Mr. Midshipman Easy/Chapter 10
Showing how Jack transgresses against his own philosophy.
When Jack Easy had gained the deck, he found the sun shining gaily, a soft air blowing from the shore, and the whole of the rigging and every part of the ship loaded with the shirts, trousers, and jackets of the seamen, which had been wetted during the heavy gale, and were now hanging up to dry; all the wet sails were also spread on the booms or triced up in the rigging, and the ship was slowly forging through the blue water. The captain and first lieutenant were standing on the gangway in converse, and the majority of the officers were with their quadrants and sextants ascertaining the latitude at noon. The decks were white and clean, the sweepers had just laid by their brooms, and the men were busy coiling down the ropes. It was a scene of cheerfulness, activity, and order, which tightened his heart after the four days of suffering, close air, and confinement, from which he had just emerged.
The captain, who perceived him, beckoned to him, asked him kindly how he felt: the first lieutenant also smiled upon him, and many of the officers, as well as his messmates, congratulated him upon his recovery.
The captain's steward came up to him, touched his hat, and requested the pleasure of his company to dinner in the cabin. Jack was the essence of politeness, took off his hat, and accepted the invitation. Jack was standing on a rope which a seaman was coiling down; the man touched his hat and requested he would be so kind as to take his foot off. Jack took his hat off his head in return, and his foot off the rope. The master touched his hat, and reported twelve o'clock to the first lieutenant—the first lieutenant touched his hat, and reported twelve o'clock to the captain—the captain touched his hat, and told the first lieutenant to make it so. The officer of the watch touched his hat, and asked the captain whether they should pipe to dinner— the captain touched his hat, and said—"If you please."
The midshipman received his orders, and touched his hat, which he gave to the head boatswain's mate, who touched his hat, and then the calls whistled cheerily.
"Well," thought Jack, "politeness seems to be the order of the day, and everyone has an equal respect for the other." Jack stayed on deck; he peeped through the ports, which were open, and looked down into the deep blue wave; he cast his eyes aloft, and watched the tall spars sweeping and tracing with their points, as it were, a small portion of the clear sky, as they acted in obedience to the motion of the vessel; he looked forward at the range of carronades which lined the sides of the deck, and then he proceeded to climb one of the carronades, and lean over the hammocks to gaze on the distant land.
"Young gentleman, get off those hammocks," cried the master, who was officer of the watch, in a surly tone.
Jack looked round. "Do you hear me, sir? I'm speaking to you," said the master again. Jack felt very indignant, and he thought that politeness was not quite so general as he supposed.
It happened that Captain Wilson was upon deck. "Come here, Mr Easy," said the captain; "it is a rule in the service, that no one gets on the hammocks, unless in case of emergency—I never do—nor the first lieutenant—nor any of the officers or men,—therefore, upon the principle of equality, you must not do it either."
"Certainly not, sir," replied Jack, "but still I do not see why that officer in the shining hat should be so angry, and not speak to me as if I were a gentleman, as well as himself."
"I have already explained that to you, Mr Easy."
"O yes, I recollect now, it's zeal: but this zeal appears to me to be the only unpleasant thing in the service. It's a pity, as you said, that the service cannot do without it."
Captain Wilson laughed, and walked away; and shortly afterwards, as he turned up and down the deck with the master, he hinted to him, that he should not speak so sharply to a lad who had committed such a trifling error through ignorance. Now Mr Smallsole, the master, who was a surly sort of a personage, and did not like even a hint of disapprobation of his conduct, although very regardless of the feeling of others, determined to pay this off on Jack, the very first convenient opportunity. Jack dined in the cabin, and was very much pleased to find that everyone drank wine with him, and that everybody at the captain's table appeared to be on an equality. Before the dessert had been on the table five minutes, Jack became loquacious on his favourite topic; all the company stared with surprise at such an unheard-of doctrine being broached on board of a man-of-war; the captain argued the point, so as to controvert, without too much offending, Jack's notions, laughing the whole time that the conversation was carried on.
