The Three Clerks, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter IV

Captain Cuttwater

Captain Cuttwater had not seen much service afloat; that is, he had not been personally concerned in many of those sea-engagements which in and about the time of Nelson gave so great a halo of glory to the British Lion; nor had it even been permitted to him to take a prominent part in such minor affairs as have since occurred; he had not the opportunity of distinguishing himself either at the battle of Navarino or the bombarding of Acre; and, unfortunately for his ambition, the period of his retirement came before that great Baltic campaign, in which, had he been there, he would doubtless have distinguished himself as did so many others. His earliest years were spent in cruising among the West Indies; he then came home and spent some considerable portion of his life in idleness — if that time can be said to have been idly spent which he devoted to torturing the Admiralty with applications, remonstrances, and appeals. Then he was rated as third lieutenant on the books of some worm-eaten old man-of-war at Portsmouth, and gave up his time to looking after the stowage of anchors, and counting fathoms of rope. At last he was again sent afloat as senior lieutenant in a ten-gun brig, and cruised for some time off the coast of Africa, hunting for slavers; and returning after a while from this enterprising employment, he received a sort of amphibious appointment at Devonport. What his duties were here, the author, being in all points a landsman, is unable to describe. Those who were inclined to ridicule Captain Cuttwater declared that the most important of them consisted in seeing that the midshipmen in and about the dockyard washed their faces, and put on clean linen not less often than three times a week. According to his own account, he had many things of a higher nature to attend to; and, indeed, hardly a ship sank or swam in Hamoaze except by his special permission, for a space of twenty years, if his own view of his own career may be accepted as correct.

He had once declared to certain naval acquaintances, over his third glass of grog, that he regarded it as his birthright to be an Admiral; but at the age of seventy-two he had not yet acquired his birthright, and the probability of his ever attaining it was becoming very small indeed. He was still bothering Lords and Secretaries of the Admiralty for further promotion, when he was astounded by being informed by the Port-Admiral that he was to be made happy by half-pay and a pension. The Admiral, in communicating the intelligence, had pretended to think that he was giving the captain information which could not be otherwise than grateful to him, but he was not the less aware that the old man would be furious at being so treated. What, pension him! put him on half-pay — shelf him for life, while he was still anxiously expecting that promotion, that call to higher duties which had so long been his due, and which, now that his powers were matured, could hardly be longer denied to him! And after all that he had done for his country — his ungrateful, thankless, ignorant country — was he thus to be treated? Was he to be turned adrift without any mark of honour, any special guerdon, any sign of his Sovereign’s favour to testify as to his faithful servitude of sixty years’ devotion? He, who had regarded it as his merest right to be an Admiral, and had long indulged the hope of being greeted in the streets of Devonport as Sir Bartholomew Cuttwater, K.C.B., was he to be thus thrown aside in his prime, with no other acknowledgement than the bare income to which he was entitled!

It is hardly too much to say, that no old officers who have lacked the means to distinguish themselves, retire from either of our military services, free from the bitter disappointment and sour feelings of neglected worth, which Captain Cuttwater felt so keenly. A clergyman, or a doctor, or a lawyer, feels himself no whit disgraced if he reaches the end of his worldly labours without special note or honour. But to a soldier or a sailor, such indifference to his merit is wormwood. It is the bane of the professions. Nine men out of ten who go into it must live discontented, and die disappointed.

Captain Cuttwater had no idea that he was an old man. He had lived for so many years among men of his own stamp, who had grown grey and bald, and rickety, and weak alongside of him, that he had no opportunity of seeing that he was more grey or more rickety than his neighbours. No children had become men and women at his feet; no new race had gone out into the world and fought their battles under his notice. One set of midshipmen had succeeded to another, but his old comrades in the news-rooms and lounging-places at Devonport had remained the same; and Captain Cuttwater had never learnt to think that he was not doing, and was not able to do good service for his country.

