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Authors: Richard Woodman

Tags: #Fiction, #Action & Adventure, #Historical, #Sea Stories

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BOOK: Ebb Tide
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In the midst of this activity Drinkwater received a letter, an answer to one he had sent off almost as soon as
Cyclops
had dropped her anchor, and he was soon afterwards anxious to obtain a few days' leave himself. The letter was from Miss Elizabeth Bower, whom he had met when last in England and to whom he had formed a strong attachment. She, it seemed, felt similarly attracted to him and they had exchanged correspondence, but he was uncertain of her whereabouts since her widowed father, with whom she lived, had moved from the Cornish parish of which he had briefly been inter-regnant. Now, having hardly dared hope that his letter would reach her, for he had sent it by way of the Bishop of Winchester, he found that her father had been inducted as incumbent in the parish of Warnford, which lay in the upper valley of the Meon, not many miles north of Portsmouth.

... It is so Comforting to hear from You,

Elizabeth had written,
for Poor Father Exhausts himself in his Exertions to help the Unfortunate and Deserving Poor hereabouts... We have a Pleasant House with more Chambers than we can Sensibly use and Father joins me in Extending a Warm Invitation to you for Christmas, should You be Fortunate to Gain Your Freedom...

Keen both to justify Hope's faith in him and to oblige Devaux in the hope that in due course the first lieutenant would indulge his request for leave, Drinkwater penned a cautious note of acceptance hedged about by riders explaining his predicament, then threw himself into his duties. Occasionally these took him out of the ship, as when he acted for Hope on some business with the captain's prize agent, carrying papers ashore to the lawyer's chambers at Southsea. On this occasion, and in confident anticipation of his request being granted, Drinkwater spent two guineas of his prize money on a present for Elizabeth and was in high good humour as he returned from his expedition.

At the Sally Port he hired a wherry to take him back to the ship. It was a fine, cold winter's afternoon, with a brisk wind out of the northeast. A low sun laid a sparkling path upon the sea and threw long, complex shadows from the spars of the fleet. The wherryman set a scrap of lugsail as the boat cleared Southsea beach and they swooped and ducked over the choppy water in the lively but remarkably dry little craft as it fought the contrary tide. The panoply of naval might lay all about them in the brilliant sunshine. Curiously Drinkwater regarded each of the great ships as they lay with their heads to the westward, stemming the flood tide but canted slightly athwart its stream by the brisk wind. As they passed each of the ships-of-the-line, though his passenger could perfectly well read them, the boatman volunteered their names as if this additional service would ensure a large gratuity.

'Edgar, 
sir, seventy-four guns ...
Monarch,
seventy-four ...
Glenelg,
transport...
Bedford
...'

Drinkwater stared up at each as they struggled past; occasionally someone stared back and once a midshipman in a bucking cutter alongside a frigate waved cheerfully. With their yard and stay tackles manned, the ships were taking in stores from hoys and ketches bouncing and ranging alongside them. One vessel was landing a defective gun — Drinkwater could see a trunnion missing from it — and several ships were working on their top-hamper, sending down their upper spars. And above every stern the squadronal ensigns of red, white or blue snapped in the breeze.

'Royal George,
sir, first-rate. Tallest masts in the navy an' 'er main yard's the longest.'

Drinkwater stared at the great ship with her ascending tiers of stern galleries and her lofty rig. Above the ornate decoration of her taffrail, a huge blue ensign bowed the staff as it strained at its halliards.

'Dick Kempenfelt's flag, sir ...'

'Yes,' Drinkwater replied, glancing up at the blue rectangle at the mizen truck, wondering if, at that moment, Kempenfelt was sitting at his desk mulling over the wisdom of recommending confirmation of the acting commission of the young man whose hired wherry even then bounced over a wave under his flagship's transom.

'Bin the flagship of Anson, 'Awke, Rodney an' Boscawen,' obliged the loquacious and informative wherryman. Then he leaned forward and gave Drinkwater a nudge with the air of a conspirator. Drinkwater turned, caught sight of a quid of tobacco as it rolled between caried teeth, and received a waft of foul breath.

'But she'm rotten, sir, fair rotten, they tell me.' He nodded, adding with malicious relish, 'They were to dock her way back, but it got put off.' He grinned again. 'Bit of luck you're on
Cyclops,
eh?' and the boatman laughed.

