George Fenn.

George Alfred Henty: The Story of an Active Life





There had been a day of intense heat. The next morning it was hot and close without a breath of wind, and Henty states that he had been rowed across the harbour for his morning dip. At that time there was not a ripple upon the water, but on his return at nine oclock the sky was becoming a good deal overcast, while about half-past ten he was a witness of one of the squalls peculiar to the Mediterranean, and made familiar to old-fashioned people in the words and music of The White Squall. Sheets of water, without the least preliminary warning, dropped suddenly from the clouds; the furious wind tore along, driving before it every light object; outdoor chairs and tables were swept away, and the wind was master of everything for about twenty minutes. When the fierce storm had passed on, and the rain had ceased, he, knowing what the consequences of such a raging tempest must be, hurried down to the landing-place to note what the sea had done.

He was astounded. His first looks were directed at the iron-clads. They were lying at anchor, and rolling bulwark-deep in so alarming a manner that it was fully proved to him that, had necessity forced them to go into action, they could not have opened their port-holes to work their guns, for had they done so they would certainly have been swamped.

Nature seemed to be mocking at the ponderous vessels, and green seas were rushing completely along the decks of the iron-clad which afterwards foundered.

He could see at the time by means of a telescope that the crew were engaged in dragging tarpaulins over her hatchways, while from the funnels of the whole fleet dense clouds of black smoke were rolling up, as the engineers were evidently working hard to get up steam, so as to relieve the strain upon their anchors, or to enable their captains to shift their berths. Later he could see that several of the vessels had taken shelter in the harbour, but the Affondatore was still in her berth, with her engines hard at work going ahead to relieve the strain upon her anchor.

Speaking as one accustomed to the sea, he was under the impression that the captain was afraid to make for the harbour, outside which the vessel lay, for to have done so would have necessitated his exposing her broadside to the tremendous waves, which, though the sea had somewhat subsided, still swept right over her bows. These were now apparently two or three feet lower than the stern, so that at the utmost the ponderous vessel was only six feet out of the water altogether, and she looked as if she had taken a great deal of water on board.

At length, as Henty watched, he began to see that she was changing her position. Her head turned slowly towards the harbour, her main-sail was set to steady her, and she began to steam slowly in. But in spite of the sail that had been hoisted she rolled heavily, and by degrees seemed to have lost all power of riding over the waves, which now made a clean sweep over her, until at times he lost sight of her bow for some seconds together.

At last, after expecting from time to time to see her founder, he saw that she had reached the harbour in safety, to anchor just inside the end of the mole, some three hundred yards from shore, and, growing excited as he felt in doubt about her position, he jumped into a boat and pulled out to her, to find that her bow was not above two feet out of water, while her stern was a foot higher than it had been on the previous day.

In spite of man-of-war order, a good deal of excitement evidently prevailed. The crew were busily engaged in relieving her bows by carrying all weight as far aft as possible, and evidence of the peril of her position was plainly shown by the engines being hard at work pumping.

So he began to feel hopeful that as the vessel was now in still water she would be safe, but the hope was vain. Either recent repairs over the shot holes received in action had given way, or some of her upper plating, weakened by a shot, had opened with the strain. Whatever was wrong, as Henty watched he could see that she was getting lower in the water, which in little more than another half-hour was level with her bow.

Then it was that, feeling that it was impossible to do more, orders were given which resulted in the boats being lowered, and with discipline well preserved they were manned, while launches came out to her assistance and took off the crew to the last man.

It was a painful scene which soon followed. The grand vessels bow was now some distance below the surface, while the stern still maintained its buoyancy; but all at once, as if the iron-clad monster were making a desperate struggle for life, she gave a sudden heavy roll before steadying herself, and remained in her proper position with only a slight list to starboard. Then she sank slowly and calmly, and all was over with the gallant ship.

Henty described at length the battle of Lissa, of which no better account could have been given than that of this unbiased spectator; but upon the appearance of a lengthy official report, he did not hesitate to turn stern critic and fall foul of the brag and bombast which disfigured its columns. No doubt to flatter Italian pride this was so full of inflation, that the English correspondent flatly compared it with the never-to-be-forgotten narrative delivered by the stout knight to Prince Hal and his companions.