The very name of Captain Cuttwater was odious to every clerk at the Admiralty. He, like all naval officers, hated the Admiralty, and thought, that of all Englishmen, those five who had been selected to sit there in high places as joint lords were the most incapable. He pestered them with continued and almost continuous applications on subjects of all sorts. He was always asking for increased allowances, advanced rank, more assistance, less work, higher privileges, immunities which could not be granted, and advantages to which he had no claim. He never took answers, but made every request the subject of a prolonged correspondence; till at last some energetic Assistant-Secretary declared that it should no longer be borne, and Captain Cuttwater was dismissed with pension and half-pay. During his service he had contrived to save some four or five thousand pounds, and now he was about to retire with an assured income adequate to all his wants. The public who had the paying of Captain Cuttwater may, perhaps, think that he was amply remunerated for what he had done; but the captain himself entertained a very different opinion.

Such is the view which we are obliged to take of the professional side of Captain Cuttwater’s character. But the professional side was by far the worst. Counting fathoms of rope and looking after unruly midshipmen on shore are not duties capable of bringing out in high relief the better traits of a main’s character. Uncle Bat, as during the few last years of his life he was always called at Surbiton Cottage, was a gentleman and a man of honour, in spite of anything that might be said to the contrary at the Admiralty. He was a man with a soft heart, though the end of his nose was so large, so red, and so pimply; and rough as was his usage to little midshipmen when his duty caused him to encounter them in a body, he had befriended many a one singly with kind words and an open hand. The young rogues would unmercifully quiz Old Nosey, for so Captain Cuttwater was generally called in Devonport, whenever they could safely do so; but, nevertheless, in their young distresses they knew him for their friend, and were not slow to come to him.

In person Captain Cuttwater was a tall, heavy man, on whose iron constitution hogsheads of Hollands and water seemed to have had no very powerful effect. He was much given to profane oaths; but knowing that manners required that he should refrain before ladies, and being unable to bring his tongue sufficiently under command to do so, he was in the habit of ‘craving the ladies’ pardon’ after every slip.

All that was really remarkable in Uncle Bat’s appearance was included in his nose. It had always been a generous, weighty, self-confident nose, inviting to itself more observation than any of its brother features demanded. But in latter years it had spread itself out in soft, porous, red excrescences, to such an extent as to make it really deserving of considerable attention. No stranger ever passed Captain Cuttwater in the streets of Devonport without asking who he was, or, at any rate, specially noticing him.

It must, of course, be admitted that a too strongly pronounced partiality for alcoholic drink had produced these defects in Captain Cuttwater’s nasal organ; and yet he was a most staunch friend of temperance. No man alive or dead had ever seen Captain Cuttwater the worse for liquor; at least so boasted the captain himself, and there were none, at any rate in Devonport, to give him the lie. Woe betide the midshipman whom he should see elated with too much wine; and even to the common sailor who should be tipsy at the wrong time, he would show no mercy. Most eloquent were the discourses which he preached against drunkenness, and they always ended with a reference to his own sobriety. The truth was, that drink would hardly make Captain Cuttwater drunk. It left his brain untouched, but punished his nose.

Mrs. Woodward had seen her uncle but once since she had become a widow. He had then come up to London to attack the Admiralty at close quarters, and had sojourned for three or four days at Surbiton Cottage. This was now some ten years since, and the girls had forgotten even what he was like. Great preparations were made for him. Though the summer had nearly commenced, a large fire was kept burning in his bedroom — his bed was newly hung with new curtains; two feather beds were piled on each other, and everything was done which five women could think desirable to relieve the ailings of suffering age. The fact, however, was that Captain Cuttwater was accustomed to a small tent bedstead in a room without a carpet, that he usually slept on a single mattress, and that he never had a fire in his bedroom, even in the depth of winter.

Travelling from Devonport to London is now an easy matter; and Captain Cuttwater, old as he was, found himself able to get through to Hampton in one day. Mrs. Woodward went to meet him at Hampton Court in a fly, and conveyed him to his new home, together with a carpet-bag, a cocked hat, a sword, and a very small portmanteau. When she inquired after the remainder of his luggage, he asked her what more lumber she supposed he wanted. No more lumber at any rate made its appearance, then or afterwards; and the fly proceeded with an easy load to Surbiton Cottage.

