My father makes his appearance, having left his leg, but not his tail, behind him—my father is pensioned off by my mother as well as by his country.
About six weeks after the intelligence of the battle of the Nile, as I was sweeping away from the steps the mud which had been left by the tide, a King's tender, that I had been watching as she came up the river, dropped her anchor in the stream, abreast of the hospital.
Shortly afterward the lieutenant who commanded her pulled on shore in his boat, and, landing at the steps, proceeded to the governor's house. The men having orders not to leave the boat, requested me to procure them some porter, which I did; and on my return with it, they informed me that they had come round from Portsmouth with sixty-three men, who had lost their limbs, or had been otherwise so severely wounded in the late action as to have been recommended for Greenwich.
I felt very anxious for the men to land, as it was possible that my father might be one of them. The lieutenant soon returned, jumped into the boat, and shoved off. I perceived that the disabled men were getting ready to land, hauling their chests and kits on deck. In about half-an-hour a boat full of them came to the steps. I ran down to assist; and as I held on to the gunnel of the boat, while they threw out their gang-board, the first person who stumped out was my father, minus his left leg.
"Father!" cried I, half sorry and half pleased.
"Who calls me father?" replied he, looking at me. "Why, you don't mean to say that you're my boy Tom?"
"Yes, indeed!" said I.
"Ah! yes—I recollect your smile now. Why, what a big fellow you've grown!"
"It's four years since you left, father."
"Well! I suppose it is, since you say so," replied he, taking me by the arm, and stumping a little to one side, when he said in a low tone, "I say, Jack, what became of the old woman? Did I settle her?"
"Oh, no," replied I, laughing, "she was only shamming."
"Shamming was she? Well! it's all the better—for she has been a little on my conscience, that's truth. Shamming? Heh! She won't sham next time, if I fall foul of her. How does she get on?"
"Oh, very well indeed."
"And how's your little sister? What's her name—Jenny lengthened at both ends? I never could recollect it, though I've often thought of her sweet little face."
"She's quite well, and as pretty and as good as ever."
"Well, Tom, my boy, you stood by your father when he was in trouble, and now he'll stand by you. How does your mother treat you?"
"We get on pretty well—not over-fond of each other."
"Well, Tom, I've only one pin left; but I say," continued my father, with a wink of his eye, "I haven't left my tail behind me, 'cause it may be useful, you know. Now we must all go up to the governor of the hospital for inspection, and I suppose we shall be kept for some time; so you may run home and tell your mother that I've come back in a perfect good-humor, and that it will be her fault if she puts me out—that's all."
"I will, father; and then I'll come to you at the hospital."
I ran home to communicate the important intelligence to my mother and to Virginia, who had as usual come from school for her dinner.
"Mother," says I, out of breath, "who do you think has come back?"
"Comeback?" said she. "Back? Not your father?"
"Yes," says I, "my father. I just left him."
My mother turned deadly pale, and dropped the hot iron from her hand, so as to spoil a frilled nightcap belonging to one of her lady customers. She staggered to a chair, and trembled all over. I really believe that had she been aware of his being about to return, she would have quitted Greenwich before his arrival; but now it was too late. Virginia had run for the salts as soon as she perceived that her mother was unwell, and as she smelled them she gradually recovered. At last she inquired how my father looked and what he said.
I told her that he had lost his leg, and had been sent as a pensioner to the hospital; that he had looked very well, and that he had told me to say that "he was in a perfect good humor, and it would be her fault if she put him out of it; and that if she did—"
"Well, what then?" inquired my mother.
"Oh, the tail—that's all."
At the mention of the tail my mother very nearly went off in a swoon—her head fell back, and I heard her mutter, "So vulgar! so ungenteel!" However, she recovered herself, and appeared to be for some time in deep thought. At last she rose up, ordered me to fetch something extra for supper, and recommenced her ironing.
As soon as I had executed her commission I went to the hospital, where I found my father, who, with the other men, had just been dismissed. He accompanied me to my mother, shook hands with her very good-humoredly, kissed Virginia, whom he took on his knee, praised the supper, drank only one pot of porter, and then returned to the hospital, to sleep in the cabin which had been allotted to him in the Warriors' Ward, of which Anderson was the boatswain. My mother, although not very gracious, was much subdued, and for a few days everything went on very comfortably; but my mother's temper could not be long restrained. Displeased at something which she considered as very vulgar, she ventured to assail my father as before, concluding her tirade as usual, with "There—now you're vexed!"
