The Naval Officer/Chapter XXIII
It is now time to make my reader acquainted with my new ship and new captain. The first was a frigate of the largest class, built on purpose to cope with the large double-banked frigates of the Yankees. She carried thirty long twenty-four pounders on her main deck, and the same number of forty-two pound carronades on her quarter-gangways and forecastle.
I had been a week on board, doing duty during the day and flirting on shore, at Mr Somerville's, at Blackheath, during the evening. I had seen no captain yet, and the first lieutenant had gone on shore one morning to stretch his legs. I was commanding officer; the people were all at their dinner; it was a drizzling soft rain, and I was walking the quarter-deck by myself, when a shore-boat came alongside with a person in plain clothes. I paid him no attention, supposing him to be a wine merchant, or a slop-seller, come to ask permission to serve the ship. The stranger looked at the dirty man-ropes, which the side-boys held off to him, and inquired if there was not a clean pair? The lad replied in the negative; and the stranger perceiving there was no remedy, took hold of the dirty ropes and ascended the side.
Reaching the quarter-deck, he come up to me, and showing a pair of sulphur-coloured gloves, bedaubed with tar and dirt, angrily observed, "By G——, Sir, I have spoiled a new pair of gloves."
"I always take my gloves off when I come up the side," said I.
"But I choose to keep mine on," said the stranger. "And why could not I have had a pair of clean ropes?"
"Because," said I, "my orders are only to give them when the side is piped."
"And why was not the side piped for me, Sir?"
"Because, Sir, we never pipe the side until we know who it is for."
"As sure as I shall sit in the House of Peers, I will report you to your captain for this," said he.
"We only pipe the side for officers in uniform," said I; "and I am yet to learn by what right you demand that honour."
"I am, Sir," said he (showing his card), "…., &c. Do you know me now?"
"Yes, Sir," said I, "as a gentleman; but until I see you in a captain's uniform, I cannot give you the honours you demand:" as I said this, I touched my hat respectfully.
"Then, Sir," said he, "as sure as I shall sit in the House of Peers, I shall let you know more of this:" and having asked whether the captain was on board, and received an answer in the negative, he turned round and went down the side into his boat, without giving me an opportunity of supplying him with a pair of clean ropes. He pulled away for the shore, and I never heard any thing more of the dirty ropes and soiled gloves.
This officer, I afterwards learned, was in the habit of interlarding his discourse with this darling object of his ambition; but as he is now a member of the Upper House, it is to be supposed he has exchanged the affidavit for some other. While he commanded a ship, he used to say, "As sure as I shall sit in the House of Peers, I will flog you, my man;" and when this denunciation had passed his lips, the punishment was never remitted. With us, the reverse of this became our bye-word; lieutenants, midshipmen, sailors and marines, asserted their claim to veracity by saying, "As sure as I shall not sit in the House of Peers."
This was the noble lord, who when in the command of one of his Majesty's ships in China, employed a native of that country to take his portrait. The resemblance not having been flattering, the artist was sharply rebuked by his patron. The poor man replied, "Ai awe, master, how can handsome face make if handsome face no have got?" This story has, like many other good stories, been pirated, and applied to other cases; but I claim it as the legitimate property of the navy, and can vouch for its origin as I have related.
My messmates dropped in one after another until our number was completed; and at length a note, in an envelope addressed to the first lieutenant "on service," and marked on the lower left hand corner with the name of the noble writer, announced that our captain would make his appearance on the following day. We were of course prepared to receive him in our full uniforms with our cocked hats and swords, with the marine guard under arms. He came alongside at half-past twelve o'clock, when the men were at dinner, an unusual hour to select, as it is not the custom ever to disturb them at their meals if it can be avoided. He appeared in a sort of undress frock coat, fall down collar, anchor buttons, no epaulettes, and a lancer's cap, with a broad gold band.
