The Rover's Secret A Tale of the Pirate Cays and Lagoons of Cuba
By Harry Collingwood It was a bit puzzling to to work out who or what the Rover was, and what the secret was. The word Rover is not mentioned once in the body-text of the book, and the word secret only three or four times. However, eventually I sussed it out. The Rover is a pirate who figures enough in the book for one to be aware he is there. He is mortally wounded, and in the last chapter he tells his secret before he dies, thus providing an explanation for several other puzzling things that we have been told, or that happened, in the book.
On the other hand I was not too happy with the overall style of the book, which is too florid and long-winded. Practically every sentence could be greatly shortened without loss, and it is sometimes an amusing exercise to rest from reading, and then try to re-phrase the current paragraph.
Apart from those things, the book is written in a style much like that of Kingston. This is typical of Collingwood, but one sometimes thinks he is a bit plagiaristic. That doesn't stop it from being quite an enjoyable book. There is some evidence that there are some missing commas in the text as I have presented it, but I do not think that this will at all impede the flow of the story as it unfolds. THE ROVER'S SECRET A TALE OF THE PIRATE CAYS AND LAGOONS OF CUBA
BY HARRY COLLINGWOOD
My father—Cuthbert Lascelles—was the great painter who, under a pseudonym which I need not mention here, was a few years ago well known in the world of art, and whose works are now to be found enshrined in some of the noblest public and private collections both at home and abroad.
He was a tall and singularly handsome man; with clear grey eyes, and a stern resolute-looking mouth shadowed by a heavy moustache which, like his short curly hair and carefully trimmed beard, was of a pale golden tint.
My mother died in giving me birth; and this, together with the fact that she was a native of Italy, was all I, for some years, knew concerning her.
One of the earliest impressions made upon my infant mind—for I cannot recall the time when I was free from it—was that my parents suffered great unhappiness during the latter part of their short married life; unhappiness resulting from some terrible mistake on the part of one or the other of them; which mistake was never explained and rectified—if explanation and rectification were indeed possible—during my mother's lifetime.
Having received this impression at so very early an age, I cannot, of course, say with certainty whence I derived it; but I am inclined to attribute it chiefly to the singularity of my father's conduct toward myself.
I was his only child.
He was a man to whom solitude and retirement appeared to be the chief essentials of existence. Though living in London, he very rarely mingled in society, yet I have since heard that he always met with a most cordial welcome when he did so—and it was seldom indeed that his studio doors unfolded to admit anyone but their master. If he went into the country, as of course was often the case, in search of subjects, he never by any chance happened to be going in the same direction as any of his brethren of the brush; his destination was invariably some wild spot, unfrequented—possibly even unknown—alike by painter and tourist. And there—if undisturbed—he would remain, diligently working all day in the open air during favourable weather; and, when the elements were unpropitious for work, taking long walks over solitary heaths and desolate mountain sides, or along the lonely shore. And when the first snows of winter came, reminding him that it was time to turn his face homeward once more, he would pack up his paraphernalia and return to town, laden with studies of skies and seas, of barren moorland, rocky crag, and foaming mountain torrent which provoked alike the envy and the admiration of his brother artists.
It will naturally be supposed that, to a man of such solitary habits as these, the society of his only child would be an unspeakable comfort. But, with my father, this did not appear to be by any means the case. He never took me out of town with him on his annual pilgrimage to the country; and, when he was at home, it often happened that I did not see him, face to face, for weeks together. As a consequence of this peculiar arrangement, almost the whole of the time which I spent indoors was passed in the nursery, where also my meals were served, and wherein my only companion was Mary, the nursemaid.
The only exceptions to this isolated state of existence were those rare occasions when my father, without the slightest warning, and apparently with as little reason, used to send for me to visit him in his studio. It was during these interviews that his peculiar treatment of me became most noticeable. As a general rule, when—after a vigorous cleansing of my face and hands and a change of my raiment had been effected by the nursemaid—I was introduced into the studio, my father would ensconce me in a roomy old easy-chair by the fire; provide me with a picture-book of some kind wherewith to amuse myself; and then take no further notice of me. This, however, seemed to depend to some extent upon the greeting which I received from him, and that proved to be a tolerably accurate index of the humour which happened to possess him at the moment. Sometimes the greeting would consist of a cold shake of the hand and an equally cold "I hope you are well, boy," accompanied by a single keen glance which seemed at once to take in every detail of my person and clothing. Sometimes the shake of the hand would be somewhat warmer, the accompanying remark being, perhaps, "I am glad to see you looking so well, my boy." And occasionally—but very rarely—I was agreeably surprised to find myself received with an affectionate embrace and kiss—which I always somewhat timidly returned—and the words, "Lionel, my son, how are you?"
When the greeting reached this stage of positive warmth, it usually happened that, instead of being consigned at once to the arm-chair and the picture-book, I was lifted to my father's knee, when, laying aside palette and brushes, he would proceed to ask me all sorts of questions, such as, What had I been doing lately; where had I been, and what had I seen worthy of notice; did I want any new toys? and so on; enticing me out of my reserve until he had coaxed me into talking freely with him. On these especial occasions he had a curious habit of wheeling round in front of us a large mirror which constituted one of his studio "properties," and into this, whilst talking to me, he would intently gaze at his own reflected image, and mine, laying his cheek beside mine so as to bring both our faces to the same level, and directing me also to look into the mirror. Sometimes this curious inspection terminated satisfactorily; in which case, after perhaps an hour's chat on his knee, I was tenderly placed in the easy-chair, in such a position that my father could see me without his work being materially interfered with; our conversation was maintained with unflagging spirit on both sides; and the day was brought to a happy close by our dining together, and perhaps going to the theatre or a concert afterwards. There were occasions, however, when this pleasant state of affairs did not obtain— when the ordeal of the mirror did not terminate so satisfactorily. It occasionally happened that, whilst gazing at my father's reflected features, I observed a stern and sombre expression settling like a heavy thunder-cloud upon them; and this always sufficed to speedily reduce me to silence, however garrulous I might before have been. The paternal gaze would gradually grow more intense and searching; the thunder-cloud would lower more threateningly; and unintelligible mutterings would escape from between the fiercely clenched firm white teeth. And, finally, I would either be placed—as in the last-mentioned instance— where my father could look at me whilst at work—and where he did frequently look at me with appalling sternness—or I was at once dismissed with a short and sharp "Run away, boy; I am busy."
Looking back upon the first eight years of my existence, and contemplating them by the light of my now matured knowledge, I am inclined to regard them as quite an unique experience of child-life; at all events I would fain hope that but few children have suffered so keenly as I have from the lack of paternal love. And yet I cannot say that I was absolutely unhappy, except upon and for a day or two after those chilling dismissals from my father's presence to which I have briefly referred; the suffering, although it existed, had by long usage become a thing to which I had grown accustomed, and it consisted chiefly in a yearning after those endearments and evidences of affection which I instinctively felt were my due. The conviction that my father—the one to whom my childish heart naturally turned for sympathy in all my little joys and sorrows—regarded me coldly—for his demonstrations of affection were indeed few and far between—exercised a subduing and repressive influence upon me from which, even now, I have not wholly recovered, and which will probably continue to affect me to the latest hour of my life. What made my position decidedly worse was that my father had, so far, not deemed it necessary to send me to school; and I had, therefore, no companions of my own age, none of any age, in fact, except Mary, the nursemaid aforementioned, and Mrs Wilson, the housekeeper; the latter—good motherly body—so far compassionating the state of utter ignorance in which I was growing up that, in an erratic, unmethodical sort of way, she occasionally devoted half an hour or so of her time of an evening to the task of forwarding my education. In consequence of this state of things I often found it difficult to effect a satisfactory disposal of the time left to lie somewhat heavily on my hands.
I have said that Mrs Wilson was kind enough to undertake my education; and very faithfully and to the best of her ability, poor soul, she carried on the task. But nature had evidently intended the old lady to be a housekeeper, and not an instructress of youth; for whilst she performed the duties of the former post in a manner which left absolutely nothing to be desired, it must be confessed that in her self- imposed task of schoolmistress she failed most lamentably. Not through ignorance, however, by any means. She was fairly well educated, having "seen better days," so she was possessed of a sufficiency of knowledge for her purpose had she but known how to impart it. Unfortunately, however, for me she did not; she was entirely destitute of that tact which is the great secret of successful instruction; she had not the faintest conception of the desirability of investing my studies with the smallest particle of interest; and they were in consequence dry as the driest of dry bones and unattractive in the extreme. She never dreamed that it might be advantageous to explain or point out the ultimate purpose of my lessons to me, or to illustrate them by those apposite remarks which are often found to be of such material assistance to the youthful student; if I succeeded in repeating them perfectly "out of book" the good woman was quite satisfied; she never attempted to ascertain whether I understood them or not.
