Willis the Pilot by Johanna Spyri
In which Willis shows, that the term Press-gang means something else besides the Gentlemen of the Press.
"When I was a youngster, about a year or two older than you are now, Master Fritz, I slipped on board the brig Norfolk as boatswain's mate. The ship at the time was short of hands, so there was no immediate probability of her weighing anchor; but on the same day I scratched my name on the books a despatch arrived, in consequence of which we left the harbor, and proceeded out to sea under sealed orders. One day, when off the Irish coast, I was called aft by the first lieutenant.
"'You know something of Cork, my man, I believe?' said he.
"'Yes, your honor, I have been ashore there once or twice,' said I.
"'Very good,' said he; 'get ready to go ashore there again as quick as you like.'
"Leave to go on shore is always agreeable to a sailor. He prefers the sea, but likes to stretch himself on land now and then, just to enjoy a change of air, and look about him a bit; so it was with all possible expedition that I made the requisite preparations.
"When I reappeared, I found a party of twenty men mustered on deck in pipe-clay order. A full ration of small arms was served out to them, and, under the command of the lieutenant, we embarked in the long-boat and rowed ashore. We landed at a point of the coast some miles distant from Cork, and it was dark before we reached the military barracks of that town, which, for the present, appeared to be our destination.
"I had not the slightest idea of what we were to do on shore. From our being so heavily armed, I knew it was no mere escort or parade duty that was in question, and began to think there was work of some kind on hand. This gave me no kind of uneasiness. I only wondered whatever it could be, for there was clearly a mystery of some kind or other. Were we going to besiege Paddy, in his own peaceable city of Cork? Had some of the peep-o'-day boys been burning down farmer Magrath's ricks again? or was there a private still to be routed out and demolished? I could not tell.
"Half an hour after our arrival, I was called into a private room by the lieutenant, who was seated at a table with a package of clothes beside him. The first lieutenant of the Norfolk, I must remark, was a bit of an original. He had won his way up to the rank he then held from before the mast. His build was rather squat, and his face was garnished with a pair of fiery red whiskers, so he was no beauty, added to which he was reckoned one of the most rigid martinets in the service; yet, for all that, his crew liked him, for they knew his heart was in the right place.
"'See, my man,' said he, 'take this package, and rig yourself out in the toggery it contains.'
"I obeyed this order, and soon after stood before him, in a pair of jack-boots, with a slouching sort of tarpauling hat on my head, so that I might either have passed for a manner out of luck or a dustman.
"'Well,' said the lieutenant, laughing, 'now you have quite the air of the hulks about you.'
"This remark not being very complimentary, I did not feel called upon to make any reply.
"'You know,' he continued, 'that the brig is short about a dozen hands, and I want you to pick up a few likely lads here. I understand there are a number of able-bodied seamen skulking about the public-houses, where they will likely remain as long as their money lasts. I should like to secure as many of them as possible, and then capture a few stout landsmen to make up the number; but, in the first place, I want you to go and find out the best place to make a razzia.'
"I stared when I found myself all at once promoted to the post of pioneer for a party of kidnappers, and muttered something or other about honor.
"'Honor, sir!' roared the lieutenant, 'what has honor to do with it, sir? It is duty, sir. It is the laws of the service, sir, and you must obey them, sir.'
"'But it is hard, your honor,' said I, 'that the laws of the service should force men to do what they think is wrong.'
"'And what right, sir, have you to think it is wrong, or to judge the acts of your superiors? If the laws of the service order you fifty lashes at the yard-arm to-morrow, you will find that you will get them. Do you want to be handed over to the drummer, and to cultivate an acquaintance with the cat?'
"'No, your honor,' said I, laughing.
"The lieutenant's face by this time was as red as his whiskers, and, though he was in a towering rage, he quickly calmed down again, like boiling milk when it is taken off the fire.
"'Then,' said he, quietly, 'am I to understand you refuse?'
"'No, your honor,' said I. 'If it is my duty, I must obey; but you will pardon the liberty, when I say that it is hard to be forced to drag away a lot of poor fellows against their wills.'
