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Authors: David Donachie

Tested by Fate

BOOK: Tested by Fate
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Tested by Fate


To Andrew
The newest member
of the family

Battle of
Battle of the Nile
   St Vincent

Horatio Nelson resonates down the ages, it is hard to imagine that same person as a small thirteen-year-old boy, the son of an impecunious parson, leaving his Norfolk home to join a Navy in which he would be required to daily risk life and limb. Equally difficult is the notion that a small grubby lass called Emma Lyons, who had hawked lumps of sea coal by the side of a country road, could at the opening of this book, be sitting as a model for one of the most famous painters of the age.

The first book of the trilogy
covered the time from Nelson joining the Navy and ended with his service in the War of American Independence, fourteen years in which he rose from midshipman to the rank of Post Captain. At that time his unique qualities were known only to a very few people—those who had served with him in the land campaign against the Spanish in Central America, and the officers and men of the various ships which he commanded. That he had unique gifts was not in doubt—many who served with him spoke of his common touch, the ability to connect with men of any rank from lower deck to officer’s wardroom.

Having learnt his trade as a sailor aboard a merchant vessel, Nelson never lost sight of the life led by those he commanded. And, unusually for his time, he was also an avid student of his profession, taking as much interest in gunnery, carpentry, sail making, and
as he did in the skills necessary to sail and fight a ship of war. He fought on land with the same tenacity he employed at sea, nearly forfeiting his life to gain victory. And his enemies in the American War would attest to his honourable behaviour.

Nelson could, and did, converse with everyone without a hint of condescension. It was not forced—it was natural, as was his concern for the welfare of his crew. This made him popular amongst the lower decks, though he was less appreciated by those who shared his rank; some of his fellow captains thought him odd—
other reckoned him dangerous, few rated him as an equal, let alone a superior intelligence.

The same book told the story of Emma Lyons, who grew up to be a famous beauty, though not without the vicissitudes brought on by her own wayward personality. Bonded as a housemaid first in Cheshire and then in London, Emma failed to adhere to the rules her station demanded—to be quiet, servile, and well behaved. Instead, she rebelled, and followed in her mother’s footsteps to end up as a hostess at the well-known establishment of a lady called Mrs Kelly. That she sold sexual favours in return for comfort is without doubt, but Emma would always deny in later life that she had been a whore, for in her mind and that of the age there was a distinction between those girls who worked the streets and bawdy houses, and the more favoured and refined ladies who staffed “respectable” places of entertainment.

Taken as a mistress by a famous rake, Emma fooled herself into believing that their relationship was more than that of kept woman and master. The disillusionment brought about by the reality of her situation, the abandonment of both her and the child she was carrying, was tempered by a new association with the Honourable Charles Greville, who undertook to provide for the child and set her up in small but comfortable London house, with Emma’s mother as housekeeper and chaperone. But by now Emma was a beauty, much sought after by men of parts, including the Prince Regent. Greville’s parsimony and jealousy, in contrast to Emma’s openness and gaiety, led to many a spat, but the relationship survived, mainly due to what Greville called Emma’s sweet nature.

These two people, who formed one of the great romantic attachments of history had yet to meet. Emma’s life was to change dramatically, and put her in a place where that first acquaintance would occur. When she met Nelson he was but one captain amongst many in King George’s Navy, but that was about to change.

tells the story of how Horatio Nelson, the small boy from Norfolk became the nation’s hero, and of the attachment he formed for that coal-vending urchin girl, who was, by the time they met, Lady Emma Hamilton.

” said Giddings, at the sight of the hatless midshipman who was desperate to reach the quayside before Captain Nelson’s carriage appeared.

All but two of the barge crew slipped down the slimy wooden stairway, taking their allotted places in the boat, clasping and raising their oars till they stood, regulation fashion, pointing towards the grey sky. The rattle of iron-hooped wheels set up a steady tattoo as the coach bounced on to the cobbled hard of Sheerness dockyard. Midshipman George Andrews skidded to a halt and jammed his hat back on his head. He had just enough time to raise it again as the door opened. His hair was whipped to one side by the steady wind, which also carried his high-pitched voice to the waiting sailors’ ears.

