Mr. Midshipman Easy/Chapter 21
In which our hero is brought up all standing under a press of sail.
Our limits will not permit us to relate all that passed during our hero's stay of a fortnight at Don Rebiera's. He and Gascoigne were treated as if they were his own sons, and the kindness of the female part of the family was equally remarkable. Agnes, naturally perhaps, showed a preference or partiality for Jack: to which Gascoigne willingly submitted, as he felt that our hero had a prior and stronger claim, and during the time that they remained a feeling of attachment was created between Agnes and the philosopher, which, if not love, was at least something very near akin to it, but the fact was, that they were both much too young to think of marriage; and, although they walked and talked, and laughed, and played together, they were always at home in time for their dinner. Still, the young lady thought she preferred our hero, even to her brothers, and Jack thought that the young lady was the prettiest and kindest girl that he had ever met with. At the end of the fortnight, our two midshipmen took their leave, furnished with letters of recommendation to many of the first nobility in Palermo, and mounted on two fine mules with bell bridles. The old Donna kissed them both—the Don showered down his blessings of good wishes, and Donna Agnes' lips trembled as she bade them adieu; and, as soon as they were gone, she went up to her chamber and wept. Jack also was very grave, and his eyes moistened at the thoughts of leaving Agnes. Neither of them were aware, until the hour of parting, how much they had wound themselves together.
The first quarter of an hour our two midshipmen followed their guide in silence. Jack wished to be left to his own thoughts, and Gascoigne perceived it.
"Well, Easy," said Gascoigne, at last, "if I had been in your place, constantly in company of, and loved by, that charming girl, I could never have torn myself away."
"Loved by her, Ned!" replied Jack, "what makes you say that?"
"Because I am sure it was the case; she lived but in your presence. Why, if you were out of the room, she never spoke a word, but sat there as melancholy as a sick monkey—the moment you came in again, she beamed out as glorious as the sun, and was all life and spirit."
"I thought people were always melancholy when they were in love," replied Jack.
"When those that they love are out of their presence."
"Well, then, I am out of her presence, and I feel very melancholy, so I suppose, by your argument, I am in love. Can a man be in love without knowing it?"
"I really cannot say, Jack; I never was in love myself, but I've seen many others spoony. My time will come, I suppose, by and bye. They say, that for every man made, there is a woman also made to fit him, if he could only find her. Now, it's my opinion that you have found yours—I'll lay my life she's crying at this moment."
"Do you really think so, Ned? let's go back—poor little Agnes—let's go back; I feel I do love her, and I'll tell her so."
"Pooh, nonsense! it's too late now; you should have told her that before, when you walked with her in the garden."
"But I did not know it, Ned. However, as you say, it would be foolish to turn back, so I'll write to her from Palermo."
Here an argument ensued upon love, which we shall not trouble the reader with, as it was not very profound, both sides knowing very little on the subject. It did, however, end with our hero being convinced that he was desperately in love, and he talked about giving up the service as soon as he arrived at Malta. It is astonishing what sacrifices midshipmen will make for the objects of their adoration.
It was not until late in the evening that our adventurers arrived at Palermo. As soon as they were lodged at the hotel, Gascoigne sat down and wrote a letter in their joint names to Don Rebiera, returning him many thanks for his great kindness, informing him of their safe arrival, and trusting that they should soon meet again: and Jack took up his pen, and indicted a letter in Spanish to Agnes, in which he swore that neither tide nor time, nor water, nor air, nor heaven, nor earth, nor the first lieutenant, nor his father, nor absence, nor death itself, should prevent him from coming back and marrying her, the first convenient opportunity, begging her to refuse a thousand offers, as come back he would, although there was no saying when. It was a perfect love letter, that is to say, it was the essence of nonsense; but that made it perfect, for the greater the love the greater the folly.
These letters were consigned to the man who was sent as their guide, and also had to return with the mules. He was liberally rewarded; and, as Jack told him to be very careful of his letter, the Italian naturally concluded that it was to be delivered clandestinely, and he delivered it accordingly, at a time when Agnes was walking in the garden thinking of our hero. Nothing was more opportune than the arrival of the letter; Agnes ran to the pavilion, read it over twenty times, kissed it twenty times, and hid it in her bosom; sat for a few minutes in deep and placid thought, took the letter out of its receptacle, and read it over and over again. It was very bad Spanish, and very absurd, but she thought it delightful, poetical, classical, sentimental, argumentative, convincing, incontrovertible, imaginative and even grammatical; for if it was not good Spanish, there was no Spanish half so good. Alas! Agnes was indeed unsophisticated, to be in such ecstasies with a midshipman's love letter. Once more she hastened to her room to weep, but it was from excess of joy and delight. The reader may think Agnes silly, but he must take into consideration the climate, and that she was not yet fifteen.
