The Bravest of the Brave by G. A. Henty
Chapter III: A Domestic Storm
Great was the surprise of Dame Anthony when, on sending down her servant with a letter to Jack Stilwell, the woman returned, saying that he had left his lodging two days before and had not returned. All his things had been left behind, and it was evident that when he went out he had no intention of leaving. The woman of the house said that Master Stilwell was a steady and regular lodger, and that she could not but think something had happened to him. Of course she didn't know, but all the town were talking of the men who had been taken away by the press gang, and she thought they must have clapped hands on her lodger.
Dame Anthony at once jumped at that conclusion. The pressing of fifty men had indeed made a great stir in the town during the last two days. The mayor's office had been thronged by angry women complaining of their husbands or sons being dragged away; and the mayor had been the object of many threats and much indignation, and had the evening before returned home bespattered with mud, having been pelted on his way from the town hall by the women, and having only been saved from more serious assaults by the exertions of the constables.
Dame Anthony had been surprised that her husband had taken these things so quietly. Some of the women had indeed been seized and set in the stocks, but the mayor had made light of the affair, and had altogether seemed in an unusually good state of temper. Dame Anthony at once connected this with Jack's disappearance. She knew that the list had been made out by the mayor, and the idea that her husband had taken this means of getting rid of Jack, and that he was exulting over the success of his scheme, flashed across her. As the mayor was away at the town hall she was forced to wait till his return to dinner; but no sooner had the meal been concluded and Andrew Carson and the two assistants had left the table than she began:
"Richard, I want to look at the list of the men who were pressed."
The request scarcely came as a surprise upon the clothier. He had made up his mind that his wife would be sure sooner or later to discover that Jack was missing, and would connect his disappearance with the operations of the press gang.
"What do you want to see that for?" he asked shortly.
"I want to see who have been taken," his wife said. "There is no secret about it, I suppose?"
"No, there is no secret," the mayor replied. "According to the act of parliament and the request of her majesty's minister I drew up a list of fifty of the most useless and disreputable of the inhabitants of this town, and I rejoice to say that the place is rid of them all. The respectable citizens are all grateful to me for the manner in which I have fulfilled the task laid upon me, and as to the clamor of a few angry women, it causes me not a moment's annoyance."
"I don't know why you are telling me all this, Richard," his wife said calmly. "I did not cast any reflections as to the manner in which you made your choice. I only said I wished to see the list."
"I do not see that the list concerns you," the mayor said. "Why do you wish to see it?"
"I wish to see it, Richard, because I suspect that the name of my Cousin Jack Stilwell is upon it."
"Oh, mother!" cried Alice, who had been listening in surprise to the conversation, suddenly starting to her feet; "you don't mean that they have pressed Jack to be a soldier."
"Leave the room, Alice," her father said angrily. "This is no concern of a child like you." When the door closed behind the girl he said to his wife:
"Naturally his name is in the list. I selected fifty of the most worthless fellows in Southampton, and his name was the first which occurred to me. What then?"
"Then I tell you, Richard," Dame Anthony said, rising, "that you are a wretch, a mean, cowardly, cruel wretch. You have vented your spite upon Jack, whom I love as if he were my own son, because he would not put up with the tyranny of your foreman and yourself. You may be Mayor of Southampton, you may be a great man in your own way, but I call you a mean, pitiful fellow. I won't stay in the house with you an hour longer. The wagon for Basingstoke comes past at three o'clock, and I shall go and stay with my father and mother there, and take Alice with me."
"I forbid you to do anything of the sort," the mayor said pompously.
"You forbid!" Dame Anthony cried. "What do I care for your forbidding? If you say a word I will go down the town and join those who pelted you with mud last night. A nice spectacle it would be for the worthy Mayor of Southampton to be pelted in the street by a lot of women led by his own wife. You know me, Richard. You know when I say I will do a thing I will do it."
"I will lock you up in your own room, woman."
"You won't," Dame Anthony said scornfully. "I would scream out of the window till I brought the whole town round. No, Mr. Mayor. You have had your own way, and I am going to have mine. Go and tell the town if you like that your wife has left you because you kidnapped her cousin, the boy she loved. You tell your story and I will tell mine. Why, the women in the town would hoot you, and you wouldn't dare show your face in the streets. You insist, indeed! Why, you miserable little man, my fingers are tingling now. Say another word to me and I will box your ears till you won't know whether you are standing on your head or your heels."
