"All the competence, courage, and ingenuity of a Hornblower along with a bit more polish . . . C.S. Forester would have approved of Delancey." —Library Journal
A lieutenant's rank belying his undistinguished naval career, Richard Delancey finds that his fluency in French lands him a secret mission, but to his chagrin, it goes awry.
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Devil to Pay
By C. Northcote Parkinson
McBooks Press Inc.Copyright © 1973 C Northcote Parkinson
All rights reserved.
Under A Cloud
THE GEORGE INN, Portsmouth, was the scene of feverish activity. Coaches rolled in and out, baggage cluttered the entrance, the inn servants bustled around and nobody took much notice of the lieutenant who had just entered from the street. It was June 3rd, 1794, and the inn parlour was full of senior officers, uniformed, gold-laced, weather-beaten and confident men, all known to each other and known to the waiters. Some minutes passed before Richard Delancey could gain anyone's attention and even then the servant he accosted was gone again in an instant. "Admiral Macbride, sir? That's his flag lieutenant on the staircase. Coming, sir!" Following the pot-boy's glance, Delancey saw an elderly officer with a portfolio under his arm talking to a still older man in civilian clothes — perhaps a dockyard official. Making his way with difficulty through the crowd, Delancey reached the foot of the stair at the moment when the two men had finished their conversation. Before the flag lieutenant could go upstairs he asked whether he might see Admiral Macbride. "And who are you, sir?" was the terse reply. Instead of giving his name, Richard Delancey presented a document, the written order his captain had received that morning from Commodore McTaggart. The flag lieutenant glanced at the paper and then again at its bearer. "Very good, Mr Delancey, the Admiral will see you. Be so good as to follow me." He led the way upstairs and along a corridor, pausing finally at the last door but one. "If you will wait here I'll see whether the Admiral is engaged." Delancey waited for ten minutes, sitting in what was probably the flag lieutenant's bedroom, and was then summoned to the Admiral's presence.
John Macbride was in his fifties at this time but looked older, being only recently promoted rear-admiral after a long career in which hard work had played a greater part than any brilliant success in battle. Grey-haired, conscientious and tired, he was working hard at this moment, his table covered with papers, his secretary at his elbow and a clerk busy in the background with tapes and sealing wax. He signed four more letters while Delancey watched, tossed them to a midshipman and then looked up to see that he had a visitor. His flag lieutenant hastened to explain: "Mr Delancey, sir, under orders to report to you." Delancey bowed stiffly and stood to attention, his hat under his left arm. Macbride looked at him in silence, wondering whether he had wasted his time in sending for the man. The officer before him was of the middle height, dark-haired, sturdily built but otherwise nondescript. if there was anything to distinguish him it was the contrast of dark hair and blue eyes. Or was there something else? He looked sullen, of course: that was to be expected. could he be something of a dreamer, a romantic? The first impression he made was to that extent unfavourable, but one had to be fair. who else, anyway, was available?
"Pray be seated, Mr Delancey," said the rear-admiral, taking up a document which had been placed at his elbow. it was headed "Richard Andros Delancey — commissioned 1783" and ran to half a page of notes. As Delancey sat down he felt horribly on trial. Could anything come of this interview? He told himself to expect nothing, least of all from anyone's patronage.
"I am told, Mr Delancey, that you are a native of Guernsey. Is yours a Guernsey name?"
"Is your family one of local consequence?"
"No, sir. The Andros family — on my mother's side — held high office under King Charles II but their estates are lost now and her kinsfolk have mostly left the island."
"How old are you?"
"And you speak French like a native?"
"Like a native perhaps of the Norman coast."
"A coast with which you are familiar?"
"Yes, sir. I used to fish there as a boy."
"So you know the navigational hazards, the rocks, the racing tides. ... No easy place, even in daylight. ... Have you been in Guernsey recently?"
Macbride rose to his feet and paced the room much as if it had been his quarterdeck. He paused finally at the window, looking out across the harbour.
"You know, I expect, that the Artemis has been lost, wrecked on the seven sisters?"
"Then you will also have heard that Captain Fletcher was among those who perished."
"So I understand, sir."
"There has been a court of inquiry and there has to be a court martial. That is a mere formality in this case and those tried will certainly be acquitted. But one result of this affair has been to make some of us think again about the late Captain Fletcher. Some senior officers — I do not say all — think that last year's court martial should have ended with a different verdict. They do not think, nor do I, that the officers of the Artemis were justified in what they did. But there was some excuse for them at least. And any excuse that can be urged must apply more particularly to the more junior of them; the fourth lieutenant for example. in my opinion, you should be given another chance. That is why I have sent for you, Mr Delancey."
"Thank you, sir."
"You have been in the Grafton receiving ship since the time of the court martial?"