Under such circumstances it is probable that I should have derived little or no advantage from my studies had not my preceptress possessed a valuable ally in my own inclinations. Writing I was fond of; reading I had an especial desire to master, for reasons which will shortly become apparent; but arithmetic I at first found difficult, and utterly detested—until I had mastered its rules, after which I soon reached a point where the whole became clear as the noonday light; and then I fell under the magical influence of that fascination which figures for some minds is found to possess. But geography was my favourite study. There was an old terrestrial globe in the nursery, the use of which my father had taught me in one of his rare genial moments; and over this globe I used to stand for hours, with my geography in my hand and a gazetteer on a chair by my side, finding out the positions of the various places as they occurred in the books.
It sometimes happened that Mrs Wilson went out to spend the evening with a married daughter who resided somewhere within visiting distance; and, when this was the case, my studies were of course interrupted, and other means of employing my time had to be found. Thanks, chiefly, to the fact that these occasions afforded Mary, my particular attendant, an opportunity of escape from the somewhat dismal lonesomeness of the nursery, these evenings were very frequently spent in the servants' hall, where I had an opportunity of enjoying the conversation of the housemaid Jane, the cook, and Tim, the presiding genius of the knife- board and boot-brushes. I always greatly enjoyed these visits to the lower regions, for two reasons; the first of which was that they were surreptitious, and much caution was needed, or supposed to be needed, in order that my journey down-stairs might be accomplished without "master's" knowledge; the remaining reason for my enjoyment being that I generally heard something which interested me. Whether the interest excited was or was not of a healthy character the reader shall judge.
The cook, of course, reigned supreme in the servants' hall, the other occupants taking their cue from her, and regulating their tastes and occupations in accordance with hers. Now this woman—an obese, red- armed, and red-visaged person of about forty years of age—was possessed by a morbid and consuming curiosity concerning all those horrors and criminal mysteries which appear from time to time in the public prints; and the more horrible they were, the greater was her interest in them. The evening, after all the work was done and there was opportunity to give her whole attention to the subject, was the time selected by her for the satisfaction of this curiosity; and it thus happened very frequently that, when I made my appearance among the servants, they were deep in the discussion of some murder, or mysterious disappearance, or kindred matter. If the item under discussion happened to be fresh, the boy Tim was delegated to search the newspaper and read therefrom every paragraph bearing upon it, the remainder of the party listening intently and open-mouthed as they sat in a semicircle before the blazing fire. And if the item happened to be so stale as to have passed out of the notice of the papers, the cook would recapitulate for our benefit its leading features, together with any similar events or singular coincidences connected with the case which might occur to her memory at the moment. From the discussion of murders to the relation of ghost stories is a natural and easy transition, and here Jane, the housemaid, shone pre-eminent. She would sit there and discourse by the hour of lonely and deserted houses, long silent galleries, down which misty shapes had been seen to glide in the pallid moonlight, gaunt and ruinous chambers, the wainscot of which rattled, and the tattered tapestry of which swayed and rustled mysteriously; gloomy passages through which unearthly sighs were audibly wafted; dismal cellars, with never-opened doors, from whose profoundest recesses came at dead of night the muffled sound of shrieks and groans and clanking chains; "of calling shapes, and beckoning shadows dire, and airy tongues that syllable men's names on sands, and shores, and desert wildernesses," until not one of the party, excepting myself, dared move or look round for fear of seeing some dread presence, some shapeless dweller upon the threshold, some horrible apparition, the sight of which, Medusa-like, should blast them into stone. Not infrequently the situation was rendered additionally harrowing by the cook, who would suddenly interrupt the narrative, send an icy thrill down our spines, and cause the unhappy Tim's scalp to bristle even more than usual, by exclaiming in a low startling whisper:
"Hark! didn't you hear something move in the passage just then?"
Whereupon Jane and Mary would spring to their feet, and, with pallid faces, starting eyes, and blanched lips, cling convulsively to each other, convinced that at last their unspoken fears were about to be dreadfully realised.
It will naturally be supposed that these seances would have a dreadfully trying effect upon my infantile nerves; but, strangely enough, they did not. I never looked beneath my cot with the expectation of discovering a midnight assassin; for, in the first place, the outer doors of the house were always kept so carefully closed that I did not see how such an individual could well get in; and, in the second place, admitting, for argument's sake, the possibility of his effecting an entrance, I did not for a moment believe he would give himself the wholly unnecessary trouble of murdering a little boy, or girl either, for that matter. Then, as to the ghosts, though it never occurred to me to doubt their existence, I entirely failed to understand why people should be afraid of them. I felt that, in regarding these beings as objects of dread and apprehension, the housemaid, the cook, and in fact everybody who took this view of them, entirely misunderstood them, and were doing the poor shadows a most grievous injustice. My own experience of ghosts led me to the conclusion that, so far from their being inimical to mankind, they were distinctly benign. There was one ghost in particular to whose visitations I used to look forward with the greatest delight; and I was never so happy as when I awoke in the morning with the vague remembrance that, at some time during the silent watches of the past night, I had become conscious of a sweet and gracious presence beside my cot, bending over me with eyes which looked unutterable love into mine, and with lips which mingled kisses of tenderest affection with softly-breathed blessings upon my infant head. At first I used to mention these visitations to Mary, my nurse, but I soon forbore to do so, noticing that she always looked uncomfortably startled for a moment or two afterwards, and generally dismissed the subject somewhat hurriedly by remarking:
"Ah, poor lamb! you've been dreaming about your mother."
Which remark annoyed me, for I felt convinced that so realistic an experience could not possibly result from a mere dream.
It sometimes happened that there were no tragedies or other horrors in the newspapers sufficiently piquant to tempt the cook's intellectual palate; and in the absence of these, if it happened also to be Jane's "evening out," Mary would occasionally produce a well-thumbed copy of the Arabian Nights, or some old volume of fairy tales, from which she read aloud.
How I enjoyed those evenings with the old Eastern romancist! How I revelled in the imaginary delights and wonders of fairydom! Of course I pictured myself the hero of every story, the truth of the most outrageous of which it never occurred to me to doubt. Sitting at Mary's feet, on a low stool before the fire, with the old cat blinking and purring with drowsy satisfaction upon my knee, I used to gaze abstractedly at the glowing coals, now thinking myself the prince in "Cinderella," now the happy owner of "Puss in Boots," and now the adventurous Sindbad. There was one story, however—I quite forget its title—which, in strong contrast with the others, instead of affording me gratification, was a source of keen annoyance and vexation to me whenever I heard it. It related to a boy who on one occasion had the good fortune to meet, in the depths of the forest, a little old man in red cap and green jerkin—a gnome or fairy, of course—who with the utmost good-nature offered to gratify any single wish that boy might choose to express. Here was a glorious chance, the opportunity of a lifetime! The boy's first thought was for ginger-bread, but before the thought had time to clothe itself in words the vision of a drum and trumpet flashed across his mind. He was about to express a wish for these martial instruments, and a real sword, when it occurred to him that the fairies were quite equal to the task of providing gifts of infinitely greater value and splendour than even these coveted articles. And then that unfortunate boy completely lost his head; his brain became muddled with the endless variety of things which he found he required; and he took so long a time to make up his mind that, when, in desperation, he finally did so, the unwelcome discovery was made that his fairy friend, disgusted at the delay and vacillation, had vanished without bestowing upon him so much as even one poor ginger-bread elephant. It was that boy's first and last opportunity, and he lost it. He never again met a fairy, though he wandered through the forest, day after day, week after week, and year after year, until he became an old man, dying at last in a state of abject poverty.
The moral of this story was obvious even to my juvenile mind. It plainly pointed to the necessity for being prepared to take the fullest advantage of every opportunity, whenever it might present itself; and I was resolved that, if ever I encountered a fairy, he should find me fully prepared to tax his generosity to its utmost limit. And, forthwith, I began to ask myself what was the most desirable thing at all likely to be within a fairy's power of bestowal. At this point I, for the first time, began to realise the difficulties of the situation in which the unhappy boy of the story found himself. I thought of several things; but none of them came quite up to my idea of a gift such as would do full honour and justice to a fairy's power of giving; the utmost I could imagine was a real ship full of real sailors, wherein I might roam the seas and perform wonderful voyages like Sindbad; and, in my efforts to achieve a still higher flight of imagination, I found myself so completely at a loss that I was fain to turn to Mary for counsel. Accordingly, as I was being escorted by that damsel upstairs to bed one night, I broached the subject by saying:
"Mary, supposing you were to meet a fairy, what would you ask him to give you?"
