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The Gun Ketch
The Alan Lewrie Naval Adventures #5
By Dewey Lambdin
McBooks Press, Inc.Copyright © 1993 Dewey Lambdin
All rights reserved.
It was springtime in England! Springtime in Surrey, and the High Road south from Guildford to Anglesgreen was aflutter with the stirrings of butterflies. Young birds flitted and swooped, or sat and chirped at their good fortune to be young, alive, and English. Bees buzzed, and if one listened hard enough, one could hear green buds and tender shoots sigh with delight in the somewhat warm wind.
Two young men rode along the verge of the roadway to avoid the muddy spatters and deep ruts carved by winter traffic, and the creaking wagons and wains of the local farmers, the occasional flock of sheep being moved from one grazing to another.
One young fellow was a countryman, towheaded and sinewy on a middling hired mare, leading a pack horse upon which were strapped a few traveling bags of cylindrical leather, or pouchlike carpet material. He was dressed in a sailor's slop-trousers, shirt and neckerchief, with a low-crowned, flat-brimmed hat of black- tarred straw on the back of his head, and he gazed with a rustic's fondness on the verdant green countryside, recognizing merit and worth in well-tended flocks and fields, of trimmed hedgerows and woods.
The other was revealed a gentleman by his better horse, by the fineness of his buff-colored breeches and waistcoat, the newness of his plum-colored coat and dark beaver cocked hat, and the sheen of his top boots. This young gentleman snared the attention of passing travelers, and the interest of the farm-girls, whose sap was stirring after a long, miserable winter. There he found merit and worth!
He was three inches shy of six feet tall, trim and lean. Hair of middle, almost light brown, crowned his head, and fell in a short queue at the back of his collar, bound with a bow of black satin, and the hair was not drawn back severely, but allowed to curl slightly and naturally at his temples, over his ears, like the bust of a Roman or Greek warrior. The face was tanned much darker than most fashionable young gentlemen would care to display, providing a background for eyes that would occasionally crinkle in delightful greetings to young farm-girls, eyes that were sometimes gray, sometimes blue. And upon one cheek, there was a slight white pucker of a scar, which gave him the dashing, rakehell air of past, and present, danger. Soldier, or sailor, most judged him. A young man who held the King's Commission from his clothing, and the way he bore himself, from his fine manners when he lifted his military-cut hat in greeting, from the effortless way he rode as if born to a house of means, with stables and the license of the hunt which did not come to the son of a crofter or tenant.
Lt. Alan Lewrie, Royal Navy, was feeling pleased as punch with himself, and with life in general, at that moment. The spirited roan gelding he rode was a sound mount, and there was nothing better to his way of thinking than to be in the saddle in the middle of a spring morning. Had his father not practically press-ganged him into the Sea Service, he might have considered a career (a short one until he inherited, he reminded himself) in a cavalry regiment. What else was there for a younger son that befitted one raised the way he had been? Trade? A clerking job? Certainly not the clergy, he shuddered!
Much as he had at first despised the life he had discovered in the Fleet (and still looked upon with a chary eye as one of continual deprivation and bleakness), he had in his luggage orders that would put him in command of a ship of war, would transport him a quarter of the way around the world to the Bahamas and the West Indies, for three years of steady pay, at five shillings per diem, to augment his prize money, his "French" guineas, and his Mindanao pirate's booty, all now safely ensconced in London at Coutts & Co., bankers and each drawing a tidy sum of its own per annum.
And the world, for once, was at peace. Ninety percent of the Fleet was laid up in-ordinary and there would be no round-shot round his ears for a change. He did, good as he felt, admittedly suffer a tiny twinge of feyness from past experience whenever life tasted so succulently sweet. But it was a very tiny twinge, and it passed.
He had been far to the west country, to Wheddon Cross in Devonshire to visit his grandmother Lewrie, now a Nuttbush, which stratagem by the old lady had saved the estate from his father's clutches, though to his cost. She had faded since his last visit in 1784, but was still among the living; though that, mercifully, could not be said of the dour old squint-a-pipes she'd wed to transfer coverture, and the inheritance, out of Sir Hugo's reach.
And now he was due at the Chiswick estate, there to languish in a lotus-eater's paradise of sleeping late, riding to hounds, and splendid country dinners and dances, until he was due to report to Portsmouth to take command of a vessel named Alacrity. And on that Chiswick estate would be the lovely and charming Caroline Chiswick, who by her evident fondness in her letters, was positively pawing the ground to see him once more.
"What could be more perfect, Cony!" Alan laughed out loud as he turned to look over his shoulder at his "man" Will Cony, who had shared his adventures (and his misadventures) since Yorktown.
"'Deed i'tis a fair mornin', sir!" Cony enthused back, beaming a farm lad's pleasure to be in such fair country on such a fine morning. "An' there's the squire's house, round the bend, sir. Not a league from the public house at Anglesgreen."
