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The King's Commission
The Naval Adventures of Alan Lewrie
By Dewey Lambdin
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2013 Dewey Lambdin
All rights reserved.
The French fleet made a brave sight to leeward, twenty-nine massive ships of the line bearing up toward the smaller British fleet on a bow and quarter line, their gunports gaping and filled with hard iron maws, the white-and-gold battle flags of Bourbon France streaming in the moderate winds, and their halyards bedecked with signal bunting.
"If this is going to be anything like the Chesapeake battle, we're about to get our arses knackered," master's mate and midshipman Alan Lewrie observed sourly, comparing the twenty-two English vessels against that bellicose spectacle to the west.
"Frogs like ta fight ta loo'ard," said Mr. Monk, the sailing master, shrugging as he worked on a bite of half-shriveled apple. "But we got 'em this time. Cain't work ta windward of us ta double."
Monk waved a stray hand at the shore close aboard to the east past which they barely scraped. Nevis Island ghosted by, crowding the disengaged-side frigates such as Desperate up close to the battle line.
"Un you'll note, young Lewrie, the wind's a prodigy ta loo'ard of an island," Monk went on. "Got a kink in the Trades here that'll bear us along on a nice quarter wind. Too close into shore yonder an' we'd be winded by the hills o' Nevis. Too far out as well, but winds come slidin' down the hills and touch water out here where we are. See how yon French are luffin' and fillin' ta keep station further out? Too far out for this little river o' wind we're ridin'. Second lee."
"If the battle line crowds us much more, we'll be winded, sir," Alan observed, noting the strip of azure waters that was shoaling and shallows close aboard to starboard. "Even if we don't run her aground we'll end up in the island's lee under those bluffs. Last in line of the repeating frigates. Last in line for pretty much everything since Yorktown, too."
"Can't go spoilin' the admiral's dinner with our stink, Lewrie," Monk spat — literally and figuratively, for he wandered over to the binnacle to fire a dollop of tobacco juice at the spit kid. How the man could eat and swallow fruit, and reserve his quid in the other cheek, almost made Alan ill just contemplating the feat.
"Wasn't our fault we escaped, Mister Monk," Alan said, going to the wheel to join him and peer into the compass bowl.
"Lord Cornwallis give us verbal orders we could try sailin' outa York River, nothin' in writin', see, Mister Lewrie?" Monk smiled with a weary expression. "Whole army goes inta the sack, titled gentlemen imprisoned'r on their parole for the duration. America lost, and us come out with a whole skin. A damn fine feat o' seamanship gettin' down river an' outa the Chesapeake under Cape Charles, even on a fine day'd be cause fer praise, if you'll allow me t'boast a mite. Night as black as a boot, a whole gale blowin', it'd get most young captains a bloody knighthood. But them dominee-do-littles up in New York sat on their hands an' swore what a damn shame it was losin' the army an' all our other ships, well ... it'll take a piece o' time, er somethin' ta rub the shite off'n our boots fer their likes."
"For what we are about to receive, may the Good Lord make us grateful," Comdr. Tobias Treghues, Desperate's master and commander said as the French fleet began to open fire at long range. With the wind carrying the sound of cannonading to leeward, it sounded no more dangerous than the thumping of pillows, and the sour grey-tan wall of smoke climbed above the bulwarks and lower masts of the enemy ships, to be ragged away to the west. Admiral Hood's ships began to return fire, and their view of the proceedings was obscured as great billows of expended powder blotted out the sky.
"Now we'll give those French, and this de Grasse, a proper English quilting," Treghues prophecied with a tight, superior grin.
Not bloody likely, Alan thought. They had been at the Battle of The Chesapeake, where this self-same Admiral de Grasse had snatched victory from a budding disaster, and the British admirals, including Hood who now commanded their fleet, had stood about in stupefaction until there was nothing left to do but call if off. Hood had kept back the strongest division of the combined Leeward Islands and North American fleets, never even fired a ranging shot all day, and Desperate had been trapped in Chesapeake Bay at the siege of Yorktown, and Alan nearly lost his life ashore; had stood with the Army expecting the Navy to return and break the siege and save the men before they had been forced to surrender. It need hardly be said that Alan Lewrie had a low opinion of Admiral Hood's reputed fighting qualities. In point of fact, he also had a rather low opinion of a naval career, since it wasn't his choice in the first place, but everyone knew that by now, which took the bite out of any carping he might have done in the privacy of his midshipmen's mess.
They had had a hard dash south under a full press of sail for Barbados to carry word to Hood that the island of St. Kitts had been invaded by de Grasse and the French on the eleventh of January. Hood had sailed for Antigua to pick up seven hundred or so troops, all that could be spared, and then made a fast passage to round the southern shore of Nevis, the twin island to St. Kitts, to confront the French, dragging Desperate in the fleet's train like a barely tolerated relative.
