His most notable adventure during this Polar cruise, however, was a fight with a bear.
One night he stole away from his ship with a companion in pursuit of a bear. A fog which had been rising when they left the Carcass soon enveloped them. Between three and four o’clock in the morning, when the weather began to clear, they were sighted by Captain Lutwidge and his officers, at some distance from the ship, in conflict with a huge bear. The boys, who had been missed soon after they set out on their adventure, were at once signaled to return. Nelson’s companion urged him to obey the signal, and, though their ammunition had given out, he longed to continue the fight.
“Never mind,” he cried excitedly; “do but let me get a blow at this fellow with the butt end of my musket, and we shall have him.”
Captain Lutwidge, seeing the boy’s danger,—he being separated from the bear only by a narrow chasm in the ice,—fired a gun. This frightened the bear away. Nelson then returned to face the consequences of his disobedience.
He was severely reprimanded by his captain for “conduct so unworthy of the office he filled.” When asked what motive he had in hunting a bear, he replied, still trembling from the excitement of the encounter, “Sir, I wished to kill the bear that I might carry the skin to my father.”
The expedition finally worked its way out of the ice and sailed for home.
Horatio’s next voyage was to the East Indies, aboard the Seahorse, one of the vessels of a squadron under the command of Sir Edward Hughes. His attention to duty attracted the notice of his senior officer, on whose recommendation he was rated as a midshipman.
After eighteen months in the trying climate of India, the youth’s health gave way, and he was sent home in the Dolphin. His physical weakness affected his spirits. Gloom fastened upon him, and for a time he was very despondent about his future.
“I felt impressed,” he says, “with an idea that I should never rise in my profession. My mind was staggered with a view of the difficulties I had to surmount and the little interest I possessed. I could discover no means of reaching the object of my ambition. After a long and gloomy revery in which I almost wished myself overboard, a sudden flow of patriotism was kindled within me and presented my king and my country as my patrons. My mind exulted in the idea. ‘Well, then,’ I exclaimed, ’I will be a hero, and, confiding in Providence, I will brave every danger!’”
In that hour Nelson leaped from boyhood to manhood. Thenceforth the purpose of his life never changed. From that time, as he often said afterward, “a radiant orb was suspended in his mind’s eye, which urged him onward to renown.”
His health improved very much during the homeward voyage, and he was soon able to resume duty again.
At nineteen he was made second lieutenant of the Lowestoffe; and at twenty he was commander of the Badger. Before he was twenty-one, owing largely to his courage and presence of mind in face of every danger, and his enthusiasm in his profession, “he had gained that mark,” says his biographer, Southey, “which brought all the honors of the service within his reach.”