With the King at Oxford - Alfred J. Church

Of My Adventures at Sea

It was but some three weeks after these things that my dear mother died. I would not lay her death to the door even of these cruel men, for 'tis certain that she had declined from the very beginning of her widowhood; but I cannot doubt that her end was hastened by grief and trouble. Notwithstanding, she passed away in great peace and comfort, having as lively a faith in the world to come—and in her meeting again with those whom in this world she had lost—as was ever seen in Christian woman. After her death, which took place in the house of the worthy neighbour who had given shelter to my brother's family at the first, my sister and her child took up their dwelling with John Vickers, which worthy man, whose kindness and truth I cannot sufficiently praise, most hospitably entertained her. Notwithstanding, she judged it best for her greater safety from molestation to lay aside her estate as a gentlewoman and to labour with her hands in the house and dairy. She told me afterwards that the good John was much troubled and distressed at her so humbling herself, and would doff his cap and show other courtesy to her which did contrast very strangely with her lowly dress, till by slow degrees and with much unwillingness he learnt to behave himself in a more suitable fashion.

Meanwhile, John Ellgood, having departed for his home, where his father much needed his presence, Master Blagrove and I set out for London, desiring there to settle some urgent affairs. He had some small property, for which he was desirous to make composition, and I was minded to do the same for my father's estate, if this could by any means be contrived. And here we met with an adventure which shall now be told.

We went on a certain afternoon to the Strand, purposing to visit my cousin Master Rushworth, of whom I have spoken before. We found him but half recovered of a sickness, but hearty in spirit, and as kind as ever he was. Indeed, I marvelled a little at the praises which he and his wife heaped upon me. If they were to be believed, there had never been so well-behaved and admirable a boy. I did not remember myself to have possessed so many virtues, and, indeed, could bring to mind not a few reproofs which these good people had administered to me for sundry misdoings, ay, and prophecies that, unless I amended my ways, I should bring shame on all my kindred. Now this was all forgotten, and the good only remembered, a fault of memory, doubtless, but one which may easily be pardoned.

We stayed somewhat late with Master Rushworth over a flask of canary, which he would have replenished again and again had we suffered it. 'Twas ten of the clock, or thereabouts, when we set out for our lodging, which was in Westminster, and the street was almost deserted. We had scarce walked a hundred yards west ward when there ran out upon us a company of fellows attired as sailors. I was unarmed save for a stout staff which I had in my hand, and my brother had not even so much; and we were also taken unawares, so that I had but time to strike one blow for my liberty. Even so, being very fleet of foot, I might have escaped, but could not in honour leave my companion who was an older man, and of a student's habit, which, as all know, is ill-fitted for bodily exercise. Hence the fellows laid hold upon us without much difficulty, and clapping handcuffs upon our hands, and gags in our mouths, had us at their mercy. They then carried us to a wherry, and so conveyed us to a ship which lay moored near the farther bank of the river, about half-a-mile below London Bridge. Being there arrived, and hoisted on to the deck, they took the gags from our mouths and lowered us into the hold. That we had company even in this place was easy to be told, for we heard the snoring of sleepers, and some round oaths also from someone, over whom, not knowing where we were, we stumbled; but how many they were and of what sort, we knew not, it being pitch dark. Thus we disposed ourselves as best we could, and, after the manner of St. Paul and his shipmates, "wished for the morning." When it was light, or as much light as the nature of the place permitted, and we could examine our company, we were not over-well pleased. There were some thirty in all, as villainous a set of jail-birds, the most of them, as ever was gathered together. Two or three, indeed, were as we afterwards learned, of a more honest sort, but the rest, it was manifest, were the very off-scouring of the prisons. Says one of them, a tall, stout fellow, that seemed to be a sort of captain among them:

"Come, friends, tell us how we came to have the honour of your company. Was it for lifting a purse, or breaking into a house, or cracking a man's skull?"

Before I could answer he caught sight of my brother's clergyman's habit, and stirring with his foot one of the company that lay with his face to the wall, said:

"Parson, here is one of thy cloth; up and bid him welcome to this meeting of good fellows."

The man raised himself, and turned his face to us, a more wretched countenance than ever I had seen before.

"I could not have believed," he said, "that there was anyone in the world so wretched as I; yet, to judge from your habit, you are my fellow in misery. I have been sent down into this hell upon earth for no other offence save that I am a priest of the Church of England."

He then went on to tell us his history. He had, like thousands of others, been dispossessed of his living, and this with such circumstances of cruelty as cost him the life of his wife, who at the time of his expulsion was lain-in but a few days before of her first child. Afterwards, coming to London to see if he could make a livelihood by teaching, he had been kidnapped, as we had been.

"But what," I inquired of him, "will they do with us?"

