True Blue—A British Seaman of the Old School, by W.H.G. Kingston.
From an Introduction by Herbert Strang.
The present volume gives a capital description of life in the Navy in days of the old three-decker, and many interesting particulars of the naval warfare in the revolutionary period, including the battle of the "glorious first of June." It differs from the average boys' story in one important respect. The hero, instead of gaining a title and a fortune, refuses to rise above the class in which he was born, and attains no higher rank than that of a warrant-officer. The author skilfully introduces little touches and incidents, such as True Blue's conduct when at a theatrical performance, which make his career seem entirely natural and reasonable, and enlists the sympathy and approval of the reader. "He had not aimed high, in one sense of the word," says Kingston in the closing pages, "and yet he had in another sense always aimed high and nobly—to do his duty." In Kingston's eyes no mariner, nor any other man, could have higher praise.
TRUE BLUE—BY W.H.G. KINGSTON.
TRUE BLUE—A BRITISH SEAMAN OF THE OLD SCHOOL.
The old Terrible, 74, was ploughing her way across the waters of the Atlantic, now rolling and leaping, dark and angry, with white-crested seas which dashed against her bows and flew in masses of foam over her decks. She was under her three topsails, closely reefed; but even thus her tall masts bent, and twisted, and writhed, as if striving to leap out of her, while every timber and bulkhead fore and aft creaked and groaned, and the blocks rattled, and the wind roared and whistled through the rigging in chorus; and the wild waves rolled and tumbled the big ship about, making her their sport, as if she was a mere cock-boat.
Stronger and stronger blew the gale; darkness came on and covered the world of waters, and through that darkness the ship had to force her way amid the foaming, hissing seas. Darker and darker it grew, till the lookout men declared that they might as well have shut their eyes, for they could scarcely make out their own hands when held at arm's length before their noses.
Suddenly, however, the darkness was dispelled by the vivid flashes of lightning, which, darting from the low hanging clouds, circled about their heads, throwing a lurid glare on the countenances of all on deck. Once more all was dark; then again the forked lightning burst forth hissing and crackling through the air, leaping along the waves and playing round the quivering masts. Now the big ship plunged into the trough of the sea with a force which made it seem as if she was never going to rise again; but up the next watery height she climbed, and when she got to the top, she stopped as if to look about her, while the lightning flashed brighter than ever; and then, rolling and pitching, and cutting numerous other antics, she lifted up her stern as if she was going to give a vicious fling out with her heels, and downwards she plunged into the dark obscurity, amid the high foam-topped seas, which hissed and roared high above her bulwarks. Her crew walked her deck with but little anxiety, although they saw that the gale was likely to increase into a hurricane; for they had long served together, they knew what each other was made of, and they had confidence in their officers and in the stout ship they manned.
The watch below had hitherto remained in their hammocks, and most of them, in spite of the gale, slept as soundly as ever. What cared they that the ship was roiling and tumbling about? They knew that she was watertight and strong, that she had plenty of sea-room, and that they would be roused up quickly enough if they were wanted. There was one person, however, who did not sleep soundly—that was her Captain, Josiah Penrose. He could not forget that he had the lives of some eight hundred beings committed to his charge, and he knew well that, even on board a stout ship with plenty of sea-room, an accident might occur which would require his immediate presence on deck. He was therefore sitting up in his cabin, holding on as best he could, and attempting to read—a task under all circumstances, considering that he had lost an eye, and was not a very bright scholar, more difficult of accomplishment than may be supposed. He had lost an arm, too, which made it difficult for him to hold a book; besides, his book was large, and the printing was not over clear, a fault common in those days; and the paper was a good deal stained and injured from the effects of damp and hot climates. He was aroused from his studies by a signal at the door, and the entrance of one of the quartermasters.
"What is it, Pringle?" asked the Captain, looking up.
"Why, sir, Molly Freeborn is taken very bad, and the doctor says that he thought you would like to know," was the answer. "He doesn't think as how she'll get over it. Maybe, sir, you'd wish to see the poor woman?"
"Certainly, yes; I'll go below and see her," answered the Captain in a kind tone. "Poor Molly! But where is her husband—where is Freeborn? It will be a great blow to him."
"It is his watch on deck, sir. No one liked to go and tell him. He could do no good, and the best chance, the doctor said, was to keep Molly quiet. But I suppose that they'll let him know now," answered the quartermaster.
"Yes; do you go and find him, and take him below to his wife, and just break her state gently to him, Pringle," said the Captain.
Captain Penrose stopped a moment to slip on his greatcoat, and to jam a sou'wester tightly down over his head, before he left the cabin on his errand of kindness, when a terrific clap was heard, louder than one of thunder, and the ship seemed to quiver in every timber fore and aft. The Captain sprang on deck, for the moment, in his anxiety for the safety of his ship, forgetting his intention with regard to Molly Freeborn.
Poor Molly! There she lay in the sick-bay, which had been appropriated to her use, gasping out her life amid the tumult and disturbance of that terrific storm. She was one of three women allowed, in those days, under certain circumstances, to be on board ship for the purpose of acting as nurses to the sick, and of washing for the officers and men. Her husband was captain of the maintop, and as gallant and fine a seaman as ever stepped. Everybody liked and respected him.
But Molly was even a greater favourite. There was not a kinder-hearted, more gentle, sensible, and judicious person in existence. No one had a greater variety of receipts for all sorts of ailments, and no one could more artistically cook dishes better suited to the taste of the sick. Most of the officers, who had from time to time been ill and wounded, acknowledged and prized her talents and excellencies; and the Captain declared that he considered he owed his life, under Providence, entirely to the care with which she nursed him through an attack of fever when the doctor despaired of his life.
"All hands on deck!" was the order given as soon as the Captain saw what had occurred. The main-topsail had been blown from the boltropes, and the tattered remnants were now lashing and slashing about in the gale, twisting into inextricable knots, and winding and wriggling round the main-topsail yard, rendering it a work of great danger to go out on it. The boatswain's whistle sounded shrilly through the storm a well-known note. "All hands shorten sail!" was echoed along the decks. "Rouse out there—rouse out—idlers and all on deck!" Everybody knew that there was work to be done; indeed, the clap made by the parting of the sail had awakened even the soundest sleepers. Among the first aloft, who endeavoured to clear the yard of the fragments of the sail, was William Freeborn, the captain of the maintop. With knives and hands they worked away in spite of the lashing they got, now being almost strangled, and now dragged off the yard.
The Captain resolved to heave the ship to. The wind had shifted, and if they ran on even under bare poles, they would be carried on too much out of their course. It was a delicate and difficult operation. A new main-topsail had first to be bent. It took the united strength of the crew to hoist it to the yard. At length the sail was got up and closely reefed, hauled out, strengthened in every possible way to resist the fury of the gale. It was an operation which occupied some time. The fore-topsail had to be taken in. The helm was put down, and, as she came slowly up to the wind, the after-sail being taken off also, she lay to, gallantly riding over the still rising seas. Though she did not tumble about, perhaps, quite as much as she had been doing, her movements were far from easy. She did not roll as before, as she was kept pressed down on one side; still every now and then she gave a pitch as she glided down into the trough of the sea, which made every timber and mast creak and quiver, and few on board would have been inclined to sing:
"Here's a sou'wester coming, Billy, Don't you hear it roar now! Oh help them! How I pities those Unhappy folks on shore now!"
At length William Freeborn was relieved from his post aloft, and came down on deck. Paul Pringle, his old friend and messmate, who had been hunting for him through the darkness, found him at last. Paul grieved sincerely for the news he had to communicate, and, not liking the task imposed on him, scarcely knew how to begin.
"Bill," said he with a sigh, "you and I, boy and man, have sailed together a good score of years, and never had a fall-out about nothing all that time, and it goes to my heart, Bill, to say any thing that you won't like; but it must be done—that I sees—so it's no use to have no circumbendibus. Your missus was took very bad—very bad indeed—just in the middle of the gale, and there was no one to send for you—and so, do you see—"
"My wife—Molly!—oh, what has happened, Paul?" exclaimed Freeborn, not waiting for an answer; but springing below, he rushed to the sick-bay, as the hospital is called. The faint cry of an infant reached his ears as he opened the door. Betty Snell, one of the other nurses, was so busily employed with something on her knees, that she did not see him enter. The dim light of a lantern, hanging from a beam overhead, fell on it. He saw that it was a newborn infant. He guessed what had happened, but he did not stop to caress it, for beyond was the cot occupied by his wife. There she lay, all still and silent. His heart sank within him; he gazed at her with a feeling of terror and anguish which he had never before experienced. He took her hand. It fell heavily by her side. He gasped for breath. "Molly!" he exclaimed at length, "speak to me, girl—what has happened?"
