Chapter X. How John Wilkes Fought the Dutch

After leaving Prince Rupert, Cyril returned to John Wilkes, who was standing a short distance away.

"John! John!" he said eagerly, as he joined him. "Who do you think those gentlemen are?"

"I don't know, lad. It is easy to see that they are men of importance by the way they order everyone about."

"The one who went with us to the garden is Prince Rupert; the other is the Duke of Albemarle. And the Prince has told me to call upon him to-morrow at Whitehall."

"That is a stroke of luck, indeed, lad, and right glad am I that I took it into my head to fetch you out to see the fire. But more than that, you have to thank yourself, for, indeed, you behaved right gallantly. You nearly had the Prince for your helper, for just before I went up the ladder the last time he stepped forward and said to me, 'You must be well-nigh spent, man. I will go up this time.' However, I said that I would finish the work, and so, without more ado, I shook off the hand he had placed on my arm, and ran up after you. Well, it is a stroke of good fortune to you, lad, that you should have shown your courage under his eye--no one is more able to appreciate a gallant action. This may help you a long way towards bringing about the aim you were talking about the other night, and I may live to see you Sir Cyril Shenstone yet."

"You can see me that now," Cyril said, laughing. "My father was a baronet, and therefore at his death I came into the title, though I am not silly enough to go about the City as Sir Cyril Shenstone when I am but a poor clerk. It will be time enough to call myself 'Sir' when I see some chance of buying back our estate, though, indeed, I have thought of taking the title again when I embark on foreign service, as it may help me somewhat in obtaining promotion. But do not say anything about it at home. I am Cyril Shenstone, and have been fortunate enough to win the friendship of Captain Dave, and I should not be so comfortable were there any change made in my position in the family. A title is an empty thing, John, unless there are means to support it, and plain Cyril Shenstone suits my position far better than a title without a guinea in my purse. Indeed, till you spoke just now, I had well-nigh forgotten that I have the right to call myself 'Sir.'"

They waited for two hours longer. At the end of that time four mansions had been burnt to the ground, but the further progress of the flames had been effectually stayed. The crowd had already begun to scatter, and as they walked eastward the streets were full of people making their way homeward. The bell of St. Paul's was striking midnight as they entered. The Captain and his family had long since gone off to bed.

"This reminds one of that last business," John whispered, as they went quietly upstairs.

"It does, John. But it has been a pleasanter evening in every way than those fruitless watches we kept in the street below."

The next morning the story of the fire was told, and excited great interest.

"Who were the girls you saved, Cyril?" Nellie asked.

"I don't know. I did not think of asking to whom the house belonged, nor, indeed, was there anyone to ask. Most of the people were too busy to talk to, and the rest were spectators who had, like ourselves, managed to make their way in through the lines of the soldiers and watch."

"Were they ladies?"

"I really don't know," Cyril laughed. "The smoke was too thick to see anything about them, and I should not know them if I met them to-day; and, besides, when you only see a young person in her nightdress, it is hard to form any opinion as to her rank."

Nellie joined in the laugh.

"I suppose not, Cyril. It might make a difference to you, though. Those houses in the Savoy are almost all the property of noblemen, and you might have gained another powerful friend if they had been the daughters of one."

"I should not think they were so," Cyril said. "There seemed to be no one else in the house but three maid servants and the woman who was in the room with them. I should say the family were all away and the house left in charge of servants. The woman may have been a housekeeper, and the girls her children; besides, even had it been otherwise, it was merely by chance that I helped them out. It was John who tied the ladders together and who carried the girls down, one by one. If I had been alone I should only have had time to save the youngest, for I am not accustomed to running up and down ladders, as he is, and by the time I had got her down it would have been too late to have saved the others. Indeed, I am not sure that we did save them; they were all insensible, and, for aught I know, may not have recovered from the effects of the smoke. My eyes are smarting even now."

"And so you are to see Prince Rupert to-day, Cyril?" Captain Dave said. "I am afraid we shall be losing you, for he will, I should say, assuredly appoint you to one of his ships if you ask him."

"That would be good fortune indeed," Cyril said. "I cannot but think myself that he may do so, though it would be almost too good to be true. Certainly he spoke very warmly, and, although he may not himself have the appointment of his officers, a word from him at the Admiralty would, no doubt, be sufficient. At any rate, it is a great thing indeed to have so powerful a friend at Court. It may be that, at the end of another two years, we may be at war with some other foreign power, and that I may be able to enter our own army instead of seeking service abroad. If not, much as I should like to go to sea to fight against the Dutch, service in this Fleet would be of no real advantage to me, for the war may last but for a short time, and as soon as it is over the ships will be laid up again and the crews disbanded."

