thin; and truly I found him sufficient employment. I threw off all disguise, laughed at any suggestion of reform, which I considered as not only useless, but certain of subjecting me to ridicule and contempt among my associates. I therefore adopted the motto of some great man “to be rather than seem to be.” I led in every danger; declared war against all drivellers and half-measures; stole everything that was eatable from garden, orchard, or hen-house, knowing full well that whether I did so or not, I should be equally suspected. Thenceforward all fruit missed, all arrows shot into pigs, all stones thrown into windows, and all mud spattered over clean linen hung out to dry, were traced to Tom and myself; and with the usual alacrity of an arbitrary police, the space between apprehension and punishment was very short–we were constantly brought before the master, and as regularly dismissed with “his blessing,” till we became hardened to blows and to shame.
Thus, by the covetousness of this woman, who was the grey mare, and the folly of the master, who, in anything but Greek and Latin, was an ass, my good principles were nearly eradicated from my bosom, and in their place were sown seeds which very shortly produced an abundant harvest.
There was a boy at our school lately imported from the East Indies. We nick-named him Johnny Pagoda. He was remarkable for nothing but ignorance, impudence, great personal strength, and, as we thought, determined resolution. He was about nineteen years of age. One day he incurred the displeasure of the master, who, enraged at his want of comprehension and attention, struck him over the head with a knotted cane. This appeal, although made to the least sensitive part of his frame, roused the indolent Asiatic from his usual torpid state. The weapon, in the twinkling of an eye, was snatched out of the hand, and suspended over the head of the astonished pedagogue, who, seeing the tables so suddenly turned against him, made the signal for assistance. I clapped my hands, shouted “Bravo! lay on, Johnny–go it–you have done it now–you may as well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb;” but the ushers began to muster round, the boy hung aloof, and Pagoda, uncertain which side the neutrals would take, laid down his arms, and surrendered at discretion.
Had the East-Indian followed up his act by the application of a little discipline at the fountain-head, it is more than probable that a popular commotion, not unlike that of Mas’ Aniello would have ensued; but the time was not come: the Indian showed a white feather, was laughed at, flogged, and sent home to his friends, who had intended him for the bar; but foreseeing that he might, in the course of events, chance to cut a figure on the wrong side of it, sent him to sea, where his valour, if he had any, would find more profitable employment.
This unsuccessful attempt of the young Oriental, was the primary cause of all my fame and celebrity in after-life. I had always hated school; and this, of all others, seemed to me the most hateful. The emancipation of Johnny Pagoda convinced me that my deliverance might be effected in a similar manner. The train was laid, and a spark set it on fire. This spark was supplied by the folly and vanity of a fat French dancing-master. These Frenchmen are ever at the bottom of mischief. Mrs Higginbottom, the master’s wife, had denounced me to Monsieur Aristide Maugrebleu as a _mauvais sujet_; and as he was a creature of hers, he frequently annoyed me to gratify his patroness. This fellow was at that time about forty-five years of age, and had much more experience than agility, having greatly increased his bulk by the roast beef and ale of England. While he taught us the rigadoons of his own country, his vanity induced him to attempt feats much above the cumbrous weight of his frame. I entered the lists with him, beat him at his own trade, and he beat me with his fiddle-stick, which broke in two over my head; then, making one more glorious effort to show that he would not be outdone, snapped the tendon Achilles, and down he fell, _hors de combat_ as a dancing-master. He was taken away in his gig to be cured, and I was taken into the school-room to be flogged.
This I thought so unjust that I ran away. Tom Crauford helped me to scale the wall; and when he supposed I had got far enough to be out of danger from pursuit, went and gave information, to avoid the suspicion of having aided and abetted. After running a mile, to use a sea phrase, I hove to, and began to compose, in my mind, an oration which I intended to pronounce before my father, by way of apology for my sudden and unexpected appearance; but I was interrupted by the detested usher and half a dozen of the senior boys, among whom was Tom Crauford. Coming behind me as I sat on a stile, they cut short my meditations by a tap on the shoulder, collared and marched me to the right about in double quick time. Tom Crauford was one of those who held me, and outdid himself in zealous invective at my base ingratitude in absconding from the best of masters, and the most affectionate, tender, and motherly of all school-dames.
The usher swallowed all this, and I soon made him swallow a great deal more. We passed near the side of a pond, the shoals and depths of which were well known to me. I looked at Tom out of the corner of my eye, and motioned him to let me go; and, like a mackerel out of a fisherman’s hand, I darted into the water, got up to my middle, and then very coolly, for it was November, turned round to gaze at my escort, who stood at bay, and looked very much like fools. The usher, like a low bred cur, when he could no longer bully, began to fawn; he entreated and he implored me to think on “my papa and mamma; how miserable they would be, if they could but see me; what an increase of punishment I was bringing on myself by such obstinacy.” He held out by turns coaxes and threats; in short, everything but an amnesty, to which I considered myself entitled, having been driven to rebellion by the most cruel persecution.
Argument having failed, and there being no volunteers to come in and fetch me out of the water, the poor usher, much against his inclination, was compelled to undertake it. With shoes and stockings off, and trousers tucked up, he ventured one foot into the water, then the other; a cold shiver reached his teeth, and made them chatter; but, at length, with cautious tread he advanced towards me. Being once in the water, a step or two farther was no object to me, particularly as I knew I could but be well flogged after all, and I was quite sure of that, at all events, so I determined to have my revenge and amusement. Stepping back, he followed, and suddenly fell over head and ears into a hole, as he made a reach at me. I was already out of my depth, and could swim like a duck, and as soon as he came up, I perched my knees on his shoulders and my hands on his head, and sent him souse under a second time, keeping him there until he had drunk more water than any horse that ever came to the pond. I then allowed him to wallow out the best way he could; and as it was very cold, I listened to the entreaties of Tom and the boys who stood by, cracking their sides with laughter at the poor usher’s helpless misery.
Having had my frolic, I came out, and voluntarily surrendered myself to my enemies, from whom I received the same mercy, in proportion, that a Russian does from a Turk. Dripping wet, cold, and covered with mud, I was first shown to the boys as an aggregate of all that was bad in nature; a lecture was read to them on the enormity of my offence, and solemn denunciations of my future destiny closed the discourse. The shivering fit produced by the cold bath was relieved by as sound a flogging as could be inflicted, while two ushers held me; but no effort of theirs could elicit one groan or sob from me, my teeth were clenched in firm determination of revenge: with this passion my bosom glowed, and my brain was on fire. The punishment, though dreadfully severe, had one good effect–it restored my almost suspended animation; and I strongly recommend the same remedy being applied to all young ladies and gentlemen who, from disappointed love or other such trifling causes, throw themselves into the water. Had the miserable usher been treated after this prescription, he might have escaped a cold and rheumatic fever which had nearly consigned him to a country churchyard, in all probability to reappear at the dissecting-room of St Bartholomew’s Hospital.
About this time Johnny Pagoda, who had been two years at sea, came to the school to visit his brother and schoolfellows. I pumped this fellow to tell me all he knew: he never tried to deceive me, or to make a convert. He had seen enough of a midshipman’s life, to know that a cockpit was not paradise; but he gave me clear and ready answers to all my questions. I discovered that there was no schoolmaster in the ship, and that the midshipmen were allowed a pint of wine a day. A man-of-war, and the gallows, they say, refuse nothing; and as I had some strong presentiment from recent occurrences, that if I did not volunteer for the one, I should, in all probability, be pressed for the other, I chose the lesser evil of the two; and having made up my mind to enter the glorious profession, I shortly after communicated my intention to my parents.
From the moment I had come to this determination, I cared not what crime I committed, in hopes of being expelled from the school. I wrote scurrilous letters, headed a mutiny, entered into a league with the other boys to sink, burn and destroy, and do all the mischief we could. Tom Crauford had the master’s child to dry nurse: he was only two years old: Tom let him fall, not intentionally, but the poor child was a cripple in consequence of it for life. This was an accident which under any other circumstances we should have deplored, but to us it was almost a joke.
The cruel treatment I had received from these people, had so demoralized me, that those passions,–which under more skilful or kinder treatment, had either not been known, or would have lain dormant, were roused into full and malignant activity: I went to school a good-hearted boy, I left it a savage. The accident with the child occurred two days before the commencement of the vacation, and we were all dismissed on the following day in consequence. On my return home I stated verbally to my father and mother, as I had done before by letter, that I was resolved to go to sea. My mother wept, my father expostulated. I gazed with apathy on the one, and listened with cold indifference to the reasoning and arguments of the other; a choice of schools was offered to me, where I might be a parlour boarder, and I was to finish at the University, if I would but give up my fatal infatuation. Nothing, however, would do; the die was cast, and for the sea I was to prepare.
What fool was it who said that the happiest times of our lives is passed at school? There may, indeed, be exceptions, but the remark cannot be generalized. Stormy as has been my life, the most miserable part of it (with very little exception) was passed at school; and my mind never received so much injury from any scenes of vice and excess in after-life, as it did from the shameful treatment and bad example I met with there. If my bosom burned with fiend-like passions, whose fault was it? How had the sacred pledge, given by the master, been redeemed? Was I not sacrificed to the most sordid avarice, in the first instance, and almost flayed alive in the second, to gratify revenge? Of the filthy manner in which our food was prepared, I can only say that the bare recollection of it excites nausea; and to this hour, bread and milk, suet pudding, and shoulders of mutton, are objects of my deep-rooted aversion. The conduct of the ushers, who were either tyrannical extortioners, or partakers in our crimes–the constant loss of our clothes by the dishonesty or carelessness of the servants–the purloining our silver spoons, sheets, and towels, when we went away, upon the plea of “custom”–the charges in the account for windows which I had never broken, and books which I had never received–the shameful difference between the annual cost promised by the master, and the sum actually charged, ought to have opened the eyes of my father.
