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So Near So Far
By C. Northcote Parkinson
McBooks Press, Inc.Copyright © 1981 C. Northcote Parkinson
All rights reserved.
"AGE AND LENGTH of service bring with them certain privileges. I claim one of them in proposing that we presently drink the health of our host, Captain Richard Delancey."
It was Captain Savage who was on his feet and fairly launched on a speech. With some reluctance, those who had been about to drink put their glasses down again.
"Before we drink I shall explain in a few words why Delancey has won our admiration. From the stern window we can glimpse his prize, the French merchantman Bonaparte, captured the day before yesterday and brought into harbour almost undamaged save in her rigging. The war ended yesterday in the Channel and the Bonaparte, had she been taken a day later, would have been released again. She was captured in the nick of time and we all have some idea of her value. Ashore here in Guernsey all the old seamen are telling each other that Dick Delancey has been fortunate again, as lucky as he was that time when he took the Bonne Citoyenne. There was, believe me, but a small element of luck on either occasion and a far larger element of forethought, courage, and skill."
There was applause at this point, after which Savage continued: "Few other men would have known what to do when the master of the French ship threatened to blow up the Bonaparte with the Merlin close alongside her. To fight against a brave opponent must require resolution but Delancey's task was more difficult than that. His adversary was a madman! As I have just said, Delancey is thought to be lucky and I will concede that he was fortunate on this occasion in one respect. Two French coasting vessels were brought in yesterday by the Swordfish, private man-of-war, and were released at once as vessels taken in time of peace. Seizing his opportunity, Delancey sent all his prisoners on board her and soon afterwards saw that ship sail for Cherbourg. He was relieved, I fancy, when the madman Charbonnier was fairly out of his sight! Not the least remarkable aspect of this, Delancey's last exploit, is that the Merlin came into port with only five seamen slightly wounded and the sloop herself undamaged save for the foreyard broken and the spritsail yard shot away; just damage enough to explain a few days spent here in St Peter Port. Although he is not a post captain yet he is young enough to end as an Admiral. That he will reach flag rank I am confident and I shall tell you why. Many another man might have captured the Bonaparte only after bloodshed and damage on either side, with gain of prize money to be set against loss of life. But that is not Delancey's way —" Delancey's interest was wandering by this time. Why must the old man go on and on? His prediction was nonsense, anyway. The war had ended and there might be no further conflict for twenty years. So the chances were against his ever having another command. He would be ashore on a meagre pension, a landowner in a small way but with barely enough money, perhaps, to complete the repair of his ruined manor house. He would have time to marry but would make no great match, having little to offer. His sensible course would be to marry for money, given the chance, but his own inclination would lead him towards some wild gamine, some young red-haired mischief-maker, perhaps an actress like that girl he had seen briefly back in 1794. But war was his only trade. How was he to make a living in the years to come? He had the respect of other seamen but reputation is of little use without income. What was the Bonaparte actually worth? If ship and cargo sold for £20,000, legal costs and commission would reduce that to about £16,000, of which £6,000 would come to him. That would be more than enough to set him up as some kind of merchant but he doubted whether he possessed a head for business; and the Bonaparte might not be worth as much. No one knew yet whether the goods in the lower hold had been spoilt by sea water.... He was called back to the present by the sound of applause. Old Savage was about to finish.
"Well, gentlemen, if Sir James Saumarez is the greatest Guernseyman of the present age — and I hear of none nearly his equal — I venture to predict that Captain Delancey will count as the second before he finally comes ashore. So I ask you all to raise your glasses and drink the health of Richard Delancey!"
Delancey thanked Savage for his compliments and all present for their kindness. Those really deserving of praise were the officers and men of H. M. Ship Merlin and he proposed their health accordingly. Looking round the cabin afterwards, he realised how lucky he had been in his followers afloat and his friends ashore. Mather was the perfect first lieutenant, Stirling a very valuable officer, and the young gentlemen, Langford, Northmore, and Topley, were all extremely useful and promising. As for the Guernseymen, Savage himself, Le Poidevin, De Guerin, and the rest, he was now one of their heroes. Even Nicole Andros now claimed him as a cousin and Le Pelley's admiration was outspoken. The man oddly missing was Sam Carter who had sailed the day before on some unspecified errand. Delancey remembered, with an effort, that a visit to France was now perfectly legal. There could be no doubt that Sam would be resuming his regular smuggling trade which the war had tended to interrupt. The Dove might be gone for a few days but the Merlin might be in port for as long, with repairs to be completed and ropes to be spliced. He hoped, therefore, that he might see Sam again before he had to sail for Plymouth. Delancey, meanwhile, must call on Lady Saumarez and on the Bailiff, read the newspapers and hear the gossip. He would also find time to see how the builders had progressed with the restoration of Anneville Manor, some parts of which should by now be habitable. He had the pleasant feeling of being on holiday. There would follow the task of paying the ship off and hauling down his pennant for what might be the last time. Then he must decide how to make his living. More immediately, however, he had to say goodbye to his guests, showing a special deference to Captain Savage's seniority.
