A jaunt ashore would clear his head and provide a brief but welcome diversion from his new responsibility and worry, he was sure of it. It might even result in a dalliance with a young, bored, and attractive “grass widow”, he most certainly hoped!
Captain Sir Alan Lewrie, Baronet (a title he still found quite un-believable and un-earned), left his frigate, HMS Reliant, round mid-morning to be rowed ashore in one of the twenty-five-foot cutters that had replaced his smaller gig, turned out in his best uniform, less the star and sash of his Knighthood in the Order of The Bath, an honour he also felt un-earned, scrubbed up fresh and sweet-smelling, shaved closely, and with fangs polished and breath freshened with a ginger-flavoured pastille. His ship was safely anchored in West Bay of Nassau Harbour, protected by the shore forts, and the weather appeared fine despite the fact that it was prime hurricane season in the Bahamas.
The man’s a fool, Lewrie told himself; an old “colt’s tooth” more int’rested in wealth than in his young wife, so he deserves whatever he gets.
The husband in question was in his early fifties, rich enough already, but was off for the better part of the month to the salt works on Grand Turk, far to the South. He was also dull, bland, strict, and abstemious with few social graces, or so Lewrie had found him the two times they’d met at civilian doings ashore.
Captain Alan Lewrie, in contrast, was fourty-two, much slimmer at twelve stone, and had a full head of slightly curly mid-brown hair, bleached lighter at the sides where his hat did not shield it, and was reckoned merrily handsome and trim.
Lewrie had also been a widower for nigh three years, since the summer of 1802, and that fact would set the “chick-a-biddy” matrons to chirping in welcome, in hopes of “buttock-brokering” one of their semi-beautiful daughters off to someone with income and prospects. He was, in short, one reckoned a “catch”, a naval hero.
Admittedly, despite the “heroic” part, Lewrie was also reckoned a tad infamous; he’d been the darling of Wilberforce, Hannah More, and the Abolitionists dedicated to the elimination of Negro slavery in the British Empire, and had stood trial in King’s Bench in London for the liberation (some critics would say criminal theft!) of a dozen Black slaves on Jamaica to man his previous frigate, ravaged by Yellow Jack and dozens of hands short. In point of fact, Lewrie was against the enslavement of Negroes, or anyone else, but was not so foolish as to crow it to the rooftops, or turn boresome on the subject. His repute was titillating, but not so sordid or infamous that he did not make a fine house guest.
The lady in question … Lewrie recalled that she seemed amenable to his previous gallantries, and how she slyly pouted and rolled her eyes when her “lawful blanket” prosed on about something boresome, and how she rewarded Lewrie’s teasing jollities, and a double entendre or two, with smiles, a twinkle in her eyes, and some languid come-hither flourishes of her fan.
Perhaps this would be the day to see if he would “get the leg over”! Such was becoming most needful, to do the “needful”.
Lewrie felt a twinge of conscience (a wee’un) as he thought of Lydia Stangbourne, his … dare he call her his lady love?… far off in England. But, Lydia was thousands of miles and at least two months away at that moment, and both had agreed that their relationship was still “early days”; no promises had been made by either, no plighting of troths or exchanges of gifts of consequence. On their last night at the George Inn at Portsmouth before he’d taken Reliant to sea, she had laughed off the very idea of marrying him, or anyone else, again, after the bestial nature of her first husband, and the scandal which had plagued her after her Bill of Divorcement in Parliament had been made public. To all intents and purposes, Lewrie was a free man with … needs.
“Hmmph,” his Cox’n, Liam Desmond, grunted, interrupting Lewrie’s lascivious musings. “Coulda sworn that brig sailed hours ago, sor … th’ one with th’ big white patch in her fore course? But, there she be, goin’ like a coach and four.”
“Aye, she did,” Lewrie agreed, shifting about on the thwart on which he sat for a better look, and wishing for a telescope. The brig had put out a little after dawn, when Lewrie was on the quarterdeck to take the cool morning air as Reliant’s hands had holystoned and mopped the decks. “Did she not go full and by, up the Nor’east Providence Channel? Now, here she is, runnin’ ‘both sheets aft’, bound West.”
The weary-looking old trading brig was not two miles off the harbour entrance, and her large new patch of white canvas on her parchment-tan older fore course sail proved her identity.
