"The sharp tang of powder and tar and salty sea along with the boom of the cannon and shouts of men in battle." —The Dallas Morning News
With his Royal Navy commission in hand, Richard Delancey is posted to Gibralter to command the sloop Merlin for convoy protection in the Mediterranean.
"The sharp tang of powder and tar and salty sea along with the boom of the cannon and shouts of men in battle." —The Dallas Morning News
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Touch and Go
By C. Northcote Parkinson
McBooks Press, Inc.Copyright © 1977 C. Northcote Parkinson
All rights reserved.
"AND A DAMNED good riddance!" exclaimed Rear-Admiral Fothergill. He was tall, grey, elderly and spectacled, a man now chained to his desk who would never go to sea again. He peered short-sightedly at Hoskins, his flag-lieutenant, who was red-faced, portly and short of breath. He frowned now, his blue eyes protuberant and plainly puzzled.
"I mean, Simpson quitting the Merlin. I could never stand the fellow. Always asking for shore leave, always sick, the sloop always under repair."
"His marriage was rather recent, sir."
"Was that the chief trouble? I supposed that he had made some prize-money and wanted to spend it."
"That too, sir. His successor is unmarried, I believe."
Hoskins checked the fact, glancing at one document among the sheaf he carried. Yes, he had been right. Was he becoming fussy and old-maidish, he wondered, thinking of flag-lieutenants he had known over the years.
"Thank God for that. Is he here in Gibraltar?"
"Yes, sir. He landed yesterday evening from the Birkenhead storeship. Captain Delancey is waiting now in the outer office."
"Delancey? Never heard of him. Hand me the List."
"He is not listed, sir."
"His first command, eh? He's damned lucky, in that case, to be given the Merlin; and lucky, for that matter, to serve in the Mediterranean. Send him in, Mr Fulmer, and let's hope that he is an improvement on Simpson."
The flag-officer, Gibraltar, had his office on the first floor of an old house overlooking the sunlit harbour. Only the marine sentry at the entrance distinguished this flat-roofed building from others in the same street. The place was plainly furnished, almost bleak, the whitewashed walls relieved only by the blue and gold of the naval uniforms. There was a quiet bustle of activity with the scratching of quill pens as letters were copied in triplicate, each clerk's copperplate handwriting as characterless as if each document had been printed. The clerks stood at tall desks with candles fitted for use after dark, the scratch of their quills making a background noise like the sound of insects in a tropical garden.
A minute later the Rear-Admiral had the newcomer in his presence; a weatherbeaten officer of middling height, something under forty years of age, with dark hair and deep blue eyes, a self-possessed man who was giving nothing away. He was sturdily built with a strong face, deeply lined for his age, his expression that of a man who had known adversity and disappointment. His uniform was spotless, kept for just such an occasion as this. Fothergill guessed that he would rarely look as smart as he did today. He had been and was still most probably, a poor man; no aristocrat, despite his name, and no ornament to the social scene. His letter of appointment and an accompanying letter of recommendation had been handed beforehand to the flag-lieutenant and now lay, opened, on his desk. After making his bow, Delancey stood at attention, his cocked hat under his left arm.
"Welcome to the Mediterranean, Captain. You will have heard, no doubt, that the Merlin is taking the British Consul back to Tangier. She should be here again in a few days. Please be seated while I read the letters you have brought with you."
A few minutes passed in silence and Delancey looked about him. The naval headquarters building was old but largely rebuilt. Delancey guessed that it must have been damaged during the previous war, the new plaster contrasting with the old. A cupboard behind the Admiral's chair contained leatherbound folio letter books, marked "In" on one shelf and "Out" on the shelf below. There was a ceremonial sword hung from a nail and the door was held open by a cannon-ball. There were several engravings on display, one a coloured etching of Admiral Rooke and two of them scenes of the great siege, both very stiff and formal. Neither artist nor engraver had been in battle, Delancey concluded, and neither could portray the action. As an amateur artist he wondered whether he himself could have done any better. He might have put more life into it — and more death for that matter — but how could any painting or print suggest the noise or the smell of powder? There had been no comparable bombardment since 1783. The great siege had ended with the conclusion of the war itself and it was now 1799, over six years since this new war had begun. As a youngster, seventeen years ago, he had felt that he was making history here, small as his contribution had been. And Gibraltar had of course been the setting for drama with its stage and backcloth, its galleries and pit. To make the most of a battle one needed an audience! He smiled faintly at this idea, turning his head away from the engravings. He saw then that the Admiral was no longer looking at the letter. His eyes were now on Delancey with perhaps a hint of amusement.
"Not a very accurate picture, I agree. Have you been here before?"
"Then you need no advice from me. I gather that you were last on the Irish station?"
"The Spitfire being your last ship?"
"Lost, but with no discredit to you. It seems to me that you are fortunate, promoted into a very fine sloop of eighteen guns, copied from the French corvette Amazon and built as recently as 1794. You should by rights have been given the oldest sloop in the service, laid down under George II, taken from the Dutch or built under contract in Bermuda. My own first command was a sloop launched in 1767, ready to sink if anyone so much as sneezed. Indeed, she was lost at sea under my successor, poor fellow. The Merlin is a very different sort of ship and you are lucky to have her. You are unmarried, I have been told. Is that true?"
