Dewey Lambdin - King`s Captain
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"Dey's 'is too, sah," Andrews offered.
A coin-silver tankard, pint-sized, engraved with a scroll of seashells and chain round its base and upper lip, with a profile sail-plan of a sloop of war in all her bounding glory, and a scroll-board claiming her to be HMS Jester engraved below her. There was a suggestion of the waves, a boisterously erose dash at her waterline, inverted Vees about one side… and a pair of leaping dolphins, the enigmatic heads of two smiling seals, and a forearm stretched forth from the deeps ahead of her bows, wielding a sword as if pointing her way onward. Seals and a sea-god-a cryptic meaning known only to one who'd been there, 'board that ship, in that crew, and only during that commission.
"My, God, it's beautiful, it's…" Lewrie mumbled in appreciation. "T'other side, sir." Aspinall winked. "Read t'other side." He turned the tankard, so the handle was to the drinker's right, discovering a dedication which would ever face the drinker:
Presented To Commander Alan Lewrie, R.N.
From a Grateful Appreciative Ship's Crew
"Model got done aboard, sir," Aspinall revealed eagerly. "Cup, well…'member Bosun Cony's runs ashore once we anchored? Took up a donation from ev'ry hand, he did."
"And I spoiled the moment for 'em," Lewrie groaned. "Too hot t'flee 'fore I…"
He'd vowed he'd not look back, but he did, even while the other new man was reading himself in, shouting his orders so everyone would hear and understand, from taffrail to jib-boom tip.
"… directly charging and commanding the officers and company belonging to the said sloop of war subordinate to you to behave themselves jointly and severally in their respective employments with all due respect and obedience unto you, their said captain…!"
The crew's attention was bound inboard, yet he stood, his head bare, raised the letter high in one hand, the silver tankard high in the other. A few men upon the starboard gangway spotted him, nudged each other, and attracted the surreptitious attention of more. They waved hats and hands below the bulwark, smiling fit to bust, so the new captain would not spot them.
And when the new man finished reading himself in, there came a thunderous-undeserved-cheer.
Ruined it for him, Lewrie thought, a silly ass's smile plastered on his phyz, but with tears coursing down his cheeks at last; well, what of it? Just bugger him! And he 'd better treat 'em right!
There came a second hard leave-taking for a sailor; standing atop Ports-down Hill as the overloaded diligence coach toiled up to the crest and the passengers, as usual, got down to walk the muddy track to ease the horse teams… to gaze back and down at the wide sweep of Spithead and the Solent, past the Isle of Wight, outwards to the flood of the Channel as the tide turned. The harbours, so full of warships, a forest of masts… and savouring his last noseful of kelp, fish, and salt breezes… as if saying farewell forever to a dying lover!
Andrews and his clerk, Padgett, went one direction for Anglesgreen aboard a stout dray laden with his possessions. Lewrie and his manservant, Aspinall, went another, for London in the thrice-daily "dilly"… for Admiralty and word of future employment. The wind, now a land breeze, heavy with springtime growth, with nurturing rains and turned-earth smells, stole the sea-scent and whistled cool over the crest of the hill… almost foreboding, he could conjure?
Lewrie marvelled, though, how much England had changed during his absence; roads, where before there had been foot paths, branching from the main London route and teeming with waggon traffic. The main road now become a congested highway, with cottages, row-houses, shops, and inns lining the sides, where cows or sheep had grazed before! Mysterious, fuming, bustling manufacturies crammed with workers, amidst the clank and hiss of new-fangled steam machines that drove belts, pumped water and spun looms and lathes, reeking of burning coal and the musty wet-laundry odour of the steam itself!
Tiny crossroads hamlets had blossomed into villages, villages into towns, and London had sprawled even further afield, absorbing a host of settlements and farmland into its industrial, residential conurbations as though it had leapt southward, almost to Guildford, in the span of a single Dog Watch! Like an oil stain, progress had spread.
They passed through new suburbs of London, looking just as seedy as the old ones, Lewrie took wry note. Bricks and windowpanes were already soot-blackened, the gutters filled with cast-off trash, horse droppings, and the scurrying carters and street vendors, artificers or mechanics, children or housewives, looked pinched and off their feed; careworn, driven urgent to their business. Or, a tad vexed, Lewrie wondered? As good and warm as the people were dressed, there was little colour to them, as if the gods of war-driven industry were just a tad too demanding. And despite the evident signs of wealth, London proper struck him as dowdy, fretful, and gloomy. Even the ornate gardens and parks were tinged, the swans noticeably off-white, for all the fume of coal smoke, which he had not thought quite so thick the last time he had come up to the city of his birth in '93.
