“You could get addicted to this series. Easily.”---The New York Times Book Review
The year 1809 starts out badly for Captain Alan Lewrie, Royal Navy, and his ship, HMS Sapphire. They’ve extracted the sick, cold survivors of Sir John Moore’s army from disaster at Corunna, got hit by lightning while escorting the army to England, and suffered a shattered mainmast which may end Lewrie’s active commission if a replacement can’t be found or fashioned soon. Admiralty needs troopships, not slow, old Fourth Rate two-deckers, so Lewrie must beg, borrow, steal, and gild the facts most glibly if he wishes to keep her and her skilled crew together.
Just when he imagines he’s succeeded, new orders come appointing him a Commodore over a wee squadron assigned to prey upon French seaborne supply convoys off the treacherous north coast of Spain, better known as the Costa da Morte, the Coast of Death, where the sea may be more dangerous to him and his ships than the French Navy! Basing out of newly won Lisbon, where Lewrie hopes his mistress from Gibraltar, Maddalena Covilhá, might move, he’s sure of one thing: It's going to be a rocky year that, hopefully, doesn’t involve wrecking on the rugged shores of Spain!
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A Hard, Cruel Shore
An Alan Lewrie Naval Adventure
By Dewey Lambdin
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2016 Dewey Lambdin
All rights reserved.
"Ah, it looks bad, right enough, sir," Mr. Posey, the Surveyor of the Portsmouth Dockyards, gloomily said as he gave the main topmast a thump with his fist. He would have said more, but had to go for his calico handkerchief once more to contain a massive sneeze, then a huge, phlegmy, gargling cough.
Thought he'd sneeze himself right off the shrouds on the way up here, Captain Sir Alan Lewrie, Baronet, thought. He would have taken a step away from the man to avoid catching whatever he had, but for the fact that they were standing in the mainmast fighting top, having come up through the lubber's hole, most un-seamanly. It had been ages since Lewrie had ascended any higher than the cat harpings of the mainmast, and if either one of them had taken the proper route, hanging upside down from the futtock shrouds and clawing up and over the rim of the top, they would now both be smashed to jelly on the deck, far below.
Now, there's a cure for his sniffles, Lewrie told himself.
"Your pardons, sir," Mr. Posey continued. "Lightning, was it?"
"Aye, one Hell of a crack, and I haven't trusted it with even a handkerchief, since," Lewrie told him, taking a half-step back as Posey whipped his handkerchief from the turnback of his coat's cuff and captured yet another massive sneeze.
* * *
The weather on their way back from the evacuation of the army at Corunna had been brisk, and the seas rough, requiring reefed top-sails, and the striking below of the royal and t'gallant masts. That had brought the lightning conductor head down to the lower mast cap. Rain was pouring down, cold and hard as ice pellets, and lightning could be seen all round them, miles away, fork-flashing at the seas.
Suddenly, there had come a flash brighter than day, sizzling the air, raising mens' hair on end, a searing explosion of light and heat, so bright that everyone's eyes were nigh-blinded for long seconds. The clap of thunder that accompanied the flash was so sudden, and so loud that, for a second or two, Lewrie imagined that the ship had blown up! Lost in the titanic roar had been the splintering of the topmast, and the splitting of the lower main mast just above the fighting top. The cap had been set afire, to boot, quickly extinguished by the rain, leaving a plume of thin grey smoke spurting to leeward. Three men in the top had been killed outright, and another two had been rendered senseless, deaf, and half-blind for days after.
Oh yes, it had been lightning!
* * *
"We fished it, as you can see," Lewrie said, pointing out the spare anchor stocks that had been nailed to the main mast, woolded with wraps of hawsers, and shimmed. "The iron bands all the way down to the upper deck partners had t'be re-enforced, too. So ... I expect she'll need an entire new lower mast?"