"'Look ye,' replied the lieutenant, 'I tolerate your freedom of speech for two reasons--the first, because we are here alone, and no harm is done; the second, because I entertain the same opinion myself; but, mind you, we are both bound by the regulations of the service, and it is mutiny for either of us to disobey.'
"According to the moral law, the mission with which I was charged could scarcely be considered honorable; but, according to the laws of the land, or rather of the sea, it was perfectly unexceptionable. Amongst the seamen, a foray amongst the landlubbers was regarded more in the light of a spree than anything else. If, indeed, it were possible to pick up the lazy and idle amongst the population, this mode of enlistment might be useful; but often the industrious head of a family was seized, whilst the idle escaped. It was rare, however, that a ship's crew were employed in this sort of duty; men were more usually obtained through the crimps on shore, who often fearfully abused the authority with which they were invested for the purpose. As for myself, the lieutenant's arguments removed all my scruples, if I ever had any.
"I then suggested a plan of operations, which was approved. The men were to be kept ready for action, and the lieutenant himself was to await my report at the 'Green Dragon,' one of the hotels in the town.
"At that time there was in the outskirts of Cork a sort of tavern and lodging-house, called the 'Molly Bawn.' This establishment was frequented by the lowest class of seamen and 'tramps.' Thither I wended my way. It was late when I arrived in front of the place; and whilst hesitating whether I should venture into such a precious menagerie, I happened to look round, and, by the light of a dim lamp that burned at the corner of the street, I caught a glimpse of the lieutenant leaning against the wall, quietly smoking an Irish dudeen."
"Like Rono the Great in the island of Hawai," suggested Jack.
"Something. This, however, cut short my deliberations. I walked in. There was a crowd of men and women drinking and smoking about the bar. These, however, were not the people I sought. The regular tenants of the house were not amongst that lot, and it was essential for me to find out in what part of the premises they were stowed. I commenced proceedings by ordering a noggin of whisky, and making love to the damsel that brought it in. After having formally made her an offer of marriage, I asked after the landlord. She told me he was engaged with some customers, but offered to take a message to him.
"'Then,' said I, 'just tell him that a friend of One-eyed Dick's would like to have a parley with him.'"
"And who was One-eyed Dick?" inquired Fritz.
"One of the crew of a piratical craft captured by one of our cruisers a few months before, and who at that time was safely lodged in Portsmouth jail.
"The girl soon returned. She told me to walk with her, and led me through some narrow passages into what appeared to be another house. She knocked at a door that was strongly barred and fastened inside. A slight glance at these precautions made me aware that there was no chance of making a capture here without creating a great disturbance. So, after reflecting an instant, I decided upon adopting some other course.
"When the door was opened I could see nothing distinctly; there was a turf-fire throwing a red glare out of the chimney, a dim oil-lamp hung from the roof, but everything was hidden in a dense cloud of tobacco smoke, through which the light was not sufficiently powerful to penetrate."
"The atmosphere must have been stifling," observed Fritz.
"Yes, it puts me in mind of your remark about the air, which, you said, consists of--let me see--"
"Oxygen and hydrogen."
"Just so; but the air a sailor breathes when he is at home consists almost entirely of tobacco smoke. At last, I could make out twenty or thirty rough-looking fellows seated on each side of a long deal table covered with bottles, glasses, and pipes. Dan Hooligan, the landlord, sat at the top--a fit president for such an assembly. He was partly a smuggler, partly a publican, and wholly a sinner. I should say that the liquor consumed at that table did not much good to the revenue. How Dan contrived to escape the laws, was a mystery perhaps best known to the police."
"So you are a pal of One-eyed Dick's, are you?' said he.
"'Rather,' said I, adopting the slang of the place.
"'Well,' said he, 'Dick has been a good customer of mine, and all his pals are welcome at the 'Molly.' I have not seen him lately, however--how goes it with him now?'
"'Right as a trivet,' said I, 'and making lots of rhino.'
"'Glad to hear it; and what latitude does he hail in now?'
"'That,' said I, 'is private and confidential.'
