A Simpleton by Charles Reade
He told her he had come to thank her for her great kindness, and to accept the offer.
She sighed. "I hoped it was to decline it. Think of the misery of separation, both to you and her."
"It will be misery. But we are not happy as it is, and she cannot bear poverty. Nor is it fair she should, when I can give her every comfort by just playing the man for a year or two." He then told Lady Cicely there were more reasons than he chose to mention: go he must, and would; and he implored her not to let the affair drop. In short, he was sad but resolved, and she found she must go on with it, or break faith with him. She took her desk, and wrote a letter concluding the bargain for him. She stipulated for half the year's fee in advance. She read Dr. Staines the letter.
"You are a friend!" said he. "I should never have ventured on that; it will be a godsend to my poor Rosa. You will be kind to her when I am gone?"
"So will Uncle Philip, I think. I will see him before I go, and shake hands. He has been a good friend to me; but he was too hard upon her; and I could not stand that."
Then he thanked and blessed her again, with the tears in his eyes, and left her more disturbed and tearful than she had ever been since she grew to woman. "O cruel poverty!" she thought, "that such a man should be torn from his home, and thank me for doing it-- all for a little money--and here are we poor commonplace creatures rolling in it."
Staines hurried home, and told his wife. She clung to him convulsively, and wept bitterly; but she made no direct attempt to shake his resolution; she saw, by his iron look, that she could only afflict, not turn him.
Next day came Lady Cicely to see her. Lady Cicely was very uneasy in her mind, and wanted to know whether Rosa was reconciled to the separation.
Rosa received her with a forced politeness and an icy coldness that petrified her. She could not stay long in face of such a reception. At parting, she said, sadly, "You look on me as an enemy."
"What else can you expect, when you part my husband and me?" said Rosa, with quiet sternness.
"I meant well," said Lady Cicely sorrowfully; "but I wish I had never interfered."
"So do I," and she began to cry.
Lady Cicely made no answer. She went quietly away, hanging her head sadly.
Rosa was unjust, but she was not rude nor vulgar; and Lady Cicely's temper was so well governed that it never blinded her heart. She withdrew, but without the least idea of quarrelling with her afflicted friend, or abandoning her. She went quietly home, and wrote to Lady ----, to say that she should be glad to receive Dr. Staines's advance as soon as convenient, since Mrs. Staines would have to make fresh arrangements, and the money might be useful.
The money was forthcoming directly. Lady Cicely brought it to Dear Street, and handed it to Dr. Staines. His eyes sparkled at the sight of it.
"Give my love to Rosa," said she softly, and cut her visit very short.
Staines took the money to Rosa, and said, "See what our best friend has brought us. You shall have four hundred, and I hope, after the bitter lessons you have had, you will be able to do with that for some months. The two hundred I shall keep as a reserve fund for you to draw on."
"No, no!" said Rosa. "I shall go and live with my father, and never spend a penny. O Christie, if you knew how I hate myself for the folly that is parting us! Oh, why don't they teach girls sense and money, instead of music and the globes?"
But Christopher opened a banking account for her, and gave her a check-book, and entreated her to pay everything by check, and run no bills whatever; and she promised. He also advertised the Bijou, and put a bill in the window: "The lease of this house, and the furniture, to be sold."
Rosa cried bitterly at sight of it, thinking how high in hope they were, when they had their first dinner there, and also when she went to her first sale to buy the furniture cheap.
And now everything moved with terrible rapidity. The Amphitrite was to sail from Plymouth in five days; and, meantime, there was so much to be done, that the days seemed to gallop away.
Dr. Staines forgot nothing. He made his will in duplicate, leaving all to his wife; he left one copy at Doctors' Commons and another with his lawyer; inventoried all his furniture and effects in duplicate, too; wrote to Uncle Philip, and then called on him to seek a reconciliation. Unfortunately, Dr. Philip was in Scotland. At last this sad pair went down to Plymouth together, there to meet Lord Tadcaster and go on board H.M.S. Amphitrite, lying out at anchor, under orders for the Australian Station.
They met at the inn, as appointed; and sent word of their arrival on board the frigate, asking to remain on shore till the last minute.
Dr. Staines presented his patient to Rosa; and after a little while drew him apart and questioned him professionally. He then asked for a private room. Here he and Rosa really took leave; for what could the poor things say to each other on a crowded quay? He begged her forgiveness, on his knees, for having once spoken harshly to her, and she told him, with passionate sobs, he had never spoken harshly to her; her folly it was had parted them.
Poor wretches! they clung together with a thousand vows of love and constancy. They were to pray for each other at the same hours: to think of some kind word or loving act, at other stated hours; and so they tried to fight with their suffering minds against the cruel separation; and if either should die, the other was to live wedded to memory, and never listen to love from other lips; but no! God was pitiful; He would let them meet again ere long, to part no more. They rocked in each other's arms; they cried over each other--it was pitiful.
At last the cruel summons came; they shuddered, as if it was their death-blow. Christopher, with a face of agony, was yet himself, and would have parted then: and so best. But Rosa could not. She would see the last of him, and became almost wild and violent when he opposed it.
Then he let her come with him to Milbay Steps; but into the boat he would not let her step.
The ship's boat lay at the steps, manned by six sailors, all seated, with their oars tossed in two vertical rows. A smart middy in charge conducted them, and Dr. Staines and Lord Tadcaster got in, leaving Rosa, in charge of her maid, on the quay.
