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May 19, 1798
South of Cape Sicie, Gulf of Lion
EMERALD is signaling again, sir," lieutenant jacob Talmage reported with a heavy emphasis on the word "again." Talmage was the newly appointed first lieutenant to His Majesty's frigate Louisa, and at thirty-five was almost ten years older than her captain. "Sir, it's the second time. It says--"
"I know what it says, Mr. Talmage," Charles Edgemont interrupted. He stood by the weather rail of his quarterdeck with a long glass held up to one eye, the other screwed shut. He didn't need the telescope to read Emerald's signal flags, as she was only a mile and a half to the north. It was the surface of the sea beyond the larger British frigate that held his attention. "Captain Pigott wants us to add more sail," he said to prove that he'd seen the signal. He lowered the glass and turned toward the lieutenant. "He thinks we're lagging behind."
"Shall I give the orders, sir?" Talmage asked.
"Not yet, if you please. However, you may hoist the acknowledge." He glanced again at Emerald and her signal flags, numbers three-seven-four, Increase sail in conformity to weather. Pigott was flying all his plain sail from courses to royals and a full set of jibs. Louisa carried only topsails and topgallants in addition to her jib and mizzen. The wind was moderate enough for more canvas; the sky was a low dull gray, somewhat darker to the north. He'd checked the barometer in his cabin a quarter hour before and found it falling. The sea had a brisk chop, stirred by a gusting breeze, with just a hint of underlying swells, but its surface seemed uneven in the distance, unsettled. Add to that his ankle ached, a reminder of an earlier injury that didn't usually bother him. Something was wrong, but he couldn't put his finger on it. The air seemed . . . hollow.
A sharp bang echoed across the water. "Sir, she's fired a gun," Talmage said, clearly perturbed at Charles's inaction. The single cannon firing from Emerald was to emphasize the order to increase sail and to show Pigott's displeasure.
"All right," Charles said, irritated at Pigott for his impatience, irritated at Talmage for hectoring him, and irritated at himself for not being able to make up his mind. "Send the men into the rigging."
"Thank you, sir," Talmage said with both relief and exasperation in his voice.
"Just send them onto the yards, Mr. Talmage. That should please Pigott for the moment. Don't have them bend on any additional canvas just yet."
"But sir, you have been ordered--"
"I know my duty, both to Pigott and the king, thank you," Charles snapped, his patience wearing. "See to it, please." To forestall any further debate, he turned away to survey the rest of the small squadron spread out over the sea. They were seven ships in all, under the command of Horatio Nelson. The squadron constituted the first naval force the Admiralty had ordered into the Mediterranean in almost two years. Three were two-decker, seventy-four-gun ships of the line: Orion, Alexander, and Nelson's own flagship, Vanguard. These were hull down well to the south, and Charles could just see their masts in the distance.
Captain John Pigott of Emerald, a thirty-six-gun, eighteen-pounder frigate, was the senior captain among the three frigates present and thus in command when they were detached. The others were the handsome thirty-two-gun twelve-pounder Terpsichore, commanded by Captain Edward Bedford, and Charles's Louisa, the smallest, rated at twenty-eight guns. Charles was the least senior captain of the three. He found Bedford both competent and friendly. Pigott, however, with eighteen years' seniority, struck him as rigid, unimaginative, autocratic, and altogether too ready to send up signal flags, punctuated by guns, on the most trivial of matters.
The seventh ship in Nelson's squadron was the brig sloop Pylades, with her two square-rigged masts and fourteen six-pounder cannon, under Commander Daniel Bevan. Charles and Bevan had served together and been close friends for most of their naval careers. Bevan, a Welshman and formerly the first lieutenant on Louisa, had also been promoted as a result of the encounter with the Spanish frigate Santa Brigida. Ironically, Bevan's promotion was seen by the Admiralty as a compliment to Charles, and while he was pleased for his friend's advancement, he secretly would have been even more pleased if Bevan had been left where he was. Charles was not altogether comfortable with Talmage.
He had been told that the squadron's purpose was to show the British flag in the Mediterranean after so long an absence. He knew that their mission also had to do with the information that the American party had brought with them from Cadiz. Cape Sicie, the principal landfall for the port of Toulon, lay just over the horizon. He assumed that they would look into the port the following morning. That is, if the weather cooperated.
