The year is 1796 and the soil of Piedmont and Tuscany runs with blood, another battle takes shape on the mysterious Adriatic Sea. Alan Lewrie and his 18-gun sloop, HMS Jester, part of a squadron of four British warships, sail into the thick of it. But with England's allies failing, Napoleon busy rearranging the world map, and their squadron stretched dangerously thin along the Croatian coast, the British squadron commander strikes a devil's bargain: enlisting the aid of Serbian pirates.
About the Author
Dewey Lambdin has been a director, writer, and producer in television and advertising. He is a member of the U.S. Naval Institute, the Cousteau Society, and the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, and is a Friend of the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, England. Besides the Alan Lewrie series, he is also the author of What Lies Buried: A Novel of Old Cape Fear. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee.
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The Alan Lewrie Naval Adventures #8
By Dewey Lambdin
McBooks Press, Inc.Copyright © 1999 Dewey Lambdin
All rights reserved.
Admiral Sir John Jervis was a stocky man, just turned a spry and still energetic sixty years of age. Still quite handsome, too, for he had been a lovely youth, and had sat to Frances Cotes for a remarkable portrait once in his teens. Duty, though, and awesome responsibilities, had hunched his shoulders like some Atlas doomed to carry the Earth on his rounded back. Keeping a British fleet in the Mediterranean, such was the task that wore him down now, countering the ever-growing strength of the French Navy. Suffering the foolish decisions — or total lack of decisions — of his predecessor, the hapless Admiral Hotham, who had dithered and dallied while the French grew stronger, frittering away priceless advantages in his nail-biting fogs, merely reacting to French move and countermove, or diluting his own strength in pointless patrols or flag-visits.
Now France was in the ascendant, and he was in the unen-viable position of being outnumbered at sea, should the French ever concentrate and come out. There were no allies left in the First Coalition possessed of anything even approaching a navy; the Neapolitans' feet had gone quite stone-cold after Toulon had fallen in '93, and sat on the sidelines. British troops were still committed to the colonial wars, dying by the regiments of tropical diseases on East and West Indies islands where Jervis himself had held the upper hand.
To guard the Gibraltar approaches, he had to send a part of his fleet west, yet French line-of-battle ships still slipped into the Mediterranean from Rochefort, L'Orient and Brest, on the Bay of Biscay, fresh from the refit yards, some fresh from the launch -ramps. Over twenty-three sail of the line were at Toulon, that he knew of. French grain convoys from North Africa and the piratical Barbary States had to be hunted down and intercepted. He had to hold a part of his fleet in San Fiorenzo Bay, near the northern tip of Corsica, Cape Corse, just in case the French sallied forth from Toulon.
The Barbary States, encouraged by general war, had to be kept under observation, before his supply ships and transports proved to be too great a temptation for their corsairs in their swift xebecs.
Then there were the Austrians — goddamn them.
They were the only ally left that had a huge army. Even that very moment, they were skirmishing along the Rhine for an invasion of France, and still had enough troops to threaten a second invasion in Savoy, then into the approaches of Toulon. With Toulon his again, he might breathe easier; that French fleet would be burned, properly this time, or scattered to fishing villages in penny-packets.
But the Austrians were not happy with His Majesty's Government, nor with the Royal Navy, at present. Late the previous year, General de Vins had lost his army — they'd run like terrorised kittens — at the very sight of French soldiers, losing him the use of Genoa and the Genoese Riviera as a base. And, of course, they'd blamed being run inland and eastward on lack of naval support.
Captain Horatio Nelson's small squadron, now much reduced by wear-and-tear, now blockaded harbours where they had funneled supplies and pay to the Austrians the previous year, plodding off -and-on that coast, which was now French-occupied, and hostile. A valuable duty, aye, Sir John mused most sourly; but not much use in supporting a new Austrian spring offensive.
Hands clasped in the small of his back, he stomped the stern -gallery of his flagship, the 1st Rate HMS Victory, taking a welcome few moments of fresh air from his stuffy great-cabins, away from the mounds of paperwork, away from the warnings and cautions from London, which charged him to coddle the Austrians no matter what, and keep them in the war, and to maintain sea -contact with them so the gold and silver could flow to purchase their allegiance.
He heaved a great round-shouldered sigh and scrubbed at his massy chin in thought, trying to conjure a way in which to remain concentrated for a sea-fight, which he was pretty sure he would win should it come. British Tars were unequaled, and his own ships, even at bad odds, he was certain, could still outsail, outmanoeuvre and outfight the poorly practiced French. He must remain strong, yet fulfill every area that demanded the presence of Royal Navy ships.
"Excuse me, Sir John," his harassed flag-captain interrupted, "but Captain Charlton has come aboard as you bid, and is without."
"Hah!" Sir John harrumphed, with very little evidence of pleasure. But then, "Old Jarvy" had never been very big on Pleasure. "Very good, sir, send him in."
Another of Hotham's. "Old Jarvy" frowned from behind his desk in his day-cabin as Captain Thomas Charlton entered. He'd never met this fellow, even in peacetime service when the Royal Navy was reduced to quarter-strength. Good enough record, he'd found, but nothing particularly distinguished since the American War. Good patrons, Charlton had, though; even if Hotham was his principal "sea-daddy," there were enough recommendations from others he trusted more who had vouched for him.