“Is them stuns’ls she’s flyin’?” Desmond asked in wonder.
As they watched, a small puff of dirty grey-white gun smoke blossomed on the brig’s shoreward side, followed seconds later by the thin yelp-thump of a gun’s discharge. The many local fishing boats out past the harbour entrance, off Hog Island, saw the shot and they began to put about, too, some headed West as if fleeing to the Berry Islands or Bimini, and some headed back into port in haste.
Oh, mine arse on a band-box, Lewrie thought with a chill in his innards; It’s the bloody French, come at last!
Mere weeks before, after returning to a hero’s welcome from a successful raid on a privateers’ lair up the Saint Mary’s River in Spanish Florida, disturbing rumours had come from further down the Antilles that a French squadron of several ships of the line under a Frog by name of Missiessy was raiding the West Indies. Even more worrisome was a letter that Lewrie had gotten from his youngest son, Hugh, who was serving as a Midshipman aboard a Third Rate 74 under one of Lewrie’s old friends which confirmed the escape of Missiessy’s squadron from the British blockade of French ports, and the news that an even larger part of the French Navy, a whole fleet under an Admiral Villeneuve, had left European waters, and that Vice-Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson was taking the whole Mediterranean Fleet, of which Hugh’s ship was a part, in hot pursuit … also bound for the West Indies.
With the former Senior Officer Commanding in the Bahamas and his two-decker 64 accidentally run aground at Antigua, for which the fool was to be court-martialled (and good riddance to bad rubbish as far as Lewrie was concerned), the onus of defending the Bahamas had fallen to Lewrie, since his 38-gunned Fifth Rate frigate was the largest ship on station, and he was the only Post-Captain present on the scene. For that dubious honour, he was allowed to fly the inferior broad pendant, a red burgee that sported a large white ball, and style himself Commodore, even temporarily.
Unfortunately for him, the defence of the Bahamas was a task as gruelling as any of Hercules’ Twelve Labours. Nassau and New Providence, the only island of much worth, the only decent-sized town, were lightly garrisoned, fit only to hold the forts which guarded the port, and besides Lewrie’s frigate, there were only two or three brig-sloops and a dozen smaller sloops or cutters to patrol the long island chain.
Captain Francis Forrester, the unfortunate former Senior Officer Commanding (the idle, top-lofty, and fubsy gotch-gut swine!), had got it in his head that it would be the Spanish who would be the main threat, but Lewrie had laughed that to scorn, as had any one else with a lick of sense; the Dons were nigh-powerless any longer, with their few warships in the West Indies rotting at their moorings, blockaded by the Royal Navy. But, with the French out at sea, and nearby … perhaps storming down the Nor’east Providence Channel that very moment!…
Damn my eyes, Lewrie gloomed to himself, after a bleak glance round Nassau Harbour; We may all be dead by supper time.
He had precious-little with which to make a fight of it; his frigate, the 12-gun brigantine Thorn, but her main battery was made of short-ranged carronades, not long guns, and Lt. Darling would get his ship blown to kindling long before he could get in gun-range. There was Lt. Bury and his little Lizard, a two-masted Bermuda sloop that had only eight 6-pounders, and Lt. Lovett’s weak Firefly in port. The larger brig-sloops, Commander Gilpin’s Delight and Commander Ritchie’s Fulmar, were patrolling the Abacos, and Acklins and Crooked Island, respectively.
We’ll have to go game, Lewrie thought; but go we will, even if it’s hopeless. At least my will’s in order.
“Back to the ship, Desmond,” Lewrie snapped. “Smartly, now!”
* * *
The cutter was not halfway back alongside Reliant, the boat’s crew straining on the ears, when they almost collided with a fishing boat scuttling into port under lugs’l and jib, crewed by an old Free Black man and two wide-eyed youngsters as crew, all of whom were paying more attention aft than looking where they were going.
“’Vast there, ya blind bashtit!” stroke-oar Patrick Furfy yelled at them. “Sheer off!”
“Ya gon’ fight dem Frenchies, sah?” one of the youngsters cried. “Law, dey gon’ ’slave us all!”
“You saw them?” Lewrie snapped. “You know they’re the French?”
