By Captain M-rry-t, R.N.
MY FATHER was a north-country surgeon. He had retired, a widower, from her Majesty’s navy many years before, and had a small practice in his native village. When I was seven years old he employed me to carry medicines to his patients. Being of a lively disposition, I sometimes amused myself, during my daily rounds, by mixing the contents of the different phials. Although I had no reason to doubt that the general result of this practice was beneficial, yet, as the death of a consumptive curate followed the addition of a strong mercurial lotion to his expectorant, my father concluded to withdraw me from the profession and send me to school.
Grubbins, the schoolmaster, was a tyrant, and it was not long before my impetuous and self-willed nature rebelled against his authority. I soon began to form plans of revenge. In this I was assisted by Tom Snaffle,—a schoolfellow. One day Tom suggested,—
“Suppose we blow him up. I’ve got two pounds of powder!”
“No, that’s too noisy,” I replied.
Tom was silent for a minute, and again spoke:—
“You remember how you flattened out the curate, Pills? Couldn’t you give Grubbins something—something to make him leathery sick—eh?” A flash of inspiration crossed my mind. I went to the shop of the village apothecary. He knew me; I had often purchased vitriol, which I poured into Grubbins’s inkstand to corrode his pens and burn up his coat-tail, on which he was in the habit of wiping them. I boldly asked for an ounce of chloroform. The young apothecary winked and handed me the bottle.
It was Grubbins’s custom to throw his handkerchief over his head, recline in his chair, and take a short nap during recess. Watching my opportunity, as he dozed, I managed to slip his handkerchief from his face and substitute my own, moistened with chloroform. In a few minutes he was insensible. Tom and I then quickly shaved his head, beard, and eyebrows, blackened his face with a mixture of vitriol and burnt cork, and fled. There was a row and scandal the next day. My father always excused me by asserting that Grubbins had got drunk,—but somehow found it convenient to procure me an appointment in her Majesty’s navy at an early day.
An official letter, with the Admiralty seal, informed me that I was expected to join H.M. ship Belcher, Captain Boltrope, at Portsmouth, without delay. In a few days I presented myself to a tall, stern-visaged man, who was slowly pacing the leeward side of the quarter-deck. As I touched my hat he eyed me sternly:—
“So ho! Another young suckling. The service is going to the devil. Nothing but babes in the cockpit and grannies in the board. Boatswain’s mate, pass the word for Mr. Cheek!”
Mr. Cheek, the steward, appeared and touched his hat.
“Introduce Mr. Breezy to the young gentlemen. Stop! Where’s Mr. Swizzle?”
“At the masthead, sir.”
“Where’s Mr. Lankey?”
“At the masthead, sir.”
“Masthead, too, sir.”
“And the rest of the young gentlemen?” roared the enraged officer.
“All masthead, sir.”
“Ah!” said Captain Boltrope, as he smiled grimly, “under the circumstances, Mr. Breezy, you had better go to the masthead too.”
At the masthead I made the acquaintance of two youngsters of about my own age, one of whom informed me that he had been there three hundred and thirty-two days out of the year.
“In rough weather, when the old cock is out of sorts, you know, we never come down,” added a young gentleman of nine years, with a dirk nearly as long as himself, who had been introduced to me as Mr. Briggs. “By the way, Pills,” he continued, “how did you come to omit giving the captain a naval salute?”
“Why, I touched my hat,” I said innocently.
“Yes, but that isn’t enough, you know. That will do very well at other times. He expects the naval salute when you first come on board—greeny!”
I began to feel alarmed, and begged him to explain.
“Why, you see, after touching your hat, you should have touched him lightly with your forefinger in his waistcoat, so, and asked, ‘How’s his nibs?’—you see?”
“How’s his nibs?” I repeated.
“Exactly. He would have drawn back a little, and then you should have repeated the salute, remarking, ‘How’s his royal nibs?’ asking cautiously after his wife and family, and requesting to be introduced to the gunner’s daughter.”
