Charles Dickens.

Perils of Certain English Prisoners online

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Transcribed from the 1894 Chapman and Hall "Christmas Stories" edition by
David Price, email [email protected]



It was in the year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and forty-four,
that I, Gill Davis to command, His Mark, having then the honour to be a
private in the Royal Marines, stood a-leaning over the bulwarks of the
armed sloop Christopher Columbus, in the South American waters off the
Mosquito shore.

My lady remarks to me, before I go any further, that there is no such
christian-name as Gill, and that her confident opinion is, that the name
given to me in the baptism wherein I was made, &c., was Gilbert. She is
certain to be right, but I never heard of it. I was a foundling child,
picked up somewhere or another, and I always understood my christian-name
to be Gill. It is true that I was called Gills when employed at
Snorridge Bottom betwixt Chatham and Maidstone to frighten birds; but
that had nothing to do with the Baptism wherein I was made, &c., and
wherein a number of things were promised for me by somebody, who let me
alone ever afterwards as to performing any of them, and who, I consider,
must have been the Beadle. Such name of Gills was entirely owing to my
cheeks, or gills, which at that time of my life were of a raspy

My lady stops me again, before I go any further, by laughing exactly in
her old way and waving the feather of her pen at me. That action on her
part, calls to my mind as I look at her hand with the rings on it - Well!
I won't! To be sure it will come in, in its own place. But it's always
strange to me, noticing the quiet hand, and noticing it (as I have done,
you know, so many times) a-fondling children and grandchildren asleep, to
think that when blood and honour were up - there! I won't! not at
present! - Scratch it out.

She won't scratch it out, and quite honourable; because we have made an
understanding that everything is to be taken down, and that nothing that
is once taken down shall be scratched out. I have the great misfortune
not to be able to read and write, and I am speaking my true and faithful
account of those Adventures, and my lady is writing it, word for word.

I say, there I was, a-leaning over the bulwarks of the sloop Christopher
Columbus in the South American waters off the Mosquito shore: a subject
of his Gracious Majesty King George of England, and a private in the
Royal Marines.

In those climates, you don't want to do much. I was doing nothing. I
was thinking of the shepherd (my father, I wonder?) on the hillsides by
Snorridge Bottom, with a long staff, and with a rough white coat in all
weathers all the year round, who used to let me lie in a corner of his
hut by night, and who used to let me go about with him and his sheep by
day when I could get nothing else to do, and who used to give me so
little of his victuals and so much of his staff, that I ran away from
him - which was what he wanted all along, I expect - to be knocked about
the world in preference to Snorridge Bottom. I had been knocked about
the world for nine-and-twenty years in all, when I stood looking along
those bright blue South American Waters. Looking after the shepherd, I
may say. Watching him in a half-waking dream, with my eyes half-shut, as
he, and his flock of sheep, and his two dogs, seemed to move away from
the ship's side, far away over the blue water, and go right down into the

"It's rising out of the water, steady," a voice said close to me. I had
been thinking on so, that it like woke me with a start, though it was no
stranger voice than the voice of Harry Charker, my own comrade.

"What's rising out of the water, steady?" I asked my comrade.

"What?" says he. "The Island."

"O! The Island!" says I, turning my eyes towards it. "True. I forgot
the Island."

"Forgot the port you're going to? That's odd, ain't it?"

"It is odd," says I.

"And odd," he said, slowly considering with himself, "ain't even. Is it,

He had always a remark just like that to make, and seldom another. As
soon as he had brought a thing round to what it was not, he was
satisfied. He was one of the best of men, and, in a certain sort of a
way, one with the least to say for himself. I qualify it, because,
besides being able to read and write like a Quarter-master, he had always
one most excellent idea in his mind. That was, Duty. Upon my soul, I
don't believe, though I admire learning beyond everything, that he could
have got a better idea out of all the books in the world, if he had
learnt them every word, and been the cleverest of scholars.

