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Book of Scottish Story
An Adventure with the Press-Gang


How goes the press? was, as usual, our first and most anxious inquiry when the pilot boat came alongside to the westward of Lundy Island. The brief but emphatic reply was, "As hot as blazes.” Knowing therefore what we had to expect, the second mate and I, and one or two others, applied to the captain to set us ashore at Ilfracomb, but he would not listen to us. A double-reefed topsail breeze was blowing from the westward, and a vigorous flood-tide was setting up channel, enabling us to pass over the ground about fifteen knots. Such advantages the captain was no way disposed to forego, so that there was nothing for us but to trust to Providence and our stow holes. The breeze flagged towards sunset, and it was not until an hour after dusk that we dropped anchor in Kingroad.

As soon as the ship was brought up, I stepped in the main rigging to lend a hand to furl the topsail, but had not reached the top, when I heard the cabin boy calling out in an Irish whisper, " Bobstay, down, down, the press-boat is alongside? I was on deck in a twinkling, and was springing to the after scuttle, when I found myself seized violently by the arm. I trembled. It was the same boy that had called me down. "They are already in the mizen chains," said he; "to the fore scuttle, or you are a gone man. "

Down the fore peak I went with the rapidity of lightning, and down jumped three of the gang after me with little less velocity.

"Oho, my tight little fellow," said one of them, thrusting his cutlass down a crevice over my head; "I see you; out you must come, or here goes an inch or two of cold steel into your bread-bag. "

I knew well that I was beyond his reach, and took care to let him have all the talk to himself. They rummaged about all over the hold, thrusting their cutlasses down every chink they could perceive, but no one could they find give a singles queak. In about half-an-hour I heard the well-known voice of the cabin boy calling me on deck. On reaching the deck, I found that the gang had carried off three of our hands, and had expressed their determination to renew their search next day. Of course my grand object was to get ashore without delay. The moment we anchored, the captain had gone off to Bristol to announce his arrival to his owners; and as the mate and I were not on good terms, he refused to allow me the use of the ship’s boat. None of the watermen whose boats we hailed would come alongside, because if they had been found assisting the crew of merchant vessels to escape the press, they themselves would have been subjected to its grasp. About midnight, however, one waterman came alongside, with whom the love of money overcame the fear of danger, and he agreed to pull the second mate, boatswain, and myself ashore, for half a guinea each. I had brought from the West Indies a small venture in sugar, a cask of which, about a hundredweight, I took into the boat with me, to clear present expenses.

Shortly after we had shoved oft, we found ourselves chased by a long boat, which the watermnan knew, by the sound of the oars, to be the guard-boat. How we did pull! But it seemed in vain; we found it would be impossible to reach the landing-place, so we pulled for the nearest point of land. The moment the boat touched the ground, I took the cask of sugar on my shoulder, and expecting solid ground under the boat’s bows, jumped ashore. Instead of solid ground, I found myself above the knees in mud. The guard-boat was within a hundred yards of the shore, and what was to be done! All that a man has will he give for his liberty, so away went the cask of sugar. Thus lightened, I soon scrambled out, when the three of us scampered off as fast as it was possible for feet to carry us. What became of the waterman, and his boat, or my cask of sugar, we never knew ; nor did we think of stopping to breathe or look round us, till we reached the town of Peel, where by a blazing fire and over a dish of beef-steaks, and a few tankards of brown stout, we soon forgot our dangers and our fears.

Our residence here, as far as liberty was concerned, was pretty nearly on a par with prison residence. The second mate and I lodged together, and during daylight we never durst show our faces, except, perhaps, between four and six in the morning, when we sometimes took a ramble in a neighbouring burying-ground, to read epitaphs; and this, from the love of the English to poetical ones, was equivalent to the loan of a volume of poetry. But Time’s pinions seemed in our eyes loaded with lead, and we were often inclined to sing with the plaintive swain,

“Ah ! no, soft and slow -
The time it winna pass,
The shadow of the trysting thorn,
Is tether'd on the grass.”

