Authors: Jay Worrall
Tags: #Action & Adventure, #Historical, #Naval - 18th century - Fiction, #onlib, #Sea Stories, #War & Military, #_NB_fixed, #_rt_yes, #Fiction
Table of Contents
To Jay Worrall, Jr.,
and Carolyn Worrall
BY 1798 THE FIVE-YEAR-OLD WAR BETWEEN KING GEORGE III’s United Kingdom of England and Scotland and the revolutionary Republic of France had reached a stalemate. The 1797 victory of the British over the Spanish fleet off Cape St. Vincent had forestalled for the time being any direct invasion of England. France continued a string of military victories on the continent, most notably those led by the twenty-eight-year-old Napoleon Bonaparte, whose armies had been responsible for successes across northern Italy and had forced the withdrawal of Austria’s Hapsburg Empire from the conflict. Looking for other ways to strike at London, the ambitious general conceived of a seaborne invasion of Egypt as a stepping-stone to attack her rich possessions in India. Troops and ships soon began to assemble in Toulon and Genoa and other French-controlled Mediterranean ports.
For their part, the British virtually abandoned the Mediterranean following the Battle of Cape St. Vincent, in order to concentrate on the blockade of the Spanish fleet at Cádiz. In April the government directed the admiral commanding the Mediterranean Fleet, Sir John Jervis (recently awarded a peerage as the first earl of St. Vincent for his victory), to dispatch a small squadron under the newly promoted rear admiral Horatio Nelson into the inland sea to demonstrate British power and bolster Austrian resolve. This force consisted of three seventy-four-gun ships of the line, three frigates, and a brig. It is reported that a party of American tourists traveling across Italy and the South of France arrived in Cádiz, where they managed to inform St. Vincent of French preparations. Nelson’s orders were consequently revised to include a close investigation of the naval base at Toulon.
On May 19 a severe three-day storm beset the squadron, damaging Nelson’s flagship and scattering his frigates. In his anxiety to determine whether the French were still in the port, Nelson returned to Toulon as soon as his seventy-fours could be repaired. He discovered the port empty, the French fleet departed for a destination unknown, and immediately set off in pursuit.
The frigates, not knowing where Nelson had gone, assumed the mission was over and returned to Gibraltar—all but one. Her commander, Captain Charles Edgemont of His Majesty’s twenty-eight-gun frigate
continued doggedly in search of his admiral. In so doing, he may have altered the course of history.
A NOTE ON MEASUREMENTS AND VALUES
IT IS NOT POSSIBLE TO DIRECTLY EQUATE THE PURCHASING power of currency between the late eighteenth and early twenty-first centuries. It has been suggested, however, that the value of an English pound in 1790 might be multiplied by a factor of seventy or eighty to give an approximate year 2000 equivalent. From pounds to American dollars, the ratio might be 1:100 or 110. English pounds were divided into shillings, pennies, and farthings: 20 shillings to a pound; 12 pennies to a shilling; 4 farthings to a penny. A full loaf of bread cost about 4 pence.
Units of measurement for distance at sea were not always standardized. The author has used:
1 league = 3 nautical miles = 5.6 kilometers
1 nautical mile = 6076 feet (1.15 statute miles) = 1.9 kilometers
1 cable length = about 200 yards
of a league) = 185 meters
1 fathom = 6 feet
of a league) = 1.8 meters
Time on British naval ships was measured in watches and bells. The day officially began at noon and was divided into seven watches, five of four hours each and two of two hours:
The ship’s bell was rung in cumulative half-hourly intervals during each watch. Thus, three bells in the afternoon watch is 1:30 P.M., and four bells in the middle watch is 2:00 A.M.
April 1, 1798
All Fools’ Day
MR. ADOLPHUS JONES OF PRINCETON, NEW JERSEY, STOOD in a poorly lit, high-ceilinged room and half bowed toward the rather flamboyantly attired Spanish harbor functionary behind the desk in front of him. His objective was to induce the man to perform the somewhat unusual task of escorting him and his two female companions to one of the hostile British warships blockading the port. Mr. Jones considered himself an excellent judge of character. Looking at the brilliant official in his vermilion jacket frogged in yellow, he didn’t think convincing the man would be all that difficult.
Jones was a rugged man in his late thirties with unruly brown hair. For this occasion he had dressed expensively but carelessly in an only-just-out-of-fashion suit. He stood slightly stooped, and spoke with an exaggerated lisp, as he imagined a scholar might do.
“Excellency, if I may introduce my wife, Mrs. Jones, and my niece, Miss Constance van Delft of New York City.” Mrs. Jones, a formidable-looking woman, chose not to acknowledge the Spaniard, now risen from his chair and bowing toward her. She had been given to understand that he was the second assistant to someone in the port administrator’s office, and she wanted him to know she was displeased that no one more highly placed would see them. Constance, on the other hand, curtsied deeply and gave a sparkling smile. She was handsome and dark-haired, with worldly eyes and an outgoing manner that suggested a certain accessibility often reputed to young American women traveling on the continent.
