The Naval Officer/Chapter IV
'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.
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 razée.
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.
So much assurance had I acquired by my recent success in town, that my self-confidence was increased to an incredible degree. My apparent candour, impudence, and readiness gave a currency to the coinings of my brain which far surpassed the dull matter-of-fact of my unwary contemporaries.
Of my boyish days, I have now almost said enough. The adventures of a midshipman, during the first three years of his probationary life, might, if fully detailed, disgust more than amuse, and corrupt more than they would improve; I therefore pass on to the age of sixteen, when my person assumed an outline of which I had great reason to be proud, since I often heard it the subject of encomium among the fair sex, and their award was confirmed even by my companions.
My mind kept pace with my person in every acquirement save those of morality and religion. In these, alas! I became daily more and more deficient, and for a time lost sight of them altogether. The manly, athletic frame, and noble countenance, with which I was blessed, served to render me only more like a painted sepulchre—all was foul within. Like a beautiful snake, whose poison is concealed under the gold and azure of its scales, my inward man was made up of pride, revenge, deceit, and selfishness, and my best talents were generally applied to the worst purposes.
In the knowledge of my profession I made rapid progress, because I delighted in it, and because my mind, active and elastic as my body, required and fed on scientific research. I soon became an expert navigator and a good practical seaman, and all this I acquired by my own application. We had no schoolmaster; and while the other youngsters learned how to work a common day's work from the instruction of the older midshipmen, I, who was no favourite with the latter, was rejected from their coteries. I determined, therefore, to supply the deficiency myself, and this I was enabled to do by the help of a good education. I had been well grounded in mathematics, and was far advanced in Euclid and algebra, previous to leaving school: thus I had a vast superiority over my companions.
The great difficulty was to renew my application to study, after many months of idleness. This, however, I accomplished, and after having been one year at sea, kept a good reckoning and sent in my day's work to the captain. The want of instruction which I first felt in the study of navigation, proved in the end of great service to me: I was forced to study more intensely, and to comprehend the principles on which I founded my theory, so that I was prepared to prove by mathematical demonstration, what others could only assert who worked by "inspection."
The pride of surpassing my seniors, and the hope of exposing their ignorance, stimulated me to inquiry, and roused me to application. The books which I had reported lost to my father, were handed out from the bottom of my chest, and read with avidity: many others I borrowed from the officers, whom I must do the justice to say, not only lent them with cheerfulness, but offered me the use of their cabin to study in.
Thus I acquired a taste for reading. I renewed my acquaintance with the classic authors. Horace and Virgil, licentious but alluring, drove me back to the study of Latin, and fixed in my mind a knowledge of the dead languages, at the expense of my morals. Whether the exchange were profitable or not, is left to wiser heads than mine to decide; my business is with facts only.
Thus, while the ungenerous malice of the elder midshipmen thought to have injured me by leaving me in ignorance, they did me the greatest possible service, by throwing me on my own resources. I continued on pretty nearly the same terms with my shipmates to the last. With some of the mess-room officers I was still in disgrace, and was always disliked by the oldsters in my own mess; with the younger midshipmen and the foremast men I was a favourite. I was too proud to be a tyrant, and the same feeling prevented my submitting to tyranny. As I increased in strength and stature, I showed more determined resistance to arbitrary power: an occasional turn-up with boys of my own size (for the best friends will quarrel), and the supernumerary midshipmen sent on board for a passage, generally ended in establishing my dominion or insuring for me a peaceable neutrality.
I became a scientific pugilist, and now and then took a brush with an oldster; and although overpowered, yet I displayed so much prowess, that my enemies became cautious how they renewed a struggle which they perceived became daily more arduous; till at last, like the lion's whelp, my play ceased to be a joke, and I was left to enjoy that tranquillity, which few found it safe or convenient to disturb. By degrees the balance of power was fairly established, and even Murphy was awed into civil silence.
