The Naval Officer/Chapter V
My life is spanned already;
Go with me, like good angels, to my end.
Danger, like an ague, subtly taints
Even then when we sit idly in the sun.
"Troilus and Cressida."
I had never been able to regain the confidence and esteem of the first lieutenant since the unfortunate affair of the mast-head. He was certainly an excellent and a correct officer, too much so to overlook what he considered a breach of honour. I, therefore, easily reconciled myself to a separation, which occurred very soon after. We chased a ship into the Bay of Arcasson, when, as was customary, she sought safety under a battery; and the captain, according to our custom, resolved to cut her out.
For this purpose, the boats were manned and armed, and every preparation made for the attack on the following morning. The command of the expedition was given to the first lieutenant, who accepted of it with cheerfulness, and retired to his bed in high spirits, with the anticipation of the honour and profit which the dawn of day would heap upon him. He was proverbially brave and cool in action, so that the seamen followed him with confidence as to certain victory. Whether any ill-omened dreams had disturbed his rest, or whether any reflections on the difficult and dangerous nature of the service had alarmed him, I could not tell; but in the morning we all observed a remarkable change in his deportment. His ardour was gone; he walked the deck with a slow and measured pace, apparently in deep thought; and, contrary to his usual manner, was silent and melancholy, abstracted, and inattentive to the duties of the ship.
The boats prepared for the service were manned; the officers had taken their seats in them; the oars were tossed up; the eyes of the young warriors beamed with animation, and we waited for Mr Handstone, who still walked the deck, absorbed in his own reflections. He was at length recalled to a sense of his situation by the captain, who, in a tone of voice more than usually loud, asked him if he intended to take the command of the expedition? He replied, "most certainly;" and with a firm and animated step, crossed the quarter-deck, and went into his boat.
I, following, seated myself by his side; he looked at me with a foreboding indifference; had he been in his usual mood, he would have sent me to some other boat. We had a long pull before we reached the object of our intended attack, which we found moored close in shore, and well prepared for us. A broadside of grape-shot was the first salute we received. It produced the same effect on our men as the spur to a fiery steed. We pulled alongside, and began to scramble up in the best manner we could. Handstone in an instant regained all his wonted animation, cheered his men, and with his drawn sword in his hand, mounted the ship's side, while our men at the same time poured in volleys of musketry, and then followed their intrepid leader.
In our boat, the first alongside, eleven men, out of twenty-four, lay killed or disabled. Disregarding these, the lieutenant sprang up. I followed close to him; he leaped from the bulwark in upon her deck, and, before I could lift my cutlass in his defence, fell back upon me, knocked me down in his fall, and expired in a moment. He had thirteen musket-balls in his chest and stomach.
I had no time to disengage myself before I was trampled on, and nearly suffocated by the pressure of my shipmates, who, burning to gain the prize, or to avenge our fall, rushed on with the most undaunted bravery. I was supposed to be dead, and treated accordingly, my poor body being only used as a stop for the gangway, where the ladder was unshipped. There I lay fainting with the pressure, and nearly suffocated with the blood of my brave leader, on whose breast my face rested, with my hands crossed over the back of my head, to save my skull, if possible, from the heels of my friends, and the swords of my enemies; and while reason held her seat, I could not help thinking that I was just as well where I was, and that a change of position might not be for the better.
About eight minutes decided the affair, though it certainly did seem to me, in my then unpleasant situation, much longer. Before it was over I had fainted, and before I regained my senses the vessel was under weigh, and out of gunshot from the batteries.
The first moments of respite from carnage were employed in examining the bodies of the killed and wounded. I was numbered among the former, and stretched out between the guns by the side of the first lieutenant and the other dead bodies. A fresh breeze blowing through the ports revived me a little, but, faint and sick, I had neither the power nor inclination to move; my brain was confused; I had no recollection of what had happened, and continued to lie in a sort of stupor, until the prize came alongside of the frigate, and I was roused by the cheers of congratulation and victory from those who had remained on board.