This was not correct, but as he was a lord, he claimed privilege, and on this rock of privilege we found afterwards that he always perched himself on every occasion. We were all presented to him; and to each he condescended to give a nod. His questions were all confined to the first lieutenant, and all related to his own comforts. "Where is my steward to lie? where is my valet to sleep? where is my cow-pen? and where are my sheep to be?" We discovered when he had been one hour in our company, that his noble self was the god of his idolatry. As for the details of the ship and her crew, masts, rigging, stowage, provisions, the water she would carry, and how much she drew, they were subjects on which he never fatigued his mind.
One hour having expired since he had come on board, he ordered his boat, and returned to the shore, and we saw no more of him until we arrived at Spithead, when his lordship came on board, accompanied by a person whom we soon discovered was a half pay purser in the navy: a man who, by dint of the grossest flattery and numerous little attentions, had so completely ingratiated himself with his patron, that he had become as necessary an appendage to the travelling equipage, as the portmanteau or the valet-de-chambre. This despicable toady was his lordship's double; he was a living type of the Gnatho of Terence; and I never saw him without remembering the passage that ends "si negat id quoque nego." Black was white, and white was black with toady, if his lordship pleased; he messed in the cabin, did much mischief in the ship, and only escaped kicking, because he was too contemptible to be kicked.
My fair readers are no doubt anxious to know how I parted with Emily, and truly I am not unwilling to oblige them, though it is, indeed, a tender subject. As soon as we received our orders to proceed to Spithead, Mr Somerville, who had kept his house at Blackheath while the ship was fitting, in hopes that my promotion might have taken place before she was ready, now prepared to quit the place. To the renewed application of my father, the answer was that I must go abroad for my promotion. This at once decided him to break up his summer quarters, very wisely foreseeing that unless he did so, my services would be lost to my ship; and if he and Emily did not leave me behind at Woolwich, I should probably be left behind by my captain: he therefore announced his intended departure within twenty-four hours.
Emily was very sorry, and so was I. I kindly reproached her with her cruelty; but she replied with a degree of firmness and good sense, which I could not but admire, that she had but one counsellor, and that was her father, and that until she was married, she never intended to have any other; that by his advice she had delayed the union: and as we were neither of us very old people, "I trust in God," said she, "we may meet again." I admired her heroism, gave her one kiss, handed her into her carriage, and we shook hands. I need not say I saw a tear or two in her eyes. Mr Somerville saw the shower coming on, pulled up the glass, gave me a friendly nod, and the carriage drove off. The last I saw of Emily, at that time, was her right hand, which carried her handkerchief to her eyes.
After the dear inmates were gone, I turned from the door of the house in disgust, and ran direct to my boat, like a dog with a tin-kettle. When I got on board, I hated the sight of every body, and the smell of every thing; pitch, paint, bilge-water, tar and rum, entering into horrible combination, had conspired against me: and I was as sick and as miserable as the most love-sick seaman can conceive. I have before observed that we had arrived at Spithead, and as I have nothing new to say of that place, I shall proceed to sea.
We sailed for the North American station, the pleasantest I could go to when away from Emily. Our passage was tedious, and we were put on short allowance of water. Those only who have known it will understand it. All felt it but the captain; who, claiming privilege, took a dozen gallons every day to bathe his feet in, and that water, when done with, was greedily sought for by the men. There was some murmuring about it, which came to the captain's ears, who only observed, with an apathy peculiar to Almack's,
"Well, you know, if a man has no privilege, what's the use of being a captain?"
"Very true, my lord," said the toad-eater, with a low bow.
I will now give a short description of his lordship. He was a smart, dapper, well made man, with a handsome, but not an intellectual countenance; cleanly and particular in his person; and, assisted by the puffs of Toady, had a very good opinion of himself; proud of his aristocratic birth, and still more vain of his personal appearance. His knowledge on most points was superficial—high life, and anecdotes connected with it, were the usual topics of his discourse; at his own table he generally engrossed all the conversation: and while his guests drank his wine, "they laughed with counterfeited glee," &c. His reading was comprised in two volumes octavo, being the Memoirs of the Count de Grammont, which amusing and aristocratical work was never out of his hand. He had been many years at sea; but strange to say, knew nothing, literally nothing, of his profession. Seamanship, navigation, and every thing connected with the service, he was perfectly ignorant of. I had heard him spoken of as a good officer, before he joined us; and I must, in justice to him, say that he was naturally good tempered, and I believe as brave a man as ever drew a sword.
