A Sailor's Christmas
A sailor spends his Christmas in the harbour having fun...' - From "A Sailor's Christmas" by Jimmy Buffett
The letter was short and to the point: Captain Frederick Wentworth was requested and required to report to the Admiralty in Whitehall on 11 September 1815, at ten o'clock in the morning, to receive further orders.
Wentworth had not really expected the summons; or rather, he had hoped it would not arrive. He had been married barely six months, and they had just taken their first home. Yet he was still an officer in the Royal Navy, and the summons must be obeyed, so Wentworth ordered Jenkins to remove his dress uniform from storage.
It was not long before the steward returned, holding the uniform coat, a stricken expression on his face. He was a small, dapper man, clad in his usual manner while upon land: a neat black coat, trim trousers, and spotless linen. He was as particular about his captain's appearance as his own, and was nervous as a nesting mother bird over the impending visit to the Admiralty. "Look at this, Captain," he said in an aggrieved tone. "The epaulets and buttons are positively green! Didn't I tell you not to deal with that dago--" he hesitated at a frown from his Captain-- "that tailor in Lisbon? He was a cheat, Captain, and no mistake. These swabs is more brass than bullion."
Wentworth was amused in spite of himself. "I had little choice under the circumstances." He had used what was then his best uniform coat to smother a flaming coil of rope on the quarterdeck of the Laconia during an exchange of broadsides with a French privateer. The fire had proved stubborn, and the coat and its decorations were a complete loss.
"I'm sure I don't know why you were wearing your number one coat during an action anyway, begging your pardon, Captain."
"Because you laid it out for me, Jenkins. You wanted me to be properly fine when the captain of that French privateer surrendered--am not I correct? Ah well, do not take on so, man. You thought the privateer would have the good sense to strike her colours directly we fired across her bows."
"You should have waited till we were back at Portsmouth, sir, and gone to Turner's like always. Turner wouldn't cheat you. If he sold you brass, he wouldn't charge you for gold."
"No, but I was invited to dine aboard a flagship, and I could not very well wear my old work coat."
"Look at this," the steward moaned, rubbing at a bit of corroded metal. "It's enough to break your heart, Captain."
"Your heart, Jenkins, perhaps. My own is made of sturdier stuff." Wentworth spoke lightly, but not without feeling; his heart was scarred and toughened by ill-usage, without a doubt. Though of late, the old scars had softened, and some had disappeared. Anne had done that much for him.
Wentworth had realized that the epaulets and buttons were brass with a little token gilding, rather than the gold he had ordered and paid for, as soon as the coat was delivered. It was good enough for the dinner, and the Laconia was under orders to sail immediately afterward, so he ignored Jenkins's protests and let it go, planning to get properly fitted out at Turner's the next time he was in Portsmouth. However, before they returned to England, Napoleon was confined to Elba. With the coming of peace, the Laconia was paid off, and buying new epaulets for a uniform Wentworth would no longer wear seemed wasteful.
There was no time to procure replacements, so Jenkins pulled the buttons off an old coat, and shifted the epaulets from Wentworth's number two uniform; the coat looked respectable, but was far from Jenkins's usual standards. He heaved a dejected sigh, gave the coat one last furious brushing, and sent his captain off to Whitehall with little grace.
Wentworth had an appointment, much to the displeasure of the surly porter, who seemed to enjoy denying the applications of half-pay naval officers desperate for an audience with an admiral, any admiral. He was conducted to the presence of John Wilson Croker, the First Secretary of the Admiralty, a man with nearly as much power as the Lords of the Admiralty themselves.
"Ah, yes, Captain Wentworth," said Mr. Croker. "Here are your orders." He handed Wentworth a sealed packet and watched as he signed the receipt. "You are to take the Minerva to Tortola, where you will rendezvous with a convoy of merchantmen. There are some French and Yankee privateers causing trouble in the area; I suppose they are more properly called pirates. Their letters of marque are no longer valid, now that we have concluded our conflicts with their respective states. The merchant shipowners have requested the Navy's escort for a convoy departing on the first of November. Captain Merriam of the Minerva is unfortunately suffering from a recurrence of malaria, and his physician has forbidden him to rise from his bed for another fortnight. As time is of the essence, a replacement was required, and your name came to the attention of their Lordships."
"Please tell their Lordships that I am gratified by their notice," Wentworth replied politely, ignoring the sinking feeling in his breast. It was the sort of command he had dreaded: wet-nursing a convoy through pirate-infested waters, a thankless task with little hope of prize money or distinction. He could refuse the orders; he had that right. The Minerva was not his ship, and he had glimpsed several uniformed post-captains sitting anxiously in the waiting room who would be eager for such an opportunity. He knew of the Minerva; a 36-gun frigate, a fast sailer with a seasoned crew. It would almost be like returning to the Laconia.
