|Links in my life on land and sea |
Bloodless campaign - Skating under fire - Sweden and revelry - A Governor and his bath - A night in a forest and a drunken fiddler - Our devil-dodger - Sorrows of a midshipman - Short commons - Copenhagen - Nondescript attire - Boat accident in the ice - Return to England.
THE Baltic Campaign, as far as the Retribution was concerned, was marked by no incident of real war, for we never fired a shot in anger. For a time we lay blockading Revel, where something might have been done, but was not, and as the frost had not disappeared we used to land on a flat, sandy island, where was a small lake, on which we skated. This practice, however, was observed by the Russians, and as the island was within range of the forts they would sometimes open fire on the place, and frequently round shot came crashing through the pine forest, and ricochet over the ice high into the air. But as long as we kept on the inner side, towards the Russian forts, we were protected by the bank of the lake, and could continue our diversion undisturbed.
This was the nearest approach to being under fire that nine-tenths of the fleet encountered during that inglorious campaign. One British Admiral, it is true, did manage to get his eye knocked out, but it was by the premature explosion of a submarine mine which had been picked up,
MORE SMOKE THAN FIRE
and brought on board his ship. Also we had cholera in the fleet, losing a great many men, ennuie predisposing them to take the infection. For, after Revel, we lay swinging at our moorings blockading Cronstadt in concert with a huge French fleet, week after week, with nothing resembling war in its fighting sense being done.
The Commander-in-Chief was Admiral Dundas, but as his exploits did not exceed those of his predecessor, Admiral Napier, they can be of no interest to any one, and beyond a feeble, half-hearted attack on Sweaborg, nothing was again attempted. In the opinion of many competent persons, naval and military, St. Petersbourg should have been the objective of the war. For Cronstadt could have been captured the year before, being completely unprepared for attack had it been attempted immediately after the ice left the passage clear.
It is not easy to estimate the demoralising effect of this kind of war on the Navy, for certainly, as far as we personally were concerned, we were only too glad to exchange this inactivity off Cronstadt for our pleasure trip to the coast of Sweden ; its fiddling and dancing bringing us quite as much honour and glory as squinting through telescopes for movements amongst the Russian Fleet which never took place, or capturing a few poor Finn fishermen, whom we dignified by the name of prisoners, and who revenged themselves on us by filling the ship with vermin.
At last, to our relief, we were detached from the main fleet and went on a pleasure cruise to the coast of Sweden. Amongst places we visited was ------ , where the Governor, a pleasant old gentleman with a fiery red face, and a wife with red-gold hair, some thirty years younger than himself, entertained us royally. All the notables of the district, and their womenfolk, were invited to meet the Admiral and our officers at a banquet
given by the Governor, but being looked on as a mere child I was not provided with a special lady to take in, so found myself, to my great delight, seated next to our hostess. There was a charming gaiety in the lady, and as our Admiral, who sat on the other side of her, could speak neither French nor German, I came in for most of her conversation. After dinner there was a ball, and, small boy as I was, I danced several times with my hostess. Meanwhile her jovial old husband had been pledging all and sundry in bumpers of champagne, and towards three in the morning insisted in going on board the Retribution with some of the officers. He went upstairs to make some change in his attire, but, failing to return, the boat left without him. After the last of the guests were gone, his wife began to look everywhere for him, but nowhere was he to be seen. She hunted high and low, until looking into a bath-room near her room, she saw her husband, still in full dress, lying full length in the bath asleep. There was no water in the bath, and as it was useless trying to rouse him, she left him there. The idea is that he thought he was in a boat going off to the ship. I give this yarn on general report, but quite believe it was true.
We next went to Hüdicksval, far in the north of the Gulf of Bothnia, where again I came in for kindness ; this time from the wife of the Mayor, a stout, motherly woman, with six or eight children, all exactly like her round-faced self. She was, moreover, a learned person, and told me strange Northern tales, giving me my first taste for a literature I have always liked since : the myths of early Scandinavia, sagas, eddas, and the Havamal, the sayings of Odin. She gave me a book I have unfortunately lost and never been able to replace, chiefly because I have forgotten its proper name. It was a translation of some ancient work supposed to have been written in Iceland in
ORNITHOLOGICAL: AND A GIRL
the ninth century, relating to the adventures of the god Hemial, who, disguising himself as Rig, became the father of the three different sorts of men, free, churls, and thralls.