"Lor'! Master Lionel, I dun know," she replied. "That's a question I shouldn't like to answer just off-hand; I should want to think it over a good bit. I should read a lot of books, and find out what was the best thing as was to be had."
"What sort of books?" I asked.
"Oh! any sort," was the reply; "books such as them down-stairs in your pa's lib'ry; them's downright beautiful books—your pa's—full of all sorts of wonderful things such as you never heard tell of."
This reply afforded me food for a considerable amount of profound reflection before I went to sleep that night; the result of which was that on the following morning, as soon as I had taken my breakfast, I descended to the "lib'ry," opened the doors of one of the book-cases, and dragged down upon my curly pate the most bulky volume I could reach. With the expenditure of a considerable amount of labour I conveyed it to the nursery, and, flinging it and myself upon the floor, opened it hap-hazard, feeling sure that, in a book of such imposing dimensions, I should find something valuable wherever I might open it. It was an English work of some kind, I remember; but, alas for my aspirations! it might almost as well have been Greek. I was equal, just then, to the mastery of words of two syllables, but no more; and the result was that, though I occasionally caught a glimpse of the meaning of a sentence here and there, the subject matter of the book, as a whole, remained a profound mystery to me. My want of knowledge was at once made most painfully apparent to myself; I discovered that I had a very great deal to learn before the treasures of wisdom by which I was surrounded could be made available; and I forthwith bent all my energies to the task of perfecting myself in the art of reading as a first and indispensable step.
MY MOTHER'S PORTRAIT.
Actuated by what was to me so powerful an incentive, my progress toward proficiency as a reader was rapid; and, in a comparatively short time, I felt equal to a renewed effort to sound the depths of the well of knowledge.
On this momentous occasion—momentous to me, at least, for I am convinced that it exercised a very material influence on my eventual choice of a career—I chanced upon an illustrated volume of Travels by Land and Sea. I opened it at the title-page, down which I patiently and conscientiously waded; then on to the preface—which, luckily, was a short one—and so into the body of the book. I of course encountered a great deal that I could only imperfectly understand; and I detected within myself a rapidly-growing disposition to skip all the hard words; but, notwithstanding these drawbacks, I contrived to catch a glimmering, if not something more, of the author's meaning. It was hard work, but I struggled on, down page after page, fascinated, my imagination vividly depicting the various scenes of which I read. I saw the deep blue tropic sea heaving and sparkling in the joyous sunshine, and the stout ship, with her gleaming wide-spread canvas, sweeping bravely over its bosom. I stood upon the deck of that ship, among the seamen, peering eagerly ahead, and saw a faint grey cloud gradually shape itself in the midst of the haze on the far western horizon. I heard the joyous shout of "Land ho!" break from the lips of the lookout at the mast-head; and watched the cloud gradually hardening its outlines and changing its tints until it assumed the unmistakable aspect of land; saw the distant mountains steal into view, and the trees emerge into distinct and prominent detail along the shore; saw, at length, the strip of sandy beach, dazzlingly white in the blazing sunlight; heard the deep hoarse roar of the breakers, and saw the flashing of the snow-white foam as the rollers swept grandly on and dashed themselves into surf and diamond spray upon the strand. Then I saw the natives launching their light canoes and paddling off through the surf to the ship; or leapt eagerly into the boat alongside; reached the strip of dazzling beach—strewn now with beautiful shells; plunged into the grateful shade of enticing groves rich with the prodigal luxuriance and fantastic beauty of tropical growth, ablaze with flowers of gorgeous hues, alive with birds whose plumage flashed like living gems, and breathed an atmosphere oppressive with perfume.
From that hour forward the entertainments of the servants' hall paled their ineffectual fires before the superior effulgence of those delightful visions which I now possessed the power of summoning at will; books or stories of travel and adventure alone had now any charm for me; and these I devoured with an appetite which grew by what it fed on. The natural consequence of all this will readily be foreseen: a desire sprang up, which steadily ripened into a resolve, that, when I should become a man, I too would be a traveller, and—like those of whom I was never tired of reading—would make my home upon the pathless sea.
Thus matters went on until the arrival of the eighth anniversary of my birthday, on the morning of which, soon after I had finished my breakfast, I was summoned to my father's studio. I was received somewhat coldly; and, after indicating to me the chair which he had placed for my occupation, my father resumed his work and continued it for some time without taking the slightest further notice of me.
A silence of perhaps half an hour ensued; when, laying down his brush, he said:
"I am glad to learn from Mrs Wilson that you are making very satisfactory progress with your studies; that, in fact, you are exhibiting a marked disposition to acquire knowledge. This is well; this is as it should be; and, to mark my appreciation of your conduct, I have resolved to further your desires and give you increased facilities for study, by sending you to school, where you will have the advantage of such guidance and assistance as only trained masters can give; and where you will also enjoy the companionship and association of lads of your own age. I hope the prospect is a pleasant one to you."
As this last remark seemed to partake somewhat of the form of a question, I replied that the prospect was pleasant, and that I felt very much obliged to him for his kind and thoughtful intentions. I wanted to say a great deal more by way of thanks; I wished him to understand how delightful to me would be the change which this arrangement involved; how I had longed for some one to take me by the hand, to guide my erratic footsteps and lead me by the shortest way to that fountain of knowledge for the waters of which I was just beginning to thirst; and I wished him to understand, too, how welcome would be the companionship of the other boys, after so lonely a life as mine had been. But to make all this clear to him through my imperfect method of expressing myself would have involved quite a long speech on my part; and, as my eager glance fell on his unsympathetic face, the words failed me, and I held my peace.
"The school I have selected is a large one," my father continued. "I am informed that the pupils at present number over two hundred; and it is quite in the country. The principal encourages every kind of innocent pastime, such as cricket, football, swimming, skating in the winter, and so on; so you will not lack amusements—the necessaries for joining in which I will take care that you shall be provided with. And I have arranged that, for the present, you shall receive from the headmaster sixpence a week as pocket-money—a sum which I consider quite sufficient for a boy of your age. With regard to your studies, I would urge you to make the most of your opportunities; as, on the completion of your education, you will have to make your own way in the world. My profession, as you will perhaps better understand later on, is somewhat a precarious one. As long as I retain my health and strength and the unimpaired use of all my faculties, matters will no doubt go well with me; but accident, disease, or the loss of sight may at any moment interrupt my labours or stop them altogether: in which case my income, which I derive solely from the use of my brush, would cease altogether. You will easily comprehend, therefore, that it would be unwise in the extreme for you to depend upon me in any way to provide for your future. Now, do you think you clearly comprehend what I have been saying?"
I replied, 'Yes, I believed I did.' I wanted to add that there was one thing, however, that I did not understand, which was, how a father could communicate to his only child so lengthy an explanation on a subject of so much importance without giving one word or sign of affection to that child, and that I was most earnestly anxious to know the reason, if any, for so marked an omission; but, whilst I was hesitating how to frame my remark in such a manner as to avoid the giving of offence, my father rose from before his easel, and, unlocking a cabinet which stood in the room, said:
"One word more. You will probably be asked by your companions all manner of questions about your home and your parents. Now, with regard to your mother, you know nothing about her beyond, possibly, the fact that she died when you were born; and that is quite as much as I consider it needful for you to know. But you may perhaps be glad to be made acquainted with her personal appearance; you may, possibly, at some future day—if you have not already experienced such a desire—be anxious to possess the means of bringing her before you as something more than a mere name. I will therefore give you this miniature, which is a correct and striking likeness of what your mother was when I painted it."
And, as he finished speaking, my father placed in my hand a small velvet case, to which was attached a thin gold chain by which it might be suspended from the neck.
I was about to open the case; but my father somewhat hastily prevented the action by throwing the chain round my neck, thrusting the miniature into the bosom of my dress, and dismissing me with the words:
"There! run away now and make your preparations. We shall set out for your school to-morrow, immediately after breakfast."
I hastened away to my play-room, and, once fairly within the bounds of my own domain, drew forth the miniature case and opened it. As the lid flew back at the pressure of my finger upon the spring a thrill of half joy, half terror, shot through me; for I instantly recognised in the features of the portrait a vivid presentment of that sweet dream-face whose visits to me during the silent and lonely night-watches had flooded my infant soul with such an ecstasy of rapture and delight. The portrait, which is before me as I write, was that of a young and beautiful girl. The complexion was clearest, faintest, most transparent olive; the face a perfect oval, crowned with luxuriant masses of wavy, deep chestnut hair, the colour almost merging into black; indeed it would have been difficult to decide that it was not black but for the lights in it, which were of a deep dusky golden tone. The eyebrows were beautifully arched, and the lashes of the eyes were represented as unusually long. The eyes themselves were very deep hazel, or black—it was impossible to say which; the nose perfectly straight; the lips, of a clear, rich, cherry hue, were full and slightly pouting; the mouth perhaps the merest shade larger than it ought to have been for perfect beauty; the chin round, with a well-defined dimple in its centre. Altogether, it was the loveliest face I had ever seen; and I stood for some time gazing in a trance of admiration on it, the feeling being mingled with one of deep regret that fate had, in snatching away the living original, deprived me of such rich possibilities of mutual love. I felt keenly that, had she continued to live, my life would, in all probability, have been widely different and very much happier than it ever had been. Musing thus, I turned the case over in my hand, and found that there was a contrivance for opening it at the back. I soon discovered the spring, upon pressing which the back flew open, disclosing a circlet of glossy chestnut hair reposing upon an oval of pale yellow silk, in the centre of which were painted the words "Maria Lascelles; aet. 18. C.L."
