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Twenty-Five Years In The Rifle Brigade Part 13

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CHAPTER XV.

Author's happy state during 1813 and 1814--Character of the veritable French--British distributed over the Country--Civility of the Inhabitants of Grissolles--Amus.e.m.e.nts in quarters--The British prepare to quit France.

When I look back on the events of 1813 and 1814, I cannot but deem that the happiest period of my life, for I had been actively, and, as I believed, usefully employed. My mind during this time was tranquil, and I was, with a few exceptions, prosperous in my outward circ.u.mstances.

All those among whom my lot was cast were now sincerely friendly to me, and I believe I may with confidence affirm that I had not (with the exception of the person before mentioned, and who was now far removed from me) a single enemy in the world. It is true my occupation had not been, strictly speaking, of a Christian character, but I believed I was fulfilling my duty; hence the peace of mind which I enjoyed. I have since learned certainly, that a Christian, to resemble his Master, should be more ready to save than to destroy men's lives; but, at the same time, I cannot see why a Christian soldier should not be as zealous in the defence of his king and country, as those who are actuated by other motives; and it is certain, I believe, although I once doubted whether there was such a precept, that in whatever calling or occupation a man is in when called to become a Christian, that therein he should abide, 1st Cor. vii. 17, 20, and 24. But I attribute the peace of mind I then enjoyed as much to the constant employment which the nature of our services entailed upon us, as to any other cause. Be it remembered, I was doing the duties of both paymaster and quartermaster during this period, and my battalion had been as often called into action as any in the army, having been engaged in battles and skirmishes no less than sixteen times in less than ten months. This naturally left little time for reflection. But, above all, I am bound to render thanks to where alone it is due, to that gracious and beneficent Being, who not only watched over me during this period, and protected me from harm, but who poured his choicest blessings upon me, even the blessings of a cheerful and contented heart, together with the means of retrieving my sadly deranged finances; for had I not been appointed acting paymaster, I might have gone to prison on my return to my native country, from the unavoidable losses I had sustained, and which I shall mention by and by.

Another cause of comfort and cheerfulness arose from our operations against the enemy having been invariably successful; for we never, from the time of our leaving the frontiers of Portugal, till we took possession of Toulouse, met with any thing like a serious reverse.



Most of my readers no doubt know that the city where we had now taken up our quarters is one of the largest and finest in this part of France; but as it has been so often described, I shall content myself with merely informing my readers, that the people among whom we now resided were truly and veritably French. The character of the inhabitants, since we left our poor friends the Basques, had materially changed; that kind, but rude and simple hospitality, which had on most occasions been displayed by those honest mountaineers, had now given place to all that imposing, but less sincere politeness of the real French character. We were, indeed, treated here with every degree of respect; and perhaps more, or at least an equal degree of attention, was paid to our convenience and comfort, as they would have shown to their own troops.

We had every reason, therefore, to be perfectly satisfied.

In this part of the country there are a great number of Protestants, which, of course, permitted us to live on better terms with them than had they been all such stanch and bigoted Catholics as we met with in some parts of the Continent, and where our heretical presence was frequently looked upon as a contamination; for I remember well in the small village of Zalada, where we lay for some time, near Astorga, we never left the village, as they supposed, for a permanency, but the joy bells were rung for our departure. It was our lot, indeed, to be frequently quartered in this village, and such was their invariable custom. It is true the Padre and people of the place only expressed openly the feeling that was covertly, but universally, entertained throughout Spain and Portugal respecting us; for although the monks and priests made great pretences of friendship and good-will towards us, while we were upholding them in their iniquitous dominion over the minds of the people, yet secretly they cordially hated us, and were glad when at last our successes contributed to rid their country of both the invaders and their conquerors. One n.o.ble Spanish lady, (I remember well,) when I was quartered at Cadiz, made use of an expression which I am sure would shock and horrify my simple and delicate countrywomen.

She said, "She should rejoice to see all the French then in their country hung up in the intestines (las tripas) of the English, who had come to drive them out." Thus they should get quit of both. This lady, as might be supposed, was a most depraved and abandoned being, yet even she, it seems, looked upon us in the light of a curse or plague sent upon their country, rather than as a generous and gallant people, who had not hesitated to sacrifice much, both of blood and money, in freeing them from their French oppressors. But such, I fear, is the too general feeling in that country; for while the innumerable religiosos which overrun that nation maintain their cursed dominion over the minds of the other cla.s.ses, an Englishman will always be looked upon by them as a dangerous and hateful being, uniting in himself both the mortal sins, first, of having totally cast off the Pope's authority, and being the subject of a free and popular government--than either of which, not even Satan himself could be more odious to them.

