My grand-uncle pushed the decanter of brown sherry: a stout old-fashioned decanter, with shoulders almost as square as his own, and a silver chain about them bearing a silver label–not unlike the badge and collar which he himself wore on full ceremonial occasions.
“Three times round the world,” he said, “and as yet only twice around the table. You must do it justice, gentlemen.”
“A great wine, Admiral!” said the Rector, filling and sipping, with half-closed eyes. “They have a brown sherry at Christ Church which may challenge it, perhaps . . . The steward remembers my weakness when I go up to preach my afternoon sermon at St. Mary’s. There was talk in Congregation, the other day, of abolishing afternoon sermons, on the ground that nobody attended them; but this, as one speaker feelingly observed, would deprive the country clergy of a dear privilege. . . .” The Rector took another sip. “An heroic contest, between two such wines!”
“Talking of heroic contests, mine came to me by means of a prize-fight,” said my grand-uncle, with a glance down the table at us two youngsters who were sipping and looking wise, as became connoisseurs fresh from the small beer of a public school. At the word ‘prize-fight,’ Dick and I pricked up our ears. To us the Admiral was at once a prodigiously fine fellow and a prodigiously old one–though he dated after Nelson’s day, to us he reached well back to it, and in fact he had been a midshipman in the last two years of the Great War. Certainly he belonged to the old school rather than to the new. He had fought under Codrington at Navarino. He had talked with mighty men of the ring–Tom Cribb, Jem Mace, Belcher, Sayers.
“What is more,” said he, “though paid late, the wine you’re drinking is the first prize-money I ever took; in my first ship, lads, and within forty-eight hours of joining her. . . . Youth, youth!”–as the decanter came around to him he refilled his glass.–“And to think that I was a good two years younger than either of you!”
“A prize-fight? You’ll tell us about it, sir?” ventured Dick eagerly.
“The Rector has heard the yarn before, I doubt?” said the old man, with a glance which told that he only needed pressing.
“That objection,” the Rector answered tactfully, “has been lodged against certain of my sermons. I never let it deter me.”
“There’s a moral in it, too,” said my grand-uncle, visibly reassured.
Well, as for the moral, I cannot say that I have ever found it, to swear by. But here is my grand-uncle’s story.
If you want a seaman, they say, you must catch him young, and I will add that the first hour for him is the best. Eh? Young men have talked to me of the day when they first entered Oxford or Cambridge–of the moment, we’ll say, when the London coach topped the Shotover rise in the early morning, and they saw all the towers and spires at their feet. I am willing to believe it good. And the first kiss,–when you and she are young fools and over head and ears in love,–you’ll know what I mean, you boys, when you grow to it, and I am not denying that it brings heaven down to earth and knocks their heads together. But for bliss–sheer undiluted bliss–match me the day when a boy runs upstairs and sees his midshipman’s outfit laid out on the bed–blue jacket, brass buttons, dirk, yes, and in my sea time a kind of top-hat that fined away towards the top, with a cockade. I tell you I spent an hour looking at myself in my poor mother’s cheval-glass, and then walked out across the common to show myself to my aunts,–rest their souls!–who inhabited a cottage about a mile from ours, and had been used hitherto, when entertaining me, to ask one another in French if the offer of a glass of beer would, considering my age, be permissible. I drank sherry with them that afternoon, and left them (I make no doubt) with a kind of tacit assurance that, come what might, they were henceforward secure of protection.