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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesNo Defense - Chapter 12. The Hour Before The Mutiny
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No Defense - Chapter 12. The Hour Before The Mutiny Post by :Arthur Category :Long Stories Author :Gilbert Parker Date :May 2012 Read :1456

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No Defense - Chapter 12. The Hour Before The Mutiny

CHAPTER XII. THE HOUR BEFORE THE MUTINY

In the days when Dyck Calhoun was on the verge of starvation in London, evil naval rumours were abroad. Newspapers reported, one with apprehension, another with tyrannous comment, mutinous troubles in the fleet.

At first the only demand at Spithead and the Nore had been for an increase of pay, which had not been made since the days of Charles II. Then the sailors' wages were enough for comfortable support; but in 1797 through the rise in the cost of living, and with an advance of thirty per cent. on slops, their families could barely maintain themselves. It was said in the streets, and with truth, that seamen who had fought with unconquerable gallantry under Howe, Collingwood, Nelson, and the other big sea-captains, who had borne suffering and wounds, and had been in the shadow of death--that even these men damned a system which, in its stern withdrawal of their class for long spaces of time from their own womenfolk, brought evil results to the forecastle.

The soldier was always in touch with his own social world, and he had leave sufficient to enable him to break the back of monotony. He drank, gambled, and orated; but his indulgences were little compared with the debauches of able-bodied seamen when, after months of sea-life, they reached port again. A ship in port at such a time was not a scene of evangelical habits. Women of loose class, flower-girls, fruit-sellers, and costermongers turned the forecastle into a pleasure-house where the pleasures were not always secret; where native modesty suffered no affright, and physical good cheer, with ribald paraphrase, was notable everywhere.

"How did it happen, Michael?"

As he spoke, Dyck looked round the forecastle of the Ariadne with a restless and inquisitive expression. Michael was seated a few feet away, his head bent forward, his hands clasped around his knees.

"Well, it don't matter one way or 'nother," he replied; "but it was like this. The night you got a letter from Virginia we was penniless; so at last I went with my watch to the pawnbroker's. You said you'd wait till I got back, though you knew not where I was goin'. When I got back, you were still broodin'. You were seated on a horse-block by the chemist's lamp where you had read the letter. It's not for me to say of what you were thinkin'; but I could guess. You'd been struck hard, and there had come to you a letter from one who meant more to you than all the rest of the world; and you couldn't answer it because things weren't right. As I stood lookin' at you, wonderin' what to do, though, I had twelve shillin's in my pocket from the watch I'd pawned, there came four men, and I knew from their looks they were recruitin' officers of the navy. I saw what was in their eyes. They knew--as why shouldn't they, when they saw a gentleman like you in peasant clothes?--that luck had been agin' us.

"What the end would have been I don't know. It was you that solved the problem, not them. You looked at the first man of them hard. Then you got to your feet.

"'Michael,' says you quietly, 'I'm goin' to sea. England's at war, and there's work to do. So let's make for a king's ship, and have done with misery and poverty.'

"Then you waved a hand to the man in command of the recruitin' gang, and presently stepped up to him and his friends.

"'Sir,' I said to you, 'I'm not going to be pressed into the navy.'

"'There's no pressin', Michael,' you answered. 'We'll be quota men. We'll do it for cash--for forty pounds each, and no other. You let them have you as you are. But if you don't want to come,' you added, 'it's all the same to me.'

"Faith, I knew that was only talk. I knew you wanted me. Also I knew the king's navy needed me, for men are hard to get. So, when they'd paid us the cash--forty pounds apiece--I stepped in behind you, and here we are--here we are! Forty pounds apiece--equal to three years' wages of an ordinary recruit of the army. It ain't bad, but we're here for three years, and no escape from it. Yes, here we are!"

Dyck laughed.

"Aye, here we're likely to remain, Michael. There's only this to be said--we'll be fighting the French soon, and it's easy to die in the midst of a great fight. If we don't die, Michael, something else will turn up, maybe."

"That's true, sir! They'll make an officer of you, once they see you fight. This is no place for you, among the common herd. It's the dregs o' the world that comes to the ship's bottom in time of peace or war."

"Well, I'm the dregs of the world, Michael. I'm the supreme dregs."

Somehow the letter from Virginia had decided Dyck Calhoun's fate for him. Here he was--at sea, a common sailor in the navy. He and Michael Clones had eaten and drunk as sailors do, and they had realized that, as they ate and drank on the River Thames, they would not eat and drink on the watery fairway. They had seen the tank foul with age, from which water was drawn for men who could not live without it, and the smell of it had revolted Dyck's senses. They had seen the kegs of pickled meat, and they had been told of the evil rations given to the sailors at sea.

