The Three Cutters/Chapter II

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Reader, have you ever been at Portsmouth? If you have, you must have been delighted with the view from the saluting battery; and if you have not you had better go there as soon as you can. From the saluting battery you may look up the harbour, and see much of what I have described at Plymouth; the scenery is different, but similar arsenals and dockyards, and an equal portion of our stupendous navy are to be found there; and you will see Gosport on the other side of the harbour, and Sallyport close to you; besides a great many other places, which, from the saluting battery, you cannot see. And then there is Southsea Beach to your left. Before you, Spithead, with the men-of-war, and the Motherbank crowded with merchant vessels; and there is the buoy where the Royal George was wrecked and where she still lies, the fish swimming in and out of her cabin windows but that is not all; you can also see the Isle of Wight,—Ryde with its long wooden pier, and Cowes, where the yachts lie. In fact there is a great deal to be seen at Portsmouth as well as at Plymouth; but what I wish you particularly to see just now is a vessel holding fast to the buoy just off the saluting battery. She is a cutter; and you may know that she belongs to the Preventive Service by the number of gigs and galleys which she has hoisted up all round her. She looks like a vessel that was about to sail with a cargo of boats; two on deck, one astern, one on each side of her. You observe that she is painted black, and all her boats are white. She is not such an elegant vessel as the yacht, and she is much more lumbered up. She has no haunches of venison hanging over the stern! But I think there is a leg of mutton and some cabbages hanging by their stalks. But revenue-cutters are not yachts. You will find no turtle or champagne; but, nevertheless, you will, perhaps, find a joint to carve at, a good glass of grog, and a hearty welcome.

Let us go on board. You observe the guns are iron, and painted black, and her bulwarks are painted red; it is not a very becoming colour, but then it lasts a long while, and the dockyard is not very generous on the score of paint—or lieutenants of the navy troubled with much spare cash. She has plenty of men, and fine men they are; all dressed in red flannel shirts and blue trousers; some of them have not taken off their canvas or tarpaulin petticoats, which are very useful to them, as they are in the boats night and day, and in all weathers. But we will at once go down into the cabin, where we shall find the lieutenant who commands her, a master’s mate, and a midshipman. They have each their tumbler before them, and are drinking gin-toddy, hot, with sugar—capital gin, too, ’bove proof; it is from that small anker standing under the table. It was one that they forgot to return to the custom-house when they made their last seizure. We must introduce them.

The elderly personage, with grizzly hair and whiskers, a round pale face, and a somewhat red nose (being too much in the wind will make the nose red, and this old officer is very often “in the wind,” of course, from the very nature of his profession), is a Lieutenant Appleboy. He has served in every class of vessel in the service, and done the duty of first-lieutenant for twenty years; he is now on promotion—that is to say, after he has taken a certain number of tubs of gin, he will be rewarded with his rank as commander. It is a pity that what he takes inside of him does not count, for he takes it morning, noon, and night. He is just filling his fourteenth glass; he always keeps a regular account, as he never exceeds his limited number, which is seventeen; then he is exactly down to his bearings.

The master’s mate’s name is Tomkins; he has served his six years three times over, and has now outgrown his ambition; which is fortunate for him, as his chances of promotion are small. He prefers a small vessel to a large one, because he is not obliged to be so particular in his dress—and looks for his lieutenancy whenever there shall be another charity promotion. He is fond of soft bread, for his teeth are all absent without leave; he prefers porter to any other liquor, but he can drink his glass of grog, whether it be based upon rum, brandy or the liquor now before him.

Mr. Smith is the name of that young gentleman whose jacket is so out at the elbows; he has been intending to mend it these last two months; but is too lazy to go to his chest for another. He has been turned out of half the ships in the service for laziness; but he was born so—and therefore it is not his fault. A revenue-cutter suits him, she is half her time hove to; and he has no objection to boat-service, as he sits down always in the stern-sheets, which is not fatiguing. Creeping for tubs is his delight, as he gets over so little ground. He is fond of grog, but there is some trouble in carrying the tumbler so often to his mouth; so he looks at it, and lets it stand. He says little because he is too lazy to speak. He has served more than eight years; but as for passing—it has never come into his head. Such are the three persons who are now sitting in the cabin of the revenue-cutter, drinking hot gin-toddy.

