Read Hervey 09 - Man Of War Online

Authors: Allan Mallinson

Hervey 09 - Man Of War (8 page)

BOOK: Hervey 09 - Man Of War
4.25Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Hervey was dismayed by how rapidly he was losing command of things (as always seemed the case when he came to Holland Park, no matter how resolutely). ‘Kat, there is something urgent I must speak with you about.’

‘Indeed? Must we speak of it at once, or may I ring for tea?’

‘I . . . I’m not sure that I can stay at all long. I have an engagement this evening . . . with a brother officer.’

‘Oh,’ declared Kat in a tone of mild affront. ‘I might have known your regiment would have first call on you.’

He chose not to rise to the challenge. ‘Kat, the devil of a thing has come about. I was at the Horse Guards today and I learned that there’s to be a court of inquiry into the affair at Waltham Abbey, and that . . . Sir Peregrine is likely as not to be president.’

Kat looked perplexed. ‘Is that such a cause for alarm? He is generally the most agreeable of men.’

Hervey shifted awkwardly. ‘The point is, Kat . . . the inquiry will attract public attention – it’s bound to. And that is sure to occasion comment. Do you not see?’

Kat saw, and also that the comment would hardly be to her advantage either (she supposed that Hervey’s concern was not principally for
her
reputation). But it suited her to be obtuse. ‘Do you really think it likely?’

‘Yes, Kat: I consider it
very
likely.’

‘What would you have me
do
?’

Hervey had not imagined he would have to suggest it. He was staunch nonetheless. ‘Ask Sir Peregrine to decline the presidency.’

Kat looked bewildered. ‘How shall I manage that? I cannot interfere with military matters in that way!’

Hervey was astonished. She had interfered several times before on his behalf – and to secure preferment rather than so simple a thing as this (he imagined that persuading her husband to decline an invitation would not be too difficult). ‘Kat, I—’

‘Matthew, it is evidently troubling you greatly. Let us sit and talk of it, and see if there is anything I might do.’ She rang for tea.

Hervey sat.

* * *

It was after midnight when he returned to the United Service Club. He was surprised to find Fairbrother in the coffee room still, reading Southey’s
Life of Nelson
.

‘My dear friend, I am so very sorry I did not keep my appointment. I was detained against my better judgement, if not in truth will. But I think the trouble may be soon resolved.’

‘I am very glad of it,’ replied Fairbrother equably. ‘In truth, too, I have been glad of an evening with Southey. I confess to having felt excessively tired after leaving Westminster.’

Hervey smiled ruefully. ‘I have heard that parliament has that effect.’

‘No, parliament was invigorating in the extreme. There was a debate on reform of the franchise. Feelings ran unconscionably high. I never heard such a bear house!’

‘I dare say. Have you dined?’

‘Yes, and very agreeably – at the club table with two officers not long returned from the Indies.’

‘I’m glad of it. I—’

‘I did not say: the debate was in the House of Peers. I heard Lord Palmerston speak. He is a most engaging man, I think. Exactly as I had imagined him.’

Hervey kept his peace. He too had liked Palmerston when they had met briefly, a year or so before; but he did wish the Secretary at War would not now persist with this inquiry.

The night porter came into the room to turn down the lamps. Hervey ordered brandy. ‘And then to bed. While there is time – before I am taken up with clerks at the Colonies Office, and attorneys – I would show you things, tomorrow.’

‘I should be excessively grateful to you, Hervey. Excessively. But I am minded that I am meant to be a salutary companion: you are sure you do not overtax your constitution – the fever, the wound?’

Hervey knew his constitution had proved serviceable, and tried not to look sheepish. ‘I assure you I am perfectly well.’

Fairbrother laid aside his Southey, as if to convey that the matter was settled. ‘Did the porter tell you there is a letter? He said he would place it in the rack.’