My comrade and I had been quartered in Jamaica, and from there we had
been drafted off to the British settlement of Belize, lying away West and
North of the Mosquito coast. At Belize there had been great alarm of one
cruel gang of pirates (there were always more pirates than enough in
those Caribbean Seas), and as they got the better of our English cruisers
by running into out-of-the-way creeks and shallows, and taking the land
when they were hotly pressed, the governor of Belize had received orders
from home to keep a sharp look-out for them along shore. Now, there was
an armed sloop came once a-year from Port Royal, Jamaica, to the Island,
laden with all manner of necessaries, to eat, and to drink, and to wear,
and to use in various ways; and it was aboard of that sloop which had
touched at Belize, that I was a-standing, leaning over the bulwarks.

The Island was occupied by a very small English colony. It had been
given the name of Silver-Store. The reason of its being so called, was,
that the English colony owned and worked a silver-mine over on the
mainland, in Honduras, and used this Island as a safe and convenient
place to store their silver in, until it was annually fetched away by the
sloop. It was brought down from the mine to the coast on the backs of
mules, attended by friendly Indians and guarded by white men; from thence
it was conveyed over to Silver-Store, when the weather was fair, in the
canoes of that country; from Silver-Store, it was carried to Jamaica by
the armed sloop once a-year, as I have already mentioned; from Jamaica,
it went, of course, all over the world.

How I came to be aboard the armed sloop, is easily told. Four-and-twenty
marines under command of a lieutenant - that officer's name was
Linderwood - had been told off at Belize, to proceed to Silver-Store, in
aid of boats and seamen stationed there for the chase of the Pirates. The
Island was considered a good post of observation against the pirates,
both by land and sea; neither the pirate ship nor yet her boats had been
seen by any of us, but they had been so much heard of, that the
reinforcement was sent. Of that party, I was one. It included a
corporal and a sergeant. Charker was corporal, and the sergeant's name
was Drooce. He was the most tyrannical non-commissioned officer in His
Majesty's service.

The night came on, soon after I had had the foregoing words with Charker.
All the wonderful bright colours went out of the sea and sky in a few
minutes, and all the stars in the Heavens seemed to shine out together,
and to look down at themselves in the sea, over one another's shoulders,
millions deep. Next morning, we cast anchor off the Island. There was a
snug harbour within a little reef; there was a sandy beach; there were
cocoa-nut trees with high straight stems, quite bare, and foliage at the
top like plumes of magnificent green feathers; there were all the objects
that are usually seen in those parts, and _I_ am not going to describe
them, having something else to tell about.

Great rejoicings, to be sure, were made on our arrival. All the flags in
the place were hoisted, all the guns in the place were fired, and all the
people in the place came down to look at us. One of those Sambo
fellows - they call those natives Sambos, when they are half-negro and
half-Indian - had come off outside the reef, to pilot us in, and remained
on board after we had let go our anchor. He was called Christian George
King, and was fonder of all hands than anybody else was. Now, I confess,
for myself, that on that first day, if I had been captain of the
Christopher Columbus, instead of private in the Royal Marines, I should
have kicked Christian George King - who was no more a Christian than he
was a King or a George - over the side, without exactly knowing why,
except that it was the right thing to do.

But, I must likewise confess, that I was not in a particularly pleasant
humour, when I stood under arms that morning, aboard the Christopher
Columbus in the harbour of the Island of Silver-Store. I had had a hard
life, and the life of the English on the Island seemed too easy and too
gay to please me. "Here you are," I thought to myself, "good scholars
and good livers; able to read what you like, able to write what you like,
able to eat and drink what you like, and spend what you like, and do what
you like; and much _you_ care for a poor, ignorant Private in the Royal
Marines! Yet it's hard, too, I think, that you should have all the half-
pence, and I all the kicks; you all the smooth, and I all the rough; you
all the oil, and I all the vinegar." It was as envious a thing to think
as might be, let alone its being nonsensical; but, I thought it. I took
it so much amiss, that, when a very beautiful young English lady came
aboard, I grunted to myself, "Ah! _you_ have got a lover, I'll be bound!"
As if there was any new offence to me in that, if she had!

She was sister to the captain of our sloop, who had been in a poor way
for some time, and who was so ill then that he was obliged to be carried
ashore. She was the child of a military officer, and had come out there
with her sister, who was married to one of the owners of the silver-mine,
and who had three children with her. It was easy to see that she was the
light and spirit of the Island. After I had got a good look at her, I
grunted to myself again, in an even worse state of mind than before,
"I'll be damned, if I don't hate him, whoever he is!"

