Ralph Rashleigh, by James Tucker

Chapter 8

Hark to the whistle and the shout!

Like bloodhounds now they seek me out.

I’ll couch me here till evening gray,

Then, darkling, try my dangerous way.

A few nights after the reception of the report by the unhappy confines of Newgate, the cry of “Lags away” warned those who were transported that the time had now arrived for their removal to the hulk; and shortly afterwards those who like Rashleigh had been respited from death, in number upwards of fifty, were placed in two large vans, strongly ironed, handcuffed and chained together, as well as to the van, which drove off at a rapid rate. None knew which of the hulks they were destined for; but when the morning came Ralph recognised some objects, by which he knew they were on the road for Portsmouth; and accordingly, late on the afternoon of the same day, they reached the dockyard of that town, and shortly afterwards were permitted to alight on a wooden wharf, outside of which lay the gloomy bulk of the old Leviathan.

This vessel, an ancient 74, after having for many years borne the victorious banner of Britain in every sea from pole to pole, was at last condemned to the vile purpose of a convict hulk. Stripped of all her imposing tackle save two sticks, now degraded to the office of clothes props, with a singular sort of shed upon her deck, the unfortunate craft looked like a sort of living memento of the vicissitudes of all mundane matters and the perishable nature of all earthly grandeur.

In a few minutes the newly arrived criminals were paraded upon the quarterdeck of this old hooker, mustered, and received by the captain of the hulk, after which the irons they had brought with them were taken off and given back to the gaol authorities, who now departed. The convicts in the mean time were all marched to the forecastle and ushered into a washing-room, where each man was obliged to strip, get into a large tub of water, and cleanse himself thoroughly. Each then received a suit of coarse grey clothing consisting of jacket, waistcoat and breeches. A very rough twilled cotton shirt, striped with blue and white, a round-crowned broad-brimmed felt hat, and a pair of heavily-nailed shoes completed this unique costume; and when they had been divested of their whiskers and got their hair closely cropped, the metamorphosis was so complete that Rashleigh no longer knew any of those who had arrived with him. Here, too, each man was double-ironed with a pair of heavy fetters, and after this they again emerged on deck, where a hammock and two blankets, with a straw bed, were supplied every new prisoner, and they were now ordered to go below.

They followed one of the guards down what seemed to them an endless succession of step-ladders. When they reached the bottom, a perfect chaos of sounds saluted their ears. The first glimpse of the lower deck of this convict hulk showed a long passage bordered by iron palisading, with lamps hung at regular intervals. Within these rows of palisades were wooden partitions, which subdivided the deck into upwards of a score of apartments. In each of these about fifteen or twenty convicts slept and ate. As Ralph and his associates in punishment marched past these dens, they were saluted by obstreperous shouts of “New chums! New chums!” from both sides; and at length Rashleigh and another were placed in one of the cells, as they were called.

The first night our adventurer slept but little, the men who were there before him playing all sorts of tricks upon the newly arrived. At daybreak next morning he was awakened from a short doze by a most villainous smell, that seemed to pervade the whole atmosphere. Putting his head over the side of his hammock, he saw his companions all busily discussing the contents of a wooden tub, or kid, with their spoons, and from this tub the smell that had so much shocked his sensitive olfactory organs appeared to exhale. He was now hailed by his future messmates, who demanded to know whether he did not intend to get up and have his breakfast.

In truth, Ralph was hungry, so up he got and hurried on his clothes. One of the men lent him a tin pot, which he filled at the kid, and, spoon in hand, prepared to attack this unsavoury mess.

Words must fail to describe the loathsome taste, even worse than the villainous smell, of this abominable compound, which Rashleigh declared he never could liken to anything earthly, and which he never from first to last could taste. He afterwards found out this food was composed of a very coarse kind of barley, similar to that called Scotch or pearl barley, boiled up with the soup made from the meat which was allowed to the convicts upon every alternate day, this latter being designated bull — and if the flesh of bulls be most indescribably tough, then did it well deserve the sobriquet.