"We'll stop for a pint, how's that suit you, Cony?" Lewrie promised. "Then on to the Chiswicks."
"Pint'd suit me right down t'me toes, i't'would, sir," Will Cony agreed, kneeing his mare to match his master's quicker pace.
Anglesgreen was a quiet community, sited in a small, winding dell along the banks of a sluggish but clear-watered stream, with banks and bed flowing with rushes and grass. The village was surmounted to north and south, and at the far western end, with low and gently rolling hills, some forested, some asweep with velvety swaths of rippling, growing grain. And those hills from the summit of the nearest seemed to topple, to roll on forever like a delightful verdant sea — north toward Glandon Park and the Thames, south all the way to the Channel at Portsmouth.
There were three curving streets to Anglesgreen, two on the north bank, and one on the south bank, with two narrow stone bridges, one at either end of the village. There were shops on the High Street, Georgian-bricked fronts and bay windows for display, spreading to either side of a much older Tudor-timbered public house called the Ploughman. Behind the High Street, the homes were cottages with thatched roofs, while on the opposite bank the houses were newer, some Georgian or semi-Palladian, roofed with slate, and looked upon with some suspicion as being a bit too grand and uppity.
All three streets curved to match the bend in the stream. At the east end, by the oldest bridge, there was St. George's Church, a high and narrow stone pile dating to the Norman Conquest with a topsy-turvy cemetery nearby that sheltered headstones and monuments green with moss, some from the ancient Anglo-Saxon clan which had erected the now-fallen castle and bailey which brooded half a mile to the north of the first bridge, now lost in scrubby woods and brambles, that marked the edge of the local squire's lands. To the western end, by the second bridge, was a New Green, a parklike expanse of tall oaks that fronted another public house and inn, replete with stables and a budding row of new cottages around it — the upstart Red Swan Inn — it had only been there since Henry V's times, and in tiny Anglesgreen, one could ascertain a body's station in life by whether a person frequented the older, darker (and cheaper) old Ploughman, or rubbed elbows with the magistrate and squire's crowd at the Red Swan. Lewrie, knowing strangers were more welcome with the elite, headed for the Red Swan, and as they rode at a sedate walk up the High Street, villagers wagered, correctly, they'd not tie reins at the Ploughman.
Anglesgreen could be thoroughly boresome, Alan knew — he'd been there briefly once before in '84. But it was homey, a village so typically English with its stone buildings and fences, its hedgerows and garden plots, that anyone six months at sea would crave its peaceful boredom. The trees were tall, giving acres of shade. Ducks and swans swam the lazy stream in slow glides. Stocky fellows in homespun or a great house's castoffs fished from the bridges and banks, gamboled on the greens, strode about in boots and straw hats, or sat sipping their ales in front of the Ploughman, a solid and dependable yeomanry who paid their rents on time, worked their acres with diligence, both prayed and played with vigor, and formed the backbone of the nation.
There were smells of new thatch, of cooking and baking, of a load of wash being boiled, and the scorch of ironing and starch. Of new-brewed ale mellowing in barrels, and of cartloads of manure and animal fodder. Most especially, ale, Lewrie smiled to himself as he drew rein at last in front of the Red Swan.
There was a "daisy-kicker" there in a twinkling to take reins and lead the horses off for a drink and a rubdown, with the older ostler waiting hopefully by the stable doors to see if he might make money by putting them up for the night, or rent them a coach.
There were quite a few horses tied at the rails, splendid and shiny blooded mounts, all sound "hundred guinea" horses, with bright saddle leather and clean pads. A backgammon game was proceeding at a table without the welcoming double doors, in the shade of the trees, and a lively sound of merrymaking coming from inside.
Alan and Cony entered, handing their hats to a bobbing "Abigail" in homespun and a pure white apron and mobcap. The public room was crowded with gentlemen gathered around a large table, all standing and laughing. One of them Alan recognized, and went to his side.
"Governour Chiswick!" he called. "The very fellow I was looking for!"
"Good God, here already?" Governour said, spinning to take his hand and thump him on the back. "We didn't expect you until the end of the week at the earliest! By Christ, but you're looking fit an' full of cream! The Chinee and the Hindoos couldn't put you off your feed, hey?"
"And I see that married life agrees with your digestion," Alan joshed him, giving him a slight poke in the breadbasket. Governour Chiswick, the whip-lean and dour eldest Chiswick he had met at Yorktown was now becoming a stout, apple-cheeked fellow, a settled and extremely well-married junior squire. Quite a change from the officer of a North Carolina volunteer regiment, and deadly with a Ferguson rifle or sword. Or a pistol, Alan remembered; this was the bloodthirsty, blackhearted devil who'd gut-shot the informer that had gotten half his surviving company killed just before they'd escaped, so he could linger in agony for days. To look at him now, you'd never catch an inkling of that.