My officer, Lieutenant Linderwood, was as ill as the captain of the
sloop, and was carried ashore, too. They were both young men of about my
age, who had been delicate in the West India climate. I even took _that_
in bad part. I thought I was much fitter for the work than they were,
and that if all of us had our deserts, I should be both of them rolled
into one. (It may be imagined what sort of an officer of marines I
should have made, without the power of reading a written order. And as
to any knowledge how to command the sloop - Lord! I should have sunk her
in a quarter of an hour!)

However, such were my reflections; and when we men were ashore and
dismissed, I strolled about the place along with Charker, making my
observations in a similar spirit.

It was a pretty place: in all its arrangements partly South American and
partly English, and very agreeable to look at on that account, being like
a bit of home that had got chipped off and had floated away to that spot,
accommodating itself to circumstances as it drifted along. The huts of
the Sambos, to the number of five-and-twenty, perhaps, were down by the
beach to the left of the anchorage. On the right was a sort of barrack,
with a South American Flag and the Union Jack, flying from the same
staff, where the little English colony could all come together, if they
saw occasion. It was a walled square of building, with a sort of
pleasure-ground inside, and inside that again a sunken block like a
powder magazine, with a little square trench round it, and steps down to
the door. Charker and I were looking in at the gate, which was not
guarded; and I had said to Charker, in reference to the bit like a powder
magazine, "That's where they keep the silver you see;" and Charker had
said to me, after thinking it over, "And silver ain't gold. Is it,
Gill?" when the beautiful young English lady I had been so bilious about,
looked out of a door, or a window - at all events looked out, from under a
bright awning. She no sooner saw us two in uniform, than she came out so
quickly that she was still putting on her broad Mexican hat of plaited
straw when we saluted.

"Would you like to come in," she said, "and see the place? It is rather
a curious place."

We thanked the young lady, and said we didn't wish to be troublesome;
but, she said it could be no trouble to an English soldier's daughter, to
show English soldiers how their countrymen and country-women fared, so
far away from England; and consequently we saluted again, and went in.
Then, as we stood in the shade, she showed us (being as affable as
beautiful), how the different families lived in their separate houses,
and how there was a general house for stores, and a general reading-room,
and a general room for music and dancing, and a room for Church; and how
there were other houses on the rising ground called the Signal Hill,
where they lived in the hotter weather.

"Your officer has been carried up there," she said, "and my brother, too,
for the better air. At present, our few residents are dispersed over
both spots: deducting, that is to say, such of our number as are always
going to, or coming from, or staying at, the Mine."

("_He_ is among one of those parties," I thought, "and I wish somebody
would knock his head off.")

"Some of our married ladies live here," she said, "during at least half
the year, as lonely as widows, with their children."

"Many children here, ma'am?"

"Seventeen. There are thirteen married ladies, and there are eight like

There were not eight like her - there was not one like her - in the world.
She meant single.

"Which, with about thirty Englishmen of various degrees," said the young
lady, "form the little colony now on the Island. I don't count the
sailors, for they don't belong to us. Nor the soldiers," she gave us a
gracious smile when she spoke of the soldiers, "for the same reason."

"Nor the Sambos, ma'am," said I.


"Under your favour, and with your leave, ma'am," said I, "are they

"Perfectly! We are all very kind to them, and they are very grateful to

"Indeed, ma'am? Now - Christian George King? - "

"Very much attached to us all. Would die for us."

She was, as in my uneducated way I have observed, very beautiful women
almost always to be, so composed, that her composure gave great weight to
what she said, and I believed it.

Then, she pointed out to us the building like a powder magazine, and
explained to us in what manner the silver was brought from the mine, and
was brought over from the mainland, and was stored here. The Christopher
Columbus would have a rich lading, she said, for there had been a great
yield that year, a much richer yield than usual, and there was a chest of
jewels besides the silver.

