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The Alan Lewrie Naval Adventures #6
By Dewey Lambdin
McBooks Press, Inc.Copyright © 1995 Dewey Lambdin
All rights reserved.
Ooh, sir, watch out f'r the ..."
Wherever I go lately, Alan Lewrie mused, rather resignedly, I seem to be arse-deep in shit. Oh, well.
He waved off the towheaded young "daisy-kicker" at the Olde Ploughman Public House's hitching rail, who stood with silent offer to towel the offending matter from his glossy top boots.
"No use, lad," Lewrie said as he swung up into the saddle. "There's plenty more where I'm going."
"Oh, aye, sir, so they be!" The lad chirped, letting go the reins he held. Lewrie dug ha'pence from his wash-leather purse and flipped it to the daisy-kicker, who whooped with glee, as if the coin were the first he'd ever earned, as if Lewrie did not reward his chore each time he departed from the Olde Ploughman.
"'Ta, yer honour, sir!" The boy called as Lewrie turned his horse west on the High Street. "'Night, Squire Lewrie!"
Lewrie touched the wide brim of his hat with a riding crop in reply as he clucked his tongue and kneed his mount to a brisk walk.
Squire, Alan sighed with a snort; not exactly true, was it? Squires were freeholders who rented land to others, while he was only a tenant, a rent payer himself. Now if I sublet, he thought: perhaps to a well-off hermit (and was there such a creature as an eremite with the "blunt," he wondered?) who wished half an acre down by the creek, where he could pile himself up a grotto and become Lewrie's tenant. Performing, perhaps, the odd Jeremiad — thrice on Market Days — talking in tongues or dancing like a Dervish, or old Saint Vitus, would I then be a squire at last? Or even less welcome in the parish? Might be worth doing, at that — it'd drive Caroline's uncle Phineas batty!
His horse paced through the village of Anglesgreen, heading west for the vale between the rolling hills, hooves clopping on the icy earthen road, as candles and lanterns were lit in the windows of the homes alongside, and lights were extinguished as shopkeepers at last shut, after long hours of sparse winter trade. Very few villagers were out now that the brief stint of cloud-occluded sun had all but gone, and the winds blew foul and cold. Without the casual labourers of the sowing or harvesting seasons, Anglesgreen was an even more tedious and empty a place than ever he had experienced, now Christmas and Epiphany were come and gone. And cold. As cold as Parish Poor's Rate charity. And about as unattractive.
Arse-deep in it, he told himself again, glum with rum and ennui. Up to my nose in acres of it ... and that, so bloody boresome!
There were, to Alan's lights — much like the descending levels of Hell in Dante's Inferno — distinct gradations to the shit existing in the world. And the quality and quantity of it a body had to abide. Uncle Phineas, his lessor for instance; his eternal, sneering, stultifying monologues, his miserly few suppers or "dos" (which formed the bulk of a bleak Lewrie social life) — now there was shit from the lowest Nether-Pit itself! And totally unabidable, in quality and amount.
In contrast, the literal item (such as the horse droppings he'd just stepped in) — some of those he didn't mind half so much. Horses were noble beasts, beautiful in form and motion. Their stalings were abidable, for they bore convivial folk together, astride or by coach, eased a traveler's burden, pleased with their speed, heart and endurance, livened hunts, fairs, social occasions ... or elated one with the order of their finish at a race.
No, truth be told, Alan Lewrie, like all good English gentlemen, rather enjoyed horse poop. It had a redolence of hospitality, of congeniality, of freedom, excitement ... and far horizons!
The by-products of the lesser beasts necessary to a farm, though; even his inept, clueless style of gentleman farming, of which folks said he did little but raise his hat — now they were odious in the extreme. He knew little after four years, and was forced to depend upon the knowledge of Governour Chiswick, his brother-in-law, or to the vile old Phineas Chiswick; they both dropped their jaws and whinnied at his questions, making him feel as out of place, even after four years of applying himself, as he had aboard Ariadne back in '80 on his first day as a callow midshipman.
Or, even more discouraging, to have to "talk things over" with dearest Caroline in private, being coached on what orders to give that particular day to the few permanent farmhands, or the hired day workers. To be such a humble know-nothing in his wife's eyes!
Truth be told again, Alan Lewrie thought the life of the rural gentleman farmer stank, in more ways than one, no matter it was the fondest wish of every successful man to make his pile, get acres, and aspire to the squirearchy. It was ... shit! Of the most unabidable sort! And fast as he strove to shovel it away, here came more.
His sheep, for instance. He squirmed on the cold saddle as he contemplated them. The farm (the rented farm, he reminded himself) was awash in the smelly things — most of Surrey was these days — unutterably stupid, messy, foolish ... and shit-bedaubed. Even a goat could manage to keep a reasonably clean nether end, though they did stink like badgers.