Closing the case again and placing it carefully in my bosom, I turned my thoughts to my new prospects; and whilst collecting together a few of my more treasured valuables to take with me, and packing the remainder away in a place of safety, I suffered myself to indulge in much pleasant speculation upon my immediate future.
On the following morning, about ten o'clock, my father and I left town in a post-chaise, and, stopping only for an hour about mid-day to dine at a pleasant little road-side country inn, arrived, at about seven o'clock in the evening, at our destination. This was a large brick- built edifice evidently constructed especially to serve the purposes of a scholastic establishment, standing in its own somewhat extensive grounds, and situated in a lonely spot about half a mile from the sea, and—though actually in Hampshire—some four miles only from the port of Poole in Dorsetshire. I was speedily presented to the principal, who at once made a favourable impression upon me, afterwards abundantly confirmed; and, after perhaps half an hour's conversation with him, my father formally delivered me over to his care and left me—his leave- taking, though somewhat hurried, being decidedly warmer than his abstracted manner during the journey had led me to expect.
At this school, let it suffice to say, I remained for the following seven years; enjoying, during that period of my life, such happiness as, up to then, my imagination had never been able to conceive; and devoting myself to my studies with a zest and enthusiasm which won the warmest encomiums from the several masters who had charge of my education. French, geography, mathematics, and navigation were my favourite subjects; and I also developed a very fair amount of talent with my pencil. Athletics I especially excelled in; and by the time I had been three years at the school I had become almost amphibious. It affords me particular pleasure to reflect that, notwithstanding my previous total want of training, I was, from the very outset of my school career, an especial favourite with my fellow-pupils, never having had more than one quarrel serious enough to result in a fight, on which occasion I succeeded in giving my antagonist—a great bully who had been cruelly tyrannising over a smaller boy—so severe a trouncing that a resort to this rough-and-ready mode of settling a dispute never again became necessary, so far as I was concerned. During this period there was only one thing that troubled me, which was, that I never saw my father. Owing to what at the time seemed to me an uninterrupted series of unfortunate coincidences, it invariably happened that when holiday-time came round my father had urgent business calling him away from home; and arrangements had accordingly to be made for my spending my holidays at the school. This, in itself, constituted no very great hardship; there were several other lads—Anglo-Indians and others whose friends resided at too great a distance to admit of the holidays being spent with them— who always remained behind to bear me company; and, as we were allowed to do pretty much what we liked so long as we did not misconduct ourselves or get into mischief, the time was passed pleasantly enough; but, notwithstanding his singular treatment of me, I loved my father, and regarded it as a positive hardship that so long a time should be permitted to elapse without my seeing him. I was continually in hopes that, as we were unable to meet at holiday-time, he would run down into the country and pay me a visit, but he never did, and this was another disappointment.
At length, however, an end came to my disappointment and to my school- days together; for, on the morning of my fifteenth birthday, I was sent for by the principal of the school, who, after complimenting me upon my diligence and the progress I had made whilst under his care, informed me that the day had arrived when my school-boy life was to cease, and when I must go out into the world and commence that great battle of life, which all of us have to fight in one shape or another. He added to his communication some most excellent advice, the value of which I have since had abundant opportunity of proving; and concluded with the announcement that my father would make his appearance that same evening and take me away with him.
Within a quarter of an hour of the time specified, the grinding sound of wheels upon the gravel drive in front of the building suggested the probability that the moment of my departure was at hand; and, a few minutes later, I was summoned to the library to meet my father. With my heart throbbing high with mingled feelings of joy and trepidation, I hastened to the spot, and, before I well knew where I was, found myself in the presence of the parent who had allowed seven full years to elapse without an attempt to see his only child. For an instant—which sufficed me to note that those seven years had left abundant traces of their passage on the once almost unwrinkled brow—we stood gazing with equal intentness in each others' faces; then my father grasped the outstretched hand which I offered, and said, somewhat constrainedly:
"So this is the once quiet dreamy little Leo, is it? I am glad to see you once more, my boy; glad to see you looking so strong and well—so wonderfully improved in appearance in every way, in fact; and glad, too, to hear that Dr Tomlinson is able to confirm so thoroughly the good reports of your conduct which he has sent me from time to time." He paused, and I was about to make a suitable answer to his greeting, when he continued—half unconsciously, it seemed to me, but with a quite perceptible ring of harshness in his voice:
"You are wonderfully like your mother, boy; no one who knew her would ever mistake you for anyone else than her son."
The words were simple, but were accompanied by such a regretful look, deepening into a baleful frown as he regarded me fixedly, that I was completely startled, and in fact so overwhelmed with astonishment that, for the moment, I was quite unable to make any reply; and before I could recover myself my father appeared to have become conscious of his singularity of manner, which he evidently overcame by a very powerful effort. Laying his hand somewhat heavily upon my shoulder, he said:
"Do not be frightened, Leo; I have been far from well lately, and my illness seems to have slightly affected my brain; sometimes I detect myself saying things which I had not the remotest intention of saying a moment before. If you should observe any little peculiarity of that kind in me, take no notice of it, let it pass. And now, if your boxes are all ready—as I suppose they are—let them be brought down and put on the chaise; we shall sleep in Poole to-night, and we can converse at the hotel, over a good dinner, as well as here."
An hour later we were discussing that same good dinner, and maintaining a tolerably animated conversation over it, too. My father put a few adroit questions to me relative to my school experiences, which had the effect of "drawing me out," and he listened to all I had to say with just that appearance of friendly interest which is so flattering and encouraging to a youthful talker. His treatment of me was everything that could be desired—except that he seemed to be rather taking the ground of an elder friend than of a parent. I should have preferred a shade less of the polite suavity of his manner and a more distinct manifestation of fatherly affection. He seemed anxious to efface the memory of the singularity which marked our first meeting; and yet I thought that, later on in the evening, when our conversation assumed a more general character, I could detect a disposition on his part to again approach the subject, these approaches being accompanied by a very perceptible nervousness and constraint of manner. But, though my father certainly led the conversation once or twice in that direction, he as often changed the subject again, and nothing more was said about it until our bed-room candles were brought to us and we were about to retire for the night. Then, as we vacated the chairs we had been occupying during the evening, and rose to our feet, he grasped me by the arm and planted me square in front of the chimney-piece, which was surmounted by a pier-glass, and, placing himself beside me, remarked, looking at our reflected images:
"You have grown tremendously, Leo, during the seven years you have been at school. I really believe you will develop into as tall a man as I am. But," (taking a candlestick in his hand and holding it so as to throw the light full upon our faces) "you are so like your mother, so painfully like your mother;" and again the frown darkened his face and for a moment he seemed almost to shrink from me.
"Well, sir," said I, "it seems to me that I have your forehead, your mouth, and your chin; we both possess considerable width between the eyes; and my hair, though dark, is curly, like your own."
"Ah, yes!" he answered, somewhat impatiently; "the latter, however, is a mere accident; and, as to the other points you have mentioned, I really cannot see any positive resemblance; I wish I could—I earnestly wish that my son resembled me rather than—Ah! there I go again, saying words which positively have no meaning. I really must take rest and medical advice; I have executed several very important commissions during the past year, and the strain upon my imagination and upon my nerves has been almost too much for me. Now, I'll be bound, Leo, that you have noticed more than once this evening that there are moments when I am not—well, not exactly my natural self."
"Well, sir," I hesitatingly replied, "I must confess that—that—"
"That you have," my father interrupted. "Very well; take no notice of it; forget it; it means nothing. Good night, boy; good night."
"Good night, sir," I replied. "I hope you will sleep soundly, and rise in the morning refreshed. And, oh father! I wish I could do anything to help you—"
"So you can, my son; so you can. Thank you, Leo, for your kind wish. You can help me very greatly, by taking no notice whatever of any little eccentricities you may observe in my behaviour, and by remembering that they are entirely due to overwork. Now, good night, once more; and remember that we must be stirring early in the morning, as we have a long journey before us."
