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Poor Jack

By Frederick Marryat All Rights Reserved ©

Other

In which, like most people who tell their own stories, i begin with the histories of other people.

In which, like most People who tell their own Stories, I begin with the Histories of other People.

I have every reason to believe that I was born in the year of our Lord 1786, for more than once I put the question to my father, and he invariably made the same reply: "Why, Jack, you were launched a few months before the Druids were turned over to the Melpomene." I have since ascertained that this remarkable event occurred in January 1787. But my father always reckoned in this way: if you asked him when such an event took place, he would reply, so many years or months after such a naval engagement or remarkable occurrence; as, for instance, when I one day inquired how many years he had served the King, he responded, "I came into the sarvice a little afore the battle of Bunker's Hill, in which we licked the Americans clean out of Boston[1]." As for Anno Domini, he had no notion of it whatever.

Who my grandfather was, I cannot inform the reader, nor is it, perhaps, of much consequence. My father was a man who invariably looked forward, and hated anything like retrospection: he never mentioned either his father or his mother; perhaps he was not personally acquainted with them. All I could collect from him at intervals was, that he served in a collier from South Shields, and that a few months after his apprenticeship was out, he found himself one fine morning on board of a man-of-war, having been picked up in a state of unconsciousness, and hoisted up the side without his knowledge or consent. Some people may infer from this that he was at the time tipsy; he never told me so; all he said was, "Why, Jack, the fact is when they picked me up I was quite altogether non pompus." I also collected at various times the following facts—that he was put into the mizzentop, and served three years in the West Indies; that he was transferred to the maintop, and served five years in the Mediterranean; that he was made captain of the foretop, and sailed six years in the East Indies; and, at last, was rated captain's coxswain in the "Druid" frigate, attached to the Channel fleet cruising during the peace. Having thus condensed the genealogical and chronological part of this history, I now come to a portion of it in which it will be necessary that I should enter more into detail.

The frigate in which my father eventually served as captain's coxswain was commanded by a Sir Hercules Hawkingtrefylyan, Baronet. He was very poor and very proud, for baronets were not so common in those days. He was a very large man, standing six feet high, and with what is termed a considerable bow-window in front; but at the same time portly in his carriage. He wore his hair well powdered, exacted the utmost degree of ceremony and respect, and considered that even speaking to one of his officers was paying them a very high compliment: as for being asked to his table, there were but few who could boast of having had that honor, and even those few perhaps not more than once in the year. But he was, as I have said, very poor; and moreover he was a married man, which reminds me that I must introduce his lady, who, as the ship was on Channel service, had lodgings at the port near to which the frigate was stationed, and occasionally came on board to take a passage when the frigate changed her station to the eastward or to the westward. Lady Hercules, as we were directed to call her by Sir Hercules, was as large in dimensions, and ten times more proud than her husband. She was an excessive fine lady in every respect; and whenever she made her appearance on board, the ship's company looked upon her with the greatest awe. She had a great dislike to ships and sailors; officers she seldom condescended to notice; and pitch and tar were her abomination. Sir Hercules himself submitted to her dictation; and, had she lived on board, she would have commanded the ship: fortunately for the service, she was always very seasick when she was taking a passage, and therefore did no mischief. "I recollect," said my father to me, "once when we were running down to Portsmouth, where we had been ordered for provisions, that my Lady Hercules, who was no fool of a weight, being one night seasick in her cot, the lanyard of the cot gave way, and she came down with a run by the head. The steward was called by the sentry, and there was a terrible shindy. I, of course, was sent for, as I had the hanging up of the cot. There was Sir Hercules with his shirt flapping in the wind, and a blanket over his shoulders, strutting about in a towering passion; there was the officer of the watch, who had been sent for by mistake, and who was ordered to quit the cabin immediately; and there was I, expecting to be put in irons, and have seven dozen for my breakfast. As for Sir Hercules, he didn't know what to do; he did nothing but storm at everybody, for my lady, with her head under the clothes, was serving him out at no small rate. She wouldn't, she declared, allow any man to come into the cabin to hoist her up again. So indecent, so indelicate, so shocking—she was ashamed of Sir Hercules—to send for the men; if they didn't leave the cabin immediately, she'd scream and she'd faint—that she would—there was no saying what she wouldn't do! Well, there we waited just outside until at last Sir Hercules and my lady came to a parley. She was too sick to get out of bed, and he was not able to hoist her up without assistance; so being, as I suppose, pretty well tired of lying with her head three feet lower than her heels, she consented, provided that she was properly kivered up, to allow us to come in and put all to rights. Well, first she made Sir Hercules throw over her his two boat cloaks, but that wouldn't do; so he threw the green cloth from off the table, but that warn't enough for her delicate sensibility, and she hollowed from under the clothes for more kivering; so Sir Hercules sent for two of the ship's ensigns, and coiled away the bunting on her till it was as high as a haycock, and then we were permitted to come in and hoist her ladyship up again to the battens. Fortunately it was not a slippery hitch that had let her down by the run, but the lanyard had given way from my lady's own weight, so my back was not scratched after all. Women ain't no good on board, Jack, that's sartain."

But I must now introduce a more important personage than even Lady Hercules, which is my mother. They say "like master, like man," and I may add, "like lady, like maid." Lady Hercules was fine, but her maid was still finer. Most people when they write their biography, if their parents were poor, inform you that they left them a good name and nothing else. Some parents cannot even do that; but all parents can at all events leave their children a pretty name, by taking a little trouble at their baptism. My mother's name was Araminta, which, as my father truly observed, was "a touch above the common." She had originally gone into service as a nursery maid, living in her first situation one year and nine months; in her second she remained two years and four months; then she left to better herself, and obtained the situation of nurse in a family where she remained two years and one month; after which Lady Hercules then having a child of a year old, she was received into her service. At three years old the child died, and my mother was promoted to the situation of lady's maid. This advancement quite spoiled her; she was prouder than her mistress, and gave herself ten times more airs, and when, at first, my father (who as coxswain was constantly up at the house) offered to speak to her, she turned away from him in most ineffable disdain. Now my father was at that time about thirty years of age, and thought no small beer of himself, as the saying goes. He was a tall, handsome man, indeed, so good-looking that they used to call him "Handsome Jack" on board of the "Druid," and he had, moreover, a pigtail of most extraordinary size and length, of which he was not a little proud, as it hung down far below the waistband of his trousers. His hair was black and glossy, and his lovelocks, as the sailors term the curls which they wear on their temples, were of the most insinuating description. Now, as my father told me, when he first saw my mother with her sky-scraping cap at the back of her head, so different from the craft in general, he was very much inclined to board her; but when she boomed him off in that style, my father, who was quite the rage and fancy man among the ladies of Sally Port and Castle Rag, hauled his wind in no time, hitching up his white trousers and turning short round on his heel so as to present his back to her whenever they happened to meet. For a long time he gave her a wide berth. Now this fact of my father returning her disdain had the usual effect. At first she was very savage, and when she spoke of him to Lady Hercules, she designated him as "that proud coxswain, who seemed to think himself a greater man than Sir Hercules himself—with his filthy pigtail, indeed!" My father also, when he spoke of her to the boat's crew, termed her "that proud —— of a lady's maid," the word not mentionable being both canine and feminine. Thus matters went on for some time, until my mother, by a constant survey of my father's handsome proportions, every day thought him to be a more proper man, and a few advances on her part at last brought them to a mutual understanding.

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1. In which, like most people who tell their own stories, i begin with the histories of other people.
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