The Two Shipmates, by William H.G. Kingston.
This is only a short book, taking no more than three and a half hours to read aloud, but it is beautifully written, and it packs a punch.
The two people designated as shipmates start off at the beginning of the book as reasonably close friends, but a weakness for alcohol causes Dick Bracewell to behave more and more badly, while the real hero, Ralph Michelmore, despite being taken by the Press-gang, behaves more and more nobly as the story progresses.
Ralph is already Mate of the Amity when pressed into the Royal Navy, but he had accidentally gone out that evening without his "Protection", a document attesting to his rank in the Merchant Navy. He had that very evening become engaged to Jessie, who waits for him for years.
With a couple of curious twists it all works out well in the end; Ralph is reunited with Jessie, and the wicked shipmate, Dick, meets a suitable doom.
THE TWO SHIPMATES, BY WILLIAM H.G. KINGSTON.
The stout trading brig Amity, Samuel Mudge master and part owner, was gliding up Plymouth Sound on a summer's evening towards her accustomed berth in Catwater, a few years before the termination of the last war between England and France. She had no pilot on board; indeed, her crew averred that the old craft could find the way in and out of the harbour by herself; at all events, her master knew it better than most men trading from the port, as did his young mate, Ralph Michelmore.
The last rays of the setting sun were glancing on the topgallant mast-heads of the brig when her anchor was dropped, and by the time her sails were furled and all was made snug the gloom of night had settled down on the Pool, and twinkling lights began to appear from the houses on shore.
"You'll be wishing to go on shore, my boy," said the old master, as Ralph, the duties for the day over, came into the cabin to join him at tea, which the boy had just placed on the table. "There'll be some one who'll be right glad to see thee, lad;" and the speaker looked up at the mate, whose handsome countenance beamed with pleasure, a slight blush rising on it as he answered—
"Thank you, sir; thank you heartily. I should very much like to pay Mistress Treviss—and—and her granddaughter a visit. I had few opportunities of seeing them when we were last in port, and as we have been long on this trip they may be anxious about us. But would not you prefer going on shore yourself, captain? It's my duty to remain on board."
"No, do you go, as I tell ye," replied the kind old master. "I'll stay on board and look after the ship. But I say, lad, take your protection with you. The press-gangs are sure to be out, and you may chance to fall in with one of them."
"Thank you, sir, I have it here," said Ralph, producing a tin case from his pocket; and hurriedly swallowing his tea without sitting down, he went into his cabin to rig himself in his shore-going suit.
Ralph's father, the commander of a merchant vessel, and an old friend and shipmate of Captain Mudge, had been lost at sea, washed from the deck in a heavy gale, leaving his wife and young child but ill provided for. The widow, a truly Christian woman, exerted herself to the utmost of her strength to support and educate her boy, but when he was about fourteen years of age her health gave way, and she died, committing him to the charge of good Captain Mudge.
Ralph, who had set his heart on going to sea, was taken as an apprentice on board the Amity the next voyage she made. By his steadiness, intelligence, and activity, he soon became a prime seaman. When on shore he studied navigation, and as soon as his time was out, Captain Mudge, the berth being vacant, made him his mate. Most of the crew heartily congratulated Ralph on his promotion, for they acknowledged him, young as he was, to be the best seaman among them. The only one who grumbled was Dick Bracewell, who had also been an apprentice on board the Amity, and being a year older than Ralph, and a very fair sailor, considered that he had superior claims to promotion.
"I'm not going to quarrel with you about the matter, Ralph," he said, though he looked very much inclined to do so. "If the skipper chooses to favour you that's not your fault; but you can't expect me, as good a man as yourself you'll allow, to be jumping here and there at your orders; and so as soon as we get back to Plymouth I shall take my chest and clear out of the old ship for good. I shall easily get a berth as mate on board another craft, and if we meet again we shall be as good friends as ever, I hope."
"No doubt about that, Dick," answered Ralph; "I am sorry, however, that you have made up your mind to leave us; still it's but natural, I own."
"Ay, I should think so," said Dick, walking forward.
Dick might have been as active and bold a seaman as Ralph, but the captain had, notwithstanding, ample reason for refusing to make him his mate, for he was known to be wild on shore, and was often far from attentive to his duty on board; while, though he professed to have learned navigation, his calculations were not to be depended on. Still, being good-natured and brave as need be, he was liked by the rest of the crew, in spite of being thoughtless and inclined to give way to temper. Ralph had a sincere regard for him. He saw his shipmate's errors, but believed him possessed of redeeming good qualities, and hoped that he would in time amend his bad ways.
Dick kept to his intention, and on reaching Plymouth bade his old captain and shipmates good-bye. This occurred about a couple of years before the time we are speaking of, and since then Ralph had heard nothing of Dick Bracewell.
No sailor takes long to dress. Ralph was quickly ready, and a fine young fellow he looked as he stepped back into the cabin habited in what the old captain called his "shore-going toggery." Promising to be on board again before midnight, he jumped into a boat which had just come alongside, and told the waterman to pull for the landing-place.
"You must keep a sharp look-out not to fall in with the press-gangs, master," observed the latter. "They are out every night, and are in no ways particular on whom they lay hands."
"Thank you," answered Ralph; "I've no cause to fear them, and am not going where they are likely to be looking for their prey."
Ralph had proceeded a few paces after landing, when he heard steps behind him and felt a hand placed on his shoulder. Turning round he saw a sailor-like man, who exclaimed, "What, Ralph Michelmore, old chum! Don't you know me? I am Dick Bracewell. I'm sure I can't be mistaken in you, for I saw the Amity come in at sunset, and hoped to fall in with you, though I'd no fancy to go on board, do you see."
"And I'm right glad to meet you, Dick," said Ralph, grasping the other's proffered hand. "Where have you been all these years?"
"Knocking about in one craft or another, and seeing something more of the world than you have in your jog-trot old tub, I fancy," answered Bracewell, with a laugh. "I've just come back from a voyage to the West Indies, with my pockets full of shiners, which I'm going to try and get rid of in enjoying myself. Come along, Ralph, and help me. I only stepped on shore for the first time just as you did, so I've not begun yet."
"Thank you, Dick; you mean it kindly, but I'm on my way to see some friends, and have promised to be on board again to-night," said Ralph, as they walked on together.
"What, not take a glass or two of grog with an old shipmate!" cried Dick in an aggrieved tone. "Come, come, man, just for once be social."
"Even if I ever took liquor, which I don't, I haven't time to stay with you," said Ralph, firmly; adding, after a moment's reflection, in the hope of preventing his companion from committing the folly he meditated, "Instead of doing as you propose, come along with me to see an old lady and her granddaughter. They are great friends of mine, and will welcome you for my sake; indeed, I'll confess that I hope some day to marry the little girl."
"No, no, my boy; I should be left to do the polite to the old dame, while you make love to the young one," answered Dick, with a hoarse laugh, which Ralph did not like. "That sort of thing is not to my taste; still, to please you, if you'll come in here and do as I want you, I'll think about it." The door of a public-house stood temptingly open. Dick endeavoured to drag in Ralph, who however resisted manfully, and tore his arm away from his companion's grasp.
"Once more hear me, Dick," he said, unwilling to abandon his old friend without another effort to save him. "If you take one glass you'll take another and another, till you won't know what you are about, and then ten to one you'll fall into the hands of crimps who'll fleece you of every shilling in your pocket, or you'll get picked up by a press-gang and be carried on board a man-of-war, not to regain your liberty for years to come."
"Don't preach to me, Ralph; I know how to take care of myself; so if you go on I'll follow you, and you shall see that I'm as sober as a judge," answered Dick, and with a laugh he darted into the public-house.
Ralph, though eager to be with his friends, waited a minute or more in the hope that he might come out, and then, as he did not appear, reluctantly walked on. At length, having passed through the town, he reached a small cottage in the outskirts, with a few yards of garden in front. Passing through the wicket-gate he stopped for a moment at the door. The window was partly open, and he could hear a sweet voice reading. He caught the words; they were from the Book of Books, which he had learned to know and value. He was unwilling to interrupt the reader. She stopped, however, having come to the end of the chapter. He knocked. "May I come in?" he asked. "Oh, granny, it is Ralph!" The words were uttered by the same person who had just ceased reading, but in a very different tone. He well knew the sweet voice. His heart beat quick. He heard the speaker come flying to the door. In a moment it was opened. "Jessie, my own dear Jessie!" he exclaimed, as he pressed the hand of a fair blooming girl, who welcomed him with a bright smile.
"I hoped that you might come to-day, and yet as the hours drew on I began to fear that I might again be disappointed," she said, as she looked up affectionately into his face. "How slow the Amity must have sailed!"