I am aware how excellent many of these institutions are, and that there are few so bad as the one I was sent to. The history of my life will prove of what vital importance it is to ascertain the character of the master and mistress as to other points besides teaching Greek and Latin, before a child is intrusted to their care. I ought to have observed, that during my stay at this school, I had made some proficiency in mathematics and algebra.
My father had procured for me a berth on board a fine frigate at Plymouth, and the interval between my nomination and joining was spent by my parents in giving advice to me, and directions to the several tradesmen respecting my equipment. The large chest, the sword, the cocked-hat, the half-boots, were all ordered in succession; and the arrival of each article either of use or ornament was anticipated by me with a degree of impatience which can only be compared to that of a ship’s company arrived off Dennose from a three years’ station in India, and who hope to be at anchor at Spithead before sunset. The circumstance of my going to sea affected my father in no other way than it interfered with his domestic comforts by the immoderate grief of my poor mother. In any other point of view my choice of profession was a source of no regret to him. I had an elder brother, who was intended to have the family estates, and who was then at Oxford, receiving an education suitable to his rank in life, and also learning how to spend his money like a gentleman. Younger brothers are, in such cases, just as well out of the way, particularly one of my turbulent disposition: a man-of-war, therefore, like _another piece of timber_, has its uses. My father paid all the bills with great philosophy, and made me a liberal allowance for my age.
The hour of departure drew near; my chest had been sent off by the Plymouth waggon, and a hackney-coach drew up to the door, to convey me to the White Horse Cellar. The letting down of the rattling steps completely overthrew the small remains of fortitude which my dearest mother had reserved for our separation, and she threw her arms around my neck in a frenzy of grief. I beheld her emotions with a countenance as unmoved as the figure-head of a ship; while she covered my stoic face with kisses, and washed it with her tears. I almost wondered what it all meant, and wished the scene was over.
My father helped me out of this dilemma; taking me firmly by the arm, he led me out of the room: my mother sank upon the sofa, and hid her face in her pocket-handkerchief. I walked as slowly to the coach as common decency would permit. My father looked at me, as if he would inquire of my very inward soul whether I really did possess human feelings? I felt the meaning of this, even in my then tender years; and such was my sense of propriety, that I mustered up a tear for each eye, which, I hope, answered the intended purpose. We say at sea, “When you have no decency, sham a little;” and I verily believe I should have beheld my poor mother in her coffin with less regret than I could have foregone the gay and lovely scenes which I anticipated.
How amply has this want of feeling towards a tender parent been recalled to my mind, and severely punished, in the events of my vagrant life!
Injuries may be atoned for and forgiven; but insults admit of no compensation. They degrade the mind in its own esteem, and force it to recover its level by revenge.–JUNIUS.
There are certain events in our lives poetically and beautifully described by Moore, as “green spots in memory’s waste.” Such are the emotions arising from the attainment, after a long pursuit, of any darling object of love or ambition; and although possession and subsequent events may have proved to us that we had overrated our enjoyment, and experience have shown us “that all is vanity,” still, recollection dwells with pleasure upon the beating heart, when the present only was enjoyed, and the picture painted by youthful and sanguine anticipation in glowing and delightful colours. Youth only can feel this; age has been often deceived–too often has the fruit turned to ashes in the mouth. The old look forward with a distrust and doubt, and backward with sorrow and regret.
One of the red-letter days of my life, was that on which I first mounted the uniform of a midshipman. My pride and ecstacy were beyond description. I had discarded the school and school-boy dress, and, with them, my almost stagnant existence. Like the chrysalis changed into a butterfly, I fluttered about as if to try my powers; and felt myself a gay and beautiful creature, free to range over the wide domains of nature, clear of the trammels of parents or schoolmasters; and my heart bounded within me at the thoughts of being left to enjoy at my own discretion, the very acme of all the pleasure that human existence could afford; and I observe that in this, as in most other cases, I met with that disappointment which usually attends us. True it is, that in the days of my youth, I did enjoy myself. I was happy for a time, if happiness it could be called; but dearly have I paid for it. I contracted a debt, which I have been liquidating by instalments ever since; nor am I yet emancipated. Even the small portion of felicity that fell to my lot on this memorable morning was brief in duration, and speedily followed by chagrin.
But to return to my uniform. I had arrayed myself in it; my dirk was belted round my waist; a cocked-hat, of an enormous size, stuck on my head; and, being perfectly satisfied with my own appearance, at the last survey which I had made in the glass, I first rang for the chambermaid, under pretence of telling her to make my room tidy, but, in reality, that she might admire and compliment me, which she very wisely did; and I was fool enough to give her half a crown and a kiss, for I felt myself quite a man. The waiter, to whom the chambermaid had in all probability communicated the circumstance, presented himself, and having made a low bow, offered the same compliments, and received the same reward, save the kiss. Boots would, in all probability, have come in for his share, had he been in the way, for I was fool enough to receive all their fine speeches as if they were my due, and to pay for them at the same time in ready money. I was a gudgeon and they were sharks; and more sharks would soon have been about me, for I heard them, as they left the room, call “boots” and “ostler,” of course to assist in lightening my purse.
But I was too impatient to wait on my captain and see my ship–so I bounced down the stairs, and in the twinkling of an eye, was on my way to Stonehouse, where my vanity received another tribute, by a raw recruit of marine raising his hand to his head, as he passed by me. I took it as it was meant, raised my hat off my head, and shuffled by with much self-importance. One consideration, I own, mortified me–this was that the _natives_ did not appear to admire me half so much as I admired myself. It never occurred to me then, that middies were as plentiful at Plymouth Dock, as black boys at Port Royal, though, perhaps, not of so much value to their masters. I will not shock the delicacy of my fair readers by repeating all the vulgar alliterations with which my noviciate was greeted, as I passed in review before the ladies of North Corner, who met me in Fore Street. Unsophisticated as I then was, in many points, and certainly in this, I thought them extremely ill-bred. Fortunately for me, the prayers of a certain description of people never prevail, otherwise I should have been immediately consigned to a place, from which, I fear, all the masses of France and Italy would not have extricated me.
I escaped from these syrens without being bound to the mast, like Ulysses; but, like him, I had nearly fallen a victim to a modern Polyphemus; for though he had not one eye in the middle of his forehead, after the manner of his prototype, yet the rays from both his eyes meeting together at the tip of his long nose, gave him very much that appearance. Ignorance, sheer ignorance, in this, as in many other cases, was the cause of my disaster. A party of officers, in full uniform, were coming from a court-martial. “Oh ho!” said I, “here come some of us.” I seized my dirk in my left hand, as I saw they held their swords, and I stuck my right hand into my bosom as some of them had done. I tried to imitate their erect and officer-like bearing; I put my cocked-hat on fore and aft, with the gold rosette dangling between my two eyes, so that in looking at it, which I could not help doing, I must have squinted. And I held my nose high in the air, like a pig in a hurricane, fancying myself as much an object of admiration to them as I was to myself. We passed on opposite tacks, and our respective velocities had separated us to the distance of twenty or thirty yards, when one of them called out to me in a voice evidently cracked in His Majesty’s service–“Hollo, young gentleman, come back here.”
I concluded I was going to be complimented on the cut of my coat, to be asked the address of my tailor, and to hear the rakish sit of my hat admired. I now began to think I should hear a contention between the lords of the ocean, as to who should have me as a sample middy on their quarter-decks; and I was even framing an excuse to my father’s friend for not joining his ship. Judge then of my surprise and mortification, when I was thus accosted in an angry and menacing tone by the oldest of the officers–
“Pray, sir, what ship do you belong to?”
“Sir,” said I, proud to be thus interrogated, “I belong to His Majesty’s ship, the _Le—-_” (having a French name, I clapped on both the French and English articles, as being more impressive).
“Oh, you do, do you?” said the veteran with an air of conscious superiority; “then you will be so good as to turn round, go down to Mutton Cove, take a boat, and have your person conveyed with all possible speed on board of His Majesty’s ship the _Lee_” (imitating me); “and tell the first lieutenant it is my order that you be not allowed any more leave while the ship is in port; and I shall tell your captain he must teach his officers better manners than to pass the port-admiral without touching their hats.”
While this harangue was going on, I stood in a circle, of which I was the centre, and the admiral and the captains formed the circumference; what little air there was their bodies intercepted, so that I was not only in a stew, but stupefied into the bargain.
“There, sir, you hear me–you may go.”
“Yes, I do hear you,” thinks I; “but how the devil am I to get away from you?” for the cruel captains, like school-boys round a rat-trap, stood so close that I could not start. Fortunately, this my blockade, which they no doubt intended for their amusement, saved me for that time. I recollected myself, and said, with affected simplicity of manner, that I had that morning put on my uniform for the first time; that I had never seen my captain, and never was on board a ship in all my life. At this explanation, the countenance of the admiral relaxed into something that was meant for a smile, and the captains all burst into a loud laugh.
