The King's Commission

An Alan Lewrie Naval Adventure

Alan Lewrie Naval Adventures (Volume 3)

Dewey Lambdin

St. Martin's Griffin/Thomas Dunne Books

The King's Commission
"It is confessed by all that from his youth he was of a vehement and impetuous nature, of a quick apprehension, and of a strong and aspiring bent for action and for great affairs."
Life of Themistocles --Plutarch
Chapter 1
The French fleet made a brave sight to leeward, twenty-nine massive ships of the line bearing up toward the smaller British fleet on a bow and quarter line, their gunports gaping and filled with hard iron maws, the white-and-gold battle flags of Bourbon France streaming in the moderate winds, and their halyards bedecked with signal bunting.
"If this is going to be anything like the Chesapeake battle, we're about to get our arses knackered," master's mate and midshipman Alan Lewrie observed sourly, comparing the twenty-two English vessels against that bellicose spectacle to the west.
"Frogs like ta fight ta loo'ard," said Mr. Monk, the sailing master, shrugging as he worked on a bite of half-shriveled apple. "But we got 'em this time. Cain't work ta windward of us ta double."
Monk waved a stray hand at the shore close aboard to the east past which they barely scraped. Nevis Island ghosted by, crowding the disengaged-side frigates such as Desperate up close to the battle line.
"Un you'll note, young Lewrie, the wind's a prodigy ta loo'ard of an island," Monk went on. "Got a kink in the Trades here that'll bear us along on a nice quarter wind. Too close into shore yonder an' we'd be winded by the hills o' Nevis. Too far out as well, but winds come slidin' down the hills and touch water out here where we are. See how yon French are luffin' and fillin' ta keep station further out? Too far out for this little river o' wind we're ridin'. Second lee."
"If the battle line crowds us much more, we'll be winded, sir," Alan observed, noting the strip of azure waters that was shoaling and shallows close aboard to starboard. "Even if we don't run her aground we'll end up in the island's lee underthose bluffs. Last in line of the repeating frigates. Last in line for pretty much everything since Yorktown, too."
"Can't go spoilin' the admiral's dinner with our stink, Lewrie," Monk spat--literally and figuratively, for he wandered over to the binnacle to fire a dollop of tobacco juice at the spit kid. How the man could eat and swallow fruit, and reserve his quid in the other cheek, almost made Alan ill just contemplating the feat.
"Wasn't our fault we escaped, Mister Monk," Alan said, going to the wheel to join him and peer into the compass bowl.
"Lord Cornwallis give us verbal orders we could try sailin' outa York River, nothin' in writin', see, Mister Lewrie?" Monk smiled with a weary expression. "Whole army goes inta the sack, titled gentlemen imprisoned'r on their parole for the duration. America lost, and us come out with a whole skin. A damn fine feat o' seamanship gettin' down river an' outa the Chesapeake under Cape Charles, even on a fine day'd be cause fer praise, if you'll allow me t'boast a mite. Night as black as a boot, a whole gale blowin', it'd get most young captains a bloody knighthood. But them dominee-do-littles up in New York sat on their hands an' swore what a damn shame it was losin' the army an' all our other ships, well ... it'll take a piece o' time, er somethin' ta rub the shite off'n our boots fer their likes."
"For what we are about to receive, may the Good Lord make us grateful," Comdr. Tobias Treghues, Desperate's master and commander said as the French fleet began to open fire at long range. With the wind carrying the sound of cannonading to leeward, it sounded no more dangerous than the thumping of pillows, and the sour grey-tan wall of smoke climbed above the bulwarks and lower masts of the enemy ships, to be ragged away to the west. Admiral Hood's ships began to return fire, and their view of the proceedings was obscured as great billows of expended powder blotted out the sky.
"Now we'll give those French, and this de Grasse, a proper English quilting," Treghues prophecied with a tight, superior grin.
Not bloody likely, Alan thought. They had been at the Battle of The Chesapeake, where this self-same Admiral de Grasse had snatched victory from a budding disaster, and the British admirals, including Hood who now commanded their fleet, had stood about in stupefaction until there was nothing left to do but call if off. Hood had kept back the strongest division of the combinedLeeward Islands and North American fleets, never even fired a ranging shot all day, and Desperate had been trapped in Chesapeake Bay at the siege of Yorktown, and Alan nearly lost his life ashore; had stood with the Army expecting the Navy to return and break the siege and save the men before they had been forced to surrender. It need hardly be said that Alan Lewrie had a low opinion of Admiral Hood's reputed fighting qualities. In point of fact, he also had a rather low opinion of a naval career, since it wasn't his choice in the first place, but everyone knew that by now, which took the bite out of any carping he might have done in the privacy of his midshipmen's mess.
