British Fiction, 18001829

ANON. Night Watch, The (1828)

Contemporary Reviews

La Belle Assemblée, 3rd ser. 7 (1828): 300–01.

The Night Watch, or Tales of the Sea,’ in two volumes, is evidently, as it purports to be, the work of a sailor; of one who is completely at home on the watery element, and as completely abroad when on shore. His nautical sketches are spirited and graphical in an eminent degree; but, unluckily, we cannot hit upon a single excerpt, sufficiently isolated in its character, at once to gratify the reader, and to render justice to the author. We can, [300/301] therefore, only say, that to those who are partial to productions of this class, a perusal of the work will afford abundant gratification.

Notes: Review is in Supplement to 1828.

Monthly Review, n.s. 8 (July 1828): 373–81.

As sketches of nautical life, these tales are admirable for their spirit, originality, and truth: as novels of private life, which the author, in his ambition, seems also to have essayed to make them, they are almost entirely without merit. In this respect, several of them are no better than mere adumbrations to the ordinary commodities of the circulating library. The incidents, however, which are thus introduced of life on shore, little interesting in themselves, and clumsily told though they be, are yet not altogether without [373/374] their use. They serve for a contrast, to vary and relieve the broad and faithful delineations of sea adventures, manners, and character, which are thrown off with a sweeping pencil, in free, bolt confidence of their fidelity, and not without occasionally exhibiting considerable native power of description, both for the humorous and the pathetic.

Separating the author’s genuine nautical sketches from his bad copies of country and town life, we shall just glance at an example or two of the former, in his pages, without in the least troubling ourselves to follow the order or plot of his tales. There are five in number: the first four being entitled—the Captain’s, the Master’s, the Boatswain’s, and the Doctor’s Tales; either related by, or relating the career of, a personage of each of those professional ranks;—and the fifth, ‘The Prisoner of War,’ or a narrative of the captivity of a British naval officer. Contrary to the prescriptive usage of all story-wrights of similar collections from him of the Decamerone, down to the present day, the author before us has scarcely attempted to connect the series of his tales by any imaginary occasion of their common delivery. He has a general ‘Introduction,’ indeed, to the volumes; but to what end, it would puzzle Martin Scriblerus himself to divine, except it be simply to exhibit a spirited description of his Majesty’s ship S—, in a gale, off the coast of Jutland; for the storm is no sooner over, than we are called away, leaving the gallant bark on her homeward passage, to ‘proceed with our messmate to the perusal of a manuscript which had been sent to him, accompanied by a letter.’ And with this non-sequitur to the storm (as Partridge would surely denounce it) with this apropos des bottes, we are plunged, without further ceremony, into the first of the stories in the sky-dropt manuscript.

The history of the captain well details the nature of the career through which a naval officer has to pass in its subaltern grades, from his rough initiation as a midshipman, to his appointment to the rank of commander. Of these scenes, as one of the best, we shall take only the first, which ushers the poor middy into the joys of the cock-pit:—

‘Morland followed this hero of the orlop, and dread of the after-guard and mizentop-men, to the dark but merry regions of the cock-pit.

‘As they descended from deck to deck, he was not less astonished at the immense size of the ship, and the long tiers of cannon levelled along each side, than at the multitude of sailors and marines, scattered among these tremendous batteries.

‘On entering the cock-pit, their ears were assailed by a confusion of noises; but, descending from the day, they could see but little by the dull gleam of the sentinel’s lamp.

‘Before they reached the door of the mess-place, Peters tumbled over a trunk, which had evidently been placed there for the purpose, and a loud laugh accompanied his fall. He swore at considerable length at certain personages with short and long names, some of whom, although decked [374/375] with honourable titles in the Court Calendar, received appellations of the most questionable purport; and he vowed vengeance on the clews of their hammocks, if not up by seven bells in the morning.

‘This was succeeded by another laugh, and “Bravo, Peter!” (for they sent the s to prison), accompanied by a hat, thrown with malice prépense, which struck him on the head, as he opened the birth-door over which he presided.

‘Two lights burned dimly in the heated atmosphere of a close cabin, showing as motley a scene as could well be imagined, in so small a space.

‘At the sides of the cabin were dirks and swords, on the handles of which hung a few stray cocked-hats. Two open buffets, filled with glasses and broken crockery, faced the door, the caterer’s seat being in the centre; over which was suspended the rules of the mess. Quad and Quammina, two black servants, occupied a narrow place next the ship’s side, called the wing, the secret lodgings of dishclouts and dirty tablecloths, where the rustling of the waves against the ship’s side could be distinctly heard, indicating the head to be on a level with the surface of the sea.

