Read an Excerpt
Governor Ramage R. N.
The Lord Ramage Novels, No. 4
By Dudley Pope
McBooks Press, Inc.Copyright © 1973 The Ramage Company Limited
All rights reserved.
The captain's cabin on board the Lion was small, even for an old 64-gun ship now rated too weak to stand in the line of battle. As he looked round, Ramage reckoned that at most it could comfortably seat a dozen officers for a convivial evening and still leave room for an agile steward to haul on a corkscrew and keep everyone's glass topped up. When, in their wisdom, the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty suddenly decided that the Lion should carry Rear-Admiral Goddard across the Atlantic to take up his new appointment in Jamaica — and escort a convoy at the same time — they did not give a thought to the fact that her captain and officers would have to move over, like passengers in a crowded coach, to make room for the Admiral and his staff.
They certainly never visualized the ship lying at anchor under a scorching tropical sun in Carlisle Bay, Barbados, the cabin packed with 49 masters of merchantmen, the captains of six ships of war, and the Admiral. Her own commanding officer, presiding over them, looked like one of Mr Wesley's followers preaching in the crowded parlour of a fisherman's cottage.
In about a week's time, Ramage thought sourly, it'll dawn on Captain Croucher that he could have held this convoy conference up on deck under the big awning, or in any one of a dozen buildings on shore in Bridgetown; but among his other shortcomings Captain Aloysius Croucher lacked imagination — and was so thin there was probably not enough meat on him to notice any difference between tropical heat and arctic cold.
Ramage guessed that Captain Croucher's mind was fully occupied with two considerations: relief at having brought the convoy safely across the Atlantic to Barbados, and the need to make sure that the masters of the merchant ships understood that here fresh frigates took over as escorts for the last leg of the voyage, westward across the Caribbean to Kingston, Jamaica.
For a variety of reasons the next and shortest section of the voyage was by far the most dangerous. It was obvious to Ramage that, unlike Captain Croucher, the masters of the merchantmen had only one idea in their minds: to stop him talking so they could get out of this furnace-like cabin as quickly as possible and cool off on deck, where a brisk Trade wind breeze was blowing.
The canvas covering the planking underfoot was painted chessboard fashion in black-and-white squares and the masters, slumped in canvas-backed chairs from the officers' cabins or hunched uncomfortably on narrow forms brought up from the mess-deck, reminded Ramage of a jumbled set of pawns. The simile amused him because Captain Croucher made a perfect bishop.
Croucher tugged at the lapels of his coat in an attempt to make the shoulders sit squarely. Although the Captain's tailor had obviously worked hard, all his artful skill with scissors and thread could not disguise the fact that nature had sold Croucher short: a bonus of half a hundredweight of flesh would not have stopped him from looking like a skeleton wrapped in parchment. No wonder the seamen, with their unerring instinct for the apt and ambiguous nickname, called him "The Rake." He was every man's idea of the prosecutor at an Inquisition trial. He had the features of a fanatic, and one could imagine him fervently condemning a heretic to hellfire and damnation amidst a welter of prayers and exhortations. Or perhaps he could even be the victim; a few hours' torture on the rack might leave a man as long and thin.
The bone of Croucher's brow protruded so much that the deep-set grey eyes looked like a lizard glaring out from under a ledge of rock. His hands and wrists were so skinny they would pass muster for lizard's claws. Was he married? What sort of woman could love a man like this? Even the thought was repellent.
If Croucher was the bishop on this bizarre chessboard, then Jebediah Arbuthnot Goddard, Rear-Admiral of the White, was the knight, Ramage mused. Being prevented by the rules from going in a straight line would not worry him: Goddard always chose the devious route instinctively and would find the knight's dog-leg move, two forward and one sideways, no hindrance.
Croucher's voice was as monotonous and unavoidable as the drip from a leaking deck in a seaway, but even more depressing. He was giving his instructions to the masters like a weary and disillusioned parson delivering a sermon written by his wife and castigating something he secretly liked. From time to time he glanced nervously at Goddard, who was sitting to one side, as plump as Croucher was thin: a pink frog squatting grossly at the edge of a pond. Perspiration trickling down the creases of his bulging neck was rapidly reducing the starched neatness of his lace stock to a necklet of overcooked lasagna. Goddard frequently mopped his face with a handkerchief which he occasionally tossed to a young and pimply lieutenant, who replaced it with a fresh one from a bag beneath his chair. Nor did the Admiral attempt to hide his boredom, yawning every few minutes and removing the diamond pin from his stock for inspection by the glare of the sea reflected through the stern lights.