The dietary of the hulk, exclusive of meat and barley soup, was, three days in each week, a portion of a mysterious semi-petrifaction, very much akin to chalk both in taste and durability. Nay, it was even much harder; but by the courtesy of the contractors dubbed for the nonce cheese, it was indeed. as Bloomfield described Suffolk bang, “too big to swallow and too hard to bite”. It possessed most singular qualities, its obduracy being proof against any mollifying influence arising from cookery of any sort. As it was perfectly uninflammable, it might have made most excellent fire-bricks. Nay, it could not be in any degree softened by boiling, so that by far the greater portion of it was thrown overboard every day, as the captain’s pigs were too haughty to touch any portion of this excellent relish.

For breakfast and supper, when meat was not allowed, each man received a pint of the barley before named, plain boiled in water; and lucky was the wight who could muster a small quantity of salt to season it. Besides the above articles, a pound of very black unpalatable bread formed the daily allowance of each man, with a pint of very had vinegar, here dignified with the name of table beer.

The whole of the convicts, save those employed on board in cleaning the hulk, cooking, and attending on the officers, were sent every morning to labour in the dockyard, where they were employed in large parties, most appropriately designated gangs, at various works. Ralph was placed in a timber gang, and was quickly yoked to a large truck with twenty others, each man having a broad hempen band or collar put over one shoulder and beneath the other arm, so that in pulling, his weight pressed against it across his breast. Each gang was under the orders of a veteran sailor of the Royal Navy, some of whom were glad to repay upon the wretched convicts the tyranny with which they had been treated by their officers in former times, while others were more occupied in screwing out money from those under their charge, to enable them to pay frequent visits to the tap, where they solaced themselves with repeated libations of heavy wet.

Rashleigh’s ganger, or overseer, was of the first class. He assumed a the self-important airs which he perhaps thought became the quarter-deck of a man-of-war, and many a poor wretch was crippled under him; for being utterly ignorant of any proper mode of working among timber, he would frequently compel his gang to proceed so awkwardly that immense pieces of timber would fall from skids or other elevations and smash a leg or two, when the sufferers were carried off to the hospital ship, where they either lived or died as best pleased the naval surgeon who swayed the destinies of that receptacle, and who frequently was heard to say “that he must set to and dock (amputate) a dozen or two of those fellows, for he was getting most awfully out of practice”. Truly the latter was very strange, for scarcely a week passed without some poor devil being minus a leg or an arm through his case of instruments.

Rashleigh, who had never before worked at any species of manual labour, was quickly termed a skulker, and was obliged to endure a double share of the oppression of his overseer on this account. The misery of his abode, he being thus overwrought and rather more than half starved all day, and being devoured by myriads of vermin all night, made Ralph long for the arrival of the vessel which was to remove him to New South Wales; but that period was yet distant, as but a few days before his arrival, a draft had sailed from Portsmouth, and another was not to be dispatched for three months thereafter.

In the mean time he was taken sick; and though the doctor was of opinion he was only shamming, he was placed on board the hospital ship. By means of powerful purgatives, bleeding and blistering. that skilful medico quickly brought his patient to death’s door; but after a few weeks’ illness, nature reasserted her sovereignty, and as Ralph carefully avoided taking any of the medicine lately provided for him, which he cunningly contrived instead to throw into the urinal, he rapidly recovered, in spite of medical art, when he was removed to the convalescent wards.

One day three of the patients died, and as deceased convicts were then usually buried in a graveyard near a number of ruined buildings on the Gosport side which were among the prisoners called “Rats’ Castle”, some of the convalescent patients, of whom Rashleigh was one, were selected to go there and dig the graves. Accordingly, over the water they went, under the care of one of the old sailors before referred to, in a boat manned by convicts.

The soil was very light, and their task an easy one. When it was done the guard made a signal by waving a handkerchief upon a stick. While they were awaiting the return of their boat — which had on their arrival been dispatched for the coffins — Rashleigh and Ins companions lay or sat, as best suited them, among the nameless, shapeless grassy mounds which filled the convicts’ graveyard, each marking the narrow resting-place of one who had died degraded, forgotten and unknown, his last moments uncheered by the voice of affection or the soothing sympathies of kindred, and whose remains were scarcely cold ere he was hurried into the rude shell, hustled off in the boat, amid jokes or oaths, as the prevailing mood of the boatmen might be, and finally thrust into the ground, without a prayer, scarcely six inches below the surface of the earth,

