Read an Excerpt
Also by S. Thomas Russell
An excerpt from Until the Sea Shall Give Up Her Dead
They waited upon the Port Admiral for permission to sail.
Seamen came of age comprehending their dependence upon wind, tide, and weather, and so developed a patience for such natural forces that if not saintly was at least philosophical. Being held in port by human agency, however, as Hayden’s ship was, provoked quite a different response. Mr Barthe stomped about the decks impressing his juniors with his command of the English language, most especially the strain that could not be used in the presence of ladies. The other sea officers were not so vocal but peevish and too easily vexed, which was quickly sensed by the hands, who modified their behaviour accordingly.
It was Hayden’s most urgent desire to get his ship under way on the morrow at first light and be out of Plymouth Sound and into the Channel before the decks were dry. But the forenoon had passed without the awaited permission arriving and now the afternoon was well advanced, the day speeding.
What had the First Secretary said? I want you at sea—and beyond recall—as soon as can be arranged. These words sent a little shiver through Hayden’s entire being. “Beyond recall” were the words he found most ominous. Beyond recall of whom?
If only the Port Admiral would co-operate. The man’s tardiness in granting Hayden’s request to sail was madding if not peculiar. It caused Hayden to wonder if the Port Admiral served the designs of the “enemies” Hayden had been informed he possessed and if that was the reason the man was so dilatory in granting Hayden’s request; orders from Whitehall Street were expected momentarily that would see him removed of his command.
Such were the thoughts that forced their way into a man’s mind after the First Secretary informed him that if he did not accept this command it might never be within the First Secretary’s power to gain him a comparable appointment again. Such words did speak of secret forces working against him . . . did they not?
Hayden, however, was aware that his mind was not performing as it should and might be making much of nothing . . . or not nearly enough of what appeared to be very little. His estrangement from Henrietta had made sleep all but impossible, his stomach approved neither food nor drink, and his thoughts could hardly be turned to the matters at hand. Some part of him hoped he would suddenly be relieved of his command that he might return to London, find Henrietta, and have an explanation with her about the recent false claims of the Bourdages—mother and daughter.
Hayden paced across his cabin, glancing out of the stern gallery windows now and again, across Plymouth Harbour to fields on the eastern shore. The new green of spring grass rippled in the breeze—a fair breeze for Le Havre, to which place Hayden had been ordered to take or destroy a frigate using that harbour as a base from which to harass British shipping.
A knock on his door interrupted Hayden’s thoughts, somewhat to his relief, as they had been tracing this same circle for several hours.
At a word from Hayden, his marine sentry cracked open the door.
“Mr Barthe, sir . . .”
“Send him in.”
The sailing master, all corpulence and jowls a-jiggle, waddled in, ancient hat tucked beneath his arm revealing a head of red and grey—ash and flame.
“Please do not tell me, Mr Barthe, that you have discovered some fatal wound to our rig.”
“Our rigging is all in order, sir, most perfectly so. And our sails are bent and ready to loose, but . . .” The sailing master hesitated.
“Do complete your sentence, Mr Barthe, the suspense is almost more than I can bear.”
Barthe smiled. “If we are not to sail this day, sir, Mrs Barthe and my daughters would like very much to visit the ship. Mr Wickham has kindly arranged a boat to carry them out, sir, if that would be acceptable.”
“Did Mr Archer not inform you that we have yet to complete our powder?”
Barthe was genuinely surprised. “He most certainly did not, sir.”
“For which I have no explanation. The powder hoy is to visit us this very afternoon. I still hope to win our anchor at first light tomorrow and be in the Channel by breakfast.”
Barthe did not hide his disappointment at all well. “Perhaps . . . perhaps Mr Archer did inform me about the powder hoy, sir.”
“Mr Barthe, it is very obvious that you are attempting to conceal Mr Archer’s lapse, but I shall have to have a word with him about it. As to Mrs Barthe and all the Misses Barthe, I am almost as sorry as you that they cannot visit the ship. Please send Mrs Barthe my regrets and explain the reason; I should not want her to feel the least unwelcome.”
“I shall, sir. Thank you, sir.”
