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© 1978 by Warren S. Walker
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Originally published in Warren S. Walker, Plots and Characters in the Fiction of James Fenimore Cooper (Hamden, CT: Archon Books, 1978), pp. 219-227.
NOTE: For this on-line presentation, chapter numbers [in square brackets] have been inserted by the webmaster at approximately the point where each chapter begins, to facilitate locating particular plot incidents in the text.
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 The novel opens not with the main action (naval warfare during the Jacobite rebellion of 1745) but with the subplot: the inheritance of the Wychecombe baronetcy and its estate. The Wychecombe holdings on the Devonshire coast date back to the late Middle Ages, but the title is of more recent origin, having been conferred upon Sir Michael Wychecombe in 1611 by James I. The incumbent during much of the novel is Sir Wycherly Wychecombe, sixth baronet, eighty-four years old and now, as the last of his four brothers lies dying, without legitimate heir. Sir Wycherly is the oldest of five brothers, three of whom have died, and the fourth, Lord Thomas Wychecombe (baron and judge), dies at the opening of the tale. As far as Sir Wycherly can determine, his brothers all remained bachelors, like himself, though Thomas had had three natural sons by his housekeeper, Martha Dodd. Always legalistic in his thinking, the judge on his deathbed strongly urges his brother not to bequeath his estate to Tom, the eldest of his own illegitimate sons. There is some question in the baronet's mind as to whether his youngest brother, Gregory, might have wed and left heirs; but Gregory, a naval lieutenant, had departed almost fifty years ago and had not been heard of again. The dying Thomas suggests to Sir Wycherly that the fairest move would be to will his property to Sir Reginald Wychecombe of Hertfordshire, the present head of the family line descended from Sir Michael's younger brother. A "half-blood" relative has better right to the estate, he insists, than a filius nullius, a term the judge does not explain to the baronet before he expires.
Shortly before this a young American sailor had been brought to the baronet's estate by naval surgeons. The youth was a Virginian who, surprisingly, also bore the name Wycherly Wychecombe. Critically wounded in a sea battle, he had been made a lieutenant for heroism during the engagement, but there was doubt that he would survive to enjoy this promotion. Sir Wycherly had provided care for the young man, though, and he has fully recovered by the time he first appears in the novel.  This scene occurs early on a July morning in 1745 as Lieutenant Wychecombe gathers flowers along a sea cliff for Mildred Dutton, daughter of Frank Dutton, an alcoholic petty officer who attends a small signal station there. Beautiful but also resourceful and courageous, Mildred lowers a rope to young Wycherly when, leaning out too far, he falls from the cliff to a ledge some six fathoms below.  During the rescue Frank Dutton is incapacitated by nervous tremors and Sir Wycherly, who happens to ride up at the moment, is too feeble to be of any real assistance. Afterwards, as the three men and Mildred gaze out to sea, they see a number of warships approaching the roadstead serviced by Dutton's signal station. It is the fleet of Vice Admiral Sir Gervaise Oakes, whose second in command is Rear Admiral Richard Bluewater -- the titular heroes of the book.  The two emissaries who come ashore from the lead vessel identify themselves as none other than Oakes himself and his secretary, Atwood. The baronet quickly and graciously extends to these two officers the hospitality of his home, Wychecombe Hall.
Before retiring to the Hall, the admiral sends Lieutenant Wychecombe to intercept the mail coach with important dispatches to the Admiralty.  Soon after arriving at the manor, Oakes is joined by Bluewater, his lifelong friend and, at times, almost his alter ego. They differ only in their politics, Oakes being a Whig, Bluewater a Tory with strong Jacobite sympathies -- a matter of little moment ordinarily.  It takes on unusual significance, however, when Lieutenant Wychecombe returns with the news that Charles Edward Stuart, the "Young Pretender," has landed in Scotland from his exile in France. After making a few pro-Jacobite observations, Bluewater turns his attention to his charming dinner companion, Mildred Dutton. Because of the great disparity in their ages -- he is fifty-four, she nineteen -- their repartee is not flirtatious in the usual sense of that word. With a vague feeling that he has somehow known the girl for a long while, Bluewater enjoys her refined manner and refreshing wit.
