Man of Warby Alexander Kent
Man of War brims with authentic descriptions of ships under sail and life on the high seas. In this story of a young man haunted by the ghosts of his past, Kent shows once again that he is a master at the top of his game. See more details below
Man of War brims with authentic descriptions of ships under sail and life on the high seas. In this story of a young man haunted by the ghosts of his past, Kent shows once again that he is a master at the top of his game.
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Eight bells had chimed out from the forecastle and the lower deck was cleared while the ship moved steadily, purposefully some would say, toward the widening span of land, which seemed to reach out on either bow. The moment every sailor carried in his thoughts. The landfall. This landfall. Home.
The sails, already reduced to topsails and jibs, were hardly filling, the tough canvas still shedding moisture like rain from the final, overnight approach.
Hills and cliffs, at first in shadow and then opening up to the watery sunshine. Landmarks, familiar to some of the older hands, the names of others called down by the masthead lookouts while the land gained shape and colour, dark green in some places, but the brown of winter still clinging elsewhere. For it was early March, 1817, and the air was as keen as a knife.
Eight days out of Gibraltar, a fair passage when set against the adverse winds which had challenged every mile as they had skirted the Bay of Biscay, up and around the well-remembered names of Ushant and Brest, the enemy coast for so long. It was still hard to believe that those days had changed. As had the life of every man aboard this graceful, slow-moving frigate, His Britannic Majesty's ship Unrivalled of forty-six guns, and a complement of two hundred and fifty sailors and Royal Marines.
Or so it had been when they had left this same port of Plymouth. Now there was a sense of contained excitement, and uncertainty. There were boys who had become men while the ship had been away. They would find a different life waiting upon their return. And the older ones, like Joshua Cristie, the sailing master, and Stranace the gunner, would be thinking of the many ships which had been paid off, hulked, or even sold to those same enemies from the past.
For this was all they had. They knew no other life.
The long masthead pendant lifted and held in a sudden flurry of wind. Partridge, the burly boatswain, as rotund as his namesake, called, 'Lee braces there! Stand by, lads!' But even he, whose thick voice had contested the heaviest gales and crashing broadsides, seemed unwilling to break the silence.
There were now only shipboard noises, the creak of spars and rigging, the occasional thud of the tiller head, their constant companions over the months, the years since Unrivalled's keel had first tasted salt water; that, too, right here in Plymouth.
And nobody alive this day would be more aware of the challenge which might now be confronting him.
Captain Adam Bolitho stood by the quarterdeck rail and watched the land edging out in a slow and final embrace. Buildings, even a church, were taking shape, and he saw a fishing lugger on a converging tack, a man climbing into the rigging to wave as the frigate's shadow passed over him. How many hundreds of times had he stood in this place? As many hours as he had walked the deck, or been called from his cot for some emergency or other.
Like the last time in Biscay, when a seaman had been lost overboard. It was nothing new. A familiar face, a cry in the night, then oblivion. Perhaps he, too, had been thinking of going home. Or leaving the ship. It only took a second; a ship had no forgiveness for carelessness or that one treacherous lapse of attention.
He shook himself and gripped the scabbard of the old sword beneath his coat, something else he did without noticing it. He glanced along his command, the neat batteries of eighteen-pounders, each muzzle exactly in line with the gangway above it. The decks clean and uncluttered, each unwanted piece of cordage flaked down, while sheets and braces were loosened in readiness. The scars of that last savage battle at Algiers, a lifetime ago or so it felt sometimes, had been carefully repaired, painted or tarred, hidden except to the eye of the true sailor.
A block squeaked and without turning his head he knew that the signals party had hoisted Unrivalled's number. Not that many people would need telling.
It was only then that you remembered. Roger Cousens had been the signals midshipman. Keen, caring, likeable. Another missing face. He felt the northwesterly wind on his cheek, like a cold hand.
A voice said quietly, 'Guardboat, sir.' No excitement. More like two men exchanging a casual remark in a country lane.
Adam Bolitho took a telescope from another midshipman, his eyes passing over familiar figures and groups which were like part of himself. The helmsmen, three in case of any last second's trick by the wind or tide; the master, one hand on a chart but his eyes on the land. A squad of marines paraded, ready if needed to support the afterguard at the mizzen braces. The first lieutenant; a boatswain's mate; and two marine drummer boys who seemed to have grown since they had last seen Plymouth.