My father looked at her very sternly.—At last he said, "You're just right—I am vexed; and whenever you tell me so in future I'll prove that it's no lie." He then rose, stumped upstairs to my room, in which he had deposited his sea-chest, and soon made his appearance with the formidable and never-to-be-forgotten tail in his hand. "Mistress," said he, as my mother retreated, "you said, 'Now you're vexed' to me just now. I ask you again, am I vexed, or am I not?" and my father flourished the tail over his head.
My mother looked at the strange weapon: the remembrance of the past was too painful; she was conquered by her fear.
"Oh, no," cried she, falling on her knees. "You're not vexed—indeed you are not."
"You're quite sure of that?" responded my father authoritatively, as he advanced toward her.
"Oh! yes, yes," cried my mother, trembling; "indeed you're not."
"Ain't I in a very good humor?" continued my father.
"Yes, you are in the best of humors, and always are so, unless—I aggravate you," replied my mother, whimpering.
"Well," replied my father, lowering his tail, "I expect we've come to a right understanding at last. So now get up and wipe your eyes; but recollect, that whenever you dare to tell me that I'm vexed, I won't be so ungenteel as to contradict you."
Thus was the mastery gained by my father, and never lost. It is true that sometimes my mother would forget herself, and would get on as far as "There now, you're—," but she would stop there, and correct herself, saying, "No, you're not," and allow her temper to evaporate by singing one of her usual ditties, as "Hush-a-by, baby, on the tree-top;" but my father never took notice of her singing; and being really a very good-tempered man, my mother's temper gradually became improved.
The return of my father made some alteration in our mode of life. He might, if he had pleased, have lived as an out-pensioner with my mother; but this he would not do. He used to come in almost every evening to see her, and she used to provide for him a pot of porter, which he seldom exceeded. If he had friends with him, they paid for what they drank. This pot of porter per diem was the only demand made upon my mother for permission to remain separate, and she did not grumble at it. His tobacco he found himself out of the tobacco money allowed at the hospital. He had received some pay, which, contrary to his former custom, he had laid by in the charge of one of the lieutenants of the hospital, for at that time there were no savings banks.
As a married man my father had the liberty to introduce his wife and children into the hospital at meal-times, to share his allowance with them. This my mother would not listen to, as regarded herself and my sister; but my father messed in what is called the married men's room, on my account, and instead of buying my own dinner, or applying to my mother for it, I now always took it with my father in the hospital. In consequence of my father's admittance as a pensioner, both I and my sister might have been instructed at the hospital school; but my mother would not premit Virginia to go there, and I found it much more convenient to go to Peter Anderson in the evening, when I had nothing to do. On the whole, we all went on much more comfortably than we did before my father's return.
One evening I was, as usual, with Anderson in his cabin; my father having been drafted into his ward, I could not help asking Anderson how he liked him. His reply was, "I like your father, Jack, for he is a straightforward, honest, good-tempered man, and, moreover, has a good natural judgment. I think it a great pity that such a man as he is should be so early in life lost, as it were, to the country. He is a first-rate seaman; and although there are many like him, still there are none to spare. However, if his country loses, he may himself gain, by being so soon called away from a service of great temptation. The sailor who has fought for his country, Jack, has much to be thankful for when he takes in moorings at Greenwich Hospital. He is well fed, well clothed, tended in sickness, and buried with respect; but all these are nothing compared with the greatest boon. When I reflect what lives sailors live, how reckless they are, how often they have been on the brink of eternity, and wonderfully preserved, without even a feeling of gratitude to Him who has watched over them, or taking their escapes as warnings; when I consider how they pass their whole lives in excess, intemperance, and, too often, blasphemy, it is indeed a mercy that they are allowed to repose here after such a venturous and careless career; that they have time to reflect upon what has passed, to listen to the words of the Gospel, to hate their former life, and trusting in God's mercy to secure their salvation. This is the greatest charity of this institution, and long may it flourish, a blessing to the country which has endowed it, and to the seamen, who are not only provided for in this world, but are prepared in it for the next."
Such were continually the style of admonitions given me by this good old man, and I need not point out to the reader how fortunate it was for me that I had secured such a preceptor.