The Naval Officer/Chapter VI
Par. You give me most egregious indignity.
Laf. Ay, with all my heart; and thou art worthy of it.
"All's Well that Ends Well."
Naturally anxious to behold a country from which we had hitherto been excluded for so many years, we all applied for leave to go on shore, and obtained it. Even the seamen were allowed the same indulgence, and went in parties of twenty and thirty at a time. We were followed and gaped at by the people; but shunned at the same time as "hereticos." The inns of the town, like all the rest of them in Spain, have not improved since the days of the immortal Santillana—they were all more or less filled with the lowest of the rabble, and a set of bravos, whose calling was robbery, and who cared little if murder were its accompaniment. The cookery was execrable. Garlic and oil were its principal ingredients. The olla podrida, and its constant attendant, the tomato sauce, were intolerable, but the wine was very well for a midshipman. Whenever we had a repast in any of these houses, the bravos endeavoured to pick a quarrel with us; and these fellows being always armed with stilettos, we found it necessary to be equally well prepared; and whenever we seated ourselves at a table, we never failed to display the butts of our pistols, which kept them in decent order, for they are as cowardly as they are thievish. Our seamen, not being so cautious or so well provided with arms, were frequently robbed and assassinated by these rascals.
I was, on one occasion, near falling a victim to them. Walking in the evening with the second master, and having a pretty little Spanish girl under my arm, for, to my shame be it spoken, I had already formed an acquaintance with the frail sisterhood, four of these villains accosted us. We soon perceived, by their manner of holding their cloaks, that they had their stilettos ready. I desired my companion to draw his dirk, to keep close to me, and not to let them get between us and the wall. Seeing that we were prepared, they wished us "buenos noches" (good night); and, endeavouring to put us off our guard by entering into conversation, asked us to give them a cigar, which my companion would have done, had I not cautioned him not to quit his dirk with his right hand, for this was all they wanted.
In this defensive posture we continued until we had nearly reached the plaza or great square, where many people were walking and enjoying themselves by moonlight, the usual custom of the country. "Now," said I to my friend, "let us make a start from these fellows. When I run, do you follow me, and don't stop till we are in the middle of the square."
The manoeuvre was successful; we out-ran the thieves, who were not aware of our plan, and were encumbered with their heavy cloaks. Finding we had escaped, they turned upon the girl, and robbed her of her miserable earnings. This we saw, but could not prevent; such was the police of Spain then, nor has it improved since.
This was the last time I ventured on shore at night, except to go once with a party of our officers to the house of the Spanish admiral, who had a very pretty niece, and was liberale enough not to frown on us poor heretics. She was indeed a pretty creature: her lovely black eyes, long eyelashes, and raven hair, betrayed a symptom of Moorish blood, at the same time that her ancient family-name and high good-breeding gave her the envied appellation of Vieja Christiana.
This fair creature was pleased to bestow a furtive glance of approbation on my youthful form and handsome dress. My vanity was tickled. I spoke French to her: she understood it imperfectly, and pretended to know still less of it, from the hatred borne by all the Spaniards at that time to the French nation.
We improved our time, however, which was but short; and, before we parted, perfectly understood each other. I thought I could be contented to give up everything, and reside with her in the wilds of Spain.
The time of our departure came, and I was torn away from my Rosaritta, not without the suspicions of my captain and shipmates that I had been a too highly favoured youth. This was not true. I loved the dear angel, but never had wronged her; and I went to sea in a mood which I sometimes thought might end in an act of desperation: but salt water is an admirable specific against love, at least against such love as that was.
We joined the admiral off Toulon, and were ordered by him to cruise between Perpignan and Marseilles. We parted from the fleet on the following day, and kept the coast in a continued state of alarm. Not a vessel dared to show her nose out of port: we had her if she did. Batteries we laughed at, and either silenced them with our long eighteen-pounders, or landed and blew them up.
In one of these little skirmishes I had very nearly been taken, and should, in that case, have missed all the honour, and glory, and hairbreadth escapes which will be found related in the following pages. I should either have been sabred in mere retaliation, or marched off to Verdun for the remaining six years of the war.
We had landed to storm and blow up a battery, for which purpose we carried with us a bag of powder, and a train of canvas. Everything went on prosperously. We came to a canal which it was necessary to cross, and the best swimmers were selected to convey the powder over without wetting it. I was one of them. I took off my shoes and stockings to save them; and, after we had taken the battery, I was so intent on looking for the telegraphic signal-box, that I had quite forgotten the intended explosion, until I heard a cry of "Run, run!" from those outside who had lighted the train.