"I'm glad to hear it. Married officers are always in port with mysterious defects and broken spars. A bachelor myself, my preference is for more active officers, especially in trade protection. Tell me, however, about the situation in Ireland. There was a French landing, I recall, on the west coast. How did the story end?"
"Well, sir, General Humbert landed at Killala with hardly more than a thousand men. He was to have been reinforced but Bompart's squadron, with troops embarked, was intercepted by Sir John Borlase Warren. Humbert took Castlebar and drove off the Kilkenny Militia but then came face to face with Lord Cornwallis. He had no choice after that and surrendered at Ballinamuck —"
"He surrendered where?"
"At Ballinamuck, sir. Irish place names are often rather uncouth. Had all the French troops, four thousand of them, landed at the same place and at the same time, the Irish might have joined them. There will be no rising now, though. Lord Cornwallis has thirty thousand men and the coasts are well patrolled by our cruisers. We should have no more trouble in that quarter."
"So General Humbert achieved nothing, eh?"
"I wouldn't say that, sir. He broke up the Bishop of Killala's diocesan conference."
"Did he, though? I should like to hear your story. Perhaps you would care to dine with me today?"
"With pleasure, sir."
After Delancey had gone the flag-lieutenant produced for the Rear-Admiral a copy of a recent Gazette, brought by the Birken-head along with the newspapers and the mail.
The Rear-Admiral read the gazette letter slowly and with gaining interest. Written by Captain Ashley and dated September 14th 1798, it described how the Hercule came into Killala Bay after Humbert had landed and after Savary's squadron had gone and went on to describe an operation which resulted in the total destruction of the Hercule and the Spitfire and ended with Ashley's words of highest commendation, recommending Delancey for promotion.
"You have read this?" the Rear-Admiral asked.
"Yes, sir," replied the flag-lieutenant.
"Don't you find it almost incredible?"
"I think there is much to be read between the lines."
"So there is, by God. But I know Ashley and would believe him. So did their Lordships. My conclusion must be that Delancey is an outstanding officer."
"No doubt of it, sir."
"Well, we must make him tell us the whole story."
No attempt was made to extract the story until the Rear-Admiral's guests had reached their dessert, nor was Delancey very forthcoming even then. It was a small party, held at the Admiral's house, the other guests being Captain Price of the frigate Cynthia who was going home on promotion to command a ship of the line, a Colonel of Artillery, a Major of the Royal Marines, two gentlemen from the Dockyard and a doctor. Sitting at the head of his mahogany table, with a portrait of George II behind him, the Rear-Admiral did the honours with practised ease. The usual toasts were drunk, the last to the new captain of the Merlin. This was the cue for Delancey to hold forth but he did so very briefly.
"But look, Delancey, the story outlined in Captain Ashley's letter to the Commander-in-Chief is not easily understood. It seems that you attacked a French seventy-four almost single-handed, blowing her rudder off before anyone could say 'Mon dieu!' If it is as easy as that, why don't we all do it?"
The question, posed by Captain Price, was fair enough, but Delancey seemed to hesitate over his answer.
"I was very fortunate," he admitted finally, "in finding the perfect target for a fireship attack. The chances against it are overwhelmingly adverse and the chance of a fireship being there when wanted is surely remote. But if you ask how the trick was done I can say no more than this: study how the stage conjuror deceives his audience! His secret is a simple one. At each moment he does something, he ensures that the audience is looking at something else. Should you still think me clever, sir, I must remind you of two important facts. First, I owed my life to a couple of seamen who chose to disobey my orders. Second, I had to sacrifice the wounded from my own ship, blown up in the Hercule."
There was a minute's silence after this, broken by the Rear-Admiral who said:
"And that is the worst thing of all, paying in lives for what has to be done.... And now I want to hear about the Bishop of Killala!"
The dinner party passed off pleasantly and Delancey learnt, informally, what work awaited him. The Rear-Admiral took him aside afterwards and made his role sufficiently clear. The Merlin would be employed in convoy protection and would operate between Gibraltar and the Levant. There was a French army cooped up in Egypt since the Battle of the Nile but this would be none of his concern. His task would be to protect trade and deal with enemy cruisers, especially in the western half of the Mediterranean. French corvettes and privateers were numerous and enterprising and British merchantmen had to proceed in convoy under naval escort.
It would be his fate, he gathered, to plod endlessly back and forth between Gibraltar, Port Mahon, Malta, Palermo and Cyprus, with little chance of gaining distinction and still less of making prize-money. He would wear out his signal flags in urging merchantmen to make more sail and expend his powder in warning them to keep in formation. He would also have to take the blame when they ignored him and were captured. He was fortunate in his ship, as the Rear-Admiral repeated, but he would gain no credit, it seemed, and make no prize-money. Nor could he complain for he had much to learn, as he realised, and this was almost his first command.