Swine — there's chapter and verse for you, too, he thought. And chickens! Lord, what a fetid reek the henyard bore. It was a wonder a self-respecting fox would have a go at 'em, 'thout holding his nose! And cattle, I ask you, he grunted, his neck burning with revulsion. Fat, shambling lanky-hipped, floppy beasts, capable of veritable broadsides of loose, flat, disordered ordure, shot off by the barrico, whenever and wherever they wished. Stinky his city of London might be, brassy and corrupt a warship might become, but it was never a tenth as bad as a working farm. Sweet as hay and clover were in the spring, the gardens' romantic aromas, soon as one inhaled a restoring lungful of bucolic bliss, here came some reek from things best hung in the curing house as meat, revolting one! Or plopped all over one's best pair of top boots.
It was tempting to think that now his Granny Lewrie had passed to Her Great Reward and had left him quite well-off in her will, he and Caroline could move to London, and use the farm as a spring and summer retreat; hire an estate agent to look after it for them. It did, in spite of his ignorance, turn a pretty penny or two, enough to qualify him as a voter. Then he could nod and smile on his rare visits, chortle over the books when they showed profit, and call out "Carry on!" to some experienced and knowledgeable underling, leaving him leisure time for horses, for amusements. For a real life!
Lewrie hitched his heavy wool cloak closer about his neck as he rode near the Red Swan Inn. Late as it was, as close to suppertime for the revelers inside, whom he could espy through the cheery diamond-paned windows, there was quite a merry crowd gathered there. A fair number of horses were hitched outside, blanketed against the cold, under the now bare but towering oaks. The richer patrons had theirs temporarily stabled in the warmer barn behind. He thought he spotted Governour's tall gray gelding, and beside it, two hunters he knew as belonging to Sir Romney Embleton, Bt., and his whey-faced son Harry.
Now there's shit for you, Lewrie thought with a rueful grin. For a mad fleeting moment he thought of going in the Red Swan for a stirrup cup of hot gin punch, or a mug of mulled wine to warm his journey home. Just on a lark, to see the looks on their phizes for daring to show his own in the more refined, high-gentry squire-ish Red Swan!
For just a moment, he envied his brother-in-law Governour, too. He was married to Sir Romney's daughter Millicent, long before Lewrie had come to Anglesgreen and wed Caroline, upsetting all the plans of seven years before. Governour and Millicent could socialize when and where they might. Bad as blood was between Lewries and Embletons, and because of them between Chiswicks and Embletons, Governour had welcome still at Embleton Hall, and at all the parish and county's doings. Though it was sometimes a trifle thin. His and Caroline's, however, was nonexistent. And looked fair to being nonexistent far past the advent of the coming new century.
Truth, even further, be told, since they'd returned from the Bahamas in '89 when his last ship Alacrity had paid off in Portsmouth, they'd been treated bad as leprous Gypsies by those locals who walked in dread of Embleton disapproval, or fawned on Embleton largesse. Considering Embleton influence over the area, it was a wonder the Lewries even had benefit of clergy at mossy old St. George's. And with rural social life revolving 'round the local fox hunt — and that hunt's Master of Hounds none other than Sir Romney — they might as well have been turbaned Turk horse thieves for all their welcome.
Well, not by all, Alan qualified, as he drew his horse to a halt at the turn-in gate. The hot rum punches he'd downed through an afternoon of war talk and genteel arguing at the Olde Ploughman were working on him something hellish, and the idea of riding in to 'front the bastards direct was rakehell, damme-boy appealing. No, not all treat us shabby, he snorted. There were a few of the minor gentry, the younger folk, and most of the common sort who thought the Lewrie saga romantic beyond words, and sympathized with them in their banishment.
Lovely and sweet Caroline Chiswick, the poor Loyalist émigré home after the Revolution, being "buttock-brokered" by her uncle Phineas to wed rich, so he could get even more acres by her, her parents almost helpless in their penury to help her. Four suitors: two very old widowers and a sheeper-tenant — all vile beyond belief — and the Hon. Harry Embleton, an MP and heir to untold wealth and power, and next-door acres, the most favoured.
Then, along came Lt. Alan Lewrie, RN, and swept her away. Not only rescued her, but came within a hair of dueling Harry for her!
Well, it never came to that, Alan gloated, warmed against the cold as he savoured that long-ago triumph. Harry learned we'd posted banns, and went lunatick at a fox hunt. Took a whip to my treed cat, took his whip to me —'bout as public as it gets! And I flattened his nose and made his bung sport claret. Make matters worse, he goes and whines to Caroline 'bout her choice, goes off again, calls her every vile thing he had in his little mind, and damned if she don't whip him 'cross the field with her reins, too! Bang on his busted nose in front of damn near everyone in Surrey that matters! Lord!
Ah, well, he shrugged, that was a bloody good day. Just didn't think I'd end up paying for it the rest of my natural life. Going on now a full seven years, and time hadn't mellowed any of the participants. He had to give the Embletons credit — they could hold a snit as good as he could.
