Ramageby Dudley Pope
The young lieutenant takes up special orders direct from Nelson himself which bring news of a mission close to his own heart. In a daring foray, under the very nose of the French Mediterranean fleet, Ramage is to sail his tiny cutter close in to the Italian shore and rescue a party of stranded aristocrats from Napoleon’s fast-advancing army.
Read an Excerpt
The Lord Ramage Novel, No. 1
By Dudley Pope
McBooks Press, Inc.Copyright © 1965 The Ramage Company Limited
All rights reserved.
Ramage felt dazed and grabbed at the thoughts rushing through his head: he guessed it was a nightmare, so he would soon wake up safely in his cabin; but for the moment his mind was apparently separated from his body, floating along free like a puff of smoke in the wind. All that noise sounded like continuous thunder and now he was beginning to wake up, hesitating and unwilling to open his eyes and slide from blissful and contented drowsiness into the sharp bright light of consciousness.
Yet he felt a vague uneasiness, wondering if he had overslept and would be late on watch. Uneasiness gave way to apprehension as slowly he realized the thunder was of gunfire: from an enemy's broadsides, punctuated by the occasional deep-chested, bronchitic cough of his own ship's 12-pounder cannons firing, followed by the familiar cartwheels-across-a-wooden-bridge rumble of the trucks as the carriages jerked back in recoil until they reached the limits of the thick rope breechings, which groaned under the strain of halting them.
Then, as his sense of smell returned and the acrid fumes of gun smoke burnt the back of his nostrils, he realized —
"Mr Ramage, sir! ... Mr Ramage, sir!"
It was his name, but they were shouting from a long way off, reminding him of his childhood when he had gone over the fields and into the woods and one of the servants called him back for a meal. "Master Nicholas," they'd shout, "you come this minute; 'is Lordship's terrible angry when you're late." But Father was never angry; in fact —
"Mr Ramage! Mr Ramage — wake up, sir!"
But that isn't a servant's voice — there's no Cornish burr: it's a boy calling — a frightened and almost hysterical boy with a sharp cockney accent.
"Mr Ramage — ohmygawd do wake up, sir!"
Now a man's voice joined in, and they began shaking him as well. Heavens, his head hurt: he felt as if he had been bludgeoned. The enormous grunt and rumbling interrupting them must be another 12pounder going off close by and slamming back in recoil.
Ramage opened his eyes. His body still seemed remote and he was startled to find himself lying with his face pressed against the deck. The pattern on the planking was really most extraordinary. He noticed — as if seeing it for the first time — that constant scrubbing and holystoning with sand and water had worn away little alleys of soft wood between the harder ridges of the grain. And someone must swab up the blood.
Blood staining the scrubbed planks: the words forming in his mind shocked him into realizing he was now conscious, but still curiously detached, as if looking down from the masthead at his own body sprawled flat on its face between two guns, nose pressed against the deck, arms and legs flung out, like a rag doll on a rubbish heap.
They shook him violently and then rolled him over.
"Come on, sor ... come, Mr Ramage, wake up!"
He opened his eyes reluctantly but his head spun for several moments before he could see their faces, and even then they were distant, as though viewed through the wrong end of a telescope. Finally, by concentrating hard he managed to focus the boy's face more clearly.
God, was that his voice — a rasping croak like a holystone being dragged across a dry deck?
"Yes — what's the matter?"
The effort of speaking brought Ramage's memory back with a rush: it was a stupid question: everything was the matter when late one sunny September afternoon in the year of Our Lord 1796 a French 74-gun line-of-battle ship, the Barras, trapped His Majesty's frigate Sibella, of 28 guns ...
"Ohmygawdsir, it's awful," gabbled the boy. "All dead they are, sir, an' a shot caught the Captain right —"
"Steady boy: who sent you?"
"Bosun, sir — said to tell you you was in command now, sir: everyone else's killed and the Carpenter's Mate says there's four feet o' water in the well and the pumps smashed, sir — can't you come on deck, sir? 'Ere, I'll 'elp you," he added pleadingly.
