Captain Alan Lewrie, RN, stepped out of the doors of the George Inn, just as the watch bells of a myriad of warships and merchant vessels in Portsmouth Harbour began to chime the end of the Morning Watch—Eight Bells, and the start of the Forenoon—in a distant, jangly ting-tinging much like what a rider near London might hear from church bells of a Sunday morning.
Not exactly a sound to set one’s pocket-watch by, that chiming, for each ship depended on the turning of sand-glasses to measure hours and half hours, quarter hours for the Dog Watches, the initial turning of the glasses dependent on the vagaries of masters’ and captains’ time pieces, all of varying quality, accuracy, and cost.
Lewrie unconsciously drew his watch from a waist-coat pocket and found the time to be two and a half minutes past 8 a.m. Then he, as half a dozen other officers nearby did, put it to his ear to see if it was still ticking strongly. One much older Post-Captain growled under his breath, gave his a hard shake, and damned its maker with a muttered “Christ . . . bloody cogs!” before stalking off.
Lewrie merely shrugged, put his back in his waist-coat pocket, and lifted his gaze to savour the morning. And a fine morning it was, by Jove! There was ample early summer sunshine, and the sky was barely dappled with thinly scattered and quick-scudding light clouds. Flags and vanes showed the wind had come about from the Nor’east, and in some strength, too, for the flies of those flags were snapping chearly, the halliards chattering against the flagpoles. Weather vanes on rooves squeaked and jiggled to a relatively brisk breeze.
Lewrie resettled his cocked hat on his head, and, now alone on the walkway as the other officers headed away on their own occasions, allowed himself a most satisfying belch—not a well-stifled, gentlemanly thing, but a rather long, and loud, eructation; for in all of Portsmouth there was no breakfast finer than that served at the George Inn, and his morning repast of two eggs fried not quite to hard, with fried and grated potatoes, a chop-sized hank of flank beef, and bread sliced two finger-joints thick, toasted to perfection, then slathered with fresh butter and Kentish apple preserves, had been perfection . . . and, sluiced down with three cups of coffee fetched to his table half-scalding, to boot . . . well!
That belch, in point of fact, was so savoury that Lewrie allowed himself a second before taking hold of the scabbard of his hundred-guinea presentation small-sword to restrict its swinging, and set off towards the quays, and the King’s Stairs, where he would take a hired boat back to his new frigate.
The morning was so clear and bright that even before he got to the King’s Stairs, Lewrie could espy dozens of sail making the most of the shift of wind to head down-Channel for the Atlantic. Nearer to, at least a dozen warships were falling down to St. Helen’s Patch, down to the Isle of Wight and the open sea, after being cooped up in port for a fortnight or more, awaiting a favourable slant of wind and a moderation in the weather.
To be back at sea! Were Savage in any respects ready to sail, what a grand morning’s departure it would be, but, alas, his frigate still lay to anchor with both bowers and both stern kedges down, with her upper masts and rigging stripped “to a gant-line” for re-rigging and re-masting to his satisfaction. Her jib-boom and bowsprit had been steeved to a lower angle, whole new sets of inner and outer jibs cut and sewn, and the Sailmaker and his crew ready to make new fore-and-aft stays’ls to Lewrie’s requirements, once the upper masts were set in place . . . all to aid HMS Savage to “point” just a half, or a quarter, point closer to the eyes of the winds.
The sooner, the better, pray Jesus! Lewrie fretfully thought, his good mood and joy of a good breakfast curdled by the dread that he might not stay free long enough to skitter over the horizon, out of reach of his pending legal troubles . . . and the adamantine wrath of the Beauman family.
No wonder the others were peerin’ at me so odd, Lewrie thought as he reached the stone quays; wond’rin’ whether I’m saint or felon.
The George Inn was one of the better establishments in Portsmouth, the favourite of senior naval officers, so he had been among an host of Rear-Admirals, a Commodore or three, and Post-Captains of more than Three Years’ Seniority, like himself, “salted enough” to wear a pair of gilt-lace epaulets on their shoulders. They’d seemed polite and civil enough, some smiling as they pointed him out to their table companions and gave him a nod. Others, well . . .