They had had a hard dash south under a full press of sail for Barbados to carry word to Hood that the island of St. Kitts had been invaded by de Grasse and the French on the eleventh of January. Hood had sailed for Antigua to pick up seven hundred or so troops, all that could be spared, and then made a fast passage to round the southern shore of Nevis, the twin island to St. Kitts, to confront the French, dragging Desperate in the fleet's train like a barely tolerated relative.
Yesterday had been thought to be the day of decision, but all they had accomplished by their presence was to draw this massive Frog fleet out of its anchorage out to sea off Basse Terre. Rumor had it that Hood had wanted to sail right in and fire into the anchored ships, as they should have at The Chesapeake, but that had been postponed.
Once more, this de Grasse had been given a heaven-sent chance to escape the massacre of his fleet. The last time, he had destroyed any last chance to recover the Colonies. Would his luck hold, and would they begin to lose the fabulously wealthy Sugar Islands now?
"They's a gap!" Monk pointed out with alarm in his voice.
"Oh my dear Lord," Treghues whispered, more a short prayer than a curse, for he was a fanatic when it came to quelling the English sailor's easy penchant for blasphemy. "Prudent's never been a fast sailer."
Prudent, a seventy-four-gunned 3rd Rate, fourth from the rear of the British line, had not been able to keep up to the speed of her consorts, and the ships behind her were backing and filling to avoid running her down and tangling their yards in collision. Part of the French line, led by the massive three-decker flagship Ville de Paris, de Grasse's own ship, bore up to close in and penetrate. It would be the beginning of a disaster.
Alan couldn't watch--he'd been there before--and made hisway to the starboard side to stand by midshipmen Avery and Burney, who had been relegated by duty to a poor view of the proceedings.
"Mister Lewrie," Avery said coolly, echoed a second later by the startlingly beautiful Burney.
"Avery, Burney," Lewrie replied, touching a finger to the brim of his cocked hat to return their salutes. Avery had been his best and nearly only friend in the Navy, especially on Desperate, until Alan had returned from the debacle at The Chesapeake and had been appointed an acting master's mate. They had caterwauled together, schemed together and shared almost all of their innermost thoughts, but now they were separated by the gulf between a junior warrant officer and a midshipman, though Alan knew that if he well and truly fucked up in his new posting, he could end up swinging a hammock in the cockpit with David Avery and Burney in the blink of an eye.
"Goddamn my eyes, I hope they brought a good lunch," Alan spat as he looked shoreward. At the last and most westward point of land above Fort Charles on Nevis, quite a crowd had gathered, treating the naval battle like a spectator sport and an excuse for a feast.
"Civilians, sir," Avery agreed with a properly naval scowl of displeasure.
"May they get an eyeful, sir!" Burney said with some heat.
Alan didn't know quite what to make of Burney; he was sixteen, had a good kit and was obviously from money, but he was so keen, nautical and unfailingly of good cheer that Alan felt his skin crawl every time he was around him. Little get's got a fiddle, he thought suspiciously, as was Lewrie's usual wont. Besides, Burney was so beautiful in a manly, gentlemanly way, his features so clear and well-formed, that Alan felt like throwing shoes at him. Where were the usual boils, the pimples of a teenaged midshipman--God help, he didn't even half stink like most people. It was uncanny.
"At 'em Canada!" Treghues enthused. "Would that Lord Cornwallis had shown half the bottom of his brother Captain Cornwallis yonder!"
The next ship ahead of Prudent had shivered her tops'ls and lost way to seal the gap against the French probe, and the two ships ahead of the gallant Canada--Resolution and Bedford--had also slowed down to form a solid wall of oak and iron to frustrate their foes.
"Foiled, aha!" Treghues laughed, another sign of incipientmadness to Alan's lights. Comdr. The Hon. Tobias Treghues had been a straight-laced prig of the worst blue-stocking sort at first, but between a head injury the year before, a "slight" trephination by the ship's surgeon, and a course of medication consisting of a rare South American weed that Dr. Dome referred to as Nicotiana Glauca (taken in wine and smoked), he was as fickle now as some young miss. He had made Alan's life a living hell, then half a joy, then again a hell as his moods shifted. Now he seemed favorably disposed to Lewrie, but one never knew, and Alan missed the security of knowing that he was either a hopelessly lost cause or some nautical paragon to be praised and lauded to the skies; and to the Admiralty, which was more useful for a career.
Sensing that Treghues was safe enough to approach this day without fear of being bitten, Alan wandered back past the wheel and the binnacle to the larboard side, after pausing to check the quartermasters on the wheel, the compass bearing, and the set of the sails.
"Bosun, we're nigh past the last of Nevis. Be prepared at the braces to take the wind abeam," Alan cautioned.
"Aye, Mister Lewrie," Coke grumbled, disliking to be told his duties by a jumped-up younker, but forbearing philosophically.
"Wonder if they left anything in the anchorage?" Lieutenant Railsford asked, plying a telescope northward toward the western-most point of land below St. Kitts' main-town, Basse Terre, and the anchorage in Frigate Bay.