He steadied the glass and saw the guardboat, oars tossed, quite motionless at this distance. His jaw tightened. It was what his uncle had called marking the chart for us.
It was time.
Not too soon, and never too late. He said, 'Hands wear ship, Mr Galbraith!'
He could almost feel the first lieutenant's eyes. Surprise? Acceptance? The danger was past. Formality had taken over.
'Lee braces there! Hands wear ship!'
'Tops'l sheets!' Seamen strained back on braces and halliards. A boatswain's mate pushed two extra hands to add their strength as Unrivalled continued toward her allotted anchorage.
'Helm a-lee!' The slightest hesitation, and the big double wheel began to swing over, helmsmen moving like a single body.
Adam Bolitho shaded his eyes as the sunlight lanced between the shrouds and flapping canvas, as the ship, his ship, turned steadily into the wind.
He saw his coxswain watching across the busy deck, waiting to call away the gig, ready for the unexpected.
The great anchor dropped from the cathead, spray bursting up and over the beautiful figurehead.
After all the miles, the pain and the triumph, for better or worse, Unrivalled had come home.
Lieutenant Leigh Galbraith looked aloft to make certain that the excitement of returning to England had not allowed slackness to mar the sail drill.
Each sail was neatly furled, the masthead pendant curling in the offshore wind, the ensign streaming above the taffrail, bright against the land, hoisted to replace a well-worn and ragged one before the dawn had broken. Marine sentries were posted to prevent unlawful visitors, traders, even some of the local whores, coming aboard when they realized that Unrivalled's company had had little to spend their pay on over the past months. And there was talk of slave bounty, and prize money, too.
He watched the guardboat approaching, an officer standing in the sternsheets shading his eyes. Their first contact with authority since leaving the Rock. Unrivalled would probably be invaded now by riggers and carpenters, some of whom might have helped to build her more than two years ago.
He shivered again. But it was not the bite of the March wind.
He had seen the ranks of laid-up ships, large and small, as Unrivalled had tacked slowly toward the anchorage. Proud ships, famous names. Some had already been here when they had last left Plymouth for the Mediterranean and Algiers, eight months ago.
Who would be next?
He confronted it, as a senior officer might examine a subordinate's chances. His record was good. He had taken part in every action at Algiers and before. Captain Bolitho had already recommended him for a command of his own, had put it in writing to the Flag Officer here in Plymouth before they had sailed. Suppose there was nothing? He might remain first lieutenant for yet another commission, until he was passed over altogether.
He dismissed it angrily. He had a ship, and a fine one, more than many could claim.
He walked to the entry port and touched his hat as the officer of the guard clambered aboard.
The visitor glanced around the upper deck and said, 'Heard all about it, your part at Algiers! Lord Exmouth was full of praise in the Gazette!' He handed Galbraith a thick, sealed envelope. 'For the captain.' He inclined his head toward the shore. 'From the admiral.' He looked over at some of the bustling seamen, disappointed perhaps that there were no wounded on view, no shot holes in the freshly painted black and white hull. 'Another boat is coming out to collect the despatches, and any mail you have to go.'
He reached for the guard ropes and added with a grin, 'Welcome home, by the way!'
Galbraith saw him over the side, and the oars were thrashing at the water almost before he had taken his seat.
Galbraith made his way aft, ducking without thought beneath the overhanging poop.
Past the wardroom, empty but for a messman; every one else would be on deck, sharing it.
The marine at the cabin door stamped his foot and bawled, 'First lieutenant, sir!'
It was something you never got used to, he thought. Every Royal Marine seemed to act as if he were on a parade ground, and not within the close confines of a ship.
The screen door opened and young Napier, the captain's servant, in his best blue coat, stood before him.
Galbraith took it all in at a glance. The great cabin which he had come to know so well, where they had talked, and shared their thoughts as much as any captain and first lieutenant could; and it was rare in many cases he had known. Times of anxiety and doubt. And of pride.
Some clothing was scattered across the stern bench, the captain's patched and faded seagoing gear, while his best frock coat hung swaying from the skylight.
Bolitho glanced at Galbraith and smiled. 'Is my gig called away?' Then, half turned, 'Here, David, help me with this sleeve - a few more minutes won't matter. The admiral will know we are anchored.'