And had it not been for the kindly attentions of our landlord’s two handsome daughters, to whose eyebrows we indited stanzas, I know not how we would have got the time killed.

Snug as we thought ourselves, the press-gang had by some means or other been put on the scent, and one day very nearly pounced on us. So cautious had they been in their visit, that their approach was not perceived until they were actually in the kitchen. Fortunately we were at this time in an upper room, and one of the daughters rightly judging of the purpose of their visit, flew upstairs to warn us of our danger, and point out a place of safety. This place was above the ceiling, and the only access to it was through a hole in the wall a little way up the vent. It was constructed as a secure place to lodge a little brandy or geneva, that sometimes found its way to the house, without having been polluted with the exciseman’s rod. It was excellently adapted to our purpose, and the entrance to it was speedily pointed out by our pretty little guardian angel. Up the vent we sprang like a brace of chimney sweeps, and had scarcely reached our place of concealment, when the gang rushed upstairs, burst open the door, and began to rummage every corner of the room. The bed was turned out, the presses all minutely examined, and even the vent itself underwent a scrutiny, but no seamen could be found.

“Tell us, my young lady, whereabout you have stowed away them there fellows, for we knows they are in the house?"

"What fellows?” said the dear little girl, with a composure which we thought it impossible for her to assume so soon after her violent trepidation.

"Why, them there fellows as came ashore from one of the West Indiamen t’other day; we knows they are here, and are determined to have ’em.”

"You have certainly been misinformed," said she; "you are welcome to search the house, but be assured you will find no such men here."

"Come, come, my little fair un, that is all in my eye and Betty Martin. Here they are, this is certain, and we are determined to make our quarters good till we find them out; "and away they went to search the other apartments of the house.

Meanwhile our charming little protectress, alarmed at the threatened siege, and fearing that we would be starved into a surrender, took the opportunity, while the gang were rummaging the parlour and some other bedrooms, to supply our garrison with provisions. A basket with boiled ham, a couple of capons, a household loaf of ample dimensions, half-a-dozen of brown stout, the family bottle of excellent stingo, and a can of water, were expeditiously handed up the vent. This supply set our minds quite at ease, as we knew it would enable us to stand a week’s close siege. Our patience, however, was not put to this trial, for the gang, after a two hours’ vigilant search, abandoned their pursuit in despair, and departed.

We could not, of course, think of venturing up to Bristol to look after our wages, so we employed our landlord to perform this duty. After a good many vexatious delays, we succeeded in getting our money, paid off all scores, and began to think how we were to dispose of ourselves. My companion Lindsay was so deeply smitten with the charms of one of the youthful sirens, that he found it impossible to depart; and I had to concert all my future projects alone, and leave him bound in Cupid’s silken chain.

My blue jacket and fringed dimity trousers, my check shirt and scarlet vest, were at once discarded, and their places supplied by articles of a more landward appearance. I knew that it would be impossible to travel the country safely in seaman’s dress, so I determined to try my fortune as a beau. The body of Bill Bobstay incased in a ruffled shirt, silk vest, white stockings, breeches buttoned at the knees, and a swallow-tailed coat, presented such a curious spectacle, that he himself could scarcely help laughing at it, and it seemed to produce the same effects on the landlord’s daughter, as she with a witching smile chucked up my chin, until she arranged the bights and ends of my white neckcloth, according to the most approved form. She took as long to perform this little office as I could have rigged ‘in toto’, and seamen are never backward in acts of courtesy, when the ladies are concerned. Her ruby lips were all the while within marlingspike’s length of my own, and how could I avoid saluting them?

Thus equipped, I set out on foot for Bath, but as I had no business to perform in that city of invalided nabobs, I immediately took coach for London, and after travelling all night, I, on awaking from a short nap, found myself rattling over the stones at Hyde Park corner.