“Nossah,” the older fellow at the tiller shouted back, “but we got told by ’nother feller who got told by dat brig’s mastah dat dere was a whole fleet o’ warships comin’ down de Prob’dence Channel, guns run out, an’ mo’ sails flyin’ dan a flock o’ gulls! Oh Law, oh Law, what gon’ happen t’us’uns?” he further wailed, taking his hands off his tiller to actually wring them in fear.
“Pig-ignorant git,” Cox’n Desmond snarled under his breath.
The next fishing boat fleeing astern of the cutter, headed for the shallows of East Bay and the dubious safety of Fort Montagu, told a different story; her crew swore it was the Spanish who were coming.
“That’ll be the day!” Lewrie scoffed. “Maybe it’s the Swedes, or the bloody Russians! It might be one of our—”
There was another boom, much louder and closer this time, for someone on the ramparts of Fort Fincastle, much higher uphill, must have spotted something out to sea, and had fired off an alert gun. At that, church bells began to ring in the town, summoning off-duty soldiers to their duties, and the townspeople to a panic.
Well, perhaps not one of ours, Lewrie silently conceded.
* * *
Lewrie’s quick return to the ship stirred up an ants’ hill of bother as he hurriedly clambered up the man-ropes and batten steps from the cutter to the entry-port, making the sketchiest salute to the flag and the quarterdeck as he did so, and waving off the Bosun, Mr. Sprague, and his silver call, and the hurriedly gathered side-party.
“Mister Eldridge,” Lewrie directed the first Midshipman of the Harbour Watch he could see, “do you load and fire a nine-pounder as a signal gun, and hoist ‘Captains Repair On Board,’ along with a recall to our working-parties ashore.”
“Aye aye, sir!” the mystified young fellow gawped.
Lieutenants Spendlove and Merriman had been aboard, napping in the wardroom, and were coming up from below in their shirtsleeves. The Marine Officer, Lt. Simcock, followed them, throwing on his red uniform coat, with his batman in trail with his sword and baldric, his hat and gorget to be donned later.
“It may be a rumour, it may be true, but there are reports of un-identified warships coming down the Nor’east Providence Channel, sirs,” Lewrie quickly explained. “Just whose, we don’t know, but there is good reason to suspect they might be French. Prepare the ship to weigh, and make sail. We’ll have a quick palaver with the captains of Thorn, Firefly, and Lizard, and then we shall all sortie … God help us. The First Officer is ashore with the Purser?”
“Aye, sir, with the working-party,” Lt. Spendlove said with an audible gulp. He was a Commission Sea Officer in His Majesty’s Navy, and it was not done for him, or any of them, to show fear before the hands. Nor were they to express doubts, even if all of them thought that putting their little ad hoc squadron, chosen months before for shoal-draught work close inshore against lightly armed enemy privateers, would stand no chance against a French squadron, even if that squadron was made up of corvettes and lighter-armed frigates. They were facing the grim prospect of certain death, dismemberment, wounding, or capture. Even pride, honour, and glory had a hard time coping with that.
The cutter had been led astern for towing, and the boat’s crew had come on deck, and Lewrie turned to face them.
“Desmond, I’d admire did ye and the lads strip my cabins for action, and whistle up my steward, Pettus, so he can see the beasts to the orlop,” Lewrie bade. “And, he’s to fetch me my everyday sword and a brace o’ pistols.”
“Aye, sor,” Desmond said, though pausing for a bit before obeying the order. “Ya wish th’ ship’s boats set free for a better turn o’ speed, too, sor?” Desmond asked in a softer voice.
“No,” Lewrie grimly decided. “We may need them, later.”
For the survivors should the ship go down, was left unsaid.
“Clear for action, now, sir?” Lt. Merriman, usually their jolliest, formally intoned.
“Aye, that’d be best,” Lewrie told him. “Let’s get the gun-deck cleared o’ chests, sea bags, and mess-tables, first, but we’ll not beat to Quarters ’til we’ve made our offing,” Lewrie ordered as he stripped off his best coat and hat. Fortunately, beguiling young women required his best silk stockings and shirt. Silk was better than linen, cotton, or wool for battle; it could be drawn from wounds much more easily, reducing the risk of sepsis or gangrene.
