SCRUB – An insignificant or contemptible person; (in sports) a player not among the best or most skilled.
— Oxford English Dictionary
The following takes place about four years after Frederick Wentworth captured the Laconia and was promoted.
Summer of 1812 – HMS Laconia, in the Mediterranean Sea
Now, some of you landlubbers may not be certain what is meant when a man is named a scrub. I shall endeavor to explain.
The first requirement of scrubbery (not “shrubbery”—that is a different story altogether) is that the scrub must be a man. A woman cannot be a scrub. She may display scruberous behavior, but she cannot be a scrub due to the unfortunate state of her sex. There are names for such women other than scrub; names that do not bear repeating here (one rhymes with witch, however).
We have determined that our object must be a man. This man then displays the following behavior, which his fellow men find offensive and irritating, thus the name scrub.
• A scrub is a hypocrite.
• A scrub is forever trying to give his duties to others.
• A scrub informs on his fellows.
• A scrub never takes responsibility for his failings and always demands credit for the accomplishments of others.
• A scrub is a martinet to his subordinates, insufferable to his comrades, and sycophantic to his superiors.
• A scrub despises everyone.
In sum, an unpleasant sort of fellow. Woe to the ship captained by such a man.
Therefore, it was fortunate indeed that the HMS Laconia was commanded by a most excellent officer, Captain Frederick “Fightin’ Freddie” Wentworth. His reputation, both before the mast and around the fleet, was one of dash, courage, ingenuity, prudence, firmness, and fair-mindedness. Wentworth was clear on how he wanted things done on his ship. He could not abide idleness or disorder, but he hated the lash, using it rarely and reluctantly. He was generous in his praise and unselfish with reward. He was also lucky, and his commands took more than their share of prizes. Wentworth’s men loved him and would follow the captain to the Gates of Hades itself, trusting that he would get them out again. Captain Wentworth was the furthest thing from a scrub.
Scrubs are an infestation injurious to any organization, but they are particularly irksome on board a warship. One cannot evade a scrub in the middle of the ocean. Port calls are a bit of a reprieve for his fellows but ultimately unsatisfying as they must eventually return to the ship and the company of the scrub. It is extremely difficult to arrange transfer to another ship, and the Admiralty takes a dim view of desertion, so the unlucky sailors are stuck.
Assuming he himself is not a scrub, a ship’s captain tries very hard to prevent the infestation of scrubbery, for it has been known to throw off one’s appetite and even cause a case of the bloody flux. Very uncomfortable, the bloody flux. Unfortunately, as manpower is always on short supply, once a ship has a scrub aboard, the captain must deal with him as best he can. Copious amounts of wine helps.
Captains have been known to use any trick they can devise to rid themselves of a scrub, should the opportunity arise. Illness is always welcomed as well as friends in the fleet to whom one can pawn off the scrub. That is why in 1812, despite Captain Wentworth’s best efforts, the HMS Laconia contracted a case of scrubbery on a port visit to Gibraltar, by the name of Richard Musgrove. Wentworth did a favor for a colleague, and his purpose was noble, but all know the destination of that road paved with good intentions.
Richard Musgrove, called Dick for many reasons, was a midshipman of indifferent talents. He was the second son of a county squire, a Charles Musgrove by name, owner of Uppercross Hall in Somersetshire. As there was an older brother, also named Charles, to inherit, Dick Musgrove had the option of the army, navy, or church as a choice for an occupation. His parents chose the Royal Navy. To all they said it was because a man could make his fortune in the navy, and that was so. The real reason, one they were loath to admit even to themselves, was that the navy took their young gentlemen at a tender age—younger than the army. Young Dick was a bit of a blockhead, so a gentleman’s education was right out. And as the boy was a scrub, his loving parents instinctively wanted to rid themselves of him.
By the by, it must be understood that scrubs are born, not made. This is the second requirement.
Scrubs are very versed in hiding their affliction from superiors for a time, usually until the idea of returning to port is impractical. Thus it was that Wentworth did not realize he had a scrub on his hands for nearly a month. After writing and destroying a very rude letter to his colleague, Wentworth set upon the only task available to him: endeavoring to reform the scrub.