"Shove off"--"Down"--"Give way."
Each order was executed so swiftly and surely that, in as many seconds, the boat was clear, the oars struck the water with a loud splash, and the husband was shot away like an arrow, and the wife's despairing cry rang on the stony quay, as many a poor woman's cry had rung before.
In half a minute the boat shot under the stern of the frigate.
They were received on the quarter-deck by Captain Hamilton: he introduced them to the officers--a torture to poor Staines, to have his mind taken for a single instant from his wife--the first lieutenant came aft, and reported, "Ready for making sail, sir."
Staines seized the excuse, rushed to the other side of the vessel, leaned over the taffrail, as if he would fly ashore, and stretched out his hands to his beloved Rosa; and she stretched out her hands to him. They were so near, he could read the expression of her face. It was wild and troubled, as one who did not yet realize the terrible situation, but would not be long first.
"Hands make sail--away, aloft--up anchor"--rang in Christopher's ear, as if in a dream. All his soul and senses were bent on that desolate young creature. How young and amazed her lovely face! Yet this bewildered child was about to become a mother. Even a stranger's heart might have yearned with pity for her: how much more her miserable husband's!
The capstan was manned, and worked to a merry tune that struck chill to the bereaved; yards were braced for casting, anchor hove, catted, and fished, sail was spread with amazing swiftness, the ship's head dipped, and slowly and gracefully paid off towards the breakwater, and she stood out to sea under swiftly-swelling canvas and a light north-westerly breeze.
Staines only felt the motion: his body was in the ship, his soul with his Rosa. He gazed, he strained his eyes to see her eyes, as the ship glided from England and her. While he was thus gazing and trembling all over, up came to him a smart second lieutenant, with a brilliant voice that struck him like a sword. "Captain's orders to show you berths; please choose for Lord Tadcaster and yourself."
The man's wild answer made the young officer stare. "Oh, sir! not now--try and do my duty when I have quite lost her--my poor wife--a child--a mother--there--sir--on the steps--there!--there!"
Now this officer always went to sea singing "Oh be joyful." But a strong man's agony, who can make light of it? It was a revelation to him; but he took it quickly. The first thing he did, being a man of action, was to dash into his cabin, and come back with a short, powerful double glass. "There!" said he roughly, but kindly, and shoved it into Staines's hand. He took it, stared at it stupidly, then used it, without a word of thanks, so wrapped was he in his anguish.
This glass prolonged the misery of that bitter hour. When Rosa could no longer tell her husband from another, she felt he was really gone, and she threw her hands aloft, and clasped them above her head, with the wild abandon of a woman who could never again be a child; and Staines saw it, and a sharp sigh burst from him, and he saw her maid and others gather round her. He saw the poor young thing led away, with her head all down, as he had never seen her before, and supported to the inn; and then he saw her no more.
His heart seemed to go out of his bosom in search of her, and leave nothing but a stone behind: he hung over the taffrail like a dead thing. A steady foot-fall slapped his ear. He raised his white face and filmy eyes, and saw Lieutenant Fitzroy marching to and fro like a sentinel, keeping everybody away from the mourner, with the steady, resolute, business-like face of a man in whom sentiment is confined to action; its phrases and its flourishes being literally terra incognita to the honest fellow.
Staines staggered towards him, holding out both hands, and gasped out, "God bless you. Hide me somewhere--must not be seen so--got duty to do--Patient--can't do it yet--one hour to draw my breath-- oh, my God, my God!--one hour, sir. Then do my duty, if I die--as you would."
Fitzroy tore him down into his own cabin, shut him in and ran to the first lieutenant, with a tear in his eye. "Can I have a sentry, sir?"
"Sentry! What for?"
"The doctor--awfully cut up at leaving his wife: got him in my cabin. Wants to have his cry to himself."
"Fancy a fellow crying at going to sea!"
"It is not that, sir; it is leaving his wife."
"Well, is he the only man on board that has got a wife?"
"Why, no, sir. It is odd, now I think of it. Perhaps he has only got that one."
"Curious creatures, landsmen," said the first lieutenant. "However, you can stick a marine there."
"And I say, show the youngster the berths, and let him choose, as the doctor's aground."
So Fitzoy planted his marine, and then went after Lord Tadcaster: he had drawn up alongside his cousin, Captain Hamilton. The captain, being an admirer of Lady Cicely, was mighty civil to his little lordship, and talked to him more than was his wont on the quarterdeck; for though he had a good flow of conversation, and dispensed with ceremony in his cabin, he was apt to be rather short on deck. However, he told little Tadcaster he was fortunate; they had a good start, and, if the wind held, might hope to be clear of the Channel in twenty-four hours. "You will see Eddystone lighthouse about four bells," said he.
"Shall we go out of sight of land altogether?" inquired his lordship.
"Of course we shall, and the sooner the better." He then explained to the novice that the only danger to a good ship was from the land.
While Tadcaster was digesting this paradox, Captain Hamilton proceeded to descant on the beauties of blue water and its fine medicinal qualities, which, he said, were particularly suited to young gentlemen with bilious stomachs, but presently, catching sight of Lieutenant Fitzroy standing apart, but with the manner of a lieutenant not there by accident, he stopped, and said, civilly but smartly, "Well, sir?"
