I Will Be A Hero
This story is based on an experience that Admiral Nelson allegedly had when in his teens, after being invalided home from the East Indies with what was almost certainly malaria. During the voyage Nelson was left severely depressed by the illness but then claimed to have a religious experience in which a ‘radiant orb’ gave him a great surge of confidence and patriotism- and from that moment on Nelson was a great believer in destiny, bowing down to whatever fate God had in store for him.
A frigate of 24 guns battled her way through a raging storm, the poor souls on board fighting hard against the elements to keep her on course. HMS Dolphin sliced through the angry waves, and as she dipped into the dark rolls of the sea, a cloud of spray was thrown up onto those unfortunate enough to be stationed on the forward part of the deck. As she came up again, many of her inhabitants had turned green with sea sickness.
The wind howled, and the rigging shuddered. Rain plummeted onto the deck and sails and onto the faces of the Dolphin‘s weary crew. It seemed that Neptune was angry. This was not the first storm they had encountered, and they knew it was unlikely to be their last. Over the previous weeks they had been continuously making repairs. At least on a long voyage from India to England, it kept things interesting.
The ship’s surgeon, Joseph Davis, peered round into the sick bay. The Dolphin seemed to be almost heeling over, and he had to lean on a beam to keep himself upright. His patients were all lying in suspended cots that swung violently with the motions of the ship. Some were too dazed to even notice; others were clinging, wide-eyed, to the sides of their cot, praying that the ship wouldn’t founder. Davis could understand their fears. The Dolphin was in no better condition than many of her seamen. She often leaked, and her timbers were slowly rotting away.
His gaze drifted over to one of his youngest charges: a midshipman in his late teens, who had a terrible fever. A mop of brown curls clung to his forehead and round his thin face. His eyes were dull.
He had contracted a lethal illness–most likely malaria–while in the East Indies. Unable to do any more, his previous ship’s doctor had discharged him and placed him on the Dolphin, along with many others, to return home to England. A cooler climate was the only chance he had for recovery. His body had been reduced to little more than bones and pasty yellow skin, and he had practically lost the use of his arms and legs.
Poor fellow, Davis thought, shaking his head. Malaria was a killer. Very few people could have it and live to talk about it afterwards. The boy would probably die before they reached their destination. A barrel had already been prepared to carry him in case he didn’t.
It was a shame, but that was the price one might have to pay for serving in the King’s navy. It was a risk all those had to take when they joined the service. They’d join often thinking the only cause of death was to be caught by enemy guns, but Davis knew that disease was a silent and much more deadly killer. It destroyed the lives of far more sailors than battle ever did.
Lying in his cot, the boy heard the usual sounds: the sound of the sea swashing against the great oak sides of the ship, the creaking walls, the buzz of hundreds of men chatting, and the clanking and clomping as they went about their daily tasks. These noises were all very familiar yet in his senseless daze seemed strange and surreal. Every part of him ached, and his head was throbbing. He felt weak, tired and chilled to the bone.
Brief moments of awareness were filled only with despair. He was a useless burden, a helpless case. No chance. No hope. No future.
He smiled bitterly. To think he once believed he would have a long and successful career! Now it was over before even having the chance to start. He hadn’t even made it to the rank of lieutenant. When he had been young, he’d dreamed of becoming a famous captain just like his uncle, winning great victories for England and earning lots of prize money. Now that dream was about as dead as he was.
He was going to die; he was certain of that. He had seen it in the eyes of his surgeon on the Seahorse. He had seen it in his gentle smile and the worried furrows of his brows. ‘Good luck, young Nelson,’ he had murmured softly. If his expression hadn’t already made it clear to him, then these words certainly would have done.
He wondered what would happen when he died. Would he go to Heaven? Had he been good enough? Would he see is mother there? His eyes began to glisten. Poor mother! I hope have done her proud. The possibility of once again sitting in the arms of his beloved mother made death seem far less daunting. He felt so fatigued that eternal rest was quite welcome. Please, God, if I am to die, let it be soon. His eyes started to slowly close. The storm outside wasn’t calming, but to him it seemed to be. He drifted off and let the darkness engulf him.
