Stand Into Danger
The Bolitho Novels: 2
By Alexander Kent
McBooks Press, Inc. Copyright © 1980 Highseas Authors Ltd.
All rights reserved.
LEAVE THE PAST BEHIND
BOLITHO pulled himself up the Destiny's side and raised his hat to the quarterdeck. Gone was the mist and dull cloud, and the houses of Plymouth beyond the Hamoaze seemed to be preening themselves in hard sunshine.
He felt stiff and tired from tramping from village to village, dirty from sleeping in barn and inn alike, and the sight of his six recruits being mustered and then led forward by the master-at-arms did little to raise his spirits. The sixth volunteer had come up to the recruiting party less than an hour before they had reached the long-boat. A neat, unseamanlike figure aged about thirty, who said he was an apothecary's assistant but needed to gain experience on a long voyage so that he might better himself.
It was as unlikely a story as that of the two farm labourers, but Bolitho was too weary to care.
"Ah, I see you are back, Mr Bolitho!"
The first lieutenant was standing at the quarterdeck rail, his tall figure framed against the washed-out sky. His arms were folded and he had obviously been watching the new arrivals from the moment the returning launch had been challenged.
In his crisp voice he added, "Lay aft, if you please."
Bolitho climbed to the larboard gangway and made his way to the quarterdeck. His companion of three days, the gunner's mate Little, was already bustling down a ladder, going to take a "wet" with his mates, no doubt. He was lost amongst his own world below decks, leaving Bolitho once more a stranger, little different from the moment he had first stepped aboard.
He confronted the first lieutenant and touched his hat. Palliser looked composed and extremely neat, which made Bolitho feel even more like a vagrant.
Bolitho said, "Six hands, sir. The big man was a fighter, and should be a welcome addition. The last one worked for an apothecary in Plymouth."
His words seemed to be falling like stones. Palliser had not moved and the quarterdeck was unnaturally quiet.
Bolitho ended, "It was the best I could do, sir."
Palliser pulled out his watch. "Good. Well, the captain has come aboard in your absence. He asked to see you the moment you returned."
Bolitho stared at him. He had been expecting the heavens to fall. Six men instead of twenty, and one of those would never make a sailor.
Palliser snapped down the guard of his watch and regarded Bolitho coolly. "Has the long sojourn ashore rendered you hard of hearing? The captain wishes to see you. That does not mean now; aboard this ship it means the moment that the captain thought of it!"
Bolitho looked ruefully at his muddy shoes and stockings. "I — I'm sorry, sir, I thought you said ..."
Palliser was already looking elsewhere, his eyes busy on some men working on the forecastle.
"I told you to obtain twenty men. Had I ordered you to bring six, how many would you have found? Two? None at all?" Surprisingly he smiled. "Six will do very well. Now be off to the captain. Pork pie today, so be sharp about your business or there'll be none left." He turned on his heel, yelling, "Mr Slade, what are those idlers doing, damn your eyes!"
Bolitho ran dazedly down the companion ladder and made his way aft. Faces loomed past him in the shadows between the decks, voices fell silent as they watched him pass. The new lieutenant. Going to see the captain. What is he like? Too easy or too hard?
A marine stood with his musket by his side, swaying slightly as the ship tugged at her anchor. His eyes glittered in the lantern which spiralled from the deckhead, as it did night and day when the captain was in his quarters.
Bolitho made an effort to straighten his neckcloth and push the rebellious hair from his forehead.
The marine gave him exactly five seconds and then rapped smartly on the deck with his musket.
"Third lieutenant, sir! "
The screen door opened and a wispy-haired man in a black coat, probably the captain's clerk, gave Bolitho an impatient, beckoning gesture. Rather like a schoolmaster with a wayward pupil.
Bolitho tucked his hat more firmly beneath his arm and entered the cabin. After the rest of the ship it was spacious, with a second screen separating the stern cabin from the dining space, and what Bolitho took to be the sleeping quarters.
The slanting stern windows which crossed the complete rear of the cabin shone in the sunlight, giving an impression of warmth, while the overhead beams and the various pieces of furniture rippled cheerfully in the sea's reflections.
Captain Henry Vere Dumaresq had been leaning against the sill, apparently peering down at the water, but he turned with unusual lightness as Bolitho entered through the dining space.
Bolitho tried to appear calm and at ease, but it was impossible. The captain was like nobody he had ever seen. His body was broad and thickset, and his head stood straight on his shoulders as if he had no neck at all. It was like the rest of the man, powerful and giving an impression of immense strength. Little had said that Dumaresq was only twenty-eight years old, but he looked ageless, as if he had never changed and never would.
He walked to meet Bolitho, putting each foot down with forceful precision. Bolitho saw his legs, made more prominent by his expensive white stockings. The calves looked as thick as a man's thigh.
"You appear somewhat knocked about, Mr Bolitho."