“Mr Andrews, sir, at your service.”

Nelson returned the salute with a smile that carried more than his normal ration of paternalistic good humour. He had met the Andrews family in St Omer, in what now seemed like a futile attempt to better his French. The clerical father had been happy to entertain a naval officer bent on improving himself. Once he met the parson’s daughters his studies had lost their lustre. Kate Andrews, at eighteen the elder of the pair, had occupied his waking thoughts, filling his mind with imaginings of the blessings of matrimony, even if, as an officer on half pay, he couldn’t afford it.

Letters to relatives had not produced the desired financial assistance, probably due to Nelson’s inability to guarantee that the object of his affections held him in the same regard. It was the kind of bind from which it seemed impossible to escape: he couldn’t
marriage because he lacked the means, but couldn’t acquire
the means without some indication of commitment from the object of his affections.

That short exchange with young George brought the memories flooding back: sweet Kate, who sang like an angel and played the piano with grace; the secret glances they had exchanged to fool those present. Jealousy surfaced in Nelson when any other seemed to occupy Kate’s attentions and he recalled the way her lips pursed with annoyance at the sharper tone his voice took on in such circumstances. It was love of the truest and purest kind, painful in an almost physical way.

And here before him stood Kate’s sibling brother, who had been at school in England while the rest of his family had been in France. He had the same corn-coloured hair, blue eyes, and fair complexion, features that produced a physical reaction that ran through his entire frame. Nelson had a ship on foreign service, with every hope that his fortune might improve; at the end of this commission he might well find himself in a position to call on Kate with the means to make a proposal. Having returned the salute, he stuck out his hand. “Why, Mr Andrews. I am happy to make your acquaintance. Might I be permitted to enquire after your family?”

“My father asked particularly to be remembered to you, sir. Both he and I are conscious of the honour you do us by taking me on board.”

“How could I refuse?” he replied. “Was it not Kate who requested it?”

The boy’s eyes opened wide in surprise. “Why, no, sir. If anything she’s dead set against it.”

That made his new commander frown; it indicated that his pursuit of Kate Andrews was stalled. “Did she say why?”

“My sister thinks me too young, sir.”

“Did your father not inform you that is exactly the same age at which I came to sea?”

“Why, sir, that is amazing.”

The wonder on George Andrews’s face, the startled look in his cornflower-blue eyes, restored Nelson’s dented spirits. He, too, could
recall the impossibility of the thought that his seniors had once been just like him: young, gauche, and inexperienced. He looked up to see Giddings approaching, reminding him that the midshipman, in his enthusiasm, had forgotten to attend to his duties. And Frank Lepée, never one to shirk in articulating his displeasure, was
, though whether at the boy for his failure or the master for his indulgence was impossible to say. Giddings saw the look, observed that the servant was about to speak out, and solved the problem by acting as though the order had just been given.

“Aye, aye, sir,” he barked, turning back towards the hands who had yet to take their place in the barge. “Sharp now, an’ see to the Captain’s dunnage.”

Andrews’s whole frame shook, in a manner that reminded Nelson of the charlatan Graham’s electric therapy. He sought words to cover his lapse.

“Holy Christ in heaven,” growled Lepée, which earned him a stern look of reproach from his captain.

“You must ask me to step into the barge, young man,” Nelson whispered. “That is, once the sea chests are loaded.”

“Aye, aye, sir.” The boy gulped.

His voice was restored by the time they came alongside. The way he yelled “
to inform the crew that their captain was coming aboard, would have been heard halfway across the Medway. It was also quite unnecessary, since the first lieutenant had given the lookout orders to keep his telescope trained on the shore.

