The Naval Officer/Chapter XVI
And oft his smooth and bridled tongue
Would give the lie to his flushing cheek:
He was a coward to the strong:
He was a tyrant to the weak.
My father, as soon as he had obtained my promotion, asked for my being employed; and having had a promise from the Admiralty, that promise, unlike thousands of its predecessors and successors, was too rapidly fulfilled. I received a letter from my father, and a bouncing one from the Admiralty, by the same post, announcing officially my appointment to the D—— brig, of eighteen guns, at Portsmouth, whither I was directed to repair immediately, and take up my commission. In this transaction I soon after found there was an underplot, which I was too green to perceive at the time; but the wise heads of the two papas had agreed that a separation between the lovers was absolutely necessary, and that the longer it was delayed, the worse it would be for both of us: in short, that until I had attained my rank, nothing should be thought of in the way of matrimony.
As the reader is, no doubt, by this time pretty well versed in all the dialogue of parting lovers, I shall not intrude upon his or her patience with a repetition of that which has been much too often repeated, and is equally familiar to the prince and the ploughman. I should as soon think of describing the Devil's Punch Bowl, on the road to Portsmouth, where I arrived two days after my appointment.
I put up at Billett's, at the George, as a matter of course, because it was the resort of all the naval aristocracy, and directly opposite to the admiral's office. The first person for whom I made my kind inquiries was my captain elect; but he herded not with his brother epaulettes. He did not live at the George, nor did he mess at the Crown; he was not at the Fountain, nor the Parade Coffee-house; and the Blue Posts ignored him; but he was to be heard of at the Star and Garter, on the tip of Portsmouth Point. He did not even live there, but generally resided on board. This does not savour well; I never like your captains who live on board their ships in harbour; no ship can be comfortable, for no one can do as he pleases, which is the life and soul of a man-of-war, when in port.
To the Star and Garter I went, and asked for Captain G. I hoped I should not find him here; for this house had been, time out of mind, the rendezvous of warrant-officers, mates, and midshipmen. Here, however, he was; I sent up my card, and was admitted to his presence. He was seated in a small parlour, with a glass of brandy and water, or at least the remains of it, before him; his feet were on the fender, and several official documents which he had received that morning were lying on the table. He rose as I entered, and shewed me a short, square-built frame, with a strong projection of the sphere, or what the Spaniards call bariga. This rotundity of corporation was, however, supported by as fine a pair of Atlas legs as ever were worn by a Bath chairman. His face was rather inclined to be handsome; the features regular, a pleasant smile upon his lips, and a deep dimple in his chin. But his most remarkable feature was his eye; it was small, but piercing, and seemed to possess that long-sought desideratum of the perpetual motion, since it was utterly impossible to fix it for one moment on any object: and there was in it a lurking expression, which, though something of a physiognomist, I could not readily decipher.
"Mr Mildmay," said my skipper, "I am extremely happy to see you, and still more so that you have been appointed to my ship; will you be seated?"
As I obeyed, he turned round, and, rubbing his hands, as if he had just laid down his soap, he continued, "I always make it a rule, previous to an officer joining my ship, to learn something of his character from my brother captains; it is a precaution which I take, as I consider that one scabby sheep, &c. is strictly applicable to our service. I wish to have good officers and perfect gentlemen about me. There are, no doubt, many officers who can do their duty well, and with whom I should have no fault to find; but then there is a way of doing it—a modus in rebus, which a gentleman only can attain to; coarse manners, execrations, and abusive language render the men discontented, degrade the service, and are therefore very properly forbidden in the second article of war. Under such officers, the men always work unwillingly. I have taken the liberty to make some inquiries about you; and can only say, that all I have heard is to your advantage. I have no doubt we shall suit each other; and be assured it shall be my study to make you as comfortable as possible."
