Read an Excerpt
Ramage & the Guillotine
The Lord Ramage Novels, No. 6
By Dudley Pope
McBooks Press, Inc.Copyright © 1975 The Ramage Company Limited
All rights reserved.
Ramage reached across the breakfast table for the silver bell, shook it and waited. After more than a year at sea in one of the King's ships (when meals were usually dreaded as unimaginative variations on a theme of salt beef or salt pork, and bread was a polite name for hard biscuit that an honest baker would disown and a potter would proclaim a credit to his oven) his stomach still rebelled at the rich fare that old Mrs Hanson insisted on providing for every meal, including breakfast.
She had been the family cook and housekeeper at the London house for as long as Ramage could remember, and her short-sighted husband was the butler, a timid and wispy-haired man whose life seemed to be a sheepish hunt for his mislaid spectacles.
Mrs Hanson firmly believed that all sailors, be they admirals or seamen, lowly lieutenants like Ramage or portly masters, were deliberately underfed by a scheming Admiralty which calculated the scale of rations on the principle that fighting cocks were starved for hours before being put into the cockpit to battle for their lives. It seemed to Ramage that whenever he came up to London on leave she was determined to cram enough food into him to last another year at sea.
"You rang, my Lord?"
Ramage glanced up to find Hanson waiting expectantly, his spectacles slowly sliding down his stub of a nose. "Ah — please thank Mrs Hanson for an excellent breakfast."
"But you've hardly touched the cold tongue, sir," Hanson protested plaintively. "And the oysters — you haven't eaten a single one!"
"Hanson," Ramage said sternly, knowing that to the butler he was still a small boy, to be humoured, but made to eat every scrap of food on his plate, "you should remember I've always hated oysters; the mere thought of them makes me queasy."
The butler shook his head sadly. "Mrs Hanson will be upset; sets great store by oysters, she does; reckons they build you up. A score for breakfast, she says, and you'll never come to no 'arm for the rest of the day."
"Just look at me," Ramage said patiently. "Do you think I'm fading away?"
"Bit on the lean side, my Lord," Hanson said warily, remembering how suntanned his Lordship had been when he first arrived back from the West indies. "Your face is paler, too. My wife commented on it yesterday."
"Remind Mrs Hanson that suntan doesn't last for ever."
"Well, it's been raining hard," Hanson said lamely as he began to clear away the plates, "an' it'll rain again before the day's out."
"I'm sure it will," Ramage said soothingly. "is anyone else in the family up and about yet?"
"Your father and mother, sir, and hot water has been sent up for the Marchesa, so she'll be down presently."
Ramage sniffed doubtfully. "Very well — please fetch me a newspaper."
"The Morning Post or The Times, sir?"
"I'll have plenty of time to read both before the Marchesa is ready."
Hanson smiled happily, nodding his head at some private thought as he went to the door. "A lovely lady," he murmured to himself, "and her a foreigner, too ..."
Ramage grinned self-consciously and then felt foolish; praise for Gianna was not flattery for him! Still, Hanson's innocent remark emphasized that now was not the best of times to be a foreigner in England — in Great Britain and Ireland, he corrected himself. The Act of union had become law while he was commanding the Triton brig in the West indies, and recently he had been trying to break himself of the habit — which infuriated the Scots and Welsh — of saying England when he meant Britain. The trouble was that foreigners always refer to "you English," not "you British."
He took the newspapers from the silver tray Hanson was holding and shook his head at the discreet, "Would you prefer to sit in the drawing-room, sir ...?"
His eye caught a name in the first item on the front page of the Morning Post:
"The public will learn with great satisfaction that LORD NELSON, the hero of Copenhagen and the Nile, will soon leave Town on a SECRET mission which will rid the country of the Corsican Tyrant's threat of a GRAND INVASION. We understand the Admiralty is confident that his Lordship will soon send the French invasion craft now gathering in Calais and Boulogne to WATERY GRAVES."
Hmm ... the Government must be very worried if they thought it necessary to give Lord Nelson such a job: badgering barges in the Channel ports was more of a task for young frigate captains. Still, agents might have just discovered that Bonaparte had set a date for his great attempt, though it was more likely that the Government was trying to reassure the people.
As he read the next news item he knew it would make unwelcome reading for everyone living within twenty miles of the Kent and Sussex coasts:
"The latest intelligences received in London report that Bonaparte has given orders for the construction of ANOTHER one hundred barges and fifty gunboats. We estimate that the fleet for the grand invasion now lying at Calais, Boulogne, Wimereux, Ambleteuse, Etaples, Havre de Grace, St Valery, Gravelines, Dunkirk and Ostend now totals more than three hundred large barges to carry men, horses, artillery and provisions, and two hundred gunboats of various sizes intended to defend the fleet and attack the stout defenders waiting on the English beaches. Construction of camps for Bonaparte's Army of invasion proceeds quickly and our patrolling frigates daily see more tents being erected on the heights around Boulogne."