This despite the third requirement of scrubs, which is scrubs are hopeless of improvement. Once a scrub, always a scrub.
We now look in on the captain’s quarters aboard HMS Laconia as Captain Wentworth is having a conversation with Midshipman Musgrove:
A sweating Wentworth gazed at the young gentleman standing uncomfortably before him. The ship was on an east-northeast course, and the afternoon summer sun was pouring through the stern windows onto the back of Wentworth’s neck. It was blasted hot in the cabin.
“Well, Mr. Musgrove, we must have yet another chat.”
The man jumped at Wentworth’s hard tone. “As you please, sir.” There was no air of insubordination—all was proper and correct, even though he held his body in a careless manner. Years at sea, yet Midshipman Musgrove still looked the soft and stupid squire’s son the navy had failed to beat out of him. It was a shame. More backbone and candor would have been appreciated.
Wentworth glanced at the papers before him. “You recommend two men from your division for punishment?”
“Yes, sir. They were disrespectful.”
“That is ten hands in the last month. What did these men do?”
“They referred to me in an offensive manner, not in accordance with my rank.”
“What did they call you?”
Musgrove sniffed. “’Little Dickie,’ sir.”
Wentworth took in the short, heavy teenager, and had to stifle a chuckle. “To your face?”
“Err… no, sir. I heard them speaking of me while they were swabbing the deck.”
Wentworth frowned. “I know these men—Lauck and Eades. Both right seamen. Please tell me exactly what they said.”
“Well, I was at the waist, supervising the men at their labors, when I overheard Lauck say to Eades, ‘You had better swab that spot again, or Little Dickie will write you up,’ or words to that effect. And Eades replied that ‘Little Dickie—that’s a fit name for him.’”
The captain dropped his face in his hands and sighed. “Do you recall our conversation about what an officer should hear and what he should not?”
The sweating midshipman raised his piggish, fat nose. “Sir, are you saying that it is permitted for a sailor to refer to his superior in such a disrespectful fashion?”
Wentworth almost reminded Musgrove the men’s nickname for the captain of this ship was Fightin’ Freddie, but he saw the reference would be pointless. “No, I am not. Well, there is nothing for it as you have indeed written these men up. One week without grog for both of them.”
Musgrove’s disappointment was clear. It was certain he thought they both should have been placed in chains, if not flogged.
“Oh, yes, sir.”
“Hmm. The schoolmaster says otherwise. Your figures, for example—”
“Begging the captain’s pardon, but the schoolmaster hates me! He is forever mocking me before the others. And his examinations—trick questions, all of them.”
Wentworth could well understand the strict schoolmaster developing a hatred for Musgrove; his own opinion of the midshipman grew lower by the day. “Nevertheless, sir, I expect better results in the future! Trick questions or no, you shall never pass for lieutenant unless your marks improve. As a case in point, take your handwriting. Even you must admit it is atrocious.”
“As you say, sir.”
“Practice, sir, is the only way to improve one’s handwriting. Have you been writing to your mother weekly, as I asked?”
“I try, sir,” Musgrove stammered, “but my duties consume so much of my time.”
“For shame, Musgrove! Your poor mother! No letters to her, but you have time to play cards with your fellows!” The midshipman had nothing to say to that. “At least I have no more reports of fights in the midshipmen’s berth. That is progress of a sort.”
Musgrove fidgeted uncomfortably. The last time he had been engaged in a verbal altercation below desks, Wentworth had Musgrove mastheaded—forced to do a watch from the topgallant crosstrees. Spending several hours from the top of the mainmast could be a delightful punishment, but the weather was rough that day and Musgrove was forced to lash himself to the crosstrees. He still lost his breakfast. He had been on his best behavior since.
Wentworth looked Musgrove in the eye. “You will redouble your studies when off duty, Mr. Musgrove. And I want to see a letter to your mother by eight bells in the morning watch tomorrow. Dismissed.”
Midshipman Musgrove nodded, turned on his heel, and left the cabin. He promptly kicked the ship’s dog on his way to the ladder below decks.
