Mr. Midshipman Easy

Chapter Thirty-seven

In which our hero finds himself an orphan, and resolves
to go to sea again, without the smallest idea of equality.

Frederick Marryat

THE next morning, when they met at breakfast, Mr. Easy did not make his appearance, and Jack inquired of Mesty where he was?

“They say down below that the old gentleman not come home last night.”

“Did not come home!” said Dr Middleton, “this must be looked to.”

“He great rascal dat butler man,” said Mesty to Jack; “but de old gentleman not sleep in his bed, dat for sure.”

“Make inquiries when he went out,” said Jack.

“I hope no accident has happened,” observed Mr. Hanson; “but his company has lately been very strange.”

“Nobody see him go out, sar, last night,” reported Mesty.

“Very likely he is in his study,” observed Dr Middleton; “he may have remained all night, fast asleep, by his wonderful invention.”

“I’ll go and see,” replied Jack.

Dr Middleton accompanied him, and Mesty followed. They opened, the door, and beheld a spectacle which made them recoil with horror. There was Mr. Easy, with his head in the machine, the platform below fallen from under him, hanging, with his toes just touching the ground. Dr Middleton hastened to him, and, assisted by Mesty and our hero, took him out of the steel collar which was round his neck; but life had been extinct for many hours, and, on examination, it was found that the poor old gentleman’s neck was dislocated.

It was surmised that the accident must have taken place the evening before, and it was easy to account for it. Mr. Easy, who had had the machine raised four feet higher, for the platform and steps to be placed underneath, must have mounted on the frame modelled by the carpenter for his work, and have fixed his head in, for the knob was pressed on his bump of benevolence. The framework, hastily put together with a few short nails, had given way with his weight, and the sudden fall had dislocated his neck.

Mr. Hanson led away our hero, who was much shocked at this unfortunate and tragical end of his poor father, while Dr Middleton ordered the body to be taken up into a bedroom, and immediately despatched a messenger to the coroner of the county. Poor Mr. Easy had told his son but the day before that he felt convinced that this wonderful invention would immortalise him, and so it had, although not exactly in the sense that he anticipated.

We must pass over the few days of sorrow, and closed shutters, which always are given to these scenes. The coroner’s inquest and the funeral over, daylight was again admitted, our hero’s spirits revived, and he found himself in possession of a splendid property, and his own master.

He was not of age, it is true, for he wanted nine months; but on opening the will of his father, he found that Dr Middleton was his sole guardian. Mr. Hanson, on examining and collecting the papers, which were in the greatest confusion, discovered bank-notes in different corners, and huddled up with bills and receipts, to the amount of two thousand pounds, and further, a cheque signed by Captain Wilson on his banker, for the thousand pounds advanced by Mr. Easy, dated more than fifteen months back.

Dr Middleton wrote to the Admiralty, informing them that family affairs necessitated Mr. John Easy, who had been left at sick quarters, to leave his Majesty’s service, requesting his discharge from it forthwith. The Admiralty was graciously pleased to grant the request, and lose the services of a midshipman. The Admiralty were also pleased to grant the discharge of Mesty, on the sum required for a substitute being paid in.

The gipsies were routed out of their abodes, and sent once more to wander. The gamekeepers were restored, the preserves cleared of all poachers, and the gentry of the county were not a little pleased at Jack’s succession, for they had wished that Mr. Easy’s neck had been broken long ago. The societies were dissolved, since, now that Mr. Easy paid no longer for the beer, there was nothing to meet for. Cards and compliments were sent from all parts of the county, and every one was anxious that our hero should come of age, as then he would be able to marry, to give dinners, subscribe to the fox-hounds, and live as a gentleman ought to do.

But, during all these speculations, Jack had made Dr Middleton acquainted with the history of his amour with Agnes de Rebiera, and all particulars connected therewith, also with his determination to go out to bring her home as his wife. Dr Middleton saw no objection to the match, and he perceived that our hero was sincere. And Jack had made inquiries when the packet would sail for Malta, when Mesty, who stood behind his chair, observed:

“Packet bad vessel, Massa Easy. Why not go out in man-of-war?”

“Very true,” replied Jack; “but you know, Mesty, that is not so easy.”

“And den how come home, sar. Suppose you and Missy Agnes taken prisoner—put in prison?”

“Very true,” replied Jack; “and as for a passage home in a man-of-war that will be more difficult still.”

“Den I tink, sar, suppose you buy one fine vessel—plenty of guns—take out letter of marque—plenty of men, and bring Missy Agnes home like a lady. You captain of your own ship.”

