Chapter Eleven: Underway
They left Plymouth near the end of the first week of September. David wrote one last letter home, saying he did not know when he could write again or when he would hear from them again.
“May our Father keep you all well and safe. I love you, and wish I could assure you of my safety every day. Don’t be afraid for me; I am in the care of the Lord,” he wrote. When he finished his letter to his family, he wrote quick notes of thanks to Foulkes and Captain Bristow.
At last, they were setting out from port. Shivers ran down David’s spine as they raised the anchor. He relayed messages and commands as they prepared to depart. The flurry only heightened his excitement, but he longed to be standing still and taking it all in.
Soon they would be with Nelson, and many other ships-of-the-line near Cadiz. What would happen then? No one could say, but everyone wondered.
The first night at sea, David and the other midshipmen and officers joined the Captain for dinner. In the company of men who were more mature than many of the midshipmen, David relaxed and enjoyed the lively conversation, free from any spiteful remarks to him or other midshipmen.
“Well, at least now there’ll be no women aboard this ship,” Moses said that night as he and David stood at their customary spot near the starboard rail of the ship.
“Aye. It frustrates me how something with as high a reputation of the Navy – at least, it has such from the outside – can be so perverse inside. It disgusts me, the façade of discipline and perfection, when in reality there’s often very little.”
“Let me tell you, Captain Hargood is a rare Captain, too. The other ships I’ve been on weren’t nearly this good,” Moses said.
“At least most don’t claim to follow Christ.”
“True, yet then a sharp word of discipline has no effect on them, for sin has no weight to them.”
“It breaks my heart to see so many who have no care for Christ,” David said.
“You and I are in a position to do something about it, Mr. Judson. Let’s not be guilty of holding back those who are going to death.”
David cringed. “There I have failed, Mr. McAlister. Thank you for being a faithful friend and not being afraid to say that.”
“I am often silent as well, so I speak more to myself than you.”
David straightened. “Mr. McAlister, will you hold me accountable, to take the opportunity when it’s given, and also strive to make opportunity to tell others the gospel of our glorious Lord?”
Moses held out his hand and he and David shook hands.
“Aye, I will. Ye must do the same for me.”
“I will, my brother,” David said.
“And we must remember to care for their souls, not so much for their sake, as for the glory of God. ’Tis easy to forget, but we must not lose sight of the goal.”
“Going to complain about us to the Captain, Davey?” Thomas asked, blocking the door so David could not leave.
“I was going to go on deck to get some fresh air,” David answered. “But perhaps I’ll stay with you today.”
“Not going to be better than us this afternoon, hey, lads?”
The midshipmen laughed. The lieutenants in the room looked up from whatever they were doing.
David squared his shoulders and took a deep breath. “I’m not better than you, nor do I think so. You’ve all been here much longer than me, and have more experience – I’ve much to learn from each of you. Nor, before God, do I have anything better than you to show. I know to say this says you’re wicked, but it also shows my own wickedness – that I, just as you, are guilty of rebellion against the God who made us and deserve to be punished for it for eternity.”
“So you’re condemning us for what we do, then,” Thomas said.
David noticed that all snickering and whispering in the room had stopped, and all eyes were on him. Taking this opportunity, he continued. “I know I’m no better than you. I’m just as sinful and depraved. Anything good comes not from me, but because God saved me through His Son, who was punished in my place – and yours, too, if you’ll repent!”
After a moment of shocked silence, the men returned to their cards and laughter. David stared at them, astonished at their reaction to his words.
“Don’t you understand the weight of this?” David cried.
An uneasy quiet settled over the room.
“This is about eternity, and even more, about the glory of the Almighty God!”
No one batted an eye. David turned and ran out of the room. He tried to find something he could do to occupy himself.
We could do with a little less discretionary time – or maybe if they spent it studying there wouldn’t be so many problems.
Not that I’m innocent. Father, I’m so helpless! Forgive me for my anger. Help me speak to them with gentleness. Soften their hearts, that they might understand. Don’t let me stand in the way of their understanding when I become impatient.
On October 14, the Belleisle rejoined the rest of the fleet. The next day, there were a total of twenty-seven ships of the line and five frigates near Cadiz. Anticipation filled the air. It was excitement, but mixed with an uneasy apprehension of what might come to pass. Nelson invited the captains to dinner aboard the Victory, leaving everyone on the Belleisle guessing as to their next move.
