One blustering February evening towards the close of the eighteenth century there sat in a back room in a little inn at Portsmouth three midshipmen, forlorn-looking and depressed to a degree quite at variance with the commonly accepted idea of the normal mental condition of midshipmen. It was a room, not in the famous "Blue Posts"—that hostelry beloved by lads of their rank in the service—but in a smaller, meaner, less frequented house in a very different quarter of the town, a quarter none too savoury, if the truth were told.
Why they had betaken themselves to this particular tavern in preference to that generally used by them, who can say. Perhaps—as Peter Simple's coachman remarked on that occasion when Peter first made acquaintance with Portsmouth—perhaps it was because they had too often "forgotten to pay for their breakfastesses" at the "Blue Posts," and had not the wherewithal to pay up arrears. In any case, here they were, and, midshipman-like, during their stay they had recklessly run up a larger bill than they had means to settle. There was no possibility of following the course recommended by the drunken sailor, namely, to "cut and run," for the landlady of the inn was much too astute a personage to make that a possibility, and she had too little faith in human nature generally, and in that of midshipmen in particular, to let her consent to wait for her money till time and the end of their cruise again brought their frigate back to Portsmouth. Pay they must, by some means or other, for already the Blue Peter was flying at the fore and the Sirius would sail at daylight. If she sailed without them it was very plain that there was an end of their career in the Navy—they would be "broke." Small wonder that the three middies were in the last stage of gloom. Their entire possessions, money and clothes, could not cover one half of what they owed, and every compromise had been rejected by the obdurate landlady. Appeal to their friends was useless, for time did not admit of an answer being received before the ship sailed. And escape was hopeless, for the one window that the room possessed was heavily barred, the door carefully locked, and the key kept in the capacious pocket of the landlady.
It was the very deuce of a situation—the devil to pay and no pitch hot. Again and again as the evening wore on they discussed possibilities; again and again the same conclusion was arrived at. Hope was dead. No doubt in the end their friends might pay up, but they groaned as the certainty forced itself on them that their career at sea was as good as over. If only they had been entitled to any prize-money! But prize-money there was none, and the few guineas each had had from home had long been idly squandered.
"We're done, my boys; we're done! Oh, Lord, what swabs we have been!" cried the senior of the three with a groan, laying his head on the table.
"Oh, never say die!" said another, a cheery-faced, ruddy lad with a noticeable Scottish accent. "I've been in as tight a hole before and got out of it all right. We've a few hours yet to come and go on. Something's pretty sure to turn up."
As he spoke the key was put in the door, and in came the landlady.
"Well! wot's it goin' to be? Am I to get that there money you owes me, or am I not? You ain't got much time for shilly-shallyin', I can tell you, young gentlemen. An' paid I'm agoin' to be, one way or other."
She was a big-boned, florid, dark-eyed woman, well over thirty, somewhat inclined to be down-at-heel and slatternly, though not yet quite destitute of some small share of good looks; a woman solid of step and unattractive to the eye of youth; moreover, as they knew from recent experience, possessed of a rasping tongue.
"None o' ye got anything to say? Well, then, I'll tell you what I'm ready to do and let you go. One of you shall marry me! I don't care two straws which of you it is. But if you three're to get aboard your ship afore she sails, one of you's got to come with me to the parson this night an' be spliced. Take it or leave it; them's my terms. For the good o' my business I must 'ave a 'usband, now my old dad's gone aloft. Whether he's on the spot or not I don't care not the value of a reefer's button, so long as I can show my 'lines.' I'll give you 'alf an hour to make up your minds an' settle atween you who's goin' to be the lucky one."
And with that she left the room, again carefully locking the door and taking away the key.
Truly were they now between the devil and the deep sea. And no amount of discussion improved the prospect.
"We can't do it, you know," piteously cried one. "I'll see her shot first."
"Blest if I see any other way out of it," said another.
"And she's pretty old. She might perhaps die before we came back, mightn't she?" hopefully ventured the third.
"Oh, stow that! She's not more than forty, and she's likely to live as long as any of us."
"Well, if you won't allow that she's likely to oblige us by leaving this world, at anyrate you'll admit that there's always a goodish chance that the husband-elect may run up against a French cannonball and get out of the scrape that way. Anyhow, we've come to the end of our tether. The alternative's ruin. It's pretty black to windward, whichever way you look at it, but one way spells ruin for the lot of us; the other, at the worst, means disaster for only one. I vote we draw lots, and the man who draws the shortest lot wins—er . . . . at least he marries the lady," said the cheery-faced boy, with rather a rueful laugh.
