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Ben Burton: Born and Bred at Sea

William Henry Giles Kingston

  Produced by Nick Hodson of London, England

  Ben Burton; or, Born and Bred at Sea, by W H G Kingston.


  The story really consists of a series of nautical and shore incidents,to do with Ben Burton and his family. During the course of the story hegoes from being born, to a senior Naval rank. Shortly after he is bornthey come across a dinghy drifting with an ayah and a small white girl,who grows up in parallel with Ben, though she is spared some of his moremartial adventures.

  It's always difficult to get a timescale with books like this one, asthe years seem to go past much faster than the supply of adventures.

  I was somewhat baffled by the paragraphing in this book. For most ofthe book the paragraphing is as you would expect it to be, but there isan over-supply of very long paragraphs, and some of these contain quitecomplex conversations, so that one is tempted to split them up so thatpassage looks more conventional and readable. I have not done so,except in one flagrant case, because I suspect that Kingston may havebeen experimenting in some way. On the other hand it may be that he hadcontracted to write a book of so many pages, and this was a way ofcondensing a long conversational exchange.

  There were some other strange things to be noticed, such as places andpeople changing their spelling (Benjy and Benjie, for instance), withina few lines. And there were some words that Kingston spells correctly inother books, but anomalously in this one. It's almost as though hedictated the book to a typist, and then never actually read it forhimself. It lends weight to the theory that Kingston books wereauthored by more than one person, because this one is within his rulesof style, except for the really quite numerous typographical anomaliesmentioned above.

  Apart from that, the story is quite good to read or to listen to, justas Kingston books always are.




  "Dick Burton, you're a daddy! Polly's been and got a baby for you, oldboy!" exclaimed several voices, as the said Dick mounted the side of theold "Boreas," on the books of which ship he was rated as aquarter-master, he having just then returned from a pleasant littlecutting-out expedition, where he had obtained, besides honour and glory,a gash on the cheek, a bullet through the shoulder, and a prong from apike in the side.

  "Me a what?" he inquired, bending his head forward with a look ofincredulity, and mechanically hitching up his trousers. "Me a daddy?On course it's a boy? Polly wouldn't go for to get a girl, a poorlittle helpless girl, out in these outlandish parts."

  "On course, Dick, it's a boy, a fine big, walloping younker, too. Whybless ye, Quacko ain't no way to be compared to him, especially when hesings out, which he can do already, loud enough to drown the bo'sun'swhistle, let me tell you," was the reply to Dick Burton's last question.

  That baby was me. Quacko was the monkey of the ship. I might not havebeen flattered at being compared to him, though it must be owned that Istood very much in the light of his rival. I soon, however, cut him outcompletely. My mother was one of two women on board. The other wasSusan King, wife of another quarter-master. The two men enjoyed aprivilege denied to their captain, for they could take their wives tosea, which he could not. To be sure, Polly and Susan made themselvesmore generally useful than the captain's wife would probably have donehad she lived on board, for they washed and mended the men's shirts,nursed them when sick or wounded, prepared lint and bandages for thesurgeons, and performed many other offices such as generally fall to thelot of female hands. They had both endeared themselves to the men, by athousand kind and gentle acts, but my mother was decidedly thefavourite. This might have been because she was young and remarkablyhandsome, and at the same time as good and modest as a woman could be;and so discreet that she was never known to cause a quarrel among hershipmates, or a pang of jealousy to her husband; and that, under thecircumstances of the case, is saying a great deal in her favour. Fancytwo women among nearly four hundred men, and not one of the latter eventhinking of infringing the last commandment of the Decalogue. What anamount of good sense, good-temper, and self-command must have beenexercised on the part of the former.

  Susan's qualifications for the position she held were very different tothose of my mother. In appearance she was a very Gorgon, a veritablestrong-minded, double-fisted female, tall, gaunt, and coarse-featured.A hoarse laugh, and a voice which vied with the boatswain's instentorian powers, and yet withal she was a true woman, with a gentle,loving, tender heart. Bill King, her husband, knew her good qualities,and vowed that he would not swap her for Queen Charlotte, or any otherlady in the land, not if the offer was made to him with a thousand goldguineas into the bargain.

  I ought to be grateful to her, and do cherish her memory with affection,for she assisted to bring me into the world; attended my mother in hertime of trial and trouble, and nursed me with the gentlest care. YetSue had a tongue, and could use it too when occasion, in her judgment,required its employment. But she always took the side of right andvirtue against wrong and vice, and woe betided the luckless wight whofell under the ban of her just displeasure. She would belabour him, notwith her hands, but by word, look, and gesture, till he shrieked out formercy and promised never again to offend, or took to ignominious flightlike a thief with a _posse_ of constables at his heels. Bill King was aquiet-mannered little man with a huge pair of whiskers, likestudden-sails rigged out on either side of his cheeks, and a mildexpression of countenance which did not belie his calm good-temper andamiability of disposition. But though gentle in peace, he was as braveand daring a seaman as ever sprang, cutlass in hand, on an enemy's deck,or flew aloft to loose topsails when a prize had been cut out, amidshowers of bullets and round-shot.

