A Royal Achievement
Lord Montagu read the brief letter and shot to his feet…
“At last! Action! The Barbary Coast… at last!”
“We are off to fight pirates, Father?”
“Indeed we are my boy, indeed we are! But keep it to yourself for a few days, we must put into Malaga… or Gibralter or both, to victual. I don’t want word getting out to the merchants, or prices will double.”
“Of course Father… may I tell Jeremy please? I’ll make sure he stays quiet.”
“I could hardly expect you to keep a secret from him… now could I?” His father said with an indulgent smile. “But, tell him that if prices double, I shall see the extra taken as a pound of flesh off his bottom… Clear?”
“Oh yes Father, he has seen that happen.” He smiled a trifle guardedly, and decided to risk it. It was a delicate subject with his father, but wasn’t that as good a reason to rub it in? “He isn’t going to take any risks of following me along that path!”
“See that he doesn’t… The King may want you boys treated according to your station, but he hasn’t seen a whipping at Winchester. The sons of gentle nobles learn through the seat of their pants, even at a good school!” Lord Montagu might be more indulgent these days, but as Admiral he still had to have the last word, especially on matters of discipline.
Twenty minutes later the boys were sitting in the crow’s-nest. It was still the place they went to discuss things that they either didn’t want the men to hear, or to know they knew.
The day’s news that David brought from the Admiral’s stateroom was exciting. The fleet had received orders to head for the Barbary Coast, to patrol outside the towns and harbours of Salé, Algiers and Tunis.
“Why those?” Jeremy asked, all this was new to him.
“They are bases for pirates,” David replied knowledgably. “ and pirates need to be taught to respect European navies… “
“Are they Ottoman Turks?” Jeremy interrupted, not wanting his friend to think he was entirely green.
“I assume so… Who else would they be?”
“We must ask your father… I wish Uncle Samuel was here, he knows those sorts of things.” Jeremy said. Then… “Actually he is here, or at least what he would know is!”
That necessitated a swift descent of the mast and a quick scamper up the companionway onto the quarterdeck, where Lord Montagu was speaking to the Captain. Jeremy waited by the rail near the ladder to the main deck, just where he could catch the Admiral’s eye when he turned away from the Captain.
He saluted when Lord Montagu came within range.
“Permission to speak? Sir” He said briskly. “In private if I may” He added quietly.
They walked together to the far rail.
“Please Sir, I…” Jeremy started… “I mean we, David and I were wondering… “How much is known about the Barbary Coast and its pirates… Are they Ottoman Turks? Are their ships from Turkey? Man o’ War or galleys… That sort of thing?”
Lord Montagu looked just a trifle harassed.
“I wish I knew. If only your Uncle Samuel were here, he would have all that at his fingertips!”
“Well Sir, that’s really why I was asking, because he is here… or at least his knowledge is.”
His admiral looked puzzled… “It is?”
“Yes Sir. It is”
“When he returned to London, he left me his trunk with all the books that he had brought for the voyage. He said it might keep me out of trouble.”
“And has it?” Lord Montagu asked with a smile.
“Well, No, I mean yes… I mean I haven’t been caught yet… have I?”
“No, you haven’t… So you have kept out of trouble, but I’m not sure what that has to do with your uncle’s trunk of books.”
“Well Sir, beg pardon Sir, it doesn’t exactly… But if I was in trouble… historically I mean and wanted to get back into your good books… Would searching Uncle Samuel’s trunk for information on the Barbary Coast be useful? Sir.”
“Ah, now information on Barbary pirate’s and their kings, ships and fortresses… that would indeed be useful, and I certainly don’t have time to do all that reading myself.
But… Remember the Master, any information you find about the Barbary coast itself, its ports and headlands and so on, that would be of great interest to the ship’s master. Remember… I ought to hear it from him and not a King’s Letter Boy…Do you get my meaning?” He waited to see if Jeremy was as quick witted as he hoped he was.
“You mean Sir… Gather all the information I can find on the pirates and the coast, bring the information on pirates to you and take anything on the coast to the Master so that he can look good when he brings it to you.” He paused for breath.