There was great anxiety on the part of the girls when the wheels were heard to stop at the front door. Gertrude kept her place steadily standing on the rug in the drawing-room; Linda ran to the door and then back again; but Katie bolted out and ensconced herself behind the parlour-maid, who stood at the open door, looking eagerly forth to get the first view of Uncle Bat.

‘So here you are, Bessie, as snug as ever,’ said the captain, as he let himself ponderously down from the fly. Katie had never before heard her mother called Bessie, and had never seen anything approaching in size or colour to such a nose, consequently she ran away frightened.

‘That’s Gertrude — is it?’ said the captain.

‘Gertrude, uncle! Why Gertrude is a grown-up woman now. That’s Katie, whom you remember an infant.’

‘God bless my soul!’ said the captain, as though he thought that girls must grow twice quicker at Hampton than they did at Devonport or elsewhere, ‘God bless my soul!’

He was then ushered into the drawing-room, and introduced in form to his grand-nieces. ‘This is Gertrude, uncle, and this Linda; there is just enough difference for you to know them apart. And this Katie. Come here, Katie, and kiss your uncle.’

Katie came up, hesitated, looked horrified, but did manage to get her face somewhat close to the old man’s without touching the tremendous nose, and then having gone through this peril she retreated again behind the sofa.

‘Well; bless my stars, Bessie, you don’t tell me those are your children?’

‘Indeed, uncle, I believe they are. It’s a sad tale for me to tell, is it not?’ said the blooming mother with a laugh.

‘Why, they’ll be looking out for husbands next,’ said Uncle Bat.

‘Oh! they’re doing that already, every day,’ said Katie.

‘Ha, ha, ha!’ laughed Uncle Bat; ‘I suppose so, I suppose so; — ha, ha, ha!’

Gertrude turned away to the window, disgusted and angry, and made up her mind to hate Uncle Bat for ever afterwards. Linda made a little attempt to smile, and felt somewhat glad in her heart that her uncle was a man who could indulge in a joke.

He was then taken upstairs to his bedroom, and here he greatly frightened Katie, and much scandalized the parlour-maid by declaring, immediately on his entering the room, that it was ‘d ——- hot, d —-ation hot; craving your pardon, ladies!’

‘We thought, uncle, you’d like a fire,’ began Mrs. Woodward, ‘as ——’

‘A fire in June, when I can hardly carry my coat on my back!’

‘It’s the last day of May now,’ said Katie timidly, from behind the bed-curtains.

This, however, did not satisfy the captain, and orders were forthwith given that the fire should be taken away, the curtains stripped off, the feather beds removed, and everything reduced to pretty much the same state in which it had usually been left for Harry Norman’s accommodation. So much for all the feminine care which had been thrown away upon the consideration of Uncle Bat’s infirmities.

‘God bless my soul!’ said he, wiping his brow with a huge coloured handkerchief as big as a mainsail, ‘one night in such a furnace as that would have brought on the gout.’

He had dined in town, and by the time that his chamber had been stripped of its appendages, he was nearly ready for bed. Before he did so, he was asked to take a glass of sherry.

‘Ah! sherry,’ said he, taking up the bottle and putting it down again. ‘Sherry, ah! yes; very good wine, I am sure. You haven’t a drop of rum in the house, have you?’

Mrs. Woodward declared with sorrow that she had not.

‘Or Hollands?’ said Uncle Bat. But the ladies of Surbiton Cottage were unsupplied also with Hollands.

‘Gin?’ suggested the captain, almost in despair.

Mrs. Woodward had no gin, but she could send out and get it; and the first evening of Captain Cuttwater’s visit saw Mrs. Woodward’s own parlour-maid standing at the bar of the Green Dragon, while two gills of spirits were being measured out for her.

‘Only for the respect she owed to Missus,’ as she afterwards declared, ‘she never would have so demeaned herself for all the captains in the Queen’s battalions.’