Fitzroy came forward directly, saluted, and said he had orders from the first lieutenant to show Lord Tadcaster the berths. His lordship must be good enough to choose, because the doctor-- couldn't.
"Brought to, sir--for the present--by--well, by grief."
"Brought to by grief! Who the deuce is grief? No riddles on the quarter-deck, if you please, sir."
"Oh no, sir. I assure you he is awfully cut up; and he is having his cry out in my cabin."
"Having his cry out! why, what for?"
"Leaving his wife, sir."
"Oh, is that all?"
"Well, I don't wonder," cried little Tadcaster warmly. "She is, oh, so beautiful!" and a sudden blush o'erspread his pasty cheeks. "Why on earth didn't we bring her along with us here?" said he, suddenly opening his eyes with astonishment at the childish omission.
"Why, indeed?" said the captain comically, and dived below, attended by the well-disciplined laughter of Lieutenant Fitzroy, who was too good an officer not to be amused at his captain's jokes. Having acquitted himself of that duty--and it is a very difficult one sometimes--he took Lord Tadcaster to the main-deck, and showed him two comfortable sleeping-berths that had been screened off for him and Dr. Staines; one of these was fitted with a standing bed-place, the other had a cot swung in it. Fitzroy offered him the choice, but hinted that he himself preferred a cot.
"No, thank you," says my lord mighty dryly.
"All right," said Fitzroy cheerfully. "Take the other, then, my lord."
His little lordship cocked his eye like a jackdaw, and looked almost as cunning. "You see," said he, "I have been reading up for this voyage."
"Oh, indeed! Logarithms?"
"Of course not."
"Why, 'Peter Simple'--to be sure."
"Ah, ha!" said Fitzroy, with a chuckle that showed plainly he had some delicious reminiscences of youthful study in the same quarter.
The little lord chuckled too, and put one finger on Fitzroy's shoulder, and pointed at the cot with another. "Tumble out the other side, you know--slippery hitches--cords cut--down you come flop in the middle of the night."
Fitzroy's eye flashed merriment: but only for a moment. His countenance fell the next. "Lord bless you," said he sorrowfully, "all that game is over now. Her Majesty's ship!--it is a church afloat. The service is going to the devil, as the old fogies say."
"Ain't you sorry?" says the little lord, cocking his eye again like the bird hereinbefore mentioned.
"Of course I am."
"Then I'll take the standing bed."
"All right. I say, you don't mind the doctor coming down with a run, eh?"
"He is not ill: I am. He is paid to take care of me: I am not paid to take care of him," said the young lord sententiously.
"I understand," replied Fitzroy, dryly. "Well, every one for himself, and Providence for us all--as the elephant said when he danced among the chickens."
Here my lord was summoned to dine with the captain. Staines was not there; but he had not forgotten his duty; in the midst of his grief he had written a note to the captain, hoping that a bereaved husband might not seem to desert his post if he hid for a few hours the sorrow he felt himself unable to control. Meantime he would be grateful if Captain Hamilton would give orders that Lord Tadcaster should eat no pastry, and drink only six ounces of claret, otherwise he should feel that he was indeed betraying his trust.
The captain was pleased and touched with this letter. It recalled to him how his mother sobbed when she launched her little middy, swelling with his first cocked hat and dirk.
There was champagne at dinner, and little Tadcaster began to pour out a tumbler. "Hold on!" said Captain Hamilton; "you are not to drink that;" and he quietly removed the tumbler. "Bring him six ounces of claret."
While they were weighing the claret with scientific precision, Tadcaster remonstrated; and, being told it was the doctor's order, he squeaked out, "Confound him! why did not he stay with his wife? She is beautiful." Nor did he give it up without a struggle. "Here's hospitality!" said he. "Six ounces!"
Receiving no reply, he inquired of the third lieutenant, which was generally considered the greatest authority in a ship--the captain, or the doctor.
The third lieutenant answered not, but turned his head away, and, by violent exertion, succeeded in not splitting.
"I'll answer that," said Hamilton politely. "The captain is the highest in his department, and the doctor in his: now Doctor Staines is strictly within his department, and will be supported by me and my officers. You are bilious, and epileptical, and all the rest of it, and you are to be cured by diet and blue water."
Tadcaster was inclined to snivel: however, he subdued that weakness with a visible effort, and, in due course, returned to the charge. "How would you look," quavered he, "if there was to be a mutiny in this ship of yours, and I was to head it?'
"Well, I should look sharp--hang all the ringleaders at the yardarm, clap the rest under hatches, and steer for the nearest prison."
"Oh!" said Tadcaster, and digested this scheme a bit. At last he perked up again, and made his final hit. "Well, I shouldn't care, for one, if you didn't flog us."
"In that case," said Captain Hamilton, "I'd flog you--and stop your six ounces."
"Then curse the sea; that is all I say."
"Why, you have not seen it; you have only seen the British Channel." It was Mr. Fitzroy who contributed this last observation.
After dinner all but the captain went on deck, and saw the Eddystone lighthouse ahead and to leeward. They passed it. Fitzroy told his lordship its story, and that of its unfortunate predecessors. Soon after this Lord Tadcaster turned in.