Only David and Moses were not trying to figure out the plan.
“You’ve a black eye!” David said when he saw Moses.
“Aye – I spoke of Christ to Thornton. I do not regret it, but the devil sure would wish me to with the way this smarts.”
“Well, I hope your heart isn’t smarting like mine is. I thought I was doing so well the other day – I decided to stay with the men instead of coming up like I often do, and when Thomas commented that I wasn’t ‘better than them’ that day, I told them I wasn’t better and of my and their sinfulness and of Christ and God.”
“I don’t see what could cause you to smart from that!”
David shook his head. “But they returned to their cards and crude joking almost as soon as I had finished, and I grew angry that they passed off so lightly something so heavy. … and I told them so, and then left the room in my impatience.” He hung his head. “I did not do service to God by my actions, and perhaps have hindered the understanding of some in the way I acted.”
“Mr. Judson, there is forgiveness for ye as well as they. Learn from your mistakes, and let them make you more like our Lord as you grow beyond them – but ye must move on, lad!”
“What should I do?”
“It may be harder than speaking to them in the first place, but ye should ask their forgiveness for the way ye acted. They must see that ye were not acting in a Christian way. The anger of men does not bring about the righteousness of God.”
“And ye must do it soon.” Moses looked to the horizon. “I feel a battle looming in the distance, and with battle comes death. We do not know which of us will perish in the next weeks and months, but some of us will. If it is to be us, we must know we have done what God would have had us do. If it is to be others, they must know salvation before they die.”
Moses’s words chilled David, but he knew them to be true.
“Our earthly days are short, and running always to a close. We must use them well.”
“Were you telling the Captain how you’re better than us?” Thomas sneered when David joined the midshipmen and lieutenants for dinner that night. He had returned from praying with Moses, and whenever he was off-duty and away from the midshipmen, they taunted him.
“No, I was praying with one of the seamen. He’s become like a grandfather to me.”
“You were with a seaman? Friends with him?” Thomas said.
“Then you don’t see yourself as higher than us!”
“He never has!” Parker said.
“What Mr. Parker said is true. I have never viewed myself as being above any of you, in fact, I’m very aware of my many shortcomings and see myself as the worst of all men, but for Christ saving me.” He looked around the table. “And I must apologize for when I lost my temper a few weeks ago. I did a disservice to God, and also to you, by that.”
“No one thinks ill of you for that, Mr. Judson, it was purely passion. In fact, I quite admire your bravery and pluck,” Lieutenant Fife said.
“No matter what you think, it was wrong of me, and I must ask your forgiveness.”
“You have it,” Fife said, and Parker and others nodded.
“Well, now that we’ve that out of the way, what do you all suspect will happen in the next few days?” another lieutenant asked.
“We’ll beat the French and Spanish back into their holes forever!” Parker cried.
“We’re certainly not going to lose with Admiral Nelson at our head,” a midshipman said.
“One of the thousands of reasons why it’s better being British – I’d run with my tail between my legs if Nelson was against me.”
Everyone laughed, but then a sober air fell on their table.
“But even with Nelson, some of us will still die,” Parker said.
David looked at Parker, surprised at his melancholy. Parker was always the most outgoing and happy of all of the midshipmen.
“Not I,” said one Midshipman.
“You cannot be certain,” Fife said. “You may have escaped harm before, but there is no guarantee you will again.”
“We must all be ready to meet our Maker,” David said. “Though it seems like a distant day in my mind, I know it could be any day. I am ready, but I urge every one of you to make certain you are.”
“Listen to the preacher,” Thomas said.
“That’s enough, Mr. Redwood,” a lieutenant said. “Mr. Judson speaks the truth. We must ask of ourselves if we’re ready to die.”
After dinner, Thomas and his friends began a game of cards, but some of the men were quiet and thoughtful as they looked out the window into the darkness. Some were motionless. In others, David thought perhaps he saw a tear in their eye. And still others were fearful. He looked at Thomas and the card players, and wondered if their bravado was a mask for their fear. Were they pushing aside thoughts of death by trivial laughter? It seemed different tonight than it was most of the time. Their revelry had a degree of falseness to it, as if it were forced.
Fife sat with his head resting on clasped hands. The lieutenant who had reprimanded Thomas sat reading. He seemed at peace, and David wondered if he might know God. He sometimes wondered that of Fife as well, but no opportunity had come for David to question his superior.
