|Links in my life on land and sea |
THE IRIS AND THE TROPICS
Join H.M.S. Iris - Lively times at Upnor gipsy camp - Pistol practice as carried on by the Royal Engineers - We shoot off a man's ear - Our Skipper and Chaplain - Our education - Messmates - A mixed lot - Life in a frigate - A musical - Cerberus Channel gales - Goodbye to England for four years.
ON joining the Iris I found several midshipmen already installed, and a lively time we had of it for a fortnight or so, thanks to the slackness of the Admiralty in appointing a chaplain. We were, however, kept fairly up to the mark, and were greatly interested in all the process of fitting out a ship, the last chance, probably, that would befall any of us for observing the whole operation. For we were beginning with the bare hull : getting in our own masts, tanks, guns, provisions, sails, rope, and all the innumerable things that go to make up that most complicated contrivance - the outcome of centuries of experience - a full-rigged man-of-war.
But I am afraid that, in reality, we thought more of going ashore, and in seeking amusements.
Notable amongst these was a gipsy settlement at Upnor, across the Medway, where an encampment of these diverting nomads was practically permanent ; with a big booth in which sailors and soldiers, with their
THE IRIS AND THE TROPICS
girls, and youths from Chatham and Rochester would dance until all hours of the morning, drinking brandy, gin, or rum, out of tin panikins, and eating food that would have turned the stomach of a gargoyle. Then, in the grey of the morning, we would embark in ferry boats - designed to carry ten persons - in which at least thirty of us would cram, the men and boys underneath, the ladies piled on the top of us, the ferryman, perched up in the bows, struggling manfully with a pair of sculls which, flush with the water, seemed to be thrust out from under a compact mass of human beings. The wonder is that only once a boat upset, and then that only two out of the twenty passengers were drowned.
The queen of these gipsies was a handsome woman, with a splendid colour and an Eastern glory in her eyes, off which it was difficult to take one's own, or even see anything else when she was near. She was always kind to us youngsters, and, on one occasion, took my part valiantly and to some effect, by collaring a big brute who had twice insulted me. She told me curious facts about her own people, amongst them that, as the evil eye can be averted by something that suddenly attracts attention, gipsies tie bits of red rag into their children's hair, or made a black patch on their foreheads with paint, on which the maleficent glance alighting expends itself.
My second brother, Edward, was at this time stationed at the Royal Engineer Barracks at Brompton, Chatham, and I spent a good deal of my time with him. I was rather envious of the difference between his life and mine, his all decorum, with a well-ordered mess, the long oak table polished like a mirror, covered with handsome silver, costly glass, and trophies presented by byegone worthies, and my abode, a dark hole on
ENTER A NEW SKIPPER
the lower deck of a frigate, where rats scuttled over a greasy tablecloth, whilst cockroaches and weevils rushed about as thick as stockbrokers in Throgmorton Street - and of no more use. My brother had a servant, Andrews, extraordinarily stupid, but possessed of remarkable sang-froid. We were practising with a saloon pistol in my brother's quarters, and Andrews was in a small dressing-room adjoining, when a ball went through the door and took the tip off his ear. Most men would have made some remark : he did not, and we knew nothing about it, until by chance looking into the room we saw him groping about under the table for something he had lost. "What are you looking for, Andrews ? " said my brother.
He drew up, stood attention, and replied, in an apologetic tone - as if deprecating his master's wrath - " I was only a-looking for a bit of my ear as come off when you fired that shot though the door, sir."
He evidently thought that for a private to have his ear shot off did not entitle him to interfere with an officer's amusement.
My new Skipper, though he was a choleric old gentleman and disposed to administer the cat more freely than most, was credited with having a kind heart. But it was wonderful how he kept the secret. Why we all came to the conclusion that he was "no sailor" even before the frigate had been towed down to the Nore I do not know. Perhaps it was the girth of his waistcoat, or his small yellow wig, or his aggressive strut, as if always putting his foot down on human bugs ; whilst, on the other hand, the First Lieutenant, Deane, was immediately recognised as a first-rate seaman and a man in whom all could trust in an emergency. After the Captain and the First Lieutenant, the next person in importance, in
THE IRIS AND THE TROPICS
the eyes of midshipmen, is the Chaplain ; that is, if he is " double-barrelled," as we called it, namely, one combining the duties of Chaplain and Naval-Instructor. Consequently we were all on the alert as to what our tormentor would turn out. His name was Campbell, and I now know that when he joined he was still quite a young man, between twenty-six and thirty ; but after-knowledge never alters the first impression of childhood, and he still seems to me a stiff, red-whiskered old "buster," with whom it was impossible to associate the idea of fun or levity. As a matter of fact, in spite of his stiff manner and his firm mouth, he was capable of great feeling : was straightforward, and always a kind friend to me. He was well read and could talk about things, whilst his even-handed justice gained him adherents, as time went on. For he never toadied. Of what he taught us it is only necessary to say that, beyond navigation and nautical astronomy, plain and spherical trigonometry and cognate sciences, it was not incumbent on him to teach us anything. The education midshipmen then received was as absurd as I imagine it to be still. Foreign languages, history or politics were considered as unnecessary as a knowledge of how to crochet or to make artificial flowers, although many of us were destined, later in life, to conduct negotiations requiring tact and diplomacy, when a mistake might involve the country in war.
