This "True Blue" was written by William Henry Giles Kingston in English language.
William Henry Giles
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Title: True Blue
Author: W.H.G. Kingston
Release Date: May 15, 2007 [EBook #21481]
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Produced by Nick Hodson of London, England
True Blue—A British Seaman of the Old School.
, 74, was ploughing her way across the waters of the Atlantic, now rolling
and leaping, dark and angry, with white-crested seas which dashed against her bows and
flew in masses of foam over her decks. She was under her three topsails, closely reefed;
but even thus her tall masts bent, and twisted, and writhed, as if striving to leap out of her,
while every timber and bulkhead fore and aft creaked and groaned, and the blocks rattled,
and the wind roared and whistled through the rigging in chorus; and the wild waves rolled
and tumbled the big ship about, making her their sport, as if she was a mere cock-boat.
Stronger and stronger blew the gale; darkness came on and covered the world of waters,
and through that darkness the ship had to force her way amid the foaming, hissing seas.
Darker and darker it grew, till the lookout men declared that they might as well have shut
their eyes, for they could scarcely make out their own hands when held at arm’s length
before their noses.
Suddenly, however, the darkness was dispelled by the vivid flashes of lightning, which,
darting from the low hanging clouds, circled about their heads, throwing a lurid glare on the
countenances of all on deck. Once more all was dark; then again the forked lightning burst
forth hissing and crackling through the air, leaping along the waves and playing round the
quivering masts. Now the big ship plunged into the trough of the sea with a force which
made it seem as if she was never going to rise again; but up the next watery height she
climbed, and when she got to the top, she stopped as if to look about her, while the lightning
flashed brighter than ever; and then, rolling and pitching, and cutting numerous other antics,
she lifted up her stern as if she was going to give a vicious fling out with her heels, and
downwards she plunged into the dark obscurity, amid the high foam-topped seas, which
hissed and roared high above her bulwarks. Her crew walked her deck with but little anxiety,
although they saw that the gale was likely to increase into a hurricane; for they had long
served together, they knew what each other was made of, and they had confidence in their
officers and in the stout ship they manned.
The watch below had hitherto remained in their hammocks, and most of them, in spite of the
gale, slept as soundly as ever. What cared they that the ship was roiling and tumbling
about? They knew that she was watertight and strong, that she had plenty of sea-room, and
that they would be roused up quickly enough if they were wanted. There was one person,
however, who did not sleep soundly—that was her Captain, Josiah Penrose. He could not
forget that he had the lives of some eight hundred beings committed to his charge, and he
knew well that, even on board a stout ship with plenty of sea-room, an accident might occur
which would require his immediate presence on deck. He was therefore sitting up in his
cabin, holding on as best he could, and attempting to read—a task under all circumstances,
considering that he had lost an eye, and was not a very bright scholar, more difficult of
accomplishment than may be supposed. He had lost an arm, too, which made it difficult for
him to hold a book; besides, his book was large, and the printing was not over clear, a fault
common in those days; and the paper was a good deal stained and injured from the effects
of damp and hot climates. He was aroused from his studies by a signal at the door, and the
entrance of one of the quartermasters.
“What is it, Pringle?” asked the Captain, looking up.
“Why, sir, Molly Freeborn is taken very bad, and the doctor says that he thought you would
like to know,” was the answer. “He doesn’t think as how she’ll get over it. Maybe, sir, you’d
wish to see the poor woman?”
“Certainly, yes; I’ll go below and see her,” answered the Captain in a kind tone. “Poor Molly!
But where is her husband—where is Freeborn? It will be a great blow to him.”
“It is his watch on deck, sir. No one liked to go and tell him. He could do no good, and the
best chance, the doctor said, was to keep Molly quiet. But I suppose that they’ll let him know
now,” answered the quartermaster.
“Yes; do you go and find him, and take him below to his wife, and just break her state gently
to him, Pringle,” said the Captain.
