An extract from “NISBET AND TRAFALGAR”
‘Of Josiah Nisbet very little is known, and that little is not favourable’
‘Horatio Nelson’ by J. K. Laughton
Captain Nisbet hated the sea, but he hated poverty more. Since only the sea could bring him money, he was in a strange discordant state as he sat in the coach to London.
Indeed, Josiah Nisbet was an expert hater. Beside those two great abiding dislikes, he entertained others even when he was ashore and rich. Now therefore his eyes were resolutely turned from the fields that flowed past the coach windows, because he also detested the magpie.
It was a second-order hatred to be sure, and generally he would ward off ill luck with a mere form of words. ‘Good day, Mr Magpie,’ he would mutter. ‘Good day, Mr Magpie, rot your soul.’ But today he was in a fine taking – after a restless winter ashore, his money drying up, and now this summons to the Admiralty with its vast but unspecified possibilities.
For most of the way a couple of farmers sat outside, while inside alone he could draw the canvas shade and lower his gaze, wedged in a corner, trying to sleep, calm enough to shake his head and say, ‘You’re an old woman, Nisbet.’ But then three young girls climbed inside, filling the coach with their chatter and hat boxes, shrieking to their servant on the roof and casting coy glances at the Naval gentleman, who was perhaps 25 years old, that eligible age.
But – la – what a nasty fierce scowl he had, quite shocking, and they soon reverted to their own concerns. In particular they were pleased to wear their bran-span-new rabbit-fur muffs, although the day was warm, and they drew out their hands only to pat their dresses, to try each other’s bonnets and at last to twitch open the shade with an imperious glance at this nasty black-browed villain.
‘Hussies,’ muttered Nisbet, and folded his arms tighter. He was ignored, but somehow kept his temper until unlucky chance took his gaze to the window. When the magpie swooped past, his first thought was, ‘I knew it. I foresaw it.’ With a choked roar he elbowed the girls aside. He thrust his head and shoulders through the window, straining and cursing, desperate to see the creature’s mate, and crying, ‘One for sorrow, damn you, one for sorrow.’
‘Lord,’ cried the girls, who had simply known that the fellow was a murderer or worse, with his black hair and horrible frown. Now his thick legs were braced against the window and his large square sit-upon was positively thrust towards them, although indeed his silver shoe buckles were very fine, as was the leather bag by his seat, and some girls might even approve his black piratical looks.
A louder roar subdued them as Nisbet shook his fist into the sky and bellowed in triumph: ‘And two for joy. Two for joy, God rot you!’
With a mad grin he fell into his seat, rubbing his hands and laughing. ‘Forgive me, ladies, forgive me, a vexing time.’
Then the city buildings closed around them, and thus relieved he laughed and chattered for the rest of the way, recalling his first such journey from Norwich – ‘only a boy, do you see, younger than you indeed’ – and how he had tried to walk this road, fool that he was, because it seemed the proper way to start an adventure and because he wanted to defy his poor mother who had given him money for the coach, but then the rain had caught him and at last he found an inn where a gang of road menders, glad to be driven indoors, bought him a glass of right true Navy rum and declared that he was the first sailor drowned before he found his ship.
The girls said nothing, wide-eyed and alarmed, clutching their handsome new rabbit-fur muffs. Encouraged by their silence, Nisbet was impelled to boast. He remarked upon the vast expense of a coach travel, and declared that he would never pay the full amount. ‘For our present journey, I waited by the main road at the time the coach was passing. I waved a guinea piece at the driver, and made my own private arrangement with him and his comrades aboard. It is called “shouldering”, and saves prodigious expense.’
Perhaps Nisbet saw doubt in the eyes of the young ladies. Perhaps he suspected that they might admire a fellow who owned a coach rather than one who defrauded a coach company. Certainly he changed his tune. He now declared that saving money was not the object of shouldering. ‘No indeed. Many a young nobleman, if he has any kind of sporting spirit, relishes this practice because why should we put money in the pockets of fat shareholders when we can give it to the fine fellows who do all the work in all weathers? And why should our names be on the waybill? Why should government spies and coach company clerks know of our journeyings? Confusion to a waybill, say I. Let a Briton move as he wishes, free and unregarded and undocumented. Are we French? Nay, ladies, it is simple justice. The cash is of no importance, but I scorn a waybill.’
To prove his point he drew out a beautiful gold pocket watch. He consulted its shining face with elaborate unconcern. He brought it near the window so that sunlight could glitter on its engraved body and silver face. He pressed a subtle button so that the girls might hear its tiny silver chimes.
The watch was the last remnant of the prize money he had brought home to Norfolk only months before – money that had drained away so rapidly that already he was hoping and praying for another commission. His first task in London was to take the watch to a certain damnable shrewd pawnbroker behind Lombard Street.
But as the coach turned off Bishopsgate, the horses, eager for their stable, cut a corner and rode over the kerb. Nisbet’s watch flew from his hand, out of the window and under the coach’s rear wheel.
With a cry of anguish he snatched up his bag and leapt into the street. Standing over the pitiful heap of shattered glass and tiny wheels he shook his fist after the coach. As it vanished along London Wall he cried, ‘Damn you, driver. I shall sue. I shall certainly sue.’
But shrieks of laughter drew his eyes to the coach window. The girls were leaning their pretty heads far out. ‘No waybill!’ they laughed. ‘No waybill, sir! You cannot sue!’
Nisbet was a sturdy, hurrying man. He had a rolling walk, apt for a sailor but in truth derived from his short legs and restless shouldering soul. On good days this bustling stride was merely hunched and determined. But at present, grieved by the jeering girls and his own folly, his head was down, he glowered through his eyebrows, and he kicked out his legs like a terrier off to the ratting. He scowled and punched his fists together, an habitual gesture. How he hated to be laughed at, and how often he was.