  Of my father, I will only say that he was in no way behind his friendBill King in bravery, and though he spoke the sailor's lingo like hisshipmates, he was vastly his superior in manners and appearance.Indeed, he and my mother were a very handsome couple. They were also, Imay say, deservedly looked upon with great respect by the officers, fromthe captain downwards, and regarded with affection by all the crew.

  To go back to that insignificant little individual, myself, as Icertainly was on the day I have mentioned, when I made my firstappearance on board the HMS "Boreas". I came in for a large share ofthe regard entertained by the ship's company for my parents. My fatherwas the first person introduced by Susan King into my presence.

  "Well, he is a rum little youngster!" he exclaimed, taking me up in hisopen palms. "He is like Polly--that he is!" he added, as he gazed at meaffectionately, the feelings of a father for the first time welling upin his bosom. "Yes, he is a sweet little cherub! Shouldn't wonder buthe is like them as lives up aloft there to watch over us poor chaps atsea. Ay, that he must be. They can't beat him. Lord love ye, Sue, Iam grateful to you for this here day's work."

  I here interrupted my father's remarks by a loud cry, and otherinfantine operations, on which Sue insisted on having me back again toher safe keeping, while outside the screen several voices were heardentreating my father to bring me out for inspection, a request withwhich Mrs King had before steadily refused to comply.

  "I say, Dick, just let's have a look at him. One squint, Burton, justto see what sort of a younker he may be. Come now, he ain't a chap tobe ashamed of, I'm sure. There ain't none like him here aboard, I'llswear. He don't come up to Quacko anyhow. Come, Dick, show us him now,do, there's a good chap."

  These and similar exclamations were sung out by various voices indifferent tones, to which my mother, as she lay in he
r cot, listened notunpleased, till at length my father having given her a kiss, and uttereda few words of congratulation and thanks to Heaven--sailors are notaddicted to long prayers--again took me in his outstretched palms, andthus brought me forth to the admiring gaze of his shipmates. So eagerwere they to see me, that I ran no little risk of being knocked out ofmy father's hands, as they were shoving each other aside in theirendeavours to get to the front rank. Then one and all wanted to have meto handle for a moment; but to this Susan King, who had followed myfather from behind the screen, would on no account consent.

  "Why, bless you, my lads, you would be wringing the little chap's neckoff, if you were to attempt to take hold of him," said Susan.

  "Oh! No, don't fear, we will handle him just as if he was made ofsugar," was the reply.

  "Oh! You don't know what delicate, weak little creatures these babiesare when they are first born," observed Susan. "Just like jellyfish,they will not stand any rough handling."

  Still in spite of my kind nurse's remarks, the bystanders continued tourge my father to let them have me.

  "It is as much as my place is worth, mates," he answered at length; "Iwould not let him out of my hands on no account."

  My new shipmates were, therefore, compelled to admire me at a respectfuldistance. I believe the remarks they made were generally complimentary,only they seemed to have arrived at the opinion that I was not at thattime so fat or so fair as the cherubs they had heard of who live upaloft.

  "And now, mates, I will just hand him back to Susan, and go and get thedoctor to look at me, for I begin to feel pretty stiffish with the holesI got made in me just now," said my father.

  And I was forthwith reconsigned to the charge of my mother and herattendant, while he went to the surgeon to get his wounds dressed.There were none of them, fortunately very serious, for the bullet hadgone through the fleshy part of the arm, and the pike had missed thebone; the cut in the cheek, which at first appeared the most trifling,giving in the end more trouble and annoyance than either of the otherhurts. The expedition in which he had been engaged was something out ofthe common way, though when I come to note down the numerous ones he hasdescribed to me, it is somewhat difficult not to mix them all uptogether.

  The frigate, on board which I thus suddenly found myself, formed one ofthe East India Squadron, of which Admiral Peter Rainier wasCommander-in-Chief.

  The "Boreas" had a short time before this been despatched to Macao forthe protection of the China trade. I speak of course from hearsay, aswhat I am about to relate occurred just before I came into existence;indeed, of many other subsequent events which I shall venture todescribe I cannot be said to have any very vivid recollection, althoughpresent at the time. The frigate was standing to the eastward, somethree or four leagues from the coast, when one of the topmen, Pat Brady,on the look-out at the mast-head, discovered a sail in shore to thenorthward. Pat was a relation of my mother--she was an Irishwoman, and,as Pat never failed to assert, a credit to her country. He would at alltimes have been ready to fight any man who ventured to hold a differentopinion.