As the dinner ends and the ladies leave the table, both Mildred and her mother recognize that Frank Dutton is growing drunk from over-indulgence in port wine. It is the story of their lives. Dutton had been a naval lieutenant when he married Martha Ray, a girl who, though of lowly origins, had grown up in genteel circumstances after Lady Wilmeter had made her the companion of her own daughters. The couple had disappeared from their home area for twenty years, during which time Frank had been court-martialed for drunkenness while on duty and had been demoted to the noncommissioned rank of sailing master. Taking to drink even more heavily after that, he had proceeded to ruin his health as well as his fortune, and the minor post he now held had been secured for him through the influence of Lady Wilmeter's son, the present Lord Wilmeter. Mildred's education and aristocratic bearing derive entirely from her long-suffering mother.
 The two admirals each receive mail brought by special courier. Besides operational orders from the Admiralty, there are personal communications. Bluewater receives an announcement that he has been made a Knight of the Bath. Inasmuch as the letter containing this information was postmarked after the date on which the Young Pretender had returned to Great Britain, it is obvious that the honor extended to Bluewater is an effort to secure his loyalty to George II during the imminent uprising. He also receives from a prominent member of court an underhanded ploy which both admirals see through at once and resent. Bluewater's correspondent warns him to be vigilant to prevent any effort Oakes might make to desert King George and deliver the fleet into the hands of Bonnie Prince Charlie! Knowing the closeness of the two admirals, and knowing that Bluewater would probably show the letter to his friend, the sender had intended in this sly way to remind the solidly Hanoverian Oakes of the rear admiral's known Jacobite predilection.
 Although the two admirals and Lieutenant Wychecombe soon excuse themselves from the post-dinner drinking, Sir Wycherly continues to carouse with three of his guests: Dutton, Vicar Rotherham, and Tom, the natural son of the late Lord Thomas Wychecombe. All too aware of Dutton's weakness for alcohol, his wife and daughter wait with apprehension in an antechamber where they are joined first by Lieutenant Wychecombe and then by Admiral Bluewater. The latter finally recognizes Mrs. Dutton and surmises he now knows why Mildred had looked so familiar to him. Years before, Bluewater, serving with the panel who had court-martialed Frank Dutton, had been torn between his duty and his sympathy for the wife and infant daughter of the accused man. The three now talk frankly about the alcoholism lying behind Dutton's downfall and subsequent degeneracy. A shout from the revelers in the dining room is now heard as Sir Wycherly collapses with a stroke. When Dutton locates his wife and daughter, he is too much the worse from wine to notice Bluewater's presence in the room. He speaks abusively to both women, threatens Mildred, and crassly orders her to snare a husband -- either Tom or Lieutenant Wychecombe. Mortified by such coarse treatment in public, Mildred rushes, weeping, into the arms of the admiral. Although Dutton apologizes to his superior officer for his behavior, he has revealed all too clearly his true character.
 The stricken baronet, put to bed, requests that Vicar Rotherham, Sir Gervaise, and the latter's secretary remain in his room after all others have departed. Tom demands the right, as heir apparent, to remain but is removed at the patient's orders. Rather incoherently the failing baronet tries to indicate that he wishes his property to be inherited by Sir Reginald Wychecombe of Hertfordshire and not by the illegitimate Tom, whom he refers to several times as nullius, a legal expression which no one present (including the baronet) understands completely. His auditors take careful note of all he says, however, including this incomplete Latin term.