But I did not spend all my time in getting Norse instruction, for the eldest girl, aged fourteen or fifteen, spoke French fairly well and could read English, so I had no difficulty in getting on with her. She was a most active young person, thick-set, skin like snow, blazing red cheeks, and straw-coloured hair, which hung down in a thick plait below her waist - also thick. She could climb a tree like a squirrel and loved wood-life, knowing the calls of all birds and cries of animals, most of which she could imitate perfectly, deceiving even owls, which I believe is by no means easy. But I have seen three or four at a time come flying through the wood in response to her call. She knew the habitat of most things that flew : long-legged cranes in the meres, willow ptarmigan amongst the small birch-trees, eider duck in the shallows, and she pointed out to me a swan, which, she said, had no voice. She also showed me nests of hawks, gyrfalcons, and other birds of prey.
During our stay amongst these hospitable people we organised entertainments of divers sorts, dances ashore and afloat, picnics, and excursions into the interior. Amongst these diversions one came nearly to ending my life. It was in this wise. We midshipmen had landed in considerable force and had gone up to a big farm just beyond the landing-place, with the intention of getting up a dance. There was no difficulty in this, for the farmer soon collected a number of young people, chiefly girls, and cleared his hall-kitchen for dancing. On a previous occasion we had had the services of an old Swedish fiddler, but on inquiring for this musician, we learnt with dismay that he had retired to his own
village, about six or eight miles off through the forest, and it was thought impossible to get him so late in the evening.
The alternative was to send on board for our ship's fiddler, but we doubted if we should obtain permission to have him, as he invariably got drunk immediately he got ashore, and, though he could play better drunk than sober, still it was subversive of discipline to have him returning to the ship tipsy oftener than was absolutely necessary.
In this dilemma I volunteered to fetch the native fiddler, for no man of the country would go, saying the road was not safe. Finally I got a small two-wheeled cart and a pony, and persuaded a small boy, who was supposed to know the way through the forest, to go with me. We were soon en route, the evening bitterly cold, and myself with no top-coat or gloves, so that in ten minutes after starting I hardly knew if I had any hands and feet. The rough track, winding through pine woods and marshes, was quite dark, but the sky showed above it. Fortunately there was only one road in that direction, and as there was no room for the horse to turn round he had to keep his head straight. He went like the wind, and it was difficult to keep one's place on the sliding-board, which did duty for a seat. Well under the hour we saw a twinkling light ahead, which turned out to be the house to which we were bound. I banged for a long time at the door, for the fiddler was already in bed, and, as it turned out, not more than half sober. However, his wife - who might have been his grandmother - insisted on his getting up, after I had offered her a British half-crown, which I had brought as his fee. In fact at sight of this the good woman fished out bread, milk, and cold porridge, no
A NIGHT IN A FOREST
doubt thinking that I was greatly overpaying the man for his services. So, with much grumbling on his part, his wife and I, with no regard for les convenances, crammed him into his clothes, wrapped him up in a wolfskin coat, put his fiddle-case into the cart, and hoisted him in after it.
By this time he was comparatively sober, and had become sufficiently intelligent to be able to arrange with his wife that the boy should stay with her until his return, there being no room for him in the cart. The boy seemed quite content, and everybody being satisfied, off we started on the road back. But if the pony had gone like a gale of wind before, now it was a typhoon. We seemed to be flying over the ground, bounding from one lump of earth to another, the tackle, with which he was lashed to the cart, creaking and straining like a main truss in a hurricane, my companion, down in the bottom of the cart, clinging to both sides of it like death to a dead nigger. As the pony had a mouth like a ringbolt, I could not have pulled him up if I had wished to, and I was so terribly cold that I did not care what happened as long as the gear held on. On we flew through the pitch-black night, but though I could see nothing but a faint glimmer overhead, apparently the pony could, and kept to the track.
Suddenly, in our wild flight, I was conscious of a tremendous shock, and then of finding myself whirling through the air to land face downwards in about two feet of mud and water. Half stunned I scrambled up, wet through, and having dropped my eyeglass, could literally see nothing around me, whilst the only sound was that of a horse's feet dying away in the forest.