The captain, however, got his grog; and having enlarged somewhat vehemently while he drank it on the iniquities of those scoundrels at the Admiralty, took himself off to bed; and left his character and peculiarities to the tender mercies of his nieces.

The following day was Friday, and on the Saturday Norman and Tudor were to come down as a matter of course. During the long days, they usually made their appearance after dinner; but they had now been specially requested to appear in good orderly time, in honour of the captain. Their advent had been of course spoken of, and Mrs. Woodward had explained to Uncle Bat that her cousin Harry usually spent his Sundays at Hampton, and that he usually also brought with him a friend of his, a Mr. Tudor. To all this, as a matter of course, Uncle Bat had as yet no objection to make.

The young men came, and were introduced with due ceremony. Surbiton Cottage, however, during dinnertime, was very unlike what it had been before, in the opinion of all the party there assembled. The girls felt themselves called upon, they hardly knew why, to be somewhat less intimate in their manner with the young men than they customarily were; and Harry and Alaric, with quick instinct, reciprocated the feeling. Mrs. Woodward, even, assumed involuntarily somewhat of a company air; and Uncle Bat, who sat at the bottom of the table, in the place usually assigned to Norman, was awkward in doing the honours of the house to guests who were in fact much more at home there than himself.

After dinner the young people strolled out into the garden, and Katie, as was her wont, insisted on Harry Norman rowing her over to her damp paradise in the middle of the river. He attempted, vainly, to induce Gertrude to accompany them. Gertrude was either coy with her lover, or indifferent; for very few were the occasions on which she could be induced to gratify him with the rapture of a tête-à-tête encounter. So that, in fact, Harry Norman’s Sunday visits were generally moments of expected bliss of which the full fruition was but seldom attained. So while Katie went off to the island, Alaric and the two girls sat under a spreading elm tree and watched the little boat as it shot across the water. ‘And what do you think of Uncle Bat?’ said Gertrude.

‘Well, I am sure he’s a good sort of fellow, and a very, gallant officer, but —’

‘But what?’ said Linda.

‘It’s a thousand pities he should have ever been removed from Devonport, where I am sure he was both useful and ornamental.’

Both the girls laughed cheerily; and as the sound came across the water to Norman’s ears, he repented himself of his good nature to Katie, and determined that her sojourn in the favourite island should, on this occasion, be very short.

‘But he is to pay mamma a great deal of money,’ said Linda, ‘and his coming will be a great benefit to her in that way.’

‘There ought to be something to compensate for the bore,’ said Gertrude.

‘We must only make the best of him,’ said Alaric. ‘For my part, I am rather fond of old gentlemen with long noses; but it seemed to me that he was not quite so fond of us. I thought he looked rather shy at Harry and me.’

Both the girls protested against this, and declared that there could be nothing in it.

‘Well, now, I’ll tell you what, Gertrude,’ said Alaric, ‘I am quite sure that he looks on me, especially, as an interloper; and yet I’ll bet you a pair of gloves I am his favourite before a month is over.’

‘Oh, no; Linda is to be his favourite,’ said Gertrude.

‘Indeed I am not,’ said Linda. ‘I liked him very well till he drank three huge glasses of gin-and-water last night, but I never can fancy him after that. You can’t conceive, Alaric, what the drawing-room smelt like. I suppose he’ll do the same every evening.’

‘Well, what can you expect?’ said Gertrude; ‘if mamma will have an old sailor to live with her, of course he’ll drink grog.’

While this was going on in the garden, Mrs. Woodward sat dutifully with her uncle while he sipped his obnoxious toddy, and answered his questions about their two friends.

‘They were both in the Weights and Measures, by far the most respectable public office in London,’ as she told him, ‘and both doing extremely well there. They were, indeed, young men sure to distinguish themselves and get on in the world. Had this not been so, she might perhaps have hesitated to receive them so frequently, and on such intimate terms, at Surbiton Cottage.’ This she said in a half-apologetic manner, and yet with a feeling of anger at herself that she should condescend to apologize to any one as to her own conduct in her own house.

