The Bravest of the Brave by G. A. Henty
Chapter II: Impressed
When the Mayor of Southampton opened the official document empowering and requesting him to obtain recruits for the queen's service he was not greatly pleased. This sort of thing would give a good deal of trouble, and would assuredly not add to his popularity. He saw at once that he would be able to oblige many of his friends by getting rid of people troublesome to them, but with this exception where was he to find the recruits the queen required? There were, of course, a few never do wells in the town who could be packed off, to the general satisfaction of the inhabitants, but beyond this every one taken would have friends and relations who would cry out and protest.
It was likely to be a troublesome business, and the mayor threw down the paper on the table before him. Then suddenly his expression changed. He had been thinking of obliging his friends by sending off persons troublesome to them, but he had not thought of his own case. Here was the very thing; he would send off this troublesome lad to fight for the queen; and whether he went to the Low Countries under Marlborough, or to Spain with this new expedition which was being prepared, it was very unlikely that he would ever return to trouble him.
He was only sixteen, indeed, but he was strong and well grown, and much fitter for service than many of those who would be sent. If the young fellow stopped here he would always be a trouble, and a bone of contention between himself and his wife. Besides, for Alice's sake, it was clearly his duty to get the fellow out of the way. Girls, Mr. Anthony considered, were always falling in love with the very last people in the world with whom they should do so, and out of sheer contrariety it was more than possible that Alice might take a fancy for this penniless vagabond, and if she did Mrs. Anthony was fool enough to support her in her folly.
Of course there would be trouble with his wife when she found what had happened to the lad--for the mayor did not deceive himself for a moment by the thought that he would be able to conceal from his wife the cause of Jack's absence; he was too well aware of Mrs. Anthony's power of investigation. Still, after it was done it could not be undone, and it was better to have one domestic storm than a continuation of foul weather.
Calling in his clerk the mayor read over to him the order he had received, and bade him turn to the court book and make out a list of the names of forty young men who had been charged before him with offenses of drunkenness, assault, battery and rioting.
"When you have made up the list, Johnson, you will go round to the aldermen and inform them of the order that I have received from the government, and you can tell them that if there are any persons they know of whom they consider that Southampton would be well rid, if they will send the names to me I will add them to the list. Bid them not to choose married men, if it can be avoided, for the town would be burdened with the support of their wives and families. Another ten names will do. The letter which accompanies the order says that from my well known zeal and loyalty it is doubted not that Southampton will furnish a hundred men, but if I begin with fifty that will be well enough, and we can pick out the others at our leisure."
By the afternoon the list was filled up. One of the aldermen had inserted the name of a troublesome nephew, another that of a foreman with whom he had had a dispute about wages, and who had threatened to proceed against him in the court. Some of the names were inserted from mere petty spite; but with scarce an exception the aldermen responded to the invitation of the mayor, and placed on the list the name of some one whom they, or Southampton, would be the better without.
When the list was completed the mayor struck out one of the first names inserted by his clerk and inserted that of John Stilwell in its place. His instructions were that he was to notify to an officer, who would arrive with a company of soldiers on the following day, the names of those whom he deemed suitable for the queen's service. The officer after taking them was to embark them on board one of the queen's cutters, which would come round from Portsmouth for the purpose, and would convey them to Dover, where a camp was being formed and the troops assembling.
Upon the following day the company marched into the town, and the officer in command, having seen his men billeted among the citizens, called upon the mayor.
"Well, Mr. Mayor," he said, "I hope you have a good list of recruits for me. I don't want to be waiting here, for I have to go on a similar errand to other towns. It is not a job I like, I can tell you, but it is not for me to question orders."
"I have a list of fifty men, all active and hearty fellows, who will make good soldiers," the mayor said.
"And of whom, no doubt, Southampton will be well rid," the officer said with a laugh. "Truly, I pity the Earl of Peterborough, for he will have as rough a body of soldiers as ever marched to war. However, it is usually the case that the sort of men who give trouble at home are just those who, when the time comes, make the best fighters. I would rather have half a dozen of your reckless blades, when the pinch comes, than a score of honest plowboys. How do you propose that I shall take them?"
"That I will leave entirely to you," the mayor said; "here is a list of the houses where they lodge. I will place the town watch at your disposal to show you the way and to point out the men to you."