‘The company assembled in this submarine abode consisted of twelve “young gentlemen,” as they are denominated, though more than one of them approached the age of thirty. They all ranked in the class of petty officers, and the assistant-surgeon among the rest.

‘One midshipman was playing the violin, or “the violent,” as his mess-mates called it; another the flute; two were occupied at the chess-board; one working a tide out of John Hamilton Moore; and another drawing a pipe and glass of grog in the hands of the rudely engraved personage, who is found on the frontispiece of that old navigation book. Three youngsters, weary with their last watch, were endeavouring to sleep, with their heads on the table; while a fourth tickled their ears with a quill, or burnt them with lighted paper; and the twelfth was a midshipman of the watch, with his hat on, and a cup in his hand, asking Quad for wine; but he departed on the appearance of Peters, who cursed him for a young skulker, and bid him “scud on deck.”

‘ “Saunders,” said Peters, as he addressed himself to the discordant catgut-scraper, “here’s another of your countrymen caught in the burgoo tub, and brought from the land o’ cakes, with a smack load of doctor’s mates; or, as Diachylon will have it, surgeons’ assistants.”

‘ “I am not a Scotchman,” said Morland.

‘No one, however, paid the least attention to him; and Saunders struck up, in a broad accent, accompanied by his screeching instrument—

‘ “On guttling the English their praises bestow,
And boast of the courage to roast-beef they owe;
Of brose let a Scotchman the excellence show;

Oh, the kail brose of Old Scotland! and oh, the old Scottish kail brose.”

‘ “Erin ma vourneen, Erin go bragh!” cried Paddy.

‘This music crept by me upon the waters;
Allaying both their fury and my passion
With its sweet air.’ ”

‘ “Oh, you sentimental bog-trotter!” says one, raising his head from the table; while the unmoved and unmoving flute-player continued to hiss “Dearest Ellen.” He was a Welchman. [375/376]

‘ “It is three bells,” cried Peter, whose insubordination of stomach was evinced by his hallooing to Quammino to lay the cloth. Clear the decks, youngsters, said he. This was signal enough; and a piece of biscuit, shot with considerable precision, levelled sundry knights and bishops, while both the disconsolate players insisted on the best of the game.

‘The table-cloth was quickly thrown over, and an immediate drumming commenced on the plates, which put Quammino in bodily fear, till he produced the beef.

‘Little notice was taken of Morland, save that he was informed he was a young bear—that all his sorrows were to come; and he was helped first, for the first and last time.

‘The evening passed away amidst noise and jokes; and after supper, when the party were tired of singing “Here’s a health to Jolly Bacchus!” “Fire in the Cock-pit!” “Needles and Pins!” to which many improvisatores added choruses, they had recourse to the game of Able Wackets.

‘It is commenced by playing cards, which cards are named the Good Books; the table, the Board of Green Cloth; the hand, the flipper; the light, the glim, &c.: and whoever mis-names any of these, is detected by the word “watch.” The delinquent’s flipper is then demanded: his crime is repeated by each person, who strikes him a severe blow, with a twisted and knotted handkerchief, on the hand. Swearing is also watched; and as these blows are not easily borne without irritation, the good books are scarcely required, more than to commence the game.

‘When Morland retired to his hammock he found his sheets reefed, i.e. made up into a round, and to him inextricable ball. In the middle of the night however, when sleep had reconciled him to his blankets and the strangeness of his hammock, he came suddenly to the deck, bed and bedding; and, awakened by the clatter of shot about him, on examination found two twenty-four pounders in his bed, the foot of which was now on the deck, and the clothes scattered about the cockpit. The sentinel assisted to hang up his hammock, instructed him to let the reef out of his sheets, and promising to protect him from farther molestation during the watch, he slept soundly till the morning, when Peters was loud in his calls to the lazy Mids, “to rouse out;” and the dozy Muzzy, who had the middle watch, and was the perpetrator of the nocturnal mischief on Morland’s hammock, was actually cut down in a similar manner by Peters, justified by virtue of his office.’—vol. i. p. 65–73.

