The Battle and the Breeze, by R.M. Ballantyne.
In this shortish book we have a description of the Battle of the Nile, in which the naval forces of Admiral Nelson fought and defeated the French. The story is made more human by recounting tales of the life of a British seaman, Bill Bowls, along with incidents involving his friends Ben Bolter and Tom Riggles.
THE BATTLE AND THE BREEZE, BY R.M. BALLANTYNE.
TOUCHES ON OUR HERO'S EARLY LIFE, EXPERIENCES, AND ADVENTURES.
Bill Bowls was the most amiable, gentle, kindly, and modest fellow that ever trod the deck of a man-of-war. He was also one of the most lion-hearted men in the Navy.
When Bill was a baby—a round-faced, large-eyed, fat-legged baby, as unlike to the bronzed, whiskered, strapping seaman who went by the name of "Fighting Bill" as a jackdaw is to a marlinespike—when Bill was a baby, his father used to say he was just cut out for a sailor; and he was right, for the urchin was overflowing with vigour and muscular energy. He was utterly reckless, and very earnest—we might almost say desperately earnest. Whatever he undertook to do he did "with a will." He spoke with a will, listened with a will, laughed, yelled, ate, slept, wrought, and fought with a will. In short, he was a splendid little fellow, and therefore, as his father wisely said, was just cut out for a sailor.
Bill seemed to hold the same opinion, for he took to the water quite naturally from the very commencement of life. He laughed with glee when his mother used to put him into the washtub, and howled with rage when she took him out. Dancing bareheaded under heavy rain was his delight, wading in ponds and rivers was his common practice, and tumbling into deep pools was his most ordinary mishap. No wonder, then, that Bill learned at an early age to swim, and also to fear nothing whatever, except a blowing-up from his father. He feared that, but he did not often get it, because, although full of mischief as an egg is full of meat, he was good-humoured and bidable, and, like all lion-hearted fellows, he had little or no malice in him.
He began his professional career very early in life. When in after years he talked to his comrades on this subject, he used to say—
"Yes, mates, I did begin to study navigation w'en I was about two foot high—more or less—an' I tell 'e what it is, there's nothin' like takin' old Father Time by the forelock. I was about four year old when I took my first start in the nautical way; and p'r'aps ye won't believe it, but it's a fact, I launched my first ship myself; owned her; commanded and navigated her, and was wrecked on my first voyage. It happened this way; my father was a mill-wright, he was, and lived near a small lake, where I used to splutter about a good deal. One day I got hold of a big plank, launched it after half an hour o' the hardest work I ever had, got on it with a bit of broken palm for an oar, an' shoved off into deep water. It was a splendid burst! Away I went with my heart in my mouth and my feet in the water tryin' to steady myself, but as ill luck would have it, just as I had got my ship on an even keel an' was beginnin' to dip my oar with great caution, a squall came down the lake, caught me on the starboard quarter, and threw me on my beam-ends. Of coorse I went sowse into the water, and had only time to give out one awful yell when the water shut me up. Fortnitly my father heard me; jumped in and pulled me out, but instead of kicking me or blowin' me up, he told me that I should have kept my weather-eye open an' met the squall head to wind. Then he got hold of the plank and made me try it again, and didn't leave me till I was able to paddle about on that plank almost as well as any Eskimo in his skin canoe. My good old dad finished the lesson by tellin' me to keep always in shoal water till I could swim, and to look out for squalls in future! It was lucky for me that I had learned to obey him, for many a time I was capsized after that, when nobody was near me, but bein' always in shoal water, I managed to scramble ashore."
As Bill Bowls began life so he continued it. He went to sea in good earnest when quite a boy and spent his first years in the coasting trade, in which rough service he became a thorough seaman, and was wrecked several times on various parts of our stormy shores. On reaching man's estate he turned a longing eye to foreign lands, and in course of time visited some of the most distant parts of the globe, so that he may be said to have been a great traveller before his whiskers were darker than a lady's eyebrows.
During these voyages, as a matter of course, he experienced great variety of fortune. He had faced the wildest of storms, and bathed in the beams of the brightest sunshine. He was as familiar with wreck as with rations; every species of nautical disaster had befallen him; typhoons, cyclones, and simooms had done their worst to him, but they could not kill him, for Bill bore a sort of charmed life, and invariably turned up again, no matter how many of his shipmates went down. Despite the rough experiences of his career he was as fresh and good-looking a young fellow as one would wish to see.
Before proceeding with the narrative of his life, we shall give just one specimen of his experiences while he was in the merchant service.
Having joined a ship bound for China, he set sail with the proverbial light heart and light pair of breeches, to which we may add light pockets. His heart soon became somewhat heavier when he discovered that his captain was a tyrant, whose chief joy appeared to consist in making other people miserable. Bill Bowls's nature, however was adaptable, so that although his spirits were a little subdued, they were not crushed. He was wont to console himself, and his comrades, with the remark that this state of things couldn't last for ever, that the voyage would come to an end some time or other, and that men should never say die as long as there remained a shot in the locker!
That voyage did come to an end much sooner than he or the tyrannical captain expected!
One evening our hero stood near the binnacle talking to the steersman, a sturdy middle-aged sailor, whose breadth appeared to be nearly equal to his length.
"Tom Riggles," said Bill, somewhat abruptly, "we're goin' to have dirty weather."
"That's so, lad, I'm not goin' to deny it," replied Tom, as he turned the wheel a little to windward:
Most landsmen would have supposed that Bill's remark should have been, "We have got dirty weather," for at the time he spoke the good ship was bending down before a stiff breeze, which caused the dark sea to dash over her bulwarks and sweep the decks continually, while thick clouds, the colour of pea-soup, were scudding across the sky; but seafaring men spoke of it as a "capful of wind," and Bill's remark was founded on the fact that, for an hour past, the gale had been increasing, and the appearance of sea and sky was becoming more threatening.
That night the captain stood for hours holding on to the weather-shrouds of the mizzen-mast without uttering a word to any one, except that now and then, at long intervals, he asked the steersman how the ship's head lay. Dark although the sky was, it did not seem so threatening as did the countenance of the man who commanded the vessel.
Already the ship was scudding before the wind, with only the smallest rag of canvas hoisted, yet she rose on the great waves and plunged madly into the hollows between with a violence that almost tore the masts out of her. The chief-mate stood by the wheel assisting the steersman; the crew clustered on the starboard side of the forecastle, casting uneasy glances now at the chaos of foaming water ahead, and then at the face of their captain, which was occasionally seen in the pale light of a stray moonbeam. In ordinary circumstances these men would have smiled at the storm, but they had unusual cause for anxiety at that time, for they knew that the captain was a drunkard, and, from the short experience they had already had of him, they feared that he was not capable of managing the ship.
"Had we not better keep her a point more to the south'ard, sir?" said the mate to the captain, respectfully touching his cap; "reefs are said to be numerous here about."
"No, Mister Wilson," answered the captain, with the gruff air of a man who assumes and asserts that he knows what he is about, and does not want advice.
"Keep her a point to the west," he added, turning to the steersman.
There was a cry at that moment—a cry such as might have chilled the blood in the stoutest heart—
"Port! port! hard-a-port!" shouted the men. Their hoarse voices rose above the gale, but not above the terrible roar of the surf, which now mingled with the din of the storm.
The order was repeated by the mate, who sprang to the wheel and assisted in obeying it. Round came the gallant ship with a magnificent sweep, and in another moment she would have been head to wind, when a sudden squall burst upon her broadside and threw her on her beam-ends.
When this happened the mate sprang to the companion-hatch to get an axe, intending to cut the weather-shrouds so that the masts might go overboard and allow the ship to right herself, for, as she then lay, the water was pouring into her. Tom Riggles was, when she heeled over, thrown violently against the mate, and both men rolled to leeward. This accident was the means of saving them for the time, for just then the mizzen rigging gave way, the mast snapped across, and the captain and some of the men who had been hastening aft were swept with the wreck into the sea.
A few minutes elapsed ere Tom and the mate gained a place of partial security on the poop. The scene that met their gaze there was terrible beyond description. Not far ahead the sea roared in irresistible fury on a reef of rocks, towards which the ship was slowly drifting. The light of the moon was just sufficient to show that a few of the men were still clinging to the rail of the forecastle, and that the rigging of the main and foremasts still held fast.
"Have you got the hatchet yet?" asked Tom of the mate, who clung to a belaying-pin close behind him.
"Ay, but what matters it whether we strike the rocks on our beam-ends or an even keel?"
The mate spoke in the tones of a man who desperately dares the fate which he cannot avoid.
"Here! let me have it!" cried Tom.
He seized the hatchet as he spoke and clambered to the gangway. A few strokes sufficed to cut the overstrained ropes, and the mainmast snapped off with a loud report, and the ship slowly righted.
"Hold on!" shouted Tom to a man who appeared to be slipping off the bulwarks into the sea.
As no reply was given, the sailor boldly leapt forward, caught the man by the collar, and dragged him into a position of safety.
"Why, Bill, my boy, is't you?" exclaimed the worthy man in a tone of surprise, as he looked at the face of our hero, who lay on the deck at his feet; but poor Bill made no reply, and it was not until a glass of rum had been poured down his throat by his deliverer that he began to recover.