"That will be all I shall require," the officer said; "but you can give me a list of those who are most likely to give trouble. These I will pounce upon and get on board ship first of all. When they are secured I will tell my men off in parties, each with one of your constables to point out the men, and we will pick them up so many every evening. It is better not to break into houses and seize them; for, although we are acting legally and under the authority of act of parliament, it is always as well to avoid giving cause of complaint, which might tend to excite a feeling against the war and make the government unpopular, and which, moreover, might do you harm with the good citizens, and do me harm with those above me. I am sure you agree with me."
"Quite so, quite so," the mayor said hastily; "you speak very prudently and well, sir. I hope you will honor me by taking up your abode in my house during your stay here; but may I ask you not to allow my wife, who is inquisitive by nature, to see the list with which I furnish you? Women are ever meddling in matters which concern them not."
"I understand," the officer said with a wink, "there are names on the list of which your wife would not approve. I have known the same thing happen before. But never fear, the list shall be kept safe; and, indeed, it were better that nothing were said of my business in the town, for if this get abroad, some of those whose conscience may tell them that they will be likely to be chosen for service might very well slip off and be out of the way until they hear that I and my men have left."
Two days later, when, as the evening was falling, Jack Stilwell was walking up from the wharf, where he had been watching the unlading of the vessel in which he was to sail, he came upon a group of four or five soldiers standing at a corner. Then a voice, which he recognized as that of the foreman, Richard Carson, said:
"That is your man, officer;" and the soldiers made a sudden rush upon him.
Taken by surprise he nevertheless struggled desperately, but a heavy blow with a staff fell on the back of his head, and for a time he knew nothing more. When he recovered his consciousness he was lying almost in complete darkness, but by the faint gleam of the lantern he discovered that he was in the hold of a ship. Several other men were sitting or laying near him. Some of them were cursing and swearing, others were stanching the blood which flowed from various cuts and gashes.
"What does all this mean ?" he asked as he somewhat recovered himself.
"It means," said one, "that we are pressed to serve as soldiers. I made a fight for it, and just as they had got the handcuffs on some citizens came up and asked what was doing, and the sergeant said, 'It is quite legal. We hold the mayor's warrant to impress this man for service in the army; there is a constable here who will tell you we are acting on authority, and if any interfere it will be worse for them.'"
Jack heard the news in silence. So, he had been pressed by a warrant of the mayor, he was the victim of the spite of his late employer. But his thoughts soon turned from this by the consciousness that his shirt and clothes were soaked with blood, and putting his hand to the back of his head he found a great lump from which the blood was still slowly flowing. Taking off his neck handkerchief he bound it round his head and then lay down again. He tried to think, but his brain was weak and confused, and he presently fell into a sound sleep, from which he was not aroused by the arrival of another batch of prisoners.
It was morning when he awoke, and he found that he had now nearly twenty companions in captivity. Some were walking up and down like caged animals, others were loudly bewailing their fate, some sat moody and silent, while some bawled out threats of vengeance against those they considered responsible for their captivity. A sentry with a shouldered musket was standing at the foot of the steps, and from time to time some sailors passed up and down. Jack went up to one of these.
"Mate," he said, "could you let us have a few buckets of water down here? In the first place we are parched with thirst, and in the second we may as well try to get off some of the blood which, from a good many of us, has been let out pretty freely."
"Well, you seem a reasonable sort of chap," the sailor said, "and to take things coolly. That's the way, my lad; when the king, or the queen now--it's all the same thing--has once got his hand on you it's of no use kicking against it. I have been pressed twice myself, so I know how you feel. Here, mates," he said to two of the other sailors, "lend a hand and get a bucket of fresh water and a pannikin, and half a dozen buckets of salt water, and let these lads have a drink and a wash."
It was soon done. The prisoners were all glad of the drink, but few cared to trouble about washing. Jack, however, took possession of a bucket, stripped to the waist, and had a good wash. The salt water made his wound smart, but he continued for half an hour bathing it, and at the end of that time felt vastly fresher and better. Then he soaked his shirt in the water, and as far as possible removed the broad stains of blood which stiffened it. Then he wrung it out and hung it up to dry, and, putting on his coat, sat down and thought matters over.
