Nelson's Purse: The Mystery of Lord Nelson's Lost Treasures

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"The life of Britain's famed colossus, Lord Admiral Horatio Nelson, has spawned a veritable publishing industry. Every facet of his life has been examined in biographies. But until Martyn Downer's recent find of a tremendous cache of Nelson memorabilia and correspondence, a central figure was missing, one who holds multiple keys to the Nelson story: Alexander Davison. Despite his extraordinary roles as Nelson's closest friend and the intimate confidant of both mistress Lady Hamilton and Nelson's estranged wife Fanny Nelson, Davison's story faded
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2004 Hard cover New in fine dust jacket. Book is perfect. Dust Jacket is NEAR NEW with only minor handling wear. Sewn binding. Cloth over boards. 336 p. Contains: Illustrations. ... Audience: General/trade. Read more Show Less

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Overview

"The life of Britain's famed colossus, Lord Admiral Horatio Nelson, has spawned a veritable publishing industry. Every facet of his life has been examined in biographies. But until Martyn Downer's recent find of a tremendous cache of Nelson memorabilia and correspondence, a central figure was missing, one who holds multiple keys to the Nelson story: Alexander Davison. Despite his extraordinary roles as Nelson's closest friend and the intimate confidant of both mistress Lady Hamilton and Nelson's estranged wife Fanny Nelson, Davison's story faded into footnotes - until now." "As Martyn Downer reveals in this tale of discovery, Alexander Davison is the portal to a new understanding of Nelson and Europe's most famous love triangle. Davison manages every aspect of Nelson's civilian and personal affairs, from the purchase of Merton Place to assuaging the highly charged emotions of a larger-than-life mistress and a spurned, tormented wife." Nelson's Purse releases long-forgotten voices from never-before-published correspondence as Lady Hamilton, Lady Nelson, and Davison himself experience the turbulence of those final five years of Nelson's life in London and at sea.
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Strewn with vivid images, Downer’s narrative is well researched and well written.”
Sunday Times

“Downer’s account of the Nelson-Emma-Fanny triangle is a gripping read.”
Spectator

“Fascinating. Downer’s rich personal account stands out among Nelson related books.”
Daily Mail
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781588341846
  • Publisher: Smithsonian Institution Press
  • Publication date: 11/22/2004
  • Pages: 424
  • Product dimensions: 6.28 (w) x 9.24 (h) x 1.24 (d)

Meet the Author

Martyn Downer was Head of Jewelry at Sotheby’s in London from 1999 to 2003. He also lectures and writes on the subject.
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Read an Excerpt

I
VICTORY
100 GUNS, CAPTAIN THOMAS MASTERMAN HARDY

William hardly slept; none of them did. The dull ache in his stomach had risen to his throat, bringing with it bile and the sour taste of fear. Men had told him about the morning of battle, bragging of their own bravery. They were lying, of course — it was the grog talking — but everyone went along with their swagger. The men who had fought at the Nile or Copenhagen never spoke of it. Now that day had dawned for him, and he simply felt hollow. He was cheek by jowl with a thousand men but felt as lonely as a lost child. He expected his bowels to open, and they did, and to be sick, which he was; but this awful sensation of helplessness in the face of a brutal, random death was startling.

His hand shook as he shaved, though it still paused instinctively as the ship rose and fell. William took longer than usual over the task, relishing the mundane routine. It was only when he gazed into his glass and imagined himself dead, his torn body sinking into a crimson sea, that he was, for a moment, overwhelmed by such dread that he had to hold himself from running wildly away. But he couldn't move and there was nowhere to run to. Only when his spiralling fears glimpsed Elizabeth asleep in London did he relax, clutching the image. His wife did not know what he was facing here, now, today. He was grateful for that. It would be days, weeks even, before she heard whether he was alive or dead. He vowed, if he survived, never to leave her again.

William, as a mere servant, berthed in the orlop deck, below the waterline, in the dank, fetid bowels of the ship. He watched as it was cleared for casualties. The loblolly boys were rolling bandages, counting out sponges and busily swabbing down the midshipmen's table in the cockpit. Beatty the surgeon was arranging his knives and saws, checking their keenness from time to time with his thumb. The men hid their thoughts, each absorbed in his task. William was thankful the edgy heartiness of the night before had gone. He was reassured by the sight of this orderly calm before the looming chaos. More than ever now he wanted to live.

In one involuntary movement, as if joined together by an invisible thread, all the men on the deck suddenly paused and glanced up. For a moment there seemed no reason for this. Then William realized that the familiar creaking and thudding sound of the rudder, the heartbeat of his wooden world, was changing. The noise rose to a roar as, heaving slowly at first and then with a sudden lurch, the ship slipped steeply to port to go about. The men clutched the beams above their heads. Beatty's tools crashed off the table, clattering chaotically across the deck. For several minutes the ship held this position, shuddering painfully, until slowly the deck straightened and the lanterns hung vertically again. High above the spot where William stood, the wind grabbed the vast sails of the ship and the familiar rolling sensation again surged through his body. His lordship had turned them towards the enemy.

