A Drop of Nelson’s Blood

Author’s Note: Almost none of this is true.
There they stood, staring down at the lifeless body of the wee but great man. At the height of battle, Admiral Horatio Nelson had been laid low by a French sniper. The treacherous French ball had entered the shoulder next to the epaulet, ricocheted through the lungs, off the spine, through the liver, diverted by the hipbone before finally exiting by way of taking off one of the Lord’s noble English balls. Although the great man held on for more than an hour, the wound had proven fatal.

Gathered around were Captain Hardy, in command of HMS Victory, the ship’s surgeon, Mr. Beaty, the admiral’s personal chaplain, Doctor Scott, as well as two able seamen, Johnson and Masters, who had carried Nelson’s lifeless corpse from the orlop deck back to his opulent quarters. To a one, the entire gathering wore a troubled countenance, crushed by the loss of their beloved leader. From outside, the sounds of battle, the cannon fire, the clash of bayonets, shouts, groans, had begun to die down.

A young officer named Whittlebum entered and said, “Captain Hardy, Sir. The Redoutable has struck its colours!”

“They’ve what their what?” answered Hardy.

“Struck their colours Sir. Surrendered . . . officially . . . we’ve won Sir!”

“Ah! That is excellent news Whittlebum. The Admiral was very concerned as he was dying. I told him we had won the day. Glad I wasn’t made out to be a liar.” After a pause, “More importantly, his death will not have been in vain.” All nodded and “Here Here’d!” except for the able seamen who were not yet sure why they had not been dismissed and unsure if they were allowed to join in.

“So what to do about his final request?” ventured Scott after a few moments.

Just before succumbing to the Great Beyond, Nelson had, with great earnestness, requested that he not be buried at sea but rather be taken back to his beloved England. Normally an officer dying at sea was simply hammered into his cot, which doubled as a coffin, and ceremoniously dumped into the briny deep. This made the admiral’s request an unusual one, and a difficult one, considering it would be weeks before they could reach England. So while every member of the gathering had nodded and promised as their venerated leader made his request, they all simultaneously thought, “Ah, bugger. He’ll be all gamey by the time we get back.” Even the greatest nobility would begin to bloat, stink, and putrefy in a few days.

“We could pack him in salt,” offered the chaplain, Scott.

“He would arrive completely desiccated,” said the surgeon Beaty.

“Completely dessi-what?” asked the Captain.

“Desiccated Sir,” Beaty answered. “You know, dried out . . . like an Egyptian mummy, Sir.”

“Ah yes, quite,” nodded Harvey. “I shouldn’t think the Admiral would want to be put on display in such a state. We’ll have to do better.”

Whittlebum spoke up next, “What if we honored his request metaphorically? Symbolically, Sir,” he added quickly in response to Captain Harvey’s quizzical look. “We could load him up in a 32-pounder and fire him out across the Atlantic in the direction of England.”

“He’s a small man,” said Beaty, “but I don’t know that he’d fit.”

“We might have to take the arms off, pack them in separately” countered Whittlebum, “but to see him soaring through the air, accompanied by a 21 gun salute by the marines? It would be quite majestic I should think.”

“It might at that,” conceded Harvey. “But my dear friend did not asked to be conveyed back to his beloved homeland meta . . . metawhatsit . . . symbolically. He wanted to be buried in England. Buried proper. We need to find a way.”

“Lord Nelson’s left us a bit of a Gordian Knot then, hasn’t he,” Scott mused out loud.

“A what?” asked Harvey.

“A Gordian Knot Sir. It’s an allusion to a Greek tale. It means an intractable problem.”

“An intracta what?”

“It’s a complicated puzzle. A real head-scratcher Sir.”

“Ah, yes, well put, Doctor Scott.”

Finally, it was Masters, the able seaman who stirred up his resolve and stepped forward to offer, “If I may be so bold, Sir, we could preserve him in a cask of spirit; brandy or rum. It’s the alcohol what does the trick, Sir.”

“Thank you for your input Masters,” Said Harvey, “but that hardly sounds . .. “

“Actually,” interrupted Beaty, “able seaman Masters is right. I should have though of it earlier myself. The alcohol will act as a preservative. Well done, Masters!”

“Yes, Masters,” added the captain heartily, “well done lad!”

And so, Masters and Johnson were sent to fetch the largest barrel they could find, be it rum or brandy. Whittlebum meanwhile was dispatched to summon the ship’s Master Carpenter and most able cooper whose name happened to be Cooper.

*****

“That barrel’s too full,” said Cooper. “There’s going to be displacement.”

“What?” Answered Captain Harvey

“Displacement Sir. The body will displace the brandy.”

“What?” The captain said again.

“You know, like the ship displaces water, Sir.”