"She is like other craft, not able to make way without wind, and we had scarcely a cup-full all the voyage round from the Thames; besides which, we were detained there much longer than usual; but she has safely reached port at last," he answered; adding, as he advanced into the room towards a neatly-dressed old lady in a high mob-cap, seated in an arm-chair, with knitting-needles in her hands and spectacles on her nose,—"And how is Mrs Treviss?"
"Ever glad to see thee, dear Ralph," answered the old lady, trying, not without difficulty, to rise, till the young man springing forward quietly made her sit down again. "In spiritual health I am well—the Lord be praised for all His mercies; but bodily infirmities creep on apace with old age, and remind me that my earthly course is well-nigh run."
"I hope that you will live many years to be a blessing to us, granny," said the young sailor, affectionately, taking her hand.
"I am ready to remain if it is the Lord's will," she answered. "And now tell me, Ralph, how is good Captain Mudge? I hope that he will pay me a visit before he sails again, as I want much to talk to him on a matter of importance."
"He is tough and hearty as ever; he will, I am sure, come and see you," said Ralph.
Mrs Treviss, however, did not entirely occupy the young sailor's attention. He and Jessie had a good deal to say to each other of especial interest to themselves as they sat side by side, Jessie's hands having found their way into those of Ralph. At last Mrs Treviss reminded her that their guest might possibly be hungry, and that it was full time for supper, which she, in obedience to her grandmother, got up to place on the table. "How neat-handed and graceful in all her movements she is!" thought Ralph, as his eyes followed her about the room; and they were seldom off the door watching for her return when she went into the kitchen to warm up the old dame's posset and prepare some other viands. Mrs Treviss took the opportunity of her absence to speak to Ralph on a subject which he found especially interesting. "If I was younger and stronger I would not give you this advice I am about to do," she said. "I would say, wait for a few years till you have the command of a ship, and Jessie is older and better able than now to keep house and have the cares of a family, but as I fear my poor son-in-law, her father, Captain Flamank, will never more be heard of, and I may ere long be called to my rest, she will have no one in this world to protect her but you; and so it's my wish that you should marry as soon as you can manage to spend a few weeks on shore."
"Then that may be at once," exclaimed the young lover, delighted. "The Amity requires some repairs, and the captain is much in a mind, unless a good freight offers, to go into dock, and his wish to serve me may settle the matter. I little thought when I came up this evening what good news you had in store for me; I can never thank you enough."
"Nay, Ralph, though I love you, it's my grandchild's welfare I have at heart, for I can with perfect confidence confide her to you," said the old lady, taking Ralph's hand and looking him earnestly in the face. "You will cherish her and watch over her, and guard her from all evil."
"Indeed I will, if health and strength is given me," he answered solemnly.
"For that we must trust to God," said Mrs Treviss. "All we can do is to exercise the sense He has given us, and guard against the dangers we know may occur. I have therefore made my will, and left the very small property I possess to Jessie; but most of my income, as the widow of a warrant-officer killed in action, ceases at my death, so that as a single woman she would be but poorly off, though she will have something to help keep house."
"I would as willingly marry her if she had not a sixpence," exclaimed Ralph, warmly. "More willingly I could not, but it would be a satisfaction to know that I was saving her from poverty or from having to toil for her living."
"I know you will, Ralph, and I believe you, so say no more about that," observed Mrs Treviss. "If your good captain settles to put the Amity into dock, you may perhaps marry some day next week. You can ask Jessie, and I don't think she will say you nay."
Ralph was pouring out his thanks from the bottom of his heart, with all the ardour of a young sailor, when Jessie returned. He would at once have broached the subject had not Mrs Treviss given him timely warning that by so doing he would considerably interfere with the supper arrangements. Jessie therefore went back to the kitchen and returned several times, unaware of the interesting conversation which had taken place, though she might have observed the animated expression of her lover's countenance. When all was ready and they sat down to table Ralph ate so little that Jessie began to fear he was unwell, and she at last could not help looking up affectionately in his face and asking him if such was the case.
"Oh no, I never felt better in my life, Jessie; and so happy!" he answered.
Perhaps she herself might just then have had some suspicion of the truth, for she forgot to eat any more; and shortly afterwards her granny, getting up, hobbled out of the room. The young people were alone, and, as may be supposed, Ralph did not lose much time in telling Jessie what Mrs Treviss had said, and asking her if she would consent to the arrangement. Jessie was as ready to obey her granny's wishes as Ralph could desire, and as he told her there would be no difficulty in obtaining a licence she consented to fix the following Monday for their wedding-day, if he could, as he hoped, remain in Plymouth. He was naturally very sanguine in the expectation of being able to obtain a holiday. He even thought that, should the Amity be offered a freight which could not be refused, Captain Mudge would propose getting another mate for the voyage, as it was summer time; not that he should like him to do that. Jessie thought that Captain Mudge would not hesitate about having the Amity repaired. How could he, when so important an event depended on his decision! At length granny came back into the room, with a smile on her countenance, and, sitting down in her arm-chair, looked up at the tall clock in the corner, which had gone "tick! tick! tick!" unheeded for an hour or more since supper.
"Well, my dears, is it all settled?" she asked.
"Yes," answered Ralph. "Jessie has promised to make me the happiest young fellow alive next Monday—though I am wonderfully happy for that matter at present,"—and jumping up he kissed granny's hand and thanked her again and again for the gift she had bestowed on him, and then he ran back to Jessie's side.
At that instant there came several thundering blows on the door from a heavy cudgel, and a gruff voice cried out, "Open in the King's name;" while another was heard to say, in a lower tone, "Go round to the back and look out that he does not escape by that way."
When Dick Bracewell entered the tavern, he intended merely to take a glass of liquor, just to show his independence, and then to follow his friend. He, however, found a shipmate, Tom Joyce, in the bar, who easily persuaded him to take a second, followed, naturally, by a third; and then, his spirits raised, he was induced to accompany his companion to a dancing hall attached to a public-house in one of the back streets not far off. Upwards of fifty seamen were collected, many of them half-seas-over, when a press-gang, to whose commanding officer notice had been given of what was going forward (very likely by the landlord himself), rushed in, and, after a severe struggle, captured whole of them, including Dick and Tom, who, having only just fallen into the trap, were the most sober of the party.
While the more unruly were carried down at once to the boats, Dick and Tom with a few others were marched along by the larger part of the press-gang, who were evidently intent on making further captures.
The two captives had their wits wide awake, and were not without hopes of effecting their escape.
The press-gang went on till they reached the outskirts of the town, when they brought up before a neat little cottage. Three men were sent round to the back-door, while five others advanced to the front entrance and knocked loudly.
"That's where Widow Treviss lives; she's not one to harbour seamen," Dick heard one of the party observe.
"Nol Hedger says he marked a prime seaman go in there not two hours ago," answered another. It at once occurred to Dick that they were speaking of Ralph Michelmore.
"Poor fellow! It's where the young girl lives he's going to marry. If they get hold of him they'll not mind her tears and prayers, but will carry him off, like the rest of us, to serve the king. However he has a protection, and has a chance of getting off, I hope."
The blow on the door was, repeated.
"Open in the King's name," shouted the officer.
"I always obey that authority," answered Dame Treviss, from within, "Ralph, unlock the door."
The door was thrown open, and the seamen, led by their officer, rushed in. The old dame sat calmly in her chair, while Ralph, with Jessie clinging to his arm, stood in the centre of the room.
"Why have you come here at this time of the evening, my friends?" asked Mrs Treviss, with all the composure she could command.
"Because, old lady, we have information that you are harbouring seamen wanted for his Majesty's service, and, if I mistake not, here stands one of them, and a likely lad too," answered the officer, a rough old master's mate, well accustomed to such work, as he laid his hand on Ralph's arm and made a sign to his men to seize him.
"Oh, no, no! You cannot take him! You will not be so cruel—you shall not have him," cried Jessie, clinging tightly to her intended husband.
"Don't be frightened, dear Jessie, they cannot take me, I have my protection," said Ralph, trying to free himself from the officer's grasp.
"Let go my arm, and I will show you the paper which proves that I am mate of the Amity, and a protected man," he added, turning to the officer.
"Never took a fellow yet who didn't try to make out that he was protected. However, if the young woman here won't make such a fuss we'll let you overhaul your pockets for your protection."
Ralph was released, and began to search in his pockets. Poor Jessie stood by, still trembling with alarm, and anxiously watching him.
"Oh! You must have it, Ralph," she exclaimed in a plaintive tone, as she saw that he did not produce the important document. "Oh! Let me try," and she plunged her hands eagerly into his pockets. She uttered a cry of dismay when it was not to be found.
