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(Lewrie – 09)
This one is for…
Tom C. Armstrong, "your humble poet" as he calls himself, who, disguised as a mild-mannered writer/producer on Music Row for many years, a sometime songwriter, sometime book reviewer, sometime teacher/mentor to a new generation of writer/dreamers, a veteran of the old Smothers Brothers Show's stable of comedy writers, and a poet… serves the best, bottomless pot of coffee, along with a sympathetic ear for scribblers around Nashville such as myself, and has an abiding faith that talent will be recognized and appreciated. For Tom and his incomparable Beverly, and may God bless your encouragement.
Non unquam tulit documenta fors maiora,
quam fragili loco starent superbi.
Never did Fortune give larger proof,
on how frail ground stand the proud.
– TROADES, 4-6
Lucius Annaeus Seneca
Visa rantis saevae defectu laboribus undae,
Quam Theridi longinqua dies Glaucoque repostum
Solibus et canis urebat luna pruinis.
She beheld a ship outworn
with the toils of the savage Sea,
long since offered up to Thetis and Glaucus,
which passing Time had scorched with its suns
and the Moon with her hoarfrosts had worn.
– argonautica, book ii, 285-87 Valerius Flaccus
There was a thunder 'pon the sea.
Crash and bellow, a deep, continual tympany-drumming which went on and on 'til the waters on this slightly foggy, coolish day shivered as if in terror, and the winds, already nothing to boast of from out of South-of-West, were shot nigh to stillness. Winds failing and the long Atlantic rollers beguilingly rippled and fractured like an ocean of shattered glass fragments. But it wasn't the wind that did it-it was that thunder.
They could feel it, a gun-thunder which had quailed the winds and waters, rumbling upwards from the sea itself, as if some drowned volcano had cleared its throat numberless fathoms below; and their ship shook to that thunder, vibrated and trembled, humming in enforced harmony.
A game lass was their little ship, a plunger and a "goer" most of the time. But she was now worn just about out from too much daring and panache, too many hasty but vital errands and patrols, and nothing like a proper refit despite rare port-calls at Gibraltar, Lisbon, or at Oporto. Coming apart at the seams, she was; those seams weeping weary salt tears which had her hands at the bilge pumps every morning before breakfast; her oaken flesh and bones baked sere and dry as old toast-and not enough paint, tar, or oils left for even a "lick and a promise" either. Her bottom was foul, and she trailed a verdant jungle of vinelike weed and green slime from her quick-work-slowing her, so that she now lumbered like a dowager with the gout, instead of dancing upon the winds like the light-footed darling she once had been.
Yet her standing and running rigging, her towering masts, still stood in a lean Bristol fashion, her spars and yards were yet sound, and her sails-though much patched-still curved sweetly wind-full. Though her captain had considered frapping her roundabout with lighter kedge or stream-anchor cables, like a truss or corset, to remind her how to hold together for just a bit longer.
But slowed as she was, as frailing, her crew could load and fire three broadsides in less than two minutes, could still cajole her to "dance" at the peak of their expertise, gained in three years' continuous service together.
So she stood, near the end of the battle-line as it sailed on Sutherly, with the lead ships just starting to tack about Nor'west to double back on the two converging packs of foes they faced-a repeating frigate to pass messages or aid a ship which might be disabled.
HMS Jester-sloop of war, 18-still served.
Though again, to her captain's mind (and a rather chary mind it was at that moment, thankee!) being on the lee-side didn't particularly mean the "safe" side of the battle-line. Off Jester's lee bow, down to the Sou'east, there were about eight or nine Spanish ships of the line, with accompanying frigates, and coming up slowly to merge with another pack. And that pack, good God! Seventeen, at the least, tall-sided, ugly brutes they were: two-decker 68s, 74s, and 80-gunners; some of them three-deckers, and one monstrous four-decker flying more admiral's flags than sail-canvas it seemed. And so stuffed with guns that every time she lit off a broadside, it looked like a mountain blowing up!
And here they were, curling about into a rough Vee, sandwiched like a forlorn nut between two arms of a nutcracker, fifteen warships of Admiral Sir John Jervis's fleet-formerly the Mediterranean Fleet before they'd been run out of that sea the previous summer-all just about as bad off as Jester in material condition when you got right down to it, yet blithely standing into danger as though they were about as fresh as new-picked daisies. Or as belligerent as a rutting bulldog!
