Authors: Kate Noble
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Historical, #General
“How do I begin?” Sarah asked.
Phillippa’s eyes lit with anticipation. “We already have.”
As sure as a gun,
We shall all be undone,
If longer continue the peace;
A top we shan’t know
From a futtock below,
Nor a block from a bucket of grease.
—William Nugent Glascock,
The Lieutenant’s Lament
A little over a month later…
, what do we do now?” First Lieutenant Jackson Fletcher—called Jack by friends—asked, to no one in particular. But since he was standing on deck next to his second lieutenant Roger Whigby, he invariably was to receive an answer.
“We have to supervise the men, Mr. Fletcher. They still have a dozen duties on board before we can even hope to make berth,” Whigby said through bites of cold salted ham that he had stashed in his pocket after breakfast that morning. Whigby was the type of kind soul who, for some reason, was eating something every time he spoke. “Although why the captain insists the old girl’s brass fittings shine with the rising sun is beyond me.”
Jack tried to refrain from rolling his eyes—instead he kept his gaze on the horizon. Normally, all he would see was an expanse of water, dotted with gulls, depending on how far from shore they were and how seafaring the birds. But now, as they headed up the Thames, they were surrounded not by water, but by farmland, that progressively gave way to towns. In a few hours, the small towns would give way to the colonnades and domed buildings that made up London’s skyline.
“I expect it is a point of pride, Mr. Whigby.” Jackson replied, but kindly. “Captain Healy wants the ship to be at her very best when she’s seen by her judges.”
From the quarterdeck, seven bells sounded. Half an hour until the noon meal and the watch change. Although really, there was no slacking today, no gadabouts. Even those men not currently on duty were on deck, including Whigby. Pulling into the port of London was too exciting, even the long ride up the river had the men jubilant, waving to the specks of people on shore, shouting at those that they thought might be wearing skirts. Jack had been forced to reprimand three seamen for their rowdiness already, halving their grog rations for the day. And they were nowhere near the city. The men had grumbled and shrugged. In their minds, they had already disembarked. It’s not like they’d be dealing with the likes of him much longer in any case.
“Her executioners, you mean,” Whigby snorted, swallowing another bit of ham. “If the
is lucky, she’ll find herself in ordinary, or as a prison hulk—”
“She’s not big enough to be a prison hulk,” Jack countered dismissively.
“Right then,” Whigby grunted. “More likely, she’ll end broken up and sold for scrap.”
Jack shot his friend a look. “Do you really have so little faith in our girl?” He reached out and caressed the smooth, polished rail that ran the length of the HMS
’s starboard side. She was a Banterer-class sixth-rate post ship, meaning she was small but fast. She had twenty-two guns, but an extra eight 24-pounders and two howitzers had been added during wartime. She was nothing compared to first- and second-rate ships of the line that fired cannons at the enemy from three different deck levels…
But then again, there were not a great deal of Royal Navy ships firing at the enemy at all, anymore.
“Captain Healy will never let her go to ground … like all her sisters,” Jackson intoned to himself in a whisper. Almost a prayer, too low for Whigby to hear over the last of his chewing.
was the very last Banterer-class ship to be flying a British flag. A half-dozen others were ordered and built during the height of the Napoleonic Wars, but those
that survived combat were deemed too small or too battle scarred to go on, and were broken up after the conflict ended. One was taken as prize by the Americans in 1815, and according to the Royal Navy’s logs, now sailed under their banner and a different name. If she was still on the seas, she was likely somewhere off the coast of Africa, trying to regulate that ugly American trade.
had been spared her sister ships’ fates, Jack could only put up to timing, geography, and a lot of luck. Until now.
Jack had been on board the
since he was sixteen, a Royal Naval College cadet coming to serve as a midshipman. It was 1814 when he first stepped onto her deck, his eyes wide with wonder.
He’d been in love with this little ship since that moment. The
had been in Portsmouth to make some small repairs before going back out to sea, with intentions to join the blockade against the Americans in the North Atlantic. And he was assigned to it as his post.
