Read CHAPTER XI of Historic Boyhoods , free online book, by Rupert Sargent Holland, on ReadCentral.com.

Horatio Nelson

The Boy of the Channel Fleet: 1758-1805

It was a dark, rainy autumn afternoon, and the small boy, who was trudging along the post-road that led to the English river town of Chatham, was wet to the skin, and thoroughly tired into the bargain. He was thin and pale, with big-searching eyes, and coal black hair that hung tangled over his forehead. He had been traveling all day, and had had only a roll to eat since early morning.

Sometimes he was tempted to stop and ask people he met how far it still was to the town on the Medway, but he overcame the temptation, because he knew that he could reach his destination by six o’clock, and that thinking of the distance still to go would not help him.

Occasionally he would stop, fling his arms about his body for warmth, and stamp his feet hard to drive away the chill. But his stops were not frequent, because he was in a hurry to end his journey.

On such an autumn day night sets in early, and the road ahead was simply a gray blur by the time the boy had reached the outskirts of the town. But when he did see the first straggling houses he could not help giving a little cry of satisfaction. He met a pedlar going the other way.

“Is this Chatham?” the boy asked, half fearing that the answer would be “No.”

“Yes, this here’s Chatham.”

“And where are the docks, the war-ship docks?” asked the boy.

“Keep straight on this road and you’ll walk clean into the water, and there’s the ships,” said the man.

Doubtless he wondered what the boy wanted of the war-ships, but the lad gave him no chance to satisfy his curiosity. He was hurrying on as fast as he could go.

Soon the houses grew more numerous and the post-road had become a street heading through the heart of an old-fashioned town. The boy had never been to Chatham before, but he did not stop to look at any of the curious houses he passed. He saw a pasty-cook’s window filled with buns and tarts, and he remembered how long it had been since breakfast, but even that thought did not make him loiter. He must reach the docks before all the men-o’-war’s men had left for the night.

Soon a whiff of fresh air blew in his face. He knew what that meant; he loved that breath of the water; it nerved him to cover the last lap of his long journey at a quick step. Then to his delight, he found himself at last arrived at the water’s edge, and before him a shore covered with boats, and the wide river with the dim outlines of the men-o’-war.

He stood still, peering at the great ships, until an old sailor passed near him. “Do those ships belong to the Channel Fleet?” asked the boy.

The mariner nodded his head. “That’s part of his Majesty’s Channel Squadron, my lad. Be you thinkin’ of shippin’ before the mast?”

“Perhaps. Could you tell me where to find an officer of the fleet? Are there any still ashore?”

The sailor glanced at a landing-stage near by. “Aye, there’s an officer’s gig, and there’s the very man you’re lookin’ for. The one in the cocked hat with the gold trimmin’ yonder.”

“Thank you,” said the boy, and started on the run for the landing-stage, completely forgetting how tired his legs had been.

The man in the cocked hat found himself a moment later facing a small delicate-looking boy, who was asking which vessel was the Raisonnable.

He looked the boy over and then pointed out the frigate which bore that name. “What do you want with her?” he asked, amused at the eagerness with which the boy looked through the sea of masts at the ship he sought.

“My uncle’s her commander, and I’m to serve on her,” came the answer. “How can I get on board?”

“I’ll look after that,” said the young lieutenant. “She’s my ship too.” Again his eyes ran over the small, slender figure before him. “What’s your name?” he asked.

“Horatio Nelson, sir.”

“Well, Nelson, you look starved, and more like a drowned rat than a midshipman. How long since you had a square meal?”

“Since breakfast.”

“And why didn’t you stop in the town and have a bite on your way here?”

“I promised my father to come straight on to the docks, sir, and report for duty. I said I wouldn’t stop until I got here.”

“So nothing could have kept you back, eh? Well, you’ve reported for duty now, as I’m your superior officer. I don’t have to be on board ship for half an hour, so my first order to you is that you come with me to a cook-shop and have some of the roast beef of old England before you set out to sea.”

Nothing loath, now that his promise was kept, Nelson went with the lieutenant into one of the small, winding Chatham streets, and entered an inn much frequented by sailors. Here the officer ordered a hot supper, and sat by the boy while the latter ate it. Nelson was nearly famished; it was a delight to the lieutenant to watch the satisfying of such an appetite.

A little later the officer and the boy were rowed out to the frigate, and Nelson duly delivered by his new friend into the care of the ship’s commander. His uncle looked at the boy askance; he seemed very pale and delicate and undersized, even for a boy of thirteen, but the uncle had promised to take him on trial as midshipman, and so, though with much misgiving, he found him his berth.

He little knew what the sight of that Channel Fleet and the smell of the salt water meant to the new midshipman.