When we had looked about us, and were getting sheepish, through fearing
we were troublesome, she turned us over to a young woman, English born
but West India bred, who served her as her maid. This young woman was
the widow of a non-commissioned officer in a regiment of the line. She
had got married and widowed at St. Vincent, with only a few months
between the two events. She was a little saucy woman, with a bright pair
of eyes, rather a neat little foot and figure, and rather a neat little
turned-up nose. The sort of young woman, I considered at the time, who
appeared to invite you to give her a kiss, and who would have slapped
your face if you accepted the invitation.

I couldn't make out her name at first; for, when she gave it in answer to
my inquiry, it sounded like Beltot, which didn't sound right. But, when
we became better acquainted - which was while Charker and I were drinking
sugar-cane sangaree, which she made in a most excellent manner - I found
that her Christian name was Isabella, which they shortened into Bell, and
that the name of the deceased non-commissioned officer was Tott. Being
the kind of neat little woman it was natural to make a toy of - I never
saw a woman so like a toy in my life - she had got the plaything name of
Belltott. In short, she had no other name on the island. Even Mr.
Commissioner Pordage (and _he_ was a grave one!) formally addressed her
as Mrs. Belltott, but, I shall come to Mr. Commissioner Pordage

The name of the captain of the sloop was Captain Maryon, and therefore it
was no news to hear from Mrs. Belltott, that his sister, the beautiful
unmarried young English lady, was Miss Maryon. The novelty was, that her
christian-name was Marion too. Marion Maryon. Many a time I have run
off those two names in my thoughts, like a bit of verse. Oh many, and
many, and many a time!

We saw out all the drink that was produced, like good men and true, and
then took our leaves, and went down to the beach. The weather was
beautiful; the wind steady, low, and gentle; the island, a picture; the
sea, a picture; the sky, a picture. In that country there are two rainy
seasons in the year. One sets in at about our English Midsummer; the
other, about a fortnight after our English Michaelmas. It was the
beginning of August at that time; the first of these rainy seasons was
well over; and everything was in its most beautiful growth, and had its
loveliest look upon it.

"They enjoy themselves here," I says to Charker, turning surly again.
"This is better than private-soldiering."

We had come down to the beach, to be friendly with the boat's-crew who
were camped and hutted there; and we were approaching towards their
quarters over the sand, when Christian George King comes up from the
landing-place at a wolf's-trot, crying, "Yup, So-Jeer!" - which was that
Sambo Pilot's barbarous way of saying, Hallo, Soldier! I have stated
myself to be a man of no learning, and, if I entertain prejudices, I hope
allowance may be made. I will now confess to one. It may be a right one
or it may be a wrong one; but, I never did like Natives, except in the
form of oysters.

So, when Christian George King, who was individually unpleasant to me
besides, comes a trotting along the sand, clucking, "Yup, So-Jeer!" I
had a thundering good mind to let fly at him with my right. I certainly
should have done it, but that it would have exposed me to reprimand.

"Yup, So-Jeer!" says he. "Bad job."

"What do you mean?" says I.

"Yup, So-Jeer!" says he, "Ship Leakee."

"Ship leaky?" says I.

"Iss," says he, with a nod that looked as if it was jerked out of him by
a most violent hiccup - which is the way with those savages.

I cast my eyes at Charker, and we both heard the pumps going aboard the
sloop, and saw the signal run up, "Come on board; hands wanted from the
shore." In no time some of the sloop's liberty-men were already running
down to the water's edge, and the party of seamen, under orders against
the Pirates, were putting off to the Columbus in two boats.

"O Christian George King sar berry sorry!" says that Sambo vagabond,
then. "Christian George King cry, English fashion!" His English fashion
of crying was to screw his black knuckles into his eyes, howl like a dog,
and roll himself on his back on the sand. It was trying not to kick him,
but I gave Charker the word, "Double-quick, Harry!" and we got down to
the water's edge, and got on board the sloop.

By some means or other, she had sprung such a leak, that no pumping would
keep her free; and what between the two fears that she would go down in
the harbour, and that, even if she did not, all the supplies she had
brought for the little colony would be destroyed by the sea-water as it
rose in her, there was great confusion. In the midst of it, Captain
Maryon was heard hailing from the beach. He had been carried down in his
hammock, and looked very bad; but he insisted on being stood there on his
feet; and I saw him, myself, come off in the boat, sitting upright in the
stern-sheets, as if nothing was wrong with him.