I was at that moment on the wall of the fort, nearly thirty feet high, but sloping. I jumped one part, and scrambled the other, and ran away as fast as I could, amidst a shower of stones, which fell around me like an eruption of Vesuvius. Luckily I was not hit, but I had cut my foot in the leap, and was in much pain. I had two fields of stubble to pass, and my shoes and stockings were on the other side of the canal—the sharp straw entered the wound, and almost drove me mad, and I was tempted to sit down and resign myself to my fate.
However, I persevered, and had nearly reached the boats which were putting off, not aware of my absence, when a noise like distant thunder reached my ears. This I soon found was cavalry from Cotte, which had come to defend the battery. I mustered all my strength, and plunged into the sea to swim off to the boats, and so little time had I to spare, that some of the enemy's chasseurs, on their black horses, swam in after me, and fired their pistols at my head. The boats were at this time nearly a quarter of a mile from the shore; the officers in them fortunately perceived the cavalry, and saw me at the same time: a boat laid on her oars, which with great difficulty I reached, and was taken in; but so exhausted with pain and loss of blood, that I was carried on board almost dead; my foot was cut to the bone, and I continued a month under the surgeon's care.
I had nearly recovered from this accident, when we captured a ship, with which Murphy was sent as prize-master; and the same evening a schooner, which we cut out from her anchorage. The command of this latter vessel was given to me—it was late in the evening, and the hurry was so great that the keg of spirits intended for myself and crew was not put on board. This was going from one extreme to the other; in my last ship we had too much liquor, and in this too little. Naturally thirsty, our desire for drink needed not the stimulus of salt fish and calavances, for such was our cargo and such was our food, and deeply did we deplore the loss of our spirits.
On the third day after leaving the frigate, on our way to Gibraltar, I fell in with a ship on the coast of Spain, and knew it to be the one Murphy commanded, by a remarkable white patch in the main-topsail. I made all sail in chase, in hopes of obtaining some spirits from him, knowing that he had more than he could consume, even if he and his people got drunk every day. When I came near him, he made all the sail he could. At dusk I was near enough almost to hail him, but he stood on; and I, having a couple of small three-pounders on board, with some powder, fired one of them as a signal. This I repeated again and again; but he would not bring to; and when it was dark, I lost sight of him, and saw him no more until we met at Gibraltar.
Next morning I fell in with three Spanish fishing-boats. They took me for a French privateer, pulled up their lines, and made sail. I came up with them, and, firing a gun, they hove to and surrendered. I ordered them alongside; and, finding they had each a keg of wine on board, I condemned that part of their cargo as contraband; but I honestly offered payment for what I had taken. This they declined, finding I was "Ingles," too happy to think they were not in the hands of the French. I then gave each of them a pound of tobacco, which not only satisfied them, but confirmed them in the newly-received opinion among their countrymen, that England was the bravest as well as the most generous of nations. They offered everything their boat contained; but I declined all most nobly, because I had obtained all I wanted; and we parted with mutual good will, they shouting, "Viva Ingleterre!" and we drinking them a good passage in their own wine.
Many days elapsed before we reached Gibraltar: the winds were light, and the weather fine; but as we had discovered that the fishing-boats had wine, we took care to supply our cellar without any trouble from the excise; and, from our equitable mode of barter, I had no reason to think that his Majesty King George lost any of his deserved popularity by our conduct. When we reached Gibraltar, I had still a couple of good kegs wherewith to regale my messmates; though I was sorry to find the frigate and the rest of her prizes had got in before us. Murphy, indeed, did not arrive till the day after me.
I was on the quarter-deck when he came in; and, to my astonishment, he reported that he had been chased by a French privateer, and had beat her off after a four hours' action—that his rigging had suffered a good deal, but that he had not a man hurt. I let him run on till the evening. Many believed him; but some doubted. At dinner, in the gun-room, his arrogance knew no bounds; and, when half drunk, my three men were magnified into a well-manned brig, as full of men and guns as she could stuff!