My messmates were a particularly nice set of fellows, comprising, naturally, a wide range of character, of manners, and of breeding. Amongst us were many types, from the languid, easy-going son of the First Lord of the Admiralty, with nothing to do but to sit still and let the pleasant breezes of patronage blow him into all the best billets - toadied by every one, from Colonial Governors downwards - to the reckless, friendless rip
TYPES OF MIDSHIPMEN
and daredevil, always in trouble, always borrowing sums he never repaid, a match with his fists for all of us. Then there was the industrious, painstaking boy, who finally got three first-class certificates, and was immediately promoted, he himself of no more use afloat than a wheelbarrow ; or the boy who had mistaken his profession, and should have been an actor ; or the ill-tempered, lanky lad with a pale greenish complexion and a grievance ; or the boy whose father kept hounds and could ride ; and the other boy who gave out that his father kept horses, but had himself, as it turned out, never been on a horse ; or the thin-skinned man, not of the social hierarchy, who had come out of the Merchant Service, and seemed to harbour rancour against the Queen's Navy ; or the people who dropped their h's and considered it a personal affront if others got them in the right place ; or the boys who, driven by hunger, stole the Skipper's bananas ; the boys equally hungry who did not ; or the boys who took to rum like mother's milk, using oaths that might have made a costermonger turn pale; or the quiet little lad with meek eyes and sandy hair, who always went ashore with the parson or the doctor, and came off at six ; or the other boy who loved a spree as his own soul, who lent or gave away every farthing he had, whose leave was always jammed ; or the lad in whom all sense of fear was lacking, stupid with books, the smartest of all of us aloft, who dived off the fore-yard - sixty feet up - even before he could swim properly, who, though half his size, fought the mess bully, day after day, and finally vanquished him, who ran back under a volley of arrows and spears, in a Pacific Island fight, to help a wounded man, and, naturally, ended his own career, in another ship, in trying to save a man who had fallen overboard in a gale - these and many others ! Picture all these diversified characters
THE IRIS AND THE TROPICS
huddled together in a space measured by a few feet, eating, sleeping, dressing, talking, singing, fighting and half-starved, living below in almost perpetual darkness ; reading practically nothing but unprofitable trash ; roused out at half-past six every morning of their lives, the midshipmen and mates amongst them spending four hours out of every twelve walking about the deck on watch in all weathers, and the remaining eight hours given up to school, gun-drill, sword-exercise, and taking sights, with interludes of being mast-headed for punishment, and you will have some idea of a midshipman's life in the old days in a sailing frigate.
I have said half-starved advisedly, for I have many reminiscences of nights spent walking up and down a wet deck as hungry as a polar bear. For always on the second day after leaving port, our fresh provisions ran out and we were reduced to the ordinary ship's rations, which were infinitely worse then than they are now and far inferior to those of any ordinary merchant ship. In harbour also it was little better, for the fresh meat, supplied by thievish contractors, was always tough and bad, and was rendered entirely tasteless by the manipulations of the impostor who called himself the midshipman's cook. Imagine the culinary crimes of twenty land cooks rolled into one, plus all their ignorance, wilfulness and malice, and you may then have some distant idea of what a sea cook can be, and you will cease to wonder that "son of a sea cook" is almost the most opprobrious epithet that can be applied to a seaman. I don't know that landsmen would rejoice at being called "son of a plain cook " ; but it would be a delicate compliment in a man-of-war.