We were not allowed, however, to remain long in Toulouse, but were distributed over the country in the neighbourhood, lines of demarcation having been pointed out which were to separate the French and British armies. My division was sent down the right bank of the river, and occupied Castel Sarazin, Grissolles, and Castelnau, &c. My battalion was stationed at Grissolles. During our stay here I had two or three opportunities, in company with others, of going to see Montauban, the seat of a Protestant college, and famed in romantic lore. The people were kind and obliging, and showed us every attention; but unfortunately a French garrison was quartered in it, the officers of which took every opportunity of quarrelling with ours. Indeed we had no business there, and were consequently obliged to put up with more than we should have otherwise done, for we were strictly forbid to enter any place within the French lines; but we did not conceive that those fellows, who had shown themselves so friendly and polite near Bayonne, while we were avowedly in arms against each other, would now turn round upon us when peace was made, and endeavour to engage us in quarrels and duelling. But I believe they felt a degree of soreness at our acknowledged superiority as soldiers, (for even the inhabitants of Montauban, where they lay, did not hesitate to express it,) and thus wished to be revenged for the many victories we had gained over them. Indeed there was a sort of recklessness about them which is not easily accounted for, unless they supposed their occupation was gone, and cared not what became of themselves; but they did not succeed, I think, in any instance in obtaining their wishes, for they would not fight with pistols, the only weapon which gives each a fair and equal chance, but insisted upon using the sword,--a mode of fighting to which the English in general were utter strangers. The people uniformly gave us warning as soon as ever they learnt that a plot was laid to insult us, on which we generally came away without subjecting ourselves to it; and when their designs became too evident, we refrained from going there. It was only a short distance from our quarters.

During our stay here, also, the Marquis de Pompignan, a gentleman residing between Grissolles and Castelnau, and where our Major-general had taken up his quarters, gave to the officers of the brigade a splendid fete. I know not exactly how to denominate it, for it was a sort of dramatic medley, part of it being performed in the garden and part in the house, where a private theatre had been fitted up; that in the garden, it was said, was intended to represent some military event,--I think it was the burning of Moscow, and in which the Marquis's beautiful daughter bore a part.

This young lady was said to be greatly enamoured of an honourable gentleman, aide-de-camp to the General, who was quartered in their house, and between whom it was expected a match would have taken place.

She was extremely beautiful and engaging.

We sometimes went a-fishing while we remained here also, but were not successful, there being none other than lake-fish, such as perch, &c., in the neighbourhood, which were scarcely worth taking.

Here, also, for want of better occupation, some of our young gentlemen amused themselves by hunting and lashing the Spanish muleteers as they were returning, after having delivered in their loads at the commissary's stores. They always rode one mule, (sideways, like a woman,) and led one or two more, and were most dexterous in handling the long shank of the halter, with which they sometimes soundly belaboured their pursuers; and had they not been set on by two or three at a time, they would not have liked better fun than to fight one of our gentlemen with his whip, for they saw that it was only for amus.e.m.e.nt, and generally took it good-naturedly; but our young gentlemen, as they generally do, carried the joke too far, and it was consequently put a stop to. Of course none but the young and idle took any part in this exercise.

We had, while we lay here, also several little b.a.l.l.s and hops; and here, for the first time, several of our young men began to dance quadrilles; in short, there was no want of amus.e.m.e.nt among this gay and lively people, who are ever intent upon pleasure themselves, and who of course found our wild and thoughtless young fellows ever as ready to second their endeavours to get up something new and entertaining. Certainly their morality is not the highest in the world, but their vices are most of them divested of that coa.r.s.e and disgusting appearance which similar vices carry on their front in England; and thus, while they are generally more pleasing, they are the more seducing, and consequently the more dangerous. However, as no person is compelled to enter into these scenes of dissipation and voluptuousness which they rejoice in, I found it, upon the whole, a very comfortable country to live in. The people were kind and civil, and were always good-natured and polite, and, as we now had plenty of the good things of this world at our command, I spent two months here very contentedly. It is true we had none of those excellent privileges with which my native country abounds, and which I have since learnt highly to prize,--I mean the privileges of the gospel,--the food for the n.o.bler and never-dying part; but I was then ignorant of their value, for although I had been convinced and convicted, I had not been converted. I was still in darkness respecting the way, the truth, and the life, and yet my foolish and carnal mind whispered peace; hence my contentedness in this situation. No! it was not till some years that I discovered that there is but one way to real happiness, but one true foundation on which to build our hope,--even that which is laid in Zion.

