Those of my Gentle Readers who are of some long acquaintance will know that I am categorically not a Hemingway fan. But Ernie and I do share our regard for certain authors: his three favorites were Henry Fielding, Frederick Marryat, and Ivan Turgenev, who also inhabit the Olympian summit in my own literary pantheon.
Marryat (1792–1848) is most frequently regarded by Brit Lit majors as a comic novelist, after Fielding and Smollett, but for us mere fans, his claim to fame is much greater: he invented the nautical adventure genre, and is the direct literary ancestor of C. S. Forester, Alexander Kent, and Patrick O’Brian. Marryat’s invention of the genre was based on his own experience as a naval officer during the Napoleonic Wars — in fact, he was a midshipman under Lord Cochrane, the most illustrious of all the British frigate captains. Being a naval creature myself, I confess that Marryat is one of my heroes.
The excerpt below is from Marryat’s second novel, The King’s Own. As indicated, he wrote the book while at sea. But his essay, which has nothing whatsoever to do with the story in the novel and is unrelated to anything in the book which precedes or follows it, is one author’s answer to that ever-popular question, Where do you get your ideas?
Because this essay is about four times longer than one of my regular columns, I’ve reduced the size of the font to squeeze it in. I would have divided it into more than one column if I could have figured out where to interrupt Marryat’s stream of consciousness.
by Captain Frederick Marryat, R.N.
Great Negative! how vainly would the wise
Inquire, define, distinguish, teach, devise,
Didst thou not stand to point their dull philosophies.
–ROCHESTER’S ODE TO NOTHING.
SHOULD you feel half as tired with reading as I am with writing, I forgive you with all my heart if you throw down the book and read no more. I have written too fast—I have quite sprained my imagination—for you must know that this is all fiction, every word of it. Yet I do not doubt but there are many who will find out who the characters are meant for, notwithstanding my assertion to the contrary. Well, be it so. It’s a very awkward position to have to write a chapter of sixteen pages, without materials for more than two; at least, I find it so. Some people have the power of spinning out a trifle of matter, covering a large surface with a grain of ore; like the goldbeater, who out of a single guinea will compose a score of books. I wish I could.
Is there nothing to give me an idea? I’ve racked my sensorium internally to no purpose. Let me look round the cabin for some external object to act as a fillip to an exhausted imagination. A little thing will do. Well, here’s an ant. That’s quite enough. Commençons.
“Home-keeping youths have ever homely wits,” they say; but much as travel by land may enlarge the mind, it never can be expanded to the utmost of its capabilities until it has also peregrinated by water. I believe that not only the human intellect, but the instinct of brutes, is enlarged by going to sea.
The ant which attracted my attention is one of a nest in my cabin, whose labours I often superintend; and I defy any ant in any part of the four continents, or wherever land may be, to show an equal knowledge of mechanical power. I do not mean to assert that there is originally a disproportion of intellect between one animal and another of the same species; but I consider that the instinct of animals is capable of expansion, as well as the reason of man. The ants on shore would, if it were required, be equally assisted by their instinct, I believe; but not being required, it is not brought into play, and therefore, as I before observed, they have not the resources of which my little colony at present are in possession.
Now I will kill a cockroach for them; there is no difficulty in finding one, unfortunately for me, for they know everything that I have. There never was a class of animals so indifferent to their fare, whether it be paper, or snuff, or soap, or cloth. Like Time, they devour everything. The scoundrels have nearly demolished two dozen antibilious pills. I hope they will remember Dr. Vance as long as they live.
Well, here’s one-a fine one. I throw his crushed carcass on the deck, and observe the ants have made their nest in the beams over my head, from which I infer that the said beams are not quite so sound as they should be. An ant has passed by the carcass, and is off on a gallop to give notice. He meets two or three, stops a second, and passes on. Now the tide flows; it’s not above a minute since I threw the cockroach down, and now it is surrounded by hundreds. What a bustle! what running to and fro! They must be giving orders. See, there are fifty at least, who lay hold of each separate leg of the monster, who in bulk is equal to eight thousand of them. The body moves along with rapidity, and they have gained the side of the cabin. Now for the ascent. See how those who hold the lower legs have quitted them, and pass over to assist the others at the upper. As there is not room for all to lay hold of the creature’s legs, those who cannot, fix their forceps round the bodies of the others, double-banking them, as we call it. Away they go, up the side of the ship-a steady pull, and all together. But now the work becomes more perilous, for they have to convey the body to their nest over my head, which is three feet from the side of the ship. How can they possibly carry that immense weight, walking with their heads downwards, and clinging with their feet to the beams? Observe how carefully they turn the corner-what bustle and confusion in making their arrangements! Now they start. They have brought the body head-and-stern with the ship, so that all the legs are exactly opposed to each other in the direction in which they wish to proceed. One of the legs on the foreside is advanced to its full stretch, while all the others remain stationary. That leg stops, and the ants attached to it hold on with the rest, while another of the foremost legs is advanced. Thus they continue until all the foremost are out, and the body of the animal is suspended by its legs at its full stretch. Now one of the hindmost legs closes in to the body, while all the others hold on-now another, and another, each in their turn; and by this skilful manoeuvre they have contrived to advance the body nearly an inch along the ceiling. One of the foremost legs advances again, and they proceed as before. Could your shore-going ants have managed this? I have often watched them when a boy, because my grandmother used to make me do so; in later days, because I delighted in their industry and perseverance; but alas! in neither case did I profit by their example.