There was no formal breakfast this morning. William was told to prepare bread and plates of ham instead. He would keep up a running supply of tea and coffee not only for his own officers but also for any last visitors to Victory. Going up through the ship to the staterooms, William paused at the galley to collect pots of hot water. Everywhere he saw preparations for action, though the guns were not yet run out and the ports were still down. Some of the men were clustered around their guns talking quietly, but the ship was unusually still and empty. When William reached the main deck he understood why. Most of the men were crowded together on the forecastle, the boys clinging to the masts. All of them were gazing silently east, into the flat, grey dawn.

At first William saw nothing. Then, as his eyes grew accustomed to the pale, watery light after the darkness below, he noticed a shadow on the horizon, then another and another. Straining his eyes, he counted thirty warships, maybe more, strung out on the seam between sea and sky, apparently motionless. Only the empty, rolling sea lay between him and them. Transfixed by this awesome spectacle, William was seized for a moment by the same cold dread that had paralysed him below. Struck by a sudden thought, he turned to search the faces of the officers gathered behind him on the poop deck, the weak morning sun glinting off their telescopes. Behind them were the ships following Victory, their masts rising and falling like the keys of a giant's piano. There was no sign of his lordship.

Then, from somewhere among the crowd of seamen pressed against the rails, the spell was broken by a lone, low voice singing softly. The words drifted back along the deck.

Farewell and adieu to you fine Spanish ladies,
Farewell and adieu all you ladies of Spain.

As the voice grew stronger and more confident, others joined it. William felt the men stir and rise as if awoken:

We'll rant and we'll roar like true British sailors...

He turned again to look back at the officers. They were unmoved, their telescopes still resolutely aimed at the enemy. But among them now William saw the slight figure of his lordship. He was not watching the enemy. He was looking at his men.

William tried to concentrate on his work as they were carried inexorably towards the battle. Now and then he dared to glance over the rail, irresistibly drawn by the brooding presence of the enemy ships. Each time they looked bigger and more appallingly beautiful as the blanket of sea between the two fleets was slowly rolled up. Thankfully William was kept busy as the officers went about their rounds. Once he was startled by the clattering sound of the chicken coops being tipped over the side, to the cheers of the men. He tried not to remember that the livestock was being jettisoned to make room for casualties on the lower decks.

Captain Blackwood of Euryalus came on board early. He spoke quietly with Captain Hardy for a few minutes before John Scott, his lordship's secretary, ushered them both into the great cabin. They remained there some time. As William moved among the officers, serving drinks and clearing plates, he observed them closely. Most of the furniture in the staterooms had been cleared and the men — men he knew so well — stood, or perched, where they could. Many spurned the coffee he carried, preferring wine. Some of them, he noticed, the young midshipmen in particular, seemed as unconcerned as if they were going hunting on their estates in England rather than about to face the French guns. He supposed this display of nonchalance was deliberate; in any event, he found it highly unconvincing. Others stood quietly, lost in thought, sipping their coffee, ignoring the food. A few laughed a little too loudly or too long - among them John Scott; but when the secretary turned his flushed face towards the steward as he held out his glass for more wine, William saw the desperate pleading in his eyes. The chaplain, Dr Alexander Scott — no relation to the secretary — was nowhere to be seen. William assumed he was touring the decks, suddenly popular. Yet when his lordship appeared from the great cabin he looked entirely calm and — there was no other word for it — happy. He smiled warmly, taking a cup of sweet, milky tea.

By eleven o'clock the enemy ships loomed like a vast dark forest, casting a menacing shadow towards the British. Spellbound, William stared across at them. He could see hundreds of brightly coloured figures, men like himself, moving on the towering decks. Their ports, he saw, were open and the guns run out. It would be soon now. Calmly he collected the plates, cups and glasses scattered around the staterooms. He rinsed them in his small pantry and stowed them neatly away, taking care to count them carefully first, as he always did. Remembering the fate of the chickens, he sadly threw the scraps overboard.

The last minutes before he went below passed like a dream. He heard music, shouts, the urgent beating of the drums. He shoved bread and cheese into the hands of the officers as they hurried past him to their posts. Turning towards the ladder to leave the deck for the last time, William saw his lordship, watching a signal go up. Beside him was John Scott, staring at the enemy, his face impassive but ashen with fear. The secretary's hands were clasped tightly behind his back, his papers beneath his arm. Even deep within the ship, as he pushed down through the packed decks, William heard the cheers that greeted that signal.

All the men were stripped to the waist, their hard bodies shiny with sweat. As he passed them, William smiled and wished the men well, forgetting that their ears were plugged against the roar of the guns. With the ports up, the decks were lighter and fresher than usual. William thought they looked as lovely as he had ever seen them; but the orlop was the same as usual, as if all the foulness of the decks above had sunk into it. Only a few dimly flickering lanterns broke the darkness, though the midshipmen's table was lit up like a waiting stage. Stoves were warming the surgeon's tools and his sickly-smelling oils, making the deck, which was always uncomfortably close, hotter than hell. William felt the sand through the soft leather of his shoes. The powder boys were clustered excitedly by the dampened curtain of themagazine. William's heart lurched at the sight of their pale, fragile bodies.

Beatty greeted William, shaking him solemnly by the hand. The chaplain, his work done, was talking with Burke the purser. Bunce, the carpenter, kept a respectful distance, waiting patiently with his crew. Dry-mouthed, William took off his coat, brushed it with his hand and placed it tidily on the hook by his berth, before rolling his sleeves up neatly. Then he, too, waited. Time stood still in that loathsome hole, the men all looking silently at one another, too tense for words.