Several of the crew who had clung to different parts of the wreck now came aft one by one, until most of the survivors were grouped together near the wheel, awaiting in silence the shock which they knew must inevitably take place in the course of a few minutes, for the ship, having righted, now drifted with greater rapidity to her doom.
It was an awful moment for these miserable men! If they could have only vented their feelings in vigorous action it would have been some relief, but this was impossible, for wave after wave washed over the stern and swept the decks, obliging them to hold on for their lives.
At last the shock came. With a terrible crash the good ship struck and recoiled, quivering in every plank. On the back of another wave she was lifted up, and again cast on the cruel rocks. There was a sound of rending wood and snapping cordage, and next moment the foremast was in the sea, tossing violently, and beating against the ship's side, to which it was still attached by part of the rigging. Three of the men who had clung to the shrouds of the foremast were swept overboard and drowned. Once more the wreck recoiled, rose again on a towering billow, and was launched on the rocks with such violence that she was forced forward and upwards several yards, and remained fixed.
Slight although this change was for the better, it sufficed to infuse hope into the hearts of the hitherto despairing sailors. The dread of being instantly dashed to pieces was removed, and with one consent they scrambled to the bow to see if there was any chance of reaching the shore.
Clinging to the fore-part of the ship they found the cook, a negro, whose right arm supported the insensible form of a woman—the only woman on board that ship. She was the wife of the carpenter. Her husband had been among the first of those who were swept overboard and drowned.
"Hold on to her, massa," exclaimed the cook; "my arm a'most brok."
The mate, to whom he appealed, at once grasped the woman, and was about to attempt to drag her under the lee of the caboose, when the vessel slipped off the rocks into the sea, parted amidships, and was instantly overwhelmed.
For some minutes Bill Bowls struggled powerfully to gain the shore, but the force of the boiling water was such that he was as helpless as if he had been a mere infant; his strength, great though it was, began to fail; several severe blows that he received from portions of the wreck nearly stunned him, and he felt the stupor that preceded death overpowering him, when he was providentially cast upon a ledge of rock. Against the same ledge most of his shipmates were dashed by the waves and killed, but he was thrown upon it softly. Retaining sufficient reason to realise his position, he clambered further up the rocks, and uttered an earnest "Thank God!" as he fell down exhausted beyond the reach of the angry waves.
Soon, however, his energies began to revive, and his first impulse, when thought and strength returned, was to rise and stagger down to the rocks, to assist if possible, any of his shipmates who might have been cast ashore. He found only one, who was lying in a state of insensibility on a little strip of sand. The waves had just cast him there, and another towering billow approached, which would infallibly have washed him away, had not Bill rushed forward and dragged him out of danger.
It proved to be his friend Tom Riggles. Finding that he was not quite dead, Bill set to work with all his energy to revive him, and was so successful that in half-an-hour the sturdy seaman was enabled to sit up and gaze round him with the stupid expression of a tipsy man.
"Come, cheer up," said Bill, clapping him on the back; "you'll be all right in a short while."
"Wot's to do?" said Tom, staring at his rescuer.
"You're all right," repeated Bill. "One good turn deserves another, Tom. You saved my life a few minutes ago, and now I've hauled you out o' the water, old boy."
The sailor's faculties seemed to return quickly on hearing this. He endeavoured to rise, exclaiming—
"Any more saved?"
"I fear not," answered Bill sadly, shaking his head.
"Let's go see," cried Tom, staggering along the beach in search of his shipmates; but none were found; all had perished, and their bodies were swept away far from the spot where the ship had met her doom.
At daybreak it was discovered that the ship had struck on a low rocky islet on which there was little or no vegetation. Here for three weeks the two shipwrecked sailors lived in great privation, exposed to the inclemency of the weather, and subsisting chiefly on shell-fish. They had almost given way to despair, when a passing vessel observed them, took them off, and conveyed them in safety to their native land.
Such was one of the incidents in our hero's career.
COMMENCES THE STORY.
About the beginning of the present century, during the height of the war with France, the little fishing village of Fairway was thrown into a state of considerable alarm by the appearance of a ship of war off the coast, and the landing therefrom of a body of blue-jackets. At that time it was the barbarous custom to impress men, willing or not willing, into the Royal Navy. The more effective, and at the same time just, method of enrolling men in a naval reserve force had not occurred to our rulers, and, as a natural consequence, the inhabitants of sea-port towns and fishing villages were on the constant look-out for the press-gang.
At the time when the man-of-war's boat rowed alongside of the little jetty of Fairway, an interesting couple chanced to be seated in a bower at the back of a very small but particularly neat cottage near the shore. The bower was in keeping with its surroundings, being the half of an old boat set up on end. Roses and honeysuckle were trained up the sides of it, and these, mingling their fragrance with the smell of tar, diffused an agreeable odour around. The couple referred to sat very close to each other, and appeared to be engaged in conversation of a confidential nature. One was a fair and rather pretty girl of the fishing community. The other was a stout and uncommonly handsome man of five-and-twenty, apparently belonging to the same class, but there was more of the regular sailor than the fisherman in his costume and appearance. In regard to their conversation, it may be well, perhaps, to let them speak for themselves.
"I tell 'ee wot it is, Nelly Blyth," said the man, in a somewhat stern tone of voice; "it won't suit me to dilly-dally in this here fashion any longer. You've kept me hanging off and on until I have lost my chance of gettin' to be mate of a Noocastle collier; an' here I am now, with nothin' to do, yawin' about like a Dutchman in a heavy swell, an' feelin' ashamed of myself."
"Don't be so hasty, Bill," replied the girl, glancing up at her lover's face with an arch smile; "what would you have?"
"What would I have?" repeated the sailor, in a tone of mingled surprise and exasperation. "Well, I never—no, I never did see nothin' like you women for bamboozlin' men. It seems to me you're like ships without helms. One moment you're beatin' as hard as you can to wind'ard; the next you fall off all of a sudden and scud away right before the breeze; or, whew! round you come into the wind's eye, an' lay to as if you'd bin caught in the heaviest gale that ever blow'd since Admiral Noah cast anchor on Mount Ararat. Didn't you say, not three weeks gone by, that you'd be my wife? and now you ask me, as cool as an iceberg, what I would have! Why, Nelly, I would have our wedding-day fixed, our cottage looked after, our boat and nets bought; in fact, our home and business set a-goin'. And why not at once, Nelly? Surely you have not repented—"
"No, Bill Bowls," said Nelly, blushing, and laying her hand on the arm of her companion, "I have not repented, and never will repent, of having accepted the best man that ever came to Fairway; but—"
The girl paused and looked down.
"There you go," cried the sailor: "the old story. I knew you would come to that 'but,' and that you'd stick there. Why don't you go on? If I thought that you wanted to wait a year or two, I could easily find work in these times; for Admiral Nelson is glad to get men to follow him to the wars, an' Tom Riggles and I have been talkin' about goin' off together."
"Don't speak of that, Bill," said the girl earnestly. "I dread the thought of you going to the wars; but—but—the truth is, I cannot make up my mind to quit my mother."
"You don't need to quit her," said Bill; "bring her with you. I'll be glad to have her at my fireside, for your sake, Nell."
"But she won't leave the old house."
"H'm! well, that difficulty may be got over by my comin' to the old house, since the old 'ooman won't come to the noo one. I can rent it from her, and buy up the furniture as it stands; so that there will be no occasion for her to move out of her chair.—Why, what's the objection to that plan?" he added, on observing that Nelly shook her head.
"She would never consent to sell the things,—not even to you, Bill; and she has been so long the head of the house that I don't think she would like to—to—"
"To play second fiddle," put in the sailor. "Very good, but I won't ask to play first fiddle. In fact, she may have first, second, and third, and double bass and trombone, all to herself as far as I am concerned. Come, Nelly, don't let us have any more 'buts'; just name the day, and I'll bear down on the parson this very afternoon."
Leaving them to continue the discussion of this interesting point, we will turn into the cottage and visit the old woman who stood so much in the way of our hero's wishes.
Mrs Blyth was one of those unfortunates who, although not very old, have been, by ill-health, reduced to the appearance of extreme old age. Nevertheless, she had been blessed with that Christian spirit of calm, gentle resignation, which is frequently seen in aged invalids, enabling them to bear up cheerfully under heavy griefs and sufferings. She was very little, very thin, very lame, very old-looking (ninety at least, in appearance), very tremulous, very subdued, and very sweet. Even that termagant gossip, Mrs Hard-soul, who dwelt alone in a tumble-down hut near the quay, was heard upon one occasion to speak of her as "dear old Mrs Blyth."
Beside Mrs Blyth, on a stool, engaged in peeling potatoes, sat a young woman who was in all respects her opposite. Bessy Blunt was tall, broad, muscular, plain-looking, masculine, and remarkably unsubdued. She was a sort of maid-of-all-work and companion to the old woman. Mrs Blyth lived in the hope of subduing her attendant—who was also her niece—by means of kindness.
"Who came into the garden just now?" asked Mrs Blyth in a meek voice.
"Who would it be but William Bowls? sure he comes twice every day, sometimes oftener," replied Bessy; "but what's the use? nothing comes of it."
"Something may come of it, Bessy," said Mrs Blyth, "if William settles down steadily to work, but I am anxious about him, for he seems to me hasty in temper. Surely, Bessy, you would not like to see our Nell married to an angry man?"