“And…” Prompted His Lordship… “And…”
“Don’t upstage the Master with knowledge that I’ve just read from a book… that he will have worked years for.” Jeremy said with the utmost seriousness.
“Exactly! Well done young Pepys!” His admiral ruffled his hair, and young Jeremy shot him a bright grin.
“Thank you Sir! I’ll prepare little notes like we did before Scheveningen.”
“Well done… and David… don’t leave him out.”
“No indeed Sir, there will be more than enough work for two.”
It was during a quiet moment in the crow’s-nest that Jeremy suddenly leapt to the side and shouted down to the quarterdeck…
“Heave-to, Man overboard!”
The Officer of the Watch looked up startled…
He could see no activity on the main deck to suggest that one of their number was in the water.
David, meanwhile, had seen from the deck what Jeremy had spotted, three heads in the water. They could be seals but two of them stayed together, while the third suddenly thrust an arm in the air… and then disappeared.
David pointed for’ard and slightly to port, “ten cables!” he shouted pointing towards the heads he could see in the water. He held the position long enough for the officer of the watch to take a bearing and start steering the ship towards the casualties.
Meanwhile the bosun’s mate was getting a boat ready.
The trouble was, at only ten cables the ship was rapidly approaching the heads in the water, faster than the boat could be readied and more than a thrown rope could cover, if it was to avoid running them down.
The quarterdeck could see the heads now.
David threw his blue jacket down and grabbed a coiled rope near the rail. He started tying it round his waist. The quarterdeck shouted for him to desist, but David ignored them.
He shouted “Secure the line!”… and jumped into the water.
As he jumped he took a bearing on where the heads now were, two at least, they were less than half a cable away and David started swimming towards them while the ship slowly overtook both him and the heads in the water. Turning sharply it had lost the wind and was losing way.
He rolled in the water to look up at the crow’s-nest, towering above him. He could see Jeremy stolidly pointing towards the heads in the water. He might be terrified for his friend but he had kept his nerve and was doing the one useful thing he could to help his friend and the officers on the quarterdeck.
David meanwhile was swimming for his life… his and whoever was out there in the water. He was depending on the ship being much closer by the time they were both at the swimmers. Otherwise he would run out of rope and be dragged away from them by the ship. It all depended on whether the officers conning the Royal James could bring it to a halt in just the right place. Meanwhile he was swimming as fast as he could go. That was all that he could do.
He felt a tug and the rope went taut and started to drag him through the water. He glanced up at Jeremy and saw him pointing and waving enthusiastically. Indeed he was being dragged through the water but if he judged his friend’s excitement correctly he was being dragged towards the casualties.
That was when he saw their heads slightly nearer the ship now than he was. At that moment he heard a sharp blow and the rattle of chain as the anchor was dropped.
Everyone was hopefully in roughly the right place.
He swam again as the rope slackened, towards where two heads bobbed some ten yards or so away.
He arrived with not much left in the way of strength, and that seemed to be the same for the man in the water.
“Take the boy… I’m done in!” The man said.
He thrust the child he had in his exhausted arms towards an equally exhausted David.
The boy was small, or seemed that way, maybe twelve years old, but very thin.
David needed to act quickly, and pushed the boy back into the man’s arms.
“Hold him a moment longer!”
He turned and gathered the rope, tying a hand sized loop in it.
He took the man’s hand and slipped the rope over the wrist.
“Hold tight!” He ordered.
Then, floating on his back, he took the child in his arms, and shouted…
“Haul away! Easy does it!”
He shouted again in case he hadn’t been heard. After a moment or two he felt the three of them beginning to move through the water.
But then… “What was that? Something bumped my legs!”
The man said “Don’t worry. That’s our dolphin. It seems worried about us.”
“Your dolphin?” David asked, as they began to pick up speed through the water.
“It joined us when the lad was weakening. It saw off the shark. But then the shark left us and took the boy’s father. Now it seems worried about the boy…”
There was a huge splash nearby, that would have soaked them if they hadn’t been in the sea. “Hey, I think it’s happy you’ve got here… look at that!”
The dolphin rose out of the water did a roll and crashed back down with a great splash.
“He’s happy!” The man said.
“No, I saw another fin! … He’s fighting the shark for us!”