The dog’s howl had been heard. “MISTER MUSGROVE!”
The midshipman stifled a curse and hurried back to the captain’s cabin. “I am sorry, sir, but I did not see her and tripped on my way below decks.”
Wentworth silently counted to ten. “Be more careful, Musgrove.”
“Of course, sir.” Musgrove closed the door, sneered at the grinning guard, a marine private, and continued on his way.
Inside, Captain Wentworth called to his steward. “Nowak—Nowak, there! Light down to Dr. Powell and have him bring a dose of the white willow bark. I feel a headache coming on.”
Thus it was, day upon day, week upon week, aboard the Laconia. Dick Musgrove proved himself incapable of improvement for he was truly an excellent specimen of scrub. Cajoling and counseling, pressuring and punishing had no effect on the lad. Wentworth was beside himself. He shipped neither wine nor white willow bark in quantity enough to last a full voyage.
Not all honorable Christian officers were rewarded according to their due, but Wentworth was a lucky man, as we have already observed, and Dame Fortune did not desert him. Dick Musgrove was often afflicted with what was then thought to be colds of the chest. These bouts of illness were formidable enough to send the midshipman to his cot for days at a time. In the decades to come, men of science would come to realize that the malady he suffered was really due to an allergic reaction his body had to some foreign substance, such as molds or fleas—things plentiful aboard ship. But this was the second decade of the 19th century, and the cause of illness was still a mystery, even to ship’s doctors.
Captain Wentworth knew salvation when he saw it and changed course to Malta.
Therefore, an ill Dick Musgrove was carried off His Majesty’s Ship Laconia and deposited in the Royal Navy Hospital in the port of Valletta six months to the day after he joined the frigate in Gibraltar. Wentworth left his erstwhile midshipman with a letter of recommendation and a pat on the shoulder, and if the good captain in his letter exaggerated Musgrove’s gifts and abilities and neglected to mention his numerous faults, the reader will surely forgive him. One must do what one must do to eradicate one’s ship from the scourge of scrubbery.
By the time Musgrove could leave his sickbed, Laconia was gone a week. Still, the lad did not suffer long, for a fortnight had not passed when HMS Incredible, a 74-gun third-rate ship-of-the-line, came in for victuals—supplies, for you landlubbers. She also was in want of men and was not picky about quality. Scrubs have their own luck, you know.
This magnificent two-decker was the flagship of Sir Bartholomew Dester, a rear admiral of the white. Musgrove thought he had made his career. Surely serving under an admiral, even a rear, would lead to quick advancement. As scrubs are wont to do, he made a good enough impression on the Incredible’s captain to secure a berth in the midshipmen’s quarters. Musgrove ascended the gangplank with a song in his heart, certain he would make lieutenant in no time.
But Dick Musgrove’s luck had run out. Admiral Dester’s nickname below decks and about his squadron was “Black Bart,” and not because he resembled the famous pirate. He did not. Sir Bartholomew was a disciplinarian’s disciplinarian. He also enjoyed perfect health and had very little sympathy for those who fell ill. He knew men did not die from trifling colds, and made sure the ship’s doctor agreed with him.
So, when Dick Musgrove fell sick a month later, it would be some time before his illness had reached a stage for the doctor to intervene. By then, Musgrove’s “cold” had revealed itself to be a putrid infection of the lungs. The good doctor immediately and repeatedly bled his patient, to no avail. Ten days later, the feverish lad slipped away.
Richard Musgrove, midshipman and scrub, was buried at sea with full military honors. I wish I could say he was mourned by his shipmates, but an author should not tell falsehoods. At least they did not steal from his belongings. Let the reader decide whether that was because of gentlemanly honor among his fellows, or whether they feared he had something catching. In any case, a box of Musgrove’s belongings would eventually make its way to Uppercross Hall and his grieving parents.
Thus ends the tale of Dick Musgrove, scrub. It is strongly suggested by the author that the reader learn well the characteristics of scrubbery so that they may take pains to avoid such people. One does not want the bloody flux, does one?
And as for you scrubs out there who are reading this … well, c’est la vie.
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