 Admiral Bluewater escorts Mildred and her mother home in the coach that has been standing by to take him to the seashore. In private conversation with Mildred, after they arrive at the sailing master's cottage, Bluewater warns the girl against Tom, about whom he knows nothing but whom he intuitively distrusts. The admiral then takes a waiting boat back to his own flagship, the Caesar, having long made it a practice not to sleep ashore.  The following morning he draws up his will, leaving ail of his property to Mildred Dutton, and has three of the Caesar's officers witness the instrument. When he returns to Wychecombe Hall later that day, he takes with him a very young midshipman, a cousin once removed, named Lord Geoffrey Cleveland. The admiral is startled at dinner that evening by the striking resemblance between Geoffrey and Mildred Dutton.
 Shortly after Bluewater reaches Wychecombe Hall the announcement is made of the arrival of Sir Reginald Wychecombe, whose presence has been asked by the dying baronet. Before the group enters the sickroom, Sir Reginald takes Oakes aside and explains that he himself is not in the direct bloodline to inherit the title and that young Tom is illegitimate, having no legal claim to either the title or the property.  Shortly thereafter Sir Wycherly revives sufficiently to attempt once again to dictate his will. The bulk of his property he leaves to Sir Reginald; £3,000 goes to Mildred Dutton; generous bequests are made to his four principal servants; but only £50 is assigned to Tom Wycherly. Lieutenant Wycherly Wychecombe respectfully refuses to accept the £l,000 which the baronet wishes to give him, declining to accept money from one who had spoken ill of his native Virginia. He does, however, accept the signet ring which the old man takes from his finger and hands to him. To the lieutenant's surprise, the coat of arms on the ring matches exactly that of his own signet ring and of the Virginia branch of the Wychecombe family. As the baronet is about to sign the will, Tom, stepping forward, objects to the whole proceeding and calls upon all present to bear witness to his objection. Sir Wycherly, angered by this presumption, orders Tom from the room, but the emotion and effort are too much for his condition, and he dies before he can place his name on the document.
 Tom now feels certain enough of succeeding to the title and to the estate of Wychecombe to begin referring to himself as Sir Thomas. He carries in his pocket a forged wedding certificate to prove that his father and Martha Dodd had been legally wed, though Sir Reginald has a sworn affidavit to the contrary signed by Martha. His claim is quickly challenged by what the two admirals and Sir Reginald consider to be a stronger claim. Lieutenant Wycherly Wychecombe produces papers to show that he is the legitimate heir of Sir Wycherly: he is the oldest grandson of Gregory Wychecombe, the late baronet's youngest brother, thought dead for decades. Gregory had struck a senior lieutenant and had been condemned to death by a naval court. Because neither his adversary nor the captain of his ship, the Sappho, had wished to see him executed, he had been allowed to jump ship and swim to a nearby island in the West Indies. Thence he had gone to Virginia where he had later wed a wealthy woman, Jane Beverly. His son, Wycherly, had preceded him in death; Gregory had then become the guardian of Wycherly's son, named Wycherly. Before his grandson had left Virginia to join the Royal Navy, Gregory had had made certified copies of the vital family documents and advised Wycherly to carry these with him to England. The young sailor had never sought English relatives partly because he had had doubts about a connection with Sir Wycherly before receiving the baronet's ring, partly because the old man had scorned those born in America, partly because he had supposed there were legitimate English heirs to the baronetcy. The two admirals, Sir Reginald, and several others who hear his story concur that by entail he is the true heir to both the title and the estate of the late baronet. The courts, they feel, will sustain his claims.
 Word reaches Sir Gervaise that the French Atlantic fleet under the command of the Comte de Vervillin has finally left its base, and Oakes determines to engage it as soon as possible. The French force numbers thirteen capital ships to eleven of the British, but this fact does not deter Oakes in his intention to do battle with the enemy. As usual, he will lead the van and Admiral Bluewater will bring up the rear squadron. Although he knows Bluewater's strong Jacobite sympathies, and although it seems likely that the French naval force will support Charles Edward Stuart's bid for the English throne, Oakes is confident that his junior admiral will not fail to support him once he attacks the Comte de Vervillin's flotilla.