In addition to my well known increase in personal strength, I acquired a still greater superiority over my companions by the advantage of education; and this I took great care to make them feel on every occasion. I was appealed to in all cases of literary disputation, and was, by general consent, the umpire of the steerage. I was termed "good company,"—not always to the advantage of the possessor of such a talent; for it often tends, as it did with me, to lead into very bad company. I had a fine voice, and played on one or two instruments. This frequently procured me invitations to the gun-room, and excuses from duty, together with more wine or grog than was of service to me, and conversation that I had better not have heard.
We were ordered on a cruise to the coast of France; and as the junior port-admiral had a spite against our captain, he swore by —— that go we should, ready or not ready. Our signal was made to weigh, while lighters of provisions, and the powder-boy with our powder, were lying alongside—the quarter-deck guns all adrift, and not even mounted. Gun after gun from the Royal William was repeated by the Gladiator, the flag-ship of the harbour-admiral, and with our signal to part company.
The captain, not knowing how the story might travel up by telegraph to London, and conscious, perhaps, that he had left a little too much to the first lieutenant, "tore the ship away by the hair of the head"—unmoored, bundled everything in upon deck out of the lighters—turned all the women out of the ship, except five or six of the most abandoned—and, with a strong northerly wind, ran down to Yarmouth Roads, and through the Needles to sea, in a state of confusion and disaster which I hope never to see again.
The rear-admiral, Sir Hurricane Humbug, stood on the platform looking at us (I was afterwards told), and was heard to exclaim, "D——n his eyes" (meaning our captain), "there he goes at last! I was afraid that that fellow would have grounded on his beef bones before we should have got him out!"
"The more haste the less speed," is oftener true in naval affairs than in any other situation of life. With us it had nearly proved fatal to the ship. Had we met with an enemy, we must either have disgraced the flag by running away, or been taken.
No sooner clear of the Needles than night came on, and with it a heavy gale of wind at north-north-west. The officers and men were at work till four in the morning, securing the boats, booms, and anchors, clearing the decks of provisions, and setting up the lower rigging, which by the labour of the ship, had begun to stretch to an alarming degree; by great exertion this was accomplished, and the guns secured before the gale had increased to a hurricane.
About nine the next morning, a poor marine, a recruit from Portsmouth, unfortunately fell overboard; and though many brave fellows instantly jumped into one of the quarter-boats, and begged to be lowered down to save him, the captain, who was a cool calculator, thought the chance of losing seven men was greater than that of saving one, so the poor fellow was left to his fate. The ship, it is true, was hove to; but she drifted to leeward much faster than the unfortunate man could swim, though he was one of the best swimmers I ever beheld.
It was heart-breaking to see the manly but ineffectual exertions made by this gallant youth to regain the ship; but all his powers only served to prolong his misery. We saw him nearly a mile to windward, at one moment riding on the top of the mountainous wave, at the next, sinking into the deep valley between, till at last we saw him no more! His sad fate was long deplored in the ship. I thought at the time that the captain was cruel in not sending a boat for him; but I am now convinced, from experience, that he submitted only to hard necessity, and chose the lesser evil of the two.
The fate of this young man was a serious warning to me. I had become, from habit, so extremely active, and fond of displaying my newly-acquired gymnastics, called by the sailors "sky-larking" that my speedy exit was often prognosticated by the old quarter-masters, and even by the officers. It was clearly understood that I was either to be drowned or was to break my neck; for the latter I took my chance pretty fairly, going up and down the rigging like a monkey. Few of the topmen could equal me in speed, still fewer surpass me in feats of daring activity. I could run along the topsail yards out to the yard-arm, go from one mast to the other by the stays, or down on deck in the twinkling of an eye by the topsail halyards; and, as I knew myself to be an expert swimmer, I cared little about the chance of being drowned; but when I witnessed the fate of the poor marine, who I saw could swim as well, if not better than myself, I became much more cautious. I perceived that there might be situations in which swimming could be of no use; and however beloved I might have been by the sailors, it was evident that, even if they had the inclination, they might not always have the power to relieve me: from this time, I became much more guarded in my movements aloft.
