The Naval Officer/Chapter XII
First came great Neptune, with his three-forkt mace,
That rules the seas, and makes them rise or fall:
His dewy locks did drop with brine apace
Under his diademe-imperiall:
And by his side his queene with coronall,
These marched farre afore the other crew.
I remained no longer at home than sufficed to restore my strength, after the serious attack of fever and ague which I had brought with me from Walcheren. Although my father received me kindly, he had not forgotten (at least I thought so) my former transgressions; a mutual distrust destroyed that intimacy which ought ever to exist between father and son. The thread was broken—it is vain to enquire how, and the consequence was, that the day of my departure to join a frigate on the North American station, was welcomed with joy by me, and seen unregretted by my father.
The ship I was about to join was commanded by a young nobleman, and as patricians were not so plentiful in the service at that time, as they have since become, I was considered fortunate in my appointment. I was ordered, with about thirty more supernumerary midshipmen, to take my passage in a ship of the line, going to Bermuda. The gun-room was given to us as our place of residence, the midshipmen belonging to the ship occupying the two snug berths in the cockpit.
Among so many young men of different habits and circumstances, all joining the ship at different periods, no combination could be made for forming a mess. The ship sailed soon after I got on board, and our party, during the voyage, was usually supplied from the purser's steward-room. I have thought it very wonderful, that a mess of eight or twelve seamen or marines will always make the allowance last from one week to another, and have something to spare; but with the same number of midshipmen the case is very different, and the larger the mess the more do their difficulties increase; they are never satisfied, never have enough, and if the purser will allow them, are always in debt for flour, beef, pork, and spirits. This is owing to their natural habits of carelessness; and our mess, for this reason, was particularly uncomfortable. The government was a democracy; but the caterer had at times been invested with dictatorial powers, which he either abused or was thought to abuse, and he was accordingly turned out, or resigned in disgust, at the end of two or three days.
Most of my messmates were young men, senior to me in the service, having passed their examinations, and were going to America for promotion: but when mustered on the quarter-deck, whether they appeared less manly, or were, in fact, less expert in their duty, I know not; but certain it is, that the first lieutenant appointed me mate of a watch, and placed several of these aspirants under my orders: and so strong did we muster, that we stood in each other's way when on deck keeping our watch, seldom less than seventeen or eighteen in number.
In the gun-room we agreed very ill together, and one principal cause of this was our short allowance of food—daily skirmishes took place, and not unfrequently pitched battles; but I never took any other part in them than as a spectator, and the observations I made convinced me that I should have no great difficulty in mastering the whole of them.
The office of caterer was one of neither honour nor emolument, and it was voluntarily taken up, and peevishly laid down, on the first trifling provocation. With the ship's allowance, no being, less than an angel, could have given satisfaction. The division of beef and pork into as many parcels as there were claimants, always produced remonstrance, reproof, and blows. I was never quarrelsome, and took the part allotted to me quietly enough, until, they finding my disposition to submit, I found my portion daily decrease, and on the resignation of the thirteenth caterer, I volunteered my services, which were gladly accepted.
Aware of the danger and difficulty of my situation, I was prepared accordingly. On the first day that I shared the provisions, I took very good care of number one, and, as I had foreseen, was attacked by two or three for my lion-like division of the prey. Upon this, I made them a short speech, observing, that if they supposed I meant to take the trouble of catering for nothing, they were very much mistaken; that the small difference I made between their portions and mine, if equally divided among them, would not fill a hollow tooth, and that, after my own share, all others should be distributed with the most rigid impartiality, and scrupulous regard to justice.
This very reasonable speech did not satisfy them. I was challenged to decide the point à la Cribb; two candidates for the honour stepped out at once. I desired them to toss up; and having soon defeated the winner, I recommended him to return to his seat. The next man came forward, hoping to find an easy victory, after the fatigue of a recent battle; but he was mistaken, and retired with severe chastisement. The next day I took my seat, cleared for action—coat, waistcoat, and neckcloth off. I observed that I should proceed as I had done before, and was ready to hold a court of Oyer and Terminer; but no suitors appeared, and I held the office of caterer from that day till I quitted the ship, by the strongest of all possible claims—first, by election; and, secondly, by right of conquest.