The mayor was a small man, while Dame Anthony, although not above the usual height, was plump and strong; and her crestfallen spouse felt that she was capable of carrying her threat into execution. He therefore thought it prudent to make no reply, and his angry wife swept from the room.
It was some time before the mayor descended to his shop. In the interval he had thought the matter over, and had concluded that it would be best for him to let his wife have her way. Indeed, he did not see how he could do otherwise.
He had expected a storm, but not such a storm as this. Never before in his fifteen years of married life had he seen his wife in such a passion, and there was no saying whether she would not carry all her threats into execution if he interfered with her now. No. It would be better to let her go. The storm would blow over in time. It was natural enough for her to go over and stay a few weeks with her people, and in time, of course, she would come back again. After all, he had got rid of Jack, and this being so, he could afford for awhile to put up with the absence of his wife. It was unpleasant, of course, very unpleasant, to be called such names, but as no one had heard them but himself it did not so much matter. Perhaps, after all, it was the best thing that could happen that she should take it into her head to go away for a time. In her present mood she would not make things comfortable at home, and, of course, his daughter would side with her mother.
Accordingly, when the carrier's wagon stopped at the door the mayor went out with a pleasant countenance, and saw that the boxes were safely placed in it, and that his wife was comfortably seated on some shawls spread over a heap of straw. His attention, however, received neither thanks nor recognition from Dame Anthony, while Alice, whose face was swollen with crying, did not speak a word. However, they were seated well under the cover of the wagon, and could not be seen by the few people standing near; and as the mayor continued till the wagon started speaking cheerfully, and giving them all sorts of injunctions as to taking care of themselves on the way, he flattered himself that no one would have an idea that the departure was anything but an amicable one.
A week later a letter arrived for Dame Anthony and the mayor at once recognized the handwriting of Jack Stilwell. He took it up to his room, and had a considerable debate with himself as to whether he would open it or not. The question was, What did the boy say? If he wrote full of bitter complaints as to his treatment, the receipt of the letter by his wife would only make matters worse, and in that case it would be better to destroy the letter as well as any others which might follow it, and so put an end to all communication, for it was unlikely that the boy would ever return to England.
Accordingly he opened the letter, and after reading it through, laid it down with a feeling of something like relief. It was written in a cheerful spirit. Jack began by saying that he feared Dame Anthony and Alice would have been anxious when they heard that he was missing from his lodgings.
"I have no doubt, my dear cousin, you will have guessed what has befallen me, seeing that so many have been taken away in the same way. I don't think that my late master acted handsomely in thus getting rid of me; for, as the list was made up by him, it was of course his doing. But you will please tell him from me that I feel no grudge against him. In the first place, he did not know I was going away to sea, and it must naturally have angered him to see one known to be connected with him hanging about Southampton doing nothing. Besides, I know that he always meant kindly by me. He took me in when I had nowhere to go, he gave me my apprenticeship without fee, and, had it not been that my roving spirit rendered me disinclined for so quiet a life, he would doubtless have done much for me hereafter. Thus thinking it over, it seems to me but reasonable that he should have been angered at my rejection of the benefits he intended for me.
"In the next place, it may be that his action in shipping me off as a soldier may in the end prove to be for my welfare. Had I carried out my intention and gone as a sailor, a sailor I might have remained all my life. It seems to me that as a soldier my chances are larger. Not only shall I see plenty of fighting and adventure, which accords well with my spirit, but it seems to me --and a sergeant who has shown me much kindness says that it is so--that there are fair chances of advancement. The soldiers are for the great part disorderly and ignorant men; and, as I mean to be steady and obedient so as to gain the goodwill of the officers, and as I have received a good education from my dear father, I hope in time to come to be regarded as one somewhat different from the common herd; and if I get an opportunity of distinguishing myself, and do not get killed by a Spanish bullet or pike thrust, or by the fevers which they say are not uncommon, then it is possible I may come back at the end of the war with some honor and credit, and, the sergeant said, may even obtain advancement to the rank of an officer. Therefore my late master, having done me many good turns, may perhaps find that this last one--even though he intended it not--is the best of all. Will you make my respects to him, dear cousin, and tell him that I feel no grudge or ill will against him? Will you give my love to my Cousin Alice? Tell her that I will bring her home some rare keepsakes from Spain should they fall in my way; and you know I will do the same for yourself, who have always been so good and kind to me."