These and many other melancholy thoughts passed rapidly through the mind of our adventurer, and after a time he looked up to see whether the boat was returning; but it had not yet left the side of the hospital ship. He gazed round on his companions, most of whom slept; the guard was at some distance, with his back turned. A thought of freedom darted into his brain; it was adopted with the speed of light. Not ten yards from him were the ruins; if he could reach them he would be screened from observation — and close to the ruins was the water. His irons had been struck from one of his legs while he was sick, so that all his chains were attached to the other side only. and he doubted not but he could easily swim or dive unimpeded by them. The weather was warm, and if he could gain about a mile higher up, there was a wood of osiers, in which he might conceal himself until he could take off his cumbrous appendages.

Before he had done thinking about it, he was at the edge of the water, among the ruins, had thrown off all his clothing except his nether garments, and now slipped down into the stream, swimming very softly. When he had attained depth enough, he trod water until he got round a projecting point which formed the boundary of the graveyard. Beyond this point there were many bulrushes, which served to shelter him; nor did he hear any alarm given. Having by dint of swimming, wading, and treading water, at, last reached the osiers unobserved, he found a small creek, up which he swam, and coming in a thickly wooded spot, he scrambled through the mud, until he gained a piece of land hard enough to bear his weight. Here he began to think what should be his next step.

It was imperatively necessary he should get rid of his chain, and forturiately finding he was much wasted through his sickness, he persevered in his struggles until at last he slipped it down over his ankle. He now threw both it and his remaining garment into deep water. The evening was very chilly, and he was fain to betake himself again to the stream, as he found that much warmer than the land. He next crossed the river again, and upon landing made towards a pile of buildings he saw standing at a short distance from the shore. These proved to be cattle sheds; but there were no human dwellings near and Ralph hardly knew what to do. At last he decided upon remaining where he was until the cattle tender should come, who might be induced by some pitiful tale to help him to a few rags, as decency forbade his going much about in his present utter nakedness.

Accordingly, our shivering adventurer prowled among some stalls on one side of the square formed by these buildings, and was at last lucky enough to find some litter, which had apparently been used only sufficiently to make it warm. Having successfully disputed possession of this treasure with an old cow, he crept in among it, heaping it over and around him, and finding himself very warm and comfortable, quickly went to sleep.

When he awoke, it was hardly daylight; but a boy was turning out the cattle. Ralph called most lustily to him for some time before the youngster heard. This youth gaped with astonishment at the tale Rashleigh told, that he was a poor sailor who, having got drunk, had lain down by the water-side, where some wretches had stripped him naked. He begged the lad, for God’s sake, to procure him any sort of old things that might cover him until he could get into Portsmouth.

The boy seemed a good deal moved by the recital, and promised he would go up to his master’s house, to try whether he could get anything for him to wear. In less than ar hour he returned, bringing a blue smock frock, checked shirt, waggoner’s hat, pair of cord breeches, and high-low shoes, all very old, but still whole and tolerably clean, saying, at the same time, if Ralph would go up to the house, he might get “zummat t’ yeat, if he wor an ‘ongry”.

Rashleigh took the clothes most thankfully and asked the way to the house, telling the lad he would first go and wash himself in the river and then follow him. Having received directions, he once more thanked the boy, who departed with a speed that indicated he was “an ‘ongry”, if Ralph was not.

Our adventurer, after having cleansed his person in the river from the impurities of his last night’s lodgings, now clad himself in this unwonted guise. He then debated within himself whether it might not he dangerous to accept the hospitable invitation of the cow-boy, and finally resolved not to linger in such a perilous neighbourhood; so he set forth at a brisk pace along the stream, keeping his back to Portsmouth.

After walking upwards of a mile, he heard a female voice hailing loudly, “Whoi, Tummas! Tummas, I zay!”

As his name was not “Tummas”, and he was not thinking of anything except making the best of his way, he did not stop, until the voice, now close behind him, roared out, “Dam thee! Stop, I zay!”

He suddenly turned round and confronted the speaker, who was a pretty-looking country girl, about seventeen or eighteen years of age, and who had plainly lost what little breath the run had left her with astonishment at finding out she had overtaken a stranger.

