Chapter 18 | Jem is Hungry | The Adventures of Don Lavington

Chapter Eighteen.

The first time the pressed men were mustered Don was well prepared.

“You leave it to me, Jem,” he whispered. “I’ll wait till our turn comes, and then I shall speak out to the officer and tell him how we’ve been treated.”

“You’d better make haste, then, Mas’ Don, for if the thing keeps on moving like this, I sha’n’t be able to stand and hear what you have to say.”

For a good breeze was blowing from the south coast, sufficient to make the waves curl over, and the sloop behave in rather a lively way; the more so that she had a good deal of canvas spread, and heeled over and dipped her nose sufficiently to admit a great wave from time to time to well splash the forward part of the deck.

Don made no reply, for he felt white, but he attributed it to the mental excitement from which he suffered.

There were thirty pressed men on deck, for the most part old sailors from the mercantile marine, and these men were drafted off into various watches, the trouble to the officers being that of arranging the fate of the landsmen, who looked wretched in the extreme.

“’Pon my word, Jones,” said a smart-looking, middle-aged man in uniform, whom Don took to be the first lieutenant, “about as sorry a lot of Bristol sweepings as ever I saw.”

“Not bad men, sir,” said the petty officer addressed. “Wait till they’ve shaken down into their places.”

“Now’s your time, Mas’ Don,” whispered Jem. “Now or never.”

Don was on the alert, but just as the officer neared them the vessel gave a sudden pitch, and of the men standing in a row the minute before, not one remained upon his feet. For it seemed as if the deck had suddenly dropped down; and as Don and Jem rolled over into the lee scuppers, they were pretty well doused by the water that came splashing over the bows, and when, amidst a shout of laughter from the sailors, the order was given for them to get up and form in line again, Jem clung tightly to Don, and said, dolefully,—

“It’s of no use, Mas’ Don; I can’t. It’s like trying to stand on running barrels; and—oh, dear me!—I do feel so precious bad.”

Don made no reply, but caught at the side of the vessel, for everything around seemed to be swimming, and a peculiarly faint sensation had attacked him, such as he had never experienced before.

“There, send ’em all below,” said the officer, who seemed half angry, half-amused. “Pretty way this is, of manning His Majesty’s ships. There, down with you. Get ’em all below.”

Don did not know how he got below. He had some recollection of knocking the skin off his elbows, and being half dragged into a corner of the lower deck, where, for three days, he lay in the most abjectly miserable state, listening to the sighs and groans of his equally unfortunate companions, and the remarks of Jem, who kept up in his waking moments a running commentary on the miseries of going to sea.

“It’s wuss than anything I ever felt or saw,” he muttered. “I’ve been ill, and I’ve been in hospital, but this here’s about the most terrible. I say, Mas’ Don, how do you feel now?”

“As if I’d give anything to have the ship stopped, for us to be set ashore.”

“No, no, you can’t feel like that, Mas’ Don, because that’s exactly how I feel. I am so ill. Well, all I can say is that it serves the captain and the lieutenant and all the rest of ’em jolly well right for press-ganging me.”

“What do you mean?” said Don, dolefully.

“Why, that they took all that trouble to bring me aboard to make a sailor of me, and they’ll never do it. I’m fit to go into a hospital, and that’s about all I’m fit for. Sailor? Why, I can’t even stand upright on the precious deck.”

“Well, my lads,” said a hearty voice just then; “how long are you going to play at being old women? Come, rouse a bit.”

“No, thankye, sir,” said Jem, in a miserable tone. “Bit? I haven’t bit anything since I’ve been aboard.”

“Then rouse up, and bite something now,” cried the boatswain. “Come, my lad,” he continued, turning to Don, “you’ve got too much stuff in you to lie about like this. Jump up, and come on deck in the fresh air.”

“I feel so weak, sir; I don’t think I could stand.”

“Oh, yes, you can,” said the boatswain. “That’s better. If you give way to it, you’ll be here for a week.”

“Are we nearly there, sir?” said Jem, with a groan.

“Nearly there? You yellow-faced lubber. What do you mean?”

“Where we’re going to,” groaned Jem.

“Nearly there? No. Why?”

“Because I want to go ashore again. I’m no use here.”

“We’ll soon make you of some use. There, get up.”

“But aren’t we soon going ashore?”

“If you behave yourself you may get a run ashore at the Cape or at Singapore; but most likely you won’t leave the ship till we get to China.”

“China?” said Jem, sitting up sharply. “China?”

“Yes, China. What of that?”