"I don't know about that," replied the girl testily, as she cut a potato in two halves with unnecessary violence; "all I know is that I would like to see her married to Bill Bowls. He's an able, handsome man. Indeed, I would gladly marry him myself if he asked me!"
Mrs Blyth smiled a little at this. Bessy frowned at a potato and said "Humph!" sternly.
Now it happened just at that moment that the press-gang before referred to arrived in front of the cottage. Bessy chanced to look through the window, and saw them pass. Instantly she ran to the back door and screamed "Press-gang," as a warning to Bill to get out of the way and hide himself as quickly as possible, then, hastening back, she seized one of old Mrs Blyth's crutches, ran to the front door, and slammed it to, just as the leader of the gang came forward.
Meanwhile William Bowls, knowing that if he did not make his escape, his hopes of being married speedily would be blasted, turned to leap over the garden wall, but the leader of the press-gang had taken care to guard against such a contingency by sending a detachment round to the rear.
"It's all up with me!" cried Bill, with a look of chagrin, on observing the men.
"Come, hide in the kitchen; quick! I will show you where," cried Nelly, seizing his hand and leading him into the house, the back door of which she locked and barred.
"There, get in," cried the girl, opening a low door in the wall, which revealed the coal-hole of the establishment.
Bill's brow flushed. He drew back with a proud stern look and hesitated.
"Oh, do! for my sake," implored Nell.
A thundering rap on the front door resounded through the cottage; the sailor put his pride in his pocket, stooped low and darted in. Nelly shut the door, and leaned a baking-board against it.
"Let us in!" said a deep voice outside.
"Never!" replied Bessy, stamping her foot.
"You had better, dear," replied the voice, in a conciliatory tone; "we won't do you any harm."
"Go along with you—brutes!" said the girl.
"We'll have to force the door if you don't open it, my dear."
"You'd better not!" cried Bessy through the keyhole.
At the same time she applied her eye to that orifice, and instantly started back, for she saw the leader of the gang retire a few paces preparatory to making a rush. There was short time for action, nevertheless Bessy was quick enough to fling down a large stool in front of the door and place herself in an attitude of defence. Next moment the door flew open with a crash, and a sailor sprang in, cutlass in hand. As a matter of course he tripped over the stool, and fell prostrate at Bessy's feet, and the man who followed received such a well-delivered blow from the crutch that he fell on the top of his comrade. While the heroine was in the act of receiving the third she felt both her ankles seized by the man who had fallen first. A piercing yell followed. In attempting to free herself she staggered back and fell, the crutch was wrenched from her grasp, and the whole gang poured over her into the kitchen, where they were met by their comrades, who had just burst in the back door.
"Search close," cried one of these; "there's a big fellow in the house; we saw him run into it."
"You may save yourselves the trouble; there's no man in this house," cried Bessy, who had risen and followed her conquerors, and who now stood, with dishevelled locks, flushed countenance, and gleaming eyes, vowing summary vengeance on the first man she caught off his guard!
As the men believed her, they took care to keep well on their guard while engaged in the search. Poor old Mrs Blyth looked absolutely horror-stricken at this invasion of her cottage, and Nelly stood beside her, pale as marble and trembling with anxiety.
Every hole and corner of the house was searched without success; the floors were examined for trap-doors, and even the ceilings were carefully looked over, but there was no sign of any secret door, and the careless manner in which the bake-board had been leaned against the wall, as well as its small size, prevented suspicion being awakened in that direction. This being the case, the leader of the gang called two of his men aside and engaged in a whispered conversation.
"It's quite certain that he is here," said one, "but where they have stowed him is the puzzle."
"Well, it is indeed a puzzle," replied the leader, "but I've thought of a plan. He may be the father, or brother, or cousin of the household, d'ye see, and it strikes me if we were to pretend to insult the women, that would draw him out!"
"But I don't half like that notion," said one of the men.
"Why not?" asked the other, who wore a huge pair of whiskers, "it's only pretence, you know. Come, I'll try it."
Saying this he went towards old Mrs Blyth and whispered to Nelly—"Don't be frightened, my ducky, we're only a-goin' to try a dodge, d'ye see. Stand by, we won't do you no harm."
The man winked solemnly several times with the view of reassuring Nelly, and then raising his voice to a loud pitch exclaimed—
"Come now, old 'ooman, it's quite plain that there's a feller in this here house, an' as we can't find him nowheres, we've come to the conclusion he must be under your big chair. In coorse we must ask you to git up, an' as ye don't seem to be able to do that very well, we'll have to lift you. So here goes."
The man seized the old woman's chair and shuffled with his feet as though he were about to lift it. Nelly screamed. Bessy uttered a howl of indignation, and rushed upon the foe with teeth and nails ready, but being arrested by a powerful man in the rear, she vented her wrath in a hideous yell.
The success of the scheme was great—much greater, indeed, than had been anticipated. The bake-board fell flat down, the door of the coal-hole burst open, and our hero, springing out, planted a blow on the nose of the big-whiskered man that laid him flat on the floor. Another blow overturned the man who restrained Bessy, and a third was about to be delivered when a general rush was made, and Bill Bowls, being overpowered by numbers, was finally secured.
"Now, my fine fellow," said the leader of the gang, "you may as well go with us quietly, for ye see resistance is useless, an' it only frightens the old woman."
This latter part of the remark had more effect on the unfortunate Bill than the former. He at once resigned himself into the hands of his captors. As he was about to be led away, he turned towards Mrs Blyth, intending to speak, but the poor old woman had fainted, and Nelly's fears for her lover were lost for the moment in her anxiety about her mother. It was not until the party had left the room that the poor girl became fully aware of what was going on.
Uttering a loud cry she rushed towards the outer door. Bill heard the cry, and, exerting himself to the utmost, almost succeeded in overturning the five men who held him.
"Make your mind easy," said one of them; "no harm will come to the women. We ain't housebreakers or thieves. All fair an' above board we are—true-blue British tars, as would rather swing at the yard-arm than hurt the feelin's of a woman, pretty or ugly, young or old. It's all in the way of dooty, d'ye see? The King's orders, young man so belay heavin' about like that, else we'll heave ye on your beam-ends, lash you hand and futt to a handspike, and carry you aboord like a dead pig."
"Hold on!" cried the man with the big whiskers, who, after having been knocked down, had become emphatically the man with the big nose, "I'll go back an' comfort them a bit: don't you take on so. I know all about it—see through it like a double patent hextromogriphal spy-glass. Only goin' on a short cruise, d'ye see? Come back soon with lots o' prize-money; get spliced right off, buy a noo gown with big flowers all over it for the old mother, pension off the stout gal wi' the crutch— all straight; that's the thing ain't it?"
"Don't, don't," entreated Bill earnestly; "don't go for to—to—"
"No fear, young man," replied the sailor, seeing that Bill hesitated; "Ben Bolter ain't the man to do anything that would bring discredit on His Majesty's service, and I bear you no grudge for this," he added, pointing to his swelled nose; "it was given in a good cause, and received in the reg'lar way o' business."
Saying this Ben Bolter ran back to the cottage, where he tried to comfort the women to the best of his power. How he accomplished his mission does not remain on record, but it is certain that he rejoined his party, in little more than five minutes, with sundry new marks of violence on his huge honest face, and he was afterwards heard to remark that some creatures of the tiger species must have been born women by mistake, and that stout young females who had a tendency to use crutches, had better be pensioned off—or, "drownded if possible."
Thus was William Bowls impressed into the Royal Navy. On hearing that his old shipmate had been caught, Tom Riggles at once volunteered into the service, and they were both sent on board a man-of-war, and carried off to fight the battles of their country.
BILL IS INITIATED INTO THE DUTIES OF HIS NEW STATION.
At the time of which we write, England's battles and troubles were crowding pretty thick upon one another. About this period, Republican France, besides subduing and robbing Switzerland, Italy, Sardinia, and other States, was busily engaged in making preparation for the invasion of England,—Napoleon Bonaparte being in readiness to take command of what was styled the "army of England." Of course great preparations had to be made in this country to meet the invading foe. The British Lion was awakened, and although not easily alarmed or stirred up, he uttered a few deep-toned growls, which showed pretty clearly what the Frenchmen might expect if they should venture to cross the Channel. From John o' Groats to the Land's End the people rose in arms, and in the course of a few weeks 150,000 volunteers were embodied and their training begun.
Not satisfied with threatening invasion, the Directory of France sought by every means to corrupt the Irish. They sent emissaries into the land, and succeeded so well that in May 1798 the rebellion broke out. Troops, supplies, and munitions of war were poured into Ireland by France; but the troops were conquered and the rebellion crushed.
Finding at length that the invasion of England could not be carried out, this pet projection was abandoned, and Napoleon advised the Directory to endeavour to cripple her resources in the East. For the accomplishment of this purpose, he recommended the establishment on the banks of the Nile of a French colony, which, besides opening a channel for French commerce with Africa, Arabia, and Syria, might form a grand military depot, whence an army of 60,000 men could be pushed forward to the Indus, rouse the Mahrattas to a revolt, and excite against the British the whole population of those vast countries.