The barge crew hooked on to the chains and Nelson leapt for the rope ladder that rose towards the gangway. As his head appeared above the level of the deck, the pipes blew and the marines crashed their boots on to the planking, producing a resounding salute. Ralph Millar was the premier. A florid-faced American Loyalist, he had served as a midshipman aboard Sir Richard Parker’s flagship, HMS
when Nelson was first made Post Captain and had never ceased to correspond with a man he openly admired. The last time he had seen Nelson was as an invalid being shipped home after the San Juan river fiasco. Millar stepped forward as Nelson’s foot made
contact with the deck, hat raised, his round face showing with subdued pleasure. “Welcome aboard, sir. It does my heart good to see you fit and well.”

Nelson raised his own hat in return, both to his first lieutenant and, facing the quarterdeck, to his new command. “Assemble the men aft, Mr Millar, so that I may read myself in.”

As he glanced up from a document he knew by heart the eager faces cheered him mightily. Giddings had volunteered; Thorpe was there, as well as Nichols, and Bromwich, standing head and shoulders above the rest—still not promoted, despite Nelson’s best efforts—had agreed to serve him as a master’s mate. There were numerous others, who had formerly served on
and had now volunteered for his new 36-gun frigate and a return to the Caribbean. Nothing made coming back aboard a ship as pleasant as this.

Nelson glared at the stack of papers on his dining table. It served as a desk as well, a piece of fine mahogany on bare planking in a wooden-walled space painted pale green. There wasn’t much else: a wine cooler, the gleaming brass instruments he used for navigation, two Harrison chronometers, which would give him his latitude, and enough chairs to host a decent dinner.

“A summary, Millar, if you please.” Millar rattled off the facts, in his twangy Yankee accent, which covered myriad items: sails, spars, rope, tar, nails, turpentine, even bales of tow. “Combustibles?”

“Fully loaded, sir. Deficient only in wood and water.”

“Powder and shot?”

“Your predecessor was all husbandry in that department, sir. The hinges on the shot store hatches are rusty.”

“And likely to remain so, Millar.” The premier’s thick black eyes betrayed just a hint of what must have been deep surprise. Nelson pulled a second oilskin pouch from his pocket. “We have become a mere postal packet. If you peruse that you will see that we are to be burdened with passengers.” Millar reached forward to take it, as Nelson continued. “Twenty-five midshipmen, enough to man every
vessel on the whole Leeward Island station, with a few to spare for Jamaica. Added to that we shall be carrying the wife and daughter, no less, of our future commander, Admiral Sir Richard Hughes. I doubt they’ll take kindly to their repose being shattered by daily gunfire.”

“The lady is a sailor’s wife, sir.”

“Wrong!” said Nelson, with a grin. “She’s an admiral’s wife.”

“Should I be a-continuing, your honour?” Lepée, busy unpacking, had a face to match his grumbling voice. “If we has an admiral’s wife aboard, she’ll have the use of most of the cabin.”

“As like as not I shall have to shift my cot into the privy.”

“So, no gunnery, sir?” asked Millar.

Nelson grinned even wider. “Let us see how she shapes up. Maybe she will love the smell of powder as much as we do.”

The sound of the marine sentry, coming noisily to attention, made both look to the door, which opened abruptly at Nelson’s command to reveal the swarthy, handsome face of the second lieutenant, Edward Berry.

“Pilot coming aboard, sir.”

“Good. Mr Millar, stand by to weigh at first light tomorrow morning.”

Spithead, 18th April

To Mr Stephens,

Secretary to the Admiralty,

Dear Sir,

I have the honour to acquaint you that His Majesty’s ship, under my command, arrived at this place yesterday, and enclosed is her state and condition.


Captain H. Nelson

“And damned lucky we are, Millar,” he added, putting down his quill. He sanded, folded, and sealed his letter to the Port Admiral at Portsmouth.

