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THE YARD-ARM DUEL.
BY E. HOWARD, ESO., AUTHOR OF
RATTLIN THE REEFER," &c. &c.
It is in his Majesty's navy that everything that is worth perfecting is carried into perfection. I will always maintain it. It is a faith in which I was bred, and in which I hope to die. Don't talk to me about your along-shore duels. Paltry affairs ! What are slugs in a saw-pit? Sordid murders in a dust-hole. Your ten or twelve paces ? A drivelling method of homicide. Your holding a handkerchief in one hand, and presenting a pistol at each other's brains,-I mean brain-panswith the other? What is this but two fools at each end of a rag, and, if there be seconds, two scoundrels looking on? 'Tis true, and “ pity 'tis 'tis true,” as old Polonius says, that your regular seaman sometimes becomes so far debased as to fight à duel à l'ordinaire, but it is only through the force of bad example, a contamination from the steam of the land. I am rather surprised at him, when he has yet his own legitimate method of settling his disputes. For, surely, he has an equal right to call out his landsman foe to the yard-arm, as his landsman foe has to call him out into the field.
Let no one suppose that I am about to sneer at the practice of duelling, or to call the practised duellist anything but a most respectable character. To be sure there can be no doubt that, if any man allows himself to be forced, by some bully, into a duel, he has committed a grave, a very grave crime. What right has an amiable private gentleman tu hazard his valuable life, and bring down an irremediable calamity upon his family, until he have learned, and made himself a perfect master of, the art of private assassination, as it is practised in civilized society? Not the least in the world. When he has put himself on a par with the initiated bravo, let him then fight, not in God's name, nor in his own, if it has been at all honourable, but in the name of_never mind-it is a matter of opinion.
We are getting rid, at a glorious rate, of all our prejudices. Jack Ketch the hangman, and the public executioners all over the world, will soon relieve themselves from the opprobrium attached to their dignified profession. It is now taken up by commoners, peers,
and princes. Everybody is making the discovery that he has a right to supplant Mr. Ketch, and execute a sentence of death against any one who offends him in his individual capacity; and moralists, and even some divines, will tell you that a little of this usurping of the hangman's duties is necessary for the preservation of the decencies and amiabilities of social life. Who doubts it? I don't for a moment. But it is the manner of the thing—the manner of the thing! ay, there's the rub.
Now, suppose that it be necessary and just to put me to death, for insinuating that a notorious scoundrel, who
have a certain status in society, is neither an Aristides in justice, nor a Fénelon in morals. If I suffer for this high crime,-a sacrifice for the decencies of social
life, and my sentence be despatched by the public executioner,-it will be done in a business-like manner, and in as satisfactory a way as a thing of the sort can be performed ; but when the act is left tc the skill of this said notorious scoundrel, it is a thousand chances to one but that he will do it in a bungling manner,-he will either mangle me, or mutilate me,-or, what is still worse than death, peradvenire, make me a cripple for life. This certainly cannot be right, or, at least, one may be allowed doubts upon the question.
As to a duel being a wager of battle--a sort of heavenly, or human, or hellish ordeal to avenge a wrong, or to establish a right-we all know that is sheer nonsense ; for it is impossible that a duel can be fought exactly on fair and equal terms. If, with the weapon used, one party be in the least more expert than the other, the advantage must make the death assassination on the part of the more skilled,--and the depth of the guilt will be in proportion to the excess of the skill employed in committing it.
Now, taking all other things into consideration, and being myself a strenuous advocate for duelling, "and the preservation of the decencies and amiabilities of social life," Į think that two things should be established by law. Firstly, that, as the duellist must be looked upon, in his publie capacity, as the conservator of the refinement of the manners of society, and the elegant public executioner of the offenders against them, no man should be permitted to fight a duel until he had passed an examination, taken out a degree, and given satisfactory proof that he was as certain to drop his subject with his aim, as John Ketch is to drop his with his noose. Licentiates in this profession should wear an honorary badge upon the right arm, and, in all public processions, follow next after the great finisher of the law, taking precedence of all bis assistants.
Secondly: As we well know that, in spite of this wholesome regulation, quarrels will arise suddenly upon the heat of the moment, and nothing but an exchange of lead will satisfy the rancour of heart, it should be enacted that all such duels should be fought immediately, yard-arm fashion, in the nautical manner. If the parties be within fourteen miles of any square-rigged vessel, they should be compelled to repair to it and decide the matter at once; but inland, all over the kingdom, there should be, at stated intervals, as near the whipping-post and public stocks as possible, two poles, set erect in the middle of a horsepond, and at a proper height there should be rigged across, two other poles something resembling yards, taking care that the footing should be deemed sufficiently unstable. From the end of these the combatants should fire at each other, until one or the other, or both of them, fell into the horse-pond beneath, which tumble should be deemed “ine satisfaction that one gentleman had a right to demand of the other," and no further proceedings to be taken in the matter, than having recourse to a sufficiency of hot gruel and warm blankets.