"it is time you went to sea again. There is no likelihood of your being posted to a ship of the line, still less to a frigate. You could be sent, however, on a special service and one for which you seem to be well qualified. Success in this could lead to a better posting and even — who knows? — to promotion. But are you the man to send? That is what I have to decide and the decision cannot even wait until tomorrow. Two things I must make clear from the outset. First, I cannot order you to accept the mission I have in mind. Second, I can give you no more than a temporary posting, one which will end when the task has been performed."
"Am I to know, sir, what the task is?"
"Not until the eve of the operation."
"Then I have only this to say: I shall accept the chance if it is offered to me."
"Very good, Mr Delancey. I shall ask you now to wait in the parlour for perhaps an hour. You shall hear then what I have decided."
When Delancey had left, the rear-admiral turned to his flag lieutenant and asked, simply, "Well, Mr Rymer?" That officer shook his head and replied:
"I question, sir, whether he is the active man you need for what I suppose to be a hazardous mission. He has spent the last eight or ten months in the Grafton, much as if he had spent that time ashore. Before that — the Artemis affair. He does not impress me favourably, sir. I should judge him to be unreliable."
"What do you think, Wainwright?" asked Macbride, addressing his secretary.
"Well, sir, I can but admire his courage. He agreed to accept a mission which — for reasons of secrecy — you could not describe. Not every man would have done that."
"I take your point. Or is not that proof that he is desperate?"
"But who else is there?" asked Wainwright. "You are asked to find a not-too-senior lieutenant who speaks French, knows the enemy coast, is in Portsmouth now and has no berth in a seagoing ship. We were fortunate, sir, to find anyone answering to that description. I can certainly think of no other."
"Have we been sufficiently thorough in our inquiries?" asked the flag lieutenant. "Why not ask at the Admiralty?"
"Because there isn't time," replied the secretary impatiently. "Lord Moira's plan has to be put in execution immediately. The officer chosen must sail tonight."
"Very true," said the rear-admiral, "I too have my doubts about Mr Delancey but there are only two courses open to me. Either I send him or else I inform Lord Moira that we cannot give him the assistance for which he has asked. I am loath to confess that a mission must fail for want of activity on our part. No, my decision is made. Make out the necessary orders, Wainwright, and you, Mr Rymer, see that Delancey sails in the Cormorant by this evening's tide. He is to report, on arrival, to Captain the Prince of Bouillon."
While the orders were being written and signed Delancey was in the parlour below. He had expected to find himself among strangers, too junior for the company and looked at askance. Many of the senior officers had gone, however, since his first arrival at the George and he was surprised to recognize an old lieutenant with whom he had some slight acquaintance, a one-legged man called Harris who was third in command of the Warspite, another hulk at permanent anchor. Harris was a useful officer in his way but cynical, a man embittered by disappointment. It was a relief, nevertheless, to find someone there with whom he could pass the time of waiting. They exchanged greetings and Harris sent the pot-boy for two tankards of porter.
"And what errand has brought you here, Mr Delancey?"
"Admiral Macbride sent for me, sir. There is some possibility of my going to sea again."
"You? Possibility be damned. You were finished when you gave evidence against Fletcher at the court martial. No other captain will have you. You'll serve in the Grafton until she sinks or the war ends, same as me in Warspite. Could be worse, y'know, could be worse! Your health, sir, and confusion to the French!"
"But it's not the same for me as it is for you, sir. With a leg shot off in battle you are very well posted and nobody could ask why you are not on more active service."
"I'll tell you a secret, young man, but don't repeat it along the quayside. I lost my leg in the after hold of the Norwich, crushed by a barrel of salt pork. I was only in action twice — in the last war, you'll understand — and came away without a scratch. But keep that to yourself."
"Aye, aye, sir."
"And I'll give you a piece of advice. Don't accept any posting that you may be offered. If you are chosen for a mission you may depend upon it that the Admiral could find no one else. It will be one of those affairs in which you are bound to fail, whatever you do being wrong and failure to do anything being worse. If there were any prospect of success some favourite would have been sent for, the Admiral's son-in-law or the Commodore's younger brother. The mission they offer you was rejected — mark my words — by everyone above you in the list. It will end only in death or disgrace or both. In the Grafton you'll at least stay alive."
"'Til we're aground on the beef bones we throw over the side."
"You'll be safer then for she can't even sink at her moorings."
"Here's a health then to the heroes of the harbour watch. Waiter!"
Over half an hour passed in idle talk, Delancey being glad of company. There was too much truth, he knew, in what Harris said. It would be folly to expect anything to come of the interview he had attended on the floor above. No favour would ever be shown to a man suspected of disloyalty. Captain Fletcher's acquittal had implied the condemnation of all who had testified against him as a seaman or as an officer. Upholding Fletcher against his lieutenants in the name of discipline had cost George III another ship and the lives of nearly two hundred men. Fletcher had been a lubberly, useless blackguard and his officers were all on the beach for telling the truth about him. The truth? They had told only a quarter of the truth. It was enough to ruin each one of them, though. What a fool he had been! But he was younger then and too easily led. He had learnt his lesson but it was now too late to apply it....