“The gunner’s daughter?”
“The same; you know she takes care of us young gentlemen; now don’t forget, Pillsy!”
When we were called down to the deck I thought it a good chance to profit by this instruction. I approached Captain Boltrope and repeated the salute without conscientiously omitting a single detail. He remained for a moment livid and speechless. At length he gasped out,—
“If you please, sir,” I asked tremulously, “I should like to be introduced to the gunner’s daughter!”
“Oh, very good, sir!” screamed Captain Boltrope, rubbing his hands and absolutely capering about the deck with rage. “Oh, d—n you! Of course you shall! Oh, ho! the gunner’s daughter! Oh, h—ll! this is too much! Boatswain’s mate!” Before I well knew where I was, I was seized, borne to an eight-pounder, tied upon it, and flogged!
As we sat together in the cockpit, picking the weevils out of our biscuit, Briggs consoled me for my late mishap, adding that the “naval salute,” as a custom, seemed just then to be honored more in the breach than the observance. I joined in the hilarity occasioned by the witticism, and in a few moments we were all friends. Presently Swizzle turned to me:—
“We have just been planning how to confiscate a keg of claret, which Nips, the purser, keeps under his bunk. The old nipcheese lies there drunk half the day, and there’s no getting at it.”
“Let’s get beneath the stateroom and bore through the deck, and so tap it,” said Lankey.
The proposition was received with a shout of applause. A long half-inch auger and bit was procured from Chips, the carpenter’s mate, and Swizzle, after a careful examination of the timbers beneath the wardroom, commenced operations. The auger at last disappeared, when suddenly there was a slight disturbance on the deck above. Swizzle withdrew the auger hurriedly; from its point a few bright red drops trickled.
“Huzza! send her up again!” cried Lankey.
The auger was again applied. This time a shriek was heard from the purser’s cabin. Instantly the light was doused, and the party retreated hurriedly to the cockpit. A sound of snoring was heard as the sentry stuck his head into the door. “All right, sir,” he replied in answer to the voice of the officer of the deck.
The next morning we heard that Nips was in the surgeon’s hands, with a bad wound in the fleshy part of his leg, and that the auger had not struck claret.
“Now, Pills, you’ll have a chance to smell powder,” said Briggs as he entered the cockpit and buckled around his waist an enormous cutlass. “We have just sighted a French ship.”
We went on deck. Captain Boltrope grinned as we touched our hats. He hated the purser. “Come, young gentlemen, if you’re boring for French claret, yonder’s a good quality. Mind your con, sir,” he added, turning to the quartermaster, who was grinning.
The ship was already cleared for action. The men, in their eagerness, had started the coffee from the tubs and filled them with shot. Presently the Frenchman yawed, and a shot from a long thirty-two came skipping over the water. It killed the quartermaster and took off both of Lankey’s legs. “Tell the purser our account is squared,” said the dying boy, with a feeble smile.
The fight raged fiercely for two hours. I remember killing the French admiral, as we boarded, but on looking around for Briggs, after the smoke had cleared away, I was intensely amused at witnessing the following novel sight:
Briggs had pinned the French captain against the mast with his cutlass, and was now engaged, with all the hilarity of youth, in pulling the Captain’s coat-tails between his legs, in imitation of a dancing-jack. As the Frenchman lifted his legs and arms, at each jerk of Briggs’s, I could not help participating in the general mirth.
“You young devil, what are you doing?” said a stifled voice behind me. I looked up and beheld Captain Boltrope, endeavoring to calm his stern features, but the twitching around his mouth betrayed his intense enjoyment of the scene. “Go to the masthead—up with you, sir!” he repeated sternly to Briggs.
“Very good, sir,” said the boy, coolly preparing to mount the shrouds. “Good-by, Johnny Crapaud. Humph!” he added, in a tone intended for my ear, “a pretty way to treat a hero. The service is going to the devil!”
I thought so too.
We were ordered to the West Indies. Although Captain Boltrope’s manner toward me was still severe, and even harsh, I understood that my name had been favorably mentioned in the dispatches.