"If they did, they'd best shift 'em afore ya kin say 'Jack-Puddin','" Monk opined, "er we'll be among 'em a'sharin' out some solid-shot grief. We're head-reachin' the devils, damned if we ain't."
Desperate leaned a bit as the wind shifted, bringing their collective attention inboard, away from the engagement before them.
"Hands to the braces, Mister Coke!" Lieutenant Railsford ordered. "By God, this'll put a bone in our teeth!"
With the fresher airs playing between St. Kitts and Nevis down the narrow mile and a half channel, their small frigate began to fly, as did the larger ships of the line, leaving the leeward vessels in the French line behind, still caught in a pocket of stiller air to Nevis' lee. Even Prudent was catching up handily now.
"Now what's de Grasse done wrong here today?" Treghues demanded of his officers, once the ship was fully under controland the braces had been belayed by the waisters along the gangways above the guns. "Avery?"
"Abandoned his anchorage, sir," Avery said brightly.
"He doesn't seem too eager to close us, sir, and fight at close pistol-shot," Burney piped up, the eager student. "And he stranded himself out in the second lee of the island before making his approach."
"Lewrie, you're the student of that fellow named Clerk, what do you say?" Treghues asked, and Alan flinched recalling the last time he had dared to open his mouth back in September about Clerk's tactics book.
"If he wanted to fight, sir, he could have defended his anchorage, or backed and filled during the night much closer towards St. Kitts, sir," Alan surmised. "Starting that far to the suth'rd and out to sea from us, he practically gave it away. And he could have pushed through the gap Prudent made if he'd tried."
"Has Admiral Hood made any mistakes yet?" Treghues went on, loving his role of experienced teacher to his neophyte officers.
"He almost abandoned the last four or five ships, sir," Burney ventured. "But it was more important to get on north to St. Kitts."
"Very good, sirs, very good." Treghues nodded with a pleasant smile and strolled away with his hands clasped in the small of his back.
Hood had indeed head-reached on the suddenly baffled French, and as they watched, and the afternoon of January 25 wore on, Hood's line-of-battle ships gained the anchorage, swung east and anchored in line-ahead from almost the reefs of Frigate Bay stretching back west to seaward, blocking the French from entry into their former anchorage. Desperate had to snake her way between the heavier 3rd Rates as they rounded up to anchor, passing to the disengaged side through the battle line, which was the proper station for frigates to find safety once more inside the screen of larger ships.
"Find us good holding ground to leeward, Mister Monk," Treghues said. "We shall anchor west and north of the last ships in the line of battle."
"Charts show thirty fathom there'bouts, sir," Monk replied after a long squint at one of his heavily creased and much doodled-upon charts. "Soft sand un mud, though, not good holdin' ground. Hard coral 'bout a mile closer ta shore, though."
"We could fetch to, sir," Lieutenant Railsford suggested. "If there is a threat, we'd be caught putting put a kedge anchor from the stern and not have the springs ready."
"Anybody ta loo'ard o' us'd take the devil's own time beatin' up ta windward ta get at us, though," Monk chuckled. "We might have time ta put out the kedge un bower, un get springs on the cables."
"Or get caught anchored by a 3rd Rate, sir," Alan stuck in to try the waters. It was not Desperate's place, or function in life, to become an immobile target for a larger ship that could blow holes in her.
"Hard to get a bower up out of soft sand and mud," Treghues speculated audibly. "Very well, bring her to, Mister Railsford. Back the mizzen tops'l and shift the head sheets."
With the foresails cocked up to produce forward motion, and the square-sails laid aback or furled to the yards to retard her, Desperate "fetched-to," her helm hard over as though she were trying to tack and had been caught in irons by a capricious shift of wind, drifting slowly and making barely discernible sternway, to all intents at a dead stop.
"Stand the hands down from Quarters, Mister Railsford," Treghues ordered as eight bells chimed from the belfry at the break of the fo'c'sle, ending the afternoon watch and beginning the first dog-watch at 4 P.M.
"Cooks to light the galley fires, sir?" Railsford asked. It took time to develop enough heat under the steep-tubs so the rations could be boiled up, and the first dog was the usual time to start cooking.
"Not yet, not until we are sure we shall not be called upon to engage should a foe break the leeward end of the line," the captain said, frowning. "I'll not risk fire aboard until dusk. There's still daylight enough to do something glorious."
Freed of the tedium of duty, Alan betook himself below after one last lungful of fresh, clean Trade-Wind air. Below decks in the cockpit it would be a close and humid fog of humanity's reeks. The day had been pleasantly warm, and the wind bracing, and his nostrils pinched at the aromas of a ship when he reached his tiny dog-box of a cabin. Pea soup farts, armpits, unwashed bodies and rancid clothing, the garbage-midden stink of the bilges and holds where cheeses, bread-bags, dried beans and peas slowly rotted, where kegs of salt meat slowly fermented in brine.
