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By C. Northcote Parkinson
McBooks Press, Inc.Copyright © 1978 C. Northcote Parkinson
All rights reserved.
To the Indies
"I AM HAPPY to inform you, Captain Delancey, that you have been appointed to command the frigate Laura of 32 guns. She is refitting at Portsmouth but should be completed next month. Perhaps you know the ship?"
"No, sir. I am honoured, however, by the Board's confidence in me."
"She is an old ship," the First Sea Lord here referred to a document, "though far from being the oldest. She is one of the Amazon- Class ships and was Thames-built in 1773, mounting twenty-six 12-pounders and a dozen 24-pounder carronades. She measures 684 tons, is established for a crew of 215 and is 126 feet 3 inches long on the gun-deck. Her recent service has been in the West Indies, from which station she was brought home for repair. She is a useful ship of her class, handles well and was last commanded by Captain Chastleton, who died last year at Bermuda. The Laura is to be stationed in the East Indies but is more immediately to sail on a particular service, forming part of a squadron under the command, as Commodore, of Sir Home Popham. He is presently in town and you will, no doubt, wish to call on him. Good-day, Captain, and I wish you every success."
Delancey made his bow and withdrew, going to collect the essential documents from the outer office. Then he was in Whitehall and walking slowly towards Charing Cross. The East Indies! The idea of it might seem attractive on a cold autumn day but there was much else to think about. It was the most distant station, remote enough to be forgotten, a place where fortunes were made by the fortunate, a place where many died and where others gained promotion. A few years back he would have welcomed the prospect of visiting the mysterious East. As a lieutenant or as a captain not yet posted, he would have seen it as a great opportunity but he felt now that the posting had come too late. He was already on the captain's list, depending only on seniority for his further promotion. He already had a small estate and a modest independence. Above all, he was married. There were officers, he supposed, who would take their wives with them to India but he could never be one of them. To see Fiona losing her beauty, becoming sallow, suffering from dysentery, dying of fever — all this was unthinkable, a risk to which she should never be exposed. But the alternative was a long separation. How could a marriage last with the husband away for years? Marriages did survive that test, as he knew, and the more easily if there were children. But he and Fiona were still childless and he wondered if it was fair to desert her for as long as four or five years. Was it not asking too much of her? It would be long enough, good god, for him! But he had his profession, his frigate, his men to look after, his King's enemies to fight. She would have only a house and garden, her friends to entertain, her dog to exercise, her letters to write. He had been married now for three years and he and Fiona were still deeply in love. He was still apt to wonder what he had done to earn such happiness. He could remember a time when his friends were telling him that his fortune was as good as made; that a match was possible which would bring him lands and wealth and the protection of a great family. He might have dined with admirals, made friends with ministers, picked his own 38-gun frigate and chosen his station. He had perversely rejected that prospect, if it really existed, and had married a young woman without relatives or estate, an actress who was not even legitimate, a girl with nothing to offer but outstanding beauty, strong character, and native intelligence. This, he had been told, was the end of his high prospects in the service. He would be employed, to be sure, while the war lasted but he would have only a mediocre ship (like the Laura, and he could picture her) packed off to a distant and fever-ridden station. There would be no knighthood for him, no Order of the Bath, no presentation to the Sovereign. He had no regrets on that score. Fiona meant more to him than any honour the world had to offer. He would make the same choice once more if the clock were to be put back, leading him to make the same decision again. And yet he would have liked, in a way, to have an assured and brilliant future. People might sneer at Fiona's background and he supposed that they did, an actress, at one time, being thought little better than a prostitute, but he would have liked to see her take precedence of them all as Lady Delancey. More than that, she could play the part more gracefully than the majority of those who had been born to it.
Although moving in no glittering circle, Delancey and Fiona were no longer compelled to lodge at his old address in Albemarle Street. They were now the guests of Colonel Barrington, whose town house was on the west side of St James's Square. A widower and now crippled with gout, the Colonel was little seen in society these days. He had, however, a wistful admiration for Fiona and a liking for Richard, they having been originally introduced to him by Delancey's American cousins. The Colonel was always very ready to lend them his carriage, of which he himself made little use, and this allowed the Delanceys to appear with an air of affluence at the few functions to which they were invited. Delancey, as on this occasion, was happy to walk the short distance from the Admiralty to St James's Square and would have thought it no hardship to walk from Westminster to St Paul's. He was coming to realize, however, that no man of fashion would walk so far and that he might have to mend his ways. Or did it matter? Their stay in London must soon end. The result, moreover of his posting to the East Indies would be to confine poor Fiona to their home in Guernsey. She could not well appear in London without him and this would deprive her of much that she valued and not least the theatre. As a former actress she loved going to the play, so she and Delancey had been keen patrons of Covent Garden, Drury Lane, and both of the theatres in the Haymarket. Fiona's idol was Mrs Siddons, whose provincial appearances, extending to Bath, would hardly bring her to St Peter Port in Guernsey. The more he thought about his immediate future, the more depressed did Delancey become. To refuse the command of the Laura would ruin his career in the service; to accept it might well ruin his marriage. Such were his gloomy thoughts as he paced along Pall Mall. Fiona would be waiting to hear the result of his visit to the Admiralty. How, for heaven's sake, was he to tell her?
