Rodney Stone

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Lord nelson

My father’s appointment with Lord Nelson was an early one, and he was the more anxious to be punctual as he knew how much the Admiral’s movements must be affected by the news which we had heard the night before.  I had hardly breakfasted then, and my uncle had not rung for his chocolate, when he called for me at Jermyn Street.  A walk of a few hundred yards brought us to the high building of discoloured brick in Piccadilly, which served the Hamiltons as a town house, and which Nelson used as his head-quarters when business or pleasure called him from Merton.  A footman answered our knock, and we were ushered into a large drawing-room with sombre furniture and melancholy curtains.  My father sent in his name, and there we sat, looking at the white Italian statuettes in the corners, and the picture of Vesuvius and the Bay of Naples which hung over the harpsichord.  I can remember that a black clock was ticking loudly upon the mantelpiece, and that every now and then, amid the rumble of the hackney coaches, we could hear boisterous laughter from some inner chamber. When at last the door opened, both my father and I sprang to our feet, expecting to find ourselves face to face with the greatest living Englishman.  It was a very different person, however, who swept into the room. She was a lady, tall, and, as it seemed to me, exceedingly beautiful, though, perhaps, one who was more experienced and more critical might have thought that her charm lay in the past rather than the present.  Her queenly figure was moulded upon large and noble lines, while her face, though already tending to become somewhat heavy and coarse, was still remarkable for the brilliancy of the complexion, the beauty of the large, light blue eyes, and the tinge of the dark hair which curled over the low white forehead.  She carried herself in the most stately fashion, so that as I looked at her majestic entrance, and at the pose which she struck as she glanced at my father, I was reminded of the Queen of the Peruvians as, in the person of Miss Polly Hinton, she incited Boy Jim and myself to insurrection. “Lieutenant Anson Stone?” she asked. “Yes, your ladyship,” answered my father. “Ah,” she cried, with an affected and exaggerated start, “you know me, then?” “I have seen your ladyship at Naples.” “Then you have doubtless seen my poor Sir William also - my poor, poor Sir William!”  She touched her dress with her white, ring-covered fingers, as if to draw our attention to the fact that she was in the deepest mourning. “I heard of your ladyship’s sad loss,” said my father. “We died together,” she cried.  “What can my life be now save a long-drawn living death?” She spoke in a beautiful, rich voice, with the most heart-broken thrill in it, but I could not conceal from myself that she appeared to be one of the most robust persons that I had ever seen, and I was surprised to notice that she shot arch little questioning glances at me, as if the admiration even of so insignificant a person were of some interest to her.  My father, in his blunt, sailor fashion, tried to stammer out some commonplace condolence, but her eyes swept past his rude, weather-beaten face to ask and reask what effect she had made upon me. “There he hangs, the tutelary angel of this house,” she cried, pointing with a grand sweeping gesture to a painting upon the wall, which represented a very thin-faced, high-nosed gentleman with several orders upon his coat.  “But enough of my private sorrow!”  She dashed invisible tears from her eyes.  “You have come to see Lord Nelson.  He bid me say that he would be with you in an instant.  You have doubtless heard that hostilities are about to reopen?” “We heard the news last night.” “Lord Nelson is under orders to take command of the Mediterranean Fleet.  You can think at such a moment - But, ah, is it not his lordship’s step that I hear?” My attention was so riveted by the lady’s curious manner and by the gestures and attitudes with which she accompanied every remark, that I did not see the great admiral enter the room.  When I turned he was standing close by my elbow, a small, brown man with the lithe, slim figure of a boy.  He was not clad in uniform, but he wore a high-collared brown coat, with the right sleeve hanging limp and empty by his side.  The expression of his face was, as I remember it, exceedingly sad and gentle, with the deep lines upon it which told of the chafing of his urgent and fiery soul.  One eye was disfigured and sightless from a wound, but the other looked from my father to myself with the quickest and shrewdest of expressions.  Indeed, his whole manner, with his short, sharp glance and the fine poise of the head, spoke of energy and alertness, so that he reminded me, if I may compare great things with small, of a well-bred fighting terrier, gentle and slim, but keen and ready for whatever chance might send. “Why, Lieutenant Stone,” said he, with great cordiality, holding out his left hand to my father, “I am very glad to see you.  London is full of Mediterranean men, but I trust that in a week there will not be an officer amongst you all with his feet on dry land.” “I had come to ask you, sir, if you could assist me to a ship.” “You shall have one, Stone, if my word goes for anything at the Admiralty.  I shall want all my old Nile men at my back.  I cannot promise you a first-rate, but at least it shall be a 64-gun ship, and I can tell you that there is much to be done with a handy, well-manned, well-found 64-gun ship.” “Who could doubt it who has heard of the Agamemnon?” cried Lady Hamilton, and straightway she began to talk of the admiral and of his doings with such extravagance of praise and such a shower of compliments and of epithets, that my father and I did not know which way to look, feeling shame and sorrow for a man who was compelled to listen to such things said in his own presence.  