Presently the captain observed a change in the thermometer, which brought him on deck. He scanned the water and the sky, and as these experienced commanders have a subtle insight into the weather, especially in familiar latitudes, he remarked to the first lieutenant that it looked rather unsettled; and, as a matter of prudence, ordered a reef in the topsails, and the royal yards to be sent down: ship to be steered W. by S. This done, he turned in, but told them to call him if there was any change in the weather.
During the night the wind gradually headed; and at four bells in the middle watch a heavy squall came up from the south-west.
This brought the captain on deck again: he found the officer of the watch at his post, and at work. Sail was shortened, and the ship made snug for heavy weather.
At four A.M. it was blowing hard, and, being too near the French coast, they wore the ship.
Now, this operation was bad for little Tadcaster. While the vessel was on the starboard tack, the side kept him snug; but, when they wore her, of course he had no leeboard to keep him in. The ship gave a lee-lurch, and shot him clean out of his bunk into the middle of the cabin.
He shrieked and shrieked, with terror and pain, till the captain and Staines, who were his nearest neighbors, came to him, and they gave him a little brandy, and got him to bed again. Here he suffered nothing but violent seasickness for some hours. As for Staines, he had been swinging heavily in his cot; but such was his mental distress that he would have welcomed seasickness, or any reasonable bodily suffering. He was in that state when the sting of a wasp is a touch of comfort.
Worn out with sickness, Tadcaster would not move. Invited to breakfast, he swore faintly, and insisted on dying in peace. At last exhaustion gave him a sort of sleep, in spite of the motion, which was violent, for it was now blowing great guns, a heavy sea on, and the great waves dirty in color and crested with raging foam.
They had to wear ship again, always a ticklish manoeuvre in weather like this.
A tremendous sea struck her quarter, stove in the very port abreast of which the little lord was lying, and washed him clean out of bed into the lee scuppers, and set all swimming around him.
Didn't he yell, and wash about the cabin, and grab at all the chairs and tables and things that drifted about, nimble as eels, avoiding his grasp!
In rushed the captain, and in staggered Staines. They stopped his "voyage autour de sa chambre," and dragged him into the after saloon.
He clung to them by turns, and begged, with many tears, to be put on the nearest land; a rock would do.
"Much obliged," said the captain; "now is the very time to give rocks a wide berth."
"A dead whale, then--a lighthouse--anything but a beast of a ship."
They pacified him with a little brandy, and for the next twenty- four hours he scarcely opened his mouth, except for a purpose it is needless to dwell on. We can trust to our terrestrial readers' personal reminiscences of lee-lurches, weather-rolls, and their faithful concomitant.
At last they wriggled out of the Channel, and soon after that the wind abated, and next day veered round to the northward, and the ship sailed almost on an even keel. The motion became as heavenly as it had been diabolical, and the passengers came on deck.
Staines had suffered one whole day from sea-sickness, but never complained. I believe it did his mind more good than harm.
As for Tadcaster, he continued to suffer, at intervals, for two days more, but on the fifth day out he appeared with a little pink tinge on his cheek and a wolfish appetite. Dr. Staines controlled his diet severely, as to quality, and, when they had been at sea just eleven days, the physician's heavy heart was not a little lightened by the marvellous change in him. The unthinking, who believe in the drug system, should have seen what a physician can do with air and food, when circumstances enable him to enforce the diet he enjoins. Money will sometimes buy even health, if you avoid drugs entirely, and go another road.
Little Tadcaster went on board, pasty, dim-eyed, and very subject to fits, because his stomach was constantly overloaded with indigestible trash, and the blood in his brain-vessels was always either galloping or creeping, under the first or second effect of stimulants administered, at first, by thoughtless physicians. Behold him now--bronzed, pinky, bright-eyed, elastic; and only one fit in twelve days.
The quarter-deck was hailed from the "look-out" with a cry that is sometimes terrible, but in this latitude and weather welcome and exciting. "Land, ho!"
"Where away?" cried the officer of the watch.
"A point on the lee-bow, sir."
It was the island of Madeira: they dropped anchor in Funchal Roads, furled sails, squared yards, and fired a salute of twenty-one guns for the Portuguese flag.
They went ashore, and found a good hotel, and were no longer dosed, as in former days, with oil, onions, garlic, eggs. But the wine queer, and no madeira to be got.
Staines wrote home to his wife: he told her how deeply he had felt the bereavement; but did not dwell on that; his object being to cheer her. He told her it promised to be a rapid and wonderful cure, and one that might very well give him a fresh start in London. They need not be parted a whole year, he thought. He sent her a very long letter, and also such extracts from his sea journal as he thought might please her. After dinner they inspected the town, and what struck them most was to find the streets paved with flag-stones, and most of the carts drawn by bullocks on sledges. A man every now and then would run forward and drop a greasy cloth in front of the sledge, to lubricate the way.
Next day, after breakfast, they ordered horses; these on inspection, proved to be of excellent breed, either from Australia or America--very rough shod, for the stony roads. Started for the Grand Canal--peeped down that mighty chasm, which has the appearance of an immense mass having been blown out of the centre of the mountain.
They lunched under the great dragon tree near its brink, then rode back admiring the bold mountain scenery. Next morning at dawn, rode on horses up the hill to the convent. Admired the beautiful gardens on the way. Remained a short time; then came down in hand- sleighs--little baskets slung on sledges, guided by two natives; these sledges run down the hill with surprising rapidity, and the men guide them round corners by sticking out a foot to port or starboard.