And, with this very peculiar mode of dismissal, my father gently forced me out of the room, and closed the door upon me.
I JOIN THE "HERMIONE."
On the following morning, after an early breakfast, we set out for London; where we safely arrived on the evening of the same day. At the outset of the journey my father appeared to be in tolerably good spirits, conversing with much animation upon the subject—which he had introduced—of my future career. I explained to him that my great desire was, and had been for some time, to become a sailor; and that I hoped he would be able to see his way to forward my views. Contrary, I must confess, to my expectations, my father raised no objections, stipulating only that I should enter the naval service; and he promised me that he would use his best efforts to secure my nomination as a midshipman; but he cautioned me that, as he scarcely knew to whom to apply for this service, I might have to wait some time for the gratification of my wishes. The conversation which settled this, to me, important matter took place in the forenoon, the subject being finally disposed of and dismissed just as we alighted for luncheon. On the resumption of our journey the conversation was by no means so lively, and it distressed me much to observe that my father was gradually sinking back into the same strange moody state of mind which had possessed him on the previous day. I made several efforts to win him back to a more cheerful condition, but they were quite ineffectual; and, after receiving two or three increasingly impatient replies, I was compelled to abandon the attempt. For several days the same unsatisfactory state of affairs continued, my father and I only meeting at breakfast and dinner, and then exchanging scarcely half a dozen words beyond the ordinary courtesies; I was therefore not only considerably surprised but much gratified when he one morning informed me that he had succeeded in securing my appointment as midshipman on board the frigate Hermione, then about to sail for the West Indies. He added that there was no time to lose if I wished to go out in her; and that it would consequently be necessary for us to set out for Portsmouth on the following morning. This promptitude was rather more than I had bargained for; notwithstanding my father's very peculiar behaviour I was much attached to him, and had hoped to have enjoyed at least a month or two of his society; moreover, I felt very anxious as to his peculiar condition, and would fain have remained with him until I could have seen some improvement in his mental state; but, on my mentioning this, he seemed so singularly averse to any delay of my departure that I saw nothing for it but to acquiesce.
A week later I had joined my ship, and on November 18th, 1796, we were bowling down channel under double-reefed topsails.
We duly arrived at our destination—Port Royal, Jamaica—after a tedious passage of over two months' duration; and, having landed our despatches, were ordered to cruise between Cape Tiburon and the Virgin Islands.
By this time I had pretty well settled down into my proper place, had ceased to be the butt of the other midshipmen; and, having a real liking for my duties, had learned to perform them pretty satisfactorily. Mr Reid, the first lieutenant, had expressed the opinion that I "shaped well." But, even before our arrival at Jamaica, I had made the unwelcome discovery that the Hermione was by no means likely to prove a comfortable ship. The vessel herself there was no fault whatever to find with; she was a noble frigate of thirty-two guns, very fast, and a splendid sea-boat. But the skipper—Captain Pigot—was a regular tartar. He was a tall, powerful man, and would have been handsome but for his somewhat bloated features. Even to his officers he was arrogant, overbearing, and discourteous to an almost unbearable degree; to the men he was simply an unmitigated tyrant. There was certainly some excuse for severity of discipline and occasional loss of temper, had it gone no further than that, for our crew was, as a whole, the worst I have ever had the misfortune to be associated with, several of them being foreigners, and of the remainder a good sprinkling were men who had been sentenced by the magistrates to serve the King. Possibly in other and more patient hands they might have developed into a good smart body of men, and such it was doubtless the skipper's hope and intention to make them. But he most unfortunately went the wrong way to work. Punishment was his doctrine; the "cat" was his sovereign remedy for all evils. He flogged almost daily, even for the most trivial offences, and our "black list" was probably the longest in the navy for a ship of our size. As might be expected, with a captain of this kind, we poor unfortunate mids were constantly in trouble, and the greater part of our time was spent at the mast-heads.
One afternoon—it was on the 22nd of March, 1797—being off Zaccheo, the lookout aloft reported that a brig and several smaller vessels were at anchor inshore between that island and the larger one of Porto Rico. The first lieutenant thereupon at once went aloft with his telescope, where he made a thorough examination of the strangers and their position; having completed which to his satisfaction, he returned to the deck and made his report to Captain Pigot. The ship's head was immediately directed inshore; and the pinnace, first and second cutters, and gig were ordered away, under lieutenants Reid and Douglas, to go in, as soon as the ship had anchored, and cut out the vessels. Mr Reid, with whom, I think, I was somewhat of a favourite, kindly selected me to take charge of the gig; and young Courtenay, my especial chum, was fortunate enough to be chosen by Mr Douglas to command the second cutter. By Courtenay's advice, I procured from the armourer a ship's cutlass, to replace my almost useless dirk; and having carefully loaded and primed a very excellent pair of pistols with which my father had presented me, I thrust those useful articles into my belt and hastened on deck, just as the frigate was rounding to preparatory to anchoring. A couple of minutes later the anchor was let go abreast of and scarcely half a mile distant from a small battery, the guns of which commanded the vessels we were about to attack, and the canvas was very smartly clewed up and furled.
The men were still aloft when the battery, which had hoisted Spanish colours, opened fire upon us, the first shot severing our larboard main- topgallant back-stay. This damage, slight as it was, sufficed to effectually rouse Captain Pigot's hasty, irritable temper; and, hurrying the men down from aloft, he ordered the larboard broadside to be manned, and the guns to be directed upon the audacious battery. A couple of well-directed broadsides sufficed to silence its fire, and the boats were then immediately piped away.
"Mark my words, Lascelles," said Courtenay, as we trundled down the ship's side together, "we are going to have a tough time of it with those craft in there; three of them have boarding nettings triced up, and are evidently preparing to give us a warm reception. They look like privateers, and if so, I daresay they are full of men, who will have ample opportunity to bowl us over at their leisure whilst we are pulling in upon them. And we shall have no help from the frigate's guns, for the rascals are beyond their reach."
"Now then, Courtenay, no croaking, young gentleman, if you please, or I shall be under the painful necessity of sending you back on board, and taking Mr Maxwell in your place," said Mr Douglas, who was following us down the side, and who happened to overhear Courtenay's encouraging remarks.
"Oh, no, sir, you can't be so heartless as to do that; have some consideration for my feelings," laughed Courtenay; and flinging himself down in the stern-sheets of the boat, he drew his cutlass, and affected to be very cautiously feeling its edge, to the covert amusement of the men who happened to see him.
"It's a'most sharp enough for you to shave with, ain't it, sir?" demurely inquired the smart fore-topman, who was stroke-oar in Courtenay's boat, at which there was another grin; Courtenay's chin being as guiltless of hair as the back of a lady's hand, notwithstanding which it was whispered that he assiduously shaved every morning with his penknife.
"Now, are we all ready, Douglas?" asked Mr Reid, as he stood in the stern-sheets of the pinnace, and ran his eye critically over the boats. "Then, shove off; let fall and give way, lads. Lascelles and I will tackle the brig, Mr Douglas, whilst I must leave you and Mr Courtenay to give a good account of those two schooners which have hoisted their colours. We will take matters quietly, so as to spare the men as much as possible, until the shot begins to drop round us, when we must make a dash and get on board as quickly as we can."
Courtenay's assumption that the three vessels we had marked out for attack were privateers was speedily strengthened by the circumstance that boats were seen to put off from the smaller craft—doubtless prizes of the others—conveying what were probably the prize-crews back to their own ships, to assist in their defence. As we neared the land we made out that the people in the battery were still standing to their guns, and we momentarily expected them to open fire upon us; but they were wise enough to refrain, evidently having already had a sufficient experience of the frigate's broadsides, the destructive effects of which became distinctly visible as we pulled past.
Upon our arriving abreast the battery, the brig and the two schooners, for which we were heading, having got springs upon their cables and hoisted French colours, brought their broadsides to bear upon us, and commenced firing, whereupon we separated, taking "open order," as the marines say, so as to offer as small a mark as possible. It was the first time I had "smelt powder," and as the shot began to hum past us, I must plead guilty to having at the outset experienced a certain amount of nervous trepidation. I had an idea that every shot would find its mark, that "every bullet has its billet," and I momentarily expected to feel the crushing blow which would tell me that I had been hit. But on we swept, the shot flying close over our heads, or just past us on either side, occasionally striking the water within such near proximity as to dash a little shower of spray right over the boat, and presently the musketry bullets came whistling about our ears, yet we remained unscathed. This opened my eyes, and gave me a juster appreciation than I had had before of the perils of warfare. I saw that it was by no means the necessarily deadly thing I had hitherto imagined it to be, and my courage came back to me, my spirits rising momentarily higher in response to the increasing excitement of the occasion. For we were now dashing forward upon our several quarries at racing speed, the men straining at the oars until the stout ashen staves bent like willow wands, and the water buzzed and foamed and bubbled, hissing past us in a regular series of miniature whirlpools, whilst the boats seemed every now and then as though they were about to be lifted clear out of the water by the herculean efforts of their panting crews.
