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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Loss Of The Royal George - Chapter 3
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The Loss Of The Royal George - Chapter 3 Post by :flashzoe Category :Long Stories Author :William H. G. Kingston Date :May 2012 Read :1423

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The Loss Of The Royal George - Chapter 3

CHAPTER THREE

What a change it was from the quiet cottage, with my sweet Susan by my side, to the lower-deck of the big ship, crowded with people, not only her own seamen and marines, but some hundreds of visitors, women and children! some of them the honest wives of the men, but others drunken, swearing, loud-talking creatures--a disgrace to their sex. Quarrelling and fighting and the wildest uproar were taking place; and then there were a number of Jews with pinchbeck watches, and all sorts of trumpery wares, which they were eager to exchange for poor Jack's golden guineas. Some of them went away in the evening, but many more came back the next morning to drive their trade, and would have come as long as coin was to be picked up.

I am not likely to forget that next morning, the 28th of August. It was a fine summer's morning, and there was just a little sea on, with a strongish breeze blowing from the eastward, but not enough to prevent boats coming off from Portsmouth. I counted forty sail-of-the-line, a dozen frigates and smaller ships of war, and well-nigh three hundred merchant vessels, riding, as of course we were, to the flood with our heads towards Cowes.

You will understand that under the lower-deck was fitted a cistern, into which the sea-water was received and then pumped up by a hand pump, fixed in the middle of the gun-deck, for the purpose of washing the two lower gun-decks; the water was let into this cistern by a pipe which passed through the ship's side, and which was secured by a stop-cock, on the inside. It had been found the morning before that this water-cock, which was about three feet below the water line, was out of order and must be repaired.

The foreman came off from the dockyard, and said that it was necessary to careen the ship over to port sufficiently to raise the mouth of the pipe, which went through the ship's timbers below, clean out of the water, that he and his men might work at it. Between seven and eight o'clock the order was given to run the larboard guns out as far as they could go, the larboard ports being opened. The starboard guns were also run in amidships and secured by tackles, the moving over of this great weight of metal bringing the larboard lower-deck port-cills just level with the water. The men were then able to get at the mouth of the pipe. For an hour the ship remained in this position, while the carpenters were at work. We had been taking in ruin and shot in the previous day, and now a sloop called the _Lark_, which belonged to three brothers, came alongside with the last cargo of rum; she having been secured to the larboard side, the hands were piped to clear lighter.

I had been on duty on the main-deck; several ladies had come off early in the morning, friends and relations of the officers. Some of them were either in the ward-room or gun-room, and others were walking the quarter-deck with the help of their gentlemen friends, as it was no easy matter, the ship heeling over as much as she was then doing. They thought it very good fun, however, and were laughing and talking as they tried to keep their feet from slipping. I had been sent with a message to Mr Hollingbury, our third lieutenant, who was officer of the watch; he seemed out of temper, and gave me a rough answer, as he generally did. He was not a favourite indeed with us, and we used to call him "Jib-and-Foresail Jack"; for when he had the watch at night he was always singing out, "Up jib," and "Down jib"; "Up foresail," "Down foresail"; and from a habit he had of moving his fingers about when walking the quarter-deck, we used to say that he had been an organ-player in London. Just as I got back to the main-deck, I caught a glimpse of a young lady in black, leading a little boy; she turned her face towards me, and I saw that she was the very same who had come to my wife's cottage the previous evening--indeed I should have known her by the little boy by her side. I had to return to the quarter-deck again, and when I once more came back to the main-deck I could nowhere see her; but whether she went into the ward-room, or had gone below, I could not learn. I asked several people, for I thought she might have brought me off a message from Susan, and I might, I fancied, have been of use to her in finding the person she wished to see. While I was looking about, Mr Webb, the purser's clerk, who had received orders to go on shore in charge of a boat, came up and ordered me to call the crew away; a couple of midshipmen were going with him. This took up some time, and prevented me from finding the young lady. Just then, as I went up to report the boat gone to Mr Hollingbury, Mr Williams, the carpenter, came up from the lower-deck, and requested that he would be pleased to order the ship to be righted, as she was heeling over more than she could bear. The lieutenant gave one of his usual short answers to the carpenter, who went below, looking as if he did not at all like it. He was back again, however, before I had left the deck, when he said in a short quick way, as if there was not a moment to lose--

"If you please, sir, the ship is getting past her bearings; it's my duty to tell you, she will no longer bear it."

"If you think, sir, you can manage the ship better than I can, you had better take the command," answered Mr Hollingbury in an angry tone, twitching his fingers and turning away.

About this time there were a good many men in the waist who heard what the carpenter had said, and what answer the lieutenant gave. They all knew, as I did, that the ship must be in great danger, or the carpenter would not have spoken so sharply as he had.