We had not been many days at sea, before we discovered that our first lieutenant was a most abominable tyrant, a brutal fellow, a drunkard, and a glutton, with a long red nose, and a large belly; he frequently sent half-a-dozen grown-up midshipmen to the mast-head at a time. This man I determined to turn out of the ship, and mentioned my intention to my messmates, promising them success if they would only follow my advice. They quite laughed at the idea; but I was firm, and told them that it should come to pass, if they would but behave so ill as just to incur a slight punishment or reprimand from "Nosey" every day; this they agreed to; and not a day passed but they were either mast-headed, or put watch and watch.
They reported all to me, and asked my advice. "Complain to the captain," said I. They did, and were told that the first lieutenant had done his duty. The same causes produced the same effects on each succeeding day; and when the midshipmen complained, they had no redress. By my direction, they observed to the captain, "It is of no use complaining, sir; you always take Mr Clewline's part." The captain, indeed, from a general sense of propriety, gave his support to the ward-room officers, knowing that, nine times in ten, midshipmen were in the wrong.
Things worked as I wished; the midshipmen persisted in behaving ill—remonstrated, and declared that the first lieutenant did not tell the truth. For a time, many of them lost the favour of the captain, but I encouraged them to bear that, as well as the increased rancour of "Old Nosey." One day two midshipmen, by previous agreement, began to fight on the lee gangway. In those days, that was crime enough almost to have hanged them; they were sent to the mast-head for three hours, and when they came down applied to me for advice. "Go," said I, "and complain. If the first lieutenant says you were fighting, tell the captain you were only showing how the first lieutenant pummelled the men last night when they were hoisting the topsails, and the way he cut the marine's head, when he knocked him down the hatchway." All this was fairly done—the midshipmen received a reprimand, but the captain began to think there might be some cause for these continued complaints, which daily increased both in weight and number.
At last we were enabled to give the coup de grace. A wretched boy in the ship, whose dirty habits often brought him to the gun, was so hardened that he laughed at all the stripes of the boatswain's cat inflicted on him by the first lieutenant. "I will make him feel," said the enraged officer; so ordering a bowl of brine to be brought to him, he sprinkled it on the lacerated flesh of the boy between every lash. This inhuman act, so unbecoming the character of an officer and a gentleman, we all resented, and retiring to the gun-room in a body, gave three deep and heavy groans in chorus. The effect was dismal; it was heard in the ward-room, and the first lieutenant sent down to desire we should be quiet; on which we immediately gave three more, which sent him in a rage to the quarter-deck, where we were all summoned, and the reason of the noise demanded. I had, till then, kept myself in the background, content with being the primum mobile, without being seen. I was always strict to my duty, and never had been complained of; my coming forward, therefore, on this occasion, produced a fine stage effect, and carried great weight.
I told the lieutenant we were groaning for the poor boy who had been pickled. This increased his rage, and he ordered me up to the mast-head. I refused to go until I had seen the captain, who at that moment made his appearance on deck. I immediately referred to him, related the whole story, not omitting to mention the repeated acts of tyranny which the lieutenant had perpetrated on us all. I saw in a moment that we had gained the day. The captain had given the most positive orders that no one should be punished without his express permission. This order the lieutenant had disobeyed, and that, added to his unpopular character, decided his fate. The captain walked into his cabin, and the next day signified to the first lieutenant, that he must quit the ship on her arrival in port, or be tried by a court-martial: this latter he knew he dared not stand.
I should have informed my reader that our orders were to see the East-India convoy as far as the tenth degree of north latitude, and then proceed to Bermuda. This was of itself a pleasant cruise, and gave us the chance of falling in either with an enemy or a recapture. Ships not intending to cross the line usually grant a saturnalia to the crew when they come to the tropic of Capricorn; it is thought to renovate their spirits, and to break the monotony of the cruise, or voyage, where time flows on in such a smooth, undeviating routine, that one day is not distinguishable from another. Our captain, a young man, and a perfect gentleman, never refused any indulgence to the men, compatible with discipline and the safety of the ship: and as the regular trade-wind blew, there was no danger of sudden squalls The ceremony of crossing the line, I am aware, has been often described—so has Italy and the Rhine; but there are varieties of ways of doing and relating these things; ours had its singularity, and ended, I am sorry to say, in a deep tragedy, which I shall remember "as long as memory holds her seat."