He seldom made any professional remark, being aware of his deficiency, and never ventured beyond his depth intentionally. When he came on the quarter-deck, he usually looked at the weather main-brace, and if it was not as taut as a bar, would order it to be made so. Here he could not easily commit himself: but it became a bye-word with us when we laughed at him below. He had a curious way of forgetting, or pretending to forget, the names of men and things, I presume, because they were so much beneath him; and in their stead, substituted the elegant phrases of "What's-his-name," "What-do-ye-call-'em," and "thingumbob."
One day he came on deck, and actually gave me the following very intelligible order. "Mr, What's-his-name, have the goodness to—what-do-ye-call-'em,—the,—the thingumbob."
"Ay, ay, my lord," said I. "Afterguard! haul taut the weather main-brace." This was exactly what he meant.
He was very particular and captious when not properly addressed. When an order is given by a commanding officer, it is not unusual to say, "Very good, Sir;" implying that you perfectly understand, and are going cheerfully to obey it. I had adopted this answer, and gave it to his lordship when I received an order from him, saying "Very good, my lord."
"Mr Mildmay," said his lordship, "I don't suppose you mean anything like disrespect, but I will thank you not to make that answer again: it is for me to say 'very good,' and not you. You seem to approve of my order, and I don't like it; I beg you will not do it again, you know."
"Very good, my lord," said I, so inveterate is habit. "I beg your lordship's pardon, I mean very well."
"I don't much like that young man," said his lordship to his toady, who followed him up and down the quarter-deck, like "the bob-tail cur," looking his master in the face. I did not hear the answer, but of course it was an echo.
The first time we reefed topsails at sea, the captain was on deck; he said nothing, but merely looked on. The second time, we found he had caught all the words of the first lieutenant, and repeated them in a loud and pompous voice, without knowing whether they were applicable to the case or not. The third time he fancied he was able to go alone, and down he fell—he made a sad mistake indeed. "Hoist away the fore-topsail," said the first lieutenant. "Hoist away the fore-topsail," said the captain. The men were stamping aft, and the topsail yards travelling up to the mast-head very fast, when they were stopped by a sudden check with the fore-topsail haul-yards.
"What's the matter?" said the first lieutenant, calling to me, who was at my station on the forecastle.
"Something foul of the topsail-tie," I replied.
"What's the matter forward?" said the captain.
"Topsail-tie is foul, my lord," answered the first lieutenant.
"D—n the topsail-tie! cut it away. Out knife there, aloft! I will have the topsail hoisted; cut away the topsail-tie."
For the information of my land readers, I should observe that the topsail-tie was the very rope which was at that moment suspending the yard aloft. The cutting it would have disabled the ship until it could have been repaired; and had the order been obeyed, the topsail-yard itself, would, in all probability, have been sprung or broke in two on the cap.
We arrived at Halifax without falling in with an enemy; and as soon as the ship was secured, I went on shore to visit all my dear Dulcineas, every one of whom I persuaded, that on her account alone I had used my utmost interest to be sent out on the station. Fortunately for them and for me, I was not long permitted to trifle away my time. We were ordered to cruise on the coast of North America. It was winter and very cold; we encountered many severe gales of wind, during which time we suffered much from the frequent and sudden snowstorms, north-east gales, and sharp frosts, which rendered our running-rigging almost unmanageable, and obliged us to pour boiling water into the sheaves of the blocks to thaw them, and allow the ropes to traverse; nor did the cold permit the captain to honour us with his presence on deck more than once in the twenty-four hours.
