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Ramage & the Rebels
The Lord Ramage Novels, No. 9
By Dudley Pope
McBooks Press, Inc.Copyright © 1978 Dudley Pope
All rights reserved.
"It's not exactly making war, sir," Ramage said, putting as much disapproval in his voice as he dared. "It seems to me to be half-way between poaching and game-keeping. I've never understood why we allow it ourselves."
"It dam' well isn't war," the Admiral said angrily, "it's cold-blooded murder, and these orders —" he tapped the sealed packet on the highly polished table in front of him —" tell you to put a stop to it all. These privateers are no better than pirates. Oh yes, they may have parchment commissions covered with big seals and signed by the king of this or the queen of that, but the fact is they're privateering just for plunder."
He tapped the packet again. "I say in here and I repeat it now, Ramage: any privateer you find, French, Spanish or Dutch, whose captain can't produce a regular commission, then we'll take him before the Admiralty Court and charge him with piracy, and he'll hang from a gibbet along the Palisades. So search well and warn each captain before you take him off his ship — I don't want any of 'em claiming afterwards they had no time to collect their papers. Commission, certificate of registry, charter party, muster list, log — everything. And witnesses — I want witnesses. The privateer's mate and at least two of your officers. Seal up in a packet all the papers you're given and make the privateer captain sign his name beside the seal."
"Yes, sir," said Ramage patiently.
"Yes sir, yes sir," the Admiral repeated angrily, "but just make sure you understand, Ramage: if one of these damned pirates escapes judgement in court because of some technicality that can be attributed to an omission by you, then I'll bring you to trial too, for negligence!"
"Yes, sir," Ramage said deliberately, and he saw a copy of the latest London Gazette tucked under a pile of papers on one side of the table. The now "Commander-in-Chief of His Majesty's Ships and Vessels upon the Jamaica Station" was not going to give his newest and most junior captain the satisfaction of knowing that he had just read half a page about him in the Gazette, detailing his latest exploits on the Leeward Islands Station, nearly a thousand miles to the eastward, at the windward end of the Caribbean. Yet William Foxe-Foote, Vice-Admiral of the Blue, one of the Members of Parliament for Bristol (it was said that bribing the voters to get the seat had cost him more than seventy-five thousand pounds), was by reputation one of the most sly flag officers in the Navy List. It was also said (and looking at the pink and perspiring face with its tiny eyes and bulbous nose, Ramage had no trouble believing it) that he had badgered the First Lord of the Admiralty into giving him the Jamaica Station — the richest in the service for prize-money — so that he could recoup his purse after the Bristol election. Seventy-five thousand pounds a Foote — perhaps the Admiralty realized a fathom of him in London could prove too expensive and agreed to send him out to Jamaica.
"What do you find so funny?" the Admiral demanded.
"I was thinking of the shock these privateersmen are going to get, sir," Ramage said, finding it easy to lie gracefully to a man who was so clearly a politician first and an admiral second, two roles which he combined to further his main ambition, which was to get rich. Ramage recalled some lampoon to the effect that the nation's taxpayers were lucky that there was only one Foote in Old Palace Yard, a neat reference to the space in front of the Houses of Parliament.
"So you are confident you can ferret them out?"
Ramage was thankful for the chance of repeating the one doubt he had, and which Foxe-Foote was trying to ignore. "The coast of the Main, sir, from Maracaibo all the way round to Cartagena, Portobelo and then north to the Mosquito Coast. It's all very shallow, with dozens of bays sheltered by reefs of coral."
"Frightens you, eh? Don't be nervous, boy," the Admiral said, not troubling to hide the sneer in his voice. "You've got a good master on board — leave the navigation to him, and always stand out to seaward at nightfall."
Ramage flushed at the man's insulting crudeness and stupidity. "I'm talking of bays lined with mangroves, littered with cays and almost closed off by coral reefs, sir, where there won't be a couple of fathoms of water. My ship draws sixteen feet. That means any privateer can escape me by getting into one of these bays. Few privateers draw more than ten feet."
"Send the boats in to chase 'em; a dozen Marines to capture the ship and a dozen seamen and a midshipman to sail her out to join you — nothing to it. Wish I was younger; just the sort of fighting orders I always enjoyed getting."
"Of course, sir," Ramage said admiringly, remembering the hundred men that most privateers carried — and a biographical sketch in a recent issue of the Naval Chronicle, the most interesting fact in it being that Vice-Admiral Foxe-Foote had, by design or the fortunes of war, reached flag rank without ever being in action. No man was braver than one who had never been shot at ...
