"Kent's descriptions of ships under sail . . . crackle with realism." —Library Journal
The Only Victor (Richard Bolitho Series)by Alexander Kent
February 1806: Vice-Admiral Sir Richard Bolitho carries the news of Trafalgar to southern Africa, where he is to aid British ground forces in any way he can to retake Cape Town from the Dutch. Impatient to be home, Bolitho decides yet again that the boldest measures are best, and proves to the army that brave men do not die in vain. See more details below
February 1806: Vice-Admiral Sir Richard Bolitho carries the news of Trafalgar to southern Africa, where he is to aid British ground forces in any way he can to retake Cape Town from the Dutch. Impatient to be home, Bolitho decides yet again that the boldest measures are best, and proves to the army that brave men do not die in vain.
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The Only Victor
By Alexander Kent
McBooks Press, Inc.Copyright © 1990 Highseas Authors Ltd.
All rights reserved.
"in the Name of duty"
Captain Daniel Poland of His Britannic Majesty's frigate Truculent stretched his arms and stifled a yawn, while he waited for his eyes to accustom themselves to the darkness. As he gripped the quarterdeck rail and the dim figures around him took on identity and status, he was able to accept the pride he felt for this command, and the fashion in which he had moulded his company into a team, one that would react to his wishes and orders with little room for improvement. He had been in command for two years, but would not be fully "posted" for a further six months. Then, and only then, would he feel safe from disaster. A fall from grace, an unfortunate mistake or misunderstanding of some senior officer's despatches — any of these could hurl him down the ladder of promotion; or worse. But once a post-captain with matching epaulettes on his shoulders, little could shift him. He gave a brief smile. Only death or some terrible wound could do that. The enemy's iron was no respecter of the hopes or ambitions of its victims.
He moved to the small table by the companion way and raised its tarpaulin hood so that he could examine the log by the light of a small shaded lamp.
Nobody on the quarterdeck spoke or disturbed him; every man was well aware of his presence and, after two years, his habits.
As he ran his eyes along the neatly written comments of the most recent officers-of-the-watch he felt his ship lift and plunge beneath him, spray whipping across the open deck like cold hail.
In an hour all would be different. Again he felt the same twinge of pride, cautious pride, for Captain Poland trusted nobody and nothing which might bring displeasure from his superiors, and which in turn might damage his prospects. But if the wind held they would sight the coast of Africa, the Cape of Good Hope, perhaps at first light.
Nineteen days. It was probably the fastest passage ever made by a King's ship from Portsmouth. Poland thought of the England they had seen fall into a rain squall as Truculent had thrust her way down-Channel for open waters. Cold. Wet. Shortages and press gangs.
His gaze fastened on the date. The first of February,1806. Perhaps that was the answer. England was still reeling from the news of Trafalgar, which had exploded less than four months ago. It seemed people were stunned more by the death of Nelson, the nation's hero, than the crushing victory over the French and Spanish fleets.
Even aboard his own ship, Poland had sensed the change, the damage to morale amongst his officers and seamen. Truculent had not even been in the same ocean at the time of the great battle, and to his knowledge none of the people had ever laid eyes on the little admiral. It irritated him, just as he damned the luck which had taken his ship so far from a fight out of which only glory and reward could result. It was typical of Poland that he had not considered the awesome lists of dead and wounded after that memorable day off Cape Trafalgar.
He peered up at the pale shape of the bulging mizzen topsail. Beyond it there was only darkness. The ship had rid herself of her heavy canvas and changed every sail to the pale, light-weather rig. She would make a fine sight when the sunlight found her again. He pictured her rapid passage south, with the mountains of Morocco misty blue in the far distance, then south-east across the Equator with the only landfall the tiny island of St Helena, a mere speck on the chart.
It was no wonder that young officers prayed for the chance to gain command of a frigate, where once free of the fleet's apron strings and the interference of one admiral or another, they were their own masters.
He knew that to his company a captain was seen as some kind of god. In many cases it was true. He could punish or reward any soul aboard with impunity. Poland considered himself a just and fair captain, but was sensible enough to know that he was feared rather than liked.
Each day he had made certain that his men were not lacking in work. No admiral would find fault with his ship, either her appearance or efficiency.
His eyes moved to the cabin skylight. It was already sharper in the gloom, or maybe his eyes had become completely used to it. And there would be no mistakes on this passage, not with such an important passenger down there in the captain's quarters.
It was time to begin. He walked to the rail again and stood with one foot on the truck of a tethered nine-pounder.
The ship's second lieutenant appeared as if by magic.
"Mr Munro, you may muster the Afterguard in fifteen minutes, when we shall wear ship."
The lieutenant touched his hat in the darkness. "Aye, aye, sir."
He spoke almost in a whisper, as if he too were thinking of the passenger, and the noise of the Royal Marines' boots above his sleeping cabin.
Poland added irritably, "And I don't want any slackness!"