I groped with my feet in the water until I found firmer ground under me, and then felt about with my hands for the cart and fiddler. I found him lying on his back, the
cart on the top of him, and, for a moment, had a great fear that he was killed, for he lay quite still. But remembering the special care of Providence for men half-drunk, I felt easier in my mind, and, with an effort, got the cart off him and hauled him out. He was none the worse, and fright had sobered him, though he seemed dazed. I shook him up, and he whined out something in Swedish, and began feeling about in the mud for his fiddle. The touch of the case, which he soon found intact, awakened his mind. He opened it, took out the fiddle, felt it all over and put it back in the case, and then lay down again hugging it. I got angry with him and tried to make him understand that I wanted to get back to the farm, but all he did was to raise himself up on all fours, with the fiddle-case held in his teeth by the handle, in which attitude he seemed inclined to continue our journey.
But as nothing would induce him to alter this mode of progression, I left him and tried to find the road for myself. For I was so cold that I knew if I did not move quickly I should be numbed, whilst, as he had on a thick coat, he might safely be left to weather out the night in the woods. I now began to distinguish things a little better, but it would have been difficult for me to have found my way even by daylight. I stumbled along and, having entirely lost the track, found myself in more open country, low willows, growing in shallow pools, and belts of birch. But the wind was so cold in these opens that I wished myself back in the woods again.
Then, as I stumbled on, I began to think of bears and wolves, for I knew there were plenty of both in the country, as their skins were to be seen everywhere, and I looked at the trees and wondered if I should be able to climb them if these animals should turn up. After I had wandered along for hours - it seemed to me - I became
so tired that I did not much care what happened, and made up my mind to sit down, bears or no bears, and wait for daylight. It must have now been about eleven or twelve o'clock and the moon was rising, low down, with a feeble light. I sat down on a log and, wishing the fiddler and every one else at the bottom of the Gulf of Bothnia, thought what a fool I had been to volunteer for this risky job which every one else had shirked. I had a vision of the jolly farmhouse, of the huge fireplace and burning logs, of the buxom girls in their short skirts and red stockings, skipping about with my messmates, whilst I was sitting like a drowned rat in a gloomy forest, with a fair chance of being snapped up by a wolf or a dozen of them. Moreover, I was desperately hungry, and thought of the smoked reindeer meat, and of hot rum and pipes of tobacco.
I must have got up several times and have stumbled on, when I sat down for the last time under the lee of some stacks of wood, cut ready for carting, a sign of civilisation, which, though slight in itself, was somehow cheering as I knew that I could not be altogether out of human tracks. I tried to keep awake, but I soon went to sleep, and slept peacefully until awakened by a touch on my shoulder, which, for all I knew, might have been the paw of a bear. Then a bright light from a lantern shone in my eyes, two men were standing in front of me, who lifted me to my feet and helped me off in the direction of the farm, which we did not reach until after two in the morning.
I learnt afterwards that the pony had galloped straight home, his broken trace-ropes explaining his arrival without the cart, and that the farmer's people had at once set out with lanterns to look for us. The old fiddler, who had continued his journey on all fours, they found in half an hour's time. He had not strayed from the track. But when by some extraordinary piece of luck they found me,
I was five or six miles in the wrong direction, and heading for a part of the country entirely uninhabited.
* * * * *
As the cold weather set in, and the Gulf of Bothnia began to freeze over, the Flying Squadron receded farther south. In the Southern Baltic, however, the weather continued fairly mild, almost up to December, in fact not much colder than it would have been in England at the same time of year.
We visited Stockholm, or rather the outlying islands, but as I was undergoing that pleasant state of incarceration known as "having my leave jammed," I missed all the festivities that went on. I cannot remember what precise crime against naval discipline I had committed, but I know that to me especially - ever fond of seeing new things and new people, with that vagabond instinct which has been my inheritance from my cradle - this state of affairs was a peculiarly irksome punishment. Nothing in the world is easier for a midshipman than to incur this penalty, for the Service lurks with pitfalls for youngsters. It seems to the average youngster that captains, first lieutenants, and naval instructors spend their whole time in laying snares for him. It is impossible to foresee, from hour to hour, what may not be a crime, for everything that every one else does wrong is the fault of the midshipman of the watch, which handicaps a person who is tolerably certain to be doing wrong things on his own account. A speck of dirt here, a broom hidden in a place where no broom should be - it is his fault; a man spits from the main-top - it is the fault of the midshipman aloft. The captain or first lieutenant is kept waiting the fiftieth part of a minute for anything he may require - his boat, a signal-book, or anything else - it is the fault of some midshipman. A midshipman's life consists almost entirely of three things,
skipping up and down ladders, scheming to get ashore, and humbugging the devil-dodger. Nothing but the inexhaustible spirits of boyhood could stand the strain. He is placed at the bottom of a ladder, on every rung of which above him stands some one in authority, so that he cannot jump on any one, whereas every one can jump on to him with the greatest ease. His first years are literally a struggle for existence, for in most midshipmen's berths - a term, however, now obsolete, for all midshipmen's messes are dignified nowadays by the misnomer of gun-room - there is not nearly enough room for the members of the mess to sit at table, and a small boy comes off badly in the general scramble. Furthermore, he is almost invariably hungry, but of this I will give details later on in my sailing-frigate days.