He had never had the idea of entering the army, for the measures taken to fill the ranks rendered the military service distasteful in the extreme to the English people. Since the days of Agincourt the English army had never gained any brilliant successes abroad, and there was consequently none of that national pride which now exists in its bravery and glorious history.
Still, Jack reflected, it did not make much difference to him whether he became a soldier or a sailor. He had longed to see the world, to share in deeds of adventure, and, above all, to escape from the dreary drudgery of the clothier's shop. These objects would be attained as well in the army as in the navy; and, indeed, now that he thought of it, he preferred the active service which he would see under Marlborough or Peterborough to the monotony of a long sea voyage. At any rate, it was clear that remonstrance or resistance were vain. He as well as others were aware of the law which had just been passed, giving magistrates the power of impressing soldiers for the service, and he felt, therefore, that although his impressment had no doubt been dictated by the private desire of the mayor to get him out of the way, it was yet strictly legal, and that it would be useless his making any protest against it. He resolved, therefore, to make the best of things, and to endeavor to win the goodwill of his officers by prompt and cheerful acquiescence in the inevitable.
Presently some sailors brought down a tray with a number of hunks of black bread, a large pot filled with a sort of broth, and a score of earthenware mugs. Jack at once dipped one of the mugs into the pot, and, taking a hunk of bread, sat down to his breakfast. A few others followed his example, but most of them were too angry or too dispirited to care about eating; and, indeed, it seemed to them that their refusal to partake of the meal was a sort of protest against their captivity.
Half an hour afterward the sailors removed the food; and many of those who had refused to touch it soon regretted bitterly that they had not done so, for as the time went on hunger began to make itself felt. It was evening before the next meal, consisting of black bread and a great piece of salt beef, was brought down. This time there were no abstentions. As the evening wore on fresh batches of prisoners were brought in, until, by midnight, the number was raised to fifty. Many of them had been seriously knocked about in their capture, and Jack, who had persuaded his friend the sailor to bring down three or four more buckets of salt water, did his best, by bathing and bandaging their wounds, to put them at their ease.
In the morning he could see who were his companions in misfortune. Many of them he knew by sight as loafers on the wharves and as troublesome or riotous characters. Three or four were men of different type. There were two or three respectable mechanics-- men who had had, at various times, drawn upon them the dislikes of the great men of the town by insisting on their rights; and there were two idle young fellows of a higher class, who had vexed their friends beyond endurance.
Presently the officer in charge of the recruiting party, who had now come on board, came down into the hold. He was at once assailed with a storm of curses and angry remonstrances.
"Look here, my lads," he said, raising his hand for silence, "it is of no use your going on like this, and I warn you that the sooner you make up your minds that you have got to serve her majesty the better for you, because that you have got to do it is certain. You have all been impressed according to act of parliament, and there is no getting out of it. It's your own fault that you got those hard knocks that I see the marks of, and you will get more if you give any more trouble. Now, those who choose to agree at once to serve her majesty can come on deck."
Jack at once stepped forward.
"I am ready to serve, sir," he said.
"That's right," the officer replied heartily; "you are a lad of spirit, I can see, and will make a good soldier. You look young yet, but that's all in your favor; you will be a sergeant at an age when others are learning their recruit drill. Now, who's the next?"
Some half dozen of the others followed Jack's example, but the rest were still too sore and angry to be willing to do anything voluntarily.
Jack leaped lightly up on deck and looked round; the cutter was already under weigh, and with a gentle breeze was running along the smooth surface of Southampton waters; the ivy covered ruins of Netley Abbey were abreast of them, and behind was the shipping of the port.
"Well, young un," an old sergeant said, "so I suppose you have agreed to serve the queen?"
"As her majesty was so pressing," Jack replied with a smile, "you see I had no choice in the matter."
"That's right," the sergeant said kindly; "always keep up your spirits, lad. Care killed a cat, you know. You are one of the right sort, I can see, but you are young to be pressed. How old are you?"
"Sixteen," Jack replied.
"Then they had no right to take you," the sergeant said; "seventeen's the earliest age, and as a rule soldiers ain't much good till they are past twenty. You would have a right to get off if you could prove your age; but of course you could not do that without witnesses or papers, and it's an old game for recruits who look young to try to pass as under age."
"I shan't try," Jack answered; "I have made up my mind to it now, and there's an end to it. But why ain't soldiers any good till they are past twenty, sergeant? As far as I can see, boys are just as brave as men."