"Thomas Charlton, come aboard as directed, sir," the man piped up, with just more than a touch of cool wariness to his voice. "Old Jarvy" was one of the sternest disciplinarians in the Fleet, known for a volcanic temper when aroused. Known for using a hatchet when a penknife would suit others, too, when it came to dealing with those who'd irked him. Charlton reviewed his recent past; had he done something wrong?
"Captain Charlton, well met, sir. Take a seat. And I will have a glass with you," Sir John Jervis offered, almost sounding affable.
With a well-concealed sigh of relief, Captain Charlton sat, his gold-laced hat in his lap, happy that it wouldn't be his arse that was reamed out — not this time.
A few minutes of social prosing, enquiries about acquaintances, even a politic question as to his predecessor Admiral Hotham's newest posting; then Sir John put the situation before Charlton, liking what first impression he'd drawn of the man.
Not that he had that much choice; those senior post-captains he knew well enough to trust, some of whom he'd stood "sea-daddy" to, or those he'd learned he could trust with responsibility once he'd taken command, were already busy about his, and their King's, business. He counted himself fortunate that he'd found another he could trust; much like turning over a mossy rock and not finding the usual slug!
Charlton was nearly six feet tall, a little above middle height; a slim and wiry sort, most-like possessed of a spare appetite and a spartan constitution. Most captains in their late forties went all suety, to "tripes and trullibubs" from too many grand suppers and the arrival of modest wealth and good pay, at last.
A lean, intelligent face, well weathered by wind, sea and sun. He wore his own hair instead of a side-curl wig, which was wiry, going to grey the slightest bit, though like most well-to-do Englishmen who could boast membership in the Squirearchy, that class which led regiments, captained the King's ships, or sat in Parliament (as Jervis had) Charlton still owned a full head of it. A very regular, sturdy sort was Charlton; salt of the earth. Or salt of the sea. His brown eyes sparkled with clear-headed wit, and his brow hinted at a cleverness, an ability to extemporise, should duty call for it. Well, not too clever, Sir John hoped. Like young Nelson off Genoa at the moment, there were only so many and no more in every generation who had experience enough to temper their cleverness with caution. For better or worse, Charlton would just possibly do, Sir John decided.
"I expect Admiral Man's arrival weekly, d'ye see, sir," Sir John told him. "Eight more sail of the line, and several more frigates. Relying on the promise of his reinforcement by Our Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty, I may now make such dispositions which I've had planned for some time. Such as keeping a squadron far west, to keep an eye on the Straits of Gibraltar. And the Dons. I cannot imagine a least likely alliance — Levelling, Jacobin France, and the Spanish Bourbon Crown. 'Twas Bourbons the Frogs chopped when the Terror began, hmm? Their fleet at Cadiz, Cartagena, and Barcelona, d'ye see. Spanish banks honouring French notes ... signing a nonaggression treaty with 'em. Should they come in against us ... well!"
"Perhaps Spain's long-term hatred for us outweighs their hatred for the Revolution, Sir John?" Captain Charlton posed. "There's our possession of Spanish soil at Gibraltar."
"Aye," Sir John said with an appreciative smile — his first that was not merely polite — thinking that his choice for an onerous and fraught-with-danger mission would turn out to be a sensible captain, after all. Even if his voice was a little too nasal, and Oxonian "plumby" in local accent. He sounded more House of Lords than House of Commons, where he'd sat. Still, the Italians and the Austrians might expect a British officer, sole representative of his nation's navy, to sound more like the ambassadors they were used to. Or, being foreigners, might not notice the difference.
"Have you any Italian, sir?" Sir John pressed. "Or German?"
"A smattering of both, Sir John." Charlton frowned in puzzlement.
"Capital!" Jervis actually beamed. "Simply capital! As for the necessity, now sir ... with Genoa gone, and the Austrian army far inland, we cannot cooperate with them, nor communicate. There is the matter of Vado Bay, where ..."
"They ran like rabbits, Sir John?" Charlton dared interpose.
Jervis nodded. "Hence, no way to ship them the cash subsidies to fund their armies on the Rhine or in Italy. The Austrian Netherlands are lost, the Dutch and their navy are now French allies, and block the route down the Rhine, or overland through the Germanies. The only port left open to Austria is Trieste, on the Adriatic."
"I see, sir!" Charlton tensed, though filled with a well-hidden exuberance. This smacked of an independent command, of responsibility far from the everyday control of the flagship. Thirty years Charlton had served, in war or peace, from Gentleman Volunteer at age twelve, to Midshipman, then a commission, and years as a Lieutenant. Patrons had eased his climb up the ladder, had gotten him a brig o' war during the American Revolution, promotion to Commander, then at last a ship of his own and his captaincy. Where he'd languished since, even if he did have good patrons and was well connected. He'd not gotten a ship of the line when he'd been called back to the Colours in '93. He was just senior enough for a 5th Rate frigate, HMS Lionheart, one of the new 18-pounders of 36 heavy guns, plus chase-guns and carronades.