As I have hinted before, our education was entirely neglected, or was subordinated to performing duties which could have been done better by petty-officers. In those days - whatever it may be now - not six officers in the Fleet could have given an intelligent account of what the Russian War was about, and could no more have described the British Constitution than the Philosophy of the Stoics. We went from one country to another, absolutely ignorant of even the names of the kings who came on board to visit the ship, and as to any appreciation of race, languages, religions, or customs of these lands, it was of less interest to us than what was inside a shark cruising along under the ship's bottom.
As to privacy in a midshipman's life, or a single moment to himself, that was, of course, out of the question. From half-past six in the morning - when he was roused out by his hammock-man and his bed forcibly removed to the hammock nettings - until he turned in again at nine or ten, he was in close contact with other
human beings. His day was one incessant round of duty, school, gun-drill, and boat work, with interludes of rough and tumble in the berth. The only concentrated effort of his mind, which never deserted it for a moment, was how to get ashore; the one never-failing topic of absorbing interest, the sprees that were past ; the hope - transcending every other - that sprees were ahead.
The parson is, of course, an important appendage to the life of a midshipman, but, as far as we of the Retribution were concerned, our devil-dodger counted for very little and never taught me individually anything worth a row of pins. However, it is only fair to say that some of his pupils profited by his instructions in mathematics, of which he knew a fair amount, notably Paddy Fitzgerald, later on a well-known Admiral and a very distinguished man.
Again, on the other hand, I must say we saw a good deal of life, and came first hand on human nature. For the quest of the spree made us acquainted with a class of people more or less unconventional and primitive. Not that we sought them by choice, but we had to take what we could get, or rather what we could pay for. For £66 a year - pay £16 ; private allowance £50 ; mulcted of £5 a year for the parson, leaving £61 for all and every expense, including messing and, in my case, my clothes as well - was not an income on which one could go much into society. If a midshipman could land with one shilling in his pocket he thought himself well off. Hundreds of times have I gone ashore and missed my dinner and my tea, and wandered about until night time without one penny in my pocket. Still, hunger and thirst and weariness were preferable to going on board and voluntarily surrendering a single moment of one's freedom.
There was, however, a delightful camaraderie amongst
the Retribution mids, and if any one of us had a shilling and he met two others, that shilling had to provide for the amusement of all three. And even a mid cannot get wild revelry out of fourpence !
What excellent company we were ! - lighthearted, reckless, indifferent to all law and order on shore abroad, with supreme contempt for all foreigners, from kings to gendarmes. The smallest fishing village on some almost desert Baltic Islands, wind swept and bare, or the crowded slums of Kiel, Copenhagen or Hamburg, all alike were made to contribute something to amuse us, even at the risk of having to fight our way back to the beach and the sea, our home.
I remember affairs of this kind on which I now look back with amazement, not so much from the boldness of their conception as from the difficulty and danger of their execution; all kinds of tumults, retreats, ambuscades, engaged in for sheer love of riot and devilry. Doubtless it was the outcry of our nature, seeking relief from the grinding discipline of our lives afloat, and not mere wanton or senseless folly. It is quite impossible for any one who has not been a midshipman - or a convict - to understand the delight of temporary relaxation from discipline. No doubt we were frequently very foolish ; still, give me the boy who seeks diversion with others in such folly rather than he who slinks off alone, no one knowing where he has gone or what he is doing.
