Dewey Lambdin - The King`s Commission
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"Indeed, sir?" he asked with as much false humility as he could muster at short notice.
"I shall say some serious prayers for anyone foolish enough to cross your hawse should you ever hoist your broad pendant, Lewrie," Lieutenant Railsford went on. "You think on a grand scale."
"For such a lowly, sir," Alan stuck in, the humility now in full ooze. When called upon, and if given warning enough to be on his best behavior, he knew he could toady and suck up with the best.
"That won't last, not if you watch your helm," Railsford told him with a grin. "Are you considering continuing your naval career?"
"Well, sir, it may not be up to me." Alan sighed. "If we beat de Grasse bad enough today, the war may be over soon. There was talk about a Peace Commission to parley with the Rebels, some guff about a meeting with all the belligerents to call it off soon. And what use is one more lowly midshipman out of thousands, when nine-tenths of the Navy would be laid up in-ordinary?"
There, I said that right well. Not my bloody fault if they dump me, is it? he thought. Why just blurt out I'd rather be whoring around Seven Dials than put up with another day of this misery and deprivation? Come to think on it, either one's just as dangerous.
"What's left, Mister Lewrie?" Railsford asked with a wry expression. "Trade? Not exactly the ton for a young man raised as a gentleman like yourself. Clerking for someone? You're too honest for Parliament and too much a rogue for holy orders. Stick with what you do best, and believe it or not, young sir, what you do best is the Navy."
"Well, thankee kindly, Mister Railsford, sir," Alan replied, glad to be complimented, and blushing a bit, genuinely this time.
"Enough praise for the devil today." Railsford sobered. "Else I shall expect your head to swell and burst."
"Aye aye, sir."
"Deck thar," came a leather-lunged shout from the lookout aloft. "They'm be comin' h'agin!"
"Now we shall see if de Grasse has discovered something new to try on us," Railsford snapped, turning back to the rail. "And I hope he does not commune with the same creative muse as you, Mister Lewrie."
Once more, after reeling off to the sou'west in a long curve, the French came back, their alignment and spacing in line-ahead perfect as they could make it.
"Headed directly for us," Treghues commented nearby as everyone crowded the larboard bulwarks of the quarterdeck. "Their turn-away took them down to leeward and beating back to try the line again did not work. They shall assay their luck against the ships en potence this time."
"What if they could get a slant of wind around the rear of this shorter line, sir?" Railsford asked. "The Trades are still out of the sou'east. Three points more would flank our dispositions."
"Mister Railsford, I would much admire if you do lay Desperate as close to the wind as you may and bring her to on the opposite tack," Treghues said, standing slim, elegant and foursquare with his ornate personal telescope to his eye.
"A 6th Rate to impede the path of a 2nd or 3rd Rate, sir?" Railsford asked, aghast that anyone could even countenance such an idea.
"Not to match broadsides, no," Treghues said, laughing easily, still intent on the sight of the enemy fleet. "But we should be able to deflect them. They cannot sail closer to the wind to avoid us or they'd be in irons and get shot to ribbons by the ships en potence. To bear away to avoid us would deny them precious minutes. It is an acceptable risk."
"Aye aye, sir," Railsford nodded in the hush that had fallen on the quarterdeck. A captain's decisions could not be argued, and any unwillingness expressed volubly enough to try and counter a captain's tactics could be construed as direct violations of several of the merciless Articles of War; cowardice in not being courageous enough to fight; insubordination; not doing everything in one's power to ready a ship for a fight. They were all court-martial offenses and usually resulted in the offender being strung up from a yard-arm by the neck.
I knew I should have gotten off when I had the chance, Alan thought shakily. I could be languishing in a Rebel prison right now, training rats close-order drill or something, on parole at the easiest. Maybe it would have been better to have been captured with the Army at Yorktown than to put up with this tripe-skulled clown!
"Bosun, ready to wear ship!" Railsford bellowed. "Quartermaster, we shall put the helm up and bring her to on the starboard tack."
By the time they had finished their evolution, and Desperate rode cocked up into the wind once more, the French fleet was sliding up on them with the wind on their quarter. Pluton was no longer the van ship, having been pounded half to matchwood in the first attempt, and a new vessel presented herself as a target.
Barfleur, the ninety-gunned 2nd Rate, opened fire first at the apex of the line, swinging about on her spring-lines to get off several hot broadsides at the same target, and the other ships en potence joined in as the French came within range. Clouds of smoke soared into the tropic skies, and artillery belched and thundered, spitting long red tongues of flame and sparks from burning wads into the smoke clouds. The view was blotted out once more; it might have been a gunnery exercise, as far as the men in Desperate could see. Even the masts of the French vessels disappeared, and the sun was eclipsed into dusk.
"There, sir!" Railsford gasped, pointing out the shape emerging to the west of the worst powder smoke. A French 3rd Rate broke free from the pall, and everyone breathed out in relief to note she was not pointing her jib-boom at them any longer, but was hauling her wind to leeward to break away west, her best attempt rejected.
