The Adventures of Roderick Random, by Tobias Smollett

Chapter XXIV

I am reduced to a great misery — assaulted on Tower Hill by a press-gang, who put me on board a tender — my usage there — my arrival on board at a man-of-war, where I am put in irons, and released by the good offices of Mr. Thompson, who recommends me as assistant to the surgeon — -he relates his own story — characters of the captain, surgeon, and first mate

I applauded the resolution of Miss Williams, who a few days after, was hired in quality of bar-keeper, by one of the ladies who had witnessed in her behalf at the Marshalsea, and who since that time had got credit with a wine merchant, whose favourite she was, to set up a convenient house of her own. Thither my fellow-lodger repaired, after having taken leave of me with a torrent of tears, and a thousand protestations of eternal gratitude; assuring me she would remain in this situation no longer than she could pick up money sufficient to put her other design in execution.

As for my own part, I saw no resource but the army or navy, between which I hesitated so long that I found myself reduced to a starving condition. My spirit began to accommodate itself to my beggarly fate, and I became so mean as to go down towards Wapping, with an intention to inquire for an old schoolfellow, who, I understood, had got the command of a small coasting vessel then in the river, and implore his assistance. But my destiny prevented this abject piece of behaviour; for as I crossed Tower Wharf, a squat tawny fellow with a hanger by his side, and a cudgel in his hand came up to me, calling, “Yo ho! brother, you must come along with me.” As I did not like his appearance, instead of answering his salutation, I quickened my pace, in hope of ridding myself of his company; upon which he whistled aloud, and immediately another sailor appeared before me, who laid hold of me by the collar, and began to drag me along. Not being in a humour to relish such treatment, I disengaged myself of the assailant, and, with one blow of my cudgel, laid him motionless on the ground; and perceiving myself surrounded in a trice by ten or a dozen more, exerted myself with such dexterity and success, that some of my opponents were fain to attack me with drawn cutlasses; and after an obstinate engagement, in which I received a large wound on my head, and another on my left cheek, I was disarmed, taken prisoner, and carried on board a pressing tender, where, after being pinioned like a malefactor, I was thrust down into the hold among a parcel of miserable wretches, the sight of whom well nigh distracted me. As the commanding officer had not humanity enough to order my wounds to be dressed, and I could not use my own hands, I desired one of my fellow captives who was unfettered, to take a handkerchief out of my pocket, and tie it round my head, to stop the bleeding. He pulled out my handkerchief, ’tis true, but instead of applying it to the use for which I designed it, went to the grating of the hatchway, and, with astonishing composure, sold it before my face to a bumboat woman 1 then on board, for a quart of gin, with which he treated his companions, regardless of my circumstances and entreaties.

1 A Bumboat woman is one who sells bread, cheese, greens, liquor, and fresh potatoes to the sailors, in a small boat that lies alongside the ship