At Anneville Delancey was pleasantly surprised to find that the old building was no longer a mere ruin. The roof was watertight, the floors were finished, the windows complete. Such had been the recent progress that he felt able to order the furniture, the mattresses, and bedding. Were he to marry, his wife could expect no life of luxury. She would, nevertheless, have a house in which to live, with garden, stables and pasture for her horse. He dared not order the curtaining and carpet, supposing that his bride would wish to choose the pattern for herself. Yes, he had something to offer these days: his courtesy rank of "Captain," his feudal position as Seigneur, his prestige as a minor landowner. He should have income enough to support a family in moderate style; lacking a carriage, to be sure (there were no metalled roads in the island), but able to keep half a dozen servants. For as poor a boy as he had been, Delancey had done well. The pity was that the peace had come so soon, while his fortune was still to make.
Three days later Sam Carter reappeared in St Peter Port and Delancey invited him to dine at the Golden Lion. Sam, it soon appeared, had news from Cherbourg.
"This man Charbonnier, the madman who captained the Bonaparte, has obtained the command of a privateer called La Daphné —"
"What, in time of peace?"
"So I hear tell. He gives out the story that you captured the Bonaparte after peace had been signed."
"Of course I did, but the capture took place before peace applied to the Channel."
"He swears that you cheated over that. He plans to recapture the Bonaparte now and is hiring men who dare make the attempt."
"Does he plan to attack St Peter Port?"
"No, Dick. He thinks that the Merlin will sail for Plymouth while you send the Bonaparte into Portsmouth with a prize crew. Should he manage to intercept the Bonaparte he will have men enough to overpower any detachment you can spare from the Merlin."
"The man is demented and talks so loudly of his intentions that we hear of them in Guernsey!"
"He is a madman, sure enough."
"And he can persuade other madmen to follow him?"
"Seemingly. The Cherbourg privateersmen will all be out of work."
"But all I need to do is escort the Bonaparte to Portsmouth and then continue my voyage to Plymouth. But wait — what if I capture the Daphné?'
"A second prize while Charbonnier tries to rob you of the first!"
"No, on second thoughts, that cock won't fight, Sam. The Daphné could be no legal prize, not when taken in time of peace."
"What then would be her fate?"
"I should suppose that Charbonnier's attempt would count as an act of piracy. As a madman he would 'scape hanging but the Daphné, pirate vessel, would go to the Crown."
"Much good that would do us! Suppose, however, that the Daphné were deserted by her crew and brought into harbour by the seamen who found her, they could claim salvage, couldn't they?"
"I couldn't but you could! I see what you mean, Sam. If all the Frenchmen board the Bonaparte — but that cannot be. Charbonnier is bound to leave some men on board the Daphné — a helmsman and one or two more."
"Very true, Dick. I might still find the ship deserted though."
"Nothing more likely. Now tell me, Sam, has Charbonnier someone in St Peter Port to report on my movements?"
"No doubt of it."
"Very well, then. My first move will be to put a strong prize crew on board the Bonaparte including all my marines. I shall do this after dark, seen by nobody. Next day the Merlin will sail for Plymouth. It will be common knowledge that the Bonaparte is to sail two days later for Portsmouth, manned by barely enough men to take her out of the Russel. Is that allowing time enough?"
"Make it three days later, Dick. Make certain that Charbonnier hears about it in time."
"Agreed. Three days later the ill-manned Bonaparte puts to sea, followed presently by the Dove, well manned and well armed. You will need to recruit some privateersmen, Sam."
"They are going cheap. They'll have no share in the venture — just their pay."
"When the Daphné closes the Bonaparte from to windward, you will be still further to windward, with sails struck. It will be a dark, moonless night. When Charbonnier boards the Bonaparte, you board the Daphné. The men you find aboard her will be set adrift in one of her boats."
"What if Charbonnier uses all his boats?"