The Ariadne had been a flag-ship in her day, the home of an admiral and his staff. She carried seventy-four guns, was easily obedient to her swift sail, and had a reputation for gallantry. From the first hour on board, Dyck Calhoun had fitted in; with a discerning eye he had understood the seamen's needs and the weaknesses of the system.

The months he had spent between his exit from prison and his entrance into the Ariadne had roughened, though not coarsened, his outward appearance. From his first appearance among the seamen he had set himself to become their leader. His enlistment was for three years, and he meant that these three should prove the final success of this naval enterprise, or the stark period in a calendar of tragedy.

The life of the sailor, with its coarseness and drudgery, its inadequate pay, its evil-smelling food, its maggoty bread, its beer drawn from casks that once had held oil or fish, its stinking salt-meat barrels, the hideous stench of the bilge-water--all this could in one sense be no worse than his sufferings in jail. In spite of self-control, jail had been to him the degradation of his hopes, the humiliation of his manhood.

He had suffered cold, dampness, fever, and indigestion there, and it had sapped the fresh fibre of life in him. His days in London had been cruel. He had sought work in great commercial concerns, and had almost been grateful when rejected. When his money was stolen, there seemed nothing to do, as he said to Michael Clones, but to become a footpad or a pirate. Then the stormy doors of the navy had opened wide to him; and as many a man is tempted into folly or crime by tempestuous nature, so he, forlorn, spiritually unkempt, but physically and mentally well-composed, in a spirit of bravado, flung himself into the bowels of the fleet.

From the moment Dyck arrived on board the Ariadne he was a marked man. Ferens, a disfranchised solicitor, who knew his story, spread the unwholesome truth about him among the ship's people, and he received attentions at once offensive and flattering. The best-educated of the ship's hands approached him on the grievances with which the whole navy was stirring.

Something had put a new spirit into the life of his majesty's ships; it was, in a sense, the reflection of the French Revolution and Tom Paine's Age of Reason. What the Americans had done in establishing a republic, what France was doing by her revolution, got into the veins and minds of some men in England, but it got into the veins and minds of the sailor first; for, however low his origin, he had intercourse not given to the average landsman. He visited foreign ports, he came in touch with other elements than those of British life and character.

Of all the ships in the navy the Ariadne was the best that Dyck Calhoun could have entered. Her officers were humane and friendly, yet firm; and it was quite certain that if mutiny came they would be treated well. The agitation on the Ariadne in support of the grievances of the sailors was so moderate that, from the first, Dyck threw in his lot with it. Ferens, the former solicitor, first came to him with a list of proposals, which only repeated the demands made by the agitators at Spithead.

"You're new among us," said Ferens to Dyck. "You don't quite know what we've been doing, I suppose. Some of us have been in the navy for two years, and some for ten. There are men on this ship who could tell you stories that would make your blood run cold--take my word for it. There's a lot of things goin' on that oughtn't to be goin' on. The time has come for reform. Have a look at this paper, and tell me what you think."

Dyck looked at the pockmarked face of Ferens, whose record in the courts was a bad one, and what he saw did not disgust him. It was as though Ferens had stumbled and been badly hit in his fall, but there were no signs of permanent evil in his countenance. He was square-headed, close-cropped, clear-eyed, though his face was yellow where it was not red, and his tongue was soft in his head.

Dyck read the paper slowly and carefully. Then he handed it back without a word.

"Well, what have you got to say?" asked Ferens. "Nothing? Don't you think that's a strong list of grievances and wrongs?"

Dyck nodded. "Yes, it's pretty strong," he said, and he held up his hand. "Number One, wages and cost of living. I'm sure we're right there. Cost of living was down in King Charles's time, and wages were down accordingly. Everything's gone up, and wages should go up. Number Two, the prize-money scandal. I'm with you there. I don't see why an officer should get two thousand five hundred times as much as a seaman. There ought to be a difference, but not so much. Number Three, the food ought to be better; the water ought to be better. We can't live on rum, maggoty bread, and foul water--that's sure. The rum's all right; it's powerful natural stuff, but we ought to have meat that doesn't stink, and bread that isn't alive. What's more, we ought to have lots of lime-juice, or there's no protection for us when we're out at sea with the best meat taken by the officers and the worst left to us; and with foul water and rotten food, there's no hope or help. But, if we're going in for this sort of thing, we ought to do it decently. We can't slap a government in the mouth, and we can't kick an admiral without paying heavy for it in the end. If it's wholesome petitioning you're up to, I'm with you; but I'm not if there's to be knuckle-dusting."

