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To George and Olga Weiser, my long-ago agents who took a chance on an un-published writer back in 1988, liked what they read, and offered representation … which caused me to get “over-served” in celebration. Six weeks later, I had my first two-book contract, and the rest, as they say, is history.
At least I think it was ’cause that was one more reason for donning “beer goggles,” and my memories get rather foggy.
Savoir dissimuler est le savoir des rois.
Dissimulation is the art of kings.
—ARMAND JEAN DU PLESSIS,
DUC DE RICHELIEU (1585–1642)
In Fame’s temple there is always a niche to be found for rich dunces, importunate scoundrels, or successful butchers of the human race.
—JOHANN GEORG RITTER VON ZIMMERMAN (1728–1795)
Who do I have t’kill t’get out o’ this assignment? Captain Alan Lewrie had to ask himself as he beheld his little flotilla of miniature warships close alongside his ship, the 50-gunned two-decker Fourth Rate HMS Sapphire, which was firmly anchored by bow and stern off Gibraltar’s Old Mole, and, if fresh orders didn’t come immediately, that was where Sapphire would remain ’til she put herself aground on a reef of discarded beef and pig bones! Christ on a crutch! he added after a much-put-upon sigh of frustration.
“They look very smart, sir,” Lieutenant Geoffrey Westcott, the First Officer, commented.
“They look like turd barges in Purgatory,” Lewrie snarled back.
“Well … well-armed turd barges, sir,” Westcott amended. His wry smile of amusement was well-hidden from his superior, for he knew how much Lewrie detested the duty. In point of fact, Westcott detested the duty, too, and, like his Captain, would rather be back out at sea, ravaging the coasts of Spanish Andalusia, as they had done the previous year.
There were eight of the “turd barges,” six of the original rowing boats that Sapphire had used to land troops and explosives to make their raids, and an additional two fresh from the Gibraltar dockyards made to the same pattern. They were thirty-six feet long and almost ten feet in beam, and too heavy to be hoisted aboard the hired transport which had borne the soldiers; they’d been towed astern to and from raids.
Now they were converted to gunboats and given official numbers, each armed with a 12-pounder cannon in the bow and a 12-pounder carronade on a pivot mount in the stern, copied by the dockyard superintendent, Captain Middleton, from a design he’d seen done by a home-based dockyard Commissioner Hamilton.
The bastard’s promised even more o’ the bloody things! Lewrie further fumed to himself; A dozen, two dozen, and more! The bastard!
When they’d been just landing craft, each one required a crew of nine; eight oarsmen and a Cox’n to steer, and usually with a Midshipman aboard to boot. Now, though, Captain Middleton had out-done himself, adding two more oars for more speed (since the guns made the damned things even slower), and each boat needed at least six hands to operate the long gun and at least five to man each carronade, which took so many men from Sapphire’s complement that if attacked whilst at anchor by enemy gunboats, she would have only half her upper-deck gun crews aboard for her own defence!
And, it was not as if those spanking-new eight gunboats would amount to much, since the Spanish already possessed un-told dozens of gunboats just cross the bay at Algeciras, and in the mouths of the Palmones and Guadarranque Rivers, some of them big beasts mounting many, and heavier, guns, and based on the war galleys which had dominated the Mediterranean for centuries. If they ever felt like it, the Dons could sally out and swat Lewrie’s boats away like flies, then swarm his ship and board her, and it would be up to the cannon on Gibraltar’s sprawling fortresses to save him. If the Army felt like it, that is!
“Well, let’s get on with it,” Lewrie grumbled. “Hoist signals for Harcourt and Elmes to begin, if ye please, Mister Westcott.”
“Aye, sir,” Westcott said, turning to the men of the After-Guard on the poop deck to strike the single flag hoist, the sign to Execute.
“Look at ’em,” Lewrie groused, “all those eager, bright-shinin’ faces, just strainin’ at the leash t’get going … hah!”
The ship’s Second Officer, Lieutenant Harcourt, and her Third Officer, Lieutenant Elmes, shouted orders, and the gunboats got under way, separating into two groups of four, with sailors heaving hard on their oars to get the heavy boats going, and Cox’ns at the tillers calling out the stroke. Lewrie could hear an enthusiastic cry arise, but that would most-likely be from one of the youngest of Sapphire’s Midshipmen, who didn’t know any better.
Yay, we’re goin’ somewhere! Lewrie scoffed to himself; Ain’t it just devilish-grand?
It must here be pointed out that Captain Alan Lewrie, before he had become Sir Alan Lewrie, Bart., had been press-ganged into the Navy by his own father when he was seventeen, in the middle of the American Revolution (to collect an inheritance on Lewrie’s mother’s side that would save the old rogue from debtors’ prison whilst Alan was away and all un-knowing), and that Midshipman Alan Lewrie had never been a gladsome sailor! Or quite that young, either, to be perfectly honest!
Lewrie fetched his day-glass and mounted to the poop deck to observe the first morning’s evolutions. The awnings were rigged over the deck against the Mediterranean sun and the rare rain, even if it was getting on for late November of 1807. Near the head of the larboard ladderway, his collapsible wood-and-canvas deck chair sat most invitingly, but, after a moment’s longing look, Lewrie steeled himself to stand and look somewhat the Proper Sea Captain. The ship’s mascot, Bisquit the dog, had been loafing aft on the flag lockers, but came trotting up for pets. After a proper greeting, and ruffling of his fur, Bisquit hopped into the chair himself, tongue lolling as if he knew he was getting away with something.
“Bloody idle … usurper,” Lewrie muttered to the dog, smiling even so, then raised his telescope to watch the gunboats manoeuvre.
With wig-wagged hand-held flags, Harcourt and Elmes directed their sections of gunboats into line-ahead, headed out as if to row towards Algeciras and challenge the Spanish, then wheeled them into two separate groups in line-abreast … very raggedly, Lewrie thought, even if it was the sailors’ first try, but he willed himself to be patient.
The next evolution that he and his officers had discussed would be a bit harder. The 12-pounder guns in the boats’ bows were fixed on wheeled carriages, and the whole boat must be slewed about to aim them. Harcourt and Elmes would order their boats to wheel about in their own lengths as if they had fired and would retire to re-load. One bank of oars must stroke ahead whilst the opposite bank of oarsmen must either back-water, or jab their oar blades into the sea for brakes.