They were close to the ship now, the bosun and his boat were in the water and it pulled towards them. Men on the maindeck were cheering them on.
Hands reached down from the boat and David passed the child up to them.
Gentle hands laid the boy on a thwart.
David, remembering that he was an officer, politely refused help. He pulled the man alongside and insisted that they take him first. That was slightly more complicated than it would have been if they hadn’t been tied together. At the same time as the sailors pulled on the man, David grabbed the gunwale and pulled himself into the boat.
The man was thanking everyone in sight, he could barely believe it was true. David joined in, more formally, as a stiff-upper-lipped Naval Officer should…
“Thank you men, that was well done, very swift action… You have our gratitude and that of the child too, when he wakes.” David said to the men with a broad grin… It was good to be alive.
To reinforce that thought, the nose and teeth of a huge fish appeared beside them.
A sailor hit it briskly with an oar.
“Well done, but look… There’s a fellow who is happy to know we’re safe!” David pointed further out, to where the dolphin was celebrating with a display of leaps and spirals.
“Without him we’d be inside the shark!” The man said.
“Three cheers for the dolphin then!” David shouted to lighten the moment.
The men cheered… and then cheered again when the dolphin responded.
It thrashed its tail to keep its body standing out of the water, and then…
Those who saw it were certain, and those who didn’t, would never believe them..
The dolphin bowed!
He circled the boat and then came alongside. David leaned out and patted him gently, and then more firmly when he felt what a robust creature it was.
“Well done, and thank you.” He said.
The dolphin rolled onto its back, and looked as if it smiled. It circled the boat once more and swam away.
A feeling of dismay swept the boat. They had lost an ally and friend. It had saved two drowning souls and they hadn’t managed more than a hurrah as its reward.
“Right men, pull for the gangway. We have a child to get warm and fed!”
The moment of magic was over, and David was being an officer again.
He silently recited as much as he could remember of the Burial at Sea… After all, there had been a third swimmer out there, a man who now also had needs. David prayed silently, he didn’t want to upset the child. The boy was beginning to show signs of waking..
That was when the afternoon air was split with a terrible scream.
“Father! Where’s my father?”
“Hush lad,” The man said quietly to him… “He was very tired. He just went to sleep and slipped under the water. I could only save one of you and he’d made me promise to see you safe. He was a hero lad, a real hero was your Dad.”
The boy looked around him, “Where am I , where’s the dolphin?”
The boy looked serious… “He saved us…”
The man cut in “He looked after us, but it was this man who saved us…” He gestured towards a slightly embarrassed David.
David had never been referred to as this man before. He guessed he was only two or three years older than the boy, but this afternoon that made him this man.
“This man did?” The boy asked, looking at David in wonderment and admiration, not to mention gratitude. It was a very small face to contain so many emotions at the same time.
“He saw us in the water and jumped off the ship with a rope and swam to bring us to safety. He didn’t worry…” He stopped himself in time. The shark could wait. “He didn’t worry about drowning, he just jumped in.”
The lad looked at one of the Royal Navy’s smallest officers, with eyes like saucers.
“You did, Sir? You swam out to us with a rope? Oh Sir…” Then he burst into tears.
“Oh, Father would be so happy!”
David took his small hand and squeezed it. “Yes, he is happy. He’s looking down on you now. He can see you’re safe. He’ll be in Heaven by now. He’ll be so happy to see you safe.”
The child gave him a wan small smile.
“Thank you.” Was all he said, but it was all that David needed… It wasn’t proper for an officer to burst into tears, even with happiness. So he turned to the crew… “Right men let’s get him aboard the ship, He’s had quite an adventure.”
The men pulled with a will and within minutes gentle hands were pulling man and boy onto the Royal James.
The captain was waiting for them.
“That was well done young-Montagu… I’m glad I don’t have to explain it to your father, you can do that yourself! Remember to say that you ignored an order to desist… fortunately. Well done son!”
Son? Everyone wanted a piece of the success. Was there enough of David for everyone to have a share?
“Father will be happy that it worked out well. I think he just wonders what he’ll have to overlook next.” David replied with a grin. “Now let’s sit this pair in the sun so that they can warm up and dry out. Please Sir, can you have Saucy fetch them some soup, something light and warm to fill them up.”