Chapter Eight.
The End of the War

Henty writes of Brescia as a Garibaldian town, that is to say, a town garrisoned by volunteers, and after being there for some days gaining knowledge of these patriots, he takes advantage of the occasion to attempt some description of their state.

At one time he found the station crowded as if the whole population had assembled, and he explains the reason of the unusual scene. A train of enormous length had just entered the station crammed with red-shirted volunteers, who were being received with tremendous cheers, which they responded to as lustily. Then ensued an affecting scene, for numbers of the regiment had friends and relations in the town who were searching eagerly from carriage to carriage enquiring if they were safe.

The train was only to stop for ten minutes, and the men were not supposed to alight; but no orders could keep them in, and a scene of wild embracing, handshaking, and kissing ensued, mingled with eager enquiries after relatives in other regiments, good wishes, and farewells. Then the station bell rang and the train moved on, the soldiers waiting till the last moment and then jumping on as it was in motion, so that as it moved out of the station it presented an extraordinary aspect, men in scarlet shirts leaning out of every window and standing on the foot-board the whole length as closely as they could, while others were even on the roofs, and all waving their hands and cheering. He heard afterwards that some of the men in their enthusiasm and excitement rode the whole of their journey upon the steps, while three or four in the various trains were killed from leaning too far out and striking their heads against the abutments of bridges.

The commissariat arrangements, into which as a matter of course he would be prone to enquire, were, he declares, vile. In fact, he says the arrangements for feeding these poor fellows were, like all other matters connected with the volunteers, shamefully bad. Some of them, in a three days journey, had no food but bread and cheese and a little wine.

At another town he found the place crowded with Garibaldians, who had taken possession bodily of the inn he reached. Tables were spread out in the court-yard, at which parties were sitting; upstairs and down the inn was thronged. The landlady and waiters received their English visitors with an air of languid indifference very different from their customary manner. At the first complaint Henty was assured that for three days and nights they had not rested, and that as fast as one regiment of the volunteers went off another took its place. The men were all famished by long fasting in the train, and only too glad to sit down to a regular meal again.

Here he found that although the Garibaldians were better clad than when he first encountered them, for they had all got red shirts, and caps of some shape or other, many of them were sadly neglected. Some were almost shoeless, others had only just previously received their arms. Moreover, with the exception of the Bersaglieri regiments, which had ten rounds of ball cartridge each, no ammunition whatever had been supplied. They were in a melancholy slate for an active force just taking the field no shelter tents, so that they had to sleep in the open air, and most of them had only one blanket to serve as a cloak in the daytime and a cover at night.

Some of them had not even this poor protection, and had to sleep on the ground, however wet the night, with no other protection than their red shirts and trousers. Fortunately for them, they had patriotic faith and enthusiasm; but there was no ambulance train or any accommodation whatever for the wounded, and, speaking generally, the commissariat arrangements were so bad that it was no unusual thing for a regiment to go all day without food.

The result was indignation on the part of the volunteers at the scandalous treatment they were receiving; but this only made them still more desirous to get at the enemy and show that, ill-used though they were, when it came to fighting they could do as well as the line. For it seemed that there was considerable jealousy and ill-feeling between the two services, the Garibaldians believing firmly that the treatment they were receiving was caused by those in authority, and when the news came of a disastrous defeat of the regular troops, it was received by the volunteers with something like satisfaction and a full belief that they would do better when their turn came.

Indeed, says Henty, it must be owned that they had very much more than a sufficiently good opinion of themselves, for they firmly believed that they could defeat anything like an equal number of Austrians, even though the latter were provided with artillery, as they would be.

Henty learned from the plucky fellows that they did not believe much in the value of ball cartridges, but pinned their faith entirely on the bayonet, against which weapon he did not believe that they would be able to stand for an instant. His opinion was that if the Garibaldians came upon a body of the well-drilled Austrians in a steep place, or where they were in confusion, the volunteers impetuous onslaught would be irresistible; but on the other hand, he could not believe that out on the plain disorderly rushes could ever break the Austrians steady steel lines.

At this time a battery of mountain artillery was attached to Garibaldis command; but the guns were so clumsy and the carriages so primitive that Henty believed they were not likely to prove of much assistance, and, continuing his remarks about the uniformity and aspect of the Garibaldian troops, he grimly notes that consequent upon sleeping upon the wet ground, the red shirts were beginning to lose their original brilliancy of colour. He has, though, a few words of praise for the volunteer cavalry, the Guides, who were extremely useful as vedettes. Their grey-blue uniform with black cord braiding, natty scarlet caps and high boots, gave them a very soldierlike appearance, while for night duty they had very long cloaks of the same colour as the uniform, and lined with scarlet.

Henty had always words of praise for the unquenchable pluck of the Garibaldians, the indomitable determination that, in spite of bad drilling, clumsy discipline, and bad leading, finally led them to success. Garibaldi himself, however, came in for criticism, for he declares, after recording a wound that the general had received, that it was greatly to be regretted that he should expose himself to danger, and that his young officers should be so eager to do the fighting themselves instead of steadying their men and leading them.

Then again he attacks the commissariat in his customary, vigorous way, while reporting after one of the fights the wantonness which could send three thousand men from a town to march twenty-five miles without breakfast to begin with or supper to finish with, this being only a common specimen of the commissariat arrangements. Certainly, he seems to growl, in a quotation, somebody ought to be hanged; I do not know who it is, nor do I care, but such mismanagement has, I believe, never been equalled. All the same, he says, the volunteers take it with wonderful good temper.

Picturesque, he says, as was the appearance of the Garibaldian camp, so bright and gay with the scarlet shirts of the soldiery and the green arbours, that it looked like a gigantic military picnic, it was the abode of as badly a fed set of men as were to be found in Europe. A little bread or biscuit and soup, doled out at the most uncertain intervals, with occasionally meat and frequently nothing at all, was the food which the government of Italy bestowed upon her volunteers, many of whom had left luxurious homes to fight her battles; and in some cases the men were so reduced from weakness that at certain stations many of them had to be taken into hospital. The poor fellows were fed, when fed at all, with a mixture with bread swimming in it which was called soup, but which was utterly innocent of meat in its composition, and tasted simply of tepid water; a sort of raw sausage, flavoured strongly with garlic, and a mess of either rice or macaroni, with something called meat in it, but utterly untastable; and yet this same food was at one time, while Henty was with the volunteer army, all that he could depend upon for himself that or nothing. Campaigning with the Garibaldians was sorry work, but, soldierlike, Henty tightened his belt and fought his way on with the volunteers in expectation until they won.

Still with the head-quarters of Garibaldi, and in the midst of the heat of an Italian July, Henty writes again in the midst of warfare, with all day long the boom of cannon and the sharp crack of musketry sounding in his ears. And as he writes, he says, the confusion outside, the talking of innumerable Garibaldians under the window of the humble room of which he thinks himself fortunate to call himself master for the time, the rumbling of carts, the shouting of the drivers, and the occasional call of the bugle, all remind him that he is in the midst of war on a large scale.

The heat has been terrible; not a breath of wind stirring, and the cicadas in the vineyards which line the roads through which he has passed have been in the full tide of song. The noise, he says, that these insects make on a hot day is something astounding. It is a continued succession of sharp shrill sounds such as might be made by a child upon a little whistle. He asks his reader to imagine an army of children, thousands strong, lining the road and all blowing upon these whistles, and you will have an idea of the prodigious thrill of sound produced by myriads of these creatures.

Zeno, he says, the old Greek philosopher who was mated to a shrew, is reported to have exclaimed: Happy the lives of the cicadas, since they all have voiceless wives. But I think that it is equally fortunate for humanity in general, for if the female cicadae were in any way as voluble as the males, it would be impossible to exist in the neighbourhood of the vineyards at all without losing ones sense of hearing.

But insects, the boom of cannon, the rumble of tumbrels, and the crackle of musketry notwithstanding, the war correspondents communications had to be written, and two of his most interesting pieces of news, which are rather ominous in sound, are that the generals son, Ricciotti Garibaldi, who is serving as a private in the Guides, is at present ill, though nothing serious is apprehended, while Garibaldis wound still causes him great pain and inconvenience. He can do nothing for himself, but he is the enthusiastic general still, even though he has to be lifted from the sofa upon which he lies all day, and carried by four men to his carriage, the anxiety he feels at the state of affairs greatly retarding his recovery.

