"Lewrie… ah!" Old Jarvy grumped, doffing his large cocked hat as Lewrie did his, his head tilted back a bit to peer (rather dubiously, did Alan imagine?) down his fine-sculpted nose. "Heard some about you, sir. 'Deed I have," he pronounced, most disconcertingly.
That don't sound promisin', Lewrie quailed, not knowing how he might respond. Just how much has he heard? And which bits?
"Your servant, Sir John," he cooed instead, making a "leg."
"Well?" Old Jarvy barked, still holding his hat high over his head though Lewrie had lowered his to his side. "Did you? 'Start your water'? And was that before or after the Santissima Trinidad fired?"
"Oh!" Lewrie brightened instantly, much relieved to hear the chuckle which rose from Sir John, see the puckish grin on his phyz… to receive much the same sort of cheery approbation from the rest, all those senior and august commanders! "I'm certain more'n a few of our people did, Sir John… immediately after. For myself, 'twas a close run thing. I didn't anticipate such a response… certainly not her full attention."
"A fellow who yanks the lion's tail, sir," Admiral Jervis said, with a touch of high-nosed frost, "simply must expect a clawing!" He twinkled, snorted-actually making a jape! Almost but not quite as full of jollity as an affable compatriot and nothing like the flinty, humourless disciplinarian he was reputed to be, who could give anyone a case of the runs by simply glaring at him.
Admiral Jervis clapped his hat back on, stepping closer to take Lewrie's hand and pump away at it quite vigourously for a brief time, as the rest tittered polite appreciation for their commander's jest.
"I'll caution you, Commander Lewrie, about making a career of tomfoolery," Sir John added, pursing his features nigh to an actual admonishment, "but 'twas a splendid gesture nonetheless. You, Captain Troubridge in Culloden… Commodore Nelson… Was it disobedience of my signalled orders…?" he posed, detaching his hand from Lewrie's. Christ, am I for it after all? Lewrie shivered again. Distressingly, now his hand was free again, Admiral Jervis doffed his hat high aloft once more, making Alan twitch in indecision. "… then it was a most forgivable disobedience, hmmm?" "Thankee, Sir John," Lewrie muttered, dumbstruck. That hat…! "Your casualties, sir, your damage?" Admiral Jervis asked more softly, coming closer, and glooming up in grim expectation.
"Why, none, sir," Lewrie declared. "No damage either. They couldn't shoot worth a… they were very poor at long-range firing." "Close-in, though…" One of the senior officers sighed. "But still, slow as 'church-work,' " Little Nelson chortled with glee. "Else we'd never have been able to stand within pistol-shot for as long as we did, sirs. Yank the lion's tail indeed, Sir John. Got Santissima Trinidad to waste a month's worth of shot and powder on his ship… 'stead of mine. My thanks, Commander Lewrie. When he was of my squadron at Genoa, sirs, I found none more expeditious and slyboots than Commander Lewrie when it came to befuddling our foes."
"No casualties… and no damage," Sir John mused heavily. "I do declare. Good, though. Good. 'Tis been a bloody-enough day."
"Well, for the Dons, much worse, sir," Nelson prattled on. "I must think they suffered ten times worse than us. You've been aboard the prize-ships, seen…"
"Aye," Sir John grunted, clapping one hand behind his back to pace himself back to his usual taciturn grumpiness. "So you may sail off towards Cadiz and 'smoak' the dispositions of their remaining warships, sir?" He directed this to Lewrie.
"Aye, Sir John," Lewrie said automatically. "Though… we are a tad worn down, sir. I was hoping to careen her, re-copper her bottom. A short spell in port before…" Should I doff my hat to him too?
"You've been in commission since… Captain Calder?"
"Three years, this month, Sir John," Calder supplied, off the top of his head.
"We shall make other arrangements then," Sir John said, almost mournfully. But instantly there was a twinkle in his eyes. "Lewrie, today is Valentine's Day. I shall make you a present. Remain under my lee 'til I send you written orders."
"Aye, aye, sir."
"And, well done, Lewrie. Damn' foolhardy, but well done."
"There was a lot of that going round today, sir. I think it must be catching," Alan allowed himself to jape.
"… called the San Nicolas my 'Patent Bridge for Boarding First Rates,' ha, ha!" Nelson could be heard to titter in his high voice. "Up and over, without a pause, 'board the San Jose, d'ye see."
