INFERNO ~ Whet your appetite

Chapter One — excerpt

Eskdale Hall, Wiltshire, England. Summer, 1807

The night had turned unseasonally chilly. Captain Sir Thomas Kydd sat before the fire with his particular friend, the earl of Farndon and his wife, who also happened to be his sister. The evening’s reception and stately ball had been accounted the most splendid held for many years and he’d been introduced to a dizzying quantity of the county’s highest society, who’d been particularly attentive to the acclaimed sea hero. But now he gazed vacantly into the flames.

‘Are you not enjoying your Armagnac, Thomas?’ Cecilia asked in concern. ‘Nicholas keeps back his ’79 for your visits alone, my dear.’

‘Pray take no notice of me, sis. I’m in a complicated mood.’

‘Oh? What can this mean?’ she teased.

‘To tell it straight, Cec, my intellects are in a whirl for all the fanfaronade since we made port, and I’ve a mort of things to think on. I confess what I crave most is nothing more than to sit and stare at a wall for above a day.’

‘Well, I’ll allow the lot of a public hero is an active one.’ The Lord Farndon – or Nicholas Renzi as he would always be known to his bosom friend – laid down his glass and smiled indulgently.

‘Now my dear fellow, you cannot persuade me that it was all of it a burden beyond bearing! I do recollect your distinct pleasure telling me of the subscription dinner by members of the Exchange and the presentation of silver at its conclusion.’

‘Yes, that was handsomely done. Baltic traders at the Virginia and Baltick in Threadneedle Street in appreciation of my contribution to the safeguarding of their interests, even if I’m at a loss to fathom why an action in support of the Prussians counts as that!’

‘But that nasty fuss in the newspapers!’ Cecilia added, her face stormy. ‘Such words about your—’

‘Those scurvy villains are a contemptible crew and I’ll thank you to pay no mind to ’em, sis.’

Recalling that bitter turmoil that had followed a True Briton report of Kydd’s opinions after the notorious Popham trial, Renzi chuckled. ‘Well that’s certainly no longer of any consequence to your sea prospects. Have you not received an intimation of the Admiralty’s entire satisfaction at your conduct?’

‘I did that,’ Kydd agreed. ‘A private letter from the first lord wishing to assure me of his continued interest in my naval career.’

‘Just so.’

‘And this is a rum one, Nicholas – Lord Camden, somebody big in government, wants me to be a member of parliament in the Tory interest.’

‘Why not, Thomas!’ Cecilia squealed. ‘You’d make a splendid figure standing up in the House with a speech as will make the scoundrels sit up and listen.’

‘No, sis. I’ve no hankering after arguments all the day long. Besides, when will I have time to take Tyger to sea?

Renzi looked fondly at his friend. ‘So – Kydd of the Tyger it is, to be sure. Long may he sail the high seas against the King’s enemies!’

There was a trace of wistful envy in his voice which Kydd knew came not from any wish to be a celebrated hero like himself but the knowledge that he was no longer in a position to taste the freedom of the sea in all its lure and mystery.

‘On another matter entirely,’ Renzi added quickly, ‘You said Toby Stirk – or is that Gunner’s Mate Stirk – did survive his injury?’ Renzi and Stirk both had been with Kydd since his first days as a pressed man and Renzi had seen him learn much from the leathery old seaman.

‘He did, Nicholas. Tough as nails but he was sadly knocked about and dead to the world for near two days. Came round after we arrived at Sheerness. We had the devil’s own job getting the beggar to agree to go ashore to the hospital for observing, and only my personal vow he wouldn’t be removed for another in Tyger had him off.’

Renzi gave a half-smile. ‘Dear fellow, I own I’m at the loftiest rank of society but there are moments I’d give it all away – to once possess the true‑hearted devotion of the ship’s company of a fighting frigate like Tyger…’

The next day Kydd took coach in neat but anonymous gentleman’s dress.

After the near hopeless battle against three frigates and the following desperate days nursing a wounded Tyger to her refuge he craved space to find himself again; to get away somewhere blessedly remote and peaceful where the ferocious wars of Napoleon Bonaparte were another world; to feel something of the old times where the only concerns were the success of the harvests and the jollities of market day.

Tyger was under repair but had been given precedence by an Admiralty keen to show its intention of setting one of its most famous frigate captains at sea again as soon as may be. It had been classed as a ‘small repair’ even though she’d suffered untold injuries, for apart from a docking to replace the damaged strake between wind and water there was nothing that would require taking down her hull.

Nevertheless, it would be an unknown number of weeks until he could claim her.

Before he could let the benison of rest do its healing Kydd needed to journey to Sheerness to visit the hospital where so many Tygers were paying the price for his triumph.

The last mile across the marshes from Queenborough brought back memories of the dark year of the great Nore mutiny where his destiny had been changed irrevocably – from the prospect of a noose at the yardarm to the felicity of treading the quarterdeck as a king’s officer.

It was humbling to be received joyfully by men with shattered limbs who would never again work a long splice or race aloft in the teeth of a gale for the honour of their ship – they would be turned ashore, the lucky ones to a berth in Greenwich Hospital, others to a sailor’s sad exile on land.

‘The gunner’s mate on your books,’ Kydd asked an orderly. ‘Tobias Stirk. Is he still here, by chance?’

‘Don’t rightly know. Gets these moods, like. Drifts off an’ no-one knows where ’till he returns. Odd sort – and claims he won’t be bound by no long-shore coves tellin’ him what to do. I’ll see if’n he’s about.’

He wasn’t and Kydd felt the stirring of unease for the hard and fearless seaman of old, now taken with phantoms of doubt and mortality and wandering abroad in a futile effort to lay them to rest. He couldn’t leave without at least wishing his old shipmate a good recovery.

There was a drawing room for the families of visitors and Kydd settled in a chair to wait. On the table were newspapers and old issues of The Gentleman’s Magazine. He flicked through one but when he saw his name in it he turned it face down in embarrassment and picked up another.

Refreshments were offered by curious staff along with well-meant platitudes.

Dusk drew in and a lamp was brought. He knew he should think about going; his continued presence would be causing awkwardness for the hospital.

Should he write Stirk a short note, perhaps a light touch about the time when they were both foremast hands in the old Duke William. Or not, remembering the man’s sense of pride and—
A figure appeared in the doorway, difficult to make out by the light of the single lamp.

‘Mr Stirk?’

‘Aye. They said y’ wanted t’ see me.’ The husky voice was defensive and he removed his shapeless hat awkwardly.

‘Do come in and sit, Mr Stirk,’ Kydd said, wondering whether it might not have been such a mercy to seek the man out after all.

Stirk came forward into the light but remained standing. He was not in his usual comfortable seaman’s rig, instead wearing a shabby dark coat and a muffler. His eyes glittered in deep-sunken pits.

‘I – I came to see how you were, Mr Stirk,’ Kydd ventured. It sounded affected before the reality of the fine old seaman that stood before him.

‘Sir. Nothin’ that can’t be put right by a spell o’ canvas-backing.’ This was a sailor’s term for taking refuge in his hammock.

‘They’re saying you’re out and about a lot. Are you—’

‘Got no right t’ tell you that,’ Stirk grated. ‘Poxy bastards! Sir.’ ……

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