Barthe’s ample bottom retreated out of the door. Hayden was sure every man aboard would be very disappointed to learn that Mrs Barthe would not be bringing her handsome daughters for a visit—even Hayden felt a little chagrin.
Allowing the sailing master a moment to make his exit, Hayden then opened the door. “Pass the word for Mr Archer, if you please,” he ordered the marine.
Hayden looked at the mass of paperwork that lay in untidy piles upon his desk. If only his mind would consent to focus on it for more than five minutes before returning to Henrietta and his distressing financial troubles.
A respectful knock on the door announced the arrival of Mr Archer. The lieutenant came striding quickly in.
“I am sorry, sir, it was entirely my failure to inform Mr Barthe. He did not for a moment forget.”
“And it is a very serious failure, Mr Archer. How is Mr Barthe to plan his work without such knowledge?”
“I do not know, sir. I shall not let such a thing happen again.”
“I am quite certain you will not. Fires have been extinguished all about the ship?”
Archer tried not to display offence at this but failed. “All but the lamp in the light room, sir. And I have ordered wet blankets draped about that.”
“Go through the ship and be certain that we have no fires lit, Mr Archer. As to Mr Barthe’s family, or any other visitors to the ship, I should not want to take the chance of blasting them to hell. Would you?”
“No, sir, I would not.”
“Then be about your business, Mr Archer.”
The lieutenant went stiffly out. Although Hayden did not enjoy the role of angry captain, he had come to the belief over the years that the occasional upbraiding kept young officers on their toes and alert to their duties. It had certainly had that effect upon him. Archer’s pride would be stung for a day or two, but Hayden was certain he would get over it and be better for it as well. There was a small part of Hayden that wondered if he was merely being peevish—a result of his own distress and anxiety about his personal and professional life—and this thought was not easily dismissed. He was peevish, he knew; the slightest things sent his choler soaring. But then, Archer’s mistake was fairly grave and could not have been passed over without comment. He bloody well should have informed the sailing master that the powder hoy was expected. What had he been thinking?
“Perhaps he was distracted by his personal life,” Hayden muttered. “As have you been, Captain.”
For a moment he sank down on the bench before the windows, his mind deflecting away from duty of its own volition, and wondered again if his letter would reach Henrietta and if she would read it. His greatest worry was that she might simply burn it or toss it away out of anger with him for what she believed was his betrayal—his reputed marriage to a French émigrée. It was a source of the utmost frustration to him that he could not have a five-minute explanation with her that would clear away all misunderstandings . . . but he had not been able to find her while he was in London and neither Lady Hertle, Henrietta’s aunt, nor Mrs Hertle, her cousin and confidante, would consent to speak with him.
Yet another knock upon his door interrupted this too familiar train of thought.
“Boat alongside with orders from the Port Admiral,” Midshipman Gould reported when the door was opened.
Hayden arose from the constant feeling of enervation and weight bearing down upon him and went quickly up the ladder to the deck, where he found Lieutenant Ransome speaking sharply to an unknown young officer of the same rank.
“The Port Admiral requires your signature, Captain,” he said as Hayden appeared. “Mine, apparently, will not answer.” Ransome, who had been put aboard his ship by no less a personage than Admiral Lord Hood, had the kind of pride that was rather too easily wounded—a trait that Hayden found aggravating in a lieutenant, and especially so today.
Hayden signed the papers without comment, and discovered not just orders from the Port Admiral but a second letter from the Admiralty. He felt a need to sit, suddenly, and retreated below to the privacy of his cabin.
Sinking down into the chair at his desk, Hayden held the two letters a moment wondering which he would open first. A letter from the Admiralty was the more likely to contain bad news.
If only the Port Admiral had given me permission to sail! Hayden thought.
A moment more of wondering, his mind racing, and then Hayden came down on the side of the letter from the Admiralty. It was from Philip Stephens, and in the Secretary’s own hand too. It was prefaced as “Most Secret and Confidential.”