Having thus provided for the duelling of the kingdom, both in its public and private aspect; for the information of the curious, and the instruction of the pugnacious, I shall now proceed to show the manner in which a yard-arm duel (the only kind of duel which I hope shortly will be permitted in England) is actually fought. When I say the only kind of duel, I always speak sauf aux droits of the licentiate dueller, and there is only one way in which he can possibly be fought with-as thus :
Supposing any blackguard insults a gentleman grossly, and he will make no amende honorable. Of course, the gentleman will not so far degrade himself as to invite his insulter to the yard-arm, either on shipboard, or over the horse-pond—but he will repair to the licentiateduellist, and, giving him his fee—ten guineas, or thereabouts, will say to him,—“Mr. Bobadil, extract me an apology out of that jackanapes, or kill him off for me legally and scientifically.” There can be no doubt but very few duels of this description will be fought.
No:v, a duel is, abstractedly nothing, absolutely nothing in itself. Let us examine one as it is usually managed at the present day. There is a bow—a word-two sharp reports, simultaneously, or in rapid succession,-one man falls to the earth, and is in eternity,--the other principal and the two seconds walk home quietly. It is a common occurrence,--they hold up their heads, perhaps, a little more proudly, for if there be any common sense in society, they have only deserved its execration, -any security in the laws, they only have deserved to be hung, -any truth in religion, they do but stand a good chance of being damned. You see a duel thus managed is a mere trife, and not at all interesting. But the accessories to it—the leading circumstances. It is on these that depend the excitement and the charm,- for, let the cold-blooded say what they will, there is a charm in shooting, and being shot at-at the end of a yard-arm in a brisk top-gallant breeze.
About a quarter of a century ago, in the very tug of the war, and when the British Channel was covered with privateers from Boulogne, Dunkirk, and Calais, there was a great demand for men-of-war brigs, to protect our merchant vessels, if they could not catch the luggers and the cutters that were so active after them. At this particular period, oak was very dear, and we were forced to husband our resources, both of timber and of time. To effect so desirable an object, the Sir Robert Seppings of the day bought, or caused the Government to buy, a piere of waste land, at the back of one of our dockyards, upon which he built continuously, like an elongated trough, two miles and three quarters of deal brig-not brigs; so, when a new sloop of war was wanting, it was lopped off, and thus the whole length was served out to the navy in junks. There were always, in the dock-yards, ready-made heads and sterns to clap on to them, and thus, a fourteen, sixteen, or eighteen-gun brig, directly it was called into existence, had merely to walk into a ready-made clothes shop, and fit herself with a new bonnet and bussell, and all other necessary toggery. Some of your loiterers about the Admiralty may feel inclined to deny this statement, and affirm that such a class of vessels, and so built, never existed. But, if any one doubt my word, let him ask those who have sailed in them, that's all.
I don't like punning; and so I shall say that it was a great grief to be appointed to one of these pine-built vessels. They had their own peculiar notions of sailing ; they were not fond of the wind; they never hugged it. The little jades were too proud to rise to the sea, so they went through it, and not only thus washed their own faces, but the faces of all who might happen to be on their decks. In fine weather, they were as uncomfortable as vessels could be,-in bad, a great deal more so,--a possible impossibility that you would acknowledge had you ever been in a north-easter off Cherbourg in his Majesty's sloop of war the Water-Wagtail.
She had twelve eighteen-pound carronades, and two long sixes in her eyes. A fussey little craft she was,-like an angry old woman with a wet mop, always flinging the spray about,-she was lopped off from the trough, about a mile and a quarter in-shore; it was a very funny thing to see her chasing a French lugger privateer. She looked, for all the world, like a prim boarding-school miss in all her white muslins trying, with a mincing step, to catch a tattered and active gipsy that was mocking and mowing at her. There were some good hands on board of her, however.