But the time had arrived for us to move down towards Bordeaux, preparatory to our quitting France. Accordingly, on the 3d June, we forded the Garonne, and stopped all night in Grenade, a place I formerly mentioned. We next day reached Cadours, a village near Cologne, where our 2d battalion was that evening quartered. In the afternoon of that day, a storm collected in the north, which I think had the most frightful appearance I ever witnessed. It was actually as black as night in the direction in which we saw it. It did not reach us, but it alarmed the inhabitants of our village so much, that they set on ringing the church bells with the utmost fury imaginable. We could not account for this strange proceeding till we enquired of them why it was done. They told us the devil was in the storm, and the bells being holy, he durst not, when he heard them, proceed any farther in that direction. Indeed they had ample reason to be in dread of its reaching their village; for the next day, as we pa.s.sed along the country where it had raged most furiously, the whole face of the country was desolated. It had been a hail-storm such as I never before witnessed. The hailstones were still lying, some of them larger than a bullet; the vines had been all destroyed; the crops of corn completely swept from the face of the earth. Trees knocked down, birds killed; in short, nothing could equal the appearance of misery and woe which this awful hail-storm had inflicted upon the unfortunate inhabitants, many of whom were going about wringing their hands in all the bitterness of heart, which a consciousness of being deprived of every hope of subsistence for the year to come would naturally inspire. Indeed most of them were literally stripped of their all.

On the 6th we marched into Lectoure, a fine town on the river, and famous for having given birth to Marshal Lannes, one of Bonaparte's best generals. It stands on a high ground near the river, and overlooks one of the richest and most beautiful plains I think I ever saw. Here I experienced another misfortune in my steed. My little Portuguese horse (which was now in high condition, and being an entire horse was apt to fight) quarrelled with a large horse belonging to one of our officers, while I was serving out the billets; and although we were both mounted at the time, the quarrelsome animals reared up against each other, and fought most desperately; but his, being the strongest, pulled mine and myself down to the ground. I luckily fell clear of him, and was not hurt; but he by some accident got a kick in his hind leg or foot, which completely lamed him, and I could not ride him any longer.

We pa.s.sed through Condom, another fine town, and Nerac, also a good town, and nearly full of Protestants. We next day halted at Castel Jaloux, where I was quartered on a house of religeuse. Here my poor little horse was so very ill that I could not drag him any farther. I was consequently obliged to leave him with those good dames, to whom I made him a present, and parted from him in the morning with sincere regret. They promised to take care of him, which I hope they did. We next reached the town of Bazas. Here there was to be another parting scene exhibited. The Portuguese were ordered to leave us here, and proceed towards their own country. The Spanish and Portuguese women who had followed the men were either to be sent home from hence, or their protectors were to consent to marry them. Some adopted the latter alternative, having had children by them, and some others who had not, and the remainder, of course, were compelled to separate. Our division drew up in the morning they marched, and honoured the brave Portuguese (for indeed they had always behaved well in the field) with three cheers, as they turned their faces towards Portugal. Many were the heavy hearts in both armies on this occasion; for it is not easy to conceive how the circ.u.mstance of pa.s.sing through scenes of hardship, trial, and danger together, endeared the soldiers of the two armies to each other.

It was perhaps never before felt so fully how much each was attached to the other; but the departure of the poor women caused many heavy hearts, both among themselves, poor creatures, who had a long and dreary journey before them, and among those with whom they had lived, and who had shared in all their good and bad fortune; but among these, several on both sides were not oppressed with too fine feelings. A friend of mine, who was an officer in the Portuguese service, told me afterwards that the women marched down to Spain and Portugal at the same time his regiment did; that they formed a column of 800 or 900 strong; that they were regularly told off into companies; and that the commanding-officer, a major, and all the captains, were married men, who had their families with them--all excellent arrangements; but that they were the most unmanageable set of animals that ever marched across a country. The officers had to draw rations for them all the way; but many of them, he says, left the column and went wherever they pleased. Few reached Portugal in the order in which they started.

