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Dewey Lambdin

Sea of Grey

(Lewrie – 10)

In memory of ' Genoa '

who passed over last Memorial Day weekend. Don't worry, hon… good cats go to heaven. If they didn't, what's the point of people getting there? Sleep safe, and say hello to Sister Foozle 'til we all meet again.

And to the two new 'Bubbas'

who turned up like the shepherd in Terry Kay's To Dance with the White Dog on the counter of the vet's office like serendipity. Mostly white-furred, playful, mischievous, clever, impish, and talkative Mosby and Forrest! You boys get outta the dish cabinet right now, hear?

PROLOGUE

Troubles hurt the most when they prove self-inflicted.

Sophocles

CHAPTER ONE

Supping with his father was not exactly Alan Lewrie's idea for how he had intended to complete his personal celebrations, after a day of honour and fame, but after the disastrous shambles in Hyde Park he found himself at rather greater than 'loose ends,' with his only ally in the world that cynical Corinthian, that shameless old rake-hell and charter member of the infamous Hell-Fire Club; to wit, Major-General Sir Hugo St. George Willoughby, Knight of The Garter, with his sardonic, acidic jollity, with his perpetual leer for all things feminine…

But he was paying, so…

Given Sir Hugo's 'sportin' ' nature, it was no wonder that they had ended the evening at The Cocoa Tree, one of the fastest gambling establishments in London. Ostensibly a proprietary coffee-house where men of the Tory persuasion were wont to gather, it set a magnificent table, and was all 'the go' with those wealthy enough (or foolish enough!) to riffle the cards in the Long Rooms or lay side wagers, even to take an 'insurance policy' on someone else's life; i.e., to wager just when a certain cove would croak!

Least it ain 't a 'cock and hen' club, Lewrie thought, most pleasantly stuffed and 'whiffled' by then; I'm in enough trouble.

For a time, it had seemed as if one of those shadier establishments might feature in the afternoon and night's activities, as he and his father had made the rounds. First had come a gentlemanly tavern, near Sir Hugo's old haunts in St. James's Square for a few badly needed stiff ones, followed by a saunter east to the theatre district for a lively farce, which was followed by a patriotic display in honour of Admiral Duncan and the Battle of Camperdown-with offers of gallons of free drink from fellow theatre patrons near their box, and Sir Hugo gallantly stroking the mustachios he did not have (reducing the slaver, Lewrie thought it) as he boldly gazed down the bodices of the promising young ladies, or leered at the eager young orange-sellers.

Followed by a traipse through Covent Garden's vast and crowded arcade, where anything or anyone could be had at a decent price if one but haggled a bit, where smuggled French champagne had been prominently featured (Lewrie was pretty sure); thence here, to The Cocoa Tree, and a lashing or two more of wine accompanying supper, along with the odd 'revivor' brandy, now the port.

Squinting only just a tad to maintain focus, Lewrie studied the many ladies present, strolling and flouncing past the communal table at which he and his father had shared supper with a pack of strangers. A lively pack of roisterers, in the main, but new to both of them.

The Cocoa Tree maintained a certain air of proper decorum, just as the resort at Bath did. Only true ladies welcome in Society, with a requisite purseful of 'chink,' and the itch to risk it, were allowed.

Quite unlike his dissolute youth, in the pre-Navy days, when he and his usual mob of bucks-of-the-first-head had frequented places like The Spread Eagle in the Strand, The Highflyer at the Old Turf Coffee-House, or The Free And Easy, where after the theatre (or long before!) the fast, the poor, and the criminal could commingle, drink, and chorus with the prettier doxies of whatever class or station, and arrange what sport they wished upstairs, at a nearby bagnio or by-the-hour rooming house. Oh, how he'd crowed back then, all cock-a-whoop in harmony with the 'hens!' Spending money like a drunken… sailor, which he squiffily realised he was, both in the nautical and the 'drunken' sense.

'… just a bloody nuisance,' his father Sir Hugo was saying in aspersion as he wiped his mouth with a napkin as his plate of pudding was whisked away by a table-servant. 'Women should not gamble anymore than they should attempt to smoke, or curse.' To which their companions at-table grunted their amiable and dismissive agreements. 'Had I the 'tin,' I'd found a man-only club, gentlemen. Somewhat like The Cocoa Tree, White's, Almack's, or Boodle's… with the ladies allowed in to dine and be decorative, surely, but shoo them out by midnight. Make a male sanctuary, before they overrun all our masculine institutions by the battalions. Dash it all, a place where men may rest 'twixt entertainments, perhaps with lodgings, where a feller may let down his hair and put up his feet…'

'Hear, hear!' one of their fellow diners cheered. 'Gentlemen of standing and quality only allowed,' he posed, drawing agreement from several others who had been seated by twos or singletons at their long table, hit-or- miss.

'An in-town retreat for serving officers, say,' another opined. 'Reasonably priced, of course, so we won't have to hunt high and low for lodgings each time we come up to London. Like a regimental mess, a ward-room, or…' the gentleman in Army uniform, a captain of foot, proposed. He was well turned out, but half his worth was surely on his back, Lewrie thought, not in his purse or with his banker. 'What say you, Captain Lewrie?' the Army man asked him. 'An intriguing idea?'

'Most,' Lewrie answered, which was about all he could manage as a belch arose, redolent of baked sole, roast beef, pigeon pie, and wine. 'A refuge from… domesticity,' he glumly supposed.

To which sentiment, all eight men present voiced an earnest 'Ever and amen' with a hearty, rumbling cheer, though his father peered over at him with a chary, cutty-eyed look of pending disapproval. Sir Hugo had warned him that, should he turn maudlin and weepy, he'd deny knowing him, and leave him to stew in his own misery!

'Quite intriguin', Captain Browne,' Sir Hugo mused, louder than necessary, perhaps to draw attention from his son to himself, after a stern, silent warning, which came off, as most of Sir Hugo's facial expressions, as a nettled falcon's leer, before prosing on.

'The best part of a coffee-house in the mornings, with rafts of daily papers. Good conversation, good wine cellar… with decent sets of rooms to let for members-only when down from the country, Members of Parliament, for serving officers, as you suggest, Captain Browne… an establishment that offers only the freshest victuals, so that no one dies for tryin' the fare at a two-penny ordinary, haw!'

'Exactly, General Willoughby,' another of their fellow diners opined in a plumby voice, 'with annual dues and daily charges just high enough to dissuade the lower orders, but within the reach of purses of most gentlemen. With requirements, mark you, sirs, for good character and decorous gentlemanly behaviour.'

The very idea of a reference from one's vicar as part of one's bona fides set them back in a stunned silence for a moment. The fellow was sober-dressed, spare and gaunt-lookin'; was he a Dissenter, one of those Kill-Joys?

Well, that'd let me out, and Father, too, Lewrie told himself.

'Within the club, of course, sirs,' the fellow amended quickly, seeing the response he'd drawn. 'Mean t'say, run riot on your own… but damme if I'll tolerate hoo-rawin' drunks who drop their shoes and giggle, past my bedtime.

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