‘I shall walk to the Admiralty,’ he decided, his great shoulders tossing the crowds aside. ‘Perhaps it will soothe me.’ And in these busy streets, the day fading fast, there could be few magpies, rot their bones.
Yet on balance he felt renewed. The bustle of London suited his damn-you mood, and although the letter from Their Lordships could mean many things, clearly it showed he was not forgot. Above all it might portend that he would no longer fester ashore, a half-pay Captain, a pitiful creature scratching those abject letters: ‘I beg to offer myself to serve in any Ship to which Their Lordships may see fit to appoint me to command. Their Lordships may be assured I will most faithfully execute my Duty to the utmost of my ability and Power.’
Shameful. And, he feared, futile – since his career was blighted by Admiral Horatio Nelson, his stepfather and the object of his greatest, most enduring hate.
Driven by righteous rage, Nisbet bounced into an alehouse by Charing Cross, downed a brandy, ordered another and then picked up a card from the floor. ‘Well damme,’ he cried. He laughed, sank the brandy and shortly threw down the card in a low pawnshop in Hanging Sword Alley.
‘Captain Nisbet,’ said Brown.
‘Still at your cony-catching, you devil.’
‘While there are conies to be caught, then certainly.’
‘This falls very well,’ said Nisbet, ‘since I am short of the needful.’
‘How I should love to help you, but – ’
‘Ten guineas will serve. The money from the poor dupes who bring these cards.’
‘They bring the cards to cheat me,’ said Brown. ‘They are thieves, and are caught and punished with no cost to the public purse.’
Nisbet snorted and picked up the card again: a receipt from Brown’s pawnshop for ‘A chain, well-made, proof’d as gold, value 10L, 5L paid’, and many such cards were dropped in places of public resort. When some cunning fool presented the card and £5, Brown would give him a chain worth a few shillings. Nisbet knew all this because he had met Hans Brown by falling into precisely this trap.
‘However,’ said Brown, ‘the trick is old – very old, Josiah, as you know.’
‘Fellows come here only to abuse me. You see how my shelves are empty.’
‘My own belongings, Josiah, from my own home, so that clients will trust the business. But you are right that this falls very well. I have an excess of these chains. What can I do with them? I went to the fellow that makes them, a most skilful man, Italian, works in the next alley – but he is hard-pressed as I am. I tell you, Josiah, the whole city suffers with Bonaparte invading any day and fellows burying their gold, not hanging it around their mistress’s neck. But listen, Josiah! We will practise upon pawnbrokers. Yes, those villains who take an old woman’s coat, a tradesman’s tools, only so that…’
‘Thumping hypocrite,’ said Nisbet, slyly watching him. The same compact competence; blandly handsome in his modest prosperous dress; and how old was the rogue now – thirty-five?
‘Listen, Josiah. Here is your revenge against the whole tribe of uncles. How often you have suffered, and now you may cheat the cheaters.’
His face suddenly alive, Brown leapt from his chair. He snatched two of the chains from a drawer and said, ‘You are the wicked pawnbroker.’
‘By God you love to thieve,’ said Nisbet, laughing.
‘And I am you. I say, “Look, sir, a chain of gold plate, give me ten guineas.” You, the wicked pawnbroker, will proof it – a business of touchstones and aqua fortis and such, very tedious – and indeed the chain is gold. But he’ll not give you ten. It’s too much. He offers you five or six and you snatch up the chain and leave in a rage. A rage, Josiah – very difficult for you, of course.’
‘Why, part way to the door you stop, curse – again very difficult – call the fellow a dog, what you will, then throw down a false chain. One of these, a chain of what we call the petit ore, and take the fool’s money.’
‘No. Easy. And the beauty of it, Josiah, the beauty is that this cony-trap is quite unknown. It’s a thing newly brought from Germany, among certain cousins of mine. So simple! Why, even you could – ’
‘I’ll come to pelt you in the stocks.’
‘Nay, nay. This is why the thing falls out so well. I cannot practise the business, of course. A broker against brokers – no, I am too well-known.’
‘What? You think I’ll do it? Why today I go to the Admiralty, and no doubt they will give me a ship. I believe so. For why else would the dogs call me from Norfolk. At least…’
He stopped because Brown was smiling: ‘Josiah, you will have ten guineas within the hour.’
Shortly afterwards Nisbet was back in the street with three false chains in his left pocket and a gold chain in his right. ‘It is in the right pocket because it is the right chain,’ Brown had said. Nisbet was no longer clear as to when he had agreed to the business, nor why he had given Brown five guineas to slip out to the Italian jeweller for the chain of true gold. ‘It will cost me ten guineas, Josiah, and I only ask you for half.’
Lie upon lie, no doubt, but as usual Nisbet was half amused, half confounded, with some part of him catching Brown’s joy in swindling – and the victims were his old enemies the pawnbrokers. ‘A moment, Josiah,’ Brown had said, ‘do not forget the card, of course. Kindly drop it back in some alehouse.’
‘Insolent hound,’ Nisbet thought. ‘But if I pass an uncle’s I’ll certainly jump inside.’
At once he saw a pawnshop. For a moment he danced from foot to foot, comically uncertain. But he was distracted – fearful of what he might learn at the Admiralty. He pulled out his watch – ‘Dear God!’ – and hurried to his appointment, hurrying so effectively that he sat for an hour in that notorious waiting room, eating his liver while around him was an ant-heap of scurrying men, harsh brief laughter in the corridors, secretaries with flapping papers.
‘It’s Bonaparte,’ thought Nisbet. ‘He gives us meaning.’
At first all went well. Pink and plump as a plucked capon, Admiral Cosgrove loved his estate in Hertfordshire and was eyeing the land of his neighbours. He therefore adored prize money and the Captains who brought it, whatever cloud lay over their name. The letter summoning Nisbet to London had carried Cosgrove’s salutation at its head.
Reading the twinkle in his Admiral’s eyes, Nisbet was prepared for favourable news: indeed, he was to have a vessel. He leapt briefly to his feet and laughed, Cosgrove pink with amusement, his little eyes vanishing, for he had babyish pleasures along with his babyish greed. ‘Yes, Nisbet, that dog Napoleon has his army at Boulogne, and must be impeded. Hundreds of little boats poised to bring them across. But of course there are also fat little coasters creeping along the shore, full of stuff for the invasion, that would bring us a fine price here in England. All that’s needed is a smart little vessel, well supplied with guns yet small enough to get close to shore – and this made me think of you.’
‘Well, indeed,’ said Nisbet, suddenly cautious. What vessel could the rogue mean? ‘Most happy, sir.’
‘Perhaps I may delight you further. A small vessel yet well-armed, I say. And one that is best suited to staying close to England – too much anno Domini, mebbe, for the ocean. And indeed, Nisbet, your pretty little Dolphin – I have the pleasure to tell you that she awaits your presence in London river, hale and hearty and eager to renew her acquaintance with her lord and master.’
Nisbet took a moment to decipher this. Perhaps Cosgrove’s overwrought diction was due to embarrassment, because the Dolphin was the curse on Nisbet’s life. Months ago he had brought her limping home on the brink of disintegration, and her likeliest fate had seemed a condemnation that she was unseaworthy, followed by a swift sale to some jobbing civilian, with the breaker’s yard not far beyond, a fate that Nisbet had greatly relished.
His mouth fell open in alarm and was forming a protest when the Admiral raised a hand: ‘You will not waste my time with complaints, Captain Nisbet, I am sure. I have a pack of wretched hungry dogs of Captains to please, d’ye see, and damn few ships to please them with, so you should be glad of my cunning.’
Cosgrove heaved himself from his chair, his secretary scrabbling after the sheets that slid from his lap, and Nisbet had to swallow his rage and tuck his commission in his coat because the Admiral’s Lallans accent was renewed, which was a danger sign. However, he sulked over the ‘hungry dogs’ remark as Cosgrove was helped down the Admiralty stairs by a hulking attendant, who put a shoulder under the Admiral’s rump to thrust him into a coach, and thence to his cluttered comfortable house in Dover Street, Cosgrove prating in fine bumptious form throughout, growing more intolerable as the evening progressed and the port fumes rose to his head, fondling dusty trinkets brought from a voyage east, supposedly totems for potency, and dropping heavy hints about the pleasures taken ‘while my good Lady Cosgrove is in the country’.
‘Sad doxies, no doubt,’ muttered Nisbet, thinking of the drabs who patrolled the narrow streets outside, and dedicating himself to the Admiral’s wine.
‘You remind me of my own wild years,’ said Cosgrove, not for the first time. Indeed, the more his youth receded the more Cosgrove believed that he had been a wild rapscallion – although during their sea-going years Nisbet had found him too greedy to be debauched, his energy spent in chasing prizes with a bustling kind of cunning and courage which Nisbet had warmly approved. High and dry at the Admiralty, he was noted nowadays only for being good-humoured, clubbable and corrupt.
‘But listen, Captain,’ said the Admiral, leaning forward and proffering his snuff-box, ‘you are here for a reason. It is so that we might talk privately. Listen. That dog Napoleon is dusting his invasion plans again, damn him. I do not croak. I speak the simple truth. Fetch prizes, Captain Nisbet, for both our sakes, and do it soon, and that is why I called you to London. Do you hear me?’
‘Aye, sir,’ said Nisbet, unconvinced.
‘I have often spoken of my house and grounds, and indeed no man can be happy without his own mud underfoot. Yet the more a fellow has the more he fears to lose it. If Boney gets his quarter of a million men across he’ll be king in a fortnight. Yet what will it matter to the peasant mind? Us fellows that have worked and risen will suffer, while what we might call the foremast jacks of the kingdom will merely exchange a British king for a French – as they have done before, of course – and then back to their skittles. But let us have a bucket or two of gold – eh, Captain? Then we’ll not go far amiss, I believe, whoever rules us.’
But then Nisbet yawned. ‘By God,’ said Cosgrove, rolling on his sofa like a tub, surprised and hurt. ‘I see that you do not chose to hear. Be gone, then, be gone.’
Nisbet bowed, resenting that such an apoplectic creature was unreasonably alive. Perhaps Cosgrove read his thoughts: downright angry, his wig awry, he roared, ‘And recall, sir, recall that Charlie Middleton – who has watched your career with disapproval these many years – is now Lord Barham and First Lord of the Admiralty. First Lord, Nisbet. I have heard many, many remarks from him on the subject of wicked Josiah Nisbet. Much anger, much bewilderment, that I send such a fellow on the sweetest cruises in the richest waters. Take care, sir, for ye shall not find another Admiral so indulgent, indeed not. When I am gone, Captain, when I am gone, why…why…’ But here Cosgrove fell silent, although a drone of snores arose as Nisbet clattered down the stairs to the front door.
‘Yet greed keeps you young, Admiral,’ Nisbet called, thunderously slamming the door before the sleepy footman could intervene.
Nisbet had no friends and therefore no easy way to borrow money. Cosgrove had only grunted and muttered when asked for an advance on his pay, and at this hour there were no pawnbrokers to cheat. Nisbet therefore thought hard before resentfully taking a coach, the wine sour in his belly and the long relentless day still not done, feeling damnably jaded and mumpish and recalling Cosgrove’s talk of the First Lord. ‘Let Barham think of the Dolphin,’ he muttered, stepping unsteadily down at Deptford into a greasy puddle.
‘Boat, sir? Boat, your honour?’ croaked a voice from the river, invisible in the dark. But Nisbet turned upstream, careful on the uncertain mixture of mud and wicked old loose cobbles, the night misty and cold, until the Dolphin came into view around a bend in the river, swinging on her cables as the tide turned. He leaned his hip against a bollard and scowled at the frigate’s black outline against the stars: ‘A miserable piss-pot to be sure.’
Already struck in years when she was taken from the Dutch, the Dolphin had spent far too long testing Nisbet’s patience. His occasional prize money had given her good ropes and sails, extra powder and shot, and even impetuous slaps of paint and gold leaf, but he could do nothing for her substance. On their last cruise he had suffered an uncomfortable tour through her lower depths conducted by the Carpenter, who pointed out her sprung strakes and strained knees, and the bilges which needed an hour’s pumping every watch, even in port, yet retained their ammoniacal reek. At last, drunk and overwhelmed with envious rage against the Bosun and Gunner, the Carpenter had kicked the folds of the new mainsail and cried: ‘Stiff as a bridegroom’s prick, damme, with respect, Captain Nisbet, yet they rotten futtocks will be the death of us one black night.’ Bored, Nisbet had waved him away, even though there was a spot by the foremast step where a fellow could read his Bible by the light of the mould and Chips had brought his Bible a-purpose.
‘Here,’ called Nisbet, hearing the splash of oars and the muttered discontent as the waterman followed him upstream. He climbed down slimy wooden steps to the river and took a hand into the boat.
‘An officer, is it?’ croaked the waterman.
‘The Dolphin, if you please. And I will creep aboard, so handsomely does it and around to the larboard side.’
‘Aye, sir. Captain, sir. Your worship.’ The waterman seemed to grasp his purpose and drifted them like a fisherman’s fly into the rows of crowded ships, moored fore and aft in the current, three and four abreast, looming above them in the dark. He was a crooked sideways little man, but his great thick fingers wrapped around the oars like a hangman’s knot and he watched Nisbet with a squint as they ducked under the cables of King’s ships and merchantmen, with a glimpse of yellow lantern light from cabins and gunports, and hidden voices, laughter, a woman shouting somewhere ashore, and on through the floating filth of the river on the turn. ‘An old Navy hand, with no liking for an epaulette,’ thought Nisbet: ‘Whip me if I don’t kick him overboard.’
The boat kissed against the Dolphin, Nisbet feeling his usual absurd anxiety for her frail old ribs. Already enjoying a pleasurable anger, he slipped his last coin to the waterman and crept up her side, all his murderous strength aroused because the sentinel should have hailed them. Elaborately stealthy, risking a musket ball for this consummation, he stepped on to the quarterdeck, drew breath, and bellowed: ‘Mr Blake!’
It was a hailing-the-topmen cry. As it echoed from warehouses along the river, he cried, ‘In God’s name you shall be broke for this,’ and then astonished them again by vanishing below to his cabin.
Here he could laugh. He thought of the sentinel dropping his musket, the ship’s cat rushing in terror from its post atop the binnacle, and Blake lifting bodily off the deck. ‘Now, old fellow,’ he cried, as his Clerk put an anxious face around the door. ‘How be ye? Are you well? Light the lamp, old lad, afore I break my leg. And tell Mr Blake to step to my cabin.’
‘Aye, Captain,’ said Kirkby, fussing at the lamp. ‘The damn blessed wick is dry. We never filled it, did us, thinking that...’
‘Leave it then. And light along some of my new tea, out of my leather bag there, that in the lead box, and your own soft-tack and butter, god bless us.’ Kirkby shot out again, glad to be gone, and Nisbet saw with satisfaction that the sleep-fuddled fool had one shoe on and the other stuffed in his pocket.
A knock at the door and Nisbet settled at his table before he said, ‘Come in. Step inside. Aye, step in, Mr Blake. You will forgive the dark. It seems that the lamp in your Captain’s cabin was allowed to run dry.’
‘Beg pardon, sir. Shall I send down a lantern?’
Nisbet declined to answer. He frowned, shuffled his papers, looked egg-bound, and then stared severely at Blake, the Dolphin’s Third Lieutenant. In the silence Nisbet heard the clumps of a sentinel arriving outside his door. ‘The Marines are in order, at least,’ he thought. There was a strange hollow sound to the ship, he felt, as if its lack of men and stores was audible. Again he regarded Blake, who resembled an overgrown ploughboy with his cropped fair hair and the perfect pink disk on either cheek. ‘You have not heard of lumpers, Mr Blake.’
‘You believe that there are no thieves on the river, and no Cockney ever robbed a blind man, or took a cripple’s crutch, or the widow’s mite, or stole from the poor box, or…’ But he had bored himself. ‘You are forgiven, save us. Now be gone.’
‘Thank you. Indeed, sir.’
Nisbet watched him tumble out, then stood and yawned and stretched. ‘How I do love to make them hop. Still, we are in port, in the middle of London, the barky a hulk with nothing to steal, the crew ashore and the harbour-watch wishing they was, and no reason to expect me.’
But then he saw his chest in a corner, arrived from Norfolk with remarkable speed. And Kirkby had opened it, for the straps were undone and his dress coat hung on a chair to draw out the creases.
‘Lord,’ he thought. ‘I should flog them all.’
Nisbet was no enemy of the lash. But there seemed something unmanly in the delaying of punishment, and in the formality of drums and uniforms and the crew mustered and trying not to grin, the dogs. ‘Damned unfriendly, flogging a man,’ he liked to say. Impromptu kicks and curses were more his way, with his Coxswain, Toothless Murray, looming at his shoulder in case of mishaps. ‘In my own way I am humane,’ thought Nisbet, oppressed with the problem of a crew.
Kirkby returned clanking with one of the stinking deck lanterns. He laid out the bread and a dish of tea, and next to them a saucer of currant jelly. ‘Made by the Purser’s sister, Captain, from her own little Lancashire garden.’
‘Thankee, Kikby. Now back to your pit.’ But Kirkby loitered in the doorway wringing his hands, a measure of the crew’s deep unease. ‘Go, save us.’
Kirkby hurried out, revealing a glimpse of the Marine sentinel fastening the last of his buttons, and Nisbet called, ‘I’ll see Mr Foster after breakfast for news of our muster-roll.’
He stood up, his mouth full of bread, and stamped his foot, again hearing that hollowness and thinking, ‘She is riding high, and in smooth water.’ Satisfied, he prowled his cabin and said aloud, ‘A crew: this is the difficulty.’ Even on the best of ships at the best of times, men ran or swam or simply never returned. He had known them slip into the sea and dogpaddle a mile to an enemy coast. And for months the Dolphin had seemed so doomed and friendless, not quite in service, not quite in Ordinary, its Captain gone with no expectation of return, his cabin lamps unfilled, and the crew looking hungrily over the rail during her weeks in Portsmouth and then tied up in London, with its many delights and an easy route to their homes.
‘Wretches,’ muttered Nisbet, again talking to himself, a usual infirmity of captains but a matter of deep concern to Kirkby, who fussed next door in Nisbet’s bed space, his ear cocked. He relaxed a little: there would be no immediate explosion.
Nisbet blew out the filthy lantern, content in the dark, and sat with his feet on the table. He drew breath at last, looking around his cabin in the dim light through his great stern windows. There was some consolation in this – to be free of the land and its complications.
‘And to be out of Norfolk!’ he muttered, thinking of his aged bachelor uncle, the rector of a dying church, and his cold house among the elms.
‘I must find men,’ he said aloud, looking through the stern windows at the lights of London. Yet when a vessel touched shore it was the seamen who ruled and the Captain who must truckle. Yet – his mind turned again – hadn’t the Dolphin returned from her last cruise with a fat prize in her wake, which ought to breed a hopefulness of more to come, and meanwhile the dogs had surely run through their money even quicker than he.
How much he had spent ashore! He had returned in glory, but was crushed by his uncle’s house. First it was manageable things – the curtains dropping into rags, the kitchen pump that slobbered uselessly, the roof tiles sliding into the garden and the top-floor ceilings black with damp. But then a fat fellow came raging at the door, and Nisbet was near to killing him until the stranger said, ‘Who are you, sir, in my master’s house?’ In two bewildering minutes, the fat man poking his chest, Nisbet learned that his uncle was now a tenant, having sold the house after a doomed investment in a Norwich woollen manufactory, and here was the landlord’s steward to complain of rabbit snares in the back pasture. ‘Poachers,’ his uncle said, with a facility that belied his senescence. Startled, Nisbet wiped his lips, for he had dropped a cold rabbit pie when he snatched up the kitchen spit and dashed to confront this shouting fellow.
‘Poachers, is it?’ said the steward. ‘And no doubt poachers took the ten ton of gravel that my master bought for the bridleway.’
In his bafflement, Nisbet tried to push the greasy spit into a non-existent scabbard at his side, then wedged it amongst the fishing rods and butterfly nets in an old lobster pot behind the hall door. Against his more warlike instincts he paid for the gravel, cleared a shocking number of other debts run up by his uncle, and drove away at least some of the villagers who crept for charity to the kitchen door.
But he was powerless against the loss of the house that he had long regarded as home, and drifted into a rural stupidity: the afternoons of glum domestic drunkenness; the nights when he yearned for a full moon to light him into town; and the days of aimless lechery in Norwich, for the place held only respectable ladies or frank trollops, it seemed, with none of the middling sort of acquiescent female – no shop girls to lead him down an alley, or housemaids between employments, or wives of failing tradesmen, or milliners suffering an interminable engagement, or tribes of actresses, opera singers and street musicians, and above all none of the crowded privacy of London and the ports.
At last he was forced to join the Hunt – a vexing expense, yet old Colonel Bunty, the Master, took his subscription with reluctance and told his wife at dinner, ‘I fear I have awakened Josiah’s darker nature, for did I not see him today by Hog Hill with jackboots he could drown in, on a monstrous great horse like a monkey on a street organ.’ He spoke in his mock-philosophical tone, and Mrs Bunty clutched her apron and laughed.
Indeed, Nisbet had bought a colossal hunter (the sullen, side-stepping, sunken-eyed Rufus), and hired a groom (the lame, brandy-nosed Rogerson). He had polished the family stirrups (rusty where the thin plate had rubbed off) and the mouldy sun-bleached family saddle (white with the sweat of his forefather’s loins, its horse-hair padding worried out by a long-dead terrier), and every hunt day he mustered at the Hope and Anchor, twisting his fingers in the frayed ends of his saddle blanket and sucking deep at his flask, for he was anxious. At the call of the horn he bit on his hat-strap, struck his hob-nailed heels into Rufus’s ribs, and proceeded to kill more hounds than foxes.
‘We may say, my dear,’ the Colonel remarked, ‘that he sits his horse like a Captain of His Majesty’s navy.’ Mrs Bunty had seen too little of her husband during his eventful career. She put her apron to her mouth and laughed again, although he spoke bitterly, thinking of old Mr Thompson bumped off his saddle into a blackthorn hedge, and the faithful grey bitch Presto, lately trampled by Rufus, the mad white around his eyes.
‘How I remember Josiah as a boy,’ said the Colonel. ‘He would cry out that my horse had thrown a shoe or my gig a linch-pin, and continued to do so until an unreasonably advanced age, so that I blessed and pitied the Navy for taking him.’
‘Yes, my dear,’ cried his wife, ‘and didn’t he walk ten mile to see the man that fell off the mail-coach and was killed, and never missed a hanging, and is uncommon tawny like one of they runabout gypsies over the river. Yet only think of his stepfather, Admiral Nelson, that no man could rival, and young Josiah following him to the Navy, and then that wicked Emma Hamilton. So it was no great shock to me, I may say, that he turned such a strange noisy creature.’
In the end, Nisbet was not surprised when his uncle began to spot the Hunt crossing the lane without him, and told him so with a sly ‘Heh, heh.’ Stupid with boredom, despised by his neighbours and with his name an execration at the Admiralty, Nisbet in his mid-twenties saw nothing ahead but genteel poverty of the kind he had hated as a boy.
Prizes! That was the thing. The barky was a miserable hulk but she had one most lucrative virtue: she turned like a top. With an indulgent Admiral to keep him near a home port, Nisbet could reduce his stores to perilous levels and carry only a month’s water: many an enemy ship had peppered the empty sea while the Dolphin was already wheeling to rake her stern and board her. Thank God for Napoleon, whose invasion army had brought this chance of riches.
His eyelids drooped, and he let himself sink. Down he went, groping through sulphurous smoke after a pleasing bewildering mix of swords and ropes and money.
‘Let us be masters of the Channel for six hours and we are masters of the world’
The morning broke misty and mild. At some point Nisbet had blundered to his cot and slept deeply, though never unaware that he was aboard ship, hearing the companionable creak of the timbers, the rush of the river, so that again he dreamed of a chase at sea. Yet he slept late, fooled by the silence aboard the almost-unpeopled frigate, and was woken at last by Kirkby tapping and coughing at his door: ‘Your tea it is, sir. Tea, if you please, and things afoot on the barky, and Mr Gould is gone ashore.’
Nisbet stirred, scratched, and discovered that he was very well. By the time Kirkby had hurried back with the washbasin and towel he was strolling from his bed space and through to his day cabin, where he yawned and stretched in front of the great stern windows that blazed with the view up-river.
‘Like a rooster of a morning,’ thought Kirkby, standing with the basin, his long back canted forward, gazing vaguely at the floor.
At last Nisbet said, ‘Who’s he?’
‘Mr Gould it is,’ said Kirkby. ‘Your new First Lieutenant. Mr Gould. And already he’s ashore with the Victualling folk, and perhaps his nose is out of joint with you taking command, though surely he knew it would come, wouldn’t you say, Captain?’
‘More tea, and then Foster.’
William Foster, the Dolphin’s Second Lieutenant, was a lanky young man with a flopping forelock that he hoped might disguise his bony nose. His attitude to his Captain was one of nervous disapproval, which usually made his company delightful to Nisbet. Today, though, his news was as bad as could be: less than half their complement was aboard, disregarding the officers. Others were notionally on shore leave, but it was a fool’s bet how many would return, and even then the Dolphin would be grossly undermanned.
Nisbet cracked his knuckles and swore. His relations with his men were complicated by his own eccentricities, but nevertheless he had his followers – notably his boat crew under Toothless Murray – who had sailed with him before and who, he fervently hoped, would be the core of the ship’s new company.
Up on the quarterdeck, jangling Brown’s chains in his pockets, he paced up and down, eyeing the vessels moored alongside. They were disgustingly close, and he resented how their people might watch him with disrespect, just as he cast a dubious eye at them. But among these sea-going ships was the teeming lesser traffic of the river, the wherries and barges and nameless cockleshells, so that he understood Kirkby’s remark that things were afoot. He had issued no orders, yet boat after boat was steering towards them from the quayside, his officers growing frantic as they searched for men to bring aboard the barrels of salt pork, biscuits, peas, raisins and the endless impedimenta of a ship about to sail. More surprisingly, here were two boats loaded with seamen, who hailed each other across the filthy water and saluted comrades aboard until they noticed Captain Nisbet regarding them from the rail, his eyebrows up and lips pursed as if weighing them for punishment.
‘Hold hard,’ said Nisbet. ‘Who are they?’
It was another wherry touching their side, with a score of men gathering their kit and looking up at the Dolphin. Their pigtails reached their waist, they were brown and lean, and they had a remarkable profusion of ribbons – on their hats and sleeves and in crimson and white sprays on the seam of their trousers. The first of them shinned up the side as fast as a rat and at once seized and tested the shrouds, looking up with a cool considering eye.
‘Man-of-war’s men, Mr Foster,’ said Nisbet, wonderingly.
‘They are off the old Courageous, sir, and so are the rest. Mr Gould’s old ship, sir, that was just laid up. He persuaded them to join us, it seems, and the Admiral didn’t object.’
‘I couldn’t say, sir,’ said Foster with sudden enthusiasm. ‘But he is rarely without some shift or other is Mr Gould. Lord Barham expressed his pleasure, and Admiral Cosgrove shook his hand here on the quarterdeck. The men say – ’
‘Be damned to the men. Barham?’
‘Aboard three days ago, sir. Three hours they was with us, sir, as I noted in my log.’
‘Well, and I shall read your log when I have a moment,’ said Nisbet. ‘And Mr Gould’s. Damme, Mr Foster, I am just this moment aboard.’
‘I believe that he and Mr Gould have an acquaintance, sir.’
‘Did I tell you how Barham almost did for me last year at Boulogne?’
‘Almost did for me. Boulogne it was, trying to burn the invasion boats. Ordinary fireships were not good enough. Bomb ships it had to be, with mortars and grenadoes and barrels of powder, God save us. I lost a toe that day – yes, and all patience with Barham, and Keith, and Cosgrove, and all the other Scotch who run the Navy.’ It was a damned irritation, and typical high-handedness, to poke around the barky behind his back and to praise a subordinate in front of the men.
‘Beg pardon, sir,’ said Blake. ‘An officer, I believe.’
Yet another boat was approaching. Its passenger was an upright young man whose excess of lace and gold trimmings was exciting comment from the Dolphins. ‘I believe he has a dispatch,’ said Foster.
‘Not before time. I’ll see him below… Kirkby! Tea, if you please.’ Nisbet sat businesslike at his table and his mood definitively changed: he had men and stores and now his orders were surely coming, borne by a popinjay that the men had welcomed appropriately. He was smiling when Kirkby re-appeared.
‘Tea it is, sir, and some young fellow.’