* * * * *
As the Baltic froze, the line-of-battle ships and heavy frigates left for England, but the Flying Squadron remained on until exit from the Russian ports was no longer possible. I have a vivid recollection of the misery we suffered from cold between decks, for no kind of provision had been made for this practically Arctic portion of the campaign.
Our get-up became most motley, designs of coat or cut of collar varying to suit our individual fancy. The Admiral's tall top-hat had now a shiny oilskin cover over it, like a cabman's ; the Skipper lurched about in a pea-jacket, which hitched up over his quarter-galleries as he rammed his hands down into the pockets of his pilot-cloth trousers ; the First Lieutenant, with a hood, which, coming over his ears, made him look like a brother of the Misericordia ; our marine officer in what was known as a purser's coat, a shapeless, woolly contrivance, supplied for the use of bluejackets, bellying out at the foot like a balloon ; the master in yellow oilskins and a huge blue comforter ; with many other fancy costumes, which looked as if they had been picked up in a rag-and-bone shop in Ratcliffe Highway. As to footgear, some were in big sea-boots - as worn by fishermen ; some in shiny indiarubber half-boots ; some in shooting boots or the homely galoshe. In those days there was so much latitude allowed as to uniform in bad weather that it required discrimination to tell a post-captain from a coal-heaver unless he began swearing, and even then it was sometimes difficult. Nowadays sumptuary laws are rigidly enforced, and rightly too.
Moving south we reached Copenhagen, and were most hospitably received, though I myself discovered that what had long since been forgotten in England still rankled in the memory of the Danes ; namely, the seizure of the Danish Fleet in 1808 by my uncle - eighteen sail of the line, fifteen frigates, six brigs, twenty-five gunboats - 3,500 guns in all, and all brought home to England.
I was looked on with curiosity by many old persons in Copenhagen as the great-nephew of the man who had been employed to deal this masterly blow on their country and forestalled their treasonable and secret design
LANDING FOR A BALL
to aid Napoleon in crushing our country, my name being apparently familiar with almost all classes of society, and that not in a nattering way. There was a great simplicity in the Danish Court ; and as to the Danes what struck us most was the resemblance in manners and ideas that they bore to our own people.
A number of us came very near losing our lives one night in Copenhagen Harbour, landing - for a ball - in a ten-oared cutter in which eight officers in addition to the crew of eleven bluejackets were seated. It was blowing hard, dead on shore, and as we stood farther in and got from under the lee of the island, which forms a breakwater for the harbour, we found ourselves followed by a choppy, dangerous sea, curling up astern of our deeply-laden boat in an alarming manner. We were under sail; it was very dark, and large sheets of ice, several inches thick, were an additional danger, as our boat might easily have run up on to one or have been stove in at any moment. We staggered on, however, under a reefed foresail, with only the lights of the town ahead to guide us, when, suddenly, an extra big sea rolled up, caught us on the quarter, and nearly threw us on our beam ends with the lee gunwale under water. This was bad enough, but the peril was increased ten times by some of the officers on the weather side - who jumped up to get away from the water which was deluging their full-dress coats and trousers - being pitched across the boat on to the knees of those to leeward. The foot of the sail was full of water, but luckily the bluejacket in charge of the sheet let it fly. If he had been a landsman of course his sheet would have been foul. The man at the haulyards also let go, and the sail fell into the sea ; half the boat's crew threw themselves to windward, and the boat, though up to the thwarts in water, righted. In a few moments the mast
was down, the oars were out, and her head brought round to the sea, her stern only a few inches out of water. In this condition we let her drift, stern first, towards the edge of the broad belt of broken ice which the wind had driven in shore, the outer fringe loose and the inner beginning to pack. With great difficulty we managed to get through this floe, and even then could not find an open water-channel into the landing-place. So, finally, we got alongside of what we felt was solid ice, and, scrambling out, wet through to our knees with the sea-water freezing our trousers stiff, we managed to land on the quay, but in sorry plight for a ball. But, determined not to be done out of our dance, we went to a hotel, turned in whilst our things were dried, and then on to the ball, making the best of it. It was about as near a thing as you could wish, for certainly very few of us could have reached the land, huddled up as we were in thick coats and wrappers, in a heavy sea and ice floating about.
Soon after this orders came for us to return to England, the only man-of-war remaining in those frozen seas, except ourselves, being a small corvette, the Harrier, which joined us from farther north, a mass of ice.
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