We anchored off a part of the coast, which was not in a state of defence, and the people being unprotected by their own government, considered themselves as neutrals, and supplied us with as much fish, poultry, and vegetables, as we required. While we lay here, the captain and officers frequently went on shore for a short time without molestation. One night, after the captain had returned, a snow-storm and a gale of wind came on. The captain's gig, which ought to have been hoisted up, was not; she broke her painter, and went adrift, and had been gone some time before she was missed. The next morning, on making inquiry, it was found that the boat had drifted on shore a few miles from where we lay; and that having been taken possession of by the Americans, they had removed her to a hostile part of the coast, twenty-two miles off. The captain was very much annoyed at the loss of his boat, which he considered as his own private property, although built on board by the king's men, and with the king's plank and nails.
"As my private property," said his lordship, "it ought to be given up, you know."
I did not tell him that I had seen the sawyers cutting an anchor-stock into the plank of which it was built, and that the said plank had been put down to other services in the expense-book. This, however, was no business of mine; nor had I any idea that the loss of this little boat would so nearly produce my final catastrophe; so it was, however, and very serious results took place in consequence of this accident.
"They must respect private property, you know," said the captain to the first lieutenant.
"Yes," answered the lieutenant; "but they do not know that it is private property."
"Very true: then I will send and tell them so;" and down he went to his dinner.
The yawl was ordered to be got ready, and hoisted out at daylight, and I had notice given me that I was to go away in her. About nine o'clock the next morning, I was sent for into the cabin; his lordship was still in bed, and the green silk curtains were drawn close round his cot.
"Mr Thingamy," said his lordship, "you will take the what's-his-name, you know."
"Yes, my lord," said I.
"And you will go to that town, and ask for my thingumbob."
"For your gig, my lord?" said I.
"Yes, that's all."
"But, my lord, suppose they won't give it to me?"
"Then take it."
"Suppose the gig is not there, my lord, and if there, suppose they refuse to give it up?"
"Then take every vessel out of the harbour."
"Very well, my lord. Am I to put the gun in the boat? or to take muskets only?"
"Oh, no, no arms—take a flag of truce—No. 8 (white flag) will do."
"Suppose they will not accept the flag of truce, my lord?"
"Oh, but they will: they always respect a flag of truce, you know."
"I beg your lordship's pardon, but I think a few muskets in the boat would be of service."
"No, no, no,—no arms. You will be fighting about nothing. You have your orders, Sir."
"Yes," thinks I, "I have. If I succeed, I am a robber; if I fail, I am liable to be hanged on the first tree."
I left the cabin, and went to the first lieutenant. I told him what my orders were. This officer was, as I before observed, a man who had no friends, and was therefore entirely dependent on the captain for his promotion, and was afraid to act contrary to his lordship's orders, however absurd. I told him, that whatever might me the captain's orders, I would not go without arms.
"The orders of his lordship must be obeyed," said the lieutenant.
"Why," said I, irritated at his folly, "you are as clever a fellow as the skipper."
This he considered so great an affront, that he ran down to his cabin, saying, "You shall hear from me again for this, Sir."
I concluded that he meant to try me by a court-martial, to which I had certainly laid myself open by this unguarded expression; but I went on the quarter-deck, and, during his absence, got as many muskets into the boat as I wanted, with a proper proportion of ammunition. This was hardly completed, before the lieutenant came up again, and put a letter into my hands: which was no more than the very comfortable intelligence, that, on my return from the expedition on which I was then going, he should expect satisfaction for the affront I had offered him. I was glad, however, to find it was no worse. I laughed at his threat; and, as the very head and front of my offending was only having compared him to the captain, he could not show any resentment openly, for fear of displeasing his patron. In short, to be offended at it, was to offer the greatest possible affront to the man he looked up to for promotion, and thus destroy all his golden prospects.
As I put this well-timed challenge into my pocket, I walked down the side, got into my boat, and put off. It wanted but one hour of sunset when I reached the part where this infernal gig was supposed to be, and the sky gave strong indications of an approaching gale. Indeed, I do not believe another captain in the navy could have been found who, at such a season of the year, would have risked a boat so far from the ship on an enemy's coast and a lee-shore, for such a worthless object.