  Our Captain, Christopher Cobb, was a brave man, but somewhat peppery,and very easily put out.

  The wind had previously been light. It fell a dead calm soon after thestranger had been sighted. Our First-Lieutenant, Mr Schank, who, inspite of having a wooden leg, was as active as any man on board, havinggone aloft himself to take a look at her, came to the opinion that shewas a brig of war. From the way in which she increased her distancefrom the frigate after she was seen, it was very evident that she hadher sweeps out, and there was every probability of her escaping.

  "That must not be! That must not be!" muttered the Captain, as he pacedthe quarter-deck, fretting and fuming under the hot sun of the tropics."Mr Schank, we must not let her go."

  "No, sir," said the First-Lieutenant, "that would never do."

  "We must take her with the boats if we cannot overtake her with theship," said the Captain, with one of his quiet laughs.

  "The very thing I was thinking of, sir," answered Mr Schank, who, I mayobserve, presented a great contrast to his excellent superior, the onebeing short and rotund, while in figure the Lieutenant was tall andgaunt.

  "Then we will have the boats out and see what we can do," said theCaptain.

  "With all my heart, sir," answered the First-Lieutenant. "I will, ifyou please, take the command."

  "Out boats!" was the order. The object was quickly known. In aninstant the men who had till then been listlessly hanging about thedecks in the few shady places they could find, for the sun was prettynigh overhead, were instantly aroused into activity.

  In a short time six boats were in the water manned and armed. In themwent three lieutenants and the master, two master's mates, fifty seamen,and twenty marines. One of the gigs, the fastest boat, led the way,each boat taking the one next to her in tow. As they shoved off theirshipmates cheered, and heartily wished them success. That they weredetermined to obtain, though they well knew that they had a pull beforethem of a good many hours under a burning sun, and probably some prettysharp fighting at the end of it. After following her for an hour ormore, Mr Schank perceived that they gained nothing on the brig. Hetherefore ordered the boats to cast off from each other, and to make thebest of their way, provided no boat rowed ahead of the barge under hiscommand. It was just two o'clock when the expedition left the frigate.My father was in the launch commanded by a master's mate, Mr HarryOliver, a slight delicate youth who appeared utterly unfit for suchwork, but he had the heart of a lion, and daring unsurpassed by anyofficer in the service. For four long hours the chase continued, when,at about six in the evening, she was still four leagues ahead. MrSchank now ordered the master to proceed in the gig as fast as he couldpull, and by all means to keep sight of the brig, while in the event ofdarkness coming on he was to hoist a light to show her position. It hadbeen arranged that the attack was to be made in two lines. The barge,pinnace, and gig were to board on the starboard quarter; and the otherline, consisting of the three other boats, on the larboard quarter. Forupwards of two hours longer the boats pulled on, the gloom of eveninggradually closing over them. Still they could distinguish the dimoutline of the brig ahead. The First-Lieutenant having got withinmusket-shot of the chase with Mr Oliver's boat, he directed his men tolie on to their oars that they might arm, and allow the sternmost boatsto come up. Just then the master in the gig rejoined them.

  "What is she?" asked Mr Schank.

  "A French man-of-war brig of sixteen guns," was the answer. "She isunder all sail with her sweeps out, and we shall find it pretty briskwork getting on board." The crews had of course been ordered to keepsilence, or I rather think that they would have uttered a hearty shoutat this announcement. In a few minutes more the sternmost boats got up,and their crews also armed and prepared for the attack. They weredirected to steer one on each side of the brig, and to get in under thesweeps and close to her sides. In ten minutes they were withinpistol-shot of the enemy, who was slipping along through the water, hersweeps being aided by the light wind off the land, at about two knots anhour.

  And now the silence which had hitherto been kept was broken by the voiceof their gallant leader shouting, "What vessel is that?"

  There was no answer. Again he asked the same question in French. Itwas very bad French, and perhaps was not better understood than theprevious question. At all events no reply was made.

  "Then at her, lads!" cried Mr Schank; and the crews of the boats,uttering three hearty cheers, dashed up towards the brig's stern. Asthey got close up, however, a tremendous fire of heavy guns and musketrywas opened on them, the bullets whizzing round them and wounding many,though fortunately none of the boats were struck by the round-shot,while, as they got up, pikes were thrust down at them and pistols firedin their faces. The bowmen in the leading boats which had got hold ofthe ship's sides were killed or wounded, and the boats dropped astern.Among those hit was their brave leader, but undaunted
he shouted to hismen to pull up again. Again as they did so they met with the samereception.