The damsel opened both her mouth and eyes to the utmost of their capacity and stammered out, “Whoi, it bean’t Tummas, arter all.”

“No, I’m not Thomas, my pretty dear,” said Rashleigh; “but I would be just as willing to do anything to oblige you as ever he could be.”

“Drat it,” continued the maiden. “That be’s so loike our Tummas’s slop! Whoi, I could a’most ha’ sworn to it, b’ the patch on the back.”

“And very likely,” quoth Rashleigh, “it was your Thomas’s slop; for it was given to me not far away when I’d been robbed of all my own clothes.”

“What, robbed of your Clothes, all on ’em?” responded the girl in amazement. “And did ’em leave you quite naked?”

“They did so,” replied Ralph, “and I have got a very long way to go, without a penny to help myself.’’

“Poor fellow!” said the kind-hearted girl. If thee’ll come back again a bit, M mother’ll give thee zummat t’ yeat, I do know, at any rate, and thee’ll be my the better of that!’

Rashleigh willingly accompanied his guide to her lowly home, where a hearty laugh ensued between the girl and her mother at the mistake made by the former; and his misfortune being related, the old dame bestowed her warm sympathy, and a substantial breakfast of bread, bacon and small beer to the traveller, who shortly after took his leave, much refreshed and very thankful for the kind hospitality he had so very unexpectedly received.

He then travelled in the direction of Winchester. Upon Portsdown Heath he overtook a pedlar, who, in addition to his pack, had a very heavy bundle to carry. This man entered into conversation with our adventurer, who feigned a country dialect in his speech as much as possible, and learning that they were likely to travel some short distance together, the dealer offered Ralph a shilling if he would carry the bundle for him during the rest of the day. Rashleigh willingly complied with this offer, and they journeyed on till evening was drawing near, when they reached a village inn, at which the pedlar declared his intention of stopping for the night. Having given to our adventurer the sum agreed on, the latter also went in for the purpose of obtaining some bread and cheese, with a draught of beer, for supper.

The room he entered was full of various sorts of people, who took small notice of him. Having discussed his food, he was sitting in a corner, when in marched a party of soldiers, who stopped both the doors, while the sergeant who led them began to look most narrowly into the faces of every person present.

Rashleigh had taken off his hat, and the man of scarlet favoured him with a gaze of more attentive scrutiny than he seemed to bestow upon the rest. At last the sergeant asked our hero’s name.

“Thomas Harper,” was the reply.

“What are you?” was the next query.

“A labouring man.”

“Where do you come from now?” demanded the “non-cornmissioned”.

“Havant.”

“Oh, do your” said the son of Mars. “When were you there last?”

“A week ago,” replied Rashleigh.

“Humph! A week ago . . . And where have you been to since?” demanded the martialist.

“Why, at Portsmouth, if you must know,” responded Rashleigh, beginning to lose his temper at the pertinacity of the querist, who now drew his sword saying, “Yes. At Portsmouth. I knew that; and you ‘listed there.”

“Me ‘listed?” said Ralph. “Not I, indeed, my good fellow.” Rashleigh, in the excitement of the moment, had thrown off his country accent and spoke with his natural idiom.

“Aha!” cried the sergeant. “Does anybody think this chap comes from Havant now, with such a tongue as that?

“No, no, my fine starter,” resumed the man of war, “you never come from Havant; and now I’ve got you, I’ll take care you don’t go there neither in a hurry.”

So saying, he gave a sign to two of his comrades, who advanced upon Ralph and quickly secured him with a pair of handcuffs, after which the sergeant ordered the whole party outside. Presently they were ordered to take possession of a loft above a stable, where the military shortly afterwards had their suppers brought to them. This over, an additional pair of handcuffs being provided, they were placed one on each of Rashleigh’s wrists. He being in this way secured between two soldiers that were fettered to him by one hand apiece, they lay down in this manner to rest. it was evident that he had been taken up, not as a runaway convict, but as a deserter; and he conceived he would soon be liberated, as it must quickly be discovered to be a mistake. He therefore felt little anxiety for the result, and resigned himself to sleep as well as he could under such very uncomfortable circumstances.