It was hard to tell when it began. Gradually the sound of distant thunder filtered down to them, steadily growing stronger. Then the ship shuddered as if stopped dead in the water — and again, more sharply. Bunce and his men disappeared.

The first casualty to arrive walked calmly down. A splinter the size of a candlestick was sticking out of his arm. Beatty quickly inspected the wound before pulling the splinter free in one abrupt, skin-tearing movement. A loblolly rushed forward to dress the bloody hole and bind the flapping skin. The muffled rumbling of the guns was now constant and the ship was lurching violently. Deep in the lower decks, the grapeshot sounded like pebbles on a window. The orlop steadily filled with casualties, many carried there by mates or marines. Most were gravely hurt, their bodies torn open by round shot or ripped by flying splinters. William bustled about, helping where he could, holding beakers of water to bloodied lips, fetching bandages or simply clutching a man's hand as he died in wordless agony.

Then his life seemed to stop. First the feeling of being lifted as the air was sucked from his lungs; then, as quickly, being bent double by an enormous invisible weight. His ears roared, his body shook and the world around him plunged into darkness. Gasping and shaking, William looked up. The lanterns flickered back to life. The loblollys started moving again, more urgently. Victory, William realized with a terrible jolt, was fighting back. Only now had the battle truly begun.
In the carnage that followed William's head spun, his body clamped tight by the horror. The deck filled with hot, acrid, sulphurous smoke, so thick he could hardly see his own hand. His mouth burned and his eyes stung. Rancid, bloodied water seeped from the beams above his head. Choking, he lurched about the deck, slipping in blood and slivers of flesh, stumbling over dying men. Once his feet were caught up in the wet embrace of a man's guts tumbling from a torn belly. Occasionally, when the smoke was sucked out by the guns above, William glimpsed the gaping mouths and the staring eyes of the men around him, thankful that the pounding on the timber drowned their groans. At the heart of this dreadful pandemonium he saw Beatty bending over the midshipmen's table, his bloodied elbow frantically rising and falling as he sawed like a crazed automaton.

Amid all the confusion William was knocked to one side by a familiar figure in a black coat, his arms flailing wildly. It was the chaplain. His eyes were wide and white and staring madly about him. One hand was clamped over his mouth; vomit oozed between the long, elegant fingers. Then this demented creature was gone, swallowed up again by the murk. Blindly, William pursued him, almost careering into him at the foot of the ladder to the deck above. Here the chaplain had abruptly stopped as two seamen struggled awkwardly down the slippery steps with another wounded man. William recognized his lordship.

He was conscious and seemed more dazed and bewildered than hurt, yet his heavily bloodstained uniform indicated a terrible wound. He gazed up curiously at William. Seeing the men struggling to carry their one-armed burden over the gruesome obstacle course of the deck, William and the chaplain helped them find a way through. Alerted by the shouts of the men, Burke and Beatty, his apron smeared in blood, rushed forward. A place on the deck was cleared where a man had just died. William helped to strip away the bloodied coat, waistcoat, shirt and stockings. The breeches were briskly cut off. A green silk purse found looped over the waistband was passed to the chaplain, together with the gold medal hanging on a blue ribbon around his lordship's neck. The chaplain stuffed them both into his coat. A miniature of Lady Hamilton was found beneath the wet, red-splashed cotton shirt.

To William's surprise the thin, naked body looked unmarked. Only the ugly stump of his lordship's missing arm seemed suddenly, obscenely, shocking as it twitched uncontrollably. But Beatty soon found the small hole, no bigger than a guinea, in his lordship's left shoulder. It bled a little as Beatty inserted first his probe and then his fingers to search for the ball. At this his lordship became agitated and upset, as if shaken from a stupor. William noticed specks of blood on his lips. A glance at Beatty told him Nelson was dying. Nothing could be done.

The wound was washed and dressed. His lordship's nakedness was covered by a sheet of dirty sailcloth and the limp body propped against one of the great damp timbers in the ship's side, close to the capstan. William went for lemonade to quench the dying man's thirst. After his initial desperation Nelson became quieter, apparently resigned to his fate.

The chaplain, kneeling to the right of his lordship, began gently to rub his chest, which seemed to ease his suffering a little. From time to time the two men spoke, the chaplain leaning so close that their faces almost touched. Most of their words were lost to William, drowned by the cascade of noise around them. Burke knelt on the other side, his arm supporting Nelson. William stayed close, fetching sponges to wipe the sweat and the blood from the now tired, sad, smoke-blackened face. When his lordship soiled himself, William washed him. He was uncertain how long they remained there like that. At one point the captain came down, stooping beneath the beams, his face creased with fatigue and speckled with blood. Visibly moved, he bent over the dying man to say a few words. As Hardy rose to leave, Nelson clutched the captain's arm, lifting himself up. 'Pray let dear Lady Hamilton have my hair,' he pleaded in a desperate whisper, 'and all other things belonging to me.'

With Hardy gone, Nelson became weaker. He pleaded for water, his words now softly bubbling up through the blood that was drowning him. He looked frightened and lost. Beatty came when he could, his bloodied hands checking the fading pulse, testing the progress of the paralysis. When the captain returned with news of victory, his lordship rallied briefly, the spark of life flickering. Kneeling, Hardy held his friend's hand before gently kissing his cold, pale cheek. Then, rising to go, he gazed down a last time before quickly leaning forward to kiss him again.

