The Story of Isaac Brock: Hero, Defender and Saviour of Upper Canada/3
In every young man's career comes a time of probation. During this critical period that youth is wise who enters into a truce with his feelings. This is the period when influences for good or bad assert themselves—the parting of the ways. The sign-posts are painted in capitals.
When Brock buttoned his scarlet tunic and strapped his sword on his hip, as fine a specimen of a clean-bodied, clean-minded youth as ever trod the turnpike of life, he knew that he was at the cross-roads. The trail before him was well blazed, but straight or crooked, rough or smooth, valley or height, it mattered little so long as he kept nourished the bright light of purpose that burned steadily within him.
Five years of uneventful service, chiefly in England, passed by, and our hero was celebrating his coming of age. His only inheritance was health, hope and courage. While neither monk nor hermit, he had so far been as steadfast as the Pole Star in respect to his resolutions. He had allowed nothing to induce him to break the rules engraved on brass that he had himself imposed. His mind had broadened, his spirits ran high, his conscience told him that he was graduating in the world's university with honour. His love for athletics still continued. He had the thews of a gladiator, and in his Guernsey stockings stood six feet two inches. Add to this an honest countenance, with much gentleness of manner and great determination, and you have a faithful picture of Isaac Brock.
Upon obtaining his lieutenancy he returned to Guernsey, raised an independent company, and exchanged into the 49th, the Royal Berkshires, then stationed in Barbadoes. He now found himself looking at life under new conditions. While the beauties of Barbadoes enchanted him, his duties as a soldier were disappointing. They were limited to drill, dress parade, guard mounting, the erection of new fortifications, and patrolling the coast for vessels carrying prohibited cargoes.
Under the terms of a treaty made at Paris in 1773, United States produce for British West Indian ports could only be carried by British subjects in British ships. Britain's men-of-war were also authorized to seize any vessel laden with produce for or from any French colony. Brock was a soldier, not a policeman, and coast-guard duties palled upon him. His great diversion was in calculating the probabilities of invasion by the French. In expectation of this, the refortifying of the island was in progress. The memory of Admiral d'Estaing's visit with his fleet from Toulon, and the capture of St. Vincent, sent a chill through the island. The great victory by the British Admiral Rodney, when he whipped a superior French fleet to a standstill, was yet to come. Bastions and earthworks grew during the night like mushrooms. While Brock chafed under restraint, he knew how to improve the opportunity.
Fishing, shooting sea-fowl, and exploring the interior on horseback, were Brock's chief pastimes. He became a fearless horseman. Mount Hillaby rose 1,200 feet above[Pg 23] the Caribbean Sea. The very crest of its almost impossible pinnacle Brock is said to have ascended on horseback. Between Bridgetown, in Barbadoes, and Kingston, Jamaica, he divided his time, and though monotonous, his life in the Windward Islands was not wholly void of adventure.
Shortly after joining his regiment at Bridgetown our hero had his first affair of honour, an opportunity to display his courage under most trying conditions. A certain captain in the 49th was a confirmed duellist, with a reputation of being a dead shot at short range. Resting upon his evil record, this braggart had succeeded in terrorizing the garrison, and it was soon Brock's turn to be selected for insult. But Isaac could not be bullied or intimidated. He promptly challenged and was as promptly accepted.
The fateful morning arrived. In a lonely spot, palm-sheltered, and within sight of the sea breaking upon the coral reefs, principals and seconds met. There was no question in Brock's mind as to his duty—the duello at that time was the recognized court of appeal. If its purpose as originally designed had at times been infamously abused, it was still the one and only arbiter through which insults had to be purged and from which, for the "officer and gentleman," there was no escape.
Now Isaac, who was several inches taller and much bulkier than the scoundrel who had insulted him, declined to become a shining mark at the regulation twelve paces. He demanded from his fire-eating antagonist that the duel proceed on equal terms. Whipping out his kerchief, cool as a cucumber, his blue eyes steady and resolute, he insisted that they both fire across it. The fairness of the proposal[Pg 24] staggered the bully. The chances were not sufficiently one-sided. If this plan was acted upon he might himself be killed. He refused to comply. The code of honour and garrison approval sustained Brock in his contention, and the refusal of the professional killer to fight under even chances was registered in the mess-room as the act of a coward, and he left the regiment by compulsion.
In Jamaica the continued strain of inactivity under which our hero fretted told upon him, and he was struck down with fever, his cousin, Henry Brock, lieutenant in the 13th Foot, dying in Kingston of the same pestilence. At this time Isaac had as servant a soldier named Dobson, one of those faithful souls who, true as steel, once installed in their master's affection, remain loyal to the end. To the untiring attentions of this man Brock owed his life. Deep and mutual respect followed, and the two became inseparable. Where Brock went, there was Dobson, sharing his fortune and all the hard knocks of his military campaigns, a fellowship ending only with Dobson's death, shortly before his "beloved master" gave up his life on Queenston Heights.
Tropical malaria is hard to shake off. Release from duty was imperative, and as England was now calling for recruits, the War Office summoned Brock, an alluring sample of a soldier, to whom was assigned the task of licking the fighting country bumpkin—the raw material—into shape. This he did, first in England, then in Guernsey and Jersey. A vision of our hero, glorious in his uniform, was in itself sufficient to ensnare the senses of any country yokel. It was a militant age.
When quartered in Guernsey, and from the same heights of Jerbourg where but a few years before he was wont to sweep the ocean for belated fishing smacks, Brock saw his kinsman, Sir James Saumarez, and the white canvas of a small squadron, heave in sight from Plymouth Roads. The British sailor had been ordered to ascertain the strength of the French fleet. Saumarez' ships were far slower than those of the enemy, so, feigning the greatest desire to fight, he lured his opponent by a clever ruse. First he closed with him, and then, when his own capture seemed inevitable, hauled his wind, slipped through a maze of reefs by an intricate passage—long familiar to our hero—and found safety off La Vazon, where the Frenchmen dare not follow.
In June, 1795, Brock purchased his majority, but retained his command of the recruits. From toes to finger-tips Isaac was a soldier, bent on mastering every detail of the profession of his choice. A year after the return of the 49th to England, on the completion of his 28th year, he became by purchase senior lieutenant-colonel of his regiment. High honour and rapid promotion, considering that for five out of seven years' service he had remained an ensign. He had learned to recognize opportunity, the earthly captain of a man's fate.
"For every day I stand outside your door,
And bid you wake and rise to fight and win."
But Brock's position was no sinecure. The regiment was in a badly demoralized condition. The laxity of the late commanding officer had created a deplorable state of things. To restore the lost morale of the corps was his first duty. The thoroughness of his reforms can be best understood by quoting the words of the Duke of York, who declared that "out of one of the worst regiments in the service Colonel Brock had made the 49th one of the best."
From the Commander-in-Chief of a nation's army to a colonel—not yet thirty—of a marching regiment, this was an exceptional tribute.
Isaac's persistent endeavours were rapidly bringing their own reward.