A quick sort of council was held, and Captain Maryon soon resolved that
we must all fall to work to get the cargo out, and that when that was
done, the guns and heavy matters must be got out, and that the sloop must
be hauled ashore, and careened, and the leak stopped. We were all
mustered (the Pirate-Chace party volunteering), and told off into
parties, with so many hours of spell and so many hours of relief, and we
all went at it with a will. Christian George King was entered one of the
party in which I worked, at his own request, and he went at it with as
good a will as any of the rest. He went at it with so much heartiness,
to say the truth, that he rose in my good opinion almost as fast as the
water rose in the ship. Which was fast enough, and faster.

Mr. Commissioner Pordage kept in a red-and-black japanned box, like a
family lump-sugar box, some document or other, which some Sambo chief or
other had got drunk and spilt some ink over (as well as I could
understand the matter), and by that means had given up lawful possession
of the Island. Through having hold of this box, Mr. Pordage got his
title of Commissioner. He was styled Consul too, and spoke of himself as

He was a stiff-jointed, high-nosed old gentleman, without an ounce of fat
on him, of a very angry temper and a very yellow complexion. Mrs.
Commissioner Pordage, making allowance for difference of sex, was much
the same. Mr. Kitten, a small, youngish, bald, botanical and
mineralogical gentleman, also connected with the mine - but everybody
there was that, more or less - was sometimes called by Mr. Commissioner
Pordage, his Vice-commissioner, and sometimes his Deputy-consul. Or
sometimes he spoke of Mr. Kitten, merely as being "under Government."

The beach was beginning to be a lively scene with the preparations for
careening the sloop, and with cargo, and spars, and rigging, and water-
casks, dotted about it, and with temporary quarters for the men rising up
there out of such sails and odds and ends as could be best set on one
side to make them, when Mr. Commissioner Pordage comes down in a high
fluster, and asks for Captain Maryon. The Captain, ill as he was, was
slung in his hammock betwixt two trees, that he might direct; and he
raised his head, and answered for himself.

"Captain Maryon," cries Mr. Commissioner Pordage, "this is not official.
This is not regular."

"Sir," says the Captain, "it hath been arranged with the clerk and
supercargo, that you should be communicated with, and requested to render
any little assistance that may lie in your power. I am quite certain
that hath been duly done."

"Captain Maryon," replied Mr. Commissioner Pordage, "there hath been no
written correspondence. No documents have passed, no memoranda have been
made, no minutes have been made, no entries and counter-entries appear in
the official muniments. This is indecent. I call upon you, sir, to
desist, until all is regular, or Government will take this up."

"Sir," says Captain Maryon, chafing a little, as he looked out of his
hammock; "between the chances of Government taking this up, and my ship
taking herself down, I much prefer to trust myself to the former."

"You do, sir?" cries Mr. Commissioner Pordage.

"I do, sir," says Captain Maryon, lying down again.

"Then, Mr. Kitten," says the Commissioner, "send up instantly for my
Diplomatic coat."

He was dressed in a linen suit at that moment; but, Mr. Kitten started
off himself and brought down the Diplomatic coat, which was a blue cloth
one, gold-laced, and with a crown on the button.

"Now, Mr. Kitten," says Pordage, "I instruct you, as Vice-commissioner,
and Deputy-consul of this place, to demand of Captain Maryon, of the
sloop Christopher Columbus, whether he drives me to the act of putting
this coat on?"

"Mr. Pordage," says Captain Maryon, looking out of his hammock again, "as
I can hear what you say, I can answer it without troubling the gentleman.
I should be sorry that you should be at the pains of putting on too hot a
coat on my account; but, otherwise, you may put it on hind-side before,
or inside-out, or with your legs in the sleeves, or your head in the
skirts, for any objection that I have to offer to your thoroughly
pleasing yourself."

"Very good, Captain Maryon," says Pordage, in a tremendous passion. "Very
good, sir. Be the consequences on your own head! Mr. Kitten, as it has
come to this, help me on with it."

When he had given that order, he walked off in the coat, and all our

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