This is the second part of Captain Wentworth’s adventures with the Asp and Laconia. Enjoy!
January, 1808, in Plymouth, Devonshire
“Commander Wentworth,” announced the marine guard formally, “you are called.”
Wentworth rose smartly to his feet, refusing to show either nervousness or fear, even though his career was at stake. He refused to meet the eyes of Harville, Benwick, Stokes, and the other witnesses from the Asp. He was immaculate in his Number One uniform. Tucking his hat under his right arm, his left hand instinctively dropped to straighten his sword, but he found nothing. Of course, it was not at his side. One could not wear a sword to one’s court-martial.
Wentworth steadily entered the great cabin of the flagship where the court would consider his fate. The admiral of the port, splendid in his gold-laced uniform and powered wig, served as the president of the court; several senior captains sat on either side of him. Wentworth’s throat was dry. Hating his weakness, he swallowed before nodding to his superiors assembled.
A clerk in civilian clothes read the charge in a high-pitched, nasal voice. “At a court-martial assembled and held on board His Majesty’s Ship Triumph in Plymouth…”
The man droned on while Wentworth’s mind recalled the reason he was there—the wreck of the Asp.
It had been a nearly uneventful voyage from Nassau to Plymouth. It was late in the year, quite out of season for hurricanes. Wentworth’s prize, the French frigate Laconia, sailed three cable-lengths behind the dear old Asp. She cut an imposing sight, particularly with the Union Jack flying pointedly above the Tricolor at the stern, and more than once, Wentworth envied Harville’s assignment of commanding her. But the Asp was his command, not the Laconia, and it would not do for a ship’s captain to abandon his command, even though the captain’s cabin aboard the frigate was almost twice as large.
That the Asp had developed a leak was not surprising. The timbers were ancient, and the sloop was barely fit for home waters, much less traveling across the Atlantic Ocean. Wentworth was happy that she held up during his very profitable voyage. The carpenter had done his best, and an hour at the chain-pumps a day usually handled what water collected in the hold.
Wentworth was as proud as a prince with their welcome at Plymouth. The other ships assembled were stunned at the unlikely sight of a sloop leading a captured frigate and fired salutes in honor of his victory. His men shared in the glory and took pains to appear as smart as possible, dropping anchor in concert. Wentworth immediately sent his official letter ashore while he oversaw preparations for the inspection sure to come the next day.
But what came instead was as bad a storm as Wentworth had ever experienced. A force eleven gale, a hurricane with winds greater than sixty knots, slammed into the port. For four days and nights, the Asp took a terrible beating, with giant waves crashing over the sides of the sloop. The repairs to the ship could not hold. Early on the fourth day, the carpenter gave Wentworth the bad news.
“We’re breached proper in several places, sir, and making more water in the hold than the pumps can manage.”
“How much water?” Wentworth had demanded.
“Almost a foot in the last hour, an’ the pumps going as hard as they may. The men, they’re breaking under the strain, sir. They can’t take no more.”
It did not take long for Wentworth to compute the figures in his head. The Asp was doomed.
“Mr. Benwick,” he said in a calm voice, “it would be well to transfer the crew to the Laconia as soon as can be accomplished.”
Within the hour, boats had been sent off in the violent sea, filled with terrified sailors. Most could not swim, but their pitiful pleas to remain on the Asp were refused. Benwick seemed stunned when he learned of Wentworth’s intentions.
“Sir, I must protest! You cannot remain on board!”
“Mr. Benwick,” Wentworth growled, “the Asp is my command and my responsibility. She must be beached. We cannot have her sink and block the channel into Plymouth. It is my intention to steer her into the shoals. I need but a small party to accomplish this.”
“With your permission, I volunteer to remain.”
“But, sir—!” Benwick begged.
“Lieutenant Benwick, you have your orders.” Wentworth’s words were a hammer blow. More gently, he added, “Please see that Harville gets my papers and log books. Take care of yourself, James. We shall meet again soon, God willing.”
The wet weather was not the reason James Benwick’s eyes were filled as he ordered the launch lowered into the maelstrom. As soon as the last boat was away, Wentworth ordered that the anchor cable be cut at his signal. The steadfast boatswain, Stokes, would not leave his captain and stood ready at the wheel. Wentworth took his place.