"I must have forgotten to take it out of my other jacket when I dressed to come on shore," said Ralph; "I had it just before I left the brig, I know. Don't be alarmed, Jessie dear, all will come right; Captain Mudge will send it to me, or, if the officer will permit me to go on board, I'll get it—I will, indeed, sir," he added, addressing the old mate, "and will, on my honour, return with it to any place you may name; I will, on my honour."
"That sort of note, I tell you, don't pass current with us, my lad," answered the old mate, more moved perhaps by Jessie's agony of grief and terror than from his gruff manner and language might have been supposed. "It's hard lines for you, I'll allow, as matters stand, I see; out cheer up, my good girl, many another man has had to serve his Majesty for a year or two and come home with his pockets full of rhino to set up house. As to the protection, I knew from the first that was all fudge; so as we've lost too much time already palavering about it, come along, my brave fellow, without more ado." As he spoke he again seized Ralph by the arm, and three of the men stepped forward to assist him.
Poor Jessie clung to Ralph frantically, entreating that he might be allowed to remain. "He will bring you the paper to-morrow; I can answer for him, and so can my grandmother. He never told a falsehood in his life; he would not deceive even you," she exclaimed. "Oh, let him go! Cruel, cruel men!"
"The young man speaks only the truth," said Dame Treviss, trembling with agitation as she rose from her chair and tottered to her grand child's assistance.
While two of the men had seized Ralph, another was about to tear Jessie from him, when the dame took the poor girl in her arms.
"Take off your hands, lads, and I will accompany you without attempting to escape," he said, and the men releasing him he bore Jessie to the little horse-hair sofa, where he placed her by the dame's side, bestowing on her a loving kiss as he did so.
Having released himself gently from her arms, "Now I am ready to accompany you, sir," he said, and walked steadily towards the door. Perhaps even then the king's officer might have felt that the merchant seaman was, morally, his superior.
The dame, fearing that Jessie might be exposed to some rough treatment should she attempt to stop Ralph, held her in her arms till he had reached the door. She cast a fond look at him as his captors hurried him away.
The door was closed—he was gone! She listened with aching heart to the retreating steps of the cruel press-gang as they bore off their prisoners, till the sound died away in the distance. In vain her grandmother tried to console her; a fearful foreboding filled her gentle bosom that she might never see him more, and she refused to be comforted.
As soon as Ralph Michelmore was in the road, though he had offered no resistance, he was roughly thrust into the midst of the press-gang, who again closed round their prisoners. The officer called off the men on the watch at the other side of the house, and gave the order to proceed back to the boats. They had not gone far when Ralph felt one of his fellow captives stumble up against him, evidently to attract his attention.
"Hist, old ship! I'd have given a year's wages rather than have seen you in the hands of the gang," whispered the man, whom he knew at once to be Dick Bracewell.
"Thank you, Dick," answered Ralph. "I am vexed with myself for not having brought my protection with me. I shall, however, get it to-morrow, without doubt, so I shall be all right. I am sorry though to find that you have been pressed."
"It's little odds to me where I am, but much to you whether you keep your liberty, according to what you told me about that young girl," answered Dick, in the same low tone. "Now, depend on't, they'll take good care you don't receive your protection, for I've found out that we are to be shipped this very night aboard the Falcon, now lying in the Sound, and that she sails for a foreign station—the East Indies, they say—to-morrow morning. Bless ye, old ship! Before Captain Mudge can bring you your protection we shall have run the Eddystone out of sight."
This information made Ralph very anxious, for he had too much reason to fear that it was correct. Dick fancied that some of the press-gang were observing him, and was silent for some time, though not idle with his fingers, walking on as if resigned to his fate. Once more he stumbled, apparently without intending to do so, against Ralph.
"Hist, mate! You'd like to get your liberty, and come what may I've made up my mind to help you," he whispered. "My hands are free. In half a minute we shall be close to some dark lanes, and more than one hiding-place I know of. I'll knock the fellow down nearest to you, and then do you run for it."
"I cannot do it, Dick; I promised not to run, and I must not break my promise," answered Ralph.
"Oh, nonsense!" cried Dick; "if those fellows made you give a promise it's their look out."
"A promise is a promise in God's sight, however made," said Ralph.
"Then you don't care for the young girl you talked of marrying," said Dick, again lowering his voice.
"I'd give my life for her sake," answered Ralph.
"That's not the question. Come, here's the place; say the word and you'll be free," whispered Dick, not attending to his last remark.
"No, I cannot," answered Ralph firmly.
"An obstinate man will have his own way, and be sorry for it afterwards," exclaimed Dick, in a tone of vexation. "But I'll see what I can do in spite of you; there'll be another chance further on."
Dick staggered on as if he were still half-seas-over, gradually increasing his distance from Ralph till he got alongside his friend Tom. The latter was in no mood for talking, but he listened eagerly to what Dick had to say.
"Ay, give the word, and I'm ready," answered Tom, after listening for some time; "only just help me to get my hands out of limbo."
Dick had managed to liberate his own hands, and it was the work of a moment to free his companion's, the darkness preventing their guards from observing them.
They had by this time reached a street close to the water, though at some distance from where the boats were waiting. Suddenly the press-gang were assailed by the wildest shrieks and cries and showers of abuse, uttered by a number of women and boys, who rushed out from some narrow courts or other places where they had been concealed. They did not confide their attack to words, but, supported by some men, who, however, kept at a safe distance behind them, they opened a volley of brickbats and stones at the heads of the sailors. The latter turned to defend themselves and drive off their assailants, who nimbly retreated, when pursued, in all directions, redoubling their shrieks and cries. The officer, well knowing the object of the attack, shouted to his men to stand fast; but some amid the din did not understand what he said, and few were willing to obey his orders.
Tom, whose hands had been freed, tripped up the man nearest him, and dashed down the street towards the water, followed by two of the press-gang.
"Now's your time, mate," cried Dick, seizing Ralph by the arm; "come along."
"I cannot," answered Ralph, firmly; "I promised to remain. Save yourself if you can."
"You're a fool then," exclaimed Dick, and, springing past some of the press-gang attacked by those in front, he dashed through the crowd. He was, however, pursued, and quickly brought back.
"Luck's against me, hearties, but I'm not the lad to pipe my eye," he exclaimed, in a tone of bravado. "Just give me another chance, and I'll show you who has the fastest pair of heels."
The sailors laughed at Dick's sally, and thought him a hearty good fellow, though they did not neglect, for all that, to lash his hands more securely than at first.
In the meantime Tom had reached the wharf, but finding one side blocked up, had doubled, in the hope of escaping in another direction, when he saw two of the press-gang close to him. Numerous vessels of all sizes lay in the harbour. Dread of having to serve on board of a man-of-war made him desperate. Without hesitation he plunged into the water, and swam off, hoping to reach one of the vessels, on board which he might be received and concealed. His pursuers, expecting a flogging should he escape, dashed in after him. The heads of the three men could scarcely be discerned when the officer, with the main body, reached the quay. In vain he shouted to Tom to return and not to risk his life, while he ordered some of his men to push off in a boat and overtake the swimmers. No boat was, however, to be found afloat in the neighbourhood. Some were hauled up on a slip, but they were under repair, and no oars were in them. The people who had been mobbing the press-gang had collected on the quay, keeping at a safe distance, and they now uttered cries of encouragement to Tom to persevere, while they hurled execrations on the heads of his pursuers; their voices, joined with those of the shouting seamen, creating the wildest possible uproar. In a short time the splash of oars was heard, and a boat was dimly seen at some distance from the shore. The officer shouted to the people in her to take his men on board, but his orders were unheeded.
Almost within hail lay the Amity. Could Ralph once get on board her he was safe. At that moment he caught sight of a lad running by.
"Here, boy," he cried out, in spite of the growls of some of the press-gang near him, "there's a golden guinea for you if you'll get aboard the Amity, tell Captain Mudge that his mate, Ralph Michelmore, has been pressed, and ask him to bring my protection, which he will find in my jacket pocket, on board the Falcon. She sails to-morrow early, so there is no time to be lost; or, if you can get off at once—and you shall have thirty shillings if you do—he may overtake us before we reach the boats."
"Trust me, mate," answered the lad, a sharp young mud-larker. "I should just like the feel of a little earnest-money, though, to show that I am not being sent on a fool's errand."
The seamen laughed, and told the boy that such was very likely to be the case. Ralph, however, found a crown piece in his pocket.
"Here, my lad," he said, giving it to the boy; "notwithstanding what they say, I will trust you. What's your name, that I may know you again?"
"I'm sometimes called Peter Puddle, and sometimes Muddy Legs, and all sorts of names, for that matter; but I'm no ways particular."
