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DEAL: A haven for lovers
by David Donachie
Lady Emma Hamilton The Fall of Nelson The Battle of Trafalgar
Detail from "The Battle of
Trafalgar" by William
Lady Emma Hamilton as
Ariadne by George Romney
Detail from "The Fall of Nelson"
by Denis Dighton (1792-1827)

Looking out from the first floor window the Three King’s, Horatio Nelson was reminded of many of the reasons why he disliked Deal.

There was the anchorage itself, bound by the shore and the treachery of the Goodwin Sands, crowded with the ships of the most selfish breed of men it had ever been his misfortune to meet – the merchant captains who grew rich from a maritime trade only made possible by the protection of a Royal Navy they openly derided. He could recall being bound to his ship for weeks out on that unfortunate stretch of water – once for a whole fortnight – embayed by a surf so violent that going ashore was impossible.

Every time he went to sea he was sick, a curse that usually eased in time, but on this station, the Downs, half his life was spent ashore so – forever embarking and disembarking his flagship, he never got free of the affliction, and he looked with loathing at the cold grey sea lapping and hissing against the stone beach. The breakers were driven ashore by an icy East wind that nothing could keep out of his room – it was as if the Baltic Sea, where he had so recently won his Copenhagen victory, was sending its worst to chastise him for trouncing the Danes. If it was, then that chimed with the way he had been treated by his superiors, who almost seemed embarrassed that victory had been achieved.

Despite the fire blazing in the hearth his fingers, as they clutched the quill, felt numb and his body chilled, while his head was fuzzy from the cold he seemed unable to shake. But there was no release from the endless paperwork of an Admiral in active service. Every ounce of stores, powder, shot, sails and nails, had to be accounted for, every sailor had to be fed and watered, each numbered barrel of pork or beef, every cask of small beer or rum, tallied up for to the penny pinching clerks of the Navy Board. And when the reports of the captains came in, it fell to the admiral to pass them.

Nelson had other reasons for gloom; the command he had in the Downs was a backwater, not to his taste when the possibility existed for a telling stroke was so limited. Bombarding Boulogne or Calais hardly counted against a fleet against fleet action at sea for the nation’s premier fighting sailor – it was measure of the vanity he knew he was subject to that he could hold such a thought without blush – and such actions as he had undertaken had been limited in their success and heavy in the butcher’s bill, with the naval hospital still full of those wounded who had not succumbed.

The cold increased as darkness fell, the wind picking up on the rising tide to created banshee screams as it whistled through the rigging of the inshore vessels. Lights appeared in a thousand cabins, with lanterns lit on every stern, which when it was fully dark made magic what had been mundane – a sea of light points to contrast with the stars that twinkled in the clear night sky.

As the mantle clock struck eight, Nelson felt a wave of relief- it was time to abandon his chores and go about a more pleasing business. His servant, who knew very well what he was about, fetched his cloak and hat, then opened the door to let him out, well aware that there was a spring in the little admiral’s step. Hat pulled low he made his way through the lobby of the Inn, certain that his passing was discreet, unaware of the nods and winks of everyone who saw him pass.

Deal was as crowded as ever – how could it be otherwise when every ship passing up to London, to save money on wages, disgorged sailors here. Tars with coin, ashore for the first time in months, attracted hucksters and crimps in abundance, but they were dwarfed in number by the whores – some near children, others toothless grandmothers – that teemed in the narrow streets and plied the physical part of the bargain they struck in the tiny alleyways that led from one to the other.

Nelson was no stranger to debauchery; how could he be when he had served aboard line of battle ships at anchor, and strode along decks full of singing, dancing, gambling and open, unblushing copulation. Yet somehow the sheer depravity of Deal outweighed anything he had ever experienced, and that included the fleshpots of India. No vice was excluded, and each building full of drunks of both sexes testified to the fact that women not selling themselves had found another way to separate sailors from their money. The right was afforded to any naval widow to sell spirituous liquor, thus every second parlour was a tavern, and that was multiplied by the music halls and pot houses that lined both sides of the dingy filth strewn thoroughfare known as Middle Street.

The relief of shutting the door behind this licentious pandemonium was palpable, the sight of Emma’s beautiful face enough on its own to banish most of the woes in both health and the cares that assailed him. Spending so much time apart, and being so deeply in love, left little room for conversation – no more than an affectionate exchange of names – before they embraced.

Nelson’s cloak fell to the floor, soon to be joined by his hat and heavy broadcloth coat. Emma undid his necktie and shirt, as she always did, for a one armed man needed help, and hauled it over his head. Her warm hands produced that frisson of electricity that ever attended her attentions as, still kissing, she edged him over to the low chaise, his cold hand bring forth a shudder as he fondled skin exposed by the slipping off of her dressing gown. He had to step back, had to let the flickering firelight play across her fulsome body. Here she was, the mother of his child, sitting him down so that she could remove his shoes stocking and breeches, leaning forward to excite him with an intimacy that only she had ever performed.

Outside, Deal life went on – noisy, nefarious, dedicated to pleasures legal and not. Inside the small terraced cottage Horatio Nelson made love to his lady, for the first time that day feeling warm in his body, and warmth towards the town of Deal. In the midst of so much dissipation, the town allowed for this, away from the prying eyes of censorious society, a tryst with the woman he adored.

©2006 “DEAL today” magazine

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