One beautiful morning, as soon as the people had breakfasted, they began to prepare, by stripping to their waists, and wearing nothing but a pair of duck trousers. The man at the mast-head called out that he saw something on the weather bow, which he thought was a boat; soon after, an unknown voice from the jib-boom hailed the ship; the officer of the watch answered; and the voice commanded him to heave to, as Neptune was coming on board. The ship was accordingly hove to with every formality, though going at the rate of seven miles an hour: the main-yard squared, the head and after-yards braced up.
As soon as the ship was hove to, a young man (one of the sailors) dressed in a smart suit of black, knee-breeches, and buckles, with his hair powdered, and with all the extra finery and mincing gait of an exquisite, came aft on the quarter-deck, and, with a most polished bow, took the liberty of introducing himself as gentleman's gentleman to Mr Neptune, who had been desired to precede his master and acquaint the commander of the vessel with his intended visit.
A sail had been extended across the forecastle by way of curtain, and from behind this, Neptune and his train, in full costume, shortly afterwards came forth.
The car of the god consisted of a gun-carriage: it was drawn by six black men, part of the ship's crew: they were tall muscular fellows, their heads were covered with sea-weed, and they wore a very small pair of cotton drawers: in other respects they were perfectly naked; their skins were spotted all over with red and white paint alternately; they had conch shells in their hands, with which they made a most horrible noise. Neptune was masked, as were many of his attendants, and none of the officers knew exactly by which of the men the god was represented; but he was a shrewd hand, and did his part very well. He wore a naval crown, made by the ship's armourer; in his right hand he held a trident, on the prongs of which there was a dolphin, which he had, he said, struck that morning; he wore a large wig, made of oakum, and a beard of the same materials, which flowed down to his waist; he was full powdered, and his naked body was bedaubed with paint.
The god was attended by a splendid court: his secretary of state, whose head was stuck full of the quills of the sea bird of these latitudes; his surgeon, with his lancet, pill-box, and his smelling-bottle; his barber, with a razor, whose blade was two feet long, cut off an iron hoop; and the barber's mate, who carried a small tub, as a shaving-box; the materials within I could not analyze, but my nose convinced me that no part of them came from Smith's, in Bond-street.
Amphitrite followed, on a similar carriage, drawn by six white men, whose costume was like the others. This goddess was personified by an athletic, ugly man, marked with the small-pox, dressed as a female, with a woman's night-cap on his head, ornamented with sprigs of sea-weed; she had a harpoon in her hand, on which was fixed an albicore; and in her lap lay one of the boys of the ship, dressed as a baby, with long clothes and a cap: he held in his hand a marlinspike, which was suspended round his neck with a rope yarn: this was to assist him in cutting his teeth, as the children on shore use a coral. His nurse attended him with a bucket full of burgoo, or hasty pudding, with which she occasionally fed him out of the cook's iron ladle. Two or three stout men were habited as sea nymphs, to attend on the goddess: they carried a looking-glass, some curry-combs, a birch-broom, and a pot of red paint, by way of rouge.
As soon as the procession appeared on the forecastle, the captain, attended by his steward, bearing a tray with a bottle of wine and some glasses, came out of his cabin, and the cars of the marine deities were drawn up on the quarter-deck. Neptune lowered his trident, and presented the dolphin to the captain, as Amphitrite did her albicore, in token of submission and homage to the representative of the King of Great Britain.
"I have come," said the god, "to welcome you into my dominions, and to present my wife and child." The captain bowed. "Allow me to ask after my brother and liege sovereign, the good old King George."
"He is not so well," said the captain, "as I and all his subjects could wish."
"More's the pity," replied Neptune; "and how is the Prince of Wales?"
"The Prince is well," said the captain, "and now governs as regent in the name of his royal father."
"And how does he get on with his wife?" said the inquisitive god.
"Bad enough," said the captain; "they agree together like a whale and a thrasher."
"Ah! I thought so," said the god of the sea. "His royal highness should take a leaf out of my book: never allow it to be doubtful who is commanding officer."
"And pray what might your majesty's specific be, to cure a bad wife?" said the captain.
"Three feet of the cross-jack brace every morning before breakfast, for a quarter of an hour, and half an hour on a Sunday."
"But why more on a Sunday than any other day?" said the captain.
"Why?" said Neptune, "why, because she'd been keeping Saturday night, to be sure; besides, she has less to do of a Sunday, and more time to think of her sins, and do penance."
"But you would not have a prince strike a lady, surely?"