"The boy is not a bad boy," the mayor said, well pleased as he laid down the letter. "It may be that I have judged him too harshly, seeing that he set himself against what was best for his welfare. Still, one cannot expect men's heads on boys' shoulders, and he writes dutifully and properly. I believe it is the fault of Andrew Carson, who was forever edging me on by reports of the boy's laziness and carelessness. He certainly has a grudge against him, and he assuredly exceeded his place and authority when he lifted his hand against my wife's cousin. It seems to me truly that I have acted somewhat hastily and wrong headedly in the matter. I shall give Master Carson notice that at the end of a month I shall require his services no longer--the fellow puts himself too forward. That will please Mary; she never liked him, and women in these matters of likes and dislikes are shrewder than we are. Perhaps when she hears that he is going, and reads this letter, which I will forward to her by the carrier, she may come back to me. I certainly miss her sorely, and the household matters go all wrong now that she is away. She ought not to have said things to me; but no wise man thinks anything of what a woman says when she's angry; and now that I think things over, it certainly seems to me that she had some sort of warrant for her words. Yes, I certainly don't know what can have come over me, unless it was that fellow, Andrew Carson. Richard Anthony has not been considered a bad fellow else he would never have become the Mayor of Southampton; and for fifteen years Mary and I have got on very well together, save for the little disputes which have arisen from her over masterful disposition. But she is a good wife--none could wish for better--though she is given to flame out at what she considers unrighteous dealings; but every woman has her faults, and every man too as far as that goes, and upon the whole few of them have less than Mary. I will write to her at once."
The mayor was not a man to delay when his mind was once made up, and sitting down at a writing desk he wrote as follows:
"DEAR WIFE: I inclose a letter which has come for you from your Cousin Jack. I opened it, and you will think poorly of me when I tell you that had it been filled with complaints of me, as I expected, it would not have come to your hands; for your anger against me is fierce enough without the adding of fresh fuel thereto. But the lad, as you will see, writes in quite another strain, and remembers former kindnesses rather than late injuries. His letter has put it into my head to think matters over, and in a different spirit from that in which I had previously regarded it, and I have come to the conclusion that I have acted wrongly; first, that I did not make allowances enough for the boy; second, that I insisted on keeping him to a trade he disliked; third, that I have given too willing an ear to what Andrew Carson has said against the boy; lastly, that I took such means of freeing myself from him. I today give Andrew Carson notice to quit my service--a matter in which I have hitherto withstood you. I am willing to forget the words which you spoke to me in anger, seeing that there was some foundation for them, and that when a woman is in a passion her tongue goes further than she means.
"Now, as I am ready to put this on one side, I trust that you also will put aside your anger at my having obtained the pressing for a soldier of your cousin. You can see for yourself by his writing that he does not desire that any enmity shall arise out of the manner of his going. For fifteen years we have lived in amity, and I see not why, after this cloud passes away, we should not do so again.
"I miss you sorely. Things go badly with us since you have gone. The food is badly cooked, and the serving indifferent. If you will write to tell me that you are willing to come back, and to be a loving and dutiful wife again, I will make me a holiday and come over to Basingstoke to fetch you and Alice home again. I am writing to Jack and sending him five guineas, for which he will no doubt find a use in getting things suitable for the adventure upon which he is embarked, for the payment of her majesty to her soldiers does not permit of the purchase of many luxuries. On second thoughts I have resolved to pay Andrew Carson his month's wages, and to let him go at once. So that if you return you will not find one here against whom you have always been set, and who is indeed in no small way the author of the matters which have come between us, save only as touching the impressment, of which I own that I must take the blame solely upon myself. Give my love to Alice, and say that she must keep up her spirits, and look forward to the time when her Cousin Jack shall come back to her after the killing of many Spaniards."
Having signed and carefully sealed this letter, with that from Jack inclosed within it, the mayor then proceeded to write the following to the young soldier:
"MY DEAR COUSIN JACK: I have read the letter which you sent to my wife, and it is written in a very proper and dutiful strain. Your departure has caused trouble between my wife and me; but this I hope will pass away after she has read and considered your letter. She carried matters so far that she is at present with your Cousin Alice at the house of her parents at Basingstoke. Having read your letter, I write to tell you that I feel that I am not without blame toward you. I did not see it myself until the manner of your letter opened my eyes to the fact. I have misunderstood you, and, being bent on carrying out my own inclinations, made not enough allowance for yours. Were you here now I doubt not that in future we should get on better together; but as that cannot be, I can only say that I recognize the kind spirit in which you wrote, and that I trust that in future we shall be good friends. I inclose you an order for five guineas on a tradesman in Dover with whom I have dealings. There are many little things that you may want to buy for your voyage to supplement the pay which you receive. Andrew Carson is leaving my service. I think that it is he greatly who came between us, and has brought things to the pass which I cannot but regret."