“The man was clearly drunk, sir,” Millar replied. He referred to the Nore pilot who had run them fast aground in water so shallow when the tide went out that an audience had gathered to walk round the ship. He got her off at the next high water, only to be bound to the shore by a gale and a blinding snowstorm. In the Downs, still suffering from seasickness, he had got into a quarrel with a Dutch captain, who laid a complaint at the Admiralty about his behaviour. Unusually to Nelson’s way of thinking, they had backed him up.

A knock and the sudden appearance of Andrews disturbed his thoughts. “We’ve been hailed by a whole fleet of bum-boats, sir. They’re full of women and servants who claim that one is the wife to Admiral Hughes.”

“The lady is sharp, sir,” said Millar. “We’ve barely made our number.”

“Perhaps she fears I’ll sail without her,” replied Nelson.

“You are most gracious, Captain,” said Lady Hughes, for the tenth time.

“The offer of my table is trifling enough, madam,” Nelson replied. “The food, as well as the plate, is all yours.”

Aboard three days now, she had dressed for the occasion, head turbaned in silk, jewels flashing each time she moved her head and neck. From the little he knew, she had been a beauty when young, and some of that had stayed with her into middle age. But the line of her jaw had hardened, spoiling what might otherwise have been an elegant, if matronly, countenance.

“I do so think there is nothing like an occasion for making proper acquaintance. Especially, sir, with members of the gentler sex.”

The great cabin was full to overflowing. Practically every officer and midshipman aboard
including Lady Hughes’s own son, was present to consume the ample dinner. Naturally she had yielded the head of the table to the commanding officer, but she had taken station to his immediate right and showed equal care in the way she placed her daughter, Rosy. The girl, plain, plump, and pitifully shy,
had been sat within full view of the Captain, her position close enough to the lieutenants to ensure that, should Lady Hughes’s premier stratagem fail, these junior officers were there to fall back on.

Almost her first words on coming aboard had been a polite enquiry after Mrs Nelson. The predatory gleam in her eye as he replied that he had no wife had troubled Nelson. Trapped at table, with George Andrews a visible reminder of his hopes, he was brusque with both. This wounded the girl and bounced harmlessly off the mother. Her “butterfly,” as she so inappropriately called Rosy, was off to the West Indies unattached. Clearly, Lady Hughes had no intention that she should return to England in that same estate.

“You’re sure the hour of dinner is not too early for you, madam?” he asked, seeking to shift the conversation towards alimentary rather than matrimonial pursuits.

For once his passenger replied precisely to the point. “A trifle. I reckon my disposition, after long abuse, will bear it. Your three of the clock dinner is a naval habit that the Admiral insists on when he’s ashore. My butterfly greets his determination to dine early with much grief, claiming it plays havoc with her digestion, which is, I may say, as delicate as her manners.”

“Then she must take care to avoid sailors, madam,” snapped Nelson. “We engage in a rough trade and perforce make poor husbands.”

It had been too good an opportunity to miss, but he had spoken with more force than necessary. Lady Hughes might be single-minded, but she was far from stupid. More than that, she was not one to suffer so without retaliating. Her glance strayed down the table to where Midshipman Andrews sat opposite her own son, Edward. She had noticed that among the ship’s youngsters the Captain had afforded this blond child extra attention.

“You do not hold with officers marrying, sir? Perhaps you find it unnatural.”

The inference was evident. He had to fight the temptation to administer a public rebuke at such a charge. Only her position as the Admiral’s wife saved her. But his reaction clearly alarmed the
lady since she sat back abruptly—anyone who had seen his face at that point would have recoiled: his eyes were as hard as gemstones, the skin round his jaw was fully stretched, and his reply was delivered in a subdued hiss so at odds with his normal manner. “You will oblige me, madam, by leaving off with your matchmaking. I expect you to apply this injunction to both myself and my officers. Your position affords you many advantages, but trapping your husband’s inferiors is not one of them.”

“I dislike your tone, sir!”

Nelson deliberately looked at Andrews. “And I, Lady Hughes, dislike your insinuations. I will have you know that I have an arrangement with that young man’s sister.”

BOOK: Tested by Fate
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