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In due time my ship was ready for sea, and, in tow of a tug, we reached the Nore. We were fairly well
shaken together by this time and began to know one another : the Skipper peremptory and pompous ; the First Lieutenant a strict disciplinarian whose eye nothing escaped ; one of the Lieutenants, an indolent, attenuated man, with willowy manners, long, waving whiskers, and legs like gun barrels ; another, Bell by name, a hearty, red-whiskered Irishman; Campbell, the Chaplain, already described ; Arquimbeau, the Master, a dark, foreign-looking man, with a hooked nose slightly askew, admirable at his work and pleasant withal ; Moresby, our Paymaster, small, bustling, well-read and an excellent photographer, in those days a dawning science ; our old Scotch Doctor, with the broadest Aberdonian accent, and an unconscious sense of humour, short, bow-legged, with red, mutton-chop whiskers, which lay across his face like two small boomerangs; another man, a curiosity, with the face of a rat and the manners of a mosquito ; our marine, Tom Bent, one of the liveliest, most rollicking of men you would wish to meet afloat or ashore. Nor can I forget my many friends before the mast, the captain of my top, whose name I omit, as good a man as ever trod deck, driven by injustice to desert, and so, all in good time, to prosperity as a squatter ; or Lee, one of the boatswain's mates, a dark, reserved character, a born sailor, with an unerring instinct about weather, presence of mind in danger, and courage that nothing could daunt. Then there was the gunner, Barter, who took life very seriously, a man with great force of character and a broken leg, and - next to Deane - the strongest personality in the ship. Then, of another type was the master-at-arms, a clever, thin man, with a delicate face like a Jewess, and a passion for music, a strange taste for a man of cells and handcuffs, but not in any way unfitting him for his special work. To this man we were greatly indebted, for he represented a
THE IRIS AND THE TROPICS
link between our uncultured life and that other life, where music and art were not held in derision. He soon created a small string band, working up the raw material he found to hand amongst the crew, with untiring patience and against all obstacles, for few cared about music on board. I was passionately fond of it, buying the scores of now antiquated operas - Rossini, Verdi, Bellini - out of my limited income ; all for love of it. It is a tribute to the indefatigable energy and genius of this master-at-arms that in a few months he had taught these men to play really fairly well, with feeling and precision, even such things as the overture to "Euryanthe," with selections from "Lucrezia Borgia," "Lucia di Lammermoor," "Adelaida," and pieces from Mozart, Haydn, and other classic composers.
What a strange sight it would have appeared to a shore-going leader of orchestra, these seven or eight men huddled together between two guns on the main-deck, their music lighted by two or three tallow-dips flickering fitfully in horn lanterns ; often with sea water swishing over their bare feet coming in at the lee scuppers as the vessel plunged and rolled; a stout rope stretched across from the breech of one gun to the next, to prevent these musicians " fetching way " down the ward-room skylight ! How often I have seen this, each man every two or three minutes making a grab at his music - resting on a wooden frame cleated down to the deck - and blowing, or fiddling, or whacking his drum, as Heaven and the master-at-arms had directed, his body swaying at the angle necessary to keep his equilibrium. Or I have helped to fish up fiddles, 'cello, music, and all the orchestral paraphernalia out of the water, when some extra heavy sea has come crashing over the weather netting and has poured down the skid-grating on to the main-deck.
CRITICAL "DRY IDLERS"
But I must return to our leaving the Nore for Spithead, when we suddenly dropped into a stiff gale in the Channel, a pleasant beginning - as all sailors will understand - with every rope new and stretching as only a gale can stretch it, with every sail trying to find the best way out of the bolt ropes : half the men ignorant of the lead of the ropes, the guns only half secured : boats banging against the davits, hammocks wet through : the Skipper clinging on to the weather-rail : the First Lieutenant shouting orders in a voice that would drown the Last Trumpet : the bluejackets aloft hanging on to the yards getting in treble reefs and cheering as they rouse the reef-band out to windward : those on the weather-earring straining every nerve; the marines standing about the bits ready to haul on ropes they do not understand the use of, most of them miserably sick, cursing the day of their amphibious enlistment, the "dry idlers" purser, parson, sawbones, &c. down in the wardroom, giving their opinion that everything is being done wrong, and everything is unlike what they have seen in other ships; or crawling up cautiously to look at the great waves and see what more fault they can find, and then dodging down again to the wardroom fire, out of the hail and sleet, to swill mulled port, until it is time to roll into their beds and sleep tight till the morning.
We reached Spithead pretty well knocked about, and it took us nearly a week to set up the lower rigging and prepare once more to face the Channel and the Bay of Biscay. We sailed again on the 8th of March, coming in for another gale, and putting into Plymouth Sound, where once more we set up rigging, filled up with water and provisions, and left in twenty-four hours for our destination in the Antipodes.