There was no answer. Then he knew that his honest, true-hearted wife was snatched from him in this world for ever. The big drops of salt spray, which still clung to his hair and bushy beard, dropped on the kind face of her he had loved so well, but not a tear escaped his eyes. He gladly would have wept, but he had not for so many a long year done such a thing, and he felt too stunned and bewildered to do so now. He had stood as a sailor alone could stand on so unstable a foothold, gazing on those now placid and pale unchanging features for a long time,—how long he could not tell,—when Paul Pringle, who had followed him to the door of the sick-bay, came up, and, gently taking him by the shoulders, said:
"Come along, Bill; there's no use mourning: we all loved her, and we all feel for you, from the Captain downwards. That's a fact. But just do you come and have a look at the younker. Betty Snell vows that he's the very image of you, all except the beard and pigtail."
The latter appendage in those days was worn by most sailors, and Bill Freeborn had reason to pride himself on his. The mention of it just then, however, sent a pang through his heart, for Molly had the morning before the gale dressed it for him.
Freeborn at first shook his head and would not move; but at last his shipmate got him to turn round, and then Betty Snell held up the poor little helpless infant to him, and the father's heart felt a touch of tenderness of a nature it had never before experienced, and he stooped down and bestowed a kiss on the brow of his newborn motherless child. He did not, however, venture to take it in his arms.
"You'll look after it, Betty, and be kind to it?" said he in a husky voice. "I'm sure you will, for her sake who lies there?"
"Yes, yes, Bill; no fear," answered Betty, who was a good-natured creature in her way, though it was a rough way, by the bye.
She was the wife of one of the boatswain's mates. Her companion, Nancy Bolton, who was the wife of the sergeant of marines, was much the same sort of person; indeed, it would not have done for the style of life they had to lead, to have had too refined characters on board.
"Bless you, Freeborn—take care of the baby, of course we will!" added Nancy, looking up from some occupation about which she had been engaged. "We'll both be mothers to him, and all the ship's company will act the part of a father to him. Never you fear that. As long as the old ship holds together, he'll not want friends; nor after it, if there's one of us alive. Set your mind at rest now."
"Yes, that we will, old ship," exclaimed Paul Pringle, taking Freeborn's hand and wringing it warmly. "That's to say, if the little chap wants more looking after than you can manage. But come along now. There's no use staying here. Bet and Nancy will look after the child better than we can, and you must turn in. Your hammock is the best place for you now."
The gale at length ceased; the ship was put on her proper course for the West Indies, whither she was bound; the sea went down, the clouds cleared away, and the glorious sun came out and shone brightly over the blue ocean. All the officers and men assembled on the upper deck, and then near one of the middle ports was placed a coffin, covered with the Union-Jack. There ought to have been a chaplain, but there was none; and so the Captain came forward with a Prayer-book, and in an impressive, feeling way, though not without difficulty, read the beautiful burial service to be used at sea for a departed sister; and the two women stood near the coffin, one holding a small infant; and there stood William Freeborn, supported by Paul Pringle, for by himself he could scarcely stand; and then slowly and carefully the coffin was lowered into the waves, and as they closed over it, in the impulse of the moment, the bereaved widower would have thrown himself after it, not knowing what he was about, had not Paul Pringle held him back. Down sank the coffin rapidly, and was hid to sight by the blue ocean—the grave of many a brave sailor, and of thousands of the young, and fair, and brave, and joyous, and of the proud and rich also, but never of a more kind-hearted honest woman than was Molly Freeborn. So all on board the Terrible declared, and assuredly they spoke the truth.
Onward across the Atlantic, as fast as her broad spread of white canvas filled by the wind could force her, glided the staunch old "seventy-four," which bore our hero and his fortunes, though at that time they did not look very prosperous; nor was he himself, it must be acknowledged, held in much consideration except by his own father and his two worthy nurses. His fare, too, was not of the most luxurious, nor suited to his delicate appetite. Milk there was none; and the purser, not expecting so juvenile an addition to the ship's company, had not provided any in a preserved state,—indeed, in those days, it may be doubted whether such an invention had been thought of,—while a round-shot had carried off the head of the cow in the last action in which the Terrible had been engaged. As she furnished fresh beef to the ship's company, they would not have objected to a similar accident happening again.
Poor Molly's child had, therefore, to be fed on flour and water, and such slops as the doctor and the nurses could think of. They could not have been unsuitable, for it throve wonderfully, and was pronounced by all the ship's company as fine a child as ever was seen.
"Have you been and had a look at Molly Freeborn's baby?" asked Dick Tarbrush of his messmate, Tom Buntline. "Do now, then. Such a pretty young squeaker. Bless you, it'll do your heart good. He's quite a hangel."
Similar remarks were made, one to the other, by the men; and one by one, or sometimes a dozen of them together, would come into the women's cabin to have a look at the baby, and then they would stand in a circle round him, with their hands on their hips or behind them, afraid to touch it, their pigtails stuck out as they bent down, their huge beards, and whiskers, and pendent lovelocks forming a strong contrast to the diminutive, delicate features of the infant, who might, notwithstanding, one day be expected to grow up similar in all respects to one of them.
After the gale, the Terrible encountered head winds, and light winds, and calms, and baffling winds of every description, so that her passage to the station was long delayed. It gave time, however, for the baby to grow, and for the discussion of several knotty points connected with him. The most knotty of them was the matter of his christening. Now, the crew held very much the same opinion with regard to their Captain that a certain captain held of himself, when one day he took it into his head to make his chaplain a bishop, that of his own sovereign will he could do all things. They knew that when there was no chaplain on board, he could bury a grownup person, and so they thought that he surely could christen a little infant. They accordingly, after due deliberation, resolved to send a deputation to him, requesting him to perform the ceremony.
After some discussion, it was agreed that it would be advisable to carry the baby itself with them, to strengthen the force of their appeal. It was thought better that the women should not appear; and Paul Pringle was selected unanimously to be the bearer of the child. Now honest Paul was a bachelor, and had literally never handled a baby in his life. He, therefore, felt an uncommon awe and trepidation, as half unwillingly and half proudly he undertook the office. However, at last, when coyly led forward, with his head all on one side and a beaming smile on his honest countenance, he found that his big paws, stretched out, made a first-rate cradle; though, not being aware of the excessive lightness of the little creature, he very nearly chucked it over his shoulders. Betty and Nancy, after arranging the child's clothes, bestowing sundry kisses, and giving several important cautions, let the party of honest Jacks proceed on their errand.
"Well, my lads, what is it you want?" asked the Captain in a good-natured voice, as the seamen, being announced by the sentry, made their appearance at the door of the cabin.
Paul Pringle cleared his voice before speaking, and then he said, very nearly choking the baby in his mechanical attempt to pull a lock of his hair as he spoke:
"We be come for to ax your honour to make a Christian of this here squeaker."
The good Captain looked up with his one eye, and now perceived the small creature that Paul held in his hands.
"Ah, you mean that you want him christened, I suppose," answered the Captain, smiling. "Well, I must see about that. Let me have a look at the poor little fellow. He thrives well. See, he smiles already. He'll be a credit to the ship, I hope. I'll do what I can, my lads. I don't think that there's anything about it in the articles of war. Still, what can be done I'll do, most assuredly."
While Captain Penrose was speaking, he was looking kindly at the infant and playing his finger round its mouth. He had had children of his own, and he felt as a father, though little indeed had he seen of them, and they had all long since been taken from him.
"Now you may go, my lads, and I'll let you know what I can do for you," he said after some time.
On this the deputation withdrew, well pleased with their interview.
As soon as the men were gone, Captain Penrose turned to the articles of war, and all the rules and regulations of the service with which he had been furnished, and hunted them through, and turned them over and over again, but could find nothing whatever about the baptism of infants. Most assiduously he looked through his Prayer-Book: not a word could he discover authorising captains in the navy to perform the rite. He pulled down all the books on his shelves and hunted them over; there were not many, certainly, but they made up by their quality and toughness for their want of number: not a word on the subject in question could he find. For many an hour and for many a day did he search, for he was not a man to be baffled by a knotty point or by an enemy for want of exertion on his part, though at last he had to confess that in this matter he was beaten. He therefore sent for Paul Pringle, and told him that though he could bury all the ship's company, and could hang a mutineer at the yardarm, or could shoot him on the quarterdeck, he had no authority, that he could find, for christening a baby. Much disappointed, Paul returned to his shipmates. In full conclave, therefore, it was settled, with poor Will Freeborn's consent, that as soon as the ship reached Port Royal harbour, in Jamaica, the little fellow should be taken on shore to be christened all shipshape and properly. When the Captain heard of this, he gave his full consent to the arrangement, and promised to assist in its execution.