Captain Penrose stopped a moment to slip on his greatcoat, and to jam a sou’wester tightly
down over his head, before he left the cabin on his errand of kindness, when a terrific clap
was heard, louder than one of thunder, and the ship seemed to quiver in every timber fore
and aft. The Captain sprang on deck, for the moment, in his anxiety for the safety of his
ship, forgetting his intention with regard to Molly Freeborn.
Poor Molly! There she lay in the sick-bay, which had been appropriated to her use, gasping
out her life amid the tumult and disturbance of that terrific storm. She was one of three
women allowed, in those days, under certain circumstances, to be on board ship for the
purpose of acting as nurses to the sick, and of washing for the officers and men. Her
husband was captain of the maintop, and as gallant and fine a seaman as ever stepped.
Everybody liked and respected him.
But Molly was even a greater favourite. There was not a kinder-hearted, more gentle,
sensible, and judicious person in existence. No one had a greater variety of receipts for all
sorts of ailments, and no one could more artistically cook dishes better suited to the taste of
the sick. Most of the officers, who had from time to time been ill and wounded,
acknowledged and prized her talents and excellencies; and the Captain declared that he
considered he owed his life, under Providence, entirely to the care with which she nursed
him through an attack of fever when the doctor despaired of his life.
“All hands on deck!” was the order given as soon as the Captain saw what had occurred.
The main-topsail had been blown from the boltropes, and the tattered remnants were now
lashing and slashing about in the gale, twisting into inextricable knots, and winding and
wriggling round the main-topsail yard, rendering it a work of great danger to go out on it. The
boatswain’s whistle sounded shrilly through the storm a well-known note. “All hands shorten
sail!” was echoed along the decks. “Rouse out there—rouse out—idlers and all on deck!”
Everybody knew that there was work to be done; indeed, the clap made by the parting of
the sail had awakened even the soundest sleepers. Among the first aloft, who endeavoured
to clear the yard of the fragments of the sail, was William Freeborn, the captain of the
maintop. With knives and hands they worked away in spite of the lashing they got, now
being almost strangled, and now dragged off the yard.
The Captain resolved to heave the ship to. The wind had shifted, and if they ran on even
under bare poles, they would be carried on too much out of their course. It was a delicate
and difficult operation. A new main-topsail had first to be bent. It took the united strength of
the crew to hoist it to the yard. At length the sail was got up and closely reefed, hauled out,
strengthened in every possible way to resist the fury of the gale. It was an operation which
occupied some time. The fore-topsail had to be taken in. The helm was put down, and, as
she came slowly up to the wind, the after-sail being taken off also, she lay to, gallantly riding
over the still rising seas. Though she did not tumble about, perhaps, quite as much as she
had been doing, her movements were far from easy. She did not roll as before, as she was
kept pressed down on one side; still every now and then she gave a pitch as she glided
down into the trough of the sea, which made every timber and mast creak and quiver, and
few on board would have been inclined to sing:
“Here’s a sou’wester coming, Billy,
Don’t you hear it roar now!
Oh help them! How I pities those
Unhappy folks on shore now!”
At length William Freeborn was relieved from his post aloft, and came down on deck. Paul
Pringle, his old friend and messmate, who had been hunting for him through the darkness,
found him at last. Paul grieved sincerely for the news he had to communicate, and, not
liking the task imposed on him, scarcely knew how to begin.
“Bill,” said he with a sigh, “you and I, boy and man, have sailed together a good score of
years, and never had a fall-out about nothing all that time, and it goes to my heart, Bill, to
say any thing that you won’t like; but it must be done—that I sees—so it’s no use to have no
circumbendibus. Your missus was took very bad—very bad indeed—just in the middle of
the gale, and there was no one to send for you—and so, do you see—”
“My wife—Molly!—oh, what has happened, Paul?” exclaimed Freeborn, not waiting for an
answer; but springing below, he rushed to the sick-bay, as the hospital is called. The faint
cry of an infant reached his ears as he opened the door. Betty Snell, one of the other
nurses, was so busily employed with something on her knees, that she did not see him
enter. The dim light of a lantern, hanging from a beam overhead, fell on it. He saw that it
was a newborn infant. He guessed what had happened, but he did not stop to caress it, for
beyond was the cot occupied by his wife. There she lay, all still and silent. His heart sank
within him; he gazed at her with a feeling of terror and anguish which he had never before
experienced. He took her hand. It fell heavily by her side. He gasped for breath. “Molly!” he
exclaimed at length, “speak to me, girl—what has happened?”
