A Roving Commission: or, Through the Black Insurrection at Hayti
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"And your officers, sir?" suppressing with difficulty an explosion of wrath at what he considered a fresh sign that the service was going to the dogs.
"The first officer is Lieutenant Winton, the second Lieutenant Plumber."
"Very well, sir, I will go off myself at once. I will detain you no longer."
Nat at once hurried off, while Captain Painton went into the office of another of the officials of the dockyard.
"The service is going to the dogs," he said. "Here is a young lieutenant, who from his appearance can't have passed more than a year, pitchforked over the head of heaven knows how many seniors, and placed as acting commander of a thirtysix-gun frigate, French prize, sir. Just look up the records of the lieutenants under him."
"One is a lieutenant of fifteen years' service, the other of twelve."
"It is monstrous, scandalous. This sort of thing is destructive of all discipline, and proves that everything is to go by favouritism. Just at the outbreak of the war it is enough to throw cold water on the spirits of all who are hoping to distinguish themselves."
Ignorant of the storm that had been excited in the mind of the flag-captain, Nat was already on his way, having as soon as he landed sent his coxswain to order a post-chaise to be got ready for starting in a quarter of an hour. It was eight o'clock when he dropped anchor, by nine he was on the road, and by handsomely tipping the post-boys he drew up at the Admiralty at half-past four.
"What name shall I say, sir?" the doorkeeper asked.
"Acting Commander Glover, with despatches from Jamaica."
The admiral looked up with amazement as Nat was announced. The latter had not mounted the second epaulette to which as commander he was entitled, and the admiral on his first glance thought that the attendant must have made a mistake.
"Did I understand, sir, that you are a commander?"
"An acting one only, sir. I have come home in command of the Spartane, a prize mounting thirty-six guns. The admiral was good enough to appoint me to the acting rank in order that I might bring her home with despatches, and the report respecting her capture by the brigantine Agile, of ten guns, which I had the honour to command."
"Yes, I saw a very brief notice of her capture in the Gazette ten days ago, but no particulars were given. I suppose the mail was just coming out when she arrived."
"That was partly the reason, no doubt, sir; but I think the admiral could have written more, had he not in his kindness of heart left it to me to hand in a full report. I may say that I had the good fortune to recapture two valuable West Indiamen that the Spartane had picked up on her way out."
The admiral rose from the table and took down a thick volume from the book-case. At the back were the words, "Records of Service." It was partly printed, a wide space being left under each name for further records to be written in.
"Glover, Nathaniel.Is that your Christian name, Captain Glover?"
"An exceptionally good record. 'Distinguished himself greatly in the attack by the frigate Orpheus on three piratical craft protected by strong batteries. Passed as lieutenant shortly afterwards. Appointed to the command of the schooner Arrow, four guns, charged to rescue white inhabitants off Hayti, and if possible to enter into communications with negro leaders and learn their views. In the course of the performance of this duty he landed with all his crew of twenty men, took off a French planter and family and eight other whites in the hands of a force estimated at three hundred and fifty blacks, and fought his way on board his ship again. Later on engaged a pirate brigantine, the Agile, of ten guns, which had just captured a Spanish merchantman. After a sharp fight, took possession of the prize, and with the aid of her crew capture the Agile.' And now with the Agile you have taken the Spartane, a thirty-six gun frigate, to say nothing of recapturing two valuable West Indiamen, prizes of hers. And I suppose, Commander Glover, if we confirm you in your rank and command, you will go forth and appear next time with a French three-decker in tow. From a tiny schooner to a frigate is a greater distance than from a frigate to a line-of-battle ship."
"Yes, sir," Nat said with a smile; "but the advantage of quick man?uvring that one gets in a small craft, and which gives one a chance against a larger adversary, becomes lost when it is a frigate against a line-of-battle ship. The Spartane is fairly handy, but she could not hope to gain much advantage that way over a bigger vessel."
"I wonder the admiral had men enough to spare to send her home."
"He could hardly have done so, sir, but fifty of the merchant sailors belonging to the recaptured prizes volunteered for the voyage, and were furnished by the admiral with discharges on arrival at Portsmouth."