The Wentworths had spent the first two months of their marriage in Bath, sharing the Crofts' spacious lodgings on Gay Street. As summer approached, Anne longed for the countryside, and when Wentworth heard of an available house near Crewkerne, he hastened to lease it. The house, Newbury Oaks, was not large, but sufficient for their needs, and had the advantage of being near those they loved at Kellynch and Uppercross. It also had the advantage of being within a day's drive of the sea.
After spending a few months inland at Bath, among the bustling crowds and tall stone buildings, Wentworth was astonished at the visceral reaction he experienced upon his first return to the seaside, during a visit to the Harvilles in Lyme Regis. It was as though his soul expanded to fill the sky, sailing out past the horizon to the wide seas beyond. Gazing out over the tame, flat water of the harbour, he yet felt the heave and roll of the deck beneath his feet, and knew that he had been too long on land.
That night he dreamed that he stood on the quarterdeck of the Laconia, every board of her as well-known as his own countenance in the mirror. The sun shone on her, and the sea was a deep indigo blue, reflecting the cloudless sky above; her sails were filled, she sped across the surface of the endless ocean, and he felt a deep contentment that he had not known since the Laconia had paid off. He woke suddenly, confused in the darkness and strange surroundings of the new house, his heart beating with the wild intensity of a caged animal. Anne lay sleeping beside him, and he reached for her, feelings of disloyalty and longing battling in his breast. She sleepily nestled against his chest, murmuring something that sounded very much like his name, and he held her tightly. He felt as though he had betrayed his wife by dreaming of another woman--his long-time mistress, the Laconia.
Shortly afterward, he wrote to Lord Exmouth--who as Vice-Admiral Sir Edward Pellew had been Wentworth's commander-in-chief in the Mediterranean in the latter part of the war--offering his congratulations on Exmouth's elevation to the peerage, a well-deserved reward for long and inspired service to the Crown. Wentworth told himself that he had no ulterior motive in sending the letter, but unconsciously he realized that keeping his name in the mind of the powerful was the surest method of acquiring another command. He received an answer in a few weeks' time.
HMS Boyne, off Marseilles
12 August 1815
My dear Wentworth,
I received your Letter with the greatest pleasure, and send my thanks for your kind wishes. May I wish you Joy as well? Although I have not yet received orders to return Home, we are well-supplied with the latest Publications, and I was delighted to read the news of your recent Marriage. I pray that your Conjugal Happiness is of the fullest measure. I regret that in my present position, I am unable to render you any direct Favours; I do, however, recall with pleasure the faithful service you rendered in the Mediterranean during the struggle to overthrow the Corsican Tyrant. In remembrance of that service, I will take the first opportunity to write to my Friends in the Admiralty and beg them to give you a Command in Home Waters as soon as may be convenient to their Lordships. Believe me with the Sincerest Regard
and Affectionate friendship,
It was not quite the answer that Wentworth expected; he could almost damn Exmouth for his kindness. The sort of duties available for a post-captain in home waters during peacetime were not appealing: the drudgery of patrol duty, or the stifling correctness of transporting diplomats on their way to Vienna. Either would take him away from home for months at a time, and he doubted that the Admiralty would allow Anne to accompany him. He wrote a polite note of thanks to Exmouth, hoping that the kindly-meant letter would be buried under a pile of such requests at the Admiralty. He did not mention the letter to Anne, but the possibility of being recalled to active duty was in the back of his mind at all times, and he felt the strain of it wearing upon him.
Anne had said nothing when the letter arrived from the Admiralty. She asked him a few questions about the trip to London, and how long he would be gone; the morning that he left, she rose early to kiss him goodbye and stood watching as the chaise carried him away. Wentworth dreaded telling her that he would be gone for several months; yet he found himself telling Mr. Croker that he would report to Plymouth to take command of the Minerva in a week's time.
How could I ever have thought her too easily persuaded? Wentworth asked himself in exasperation as he looked down upon his wife, who stood with her arms folded and a defiant light in her eye. "Plymouth is a cesspool," he told her firmly. "Saloons, sailors on leave carousing in the streets with their doxies--I'll not have you exposed to it, my girl."
"You will be with me," she replied. "A common sailor would not dare to bother a post-captain's wife."
"I would not be so sure of that. Besides, once I'm aboard the Minerva I can offer you no protection."