Of the next tale—the Master’s,—we mean to speak without qualification when we say, that it is—not only infinitely the best in the volumes, but one of the most affecting little narratives that we ever read. It is altogether a sailor’s story, without any over-strained attempt to mingle its touching incidents with fine manners and fine people on shore: a genuine “tale of the sea,” with the daughter and the wife of a sailor for its interesting heroines, and, told in such simple manliness of speech as would come from the heart of a seaman of the better class, in his hour of seriousness and of sorrow. We know not if any of the particular adventures have been taken from actual occurrences, and it matters perhaps little whether they have or have not: but of this we are sure, that the vicissitudes of real nautical life, might without difficulty have suggested and furnished many such situations; and there is at [376/377] least an air of truth and nature in the tone of the narrative which presses with all the sadness of reality upon the mind. Not that the incidents are many, or in themselves very striking, or at all brilliant or surprising: the attraction of the story lies wholly in its probability and fitness to the way of life in which it is laid and related: in the painful simplicity of the trials which it records, and the too probable character of the domestic catastrophe which closed them.

The Master of a line of battle-ship, Cramer, is supposed to narrate his own story to a young lieutenant, his messmate, during a night watch on the passage home of the triumphant expedition from Copenhagen, in 1807. He describes himself as born of decent parents in low life, but having in the wildness and adventurous spirit of boyhood run away to sea in a British trader; after which he suffered many hardships until he was taken on board by a humane master of a merchantman of Shields, a widower with a son and daughter. To Cramer, both this man and his son, the mate of his vessel, were very kind; and between them they made a good seaman of him. He was yet a ‘wild fellow,’ however, until during the ship’s stay in harbour he was sobered by the growing influence of a passion for his master’s daughter, Mary. The progress of this love-story is told with many sweet touches of nature and character. ‘Mary was not so handsome as many of her neighbours; but she was good looking, and what made her appear more so, she was devout and modest, and possessed such evenness of temper and goodness of heart, as I have seldom seen.’ Cramer had been thoughtless and without religion: but the example and attractions of his master’s daughter, together, work a salutary impression upon his mind, and he becomes an altered youth. To make his story short, he accompanies his master in a West India voyage, during which the old man loses his son, and Cramer succeeds the youth as mate, and makes himself the support and consolation of the bereaved father. They return to England; Mary becomes his wife; and (the sailor continues) ‘if there is happiness in this world, Harold, it is surely found in possessing such a woman. I would not for all this world’s riches have parted with her, and to the last day of my life shall be as much wedded to her memory as I was to her person.’ But then comes the fatal sequel,—in one word, impressment. In returning through the Downs from a second West India voyage, ‘full of joy and hope to, clasp his own Mary to his heart,’ the vessel in which Cramer sailed is boarded by the boat of a frigate, under weigh for the East Indies. One of the boat’s crew unwittingly betrays that Cramer had formerly sailed under a different name, which he had assumed on leaving home; and this circumstance of his double appellation is fatal to his protection as mate. His old father-in-law, almost heart broken, is obliged to see him put on board the frigate; and poor Cramer is carried off again to sea. In going down the channel he [377/378] makes a desperate attempt, at the Scilly Isles, to escape from the frigate, during the night; and his natural relation of this perilous effort is worth copying:

‘ “We were not more than three quarters of a mile from a barren and rocky island, and I determined to risk every thing to gain it, and get on board one of the merchant ships in the morning.

‘ “The first thing was to get my money from my bag of clothes, which was snugly tied up over my hammock, on the lower deck. I stole quietly down, and was in the act of searching the bag, when the serjeants of marines and master-at-arms, who were going their half-hourly rounds, nearly caught me; but springing, unobserved, into my hammock, I lay covered till they passed, and was not a little alarmed to find that I was the subject of their conversation.

‘ “Do you know the number of the pressed man’s birth?” said the sergeant. “I heard the officers say he was worth keeping, and it would be well to keep an eye upon him.

‘ “I don’t know his number,” replied the master-at-arms, “but I saw him on the forecastle just after the watch was mustered.

‘ “So soon as they were on the ladder, I untied my bag and pocketed my purse. You know, Harold, how soundly men sleep after having been well trounced in a gale, and I got both in and out of my hammock without a question from my snoring neighbours. I then mounted the forecastle again, and made a point of being seen by the sergeant; after which I skulked through one of the port-holes under the main channels, as the island lay astern. Having buttoned my jacket tight around me, and tied the bottom of my trowsers, I fastened a rope’s end, which was hanging overboard from the channels (a thing almost unknown in the frigate), to the irons below, and slid, without the least splash, into the water; but when my head was just above the surface, I found my legs pressed, as it were, against the bottom of the ship; and it was not till I let go the rope, and struck off a little from the side, that I was disentangled from this effect.