Our young gentlemen sent for a tailor, and each ordered a new suit of clothes; they delivered their letters of recommendation, and went to the banker to whom they were addressed by Don Rebiera.
"I shall draw for ten pounds, Jack," said Gascoigne, "on the strength of the shipwreck; I shall tell the truth, all except that we forgot to ask for leave, which I shall leave out; and I am sure the story will be worth ten pounds. What shall you draw for, Jack?"
"I shall draw for two hundred pounds," replied Jack; "I mean to have a good cruise while I can."
"But will your Governor stand that, Easy?"
"To be sure he will."
"Then you're right—he is a philosopher—I wish he'd teach mine, for he hates the sight of a bill."
"Then don't you draw, Ned—I have plenty for both. If every man had his equal share and rights in the world, you would be as able to draw as much as I; and as you cannot, upon the principles of equality you shall have half."
"I really shall become a convert to your philosophy, Jack; it does not appear to be so nonsensical as I thought it. At all events, it has saved my old Governor ten pounds, which he can ill afford, as a colonel on half-pay."
On their return to the inn, they found Don Philip and Don Martin, to whom Don Rebiera had written, who welcomed them with open arms. They were two very fine young men of eighteen and nineteen, who were finishing their education in the army. Jack asked them to dinner, and they and our hero soon became inseparable. They took him to all the theatres, the conversaziones of all the nobility, and as Jack lost his money with good humour, and was a very handsome fellow, he was everywhere well received and was made much of: many ladies made love to him, but Jack was only very polite, because he thought more and more of Agnes every day. Three weeks passed away like lightning, and neither Jack nor Gascoigne thought of going back. At last, one fine day H.M. frigate Aurora anchored in the bay, and Jack and Gascoigne, who were at a party at the Duke of Pentaro's, met with the captain of the Aurora, who was also invited. The Duchess introduced them to Captain Tartar, who imagining them, from their being in plain clothes, to be young Englishmen of fortune on their travels, was very gracious and condescending. Jack was so pleased with his urbanity that he requested the pleasure of his company to dinner the next day: Captain Tartar accepted the invitation, and they parted shaking hands, with many expressions of pleasure in having made his acquaintance. Jack's party was rather large, and the dinner sumptuous. The Sicilian gentlemen did not drink much wine: but Captain Tartar liked his bottle, and although the rest of the company quitted the table to go to a ball given that evening by the Marquesa Novara, Jack was too polite not to sit it out with the captain: Gascoigne closed his chair to Jack's, who, he was afraid, being a little affected with the wine, would "let the cat out of the bag."
The captain was amazingly entertaining. Jack told him how happy he should be to see him at Forest Hill, which property the captain discovered to contain six thousand acres of land, and also that Jack was an only son; and Captain Tartar was quite respectful when he found that he was in such very excellent company. The captain of the frigate inquired of Jack what brought him out here, and Jack, whose prudence was departing, told him that he came in his Majesty's ship Harpy. Gascoigne gave Jack a nudge, but it was of no use, for as the wine got into Jack's brain, so did his notions of equality.
"Oh! Wilson gave you a passage; he's an old friend of mine."
"So he is of ours," replied Jack; "he's a devilish good sort of a fellow, Wilson."
"But where have you been since you came out?" inquired Captain Tartar.
"In the Harpy," replied Jack; "to be sure, I belong to her."
"You belong to her! in what capacity, may I ask?" inquired Captain Tartar in a much less respectful and confidential tone.
"Midshipman," replied Jack; "so is Mr Gascoigne."
"Umph! you are on leave then?"
"No, indeed," replied Jack; "I'll tell you how it is, my dear fellow."
"Excuse me for one moment," replied Captain Tartar, rising up; "I must give some directions to my servant which I forgot."