Embarked at 11.30 A.M.
At 1.30, the men having dined, the ship was got under way for the Cape of Good Hope, and all sail made for a southerly course, to get into the north-east trades.
The weather was now balmy and delightful, and so genial that everybody lived on deck, and could hardly be got to turn in to their cabins, even for sleep.
Dr. Staines became a favorite with the officers. There is a great deal of science on board a modern ship of war, and, of course, on some points Staines, a Cambridge wrangler, and a man of many sciences and books, was an oracle. On others he was quite behind, but a ready and quick pupil. He made up to the navigating officer, and learned, with his help, to take observations. In return he was always at any youngster's service in a trigonometrical problem; and he amused the midshipmen and young lieutenants with analytical tests; some of these were applicable to certain liquids dispensed by the paymaster. Under one of them the port wine assumed some very droll colors and appearances not proper to grape-juice.
One lovely night that the ship clove the dark sea into a blaze of phosphorescence, and her wake streamed like a comet's tail, a waggish middy got a bucketful hoisted on deck, and asked the doctor to analyze that. He did not much like it, but yielded to the general request; and by dividing it into smaller vessels, and dropping in various chemicals, made rainbows and silvery flames and what not. But he declined to repeat the experiment: "No, no; once is philosophy; twice is cruelty. I've slain more than Samson already."
As for Tadcaster, science had no charms for him; but fiction had; and he got it galore; for he cruised about the forecastle, and there the quartermasters and old seamen spun him yarns that held him breathless.
But one day my lord had a fit on the quarter-deck, and a bad one; and Staines found him smelling strong of rum. He represented this to Captain Hamilton. The captain caused strict inquiries to be made, and it came out that my lord had gone among the men, with money in both pockets, and bought a little of one man's grog, and a little of another, and had been sipping the furtive but transient joys of solitary intoxication.
Captain Hamilton talked to him seriously; told him it was suicide.
"Never mind, old boy," said the young monkey; "a short life and a merry one."
Then Hamilton represented that it was very ungentleman-like to go and tempt poor Jack with his money, to offend discipline, and get flogged. "How will you feel, Tadcaster, when you see their backs bleeding under the cat?"
"Oh, d--n it all, George, don't do that," says the young gentleman, all in a hurry.
Then the commander saw he had touched the right chord. So he played on it, till he got Lord Tadcaster to pledge his honor not to do it again.
The little fellow gave the pledge, but relieved his mind as follows: "But it is a cursed tyrannical hole, this tiresome old ship. You can't do what you like in it."
"Well, but no more you can in the grave: and that is the agreeable residence you were hurrying to but for this tiresome old ship."
"Lord! no more you can," said Tadcaster, with sudden candor. "I forgot that."
The airs were very light; the ship hardly moved. It was beginning to get dull, when one day a sail was sighted on the weather-bow, standing to the eastward: on nearing her, she was seen, by the cut of her sails, to be a man-of-war, evidently homeward bound: so Captain Hamilton ordered the main-royal to be lowered (to render signal more visible) and the "demand" hoisted. No notice being taken of this, a gun was fired to draw her attention to the signal. This had the desired effect; down went her main-royal, up went her "number." On referring to the signal book, she proved to be the Vindictive from the Pacific Station.
This being ascertained, Captain Hamilton, being that captain's senior, signalled "Close and prepare to receive letters." In obedience to this she bore up, ran down, and rounded to; the sail in the Amphitrite was also shortened, the maintopsail laid to the mast, and a boat lowered. The captain having finished his despatches, they, with the letter-bags, were handed into the boat, which shoved off, pulled to the lee side of the Vindictive, and left the despatches, with Captain Hamilton's compliments. On its return, both ships made sail on their respective course, exchanging "bon voyage" by signal, and soon the upper sails of the homeward- bounder were seen dipping below the horizon: longing eyes followed her on board the Amphitrite.
How many hurried missives had been written and despatched in that half-hour. But as for Staines, he was a man of forethought, and had a volume ready for his dear wife.
Lord Tadcaster wrote to Lady Cicely Treherne. His epistle, though brief, contained a plum or two.
He wrote: "What with sailing, and fishing, and eating nothing but roast meat, I'm quite another man."
This amused her ladyship a little, but not so much as the postscript, which was indeed the neatest thing in its way she had met with, and she had some experience, too.
"P.S.--I say, Cicely, I think I should like to marry you. Would you mind?"
Let us defy time and space to give you Lady Cicely's reply: "I should enjoy it of all things, Taddy. But, alas! I am too young."
N.B.--She was twenty-seven, and Tad sixteen. To be sure, Tad was four feet eleven, and she was only five feet six and a half.
To return to my narrative (with apologies), this meeting of the vessels caused a very agreeable excitement that day; but a greater was in store. In the afternoon, Tadcaster, Staines, and the principal officers of the ship, being at dinner in the captain's cabin, in came the officer of the watch, and reported a large spar on the weather-bow.
"Well, close it, if you can; and let me know if it looks worth picking up."
He then explained to Lord Tadcaster that, on a cruise, he never liked to pass a spar, or anything that might possibly reveal the fate of some vessel or other.
In the middle of his discourse the officer came in again, but not in the same cool business way: he ran in excitedly, and said, "Captain, the signalman reports it alive!"