A week later the cloth merchant's shop in the High Street was shut up, and the mayor, having appointed a deputy for the week he purposed to be absent, took his place in the stage for Basingstoke, when a complete reconciliation was effected between him and his wife.
The starting of the expedition was delayed beyond the intended time, for the government either could not or would not furnish the required funds, and the Earl of Peterborough was obliged to borrow considerable sums of money, and to involve himself in serious pecuniary embarrassments to remedy the defects, and to supply as far as possible the munition and stores necessary for the efficiency of the little force he had been appointed to command. It consisted of some three thousand English troops, who were nearly all raw and undisciplined, and a brigade, two thousand strong, of Dutch soldiers.
Early in May the regiment to which Jack Stilwell belonged marched for Portsmouth, where the rest of the expedition were assembled, and embarked on board the transports lying at Spithead, and on the 22d of the month set sail for St. Helens, where they were joined on the following day by their general, who embarked with his suit on board the admiral's ship. On the 24th the fleet sailed for Lisbon.
Fond as Jack was of the sea, he did not find the change an agreeable one. On shore the constant drill and steady work had fully occupied the men, and had left them but little time for grumbling. On board ship things were different. In those days there was but little of the strict discipline which is now maintained on board a troop ship. It was true that the vessels in which the expedition was being carried belonged to the royal navy; but even here the discipline was but lax. There were many good sailors on board; but the bulk of the crew had been pressed into the service as harshly and tyrannically as were the soldiers themselves, and the grumblers of one class found ready sympathizers among the others.
The captain was a young man of good family who had obtained his appointment solely by interest, and who, although he would have fought his ship bravely in an action with the enemy, took but little interest in the regular work, leaving such matters entirely in the hands of his first lieutenant. The military officers were all new to their work. On shore they had had the support which the presence of a considerable number of veteran troops in garrison in the castle gave them; but they now ceased to struggle against the difficulty of keeping up discipline among a large number of raw and insubordinate recruits, relying upon bringing them into order and discipline when they got them ashore in a foreign country. Beyond, therefore, a daily parade, and half an hour's drill in the handling of their firelocks, they interfered but little with the men.
Sergeant Edwards with twenty of his men had at the last minute, to Jack's great satisfaction, been drafted into the regiment, and accompanied them on their voyage.
"Ay, they are a rough lot," the sergeant said in answer to an observation of Jack as to the grumbling of the men after they had been at sea a few days; "but what can you expect when you take men from their homes against their will, pick out the worst characters in each town, make up their number with jail birds, and then pack them off to sea before they have got into shape? There's nothing tries men more than a sea voyage. Here they are packed up as close as herrings, with scarcely room to move about, with nothing to do, and with food which a dog would turn up his nose to eat. Naturally they get talking together, and grumbling over their wrongs till they work themselves up.
"I wish the voyage was over. It wouldn't matter if we had a good steady old crew, but more than half of them have been pressed; many of them are landsmen who have been carried off just as you were. No doubt they would all fight toughly enough if a Frenchman hove in view, but the captain couldn't rely on them in a row on board. As long as the fleet keeps together it's all right enough. Here are nine vessels, and no one on board one knows what's going on in the others, but if the captain of any one of them were to hoist a signal that a mutiny had broken out on board, the others would be round her with their portholes opened ready to give her a dose of round shot in no time."
"But you don't think that it is really likely that we shall have any trouble, sergeant?"
"There won't be any trouble if, as I am telling you, the weather holds fine and the fleet keeps together; but if there's a gale and the ships get scattered, no one can't say what might come of it."
"I can't think how they could be so mad as to get up a mutiny," Jack said; "why, even supposing they did take the ship, what would they do with it?"
