“As ever, Kent evokes the blood and smoke of battle in crimson-vivid prose.” — Mail on Sunday
Relentless Pursuitby Alexander Kent
It is December 1815 and Adam Bolitho's orders are unequivocal. As captain of His Majesty's frigate Unrivalled of forty-six guns, he is required to 'repair in the first instance to Freetown, Sierra Leone, and reasonable assist the senior officer of the patrolling squadron'. But all efforts of the British anti-slavery patrols to curb a flourishing trade in/i>
It is December 1815 and Adam Bolitho's orders are unequivocal. As captain of His Majesty's frigate Unrivalled of forty-six guns, he is required to 'repair in the first instance to Freetown, Sierra Leone, and reasonable assist the senior officer of the patrolling squadron'. But all efforts of the British anti-slavery patrols to curb a flourishing trade in human life are hampered by unsuitable ships, and the indifference of a government more concerned with old enemies made distrustful allies, and the continuing belligerence of the Dey of Algiers, which threatens to ignite a full-scale war.
For Adam, also, there is no peace. Lost in grief and loneliness, his uncle's death still unavenged, he is uncertain of all but his identity as a man of war. The sea is his element, the ship his only home, and a reckless, perhaps doomed attack on an impregnable stronghold his only hope of settling the bitterest of debts.
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The Bolitho Novels: 25
By Alexander Kent
McBooks Press, Inc.Copyright © 2001 Bolitho Maritime Productions
All rights reserved.
NO TURNING BACK
Plymouth, always one of England's most important and strategically situated seaports, seemed strangely quiet, subdued. Even Plymouth Sound, notorious for its fast tides and unexpectedly fierce squalls, was almost still but for some cruising catspaws from a light offshore breeze.
But it was cold, the air bitter like a knife edge, and only a few small local craft seemed willing to contest it.
It was mid-December, six months to the day since the news had broken of the victory at Waterloo, and the final surrender of the Corsican tyrant who had held power for so long. Boys had grown to manhood in the course of that same conflict, plough hands and stable lads alike had been transformed into sailors and soldiers.
Now it was over, and seaports like Plymouth which had given so much and so many were still numbed by the reality of peace and its aftermath.
Even when the noon gun shattered the silence and rolled its echoes from the Hoe to the old battery at Penlee Point, only a few gulls rose screaming from the water, the spirits of dead Jacks, the sailors called them. Maybe they felt it too.
From here great fleets and powerful squadrons had weighed anchor, and had headed out to every part of the world where England's enemies were at large, and famous names, the Nile, Copenhagen, Trafalgar, had filled the hearts and minds, particularly of those who did not have to fight, and had no loved ones facing the merciless broadsides which took the lives of volunteers and pressed men without discrimination.
At the end of the war the fleet had been at its strongest, with 240 ships of the line, some 317 frigates and countless other smaller vessels, ready and able to perform whatever task their lordships of Admiralty might dictate.
There were ships here now, plenty of them. It was a Sunday, but in those other times it would have made no difference when the noon gun was fired. There had been signals to be exchanged, chronometers to be checked: the daily routine continued.
But today many of those same ships were like ghosts, some with upper yards sent down and boats removed for storage ashore, and in some cases the scars of a last, desperate sea fight still unre-paired, as if their companies had been spirited away. Ships already laid up in ordinary, some waiting to be hulked or used for storing unwanted equipment; a few would become floating prisons. And some, perhaps, would live on to fight again.
Only one small craft moved with any apparent purpose and direction. It was a gig, oars rising and falling precisely and unhurriedly, the crew smartly turned out in tarred hats and matching blue jackets, a coxswain with one hand on the tiller bar, a midshipman beside him, eyes on the passage among the silent ships, the phantom fleet.
And in the sternsheets, boatcloak thrown back over his shoulders to reveal his gleaming epaulettes, was the captain, who needed no reminding of the significance of this day.
Captain Adam Bolitho did not glance at the passing ships, but it was a moment he would never forget. He would know the names of some, even of many of them. Silent and deserted now, their gun ports empty like staring eyes, but he would hear the cries and the wild cheering, still audible amidst the darker memories of war at sea.
The seaports were full of reminders, men crippled and blinded and others left to beg on the streets. And there would be many more now, thrown on the beach while the fleet was cut to the bone, their courage and sacrifice forgotten. Adam gripped the old sword beneath his cloak until his fingers throbbed. Emotion, pride, anger, it was all there on this bitter, cleansing day.
He turned and looked up as the gig passed through the shadow of an anchored seventy-four, an old two-decker like Hyperion. Against the bleak, cloudless sky he saw a solitary figure standing on a gangway to watch the gig as they pulled past.
Then very slowly he raised his hat, and held it above his head in salute until the jutting stern hid him from view. A watchman? Someone still finding refuge in the world which had rejected him? Or just another ghost?
He heard the midshipman clear his throat. He was new; they had met for the first time when the gig had picked him up at the Queen's Stairs. Another young hopeful, nervous with his captain in his care.