"You'll laugh perhaps on the wrong side of your face before all's done. But, all right. If we must, we must. You make ready the lots, Watty, and I'll take first draw. Only, I think if the bad luck's mine, I'll slip over the side some middle watch," said the senior middy miserably.
With haggard young faces two drew, leaving the third lot to the Scottish boy.
"Thank Heaven!" cried the first, wiping his brow as he saw that his, at least, was not a short lot. "It's yours, Watty, old boy," he said to the middy from north of the Tweed.
"My God! what will my dear old mother say?" groaned the poor boy, with face grey as his own Border hills in a November drizzle. "Promise me, on your honour, both of you, to keep this miserable business a dead secret for ever. . . . Well, I've got to face it. Bring the woman in, and let's have it over and get aboard."
Watty Scott was a scion of a good Scottish Border family, a youth careless and harum-scarum as the most typical of middies, but a gentleman, and popular alike with officers and men. He was about eighteen, had already distinguished himself in more than one brush with the enemy, and was looked on as a most promising officer. But now. . . !
"Oh, little did my mother ken,
The day she cradled me,"
(might he have wailed), in what dire scrape the recklessness inherent in her boy would land him.
"I thought you'd take my terms," said the landlady, when she came into the room. "Faith! an' I've got the pick o' the basket! Well, come along, my joker; we'll be off to the parson. But you'll take my arm all the way, d'ye see!—as is right an' nat'ral for bride and bridegroom. You ain't agoin' to give me the slip afore the knot's tied, I can tell you. Not if I knows it, young man."
Broken clergymen, broken by drink or what not, ready to go through anything for a consideration, were never hard to find in those days in a town such as Portsmouth, and all too soon the ceremony, binding enough, so far as Watty could see, was over. Then the new-made wife insisted, before the three lads left her, that she should stand them a good dinner, and as much wine as they cared to drink to the health of bride and bridegroom.
"An' now," she said to her husband ere the youngsters departed, "I aint agoin' to send my man to sea with empty pockets. Put that in your purse!"
But Watty would have none of the five guineas she tried to force on him.
"Well, I think none the worse of you for that," she cried. "Come, give us a kiss, at anyrate." And with a shudder Watty Scott saluted his bride.
Never did the grey waters of the English Channel look more cheerless than they appeared to one unhappy midshipman of H.M.S. Sirius next morning, as the frigate beat down channel in the teeth of a strong westerly breeze; never before had life seemed to him a thing purposeless and void of hope. "To have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part." The words rang in his ears still, with a solemnity that even the red-nosed, snuffy, broken-down parson who hiccuped through the service had not been able to kill. But, God! the irony of the thing—the ghastly mockery! To love and to cherish till death us do part! Verily, the iron entered into his soul; day and night the hideous burden crushed him. The castles in the air that, boylike, he had builded were crumbled into dust. Was this the end of all his dreams? Well, at least there was that friendly cannon-ball to be prayed for, or a French cutlass or pike in some boat expedition, if the Fates were kind.
The frigate's orders were—Halifax with despatches; thereafter, the West India Station for an indefinite time. Six or eight weeks at Halifax, varied by some knocking about off the Nova Scotia coast, did not tend to relax Watty's depression, but rather the contrary. For just before the frigate took her departure from those latitudes a lately received Portsmouth journal which reached the midshipmen's berth had recorded the arrest on a serious charge of, amongst others, a woman giving her name as "Mrs. Walter Scott, licensee of the Goat's Head Tavern, Portsmouth." Now the Goat's Head Tavern was that little inn where in an evil moment the three lads had taken up their abode before the sailing of the Sirius, and to Watty it appeared as if his disgrace must now be spread abroad by the four winds of heaven.
It was mental relief to get away out to sea, and to feel that now at least there was again some probability of the excitement of an action. To Bermuda, thence to Jamaica, were the orders; and surely in no part of the world was a ship of war more certain of active employment. Those were days removed by no great number of years from Rodney's famous victory over de Grasse, and not yet had we completed the reduction of the French West India Islands; the greatest glutton of fighting could scarce fail to have his fill.