The urgent, terrified note in the boy's voice and the phrase "You was in command now, sir" helped clear Ramage's head (which was beginning to throb in time with the pumping of his heart) but the significance was chilling. Every junior lieutenant dreamed of commanding a frigate in action; but that terrible rumbling a few hundred yards away — as though some giant god of mythology was hurling bolts of lightning through the frigate's hull, butchering men and timber alike — was the French line-of-battle ship firing her broadside, some 35 heavy guns. The spasmodic coughs and grunts close by were obviously all that remained of the frigate's puny broadside of 14 light guns.
No, that was not included in a junior lieutenant's dream of glory; nor was having the command thrust upon him when most of his wits had been scattered by a blow on the head and so far refused to return. Still, this deck was deuced comfortable...
"Come on, sor: I'll 'elp you up."
Ramage opened his eyes again and, as he recognized one of the seamen — a fellow Cornishman named Higgins, or Briggins, or some such name — realized he had been slithering back into sleep or unconsciousness, or whatever it was that drained the strength from his body and befogged his brain.
Higgins — or was it Briggins? Oh, it didn't matter — stank of sweat: cloying yet sharp, but it did not burn the nostrils like smoke from the guns. As they hoisted him to his feet Ramage closed his eyes to stop his head spinning, and he heard Higgins or Briggins roundly cursing another seaman: "Wrop his bloddy arm round yor bloddy neck, else 'e'll fall down. Now hold his wrist. That's it. Now walk 'im, you heathen Patlander!"
Ramage's legs flopped one in front of the other while the Cornishman on one side and the Irishman on the other dragged him along: they probably had plenty of experience of getting a drunken shipmate out of a tavern.
In front, through the smoke swirling across the decks and curling into strange wreathing patterns as it was caught by eddies of wind coming in at the gun ports, danced the boy, whom he now recognized as the First Lieutenant's servant. The late First Lieutenant's servant, he corrected himself.
"What the 'ell now? 'Ow are we ter get 'im up the ladder?"
The ladder from the main deck up to the gangway and quarterdeck has eight rungs — Ramage was pleased with himself for remembering that — and is only wide enough for one man. Eight rungs mean nine steps to the top, and every one of those eight rungs is mine to command.
The stupidity of the thought shocked Ramage into realizing he was making no real effort to pull himself together: the two seamen could carry him no farther: he was on his own: up those eight rungs was the quarterdeck where, as the new commanding officer, he now belonged: where several score men were looking to him as their leader.
"Where's a tub?" he asked, freeing himself from the men's grasp.
"Just here, sor."
He lurched a couple of paces and knelt beside it. When the ship beat to quarters before the action began, small tubs of water had been placed near the guns for the men to soak the sponges used to swab the barrels of the guns. As he plunged his head into the water he gave a gasp of pain, and groping fingers found a big swelling and a long gash across the back of his scalp. The gash was not deep, but enough to explain why he had been unconscious: probably a flying splinter of wood.
Ducking his head again, he swilled water round in his mouth, and spat it out, then pulled the wet hair back from his forehead, took several deep breaths, and stood up. The sudden movement set his head spinning again but already he felt stronger; the muscles were coming back to his legs.
At the foot of the ladder he paused, a spasm of fear twisting his stomach: at the top carnage and chaos awaited him. Decisions, vital decisions, had to be made and orders given — by someone who had been below, commanding one division of the guns for most of the action, his field of view restricted to what could be seen through a gun port, and unconscious for the rest of the time.
As he struggled up the ladder Ramage found he was talking to himself, like a child learning something by rote: the Captain, First and Second Lieutenants must have been killed, which leaves me the next senior. The boy said the Bosun had sent word that I'm in command, so presumably the Master was also dead, otherwise the message would have come from him. Well, thank God the Bosun survived, and let's hope the Surgeon's been spared and stayed sober.
How many of the Sibella's guns have fired in the last few minutes? Four or five, and they are all on the maindeck, which means the upperdeck guns and carronades must be out of action. With only four or five guns firing on the engaged side, how many of the ship's company are still alive? There'd been 164 answering last Sunday's muster.