“Well, young man,” said the admiral–who was really a good-tempered fellow, though an odd one–“well, young man, since you have never been at sea, it is some excuse for not knowing good manners; there is no necessity now for delivering my message to the first lieutenant, but you may go on board your ship.”
Having seen me well-roasted, the captains opened right and left, and let me pass. As I left them I heard one say, “Just caught–marks of the dogs’ teeth in his heels, I warrant you.” I did not stop to make any reply, but sneaked away, mortified and crest-fallen, and certainly obeyed this the first order which I had ever received in the service, with more exactness than I ever did any subsequent one.
During the remainder of my walk, I touched my hat to every one I met. I conferred the honour of a salute on midshipmen, master’s mates, sergeants of marines, and two corporals. Nor was I aware of my over complaisance, until a young woman, dressed like a lady, who knew more of the navy than I did, asked me if I had come down to stand for the borough? Without knowing what she meant, I replied, “No.”
“I thought you might,” said she, “seeing you are so d—-d civil to everybody.”
Had it not been for this friendly hint, I really believe I should have touched my hat to a drummer.
Having gone through this ordeal, I reached the inn at Plymouth, where I found my captain, and presented my father’s letter. He surveyed me from top to toe, and desired the pleasure of my company to dinner at six o’clock. “In the mean time,” he said, “as it is now only eleven, you may go aboard, and show yourself to Mr Handstone, the first lieutenant, who will cause your name to be entered on the books, and allow you to come back here to dine.” I bowed and retired. And on my way to Mutton Cove was saluted by the females, with the appellation of Royal Reefer (midshipman), and a Biscuit Nibbler; but all this I neither understood nor cared for. I arrived safely at Mutton Cove, where two women, seeing my inquiring eye and span-new dress, asked what ship they should take “my honour” to, I told them the ship I wished to go on board of.
“She _lays_ under the _Obelisk_,” said the elder woman, who appeared to be about forty years of age; “and we will take your honour off for a shilling.”
I agreed to this, both for the novelty of the thing, as well as on account of my natural gallantry and love of female society. The elder woman was mistress of her profession, handling her scull (oar) with great dexterity; but Sally, the younger one, who was her daughter, was still in her noviciate. She was pretty, cleanly dressed, had on white stockings, and sported a neat foot and ankle.
“Take care, Sally,” said the mother; “keep stroke, or you will catch a crab.”
“Never fear, mother,” said the confident Sally; and at the same moment, as if the very caution against the accident was the cause of it, the blade of her scull did not dip into the water. The oar meeting no resistance, its loom, or handle, came back upon the bosom of the unfortunate Sally, tipped her backwards–up went her heels in the air, and down fell her head into the bottom of the boat. As she was pulling the stroke oar, her feet almost came in contact with the rosette of my cocked hat.
“There now, Sally,” said the wary mother; “I told you how it would be–I knew you would catch a crab!”
Sally quickly recovered herself, blushed a little, and resumed her occupation.
“That’s what we calls catching a crab in our country,” said the woman. I replied that I thought it was a very pretty amusement; and I asked Sally to try and catch another; but she declined; and, by this time, we had reached the side of the ship.
Having paid my naiads, I took hold of the man-rope, as I was instructed by them, and mounted the side. Reaching the gangway, I was accosted by a midshipman in a round jacket and trousers, a shirt none of the cleanest, and a black silk handkerchief tied loosely round his neck.
“Who did you want, sir?” said he.
“I wish to speak with Mr Handstone, the first lieutenant,” said I. He informed me that the first lieutenant was then gone down to frank the letters, and, when he came on deck, he would acquaint him with my being there.
After this dialogue, I was left on the larboard side of the quarter-deck to my own meditations. The ship was at this time refitting, and was what is usually called in the hands of the dockyard, and a sweet mess she was in. The quarter-deck carronades were run fore and aft; the slides unbolted from the side, the decks were covered with pitch fresh poured into the seams, and the caulkers were sitting on their boxes, ready to renew their noisy labours as soon as the dinner-hour had expired. The middies, meanwhile, on the starboard side of the quarter-deck, were taking my altitude, and speculating as to whether I was to be a messmate of theirs, and what sort of a chap I might chance to be–both these points were solved very speedily.
The first lieutenant came on deck; the midshipman of the watch presented me, and I presented my name and the captain’s message.
“It is all right, sir,” said Mr Handstone. “Here, Mr Flyblock, do you take this young gentleman into your mess; you may show him below as soon as you please, and tell him where to hang his hammock up.”
I followed my new friend down the ladder, under the half deck, where sat a woman, selling bread and butter and red herrings to the sailors; she had also cherries and clotted cream, and a cask of strong beer, which seemed to be in great demand. We passed her, and descended another ladder, which brought us to the ‘tween-decks, and into the steerage, in the forepart of which, on the larboard side, abreast of the mainmast, was my future residence–a small hole, which they called a berth; it was ten feet long by six, and about five feet four inches high; a small aperture, about nine inches square, admitted a very scanty portion of that which we most needed, namely, fresh air and daylight. A deal table occupied a very considerable extent of this small apartment, and on it stood a brass candle-stick, with a dip candle, and a wick like a fullblown carnation. The table-cloth was spread, and the stains of port wine and gravy too visibly indicated, like the midshipman’s dirty shirt, the near approach of Sunday. The black servant was preparing for dinner, and I was shown the seat I was to occupy. “Good Heaven!” thought I, as I squeezed myself between the ship’s side and the mess-table; “and is this to be my future residence?–better go back to school; there, at least, there is fresh air and clean linen.”
I would have written that moment to my dear, broken-hearted mother, to tell her how gladly her prodigal son would fly back to her arms; but I was prevented doing this, first by pride, and secondly by want of writing materials. Taking my place, therefore, at the table, I mustered up all my philosophy; and, to amuse myself, called to mind the reflections of Gil Blas, when he found himself in the den of the robbers, “Behold, then, the worthy nephew of my uncle, Gil Perez, caught like a rat in a trap.”
Most of my new associates were absent on duty; the ‘tween-decks was crammed with casks and cases, and chests, and bags, and hammocks; the noise of the caulkers was resumed over my head and all around me; the stench of bilge-water, combining with the smoke of tobacco, the effluvia of gin and beer, the frying of beef-steaks and onions, and red herrings–the pressure of a dark atmosphere and a heavy shower of rain, all conspired to oppress my spirits, and render me the most miserable dog that ever lived. I had almost resigned myself to despair, when I recollected the captain’s invitation, and mentioned it to Flyblock. “That’s well thought of,” said he; “Murphy also dines with him; you can both go together, and I dare say he will be very glad of your company.”
A captain seldom waits for a midshipman, and we took good care he should not wait for us. The dinner was in all respects one “on service.” The captain said a great deal, the lieutenants very little, and the midshipmen nothing at all; but the performance of the knife and fork, and wine-glass (as far as it could be got at), were exactly in the inverse ratio. The company consisted of my own captain, and two others, our first lieutenant, Murphy, and myself.
As soon as the cloth was removed, the captain filled me out a glass of wine, desired I would drink it, and then go and see how the wind was. I took this my first admonitory hint in its literal sense and meaning; but having a very imperfect idea of the points of the compass, I own I felt a little puzzled how I should obtain the necessary information. Fortunately for me, there was a weathercock on the old church-steeple; it had four letters, which I certainly did know were meant to represent the cardinal points. One of these seemed so exactly to correspond with the dial above it, that I made up my mind the wind must be West, and instantly returned to give my captain the desired information, not a little proud with my success in having obtained it so soon. But what was my surprise to find that I was not thanked for my trouble; the company even smiled and winked at each other; the first lieutenant nodded his head and said, “Rather green yet.” The captain, however, settled the point according to the manners and customs, in such cases, used at sea. “Here, youngster,” said he, “here is another glass for you; drink that, and then Murphy will show you what I mean.” Murphy was my chaperon; he swallowed his wine–rather _a gorge deployee_; put down his glass very energetically, and, bowing, left the room.
When we had got fairly into the hall, we had the following duet:–“What the h—- brought you back again, you d—-d young greenhorn? Could not you take a hint, and be off, as the captain intended? So I must lose my wine for such a d—-d young whelp as you. I’ll pay you off for this, my tight fellow, before we have been many weeks together.”
I listened to this elegant harangue, with some impatience, and much more indignation. “I came back,” said I, “to tell the captain how the wind was.”
“You be d—-d,” replied Murphy: “do you think the captain did not know how the wind was? and if he had wanted to know, don’t you think he would have sent a sailor like me, instead of such a d—-d lubberly whelp as you?”
“As to what the captain meant,” said I, “I do not know. I did as I was bid–but what do you mean by calling me a whelp? I am no more a whelp than yourself!”
“Oh, you are not, a’n’t you?” said Murphy, seizing me by one of my ears, which he pulled so unmercifully that he altered the shape of it very considerably, making it something like the leeboard of a Dutch schuyt.
This was not to be borne; though, as I was but thirteen, he seventeen, and a very stout fellow, I should rather not have sought an action with him. But he had begun it: my honour was at stake, and I only wonder I had not drawn my dirk, and laid him dead at my feet. Fortunately for him, the rage I was in, made me forget I had it by my side: though I remembered my uniform, the disgrace brought upon it, and the admiration of the chambermaid, as well as the salute of the sentinel, all which formed a combustible in my brain. I went off like a flash, and darted my fist (the weapon I had been most accustomed to wield) into the left eye of my adversary, with a force and precision which Crib would have applauded. Murphy staggered back with the blow, and for a moment I flattered myself he had had enough of it.