We reached Langon on the 12th, and Barsac on the 13th June. This latter place is famed for a fine white-wine, something resembling sauterne. The adjutant (who had now been my chum for some time) and I were here quartered in a fine old baronial castle, the inmates of which showed us great attention. A ball was given in the evening to the officers of the brigade.

On the 14th we halted at Castres, and on the 15th entered Bordeaux. This was the finest town we had seen since we entered the Peninsula, except Lisbon and Madrid. This town had been occupied by the British for some time, a division of the army having been sent by Lord Wellington to take charge of it in the name of Louis XVIII.

We were not, however, destined to be quartered in this southern capital of France, but marched right through it, on the road towards the village of Blancfort. On the road the division was formed, and very minutely inspected by our gallant Chief, who was dressed in all his finery, his orders, and medals, and ribbons, &c., which he wore for the first time that ever I had seen. He looked most splendid indeed, and right proud were we to see him in them. After inspection we moved on to the camp at Blancfort, where we found a great part of the army a.s.sembled, waiting for the arrival of shipping to carry them off. Some had sailed a considerable time before our arrival. Besides our tents, the adjutant and I had got a cottage close by, in which our servants and our baggage were put. We had not been here above two or three days, I think, till his two servants, that is, his servant and groom, took it into their heads to desert. This was not the first instance of desertion that had taken place lately; for as we drew near the time of departure great numbers ran off into the interior, mostly bad characters. However, on this occasion, these worthies were determined to have something to carry them on the road, and, without hesitation, broke open their master's panniers, or boxes, and took away all the money he had, which did not indeed amount to any great sum, for it was only 40 dollars, (about L.10 British,) but it being all he was worth it was a great loss to him.

I have reason to be thankful to Providence for my escape on this occasion. My paymaster's chest was standing close to the adjutant's panniers when they broke them open, and they did not touch it, although it contained about L.400 worth of gold. Had they taken that I might have gone after them. I of course expressed my thankfulness for this lucky escape, and told several people of it. I fancy some person (my groom, I suspect) overheard me telling what a lucky escape I had been favoured with, and determined in his own mind that I should not always come off so well. The sequel will show: A few days after this I had occasion to go into Bordeaux to draw some money from the Commissary-general. The amount was 600 dollars, or about L.150. As I could not conveniently carry them out to the camp, I requested Major Balvaird, who had a quarter in town, to allow me to put them in his portmanteau till I had an opportunity of getting them sent out. His servant had overheard this conversation, and made up his mind at once to desert and take this money with him; but providentially again I escaped. I found the means, before night, of carrying it out to the camp, and the Major gave it me unknown to the servant. That night he broke open the portmanteau, and, taking every thing worth carrying away, (among which was a gold watch of mine,) deserted, and got clear off. This money, also, had it been taken, would have sorely crippled me, although I might perhaps have overcome the loss.

We marched in a few days after, pa.s.sing through the district of Medoc, famous for Bordeaux or claret wine, and halted for the night at Castelnau de Medoc. The next day we pa.s.sed through Chateau Margaux, where the best and most expensive of the claret grows, and again encamped at Pauillac, from whence we were to go on board.

Now was the time for the person who had overheard me speaking about my escape with the L.400, to make his grab and start off, or he would be too late. Accordingly, after dark, he or they lifted up a part of the tent where the box was standing, and, pulling it out, set off with it bodily. But, again directed by Providence, I had taken the money out of the box, and given it into the hands of a gentleman, to take care of for me; and there remained in the box my papers and books, public and private, about L.19 in money, an old silver watch, and, among other things, the half doubloon which poor Croudace had given me to take care of for him on the evening previous to his death at Badajos, and which I was preserving as a memorial for his afflicted friends.

As soon as the box was missed I instantly raised the hue and cry, and, reporting the circ.u.mstance to my commanding-officer, he ordered the rolls to be called, to see if any man had deserted; but no, they were all present. I then offered a reward of forty dollars to any one who would bring me the box and papers, and did not regard the money.

