Regency Royal Navy Christmas – Carla Kelly

They were beating across the southern Pacific, weary of sluggish water in slimy kegs and weevily ship’s biscuit, when Captain Paul Fergusson, commanding the HMS Avenger, was informed of a ship of unknown nationality closing on them. Since it was 1803 and the feeble Treaty of Amiens a recent event, he sent his second luff up the ratlines to stand with the lookout who had shouted down the observation. A French or Spanish flag meant trouble. Captain Fergusson knew there was no substitute for ordering Beat to Quarters promptly, even if all they were doing was shepherding three convict ships to New South Wales, but the wind indicated he had a moment to reflect. Silence. Silence. Then, “All’s well, sir! It’s the Champion, showing these flags: One hundred twenty days out. Bearing mail.” “Thank you. On deck, Mr. Winter.” Paul entertained a quiet sigh of relief and gestured to his first lieutenant standing by. “Mr. Marksby, when she closes, please signal ‘Carry mail to Glatton leading out dead center.’” “Aye, sir.

” Marksby bawled out the order to the master’s mate, who passed it on. Soon, flags fluttered in the wind. The Champion replied and heeled into the wind. “Mr. Marksby, we’ll be dining on the Glatton in a few hours. Pray God there is mail from home.” “Aye, sir.” Mail from home. Since tomorrow was Christmas, the promise of mail became a gift, indeed. He had hoped for Irene’s letter when the prisoner convoy raised Rio de Janeiro to take on water and victuals.

They were then sixty days out from Portsmouth, where he had said goodbye to his pregnant wife and their two little sons. Paul knew it was illogical to expect mail so soon, but he felt the disappointment keenly in Rio. Irene would have had their child a month earlier, and no one’s mail traveled that fast, not even King George’s. Sometimes his natural optimism worked against him, because Paul still wanted that letter assuring him that all was well with the love of his life, and the newest Fergusson. He smiled to think of his farewell from Irene in June. Their final love-making before at least a year’s absence had been more sedate than usual, since she was due for confinement in less than six weeks. And when she cuddled close later, her big belly against his hip, his arm around her shoulder, he had felt the baby within her squirming about. “Is Baby wondering what just happened?” he had teased Irene. “Paul, you are a rascal,” she replied. “Thank goodness I love a navy man and can excuse such ribaldry.

” She took his hand. “Press there lightly, and you’ll get an answering push.” He had done as she requested, briefly envying his wife’s easy camaraderie with the baby inside her but unknown to him, he who had supplied his part of the equation seven months earlier, over and done. Standing on the quarterdeck and remembering the moment, he knew wanted a daughter this time, one as pretty as her mother. Maybe she would be smarter than Irene Fergusson and love a banker or a solicitor, someone not likely to leave home for protracted periods. “Sir?” “Oh. Yes, Mr. Marksby?” Standing on the quarterdeck was no time to wool gather and moon about like a lovesick pup. Besides, the fact that his captain had parts and passions probably would have astounded a youngster like Lucas Marksby. “Sir, Angus is wondering if you will require any vittles before dinner on the Glatton?” Lord Almighty and all the suffering saints.

Angus MacFarland, his steward by dubious inheritance, was a worse priss than a boatload of nagging women. Unflappable in a fight, the old fart loved to hover about, as solicitous a steward as plagued the entire Royal Navy from the smallest cutter to the largest ship of the line. When Paul Fergusson, a newly minted post captain, came aboard the Avenger after the death in battle of its former commander, Angus flatly refused to relinquish his role. “I comes with t’ship,” Angus had stated in no uncertain terms. “Likes it or not, I am yours.” And so he was, even though Paul knew he could easily have removed the man. Angus’s devotion to whoever ruled the Avenger now extended to Captain Fergusson, who had no intention of fighting a man so determined. Better save his energy for bigger battles. Annoying Angus might be, but the man could whip up a cup of hot bitter chocolate that warmed the innards during long nights on the blockade, and Paul’s brushed and cleaned uniforms has never looked better. Angus MacFarland was worth it, generally.

Since he was a fellow Scot, and could only be understood by another Scot, Paul left the matter alone. “Mr. Marksby, kindly inform my steward that I need no food to stave off famine between now and whatever Captain Colvin unearths for his Christmas Eve dinner,” he told his lieutenant. A look of terror crossed Marksby’s face, the same Marksby who had stood his ground at the Battle of the Nile and not flinched when the opposing French frigate blew up and rained death on their quarterdeck. “Uh, sir, I….” “I’ll tell him myself,” Paul said, jollied out of his brief melancholy. “Take the deck, please.” Still smiling, he went below to inform Angus that he would be sailing soon for the principal convict ship and really didn’t need any food. As it turned out, the old heathen had just finished polishing the brass buttons on Paul’s best uniform. No one did it better, which is why Paul didn’t have the heart to object to a small sandwich and glass of beer.