The boy’s uncle, Captain Suckling by name, who was in command of this sixty-four gun man-o’-war, had been trained in the principles of the old English navy, which were that hardship was good for a sailor, and that the more a man was battered about in time of peace the better he would fight in time of war.

Everything above decks was spick and span, and young Horatio gazed with wondering admiration at the neatness of the white decks continually scraped and holystoned until they fairly glistened in the sun, at the imposing size and length of the long lines of black cannon, the special pride of every officer, and at the symmetry and the wonderful height of spars and sails and rigging, forming a very network in the sky.

He had loved boats since the days when he had pumped water into the horse-trough before his father’s house in order that he might sail paper boats in it, and now it seemed almost impossible to believe that he stood on the deck of a ship of his Majesty’s service and was to have a hand in caring for all this cannon and rigging. He looked wonderingly at the sailors, a bronzed, hardy lot, in their white jackets and trousers that flared widely at the bottom, wearing their hair according to the custom of the day in long pig-tails down their backs.

But when he went below decks he found the picture very different. Everything there was dirt and gloom, foul odors and general misery. The cat-o’-nine-tails was the favorite punishment for sailors. Many a back was deeply scored with the lash, and, worse yet, many a man had been forced into the service against his will, seized at night by the press-gang, cudgeled into insensibility and carried on board to wake up later and find himself destined to serve at sea. The food was chiefly salt beef, and in most respects the men were treated little better than so many cattle. As a result they might be hardy, but they were also as surly and vicious a lot as could be found anywhere.

The poor boy had a hard time growing accustomed to such companionship. He had longed for the glory of the sailor’s life without knowing anything about its wretchedness, and now he saw all these horrors spread before his eyes. His uncle, believing that the best way to bring him up was to let him entirely alone to fight his own battles, paid little or no attention to him, and the boy, brought up in the country home of a clergyman in Norfolk, was very homesick, and often longed for the people and the comforts he had left; but he had a stout heart, and before a great while had conquered this homesickness and set about to see what work he could find to do.

At first both officers and men regarded Horatio as simply a sickly boy and totally unfit for life at sea, but it was not long before he managed, in a quiet way peculiarly his own, to make a name and place for himself on board the Raisonnable.

The story got around that when he was a small boy he had one day escaped from his nurse and run off into some dense woods near his father’s house. He had lost his way and finally, coming to a brook too wide for him to cross, had sat down on a stone on one bank and waited. It was some time after dark when his distracted family found him.

“I should think you’d have been frightened to death,” his grandmother was reported to have said.

“What’s that?” asked the boy.

“Why, fear at being alone, and the dark coming on.”

“Fear,” said he, “I don’t know what you mean by that. I’ve never seen it.”

His uncle told the story one day to another officer, and within a week young Nelson had been christened “Dreadnaught.”

When he was still a very new midshipman he went for a cruise in the polar seas. One afternoon some of the men were allowed on the arctic shore, and Nelson started on a little expedition of his own. The first any one else knew of it was when another midshipman happened to glance across the field of ice, and caught sight of the huge white body of a polar bear within a few yards of Nelson.

He called to his mates and pointed to the boy. They were too far off to help. They saw Nelson level his musket and saw the wicked head of the bear raised in front of him. They held their breath waiting for the shot. In the still air they caught the click of the hammer, but heard no report. For some reason the gun had not gone off. With a shout they scrambled over the ice to help him, knowing he was now at the wild beast’s mercy.

The boy, however, had turned his musket and raised the butt end in defense when a gun on the ship boomed out the signal for all hands to go aboard. The signal woke the echoes and thundered over the field of ice, and the bear, frightened, turned tail and ran off as fast as his short legs could carry him. Nelson, his musket still raised, ran after the animal, but by this time the rescue party had come up with him.

“What do you mean by hunting polar bears all alone, Dreadnaught?” asked the other midshipman. “Didn’t you see him coming?”

“Yes,” said the boy, “but I wanted his skin to take back home to my father. I might have had him if that gun hadn’t sent him away. Now he’s lost forever.”

“Well, I vow,” said the other. “I don’t believe there’s another chap in the navy with half your pluck.”

Such incidents as these showed the young sailor’s courage, and he had continual chances to show how rapidly he was learning seamanship.

By the time he was fifteen he was practically possessed of all the knowledge of an able seaman, and was sent on board the ship Sea Horse to the East Indies. His position at first was little better than that of a foremast hand, but it was not long before the captain noticed the lad’s smartness and keen attention to his duties, and very soon he called him to the quarterdeck and made him fore-midshipman.

The captain advised the first lieutenant to keep an eye on the boy and occasionally to let him have charge of manoeuvering the vessel. This the lieutenant did, and to his great surprise found that Nelson was quite as well able to handle the ship as he was himself.

