On arriving at Portsmouth, Major Archer took up his quarters at the famous George Inn, and, leaving their luggage there, was soon on his way down to the Hard. Half a century had gone by since Portsmouth had exhibited such a scene of life and bustle. Large numbers of extra hands had been taken on at the dockyards, and the fitters and riggers labored night and day, hastening on the vessels just put into commission. The bakeries were at work turning out biscuits as fast as they could be made, and the stores were crammed to repletion with commissariat and other stores. In addition to the ships of war, several large merchant steamers, taken up as transports, lay alongside the wharves, and an unusual force of military were concentrated in the town, ready for departure. By the Hard were a number of boats from the various men-of-war lying in the harbor or off Spithead, whose officers were ashore upon various duties. Huge dockyard barges, piled with casks and stores, were being towed alongside the ships of war, and the bustle and life of the scene were delightful indeed to Jack, accustomed only to the quiet sleepiness of a cathedral town like Canterbury. Inquiring which was the “Falcon,” a paddle steamer moored in the stream was pointed out to them by a boatman.
“Oh dear,” Jack said, “she looks small in comparison with those big men-of-war.”
“She is none the worse, Jack, for that,” his father said. “If there should be fighting, it will scarcely be at sea. The Russian fleet will not venture to engage the fleets of England and France united, and you are likely to see much more active work in a vessel like the ‘Falcon’ than in one of those floating castles. Hullo, Charles, is that you?” he broke off, lying his hand upon the shoulder of a naval officer, who was pushing his way though the crowd of boatmen and sailors to a man-of-war gig, which, with many others, was lying by the Hard.
“Hullo, uncle, is that you?” he replied. “I am glad to see you. I was expecting you here in a day or so. I thought you would run down with the youngster. Well, Jack, how are you? Why, it must be eight years since I saw you. You were quite a little chap then. Well, are you thinking of thrashing the Russians?”
“The boy is half out of his mind with pleasure, Charles,” Major Archer said, “and he and all of us are greatly obliged to you for your kindness in getting him his berth. I think you will find him active and intelligent, though I fear he has not shone greatly at school, especially,” he said smiling, “in his Latin verses.”
“He will make none the worse sailor for that,” Charles Hethcote said with a laugh. “But I must be going on board. I have a message from the admiral to the captain and every moment is precious, for things are terribly behindhand. The dockyard people are wellnigh out of their wits with the pressure put upon them, and we are ordered to be ready to sail in a week. How it’s all to be done, goodness only knows. You need not come on board, Jack. I will tell the captain that you have arrived, and he would not thank me for bringing any live lumber on board just at present. You had better get him his outfit, uncle, at once, and then he can report himself in full trim to-morrow.”