 Oakes sails with his squadron of six ships and orders Bluewater to follow within a few hours with his squadron of five. As he waits to depart, Bluewater is approached by Sir Reginald, a much more active Jacobite than the admiral himself. He solicits Bluewater's support for the Stuart cause, suggesting that he could best serve his legitimate prince by defecting with his ships to the French allies of the Young Pretender.  Although shocked by the proposal for such treachery, Bluewater is sorely beset by temptation, as if the devil himself had set bait before him in its most inviting form. In his troubled state of mind, he makes no definite commitment to Sir Reginald as he boards a launch to go to his waiting flagship. With him goes Lieutenant Wycherly Wychecombe, the new (seventh) baronet of Wychecombe.
[19-23] As a wind of gale proportions arises, Admiral Oakes directs his squadron of ships into position for engaging the French fleet. With six "ships of the line" plus three smaller supporting vessels he will, at the outset, be opposing a force of nineteen vessels, thirteen of them heavy warships. He expects, however, that before the battle continues very long, Bluewater will bring up the second squadron in his support. In the initial brief encounter the British demast the French admiral's flagship, the Foudroyant, capture the Victoire, and knock out of action the Scipio, which, subsequently, is also captured. Heavy seas now intervene to halt the action temporarily, but they do not halt the Druid, a swift frigate from Bluewater's squadron, which now comes up alongside the Plantagenet, Oakes's flagship. The wind howls too loudly to permit vocal communication, and the waves run too high to allow a boat to pass from one ship to the other. On a light line thrown from the frigate to the Plantagenet Lieutenant Wychecombe is hauled aboard the flagship in a most unconventional manner.  He bears a sealed letter from Bluewater to Oakes in which the rear admiral asks his superior officer to delay attacking the French for twenty-four hours; within that time Bluewater will decide whether or not to shift his allegiance to the Young Pretender. It is obvious that the rear admiral is undergoing anguished introspection as he tries to determine where his higher duty lies.
[25-26] Trusting that his closest friend will never desert him in a life-and-death battle, Oakes regroups his ships in order to attack as soon as the storm abates. Each of the other five two-deckers in his squadron passes in review alongside the Plantagenet, its captain reporting to the admiral and, in turn, receiving his orders, his compliments, his criticism. Throughout these maneuvers and the deadly conflict that follows, the reader is given not only a close view of shipboard life and esprit de corps on individual vessels but also a panoramic picture of the dynamics and interaction of whole fleets of ships. [27-28] Oakes's squadron performs most effectively but is badly outnumbered for the first three hours of the battle. Belatedly, the rear squadron joins forces with the van, and the British gain a major victory. As might be expected, the losses on both sides are heavy; but quite unexpectedly, one of the casualties is Admiral Bluewater, who suffers a mortal wound. (The fact that he was shot while boarding a French ship -- hardly work for an admiral! -- suggests an effort to compensate for his previous indecision and his tardy appearance on the scene of battle.)
 The triumphant if battered fleet returns to the anchorage off the shore of the Wychecombe estate, now the property of the Virginian who is the seventh baronet of Wychecombe. Bluewater is taken to the Dutton cottage, where he is attended by naval surgeons and nursed by Mildred and her mother. A tent is set up nearby to serve as temporary headquarters for Vice Admiral Oakes as the death of his closest friend approaches.