Two more rungs and I'll be at the top. Another broadside from the Barras on its way: strange how gunfire across water sounds like thunder — and now the tearing canvas sound of passing round shot, and the horrible punching which shook the ship to the keel as more shot crashed into the hull.
More screams and more men killed. His fault, too: if only he'd hurried he might have done something that'd saved them.
Now his head was level with the narrow gangway running the length of the ship, joining fo'c's'le to quarterdeck, and he realized it would soon be twilight. Then he was on the gangway itself, staggering over to the bulwark. But he hardly recognized the ship: on the fo'c's'le the carronade on each bow had been wrenched from its slide and piles of bodies showed the crews had been killed at the same time. The ornamented belfry and galley chimney had vanished; great sections of the bulwark along the starboard side were smashed in and dozens of rolled-up hammocks lay scattered across the deck, torn from their usual stowed positions in nettings on top of the bulwarks.
Looking right aft across the quarterdeck he saw that all the rest of the carronades had been torn from their slides, and round each of those on the starboard side were more bodies. One section of the main capstan was smashed in, leaving the gilded crown on top hanging askew; and instead of the double wheel just forward of the mizen-mast, manned by a couple of Quartermasters, there was just a gaping hole in the deck. Shot had bitten chunks out of the mizen-mast — and the mainmast. And the foremast, too. And bodies — it seemed to Ramage there were more bodies sprawled about the deck than men in the whole ship's company; yet seamen were still running about — and others were working the remaining guns on the deck below. He saw four or five Marines crouching down behind the bulwark abreast the mizen-mast re-loading their muskets.
And the Barras? Just as Ramage looked out through a gun port the Bosun ran up, but he told him to wait a moment. God, what a terrifying sight she was! Silhouetted against the western horizon, below which the sun had set some ten minutes ago, the great ship seemed like a huge island fortress in the sea, black and menacing, apparently impregnable. And so far as the Sibella is concerned, Ramage thought bitterly, she is impregnable. She was under a maintopsail only and steering parallel with the Sibella about eight hundred yards away.
Ramage glanced across the ship, over the larboard side. Almost abeam and perhaps a couple of miles away was the solid bulk of the Argentario peninsula, a sprawling mass of rock joined to the mainland of Italy by a couple of narrow causeways. Monte Argentario itself, the highest of the peaks, was just abaft the beam. The Barras, ranging up to seaward, had the Sibella neatly trapped, like an assassin with his victim against a wall.
"Well, Bosun ..."
"Thank Christ you're 'ere, sir: I thought you'd gone too. You all right, sir? You're covered in blood."
"A bang on the head. What's the position?"
The Bosun's face, blackened by smoke from the guns, was striped where runs of perspiration following the wrinkles showed the tanned skin beneath and gave him an almost comical appearance, like a sorrowful bloodhound.
Obviously making a great effort to keep his voice calm and not forget anything in his report to the new commanding officer, he waved a hand aft. "You can see this lot; sir: wheel's smashed and so's the tiller and rudder head — can't rig tackles 'cos the rudder pendents is shot away. Ship's just about steering herself, with us helping with the sheets and braces. Chain pump's smashed, so's the head pumps. The Carpenter's Mate says there's four feet o' water in the well and rising fast. The foremast will go by the board any minute — just look at it, I dunno what's holding it up. Mainmast is sprung in two places with shot still embedded, and the mizen in three."
"And the butcher's bill?"
"About fifty dead and sixty or so wounded, sir. One round of grapeshot did for the Captain and the First Lieutenant. The Surgeon and Purser were — "
"Belay all that: where's the Carpenter's Mate? Pass the word for him."
While the Bosun turned away, Ramage glanced back at the Barras. Hadn't she just come round to larboard a little, just a few degrees, so her course was now converging slightly with the Sibella's? He thought he could see a movement indicating seamen trimming the maintopsail yard round a fraction. Did they want to get even closer?