Sick of all this nonsense, I then simply related the story as it had occurred, and sent for the quarter-master, who was with me, and who confirmed all my statement. From that moment he was a mark of contempt in the ship. Every lie was a Murphy, and every Murphy a liar. He dared not resent this scorn of ours; and found himself so uncomfortable, that he offered no objection to the removal proposed by the captain; his character followed him, and he never obtained promotion. It is a satisfaction to me to reflect that I not only had my full revenge on this man, but that I had been the instrument of turning him out of an honourable profession which he would have disgraced.
This was no time for frigates to be idle; and if I chose to give the name of mine and my captain, the naval history of the country would prove that ours, of all other ships, was one of the most distinguished in the cause of Spanish freedom. The south of Spain became the theatre of the most cruel and desolating war. Our station was off Barcelona, and thence to Perpignan, the frontier of France, on the borders of Spain. Our duty (for which the enterprising disposition of our captain was admirably calculated) was to support the guerilla chiefs; to cut off the enemy's convoys of provisions, either by sea or along the road which lay by the sea-shore; or to dislodge the enemy from any stronghold he might be in possession of.
I was absent from the ship on such services three and four weeks at a time, being attached to a division of small-arm men under the command of the third lieutenant. We suffered very much from privations of all kinds. We never took with us more than one week's provision, and were frequently three weeks without receiving any supply. In the article of dress, our "catalogue of negatives," as a celebrated author says, "was very copious;" we had no shoes nor stockings—no linen, and not all of us had hats—a pocket-handkerchief was the common substitute for this article; we clambered over rocks, and wandered through the flinty or muddy ravines in company with our new allies, the hardy mountaineers.
These men respected our valour, but did not like our religion or our manners. They cheerfully divided their rations with us, but were always inexorable in their cruelty to the French prisoners; and no persuasion of ours could induce them to spare the lives of one of these unhappy people, whose cries and entreaties to the English to intercede for, or save them, were always unavailing. They were either stabbed before our faces, or dragged to the top of a hill commanding a view of some fortress occupied by the French, and, in sight of their countrymen, their throats were cut from ear to ear.
Should the Christian reader condemn this horrid barbarity, as he certainly will, he must remember that those people were men whose every feeling had been outraged. Rape, conflagration, murder, and famine had everywhere followed the step of the cruel invaders; and however we might lament their fate, and endeavour to avert it, we could not but admit that the retaliation was not without justice.
In this irregular warfare, we sometimes revelled in luxuries, and at others were nearly starved. One day, in particular, when fainting with hunger, we met a fat, rosy-looking capuchin: we begged him to show us where we might procure some food, either by purchase or in any other way; but he neither knew where to procure any, nor had he any money: his order, he said, forbade him to use it. As he turned away from us, in some precipitation, we thought we heard something rattle; and as necessity has no law, we took the liberty of searching the padre, on whose person we found forty dollars, of which we relieved him, assuring him that our consciences were perfectly clear, since his order forbade him to carry money; and that as he lived among good Christians, they would not allow him to want. He cursed us; but we laughed at him, because he had produced his own misfortune by his falsehood and hypocrisy.
This was the manner in which the Spanish priests generally behaved to us; and in this way we generally repaid them when we could. We kept the plunder—converted it into food—joined our party soon after, and supposed the affair was over; but the friar had followed us at a distance, and we perceived him coming up the hill where we were stationed. To avoid discovery we exchanged clothes, in such a manner as to render us no longer cognizable. The friar made his complaint to the guerilla chief, whose eyes flashed fire at the indignant treatment his priest had received; and it is probable that bloodshed would have ensued had he been able to point out the culprits.
I kept my countenance though I had changed my dress, and as he looked at me with something beyond suspicion, I stared him full in the face, with the whole united powers of my matchless impudence, and, in a loud and menacing tone of voice, asked him in French if he took me for a brigand.
This question, as well as the manner in which it was put, silenced, if it did not satisfy, the priest. He seemed to listen with apparent conviction to the suggestion of some of our people, that he had been robbed by another party, and he set out in pursuit of them. I was quite tired of his importunities, and glad to see him depart. As he turned away, he gave me a very scrutinizing look, which I returned with another, full of well dissembled rage and scorn. My curling hair had been well flattened down with a piece of soap, which I had in my pocket, and I had much more the appearance of a Methodist parson than a pickpocket.
Some time previous to this, the frigate to which I belonged had been ordered on other services; and as I had no opportunity of joining her, I was placed, pro tempore, on board of another.
But as this chapter has already spun out its length, I shall refer my reader to the next for further particulars.