To an expedition on so grand a scale the Directory objected at first, but the master-spirit who advised them was beginning to feel and exert that power which ultimately carried him to the throne of the Empire. He overcame their objections, and the expedition to Egypt was agreed to.
With characteristic energy and promptitude Napoleon began to carry out his plans, and Great Britain, seeing the storm that was brewing, commenced with equal energy to thwart him. Accordingly, the great Sir Horatio Nelson, at that time rear-admiral, was employed with a squadron to watch the movements and preparations of the French in the Mediterranean.
Such was the state of matters when our hero, Bill Bowls, was conveyed on board the Waterwitch, a seventy-four gun frigate, and set to work at once to learn his duty.
Bill was a sensible fellow. He knew that escape from the service, except in a dishonourable manner, was impossible, so he made up his mind to do his duty like a man, and return home at the end of the war (which he hoped would be a short one), and marry Nelly Blyth. Poor fellow, he little imagined what he had to go through before—but hold, we must not anticipate the story.
Well, it so happened that Bill was placed in the same mess with the man whose nose he had treated so unceremoniously on the day of his capture. He was annoyed at this, but the first time he chanced to be alone with him, he changed his mind, and the two became fast friends. It happened thus:—
They were standing on the weather-side of the forecastle in the evening, looking over the side at the setting sun.
"You don't appear to be easy in your mind," observed Ben Bolter, after a prolonged silence.
"You wouldn't be if you had left a bride behind you," answered Bill shortly.
"How d'ye know that?" said Ben; "p'r'aps I have left one behind me. Anyhow, I've left an old mother."
"That's nothin' uncommon," replied Bill; "a bride may change her mind and become another man's wife, but your mother can't become your aunt or your sister by any mental operation that I knows of."
"I'm not so sure o' that, now," replied Ben, knitting his brows, and gazing earnestly at the forebrace, which happened to be conveniently in front of his eyes; "see here, s'pose, for the sake of argiment, that you've got a mothers an' she marries a second time—which some mothers is apt to do, you know,—and her noo husband has got a pretty niece. Nothin' more nat'ral than that you should fall in love with her and get spliced. Well, wot then? why, your mother is her aunt by vartue of her marriage with her uncle, and so your mother is your aunt in consikence of your marriage with the niece—d'ye see?"
Bill laughed, and said he didn't quite see it, but he was willing to take it on credit, as he was not in a humour for discussion just then.
"Very well," said Ben, "but, to return to the p'int—which is, if I may so say, a p'int of distinkshun between topers an' argifiers, for topers are always returnin' to the pint, an' argifiers are for ever departin' from it—to return to it, I say: you've no notion of the pecoolier sirkumstances in which I left my poor old mother. It weighs heavy on my heart, I assure ye, for it's only three months since I was pressed myself, an' the feelin's ain't had time to heal yet. Come, I'll tell 'e how it was. You owe me some compensation for that crack on the nose you gave me, so stand still and listen."
Bill, who was becoming interested in his messmate in spite of himself, smiled and nodded his head as though to say, "Go on."
"Well, you must know my old mother is just turned eighty, an' I'm thirty-six, so, as them that knows the rule o' three would tell ye, she was just forty-four when I began to trouble her life. I was a most awful wicked child, it seems. So they say at least; but I've no remembrance of it myself. Hows'ever, when I growed up and ran away to sea and got back again an' repented—mainly because I didn't like the sea—I tuk to mendin' my ways a bit, an' tried to make up to the old 'ooman for my prewious wickedness. I do believe I succeeded, too, for I got to like her in a way I never did before; and when I used to come home from a cruise—for, of course, I soon went to sea again—I always had somethin' for her from furrin' parts. An' she was greatly pleased at my attentions an' presents—all except once, when I brought her the head of a mummy from Egypt. She couldn't stand that at all—to my great disappointment; an' what made it wuss was, that after a few days they had put it too near the fire, an' the skin it busted an' the stuffin' began to come out, so I took it out to the back-garden an' gave it decent burial behind the pump.
"Hows'ever, as I wos goin' to say, just at the time I was nabbed by the press-gang was my mother's birthday, an' as I happened to be flush o' cash, I thought I'd give her a treat an' a surprise, so off I goes to buy her some things, when, before I got well into the town—a sea-port it was—down comed the press-gang an' nabbed me. I showed fight, of course, just as you did, an floored four of 'em, but they was too many for me an' before I knowed where I was they had me into a boat and aboord this here ship, where I've bin ever since. I'm used to it now, an' rather like it, as no doubt you will come for to like it too; but it was hard on my old mother. I begged an' prayed them to let me go back an' bid her good-bye, an' swore I would return, but they only laughed at me, so I was obliged to write her a letter to keep her mind easy. Of all the jobs I ever did have, the writin' of that letter was the wust. Nothin' but dooty would iver indooce me to try it again; for, you see, I didn't get much in the way of edication, an' writin' never came handy to me.
"Hows'ever," continued Ben, "I took so kindly to His Majesty's service that they almost look upon me as an old hand, an' actooally gave me leave to be the leader o' the gang that was sent to Fairway to take you, so that I might have a chance o' sayin' adoo to my old mother."
"What!" exclaimed Bowls, "is your mother the old woman who stops at the end o' Cow Lane, where Mrs Blyth lives, who talks so much about her big-whiskered Ben?"
"That same," replied Ben, with a smile: "she was always proud o' me, specially after my whiskers comed. I thought that p'r'aps ye might have knowed her."
"I knows her by hearsay from Nelly Blyth, but not bein' a native of Fairway, of course I don't know much about the people.—Hallo! Riggles, what's wrong with 'e to-day?" said Bill, as his friend Tom came towards him with a very perplexed expression on his honest face, "not repenting of havin' joined the sarvice already, I hope?"
"No, I ain't troubled about that," answered Riggles, scratching his chin and knitting his brows; "but I've got a brother, d'ye see—"
"Nothin' uncommon in that," said Bolter, as the other paused.
"P'r'aps not," continued Tom Riggles; "but then, you see, my brother's such a preeplexin' sort o' feller, I don't know wot to make of him."
"Let him alone, then," suggested Ben Bolter.
"That won't do neither, for he's got into trouble; but it's a long story, an' I dessay you won't care to hear about it."
"You're out there, Tom," said Bowls; "come, sit down here and let's have it all."
The three men sat down on the combings of the fore-hatch, and Tom Riggles began by telling them that it was of no use bothering them with an account of his brother Sam's early life.
"Not unless there's somethin' partikler about it," said Bolter.
"Well, there ain't nothin' very partikler about it, 'xcept that Sam was partiklerly noisy as a baby, and wild as a boy, besides bein' uncommon partikler about his wittles, 'specially in the matter o' havin' plenty of 'em. Moreover, he ran away to sea when he was twelve years old, an' was partiklerly quiet after that for a long time, for nobody know'd where he'd gone to, till one fine mornin' my mother she gets a letter from him sayin' he was in China, drivin' a great trade in the opium line. We niver felt quite sure about that, for Sam wornt over partikler about truth. He was a kindly sort o' feller, hows'ever, an' continued to write once or twice a year for a long time. In these letters he said that his life was pretty wariable, as no doubt it was, for he wrote from all parts o' the world. First, he was clerk, he said, to the British counsel in Penang, or some sich name, though where that is I don't know; then he told us he'd joined a man-o'-war, an' took to clearin' the pirates out o' the China seas. He found it a tough job appariently, an' got wounded in the head with a grape-shot, and half choked by a stink-pot, after which we heard no more of him for a long time, when a letter turns up from Californy, sayin' he was there shippin' hides on the coast; and after that he went through Texas an' the States, where he got married, though he hadn't nothin' wotever, as I knows of, to keep a wife upon—"
"But he may have had somethin' for all you didn't know it," suggested Bill Bowls.
"Well, p'r'aps he had. Hows'ever, the next we heard was that he'd gone to Canada, an' tuk a small farm there, which was all well enough, but now we've got a letter from him sayin' that he's in trouble, an' don't see his way out of it very clear. He's got the farm, a wife, an' a sarvant to support, an' nothin' to do it with. Moreover, the sarvant is a boy what a gentleman took from a Reformation-house, or somethin' o' that sort, where they put little thieves, as has only bin in quod for the fust time. They say that many of 'em is saved, and turns out well, but this feller don't seem to have bin a crack specimen, for Sam's remarks about him ain't complimentary. Here's the letter, mates," continued Riggles, drawing a soiled epistle from his pocket; "it'll give 'e a better notion than I can wot sort of a fix he's in, Will you read it, Bill Bowls?"
"No, thankee," said Bill; "read it yerself, an' for any sake don't spell the words if ye can help it."
Thus admonished, Tom began to read the following letter from his wild brother, interrupting himself occasionally to explain and comment thereon, and sometimes, despite the adjuration of Bill Bowls, to spell. We give the letter in the writer's own words:—
"'My dear mother [it's to mother, d'ye see; he always writes to her, an' she sends the letters to me],—My dear mother, here we are all alive and kicking. My sweet wife is worth her weight in gold, though she does not possess more of that precious metal than the wedding-ring on her finger—more's the pity for we are sadly in want of it just now. The baby, too, is splendid. Fat as a prize pig, capable of roaring like a mad bull, and, it is said, uncommonly like his father. We all send our kind love to you, and father, and Tom. By the way, where is Tom? You did not mention him in your last. I fear he is one of these roving fellows whom the Scotch very appropriately style ne'er-do-weels. A bad lot they are. Humph! you're one of 'em, Mister Sam, if ever there was, an' my only hope of ye is that you've got some soft places in your heart.'"
