Poor Jack

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In which i go afloat, and obtain some knowledge of the english channel.

It may be as well here to remark that the system of pilotage is different now from what it used to be at the period of which I am writing. The Cinque Port pilots now carry vessels from the Downs to the river, and from the river to the Downs. Their pilotage extends no further. Vessels seldom require pilots for the Channel, and do not take them unless they are bound to some port in the Channel with which they are unacquainted, and those pilots who ply in the Channel are termed Hoblers; but at the time I refer to the regular pilots used to go out in their galleys to the chaps of the Channel and take charge of vessels all the way up, which, by the new regulations, they do not do. The arrangements for pilotage have been much improved of late years, and those employed are better qualified.

I had remained at Deal about three weeks when an outward-bound Indiaman anchored in the Downs. Her pilot came on shore, and she made the signal for another. It was Bramble's turn, a galley was launched, and we went on board.

The ship was bound to Plymouth, from whence she was to sail with convoy to a certain latitude. The weather was now fine and frosty, and we made sail when the tide served. As soon as we were fairly out in the Channel Bramble went with me into the main-chains, and showed me how to heave the lead. After several attempts, in which I sometimes would hit the spare topsail-yard upon which I stood, sometimes would nearly break my own head, and once contrived to throw the lead over the hammock-rails inboard, I succeeded in getting it round over my head; and when I had once gained that point I made fewer mistakes. In two days we arrived at Plymouth; and as Bramble kept me at it till my arms ached, nearly half the day, I could by that time heave the lead pretty fairly, that is to say, without danger to myself or other people. The day after we arrived at Plymouth we got into a pilot boat and went out in search of employment, which we soon found, and we continued chiefly taking vessels up to Portsmouth and down to Plymouth, or clear of soundings, for some time. During this time my practice at the lead was incessant, and I became very perfect. When I was not at the lead Bramble would make me stand at the binnacle and watch the compass, so that, by the time we arrived at Deal again, I was pretty competent in those two branches of my art, except that, having practiced the lead mostly in deep water, I had not acquired accuracy and expedition in giving the soundings. But I learned a great deal more of my profession; Bramble explaining to me the sails, rigging, and names and uses of the ropes, and the various maneuvers practiced, all of which he would catechise me in afterward, to ascertain if I was perfect, and had remembered what he told me. I was, therefore, under excellent tuition. Whatever port we entered Bramble would point out the landmarks to me, state the distances from point to point, and the dangers to be avoided. These I could not so well retain perfectly, and required occasional reminding, but altogether I gave him satisfaction. It was on New Year's Day, 1800, that we boarded a large homeward-bound Indiaman, which had just struck soundings. She was a thousand-ton ship, with a rich cargo of tea on board, and full of passengers, besides more than one hundred invalids from the regiments out there, who had been sent home under the charge of two officers.

What a difference there appeared to me to be between the Indiaman going out and this one coming home! the first so neat and clean in her decks, and this so crowded and so weatherworn by her long voyage. What with troops in old jackets, which had once been scarlet, Lascars with their curly black hair, and dark handsome features, yellow men, sickly women, and half-caste children, with their Hindoo ayahs, tigers, lions, turtles, cows, sheep, goats, and pigs, on the booms and main deck, the vessel was in a strange motley of confusion.

As soon as we were put on board, the captain, officers, and passengers crowded round to inquire the news. Bramble, according to pilot custom, had brought off one or two late Plymouth papers (one of which, I recollect, gave the account of the cutting out of the "Hermione" by Captain Hamilton); but the people on board were eight months behindhand at least as regarded what had passed. They had not even heard of Sir Sydney Smith's defense of Acre against Bonaparte, or anything else which had subsequently occurred; so that as soon as Bramble had taken charge, and put the ship's head the right course (for the wind was fair), there was no end to question and answer, And while Bramble was questioned by the captain and passengers, I was attacked by the midshipmen or guinea-pigs, as they are called. Having a fair wind, we ran right for the Downs, where we arrived on the morning of the second day. Here the purser of the ship went on shore with his dispatches, and the ship anchored to await orders, by the next post, to go up the river.