Dumaresq had a throaty, resonant voice, one which would carry easily in a full gale, yet Bolitho suspected it might also convey quiet sympathy.
He said awkwardly, "Aye, sir, I — I mean, I was ashore with the recruiting party."
Dumaresq pointed to a chair. "Sit." He raised his voice very slightly. "Some claret!"
It had the desired effect, and almost immediately his servant was busily pouring wine into two beautifully cut glasses. Then just as discreetly he withdrew.
Dumaresq sat down opposite Bolitho, barely a yard away. His power and presence were unnerving. Bolitho recalled his last captain. In the big seventy-four he had always been remote, aloof from the happenings of wardroom and gunroom alike. Only at moments of crisis or ceremony had he made his presence felt, and then, as before, always at a distance.
Dumaresq said, "My father had the honour of serving with yours some years back. How is he?"
Bolitho thought of his mother and sister in the house at Falmouth. Waiting for Captain James Bolitho to return home. His mother would be counting the days, perhaps dreading how he might have changed.
He had lost an arm in India, and when his ship had been paid off he had been told he was to be placed on the retired list indefinitely.
Bolitho said, "He is due home, sir. But with an arm gone and no chance to remain in the King's service, I'm not certain what will become of him." He broke off, startled that he had spoken his thoughts aloud.
But Dumaresq gestured to the glass. "Drink, Mr Bolitho, and speak as you will. It's more important that I should know you than you should care for my views." It seemed to amuse him. "It comes to all of us. We must consider ourselves fortunate indeed to have her!" His head swivelled round as he looked at the cabin. He was speaking of the ship, his ship, as if he loved her more than anything.
Bolitho said, "She is a fine vessel, sir. I am honoured to join her."
Dumaresq leaned over to refill the glasses. Again he moved with catlike ease, but used his strength, like his voice, sparingly.
He said, "I learned of your recent grief." He raised one hand. "No, not from anyone in this ship. I have my own means, and I like to know my officers just as I know my command. We shall be sailing shortly on what may prove a rewarding voyage, then again it may be fruitless. Either way it will not be easy. We must put old memories behind us, reserve not forget them. This is a small ship and each man in her has a part to play.
"You have served under some distinguished captains and you obviously learned well from your service. But in a frigate there are few passengers, and a lieutenant is not one of them. You will make mistakes, and I will allow for that, but misuse your authority and I will fall upon you like a wall of rock. You must avoid making favourites, for they will end up using you if you are not careful."
He chuckled as he studied Bolitho's grave features.
"There is more to being a lieutenant than growing up. The people will look to you when they are in trouble, and you will have to act as you think best. Those other days ended when you quit the midshipman's berth. In a small ship there is no room for friction. You have to become a part of her, d'you see?"
Bolitho found himself sitting on the edge of his chair. This strange man gripped his attention like a vice. His eyes, set wide apart, equally compelling, insistent.
Bolitho nodded. "Yes, sir. I do."
Dumaresq looked up as two bells chimed out from forward.
"Go and have your meal. I've no doubt you're hungry. Mr Palliser's crafty schemes for recruiting new hands usually bring an appetite if nothing more."
As Bolitho rose to his feet Dumaresq added quietly, "This voyage will be important to a lot of people. Our midshipmen are mostly from influential parents who are eager to see they get a chance to distinguish themselves when most of the fleet is rotting or laid up in-ordinary. Our professional warrant officers are excellent, and there is a strong backbone of prime seamen. The rest will learn. One last thing, Mr Bolitho, and I trust I will not have to repeat it. In Destiny, loyalty is paramount. To me, to this ship, and to His Britannic Majesty, in that order!"
Bolitho found himself outside the screen door, his senses still reeling from the brief interview.
Poad was hovering nearby, bobbing excitedly. "All done, sir? I've 'ad yer gear stowed where it'll be safe, just like you ordered." He led the way to the wardroom. "I managed to 'old up the meal 'til you was ready, sir."
Bolitho stepped into the wardroom and, unlike the last time, the place was noisy with chatter and seemingly full of people.
Palliser stood up and said abruptly, "Our new member, gentlemen!"
Bolitho saw Rhodes grinning at him and was glad of his friendly face.
He shook hands and murmured what he hoped was the right thing. The sailing master, Julius Gulliver, was exactly as Rhodes had described him, ill at ease, almost furtive. John Colpoys, the lieutenant who commanded the ship's marine contingent, made a splash of scarlet as he shook Bolitho's hand and drawled, "Charmed, m'dear fellah."
The surgeon was round and jolly-looking, like an untidy owl, with a rich aroma of brandy and tobacco. There was Samuel Codd, the purser, unusually cheerful for one of his trade, Bolitho thought, and certainly no subject for a portrait. He had very large upper teeth and a tiny receding chin, so that it looked as if half of his face was successfully devouring the other.
