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 beartrap 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!
Every lack was Lewrie’s final responsibility as captain after all, every loss or condemnation of rotten stores. Department heads were liable for lack of accountability, certainly, but in the end there were some things he could be dunned for. After a final, prissy, and un-satisfied harumph! that no outright fraud had occurred, no sin of omission or commission which might lead to pay stoppage or court-martial, the senior clerk had written Lewrie a form which deducted from the pay due him, a copy of said form to be forwarded to Admiralty for the clerks there, who could tally up his pay for three years’ service, another to go into his personnel file, one for the Portsmouth records, and one to be handed over to Lewrie for his own keeping.
With another huge sigh, Lewrie turned his back on those great-cabins and went out the forrud passageway ’twixt the sadly empty dining coach and the still-usable chart space, to the gun-deck to face his crew.
He had never de-commissioned a ship in wartime. Shrike, back in ‘83, after the American Revolution was over; as a junior officer into Telesto in ’86; or sweet little Alacrity, a converted bomb-ketch he’d had, his first official lieutenant’s command, when she’d come home from the Bahamas in ’89. Those were all done in time of peace and were relatively joyous occasions, for the hands had mostly been freed from the Navy, going off to civilian pursuits and the pleasures of their homes, their families, with the Fleet much reduced. Now, though …
The Royal Navy was gigantic, with nearly one hundred line-of battle ships and another hundred frigates, even more lesser ships in commission out fighting their foes, worldwide. Nearly half the hands were impressed or culled from debtors’ prisons to man those fleets, and there would be no freedom, even a brief tantalising spree, for most of his Jesters. At that moment she lay far offshore to prevent desertions, daunted by the many guard-boats which rowed Portsmouth’s inner harbour with armed Marines aboard with orders to shoot or apprehend; with truncheon-bearing Press Gangs patrolling the docks to deter anyone who’d swum ashore in spite of the guard-boats; or the vigilance of a ship’s own Marines, who stood harbour-watch with loaded muskets.
With the Navy so hungry for trained, experienced men who could hand, reef, and steer, this well-shaken-down crew of his could end up scattered in a heartbeat, sent off in dribs and drabs as need dictated to the foul receiving ships to idle for weeks ’til a sufficient number was mustered to draught aboard another ship newly commissioning, or one come in with casualities, desertions, and deaths from battle, accidents, or sickness in need of quick re-manning.
With any luck at all—though Lewrie rather doubted his Jesters would find any; he’d seen lips smacking, greedy hands clapped together from other ships’ bulwarks, or the Impress Service—they might allow the crew to turn over, entire, into a new ship. With a great deal of luck, they might be allowed to remain aboard, intact, under the newest captain! Yet Jester would be going alongside at Gun Wharf to remove her artillery, along a stone quay to empty her of every last movable item to lighten her, including her very last ballast-stone, her masts and spars taken away, perhaps the lower masts drawn out like bad teeth. And she’d be weeks, perhaps as much as three months, in the hands of the dockyards being partially rebuilt. Except for those choice few holding Admiralty Warrant who were pretty-much assigned to her for life, the Fleet could not let valuable seamen sit idle.
What to say to them? Lewrie puzzled sadly.
He’d most hopefully made himself a list, assuming that some word might come down from London before this moment arrived offering him future employment. As a confirmed Commander he might go into another sloop of war like Jester, and the Admiralty would then allow him some few of his most trusted hands to ease his transition. Should they actually promote him (pray Jesus!) and make him “post” into a 5th or 6th Rate frigate, then they’d allow him even more of his favorites along to form the nucleus of a new and unfamiliar crew. Less than a dozen all told, even as a Post-Captain, but aboard that wished-for frigate, confronted with a sea of nigh two hundred strange faces, he’d need every salt he knew by sight or smell.
But there had been no word from the Lords Commissioners, from the new First Secretary, Mr. Evan Nepean; no word of future employment or promotion. He’d been “required and directed” to dot the last i and cross the last t … unlooked for and unloved (or so it seemed).
