After a few months at his father's estate in Anglesgreen, in the North Downs of Surrey, the bustle and clatter, the crowded business of London and its teeming throngs seemed loud and alien to Captain Alan Lewrie, RN. Oh, he'd come up to the city very briefly in January for his quarterly appearance before the Councillour of The Cheque to collect his half-pay, but then had just as quickly coached back to rusticity, and further healing. This time, though, London seemed more promising, more challenging, and Lewrie was prepared for a longer stay, to lay siege, as it were, at Admiralty right through the budding spring of 1807 for as long as necessary 'til he'd gotten himself a new active commission.
Pettus, his manservant, and former cabin steward aboard his last ship, the 38-gunned Fifth Rate Reliant frigate, had no such concern for the long term, though, and was sliding from one side of the front coach seat to the other to peer out the windows at all of the hubub, as eagerly as some "Country-Put" who'd spent his entire life in one wee village. Pettus did so so energetically that Lewrie had half a mind to chide him to sit still. Thankfully, their coach came at last to the corner of Duke Street and Wigmore Street, and their pre-arranged lodgings at the Madeira Club. A letter in request, one quick reply, and Lewrie and his man had been assured room for as long as he wished; it was a certitude, for Lewrie's father, Sir Hugo St. George Willoughby, was one of the founding investors in the club, and Lewrie was considered a legacy, and at a much-reduced rate, to boot!
"At last," Lewrie said with a sigh after their long and slow trip up from Anglesgreen to Guildford, then to the city, on winter-muddied and rutted roads, a trip which had seemed twice as long as usual, with twice the usual traffic. "I'm badly in need of a jaunt to the 'Jakes', and a mug o' somethin' warm!"
By calendar it might be April of 1807, but the winter had been harsh and had lingered. Even with a greatcoat on, and a wool blanket over his lap and legs, the day had started raw and showed little sign of improvement. At least it was not raining, Lewrie could conjure, though the skies were iron grey with quick-scudding low clouds.
The club's doorman scuttled down from the raised entry stoop to fold down the coach's metal steps and open the door, doffing his hat as Lewrie tossed aside the blanket and stepped down to the kerb.
"So good to see you, again, Captain Lewrie," the flunky said.
"Good t'be back, aye," Lewrie replied. "You'll see to my traps and all? Good. Come on, Pettus, let's go in and get warm!"
There was a new clerk behind the entry hall desk and its many letter slots and outerwear racks, who looked up from his paperwork as the doors opened, admitting a quick breath of nippy damp wind, and a gentleman new to him.
"Captain Alan Lewrie," Lewrie said, naming himself as he took off his hat and gloves, "I believe ye have rooms reserved for me and my man?"
"Ehm ... let me see ... yes, we do, sir," the clerk perked up after looking over his lists quickly. "On the third storey, facing the street, sir, but with a fireplace that draws very well."
"Topping!" Lewrie heartily exclaimed, clapping his gloves on the palm of his opposite hand, before Pettus helped him remove his greatcoat.
The new clerk wondered whether this Captain Lewrie was Army or Navy, for there was no outward sign since he was garbed in civilian suitings; he wondered, too, if the fellow had had a long bout of fever, for the man's black coat, figured cream waistcoat, and buff trousers seemed loose on his frame. Beyond that, the clerk beheld a gentleman who looked to be in his mid-fourties, about nine inches above five feet tall, a gentleman who wore his own hair instead of a wig, hair that was slightly curly, mid-brown, brushed back at the temples and over his ears in waves, joined with longer new-styled sideburns, and aha! As this Captain Lewrie turned to speak to his manservant, the clerk espied a wee sprig of a queue at the nape of his neck, bound in black ribbon; so he must be a Navy officer!
This Lewrie seemed a merry sort, with bright grey-blue eyes, merry enough to make the clerk smile a bit broader than his usual wont bestowed upon club members —'til he spotted a faint vertical scar on the man's left cheek. Perhaps, the clerk thought, this Captain Lewrie was not always quite so merry, and was a fighting man to be reckoned with!
"We shall see your luggage sent up to your room, sir, and lay a good fire," the clerk promised. He handed over a large key with an oval brass tab.
"I'll leave you t'that, Pettus," Lewrie said, "and once I've re-discovered the 'necessary', I'll be in the Common Rooms."
* * *
There was a good fire ablaze in the Common Rooms, too, when Lewrie entered it, and he went to it to rub his cold hands before its warmth, even turn his backside to it and lift the tails of his coat.
"Damned raw day," someone comfortably ensconced in one of the leather wing-back chairs by the fire commented. "Why, good Captain Lewrie!" older Mister Giles, a man of substance in the leather goods trade, exclaimed. "Well met, sir! Up from the country at last, hah! I say, Showalter, Captain Lewrie's back!"
A younger fellow on the opposite side of the fireplace dropped his masking newspaper and rose to his feet with a smile to offer his hand. "Grand to see you, again, sir. Bless me, but do I note that you no longer have need of your walking stick? Capital!"
