The Two Admirals
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
The events related in this story occurred in the reign of George II, previous to the Old French War, as it is called in America. The two chief features of the plot consist of the question of the legal points of English law at that period regarding the succession to titles and estates, and the lifelong friend-ship of a vice-admiral and a rear-admiral of the same fleet, which proved stronger than their political prejudices.
THE story opens on a cliff in the limits of a small hamlet called Wychecombe, on the coast of Devonshire. The ancestral manor-house of the old Baronet, Wycherley Wychecombe, was in the neighborhood. Lieutenant Wycherley, a young naval officer connected with the family, being of a Virginia branch, and Mildren Dutton, the charming daughter of a dissipated old naval officer who had been reduced to the care of a signal-station overlooking the roadstead, were sauntering near the brow of the cliff. Interested in gathering wild flowers for the lady, the young lieutenant approached too near the edge, which crumbled under his feet. A few yards below he was caught by a very narrow ledge where he supported himself by some shrubs. But this situation was exceedingly precarious, and at any moment he might be dashed to death on the rocks far below.
In the greatest distress Mildred hastened for aid. Wycherley directed the girl and her father to throw down to him the flag halyards from the flagstaff, doubling them and fastening one end to the staff. The timely arrival of Sir Wycherley on the scene together with Vice-Admiral Gervaise, who had just landed from his fleet recently anchored in the roadstead below, afforded sufficient help to rescue the young officer before his strength gave out.
Sir Gervaise now inquired where he could find some reliable messenger to carry important dispatches to the nearest post station. Sir Wycherley recommended the young lieutenant who had just been rescued, and offered one of his own horses for the service. The offer was gladly accepted, and the two gentlemen then proceeded to breakfast at the hall while waiting for the return of the messenger. Captain Dutton with his wife and daughter Mildred were also invited to dine there in the evening, not on his account, by any means, but because of the charms and refinement of the ladies.
Wycherley was long in returning from his trip, and the Vice-Admiral was considerably agitated. But altogether different emotions were aroused by the, news that Wycherley collected and verified on the way. He had learned that the Pretender, as he was called, had landed in Scotland to renew the efforts to restore the Stuarts to the throne. A powerful French fleet had already sailed to his assistance, and another civil war had begun in Great Britain. This was news indeed. But as there was nothing to be done by the large fleet then lying at Wychecombe until after deliberation or the arrival of despatches from the government, the proposed entertainment went on as originally planned. In the mean time other guests had arrived, including Tom Wychecombe, who assumed to be the lawful successor to the then Baronet, as his father was reported to have legitimized the three sons he had by his housekeeper, the only known offspring, in fact, of either Sir Wycherley or of his three brothers. Another guest was Rear-Admiral Bluewater, the second in rank of the fleet commanded by Vice-Admiral Gervaise. These two capital seamen had been fast friends since they were midshipmen. Although differing in character, each had sterling qualities that attracted him to the other to such a degree that they had continued, by the tactful use of influence, to be attached to the same ship or fleet for many years.
The dinner in the stately banqueting-hall of Wychecombe proceeded with genial talk until the abundant flow of ale and wine began to affect those of weak heads or malignant temperament. Tom Wychecombe began to show his jealousy of Wycherley, the young Virginian, who was also a possible heir or aspirant to the Wychecombe estate, if the lapse of the entail or lack of a will should bring the inheritance into question.
Captain Dutton, in turn, now displayed, under the influence of his uncontrollable appetite for liquor, the coarse brutality of his nature.
Under these circumstances the amiable Mrs. Dutton and her lovely daughter felt obliged to retire from the table. Admiral Bluewater, from a sense of sympathy, accompanied them. Captain Dutton followed them later, and proceeded to berate them in the most brutal language, the subject of his drunken rage being the matrimonial prospects of his lovely, sensitive daughter Mildred. But when he perceived the presence of the Admiral he was brought partly to his senses, such was the influence of rank and title in Europe in those days, a weakness not yet altogether done away with.
In the midst of the dining festivities Sir Wycherley Wychecombe was taken with a paralytic stroke. When, by the aid of the village surgeon, he was brought to consciousness, although still unable to express himself with full clearness, it became evident that but a few days or hours remained for him to make a will and attend to other preparations for his end. Vice-Admiral Gervaise, as the most distinguished person present, took charge of these matters, seconded by his secretary, who happened to be there. The invalid managed to express his desire that a distant relative, Sir Henry Wychecombe, resident at some distance, should be instantly sent for. Fortunately, he happened to be in the neighborhood; being a Catholic and, for that as well as other reasons concerned with the divine right of kings, a zealous partisan of the Pretender, he had come to Devonshire to see what could be done there to aid the Stuart cause at this crisis. After many attempts, a will was prepared leaving the land or real estate to Sir Henry Wychecombe, the Jacobite, to the exclusion of Tom Wychecombe and his fraudulent claim; the money, which was very considerable, was bequeathed to a number of friends or distant connections, nearly a third being left to Sir Wycherley's charming favorite, sweet Mildred Dutton. Another lump of in-vested funds was willed to Wycherley Wychecombe of Virginia.
Barely was this document completed when Sir Wycherley fell into a collapse. All haste was made to get a pen into his feeble fingers and at the right spot on the paper; but ere he had drawn a stroke he fell back dead.
