Devil To Pay is the second nove, chronologically, but the first in order of publication, in the Richard Delancey series by C. Northcote Parkinson.
Parkinson is best known for his work in the field of public administration and is credited with the eponymous “Parkinson’s Law” or “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” But he was an accomplished naval historian as well, writing a classic biography of Admiral Sir Edward Pellew. He is best known to Horatio Hornblower fans as the author of The Life and Times of Horatio Hornblower.
Devil To Pay opens in July 1794. Lieutenant Richard Delancey is unemployed and seemingly unemployable. He was involved in giving evidence at a court martial against the captain of his last ship, the frigate HMS Artemis, unfortunately for him the captain was acquitted and he was beached with a reputation for disloyalty attached to him. He has no friends or family to provide the necessary influence to find employment for him and it looks as though he will spend the rest of his naval career either on a receiving ship awaiting an assignment that will never come, or as an unemployed lieutenant on half pay.
Since that time HMS Artemis has been shipwrecked with heavy loss of life, including the captain, and many in the navy are now beginning to think that Delancey may have been right in giving his testimony. But no one is willing to offer him employment.
Major spoilers follow.
Delancey gets a break when he is summoned to a meeting with Rear Admiral Macbride. The admiral isn’t enamored of the idea of employing Delancey but he has been directed to find an officer who is fluent in French and familiar with the Norman coast. Delancey is from Guernsey, he speaks native French and is intimately familiar with the territory. He is given orders to report to a British officer who is running a small flotilla of Royalist ships out of St. Peter Port, Guernsey.
A friend warns him that if there was any positive outcome possible from the mission someone with much better connections would have gotten the job and he should prepare himself to be scapegoated in case of failure.
When he reaches Guernsey he is given command of a cutter, Royalist, and finds his mission is to land a Royalist agent in France as part of a large scale plan to seize the port of Cherbourg and foment a popular insurrection against the Revolutionary regime.
The mission is betrayed and Delancey narrowly escapes from his rendezvous, his friend in this adventure, Major Moncrieff, however, is killed. When he returns to Guernsey he finds that Moncrieff’s fellow officers blame Delancey for Moncrieff’s death and he is challenged to a duel. He survives the duel and his commander bundles him off Guernsey to avoid him being challenged by other officers in that regiment.
Back in England, he finds Rear Admiral Macbride has been reassiged and Macbride’s replacement is uninterested in the letter of recommendation Delancey carries or in giving Delancey a position aboard ship. He no longer has a berth on the receiving ship, having given that up to take the mission to Guernsey, and is forced to go on half pay.
February 1795 finds Delancey still on the beach. A chance encounter with a former shipmate and his father results in Delancey being able to gain a temporary position, albeit without pay, as commander of the revenue cutter Rose based out of Cowes. In this position he learns a great deal about the smuggling trade and smugglers. His sense of fairplay as well as his instincts and talent for deception result in him being respected not only by his crew but by the smugglers. He makes a friendship with one smuggler in particular and the head of a smuggling cartel decides the best way of getting rid of Delancey is by offering him command of a Guernsey-based privateer, Nemesis.
Delancey proves himself to be an aggressive commander who quickly establishes a reputation for success. This enables him to gradually build up the quality of the ship’s crew so it can undertake even more lucrative voyages. As 1796 opens, everyone is waiting for the alliance signed between Spain and France to result in war with Spain. While this will bring increased risk to England, the privateersmen know fortunes can be made by being on station off Spain when war is declared.
On August 19, Nemesis is trapped near the Spanish frontier by a French corvette. Delancey is unable to escape and runs Nemesis aground to prevent her from being taken as a prize. He and five volunteers take to a boat to escape and the remainder of his crew remains behind as prisoners.
His original plan is to escape to overland to Portugal, but his training as a navy officer overcomes his instinct for self preservation and he begins intercepting French, and later Spanish, couriers to try to find out when the Spanish fleet will sortie from Cadiz to combine with the French fleet.
The waylaying of couriers draws attention from French and Spanish authorities and through his knowledge of the smuggling trade and smuggling routes he is able to escape to a British frigate, HMS Medusa. The frigate has lost a lieutenant in the process of bringing Delancey off and the captain offers Delancey the opportunity to fill the vacancy.