Showalter had at long last won himself a seat in the House of Commons, a couple of years back, and was quick to inform Lewrie with some glee that he'd just been re-elected by an even greater majority on the hustings. Lewrie recalled that Showalter had spoken of being married with children long before, but still lodged at the Madeira Club when Parliament was in session, leaving wife and children back in his home borough.
"It took a bit of doing, but I finally got strong enough to do without, thankee," Lewrie informed him, looking about for a seat close to the fire. One of the club's waiters in breeches, a livery-striped waistcoat, and white apron, came over at once, dragging another leather wing-back chair for him, and taking his order for a wee pot of very hot tea, with a dollop of rum.
"Healed up and fit enough to seek a new ship, are you, sir?" Mr. Giles good-naturedly asked. "Well, that's grand. Can't allow a fellow such as yourself to be idle and out of the game for too long."
"My thoughts exactly, Mister Giles," Lewrie agreed as his tea was quickly fetched to him. "What's been acting in London in my absence? Anything good at the theatres?"
"Well, I'm not all that much a patron of the stage," Showalter told him, "not like our former member, Major Baird, haw!" he added, pulling a face. Before he had finally found a suitable wife, Major Baird had haunted Covent Garden and Drury Lane, in search of covert, upright, and oral sex from the orange-selling theatre girls. "I favor the symphony, myself, and I heard a good'un two nights ago. That Austrian fellow, Beethoven? He named it the Eroica. It plays through the month ..."
"Dedicated to the Corsican Ogre, Napoleon Bonaparte," Giles grumbled, working his mouth in distaste, "damn his eyes."
"Re-dedicated to Admiral Nelson, as the programme declared when I attended," Showalter corrected. "And rightly so."
"Amen," Lewrie agreed, thinking that he would take it in.
"And, Baird's still a member, though he don't come by half as much as before," Giles supplied. "A man needs good company and a fine meal every now and then, finer than what his own household can offer, I'd expect. Get away from wife and kiddies?"
"Pilkington is still with us," Showalter told Lewrie. "Still as much a Cassandra as ever. Gloom, doom, and the ruin of trade."
"Perhaps not a true Cassandra, sir," Giles quibbled. "Mind, she was always right in her dire predictions, quite unlike Pilkington."
"The Berlin Decrees have Pilkington nigh-wailing and wringing his hands," Showalter said with a laugh.
Mustive missed somethin' in the papers, Lewrie thought; What the Devil are the Berlin Decrees? Should I admit my ignorance?
"I recall readin' something of 'em in the papers," Lewrie carefully said with a dismissive shrug. "After Christmas, I think?"
"Yes, after Napoleon finished off the Prussians," Mr. Giles said, nodding in agreement. "The Ogre said he'd make economic war as well as the regular sort against us. Now he's taken most of Europe and set up his so-called Confederation of the Rhine, he decreed that every port under his control will deny any British goods, and forbid anyone in Europe to have truck with us, cutting us off from any and all of their goods."
"Yes, and any neutral ship that's put into any of our ports to be inspected for contraband, he'll seize," Showalter huffily stuck in. "The nerve of the man! If the Americans, for example, obey our Orders In Council and call in Great Britain first, they'll be banned to land their goods in Europe. If they sail direct for the Continent, despite us, our Navy can seize them, so God only knows what the neutrals will do. Caught 'twixt the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, what? I did hear that the Americans might just embargo all European trade altogether!"
"Tosh!" Lewrie exclaimed. "Sharp-practised Yankee merchants to just give up trade? That's inconceivable."
So that's what it's all about, he assured himself.
"It'll never work, you know," Mr. Giles pooh-poohed. "There's Portugal, there's still the great trade with Russia, with us getting all her hides and timber, Sweden and her iron ore, there's our goods going to the United States, and so many ports still open to us in the Mediterranean ... and, our avid and able smugglers."
"And the Danes," Showalter reminded them.
"Why, the leather trade's never been better!" Mr. Giles boasted. "Austria, the Russians, as they rebuild their armies, their orders for boots, shoes, and soldiers' accoutrements have never been higher. Do mark my words, sirs ... Napoleon's much-vaunted Continental System is more-like to result in the utter economic strangulation of France!"
"And, pray God, sir, all Napoleon's allies," Showalter gravely said with a firm affirmative nod of his head.
"Wool's high, too," Mr. Giles ruminated, looking sage and content. "Mister Meacham ... you haven't met him yet, Lewrie, he's new to us, from the Midlands ... was in town a month ago to contract with agents for foreign buyers of his goods, and was positively exultant with the results! So much so that he contemplated opening an entire newer and larger mill, due to the great demand."
"Almost every member I've spoken to here with any ties to the manufacturing or export trade still seems to be doing extremely well," Showalter contributed with a grin. "That's not to say that it'll last, but for now, Bonaparte's edict is toothless. And, as Mister Giles believes, it'll hurt the French much more than us. We've the whole world for our market, our colonial possessions aside, with the largest fleet of merchantmen, and the Royal Navy to protect them. And what do the French have? Blockade, laid-up ships, grass growing on the piers, and grinding poverty."