My object was to procure a passage to the northward, in one of the Leith or Berwick smacks, and I expected in eight or ten days, after an absence of as many years, to set foot once more on my native soil. As soon therefore as the coach stopped in Piccadilly, I alighted and knowing the bearing by compass of London Bridge, I, without waiting to breakfast, winded my way through the Haymarket, past Charing Cross, along the Strand, Fleet Street, and Ludgate Hill, till I arrived at St Paul’s. From this point I took a fresh departure, and holding as nearly as cross streets would admit, a south-easterly course, gained Thames Street, and soon found myself in the vicinity of the Tower.

Smartly as I had moved my body along, my imagination, as is usual with me, had got a long way ahead. It had obtained a passage, secured a fair wind, landed me on the pier of Leith, and was arranging my introductory visit to my friends, so as to produce the greatest sum of agreeable surprise. But there is much, says the old proverb, between the cup and the lip. In the midst of this agreeable reverie, as I was crossing Tower Hill, I found myself tapped on the shoulder, and on looking round, was accosted by a man in seaman’s dress in the words, "What ship?” I assumed an air of gravity and surprise, and told him I apprehended he was under some mistake, as my business did not lie among shipping. But the fellow was too well acquainted with his business to be thus easily put off. He gave a whistle, the sound of which still vibrates in my ear, and in a moment I was surrounded by half-a-dozen ruffians, whom I immediately suspected, and soon found out to be the press-gang. They dragged me hurriedly through several lanes and alleys, amid the mingled sympathy and execrations of a numerous crowd, which had collected to witness my fate, and soon landed me in the rendezvous. I was immediately ushered into the presence of the lieutenant of the gang, who questioned me as to my name, country, profession, and what business had led me to Tower Hill. Totally unexpecting any such interruption. I had not thought of concocting any plausible story, and my answers were evasive and contradictory. I did not acknowledge having been at sea; but my hands were examined, found hard with work, and discoloured with tar. This circumstance condemned me, and I was remanded for further examination.

Some of the gang then offered me spirits, affected to pity me, and pretended to comfort me under my misfortune, but like the comforters of Job, miserable comforters were they all. The very scoundrel who first seized me put on a sympathising look, and observed what a pity it was to be disappointed when so near the object of my wishes. Such sympathy from such a source was truly provoking ; but having no way of showing my resentment, I was constrained to smother it.

In a short time I was reconducted into the presence of the lieutenant, who told me, as I was already in his hands, and would assuredly be kept, I might as well make a frank confession of my circumstances. It would save time, and insure me better treatment. What could I do? I might indeed have continued silent and sullen, but of what service could this prove? It might, or might not have procured me worse treatment, but one thing I knew well, it would not restore me to liberty. I therefore acknowledged that I had been a voyage to the West Indies, and had come home carpenter of a ship. His eye brightened at this intelligence.

"I am glad of this, my lad. We are very much in want of carpenters. Step along with these lads, and they will give you a passage aboard.”

The same fellows who had first seized me led me along the way we came, handed me into a pinnace lying at Tower Wharf, and before mid-day I was safely handed on board the Enterprize.

What crosses and vexations, and reverses and disappointments, are we mortals destined to meet with in life’s tempestuous voyage! At eight in the morning I’d entered London a free agent, elated with joy, and buoyed up with hope. At noon I entered a prison ship, a miserable slave, oppressed with sorrow, and ready to despair.

Despair, did I say ? No. I will have nothing to do with that disturber of human peace. When misfortune befalls us, we are not to sit down in despondency and sigh. Up and be doing, is the wise man’s maxim, and it was the maxim I was resolved to observe. What befell me on my arrival on board the Enterprize, what reception I met with, and what mirth I excited as I was lowered into the press-room, with my short breeches and swallow-tailed coat—what measures I exerted to regain my liberty, and what success attended these measures—the space at my disposal prevents me setting forth.—Paisley Magazine.


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