Galbraith hesitated, and held out the envelope. 'This is from the admiral, sir.'
Bolitho took it and turned it over in sun-browned hands.
'The ink is scarce dry, Leigh.' But the smile had gone, and the cabin could have been empty as he picked up a knife and slit it open.
Feet pounded overhead and blocks squealed as the boatswain's party made ready to hoist out the gig. The required formality of a ship's return from active service. Galbraith heard none of it, watching the captain's fingers curl around the envelope, its broken seal shining like blood from a sharpshooter's musket. He said, 'Is something wrong, sir?'
Adam Bolitho turned sharply, his face hidden in shadow. 'I just told you . . .' He checked himself with obvious effort, as Galbraith had seen many times when they had been coming to know one another. 'Forgive me.'
He looked at Napier. 'Never mind about the sleeve. They can take me as they find me.' He touched the boy's shoulder. 'And rest that leg. Remember what the surgeon told you.'
Napier shook his head, but said nothing.
'The ship will be moved. Repairs and general overhaul . . . as you were doubtless expecting.' He reached out as if to touch the white-painted timber, but dropped his hand to his side. 'She can certainly do with it, after the battering she took at Algiers.' As if he were speaking to the ship and nobody else.
He brushed against the hanging coat and added, 'Tomorrow you will receive orders from the flag captain. We can discuss it when I return aboard.'
He stared at the envelope still crumpled in his hand. He must think clearly. Empty his mind, as he had forced himself to do when everything had seemed finished. Lost. Two people he had come to know so well since he had taken command of Unrivalled, just over two years ago here in Plymouth: he had been her first captain. Galbraith, strong, reliable, concerned. And the boy David Napier who had almost died, the great, jagged splinter jutting from his leg like some obscene weapon. He had been so brave, then and again later under the surgeon's knife when the wound had become poisoned. Perhaps like himself at that age . . .
His hands felt as though they were shaking, and the clamour in his mind seemed loud enough to fill the cabin.
When he spoke, his voice was very calm. 'I am losing Unrivalled. I am being relieved of command.'
So quietly said, while that same voice within screamed, It can't be true! Not this ship! Not yet!
Galbraith took a pace toward him, the strong features laid bare with disbelief and then anger, feeling the hurt like his own.
'It must be wrong, sir. Some fool of a clerk at the Admiralty!' He spread his hands. 'After everything you've done? Even the officer of the guard was full of it, all about Lord Exmouth's praise for Unrivalled in the Gazette!'
Adam reached for his coat but Napier was already holding it, troubled, but still unable to understand what it would mean. Somehow it helped to steady him.
'Stay with me, David. There are things I must do.' He recalled suddenly what Napier had said when Rear-Admiral Thomas Herrick had asked him if he took care of his captain. We take care of each other. So simply said, yet in this impossible, reeling daze it was something to cling to. Little enough.
He said, 'Tell the others, Leigh. I'll speak to them later, perhaps in here.' His dark eyes flashed, revealing real pain for the first time. 'While I still can.'
Galbraith said, 'The gig will be alongside, sir.'
They paused, and abruptly shook hands. No words, and beyond thoughts. The Royal Marine stamped his boots together as they passed him and walked to the companion ladder; in an hour it would be all over the ship. But all the sentry saw was his captain and the first lieutenant, with the youth in the proud blue coat walking a pace or two behind them.
Galbraith took a deep breath as the companion opened to the clear, bright sky, feeling his shirt drag against the wound where a musket ball had scored his shoulders that day amid the burning madness of Algiers. Another inch, maybe less, and he would not be alive now.
He saw the captain turn to nod to somebody on the quarterdeck; he even smiled.
Another command, maybe. Something bigger, grander, as a reward for his actions under Lord Exmouth. In these times, it seemed unlikely.
Unrivalled was his ship. They had become one. We all did.
He recalled the officer of the guard's cheerful words, less than an hour ago.
Welcome home, by the way!
When he looked again, Bolitho was standing alone by the entry port; Napier had already gone down into the gig which was waiting alongside, oars tossed and steady like white bones.
Luke Jago, the captain's coxswain, would be there, vigilant, as Galbraith had seen even in the midst of a sea fight. He probably knew or guessed, the navy's way, the family as the old Jacks termed it.
