"Shipwreck, survival, a new mission to the West indies and, as ever, a spirited battle with the French complete a splendid yarn." —The Times
March 1806: Napoleon holds Portugal and threatens his old ally Spain. Vice-Admiral Sir Richard Bolitho is dispatched once more to the Cape of Good Hope to establish a permanent naval force.
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Beyond the Reef
The Bolitho Novels: 19
By Alexander Kent
McBooks Press, Inc.Copyright © 1992 Highseas Authors Ltd
All rights reserved.
BAND OF BROTHERS
The normally sheltered waters of Portsmouth Harbour seemed to cringe under the intensity of a biting north-easterly which had been blowing for some twelve hours. The whole anchorage was transformed into an endless mass of cruising whitecaps with lively catspaws to mark its progress around the many black-and-buff hulls of moored men-of-war, making them tug violently at their cables.
It was late March, a time when winter was still reluctant to release its grip and eager to display its latent power.
One of the largest ships, recently warped from the dockyard where she had suffered the indignities of repairs to the lower hull, was the second-rate Black Prince of 94 guns, her fresh paintwork and blacked-down rigging shining like glass from blown spray and a brief rainsquall which even now had reached as far out as the Isle of Wight, a dull blur in the poor light.
Black Prince was one of the most powerful of her kind, and to anyone but a true sailor she would appear a symbol of sea-power, the country's sure shield. The more experienced eye would recognise her empty yards, the canvas not yet sent up to give her life as well as strength. She was surrounded by lighters and dockyard longboats, while small armies of riggers and ropemakers moved busily about her decks, and the clatter of hammers and the squeak of tackles were evidence of the work being carried out in the deep holds and on the gun-decks.
Alone by the packed hammock-nettings Black Prince's captain stood at the quarterdeck rail and watched the comings and goings of seamen and dockyard workers, who in turn were supervised by the ship's warrant officers, the true backbone of any warship.
Captain Valentine Keen tugged his hat still tighter across his fair hair but was otherwise oblivious, even indifferent, to the biting wind and the fact that his flapping blue coat with its tarnished sea-going epaulettes was soaked through to his skin.
Without looking, he knew that the men on watch near the deserted double-wheel were very aware of his presence. A quartermaster, a boatswain's mate and a small midshipman who occasionally raised a telescope to peer at the signal tower or the admiral's flagship nearby, a sodden flag curling and cracking from her main truck.
Many of the men who had served the guns around him when they had fought and all but destroyed the big French three-decker off the coast of Denmark had been taken from his command while the ship had undergone repairs from that short, savage embrace. Some for promotion to other vessels, others because, as the port admiral had put it, "My captains need men now, Captain Keen. You will have to wait."
Keen allowed his mind to stray back over the battle, the terrible sight in the dawn when they had gone to assist Rear-Admiral Herrick's Benbow in his defence of a twenty-ship convoy destined for the invasion of Copenhagen. Shattered, burning hulks, screaming cavalry horses trapped below in the transports, and Benbow completely dismasted, her only other escort capsized, a total loss.
Mercifully Benbow had been towed to the Nore for docking. It would be too painful to see her here every waking day. A constant reminder, especially for Vice-Admiral Sir Richard Bolitho, whose flag would soon break out again from this ship's foremast. Herrick had been Bolitho's oldest friend, but Keen had been more angered than saddened by Herrick's behaviour both before and after Benbow's last fight. It might well be her last too, he thought grimly. With the many ships they had seized from Copenhagen to bolster their own depleted fleets and squadrons, any dockyard might think twice before committing itself to such a programme of repairs and restoration.
Keen thought of Bolitho, a man he cared for more than any other. He had served him as midshipman and lieutenant, and with him in the same squadron until eventually he had become his flag captain. Keen imagined him now with his lovely Catherine, as he had done so often since their return to England. He had tried to close his mind to it, not to make comparisons. But he had wanted a love like theirs for himself, the same challenging passion which had captured the hearts of ordinary people everywhere, and had roused the fury of London society because of their open relationship. A scandal, they proclaimed. Keen sighed. He would give his soul to be in the same position.
He walked to the small table beneath the overhang of the dripping poop and opened the log at the place marked with a piece of polished whalebone. He stared at the date on the damp page for several seconds. How could he forget? March 25th 1808, two months exactly since he had put the ring on the hand of his bride in the tiny village church at Zennor, which had given her her name.
Like the battle which had preceded his wedding by four months, it seemed like yesterday.
He still did not know, Did she love him, or was her marriage an act of gratitude? He had rescued her from a convict ship, and from transportation for a crime she had not committed. Or did his uncertainty stem from the fact that he was almost twice her age, when he believed she could have chosen anyone? If he did not contain it, Keen knew it would drive him mad. He was almost afraid to touch her, and when she had given herself to him it had been an act without passion, without desire. She had merely submitted, and later during that first night he had found her by the embers of the fire downstairs, sobbing silently as if her heart had already broken.