It was hard to tell when Nelson died. After the captain had left he whispered a last order to William, asking his faithful steward to turn him to release a few precious last breaths from his blood-choked lungs. His pain seemed to increase at the end. He closed his eyes, wincing as his lips moved rhythmically, the words confused and indistinct. Only when they had stopped did William understand them. 'Thank God, I have done my duty. Thank God, I have done my duty. Thank God, I have done my duty.'

As William rose to go in search of Beatty, he noticed for the first time the men crowding around the lifeless body. Bunce was there. There was no pulse. It was over. His lordship seemed at peace. All the pain had left him. Before they covered his face, William thought he saw a single tear slowly roll away from his lordship's sightless right eye, catching the yellow light of the swaying lanterns. Then he noticed the silence. The guns had stopped.

SIX WEEKS LATER

Since before dawn, people muffled against the sharp cold had been gathering to gaze out across a grey sea flattened by snow-swollen clouds. Those with telescopes occasionally pointed, causing a momentary flurry of excitement among the otherwise quietly expectant crowd. Some of the men carried children on their shoulders. The harbour was packed with all sorts of small boats. A number of battered, lifeless-looking warships were anchored at Spithead out in the Solent. It was Thursday 5 December, 1805. Young and old would remember this day for the rest of their lives.

The evening before, a boat pulled by seamen from Victory had arrived at the quay with a single passenger seated astern. The seamen, enjoying their celebrity, told the people their ship was anchored off the Isle of Wight, held back by the tide from reaching Portsmouth until the morning. They regaled eager listeners with stories as the beer flowed in the taverns that night. The people laughed and sometimes they cheered, but they fell silent when they heard how his body was sealed in a cask of brandy. Then some of them wept.

By that time the boat's passenger was miles away. A short, thick-set man with curly, greying hair, clad in a long oilskin coat and a wide-brimmed felt hat pulled low over his ears, he was a servant; so no-one noticed or bothered him as he hurried to the George inn to hire a post-chaise for London. Under his arm William Chevailler, the steward in Victory, was clutching a leather despatch case.

As the morning of 5 December wore on, it seemed the whole town was crowding onto the platforms around the harbour. Many people returned to where they had stood in September, pressing forward to catch sight of Nelson as he was carried along by the crowd towards Victory's waiting barge. Towards nine o'clock, the sharpest eyes in the crowd were drawn to a ship emerging from the morning mist. As it approached, the warships at Spithead lowered their flags. Gun salutes echoed around the harbour, the doleful sound rolling lazily around the ramparts before heading out to sea. A flotilla of small boats which had impatiently been waiting for this signal now streamed out of the harbour.

Even from far away the onlookers could see the damage that had been done to Victory. Shot was still lodged in her bows and the shattered remnants of her masts were studded with bullets. The first visitors on board were awed by the bloodstained decks. Many commented on the eerie quiet and the pervasive gloom which filled the ship, as if the men inside were in thrall to the ghosts of their friends. Of the dead, only Nelson's body remained on board, peacefully curled up in the brandy. All the other corpses, many grotesquely mutilated, had been unceremoniously thrown into the sea during the battle, as was the custom.

As Victory approached Portsmouth that morning, William Chevailler reached 9 St James's Square after his overnight dash to London. Unlike its flat-fronted, red-brick neighbours, this house had a white stuccoed front decorated with Grecian pilasters, decorative banding and roundels in fashionable neo-classical style. In the windows of the house, as of many William had passed on his way into town, were coloured glass transparencies, lit from behind by candles. They spelled 'VICTORY' and 'NELSON'.

William was told to wait in the library. It was not a large room, but it was crammed with expensive furniture and exquisite objects. The walls were almost entirely obscured by bookshelves, prints and paintings, many of rural scenes. On the elegant tables and in the dimly lit cabinets all around him, William saw stone busts and antique black terracotta vases; jewel-like boxes decorated in mosaics, tortoiseshell and brilliants; and hardstones, carved in the Roman style. Medieval cups of ivory and crystal, mounted in gold and set with strangely shaped pearls and precious gems, glittered beside strange weapons from the East, their deadly blades hidden by rich crimson velvet scabbards studded with rare stones. Extraordinary guns with silver barrels and richly ornamented stocks lay beside miniature pistols, each as small as a woman's hand, kept in fruitwood cases lined with damask silk.

The bookshelves held volumes and folios bound in the finest green and red morocco, their titles chased in gold. Daniell's Rural Sports pressed against Darwin's Zoonomia, Roget's Pleasures of Memory against Smollett's History of England. Here were Shakespeare and Fielding, Plutarch, Milton and Goldsmith, Virgil and Dr Johnson. Around the room were numerous copies of the Tatler and Spectator, the Annual Register, Quebec Almanack, Naval Chronicle and the Gentleman's Magazine. Some lay open on a low mahogany table, as if just put down. Books from Italy and France stood beside books on America, Scotland and London. There were books on racing, parliament, law, farming, the army, roses, medicine, fashion, travel, trade and history. Most were quite recently published, with the notable exception of some very old volumes from Amsterdam, bound in blackened leather, their titles barely decipherable. Apart from the ticking of the magnificent gold and tortoiseshell clock on the carved marble mantle and the occasional sigh as the coals settled in the fireplace below it, the library was silent.