"'Oh,' said he, 'there are no outsiders here, we are all sworn friends of Dick's, every mother's son of us.'
"'Then,' said I, 'Dick is off the Cove in the schooner Nancy, of Brest,'"
"Holloa, Willis," cried Jack, "there was a fib!"
"Well, I told you to look out for something of that sort when I began."
"'What!' cried the landlord, 'Dick in a schooner off the Irish coast?'
"'Yes,' said I; 'and aboard that schooner there is as tight a cargo of brandy and tobacco as ever you set eyes upon.'
"Here the landlord pricked up his ears, and the rest of the company began to listen attentively. The fellow that sat next me coolly told me that both he and Dick had been lagged for horse-stealing, and had subsequently broken out of prison and escaped. He further told me that most of the gentlemen present had been all, one way or another, mixed up with Dick's doings; from which I concluded they were a rare parcel of scamps, and resolved, within myself, to try and bag the whole squad. They were all stout fellows enough, most of them seamen. I thought they might be able to 'do the State some service,' and determined to convert them into honest men, if I could.'
"'Dick cannot come ashore,' said I; 'some one of his old pals here has peached, and there is a warrant out against him.'
"This information threw the assembly into a state of violent commotion. They rose up, and swore terrible vengeance against the head of the unfortunate culprit when they caught him. The oaths rather alarmed me at first, for they were of a most ferocious stamp.
"'Yes,' continued I, 'Dick is aboard the schooner, but, as there are two or three warrants out against him, he does not care about coming ashore; so said he to me, 'We want a lugger and a few hands to run the cargo ashore; and if you look in at the 'Molly,' and see my old pal, Dan, perhaps you will find some lads there willing to give us a turn. The captain said, if the thing was done clean off, he would stand something handsome."
"'Just the thing for us!' shouted half a dozen voices.
"'But the lugger?' said I.
"'Oh, Phil Doolan, at the Cove, has a craft that has landed as many cargoes as there are planks in her hull. Besides, he has stowage for a fleet of East Indiamen.'
"'Well, gentlemen," said I, 'the chaplain, One-eyed Dick, and myself, will be at Phil Doolan's to-morrow at midnight; do you agree to meet us there?'
"This question was answered by a universal 'Yes;' and by way of clenching the affair, I ordered a couple of gallons of the stiffest potheen in the house. This was received with three cheers, and before I left the 'Molly' every man-jack of them had disappeared under the table. Dan himself, however, kept tolerably sober, and promised, on account of his friendship for One-eyed Dick, to have the whole kit safe at Phil Doolan's by twelve o'clock next night, and with this assurance I made my exit from the premises, and steered for the 'George and Dragon.'
"The lieutenant agreed with me in thinking that it would cause too much uproar to attack the 'Molly Bawn.' He congratulated me on my success in laying a trap for the people, and promising to meet me at the Cove, he ordered a car, and drove off in the direction of the Norfolk's boat. Early next morning I started to reconnoitre the ground and organize my plan of operations. I found Phil Doolan's mansion to be a mud-built tenement, larger, and standing apart from, the houses that then constituted the village. It was ostensibly a sailor's lodging-house and tavern for wayfarers, but, like the 'Molly Bawn,' was in reality a rendezvous of smugglers, occasionally patronized by fugitive poachers and patriots. It was known to its familiars as 'The Crib,' but was registered by the authorities as the 'Father Mahony,' who was represented on the sign-post by a full-length portrait of James the Second. What gave me most satisfaction was to observe that the building was conveniently situated for a sack.
"When night set in I marched the Norfolk's men in close order, and as secretly as possible, to the Cove. Approaching Phil Doolan's in one direction, I could just catch a glimpse of the red coats of a file of marines advancing in another, with the lieutenant at their head, and, exactly as twelve o'clock struck on the parish clock, the 'Father Mahony' was surrounded on all sides by armed men. Two or three lanterns were now lit, and dispositions made to close up every avenue of escape."
"'There he is!' cried Willis, interrupting himself, and staring into the air.
"Who?" inquired Jack--"Phil Doolan?"