Yesterday had been thought to be the day of decision, but all they had accomplished by their presence was to draw this massive Frog fleet out of its anchorage out to sea off Basse Terre. Rumor had it that Hood had wanted to sail right in and fire into the anchored ships, as they should have at The Chesapeake, but that had been postponed.
Once more, this de Grasse had been given a heaven-sent chance to escape the massacre of his fleet. The last time, he had destroyed any last chance to recover the Colonies. Would his luck hold, and would they begin to lose the fabulously wealthy Sugar Islands now?
"They's a gap!" Monk pointed out with alarm in his voice.
"Oh my dear Lord," Treghues whispered, more a short prayer than a curse, for he was a fanatic when it came to quelling the English sailor's easy penchant for blasphemy. "Prudent's never been a fast sailer."
Prudent, a seventy-four-gunned 3rd Rate, fourth from the rear of the British line, had not been able to keep up to the speed of her consorts, and the ships behind her were backing and filling to avoid running her down and tangling their yards in collision. Part of the French line, led by the massive three-decker flagship Ville de Paris, de Grasse's own ship, bore up to close in and penetrate. It would be the beginning of a disaster.
Alan couldn't watch — he'd been there before — and made his way to the starboard side to stand by midshipmen Avery and Burney, who had been relegated by duty to a poor view of the proceedings.
"Mister Lewrie," Avery said coolly, echoed a second later by the startlingly beautiful Burney.
"Avery, Burney," Lewrie replied, touching a finger to the brim of his cocked hat to return their salutes. Avery had been his best and nearly only friend in the Navy, especially on Desperate, until Alan had returned from the debacle at The Chesapeake and had been appointed an acting master's mate. They had caterwauled together, schemed together and shared almost all of their innermost thoughts, but now they were separated by the gulf between a junior warrant officer and a midshipman, though Alan knew that if he well and truly fucked up in his new posting, he could end up swinging a hammock in the cockpit with David Avery and Burney in the blink of an eye.
"Goddamn my eyes, I hope they brought a good lunch," Alan spat as he looked shoreward. At the last and most westward point of land above Fort Charles on Nevis, quite a crowd had gathered, treating the naval battle like a spectator sport and an excuse for a feast.
"Civilians, sir," Avery agreed with a properly naval scowl of displeasure.
"May they get an eyeful, sir!" Burney said with some heat.
Alan didn't know quite what to make of Burney; he was sixteen, had a good kit and was obviously from money, but he was so keen, nautical and unfailingly of good cheer that Alan felt his skin crawl every time he was around him. Little get's got a fiddle, he thought suspiciously, as was Lewrie's usual wont. Besides, Burney was so beautiful in a manly, gentlemanly way, his features so clear and well-formed, that Alan felt like throwing shoes at him. Where were the usual boils, the pimples of a teenaged midshipman — God help, he didn't even half stink like most people. It was uncanny.
"At 'em Canada!" Treghues enthused. "Would that Lord Cornwallis had shown half the bottom of his brother Captain Cornwallis yonder!"
The next ship ahead of Prudent had shivered her tops'ls and lost way to seal the gap against the French probe, and the two ships ahead of the gallant Canada — Resolution and Bedford — had also slowed down to form a solid wall of oak and iron to frustrate their foes.
"Foiled, aha!" Treghues laughed, another sign of incipient madness to Alan's lights. Comdr. The Hon. Tobias Treghues had been a straight-laced prig of the worst blue-stocking sort at first, but between a head injury the year before, a "slight" trephination by the ship's surgeon, and a course of medication consisting of a rare South American weed that Dr. Dome referred to as Nicotiana Glauca (taken in wine and smoked), he was as fickle now as some young miss. He had made Alan's life a living hell, then half a joy, then again a hell as his moods shifted. Now he seemed favorably disposed to Lewrie, but one never knew, and Alan missed the security of knowing that he was either a hopelessly lost cause or some nautical paragon to be praised and lauded to the skies; and to the Admiralty, which was more useful for a career.
Sensing that Treghues was safe enough to approach this day without fear of being bitten, Alan wandered back past the wheel and the binnacle to the larboard side, after pausing to check the quartermasters on the wheel, the compass bearing, and the set of the sails.
"Bosun, we're nigh past the last of Nevis. Be prepared at the braces to take the wind abeam," Alan cautioned.
"Aye, Mister Lewrie," Coke grumbled, disliking to be told his duties by a jumped-up younker, but forbearing philosophically.
"Wonder if they left anything in the anchorage?" Lieutenant Railsford asked, plying a telescope northward toward the western-most point of land below St. Kitts' main-town, Basse Terre, and the anchorage in Frigate Bay.
"If they did, they'd best shift 'em afore ya kin say 'Jack-Puddin','" Monk opined, "er we'll be among 'em a'sharin' out some solid-shot grief. We're head-reachin' the devils, damned if we ain't."
Desperate leaned a bit as the wind shifted, bringing their collective attention inboard, away from the engagement before them.