Captain Tartar hailed his coxswain out of the window, gave orders just outside of the door, and then returned to the table. In the meantime, Gascoigne, who expected a breeze, had been cautioning Jack, in a low tone, at intervals, when Captain Tartar's back was turned: but it was useless; the extra quantity of wine had got into Jack's head, and he cared nothing for Gascoigne's remonstrance. When the captain resumed his seat at the table, Jack gave him the true narrative of all that had passed, to which his guest paid the greatest attention. Jack wound up his confidence by saying, that in a week or so he should go back to Don Rebiera and propose for Donna Agnes.
"Ah!" exclaimed Captain Tartar, drawing his breath with astonishment, and compressing his lip.
"Tartar, the wine stands with you," said Jack, "allow me to help you." Captain Tartar threw himself back in his chair, and let all the air out of his chest with a sort of whistle, as if he could hardly contain himself.
"Have you had wine enough?" said Jack, very politely; "if so, we will go to the Marquesa's."
The coxswain came to the door, touched his hat to the captain, and looked significantly.
"And so, sir," cried Captain Tartar, in a voice of thunder, rising from his chair, "you're a d—d runaway midshipman, who, if you belonged to my ship, instead of marrying Donna Agnes, I would marry you to the gunner's daughter, by G—d; two midshipmen sporting plain clothes in the best society in Palermo, and having the impudence to ask a post-captain to dine with them! To ask me and address me as ’'Tartar, and ’'my dear fellow! you infernal young scamps!" continued Captain Tartar, now boiling with rage, and striking his fist on the table so as to set all the glasses waltzing.
"Allow me to observe, sir," said Jack, who was completely sobered by the address, 'that we do not belong to your ship, and that we are in plain clothes.'
"In plain clothes—midshipmen in mufti—yes, you are so: a couple of young swindlers, without a sixpence in your pocket, passing yourselves off as young men of fortune, and walking off through the window without paying your bill."
"Do you mean to call me a swindler, sir," replied Jack.
"Yes, sir, you——"
"Then you lie!" exclaimed our hero in a rage. "I am a gentleman, sir—I am sorry I cannot pay you the same compliment."
The astonishment and rage of Captain Tartar took away his breath. He tried to speak, but could not—he gasped, and gasped, and then sat or almost fell down in his chair—at last he recovered himself.
"Sir," replied the coxswain, who had remained at the door.
"The sergeant of marines."
"Here he is, sir." The sergeant entered, and raised the back of his hand to his hat.
"Bring your marines in—take charge of these two. Directly you are on board, put them both legs in irons."
The marines with their bayonets walked in and took possession of our hero and Gascoigne.
"Perhaps, sir," replied Jack, who was now cool again, "you will permit us to pay our bill before we go on board. We are no swindlers, and it is rather a heavy one—or, as you have taken possession of our persons, you will, perhaps, do us the favour to discharge it yourself"; and Jack threw on the table a heavy purse of dollars. "I have only to observe, Captain Tartar, that I wish to be very liberal to the waiters."
"Sergeant, let them pay their bill," said Captain Tartar in a more subdued tone, taking his hat and sword, and walking out of the room.
"By heavens, Easy, what have you done?—you will be tried by a court-martial, and turned out of the service."
"I hope so," replied Jack; "I was a fool to come into it. But he called me a swindler, and I would give the same answer to-morrow."
"If you are ready, gentlemen," said the sergeant who had been long enough with Captain Tartar to be aware that to be punished by him was no proof of fault having been committed.
"I will go and pack up our things, Easy, while you pay the bill," said Gascoigne. "Marine, you had better come with me."
In less than half an hour, our hero and his comrade, instead of finding themselves at the Marquesa's ball, found themselves very comfortably in irons under the half-deck of his Majesty's frigate, Aurora.
We shall leave them, and return to Captain Tartar, who had proceeded to the ball, to which he had been invited. On his entering he was accosted by Don Martin and Don Philip, who inquired what had become of our hero and his friend. Captain Tartar who was in no very good humour, replied briskly, "that they were on board his ship in irons."
"In irons! for what?" exclaimed Don Philip.
"Because, sir, they are a couple of young scamps who have introduced themselves into the best company, passing themselves off as people of consequence, when they are only a couple of midshipmen who have run away from their ship."
Now the Rebieras knew very well that Jack and his friend were midshipmen; but this did not appear to them any reason why they should not be considered as gentlemen, and treated accordingly.
