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A Drowning Messmate by A. Lee Knight

 

It is as one of the most popular sea-novelists of all times that Captain Marryat is best known to his countrymen—oldsters and youngsters alike. The whole life of this gallant seaman, however, was made up of one long series of exciting adventures, both on land and sea, many of these experiences being made use of in after years to supply material for his sea-romances.

One of Marryat's most characteristic acts of self-devotion was his springing overboard into the waters of Malta Harbour in order to save the life of a middy messmate, Cobbett by name, who had accidentally fallen overboard. What made this action an especially noble one was the fact that Cobbett was one of the greatest bullies in the midshipmen's berth, and had specially singled out Marryat for cowardly and brutal treatment. Again, we must remember that sharks are often seen in Malta Harbour, and any one rash enough to enter its waters takes his life in his hands.

Thank God the gunroom of a British man-of-war of the present day is managed in an entirely different manner from what it was in Marryat's day. Says that gallant officer: "There was no species of tyranny, injustice, and persecution to which youngsters were not compelled to submit from those who were their superiors in bodily strength."

The entire management and organisation of the Royal Navy at that period was rotten to the core, and it speaks volumes for the devotion, skill, and bravery of the gallant officers of the fleet that they so magnificently upheld the glory and honour of the flag in every quarter of the globe in spite of the shortcomings of the Admiralty Board.

As an instance of this general mismanagement of naval affairs, Marryat, who had been sent to join the Impérieuse frigate as a young middy, thus writes in his private log—

"The Impérieuse sailed; the admiral of the port was one who would be obeyed, but would not listen always to reason or common-sense. The signal for sailing was enforced by gun after gun; the anchor was hove up, and, with all her stores on deck, her guns not even mounted, in a state of confusion unparalleled from her being obliged to hoist in faster than it was possible she could stow away, she was driven out of harbour to encounter a heavy gale. A few hours more would have enabled her to proceed to sea with security, but they were denied; the consequences were appalling, and might have been fatal.

"In the general confusion, some iron too near the binnacles had attracted the needle of the compasses; the ship was steered out of her course. At midnight, in a heavy gale at the close of the month of November, so dark that you could not distinguish any object, however close, the Impérieuse dashed upon the rocks between Ushant and the Main. The cry of terror which ran through the lower deck; the grating of the keel as she was forced in; the violence of the shocks which convulsed the frame of the vessel; the hurrying up of the ship's company without their clothes; and then the enormous waves which again bore her up and carried her clean over the reef, will never be effaced from my memory.

"Our escape was miraculous. With the exception of her false keel having been torn off, the ship had suffered little injury; but she had beat over a reef, and was riding by her anchors, surrounded by rocks, some of them as high out of water as her lower-yards, and close to her. How nearly were the lives of a fine ship's company, and of Lord Cochrane and his officers, sacrificed in this instance to the despotism of an admiral who would be obeyed!

"The cruises of the Impérieuse were periods of continual excitement, from the hour in which she hove up her anchor till she dropped it again in port; the day that passed without a shot being fired in anger was with us a blank day; the boats were hardly secured on the booms than they were cast loose and out again; the yard and stay tackles were for ever hoisting up and lowering down.

"The expedition with which parties were formed for service; the rapidity of the frigate's movements, night and day; the hasty sleep, snatched at all hours; the waking up at the report of the guns, which seemed the only key-note to the hearts of those on board; the beautiful precision of our fire, obtained by constant practice; the coolness and courage of our captain inoculating the whole of the ship's company; the suddenness of our attacks, the gathering after the combat, the killed lamented, the wounded almost envied; the powder so burnt into our faces that years could not remove it; the proved character of every man and officer on board; the implicit trust and the adoration we felt for our commander; the ludicrous situations which would occur even in the extremest danger and create mirth when death was staring you in the face; the hairbreadth escapes, and the indifference to life shown by all—when memory sweeps along those years of excitement even now, my pulse beats more quickly with the reminiscence."

A middy's life was no child's play in those days, was it?

But it is time that I told you the story of how Marryat saved the life of his messmate Cobbett, in the Mediterranean.

The Impérieuse was lying at anchor in Malta Harbour at the time the incident happened. It was about the hour of sunset, and the officer on duty had turned the men of the second dog watch up to hoist the boats to the davits. The men ran away smartly with the falls, and soon had the cutters clear of the water and swung high in the air.

At this moment, Cobbett, who was off duty, went into the main-chains with some lines and bait in order to fish. In endeavouring to get on one of the ratlines of the lower-rigging his foot unfortunately slipped, and he fell headlong overboard into the waters of the Grand Harbour. Several persons witnessed the accident, and the prodigious splash the middy's body made in striking the water immediately made known to every one else that a struggle for life had commenced.

Cobbett could not swim a stroke, and was much hampered by his heavy clothes and boots. At the first plunge he was carried far beneath the surface, but quickly rose again, puffing and blowing like a grampus, and making desperate efforts to keep himself afloat.