"It does, indeed," Governour grinned wryly. "Come here, Alan, and meet the lads. And Will Cony, still tailing along with this rogue of ours? Well, step forward and take a stoup of ale with us. Good to see you, Alan. And you, as well, Cony."
"Thankee, sir," Cony replied, as someone shoved a stone tankard into his paws. He stayed long enough for introductions, then faded off to the counter, apart from "the quality," to have a jaw with the publican, and his pretty serving wench.
"Alan, this is my father-in-law, and you couldn't wish a finer," Governour boasted, and the gray-haired man in question pretended to blush with mock embarrassment. "Sir Romney Embleton; the fellow who saved my bacon at Yorktown, Lieutenant Alan Lewrie."
"Your servant, sir," Alan replied. "So pleased to make your acquaintance."
"My brother-in-law, Harry Embleton ..." Governour babbled on.
Sir Romney Embleton, Baronet, was about Alan's height, though heavier, dressed rich and fine in dark brown velvet coat, gray breeches and a white, floral-figured satin waistcoat, with the prerequisite black and brown-topped riding boots on his thin shanks. Sir Romney favored an older man's short white tie-wig. He looked to have been in his youth a most handsome and well-setup fellow, with clear blue eyes and a fairly smooth complexion free of smallpox scars and such. The nose was a trifle beaky, and the upper lip long as a horse's.
The same could not be said for the son, the Hon. Harry Embleton, who, though he was dressed richly as his father the baronet in red coat, blue waistcoat and breeches, could not aspire to the easy style and dignity of the father. Harry had the same extremely long upper lip, the narrow horsy face of his father, and, to his misfortune, the same overhanging beak of a nose. But the eyes were set rather close together, and were pouched as though by dissipation or too many late hours. And where Sir Romney's hair might at one time have been blond, Harry's was almost black and lank, tied back in a severe style. And finally and most unfortunately, where the elegant Sir Romney Embleton was blessed with a square jaw, young Harry had a pronounced slope from weak chin to the point where his throat dived into his neck-stock. In profile, he resembled an otter.
"Now were you with the Army, or with the Navy, Lieutenant Lewrie?" Sir Romney inquired as Alan dipped his phiz into his ale.
"Navy, milord," Alan answered, wondering if he was teasing.
"Lock up the maids and yer daughters!" Harry Embleton guffawed. "Or yer footmen! The Navy's here!"
Damn the bastard, Alan winced as several of the rowdies had a laugh at his expense! I think I could dislike this piss-proud young fool, Alan stiffened and cut his eyes to Governour, who had winced a little himself.
"I can assure you, Mr. Embleton, your virginity is safe with me," Alan stated calmly as the laughter died away. "Damme, but this is a good ale! Haven't tasted its like in weeks."
"Just ashore, are you, Mister Lewrie?" Sir Romney asked quick as a wink to cover the nervous laughter that reerupted, this time at his son's expense. Out of the corner of his eye, Alan could see that Governour had gotten a glum expression, and that Harry Embleton was glaring daggers at him, his face gone paler.
"Since February, milord, but I was visiting in the west country with my grandmother. I don't believe Devon has the soil for grains and hops that Surrey has. Certainly not to make such a splendid ale as this," Alan stated. "Now the Chinese have good ale, surprisingly."
"You were with Burgess Chiswick in the Far East," Sir Romney nodded, dominating the conversation. "A trading expedition?"
"An attempt to increase British trade, milord," Alan said in reply. He could never discuss what occurred in the past two years until England was once more at war with France. The activities of English warships disguised as merchantmen, had they been known, would be a violation of the treaty terms ending the recent war. "To ... uhm ... open new markets and trading stations, in cooperation with the East India Company."
Trade was not a gentlemanly calling, though profit from an investment in trade was quite acceptable, as long as a proper gentleman did not soil his hands with the sordid details of buying and selling.
This facile explanation, breezed off with a languid wave of a hand, sounded semiofficial, requiring the presence of a naval officer, and Alan had gotten quite good at trotting it out since his return.
"Calcutta, Canton ..." Governour said with a wistful look. "I believe you saw both, did you not, Alan?"
"'Deed we did, Governour," Alan turned a thankful grin on his compatriot. "And a host of trading posts you wouldn't believe for horrid heat and rain, too. Took me a month to squeeze the last water out of my hats. But tell me, how does the Chiswick family fare? Is Caroline well?"
"Quite well," Governour almost snapped. "Father, though ... well, there was bad snow last winter, and his horse fell with him. Laid out for an hour or so before anyone missed him, and ... the surgeon had to take his leg where it had been broken by the weight of the horse."
"Governour, how truly awful, I had no word of it!"
Excerpted from The Gun Ketch by Dewey Lambdin. Copyright © 1993 Dewey Lambdin. Excerpted by permission of McBooks Press, Inc..
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