(Adventure Homepage)


First episode taken from Adventure No. 1806 - August 29th 1959.



The creak and grind of the coach wheels, and the noise of the horses’ hoofs on the frozen road, were almost drowned by the moan of the bitter wind.

Night was falling. It would be dark before the Norwich to London mail coach reached its next stop. Up on his high seat, the driver was huddled in a heavy coat. His breath came in puffs of steam that were whipped away by the wind, and his eyes watered in the biting air. Beside him sat the guard, a loaded blunderbuss held ready on his lap. Ahead of the two men, the backs of the four horses heaved and rippled as they threw themselves forward to the crack of the driver’s whip. He was urging them to the top of a long hill, where dark trees grew close on both sides of the road. The guard’s alertness increased. He leaned towards the driver. “If Black Jake’s abroad this night it’ll be at the top of the hill,” growled the guard. “Tis made for highwaymen, this place!” “I don’t think he’’ trouble us, Joe,” came the hoarse reply, “but ye’d better warn the passengers to keep their pistols handy, just in case.” The driver bared his teeth in a grin. “Not that any of them would be much use if it came to a fight!” he added. The guard gave a grim chuckle and leaned over sideways, calling out to those inside the coach. “We’re coming to a favourite place for highwaymen,” he declared. “See to the priming of your pistols, gents, lest Black Jake should be lying in wait hereabouts.” There were only three people inside the coach, two men and a boy. One of the men was snoring loudly. He had a fat, red face that kept on twitching as he slept. His coat was of blue velvet, liberally dusted with snuff. His three cornered hat was askew, over one ear. The second man sat very straight in his seat, resting both hands on the top of a walking stick. His clothes were somber black, and very plain, relieved by a white cravat at his throat. Opposite him, sat the boy. He, too, was plainly clad, and looked small and frail in the gathering dusk. His face was pale, but his eyes were wide and alert. At the guard’s words, the boy leaned forward. “Did you hear that, father? Highwaymen may hold us up!” He was speaking to the dark clad man sitting opposite. The Reverend Edmund Nelson, unsmiling. His fingers tightening on his stick. “Are you afraid, Horatio?” he asked quietly. “Only that something will happen to prevent me reaching Chatham and joining my ship,” replied the boy. Horatio Nelson’s father smiled at his twelve year old son. His smile was rather sad, for he could not imagine the boy would put up with the hardships of life in the Royal Navy. It was only because Horatio had pestered his family day after day that at last they had given in, and his uncle, Captain Suckling, had agreed to take him into the service. There were rumours of war with Spain, and Captain Suckling was commissioning H.M.S. Raisonnable at Chatham, where Horatio had been told, he was to join the ship. His father was travelling with him as far as London. If the highwayman known as Black Jake had been a bit smarter that winter evening of 1770, Horatio Nelson might never have lived to win the Battle of Trafalgar. As it was, Black Jake showed himself too late. By the time he attempted to hold up the coach, it had breasted the hill and was gathering speed down the opposite slope. Black Jake, a pistol in each hand, called on the driver to halt. “Stand and deliver there! ‘Tis your money I want, but I’ll take your lives as well if you don’t stop!”


For answer, the coach guard gave a yell and loosed off his blunderbuss.

The driver whipped up the startled horses, and crouched low as one of the highwayman’s pistols went off almost in his face. Inside the coach, the fat man who had been sleeping poked his pistol through the window and pulled the trigger. There was a click and a flash, but the charge did not fire. With perspiration beading his forehead, the fat man cowered back and made a frantic attempt to reload the weapon. His hands were shaking. Young Nelson and his father, meanwhile, sat perfectly still in their seats. Neither carried a pistol. The boy’s heart pounded. He knew their lives were in danger at that moment, but was helpless to fight back. All at once his chance came. With the driver lashing the horses, the coach picked up speed on the down grade. Black Jake, whose horse had been peppered by the first shot from the guard’s blunderbuss, was losing ground, though he was able to spur up alongside the coach for a short distance. It was then that he lifted his second pistol to fire at the driver. Horatio watched, horrified. He saw the masked man, dressed in black from head to foot, riding hard not three feet from where he sat. Jake’s pistol was raised as he took aim. In the opposite corner of the coach, the fat man was still reloading his gun. Horatio knew there was no time to lose. Snatching his father’s stick, he leaned from the window, bringing it down with a crack on Black Jake’s pistol wrist, just as the gun went off. The highwayman roared angrily. Horatio’s blow had not hurt him much, but his aim had been spoiled. A moment later, Jake’s horse faltered and lost ground. The danger was past. Leaning out of the window, Horatio saw the highwayman make off into the woods. The fat man in the other corner finished reloading his pistol at last, and jumped towards the open window. “Ha, where’s the villain now?” he boomed. “I’ll blow his head off!” Horatio and his father exchanged a quick glance. Even the clergyman found it difficult not to laugh. “I fear, sir, you are too late,” Edmund Nelson observed gravely. “The fellow has made off, and wisely, too, by the look on your face. I warrant you would have got him had he been here still.” The fat man’s eyes bulged. He cleared his throat, put his pistol away with a shrug, and took a large pinch of snuff. “The rogue!” he growled. “Guessed I was reloading, that was it! They always fold up when a man gives ‘em back a dose of their own medicine!” He congratulated himself again and again as the coach rumbled on its way. Neither the Reverend Nelson, nor Horatio, said anything to contradict him. If the man had seen how Horatio had acted, he did not mention it, and certainly was not giving a slip of a boy any credit for what happened. Horatio himself was not the boastful kind. It was enough for him that he had helped beat Black Jake. Although the fat man talked about his own courage all the way to London, the boy himself had almost forgotten the incident by the time they got there.