Munro saw the sailing-master, who was already at his place near the big double-wheel, give what might have been a shrug. He was probably thinking that the captain would blame him if the dark horizon was as empty as before.
A burly figure moved to the lee side of the deck and Poland heard him fling some shaving-water into the sea. The passenger's personal coxswain, a powerful man by the name of John Allday. One who seemed to have little respect for anyone but his vice-admiral. Again, Poland felt a sense of irritation — or was it envy? He thought of his own coxswain, as smart and reliable as anyone could wish, one who would take no nonsense from his crew. But never a friend, as Allday appeared to be.
He tried to shrug it off. Anyway, his coxswain was only a common seaman.
He snapped, "The vice-admiral is up and about, apparently. Call the Afterguard, then pipe the hands to the braces."
Williams, the first lieutenant, clattered up the ladder and tried to button his coat and straighten his hat when he saw the captain already on deck.
"Good morning, sir!"
Poland replied coldly, "It had better be!"
The lieutenants glanced at each other and grimaced behind his back. Poland was usually realistic in his dealings with the people, but he had little sense of humour, and as Williams had once put it, divided his guidance evenly between the Bible and the Articles of War.
Calls shrilled between decks and the watch below came thudding along the glistening planking, each man bustling to his familiar station where petty officers stood with their lists, and boatswain's mates were waiting to "start" any laggard with rope's end or rattan. They were all aware of the importance of the man who wore his reputation like a cloak, and who for most of the lively passage had remained aft in Poland's quarters.
"There she comes, lads!"
Poland snapped, "Take that man's name!"
But he looked up nevertheless and saw the first frail glow of light as it touched the whipping and frayed masthead pendant, then flowed down almost like liquid to mark the shrouds. Delicate, salmon-pink. Soon it would spread over the horizon, expand its colour, give life to a whole ocean.
But Poland saw none of these things. Time, distance, logged speed, they were the factors which ruled his daily life.
Allday lounged against the damp nettings. They would be packed with hammocks once the ship lay on her new course. Landfall? It seemed likely, but Allday could sense the captain's unease, just as he was aware of his own private anxieties. Usually, no matter how bad things had been, he was glad, if not relieved, to quit the shore and get back to a ship again.
This time it was different. Like being motionless with only the ship's wild movements to give the sensation of life around them.
Allday had heard them talking about the man he served and loved as he loved none other. He had wondered what he had really been thinking as Truculent had ploughed through each long day. Something apart. Not their ship. He let his mind explore the thought, like fingers probing a raw wound. Not like the old Hyperion.
October 15th, less than four months ago. Was that all it was? In his heart he could still feel the crash and roar of those terrible broadsides, the screams and the madness, and then — The old pain lanced through his chest and he clutched it with his fist and gasped in great mouthfuls of air, waiting for it to ease. Another sea, a different battle, but always a reminder of how entwined their lives had become. He could guess what the stiff-faced Poland thought. Men like him could never understand Richard Bolitho. Nor would they.
He massaged his chest and gave a little, private smile. Yes, they had seen and done so much together. Vice-Admiral Sir Richard Bolitho. Even their paths had been spliced by fate. Allday wiped the spray from his face and shook his long pigtail over his collar. Most folk probably believed that Bolitho wanted for nothing. His last exploits had swept the seaports and taverns of England. A ballad had been composed by Charles Dibdin or one of his fellows: "How Hyperion Cleared the Way!" The words of a dying sailor whose hand Bolitho had held on that awful sunlit day, although he had been needed in a hundred other places at once.
But only those who had shared it really knew. The power and the passion of the man behind the gold lace and gleaming epaulettes, who could lead his sailors, be they half-mad, half-deafened by the hellish roar of battle; who could make them cheer even in the face of the Devil and the moment of certain death.
And yet he was the same one who could turn up the noses of London society, and invite gossip in the coffee houses. Allday straightened and sighed. The pain did not return. Yet. They would all be surprised if they knew just how little Bolitho did have, he thought.
He heard Poland snap, "A good man aloft, Mr Williams, if you please!"
Allday could almost feel pity for the first lieutenant, and hid a grin as he replied, "Already done, sir. I sent a master's mate to the foremast when the watch came aft."
Poland strode away from him and glared when he saw the vice-admiral's coxswain loitering.
"Only the Afterguard and my officers —" He shut his mouth and moved instead to the compass.
Allday stamped down the companion ladder and allowed the smells and sounds of the ship to greet him. Tar, paint, cordage and the sea. He heard the bark of orders, the squeal of braces and halliards through their blocks, the thud of dozens of bare feet as the men threw themselves against the tug of rudder and wind and the ship began to change tack.
At the door of the great cabin a Royal Marine sentry stood near a wildly spiralling lantern, his scarlet coat angled more steeply as the helm went hard over.