"No--Bill Stubbs, late of the Nelson."
"That squat, broad-shouldered man there, bracing the maintops."
"Yes, now that you point him out, I think I have seen him before," said Fritz.
"Holloa, Bill," cried Jack.
"You see," said Willis, "he turned his head."
"How d'ye do, Bill?" added Jack.
"Are you speak'ng to me, sir?" inquired the sailor.
"Then was your honor present when I was christened? I appear to have forgotten my name for the last six-and thirty years."
"No use, you see," said Willis; "he is too old a bird to be caught by any of these dodges. But I have lost the thread of my discourse."
"You had surrounded the cabin, and were lighting lamps."
"Half a dozen men were stationed at the door, pistol in hand, ready to rush in as soon as it opened. The lieutenant and I went forward and knocked, but no one answered. We knocked again, louder than before, but still no answer.
"'Open the door, in the King's name!' thundered the lieutenant. Silence, as before.
"Calling to the marines, he ordered them to root up Phil Doolan's sign-post, and use it as a battering ram against the door. The first blow of this machine nearly brought the house down, and a cracked voice was heard calling on the saints inside.
"'Blessed St. Patrick!' croaked the voice, 'whativer are ye kicking up such a shindy out there for? Whativer d'ye want wid an old woman, and niver a livin' sowl in the house 'cept meself and Kathleen in her coffin?'
"'Kathleen is dead, then?' said the lieutenant with a grin.
"'Save yer honor's presence, she's off to glory, an' as dead as a herrin,' replied the voice.
"'Really!' said the lieutenant, 'and where is Phil Doolan?'
"'Och, yer honor? he's gone to get some potheen for the wake.'
"'Well,' said the lieutenant, 'I should like to take a share in waking the defunct--what's her name?'
"'Kathleen, yer honor.'
"'Well, just let us in to take a last look at the worthy creature.'
"The door then creaked on its rusty hinges, and we entered. Not a soul, however, was to be seen anywhere, save and except the old woman herself. The coffin containing the remains of Kathleen, resting on two stools, stood in the middle of the floor, with a plate of salt as usual on the lid. I fairly thought I had been done, and looked upon myself as the laughing stock of the entire fleet."
"So far," remarked Jack, "your story has been all right, but the last episode was rather negligently handled."
"How?" inquired Willis.
"Why, you did not make enough of the coffin scene; your description is too meagre. You should have said, that the wind blew without in fierce gusts, the weathercocks screeched on the roofs, and caused you to dread that the ghost of the defunct was coming down the chimney; large flakes of snow were rushing through the half-open door; a solitary rushlight dimly lit up the chamber, and cast frightful shadows upon the wall."
"Well; but the night was fine, and there was not a breath of wind."
"What about that? A little wind, more or less, a weathercock or so, some drops of rain, or a few flakes of snow, do not materially detract from the truth, whilst they heighten the color of the picture."
"And if some lightning tearing through the clouds were added?"
"Yes, that would most undoubtedly increase the effect; but go on with your story."
"I knew Phil to be an artful dodger, and was determined not to be foiled by a mere trick, so I laid hold of a lantern and closely examined the walls and flooring. My investigation was successful, for just under the coffin I detected traces of a trap-door."
"'Well, my good woman, what have you got down there?" inquired the lieutenant.
"'Is it underground, ye mane, yer honor? divil a hail's there, if it isn't the rats.'
"'Well, just remove the coffin a little aside; we shall see if we cannot pepper some of the rats for you.'
"Here the old woman appealed to a vast number of saints, and protested against Kathleen's remains being disturbed. The lieutenant, however, grew tired of this farce, and ordered the coffin to be shifted. A sailor accordingly laid hold of each end.
"'Blazes!' said one, 'here is a body that weighs.'
"'Perhaps,' said the other, 'the coffin is lined with lead.'
"The trap-door was drawn up, and the lieutenant, pistol in hand, descended alone.
"'Now, my lads,' said he, addressing some invisible personages, 'we know you are here, and I call upon you to yield in the King's name--resistance is useless, the house is surrounded, and we are in force, so you had better give in without more ado.'