And there was no sense in stirring the pot up further. Or in being seen as he was at that moment, sitting slumped and indecisive, like a beggar too fearful to knock for pittance at the back entrance of a rich man's manor.
Devil with 'em, he sneered as he turned the reins and clucked his tongue once more, urging the horse with his heels to an easy canter. The gelding knew the way as well as he; on past the Red Swan and a new bank of row houses, onto the Chiddingfold Road, west along the stream, thence over the wooden bridge to Chiswick lands, his rented corner of them, and home.
Where there's a better sort of welcome waiting, he grinned.CHAPTER 2
'Ave'at owf in a tick, sir," his groom told him as he alit in his stable yard. Bodkins took the reins and tied the horse, then knelt with a rag so Lewrie could prop his boot on a wooden bucket. "'Ere ye be, sir ... good'z noo."
"Thankee, Bodkins," Lewrie replied, free at last of rank goo. "Be sure he gets a good, warm rubdown. 'Tis a fearsome cold night."
"'At I will, sir, never ye fear," the groom said. "'Ere, Thomas, me lad. Untack 'e master's horse."
It was a fine new stone stable, attached to the older thatched-roof house that now served as the carriage house for two coaches; one light and open for good weather, and an older, boxy enclosed coach. Lewrie petted and fussed over the gelding before the stable-boy led him away for his well-deserved oats and rubdown. Lewrie crossed the stable yard, sure that his workers had shoveled before dark, sure he would encounter no more messy surprises lying in wait, on past the hulking older "wattle and daub" original barn where the products of the farm were stored to tide him, his kith and kin, and his beasts, through the rest of the winter.
Uncle Phineas had leased them, and that quite grudgingly, 160 acres, a corner of his vast holdings at the foot of his lane, like a gatehouse to the manor proper. But it was close to the village and the Chiddingfold Road, and quite handy. A sheeper had been renting when they left in '86, but it was vacant upon their return. Acreage enough to run a middling flock of sheep, a few beef cattle and dairy animals, swine, goats, turkeys and chickens, with orchards and grape arbors enough for the home-farm to feed quite well. There was enough cleared land for a decently profitable crop of wheat and hay in addition to the sheep, with wood lots, kitchen gardens, access to three creeks and several sweet wells. Hops and barley gave them home-brew beer, and they were awash in preserved fruits.
The new house, though! The old thatched-roof cottage had been a two-story, smoky, bug-infested horror, and, since wages and construction materials had been quite low, they had run up a presentable new stone-and-gray-brick Georgian house, for about a quarter of what a London manse its size might have cost. It gave Alan pleasure to know that it was as fine as anything Governour in his new wealth had built, or as Uncle Phineas's gloomy old red-brick pile. The perverse old bastard would not part with land permanently, but had been bludgeoned into a long-term lease which would expire long after he did, so Alan had no fear of losing his £800 investment. And it made Phineas grind what few teeth he had left in his head, so it was more than worth every penny.
They had a slate roof as tight as a well-caulked and coppered ship of the line, and enough fireplaces to keep it snug and cozy on all but the iciest nights — windows enough, too, to keep it breezy and well lit in the warmer seasons. Fashion had demanded, and with Granny Lewrie's last bequest the Lewries could afford, a Palladian facade for the center hall, in imitation of Inigo Jones.
He stopped to admire it in the lantern light, taking cheer at the sight of amber-glowing windows and fuming chimneys confronting the frigid night. Even coming from the rear, between the now bleak kitchen gardens and the ornamental flower gardens and shrubberies on the west side near him, it was imposing, big as a brig!
The central hall jutted toward him, which held the kitchens, the still rooms, butler's pantry, storerooms and laundry facilities. Just off the kitchens, they had a private bathing room, with a marble tub big enough for two. Nearest him, too, was an intimate dining room where they most often took breakfast, or dined en famille, overlooking the cheery ornamental garden that was Caroline's pride. Nearer still was the library and music room, and his private study, in the front of the house, adjacent to a receiving parlour just off the foyer and its cloakroom. The hall was tiled and paneled, with a broad staircase which led up to a landing, and another pair-of-stairs. And beyond in the east wing was a dining hall and main parlour almost big enough to host a middling-sized guest list for a dance. Unfortunately, that was little used so far — one needed guests who'd accept one's invitations. So furnishings beyond bare bones were far from complete.
Over his head in the west wing was the nursery, the childrens' small bedrooms and the governess's quarters. Over the entry hall was their own spacious bedchamber and intimate study (actually, Caroline's sewing room, so far). There were three more bedchambers for guests in the east wing — once again, vacant and unused. Hopefully, once the last Lewrie was out of "nappies," they planned to convert the nursery into a classroom for a private tutor, with lodgings in the east wing.
Excerpted from H.M.S. Cockerel by Dewey Lambdin. Copyright © 1995 Dewey Lambdin. Excerpted by permission of McBooks Press, Inc..
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