“And may I assistance you how?” the Spaniard asked in almost passable English. His eyes darted from Mr. Jones to Mrs. Jones and fixed on the niece, whose hands were now clasped in front of her bosom as if in supplication.
“Our situation is most pressing,” Mr. Jones responded, forcing a tremor of desperation into his voice. “I am a doctor of classical antiquities at Princeton College in the United States. It is a highly prestigious position, sir. I consult often with President Adams himself. My wife, our ward, and I have been traveling these past months across the South of Europe, studying the monuments of the ancient Roman Empire. In Toulon we received word that Mrs. Jones’s mother has fallen ill and is likely in her last months. Since then we have inquired at every port along the way in an attempt to arrange passage home. At each place we were told that Cádiz was our only hope. I must find sea passage to America immediately. It is possible that relations between our two countries will be influenced by this.”
The Spaniard’s face fell. “A thousand—no, a million pardons, but I cannot assistance to you. Not even as a favor to your
” he said with genuine remorse. “There are no such ship in all the port of Cádiz. As you have seen, the British have the harbor under constant blockade. No ship may entrance or departure.”
Mr. Jones, of course, was well aware of the blockade, and that there were no suitable ships available in the port.
“Oh, Most Excellency,” Constance implored, leaning forward and breathing deeply in case he had missed any of her more obvious attributes, “we are desperate. I’m sure a man of your abilities can help us. We have traveled all the way from Italy, across all of France and Spain in the worst coaches and over the most terrible roads. My entire person is abused. You are our last hope. Please, please, can’t you do something to help us? I would be
The Spaniard looked truly downcast, Jones thought, and it was apparent that Connie’s phrase “most grateful” and the image conjured up by her “entire person” was not lost on him.
“This is a waste of time, Adolphus,” Mrs. Jones interjected. “This little man clearly has no interest in our dilemma. We must look elsewhere.”
“There is no elsewhere, my dear,” Mr. Jones responded with a renewed quaver in his tone, patting his wife’s arm consolingly. “Cádiz was our only chance.” Turning toward the port official, he begged, “As citizens of the United States, we are neutrals. As an academic, I am no threat to anyone. The British might be persuaded to allow us to pass unimpeded. There must be some neutral vessel from Denmark, or Sweden, or the Two Sicilies in the harbor that could take us on board.” Lowering his voice, he confided, “I am a man of some means and would be willing to pay twice the normal tariff. You would find me more than generous for any assistance you could provide. I don’t even care where such a craft is bound so long as we can find another ship to take us home from there.”
“Alas, Señor Jones,” said the man, “if there were such a craft, I would take you myself to her on this instantly. But the English do not allow even the craft of, how do you say, unbelligerents to entrance or departure. I am prostrate with regrets.”
A silence descended on the room, as there seemed to be nothing left to say. Mr. Jones turned back consolingly to Mrs. Jones, in whose eyes tears had begun to well. “It will be all right, my dear,” he said just loudly enough for the official to hear. “I will spare no expense. We will find a way; there has to be a way.” His voice held out little hope.
“Oh!” Constance exclaimed brightly. “I have an idea.”
“What?” Mr. Jones asked without enthusiasm.
“The British themselves! We saw the British warships just outside the harbor. The little ones, what did you call them?”
“Frigates,” Mr. Jones answered, disinterested. “Their frigates are stationed inshore on close blockade. They might let us pass, but I doubt they would agree to assist us. We’re Americans, still rebels to them. There is little love lost between our countries.”
“But we could ask, couldn’t we, Adolphus,” Mrs. Jones said, dabbing at her eyes with a handkerchief. “We must at least try.”
“Well, my dear, I don’t think—” Mr. Jones began.
“We must ask,” Constance insisted excitedly. “They might be willing if we asked them.” Turning to the Spanish official, she said, “They would help us, wouldn’t they? Oh, if only we could speak to them.” In her enthusiasm, she hurried behind the desk and grasped the Spaniard’s arm, pressing it against her chest. “You’d help us to at least ask them, wouldn’t you?” she said, looking into his eyes. “You seem so … capable.”
“Constance,” Mrs. Jones reproved sternly. “This is highly improper. After all, Spain is at war with England. I am sure he can do no such thing. It would take great personal courage for a Spanish official to approach an enemy ship of war under these circumstances. And he would have to take leave of his duties to accompany us. I am sure he hasn’t the slightest interest, even if he had the fortitude to do so.”
The Spaniard drew himself up and, despite Constance clinging tightly to his arm, managed a small bow. “Señor, it would be my very honor to assistance you. I can easily commandeer a small craft to take you to inquire of the British under a flag of truce. You have only to say what day would be convenient.”
Constance released her grip but kept adoring eyes on him. “I saw one of those little warships just outside the harbor only this morning. I’m sure it’s still there. Couldn’t we go immediately? It is only to ask if they will help us. We would be back well before supper. We could invite Your Excellency to dine at our hotel this evening, as a token of our gratitude. Don’t you think so, Uncle?”
Mr. Jones looked downcast. “I am obliged to call on some scholarly associates in the town this evening. Perhaps our friend would be content with your company and that of Mrs. Jones.”