But when I ventured to glance at Lord Nelson I found, to my surprise, that, far from showing any embarrassment, he was smiling with pleasure, as if this gross flattery of her ladyship’s were the dearest thing in all the world to him. “Come, come, my dear lady,” said he, “you speak vastly beyond my merits;” upon which encouragement she started again in a theatrical apostrophe to Britain’s darling and Neptune’s eldest son, which he endured with the same signs of gratitude and pleasure.  That a man of the world, five-and-forty years of age, shrewd, honest, and acquainted with Courts, should be beguiled by such crude and coarse homage, amazed me, as it did all who knew him; but you who have seen much of life do not need to be told how often the strongest and noblest nature has its one inexplicable weakness, showing up the more obviously in contrast to the rest, as the dark stain looks the fouler upon the whitest sheet. “You are a sea-officer of my own heart, Stone,” said he, when her ladyship had exhausted her panegyric.  “You are one of the old breed!”  He walked up and down the room with little, impatient steps as he talked, turning with a whisk upon his heel every now and then, as if some invisible rail had brought him up.  “We are getting too fine for our work with these new-fangled epaulettes and quarter-deck trimmings.  When I joined the Service, you would find a lieutenant gammoning and rigging his own bowsprit, or aloft, maybe, with a marlinspike slung round his neck, showing an example to his men.  Now, it’s as much as he’ll do to carry his own sextant up the companion.  When could you join?” “To-night, my lord.” “Right, Stone, right!  That is the true spirit.  They are working double tides in the yards, but I do not know when the ships will be ready.  I hoist my flag on the Victory on Wednesday, and we sail at once.” “No, no; not so soon!  She cannot be ready for sea,” said Lady Hamilton, in a wailing voice, clasping her hands and turning up her eyes as she spoke. “She must and she shall be ready,” cried Nelson, with extraordinary vehemence.  “By Heaven! if the devil stands at the door, I sail on Wednesday.  Who knows what these rascals may be doing in my absence?  It maddens me to think of the deviltries which they may be devising.  At this very instant, dear lady, the Queen, our Queen, may be straining her eyes for the topsails of Nelson’s ships.” Thinking, as I did, that he was speaking of our own old Queen Charlotte, I could make no meaning out of this; but my father told me afterwards that both Nelson and Lady Hamilton had conceived an extraordinary affection for the Queen of Naples, and that it was the interests of her little kingdom which he had so strenuously at heart.  It may have been my expression of bewilderment which attracted Nelson’s attention to me, for he suddenly stopped in his quick quarter-deck walk, and looked me up and down with a severe eye. “Well, young gentleman!” said he, sharply. “This is my only son, sir,” said my father.  “It is my wish that he should join the Service, if a berth can be found for him; for we have all been King’s officers for many generations.” “So, you wish to come and have your bones broken?” cried Nelson, roughly, looking with much disfavour at the fine clothes which had cost my uncle and Mr. Brummel such a debate.  “You will have to change that grand coat for a tarry jacket if you serve under me, sir.” I was so embarrassed by the abruptness of his manner that I could but stammer out that I hoped I should do my duty, on which his stern mouth relaxed into a good-humoured smile, and he laid his little brown hand for an instant upon my shoulder. “I dare say that you will do very well,” said he.  “I can see that you have the stuff in you.  But do not imagine that it is a light service which you undertake, young gentleman, when you enter His Majesty’s Navy.  It is a hard profession.  You hear of the few who succeed, but what do you know of the hundreds who never find their way?  Look at my own luck!  Out of 200 who were with me in the San Juan expedition, 145 died in a single night.  I have been in 180 engagements, and I have, as you see, lost my eye and my arm, and been sorely wounded besides.  It chanced that I came through, and here I am flying my admiral’s flag; but I remember many a man as good as me who did not come through.  Yes,” he added, as her ladyship broke in with a voluble protest, “many and many as good a man who has gone to the sharks or the land-crabs.  But it is a useless sailor who does not risk himself every day, and the lives of all of us are in the hands of Him who best knows when to claim them.” For an instant, in his earnest gaze and reverent manner, we seemed to catch a glimpse of the deeper, truer Nelson, the man of the Eastern counties, steeped in the virile Puritanism which sent from that district the Ironsides to fashion England within, and the Pilgrim Fathers to spread it without.  Here was the Nelson who declared that he saw the hand of God pressing upon the French, and who waited on his knees in the cabin of his flag-ship while she bore down upon the enemy’s line.  There was a human tenderness, too, in his way of speaking of his dead comrades, which made me understand why it was that he was so beloved by all who served with him, for, iron-hard as he was as seaman and fighter, there ran through his complex nature a sweet and un-English power of affectionate emotion, showing itself in tears if he were moved, and in such tender impulses as led him afterwards to ask his flag-captain to kiss him as he lay dying in the cockpit of the Victory. My father had risen to depart, but the admiral, with that kindliness which he ever showed to the young, and which had been momentarily chilled by the unfortunate splendour of my clothes, still paced up and down in front of us, shooting out crisp little sentences of exhortation and advice. “It is ardour that we need in the Service, young gentleman,” said he.  “We need red-hot men who will never rest satisfied.  We had them in the Mediterranean, and we shall have them again.  There was a band of brothers!  When I was asked to recommend one for special service, I told the Admiralty they might take the names as they came, for the same spirit animated them all.  Had we taken nineteen vessels, we should never have said it was well done while the twentieth sailed the seas.  You know how it was with us, Stone.  You are too old a Mediterranean man for me to tell you anything.” “I trust, my lord, that I shall be with you when next we meet them,” said my father. “Meet them we shall and must.  By Heaven, I shall never rest until I have given them a shaking.  The scoundrel Buonaparte wishes to humble us.  Let him try, and God help the better cause!” He spoke with such extraordinary animation that the empty sleeve flapped about in the air, giving him the strangest appearance.  Seeing my eyes fixed upon it, he turned with a smile to my father. “I can still work my fin, Stone,” said he, putting his hand across to the stump of his arm.  “What used they to say in the fleet about it?” “That it was a sign, sir, that it was a bad hour to cross your hawse.” “They knew me, the rascals.  You can see, young gentleman, that not a scrap of the ardour with which I serve my country has been shot away.  Some day you may find that you are flying your own flag, and when that time comes you may remember that my advice to an officer is that he should have nothing to do with tame, slow measures.  Lay all your stake, and if you lose through no fault of your own, the country will find you another stake as large.  Never mind manoeuvres!  Go for them!  The only manoeuvre you need is that which will place you alongside your enemy.  Always fight, and you will always be right.  Give not a thought to your own ease or your own life, for from the day that you draw the blue coat over your back you have no life of your own.  It is the country’s, to be most freely spent if the smallest gain can come from it.  How is the wind this morning, Stone?” “East-south-east,” my father answered, readily. “Then Cornwallis is, doubtless, keeping well up to Brest, though, for my own part, I had rather tempt them out into the open sea.” “That is what every officer and man in the fleet would prefer, your lordship,” said my father. “They do not love the blockading service, and it is little wonder, since neither money nor honour is to be gained at it.  You can remember how it was in the winter months before Toulon, Stone, when we had neither firing, wine, beef, pork, nor flour aboard the ships, nor a spare piece of rope, canvas, or twine.  We braced the old hulks with our spare cables, and God knows there was never a Levanter that I did not expect it to send us to the bottom.  But we held our grip all the same.  Yet I fear that we do not get much credit for it here in England, Stone, where they light the windows for a great battle, but they do not understand that it is easier for us to fight the Nile six times over, than to keep our station all winter in the blockade.  But I pray God that we may meet this new fleet of theirs and settle the matter by a pell-mell battle.” “May I be with you, my lord!” said my father, earnestly.  “But we have already taken too much of your time, and so I beg to thank you for your kindness and to wish you good morning.” “Good morning, Stone!” said Nelson.  “You shall have your ship, and if I can make this young gentleman one of my officers it shall be done.  But I gather from his dress,” he continued, running his eye over me, “that you have been more fortunate in prize-money than most of your comrades.  For my own part, I never did nor could turn my thoughts to money-making.” My father explained that I had been under the charge of the famous Sir Charles Tregellis, who was my uncle, and with whom I was now residing. “Then you need no help from me,” said Nelson, with some bitterness.  “If you have either guineas or interest you can climb over the heads of old sea-officers, though you may not know the poop from the galley, or a carronade from a long nine.  Nevertheless - But what the deuce have we here?” The footman had suddenly precipitated himself into the room, but stood abashed before the fierce glare of the admiral’s eye. “Your lordship told me to rush to you if it should come,” he explained, holding out a large blue envelope. “By Heaven, it is my orders!” cried Nelson, snatching it up and fumbling with it in his awkward, one-handed attempt to break the seals.  Lady Hamilton ran to his assistance, but no sooner had she glanced at the paper inclosed than she burst into a shrill scream, and throwing up her hands and her eyes, she sank backwards in a swoon.  I could not but observe, however, that her fall was very carefully executed, and that she was fortunate enough, in spite of her insensibility, to arrange her drapery and attitude into a graceful and classical design.  But he, the honest seaman, so incapable of deceit or affectation that he could not suspect it in others, ran madly to the bell, shouting for the maid, the doctor, and the smelling-salts, with incoherent words of grief, and such passionate terms of emotion that my father thought it more discreet to twitch me by the sleeve as a signal that we should steal from the room.  There we left him then in the dim-lit London drawing-room, beside himself with pity for this shallow and most artificial woman, while without, at the edge of the Piccadilly curb, there stood the high dark berline ready to start him upon that long journey which was to end in his chase of the French fleet over seven thousand miles of ocean, his meeting with it, his victory, which confined Napoleon’s ambition for ever to the land, and his death, coming, as I would it might come to all of us, at the crowning moment of his life.

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