Once within musket-shot of the vessels, a very few minutes at this pace sufficed us to cover the remaining distance, when we dashed alongside— the first lieutenant ranging up on the brig's starboard quarter, whilst we in the gig took her in the larboard fore-chains—and a stubborn hand- to-hand fight immediately commenced. The craft we had attacked proved to be full of people; and upon our attempting to board, we found that they had been divided into two distinct parties, one of which was successfully opposing Mr Reid, whilst the other seemed determined at all costs to prevent my own little party from gaining a footing upon the deck. Twice were we forced back into the boat, and I saw that two or three of the men were bleeding from pike or bullet wounds. A third time we made the attempt, and as I was scrambling up into the brig's channels a Frenchman thrust his pike through a port at me. I grasped the weapon, and partly through my antagonist's efforts to wrench it away again, and partly with the aid of a friendly push behind from one of our own lads, I suddenly found myself shot in through the port, and safely landed on the brig's deck. Springing to my feet in an instant, I laid fiercely about me with my cutlass, and thus cleared a way for the gig's crew to follow me. In less than a minute the gigs were in possession of the fore part of the deck, and so quickly was the thing done, and with such good-will did our lads lay about them, that the party opposed to us recoiled in a sudden panic. Taking instant advantage of this, we charged them with a wild hurrah, whereupon they fairly turned tail and fled before us, rushing helter-skelter in among the other party. The whole body of defenders being thus thrown into disorder, the first lieutenant's party managed to make good their footing on deck; and then, after one desperate but ineffectual charge on the part of the Frenchmen, we had no further trouble, the defenders throwing down their weapons and calling for quarter. This was, of course, at once accorded them, and they were ordered below, the hatches being clapped over them, whilst the ship was subjected to an overhaul. She proved to be both empty and old, besides being apparently a particularly leaky tub; she was consequently valueless, and except for the purpose of destroying her, and thus putting a stop to her depredations, not worth the trouble of taking. This fact definitely ascertained, Mr Reid ordered the crew on deck again; and, giving them five minutes in which to collect their personal belongings, directed them to take the brig's boats and make the best of their way ashore. The crew thus got rid of, the vessel herself was effectually set on fire in three places, and as soon as the flames had taken such a hold as to prevent all possibility of their extinction we left her.
Meanwhile, the second lieutenant and Courtenay had been equally successful with ourselves, each having captured one of the schooners without very much difficulty. They proved, however, to be, like the brig, very old and weak, having evidently been strained all to pieces in the effort to make them perform services for which they were never built. They, therefore, were also set on fire. And as for their prizes, they consisted of half a dozen wretched little dirty coasters, the largest of which could not have measured over sixty tons. Their crews, we were informed, had been landed on various parts of the coast, so, their lawful owners not being there to take possession of them, these craft were likewise devoted to the flames. By the time that the Frenchmen had all been got rid of, and the little fleet effectually set on fire, it had fallen dark, and all hands being pretty well tired out, we made the best of our way back to the frigate. We had eight hands wounded in this skirmish, all the wounds proving fortunately of a very trifling character, so much so indeed that not one of the wounded was put on the sick list for even a single day.
The Hermione remained at anchor all night; and on the following morning Mr Douglas, with a boat's crew, went on shore, drove the small garrison out of the fort, and spiked and dismounted the guns.
Thus, harmlessly, so far at least as I was concerned, ended my first brush with the enemy; and though I never heard anything further of the affair, I received the gratifying information that the first lieutenant had spoken very highly of my conduct on the occasion when making his report to Captain Pigot.
AN UNSUCCESSFUL CHASE.
A fortnight later we fell in with and were ordered to join the squadron of Vice-admiral Parker.
This arrangement was, to the Hermione's officers at least, a source of intense gratification. For whereas, whilst we were cruising alone, our opportunities for social intercourse were limited to an occasional invitation to dine with the captain—and that, Heaven knows, was poor entertainment enough!—we now had frequent invitations to dine with the officers of the other ships, or entertained them in return in our own ward-room. But, though matters were thus made more pleasant for the officers of the Hermione, I cannot say that the change wrought any improvement in the condition of the ship's company—quite the reverse, indeed. For, so anxious was Captain Pigot that his ship should be the smartest in the fleet, that when reefing topsails at night, if any other ship happened to finish before us, the last man of the yard of the dilatory topsail was infallibly booked for a flogging next day. And so with all other evolutions. The result of which was, that while our crew became noted for their smartness, they daily grew more sullen, sulky, and discontented in their dispositions, shirking their work whenever there was a possibility of doing so undetected, and performing their duties with an ill-will which they took little pains to conceal. This, of course, only tended to make matters still worse. The skipper could not fail to notice his increasing unpopularity, and this wounded his self-love; added to which he soon got the idea into his head—and certainly not altogether without reason—that the men were combining together to thwart and annoy him. And this only made him still more irritable and severe. It seemed at length as though matters were steadily approaching the point when it would become an open and recognised struggle between the captain and the crew for supremacy in respect of dogged obstinacy and determination. What made it all the worse was that the officers, in the maintenance of proper order and discipline in the ship, were compelled—very much against their will—to support and countenance the skipper in his arbitrary mode of dealing with the crew; thus dividing the inmates of the frigate into two well- defined parties—namely, those on the quarter-deck and those on the forecastle. We were all unpopular in varying degrees, from the captain down to the midshipmen. I have good reason to believe that the first lieutenant on more than one occasion remonstrated with Captain Pigot upon his excessive harshness to the men, and strongly urged him to try the effect of more lenient measures with them; but, if such was the case, the remonstrances proved wholly unavailing. Added to all this there was, especially after we joined the squadron, incessant sail, gun, musketry, and cutlass drill, in addition to the daily combined evolutions of the ships; all of which made our poor lads pray for a change of some sort—they cared not what—it could scarcely be for the worse, and might very reasonably be hoped to be somewhat for the better.
Under such circumstances the joy of the men may be imagined when, one morning at daylight, the signal was made by the admiral to chase to the eastward. Nevertheless, our unfortunate lookout aloft was promptly booked for two dozen at the gangway that day because he had failed to be the first to discover the stranger.
We were cruising at this time in the Windward Channel, the squadron being at the moment of the discovery about midway between Points Malano and Perle. We were working to windward under double-reefed topsails on the starboard tack, the trade-wind blowing fresh at about east-nor'- east.
The strange sail was about ten miles dead to windward of us; and that she had sharp eyes on board her was manifest from the fact that, before we had time to acknowledge the admiral's signal, she had shaken the reefs out of her topsails and had set topgallant-sails. Every ship in the squadron of course at once did the same, and forthwith a most animated chase commenced. The Hermione happened to be the weathermost British ship, and, consequently, nearest the chase; and most anxiously did Captain Pigot struggle to maintain this enviable position; albeit we were closely pressed by the frigates Mermaid and Quebec, which were thrashing along, the one on our lee bow and the other on our lee beam, a distance of a bare cable's length separating the three ships from each other. It was an interesting and exhilarating spectacle to watch these two graceful craft leaping and plunging over the swift-rushing foam- capped emerald surges, spurning them aside with their swelling bows and shivering them into cloud-like showers of snowy spray which they dashed as high as their fore-yards; now rolling heavily to windward as they slid down into a liquid valley, and anon careering to leeward under the influence of wind and wave, as they mounted to the succeeding crest, until their wet gleaming sides and glistening copper flashed in the sun almost down to their garboard strakes. Nor did our own ship present a less gallant spectacle as she careered madly forward through the hissing brine, now burying her bows deep in a fringe of yeasty foam, and next moment soaring aloft as though she meant to forsake the ocean altogether; her steeply-inclined deck knee-deep with the rushing cataracts of water which poured over her to windward, her canvas tugging at the stout spars until they bent and sprang like fishing-rods, and the wind singing through her tautly-strained rigging as through the strings of a gigantic Aeolian harp. The bearings of the chase were promptly taken by Mr Southcott, the master; and a single hour sufficed to show that we were not only fore-reaching, but also weathering upon her. By that time we had brought her a couple of points abaft our weather-beam, and the Hermione was then hove about, this manoeuvre temporarily bringing the chase fair in line with our jib-boom end; whilst the Mermaid lay broad away on our lee quarter fully a mile distant, with the Quebec half a mile astern of her. With the rising of the sun the breeze freshened still more; and it soon became evident, from the first lieutenant's manner, that he was beginning to feel anxious about his spars. Captain Pigot, however, who was on deck, would not allow the canvas to be reduced by so much as a single thread; so Mr Reid was at length compelled (at considerable risk to the men who executed the duty) to get up preventer back-stays fore and aft; and to this precaution was doubtless due the ultimate success which crowned our efforts. Another hour brought us fairly astern of the chase; and, the moment that her three masts were in line, we again tacked and stood after her, being now directly in her wake and about nine miles astern. Meanwhile the rest of the squadron had also tacked, and were now to be seen tailing out in a long straggling line on our lee quarter—the Mermaid leading, the Quebec next, and the rest—nowhere, as the racing men say.