The cabin was comfortably furnished. The fitted racks above the mahogany sideboard on the larboard side held silver-lidded claret jugs and several square-sided, cut-glass decanters. On the sideboard itself, out of place in such company, was a large silver tea urn. Heavy, dark-blue and gold brocade curtains hung down each side of the stern lights and the covers of four armchairs were of the same pattern. On the starboard side a large, highly polished mahogany wine cooler had a silver plaque on the side, and the rack above it held four rows of cut-glass tumblers, each sparkling as flashes of sunlight reflected up from the water through the stern lights. Other racks held an elaborate fighting sword, the leather scabbard inlaid with silver tracery and the basket handle of an unusual design. Below it was a dress sword with a black scabbard and sword knots of heavy bullion that would cost at least five hundred guineas from Mr Prater, the sword cutler in Charing Cross.
The whole cabin, formerly Croucher's and now Goddard's, showed that its present occupant was a man of wealth and, Ramage had to admit, of taste. The only hint that it was the cabin of a warship came from the heavy guns on each side, squatting like great bulldogs, the barrels and breeches gleaming black and the carriages painted dull yellow. The thick rope breeching and train tackles had been scrubbed and the blocks sanded and varnished until they gleamed.
The masters, oblivious to the Admiral's taste, were a motley group. Some had the weather-worn appearance and four-square stance of working seamen — obviously their ships were small, with crews to match, and they weren't above tailing on the end of a rope when needed. Others were well dressed; the masters of "established" ships trading regularly across the Atlantic and whose tailors had made them clothes of cooler, lightweight material.
The uniforms of the naval officers made no concession to the climate, and since they were visiting the flagship they were dressed in frock coats and white breeches, with swords. Each of the three frigate captains wore a plain gold epaulet on the right shoulder showing he had less than three years' seniority.
The two lieutenants were a complete contrast to each other. Lieutenant Henry Jenks, commanding the Lark lugger, was in his late twenties, sandy-haired and plump, with a cheerful face turned a deep red by the sun. A white band of skin across his brow just below the hair-line showed he rarely went out in the sun without wearing his hat. Alone among the naval officers, his hat was of the old style, cocked on three sides, instead of the newly introduced hat cocked on only two.
Henry Jenks' jovial manner emphasized his stocky body, but Nicholas Ramage had the classic build that made his appearance deceptive. He did not seem particularly tall until he stood up and the width of his shoulders was not apparent until he was near a man of average build.
With a lean face and black, wavy hair, Ramage looked like an elegant young aristocrat. His eyes, brown and deep-set beneath bushy eyebrows, revealed an impetuous nature and a hot temper. The deep tan on his face showed that he had been serving in the Tropics for several months and was emphasized by two long scars above his right brow. One was white where the scar tissue defied the sun and the other pink, showing that the wound was more recent.
Jenks, able to watch him for the first time since they had served together four years earlier, noticed that he still had one distinctive mannerism: he blinked occasionally as though the light was too bright. He had also acquired another. When thinking hard, he rubbed the older of the two scars with the side of his right thumb.
As Croucher paused to shuffle through some papers, Goddard said suddenly, without turning his head from the inspection of the diamond pin, "I've no need to remind you people that the hurricane season is almost upon us."
He replaced the pin before adding in a patronizing tone that made several of the masters stiffen with annoyance: "The sooner we arrive in Jamaica the better."
Croucher waited in case Goddard had more to say. The Admiral replaced the pin and made a leisurely search of his pockets, bringing out a small and elegant fan and flipping it open to show finely carved blades of ebony and ivory. He waved it a few times, and then said with heavy sarcasm: "Punctuality pays, as the Royal Navy learned long ago. Most of you were a month late assembling for the convoy in England, and thanks to your habit of reducing sail at night, we're another three weeks late arriving here in Barbados. Now we all have to take unnecessary risks to get you safely to Kingston. So I'd —"
The angry interruption that Ramage had been expecting came from a master built like a barrel, whose tanned, deeply wrinkled face was flushing furiously. "We can't sail without freight," he growled. "If it arrives a month late at the London docks what d'you expect us to do — sail in ballast just so's you aren't late for some fancy gala ball in Jamaica? And if the Trades blow for weeks at two knots from the south-east instead of twenty from the nor'-east, don't blame us — seems that even admirals can't conjure up wind for crossing the Atlantic. Not that sort, anyway."
Goddard flushed, snapped the fan shut and pulled out the diamond pin once more.