“Now, Freddy,” the old lady would say, giving her spectacles a preparatory wipe, as she basked in a summer evening’s sun after a five o’clock tea, “fetch a piece of bread and butter, and we will see the ants work. Lord bless the boy, if he hasn’t thrown down a whole slice. Why do you waste good victuals in that way? Who do you think’s to eat it after it has been on the gravel? There, pinch a bit off and throw it down. Put the rest back upon the plate—it will do for the cat.”
But these ants were no more to be compared to mine than a common labourer is to the engineer who directs the mechanical powers which raise mountains from their foundation. My old grandmother would never let me escape until the bread and butter was in the hole, and what was worse, I had then to listen to the moral inference which was drawn, and which took up more time than the ants did to draw the bread and butter—all about industry, and what not—a long story, partly her own, partly borrowed from Solomon; but it was labour in vain. I could not understand why, because ants like bread and butter, I must like my book. She was an excellent old woman; but nevertheless, many a time did I have a fellow-feeling with the boy in the caricature print, who is sitting with his old grandmother and the cat, and says, “I wish one of us three were dead. It an’t I—and it an’t you, pussy.”
Well, she died at last, full of years and honour; and I was summoned from school to attend her funeral. My uncle was much affected for she had been an excellent mother. She might have been so; but I, graceless boy, could not perceive her merits as a grandmother, and showed a great deal of fortitude upon the occasion. I recollect a circumstance attendant upon her funeral which, connected as it was with a subsequent one, has since been the occasion of serious reflection upon the trifling causes which will affect the human mind when prostrate under affliction. My grandmother’s remains were consigned to an old family vault not far from the river. When the last ceremonies had been paid, and the coffin was being lowered into the deep receptacle of generations which had passed away, I looked down, and it was full of water, nearly up to the arch of the vault. Observing my surprise, and perceiving the cause, my uncle was much annoyed at the circumstance; but it was too late—the cords had been removed, and my grandmother had sunk to the bottom.
My uncle interrogated the sexton after the funeral service was over. “Why, sir, it’s because it’s high-water now in the river; she will be all dry before the evening.”
This made the matter worse. If she was all a-dry in the evening, she would be all afloat again in the morning. It was no longer a place of rest, and my uncle’s grief was much increased by the idea. For a long while afterwards he appeared uncommonly thoughtful at spring tides.
But although his grief yielded to time, the impression was not to be effaced. Many years afterwards a fair cousin was summoned from the world before she had time to enter upon the duties imposed upon the sex, or be convinced, from painful experience, that to die is gain. It was then I perceived that my uncle had contracted a sort of post-mortem hydrophobia. He fixed upon a church, on the top of a hill, and ordered a vault to be dug, at a great expense, out of the solid chalk, under the chancel of the church. There it would not only be dry below, but even defended from the rain above. It was finished, and (the last moisture to which she was ever to be subjected) the tears of affection were shed over her remains by those who lost and loved her. When the ceremony was over, my uncle appeared to look down into the vault with a degree of satisfaction. “There,” said he, “she will he as dry as possible till the end of time.” And I really believe that this conviction on his part went further to console him than even the aid of religion or the ministering of affection. He often commented upon it, and as often as he did so, I thought of my old grandmother and the spring tides.
I had an odd dream the other night about my own burial and subsequent state, which was so diametrically opposite to my uncle’s ideas of comfort, that I will relate it here.
I was dead; but either from politeness or affection, I knew not which, the spirit still lingered with the body, and had not yet taken its flight, although the tie between them had been dissolved. I had been killed in action; and the first lieutenant of the ship, with mingled feelings of sorrow and delight—sorrow at my death, which was a tribute that I did not expect from him, and delight at his assumed promotion, for the combat had been brought to a successful issue—read the funeral service which consigned me and some twenty others, sewed up in hammocks, to the deep, into which we descended with one simultaneous rush.
