HMS Thermopylae, a 38-gun Fifth Rate frigate, prowled slowly off the Texel to keep a wary eye on the Dutch coast . . . for several years a conquered “allied” power under French control, now named the Batavian Republic. It was a sullen endeavour for Thermopylae’s people, for the Dutch had not much of a fleet left since the Battle of Camperdown, four years before, in 1797, when Adm. Duncan had caught them, headed for the English Channel to combine with their French masters’ fleet for an invasion of Great Britain, had forced them to run for home close inshore of their own coast, where Duncan had given them the choice of wrecking on their own shoals or fighting, and had taken, sunk, or burned almost all of them. By now, the few surviving Batavian warships were slowly rotting away at their moorings, their new construction rotting on the stocks, and all their vaunting plans for a larger fleet scrapped.
Sullen, too, was the general attitude aboard Thermopylae after months of dull blockade duty, for it could not hold a candle to the heady and daring adventures of the first of the year of 1801. As the League of Armed Neutrality had readied their navies to confront the Royal Navy, it had been Thermopylae that had been ordered into the Baltic—alone!—to “smoak out” the types and numbers of ships being prepared in Danish, Swedish, and Russian harbours, to determine the thickness of the ice that kept all Baltic navies penned in port, and to ascertain how long it would be before the ice would melt and free them.
Oh, there’d also been the delivery of a pair of Russian nobles to somewhere as close as possible to St. Petersburg . . . one of whom had tried to kill their new captain as they were being set ashore, an attempted murder right by the entry-port . . . all over a London whore, of all things! . . . And for certain the younger Roosky was love-sick mad, but what could be expected of foreigners, and wasn’t their new captain a scrapper, thought
Out of the Baltic at last, and there’d been their own British Expeditionary squadrons under Vice- Admiral Sir Hyde Parker, and Vice- Admiral Horatio Nelson, and they’d been just in time to take part in the glorious Battle of Copenhagen and squash the Danes like so many roaches round the galley butter tubs!
All downhill from there, though; first cruising in the Baltic ’til midsummer, watching first Vice- Admiral Parker go home (in a bit of disgrace, the hands had heard-tell) then Nelson departing for his always fragile health, and, at last, a spell of re-victualling and repairs at Great Yarmouth, where the adventures had begun, and a spell of shore liberty. After that, Thermopylae had been seconded to the small North Sea Fleet to serve as a scout, doing much of a boresome much as they did this morning . . . making her presence known under reduced sail about two leagues seaward of the shoals, and counting windmills, for all they good “people” Thermopylae of “people” knew.
In a thin and fine mist on this particular morning, a cold early-October rain was falling and dripping in great dollops from sails and rigging, over a grey and dingy-white-foamed sea that chopped and hissed and imparted to the frigate a slow and queasy wallowing roll. And the wind . . . if freed, Thermopylae could cup that wind and rush like a Cambridge coach, high on eleven knots or better . . . yet that wind was wasted on her twice-reefed or gathered sails. And it was a nippy wind, to boot, a raw-un out of the Nor’west, fresh from Arctic ice sheets that made nettled tars wish for their Franklin-pattern stoves to be set up on the gun-deck once again, blow warm breaths into cupped fists, and shiver under their tarred tarpaulins.
HMS Thermopylae’s Second Officer, Lt. James Fox, let out a pleased sigh as a ship’s boy turned the half-hour glass, then slowly struck Eight Bells up by the forecastle. His watch was done, and hot tea or coff ee awaited him in the gun-room below, along with his breakfast. Lt. Fox clapped gloved hands together in joy as his replacement, his old chum Lt. Dick Farley, stepped from the lee side of the quarterdeck to amidships before the double- helm drum and the binnacle cabinet to assume command of the Forenoon Watch.
“A thouroughly miserable day, and I wish ye joy of it, Dick,” Lt. Fox said with a grin and a roll of his eyes.
“Worse things happen at sea, Jemmy,” Lt. Farley replied as he formally doff ed his hat, a second-best and much-battered old thing with its gilt lace gone verdigris green. Fox’s wasn’t a whit better.
“Just thinking that, in point of fact,” Lt. Fox quipped. “So, the usual . . . wind’s still Nor’westerly, we’re beam- reaching, as anyone can clearly see, course Nor’East, half East, and making six agonisingly slow knots. What’s for breakfast?”
“Scrambled eggs, cheese, and biscuit, speaking of usual,” Lt. Farley replied. “Has the captain determined whether we’ll exercise at the great-guns this morning?”
