It was at the close of that war which lost this country the wealthiest and most populous of her American colonies, that a fleet of ships were returning from their service amongst the islands of the New World, to seek for their worn out and battered hulks, and equally weakened crews, the repairs and comforts of England and home.
The latter word, to the mariner the most endearing of all sounds, had, as it were, drawn together by instinct a group of sailors on the forecastle of the proudest ship of the squadron, who gazed with varied emotions on the land which gave them birth, but with one common feeling of joy that the day of attaining it was at length arrived.
The water curled from the bows of this castle of the ocean, in increasing waves and growing murmurs, that at times drew the attention of the veteran tar to their quickening progress, and having cheered his heart with the sight, he cast his experienced eye in silence on the swelling sails, to see if nothing more could be done to shorten the distance between him and his country.
Hundreds of eyes were fixed on the land of their birth, and hundreds of hearts were beating in that one vessel with the awakening delights of domestic love and renewed affections; but no tongue broke the disciplined silence of the ship into sounds that overcame the propitious ripple of the water.
On the highest summit of their towering mast floated a small blue flag, the symbol of authority, and beneath it paced a man to and fro the deck, who was abandoned by his interiors to his more elevated rank. His square-built form and careworn features, which had lost the brilliancy of an English complexion, and hair whitened prematurely, spoke of bodily vigor, and arduous services which had put that vigor to the severest trials.
At each turn of his walk, as he faced the land of his nativity, a lurking smile stole over his sun-burnt features, and then a glance of his eye would scan the progress of the far-stretched squadron which obeyed his orders, and which he was now returning to his superiors, undiminished in numbers, and proud with victory.
By himself stood an officer in a uniform differing from all around him. His figure was small, his eye restless, quick, and piercing, and bent on those shores to which he was unwillingly advancing, with a look of anxiety and mortification, that showed him the late commander of those vessels around them, which, by displaying their double flags, manifested to the eye of the seaman a recent change of masters.
Occasionally the conqueror would stop, and by some effort of well meant, but rather uncouth civility, endeavor to soften the hours of captivity; efforts which were received with the courtesy of the most punctilious etiquette, but a restraint which showed that they were unwelcome.
It was, perhaps, the most unlucky moment that had occurred within the two mouths of their association, for an exchange of their better feelings. The honest heart of the English tar dilated with ill-concealed delight at his approach to the termination of labors performed with credit and honor, and his smiles and good humor, which partly proceeded from the feelings of a father and a friend, were daggers to the heart of his discomfited rival.
A third personage now appeared from the cabin of the vessel, and approached the spot where the adverse admirals at the moment were engaged in one of these constrained conferences.
The appearance and dress of this gentleman differed widely from the two just described. He was tall, graceful, and dignified; he was a soldier, and clearly of high rank, His carefully dressed hair concealed the ravages of time, and on the quarter-deck of a first-rate his attire and manners were suited to a field-day in the park.
"I really insist, monsieur," cried the admiral, good-naturedly, "that you shall take part of my chaise to London. You are a stranger, and it will help to keep up your spirits by the way."
"You are very good, Monsieur Howell," replied the Frenchman, with a polite bow and forced smile, misconstruing ill-judged benevolence into a wish for his person to grace a triumph, "but I have accepted the offer Monsieur le General Denbigh was so good as to make me."
"The comte is engaged to me, Howell," said the general, with a courtly smile, "and, indeed, you must leave the ship to-night, or as soon as we anchor. But I shall take day-light and to-morrow."
"Well, well, Denbigh," exclaimed the other, rubbing his hands with pleasure as he viewed the increasing power of the wind, "only make yourselves happy, and I am contented."
A few hours intervened before they reached the Bay of Plymouth, and round the table, after their dinner, were seated the general and English admiral. The comte, under the pretense of preparing his things for a removal, had retired to his apartment to conceal his feelings; and the captain of the ship was above, superintending the approach of the vessel to her anchorage. Two or three well emptied bottles of wine yet remained; but as the healths of all the branches of the House of Brunswick had been propitiated from their contents, with a polite remembrance of Louis XVI. and Marie Antoinette from General Denbigh, neither of the superiors was much inclined for action.
"Is the Thunderer in her station?" said the admiral to the signal lieutenant, who at that moment came below with a report.
"Yes, sir, and has answered."
"Very well; make the signal to prepare to anchor."
"Aye, aye, sir."
"And here, Bennet," to the retiring lieutenant, "call the transports all in shore of us."
"Three hundred and eighty-four, sir," said the officer looking at bis signal-book.
The admiral cast his eye at the book, and nodded an assent.
"And let the Mermaid—Flora—Weasel—Bruiser, and all the sloops lie well off, until we have landed the soldiers: the pilot says the channel is full of luggers, and Jonathan has grown very saucy."