He smiled a sad, grim-lipped smile for the seamen and inferior petty officers gathered on the gun-deck, nodding and acknowledging the shy, lost, and inarticulate expressions from the ship’s “people,” whilst on his way to the quarterdeck. God help ’em, he thought; they’re just as hung on tenterhooks as I! And with a perfect right too! Lewrie thought, clapping a few on the arm on his way. Many ratings aboard a warship were the whims of her captain, those informal positions aloft as yard-captains, top-mast captains, forecastle captains, the quarter gunners, and such … places of trust and seniority, marks of personal merit and authority which got them but a few more pence per month … Yeoman of the Powder, Yeomen of the Sheets, Bosun’s Mate, Carpenter’s Mate, members of a captain’s boat-crew …
In a new ship, their qualities unknown to a new captain and his officers——who already had their coterie of favorites or protégés—they’d lose their preferential rates, their pride and esteem, and the slim pay which went with them. A valued man, elevated to petty officer in one ship, would be just another Able Seaman in another. Even if they stayed aboard Jester, her new captain would be bringing along his own tight little clique, and would demote and replace according to his own lights.
Lewrie went up the starboard gangway ladder to say his goodbyes to his waiting officers, to share a last, quick remembrance or two with them. They, at least, were officially looked after and would be going off to finer things. Though, considering the capricious whims of Admiralty, it’d be just as stressful and worrisome to see where each might alight.
Lieutenant Ralph Knolles, such an elegant, able, and cheerful young officer, sure to rise even higher and do great things. Mr. Edward Buchanon, the Sailing Master, that young-old seer and West Country mystic … Midshipmen Martin Hyde and Clarence Spendlove, who’d turned into salt-stained, tarry-handed young men in their late teens; Spendlove, whose voice had broken and gone deep this commission—almost ready to face examining boards and earn their own lieutenants’ commissions had they any fortune, patronage beyond his own, or “interest” with senior men.
Almost pleasurable it was, the first time this commission, Lewrie thought, to say his goodbyes to the gloomy, sarcastically bitter Mr. Howse, their Surgeon, that laconic critic who’d set his teeth on edge with his eternal disgust with the world in general and Lewrie’s place in it in specific. And his built-in chorus of one, his mate LeGoff.
Peter Giles, the Purser—’twas relief Lewrie felt when taking leave of him; that he hadn’t yet been caught, and Lewrie implicated as well, in guilt by association in some vaulting scheme which exceeded even the jaded tolerance of a corrupt Victualling Board. Was ever a dog born t’be hung sooner or later … ! Lewrie thought, glad to see the back of him!
Giles, though, and his Jack-In-The-Breadroom, were as safe as houses, for he held Warrant and would continue on in her should he wish it. Mr. Crewe, her Master Gunner; Mr. Reese, her Carpenter; Mr. Paschal, the Sailmaker; Mr. Meggs, Jester’s Armourer; her Cooper; and a few such others would remain aboard in the yards right into her next commission.
As would Will Cony, unfortunately. Making this day even worse, making him wish he’d never tried to promote Will to Bosun. Cony had been his “man” since ’81, back in the days of the siege of Yorktown, with him throughout all his adventures … .
“Well, then,” Lewrie said at last, from his familiar “pulpit” by the middle of the quarterdeck rail overlooking the waist. “Damned if we haven’t had a rare run of luck aboard, right, lads? Seen wonders … done wonders! Met some right bastards too, but we fought ‘em and beat ’em all hollow too. And now come home … the most of us … safe and sound. You oldest hands, off Cockerel, you who came from Windsor Caste, Agamemnon, since Toulon … those who come aboard in early ’94, right here in Portsmouth … all thrown together in the pot and stewed, ’til you became—shipmates. Bitter and the sweet, spicy and bland—and you’d know best which you are, hey?”
That got him a semblance of a laugh, which made it easier.
“A ship’s company … and a damn’ good’un! God bless you all for there’ll never be another like you. Not for me! Where’er I go in the Fleet, I’ll always have my Jesters … as the ring-measure for any other crew to fit through, to try and equal. I’m …”
Damme, I am not goin’ta tear up and blub! he told himself; give me one more minute o’ manhood! Besides, there’s surely an Article of War against it!
He looked to the side, where stood a party of clerks from Vice-Admiral Sir Peter Parker’s staff, eager to get down to their business of paying off the hands. Beyond, there lurked a suspicious, hovering tender which he imagined must contain the Impress Service, ready with a list of ships needing hands. So part of his farewell speech seemed to be right out, that bit about taking joy of being home!