The Sibella was sailing at about four knots and yawing through four points. She would steer herself better if the sail aft was reduced, so that the foretopsail pulled her along.
"Bosun! Clew up the main and mizen topsails and set the spritsail."
With no sails drawing on main and mizen masts, the wind would not tend to push the ship's stern round, and the spritsail, set under the bowsprit, would help the fore-topsail, though it was almost too small to help much in such a light wind.
As the Bosun's shouts set the men to work, Ramage saw the Carpenter's Mate approaching: he seemed to have smeared more tallow on his body than on the cone-shaped wooden shot plugs which he had been hammering into the holes in the hull.
"Well, make your report."
"More'n four feet o' water in the well, no pumps, six or more shot betwixt wind and water, an' three or more below the waterline — must have hit as she rolled, sir."
"Very well: sound the well again and report to me at once!"
Four feet of water. Mathematics was Ramage's weak point and he tried to concentrate, knowing the Barras's next broadside was due any moment. Four feet of water: well, the Sibella's draught is just over fifteen feet, and every seven tons of stores taken on board put her an inch lower in the water. How many tons did that four feet of water swilling about down below represent? What did it matter, anyway, he thought impatiently: what matters is the Carpenter's Mate's next report.
"Bosun — have some men cut away the anchors. Tell them to keep their heads down: we don't want any more casualties."
Might as well try to get rid of some weight to compensate for the water flooding in. That would save about five tons in weight — decrease the Sibella's draught by just over half an inch. It's almost ludicrous, but it'll give the men something to do: with so many guns out of action seamen were now wandering around aimlessly, waiting for orders. He could save plenty of weight by heaving damaged guns over the side, but with the few men available it would take too long.
The Carpenter's Mate was back. "Five feet, sir, and the more she goes down the more shot holes there are being submerged."
And, thought Ramage, the deeper the holes the more the pressure of water ...
"Can't you plug them?"
"Most of 'em, are too big, sir — all jagged. We could fother a sail over 'em if we got the way off the ship ..."
"When did you last sound?"
"Not above quarter of an hour all told, sir."
One foot of water in fifteen minutes. If it took about seven tons to put her down an inch, how many for a foot? Twelve inches times seven tons — eighty-four: that meant in fifteen minutes at most eighty-four tons had flooded in. How much more could she take before she sank or capsized? God knows — nothing about that in seamanship manuals. Nor would the Carpenter's Mate know. Nor the constructors, even if they were within hail. Right, let's have some action Lieutenant Ramage.
Excerpted from Ramage by Dudley Pope. Copyright © 1965 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.
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Meet the Author
Dudley Bernard Egerton Pope was born in 1925 into an ancient Cornish seafaring family. He joined the Merchant Navy at the age of sixteen and spent much of his early life at sea. He was torpedoed during the Second World War and resulting spinal injuries plagued him for the rest of his life. Towards the end of the war Pope turned to journalism, becoming the Naval and Defence Correspondent for the 'London Evening News'. At this time he also researched naval history and in time became an authority on the Napoleonic era and Nelson's exploits, resulting in several well received volumes, especially on the Battles of Copenhagen and Trafalgar. Encouraged by Hornblower creator CS Forester, he also began writing fiction using his own experiences in the Navy and his extensive historical research as a basis. In 1965, he wrote 'Ramage', the first of his highly successful series of novels following the exploits of the heroic 'Lord Nicholas Ramage' during the Napoleonic Wars. Another renowned series is centred on 'Ned Yorke', a buccaneer in the seventeenth century Caribbean and then with a descendant following the 'Yorke' family naval tradition when involved in realistic secret operations during the Second World War. Dudley Pope lived aboard boats whenever possible, along with his wife and daughter, and this was where he wrote the majority of his novels. Most of his adult life was spent in the Caribbean and in addition to using the locale for fictional settings he also wrote authoritatively on naval history of the region, including a biography of the buccaneer Sir Henry Morgan. He died in 1997 aged seventy one. 'The first and still favourite rival to Hornblower' - Daily Mirror
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