"Well then, Peter Puddle, be smart about it, and gain the rest of your reward," said Ralph.
The lad, with a shout of delight, taking the money, ran off, and Ralph was left in doubt whether or not he would fulfil his commission.
The sailors laughed even more than before. "It's easy to see who's the fool now," observed one of them.
The attention of the party was, however, quickly recalled to what was going forward in the harbour. The boat before seen could be discerned dimly in the distance through the gloom, and from the same direction there came the sound of oars splashing, or people struggling in the water, and loud cries and shouts mingled with fierce oaths, while now a piercing cry rang through the night air. Some of the press-gang were eager to jump in and swim to their shipmates' assistance, but the officer forbade them, ordering three or four to make another search for a boat. At length the sounds of struggling ceased, but which party had been defeated it was impossible to ascertain.
The sound of oars in the water was now heard, and a boat was observed slowly approaching the shore. She reached at length the jetty near which the man-of-war's men were standing. Some of them went down to meet her, and a shout proclaimed that their shipmates had returned, though without a prisoner. The two men were lifted out of the boat, not having strength to walk. Their arms and shoulders were fearfully battered and bruised, and the head of one of them was cut open. They had reached the boat, when they were attacked by the men in her with oars and stretchers, and they would have been drowned had they not got hold of the gunwale, and, in spite of opposition, clambered on board, and, after a desperate struggle, turned the occupants out, just at the moment that another boat came up. The men, they believed, had been taken on board her, as had, they supposed, the escaped prisoner; and, at all events, she had made off and got out of sight.
Followed by a collection of men, women, and boys, still shouting and hurling abuse at them, the press-gang, moving on, at length reached the boats. Ralph and Dick were among the first not over gently hauled on board; the rest of the captives were as quickly as possible shoved in after them; a strong party of the press-gang remaining on shore to keep back the mob, which seemed inclined to make a rush at the last, for the purpose of rescuing some of their friends. Their courage, however, failed them. The last of the man-of-war's men leaped on board, the order to shove off was given, and the boats proceeded down the Sound, followed by the yells and execrations of the people on shore.
"They'll hurt their own throats more than they do us," observed an old seaman who was pulling at the thwart on which Ralph and Dick sat. "It's hard lines, though, you think, for yourselves, mates, I dare say; but before long you'll be used to a life aboard a man-of-war, and be as ready to press others as we were to press you."
"Justice is justice; and I shall never think it right to press men against their will," answered Ralph. "I, however, hope to be free to-morrow, as I have a protection which will be brought on board to me."
"Don't count too much on that, mate," said the old sailor; "when they've got a man, they're not in a mind to let him go. It's wisest to make the best of a bad job, and that's what I advise you to do, my hearty."
"If I had only myself to think of, I would," said Ralph, liking the tone of the old sailor's voice; "but I was to be married next week, and it's bitter hard to be parted from the girl one loves, and harder for her." Ralph's voice trembled as he spoke.
"Ay, mate, hard, very hard!" answered the old sailor, in a sympathising tone; "I know what it is. I was pressed the very day I had married as sweet a young girl, and as good too, as an honest man would wish to have for his wife. I had five years of it out round the Cape without ever hearing a word of her, but I knew she would be true to me, and that kept my heart up. I got home at last, with plenty of prize-money to set up house, but she was gone. They showed me her grave. It might have been worse—I know that—still it seemed as if the life had been crushed out of me. I left my money with her childless mother, and volunteered aboard the first ship I heard of fitting out for a foreign station. From that day to this I've been at sea, turned over from one ship to another, and never saved a sixpence. I wish I had. I'd have got your discharge, that I would, if money could have done it."
"Thank ye, from the bottom of my heart, old friend," said Ralph, warmly. "Maybe I shall get my protection paper in time, and be set free."
"Wish I could say I thought so. But you'll know at least that there's one aboard the Falcon who can feel for you, and that's something; ay, and will stand your friend if there's a chance. Cheer up! Cheer up! Here we are, close alongside the frigate."
The pressed men, with Ralph and Dick among them, were sent down to the lower deck, and placed under charge of a sentry. They were allowed to stretch themselves on (as Dick, while bemoaning his fate, remarked) "the softest planks they could find," for the remainder of the night.
It seemed but a moment after Ralph had at length fallen asleep, that he heard the boatswain's shrill whistle and the deep rough voices of his mates rousing up all hands, while the pale light of early morning streamed down through the hatchways. The next cry which reached him was, "Hands aloft; loose sails." Other orders were issued; he knew too well their meaning; preparations were being made for immediately putting to sea.
Poor Jessie had wished at once to hasten on board the Amity, to obtain the assistance of Captain Mudge, and to get Ralph's protection, but her grandmother persuaded her to remain till the morning, as, not knowing where Ralph had been carried, she was sure nothing could be done till then.
Daylight came at length, and Jessie, receiving a loving embrace from her grandmother, set out. With a prayer for her safety, Mrs Treviss watched the young girl, who, like a bird released from its cage, flew rather than walked, as she made her way in the grey light of the early morn in the direction of the port.
At last she reached the landing-place, some way off which Ralph had told her the Amity lay. There were several boats made fast to the shore, or moored off it; but no watermen were about. In vain she looked along the quays on either hand; no one was stirring. Here and there, on board some of the vessels, men were seen just coming up the fore hatchways on deck, but they were too far off to hear her voice had she called to them. She felt ready to give way to tears at the delay, when every moment might be so precious. At length she saw, through the veil of morning mist which still hung over the mirror-like surface of the harbour, a small boat approaching the landing-place. A boy was paddling her at his ease, singing as he slowly dipped his oars in the water. She hurried down to meet him, as, standing up, he gave a few more strokes and brought the boat to shore.
"Well, Miss, what's it you want?" he asked.
"Oh, boy, will you take me off to the Amity?" said Jessie. "She lies not far away from the shore, and I will pay you well."
"Now that is curious," exclaimed the lad, the same Peter Puddle by name to whom Ralph had entrusted his important commission. "I was to have gone aboard her for a young chap who was pressed last night and had left his protection behind him, but I got another job and couldn't, though I am agoing when I've had breakfast."
"Pray take me off at once, for every moment may be of consequence," cried Jessie. "I want to see the captain about the same young man, and he will, I am sure, give you some breakfast."
"Well, step in, Miss, then," said Peter, offering his hand to help her, while he kept the boat close to the shore with his boat-hook. "I thought might be that the skipper would just hear what I'd got to say, and then kick me down the side again, as the chances are many I've met with would do."
"Oh no! no! Captain Mudge will treat you kindly and reward you for the trouble you have taken," said Jessie, as Peter began to pull away from the shore.
"As to trouble, Miss, I can't boast much of that, seeing I didn't go when I said I would," answered Peter, in a greatly changed tone. "I like you, for you speak kindly to me; and I'm sorry I didn't go when I promised; for, as you say, Miss, there's no time to be lost. He was taken aboard the Falcon, and she is to sail this morning for the Indies, so that if he goes in her he won't be back again for many a long year."
This information increased poor Jessie's agitation and anxiety. Fortunately, the boat was soon alongside the Amity: Peter hailed the deck. One of the crew looked over the side, and seeing Jessie, called the captain, who quickly made his appearance, while in the meantime the accommodation ladder had been lowered.
"What brings you here at this hour, my dear girl?" he exclaimed, with a look of anxiety in his countenance as he descended the ladder to help Jessie up the side. "Has anything happened to my mate?"
"Oh, yes, Captain Mudge; he has been pressed, and will be carried off to sea if we do not take him his protection," answered Jessie as she reached the deck, no longer able to restrain her tears. "That boy knows all about it."
Peter Puddle was called up, and gave the message he had received from Ralph with sufficient clearness.
"No time to be lost indeed," exclaimed the captain. "Dear me! dear me! poor Ralph! We'll make our way down the harbour as fast as sails and oars will send us along, and save him if we can. Lower the boat, lads, and take your breakfasts with you."
Jessie, in spite of her anxiety, did not forget her promise to Peter; and the captain told him to go forward and get some food, which Toby Trott, the cabin boy, would give him. Peter pulled one of his shaggy locks and hastened to the caboose, where the cook was busy blowing up the fire, the grey smoke from which had just begun to curl in light wreaths towards the blue sky. In the meantime, Jessie accompanied the captain into the cabin.
"I reminded him to take his protection just as he was going ashore. He must have lost it, I fear, on his way," observed the latter.
But Jessie was not so easily convinced of that. She hurried down to Ralph's berth, and eagerly put her hand into one of the pockets of his jacket hanging up inside the door; her countenance fell. She tried the other pocket; "Yes, here it is!" she exclaimed in a joyful tone, drawing out a tin case and examining it. "Oh, Captain Mudge, let us go with it at once."