‘ “I scarcely breathed on the water, and moved my arms and limbs as little as possible, but my heart beat within me as I found myself floating with the tide past the quarter of the ship. I was beginning to feel fresh vigour at observing myself distancing the frigate, when I heard the hoarse voice of an old owl of a quarter-master say to the officer of the watch, ‘There is something in the water astern, Sir.’ The voice acted upon me like electricity, and I do believe I bounded two-thirds out of the water. ‘ ’Tis a man, by all that’s holy, Sir!’ said the old fellow. Ahoi! come back you rascal!’ cried the officer; ‘fire, sentinel, fire!’ and as it seemed to me, the very moment I saw the gleam on the water, I felt a sharp cut on my left heel. Another and another ball followed, but with less success. ‘Away there, black cutters of the watch, away!’ hallooed the boatswain’s mate; but, luckily for me, the boats had been secured for sea, in consequence of which they took more time in being cleared away, and I was half way to the shore before I heard the running crackling of the tackles, and the boat go splash into the water. The noise seemed so near to that I looked round, but saw nothing: soon, however, I heard the rolling of the oars in the rullocks, and my hopes began to fail me, when a sight of the fretting surf on the rooks cheered and saved me from sinking with despair. [378/379]

‘ “I plied every nerve, and in a few minutes more was close to the breakers: none but swimmers can conceive the narrow limits of the view when the head only is above the surface; every wave is a boundary, and to a person pursued as I was, and in search of a landing-place, mountains could not have been a more agonizing barrier.

‘ “I at last perceived a black shelving point of rock, on which the surf was rolling heavily on one side; while on the other, the water appeared to be smoother. For this point I immediately swam, as a forlorn hope. On approaching, I found myself between two white ridges of foaming water, and occasionally sunk in the hollow abyss of the waves, and sometimes dashed about amidst the foam on their tops.

‘ “When about to pass the shelving rock, I was thrown head-foremost on to its margin by one of those sovereign waves which seem to lord it over all the rest, and left in a kind of niche, which prevented its recoil sweeping me back.

‘ “On recovering from the stun I had received, I found that my head was cut and bleeding, but that the wound on my heel was of no consequence. Soon the noise of oars and voices assailed my ears, and I distinctly heard the midshipman of the boat say, ‘the fellow never could land here; he must have been dashed to pieces on the rocks, or drowned in the surf, and we shall find his body in the morning.’

‘ “This convinced me I was not discovered; and I shrunk into the niche of the rock, as a snail would do into his shell, and there lay for two hours, not daring to lift my head: and when I did so, it was with the greatest caution, knowing I should be punished as a deserter if discovered. This was an anxious night, believe me, Harold; and as the morning began to dawn, and St. Mary’s light waxed dim, all my fears returned.”—vol. ii. pp. 32–37.

Though he effects his escape upon this occasion, and gets as far as Portsmouth on his way to his Mary, he is there detected, notwithstanding a disguise, to be a sailor, and is a second time impressed, and put on board a sloop of war under orders for distant foreign service. Here finding his fate inevitable, he studies to recommend himself by his intelligence and good conduct, saves the life of a midshipman who had fallen overboard, is promoted to be a master’s mate, and finally distinguishes himself in a boat action, which is related in a very graphic manner:

‘ “Nothing remarkable occurred on our voyage home, till we arrived in the chops of the channel. By our reckoning we were between the Scilly Islands and Ushant; but could discern neither, being enveloped in a thick dripping mist, which prevented us seeing our own mast-heads. There was a moderate breeze, and we were gliding smoothly on, when the sunbeams dispersed, for a few minutes the vapour, and showed us a lugger on our weather-bow within gun-shot: ‘She’s about,’ cried several tongues at once, and the bow-guns presently spoke to her in harsh language through the mist: ‘Give her some grape,’ said the Captain, ‘ our round shot goes over her;’ but scarcely had these orders been given, when the dewy curtain fell, and hid her from our view.

‘ “We had no doubt it was a French privateer prowling about for our homeward-bounds ships; and as the breeze died away, orders were given [379/380] to prepare the boats in case it should clear up, and muskets, pistols, boarding-pikes, and tomahawks, were put into them.

‘ “An hour of calm had not elapsed when the sun overcame the fog, and showed us, at the same instant, the French land and the lugger sweeping towards it, though she was still not very distant from us.

‘ “The boats were instantly manned, armed, and dispatched, under the command of the first lieutenant, one of them being entrusted to my charge, and another to the young midshipman, whose life I had saved.