With their artillery crashing and bellowing, making that thunder… sending shock waves through the sea.
"I can make out, sir…" Lieutenant Ralph Knolles attempted to say, as he took off his hat and swiped both forearms of his coat at his hair and brows. A bad sign that; usually, one nervous hand over his blond locks was sufficient sign of worry.
"Aye, Mister Knolles?" Commander Alan Lewrie replied, sounding almost calm in comparison.
"Beyond, sir." Knolles pointed towards the Spanish Fleet. "It may not be a convoy. About eight or nine more rather large ships over yonder… to the West-Nor'west. Do they all assemble, sir… well!"
"Two-deckers, d'ye think, sir?" Lewrie frowned, stepping to the starboard side of his quarterdeck, leaning on the bulwarks, and raising his telescope for a look-see. The smoke from all the gunfire was thick, a sulphurous, reeking mist which hazed the day even worse. More than a few British line-of-battle ships stood between him and the ones Knolles had sighted too, their gun-smoke and towering masts and sails obscuring what little he could see. But he could barely make out three-masters yonder, well up to weather and almost hull-down from the Spanish line.
Least an hour or more off, he thought, sailin' large, to come down to join?
He couldn't tell.
As if we need more, he sneered to himself; already got a bloody Armada here anyway! On its way North to join the French Fleet waitin' at Brest, the Dutch Fleet too. Transports, most-like. Carrying troops for an invasion of Ireland. Or England!
And if Admiral Jervis threw away his ships in this action, then what hope did Lord Bridport and the Channel Fleet at Portsmouth have to stop them? Or even get word of their coming in time to…?
Takin' this lot on's like a horsefly deliberately landin' on a game-table; sure t'get swatted! Lewrie speculated. Has t'be done, no error. Growl ye may, but go ye must, and all that…
"Cah-rrisstt!" was Lewrie's sudden, un-captainly comment. And a rather loud comment it was too.
In his telescope's ocular, he'd just discovered the fore-end of a ship of the line which wasn't crossing right-to-left, sailing obediently in the battle-line. He was looking at the beak-head and figurehead, the cutwater and frothing bow-wave below an out-thrust bowsprit and jib-boom of a warship-pointing right at him!
"Hands wear ship!" Lewrie yelped, eyes wide in disbelief, as he lowered his glass in shock. "Helm hard a'weather!" Seen with normal vision, un-enlarged, wasn't much better as she bored direct for his Jester. HMS Captain, third but last from the tail end of the line, was swinging out of line alee and loomed close enough to trample them, if Jester didn't get out of her way!
"The Captain," Mr. Midshipman Hyde gawped.
"Commodore Nelson," Mr. Midshipman Spendlove supplied.
"That… bugger!" Lewrie opined, as his crew sprang to loosen braces and heads'l sheets. He heard Lieutenant Knolles and Bosun Cony barking urgent orders, felt the deck shift under his feet as his ship heeled to wear about, falling off the wind, spared a second to observe that things were well in hand. Then spared a longer glower at Nelson and his two-decker.
No one left the sacred order of the line of battle, no one, not ever! The Fighting Instructions were nigh to Gospel, and God pity the fool who disobeyed them. To turn away leeward, away from presenting a broadside to those Spanish warships, that could be called Cowardice in the Face of the Enemy-a hanging offence!
"Bugger!" Commander Lewrie snarled again. Not only was Nelson swinging clear of danger… he was forcing him to swing clear too!
Jester had been a cable to leeward of the line when HMS Captain began her turn, a fairly wide one to retain her speed. Being a smaller ship with smaller sails than a liner, she could cut a smaller radius of turn. So they ended up close together, once both ships had worn about to larboard tack, with the scant winds crossing their left-hand sides, for Captain was standing on almost Easterly to build back up to speed. They were within shouting distance.
Lewrie stood by the larboard bulwarks, hands fisted and akimbo on his hips, wondering just how much of what he had to say to a man who had just quit the line he could get away with.
Damn 'im, he's still a Commodore! Lewrie fumed to himself.