The flag of the gallant Sir Peter Parker was flying in the harbour of Port Royal when, after a long passage, the Terrible fired the usual salute on entering, and dropped her anchor there. Two or three days elapsed before the duty of the ship would allow any of the crew to go on shore. On the first Sunday morning, however, it was notified that a hundred of them might have six hours' leave, and that if the infant was presented, after morning service, before the minister of one of the parish churches, he would perform the wished-for ceremony. Great were the preparations which had been made. Betty Snell and Nancy Bolton were dressed out with shawls, and furbelows, and ribbons of the gayest colours and patterns, and looked and thought themselves very fine. Nothing could surpass the magnificence of the child's robe. All the knowledge of embroidery possessed by the whole ship's company had been expended on it, and every chest and bag had been ransacked to find coloured beads and bits of silk and worsted and cotton of different hues to work on it. The devices were curious. There were anchors and cables twisting about all over it, and stars and guns, and there was a full-rigged ship in front; while a little straw hat, which had been plaited and well lined, was stuck on the child's head in the most knowing of ways, with the name of the Terrible worked in gold letters on a ribbon round it. Certainly, however, nothing could be more inappropriate than the name to the little smiling infant thus adorned. Never had such a dress been worn before by any baby ashore or afloat.
Then his shipmates took care that Will Freeborn himself should be in unusually good trim, and they got him to let Nancy Bolton dress his pigtail, while Sergeant Bolton stood by, and got him into conversation; and as for Paul Pringle, he turned out in first-rate style, and so did two of Freeborn's messmates and especial chums, Peter Ogle and Abel Bush, both first-rate seamen. All the men who had leave, indeed, rigged out in their best, and adorned themselves to the utmost of their power. The boatswain, also, got them a dozen flags, which they hoisted on boathooks and other small spars; and they had on board, besides, a one-legged black fiddler, and a sort of amateur band, all of whom were allowed to accompany them.
On shore early on Sunday morning they went, and marshalled as they landed from the boats which conveyed them on the quays of Kingston. The one-legged black fiddler, Sam, being the only professional, and the rated musician on board, claimed the honour of leading the way, followed by the rest of the band with their musical instruments. Then came the father of the baby, Will Freeborn, supported on either side by Paul Pringle and Peter Ogle, who each bore a flag on a staff; and next, Betty Snell, to whom had been awarded the honour of carrying the important personage of the day; and on one side of her walked Nancy Bolton, and on the other Abel Bush, one of the three proposed godfathers, with another flag. In consequence of the numberless chances of war, it had been agreed that the child should have three godfathers and two godmothers; besides which, each of the godfathers was to have a mate who was to take his place in case of his death, and to assist Freeborn in looking after his son, so that there was every probability of poor Molly's son being well taken care of. These, then, came next, bearing aloft an ensign and a Union-Jack, while the rest of the crew, with more flags, rolling along, made up the remainder of the procession.
But the person who created the greatest sensation among the spectators, especially of his own colour, was Sam Smatch, the one-legged fiddler; nor did he deem himself to be the least in importance. No one was in higher feather. He felt himself at home in the country—the hot climate suited him; he saw numbers of his own race and hue, inclined, like himself, to be merry and idle. How he grinned and rolled his eyes about on every side—how he scraped away with his bow—how he kicked up his wooden leg and cut capers which few people, even with two, could have performed as well! As to the rest of the band, he beat them hollow. In vain they tried to play. If they played fast, he played faster; when they played loud, he played louder; for, as he used to boast, his instrument was a very wonderful one, and there were not many which could come up to it. The crowd of negroes who collected from every side to stare at the procession, admired him amazingly, and cheered, and shrieked, and laughed, and clapped their hands in gleeful approbation of his performance.
Thus the procession advanced through the streets of Kingston till it reached the church door, it wanted still some time to the commencement of service, so the men were enabled to take their seats at one end of the building without creating any disturbance. There was plenty of room for them, for unhappily the proprietors, merchants and attorneys, the managers of estates and other residents, were very irregular attendants at places of worship. The few people who did collect for worship stared with surprise at seeing so unusual a number of sailors collected together; and more so when the service was over, to see Paul Pringle, acting as best man, lead his friend Freeborn, and the two nurses, and the rest of his shipmates, up to the font.
The clergyman had been warned by the clerk what to expect, or he would have been equally astonished.
"What is it you want, my good people?" he asked.
"Why, bless your honour, we wants this here young chap, as belongs, I may say, to the old Terrible, seeing as how he was born aboard of her, made into a regular shipshape Christian."
"Oh, I see," said the minister, smiling; "I will gladly do as you wish. You have got godfathers and a godmother, I suppose?"
"Oh, Lord bless your honour, there are plenty on us!" answered Paul, feeling his bashfulness wear off in consequence of the minister's kind manner. "There's myself, Paul Pringle, quartermaster, at your honour's service; and there's Peter Ogle, captain of the foretop, and Abel Bush, he's captain of the fo'castle; and then, d'ye see, we've each of us our mates to take command if any of us loses the number of our mess; and then as there's the two godmothers Nancy and Betty, right honest good women, the little chap won't fare badly, d'ye see, your honour."
"Indeed, you come rather over-well provided in that respect," observed the minister, having no little difficulty in refraining from laughing. "However, I should think that you would find two godfathers and one godmother, the usual number, sufficient to watch over the religious education of the child."
"No, your honour," answered Paul quietly; "I'll just ax you what you thinks the life of any one of us is worth, when you reflexes on the round-shot and bullets of the enemy, the fever,—'Yellow Jack,' as we calls him,—and the hurricanes of these here seas? Who can say that one-half of us standing here may be alive this time next year? We sailors hold our lives riding at single anchor. We know at any moment we may have to slip our cable and be off."
The clergyman looked grave and bowed his head.
"You speak too sad a truth," he answered. "Now tell me, what name do you propose giving to the child?"
"Billy, your honour," answered Paul at once.
"William?—oh, I understand," observed the clergyman.
"No, Billy, your honour," persisted Paul. "Billy True Blue, that's the name we've concluded to give him. It's the properest, and rightest, and most convenient, and it's the name he must have," he added firmly.
"But what is the father's name? What is your name, my man?" asked the clergyman, turning to Freeborn.
Will told him.
"Oh, then I understand Billy True Blue is to be his Christian name?" said the clergyman.
"Yes, your honour," answered Paul. "D'ye see, he'd always be called Billy. That would be but natural-like. Then where's the use of calling him William? And True Blue he is, for he was born at sea aboard a man-o'-war, and he'll be brought up at sea among men-o'-war's men; and he'll be a right true blue seaman himself one of these days, if he lives, so there's an end on the matter."
The last remark was intended as a clincher to settle the affair. The clergyman had no further objections to offer to the arguments brought forward, and accordingly the child was then and there christened "Billy True Blue," to the infinite satisfaction of all his friends.
On leaving the church, the party adjourned to various houses of entertainment to drink their young shipmate's health. Much to their credit, at the time appointed they reappeared on board, returning to the quay in the style they had come, none of them the worse for liquor. Captain Penrose had reason to be satisfied with his system of managing his ship's company.
The Terrible was not allowed to remain long idle, for those were stirring times, as there were Frenchmen and Spaniards, and the Dutch and Americans to fight; indeed, all the great maritime countries of the world were leagued against Old England to deprive her, as they hoped, of the supremacy of the sea. Again the Terrible was under weigh, standing for the Leeward Islands to join the squadron of Sir George Brydges Rodney. A day or two after she sailed, the surgeon came to the Captain with an unusually long face.
"What is the matter, Doctor Macbride?" asked Captain Penrose.
"I'm sorry to say, sir, that we have two cases of yellow fever on board," was the answer.
"What, Yellow Jack—my old enemy?" exclaimed the Captain, trying to look less concerned than he felt. "Turn him out then—kick him away—get rid of him as fast as possible, that's all I can say."
"More easily said than done, I fear, sir," answered the surgeon, who was well aware that his Captain was more anxious than he would allow; for, from sad experience, he well knew that when once that scourge of the West Indies attacks the crew of a ship, it is impossible to say how many may be the victims, and when it may disappear.
"You are right, doctor. We must do our best, though, and put our trust in Providence," answered the Captain gravely. "Let the men be on deck as much as possible. We will have their provisions carefully looked to, and we must have their minds amused. Let Sam Smatch keep his fiddle going. Fear of the foe kills many, I believe. Now if we could meet an enemy, and have a good warm engagement, we should soon put Yellow Jack and him to flight together. And I say, doctor, don't let the men see that you are concerned any more than I am."
After a little further conversation, the doctor took his departure.