After a while the repose of the room was punctured by the sound of a female voice and the chatter of excited children elsewhere in the house. Then the door was thrown open and Alexander Davison entered in full army uniform, ready to take part in the parade of his own volunteer infantry corps, the Loyal Britons, at the service of thanksgiving in Westminster Abbey later that morning. As he headed towards William with an outstretched hand and a warm smile, the library seemed to fill with red and gold.

Now fifty-five, despite his age, lack of height and the years of gout which had stiffened his walk, Davison still exuded power and unspent energy. The watchful blue eyes above a thin nose and narrow mouth threatened a quick temper; when he was younger Davison's features — now softened by age and good living — had, like the man himself, been thought sharp. His hair, freshly powdered for the morning's service, was long and full and receded slightly from his brow. His teeth were poor, though he kept them. His complexion was good, with a healthy colour — unusual for London and more properly suited to a country squire, which in many respects he resembled. He gave off a comfortable smell of lavender oil, leather and horse sweat.

Davison showed concern as he sought reassurance that William was well and unhurt, listening carefully as the battle and the last hours of Nelson's life were recalled. Occasionally he interrupted with a brief question. Finishing his account, William gave Davison a letter dated 13 October which Captain Hardy had found in Nelson's desk. 'Some happy day', Nelson had written to his friend a week before the battle, 'I hope to get at their fleet and nothing shall be wanting on my part to give a good account of them.' William revealed that he was also carrying letters for Nelson's mistress, Emma Lady Hamilton, and for his brother, Earl Nelson. Davison advised caution. He knew these two were becoming bitter rivals.

Emma Hamilton was at her town house in Clarges Street, only a short walk from St James's Square. After being cooped up for so long in Victory, William revelled in the odour of London - a heady mix of coal smoke, cooking, liquor and horse manure, sweetened by the scent of the fashionable people he passed in the street. Women gazed into the shops while the men, many wearing black crepe armbands, clustered around the coffee houses or ducked into narrow alleyways leading to brothels and gambling dens. Small boys raced up and down the street on errands. William, gazing on these familiar scenes after witnessing so much horror, felt strangely detached from them.

The door to the small, elegant house was opened by a footman who viewed William with all the disdain that only one servant can show to another. Here the visitor waited in the hall, which was full of antique marbles; portraits and prints of Nelson covered the walls. Eventually Mrs Cadogan, Emma's mother, appeared to conduct William to a pretty bedroom on the first floor, decorated in chintz and, despite the season, full of freshly cut flowers.

Nelson's mistress was propped on a mountain of plump white pillows. Scattered around her on the bed was the debris of her ceaseless letter-writing: discarded papers, pens and inkpots. Close to hand were a half-full wine glass and an empty burgundy bottle. Having delivered a short, carefully prepared speech, William gave Emma two letters. One was for her; the other was for Horatia, her four-year-old daughter. He looked away as she read them and wept.

William and Emma had met, briefly, before — in September, when William had packed the admiral's belongings at Merton Place, the house Nelson and Emma shared in Surrey. Then, she had scarcely noticed the steward; but now he was a physical link to the last hours of her lover's life, the first to arrive in London. Calling him closer, Emma implored William to reveal how Nelson had died and what, if anything, he had said. William, who had strict orders from Captain Hardy simply to deliver the letters and go, was no more proof against her entreaties than any other man; and so, as Emma clutched his hand, drawing him so near to her that he could smell the wine on her breath, William told her everything he knew. Then, realizing at once that he had said too much, he rashly asked Emma to keep his words secret.

In Portsmouth the tall figure of an officer, stooped with tiredness, pushed through the people on the quay, ignoring their demands for news on the landing of the body. Captain Hardy was looking for his friend Henry Blackwood, captain of the frigate Euryalus. The two men had last met in the great cabin of Victory, just hours before the battle, when Nelson had made them witness a statement in his pocket book. Hardy described this, in a letter he wrote to Davison from Portsmouth, as 'a kind of Codicil which he wrote on the morning of the 21st and read to me, desiring me to seal it up in the event of his falling. It does not in the least alter his will but recommends his family and Lady Hamilton to the protection of his Country.'

In fact, Euryalus had carried Blackwood home far faster than the limping Victory, and by the time Hardy was anxiously pacing the quay at Portsmouth, Blackwood was about to return to the town, having been in London for at least a week. There he had seen Davison and had already told Nelson's solicitor, William Haslewood, about the codicil in the pocket book. A cautious man, Haslewood decided to do nothing until he had read it. News of a secret final codicil would be unsettling for William Nelson, the admiral's brother and heir. William had just been made an earl by a grateful nation and was hopeful that great riches would follow his undeserved ennoblement.
Blackwood arrived back at Portsmouth before dawn on Friday 6 December and was taken out to Victory in heavy fog. Over breakfast with Hardy, Blackwood described his meeting with Haslewood; but Hardy, considering himself bound by the promise he had made to his dying friend to do all he could to see the terms of the codicil honoured, was reluctant to surrender the pocket book immediately to Nelson's family. He decided that, before sending it back to London with Blackwood, he would show the codicil to George Rose, a member of the government who was close to the prime minister, William Pitt, and who — unlike many in the cabinet — had always supported Nelson. Nelson had whispered Rose's name as he lay dying; so, by bringing the codicil to the minister's attention, Hardy could feel that he was insuring it against suppression by Nelson's family. Without further delay Hardy set off for Rose's country seat, half a day's journey along the coast from Portsmouth, leaving Blackwood to inform Lady Hamilton about the codicil — about which she may, in fact, already have heard from Davison, Haslewood or Chevailler. Blackwood gave the awkward task of writing to Clarges Street to his wife, who had joined him in the town.