My Dear Captain Hayden;
You are hereby ordered, at the earliest opportunity of wind and weather, to take HMS Themis and proceed off the harbour of Le Havre on the night of April the 12th. At two of the morning of April the 13th, at a distance no greater than one mile due west of the headland, you must show a single light, visible to the shore, for one half of the hour. A small boat shall approach carrying an individual who will identify himself as “Monsieur Benoît.” He will bear information of a sensitive nature essential to the prosecution of the present war. This intelligence must then be conveyed to the Admiralty with all speed and in a manner that will not compromise the identity of its source. If this task conflicts with previous orders given to you by me, meeting Monsieur Benoît and reporting his intelligence to the Admiralty shall take precedence. These orders should not be communicated to your officers until such time as they require the information and certainly not until you are at sea and well out of sight of our shores.
The letter was signed “Philip Stephens, First Secretary.” Hayden laid it down for a moment on his desk and then cursed loud enough for his sentry no doubt to have heard. It was like the Admiralty to give him additional orders that would make the execution of his previous duties difficult if not impossible. He was also frustrated because taking a frigate could mean prize money, which, given his recent reverses, he desperately required. Meeting a spy did nothing but put his ship in danger, given that the spy could very easily be apprehended and questioned before Hayden arrived and the time and place of their rendezvous then be made known to the French authorities.
He cursed again, this time under his breath. Breaking the seal on the second letter, he found his request to sail finally had been granted. Any thoughts that he might be returned to land and the possibility of a rapprochement with Henrietta must be given over. He was for Le Havre and a meeting with the mysterious Monsieur Benoît. He cursed this particular gentleman in French.
A malformed moon drifted above the haze and cast a meagre light upon the deck. Beyond the rail, an inky, restive sea rolled and muttered in its bed.
“It is an unwholesome sea.” The sailing master appeared out of darkness, stomping the few feet to the bulwark where Charles Hayden stood with a night glass tucked into the crook of his arm.
“Unwholesome? Whatever do you mean, Mr Barthe?”
“It seems like a broth left to stand until it has gone thick and chill.” Barthe shivered visibly.
Hayden hid a smile. “I believe you are becoming somewhat of a poet, Mr Barthe. It is just the usual April sea, to my eye. Though the night is too close by half.” He raised his glass and swept it very slowly across sixty degrees of arc, then back again, before returning it to its place of rest.
“Three hours yet, Captain, before we have some light,” Barthe observed, divining what was in his superior’s mind. “Time yet.”
Hayden did not think it was near enough time and wanted to be under sail even as they spoke.
“I would rather see them returned sooner than later,” Hayden replied. “And as for the other matter . . . That man might be in gaol or on his way to the guillotine. I shall not wait past the appointed time.”
A cutter, still painted black from their recent enterprise on the island of Corsica, had set out some hours earlier to enter the French harbour of Le Havre under cover of darkness. Whether the frigate Hayden was to destroy had gone out on the hunt that night, Hayden needed to know. There was no way to intercept it along the British coast, where it stalked its prey under cover of darkness—other than by matchless luck—so Hayden hoped to meet with Monsieur Benoît and then lie in wait for the frigate’s return. If, however, the French ship remained in harbour that night, Hayden did not want to lose the element of surprise by being observed lying in ambush. In that case, Hayden would order the Themis to slip away long before first light to take no chance of being becalmed within plain sight of the French port.
But for now he must meet this damned “Monsieur Benoît,” who, if he had been discovered by the French, could easily give away the time and place of this rendezvous, in which case French ships might keep the appointment instead, which caused Hayden more than a little uneasiness.
“Can you make out the coast, Captain?” the sailing master wondered, his voice suddenly a bit thin. “I fear we are being set to the east. This is no place for a ship on such a dark night. When the Seine fills, upon the rise, the currents can shift inshore, and the duration of high water is often prolonged. I have seen currents set a ship counter to the best pilot’s predictions. It is a damned dangerous situation, and I am not pleased with it.”
“We are of one mind in this, Mr Barthe, but we have no choice in this matter.” Hayden turned about, gazed up into the rigging a moment, and then called up in a low voice, “Mr Wickham? Can you make out the shore? Are we being set to the east at all?”