A boat instantly brought the surgeon and his assistants to inspect the dead and assist the living. Murphy came along with them. He had not been of the boarding party; and seeing my supposed lifeless corpse, he gave it a slight kick, saying, at the same time, "Here is a young cock that has done crowing! Well, for a wonder, this chap has cheated the gallows."
The sound of the fellow's detested voice was enough to recall me from the grave, if my orders had been signed: I faintly exclaimed, "You are a liar!" which, even with all the melancholy scene around us, produced a burst of laughter at his expense. I was removed to the ship, put to bed, and bled, and was soon able to narrate the particulars of my adventure; but I continued a long while dangerously ill.
The soliloquy of Murphy over my supposed dead body, and my laconic reply, were the cause of much merriment in the ship: the midshipmen annoyed him by asserting that he had saved my life, as nothing but his hated voice could have awoke me from my sleep of death.
The fate of the first lieutenant was justly deplored by all of us; though I cannot deny my Christian-like acquiescence in the will of Providence in this, as well as on a former occasion, when the witnesses of my weakness had been removed for ever out of my way. As I saw it was impossible to regain his good opinion, I thought it was quite as well that we should part company. That he had a strong presentiment of his death was proved; and though I had often heard these instances asserted, I never before had it so clearly brought home to my senses.
The prize was called L'Aimable Julie, laden with coffee, cotton, and indigo; mounted fourteen guns; had, at the commencement of the action, forty-seven men, of whom eight were killed, and sixteen wounded. The period of our return into port, according to our orders, happened to coincide with this piece of good fortune, and we came up to Spithead, where our captain met with a hearty welcome from the admiral.
Having delivered his "butcher's bill," i.e. the list of killed and wounded, together with an account of our defects, they were sent up to the Admiralty; and, by return of post, we were ordered to fit foreign: and although no one on board, not even the captain, was supposed to know our destination, the girls on the Point assured us it was the Mediterranean; and this turned out to be the fact.
A few days only were spent in hurried preparation, during which I continued to write to my father and mother. In return I received all I required, which was a remittance in cash. This I duly acknowledged by a few lines as the ship was unmooring. We sailed, and soon after arrived without accident at Gibraltar, where we found general orders for any ship that might arrive from England to proceed and join the admiral at Malta. In a few hours our provisions and water were complete; but we were not in so much haste to arrive at Malta as we were to quit Gibraltar—hugging the Spanish coast, in hopes of picking up something to insure us as hearty a welcome at Valette as we found on our last return to Portsmouth.
Early on the second morning of our departure we made Cape de Gaete. As the day dawned we discovered four sail in the wind's eye, and close in shore. The wind was light, and all sail was made in chase. We gained very little on them for many hours, and towards evening it fell calm. The boats were then ordered to pursue them, and we set off, diverging a little from each other's course, or, as the French would say, déployée, to give a better chance of falling in with them. I was in the gig with the master, and, that being the best running boat, we soon came up with one of the feluccas. We fired musketry at her: but having a light breeze, she would not bring-to. We then took good aim at the helmsman, and hit him. The man only shifted the helm from his right hand to his left, and kept on his course. We still kept firing at this intrepid fellow, and I felt it was like wilful murder, since he made no resistance, but steadily endeavoured to escape.
At length we got close under the stern, and hooked on with our boat-hook. This the Spaniards unhooked, and we dropped astern, having laid our oars in; but the breeze dying entirely away, we again pulled up alongside, and took possession. The poor man was still at the helm, bleeding profusely. We offered him every assistance, and asked why he did not surrender sooner. He replied that he was an old Castilian. Whether he meant that an earlier surrender would have disgraced him, or that he contemplated, from his former experience, a chance of escape to the last moment, I cannot tell. Certain it is that no one ever behaved better; and I felt that I would have given all I possessed to have healed the wounds of this patient, meek, and undaunted old man, who uttered no complaint, but submitted to his fate with a magnanimity which would have done credit to Socrates himself. He had received four musket-balls in his body, and, of course, survived his capture but a very few hours.