To this very sensible and polite address, I made a suitable reply. He then stated that he expected to sail in a few days; that the officer whom I was to supersede had not exactly suited his ideas, although he believed him to be a very worthy young man; and that, in consequence, he had applied and succeeded in obtaining for him another appointment; that it was necessary he should join his ship immediately; but, of course, he must first be superseded by me. "Therefore," said he, "you had better meet me on board the brig to-morrow morning at nine o'clock, when your commission shall be read; and after that I beg you will consider yourself your own master for a few days, as I presume you have some little arrangements to prepare for your cruise. I am aware," pursued he, smiling most benignantly, "that there are many little comforts which officers wish to attend to; such as fitting their cabins and looking to their mess, and a thousand other nameless things, which tend to pass the time and break up the monotony of a sea-life. Forty years have I trod the king's planks, man and boy, and not with any great success, as you may perceive, by the rank I now hold, and the life I am leading; for here I sit over a glass of humble grog, instead of joining my brother captains in their claret at the Crown; but I have two sisters to support, and I feel more satisfaction in doing my duty as a brother, than indulging my appetite; although I own I have no dislike to a glass of claret, when it does not come before me in a questionable shape: I mean when I have not got to pay for it, which I cannot afford. Now do not let me take up any more of your time. You have plenty of acquaintances that you wish to see, I have no doubt; and as for my yarns, they will do to pass away a watch, when we have nothing more attractive to divert us." So saying, he held out his hand, and shook mine most cordially. "To-morrow, at nine o'clock," he repeated; and I left him, much pleased with my interview.
I went back to my inn, thinking what a very fortunate fellow I was to have such an honest, straight-forward, bold, British hero of a captain, on my first appointment. I ordered my dinner at the George, and then strolled out to make my purchases, and give my orders for a few articles for sea service. I fell in with several old messmates; they congratulated me on my promotion, and declared I should give them a dinner to wet my commission, to which I readily consented. The day was named, and Mr Billett was ordered to provide accordingly.
Having dined solus, I amused myself in writing a long letter to my dear Emily; and with the assistance of a bottle of wine, succeeded in composing a tolerably warm and rapturous sort of a document, which I sealed, kissed, and sent to the post-office; after which, I built castles till bed time; but not one castle did I build, in which Emily was not the sole mistress. I went to bed, and slept soundly; and the next morning, by seven o'clock, I was arrayed in a spick-span new uniform, with an immensely large epaulette stuck on my right shoulder. Having breakfasted, I sallied out, and, in my own conceit, was as handsome a chap as ever buckled a sword belt. I skimmed with a light and vigorous foot down High-street.
"Boat, your honour?" said a dozen voices at once, as I reached New Sallyport; but I was resolved that Point-street should have a look at me, as well as High-street; so I kept a profound and mysterious silence, and let the watermen follow me to Point, just like so many sucking fish after a shark. I had two or three offers for volunteers to serve with me as I went along; but they were not of the right sex, so I did not take them.
"Boat to Spithead, your honour?" said a tough old waterman.
"Ay, you'll do," said I; so I jumped into his wherry, and we shoved off.
"What ship is your honour going to?" said the man.
"To the D—— brig."
"Oh, you are a-going to she, are you? To belong to her, mayhap?"
"Yes," I replied.
The waterman gave a sigh, feathered his oar, and never spoke another word till we came alongside. I did not regret his taciturnity, for I was always more amused with my own thoughts, than in conversing with illiterate people.
The brig was a most beautiful vessel. She mounted eighteen guns, and sat on the water like a duck. I perceived that the pendant was up for punishment, and this I thought rather an unusual sight at Spithead: I took it for granted that some aggravated offence, such as theft, or mutiny, had been committed. Seeing I was an officer, I was admitted alongside; so I paid the waterman, and sent him away. As I went up the side, I saw a poor fellow spread-eagled up to the grating, "according to the manners and customs of the natives," while the captain, officers, and ship's company stood round witnessing the athletic dexterity of a boatswain's mate, who, by the even, deep, and parallel marks of the cat on the white back and shoulders of the patient, seemed to be perfectly master of his business. All this did not surprise me: I was used to it; but after the address of my captain on the preceding day, I was very much surprised to hear language in direct violation of the second article of war.
Cursings and execrations poured out of his mouth with a volubility equal to any the most accomplished lady on the back of the Point.