"Alive?--a spar! What do you mean? Something alive on it, eh?"
"No, sir; alive itself."
"How can that be? Hail him again. Ask him what it is."
The officer went out, and hailed the signalman at the mast-head. "What is it?"
"Sea-sarpint, I think."
This hail reached the captain's ears faintly. However, he waited quietly till the officer came in and reported it; then he burst out, "Absurd! there is no such creature in the universe. What do you say, Dr. Staines?--It is in your department."
"The universe in my department, captain?"
"Haw! haw! haw!" went Fitzroy and two more.
"No, you rogue, the serpent."
Dr. Staines, thus appealed to, asked the captain if he had ever seen small snakes out at sea.
"Why, of course. Sailed through a mile of them once, in the archipelago."
"Sure they were snakes?"
"Quite sure; and the biggest was not eight feet long."
"Very well, captain; then sea-serpents exist, and it becomes a mere question of size. Now which produces the larger animals in every kind,--land or sea? The grown elephant weighs, I believe, about five tons. The very smallest of the whale tribe weighs ten; and they go as high as forty tons. There are smaller fish than the whale, that are four times as heavy as the elephant. Why doubt, then, that the sea can breed a snake to eclipse the boa- constrictor? Even if the creature had never been seen, I should, by mere reasoning from analogy, expect the sea to produce a serpent excelling the boa-constrictor, as the lobster excels a crayfish of our rivers: see how large things grow at sea! the salmon born in our rivers weighs in six months a quarter of a pound, or less; it goes out to sea, and comes back in one year weighing seven pounds. So far from doubting the large sea-serpents, I believe they exist by the million. The only thing that puzzles me is, why they should ever show a nose above water; they must be very numerous, I think."
Captain Hamilton laughed, and said, "Well, this is new. Doctor, in compliment to your opinion, we will go on deck, and inspect the reptile you think so common." He stopped at the door, and said, "Doctor, the saltcellar is by you. Would you mind bringing it on deck? We shall want a little to secure the animal."
So they all went on deck right merrily.
The captain went up a few ratlines in the mizzen rigging, and looked to windward, laughing all the time: but, all of a sudden, there was a great change in his manner. "Good heavens, it is alive--luff!"
The helmsman obeyed; the news spread like wildfire. Mess kids, grog kids, pipes, were all let fall, and some three hundred sailors clustered on the rigging like bees, to view the long-talked-of monster.
It was soon discovered to be moving lazily along, the propelling part being under water, and about twenty-five feet visible. It had a small head for so large a body, and, as they got nearer, rough scales were seen, ending in smaller ones further down the body. It had a mane, but not like a lion's, as some have pretended. If you have ever seen a pony with a hog-mane, that was more the character of this creature's mane, if mane it was.
They got within a hundred yards of it, and all saw it plainly, scarce believing their senses.
When they could get no nearer for the wind, the captain yielded to that instinct which urges man always to kill a curiosity, "to encourage the rest," as saith the witty Voltaire. "Get ready a gun--best shot in the ship lay and fire it."
This was soon done. Bang went the gun. The shot struck the water close to the brute, and may have struck him under water, for aught I know. Any way, it sorely disturbed him; for he reared into the air a column of serpent's flesh that looked as thick as the maintopmast of a seventy-four, opened a mouth that looked capacious enough to swallow the largest buoy anchor in the ship, and, with a strange grating noise between a bark and a hiss, dived, and was seen no more.
When he was gone, they all looked at one another like men awaking from a dream.
Staines alone took it quite coolly. It did not surprise him in the least. He had always thought it incredible that the boa- constrictor should be larger than any sea-snake. That idea struck him as monstrous and absurd. He noted the sea-serpent in his journal, but with this doubt, "Semble--more like a very large eel."
Next day they crossed the line. Just before noon a young gentleman burst into Staines's cabin, apologizing for want of ceremony; but if Dr. Staines would like to see the line, it was now in sight from the mizzentop.
"Glad of it, sir," said Staines; "collect it for me in the ship's buckets, if you please. I want to send a line to friends at home."
Young gentleman buried his hands in his pockets, walked out in solemn silence, and resumed his position on the lee-side of the quarter-deck.
Nevertheless, this opening, coupled with what he had heard and read, made Staines a little uneasy, and he went to his friend Fitzroy, and said, "Now, look here: I am at the service of you experienced and humorous mariners. I plead guilty at once to the crime of never having passed the line; so, make ready your swabs, and lather me; your ship's scraper, and shave me; and let us get it over. But Lord Tadcaster is nervous, sensitive, prouder than he seems, and I'm not going to have him driven into a fit for all the Neptunes and Amphitrites in creation."
Fitzroy heard him out, then burst out laughing. "Why, there is none of that game in the Royal Navy," said he. "Hasn't been this twenty years."
"I'm so sorry," said Dr. Staines. "If there's a form of wit I revere, it is practical joking."
"Doctor, you are a satirical beggar."
Staines told Tadcaster, and he went forward and chaffed his friend the quartermaster, who was one of the forecastle wits.
"I say, quartermaster, why doesn't Neptune come on board?"
"I wonder what has become of poor old Nep?"
"Gone ashore!" growled the seaman. "Last seen in Rateliff Highway. Got a shop there--lends a shilling in the pound on seamen's advance tickets."
"Oh! and Amphitrite?"
"Married the sexton at Wapping."