How well I remember that night ! Darkness had
THE IRIS AND THE TROPICS
closed in before we lost sight of England, the lights on Plymouth Hoe twinkling astern as we stood over towards the coast of France with half a gale of wind from the south-west and a heavy chopping sea, so that we were soon under treble reefs again. But by this time even the "dry idlers" could find nothing wrong in the seamanship, nor much to complain of as to things fetching way, for Deane had rapidly got everything in order, and it was a bad look-out for any one who had not learnt, or did not remember, his station. We had gale after gale, freshening into a hurricane in the Bay of Biscay, and attended with slight disasters, such as carrying away small spars, wheel ropes, &c. But already the daily routine of man-of-war life was in full swing, with all its time-honoured dignity, its daily invocation to the Eternal, "who alone spreads out the heavens and rules the raging of the sea" - a life of law, and of order interrupted by nothing, the executives on watch and teaching gun-drill, the purser serving out slops and religious books, the doctor clapping lint and plaster on broken fingers and toes - almost the only professional work that falls to a naval surgeon - the marines no longer sick; whilst those who have left home broken-hearted for the sake of some girl are already planning adventures to come off at Rio Janeiro, or at whatever port the wind and weather or the emptiness of the Skipper's larder, may blow us.
A few days of bad weather and we picked up the trade winds - a delightful contrast to the Channel and the Bay - and were soon on the Equator, where, crossing the Line, the old Pagan ceremony in connection with Sun-worship and Neptune was, of course, observed, the watery god being received with all due honours, and every neophyte duly soused and scraped with a piece of hoop iron, all except our Skipper, who had, I
A LONG SEA VOYAGE
believe, never crossed the Line before. By this time cliques - which make a man-of-war a veritable microcosm - had begun to form. But cloth does not necessarily stick to cloth, and more especially is this the case with the captain of a man-of-war, who is bound by obvious limitations. For though he would naturally select his personal friends from his own line, he finds it is never a wise thing to do ; as it is precisely with the executive that a commanding officer mostly comes into collision, rendering special friendships inconvenient. Of course many captains find no difficulty in discovering occasion to rebuke any one, no matter how zealous or efficient ; still, with parsons, pursers, and doctors, these opportunities are rarer, so that a longer interval may occur between unpleasantnesses, giving time for the cuticle to thicken over the sore.
To this long sea voyage, lasting months, I am indebted for some further advance in mental culture, for our Paymaster, Moresby, had a few standard books in his cabin which I had not read, and these he always lent me. I learnt also, in a compendious form, the dry facts of the history of England and France out of Haydn's " Dictionary of Dates," and, also out of that same excellent compilation, all that I have ever known of some of the greatest men that have lived and died. The doctor had also a few books on medical subjects, most of them as old as Galen no doubt, but still to me intensely interesting. I also tried to keep up my French, reading from end to end the few French books there were on board - for I was old enough now to hold my own and cared no longer for the ridicule of other boys, or young men, who hated any one to know more than they themselves. I read Voltaire's "Siècle de Louis XIV." over and over again, and Rabelais more than once. My classics, however, were fast slipping away,
THE IRIS AND THE TROPICS
even the Greek Testament itself becoming a puzzler in parts. I found myself growing rapidly in body and mind, and I began now to think there were possibilities of enjoyment beyond wrenching off door-knockers, and, further, I was blessed with a weak head for strong liquors, and could not then smoke, for it made me sick. So many things attracted me which for the rowdies amongst us had no charm. For instance, I was looking forward to seeing Brazil, having read about the wonders of its forests and of the beauties of Rio Janeiro, and I longed to see palm-trees, orchids growing wild, monkeys skipping about, parrots, immense lizards, and all other forms of tropical life. But I was not a studious boy, in the sense of learning anything thoroughly, for the instincts of amusing myself always predominated, and whenever anything of the kind came to hand I was as keen as any one, nothing coming amiss, from a Nigger ball with lively Brazilian half-castes to a State function. I do not know that a boy is any the worse for a wide outlook.
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And all this time the frigate is rolling about under a tropic sun, or lying drenched in tropical rain, which falls in such torrents that the scuppers will scarce carry it off. Every morning at six the huge sun with sudden and blazing heat rises straight up out of the molten sea, climbs to the zenith with a movement visible to the naked eye, and with equal haste hurries down below the horizon at the same hour in the evening, often leaving that curious flash of green light on the sea, lasting only a few seconds, which is seen when the atmosphere is particularly clear. Then night rapidly takes possession of the sky, and countless millions of stars, infinite and eternal, whose components never had a beginning and never can have an end, stand out in all
CALM IN THE TROPICS
their staggering glory, gods in the indestructibility of their matter, unerringly carrying out immutable laws from for ever backwards, to for ever forwards, finally to crash into each other, their death, the birth of new worlds.
Solemn are the thoughts awakened by a calm tropical night at sea, the stars and eternity overhead, the fathomless ocean below, whilst the frail woodwork of the vessel bears its hundreds of lives to their unalterable Destiny.
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