“That deserves consideration, Mesty,” replied Jack, who thought of it during that night; and the next day resolved to follow Mesty’s advice. The Portsmouth paper lay on the breakfast-table. Jack took it up, and his eye was caught by an advertisement for the sale of the Joan d’Arc, prize to H.M. ship Thetis, brigantine of 278 tons, copper-bottomed, armed en flute, with all her stores, spars, sails, running and standing rigging, then lying in the harbour of Portsmouth, to take place on the following Wednesday.

Jack rang the bell, and ordered post-horses.

“Where are you going, my dear boy?” inquired Dr Middleton.

“To Portsmouth, doctor.”

“And pray what for, if not an impertinent question?”

Jack then gave Dr Middleton an insight into his plan, and requested that he would allow him to do so, as there was plenty of ready-money.

“But the expense will be enormous.”

“It will be heavy, sir, I grant; but I have calculated it pretty nearly, and I shall not spend at the rate of more than my income. Besides, as letter of marque, I shall have the right of capture; in fact, I mean to take out a privateer’s regular licence.”

“But not to remain there and cruise?”

“No, upon my honour; I am too anxious to get home again. You must not refuse me, my dear guardian.”

“As a lady is in the case, I will not, my dear boy; but be careful what you are about.”

“Never fear, sir, I will be back in four months, at the furthest; but I must now set off and ascertain if the vessel answers the description given in the advertisement.”

Jack threw himself into the chariot. Mesty mounted into the rumble, and in two hours they were at Portsmouth; went to the agent, viewed the vessel, which proved to be a very fine fast-sailing craft, well found, with six brass carronades on each side. The cabins were handsome, fitted up with bird’s-eye maple and gilt mouldings.

This will do, thought Jack; a couple of long brass nines, forty men and six boys, and she will be just the thing we require. So Mesty and Jack went on shore again, and returned to Forest Hill to dinner, when he desired Mr. Hanson to set off for Portsmouth, and bid at the sale for the vessel, as he wished to purchase her. This was Monday, and on Wednesday Mr. Hanson purchased her, as she stood, for 1750 pounds, which was considered about half her value.

Dr Middleton had, in the meantime, been thinking very seriously of Jack’s project. He could see no objection to it, provided that he was steady and prudent, but in both these qualities Jack had not exactly been tried. He therefore determined to look out for some steady naval lieutenant, and make it a sine qua non that our hero should be accompanied by him, and that he should go out as sailing-master. Now that the vessel was purchased, he informed Jack of his wish; indeed, as Dr Middleton observed, his duty as guardian demanded this precaution, and our hero, who felt very grateful to Dr Middleton, immediately acquiesced.

“And, by-the-bye, doctor, see that he is a good navigator; for although I can fudge a day’s work pretty well, latterly I have been out of practice.”

Every one was now busy. Jack and Mesty at Portsmouth, fitting out the vessel, and offering three guineas a head to the crimps for every good able seaman—Mr. Hanson obtaining the English register, and the letters of licence, and Dr Middleton in search of a good naval dry-nurse. Jack found time to write to Don Philip and Agnes, apprising them of the death of his father, and his intentions.

In about six weeks all was ready, and the brigantine, which had taken out her British register and licence under the name of the Rebiera, went out of harbour, and anchored at Spithead. Dr Middleton had procured, as he thought, a very fit person to sail with Jack, and our hero and Mesty embarked, wishing the doctor and solicitor good-bye, and leaving them nothing to do but to pay the bills.

The person selected by Dr Middleton, by the advice of an old friend of his, a purser in the navy who lived at Southsea, was a Lieutenant Oxbelly, who, with the ship’s company, which had been collected, received our hero as their captain and owner upon his arrival on board. There certainly was no small contrast between our hero’s active slight figure and handsome person, set-off with a blue coat, something like the present yacht-club uniform, and that of his second in command, who waddled to the side to receive him. He was a very short man, with an uncommon protuberance of stomach, with shoulders and arms too short for his body, and hands much too large, more like the paws of a Polar bear than anything else. He wore trousers, shoes, and buckles. On his head was a foraging cap, which, when he took it off, showed that he was quite bald. His age might be about fifty-five or sixty; his complexion florid, no whiskers and little beard, nose straight, lips thin, teeth black with chewing, and always a little brown dribble from the left corner of his mouth (there was a leak there, he said). Altogether his countenance was prepossessing, for it was honest and manly, but his waist was preposterous.

“Steady enough,” thought Jack, as he returned Mr. Oxbelly’s salute.

“How do you do, sir?” said Jack, “I trust we shall be good shipmates,” for Jack had not seen him before.

“Mr. Easy,” replied the lieutenant, “I never quarrel with any one, except (I won’t tell a story) with my wife.”

“I am sorry that you have ever domestic dissensions, Mr. Oxbelly.”