It will be observed, that this day may be considered as the first in which Jack really made his appearance on board, and it also was on this first day that Jack made known, at the captain's table, his very peculiar notions. If the company at the captain's table, which consisted of the second lieutenant, purser, Mr Jolliffe, and one of the midshipmen, were astonished at such heterodox opinions being stated in the presence of the captain, they were equally astonished at the cool, good-humoured ridicule with which they were received by Captain Wilson. The report of Jack's boldness, and every word and opinion that he had uttered (of course much magnified) was circulated that evening through the whole ship; it was canvassed in the gun-room by the officers; it was descanted upon by the midshipmen as they walked the deck; the captain's steward held a levee abreast of the ship's funnel, in which he narrated this new doctrine. The sergeant of marines gave his opinion in his berth, that it was damnable. The boatswain talked over the matter with the other warrant officers, till the grog was all gone, and then dismissed it as too dry a subject: and it was the general opinion of the ship's company, that as soon as they arrived at Gibraltar Bay, our hero would bid adieu to the service, either by being sentenced to death by a court-martial, or by being dismissed, and towed on shore on a grating. Others, who had more of the wisdom of the serpent, and who had been informed by Mr Sawbridge that our hero was a lad who would inherit a large property, argued differently, and considered that Captain Wilson had very good reason for being so lenient—and among them was the second lieutenant. There were but four who were well inclined towards Jack,—to wit, the captain, the first lieutenant, Mr Jolliffe, the one-eyed master's mate, and Mephistopheles, the black, who, having heard that Jack had uttered such sentiments, loved him with all his heart and soul.
We have referred to the second lieutenant, Mr Asper. This young man had a very high respect for birth, and particularly for money, of which he had very little. He was the son of an eminent merchant who, during the time that he was a midshipman, had allowed him a much larger sum for his expenses than was necessary or proper; and, during his career, he found that his full pocket procured him consequence, not only among his own messmates, but also with many of the officers of the ships that he sailed in. A man who is able and willing to pay a large tavern bill will always find followers—that is, to the tavern; and lieutenants did not disdain to dine, walk arm-in-arm, and be "hail fellow well met" with a midshipman, at whose expense they lived during the time they were on shore. Mr Asper had just received his commission and appointment, when his father became a bankrupt, and the fountain was dried up from which he had drawn such liberal supplies. Since that, Mr Asper had felt that his consequence was gone: he could no longer talk about the service being a bore, or that he should give it up; he could no longer obtain that deference paid to his purse, and not to himself; and he had contracted very expensive habits, without having any longer the means of gratifying them. It was therefore no wonder that he imbibed a great respect for money; and, as he could no longer find the means himself, he was glad to pick up anybody else at whose cost he could indulge in that extravagance and expense to which he had been so long accustomed, and still sighed for. Now, Mr Asper knew that our hero was well supplied with money, as he had obtained from the waiter the amount of the bill paid at the Fountain, and he had been waiting for Jack's appearance on deck to become his very dearest and most intimate friend. The conversation in the cabin made him feel assured that Jack would require and be grateful for support, and he had taken the opportunity of a walk with Mr Sawbridge, to offer to take Jack in his watch. Whether it was that Mr Sawbridge saw through the design of Mr Asper, or whether he imagined that our hero would be better pleased with him than with the master, considering his harshness of deportment; or with himself, who could not, as first lieutenant, overlook any remission of duty, the offer was accepted, and Jack Easy was ordered, as he now entered upon his duties, to keep watch under Lieutenant Asper.
But not only was this the first day that Jack may be said to have appeared in the service, but it was the first day in which he had entered the midshipman's berth, and was made acquainted with his messmates.
We have already mentioned Mr Jolliffe, the master's mate, but we must introduce him more particularly. Nature is sometimes extremely arbitrary, and never did she show herself more so than in insisting that Mr Jolliffe should have the most sinister expression of countenance that ever had been looked upon.
He had suffered martyrdom with the small-pox, which probably had contracted his lineaments: his face was not only deeply pitted, but scarred with this cruel disorder. One eye had been lost, and all eyebrows had disappeared—and the contrast between the dull, sightless, opaque orb on one side of his face, and the brilliant, piercing little ball on the other, was almost terrifying. His nose had been eaten away by the disease till it formed a sharp but irregular point; part of the muscles of the chin were contracted, and it was drawn in with unnatural seams and puckers. He was tall, gaunt, and thin, seldom smiled, and when he did, the smile produced a still further distortion.
Mr Jolliffe was the son of a warrant officer. He did not contract this disease until he had been sent out to the West Indies, where it swept away hundreds. He had now been long in the service, with little or no chance of promotion. He had suffered from indigence, from reflections upon his humble birth, from sarcasms on his appearance. Every contumely had been heaped upon him at one time or another, in the ships in which he served; among a crowd he had found himself desolate—and now, although no one dared treat him to his face with disrespect, he was only respected in the service from a knowledge of his utility and exemplary performance of his duties—he had no friends or even companions. For many years he had retired within himself, he had improved by reading and study, had felt all the philanthropy of a Christian, and extended it towards others. Silent and reserved, he seldom spoke in the berth, unless his authority, as caterer, was called for; all respected Mr Jolliffe, but no one liked, as a companion, one at whose appearance the very dogs would bark. At the same time every one acknowledged his correct behaviour in every point, his sense of justice, his forbearance, his kindness, and his good sense. With him life was indeed a pilgrimage, and he wended his way in all Christian charity and all Christian zeal.