"Go on, Tom," said Ben Bolter; "don't cut in like that on the thread of any man's story."
"Well," continued Riggles, reading with great difficulty, "Sam goes on for to say—"
"'We thank you for your good wishes, and trust to be able to send you a good account of our proceedings ere long. [You see Sam was always of a cheery, hopeful natur, he was.] We have now been on the place fifteen days, but have not yet begun the house, as we can get no money. Two builders have, however, got the plans, and we are waiting for their sp-s-p-i-f- oh! spiflication; why, wot can that be?'"
"It ain't spiflication, anyhow," said Bolter. "Spell it right through."
"Oh! I've got him, it's specification," cried Riggles; "well—"
"'Specification. Many things will cost more than we anticipated. We had to turn the family out who had squatted here, at two days' notice, as we could not afford to live at Kinmonday—that's the nearest town, I s'pose. How they managed to live in the log cabin I do not know, as, when it rained—and it has done so twice since we came, furiously—the whole place was deluged, and we had to put an umbrella up in bed. We have had the roof raised and newly shingled, and are as comfortable as can be expected. Indeed, the hut is admirably adapted for summer weather, as we can shake hands between the logs.
"'The weather is very hot, although there has been much more rain this season than usual. There can be no doubt that this is a splendid country, both as regards soil and climate, and it seems a pity to see such land lying waste and unimproved for so many years. It far surpasses my expectations, both in natural beauty and capabilities. We have a deal of work to do in the way of fencing, for at present everybody's livestock is running over a large part of our land; but we haven't got money to buy fencing! Then we ought to have two horses, for the boy that was sent to me from the Reformatory can plough; but again, we haven't a rap wherewith to buy them. One reason of this is that in a new place a fellow is not trusted at first, and the last two hundred dollars we had went in tools, household furniture, utensils, etcetera. We have been living on credit for an occasional chicken or duck from our neighbours, which makes but a poor meal for three—not to mention baby, being very small—and George, that's the boy, having a tremendous appetite!
"'I walked into town twice to try to get some meat, but although there are ostensibly two butchers, I failed to get any. They actually wanted payment for it! Heigho! how I wish that money grew on the trees—or bread. By the way, that reminds me that there are bread-fruit trees in the South Sea Islands. I think I'll sell the farm and go there. One day I had the good luck to rescue a fine young chicken from the talons of a big hawk, upon which we all made a good meal. I really don't know what we should have done had it not been for the great abundance of blackberries here. They are fine and large, and so plentiful that I can gather a bucketful in an hour. We have made them into jam and pies, and are now drying them for winter use. We have also hazel-nuts and plums by the cart-load, and crab-apples in numbers almost beyond the power of figures to express. There is also a fruit about the size of a lime, which they call here the "May apple," but which I have named "omnifruct," as it combines the flavour of apples, pears, peaches, pine-apples, gooseberries, strawberries, rasps—in fact, it is hard to tell what it does not resemble. But after all, this is rather light food, and although very Eden-like living—minus the felicity—it does not quite satisfy people who have been used most part of their lives to beefsteak and stout.
"'George came to me a week ago. The little rascal would have been here sooner, but first of all the stage-coach upset, and then he fell asleep and was carried ten miles beyond our clearing, and had to walk back as best he could with a big bundle on his shoulder. He is an uncommonly silent individual. We can hardly get him to utter a word. He does what he is told, but I have first to show him how, and generally end by doing it myself. He appears to be a remarkably dead boy, but my excellent wife has taken him in hand, and will certainly strike some fire out of him if she can't put it into him! She has just gone into town on a foraging expedition, and I fondly hope she may succeed in making a raise of some edibles.
"'I have distinguished myself lately by manufacturing a sideboard and dresser, as well as a table and bench for the female authority, and expect to accomplish a henhouse and a gate next week. You see we work in hope. I fervently wish we could live on the same. However, I'm pretty jolly, despite a severe attack of rheumatism, which has not been improved by my getting up in the night and rushing out in my shirt to chase away trespassing cows and pigs, as we have not got a watch-dog yet.
"'When my wife shuts her eyes at night her dreams are of one invariable subject—blackberries! She cannot get rid of the impression, and I have serious fears that we shall all break out in brambles. There are not so many mosquitoes here as I had expected; just enough to keep us lively. How I shall rejoice when we have got a cow! It will be a great saving in butter and milk to our neighbours, who at present supply us with such things on credit! We can raise here wheat, oats, Indian corn, etcetera. The only difficulties are the want of seed and money! But it is unkind in me writing to you, mother, in this strain, seeing that you can't help me in my difficulties. However, don't take on about me. My motto is, "Never give in." Give our love to father, also to Tom. He's a good-hearted fellow is Tom, though I fear he'll never come to much good.—Believe me, your affectionate son, SAM. RIGGLES.'"
"There," said Tom, folding up the letter; "what d'ye think o' that, mates?"
Tom did not at that time get an answer to his question, for just as he spoke the order was given to beat to quarters for exercise, and in a few minutes the decks were cleared, and every man at his post.
But the order which had been given to engage in mimic warfare, for the sake of training the new hands, was suddenly changed into the command to clear for action in earnest, when the look-out reported a French vessel on the weather-bow. Sail was immediately crowded on the Waterwitch, and all was enthusiasm and expectation as they gave chase to the enemy.
OUR HERO AND HIS FRIENDS SEE SERVICE.
The Waterwitch was commanded at this time by Captain Ward, a man possessed of great energy and judgment, united to heroic courage. He had received orders to join that portion of the British fleet which, under Nelson, was engaged in searching for the French in the Mediterranean, and had passed Cape St. Vincent on his way thither, when he fell in with the French vessel.
During the morning a thick fog had obscured the horizon, concealing the enemy from view. When the rising sun dispersed it he was suddenly revealed. Hence the abrupt order on board the Waterwitch to prepare for action. As the fog lifted still more, another French vessel was revealed, and it was soon found that the English frigate had two Frenchmen of forty-four guns each to cope with.
"Just as it should be!" remarked Captain Ward, when this was ascertained. "There would have been no glory in conquering one Frenchman equal to my own ship in size!"
The Waterwitch was immediately steered towards the ship that was nearest, in the expectation that she would show fight at once, but the French commander, probably wishing to delay the engagement until his other vessel could join him, made sail, and bore down on her. Captain Ward, on perceiving the intention, put on a press of canvas, and endeavoured to frustrate the enemy's design. In this he was only partially successful.
"Surely," said Bill Bowls to his friend Ben Bolter, with whom he was stationed at one of the starboard guns on the main deck, "surely we are near enough now to give 'em a shot."
"No, we ain't," said Tom Riggles, who was also stationed at the same gun; "an' depend on it Cap'n Ward is not the man to throw away his shot for nothin'."
Ben Bolter and some of the other men at the gun agreed with this opinion, so our hero, whose fighting propensities were beginning to rouse up, had to content himself with gazing through the port-hole at the flying enemy, and restrained his impatience as he best could.
At last the order was given to fire, and for an hour after that a running fight was maintained, but without much effect. When, however, the two ships of the enemy succeeded in drawing sufficiently near to each other, they hove to, and awaited the advance of the Waterwitch, plying her vigorously with shot as she came on.
Captain Ward only replied with his bow chasers at first. He walked the deck with his hands behind his back without speaking, and, as far as his countenance expressed his feelings, he might have been waiting for a summons to dinner, instead of hastening to engage in an unequal contest.
"Cap'n Ward niver growls much before he bites," said Patrick Flinn, an Irishman, who belonged to Bowls's mess. "He minds me of a spalpeen of a dog I wance had, as was uncommon fond o' fightin' but niver even showed his teeth till he was within half a yard of his inemy, but, och! he gripped him then an' no mistake. You'll see, messmates, that we won't give 'em a broadside till we're within half pistol-shot."
"Don't take on ye the dooties of a prophet, Paddy," said Ben Bolter, "for the last time ye tried it ye was wrong."
"When was that?" demanded Flinn.
"Why, no longer ago than supper-time last night, when ye said ye had eaten such a lot that ye wouldn't be able to taste another bite for a month to come, an' didn't I see ye pitchin' into the wittles this mornin' as if ye had bin starvin' for a week past?"
"Git along wid ye," retorted Flinn; "yer jokes is as heavy as yerself, an' worth about as much."
"An' how much may that be?" asked Ben, with a grin.
"Faix, it's not aisy to tell. I would need to work it out in a algibrabical calkilation, but if ye divide the half o' what ye know by the double o' what ye don't know, an' add the quarter o' what ye might have know'd—redoocin' the whole to nothin', by means of a compound o' the rule o' three and sharp practice, p'r'aps you'll—"
Flinn's calculation was cut short at that moment by the entrance of a round shot, which pierced the ship's side just above his head, and sent splinters flying in all directions, one of which killed a man at the next gun, and another struck Bill Bowls on the left arm, wounding him slightly.
The exclamations and comments of the men at the gun were stopped abruptly by the orders to let the ship fall off and fire a broadside.