“We are holding our position most handsomely, Captain,” Wickham answered, raising his voice just enough to be heard. “I can make out the lights ashore. Implore Mr Barthe to be at peace on this count. All is well.”
“No sign of our cutter, then?”
“Any other boats?”
Hayden cursed under his breath, gazed upwards a moment more, then turned back to the rail. Coils of tattered cloud flowed over an indistinct moon, tearing apart any faint light that reached the sea.
“Well, I am still not pleased with it,” Barthe declared testily. “By your leave, sir . . .”
At a nod from Hayden, he waddled off forward to see to the trim of the sails.
Hayden went to the binnacle, where the light had been dimmed, and took out his watch—five minutes shy of two. “Pass the word for the master-at-arms, if you please,” he ordered a seaman.
Immediately, Hayden returned to attempting to part the darkness. For a moment he imagined he heard the measured dipping of sweeps into the cold Channel, but no boat materialized and the sound eventually blended back into the noises of night and sea.
“Sir?” The diminutive master-at-arms appeared out of the gloom.
“We will show this single lamp for exactly one half of the hour,” Hayden instructed.
The signal intended for the French spy was lit, sputtered, then came to soft light. Hayden immediately felt a target for hidden guns or ships lurking in the darkness.
His mind, however, could not be kept on the present circumstances, but was ever drawn back to the troubles that had befallen him upon his recent return to England. Even more than his legal troubles, his estrangement from Henrietta weighed upon him, causing constant distress and drawing his mind from his responsibilities. He needed to be in England, to find Henrietta and explain all that had happened. The discovery of Madame Bourdage and her daughter was of no consequence when compared to this one matter.
You have duties, Hayden reminded himself. The safety of two hundred souls is dependent upon you making decisions with a clear mind.
But his mind was not clear and lack of sleep from worry only reduced its powers more. Added to these personal concerns, he now fretted that, in his preoccupied state, he would commit some error of judgement that would put his crew in danger.
Archer appeared at the head of the companionway, looked about as though confused, spotted Hayden, and immediately crossed to him.
“There you are, Mr Archer. Did you sleep?” Hayden asked, trying to hide away his worries and concerns.
“But poorly, sir.”
As Archer habitually appeared like a man just wakened, Hayden could not say if this was the truth.
“No sign of Mr Ransome, sir?”
Archer considered this news a moment. “What will we do if he does not appear by first light?”
Hayden wanted to reply, “Roast him,” but instead paused to consider. “I fear we shall have to assume he had the ill luck of becoming a guest of the French, and we must hope he does not give away our intentions or reveal that the Themis was here at all.”
“The French will know he did not row across the Channel. What will they assume, I wonder?”
“Any number of possibilities, Mr Archer. That he has come ashore to meet a spy. Or that he has placed a spy among them. We can hope the French might think he planned to cut out some ship in the harbour, for if they think he meets a spy they might become determined to have him name the man.” Only Hayden knew the name of the man they were to meet—and most certainly this was not the man’s real name.
Some bitter liquid was pressed up from his stomach into his throat, and Hayden swallowed it back down, only to be left with a burning sensation.
“Capitaine?” came a whisper almost under Hayden’s chin.
“Who is it?” Hayden whispered in French.
“C’est moi. Benoît.”
“Come aboard, monsieur.”
Hayden could just make them out now. Two men in a small boat, one at the oars, another in the stern. At the ladder head Hayden waited, two marines with muskets standing by. A small, well-made man came onto the deck, leaving the other to tend the boat. He was dressed as a fisherman but wore a large hat which cast his face entirely into shadow.
“Shall we repair below, monsieur?” Hayden asked in the other’s tongue.
“Let us go to the stern,” the other said, eyeing the armed marines. “I will be but a moment.”
He might have been dressed as a fisherman, but Hayden knew by his refined manner of speech that he was anything but. When they reached the taffrail, Hayden motioned the marines to keep their distance, allowing the two men to converse privately.
“You speak French very well,” Benoît observed, and Hayden could see this made the man rather anxious.
“I spent some time in France when I was a boy—with relatives.” As he said this, Hayden opened the signal light and extinguished the flame, feeling a great sense of relief to have done so.