Bisquit, the perk-eared ship’s dog, had been prancing round them for attention and “pets”, making wee whines in confusion as to why he was being ignored. The dog could grin quite easily, but he was not now.
Lewrie went to the quarterdeck as Pettus emerged from the door to his great-cabins on the weather deck, followed by the younger cabin-servant, Jessop. Jessop had Lewrie’s cats, Toulon and Chalky, in the wicker travel cage, headed for the main ladderway down the hatch for the orlop, the usual place of shelter below the waterline. He gave a whistle and made “Chom’ere” sounds to Bisquit, took him by the collar, and led him below, too.
“Your plain coat, hat, and weapons, sir,” Bettus said as he took the finery and handed over the wanted items, helping Lewrie put on his coat, and belting Lewrie’s hanger round his waist. The hundred-guinea presentation sword would go below to the orlop, with the cats.
One of the starboard 9-pounders erupted, echoing that first warning gun from Fort Fincastle, and the quarterdeck was briefly fogged with a sour-smelling pall of spent powder smoke. Lewrie looked aloft to see his ordered signals flying two-blocked to the starboard halliards. He turned to look at his frigate’s consorts and noted that each had hoisted the same signal in sign that they had seen it and were obeying. Gigs or jolly boats were putting out from all three of the smaller ships, bearing their commanding officers to Reliant for a quick conference before they sortied.
And just what’ll I order them t’do? Lewrie pondered as Reliant thundered to sounds of shoes and horny bare feet as the gun-deck was cleared, as the wardroom was stripped bare, and all the canvas-and-deal partitions which gave a semblance of privacy came down to be piled like un-wanted stage scenery and sent below out of the way. From great-cabins aft to the break of the forecastle, the gun-deck would become a single long space, broken only by guns and gun-carriages, the carling posts, and sailors.
The Ship’s Purser, Mr. Cadbury, was coming alongside with one of the thirty-two-foot barges that Lewrie had borrowed from HM Dockyard better than a year before for experimental work in the English Channel and had conveniently forgotten to return. In addition to the barge’s oarsmen, helmsman, and Midshipman Munsell were the hands in the working-party who would have loaded supplies into it.
“Mister Cadbury!” Lewrie shouted down to the boat even before it was hooked on to the main chains with a gaff. “Do you release the men of the working-party, but use the boat’s crew to strip the forecastle manger of beasts, and stow ’em in the barge. We’ll tow ’em astern, ’stead o’ tossin’ ’em overboard.”
“Well, aye aye, sir, but…,” Cadbury replied, looking stunned.
“There’s a fight in the offing, Mister Cadbury, and there’s no reason for the pigs and goats to be shot to pieces, or drown!” Lewrie told him with hard-summoned false good humour.
“I see, sir,” Cadbury said, much sobered and subdued.
“Lieutenant Westcott is coming?” Lewrie asked the Purser.
“I’m sure he is, sir, though…” Cadbury shrugged and turned to look shoreward for the second barge.
Coming! Lewrie told himself with an audible snort; I’m bound that he has, the once at least.
Besides himself in his younger days, Lieutenant Geoffrey Westcott was as mad for strange and lovely “quim” as any man ever he did see, and after better than two years in active commission, so did every Man Jack in Reliant’s crew! His harsh hatchet face and alarmingly fierce and brief smiles to the contrary, Westcott always seemed to find himself a bit of “fresh mutton”, was he set down on a desert isle, and the sailors were right proud of him for it!
Aha! Lewrie told himself as he spotted the second barge setting out from the town docks; There’s our Lothario! The set of Westcott’s uniform might be askew, but he was up and dressed, after a fashion, and standing by Midshipman Rossyngton near the tiller, urging the oarsmen for more effort.
Lewrie turned his attention closer aboard, to the gigs bearing Lieutenants Darling, Lovett, and Bury to the main-chains. He glanced at their vessels, satisfied that Thorn, Lizard, and Firefly were being stripped down for action, as well.
Before his junior officers ascended the man-ropes and battens in order of seniority, Lewrie could spare another glance shorewards to the fine houses at the top of the hill behind the fort and the government buildings, and let out a wistful sigh.
She might’ve refused me, anyway, he sadly thought.
Copyright © 2013 by Dewey Lambdin