"A very good plan, for it is hard work to get men now that we are fitting out every ship at all the naval ports. Now, Commander Glover, I will detain you no longer. I shall carefully read through these despatches this evening, and shall discuss them with my colleagues to-morrow. I shall be glad if you will dine with me to-morrow evening at half-past six; here is my card and address."
"I beg your pardon, sir, but I am altogether ignorant of such matters – should I come in uniform or plain clothes?"
"Whichever would suit you best," the admiral replied with a smile. "As you have only just arrived to-day from the West Indies, and doubtless have had little time for preparations before you sailed, it is more than likely that you may not have had time to provide yourself with a full-dress uniform."
"I have not, sir; and indeed, had I had time I should not have thought of buying one of my acting rank, which would naturally terminate as soon as the object for which it was granted was attained."
"Very well, then, come in plain dress. I may tell you for your information, that when invited by an admiral to his official residence you would be expected to appear in uniform, but when asked to dine at his private residence it would not be considered as a naval function, and although I do not at all say that it would be wrong to appear in uniform, there would be no necessity for doing so."
As everyone dressed for dinner in the West Indies for the sake of coolness and comfort, Nat was well provided in this way. After his dinner at the Golden Cross he went to a playhouse. He had posted a letter to his father, which was written before he landed, directly he reached town, saying that he was home; that of course he could not say how long it would be before he would be able to leave his ship, but as soon as he did so he would run down into Somersetshire and stay there until he received orders either to join another vessel or to return to the West Indies. The next afternoon the papers came out with the official news, and news-boys were shouting themselves hoarse:
"Capture of a French frigate by a ten-gun British brig! Thirty-six guns against ten! Three hundred and fifty Frenchmen against fifty Englishmen! Nearly half the monsieurs killed or wounded, the rest taken prisoners! Glorious victory!" And Nat was greatly amused as he looked out of the window of the hotel at the eager hustling that was going on to obtain one of the broadsheets.
"It sounds a big thing," he said to himself, "but there was nothing in it, and the whole thing was over in less time than it takes to talk about it. Well, I hope I shall either get off to Portsmouth again to-morrow or go down to the dear old pater. I wish this dinner was over. No doubt there will be some more of these old admirals there, and they will be wanting to learn all the ins and outs, just as if twenty words would not tell them how it was we thrashed them so easily. They know well enough that if you have a quick handy craft, and get her under the weather quarter of a slow-moving frigate the latter hasn't a shadow of a chance."
Although not an official dinner, all the twelve gentlemen who sat down were, with the exception of Nat, connected with the admiralty. The first lord and several other admirals were there, the others were heads of departments and post-captains.
"Before we begin dinner," the first lord said, "I have pleasure in handing this to you, Commander Glover. There is but one opinion among my colleagues and myself, which is that as you have captured the Spartane and have come home as her commander, we cannot do less than confirm you in that rank and leave her in your charge. You are certainly unusually young for such promotion, but your career has been for the past four years so exceptional that we seem to have scarcely any option in the matter. Such promotion is not only a reward you have gallantly won, but that you should receive it will, we feel, animate other young officers to wholesome emulation that will be advantageous both to themselves and to the service in general."
Nat could scarcely credit his ears. That he might be appointed second lieutenant of the Spartane or some other ship of war was, he thought, probable; but the acme of his hopes was that a first lieutenancy in a smart sloop might possibly be offered to him. His two officers on the way home had talked the matter over with him, and they had been a little amused at seeing that he never appeared to think it within the bounds of possibility that his rank would be confirmed, although, as the admiral before sailing told them, he had most strongly recommended that this should be done, and he thought it certain that the authorities at home would see the matter in the same light. He had asked them not to give the slightest hint to Nat that such promotion might be awarded to him. "You never can tell," the admiral said, "what the Admiralty will do, but here is a chance that they don't often get of making a really popular promotion, without a suspicion of favouritism being entertained. Beyond the fact that he has been mentioned in despatches, I doubt if anyone at Whitehall as much as knows the young fellow's name, and the service generally will see that for once merit has been recognized on the part of one who, so far as patronage goes, is friendless."
Nat returned to Portsmouth the following morning, and spent some hours in signing papers and going through other formalities.