"Boatswain's mate," roared the captain, "do your duty, or by G—— I will have you up, and give you four dozen yourself. One would think, d—n your b—d, that you were brushing flies off a sleeping Venus, instead of punishing a scoundrel, with a hide as thick as a buffalo's, and be d—d to him—do your duty, Sir, d—n your soul."
During this elegant address, the unhappy wretch had received four severe dozen, which the master-at-arms had counted aloud, and reported to the captain. "Another boatswain's mate," said he. The poor creature turned his head over his shoulders with an imploring look, but it was in vain. I watched the countenance of the captain, and the peculiar expression, which I could not decipher at my first interview, I now read most plainly: it was malignant cruelty, and delight in torturing his own species; he seemed to take a diabolical pleasure in the hateful operation which we were compelled to witness. The second boatswain's mate commenced, with a fresh cat, and gave a lash across the back of the prisoner, that made me start.
"One," said the master-at-arms, beginning to count.
"One!" roared the captain; "do you call that one? not a quarter of a one. That fellow is only fit for fly-flapper at a pork shop! I'll disrate you, by G—d, you d—d Molly Mop; is that the way you handle a cat; that's only wiping the dirt off his back. Where's the boatswain?"
"Here," said a stout, gigantic, left-handed fellow, stepping forward, with a huge blue uniform coat and a plain anchor button, holding his hat in his left hand, and stroking his hair down his forehead with his right. I surveyed this man, as he turned himself about, and concluded, that the tailor who worked for him had been threatened with a specimen of his art, if he stinted him in cloth; for the skirts of his coat were ample, terminating in an inclined plane, the corners in front being much lower than the middle of the robe behind; the buttons on the hips were nearly pistol shot asunder.
"Give this man a dozen, Sir," said Captain G.; "and if you favour him, I'll put you under arrest, and stop your liquor."
This last part of the threat had more effect with Mr Pipe than the first. He began to peel, as the boxers call it; off came his capacious coat; a red waistcoat—full-sized for a Smithfield ox—was next deposited; then he untied a black silk handkerchief, and showed a throat, covered like that of a goat, with long brown hairs, thick as pack-thread. He next rolled up his shirt-sleeves above his elbow, and showed an arm and a back very like the Farnese Hercules, which, no doubt, all my readers have seen at the foot of the staircase at Somerset-house, when they have been to the exhibition.
This hopeful commentator on articles of war, seized his cat: the handle was two feet long, one inch and three quarters thick, and covered with red baize. The tails of this terrific weapon were three feet long, nine in number, and each of them about the size of that line which covers the springs of a travelling carriage. Mr Pipes, whose scientific display in this part of his art, had no doubt procured for him the warrant of a boatswain, in virtue of which he now stood as the vindicator of the laws of his country, handled his cat like an adept, looked at it from top to bottom, cleared all the tails, by the insertion of his delicate fingers, and combing them out, stretched out his left leg—for he was left-legged as well as left-handed—and measuring his distance with the accurate eye of an engineer, raised his cat high in air with his left hand, his right still holding the tips of the tails, as if to restrain their impatience; when, giving his arm and body a full swing, embracing three-fourths of the circle, he inflicted a tremendous stroke on the back of the unfortunate culprit. This specimen seemed to satisfy the amateur captain, who nodded approbation to the inquiring look of the amateur boatswain. The poor man lost his respiration from the force of the blow; and the tails of the cat coming from an opposite direction to the first four dozen, cut the flesh diamond-wise, bringing the blood at every blow.
I will not wound the feelings of my readers with a description of the poor wretch's situation. Even at this distance of time, I am shocked at it, and bitterly lament the painful necessity I have often been under of inflicting similar punishment; but I hope and trust I never did it without a cause, or in the wanton display of arbitrary power.
The last dozen being finished, the sum total was reported by the master-at-arms, "five dozen."
"Five dozen!" repeated Captain G; "that will do—cast him off. And now, sir," said he, to the fainting wretch, "I hope this will be a warning to you, that the next time you wish to empty your beastly mouth, you will not spit on my quarter-deck."