“Make certain that all hands are lashed to the ship! Give the signal!” The cable was cut and the sloop was free.
The next twenty minutes were the longest of Wentworth’s life. In the blinding, wind-blown rain, he and Stokes worked together to manhandle the wheel. The storm more than once nearly capsized the sloop, and just when Wentworth feared that the ship was being blown offshore, word was relayed from the lookout in the bow that breakers could be seen dead ahead.
“All right, lads! Prepare to abandon ship!”
The handful of men who remained with their captain, all volunteers, were the best swimmers in the crew. Stokes gave the order, and as one, they dove into the surf. Only Wentworth and Stokes remained.
“Jump for it, Stokes!” ordered Wentworth.
“Not without you, Cap’n!”
With a sickening crash, the Asp slammed into a sandbar. The two men remaining were tossed to the deck. The enormous waves pounded the ship, turning her sideways. Wentworth and Stokes unlashed themselves, and the Asp’s list was such that the two slid into the freezing cold water. Wentworth was ill-prepared for the shock; he was paralyzed and going under, when Stokes’s strong arm seized him.
“C’mon, Cap’n!” Stokes sputtered. “Swim, damn you!”
Wentworth was able to get his arms to work, and moments later the waves tossed the two ashore.
The clerk’s voice droned on. “…having examined witnesses on the occasion, and maturely and deliberately considered every circumstance…”
Get on with it, Wentworth’s mind raged.
“…the court is of the opinion that Commander Wentworth, his officers, and ship’s company used every possible exertion to preserve His Majesty’s Sloop Asp and, in the most extraordinary circumstances, risked life and limb to preserve the integrity of the anchorage, all without loss of life. Commander Wentworth, his officers, and ship’s company are to be commended for their zeal and clear-thinking. The loss of His Majesty’s Sloop Asp, being unavoidable, Commander Wentworth is hereby honorably acquitted of any suspicion of ineptitude or incompetence.”
The relief Wentworth felt at those words could not be described. He knew he was blameless, but there was no guarantee that a court-martial would agree. His career was safe!
The port admiral rose, Wentworth’s sword in hand, the hilt towards him. “It is no small pleasure to me to receive the commands of the court I have the honor to preside at,” he intoned with a smile in his deep voice, “that delivering to you your sword, I should congratulate you upon its being restored by friend and foe alike; hoping ere long you will be called upon to draw it once more in the honorable defense of your country.”
Wentworth, moved, took his sword and gazed at it a moment. It was shabby and worn—all a poor commander could afford—but what it represented was all he lived for: himself, his ship, the Royal Navy, and Britain itself. He slowly slid it home in its scabbard.
The admiral nodded. “This court is dismissed. Wentworth, a moment of your time, please.” The request was an order, of course, and the two waited until the other left the room. The admiral sat and sighed as he removed his wig, his thin, short-cut grey hair now visible.
“Sit down, Wentworth, for heaven’s sake. You’re far too tall a fellow to look up at. You’ll put a creak in my neck. Glad that’s over, eh? Bad business, beaching the Asp,” he said as he shuffled through some papers. “All that sloop is good for now is the wrecker’s yard, but I suppose it couldn’t be helped with that damnable storm. Reminds me of a great blow I went through at Port Royal in ’92—or was it ’93? Thought it was all over for me. Ah, here it is!” He pulled a large envelope from the pile and slid it to Wentworth. “Congratulations.”
Wentworth opened it. It was an official document—his promotion to post-captain, dated two weeks ago. Post-Captain! I am made post—for this last fortnight! Wentworth could not believe his eyes.
The admiral caught his expression. “Read the rest, sir.”
All the air left his lungs. “I… I am given the Laconia!”
A small smile graced the admiral’s old, ugly face. “You have friends in the fleet, Wentworth. Admiral Croft suggested it—you’re his brother-in-law, I understand. Smart man, Croft. It made perfect sense.” He wagged a finger in Wentworth’s direction. “Now listen and listen close. There’s a score of fellows who are haunting the halls of the Admiralty for a command—fellows with years of seniority. They have members of Parliament involved. Whig against Tory—you know how that goes. Some are making noise about the budget for the navy. How do you like that, sir? Threatening the navy over who gets what ship! Zounds, politics will be the death of this country.