"The Spartane will be paid off to-morrow, Captain Glover," the port admiral said; "she will be recommissioned immediately. I hope you will be able to get some of the men to re-enter, for there is a good deal of difficulty about crews. So great a number of ships have been fitted out during the past four or five months that we have pretty well exhausted the seafaring population here, and even the press-gangs fail to bring many in."
Going on board, Nat sent for the boatswain and gunners, and informed them that as he was to recommission the Spartane he was anxious to get as many of the hands to reship as possible.
"I have no doubt that some of them will join, sir," the quarter-master said. "I heard them talking among themselves, and saying that she has been as pleasant a ship as they had ever sailed in, and if you was to hoist your pennant a good many of them would sign on."
"I would not mind giving a couple of pounds a head."
"I don't think that it would be of any use, sir. If the men will join they will join, if they won't they won't. Besides, they have all got some pay, and most of them some prize-money coming to them, and it would be only so much more to chuck away if they had it. And another thing, sir, I think when men like an officer they like to show him that it is so, and they would rather reship without any bounty, to show that they liked him, than have it supposed that it was for the sake of the money."
After the men had been paid off the next morning, he told them in a short speech that he had been appointed to recommission the Spartane, and said that he would be glad to have a good many of them with him again. He was much gratified when fully two-thirds of the men, including the greater part of the merchantmen, stepped forward and entered their names.
"That speaks well indeed for our young commander," the port admiral, who had been present, said to his flag-captain. "It is seldom indeed that you find anything like so large a proportion of men ready to reship at once. It proves that they have confidence in his skill as well as in his courage, and that they feel that the ship will be a comfortable one."
It was expected that the Spartane would be at least a month in the hands of the shipwrights, and the men on signing were given leave of absence for that time. As soon as all this was arranged, Nat took a post-chaise and drove to Southampton. There he found the Duchesnes at an hotel. Their ship had gone into the port two days previously, but all their belongings were not yet out of the hold, and indeed it had been arranged that they would not go up to town till they saw him. They were delighted to hear that his appointment had been confirmed, and that he was to have the command of the Spartane.
"Now, I suppose you will be running down to see your people at once?" Myra said with a little pout.
"I think that is only fair," he said, "considering that I have not seen them for six years. I don't think that even you could grudge me a few days."
"Yeovil is a large place, isn't it?" she asked.
"Yes; why do you ask?"
She looked at her mother, who smiled.
"The fact is, Nat, Myra has been endeavouring to persuade her father and me that it would be a nice plan for us to go down there with you and to form the acquaintance of your parents. Of course we should stay at an hotel. We are in no particular hurry to go up to London; and as while you are away we shall naturally wish to see as much as we can of your people, this would make a very good beginning. And perhaps some of them will come back to London with us when you join your ship."
"I think it would be a first-rate plan, madame, the best thing possible. Of course I want my father and mother and the girls to see Myra."
"When will you start?"
"To-morrow morning. Of course we shall go by post. It will be a very cross-country journey by coach, and many of these country roads are desperately bad. It is only about the same distance that it is to London, but the roads are not so good, so I propose that we make a short journey to-morrow to Salisbury, and then, starting early, go through to Yeovil. We shall be there in good time in the afternoon. I shall only be taking a very small amount of kit, so that we ought to be able to stow three large trunks, which will, I suppose, be enough for you. Of course we could send some on by a waggon, but there is no saying when they would get there, and as likely as not they would not arrive until just as we are leaving there; of course Dinah will go on the box."
At four o'clock, two days later, the post-chaise drove up to the principal hotel at Yeovil. Rooms were at once obtained for the Duchesnes, and Nat hired a light trap to drive him out to his father's rectory, some three miles out of the town. As he drove up to the house, three girls, from sixteen to two-and three-and-twenty, ran out, followed a moment later by his father and mother. For a few minutes there was but little coherent talk. His sisters could scarcely believe that this tall young officer was the lad they had last seen, and even his father and mother agreed that they would scarce have recognized him.
"I don't think the girls quite recognize me now," he laughed. "They kissed me in a very feeble sort of way, as if they were not at all sure that it was quite right. Indeed, I was not quite sure myself that it was the proper thing for me to salute three strange young ladies."
"What nonsense you talk, Nat," his eldest sister Mary said. "I thought by this time, now you are a lieutenant, you would have become quite stiff, and would expect a good deal of deference to be paid to you."