“You are French?” the man asked apprehensively.
“My father was English. A sea officer. I am loyal to that nation, though many of my sympathies lie with your people.”
The man digested this a moment.
“Have you a letter for me?” Hayden prompted.
“I commit nothing to paper. It has been the undoing of too many.” Benoît seemed to consider a moment, as though uncertain of Hayden, but then he pushed on. “A large force is being gathered in Cancale, as I have previously reported. But I was wrong as to its objective . . . and to its size. More than one hundred and fifty transports, five, and now I believe six, ships of the line, two razees, and five frigates are there. Presently there are only twenty-five thousand men, but soon there are to be one hundred and fifty thousand.”
Hayden cursed aloud—he could not help it.
“The Channel Islands might be the first objective of this armada, as I have informed your people, but their ultimate goal is to land an army on English soil.”
“Are you certain of this? Is it not more likely to be Ireland?”
“I cannot tell you how I know, but this information is beyond doubt.”
It was Hayden’s turn to digest. “When is this invasion planned?” he asked.
“Soon. When your Channel Fleet is at sea, or perhaps if it can be defeated or significantly weakened so that the French fleet can gain control of the Channel for a short time. It requires only the right wind and a single day to transport an army to England.”
Hayden felt as though he had suddenly taken ill. Desperately he wanted to shed his coat and loosen his neckcloth. Sweat oozed out of his skin, and he was so overheated as to feel dizzy.
“You must convey this knowledge back to your Admiralty, Capitaine. Immediately.”
“I agree, monsieur. Nothing is more important.”
“Then I will leave you.” Benoît made a small bow and went immediately to the ladder. As he went over the side he stopped. “Good luck to you, Capitaine,” he said in English.
“And you, monsieur.”
The man went down into the boat and in three silent strokes of the muffled oars the night absorbed him completely.
Hayden stood, staring blankly into the darkness like a man who has learned of a loved one’s death—mind empty of both thought and feeling.
Hayden’s servant appeared at the moment. “If you please, Captain. Rosseau has your coffee set out in the gunroom, sir.”
“Ah . . . Find Mr Hawthorne and ask that he join me,” Hayden instructed the boy. Archer was standing silently by the helmsman, watching Hayden. “You have the deck, Mr Archer.”
At the foot of the companionway ladder, Hayden was greeted by the sight of the gun-deck cleared from bow to stern, including his cabin and all of its furnishings. Arrayed upon either side were rows of black-barrelled eighteen-pounders, loaded and ready to be cast loose. A moment the young officer stood there, trying to focus his mind, wondering if everything was in its place . . . and nothing more.
Down the next ladder to the lower deck, where the watch below slumbered. Hayden suspected a goodly number slept not at all, but lay awake with the excitement and anxiety that the possibility of action produced. The midshipmen did not even pretend to sleep, but played at cards by a single lantern, jumping up to tip invisible hats as Hayden passed quickly by and into the gunroom.
Herein, seated at the table, he found the ship’s surgeon, spectacles perched upon a narrow bridge, a large, bound volume turned towards the lantern and encircled by thin arms. In the warm light his hair, prematurely grey, appeared silver.
“Certainly, you might have another lamp, Dr Griffiths,” Hayden offered. “No, no, Doctor, do not stand.” Hayden had seen the poor man crack his head upon a beam more often than he wished.
“I am all but finished here, Captain.” The surgeon removed his spectacles—they were for reading and such fine work as removing limbs—so that he might see Hayden more clearly.
“Do not feel the need to leave, Doctor. It is your mess.”
“Thank you, sir.” Griffiths kept his eye on Hayden. “Are you well, Captain?”
“Apart from rather disturbing news just learned, I should say I am.”
As Hayden did not offer to share this news, Griffiths did not ask. For a moment neither spoke, and then the surgeon nodded towards the open book. “I swear, I have now forgotten more physic than I presently command.”
Hayden was pleased to have the subject changed. “It is too vast a catalogue, Doctor. It would require more than one mind to retain it all.”
