Short Stories/Mainly About Myself
MAINLY ABOUT MYSELF.
My beloved mother told me I was born one Thursday morning early, unfashionably and uncomfortably early; on the 28th of March. The year of Grace of my advent, which I have no means to verify, has been put down in almanacs and newspaper records anywhere between 1845 and 1860. As my dear father did not happen to be married until 1848-49, and I was the youngest but one of a moderately numerous family, the former date suggests a situation which happily, no less an authority than Ulster King-at-arms contradicts; the latter date I know to be wrong—unhappily! My nurse, bless her heart, when to this day, I remember with the tenderest feelings of undying affection, always impressed upon me the legend that I was "found in a band-box under a cabbage." Dear, deceitful soul—rest in peace!
So, you see, even in my earliest childhood, my mind was sorely puzzled to discriminate between fiction and fact. I must say, the picture I conjured of myself, wrapped in beautiful clean tissue-paper, tied up with a lovely pink ribbon, or possibly a blue one, reclining in a pure white band-box under the shade of a dew besprinkled cabbage, was intensely alluring.
I never could settle in my mind why the cabbage was selected by "Willie," my nurse, and I ventured to question the genus of the plant that sheltered my discovery.
But in spite of suggestions from me of "bulrushes," "rose bushes," and other more decorative plants, Miss Wilson stuck to the cabbage. Failing to shake her adherance to the succulent vegetable, I let it go at that. I never see a cabbage growing, however, even to-day, but the difference between us arises in my mind; and were "Willie" once more to revisit the earth, I feel, if we met, I should still try to induce her to reconsider the matter of the plant, under whose shade I was introduced to the world.
The troublous times of the Indian Mutiny gave me my first impressions of life. Of these I have only vague recollections; and I am not sure to-day, whether those vivid pictures, that come back to me out of the mist of the past, are not the memories of my parents transmitted to me in early childhood.
I know we were up in the hills of Chirapoongee, and came down to Calcutta, passing through many perils. In those days there were no railways, and I remember being borne along in a kind of chair, held by a broad band passed around the forehead of a stalwart native bearer. I remember days spent in a howdah on the back of an elephant. I recount many days and nights on board a pinnace; it was a green pinnace—green and white, floating along down the silent waters of a broad river. I can to-day see again large fires along the banks lighting up the darkness of the Indian night, with a lurid glare as we drifted along. I can hear yelling men and see them dressed as soldiers—and can recall the frequent firing of guns—and wondering why "Willie" used to make us lie down flat on the floor of the vessel's cabin, while my mother and she cowered down over us and sobbed.
I remember my father and mother kissing us all good-by, as we left the ghat with "Willie" in a native dinghy, and were taken alongside a large ship, lying out in the stream off Prinseps Ghat, Calcutta.
My next impressions are of the sea. I do not remember missing my father and mother—Willie to my eyes the most beautiful thing on earth was with us—and we children of the "Padre Sahib" in Calcutta Cathedral were the pets of the ship, and that same Captain Toynbee, whose name is dear to every man that sailed in those days, and for many a long year after from the port of London.
I could write page upon page about the great East Indianmen of the past, but as my life, save for this one voyage as a little child, had nothing to do with them I will refrain. I suppose that from my early associations with it, and perhaps because my mother was the daughter of a distinguished Admiral, I gained my first and my undying love for the sea. It has called to me all my life, and it calls to me as strongly to-day, as it did in my youth. Above all things the sea has ever been mistress of my heart. I can remember too, seeing my first steam engine. It was at Plymouth when the long voyage was over, and we were taken ashore.
Then all was wonderment. England where everything was so green—where everyone was white—where we had no ayahs, no bearers—no palkees and nothing we were used to. We were installed in a little house in St. John's Wood. I remember it well. The whole place would have gone into the hall of the lovely home in Harrington Street, Calcutta. We were not happy. It was so gloomy and cold when the winter came. I remember the snow—and above all I recollect my dreadful chilblains! Then things happened, we didn't understand.
Strange people came; at last father arrived—and he came alone. Years followed. We moved to a pretty little home near his grand big church; a tutor came to take care of us boys; the girls went to a school, and "Willie," our beautiful and well-beloved Willie disappeared. A turning point seemed to come in all our lives, when one day my father told us we were going into the country for the Summer, and on the platform of the Waterloo Station, a very handsome and beautifully dressed lady come up to us and we were told she was our new "mamma."