In all societies, however small they may be, provided that they do but amount to half-a-dozen, you will invariably meet with a bully. And it is also generally the case that you will find one of that society who is more or less the butt. You will discover this even in occasional meetings, such as a dinner-party, the major part of which have never met before.
Previous to the removal of the cloth, the bully will have shown himself by his dictatorial manner, and will also have selected the one upon whom he imagines that he can best practise. In a midshipman's berth, this fact has become almost proverbial, although now perhaps it is not attended with that disagreeable despotism which was permitted at the time that our hero entered the service.
The bully of the midshipman's berth of H.M. sloop Harpy was a young man about seventeen, with light, curly hair, and florid countenance, the son of the clerk in the dockyard at Plymouth, and his name was Vigors.
The butt was a pudding-faced Tartar-physiognomied boy of fifteen, whose intellects, with fostering, if not great, might at least have been respectable, had he not lost all confidence in his own powers from the constant jeers and mockeries of those who had a greater fluency of speech without perhaps so much real power of mind. Although slow, what he learnt he invariably retained. This lad's name was Gossett. His father was a wealthy yeoman of Lynn, in Norfolk. There were at the time but three other midshipmen in the ship, of whom it can only be said that they were like midshipmen in general, with little appetite for learning, but good appetites for dinner, hating everything like work, fond of everything like fun, fightingone minute, and sworn friends the next—with general principles of honour and justice, but which were occasionally warped according to circumstances; with all the virtues and vices so heterogeneously jumbled and heaped together, that it was almost impossible to ascribe any action to its true motive, and to ascertain to what point their vice was softened down into almost a virtue, and their virtues from mere excess degenerated into vice. Their names were O'Connor, Mills, and Gascoigne. The other shipmates of our hero it will be better to introduce as they appear on the stage.
After Jack had dined in the cabin, he followed his messmates Jolliffe and Gascoigne down into the midshipmen's berth.
"I say, Easy," observed Gascoigne, "you are a devilish free and easy sort of a fellow, to tell the captain that you considered yourself as great a man as he was."
"I beg your pardon," replied Jack, "I did not argue individually, but generally, upon the principles of the rights of man."
"Well," replied Gascoigne, "it's the first time I ever heard a middy do such a bold thing; take care your rights of man don't get you in the wrong box—there's no arguing on board of a man-of-war. The captain took it amazingly easy, but you'd better not broach that subject too often."
"Gascoigne gives you very good advice, Mr Easy," observed Jolliffe; "allowing that your ideas are correct, which it appears to me they are not, or at least impossible to be acted upon, there is such a thing as prudence, and however much this question may be canvassed on shore, in his Majesty's service it is not only dangerous in itself, but will be very prejudicial to you."
"Man is a free agent," replied Easy.
"I'll be shot if a midshipman is," replied Gascoigne, laughing, aloud "that you'll soon find."
"And yet it was in the expectation of finding that equality that I was induced to come to sea."
"On the first of April, I presume," replied Gascoigne. "But are you really serious?"
Hereupon Jack entered into a long argument, to which Jolliffe and Gascoigne listened without interruption, and Mesty with admiration; at the end of it, Gascoigne laughed heartily, and Jolliffe sighed.
"From whence did you learn all this?" inquired Jolliffe.
"From my father, who is a great philosopher, and has constantly upheld these opinions."
"And did your father wish you to go to sea?"
"No, he was opposed to it," replied Jack, "but of course he could not combat my right and free-will."
"Mr Easy, as a friend," replied Jolliffe, "I request that you would as much as possible keep your opinions to yourself. I shall have an opportunity of talking to you on the subject and will then explain to you my reasons."
As soon as Mr Jolliffe had ceased, down came Mr Vigors and O'Connor, who had heard the news of Jack's heresy.
"You do not know Mr Vigors and Mr O'Connor," said Jolliffe to Easy.
Jack, who was the essence of politeness, rose and bowed, at which the others took their seats, without returning the salutation. Vigors had, from what he had heard and now seen of Easy, thought he had somebody else to play upon, and without ceremony he commenced.
"So, my chap, you are come on board to raise a mutiny here with your equality—you came off scot free at the captain's table; but it won't do, I can tell you, even in the midshipman's berth: some must knock under, and you are one of them."