Time and time again Keen had reminded himself of Catherine's advice when he had visited her in London. He had confessed his doubts about Zenoria's true feelings for him.
Catherine had said quietly, "Remember what happened to her. A young girl — taken and used, with no hope, and nothing to live for."
Keen bit his lip, recalling the day he had first seen her, seized up, almost naked, her back laid open from shoulder to hip while the other prisoners had watched like wild beasts, as if it had been some kind of savage sport. So perhaps it was, after all, gratitude; and he should be satisfied, as many men would be merely to have her.
But he was not.
He saw the first lieutenant, James Sedgemore, striding aft towards him. He at least seemed more than pleased with his lot. Keen had promoted him to senior lieutenant after the tough Tynesider Cazalet had been cut in half on this same quarterdeck on that terrible morning. The enemy ship had been the San Mateo, a powerful Spaniard sailing under French colours, and she had crushed the convoy and its escorts like a tiger despatching rabbits. Keen had never seen Bolitho so determined to destroy any ship as he had been to put down San Mateo. She had sunk his old Hyperion. He had needed no other reason.
Keen often found himself wondering if Bolitho would have held to his threat to keep pouring broadsides into San Mateo, which had already been crippled in the first embrace at close quarters. Until they strike their colours. Thank God someone still sane enough to think and act in that hell of iron and screaming splinters had brought the flags tumbling down. But would he have continued, without mercy, otherwise?
I may never know.
Lieutenant Sedgemore touched his hat, his face red in the stinging air. "I shall be able to get the sails ready for bending-on tomorrow, sir."
Keen glanced at the Royal Marine sentries by the hatchways and up on the forecastle. With the land so close there were always the reckless few who would try to run. It would be hard enough to get more hands, especially in a naval port, without allowing men the opportunity to desert.
Keen had much sympathy for his men. They had been kept aboard or sent directly to other ships to fill the gaps, without any chance to see their loved ones or their homes.
Keen had spent more time than was necessary on board, simply to show his depleted company that he was sharing it with them. Even as it crossed his mind, he knew that too was a lie. He had stayed because of his fear that he might make Zenoria openly reject him, unable even to pretend.
"Something wrong, sir?"
"No." It came out too sharply. "Vice-Admiral Bolitho will be coming aboard at noon." He looked across the nettings at the shining walls of the dockyard and harbour battery and on to the huddled buildings of Portsmouth Point, beyond which the Channel and the open sea were waiting. Bolitho might be over there already; at the old George Inn, perhaps? Unlikely. Catherine would be with him. He would not risk a snub or anything else which might distress her.
Sedgemore kept his young features impassive. He had never really liked his predecessor, Cazalet. A fine seaman, admittedly, but a man who was so coarse in his speech and behaviour that he had been hard to work with. He watched the bustling figures at the tackles, swaying up more bales and boxes from one of the lighters alongside.
Well, he was the first lieutenant now, in one of the navy's newest and most powerful three-deckers. And with an admiral like Sir Richard Bolitho and a good captain like Keen, there would be no stopping them once they were at sea again. Promotion, prize-money, fame; there was no end to it, in his mind anyway.
It was the navy's way, Sedgemore thought. If a dead man's shoes were offered, you never waited for a second chance.
Keen said distinctly, "Tell my cox'n to prepare the barge, and have the crew piped at six bells. Inspect them yourself, although I doubt if Tojohns will leave anything to chance."
He glanced at the open log again where the midshipman-of-the-watch was writing something, his tongue poking from one corner of his mouth with great concentration. Another picture crossed his mind. His coxswain, Tojohns, on his wedding day only two months ago, supervising the garlanded carriage which had been towed by the midshipmen and petty officers of this ship, his ship, with himself and his young bride inside.
He turned aft and stalked away beneath the poop to seek the one place he could be alone.
Sedgemore watched him go and rubbed his chin thoughtfully.
A post-captain — what Sedgemore himself would be one day if everything went well for him, and he managed to avoid Cazalet's fate.
To be captain of a ship like Black Prince ... He looked up and around him. There was no higher reward for any man. He would want for nothing.
He saw the midshipman staring at him and rasped, "Mr M'Innes, I'll trouble you not to waste your time, sir!"
It was uncalled for; but it made him feel more like a first lieutenant.
Lieutenant Stephen Jenour caught his breath as he turned the corner above the shining dockyard stairs which led directly down to the landing stage. After two months ashore either working for Vice-Admiral Sir Richard Bolitho or visiting his parents in Southampton, he felt at odds with the sea and the bitter wind.
He thrust open a small door and saw a blazing fire shining a welcome across the room.
A uniformed servant asked coldly, "Your name, sir?"
"Jenour." He added sharply, "Flag lieutenant to Sir Richard Bolitho."
The man bowed himself away, muttering something about a warming drink, and Jenour was childishly pleased at his ability to command instant respect.