"I shall get in the chaise and return home as soon as you embark, and Flynn will be with me." Flynn had been a topman on the Laconia, and when the ship had paid off, Wentworth hired him as a groom. He now had the sole care of Mrs. Wentworth's pretty little landaulet and the fine-stepping horse that drew it, and was as solicitous for his mistress's safety as Wentworth himself could be. He could offer no further argument against Anne accompanying him to Plymouth. They arrived in the late afternoon and checked into a respectable-looking hotel.
The proprietress led them to a dingy room with a sagging bed, a wardrobe that had seen better days, and a washstand with a chipped jug. Anne, who had fitted up Newbury Oaks with tasteful warmth and elegance, looked around in dismay, and Wentworth could not help but laugh at her. "This was your idea," he reminded her.
"I know." She smiled at him. "I can stand it for one night, if it means we can be together."
Wentworth would have taken her in his arms, but just then there was a knock on the door: Jenkins supervising the hotel lackeys bringing in their luggage. Their leave-taking must wait until later, after a surprisingly good and hearty dinner in a private parlour.
They lay quietly, neither inclined to sleep, nestled closely together as though trying to imprint the presence of one another on their memories. "I suppose it is too late to ask you to take me with you?" Anne asked after a time.
"The Minerva is not my ship, love; besides, I'd not take you to the West Indies. 'Tis a sickly place. Disease, hurricanes--"
"Oh, do not say that." She shivered, and he drew her closer to him.
"Do not fear for me," he said into her hair. "Escort duty, in peacetime! Nothing could be safer, short of spending three months at anchor in Spithead."
"You said that ships and seamen rot in harbour."
"Lord Nelson said that, love, and he was right; a ship long at anchor, in Spithead or anywhere else, runs the risk of gaol fever. We'll be at sea, with the trades blowing away any ill humours. I am always careful to keep well away from land after sundown in the tropics." Everyone knew that the night humours of the tropical islands harboured yellow fever.
"Very well, Frederick. I shall not fear for you; but I shall miss you."
"And I you. I've grown quite accustomed to being an old married man."
Anne laughed, a low and throaty sound that gave him a thrill. "Not I; I am still enchanted with newly-wedded bliss."
"I'll show you newly-wedded bliss, madam." He kissed her, and the melancholy mood was banished.
Wentworth had not expected Anne to accompany him to the pier, but as the departure time approached, she put on her pelisse and bonnet, and he was not inclined to protest. He was secretly glad that they would have a few last precious moments together in the chaise. They spoke little, but her hand rested in his, and her quiet presence was reassuring.
Anne and Jenkins had taken an immediate liking to one another, and Anne had sufficient wisdom not to trespass upon the steward's territory. She left the packing of her husband's sea chest entirely in his hands, except for the contribution of a dozen new shirts she had made, and consulted him in regard to the cabin stores. Together, Anne and Jenkins placed orders for the meat, wine, and spices, and a waggon carrying the Captain's luggage trundled behind the chaise, with Jenkins in imperious command. Wentworth would embark directly he arrived, read himself in, and sail with the tide.
The chaise stopped smoothly near the gate leading to the pier. Wentworth looked at Anne, who was smiling but a little paler than normal. She looked more like the dispirited girl he had encountered at Uppercross the year before, rather than the blooming, elegant woman he had known in Bath and married. He knew that her sense of propriety would not permit public intimacy, so he waved Flynn away from the door and lowered the shades. "We will say goodbye here," he said to her.
"Fair winds and a following sea," she said, still smiling faintly. "Is not that what sailors say?"
"It is." He put an arm around her waist, pulled her close, and kissed her. "I won't be long," he said. "I will be home by Christmas. Mark that, Anne. I will light the first Yule log of our married life."
"You will," she said softly, her head on his shoulder. "Christmas is not so far away."
"No." He kissed her again, lingeringly, and finally opened the door of the carriage, climbed out, and then handed her down.
Jenkins approached them as they passed through the gate. "I've hired a boat, Captain, and they're shifting your dunnage."
"Very good, Jenkins. I'll be along in a moment."
"Aye aye, Captain." Jenkins hurried away.
Wentworth turned back to Anne. "Goodbye, my love. Remember: Christmas."
"I shall be counting the days. Goodbye, Frederick."
He raised her gloved hand to his lips, and then swung away from her, gathering his boat cloak around him for the climb down the steps into the boat. He concentrated on getting into the bobbing craft with dignity intact, and when the oars were in the water and they had pulled away from the pier, he finally trusted himself to look back. Anne stood at the edge of the pier; when she saw him turn, she smiled and waved a handkerchief in the air. He lifted his hand, and watched her as the unbridgeable gulf between them grew wider.