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Autobiographical Reminiscences of David Johnston
Chapter XII


"The dawn is overcast, the morning lowers
On every window-frame hang beaded damps
Like rows of small illumination lamps
To celebrate the jubilee of showers."
Hood.

THE BALTIC SEA.

HERE, at this little wharf, the good sloop Ann Dalrymple was moored to receive her ballast from the neighboring chalk pit, and here for the first time I signed articles. My wages were to be conditionally ten shillings a month. If sick, I was to get as much as the captain valued my services to be worth; so expecting nothing I could not well expect to be disappointed. Against a light easterly wind we tacked down the stream, which gave us a good chance of obtaining a fine view of the Devonshire, at her moorings near Gravesend. This was one of the last, if not the last, of this class of huge, warlike merchantmen employed by the East India Company during the period of their charter, which gave to them the rich monopoly of all the products of the East for the United Kingdom. They were certainly a noble looking craft, but slow. A voyage to China and back was considered good if done in sixteen months. The clipper of to-day will run it in four months. There is nothing remarkable about Gravesend and Tilbury Fort, opposite, except their weakness. The enormous amount of national wealth in the Thames, even in the metropolis itself, for many years lay singularly open to easy invasion. This anomaly existed down to a very recent date, when there appeared in the reading world Chesney's fiction entitled "The Battle of Dorking." This pamphlet was graphically written, and the possibility of such a disaster so clearly portrayed that it made a sensible impression on the whole nation, and inspired the authorities with a lively appreciation of danger. Hence the late improvements of the points of defense. Three hundred guns of the largest caliber are now defending those points.

We are now passing the conflux of the Medway with the Thames, where lay in ordinary the surplus naval power of the nation; and where, about the end of the last century, the great mutiny transpired. Wherever a strict discipline is necessary petty annoyance on the part of subordinate officials is sure to become one of its concomitants, particularly when power is purchasable with money. Many a "round robin" grievance had been, from time to time, placed before the Lords of the Admiralty in vain. At length patience gave way, and the fleet rebelled. The mutiny was orderly and systematically conducted. The mutineers appointed their officers and slackened in nothing involving true discipline. High in the esteem of the mutineers stood Mr. Parker, an excellent sailor, of good parts, and possessed of decided executive ability. In loud acclamation, he was, unfortunately for himself, appointed admiral. A formidable list of grievances was laid before the Admiralty Board. Awaiting a reply thereto, behold a signal from the Nore Light to Chatham that the victorious fleet, under command of Lord Duncan, had hove in sight, bearing the glad tidings that success had crowned his mission. He had destroyed the threatening Dutch navy off Camperdown, and in glory returned to his native land just in time to accomplish, as a peacemaker, a much more important victory than that which had intoxicated England with ecstatic joy. Sensible of the gravity of the condition into which this all-important arm had been precipitated, willing to remove tangible existing abuses, yet highly disapproving the means employed to redress those disabilities, he became a sort of arbitrator between the government and the mutineers. This uprising has not been fruitless, but, as usual, the law will claim its victim, and poor Parker had to die an ignominious death at the yard-arm of the ship of which, for a brief season, he held supreme control.

Passing the Nore Light, and through the Swin into the North Sea, I soon found my old enemy was not to be baffled, and that my prospective maximum wage began to recede from my mental vision; but the captain, unlike Patterson, was kind, so that my helpless condition was thereby greatly ameliorated. He even commiserated my condition, and marveled that I could live on what I ate. We are in the Cattegat, approaching the bold headland whereon the ghost of Hamlet's father made the night hideous in his transient re-visit to his native Denmark in his interview with his old friend Horatio and his bewildered son. Here we, in common with all vessels entering the Baltic Sea, paid toll to the Dane, an impost no longer existing. Thanks to the American marine for its abolition. We pass the beautiful city of Copenhagen, with its fine spires and innumerable windmills. It appears that every action in life in Denmark is driven by the wind. Now, in the tide-less Baltic, we experience the first blow, and lose our dog overboard, a fine Newfoundland fellow, much liked by the captain and all the crew.

We arrive at the mouth of the Dwina, and under the protection of the Czar of All the Russias. A customhouse boat manned by eleven men, the chief and ten rowers, who, with the exception of two, who were left in charge of the boat, boarded the sloop satis cere-motiie. These unwelcome visitors put the captain and those of the crew who had been here before on the alert to guard against the notorious thieving propensities of the Russian serf. Our captain invited the officer to dinner, and while the splendid piece of English beef was cooking, the boat's crew, obtaining access to the hold, lessened the expense of discharging our ballast by stealing the chalk it contained. The bell announced the hour for dinner, when the captain, mate, and the officer, with keen appetites, sat down to partake of the hospitalities of the Ann Dalrymple, myself to wait on them. Pea soup was the first course, but in ladling out the soup the cook discovered that the beef had disappeared, and in the spirit of disappointment came aft to announce the sad disaster. It is supposed the meat was extracted from the boiling cauldron while the cook had turned around to feed his fire or other cause, and had then been dropped overboard into the thieves' own boat, to be hidden among the stolen chalk.