The bustle and noise of the big London coaching yard, and of the city itself, was something strange to Horatio.

People milled about them, and for the first time Horatio glanced up at his father a little uneasily. The Reverend Nelson, on his part, was just as anxious. He looked down at his son, wondering for the hundredth time what possessed the boy to have chosen such a rugged life as that of a sailor. There in the busy coaching yard, Horatio looked smaller than ever, and more frail. “He won’t last a month in the navy,” thought the vicar sadly. “I should never have allowed it to happen.” “How long shall I have to wait for the Chatham coach father?” Horatio piped up. “Not long, my boy, but there’s time enough for us to take some refreshment,” the older Nelson smiled. “You’ll be leaving all too soon, so try not to be impatient.” “I shall miss you, father,” Horatio declared slowly, “but don’t worry about me. I shall not bring shame on you.” “Listen, my boy,” frowned his father, “you are only twelve years old, remember, and never been away from our quiet Norfolk home, except to go to school. The world is, I fear, an evil place for one so young. You will meet a host of strangers from now on, and many will be intent on doing you harm.” “I shall be watchful,” Horatio promised. Horatio felt a lump rise in his throat, since his father was so obviously afraid for him. If the truth be known, Horatio himself was none too happy at the prospect of facing the world alone, though he would not admit it. The Reverend Nelson gave a sigh, and led the way towards a nearby coffee house where many travellers had a meal before taking the coach. The place was crowded and noisy. A party of journeymen argued fiercely in a corner almost coming to blows. Horatio glanced round in awe. He had never been inside so busy a place, and in taking it all in he was separated from his father, who was searching for a vacant table. The Reverend Nelson himself had no liking for London coffee houses, and hated such a press of people. He distrusted them, but was not alert enough to ward off one of the most common dangers in London in those days, the pickpocket. Too late, he realised that a seedy looking man who jostled him in passing had plucked his purse from his pocket. By the time he noticed what had happened, the fellow was lost in the crowd. “My purse! I’ve been robbed!” shouted the vicar loudly. Horatio meanwhile, was looking about for his father. The boy caught sight of him just as the Reverend Nelson shouted. At almost the same time a shifty eyed man brushed past the lad, heading for the door. Grasped in his hand was a black leather purse Horatio knew well. It was his father’s and the man was in the act of slipping it into his pocket. “Stop thief! Stop thief!” yelled Horatio, and flung himself after the pickpocket. Others took up the cry, and the noise was deafening. The thief turned a startled face over his shoulder, thrust out a hand and caught Horatio under the chin with the flat of his palm. As Horatio staggered backwards the pickpocket tried to fight his way out through the doorway. He was foiled. People had seen the boy try to grab him. It marked him down as the thief, and they fell on him like a pack of wolves. A quick search revealed the Reverend Nelson’s purse, with his name and address plainly written on the inside. The man was hustled away, while Horatio Nelson and his father congratulated themselves on their luck. It was smart of you to spot him, my boy,” smiled the vicar. Horatio felt pleased enough to flush a little. “I shall still miss you, father,” he shrugged. “But you were right, there are things to guard against all the time.” Very soon afterwards, it was time for the Chatham coach to leave, and young Horatio had to say goodbye. Clutching his small bundle of belongings, he took a seat in the coach. It was difficult to stop the tears that sprang to his eyes when his father waved for the last time, but Horatio forced them back. None of his travelling companions spared him a glance, let alone a word of encouragement. They played cards and gambled. Much of their talk was of ships and the sea. They spoke of outlandish foreign ports, and of rumours of war that were circulating at the time. Everything would be all right when he reached Chatham, he thought. He would go on board the Raisonnable and report at once to his uncle, Captain Suckling. It was not to be as simple as that, however.


Chatham, on the River Medway, turned out to be even more confusing to the boy than London had been.

