Of Ships and Sealing Wax



In Which a Celebrated Naval Officer Steps Ashore Without Compass or Rudder

Late January 1795

Startled by a sudden knock on the cabin door, Captain Edward Trewin swore under his breath. The purser entered and held out a bundle of papers just delivered by a fast sloop, their orders for the dockyard and a few letters. Edward could not help hoping that one of the letters was from his wife Julia, but with the harbor entrance nearly abeam he had no choice but to pull himself together. The frigate Palladium had cleared Ushant two days ago and had yet to make landfall in England. The crew was growing restless. None aboard knew why he had sailed the ship directly past his home port of Falmouth, one of the first English ports they encountered. But he thanked God for the stiff breeze that had carried them briskly away from Cornwall and up the Channel to Portsmouth. In truth, he had no stomach for home.

He sent the purser off and fanned the papers out on his writing table. His two daughters had written again and so had his longtime friend Captain Daniel Blackthorne. But there was no letter from Julia. Nor had there been any from her the entire year he had been at sea, despite the letters he had sent her, despite the constant dangers of the Royal Navy’s actions in the Mediterranean. His wife wanted nothing to do with him, and he hardly knew whether the ache at the back of his throat came from bitterness or despair. The thought of spending the winter alone in Portsmouth chafed at him. Not bothering to call for his servant, he grabbed his hat and cloak and left his cabin for the quarterdeck. A man in command of one of His Majesty’s ships could not afford despair.

On deck, Edward touched his hat in response to First Lieutenant Throckmorton’s salute. Palladium turned onto her final tack for Portsmouth and he cast an eye to the sails as they luffed in the foggy air. The ship’s sailing master and the helmsman knew their business. He left them to it. The wind, now coming up brisk and westerly, whipped at his cloak. He resisted placing his hands in his armpits for warmth. With luck, and the permission of the port admiral, he would sleep this night in a proper bed at the George or some other Portsmouth inn. But in the weeks or months to come he would have little in the way of company or companionship apart from Mr. Harkaway or another of the ship’s young gentlemen who had no home of his own.

He should have been eager to return to England. In the two years since those ungodly French republicans had guillotined their king and declared war on England, Palladium had acquitted herself well. He was proud of her and of his people. Once the prize court acted on their captured ships and cargoes, the officers and men would all receive their shares. Edward himself was poised to become a wealthy man.

Still, his mouth set in a thin line. He could write to Julia one more time after Palladium anchored in Portsmouth, although he’d no reason to believe her anger and disappointment had abated. A year of silence spoke eloquently. Admit it, Ned, your marriage is in shreds. No point insisting that she come to him, even if he had a right to do so. He had no appetite for yet more icy silence – or worse, to return home and be snubbed to his face by his own wife when his only transgression had been to do his duty. Why should he relent now?

Returning to his cabin, he broke the seal on Daniel’s letter, which would be easiest to bear. His friend was as likely to tweak him as convey any news. “Prepare yourself, Ned,” he had written.

Some ink-stained fool in London has knocked together a stage play celebrating Palladium’s victories and her bold captain. If that is not enough, I see some new broadside touting your exploits almost weekly. Three cheers for Captain Trewin, huzzah! One was decorated with the funniest engraving I ever did see. You looked to be about half the size of the mainmast – the fearsomest naval warrior ever to sail from England’s shores. How shall I greet such a paragon?

Edward huffed aloud at Daniel’s attempt at wit. He could cope with outlandish public recognition without being an ass about it. Certainly, he had no objection to the wealth he had earned or to his expected advancement in the Service. He could meet a deadly enemy implacably or suffer endless miserable conditions at sea. Why then did he not have the brass to face whatever difficulties awaited him in his own home?

* * *

The fog had lifted by the time Palladium dropped anchor in the crowded harbor, though heavy gray clouds still obscured the sun. Large, delicate snowflakes were already falling as Edward’s gig thudded against the quay alongside a cluster of other ships’ boats. His dunnage was promptly put on a cart for the George Inn and the gig pushed off again. He headed straight for the port admiral’s headquarters in the High Street. Carts laden with timbers and barrels rolled through the dockyard’s cobbled streets and alleys. Though their drivers would surely make way for an officer of his rank, he found that his legs were steady enough ashore and he enjoyed the exercise of dodging through the rumbling traffic. Making his way alongside one of the massive brick storehouses towards the gate, he heard his name called out across the frozen courtyard.

The sound echoed and he turned to seek its source. He was immediately hailed again.