Admiral Oakes and Captain Greenly, commander of the Plantagenet, decide that there is some information which must be imparted to Bluewater while he is still mentally competent to alter his will if he so wishes. Unbeknownst to the admiral, his long-dead younger brother, Colonel John Bluewater, had secretly wed Agnes Hedworth, sister of the Duchess of Glamorgan (Lord Geoffrey Cleveland's mother). The marriage had been secret because Agnes's guardian uncle had felt that an unpropertied army officer was beneath her. Greenly declares that both he and Captain Blakely, commander of the Elizabeth, had witnessed the wedding ceremony, and now Greenly is concerned lest there might have been some issue from this union. This account by Captain Greenly is interrupted by the smashing of a bowl dropped from the nerveless fingers of Mrs. Dutton. After recovering from her shock, Mrs. Dutton reveals that a year after the date given for the marriage by Captain Greenly, Agnes Hedworth had delivered a child in the Dutton home, to which she had come in the extremity of her need for assistance. Agnes had died shortly after the birth of a daughter, and Mrs. Dutton had taken the infant to replace her own child, whom she had recently lost. Inasmuch as Agnes had never mentioned the name of the baby's father, Mrs. Dutton had assumed that the child was illegitimate. When Frank Dutton had returned from a lengthy cruise, brutal and hopelessly alcoholic, his wife had decided against revealing to him that Mildred was not actually their own daughter. In fact, she had never revealed this to anyone until now that Greenly's story verified Mildred's legitimacy. Admiral Bluewater is delighted, knowing now that the girl to whom he willed his property is actually his niece. He also understands now why Mildred and Lord Geoffrey Cleveland look so much alike: they are first cousins.  Admiral Bluewater's last wish is to see his young kinswoman and the new Sir Wycherly Wychecombe married, and the wedding ceremony is performed a few hours later in his room. He dies near sunrise the following morning in the presence of only his lifelong companion, Gervaise Oakes.
 The new Sir Wycherly Wychecombe and his wife spend most of their time at the family plantation in Virginia, there building a suitable mansion for themselves and the three children born to them: Wycherly, Mildred, and Agnes. Twenty-five years later, while the family is in England, they visit the tomb of Rear Admiral Bluewater in Westminster Abbey. There they find Sir Gervaise Oakes, retired as full admiral but now, at eighty, quite senile, his memory almost completely gone. He is attended by the faithful steward Galleygo and by Geoffrey Cleveland, now the Duke of Glamorgan. Galleygo and Sir Wycherly try to reawaken Sir Gervaise's memory of his old friend Richard Bluewater, but it is Geoffrey who finally succeeds in doing so. After Sir Gervaise realizes where he is and why he is there, he asks pardon of the others while he kneels to pray. When they raise the old man from his knees and place him in a chair, they discover that Admiral Sir Gervaise Oakes has died performing his orisons.
Ben Barrel, Captain Blakely, Captain Thomas Blewet, Lord Bluewater, Mildred Bluewater, Rear Admiral Richard Bluewater, Lieutenant Bluff, Jack Brown, Lieutenant Bunting, Lieutenant Bury, Comte de Chelincourt, Lord Geoffrey Cleveland, Captain Comtant, Lieutenant Cornet, Lieutenant Daly, David, Captain Denham, Vicomte des Prez, Martha Dodd, Captain Drinkwater, Frank Dutton, Martha Ray Dutton, Captain Foley, Furlong, David Galleygo, Duchess of Glamorgan, Jack Glass, Captain Goodfellow, Greenleaf, Captain Greenly, Agnes Hedworth, Larder, Locker, Sandy McYarn, Magrath, Lord Morganic, Ned, Vice Admiral Sir Gervaise Oakes, Captain O'Neil, Captain Parker, Record, Richard, Rev. Mr. Rotherham, Soundings, Tom Sponge, Captain Sterling, Captain Stowel, Lieutenant Tom, Comte de Vervillin, Sam Wade, Lieutenant Williamson, Agnes Wychecombe, Mildred Wychecombe, Sir Reginald Wychecombe, Lord Thomas Wychecombe, Thomas Wychecombe, Sir Wycherly Wychecombe, Wycherly Wychecombe, Lieutenant Wycherly Wychecombe, Wycherly Wychecombe [son of the lieutenant], Sam Yoke.
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