And once alit from the "rumble-tumble" coach, it began to rain, of course, a sooty, pelting drizzle that brought the garbage-middens to life, as redolent as the old Fleet Ditch before it had been paved over and filled, ages before. The rain only whipped the crowds to greater speed, not indoors, and he and Aspinall had almost been run over half a dozen times by carts or coaches, by trotting vendors shouting cursory " 'Ave care, sir!" or "By yer leave… damn ye!" as Lewrie tried to regain his "land legs," his former canny knack for city navigation, and to stay somewhat clean whilst they searched for lodgings for himself, his servant, and the wicker-caged Toulon.
"No rooms, sir," the inn-keeper at Willis's Rooms, his favourite lodgings, told him sadly, "not even for an old customer."
"Nothing lavish, sir," Lewrie wheedled, after spending the last two hours of a late, wet afternoon plodding from one inn to another. This was the most expensive place he could recall, but it set a good table, and it was growing dark. "My man could even sleep rough on a settee if we have to." No matter what Aspinall had to say about it!
"Well, there is a second-floor chamber, sir, but…" The owner frowned, raising his eyebrows at the thought of a gentleman and a common body-servant sharing that chamber. He gave Aspinall a once-over, frowning even deeper. "Dear Lord, sir. Is that a cat you have with you? Bless me, sir… never take animals, no, sir. It's not…"
"Sir Whosis, back in '93, sir," Lewrie countered, "brought his favourite hounds… kept 'em in his rooms. Fed 'em at-table too, as I recall. No fuss, then. What would that single room be worth, sir?"
Lewrie set his purse on the counter of the bar in the public rooms, aching for an excuse to get off his feet, to sidle over to the cheery fire and dry off a bit, over a mulled rum or a brandy. That purse gave off a promising chinking sound of solid coin.
"Coin, sir?" the inn-keeper gasped of a sudden, his brows going skyward. "But of course, sir… just paid off your ship, did ye tell me? Well… that'd be silver… or guineas, sir? Not merchant-issue shoddy?"
"Fortunate in prize-money, sir," Lewrie boasted, loosening the drawstrings and spilling out an assortment. "Austrian Maria Theresas… silver dollars. Some Italian 'tin.' Looks insubstantial, but it's silver. Shillings… and aye, gold guineas."
"Bless me, sir. You should see what I'm offered these days." The innkeeper smiled. "Like this'un, sir. Spanish piece of eight… but with the King's profile over-stamped. Four shillings, nine pence, or five shillings tuppence, no one knows exactly. They say, sir"-the inn-keeper dropped into a very confidential whisper -"that 'the Bank of England. To make its dollars pass, stamped the head of a fool 'pon the neck of an ass,' ha, ha! Good silver and gold, well, it's a rare commodity these days, I assure you. Be the ruin of commerce."
Sure enough, the piece of eight he'd produced had over-struck a portly George III over the latest slack-jawed Bourbon King of the Dons! To speak that way 'bout the King, though…!
"Now, sir… shall we say, uhm… guinea the day for you and your man… and, uhmm, your cat yonder, sir?" the inn-keeper proposed. "Lodgings and food all found, Commander Lewrie."
Yikes, Lewrie thought, it's bald-faced rape!
"Decent room, is it?" Lewrie sighed, laying out two guineas for two days. "I've hopes to complete my business with Admiralty by Saturday… and depart for home, so we can be there for Easter Sunday services at the least."
"First-floor front, with a good fireplace and a window, sir," the innkeeper assured him, now jovial as anything as he swept those precious gold guineas off the counter and into a pocket. "Bedchamber and small parlour in one, but there's a screen I could put up… and a cot I could fetch down from the garret for your man."
"That'd right fine, thankee, sir," Lewrie told him.
"I'll see your things up to the room, Commander Lewrie, and once you've settled in, do avail yourself of the public rooms, a drink or two before mealtime. And would puss there like a dish o' cream?"
Sponged clean of most of the street smuts, feet up in one chair and slouched in another, Lewrie did avail himself of the public rooms, near enough to the roaring fire to take the chill off, as the lodgers came back from their rounds of the city for the night. A large glass of warmed brandy lay between his paws, from which he sipped, pleased as all get-out that he'd found shelter. Right down to "heel-taps," at last, and waving for the serving girl to fetch him another.