"We are bound," said he, "for the plantations. 'Tis a monstrous thing that innocent men should be so dealt with. I do not say, for I would not be unjust for all my misery, that they who are in authority know of these doings. I judge that they do not. But they are careless; they make no inquiry. It matters not to them if there be some score of malignants the less to trouble them with their complaints, or to plot against them; so much the better. Hence the villains who carry on this business are emboldened to lay their hands upon us. Their occupation is to find labourers for the plantations in the Indies; and for each of these that they bring out they receive so many pounds sterling; how many I know not, but I take it that it is a considerable sum. They seek their recruits first in the jails. When these are overcrowded, and they never were crowded more than now, all England being overrun with disbanded soldiers, they find a plentiful supply. The magistrates, partly for gain, and partly for humanity's sake, hand over to them some that had else rotted in prison or stretched the hang-man's rope, but if the tale be short, then they must make it up elsewhere; nor do they care at all how they come by their merchandise."

This was dismal hearing, and would have thrown us into despair had we had more leisure to think of it. As it was, we were fully occupied with the miseries of our present position. A more deplorable condition than ours it was scarce possible to conceive. For food we had biscuit, moldy and full of weevils, and had it been more eatable, insufficient in quantity. Salted beef was also given to us, harder than ever I thought beef could be. Of water we had a sufficient quantity, a great barrel being set in the hold, over which one of the company, deputed to that office by his fellows, kept guard. This was the chief belightening of our lot. In another respect, also, its hardship was somewhat mitigated. At the first we suffered much from the hideousness of the oaths and blasphemy and foul language of every kind which we heard from our companions. Having borne this for a day I resolved within myself to see whether I could not mend it. With this purpose in view I said to the captain, as I may call him, "I like not this talking. Will you please to change it?"

"Who are you," said he, "that pretend to order our behaviour? As you like it not, you can depart whither you will or can."

"Captain," said I, for so we called him, though he had never been more than a captain of thieves, "I would choose, if it may be, to be your friend rather than your foe. And you too, if you are wise, will choose the same. But I make this condition of peace, that there be no foul language or oaths, which in this narrow space, reach to ears for which doubtless they are not intended."

At this one of the captain's friends, a fellow of the sort that love always to play jackal to a lion, brake rudely in upon me with, "I know not whether your ears be daintier than other men's; but certainly they are longer."

I had resolved to have the matter out, if need were, with the captain himself, and did not doubt but that, being expert in manly exercises, and sound in health and wind, I should get the better of him. Nevertheless I would willingly have avoided such a conflict, knowing that it might leave ill-blood behind. So when this rude fellow interrupted me I saw an occasion of showing my strength which might serve my purpose better than giving the captain actual experience of it. Turning, therefore, upon the fellow I caught him by the collar of his coat, and held him out for some space of time at arm's length, which, as all who have tried such an action know, is no easy matter. When I put the man down, the captain stretched out his hand to me and said:

"You are right, good sir, we will be friends rather than foes, and you shall have your way in this matter of talking. And hark ye, my friends," he said turning to the others; "he that speaks an ill word hereafter in this place must reckon with me."

This habit of foul speaking, like other ill habits, is not broken in a day, and the captain himself, who indeed had been wont to garnish his speech with as strange a variety of oaths as ever were heard from mortal tongue, was a frequent offender. But he was not, therefore, the less severe upon others; and before long there was a visible amendment. Then, again, we two and the two or three others of the better sort of whom I have already written, used our best endeavours to put something more edifying in the place of the thieves' stories with which these poor wretches were accustomed to entertain each other. They were, as may be readily supposed, wholly ignorant of all that it concerned them as Englishmen to know of the history of this realm; of gallant deeds that have been done by our countrymen on sea and land they had not so much as heard. Yet they listened eagerly enough to stories of such things, and were never wearied of hearing the tale of King Alfred fighting against the Danes, and of Harold, at whose defeat by the Conqueror they murmured loudly, and of the Black Prince at Cressy and Poictiers. With such narratives we kept them quiet and orderly, and my brother in particular, who had a most pleasant voice, gained such a mastery over them that when he proposed that they should say a few prayers with him both morning and evening, there was not a man to say him "Nay," and indeed at the end of a week's time he had a most respectful congregation.

How long we remained in this condition I cannot exactly say, for night and day were scarce to be distinguished in that place; but I consider it to have been as much as six weeks. That we were journeying south we knew from the heat, which had much increased so that the place was scarce endurable. We had indeed besought the men that brought us our provisions (which they lowered from above) that they would give us some more air, but had besought in vain, and were even thinking of getting by force what was then cruelly denied, when there happened that which made out schemes superfluous.