Ramage reached out for his packet of orders but then recalled one of the Admiral's remarks which he might later claim was an order. "Standing out to seaward at night, sir ..."
The Admiral raised his eyebrows questioningly.
"Out here it is more usual to stand in for the land at nightfall, sir," Ramage said cautiously. "If the privateers suspect one of the King's ships is in the offing they take the opportunity of creeping along the coast in the dark using the offshore breeze —"
"You have your orders," the Admiral said abruptly, "so carry 'em out. And don't go burning privateers when you catch 'em: send 'em back here to be condemned. Prize-money for everyone, eh, Ramage? No need to burn money or strand it on a reef, or scuttle it, you know; good market for that type of vessel here in Jamaica; prices are high, so the prize agents tell me. Think you'll have any luck along the Main? At least a prize a week, I should reckon, eh?"
"No, sir," Ramage said quietly. "I'll probably sight one a day, but that'll be all. If I was commanding a privateer," he added, "I'd guarantee no frigate would catch me, nor would her boats get within a musket shot."
Admiral Foxe-Foote's face dropped. Now he reminded Ramage more of an unsuccessful haberdasher than a flag officer, with the skin of his long, thin and bony face tightening and slackening like a flag in a breeze to signal his reaction to everything going on round him. "Not catch any privateers?" he almost whispered, as though unable to believe his ears. "But ... but I've just given you written orders!"
Yet Foxe-Foote was far from sure of himself: when brought up all standing by a chance remark, he was usually quick enough to realize he had made a mistake or forgotten something. Now he saw this young Captain was standing up and tucking his orders into his pocket, and in a moment would be taking his leave and calling for his sword and hat.
"I hardly expected to hear this sort of talk from you, Ramage," he said in a voice drenched with sorrow and disappointment. "From some of these other captains I've inherited on this station, men who've had it too easy for too long and who've grown fat and slothful, yes, I can understand a lack of enthusiasm; a lack of fighting spirit. Understand but not condone, you understand. Their dilatory methods of patrolling in the past are the reason why the Caribbean is now swarming with enemy privateers. I was hoping you'd be an example to them. But now ..." he shook his head sadly, the picture of a bishop who had just discovered that his wife lusted after a choirboy.
"I don't know about the other captains, sir," Ramage said quietly, "because I've only just arrived on this station. But for myself I can't take a ship drawing sixteen feet into ten feet of water without running aground, and you've already refused me a tender or some sort of shallow-draught vessel."
Foxe-Foote was enough of a politician to know when it was time to change sides. "If you had such a vessel with you — a schooner, say — do you guarantee to root out those privateers along the Main?"
"Only a braggart could guarantee something like that," Ramage said easily, "but I would not regard it as good news if I was a privateersman, sir."
"The schooner that came with you from the Leeward Islands, the Créole, is she suitable?"
"Yes, sir, absolutely ideal."
"Why are you so sure? Have you sailed in her?"
"I captured her, sir," Ramage said. "My former Fourth Lieutenant commands her."
"Oh, yes," Foxe-Foote said lamely, "that action of yours off Diamond Rock. Very creditable, too."
"May I take it she will be placed under my orders, sir?"
"Yes, I suppose so. But you young fellows seem to think that frigates and schooners and cutters grow on trees. Very well, I'll send orders to her commander, and you can have him on board to give him your instructions. I want both of you under way by tomorrow morning!"
Foxe-Foote watched Ramage give a slight bow and leave the room. There was nothing in Ramage's behaviour about which a flag officer could complain; in fact his manners were perfect. But Foxe-Foote had the uncomfortable feeling that this young frigate Captain was contemptuous of him. Officers of aristocratic birth were frequently offhand with the less well born, and there was little doubt that few came from more aristocratic families than this fellow Ramage — his father's earldom was one of the oldest in the country — but it was more than that. Admirals should not feel at a disadvantage when dealing with junior captains ...
The Admiral reached out for the Gazette, opened it and began reading the small print. It gave two despatches to the Admiralty and written by Ramage, describing his last two operations. They were remarkable by anyone's standards, even though written in what was obviously a flat style. Either action could have won him a knighthood, although he hardly needed it because he bore one of his father's titles.