At a very early hour of the next morning the party were aroused by their commander, and having partaken of a humble breakfast, began their march to Portsmouth. After journeying some time in silence, the sergeant came to the side of Ralph and with a jeering manner asked him whether he didn’t think he was a fool for trying to impose upon an old soldier like the sergeant — as if he were a raw recruit — by striving to pass himself off for a countryman. Ralph only replied that they would soon find out their mistake, to which the other rejoined with a laugh, “Why, then, I suppose you are some King’s son in disguise; but no matter. The next time you desart from the army, I’d advise you to buy yourself a wig, for anybody could tell you had been a soldier by the way your hair is cut.”

Ralph now found out that the sergeant had been induced to believe him a deserter and to question him by this very circumstance, so that if he had only kept his hat on, it is probable he might have escaped the arrest of this vigilant commander. Being doubly vexed on this account by the annoyance of the sergeant’s sarcasms, he retorted that he was no deserter, that he had never enlisted in his life, because he always thought the life of a dog far better than that of a soldier, and for his own part, had rather turn a nightman than enlist. The son of Mars flew into a rage at this highly insulting speech, and threatened to knock his teeth down his throat if he did not hold his tongue; and for the remainder of the journey the sergeant and escort put every species of annoyance in practice towards their prisoner.

At length the weary march was ended, and they reached the “lines” of Portsmouth, inside of which was a guard-room, where they deposited their prisoner. Here he passed the night, and the next day was removed to Gosport Barracks, where it was quickly found out he was not the person whom the party had been dispatched in quest of; and Ralph had the great satisfaction of hearing the sergeant soundly rated for his stupidity in making such a mistake.

He was now set at liberty; but just as he was about to leave the barrack yard, he saw this same petty officer who had taken him in custody, and could not resist the opportunity of repaying him in abuse for the oppression he had endured in the journey under his command. The sergeant roared out for the guard and gave our adventurer in charge for abusing him while on duty, and in a little while the luckless Rashleigh was again handcuffed and marched off to the watch-house, from whence he was taken in the evening before the Mayor of Portsmouth.

Upon being interrogated as to his name, place of abode, etc., Ralph said it was Jenkins and that he was a clerk out of employment who had come to Portsmouth a few days before; but having been robbed of his clothing on his return to London, he had been obliged to beg the articles he then wore. The clerk to the bench eyed him during this narrative with much distrust, and leaning over, whispered to the Mayor, who nodded with profound gravity. The sergeant was called on to state his complaint, which he did with a volubility of tongue that did not confine itself to the truth, but wound up by stating that the prisoner had threatened to take his life.

“Upon my word!” said the magisterial Solon. “A werry pretty feller, to abuse the honourable profession of a soldier, who spends his life fighting for his King and country, while such rapscallions as himself are skulking about, looking out for chances to rob their neighbours’ hen-roosts! What have you to say for yourself, you blackguard?”

To this highly temperate and very becoming speech, Rashleigh only replied that the sergeant had much exaggerated the truth, for that he (the prisoner) had not threatened the other at all, but only reproached him for his harsh treatment to himself while a prisoner under his charge.

Two or three non-commissioned officers now stepped forth, each anxious to be heard first, and all offering to swear to the truth of the sergeant’s statement; which of course they could very well do, as having been in Court all the time, not a word of what he had said had escaped them. The Mayor, however, declined to give them so much trouble, and after a short conference with his clerk, he again addressed the prisoner.

“Now, my fine feller, you might think to impose upon this ’ere Court with that there fine story of yourn; but I can tell you as how you shan’t; for I’m resolved, if I can’t do anything else, to send you to gaol for a month as a rogue and a wagabond what can’t give no proper account of himself, not by no manner of means. But then I thinks as how you are a suspicious feller besides, and I makes no manners of doubt but we shall have a hue and cry arter you in a werry little while for some willainous despredation or other; so I’ll remand you for a week, that our wigilant perleece may have time to make enquiries about you. Take him away.” And away Rashleigh was taken accordingly.