Reader, were you ever at Jamaica? If so, you remember the negresses, the oranges, Port Royal Tom—the yellow fever. After being two weeks at the station, I was taken sick of the fever. In a month I was delirious. During my paroxysms, I had a wild distempered dream of a stern face bending anxiously over my pillow, a rough hand smoothing my hair, and a kind voice saying:—
“B’ess his ’ittle heart! Did he have the naughty fever?” This face seemed again changed to the well-known stern features of Captain Boltrope.
When I was convalescent, a packet edged in black was put in my hand. It contained the news of my father’s death, and a sealed letter which he had requested to be given to me on his decease. I opened it tremblingly. It read thus:—
MY DEAR BOY,—I regret to inform you that in all probability you are not my son. Your mother, I am grieved to say, was a highly improper person. Who your father may be, I really cannot say, but perhaps the Honorable Henry Boltrope, Captain R.N., may be able to inform you. Circumstances over which I have no control have deferred this important disclosure.
YOUR STRICKEN PARENT.
And so Captain Boltrope was my father. Heavens! Was it a dream? I recalled his stern manner, his observant eye, his ill-concealed uneasiness when in my presence. I longed to embrace him. Staggering to my feet, I rushed in my scanty apparel to the deck, where Captain Boltrope was just then engaged in receiving the Governor’s wife and daughter. The ladies shrieked; the youngest, a beautiful girl, blushed deeply. Heeding them not, I sank at his feet, and, embracing them, cried,—
“Chuck him overboard!” roared Captain Boltrope.
“Stay,” pleaded the soft voice of Clara Maitland, the Governor’s daughter.
“Shave his head! he’s a wretched lunatic!” continued Captain Boltrope, while his voice trembled with excitement.
“No, let me nurse and take care of him,” said the lovely girl, blushing as she spoke. “Mamma, can’t we take him home?”
The daughter’s pleading was not without effect. In the meantime I had fainted. When I recovered my senses I found myself in Governor Maitland’s mansion.
The reader will guess what followed. I fell deeply in love with Clara Maitland, to whom I confided the secret of my birth. The generous girl asserted that she had detected the superiority of my manner at once. We plighted our troth, and resolved to wait upon events.
Briggs called to see me a few days afterward. He said that the purser had insulted the whole cockpit, and all the midshipmen had called him out. But he added thoughtfully: “I don’t see how we can arrange the duel. You see there are six of us to fight him.”
“Very easily,” I replied. “Let your fellows all stand in a row, and take his fire; that, you see, gives him six chances to one, and he must be a bad shot if he can’t hit one of you; while, on the other hand, you see, he gets a volley from you six, and one of you ‘ll be certain to fetch him.”
“Exactly;” and away Briggs went, but soon returned to say that the purser had declined,—“like a d—d coward,” he added.
But the news of the sudden and serious illness of Captain Boltrope put off the duel. I hastened to his bedside, but too late,—an hour previous he had given up the ghost.
I resolved to return to England. I made known the secret of my birth, and exhibited my adopted father’s letter to Lady Maitland, who at once suggested my marriage with her daughter, before I returned to claim the property. We were married, and took our departure next day.
I made no delay in posting at once, in company with my wife and my friend Briggs, to my native village. Judge of my horror and surprise when my late adopted father came out of his shop to welcome me.
“Then you are not dead!” I gasped.
“No, my dear boy.”
“And this letter?”
My father—as I must still call him—glanced on the paper, and pronounced it a forgery. Briggs roared with laughter. I turned to him and demanded an explanation.
“Why, don’t you see, Greeny, it’s all a joke,—a midshipman’s joke!”
“Don’t be a fool. You’ve got a good wife,—be satisfied.”
I turned to Clara, and was satisfied. Although Mrs. Maitland never forgave me, the jolly old Governor laughed heartily over the joke, and so well used his influence that I soon became, dear reader, Admiral Breezy, K.C.B.