Sea of Grey

An Alan Lewrie Naval Adventure

Alan Lewrie Naval Adventures (Volume 10)

Dewey Lambdin

St. Martin's Griffin/Thomas Dunne Books

 
BOOK ONE

 

 
Longa exilias et vastum maris acquor arandum.

 
Long exile is thy lot, a vast stretch of sea thou must plow.
AENEID, BOOK II 780
PUBLIUS VERGILIUS MARO “VIRGIL”
CHAPTER ONE

 

 
Supping with his father was not exactly Alan Lewrie’s idea for how he had intended to complete his personal celebrations, after a day of honour and fame, but after the disastrous shambles in Hyde Park he found himself at rather greater than “loose ends,” with his only ally in the world that cynical Corinthian, that shameless old rake-hell and charter member of the infamous Hell-Fire Club; to wit, Major-General Sir Hugo St. George Willoughby, Knight of The Garter, with his sardonic, acidic jollity, with his perpetual leer for all things feminine … .
But he was paying, so …
Given Sir Hugo’s “sportin’” nature, it was no wonder that they had ended the evening at The Cocoa Tree, one of the fastest gambling establishments in London. Ostensibly a proprietary coffee-house where men of the Tory persuasion were wont to gather, it set a magnificent table, and was all “the go” with those wealthy enough (or foolish enough!) to riffle the cards in the Long Rooms or lay side wagers, even to take an “insurance policy” on someone else ’s life; i.e., to wager just when a certain cove would croak!
Least it ain’t a “cock and hen” club, Lewrie thought, most pleasantly stuffed and “whiffled” by then; I’m in enough trouble.
For a time, it had seemed as if one of those shadier establishments might feature in the afternoon and night’s activities, as he and his father had made the rounds. First had come a gentlemanly tavern, near Sir Hugo’s old haunts in St. James’s Square for a few badly needed stiff ones, followed by a saunter east to the theatre district for a lively farce, which was followed by a patriotic display in honour of Admiral Duncan and the Battle of Camperdown—with offers of gallons of free drink from fellow theatre patrons near their box, and Sir Hugo gallantly stroking the mustachios he did not have (reducing the slaver, Lewrie thought it) as he boldly gazed down the bodices of the promising young ladies, or leered at the eager young orange-sellers.
Followed by a traipse through Covent Garden’s vast and crowded arcade, where anything or anyone could be had at a decent price if one but haggled a bit, where smuggled French champagne had been prominently featured (Lewrie was pretty sure); thence here, to The Cocoa Tree, and a lashing or two more of wine accompanying supper, along with the odd “revivor” brandy, now the port.
Squinting only just a tad to maintain focus, Lewrie studied the many ladies present, strolling and flouncing past the communal table at which he and his father had shared supper with a pack of strangers. A lively pack of roisterers, in the main, but new to both of them.
The Cocoa Tree maintained a certain air of proper decorum, just as the resort at Bath did. Only true ladies welcome in Society, with a requisite purseful of “chink,” and the itch to risk it, were allowed.
Quite unlike his dissolute youth, in the pre-Navy days, when he and his usual mob of bucks-of-the-first-head had frequented places like The Spread Eagle in the Strand, The Highflyer at the Old Turf Coffee-House, or The Free And Easy, where after the theatre (or long before!) the fast, the poor, and the criminal could commingle, drink, and chorus with the prettier doxies of whatever class or station, and arrange what sport they wished upstairs, at a nearby bagnio or by-the-hour rooming house. Oh, how he’d crowed back then, all cock-a-whoop in harmony with the “hens!” Spending money like a drunken … sailor, which he squiffily realised he was, both in the nautical and the “drunken” sense.
“ … just a bloody nuisance” his father Sir Hugo was saying in aspersion as he wiped his mouth with a napkin as his plate of pudding was whisked away by a table-servant. “Women should not gamble anymore than they should attempt to smoke, or curse.” To which their companions at-table grunted their amiable and dismissive agreements. “Had I the ‘tin,’ I’d found a man-only club, gentlemen. Somewhat like The Cocoa Tree, White’s, Almack’s, or Boodle’s … with the ladies allowed in to dine and be decorative, surely, but shoo them out by midnight. Make a male sanctuary, before they overrun all our masculine institutions by the battalions. Dash it all, a place where men may rest ’twixt entertainments, perhaps with lodgings, where a feller may let down his hair and put up his feet … .”