The ship continued her course across the Caribbean Sea, with light winds and under the hottest of suns; and the fever, instead of disappearing, stealthily crept on, attacking one man after another, till fifty or sixty of the crew were down with it. Death came, too, and carried off one fine fellow, and then another and another, sometimes five or six in one day. At last there was a cessation, and the spirits of the sick as well as of the healthy revived; and Sam Smatch set to work and fiddled away most lustily, and the crew danced and sang, and tried to forget that there was such a thing as Yellow Jack on board. Several of the sick got better, and even the doctor's and the Captain's spirits revived. Once more it fell calm, and, as the Captain was walking the quarterdeck, Dr Macbride came up to him with a grave face.
"What is the matter now, doctor?" he asked in as cheerful a voice as he could command; for whatever he felt in private, he would not allow himself to appear out of spirits before his officers or crew. "What! not driven the yellow demon overboard yet? Kick him—trounce him—get rid of him somehow!"
"I am sorry to say, sir, that he has attacked the women," answered the doctor. "Betty Snell is very ill, and Mrs Bolton is evidently sickening. What the motherless baby will do, I cannot say. Probably that will die too, and so be provided for."
"Heaven forbid!" said the Captain, "for the honest father's sake. The child will have plenty of nurses. We must not forget poor Molly—how nobly she braved Yellow Jack himself when the sick wanted her aid! We all are bound to look after the baby. The sooner it is taken away from the poor woman the better. Let me see. Tell Paul Pringle to go and get the baby and bring it up to my cabin. That is the most airy and healthy place for the little chap. We must rig out a cot for it there. Freeborn himself would feel bashful at taking his child there. Either he or Pringle must act as nurse, though. I have no fancy for having one of the ship's boys making the attempt. They would be feeding him with salt beef and duff, or smothering him; and as for waking when he cries at night, there would be little chance of their hearing him. But I will go below with you, doctor, and visit the poor people. Come along."
Saying this, the good Captain descended to the lower-deck with the surgeon. The weather side of the ship forward had been screened off and appropriated to the sick. As he appeared, those who were conscious lifted up their heads and welcomed him with a look of pleasure; but many were raving and shrieking in the delirium of fever, and others, worn out by its attacks, were sunk in stupor from which they were not to awake. Then the Captain visited the berth of the two women. Mrs Bolton was still struggling in a vain attempt to ward off the disease, and endeavouring to nurse poor little Billy; but she could scarcely lift her hand to feed him, and evidently a sickness and faintness was stealing over her.
The Captain said nothing, but going out, sent a boy to call Paul Pringle. He soon returned with Paul, who, stooping down, said quietly, "Here, Mrs Bolton, you feels sick and tired, I know you does. You've had hard times looking after Betty Snell, and I'll just dandle the youngster for you a bit. You know you can have him again when you feels better and rested like."
Thus appealed to, poor Nancy gave up the baby to Paul, who dandled it about before her for a minute; then as she was casting an affectionate glance at it, he disappeared along the deck with his charge. It was the last look she ever took of the infant she had nursed with almost a mother's care. Her husband was sent for. In a short time she was raving, and before that hour the next day both she and Betty were no longer among the living. Their loss was severely felt, not only by their husbands, but by all the crew. They and forty of the men were committed to the deep before the termination of the passage.
At last the Terrible reached Gros Islet Bay, in the Island of Saint Lucia, that island having been captured by the English from the French. In a short time a considerable fleet collected there, under Admiral Sir George Rodney and Rear-Admiral Hyde Parker. Still the fever continued on board the Terrible and several other ships.
"Nothing but the fire of the enemy will cure us, Sir George, I fear," observed Captain Penrose when paying a visit one day on board the flagship.
"Then, my dear Penrose, I hope that we shall not have long to wait, for they are collecting in force, I hear, round the Island of Martinique; and the moment the fleet is ready for sea, we'll go out and have a brush with them," was the Admiral's answer.
This news was received with joy by every man in the fleet, and all exerted themselves more than ever to hasten its equipment. The Captain had some idea of leaving little Billy on shore, but both Freeborn and Pringle begged so hard that he might be allowed to remain that the Captain gave up the point.
"I don't know how long I may be with the little chap," observed poor Will. "It would break my heart to be separated from him; and if we go into action, we'll stow him away safe in the hold, and he'll be better off there than among foreign strangers on shore who don't care a bit for him."
There was much truth in this remark, and so little True Blue still continued under charge of his rough-looking protectors. It is extraordinary how well and tenderly they managed to nurse him and feed him, and how carefully they washed him and put on his tiny garments. Paul Pringle was even a greater adept than his own father; and more than once the Captain could scarcely refrain from laughing as he saw the big, huge-whiskered quartermaster in a side cabin, seated on one bucket, with another full of salt water before him, an apron, made out of a piece of canvas, round his waist, and a large sponge, with a piece of soap in his hand, washing away at the little fellow. The baby seemed to enjoy the cold water amazingly, and kicked and splashed about, and spluttered and cooed with abundant glee, greatly to Paul's delight.
"Ah, I knowed it. He'll be a regular salt from truck to kelson!" he exclaimed, looking at the little fellow affectionately, and holding him up so as to let his head just float above water. "He'll astonish them some of these days. Depend on't, Will," he added, turning to Freeborn, who had come in to have a look at his child.
The Captain had directed the hammocks of the two men to be slung in this cabin, and little True Blue had a cot slung along close to the deck; so that if by chance he had tumbled out, he would not have been much the worse for it. As the father and his friend were in different watches, they were able, under ordinary circumstances, to relieve each other in nursing the baby; but when any heavy work was to be done, and the services of both of them were required on deck, Sam Smatch, who was not fit even for ordinary idlers' work, was called in to act nurse.
This was an employment in which Sam especially delighted, and he would have bargained for a gale of wind any day in the week for the sake of having to take care of little True Blue. Billy, from the first, never objected to his black face, but cooed and smiled, and was greatly delighted whenever he appeared. Sam altogether took wonderfully to the baby, and used to declare that he loved it as much as he did his own fiddle, if not more. He would not say positively—both were his delight—both squeaked; but his fiddle was his older friend. Billy, indeed, never wanted nurses, and there was not a man on board who was not happy to get him to look after. The greatest risk he ran was from over-kindness, or from having a tumble among the numerous candidates for the pleasure of dandling him when once they got him among them on the maindeck; and no set of schoolgirls could make a more eager rush to snatch up the little child left among them, than did the big-bearded, whiskered, and pig-tailed tars to catch hold of Billy True Blue.
Among the other candidates for the pleasure of nursing little Billy was a young midshipman, known generally as Natty Garland. He had been seized with the fever, and been carried, for better nursing, into the Captain's cabin. This was his first voyage away from home, where he had left many brothers and sisters. It was nearly proving his last. Although he looked so slight and delicate, however, he did recover; but it was some time before he was fit for duty.
Devoted to his profession, Natty Garland, in spite of his delicate appearance, became a first-rate, bold, and intelligent seaman, liked by his Captain, respected by his superior officers and his messmates, and an especial favourite with the men.
Just before Sir George Rodney had entered Gros Islet Bay, the French fleet, consisting of twenty-five sail of line-of-battle ships and eight frigates, under Admiral Count de Guichen, had been haughtily parading before the island, trying to draw out the then small and unprepared squadron of Rear-Admiral Hyde Parker. The British officers and men fumed and growled at the insult, longing for an opportunity of paying off the vapouring Frenchmen. Never, therefore, were anchors weighed with greater alacrity than when the signal was seen from Admiral Rodney's ship for the fleet to make sail and stand out to sea. A course was steered for Fort Royal Bay, in the Island of Martinique, where the French fleet was then supposed to be. The English fleet consisted in all only of twenty line-of-battle ships and two frigates, but their inferiority in point of numbers in no way made the British seamen less eager to encounter the enemy.
Now the former order of things was reversed; the smaller fleet was blockading the larger, which was equally prepared for battle. It was a beautiful sight to see the stout ships, with their white canvas set alow and aloft, as they glided over the blue sea in front of the harbour containing their vaunting enemy. In vain they tacked and wore, and stood backwards and forwards, never losing sight of the harbour's mouth. Every opportunity of fighting was offered, but the Frenchmen dared not come out.
At length Admiral Rodney, disgusted with the pusillanimity of the enemy, returned to his anchorage in Gros Islet Bay with most of the line-of-battle ships, leaving only a squadron of the faster sailing copper-bottomed ships and frigates to watch the enemy's motions, and to give him notice should they attempt to escape. The seamen little doubted that they would soon have a brush with the enemy. Among all, none seemed to anticipate a battle with greater satisfaction than Will Freeborn. His spirits rose higher by far than they had done since the death of his wife; and that evening, when Sam Smatch struck up a hornpipe on the forecastle, no one footed it more merrily than did he.