In St James's Square, William slept late and breakfasted well, revived by his first night for months in a motionless bed. When Davison left for an important meeting at the Treasury, William plucked up the courage to visit Earl Nelson, his last task before catching the coach back to Portsmouth. After his brother's death, William Nelson had been thrust to the forefront of the national stage, in a role he assumed without the least surprise, his humble position in the church utterly forgotten. The new earl took a large house in Charles Street, close to Berkeley Square, filling it with a miserly mixture of old-fashioned and second-hand furniture and other people's portraits. Here he planned his brother's state funeral with military precision and ran his campaign for further titles — and money.

The earl was an overbearing, ruddy-faced man in his late forties, quite different in looks from his brother - not least in size, although they had shared the same heavily lidded eyes. Unlike Davison, whom he distrusted, the earl wore an old-fashioned wig. His collar was the only evidence of his calling; he was not a man handicapped by too much reflection or religious devotion. Chevailler had orders from Captain Hardy to give the earl 'every information relative to the effects of your ever to be lamented Brother and my Dear Friend'. This included delivering an inventory of Nelson's belongings in Victory. The earl was interested in the steward's account of the battle, but could scarcely be expected, he felt, to manage the business of his brother's effects himself. Instead, seizing some paper from his desk, he scrawled a note for Chevailler to take to Davison, a man he considered better suited to such a task. 'Send orders to Chevalier as soon as the Victory gets to the Nore,' he wrote, 'how he is to move the Goods, Wines &c to take charge of the whole of them & have them conveyed to London by water.'

Haslewood had told the earl about the codicil in the pocket book. Even so, the earl gave William a letter to take to Hardy enquiring after his dead brother's private papers. 'If there is any Will or Codicil or any paper of any sort entrusted to your care,' he wrote disingenuously, probing to discover who knew what,

I will esteem it a favour, if you will send a confidential person without loss of time, to bring it to me, with orders to deliver it to no other person - it would I think also be advisable as soon as possible to have his desk (containing his other papers & memorandums not of a public nature) carefully packed & sent by your stage wagon to me, as it may contain many things necessary for the executors to know.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Table of Contents

I Victory 1
II Temeraire 30
III Neptune 41
IV Britannia 68
V Leviathan 101
VI Conqueror 130
VII Agamemnon 154
VIII Ajax 183
IX Orion 207
X Minotaur 227
XI Spartiate 255
XII Defiance 278
XIII Prince 298
XIV Dreadnought 304
XV Africa 338
Epilogue 364
Appendix 1 The Purse 369
Appendix 2 The Sale 373
Notes on Sources 375
Bibliography 399
Acknowledgements 411
Index 417
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First Chapter

Nelson's Purse


By Martyn Downer

Random House

Martyn Downer
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0552150851


Chapter One

I
VICTORY
100 GUNS, CAPTAIN THOMAS MASTERMAN HARDY

William hardly slept; none of them did. The dull ache in his stomach had risen to his throat, bringing with it bile and the sour taste of fear. Men had told him about the morning of battle, bragging of their own bravery. They were lying, of course — it was the grog talking — but everyone went along with their swagger. The men who had fought at the Nile or Copenhagen never spoke of it. Now that day had dawned for him, and he simply felt hollow. He was cheek by jowl with a thousand men but felt as lonely as a lost child. He expected his bowels to open, and they did, and to be sick, which he was; but this awful sensation of helplessness in the face of a brutal, random death was startling.

His hand shook as he shaved, though it still paused instinctively as the ship rose and fell. William took longer than usual over the task, relishing the mundane routine. It was only when he gazed into his glass and imagined himself dead, his torn body sinking into a crimson sea, that he was, for a moment, overwhelmed by such dread that he had to hold himself from running wildly away. But he couldn't move and there was nowhere to run to. Only when his spiralling fears glimpsed Elizabeth asleep in London did he relax, clutching the image. His wife did not know what he was facing here, now, today. He was grateful for that. It would be days, weeks even, before she heard whether he was alive or dead. He vowed, if he survived, never to leave her again.

William, as a mere servant, berthed in the orlop deck, below the waterline, in the dank, fetid bowels of the ship. He watched as it was cleared for casualties. The loblolly boys were rolling bandages, counting out sponges and busily swabbing down the midshipmen's table in the cockpit. Beatty the surgeon was arranging his knives and saws, checking their keenness from time to time with his thumb. The men hid their thoughts, each absorbed in his task. William was thankful the edgy heartiness of the night before had gone. He was reassured by the sight of this orderly calm before the looming chaos. More than ever now he wanted to live.