“Hear, hear!” one of their fellow diners cheered. “Gentlemen of standing and quality only allowed,” he posed, drawing agreement from several others who had been seated by twos or singletons at their long table, hit-or-miss.
“An in-town retreat for serving officers, say,” another opined. “Reasonably priced, of course, so we won’t have to hunt high and low for lodgings each time we come up to London. Like a regimental mess, a ward-room, or …” the gentleman in Army uniform, a captain of foot, proposed. He was well turned out, but half his worth was surely on his back, Lewrie thought, not in his purse or with his banker. “What say you, Captain Lewrie?” the Army man asked him. “An intriguing idea?”
“Most,” Lewrie answered, which was about all he could manage as a belch arose, redolent of baked sole, roast beef, pigeon pie, and wine. “A refuge from … domesticity,” he glumly supposed.
To which sentiment, all eight men present voiced an earnest “Ever and amen” with a hearty, rumbling cheer, though his father peered over at him with a chary, cutty-eyed look of pending disapproval. Sir Hugo had warned him that, should he turn maudlin and weepy, he’d deny knowing him, and leave him to stew in his own misery!
“Quite intriguin’, Captain Browne,” Sir Hugo mused, louder than necessary, perhaps to draw attention from his son to himself, after a stern, silent warning, which came off, as most of Sir Hugo’s facial expressions, as a nettled falcon’s leer, before prosing on.
“The best part of a coffee-house in the mornings, with rafts of daily papers. Good conversation, good wine cellar … with decent sets of rooms to let for members-only when down from the country, Members of Parliament, for serving officers, as you suggest, Captain Browne … an establishment that offers only the freshest victuals, so that no one dies for tryin’ the fare at a two-penny ordinary, haw!”
“Exactly, General Willoughby,” another of their fellow diners opined in a plumby voice, “with annual dues and daily charges just high enough to dissuade the lower orders, but within the reach of purses of most gentlemen. With requirements, mark you, sirs, for good character and decorous gentlemanly behaviour.”
The very idea of a reference from one’s vicar as part of one’s bona fides set them back in a stunned silence for a moment. The fellow was sober-dressed, spare and gaunt-lookin’; was he a Dissenter, one of those Kill-Joys?
Well, that’d let me out, and Father, too, Lewrie told himself.
“Within the club, of course, sirs,” the fellow amended quickly, seeing the response he’d drawn. “Mean t’say, run riot on your own … but damme if I’ll tolerate hoo-rawin’ drunks who drop their shoes and giggle, past my bedtime. Schoolboy antics, sons down from university with all their silly carryings-on!”
Well, that was alright, then! One of their fellow diners looked ready to call for quill, ink, and paper to begin setting down the bylaws, instanter!
Grandly liveried waiters set out fresh glasses, dishes of grapes and berries, plates of sliced cheeses with both sweet and salted biscuits before them, along with baskets of assorted nuts, with shell bowls and nutcrackers.
Sir Hugo sternly proposed a toast to the King; safe to do, with the water glasses removed, so toasting Hanoverian George III could not be rendered into one for the exiled Stuart claimant, the “king over the water,” by a sly pass of one’s port glass!
“Gentlemen, allow me to propose our second,” Captain Browne said as he got to his feet. “In honour of our dining companion who fought at Camperdown, and won us the marvellous victory all England celebrates tonight … to the Royal Navy, and Camperdown!”
“Navy … and Camperdown!” they concisely echoed, on their feet. Lewrie, too, rose, though a naval officer never stood to toast the King if he valued his scalp. Low deck beams made their own tradition.