The surgeon rubbed his eyes. “You are being too kind, Captain. I fear it is merely age, in my particular case, and the common infirmity the reasoning organ begins to exhibit when it is always taxed to its small limit.”
“Doctor, your mind seems as clear to me as the day we met. But perhaps a mild stimulant would not go amiss. Would you take some coffee?”
“With more gratitude than I am able to express.”
Boots, thump-thudding down the ladder, were followed by the appearance of Marine Lieutenant Hawthorne, red-faced and overly cheerful given the hour and circumstances.
“Do I understand that coffee is being served in the withdrawing room?”
“In the morning room,” the surgeon replied, “given the hour.” He turned to Hayden. “Have you ever taken note of our lieutenant’s mood prior to an engagement? He would appear to be on his way to a ball and all aquiver with the anticipation of meeting young ladies.” The surgeon fixed his gaze upon the marine. “One day you shall be carried down to the cockpit with a musket ball lodged in your thigh, and I will tell you, you shall not be so cheerful.”
Hawthorne laughed. “I am certain you are right, Dr Griffiths, but, pray, what purpose would be served by my becoming dour and fretful before battle had even been joined? I will save all like emotions for such time as they are needed, and then I will be able to express them in full, for they shall not have been worn thin by unnecessary employment.” The marine raised his cup to the surgeon in toast. “I do not think we shall see a great deal of action this night.”
Griffiths turned to Hayden. “Are you of the same opinion, Captain?”
“I am always rather embarrassed at how poorly I predict the future. Everyone else seems to do it so well.”
“And so often,” Hawthorne added.
Griffiths did not smile but seemed to consider these sallies seriously. “Perhaps they should include predicting the future in the training of young officers,” Griffiths noted. “Will this French vessel even return to harbour this night . . . assuming it ventured forth to begin with?”
“I do not think it would risk meeting our cruisers by day, and it might very well have a prize or two it would hope to preserve at all costs. So, yes, if it set out to raid our inshore trade, I believe it will return by first light, wind allowing.”
“As you have an unrivalled record of estimating what French sea officers will or will not do, I expect we will bring this ship to battle in very short order.” The surgeon drained his coffee cup and then patted the volume he had been consulting. “There is nothing like agreement with authority to set one’s mind at ease. If you will excuse me, I must return to my patient.” He rose, remembering to stoop beneath the beams, and went crouching out.
Hayden turned to the marine, who watched the doctor go with a smile of both affection and amusement. “Does his health seem improved to you, Mr Hawthorne?”
“A little, yes. Even so, he is not himself. Not yet.” Hawthorne turned to Hayden, his countenance changing. “Has he told you that his charge has sailed for England?”
“Of what charge do we speak?”
“The woman with one hand.”
“Yes, I believe that is her name.”
“Griffiths has arranged this?”
“And paid for it, I should imagine.”
“Did he not procure a position in Gibraltar for her?”
“Indeed he did, but he is of the opinion she will be more secure in England, where he might stay better informed of her situation.”
This gave Hayden pause. “I wonder if that is the whole of it?” he ventured. “Has our good surgeon fallen under the spell of this unfortunate woman?”
Hawthorne shrugged, a look of concern wrinkling the skin around his eyes. “If you can overlook the lack of a hand, she was comely . . . did you not think?”
“A very handsome young woman, Mr Hawthorne, but . . .” Hayden decided against speculating further or passing judgement on the surgeon’s actions or motives.
“I am sure my concerns are little different from your own,” Hawthorne observed, nodding once. “Let us hope that nothing untoward befalls our surgeon, whose heart, I suspect, is more frail than his health.”
“Hear,” Hayden intoned, lifting his cup in toast to this sentiment.
Hawthorne sat back in his chair. “I understand we had a mysterious visitor this night?”
“Is my conversation with this man known among the hands?”
“No. Only that a Frenchman came aboard and had a private conversation with you, sir. There is, of course, much speculation as to the nature of this, but it is nothing more.”
Hayden sat a moment trying to decide if he would take Hawthorne into his confidence, as he had in the past. The temptation was very great, as he had to make a decision and was, truthfully, uncertain as to the proper course of action. “It would appear, Mr Hawthorne, that there is an army being gathered near Cancale for the purpose of invading England.”