Adam had seen the wary glance from Luke Jago, his coxswain. He would allow nothing to go wrong. No matter what he thought or said, he would know what this day meant to his captain. Just as Jago would have known where and when to collect him without a signal having been made, or any instructions given.
He felt the tiller move slightly and looked along the boat, over the heads of the oarsmen, their breath hanging in the cold air like steam. Like that first day, just over a year ago, in this same place. He stared at his ship.
When I took command.
He had been away from the ship for two weeks and had barely had time to think over and remember that past year. The sea fights, the triumphs and the pain, official visits and others no less important, to him at least. And all the while he had looked forward to this moment. Coming back. Like being made whole again.
It was something like a shock, nevertheless. The ship had been moved during his absence and now lay at her cable, well clear of all the other vessels, and even her appearance came as a surprise. The familiar buff paint around her hull had been replaced by white, so that her strakes and black gun ports along either side made an even sharper, chequered pattern, clean and fresh against the stained and deserted hulks nearby.
His Britannic Majesty's frigate Unrivalled of 46 guns was one of the first to wear the new peacetime colours. She was also the first ship of her name on the Navy List.
He stood up in the boat as the hull rose above the tossed oars. And he was her first captain.
It was enough. There was nothing else.
The bowman had hooked on, and the side party would be waiting, faces, new or old, ready to receive him.
What had I expected? That they would take her from me?
He glanced at the midshipman, but the youth's name would not come.
"That was well done."
The boy blushed, and Jago remarked, "Mr Martyns is learning fast, sir."
Adam nodded. It was Jago's way. He would remember next time.
The calls squealed and he heard the slap of muskets as the Royal Marine guard presented arms in salute.
It was all as he had expected. The ensign curling against the cold sky, the seamen, faces still tanned from Unrivalled's service in the Mediterranean. The smell of fresh paint, like that other December day a year ago.
He saw none of it.
Being back was enough.
Lieutenant Leigh Galbraith strode in from beneath Unrivalled's poop and ran his eyes over the main deck. Everything was in order. He had made certain that nothing had been left to chance. Today the captain was returning; his own period of temporary command would soon be over.
He frowned as the hard light reflected from the water. He had been pulled around the ship as soon as the hands had been piped to work, and had still been surprised by her appearance. The white paint took some getting used to, almost frivolous compared with the moored hulks nearby, and only the experienced eye could discern the new timbers which had repaired damage suffered in their savage exchange with the frigate Triton only months ago. Some of the repairs had been carried out at Gibraltar and the rest here at Plymouth, where Unrivalled's life had begun. Where Galbraith himself had been given another chance. He was lucky and he knew it. And with the whole fleet being cut down, halved, some said, he should count his blessings and leave the bitterness to others less fortunate.
Galbraith was 31, and he had spent nineteen years of his life in the navy. He knew and had wanted nothing else, except a command of his own. And that he had been granted. His previous captain had given him the highest recommendation, and his reward had been the little brig Vixen. Not a fifth-rate like Unrivalled, but his own, and the first step to the coveted post rank.
He saw Partridge the boatswain, big fists on his hips as he explained forcefully what work he needed done in the foretop. Thank God for men like Partridge, he thought. The backbone of any man-of-war, they were the true professionals, Partridge, Stranace the gunner, probably the oldest man aboard, and Joshua Cristie the sailing master, the best Galbraith had known. A man who never wasted words, but when he spoke it was with authority and a complete understanding of the tides, stars and winds which were his world.
As the frigate's first lieutenant, Galbraith was most aware of and concerned with the shortages. They were more than fifty men under strength, despite their presence in this naval harbour. He smiled grimly. Or perhaps because of it.
Apart from those they had lost, killed or badly wounded in the last battle, some had been paid off or had gone to other ships. But a few of the old hands had remained, even some of the hard men like Campbell, who had paid for his insolence and contempt for authority with several floggings in this commission alone. He seemed to find some brutal satisfaction in displaying his scarred back, which looked as if it had been clawed by some savage beast. A dangerous man, and yet he had been one of the first to volunteer for the attack on the corsair's chebecks when they had pulled alongside with enough explosives to kill every one of them. Campbell had been a tower of strength, but he would sneer openly at anyone who suggested he had acted out of a sense of duty or discipline.
There were others like Campbell. Men who claimed to hate everything the navy represented, and more especially the officers who upheld it.
So why did they stay, when they now had the chance to quit?
Galbraith saw Luxmore, the captain of the Royal Marine detachment, speaking with one of his sergeants. Whatever went on around them, no matter how cramped the ship, they somehow remained a separate entity. Even their quarters were called "the barracks." Luxmore had seen plenty of fighting, and he had a good rapport with his marines. Maybe that was enough. Galbraith looked away. Or was he congratulating himself on his advanced promotion? The debonair Captain Bosanquet had been killed that day. Like me, then. Thankful to have survived, and to have a ship, because of fear of the unknown.