"As soon as you have had a cup of coffee, my dear girl; I cannot let you start without that," answered the kind old captain. "Careless fellow! I am angry with him for giving you so much anxiety; but the fright he has had will be punishment enough you think, I daresay. Come, come, Jessie, don't cry; any man might have done the same. He just forgot in his eagerness to see you that he had changed his jacket.—Here comes the coffee." The captain poured out a cup for her, but she could only take a few sips, while he hurriedly swallowed his breakfast. The boat was soon ready. Jessie was handed into her, and the old captain taking his seat, with four stout hands to row, they shoved off from the vessel's side. They had got to a short distance off, when Peter Puddle looked over the bulwarks. "'Mind the mate of the sovereign he promised," he shouted. "I'll stay aboard till you come back."
"Never fear, lad; you'll get it if he is set free," answered the captain.
"Oh! he must, he will be freed," cried poor Jessie, who did not like the captain's "if."
"I hope so, my dear girl, but we must be prepared for disappointment," he said, in a soothing tone. "I have had a good deal in my time, though I know that God orders all for the best, and He has given me strength to bear it." He spoke for some time in the same strain. "It's still a dead calm, and the ship cannot sail without a breeze, though all the Lords of the Admiralty were to order her to get under weigh, that's one comfort," he continued. "So cheer up, Jessie, cheer up." The boat had got out of the Catwater, and was making good progress down the smooth waters of the Sound, with its high, richly-wooded shores on either side. Far ahead, at the entrance of the harbour, lay several ships-of-war and a fleet of merchantmen. The topsails of the largest, as well as those of the merchant vessels, were loosed and hung in the brails, and Blue-peter was flying from their mast-heads. It was evident that they were prepared for sea. Poor Jessie's anxiety increased. Now and anon a catspaw had passed across the mirror-like surface of the water, just rippling it for an instant, and then leaving it again placid as before. Others now followed in quick succession. The sails and flags of the ships, hitherto hanging listlessly against the masts, began to blow out, and a vessel close-hauled was seen in the offing, gliding quickly across the mouth of the harbour.
"Step the mast, lads," said the captain; "we shall feel the breeze presently, and the canvas will help us along. Keep the oars going though." The sail was quickly hoisted and rigged out with a boat-hook, while the sheet was passed aft to the captain. The crew pulled more lustily than ever, for they saw that the frigate was preparing to sail, and were eager to rescue their mate, who was beloved by all of them. The breeze every moment increased. Poor Jessie, unable to speak from anxiety, her heart sinking within her, kept her eyes fixed on the ships, while the captain every now and then bent down to look at them under the foot of the sail. "In oars, lads," he said at length, for the boat was skimming so fast over the water that they were of no further use. Still the wind blew stronger and stronger. They were within half a mile of the frigate. The loud sound of a gun fired from her side boomed over the water; it was followed by another—the signal for weighing. The head-sails of the merchantmen were sheeted home, and in quick succession their bows turned seaward and they glided away from their anchorage. The Falcon had not yet moved. They were now so near the frigate that the men in the tops and on the yards and swarming up the rigging could clearly be distinguished, while the boatswain's shrill whistle and the voices of the officers were distinctly heard. A groan escaped from the old captain's breast as the head-sails were let fall and sheeted home. The yards, hitherto backed against the mast, were swung round, and the huge anchor appeared rising above the water. Poor Jessie uttered a cry of grief, for she understood too well that there was now no hope of ever getting alongside. At that instant a person was seen to spring into the main rigging: Jessie held out her hands to him—it was Ralph. He must have recognised the boat as she approached. He waved a farewell to Jessie. No words reached her ear; but she saw, or fancied that she saw, his lips moving. Standing up, she seemed as if about to spring towards her intended husband, but the old captain holding her back, she uttered a piercing cry and sank down senseless in his arms. He could not tell whether Ralph had seen what had happened; he had indeed enough to do in attending to Jessie and steering the boat. Recollecting the protection, he held up the case containing it; but it was unnoticed, or at all events unheeded. He heard one of his seamen remark, "Now's his time! If he was to slip overboard and swim to us, we'd pick him up fast enough, and they'd not heave-to to send after him." The sailors in the boat beckoned eagerly to Ralph, who could not have misunderstood their signals. The temptation to him must have been very great; but whether or not he intended to make the attempt they could not tell, for at that moment three men sprang into the rigging and he was dragged down on deck out of sight.
Happily for Jessie, she did not see what had occurred. The ship had paid off before the wind and was rapidly gathering way: her after-sails were let fall, her topgallant sails hoisted, and under a crowd of canvas she majestically glided out of the Sound.
The boat had got a considerable way up the harbour before Jessie gave signs of returning consciousness. The old captain sat watching her with the affectionate care of a father. With a deep sigh she at length recovered, and a flood of tears relieved her aching heart. She turned her eyes seaward and gazed long and steadfastly at the proud ship which bore Ralph away, till the man-of-war could no longer be distinguished from the crowd of other vessels which surrounded her. The good old captain could fully sympathise with her in her grief, for he himself felt very sad at having his mate, whom he loved as a son, taken so unjustly away from him.
As the boat passed the Amity, Peter Puddle looked over the side and hailed, "Haven't you got the mate in?"
The captain shook his head.
"Then I've lost my guinea," cried Peter; "but I mind more about the mate, that I do."
"Never mind your guinea, lad. I'll see after you. Stay on board till I come back," answered the captain.
They soon reached the shore. Captain Mudge insisted on escorting Jessie home, for he could not bring himself to leave her till he had seen her safe with her grandmother, who would, he fancied, comfort her better than he could. On reaching home, Jessie, throwing herself into her granny's arms, gave way to her tears.
"It will do her good, and Ralph won't find fault with her when he hears of it," observed the old captain. "Fine young man, that mate of mine, Mrs Treviss. He's a great loss to me, no doubt about that; but it may turn out for his good after all. Shouldn't be surprised, as I said to Jessie just now, if he was to come back an officer in his Majesty's Service. He'd not be the first pressed man who has risen to be an admiral. We can all pray for him too, you know, Mrs Treviss; and that's a great comfort, isn't it?"
Jessie in a short time became calm again, and even looked up and smiled at her kind old friend. Captain Mudge had a good deal of business to attend to, so after a short chat, promising to return soon to see how they were getting on, he took his departure.
The Falcon sailed down Channel with her convoy of merchantmen. She was to see them safe across the Atlantic to different ports in the West Indies, and then to proceed on her voyage to the East.
Early in the morning, Ralph, with the other pressed men, had been sent up on deck and their names duly entered in the ship's books. Still he had a lingering hope that Captain Mudge would come off in time with the protection. How cruelly that hope was disappointed has been seen. With intense anxiety he had watched for the boat: he had seen her at length approaching. Already the capstan had been manned, and the men were tramping round against the pawls, the fifes playing merrily, to run the anchor up to the bows. While stationed at the fore-topsail braces, as he looked through a port he had recognised Jessie in the Amity's boat. The temptation to bid her farewell was greater than he could resist. The brace was belayed: he sprang into the rigging that Jessie might see him. A midshipman observing the boat, and thinking that he was about to spring overboard to her, ordered him to be seized, and suddenly he found himself dragged down on deck and placed under charge of the master-at-arms for attempting to desert.
Ralph had now more reason than ever to be cast down. The offence with which he was charged was a serious one, yet the consciousness that he had no intention of committing it supported him. For long he was kept in suspense, while the ship with her attendant merchantmen was making an offing from the land before shaping a course down Channel. At length he was conducted between two marines to the quarter-deck, where Captain Shortland and his officers were standing and a large portion of the crew were assembled.
"I must have you understand, my lads, that I intend to maintain strict discipline on board this ship. I shall have an eye on those who do their duty, and on those who neglect it. I never forgive an offence, and shall severely punish drunkenness, insubordination, and desertion, or attempt at desertion: and I intend to make an example of the man who was, I am informed, about to try to desert from the ship." And the captain looked at Ralph, who stood between his guards. All eyes were turned towards him. "What is his name?" asked the captain of the first lieutenant. On being told, he continued, "Ralph Michelmore, after having entered as one of this ship's company, you were about to desert to a boat which had come off to receive you, and I shall give you two dozen lashes as a warning to yourself and others for the future."
"I had no intention of deserting, sir," answered Ralph, firmly. "The boat brought off the master of the brig to which I belong, with my protection, and I could easily have slipped through a port had I wished it."