"The hands are aloft, as you requested," Talmage reported. At least the lieutenant was making an attempt to be accommodating, Charles thought. "And are awaiting your orders, sir," the lieutenant added, which spoiled the whole thing.
Charles raised the glass again to study the horizon to the north. The sky had grown noticeably darker, and the surface of the sea in the distance seemed to have turned a pale gray, almost white. He felt an uncomfortable knot growing in the pit of his stomach. As he lowered the glass, the breeze faltered, and then a fresh gust passed over the ship from out of the north, causing a momentary slatting of the sails.
"The wind's backing, sir," said Samuel Eliot, standing by the binnacle with his nose high, as if smelling the air.
"What do you think?" Charles asked.
"I don't like it. This region is prone to rapid anemological changes." Eliot, a solidly rotund man with apple cheeks mostly covered by impressive muttonchops, served as Louisa's sailing master. Partly deaf and well into his fifties, he seemed to have an unerring sense of the ways of the sea and a no-nonsense, practical manner that Charles respected deeply. That Eliot might be concerned was enough.
"Mr. Talmage, get the topgallants off her and strike their masts to the deck. I want all of the canvas off except the fore and mainmast topsails."
"But, sir," Talmage protested, "you can't--"
"I can," Charles replied in a tone to end the discussion. "See to it now, if you please.
"Mr. Winchester!" he bellowed toward a lean figure standing erect in the waist of the ship. Stephen Winchester, at twenty, was younger than either Charles or Talmage, and had served as Louisa's second lieutenant since Charles took command. With Bevan promoted, he had asked to have Winchester raised to first, but Admiral St. Vincent had refused and appointed the presumably more experienced Talmage instead. Winchester was also, by some small coincidence, newly married to Charles's sister, Eleanor, which may have had some influence on his preference.
"Yes, sir?" Winchester called back, starting up the aft ladderway toward the quarterdeck.
"Clear the decks. See that the guns are double-breeched, if you will, and that the ship's boats are secure."
"Aye-aye, sir," Winchester replied.
"Mr. Beechum," Charles called to the gangly signals midshipman standing across the deck by the lee rail.
"Sir?" the boy answered smartly as he approached.
"You may signal Emerald: 'Submit, storm approaching north-by-northwest.' Do you know the flags?"
"Yes, sir," Beechum answered with a small smile, "but I'll just use the signals book to double-check." Charles had been encouraging Beechum to memorize the signals book entire, something he had been required to do as a young midshipman. He'd found it painful.
"Very good, see to it quickly, if you please."
Charles turned, glass in hand, to look over the weather rail again. He didn't bother to raise the telescope. The horizon to the north and northwest had become an ugly thick gray that reached from the sea surface high into the cloud cover above. He thought he could see the muted flash of lightning within, but no sound reached him. The sea beyond Emerald was a surging froth of white kicked up by a rapidly approaching squall line. He noted with momentary satisfaction that Pigott had ?nally sent his topmen aloft to reduce sail, although his signals to do the opposite remained on her halyards.
With frightening speed, the line enveloped the distant frigate. The ship heeled violently, almost onto her beam ends, as a brute force of wind slammed into her. Charles tried to calculate how long Louisa had before the storm caught her and decided it would be only a matter of moments at best. He stole a quick glance at Terpsichore, several cable lengths ahead, and at Bevan's brig, Pylades, a similar distance off the starboard bow. Both ships were hurriedly shortening canvas, Pylades already turning to present her bow to the onrushing gale.
"How long until the topgallant masts are on deck?" Charles yelled to Talmage across the strengthening wind.
"Only a minute, sir," the lieutenant called back. "There's some difficulty with the mizzen."
"Belay that; it'll have to do as it is," Charles shouted, an increasing note of urgency in his voice. "Get the men down out of the rigging."
"Aye-aye," Talmage answered, then he called the new orders through his trumpet into the tops.
"Mr. Eliot"--Charles turned back to the sailing master--"we will take the first of it bow-on. As soon as she's settled, we'll lie to and ride it out as best we can."
"Yes, sir. I think that's wise," Eliot replied, his voice almost lost in a sudden gust across the quarterdeck.
Charles watched wide-eyed as the line of the storm advanced toward him. The gale crashed across Louisa's decks with a pounding force of windblown spray, followed immediately by twin bolts of lightning and a deafening explosion of thunder. The bow began to swing to starboard at once. Before Charles could think, she was almost broadside on and heeling steeply under its relentless pressure.