The sea life was doing him good, too. He was no longer the thin, sickly lad who had wandered through the streets of Chatham, but a fine, well-built, sun-tanned youth, well beloved on deck and popular with all his mates.

Fine as the sea life was for him, life in the East Indies was very trying. The climate brought fever with it, and Horatio had been in the East but a short time before he fell very ill and had to be taken from his ship and sent home on board the Dolphin. The ship doctors gave up hope of saving him, but the captain was so much interested in the boy that he spent hours nursing him, and finally he grew better.

The voyage from India to England was the most trying time in Nelson’s life. He felt that he was not built for the life of a sailor, although his whole mind and heart were set upon rising in that profession. He had no money, no influential friends; he had staked everything on winning his way in the navy. Now it seemed as though he must give up his career and settle down to some small place on shore.

But his talks with the captain gradually stirred new hopes. He was seized with patriotic zeal and determined at every risk to serve his country on the seas, no matter what suffering it might bring to him. He wanted to act, to do something, and this resolution became suddenly the motive power of his life. From the time of that voyage home on the Dolphin, Nelson used to say, dated his passion to win fame in the defense of England.

When he reached home he was given a position on a new ship, and a little later took his examination for the rank of lieutenant. His uncle, Captain Suckling, who had commanded the Raissonnable, was at the head of the board of examiners before whom Horatio appeared. The boy was very nervous when he entered the room, but answered the questions almost as rapidly as they were put to him, and every answer was full and correct. He passed the examinations triumphantly, and then his uncle introduced him to the other members of the Board.

One of them said, “Why didn’t you tell us he was your own nephew?”

“Because,” said the old sailor, “I didn’t want him to be favored in any way. I was sure he would pass a fine examination, and as you see I haven’t been disappointed.”

Nelson was given the rank of lieutenant and assigned to the Lowestoffe. The vessel cruised to the Barbadoes, in the West Indies, and there the young lieutenant had his first chance to make his mark. The ship fell in with an American letter-of-marque, and the first lieutenant was ordered to board the American ship. A terrific gale was blowing, and the sea ran so high that in spite of the efforts of the lieutenant he was unable to reach the American boat and was forced to return to his own frigate.

The captain, very much disturbed at this failure to land the prize, called the officers to him and asked warmly whether there was not one of them who was able to take possession of the other boat. The lieutenant who had already tried and failed offered to try again, but Nelson pushed his way forward and exclaimed, “No, it’s my turn now. If I come back it will be time for you then.” With a few sailors he jumped into the small boat and ploughed through the seas.

It was a hard tussle to reach the American, and when they did reach her the sea was so high, and the prize lay so deep in the trough of the waves, that Nelson’s boat was swept over the deck of the other vessel, and he had to come back from the other side and fight his way against the high sea before he could finally succeed in climbing on board.

He now had a high reputation for courage and daring at sea fit to equal the name he had won as a skilful mariner. It did not take the captain of the Lowestoffe long to realize that the alertness and enthusiasm of his young lieutenant bespoke a future of the greatest brilliance in his country’s service.

In those days England was really at peace, although her eyes were constantly turned across the Channel and wise men were preparing her for war with France. Nelson was sent into all parts of the world, and no matter what were his orders he always carried them out with such skill that rapid promotion followed every return home. Time and again he fell ill, but he was never despondent, because he was determined to continue in his course and serve his country at any cost to himself. He also saw the war clouds gathering, and realized that it would not be long before he would have the chance to command a squadron against France.

The men who had scoffed at him when he first appeared, a puny boy, at Chatham, found themselves gradually trusting more and more to his advice, and his uncle, who had at first predicted that three months’ service would send Horatio back to shore, was now the first to predict that England would have good cause to be proud of this slightly-built but marvelously active-minded youth.

A boy somewhat younger than Nelson was growing up in Corsica, in France, who was soon to win great battles for the latter country and whose overweaning ambition was finally to plunge his land into a life-and-death struggle with England. That boy was named Napoleon Bonaparte, and when he became supreme in France he realized that it was England who chiefly blocked his schemes at world-wide empire.

He planned to invade England, and to carry his troops across the Channel while the great English war-ships were engaged with his own vessels; but by the time that Napoleon led the troops of France, Horatio Nelson was in command of a British squadron. The French might be all-conquering on land, but the English had yet to be defeated on the seas.

Before the great decisive battle of Trafalgar Nelson sent his famous message to all the men under him: “England expects every man to do his duty!” When the battle was over, the little English admiral had won the greatest naval victory in his country’s history. The same indomitable pluck that had carried him through so many dangers won that great day. He would not be downed, no matter what the odds against him.

The same qualities which had sent the delicate boy of thirteen hurrying through the rain to Chatham, intent only on reaching his goal, brought about the great sea victories of Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson.