Victory, p.4

Victory, page 4

 

Victory
 



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‘G’ morning,’ he said affably, as he strode in. Weary grunts came from the other unemployed commanders and Kydd crossed to his usual chair. He looked up quizzically at the bored porter, who in return shook his head. No news.

  In a black humour he picked up an old newspaper but could not concentrate. The pain of his dear Teazer’s passing had now ebbed and he was coming to terms with it, but its further consequence was dire. He was once again in his career besieging the Admiralty for a ship – but this time with little hope.

  The country was in deadly peril, which meant that every conceivable vessel – in reserve, dockyard hands, between commissions – was sent to sea as soon as possible at full stretch in the defence of the realm. There were, therefore, none that could in any way be termed surplus or otherwise available for even the most worthy of commanders. And in this room there were at least a dozen, all of them senior to him and some with a more glorious fighting record. What chance did he have?

  One slid off his chair with a snore and awoke looking confused; there was tired laughter and the tedium descended again.

  He rose irritably to pace down the room. Deep in black thoughts, he heard a polite cough from the doorway.

  ‘Why, Mr Bowden! What do you here?’ he said warmly.

  ‘I was just passing, sir, visiting my uncle.’ It brought a pang for Kydd to meet the midshipman he had seen grow from the raw and sensitive lad he had taken under his wing as a lieutenant in Tenacious to the intelligent and capable young man learning his trade under himself in Teazer. It had been his first command and they had grown together in different ways. They had parted in the Peace when Teazer had been laid up in ordinary, but after those years here was Bowden, strong and assured and clearly on his way to higher things.

  ‘You’ve found a quarterdeck, I trust?’ Kydd asked, trying to hide his own feelings.

  ‘I have, sir – it’s naught but a first-rate on blockade I’m to join. I’m sanguine the sport to be had in her cannot stand against our Teazer, sir.’ Something made him hesitate. ‘You’re still in her, Mr Kydd?’

  ‘No, I’m sorry to say. She’s . . . no more. We took a quilting off the French coast and she foundered within sight o’ home.’ At Bowden’s shocked look he hastened to say, ‘Not much of a butcher’s bill, thank God.’

  The sense of unfairness had returned in a flood and made the answer rather more curt than he would have wished. ‘So I’m to petition for another command, as you see.’

  ‘I – I do hope you find success, sir,’ Bowden said uncomfortably, aware of what this meant for Kydd. ‘I’ll take my leave now, if you will, sir, and – and do wish you well of the future.’

  ‘Thank you,’ Kydd said briefly, and lifted a hand in farewell as the young man left. It had been another time, another world, and different things had to be faced now.

  In his waistcoat Kydd had a letter – a petition he had paid to have professionally drafted, addressed to the first lord himself and laying out in honeyed phrases all the reasons why he should be granted employment at this time.

  It had to be faced that if this had no effect it would be a trial to know what to do next and he delayed, treasuring the moment while hope was still on the flood. Then, reluctantly, he drew it out: there was no point in wasting time.

  It cost three guineas, an exorbitant bribe to the chief clerk, to ensure its insertion into the first lord’s morning pack; when he turned to resume his chair he saw all eyes on him – they knew very well what was being done. Face burning, Kydd sat and buried his face in the newspaper, summoning patience.

  He couldn’t keep this up for ever: his means were sufficient but for a man used to an active life, with responsibility and the requirement at any time for instant decisions, a passive existence was hard to bear. What should he do if a command was not in prospect? A commander could not be un-promoted – he could not revert to being a lieutenant and take a menial post in another’s ship – so what could he look forward to? His mind shied from the implications.

  When the reply came he was quite unprepared. It had been less than three hours, and envious stares followed the porter crossing importantly to Kydd with a single folded sheet on his silver tray. After Kydd had taken it, the man bowed, turned and left – no reply expected therefore.

  The room fell into a hush. Kydd nervously threw off a casual remark before he opened it, knowing that probably his entire future was about to be revealed.

  It was a short but undoubtedly personal note and from the great man himself – he recognised the energetic, sprawling hand. At first the words didn’t register – he had to read it again to let their shocking burden penetrate.

  Mr Kydd,

  I find it singular in the extreme that after this time you are still here demanding a sloop to command. For you this is not possible as well you should know. Your continued attendance here is neither welcome nor profitable to yourself and if you persist I shall regard it an insolence.

  Yr obedt servt etc

  In cold shock he stood staring down at it.

  A portly commander from across the room called loudly, ‘Well, old fellow, what did he say, then?’

  ‘I – I’m not to trouble him with my presence any further,’ Kydd said faintly. The note was snatched and handed about in consternation.

  ‘Remember Bartholomew!’ one red-faced officer blurted.

  Pandemonium erupted. It had been only the previous year when an importunate officer begging a sea appointment right in these very rooms had tried the patience of Earl St Vincent too far. He had boomed, ‘I’ll serve ye a sea berth this very instant, y’ villain!’ and had him pressed there and then in the entrance hall.

  The scandal had gone to Parliament and then to a Select Committee, which was still sitting on the case, but the last anyone knew of the unfortunate man was that he was still before the mast somewhere in the West Indies.

  Kydd retrieved his note and, with pathetic dignity, took his leave.

  Renzi heard the news with a sinking heart. Kydd handed over the note diffidently and he inspected it carefully. There was absolutely no questioning its authenticity. Neither was there any doubting the intent of its vigorous phrasing.

  Thomas Kydd, it seemed, was going to remain ashore, a half-pay commander for the rest of his life.

  ‘This is the end for me,’ Kydd said, in a low voice.

  ‘As a sea-going commander, perhaps – but there’s always the Transport Service, the Fencibles, the um . . .’

  ‘Thank you, Nicholas, for your concern,’ Kydd said distantly. ‘There’s much to think on. I do believe I’ll take some air.’ He reached for his cloak, then thought better of it and left the room. He returned in mufti – plain civilian dress. ‘Pray don’t wait on my account. I may be gone some time.’

  Heart wrung with pity, Renzi saw him to the door then turned back to his work.

  It was no good – he couldn’t concentrate. Too much had happened and what he had feared had come to pass. Could their friendship survive without the common thread of the sea? Each to his own retreat, seldom to meet?

  Selfishly he must mourn the passing of the opportunity he had had to enrich and inform his studies of man in all his diversity from that most excellent of conveyances, the deck of a far-voyaging ship.

  Now he would continue his study in some depressing room that would offer the same tedious prospect of the world every morning and—

  It was much worse for Kydd. Where would he find a calling in life to equal the previous? What was there to occupy his talent for daring and quick-thinking in the world where he now found himself stranded? That he had come so far to this . . .

  Kydd had left the note lying on the mantelpiece and he idly picked it up. It was quite clear what had driven the first lord to pen it and equally apparent that there would be no reprieve. But why had he been so peremptory with one of Kydd’s recent fame? Surely a civil communication of inability was more to be expected.

  Uneasiness stole over him. Was this a political act of some kind, perhaps ins
tigated by Admiral Lockwood, whose daughter Kydd had spurned for a country girl? Very unlikely – that was now a while ago, and in any case, there was little to be gained in drawing attention to the incident.

  In Guernsey there had been one officer so envious of Kydd’s rise that he had contrived to bring about his dismissal from his ship but surely Kydd did not have any other enemy who would want to harm his career.

  As he stared at the note one phrase stood out: For you this is not possible as well you should know.

  The inability to find him a sloop-of-war was understandable but that it was necessary to deny Kydd a command if there was one was uncalled-for and did not fit, even in a burst of exasperation. It implied that there was in existence a real bar to an appointment – consistent, for example, with a scurrilous tale told against his reputation that was common currency and assumed to be true, and of which Kydd was aware.

  But of all men Kydd’s character was blameless of anything whatsoever that could be construed as morally reprehensible. If there were any alleging turpitude it would soon be discovered as false.

  But what else? Renzi’s brow furrowed. Then it dawned, a possible reason so fantastic he laughed out loud at its simplicity but nonetheless monumental implications. Admittedly it was a slim chance that he was correct but it was simple enough to test and he rang for Tysoe.

  ‘Do call a messenger if you would,’ he said, and scrawled a few lines, then sealed the paper firmly. ‘For Somerset House,’ he said to the man, when he appeared, ‘and pray do not return without a reply.’

  He was back within two hours. Renzi snatched up his message – and there, in a single line, was all he needed to know.

  He took a deep breath and sat down slowly to consider. What happened next was entirely up to him. His first instinct was to lay it all before his friend immediately, but without proof – of the kind that could be held in the hand – it would not be a mercy.

  ‘You, sir!’ he barked to the waiting messenger, who started at Renzi’s sudden energy. ‘I desire you should take post-chaise to Guildford. There you will present an instruction to the person whose name will appear on the outside. You will then be entrusted with a package that you will guard with your life before you deliver it to me.’

  Renzi gave a half-smile: within a day or two all would be made manifest.

  Kydd returned in the evening, set-faced and quiet. They took dinner together and Renzi nearly weakened in his resolve but, knowing its grave importance to his friend’s situation, he determined to follow it through to its end.

  ‘A strange feeling, I tell you,’ Kydd mused. ‘Neither fish nor fowl. Never t’ tread my quarterdeck again but not yet set m’ course on land. What shall it be, Nicholas? Industry or commerce? Farming will never do – I’m terrified o’ cows.’ He looked moodily into the middle distance.

  ‘Why, something will turn up, of that you can be sure,’ Renzi said positively.

  ‘How can you be certain?’ Kydd said, nettled. ‘I’m to find something soon or take rot in the headpiece.’

  Renzi had a stab of conscience. Was delay until the proof arrived the right thing to do for his friend?

  The next morning he presented his card at the stately mansion in Belgravia that was the London residence of the Marquess of Bloomsbury, diplomat and of the inner circle in Prime Minister Pitt’s administration.

  ‘Oh, Nicholas!’ Cecilia gasped in anticipation. ‘Tell me the news. You’ve been to the publisher and you have something to reveal.’

  ‘Not, er, at the moment. This rather concerns your brother’s unfortunate predicament for which I carry something of a – a bombshell, as it were, that exercises me as to its resolution.’

  It took him a short time to convey the essence and even less for Cecilia to come to a solution. Despite Renzi’s misgivings, she was adamant that her brother be told nothing yet.

  When Renzi returned, Kydd was sprawled in a chair, staring listlessly into space. ‘Tom, dear fellow – we’re discovered!’ he said urgently. This brought no more than a single raised eyebrow. ‘I tell you, there’s no escaping!’

  Kydd turned his head idly towards him. ‘Oh?’

  ‘Your sister! She knows you’re here, old chap!’ It was lame enough but Renzi continued, ‘She’s asking that we do escort her tonight to the entertainments at Vauxhall, her friend having failed her. Clearly I cannot be permitted to do so on my own.’

  None but the withered in heart could have failed to be swept away by the excitement and spectacle of Vauxhall Gardens in the early evening. Illuminations were beginning to appear around the exotic pavilions and temples and through the hubbub of the promenading came the elegant strains of Mr Handel’s Water Music.

  ‘Isn’t it thrilling?’ Cecilia exclaimed, squeezing Kydd’s arm.

  Renzi strolled on the other side. ‘The nightingales sing in the groves of Elysium,’ he murmured, eyeing a picturesque Grecian bust nestling in the shrubbery.

  A passing exquisite in skin-tight pantaloons deigned to notice Cecilia with his quizzing glass; she inclined her head graciously, then impulsively reached out to take possession of Renzi’s arm. ‘There now! As I have the two most handsome men in London, I declare the world shall know of it.’

  The walks took them by caves and waterfalls, grottoes and quantities of wondrous blooms and shrubbery, with discreet arbours and dark passageways between. Past the Druid’s Walk they came to the Wilderness and from there to the Rural Downs, where a pleasing prospect of the river opened up. ‘Milton,’ said Renzi, admiring a glowering statue looking away to the south, ‘and cast entirely in lead, of course.’

  In the dusk more lamps wavered and took hold, suffusing the evening with a mysterious glamour. Individual faces appeared touched with gold and hidden players beguiled with soft melodies from the Musical Bushes.