“Let me see, it was, I think, in ninety-three or ninety-four. Before you were in the service, Tomkins—”

“Maybe, sir; it’s so long ago since I entered, that I can’t recollect dates—but this I know, that my aunt died three days before.”

“Then the question is, when did your aunt die?”

“Oh! She died about a year after my uncle.”

“And when did your uncle die?”

“I’ll be hanged if I know!”

“Then, d’ye see, you’ve no departure to work from. However, I think you cannot have been in the service at that time. We were not quite so particular about uniform as we are now.”

“Then I think the service was all the better for it. Now-a-days, in your crack ships, a mate has to go down in the hold or spirit-room, and after whipping up fifty empty casks, and breaking out twenty full ones, he is expected to come on quarter-deck as clean as if he was just come out of a band-box.”

“Well, there’s plenty of water alongside, as far as the outward man goes, and iron dust is soon brushed off. However, as you say, perhaps a little too much is expected; at least, in five of the ships in which I was first-lieutenant, the captain was always hauling me over the coals about the midshipmen not dressing properly, as if I was their dry-nurse. I wonder what Captain Prigg would have said if he had seen such a turn-out as you, Mr. Smith, on his quarter-deck.”

“I should have had one turn-out more,” drawled Smith.

“With your out-at-elbows jacket, there, eh!” continued Mr. Appleboy.

Smith turned up his elbows, looked at one and then at the other; after so fatiguing an operation, he was silent.

“Well, where was I? Oh! It was about ninety-three or ninety-four, as I said that it happened—Tomkins, fill your glass and hand me the sugar—how do I get on? This is Number 15,” said Appleboy, counting some white lines on the table by him; and taking up a piece of chalk, he marked one more line on his tally. “I don’t think this is so good a tub as the last, Tomkins, there’s a twang about it—a want of juniper; however, I hope, we shall have better luck this time. Of course you know we sail to-morrow?”

“I presume so, by the leg of mutton coming on board.”

“True—true; I’m regular—as clock-work. After being twenty years a first-lieutenant one gets a little method. I like regularity. Now the admiral has never omitted asking me to dinner once, every time I have come into harbour, except this time. I was so certain of it, that I never expected to sail; and I have but two shirts clean in consequence.”

“That’s odd, isn’t it?—and the more so, because he has had such great people down here, and has been giving large parties every day.”

“And yet I made three seizures, besides sweeping up those thirty-seven tubs.”

“I swept them up,” observed Smith.

“That’s all the same thing, younker. When you’ve been a little longer in the service, you’ll find out that the commanding officer has the merit of all that is done; but you’re green yet. Let me see, where was I? Oh!—It was about ninety-three or ninety-four, as I said. At that time I was in the Channel fleet—Tomkins, I’ll trouble you for the hot water; this water’s cold. Mr. Smith, do me the favour to ring the bell.—Jem, some more hot water.”

“Please, sir,” said Jem, who was bare-footed as well as bare-headed, touching his lock of hair on his forehead, “the cook had capsized the kettle—but he has put more on.”

“Capsized the kettle! Hah!—very well—we’ll talk about that to-morrow. Mr. Tomkins, do me the favour to put him in the report: I may forget it. And pray, sir, how long is it since he has put more on?”

“Just this moment, sir, as I came aft.”

“Very well, we’ll see to that to-morrow. You bring the kettle aft as soon as it is ready. I say, Mr. Jem, is that fellow sober?”

“Yees, sir, he be sober as you be.”

“It’s quite astonishing what a propensity the common sailors have to liquor. Forty odd years have I been in the service, and I’ve never found any difference. I only wish I had a guinea for every time that I have given a fellow seven-water grog during my servitude as first-lieutenant, I wouldn’t call the king my cousin. Well, if there’s no hot water, we must take lukewarm; it won’t do to heave-to. By the Lord Harry! Who would have thought it?—I’m at number sixteen! Let me count, yes!—surely I must have made a mistake. A fact, by Heaven!” continued Mr. Appleboy, throwing the chalk down on the table. “Only one more glass, after this; that is, if I have counted right—I may have seen double.”

“Yes,” drawled Smith.

“Well, never mind. Let’s go on with my story. It was either in the year ninety-three or ninety-four that I was in the Channel fleet: we were then abreast of Torbay—”

“Here be the hot water, sir,” cried Jem, putting the kettle down on the deck.