The Captain strode off to tell someone to set things in hand.
David then took it into his head to ask the man some questions… at first to add to his knowledge of the coast and the pirates. But then he thought… ‘Manners, David!’
“Sir, you did well to keep the boy alive, please allow me to shake your hand! And Sir, your name, may I know your name, and how you came to be here… saving the boy?”
“Harry Smith, young-Sir. Harry Smith, blacksmith of Polperro. You Sir, it was you saved the boy really, I was done for. We were nigh ready to drown when you turned up. It was only the dolphin nudging us that was keeping us afloat. Without you and your rope we’d be in that great fish by now. I’m proud to know you Sir!”
They shook hands again, and then were quiet for a few minutes as they gazed on the sleeping child.
“Poor little chap, he’s an orphan now!”
“No mother either? Or brothers and sisters?” David asked.
“No Sir. His mother killed herself a week ago. When she heard what we had been brought here for… Three weeks it took to get us here. Our little village outside Polperro… all of us taken. The renegados raided the village. There’s no-one left there for him now. The boy… they were grockles… sorry Sir… strangers, incomers in our village. I don’t even know where they came from, to tell his relatives. He’s no-one left, as I know of.”
“Yes, he has!” David said with certainty. “He has you, and he has the Navy, if he wants… if you agree, Father can sign him as a King’s Letter Boy.”
“He’s our Admiral… he’ll sign him up, or he’ll have a very grumpy son!” He smiled, “Don’t worry, we’ll look after him… I always wanted a younger brother.”
Then he thought… “Unless you were going to… That was rude of me. I was so pleased to have him safe aboard… Were you going to look after him Sir?”
“I promised his father that I would see he was looked after, but now I don’t have anything either, I shall need to find my own way, and God alone knows how that will be. So if you and the Navy can do it for me, then that’s a huge weight off my shoulders…” He seemed visibly relieved. Then…
“But, young-Sir, if your father’s the Admiral, can you find me a post aboard one of his other first-rates? I’m a damn fine blacksmith!”
“Yes, I’m certain we can… we always need skilled men. But, wouldn’t you like to be on the same ship as the boy? To keep an eye on him?”
“No, bless you young-Sir… Every time the lad saw me he would remember this day, his drowned father, the great fish… and his lost mother. No, I think a fresh start for him would be best. You look after him Sir, and God bless you for it.”
“I’d better go and explain to Father that you need employment, and the boy needs a home. By the by… in the village, what was his father? The boy seems gentle-born.”
“He was our village’s parson Sir, and a fine preacher he was too, and strong for the King. He came to us after the King lost the battle at Naseby… I guess he was hiding. He was Parson Kingsman… that’s young Timothy Kingsman, his only son. The parson was a fine influence on the village. Though… the village is gone now.”
“Is it a problem in Cornwall, the pirates I mean?”
“Problem Sir? It’s a curse. All the small villages along the coast are at risk. Many have had to be abandoned. The people have moved inland, or to one of the garrisoned ports. It’s hundreds of villages have been taken as slaves. They raid all along the south coast and the Irish coast. Our fishermen told us that they even prey on the coast of Iceland!”
“Was it your skill as a blacksmith they wanted?”
“Bless you no sir. I’d have just ended up in the fields. It was our women and boys they were after… that’s where the money is. We didn’t realise till they got us to the slave market.
“But the women aren’t much use in the fields!” David said.
“No indeed Sir… Beg pardon but…” He paused, but someone needed to understand, and the boy seemed old enough. “it’s on their backs that they are useful. Their religion allows a slave owner to use his slaves… for anything he wants.”
“But boys, they aren’t much use in the fields… and even less use on their backs!”
Young-Gentlemen who have mixed with sailors for a few years have a rather earthy, or maybe that should be salty, sense of humour. Dark too.
But the reply when it came was to be even darker than his humour.
“No, young-Sir… Boys serve best on their knees. This coast is where the words a fate worse than death came from… beg pardon Sir.”
“You mean more or less all the slaves are used for…” He was a well brought up lad, and as yet lacked the words to complete the thought.