Allday gave him a nod as he thrust open the screen door. He rarely abused his privileges, but it made him proud to know he was able to come and go as he pleased. Something else to gall Captain Poland, he thought with a grim chuckle. He nearly collided with Ozzard, Bolitho's small, mole-like servant, as he scuttled away with some shirts to wash.
"How is he?"
Ozzard glanced aft. Beyond the sleeping quarters and Poland's swaying cot the cabin was almost in darkness again, but for a single lantern.
He murmured, "Not moved." Then he was gone. Loyal, secretive, always there when he was needed. Allday believed Ozzard was still brooding about the October day when their old Hyperion had given up her last fight and gone down. Only Allday himself knew that it had been Ozzard's intention to stay and go with her to the seabed, with all the dead and some of the dying still on board. Another mystery. He wondered if Bolitho knew or guessed what had almost happened. To speculate why, was beyond him.
Then he saw Bolitho's pale figure framed by the broad stern windows. He was sitting with one knee drawn up on the bench seat, his shirt very white against the tumbling water beyond.
For some reason Allday was moved by what he saw. He had seen Bolitho like this in so many of the ships they had shared after that first meeting. So many mornings. So many years.
He said uncertainly, "I'll fetch another lantern, Sir Richard."
Bolitho turned his head, his grey eyes in dark shadow. "It will be light enough soon, old friend." Without noticing it he touched his left eyelid and added, "We may sight land today."
So calmly said, Allday thought, and yet his mind and heart must be so crammed with memories, good and rotten. But if there was bitterness he gave no hint of it in his voice.
Allday said, "Reckon Cap'n Poland will cuss an' swear if there ain't, an' that's no error!"
Bolitho smiled and turned to watch the sea as it boiled from the rudder, as if some great fish was about to break surface in pursuit of the lively frigate.
He had always admired the dawn at sea. So many and such different waters, from the blue, placid depths of the Great South Sea to the raging grey wastes of the Western Ocean. Each unique, like the ships and men who challenged them.
He had expected, hoped even, that this day might bring some relief from his brooding thoughts. A fine, clean shirt, one of Allday's best shaves; it often gave a sense of well-being. But this time it eluded him.
He heard the shrill of calls again and could picture the orderly bustle on deck as the sails were sheeted home, the slackness shaken from braces and halliards. At heart he was perhaps still a frigate captain, as he had been when Allday had been brought aboard as a pressed man. Since then, so many leagues sailed, too many faces wiped away like chalk off a slate.
He saw the first hint of light on the crests, the spray leaping away on either quarter as the dawn began to roll down from the horizon.
Bolitho stood up and leaned his hands on the sill to stare more closely at the sea's face.
He recalled as if it were yesterday an admiral breaking the painful truth to him, when he had protested about the only appointment he could beg from the Admiralty after recovering from his terrible fever.
"You were a frigate captain, Bolitho ..." Twelve years ago, maybe more.
Eventually he had been given the old Hyperion, and then probably only because of the bloody revolution in France and the war which had followed it, and which had raged almost without respite until this very day.
And yet Hyperion was the one ship which was to change his life. Many had doubted his judgment when he had pleaded for the old seventy-four as his last flagship. From captain to vice-admiral; it had seemed the right choice. The only choice.
She had gone down last October, leading Bolitho's squadron in the Mediterranean against a much more powerful force of Spanish ships under the command of an old enemy, Almirante Don Alberto Casares. It had been a desperate battle by any standards, and the outcome had never been certain from the first broadsides.
And yet, impossibly, they had beaten the Dons, and had even taken some prizes back to Gibraltar.
But the old Hyperion had given everything she had, and could offer no further resistance. She was thirty-three years old when the great ninety-gun San Mateo had poured the last broadside into her. Apart from a short period as a mastless stores hulk, she had sailed and fought in every sea where the flag was challenged. Some rot in her frames and timbers, deep down in her worn hull, undiscovered by any dockyard, had finally betrayed her.
In spite of everything Bolitho had witnessed and endured during a lifetime at sea, it was still too hard to accept that she was gone.
He had heard some say that but for his judgment in holding and defeating the Spanish squadron, the enemy would have joined with the Combined Fleet off Trafalgar. Then perhaps even brave Nelson could not have triumphed. Bolitho had not known how to react. More flattery? After Nelson's death he had been sickened to watch the same people who had hated him and despised him for his liaison with that Hamilton woman sing his praises the highest and lament his passing.
Like so many he had never met the little admiral who had raised the hearts of his sailors even in the squalor most of them endured on endless blockade duty or firing gun-to-gun with an enemy. Nelson had known his men, and given them the leadership they understood and needed.
He realised that Allday had padded from the cabin, and hated himself for bringing him out here on a mission which was probably fruitless.
Allday would not be moved. My English oak. Bolitho would only have hurt and insulted him if he had left him ashore at Falmouth. They had got this far together.
He touched his left eyelid and sighed. How would it torment him in the bright African sunlight?
Excerpted from The Only Victor by Alexander Kent. Copyright © 1990 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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