Marksby needn’t know that his captain was a pushover, and perhaps fair terrified of the steward, too. “I am hoping there is mail for the convoy, along with our holiday dinner,” Paul said as he tucked into the sandwich, a dreadful concoction of flaked, dried herring and something mysterious – the sort of food found at the bottom of barrels. The voyage from Table Bay at the tip of Africa to Sydney Cove was the longest of the entire trip: six thousand, three hundred miles of rough sea and nowhere to revictual or take on water. He had made this voyage once before on another frigate, when he was a first luff and new father to his elder son. It was no one’s favorite duty, but the prisoner convoys needed a Royal Navy escort, according to the Admiralty. “It’s high time you knew about yer latest bairn,” Angus said. “Past time for a letter.” Angus nodded. Paul cared little that his inherited steward never addressed him by rank, even though he knew it bothered his lieutenants. “Captain, doesn’t it trouble you that he never calls you captain, or sir, even?” Lieutenant Winter, a stickler for protocol, asked him after they left Rio months ago.

“No, but don’t you try it,” he had replied to his earnest second lieutenant. “Sir! I would never!” Winter exclaimed, shocked, at least, until he noticed that Captain Fergusson and First Lieutenant Marksby were exchanging humorous glances. What’s in a name? Paul thought. He knew that his men first referred to their new captain of the Avenger as “Uncle,” possibly because they saw him as too nice, in a timid way. That all changed at the Battle of the Nile, where the Avenger rousted a ship twice its size and their Uncle, never flinching, sent them straight into the jaws of hell, which, he remarked later, was highly overrated and hardly a worthy destination for the Royal Navy. Paul had no idea what they called him now, and didn’t care. But it was time to climb down the chains into the Avenger’s jolly boat for the pull to the Glatton. He had no illusions that the food aboard the Glatton was any more edible than the food on the Avenger. All Paul wanted was his ship’s mail sack. Leaving Winter in charge, Paul, Lieutenant Marksby, Surgeon Rawlings and the sailing master made the brief journey to the Glatton, lead transport bound for Sydney Cove.

The air was warmer. They had voyaged from summer in England, to a curious mixture of fall and winter, which turned into summer in December, here in the Antipodes. Paul enjoyed a pleasant reminiscence, trying to explain to his six-year-old that in the Antipodes, it was summer, while England froze and celebrated Christmas. Polite like his mother, Peter had nevertheless given him the skeptical eye. “I’ll believe you, Papa, even though thousands wouldn’t,” he had said, which sent Irene into a gust of laughter, her hand on Paul’s shoulder. God, how he missed her simple touch. Captain Colvin of the Glatton greeted them, as his steward handed ‘round tin cups of undiluted rum. Colvin had nothing but apology for the poor quality of the dinner. His holiday greeting was as quiet and temperate as the man himself, making him a far cry from some of the sadists on earlier voyages where the prisoners, if not suffering enough, suffered more. They knocked off a toast or two quickly, every man among them wanting to get his hands on the mail sacks and not waste another minute huzzahing king and country, or even hearing the latest newold news from home, at a time when armies marched, the blockade wore on, and battles raged across Europe.

Paul looked around him at familiar faces wind-scoured like his own, some with parts missing – an eye here, fingers there – but all of them sons, husbands, or lovers and wanting family news. “I’d be a beast to keep you waiting,” Captain Colvin said finally. He nodded to his steward and mates, who hauled out the sacks of mail the Champion had brought from home, on its own, morerapid voyage toward colonial offices in Sydney. Lieutenant Marksby snatched the Avenger sack and bore it quickly to their corner of the Glatton’s wardroom. It took all of Paul’s strength of will not to pounce upon it like a homesick midshipman, instead of a well-seasoned post captain. Thank the Almighty that Marksby had no compunctions. He dove right in, searching for the one envelope Paul knew he wanted, although Paul wondered about a man who thought to propose through the royal mail. Marksby waved the longed-for envelope in triumph. “Gentleman, I think my wildest dreams are about to be answered. No applause necessary.

” “What a relief,” the Avenger’s Surgeon Rawlings murmured, as he fingered his own stack with more circumspection. He was a widower and his two daughters long married to placid country doctors. Paul paused to observe his first luff, an optimistic fellow whom he knew would go far in the fleet. He watched with some dismay as Marksby opened the letter and his expression turned sober. He frowned at the letter, read it again, put it back in the envelope and left the wardroom, head down. Paul found Irene’s letters, two of them, and looked on the back, where all good officers’ wives wrote the date plainly and numbered all letters, so their men would know where to start, after lengthy absence. A glance at the newer number two letter assured him his wife still lived. He opened the older one, dated July 15, 1803. He knew there would be no hemming and hawing, not from Irene Fergusson, a woman not known to hold back anything, even of a delicate nature. Years may have passed, but he grew warm under the collar, thinking of an earlier letter received when he had been at sea too long.