"Got you, you bastard!" he exulted as he managed to mash alarge roach with his shoe at the foot of the accommodation ladder. At least half a dozen more scurried from sight.
He tossed his cocked hat onto the peg above his cot, peeled off his tail-coat, and almost tore the stock from his throat to open his collar, oblivious to the continual booming and thudding of artillery that still roared between the two opposing fleets.
"Freeling, fetch a bucket of seawater," Alan demanded past the flimsy lath and canvas door to his cabin. Indeed, the whole dog-box afforded nothing more than the semblance of privacy, framed out in light deal and canvas that could be struck down before battle.
"Coomin' zurr," the mournful Freeling intoned joylessly, sounding even more put-upon than normal. Alan had finally gotten the man's measure, and was no longer in thrall to the cockpit servant's truculent behavior, as he had been when still merely a midshipman.
Once the water arrived, Alan took down a mildewed rag, sniffed at it and thought it could do for a few more days, then soaked it in the seawater and stripped to scrub himself down. Aboard a ship of war, the water was rationed at a gallon a day per man and officer, but not much of that went for washing or drinking; most of it was used in the steep-tubs to boil food. Personal consumption for cleanliness or shaving was limited to a pint a man, and most people found drinking the small-beer or wine more palatable than ship's water after it had been in cask for a few weeks, for it usually turned whiskey-brown, stained by the oak casks or the animalcules that grew in it. It was best when used to dilute rum or wine, which killed the brackish taste. Certainly, seawater made you itch all over, and one developed rashes and boils from constant exposure, but that was a sailor's lot. Besides, everybody itched and scratched constantly, even ashore. At least ships were free (for the most part, anyway) of lice, fleas and ticks.
"Ah, that feels good," Alan whispered, working up a slight lather from a stub of soap cake he had purchased in Wilmington. He would be sorry when it was finally gone, for in his lengthy shore service with the Army at Yorktown during the siege, one of his few pleasures was a soak in a creek or a hot half-barrel of clean water with some soap at least once or twice a week. Most of the hands, who came from poorer circumstances, thought him "tetched" for his obsession with hot water.
He rinsed down and shook out his clothing. Now that he was a junior warrant, his clothes did not take half the abuse of a midshipman'suniform. The tar and linseed oil stains were almost gone from the days and weeks he had lived in the rigging aloft and had turned positively grimy from the running rigging, standing rigging, and the spars. Sure he could pass muster, he flapped his breeches and shirt to air the last of the sweat from them and put them back on. He'd save his clean clothing for Sunday Divisions. No sense getting potty about things.
"Bloody Frogs!" Burney was crowing from the cockpit outside his flimsy door as they rumbled down to their berth from the gun deck. "What a jape on those bastards!"
"Freeling, trot out some Black Strap," Avery called.
"An't been no eesue, zurr," Freeling mooed mournfully.
"Then break out a bottle of our personal stores, and be quick about it, man," Avery insisted. "We'll drink confusion to our foes, damme if we shan't."
Putting his stock back on, Alan came out from his dog-box and took a seat at the scarred mess table with the midshipmen, which put a chill on their cock-a-hoop airs.
"I take it the Frogs have indeed been confused?" Alan asked.
"They sailed right up to us in column and had to sheer away as our line took them under fire," Burney said proudly. "Then they loped off to seaward, to the sou'west."
"Trying to think of something to do about us holding the harbor." Alan smiled. "Probably try something tomorrow at first light. Are we to anchor?"
"The captain still hasn't said, Mister Lewrie," Avery replied in his best professional manner, unable to look Alan in the eyes. Freeling arrived with some chipped glassware and a bottle of fairly decent Bordeaux, part of a lot the mess had gone shares on in New York after Yorktown, when Desperate was still refitting from the pummeling she had taken before her daring escape.
"Only two glasses?" Alan pointed out. "I mind I went shares on that case of bottles, too. Freeling, fetch me a glass."
"Oh," Freeling groaned. "Aye, zurr."
"If you do not mind me joining your celebrations?" Alan put the dig in with a sly smile.
"Not at all, Mister Lewrie," Burney chirped.
"Honored, sir," Avery added.
They were into their first glass of wine when Railsford, Cheatham the purser, Dr. Dome and the Marine lieutenant Peck came aft through their quarters for the airier and more spacious accommodations of the wardroom dead aft of them in the stern.
Burney put down his second glass, then was caught short and stumbled off for the beakhead up forward to make water, leaving Avery and Lewrie alone in the midshipmen's mess.
"I don't think this Frog de Grasse is half as smart as we've been thinking, sir," Avery said shyly. "We diddled him pretty well today."
"Aye, that we did. He was badly placed to get to grips with us, too far to leeward and he waited too long to come about from south to north and take us under fire."