It was a heady year. There had been battles, and prize money, and
. The exact thing he had been dreaming of for three years while learning to chart ship movements from a book. And for the two before that he had spent convincing his vicar father to let him join the Royal Navy.
But then … the battles, and the adventure, stopped.
“At least, we won’t let her go without a fight,” Jack concluded.
“True, Mr. Fletcher.” Whigby smiled. “But then again, it may be the only fight left for us.”
“Yes. I’ve sadly come to the same conclusion, Mr. Whigby.” Jackson finally said, turning his eyes from the horizon.
Whigby looked at him quizzically. “What conclusion?”
“That peace is the worst thing for a navy man.” He stroked the rail again. “And their ladies.”
For the past few years, the
had somehow escaped a dire, reducing fate, and rolled along with the waves once peace settled over the seas, its size making it useful for playing protective escort or scout for merchant vessels in the East Indies. In 1817, when Jack earned his lieutenancy, he knew he was lucky to do so. There were plenty of midshipman who
would be forced to endure at that level because there were simply too many officers and, since the wars ended, not enough ships.
While other larger, faster, and stronger vessels were being decommissioned, the
slipped through the cracks, due in no small part to Captain Healy’s established friendship with the Board of the Admiralty. Now, several years had passed since the war ended, years regulated by bells and boredom, years during which several of Captain Healy’s friends retired, and Jack had begun to question. Just how long could they slip past the eyes of the navy and remain at sea, free from the fate of so many of their friends?
Then, the answer came, as they ran up against Mother Nature around the Cape of Good Hope.
Where years before, cannonballs had missed the little ship due to its speed and size, now, in older age, it could not outrun a storm.
After that, they had no choice but to send word home of their plight, and for home to send for them to come back.
And so, now, they limped into London for assessment.
“Assessment.” What a terribly unkind word for such a beautiful old girl.
And Jack could only fear that the assessment would be unkind.
The storm had whipped their sails practically to shreds, but they were patched as best they could be. (Never say a navy man had no practical training. Every single one of them could sew like the wind.) But the boom of the foresail cracked—it was currently being held together by the grace of God and some very strong rope knots.
Luckily their trip up the coast of Africa had been uneventful and blessedly quick.
Jack knew, intellectually, that Whigby’s declaration of the old girl’s fate was probably correct. The navy didn’t require an excuse to decommission the
, but one look at her current condition, and they would most certainly have one.
But he had to have hope. He had to. As long as there was a chance…
was his home, after all. He had spent his entire life in pursuit of a career at sea. The alternative was…
What am I going to do now?
Even if the
were to go down, it would be a different matter entirely if Captain Healy were to use his connections to seek command of another ship—he would be able to pick his men and no doubt would take Jack, as his right hand, with him. But ever since the storm, the captain seemed shaken, and kept mentioning a newborn grandson he had yet to meet. Retirement seemed his future.
So what would Jack’s be?
“I may not have your faith, Mr. Fletcher, but then I have never had the same love of this ship that you do,” Whigby said, seemingly nonchalant.
One, from afar, might think that Whigby had no sentimentality in his soul, but Jack knew better.
“How could you not?” Jack asked jovially, playing his role in the argument they loved to have. “She’s a beauty down to her bones.”
“Her leaky bones.”
“A little water is…
“…good for a navy man! Keeps him fresh.” They finished together, quoting Captain Healy and one of his favorite sayings.
“Come on Jack, she’s creaky and small.”
“She’s light and fast.”
“I can name a hundred ships that are better than this one,” Whigby declared.
“Really. You can name a hundred ships?” Jackson’s eyebrow went up.
“I can.” Whigby boasted, his chest puffing out.
“A hundred ships that have done you a better turn than the
?” Jackson smiled. “You, who felt to your knees, crying in joy, when you managed to secure your post?”
“I was never worried about securing my post! I passed the lieutenant’s exam well enough.” Whigby smiled.