“And I only quarrel with her at night, sir. She will take up more than her share of the bed, and won’t allow me to sleep single; but never mind that, sir; now will you please to muster the men?”

“If you please, Mr. Oxbelly.”

The men were mustered, and Jack made them a long speech upon subordination, discipline, activity, duty, and so forth.

“A very good speech, Mr. Easy,” said Mr. Oxbelly, as the men went forward; “I wish my wife had heard it. But, sir, if you please, we’ll now get under way as fast as we can, for there is a Channel cruiser working up at St. Helen’s, and we may give him the go-by by running through the Needles.”

“But what need we care for the Channel cruiser?”

“You forget, sir, that as soon as she drops her anchor she will come on board and take a fancy to at least ten of our men.”

“But they are protected.”

“Yes, sir, but that’s no protection nowadays. I have sailed in a privateer at least three years, and I know that they have no respect for letters of marque or for privateers.”

“I believe you are right, Mr. Oxbelly, so if you please we will up with the anchor at once.”

The crew of the Rebiera had been well chosen; they were prime men-of-war’s men, most of whom had deserted from the various ships on the station, and, of course, were most anxious to be off. In a few minutes the Rebiera was under way with all sail set below and aloft. She was in excellent trim, and flew through the water; the wind was fair, and by night they had passed Portland Lights, and the next morning were steering a course for the Bay of Biscay without having encountered what they feared more than an enemy—a British cruiser to overhaul them.

“I think we shall do now, sir,” observed Mr. Oxbelly to our hero; “we have made a famous run. It’s twelve o’clock, and if you please I’ll work the latitude and let you know what it is. We must shape our course so as not to run in with the Brest squadron. A little more westing, sir. I’ll be up in one minute. My wife—but I’ll tell you about that when I come up.

“Latitude 41 degrees 12 minutes, sir. I was about to say that my wife, when she was on board of the privateer that I commanded—“

“Board of the privateer, Mr. Oxbelly?”

“Yes, sir, would go; told her it was impossible, but she wouldn’t listen to reason—came on board, flopped herself into the standing bed-place, and said that there she was for the cruise—little Billy with her—“

“What! your child, too?”

“Yes, two years old—fine boy—always laughed when the guns were fired, while his mother stood on the ladder and held him on the top of the booby-hatch.”

“I wonder that Mrs. Oxbelly let you come here now?”

“So you would, sir, but I’ll explain that—she thinks I’m in London about my half-pay. She knows all by this time, and frets, I don’t doubt; but that will make her thin, and then there will be more room in the bed. Mrs. Oxbelly is a very stout woman.”

“Why you are not a little man!”

“No, not little—tending to be lusty, as the saying is—that is, in good condition. It’s very strange that Mrs. Oxbelly has an idea that she is not large. I cannot persuade her to it. That’s the reason we always spar in bed. She says it is I, and I know that it is she, who takes the largest share of it.”

“Perhaps you may both be right.”

“No, no, it is she who creates all the disturbance. If I get nearer to the wall she jams me up till I am as thin as a thread-paper. If I put her inside and stay outside, she cuts me out as you do a cask, by the chine, till I tumble out of bed.”

“Why don’t you make your bed larger, Mr. Oxbelly?”

“Sir, I have proposed, but my wife will have it that the bed is large enough if I would not toss in my sleep. I can’t convince her. However, she’ll have it all to herself now. I slept well last night, for the first time since I left the Boadicea.”

“The Boadicea?”

“Yes, sir, I was second lieutenant of the Boadicea for three years.”

“She’s a fine frigate, I’m told.”

“On the contrary, such a pinched-up little craft below I never saw. Why, Mr. Easy, I could hardly get into the door of my cabin—and yet, as you must see, I’m not a large man.”

“Good heavens! is it possible,” thought Jack, “that this man does not really know that he is monstrous?”

Yet such was the case. Mr. Oxbelly had no idea that he was otherwise than in good condition, although he had probably not seen his knees for years. It was his obesity that was the great objection to him, for in every other point there was nothing against him. He had, upon one pretence and another, been shifted, by the manœuvres of the captains, out of different ships, until he went up to the Admiralty to know if there was any charge against him. The First Lord at once perceived the charge to be preferred, and made a mark against his name as not fit for anything but harbour duty. Out of employment, he had taken the command of a privateer cutter, when his wife who was excessively fond, would, as he said, follow him with little Billy. He was sober, steady, knew his duty well; but he weighed twenty-six stone, and his weight had swamped him in the service.

His wish, long indulged, had become, as Shakespeare says, the father of his thought, and he had really at last brought himself to think that he was not by any means what could be considered a fat man. His wife, as he said, was also a very stout woman, and this exuberance of flesh on both sides, was the only, but continual, ground of dispute.

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