"Just as brave, my lad, and when it comes to fighting the young soldier is very often every bit as good as the old one; but they can't stand fatigue and hardship like old soldiers. A boy will start out on as long a walk as a man can take, but he can't keep it up day after day. When it comes to long marches, to sleeping on the ground in the wet, bad food, and fever from the marshes, the young soldier breaks down, the hospital gets full of boys, and they just die off like flies, while the older men pull through."
"You are a Job's comforter, I must say," Jack said with a laugh; "but I must hope that I shan't have long marches, and bad food, and damp weather, and marsh fever till I get a bit older."
"I don't want to discourage you," the sergeant remarked, "and you know there are young soldiers and young soldiers. There are the weedy, narrow chested chaps as seems to be made special for filling a grave; and there is the sturdy, hardy young chap, whose good health and good spirits carries him through. That's your sort, I reckon. Good spirits is the best medicine in the world; it's worth all the doctors and apothecaries in the army. But how did you come to be pressed? it's generally the ne'er do well and idle who get picked out as food for powder. That doesn't look your sort, or I'm mistaken."
"I hope not," Jack said. "I am here because I am a sort of cousin of the Mayor of Southampton. He wanted me to serve in his shop. I stood it for a time, but I hated it, and at last I had a row with his foreman and knocked him down, so I was kicked out into the streets; and I suppose he didn't like seeing me about, and so took this means of getting rid of me. He needn't have been in such a hurry, for if he had waited a few days I should have gone, for I had shipped as a boy on board of a ship about to sail for the colonies."
"In that case, my lad, you have no reason for ill will against this precious relation of yours, for he has done you a good turn while meaning to do you a bad un. The life of a boy on board a ship isn't one to be envied, I can tell you; he is at every one's beck and call, and gets more kicks than halfpence. Besides, what comes of it? You get to be a sailor, and, as far as I can see, the life of a sailor is the life of a dog. Look at the place where he sleeps --why, it ain't as good as a decent kennel. Look at his food-- salt meat as hard as a stone, and rotten biscuit that a decent dog would turn up his nose at; his time is never his own--wet or dry, storm or calm, he's got to work when he's told. And what's he got to look forward to? A spree on shore when his voyage is done, and then to work again. Why, my lad, a soldier's life is a gentleman's life in comparison. Once you have learned your drill and know your duty you have an easy time of it. Most of your time's your own. When you are on a campaign you eat, drink, and are jolly at other folks' expense; and if you do get wet when you are on duty, you can generally manage to turn in dry when you are relieved. It's not a bad life, my boy, I can tell you; and if you do your duty well, and you are steady, and civil, and smart, you are sure to get your stripes, especially if you can read and write, as I suppose you can."
Jack nodded with a half smile.
"In that case," the sergeant said, "you may even in time get to be an officer. I can't read nor write--not one in twenty can-- but those as can, of course, has a better chance of promotion if they distinguish themselves. I should have got it last year in the Low Country, and Marlborough himself said, 'Well done!' when I, with ten rank and file, held a bridge across a canal for half an hour against a company of French. He sent for me after it was over, but when he found I couldn't read or write he couldn't promote me; but he gave me a purse of twenty guineas, and I don't know but what that suited me better, for I am a deal more comfortable as a sergeant than I should have been as an officer; but you see, if you had been in my place up you would have gone."
The wind fell in the afternoon, and the cutter dropped her anchor as the tide was running against her. At night Jack Stilwell and the others who had accepted their fate slept with the troops on board instead of returning to rejoin their companions in the hold. Jack was extremely glad of the change, as there was air and ventilation, whereas in the hold the atmosphere had been close and oppressive. He was the more glad next morning when he found that the wind, which had sprung up soon after midnight, was freshening fast, and was, as one of the sailors said, likely to blow hard before long. The cutter was already beginning to feel the effect of the rising sea, and toward the afternoon was pitching in a lively way and taking the sea over her bows.
"You seem to enjoy it, young un," the sergeant said as Jack, holding on by a shroud, was facing the wind regardless of the showers of spray which flew over him. "Half our company are down with seasickness, and as for those chaps down in the fore hold they must be having a bad time of it, for I can hear them groaning and cursing through the bulkhead. The hatchway has been battened down for the last three hours."