  ‘Shall we see your Hogarths in their original, do you think?’ Cecilia said sweetly to Renzi, the softness of her expression touching him to the heart. She turned to Kydd. ‘I’ve a fondness for the old rake, do let’s go!’

  They were indeed Hogarths, but rather than cutting satire and acid commentary these were cheerful rustic murals and canvases displayed around the pillared walls of the elevated supper booths. ‘The Milkmaid’s Garland,’ Kydd grunted, peering at one. ‘Not as it—’

  ‘Do cheer up, Thomas.’ Cecilia sighed. ‘This is so enchanting – look, here’s Sliding on the Ice, done with such wit!’

  A roar of drollery came from the tables on the floor above. ‘I find Mr Hogarth a mort natural for my taste,’ Kydd said, with an effort. ‘I’d think him to have had a hard time of it in his youth.’

  ‘That’s indeed the case,’ Renzi said. ‘He had the mortification of seeing his father imprisoned for debt in the Fleet. I rather think these works are payment in kind for long-gone pleasures.’

  Kydd looked up. ‘Oh? His father failed in business?’

  ‘He did,’ Renzi said. Then he added, ‘In thinking to establish a coffee-house that would admit no patrons save they spoke only in Latin.’

  Cecilia smothered her giggles but Kydd did not join in. She tried to engage him by asking sweetly, ‘I’m more wondering what a sharp fellow Mr Vauxhall was to conceive the idea of this garden.’

  At Kydd’s silence, Renzi explained, ‘My dear, “Vauxhall” refers more to the place than the gentleman concerned – probably from the vulgate “Foxhole” or similar.’

  ‘Ah! There I have you, Renzi!’ Kydd said exultantly. ‘It’s of another age, I’ll grant – but back no further than the first James. I heard it when a younker – it was where the hall o’ residence of the widow of Guy Fawkes was, Fawkes Hall!’

  Cecilia laughed prettily to see Kydd’s animation. ‘There, Nicholas! You’re to take instruction from Thomas in the article of antiquary.’

  They strolled on past stately limes and sycamores, but Kydd’s bleak expression returned. ‘And we haven’t seen the half of it,’ Cecilia urged, playfully tugging him. ‘There’s the Rotunda, all proper
ly done in King Louis the Fourteenth mode – and a Turkish Tent in the Chinese style, why you’ll—’

  Kydd broke free. ‘I thank you, sis, for your entertainments,’ he said sarcastically, ‘but I have to say it’s not t’ my taste. See those strut-noddies an’ fine-rigged dandy prats – just you hear ’em howl if I pressed ’em aboard. My fore-mast jacks could teach ’em their manners . . .’

  He tailed off and stared away woodenly.

  ‘Oh, er, Miss Cecilia,’ Renzi said carefully, ‘I rather think that following so close upon your brother’s losing his ship this disporting is not to be countenanced. In lieu, I propose that we adjourn to an altogether more . . . robust entertainment.’

  ‘And what is that, pray?’ she asked defiantly.

  ‘Which being of a nature not becoming young females of delicacy, I fear.’ Kydd looked up inquisitively. ‘We shall take you home and he and I will step out together – as in times past, as it were.’ He tried to ignore Cecilia’s wounded look.

  ‘As in times past?’ Kydd asked, when they had settled back in the hackney carriage.

  ‘Lincoln’s Inn Fields,’ Renzi instructed the jarvey, then replied mysteriously, ‘Not as who might say exactly so.’

  ‘But isn’t that where your lawyer crew go to ground?’ Kydd said, in puzzlement.

  ‘Just so, but tonight you shall be entertained to a spectacle such as few have been privileged to witness.’

  ‘Oh? I’ll remind you we’ve seen some rum sights about this world in our voyaging.’

  ‘Ah. This is different. Have you ever pondered the most singular philosophical line that separates a living creature from a dead?’

  ‘No, never,’ Kydd said.

  ‘Then tonight your curiosity will be satisfied in full measure.’

  ‘Nicholas, if this is your word-grubber’s wrangling over some—’ They had arrived at a discreet entrance to a dilapidated building along with numbers of others. Renzi was greeted by several distinguished-looking gentlemen and he and Kydd were shepherded inside where they were instantly assaulted by a repulsive, cloying fetor.

 

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