“That seems rather alarmist. We have known for some time that the French were planning an invasion of the Channel Islands.”
“It would seem that the French would like us to believe precisely that . . . but their real intentions are far grander. My question is, should I collect Mr Ransome and make sail immediately for Portsmouth to convey this information to Mr Stephens, or will that appear to be shying away from the object of my first orders, to destroy the frigate sailing from this port? Certainly, if the claims of my French visitor are not given credence amongst the Lords Commissioners they might think me rather foolish, not to mention shy.”
“I hardly think they will believe you shy, Captain. Not after all you have done in the past months. But why should it be either one or the other? Can we not take the frigate this night and sail for an English port immediately thereafter? How many hours would we lose?”
“Very few, but one must always consider the possibility that we might be the ship taken. After all, if we were unlucky and lost a mast or two we could easily be the prize. The crew do not appreciate how much good fortune plays a part in every engagement.”
A half-amused smile formed on the marine’s lips. “I am very doubtful that you will lose such an engagement, Captain.”
“But you will agree it is a possibility?”
“A very unlikely one, but yes, I cannot deny it is possible.”
Hayden nodded. The odds could not be calculated, but he had less faith in himself than Hawthorne, apparently. Being taken was more likely than the marine realised. The French frigate would very likely be of thirty-eight guns, no fewer than thirty-six, and she was not shut up in port like so much of the French fleet. In fact, she was waging a very successful war against British commerce and her crew were well used to handling their ship and firing her guns.
“What will you do, then, sir?” Hawthorne asked.
“Sail for England . . . the moment we have retrieved Mr Ransome.”
Hawthorne nodded, as though he understood even if he had argued the opposite.
There was a little lull in the conversation then, and Hayden believed he could sense the marine lieutenant contemplating the propriety of asking his commander about his personal life. Hawthorne glanced at him and then away, twice.
Determined to forestall any such enquiry, Hayden stood abruptly. “I must beg your indulgence, Mr Hawthorne, for I should return to the deck. I do not want this French frigate to arrive now and catch us unawares.”
“Which will not come to pass if Mr Wickham has anything to do with it.”
Hayden nodded to his friend. “Mr Hawthorne.”
“Captain,” the marine replied, standing quickly.
Hayden let himself out, regretting not having more time in the warmth of the gunroom, but he was not willing to discuss his own situation. It was enough that he could barely tear his mind from it—and worse that his thoughts seemed to travel the same cycle, never once finding any sequence of events that he had not previously pondered, any outcome he had not imagined. Hayden was not about to compound this by drawing his officers into the matter. Better he disciplined his mind and put these things aside until the Themis was, again, safe in harbour . . . if only he could.
The night appeared unchanged when he took the deck—perhaps a little cooler, but still the same veiled moon and speeding cloud.
“Is the wind making, Mr Barthe?” Hayden asked the sailing master, who stood talking quietly with the helmsman.
“I believe it is, sir, and will continue in this manner for some time yet. We are in for a bit of a blow, Captain. The weather glass is taking a plunge.” Barthe looked around as though expecting a hard gale to break upon them at that very instant. “All is not well, sir.”
Despite himself, Hayden was unsettled by the sailing master’s predictions of impending cataclysm. He turned his head up, removing his hat lest the wind get under it. “Aloft there. Mr Wickham? Any signs of our cutter?”
“None, sir,” came the reply out of darkness.
“Blast this night to hell,” Hayden muttered. Whatever could have befallen Ransome? Had he somehow been unable to discover the Themis on this dark night? Mr Barthe had, rather miraculously, managed to keep the ship in position despite currents and a backing wind. Even an officer as unseasoned as Ransome should not find it difficult to return to this place. Something else had occurred to delay them, and Hayden was beginning to suspect the worst—the cutter had been discovered and taken by the French.
Hayden paced the breadth of the deck, and then back and forth along the larboard rail, the length of the quarterdeck. The moon, though it appeared to be speeding from the cloud flying before it, actually traversed the sky at a pace so languid that Hayden began to wonder if the world no longer spun at its accustomed pace.