“China!” cried Jem. “Why, I thought we were sailing round to Plymouth or Portsmouth, or some place like that. China?”

“We’re going straight away or China, my lad, to be on that station for some time.”

“And when are we coming back, sir?”

“In about three years.”

“Mas’ Don,” said Jem, dolefully; “let’s get up on deck, sir, and jump overboard, so as to make an end of it.”

“You’d better not,” said the boatswain, laughing at Jem’s miserable face. “You’re in the king’s service now, and you’ve got to work. There, rouse up, and act like a man.”

“But can’t we send a letter home, sir?” asked Don.

“Oh, yes, if you like, at the first port we touch at, or by any ship we speak. But come, my lad, you’ve been sea-sick for days; don’t begin to be home sick. You’ve been pressed as many a better fellow has been before you. The king wants men, and he must have them. Now, young as you are, show that you can act like a man.”

Don gave him an agonised look, but the bluff boatswain did not see it.

“Here, you fellows,” he cried to the rest of the sick men; “we’ve given you time enough now. You must get up and shake all this off. You’ll all be on deck in a quarter of an hour, so look sharp.”

“This here’s a nice game, Mas’ Don. Do you know how I feel?”

“No, Jem; but I know how I feel.”

“How’s that, sir?”

“That if I had been asked to serve the king I might have joined a ship; but I’ve been dragged here in a cruel way, and the very first time I can get ashore, I mean to stay.”

“Well, I felt something like that, Mas’ Don; but they’d call it desertion.”

“Let them call it what they like, Jem. They treated us like dogs, and I will not stand it. I shall leave the ship first chance. You can do as you like, but that’s what I mean to do.”

“Oh, I shall do as you do, Mas’ Don. I was never meant for a sailor, and I shall get away as soon as I can.”

“Shall you?” said a voice that seemed familiar; and they both turned in the direction from which it came, to see a dark figure rise from beside the bulk head, where it had lain unnoticed by the invalids, though if they had noted its presence, they would have taken it for one of their fellow-sufferers.

“What’s it got to do with you?” said Jem, shortly, as he scowled at the man, who now came forward sufficiently near the dim light for them to recognise the grim, sinister-looking sailor, who had played so unpleasant a part at the rendez-vous where they were taken after being seized.

“What’s it got to do with me? Everything. So you’re goin’ to desert, both of you, are you? Do you know what that means?”

“No; nor don’t want,” growled Jem.

“Then I’ll tell you. Flogging, for sartain, and p’r’aps stringing up at the yard-arm, as an example to others.”

“Ho!” said Jem; “do it? Well, you look the sort o’ man as is best suited for that; and just you look here. Nex’ time I ketches you spying and listening to what I say, I shall give you a worse dressing down than I give you last time, so be off.”

“Mutinous, threatening, and talking about deserting,” said the sinister-looking sailor, with a harsh laugh, which sounded as if he had a young watchman’s rattle somewhere in his chest. “Nice thing to report. I think this will do.”

He went off rubbing his hands softly, and mounted the ladder, Jem watching him till his legs had disappeared, when he turned sharply to Don.

“Him and me’s going to have a regular set-to some day, Mas’ Don. He makes me feel warm, and somehow that bit of a row has done me no end o’ good. Here, come on deck, and let’s see if he’s telling tales. Come on, lad. P’r’aps I’ve got a word or two to say as well.”

Don had not realised it before, but as he followed Jem, he suddenly woke to the fact that he did not feel so weak and giddy, while, by the time he was on deck, it as suddenly occurred to him that he could eat some breakfast.

“I thought as much,” said Jem. “Lookye there, Mas’ Don. Did you ever see such a miserable sneak?”

For there, not half-a-dozen yards away, was the sinister-looking sailor talking to the bluff boatswain.

“Oh, yes, of course,” said the latter, as he caught sight of the recruits. “So does every man who is pressed, and if he does not say it, he thinks it. There, be off.”

The ill-looking sailor gave Jem an ugly look and went aft, while the boatswain turned to Don.

“That’s right,” he said. “Make a bit of an effort, and you’re all the better for it. You’ll get your sea legs directly.”

“I wish he’d tell us where to get a sea leg o’ mutton, Mas’ Don,” whispered Jem. “I am hungry.”

“What’s that?” said the boatswain.

“Only said I was hungry,” growled Jem.

“Better and better. And, now, look here, you two may as well set to work without grumbling. And take my advice; don’t let such men as that hear either of you talk about desertion again. It doesn’t matter this time, but, by-and-by, it may mean punishment.”