“That’s Lewrie, don’t ye know . . . pile o’ ’tin’ in the West Indies . . . the ‘Ram-Cat,’ he’s called, and God pity his poor wife . . . at Cape Saint Vincent and Camperdown, both, with the medals for ’em . . . a fight near Cape Town in early spring, took a bigger French frigate . . . two-hour fight in a blowin’ gale, I heard . . . got his frigate out from the Nore during the Mutiny . . . oh, in all the papers, and such ’cause he stole Jamaican slaves t’crew his ship . . . darlin’ of the Abolition crowd, and Wilberforce, so please ye! ‘Black Alan’ Lewrie now, haw-haw . . . soon t’hang, I heard, God rot ’im! Aye, and Wilberforce, too . . . demned ‘reformers’ and ‘kill-joys’!”
Lewrie had heard rumours from his new allies in the Society for the Abolition of Slavery in the British Empire, the Reverend William Wilberforce and his coterie, that the Beauman family, already about as fond of him as cold, boiled mutton, had departed Jamaica for England.
Now they’d finally discovered just who it was who stole their dozen prime field hands from one of their many plantations, the one on the shore of Portland Bight (well, sort of, kind of, recruited or received, not stolen exactly!), they were come with vengeance running hot in their spleens to see him tried, convicted, stripped of all of his wealth and property, cashiered from the Royal Navy, then most publicly and satisfyingly carted to Tyburn and hung from a gibbet, to the taunts from the Mob, and the Huzzahs of the Beaumans.
Never should’ve shot their damned cousin in that duel, Lewrie silently rued, grimly recalling when he’d seconded his old friend Kit Cashman, who’d drilled the youngest Beauman brother, Ledyard, right in the belly, too, who’d taken five agonising days to die after they had scandalously violated the rules of honour with a back-shot, and extra, hidden pistols. Though it was satisfyin’ . . .
Most of the bumboats and boats for hire were scurrying about from vessel to vessel, and for the moment, only two remained tied to the landing, their shabby bundled or furled sails rustling and snapping to the breeze, and frayed rope halliards chattering against their short masts, the blocks clattering and squealing. Lewrie paused from choosing, taking a long look seaward. It was such a clear and sunny day that he could even see far up-channel into the main anchorage of Spithead, past Gilkicker Point into the little-used and shallow channel of Needles Passage round the west end of the Isle of Wight. Redcoats standing sentry-go on the ramparts of the Monckton Fort could be spotted individually. To the east, he could even make out the heights of Selsey Bill, for a rare wonder.
And there was his brand-new frigate, HMS Savage, anchored not five cables offshore, and as shiny as a new-minted penny, just fresh from the graving docks. Her new hull paint, tar, and pitch shone in the morning light, every glitter of sunshine on the cat’s-pawed harbour waters reflected down her sleek flanks like a continual shower of diamond chips. She floated light and high, less her guns and stores, which still sat ashore in warehouses and armouries at Gun Wharf, or among the goods from the Victualling Board’s vast depot, and fresh copper cladding, normally below the waterline, flickered with dapples of sun like a horizontal sheet of gold or brass.
She was a Fifth Rate 18-pounder of over 950 tons burthen, the largest, longest, best-armed ship Lewrie had ever been appointed to command, and the thought of losing captaincy over her was as painful as the dread of dying. She was long, lean, and powerful-looking with such a sweet, aggressive curve to her sheerline and gunwale, with an entry and forefoot finer and leaner than the usual bluff bowed ships built in British yards. She was a leashed greyhound! A French greyhound, Lewrie had to remind himself; even so, though . . .
The French had built her at Brest, of stout Hamburg oak before the outbreak of the war in 1792, and commissioned in the vicious and bloody turmoil of the Terror in ’93, named in honour of the crackpot ideas of the philosopher Rousseau as Le Sauvage Noble. Sent out to an ignoble sacrifice, Lewrie had learned, for with all the former aristocratic or Royalist-leaning officers of the French Navy dismissed from the service, hunted down for trial and humiliation by the revolutionaries, imprisoned for a time were they lucky . . . their heads chopped off by the heavy, wicked blade of the guillotine were they not . . . she had been captained, and her semi-hapless crew led, by former Bosun’s Mates and matelots with the “proper” revolutionary attitudes and viewpoints. When she ran afoul of a lighter-gunned British frigate off Rochefort a year later, in ’94, all her grace and power had gone for nought and she had abjectly surrendered after a mere quarter-hour’s pounding!