"All right," observed Paul, "I'm glad Will's himself again. Poor Molly, she'd be pleased to see him happy—that I know she would, good soul."
Whether Will's heart was as light as his feet might be doubted. Several days passed, and the Frenchmen kept snug at their anchors. "They'll move some day or other, and then we'll be at them," was the general remark. Still there they lay. None of the English crews was allowed to go on shore; but the ships were kept ready to weigh at a moment's notice. Daylight had just broken on the 16th of April 1780, when a frigate under a press of sail was seen approaching the bay. A signal was flying from her masthead. It was one which made the British tars shout with satisfaction; it was, "The French have put to sea!"
Round went the capstans, up came the anchors, the broad folds of white canvas were let fall from the yards and sheeted home, and in the course of a few minutes the whole fleet was under weigh and standing out to sea. No one fiddled more lustily than did Sam Smatch, and a right merry tune he played, while the crew of the Terrible with sturdy tramp pressed round the bars of the capstan; and never was a topsail more speedily set than that under charge of Will Freeborn.
No sooner was the fleet clear of the harbour than the enemy was discovered in the north-west. Instantly the signal was made from the flagship, the Sandwich, for a general chase. How shrilly the boatswains sounded their pipes, how rapidly the men flew aloft or tramped along the decks, while sail after sail was set, till every ship was carrying as much canvas as could by any art or contrivance be spread on her yards! Beautiful and inspiriting was the sight. The enemy saw them coming, but did not heave-to in order to meet them, endeavouring rather to escape.
All day long the chase continued, and it was not until towards the evening that, from the British ships, it could be discovered that the Frenchmen's force consisted of no less than twenty-three sail of the line, a fifty-gun ship, three frigates, a lugger, and a cutter. Darkness came on, however, before the British could get up with them; but sharp eyes all night long were eagerly watching their movements, and few on board any of the ships could bring themselves to turn in to their hammocks.
During the night the wind came round to the southward and east, greatly to the satisfaction of all on board the English fleet, and when morning broke the Frenchmen were seen close-hauled under their lee.
"What can them chaps be about now?" asked Will Freeborn of Paul Pringle as they stood near each other before going to their respective stations. "They are not going to sneak away after all, I hope."
"I'm not quite so sure but that they are going to try it on, though," answered Paul, eyeing the distant fleet of the French with no friendly eye. "But I'll tell you what: Admiral Rodney is not the chap to let 'em off so easily. Ah, look! they are tacking again; they see it won't do. Hurrah! lads, we'll be at them now before long."
The cheer was taken up by others, and ran along the decks, and was echoed from ship to ship along the British line. Every preparation was now made for immediate action. The magazines were opened, the powder and shot were got up, the bulkheads had long been down, the small-arms were served out, the men bound their heads with their handkerchiefs, threw off their jackets and shirts, buckled on their cutlasses, and stuck pistols in their belts. Meantime, as it had been arranged, Sam Smatch was sent to look after Billy True Blue, and to carry him down into the hold as soon as the ship was getting within range of the enemy's fire.
"Let me just have a look at my boy!" exclaimed Will, as Sam brought him out on deck, as he said, to show him the enemy whom he would one day learn to thrash.
Will took the child in his arms, and he gave a glance of affection; then, giving little Billy back to Sam, he urged him not to delay too long in taking him below, and sprang aloft to his post in the top, to be ready to make any alterations that might be required in the sails while the ship was going into action.
Some hours from sunrise passed away, during which time the fleet was slowly approaching the reluctant enemy. It wanted but ten minutes to noon, when the signal flew out from the masthead of the Admiral for the fleet to bear down on the French, each ship to steer for and closely engage the one nearest to her in the enemy's line. The order was received with a hearty huzza. It was promptly and exactly obeyed. Still, from the lightness of the wind, it was nearly one before the engagement became general. And now along the whole line arose dense volumes of smoke—bright flashes were seen, and the roar of the guns, and the shouts and shrieks of the combatants were heard. Thickly flew the round-shot—the gallant Admiral in the Sandwich was engaged with two big Frenchmen, who seemed to have singled her out for destruction, but right nobly and boldly did she bear the brunt of the action. Shot after shot struck her, many between wind and water, and some in her masts and spars, which in consequence threatened to go overboard. The Terrible, too, was hotly engaged with an opponent worthy of her. What her name was could not be discovered.
"Never mind!" was the cry; "we'll soon learn when we make her haul down her flag!"
Hotter and hotter grew the action. Many were falling on both sides. Nearly all the English ships had lost both officers and men, killed and wounded; while, especially, they were dreadfully cut up in their rigging. Freeborn had come below to serve a gun.
"I see, mate, how it is!" cried Pringle to him. "Those Frenchmen are fighting to run away. It's strange not one of our fellows on deck have been hit yet. They've aimed all their shot at our spars."
"Hurrah! lads, then," answered Will in a high state of excitement, which Pringle could not help remarking. "Fire away, lads. We'll stop them if we can from running away, at all events."
As he spoke he applied his match to his gun. At the moment it sent forth its missile of death he tottered back, and before Paul Pringle could catch him had fallen on the deck. Paul stooped down and raised up his head.
"It's all over with me, Paul," he said in a low voice; "feel here."
There was a dreadful wound in his side, which made it appear too probable that his prognostication would prove true. The rest of the men near turned round with glances of sorrow, for he was a general favourite; but they had to attend to the working of their guns.
"Paul," he continued, "you and the ship's company will, I know, look after my motherless child. I leave Billy to the care of you all. Bring him up as a sailor—a true British tar, mind. There isn't a nobler life a man can lead. I would not have him anything else. The Captain's very kind, and will, I know, do his best for him. But I don't want him to be an officer—that's very well for them that's born to it; but all I'd have liked to have seen him, if I had lived, is an open-hearted, open-handed, honest seaman." Poor Will was speaking with great difficulty. His words came forth low and slowly.
"Yes, yes, Will," answered Paul, pressing his friend's hand. "We'll look after him. There's not a man of the Terrible who would not look at little True Blue as his own son; and as to making him a seaman, we none on us would dream of anything else. It would be utterly impossible and unnatural like. Set your mind at rest, mate, about that. But I say, Will, wouldn't it do your heart good to have a look at the younker?"
"Not up here; a shot might hit him, remember," answered the poor father. "And if they was to move me, I don't think that I should ever be got below alive. No, no, Paul; I'll stay here. It's the best place for a sailor to die."
Just then there was a cry that the enemy's ships were retreating. First the Count de Guichen's own ship, the huge Couronne, was seen standing out of the action, followed by the Triomphant and Fendant, leaving the Sandwich in so battered a condition that she could not follow. The other ships imitated their leader's example. One after another, the British ships found themselves without opponents. They endeavoured to make sail and follow; but their running rigging was so cut up that few could set their sails, while the masts of many went over their sides. All they could do, therefore, was to send their shot rapidly after the flying enemy, and give vent to their feelings in loud hurrahs and shouts of contempt. The Frenchmen little thought how well this same running away was teaching the English to beat them, as they did in many a subsequent combat, until, learning to respect each other's bravery, they became firm friends and allies, and such, it is to be hoped, they may remain till the end of time.
The sound of the shouts seemed to revive poor Will Freeborn.
"Now, mate, you'll see Billy, won't you?" said Paul. "It'll do your heart good."
Will smiled his assent. He was feeling no pain then. A boy was sent to summon Sam and the baby. Meantime the doctor came on deck.
"Let him lie here," said he after a short examination; "his moments are numbered."
Sam soon appeared. Paul took Billy from him, and, kneeling down, held the baby to the lips of the dying father. The men, no longer required to work the guns, clustered round the group. Will kissed his child and held him for a moment in his grasp.
"Shipmates," said he, raising his voice, "you'll all of you be kind to little True Blue—I know you will; there's no use asking you. And God will look after him—I know He will, and forgive me my sins. Here, Paul, take the child—I'm slipping my cable, shipmates!"
He turned his eyes on the infant, and, pointing towards him, fell back into the arms of Abel Bush and Peter Ogle, who had come to have a last look at their old friend.
He was dead, and little True Blue was left an orphan.
Poor Billy True Blue little knew the loss he had experienced, when, as usual, he kicked and frisked about, and spluttered and cooed, as that evening Paul Pringle, with a sad heart, was dipping him in a tub, preparatory to putting him into his cot. Paul had soon to send for Sam Smatch to take his place, as he had plenty of work on deck in repairing damages. Besides being much cut up in hull and rigging, the fleet had suffered greatly, and had had six officers and one hundred and fourteen men killed, and nine officers and one hundred and forty-five men wounded. The Admiral's ship, the Sandwich, had suffered the most severely; and it was only by the united exertions of her own and other ships' companies that she was kept afloat during the night and all the next day, till she could be got back again into Gros Islet Bay. There every possible exertion was made to repair damages, so as to be in a state to go in search of the enemy.