Which sentiment was quickly followed by a toast to Admiral Duncan, now made Baron Duncan of Lundie and Viscount Duncan of Camperdown; then followed by a toast to Lewrie himself, as a representative of the fleet that had won the victory, through which he modestly sat, forming turns of phrase in his head for the expected gallant response.
“Gentlemen, my thanks to you for the honour, though I must confess that my part in the battle was not that significant,” he answered in kind, though the gold Camperdown Medal bestowed upon him by the King that afternoon tinkled against the matching Battle of Cape St. Vincent Medal.
“Pshaw!” Sir Hugo objected. “You took one of their frigates!”
Their boisterous toasting and cheering had drawn enough notice from the elegant crowd in the dining rooms, but his father said it loud enough to turn it into an attention-getting boast on the “spawn of his loins.”
“Allow me to answer with a three-fold proposal,” Alan said as he got to his feet a trifle unsteadily, making a supportive triangle from the fingers of his right hand for a moment, before taking up a refilled glass of port to hold before him and peer into its semi-opaque redness as if for inspiration.
“First, for my ship, the Proteus frigate, the finest, soundest Fifth Rate that ever swam. Secondly, to her crew, the bravest tars ever plied rammer, rope, or cutlass. From highest to lowest, they produced victory, ev’ry man jack! And lastly to our recent foes, the Dutch. They fought us English-fashion, hull-to-hull, yardarm-to-yardarm, and held stout to the last, past the time when their hopes were gone. Gentlemen, I give you HMS Proteus, her crew, and a worthy foe!”
Proteus … tars/sailors/yer crew … the Dutch/foes!” others babbled, mangling his toast. Lewrie feared it would be too much for them, but to Blazes with that, he thought; they were lusty and loud, and that was what counted—loud enough to raise “Huzzahs!” from the onlookers, too, who’d been drawn by the noise at their table.
“Tryin’ t’prove yer sobriety?” his father teasingly said as he seated himself again. “Showin’ how you can still form compound sentences this late?”
“Wanted it out and done, before I went under the table,” Lewrie told him. “Else we’d all be half-seas-over before we got round to the toasts to the ladies!”
Quite a few of the onlookers were fashionably dressed ladies in company of male companions, or two women out together despite the rigid rules of London Society; dashing, unconventional morts who ogled him as openly as he’d ogle them, given the chance, A mixture of hero worship, sympathy for his nobly-wounded “wing,” that broken left arm still hung in a neat sling—one or two licking their lips and half-lidding eyes.
“Here, Captain Lewrie,” the elegantly dressed man, Mr. Lumsden, whom they’d discovered was a City banker, demanded. “The papers don’t tell us half of how ’twas done. Do give us your account of it. Tell us the whole tale!”
“Aye, and leave nought out!” another pressed.
“Well …” Lewrie said, unwillingly forced to his feet again by their enthusiasm and the chance to preen for an audience. “I will need the biscuits, nuts, and such, if you really insist.”
A row of salted biscuits quickly formed the Dutch coast, while walnuts became ships of the line, and smaller hickories became frigates and sloops of war. Lewrie looked at his creation, trying to picture a bird’s view from the confused, smoke and haze-riddled scene he’d had from his quarterdeck, wondering where or how to start to explain it at all. How does one re-organise chaos?
“When we sighted them, the wind was out of the Nor’Nor’west and fairly strong,” he said, arrowing a hand, slant-wise, at the long line of Dutch ships. “I’m told they had been sailing Easterly, making for Calais and the Channel, but came about when our scouting frigates got hull-up on ’em.”
“Running,” the abstemious gentleman pronounced.
“Or luring us into shoal water, where their shallow-draught ships could fight, sir,” Lewrie corrected him. “The coast was only five miles or so to loo’rd, and it shoals quickly, like tilting this table just a bit … at low tide, a man could wade out half a mile, and be only up to his chest by then. Last cast of the log showed ten fathom … only sixty feet of water.”
“We’ll need a translator, for all the nautical jargon!” one of the diners hooted.