He pictured the frigates tacking and wearing along the French coast by day and by night, hoping to catch and destroy any enemy vessels daring to move from one port to another. The French would take full advantage of their shallow draft, keeping close in to the beach, and hoping that the frigates waiting for them like sharks would accidentally strand themselves on offlying sandbanks.
The completed barges and gunboats were anchored off each port, exposed to gales but protected from the British frigates by batteries of guns. At low water the vessels would dry out, sitting on hard sand or shingle and protected by cavalry patrols from marauding seamen landed by boats from the frigates.
It was a complicated cat-and-mouse game: at high water a frigate would tack back and forth close to an anchorage but beyond the range of the batteries and, when it judged the French gunners had been lulled into inactivity, suddenly swoop, hoping to fire a couple of broadsides into the anchored vessels before the French woke up and began a withering fire. But it was a dangerous game: the whole of the French coast was usually a lee shore, and a lucky shot could dismast a frigate and the wind drive her up on the beach.
As they tacked offshore, the officers in the frigates would be balancing themselves against the roll as they trained their telescopes on the hills and dunes round the ports. They would be counting yet again the scores of tents arranged with geometric precision round flagpoles from which Tricolours fluttered. They would note new camps being set up; off many ports they would see hundreds of tethered horses scattered across the hills, and ammunition wagons, field kitchens and field guns drawn up nearby. And the men in the frigates — and brigs and cutters — knew they were watching not only for signs of reinforcements but for the first hint that the troops were preparing to board the barges for the voyage across La Manche to the beaches of Kent and Sussex.
From what he had heard, the frigates were having very little success in their attacks: the French had so many batteries on the cliffs over the anchorages that they could keep up a lethal fire by day or night.
Yet the French were not the only ones making preparations: a glance over the rest of the page showed that the British were busy preparing suitable reception committees. Lord Romney had just reviewed 3,000 men of the Kentish Volunteers at his estate at Maidstone; the King had reviewed 1,500 of the Surrey Volunteers on Wimbledon Common. One news item described joint manoeuvres held in the streets of London by the Loyal Hackney, Royal Westminster, Whitechapel and Shoreditch and Wapping régiments. An advertisement at the foot of the column announced that, "Members of the LONDON and WESTMINSTER VOLUNTEERS may purchase WARRANTED FIRELOCKS at £2 each at G. RIPPON'S WAREHOUSE, No. 3, Ludgate Hill. Cartouche boxes, pistols and swords may likewise be obtained."
Every hamlet and town in the south-eastern corner of England must be swarming with patriotic citizens clutching ancient fowling pieces or newly-purchased muskets or, perhaps, only scythes or sickles, and eyeing strangers with suspicion since they expected to find Frenchmen lurking behind each hedge and thicket. Every poacher in the Weald of Kent and on Romney Marsh and Pevensey Level now had a perfect excuse for the magistrates when found on the squire's land with a fowling piece under his arm (though he would still be hard pressed to explain away a ferret in his pocket and nets over his shoulder).
For a moment Ramage imagined Gianna on one of her wild rides over the countryside suddenly reining her horse as a group of Volunteers emerged from a hedgerow, muskets at the ready, and Gianna explaining in her exuberant English that she simply enjoyed riding alone. Rustics, unable to distinguish an italian accent from a French, and full of the wild stories the newspapers had been printing about Bonaparte's secret hot-air balloons and rafts driven by windmills, might think she was Bonaparte's modern equivalent of Joan of Arc, riding through the countryside intent on rousing innocent folk into bloody riot and vicious rebellion ...
He turned the page to skim through the rest of the news. A gale of wind had put four ships ashore at Plymouth, scattering the fishing fleet just returning to harbour, and knocking down trees and chimney pots. A "new stein is to be built at Brighton, with the Duke of Marlborough and others patronizing the undertaking." The King would not after all be attending the ball being given tonight by the Duchess of Manston, because the Queen was still indisposed and remaining at Windsor. That would disappoint Gianna.
There was a section he would point out to Gianna. Headed "The Fashionable World," it began by announcing that, "The female fashion is every day encroaching on the male costume." The article explained that with dozens of volunteer units being formed all over the country and their officers designing the uniforms as well as buying the necessary muskets, powder and shot, it was inevitable that "the ladies would soon follow the fashion."
