(Masterpieces of British Fiction)

Tom Cringle, aged thirteen and four feet four inches tall, looked upon himself as a successor to Nelson. In pursuing his aim, he pestered his relative Sir Barnaby Blueblazes to such lengths that Tom was finally appointed midshipman aboard the frigate Breeze and ordered to report for foreign duty in four days.

Poor Tom had envisioned a period of months ashore after his appointment; this would give him time to strut his uniform before all of his friends. Since his time was so short, he hardly knew whether he wanted to go to sea after all, and his widowed mother wept and begged him not to leave. On the appointed day, however, Tom went aboard his ship, bound for action.

He had a trip to the Bay of Biscay on the Breeze and a tour of duty on the Kraaken. Now an old hand, Tom boarded the Torch, an eighteen-gun sloop bound for the North Sea.

Near Cuxhaven, the ship’s boat was lowered, and Tom was put second in command of a party to enter the harbor. The captain was sure no French were near; consequently, the party shoved off with light hearts. To their astonishment, they were challenged by French sentries. In trying to regain the ship, Tom’s boat was hit by a shell from a shore battery, and subsequently he was taken prisoner.

A resident of Hamburg went surety for Tom and took him to his own country house. The next day, the Russians advanced and drove out the French. In the confusion, Tom and the Hamburg family escaped and safely boarded the Torch.

The Torch stood off Cork, where Tom played the part of a spy. By a clever tale, he induced a group of British seamen to rendezvous in a small tavern. There they were captured and pressed into service. Then with her full complement, the Torch left for Caribbean waters, where Tom was to spend many years. In the West Indies, the French, Spaniards, English, and Americans were all privateering, and there was much work for a British man-of-war, in escorting merchantmen, keeping a lookout for American marauders, and trying to keep slavery and smuggling within bounds.

Tom had an early introduction to the horrors of piracy the day a London merchantman was sighted behaving erratically. With great difficulty, a boarding party captured the ship after subduing a pirate crew. In the main cabin of the merchantman, the British found a terrifying situation. The captain had been tied on the table and his throat had been so savagely slashed that he was almost decapitated. A prosperous but nearly hysterical gentleman was tied in a chair. On the sofa was the man’s wife, violated by the pirates. The poor lady was mad with shame and fright and spent her last days in an asylum. The leader of the pirates, who subsequently escaped, was a tall, handsome Spaniard. Tom learned much later that his name was Francesco Cangrejo.

During a violent hurricane, the Torch went down, and Tom, believing himself the only survivor, spent three terrible days in an open boat. At last, thirst and privation overcame him. When he regained consciousness, he was on shore, tended by Lieutenant Splinter, the only other crew member to escape. Captain Deadeye, of the Torch, was stretched out under a canvas on the beach. Scarcely had Tom recovered his senses when they were taken prisoners by a Spanish platoon....

(The entire section is 1340 words.)