"And the Nereids?"
"Neruds!" (scratching his head.) "I harn't kept my eye on them small craft. But I believe they are selling oysters in the port of Leith."
A light breeze carried them across the equator; but soon after they got becalmed, and it was dreary work, and the ship rolled gently, but continuously, and upset Lord Tadcaster's stomach again, and quenched his manly spirit.
At last they were fortunate enough to catch the southeast trade, but it was so languid at first that the ship barely moved through the water, though they set every stitch, and studding sails alow and aloft, till really she was acres of canvas.
While she was so creeping along, a man in the mizzentop noticed an enormous shark gliding steadily in her wake. This may seem a small incident, yet it ran through the ship like wildfire, and caused more or less uneasiness in three hundred stout hearts; so near is every seaman to death, and so strong the persuasion in their superstitious minds, that a shark does not follow a ship pertinaciously without a prophetic instinct of calamity.
Unfortunately, the quartermaster conveyed this idea to Lord Tadcaster, and confirmed it by numerous examples to prove that there was always death at hand when a shark followed the ship.
Thereupon Tadcaster took it into his head that he was under a relapse, and the shark was waiting for his dead body: he got quite low-spirited.
Staines told Fitzroy. Fitzroy said, "Shark be hanged! I'll have him on deck in half an hour." He got leave from the captain: a hook was baited with a large piece of pork, and towed astern by a stout line, experienced old hands attending to it by turns.
The shark came up leisurely, surveyed the bait, and, I apprehend, ascertained the position of the hook. At all events, he turned quietly on his back, sucked the bait off, and retired to enjoy it.
Every officer in the ship tried him in turn, but without success; for, if they got ready for him, and, the moment he took the bait, jerked the rope hard, in that case he opened his enormous mouth so wide that the bait and hook came out clear. But, sooner or later, he always got the bait, and left his captors the hook.
This went on for days, and his huge dorsal fin always in the ship's wake.
Then Tadcaster, who had watched these experiments with hope, lost his spirit and appetite.
Staines reasoned with him, but in vain. Somebody was to die; and, although there were three hundred and more in the ship, he must be the one. At last he actually made his will, and threw himself into Staines's arms, and gave him messages to his mother and Lady Cicely; and ended by frightening himself into a fit.
This roused Staines's pity, and also put him on his mettle. What, science be beaten by a shark!
He pondered the matter with all his might; and at last an idea came to him.
He asked the captain's permission to try his hand. This was accorded immediately, and the ship's stores placed at his disposal very politely, but with a sly, comical grin.
Dr. Staines got from the carpenter some sheets of zinc and spare copper, and some flannel: these he cut into three-inch squares, and soaked the flannel in acidulated water. He then procured a quantity of bell-wire, the greater part of which he insulated by wrapping it round with hot gutta percha. So eager was he, that he did not turn in all night.
In the morning he prepared what he called an electric fuse--he filled a soda-water bottle with gunpowder, attaching some cork to make it buoyant, put in the fuse and bung, made it water-tight, connected and insulated his main wires--enveloped the bottle in pork--tied a line to it, and let the bottle overboard.
The captain and officers shook their heads mysteriously. The tars peeped and grinned from every rope to see a doctor try and catch a shark with a soda-water bottle and no hook; but somehow the doctor seemed to know what he was about, so they hovered round, and awaited the result, mystified, but curious, and showing their teeth from ear to ear.
"The only thing I fear," said Staines, "is that, the moment he takes the bait, he will cut the wire before I can complete the circuit, and fire the fuse."
Nevertheless, there was another objection to the success of the experiment. The shark had disappeared.
"Well," said the captain, "at all events, you have frightened him away."
"No," said little Tadcaster, white as a ghost; "he is only under water, I know; waiting--waiting."
"There he is," cried one in the ratlines.
There was a rush to the taffrail--great excitement.
"Keep clear of me," said Staines quietly but firmly. "It can only be done at the moment before he cuts the wire."
The old shark swam slowly round the bait.
He saw it was something new.
He swam round and round it.
"He won't take it," said one.
"He suspects something."
"Oh, yes, he will take the meat somehow, and leave the pepper. Sly old fox!"
"He has eaten many a poor Jack, that one."
The shark turned slowly on his back, and, instead of grabbing at the bait, seemed to draw it by gentle suction into that capacious throat, ready to blow it out in a moment if it was not all right.
The moment the bait was drawn out of sight, Staines completed the circuit; the bottle exploded with a fury that surprised him and everybody who saw it; a ton of water flew into the air, and came down in spray, and a gory carcass floated, belly uppermost, visibly staining the blue water.
There was a roar of amazement and applause.
The carcass was towed alongside, at Tadcaster's urgent request, and then the power of the explosion was seen. Confined, first by the bottle, then by the meat, then by the fish, and lastly by the water, it had exploded with tenfold power, had blown the brute's head into a million atoms, and had even torn a great furrow in its carcass, exposing three feet of the backbone.
Taddy gloated on his enemy, and began to pick up again from that hour.
The wind improved, and, as usual in that latitude, scarcely varied a point. They had a pleasant time,--private theatricals and other amusements till they got to latitude 26 deg. S. and longitude 27 deg. W. Then the trade wind deserted them. Light and variable winds succeeded.