The officer of the watch promptly called away the lifeboat's crew, and these men quickly scrambled into one of the quarter-boats, which by this time had been run up to the davits. Life-buoys too had been thrown overboard, but not one of them had fallen near enough to the struggling boy to enable him to grasp it. Young Marryat happened at the time of the accident to be standing in the waist of the ship conversing with the captain of the main-top of the watch below. Hearing the splash and the excited cries of "Man overboard!" which rang out fore-and-aft, he rushed to the gangway to see if he could be of any assistance in the emergency.

One can imagine his feelings on beholding his arch-enemy, the bully of the midshipmen's berth, struggling desperately for life under the frigate's counter. Being an admirable swimmer himself, Marryat saw at a glance that his messmate was helpless in the water, and indeed was on the point of sinking. Without a moment's hesitation, and without waiting to throw off coat or boots, the plucky youngster boldly plunged overboard, and quickly rising to the surface, struck out for his now almost unconscious enemy, and fortunately managed to seize him and keep him afloat, whilst he shouted to those on board to lower the cutter as quickly as possible. The men were only too eager to go to his assistance, and the instant the lifeboat was safely in the water, her crew got their oars out, and, pulling vigorously to the spot, soon hauled both midshipmen, wet and dripping, inboard.

Cobbett was unconscious, his face being as pale as death, but it was only a matter now of a few seconds to get him aboard the frigate, where he soon revived under the care of the surgeons, and was able to return to duty in the course of a day or two, much humbled in spirit, and very grateful to the courageous young messmate who had so gallantly saved his life at the risk of his own.

Writing home to his mother on the subject of this adventure, Marryat concluded his account by saying: "From that moment I have loved the fellow as I never loved friend before. All my hate is forgotten. I have saved his life."

A ludicrous adventure in the water once befell Captain Marryat. In the gallant officer's private log occurs this entry: "July 10th.—Anchored in Carrick Roads, Falmouth. Gig upset with captain."

Florence Marryat in her father's memoirs thus relates the incident: "When this gig was capsized, it contained, besides Captain Marryat, a middy and an old bumboat woman. The woman could swim like a fish, but the boy could not, and as Captain Marryat, upon rising to the surface of the water and preparing to strike out for the ship, found himself most needlessly clutched and borne up by this lady, he shook her off impatiently, saying: 'Go to the boy! Go to the boy! He can't swim!'

"'Go to the boy!' she echoed above the winds and waves. 'What! hold up a midshipman when I can save the life of a captain! Not I indeed!' And no entreaties could prevail on her to relinquish her impending honours. Who eventually did the 'dirty work' on this occasion is not recorded, but it is certain that no one was drowned."

As is well known, sailors are devoted to animals, and Marryat was no exception to the rule. He has left on record a story of a pet baboon, which was on board the Tees with him—

"I had on board a ship which I commanded a very large Cape baboon, who was a pet of mine, and also a little boy, who was a son of mine. When the baboon sat down on his hams he was about as tall as the boy when he walked. The boy, having a tolerable appetite, received about noon a considerable slice of bread-and-butter to keep him quiet till dinner-time. I was on one of the carronades, busy with the sun's lower limb, bringing it into contact with the horizon, when the boy's lower limbs brought him into contact with the baboon, who, having, as well as the boy, a strong predilection for bread-and-butter, and a stronger arm to take it withal, thought proper to help himself to that to which the boy had already been helped. In short, he snatched the bread-and-butter, and made short work of it, for it was in his pouch in a moment.

"Upon this the boy set up a yell, which attracted my notice to this violation of the articles of war, to which the baboon was equally amenable as any other person in the ship, for it is expressly stated in the preamble of every article, 'all who are in, or belonging to.' Whereupon I jumped off the carronade and, by way of assisting his digestion, I served out to the baboon monkey's allowance, which is more kicks than halfpence! The master reported that the heavens intimated that it was twelve o'clock, and, with all the humility of a captain of a man-of-war, I ordered him to 'make it so'; whereupon it was made, and so passed that day.

"I do not remember how many days it was afterwards that I was on the carronade as usual, about the same time, and all parties were precisely in the same situations—the master by my side, the baboon under the booms, and the boy walking out of the cabin with his bread-and-butter. As before, he again passed the baboon, who again snatched the bread-and-butter from the boy, who again set up a squall, which again attracted my attention. I looked round, and the baboon caught my eye, which told him plainly that he'd soon catch what was not at all my eye; and he proved that he actually thought so, for he at once put the bread-and-butter back into the boy's hands!

"It was the only instance of which I ever knew or heard of a monkey being capable of self-denial where his stomach was concerned, and I record it accordingly. This poor fellow, when the ship's company were dying of the cholera, took that disease, went through all its gradations, and died apparently in great agony."