"Tom," said Bramble, as the vessel anchored, "I cannot quit the ship, but you may, so just get on shore in one of the boats, and see how little Bessy is, and poor old Mrs. Maddox's leg; and, Tom, take our dirty linen on shore and bring off clean."

I was glad enough to obey his orders, for I was very anxious to see dear little Bessy again; so I dropped into a boat that was going on shore for fresh beef, taking with me two or three little presents for Bessy, out of the many which I had received when on board, for the officers and men were very kind to me, and had given me many things which they did not value, but which I did very much, as they were quite new to me.

The custom officers at Deal were not very particular at that time. I was not searched, and arrived at the cottage, where I found Bessy sitting at her needle. She threw down her work and ran to me, and as I kissed her the tears ran down her cheeks.

"Where is father, Tom? I'm so glad to see you; but where is father? I've been so frightened, the winter has been so rough."

"He's on board of the Indiaman, but being in charge he cannot come on shore, so he sent me."

"Oh! I'm so glad. You have been away so long, and we have had nothing but gales of wind; and do you know that Williams and Steers are both drowned?"

"No, indeed, we know nothing; but father will be sorry to hear of it, for they were friends of his."

"Well, Tom, it's not fair to leave a little girl like me alone here, for Mrs. Maddox has kept her bed ever since you left. Her leg is better, but she has pains in her limbs, and groans so all night, and here I am left by myself, to hear her groan and the wind roar."

Here Bessy began to cry, and I to console her as well as I could, although I did feel that it was hard that such a child should be left so lonely. The presents I brought her made her wipe away her tears, and she was very soon as lively and joyous as ever.

"I heard father say, Bessy" (I always called Bramble my father, as he had said I might), "that he had picked up something this winter, for he has had none but heavy vessels, and you know pilotage is paid by the draught of water."

"Well, he may have made money, but I'm sure we haven't spent any to matter, for I have hardly been once a week to Mrs. Maddox for money since you have gone. She eats hardly anything, and I can't eat my meals when I'm alone down here. Will father come home after he has been up the river?"

"Yes, Bessy, he said that we should take a spell on shore."

"Tom, don't you think I might go on board and see him for half an hour?"

"Yes, I don't see why not; speak to Mrs. Maddox."

Bessy ran upstairs, and came down with the required permission, provided a neighbor's girl would remain in the house, and that she went under my escort. Her bonnet was soon on, and we obtained a passage in one of the Indiaman's boats which was shoving off, for the water was quite smooth, and the ship's boats could lie on the shingle without difficulty. The officer took Bessy under his boat cloak, and we were soon on board. Bramble was not on deck at the time, and when I went down to look for him, Bessy remained on the quarter-deck in admiration of all she saw. But Bramble was not below as I supposed—he had gone into the cuddy with the captain; and when he came out, his first knowledge of Bessy's being on board was being embraced by the waist with her little arms.

"Why, Bessy, my child," said Bramble, just as I returned on deck. "This is Master Tom's doing," continued he, kissing her; "so you have come to see your father?"

"Why, you would not come on shore to see me, father," said Bessy, as Bramble took her up and kissed her again.

"Well, Tom, have you brought the clean things?"

"No, I must go on shore again with Bessy, father."

"Very true, so you must."

Bessy was taken much notice of by the captain and all on board. No wonder: her fair skin and clear transparent red and white were in such contrast with the bilious-looking passengers that she appeared as if she was not of the same race. She was much admired, and received many little presents; and when she left the ship, after staying on board an hour, she was much delighted with her trip, and still more so with the promise of Bramble that he would stay ashore for some time as soon as he came back from the river. I remained with her on shore till dusk, and then, having collected the clean linen, as we were expected to sail early the next morning, I returned on board the Indiaman.


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