I thought that we soon parted company from each other, and, all alone, I continued to sink, sink, sink, until at last I could sink no deeper. I was suspended, as it were: I had taken my exact position in the scale of gravity, and I lay floating upon the condensed and buoyant fluid, many hundred fathoms below the surface. I thought to myself, “Here, then, am I to lie in pickle until I am awakened.” It was quite dark, but by the spirit I saw; as plain as if it were noonday; and I perceived objects in the water, which gradually increased in size. They were sharks in search of prey. They attacked me furiously; and as they endeavoured to drag me out of my canvas cerements, I whirled round and round as their flat noses struck against my sides. At last they succeeded. In a moment I was dismembered without the least pain, for pain had been left behind me in the world from which I had been released. One separated a leg with his sharp teeth, and darted away north; another an arm, and steered south; each took his portion, and appeared to steer away in a different direction, as if he did not wish to be interrupted in his digestion.
“Help yourselves, gentlemen, help yourselves,” mentally exclaimed I; “but if Mr. Young is correct in his ‘Night Thoughts,’ where am I to fumble for my bones when they are to be forthcoming?” Nothing was left but my head, and that, from superior gravity, continued to sink, gyrating in its descent, so as to make me feel quite giddy; but it had not gone far before one, who had not received his portion, darted down upon it perpendicularly, and as the last fragment of me rolled down his enormous gullet, the spirit fled, and all was darkness and oblivion.
But I have digressed sadly from the concatenation of ideas. The ant made me think of my grandmother, my grandmother of my uncle, my uncle of my cousin, and her death of my dream, for “We are such stuff as dreams are made of, and our little lives are rounded with a sleep.” But I had not finished all I had to say relative to the inferior animals. When on board of a man-of-war, not only is their instinct expanded, but they almost change their nature from their immediate contact with human beings, and become tame in an incredibly short space of time. Man had dominion given unto him over the beasts of the field; the fiercest of the feline race will not attack, but avoid him, unless goaded on by the most imperious demands of hunger; and it is a well-known fact, that there is a power in the eye of man to which all other animals quail. What, then, must it be to an animal who is brought on board, and is in immediate collision with hundreds, whose fearless eyes meet his in every direction in which he turns, and whose behaviour towards him corresponds with their undaunted looks? The animal is subdued at once. I remember a leopard which was permitted to run loose after he had been three days on board, although it was thought necessary to bring him in an iron cage. He had not been in the ship more than a fortnight, when I observed the captain of the after-guard rubbing the nose of the animal against the deck for some offence which he had committed.
“Why, you have pretty well brought that gentleman to his bearings,” observed I; “he’s as tame as a puppy.”
“Tame! why, sir, he knows better than to be otherwise. I wish the Hemp’rer of Maroccy would send us on board a cock rhinoceros—we’d tame him in a week.”
And I believe the man was correct in his assertion.
The most remarkable change of habit that I ever witnessed was in a wether sheep, on board of a frigate, during the last war. He was one of a stock which the captain had taken on board for a long cruise, and being the only survivor, during the time that the ship was refitting he had been allowed to run about the decks, and had become such a favourite with the ship’s company, that the idea of his being killed, even when short of fresh provisions, never even entered into the head of the captain. Jack, for such was his cognomen, lived entirely with the men, being fed with biscuit from the different messes. He knew the meaning of the different pipes of the boatswain’s mates, and always went below when they piped to breakfast, dinner, or supper. But amongst other peculiarities, he would chew tobacco and drink grog. Is it to be wondered, therefore, that he was a favourite with the sailors? That he at first did this from obedience is possible; but, eventually, he was as fond of grog as any of the men; and when the pipe gave notice of serving it out, he would run aft to the tub, and wait his turn-for an extra half-pint of water was, by general consent, thrown into the tub when the grog was mixed, that Jack might have his regular allowance. From habit, the animal knew exactly when his turn came. There were eighteen messes in the ship; and as they were called, by the purser’s steward or sergeant of marines, in rotation-first mess, second mess, &c.—after the last mess was called Jack presented himself at the tub and received his allowance.
Now, it sometimes occurred that a mess, when called, would miss its turn, by the man deputed to receive the liquor not being present; upon which occasion the other messes were served in rotation, and the one who had not appeared to the call was obliged to wait till after all the rest; but a circumstance of this kind always created a great deal of mirth; for the sheep, who knew that it was his turn after the eighteenth, or last mess, would butt away any one who attempted to interfere; and if the party persevered in being served before Jack, he would become quite outrageous, flying at the offender, and butting him forward into the galley, and sometimes down the hatchway, before his anger could be appeased—from which it would appear that the animal was passionately fond of spirits. This I consider as great a change in the nature of a ruminating animal as can well be imagined.
I could mention many instances of this kind, but I shall reserve them till I have grown older; then I will be as garrulous as Montaigne. As it is, I think I hear the reader say, “All may be very true, but what has it to do with the novel?” Nothing, I grant; but it has a great deal to do with making a book, for I have completed a whole chapter out of nothing.