“Hasn’t said yet,” Lt. Fox replied, letting a yawn escape him. “Damme, I was hoping for hot porridge. Do we drill on the artillery, I’d prefer a steadier point of sail.”
“Aye, this roll’d be a bugger,” Lt. Farley agreed.
“Well, I leave you to it, Dick,” Fox said, cheering up.
“I relieve you, sir,” Lt. Farley said with another doff of his hat, and the Second Officer, along with his Midshipmen of the Watch, and the Starboard Watch of the quarterdeck and Afterguard, were scrambling below, some to their breakfasts, some to the uncertain warmth of the gun- deck.
Right aft, and just below the quarterdeck in the great-cabins, Captain Alan Lewrie was shaving . . . or trying to. It was not a chore comfortably, or safely, done in such a wallowing, rolling sea-way, in the small mirror of his wash- hand stand with a straight razor. Lewrie had to brace himself like a runner frozen in mid-stride, his left leg behind him and his right in front, balancing from one to the other as Thermopylae heaved from beam to beam like a metronome, about fifteen degrees or better to each roll. He could have sat himself down in a chair, but would be without the mirror, or the small enamelled basin that held his single pint of water ration for washing daily.
“Get out of it, ye bloody little. . . . !” Lewrie snapped as Chalky, the younger and spryer of his cats, leaped atop the wash- hand stand for the third time, fascinated in equal measure by the lapping water in the basin
and his reflection in the mirror. “Shoo! Scat! Pettus!”
“Sir?” his cabin steward replied, carefully hiding his smile.
“Isn’t there some amusement ye could offer him?” Lewrie griped.
“I’ll take him, sir,” Pettus off ered, coming to scoop up the white and grey-splotched cat and bear him away, spraddled atop his forearm. An instant later, and it was Toulon, the bigger and older (and clumsier) blackand-white tom that wished to see what had taken Chalky’s attention, but his leap was just a tad off (blame it on the roll) and he went tumbling back to the deck, with the hand towel in his paws. Mrrf! he carped, tail bottled up in disgrace. Then Marr! as he looked up plaintively at Lewrie, as if to ask if he’d seen that flub.
“I still love ye t’death, Toulon,” Lewrie commiserated, bending down to retrieve the hand towel and give the embarrassed cat a “wubbie” or two. He had to grin, for there had been scraped-off shaving soap on the towel, and Toulon had gotten some of it on his whis kers, which made him go slightly cross-eyed trying to see it and swipe it off , sitting up rabbit- fashion and whacking away with both paws.
Thermopylae rose up to a rare scending wave and heaved another slow roll to starboard, timbers, masts and windward stays groaning in concert, and Lewrie half- staggered almost to amidships before catching himself. “Mine arse on a band-box!” he hissed under his breath, using one of his favourite expressions. That stagger involved some complicated foot stamping, which only drove the cat under the starboard-side settee, into relative darkness where Toulon could blink in shame and in umbrage, consulting his cat gods.
The larboard roll took Lewrie back to the wash-hand stand, where he took a firm grip with one hand and braced himself for another stab at shaving.
“Um . . . might you need me to do it for you, sir?” Pettus asked.
“No no, Pettus!” Lewrie countered with a false grin on his phyz, “Done for meself for years, in worse weather than this. Dined out on my dexterity!”
“If you say so, sir,” Pettus replied with a dubious expression.
Once he’d scraped his whis kers as close as he dared, without cutting his own throat, Lewrie swabbed his face, tied his neck-stock, and donned his uniform coat. He made a careful way forrud to the dining-coach and his table, and his breakfast.
It was a Banyan Day, without any salt- meat issue, and after a miserable two months on blockade, a paltry and dull breakfast it was. There was oatmeal porridge, boiled up in water, not milk, and livened with a daub of rancid butter and a largish dollop of strawberry preserves. There was a slab of cheese from his own stores, not that crumbling, dry-as-sawdust Navy issue so beloved of the Victualling Board, but even that was beginning to go over, though showed no signs of red worms yet. And there was ship’s biscuit. Lewrie had purchased extra-fine for himself, but it was tough going, even after being soaked in water for the better part of an hour before being served, and, did he wish to keep his remaining teeth, he’d chew it hellish-careful. There was coffee, at least, with sugar grated off a cone from his locking caddy, and sweet goat’s milk from the nanny up forrud in the manger.
Lewrie turned his eyes towards the cats’ dish at the far end of his table, where a reassured Toulon and a cocky Chalky were having their own porridge, laced with cut-up sausages and jerkied beef, and felt a trifle envious!