Hervey rose and went to the hall to retrieve it. He saw at once that it was in his mother’s hand, which immediately disquietened him, for she scarcely ever wrote. He broke the seal, and read:

Horningsham 14th
April 1828
My dear Matthew,
I trust this finds you well and timely. I hardly know where to begin, but there has been a most unlooked-for development, a most disagreeable thing has occurred (trouble not, for we are all in good health) and I am at
my wits’ end to know how to deal with it. I would that you come here as soon as you are able, for I think that only you have it in your power to put things aright. I cannot put the matter into words but beg you would believe me when I say that it is of the greatest moment to our happiness and standing. Please therefore come with haste, for it is not a matter that can bide without grave consequence to our reputation and position.
Your ever loving Mother.

IV
A PASSAGE TO MALTA

Gibraltar, the same day, 28 September 1827

‘Sir Laughton?’ The first lieutenant had returned very carefully upon his half-hour.

‘Just “Captain”, if you please, Mr Lambe.’

‘Ay-ay, sir. I have the old hands assembled.’

Peto nodded. He would read them his commission, as was the tradition, and address a few words to them. But he thought first to address the question of the admiral’s quarters, about which he had given no instructions. By custom when the admiral flew his flag elsewhere the captain of a first-rate had the use of the cabin on the upper deck, but since Peto expected Sir Edward Codrington to transfer his flag to
Rupert
as soon as she joined his squadron, he had no intention of putting himself to the inconvenience – and, indeed, the indignity – of vacating his accommodation within so short a time.

‘The admiral’s apartments, I trust, are in serviceable condition? I had better take a look at them before beginning on general rounds.’

Lieutenant Lambe looked at him quizzically. ‘They are, sir. I believe Miss Codrington is most comfortable.’

Peto’s expression of indifference turned to one of thunder. ‘
What?

‘Miss Codrington, sir. She came aboard this morning. She is, I believe, comfortable. And her maid.’


Maid?

‘Yes, sir; her maid,’ replied Lambe, even more puzzled by his captain’s inability to grasp what were after all mere domestic details. ‘They are both quite comfortable.’

Peto’s eyes narrowed, and his hands gripped the sides of his chair. ‘Mr Lambe, of what are you speaking?’

Only now did the first lieutenant perceive that his captain might be unaware of their passenger – and that the intelligence was not welcome. He cleared his throat. ‘Admiral Codrington’s daughter, sir: she is on board for the passage to Malta. The orders came when we put in. Forgive me, sir, but I assumed that you had been told of it ashore. Miss Codrington travelled by packet here, but the admiral wished for her to be conveyed on board one of His Majesty’s ships on account of the piracy still off the Barbary Coast. I thought it expedient to accommodate her in the admiral’s quarters.’

Peto boiled, though without (he thought) showing it. ‘Very well.’ He rose. ‘You did right, Mr Lambe. That, I take it, is the reason for the sentry I saw there.’

‘I thought it only proper, sir. We have an ample enough complement of marines.’

‘Mm.’ Peto thought it only proper too – eminently proper. Two women on the upper gun-deck: it was like putting a couple of ripe peaches next to a wasp’s nest. ‘I had better pay my respects. Perhaps you and she will dine with me this evening?’

Lambe hesitated. But a request from his captain was to be taken always as an order. ‘I’d be honoured, sir.’

‘Flowerdew!’

The captain’s steward scuffled in.

‘Three for dinner, one a lady: hock and a light burgundy.’

‘Oh, very refined,’ muttered Flowerdew as he knuckled his forehead and scuffled out again.

‘He’s been with me a good age,’ said Peto by way of explanation, though not as a rule given to explaining himself.

‘Sir, Miss Codrington, she—’

‘Enough of Miss Codrington for the time being, Mr Lambe. But I will say now that we are not putting in at Malta; she will have to transfer to the sloop.’

HMS
Archer
, sloop-of-war, was to convoy with them for Admiral Codrington’s squadron.

‘Ay-ay, sir.’

‘Very well; let’s to the old hands. And then afterwards I’ll see Miss Codrington while you assemble the standing officers.’