It was not, however, till the 6th of May that Sir George Rodney received intelligence that the French fleet had left the Island of Guadaloupe, where they had been repairing their damages, and were approaching to windward of Martinique.
Once more the English fleet was ordered by signal to put to sea; and with no less zest than before the anchors were run up, and under a crowd of sail they stood out of the bay. The wind, however, was contrary, and for several days the ships had to continue beating against it through the passage between Martinique and Saint Lucia till the 10th, when, as the morning broke, the Frenchmen were seen mustering the same number as before, about three leagues to windward.
"Hurrah! we'll have them now; they'll not demean themselves by running away!" was the general shout on board the British ships.
Nearer the English approached. The French formed in line of battle and bore down upon them. The hearts of the British tars beat high. They thought the time they were looking for had assuredly come; but when scarcely within so much as random shot, the Frenchmen were seen to haul their wind, and being much faster sailers than the English, they quickly got again beyond speaking distance. The English seamen stamped with rage and disappointment, as well they might, and hurled no very complimentary epithets on the enemy.
"The time will come when we get up to you, Monsieur, and then we'll give it you, won't we?" they exclaimed, shaking their lists at the enemy.
Several times the French came down in the same style, as Paul Pringle remarked, "like so many dancing-masters skipping along, and then whisking round and scampering off again."
Words will not describe the utter contempt and hatred the British tars felt in consequence of this for their enemies. Had the French mustered twice their numbers, and could they have got fairly alongside of them, yardarm to yardarm, they supposed that they could have thrashed them, and probably would have done so.
At last Admiral Rodney himself, in the hope of deceiving the enemy, made the signal for the fleet to bear away under all sail. The manoeuvre had the desired effect, making the French fancy that the English had taken to flight; and now growing bold, like yelping hounds, they came after them in full cry. The English captains guessed what was expected of them, and did their best to impede the progress of their ships, so as to let the enemy gain as much as possible on them. On the Frenchmen boldly came, till their van was nearly abreast of the centre of the English, who had luffed up till they had almost brought the fleet again on a bowline.
Now, to their great satisfaction, there was a shift of wind, which gave them the weather-gage. That was all Admiral Rodney wanted, and once more the hearts of the British seamen beat proudly with the anticipation of battle and victory.
The signal was made to engage. The British ships bore down on the enemy. It seemed no longer possible that he would decline to fight. On board the Terrible all stood ready at their guns, eyeing the foe. Sam Smatch had been despatched with his little charge into the hold, and ordered, unless he would incur the most dreadful pains and penalties, not to return on deck.
Sam grinned on receiving the order. He had not the slightest intention of infringing it. He was not a coward; but he was a philosopher. He had had fighting enough in his day. He had lost a leg fighting, and been otherwise sorely knocked about; and he had vowed, from that time forward, never to fight if he could help it. He had no king nor country, so to speak, to fight for; for though he had become a British subject, he had not appreciated the privileges he had thereby gained; and, at all events, they had failed to arouse any especial patriotic feelings within his bosom. Nothing, therefore, could please him better than his present occupation; and tucking his fiddle under one arm, and making a seat for the baby with the other, he descended with the most unfeigned satisfaction into the dusky depths of the bottom of the ship.
How intense was the indignation of the British seamen, when, just as they were within long range of the French, they saw ship after ship wear, and, under a crowd of sail, take to an ignominious flight! What showers of abuse were hurled after them, as were numerous random shots, though neither were much calculated to do them any harm. However, by seven in the evening, Captain Bowyer, in the Albion, who led the van, was seen to reach the centre of the enemy's line. In the most gallant style he opened fire, supported by the Conqueror and the other ships of the van. In vain the ships of the British centre endeavoured to get into action. Every manoeuvre that could be thought of was tried, every sail was set. The brave old Captain Penrose walked his deck with hasty strides and unusual excitement.
"Oh, how I envy that fellow Bowyer!" he exclaimed. "How rapidly his men work their guns! We would be doing the same if we were there. However, the time will come when I shall have another stand-up fight with them before I die. It may be soon, or it may be some time hence; but the time will come, that I feel assured of."
"I hope, sir, when it does arrive, you, and all with you, will come off victorious," observed the second lieutenant, who was in no way inclined to enter into what he called the Captain's fancies.
"No doubt about it," answered the Captain. "I trust that I may never live to see the day when a British fleet is worsted by our old enemies, the French, or by any others who have ships afloat."
In spite of the partial engagement taking place, the remainder of the French fleet continued its flight under a press of sail. Right gallantly the Albion and Conqueror continued the cannonade; but, again, the quicker heels of the French enabled them to keep out of the reach of the remainder of the British fleet, and finally carried them free of their pursuers.
Still, although night had closed in, Admiral Rodney persevered in following them up; but the wind had shifted, and given the French the weather-gage, an advantage which they employed in keeping out of action. Day after day passed, and then they were to be seen spreading over the blue sea in the far distance, but not daring to come nearer. Either they were waiting for reinforcements, or for some accident which might give them such a vast superiority that they would no longer have any fear of the result of a general engagement.
Great, therefore, was the delight of the British, when, on the morning of the 19th, the wind shifted suddenly, and enabled them to bear down under a press of sail on the enemy. The Count de Guichen could no longer, it was hoped, avoid an action; but, ere the English could get their guns to bear, the fickle wind again shifted and left the enemy the choice of engaging or not. Although the van of the French was to windward, their rear was still to leeward of the British van, now led by the gallant Commodore Hotham. Immediately he bore down upon them and opened his fire.
The Terrible was in this division, and took a leading part in the fray. Several ships on both sides were now hotly engaged. The French Admiral, seeing this, seemed to have made up his mind to risk a general action; and as soon as his van had weathered the British, which the shift of wind enabled him to do, he bore away along their line to windward and commenced a heavy cannonade, but at so cautious a distance that his shot did little damage. The Terrible's opponent soon sheered off, and, having more speed than pluck, quickly got out of the range of her guns, greatly to the disgust of all the crew.
"Look here, mates; is this what those frog-eating Johnny Crapauds call fighting?" exclaimed Paul Pringle, pointing to de Guichen's distant line, firing away at the main body of the British fleet. "Unless fellows are inclined to lay alongside each other, yardarm to yardarm, and have it out like brave men, to my mind they had better stay ashore and leave fighting alone."
The sentiment was echoed heartily by all his hearers, and more particularly so, when in a short time the whole French fleet was seen fairly to take to flight, and, under a press of sail, to stand to the northward. The British fleet continued all the next day in chase; but, on the morning of the 21st, not a Frenchman was to be seen; and as many of the ships had suffered severely in these partial actions, and were much knocked about by long service, Admiral Rodney stood for Barbadoes, where they might undergo the required repairs. They arrived on the 22nd in Carlisle Bay.
It was not for some time that the crew of the Terrible had a moment to think of anything but the stern calls of duty. At last, however, the old ship was once more ready for sea, and then one spoke to the other about little Billy True Blue, and their promise to Will Freeborn; and it was agreed that an assemblage of the whole ship's company should be held, to decide the course to be pursued for his rearing and education. The forecastle, or, as seamen call it, "the fo'c's'l," was the place selected for the meeting. Tom Snell, the boatswain's mate, Sergeant Bolton, Peter Ogle, Abel Bush, Paul Pringle, of course, the three godfathers' mates, and most of the petty officers, spoke on this important occasion. Sam Smatch would have been there, but he had to look after the baby in the cabin; he had, however, explained his opinion, and claimed the right of voting by proxy; which claim was fully allowed, seeing that he was absent on the public service. The warrant-officers were not present—not that they did not take a warm interest in the matter, but they did not wish to interfere with the free discussion in which the men might wish to indulge. Sergeant Bolton, however, came, and it was understood that he knew their feelings in all the important points likely to be broached. His rank might have kept him away, but he was present, because, as he said, "I ham, de ye see, the hinconsolable widower of Nancy Bolton, the hintfant's nurse, and how do ye think hany one can have more hinterest in the hangel than I?"
Tom Snell was looked upon as a great orator; not the less so that he often enforced his arguments with a rope's end.