The lieutenant made a complying bow, and was retiring to execute these orders, as Admiral Howell, taking up a bottle not yet entirely deserted by its former tenant, cried stoutly, "Here, Bennet—I forgot—take a glass of wine; drink success to ourselves, and defeat to the French all over the world."
The general pointed significantly to the adjoining cabin of the French admiral, as he pressed his hand on his lips for silence.
"Oh!" cried Admiral Howell, recollecting himself, continuing in a whisper, "you can drink it in your heart, notwithstanding."
The signal officer nodded, and drank the liquor. As he smacked his lips while going on deck, he thought to himself, these nabobs drink famous good wine.
Although the feelings of General Denbigh were under much more command and disciplined obedience than those of his friend, yet was he too unusually elated with his return to home and expected honors. If the admiral had captured a fleet, he had taken an island; and hand in hand they had coöperated in unusual harmony through the difficulties of an arduous campaign. This rather singular circumstance was owing to their personal friendship. From their youth they had been companions, and although of very different characters and habits, chance had cemented their intimacy in more advanced life. While in subordinate stations, they had been associated together in service; and the general and admiral, in command of an army and fleet, had once before returned to England with less renown, as a colonel and a captain of a frigate. The great family influence of the soldier, with the known circumstance of their harmony, had procured them this later command, and home, with its comforts and rewards, was close before them. Pouring out a glass of madeira, the general, who always calculated what he said, exclaimed,—
"Peter, we have been friends from boys."
"To be sure we have," said the admiral, looking up in a little surprise at this unexpected commencement, "and it will not be my fault it we do not die such, Frederick."
Dying was a subject the general did not much delight in, although of conspicuous courage in the field; and he proceeded to his more important purpose—
"I could never find, although I have looked over our family tree so often, that we are in any manner related, Howell."
"I believe it is too late to mend that matter now," said the admiral, musing.
"Why no—hem—I think not, Howell; take a glass of this burgundy."
The admiral shook his head with a stubborn resolution to taste nothing French, but he helped himself to a bountiful stock of madeira, as he replied—
"I should like to know how you can bring it about this time of day, Denbigh."
"How much money will you be able to give that girl of yours, Peter?" said his friend, evading the point.
"Forty thousand down, my good fellow, and as much more when I die," cried the open-hearted sailor, with a nod of exultation.
"George, my youngest son, will not be rich—but Francis will be a duke, and have a noble estate; yet," said the general, meditating, "he is so unhappy in his disposition and uncouth in his manners, I cannot think of offering him to your daughter as a husband."
"Isabel shall marry a good-natured man, like myself, or not at all," said the admiral, positively, but not in the least suspecting the drift of his friend, who was influenced by anything but a regard for the lady's happiness.
Francis, his first born, was, in truth, as he had described; but his governing wish was to provide for his favorite George. Dukes could never want wives, but unportioned captains in the guards might.
"George is one of the best tempers in the world," said his father, with strong feeling, "and the delight of us all. I could wish he had been the heir to the family honors."
"That it is certainly too late to help," cried the admiral, wondering if the ingenuity of his friend could devise a remedy for this evil too.
"Too late, indeed," said the other, with a heavy sigh, "but Howell, what say you to matching Isabel with my favorite George?"
"Denbigh," cried the sailor, eying him keenly, "Isabel is my only child, and a dutiful, good girl; one that will obey orders if she breaks owners, as we sailors say. Now I did think of marrying her to a seaman, when a proper man came athwart my course; yet your son is a soldier, and that is next to being in the navy; if-so-be you had made him come aboard me, when I wanted you to, there would have been no objection at all; however, when occasion offers, I will overhaul the lad, and if I find him staunch he may turn in with Bell and welcome."
This was uttered in perfect simplicity, and with no intention of giving offense, partaking partly of the nature of a soliloquy; so the general, greatly encouraged, was about to push the point, when a gun was fired from their own ship.
"There's some of them lubberly transports won't mind our signals; they have had these soldiers so long on board, they get as clumsy as the red-coats themselves," muttered the admiral, hastening on deck to enforce his commands.
A shot or two, sent significantly in the direction of the wanderers, but so as not to hit them, restored order; and within an hour forty line-of-battle ships and a hundred transports were disposed in the best manner for convenience and safety.
On their presentation to their sovereign, both veterans were embellished with the ribbon of the Bath; and as their exploits filled the mouths of the newsmongers, and the columns of the public prints of the day, the new knights began to think more seriously of building a monument to their victories, in a union between their children. The admiral, however, determined to do nothing with his eyes shut, and he demanded a scrutiny.
"Where is the boy who is to be a duke?" exclaimed he, one day, when his friend had introduced the point with a view to a final arrangement. "Bell has good blood in her veins—is a tight built little vessel—clean heeled and trim, and would make as good a duchess as the best of them; so, Denbigh, I will begin by taking a survey of the senior."