Fiona! The mere name had still, for him, a magical quality. She was very lovely but her beauty mattered less, perhaps, than her vitality. She could not enter a room without everyone turning towards her. She was normally smiling but with a special warmth for her friends and a bright-eyed touch of mischief on occasion and a look, as if sharing a secret, which she kept for children. She was not clever in the more obvious sense but she was always kind, so much so that Delancey had never known her speak ill of anyone. What was it that set her apart? Her way of doing or saying the unexpected? The way she danced where others seemed only to shuffle or plod? There was nobody in the world, he knew, who resembled her at all.
Delancey turned the corner into St James's Square and was admitted by Colonel Barrington's servant, who took care of his hat, cloak and sword. It was a splendidly proportioned hall panelled in white, floored in black-and-white chequered marble and with more than a hint of the East, with elephant tusks, a tigerskin rug by the fireplace, and a portrait of Warren Hastings (a copy of the Reynolds portrait) at the end of the stairs. Before he could go upstairs to the drawing-room, the old, white-haired, red-faced, and spectacled Colonel hobbled out of the library and asked him how he had fared with their Lordships.
"I am posted, sir, to the Laura, of 32 guns, a frigate destined for service in the East Indies."
"Zounds, I hardly know whether to call this good news or ill. The frigate is a bigger ship than your last, to be sure, but — the East Indies! For your good lady this will come as a disaster. Can you not refuse the appointment?"
"No, sir, not if I am to remain active in my profession. The Laura is bound, first of all, on a particular service. Were I to refuse this opportunity I should scarcely be offered another. It would be different for a man with independent means or with great parliamentary interest but, lacking either, I must take what I am given and make the best of it."
"I see that and my hope must be that this voyage will make your fortune as many another fortune has been made in the East. We shall see you as a Nabob yet! But for how long will you be overseas?"
"Four years would be the average, sir, I fancy, but five or six years would be nothing out of the way."
"S'death! Don't say that to your good lady in as many words. Tell her, dammit, that the war will end in a year or two — as well it may — and that peace will lead to your recall."
They were standing in the hall and at this moment Fiona appeared from the first-floor drawing-room and stood at the head of the stairs.
"Pray what is this conspiracy, gentlemen? Can I not be a party to it? Quickly — what is the news?"
"I am to command the frigate Laura and go on a particular service; afterwards to the East Indies."
There was a moment of silence and then Fiona exclaimed:
"See how well you are thought of! No secret expedition can sail without you! And once the business is concluded you will be chosen to bring home the dispatch. That's how it will be!"
She was so lovely, so eager, so young. Delancey was halfway up the stairs by now and Fiona was halfway down. She was in his arms, laughing and crying at the same time.
"Depend on't, I shan't be away for long."
"Of course not, my love ... a few months at most!"
"Forgive us, Colonel." said Delancey, "we have urgent matters to discuss."
They went to their room and Delancey did his best to comfort her. They both knew exactly what this posting could mean but neither would admit it. Each was thinking, although neither mentioned the name, of a Captain Jennings, an acquaintance they had made at Lady Hertford's Ball. Jennings had been eight years on the East Indies station and had returned a man of some wealth, successful in prize-money, retiring from the service and becoming Member of Parliament for a pocket borough in Cornwall. But his India Stock and his Hampshire estate had been dearly bought, for he was a mere wreck of a man, sallow-faced, thin and trembling, the victim of hepatitis and malaria. For all practical purposes he was finished save as a silent vote in the government's interest. Was this to be Delancey's fate? He was a fine man, Fiona knew, healthy and vigorous, but the same could once have been said of Jennings.
From thinking of Jennings, Delancey went on to think of his own elder brother Michael, who had gone to the East Indies and had never come back. He was dead, most probably, there having been no news of him for years. How many went to the East and how few of them were seen again! In his arms that night, Fiona cried for a while and then resolved bravely to make the best of it.