"Quite," Croucher interposed hastily to cover up the silence. "The Admiral was only stressing the need for not wasting time and —"
"Well, I'll stop wasting it now," the master announced, suddenly standing up. "All this useless jabbering's keeping me from getting m'rigging set to rights ready to weigh. An' I'll trouble you fine gentlemen to remember all our insurance rates doubled from the first o' the month. Hurricane season surcharge, in case you've forgotten why. Now, if you'll excuse me ..."
With that he walked out of the cabin and several other masters murmured their agreement. Underwriters based their insurance premiums on past experience, which showed that the hurricane season began in July and increased to a peak in September. They demanded double premiums from ships still in the Caribbean in July, and most policies specified that they must sail by the first day of August. It was now the end of the first week in July, so Ramage could understand why the masters were getting jumpy: they would have to stay in Jamaica until November unless they arrived in Kingston within the next three weeks, discharged one cargo, loaded another and sailed again in convoy.
Ramage watched as Goddard replaced the pin with an angry gesture but snatched it out again quickly, having pricked his chest. Croucher was flustered and picked nervously at sheets of paper on the table in front of him. He glanced apprehensively at the Admiral, who had lapsed into a sulky silence, coughed to gain everyone's attention and said: "I'll just go over the Instructions —"
"No need; we all have copies," one of the masters called out.
"Nevertheless, gentlemen, I'm bound by Admiralty orders —"
"Ignore 'em," growled another master.
"— and so I must —"
Goddard interrupted sharply: "Whatever your premiums, your insurance policies are worthless unless you listen. You all know that."
The masters promptly began to show their impatience by scraping their chairs and rustling copies of the Instructions. Technically Goddard was right; the Instructions had to be read aloud. In practice no naval officer bothered — particularly in a tiny cabin when the temperature was well into the nineties.
"We can't take anything for granted," Croucher said pompously in the lull that followed Goddard's words. "Apart from the Lion, you have different ships escorting you from now on, and conditions are very different. Your old Instructions differ in various details from these new ones I am about to go over —"
"They might differ, but we can still read."
Croucher glanced nervously at the master who had interrupted him and Ramage thought he sensed a slightly deferential attitude. The Master was a tall man with a sun-tanned face. He was young and elegantly dressed, self-assured and had humorous eyes. A perfect subject for a portrait by the fashionable Lemuel Abbott, Ramage thought. He probably commanded one of the larger ships, but looked as though he was more used to luxurious London drawing-rooms and a life of leisure.
"They differ for particular reasons, Mr Yorke, which I'd like to specify," Croucher said lamely. "Hurricanes and calms in the lee of the islands, not to mention privateers and French galleys which can row out and board a becalmed ship —"
"What will you people be doing while all that's going on?" Yorke asked politely.
Goddard stood up and ostentatiously left the cabin, followed by his lieutenant, and tried but failed to ignore Yorke's cool and contemptuous stare. Hmm, thought Ramage, Mr Yorke must have a store of powerful influence hidden away to windward....
"Gentlemen," Croucher said pleadingly, "the sooner we finish our business the sooner we can leave this, ah, rather warm cabin."
"Hurry up then — the hurricane season'll soon be over." This time the interruption came from a Scots captain.
Croucher held the printed Instructions as if they might be snatched from him. Perspiration poured from his brow and into his eyes, making them run, and Ramage began to feel sorry for him. He smoothed out the paper and said:
"Gentlemen — Signals and Instructions for Ships under Convoy ..."
He's the only man who can actually pronounce the capital letters, Ramage thought, and when several of the masters started coughing Croucher glanced up in embarrassment. It was quite unnecessary to read the title since everyone held copies.
"Well," he said, tapping the first page, "may I emphasize section four — Ships of the convoy out of their stations are to take advantage of all opportunities, by making sail, tacking, wearing &c., to regain the same. Gentlemen, I beg of you, keep your stations. Reducing sail at night is both useless and unnecessary here in the Caribbean, as several of you must know from past experience. We get a good breeze for a couple of hours either side of noon and the wind goes down with the sun. We should make sail rather than reduce it at nightfall."
Ramage nodded in agreement: dawn usually saw the captains of any of the King's ships escorting a convoy flinging their hats on deck in a rage. The light revealed the horizon littered with merchantmen, all jogging along at a knot or so under reefed topsails, many of them hull down astern. Nothing would get them together again under a decent spread of canvas before noon, and by six in the evening the reefing and furling would begin all over again. In the Tropics there were usually at least ten hours of darkness, whatever the season.
Excerpted from Governor Ramage R. N. by Dudley Pope. Copyright © 1973 The Ramage Company Limited. Excerpted by permission of McBooks Press, Inc..
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