“The Dutch had sixteen ships of the line … well, lighter than ours, really, and not all of ‘em built as warships. Converted Dutch East Indiamen trapped in home ports,” Lewrie went on. “Admiral Duncan had eight ships in his division, with his flagship, Venerable, in the very lead. Here,” he said, pointing to the easternmost gaggle. “And Vice-Admiral Onslow’s division, with Monarch in the lead, were quite a bit West of Duncan’s, strung out all higgledy-piggledly, d’ye see, in no proper order, since some of the older ships were poor sailers, even off the wind. ’Round eleven of the morning, Admiral Duncan even had to haul up to windward and beat back towards Onslow’s group, so we could go in as a fleet, not a complete shambles.”
Venerable, Ardent, and Triumph had led, two 3rd Rate 74s, with a two-decker 64; a following wedge was made up of a lone 74-gunner, Bedford, flanked by a pair of 64s, Lancaster, and Capt. William “Breadfruit” Bligh’s HMS Director. A third trio in loose order was even further astern; Belliqueiux, a 64-gunner, supported by two old two-deck 50-gun 4th Rate ships, Adamant and Isis.
Vice-Admiral Onslow’s group to the West had his flagship Monarch in the lead, with Powerful and Monmouth echeloned off to her right and stern, another pair of 74s with a 64; aft of them sailed a brace of 3rd Rate 74s, Russel and Montagu; trailing them was another pair, the 64-gunned Veteran and the 40-gun frigate Beaulieu.
Well, there should have been a third 64-gun 3rd Rate with them, HMS Agincourt, but she was far astern, and damn her Capt. Williamson for hanging back the entire three hours of the battle!
“Not the strongest fleet, gentlemen,” Lewrie said, after naming them. “The rest, we frigates and gunboats, were in the centre. Rose, Active, and Martin were line-ahead together … a pair of twelve-gunned sloops, with a sixteen-gunner. Near their larboard side were Diligent and King George, hired cutters with six and twelve guns. Speculator, astern of them, was a hired lugger with only eight guns! The Circe frigate was here, East of the sloops and cutters, and my own ship was here … a bit East of Circe, and nigh level with Captain Bligh’s ship, Director … well, perhaps a tad ahead of her, nearer the Bedford,” he said, shifting a hickory nut forward a half-inch.
“We were about four miles to windward of ’em when Duncan gave a signal to bear down and engage ’em. We repeated the signal, then bore off Easterly, with a touch of Southing, to pin the Dutch against their own coast, as it trends Northerly … .”
“Translator!” an idle stroller who had come to observe over the others’ shoulders cried.
“This way.” Lewrie grinned, employing a nutcracker for use as a wind-pointer. “With the wind large on our larboard quarters. Admiral Duncan hoisted orders as we neared them; first, to pass through their line and engage from leeward, meaning to break their line apart with a pair of hammer-blows ’gainst their centre and rear. It was cloudy and hazy, so how many ships got that signal, I can’t say. After that, he new ‘Close Action.’ I really do think, did he have to go aground and fight them on dry land, he’d have done so. Admiral Duncan is a terror, sirs … a right terror.”
Duncan, that giant with the full, unruly mane of snow-white hair on his head, that tall, athletic form that towered over six-feet-four, of the massive calves that made the ladies swoon when he donned silk stockings … as hardy and strong as a Scots ghillie who had coursed the Highlands like an elkhound since childhood!
“’Twas said of him that during the recent naval mutiny at the Nore, and his own harbour of Great Yarmouth, Duncan had seized one of the ringleaders by the scruff of the neck, held him out arm horizontal, dangling a full-grown man over the side of his flagship ’til the canting bastard squealed for mercy!” Lewrie related.
A man of great anger, too, who’d prefer the ancient punishment for blasphemy of searing the malefactor’s tongue with a hot iron, was he able to get away with it; a man who wore an odd double ring on his left hand encircling little finger and ring finger so he still had use of that hand. He’d broken it and turned those fingers numb by smashing the skull of a rioter in a street melee in Edinborough in 1792—the churl had insulted the King, raising Duncan’s Old Testament wrath!