The Waterwitch trembled under the discharge, and then a loud cheer arose, for the immediate result was that the vessel of the enemy which had hit them was partially disabled—her foretopmast and flying jibboom having been shot away.
The Waterwitch instantly resumed her course and while Bill Bowls was busily employed in assisting to reload his gun, he could see that the two Frenchmen were close on their lee bow.
Passing to windward of the two frigates, which were named respectively La Gloire and the St. Denis, Captain Ward received a broadside from the latter, without replying to it, until he had crossed her bow within musket range, when he delivered a broadside which raked her from stem to stern. He then wore ship, and, passing between the two, fired his starboard broadside into the Gloire, and, almost immediately after, his port broadside into the St. Denis.
The effect on the two ships was tremendous.
Their sails and rigging were terribly cut up, and several of the yards came rattling down on their decks. The Gloire, in particular, had her rudder damaged. Seeing this, and knowing that in her crippled state she could do him no further damage, Captain Ward passed on, sailed round the stern of the St. Denis, and, when within six yards of her, sent a broadside right in at her cabin windows. Then he ranged alongside and kept up a tremendous fire.
The Frenchmen stuck to their guns admirably, but the British fired quicker. At such close quarters every shot told on both sides. The din and crash of such heavy artillery was terrific; and it soon became almost impossible to see what was going on for smoke.
Up to this point, although many of the men in the Waterwitch had been killed or wounded, only one of those who manned the gun at which Bill Bowls served had been hit.
"It's too hot to last long," observed Flinn, as he thrust home a ball and drew out the ramrod; "run her out, boys."
The men obeyed, and were in the act of pulling at the tackle, when a shot from the enemy struck the gun on the muzzle, tore it from its fastenings, and hurled it to the other side of the deck.
Strange to say, only one of the men who worked it was hurt by the gun; but in its passage across the deck it knocked down and killed three men, and jammed one of the guns on the other side in such a way that it became for a time unserviceable. Ben Bolter and his comrades were making desperate efforts to clear the wreck, when they heard a shout on deck for the boarders. The bowsprit of the Waterwitch had by that time been shot away; her rigging was dreadfully cut up, and her wheel smashed; and Captain Ward felt that, if the St. Denis were to get away, he could not pursue her. He therefore resolved to board.
"Come along, lads," cried Tom Riggles, on hearing the order; "let's jine 'em."
He seized his cutlass as he spoke, and dashed towards the ladder, followed by Bowls, Bolter, Flinn, and others; but it was so crowded with men carrying the wounded down to the cockpit that they had to pause at the foot.
At that moment a handsome young midshipman was carried past, apparently badly wounded.
"Och!" exclaimed Flinn, in a tone of deep anxiety, "it's not Mister Cleveland, is it? Ah! don't say he's kilt!"
"Not quite," answered the midshipman, rousing himself, and looking round with flashing eyes as he endeavoured to wave his hand in the air. "I'll live to fight the French yet."
The poor boy almost fainted from loss of blood as he spoke; and the Irishman, uttering a wild shout, ran towards the stern, intending to gain the deck by the companion-hatch, and wreak his vengeance on the French. Bill Bowls and Ben Bolter followed him. As they passed the cabin door Bowls said hastily to Bolter, "I say, Ben, here, follow me; I'll show ye a dodge."
He ran into the cabin as he spoke and leaped out upon the quarter gallery, which by that time was so close to the quarter of the St. Denis that it was possible to jump from one to the other.
Without a moment's hesitation he sprang across, dashed in one of the windows, and went head foremost into the enemy's cabin, followed by Bolter. Finding no one to oppose them there, they rushed upon deck and into the midst of a body of marines who were near the after-hatchway.
"Down with the frog-eaters!" cried Ben Bolter, discharging his pistol in the face of a marine with one hand, and cleaving down another with his cutlass.
The "frog-eaters," however, were by no means despicable men; for one of them clubbed his musket and therewith hit Ben such a blow on the head that he fell flat on the deck. Seeing this, Bill Bowls bestrode his prostrate comrade, and defended him for a few seconds with the utmost fury.
Captain Ward, who had leaped into the mizzen chains of the enemy, leading the boarders, beheld with amazement two of his own men on the quarter-deck of the St. Denis attacking the enemy in rear. Almost at the same moment he observed the fall of one of them. His men also saw this, and giving an enthusiastic cheer they sprang upon the foe and beat them back. Bill Bowls was borne down in the rush by his friends, but he quickly regained his legs. Ben Bolter also recovered and jumped up. In five minutes more they were masters of the ship—hauled down the colours, and hoisted the Union Jack at the Frenchman's peak.
During the whole course of this action the Gloire, which had drifted within range, kept up a galling fire of musketry from her tops on the deck of the Waterwitch. Just as the St. Denis was captured, a ball struck Captain Ward on the forehead, and he fell dead without a groan.
The first lieutenant, who was standing by his side at the moment, after hastily calling several men to convey their commander below, ordered the starboard guns of the prize to be fired into the Gloire. This was done with such effect that it was not found necessary to repeat the dose. The Frenchman immediately hauled down his colours, and the fight was at an end.
It need scarcely be said that the satisfaction with which this victory was hailed was greatly modified by the loss of brave Captain Ward, who was a favourite with his men, and one who would in all probability have risen to the highest position in the service, had he lived. He fell while his sun was in the zenith, and was buried in the ocean, that wide and insatiable grave, which has received too many of our brave seamen in the prime of life.
The first lieutenant, on whom the command temporarily devolved, immediately set about repairing damages, and, putting a prize crew into each of the French ships, sailed with them to the nearest friendly port.
The night after the action Bill Bowls, Ben Bolter, and Tom Riggles sat down on the heel of the bowsprit to have a chat.
"Not badly hit?" asked Ben of Bill, who was examining the bandage on his left arm.
"Nothin' to speak of," said Bill; "only a scratch. I'm lucky to have got off with so little; but I say, Ben, how does your head feel? That Mounseer had a handy way o' usin' the handspike. I do believe he would have cracked any man's skull but your own, which must be as thick as the head of an elephant. I see'd it comin', but couldn't help ye. Hows'ever, I saved ye from a second dose."
"It wos pritty hardish," said Ben, with a smile, an' made the stars sparkle in my brain for all the world like the rory borailis, as I've see'd so often in the northern skies; but it's all in the way o' trade, so I don't grumble; the only thing as bothers me is that I can't git my hat rightly on by reason of the bump.
"You've no cause to complain—neither of ye," said Tom Riggles, whose left hand was tied up and in a sling, "for you've lost nothin' but a little blood an' a bit o' skin, whereas I've lost the small finger o' my right hand."
"Not much to boast of, that," said Ben Bolter contemptuously; "why, just think of poor Ned Summers havin' lost an arm and Edwards a leg—not to mention the poor fellows that have lost their lives."
"A finger is bad enough," growled Tom.
"Well, so it is," said Bowls. "By the way, I would advise you to try a little of that wonderful salve invented by a Yankee for such cases."
"Wot salve wos that?" asked Tom gruffly, for the pain of his wound was evidently pretty severe.
"Why, the growin' salve, to be sure," replied Bill. "Everybody must have heard of it."
"I never did," said Tom. "Did you, Ben?"
"No, never; wot is it?"
"It's a salve for growin' on lost limbs," said Bill. "The Yankee tried it on a dog that had got its tail cut off. He rubbed a little of the salve on the end of the dog, and a noo tail grow'd on next mornin'!"
"Gammon!" ejaculated Tom Riggles.
"True, I assure ye, as was proved by the fact that he afterwards rubbed a little of the salve on the end of the tail, and a noo dog growed on it in less than a week!"
"H'm! I wonder," said Tom, "if he was to rub some of it inside o' your skull, whether he could grow you a noo set o' brains."
"I say, Bill," interposed Ben Bolter, "did you hear the first lieutenant say where he intended to steer to?"
"I heard somethin' about Gibraltar, but don't know that he said we was goin' there. It's clear, hows'ever, that we must go somewhere to refit before we can be of any use."
"Ay; how poor Captain Ward would have chafed under this delay!" said Bill Bowls sadly. "He would have been like a caged tiger. That's the worst of war; it cuts off good and bad men alike. There's not a captain in the fleet like the one we have lost, Nelson alone excepted."
"Well, I don't know as to that," said Ben Bolter; "but there's no doubt that Admiral Nelson is the man to lick the French, and I only hope that he may find their fleet, and that I may be there to lend a hand."
"Ditto," said Bill Bowls.
"Do," added Tom Riggles.
Having thus expressed their sentiments, the three friends separated. Not long afterwards the Waterwitch sailed with her prizes into Gibraltar.
Here was found a portion of the fleet which had been forwarded by Earl St. Vincent to reinforce Nelson. It was about to set sail, and as there was every probability that the Waterwitch would require a considerable time to refit, some of her men were drafted into other ships. Among others, our friends Bill Bowls, Ben Bolter, and Tom Riggles, were sent on board the Majestic, a seventy-four gun ship of the line, commanded by Captain Westcott, one of England's most noted captains.
This vessel, with ten line-of-battle ships, set sail to join Nelson, and assist him in the difficult duty of watching the French fleet.
NELSON HUNTS THE FRENCH.