Lewrie cocked a chary brow at that statement; Nelson was never a shy man when it came to taking acclaim-he'd seen that preening side to him before. And he most-cynically suspected no one had called it that yet- Nelson had made it up himself. For his vaulting vanity!
Damn' fool! Lewrie sighed. Never knew when to stop troweling it on!
Servants were sporting trays of drinks 'round, and Lewrie snagged himself one and took a welcome sip of a very good claret. Old Jarvy's best, he imagined, saved for a rare occasion such as this.
"By the by, Commander Lewrie," Captain Calder purred, stepping over to him. "Just before this little set-to, we received some mails for the fleet. I do believe, should you speak to our First Officer, he has yours ready to hand."
"Mail, sir!" Lewrie enthused. It had been weeks since he'd had news from home. "I can't think of a single thing more to make this day any more perfect."
"Uhmm… is that some cat hair on your coat, sir?"
Nearly nine o'clock of the Evening Watch and almost time that all glims and lanthorns were doused for fear of fire in the night hours. Even a captain had to heed the Master At Arms. There was still time, though, to race through just one more letter from his wife, Caroline, back home in Anglesgreen, then give them all a slower, more loving perusal the next morning.
He swiveled and craned under the swaying overhead lanthorn for the most light at his desk, idly stroking a sleeping Toulon, atop the attractively crinkly discard pile of other mail from chandlers, tailors, bankers, and such, tucked up all Sphinx-like.
… has purchased three hundred acres of Land, talked of
running up a manse, just by the old ruined tower
where long ago we pledged our mutual Love…
Lewrie flipped back a page or two, looking for a clue. Was this some new botheration from Harry Embleton or his father, the baronet? That was Chiswick land, just by his own rented acres, land he stood a chance to inherit (his brother-in-law, Governour, for certain) once old Uncle Phineas Chiswick went "toes up" (and, pray God, soon!). Phineas would never sell a three-hundred-acre tract off whilst living and would likely find a way to tuck it in his coffin and hoist it off to Perdition with him! Just for spite! In fact, he'd rather die than give away a single blade of grass to a passing drover's goat! Ah…!
… to England, and has been making the most
perfect Hooraw in the village since. And he
now lodges on Us, until he discovers suitable
quarters; which, as I am certain you understand,
Dearest, has caused no end of Upset…
Must be further back, Lewrie puzzled. If her brother, Burgess, had returned from service with the East India Company army, Caroline would be over the moon with joy, would never express reservations, even if he came back sick, lame, or bankrupt! More like, he could lodge with Phineas and his mother in that drab pile, with Governour and Millicent at their new house.
"Now where the deuce…" Lewrie grumbled half-aloud, sorting out the fronts and backs of the hefty letter. There came the crisp clang of two bells up forrud, the stamp of boots, and a musket butt from the marine sentry at his main deck door, almost at the same instant.
"Master At Arms, sah! Reports 'darkened ship,' sah!"
"Christ on a crutch!" Lewrie yelped.
"Very well… carry on then… Jesus!" Lewrie barked back.
… the proper Respect and Deference due your
sire, and most of all, Dearest, that tender
Consideration I feel bound to show Brigadier
Sir Hugo as my father-in-law, though, until his
un-looked-for arrival, we had never met.
"My bloody father!" Lewrie muttered. "Aye, dark, alright. Dark and gettin' darker!"
I pray you, though, Alan, should you have any
suggestions as to how to finesse this matter,
I beg you write at once and tell me… what shall
I do with your father?
Load those pistols I left in my study was Lewrie's first thought; send to the blacksmith's for a gross of chastity belts was his second. Then-best yet-run!
Non equidem invideo; mirror magis; undique totis
usque adeo tubatur agris.
Well, I grudge you not-rather I marvel;
such unrest is there on all sides in the land.
– The Eclogues, I, 11-12
It should have been a glad day. Yet to Lewrie it seemed to be one of infinite sadness. Though the harbour waters were sparkling and glittering, the skies were fresh-washed blue, stippled with benign and pristine brush-stroked clouds; the sun was bright; and the day was just warm enough to be mild, yet not hot enough to be oppressive; and gulls and other seabirds swooped and dove and hovered with springtime delight… it was his last day. The morning he surrendered command of HMS Jester.