In one involuntary movement, as if joined together by an invisible thread, all the men on the deck suddenly paused and glanced up. For a moment there seemed no reason for this. Then William realized that the familiar creaking and thudding sound of the rudder, the heartbeat of his wooden world, was changing. The noise rose to a roar as, heaving slowly at first and then with a sudden lurch, the ship slipped steeply to port to go about. The men clutched the beams above their heads. Beatty's tools crashed off the table, clattering chaotically across the deck. For several minutes the ship held this position, shuddering painfully, until slowly the deck straightened and the lanterns hung vertically again. High above the spot where William stood, the wind grabbed the vast sails of the ship and the familiar rolling sensation again surged through his body. His lordship had turned them towards the enemy.

There was no formal breakfast this morning. William was told to prepare bread and plates of ham instead. He would keep up a running supply of tea and coffee not only for his own officers but also for any last visitors to Victory. Going up through the ship to the staterooms, William paused at the galley to collect pots of hot water. Everywhere he saw preparations for action, though the guns were not yet run out and the ports were still down. Some of the men were clustered around their guns talking quietly, but the ship was unusually still and empty. When William reached the main deck he understood why. Most of the men were crowded together on the forecastle, the boys clinging to the masts. All of them were gazing silently east, into the flat, grey dawn.

At first William saw nothing. Then, as his eyes grew accustomed to the pale, watery light after the darkness below, he noticed a shadow on the horizon, then another and another. Straining his eyes, he counted thirty warships, maybe more, strung out on the seam between sea and sky, apparently motionless. Only the empty, rolling sea lay between him and them. Transfixed by this awesome spectacle, William was seized for a moment by the same cold dread that had paralysed him below. Struck by a sudden thought, he turned to search the faces of the officers gathered behind him on the poop deck, the weak morning sun glinting off their telescopes. Behind them were the ships following Victory, their masts rising and falling like the keys of a giant's piano. There was no sign of his lordship.

Then, from somewhere among the crowd of seamen pressed against the rails, the spell was broken by a lone, low voice singing softly. The words drifted back along the deck.

Farewell and adieu to you fine Spanish ladies,
Farewell and adieu all you ladies of Spain.

As the voice grew stronger and more confident, others joined it. William felt the men stir and rise as if awoken:

We'll rant and we'll roar like true British sailors...

He turned again to look back at the officers. They were unmoved, their telescopes still resolutely aimed at the enemy. But among them now William saw the slight figure of his lordship. He was not watching the enemy. He was looking at his men.

William tried to concentrate on his work as they were carried inexorably towards the battle. Now and then he dared to glance over the rail, irresistibly drawn by the brooding presence of the enemy ships. Each time they looked bigger and more appallingly beautiful as the blanket of sea between the two fleets was slowly rolled up. Thankfully William was kept busy as the officers went about their rounds. Once he was startled by the clattering sound of the chicken coops being tipped over the side, to the cheers of the men. He tried not to remember that the livestock was being jettisoned to make room for casualties on the lower decks.

Captain Blackwood of Euryalus came on board early. He spoke quietly with Captain Hardy for a few minutes before John Scott, his lordship's secretary, ushered them both into the great cabin. They remained there some time. As William moved among the officers, serving drinks and clearing plates, he observed them closely. Most of the furniture in the staterooms had been cleared and the men — men he knew so well — stood, or perched, where they could. Many spurned the coffee he carried, preferring wine. Some of them, he noticed, the young midshipmen in particular, seemed as unconcerned as if they were going hunting on their estates in England rather than about to face the French guns. He supposed this display of nonchalance was deliberate; in any event, he found it highly unconvincing. Others stood quietly, lost in thought, sipping their coffee, ignoring the food. A few laughed a little too loudly or too long - among them John Scott; but when the secretary turned his flushed face towards the steward as he held out his glass for more wine, William saw the desperate pleading in his eyes. The chaplain, Dr Alexander Scott — no relation to the secretary — was nowhere to be seen. William assumed he was touring the decks, suddenly popular. Yet when his lordship appeared from the great cabin he looked entirely calm and — there was no other word for it — happy. He smiled warmly, taking a cup of sweet, milky tea.

By eleven o'clock the enemy ships loomed like a vast dark forest, casting a menacing shadow towards the British. Spellbound, William stared across at them. He could see hundreds of brightly coloured figures, men like himself, moving on the towering decks. Their ports, he saw, were open and the guns run out. It would be soon now. Calmly he collected the plates, cups and glasses scattered around the staterooms. He rinsed them in his small pantry and stowed them neatly away, taking care to count them carefully first, as he always did. Remembering the fate of the chickens, he sadly threw the scraps overboard.

The last minutes before he went below passed like a dream. He heard music, shouts, the urgent beating of the drums. He shoved bread and cheese into the hands of the officers as they hurried past him to their posts. Turning towards the ladder to leave the deck for the last time, William saw his lordship, watching a signal go up. Beside him was John Scott, staring at the enemy, his face impassive but ashen with fear. The secretary's hands were clasped tightly behind his back, his papers beneath his arm. Even deep within the ship, as he pushed down through the packed decks, William heard the cheers that greeted that signal.