There was no answer. Then he knew that his honest, true-hearted wife was snatched from
him in this world for ever. The big drops of salt spray, which still clung to his hair and bushy
beard, dropped on the kind face of her he had loved so well, but not a tear escaped his
eyes. He gladly would have wept, but he had not for so many a long year done such a thing,
and he felt too stunned and bewildered to do so now. He had stood as a sailor alone could
stand on so unstable a foothold, gazing on those now placid and pale unchanging features
for a long time,—how long he could not tell,—when Paul Pringle, who had followed him to
the door of the sick-bay, came up, and, gently taking him by the shoulders, said:
“Come along, Bill; there’s no use mourning: we all loved her, and we all feel for you, from
the Captain downwards. That’s a fact. But just do you come and have a look at the younker.
Betty Snell vows that he’s the very image of you, all except the beard and pigtail.”
The latter appendage in those days was worn by most sailors, and Bill Freeborn had reason
to pride himself on his. The mention of it just then, however, sent a pang through his heart,
for Molly had the morning before the gale dressed it for him.
Freeborn at first shook his head and would not move; but at last his shipmate got him to turn
round, and then Betty Snell held up the poor little helpless infant to him, and the father’s
heart felt a touch of tenderness of a nature it had never before experienced, and he stooped
down and bestowed a kiss on the brow of his newborn motherless child. He did not,
however, venture to take it in his arms.
“You’ll look after it, Betty, and be kind to it?” said he in a husky voice. “I’m sure you will, for
her sake who lies there?”
“Yes, yes, Bill; no fear,” answered Betty, who was a good-natured creature in her way,
though it was a rough way, by the bye.
She was the wife of one of the boatswain’s mates. Her companion, Nancy Bolton, who was
the wife of the sergeant of marines, was much the same sort of person; indeed, it would not
have done for the style of life they had to lead, to have had too refined characters on board.
“Bless you, Freeborn—take care of the baby, of course we will!” added Nancy, looking up
from some occupation about which she had been engaged. “We’ll both be mothers to him,
and all the ship’s company will act the part of a father to him. Never you fear that. As long
as the old ship holds together, he’ll not want friends; nor after it, if there’s one of us alive.
Set your mind at rest now.”
“Yes, that we will, old ship,” exclaimed Paul Pringle, taking Freeborn’s hand and wringing it
warmly. “That’s to say, if the little chap wants more looking after than you can manage. But
come along now. There’s no use staying here. Bet and Nancy will look after the child better
than we can, and you must turn in. Your hammock is the best place for you now.”
The gale at length ceased; the ship was put on her proper course for the West Indies,
whither she was bound; the sea went down, the clouds cleared away, and the glorious sun
came out and shone brightly over the blue ocean. All the officers and men assembled on
the upper deck, and then near one of the middle ports was placed a coffin, covered with the
Union-Jack. There ought to have been a chaplain, but there was none; and so the Captain
came forward with a Prayer-book, and in an impressive, feeling way, though not without
difficulty, read the beautiful burial service to be used at sea for a departed sister; and the
two women stood near the coffin, one holding a small infant; and there stood William
Freeborn, supported by Paul Pringle, for by himself he could scarcely stand; and then slowly
and carefully the coffin was lowered into the waves, and as they closed over it, in the
impulse of the moment, the bereaved widower would have thrown himself after it, not
knowing what he was about, had not Paul Pringle held him back. Down sank the coffin
rapidly, and was hid to sight by the blue ocean—the grave of many a brave sailor, and of
thousands of the young, and fair, and brave, and joyous, and of the proud and rich also, but
never of a more kind-hearted honest woman than was Molly Freeborn. So all on board the
declared, and assuredly they spoke the truth.