He had not been removed from the office, before he saw one of the guards of the hulk Leviathan, who, it seemed, had come there to report the escape of another convict from the dockyard that day. This person was possessed of the lynx-eyed sagacity proper for his calling, and he no sooner saw our hero than he went close up to him, and removing the waggoner’s hat worn by the luckless runaway, cried out, “Aha, my gentleman! You’re nabbed, are you?”

The constable who had Rashleigh in charge eagerly enquired if the guard knew his prisoner, and he being answered in the affirmative, the unfortunate Ralph was again placed before “His Worship”, to whom the tale was soon related of his being an escaped convict.

“Aha!” said that functionary in great exultation. “I knew he was a dangerous willain. I am worry seldom deceived in my opinions about sitch ruffians. But as you say he’s already transported for life, I don’t see as how we can add anything to his sentence. I suppose the best thing we can do is to send him back to the hulk at once, and let the captain punish him for running away.”

In a few moments Ralph was hurried to the boat which had brought the officer on shore. Strongly chained and handcuffed, with the muzzle of a pistol held close to his head, he was rapidly reconveyed to his former gloomy place of abode.

Having been brought on board, he was ushered down to the “black hole”, as it was called — a dungeon in the ship’s eyes below the water-level, and there left to his solitary reflections, which, however, could scarcely he termed so, inasmuch as many myriads of rats inhabited this den, which leaped, ran and gambolled about, over and around their human companion.

The tedious hours of night wore away. The day had begun some time, as the noise of the men trampling to and fro on the different decks indicated. These sounds ceased: all the convicts had gone to work. For some hours more Ralph still remained unvisited; but at length he heard a footstep approaching. His prison was opened and he was ordered to follow the guard, who preceded him to the quarter-deck. Here stood the captain, his mates, the surgeon and other officers of the hulk, in their full naval uniforms. The prisoner was placed on a certain spot indicated by a sign from the commander, and the tale of his escape, having been succinctly related by the guard in whose charge he had been sent to dig the graves, was followed by a recital of his recapture from the officer who had brought him from the shore. He was asked what he had to say, and having only the natural love of liberty inherent in the breast of all men to urge, he was sentenced to receive ten dozen lashes in presence of all the convicts that same day.

He was now again conducted to the black hole, and a little before sunset he was once more led to the quarter-deck, having now to pass through the lines of his fellow-prisoners, ranged there to witness his degrading punishment. His offence and sentence having been related aloud, he was commanded to strip and was quickly secured to the gratings, which had been lashed to the bulwarks. A brawny boatswain’s mate now commenced the infliction of the agonising torture.

Rashleigh had long before been assured by persons who had suffered it, that shrieking out only added to the pain, which became less the quieter and more immovable the sufferer kept himself. When he was being tied up he had crammed his shirt into his mouth in such a way that it was jammed between his face and the grating; so that he could not get it out until he was released. Thus, during the whole time, he could breathe only through his nostrils, and though the pain was most harrowingly intense — for he long afterwards declared it could only be likened to the sensation of having furrows torn in your flesh with jagged wire, and ore they closed filled up with burning molten lead running in streams of fire down your back — yet he could not at first cry out. By the time be had received four of the dozens, at each of which a fresh instrument and a fresh operator were applied, the whole of his body had been entirely numbed, and he only felt as if his lacerated flesh were receiving heavy blows from some huge club.

The punishment lasted more than an hour, at the end of which time he was released from the grating and fell insensible on the deck, whence he was carried to the hospital ship, where he was quickly resuscitated, with a vengeance, by the application of a dressing which was applied to his back, and which, he was subsequently assured, was composed chiefly of pepper and salt!!! — in compliance with the usual mild and merciful system pursued by the naval and military surgeons of that day; and the excruciating torment occasioned by this remedy completely mocked the horrors of the actual suffering of the lash. So often as this dressing was removed and replaced by a new one — which was done every day for nearly a month — the sufferings of the wretched patient made him roar aloud with their intensity; which could only have been equalled by the torture inflicted on the unfortunate cacique Atabalipa, when stretched upon his bed of fire by the monster Hernan Cortes.

Under even this discipline, however, Rashleigh slowly recovered, and became convalescent just in time to go in a draft that was ordered to proceed to New South Wales by the good ship Magnet of London, Captain, James Boltrope.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/t/tucker/james/1952/chapter8.html

Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 20:05