A circumstance occurred shortly after we got to sea which afforded me infinite satisfaction. Murphy, whose disposition led him to bully every one whom he thought he could master, fixed a quarrel on a very quiet, gentlemanly young man, a supernumerary midshipman, who had come on board for a passage to his own ship, then down in the Bay of Biscay. The young man, resenting this improper behaviour, challenged Murphy to fight, and the challenge was accepted; but as the supernumerary was engaged to dine with the captain, he proposed that the meeting should not take place till after dinner, not wishing to exhibit a black eye at the captain's table. This was considered by Murphy as an evasion; and he added further insult by saying that he supposed his antagonist wanted Dutch courage, and that if he did not get wine enough in the cabin, he would not fight at all.
The high-spirited youth made no reply to this insolence; but, having dressed himself, went up to dinner; that over, and after the muster at quarters, he called Mr Murphy into the steerage, and gave him as sound a drubbing as he ever received in his life. The fight, or set-to, lasted only a quarter of an hour, and the young supernumerary displayed so much science, and such a thorough use of his fists, as to defy the brutal force of his opponent, who could not touch him, and who was glad to retreat to his berth, followed by the groans and hisses of all the midshipmen, in which I most cordially joined.
After so clear a proof of the advantages of the science of self-defence, I determined to acquire it; and, with the young stranger for my tutor, I soon became a proficient in the art of boxing, and able to cope with Murphy and his supporters.
There was a part of my duty which, I am free to confess, I hated: this was keeping watch at night. I loved sleep, and, after ten o'clock, I could not keep my eyes open. Neither the buckets of water which were so liberally poured over me by the midshipmen, under the facetious appellation of "blowing the grampus," nor any expostulation or punishments inflicted on me by the first lieutenant could rouse my dormant energies after the first half of the watch was expired. I was one of the most determined votaries of Somnus; and for his sake, endured every sort of persecution. The first lieutenant took me into his watch, and tried every means, both of mildness and coercion, to break me of this evil habit. I was sure, however, to escape from him, and to conceal myself in some hole or corner, where I slept out the remainder of the watch; and the next morning, I was, as regularly, mast-headed, to do penance during the greater part of the day for my deeds of darkness. I believe that of the first two years of my servitude, one-half of my waking hours, at least, were passed aloft.
I took care, however, to provide myself with books, and, on the whole, was perhaps better employed than I should have been in my berth below. Handstone, though a martinet, was a gentleman; and as he felt a great interest in the young officers in the ship, so he took much pains in the instruction and improvement of them. He frequently expostulated with me on the great impropriety of my conduct; my answer invariably was, that I was as sensible of it as he could be, but that I could not help it; that I deserved all the punishment I met with, and threw myself entirely on his mercy. He used frequently to call me over to the weather side of the deck, when he would converse with me on any topic which he thought might interest or amuse me. Finding I was tolerably well read in history, he asked my opinion, and gave me his own with great good sense and judgment; but such was the irresistible weight of my eyelids, that I used, when he was in the midst of a long dissertation, to slip down the gangway-ladder and leave him to finish his discourses to the wind.
Now, when this occurred, I was more severely punished than on any other occasion; for, to the neglect of duty, I added contempt both of his rank and the instruction he was offering to me. His wrath was also considerably increased when he only discovered my departure by the tittering of the other midshipmen and the quarter-master at the conn.
One evening, I completed my disgrace with him, though a great deal might be said in my own favour. He had sent me to the fore-topmast head, at seven o'clock in the morning, and very unfeelingly, or forgetfully, kept me there the whole day. When he went off deck to his dinner, I came down into the top, made a bed for myself in one of the top-gallant studding sails, and, desiring the man who had the look-out to call me before the lieutenant was likely to come on deck, I very quietly began to prepare a sacrifice to my favourite deity, Somnus; but as the look-out man did not see the lieutenant come up, I was caught napping just at dusk, when the lieutenant came on deck, and did me the honour to remember where he had left me. Looking at the fore-topmast head, he called me down.
