From this time until the close of the Great War, he was on such active service as the overpowering supremacy we had attained at sea left to be performed. From the Scheldt he returned invalided on board the Victorious, 74. As soon as he was fit for service, he was appointed to the Centaur, 74, the flag-ship of Sir Samuel Hood, with whom he went back to the Mediterranean, but not to the stirring life of his old frigate. After a year of the seventy-four he returned home, and was appointed to the ?olus frigate on the American station. He went out as a passenger on the Atlas, 64, and joined his ship at Halifax. In the ?olus, and then in another frigate, the Spartan, he became familiar with the West Indies, which are, with the Mediterranean, the scenes of so large a part of his stories. In 1812 he had served his time as midshipman, and returned home to pass. His influence was good, as the fact that he served so much in frigates proves, and he received his lieutenant’s commission immediately after going through his examination (December 26, 1812). Six months later he was appointed to L’Espiègle sloop, and cruised in her on the north coast of South America, till he was invalided by the breaking of a blood-vessel, and sent home as a passenger on board his old frigate, the Spartan, which had now finished her commission. This accident, due in part to a constitutional infirmity, which ultimately proved fatal to him, occurred at Barbadoes, at a dance—perhaps a dignity ball. In 1814 he was back on the coast of America in the Newcastle, 58, and was again invalided home, this time from Madeira. In June, 1815, just as the Great War was closing, Marryat was promoted commander, and the first period of his life came to an end.
The years from 1809 to 1815 may be rapidly passed over, for though they added to his experience, they were colourless as compared with the cruises of the Impérieuse. He saw some service in them, but it was either tame, or a mere repetition of what he had seen before. The so-called “war of 1812” was in progress during part of his service in the Spartan and all his service in the Newcastle, but he saw little of it. Some boat work—and sharp work too—he went through in Boston Bay, but he saw nothing of those unlucky frigate actions with the Americans, which gave us such a disagreeable shock, and it was not his good fortune to be one of the crew of the famous Shannon. The capture of a small privateer or two, by so powerful a vessel as the Newcastle, was no important experience to a man who had seen the boarding of the King George, the defence of the Trinidad fort at Rosas, and the affair in the Basque Roads. An acquaintance he made with an American prisoner of war while on board the Newcastle was useful to him afterwards, but at the time he probably thought little about it.
His captains in these years doubtless served him as models when he began his work as a novelist, but they were none of them men of the commanding kind. The best remembered of them was Captain E. P. Brenton of the Spartan, brother of the famous Sir Jahleel who fought a brilliant frigate action off Naples, under the very eyes of Murat. Captain Brenton had himself done good work, but his chief reputation was made in later days, as the author of a life of St. Vincent, and a history of the Great War, which is itself mainly remembered as the object of incessant corrections, often pettifogging, commonly superfluous, and always intensely wearisome, in James’s “Naval History.”
Even in the most peaceful times, opportunities of facing danger come in every seaman’s way. He may have his chance to save life, and he must help to fight the storm. In both of these ways Marryat distinguished himself. Few men have more frequently risked their own lives to save others. As a midshipman in the Impérieuse he went overboard to save a fellow midshipman. He saved the life of a seaman while serving on the ?olus, and narrowly escaped drowning on a similar occasion when serving in L’Espiègle. On this occasion he was a mile and a half off before the sloop could be brought to, and when a boat picked him up he was nearly senseless. This also was a part of experience to Marryat, for it was while overboard from L’Espiègle that he discovered that drowning is not an unpleasant death. It is recorded in his Life by his daughter that, first and last, “during the time he served in the navy, he was presented with twenty-seven certificates, recommendations, and votes of thanks, for saving the lives of others at the risk of his own, beside receiving a gold medal from the Humane Society.” given in 1818 was assuredly well deserved.
Not less pleasing to Marryat than the memory of his efforts to save others, must have been his recollection of the honour he gained in volunteering during a gale to cut away the main-yard of the ?olus. The story appears, more or less coloured and adapted, with so many other of his reminiscences in “Frank Mildmay.” In the sober pages of Marshall, it is, however, a quite sufficiently gallant story. “On the 30th of September, 1811, in lat. 40° 50’ N., long. 65° W. (off the coast of New England), a gale of wind commenced at S.E., and soon blew with tremendous fury; the ?olus was laid on her beam ends, her top-masts and mizen-masts were literally blown away, and she continued in this extremely perilous situation for at least half an hour. Directions were given to cut away the main-yard, in order to save the main-mast and right the ship, but so great was the danger attending such an operation considered, that not a man could be induced to attempt it until Mr. Marryat led the way. His courageous conduct in this emergency excited general admiration, and was highly approved by Lord James Townshend, one of whose ship’s company he also saved by jumping overboard at sea.”
Up then to the age of three-and-twenty Marryat had prepared himself to write sea stories by making his life a sea story. He had, in fact, fulfiled the counsel of perfection given to the epic poet. He had seen no great battle; the last of them had been fought before he entered the service; he had not even shared in a single ship action. But what he did not witness himself he saw through the eyes of messmates. The battles, to judge from the little said of them in his stories, do not appear to have greatly interested Marryat—perhaps he found a difficulty in realizing what one would be like, perhaps he found them unmanageable. With the single ship actions he had no such difficulty. He could tell precisely what must happen, and he had no doubt heard tales of many such pieces of fighting. Indeed, in the actual sea-life of the time, the great battles did not play a much more considerable part than they do in the novels. Of the 2,437 lieutenants on the navy list when Marryat entered the service, the very great majority had never seen a general engagement. It was thought a rather exceptional thing that Collingwood should have been present in three battles. Nelson himself only took part in four, or five, if Admiral Hotham’s feeble action in the Gulf of Lyons is to be allowed the name. But most officers had seen service of some kind, and had tales to tell. Marryat, too, had been fortunate in an eminent degree. He had been wounded, but not severely—he had never been taken prisoner or shipwrecked. His service had been varied. Between 1806 and 1815 he had seen the North Sea, the Channel, the Mediterranean, and the Eastern Coast of America, from Nova Scotia to Surinam. His promotion had been rapid. Altogether he had had much to develop, and nothing to sour him, in this first period of his life.