All the men were stripped to the waist, their hard bodies shiny with sweat. As he passed them, William smiled and wished the men well, forgetting that their ears were plugged against the roar of the guns. With the ports up, the decks were lighter and fresher than usual. William thought they looked as lovely as he had ever seen them; but the orlop was the same as usual, as if all the foulness of the decks above had sunk into it. Only a few dimly flickering lanterns broke the darkness, though the midshipmen's table was lit up like a waiting stage. Stoves were warming the surgeon's tools and his sickly-smelling oils, making the deck, which was always uncomfortably close, hotter than hell. William felt the sand through the soft leather of his shoes. The powder boys were clustered excitedly by the dampened curtain of themagazine. William's heart lurched at the sight of their pale, fragile bodies.

Beatty greeted William, shaking him solemnly by the hand. The chaplain, his work done, was talking with Burke the purser. Bunce, the carpenter, kept a respectful distance, waiting patiently with his crew. Dry-mouthed, William took off his coat, brushed it with his hand and placed it tidily on the hook by his berth, before rolling his sleeves up neatly. Then he, too, waited. Time stood still in that loathsome hole, the men all looking silently at one another, too tense for words.

It was hard to tell when it began. Gradually the sound of distant thunder filtered down to them, steadily growing stronger. Then the ship shuddered as if stopped dead in the water — and again, more sharply. Bunce and his men disappeared.

The first casualty to arrive walked calmly down. A splinter the size of a candlestick was sticking out of his arm. Beatty quickly inspected the wound before pulling the splinter free in one abrupt, skin-tearing movement. A loblolly rushed forward to dress the bloody hole and bind the flapping skin. The muffled rumbling of the guns was now constant and the ship was lurching violently. Deep in the lower decks, the grapeshot sounded like pebbles on a window. The orlop steadily filled with casualties, many carried there by mates or marines. Most were gravely hurt, their bodies torn open by round shot or ripped by flying splinters. William bustled about, helping where he could, holding beakers of water to bloodied lips, fetching bandages or simply clutching a man's hand as he died in wordless agony.

Then his life seemed to stop. First the feeling of being lifted as the air was sucked from his lungs; then, as quickly, being bent double by an enormous invisible weight. His ears roared, his body shook and the world around him plunged into darkness. Gasping and shaking, William looked up. The lanterns flickered back to life. The loblollys started moving again, more urgently. Victory, William realized with a terrible jolt, was fighting back. Only now had the battle truly begun.
In the carnage that followed William's head spun, his body clamped tight by the horror. The deck filled with hot, acrid, sulphurous smoke, so thick he could hardly see his own hand. His mouth burned and his eyes stung. Rancid, bloodied water seeped from the beams above his head. Choking, he lurched about the deck, slipping in blood and slivers of flesh, stumbling over dying men. Once his feet were caught up in the wet embrace of a man's guts tumbling from a torn belly. Occasionally, when the smoke was sucked out by the guns above, William glimpsed the gaping mouths and the staring eyes of the men around him, thankful that the pounding on the timber drowned their groans. At the heart of this dreadful pandemonium he saw Beatty bending over the midshipmen's table, his bloodied elbow frantically rising and falling as he sawed like a crazed automaton.

Amid all the confusion William was knocked to one side by a familiar figure in a black coat, his arms flailing wildly. It was the chaplain. His eyes were wide and white and staring madly about him. One hand was clamped over his mouth; vomit oozed between the long, elegant fingers. Then this demented creature was gone, swallowed up again by the murk. Blindly, William pursued him, almost careering into him at the foot of the ladder to the deck above. Here the chaplain had abruptly stopped as two seamen struggled awkwardly down the slippery steps with another wounded man. William recognized his lordship.

He was conscious and seemed more dazed and bewildered than hurt, yet his heavily bloodstained uniform indicated a terrible wound. He gazed up curiously at William. Seeing the men struggling to carry their one-armed burden over the gruesome obstacle course of the deck, William and the chaplain helped them find a way through. Alerted by the shouts of the men, Burke and Beatty, his apron smeared in blood, rushed forward. A place on the deck was cleared where a man had just died. William helped to strip away the bloodied coat, waistcoat, shirt and stockings. The breeches were briskly cut off. A green silk purse found looped over the waistband was passed to the chaplain, together with the gold medal hanging on a blue ribbon around his lordship's neck. The chaplain stuffed them both into his coat. A miniature of Lady Hamilton was found beneath the wet, red-splashed cotton shirt.

To William's surprise the thin, naked body looked unmarked. Only the ugly stump of his lordship's missing arm seemed suddenly, obscenely, shocking as it twitched uncontrollably. But Beatty soon found the small hole, no bigger than a guinea, in his lordship's left shoulder. It bled a little as Beatty inserted first his probe and then his fingers to search for the ball. At this his lordship became agitated and upset, as if shaken from a stupor. William noticed specks of blood on his lips. A glance at Beatty told him Nelson was dying. Nothing could be done.

The wound was washed and dressed. His lordship's nakedness was covered by a sheet of dirty sailcloth and the limp body propped against one of the great damp timbers in the ship's side, close to the capstan. William went for lemonade to quench the dying man's thirst. After his initial desperation Nelson became quieter, apparently resigned to his fate.

The chaplain, kneeling to the right of his lordship, began gently to rub his chest, which seemed to ease his suffering a little. From time to time the two men spoke, the chaplain leaning so close that their faces almost touched.

Continues...


Excerpted from Nelson's Purse by Martyn Downer Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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