Onward across the Atlantic, as fast as her broad spread of white canvas filled by the wind
could force her, glided the staunch old “seventy-four,” which bore our hero and his fortunes,
though at that time they did not look very prosperous; nor was he himself, it must be
acknowledged, held in much consideration except by his own father and his two worthy
nurses. His fare, too, was not of the most luxurious, nor suited to his delicate appetite. Milk
there was none; and the purser, not expecting so juvenile an addition to the ship’s company,
had not provided any in a preserved state,—indeed, in those days, it may be doubted
whether such an invention had been thought of,—while a round-shot had carried off the
head of the cow in the last action in which the
had been engaged. As she furnished
fresh beef to the ship’s company, they would not have objected to a similar accident
Poor Molly’s child had, therefore, to be fed on flour and water, and such slops as the doctor
and the nurses could think of. They could not have been unsuitable, for it throve
wonderfully, and was pronounced by all the ship’s company as fine a child as ever was
“Have you been and had a look at Molly Freeborn’s baby?” asked Dick Tarbrush of his
messmate, Tom Buntline. “Do now, then. Such a pretty young squeaker. Bless you, it’ll do
your heart good. He’s quite a hangel.”
Similar remarks were made, one to the other, by the men; and one by one, or sometimes a
dozen of them together, would come into the women’s cabin to have a look at the baby, and
then they would stand in a circle round him, with their hands on their hips or behind them,
afraid to touch it, their pigtails stuck out as they bent down, their huge beards, and
whiskers, and pendent lovelocks forming a strong contrast to the diminutive, delicate
features of the infant, who might, notwithstanding, one day be expected to grow up similar in
all respects to one of them.
After the gale, the
encountered head winds, and light winds, and calms, and baffling
winds of every description, so that her passage to the station was long delayed. It gave
time, however, for the baby to grow, and for the discussion of several knotty points
connected with him. The most knotty of them was the matter of his christening. Now, the
crew held very much the same opinion with regard to their Captain that a certain captain
held of himself, when one day he took it into his head to make his chaplain a bishop, that of
his own sovereign will he could do all things. They knew that when there was no chaplain on
board, he could bury a grownup person, and so they thought that he surely could christen a
little infant. They accordingly, after due deliberation, resolved to send a deputation to him,
requesting him to perform the ceremony.
After some discussion, it was agreed that it would be advisable to carry the baby itself with
them, to strengthen the force of their appeal. It was thought better that the women should
not appear; and Paul Pringle was selected unanimously to be the bearer of the child. Now
honest Paul was a bachelor, and had literally never handled a baby in his life. He, therefore,
felt an uncommon awe and trepidation, as half unwillingly and half proudly he undertook the
office. However, at last, when coyly led forward, with his head all on one side and a
beaming smile on his honest countenance, he found that his big paws, stretched out, made
a first-rate cradle; though, not being aware of the excessive lightness of the little creature,
he very nearly chucked it over his shoulders. Betty and Nancy, after arranging the child’s
clothes, bestowing sundry kisses, and giving several important cautions, let the party of
honest Jacks proceed on their errand.
“Well, my lads, what is it you want?” asked the Captain in a good-natured voice, as the
seamen, being announced by the sentry, made their appearance at the door of the cabin.
Paul Pringle cleared his voice before speaking, and then he said, very nearly choking the
baby in his mechanical attempt to pull a lock of his hair as he spoke:
“We be come for to ax your honour to make a Christian of this here squeaker.”
The good Captain looked up with his one eye, and now perceived the small creature that
Paul held in his hands.
“Ah, you mean that you want him christened, I suppose,” answered the Captain, smiling.
“Well, I must see about that. Let me have a look at the poor little fellow. He thrives well.