"And I can say, sir, that Ralph Michelmore speaks the truth. He's an old shipmate of mine, and I never heard him tell the shadow of a lie," said Dick Bracewell, stepping aft and doffing his hat. "He could have made his escape before he was brought aboard if he'd had a mind to do it, but he wouldn't because he'd passed his word that he'd stay quiet, and the officer who pressed us knows it and can say so if he likes."
The old mate who had commanded the press-gang, and was now attending to his duties on the lower deck, was sent for, and at once corroborated what Dick had said, explaining at the same time the circumstances of Ralph's capture.
"I believe you, and you may return to your duty," said the captain, looking at Ralph. "For your sake I am sorry that you were pressed, though I am glad to have got so smart a seaman as you appear to be; and if you turn out as I expect, you may have no reason to regret that you were compelled to join this ship. Pipe down."
The men went below or forward to their respective duties.
"Well, my lad," said the old sailor who had spoken to Ralph in the boat, coming up to him, "I'm right glad you've got out of that scrape, and, as I said afore, if ever you want a friend you'll find Jacob Crane a staunch one. I can feel for you, lad; I can feel for you."
"Thank you, Jacob," answered Ralph, putting out his hand to grasp that of the speaker, who wrung his heartily.
"Have you ever before served in a King's ship?" asked Jacob.
"No, I have never so much as been on board one before," said Ralph.
"Then I can be of use to you in putting you up to a thing or two," said old Jacob, and forthwith he began to explain the way in which the duty was carried on.
Ralph listened attentively, and made such good use of the knowledge he had gained that he was able from the first to do his duty as well as any one. He was fortunately stationed at the gun of which Jacob was captain, and the old sailor took pains to instruct him in handling it. Naval gunnery not being in those days the art it has since become he was soon a proficient.
"How, my lad, came you to say that you have never before served on board a man-of-war?" asked the first lieutenant one day, observing his activity.
"Nor have I, sir," answered Ralph, touching his hat. "I never handled a gun before I joined this ship."
"You do very well, then, and may look out for a higher rating before long," observed Mr Handsel, passing on.
This remark somewhat raised Ralph's spirits. The captain himself had observed his activity and neat appearance, and the thorough way in which he did everything to which he put his hand. One day the signalman was on the sick-list. The post is a responsible one when a number of ships are sailing in company, as a watch has to be kept on the whole fleet and signals constantly made and answered. The captain sent for Ralph, and after a few questions directed him to attend to the duty. He performed it with his usual attention and intelligence. It kept him also on the quarter-deck and under the eyes of the officers. As is customary, the midshipmen assembled under the master each day at noon and at other periods with their sextants or quadrants to take observations. Some of the younger ones Ralph remarked handled their instruments rather clumsily, and evidently did not understand their use.
"I say, Dickenson, for the life of me I cannot manage to shoot the old sun with this thing, it only puts my eyes out; and yesterday again my day's work was all wrong somehow or other," said Mr Paul Chandos, a youngster who had just come to sea, to another midshipman who had also not been many months in the Navy.
"I'm sure I can't help you," answered Dickenson, a gawky lad, with a hopeless glance at his quadrant. "It seems a very useless expenditure of our valuable eyesight when it's the proper business of the master, and those fellows the master's assistants, to find out whereabouts the ship is."
"Still, I should like to know how to use this thing properly, for the captain is sure to find out if I don't; and besides, some day I may have command of a vessel, and I should look very foolish if I didn't know how to find my way in her," said young Chandos, putting the quadrant to his eye and imitating the master, who with the rest of the midshipmen stood at some distance off.
"It will be so long before either of us have that chance that I don't intend to trouble myself about the matter," answered the other midshipman, swinging his quadrant backwards and forwards as if he felt inclined to throw it overboard. Still Chandos persevered.
"If you like, I shall be happy to show you how to take an observation, and the way to work it out," said Ralph, touching his hat, though he felt more compassion than respect for the youngster.
"I wish you would, Michelmore," answered young Chandos, in a grateful tone; "I have been bothering away day after day and haven't liked to ask any one."
Ralph took the quadrant, and having first placed it to his own eye, made Chandos hold it while he showed him how to use it, and to watch for the moment when the lower edge of the sun seemed to touch the horizon before it rose again.
"There—there—I never saw it do that before," exclaimed the young midshipman. "Thank you, Michelmore, you are a good fellow: and now just work it out for me in this pocket-book, will you?"
Ralph, having in the meantime taken a glance round at the different ships of the fleet, very rapidly in a few figures did as requested.
It happened that the captain had just before come on deck, and, unnoticed, was an observer of the scene. He had remarked, too, the way in which Ralph had assisted the youngster without neglecting his proper duty. The master and his assistants, with the rest of the midshipmen, had taken their instruments below when he went aft to where Ralph was standing. "I see, Michelmore, you know how to take a meridional observation," he observed. "Do you understand much of navigation?"
"I take an interest in the study, sir, and am considered a fair navigator," answered Ralph, modestly.
"Have you made many voyages?" asked the captain.
"Several, sir, up the Mediterranean, to Lisbon, Madeira, and the Baltic, as mate," said Ralph.
"You consider yourself competent, then, to navigate a vessel in any part of the world," observed the captain, after a short pause.
"Yes, sir; I should have no fears as to the correctness of my observations," answered Ralph, modestly, though he spoke with confidence.
"I will consider what can be done, and will not lose sight of you," observed the captain, walking away.
There were grumblers and discontented men, as there are on board most ships. Dick Bracewell was among them. He soon got tired of the strict discipline, grumbled at being compelled to turn out neatly-dressed and clean, and at being only allowed to smoke his pipe at certain times and in one part of the ship, and more than all at having his grog stopped, or being compelled to drink it mixed with nine parts of water when he had neglected his duties or broken through any regulations, as was not unfrequently the case. Having had a good deal of money in his pocket when pressed, he was able to buy from others their allowance of grog.
At length, one evening when Ralph went below, to his sorrow he found his old shipmate unusually uproarious, now singing and shouting, now ready to quarrel and fight with any one who interfered with him. Ralph was doing his best to get him to sit down quietly by himself, when the hammocks were piped below and the men sprang up on deck to bring them down from the hammock-nettings. "I'm off for mine," cried Dick, getting on his legs and staggering along the deck. "I look as sober as a judge, whatever I may be, though I feel very jolly." Ralph tried to stop him, but Dick, breaking from his friend, scrambled up the ladder, shouting out, "I'm a free man, and no one shall stop me from doing what I choose." His shouts drew the attention of one of the officers towards him. He was ordered aft with his hammock, carrying which, he went staggering along till he rolled over with it on the deck. In vain he tried to get on his feet, so he lay still, with just enough consciousness left to know that he was in a sad scrape, without a chance of getting out of it till his back and the cat had become acquainted. The officer of the watch, knowing that it would be useless to speak to him, sent for two marines, between whom he was taken below and forthwith placed in irons, thus to remain till he had recovered his senses. The inevitable consequence followed. The next morning Dick received two dozen lashes as a punishment for drunkenness.
Dick, who had been one of the merriest fellows on board, now became morose and surly, even to his best friends; and as the men were afraid of selling him their liquor, he could not drown his care, as he would have tried to do had he been able. "Don't talk to me, Ralph," he said one day when his old shipmate was trying to arouse him to a better state of mind. "I'm determined to take French leave, and you're not the man I think you, if you try to stop me."
"I have always been your friend, Dick, and I should prove that I am so still if I prevented you from doing a mad thing, which would be sure to bring you into a worse condition than you are now. You would, most probably, be retaken, or should you escape, you would to a certainty get drunk, spend all your money, and be left a beggar in a strange land."
"I've a notion that I can take as good care of myself as you, or any other man, though you have been mate of the Amity, and expect some day to walk the quarter-deck of this ship," answered Dick, with a scornful laugh, his old feeling of envy of Ralph reviving in his mind. "I shall have to touch my hat and 'sir' you, while you top the officer over me. Ha! ha! ha!"
Ralph had some time before, while in friendly converse, somewhat incautiously, perhaps, expressed his hopes to Dick, who then seemed cordially to sympathise with him. He felt hurt at Dick's remark, though not the less anxious to serve him. Before he could reply the boatswain's whistle was heard, and the crew were piped on deck to muster at divisions.
No one was allowed to be idle on board. The men were constantly exercised at the guns, or in the use of the small arms, or in shortening and making sail, the frigate sometimes dropping astern to whip up the laggards, then crowding on again to recover her former position in the van of the fleet. Ralph was now regularly employed as a signalman. While he was thus constantly on the quarter-deck, not only young Chandos, but several of the other midshipmen, were glad to get his assistance in taking observations and in working out their day's work. The master was glad to be relieved of the trouble of instructing them, and the captain was pleased to encourage the young man and to give him an opportunity of keeping up his knowledge.