We found to our surprise that this vessel, with the three others, one of which was taken by another of our boats, were from Lima. They were single-masted, about thirty tons burthen, twelve men each, and were laden with copper, hides, wax, and cochineal, and had been out five months. They were bound to Valentia, from which they were only one day's sail when we intercepted them. Such is the fortune of war! This gallant man, after a voyage of incredible labour and difficulty, would in a few hours have embraced his family, and gladdened their hearts with the produce of honest industry and successful enterprise; when, in a moment, all their hopes were blasted by our legal murder and robbery; and our prize-money came to our pockets with the tears, if not the curses, of the widow and the orphan!
From some information which the captain obtained in the prize, he was induced to stand over towards the Balearic Islands. We made Ivica, and stood past it; then ran for Palma Bay in the island of Majorca; here we found nothing, to our great disappointment, and continued our course round the island.
An event occurred here, so singular as scarcely to be credible; but the fact is well attested, as there were others who witnessed it beside myself. The water was smooth, and the day remarkably fine; we were distant from the shore more than a mile and a quarter, when the captain, wishing to try the range of the main-deck guns, which were long eighteen-pounders, ordered the gunner to elevate one of them and fire it towards the land. The gunner asked whether he should point the gun at any object. A man was seen walking on the white sandy beach, and as there did not appear to be the slightest chance of hitting him, for he only looked like a speck, the captain desired the gunner to fire at him; he did so, and the man fell. A herd of bullocks at this moment was seen coming out of the woods, and the boats were sent with a party to shoot some of them for the ship's company.
When we landed we found that the ball had cut the poor man in two; and what made the circumstance more particularly interesting was, that he was evidently a man of consequence. He was well dressed, had on black breeches and silk stockings; he was reading Ovid's Metamorphoses, and still grasped the book, which I took out of his hand.
We have often heard of the miraculous powers ascribed to a chance shot, but never could we have supposed that this devilish ball could have gone so far, or done so much mischief. We buried the remains of the unfortunate gentleman in the sand; and having selected two or three bullocks out of the herd, shot them, skinned and divided them into quarters, loaded our boat, and returned on board. I had taken the book out of the hand of the deceased, and from his neck a small miniature of a beautiful female. The brooch in his shirt I also brought away; and when I gave an account to the captain of what had happened, I offered him these articles. He returned them all to me, desired me to keep them until I could see any of the friends of the deceased, and appeared so much distressed at the accident, that we never mentioned it afterwards; and in the course of the time we were together, it was nearly forgotten. The articles remained in my possession unnoticed for many years.
Two days after, we fell in with a vessel of suspicious appearance; and it being calm, the boats were sent in chase. They found her, on their approach, to be a xebeque under French colours; but these they very soon hauled down, and showed no others. As we came within hail they told us to keep off, and that if we attempted to board they should fire into us. This was not a threat likely to deter a British officer, and particularly such fire-eaters as ours. So to it we went, and a desperate struggle ensued, the numbers being nearly equal on both sides; but they had the advantage of their own deck and bulwarks. We got on board, however, and in a few minutes gained possession, with a loss, on our side, of sixteen; and on that of our opponent's of twenty-six, killed and wounded.
But great was our sorrow and disappointment when we discovered that we had shed the blood of our friends, while we had lost our own. The vessel, it appeared, was a Gibraltar privateer; they took us for French, our boats being fitted with thoels and grummets for the oars, in the French fashion; and we supposed them to be French from their colours and the language in which they hailed. In this affair we had three officers killed or wounded, and some of our best men. The privateer was manned by a mixed crew of all nations, but chiefly Greeks; and although ostensibly with a commission signed by the Governor of Gibraltar, were no doubt little scrupulous as to the colours of any vessel they might encounter, provided she was not too strong for them.
After this unfortunate mistake we proceeded to Malta: the captain expecting a severe rebuke from his admiral, for his rashness in sending away his boats to attack a vessel without knowing her force. Fortunately for him, the admiral was not there; and before we met him, the number of prizes we had taken were found sufficient in his eyes to cover our multitude of sins, so the affair blew over.