Like Milton's devils, who were "found sleeping by one they dread," up I sprung, and regained my perch by the topsail-tie, supposing, or rather hoping, that he would not see me before the mast, in the obscurity of the evening; but he was too lynx-eyed, and had not presence of mind enough not to see what he should not have seen. He called to the three men in the top, and inquired where I was? They replied at the mast-head. "What!" exclaimed Handstone, with an oath; "did I not see him this moment, go up by the topsail-tie?"
"No, sir," said the men; "he is now asleep at the mast-head."
"Come down here, you lying rascals, every one of you," said the lieutenant, "and I'll teach you to speak the truth!"
I, who had by this time quietly resumed my station, was ordered down along with them; and we all four stood on the quarter-deck, while the following interrogations were put to us:—
"Now, sir," said the first lieutenant to the captain of the top, "how dare you tell me that that young gentleman was at the mast-head, when I myself saw him 'shinning' up by the topsail-tie?"
I was sorry for the men, who, to save me, had got themselves into jeopardy; and I was just going to declare the truth, and take the whole odium upon myself, when, to my utter astonishment, the man boldly answered, "He was at the mast-head, sir, upon my honour."
"Your honour!" cried the lieutenant, with contempt; then, turning to the other men, he put the same question to them both in succession, and received the same positive answers; so that I really began to think I had been at the mast-head all the time, and had been dreaming I was in the top. At last, turning to me, he said, "Now, sir, I ask you, on your honour, as an officer and a gentleman, where were you when I first hailed?"
"At the mast-head, sir," said I.
"Be it so," he replied; "as you are an officer and a gentleman, I am bound to believe you." Then turning on his heels, he walked away in a greater rage than I ever remember to have seen him.
I plainly perceived that I was not believed, and that I had lost his good opinion. Yet, to consider the case fairly and impartially, how could I have acted otherwise? I had been much too long confined to the mast-head—as long as a man might take to go from London to Bath in a stagecoach; I had lost all my meals; and these poor fellows, to save me from further punishment, had voluntarily exposed themselves to a flogging at the gangway by telling a barefaced falsehood in my defence. Had I not supported them, they would certainly have been flogged, and I should have lost myself with every person aboard; I therefore came to that paradoxical conclusion on the spot, namely, that, as a man of honour and a gentleman, I was bound to tell a lie in order to save these poor men from a cruel punishment.
I am sensible that this is a case to lay before the bench of bishops; and though I never pretended to the constancy of a martyr, had the consequences been on myself alone, I should have had no hesitation in speaking the truth. The lieutenant was to blame, first, by too great a severity; and, secondly, by too rigid an inquiry into a subject not worth the trouble. Still my conscience smote me that I had done wrong; and when the rage of the lieutenant had abated, so as to insure the impunity of the men, I took the earliest opportunity of explaining to him the motives for my conduct, and the painful situation in which I stood. He received my excuses coldly, and we never were friends again.
Our captain, who was a dashing sort of a fellow, contrived to brush up the enemy's quarters, on the coast of France. On one of our boat expeditions, I contrived to slip away with the rest; we landed, and surprised a battery, which we blew up, and spiked the guns. The French soldiers ran for their lives, and we plundered the huts of some poor fishermen. I went in with the rest, in hopes of finding plunder, and for my deserts caught a Tartar. A large skait lay with its mouth open, into which I thrust my fore-finger, to drag him away; the animal was not dead, and closing his jaws, divided my finger to the bone—this was the only blood spilt on the occasion.
Though guilty myself, I was sorry to see the love of plunder prevail so extensively among us. The sailors took away articles utterly useless to them, and, after carrying them a certain distance, threw them down for others equally useless. I have since often reflected how justly I was punished for my fault, and how needlessly we inflicted the horrors of war on those inoffensive and unhappy creatures.
Our next attempt was of a more serious nature, and productive of still greater calamity to the unoffending and industrious, the usual victims of war, while the instigators are reposing in safety on their down beds.