"Welcome, Stephen." Bolitho was sitting in a high-backed chair, the fire reflecting from his gold lace and epaulettes. "We have a while yet."
Jenour sat down and smiled at him. So many things had changed his young life since joining Bolitho. His parents had laughed at him for vowing that one day he would serve this incredible man who had been, until Nelson's death at Trafalgar less than three years ago, the second youngest vice-admiral on the Navy List. Now he was the youngest.
He never tired of recalling each separate incident, even that stark moment when Black Prince had been about to leave Copenhagen in search of Herrick, and Bolitho had turned on him in pleading desperation and confirmed his worst fears. "I am losing my sight, Stephen. Can you keep a secret so precious to me?" And later when Bolitho had said, "They must not know. You are a dear friend, Stephen. Now there are other friends out there who need us."
Jenour sipped the hot drink. There was brandy in it, and spices too, and his eyes smarted but he knew it was from that memory and nothing else.
A dear friend, and one of the few who knew the extent of the injury to Bolitho's left eye. To be entrusted with such a secret was a reward greater than anything he had believed possible.
He asked carefully, "What will Captain Keen's answer be, Sir Richard?"
Bolitho put down his empty goblet and thought of Catherine, imagined he could still feel the warmth of her body in his arms as they had parted this morning. She would be well on her way to London now, to the house she had bought by the river in Chelsea. Their private place as she had called it, where they could be alone together when they were required to be in the capital.
It was strange to be without Allday, but his coxswain — his "oak" — had gone with Yovell, his secretary, and Ozzard his little servant, in the same coach. Catherine was fearless, but Bolitho felt safer on her behalf knowing that she travelled with such a staunch escort.
He thought too of his last interview with Lord Godschale at the Admiralty, and Godschale's attempts to soothe him whenever he touched on a point which might provoke controversy.
"Their lordships insist that you are the best choice of flag officer to go to Cape Town. You had, after all, a vital part in taking it from the Dutch — our people know you and trust you accordingly. It should not take long, but it needs your handling to establish regular patrols of smaller craft in the area, and perhaps to send more of the major men-of-war back to England. When you have installed a post-captain in overall charge there — acting-commodore if you like — you can return too. I will offer you a fast frigate, and do everything possible for you." He had given the great sigh of one overburdened with responsibility. "Even while Admiral Gambier and your own squadron were in Copenhagen preparing the prizes for their passage here, Napoleon was already busy elsewhere. God damn the fellow — twice he has attempted to seize the Danish fleet, and he has even provoked Turkey to turn against his old ally the Tsar of Russia. As fast as we seal one door, he explores another."
It was difficult not to admire Napoleon's ever-changing strategy, Bolitho had often conceded. Shortly after Herrick's hopeless fight to save his convoy, the French army had invaded Portugal, and by November was in Lisbon, with the royal family in flight to their possessions in Brazil. It was rumoured in Whitehall that Spain, another ally if an unwilling one, would be Napoleon's next target. He would then become a ruler of overwhelming strength, a threat once again with all the riches of Spain to support him.
Bolitho had said, "I think that this time he may have overreached himself. He has turned Portugal into an enemy, and will surely incite Spain to rise against him. It will be our one chance. A place to land an army where it will find friendship, and be treated as a liberation force."
Godschale had looked distant. "Perhaps, perhaps."
Another secret. Jenour knew; so did Yovell and Allday. Bolitho had refused to take passage in a frigate and had seen Godschale's heavy features go almost purple as he had exclaimed, "Do you mean to say that you are going to take Lady Catherine Somervell with you on passage to Cape Town?"
Bolitho had been adamant. "A ship of war is no place for a lady, my lord. Although I am sure Lady Catherine would accept without hesitation."
Godschale had mopped his face. "I will arrange it. A fast packet under Admiralty warrant. You are a damned difficult fellow to deal with, Sir Richard. What people will say when they discover —"
"We shall simply have to ensure they do not, my lord."
When he had told Catherine she had been surprisingly excited about it.
"To be there with you, dearest of men, instead of reading of your exploits in the Gazette, to be part of it all ... I ask for nothing more."
Excerpted from Beyond the Reef by Alexander Kent. Copyright © 1992 Highseas Authors Ltd. Excerpted by permission of McBooks Press, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Alexander Kent, pen name of Douglas Edward Reeman, joined the British Navy at 16, serving on destroyers and small craft during World War II, and eventually rising to the rank of lieutenant. He has taught navigation to yachtsmen and has served as a script adviser for television and films. His books have been translated into nearly two dozen languages.
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Just finished Beyond the Reef, that completes my whole reading of this series. Would like to point out that there is a new bright light in nautical fiction. Valerie Roosa, has written True Colors which which I have also just completed and it seems a winner. This is the first of a series and I'm looking for the next book which is Shadow on the Water. She has done a remarkaable job, and with most of these naval fiction writers deceased, she will, I feel take her place amongst the best.