I complained bitterly of this robbery to the midshipman on deck, telling him at the same time, that unless my hurts were dressed, I should bleed to death. But compassion was a weakness of which no man could justly accuse this person, who, squirting a mouthful of dissolved tobacco upon me through the gratings, told me “I was a mutinous dog, and that I might die for anything he cared!” Finding there was no other remedy, I appealed to patience, and laid up this usage in my memory, to be called at a more fitting opportunity. In the meantime, loss of blood, vexation, and want of food, contributed, with the noisome stench of the place, to throw me into a swoon, out of which I was recovered by a tweak of the nose, administered by the tar who stood sentinel over us, who at the same time regaled me with a draught of flip, and comforted me with the hopes of being put on board of the Thunder next day, where I should be freed of my handcuffs, and cured of my wounds by the doctor. I no sooner beard him name the Thunder, than I asked if he had belonged to that ship long; and be giving me to understand he had belonged to her five years, I inquired if he knew Lieutenant Bowling? “Know Lieutenant Bowling!” said he, “Odds my life! and that I do; and a good seaman he is as ever stepped upon forecastle, and a brave fellow as ever cracked biscuit — none of your Guinea pigs, nor your fresh water, wish-washy, fair-weather fowls. Many a taugt gale of wind have honest Tom Bowling and I weathered together. Here’s his health, with all my heart: wherever he is, a-loft, or a-low, the lieutenant needs not be ashamed to show himself.” I was so much affected with this eulogium, that I could not refrain from telling him that I was Lieutenant Bowling’s kinsman; in consequence of which connection, he expressed his inclination to serve me, and when he was relieved, brought some cold boiled beef in a platter, and biscuit, on which we supped plentifully, and afterwards drank another can of flip together. While we were thus engaged, he recounted a great many exploits of my uncle, who, I found, was very much beloved by the ship’s company, and pitied for the misfortune that had happened to him in Hispaniola, which I was very glad to be informed was not so great as I imagined; for Captain Oakum had recovered of his wounds, and actually at that time commanded the ship. Having by accident, in my pocket, my uncle’s letter, written from Port Louis, I gave it my benefactor (whose name was Jack Rattlin) for his perusal; but honest Jack told me frankly he could not read, and desired to know the contents, which I immediately communicated. When he heard that part of it in which he says he had written to his landlord in Deal, he cried, “Body o’ me! that was old Ben Block; he was dead before the letter came to hand. Ey, ey, had Ben been alive, Lieutenant Bowling would have had no occasion to skulk so long. Honest Ben was the first man that taught him to hand, reef, and steer. Well, well, we must all die, that’s certain — we must all come to port sooner or later, at sea or on shore — we must be fast moored one day: death’s like the best bower anchor, as the saying is — it will bring us all up.” I could not but signify my approbation of the justness of Jack’s reflections, and inquired into the occasion of the quarrel between Captain Oakum and my uncle, which he explained in this manner: “Captain Oakum, to be sure, is a good man enough — besides, he’s my commander; but what’s that to me? I do my duty, and value no man’s anger of a rope’s end. Now the report goes, as how he’s a lord, or baron knight’s brother, whereby (d’ye see me,) he carries a straight arm, and keeps aloof from his officers, thof mayhap they may be as good men in the main as he. Now we lying at anchor in Tuberon Bay, Lieutenant Bowling had the middle watch, and as he always kept a good look out, he made (d’ye see) three lights in the offing, whereby he ran down to the great cabin for orders, and found the captain asleep; whereupon he waked him, which put him in a main high passion, and he swore woundily at the lieutenant, and called him lousy Scotch son of a whore (for, I being then sentinel in the steerage, heard all), and swab, and lubber, whereby the lieutenant returned the salute, and they jawed together fore and aft a good spell, till at last the captain turned out, and, laying hold of a rattan, came athwart Mr. Bowling’s quarter: whereby he told the captain that, if he was not his commander, he would heave him overboard, and demanded satisfaction ashore; whereby in the morning watch, the captain went ashore in the pinnace, and afterwards the lieutenant carried the cutter ashore, and so they, leaving the boats’ crews on their oars, went away together; and so (d’ye see) in less than a quarter of an hour we heard firing, whereby we made for the place, and found the captain lying wounded on the beach, and so brought him on board to the doctor, who cured him in less than six weeks. But the lieutenant clapped on all the sail he could bear, and had got far enough ahead before we knew anything of the matter; so that we could never after get sight of him, for which we were not sorry, because the captain was mainly wrath, and would certainly have done him a mischief; for he afterwards caused him to be run on the ship’s books, whereby he lost all his pay, and, if he should be taken, would be tried as a deserter.”

This account of the captain’s behaviour gave me no advantageous idea of his character; and I could not help lamenting my own fate, that had subjected me to such a commander. However, making a virtue of necessity, I put a good face on the matter, and next day, was, with the other pressed men, put on board of the “Thunder,” lying at the Nore. When we came alongside, the mate, who guarded us thither, ordered my handcuffs to be taken off, that I might get on board the easier; this circumstance being perceived by some of the company who stood upon the gangboard to see us enter, one of them called to Jack Rattlin, who was busied in doing this friendly office for me, “Hey, Jack, what Newgate galley have you boarded in the river as you came along? Have we not thieves enow among us already?” Another, observing my wounds, which remained exposed to the air, told me, my seams were uncaulked, and that I must be new payed. A third, seeing my hair clotted together with blood, as it were into distinct cords, took notice, that my bows were mended with the red ropes, instead of my side. A fourth asked me, if I could not keep my yards square without iron braces? And, in short, a thousand witticisms of the same nature were passed upon me before I could get up the ship’s side.

After we had been all entered upon the ship’s books, I inquired of one of my shipmates where the surgeon was, that I might have my wounds dressed, and had actually got as far as the middle deck (for our ship carried eighty guns), in my way to the cockpit, when I was met by the same midshipman who had used me so barbarously in the tender: he, seeing me free from my chains, asked, with an insolent air, who had released me? To this question, I foolishly answered, with a countenance that too plainly declared the state of my thoughts, “Whoever did it, I am persuaded did not consult you in the affair.” I had no sooner uttered these words, than he cried, “Damn you, you saucy son of a hitch, I’ll teach you to talk so to your officer.” So saying, he bestowed on me several severe stripes with a supple jack he had in his hand: and, going to the commanding officer, made such a report of me, that I was immediately put in irons by the master-at-arms, and a sentinel placed over me. Honest Rattlin, as soon as he heard of my condition, came to me, and administered all the consolation he could, and then went to the surgeon in my behalf, who sent one of his mates to dress my wounds. This mate was no other than my old friend Thompson, with whom I became acquainted at the Navy Office, as before mentioned. If I knew him at first sight, it was not easy for him to recognise me, disfigured with blood and dirt, and altered by the misery I had undergone. Unknown as I was to him, he surveyed me with looks of compassion, and handled my sores with great tenderness. When he had applied what he thought proper, and was about to leave me, I asked him if my misfortunes had disguised me so much that he could not recollect my face? Upon this address he observed me with great earnestness for some time, and at length protested he could not recollect one feature of my countenance. To keep him no longer in suspense, I told him my name, which when he heard, he embraced me with affection, and professed his sorrow at seeing me in such a disagreeable situation. I made him acquainted with my story, and, when he heard how inhumanly I had been used in the tender, he left me abruptly, assuring me I should see him again soon. I had scarce time to wonder at his sudden departure, when the master-at-arms came to the place of my confinement, and bade me follow him to the quarter-deck, where I was examined by the first lieutenant, who commanded the ship in the absence of the captain, touching the treatment I had received in the tender from my friend the midshipman, who was present to confront me.