It was all very well for Harris to tell him to stay in the Grafton or go ashore. But what else was there to do? There was no home to which he could go, no other trade he knew, no money with which to set himself up in business. His father had died, content with the knowledge that he, Richard, had been placed on the quarterdeck. It had been all and more than the family could afford. His sister had married and left the island and both his brothers were thought to be dead, the elder certainly and the younger most likely. There were Guernseymen with whom he had been at school but none he could name as a special friend. Some of the fishermen might remember him but his schoolfellows had thought him awkward and shy, more to be teased than liked.
"Mind you," Harris broke in on his thoughts. "I don't deceive myself into thinking that an admiral has an easy life. They have more work to do than you or I, and Macbride, for one, must be working like a brewer's dray-horse. By the time all his transports are collected and the troops embarked he'll be ready to quit the service."
"I know about the transports," said Delancey, "but where are the troops?"
"In camp at Netley. There are several infantry regiments with more, I hear, on the way. Some cavalry marched in yesterday and some artillery the day before."
"And they are going overseas?"
"The rumour is that they are destined for Flanders. God knows whether that is true but a big expedition is planned, you may depend on it. Look at the tonnage that Macbride has collected! They say that Lord Moira is to command but he seems to have gone; perhaps back to London. He was in Portsmouth last week, though — I saw him here with Macbride."
"I recently heard a story that the French are planning something too, with troops collected at St Malo."
"S'death — I never heard that. They'll lose their enthusiasm when they put to sea and find Lord Howe waiting for them!"
At this point Lieutenant Rymer interrupted the conversation, hurrying across to them from the stairs.
"Mr Delancey, I have orders for you. Collect your gear from the Grafton and go on board the Cormorant sloop now at Spithead but due to sail by this evening's tide. You will be a supernumerary, on passage merely to Guernsey, where you will report to Captain the Prince of Bouillon. Here are your orders to that effect with a covering letter to the Port Admiral. Here is a letter to the captain of the Grafton and another to the captain of Cormorant. They both need the Port Admiral's signature. Ask at his office for Lieutenant Watkins and give him this note with my compliments. And here, last of all, is a letter to His Highness which you will deliver to him in person. Do you clearly understand what you have to do?"
"Aye, aye, sir."
"Goodbye then — and good luck!" The flag lieutenant was gone again in a minute, leaving Harris to stare at Delancey with surprise and disbelief.
"Wonders will never cease! So you are going to sea! But remember what I said. Look out for squalls! If there was any credit to be got out of your mission the job would have been given to someone else. Keep a sharp look-out! Be ready to cut and run!"
Richard Delancey was on board the Cormorant before sunset, outwardly calm but secretly thrilled to be at sea again and on active service.
The sloop was ship-rigged, of eighteen guns, a sister-ship to the Amazon. She was a smart ship with white decks, new paintwork and every rope in its place. There were all the signs that her captain was an artist in his way, even to paying for gold leaf on the scrollwork. The breeze sang in the rigging and the ship was alive under him, a racehorse impatient to start. This passage to Guernsey, to his birthplace, was nothing in itself but it could lead on to fortune. What Harris had said was merely envious. Damn the fellow! There might be something in his confounded suspicions but he put the thought aside. He was an officer chosen for a special mission and one from which he might return with his reputation made. This could be — no, it must be! — the big opportunity of his life, the turning point of his career. After seeing a hammock slung in his borrowed cabin he came on deck to report for duty. He moved over to the lee side of the quarterdeck as Captain Bastable appeared, uncertain what duty, if any, would be expected of him.
"Good evening, Mr Delancey."
"Good evening, sir."
"Welcome aboard. Your orders, I gather, are to report to Philip D'Auvergne. You will find him ashore at St Peter Port. If this wind holds we should be there tomorrow before noon. I shan't ask you to stand watch but you will probably want to see the ship sail."
"Aye, aye, sir."
Delancey was secretly relieved. His fear had been that he would be told to take charge of the deck, out of practice as he was after nearly a year in harbour. But Bastable had his own reputation to think about and wanted no mishap at Spithead, not even in a failing light. He took the ship to sea himself.
Delancey found that it all came back to him, the sequence of orders for weighing anchor and making sail.
Excerpted from Devil to Pay by C. Northcote Parkinson. Copyright © 1973 C Northcote Parkinson. Excerpted by permission of McBooks Press Inc..
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Meet the Author
Cyril Northcote Parkinson pursued a distinguished academic career on both sides of the Atlantic and first became famous for "Parkinson's Law"work expands to fill the time allotted to it. Parkinson wrote many books on British politics and economics. His first fictional effort, a "biography" of Horatio Hornblower, met with considerable acclaim and led to the Delancey series. C. Northcote Parkinson died in 1993.
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Just as badly written as the first book. Reads like a report. Overpriced.