‘ “We rowed in a line abreast, having orders to board two on each quarter; and when on board, to direct our efforts as much as possible in one body, reserving the fire of our pistols till we were actually on the deck.

‘ “As we advanced to the attack, the lugger swept her broadside towards us, and let fly her beam guns, which, though small, were aimed so well that their shot had nearly proved fatal to the pinnace. One had struck her bow; but with great presence of mind and admirable coolness, the lieutenant called out, ‘Put a plug in, my boys, and give way along side!’ while at the same instant he sprung forward to obey as it were his own orders, unshipped the oar from the rullock of the dying man who was struck by the shot, and stood erect with his sword in his hand in the bow, cheering his men to the advance, while his steady cockswain rolled his quid, and directed the boat’s course for the quarter of the vessel.

‘ “The Frenchmen, who now seemed to wait the close approach of the boats, slackened their fire, as if to reserve it for one great effort, while our marines still shot at intervals from the stern sheets, at those who occasionally directed their musketry over the tafrail, under which the dark muzzle of a cannon projected. As the boats came near to the side of the lugger, a rush of fire issued from her guns: the aim was deadly; and when the smoke cleared away, the gallant boy and his boat had sunk to rise no more, but the rest of us were along side. One rally and we were on her deck, one cheer and she was all our own.

‘ “The tri-coloured flag was plucked from its staff, and the English union hoisted above it: but the loss of lives was considerable, though the capture was so small; and we had little cause to rejoice as we towed the lugger towards our ship, where we were received in the most enthusiastic manner by our shipmates.” ’—vol. ii. p. 67–70.

For his conduct on this occasion, Cramer is recommended for examination for a master’s warrant, but asks only for his discharge, that he might go home to his wife. At this moment the wreck of his happiness reveals itself; and the first news he receives on reaching England, informs him that ‘he is a lone and a childless man in the world.’ The account of his impressment had thrown his wife into premature labour. That night had been her last; she and her infant had perished in the same hour; and seeing nothing but misery before him, Cramer had remained in the service in which his messmate found him ‘as the likeliest way of losing a life which had become burthensome to him.’

The Boatswain’s tale is cast in another mood, but also supposed to be related by its hero. Our author entitles it a ‘forecastle yarn,’ endeavoured to be spun in nautical phraseology; and it certainly abounds in a great deal of a true sailor’s whim, oddity, and [380/381] humour. We have room only for the introductory portrait of the bo’son, himself, which is not the worst, or least characteristic part of it:

‘TOM PIPES at this time was a man who had passed the years of maturity without arriving at those of discretion. He was of the middle size, and his complexion had been darkened and his skin wrinkled by severe service in various climates.

‘He wore a thick and long cue, not tied so tight as to prevent him shutting his eyes, but just sufficiently so to permit, what Torn called in woman a crowfoot, to farm at the margins of them when he blinked, which was frequently.

‘His friends only accused him of “clipping the King’s English;” but high commentators on language insist that he must have been imprisoned for a considerable time, by which he lost the syllables of many of his words, and, unfortunately for harmony, he had a coarse voice, and was once detected in spelling a word in the middle of a song. He drank grog profusely, and was often seen hovering near the mate of the maindeck at seven bells, when that rum-and-water beverage was preparing.

‘His character was rough and ready, and his motto might with justice have been “Nunquam non paratus;” but the herald had forgotten to record it on his shield, though it was written in legible characters on the shield of his face.

‘Tom, when he was impressed into his Majesty’s service, had taken the “purser’s name” literally “un nom de guerre,” of Thomas Call, in which his warrant as boatswain was subsequently made out. By some of his equals he was hailed Tom; by others, Pipes; by “those imps of darkness with the curse of God on their collars,” as Tom called them, the Mids, he was always designated Tom Pipes; by the lieutenants, the boatswain; and by the Captain, Mr. Call.’—vol. ii. p. 81–83.

In the Boatswain’s story is introduced a very lively account of the warfare on the American coast, in 1814, and the debarkations at Washington, Baltimore, and New Orleans, in all of which Tom served on shore as a ‘small armed man.’ But for the highly characteristic style and interesting manner in which these shifting scenes ‘by sea and land’ are depicted, we must refer our readers to the amusing original. We shall only add, that the last two stories of the Doctor, and the Prisoner of War, seem to be mere make weights, and are complete failures in their way; affording scarcely any nautical adventure, and no interest whatever.

Notes: Format: 2 vols 12mo; no price. Publisher: Colburn.

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