He brightened at the sight of a bluff, white-wigged naval officer cloaked against the biting cold, his gold-braided hat pulled firmly down on his head. “Edward Trewin, it is you!” The old gentleman waved his walking stick in the air and Edward crossed the courtyard in a few strides to grasp the outstretched hand of Admiral Augustus Heywood. As a young officer, he’d served under Heywood in the North Atlantic. They seemed destined always to meet in the cold.

“Admiral, I am pleased indeed to see you, sir.” Edward shook Heywood’s hand with both of his own, near to embracing his former commanding officer, whose weathered face was split in a toothy grin. “Do you come from the port admiral?”

Heywood shook his head and turned to walk along with him, a hand on the younger man’s shoulder. “No, no. I am cast ashore for life here in Portsmouth, I am afraid. Only come down to pass the time of day with Admiral White now and again. Like to remind him I know he’s a rascal. I was going to stop in at the Pay Office but it can wait for a bit. And you, sir?”

Palladium is just anchored, as it happens. She’s headed for the dry-dock. I’m on my way to report to White now.” He was glad of Heywood’s friendly greeting and was loathe to let him go. “The interview should take no more than an hour,” he said. “Let us meet after that.”

Admiral Heywood readily agreed. “An hour it is then, my boy. I’ll await you at the George. You can be sure we’ll chase the cold winter away.”

Edward dearly hoped so. Months in the Mediterranean and beyond had thinned his blood even while the sun had browned his face and lightened his dark hair. He took leave of Admiral Heywood with a bow and went off to make his report, heartened at the prospect of a meal ashore, a hot drink, and a chance to exchange news with his old friend and mentor. Passing the porter’s lodge and crossing under the dockyard gate, he set out for Admiralty House. The sky was lowering and leaden and the snow falling more thickly, but he turned towards the High Street with renewed energy.

As the shore commander at Portsmouth, Admiral Elias White was responsible for the supply, refitting, and armament of every ship in the dockyard, and Portsmouth Dockyard’s efficiency was key to the Royal Navy’s war effort. His precious time was protected by several officious black-coated clerks, but when Captain Trewin was announced, the admiral greeted him at once.

“Come right in and sit down, Trewin,” he said, motioning to an upholstered elbow chair in front of his massive desk. “It is an honor to make your acquaintance. An honor, sir!”

A clerk took Edward’s damp hat and cloak. Another brought coffee on an ornate brass tray. Snow drifted past the west-facing windows of Admiralty House, but White’s office, with its well-tended fire and gleaming mahogany furniture, was a haven of light and warmth. The contrast with Edward’s shipboard life could not have been more complete.

“I have had your dispatches, sir,” White announced. “And I read all the London papers, of course. Allow me to congratulate you. A frigate’s the thing, you know.” His bushy eyebrows lifted and he smiled. “Commanded a frigate meself during the American war. Now, sir. If we had ten more like Palladium and ten more captains like yourself there would be no French Navy left to speak of, eh?” A few more frigates and many more ships of the line would have been a better thing, but Edward smiled politely.

Though the port admiral was voluble, he asked sharp questions and he understood the importance of getting a vessel back in service without undue delay. There would be problems – foundries falling behind, labor and lumber in short supply – but with luck and the weather not too bad, Palladium should be ready for orders again by mid-spring. She must have the new copper sheathing, certainly. They would have to see what the over-taxed foundries could deliver in the way of heavier guns. Yes, yes, Edward had leave to sleep ashore. He must return in two days’ time to discuss what modifications might be made during repairs.

“Baker! Baker, there!” White shouted into the anteroom. “I’ll see Captain Trewin again on Thursday afternoon,” he told the clerk. “And pray get him a carriage to the George at once.”

The inn was no great distance, being hard by the dockyard, but Edward welcomed the gesture. Inside his shiny black boots, his feet remained cold. He settled himself for the short journey, grateful for White’s gracious good sense, but not looking forward to his ship being out of commission for anything up to four months. In that time there would be no action, no prize money, and too much time in which to think. The Navy needed Palladium back in service with no undue delay, and so did he.

* * *

Some hours later, having done away with large servings of beef and kidney pie and an impressive amount of mulled wine, Edward and Admiral Heywood rested companionably in the George Inn’s bustling taproom. Even though he had grown hard of hearing, the admiral still knew how to listen. He shifted in his bow-backed chair and leaned forward on his stick as Edward described Palladium’s service with the Mediterranean Squadron. They had sailed in the spring of ’94 and were soon on detached duty off Toulon, targeting merchantmen and French warships alike.