"Might have been better for him if he had reversed course and order as soon as he saw us and waited closer to St. Kitts, yes." David grinned. "Gotten to windward inshore of Nevis himself."
"Frogs like to fight to leeward, though, David," Alan stated. "Makes sense if you're a two-decker and can keep your heaviest artillery on the lower deck in action. If you take the windward, your guns are slanting down and even with the quoins all the way out, you don't have the range an upward slanting deck could give you."
"And they like to fight at long range, too, and shoot for the rigging 'stead of closing for a clean shot."
"Probably top their whores at arm's length, too," Alan laughed.
"Won't get to grips like a good Englishman," Avery added, getting more comfortably into the conversation.
"Like that buttock shop we went to in Charleston on your birthday?" Lewrie reminisced. "What was it, Maude's?"
"Lady Jane's," David hooted. "I still owe you for that."
"Well, it was only a crown apiece. Or are you thinking of the brawl we got into after we left?" Alan shrugged and made free with the bottle to top up both their glasses.
"I owe you for that one, too. They'd have split my skull in that street if you hadn't been there, sir," David shot back.
"Sir, is it?" Alan asked. "Damnit all, David ..."
"Well, you are a master's mate now."
"That's only because we're short-handed. I'm still the same as you, just another midshipman. I could be chucked out of my dog-box and back in a hammock next week. You've been acting like I've been made post. The Navy and its discipline be damned!"
"It's not just what the Navy expects." David sobered. "It's the way you came back aboard after Yorktown. Maybe even before then, when we went inshore. Before we were equals ... fellowsufferers in this nautical misery, eh?" David essayed a small laugh. "But you changed, became a hard man. Like you'd aged ten years and I was still seventeen, d'ya see?"
"So you're afraid of me?" Alan gaped. "In awe of my new grandeur?"
"Nothing like that," David replied with a sarcastic expression. "And your grandeur be damned, 'cause you still break the vilest wind of any human I've ever seen. You're miles ahead of me now ... Alan."
"I suddenly became your older brother?" Lewrie chid him.
"Something like that." David nodded seriously. "More like you'd come back aboard a commission officer with years of authority about you. You'll make your commission before me, maybe make post before me."
"If I stay in the Navy after this war is over," Alan scoffed. "Damme, I'm sorry you feel that way, David."
"I am, too," Avery grimaced, "but there it is. I still count you my dearest friend, but friendship is based on equality, and we're no longer equal, not as long as we wear uniform. Sorry if I've been acting standoff-ish, but it comes with the Service. If we joshed each other as we were used, then I'd get a caning and you'd get a tongue-lashing. As long as we're aboard ship, at least. Perhaps on a run ashore, things might be different. I hope so, anyway."
"Then we shall have one, soon," Alan promised.
Burney came back from his trip to the heads, and Alan stood up to finish dressing in waist-coat, coat and cocked hat. He went on deck to leave the two midshipmen to their fledgling friendship.
Damme, how did this come about? he asked himself. I'm not two full years older than David, and he's looking up to me like a distant uncle. Maybe if we both make an equal rank, he'll feel different.
But no, he realized. There was a gulf greater than rank between them now, some perception on David's part that saw him as some older and more competent man. He didn't feel old. He was barely nineteen. Looking back on his life, he wasn't sure if he had ever been young and innocent, but by God he didn't feel as old and competent as David implied. He was still groping for his own way in the Navy, and in life, still making stupid mistakes, floundering about in Society like a drowning man clutching at a floating spar, even if his finances and family background had finally been ascertained.
Neither, he gathered with a smirk, was he the same incredibly callow seventeen-year-old that had crawled through Ariadne's entry port soaking wet from a dunk in the Solent because he had no idea how to manage scaling man-ropes and battens up a ship's side. He admitted to himself that he had made progress in skill and knowledge in the Navy, and had gotten a few glimmerings about Life, but was he not the same shameless Corinthian brothel-dandy and buck of the first head who could roister through London streets like a rutting ram-cat with no thought for the morrow except a vague wonderment about where he was going to awaken, and with whom?
"Jesus, this fucking Navy is making a doddering fossil out of me!" he grumbled. "Let's beat this damned de Grasse and have done with the whole humbug before--my God--before I start taking me seriously!"
The bosun's pipes began to cheep then to break his irreverent reveries. "All hands! All hands on deck! Prepare to anchor!"
"Mister Lewrie, do ya take charge o' the fo'c'sle!" Monk bellowed in a quarterdeck rasp that could have cut through a whole gale. "Clear hawse bucklers, seize up ta the best bower with the two-cable line, un prepare ta let go!"