My crew consisted of twenty men and a midshipman. When we arrived off the mouth of the harbour, we perceived four vessels lying at anchor, and pulled directly in. We had, however, no opportunity of trying our flag of truce, for as soon as we came within range of musket-shot, a volley from two hundred concealed militiamen struck down four of my men. There was then nothing left for it but to board, and bring out the vessels. Two of them were aground, and we set them on fire, it being dead low water (thanks to the delay in the morning): in doing this, we had more men wounded. I then took possession of the other two vessels, and giving one of them in charge of the midshipman, who was quite a lad, I desired him to weigh his anchor. I gave him the boat, with all the men except four, which I kept with me. The poor fellow probably lost more men, for he cut his cable, and got out before me. I weighed my anchor, but had one of my men killed by a musket ball in doing it. I stood out after the midshipman. We had gained an offing of four miles, when a violent gale and snow-storm came on. The sails belonging to the vessel all blew to rags immediately, being very old. I had no resource, except to anchor, which I did on a bank, in five fathom water. The other vessel lost all her sails, and, having no anchor, as I then conjectured, and afterwards learned, drifted on shore, and was dashed to pieces, the people being either frozen to death, wounded, or taken prisoners.
The next morning I could see the vessel lying on shore a wreck, covered with ice. A dismal prospect to me, as at that time I knew not what had become of the men. My own situation was even less enviable; the vessel was frail, and deeply laden with salt: a cargo, which, if it by any means gets wet, is worse than water, since it cannot be pumped out, and becomes as heavy as lead; nothing could, in that event, have kept the vessel afloat, and we had no boat in case of such an accident. I had three men with me, besides the dead body, in the cabin, and a pantry as clear as an empty house: not an article of any description to eat. I was four miles from the shore, in a heavy gale of wind, the pleasure of which was enhanced by snow, and the bitterest cold I ever experienced. We proceeded to examine the vessel, and found that there was on board a quantity of sails and canvas, that did not fit, but had been bought with an intention of making up for this vessel, and not before she wanted them; there was also an abundance of palms, needles, and twine; but to eat, there was nothing except salt, and to drink, nothing but one cask of fresh water. We kindled a fire in the cabin, and made ourselves as warm as we could, taking a view on deck now and then, to see if she drove, or if the gale abated. She pitched heavily, taking in whole seas over the forecastle, and the water froze on the deck. The next morning we found we had drifted a mile nearer to the shore, and the gale continued with unabated violence. The other vessel lay a wreck, with her masts gone, and as it were in terrorem, staring us in the face.
We felt the most pinching hunger; we had no fuel after the second day, except what we pulled down from the bulkheads of the cabin. We amused ourselves below, making a suit of sails for the vessel, and drinking hot water to repel the cold. But this work could not have lasted long; the weather became more intensely cold, and twice did we set the prize on fire, in our liberality with the stove to keep ourselves warm. The ice formed on the surface of the water in our kettle, till it was dissolved by the heat from the bottom. The second night passed like the first; and we found, in the morning, that we had drifted within two miles of the shore. We completed our little sails this day, and with great difficulty contrived to bend them.
The men were now exhausted with cold and hunger, and proposed that we should cut our cable and run on shore; but I begged them to wait till the next morning, as these gales seldom lasted long. This they agreed to: and we again huddled together to keep ourselves warm, the outside man pulling the dead man close to him by way of a blanket. The gale this night moderated, and towards the morning the weather was fine, although the wind was against us, and to beat her up to the ship was impossible. From the continued freezing of the water, the bob-stays and the rigging were coated with ice five or six inches thick, and the forecastle was covered with two feet of clear ice, showing the ropes coiled underneath it.
There was no more to be done: so, desiring the men to cut the cable, I made up my mind to run the vessel on shore, and give myself up. We hoisted the foresail, and I stood in with the intention of surrendering myself and people at a large town which I knew was situated about twelve miles farther on the coast. To have given myself up at the place where the vessels had been captured, I did not think would have been prudent.