"Take one extra with you — anything you can find as a bargain in St Peter Port. By then the Merlin will appear and the Daphné will part company, sailing up Channel. You will sight her for the first time somewhere off Dieppe and take her into the Downs. Report your arrival to my prize agent, Mr Lawrence, who has an office in Leadenhall Street."
"Will the owners turn up at Chatham, demanding the return of their ship less the salvage payable?"
"How can they? It would be a confession of piracy or at least of aiding pirates and being accomplices in crime. For their loss they will have no remedy at law and can do little but blame each other for listening to Charbonnier in the first place. No, I think that the ship's full value will go to you, and I hear that she was refitted quite recently."
"Half the money will go to you, Dick, and you will really deserve the whole of it."
"Half is enough, Sam, and it will come to me as the gift of a friend, having its origin in your generosity alone. To be open with you, I confess that I shall need it. Heaven knows when I shall receive my share of the Bonaparte and I have ordered the furniture for my house at Anneville. It is amazing what joiners expect to be paid these days."
The two friends parted in complete agreement but Delancey had an uneasy feeling that it had all been too easy. He had been presented with a simple problem, an addition sum in which two was to be added to two. He had come up with the expected answer of four but could not suppose that it was really as simple as that. There must be some aspect of the situation he had overlooked. Where was the trap into which he was to fall? To make matters worse, his opponent was mad. The plan he was to thwart must be a lunatic plan, one which Charbonnier had concealed from both his owners and his men. While pondering the problem, Delancey made a rash decision of his own. He resolved to sail in the Bonaparte. In doing so, he would break the sacred rule which tied a naval captain to his ship. He would be going against his conscience and his common sense, following only an instinct that he must make some move which his opponent would not expect. He admitted to himself that he was being too much influenced by his own financial needs. As against that, with the war ended, he would have no further chance of making money. He had been too ambitious, perhaps, in buying the manorial rights in Fief Anneville but he had really no alternative. With one more useful capture, the half-share in Daphné, he would have enough to live on. But was the tale he had been told the story he was intended to believe? And what, in that event, was the real story? It would be a clever move, surely, to sidestep at the outset, like the castle move in chess. But that would not be enough in itself and might even have been foreseen. He felt at a disadvantage, Charbonnier being able to anticipate his sensible moves while he himself could not foresee what form mere lunacy would take.
On board the Bonaparte, to which Delancey had shifted his gear after dark, Mather received his final orders:
"I have taken many of our best men but have left you with seamen enough to handle the Merlin. You will sail tomorrow forenoon, setting a course for Plymouth. By evening you will double back under easy sail and place Merlin to windward of the course I shall follow towards Portsmouth. I have marked on the chart the position I expect to have reached before the Daphné stages her attack. All this is guesswork but I do not suppose that the marked position is wildly wrong. I cannot believe that Daphné will be well manned but Charbonnier has the advantage of knowing the Bonaparte extremely well. If all goes as I expect, there will be no cannon fired on either side. What fighting we do will be with boarding pike and cutlass, with pistols as necessary, and a belaying pin to finish the argument. Should we fail in our efforts, which seems unlikely, you must rescue us. Whatever the event, leave the Daphné alone. Let her escape. Is that clear?"
"Aye, aye, sir. Should I make it seem that you are on board the Merlin? If Langford were to wear your uniform when we sail? He is about your height ..."
"Use every deception possible. For my part, I shall keep out of sight until we put to sea and Stirling will keep most of his men below hatches. His visible crew will number twelve as seen from the quayside."
"I shall do my part, sir. Let's hope we make an end of Charbonnier this time."
"I don't mean to take him alive; nor do I want many other prisoners. As someone said — Cromwell, perhaps —'Stone dead hath no fellow.' We must put an end to this nonsense. Of war against lunatics I have already had enough."
When the Merlin left harbour next morning quite a few people saw that her captain was on the quarterdeck. Mr Stirling, moreover, who was ashore the previous night, was loud in his complaints about the weakness of his prize crew. "How am I to bring a large ship into Portsmouth with a dozen men and those the worst we have?" Below decks in the Bonaparte Delancey issued his orders to Stirling, Northmore, and Topley:
"We are to sail for Portsmouth the day after tomorrow. It is my belief that we shall be attacked by a privateer called the Daphné commanded by the former master of this ship, intent on recapturing her before she is brought into an English port."
"Can he do that, sir, in time of peace?" Northmore protested. "Surely the capture would be disallowed?"
Excerpted from So Near So Far by C. Northcote Parkinson. Copyright © 1981 C. Northcote Parkinson. Excerpted by permission of McBooks Press, Inc..
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