The next morning, de Grasse had at them again. During the night, Hood had ordered his ships to shift their anchorages, so that an unbroken line stood from the point below Frigate Bay. The van ship was about four miles sou'east of Basse Terre, so close inshore not even a sloop could have clawed inshore of her; she was also inside the point and shoal as further cover. Twelve more ships lay astern of her to the west-nor'west, a mile-and-a-quarter to a mile-and-a-half of line-of-battle ships with their artillery ready. The remaining six liners bent about to curve the last of the line to the north, with Admiral Hood's 2nd Rate Barfleur at the apex of the bend. All ships had springs rigged on their anchor cables so they could shift their fire right or left as needed to take on a foe at extreme range as she approached, and swing with her to pour more deadly broadsides into her as long as she sailed past them.
Desperate had upped her own anchors and gotten underway shortly after breakfast, and was now prowling behind the battle line like a caged wildcat, waiting for something to maul should she be given a chance, ready to pass messages, or bear down upon a crippled British vessel to render her assistance.
The Trades were blowing well out of the sou'east, so an attemptto get round behind the line would involve hours of tacking close-hauled, and the ships drawn up en potence guarded that vital flank from the attempt. The French were presented with one hell of a quandary, and the English waited to see what brilliant maneuver the wily de Grasse would pull out of his gold-laced cocked hat.
"Here they come, damn their blood," Lieutenant Railsford finally spat, after a hail from the lookout at the main-mast crosstrees.
The French fleet was strung out in a perfect order in single line-ahead, a cable's length between ships, aimed like a spear at the head of Hood's line. With implacable menace, they bore down as if they would crash through the anchored ships and smash them in the process. But the lead vessel drifted west, unable to bear close enough to the wind, and now aimed at the third ship in line. When within range, she turned west.
Immediately, Hood's ships returned fire upon her.
"Bless my soul, will you look at that, now!" Treghues rejoiced, slapping his thighs. "Can you mark her, Mister Railsford?"
"Pluton, looks like, sir, 3rd Rate, seventy-four guns."
Alan had access to a spare telescope and was standing on the bulwarks with an arm and a leg hooked through the mizzen shrouds for a better view. The French ship staggered as if she had just run aground, surrounded by a thin pall of dust and smoke as she was savaged by the fire of at least four British ships that had swung on their springs to direct their gunfire into her together.
"I can see scantlings flying from her far side, sir!" Alan said. "They're blowing her to flinders!"
Pluton, if that was her as they surmised, passed down that long mile-and-a-half line, being taken under fire in order. And a cable behind her came a second ship, and a third, and a fourth, all taking the same terrible drubbing. Like sheep to the slaughter, the entire French line-of-battle followed that dreadful course, shooting high as was their usual practice, but doing little damage to ships at anchor, who couldn't have cared less whether their rigging was cut up. The British followed their usual practice as well, aiming 'twixt wind and water to punch star-shaped holes into the hulls and gun decks, to kill men and make the wood splinters fly, scything down crews and dismounting guns.
Desperate's crew was jeering as the lead French man o'war turned away and staggered back toward the south, her mastssprung and rolling, and her hull ripped apart by high velocity iron.
"Now damme," Alan relished over the din, "this is more like it!"
Desperate went about and worked her way to leeward, past the bend of the British line, for a better view of the proceedings, loafing along under reduced sail, away from the predictable thumping that the rest of the French fleet was suffering, to see what would transpire as they bore away. Which was nothing threatening, as they could see after half an hour. The French were making no more attempt to do anything offensive.
"What do you think of Admiral Hood now, Mister Lewrie?" Railsford asked him, cocking one eyebrow in mirth.
"Well, sir, after The Chesapeake, I thought he was the biggest poltroon in uniform, but he's showing well today," Alan answered.
"If he'd been in charge then, we'd have never swung away. We'd have been in that anchorage among the Frogs, and cut them to pieces. Or we'd have winkled them out of their anchorage as we did yesterday, and put up such a wall of gunfire de Grasse would have shattered his fleet trying to reenter."
"And gobbled up their damned army, 'stead of them gobbling up ours, sir," Alan concluded with a wolfish expression.
"Not that we could have really won against the Americans, even after such a victory."
"Indeed, sir?" he said politely, thinking, Mine arse on a band-box!
"Too few men, too big a country, too much hatred by then. Even if we could have bagged Washington and Rochambeau on the march down from New York, there'd be another Washington come out of the backwoods with another army." Railsford shrugged. "But, we still come out of this Rebellion with Canada. And the important thing now is to beat the Frogs and Dagoes until they scream for mercy, so we'll not have any more of these coalition wars for the rest of the century, if we do it proper."
"De Grasse isn't as good as we touted him to be, is he, Mister Railsford?" Alan asked, feeling as though there had been an exorcism.
"We gave him victory in The Chesapeake. He couldn't help but show well there. To my mind, he's an over-rated clown when up against the sort of admiral we have here today," Railsford opined. "Lord North's cousin, Graves, was a clown,appointed by petticoat influence. Hood is not, and. pray God we get him back in the Leewards, neither is Rodney."