Breakfast was now served, and by the time that I again went on deck we had so far gained upon the chase that the foot of her courses could be now and then seen as we rose upon the crest of a sea. She was evidently a very smart as well as a very fine ship; yet we were overhauling her, hand over hand, as our ships pretty generally did those of the French. It was freely admitted on all hands that the French were better shipbuilders than ourselves, yet our ships generally proved the faster in a chase like the present; and I had often wondered how it was. Now I saw and could understand the reason. It was because the British ships were better sailed and better steered than those of our enemies. Even at our then distance it was painfully apparent that the yards of the chase were trimmed in the most slovenly manner, and in the matter of steering she was sheering and yawing all over the place; whilst for ourselves, our canvas was trimmed with the utmost nicety; and we had a man at the wheel who never for a single instant removed his glance from the weather-leach of our main-topgallant—sail, which was kept the merest trifle a-lift—just sufficiently so, and no more, to show that the frigate was looking up as high as it was possible for her to go, whilst the remainder of her canvas was clean full and dragging her along at race-horse speed. The result was that, though our ship was possibly the slower of the two, her wake was as straight as though it had been ruled upon the heaving water; whilst that of the chase was so crooked that she must have travelled over nearly half as much ground again as ourselves, thus losing through faulty steering more than she gained through superiority in speed.
At 10 a.m., by which time we had neared the chase to within a distance of six miles, the stranger hove about for the first time and stood to the southward and eastward, close-hauled on the larboard tack. At 10:30 we followed suit, and half an hour later the high land behind Jean Rabel, Saint Domingo, was sighted from aloft Captain Pigot now came to the conclusion that the stranger was aiming to take refuge in Port au Paix; and, should she succeed in effecting her design, it might prove difficult if not impossible to capture her. His anxiety to speedily get alongside her and force her to action accordingly grew almost momentarily more intense, as also did his acerbity of temper, until at length he became so nearly unbearable that, had he just then happened to have been washed overboard, I believe not a single man in the ship— apart from the officers, that is, of course—would have raised a hand or joined in any effort to save him.
At noon, however, matters grew a little more tolerable; for it had by that time become apparent that, unless favoured by some unforeseen accident, the chase could not possibly escape us. At Jean Rabel the land begins to trend to the southward and westward, extending in that direction a distance of some four or five miles, when it bends somewhat more to the westward, thus forming a shallow bay. It was towards the bottom of this bay that the chase was now heading; and it speedily became apparent that, if she would avoid going ashore, there would soon be only two alternatives open to her; one of which was to go round upon the starboard tack and make a stretch off the land sufficient to allow of her fetching Port au Paix on her next board—in which event she would have to pass us within gun-shot; and the other was to bear up and run to the southward and westward, when she would have to run the gauntlet of the whole remaining portion of the squadron; in which case her fate could only be certain capture. We hoped and believed she would choose the first of these two alternatives.
We were both nearing the land very rapidly—the chase now only some three miles ahead of us—and at length Captain Pigot, feeling certain that the stranger must now very soon heave in stays, ordered our own people to their stations, resolved to tack simultaneously with the chase, and thus, by remaining some three miles further in the offing, retain the advantage of a stronger and truer breeze. Minute after minute lagged slowly by, however, and still the French ship kept steadily on, with her bows pointing straight toward the land. Suddenly, without warning or premonition, her three masts, with all their spread of canvas, were seen to sway violently over to leeward; and, before any of us fully realised what was happening, they lay prone in the water alongside, snapped short off by the deck. The next moment the ship swung round, broadside on to the land, and the sea began to break over her. Her captain had actually run her on shore to escape us.
Sail was at once shortened on board the Hermione, and the ship hove to, with her head off-shore. Captain Pigot then sent for his telescope, and, with its aid, made a thorough inspection of the stranded frigate; most of the officers following his example. Yes, there could be no possible mistake about it, she was hard and fast on shore, bumping heavily to all appearance, and with the sea breaking over her from stem to stern. Not satisfied, however, with this distant inspection, the skipper caused his gig to be lowered, and in her proceeded as near to the scene of the wreck as prudence would allow. He was absent two full hours, and on his return we learnt that the French ship was hopelessly lost; that the crew were with the utmost difficulty effecting a landing on the beach; and that the craft herself was already breaking up. He was highly exasperated, as indeed were we all, at this noble prize thus slipping through our fingers, at a moment, too, when escape seemed absolutely impossible; and in the heat of temper he denounced the French captain as a dastardly poltroon, a disgrace to his uniform; and swore that, could he but have got hold of him, he would have seized him to a grating and given him five dozen at the gangway. And I firmly believe he fully meant what he said. As for me, though I—youngster that I was—felt, perhaps, as keenly disappointed as the skipper himself, I yet thought that the French captain had more thoroughly performed his duty to his country than he would have done had he remained afloat and fought us. For, with the vastly superior force of an entire squadron on our side, escape would then have been for him impossible; his ship must inevitably have been captured; with the sequence that, in the hands of a British crew, she would have become a formidable foe to the country which had recently owned her. Whereas, now, though that country had lost her, her guns could at least never be turned against it.
Captain Pigot's inspection over, and the gig hoisted in, the Hermione's main-topsail was filled and we made sail for the offing, where the remainder of the squadron was now hove to awaiting the progress of events.
On the following day the hands were mustered to witness punishment, and, to the unspeakable surprise and indignation of everybody, officers as well as men, the whole of the poor fellows who had steered the ship during the unlucky chase of the preceding day were ordered to receive three dozen apiece, "for culpable negligence in the performance of their duty," Captain Pigot choosing to assert that, had the ship been properly steered, we should have overtaken and brought the French frigate to action. Now the manner in which the Hermione's helm had been manipulated on the occasion in question had excited the admiration of, and extorted frequent favourable comments from the officers; there was a stiff breeze blowing at the time; and the frigate, when heavily pressed upon a taut bowline, had a most unhandy knack of griping; notwithstanding which, as I have before stated, her wake had been as straight as though ruled upon the water. But Captain Pigot was bitterly chagrined at his want of success—quite unreasonably, for he and everybody else had done all that was possible to secure it—and he could not rest until he had vented his ill-humour upon some of the unfortunates placed in his power. Hence the cruel and unjust order; the issuing of which very nearly ended in results most disastrous, so far as I was personally concerned.
For, when the first man of the unfortunate batch had stripped and was seized up, seeing that the skipper actually intended to carry out his monstrous resolve—a fact which, until that moment, I had doubted— forgetting for the time everything but the cruelty and injustice of the action, I sprang forward and placing myself immediately in front of our frowning chief, exclaimed:
"No, no; do not do it, sir! I assure you that you are mistaken. The men do not deserve it, sir; they did their utmost, I am sure; indeed I heard Mr Reid remark to Mr Douglas that he had never seen the ship so beautifully steered before. Didn't you, sir?" I continued, appealing to the first lieutenant.
"Young gentleman, you have placed me in a very awkward position," replied poor old David, turning to me, very red in the face; "but I'll not deny it; I did say so, and I meant it, too."
Captain Pigot turned absolutely livid with fury; he was white even to the lips; his eyes literally blazed like those of a savage animal about to spring upon its prey; his hands were tightly clenched; and, for a moment, I felt that he would strike me. He did not, however; possibly even at that moment some instinct may have warned him that he was on the verge of committing a very grave imprudence; and, instead of striking the blow I had expected, he turned short on his heel and walked into his cabin. Then, and not until then—when I glanced about me and noted the universal consternation with which I was regarded—did I fully realise the enormity of the offence of which I had been guilty.
Captain Pigot was absent from the deck for perhaps ten minutes. When he returned the low hum of conversation which had set in on his disappearance abruptly ceased, and every eye was turned upon him in anticipation of the next act in this little drama.
He had evidently made a successful effort to subdue his excitement, for he was now, to all outward appearance, perfectly calm; this somewhat abrupt calmness seeming to me, I must confess, even more portentous than his recent exhibition of passion had been. Halting before me, he pointed sternly to the hatchway, and said:
"Go below, sir; and regard yourself as under arrest. I will consider your case by and by. So grave a dereliction of duty as that of which you have been guilty is not to be dealt with hurriedly."