'I thought she was well built,' Drinkwater said, looking up at the great ship, for anything else seemed inconceivable. Upon her quarterdeck high above him, an officer was studying him through a telescope and Drinkwater thought him bored with his anchor watch. 'Didn't I hear she took ten years to build?'

'That's right, sir,' the boatman agreed enthusiastically, 'an' what 'appens to timber what's left out ten year?'

'Well, it weathers.'

'That's bollocks, sir, if you'll pardon me lingo,' and the man spat to leeward as if adding to the contempt of his dismissal. 'Beggin' your pardon, sir, but if that's what they teaches you young officers nowadays, then 'tis no wonder the fleet's rotten. Look sir, what happens wiv a fence when you puts it up, eh?'

Drinkwater had never in his life put up a fence, but he supposed the task might not be beyond him. 'Well you tar it, I imagine,' he ventured.

'You're a bright 'un, sir,' the boatman said. 'Of course you does. You tars it. You don't leave it out for ten year for the rain to soak it and the sun to split it, do you? No. But that's what they done wiv the
Royal George!'

 

A week before Christmas, young Dicky White informed Drinkwater that his father had written and asked that his son be allowed to come home for Christmas. Drinkwater and White had become close friends and though Drinkwater's acting commission had distanced them, it had not destroyed their friendship. Even so, he knew that White possessed family interest and that his father's request would receive a favourable reply. The knowledge irked Drinkwater for he had no equivalent clout and, whatever his position
vis-à-vis
the midshipmen, he was the most junior officer in the gunroom. He felt a sudden certainty that the duty of Christmas would fall upon him. He stared for a moment out across Spithead to the grey shore of the Isle of Wight.

'I should like you to come with me and I have asked the first lieutenant,' White confided with a smile. 'You'll be glad to know he has no objection. Wallace has volunteered to remain on board.' White dropped his voice and added, 'There's a skeleton in the third lieutenant's locker, Nat. I've heard 'tis a gambling debt. I think he dare not set foot ashore. Either that, or an angry husband has a pair of pistols ready primed!'

The expression on White's face made Drinkwater laugh. 'I've heard nothing of the kind, Chalky. You have too much time in that mess of yours to let your imaginations run wild.' He grew serious, 'Look, my dear fellow, I'm vastly obliged to you for securing my release,' he paused, 'but... oh dear, this is deuced awkward...'

'You do not wish to accompany me to Norfolk?'

'I would dearly like to do so, but I have ... Damn it, Chalky, I have an invitation from ...'

'A lady!' White slapped his thigh in a highly precocious manner, his face broadening to a smile. 'Let me not stand in the way of love, Nat! I shall not say a word. I am so glad that I was the means of your furthering your suit! We shall leave together and we shall return to tell the first luff what a jolly time we had bagging pheasants!'

'Do you think we should go that far?' Drinkwater asked, laughing.

'Do you think we should not?' White retorted.

'Well, stap me, Chalky, if you aren't a veritable Cupid!'

 

Christmas of 1781 saw the streets of Portsmouth under snow. Even the warren of brothels and grog-shops that they passed through were lent an ethereal beauty by the dazzling whiteness of the snow. Set against an even tone of pearl-grey sky, the tumbled roofs, crooked chimneys and black windows seemed a haven of humanity rather than a nursery of vice and disease. The thin coils of smoke rising from fires of wood and sea-coal lent an air of happy domesticity to this illusion.

Soon they had left Portsmouth behind and found the road passable as it ascended the downs on the way towards Petersfield. White, with the air of a conspirator, had insisted he and Drinkwater leave the ship together. The conveyance Sir Robert White had provided for his son now departed from the post road sufficiently to put Drinkwater down within sight of the church tower of Farehurst. It was with a beating heart that he lugged his small portmanteau towards the vicarage, but anti-climax met him in the person of a small, careworn woman who opened the door and motioned him inside. She ushered him into what he took to be Mr Bower's study, for an ancient writing-table and a battered chair from which the majority of the stuffing had long since escaped, stood in the middle of the room. A litter of papers covered the table and two bookcases flanked the fireplace. An unlit fire was laid in the grate. Three odd upright chairs were set about the room, the pine boards of which were bare, and the windows were half-shuttered.