‘Kirkby, I was just thinking of Toothless. Where is the man?’
‘Ashore, sir. Mr Gould let him go ashore, but he was sent for an hour back.’
‘My Coxswain is called William Murray,’ said Nisbet to the young officer, who had to crouch under the deck beams – a thing certain to irritate Nisbet. Moreover the young man bent with an easy amusement, as if this sideways stoop was a whimsical affectation, or a charming family tradition that he had chosen to indulge. An official canvas package was wedged under his arm, so that Nisbet marked him as an Admiralty fop, the sprig or bye-blow of some senior officer, the kind of privileged incompetent who poisoned the Service: ‘Aye, William Murray. But we call him Toothless Murray. Why do you think that is?’
‘Indeed, sir, I’m sure I couldn’t say.’
‘Initiative is a fine quality in a naval officer. Go at a venture.’
‘Well, sir, I would suppose that his family name is Murray and that either he has no teeth or that his teeth, in the perverse way of Service humour, are in fact unusually large or prominent or, as it might be, numerous.’
‘A prodigy perhaps. His teeth more plentiful than is usual.’
‘Remarkable. So this is what they teach you at the Admiralty. No, he is Toothless Murray because he is toothless. And he cannot abide hard tack or a nasty sharp crust of bread, can he, Kirkby?’
‘Like a horse at thistles, I always says, sir, beg pardon. Unless it be softened, like, in a little warm water or grog, indeed.’
‘Peas he does not mind, Kirkby.’
‘He likes his peas.’
‘And salt horse. Tell the youngster how Murray will deal with a nice bit of salt meat.’
‘Puts it in his cheek like a bit of baccy.’
‘Do you hear that, sir? And let that be a lesson to you. Now, kindly place your package on the table and be gone. And the next time you contemplate honey in your tea, or a bit of your mother’s plum cake, or a little self-abuse, why just you recall poor Toothless Murray.’
The young officer heard a coffin lid being levered off. He turned in surprise. It was the Captain’s horrible old Clerk, who was starting to laugh.
It was late when Nisbet came to a quiet street off High Holborn. The house was brightly lit, but he ignored its main door and went instead to a side entrance, once used by servants. The door here was narrow, but his knuckles were met by sturdy oak.
‘She will be pleased,’ he said, to calm himself. He had been raised in a household of women, fussed over by maids and cooks, and expected to be cosseted.
He had given his particular knock, so Jane came down in person, wrapped in a silk Chinese gown over something frilled, her face blurred with sleepiness. ‘Nisbet,’ she murmured, ‘how pleasant.’ He followed her up the narrow stairs to her sitting room where they embraced, though at once she pulled away. She was warm and vague and her hair smelled of candle smoke, so he was not surprised by her nest of cushions and books on the sofa, with dates and candies in a cloth, and a brass Indian tray with her usual sweet sherry.
He said, ‘You received my letter from Norfolk, I hope.’
‘The one with a thousand good reasons why you were not free, and could not come? Yes, though I did not keep it since it so much resembled your other letters.’
‘Lord, Jane, but think of my uncle, the most absent fellow that ever stepped in a chamber pot, and I may only leave him at my country’s call.’
‘Poor gentleman. And how is his health, that has troubled us so long?’
‘Don’t talk of him. The fool has sold his house. My house, I may say – and be damned to him if he cannot leave me the thing. His landlord hates him and sends his steward to peer in the windows and measure the paddock with chains and little sticks, which I pull up again. And meantime my uncle sits in the kitchen taking rum and water with his two old servants, all distinction lost, and they moan and wonder at their fate, and the villagers come a-begging and leave again with my boot in their bum. I could put a gun to my head.’
‘You have suffered, indeed. In London you might have seen the killing of a traitor or two.’
‘Jane, you know that I hate my village, whose last entertainment was the Plague, and Norwich nowadays is only concerts and the circulating libraries and Shakespeare. Where is the fine old English jollity, I wonder, with the drunk squire and his ploughman in the same ditch? And for my uncle’s sake I may not go to the pig races, nor grinning through a horse collar, nor throwing at cocks – which is to throw logs at a tethered cock, which is wicked cruel, Jane, indeed it is, yet the poor people love it and the tavern is nearby and it makes the meat so tender – while instead I might be here.’ He was sincere in that moment, and looked at her pink wallpaper, the rug that lapped his ankles, the coals glowing in the tiny grate, but particularly at Jane, who was reaching for a sweetmeat with one shapely bare arm while the other supported her bosom, which was tumultuously décolleté.
‘Do not look wolfish, Nisbet, for you may not stay.’
‘Indeed not. The barky leaks like a gate and must get to sea afore she sinks.’
‘But you are helped by your First Lieutenant, no doubt,’ she said.
‘The handsome Mr Gould.’
‘But foppish, however,’ said Nisbet. ‘And a close friend to the ship’s boys. Why, I found him t’other day – ’
‘Of a good family, I believe. Tall, certainly.’
‘Lord, Jane. How the devil do you know that spark?’
She smiled and settled complacently into the sofa, so that he thought, ‘She will hug a secret, even after her greatest secret is lost.’ Again he looked around her room, for he loved its disorder – the drawers foaming with clothes, the scree of shoes in a corner, and the wardrobe forced open like an alderman’s coat. ‘Well, you still have that slatternly Irish maid, I see, who is good for nothing but spite and kitchen gossip, which is why you love her, and I hope she listens at the door. You are a womanly woman, Jane, despite it all – so look at this,’ and he laid two of Brown’s chains on the table. ‘One is false and one is gold. Tell me which.’
She bent over the chains, prodded them with a finger, laid them across her hand. ‘Elegant things, Nisbet. But do I smell Hans Brown in all this?’
‘Can you tell them apart?’
‘No. Show me the trick. Which is gold?’
‘Why, this one of course,’ said Nisbet.