"Do you mean to say, signor," said Don Philip, "that you have accepted their hospitality, laughed, talked, walked arm-in-arm with them, pledged them in wine, as we have seen you this evening, and after they have confided in you that you have put them in irons?"
"Yes, sir, I do," replied Captain Tartar.
"Then, by Heaven, you have my defiance, and you are no gentleman!" replied Don Philip, the elder.
"And I repeat my brother's words, sir," cried Don Martin. The two brothers felt so much attachment for our hero, who had twice rendered such signal service to their family, that their anger was without bounds.
In every other service but the English navy there is not that power of grossly insulting and then sheltering yourself under your rank; nor is it necessary for the discipline of any service. To these young officers, if the power did exist, the use of such power under such circumstances appeared monstrous, and they were determined, at all events, to show to Captain Tartar that in society, at least, it could be resented. They collected their friends, told them what had passed, and begged them to circulate it through the room. This was soon done, and Captain Tartar found himself avoided. He went up to the Marquesa and spoke to her, she turned her head the other way. He addressed a count he had been conversing with the night before—he turned short round upon his heel, while Don Philip and Don Martin walked up and down talking, so that he might hear what they said, and looking at him with eyes flashing with indignation. Captain Tartar left the ballroom and returned to the inn, more indignant than ever. When he rose the next morning he was informed that a gentleman wished to speak with him; he sent up his card as Don Ignatio Verez, colonel commanding the fourth regiment of infantry. On being admitted, he informed Captain Tartar that Don Philip de Rebiera wished to have the pleasure of crossing swords with him, and requested to know when it would be convenient for Captain Tartar to meet him.
It was not in Captain Tartar's nature to refuse a challenge; his courage was unquestionable, but he felt indignant that a midshipman should be the cause of his getting into such a scrape. He accepted the challenge, but having no knowledge of the small sword, refused to fight unless with pistols. To this the colonel raised no objections, and Captain Tartar despatched his coxswain with a note to his second lieutenant, for he was not on good terms with his first. The meeting took place—at the first fire the ball of Don Philip passed through Captain Tartar's brain, and he instantly fell dead. The second lieutenant hastened on board to report the fatal result of the meeting, and shortly after, Don Philip and his brother, with many of their friends, went off in the Governor's barge to condole with our hero.
The first lieutenant, now captain pro tempore, received them graciously, and listened to their remonstrances relative to our hero and Gascoigne.
"I have never been informed by the captain of the grounds of complaint against the young gentlemen," replied he, "and have therefore no charge to prefer against them. I shall therefore order them to be liberated. But as I learn that they are officers belonging to one of his Majesty's ships lying at Malta, I feel it my duty, as I sail immediately, to take them there and send them on board of their own ship."
Jack and Gascoigne were then taken out of irons and permitted to see Don Philip, who informed them that he had revenged the insult, but Jack and Gascoigne did not wish to go on shore again after what had passed. After an hour's conversation, and assurances of continued friendship, Don Philip, his brother, and their friends, took leave of our two midshipmen, and rowed on shore.
And now we must be serious.
We do not write these novels merely to amuse, we have always had it in our view to instruct, and it must not be supposed that we have no other end in view than to make the reader laugh. If we were to write an elaborate work, telling truths, and plain truths, confining ourselves only to point out errors and to demand reform, it would not be read; we have therefore selected this light and trifling species of writing, as it is by many denominated, as a channel through which we may convey wholesome advice in a palatable shape. If we would point out an error, we draw a character, and although that character appears to weave naturally into the tale of fiction, it becomes as much a beacon as it is a vehicle of amusement. We consider this to be the true art of novel writing, and that crime and folly and error can be as severely lashed as virtue and morality can be upheld, by a series of amusing causes and effects, that entice the reader to take a medicine, which, although rendered agreeable to the palate, still produces the same internal benefit, as if it had been presented to him in its crude state, in which it would either be refused or nauseated.
In our naval novels, we have often pointed out the errors which have existed, and still do exist, in a service which is an honour to its country; for what institution is there on earth that is perfect, or into which, if it once was perfect, abuses will not creep? Unfortunately, others have written to decry the service, and many have raised up their voices against our writings, because they felt that, in exposing error, we were exposing them. But to this we have been indifferent; we felt that we were doing good, and we have continued. To prove that we are correct in asserting that we have done good, we will, out of several, state one single case.