See, he smiles already. He’ll be a credit to the ship, I hope. I’ll do what I can, my lads. I
don’t think that there’s anything about it in the articles of war. Still, what can be done I’ll do,
While Captain Penrose was speaking, he was looking kindly at the infant and playing his
finger round its mouth. He had had children of his own, and he felt as a father, though little
indeed had he seen of them, and they had all long since been taken from him.
“Now you may go, my lads, and I’ll let you know what I can do for you,” he said after some
On this the deputation withdrew, well pleased with their interview.
As soon as the men were gone, Captain Penrose turned to the articles of war, and all the
rules and regulations of the service with which he had been furnished, and hunted them
through, and turned them over and over again, but could find nothing whatever about the
baptism of infants. Most assiduously he looked through his Prayer-Book: not a word could
he discover authorising captains in the navy to perform the rite. He pulled down all the
books on his shelves and hunted them over; there were not many, certainly, but they made
up by their quality and toughness for their want of number: not a word on the subject in
question could he find. For many an hour and for many a day did he search, for he was not
a man to be baffled by a knotty point or by an enemy for want of exertion on his part, though
at last he had to confess that in this matter he was beaten. He therefore sent for Paul
Pringle, and told him that though he could bury all the ship’s company, and could hang a
mutineer at the yardarm, or could shoot him on the quarterdeck, he had no authority, that he
could find, for christening a baby. Much disappointed, Paul returned to his shipmates. In full
conclave, therefore, it was settled, with poor Will Freeborn’s consent, that as soon as the
ship reached Port Royal harbour, in Jamaica, the little fellow should be taken on shore to be
christened all shipshape and properly. When the Captain heard of this, he gave his full
consent to the arrangement, and promised to assist in its execution.
The flag of the gallant Sir Peter Parker was flying in the harbour of Port Royal when, after a
long passage, the
fired the usual salute on entering, and dropped her anchor there.
Two or three days elapsed before the duty of the ship would allow any of the crew to go on
shore. On the first Sunday morning, however, it was notified that a hundred of them might
have six hours’ leave, and that if the infant was presented, after morning service, before the
minister of one of the parish churches, he would perform the wished-for ceremony. Great
were the preparations which had been made. Betty Snell and Nancy Bolton were dressed
out with shawls, and furbelows, and ribbons of the gayest colours and patterns, and looked
and thought themselves very fine. Nothing could surpass the magnificence of the child’s
robe. All the knowledge of embroidery possessed by the whole ship’s company had been
expended on it, and every chest and bag had been ransacked to find coloured beads and
bits of silk and worsted and cotton of different hues to work on it. The devices were curious.
There were anchors and cables twisting about all over it, and stars and guns, and there was
a full-rigged ship in front; while a little straw hat, which had been plaited and well lined, was
stuck on the child’s head in the most knowing of ways, with the name of the
in gold letters on a ribbon round it. Certainly, however, nothing could be more inappropriate
than the name to the little smiling infant thus adorned. Never had such a dress been worn
before by any baby ashore or afloat.