That day set the first period in my life—and I can feel now the consternation the revelation of this new order of things created in my small breast. I adored my father. I was jealous of his love. I felt I had suffered a bitter wrong—I didn't know why. Something went out of my life, and something came into it that left me dazed. I grew in an instant into a rebel, and a great desire filled me to get away from home.
We went to the Isle of Wight, and in the delight of that beautiful summer spent in the most picturesque spot behind St. Katherine's point, I temporarily forgot my troubles and revelled again in the contemplation of the glorious sea and the frequently passing ships, whose white sails dotted the lovely sunlit water of the Channel.
The French fleet visited Portsmouth, and my dear father, who was persona grata with all the great folks, took me one day on board the flag-ship of the Channel Fleet, at that time, the two-decked wooden line-of-battle-ship "Edgar." We lunched aboard and then visited the "Victory," and spent the rest of the day in the dock yard and amongst the men-of-war. A new world opened to my eyes, and I made up my mind there was only one thing in it for me—and that was a life at sea.
I brooded over the matter and at last told my father, who opposed the idea as I was his only boy left, my elder brother having gone into the world under the aegis of Mr. Henry, the great railroad magnate of America. I was unhappy at home; I never got on well with my new "mamma," and at last one day I ran away, determined to go to sea.
I had a few shillings in my pocket, and away I went, wending my way down the river to the Great East India docks at Blackwell. Lying in the Export dock nearly ready for sea was a large Indianman, on board of which I stole. The riggers were aloft bending sails and, in the bright sunshine the life and color—the salt water smells of tarry ropes and new canvas—intoxicated and fascinated me.
I wandered about the ship unheeded—watched the cargo lowered down the hatches and lastly forced by an irresistible longing to go aft—clambered into the port fore-rigging and crawled up the first two or three ratlines above the sheer pole.
Some one sprung beneath me, and before I knew what had happened, I found my feet seized with rope yarns to the shrouds, and a voice sung out—"Now, Young 'un, you'll have to pay your footing."
What was meant by this very rude person, clad in a tarry jumper and a pair of very dirty overalls, I hadn't the least idea. I felt uncomfortable, and my uneasiness increased on seeing the mate coming forward with a grin on his face, calling out "Come down out of that, youngster! What are you doing up there!"
He had me cast adrift, and I gave all the money I had to the man who lashed me up, on his explaining to me that any one not belonging to the ship, venturing aloft had to "pay their footing"—in other words stand drinks to the men.
The mate called me aft and began to question me, discovering among other things my name and who I was.
"Want to go to sea, do you? Well, you take my advice, youngster. Go back home as quickly as you can, and if you must go to sea get your father to send you—and don't try running away any more. If you don't promise me—I'll tie you up to a stanchion till knock-off time, and then, damm me! I'll take you back myself."
My father, being so prominent and well-known all over England, the mate knew that he would have done quite the right thing for himself in acting as he threatened.
I promised him, however, to return home at once, and I left the docks with a sad heart, but more determined than ever to go to sea.
Next day was a terror. My father had been making all sorts of search for me, as I did not get home until four in the morning, having walked all the way from the docks.
I arrived tired out—dirty and hungry.
I shall never forget my dear old dad in his night shirt opening the door. He simply said "Go to your room. I'll talk to you to-morrow."
I told him the truth—got a hiding for running away—but with it such a salve as I never hoped for, in his promise to let me go to sea.
I didn't care for anything on earth. I didn't feel the hurt when I sat down in silence and disgrace at breakfast. I was completely, ecstatically happy, and in a few weeks found myself alongside the gangway of H. M. S. Conway, with my cadet's kit in my regulation chest, with my name in big letters painted across the front, and my uniform on in which I felt as if I owned the earth Poor dear old dad! A tear rolled down his cheek as he kissed me and said: "God bless you, boy—I wanted you at home with me."
Well, I went to sea,—and years after I left it. I travelled the world over. I became a gold-miner in Australia, a newspaper man, reporter, editor, even a dramatic critic—out in that great country. I wandered about as a stockman, a station hand, everything a man can be in the bush. I saw life in every phase, until at last chance brought me to the stage. There let me stop. Some of the incidents of my life I have jotted down in the following pages.
As I look back on them I live again in the past, and out of my dreams came the faces of many I have loved, and who have believed that the foolishness and adventures of my life have not been without some good—even if only to serve as a kind of moral finger-post to others which way not to go.
If my "good fairy" ever visited me again and gave me my "wish," it would be to meet some kind-hearted old millionaire, who would give me a big sailing ship, and send me off to roam about the world at sea, and so "live happy ever after."