One night, after the frigate had left Bermuda, it had come on to blow desperately hard from the north-west, and with every hour the gale increased, till at length—when sail after sail, thundering and threshing, had come in—the ship lay almost under bare poles, straining in every timber and nosing her weather bow into the mountainous seas that swept by at intervals, ere they roared away into the murk to leeward.
It was the middle watch, and Watty had been standing for some time holding on by the lee mizzen rigging, peering eagerly into the darkness.
"I've thought two or three times, sir, that I can see something to leeward of us," he reported to the officer of the watch.
And presently the "something"—a mere patch of denser black in a darkness emphasized more than relieved by the grey-white crests of breaking seas—resolved itself into a large vessel, which as day broke was seen to be a frigate, like themselves under the shortest of canvas, and with all possible top-hamper down on deck. Pitching and rolling heavily, she lay; sometimes, as a sea struck her, half buried in a grey-green mountain of foam and flying spray that left her spouting cascades of water from her scuppers; one moment, as she rose, heaving her fore-foot clean out of the water, showing the glint of the copper on her bottom; the next, plunging wildly down, till some mighty billow, roaring aloft between the vessels, hid each from the other's ken as effectually as if the ocean had swallowed them.
The stranger had hoisted French colours, and the Sirius beat to quarters. But as far as possibility of engaging was concerned, the ships might have been a hundred leagues apart: the sea ran far too high. And so there all day they lay, impotent to harm each other.
When grey dawn came on the second morning, bringing with it weather more moderate, the French frigate was seen under easy sail far to leeward, evidently repairing damage aloft, and, in spite of every effort on the part of the Sirius, it was late afternoon ere the first shot was fired.
Darkness had begun to fall as the French ship struck her colours after a bloody action in which her losses mounted to over one hundred men, including her captain and several officers. In less degree the Sirius suffered; and of those who fell, Watty was one. Early in the engagement he was carried below, badly torn by a severe and dangerous splinter wound in the head.
"There goes poor Watty—out of his trouble, anyhow," cried one of the three friends.
Thereafter, the life in him hovered long 'twixt this world and the next, and weeks passed ere, in the house of a friend at Kingston, Jamaica, he came once more to his full senses. Even then his progress was but dilatory.
"I can't make the boy out," said his doctor. "He ought to get well now. Yet he doesn't. Doesn't seem to make an effort, somehow. If he was a bit older you'd think he didn't want to live. It's not natural. If he were to get any little complication now, he'd go."
And so the listless weeks dragged on, and it was but a ghost of the once merry boy that each morning crept wearily and with infinite labour from his room to the wide, pleasant verandah. And there he would pass his days, vacantly listening with dull ears to the cool sea-breeze whispering through the trees, or brooding over his misery. Sometimes, in his weak state, tears of self-pity would roll unheeded down his cheeks; he pined for the heather of his native hills, for the murmur of Tweed and Teviot, and for the faces of his own people. Never again could the happiness be his to live once more in the dearly loved Border land; for how could he face home when that terrible fate awaited his landing at Portsmouth. "Oh! why had he been guilty of folly so great? Why had he thus made a shipwreck of life's voyage almost at its very outset?"
Yet at last there came a morning when the cloud of depression began to lift from his mind. An English packet had arrived, bearing despatches for the Admiral, and, as Watty languidly turned the pages of a late Steel's List, ambition once more awoke on finding his name amongst the promotions. Braced in mind, and roused from his apathy by this unlooked-for good fortune, he turned to other papers brought out by the packet, and waded steadily through the news sheets. There was little at first that interested him. But presently, as he picked up a little Portsmouth journal, a paragraph that caught his eye fetched from him a shout that roused the house and brought his host flying to the verandah.
"What the deuce ails you? Confound it, the boy's off his head again!" he cried.
"Heaven be thanked! My wife's hanged!" shouted Watty.
"Oh! mad as a March hare!" fussed his host, running into the house. "Mad, sure enough. Must send off a boy for the doctor."
But Watty's news was true. The paragraph which had caught his eye as he picked up the Portsmouth paper was, in effect, the continuation and conclusion of that other announcement which he had seen at Halifax, and was indeed an account of the execution for robbery and murder of certain persons, amongst whom, as "accessory before the fact," was the landlady of the "Goat's Head" Tavern.
It is uncertain if Lieutenant Walter Scott ever returned to settle in the Border; but he was a cousin of Sir Walter, who gave to Captain Basil Hall, R.N., some outline of such a story as is here told.