An Eye of the Fleet
I am taking all Frigates about me I possibly can; for if I… let the Enemy escape for want of 'the eyes of the Fleet', I should consider myself as most highly reprehensible.
The major incidents in this novel are matters of historical fact. Some of the peripheral characters, such as Admirals Kempenfelt and Arbuthnot, Captain Calvert, Jonathan Poulter and Wilfred Collingwood are also factual and the personalities, as depicted, tally with the images they have left later generations.
The exploits of
No nautical claim has been made which was impossible. The details of the Moonlight Battle, for instance, can be verified from other sources, though the actual capture of
Pains have been taken over the accuracy of facts concerning the life on board men-of-war during the American War of Independence and pedants may like to note that at the time Drinkwater went to sea commissioned officers messed in the gunroom, midshipmen and master's mates in the cockpit. By the beginning of the next century the latter occupied the gunroom with the warrant officer gunner exercising a sort of parental authority and schoolmasters appointed to attempt the education of the 'young gentlemen'. By this time the officers had a grander 'wardroom'.
A baleful sun broke through the overcast to shed a patch of pale light on the frigate. The fresh westerly wind and the opposing flood tide combined to throw up a vicious sea as the ship, under topsails and staysails, drove east down the Prince's Channel clear of the Thames.
Upon her quarterdeck the sailing master ordered the helm eased to prevent her driving too close to the Pansand, the four helmsmen struggling to hold the ship as the wheelspokes flickered through their fingers.
'Mr Drinkwater!' The old master, his white hair streaming in the wind, addressed a lean youth of medium height with fine, almost feminine features and an unhealthily pallid complexion. The midshipman stepped forward, nervously eager.
'My compliments to the Captain. Please inform him we are abeam of the Pansand Beacon.'
'Yes, sir.' He turned to go.
'Please repeat my message and answer correctly.'
The youth flushed deeply, his Adam's apple bobbing with embarrassment.
'Y… your compliments to the Captain and we're abeam the Pansand Beacon, aye, aye, sir.'
Drinkwater darted away beneath the quarterdeck to where the red-coated marine sentinel indicated the holy presence of the Captain of His Britannic Majesty's 36-gun frigate
Captain Hope was shaving when the midshipman knocked on the door. He nodded as the message was delivered.
Drinkwater hovered uncertainly, not knowing whether he was dismissed. After what seemed an age the Captain appeared satisfied with his chin, wiped off the lather and began to tie his stock. He fixed the young midshipman with a pair of watery blue eyes set in a deeply lined and cadaverous face.
'And you are…?' He left the question unfinished.
'M… Mister Drinkwater, sir, midshipman…'
'Ah yes, it was the Rector of Monken Hadley requested your place, I recollect it well…' The Captain reached for his coat. 'Do your duty, cully, and you have nothing to fear, but make damned sure you know what your duty is…'
'Yes… I mean aye, aye, sir.'
'Very well. Tell the Master I'll be up shortly when I've finished my breakfast.'
Captain Hope smoothed the coat down and turned to look out through the stern windows as the door closed behind the retreating Drinkwater.
He sighed. He judged the boy to be old for a new entrant and yet he could not escape the thought that it might have been himself nearly forty years ago.
The Captain was fifty-six years of age. He had only held his post rank for three years. Devoid of patronage he would have died a half-pay commander had not an unpopular war with the rebellious American Colonies forced the Admiralty to employ him. Many competent naval officers had refused to serve against the colonists, particularly those with Whig sympathies and independent means. As the rebels acquired powerful allies the Royal Navy was stretched to the limit, watching the cautiously hostile Dutch, the partisan 'neutrals' of the Baltic and the actively hostile French and Spanish. In their plight their Lordships had scraped the barrel and in the lees at the bottom had discovered the able person of Henry Hope.
Hope was more than a competent seaman. He had served as lieutenant at Quiberon Bay and distinguished himself several times during the Seven Years' War. Command of a sloop had come at the end of the war, but by then he was forty with little hope of further advancement. He had a widowed mother, tended by a sister whose husband had fallen before Ticonderoga in Abercrombie's bungled attack, but no family of his own. He was a man used to care and tribulation, a man well suited to command of a ship.
But as he stared out of the stern windows at the yeasty, bubbling wake that cut a smooth through the choppy waters of the outer estuary, he remembered a more youthful Hope. Now his name silently taunted him. He idly wondered about the young man who had just left the cabin. Then he dismissed the thought as his servant brought in breakfast.
Nathaniel Drinkwater was forced to endure a brief, hard schooling. He lay aloft with the topmen, shivering with cold and terror as the recalcitrant topgallants billowed and thundered about his ears. There was no redress when an over-zealous bosun's mate accidentally sliced his buttocks with a starter. Cruelty was a fact of life and its evils were only augmented between the stinking decks of an overcrowded British man o'war. Worn out by a week's incessant labour in conditions of unaccustomed cold; forced by necessity to eat indifferent food washed down by small beer of incomparable badness; bullied and shouted at, Drinkwater had broken down one night.
He wept into his hammock with bitter loneliness. His dreams of glory and service to a grateful country melted