"Mates," said he, rising, when all the men were assembled, perched about in every available spot and in every possible attitude, and he brought one clenched fist down on the other open palm, with a sound which echoed along the decks, "this is how the case stands, d'ye see. There's a baby born aboard this here ship, and that baby had a mother, a good real shipshape woman, who was as kind a nurse to all on us as was sick as could be. Well, I won't talk on her; she dies, and two other women acts as nurses to the baby; they were good women too, but I won't talk on them." Tom passed the hairy back of his rough hand across his eyes, and continued: "Now the baby fell to the natural care like of his daddy, a true-hearted honest sailor as ever stepped. He'd have done honestly by him, and brought him up as a right real seaman, there's no doubt; but, d'ye see, as ye know, mates all, a sneaking Frenchman's round-shot comes aboard us and strikes him between wind and water, so to speak, and pretty nigh cuts him in two. Before he slipped his cable, many on you who stood near knows what he said to us. He told us that he gave the baby to the ship's company—to look after—to be brought up as a seaman should be brought up. One and all on us would do the same and much more, as I know, for little True Blue, seeing as how he naturally-like belongs to us—ay, mates, and we would be ready to fight for him to the last; and if there was one thing would make us keep our colours flying to the last, it would be to prevent him falling into the enemy's hands, to be brought up as a capering, frog-eating Frenchman. But, mates, d'ye see, this would be very well if we could all stick together aboard the same ship, and for his sake I knows we'd try to do it; but, as you knows, there are the chances of war—we may be separated—one may go to one ship, one may go to another, and who is he to go with, I should like to know? Now I don't want that any on us should lose the pleasure and honour of looking after him, that I don't—I'd scorn to be so unjust to any one; but we wants to settle when the evil time arrives when we, who has served together so long, and fought together, and stuck together like brothers and true seamen should, comes to be scattered, who the little chap, Billy True Blue, is to go with—that's the point, mates, d'ye see? He can't go with us all. He must be with some one on us, the primest seaman, too, who'll teach him to knot and splice, to hand-reef and steer, and all the ways of a seaman. That's what we has to do. We can't teach him much yet, you'll all allow, and the Captain says as how he'll give nine dozen to any man as puts a quid of baccy in the younker's mouth; so we can't even learn him to chaw yet, which to my mind he'd do better nor anything else, as he's most practice with his jaws just yet; but the time will come when he can use his fists, too, and the sooner he gets 'em into the tar-bucket the better, says I." This opinion was loudly applauded by all present.
Tom made some further remarks to the same effect. "And now," he concluded, "any one on you who has got anything for to say for or again' what I've been a-saying, let him stand up on his legs and say it out like a man."
Bill Tompion, one of the gunner's crew, thereon arose with a sudden spring, and, having squirted a stream of tobacco juice through a port, exclaimed:
"What Tom says is all very true. No one here nor there will want to deny it; but what I axes is, who's to have charge of the younker? That's what I see we wants to settle. When I fires my gun, I doesn't blaze away at the air, but looks along it and sees what I'm going to fire at, and takes my aim; and, d'ye see, if it's an enemy's ship not far off, I generally hits, too. Now that's just as I was saying, mates, what we have to do. We wants to fix on fit and proper persons to look after our little chap aboard here,—the ship's own child, I may say,—to see that he gets into no mischief, and to bring him up as a seaman should be brought up. Now I'd like to be one on those to look after him, and Tom would like to be one, and many on us would like to have the work, and most of us, ay, and all of us," (there was a general cheer); "but, mates, it isn't the men who'd like it most, but the men who is most fit, d'ye see, we are bound to choose. Now I speak for myself. I'm a thoughtless, careless sailor—I've run my head into more scrapes than I'd like to own. I'm very well afloat, but ashore I wouldn't like to have on my conscience to have charge of that young chap, d'ye see; and as for Tom Snell, he'll speak for himself. Betty Snell kept him straight, there's no doubt of it; but now she's gone, poor Tom's all adrift again, and it's just a chance if he goes for to splice once more, what sort of a wife he'll pick up. Therefore, says I, neither Tom nor I'm the best man to look after Billy True Blue. But, mates," (here Tompion stopped and struck his hands together), "I does say that I thinks I knows who is a good man, a fit man, and a friend and messmate of Will Freeborn, and that man is Paul Pringle. He's what the parsons calls a godfather, and so I take it he's a sort of a guardian like already, and he's had charge of the little chap ever since poor Betty and Nancy lost the number of their mess; and if Paul will take charge, and I'm sure he will, I says, 'Let him be one of the guardians.'"
Paul rose. "Mates all," said he, giving a hitch to his waistband, "I thanks ye. Don't you think as long as body and soul keep together I'd look after little Billy True Blue, who was born aboard this ship, whose father and mother was my friends, and who, I may say, is just like a son to me? I know you all sees this; but, mates, I may any day slip my cable, as you and all of us may do, but still one man's life is not so good as three, and therefore, I says, let me have his father's friends and messmates, Peter Ogle and Abel Bush, two good men and thorough seamen, to help me; and I can say that I believe one and all of us will do our duty by the boy—we'll not fail to do our best to make him an honest man and a true sailor."
There were no dissentient voices to Paul's proposal. Never was a meeting for any subject held with so much unanimity. The three godfathers' mates were chosen as their assistant-guardians, and thus, as far as numbers could ensure care, little True Blue had every chance of being well looked after.
Captain Penrose was very well pleased when he heard of the arrangements the seamen had made with regard to little Billy. More than once, however, he spoke to Dr Macbride and some of his officers about him in whom he had most confidence.
"As you know," he remarked, "I am now childless, and have no kith or kin depending on me; and if the boy turns out well, when old enough, I think of getting him placed on the quarterdeck. The son of many a seaman before the mast has risen to the top of his profession. My wife's grandfather was a boatswain; my father-in-law, his son, was an Admiral and a K.C.B. He won't have interest; but if he's a good seaman, and is always on the watch to do his duty,—to run after it, not to let duty come to him,—he'll get on well enough, depend on that."
The fleet of Sir George Rodney was now divided. While he despatched a portion, under Josias Rowley, to reinforce Sir Peter Parker at Jamaica, threatened by a powerful French squadron, he sailed with the greater part of the remainder for New York. It must be remembered that the American War of Independence was then going on, and that the French had promised to aid the insurgent colonists.
The old Terrible was still on the Jamaica station; but it was understood that she would soon be sent to join the squadron off New York. She and the gallant old Thunderer, 74, which had so long braved the battle and the breeze, were together, the crews of both eagerly looking out for an enemy.
There was an enemy approaching they little dreamed of. Cape Tiburon, at the west end of the Island of Hispaniola, or San Domingo, the name by which it is now better known, had been sighted the day before, so that all knew well whereabouts they were. There was a perfect calm, and the water was as smooth as the most polished glass—not a ripple was to be seen on it; but yet it was not a plain, for huge undulations came swelling up from the southern part of the Caribbean Sea, which made the big ships roll till their lower yards almost dipped into the water.
Captain Walsingham and several of the officers of the Thunderer, taking advantage of the calm, had come on board the Terrible to visit Captain Penrose and his officers. They were a merry party; they had done their duty nobly, and they were anticipating opportunities of doing it again, not to speak of gaining prize-money and promotion.
"Walsingham, my dear fellow," said Captain Penrose to his younger brother Captain as they were taking a turn on the quarterdeck after dinner, "I do not altogether like the look of the weather. I have, as you know, been in these seas a good deal. These perfect calms are often succeeded by sudden and violent storms, often by hurricanes; and though we may have sea-room and stout craft, in such a commotion as I have more than once witnessed, it will require all our seamanship to keep afloat."
"No fear," answered the younger Captain, smiling, "the Thunderer is not likely to fear the fiercest hurricane that ever blew;" and he looked with all a true seaman's pride on the noble ship, which floated so gallantly at the distance of a few hundred fathoms.
"At all events, take an old man's counsel," said Captain Penrose, stopping in his walk. "I would not be so rude as unnecessarily to urge you to leave my ship; but, my dear fellow, get on board as fast as you can, and make her ready to encounter whatever may occur. If the threatenings pass off, no harm is done. I must prepare the Terrible for a gale."
Thus urged, the younger Captain could no longer decline to take the proffered advice, but calling his officers, their boats were manned, and they returned on board the Thunderer. In the meantime, everything that could be done was done to prepare the Terrible for a fierce contest with the elements. Royal and topgallant-yards were sent down— topmasts were struck, rolling tackles were made fast to all the lower yards, and all the guns, and everything below that could move, were secured. A thin mist pervaded the atmosphere; the heat grew excessive; both sky and sea became the colour of lead; and an oppressive gloom hung over the waste of waters. Still the wind did not stir, and even the swell appeared to be going down. Hour after hour passed away.
"Our skipper is a good officer, there's no doubt about it," observed some of the younger men as they walked the forecastle. "But he's sometimes overmuch on the safe side, and if a moderate breeze were to spring up, and an enemy appear in sight, she'd slip away long before we could be in a fit state to go after her."