Old Jacob Crane also congratulated him on his good prospects. "I'm glad to think on't, lad," he said, in a hearty tone. "You've the right stuff in you, and you've what's better than all, a firm trust in God, and a wish to do your duty in His sight. You'll do well wherever you are. I've never seen men like you fail."
"In saying that you unjustly condemn yourself, I suspect," observed Ralph.
"No, not unjustly," answered Jacob. "I did not understand that truth in my younger days, and only learned it of late years, when too late to do much towards altering my condition among my fellow-men. Mind, I don't say that I'm not much the better for it even now, for I'm happy and contented and fear no evil; but I remember what the Bible says, 'Honour thy Creator in the days of thy youth.' Those who do not, have bitterly to regret it when they grow old, even though they then learn to know and serve Him. The sins of our youth find us out, there is no doubt about that; and I envy you, Michelmore, who will not have to look back to the many misspent years that I do."
It was now Ralph's part to direct his friend to the only sure source of comfort—God's loving message to man, as found in His Word, "The blood of Jesus Christ cleanseth from all sin," when by loving obedient faith the sinner takes hold of the promises. Thus the one assisted the other. Ralph indeed required support. Jessie was never out of his mind. Her granny was old and infirm, and might soon be taken from her; and then, should Captain Mudge be away, what would she do? "She has not, that I know of, dear girl, a friend on whom she can depend," thought Ralph. "Yes, she and I have one in heaven on Whom we both rely. To Him I will pray for her, as she will, I know, for me." Earnestly and faithfully Ralph did pray, and he did not fail to obtain that answer which true prayer always receives. He was supported, and his heart comforted.
The fleet was now approaching Jamaica, and Ralph was more actively than ever engaged in making and answering signals. Port-Royal, to which most of the ships were bound, was reached at length, when another man-of-war took charge of the rest to escort them to their destinations.
Dick had not concealed from those he could trust his intention of deserting. Ralph had done his utmost to dissuade him from his foolish intentions, and though he would not inform the officers, he determined to keep a watch over his friend and stop him if he could. A boat, which came alongside directly the frigate dropped anchor, brought the news that the yellow fever was raging on shore, with orders that no one should leave the ship.
"You have lost your chance, Dick, and I am glad of it," said Ralph.
"Not so sure of that," answered Dick; "I'm a pretty good swimmer, and can make my way on shore if I've a mind for it."
"Don't be so mad, Dick, as even to think of such a thing," said Ralph. "Haven't you heard of Port-Royal Jack, the big shark? He will be sure to catch you if you make the attempt."
Dick looked incredulous, but the accounts he heard from his other shipmates of the number of people Port-Royal Jack had swallowed made him hesitate about putting his resolve into execution.
The next day the frigate, having taken in fresh provisions and water, put to sea, and Ralph hoped that Dick would be in a better mind before they again entered a port.
The Falcon had got some way to the south of the Line. Ralph was now a quartermaster, a position in which only seamen of merit and experience are placed.
It was night, and unusually dark for that latitude. A gentle breeze filled the frigate's canvas as she glided over the calm ocean with the wind on the larboard quarter. Ralph was in the watch on deck, stationed near the man at the helm. Now he glanced his eyes aloft to ascertain that the sails drew properly, now at the binnacle to see that the proper course was kept; then he took a look on either side round the horizon.
Ralph had turned his eyes to the south-east, when he observed a vivid flash. It looked like lightning. Another and another flash followed in quick succession. He made his report to the officer of the watch. The flashes continued. There could be no doubt about the matter, an action was taking place. A midshipman was sent to inform the captain. As soon as he came on deck all hands were called and the yards braced up, a course was steered which would carry the frigate to windward of the combatants. There could be no doubt one of them was English and if the smaller of the two, the appearance of the Falcon would probably turn the tables. In the meantime the drums beat to quarters and the usual preparations were rapidly made for battle. Till near enough for the night-signals to be distinguished it was important that their approach should not be discovered, as it was as likely to discourage a friend as to overawe a foe, or what was of more consequence, might induce a foe to try and escape. All lights on board were therefore carefully shaded as the frigate stood on towards the combatants. Suddenly the flashes ceased: still, as the bearing of the strangers had been taken, there would be no difficulty in discovering them. The crew of the Falcon waited in vain for a renewal of the flashes. The fight was over. Which was the victor was the question. Ralph heard the subject discussed by the officers on the quarter-deck. They expressed their fears that there would be no fighting.
"An English ship would not have given in so soon," observed the first lieutenant.
"Not unless she is the smallest," answered the purser, who was addicted to croaking.
"Then we shall have the satisfaction of retaking her and thrashing her captor into the bargain," said Mr Handsel.
"But what if her captor is bigger than we are?" asked the purser.
"Thrash him notwithstanding," said the first lieutenant, laughing.
"It is possible that more than two vessels were engaged," remarked the captain. "We shall know, however, before long. Have the night-signals ready, Mr Handsel. We must take care not to fire into a friend."
The excitement on board increased as the frigate, moving at the rate of two or three knots an hour, drew near the spot where it was expected that the strangers would be discovered. The men stood at their guns prepared to open the ports and run them out when the order should be given. The magazines were open and powder and shot passed up. The surgeon and his assistants were below in the cockpit, making their arrangements for the duties they might have to perform; looking to their instruments, their bandages and styptics, and rigging their amputation-table.
"How do you feel, Paul?" asked Dickenson of young Chandos. "If we could see the enemy I shouldn't mind; but, for my part, I don't like this sort of work in the dark, I confess."
"I was thinking of home and my mother and sisters," answered Chandos. "I used to long to be in a battle, and I should be sorry to miss it, but I wish it was over. I would rather have to look back at it than forward."
"So would I, provided I hadn't lost an arm or a leg or been killed outright," said Dickenson, in a dolorous tone.
"I haven't thought about being killed, and I hope that neither you nor I will be," answered Chandos; adding, "I shouldn't mind, perhaps, a bullet through my arm or leg for the honour and glory of the thing, and to talk about when we get home."
"I'm sure I don't want any such honour and glory, and I wish you wouldn't speak about such things," groaned out Dickenson. "Perhaps we shan't have a fight after all."
"I hope we shall, though," exclaimed his more plucky messmate; "that is to say if it does not last too long. I could hold out for an hour or so, but then I think I should begin to wish it was over."
"Beg pardon, young gentlemen; you'd hold out better after the first hour than for the first five minutes," observed old Jacob Crane, who had overheard the conversation. "Just let us exchange a couple of broadsides and you'd think no more about the matter than if you were snowballing each other. I know the stuff you're made of too well to doubt that."
"Thank you, Crane, for the compliment," said Chandos; "but do you think we shall have a fight?"
"Sure on't," answered the old man; "just look out over the larboard bow and you'll see three ships hove to, and some bright lights in the stern of the biggest of them. She's a lumping frigate if she isn't something larger, and though our signal has been hoisted some time she hasn't answered it."
The midshipmen, whose eyes were not so well accustomed to pierce the gloom of night as were old Jacob's, had at first some difficulty in distinguishing the three ships, though they saw the bright lights he pointed out. Gradually the frigate drew near, and the tall masts and widespread canvas of the strangers appeared clearly enough against the sky, like large phantoms stalking across the waters. Still the private signal remained unanswered. There could be no longer any doubt that the largest ship was an enemy, and that she had captured one or both of the others. Notwithstanding her apparent superiority, Captain Shortland did not hesitate about attacking her. Sail was shortened, and the frigate stood on with topsails, jib, and spanker set, so as to be thoroughly under command. It was no longer necessary to keep the ports closed. The order to open them and to run out the guns was given, and at the same time the crews of the guns were cautioned not to fire a shot till they heard the word of command. The hearts of the coolest beat quicker than usual when about midnight the Falcon drew within a mile of the enemy. The lights from the fighting lanterns of the latter, which exhibited two rows of ports, with only a small space between them, gave her a most formidable appearance. She evidently carried many more guns than the English frigate.
"What's the odds, lads," cried old Jacob, when some of the men near him remarked this. "It isn't the number of guns a ship carries will give her the victory, it's the way they are fought, and we'll soon show the mounseers how we can handle ours."
In a short time the enemy filled his sails, the two ships thus nearing each other more rapidly; then suddenly he hove in stays when on the lee bow of the Falcon, and his guns thundering forth, sent their shot flying through her rigging, the only serious effect, however, of which was to bring down her jib. The Falcon crew stood ready, the captains of the guns with lanyards in hand eager to fire in return, but no order came. Captain Shortland knew that he could depend on the steadiness of his crew, and was reserving their fire for a shorter and more effective distance. Several more shots hurtled through the air around them.