In The King's Own, a captain, when requested to punish a man instanter for a fault committed, replies that he never has and never will punish a man until twenty-four hours after the offence, that he may not be induced by the anger of the moment to award a severer punishment than in his cooler moments he might think commensurate and that he wished that the Admiralty would give out an order to that effect.
Some time after the publication of that work, the order was given by the Admiralty, forbidding the punishment until a certain time had elapsed after the offence; and we had the pleasure of knowing from the first lord of the Admiralty of the time, that it was in consequence of the suggestion in the novel.
If our writings had effected nothing else, we might still lay down our pen with pride and satisfaction: but they have done more, much more; and while they have amused the reader, they have improved the service: they have held up in their characters a mirror, in which those who have been in error may see their own deformity, and many hints which have been given have afterwards returned to the thoughts of those who have had an influence, have been considered as their own ideas, and have been acted upon. The conduct of Captain Tartar may be considered as a libel on the service—is it not? The fault of Captain Tartar was not in sending them on board, or even putting them in irons as deserters, although, under the circumstances, he might have shown more delicacy. The fault was in stigmatising a young man as a swindler, and the punishment awarded to the error is intended to point out the moral, that such an abuse of power should be severely visited. The greatest error now in our service, is the disregard shown to the feelings of the junior officers in the language of their superiors: that an improvement has taken place I grant, but that it still exists, to a degree injurious to the service, I know too well. The articles of war, as our hero was informed by his captain, were equally binding on officers and crew; but what a dead letter do they become if officers are permitted to break them with impunity! The captain of a ship will turn the hands up to punishment, read the article of war for the transgressing of which the punishment is inflicted, and to show at that time their high respect for the articles of war, the captain and every officer take off their hats. The moment the hands are piped down, the second article of war, which forbids all swearing, etc, in derogation of God's honour is immediately disregarded. We are not strait-laced,—we care little about an oath as a mere expletive; we refer now to swearing at others, to insulting their feelings grossly by coarse and intemperate language. We would never interfere with a man for d—g his own eyes, but we deny the right of his d—g those of another.
The rank of a master in the service is above that of a midshipman, but still the midshipman is a gentleman by birth, and the master, generally speaking, is not. Even at this moment, in the service, if the master were to d—n the eyes of a midshipman, and tell him that he was a liar, would there be any redress, or if so, would it be commensurate to the insult? If a midshipman were to request a court-martial, would it be granted? certainly not. And yet this is a point of more importance than may be conceived. Our service has been wonderfully improved since the peace, and those who are now permitted to enter it must be gentlemen. We know that even now there are many who cry out against this as dangerous, and injurious to the service; as if education spoilt an officer, and the scion of an illustrious house would not be more careful to uphold an escutcheon without blemish for centuries than one who has little more than brute courage; but those who argue thus are the very people who are injurious to the service, for they can have no other reason, except that they wish that the juniors may be tyrannised over with impunity.
Be it remembered that these are not the observations of a junior officer, smarting under insult—they are the result of deep and calm reflection. We have arrived to that grade, that, although we have the power to inflict, we are too high to receive insult, but we have not forgotten how our young blood has boiled when wanton, reckless, and cruel torture has been heaped upon our feelings, merely because, as a junior officer, we were not in a position to retaliate, or even to reply. And another evil is, that this great error is disseminated. In observing on it, in one of our works, called Peter Simple, we have put the following true observation in the mouth of O'Brien. Peter observes, in his simple, right-minded way,
"I should think, O'Brien, that the very circumstance of having had your feelings so often wounded by such language when you were a junior officer would make you doubly careful not to use it towards others, when you had advanced in the service."
"Peter, that's just the first feeling, which wears away after a time, till at last your own sense of indignation becomes blunted, and becomes indifferent to it: you forget, also, that you wound the feelings of others, and carry the habit with you, to the great injury and disgrace of the service."
Let it not be supposed that in making these remarks we want to cause litigation, or insubordination. On the contrary, we assert that this error is the cause, and eventually will be much more the cause, of insubordination; for as the junior officers who enter the service are improved, so will they resist it. The complaint here is more against the officers than the captains, whose power has been perhaps already too much curtailed by late regulations: that power must remain, for although there may be some few who are so perverted as to make those whom they command uncomfortable, in justice to the service we are proud to assert, that the majority acknowledge, by their conduct, that the greatest charm attached to power is to be able to make so many people happy.