“Yes Sir… That’s exactly true. The slave dealer told us that according to their religion it isn’t sinful for a married man to lie with his own slave… provided he owns the slave and the slave is unmarried.”
“So if she is married she is worth less?”
“No, young man… that’s no problem. It’s easy enough to create a widow.”
“Oh my God,” David said quietly… “and girls? Surely young girls are safe?”
“Young girls are just as well equipped to please a man as a woman is, and they are almost always prettier…” The man said.
“… and are unmarried?” David interrupted.
“… and they are unmarried!” Came the grim reply.
“Oh, my God. No wonder there’s a fleet out here.”
“Remember Sir, there are hundreds of men in your fleet, but there are thousands of corsairs along this coast.”
David settled the man Harry Smith, blacksmith of Polperro, leaning against a mast, in the sun, warming through. Saucy turned up with another load of food, a nourishing stew and fresh bread. He had small-beer for the boy and some grog for the man.
Seeing them comfortably settled, David set off to find his father. Yes, this was a day when he needed his father, he could speak to the Admiral later.
By this time Lord Montagu had heard what his son had been up to. He had managed to stay calm when he heard that David had dived into the sea, tied to the ship by a rope… “The rope could have pulled him under, and drowned him!” He said in a voice whose gruffness reflected his worry.
“The bosun had grabbed the rope off the seaman that David had thrown it to as he ran. He could see the risk, even if David couldn’t. He’d have let go of the rope if David got into trouble. They already had a boat being lowered. The men have too high a regard for your lad for them to risk him drowning before he gets them killed!”
The Captain said it with a smile, but there was a dark under-edge to his humour.
Lord Montagu could see the truth in what he said.
“So, what is my son doing now?”
“The last I saw, he was out on the main-deck, talking to the man, probably trying to find out who they are and why they were swimming straight out to sea… It’s a strange way to kill themselves, but that’s all they can really have been expecting. I wonder why they would do it.”
The Captain hadn’t yet heard what the man had told David. When he did, he would understand why drowning with the boy was better than seeing him sold on the block of the slave market, sold as… Yes, drowning was much better.
While they were wondering, the subject of their ruminations appeared on the quarterdeck.
“Permission to speak Sir?” David was being formal and speaking to the Captain.
“Carry on… I think the Admiral wishes to ask you why you tried to kill his son!” The Captain said it with a smile, but the meaning was plain… ‘Make it good!’
“Yes David… what possessed you? That was the most dangerous thing I’ve seen in a long Naval career. You could so easily be dead!” Lord Montagu needed a good answer… He got one.
“Well Sir, there was just one of me, and there were three lives in the water. I’m told that there is nothing more important at sea than the saving of lives that the sea is trying to take.”
That paused Lord Montagu, but only for the moment… “That’s all very well, but risking the life of your Admiral’s son… You don’t see that as a trifle reckless?”
“Not really Sir. I think it’s what my Admiral raised his son to do. He would have been disappointed to have seen him do less.”
At that reply, the Captain, turned away so that his grin wouldn’t add to the Admiral’s complications… he was clearly losing the argument.
The best that the Admiral could think of to do was to say “Harrumph” and then hug his flagship’s most junior officer… Well, second-most junior, we have forgotten Jeremy.
“Do stop hazarding yourself. I’m quite happy with the son I have, a more heroic one is really not necessary!”
“I’m not heroic Sir, and I’m certainly not trying to impress anyone, even you Sir!”
“No, I really don’t think you are… and that’s why you are a danger to yourself, and to my son!” Lord Montagu always had to have the last word, so David allowed him.
“So…” Lord Montagu was changing tack. “You have spoken to the man… what have you found out?”
“He Sir, is Harry Smith, blacksmith, of Polperro in Cornwall, and the boy is an orphan, Timothy Kingsman, son of Parson Kingsman. The parson and his family arrived in Polperro after Naseby. I suspect that his name and the battle are not unrelated.”
“Kingsman? Eh? Sounds like they took refuge as far from London as they could get. But what were they doing in the sea?”
“Escaping from renegados and the slave market. The man assures me that it was better for the boy to drown if they weren’t rescued, than to be sold on the block.”