Instantly the whole camp was in a move to find the box, and search was made in all directions. I of course was not idle myself on the occasion; and having a man or two with me, I actually discovered where the box had been opened, for I found the inkstand, that had been in it, lying near a heap of wood close to the bank of the river, into which, after plundering it, no doubt they had thrown it. I now went down to the town and waited on the mayor, offering the same reward to any of his people that would try to find it in the river; but, unfortunately, just as there was the best chance of recovering it, the order came for us instantly to go on board.--Thus was I deprived of every doc.u.ment I possessed, both Paymaster's, Quartermaster's, and private. I had fortunately got my Paymaster's accounts made out up to the very latest period, and transmitted to the War-Office, or I know not what I should have done; but my duplicates were gone, and when afterwards objections were made to some of the items in the charges, (as is always the case,) I, being unable to answer them, was obliged to submit to the loss of them. I had also several private accounts unclosed, on which I lost considerably, so that altogether I calculate this loss fully amounted to L.100, besides the vexation of not having my papers to refer to when wanted.

I had been obliged to part with all my remaining animals for next to nothing, for when the French people found we were obliged to leave them, they offered us the most shameful trifles possible, but which we were compelled to take or give the animals away. One I did actually make a present of, besides my little Portuguese horse before-mentioned. I made a close calculation, and found that my losses in horses and mules, from the beginning of 1812 to June 1814, did not amount to less than L.150, besides sums that I lost by officers who died. By one I lost L.84, and another L.74 odd, so that, as I said before, had I not fortunately been appointed Acting Paymaster, I should have been so much involved, that at this time I durst not have returned to my native country. I do not complain, for most of my losses were sent by Providence, who saw best what was fitting and good for me; but never, till the Peninsular campaigns, were officers obliged generally to provide and keep up their own baggage-animals, and from the loss of which I had suffered so severely; and I cannot but think that rule, always acted upon till these campaigns, ought to be continued, and that subalterns at least ought to have their baggage always carried at the public expense.

CHAPTER XVI.

Author's Battalion embark for England--Land at Plymouth--Expect to be again ordered on Foreign Service--Order received--Embark, with other troops, for America--Land at Pine Island.

We embarked on the 8th July on board his Majesty's ship Dublin, of 74 guns, commanded by Captain Elphinstone, which took the five companies of my battalion, with two companies of the 43d. We sailed the next day, I think, and had generally fine weather during our voyage, which lasted till the 18th, when we arrived at Plymouth. She was but a dull sailer, or we ought not to have occupied so many days in so short a pa.s.sage.

During our voyage, as remarkable an instance of heroic fort.i.tude and bodily strength was exhibited by a sailor of this ship as I ever remember to have witnessed. He was doing something on the fore-yard, and by some accident he was precipitated into the water, but in his fall his shoulder came in contact with the flue of one of the anchors, by which it was deeply and severely cut. The ship was going at about five knots an hour, and it took near half an hour before she could be brought round and a boat sent to his a.s.sistance; and notwithstanding the severe cut he had received, from which the blood was fast streaming, he not only contrived to keep himself from sinking by buffeting with a heavy sea, but actually stripped off his jacket in the water, as it seems it had been an enc.u.mbrance to him. When the boat reached him, the poor fellow was nigh exhausted, and a few minutes more would have deprived the ship and the service of an excellent sailor, but having been got into the boat, he was brought on board more dead than alive, where every attention being paid to him, he soon afterwards recovered.

We landed at Plymouth on the 18th, and occupied one of the barracks. We did not exactly know what was to become of us. Kent being our regimental station, we expected to be ordered to march and join the left wing in that county, but were still kept at Plymouth, where we met with great kindness and attention from the inhabitants in general, who are upon the whole, I think, an excellent and a moral people. We also fared sumptuously here, every description of food being both cheap and good.

Fish in particular is most abundant and excellent. In short, we were here as comfortably and as well quartered as we could desire, and every thing tended to make us perfectly satisfied with our lot. We relaxed by attending the theatre occasionally, which is one of the best provincial ones in the kingdom, and at this time could boast some very good actors.

There were a variety of other amus.e.m.e.nts, such as fishing, &c., which of course we indulged in occasionally. From hence I was called up to London to meet our Colonel, the Hon. Sir W. Stewart, to arrange our battalion concerns, &c. for the few latter years of hurry and confusion, and which was at last got done to the satisfaction of all concerned. Here also we began to replenish our wardrobes, which, it will easily be imagined, were not the most magnificent in the world on our first arrival.