With his second piping- hot cup of coffee, Lewrie considered one more biscuit, and peered into the bread barge . . . just in time to see the weevils crawling out of the last piece. No thankee! he thought.
“I’ll be on deck, Pettus,” Lewrie said, shoving back from his plate and rising. “Shove me into my boat-cloak, and I’m off .”
“Captain’s on deck!” Midshipman Tillyard announced to one and all as Lewrie trotted up the larboard gangway ladder from the waist. “Morning, sir,” Tillyard added, with a hand to his hat.
“And a dull’un, Mister Tillyard,” Lewrie replied, his own right hand touching the front of his cocked hat. “Good morning to you, Mister Far-ley. Anything of interest to report?”
“Good morning, Captain. No, nothing of interest so far, sorry to say,” the First Officer told him. Lewrie began to pace the windward side of the quarterdeck, with Farley in-board of him. “The mast- head lookouts have reported seeing some of those canal barges under sail behind the dikes, every now and then, but I can’t imagine a way to get at them, not through those shoals, yonder.”
“Seemed an organised sort o’ thing?” Lewrie asked. “Or merely a civilian barge or two?”
“We’ve gathered they’re singletons, sir, swanning along slowly in both directions,” Lt. Farley said in answer as they reached the flag lockers and taffrail lanthorns right aft, forcing them both to turn inwards and reverse their course. “One or two with washing strung up, and women aboard, and not more than two of those could be described as being close together.”
“Dull as Dutchmen,” Lewrie decided aloud, with a sigh.
“Unfortunately, sir,” Lt. Farley agreed.
“Dead-boresome,” Lewrie said further.
“Indeed, sir,” Farley said with a nod.
“I’m so bored,” Lewrie admitted. “A cutter could perform this duty better. A frigate’s wasted on close blockade.”
“I fear we all are, sir. Bored, that is,” Farley told him. “Ah, about drill on the great-guns, sir . . .”
“Not with this bloody rolling, Mister Farley. Not today. We’d be safer at pike and cutlass work. And musketry, aye!” Lewrie said in suddenly brighter takings. “One hour o’ cut an’ thrust, then an hour o’ musketry at a towed keg.”
“Very good, sir,” Lt. Farley said with a relieved grin.
“Deck, there!” a lookout on the main- mast cross-trees shouted down. “Cutter off th’ larboard quarter, hull up, an’ makin’ signal!”
No more’n eight or nine miles off, Lewrie decided to himself as he turned to peer to windward. Even from the deck, he could faintly make out a dingy white triangle of sail—a set of triangular jibs and a gaff - rigged fore- and-aft mains’l barely peeking from behind the jibs— with a tiny splotch of colour at her mast- head that presumably was a national ensign. Perhaps the lookout had better eyes to espy the even tinier signal hoist from so far away.
“Aloft with you, Mister Pannabaker,” Lt. Farley ordered one of the younger Midshipmen of the Forenoon Watch, “and mind you don’t drop the glass.”
“Aye, sir!” young Pannabaker, Thermopylae’s cockiest “younker,” piped up in reply, scrambling for a long telescope, then hopping atop the weather bulwarks for the mizer-mast shrouds. Quick as a cat, and as agile as an ape, he was at the mizen top, then to its cross-trees in a dozen eye-blinks.
“Come to spell us, one’d hope,” Lewrie said with a yawn, rocking impatiently on the balls of his booted feet.
“She’s the Osprey, sir!” Pannabaker shouted down in his thin and high voice. “This month’s private signal, and ‘Have Despatches,’ sir!”
“Mister Tillyard, do you hoist ‘Acknowledged’ to Osprey, and I s’pose we’ll just loaf along . . . as we’re already doing . . .’til she’s close aboard.”
“Aye aye, sir.”
“Hmm, sir,” Lt. Farley commented, drawing Lewrie’s attention to his First Lieutenant, whose face bore a pensive, wolfish grin. It was not the done thing to speculate, but . . .
“I’d not get my hopes up, Mister Farley,” Lewrie had to say to him. “The Baltic powers’ve had quite enough of us. . . . The Dutch can’t put a rowing boat regatta to sea . . . and, are the French out, I doubt they’ve business in the North Sea. One’d wish, but . . . ,” he concluded with a shrug.
“They also serve, who only stand and wait, I suppose, sir,” Lt. Farley replied, seeming to slump into his tarpaulin coat.
“Indeed,” Lewrie said with a very bored grimace.
Excerpted from King, Ship, and Sword by Dewey Lambdin.
Copyright © 2010 by Dewey Lambdin.
Published in January 2010 by St. Marin's Press.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.