"Wouldn't I? No to be sure, if she behave herself as sich, on no account; but if she gives tongue, and won't keep sober, I'd sarve her as I do Amphy—don't I, Amphy?" chucking the goddess under the chin. "We have no bad wives in the bottom of the sea: and so if you don't know how to keep 'em in order, send them to us."
"But your majesty's remedy is violent; we should have a rebellion in England, if the king was to beat his wife."
"Make the lords in waiting do it then," said the Surly god; "and if they are too lazy, which I dare say they are, send for a boatswain's mate from the Royal Billy—he'd sarve her out, I warrant you; and, for half a gallon of rum, would teach the yeomen of the guard to dance the binnacle hornpipe into the bargain."
"His royal highness shall certainly hear your advice, Mr Neptune; but whether he will follow it or not is not for me to say. Would you please to drink his royal highness's good health?"
"With all my heart, sir; I was always loyal to my king, and ready to drink his health, and to fight for him."
The captain presented the god with a bumper of Madeira, and another to the goddess.
"Here's a good health and a long life to our gracious king and all the royal family. The roads are unkimmon dusty, and we hav'n't wet our lips since we left St Thomas on the line, this morning. But we have no time to lose, captain," said the sea god; "I see many new faces here, as requires washing and shaving; and if we add bleeding and physic, they will be all the better for it."
The captain nodded assent; and Neptune, striking the deck with the end of his trident, commanded attention, and thus addressed his court: "Heark ye, my Tritons, you are called here to shave, duck, and physic all as needs, but I command you to be gentle. I'll have no ill-usage; if we gets a bad name, we gets no more fees; and the first of you as disobeys my orders, I'll tie him to a ten-inch mortar, and sink him ten thousand fathoms deep in the ocean, where he shall feed on salt water and sea-weed for a hundred years: begone to your work." Twelve constables, with thick sticks, immediately repaired to the hatchway, and sent down all who had not been initiated, guarding them strictly, until they were called up one by one.
The cow-pen had been previously prepared for the bathing; it was lined with double canvas, and boarded, so that it held water, and contained about four butts, which was constantly renewed by the pump. Many of the officers purchased exemption from shaving and physic by a bottle of rum; but none could escape the sprinkling of salt water, which fell about in great profusion; even the captain received his share, but with great good-nature, and seemed to enjoy the sport. It was easy to perceive, on this occasion, who were favourites with the ship's company, by the degree of severity with which they were treated. The tyro was seated on the side of the cow-pen: he was asked the place of his nativity, and the moment he opened his mouth, the shaving-brush of the barber, which was a very large paint brush, was crammed in with all the filthy lather with which they covered his face and chin; this was roughly scraped off with the great razor. The doctor felt his pulse, and prescribed a pill, which was forced into his cheek; and the smelling-bottle, the cork of which was armed with short points of pins, was so forcibly applied to his nose as to bring blood; after this, he was thrown backwards into the bath, and allowed to scramble out the best way he could.
The master-at-arms, and ship's corporals, and purser's steward, were severely treated. The midshipmen looked out for the first lieutenant; but he kept so close under the wing of the captain, that for a long time we were unable to succeed. At length, some great uproar in the waist induced him to run down, when we all surrounded him, and plied him so effectually with buckets of water, that he was glad to run down the after-hatchway, and seek shelter in the gun-room; as he ran down, we threw the buckets after him, and he fell, like the Roman virgin, covered with the shields of the soldiers.
The purser had fortified himself in his cabin, and with his sword and pistols, vowed vengeance against all intruders; but the middies were not to be frightened with swords or pistols: so we had him out, and gave him a sound ducking, because he had refused to let us have more spirits than our allowance. He was paraded to the main-deck in great form, his sword held over his head; his pistols, in a bucket of water, carried before him; and having been duly shaved, physicked, and soused into the cow-pen, he was allowed to return to his cabin, like a drowned rat.
The first lieutenant of marines was a great bore; he was always annoying us with his German flute. Having no ear of his own, he had no mercy on ours, so we handed him to the bath; and in addition to all the other luxuries of the day, made him drink, half a pint of salt water, which we poured into his mouth through his own flute, as a funnel. I now recollect that it was the cries of the poor marine which brought down the first lieutenant, who ordered us to desist, and we served him as hath been related.