A large number of the crew, however, were below; some on board the lighter, others at the yard-tackles and stay-falls, hoisting in casks; some in the spirit-room stowing away, others bearing the casks down the hatchway, all busy clearing the lighter. The greater number, it will be understood, were on the larboard side, and that brought the ship down still more to larboard. There was a little more sea on than before, which had begun to wash into the lower-deck ports, and, having no escape, there was soon a good weight of water on the lower-deck. Several of the men, not dreaming of danger, were amusing themselves, laughing and shouting, catching mice, for there were a good many of them in the ship, which the water had driven out of their quarters. It's my belief, however, that the casks of rum hoisted in, and lying on the larboard side, before they could be lowered into the hold, helped very much to bring the ship down.

There stood the lieutenant, fuming at the way the carpenter had spoken to him. Suddenly, however, it seemed to occur to him that the carpenter was right, and he ordered the drummer to beat to quarters, that the guns might be run into their places, and the ship righted.

"Dick Tattoo" was shouted quick enough along the deck, for everyone now saw that not a moment was to be lost, as the ship had just then heeled over still more. The moment the drummer was called, all hands began tumbling down the hatchways to their quarters, that they might run in their guns.

Just then I saw a young midshipman, whom I had observed going off with Mr Webb, standing at the entrance-port singing out for the boat; he had forgotten his dirk, he said, and had come back to fetch it. The boat, however, had got some distance off, and he was left behind. Poor fellow, it was a fatal piece of forgetfulness for him.

"Never mind, Jemmy Pish," said little Crispo, one of the smallest midshipmen I ever saw, for he was only nine years old. "There is another boat going ashore directly, and you can go in her."

He gave an angry answer, and went back into the gun-room, swearing at his ill-luck.

The men had just got hold of the gun-tackles, and were about to bowse out their guns, which had been run in amidship, some five hundred of them or more having for the purpose gone over to the larboard side, which caused the ship to heel still more, when the water made a rush into the larboard lower-deck ports, and, do all they could, the guns ran in again upon them. Feeling sure that the ship could not be righted, I, seizing little Crispo, made a rush to starboard, and, dashing through an open port, found myself outside the ship, which at that moment went completely over, her masts and spars sinking under the water. Somehow or other, the young midshipman broke from me and slipped over into the sea. I thought the poor little fellow would have been lost, but he struck out bravely, which was, as it turned out, the best thing he could have done, as he could swim well.

I had just before seen all the port-holes crowded with seamen, trying to escape, and jamming one another so that they could scarcely move one way or the other. The ship now lying down completely on her larboard broadside, suddenly the heads of most of the men disappeared, they having dropped back into the ship, many of those who were holding on being hauled down by others below them. It was, you see, as if they had been trying to get out of a number of chimneys, with nothing for their feet to rest upon. Directly afterwards there came such a rush of wind through the ports that my hat was blown off. It was the air from the hold, which, having no other vent, escaped as the water pouring in took up its space. The whole side of the ship was, I said, covered with seamen and marines, and here and there a Jew maybe, and a good many women and a few children shrieking and crying out for mercy. Never have I heard such a fearful wailing. One poor woman near me shrieked out for her husband, but he was nowhere to be seen, and she thought that he was below with those who by this time were drowned; for there were hundreds who had been on the lower-decks, and in the hold, who had never even reached the ports, and some who had fallen back into the sea as it rushed in at the larboard side. She implored me to help her, and I said I would if I could. We could see boats putting off from the ships all round us to our help, and here and there people swimming for their lives who had leaped from the stern-ports, or had been on the lower-deck. I could not help thinking of our fine old admiral, and wished that he might be among them; but he was not, for he was writing in his cabin at the time, and when the captain tried to let him know that the ship was sinking, he found the door so jammed by her heeling over that he could not open it, and was obliged to rush aft and make his escape through a stern-port to save his life. This I afterwards heard.