"You are very wise, mate, I daresay," said Abel Bush, who heard the remark. "But just suppose the Captain is right and you wrong, how should we look if the squall caught us with all our light sticks aloft and our canvas spread? Old Harry Cane, when you meet with him in these parts, is not a chap to be trifled with, let me tell you."
The younger seaman might have replied, but the force of Abel's argument was considerably strengthened by a loud roaring sound which broke on their ears. Far, too, as the eye could reach, the ocean appeared torn up into a vast mass of foam, which rolled on with fearful rapidity, preceded by still higher undulations than before, which made the ship roll, and pitch, and tumble about in a way most unusual and alarming. The officers, speaking trumpet in hand, were issuing the necessary orders to try and get the ship's head away from the coming blast; but the little wind there yet was refused to fill the head sails, and only made them beat and flap against the masts.
"I told you so, mates," said Abel Bush as he passed Ned Marline, the young seaman who had been criticising the Captain's arrangements; "never do you fancy that you know better than your elders till you've had as much experience as they."
Paul Pringle had been watching the Thunderer. He had served on board her; he had many old shipmates now belonging to her; and he naturally took a deep interest in all concerning her.
"She's a fine old ship, that she is!" he exclaimed as he cast a last glance at the gallant seventy-four, before turning to attend to his duty.
She was then not a quarter of a mile to leeward. Now down came the fury of the hurricane; with a roar like that of a wild beast when it springs on its prey, the tempest struck the Terrible. The headsails, which alone were set, in an instant were blown from the boltropes, and flew like fleecy clouds far away down to leeward. The helm was put up, but the ship refused to answer it. The tempest struck her on the side. The stout masts bent and quivered in spite of all the shrouds and stays which supported them, and then over she heeled, till the yardarms touched the seething ocean. Fore and aft she was covered with a mass of foam, while the waters rushed exultantly into her ports, threatening to carry her instantly to the bottom. The crew hurried to secure the ports. Many poor fellows were carried off while making the attempt. In vain Captain Penrose and his officers exerted themselves to wear the ship. Like a helpless log she lay on the foaming ocean. While still hoping to avoid the last extreme resource of cutting away the masts, the carpenter appeared on the quarterdeck with an expression of consternation on his countenance.
"What has happened below, Chips?" asked Captain Penrose.
"Twelve feet water in the hold, and rapidly gaining on us," was the answer.
"It is probably the water which has got in through the ports; but man the pumps: we must get it out again as fast as we can," answered the Captain.
"They'll not work while the ship is in this position, sir," said the carpenter.
"Oh, well, then, we must get her out of it!" cried Captain Penrose in a cheerful voice, though his heart was heavy. "All hands stand by to cut away the masts."
The order was repeated from mouth to mouth, for no voice could have been heard along the deck. The carpenter once more went below to sound the well. He shortly returned with even a worse report than the first. The order was therefore given to cut away the masts. He sprang to his post at the mizen-mast, which was to go first; but, just as he was about to cut, the ship righted with a sudden jerk, which well-nigh sent everybody off his legs. All believed that the dreaded resource would not be required, but still the helm was useless, and therefore the ship could not be got before the wind. Not a minute had passed before she was once more struck on the opposite side with a still more furious blast of the hurricane. Over the big ship heeled to it, till first the foremast went by the head, carrying all the topmast rigging over the bows; the mainmast followed, going by the board, and the mizen-mast was quickly dragged after it, the falling masts wounding and killing many of the crew, and carrying several overboard. Not a moment, however, was lost, before, led by the officers, all were engaged with axes and knives in clearing the wreck. But now the seas leaped up furiously round the labouring ship, tossing her huge hull wildly here and there, as if she had been merely some small boat left helplessly to become their sport.
Now, for the first time, Paul Pringle and others bethought them of looking for the Thunderer. So full of salt spray was the air that they could scarcely make her out, near as she was to them; then on a sudden they saw her dark hull surrounded by the seething foam, but her stout masts were not visible. She, as they had been, was on her beam-ends. Suddenly she, too, righted; up rose the masts, in all their height and symmetry it seemed.
"She has come off scatheless!" cried one or two.
"No, no, mates!" cried Paul Pringle in a tone of anguish. "See! see! heaven have mercy on their souls!"
Down, down, sank the big hull; gradually tier after tier disappeared; the foaming waters leaped over the decks—the tall masts followed— down—down—down—and in another instant the spot where the brave old Thunderer had floated was vacant, and seven hundred human beings were hurried at once into eternity. In vain could the crew of the Terrible hope to render them assistance—the same fate at any moment might be theirs. No one had even time to mourn the loss of their countrymen and friends. Every nerve must be strained to keep their own ship afloat. Still the water rushed in.
The opinion became general that a butt had been started, (that is, the end of a plank), and that the ship must go down. Even Captain Penrose could no longer conceal from himself that such was too probably the case. He, however, and his officers exerted themselves to the utmost to maintain discipline—no easy task under such circumstances in those days, when men who had braved death over and over again in battle with the greatest coolness and intrepidity, have been known to break open the spirit stores with the object of stupefying their minds with liquor to avoid facing the king of terrors.
Fiercer and fiercer raged the hurricane, and now all hopes of saving the ship, or of preserving their own lives, were almost abandoned. Paul Pringle, with Abel Bush and Peter Ogle, were seen to be very busy. They were collecting such shattered spars and small ropes, and casks and other articles, as they could most easily lay hands on. These they quickly converted into a small but very strong raft, with a sort of bulwark all round it. In one of the casks they stowed a keg of water, and some biscuits and beef; and in another they stuffed the bedding of a hammock and some blankets; and they stepped a mast on the little raft, and secured a flag to it. The raft might, probably, have borne four or five men, but there was only sitting room for one just alongside the cask which had the bedding in it. When all was ready, Paul Pringle disappeared into the Captain's cabin, and returned carrying in his arms Billy True Blue, followed by Sam Smatch, who had his fiddle and bow tucked under his arm.
"Now, Sam," said Paul, pointing to the raft, "you see that. You didn't enter to do a seaman's duty; so you, if any one ought, may quit the ship. Now, you see, none on us knows what moment she may be going down; and so, Sam, just jump into this raft and make yourself fast, so that no sea can wash you off, and take Billy True Blue with you. Though he's on the ship's books, he isn't entered to do duty; so he may quit her without any shame or disgrace, d'ye see. Bear a hand now, Sam."
The black did as he was bid; and having secured his beloved fiddle in one of the casks, held out his arms to receive little True Blue. Paul for some instants could not bring himself to part with the child. He pressed his lips to its little mouth as a fond mother might do; and then Peter and Abel followed his example with no less signs of affection; but a cry which ascended from below, that the ship was settling down fast, hurried their proceedings.
"There, Sam, take him," said Paul with a tone of deep feeling, giving up the child to the black. "Watch over him, Sam, for he's a jewel, mind that. You may be driven ashore on that island out there, and as you know the lingo of the people, you may do bravely among them. Your fiddle will stand you in good stead wherever you go, and you may play them into good humour. But mind you, Sam, as soon as you can, you are to get to a British port, and to go aboard a man-of-war, and say who the boy is, and what he is, and how he's to be brought up; and try and find out any old shipmates of mine, or Peter's, or Abel's, or the Captain's— for I know he'll join us—and say that it was our last dying message, just before the waters closed over us, that they would stand in our shoes and look after the boy. We trust you, Sam. You loves the boy. I knows you do. You'll be faithful, lad?"
"Yes, Paul; so help me, I will," answered Sam with much feeling, pressing his shipmate's hand held out to him.
"Stay," said Paul suddenly, "you shall not go alone, Sam. There's another who loves little True Blue, and as he's one of the youngest in the ship, no one will complain that he has a chance of his life given him. It's Natty Garland. Has any one seen Natty Garland?"
The young midshipman was nowhere to be found. The Captain highly approved of Paul's proposals, and men hurried off in every direction to look for the lad.
The Captain retired to his cabin to write a hasty despatch, describing the condition of his ship. He expected that it would be the last he should ever indite. "I will entrust this with the young boy," he said to himself. "I am sure the explanations it will give will exonerate me for the loss of the ship."
When he returned on deck, the midshipman had not been found. The Captain was about to give his despatch to Sam, when two men returned, bringing young Garland with them. They found him between two of the guns on the middle deck almost stunned from a fall. Had they not arrived when they did, he very likely would have been washed through a port and drowned. He soon recovered in the air, and was told what was proposed.
"To leave the ship while others stay?" he exclaimed. "No, no. I am an officer, and it is my duty to stick by the ship to the last."
"Right, Garland," said the Captain, taking his hand warmly. "But I do not propose that you should leave the ship till she will no longer float; and then I have to entrust you with a despatch, which you must deliver to the Admiral, and explain how the ship was lost."