I recounted the particulars of his behaviour to me, not only in the tender, but since my being on board the ship, part of which being proved by the evidence of Jack Rattlin and others, who had no great devotion for my oppressor, I was discharged from confinement, to make way for him, who was delivered to the master-at-arms to take his turn in the bilboes. And this was not the only satisfaction I enjoyed, for I was, at the request of the surgeon, exempted from all other duty than that of assisting his mates, in making and administering medicines to the sick. This good office I owed to the friendship of Mr. Thompson, who had represented me in such a favourable light to the surgeon, that be demanded me of the lieutenant to supply the place of his third mate, who was lately dead. When I had obtained this favour, my friend Thompson carried me down to the cockpit, which is the place allotted for the habitation of the surgeon’s mates; and when he had shown me their berth (as he called it), I was filled with astonishment and horror, We descended by divers ladders to a space as dark as a dungeon, which, I understood, was immersed several feet under water, being immediately above the hold. I had no sooner approached this dismal gulph, than my nose was saluted with an intolerable stench of putrified cheese and rancid butter, that issued from an apartment at the foot of the ladder, resembling a chandler’s shop, where, by the faint glimmering of a candle, I could perceive a man with a pale, meagre countenance, sitting behind a kind of desk, having spectacles on his nose, and a pen in his hand. This (I learned of Mr. Thompson) was the ship’s steward, who sat there to distribute provision to the several messes, and to mark what each received. He therefore presented my name to him, and desired I might be entered in his mess; then, taking a light in his hand, conducted me to the place of his residence, which was a square of about six feet, surrounded with the medicine-chest, that of the first mate, his own, and a board by way of table fastened to the after powder room; it was also inclosed with canvas nailed round to the beams of the ship, to screen us from the cold, as well as from the view of the midshipmen and quartermaster, who lodged within the cable-tiers on each side of us. In this gloomy mansion he entertained me with some cold suit pork, which he brought from a sort of locker, fixed above the table: and calling for the boy of the mess, sent for a can of beer, of which he made excellent flip to crown the banquet.

By this time I began to recover my spirits, which had been exceedingly depressed with the appearance of everything about me, and could no longer refrain from asking the particulars of Mr. Thompson’s fortune since I had seen him in London. He told me, that being disappointed in his expectations of borrowing money to gratify the rapacious s — t — ry at the Navy Office, he found himself utterly unable to subsist any longer in town, and had actually offered his service, in quality of mate, to the surgeon of a merchant ship, bound to Guinea on the slaving trade; when, one morning, a young fellow, of whom he had some acquaintance, came to his lodgings, and informed him that he had seen a warrant made out in his name at the Navy Office, for surgeon’s second mate of a third-rate. This unexpected piece of good news he could scarcely believe to be true, more especially as he had been found qualified at Surgeons’ Hall for third mate only; but that he might not be wanting to himself, he went thither to be assured, and actually found it so: whereupon, demanding his warrant, it was delivered to him, and the oaths administered immediately. That very afternoon he went to Gravesend in the tilt-boat, from whence he took place in the tide-coach for Rochester; next morning got on board the “Thunder,” for which he was appointed, then lying in the harbour at Chatham; and the same day was mustered by the clerk of the checque. And well it was for him that such expedition was used; for, in less than twelve hours after his arrival, another William Thompson came on board, affirming that he was the person for whom the warrant was expedited, and that the other was an impostor.

My friend was grievously alarmed at this accident, the more so, as his namesake had very much the advantage over him both in assurance and dress. However, to acquit himself of the suspicion of imposture, he produced several letters written from Scotland to him in that name, and, recollecting that his indentures were in a box on board, he brought them up, and convinced all present that he had not assumed a name which did not belong to him. His competitor, enraged that they should hesitate in doing him justice (for to be sure the warrant had been designed for him), behaved with so much indecent heat, that the commanding officer (who was the same gentleman I had seen) and the surgeon were offended at his presumption, and making a point of it with their friends in town, in less than a week got the first confirmed in his station. “I have been on board,” said he, “ever since; and, as this way of life is becoming familiar to me, have no cause to complain of my situation. The surgeon is a good-natured, indolent man; the first mate (who is now on shore on duty) is indeed a little proud and choleric, as all Welshmen are, but in the main a friendly honest fellow. The lieutenants I have no concern with; and, as for the captain, he is too much of a gentleman to know a surgeon’s mate, even by sight.”

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Last updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 22:30