Ramage smiled to himself at the descriptions that followed. The fashionable colours for the Summer of 1801 were purple, puce, yellow and scarlet, and beads and feathers were becoming popular along with spangled nets for the hair. Morning hats and bonnets of velvet, plain and trimmed, "are among the latest inventions."
Walking and full dress for ladies, the Morning Post assured its readers, were in two styles. one was of yellow muslin trimmed with black ribbon and tassels and full epaulets; the other a round dress of white muslin with a spencer of scarlet satin trimmed with black lace, and topped by a small, round hat with a deep veil.
Certainly the military influence was obvious, Ramage thought sourly; he could just imagine all the general officers wearing small, round hats with deep veils and scarlet spencers as they reported to the Duke of York at the Horse Guards. (Now he came to think about it, why were those short jackets named after the man who had just resigned as First Lord of the Admiralty?) Complexions would be puce, and a general liverishness would probably turn the whites of their eyes to the fashionable shade of yellow. Gianna would find the prospect as amusing as he did. He pulled out his watch — nine o'clock. Well, no elegant young lady could take less than an hour over her toilet ...
He turned to the back page, which was mostly advertisements. The first was intriguing. "Two hundred guineas will be paid for a commission appointing an ensign to one of His Majesty's régiments (an old-fashioned régiment) now serving in the East or West Indies." Obviously some poor fellow was trying to escape a fate in England that he considered worse than the prospect of death in the Indies from any one of a dozen vile tropical diseases. The vengeance of a jilted woman? The threats of his creditors? Ramage shrugged his shoulders: from what he had recently seen in the West Indies, the poor fellow would be wiser to stay in England — better the devil you know ...
The next advertisement claimed that the new magic lanterns were "a pleasing family amusement ... They are complete in boxes, each lantern with twelve glass slides, on which are finely painted about sixty grotesque figures which, by reflection, are magnified from a miniature to as large as nature, according to the size of the lanterns."
The rest of the advertisements offered no scope to an imaginative mind, and he looked at his watch again — a quarter past nine. The room was brighter now, and through the window he could see that the cloud was breaking up. With luck it would turn out to be a warm summer's day — and, judging from the noise outside, the prospect was putting new vigour into the street hawkers. He could hear the distant call of an approaching pieman, although Mrs Hanson's pride in her cooking meant that there would be no custom for the poor fellow at Blazey House.
The sheer noise outside! The cries of pedlars and hucksters all trying to outshout each other; the clatter of horses' hooves and the drumming of coach and cartwheels. The fiddler on the corner of Palace Street was tuning up with what sounded like lethargic melancholy. Ye gods and little fishes, how he hated cities in general and London in particular: he was more than irritated by the social obligations that had forced the family to come to London, and his father had been testy from the moment he stepped into the coach. His mother had long since resigned herself to the fact that both the men in her life had had their characters moulded by long periods of watching distant sea horizons, whether looking for an enemy or a landfall, and making decisions in the isolation imposed by command. She was one of the few people who came near to understanding that it made both of them impatient with the triviality and shallowness of London society.
The Admiral enjoyed his life of retirement at St Kew and begrudged every moment spent away from Cornwall, since there was nothing in London that could compensate for giving up his daily ride across land which had belonged to the Ramage family for three hundred years. So far as the old Earl was concerned, there was no drawing-room conversation to equal the chats he had with his tenants and neighbours at St Kew, sharing their good news and their bad. There was not a bunion nor a bad back, a feeble grandmother or a sickly child, that John uglow Ramage, tenth Earl of Blazey and Admiral of the White, did not know all about and, if sympathy or guineas were needed, had not done his utmost to help or cure.
As his son and heir, Ramage hoped he would prove as good a landlord and neighbour when the time came, but since he was just past his twenty-fifth birthday and the Admiral was as lively as a frigate in a Channel lop, it would be a good many years before he was put to the test.
Ramage had been relieved to find that, in the year and a half he had been away in the West indies, his mother seemed to have grown younger while his father had certainly held his own. The reason, his mother had confided in a whisper one evening (touching the side of her nose with her index finger in the conspiratorial gesture used by Italians to indicate secret knowledge), was having Gianna staying with them: her youthful exuberance was infectious, even though, she had added with affection, "The Marchesa di Volterra Has Settled Down!"
Well, he had to take his mother's word for that. Certainly Gianna's tiny figure no longer shook with hatred and anger when anyone mentioned the name Bonaparte, and she no longer wept at the thought of her little kingdom of Volterra and its cheerful people, which she had ruled until Bonaparte's approaching Army of Italy forced her to flee rather than collaborate with the French like her neighbour, the despicable and weak-willed Grand Duke of Tuscany.
Excerpted from Ramage & the Guillotine by Dudley Pope. Copyright © 1975 The Ramage Company Limited. 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.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.