“Well, then …” he reiterated. “You know what they say ‘bout changing ships. The best men you serve with once, honour them as examples the rest of yer life, and never see again. The dross show up like creditors … one commission after the other. I’d be proud to be with you, every last man-jack o’ you! I’m as proud o’ you as a captain can be! So you take pride, wherever you light! In what you did together … proud of her, our ship. Proud that for a wondrous three years, you were Jesters! Goodbye, you rogues. G … goodbye, Jesters. Now give us three cheers for the best ship in the Fleet! And the best crew in the Fleet! A ship and crew any captain’d be glad to command!” He added, for the benefit of that impatient spectre waiting overside, “Hip, hip … !”
A quick bustle, a final shake of hands, a last formal “leg” to the senior officers who had had enough human decency to not peer at their watchfaces to spur him to hurry (and who were most-like familiar with the pain he was experiencing in losing a ship), and he was at the gangway entry-port, while cheers still resounded from the crew.
He doffed his hat in salute, shared a nod with Marine Sergeant Bootheby and his elegantly turned out side-party, then turned to go … down those fresh-sanded and tarred boarding battens, gripping virgin-white new man-ropes strung through the battens’ outer ends, so brightly served with ornate Turk’s-Head knots and bound with colourful red spun-yarn trim. Then into the waiting barge and step aft to take a seat on a thwart near the tillerman, among all his chests, kegs, crated cabin furnishings, and canvasbound goodies.
A matching barge stood nearby, idling “off-and-on” under oars in slack water, also piled high with possessions; a barge in which stood a young man in a Commander’s uniform, his boat-cloak thrown back to show his epaulet. Glowering at Lewrie for taking so long, making him wait to claim his new ship; a grim “thanks for nothing, you bastard,” grimace on his phyz for making his leave-taking too personal, poisoning his arrival in the afterglow of that intensely emotional farewell. A purse-mouthed, mean-lookin’ “git,” Lewrie thought, resenting the hell out of him for replacing him. For “stealing” jester from him!
Were you smart, you’d have waited ’til this evening after I was long gone, Lewrie glowered back just as stonily, as his Coxswain, Andrews, and his servant, Aspinall, clambered into the barge.
“Shove off then,” Lewrie pronounced. And the new captain was stroking forward to take his barge’s place below the entry-port in an eyeblink. As he drew close though, as they passed, Lewrie thought he saw the new man begin to beam in appreciation, his face turned upwards, bearing that ineffable look of a man gone “arse over tit” in love … that wide-eyed crinkle of joy that all sailors bestow upon only those loveliest of vessels. The new man, most likely less-senior, had the presence of mind to doff Lewrie a cautious salute with his hat before clawing eagerly at the man-ropes.
Eager to claim the hands, Lewrie smirked to himself; lay hold of ’em before the vultures from the dockyard did! With the new captain in his barge were a half-dozen seamen, just as eager to board her and continue their favouritism and seniority under their patron.
“Portsmouth Point, sir?” the tillerman enquired.
“Aye, Portsmouth Point,” Lewrie glumly agreed, facing the town, unable to bear the tweetle of bosun’s calls welcoming her new captain.
“Ain’t gonna like dot new cap’um, sah,” Andrews commented. “’E didn’t give ’em time t’give ya yer presents proper-like.”
“What presents?” Lewrie gloomed as the barge turned, the older waterman by her mast beginning to hoist her single lugsail.
“Dere’s a letter, sah,” Andrews told him, untying a canvas packet and handing it over. “Model o’ de ship … and d’is, sah.”
Lewrie read the letter quickly, coughing to cover his chagrin. Every man-jack had signed it or X’d his mark (except for Mr. Howse and LeGoff, of course), thanking him for being a tolerant, firm-but-fair captain; vowing, should they have the chance, they’d be glad to ship with him again; wishing that he didn’t have to leave Jester … .
Lewrie squinted over that, feeling his eyes mist up as the barge sailed out of Jester’s shadow into bright sunlight. “Ah, hummm!” was all he could manage to say, clearing a prodigious lump in his throat.
“Ain’ often po’ sailormen git a good cap’um, sah,” Andrews told him, showing him the ship model. It was about two feet long, as fine a rendering as any Admiralty model run up to present to the King himself, with Jester’s every detail precisely and meticulously reproduced, every line, brace, clew, slab, or buntline strung spider-thin aloft. Months, it’d taken, he thought … started before Lisbon and his glad news?
“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.
Lucky Captain of a Lucky Ship
From a Grateful & Appreciative Ship’s Crew
of HMS Jester 1794–1797
“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!
KING’S CAPTAIN. Copyright © 2000 by Dewey Lambdin. All rights reserved. For information, address St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Avenue,