Peto’s tone, though not meant to be peremptory, nevertheless stayed his lieutenant in the inevitable protest. Indeed, Peto had decided that although he would have to exercise command rather more formally through his executive officer and his sailing-master than had hitherto been his practice, there could be no part of the ship he would consider himself denied – except, of course, the wardroom. He would be prudent, naturally, in choosing his time of visiting certain quarters: the midshipmen’s berth was nothing like the bear garden of
his
day, but of an evening it were better steered clear of so as to avoid taking unintended offence. Likewise the gun-decks when dinner was served up: the rum ration was half of what it had been in the French war (a quarter of a pint only, mixed with water), but it was still enough to loosen a man’s tongue, and it did not do to give unnecessary occasion for a flogging. No, prudential judgement were his watchwords. It was the first time in more than a decade that one of His Majesty’s first-rates was being sent to sea in the expectation – in the
possibility
, at least – of a general action: the hand was heavy on his shoulders.

And yet it troubled Peto not in the least. The bad old days – the
glorious
days, so the nation had it (and as well let them believe it!) – were gone; the press gang was no more, the drafts from the assizes there were none; nor even were there the county ballots. Now the crews were volunteers, for whatever reason a man joined – for the bounty, for the abundance of grog and plenty of prize-money, which the placards in the sea ports still promised, and against all the advice of those of earlier generations who had been deceived. Some still joined as boys, having no other family, and remained in the service all their lives: ‘once a sailor, always a sailor’. And some, though without his, Peto’s, schooling or means, joined because they were agitated by the same instinct as his. The true man-of-war’s man, so the saying went, was begotten in the galley and born under a gun, his every hair rope-yarn, every tooth a marlinspike, every finger a fishhook, and his blood right good Stockhollum tar. These volunteers did not need the lash and the starter. In truth, the starter had been proscribed by the Admiralty for the best part of twenty years (well, to drive them to work, at any rate: Peto had known it to be admirable summary justice in the hands of a good boatswain). And here he had a full crew, not many landsmen at all said the watch bill – all come from half a dozen guardships at Portsmouth. They would be handy enough with sail, he could rely on it; though how handy was their gunnery he would not know until they exercised tomorrow.

The Royal Marines sentry presented arms as the captain emerged from his cabin.

Peto touched the point of his bicorn, and turned to look him in the eye. ‘What is your name, sir?’

‘Frost, sir.’

‘And where is your home?’

The marine looked puzzled. ‘Corporal Figgis’s mess, sir. I’m berthed aft on the orlop, sir, I am.’

‘Where were you
born
, man; where is your family?’

The marine, his face now the colour of his jacket, took an even tighter grip of his musket. ‘Fak’nam, sir.’

Peto nodded, with studied satisfaction. Fakenham was a good distance inland; it was a wonder the 9th Foot had not ’listed him, though the army was not so recruit-hungry these days. ‘I myself am a Norfolk-man. I shall count most especially on you.’

‘Yes, sir.’

Peto turned away, imagining that the man might be a degree more inspired by such an exchange, but supposing in truth that the discipline of the marines made equal machines of them all.

‘Off hats!’ barked the boatswain.

Some two dozen veteran seamen were gathered aft on the upper deck, all in their best. Peto decided to address them from the foot of the companion ladder rather than from the quarterdeck – much less of a business, and much the more intimate, almost as if he had been aboard
Nisus
.

He descended the ladder very sure-footed, took the folded paper from his pocket, and read with due gravity but not too solemnly: ‘Admiralty orders to Captain Sir Laughton Peto. You are to proceed at once to take command of His Majesty’s Ship
Prince Rupert
, whereso-ever she be found, and thence to join the fleet under the command of Sir Edward Codrington, Vice Admiral of the Blue.’

BOOK: Hervey 09 - Man Of War
4.25Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Other books

Second Chance by Linda Kepner
Dirty Weekend by Gabrielle Lord
Blackhearts by Nicole Castroman
Soul Eater by Lorraine Kennedy
Foxbat by James Barrington
Ashes to Ashes by Richard Kluger
Unlocked by Karen Kingsbury
Shadowfires by Dean Koontz
Shah of Shahs by Ryzard Kapuscinski