Thus far all was hilarity and mirth; but the scene was very suddenly changed. One of the foretopmen, drawing water in the chains, fell overboard; the alarm was instantly given, and the ship hove to. I ran upon the poop, and, seeing that the man could not swim, jumped overboard to save him. The height from which I descended made me go very deep in the water, and when I arose I could perceive one of the man's hands. I swam towards him; but, O, God! what was my horror, when I found myself in the midst of his blood. I comprehended in a moment that a shark had taken him, and expected that every instant my own fate would be like his. I wonder I had not sunk with fear: I was nearly paralyzed. The ship, which had been going six or seven miles an hour, was at some distance, and I gave myself up for gone. I had scarcely the power of reflection, and was overwhelmed by the sudden, awful, and, as I thought, certain approach of death in its most horrible shape. In a moment I recollected myself: and I believe the actions of five years crowded into my mind in as many minutes. I prayed most fervently, and vowed amendment, if it should please God to spare me. My prayer was heard, and I believe it was a special Providence that rescued me from the jaws of the fish. I was nearly a mile from the ship before I was picked up; and when the boat came alongside with me, three large sharks were under the stern. These had devoured the poor sailor, and, fortunately for me, had followed the ship for more prey, and thus left me to myself.
As I went up the side, I was received by the captain and officers in the most flattering manner; the captain thanked me in the presence of the ship's company for my praiseworthy exertions, and I was gazed on by all as an object of interest and admiration; but if others thought so of me, I thought not so of myself. I retired below to my berth with a loathing and contempt, a self-abasement, which I cannot describe. I felt myself unworthy of the mercy I had received. The disgraceful and vicious course of life I had led, burst upon me with horrible conviction. "Caelo tonantem credidimus Jovem regnare," says Horace; and it was only by the excitement of such peculiarly horrid situations, that the sense of a superintending power could be awakened within me, a hardened and incorrigible sinner.
I changed my clothes, and was glad when night came, that I might be left to myself; but oh, how infinitely more horrid did my situation appear! I shuddered when I thought of what I had gone through, and I made the most solemn promises of a new life. How transient were these feelings! How long did these good resolutions last? Just as long as no temptation came in the way; as long as there was no excitement to sin, no means of gratifying appetite. My good intentions were traced in the sand. I was very soon as thoughtless and as profane as ever, although frequently checked by the remembrance of my providential escape; and for years afterwards the thoughts of the shark taking me by the leg was accompanied by the acknowledgment that the devil would have me in like manner, if I did not amend.
If after this awakening circumstance, I could have had the good fortune to have met with sober-minded and religious people, I have no doubt but I might have had at this time much less to answer for; but that not being the case, the force of habit and example renewed its dominion over me, and I became nearly as bad as ever.
Our amusements in the gun-room were rough. One of them was to lie on the mess table, under the tiller, and to hold by the tiller ropes above, while we kicked at all who attempted to dislodge us, either by force or stratagem. Whoever had possession, had nine points of the law, and could easily oppose the whole. I one day held this envied position, and kept all at bay, when, unluckily, one of the passed midshipmen, who had got very drunk with the gunner, came in and made a furious attack on me. I gave him a kick on the face, that sent him with great violence on his back, among the plates and dishes, which had been removed from the dinner-table and placed between the guns. Enraged, as much at the laughter against him as at the blow he had received, he snatched up a carving fork, and, before any one was aware of his intention, stabbed me with it four times. I jumped up to punish him, but the moment I got on my legs was so stiff, that I fell back into the arms of my messmates.
The surgeon examined the wounds, which were serious; two of them nearly touched an artery. I was put to bed sick, and was three weeks confined to my berth. The midshipman who had committed this outrage, was very penitent when sober, and implored my pardon and forgiveness. Naturally good-natured, I freely forgave, because I was disarmed by submission. I never trampled on a prostrate foe. The surgeon reported me ill of a fever, which was true; for had the captain known the real fact, the midshipman, whose commission was signed, and in the ship, ready to be delivered to him on his arrival at Bermuda, would certainly have lost his promotion. My kindness to him, I believe, wounded him more than my resentment; he became exceedingly melancholy and thoughtful, gave up drinking, and was ever after greatly attached to me. I reckon this among the few good actions of my life, and own I have great pleasure in reflecting upon it.
We arrived at Bermuda soon after, having left the convoy in the latitude of ten degrees north. The supernumeraries were all discharged into their respective ships; and before we separated, we had the pleasure to see the first lieutenant take his passage in a ship bound to England. Most sincerely did we congratulate ourselves on the success of our intrigue.