Matters being as they were before, Tom Wychecombe came forward and, on the strength of a rusty, soiled document purporting to be the marriage certificate of his father, demanded possession of the estate. The document bore the marks of fraud on its face. None of those present accepted it for a moment. Lieutenant Wycherley Wychecombe of Virginia then produced papers showing that the Baronet had been lost at sea, leaving an estate in America, and, what was still more vital, a wife and family, of which union he, Wycherley Wychecombe, was the oldest offspring. In the absence of any other known and legal direct heirs, he now presented these documents. They were at once accepted by all except Tom Wychecombe as being beyond question complete proof in favor of his being the true heir at law to both the property and the title of the deceased Baronet. In the presence of all there he was inducted by Sir Henry Wychecombe into possession.
In the mean time Rear-Admiral Bluewater returned to his ship, the Cesar, and while awaiting orders considered two questions of the utmost importance to him. A hostile fleet was in those waters. There was doubtless to be severe fighting. He had by prize-money and other ways acquired a handsome property, but had made no will. He had suddenly taken a great fancy to Mildred Dutton, the fancy of a man no longer young, but still hale and hearty, partly paternal and partly the affection of a lover. He sympathized with her severe trials, and had not yet known her sufficiently to be aware of any attachment she might have formed. His connections were all sufficiently provided for; no one had any special claim on him. Hence, with the impulsiveness of a true sailor, he decided at once. Alone in his stateroom Admiral Bluewater wrote a brief but unbreakable last will and testament, had it witnessed by one of his officers, and thereby bequeathed all he had with-out reserve to Mildred Dutton. It was found in his desk after his death, addressed to her.
The other subject Admiral Bluewater had on his mind was the question to which side he owed and proposed to give his allegiance at the approaching conflict for the throne of Great Britain—the Georges or the Stuarts. He was both in heart and brain a patriot. He loved his country; but, like many of his countrymen of whom a number still accept the curious doctrine, he believed in the divine right of kings, good, bad, or indifferent, and therefore that it was the duty of all subjects to stand by the divinely-appointed line at all hazards. He had met Sir Henry Wychecombe at the Hall when the will was drawn up; both soon learned, as happens in such cases, that they shared the same views on this subject; and in guarded language Sir Henry did all he could to lead the Rear-Admiral to abandon his allegiance to King George and throw his efforts and experience in favor of Charles Edward.
What might have occurred at that hazardous interview it is difficult to tell. But the wind was rising, the Vice-Admiral had already sailed with his division of the fleet, and Admiral Bluewater was to follow with his contingent at a stated hour. Thus before he had come to a decisive conclusion and irrevocably committed himself, the boat was announced that was to take him to his flagship. There was not a moment to lose. A gale was coming on, and the line-of-battle ships and frigates were tugging at their cables. The Admiral hurried on board and put to sea. But his mind was not at rest. The two causes pleaded in his mind. He could but admit that honor held him to the sovereign whose commission he held, whose ships he was commanding; , he thought, too, of the long friend-ship that bound him to Vice-Admiral Gervaise, with whom he had already exchanged a few words on the subject without committing himself to any decided course. His friend Gervaise had left him, confident that he would do nothing contrary to honor and duty.
It blew hard all night and the next day; but Gervaise, without waiting for the expected despatches, kept on his course to meet the French fleet. The following afternoon he sighted it, and although nearly half his fleet was yet behind, and the enemy were double his own force, he made a dash at them at the height of the storm, captured one ship and disabled two others. On the following morning the Vice-Admiral proposed to renew the attack, although at great hazard. He was depressed and mystified at the continued absence of his colleague with the rest of the fleet. He had his surmises as to the cause, and yet could not bring himself to believe that Blue-water had resolved to play the traitor.
As the van under Gervaise was moving to battle, the ships of the Rear-Admiral hove in sight, but showed no distinct intention to join in the action. Signals had been made and a despatch had been sent from Bluewater urging the Vice-Admiral to delay precipitating a conflict with the French. Here were evidences or suggestions not so much of treason as of vacillation. Gervaise knew just what was passing in the mind of his friend, but said nothing to arouse suspicion. He hoped that as soon as he saw the fighting actually beginning, Bluewater would come to his senses and do his full duty; and so the event proved.
No sooner did Bluewater, that stanch old seaman, see his friend in the thick of the fight, with the enemy's flagship on the starboard of him, while another line-of-battle ship was just doubling on his port, pouring in broadsides, and a third vessel was taking position to rake the Plantagenet, the ship of Gervaise, than his blood was fired with remorse. His better nature asserted itself. He put his helm up and dashed into the midst of the fight with such fury that when he laid his ship alongside of the French ship on the port of the Plantagenet, he himself led the charge of the boarders, and thus carried the ship and decided the victory of the English, but himself fell in the midst of the melee mortally wounded.
They bore him back to his stateroom on his own ship. As soon as Gervaise heard the sad tidings he ordered his cot to be taken over to the Cesar, and did not leave it until all was over. Bluewater showed signs of desiring to explain and apologize for his singular course; but the Vice-Admiral would not allow him to talk on the subject. He understood all about it; he had sympathized in his friend's struggle on the question of duty, and had no reproaches to make. During the last hour no one was admitted to the stateroom but Gervaise. And there he remained alone with his friend, whose last words were, "Kiss me, Oakes."
Rear-Admiral Bluewater was buried in Westminster. Until his own death Sir Oakes Gervaise was in the habit of often visiting the tomb of his friend.
Of the other characters of this tale it is sufficient to state that Sir Wycherley Wychecombe and Mildred Dutton fulfilled their destiny by uniting in marriage, and the family they left behind them prevented any further difficulties as to the inheritance of the baronetcy of Wychecombe. Mildred of course inherited the ample fortune left to her by the true-hearted mariner, Rear-Admiral Bluewater.