"Heavens!" thought I, "is all this for spitting on the quarter-deck? and this, from the moralist of yesterday, who allowed neither oaths nor execrations, and has uttered more blasphemy in the last ten minutes, than I have heard for the last ten weeks?"
I had not yet caught the captain's eye—he was too intent on his amusement. As soon as the prisoner was cast loose, he commanded to pipe down, or in other words, to dismiss the people to their usual occupations, when I went up to him, and touched my hat.
"Oh! you are come, are you? Pipe, belay there—send every body aft on the quarter-deck."
My commission was then read: all hats off in respect to the sovereign, from whom the authority was derived. After this, I, being duly inaugurated, became the second lieutenant of the sloop; and the captain, without condescending to give me another word or look, ordered his gig to be manned, and was going on shore. I was not presented by him to any of the officers, which, in common courtesy, he ought to have done. This omission, however, was supplied by the first lieutenant, who invited me down into the gun-room, to introduce me to my new messmates. We left the tiger pacing up and down on his quarter-deck.
The first lieutenant was of the medium stature, a suitable height for a sloop of war, a spare figure of about forty years of age; he had but one eye, and that eye was as odd a one as the captain's. There was in it, however, unlike the captain's, an infinite deal of humour, and when he cocked it, as he constantly did, it almost spoke. I never saw three such eyes in two such heads. There was a lurking smile in the lieutenant's face, when I told him that the captain had desired me to come on board and read my commission, after which I might have two or three days to myself to prepare for sea.
"Well," said he, "you had better go and ask him now; but you will find him a rum one."
Accordingly, up I went to him. "Have you any objection to my going on shore, Sir?"
"Shore, Sir!" bellowed he "and who the devil is to carry on the duty, if you go on shore? Shore, eh! I wish there was no shore, and then d—n the dog that couldn't swim! No, Sir; you have had shore enough. The service is going to h—l, Sir! A parcel of brats, with lieutenants' commissions before they should have been clear of the nursery! No, Sir: stay on board, or, d—n me, I'll break you, like an egg-shell, before you have taken the shine out of that fine new epaulette! No, no, by G——; no more cats here than catch mice. You stay on board, and do your duty: every man does his duty here; and let me see the —— that don't do it!"
I was in some measure prepared for this sublime harangue; but still there was sufficient room in my mind to admit of great astonishment at this sudden change of wind. I replied that he had promised me leave yesterday, and that, upon the strength of that promise, I had left all my things on shore, and that I was not in any way prepared to go to sea.
"I promised you leave, did I? Perhaps I did; but that was only to get you on board. I am up to your tricks, you d—d young chaps: when you get on shore, there is no getting you off again. No, no; no-catchee no-habee! You would not have made your appearance these three days, if I hadn't sugared the trap! Now I have got you, I'll keep you, d—n my eyes!"
I repeated my request to go on shore; but, without condescending to offer any farther reasons, he answered—
"I'd see you d—d first, Sir! And observe, I never admit of expostulation. Nothing affords me more pleasure than to oblige my officers in every thing reasonable; but I never permit reply."
Thought I to myself, "You certainly have escaped from hell, and I do not see how the infernal regions can do without you. You would have been one of the most ingenious tormentors of the damned. Domitian would have made you admiral, and your boatswain captain of the fleet!"
Having made this reflection, as I took a turn or two on deck, thinking what was best to be done, and knowing that "the king could do no wrong," the officer whom I had just superseded came up the hatchway, and, touching his hat very respectfully to the captain, asked whether he might go on shore.
"You may go to hell, and be d—d, Sir!" said the captain (who hated bad language); "you are not fit to carry guts to a bear!—you are not worth your salt; and the sooner you are off, the cleaner the ship will be! Don't stand staring at me, like a bull over a gate! Down, and pack up your traps, or I'll freshen your way!" raising his foot at the same time, as if he was going to kick him.
The young officer, who was a mild, gentlemanly, and courageous youth, did as he was bidden. I was perfectly astonished: I had been accustomed to sail with gentlemen. I had heard of martinets, and disciplinarians, and foul-mouthed captains; but this outdid all I ever could have conceived, and much more than I thought ever could have been submitted to by any correct officer. Roused to indignation, and determined not to be treated in this manner, I again walked up to him, and requested leave to go on shore.