But no–alas, this was a day of disappointments! he had only retreated to take a spring; he then came on me like the lifeguards at Waterloo, and his charge was irresistible. I was upset, pummelled, thumped, kicked, and should probably have been the subject of a coroner’s inquest had not the waiter and chambermaid run in to my rescue. The tongue of the latter was particularly active in my favour: unluckily for me, she had no other weapon near her, or it would have gone hard with Murphy. “Shame!” said she, “for such a great lubberly creature to beat such a poor, little, innocent, defenceless fellow as that. What would his mamma say to see him treated so?”
“D—-n his mamma, and you too,” said Pat, “look at my eye.”
“D—-n your eye,” said the waiter: “it’s a pity he had not served the other one the same way; no more than you deserve for striking a child; the boy is game, and that’s more than you are; he is worth as many of you, as will stand between this and the iron chair at Barbican.”
“I’d like to see him duck’d in it,” said the maid.
While this was going on, I had resumed my defensive attitude. I had never once complained, and had gained the good-will of all the bystanders, among whom now appeared my captain and his friends. The blood was streaming from my mouth, and I bore the marks of discipline from the superior prowess of my enemy, who was a noted pugilist for his age, and would not have received the hit from me, if he had supposed my presumption would have led me to attack him. The captain demanded an explanation. Murphy told the story in his own way, and gave anything but the true version. I could have beaten him at that, but truth answered my purpose better than falsehood on this occasion; so, as soon as he had done, I gave my round unvarnished tale, and, although defeated in the field, I plainly saw that I had the advantage of him in the cabinet. Murphy was dismissed in disgrace, and ordered to rusticate on board till his eye was bright.
“I should have confined you to the ship myself,” said the captain, “but the boy has done it for me; you cannot appear on shore with that black eye.”
As soon as he was gone, I was admonished to be more careful in future. “You are,” said the captain, “like a young bear; all your sorrows are before you; if you give a blow for every hard name you receive, your fate in the service may be foreseen: if weak you will be pounded to a mummy–if strong, you will be hated. A quarrelsome disposition will make you enemies in every rank you may attain; you will be watched with a jealous eye, well knowing, as we all do, that the same spirit of insolence and overbearing which you show in the cockpit, will follow you to the quarter-deck, and rise with you in the service. This advice is for your own good; not that I interfere in these things, as everybody and everything finds its level in a man-of-war; I only wish you to draw a line between resistance against oppression, which I admire and respect, and a litigious, uncompromising disposition, which I despise. Now wash your face and go on board. Try by all means to conciliate the rest of your messmates, for first impressions are everything, and rely on it, Murphy’s report will not be in your favour.”
This advice was very good, but had the disadvantage of coming too late for that occasion by at least half an hour. The fracas was owing to the captain’s mismanagement, and the manners and customs of the navy at the beginning of the nineteenth century. The conversation at the tables of the higher ranks of the service in those days, unless ladies were present, was generally such as a boy could not listen to without injury to his better feelings. I was therefore “hinted off;” but with due respect to my captain, who is still living, I should have been sent on board of my ship and cautioned against the bad habits of the natives of North Corner and Barbican; and if I could not be admitted to the mysterious conversation of a captain’s table, I should have been told in a clear and decided manner to depart, without the needless puzzle of an innuendo, which I did not and could not understand.
I returned on board about eight o’clock, where Murphy had gone before me, and prepared a reception far from agreeable. Instead of being welcomed to my berth, I was received with coldness, and I returned to the quarter-deck, where I walked till I was weary, and then leaned against a gun. From this temporary alleviation, I was roused by a voice of thunder, “Lean off that gun.” I started up, touched my hat, and continued my solitary walk, looking now and then at the second lieutenant, who had thus gruffly addressed me. I felt a dejection of spirits, a sense of destitution and misery, which I cannot describe. I had done no wrong, yet I was suffering as if I had committed a crime. I had been aggrieved, and had vindicated myself as well as I could. I thought I was among devils, and not men; my thoughts turned homeward. I remembered my poor mother in her agony of grief, on the sofa; and my unfeeling heart then found that it needed the soothings of affection. I could have wept, but I knew not where to go; for I could not be seen to cry on board of ship. My pride began to be humbled. I felt the misery of dependence, although not wanting pecuniary resources; and would have given up all my prospects to have been once more seated quietly at home.
The first lieutenant came on board soon after, and I heard him relating my adventure to the second lieutenant. The tide now evidently turned in my favour. I was invited down to the gun-room, and having given satisfactory answers to all the questions put to me, Flyblock was sent for, and I was once more placed under his protection. The patronage of the first lieutenant, I flattered myself would have ensured me at least common civility for a short time.
I had now more leisure to contemplate my new residence and new associates, who, having returned from the duty of the dock-yard, were all assembled in the berth, seated round the table on the lockers, which paid “the double debt” of seats and receptacles; but in order to obtain a sitting, it was requisite either to climb over the backs of the company, or submit to “high pressure” from the last comer. Such close contact, even with our best friends, is never desirable; but in warm weather, in a close, confined air, with a manifest scarcity of clean linen, it became particularly inconvenient. The population here very far exceeded the limits usually allotted to human beings in any situation of life, except in a slave ship. The midshipmen, of whom there were eight full-grown, and four youngsters, were without either jackets or waistcoats; some of them had their shirt-sleeves rolled up, either to prevent the reception or to conceal the absorption of dirt in the region of the wristbands. The repast on the table consisted of a can or large black-jack of small beer, and a japan bread-basket full of sea-biscuit. To compensate for this simple fare, and at the same time to cool the close atmosphere of the berth, the table was covered with a large green cloth with a yellow border, and many yellow spots withal, where the colour had been discharged by slops of vinegar, hot tea, &c, &c.; a sack of potatoes stood in one corner, and the shelves all round, and close over our heads, were stuffed with plates, glasses, quadrants, knives and forks, loaves of sugar, dirty stockings and shirts, and still fouler table-cloths, small tooth-combs, and ditto large, clothes brushes and shoe brushes, cocked-hats, dirks, German flutes, mahogany writing-desks, a plate of salt butter, and some two or three pairs of naval half-boots. A single candle served to make darkness visible, and the stench had nearly overpowered me.
The reception I met with tended in no way to relieve these horrible impressions. A black man, with no other dress than a dirty check shirt and trousers, not smelling of amber, stood within the door, ready to obey all and any one of the commands with which he was loaded. The smell of the towel he held in his hand, to wipe the plates and glasses with, completed my discomfiture; and I fell sick upon the seat nearest at me. Recovering from this, without the aid of any “ministering angel,” I contracted the pupils of my eyes, and ventured to look around me. The first who met my gaze, was my recent foe; he bore the marks of contention by having his eye bound up with brown paper and a dirty silk pocket-handkerchief; the other was quickly turned on me; and, with a savage and brutal countenance, he swore and denounced the severest vengeance on me for what I had done. In this, he was joined by another ill-looking fellow, with large whiskers.
I shall not repeat the elegant philippics with which I was greeted. Suffice it to say that I found all the big ones against me, and the little ones neuter; the caterer supposing I had received suitable admonition for my future guidance, and that I was completely bound over to keep the peace–turned all the youngsters out of the berth. “As for you, Mr Fistycuff,” said he, addressing himself to me, “you may walk off with the rest of the gang, so make yourself scarce, like the Highlander’s breeches.”
The boys all obeyed the command in silence, and I was not sorry to follow them. As I went out he added, “So, Mr Rumbusticus, you can obey orders, I see, and it is well for you; for I had a biscuit ready to shy at your head.” This affront, after all I had suffered, I was forced to pocket; but I could not understand what the admiral could mean, when he said that people went to sea “to learn manners.”
I soon made acquaintance with the younger set of my messmates, and we retreated to the forecastle as the only part of the ship suitable to the nature of the conversation we intended to hold. After one hour’s deliberation, and notwithstanding it was the first night I had ever been on board a ship, I was unanimously elected leader of this little band. I became the William Tell of the party, as having been the first to resist the tyranny of the oldsters, and especially of the tyrant Murphy. I was let into all the secrets of the mess in which the youngsters were placed by the captain to be instructed and kept in order. Alas! what instruction did we get but blasphemy? What order were we kept in, except that of paying our mess, and being forbidden to partake of those articles which our money had purchased? My blood boiled when they related all they had suffered, and I vowed I would sooner die than submit to such treatment.
The hour of bed-time arrived. I was instructed how to get into my hammock, and laughed at for tumbling out on the opposite side. I was forced to submit to this pride of conscious superiority of these urchins who could only boast of a few months’ more practical experience than myself, and who, therefore, called me a greenhorn. But all this was done in good nature; and after a few hearty laughs from my companions, I gained the centre of my suspended bed, and was very soon in a sound sleep. This was only allowed to last till about four o’clock in the morning, when down came the head of my hammock, and I fell to the deck, with my feet still hanging in the air, like poor Sally, when she caught the crab. Stunned and stupefied by the fall, bewildered by the violent concussion and the novelty of all around me, I continued in a state of somnambulism, and it was some minutes before I could recollect myself.