As the ship had floated for some minutes, I began to hope that she would continue in the same position, and that I and others around me on her side might be saved. I hoped this for my own sake, and still more for that of my dear wife. I had been thinking of her all the time, for I knew that it would go well-nigh to break her heart if I was taken from her, as it were, just before her eyes. Suddenly I found, to my horror, that the ship was settling down; the shrieks of despair which rent the air on every side, not only from women, but from many a man I had looked upon as a stout fellow, rang in my ears. Knowing that if I went down with the ship I should have a hard job to rise again, I seized the poor woman by the dress, and leaped off with her into the sea; but, to my horror, her dress tore, and before I could get hold of her again she was swept from me. I had struck out for some distance, when I felt myself, as it were, drawn back, and, on looking round, I saw the ship's upper works disappear beneath the water, which was covered with a mass of human beings, shrieking and lifting up their hands in despair. Presently they all disappeared. Just then I felt myself drawn down by someone getting hold of my foot under the water, but, managing to kick off my shoe, I quickly rose again and struck out away from the spot, impelled by instinct rather than anything else, for I had no time for thought; then directly afterwards up came the masts almost with a bound, as it were, and stood out of the water, with a slight list only to starboard, with the fore, main, and mizzen tops all above water, as well as part of the bowsprit and ensign-staff, with the flag still hoisted to it. Many people were floating about, making for the tops and rigging, several of them terrorstricken, who could not swim, catching hold of those that could. I thought, on seeing this, that it would be wiser to keep clear of them, till I could reach a boat coming towards the wreck at no great distance off. I was pretty nigh exhausted when I reached the boat, in which were a waterman and two young gentlemen, who happened to be crossing from Ryde to Portsmouth at the time. They soon hauled me in, and I begged them to pull on and save some of the drowning people. As neither of them could row, quickly recovering I took one of the oars, and was about to sit down to help the waterman, when I saw, not far off, several sheep, pigs, and fowls swimming in all directions, while hencoops and all sorts of articles were floating about.

"Let us save the poor beasts," cried one of the young gentlemen thoughtlessly, just as young people are apt to speak sometimes. We, of course, took no heed of what he said, when our fellow-creatures had to be saved, and were pulling on when my eye fell on one of the sheep swimming away from us, which seemed to have someone holding on to its back. We put the boat round and followed, when, what was my surprise to see a child hanging on with both its hands to the sheep's back! On a second look, it struck me that he was the very same little boy I had seen at my cottage, and who had come on board that morning with the young lady.

"Gently, now," I cried out, afraid that the little fellow might let go his hold before we were up to him, but he held on bravely. In half a minute we were alongside the sheep, and I had the child safely in my arms. The young gentlemen hauled the poor sheep into the boat, for it would not have done to let it drown after having saved the child. I now saw that the little fellow was the same I had supposed, for he had his hat fastened on under his chin, and his sailor's jacket and trousers on; he looked more astonished than frightened, and when I asked him how he had got into the water he could not tell me.

"Where is the young lady? is she your mother or aunt?" I asked.

He had no answer to give, but only gazed about with a startled look. He might have been younger than I had supposed; at all events, not a word could I get out of him to let me know who he was. One of the young gentlemen wished to hold him in his arms, so I gave the little fellow to him, and, taking the oar, we began to pull back towards the wreck to try and save any who might be still swimming about. The tops and rigging were by this time full of people who had managed to reach them, while several hanging on by ropes were still floating in the water. A number of boats from the men-of-war had, however, got up to the spot, and they were better able to go in among the spars and rigging than was our light wherry with the sea which was then running. Now that I was safe myself, I was anxious to learn who among my shipmates had escaped; but then I had the little boy to look after, who was all wet and shivering, and I knew too that the news of the accident would soon reach Susan, and that she would be in a fearful state of alarm if I did not let her know that I had been preserved. I told the young gentlemen this, and begged them to let the boatman put me and the child ashore at Ryde, promising him a guinea if he would do so. They were strangers who had been making a tour on the island, and, though they were in a hurry to get back to Portsmouth, they at once consented to do as I wished.

As we had a fair wind we hoisted the sail, and, soon getting away from the scene of the disaster, quickly reached the hard at Ryde. After thanking the young gentlemen and the waterman, I had jumped on shore with the child in my arms, and was stooping down to get hold of the sheep which I thought ought to be mine, or rather the little boy's, when the waterman stopped me.

"No, no, master! you are not going to have that animal," he said; "I want him."

"We should not have stopped to pick up the sheep if it had not been for the little boy," observed one of the young gentlemen; "and so, as the sheep's life was saved on his account, the animal should go where he goes."

The waterman, however, seemed determined to have the sheep.

"Come, master," said I, "I will give you half a guinea, and that is as much as you will get for the animal."

The waterman still held out.

"Come, you shall have a guinea," said I, getting the money out of my pocket.

"And we will give five shillings apiece," said one of the young gentlemen.

"Come, that must settle the matter," said the other, giving the sheep a lift out of the boat.

Still the man grumbled, wanting to get more, but, handing the guinea to the young gentlemen, for the little boy being wet to the skin,--as of course I was, though that did not matter,--I wanted to be off home. I got hold of the poor sheep and dragged it along, thinking thus to settle the matter. What had come over the waterman I do not know, but, springing out, he was going to catch hold of the sheep, when his foot slipped, and in he went between the boat and the hard.

"Go on, sailor, go on," cried the young gentlemen, laughing, while the waterman, now wet as I was, scrambled out, and, seeing that there was no use in following, got into his boat. Feeling very much obliged to the young gentlemen, and sorry I could not stop to thank them again, I hurried up as fast as I could to my home.

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