‘You seem uncertain.’
‘Not at all.’
‘You are anxious, Nisbet.’
‘As though you had lost track.’
‘No, Jane. I’ll put them here in my right pocket.’
‘But if you mix them together, then – ’
‘I know the trick of it, Jane. A simple trick that I have vowed not to reveal. Do not concern yourself. These are the right chains and they go in the right pocket because…because it is right.’
‘And in the left pocket? Ah, two more chains. Nisbet, I have begged and begged you to keep clear of Hans Brown.’
‘I have the measure of that fool. He entangles himself.’
‘So the chains in your left pocket are those that are left. They are left after the right ones. You leave the right and are left with the left.’
‘No, no, Jane. Right is right, I beg you.’
‘And will the right one be left with me? Left when you have left?’ She laughed and said, ‘Nay, Josiah, do not scowl. And when do you leave?’
‘Soon, I hope. Although there is a nightmare of work to do – and done, yes, by the First Lieutenant and the Master, for a Captain concerns himself with grand matters of strategy, and I am tangled in the follies of the Admiralty.’
‘This wicked cruel war,’ said Jane, ‘that might have ended years ago.’
‘It will end shortly, when your friend Napoleon lands from Boulogne.’
‘I have writ a piece – I will show you – on the conspiracy of manufacturers to prolong the conflict.’
‘Oh, Lord,’ he said, for this was the secret part of her life that was built around politics, so that she wrote endless letters and pamphlets, with articles for radical periodicals under false names, ‘Briton’ or ‘Lucius’ or ‘Timoleon’, and sneaking away to this pair of rooms while her family beat their brains out to keep her frolics secret. ‘Lord, woman, the Ministry has spies in every assembly – doubtless at your own levees. Look!’ And he lifted a saucer full of tobacco ash as an emblem of her indiscretion, wondering at these friends he never met whose traces filled her rooms – broken pipes among the fire irons, the ink dry on half a dozen pens, disordered chairs around the table that was thick with leaflets, newspapers, books marked in the margins, books propping open other books, and manuscripts in a dozen hands. He gave her a sharp look, thinking, ‘Is a lover among them?’
She held out creased and blotted papers, saying, ‘Here, keep them. See where I say that a Quaker ironmaster is an hypocrite: “He drives his artisans for the good of their souls, and preaches honesty to preserve his stolen wealth.” Ha! And here: “He is righteous so that he might borrow at low rates.” Rather fine, I believe. And read this, on corruption in the Navy.’
‘And your naval brothers? Are they corrupt? They are dully flourishing, I believe, especially the dullest.’
‘If you mean Francis, last year he was on the Boulogne blockade, now he commands the Canopus. Charles still has the Indian. They do their duty, Nisbet, and speak civil.’
‘And have a tribe of relatives at the Admiralty. Lord, though, I say a nightly prayer of thanks to Captain Francis, for he has lately informed us that in hot weather our cheese should be painted with whitewash. This, this is the cause of his swift advancement, and his brother’s, and not that the First Lord is part of the family.’
‘Lord Barham has connections with my family, yes, as does Admiral Gambier. But no one had advantages like you – the great Lord Nelson.’
‘Forget Nelson. And forget politics. Your stories are the proper work for a woman.’
‘My stories are not a retreat from politicking,’ said Jane. ‘They are its continuation.’
‘Bonaparte pays your rent, I am certain.’
‘They are satires on the place of women, where even the cleverest must waste her time pursuing a husband.’
‘Waste?’ said Nisbet. ‘But – ’
‘And I have recast First Impressions and think to name it Pride and Prejudice.’
‘Happiness, comfort, companionship,’ said Nisbet, stammering and sincere. ‘Jane, why is this a waste? Aye, and children too. Lord, Jane, marriage is…’
‘Again, Josiah?’ She looked at him but her face was turned slightly away, which seemed to mean attention without agreement.
‘You alone here, and me in Norfolk – that is the waste. Whereas, if we was married…’
She did not answer, and he thought how he had vowed not to raise this business again, or at least not so soon. Angry at himself, he became angry at her unknown friends – lean finger-jabbing fellows, no doubt, poisoned by radicalism and revolution and other excuses for ill-temper, and ready with a fine excuse, no doubt, if they chose to betray her. He fumbled through her manuscripts and said, ‘Well, and such stuff is harmless from a woman, since nothing can come of it. But hole-and-corner conspiracy is disgusting in a man, who will scarcely hang the King if he will not put his name to newspaper tattle.’
‘Damn you, Nisbet,’ she said mildly.
No, she must prefer an active man, Nisbet thought, and he sat up straighter. But then he saw a paragraph on Napoleon – ‘the great rough Spirit of the Age’, whose depredations were ‘a necessary Purgative’, for he ‘topples unjust Thrones, scatters the leech-like Priesthood, and breaks the Palsied Grasp of ancient Tyranny’ – and he grew angry, and would not read it. He pushed the script into his pocket, and looked again at her slim pale flesh. Her laughter had roused his mettle. He would give her a proper remembrance of him.
‘Jane,’ he said, but at once she stood.
‘You will leave now, Josiah. I did mean it, my dear.’
He was allowed to kiss her, but was soon marching back towards the river, heartsore, recalling that little cosy room but also how Jane had laughed, as so many had laughed at him in recent times. In particular she had mocked him over Brown’s chains. ‘But when all’s said there’s no great difficulty.’ He could take the two chains in his right pocket to any pawnbroker and have one or both proofed.
He was climbing aboard the Dolphin when he thought, ‘What if all the chains are false?’ Yes, that rogue Brown might well have taken his £5 but given him another fake. It would be exactly in his nature, the dog.
Back in his cabin he called for Kirkby and scribbled directions on a scrap of paper. ‘Toothless will go at once to this place. It’s a low uncle’s. He will take two men and press Hans Brown and run him directly aboard.’
/// Extract ends ///