While we lay in Malta Harbour, my friend Murphy fell overboard one night, just after all the boats were hoisted in; he could not swim, and would have been drowned if I had not jumped overboard and held him up until a boat was lowered down to our assistance. The officers and ship's company gave me more credit for this action than I really deserved. To have saved any person under such circumstances, they said, was a noble deed; but to risk my life for a man who had always, from my first coming into the ship, been my bitterest enemy, was more than they could have expected, and was undoubtedly the noblest revenge that I could have taken. But they were deceived—they knew me not: it was my vanity, and the desire of oppressing my enemy under an intolerable weight of obligation, that induced me to rush to his rescue; moreover, as I stood on the gangway witnessing his struggles for life, I felt that I was about to lose all the revenge I had so long laid up in store; in short, I could not spare him, and only saved him, as a cat does a mouse, to torment him.
Murphy acknowledged his obligations, and said the terrors of death were upon him; but in a few days forgot all I had done for him, consummated his own disgrace, and raised my character on the ruins of his own. On some frivolous occasion he threw a basin of dirty water in my face as I passed through the steerage; this was too good an opportunity to gratify my darling passion. I had long watched for an occasion to quarrel with him; but as he had been ill during our passage from Gibraltar to Malta, I could not justify any act of aggression. He had now recovered, and was in the plentitude of his strength, and I astonished him by striking the first blow.
A set-to followed; I brought up all my scientific powers in aid of my strength and the memory of former injuries. I must do him the justice to say he never showed more game—but he had everything to contend for; if I was beaten I was only where I was before, but with him the case would have been different. A fallen tyrant has no friends. Stung to madness by the successful hits I planted in his face, he lost his temper, while I was cool; he fought wildly, I stopped all his blows, and paid them with interest. He stood forty-three rounds, and then gave in with his eyes bunged up, and his face so swollen and so covered with blood, as not to be known by his friends if he had had any.
I had hardly a mark; most of our midshipmen were absent in prizes; but the two seniors of our berth, an old master's mate past promotion, and the surgeon's assistant, who had held my wrist when I was cobbed, were present as the supporters of Murphy during the combat. I always determined whenever I gained a battle to follow it up. The shouts of victory resounded in the berth—the youngsters joined with me in songs of triumph, and gave great offence to the trio. The young Esculapius, a white-faced, stupid, pock-marked, unhealthy-looking man, was fool enough to say, that although I had beaten Murphy, I was not to suppose myself master of the berth. I replied to this only by throwing a biscuit at his head, as a shot of defiance; and, darting on him before he could get his legs from under the table, I thrust my fingers into his neckcloth, which I twisted so tightly, that I held him till he was nearly choked, giving his head at the same time two or three good thumps against the ship's side.
Finding that he grew black in the face, I let him go, and asked if he required any further satisfaction, to which he replied in the negative, and from that day he was always dutiful and obedient to me. The old superannuated mate, a sturdy merchant seaman, seemed greatly dismayed at the successive defeats of his allies, and I believe would have gladly concluded a separate peace. He had never offered to come to the assistance of the doctor, although appealed to in the most pitiable gestures.
This I observed with secret pleasure, and would the more willingly have given him a brush, as I saw he was disinclined to make the attempt. I was, however, determined to be at the head of the mess. At twelve o'clock that night I was relieved from the first watch, and coming down, I found the old mate in a state of beastly intoxication. Thus he went to his hammock, and fell asleep. While he lay "dormant," I took a piece of lunar caustic, which I wetted, and drew stripes and figures all over his weather-beaten face, increasing his natural ugliness to a frightful degree, and made him look very like a New Zealand warrior. The next morning, when he was making his toilet, my party were all ready prepared for the éclaircissement. He opened his little dirty chest, and having strapped an old razor, and made a lather in a wooden soap-box, which bore evident marks of the antique, he placed a triangular piece of a looking-glass against the reclining lid of the chest, and began the operation of shaving. His start back with horror, when he beheld his face, I shall never forget: it outdid the young Roscius, when he saw the ghost of Hamlet. Having wetted his fore-finger with his tongue, the old mate tried to remove the stain of the caustic, but the "d——dpot" still remained, and we, like so many young imps, surrounded him, roaring with laughter.