"Brace the yards around and hold her! Hold her!" He screamed to be heard while he clutched desperately at the windward rail to keep from sliding down the sloping deck. Whether Eliot or the two men struggling with the ship's wheel heard him or not he couldn't tell, but the vessel slowed her turn and began to claw back into the wind. She had just begun to right herself when a white-topped swell crested against the starboard quarter, sending an avalanche of green water across the waist and quarterdeck. The railing wrenched itself from his grip as the mass cascaded over him. He lost his footing and felt himself being swept across the deck to come up with a breathtaking jolt against the opposite rail between two tethered nine-pounder cannon.
Torrents of rain and scud, blown sideways on the wind, pelted against Charles as he tried to cough up the seawater that seemed to have filled his lungs. He noticed that his hat was gone. He struggled to stand, clutching the rail for support. The driving rain was too thick for him to see to the tops of the masts or much beyond the waist of the ship. The two quartermasters were still at the helm, although where Eliot had gone, he couldn't tell. A blinding stroke of lightning broke almost directly overhead, flashing down like the talons of some unearthly demon.
Winchester appeared on the aft ladderway, his uniform sodden. "Are you all right, sir?" he yelled through cupped hands.
Charles nodded rather than attempting a vocal response, fruitlessly trying to wipe the water away from his eyes. "The ship," he managed, "did anything carry away?"
"I don't think so," Winchester answered. "All our masts are standing. We took on a fair quantity of water through the gratings. Not more than the pumps can handle."
"Did the topmen make it down in time?"
"Most of 'em were still in the shrouds when it hit," the lieutenant answered. "They were probably safer there than on deck. I don't know yet if we lost anyone."
Eliot reappeared in an oilskin hat and coat, which, except for his eyes, covered him down to the toes of his boots.
"How are we riding?" Charles shouted.
"Too much canvas for'ard, sir." Eliot's voice was muffled by the sou'wester. "She wants to gripe something ?erce." Talmage appeared on the ladderway.
"We will reef directly," Charles shouted. "See to it, if you please, Mr. Talmage, to the last reef points."
Talmage turned away and called out, "All hands to reef sails; waisters to the braces."
"Stephen." Charles spoke in a more normal tone to his second, bending close in order to be heard. "Did you see Pylades before the storm struck? Do you know how she fared?" A small ship like Bevan's brig easily could have been swamped in the ?rst surge of heavy sea.
"I saw her for just a moment before the weather closed," Winchester answered carefully. "I don't know. She'd gotten at least some of her sails in. I can't say about afterward."
"Thank you," Charles said. "Daniel's a good seaman. He'll have made out all right." He knew he was expressing more hope than certainty.
Charles watched as the topmen swarmed up the gangway and back into the shrouds. Some had donned oilskin jackets. He smiled inwardly at the way they jumped to the ratlines and hurried up toward the wildly swaying topsail yards with a certain fearlessness, even enthusiasm. Charles knew that he wouldn't relish climbing to those heights to work his way along the uncertain footropes to the end of a spar under these conditions--well, under any conditions, but especially not in a rising wind, driving rain, and plunging seas--to fight with the stiff, billowing canvas that could rip off fingernails or break fingers. One careless misstep or a sudden unanticipated shift in the wind could mean sudden death if one were lucky and fell directly onto the deck, or, if he missed, a lingering drowning in conditions that absolutely prohibited any chance of rescue.
Good topmen were both rare and exceedingly valuable, the cream of any ship's crew. They tended to be young, broad-shouldered, cocky, and courageous to a fault, all qualities required for the tasks they performed. As a result, they also tended to present more minor disciplinary problems than their proportion among the crew would suggest. Charles had long since decided that this was fair trade and cut them some leeway, although he'd gotten an argument from his new first lieutenant every time he did.
"Down the helm," Charles yelled through cupped hands at the quartermaster as soon as he saw that at least one of the outermost topmen had nearly reached his position at the end of the spar.
"Ease the clews," he heard Winchester call to the hands on the lines. "Haul the reef cringle." As Louisa came up into the wind, the sails shivered, then flogged, losing their tension. "Haul the buntlines"--this to force the canvas to spill its wind.
From the Hardcover edition.