“You know I am exhausted from our travels, Adolphus. I had planned to retire early,” said Mrs. Jones. “I may not stay for the entire meal, but if Constance is willing to carry the burden of entertaining our guest, I don’t see why not.”
“Oh, I’d love to,” Constance asserted, turning toward the man, glowing with conspiratorial promise. “We will have to hurry, señor, if we are to return in time.”
“AHOY, WHAT BOAT?” came the challenge from the deck of the British frigate, her hull painted dark gray, cruising slowly under weathered topsails about two miles from the entrance to Cádiz Bay, just beyond the range of the batteries protecting the harbor.
Adolphus Jones studied the warship with an experienced eye. She was French-built, without a doubt, small even as frigates went, about 125 feet along her gundeck, and rated at twenty-eight guns, almost certainly twelve-pounders. He saw a number of added carronades on her forecastle and quarterdeck. In all, he thought, she looked professionally commanded and bluntly purposeful. “I wish to speak with your captain on urgent business,” he shouted back through cupped hands. His voice sounded out loud and firm, any trace of sibilance vanished.
A ship’s officer, a lieutenant by his uniform, appeared at the railing and took a moment to survey the Spanish vessel. Mr. Jones noted with satisfaction that a number of marines in their red coats and black hats had appeared along the rail with their muskets at the ready. There should be no problem, he thought; the British could easily see that the undecked, lateen-rigged tartan was unarmed and contained only him, two women, one Spanish official, and a crew of four. The warship neatly laid her foretopsail against the mast and came to a stop in the water.
“You may come alongside,” the lieutenant shouted down. “What’s your business?”
Under the lee of the frigate, Mr. Jones could speak much more easily. “I have confidential information for your captain of a most urgent nature, sir.” The Spanish official looked alarmed at this exchange, but Mr. Jones ignored him.
“Come aboard,” the lieutenant answered. “Just you.”
Mr. Jones quickly grabbed the sideropes and climbed the battens that served as the ladderway up the ship’s side. On deck he was soon confronted by the ship’s captain, a lean, tallish man with dark hair and a single gold-fringed epaulette perched on his right shoulder, denoting that he was of less than three years’ seniority. Mr. Jones’s impression was that he seemed young, not much past his middle twenties, to have achieved his captaincy. Still, he had an open countenance, intelligent eyes, and an air of quiet authority.
“I am Charles Edgemont, sir,” the captain said. “How may I be of service?”
“Bring the two women in the boat on board this minute,” Jones said directly. “You’d best send a few armed men down, it’s possible the Spaniards will object. Then—”
“May I know your name, sir?” Captain Edgemont interrupted. “And your business?”
“Jones, Adolphus Jones, sir. It is sufficient for you to know that I am under most secret Admiralty orders and can report only to your commanding officer. That would be Admiral Jervis, I believe.”
“Lord St. Vincent, as he’s known now,” the captain said, then, turning to the lieutenant standing nearby: “Winchester, have a whip rove from the yardarm and lower a chair for the women in the boat. You may send a few of the marines down to keep order.”
“Aye-aye, sir,” the lieutenant answered smartly.
“I take it,” Edgemont said, “that you would like us to transport you to His Lordship’s flagship.”
“I must insist on it the moment my companions are on board,” Jones answered. “The intelligence I convey is pressing.”
As they waited for the chair to be lowered, curiosity showed by degrees on the young captain’s face. As the older of the two women was hoisted onto the deck, he said, “If it is not impertinent, sir, may I ask the nature of this intelligence?”
Jones watched as the chair lowered again. A marine private assisted Constance into it, for which he received a gracious smile. As she was being lifted upward, she gave the bewildered Spanish official a regretful look. “I am sorry, señor. Perhaps another time.”
Satisfied, Jones turned back to the British captain. “I suppose you’ll learn soon enough anyway,” he said. “The French are assembling a powerful fleet in Toulon, and a very large number of troop transports all along the coast, large enough to carry an army of fifty thousand or more. It’s possible that their destination is Ireland, or even England itself. There, is that urgent enough for you?”
The moment Constance touched the deck and the last of the marines had debarked from the tartan, Jones watched as Captain Edgemont turned to his lieutenant. “All plain sail she’ll carry. Have Eliot lay a course direct to fetch
Constance, Jones noticed, eyed the captain with a measure of interest. “You have my undying gratitude for assisting us, sir,” she said warmly.
“It is my pleasure, ma’am,” Edgemont replied. His eyes flickered briefly but appreciatively over her, then he looked back to Jones as his attention returned to the earlier subject. “To effect a landing in the British Isles—you’re sure?” he said. “Toulon in the Mediterranean seems an unlikely port from which to launch such an invasion. I should have thought Brest, or even Ferrol, in Spain, to be more suitable.”
Mr. Jones drew himself upright and spoke with some heat. “I have not yet been able to uncover their destination, sir. But I will tell you in the strongest terms that this expeditionary force is intended to do serious damage to British interests. It must be found and destroyed, sir. It must be found and destroyed utterly.”