I boldly told him that he bore my marks as well as Murphy and the doctor; and I added, with a degree of cruel mockery which might have been spared, that I thought it right to put all my servants in black to-day. I asked whether he was contented with the arrangement, or whether he chose to appeal against my decree; he signified that he had no more to say.
Thus, in twenty-four hours, I had subdued the great allies who had so long oppressed me. I immediately effected a revolution; dismissed the doctor from the office of caterer—took the charge on myself, and administered the most impartial justice. I made the oldsters pay their mess which they had not correctly done before; I caused an equal distribution of all luxuries from which the juniors had till then been debarred; and I flatter myself I restored, in some degree, the golden age in the cockpit. There were no more battles, for there was no hope of victory on their part, nor anything to contend for on mine. I never took any advantage of my strength, further than to protect the youngsters. I proved by this that I was not quarrelsome, but had only struggled for my own emancipation—that gained, I was satisfied. My conduct was explained to the captain and the officers; and being fully and fairly discussed, did me great service. I was looked upon with respect, and treated with marks of confidence, not usual towards a person so young.
We left Malta, expecting to find our commander-in-chief off Toulon; but it seldom happens that the captain of a frigate is in any hurry to join his admiral, unless charged with despatches of importance. This not being our case, we somehow or other tumbled down the Mediterranean before a strong Levanter, and then had to work back again along the coast of Spain and France. It is an ill wind, they say, that blows nobody good; and we found it so with us; for off Toulon, in company with the fleet, if we did take prizes they became of little value, because there were so many to share them. Our captain, who was a man of the most consummate ruse de guerre I ever saw or heard of, had two reasons for sending his prizes to Gibraltar. The first was, that we should, in all probability, be sent down there to receive our men, and have the advantage of the cruise back; the second, that he was well aware of the corrupt practices of the admiralty-court at Malta.
All the vessels, therefore, which we had hitherto captured, were sent to Gibraltar for adjudication, and we now added to their number. We had the good fortune to take a large ship laden with barilla, and a brig with tobacco and wine. The charge of the last I was honoured with: and no prime minister ever held a situation of such heavy responsibility with such corrupt supporters. So much was the crew of the frigate reduced by former captures and the unlucky affair with the Maltese privateer, that I was only allowed three men. I was, however, so delighted with my first command, that, I verily believe, if they had only given me a dog and a pig I should have been satisfied.
The frigate's boat put us on board. It blew fresh from the eastward, and I instantly put the helm up, and shaped my course for the old rock. The breeze soon freshened into a gale; we ran slap before it, but soon found it necessary to take in the top-gallant sails. This we at last accomplished, one at a time. We then thought a reef or two in the topsails would be acceptable; but that was impossible. We tried a Spanish reef, that is, let the yards come down on the cap: and she flew before the gale, which had now increased to a very serious degree. Our cargo of wine and tobacco was, unfortunately, stowed by a Spanish and not a British owner. The difference was very material to me. An Englishman, knowing the vice of his countrymen, would have placed the wine underneath, and the tobacco above. Unfortunately it was, in this instance, the reverse, and my men very soon helped themselves to as much as rendered them nearly useless to me, being more than half seas over.
We got on pretty well, however, till about two o'clock in the morning, when the man at the helm, unable to wake the other two seamen to fetch him a drop, thought he might trust the brig to steer herself for a minute, while he quenched his thirst at the wine-cask: the vessel instantly broached to, that is, came with her broadside to the wind and sea, and away went the mainmast by the board. Fortunately, the foremast stood. The man who had just quitted the helm had not time to get drunk, and the other two were so much frightened that they got sober.