“But you—you’re an innocent babe when it comes to London games. You don’t back either horse. You’re a hero for that cutting-out trick. Cochrane himself couldn’t have done better!
“That was a clever thing you did—sailing to Nassau instead of Port Royal. Admiral Cochrane can’t claim any of the prize money for the Laconia. But you knew that, didn’t you? Don’t deny it, Wentworth. I’d have done the same in your place. Cochrane’s enemies are laughing in their snuff boxes over that. They would just as soon see he never gets another shilling in prizes.
“So, the least controversial posting is to give His Majesty’s newest frigate to His Majesty’s newest captain—the man that stole her! That is why you have the HMS Laconia. Congratulations!
“Now, the bad news. For the next few years, no captain will be scrutinized as closely as you. Every decision you make, every action you take, even the manner you tack ship and set sail will be analyzed and debated. Jealous men would give their right arm to prove you an idiot. This is a reward and a curse. I can’t protect you and Croft can’t protect you. You are on your own. Do you understand me, Captain Wentworth?”
A month later, Wentworth sat before his desk in the captain’s cabin aboard the HMS Laconia, reading a note from Timothy Harville. It would be weeks yet before they could set sail for Gibraltar and join the Mediterranean fleet. The tyrant, Bonaparte, was threatening to seize the Portuguese navy and using it against England. The Royal Navy would soon put a stop to that.
Laconia was in very good shape upon its arrival at Plymouth, but work needed to be done to turn her into a proper British frigate. She had been repainted, all her sails and cordage replaced, and a new anchor hung. The ship was riding high at dock, for all her guns were gone. The French 12-pound cannons were to be replaced with British 18-pounders, and 32-pound cannonades were intended for the upper deck. All were waiting on the armory—and they were notoriously slow.
Harville had taken the opportunity to marry—thus the note in Wentworth’s hands. He and his dear bride were deliriously happy in Portsmouth, the letter claimed. Wentworth was pleased for him. Timothy had indeed received promotion to Commander because of the Laconia, and the rise in pay, along with the prize money, was enough for him and his intended to finally wed. They had been engaged for almost three years.
The note drew Wentworth’s thoughts back to Anne Elliot. A commander’s pay was enough for Mrs. Harville, but not enough for Miss Elliot. Wentworth tried to reach inside his heart for his old resentments but could not. Anne was a baronet’s daughter, after all, not a shopkeeper’s girl like Mrs. Harville.
The only sad news was there was no sloop or brig for Commander Harville. The prize money was enough for the Harvilles to marry, but they needed more to live on. So, he signed on with Wentworth as first lieutenant, in expectation that their cruise would be a profitable one. Wentworth was pleased to have his friend back. James Benwick, who should have been first lieutenant, was relegated to second, but the good fellow had paid no mind and said he was happy to have Harville on board, and Wentworth loved him all the more for it.
In fact, practically all the surviving members of the Asp had made their mark on the Laconia’s registry. Stokes, Radle, Eades, Lauck—the lot. “Fightin’ Freddie” Wentworth had made them money and kept them safe to boot, and that was rare in the service of His Majesty. It stood to reason that their luck would continue in the Mediterranean. Seamen were a superstitious lot.
So Wentworth had finally reached the height of his profession. He was now on the great ladder of seniority. Assuming he did not ground his ship or get knocked on the head, he would make admiral one day if it be God’s will. It all depended on the longevity of the fellows above him. But it was a long way up, and he was on the lowest rung. His own death never occurred to Wentworth—shame or embarrassment, yes, but not his personal destruction. He was careful with his men’s lives, but not his own. He left it to others to determine if that was courage or foolishness.
Wentworth was now a post captain. His professional goal realized, his thoughts returned to his personal ones. He was a captain with a few thousand pounds in the Naval Five Percents. Was that enough for a baronet’s daughter? Did he dare write to Anne Elliot?
Anne’s sweet face was before him. He could taste her lips on his. He ached to explore her curves and discover her secrets. He longed to hear her whisper his name. God help him, he was still in love with her!
It is no use, he told himself. It is not enough. I do not think I will ever have enough. She rejected me! She put more weight in the advice of Lady Russell than in her heart. I will never be good enough for Lady Russell, and Anne will never go against her.
He stared bleakly out the great stern window of the ship he loved. It was a fine, spring day, but he saw none of it.
I must learn to live without Anne Elliot.
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