"Oh, indeed, sir, indeed," Mr. Posey heartily agreed, done with his survey, and returning to the lubber's hole in the top for a climb back down to the weather deck. "Ah-achoo! Ah, pardons. If you would be so good as to strip her down to a gantline, and un-ship all shrouds and backstays, I can have the sheer hulk alongside by Monday. Though ... fashioning a lower mast to the proper dimensions may take awhile, sir ... ah-achoo! At least we can have the bad'un out 'til then. I will need the length of the main course and tops'l yards for my calculations, if you please, sir."
God, I'm stuck in port'til next Epiphany, Lewrie thought, despairing. There weren't many Fourth Rate 50-gunners left in the Navy inventory; most had been turned into troop transports minus guns, or were used as harbour stores hulks. Warships of roughly the same class and design had their specifications drawn up to strict mathematical calculations of mast thickness, lower taper, length, upper diameter to fit through the partners of the lower and upper gun decks, and how they must be stepped to the keelson deep below, with the length of their yards laid out to yet another set of calculations. It might take weeks for the dockyards to fashion one, if none was laying about ready for use, which was extremely "iffy"!
Posey seemed free enough of sneezes to assay the climb down the narrowing main stays and ratlines, and swing out and around to the outer face of the larboard main shrouds. Lewrie followed him, gingerly. But, damned if the bastard didn't pause to sneeze, again, with both hands busy, and expel a cloud of snot and droplets without his handkerchief. The air was so cold in harbour that Posey's breath — along with snot — resembled a sudden burst from a 6-pounder gun!
Lewrie waited 'til that cloud dissipated, then clambered down, slowly and carefully, to the larboard bulwarks and dropped to the safety of the sail-tending gangway. He hoped that he wasn't infected!
Lewrie saw Mr. Posey to the starboard entry-port, made some polite departure small talk, then doffed his hat as the side-party rendered debarking honours.
"A whole new lower mast, is it, sir?" Lt. Geoffrey Westcott, HMS Sapphire's First Officer, glumly asked once Mr. Posey was in his boat, and its crew stroking for the distant shore.
"Aye, if they can find one," Lewrie told him, "or make a new one."
"Oh, good!" Westcott replied with a glint in his eyes, and a quick, fierce grin. "Bags of shore liberty, then. Mirth, glee ... wine and women."
"Most especially women," Lewrie said with a roll of his eyes.
Geoffrey Westcott and Lewrie had been paired for nigh six years, come May, in the same ships, first the Reliant frigate, and now Sapphire, and Lewrie had stood in awe of how aggressively his First Lieutenant pursued "quim". Lewrie, no slacker when it came to discovering a willing lady, felt like a monk in comparison!
"Well, at least we can still use the main course yard for hoisting stores aboard," Westcott commented, looking aloft, "even if we had to jury-rig."
"Aye, continue loading fresh stores, but when the sheer hulk comes alongside on Monday, everything will have t'be stripped away," Lewrie told him. "And, we'll have to stretch some canvas over the gaps when it's extracted, from the weather deck right down to the orlop, else all the rain and snow get in."
"I'll see to it, sir," Westcott promised, touched fingers to the brim of his cocked hat, and walked away.
Probably t'stay warm, Lewrie told himself as he lingered by the starboard bulwarks to gaze at the shore, and the town. Portdown Hill was almost obscured by the low, grey, and swift-scudding clouds, and the spires of the churches were almost brushed with them. Under that unbroken gloom, the coal smoke from thousands of chimneys spewed an even darker pall. It had snowed before HMS Sapphire, the other escorting warships, and the clutch of troopships had entered port and had come to anchor, then warmed and melted what snow had fallen, turning Portsmouth and its environs into a dingy grey and black sketch with the red brick of manufacturies, warehouses, and government buildings the only discernible colour. What accumulations of snow that remained had gone to dark mud and coal-soot grey.
It was trying to snow again, in a lacklustre fashion, in swirls and gusts that played out before any new accumulation could sugarcoat the winter's ugliness. As Lewrie paced along the quarterdeck's rails, his boots found icy patches of snow just half-melted then re-frozen to sound crunchy, then another patch of fresher snow just deep enough to muffle his steps. When he turned to look forward towards the bows, he could see some of the ship's boys trying to make the best of what had fallen on the decks to make snowballs. They had formed two sides in roughly equal numbers, but there wasn't much to work with, and after a few volleys back and forth, the game was played out for lack of "ammunition".