How could any new husband forget an inimitable letter sent six months after their marriage and received three months later in the Arctic? My lovely Paul, if the weather is warm when you return, would your career suf er if I lie down right there on the dock and beckon you? Oh, it would? Fancy that. Grateful her saucy missive hadn’t fallen into enemy hands, he had showed that letter to no one. He kept it tucked in the lining of his sea trunk. Even on the worst days, it never failed to make him smile. He took a deep breath and opened the letter. She began as always, Dearest Paul, then the effervescence that was Irene took over. Guess what??? As of yesterday morning – you would call it three bells – you have a blue-eyed, brown-haired daughter!! She will be christened Mary Anne, as you wished. We’ll save William Wharton for another occasion. All is well. She is fine and so am I.

His heart full to bursting, he read the rest of the letter slowly, savoring every word, as she described a simple labor, followed by Mary Anne’s noisy appearance. Our sons think she is the best thing that ever happened, Irene continued. Her eyes are as wise-looking as yours, and she tends to keep her own counsel, the same as you. She is a quiet observer, which makes me miss you even more. I think it remarkably unreasonable for Australia to be located so far from Lyme Regis, don’t you? She wrote a little more, declaring by the end of the page that she was tired, and grateful for her mother’s help and the boys’ willingness to fetch and carry nappies, and hold Mary Anne. He smiled over her usual sign-off – From the depths of my heart to yours, your wife Irene, the Irrepressible . His smile grew larger to see a stick drawing of Mary Anne penned by three-year-old Daniel. Older son Peter’s letter followed, declaring that as temporary man of the house, Papa need have no qualms that Mary Anne was safe with him. “Dear son,” he whispered, “thank you.” He closed his eyes in gratitude and leaned against the bulkhead.

Irene’s second letter one week later assured him that her milk flowed bounteously, she had received her quarterly allowance from their Plymouth counting house, and she would fit into her dresses eventually. She mentioned tourists promenading along the Cobb, an abundance of plums this year, and Mary Anne’s first half-smile, although it might have been gas. It was an ordinary, mundane, cut and dried letter, precisely what he craved. Captain Fergusson smiled all the way from the Glatton to his own ship. The letters from an aunt and uncle and younger brother could wait until later. Back aboard the Avenger, the bosun’s mate blew Mail Call on his pipe and letters were distributed to the men. Paul ordered grog all around to celebrate Christmas a day early, Mary Anne’s summer birth, and that of the ship’s carpenter’s son. Paul made a big show of turning over the coins from the modest game of chance the bosun’s mate had begun, pitting the two expected births against each other. Little Edward Winslow had arrived a week before Mary Anne, so the carpenter was two pounds richer, all totaled. “Should we wager on who gets a first tooth, Jacob?” Paul asked the carpenter, who nodded and plinked a shilling back in the pot.

It was harmless fun, the kind every ship needed but few received, according to the bosun’s mate, who had served under tyrants, ninnies and what he called the real deal. After supper and once the night watches were set, Paul retired to his quarters that spanned the stern of the Avenger. With a sigh, he kicked off his shoes, unbuttoned his trousers, lay in his sleeping cot and cried because he wanted to be home holding Mary Anne, with Irene and the boys close by. Horrors, he forgot that his crusty old steward always brought him a hot washcloth before bed. There the man stood in the alcove, his eyes registering their general disapproval as Paul wiped his eyes, hoping Angus wasn’t one to carry the tidings to the foc’cs’le that their captain was a weakkneed coward who wept at good news. “You have me, Angus,” he said, embarrassed, as he sat up and reached for the cloth to press to his eyes. “There are times I would happily trade away this duty of mine to king and country to be around when my wife really needs me. All I want is to hold my baby girl.” “I wish you could,” Angus said simply. “Blame Boney.

” The old rip did a surprising thing. He patted Paul’s shoulder, an unusual liberty, because no one touched the captain. Royal Navy regs called it a crime worthy of an extraordinary number of lashes. Paul called it kindness. “Thank you, Angus. I needed that,” he said. He lay down again, his hands behind his head, his heart full. “If I could have a Christmas wish, I would want to carry my little daughter from room to room, just the two of us, getting acquainted.” Angus nodded. “I had a daughter once,” he said, his voice low.

A single finger to his forehead, and he was gone. God forgive me, Paul thought. I know nothing about this man.

.

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