Then his shipmates took care that Will Freeborn himself should be in unusually good trim,
and they got him to let Nancy Bolton dress his pigtail, while Sergeant Bolton stood by, and
got him into conversation; and as for Paul Pringle, he turned out in first-rate style, and so did
two of Freeborn’s messmates and especial chums, Peter Ogle and Abel Bush, both first-rate
seamen. All the men who had leave, indeed, rigged out in their best, and adorned
themselves to the utmost of their power. The boatswain, also, got them a dozen flags, which
they hoisted on boathooks and other small spars; and they had on board, besides, a one-
legged black fiddler, and a sort of amateur band, all of whom were allowed to accompany
On shore early on Sunday morning they went, and marshalled as they landed from the
boats which conveyed them on the quays of Kingston. The one-legged black fiddler, Sam,
being the only professional, and the rated musician on board, claimed the honour of leading
the way, followed by the rest of the band with their musical instruments. Then came the
father of the baby, Will Freeborn, supported on either side by Paul Pringle and Peter Ogle,
who each bore a flag on a staff; and next, Betty Snell, to whom had been awarded the
honour of carrying the important personage of the day; and on one side of her walked
Nancy Bolton, and on the other Abel Bush, one of the three proposed godfathers, with
another flag. In consequence of the numberless chances of war, it had been agreed that the
child should have three godfathers and two godmothers; besides which, each of the
godfathers was to have a mate who was to take his place in case of his death, and to assist
Freeborn in looking after his son, so that there was every probability of poor Molly’s son
being well taken care of. These, then, came next, bearing aloft an ensign and a Union-Jack,
while the rest of the crew, with more flags, rolling along, made up the remainder of the
But the person who created the greatest sensation among the spectators, especially of his
own colour, was Sam Smatch, the one-legged fiddler; nor did he deem himself to be the
least in importance. No one was in higher feather. He felt himself at home in the country—
the hot climate suited him; he saw numbers of his own race and hue, inclined, like himself,
to be merry and idle. How he grinned and rolled his eyes about on every side—how he
scraped away with his bow—how he kicked up his wooden leg and cut capers which few
people, even with two, could have performed as well! As to the rest of the band, he beat
them hollow. In vain they tried to play. If they played fast, he played faster; when they
played loud, he played louder; for, as he used to boast, his instrument was a very wonderful
one, and there were not many which could come up to it. The crowd of negroes who
collected from every side to stare at the procession, admired him amazingly, and cheered,
and shrieked, and laughed, and clapped their hands in gleeful approbation of his
Thus the procession advanced through the streets of Kingston till it reached the church
door, it wanted still some time to the commencement of service, so the men were enabled
to take their seats at one end of the building without creating any disturbance. There was
plenty of room for them, for unhappily the proprietors, merchants and attorneys, the
managers of estates and other residents, were very irregular attendants at places of
worship. The few people who did collect for worship stared with surprise at seeing so
unusual a number of sailors collected together; and more so when the service was over, to
see Paul Pringle, acting as best man, lead his friend Freeborn, and the two nurses, and the
rest of his shipmates, up to the font.
The clergyman had been warned by the clerk what to expect, or he would have been
“What is it you want, my good people?” he asked.
“Why, bless your honour, we wants this here young chap, as belongs, I may say, to the old
, seeing as how he was born aboard of her, made into a regular shipshape
“Oh, I see,” said the minister, smiling; “I will gladly do as you wish. You have got godfathers
and a godmother, I suppose?”
“Oh, Lord bless your honour, there are plenty on us!” answered Paul, feeling his
bashfulness wear off in consequence of the minister’s kind manner. “There’s myself, Paul
Pringle, quartermaster, at your honour’s service; and there’s Peter Ogle, captain of the
foretop, and Abel Bush, he’s captain of the fo’castle; and then, d’ye see, we’ve each of us
our mates to take command if any of us loses the number of our mess; and then as there’s
the two godmothers Nancy and Betty, right honest good women, the little chap won’t fare
badly, d’ye see, your honour.”
“Indeed, you come rather over-well provided in that respect,” observed the minister, having
no little difficulty in refraining from laughing. “However, I should think that you would find two
godfathers and one godmother, the usual number, sufficient to watch over the religious
education of the child.”
“No, your honour,” answered Paul quietly; “I’ll just ax you what you thinks the life of any one
of us is worth, when you reflexes on the round-shot and bullets of the enemy, the fever,
—‘Yellow Jack,’ as we calls him,—and the hurricanes of these here seas? Who can say that
one-half of us standing here may be alive this time next year? We sailors hold our lives
riding at single anchor. We know at any moment we may have to slip our cable and be off.”
The clergyman looked grave and bowed his head.
“You speak too sad a truth,” he answered. “Now tell me, what name do you propose giving
to the child?”
“Billy, your honour,” answered Paul at once.
“William?—oh, I understand,” observed the clergyman.
“No, Billy, your honour,” persisted Paul. “Billy True Blue, that’s the name we’ve concluded to
give him. It’s the properest, and rightest, and most convenient, and it’s the name he must
have,” he added firmly.