Admiral Sir John Jervis's Valentine's Day "present," following the Battle of Cape Saint Vincent, was a quick dash into Lisbon for two days Out-of-Discipline, an aboard-ship revel with the Portugee whores and something approaching a monumental drunk for all hands. And once the last doxy had been chivvied ashore, the last smuggled wine bottle tipped overside, and the last thick head had returned to normal use, they had stripped Jester of top-masts, stores, and artillery for her first careenage since Leghorn, the middle of '95. Tons of weed, slime, and barnacles had been sluiced, swabbed, chipped, or fired off her hull; and what little they could do to replace missing copper sheets, or tar over and paint over, had been performed before re-floating her, giving her that long-delayed "lick and a promise" above the waterline, before re-stocking her, re-arming her, and setting her masts up anew.
It was only then that Lewrie could announce to his men that they were off for Portsmouth to de-commission; off for Home and England! And Jester's decks had rung with whooping cheers and tears of joy!
He'd wished he'd known sooner; four hands had trickled off from the working parties, entered on ship's books as "Run." Had they known earlier that Jester was bound for England, they might have stayed on to see their families again and collect the pay owed them, which was nearly eighteen months overdue, which, given the times and the Navy's slack accounting system, was actually a little better-than-normal delay.
Then again, two of them had been Italian volunteers, or some of those Maltese seamen who'd been hired-out by the Grand Masters of Malta in '93, after Hood had taken, then lost, the French naval base at Toulon.
Lewrie was certain that their "fly" Purser-the young, bespectacled Mr. Giles-was cackling in glee somewhere aft in a stores room over their departure. Not only had they decamped without their meagre pay, but their shares in the prize-money which Jester had accumulated since '94. Finding a way to make absent men "chew tobacco"-purchase slop-clothing, hats, tinware, and such on a two-year spending spree as profligate as… as drunken sailors-to help make his books balance, Lewrie was mortal-certain! Or sign their pay over to him in total? Forge documents that he was their executor selected to hold any share of prize-money for them? Their only bloody heir? Lewrie had scoffed.
There was little he could do to their benefit. And, after all, they'd "Run"; taken "leg-bail" from the Fleet, from shipmates, and from his command. Now they were most-likely dead-broke and desperate for a berth in any merchant ship that'd have them, throwing away sums that for a poor sailorman were damn'-near princely! The Devil with 'em… damn' fools!
So he'd demurred and hadn't cocked a wary brow at Giles, letting him have his unofficial "due." He needed him too badly to anger the smug little "Captain Sharp," not at the last moments of a commission when his own accountings and financial records were to be scrutinised by a platoon of petti-fogging Admiralty clerks! Not if he didn't want to have some bear-trap snap shut on his arse, all unsuspecting, years later!
His cabins were stripped bare, but for guns, carriages, and the black-and-white chequer painted on the sailcloth deck covering. Ragged and scuffed, the paint scrubbed half off beneath the gun-trucks. The many light canvas and deal partitions were stacked to one corner like a set of abandoned doors or used-up stage-sets. His chests were now in a hired boat alongside. Toulon, strenuously objecting to it, was caged in a wicker basket which Aspinall held-rather carefully, he noted, for Toulon was hissing, spitting, hunkering, and licking chops like he wished to nip the fool who'd ordered him in there. Or whichever fleshy idiot got within slashing distance.
Lewrie huffed a huge sigh of finality. Even after they'd come in, there'd been nigh on ten days' worth of nattering with Vice-Admiral Sir Peter Parker's staff, in charge at Portsmouth, with the criminals at HM Dockyards, with the bewildered twits at Gun Wharf, who'd given him permission to keep his French 8-pounders (which equalled British Long-Nines) instead of waiting to exchange for the proper 6-pounders his vessel rated… and now vowed they had never known a thing about it, and who the deuce did he think he was playing fast and loose with their records? Didn't he know there was a war on?
There'd been a blizzard of paperwork; all the forms, ledgers, and logs, the fill-in-the-blanks documents for Sick Hurt Board, Victualling Board, Ordnance Board, powder and shot expended, in action or for gun-drill, with many "tsk-tsks" and mournful shakings of heads over wasting precious munitions without good reason. Back-stays shifted; spars lost or cracked; lumber, nails, and screws used for repairs-how necessary were the repairs to ship's boats or bulwarks, and had the Carpenter or Bosun allotted too many board feet, too many bloody screws! to restore a shot-through cutter. Marines, accused of using too little boot-black or pipe clay, whilst using too many flints, expending too much powder and ball, and losing one whole musket and two bayonets! Having to explain, in triplicate, every lack or loss, with the replacement cost held over each unfortunate respondent's head until a plausible compromise could be reached!