"The captain once told me something similar, sir, about getting Hood and Rodney together, and sweeping the seas."
"I'd love to see that. Would you?"
"Aye, sir, I would," Alan said, realizing that it was so, halfpleased by the prospect, and half-startled that he cared anything more for the Navy than getting out of it with a whole skin.
"Well now, if you were this de Grasse bugger, what would you be thinking of about this time?" Railsford asked by way of instruction.
"Well, sir, I'm French, so I'd go below and have me a good sulk. Maybe boot hell out of my servants for starters." Alan chuckled. "Some good fortifying brandy. Then, I'd come back up and split my fleet. Half to attack the ships en potence, half to beat up past our line as far as Brimstone Hill. It'd take hours, but one could make east-nor'east. Then tack and fall back down on the anchorage. Hood would have to shift the van ships closest the shore to counter. If he did, I'd fight both halves of my fleet for a cross-fire, with us in the center."
Lieutenant Railsford studied him closely for a long moment, lips parted as though about to sneer, and Alan felt a total fool. Railsford had been an ally in the early days after he had come aboard Desperate, an ally even after Treghues had turned on him. From Railsford he had learned much more than he ever had from Treghues' teaching sessions, for Treghues was more fond of his own voice and opinions than in imparting anything worthwhile to his charges. What improvements in his behavior and in his nautical lore he had learned for Railsford's sake, and now he had most likely revealed himself a complete, incompetent idiot. Alan blushed and looked away with a shy grimace to show that he was not to be taken totally seriously.
"God be thanked you wear our King's coat and not that of their slack-jawed monarch," Railsford finally commented. "Should this bastard try that, he'd have the Leeward Islands Squadron on a plate."
Fuck me, Alan exulted to himself, have I said something clever?
"Indeed, sir?" he asked with as much false humility as he could muster at short notice.
"I shall say some serious prayers for anyone foolish enough to cross your hawse should you ever hoist your broad pendant,Lewrie," Lieutenant Railsford went on. "You think on a grand scale."
"For such a lowly, sir," Alan stuck in, the humility now in full ooze. When called upon, and if given warning enough to be on his best behavior, he knew he could toady and suck up with the best.
"That won't last, not if you watch your helm," Railsford told him with a grin. "Are you considering continuing your naval career?"
"Well, sir, it may not be up to me." Alan sighed. "If we beat de Grasse bad enough today, the war may be over soon. There was talk about a Peace Commission to parley with the Rebels, some guff about a meeting with all the belligerents to call it off soon. And what use is one more lowly midshipman out of thousands, when nine-tenths of the Navy would be laid up in-ordinary?"
There, I said that right well. Not my bloody fault if they dump me, is it? he thought. Why just blurt out I'd rather be whoring around Seven Dials than put up with another day of this misery and deprivation? Come to think on it, either one's just as dangerous.
"What's left, Mister Lewrie?" Railsford asked with a wry expression. "Trade? Not exactly the ton for a young man raised as a gentleman like yourself. Clerking for someone? You're too honest for Parliament and too much a rogue for holy orders. Stick with what you do best, and believe it or not, young sir, what you do best is the Navy."
"Well, thankee kindly, Mister Railsford, sir," Alan replied, glad to be complimented, and blushing a bit, genuinely this time.
"Enough praise for the devil today." Railsford sobered. "Else I shall expect your head to swell and burst."
"Aye aye, sir."
"Deck thar," came a leather-lunged shout from the lookout aloft. "They'm be comin' h'agin!"
"Now we shall see if de Grasse has discovered something new to try on us," Railsford snapped, turning back to the rail. "And I hope he does not commune with the same creative muse as you, Mister Lewrie."
Once more, after reeling off to the sou'west in a long curve, the French came back, their alignment and spacing in line-ahead perfect as they could make it.
"Headed directly for us," Treghues commented nearby as everyone crowded the larboard bulwarks of the quarterdeck. "Theirturn-away took them down to leeward and beating back to try the line again did not work. They shall assay their luck against the ships en potence this time."
"What if they could get a slant of wind around the rear of this shorter line, sir?" Railsford asked. "The Trades are still out of the sou'east. Three points more would flank our dispositions."
"Mister Railsford, I would much admire if you do lay Desperate as close to the wind as you may and bring her to on the opposite tack," Treghues said, standing slim, elegant and foursquare with his ornate personal telescope to his eye.
"A 6th Rate to impede the path of a 2nd or 3rd Rate, sir?" Railsford asked, aghast that anyone could even countenance such an idea.
"Not to match broadsides, no," Treghues said, laughing easily, still intent on the sight of the enemy fleet. "But we should be able to deflect them. They cannot sail closer to the wind to avoid us or they'd be in irons and get shot to ribbons by the ships en potence. To bear away to avoid us would deny them precious minutes. It is an acceptable risk."