It was easy enough to speak of victory in battle, the prizes they had taken, the bravery and skill of his people. He could state the raw number of casualties without flinching. But he was certain that Admiral Heywood would also understand the things he left unsaid. Few others could realize so fully the isolation of command or the meaning of the butcher’s bill. There was no need to speak of hurried burials at sea, the agony of abandoning wounded men to filthy hospitals, the grim business of reports, and even grimmer business of writing letter after letter to wives, fathers, or mothers. Even sitting well-fed and in good company in the George, Edward’s head throbbed. He wondered if he would ever feel warm again.

Admiral Heywood had grown pensive himself. Perhaps he remembered a young lieutenant’s desperate grief following a wretched battle many years ago or perhaps he was remembering losses of his own. But he spoke cheerfully a moment later.

“You must come up and stay at Whitborne while you are here,” he said. “True, it’s a bit of a jaunt getting in to the dockyard, but that may be a good thing. We’re out Portsdown way, not half an hour’s journey on a decent horse. I promise you’ll have good food and drink, company when you want it, and you’ll be left in peace when you don’t. My daughter Caroline looks after me now my wife’s gone, and she’s a capital housekeeper. Say you will, sir.”

Edward had visited Heywood’s home briefly many years before, a handsome but comfortable house set in its own parkland. Heywood was doubly lucky, for he had not only inherited the estate of a childless uncle; the wealth he had accumulated over many successful years of naval service allowed him to maintain a sizable house and its lands without straining his purse.

“That is uncommonly civil of you, sir,” he said. “I accept with pleasure.” Bless his generosity. An answer to a prayer.

Heywood displayed his easy smile. “Excellent. I will send a message up straightaway.”

“No need for that, sir. With Admiral White’s leave, I’ve taken rooms here already and I will see my prize agent in the morning. I must confirm the arrangement with White, of course. If it is convenient, I’ll have my sea chest sent up first thing tomorrow and be with you in the afternoon.”

“Certainly, certainly. We shall be very glad to have you join all of us, and for as long as you like.”

Who would be in the Whitborne household besides Heywood and his daughter? The admiral answered Edward’s puzzled look with a chuckle. “John and his brood are next door, you know.”

“Ah, yes,” said Edward, meaning no. John Heywood was the admiral’s only son, a post-captain himself, but known more for his administrative abilities than his seamanship. Edward had a vague recollection that even though Captain Heywood resided near Portsmouth, he was now an official for the Admiralty or had been appointed to one of the naval boards.

“No, no.” The admiral caught Edward’s hesitation. “We see John and Lucy for a meal now and then, but the quiet life I have promised will still be yours.”

“I recall that you have three children, sir?” said Edward. He remembered Miss Sylvia Heywood only too vividly, but did not think he had met the daughter Heywood mentioned, who by his reckoning must be well over thirty.

The admiral leaned back in his chair and scratched his head, setting his white wig somewhat askew. “My eldest daughter Sylvia, Mrs. Frobisher that is, lives near her husband’s family outside Chatham. They are a terrible lot of prigs, the Frobishers, although I suppose Henry is all right in spite of it. He sits as a magistrate, of all things. They have three children, all boys. John has four youngsters, you’ll meet them. Yes, I am a grandfather seven times over. A raucous good feast it was when we were gathered at Whitborne for Christmas this year, I can tell you. Seems dead quiet now, with only Caroline at home.”

“She is . . . unmarried?” Edward ventured.

“She says she is content to be a spinster. She has been most dedicated to me since her mama died, that I can say. Her situation may change, one never knows.” He grew quiet, drawing on his clay pipe. Edward imagined a bird-like Miss Heywood fussing at her papa over chilblains and the amount of port he consumed, possibly while looking out for an elderly parson with matrimony in mind.

“But what of your good lady?” Heywood was saying. “Should Caroline write and invite her to join you at Whitborne? She will be most welcome.”

Could any invitation matter to Julia now? Edward’s reply was unusually halting. “Ah. Yes. Well. Better not, for now. She’s uh – better not.” His neck cloth had grown tight. He swallowed hard. I’ll write myself, not that it will matter. Damned if I can see what else to do.

Admiral Heywood nodded without a further word on the subject. He rose slowly with the aid of his stick, straightened his wig, and jammed on his hat. “Well, I must be off,” he cried. “I’ll send the carriage down at midday tomorrow. Come up whenever you are ready.”

(c) 2017, 2018 Suzanne Shaw