Colpoys said, "I hope you can play cards."
Rhodes smiled. "Give him a chance." To Bolitho he said, "He'll have the shirt off your back if you let him."
Bolitho sat down at the table next to the surgeon. The latter placed some gold-rimmed glasses on his nose. They looked completely lost above his red cheeks.
He said, "Pork pie. A sure sign we are soon to leave here. After that" — he glanced at the purser — "we will be back to meat from Samuel's stores, most of it condemned some twenty years ago, I daresay."
Glasses clinked, and the air became heady with steam and the smell of food.
Bolitho looked along the table. So this was what wardroom officers were like when out of sight of their subordinates.
Rhodes whispered, "What did you make of him?"
"The captain?" Bolitho thought about it, trying to keep his memories in their proper order. "I was impressed. He is so, so ..."
Rhodes beckoned Poad to bring the wine jug. "Ugly?"
Bolitho smiled. "Different. A bit frightening."
Palliser's voice cut through the conversation. "You will inspect the ship when you have eaten, Richard. Truck to keel, fo'c'sle to taffrail. What you cannot understand, ask me. Meet as many of the junior warrant officers as you can, and memorize your own divisional list." He dropped one eyelid to the marine but not quickly enough for Bolitho to miss it. "I am certain he will wish to see that his men measure up to those he so skilfully brought us today."
Bolitho looked down as a plate was thrust before him. There was little of the actual plate left visible around the pile of food.
Palliser had called him by his first name, had even made a casual joke about the volunteers. So these were the real men behind the stiff attitudes and the chain of command on the upper deck.
He raised his eyes and glanced along the table. Given a chance he would be happy amongst them, he thought.
Rhodes said between mouthfuls, "I've heard we're sailing on Monday's tide. A fellow from the port admiral's office was aboard yesterday. He is usually right."
Bolitho tried to remember what the captain had said. Loyalty. Shelve all else until there was time for it, when it could do no damage. Dumaresq had almost echoed his mother's last words to him. The sea is no place for the unwary.
Feet clattered overhead, and Bolitho heard more heavy nets of stores being swayed inboard to the twitter of a call.
Away from the land again, from the hurt, the sense of loss. Yes, it would be good to go.
True to Lieutenant Rhodes' information, His Britannic Majesty's Ship Destiny of twenty-eight guns made ready to weigh anchor on the following Monday morning. The past few days had gone so swiftly for Bolitho he thought life might be quieter at sea than it had been in harbour. Palliser had kept him working watch-on, watch-off with hardly a break. The first lieutenant took nothing at face value and made a point of questioning Bolitho on his daily work, his opinions and suggestions for changing some of the men around on the watch and quarter bills. If he was swift with his sarcasm, Palliser was equally quick to put his subordinate's ideas to good use.
Bolitho often thought of Rhodes' words about the first lieutenant. After a command of his own. He would certainly do his best for the ship and her captain, and be doubly quick to stamp on any incompetence which might eventually be laid at his door.
And Bolitho had worked hard to know the men he would deal with directly. Unlike the great ships of the line, a frigate's survival depended on her agility and not the thickness of her timbers. Likewise, her company was divided into divisions where they could work with the best results for the ship's benefit.
The foremast, with all its spread of canvas, course and topsails, topgallants and royals, with the additional foresails, jib and flying jib provided the means to turn with haste, through the wind's eye if need be, or to luff and cut across an enemy's vulnerable stern. At the opposite end of the ship the helmsmen and sailing master would use each mast, each scrap of canvas, to lay the vessel on the course required with the least need for manoeuvre.
Bolitho was in charge of the mainmast. The tallest in the ship, it too was graded like the men who would soon be swarming aloft when ordered, no matter how they felt or what the weather threw against them.
The nimble topmen were the cream of the company, while on the deck itself, working at braces and halliards and manning the capstan bars, were the landmen, the newly recruited, or old sailors who could no longer be expected to fight salt-hardened canvas a hundred feet and more above the hull.
Rhodes had the fore, while a master's mate took charge of the mizzen-mast, supposedly the easiest one in any ship with its limited sail plan and where bodily strength was the first requirement. The afterguard, marines and a handful of seamen were sufficient to attend the mizzen.
Bolitho made a point of meeting the boatswain, a formidable-looking man named Timbrell. Tall, weatherbeaten and scarred like an ancient warrior, he was the king of the vessel's seamen. Once clear of the land, Timbrell would work under the first lieutenant to rectify storm damage, repair spars and rigging, maintain the paintwork, ensure all the seams were free of leaks, and generally keep an eye on the professionals who would carry out those needs. The carpenter and his crew, the cooper and the sailmaker, the ropemaker and all the rest. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Stand Into Danger by Alexander Kent. Copyright © 1980 Highseas Authors Ltd.. Excerpted by permission of McBooks Press, Inc..
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