Ferens shrugged a shoulder.

"Things are movin', and we've got to take our stand now when the time is ripe for it, or else lose it for ever. Over at Spithead they're gettin' their own way. The government are goin' to send the Admiralty Board down here, because our admiral say to them that it won't be safe goin' unless they do."

"And what are we going to do here?" asked Dyck. "What's the game of the fleet at the Nore?"

Ferens replied in a low voice:

"Our men are goin' to send out petitions--to the Admiralty and to the House of Commons."

"Why don't you try Lord Howe?"

"He's not in command of a fleet now. Besides, petitions have been sent him, and he's taken no notice."

"Howe? No notice--the best admiral we ever had! I don't believe it," declared Dyck savagely. "Why, the whole navy believes in Howe. They haven't forgotten what he did in '94. He's as near to the seaman as the seaman is to his mother. Who sent the petitions to him?"

"They weren't signed by names--they were anonymous."

Dyck laughed.

"Yes, and all written by the same hand, I suppose." Ferens nodded.

"I think that's so."

"Can you wonder, then, that Lord Howe didn't acknowledge them? But I'm still sure he acted promptly. He's a big enough friend of the sailor to waste no time before doing his turn."

Ferens shook his head morosely.

"That may be," he said; "but the petitions were sent weeks ago, and there's no sign from Lord Howe. He was at Bath for gout. My idea is he referred them to the admiral commanding at Portsmouth, and was told that behind the whole thing is conspiracy--French socialism and English politics. I give you my word there's no French agent in the fleet, and if there were, it wouldn't have any effect. Our men's grievances are not new. They're as old as Cromwell."

Suddenly a light of suspicion flashed into Ferens's face.

"You're with us, aren't you? You see the wrongs we've suffered, and how bad it all is! Yet you haven't been on a voyage with us. You've only tasted the life in harbour. Good God, this life is heaven to what we have at sea! We don't mind the fightin'. We'd rather fight than eat." An evil grin covered his face for a minute. "Yes, we'd rather fight than eat, for the stuff we get to eat is hell's broil, God knows! Did you ever think what the life of the sailor is, that swings at the top of a mast with the frost freezin' his very soul, and because he's slow, owin' to the cold, gets twenty lashes for not bein' quicker? Well, I've seen that, and a bad sight it is. Did you ever see a man flogged? It ain't a pretty sight. First the back takes the click of the whip like a damned washboard, and you see the ridges rise and go purple and red, and the man has his breath knocked clean out of him with every blow. Nearly every stroke takes off the skin and draws the blood, and a dozen will make the back a ditch of murder. Then the whipper stops, looks at the lashes, feels them tender like, and out and down it comes again. When all the back is ridged and scarred, the flesh, that looked clean and beautiful, becomes a bloody mass. Some men get a hundred lashes, and that's torture and death.

"A man I knew was flogged told me once that the first blow made his flesh quiver in every nerve from his toe-nails to his finger-nails, and stung his heart as if a knife had gone through his body. There was agony in his lungs, and the time between each stroke was terrible, and yet the next came too soon. He choked with the blood from his tongue, lacerated with his teeth, and from his lungs, and went black in the face. I saw his back. It looked like roasted meat; yet he had only had eighty strokes.

"The punishments are bad. Runnin' the gauntlet is one of them. Each member of the crew is armed with three tarry rope-yarns, knotted at the ends. Then between the master-at-arms with a drawn sword and two corporals with drawn swords behind, the thief, stripped to the waist, is placed. The thing is started by a boatswain's mate givin' him a dozen lashes. Then he's slowly marched down the double line of men, who flog him as he passes, and at the end of the line he receives another dose of the cat from the boatswain's mate. The poor devil's body and head are flayed, and he's sent to hospital and rubbed with brine till he's healed.

"But the most horrible of all is flogging through the fleet. That's given for strikin' an officer, or tryin' to escape. It's a sickenin' thing. The victim is lashed by his wrists to a capstan-bar in the ship's long-boat, and all the ship's boats are lowered also, and each ship in harbour sends a boat manned by marines to attend. Then, with the master-at-arms and the ship's surgeon, the boat is cast off. The boatswain's mate begins the floggin', and the boat rows away to the half-minute bell, the drummer beatin' the rogue's march. From ship to ship the long-boat goes, and the punishment of floggin' is repeated. If he faints, he gets wine or rum, or is taken back to his ship to recover. When his back is healed he goes out to get the rest of his sentence. Very few ever live through it, or if they do it's only for a short time. They'd better have taken the hangin' that was the alternative. Even a corpse with its back bare of flesh to the bone has received the last lashes of a sentence, and was then buried in the mud of the shore with no religious ceremony.

