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The Corvette

Richard Woodman

For my Mother

PART ONE

The Convoy

'… and there came a report that the French were away to murder a' our whalers…'

The Man O' War's Man BILL TRUCK

London

May 1803

'He has what?'

The First Lord of the Admiralty swung round from the window, suddenly attentive. He fixed a baleful eye on the clerk holding the bundle of papers from which he was making his routine report.

'Resigned, my Lord.'

'Resigned? Resigned, God damn and blast him! What does he think the Service is that he may resign it at a whim? Eh?'

The clerk prudently remained silent as Earl St Vincent crossed the fathom of Indian carpet that lay between the window and his desk. He leaned forward, both hands upon the desk, his face approximating the colour of the Bath ribbon that crossed his breast in anticipation of a court levée later in the morning. He looked up at Mr Templeton.

Considerably taller than the first lord, Templeton nevertheless felt his lack of stature before St Vincent. Although used to his lordship's anger, his lordship's power never failed to impress him. The earl continued, his deep frustration obvious to the clerk.

'As if I have not enough with the war renewed and the dockyards but imperfectly overhauled, that I have to teach a damned kill-buck his duty. Good God, sir, the Service is not to be trifled with like a regiment. It has become altogether too fashionable.'

St Vincent spat the word with evident distaste. Since the Peace of Amiens he had laboured to clean the dockyards of corruption, to stock them with naval stores and to end the peculation and jobbery which beset the commissariat of his rival, Sir Andrew Snape Hammond, Comptroller of the Navy and head of the powerful Navy Board. He had found suppression of mutiny in the Cadiz squadron an easier task. He could not hang every grasping malefactor who stole His Majesty's stores, nor break every profiteer in the business of supplying His Majesty's Navy. Yet his affection for his ships and their well-being demanded it, and his honest opposition to the worldliness of the London politicians had made him many enemies.

Lord St Vincent hunched his shoulders and wiped his nose on a fine linen handkerchief. Templeton knew the gesture. The explosion of St Vincent's accumulated frustration would be through the touch-hole of his office, since his opponents stopped his muzzle.

'Be so kind, Templeton, as to add upon the skin of Sir James Palgrave's file that he is not to be employed again during the present war…'

'Yes my Lord.' St Vincent turned back to the window and his contemplation of the waving tree-tops in St James's Park. It was now his only eye upon the sky he had watched from a hundred quarterdecks. Templeton waited. St Vincent considered the folly of allowing a man a post-captaincy on account of his baronetcy. He recollected Palgrave; an indifferent lieutenant with an indolent fondness for fortified wines and a touchy sense of honour. It was perhaps a result of the inconsequence of his title. St Vincent, whose own honours had been earned by merit, disliked inherited rank when it eclipsed the abilities of better men. Properly the replacement of Palgrave should not concern the First Lord. But there was a matter of some importance attached to the appointment.

Templeton coughed. 'And the Melusine, my Lord?' St Vincent remained silent. 'Bearing in mind the urgency of her orders and the intelligence…'

'Why did he resign, Templeton?' asked St Vincent suddenly.

'I do not know, my Lord.' It was not the business of the Secretary's third clerk to trade in rumour, no matter how impeccable the source, nor how fascinating it sounded in the copy-room. But Sir James's hurried departure was said to stem from an inconvenient wound acquired in an illegal duel with the master of one of the ships he had been ordered to convoy. Templeton covered his dissimulation: 'And the Melusine, my Lord? It would seem she was in your gift.'

St Vincent looked up sharply. Only recent illness, a congestive outbreak of spring catarrh among the senior clerks, and including his Lordship's secretary Benjamin Tucker, had elevated Templeton to this daily tête- à-tête with the First Lord. Templeton flushed at his presumption.

'I beg pardon, my Lord, I meant only to allude to the intelligence…'

'Quite so, the intelligence had not escaped my recollection, Templeton,' St Vincent said sharply, and added ironically, 'whom had you in mind?'

'No one, my Lord,' blustered the clerk, now thoroughly alarmed that the omniscient old man might know of his connection with Francis Germaney, first lieutenant of the Melusine.

'Then who is applying, sir? Surely we are not in want of commanders for the King's ships?'

The barb drove home. 'Indeed not, my Lord.' The clerks' office was inundated daily with letters of application for employment by half-pay captains, commanders and lieutenants. All were neatly returned from the secretary's inner sanctum where the process of advancement or rejection ground its pitiless and partial way.

'Bring me the names of the most persistent applicants within the last month, sir, and jump to it.'

Templeton escaped with the alacrity of a chastened midshipman while St Vincent, all unseeing, stared at the rolling cumulus, white above the chimneys of Downing Street.

Since the renewal of the war two weeks earlier, officers on the half-pay of unemployment had been clamouring for appointments. The lieutenant's waiting-room below him was filled with hopeful officers, a bear-pit of demands and disappointments from which the admiralty messengers would be making a fortune in small coin, God rot them. St Vincent sighed, aware that his very overhaul of the navy had caused a dangerous hiatus in the nation's defences. Now the speed with which the fleet was recommissioning was being accomplished only by a reversion to the old vices of bribery, corruption and the blind eye of official condonement. St Vincent felt overwhelmed with chagrin while his worldly enemies, no longer concerned by the First Lord's zealous honesty, smiled with cynical condescension. Templeton's return broke the old man's bitter reverie.

'Well?'

'Three, my Lord,' said Templeton, short of breath from his haste. 'There are three whose persistence has been most marked.'

'Go on, sir, go on.'

'White, my Lord, Captain Richard White…'

'Too senior for a sloop, but he must have the next forty-four, pray do you note that…'

'Very well, my Lord. Then there is Yelland. He did prodigious well at Copenhagen…'

St Vincent sniffed. Whatever Yelland had done at Copenhagen was not enough to overcome the First Lord's prejudice. Templeton, aware that his own desire to please was bordering on the effusive, contrived to temporise: 'Though of course he is only a commander…'

'Just so, Templeton. Melusine is a twenty, a post-ship. Who is the third?'

'Er… Drinkwater, my Lord. Oh I beg your pardon he is also only a commander.'

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