The marine sentinel at the gun-room door seeing what had happened, and also espying the person to whom I was indebted for this favour, very kindly came to my assistance. He knotted my lanyard, and restored my hammock to its place; but he could not persuade me to confide myself again to such treacherous bedposts, for I thought the rope had broken; and so strongly did the fear of another tumble possess my mind, that I took a blanket, and lay down on a chest at some little distance, keeping a sleepless eye directed to the scene of my late disaster.
This was fortunate; for not many minutes had elapsed, when Murphy, who had been relieved from the middle watch, came below, and seeing my hammock again hanging up, and supposing me in it, took out his knife and cut it down. “So then,” said I to myself, “it was you who invaded my slumbers, and nearly dashed my brains out, and have now made the second attempt.” I vowed to Heaven that I would have revenge; and I acquitted myself of that vow. Like the North American savage, crouching lest he should see me, I waited patiently till he had got into his hammock, and was in a sound sleep. I then gently pushed a shot-case under the head of his hammock, and placed the corner of it so as to receive his head; for had it split his skull I should not have cared, so exasperated was I, and so bent on revenge. Subtle and silent, I then cut his lanyard: he fell, and his head coming in contact with the edge of the shot-case, he gave a deep groan, and there he lay. I instantly retreated to my chest and blanket, where I pretended to snore, while the sentinel, who, fortunately for me, had seen Murphy cut me down the first time, came with his lanthorn, and seeing him apparently dead, removed the shot-case out of the way, and then ran to the sergeant of marines, desiring him to bring the surgeon’s assistant.
While the sergeant was gone, he whispered softly to me, “Lie still; I saw the whole of it, and if you are found out, it may go hard with you.”
Murphy, it appeared, had few friends in the ship; all rejoiced at his accident. I laid very quietly in my blanket while the surgeon’s assistant dressed the wound; and, after a considerable time, succeeded in restoring the patient to his senses: he was, however, confined a fortnight to his bed. I was either not suspected, or, if I was, it was known that I was not the aggressor. The secret was well kept. I gave the marine a guinea, and took him into my service as _valet de place_.
And now, reader, in justice to myself, allow me to make a few remarks. They may serve as a palliative, to a certain degree, for that unprincipled career which the following pages will expose. The passions of pride and revenge, implanted in our fallen natures, and which, if not eradicated in the course of my education, ought, at least, to have lain dormant as long as possible, were, through the injudicious conduct of those to whom I had been entrusted, called into action and full activity at a very early age. The moral seeds sown by my parents, which might have germinated and produced fruit, were not watered or attended to; weeds had usurped their place, and were occupying the ground which should have supported them; and at this period, when the most assiduous cultivation was necessary to procure a return, into what a situation was I thrown? In a ship crowded with three hundred men, each of them, or nearly so, cohabiting with an unfortunate female, in the lowest state of degradation; where oaths and blasphemy interlarded every sentence; where religion was wholly neglected, and the only honour paid to the Almighty was a clean shirt on a Sunday; where implicit obedience to the will of an officer, was considered of more importance than the observance of the Decalogue; and the Commandments of God were in a manner abrogated by the Articles of War–for the first might be broken with impunity, and even with applause, while the most severe punishment awaited any infraction of the latter.
So much for the ship in the aggregate; let us now survey the midshipmen’s berth. Here we found the same language and the same manners, with scarcely one shade more of refinement. Their only pursuits when on shore were intoxication and worse debauchery, to be gloried in and boasted of when they returned on board. My captain said that everything found its level in a man-of-war. True; but in a midshipman’s berth it was the level of a savage, where corporal strength was the _sine qua non_, and decided whether you were to act the part of a tyrant or a slave. The discipline of public schools, bad and demoralizing as it is, was light, compared to the tyranny of a midshipman’s berth in 1802.
A mistaken notion has long prevailed, that boys derive advantages from suffering under the tyranny of their oppressors at schools; and we constantly hear the praises of public schools and midshipmen’s berths on this very account–namely, “that boys are taught to find their level.” I do not mean to deny but that the higher orders improve by collision with their inferiors, and that a young aristocrat is often brought to his senses by receiving a sound thrashing from the son of a tradesman. But he that is brought up a slave, will be a tyrant when he has the power; the worst of our passions are nourished to inflict the same evil on others which we boast of having suffered ourselves. The courage and daring spirit of a noble-minded boy is rather broken down by ill-usage, which he has not the power to resist, or, surmounting all this, he proudly imbibes a dogged spirit of sullen resistance and implacable revenge, which become the bane of his future life.
The latter was my fate; and let not my readers be surprised or shocked, if, in the course of these adventures, I should display some of the fruits of that fatal seed, so early and so profusely sown in my bosom. If, on my first coming into the ship, I shrank back with horror at the sound of blasphemy and obscenity–if I shut my eyes to the promiscuous intercourse of the sexes, it was not so long. By insensible degrees, I became familiarised with vice, and callous to its approach. In a few months I had become nearly as corrupt as others. I might indeed have resisted longer; but though the fortress of virtue could have held out against open violence, it could not withstand the undermining of ridicule. My young companions, who, as I have observed, had only preceded me six months in the service, were already grown old in depravity; they laughed at my squeamishness, called me “milksop” and “boarding-school miss,” and soon made me as bad as themselves. We had not quite attained the age of perpetration, but we were fully prepared to meet it when it came.
I had not been two days on board, when the youngsters proposed a walk into the main top. I mounted the rigging with perfect confidence, for I was always a good climber; but I had not proceeded far, when I was overtaken by the captain of the top and another man, who, without any ceremony or preface, seized me by each arm, and very deliberately lashed me fast in the rigging. They laughed at my remonstrance. I asked what they meant, and the captain of the top said very civilly taking off his hat at the same time, “that it was the way all gemmen were sarved when they first went aloft; and I must pay my footing as a bit of a parkazite.” I looked down to the quarter-deck for assistance, but every one there was laughing at me; and even the very little rogues of midshipmen who had enticed me up were enjoying the joke. Seeing this was the case, I only asked what was to pay. The captain of the top said a seven shilling bit would be thought handsome. This I promised to give, and was released on my own recognizances. When I reached the quarter-deck I paid the money.
Having experienced nothing but cruelty and oppression since I had been on board, I sorely repented of coming to sea; my only solace was seeing Murphy, as he lay in his hammock, with his head bound up. This was a balm to me. “I bide my time,” said I; “I will yet be revenged on all of you;” and so I was. I let none escape: I had them all in their turns, and glutted my thirst for revenge.
I had been three weeks on board, when the ship was reported ready for sea. I had acquired the favour of the first lieutenant by a constant attention to the little duties he gave me to perform. I had been put into a watch, and stationed in the fore-top, and quartered at the foremast guns on the main deck. I was told by the youngsters that the first lieutenant was a harsh officer, and implacable when once he took a dislike; his manners, however, even when under the greatest excitement, were always those of a perfect gentleman, and I continued living on good terms with him. But with the second lieutenant I was not so fortunate. He had ordered me to take the jolly-boat and bring off a woman whom he kept; I remonstrated and refused, and from that moment we never were friends.
Murphy had also recovered from his fall, and returned to his duty; his malice towards me increased, and I had no peace or comfort in his presence. One day he threw a biscuit at my head, calling me at the same time a name which reflected on the legitimacy of my birth, in language the most coarse and vulgar. In a moment all the admonitions which I had received, and all my sufferings for impetuosity of temper, were forgotten; the blood boiled in my veins, and trickled from my wounded forehead. Dizzy, and almost sightless with rage, I seized a brass candlestick, the bottom of which (to keep it steady at sea) was loaded with lead, and threw it at him with all my might; had it taken effect as I intended, that offence would have been his last. It missed his head, and struck the black servant on the shoulder; the poor man went howling to the surgeon, in whose care he remained for many days.
Murphy started up to take instant vengeance, but was held by the other seniors of the mess, who unanimously declared that such an offence as mine should be punished in a more solemn manner. A mock trial (without adverting to the provocation I had received) found me guilty of insubordination “to the oldsters,” and setting a bad example to the youngsters. I was sentenced to be _cobbed_ with a worsted stocking, filled with wet sand. I was held down on my face on the mess-table by four stout midshipmen; the surgeon’s assistant held my wrist, to ascertain if my pulse indicated exhaustion; while Murphy, at his own particular request, became the executioner. Had it been any other but him, I should have given vent to my agonizing pain by screams, but like a sullen Ebo, I was resolved to endure even to death, rather than gratify him by any expression of pain. After a most severe punishment, a cold sweat and faintness alarmed the surgeon’s assistant. I was then released, but ordered to mess on my chest for a fortnight by myself. As soon as I was able to stand, and had recovered my breath, I declared in the most solemn manner, that a repetition of the offence should produce the action for which I had suffered, and I would then appeal to the captain for justice; “and,” said I, turning to Murphy, “it was I who cut down your hammock, and had very nearly knocked out your brains. I did it in return for your cowardly attack on me; and I will do it again, if I surfer martyrdom for it; for every act of tyranny you commit I will have revenge. Try me now, and see if I am not as good as my word.” He grinned, and turned pale, but dared do no more, for he was a coward.
I was ordered to quit the berth, which I did, and as I went out, one of the mates observed, that I was “a proper malignant devil, by G—-.”