“I passed the lieutenant’s exam with top marks, and I was damn glad to get to stay on this ship.”
“That’s only because you don’t have—” But Whigby stopped himself, hesitant.
“It’s all right, Mr. Whigby. I’m all too aware that my well-connected
friends are few, and even then, have no influence with the Royal Navy.”
“And I do,” Whigby said quietly. “Jack,” Whigby said, dropping the formalities that ruled on board. “I want you to know that if I get the opportunity, I’ll speak well of you to my uncle. Surely finding a position cannot be as terrible as we’ve heard. It seems absurd! After all, I’ve already—”
Jack looked up at Whigby with slight shock in his eyes. Whigby had the grace to look down at his shoes, somewhat ashamed.
“I … the mail frigate that met us at the mouth of the river? It had a letter for me from my uncle. I’m to report to the
when it makes berth in two months.”
Jack felt the deck shift beneath him, and this time, it could not be attributed to the sea.
Of course. Thanks to his uncle, Whigby, who was second lieutenant under him and had two years less experience, was to be assigned a berth on a first-class ship of the line. Whigby wasn’t going to have to live in the queasy dread of limbo, waiting to hear if the
would sail again. Whigby wasn’t going to face the horrible proposition of signing the affidavit quarterly, going on half pay. Unable to seek work outside of the navy without giving up that meager income, and unable, without a miracle, to receive work inside of it. Jack wanted to growl in frustration.
Instead of giving lease to that impulse, Jack shook off the gray cloud of worry that had overtaken him, and slapped his friend on the back. “I’m just surprised that you gave up on our girl so easily. You’ll have twelve superior officers to report to on the
I doubt they’ll even let you wave me off when the
sets sail herself.”
“I’m sorry, Jack,” Whigby said, nervously picking at his nails. “If it’s any consolation, he made the arrangements without my asking.”
“Don’t apologize,” he said, watching relief wash over his friend’s face. “After all, it’s not your fault your uncle is a rear admiral who retired with enough metal on his chest to make an eight-inch gun.”
Whigby laughed at that, the buttons on his somewhat snug uniform waistcoat straining slightly. “I dare say he wouldn’t
allow that—it would deprive him of wearing his full dress uniform at any and every opportunity. Church,” he intoned. “Every Sunday.”
Jack clapped his friend on the shoulder. They stood silent for a moment, listening as, from the bow of the ship, Dingham, one of the carpenter’s mates, whistled and clamored at a group of bonneted ladies far distant on shore. It was impossible that the ladies could hear Dingham over the wind and at that distance, but he insisted on making a fool of himself anyway.
“Oh hell, the bloody fool’s starting up again…” Jack rolled his eyes, and took a half step in the carpenter’s mate’s direction before Whigby clamped a hand on his shoulder.
“Let me take care of it, Mr. Fletcher.” Whigby said, his expression suddenly stern. “After all, I’ll have a lot more men on the
to command. I’ll need the practice.”
Jack would have glared at Whigby then, if the serious set of that man’s brow hadn’t been so comical. But suddenly, that serious expression cleared, and Whigby hastily felt through his pockets.
“I nearly forgot! There was a letter in the packet for you, too!”
Jackson took the small packet of paper with some surprise. He rarely received letters. He had gone away from home at the age of thirteen to attend the Royal Naval College in Portsmouth, and while he’d had loving and kind parents, they had lived in Lincolnshire, and his chosen path had made visits home difficult. He’d sent them letters when he could, but life at sea made the ability to post anything erratic at best. Receiving mail was just as difficult, if not more so.
In fact, there was only one person he received letters from with any regularity.
He turned the packet over in his hand, a pleasant sensation spreading through his chest when he saw the handwriting.
It was the same handwriting that had surprised him twelve years ago, as a young cadet in Portsmouth. The same handwriting that kept him apprised of life in England for the past nine years. The same handwriting that had tearfully informed him of his parents passing. The handwriting that had become his only tether to a home.