Perhaps I should read from the scriptures to them, David thought. It might bring peace to them. He turned to get his Bible, but saw Parker standing nearby.
Parker clenched and unclenched his fists as he stood, peering out into the night. David went to his side.
“Let’s go on deck,” he said.
Parker nodded, but said not a word. He followed David up the ladder.
“I’ve never been so afraid in my life,” Parker said when they were alone.
“Me either,” David said.
“I never thought you might be afraid.”
“I don’t fear what happens after death like most do. But I am afraid of the possible pain in death, and in leaving my family. They need the money I bring in.”
“Give me their address, and I will do what I can to help them if I survive and you don’t.”
“Thank you, Mr. Parker.”
Neither said anything for a time.
“I don’t want to be afraid of what comes after death,” Parker said at last.
“You don’t have to be,” David said. “For the Christian, death brings us into true life. It frees us from the flesh and bring us to be with God forever – which is what I long for more than anything.”
“Me family went to church in Ireland, so I know much about God, but I don’t think I know Him.”
“Do you want to?”
“I don’t know. I think I do, but I’m afraid I’m not good enough – I know He’s angry over sin and I know I have much sin.”
“Then there is hope for you, Mr. Parker. None of us are ever good enough to come to God, and our sin deserves His judgment. But when Jesus died, He suffered that in our place. Repent – turn from your sin – and accept His work in your stead!”
“You don’t know what I’ve done,” Parker said.
“No, I don’t,” David whispered. “But I do know that Jesus forgave thieves and adulterers while He was on earth, and saved even a man who had caused the deaths of many Christians. There is no sin too great.”
“Then He’ll forgive me what I’ve done, and will not punish me for it?”
“Aye, since Christ has been punished for you.”
“And then death is eternal life and not eternal torment?”
“Aye, but you must repent for God and not only for your own gain!”
“I must think.”
“I will not rush you, but you must know that there may not be another day to decide.”
“Leave me for now – I will find you when I am ready.”
David left Parker, but did not leave the deck, remaining to pray. He trusted God for the outcome of the next days, but did fear what could happen. When he looked up, Parker had gone, and so David went back down to go to bed.
Chapter Twelve: Trafalgar
The nineteenth of October dawned with stillness. But in the late morning, A ship was sighted steering for the fleet. Her guns fired, and every man looked up from his work. Nelson signaled – general chase, south east. The enemy had come out of port. A thrill ran down David’s spine, but with it came sorrow as he looked around him at the men he was working with. There were marines, seamen, officers – all with souls and many not knowing God.
He felt sick as he wondered how many would be left alive when the week was out, but there was no time to dwell on those thoughts with so much work to do.
“God protect you, whatever happens, lad,” a voice behind him said.
David turned to see Moses. “Thank you, Mr. McAlister.”
“Don’t fear, Mr. Judson.”
“I fear not for myself but everyone else.”
“Aye, me too – and for my family. But the kirk will take care of them if I pass.”
“I pray we both come out of whatever happens alive,” David said.
“We’ll see each other again before anything happens, don’t worry.”
“But just in case – I must tell you how grateful I am for your counsel and friendship since that first day.”
“As have I been for yours, my brother. But now we must return to our duties – both to God and to men.”
For the next two days, everything and everyone on the ship was tense. There was little time for anything but sleep and running the ship. On the afternoon of the twentieth, the enemy was visible from the deck. Everyone cast a watchful eye to them, always wondering when they might first hear guns fire. Thomas did not bother David, but neither did Parker and David have time to talk more.
But in the middle of the night, somewhere between the twentieth and the twenty-first of October, Parker woke David. There was an uneasy stillness over the ship, and no man was sleeping well. Preparation had been made for battle, and everyone was restless because of the firing of guns and rockets. David opened his eyes halfway to see his friend.
“I’m not afraid,” Parker said. “I will see God and live after I die, for Jesus has been punished in my stead!”
David sat up in bed, eyes now wide open. “Praise Him for His mercy!”
“Aye! But Mr. Judson – I am so glad now, and peaceful. How many of the others know – they should have this, too!”
“Not many, I’m afraid. And the more days that go by the less time we have to tell them. We must be bold, Parker, telling them what they need to know to be saved, that they might be, for their own good and for the glory of God!”
“But we also need our rest for what lies ahead. I’m sorry I woke you, but I had to tell you. I’ll see you in the morning.”