He saw the boy Napier, the cabin servant, pausing to stare at the land. He probably knew the captain's thoughts better than anyone. Fourteen years old, serious and hard-working, and obviously devoted to Captain Adam Bolitho. An unusual relationship, he thought. Bolitho was not always the easiest man to understand, and had sometimes apologised for his own intolerance. As if something or somebody was driving him, forcing him on.
And yet with Napier he always seemed to have time to explain, to describe, to elaborate. The only way he'll learn, he once said. As if he saw something of his own youth in him. That must have been stormy enough, from what Galbraith had heard, and had seen for himself. Like that last engagement, when Bolitho had given chase to the enemy frigate captained by the renegade Spaniard, Martinez. He had deliberately misinterpreted their admiral's signal to remain on station and leave the pursuit to a smaller frigate which had been outgunned and outsailed from the start, and they had saved the merchantman Aranmore, which had been carrying important passengers. He glanced at the companion ladder and remembered Bolitho holding the woman's hand, kissing it. They could have been quite alone.
Galbraith began to pace the deck, his hands clasped behind him. Was it that as well? Had she reminded him yet again of the girl he had hoped to marry, and had lost when he had put his brief command first?
He thought too of Bolitho's reluctance to become close to anyone in his new command. He had lost a frigate, Anemone, fighting a more powerful American ship, had been taken prisoner and had escaped. It was as if he had found it impossible since then to reach out, to accept, and to trust.
And there was yet another side to the man, a stark contrast. Cristie had told Galbraith about the day when he had openly disagreed with his captain. For Cristie it was a thing almost unheard of. Galbraith's raiding party had been amongst little-known islands, and the master had advised that it was unsafe to take Unrivalled through a channel which was virtually uncharted, and which might rip out the ship's keel. A captain's total responsibility ...
Cristie had confided after the successful recovery of the raiding party, "Fair mad he was. I'll roast in hell before I leave Galbraith to die in their hands, he said. I don't go much for praying, but I tell you, I nearly did that time!"
And when they had stood together in the church at Falmouth, the first time Unrivalled had dropped anchor there. The church full of people, the streets also, and total silence for the man who had died at sea, the captain's famous uncle, Sir Richard Bolitho.
Lady Catherine Somervell had been there with them. So beautiful, so alone despite the crowds. Where was she now? What would become of her? The woman who had defied society and had been Sir Richard's lover and inspiration, and had won the heart of the country.
The deck moved slightly, and he saw the ship in his thoughts as clearly as he had this morning. A thoroughbred. Like the carved inscription beneath her figurehead. Second to None.
Unrivalled was eager to move. The first and perhaps the last of her kind: in the yard where she had been laid down, built and launched, Galbraith had seen her only sister ship. The same fine lines, the pride of any craftsman. But abandoned. Unfinished. Dead.
He stared along the deck, at the two lines of eighteen-pounders, their tackles and breechings taut and neat, and recalled Massie, who had been the next senior in the wardroom. A flag officer's son and a gunnery man to his fingertips, not one you would ever know. Quiet and self-contained even on the day he had been killed, shot down as he had rallied his people.
He had been replaced here in Plymouth by Lieutenant George Varlo, a complete contrast. Lively, talkative, and in his mid -twenties, he must have had some influence; every appointment now was like pure gold. Galbraith had decided that he would bide his time with Varlo. He almost smiled. Maybe he had got that from the captain.
He turned in his pacing as the noon gun echoed mournfully across the water and the watching veterans. Even without the large, old -fashioned watch he had always carried, Captain Bolitho would be right on time.
He heard Midshipman Sandell's sharp, petulant voice, berating one of the new men. They were over fifty hands short of approved complement. Petty tyrants like Sandell would be no loss at all.
"Gig's in sight!" That was Bellairs, the third lieutenant, who had been the senior midshipman when Unrivalled had commissioned. It would be a challenge to him, Galbraith thought. Some of the old Jacks would recall him as just another "young gentleman," neither fish nor fowl, and still look for some weakness to exploit. But he was a popular choice and had settled into the wardroom well, and seemed grateful for his change of circumstance.
He smiled again and walked to the entry port. The marines were fallen in and dressed in two impeccable ranks, swaying very gently to the ship's quiet motion.
He saw O'Beirne, the portly surgeon, hurrying to the companion, down to his own world on the orlop, where some had died and others had survived.
He watched the gig returning, pulling around one of the abandoned ships. Bolitho's coxswain was another rebel, or so it had first appeared.
The boat was turning toward the main chains, the bowman already standing with his hook raised.
"Royal Marines, ready!"
The boatswain's mates moistened their silver calls on their tongues and gazed at the entry port.
Galbraith gripped his sword and pressed it to his side.
Excerpted from Relentless Pursuit by Alexander Kent. Copyright © 2001 Bolitho Maritime Productions. 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 is the author of twenty-four acclaimed books featuring Richard Bolitho. Under his own name, Douglas Reeman, he has written over thirty novels and two non-fiction books.
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