“Very well, boy. By-the-bye, has the jar of butter come on board?”

“Yes, but it broke all down the middle. I tied him up with a ropeyarn.”

“Who broke it, sir?”

“Coxswain says as how he didn’t.”

“But who did, sir.”

“Coxswain handed it up to Bill Jones, and he says as how he didn’t.”

“But who did, sir.”

“Bill Jones gave it to me, and I’m sure as how I didn’t.”

“Then who did, sir, I ask you.”

“I think it be Bill Jones, sir, ’cause he’s fond of butter, I know, and there be very little left in the jar.”

“Very well, we’ll see to that to-morrow morning. Mr. Tomkins, you’ll oblige me by putting the butter-jar down in the report, in case it should slip my memory. Bill Jones, indeed, looks as if butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth. Never mind. Well, it was, as I said before—it was in the year ninety-three or ninety-four, when I was in the Channel fleet; we were then off Torbay, and had just taken two reefs in the top-sails. Stop—before I go on with my story, I’ll take my last glass; I think it’s the last—let me count. Yes, by heavens! I make out sixteen, all told. Never mind, it shall be a stiff one. Boy, bring the kettle, and mind you don’t pour the hot water into my shoes, as you did the other night. There, that will do. Now, Tomkins, fill up yours; and you, Mr. Smith. Let us all start fair, and then you shall have my story—and a very curious one it is, I can tell you, I wouldn’t have believed it myself, if I hadn’t seen it. Hilloa! What’s this? Confound it! What’s the matter with the toddy? Heh, Mr. Tomkins?”

Mr. Tomkins tasted; but, like the lieutenant, he had made it very stiff; and, as he had also taken largely before, he was, like him, not quite so clear in his discrimination. “It has a queer twang, sir: Smith, what is it?”

Smith took up his glass, tasted the contents.

“Salt-water,” drawled the midshipman.

“Salt-water! So it is by heavens!” cried Mr. Appleboy.

“Salt as Lot’s wife! By all that’s infamous!” cried the master’s mate.

“Salt-water, sir!” cried Jem in a fright, expecting a salt eel for supper.

“Yes, sir,” replied Mr. Appleboy, tossing the contents of the tumbler in the boy’s face, “salt-water. Very well, sir,—very well!”

“It warn’t me, sir,” replied the boy, making up a piteous look.

“No, sir, but you said the cook was sober.”

“He was not so very much disguised, sir,” replied Jem.

“Oh! Very well—never mind. Mr. Tomkins, in case I should forget it, do me the favour to put the kettle of salt-water down in the report. The scoundrel! I’m very sorry, gentlemen, but there’s no means of having any more gin-toddy. But never mind, we’ll see to this to-morrow. Two can play at this; and if I don’t salt-water their grog, and make them drink it too, I have been twenty years a first-lieutenant for nothing, that’s all. Good night, gentlemen; and,” continued the lieutenant, in a severe tone, “you’ll keep a sharp look-out, Mr. Smith—do you hear, sir?”

“Yes,” drawled Smith, “but it’s not my watch: it was my first watch: and, just now, it struck one bell.”

“You’ll keep the middle watch, then, Mr. Smith,” said Mr. Appleboy, who was not a little put out; “and, Mr. Tomkins, let me know as soon as it’s daylight. Boy, get my bed made. Salt-water, by all that’s blue! However, we’ll see to that to-morrow morning.”

Mr. Appleboy then turned in; so did Mr. Tomkins; and so did Mr. Smith, who had no idea of keeping the middle watch because the cook was drunk and had filled up the kettle with salt-water. As for what happened in ninety-three or ninety-four, I really would inform the reader if I knew; but I am afraid that that most curious story is never to be handed down to posterity.

The next morning Mr. Tomkins, as usual, forgot to report the cook, the jar of butter and the kettle of salt-water; and Mr. Appleboy’s wrath had long been appeased before he remembered them. At daylight, the lieutenant came on deck, having only slept away half of the sixteen, and a taste of the seventeenth salt-water glass of gin-toddy. He rubbed his grey eyes, that he might peer through the grey of the morning; the fresh breeze blew about his grizzly locks, and cooled his rubicund nose. The revenue-cutter, whose name was the Active, cast off from the buoy, and, with a fresh breeze, steered her course for the Needles’ passage.