“Here, lad, drink up,” Davis said, handing the boy a beaker. A few months had passed, and the Dolphin had a few weeks previously stopped off at the Cape of Good Hope on the coast of South Africa to pick up fresh supplies, the benefits of which for all on board was evident, even for little Nelson. The weather had calmed, and it wasn’t too far to England.
As he watched him gulp the liquid down, Davis felt astounded by the recovery his young patient had made. Indeed, he was still far from well, but he had recovered the use of his limbs although he complained that they still ached, and he hadn’t gone into a coma for weeks. He was still very thin, just a skeleton with a little flesh on, but the eating of fresh food was helping with that. Perhaps, he dared to think, perhaps the boy would live after all.
Nelson felt less optimistic. He felt better than before; he couldn’t deny it, but in his mind there was a dark cloud of sorrow which wouldn’t lift. He had no prospects. He knew no one influential to help him progress in his career. That was how the navy worked. Young men would need ‘interest’ to aid them through the early stages. It was only after that they would have to rely on their own merits.
But Nelson felt on his own. He became disenchanted with the service of which he had grown so fond. It had given him companionship, adventure, and a sense of accomplishment. A few months ago he had seen his first battle. Small it had been, but it had tested his nerves, and now he knew he could stand tall under fire.
But he’d already been discharged from his ship because he was unfit to perform his duties. He was weak–inadequate. No matter how skilled and brave an officer was, he would be useless if he was near dying whenever he caught a fever.
How could he continue?
Not yet quite eighteen and his career was over. He cringed when he imagined his family’s disappointed faces.
The future was very bleak–too bleak. He didn’t want to exist anymore. Life is not worth living without happiness, he thought. He suddenly conceived a plan so alien to his character that it immediately made him feel quite uncomfortable: he would throw himself overboard.
No, that wouldn’t do, for suicide was a sin, and he would almost certainly go to Hell–it was not for him to take his life–and those he loved would be ashamed of him. What would his mother have thought? I need to do her proud.
At that moment, time seemed to be suspended. His eyes focused and he was sure he could see a golden orb floating in front of him. It entranced him. There was no doubt in his mind that this vision was from God, sent to guide him and tell him there was a reason for his being. The Lord has a purpose for everybody. How could he have thought that his Glorious Maker had excluded him?
He had never felt a greater sense of comfort. His confidence reached new heights as he realized he was destined for great things. The glowing orb before him seemed to be telling him that, filling him with a warmth he had never experienced before. He has a duty–to his God and to his country. He felt determined to serve them both with zeal until his final breath.
He would not give up. He would be brave, and he would surmount any difficulties. He would be a hero.
“I will be a hero,” he murmured. “I will brave every danger. I will be a hero…”
Davis sat at a desk writing in his log. In it he wrote notes on the condition of all those who were in his care. As a doctor, he felt it important to track their progress. Suddenly, the sound of Midshipman Nelson softly speaking caught his attention.
“‘I will be a hero, and confiding in Providence, I will brave every danger.”
He stopped writing abruptly and came over to the cot. Nelson’s eyes were bright, and there was even a hint of colour in his cheeks. There was a pleasant smile upon his young face.
“How are you feeling, Mr. Nelson?” he enquired, a little worried that the poor boy may have entirely lost his senses.
“A lot better, sir,” he chirped. “If you don’t mind, sir, I’d like to get up and do my duties. I’ve heard talk that we’ll reach England soon and I must prepare, for I will probably have my lieutenant’s examination soon.”
Davis ‘ face was an image of pure astonishment. Never before had he witnessed a patient recover so much from an illness in such a short space of time–and from malaria, too! This boy was made of sturdy stuff, that was for sure.
He must have been born to sail the sea.