At this time Sir Horatio Nelson had been despatched to the Mediterranean with a small squadron to ascertain the object of the great expedition which was fitting out, under Napoleon Bonaparte, at Toulon.
Nelson had for a long time past been displaying, in a series of complicated and difficult operations in the Mediterranean, those splendid qualities which had already won for him unusual honours and fame, and which were about to raise him to that proud pinnacle which he ultimately attained as England's greatest naval hero. His address and success in matters of diplomacy had filled his superiors and the Government with sentiments of respect; his moral courage in risking reputation and position, with unflinching resolution, by disobeying orders when by so doing the good and credit of his country could be advanced, made him an object of dread to some, of admiration to others, while his lion-like animal courage and amiability endeared him to his officers and men. Sailors had begun to feel that where Nelson led the way victory was certain, and those who were ordered to join his fleet esteemed themselves most fortunate.
The defeat of the French armament was considered by the English Government a matter of so great importance, that Earl St. Vincent, then engaged in blockading the Spanish fleet, was directed, if he thought it necessary, to draw off his entire fleet for the purpose, and relinquish the blockade. He was, however, told that, if he thought a detachment sufficient, he was to place it under the command of Sir Horatio Nelson. The Earl did consider a detachment sufficient, and had already made up his mind to give the command to Nelson, being thoroughly alive to his great talents and other good qualities. He accordingly sent him to the Mediterranean with three ships of the line, four frigates, and a sloop of war.
This force was now, by the addition to which we have referred, augmented so largely that Nelson found himself in possession of a fleet with which he might not only "watch" the enemy, but, if occasion should offer, attack him.
He was refitting after a storm in the Sardinian harbour of St. Pietro, when the reinforcements hove in sight. As soon as the ships were seen from the masthead of the Admiral's vessel, Nelson immediately signalled that they should put to sea. Accordingly the united fleet set sail, and began a vigorous search for the French armament, which had left Toulon a short time before.
The search was for some time unsuccessful. No tidings could be obtained of the destination of the enemy for some time, but at length it was learned that he had surprised Malta.
Although his fleet was inferior in size to that of the French, Nelson— and indeed all his officers and men—longed to meet with and engage them. The Admiral, therefore, formed a plan to attack them while at anchor at Gozo, but he received information that the French had left that island the day after their arrival. Holding very strongly the opinion that they were bound for Egypt, he set sail at once in pursuit, and arrived off Alexandria on the 28th of June 1798.
There, to his intense disappointment, he found that nothing had been seen or heard of the enemy. Nelson's great desire was to meet with Napoleon Bonaparte and fight him on the sea. But this wish was not to be gratified. He found, however, that the governor of Alexandria was endeavouring to put the city in a state of defence, for he had received information from Leghorn that the French expedition intended to proceed against Egypt after having taken Malta.
Leaving Alexandria, Nelson proceeded in various directions in search of the French, carrying a press of sail night and day in his anxiety to fall in with them, but being baffled in his search, he was compelled to return to Sicily to obtain fresh supplies in order to continue the pursuit.
Of course Nelson was blamed in England for his want of success in this expedition, and Earl St. Vincent was severely censured for having sent so young an officer on a service so important. Anticipating the objection, that he ought not to have made so long a voyage without more certain information, Nelson said, in vindication of his conduct:—
"Who was I to get such information from? The Governments of Naples and Sicily either knew not, or chose to keep me in ignorance. Was I to wait patiently until I heard certain accounts? If Egypt were their object, before I could hear of them, they would have been in India. To do nothing was disgraceful; therefore I made use of my understanding. I am before your lordships' judgment; and if, under all circumstances, it is decided that I am wrong, I ought, for the sake of our country, to be superseded; for at this moment, when I know the French are not in Alexandria, I hold the same opinion as off Cape Passaro—that, under all circumstances, I was right in steering for Alexandria; and by that opinion I must stand or fall."
It was ere long proved that Nelson was right, and that Earl St. Vincent had made no mistake in sending him on a service so important; for we now know that in all the British fleet there was not another man so admirably adapted for the duty which was assigned to him, of finding, fighting, and conquering, the French, in reference to whom he wrote to the first lord of the Admiralty, "Be they bound to the antipodes, your lordship may rely that I will not lose a moment in bringing them to action!"
Re-victualled and watered, the British fleet set sail on the 25th of July from Syracuse. On the 28th, intelligence was received that the enemy had been seen about four weeks before, steering to the South East from Candia.
With characteristic disregard of the possible consequences to his own fame and interest, in his determination to "do the right," Nelson at once resolved to return to Alexandria. Accordingly, with all sail set, the fleet stood once more towards the coast of Egypt.
Perseverance was at length rewarded. On the 1st of August 1798, about ten in the morning, they sighted Alexandria, and saw with inexpressible delight that the port was crowded with the ships of France.
And here we venture to say that we sympathise with the joy of the British on this occasion, and shall explain why we do so.
Not every battle that is fought—however brilliant in military or naval tactics it may be, or in exhibitions of personal prowess—deserves our sympathy. Only that war which is waged against oppression is entitled to respect, and this, we hold, applies to the war in which the British were engaged at that time.
France, under the Directory, had commenced a career of unwarrantable conquest, for the simple purpose of self-aggrandisement, and her great general, Bonaparte, had begun that course of successful warfare in which he displayed those brilliant talents which won for him an empire, constituted him, in the ordinary acceptation of the word, a hero, and advanced France to a high position of tyrannical power. But brilliant talents and success could not free him from the charge of being a wholesale murderer.
To oppose such pretentions and practices was a bounden duty on the part of those who loved justice, just as much as it is the duty of every one who has the power to thwart the designs of, and forcibly overcome, a highwayman or a pirate.
Observe, reader, that we do not intend here to imply an invidious comparison. We have no sympathy with those who hold that England was and always is in favour of fair play, while France was bent on tyranny. On the contrary, we believe that England has in some instances been guilty of the sin which we now condemn, and that, on the other hand, many Frenchmen of the present day would disapprove of the policy of France in the time of Napoleon the First. Neither do we sympathise with the famous saying of Nelson that "one Englishman is equal to three Frenchmen!" The tendency to praise one's-self has always been regarded among Christian nations as a despicable, or at least a pitiable, quality, and we confess that we cannot see much difference between a boastful man and a boastful nation. Frenchmen have always displayed chivalrous courage, not a whit inferior to the British, and history proves that in war they have been eminently successful. The question whether they could beat us or we could beat them, if tested in a fair stand-up fight with equal numbers, besides being an unprofitable one, is not now before us. All that we are concerned about at present is, that in the war now under consideration the British did beat the French, and we rejoice to record the fact solely on the ground that we fought in a righteous cause.
With these remarks we proceed to give an account of one of the greatest naval victories ever achieved by British arms.
THE BATTLE OF THE NILE.
After Napoleon Bonaparte had effected his landing in Egypt, the French fleet was permitted to remain at Alexandria for some time, and thus afforded Nelson the opportunity he had sought for so long.
For many previous days he had been almost unable, from anxiety, to take sleep or food, but now he ordered dinner to be served, while preparations were being made for battle, and when his officers rose to leave the table, he said to them:—
"Before this time to-morrow, I shall have gained a peerage or Westminster Abbey."
The French had found it impossible to enter the neglected and ruined port of Alexandria. Admiral Brueys had, by command of Napoleon, offered a reward of 10,000 livres to any native pilot who would safely convey the squadron in, but not one was found who would venture to take charge of a single vessel that drew more than twenty feet. The gallant admiral was compelled, therefore, to anchor in Aboukir Bay, and chose the strongest position that was possible in the circumstances. He ranged his ships in a compact line of battle, in such a manner that the leading vessel lay close to a shoal, while the remainder of the fleet formed a curve along the line of deep water so that it was thought to be impossible to turn it by any means in a South Westerly direction, and some of the French, who were best able to judge, said that they held a position so strong that they could bid defiance to a force more than double their own. The presumption was not unreasonable, for the French had the advantage of the English in ships, guns, and men, but they had omitted to take into their calculations the fact that the English fleet was commanded by one whose promptitude in action, readiness and eccentricity of resource, and utter disregard of consequences when what he deemed the path to victory lay before him, might have been equalled; but certainly could not have been surpassed, by Bonaparte himself.
The French force consisted of thirteen ships of the line and four frigates, carrying in all 1196 guns and 11,230 men. The English had thirteen ships of the line and a fifty-gun ship, carrying in all 1012 guns and 8068 men. All the English line-of-battle ships were seventy-fours. Three of the French ships carried eighty-eight guns, and one, L'Orient, was a monster three-decker with 120 guns.
In order to give the reader a better idea of the forces engaged on both sides, we give the following list of ships. It is right, however, to add that one of those belonging to the English (the Culloden) ran aground on a shoal when about to go into action, and took no part in the fight.