To this the general had no objection, as he well knew that Francis would be wide of pleasing the tastes of an open-hearted, simple man, like the sailor. They met, accordingly, for what the general facetiously called the review, and what the admiral innocently termed his survey, at the house of the former, when the young gentlemen were submitted to his inspection.
Francis Denbigh was about four and twenty, of a feeble body, and with a face marked with the small-pox, to approaching deformity; his eye was brilliant and piercings but unsettled, and at times wild,—his manner awkward, constrained, and timid. There would be seen, it is true, an intelligence and animation, which occasionally lighted his countenance into gleams of sunshine, that caused you to overlook the lesser accompaniments of complexion and features in the expression; but they were transient, and inevitably vanished whenever his father spoke or in any manner mingled in his pursuits.
An observer close as Mrs. Wilson, would have said that the feelings of the father and son were not such as ought to exist between parent and child.
But the admiral, who regarded model and rigging a good deal, satisfied himself with muttering, as he turned his eye on the junior—
"He may do for a duke—but I would not have him for a cockswain."
George was a year younger than Francis; in form, stature, and personal grace, the counterpart of his father; his eye was less keen but more attractive than that of his brother; his air open, polished, and manly.
"Ah!" thought the sailor, as he ended a satisfactory survey of the youth, "what a thousand pities Denbigh did not send him to sea!"
The thing was soon settled, and George was to be the happy man. Sir Peter concluded to dine with his friend, in order to settle preliminaries over the bottle by themselves; the young men and their mother being engaged to their uncle the duke.
"Well, Denbigh," cried the admiral, as the last servant witudrew, "when do you mean to have the young couple spliced?"
"Why," replied the wary soldier, who knew he could not calculate on obedience to his mandate with as great a certainty as his friend, "the better way is to bring the young people together, in order that they may become acquainted, you know."
"Acquainted—together!" cried his companion, in a little surprise, "what better way is there to bring them together, than to have them up before a priest, or to make them acquainted by letting them swing in the same hammock?"
"It might answer the end, indeed," said the general, with a smile, "but somehow or other, it is always the best method to bring young folks together, to let them have their own way in the affair for a time."
"Own way!" rejoined Sir Peter, bluntly, "did you ever find it answer to let a woman have her own way, Sir Frederick?"
"Not common women certainly, my good friend," said the general, "but such a girl as my intended daughter is an exception."
"I don't know that," cried the sailor; "Bell is a good girl, but she has her quirks and whims like all the sex."
"You have had no trouble with her as yet, I believe, Howell," said Sir Frederick cavalierly, throwing an inquiring glance on his friend at the same time.
"No, not yet—nor do I think she will ever dare to mutiny; but there has been one wishing to take her in tow already since we got in."
"How!" said the other in alarm, "who—what is he? some officer in the navy, I suppose."
"No, he was a kind of chaplain, one Parson Ives, a good sort of a youth enough, and a prodigious favorite with my sister, Lady Hawker."
"Well, what did you answer, Peter?" said his companion, in increasing uneasiness; "did you put him off?"
"Off! to be sure I did—do you think I wanted a barber's clerk for a son-in-law? No, no, Denbigh; a soldier is bad enough, without having a preacher."
The general compressed his lips at this direct attack on a profession that he thought the most honorable of any in the world, in some resentment; but remembering the eighty thousand pounds, and accustomed to the ways of the other, he curbed his temper, and inquired—
"But Miss Howell—your daughter—how did she stand affected to this priest?"
"How—why—how? why I never asked her."
"Never asked her?"
"No, never asked her: she is my daughter, you know, and bound to obey my orders, and I did not choose she should marry a parson; but, once for all, when is the wedding to take place?"
General Denbigh had indulged his younger son too blindly and too fondly to expect that implicit obedience the admiral calculated to a certainty on, and with every prospect of not being disappointed, from his daughter. Isabel Howell was pretty, mild, and timid, and unused to oppose any of her father's commands; but George Denbigh was haughty, positive, and self-willed, and unless the affair could be so managed as to make him a willing assistant in the courtship, his father knew it might be abandoned at once. He thought his son might be led, but not driven, and, relying on his own powers for managing, the general saw his only safety in executing the scheme was in postponing his advances for a regular siege to the lady's heart.
Sir Peter chafed and swore at this circumlocution: the thing could be done as well in a week as in a year; and the veterans, who, for a miracle, had agreed ia their rival stations, and in doubtful moments of success, were near splitting on the point of marrying a girl of nineteen.
As Sir Peter both loved his friend, and had taken a prodigious fancy to the youth, he however was fain to submit to a short probation.
"You are always for going a roundabout way to do a thing," said the admiral, as he yielded the point. "Now, when you took that battery, had you gone up in front, as I advised you, you would have taken it in ten minutes, instead of five hours."
"Yes," said the other, with a friendly shake of the hand parting, "and lost fifty men in place of one by the step."