The mention of the gipsy reminds me that I must get on with my tale. I never knew a prediction of these tawny prophetesses that turned out wholly true, or wholly false. With a little straining of the sense of their predictions, they are invariably correct in the words ing --in the spirit, hardly ever so. The yard-arm duel, so memorable in the records of his Majesty's sloop Water-Wagtail, was closely connected with one of these Egyptian prophecies. Those lines about Portsmouth (I don't mean the poem written by
->) are very beautiful, and just outside of them, to the eastward, there are some nice green lanes,-retreats that seem always so paradisaical to a sailor. À party of the officers of the Water-Wagtail was just emerging from one of them, when they were accosted by a genuine sibyl. She was as persuasive as Sin, and as ugly as Death, but with a volubility that would almost have awoke the dead. From an animal of this sort you cannot escape without a vaticination, which you must pay for, or å malediction gratis, which you will fear more than you will confess, and remember far longer than you ought. Of course, she saw in all of us incipient post-captains, and future admirals of all colours, blue, white, and red; and she declared that we were the sweetest batch of young gentlemen that she had ever dropped her old
The party thus addressed and magnified, consisted of four persons : the purser, Mr. Saveounce ; the gunner, Mr. Flinstones ; a wild, handsome, auburn-haired, curly-pated middy, Mr. Darever; and a beneficent-faced, heavy-cheeked, Chinesely-built, goodnatured master'smate, with large red lips, and a remarkably fair
and clear complexion. The purser was undoubtedly a scamp,—an underbred cockney, with the landable ambition of becoming a gentleman, and only a little mistaken in the means. He was greedy, but not yet avaricious, as is too often the case with pursers. He had not yet perfected his characterbeing little more than two-and-twenty ; but, when a man at that age has a stock of greediness to set up with, he need not despair of becoming, at fifty, an accomplished miser. He was remarkably flat-faced, and very presumptuous in his bearing. The
gunner, Mr. Flintstones, was a hard man,-to all outward appearance; had been promoted from before the mast for steady conduct and bravery; had an exalted notion of his own consequence in his Majesty's sloop the Water-Wagtail, and his importance in the world, and seemed to have reduced all his notions of right and wrong to the wording of his appointment, and to have regulated all his sentiments and perceptions, by his printed Gunner's Instructions.
Young Harry Darever was a youth of eighteen, who, if he had not happened to have had the best of hearts, would have been an
insufferable member of society. He invariably acted up to the impulse of the moment, and it was a good thing for himself, and for those about him, that nearly all his impulses took an honourable and a laudable direction.
But Mr. Cimon Swimkin, the master's-mate, was a character that cannot be despatched in a few words. He was as soft and as simple as a milkmaid listening to a ballad about love: his large blue eyes would run over with tears even at the sight of distress; he was always giving, “No” seemed to him to be an impossible word; and he was credulous almost to fatuity, until he was once deceived, and then he was obstinately sceptical towards his deceiver ever after. You might banter him by the hour, and he would smile upon you innocently and blandly, and look most gratefully on you for the ridiculous light in which you were placing him, until he discovered your inhumanity (for it was inhuman), and then, stand clear,-his heavy yet athletic and sturdy frame enabled him to take ample vengeance for every insult. Often has he been seen crying over the rogue whom he had beaten to a stand-still for jeering him, and offering him everything he had to repurchase his friendship. A rascal would have pronounced Swimkin, at once, a born dupe,--and honest men, the best of fellows. Notwithstanding his easiness of temper, and the simplicity of his nature, he did his duty well, and only failed when the superabundance of his milk of human kindness had washed away from his heart that very needful brine that every saltwater sailor should
possess. The cunning old hag, with the instinct of her race, knew her prey directly. His whole bosom was as open to her as his palm. There he stood, with his widely-extended eyes gazing upon the cheat, not only with admiration but with fear; while she held his fat, large, red hand in the filthy clutch of her crooked and bony fingers, that looked more like the claws of a raven than parts of a human hand, he actually trembled beneath her flashing eye, and, obedient to her mandate, extracted with his left hand shilling after shilling from his pocket. At length his messmates interfered.
The woman had given him, for his seven shillings, long life, high rank, uninterrupted health, great wealth, a beautiful and virtuous wife, and a large family of rosy children; even the belief of all this was dirt cheap for the money. Swimkin had certainly laid out his cash to advantage.
But during this progress of vaticination, the purser, who aspired to the character of an esprit fort, was unceasing in his ridicule, which was repaid by the old crone with looks not only ferocious but deadly. Whilst the thrice happy Swimkin was looking upon himself and upon all around, with the heart-cheering complacency of a certainty of good fortune, and a flattering consciousness of deserving it, the gipsy looked about her for some other victim of credulity. There was no hope for her in the stern-featured gunner, and a good deal of danger in the waggish midshipman, Mr. Darever. The purser she had already committed to the tender mercies of Satan, but, as she was just turning round to depart, the latter person said to her, “Here, old Hop-and-go-dirty, I'm a better fist at fortune-telling than yourself. Hand us out your daddle, and I'll tell you whether you'll be hung this year or the next. Don't be spitting and fizzing that way, like a cat at a nonplus; instead of