The Madeira Club had been founded by Sir Hugo St. George Willoughby, Sir Malcom Shockley, and four or five other gentlemen, most of them in trade. Sir Malcom and Lewrie's father could have joined one of the more esteemed gentlemen's clubs like Boodle's, Almack's — well, in Sir Hugo's case, that might've been a stretch since he had been tainted with the tarbrush of a rogue ever since the Hell-Fire Club had been exposed — but it had been Sir Malcom's, and the bulk of the original founders', idea that there must be a place where sober and industrious men who'd made themselves, and made large piles of money in trade and manufacturing, could commingle, lodge comfortably when in London, dine extremely, well, and enjoy a fine wine cellar. Such men might be bags wealthier than the members of the prestigious gentlemen's clubs, but they were in Trade, did not own great country estates, had not attended Oxford or Cambridge, and did not live on their rents and the produce of their lands. It was good odds they would be rejected if they tried to apply.
Lewrie couldn't have cared less whether they were secret Druids. The Madeira Club offered clean, comfortable rooms, good meals, and a very extensive selection of wines — they even managed to stock some of his favourite aged American corn whisky! — and he would be the last person to denigrate someone else because he was not titled or one of the great, landed Squirearchy. His own knighthood and baronetcy was a bitter joke to him, already, awarded more, he suspected, for political ends to drum up patriotism during the run-up to the re-start of the war with France in 1803. Besides, it had cost the life of his wife, Caroline, shot down on a beach near Calais, a shot meant for him, as they had fled Paris during the Peace of Amiens.
Commercial sorts the bulk of the members might be, but most of them were decent company, during the rare times when Lewrie was not at sea and back in London. The only thing that irked him was the demand for proper decorum and quiet in the wee hours. He could never bring a woman up to his rooms on the sly, and riotous hoo-rawing, loud music and song, and flung rolls at meals were right out, too! The club members liked to go to bed early, sleep soundly, and rise too damned early for Lewrie's likes, but ...
The tall clock in the entry hall chimed half-past five, seemingly a signal to conjure the arrival of several more members, some of them new to Lewrie, and younger than he. There was a great bustle to doff hats, cloaks, and greatcoats, then rush to the fireplace for a warm-up of hands and backsides. Tea, coffee, and brandy were called for, and swiftly delivered. Lewrie was introduced to the new ones, striving to retain all their names, and was greeted by some of the longer-timed members he'd met before. The newer members, after thawing out, drifted to the tables and seating arrangements in other parts of the Common Rooms.
"Nice-enough fellows," Mr. Giles allowed in a hushed voice to Lewrie, leaning over towards him. "But, most don't lodge here, thank the Lord. Our new'uns are a bit too boisterous for me. The club's changing, perhaps not for the better. Why, next thing you know, we will have women dined in!"
"Ahem," someone said in a low voice, coughing into his fist. "Captain Lewrie?" It was the manager, Hoyle.
"Aye, Mister Hoyle?" Lewrie replied, swivelling about.
"My apologies, sir, about your assignment of rooms. The clerk is new, and did not know of your, ehm ... infirmity," Hoyle muttered, all but wringing his hands. "I will see that you're moved to a lower storey ..."
"Not a bit of it, Mister Hoyle!" Lewrie said with a laugh. "I am not the man I was when last I came, in January. I'm fit as a fiddle, and even danced the hours away at the last country ball, so the third storey's just fine for me. No reason for my man, Pettus, to be shifting my things round."
"Really, sir?" Hoyle said, eyebrows up in surprise. "Why, that is wonderful ... good news, indeed. My congratulations, sir! Do you need anything, though, just let us know."
"Thankee, Hoyle, and I shall," Lewrie assured him.
Mr. Giles levered himself up from his chair after Hoyle left.
"Save my seat for me, will you, gentlemen? I will return, anon. And, does the waiter come round in my absence, I'd admire a brandy. I think it's late enough in the day to indulge. Sun's under the yardarm, hey, Captain Lewrie?"
"Somewhere in the world, aye, Mister Giles," Lewrie agreed.
"In cold weather, he's a permanent fixture by the hearth, is our Mister Giles," Showalter wryly whispered as the older fellow departed. "And, none too keen on some of the newer members. Why, half of them are junior partners in their concerns, not owners. An attorney or three, fellows from the 'Change, even some serving officers. Poor Giles is sure they'll steal his seat if he's not careful!"
"Sounds as if things might become more lively round here than in the past?" Lewrie speculated.
"Only partially," Showalter seemed to mourn, "and that only 'til bedtime for the oldsters. After that, it's funereal, more's the pity. At least, the mood's brighter at mealtimes, and the victuals are still excellent!"
"Will there be anything else tonight, sir?" Pettus asked after he'd tugged Lewrie's top-boots off, hung up his suitings, waist-coat and shirt, and handed him a thick robe.
"Don't think so, Pettus, no," Lewrie told him. "I think that I have all that I'll need 'til morning."