"Ay, but if you find the life of a sailor to your liking, Cyril, you might do worse than go into the merchant service. I could help you there, and you might soon get the command of a trader. And, let me tell you, it is a deal better to walk the decks as captain than it is to be serving on shore with twenty masters over you; and there is money to be made, too. A captain is always allowed to take in a certain amount of cargo on his own account; that was the way I scraped together money enough to buy my own ship at last, and to be master as well as owner, and there is no reason why you should not do the same."

"Thank you, Captain Dave. I will think it over when I find out whether I like a sea life, but at present it seems to me that my inclinations turn rather towards the plan that my father recommended, and that, for the last two years, I have always had before me. You said, the other day, you had fought the Dutch, John?"

"Ay, ay, Master Cyril; but, in truth, it was from no wish or desire on my part that I did so. I had come ashore from Captain Dave's ship here in the Pool, and had been with some of my messmates who had friends in Wapping and had got three days' leave ashore, as the cargo we expected had not come on board the ship. We had kept it up a bit, and it was latish when I was making my way down to the stairs. I expect that I was more intent on making a straight course down the street than in looking about for pirates, when suddenly I found myself among a lot of men. One of them seized me by the arm.

"'Hands off, mate!' says I, and I lifted my fist to let fly at him, when I got a knock at the back of the head. The next thing I knew was, I was lying in the hold of a ship, and, as I made out presently, with a score of others, some of whom were groaning, and some cursing.

"'Hullo, mates!' says I. 'What port is this we are brought up in?'

"'We are on board the Tartar,' one said.

"I knew what that meant, for the Tartar was the receiving hulk where they took the pressed men.

"The next morning, without question asked, we were brought up on deck, tumbled into a small sloop, and taken down to Gravesend, and there put, in batches of four or five, into the ships of war lying there. It chanced that I was put on board Monk's flagship the Resolution. And that is how it was I came to fight the Dutch."

"What year was that in, John?"

"'53--in May it was. Van Tromp, at that time, with ninety-eight ships of war, and six fire-ships, was in the Downs, and felt so much Master of the Sea that he sailed in and battered Dover Castle."

"Then you were in the fight of the 2nd of June?"

"Ay; and in that of the 31st of July, which was harder still."

"Tell me all about it, John."

"Lor' bless you, sir, there is nothing to tell as far as I was concerned. I was at one of the guns on the upper deck, but I might as well have been down below for anything I saw of it. It was just load and fire, load and fire. Sometimes, through the clouds of smoke, one caught a sight of the Dutchman one was firing at; more often one didn't. There was no time for looking about, I can tell you, and if there had been time there was nothing to see. It was like being in a big thunderstorm, with thunderbolts falling all round you, and a smashing and a grinding and a ripping that would have made your hair stand on end if you had only had time to think of it. But we hadn't time. It was 'Now then, my hearties, blaze away! Keep it up, lads! The Dutchmen have pretty near had enough of it!' And then, at last, 'They are running, lads. Run in your guns, and tend the sails.' And then a cheer as loud as we could give--which wasn't much, I can tell you, for we were spent with labour, and half choked with powder, and our tongues parched up with thirst."

"How many ships had you?"

"We had ninety-five war-ships, and five fire-ships, so the game was an equal one. They had Tromp and De Ruyter to command them, and we had Monk and Deane. Both Admirals were on board our ship, and in the very first broadside the Dutch fired a chain-shot, and pretty well cut Admiral Deane in two. I was close to him at the time. Monk, who was standing by his side, undid his own cloak in a moment, threw it over his comrade, and held up his hand to the few of us that had seen what had happened, to take no notice of it.

"It was a good thing that Deane and Monk were on board the same ship. If it had not been so, Deane's flag would have been hauled down and all the Fleet would have known of his death, which, at the commencement of the fight, would have greatly discouraged the men.

"They told me, though I know naught about it, that Rear-Admiral Lawson charged with the Blue Squadron right through the Dutch line, and so threw them into confusion. However, about three o'clock, the fight having begun at eleven, Van Tromp began to draw off, and we got more sail on the Resolution and followed them for some hours, they making a sort of running fight of it, till one of their big ships blew up, about nine in the evening, when they laid in for shore. Blake came up in the night with eighteen ships. The Dutch tried to draw off, but at eight o'clock we came up to them, and, after fighting for four hours, they hauled off and ran, in great confusion, for the flats, where we could not follow them, and so they escaped to Zeeland. We heard that they had six of their best ships sunk, two blown up and eleven taken, but whether it was so or not I knew not, for, in truth, I saw nothing whatever of the matter.

"We sailed to the Texel, and there blocked in De Ruyter's squadron of twenty-five large ships, and we thought that there would be no more fighting, for the Dutch had sent to England to ask for terms of peace. However, we were wrong, and, to give the Dutchmen their due, they showed resolution greater than we gave them credit for, for we were astonished indeed to hear, towards the end of July, that Van Tromp had sailed out again with upwards of ninety ships.