"Mister Fywell," he said to one of the Midshipmen standing Harbour Watch, "break out the brooms at the end of the Second Dog, and have the ship swept down. No sense in someone breakin' their necks on an icy patch, not after survivin' the voyage here."
"Aye aye, sir, I will see to it," Fywell replied, coming out of his shivery in-attention. He was swaddled in a heavy grogram watch-coat, a colourful civilian wool muffler, and mittens, but still had to stamp his buckled shoes to keep life in his feet, and his cotton duck slop-trousers were no help in repelling the chill wind that stirred the harbour waters to confused chops.
"Carry on, then," Lewrie said, knowing that the older Mids had put the "younkers" in their place on such a day, and made a note to himself to check on the watchstanders of the First and Second Dog Watches to see if Hillhouse, Leverett, and Britton, the eldest, were taking their proper turns.
As was his wont when seeking a wider view, he went on up to the poop deck and looked over the anchorage for the Undaunted frigate, in which his youngest son, Hugh, served, then for the two brig-sloops, Blaze and Peregrine, which had been with him since they had left Gibraltar weeks before. All appeared to be in good order. They should be, after all; they hadn't been struck by lightning! Capt. Chalmers had fetched Undaunted close aboard soon after the strike to offer aid, but could not help from teasing, asking Lewrie "What sins has the Good Lord punished you for, sir?" and she was close enough for Lewrie to see Hugh at her rails, laughing his young arse off!
Once in port, Lewrie had summoned his crew to tell them that they'd done a grand thing in fetching off every last survivor of the late General Sir John Moore's army, all the wounded and sick, from the clutches of the pursuing French armies, along with all the army's supplies, leaving the starving enemies with not a morsel of loot, and only the brief warmth of the great pyres of burning supplies that they could not load aboard the hundred-odd rescue ships before they had sailed away. And, despite the brutal weather on-passage from Corunna, not a single troopship had been lost, which he'd told his men that they should be proud of doing.
Privately, though, Lewrie had had a hard time believing that, himself. He had been a Midshipman at Yorktown during the American Revolution, escaping by the skin of his teeth the night before when the hasty evacuation of Cornwallis's army had been scotched by a storm that had howled down from inland, turning the York River into a maelstrom that had flushed his shoddily and hastily built greenwood barge, along with a few others, as far as Guinea Neck, leaving them to make a skulking further escape past the French fleet to the sea beyond the Chesapeake Bay capes, and rescue by a passing British warship.
He'd been a Lieutenant at the evacuation of Toulon, seconded off the Cockerel frigate to command a captured French Third Rate, cut down to a razee and turned into a large mortar ship, which, by the by, had been hit in the wrong place whilst shelling Fort LeGarde to ruin, and blown up underneath him. He'd had temporary command of a French frigate to get as many of the captured enemy fleet away before the French took the city, at last, and butchered or guillotined the French Royalists that the ships of the First Coalition could not find room for.
And now he had been at Corunna, and had plucked yet another British army to safety before its destruction.
Christ, but it gets old, don't it, he sadly thought; And I'm cold, he noticed as the winds picked up and a few icy pellets of snow began to flurry about him.
Despite wearing itchy woolen underdrawers beneath his dark blue wool trousers, woolen stockings inside his Hessian boots, and his coat buttoned double over his chest, he still shivered, and wished that he had not sold off his furs that he had not had a real use for since he had sailed into the Baltic in winter, just before the Battle of Copenhagen, to scout the ice and the naval ports of Sweden and Russia which were allies of the Danes. It was time to stop dawdling in depressing thoughts, and go below to his great-cabins, where, with any luck, it might be a touch warmer, out of the wind.
"And where's old Captain Speaks' Franklin stoves when I really need one?" he muttered to himself as he went down the starboard ladderway to the quarterdeck.