But we were not long permitted the enjoyment of English society or English comforts, for we had scarcely been a month at Plymouth till we received an order to prepare again for foreign service, and the nature of that service being kept a profound secret, we scarcely knew what necessary articles of equipment to prepare. The general opinion, however, was, that our destination was some part of America, consequently we endeavoured to meet all contingencies by preparing both for a warm and cold climate. All hands of course were vigorously set to work, in order to be ready when the summons arrived, which we knew might be very soon expected. An alteration was made in the arrangement of our battalion. The staff was ordered to proceed to join the other wing at Thorncliffe, which of course included myself, but Major Mitch.e.l.l, who was now appointed to the command of these five companies, was anxious to take me out with him in the capacity of acting paymaster, and to his friendly and earnest endeavours, added to the kindness of Captain James Travers, who had at first intended to apply for that situation himself, but renounced it on my account, I am indebted for again having an addition of 10s. per diem made to my regimental pay during the continuance of service on this expedition.

At length the order arrived for our embarkation, and on the 18th September, just two months from the day of our arrival in England, our five companies were sent on board his Majesty's ships Fox and Dover, both frigates of the smaller cla.s.s, and which had been prepared for the reception of troops, by having a part of their guns taken out, and being, as it is termed, armed "en flute." The commanding-officer, with the staff and three companies, were put on board the Fox. We laid in an immense sea stock of provisions, &c. not knowing how long we might be on the water, but unfortunately for us we had scarcely put foot on board, when the order was given to weigh and proceed to sea forthwith, so that no time was given for the stowing away of all the stock, which had cost us about L.24 per person; the consequence was, a great part of it was lost or destroyed, from its being knocked about the deck in the midst of the confusion and bustle consequent on the crew and the soldiers (strangers to each other) being set to work to weigh anchor and make sail in such a hurry. Little a.s.sistance was afforded us from the ship on this occasion. We thus lost nearly the half of what we had been at so much pains to provide; but such things being common occurrences in a life like ours, it was therefore vain to fret.

The force that embarked at the same time with us, consisted of the 93d Highlanders, a company of artillery, some rocketeers, a squadron of the 14th light dragoons, without horses, and our five companies, the whole under the command of General Keane. The good people of Plymouth, as is customary, cheered us as we left their sh.o.r.e, wishing us the most ample success and good fortune, and which we, who had for so long a time been in the habit of conquering, did not for a moment admit a doubt of being fully realized.

We sailed, as I said, on the 18th September, and stood down the channel with a pretty fair breeze, till we reached what are commonly called its "chops," where we encountered adverse winds, and blowing a succession of gales (equinoctial, I imagine) which detained us beating off and on for seven days. This was as uncomfortable a beginning of our service as could well be imagined. High winds, with rain, and contrary to the way we wished them, were certainly rather trying to the patience of us landsmen, and there was something in our situation on board this ship which did not at all tend to alleviate our discomfort. In fact, we wished our fortune had placed us on board a transport rather than where we now found ourselves. All the discipline and strictness of a regular man-of-war was enforced, without any of the countervailing comforts and conveniences usually found on board such ships; and to such a length was this carried, that because our officers sometimes stood on the quarter-deck, holding on, in the rolling of the ship, by the hand-ropes which surround the companion, not only these, but the ropes which were stretched to prevent people falling out at the gangway, were ordered to be removed, that nothing should remain by which lubbers like us might hold on in the heavy rolls to which the vessel was subject in gales like those I have been describing. We were no less than twenty-four people in the cabin, twelve of our officers and twelve gentlemen of the commissariat department, so that we were sufficiently crowded, besides being in several other respects ill provided. But all this would have been borne with cheerfulness and good-will, had we not experienced such a total want of kindness and urbanity from a quarter where we least expected it, and from which that unkindness could be made most effectual.

We lost the fleet during the continuance of these gales, but sealed orders having apprized our commander where to rendezvous, we made sail for the Island of Madeira, which we reached on the 9th October, and where we found the fleet. Some of the wags of our other two companies on board the Dover, pretending to think we must have been cast away and lost, had erased all our names from the army list as defunct. This rather annoyed some of our folks, but it might have been easily seen it was only a little waggery in which they had been indulging themselves.