"No answer was returned to this exordium; but we heard the murmuring of muffled voices, as if the rapscallions were deliberating. I now descended with my lamp, followed by some of the seamen, and beheld my friends of the night before either stretched on the ground or propped up against the walls, like a lot of mummies in an Egyptian tomb.
"They were handcuffed one by one, pushed or hauled up the stairs, and then tied to one another in a line. When we had secured the whole lot of them in this way--
"'Lieutenant,' said I, winking, 'will you permit me to send a ball into that coffin?'
"'Please yourself about that, young man,' said he.
"Here the old woman recommenced howling again and called upon all the saints in the calendar to punish us for my sacrilegious design.
"'Shoot a dead body,' said I, 'where's the harm?' Besides, what is that salt there for?'
"'To keep away evil spirits,' was the reply.
"'Very well,' said I, 'my pistol will scare them away as well.' Then, cocking it with a loud clink, I presented it slowly at the coffin."
"The lid all at once flew off--the salt-was thrown on the ground with a crash--the defunct suddenly returned from the other world in perfect health, and sat half upright in his bier. I did not recognize the individual at first, but, on closer inspection, found him to be my communicative companion of the preceding night--the horse-stealer of the 'Molly Bawn;' and, being a stout young fellow, he was harnessed to the others, and we commenced our march to the boats."
"You do not appear to have had much trouble in effecting the capture," remarked Fritz.
"No; the men were unarmed, and were nearly all intoxicated. You never saw such a troop; scarcely one of them could walk straight; they assumed all sorts of figures; the file of prisoners was just like a bar of music, it was a string of quavers, crotchets, and zig-zags. Luckily, it was late at night, else we might have had the village about our ears, and, instead of flakes of snow and screeching weathercocks, we might have had a shower of dead cats and rotten eggs. Probably a rescue might have been attempted; at all events, we might have calculated on a volley of brickbats on our way to the boats. There would have been no end of commotion, uproar, confusion, and hubbub, possibly smashed noses, blackened eyes, broken beads--"
"You said just now that a little colouring was necessary."
"Certainly; but the privilege ought not to be abused. Besides, broken heads and smashed faces are the realities, and not the accessories of the picture."
"Oh, I see. If it is night, the moon should be introduced; and if it is day, the sun--and so on?"
"Of course; and, if the circumstances are of a pleasing nature, you must leave horrors and terrors on your pallette; change gusts into zephyrs, snow into roses and violets, and the weathercocks into golden vanes glittering in the sunshine."
"You want to color a popular outbreak, do you not?"
"Then you should introduce a tempest howling, the waves roaring, the lightning flashing, and discord raging in the air as well as on the earth."
"Well, to continue my story. Although it was midnight, the disturbance began to wake up the villagers, and a crowd was collecting, so we hurried off our prisoners to the boats as speedily as we could. Some five and twenty able bodied men were thus added to his Majesty's fleet. The object of our visit to the Irish coast was accomplished, and the Norfolk continued her voyage to the West Indies. Now you know what is meant by the word pressed, and likewise the nautical signification of the word press-gang."
"And you say that Bill Stubbs has been trapped on board this ship by such means?"
"Yes, at New Orleans."
"According to your story, then, that does not say very much in his favor?"
"No, not a great deal; still, that proves nothing--the fact of his calling himself Bob is a worse feature. A man does not generally change his name without having good, or rather bad, reasons for it."
"What appears to me," remarked Fritz, "as the most singular feature of your press-gang adventure is, that you are alive to tell it."
"Because I think it ought to end thus: 'The victims of the press-gang strangled Willis a few days after,'"
"Aye, aye, but you do not know what a sailor is; our recruits had not been a fortnight at sea before they entirely forgot the trick I had played them."
Just as Willis concluded his narrative, the man at the mast-head called out, "Sail ho!"
"Where away?" bawled the captain.
"Right a-head," replied the voice.
The Hoboken had hitherto pursued her voyage uninterruptedly, and the Yankee captain now prepared to signalize himself by a capture.