He heard a tentative woof! from the improvised dog house under the ladderway. Lewrie ducked down to peer in, and sure enough, the ship's dog, Bisquit, was in there, getting to his feet and shaking off one of the cast-off old blankets which he'd half-pulled over himself.
"Hallo, Bisquit," Lewrie said, "what the Devil are ye doin' in there? You should be below on the gun decks, where it's warmer."
Bisquit perked up his stand-and-fall ears and whisked his bushy tail, taking that for an invitation, and wriggled out to stand on his hind legs with his front paws on Lewrie's coat, eager for some "wubbies", which Lewrie was happy to supply, making the dog break out one of his glad grins.
"I'm goin' in, out o' the wind. Care t'join me, just this once?" Lewrie said, cupping Bisquit's head and rubbing his ears. "Can't promise it'll be that much warmer, but there's a carpet for you t'curl up on."
He turned to the door to his great-cabins, just under the poop deck's overhang, and Bisquit frisked at his heels. Hardly had Lewrie nodded to the Marine private who guarded his sanctuary and laid hold of the knob than Bisquit dashed through the narrow gap, galloping into the cabins.
The Marine sentry lowered his musket from Present Arms and turned up the wide collar of his little-used greatcoat after saluting the Captain, muttering under his breath "Wisht I could roll up on a warm carpet, too!"CHAPTER 2
"Have we anything hot, Pettus?" Lewrie asked his cabin-steward as he blew on his hands to warm them. His cabins were a bit warmer, only due to being out of that wind, and closed up snugly, but five warm bodies — Lewrie, Pettus and young Jessop, Bisquit and the cat, Chalky — did little to heat it, not like the upper and lower gun decks where the body heat of hundreds of off-watch sailors and Marines was trapped beneath closed hatches and behind sealed gun ports. They had small lanthorns or glim candles by the dozens, too.
"Aye, sir!" Pettus piped up. "There's a pot of tea just brewed on the sideboard, with a warming candle under it. Would you care for a dollop of rum or brandy with it, sir?"
"That I would," Lewrie eagerly agreed, "a mug that I can wrap my fingers round, not a dainty cup. Hallo, Chalky, and how are you?" he asked his cat, which had been napping on the starboard side settee. One of his servants had tucked a tea towel over the cat, a white one, making it hard to distinguish where the tea towel ended and the whiteish furred Chalky began. He was so comfortable that even the dog's exuberant entry and quick scout of the great-cabins hadn't stirred him.
Lewrie gave Chalky some head strokes, and ran a finger along his jowls that brought him to all fours, and an arching of his back. Which bliss lasted but a moment, for Bisquit decided to come to the settee to see what the animated towel was all about, and Chalky was off in a dash for the bed space and shelter atop the hanging bed-cot where the dog might not be able to leap.
"Oh, well," Lewrie sighed, transferring his attention to the dog for a moment before crossing the day cabin to his desk to seat himself, open a drawer, and pull out writing paper. "Damme, I've the last quire o' good paper left, maybe less."
"Mister Faulkes, he said he wuz almost out, too, sir," Jessop spoke up from the wine cabinet, where he was fetching out the rum, "an' thought he might haveta borry from you, afore we got new from a chandler."
"Well, that's one of many shortages soon t'be solved," Lewrie said, jerking his head shoreward. "Be aboard by morning."
Pettus brought him a large ceramic mug of steaming-hot tea, redolent of a large dollop of rum, and Lewrie held it under his nose for a good long time, letting out an "aahh", holding it with both hands. A second satisfied "aahh" followed his first, deep sip. Pettus had laced the tea with lots of sugar, and some goat's milk from the nanny in the forecastle manger, and it was heavenly going down, warming him even down to his toes.
Excerpted from A Hard, Cruel Shore by Dewey Lambdin. Copyright © 2016 Dewey Lambdin. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Can't wait for the next one to come out. This series is really starting to get good.
I've read the entire series ending with this one in the last three months. Well worth the effort. Can't wait for the next book as this one has left me on a Hard Cruel Shore.