"The weathermost of the smaller ships Is firing at us, sir," observed the first lieutenant to the captain.
"Never mind that, we can settle with her by-and-by," was the answer.
Thus the Falcon stood majestically on as if not a foe were near.
Though Ralph had never before seen a shot fired in anger, he stood at his post close to the wheel as calm and collected as the oldest seaman.
The eager crew had not much time to wait, before, by a clever manoeuvre, the frigate had been brought with her starboard broadside to bear directly on the stern of the French ship at less than pistol-shot distance. At the same moment the order to fire was passed along the decks and rapidly obeyed. Every shot went crashing into the French ship, raking her fore and aft, and probably killing the men at the wheel; for before she had time to alter her position the Falcon luffed into the wind, just scraping clear of her spanker-boom, and shooting up to leeward, let fly the whole of her other broadside with terrible effect into her opponent. So rapidly had this manoeuvre of the English frigate been performed, that several of the Frenchman's weather guns went off after she had passed to leeward. The action was now carried on broadside to broadside, the position in which British seamen most delight.
"Aim low, my lads! aim low!" was the oft repeated order of the officers in charge of the guns, as they moved along the decks; not that there was much necessity for it, as the men had got a good mark before them, and were pounding away at it as fast as they could load and run out their guns. The Frenchmen were at the same time vigorously returning their fire, but as if intent on crippling their foe and then taking her at a disadvantage, they sent most of their shot flying through her rigging, bringing blocks and spars and ropes in thick showers down on deck. Though most of the enemy's shot flew high, others came whizzing between the men's heads, crashing into the sides of the frigate, or knocking away her bulwarks. Several of the crew had been wounded and carried below, but as yet two only had been killed, their bodies being drawn aside, when it was found that they were really dead, out of the way of their shipmates at the guns. Hitherto Ralph had escaped unhurt, though the head of one of the men at the wheel close to him had been taken off by a round shot, and an officer near him had been struck to the deck. By the lurid glare from the quick succeeding flashes and the light of the lanterns, he caught a glimpse of Dick working away manfully at one of the upper deck guns, he, like most of the crew, stripped to the waist, with a handkerchief tied round his head. Now he was visible, now he was concealed by the clouds of smoke which, circling round and then rising in the air, formed a dark canopy over the combatants. Young Chandos was not far off. Whatever might have been his sensations at first, he was collected enough now to attend steadily to his duty, and the work going on was a pretty severe trial to young nerves. The midnight battle raged fiercer and fiercer. A shot came flying by. Ralph felt that he was hit severely in the arm, and was compelled to summon another man to the wheel; but binding up his wounded limb, he stood as before at his post. Not many minutes afterwards a round shot struck the bulwarks, sending splinters flying in every direction. At the same moment Ralph, who had his eye on the captain, saw him stagger, and springing forward, caught him with his unwounded arm just as he was falling to the deck. Others gathered round. It was evident that he had been most seriously wounded. In vain he endeavoured to speak, but becoming senseless was carried below. Lieutenant Handsel at once took the command, making his clear voice, as he issued his orders, heard amid the wild din of battle. For an hour and a half the engagement had raged on and yet was as furious as ever. The lieutenant of marines, a tall, handsome young man, was cut almost in two by a round shot soon after the captain had fallen, and several more men were hit. Aloft, however, the damage was far more severe than on deck; the running rigging hung in festoons, the standing rigging was cut to pieces, every sail was riddled through and through, and the masts and yards were badly wounded in many places. Judging by the crashing sound which came back from the French ship after each broadside fired by the Falcon, and the white splinters which flew from every part of her upper works, she was in a still worse plight. Still her crew kept up a hot fire. The young midshipmen, and even others, might possibly have begun to wish that the battle was over.
"Keep at it, my lads!" was the cry passed along the decks; "she'll soon give in."
Broadsides had been exchanged: another proceeded from the Falcon; but none came in return.
"Cease firing!" cried Lieutenant Handsel; and as soon as all was silent he hailed the enemy and asked if she had struck. No reply was made. Again the Falcon opened fire; but as the Frenchmen did not return it, she at once ceased, and a second time the lieutenant hailed, but no answer was made.
"We must give them more of it!" he shouted.
At that instant, the smoke clearing away, it was seen that the rigging of the French ship was swarming with men, who were endeavouring to loose their topgallant sails, apparently with the intention of escaping. Some of the crew of the Falcon were ordered aloft to set theirs while the rest let fly another thundering broadside. Before the Frenchmen had time to descend, the mizenmast of their ship fell over the side, and several must have been plunged into the water; not a minute afterwards the main-mast, fore-mast, and bowsprit followed, and she lay a helpless wreck on the ocean.
Loud cheers burst from the throats of the British crew, and hearty shakes of the hand were exchanged among them. Before the question was asked, a voice came from the French ship, crying out that she had struck, and entreating that the English frigate would not again fire.
"No fear of that," was the answer; "what ship is she?"
"The French frigate Concorde," replied the officer who spoke. "Send a boat, I pray, for we have none left."
Three boats which had escaped injury were instantly lowered, and Mr Handsel, not aware that Ralph was wounded, ordered him to go in one of them. When he reached the deck of the prize, such a scene of horror as he had scarcely imagined met his sight. The boats, booms, the wheel, capstern, binnacle, and indeed all the upper portions of the ship, were cut to pieces; the bulwarks were destroyed and the starboard side almost beaten in, while the decks, slippery with gore, were literally strewn with the dead and badly wounded. The French captain, two lieutenants, several junior officers, and fully sixty men were killed, and two other lieutenants and eighty men were wounded. A young officer with his arm in a sling, who by the death of his superior had succeeded to the command, presented his sword in token of submission to the third lieutenant of the Falcon. It was at once returned to him with a compliment to his bravery and an expression of sympathy, and an assistant-surgeon was sent for from the Falcon to attend to the sufferers. Ralph was the first person the young man spoke to on coming on board.
"You are hurt, Michelmore," he said, in a friendly tone; "I must look to you at once;" and by the light of a lantern he dressed Ralph's arm, which greatly needed care. "I fear that our good captain is mortally wounded; but he has not forgotten you, for as soon as he came to himself he ordered his clerk to make out your appointment as a midshipman and signed it, though he could scarcely hold a pen. You'll come in for your share of prize-money as such, and be placed on the quarter-deck; so I'll congratulate you, my lad. There, now you'll do; but I must get you sent on board again, you're not fit for work here."
Ralph very unwillingly obeyed the order he received to return to the Falcon. When he had reached her he would not even then go below; but though he was unable to handle a rope, having reported himself to Mr Handsel, he received directions to superintend a party of men in refitting the rigging. There was work indeed for every one; for though the Falcon had suffered less than her antagonist, her masts and spars, wounded in various places, required to be fished and the standing rigging to be spliced, to enable her to make sail and go in chase of the two other ships just before captured by the Concorde. Happily it fell perfectly calm; and thus, while the prizes could not escape, time was obtained for repairing damages. There was not a moment to be lost, for every one knew that should a breeze spring up before the rigging had been set to rights, the tottering masts would to a certainty go over the side.
Daylight found the Falcon's crew still hard at work, the prisoners on board the Concorde being assisted by the English seamen taken out of the two merchant vessels. The latter were South Sea whalers, furnished, as was not unusual in those days, with letters of marque, and returning home from round Cape Horn with full cargoes and a considerable amount of booty. They lay, their sails all set, about two miles off, waiting for a breeze to make their escape. Their masters, who had been found as prisoners on board the Concorde, were eager to attempt their recovery, and offered to man the Falcons boats with their crews, and to lead an expedition against them. Mr Handsel, however, at first considered that it would be extremely hazardous, and he could not spare the necessary number of men for the enterprise. So busy were all hands that no inquiries had been made about the killed and wounded. Few perhaps even thought of their shipmates writhing in agony below. The voices of several officers wont to be heard were silent, and not a few of their messmates were missed from among them. At length there was a rumour that their brave captain was even worse hurt than was at first supposed—it was soon whispered that he was dying—and then came the news that he was dead. Many a tear was dropped from the eyes of his hardy crew, which the loss of their own messmates had failed to draw forth. But there was no time to express their sorrow. All hands had to work on as hard as ever. The carpenters, having secured the masts and spars, were busy with the boats. Mr Handsel at length determined to send an expedition to recapture the whalers, which, fortunately lying rather more than a mile apart, could not assist each other. Ralph offered to go in one of the boats; as it was his left arm which was wounded, he could steer or handle a cutlass with his right.