One night the wind began to rise (hitherto we had had extraordinary fine weather), and increased so much that we were tossed about in a most dangerous fashion. The seams of the ship also began to open, and to let in water, so that our condition became almost intolerable. The next day the hatches were opened, as they had never been opened before since our coming down on board, and a ladder was let down into the hold. "Come," cried one from above, "unless you would die like rats in a hole." We needed no second bidding, and indeed for the last two hours the water had been increasing upon us in most threatening fashion. No sooner had we reached the deck than we saw that the ship was lower in the water than promised well for her safety. And, indeed, what with the lowering sky and the waves, that were like mountains on every side of us, the prospect was gloomy, and it seemed that we had recovered our liberty only that we might perish. Nevertheless, we thought it better to die in the open air and in the light, even as Ajax the Greater prays to Jupiter, "Slay me, so it be in the light." Says the man that had let down the ladder, whom we now found to be the mate, "Come, my friends, if you would see land again; set your hands to the pumps." This we did with a good will and with such strength as was still left us by our imprisonment and scanty diet. For a time we lost rather than gained, and it seemed as if our days were numbered; but as it grew towards evening, the wind abated and the sea fell, so that it brake not over the ship as before. By good fortune also the carpenter discovered the principal leak and repaired it, so that about an hour after sunset, by which time indeed we were well nigh spent with labour, we had respite from pumping, and ate the supper which the mate had caused to be prepared for us. 'Twas no very luxurious banquet, but 'twas royal fare to us, and we feasted with as good an appetite as ever men had in this world. While we sat at meal the mate told us what had happened.

We had, you must know," he said, "but one boat, and that would contain but two parts of the crew. Well, when it appeared this morning that the ship could hardly swim much longer, and there seemed no sign of the weather abating, the captain contrived that the carpenter and I and three more of us should go below, if we might chance to find any of the leaks. And while we were gone, he and the others lowered the boat, which was already fitted and provisioned, and so departed. A villain I knew him to be, but had not thought him capable of such wickedness. But I reckon that he has made a mistake, for all his cunning. I had ten times sooner be here, things being as they are, than in the boat with him."

And indeed the mate was right, for the captain and the rest of the crew were never heard of more.

The next day the sea was as calm as though it were a pond, and the sky without a cloud. I asked the mate whereabouts, in his judgment, we were. "God only knows," he said. "The Captain took the reckoning, and he has the instruments with him, for I cannot find them. But I remember him to have said the day before the storm that we were about four hundred miles from our journey's end. But I reckon that we must now be more than that, the wind for the last day having blown very strongly from the west."

"What then," said I, "would you have us do?"

"I think that we had best sail westward, for, even if we have been driven back two hundred miles or more, the nearest land must still lie in that quarter. We will rig up a jury mast "(for both the ship's masts had been lost in the storm), "and sail as best we may; but I must confess that my great hope is in falling in with some ship that may help us."

But we were not yet past all our troubles. That rascal, whom I have called the "captain," and some of his fellows, having found where the spirits were kept, brake open the place, and helped themselves to the liquor. Inflamed by drinking, they conceived the plan (first hatched, I believe, in the brain of the fellow with whom I had the passage of arms before described) of making themselves masters of the ship and taking to the trade of buccaneers or pirates, between whom, I take it, there is no great distinction. Accordingly they seize the mate in his bed, to which, after I know not how many days' toil and watching, he had betaken himself for a few hours' rest, bring over the remainder of the crew to their side by threats and promises, and clap those of the company whom they had no hope of persuading into the hold again.

I must confess that at this ill turn of fortune I began to despair, but found comfort where I had least expected it. For now the poor parson, of whose doleful countenance I have before written, plays the part of a St. Paul.

"Be of good cheer," says he, "for I am persuaded that He who has helped us so far will not now desert us. I was as downcast as you now are; and God sent you to cheer me up. Let me do the same office now for you, for I have learnt that to despair is nothing less than a sin against God."

And sure enough the good man was in the right. We had not been in our prison more than three or four hours when we overheard a loud noise as of talking and tramping of feet over-head, and not long after, to our great joy, saw the hatches thrown open, and were released from our duress. What had happened may be briefly told.

The mutineers had scarce made themselves masters of the ship when there hove in sight a strange sail; which, by great good fortune, or, I should rather say, by God's kind providence, was a Dutch man-of-war. She was heading right for us, and the villains, having but a poor pretence of mast and sail, had no chance of escape. The Dutchman seeing a vessel in distress, as was evident from our appearance, sends one of his officers on board. The villains speak him fair, and tell a plausible tale, which, but for the carpenter, might have deceived him. But the carpenter, who had given in to the mutineers only for fear of his life, whispers in the officer's ear that he had best inquire further. And so the whole truth comes out.

The mutineers, having some bold fellows among them, would, I doubt not, have made a fight for the mastery, but were so ill-armed that they durst not venture. To make my story short, when the Dutch captain came on board and had heard how matters stood, he came to this conclusion.

"The ship, which was but a rotten craft before, and is now damaged by the storm beyond, repair, I shall take leave to scuttle. As for the villains they would but meet with their proper deserts were I to leave them to sink with her, or hang them from my yard-arm. But I care not to have their blood upon my soul. Yet I should be doing but an ill-turn to mankind were I to take them back to Europe. It seems to me, therefore, the best course to leave them on some uninhabited island, of which there is more than one in these seas, where they may earn their bread by tilling the soil, or, if it please them better, cut each other's throats. As for you, gentlemen, I shall be happy to give you a passage back to Holland, to which country I am now bound."

And this he did. Never was a more courteous host, or guests who were better pleased with their entertainment. I had much talk with the good man during the voyage, which, the wind being often light and baffling, occupied near upon two months, and among other things related to him the story of my life. And this, by his counsel, I have now written down.