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- No Defense, Volume 2. - 4/10 -
board, Dyck Calhoun had fitted in; with a discerning eye he had understood the seamen's needs and the weaknesses of the system.
The months he had spent between his exit from prison and his entrance into the Ariadne had roughened, though not coarsened, his outward appearance. From his first appearance among the seamen he had set himself to become their leader. His enlistment was for three years, and he meant that these three should prove the final success of this naval enterprise, or the stark period in a calendar of tragedy.
The life of the sailor, with its coarseness and drudgery, its inadequate pay, its evil-smelling food, its maggoty bread, its beer drawn from casks that once had held oil or fish, its stinking salt-meat barrels, the hideous stench of the bilge-water--all this could in one sense be no worse than his sufferings in jail. In spite of self-control, jail had been to him the degradation of his hopes, the humiliation of his manhood.
He had suffered cold, dampness, fever, and indigestion there, and it had sapped the fresh fibre of life in him. His days in London had been cruel. He had sought work in great commercial concerns, and had almost been grateful when rejected. When his money was stolen, there seemed nothing to do, as he said to Michael Clones, but to become a footpad or a pirate. Then the stormy doors of the navy had opened wide to him; and as many a man is tempted into folly or crime by tempestuous nature, so he, forlorn, spiritually unkempt, but physically and mentally well-composed, in a spirit of bravado, flung himself into the bowels of the fleet.
From the moment Dyck arrived on board the Ariadne he was a marked man. Ferens, a disfranchised solicitor, who knew his story, spread the unwholesome truth about him among the ship's people, and he received attentions at once offensive and flattering. The best-educated of the ship's hands approached him on the grievances with which the whole navy was stirring.
Something had put a new spirit into the life of his majesty's ships; it was, in a sense, the reflection of the French Revolution and Tom Paine's Age of Reason. What the Americans had done in establishing a republic, what France was doing by her revolution, got into the veins and minds of some men in England, but it got into the veins and minds of the sailor first; for, however low his origin, he had intercourse not given to the average landsman. He visited foreign ports, he came in touch with other elements than those of British life and character.
Of all the ships in the navy the Ariadne was the best that Dyck Calhoun could have entered. Her officers were humane and friendly, yet firm; and it was quite certain that if mutiny came they would be treated well. The agitation on the Ariadne in support of the grievances of the sailors was so moderate that, from the first, Dyck threw in his lot with it. Ferens, the former solicitor, first came to him with a list of proposals, which only repeated the demands made by the agitators at Spithead.
"You're new among us," said Ferens to Dyck. "You don't quite know what we've been doing, I suppose. Some of us have been in the navy for two years, and some for ten. There are men on this ship who could tell you stories that would make your blood run cold--take my word for it. There's a lot of things goin' on that oughtn't to be goin' on. The time has come for reform. Have a look at this paper, and tell me what you think."
Dyck looked at the pockmarked face of Ferens, whose record in the courts was a bad one, and what he saw did not disgust him. It was as though Ferens had stumbled and been badly hit in his fall, but there were no signs of permanent evil in his countenance. He was square-headed, close-cropped, clear-eyed, though his face was yellow where it was not red, and his tongue was soft in his head.
Dyck read the paper slowly and carefully. Then he handed it back without a word.
"Well, what have you got to say?" asked Ferens. "Nothing? Don't you think that's a strong list of grievances and wrongs?"
Dyck nodded. "Yes, it's pretty strong," he said, and he held up his hand. "Number One, wages and cost of living. I'm sure we're right there. Cost of living was down in King Charles's time, and wages were down accordingly. Everything's gone up, and wages should go up. Number Two, the prize-money scandal. I'm with you there. I don't see why an officer should get two thousand five hundred times as much as a seaman. There ought to be a difference, but not so much. Number Three, the food ought to be better; the water ought to be better. We can't live on rum, maggoty bread, and foul water--that's sure. The rum's all right; it's powerful natural stuff, but we ought to have meat that doesn't stink, and bread that isn't alive. What's more, we ought to have lots of lime- juice, or there's no protection for us when we're out at sea with the best meat taken by the officers and the worst left to us; and with foul water and rotten food, there's no hope or help. But, if we're going in for this sort of thing, we ought to do it decently. We can't slap a government in the mouth, and we can't kick an admiral without paying heavy for it in the end. If it's wholesome petitioning you're up to, I'm with you; but I'm not if there's to be knuckle-dusting."
Ferens shrugged a shoulder.
"Things are movin', and we've got to take our stand now when the time is ripe for it, or else lose it for ever. Over at Spithead they're gettin' their own way. The government are goin' to send the Admiralty Board down here, because our admiral say to them that it won't be safe goin' unless they do."