I bowed, and turned to go below; and, as I did so, I heard him say to the first lieutenant:
"Since you, Mr Reid, appear to have taken a different view of these men's conduct from that which I had entertained, and have, moreover, seen fit to publicly express that view, I have no alternative but to give the fellows the benefit of our difference of opinion, and withhold that punishment which I still think they richly deserve. But I will take this opportunity of explaining to you, and to every other officer and man in this ship, that I reserve to myself the exclusive right of expressing an opinion as to the behaviour, individually and collectively, of those under my command; and, whatever any of you may choose to think upon such a matter, I shall expect that you will henceforward keep your opinion strictly to yourselves. Now, let the hands be piped down."
I had paused just below and under cover of the coamings long enough to hear this speech to its conclusion; now, as the boatswain's pipe sent forth its shrill sounds, I scurried off and made the best of my way to the midshipmen's berth. I felt that I had allowed my sympathy to get the better of my discretion, and in so doing had plunged myself into a very awkward predicament, out of which I did not at all clearly see how I was to extricate myself; but, whatever might be the result to myself of my imprudence, it had at least been the means of saving several men from an undeserved flogging, and this reflection served somewhat to comfort me. I was speedily joined by those of the midshipmen whose watch below it then happened to be; and with them came a master's mate named Farmer—a man of some thirty-five years of age, whose obscure parentage and want of influential friends had kept him back from promotion, and who in consequence of countless disappointments had grown chronically morose and discontented. My fellow-mids were very enthusiastic in their expressions of admiration for what they were pleased to term "the pluck with which I had tackled the skipper;" and equally profuse in the expression of their hopes and belief of a successful issue of the adventure. Farmer, however, speedily put a stopper upon their tongues by growling impatiently:
"Belay there with that jabbering, you youngsters; you don't know what you are talking about. The fact is that Lascelles there has made a fool of himself and an enemy of the skipper; and to do the latter, let me tell you, is no joke, as he will probably discover to his cost. He has, however, done a kindly thing; and perhaps, in the long run, he may have no reason to regret it."
I was suspended from duty for the remainder of that day, until late in the evening, when a marine made his appearance at the door of the berth, with an intimation that he had orders to conduct me to the captain's cabin; and in the custody of this man—who was armed with a drawn bayonet—I was accordingly marched into the presence of the skipper. On entering the cabin, I found Captain Pigot sitting over his wine, with the first lieutenant seated on the opposite side of the table. When I entered the apartment Mr Reid was leaning across the table, talking to his superior in a low earnest tone of voice, but upon my entrance the conversation abruptly ceased. The marine saluted, announced me as "The prisoner, sir!" and then, facing automatically to the right, took up a position just outside the cabin door. I approached until within a respectful distance of the table, and then halted; the first lieutenant rising as I did so and closing the door.
"Well, young gentleman," said the skipper when old David had resumed his seat, "have you anything to say by way of excuse for or explanation of your extraordinary and—and—insubordinate conduct this morning?"
"Nothing, sir," I replied, "except that I felt you were about—under the influence of a grave misapprehension—to inflict punishment upon men who had not deserved it; and that if you did so you would certainly regret the act most deeply. It was from no motive of disrespect that I acted as I did, I assure you, sir; it was done on the impulse of the moment, and because I felt that if the evil was to be prevented it must be done instantly. I acted as I should have wished another to act had I been in your place, sir."
This I felt was but a lame explanation, and not likely to help me to any great extent out of my difficulty; but there was really nothing else I could say without directly charging the skipper with wanton tyranny, which it was certainly not the place of a reefer on his first cruise to do; if Mr Reid and the rest of the officers were content with the position of affairs it was not for me to gainsay them.
"Very well, young gentleman," answered the skipper, after a somewhat lengthy pause, "I am willing to accept your explanation, and to believe that you acted upon a good motive the more readily that Mr Reid here has been most eloquent pleading your cause, and giving you the best of characters. But, hark ye, Mr Lascelles, never, for the future, presume to form any opinion—good or bad—upon your captain's conduct; nor, under any circumstances, attempt to put him right. You are too young and too inexperienced to be capable of forming a just judgment of the actions of your superiors; moreover, a midshipman's duty is to obey, not to judge or advise his superior officers. You may return to your duty, sir; and let the unpleasant incident of to-day be a warning to you throughout the remainder of your career."
Highly delighted, and, I must confess, equally surprised in so easy an escape from what threatened at the outset to be an exceedingly awkward scrape, I stammered out a few confused words of thanks and assurances of good behaviour for the future, bowed, and executed a somewhat hasty retreat.
A "CUTTING-OUT" EXPEDITION.
On going on deck to stand my watch that night shortly after my dismissal by Captain Pigot, found the squadron heading to the northward on an easy bowline, under reefed topsails, with the island of Tortuga bearing south-east, about ten miles distant. We continued on the starboard tack during the whole of that night, tacking at eight o'clock on the following morning, and heading in toward the land once more, at the same time shaking the reefs out of our topsails. An hour later the lookout aloft reported a sail to leeward; and, on signalling the fact to the admiral, the Hermione received permission to chase.
We managed to approach within ten miles of the stranger without exciting his suspicions; but shortly afterwards a doubt appeared to enter his mind as to the honesty of our intentions, and he tacked, no doubt with the object of ascertaining whether our business had anything to do with him or not. He soon found that it had; for before he was fairly round our course had been altered so as to intercept him. This sufficed to thoroughly alarm him, and, wearing short round, he went square off before the wind, setting every stitch of canvas his little vessel—a schooner of some seventy tons—could spread to the breeze. The chase now showed herself to be a very smart little craft, staggering along under her cloud of canvas in a really surprising manner; indeed, had the pursuit lasted an hour longer we should probably have lost her, for she was within five miles of the harbour of Jean Rabel when we succeeded in bringing her to.
The obstinate craft having at length consented to back her topsail, Courtenay was sent away in the gig, with the crew fully armed, to give her an overhaul.
He remained on board nearly half an hour, and when he returned he brought the skipper of the schooner, a negro, with him. The little vessel, it now appeared, was a coaster, sailing under French colours, and was bound from Jean Rabel to Porto Caballo. She was consequently a prize, though utterly valueless to us; and Courtenay's instructions had been that, if such proved to be the case, he was to take her crew out of her and set her on fire. She, however, belonged to the negro who commanded her, and he had begged so earnestly that his property might be spared, and had backed up his petition by representations of so important a nature, that Courtenay had deemed it best, before carrying out his instructions, to bring the man on board the Hermione, and give him an interview with Captain Pigot. The skipper was in his cabin when the gig returned alongside, so Courtenay went in and made his report, the result being that the negro was speedily admitted to Captain Pigot's presence. The next thing that happened was the summoning of the first lieutenant to the cabin, Courtenay being at the same time dismissed. A conference of some twenty minutes' duration now ensued, at the termination of which Courtenay, with half a dozen men as a prize-crew, was sent away to take charge of the schooner; and on the return of the boat, both vessels filled away and stood off the land on a taut bowline, the negro owner of the schooner being detained on board the frigate.
Early the next morning the remainder of the squadron was sighted, and immediately after breakfast Captain Pigot boarded the commodore, taking the negro with him. He was absent for the greater part of the morning, and that something of moment was on the tapis soon became apparent, from the fact that the captains of the Quebec, Mermaid, Drake, and Penelope were signalled for. Everybody was now on the qui vive, a pleasant excitement taking the place of that stolid sullen indifference and apathy on the part of our crew which had gradually resulted from the skipper's ill-advised harshness to them. At length the boats were seen to push off on their way back to their respective ships; and, a few minutes later, Captain Pigot passed up the gangway and came in on deck. Everybody now waited in breathless expectation for the anticipated order which should convey to us an inkling of the nature of the work in hand; but, to our general disappointment, no such order was given. The skipper's face, however, wore a look of exultant satisfaction, and his demeanour was so much less unpleasant than usual that we felt convinced there was something in the wind; and all hands settled down accordingly to await, with what patience we could muster, the development of events.
It was not, however, until two days later, the 20th of April, that our curiosity was satisfied. A signal from the commodore requesting the captains of the Hermione, Quebec, Mermaid, Drake, and Penelope to repair on board him, was the first incident of the day; and this was followed by a conference so protracted that the gigs' crews only got back to their ships barely in time for dinner. A most careful and scrupulous inspection of the arm-chest consumed nearly the whole of the afternoon watch; and finally, at eight bells, or four o'clock p.m., after a considerable amount of signalling, the ships already named detached themselves from the rest of the squadron, and, under Captain Pigot's orders, made sail to the westward; the negro captain being at the same time restored to his command and allowed to proceed on his way.