The prize-money from those two actions alone ... and the admiral's share had gone to the Commander-in-Chief at the Leeward Islands, that blockhead Henry Davis. If only Ramage had been sailing from Jamaica ... It must amount to thousands of pounds for both Ramage and Davis. Just think of prize-money on that scale — and the young fellow never used his title either. He was Lord Ramage, and when his father died he'd be the Earl of Blazey. Yet few people knew it. Foxe-Foote picked up a pencil and scribbled on a piece of paper. "Sir William Foxe-Foote," he wrote, then added "Kt." He crossed that out and substituted "Bt." He would probably get a knighthood fairly soon — it was almost automatic when one became the Commander-in-Chief of a station like Jamaica. But a baronetcy tended to come to a naval officer only after a successful battle. That young upstart Horatio Nelson had received one after the Battle of Cape St Vincent. Wasn't this boy Ramage in that battle? Didn't he lose a ship, a cutter or something, while trying to prevent some Spanish three-deckers from escaping?
Foxe-Foote cursed the tropical heat, which made his uniform stick to him like dough on a baker's fingers, but smiled to himself and wrote, "Lord Foote." He'd have to watch the territorial part of the title, since he had had the misfortune to be born in a village with an odd name — one could hardly be "Baron Foote of Piddleditch in the County of Essex." But he'd get a baronetcy if it took his last penny, and that was the advantage of entering politics. In the sea service you'd be lucky to get a baronetcy after a lifetime's work. A baronetcy came only after a great victory, and then to the commander-in-chief. In either case it meant risking having a round shot take your head off. That was the comforting thing about relying on a political title — the only risk was the party losing power, but a few votes for the party, a dozen entries into the "Aye" lobby in Parliament, could earn you a baronetcy quicker than a dozen cutting-out expeditions, and without the slightest risk to wind or limb.
Yet ... yet ... it wasn't a title or the prize-money or the handsome face that gave young Ramage that — well, what was it? Not an air of superiority, because obviously he didn't know he had it. Assurance? Confidence? It was hard to define. Certainly it was built on a foundation of confidence, because the Gazette showed he had a natural courage, quite apart from his reputation in the Navy. Confidence could and did take him into action and brought him out alive and well. Yet he had sat there on the other side of the table, Foxe-Foote suddenly realized, quietly and modestly, and he had manoeuvred his Admiral into giving him just what he wanted.
Earlier that morning, before Ramage arrived, Foxe-Foote had been determined not to be impressed by this youngster who some men reckoned would either have been killed in a glorious battle or be the youngest admiral in the flag list by the time he was forty. He had quite deliberately given him orders more suited to some callow young frigate captain who owed his promotion to influence rather than experience. Chasing privateers was work that had to be done, but it brought no glory and, for all his remarks, Foxe-Foote knew it could bring little or no prize-money for anyone. A captured privateer was worth the price of its hull: it carried no cargo, which was where the profit was. The favoured few, the frigate captains who looked to him for patronage, were already patrolling where the real prizes were to be found — heavily-laden Spanish merchantmen off Cartagena and Havana, San Juan in Puerto Rico and Santo Domingo, or Frenchmen making for Guadeloupe ... Well, he had not asked for Ramage; the Admiralty had sent him to help sort out the mess left by the previous commander-in-chief.
The only job left, one without honour, money or glory, was chasing these damned privateers who, under a variety of flags, were seizing any British merchant ships they sighted, and taking them into — where? Mostly Curaçao, it seemed; the little Dutch island off the Main with its splendid harbour appeared to have recently turned itself into a privateers' haven. A row of three islands, rather, the beginning of the alphabet — Aruba, Bonaire at each end and Curaçao in the middle. Britain had no ally in the West Indies now: if an island or ship was not British, it was enemy. Spain, France, Netherlands — the only exception was Denmark, which had two or three tiny islands east of Puerto Rico.
The way this boy stared at you — it wasn't exactly insolence, but Foxe-Foote admitted it made him feel uncomfortable. The eyes were deep-set over those high cheekbones, and he tended to move his whole head rather than swivel his eyes so that when he turned to look at you it seemed he was turning his whole body, like training a gun, and this gave every look far more significance.
He certainly resembled his father, the old Admiral. The same rather narrow face, beak-like nose and thick eyebrows. Two scars over his right eyebrow, one newer than the other, pinker, and possibly sword cuts. Or from falling out of trollops' beds, or tripping over while in drink. No, he was not a drinker; Foxe-Foote was sure of that, and thankful. There was none of the slight tremble in the hand, the slight but continuous perspiration, the shifty eyes, the excuse for a drink: indeed, Ramage had refused a rum punch, despite the heat of the day.
Excerpted from Ramage & the Rebels by Dudley Pope. Copyright © 1978 Dudley Pope. Excerpted by permission of McBooks Press, Inc..
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