"Aye aye, sir," Railsford nodded in the hush that had fallen on the quarterdeck. A captain's decisions could not be argued, and any unwillingness expressed volubly enough to try and counter a captain's tactics could be construed as direct violations of several of the merciless Articles of War; cowardice in not being courageous enough to fight; insubordination; not doing everything in one's power to ready a ship for a fight. They were all court-martial offenses and usually resulted in the offender being strung up from a yard-arm by the neck.
I knew I should have gotten off when I had the chance, Alan thought shakily. I could be languishing in a Rebel prison right now, training rats close-order drill or something, on parole at the easiest. Maybe it would have been better to have been captured with the Army at Yorktown than to put up with this tripe-skulled clown!
"Bosun, ready to wear ship!" Railsford bellowed. "Quartermaster, we shall put the helm up and bring her to on the starboard tack."
By the time they had finished their evolution, and Desperate rode cocked up into the wind once more, the French fleet was sliding up on them with the wind on their quarter. Pluton was no longer the van ship, having been pounded half to matchwood in the first attempt, and a new vessel presented herself as a target.
Barfleur, the ninety-gunned 2nd Rate, opened fire first at the apex of the line, swinging about on her spring-lines to get off several hot broadsides at the same target, and the other ships en potence joined in as the French came within range. Clouds of smoke soared into the tropic skies, and artillery belched and thundered, spitting long red tongues of flame and sparks from burning wads into the smoke clouds. The view was blotted out once more; it might have been a gunnery exercise, as far as the men in Desperate could see. Even the masts of the French vessels disappeared, and the sun was eclipsed into dusk.
"There, sir!" Railsford gasped, pointing out the shape emerging to the west of the worst powder smoke. A French 3rd Rate broke free from the pall, and everyone breathed out in relief to note she was not pointing her jib-boom at them any longer, but was hauling her wind to leeward to break away west, her best attempt rejected.
"Hmmph," Treghues snorted contemptuously. "Is that the best de Grasse can do, then? Not much heart put into this sally, was there?"
"Signal, sir!" One of the new thirteen-year-old midshipmen piped from aft in a reedy voice. "Our number! From the flag! 'Well done,' sir!"
"Ah," Treghues preened. "Is it?" With little risk to themselves, they had finally done something to expunge part of that silent, faceless and therefore uncounterable cloud of disapproval. If Hood could take a moment to be magnanimous, perhaps even their squadron commander, Comdr. Sir George Sinclair could forgive them for losing him his nephew, one of their midshipmen who had not escaped with her that stormy night in the Chesapeake. It was all Treghues could do to not begin leaping about the deck and breaking into a horn-pipe of glee at that most welcome signal.
"If that's all the excitement for the day, gentlemen, we may haul our wind and come about on the larboard tack once more. Course due west. Make easy sail."
"Aye aye, sir," Lieutenant Railsford agreed.
"We made 'em look pretty stupid, hey?" Mr. Monk chortled. "This de Grasse ain't nothin' like the ogre we made him out ta be."
"I want you all to witness that we have done something glorious in the last two days," Treghues said, handing his sword to his servant Judkin before going below for a late dinner. "We bedazzled them out of their anchorage, and just shot the heart rightout of them. Give us another week of steady breezes out of the sou'east and their troops ashore will be running low on rations. There's no foraging here on an island as small as St. Kitts. There may be six thousand men in their army. A loss so large would be as disastrous to them as Saratoga or Yorktown was to us. Pray God, all of you, that this may come to pass, and our Merciful Savior shall vouchsafe English arms with a victory so grand we shall speak of it as Henry V did of St. Crispin's Day!"
The hands cheered to his ringing speech, but since Treghues' patriotic fervor did not extend to "splicing the mainbrace" and trotting out a celebratory tot of rum, and he did not mention Agincourt by name, most of the unlettered could only scratch their heads and wonder what the fuss was about, except that Sam Hood had laid into the Frogs and given them a walloping.
But barely had the ship been put about, the hands stood down from Quarters and the galley fires been lit than the lookouts summoned Treghues back to the deck.
"Where away?" he asked.
"There, sir." Railsford pointed with his telescope held like a small-sword in his hand. "A despatch boat of some kind, fore'n'aft rigged, coming on close to the wind. And there's a frigate out to leeward to support her. Mayhap a message from de Grasse to his troops ashore, sir?"
"Aye, today would take some explaining," Treghues sniffed. "Get sail on her, Mister Railsford. We shall drive her back out to sea, or take her and read her despatches ourselves."
"Dinner, sir?" Railsford prompted.
"My dear Railsford, your concern with victuals is commendable." Treghues laughed. "Biscuit and cheese, and serve out small-beer. We may be beating to Quarters within the hour. Tell the cooks to put out their fires."
Copyright © 1991 by Dewey Lambdin