“What?” The captain looked a bit baffled.

“We put him in now, the brandy will go whoosh!” Cooper made an exaggerated whooshing gesture.

“Oh, THAT kind of displacement.” Harvey nodded knowingly, “Good point. How full should the barrel be then?”

“I’d guess about three-quarters full,” Cooper pointed at an appropriate spot on the barrel.

“We’d better get to drinking then,” Harvey said, “Cabin boy, fetch us cups!”

For the next couple of hours the group drank and told stories about the great man. And drank. And said things like, “That strategy thingy he came up with for this battle . . . The thing that seems bloody obvious, but apparently no one thought of before? That thing? Fuckin’ brilliant!” Then the group would shout “huzzahs” and “here here’s.” And drink. Round after round. Each time tossing a cup of brandy down the privy and shouting “For Nelson!”

They sang songs, making them up on the spot – songs that would one day be standard fare on the terraces of English football matches. Johnson, Masters, and Cooper seemed particularly adept at this. They started with “Super, Super Lord Nelson,” went on to “One Lord Nelson! There’s only one Lord Nelson.” And later, “Lord Nelson, he’s one of our own!”

*****

The business was done. The admiral’s clothes had been stripped off and preserved under the belief that one day a museum would surely want to display them in all their bloody glory. Then, Admiral Horatio Nelson, the Hero of Trafalgar, was picked up by his dearest friends, Harvey and Scott, and lovingly, tenderly, submerged into the barrel of brandy until only the top of his head was visible, as if the most macabre game of bobbing for nobility was about to begin. Without a word, Mr. Cooper sealed up the barrel.

“I know,” Captain Harvey said in his most captain-like voice, “that we have had an exceedingly long day of battle and even longer night of grieving the loss of our beloved Admiral. But before we go our separate ways to sleep, I think we should partake of one more round from the barrel in hopes that we might, in that way, absorb even the smallest particle of this great man’s courage and honor.”

Opening the spigot, the captain then refilled every man’s cup. Then held his aloft and said, “For Lord Nelson and for England!”

Cups were held aloft in a most noncommittal fashion, the “here, here’s” less than enthusiastic.

“What’s wrong with you lot?” asked Harvey in an indignant tone. “A drop of Nelson’s blood wouldn’t do you any harm.”

Each man pretended to be fascinated by his own shoes. There was some muttering. After a few awkward moments, it was able seaman Johnson who spoke up,“It’s not the blood what concerns me, Sir.”

“Well what then?”

“Well, it’s just . . . “ he hesitated, unsure of how boldly he might speak. “It’s . . . his balls are in there Sir. And his arse hole . . . and his feet. It’s off-putting.”

“Listen,” sputtered Harvey, hardly containing his anger, “for the likes of you to be allowed to sip so much as a drop of sweat out of the arse hole of such a glorious man as Admiral Nelson, would constitute the luckiest day of your unworthy life!”

Chastened and remembering his place, able seaman Johnson looked at the floor and said, “You’re right, of course, Sir. I’m very sorry for my insolence.”

Everyone drank.

*****

The next day, the ship experienced the greatest fortune. The sails were full, some of those injured in the battle seemed miraculously recovered, the day’s bread ration was remarkably maggot-free. By the science of the day, the reason was obvious to those in the know: it was the drinking of Nelson’s blood that had brought the good luck. That evening, they reconvened in the admiral’s quarters for another round.

And so it went during the homeward journey. Captain Harvey and Doctor Scott, Lord Nelson’s closest friends, found solace by rocking the barrel back and forth, listening to the admiral slosh gently back and forth. Every few days, the company that had gathered that fateful afternoon, regathered to ensure the continuity of their good fortune. By the time they reached England, a rocking of the barrel produced a sound like a giant, sodden cabbage thudding around in an equally large hatbox.

But reach England they did. And thanks to the ingenuity of able seaman Masters, the body of Admiral Lord Nelson arrived in tip-top condition. Perfect enough to lay in state at Greenwich Hospital. The subsequent funeral was a glorious day of national fascination and mourning. The King himself cried. Every English subject worthy of the name felt as though the loss had been ripped from their own family.

*****

“And that,” said the tour guide,” is how 19th century sailors came to refer to their alcohol ration as ‘Nelson’s Blood’. And we’re very fortunate here at the British Museum of Military Coopering and Spirits to have on display this barrel. The very barrel in which Lord Nelson was borne home in 1805.”

The group of museum goers, consisting mostly of American and Japanese tourists, but filled out with a school group from Gillingham, all nodded appreciatively at their great fortune of having the opportunity to see such a venerated artifact.

“Now, if you will follow me into the next room, I’ll tell you how it was that the humble fig came to be known as Wellington’s Scrotum.”

© 2015 Whiskey Leavins

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