"Here ye go, sir… four pence," she said, dropping him a wee curtsy and scraping up a shilling from the table-top. She returned a few coppers. Four pence? For a lone glass o' brandy…?
"Wait a bit… what in Hades are these?" Lewrie puzzled. They were no copper coins he'd ever seen. Better made, actually, than most pennies, truer-round, and with sharp-milled edges. But claiming to be from an assortment of private firms.
"Merchant shoddy, sir…" the girl explained. "Tokens, really, is wot they calls 'em, but any sort o' coins is so dear these days… most folk accept 'em. I've half me wages in 'em, an' there's nought turn up their noses. Honest, sir. Willis's does th' best 'e can, but times is hard."
"She speaks true, sir… no fraud," an older gentleman informed him from closer to the fire. "This bloody war's the fault. The Chinee trade, and all our silver going to India and China?" He sneered.
"Very well," Lewrie nodded to the girl, accepting the imitations for real currency and slipping her a true ha'penny for service rendered.
"Been away too long, sir," Lewrie commented, cocking a brow at his interlocutor. "Fightin' this… bloody war."
"No business of ours, sir, what happens on the Continent, or what happens to Frogs, Dons, and Dagoes. Mean t'say, sir, what's our good English Channel for, hmm?"
"Long as those Frogs, Dons-perhaps even some of those Dagoes- have navies, sir"-Lewrie bristled-"it is our business! What do you think we did at Saint Vincent? Broke up one part of a combination with an eye for our invasion, sir. If not of England, then of Ireland…"
"Ah, to defend ourselves, aye, sir!" the older fellow chirped most happily. "Ain't that right, Douglas?" he asked his partner at their table, a cherubic old country squire-ish sort. "I'd not be averse to a million pounds being spent on our defence, sir. But not a groat more should go to Austria, Prussia… It's their problem, isn't it? So they should spend their treasure if they think they need a war against the French. Blockade the French, keep their navy reined back. Keep their armies from overseas adventure, aye, sir. But… that's as far as we ought go before the country's bankrupt. Emulate the words of Washington… first president of the United States, sir… when he warned, 'Beware of foreign entanglements.' '
"All very fine, sir"-Lewrie sniffed archly-"for a powerless and isolated nation 'cross the seas… too impoverished to aspire to an empire. But lookee here, sir… no matter which government France has, they've always hated us; we've always hated them. Give 'em licence to conquer the rest of Europe? Dragoon all Europe into their fold and they'll be across that Channel of ours and at our throats. And what's the eventual cost of that, hey?"
Damme, never heard the like, and from an Englishman too! Lewrie fumed. Was the man a bloody Quaker, too meek to raise a hand to guard his own throat? Or one of those "Rights of Man" Levellers?
"You're new-come, sir, I'll warrant," the cherubic-looking old fellow who went by Douglas pooh-poohed. "Back from our most expensive 'wooden walls,' hmm? You've not seen the suffering, sir. Nor felt it yourself. Thousands more Enclosure Acts, farmers thrown out of work or off the land… industry," he sneered, "dragooning thousands into the mines and mills, sir. High wages, aye, but high taxes too, so that no one may make the living one made three years past. Price of grains gone through the roof, yet farmers such as myself barely breaking even e'en in a bumper year! Taxed to death, we are…"
"Hear, hear!" several other gentlemen growled in agreement. "You'd trust to a French occupation… to lower your taxes!" Lewrie sneered aloud and was gratified to hear an even larger, more vociferous chorus of "Hear! Hears!" from those of the opposing camp.
"You malign me, sir!" the angelically white-maned Douglas said, rearing back and suddenly looking as fierce as an old but game Viking Berserker. "Never the French! Rather, a reforming of our…"
The first older gentleman laid a restraining, cautioning hand on his friend's coat sleeve. "You mistake our motive, sir."
"Nay, sir," Lewrie snickered. "I meant to malign you actually." Which won him a rowdy round of cheers, the thumping of tankards or fists on the tables from the more patriotic topers. Lewrie had himself a deep draught from his fresh brandy in celebration, knowing that the old fellow could glare fierce but would never press to cross steel with him or "blaze" with pistols. He could be as nasty as he wished to be! It looked to be hellish-good sport to berate the pair of them as un-patriotic.
I'm off duty-an half-pay "civilian, "for the nonce, he reminded himself; no more "firm but fair"! Damme, I ain't been free to be me malicious old self in a month of Sundays!