Chapter Nine.
Impressions of Italy

In what had now become a sight-seeing perfect holiday time for Henty, prior to his being present to witness the entry of the Italian troops into Venice and the departure of the Austrians, Ravenna, with its antiquities, its museums and traditions, was too great an attraction to a literary man to be passed over. He appreciated to the full the ruins of the old Christian churches, the cathedrals, the traces of the Roman emperors, the glorious fir woods with their pleasant shades, and raked up memories of poet and student who had been attracted there in their time, such as Dante, Boccaccio, and Dryden. All three have written their recollections, while Byron worked there, finding other points of interest beyond its quiet charm. For it was in Venice that he wrote Marino Faliero, The Two Foscari, Cain, and other poems.

But every city of the Italian plains had its attractions for Henty, and his writings at this date are one long record of a country which teems with memories of the past.

Much as he was interested in the fairs and markets and antiquities, Henty was too much of the sailor and soldier not to be attracted by a little scene at Ancona on his last morning there, and that was in connection with the landing from the fleet of a body of sailors for certain evolutions upon the parade. They brought ashore twelve light guns, apparently about five-pounders, each manned by six Italian Jacks. These guns were promptly taken to pieces, and a couple of the men caught up the gun, the rest the wheels, ammunition boxes and carriages, and bore them down to the boats. Then, at the word of command, they carried them up again to the drill-ground, and in a little over a minute the guns were put together, mounted, loaded, and ready to open fire, the limber, in charge of two of the six men, standing a little in the rear. The whole evolution was remarkably good, and the rapidity most striking. At the word of command the guns were fired; they limbered up directly, and the men attached a sort of harness which went across their chests, and dashed off as fast as they could run till a halt was called, fresh position taken up, the guns unlimbered, loaded, and discharged again in an incredibly short space of time.

As Henty watched them the sailors seemed to be taking their task as if it afforded them the greatest amusement, and to one who had never witnessed any such drill before it appeared to be an exercise that ought to be introduced to our own navy, which, as far as he knew, had not been furnished with these light portable guns for landing operations, for there is no question, he says, that they would be of immense service if two or three of these little guns were added to every vessel of our fleet.

This was, of course, prior to Hentys experience in connection with Magdala and Ashantee, where he found our sailors on landing expeditions in no wise behind those of the Italian fleet. Later it came to his lot, after his own war-correspondent campaigns were at an end, to deal with correspondence, letters, and telegrams connected with the Boer war, in which our Jacks performed wonders, not with toy guns, but with the monsters on their specially-contrived carriages, under the manipulation of Captain Hedworth Lambton and Captain Percy Scott, which startled our enemies.

With ears relieved from the incessant roar of cannon to listen instead to the ringing of joy-bells and the cheers which welcomed the declaration of an armistice, Henty gladly availed himself of an opportunity to visit the old Italian cities, so as to see what life was like in these old-world places. Much of the quaint and antiquated still lingers round these towns, not only in the buildings, but in the habits of the people, suggestive of the days when Shakespeare and his contemporaries constructed their dramas, laying their scenes in Verona, Venice, Padua, Mantua, and other places, the very names of which suggest slashed doublets, rapiers, family enmities, relentless vendettas, keen-bladed swords, stilettoes, bravoes, feathered caps, poisoned cups, and all the rest.

Starting from Ancona, he went over to Sinigaglia, now upon the railway, but formerly a Roman station, and later of considerable importance in the Middle Ages, when war used often to rage between the states of the Pope and the family of Malatesta at Rimini. Here, too, Caesar Borgia made his name infamous by causing the Condottieri, his allies, to be strangled, an act of treachery suggestive of the massacre of the Janissaries at Constantinople.

These names suggest old-world celebrity, but Henty had come over for a change, sick for the time being of war and its rumours. The bow-string had been tight for some time, sending literary arrows speeding west, and the fact that a rather famous fair was being celebrated attracted him, in expectation of seeing what Italy would be like when its people were en f?te at a function similar to our own old Bartlemy or Greenwich.





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