The master complained of the chronometers, and the captain thought it his duty to verify or correct them; and so shaped his course for the island of Tristan d'Acunha, then lying a little way out of his course. I ought, perhaps, to explain to the general reader that the exact position of this island being long ago established and recorded, it was an infallible guide to go by in verifying a ship's chronometers.
Next day the glass fell all day, and the captain said he should double-reef topsails at nightfall, for something was brewing.
The weather, however, was fine, and the ship was sailing very fast, when, about half an hour before sunset, the mast-head man hailed that there was a bulk of timber in sight, broad on the weather-bow.
The signalman was sent up, and said it looked like a raft.
The captain, who was on deck, levelled his glass at it, and made it out a raft, with a sort of rail to it, and the stump of a mast.
He ordered the officer of the watch to keep the ship as close to the wind as possible. He should like to examine it if he could.
The master represented, respectfully, that it would be unadvisable to beat to windward for that. "I have no faith in our chronometers, sir, and it is important to make the island before dark; fogs rise here so suddenly."
"Very well, Mr. Bolt; then I suppose we must let the raft go."
"Man on the raft to windward!" hailed the signalman.
This electrified the ship. The captain ran up the mizzen rigging, and scanned the raft, now nearly abeam.
"It is a man!" he cried, and was about to alter the ship's course when, at that moment, the signalman hailed again,--
"It is a corpse."
"How d'ye know?"
"By the gulls."
Then succeeded an exciting dialogue between the captain and the master, who, being in his department, was very firm; and went so far as to say he would not answer for the safety of the ship, if they did not sight the land before dark.
The captain said, "Very well," and took a turn or two. But at last he said, "No. Her Majesty's ship must not pass a raft with a man on it, dead or alive."
He then began to give the necessary orders; but before they were all out of his mouth, a fatal interruption occurred.
Tadcaster ran into Dr. Staines's cabin, crying, "A raft with a corpse close by!"
Staines sprang to the quarter port to see, and craning eagerly out, the lower port chain, which had not been well secured, slipped, the port gave way, and as his whole weight rested on it, canted him headlong into the sea.
A smart seaman in the forechains saw the accident, and instantly roared out, "Man overboard!" a cry that sends a thrill through a ship's very ribs.
Another smart fellow cut the life-buoy adrift so quickly that it struck the water within ten yards of Staines.
The officer of the watch, without the interval of half a moment, gave the right orders, in the voice of a stentor;
"Let go life-buoy.
"Life-boat's crew away.
"Hands shorten sail.
"Main topsel to mast."
These orders were executed with admirable swiftness. Meantime there was a mighty rush of feet throughout the frigate, every hatchway was crammed with men eager to force their way on deck.
In five seconds the middy of the watch and half her crew were in the lee cutter, fitted with Clifford's apparatus.
"Lower away!" cried the excited officer; "the others will come down by the pendants."
The man stationed, sitting on the bottom boards, eased away roundly, when suddenly there was a hitch--the boat would go no farther.
"Lower away there in the cutter! Why don't you lower?" screamed the captain, who had come over to leeward expecting to see the boat in the water.
"The rope has swollen, sir, and the pendants won't unreeve," cried the middy in agony.
"Volunteers for the weather-boat!" shouted the first lieutenant; but the order was unnecessary, for more than the proper number were in her already.
"Plug in--lower away."
But mishaps never come singly. Scarcely had this boat gone a foot from the davit, than the volunteer who was acting as coxswain, in reaching out for something, inadvertently let go the line, which, in Kynaston's apparatus, keeps the tackles hooked; consequently, down went the boat and crew twenty feet, with a terrific crash; the men were struggling for their lives, and the boat was stove.
But, meantime, more men having been sent into the lee cutter, their weight caused the pendants to render, and the boat got afloat, and was soon employed picking up the struggling crew.
Seeing this, Lieutenant Fitzroy collected some hands, and lowered the life-boat gig, which was fitted with common tackles, got down into her himself by the falls, and pulling round to windward, shouted to the signalman for directions.
The signalman was at his post, and had fixed his eye on the man overboard, as his duty was; but his mess-mate was in the stove boat, and he had cast one anxious look down to see if he was saved, and, sad to relate, in that one moment he had lost sight of Staines; the sudden darkness--there was no twilight--confused him more, and the ship had increased her drift.
Fitzroy, however, made a rapid calculation, and pulled to windward with all his might. He was followed in about a minute by the other sound boat powerfully manned, and both boats melted away into the night.
There was a long and anxious suspense, during which it became pitch dark, and the ship burned blue lights to mark her position more plainly to the crews that were groping the sea for that beloved passenger.
Captain Hamilton had no doubt that the fate of Staines was decided, one way or other, long before this; but he kept quiet until he saw the plain signs of a squall at hand. Then, as he was responsible for the safety of boats and ship, he sent up rockets to recall them.
The cutter came alongside first. Lights were poured on her, and quavering voices asked, "Have you got him?"
The answer was dead silence, and sorrowful, drooping heads.
Sadly and reluctantly was the order given to hoist the boat in.
Then the gig came alongside. Fitzroy seated in her, with his hands before his face; the men gloomy and sad.
Soon the ship was battling a heavy squall.
At midnight all quiet again, and hove to. Then, at the request of many, the bell was tolled, and the ship's company mustered bareheaded, and many a stout seaman in tears, as the last service was read for Christopher Staines.