"Hands to the braces, Mister Coke!" Lieutenant Railsford ordered. "By God, this'll put a bone in our teeth!"
With the fresher airs playing between St. Kitts and Nevis down the narrow mile and a half channel, their small frigate began to fly, as did the larger ships of the line, leaving the leeward vessels in the French line behind, still caught in a pocket of stiller air to Nevis' lee. Even Prudent was catching up handily now.
"Now what's de Grasse done wrong here today?" Treghues demanded of his officers, once the ship was fully under control and the braces had been belayed by the waisters along the gangways above the guns. "Avery?"
"Abandoned his anchorage, sir," Avery said brightly.
"He doesn't seem too eager to close us, sir, and fight at close pistol-shot," Burney piped up, the eager student. "And he stranded himself out in the second lee of the island before making his approach."
"Lewrie, you're the student of that fellow named Clerk, what do you say?" Treghues asked, and Alan flinched recalling the last time he had dared to open his mouth back in September about Clerk's tactics book.
"If he wanted to fight, sir, he could have defended his anchorage, or backed and filled during the night much closer towards St. Kitts, sir," Alan surmised. "Starting that far to the suth'rd and out to sea from us, he practically gave it away. And he could have pushed through the gap Prudent made if he'd tried."
"Has Admiral Hood made any mistakes yet?" Treghues went on, loving his role of experienced teacher to his neophyte officers.
"He almost abandoned the last four or five ships, sir," Burney ventured. "But it was more important to get on north to St. Kitts."
"Very good, sirs, very good." Treghues nodded with a pleasant smile and strolled away with his hands clasped in the small of his back.
Hood had indeed head-reached on the suddenly baffled French, and as they watched, and the afternoon of January 25 wore on, Hood's line-of-battle ships gained the anchorage, swung east and anchored in line-ahead from almost the reefs of Frigate Bay stretching back west to seaward, blocking the French from entry into their former anchorage. Desperate had to snake her way between the heavier 3rd Rates as they rounded up to anchor, passing to the disengaged side through the battle line, which was the proper station for frigates to find safety once more inside the screen of larger ships.
"Find us good holding ground to leeward, Mister Monk," Treghues said. "We shall anchor west and north of the last ships in the line of battle."
"Charts show thirty fathom there'bouts, sir," Monk replied after a long squint at one of his heavily creased and much doodled-upon charts. "Soft sand un mud, though, not good holdin' ground. Hard coral 'bout a mile closer ta shore, though."
"We could fetch to, sir," Lieutenant Railsford suggested. "If there is a threat, we'd be caught putting put a kedge anchor from the stern and not have the springs ready."
"Anybody ta loo'ard o' us'd take the devil's own time beatin' up ta windward ta get at us, though," Monk chuckled. "We might have time ta put out the kedge un bower, un get springs on the cables."
"Or get caught anchored by a 3rd Rate, sir," Alan stuck in to try the waters. It was not Desperate's place, or function in life, to become an immobile target for a larger ship that could blow holes in her.
"Hard to get a bower up out of soft sand and mud," Treghues speculated audibly. "Very well, bring her to, Mister Railsford. Back the mizzen tops'l and shift the head sheets."
With the foresails cocked up to produce forward motion, and the square-sails laid aback or furled to the yards to retard her, Desperate "fetched-to," her helm hard over as though she were trying to tack and had been caught in irons by a capricious shift of wind, drifting slowly and making barely discernible sternway, to all intents at a dead stop.
"Stand the hands down from Quarters, Mister Railsford," Treghues ordered as eight bells chimed from the belfry at the break of the fo'c'sle, ending the afternoon watch and beginning the first dog-watch at 4 P.M.
"Cooks to light the galley fires, sir?" Railsford asked. It took time to develop enough heat under the steep-tubs so the rations could be boiled up, and the first dog was the usual time to start cooking.
"Not yet, not until we are sure we shall not be called upon to engage should a foe break the leeward end of the line," the captain said, frowning. "I'll not risk fire aboard until dusk. There's still daylight enough to do something glorious."
Freed of the tedium of duty, Alan betook himself below after one last lungful of fresh, clean Trade-Wind air. Below decks in the cockpit it would be a close and humid fog of humanity's reeks. The day had been pleasantly warm, and the wind bracing, and his nostrils pinched at the aromas of a ship when he reached his tiny dog-box of a cabin. Pea soup farts, armpits, unwashed bodies and rancid clothing, the garbage-midden stink of the bilges and holds where cheeses, bread-bags, dried beans and peas slowly rotted, where kegs of salt meat slowly fermented in brine.
"Got you, you bastard!" he exulted as he managed to mash a large roach with his shoe at the foot of the accommodation ladder. At least half a dozen more scurried from sight.
Excerpted from The King's Commission by Dewey Lambdin. Copyright © 2013 Dewey Lambdin. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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