"I enjoy it," Jack said; "whenever I got a holiday at Southampton I used to go out sailing. I knew most of the fishermen there; they were always ready to take me with them as an extra hand. When do you think we shall get to Dover?"
"She is walking along fast," the sergeant said; "we shall be there tomorrow morning. We might be there before, but the sailors say that the skipper is not likely to run in before daylight, and before it gets dark he will shorten sail so as not to get there before."
The wind increased until it was blowing a gale; but the cutter was a good sea boat, and being in light trim made good weather of it. However, even Jack was pleased when he felt a sudden change in the motion of the vessel, and knew that she was running into Dover harbor.
Morning was just breaking, and the hatchways being removed the sergeant shouted down to the pressed men that they could come on deck. It was a miserable body of men who crawled up in answer to the summons, utterly worn out and exhausted with the seasickness, the closeness of the air, and the tossing and buffeting of the last eighteen hours; many had scarce strength to climb the ladder.
All the spirit and indignation had been knocked out of them--they were too miserable and dejected to utter a complaint. The sergeant ordered his men to draw up some buckets of water, and told the recruits to wash themselves and make themselves as decent as they could, and the order was sharply enforced by the captain when he came on deck.
"I would not march through the streets of Dover with such a filthy, hang dog crew," he said; "why, the very boys would throw mud at you. Come, do what you can to make yourselves clean, or I will have buckets of water thrown over you. I would rather take you on shore drenched to the skin than in that state. You have brought it entirely on yourselves by your obstinacy. Had you enlisted at once without further trouble you would not have suffered as you have."
The fresh air and cold water soon revived even the most exhausted of the new recruits, and as soon as all had been made as presentable as circumstances would admit of, the order was given to land. The party were formed on the quay, four abreast, the soldiers forming the outside line, and so they marched through Dover, where but yet a few people were up and stirring, to the camp formed just outside the walls of the castle. The colonel of the regiment met them as they marched in.
"Well, Captain Lowther, you have had a rough time of it, I reckon. I thought the whole camp was going to be blown away last night. These are the recruits from Southampton, I suppose?"
"Yes, colonel, what there is left of them; they certainly had a baddish twelve hours of it."
"Form them in line," the colonel said, "and let me have a look at them. They are all ready and willing to serve her majesty, I hope," he added with a grim smile.
"They are all ready, no doubt," Captain Lowther replied; "as to their willingness I can't say so much. Some half dozen or so agreed at once to join without giving any trouble, foremost among them that lad at the end of the line, who, Sergeant Edwards tells me, is a fine young fellow and likely to do credit to the regiment; the rest chose to be sulky, and have suffered for it by being kept below during the voyage. However, I think all their nonsense is knocked out of them now."
The colonel walked along the line and examined the men.
"A sturdy set of fellows," he said to the captain, "when they have got over their buffeting. Now, my lads," he went on, addressing the men, "you have all been pressed to serve her majesty in accordance with act of parliament, and though some of you may not like it just at present, you will soon get over that and take to it kindly enough. I warn you that the discipline will be strict. In a newly raised regiment like this it is necessary to keep a tight hand, but if you behave yourselves and do your duty you will not find the life a hard one.
"Remember, it's no use any of you thinking of deserting; we have got your names and addresses, so you couldn't go home if you did; and you would soon be brought back wherever you went, and you know pretty well what's the punishment for desertion without my telling you. That will do."
No one raised a voice in reply--each man felt that his position was hopeless, for, as the colonel said, they had been legally impressed. They were first taken before the adjutant, who rapidly swore them in, and they were then set to work, assisted by some more soldiers, in pitching tents. Clothes were soon served out to them and the work of drill commenced at once.
Each day brought fresh additions to the force, and in a fortnight its strength was complete. Jack did not object to the hard drill which they had to go through, and which occupied them from morning till night, for the colonel knew that on any day the regiment might receive orders to embark, and he wanted to get it in something like shape before setting sail. Jack did, however, shrink from the company in which he found himself. With a few exceptions the regiment was made up of wild and worthless fellows, of whom the various magistrates had been only too glad to clear their towns, and mingled with these were the sweepings of the jails, rogues and ruffians of every description. The regiment might eventually be welded into a body of good soldiers, but at present discipline had not done its work, and it was simply a collection of reckless men, thieves, and vagabonds.