+==+==============+============================+==+==+==========+ Y YNames YCommanders YGunsYMenY Y +—-+———————-+——————————————-+——+—-+—————-+ Y 1.YVanguard YAdmiral Nelson, Captain BerryY 74Y595Y Y +—-+———————-+——————————————-+——+—-+—————-+ Y 2.YMinotaur YThos. Louis Y 74Y640Y Y +—-+———————-+——————————————-+——+—-+—————-+ Y 3.YTheseus YR.W. Millar Y 74Y590Y Y +—-+———————-+——————————————-+——+—-+—————-+ Y 4.YAlexander YA.J. Ball Y 74Y590Y Y +—-+———————-+——————————————-+——+—-+—————-+ Y 5.YSwiftsure YB Hallowell Y 74Y590Y Y +—-+———————-+——————————————-+——+—-+—————-+ Y 6.YAudacious YD Gould Y 74Y590Y Y +—-+———————-+——————————————-+——+—-+—————-+ Y 7.YDefence YJ Peyton Y 74Y590Y Y +—-+———————-+——————————————-+——+—-+—————-+ Y 8.YZealous YS Hood Y 74Y590Y Y +—-+———————-+——————————————-+——+—-+—————-+ Y 9.YOrion YSir James Saumarez Y 74Y590Y Y +—-+———————-+——————————————-+——+—-+—————-+ Y10.YGoliath YThomas Foley Y 74Y590Y Y +—-+———————-+——————————————-+——+—-+—————-+ Y11.YMajestic YG.B. Westcott Y 74Y590Y Y +—-+———————-+——————————————-+——+—-+—————-+ Y12.YBellerophon YH.D.E. Darby Y 74Y590Y Y +—-+———————-+——————————————-+——+—-+—————-+ Y13.YCulloden YT Trowbridge Y 74Y590YNot engagedY +—-+———————-+——————————————-+——+—-+—————-+ Y14.YLeander YT.B. Thomson Y 50Y343Y Y +—-+———————-+——————————————-+——+—-+—————-+ Y15.YLa Mutine, BrigY Y Y Y Y +==+==============+============================+====+==+==========+
+==+================+==========+==+==+==============+ Y YNames YCommanders YGunsYMen Y Y +—-+——————————+———————+——+——+———————-+ Y 1.YL'Orient YAdmiral BrueysY 120Y1010YBurnt Y +—-+——————————+———————+——+——+———————-+ Y 2.YLe Franklin Y Y 80Y 800YTaken Y +—-+——————————+———————+——+——+———————-+ Y 3.YLe Tonnant Y Y 80Y 800YTaken Y +—-+——————————+———————+——+——+———————-+ Y 4.YLe Guillaume Tell Y Y 80Y 800YEscaped Y +—-+——————————+———————+——+——+———————-+ Y 5.YLe Conquerant Y Y 74Y 700YTaken Y +—-+——————————+———————+——+——+———————-+ Y 6.YLe Spartiate Y Y 74Y 700YTaken Y +—-+——————————+———————+——+——+———————-+ Y 7.YL'Aquilon Y Y 74Y 700YTaken Y +—-+——————————+———————+——+——+———————-+ Y 8.YLe Souverain Peuple Y Y 74Y 700YTaken Y +—-+——————————+———————+——+——+———————-+ Y 9.YL'Heureux Y Y 74Y 700YTaken Y +—-+——————————+———————+——+——+———————-+ Y10.YLe Timoleon Y Y 74Y 700YBurnt Y +—-+——————————+———————+——+——+———————-+ Y11.YLe Mercure Y Y 74Y 700YTaken Y +—-+——————————+———————+——+——+———————-+ Y12.YLe Genereux Y Y 74Y 700YEscaped Y +—-+——————————+———————+——+——+———————-+ Y13.YLe Guerrier Y Y 74Y 600YTaken Y +—-+——————————+———————+——+——+———————-+ Y14.YLa Diane (Frigate) Y Y 48Y 300YEscaped Y +—-+——————————+———————+——+——+———————-+ Y15.YLa Justice (Frigate)Y Y 44Y 300YEscaped Y +—-+——————————+———————+——+——+———————-+ Y16.YL'Artemise (Frigate)Y Y 36Y 250YBurnt Y +—-+——————————+———————+——+——+———————-+ Y17.YLa Serieux (Frigate)Y Y 36Y 250YDismasted, sunkY +==+==================+==========+++============+
Such were the forces that met to engage in deadly conflict on the 1st of August 1798, with not only national but world-wide interest pending on the issue, for the battle of the Nile was one of the leading battles of the world.
When Nelson perceived the position of the enemy, his fertile and active mind at once evolved a characteristic course of action. Where there was room, he said, for an enemy's ship to swing, there was room for one of his to anchor. He therefore at once formed the plan of doubling on the French ships, stationing one of his ships on the bow and another on the quarter of each of the enemy.
Nelson immediately explained his intended course to his officers. It had been his custom during the whole time he was engaged in searching for the French fleet, to have his captains as frequently as possible on board the Vanguard, when he explained to them his opinions as to the best mode of attack in all the various positions in which it was possible or probable that the enemy might be found. Hence they knew their commander's tactics so well, that when the hour for action arrived, no time was lost in the tedious operation of signalling orders. He had such confidence in all his officers, that after thoroughly explaining his intended plan of attack, he merely said to them, "Form as is most convenient for mutual support, and anchor by the stern. First gain the victory, and then make the best use of it you can."
When Captain Berry, perceiving the boldness of the plan, said, "If we succeed, what will the world say?" Nelson replied, "There is no if in the case; that we shall succeed is certain: who may live to tell the story is a very different question!"
Nelson possessed in an eminent degree the power of infusing into his men the irresistible confidence that animated his own bosom. There was probably not a man in the British fleet who did not sail into Aboukir Bay on that memorable day with a feeling of certainty that the battle was as good as gained before it was begun. The cool, quiet, self-possessed manner in which the British tars went to work at the beginning must have been very impressive to the enemy; for, as they advanced, they did not even condescend to fire a shot in reply to the storm of shot and shell to which the leading ships were treated by the batteries on an island in the bay, and by the broadsides of the whole French fleet at half gunshot-range, the men being too busily engaged in furling the sails aloft, attending to the braces below, and preparing to cast anchor!
Nelson's fleet did not all enter the bay at once, but each vessel lost no time in taking up position as it arrived; and as, one after another, they bore down on the enemy, anchored close alongside, and opened fire, the thunder of the French fleet was quickly and increasingly augmented by the British, until the full tide of battle was reached, and the shores of Egypt trembled under the incessant rolling roar of dreadful war; while sheets of flame shot forth and rent the thick clouds which enwrapped the contending fleets, and hung incumbent over the bay.
An attempt was made by a French brig to decoy the English ships towards a shoal before they entered Aboukir Bay, but it failed because Nelson either knew the danger or saw through the device.
It seemed as if the Zealous (Captain Hood) was to have the honour of commencing the action, but Captain Foley passed her in the Goliath, and successfully accomplished that feat which the French had deemed impossible, and had done their best to guard against. Instead of attacking the leading ship—the Guerrier—outside, he sailed round her bows, passed between her and the shore, and cast anchor. Before he could bring up, however, he had drifted down to the second ship of the enemy's line—the Conquerant—and opened fire. It had been rightly conjectured that the landward guns of the enemy would not be manned, or even ready for action. The Goliath, therefore, made short and sharp work of her foe. In ten minutes the masts of the Conquerant were shot away! The Zealous was laid alongside the Guerrier, and in twelve minutes that vessel was totally disabled. Next came the Orion (Sir J. Saumarez), which went into action in splendid style. Perceiving that a frigate lying farther inshore was annoying the Goliath, she sailed towards her, giving the Guerrier a taste of her larboard guns as long as they would bear upon her, then dismasted and sunk the frigate, hauled round towards the French line, and anchoring between the Franklin and the Souverain Peuple, received and returned the fire of both.
In like manner the Audacious (Captain Gould) justified her name by attacking the Guerrier and Conquerant at once, and, when the latter struck passed on to the Souverain Peuple.
The unfortunate Guerrier was also worthy of her title, for she bore the brunt of the battle. Every ship that passed her appeared to deem it a duty to give her a broadside before settling down to its particular place in the line, and finding its own special antagonist or antagonists—for several of the English ships engaged two of the enemy at once. The Theseus (Captain Miller), after bringing down the main and mizzen-masts of the Guerrier, anchored inside the Spartiate and engaged her.
Meanwhile, on the other side of this vessel, Nelson's ship, the Vanguard, bore down on the foe with six flags flying in different parts of the rigging, to guard against the possibility of his colours being shot away! She opened a tremendous fire on the Spartiate at half pistol-range. The muscular British tars wrought with heroic energy at the guns. In a few minutes six of these guns, which stood on the fore-part of the Vanguard's deck, were left without a man, and three times afterwards were these six guns cleared of men—so terrific was the fire of the enemy.
Other four of the British vessels sailed ahead of the Vanguard and got into action. One of these—the Bellerophon (Captain Darby)—engaged the gigantic L'Orient, which was so disproportionately large that the weight of ball from her lower deck alone exceeded that from the whole broadside of her assailant. The result was that the Bellerophon was overpowered, 200 of her men were killed or wounded, all her masts and cables were shot away, and she drifted out of the line. Her place, however, was taken by the Swiftsure, which not only assailed the L'Orient on the bow, but at the same time opened a steady fire on the quarter of the Franklin.
Before this time, however, the shades of night had fallen on the scene. The battle began at half-past six in the evening—half-an-hour afterwards daylight was gone, and the deadly fight was lighted only by the lurid and fitful flashing of the guns.