But what Sir John Jervis was offering him was a squadron, he speculated. Might it also include a promotion to commodore of the second class? Fly his own broad-pendant at long last, with a flag -captain under him to supervise the day-to-day functioning of his new ship? Perhaps exchange for a 3rd Rate 74, even an older 64, or one of the few ancient 50-gunned 4th Rates?
"You're to have a squadron, Captain Charlton," Sir John said, as if in answer to his every dream, that instant! "A thin 'un, given the paucity of bottoms we have at present, but a squadron nonetheless. It cannot come with a proper broad-pendant, I fear. That's the leap in rank reserved for Our Lords Commissioners to decide."
Of course, Charlton realised, deflating a little, though hiding his disappointment as well as he'd concealed his enthusiasm. An English gentleman was raised to be serene and stoic, no matter what! Admirals on foreign stations couldn't promote at will. But a good performance during a brief spell of detached duty could incline the Admiralty to reward him. If he made good, if he could safely steer a wary course 'tween diplomatic niceties, neutrals' rights and the zealous performance ...
"There's your Lionheart," Admiral Jervis was saying. "Then I may spare Pylades. She's new-come from Chatham, a 5th Rate, thirty -two guns. A 'twelve-pounder,' being a tad older, of course. Benjamin Rodgers is her captain. A bit 'fly,' but a fighter. About as active as a hungry terrier in the rat-pit, I'm told. Only two others, d'ye see, ship-sloops, I'm sorry to say. But their shallower draught is certain to prove handy in the Adriatic 'midst all those islands. I may spare Myrmidon. An eighteen-gun, below the Rates. Six-pounders."
"A most felicitous choice, Sir John; thankee," Charlton said with a broad grin.
"Aye, her captain's known to you," Jervis stated, very flatly.
An admiral departing a foreign station was allowed several few promotions without Admiralty approval; one Midshipman to Lieutenant, without having to face an Examining Board of post -captains; one Lieutenant to Commander, and one Commander to Post-Captain. When Hotham left, he'd anointed Lt. William Fillebrowne from his own flagship's wardroom (the surest route to quick advancement, that) to Commander, and put him into Myrmidon, to replace another favourite who'd gotten the Departure Blessing to Post-Captain into a 6th Rate Frigate whose own captain had gone sick.
Charlton and Fillebrowne, both protégés of the same patron, were surely known to each other already, Jervis thought. Perhaps were from that same mould that Hotham thought most valuable to the Fleet. He had no wish to curry favour with Hotham in this regard — damn his blood! — but they might work together the better for being "dipped" in the same ha'porth of tar. Charlton he thought he might be able to trust. Fillebrowne, well ...
Come to think on't, he mused as his cabin-steward poured them a top-up of claret, the one time he'd met Fillebrowne, he'd struck Jervis as a bit too suave, too cultured — too quick to smarm and try to "piss down his back." With the same Oxonian mumble as Hotham or Charlton. A very smooth customer, entirely. Tarry -handed, Jervis grudgingly allowed, but with cat-quick wits, and the amusedly observant air of the practiced rakehell, who went about with his tongue forever stuck in his cheek.
Jervis thought he could trust Charlton to handle this mission — and keep a wary weather eye on Fillebrowne, for Fillebrowne wasn't the sort Sir John wished to have round him.
"The last vessel I may spare is a tad more potent, sir," Sir John said with a smack of his lips after a sip of wine. "HMS Jester. Another ship-sloop of eighteen guns. But French eight-pounders, which is to say, English nines, in our measurement. Just came in to water from the Genoa blockade. Hate to deprive Captain Nelson, but, needs must. Commander Alan Lewrie."
"Ah," Charlton commented, frowning a bit. "Took her late in '93, didn't he, sir? Quite a feat, I heard tell. Being chased by a frigate and a brace of corvettes after Toulon? Took one for his own, dismasted the other and the rescue force took the frigate?"
"That he did, sir," Sir John agreed, with a matching frown.
"Spot of bother, though, something 'bout cannonading civilians in a Genoese port he raided?" Charlton squirmed diplomatically.
"Completely disproved, sir," Admiral Jervis countered, though he continued to frown. "A gasconading lie put out by French spies and agents provocateurs. The matter was looked into and he was found entirely blameless."
"Didn't he, uhmm ... oh, some months ago, sir." Charlton dared to quibble further. "Took a prize near Vado, then sailed her straight onto the beach and wrecked her, just so he could chase some Frenchman? Mean t'say, Sir John ... a perfectly good prize?"
"Rode inland and shot the fellow," Jervis related, nodding slowly in agreement. "Two-hundred-yard shot, with a Ferguson rifle. And spared us no end of bother from this Frog Navy captain. Chief of all their coastal convoys, raiders and escorts, so I've been informed. A rather nasty customer. But he stopped his business most perfectly."
Excerpted from Jester's Fortune by Dewey Lambdin. Copyright © 1999 Dewey Lambdin. Excerpted by permission of McBooks Press, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Might be the best of Lambdin's series yet - hard to put down!