“Aye.” David rolled over and went back to sleep.
The sky was cloudy when David woke at dawn. A gentle breeze blew as he stood on deck, but many aboard the ship sensed a gale brewing. The horizon was covered with ships, and the enemy stood between Nelson’s fleet and the coast of Trafalgar. David was drawn from the solitude of the early morning by cheers from below decks. Then the crew poured out of the hatchways to get a better view of the enemy. David watched in awe, wondering at their excitement for battle.
I wish there were no cause for war, David thought. But since it is upon us, I desire to protect my country and do my duty towards her. He repeated this to himself, building his courage and fortitude. Let me stand strong, Father!
“This would be a mighty fine sight from the heavens,” Fife said as he watched a bird soar over head.
“What would it look like?”
“A dozen miles off Cape Trafalgar, a formation nine miles long.”
“Something’s going to happen today, isn’t it?” David asked.
“Aye. Though I cannot say for sure what it will be, though I do know some of the orders, and they are genius.”
At eight bells, each ship in Nelson’s fleet turned around and began to sail North. There was Nelson leading them all in to battle, in two columns of ships ready for battle.
“We’re inferior in every way,” Parker told David as they ate breakfast. “Men, guns, and ships. And we’ll be in range soon.”
“I do not think I shall survive the day,” one officer said, as he told the others what to do with his possessions if he perished.
But preparations for death were cut short when the sound of the drum called men back to their posts.
“Signal from the Victory, sir!” the watchman shouted.
“Mr. Judson!” Fife shouted. “Go aloft, and read the signal!”
“Aye, aye, sir!” David climbed the rigging as fast as he could, reviewing flags in his head as he did so. As far as practical details of seamanship were concerned, the signal flags were his strongest point, and Fife knew that. He took a telescope from the watchman and peered through it.
“Prepare to anchor at the close of day,” David said after a time.
The order was relayed down to the rest of the ship.
“Wait, there’s more coming.” He watched as flag after flag was raised. “England… expects… that… every man… will do… will do… his duty.”
A cheer went up when the message was told to all. Nelson’s message raised English pride in each one of them, as well as courage to do what they ought.
Not long after, the Royal Sovereign fired three guns, and the Spanish raised her flags.
Captain Hargood sent for the officers, and many of the midshipmen went along.
“Gentlemen,” Hargood said. “I have only to say that I shall pass close under the stern of that ship; put in two round shots and then a grape, and give her that. Now go to your quarters, and mind not to fire until each gun will bear with effect.”
Every man took to his post, prepared the guns, and then waited. David shifted his weight from foot to foot, prayed, and looked around him. The steadiness of seasoned sailors brought comfort to David. He felt a mixture of impatience and fear as they waited, but there was nothing to do but sit at the ready, knowing at any moment death could come.
Enemy ships began to fire at the Belleisle, but the shot passed over. David trembled. He wished Moses were beside him to recite scripture and comfort him. The cheers and shouts that had rung through the ship minutes before had been replaced by silence.
“Steady! Starboard a little! Steady so!” Captain Hargood shouted, and his command was echoed down to the quartermasters at the wheel.
And then it came. The next shot hit a man, and a cry of agony was heard. David looked to his position, clenching his jaw.
England expects… he repeated to himself. Ten thousand shall fall at your side…
There were now more shrieks as more men were wounded. Dying moaned, and those who were tasting their first blood trembled. David stood fast, though every part of his body longed to leave the scene. He thought of Nelson, aboard the flagship, and what he must be thinking and feeling. He could not see through smoke to know where the Victory was, or how she fared. He knew Nelson had sailed in with the Royal Sovereign, both of their bows exposed. It was so risky! He remembered Captain Bristow’s comment that the weight of the empire was on Lord Nelson’s shoulders.
At noon, the Belleisle broke into the enemy line.
The order came, “Stand to your guns!”
A hush settled over the ship as they passed close to the stern of Santa Ana. David hardly dared to breathe as they awaited further orders, as if their silence would allow them to go unnoticed. It seemed to him that they were already in a bad place, with a wreckage of sails and rigging proving how they had been fired upon already. The mizzentopmast was shot away, and they had rehoisted their flag a number of times. Dead lay about the deck, and David felt that enough had already died, yet firing only increased. The noise was tremendous, but David could not spare hands to put them in his ears. The ship shook with the roll of the sea and the barrage from enemy guns.