"Mind you, there's many a man gets fifty lashes that don't deserve them. There's many men in the fleet that's stirred to anger at ill-treatment, until now, in these days, the whole lot is ready to see the thing through--to see the thing through--by heaven and by hell!"

The pockmarked face had taken on an almost ghastly fervour, until it looked like a distorted cartoon-vindictive, fanatical; but Dyck, on the edge of the river of tragedy, was not ready to lose himself in the stream of it.

As he looked round the ship he felt a stir of excitement like nothing he had ever known, though he had been brought up in a country where men were by nature revolutionists, and where the sword was as often outside as inside the scabbard. There was something terrible in a shipboard agitation not to be found in a land-rising. On land there were a thousand miles of open country, with woods and houses, caves and cliffs, to which men could flee for hiding; and the danger of rebellion was less dominant. At sea, a rebellion was like some beastly struggle in one room, beyond the walls of which was everlasting nothingness. The thing had to be fought out, as it were, man to man within four walls, and God help the weaker!

"How many ships in the fleet are sworn to this agitation?" Dyck asked presently.

"Every one. It's been like a spread of infection; it's entered at every door, looked out of every window. All the ships are in it, from the twenty-six-hundred-tonners to the little five-hundred-and-fifty-tonners. Besides, there are the Delegates."

He lowered his voice as he used these last words. "Yes, I know," Dyck answered, though he did not really know. "But who is at the head?"

"Why, as bold a man as can be--Richard Parker, an Irishman. He was once a junior naval officer, and left the navy and went into business; now he is a quotaman, and leads the mutiny. Let me tell you that unless there's a good round answer to what we demand, the Nore fleet'll have it out with the government. He's a man of character, is Richard Parker, and the fleet'll stand by him."

"How long has he been at it?" asked Dyck.

"Oh, weeks and weeks! It doesn't all come at once, the grip of the thing. It began at Spithead, and it worked right there; and now it's workin' at the Nore, and it'll work and work until there isn't a ship and there isn't a man that won't be behind the Delegates. Look. Half the seamen on this ship have tasted the inside of a jail; and the rest come from the press-gang, and what's left are just the ragged ends of street corners. But"--and here the man drew himself up with a flush--"but there's none of us that wouldn't fight to the last gasp of breath for the navy that since the days of Elizabeth has sailed at the head of all the world. Don't think we mean harm to the fleet. We mean to do it good. All we want is that its masters shall remember we're human flesh and blood; that we're as much entitled to good food and drink on sea as on land; and that, if we risk our lives and shed our blood, we ought to have some share in the spoils. We're a great country and we're a great people, but, by God, we're not good to our own! Look at them there."

He turned and waved a hand to the bowels of the ship where sailors traded with the slop-sellers, or chaffered with women, or sat in groups and sang, or played rough games which had no vital meaning; while here and there in groups, with hands gesticulating, some fanatics declared their principles. And the principles of every man in the Nore fleet so far were embraced in the four words--wages, food, drink, prize-money.

Presently Ferens stopped short. "Listen!" he said.

There was a cry from the ship's side not far away, and then came little bursts of cheering.

"By Heaven, it's the Delegates comin' here!" he said. He held up a warning palm, as though commanding silence, while he listened intently. "Yes, it's the Delegates. Now look at that crowd of seamen!" He swung his hand towards the bowels of the ship. Scores of men were springing to their feet. Presently there came a great shouting and cheers, and then four new faces appeared on deck. They were faces of intelligence, but one of them had the enlightened look of leadership.

"By Judas, it's our leader, Richard Parker!" declared Ferens.

What Dyck now saw was good evidence of the progress of the agitation. There were officers of the Ariadne to be seen, but they wisely took no notice of the breaches of regulation which followed the arrival of the Delegates. Dyck saw Ferens speak to Richard Parker after the men had been in conference with Parker and the Delegates, and then turn towards himself. Richard Parker came to him.

"We are fellow countrymen," he said genially. "I know your history. We are out to make the navy better--to get the men their rights. I understand you are with us?"

Dyck bowed. "I will do all possible to get reforms in wages and food put through, sir."

"That's good," said Parker. "There are some petitions you can draft, and some letters also to the Admiralty and to the Houses of Lords and Commons."

"I am at your service," said Dyck.

He saw his chance to secure influence on the Ariadne, and also to do good to the service. Besides, he felt he might be able to check the worst excesses of the agitation, if he got power under Parker. He was free from any wish for mutiny, but he was the friend of an agitation which might end as successfully as the trouble at Spithead.

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