When we made sail on the third morning, we had drifted within half a mile of the shore, and very near the place we had left. Field pieces had been brought down to us. They had the range, but they could not reach us. I continued to make more sail, and to creep along shore, until I came within a few cables' length of the pier, where men, women, and children were assembled to see us land; when suddenly a snow-storm came on; the wind shifted, and blew with such violence, that I could neither see the port, nor turn the vessel to windward into it; and as I knew I could not hold my own, and that the wind was fair for our ship, then distant about forty miles, we agreed to up helm and scud for her.
This was well executed. About eleven at night we hailed her, and asked for a boat. They had seen us approaching, and a boat instantly came, taking us all on board the frigate, and leaving some fresh hands in charge of the prize.
I was mad with hunger and cold, and with difficulty did we get up the side, so exhausted and feeble were the whole of us. I was ordered down into the cabin, for it was too cold for the captain to show his face on deck. I found his lordship sitting before a good fire, with his toes in the grate; a decanter of Madeira stood on the table, with a wine glass, and most fortunately, though not intended for my use, a large rummer. This I seized with one hand and the decanter with the other; and, filling a bumper, swallowed it in a moment, without even drinking his lordship's good health. He stared, and I believe thought me mad. I certainly do own that my dress and appearance perfectly corresponded with my actions. I had not been washed, shaved, or "cleaned," since I had left the ship, three days before. My beard was grown, my cheeks hollow, my eyes sunk, and for my stomach, I leave that to those fortunate Frenchmen who escaped from the Russian campaign, who only can appreciate my sufferings. My whole haggard frame was enveloped in a huge blue flushing coat, frosted, like a plum-cake, with ice and snow.
As soon as I could speak, I said, "I beg pardon, my lord, but I have had nothing to eat or drink since I left the ship."
"Oh, then you are very welcome," said his lordship; "I never expected to see you again."
"Then why the devil did you send me?" thought I to myself.
During this short dialogue, I had neither been offered a chair nor any refreshment, of which I stood so much in need; and if I had been able, should have been kept standing while I related my adventures. I was about to commence, when the wine got into my head; and to support myself, I leaned, or rather staggered, on the back of a chair.
"Never mind now," said the captain, apparently moved from his listless apathy by my situation; "go and make yourself comfortable, and I will hear it all to-morrow."
This was the only kind thing he had ever done for me; and it came so apropos, that I felt grateful to him for it, thanked him, and went below to the gun-room, where, notwithstanding all I had heard and read of the dangers of repletion after long abstinence, I ate voraciously, and drank proportionably, ever and anon telling my astonished messmates, who were looking on, what a narrow escape the dead body had of being dissected and broiled. This, from the specimen of my performance, they had no difficulty in believing. I recommended the three men who had been with me to the care of the surgeon; and, with his permission, presented each of them with a pint of hot brandy and water, well sweetened, by way of a night cap. Having taken these precautions, and satisfied the cravings of nature on my own part, as well as the cravings of curiosity on that of my messmates, I went to bed, and slept soundly till the next day at noon.
Thus ended this anomalous and fatal expedition: an ambassador sent with the sacred emblem of peace, to commit an act of hostility under its protection. To have been taken under such circumstances, would have subjected us to be hung like dogs on the first tree; to have gone unarmed, would have been an act of insanity, and I therefore took upon me to disobey an unjust and absurd order. This, however, must not be pleaded as an example to juniors, but a warning to seniors how they give orders without duly weighing the consequences: the safest plan is always to obey. Thus did his Majesty's service lose eighteen fine fellows, under much severe suffering, for a boat, "the private property" of the captain, not worth twenty pounds.
The next day, as soon as I was dressed, the first lieutenant sent to speak to me. I then recollected the little affair of the challenge. "A delightful after-piece," thought I, "to the tragedy, to be shot by the first lieutenant only for calling him as clever a fellow as the captain." The lieutenant, however, had no such barbarous intentions; he had seen and acknowledged the truth of my observation, and, being a well meaning north-countryman, he offered me his hand, which I took with pleasure, having had quite enough of stimulus for that time.