"Hoy, Jester.1" came a high-pitched, slightly nasal shout from a runtish little dandy by Captains starboard rails. The dandy's hands were cupped round his mouth. "Follow me into clear air for signals!"
"Hoy… sir!" Lewrie replied, deliberately delaying his "sir." "And what…?"
What the bloody Hell you think yer playin' at? was Lewrie's real question. He amended it though, regretting the necessity.
"Where are you going… sir?" he bellowed instead.
"No time to explain!" Nelson hallooed back, sounding infinitely pleased with himself, damn' near laughing with joy in point o' fact! "Before they join both bodies astern of us in the Nor'east! Follow me, Jester! We're off to glorrryyy!"
"Cack-handed, brainless bloody… cavalry charge… pip-squeak!" Lewrie grumbled in a harsh mutter, his face stretched into a toadying rictus of a smile. "Death or glory, mine arse! Mine arse on a bloody… bandbox.1"
Then the Captain, with her longer waterline and taller, wider sails aloft, was surging past, beginning to turn even more Westward as wind filled her rigging and her greater speed returned.
"Do we follow him, sir?" Lieutenant Knolles wondered, still aghast.
"Christ, I don't… Christ! He's…!"
Captain was now aiming to pass between the last two ships of the line. Diadem and Excellent, to shorten the distance she'd have to sail to engage the entire Spanish Fleet!
"He's gone lunatick!" Lewrie breathed in awe.
But he's right… damn 'im! Lewrie had to admit to himself. Do we hope Collingwood's on a run o' luck today and doesn't collide!
"Have a prayer…" Sailing Master Mr. Buchanon moaned, crossing his thick fingers for luck as Captain Collingwood's Excellent seemed to shy, dithering whether to shorten sail, back the tops'ls to brake… or haul her wind and leave the line too.
"Aye, we'll follow, Mister Knolles," Lewrie sighed. "Well alee of Excellent, mind. Somebody has to do signals. Old Jarvy to Nelson or vice versa. Clap him in irons…? This gap's too narrow, and closing. They'll merge, if we don't… get past us without a real fight. Haul taut to windward, Mister Knolles, course Nor-Nor'west."
"And Mister Buchanon? Do you keep those fingers crossed."
"Oh, aye, Cap'um," Buchanon rather soberly assured him. "Now 'til Epiphany, if 'at's what it takes. God help us, we're in for th' most confounded scrape!"
Lewrie shared a quick, quirky, and sardonic smile with his stolid Sailing Master, then turned away to look outward once more. The small batch of Spanish ships to leeward were almost level with them now and level with the tail end of the British line, which was still labouriously wheeling about one after the other… at a point which seemed to Lewrie's fevered imagination to be too damn' far South to be of any comfort.
To the West, Captain Troubridge's Culloden, at the head of that wheeling line, was almost level with the rear of the Spanish main body. Again, too far to windward to be of much immediate use to them. Apart from the fleet and its palls of gunfire, they were in clearer air, in undisturbed, un-roiled winds which cupped the sails taut and full, the two lone ships who'd disobeyed. Now going like Cambridge coaches!
Aft… Was Excellent dithering again, he wondered? Coming off the wind to wear, he hoped most fervently? Was Diadem too…?
Forrud-over Jester's larboard bows. There lay the Spaniards at which they charged, like naive house-terriers at an enraged bull on their first day of a country weekend. A very menacing and formidable pack of Dons they looked too! Though not in any particular order, he also noted. Though it must be said that at that moment Lewrie would have grasped at any straw of encouragement, no matter how frail. They were bunched, more like three ragged lines overlapping each other, and not a well-ordered in-line-ahead. Earlier, Jervis's line had shifted from two cruising lines into one battle-line, crossing the Dons' bows, while they'd come to do battle in three or four columns, as if to bore through in several places at once. But they'd been shot out of that plan-if plan it had been.
They could only fire the guns of those which were nearest, Lewrie grimly decided-only the first six or so! That, unfortunately, seemed to be more than enough to swat Captain away, for it included that four-decker which that moment erupted again in a ragged broadside he could almost count.
He quit when his tally rose over 60-odd guns along her starboard beam-times two equaled a sum too terrible to contemplate. He felt like a headache was coming on.