This violent scene produced a sort of cessation from hostilities. Murphy knew that he might expect a decanter at his head or a knife in his side, if I was provoked; and that peace which I could not gain from his compassion, I obtained from his fears. The affair made a noise in the ship. With the officers in the gun-room I lost ground, because it was misrepresented. With the men I gained favour, because they hated Murphy. They saw the truth, and admired me for my determined resistance.
Sent to Coventry by the officers, I sought the society of the men. I learned rapidly the practical part of my duty, and profited by the uncouth criticism of these rough warriors on the defective seamanship of their superiors. A sort of compact was made between us: they promised that whenever they deserted, it should not be from my boat when on duty, and I promised to let them go and drink at public-houses as long as I could spare them. In spite, however, of this mutual understanding, two of them violated their faith the night before we went to sea, and left the boat of which I had charge; and as I had disobeyed orders in letting them go to a public-house, I was, on my return to the ship, dismissed from the quarter-deck, and ordered to do my duty in the fore-top.
The might of England flush’d
To anticipate the same;
And her van the fleeter rush’d
O’er the deadly space between.
“Hearts of oak!” our captains cried; when each gun From its adamantine lips
Spread a death-shade round the ships, Like the hurricane eclipse
Of the sun.
Considering my youth and inexperience, and the trifling neglect of which I was accused, there are few, even of the most rigid disciplinarians, who will not admit that I was both unjustly and unkindly treated by the first lieutenant, who certainly, with all my respect for him, had lent himself to my enemies. The second lieutenant and Mr Murphy did not even conceal their feelings on the occasion, but exulted over my disgrace.
The ship was suddenly ordered to Portsmouth, where the captain, who had been on leave, was expected to join us, which he did soon after our arrival, when the first lieutenant made his reports of good and bad conduct during his absence. I had been about ten days doing duty in the fore-top, and it was the intention of Mr Handstone, to which the captain seemed not disinclined, to have given me a flogging at the gun, as a gratuity for losing the men. This part of the sentence, however, was not executed. I continued a member of the midshipmen’s mess, but was not allowed to enter the berth: my meals were sent to me, and I took them _solus_ on my chest. The youngsters spoke to me, but only by stealth, being afraid of the oldsters, who had sent me to the most rigid Coventry.
My situation in the fore-top was nearly nominal. I went aloft when the hands were called, or in my watch, and amused myself with a book until we went below, unless there was any little duty for me to do, which did not appear above my strength. The men doated on me as a martyr in their cause, and delighted in giving me every instruction in the art of knotting and splicing, rigging, reefing, furling, &c, &c.; and I honestly own that the happiest hours I had passed in that ship were during my seclusion among these honest tars.
Whether my enemies discovered this or not, I cannot say; but shortly after our arrival I was sent for by the captain into his own cabin, where I received a lecture on my misconduct, both as to my supposed irritable and quarrelsome disposition, and also for losing the men out of the boat. “In other respects,” he added, “your punishment would have been much more severe but for your general good conduct; and I have no doubt, from this little well-timed severity, that you will in future conduct yourself with more propriety. I therefore release you from the disgraceful situation in which you are placed, and allow you to return to your duty on the quarter-deck.”
The tears which no brutality or ill-treatment could wring from me, now flowed in abundance, and it was some minutes before I could recover myself sufficiently to thank him for his kindness, and to explain the cause of my disgrace. I told him, that since I had joined the ship I had been treated like a dog; that he alone had been ignorant of it, and that he alone had behaved to me with humanity. I then related all my sufferings, from the moment of that fatal glass of wine up to the time I was speaking. I did not conceal the act of cutting down Murphy’s hammock, nor of throwing the candlestick at his head. I assured him I never gave any provocation; that I never struck without being first stricken. I said, moreover, that I would never receive a blow or be called an improper name without resenting it, as far as I was able. It was my nature, and if killed, I could not help it. “Several men have run away,” said I, “since I came into the ship and before, and the officers under whose charge they were only received a reprimand, while I, who have just come to sea, have been treated with the greatest and most degrading severity.”
The captain listened to my defence with attention, and I thought seemed very much struck with it. I afterwards learnt that Mr Handstone had received a reprimand for his harsh treatment of me; he observed, that I should one day turn out a shining character, or go to the devil.
It appeared pretty evident to me, that however I might have roused the pride and resentment of the senior members of the mess by my resistance to arbitrary power, that I had gained some powerful friends, among whom was the captain. Many of the officers admired that dogged, “don’t care” spirit of resistance which I so perseveringly displayed, and were forced to admit that I had right on my side. I soon perceived the change of mind by the frequency of invitations to the cabin and gun-room tables. The youngsters were proud to receive me again openly as their associate; but the oldsters regarded me with a jealousy and suspicion like that of an unpopular government to a favourite radical leader.
I soon arranged with the boys of my own age a plan of resistance, or rather of self-defence, which proved of great importance in our future warfare. One or two of them had nerve enough to follow it up: the others made fair promises, but fell off in the hour of trial. My code consisted of only two maxims: the first was always to throw a bottle, decanter, candlestick, knife, or fork, at the head of any person who should strike one of us, if the assailant should appear too strong to encounter in fair fight. The second was, never to allow ourselves to be unjustly defrauded of our rights; to have an equal share of what we paid equally for; and to gain by artifice that which was withheld by force.
I explained to them that by the first plan we should ensure civility, at least; for as tyrants are generally cowards, they would be afraid to provoke that anger which in some unlucky moment might be fatal to them, or maim them for life. By the second, I promised to procure them an equal share in the good things of this life, the greater part of which the oldsters engrossed to themselves: in this latter we were much more unanimous than the former, as it incurred less personal risk. I was the projector of all the schemes for forage, and was generally successful.
At length we sailed to join the fleet off Cadiz, under the command of Lord Nelson. I shall not pretend to describe the passage down Channel and across the Bay of Biscay. I was sea-sick as a lady in a Dover packet, until inured to the motion of the ship by the merciless calls to my duties aloft, or to relieve the deck in my watch.
We reached our station, and joined the immortal Nelson but a few hours before that battle in which he lost his life and saved his country. The history of that important day has been so often and so circumstantially related, that I cannot add much more to the stock on hand. I am only astonished, seeing the confusion and _invariable variableness_ of a sea-light, how so much could be known. One observation occurred to me then, and I have thought of it ever since with redoubled conviction; this was, that the admiral, after the battle began, was no admiral at all: he could neither see nor be seen; he could take no advantage of the enemy’s weak points or defend his own; his ship, the _Victory_, one of our finest three-deckers, was, in a manner, tied up alongside a French eighty-gun ship.
These observations I have read in some naval work, and in my mind they receive ample confirmation. I could not help feeling an agony of anxiety (young as I was) for my country’s glory, when I saw the noble leaders of our two lines exposed to the united fire of so many ships. I thought Nelson was too much exposed, and think so now. Experience has confirmed what youthful fancy suggested; the enemy’s centre should have been _macadamized_ by our seven three-deckers, some of which, by being placed in the rear, had little share in the action; and but for the intimidation which their presence afforded, might as well have been at Spithead. I mean no reflection on the officers who had charge of them: accidental concurrence of light wind and station in the line, threw them at such a distance from the enemy as kept them in the back ground the greater part of the day.
Others, again, were in enviable situations, but did not, as far as I could learn from the officers, do quite so much as they might have done. This defect on our part being met by equal disadvantages, arising from nearly similar causes, on that of the enemy, a clear victory remained to us. The aggregate of the British navy is brave and good; and we must admit that in this day “when England expected every man to do his duty,” there were but few who disappointed their country’s hopes.
When the immortal signal was communicated, I shall never, no, never, forget the electric effect it produced through the fleet. I can compare it to nothing so justly as to a match laid to a long train of gunpowder; and as Englishmen are the same, the same feeling, the same enthusiasm, was displayed in every ship; tears ran down the cheeks of many a noble fellow when the affecting sentence was made known. It recalled every past enjoyment, and filled the mind with fond anticipations which, with many, were never, alas! to be realised. They went down to their guns without confusion; and a cool, deliberate courage from that moment seemed to rest on the countenance of every man I saw.
My captain, though not in the line, was no niggard in the matter of shot, and though he had no real business to come within range until called by signal, still he thought it his duty to be as near to our ships engaged as possible, in order to afford them assistance when required. I was stationed at the foremost guns on the main deck, and the ship cleared for action; and though on a comparatively small scale, I cannot imagine a more solemn, grand, or impressive sight, than a ship prepared as ours was on that occasion. Her noble tier of guns, in a line gently curving out towards the centre; the tackle laid across the deck; the shot and wads prepared in ample store (round, grape, and canister); the powder-boys, each with his box full, seated on it, with perfect apparent indifference as to the approaching conflict. The captains of guns, with their priming boxes buckled round their waists; the locks fixed upon the guns; the lanyards laid around them; the officers, with their swords drawn, standing by their respective divisions.
The quarter-deck was commanded by the captain in person, assisted by the first lieutenant, the lieutenant of marines, a party of small-arm men, with the mate and midshipmen, and a portion of seamen to attend the braces and fight the quarter-deck guns. The boatswain was on the forecastle; the gunner in the magazine, to send up a supply of powder to the guns; the carpenter watched and reported, from time to time, the depth of water in the well; he also walked round the wings or vacant spaces between the ship’s side and the cables, and other stores. He was attended by his mates, who were provided with shot-plugs, oakum, and tallow, to stop any shot-holes which might be made.