A day or two before we reached Madeira, we fell in with a strange sail, to which we gave chase, and brought her to; she proved to be an English merchant brig. It was said our commander wished to have a little independent cruise, which caused him to part from the fleet, and that there was a famed American privateer called the Wasp that had made a great number of captures, and which he was anxious to fall in with that he might take her. Had such a thing occurred as the Wasp appearing in sight, and we had given her chase, I could have compared it to nothing but to a vulgar simile which I have sometimes heard used, that of a cow endeavouring to catch a hare, for indeed she was, I believe, one of the fastest sailers that had ever been known, while we, on the contrary, were in comparison just like the cow to the hare. This also must have been a piece of waggery on the part of those who first set such a report afloat, for no man in his senses would have ever thought of chasing privateers with the Fox frigate at the time of which I am now writing. I regret I did not go on sh.o.r.e on this beautiful island, the town and scenery of which were most inviting, but as our stay was only to be so very short, it was scarcely worth while.

We sailed again on the 11th, after having first got a cask of excellent Madeira wine from the house of Messrs Gordon and Co. This was the best, I think, I ever drank. We stood almost due south, pa.s.sing pretty close to Teneriffe and the other Canary Isles, until we fell in with the trade-winds, when we kept more away towards the south-west. Our voyage now became delightful, for a gentle and refreshing, but constant and steady breeze, carried us on at the rate of about five or six knots an hour, without having occasion hardly to alter a sail or rope. We pa.s.sed to the tropic of Capricorn on the 15th October, when our sailors prepared to indulge in the same innocent but amusing ceremonies that are adopted on crossing the equator. Neptune, with his Amphitrite, got dressed in full costume, and every other appendage being ready, it only now remained that the commander's sanction should be obtained to their commencing the imposing ceremony; but no! his G.o.dship was dismissed in no very courteous manner, and told to go and attend to his duty. Thus the fiat of a greater than Neptune, even in his own element, reduced him from the G.o.dlike rank he held to that of a mere forecastle sailor; and thus were all our expectations frustrated. In all the other ships of the fleet the amus.e.m.e.nt was carried on with the greatest good humour, as we could plainly perceive with our gla.s.ses.

On the 18th, we pa.s.sed pretty near the Isle of St Antonio, the westernmost of the Cape Verde Isles, and then bearing off still rather more to the west, we kept our course generally at about 12 or 13 north lat.i.tude, and in this manner crossed the Atlantic.

From the time that we had entered between the tropics, we had seen numerous shoals of flying fish, some of which, when closely pursued, (by the dolphin generally,) actually fell on board our ship. A very accurate drawing of one of these was made by one of our lieutenants, a friend of mine, who, I believe, has it to this day. They were generally about the size of a herring, and much resembling that fish in shape and colour, with two fins projecting from behind their gills, nearly as long as their body. These are their wings, with which they can fly generally for 100, or 150, or sometimes 200 yards, when they fall again into the water. We also caught a dolphin about this time, our carpenter having harpooned it from the bow of the ship; but I was considerably disappointed in finding it did not exceed from twenty-four to thirty inches in length; and the hues of it, though beautiful when dying, by no means answered my expectations.

On the ---- November, we made the island of Barbadoes, and anch.o.r.ed in Carlisle Bay, off Bridgetown, the capital of the island. It is not easy to describe the effect which is produced on an European the first time he beholds the beauties of a tropical country, and which, I think, he does in the greatest perfection while they are yet distant from him.

Robertson's description of Columbus's first view of a West India island is, I think, as correct and as beautiful as any thing can possibly be; and his feelings for the moment (heightened indeed by the circ.u.mstance of his having at length attained to his long-looked-for Western India) will describe pretty nearly what every one must feel, who has not before beheld the productions of a tropical climate. But oh! how is the scene changed when you get on sh.o.r.e! Nature indeed is still beautiful and rich beyond the conception of a northern native; but man--how fallen! Here (I think I shall not far err if I say) you behold man in his lowest state: the savages of the woods are, in my opinion, much higher in the scale of being than those whom our cursed cupidity has introduced to all our vices, without one alleviating virtue to counterbalance the evil. But how could the poor Africans learn any thing that is good from those who do not practise good themselves?