“Better, I don’t see the logic in that. Never-mind, they are on board now. So what are we to do with them?” This was directed at the Captain.
Before the latter could say anything, David decided to push his luck that little bit further.
“Please Sir, with your permissions Sirs… The man is an excellent blacksmith and would like a berth on one of the other ships. Timothy… Sirs, may I suggest that we take him on as a Kings Letter Boy? He has no-one else. The blacksmith promised his father that he would provide for him, but he has nothing himself at this moment. If we take Timothy off his hands then that solves everyone’s problems… and the boy is a lovely child!” David had the grace to blush.
Lord Montagu turned to the Captain… “Well, he’s your junior officer. Has he solved our problems?”
“It would seem so Sir.” The Captain replied with a smile. “But why does the blacksmith want to serve on a different ship?” This to David.
“He believes it better for the boy. Actually, I think he is trying to put off the moment when the boy thinks to ask him what actually became of his father.”
“And, what did become of the boy’s father?” The Captain asked, with a raised eyebrow…
The humour rapidly disappeared…
“He was killed… eaten by a shark!” David answered. The men fell silent.
Lord Montagu was in a decisive mood…
“Right then, get this Harry Smith into a boat as soon as possible and get him across to the Augustaine, the repair crew could do with a good blacksmith. Bring him up here first, and have my clerk bring me a purse with ten guineas, in gold. This blacksmith needs more than just a job as a start to his new life.”
“Oh, thank you Father!”
“Oh, thank you Sir!” The Captain corrected him.
Harry Smith was easy. The future of young Timothy Kingsman took a lot longer to sort out. Lord Montagu was keen to take him to London and show him around to see if he could be identified. It took David a while to persuade him that without knowing why the Parson had been in hiding, exposing his son to scrutiny could be rash.
Eventually his father accepted the idea that there was nothing to lose by signing him on as a Kings Letter Boy. It would give him a home and friends and a future. That seemed a more certain state of affairs than finding the people that his father had been hiding from. Maybe they could do that discreetly later… when he was older, when his losses were less raw. When he was older at least.
Meanwhile he had a home at sea, and when not at sea he could indeed be the younger brother that David hankered after. Hinchingbrook House had enough rooms to hide another one.
The one thing that father and son completely agreed on was that the Kingsmans were almost certainly a persecuted Royalist family, maybe Catholics too. Yes, perhaps the past was best left where they had found it… in Timothy’s past.
It was Jeremy who was particularly concerned with where all this had taken place.
“It wasn’t just an accident, Sir.” He explained to his Admiral at breakfast next day.
“According to the Master, we were off the mouth of the Bou Regreg River, with Rabat on the south bank of the estuary and Salé on the north.”
“That’s significant?” Lord Montagu asked.
“Oh! Yes Sir… very!” Jeremy realised this was all new to Lord Montagu. “According to Uncle Samuel’s library, Salé is notorious as the home of the renegados, they’re European pirates, Christians who have converted to the Arab faith… so that they can prey on our shipping. Rabat is also a pirate port, but Arabs only.”
“So this river is a major centre for piracy?”
“Yes Sir, most of the piracy in the Atlantic starts from here. It’s harder to stop than piracy in the Mediterranean, because the ocean is larger. Once at sea they are almost impossible to catch”
“Interesting… so you think that if we could stop it here, by blockading this unpronounceable river, we would make a difference?”
“Yes Sir, definitely. At the very least they would have to seek another port. We hold Tangiers so the next best bet for them would be the north coast of Africa, inside the Med. Once in there you have control of the straits. Bottled up, they can only annoy Italy and Spain and a bit of southern France. Oh, and Malta, but you have the Maltese well protected already.”
Lord Montagu was quietly impressed, Jeremy had the makings of a strategist.
“Well, that’s what we shall do then… but do let the men think it was my idea.”
He said this with a smile, but Jeremy could see that he meant it.”
“Yes, of course Sir. All I can ever do is provide you with information, it’s always your decision.. You are just lucky in your choice of Page.” He said the last bit with a cheeky grin and Lord Montagu laughed and pretended to box his ears.
It was a good relationship, provided Jeremy paid attention, and ducked at the right moment..