The surgeon was in the cockpit with his assistants. The knives, saws, tourniquets, sponges, basins, wine and water, were all displayed and ready for the first unlucky patient that might be presented. This was more awful to me than anything I had seen. “How soon,” thought I, “may I be stretched, mangled and bleeding, on this table, and have occasion for all the skill and all the instruments I now see before me!” I turned away, and endeavoured to forget it all.
As soon as the fleet bore up to engage the enemy, we did the same, keeping as near as we could to the admiral, whose signals we were ordered to repeat. I was particularly astonished with the skilful manner in which this was done. It was wonderful to see how instantaneously the same flags were displayed at our mast-heads as had been hoisted by the admiral; and the more wonderful this appeared to me, since his flags were rolled up in round balls, which were not broken loose until they had reached the mast-head, so that the signal officers of a repeater had to make out the number of the flag during its passage aloft in disguise. This was done by the power of good telescopes, and from habit, and sometimes by anticipation of the signal that would be next made.
The reader may perhaps not be aware that among civilised nations, in naval warfare, ships of the line never fire at frigates, unless they provoke hostility by interposing between belligerent ships, or firing into them, as was the case in the Nile, when Sir James Saumarez, in the _Orion_, was under the necessity of sinking the _Artemise_, which he did with one broadside, as a reward for her temerity. Under this _pax in bellum_ sort of compact we might have come off scot-free, had we not partaken very liberally of the shot intended for larger ships, which did serious damage among our people.
The two British lines running down parallel to each other, and nearly perpendicular to the crescent line of the combined fleets, was the grandest sight that was ever witnessed. As soon as our van was within gun-shot of the enemy, they opened their fire on the _Royal Sovereign_ and the _Victory_; but when the first-named of these noble ships rounded to, under the stern of the _Santa Anna_, and the _Victory_ had very soon after laid herself on board the _Redoubtable_, the clouds of smoke enveloped both fleets, and little was to be seen except the falling of masts, and here and there, as the smoke blew away, a ship totally dismasted.
One of these proved to be English, and our captain, seeing her between two of the enemy, bore up to take her in tow: at the same time, one of our ships of the line opened a heavy fire on one of the French line-of-battle ships, unluckily situated in a right line between us, so that the shot which missed the enemy sometimes came on board of us. I was looking out of the bow port at the moment that a shot struck our ship on the stern between wind and water. It was the first time I had ever seen the effect of a heavy shot; it made a great splash, and to me as I then thought, a very unusual noise, throwing a great deal of water in my face. I very naturally started back, as I believe many a brave fellow has done. Two of the seamen quartered at my guns laughed at me. I felt ashamed, and resolved to show no more such weakness.
This shot was very soon succeeded by some others not quite so harmless: one came into the bow port, and killed the two men who had witnessed my trepidation. My pride having been hurt that these men should have seen me flinch, I will own that I was secretly pleased when I saw them removed beyond the reach of human interrogation. It would be difficult to describe my feelings on this occasion. Not six weeks before, I was the robber of hen-roosts and gardens–the hero of a horse-pond, ducking an usher–now suddenly, and almost without any previous warning or reflection, placed in the midst of carnage, and an actor of one of those grand events by which the fate of the civilised world was to be decided.
A quickened circulation of blood, a fear of immediate death, and a still greater fear of shame, forced me to an involuntary and frequent change of position; and it required some time, and the best powers of intellect, to reason myself into that frame of mind in which I could feel as safe and as unconcerned as if we had been in harbour. To this state I at last did attain, and soon felt ashamed of the perturbation under which I had laboured before the firing began. I prayed, it is true: but my prayer was not that of faith, of trust, or of hope–I prayed only for safety from imminent personal danger; and my orisons consisted of one or two short, pious ejaculations, without a thought of repentance for the past or amendment for the future.
But when we had once got fairly into action, I felt no more of this, and beheld a poor creature cut in two by a shot with the same indifference that at any other time I should have seen a butcher kill an ox. Whether my heart was bad or not, I cannot say; but I certainly felt my curiosity was gratified more than my feelings were shocked when a raking shot killed seven and wounded three more. I was sorry for the men, and, for the world, would not have injured them; but I had a philosophic turn of mind; I liked to judge of causes and effects; and I was secretly pleased at seeing the effect of a raking shot.
Towards four P.M. the firing began to abate, the smoke cleared away, and the calm sea became ruffled with an increasing breeze. The two hostile fleets were quiet spectators of each other’s disasters. We retained possession of nineteen or twenty sail of the line. Some of the enemy’s ships were seen running away into Cadiz; while four others passed to windward of our fleet, and made their escape. A boat going from our ship to one near us, I jumped into her, and learned the death of Lord Nelson, which I communicated to the captain, who, after paying a tribute to the memory of that great man, looked at me with much complacency. I was the only youngster that had been particularly active, and he immediately despatched me with a message to a ship at a short distance. The first lieutenant asked if he should not send an officer of more experience. “No,” said the captain, “he shall go; the boy knows very well what he is about!” and away I went, not a little proud of the confidence placed in me.
Further details of this eventful day are to be found recorded in our national histories; it will, therefore, be needless to repeat them here. When I met my messmates at supper in the berth, I was sorry to see Murphy among them. I had flattered myself that some fortunate shot would have for ever divested me of any further care on his account; but his time was not come.
“The devil has had a fine haul to-day!” said an old master’s mate, as he took up his glass of grog.
“Pity you, and some others I could name, had not been in the net!” thinks I to myself.
“I hope plenty of the lieutenants are bowled out!” said another; “we shall stand some chance then of a little promotion!”
When the hands were turned up to muster, the number of killed amounted to nine, and wounded to thirteen. When this was made known, there seemed to be a general smile of congratulation at the number fallen, rather than of their regret for their loss. The vanity of the officers seemed tickled at the disproportionate slaughter in a frigate of our size, as compared to what they had heard the ships of the line had suffered.
I attended the surgeon in the steerage, to which place the wounded were removed, and saw all the amputations performed, without flinching; while men who had behaved well in the action fainted at the sight. I am afraid I almost took a pleasure in observing the operations of the surgeon, without once reflecting on the pain suffered by the patient. Habit had now begun to corrupt my mind. I was not cruel by nature; I loved the deep investigation of hidden things; and this day’s action gave me a very clear insight into the anatomy of the human frame, which I had seen cut in two by shot, lacerated by splinters, carved out with knives, and separated with saws.
Soon after the action, we were ordered to Spithead, with duplicate despatches. One morning I heard a midshipman say, “he would do his old father out of a new kit.” I inquired what that meant, was first called a greenhorn for not knowing, and then had it explained to me. “Don’t you know,” said my instructor, “that after every action there is more canvas, rope, and paint, expended in the warrant-officer’s accounts than were destroyed by the enemy?”
I assented to this on the credit of the informer, without knowing whether it was true or false, and he proceeded. “How are we to have white hammock-clothes, sky-sail masts, and all other finery, besides a coat of paint for the ship’s sides every six weeks, if we don’t expend all these things in action, and pretend they were lost overboard, or destroyed? The list of defects are given in to the admiral, he signs the demand, and the old commissioner must come down with the stores, whether he will or not. I was once in a sloop of war, when a large forty-four-gun frigate ran on board of us, carried away her jib-boom, and left her large fine-weather jib hanging on our foreyard. It was made of beautiful Russia duck, and to be sure, didn’t we make a gang of white hammock-cloths, fore and aft, besides white trousers for the men? Well now, you must know, that as we make _Uncle George_ suffer for the stores, so I mean to make dad suffer for my traps. I mean to lose my chest overboard with all my ‘kit,’ and return home to him and the old woman just fit for the fashion.”
“And do you really mean to deceive your father and mother in that way?” replied I, with much apparent innocence.
“Do I? to be sure I do, you flat. How am I to keep up my stock, if I don’t make the proper use of an action like this that we have been in?”
I took the hint: it never once occurred to me, that if I had fairly and candidly stated to my parents that my stock of clothes were insufficient for my appearance as a gentleman on the quarter-deck, that they would cheerfully have increased it to any reasonable extent. But I had been taught artifice and cunning; I could tell the truth where I thought it served my purpose, as well as a lie; but here I thought deception was a proof at once of spirit and of merit; and I resolved to practise it, if only to raise myself a trifling degree in the estimation of my unworthy associates. I had become partial to deception from habit, and preferred exercising my own ingenuity in outwitting my father, to obtaining what I needed by more straightforward and honourable measures.
The ship needed some repairs, and by the indulgence of the captain, who was pleased with my conduct, I, who required so much instruction in the nature and cause of her defects, was allowed to be absent while they were made good. By this oversight, I lost all that improvement which I should have gained by close attention to the unrigging or shipping of the ship; the manner of returning her stores; taking out her masts and ballast, and seeing her taken into dock; the shape of her bottom, and the good or bad qualities which might be supposed to accelerate or retard her movements. All this was sacrificed to the impatience of seeing my parents; to the vainglory of boasting of the action in which I had been present; and, perhaps, of being encouraged to tell lies of things which I never saw, and to talk of feats which I never performed. I loved effect; and I timed the moment of my return to my father’s house (through a correspondence with my sister) to be just as a large party had sat down to a sumptuous dinner. I had only been absent three months, it is true; but it was my first cruise, and then “I had seen so much, and been in such very interesting situations.”