Re-named HMS Savage, taking the name of a much older Sixth Rate of 16 guns that had gone to the breakers after serving since 1761, she’d been “bought in” and commissioned into the Royal Navy for a full three years of active service before requiring a “truck to keel” refit, a new crew, and a new captain, and Lewrie had thought himself as fortunate to get her, but . . .
“Hoy there, fellow!” someone cried nearby. “A boat, at once, I say!” Lewrie turned away from admiring his frigate to espy an officer, a Lieutenant in best-dress uniform, trotting along the quay, chivvying a much older, gap-toothed and one-eyed civilian in charge of a broken-down hand-cart piled with the officer’s dunnage, the Lieutenant lending a hand on one of the shafts to speed the hand-cart along. Lewrie noted the typical sea-chest, much battered and scraped, with its original gay and martial paint nearly faded away; a large canvas sea-bag, and a pair of stuffed-to-bursting portmanteaus made of scrap carpet, to boot, atop the precarious and wobbly cart.
“I’m late, I’m late!” the younger officer could be heard to say. “Christ, a quarter past Eight Bells! I’m fucked, so bloody fucked . . . oh!” he exclaimed as he took note of Lewrie and his pair of epaulets. He visibly blanched, almost slammed to a stop in chagrin to use blasphemy and Billingsate in the presence of a Post-Captain.
“Joining a ship, are you?” Lewrie enquired, putting a “stern” expression on his phyz. “Cuttin’ it rather fine, ain’t you?”
“Aye, sir,” the Lieutenant replied, doffing his cocked hat in salute, to which Lewrie replied with two fingers touching the brim of his own. “Got the last coach, skin o’ me teeth, that, and arrived at a late hour last night, sir. Some old friends at the Blue Posts . . .”
“Indeed,” Lewrie primly drawled, quite enjoying himself, for a rare once lately. Damme, this is fun! he thought. “And they simply had to ‘wet you down’ to your new posting, hmm?”
“Aye, sir,” the Lieutenant shamefacedly replied.
“A damned bad beginning, sir,” Lewrie admonished. To punctuate his shammed disdain for such, he drew out his pocket-watch and peered at its face, then turned and waved at the last remaining hired boat at the foot of the landing, for, during their brief conversation, another Lieutenant and two Midshipmen had engaged the other, better boat.
“I, ah . . . ,” the Lieutenant began to say, realising that he was going to be even later reporting aboard his new ship, for he was out-ranked and would have to wait for the return of anything that floated.
“I s’pose I could offer you a ride, Mister, ah . . . ?” Lewrie idly offered.
“Urquhart, sir. Ed’ard Urquhart,” the other told him, looking desperately into the middle distance to see if anything resembling a hired boat was coming back to the foot of the King’s Stairs empty. “Edward, mean t’say . . . ,” he babbled on. “Might I enquire as to where your ship is anchored, sir? Mine own is quite near at hand . . . that frigate just yonder, sir . . . Savage.”
Aha! Lewrie exultantly thought; they’ve finally got round to sendin’ me a First Officer, at last! One had turned up, weeks before, but that’un had pleaded off sick after the first week, and had departed looking like Death’s Head On A Mop-Stick, hacking, wheezing, coughing, and hoicking up phlegm by the bucket. He’s mine, damn his eyes!
“What? Captain Alan Lewrie’s ship?” Lewrie pretended to scoff.
“Under that scoundrel, that rogue?” Lewrie mock-sneered. “That rakehell Corinthian? Hah! God have mercy on your soul, then, sir!”
Lt. Edward (or Ed’ard) Urquhart blushed and gulped, timorously replying, “I was given to understand, though, sir, that Captain Lewrie is a most distinguished and capable captain. A renowned . . .”
“Any fool can be brave and dashin’, don’t ye know, sir,” Lewrie pooh-poohed. “Well, then, Mister Urquhart. I will, this once, mind, take mercy ’pon ye, and allow you to board that shiny wee barge, before attending to mine own urgent return to my ship. Bargee! Two passengers . . . and all this . . . jetsam.”
Copyright © 2007 by Dewey Lambdin. All rights reserved.