Two days later Delancey stood on the King's Bastion and watched the Merlin come into the anchorage. With him were David Stock, volunteer (first class), Luke Tanner, coxswain, and John Teesdale, captain's steward; the men he had been entitled to bring with him from his last ship.
Stock, the shock-headed and snub-nosed son of the Bishop of Killala, was tongue-tied and shy, an eager but ignorant boy. Tanner was burly, taciturn, devoted to his captain and utterly reliable. Teesdale was a dark, thin-faced man, intelligent, sensitive and inclined to talk out of turn. He could always sense the trend of opinion on the lower deck. As steward he was excellent, a good cook and valet and yet known to be fearless in action.
Behind Delancey the Rock of Gibraltar reared up, yellowish-grey in the sunlight, its lower slopes hidden by white buildings. To left and right, facing the sea, were the fortifications, massively built and bristling with artillery. In front of him, beyond the bay, was the coast of Spain and far to his left, the coast of Africa. In the middle distance, ending her passage from Tangier, was the sloop Merlin with all her sails set before a stiff breeze from the Atlantic. She was a lovely ship, no doubt of that, and Delancey, watching her lean to leeward, noting the foam around her bows, found there were tears in his eyes. It was an odd weakness and one of which he was ashamed but he was applying his handkerchief to the lens of his telescope and was able to wipe his eyes while nobody was looking. His own ship, his to make or ruin, no mere fireship but a proper sloop of war. ... He remembered that his duties included the education of young David Stock. Handing his telescope to the boy, he told him how to adjust it and then went on to instruct him:
"That is our ship, Mr Stock, the Merlin, a sloop of war. She has three masts, as you can see, and so is ship-rigged, just like a frigate. Had she only two masts she would be a brig but might still be rated as a sloop, smaller than a frigate but bigger than a cutter, which has only the one mast. Now can you tell me how she compares in size with a frigate?"
"She is smaller, sir, with eighteen guns to a frigate's thirty-two or thirty-six."
"That is almost right. She rates as an 18-gun sloop but actually mounts twenty-four, sixteen 6-pounders on her main deck, six 12-pounder carronades on the quarterdeck and two more on the forecastle. She was built at Frindsbury, measures 425 tons and is just over 108 feet long on the gun deck. What we call a sloop, by the way, the French call a corvette. And how many men should there be on board her?"
"A hundred, sir?"
"A hundred and twenty-one in theory and much the same, I believe, in fact. And for what work is she designed?"
"Fighting French corvettes, sir, and capturing enemy merchantmen."
"If we are lucky, Mr Stock! More of our effort will go into protecting our own merchantmen, you'll find."
Delancey watched from the King's Bastion until the Merlin dropped anchor and then, an hour later, went aboard, where he was greeted by the first lieutenant, Mr Waring, who, he knew, had once been master of a collier out of Sunderland. At a bellow from Waring the ship's company stood to attention and doffed hats as Delancey read his commission. Then they were dismissed and Delancey had time to meet the other officers: Will Langford, master's mate; Sam Bailey, the boatswain; Tom Helli-well, the gunner and Nathaniel Corbin, the carpenter.
There were two midshipmen, the senior being the Hon. Stephen Northmore, while the junior, Edward Topley, was generally regarded as more or less useless. Delancey was puzzled at first to find the son of a lord in a sloop rather than in a smart frigate of the larger (38-gun) class, with another aristocrat as captain. The boy, who could have been no more than eighteen, seemed bright, intelligent and pleasant, his personality as well as his birth clearly foreshadowed a quick promotion. It seemed, however, that the lad's father, Lord Bleasdale, was impoverished and apparently in disgrace, cashiered from his regiment and expelled from Brooks's following an incident at the card table. As merely the fourth son, young Northmore would inherit nothing but the breath of scandal, so that the Merlin offered him as good a berth, perhaps, as he could expect; one owed, apparently, to the fact that Delancey's predecessor was distantly related to the boy's mother.
The Merlin's establishment provided for two lieutenants and the other one, filling a vacancy, reported for duty the following afternoon. He was a quiet young man called Nicholas Mather, slight and dark and had first gone to sea from Whitehaven. He was of Cumberland stock, his father being employed in the management of Lord Lowther's estates. He was unmarried but a good brother to several sisters with whom he corresponded. He confessed to being a keen chess-player, a reader of poetry and a diarist. Within the next few days Delancey came to the conclusion that Mather was a very fine seaman and navigator, a perfectionist in his calling and a man to be relied upon in any weather.
Excerpted from Touch and Go by C. Northcote Parkinson. Copyright © 1977 C. Northcote Parkinson. Excerpted by permission of McBooks Press, Inc..
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Meet the Author
Cyril Northcote Parkinson pursued a distinguished academic career on both sides of the Atlantic and first became famous for "Parkinson's Law"work expands to fill the time allotted to it. Parkinson wrote many books on British politics and economics. His first fictional effort, a "biography" of Horatio Hornblower, met with considerable acclaim and led to the Delancey series. C. Northcote Parkinson died in 1993.
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