The woman opened these and waved him to a chair with a grunt. She avoided his eyes and pulled a grey shawl about her shoulders as if to emphasize the cold penury of the house. He did not sit, but moved to look at an engraving of Wells Cathedral above the overmantel, chafing his hands to stimulate circulation. Several books lay on the mantelshelf; idly he picked one up. It was a little anthology of poetry. On the flyleaf it bore the name
Eliz. Bower, her Book.
He flicked the pages over until the name
Kempenfelt
caught his eye and he had just started reading the admiral's poem 'Burst, ye Emerald Gates' when the door opened.

Elizabeth stood just inside the room, her dark hair bound up in a ribbon, her brown eyes wide with surprise. 'Nathaniel!'

She took a half-step towards him and then faltered; he felt her eyes on his face and remembered his scar.

'You have been hurt!'

In a sudden, embarrassed reflex he touched it with his fingers. "Tis nothing but a scratch. I had forgot it. I hope ...'

She stepped closer and he clasped her outstretched hands. 'Oh, but it does,' she said smiling, 'it utterly ruins your looks. I am pleased to say no sensible woman will ever look at you again.'

'You guy me.'

'La, sir, you are clever too!'

'And you, Elizabeth, how are you?'

She sighed and her gaze fell away for a second, but then she brightened and looked at him, her face alive with that infectious animation that he sometimes thought he had almost imagined. 'Much the better for seeing you ...'

'And your father?'

'Is old and worn out. He takes no thought for himself and is unwell, but he refuses to listen to my entreaties.' She paused, then tossed her head with a sniff. He drew her to him and felt her arms about him and smelt the fragrance of her hair as he brushed the top of her head with his lips. 'I am so very glad to have found you again,' he said.

She drew back and looked up at him, tears in her eyes. 'All I asked was that you should come back. How long do you have?'

'A sennight...'

After Mattins on Christmas morning, dinner in the vicarage was a merry meal. Having Drinkwater as a guest seemed to have given the Reverend Bower a new lease of life and his emaciated features bore a cheerful expression, notwithstanding the fact that he gently chided his house-keeper for failing to attend divine service.

'She doesn't understand,' he said resignedly, 'but when God has made you mute from birth, much must be incomprehensible. Nathaniel, my boy, do an old man a favour, slip out in about ten minutes with a glass of claret for her. She needs cheering, poor soul.'

After the modest meal of roast beef and oysters had been cleared away they exchanged gifts. Elizabeth had bought her father a book of sermons written by some divine of whom Drinkwater had never heard but who was, judging by old Bower's enthusiasm, a man of some theological consequence. So keen an appreciation of an intellectual present made Drinkwater's offering to old Bower seem insignificant, for he had been unable to think of anything other than a bottle of madeira he had bought from Lieutenant Wheeler. For his daughter, Bower had purchased a square of silk. It was the colour of flame and seemed to burst into the dingy room as she withdrew it from its wrapping. Elizabeth flung it about her shoulders and kissed her father, ruffling his white sidelocks with pleasure.

As unobtrusively as possible, Drinkwater slid Elizabeth's small parcel across the table. As she folded back the paper and opened the cardboard box it contained, her eyes widened with delight.

'Oh, my dear, it's beautiful!' She lifted the cameo out, held it in the palm of her hand and stared at the white marble profile of the Greek goddess on its field of pink coral. She looked up at him, her eyes shining, and it occurred to him that, though inadequate, his gift was sufficient to illuminate her dull existence. 'Look, Father ...'

Elizabeth secured the vermilion silk with the cameo, leaned across and kissed him chastely on the cheek. 'Thank you, Nathaniel,' she said softly in his ear.

Drinkwater sat back and raised his glass. He was astonished when Elizabeth placed two parcels before him. 'I have no right to expect hospitality and generosity like this.'

'Tush, Nathaniel,' Elizabeth scolded mischievously, 'do you open them and save your speeches until you see what you have been saddled with.'

He opened the first. It contained a watch from the vicar. 'My dear sir! I am overwhelmed ... I... I cannot...'

'I find the passage of time far too rapid to be reminded of it by a device that will outlive me. 'Tis a good time-keeper and I shall not long have need of such things.'

'Oh, Father, don't speak so!'

BOOK: Ebb Tide
9.75Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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