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A short story by James Runciman

The Veteran

Title:     The Veteran
Author: James Runciman [More Titles by Runciman]

In the mornings a chair used to be placed on the cliff-side facing the sea, and towards ten o'clock a very old man would walk slowly down the village street and take his seat. A little shelf held his pipe and tobacco-jar, and he would sit and smoke contentedly until the afternoon. The children used to play around him with perfect confidence, although he seldom spoke to them. His face looked as if it were roughly carved out of stone, and his complexion was of a deep rich brown. On his watch-chain he wore several trinkets, and he was specially proud of one thin disk: this was the Nile medal; for the old man had been in the fight at Aboukir. He seldom spoke about his experience of life on board a man-of-war; he was far more interested in bestowing appreciative criticism on the little coasters that flitted past northward and southward, and in saying severe things about the large screw colliers. But although he had little to tell about his fighting experiences, he was a hero none the less. He lived in a little white cottage at the high end of the Green, and a woman came every morning to attend to his simple wants; for his old wife had died long ago. He was lonely, and not much noticed outside the village; yet he had done, in his time, one of the finest things known in the history of bravery.

The Veteran lived happily in his way. He had made some money in a small sloop with which he used to run round to the Firth; good things were sent to him from the Hall; and the head gardener had orders to let him have whatever fruit and vegetables he wanted. He had no wish to see populous places: his uneventful life was varied enough for his desires. If he were properly coaxed, he was willing to tell many things about Nelson; but, strange to say, he was not fond of the great Admiral. Collingwood was his man, and he always spoke with reverence about the north-country sailor. He cared very little for glory; and he estimated men on the simple principle that one kind man is worth twenty clever ones and a hundred plucky ones. The story of his acquaintance with Collingwood and Nelson was strange. In 1797 the Veteran was just nineteen years old; but he had already got command of a little sloop that plied up the Firth, and he was accounted one of the best sailors on the coast. His father was a hearty man of eight-and-forty, and had retired from the sea.

Now it happened that the wealthiest shipowner of the little port had a very wild and unsteady son, who was a ship captain and sailed one of his father's vessels. The shipowner was anxious to see some steady man sail with his lad; so he asked the Veteran's father to go as mate of a barque which the son was going to take out to Genoa. The terms offered were so very tempting that the old man decided to take another short spell of the sea; and when the Veteran next brought his little sloop on to the Hard, he found his father had run round to Hull in the barque. The young captain, of whom the old man had taken charge, behaved very badly during the southerly trip, and in the end had delirium tremens. During the whole of the night the madman divided his time between giving contradictory orders and crying out with fear of the dreadful things which he said were chasing him. On the night after the vessel brought up at Hull he staggered aboard, and stumbled into the cabin. Sitting down at the table, he set himself deliberately to insult his mate, who had been quietly reading. He called the old man a pig, and asked him why he had not gone to his sty. Finding that all his insults were received with good humour, he grew bolder, and at last went round the table and hit out heavily. A white mark appeared on the mate's cheek where the blow landed, and in return he delivered a tremendous right-hander full in the captain's face. The bully was lifted off his feet and fell against the cabin-door, crashing one of the panels out. He rose, wiped the blood from his mouth, and went ashore.

The lieutenant of a frigate which was lying in the harbour was ashore with a press-gang. The drunkard went and declared that the Veteran's father had been insubordinate, and showed a bruised face in evidence. So in the grey of the morning the naval officer and half-a-dozen seamen came under the barque's quarter and climbed aboard. The old man was walking the deck, being very much perturbed about the last night's affray, and he grasped the whole situation at once. He picked up a handspike and got ready to defend himself; but the seamen made a rush, and a blow with the flat of a heavy cutlass knocked the old sailor senseless. When he came to himself he found that he was on board the guardship.

Two days after the Veteran was strolling along the quay in all the glory of white duck and blue pilot cloth. (Sailors were great dandies in those days, and every one of the little ports from the Firth to the Foreland had its own particular fashion in the matter of go-ashore rig.) The Veteran was going to be married as soon as his next trip was over; and on this particular evening he intended to stroll through the lanes and see his sweetheart, who was a farmer's daughter. A fine southerly breeze was blowing, and a little fishing smack crossed the bar and ran up the harbour, lying hard over with press of sail. The Veteran had the curiosity to wait until the little craft had brought up, and he watched the dingy come ashore with two men aboard. He was very much surprised to hear one of the men mention his name; so he turned to ask what was wanted. The fisherman handed him a dirty letter, and on opening it the Veteran found that it was from one of the able seamen aboard the barque. The writer briefly told the circumstances, and then added that there would be no delivery from the guard ship for four days. Within two hours the smack was beating away to the southward with the Veteran in her. He had bidden his sweetheart good-bye, telling her quietly that they could not be married for a long time; but she did not know then how very long it would be.

The Veteran helped to work the smack round to the Humber, and it is probable that his thoughts during the trip were not cheerful. He had asked a friend to take charge of his sloop, and had rapidly countermanded all the preparations that were being made for his marriage. On arriving at Hull the Veteran went at once on board the guardship, and was shown into the commander's cabin. His business was soon over, and a sergeant of marines took him down to the wretched cockpit, where he found his father lying with cloths about his head. The lad said quite simply, "I want you to go ashore, father, and look after the girl until I come back; I have volunteered in your stead." The old man would have liked to argue the point; but he knew that his son would not give way, and so he submitted.

Long afterwards the Veteran used to tell us that that was one of the best moments of his life, although his heart had been so heavy at going away from home. So the young sailor joined the "Minotaur" and fought at the Nile. He was many years at sea; and before he got back to the town he had risen to be sailing-master of a forty-four. When he came to be married, all the little vessels in the harbour made themselves gay with their colours, and the church bells were rung for him as though he had been a great personage.

He lived long enough for his brief story to be forgotten; and only the clergyman and the squire, among all the people of the village where he died, knew that the old man was in the least a hero. They knew that he was fond of children, and they were all willing to run to oblige him. Perhaps he wanted no better reward. In these days of advertisement, much would have been made of him; for the great Collingwood had specially mentioned him for a brilliant act of bravery. As it was, he got very little pension and no fame.

[The end]
James Runciman's short story: Veteran