‘Twill be time to go home. What shall I say I have done? It must be a very plausive invention that carries it. I find my tongue is too foolhardy.–SHAKESPEARE.
Reaching the well known mansion of my father, I knocked softly at the front door, was admitted, and, without saying a word to the servant, rushed to the head of the dining-room table, and threw my arms round my mother’s neck, who only screamed, “Good heavens, my child!” and fell into hysterics. My father, who was in the very midst of helping his soup, jumped up to embrace me and assist my mother. The company all rose, like a covey of partridges: one lady spoiled a new pink satin gown by a tip of the elbow from her next neighbour, just as a spoonful of soup had reached “the rosy portals of her mouth;” the little spaniel, Carlo, set up a loud and incessant bark; and in one minute the whole comely arrangement of the feast was converted into anarchy and confusion.
Order was, however, soon restored: my mother recovered her composure–my father shook me by the hand–the company all agreed that I was a very fine, interesting boy–the ladies resumed their seats, and I had the satisfaction to observe that my sudden appearance had not deprived them of their appetites. I soon convinced them that in this particular, at least, I also was in high training. My midshipman’s life had neither disqualified nor disgusted me with the luxuries of the table; nor did I manifest the slightest backwardness or diffidence when invited by the gentlemen to take wine. I answered every question with such fluency of speech, and such compound interest of words, as sometimes caused the propounder to regret that he had put me to the trouble of speaking.
I gave a very florid description of the fight; praised some admirals and captains for their bravery, sneered at others, and accused a few of right down misconduct. Now and then, by way of carrying conviction into my auditors’ very souls, I rammed home my charges with an oath, at which my father looked grave, my mother held up her finger, the gentlemen laughed, and the ladies all said with a smile, “Sweet boy!–what animation!–what sense!–what discernment!” Thinks I to myself, “You are as complete a set of gulls as ever picked up a bit of biscuit!”
Next morning, while my recent arrival was still warm, I broke the subject of my chest to my father and mother at breakfast; indeed, my father, very fortunately for me, began by inquiring how my stock of clothes held out.
“Bad enough,” said I, as I demolished the third egg, for I still had a good appetite at breakfast.
“Bad enough!” repeated my father, “why you were extremely well fitted with everything.”
“Very true, sir,” said I; “but then you don’t know what a man-of-war is in clearing for action; everything not too hot or too heavy is chucked overboard with as little ceremony as I swallow this muffin. ‘Whose hat-box is this?’ ‘Mr Spratt’s, sir.’ ‘D—-n Mr Spratt, I’ll teach him to keep his hat-box safe another time; over with it’–and away it went over the lee gangway. Spratt’s father was a hatter in Bond Street, so we all laughed.”
“And pray, Frank,” said my mother, “did your box go in the same way?”
“It kept company, I assure you. I watched them go astern, with tears in my eyes, thinking how angry you would be.”
“Well, but the chest, Frank, what became of the chest? You said that the Vandals had some respect for heavy objects, and yours, I am sure, to my cost, had very considerable specific gravity.”
“That’s very true, sir; but you have no notion how much it was lightened the first day the ship got to sea. I was lying on it as sick as a whale–the first lieutenant and mate of the lower deck came down to see if the men’s berths were clean; I, and my Noah’s ark, lay slap in the way–‘Who have we here?’ said Mr Handstone. ‘Only Mr Mildmay, and his chest, sir,’ said the sergeant of marines, into whose territory I acknowledged I had made very considerable incroachments. ‘Only!’ repeated the lieutenant, ‘I thought it had been one of the big stones for the new bridge, and the owner of it a drunken Irish hodman.’ I was too sick to care much about what they said.”
“You forget your breakfast,” said my sister.
“I’ll thank you for another muffin, and another cup of coffee,” said I.
“Poor fellow!” said my mother, “what he must have suffered!”
“Oh! I have not told you half yet, my dear mother; I only wonder I am alive.”
“Alive, indeed!” said my Aunt Julia; “here, my dear, here is a small trifle to help you to replenish the stock you have lost in the service of your country. Noble little fellow! what should we do without sailors?”
I pocketed the little donation–it was a ten-pounder; finished my breakfast, by adding a slice of ham and half a French roll to the articles already shipped, and then continued my story. “The first thing Mr Handstone said, was, that my chest was too big; and the next thing he said, was, ‘tell the carpenter I want him. Here, Mr Adze, take this chest; reduce it one foot in length, and one in height.’ ‘Ay, ay, sir,’ said Adze; ‘come, young gentleman, move off, and give me your key.’ Sick as I was, I knew remonstrance or prayer were alike useless, so I crawled off and presented my key to the carpenter, who very deliberately unlocked, and as expeditiously unloaded all my treasure. The midshipmen all gathered round. The jars of preserves and the cakes of gingerbread which you, my dearest mother, had so nicely packed up for me, were seized with greediness, and devoured before my face. One of them thrust his filthy paw into a pot of black currant jelly, which you gave me for a sore throat, and held a handful of it to my mouth, knowing at the same time that I was ready to be sea-sick in his hand.”
“I shall never bear the sight of jelly again,” said my sister.
“The nasty brutes!” said my aunt.
“Well,” I resumed, “all my nice things went; and, sick as I was, I wished them gone; but when they laughed and spoke disrespectfully of you, my dear mother, I was ready to fly up and tear their eyes out.”
“Never mind, my dear boy,” said my mother, “we will make all right again.”
“So I suppose we must,” said my father; “but no more jelly and ginger-bread, if you please, my dear. Proceed with your story, Frank.”
“Well, sir, in half-an-hour my chest was ready for me again; but while they were about it, they might have taken off another foot, for I found ample space to stow what the plunderers had left. The preserve jars, being all empty, were given of course to the marines; and some other heavy articles being handed away, I was no longer puzzled how to stow them. After this, you know, sir, we had the action, and then chest and bedding and all went to the —-.”
“Do they throw all the chests and bedding overboard on these occasions?” said my father, with a cool and steady gaze in my face, which I had some trouble in facing back again.
“Yes; always everything that is in the way, and my chest was in the way, and away it went. You know, sir, I could not knock down the first lieutenant: they would have hanged me at the yard-arm.”
“Thank Heaven, you did not, my love,” said my mother; “what _has_ happened can be repaired, but _that_ could never have been got over. And your books, what is become of them?”
“All went in the lump. They are somewhere near the entrance of the Gut of Gibraltar–all lost except my Bible: I saved that, as I happened to be reading it in my berth the night before the action!”
“Excellent boy!” exclaimed my mother and aunt both together; “I am sure he speaks the truth.”
“I hope he does,” said my father, drily; “though it must be owned that these sea-fights, however glorious for Old England, are very expensive amusements to the parents of young midshipmen, unless the boys happen to be knocked on the head.”
Whether my father began to smell a rat, or whether he was afraid of putting more questions, for fear of hearing more fibs, I know not, but I was not sorry when the narrative was concluded, and I dismissed with flying colours.
To my shame be it spoken, the Bible that assisted me so much in my mother’s opinion, had never but once been opened since I had left home, and that was to examine if there were any bank-notes between the leaves, having heard of such things being done, merely to try whether young gentlemen did “search the Scriptures.”
My demands were all made good. I believe with the greater celerity, as I began to grow very tiresome; my _sea_ manners were not congenial to the drawing-room. My mother, aunt, and sister, were very different from the females I had been in the habit of seeing on board the frigate. My oaths and treatment of the servants, male and female, all conspired to reconcile the family to my departure. They therefore heard with pleasure that my leave was expired; and, having obtained all I wanted, I did not care one pin how soon I got clear of them; so when the coach came to the door, I jumped in, drove to the Golden Cross, and the next morning rejoined my ship.
I was received with cheerfulness and cordiality by most of my shipmates, except Murphy and some of his cronies; nor did one feeling of regret or compunction enter my mind for the lies and hypocrisy with which I had deceived and cheated my parents. The reader will probably be aware that except the circumstance of reducing the size of my chest, and the seizure and confiscation of my jars and gingerbread, there was scarcely a vestige of truth in my story. That I had lost most of my things was most true; but they were lost by my own carelessness, and not by being thrown overboard. After losing the key of my chest, which happened the day I joined, a rapid decrease of my stock convinced the first lieutenant that a much smaller package might be made of the remainder, and this was the sole cause of my chest being converted into a razee.
My fresh stock of clothes I brought down in a trunk, which I found very handy, and contrived to keep in better order than I had formerly done. The money given me to procure more bedding, I pocketed: indeed I began to grow cunning. I perceived that the best-dressed midshipmen had always the most pleasant duties to perform. I was sent to bring off parties of ladies who came to visit the ship, and to dine with the captain and officers. I had a tolerably good address, and was reckoned a very handsome boy; and though stout of my age, the ladies admitted me to great freedom under pretence of my being still a dear little darling of a middy, and so perfectly innocent in my mind and manners. The fact is, I was kept in much better order on board my ship than I was in my father’s house–so much for the habit of discipline; but this was all outside show. My father was a man of talent, and knew the world, but he knew nothing of the navy; and when I had got him out of his depth, I served him as I did the usher: that is, I soused him and his company head over heels in the horse-pond of their own ignorance. Such is the power of local knowledge and cunning over abstruse science and experience.