One of our people while here said, "he thought the men were all rogues, and the women all unfaithful." Of the slave population the latter is certainly a correct description, almost universally, in Bridgetown; for, with shame be it spoken, their masters and mistresses calculate upon their worth as if they were brood-mares, by the number and the description of wretched beings which they can bring into this world of misery. What indeed could you expect from those who can thus act, and those who sanction such conduct, but the like treatment that Mr Shrewsbury met with, if you endeavour to show them to themselves or to others in a true light? While the strong man armed keepeth his castle, his goods are in peace; but let another endeavour to bind this strong man, and take his goods from him, and oh, what a resistance may not be expected! Let the West Indians have slaves whom they may treat as cattle for their own gain and profit, even if it be at the expense of the souls of the poor wretches whom they thus destroy; but endeavour to show these degraded human beings that they are capable of being raised to a level with their unfeeling and avaricious masters, and you may shortly expect the fate of a Smith or a Shrewsbury, so regardless are these dealers in human flesh of their duty as men who must soon render an account of all their actions.

It may be said, that I saw little, while here, but the very worst of society, and this may in a great measure be true; but it is evident that such things were done and sanctioned at Bridgetown when I was there, in 1814, as led me to pray that my lot might never be cast among such people.

I now gladly turn from this scene of vice and misery, and pursue my narrative.

In the bay at this place a hulk was stationed for the reception of prisoners of war. Our boats usually pa.s.sed pretty near it on going on sh.o.r.e for water. A number of Americans were on board as prisoners. On one occasion, or more, I believe, they called out to our fellows as they pa.s.sed under her stern, "So you have come out from England to attack our country, have you? I hope you have brought your coffins with you, for you will need them before you return." And, in truth, many of those fine fellows to whom this insolently coa.r.s.e but patriotic speech was addressed, did indeed require coffins before the business we were going upon was finished.

We left Barbadoes on the ----, and, pa.s.sing down through the midst of the islands, we left St Lucia on our left and Martinico on our right hand. We also pa.s.sed close to Dominico and Guadaloupe, with several smaller islands which I do not recollect, and, keeping to the southward, pa.s.sed St Christopher's, Santa Cruz, Porto Rico, and St Domingo, having a fine view of the whole as we moved delightfully along. This latter large island took us more than two days in pa.s.sing; but on the 21st we came in sight of Jamaica, the chief of our West India possessions. We stood off and on near to Port-Royal till the 23d, when we made sail to the westward, and on the 25th came to anchor in Negril Bay, at the extreme west end of the island of Jamaica. Here we found several sail both of men-of-war and transports, having on board the troops which had been engaged in the operations against Washington and Baltimore, &c., and consisting of the 4th, 21st, 44th, and 85th regiments, with some artillery. They were not strong indeed, having been considerably reduced by their late arduous services; but their numbers, added to ours, we thought quite sufficient to enable us to make a descent upon the American coast, near New Orleans, which it was now whispered was our destination: indeed this had been conjectured from the time we left England, but nothing certain was known, and even now it was not officially made public. A day or two after our arrival here, two of the West India regiments also joined us, the 1st and 5th, at least a part of both; so that we now mustered a respectable force. Admiral Sir Alexander Cochran commanded the naval part of the expedition, he being here on our arrival on board the Tonnant 84; several smaller vessels also, with stores, &c. &c. joined us from Port-Royal. When the whole were collected together, we felt proud of our fine force, which we vainly imagined nothing we should have to encounter could withstand for a moment: but the battle is not always to the strong; and we were shortly after painfully reminded of this truth. But I must not antic.i.p.ate,--evil always comes early enough.

During our stay here, I went on sh.o.r.e for a few hours, and visited some of the farms or plantations. Indeed, while we remained, the place where we landed was generally like a fair; for the inhabitants had a.s.sembled in great numbers, bringing with them live stock and poultry and vegetables, &c. for sale, all of which were greedily bought up at prices high enough, I warrant you. The vegetation at this place was most luxuriant, even in this the middle of winter almost; but I apprehend this was the finest season of the year, for it was not at all intolerably hot, and every thing, had the appearance which our country a.s.sumes in the height of summer. An accident occurred whilst we continued here, which had nigh proved serious. The Alceste frigate, one day, in shifting her berth, run with her head right on board the Dover, where our other two companies were on board. She cut her up from the stern into the cabins, not less I am sure at the top than ten feet. Two of our people were in the cabin at the time playing at backgammon, and were not a little astonished to see the prow of another large vessel tearing its way right into the very place where they were sitting.

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Twenty-Five Years In The Rifle Brigade Part 13 summary

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