“Sirs, Admiral Duncan would fight you for a rowboat!” Lewrie proudly boasted, happy to have been even for a short time a part of the man’s fleet. Though how long that would last was open to question, he took time to fret. After his row with his wife in Hyde Park with both Lord Spencer and Mr. Nepean watching … .
“The proper place for frigates is not in the line, sirs,” Lewrie continued, striking a lighthearted air, “but out in clear air, where one repeats signals for other ships to see, or stands by to assist any disabled ships of the line. Had I not made an error, we’d have been merely awed witnesses, but … we’d gotten too far ahead and Circe was crowding us, sailing on starboard tack cross our stern, and all of the cutters and such crowded us, as well. Did the Admiral wish us to break the Dutch line and fight on their landward side, we should have broken through with him. But for the wind, that had blown all the powder smoke alee of us, towards the shore. I should have borne away … and stayed up to windward but that became impossible. I could not cut through the liners without disrupting what order they had, either, so there was nothing for it but to come about on a beam wind, and sail on a reach. By then, however, ’round half past noon, Admiral Onslow was engaged over here, cuttin’ through the Dutch line, and slicing off the last three ships. So I rather, um … stumbled my way to glory. If glory it was, gentlemen,” he allowed with a wry expression.
Aye, come over all modest-like! he thought; more becoming to a tale, than boasting. But, he chid himself once more, I was a damned fool! And the after-action report he’d written Admiralty had been one of his rather more creative endeavours, to disguise idiocy!
“His usual custom, since boyhood,” Sir Hugo supplied, though he wore a proud grin.
Lewrie reshuffled the order of the walnuts and such, recalling the smoke and haze, the low, scudding clouds of a raw, grey day, turned in an instant to a pea-soup fog, a reeking, hammered, echoing mist, as Proteus had reached West towards Onslow, just out of effective range of the Dutch liners in the middle, before putting about to sail back East towards Duncan, who by then (at a quarter ’til one) was also firing as fast as his gunners could load and run out.
“Now, the Dutch were sailing in two columns,” Lewrie explained, indicating the hickories and filberts nearer the row of biscuits. “In their lee were some eighteen-gunned brigs or sloops, at least three twenty-four-gun ships or brigs, and four frigates, of varying metal. Not all were true warships, thank God … again, converted and armed merchantmen penned up in port, thanks to our blockade, and our cruising frigates hunting prizes. But, once we broke their line, those escort ships opened fire, though they were there to serve the same duties as ours … signals and salvage, and … well, sirs, once one fires on a larger ship, one turns into fair game!”
Duncan’s Venerable had smashed her way through astern of their 74-gun 3rd Rate Staten-Generaal, opening the way for Triumph and Ardent and threatening the Dutch Admiral de Wynter’s flagship, Vrijheid. It was a wide, most tempting gap, and beyond it Lewrie could see the lee line of sloops, brigs, and frigates, now and then, turning up windward.
Gun-smoke, towering and blooming like cloud-heads from a summer thunderstorm, vision reduced to mast-tips, the quick-blossoming buds of cannon-shots … the staccato stutter of guns, by decks, by broadsides, making even more smoke and confusion, ’til the whole sky was blotted to grey gloom, the sea turned dull leaden for lack of reflecting sunlight; the Dutch ships, their own ships, so wreathed with sour, sulfurous mist that they became spectres.
He caught himself frowning, in a silent, fell musing, absently massaging the dull ache of his wounded arm. Not for show, this time, nor for approbation from his “audience” as he play-acted the pensive hero for their admiration or applause.
From dour remembrance, as he recalled that hideously glorious scene afresh, the scents and sounds, the rocking of his quarterdeck as Proteus swashed her way down the line, toward that gap … .
“They paid for their mistake, sirs … indeed,” he told them.
SEA OF GREY. Copyright © 2002 by Dewey Lambdin. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.