"When you have sailed, my love, I shall go back to Anneville. And do you know how I have it in mind to pass the long months until you return? I shall make ours the finest garden in the Channel Islands! Do you remember our reading together how Mr William Shenstone, the poet, laid out his gardens at the Leasowes? He was never a rich man but he so contrived matters that his gardens became famous and were visited by people from far and wide. When you come ashore I shall say 'You are now the owner of a garden which has been painted by the best-known artists and described in verse by the most celebrated poets!'"
"And what shall I do for you in return? I cannot promise to bring you riches. All I can promise is to draw and paint the landscapes of Asia, collect and press the foreign flowers, and try to bring back with me all of the East that was worth going to see."
They were very close to each other during the following weeks, each clinging to a love which was so threatened, each knowing that their time was short, that the refitting of the Laura was inexorably nearing completion. They had soon to leave London, saying good-bye to Colonel Barrington and other friends and taking up temporary residence at the George in Portsmouth. Delancey had already secured the appointment of Nicholas Mather as his first lieutenant, with the Hon. Stephen Northmore as master's mate, with Topley and Stock as midshipmen. From his last ship, the Vengeance (28), he had managed to bring a few men, including Luke Tanner, his coxswain, and John Teesdale, his steward. His other officers and men were strangers to him and had still to arrive; many on the lower deck had still, indeed, to be recruited. The Laura herself was out of dock but still being rigged, fitted, equipped, and stored. There could be no denying the ship's age but Delancey knew that she would look well when painted and varnished. Fiona was insistent that Richard should have good cabin furniture with a carpet and curtains, with new and better cutlery, glass and plate. Under pressure from her, Richard had already acquired a new uniform in London and he was now made to buy a dozen more shirts and stockings and a new cocked hat. With a settee in his day cabin and decanters on his sideboard, he was beginning to look like the senior officer he had now become. As soon as she was in the ship Fiona found that all the men in sight had become her slaves; the carpenter and sailmaker to begin with, followed by Teesdale and his assistant Fuller, the gig's crew and all the boys the ship could muster. Even workmen from the dockyard would make any excuse to be near her. The final result was a set of captain's quarters such as Delancey had seen before but never possessed.
When the Laura dropped down to Spithead, Fiona insisted on sleeping aboard so as to discover what it was like. "Look!" she cried in the morning. "When we went to bed the Isle of Wight was here on this side, and now it has moved round over there! I find it all most confusing!" Mather, who was staying at the Star and Garter, came to dine with the Delanceys at the George. Over the port Fiona encouraged him until he was almost witty. Asked how he had managed to remain a bachelor, he explained that for a first lieutenant to marry would be a sort of bigamy, he being already married to his ship. Considering this idea, Fiona had to allow that Laura was at least a feminine name. She hated to think that he had once been married to Vengeance! Seeing Mather's look of dumb admiration directed towards Fiona, Delancey could hardly picture him as the firm disciplinarian he knew him to be. He thought himself lucky, however, to have one key man on whom he could rely. The purser was at first the only other officer appointed, a colourless man called Arthur Finch but one who evidently knew his trade.
Delancey had met Sir Home Popham in London, calling on him as etiquette required. He was received with a cordiality which was also dismissive and he saw little of the Commodore, therefore, until he arrived at the George. As from that time Delancey began to realize that Sir Home was a most unusual character. He was known chiefly in the service as the inventor of the telegraphic signalling code which had just been adopted. By a little inquiry, however, Delancey established the fact that Popham had commanded an Austrian Indiaman, had served ashore under the Duke of York, and had been knighted by, of all people, the Emperor of Russia. He was active and clever, as most seamen had to admit, but some old and peevish officers questioned whether he was reliable. He impressed Delancey as very much a man of the world, moving easily among the great and regarded among them as an authority on matters scientific.
"Glad to have you in my squadron," said Sir Home to Delancey. "I should like you to meet my other officers: Captain Donovan of the Diadem, the ship which wears my pennant, Captain Josias Rowley of the Raisonable, Captain Byng of the Belliqueux ..." They all bowed to each other and the Commodore explained that the squadron would include four sail-of-the-line, a 50-gun ship, three frigates, a sloop, and a gun-brig. These would have to escort a fleet of transports, in which troops would be embarked, and there would also be a large convoy of merchantmen. They were to be joined presently by Major-General Sir David Baird, a fine soldier with long experience in India. Did Delancey know the General? Delancey did not, except of course by reputation. Sir Home went on:
Excerpted from Dead Reckoning by C. Northcote Parkinson. Copyright © 1978 C. Northcote Parkinson. Excerpted by permission of McBooks Press, Inc..
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