We cleared the wreck as well as we could, got her before the wind again, and continued on our course. But a British sailor, the most daring of all men, is likewise the most regardless of warning or of consequences. The loss of the mainmast, instead of showing my men the madness of their indulgence in drink, turned the scale the opposite way. If they could get drunk with two masts, how much more could they do so with one, when they had only half as much sail to look after? With such a rule of three, there was no reasoning; and they got drunk, and continued drunk during the whole passage.
Good luck often attends us when we don't deserve it:
- "The sweet little cherub that sits up aloft,"
as Dibdin says, had an eye upon us. I knew we could not easily get out of the Gut of Gibraltar without knowing it; and accordingly, on the third day after leaving the frigate, we made the rock early in the morning, and, by two o'clock, rounded Europa Point. I had ordered the men to bend the cable, and, like many other young officers, fancied it was done because they said it was, and because I had ordered it. It never once occurred to me to go and see if my orders had been executed; indeed, to say the truth, I had quite as much as I could turn my hand to: I was at the helm from twelve o'clock at night till six in the morning, looking out for the land; and when I ordered one of the men to relieve me, I directed him how to steer, and fell into a profound sleep, which lasted till ten o'clock; after which I was forced to exert the whole of my ingenuity in order to fetch into the Bay, and prevent being blown through the Gut; so that the bending of the cable escaped my memory until the moment I required the use of the anchor.
As I passed under the stern of one of the ships of war in the Bay, with my prize colours flying, the officer on deck hailed me, and said I "had better shorten sail." I thought so too, but how was this to be done? My whole ship's company were too drunk to do it, and though I begged for some assistance from his Majesty's ship, it blew so fresh, and we passed so quick, that they could not hear me, or were not inclined. Necessity has no law. I saw among the other ships in the bay a great lump of a transport, and I thought she was much better able to bear the concussion I intended for her than any other vessel; because I had heard then, and have been made sure of it since, that her owners (like all other owners) were cheating the government out of thousands of pounds a year. She was lying exactly in the part of the Bay assigned for the prizes; and as I saw no other possible mode of "bringing the ship to anchor," I steered for "the lobster smack," and ran slap on board of her, to the great astonishment of the master, mate, and crew.
The usual expletives, a volley of oaths and curses on our lubberly heads, followed the shock. This I expected, and was as fully prepared for as I was for the fall of my foremast, which, taking the foreyard of the transport, fell over the starboard quarter and greatly relieved me on the subject of shortening sail. Thus, my pretty brig was first reduced to a sloop and then to a hulk; fortunately, her bottom was sound. I was soon cut clear of the transport, and called out in a manly voice, "Let go the anchor."
This order was obeyed with promptitude: away it went sure enough; but the devil a cable was there bent to it, and my men being all stupidly drunk, I let my vessel drift athwart-hawse of a frigate; the commanding officer of which, seeing I had no other cable bent, very kindly sent a few hands on board to assist me; and by five o'clock I was safely moored in the Bay of Gibraltar, and walked my quarter-deck as high in my own estimation as Columbus, when he made the American islands.
But short, short was my power! My frigate arrived the next morning. The captain sent for me, and I gave him an account of my voyage and my disasters; he very kindly consoled me for my misfortune; and so far from being angry with me for losing my masts, said it was wonderful, under all circumstances, how I had succeeded in saving the vessel. We lay only a fortnight at Gibraltar, when news arrived that the French had entered Spain, and very shortly after orders came from England to suspend all hostilities against the Spaniards. This we thought a bore, as it almost annihilated any chance of prize-money; at the same time that it increased our labours and stimulated our activity in a most surprising manner, and opened scenes to us far more interesting than if the war with Spain had continued.
We were ordered up to join the admiral off Toulon, but desired to look into the Spanish port of Carthagena on our way, and to report the state of the Spanish squadron in that arsenal. We were received with great politeness by the governor and the officers of the Spanish fleet lying there. These people we found were men of talent and education; their ships were mostly dismantled, and they had not the means of equipping them.