Some eight or ten miles up stream, after discharging the remainder of our ballast, we find ourselves safely moored, stern on, to the floating bridge in the harbor of the city of Riga.

Our voyage here being entirely speculative, and trade being dull, had the effect of prolonging our sojourn to an unprofitable extent, and, indeed, threatened to lock us up during the long, dreary months of a Russian winter. One more day's frost would have sufficed to settle that point. Happily, the captain was anxious to get home; and his half cargo of seed wheat and flax, being consigned to the port of Leith, which is only a few miles from his native place, where his wife and family lived, rather than run the risk of being detained all winter he tore himself away through a crust of ice three inches thick. This movement proved the more desirable from the fact that the Russian marine law forbids the use of fire on board ship while in harbor. All cooking must therefore be done on shore in rude sheds provided for the purpose. In these sheds there is a raised stone platform, whereon the fires of each ship are built and used. This establishment is presided over by an old soldier, evidently chosen for his cross-grained cruelty, and armed with a fearful weapon, composed of some half-dozen leather thongs, tipped with fire-hardening, and fastened to the end of a two-foot long stick, and woe betide the urchin who drifts under the real or fancied displeasure of this specimen of humanity, especially if his vessel hails from Britain,—that dear little spot, which appears to be at once hated and feared by the nations of the earth in proportion to their ignorance of her good qualities. When gloating over his favorite amusement he was wont, in broken English, to give utterance by way of emphasizing his lashes, the following argumentative jargon: "Russman dobra, Prussman dobra, Daneman dobra, Frenchman dobra, Swedeman dobra, Spainman dobra," and the list had to correspond with the length of the chastisement, and could only be limited by the inflictor's average knowledge of geography.

Our passage to Scotland would have been monotonous but for the fact that the crew of a wrecked schooner took passage at Elsinore with us, and the captain of said crew, being fond of the bottle, and laying in a good supply of strong Holland gin for the voyage, and it never having been known that our good captain was in the habit of casting the delectable stuff over his left shoulder, had the effect of converting the virtuous cabin of the Ann Dalrymple into a Bacchanalian disgrace. Nor was the effect confined to the cabin.

Drunkenness produces a great variety of idiosyn-cracies of character on the part of its victims. Its pranks are manifested on no two alike. In this case the feeling of generosity was the attribute played upon. All had to taste, from mate to cabin-boy, and soon the forecastle out-heroded the cabin in thoughtless jollity, and by the time we reached the British coast there was not a man on board who was able to distinguish the revolving light on the promontory of Flamborough Head from that of the island of May, a hundred miles apart! (Need we marvel at the number of shipwrecks?) For five dark nights I was kept in the crosstrees looking out, and when the May was descried it was taken for the more southern light, and we veered to the north accordingly. Nor were the dreamy eyes of the sapients undeceived until the rays of the morning light disclosed the fact of our near approach to Peterhead. Then, under the sense of shame and self-reproach, bustle and activity suddenly became the order of the day. To regain our lost way the better part of the east coast of Scotland had to be navigated against a light contrary wind, which cost us nearly two days. At length, after a pleasant sail up that beautiful estuary, the Firth of Forth, we arrived at our destination; and now the wage problem had to be solved. Inauspicious hour! The baneful effects of the late prolonged debauch, aggravated by an enforced sobriety, was revealing a sad change on the countenance of the usually kind-hearted captain. His wonted suavity had all departed and given place to a moroseness fearful to look upon. The hands were paid off, and I was called to settle up. I listened to a long list of all my shortcomings, some of which I was vain enough to deem exaggerated. He then requested me to sign a full discharge of all my claims against the Ann Dalrymple, and paid me two shillings and sixpence. The offhanded manner in which the captain had disposed of my claim on the Ann Dalrymple by the payment of half-a-crown I thought was open to reconsideration. It is true the contract was rather loosely drawn, and my expectations anything but extravagant, but an impartial retrospect of the voyage led me to believe that Captain Hutton's drunken "ipse dixit,'' if honest, was anything but liberal. I therefore sought an interview with that gentleman, but he had crossed the Firth to his family, and I was left to make the most of my wealth. The weak has to take the wall. I suppose I tried to philosophize, and on my way east broke my half-crown in the purchase of a penny bap, which, moistened with clear water, made a very wholesome dinner for a dyspeptic, leaving a remnant of hunger to do the office of digesting another such meal, if such should fall in my way. As it fell out, I had at Tranent to diminish the proceeds of my Baltic trip to satisfy the cravings of troublesome hunger till I reached my dreaded home.


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