"You have had your answer, Sir."
"Yes, I have, Sir," said I, "and in language that I never before heard on his Majesty's quarter-deck. I joined this ship as an officer and a gentleman, and as such I will be treated."
"Mutiny, by G——!" roared the captain. "Cock-a-hoop with your new commission, before the ink is dry!"
"As you please, Sir," I replied; "but I shall write a letter to the port-admiral, stating the circumstances and requesting leave of absence; and that letter I shall trouble you to forward."
"I'll be d—d if I do!" said he.
"Then, Sir," said I, "as you have refused to forward it, and in the presence of all the officers and ship's company, I shall forward it without troubling you."
This last shot of mine seemed to produce the same effect upon him that the last round does upon a beaten boxer; he did not come to time, but, muttering something, dived down the companion, and went into his cabin.
The first lieutenant now came up, and congratulated me on my victory. "You have puzzled and muzzled the bear completely," said he; "I have long wanted a coadjutor like yourself. Wilson, who is going to leave us, is the best creature that ever lived: but though brave as a lion before an enemy, he is cowed by this incarnate devil."
Our conversation was interrupted by a message from the captain, who desired to speak with me in his cabin. I went down; he received me with the benignant smile of our first acquaintance.
"Mr Mildmay," said he, "I always assume a little tartness with my officers when they first join" ("and when they quit you too," thought I), "not only to prove to them that I am, and will be the captain of my own ship, but also as an example to the men, who, when they see what the officers are forced to put up with, feel themselves more contented with their lot, and obey more readily; but, as I told you before, the comfort of my officers is my constant study—you are welcome to go ashore, and have twenty-four hours' leave to collect your necessaries."
To this harangue I made no reply; but, touching my hat, quitted the cabin. I felt so much contempt for the man that I was afraid to speak, lest I should commit myself.
The captain shortly after quitted the ship, telling the first lieutenant that I had permission to go on shore. I was now left at liberty to make acquaintance with my companions in misery—and nothing conduces to intimacy so much as community of suffering. My resistance to the brutality of our common taskmaster had pleased them; they told me what a tyrant and what a disgrace to the service he was, and how shameful it was that he should be entrusted with the command of so fine a vessel, or of any vessel at all, except it were a convict ship. The stories they told me of him were almost incredible, and nothing but the too well founded idea, that an officer trying his captain by a court-martial, had a black mark against him for ever after, and was never known to rise, could have saved this man from the punishment he so richly deserved: no officer, they said, had been more than three weeks in the ship, and they were all making interest to leave her.
In my report of what occurred in this vessel during the time I belonged to her, I must, in justice to the captains and commanders of his Majesty's navy observe, that the case was unique of its kind—such a character as Captain G—— was rarely met with in the navy then, and, for reasons which I shall give, will be still more rare in future. The first lieutenant told me that I had acted very judiciously in resisting at first his undue exertion of authority; that he was at once a tyrant, a bully, and a coward, and would be careful how he attacked me again. "But be on your guard," said he, "he will never forgive you; and, when he is most agreeable, there is the most mischief to be dreaded. He will lull you into security, and, whenever he can catch you tripping, he will try you by a court-martial. You had better go on shore, and settle all your business, and, if possible, be on board before your leave is out. It was only your threat of writing to the port-admiral that procured you leave of absence. You have nothing to thank him for: he would have kept you on board if he dared. I have never quitted the ship since I joined her; and never has a day passed without a scene similar to what you have this morning witnessed. And yet," continued he, "if it were not for his cruelty to the men, he is the most amusing liar I ever heard. I am often more inclined to laugh than to be angry at him; he has a vein of wit and rich humour that runs through his composition, and never quits him. There is drollery even in his malice, and, if we cannot get clear of him, we must make the best of him."
I went on shore, collected all my clothes and the other articles of which I stood in need, and was on board my ship again the next morning before eight o'clock.