"If, sir," replied Easy, "you mean by knock under, that I must submit, I can assure you that you are mistaken. Upon the same principle that I would never play the tyrant to those weaker than myself, so will I resent oppression if attempted."
"Damme, but he's a regular sea lawyer already: however, my boy, we'll soon put your mettle to the proof."
"Am I then to infer that I am not on an equality with my messmates?" replied Jack, looking at Jolliffe. The latter was about to answer him, but Vigors interrupted.
"Yes, you are on an equality as far as this, that you have an equal right to the berth, if you are not knocked out of it for insolence to your masters; that you have an equal share to pay for the things purchased for the mess, and an equal right to have your share, provided you can get it; you have an equal right to talk, provided you are not told to hold your tongue. The fact is, you have an equal right with everyone else to do as you can, get what you can, and say what you can, always provided that you can do it; for here the weakest goes to the wall, and that is midshipman's berth equality. Now, do you understand all that; or will you wait for a practical illustration?"
"I am then to infer that the equality here is as much destroyed as it even will be among savages, where the strong oppress the weak, and the only law is club law—in fact, much the same as it is at a public or large school, on shore?"
"I suspect you are right for once. You were at a public school: how did they treat you there?"
"As you propose treating people here—the weakest went to the wall."
"Well, then, a nod's as good as a wink to a blind horse, that's all, my hearty," said Vigors.
But the hands being turned up, "Shorten sail" put an end to the altercation for the present.
As our hero had not yet received orders to go to his duty, he remained below with Mesty.
"By de powers, Massa Easy, but I lub you with my hole soul," said Mesty. "By Jasus, you really tark fine, Massa Easy; dat Mr Vigor—nebber care for him, wouldn't you help him—and sure you would," continued the black, feeling the muscle of Jack's arm. "By the soul of my fader, I'd bet my week's allowance on you anyhow. Nebber be 'fraid, Massa Easy."
"I am not afraid," replied Jack; "I've thrashed bigger fellows than he"; and Jack's assertion was true. Mr Bonnycastle never interfered in a fair fight, and took no notice of black eyes, provided the lessons there well said. Jack had fought and fought again, until he was a very good bruiser, and although not so tall as Vigors, he was much better built for fighting. A knowing Westminster boy would have bet his half-crown upon Jack had he seen him and his anticipated adversary.
The constant battles which Jack was obliged to fight at school had been brought forward by Jack against his father's arguments in favour of equality, but they had been overruled by Mr Easy's pointing out that the combats of boys had nothing to do with the rights of man.
As soon as the watch was called, Vigors, O'Connor, Gossett, and Gascoigne came down into the berth. Vigors, who was the strongest in the berth, except Jolliffe, had successively had his superiority acknowledged, and, when on deck, he had talked of Easy's impertinence, and his intention of bringing him to his senses. The others, therefore, came down to see the fun.
"Well, Mr Easy," observed Vigors, as he came into the berth, "you take after your name, at all events; I suppose you intend to eat the king's provision, and do nothing."
Jack's mettle was already up. "You will oblige me, sir, by minding your own business," replied Jack.
"You impudent blackguard, if you say another word, I'll give you a good thrashing, and knock some of your equality out of you."
"Indeed," replied Jack, who almost fancied himself back at Mr Bonnycastle's; "we'll try that."
Whereupon Jack very coolly divested himself of his upper garments, neckerchief, and shirt, much to the surprise of Mr Vigors, who little contemplated such a proof of decision and confidence, and still more to the delight of the other midshipmen, who would have forfeited a week's allowance to see Vigors well thrashed. Vigors, however, knew that he had gone too far to retreat; he therefore prepared for action; and, when ready, the whole party went out into the steerage to settle the business.
Vigors had gained his assumed authority more by bullying than fighting; others had submitted to him without a sufficient trial; Jack, on the contrary, had won his way up in school by hard and scientific combat; the result, therefore, may easily be imagined. In less than a quarter of an hour Vigors, beaten dead, with his eyes closed, and three teeth out, gave in: while Jack, after a basin of water, looked as fresh as ever, with the exception of a few trifling scratches.
The news of this victory was soon through the ship; and before Jack had resumed his clothes it had been told confidentially by Sawbridge to the captain.
"So soon!" said Captain Wilson, laughing; "I expected that a midshipman's berth would do wonders; but I did not expect this yet awhile. This victory is the first severe blow to Mr Easy's equality, and will be more valuable than twenty defeats. Let him now go to his duty, he will soon find his level."