"Them's questions as has been asked before, my lad, and there's sense and reason in them, but you knows as well as I that there's many a craft sailing the seas under the black flag. There isn't a ship as puts to sea but what has half a dozen hands on board who have been in slavers, and who are full of tales of islands where everything grows without the trouble of putting a spade in the ground, where all sorts of strange fruit can be had for the picking, and where the natives are glad enough to be servants or wives, as the case may be, to whites. It's just such tales as these as leads men away, and I will warrant there's a score at least among the crew of the Caesar who are telling such tales to any who will listen to them. Well, you see, it's a tempting story enough to one as knows no better. On the one side there is a hard life, with bad food and the chance of being shot at, and the sartainty of being ordered about and not being able to call your life your own. On the other side is a life of idleness and pleasure, of being your own master, and, if you want something which the islands can't afford you, why, there's just a short cruise and then back you come with your ship filled up with plunder. I don't say as it's not tempting; but there's one thing agin it, and the chaps as tells these yarns don't say much about that."
"What is it, sergeant?"
"It's just the certainty of a halter or a bloody grave sooner or later. The thing goes on for some time, and then, when merchant ship after merchant ship is missing, there are complaints at home, and out comes a ship or two with the queen's pennant at the head, and then either the pirate ship gets caught at sea and sunk or captured, or there's a visit to the little island, and a short shrift for those found there.
"No, I don't think it can pay, my lad, even at its best. It's jolly enough for awhile, maybe, for those whose hearts are so hard that they think nothing of scuttling a ship with all on board, or of making the crew and passengers walk the plank in cold blood. Still even they must know that it can't last, and that there's a gallows somewhere waiting for them. Still, you see, they don't think of all that when a chap is atelling them of these islands, and how pleasant the life is there, and how easy it would be to do for the officers, and take the command of the ship and sail away. Two or three chaps as makes up their mind for it will poison a whole crew in no time."
"You speak as if you knew all about it."
"I know a good deal about it," the sergeant replied gravely. "It's a tale as there ain't many as knows; but you are a sort of lad as one can trust, and so I don't mind if I tell it you. Though you wouldn't think it, I have sailed under the black flag myself."
"You, sergeant!" Jack exclaimed incredulously; "do you mean to say you have been a pirate?"
"Just that, my boy. I don't look like it, do I? There ain't nothing buccaneering about my cut. I looks just what I am, a tough old sergeant in a queen's regiment; but for all that I have been a pirate. The yarn is a long one, and I can't tell it you now, because just at present, you see, I have got to go below to look after the dinners of the company, but the first time as we can get an opportunity for a quiet talk I will tell it you. But don't you go away and think till then as I was a pirate from choice. I shouldn't like you to think that of me; there ain't never no saying at sea what may happen. I might tumble overboard tonight and get drowned, or one of the convoy might run foul of us and sink us, and tomorrow you might be alive and I might be dead, and I shouldn't like you to go on thinking all your life as that Sergeant Edwards had been a bloody pirate of his own free will. So you just bear in mind, till I tells you the whole story, as how it was forced upon me. Mind, I don't say as how I hadn't the choice of death or that, and maybe had you been in my place you would have chosen death; but, you see, I had never been brought up as you were. I had had no chances to speak of, and being only just about your age, I didn't like the thought of dying, so you see I took to it, making up my mind secret at the same time that the first chance I had I would slip away from them. I won't tell you more now, I hain't time; but just you bear that in mind, in case of anything happening, that if Sergeant Edwards once sailed under the black flag, he didn't do it willing."
The sergeant now hurried below, leaving Jack wondering over what he had heard. Some days elapsed before the story was told, for a few hours later the sky clouded over and the wind rose, and before next morning the vessel was laboring heavily under double reefed topsails. The soldiers were all kept below, and there was no possibility of anything like a quiet talk. The weather had hitherto been so fine and the wind so light that the vessels had glided over the sea almost without motion, and very few indeed of those on board had experienced anything of the usual seasickness; but now, in the stifling atmosphere between decks, with the vessel rolling and plunging heavily, the greater part were soon prostrate with seasickness, and even Jack, accustomed to the sea as he was, succumbed to the unpleasantness of the surroundings.
On the second day of the storm Sergeant Edwards, who had been on deck to make a report to the captain of the company, was eagerly questioned on his return below on the condition of the weather.
"It's blowing about as hard as it can be," he said, "and she rolls fit to take the masts out of her. There don't seem no chance of the gale breaking, and none of the other ships of the fleet are in sight. That's about all I have to tell you, except that I told the captain that if he didn't get the hatches lifted a little we should be all stifled down here. He says if there's a bit of a lull he will ask them to give us a little fresh air, and in the mean time he says that any who are good sailors may go up on deck, but it will be at their own risk, for some of the seas go pretty nearly clean over her."