What was worse, Horatio had to find his own way from the coachyard to the docks, and ended up by becoming hopelessly lost. His own sense of independence prevented him asking where to go. He felt it was his duty to find out for himself. If he could not find his own ship, he argued, what kind of seaman would he make? He would find it even if he walked about all day. Horatio very nearly did just that, for the town was a maze of streets, none of which seemed to lead to the dockyard. The boy was growing discouraged when he had a brainwave. Seamen, he remembered, used a compass, or the sun, or stars to give them a sense of direction. He did not have a compass, but the sun was still shining, sinking into the west. If he could only climb high enough to catch a glimpse of ships’ masts, the sun would help him steer a course through the streets towards them. Horatio was near a big church when he had an idea, and it did not take long to go inside and find his way up to the belfry in the tower. Chatham lay spread out below, and for the first time he saw the Medway and the Naval Dockyard, a forest of masts, in the distance. Making a careful note of where the dockyard lay in relation to the setting sun, he returned to the street and started off, satisfied that no seaman in a strange port could have done better. “I’ll soon be reporting to uncle now,” he thought. Captain Maurice Suckling would welcome him on board the Raisonnable. His career in the Navy would be started. Horatio’s troubles were not ended by a long chalk, however. He found the ship all right, after a deal of searching, but she was moored out in the river. It was almost dusk by the time he persuaded a boatman to row him out to her. H.M.S. Raisonnable was a fine sixty-four gun ship-of-the-line, captured from the French. The boat bumped the foot of the gangway. Horatio, suddenly awed by the immense size of the ship, crept up the ladder to the deck. Before he could step aboard he was challenged by a marine on sentry duty. “What’s your business, boy?” Horatio gulped nervously. “I am to join the ship,” he replied as stoutly as he could with a musket pointed at his head. “My name is Nelson. Horatio Nelson.” The marine lowered his musket and uttered a scornful laugh, looking him up and down.  “So you’re joining the Navy eh?” he sneered. “Well, you may be small enough to chase the rats in the bilges, but not much use for anything else. Get for’ard, brat, and no lip or I’ll lace you with a rope end!” Horatio’s heart sank. Almost timidly, he stepped away from the gangway. “Wh-where is Captain Suckling’s cabin?” he asked. “Nowhere the likes of you’ll ever go!” was the curt reply. “Get for’ard, I said! The Cap’n’s ashore and likely to stay there a week yet. He won’t be interested in you, that’s sure!” It was on the tip of Horatio’s tongue to say that the captain was his uncle, but he stopped himself. It would not do to start his naval career by sheltering behind his uncle’s authority. It meant a rough start, and no mistake. The ship was still undermanned, and the crew busy getting ready for sea. Horatio was in everybody’s way. At last, after two whole days spent in a kind of bewildered nightmare, somebody took notice of him. It was the cook who put Horatio to work, stowing joints of beef and rank pork in casks of brine. It was not the kind of work Horatio had expected, but he toiled away as cheerfully as he could, pretending not to notice how the cook and his mates were giving him the worst jobs they could.


Horatio was cleaning out greasy pots a day or two later when at last Captain Suckling came aboard and learned of his arrival.

“Have the boy sent to my cabin,” the Captain ordered. “What’s he doing now?” The petty officer to whom he was speaking frowned uneasily. “He’s down in the galley with the cook, sir,” he admitted. Captain Suckling’s face darkened. “What?” he thundered. “Have him brought here at once, and the cook, too! Yes, and the rest of the galley gang! I’ll flog the lot!” The captain was as good as his word. Discipline was harsh in the Navy in those days, and the Captain did not pull his punches when he saw the cook and his mates. “This boy didn’t join the ship to scrape out buckets and pots!” he thundered. “He’s under my care to be educated, you rascals! You should have known from the way he talks and dresses he’s not the kind of scum for galley work! I’ll hear no excuses! Five lashes apiece! Quartermaster, see to it at once!” Wooden faced, the cook and his mates were led away to their punishment. Captain Suckling, hands folded behind him, paced the quarter deck and watched with a critical eye, making sure the flogging was not bungled. When it was over, he looked round for young Horatio, but there was no sign of him. “Bah!” muttered Suckling. “The weakling couldn’t stomach watching, I suppose!” It was ten minutes before Horatio was brought to the captain. “Where have you been, boy?” Suckling demanded. “Hiding, eh?” “Hiding, sir?” Horatio echoed. “Why no, I just went back to the galley to finish the work I was doing there.” Captain Suckling gave a grunt of surprise. He had been wrong in his estimation. “You have a strong sense of duty, Horatio,” he said gruffly7. “See you keep it, for ‘tis worth a lot. Now go and clean yourself up and report back here. “Your education is just beginning. If you’re smart enough I’ll rate you midshipman inside a month!”


© D. C. Thomson & Co Ltd

Vic Whittle 2007