Tracks of a Rolling Stone

Tracks of a Rolling Stone


The only other passenger was Colonel Frederick Cotton, of the Madras Engineers, one of a distinguished family. He, too, had been through the China campaign, and had also broken down. We touched at Manila, Batavia, Singapore, and several other ports in the Malay Archipelago, to take in cargo.

While that was going on, Cotton, the captain, and I made excursions inland. Altogether I had a most pleasant time of it till we reached Bombay.

My health was now re-established; and after a couple of weeks at Bombay, where I lived in a merchant's house, Cotton took me to Poonah and Ahmadnagar; in both of which places I stayed with his friends, and messed with the regiments. Here a copy of the 'Times' was put into my hands; and I saw a notice of the death of my father.

After a fortnight's quarantine at La Valetta, where two young Englishmen - one an Oxford man - shared the same rooms in the fort with me, we three returned to England; and (I suppose few living people can say the same) travelled from Naples to Calais before there was a single railway on the Continent.

At the end of two months' leave in England I was appointed to the 'Caledonia,' flagship at Plymouth. Sir Thomas Bouchier had written to the Admiral, Sir Edward Codrington, of Navarino fame (whose daughter Sir Thomas afterwards married), giving me 'a character.' Sir Edward sent for me, and was most kind. He told me I was to go to the Pacific in the first ship that left for South America, which would probably be in a week or two; and he gave me a letter to his friend, Admiral Thomas, who commanded on that station.

About this time, and for a year or two later, the relations between England and America were severely strained by what was called 'the Oregon question.' The dispute was concerning the right of ownership of the mouth of the Columbia river, and of Vancouver's Island. The President as well as the American people took the matter up very warmly; and much discretion was needed to avert the outbreak of hostilities.

In Sir Edward's letter, which he read out and gave to me open, he requested Admiral Thomas to put me into any ship 'that was likely to see service'; and quoted a word or two from my dear old captain Sir Thomas, which would probably have given me a lift.

The prospect before me was brilliant. What could be more delectable than the chance of a war? My fancy pictured all sorts of opportunities, turned to the best account, - my seniors disposed of, and myself, with a pair of epaulets, commanding the smartest brig in the service.

Alack-a-day! what a climb down from such high flights my life has been. The ship in which I was to have sailed to the west was suddenly countermanded to the east. She was to leave for China the following week, and I was already appointed to her, not even as a 'super.'

My courage and my ambition were wrecked at a blow. The notion of returning for another three years to China, where all was now peaceful and stale to me, the excitement of the war at an end, every port reminding me of my old comrades, visions of renewed fevers and horrible food, - were more than I could stand.

I instantly made up my mind to leave the Navy. It was a wilful, and perhaps a too hasty, impulse. But I am impulsive by nature; and now that my father was dead, I fancied myself to a certain extent my own master. I knew moreover, by my father's will, that I should not be dependent upon a profession. Knowledge of such a fact has been the ruin of many a better man than I. I have no virtuous superstitions in favour of poverty - quite the reverse - but I am convinced that the rich man, who has never had to earn his position or his living, is more to be pitied and less respected than the poor man whose comforts certainly, if not his bread, have depended on his own exertions.

My mother had a strong will of her own, and I could not guess what line she might take. I also apprehended the opposition of my guardians. On the whole, I opined a woman's heart would be the most suitable for an appeal AD MISERICORDIAM.

So I pulled out the agony stop, and worked the pedals of despair with all the anguish at my command.

'It was easy enough for her to REVEL IN LUXURY and consign me to a life worse than a CONVICT'S. But how would SHE like to live on SALT JUNK, to keep NIGHT WATCHES, to have to cut up her blankets for PONCHOS (I knew she had never heard the word, and that it would tell accordingly), to save her from being FROZEN TO DEATH? How would SHE like to be mast-headed when a ship was rolling gunwale under? As to the wishes of my guardians, were THEIR FEELINGS to be considered before mine? I should like to see Lord Rosebery or Lord Spencer in my place! They'd very soon wish they had a mother who &c. &c.'

When my letter was finished I got leave to go ashore to post it. Feeling utterly miserable, I had my hair cut; and, rendered perfectly reckless by my appearance, I consented to have what was left of it tightly curled with a pair of tongs.

I cannot say that I shared in any sensible degree the pleasure which this operation seemed to give to the artist.

But when I got back to the ship the sight of my adornment kept my messmates in an uproar for the rest of the afternoon.

Whether the touching appeal to my mother produced tears, or of what kind, matters little; it effectually determined my career. Before my new ship sailed for China, I was home again, and in full possession of my coveted freedom as a civilian.

Henry J Coke