The marines presented arms, and the calls trilled in salute. When Galbraith replaced his hat the entry port was empty.
The admiral's flag lieutenant was tense, even embarrassed.
'Sir Robert requests that you wait a few moments, Captain Bolitho.' His hand rested on the adjoining door. 'An unexpected visitor . . . you understand, sir.'
Adam walked into the other room, light and spacious, as he remembered it from previous visits. When he had been given Unrivalled, fresh from the builder's yard, the first to carry her name on the Navy List. And later, meeting Vice-Admiral Valentine Keen, when Keen had held this command. And last year, in July, when he had joined Lord Exmouth's fleet for the inevitable attack on Algiers. In those eight months so much had happened, while here in Plymouth there was yet another admiral, Sir Robert Burch, probably in his last appointment.
The lieutenant was saying, 'We all watched you arrive, sir. It is some time since I have witnessed such crowds. Some must have been awake before dawn.'
Adam laid his hat on a chair and walked to a window. It was not the flag lieutenant's fault; it rarely was. He had been one himself. He bit his lip. Under his uncle. Another world, it seemed now. And his uncle. . .
Sir Richard Bolitho had died nearly two years ago, killed on the deck of his flagship Frobisher, cut down by a single shot. The memory still burned as if it were yesterday.
The other man watched his face closely, trying to miss nothing. The young frigate captain whose name had appeared in the Gazette so many times, fighting hand to hand against any foe which had offered itself, before the war had ended and the sworn enemies had moved into an uneasy alliance. How long might it last? And for what reason? Perhaps the battle of Algiers would come to be remembered as the last great battle under sail. Lord Exmouth had been a frigate captain, probably the most famous and successful to emerge from that everlasting war. He must have put all doubts aside to break the unwritten rule he had always followed: never force an action where ships are pitted against sited shore batteries, and in his case a thousand enemy guns.
But the gamble and the skill had prevailed, and the battle had raged for most of the day. Ships had exploded and burned, men had fought to the death. He thought of the smartly handled frigate he had watched only this morning, shining in the early sunlight, and of Lord Exmouth's words.
I want you in the van. The same ship. He glanced again at the slim figure by the window, the black hair, the fine, sensitive features. The same captain.
Adam could feel the scrutiny. He was used to it. The frigate captain: dashing, uncaring, not tied to the fleet's apron strings. He knew well enough what they thought. Imagined.
He opened the window slightly and looked down at a squad of Royal Marines paraded in the square below. New recruits from the local barracks, very stiff and aware of their scarlet uniforms. A sergeant, rocking back slightly on his heels, was saying, 'You obey orders without question, see? When the time comes you will be sent to a ship of the line, or a frigate maybe, like the one that came in this morning.' He had turned slightly to display the three bright chevrons on his sleeve. 'But remember this, it's not the Colonel, or even the adjutant, who will decide.' He lifted his elbow a fraction. 'It will be me, see?'
Adam closed the window, the cold air still on his lips.
He thought of Corporal Bloxham, who was now a sergeant, a crack shot even with his 'Bess', as he had affectionately called his musket that day. When he had fired one shot and had saved his captain's life, and that of the boy who had lain helpless, his leg pinioned by the splinter. Another face he had come to know so well.
The flag lieutenant said quickly, 'I think the visitor is leaving, sir.' They faced each other, and he added, 'It has been an honour to meet you, sir.'
Adam heard voices, doors slamming, some one half-running, perhaps to summon a carriage for the departing visitor.
He picked up his hat. 'I would that it were under better circumstances.' He thrust out his hand. 'But thank you. Yours is no easy role. I know from experience.'
A bell tinkled somewhere, and the flag lieutenant seemed to make up his mind.
'Unrivalled will be docked, sir. But the reports have made it very clear that it will not be a quick overhaul like the last one.'
Adam almost smiled. 'The last two.' He touched his arm as they walked to the door; it reminded him of the court-martial after Anemone had been sunk. Prisoner and escort.
'Then I am not being replaced?'
The lieutenant swallowed hard. He had already gone too far.
He answered, 'My late father had a saying, sir, when things seemed against him. "Look to a new horizon".' He flushed as Adam turned to face him. He would never forget that expression.
He called, 'Captain Adam Bolitho, Sir Robert!'
Adam gripped the old sword and pressed it against his thigh. The reminder. He was not alone.
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