Enemy ships were all around them, and David could read most of their names as they drew near. He wondered for half a moment what Nelson was thinking, bringing them into this, but had no time to consider the question further; the Fougeux was close on the starboard side – David’s side.
Belowdecks at the guns, David did not know what was going on above him, but it the upper deck seemed to thunder and shake as if some great beast was trampling upon it.
“Mr. Judson,” Fife said. “Run and see what’s going on up there, then report back to me!”
David nodded, and set off for the upper deck. As his head ascended into the open air, he feared. He felt safer underneath the deck. He knew shot could reach him just as well there as in the open air, but he felt more exposed on top. He stopped short when he saw what lay before him. The mizzenmast was gone, as was the maintopmast. The Neptune was at the bow, firing upon them. David barely heard the warning when the mainmast began to fall.
“Stand clear there! Here it comes!”
David looked up and saw the mast falling over the larboard side. The ship shuddered, but few were harmed by the mast’s falling. He ducked back into the hatchway and reported to Fife, who shook his head.
“We’re sorely crippled. Yet we must keep fighting! Courage, men!” he cried. “Every so often, run up again and report back to me.”
“Aye aye, sir.” David returned to the gun he was overseeing, but in a little while he went back to the upper deck. “Sir!” He shouted when he returned to Fife. “Our foremast has been shot away, close to the deck. But we’ve boarded the ship next to us.”
Fife did not need to say anything to David this time; the lad well understood the state of the Belleisle, and how little they could do to save themselves or inflict torment on the enemy. Dismasted! Yet defiant – we will fight to the death! Once again, David thought of Victory and wondered how she was faring.
“Go, look again,” Fife said an hour later.
David surfaced to see a three-decked ship steering toward them. He froze. If it was an enemy, they would be done for. Every man’s gaze was on the approaching ship. Then came the cheer, for it was made clear that the ship was the Swiftsure of the British fleet. David joined the hurrah, and then ran back to Fife.
“Swiftsure has come to our relief!” He said, though he scarce believed it to be true. It seemed as though days had passed since they had last seen British colors. The Swiftsure and then the Polyphemus picked off the enemies around Belleisle.
Then the firing stopped. As the smoke cleared, David listened to the noises beyond them. Firing still continued, though it was far away from them.
“Mr. Judson!” A voice called from across the way. It was Parker, with Moses by his side.
“Praise God you’re both alright!” David cried, rushing to them.
“And you as well,” Moses said. “I saw every time you went above decks, and feared for ye each time.”
“No need to fear; I will not die until the appointed time,” David said.
“Aye, but even then we’d mourn your loss.”
“Any news of others?” David asked.
“We’ve suffered hard – I ‘ope no other ships have had as hard of a day,” Moses said.
“Mr. Jago, Mr. Nind are dead of midshipmen, and Mr. Gale and Mr. Woodin of lieutenants. Besides them, I cannot say, and I only know of their deaths as I was nearby them,” Parker said.
David surveyed the wreckage around him. “’Tis a grievous day.”
“Aye. I praise God we were spared.”
“Though mightn’t it have been better if we had died, as we know God, rather than those who go to hellfire?” David asked.
“God is glorified in judging men just as ‘e is in saving them, Mr. Judson,” Moses said.
“I had no time to think of souls in the heat of battle,” Parker said.
“Nor did I,” David admitted.
“Bear no guilt over it,” Moses said. “You had other duties to attend to then.”
About five o’clock, David, the officers, and midshipmen assembled in the Captain’s cabin for food and drink. Only then did David realize how exhausted he was after four hours’ battle – and compared to the gunners he felt he had not done much. The air was sober, as men reminisced about comrades who had died. Some remembered faithful seamen, others, fellow officers. Yet all had lost someone, and even though most were not wounded physically, all had inward hurts.
“Thirty-three killed, ninety-three wounded,” Captain Hargood had said. David wondered how many had suffered bodily harm in all. It would be days before the numbers were calculated. For now, they had weighed anchor so as to not be swept away by the gale, and were doing what they could to put the ship back in order.
“But we have won the day, and the French threat at sea to the British Empire is gone,” Hargood said.
There was a knock at the door, and it opened to reveal an officer from another ship. Just as he began to speak, David felt light-headed. He turned to Parker.
“I’m not well,” he said, but before Parker could respond, David blacked out. The last thing he heard before he slipped away was that Admiral Nelson was dead.