"Hmmph," Treghues snorted contemptuously. "Is that the best de Grasse can do, then? Not much heart put into this sally, was there?"
"Signal, sir!" One of the new thirteen-year-old midshipmen piped from aft in a reedy voice. "Our number! From the flag! 'Well done,' sir!"
"Ah," Treghues preened. "Is it?" With little risk to themselves, they had finally done something to expunge part of that silent, faceless and therefore uncounterable cloud of disapproval. If Hood could take a moment to be magnanimous, perhaps even their squadron commander, Comdr. Sir George Sinclair could forgive them for losing him his nephew, one of their midshipmen who had not escaped with her that stormy night in the Chesapeake. It was all Treghues could do to not begin leaping about the deck and breaking into a horn-pipe of glee at that most welcome signal.
"If that's all the excitement for the day, gentlemen, we may haul our wind and come about on the larboard tack once more. Course due west. Make easy sail."
"Aye aye, sir," Lieutenant Railsford agreed.
"We made 'em look pretty stupid, hey?" Mr. Monk chortled. "This de Grasse ain't nothin' like the ogre we made him out ta be."
"I want you all to witness that we have done something glorious in the last two days," Treghues said, handing his sword to his servant Judkin before going below for a late dinner. "We bedazzled them out of their anchorage, and just shot the heart right out of them. Give us another week of steady breezes out of the sou'east and their troops ashore will be running low on rations. There's no foraging here on an island as small as St. Kitts. There may be six thousand men in their army. A loss so large would be as disastrous to them as Saratoga or Yorktown was to us. Pray God, all of you, that this may come to pass, and our Merciful Savior shall vouchsafe English arms with a victory so grand we shall speak of it as Henry V did of St. Crispin's Day!"
The hands cheered to his ringing speech, but since Treghues' patriotic fervor did not extend to "splicing the mainbrace" and trotting out a celebratory tot of rum, and he did not mention Agincourt by name, most of the unlettered could only scratch their heads and wonder what the fuss was about, except that Sam Hood had laid into the Frogs and given them a walloping.
But barely had the ship been put about, the hands stood down from Quarters and the galley fires been lit than the lookouts summoned Treghues back to the deck.
"Where away?" he asked.
"There, sir." Railsford pointed with his telescope held like a small-sword in his hand. "A despatch boat of some kind, fore'n'aft rigged, coming on close to the wind. And there's a frigate out to leeward to support her. Mayhap a message from de Grasse to his troops ashore, sir?"
"Aye, today would take some explaining," Treghues sniffed. "Get sail on her, Mister Railsford. We shall drive her back out to sea, or take her and read her despatches ourselves."
"Dinner, sir?" Railsford prompted.
"My dear Railsford, your concern with victuals is commendable." Treghues laughed. "Biscuit and cheese, and serve out small-beer. We may be beating to Quarters within the hour. Tell the cooks to put out their fires."
Among the many things Alan Lewrie hated about the Navy was the need for cold dinners. The biscuit was thick and unleavened, hard as a deck plank, and could only be eaten after being soaked in beverage; that is, as soon as one had rapped it on the mess table enough to startle the weevils out of it. The cheese purchased by the Navy was Suffolk, hard and crumbly and the very devil to choke down. There had been no time to get Freeling to dig into their personal stores for a more chewable Cheddar picked up at Wilmington, and the sudden call to Quarters had brought them boiling back onto the upper decks, while the ship echoed with the sounds of expected combat. Doors and partitions slammed as they were struck down and carried to the hold so they would not form splinters that made most of the injuries in battle. Chests and personal gear went below as well. A towed boat was brought up alongside and the captain's furniture and the livestock were tossed into it, the sheep bleating and the hens in their crates squawking; a thin-shanked bullock was simply tossed over the side to sink or swim as God and the tropical sharks willed. Hundreds of horny bare feet slapped as men ran to their guns, the gangways, to the clew lines ready to reduce the main course and brail it up to the yard to reduce the risk of fire. Chain slings were rigged aloft to prevent spars from breaking loose and falling onto the packed mass of men who would be serving the guns. Boarding netting was slung over the decks and draped in unseamanly bights to protect against a surge of men over the rails should they lay close-aboard an enemy, and to form a screen against blocks and tackles (and bodies) falling from aloft.
"Two-masted schooner," Railsford said, studying the despatch boat with a telescope. "I believe we have the reach on her, sir. She'll not get past us, even as weatherly as she is."
"That frigate is closing as well, though." Treghues nodded, lost in thought. "I make her a twenty-eight. Do you concur?"
"Aye, sir," Railsford agreed, swinging his glass to eye the other vessel, which was coming on in the schooner's wake in her support, a little wider off the wind since she was a square-rigged ship and could not beat as close-hauled as a fore-and-aft rigged ship. They were on a general course far north of the British fleet anchorage, almost on a bearing for the northern limb of Frigate Bay, where the French Army had landed two weeks before.