"On the 29th they came in view, and we sailed out to engage them, but they would not come to close quarters, and it was seven at night before the Resolution, with some thirty other ships, came up to them and charged through their line. By the time we had done that it was quite dark, and we missed them altogether and sailed south, thinking Van Tromp had gone that way; but, instead, he had sailed north, and in the morning we found he had picked up De Ruyter's fleet, and was ready to fight. But we had other things to think of besides fighting that day, for the wind blew so hard that it was as much as we could do to keep off the shore, and if the gale had continued a good part of the ships would have left their bones there. However, by nightfall the gale abated somewhat, and by the next morning the sea had gone down sufficient for the main deck ports to be opened. So the Dutch, having the weather gauge, sailed down to engage us.

"I thought it rough work in the fight two months before, but it was as nothing to this. To begin with, the Dutch fire-ships came down before the wind, and it was as much as we could do to avoid them. They did, indeed, set the Triumph on fire, and most of the crew jumped overboard; but those that remained managed to put out the flames.

"Lawson, with the Blue Squadron, began the fighting, and that so briskly, that De Ruyter's flagship was completely disabled and towed out of the fight. However, after I had seen that, our turn began, and I had no more time to look about. I only know that ship after ship came up to engage us, seeming bent upon lowering Monk's flag. Three Dutch Admirals, Tromp, Evertson, and De Ruyter, as I heard afterwards, came up in turn. We did not know who they were, but we knew they were Admirals by their flags, and pounded them with all our hearts; and so good was our aim that I myself saw two of the Admirals' flags brought down, and they say that all three of them were lowered. But you may guess the pounding was not all on our side, and we suffered very heavily.

"Four men were hurt at the gun I worked, and nigh half the crew were killed or wounded. Two of our masts were shot away, many of our guns disabled, and towards the end of the fight we were towed out of the line. How the day would have gone if Van Tromp had continued in command of the Dutch, I cannot say, but about noon he was shot through the body by a musket-ball, and this misfortune greatly discouraged the Dutchmen, who fight well as long as things seem to be going their way, but lose heart very easily when they think the matter is going against them.

"By about two o'clock the officers shouted to us that the Dutch were beginning to draw off, and it was not long before they began to fly, each for himself, and in no sort of order. Some of our light frigates, that had suffered less than the line-of-battle ships, followed them until the one Dutch Admiral whose flag was left flying, turned and fought them till two or three of our heavier ships came up and he was sunk.

"We could see but little of the chase, having plenty of work, for, had a gale come on, our ship, and a good many others, would assuredly have been driven ashore, in the plight we were in. Anyhow, at night their ships got into the Texel, and our vessels, which had been following them, anchored five or six leagues out, being afraid of the sands. Altogether we had burnt or sunk twenty-six of their ships of war, while we lost only two frigates, both of which were burnt by their fire-ships.

"As it was certain that they would not come out for some time again, and many of our ships being unfit for further contention until repaired, we returned to England, and I got my discharge and joined Captain Dave again a fortnight later, when his ship came up the river.

"Monk is a good fighter, Master Cyril, and should have the command of the Fleet instead of, as they say, the Duke of York. Although he is called General, and not Admiral, he is as good a sea-dog as any of them, and he can think as well as fight.

"Among our ships that day were several merchantmen that had been taken up for the service at the last moment and had guns slapped on board, with gunners to work them. Some of them had still their cargoes in the hold, and Monk, thinking that it was likely the captains would think more of saving their ships and goods than of fighting the Dutch, changed the captains all round, so that no man commanded his own vessel. And the consequence was that, as all admitted, the merchantmen were as willing to fight as any, and bore themselves right stoutly.

"Don't you think, Master Cyril, if you go with the Fleet, that you are going to see much of what goes on. It will be worse for you than it was for me, for there was I, labouring and toiling like a dumb beast, with my mind intent upon working the gun, and paying no heed to the roar and confusion around, scarce even noticing when one beside me was struck down. You will be up on the poop, having naught to do but to stand with your hand on your sword hilt, and waiting to board an enemy or to drive back one who tries to board you. You will find that you will be well-nigh dazed and stupid with the din and uproar."

"It does not sound a very pleasant outlook, John," Cyril laughed. "However, if I ever do get into an engagement, I will think of what you have said, and will try and prevent myself from getting either dazed or stupid; though, in truth, I can well imagine that it is enough to shake anyone's nerves to stand inactive in so terrible a scene."

"You will have to take great care of yourself, Cyril," Nellie said gravely.

Captain Dave and John Wilkes both burst into a laugh.

"How is he to take care of himself, Nellie?" her father said. "Do you suppose that a man on deck would be any the safer were he to stoop down with his head below the rail, or to screw himself up on the leeward side of a mast? No, no, lass; each man has to take his share of danger, and the most cowardly runs just as great a risk as the man who fearlessly exposes himself."