"I can't say that you have been a good correspondent, Nat," his mother said. "You wrote very seldom, and then said very little of what you had been doing."
"Well, mother, there are not many post-offices in Hayti, and I should not have cared to trust any letters to them if there had been. There is the advantage, you see, that there is much more to tell you now than if I had written to you before. You don't get papers very regularly here, I think?"
"No, we seldom see a London paper, and the Bath papers don't tell much about anything except the fashionable doings there."
"Then I have several pieces of news to tell you. Here is a Gazette, in which you will see that a certain Nathaniel Glover brought into Portsmouth last week a French thirty-six-gun frigate which he had captured, and in another part of the Gazette you will observe that the same officer has been confirmed in the acting rank of commander, and has been appointed to the Spartane, which is to be recommissioned at once. Therefore you see, sisters, you will in future address me as captain."
There was a general exclamation of surprise and delight.
"That is what it was," the rector said, "that Dr. Miles was talking to me about yesterday in Yeovil. He said that the London papers were full of the news that a French frigate had been captured by a little ten-gun brigantine, and had been brought home by the officer who had taken her, who was, he said, of the same name as mine. He said that it was considered an extraordinarily gallant action."
"We shall be as proud as peacocks," Lucy, the youngest girl, said.
"Now as to my news," he went on. "Doubtless that was important, but not so important as that which I am now going to tell you. At the present moment there is at Yeovil a gentleman and lady, together with their daughter, the said daughter being, at the end of a reasonable time, about to become my wife, and your sister, girls."
The news was received with speechless surprise.
"Really, Nat?" his mother said in a tone of doubt; "do you actually mean that you have become engaged to a young lady who is now at Yeovil?"
"That is the case, mother," he said cheerfully. "There is nothing very surprising that a young lady should fall in love with me, is there? and I think the announcement will look well in the papers – on such and such a date, Myra, daughter of Monsieur Duchesne, late of the island of Hayti, to Nathaniel, son of the Rev. Charles Glover of Arkton Rectory, commander in his majesty's navy."
"Duchesne!" Ada, the second girl, said, clapping her hands, "that is the name of the young lady you rescued from a dog. I remember at the time Mary and I quite agreed that the proper thing for you to do would be to marry her some day. Yes, and you were staying at her father's place when the blacks broke out; and you had all to hide in the woods for some time."
"Quite right, Ada. Well, she and her father and mother have posted down with me from Southampton in order to make your acquaintance, and to-morrow you will have to go over in a body."
"Does she speak English?" Mrs. Glover asked.
"Oh, yes, she speaks a good deal of English; her people have for the past two years intended to settle in England, and have all been studying the language to a certain extent. Besides that, they have had the inestimable advantage of my conversation, and have read a great many English books on their voyage home."
"Is Miss Duchesne very dark?" Lucy asked in a tone of anxiety.
Nat looked at her for a moment in surprise, and then burst into a fit of laughter.
"What, Lucy, do you think because Myra was born in Hayti that she is a little negress with crinkley wool?"
"No, no," the girl protested almost tearfully. "Of course I did not think that, but I thought that she might be dark. I am sure when I was at Bath last season and saw several old gentlemen, who, they said, were rich West Indians, they were all as yellow as guineas."
"Well, she won't be quite so dark as that, anyhow," Nat said; "in fact I can tell you, you three will all have to look your best to make a good show by the side of her."
"But this talk is all nonsense, Nat," the rector said gravely. "Your engagement is a very serious matter. Of course, now you have been so wonderfully fortunate, and are commander of a ship, you will, I have no doubt, have an income quite sufficient to marry upon, and, of course, you are in a position to please yourself."
"We are not going to be married just at present, father. She is three years younger than I am, and I am not far advanced in years; so it has been quite settled that we shall wait for some time yet. By then, if I am lucky, my prize-money will have swelled to a handsome amount, and indeed, although I don't know the exact particulars, I believe I am entitled to from eight to ten thousand pounds. Moreover as the young lady herself is an only child, and her father is a very wealthy man, I fancy that we are not likely to have to send round the hat to make ends meet."
The visit was duly paid the next day, and was most satisfactory to all parties, and, as the rectory was a large building, Mr. and Mrs. Glover insisted upon the Duchesnes removing there at once.
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