"And what are we going to do here?" asked Dyck. "What's the game of the fleet at the Nore?"
Ferens replied in a low voice:
"Our men are goin' to send out petitions--to the Admiralty and to the House of Commons."
"Why don't you try Lord Howe?"
"He's not in command of a fleet now. Besides, petitions have been sent him, and he's taken no notice."
"Howe? No notice--the best admiral we ever had! I don't believe it," declared Dyck savagely. "Why, the whole navy believes in Howe. They haven't forgotten what he did in '94. He's as near to the seaman as the seaman is to his mother. Who sent the petitions to him?"
"They weren't signed by names--they were anonymous."
"Yes, and all written by the same hand, I suppose." Ferens nodded.
"I think that's so."
"Can you wonder, then, that Lord Howe didn't acknowledge them? But I'm still sure he acted promptly. He's a big enough friend of the sailor to waste no time before doing his turn."
Ferens shook his head morosely.
"That may be," he said; "but the petitions were sent weeks ago, and there's no sign from Lord Howe. He was at Bath for gout. My idea is he referred them to the admiral commanding at Portsmouth, and was told that behind the whole thing is conspiracy--French socialism and English politics. I give you my word there's no French agent in the fleet, and if there were, it wouldn't have any effect. Our men's grievances are not new. They're as old as Cromwell."
Suddenly a light of suspicion flashed into Ferens's face.
"You're with us, aren't you? You see the wrongs we've suffered, and how bad it all is! Yet you haven't been on a voyage with us. You've only tasted the life in harbour. Good God, this life is heaven to what we have at sea! We don't mind the fightin'. We'd rather fight than eat." An evil grin covered his face for a minute. "Yes, we'd rather fight than eat, for the stuff we get to eat is hell's broil, God knows! Did you ever think what the life of the sailor is, that swings at the top of a mast with the frost freezin' his very soul, and because he's slow, owin' to the cold, gets twenty lashes for not bein' quicker? Well, I've seen that, and a bad sight it is. Did you ever see a man flogged? It ain't a pretty sight. First the back takes the click of the whip like a damned washboard, and you see the ridges rise and go purple and red, and the man has his breath knocked clean out of him with every blow. Nearly every stroke takes off the skin and draws the blood, and a dozen will make the back a ditch of murder. Then the whipper stops, looks at the lashes, feels them tender like, and out and down it comes again. When all the back is ridged and scarred, the flesh, that looked clean and beautiful, becomes a bloody mass. Some men get a hundred lashes, and that's torture and death.
"A man I knew was flogged told me once that the first blow made his flesh quiver in every nerve from his toe-nails to his finger-nails, and stung his heart as if a knife had gone through his body. There was agony in his lungs, and the time between each stroke was terrible, and yet the next came too soon. He choked with the blood from his tongue, lacerated with his teeth, and from his lungs, and went black in the face. I saw his back. It looked like roasted meat; yet he had only had eighty strokes.
"The punishments are bad. Runnin' the gauntlet is one of them. Each member of the crew is armed with three tarry rope-yarns, knotted at the ends. Then between the master-at-arms with a drawn sword and two corporals with drawn swords behind, the thief, stripped to the waist, is placed. The thing is started by a boatswain's mate givin' him a dozen lashes. Then he's slowly marched down the double line of men, who flog him as he passes, and at the end of the line he receives another dose of the cat from the boatswain's mate. The poor devil's body and head are flayed, and he's sent to hospital and rubbed with brine till he's healed.
"But the most horrible of all is flogging through the fleet. That's given for strikin' an officer, or tryin' to escape. It's a sickenin' thing. The victim is lashed by his wrists to a capstan-bar in the ship's long-boat, and all the ship's boats are lowered also, and each ship in harbour sends a boat manned by marines to attend. Then, with the master- at-arms and the ship's surgeon, the boat is cast off. The boatswain's mate begins the floggin', and the boat rows away to the half-minute bell, the drummer beatin' the rogue's march. From ship to ship the long-boat goes, and the punishment of floggin' is repeated. If he faints, he gets wine or rum, or is taken back to his ship to recover. When his back is healed he goes out to get the rest of his sentence. Very few ever live through it, or if they do it's only for a short time. They'd better have taken the hangin' that was the alternative. Even a corpse with its back bare of flesh to the bone has received the last lashes of a sentence, and was then buried in the mud of the shore with no religious ceremony.
"Mind you, there's many a man gets fifty lashes that don't deserve them. There's many men in the fleet that's stirred to anger at ill-treatment, until now, in these days, the whole lot is ready to see the thing through--to see the thing through--by heaven and by hell!"
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