‘They are very-nice young men, I am sure,’ said Uncle Bat.

‘Indeed they are,’ said Mrs. Woodward.

‘And very civil to the young ladies,’ said Uncle Bat.

‘They have known them since they were children, uncle; and of course that makes them more intimate than young men generally are with young ladies;’ and again Mrs. Woodward was angry with herself for making any excuses on the subject.

‘Are they well off?’ asked the prudent captain.

‘Harry Norman is very well off; he has a private fortune. Both of them have excellent situations.’

‘To my way of thinking that other chap is the better fellow. At any rate he seems to have more gumption about him.’

‘Why, uncle, you don’t mean to tell me that you think Harry Norman a fool?’ said Mrs. Woodward. Harry Norman was Mrs. Woodward’s special friend, and she fondly indulged the hope of seeing him in time become the husband of her elder and favourite daughter; if, indeed, she can be fairly said to have had a favourite child.

Captain Cuttwater poured out another glass of rum, and dropped the subject.

Soon afterwards the whole party came in from the lawn. Katie was all draggled and wet, for she had persisted in making her way right across the island to look out for a site for another palace. Norman was a little inclined to be sulky, for Katie had got the better of him; when she had got out of the boat, he could not get her into it again; and as he could not very well leave her in the island, he had been obliged to remain paddling about, while he heard the happy voices of Alaric and the two girls from the lawn. Alaric was in high good-humour, and entered the room intent on his threatened purpose of seducing Captain Cuttwater’s affections. The two girls were both blooming with happy glee, and Gertrude was especially bright in spite of the somewhat sombre demeanour of her lover.

Tea was brought in, whereupon Captain Cuttwater, having taken a bit of toast and crammed it into his saucer, fell fast asleep in an arm-chair.

‘You’ll have very little opportunity to-night,’ said Linda, almost in a whisper.

‘Opportunity for what?’ asked Mrs. Woodward.

‘Hush,’ said Gertrude, ‘we’ll tell you by and by, mamma. You’ll wake Uncle Bat if you talk now.’

‘I am so thirsty,’ said Katie, bouncing into the room with dry shoes and stockings on. ‘I am so thirsty. Oh, Linda, do give me some tea.’

‘Hush,’ said Alaric, pointing to the captain, who was thoroughly enjoying himself, and uttering sonorous snores at regular fixed intervals.

‘Sit down, Katie, and don’t make a noise,’ said Mrs. Woodward, gently.

Katie slunk into a chair, opened wide her large bright eyes, applied herself diligently to her teacup, and then, after taking breath, said, in a very audible whisper to her sister, ‘Are not we to talk at all, Linda? That will be very dull, I think.’

‘Yes, my dear, you are to talk as much as you please, and as often as you please, and as loud as you please; that is to say, if your mamma will let you,’ said Captain Cuttwater, without any apparent waking effort, and in a moment the snoring was going on again as regularly as before.

Katie looked round, and again opened her eyes and laughed. Mrs. Woodward said, ‘You are very good-natured, uncle.’ The girls exchanged looks with Alaric, and Norman, who had not yet recovered his good-humour, went on sipping his tea.

As soon as the tea-things were gone, Uncle Bat yawned and shook himself, and asked if it was not nearly time to go to bed.

‘Whenever you like, Uncle Bat,’ said Mrs. Woodward, who began to find that she agreed with Gertrude, that early habits on the part of her uncle would be a family blessing. ‘But perhaps you’ll take something before you go?’

‘Well, I don’t mind if I do take a thimbleful of rum-and-water.’ So the odious spirit-bottle was again brought into the drawing-room.

‘Did you call at the Admiralty, sir, as you came through town?’ said Alaric.

‘Call at the Admiralty, sir!’ said the captain, turning sharply round at the questioner; ‘what the deuce should I call at the Admiralty for? craving the ladies’ pardon.’

