Lewrie and the HogsheadsAn Interlude
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Excerpt from Hostile Shores
“Damme, but this is boresome,” Captain Sir Alan Lewrie, Baronet, muttered to himself as he took the morning air on his quarterdeck, at anchor in West Bay of Nassau Harbour. Being the temporary, and most unwilling, Senior Naval Officer Present in the Bahamas was turning out to be a dullity, and a constant round of paper shuffling and ink smudges, to boot. His fine 38-gun Fifth Rate frigate, HMS Reliant, had been anchored and idle since the Admiral commanding at Antigua far to the South, had sent orders appointing him to the command.
Reliant, in point of fact, was anchored just about where HMS Mersey, the former flagship of the recently disgraced Commodore Francis Forrester, had been, atop Mersey’s reef of beef and pork bones and all her ordure…. For God’s sake, Reliant was so idle that she had awnings rigged over the quarterdeck, and it was his inherited brig-sloops and small vessels Below the Rates which were doing the interesting work patrolling for enemy privateers or the first sight of the rumoured French squadron under Admiral Missiessy, said to be raiding the isles down South.
“For tuppence, I’d weigh anchor and go lookin’ for him, come Hell or high water,” Lewrie told Bisquit, the ship’s dog, which padded along beside him. “What say ye t’that, hey?”
Bisquit perked his ears erect and nuzzled Lewrie’s left knee.
“Didn’t think so,” Lewrie said with a sigh. “I leave harbour, and all Nassau’d shit their breeches.”
He looked shoreward to the town, which hadn’t changed one whit since the night before, then peered North over low-lying Hog Cay to the glittering open channel, where he really longed to be. The local fishing boats were out, and there was a brig-rigged vessel just visible, hull-down, sailing down the Nor’east Providence Channel, bound for port. No enemy, no threat, no excitement.
Lewrie had done several time-killing laps of his ship, from the stern taffrails to the forecastle and back, but loath as he was to go below and deal with the day’s paperwork, there was no avoiding it. Perhaps when he was done he could take a good long nap.
* * *
“Well, the expenditures seem above-board, sir,” Reliant’s Purser, Mr. Cadbury, allowed after hemming and hawing over the chits submitted by the Pursers of several other ships of the squadron. Loath as he was to speak ill of a fellow Purser, Mr. Cadbury had become, willing or not, the final arbiter of his peers’ honesty in their dealings. Pursers were not universally demeaned as “Nip-Cheese” for nothing, or people who could “make dead men chew tobacco.” Few of them died in debtors’ prisons or poverty—only the honest ones.
“Rather a lot o’ salt-beef for such a wee ship as Squirrel, though, ain’t it?” Lewrie asked, squinting dubiously. “And where on Eleuthera did they find that much?”
“Several of her casks had gone over, sir, and were condemned,” Cadbury explained. “The tropic heat? To obtain fresher, they had to pay dear.”
“And sell the bad on the sly to planters t’feed their slaves?” Lewrie posed with a quizzical brow up.
“Well, sir, I don’t know the final disposition of…” Cadbury began to quibble, but he was interrupted by a shout from the Marine sentry guarding the great-cabin door.
“Midshipman o’ th’ watch, Mister Grainger, SAH!”
“Come!” Lewrie called back, eager for anything to bring him to full wakefulness; all the “bumf” had half-glazed his eyes over.
“Sir!” Grainger said as he entered the great-cabins, hat under his arm, and approached the desk in the day-cabin. “Fulmar is entering port, sir, and she’s flying ‘Have Survivors Aboard.’”
“Survivors of what?” Lewrie gawped, sitting more erect. “Send her ‘Captain Repair On Board,’ Mister Grainger, and I will be on deck directly.”
“That’s enough for today, Mister Cadbury,” Lewrie said, rising from his desk. “Enough for a fortnight, more-like. Perhaps you should only report the worst, and most suspect, expenditures to me from now on. I trust you with the King’s Shillings.”
“Very well, sir,” Cadbury replied, sounding much relieved.
I don’t, really, but Pursers will be Pursers, Lewrie thought; and there’s little I can do about their ways.
“Hat and coat, Pettus,” Lewrie bade his cabin steward. “Then, we’ll see what Fulmar’s turned up.”
HMS Fulmar, a handsome brig-sloop of 16 guns, had barely come to anchor when her cutter set out for Reliant. Taking a surreptitious peek with a telescope, Lewrie could make out her captain, Commander Ritchie, in the boat’s sternsheets. With him was a civilian clad like a merchant ship master and looking none too natty. The cutter came alongside quickly, and Ritchie mounted to the starboard gangway right spryly, pausing to lend a hand to his passenger as the side-party of sailors and Marines rendered welcome-aboard honours.
“Commander Ritchie, welcome aboard,” Lewrie said, doffing his hat.
“Sir. Allow me to name to you Captain Israel Martin, formerly master of the American brig Santee, out of Charleston,” Ritchie replied, doffing his own hat in salute. “Captain Martin, this is Captain Sir Alan Lewrie, Baronet, captain of the Reliant frigate and Commodore of the Bahamas Squadron.”
“Cap’m Lewrie,” the American master said, doffing and nodding.
“Captain Martin, … honoured, sir,” Lewrie replied in kind. “You are a survivor, I believe Commander Ritchie’s signal said? Did your ship founder? And where, sir?”
“Taken by a big bastard of a Spanish privateer, sir, and sent off in our ship’s boats with nought but the clothes we stood up in,” Martin shot back, sounding as if it was the Royal Navy’s fault.
“Well, damn my eyes,” Lewrie exclaimed in surprise. “Let us go to my great-cabins, where you may relate all to me.”
* * *
Lewrie offered cool tea with sugar and lemon juice, which Commander Ritchie accepted. Martin would have Rhenish and would not further explain ’til he had downed one glass and got refilled, as if his ordeal had happened the day before, not weeks.
“We were bound Sou’west for the Crooked Island Passage when the bastard hove up ahead of us and chased us back out to sea, and we couldn’t make much way ’gainst the winds,” Captain Martin finally said, somewhere between snarling and hand-wringing. “They brought down our main course yard with their bow-chasers, then come up alongside, and we had no choice but to give up. I’ve lost my ship, my cargo, and all my passage money and belongin’s, and so did my crew. They forced us to take to the boats with barely enough bisquit and water to keep a bird alive, and sailed off, damn ’em! Wouldn’t even let me keep the ship’s papers or manifests!”