‘Well, indeed, I don’t know,’ said Alaric, not a bit abashed. ‘But sailors always do call there, for the pleasure, I suppose, of kicking their heels in the lords’ waiting-room.’

‘I have done with that game,’ said Captain Cuttwater, now wide awake; and in his energy he poured half a glass more rum into his beaker. ‘I’ve done with that game, and I’ll tell you what, Mr. Tudor, if I had a dozen sons to provide for tomorrow —’

‘Oh, I do so wish you had,’ said Katie; ‘it would be such fun. Fancy Uncle Bat having twelve sons, Gertrude. What would you call them all, uncle?’

‘Why, I tell you what, Miss Katie, I wouldn’t call one of them a sailor. I’d sooner make tailors of them.’

‘Tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor, gentleman, apothecary, ploughboy, thief,’ said Katie. ‘That would only be eight; what should the other four be, uncle?’

‘You’re quite right, Captain Cuttwater,’ said Alaric, ‘at least as far as the present moment goes; but the time is coming when things at the Admiralty will be managed very differently.’

‘Then I’m d ——— if that time can come too soon — craving the ladies’ pardon!’ said Uncle Bat.

‘I don’t know what you mean, Alaric,’ said Harry Norman, who was just at present somewhat disposed to contradict his friend, and not ill-inclined to contradict the captain also; ‘as far as I can judge, the Admiralty is the very last office the Government will think of touching.’

‘The Government!’ shouted Captain Cuttwater; ‘oh! if we are to wait for the Government, the navy may go to the deuce, sir.’

‘It’s the pressure from without that must do the work,’ said Alaric.

‘Pressure from without!’ said Norman, scornfully; ‘I hate to hear such trash.’

‘We’ll see, young gentleman, we’ll see,’ said the captain; ‘it may be trash, and it may be right that five fellows who never did the Queen a day’s service in their life, should get fifteen hundred or two thousand a year, and have the power of robbing an old sailor like me of the reward due to me for sixty years’ hard work. Reward! no; but the very wages that I have actually earned. Look at me now, d —— me, look at me! Here I am, Captain Cuttwater — with sixty years’ service — and I’ve done more perhaps for the Queen’s navy than — than —’

‘It’s too true, Captain Cuttwater,’ said Alaric, speaking with a sort of mock earnestness which completely took in the captain, but stealing a glance at the same time at the two girls, who sat over their work at the drawing-room table, ‘it’s too true; and there’s no doubt the whole thing must be altered, and that soon. In the first place, we must have a sailor at the head of the navy.’

‘Yes,’ said the captain, ‘and one that knows something about it too.’

‘You’ll never have a sailor sitting as first lord,’ said Norman, authoritatively; ‘unless it be when some party man, high in rank, may happen to have been in the navy as a boy.’

‘And why not?’ said Captain Cuttwater quite angrily.

‘Because the first lord must sit in the Cabinet, and to do that he must be a thorough politician.’

‘D——— politicians! craving the ladies’ pardon,’ said Uncle Bat.

‘Amen!’ said Alaric.

Uncle Bat, thinking that he had thoroughly carried his point, finished his grog, took up his candlestick, and toddled off to bed.

‘Well, I think I have done something towards carrying my point,’ said Alaric.

‘I didn’t think you were half so cunning,’ said Linda, laughing.

‘I cannot think how you can condescend to advocate opinions diametrically opposed to your own convictions,’ said Norman, somewhat haughtily.

‘Fee, fo, fum!’ said Alaric.

‘What is it all about?’ said Mrs. Woodward.

‘Alaric wants to do all he can to ingratiate himself with Uncle Bat,’ said Gertrude; ‘and I am sure he’s going the right way to work,’

‘It’s very good-natured on his part,’ said Mrs. Woodward.

‘I don’t know what you are talking about,’ said Katie, yawning, ‘and I think you are all very stupid; so I’ll go to bed.’

The rest soon followed her. They did not sit up so late chatting over the fire this evening, as was their wont on Saturdays, though none of them knew what cause prevented it.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 18:43