Hayden was about to tell Barthe that the moment Ransome was aboard they would make sail for Portsmouth when there was a soft call from aloft.
“Captain Hayden, sir!” came Wickham’s voice, urgently, from up among the rigging. “I believe there is a ship in the offing—almost perfectly abeam, sir.”
Hayden crossed quickly to the starboard rail and peered into the murk. A dull black sea, lifting and easing, low, scudding cloud, and perhaps a shroud of rain not so far off.
Archer appeared at the rail beside him.
“Shall we beat to quarters, sir?” the lieutenant asked, peering out towards the dark Channel, both hands tightly on the rail-cap.
Although Hayden could see no ship, he would not take the chance that Wickham was wrong. “But quietly, Mr Archer. No shouting, no drum.”
“Aye, sir.” Archer was off at a run.
In a moment, men streamed out of the hatches fore and aft and, at an order from Hayden, cast loose their guns. Below, on the gun-deck, Hayden could hear the same being done, a little buzz of excitement and fear rising up out of the hatches.
Barthe hastened over to stand near Hayden. After a moment of staring intently into the night, his hand shot up. “Is that a light, Captain?”
Hayden swept the area with his night glass. “It is a ship, Mr Barthe. A frigate, if I am not mistaken. Let us hope they have not yet perceived us.” Hayden looked about the deck. “Douse these lanterns, Mr Madison,” Hayden ordered the midshipman. “And hang a lamp in the larboard quarter-gallery; Mr Ransome might find us yet.”
Immediately, the lanterns were extinguished, faint moonlight descrying uncertain shapes upon the deck.
Hayden felt his muscles almost rigid with indecision. Certainly he must let this ship pass, as tempting a prize as it might be. He was more concerned that the French would discover the Themis. Would they run their ship under the guns of the shore batteries, or would they make shift to take him?
“I believe this ship will pass astern of us, Captain . . . About three cable lengths.” Barthe was shifting from foot to foot in agitation. “If we can discern them, Captain . . .”
“Yes, Mr Barthe, it is almost certain they shall discover us.”
What had Mr Stephens’ orders read? If this task conflicts with previous orders given to you by me, meeting Monsieur Benoît and reporting his intelligence to the Admiralty shall take precedence.
There was no lack of clarity in that sentence, yet . . . to let an enemy ship pass so near and make no attempt to engage her . . . It brought to mind his former captain, Hart, who shied from every action and never without an excuse.
“If they comprehend that we are a British ship, Captain, they might rake us from astern . . .”
“You are correct in every way, Mr Barthe. Just before she draws astern, I wish to put the helm up and shape our course to parallel her own.”
“Aye, sir. Shall we close with them, sir?” the sailing master asked expectantly.
Hayden’s honour and sense of duty wrestled over this but a few seconds. “That will not be necessary, Mr Barthe. We shall be nearer than I want to be as it is.”
“Aye, sir. I shall have the men at their stations ready to brace our yards in a trice.” He waved a hand at the darkness. “This Frenchman shall be afforded no opportunity to rake our ship.”
Hayden called softly up into the tops. “Mr Wickham? On deck, if you please.”
Hayden turned his attention back to the approaching ship. In the dark it was near to impossible to gauge her speed. For some moments he watched.
“There you are, Wickham,” Hayden observed as the acting lieutenant reached the deck but a few feet off. “How distant is that ship, do you think?”
“Half a mile, sir, no more,” Wickham replied with a gratifying certainty. “And she is carrying the wind with her, Captain. I think she is closing rather faster than we might realise.”
Hayden touched a sailor on the shoulder. “Find Gilhooly and have him snuff the light in my quarter-gallery the moment we begin to turn.”
The man went off at a run.
“Mr Wickham, stand watch to larboard, if you please, and alert me the instant Mr Ransome heaves into sight.”
“He is some hours late, sir,” Wickham said hesitantly.
“Yes, but let us not give up hope.” Where was that damned fool lieutenant? If the man had not been a protégé of Lord Hood’s Hayden would have been happily shut of him, but good men accompanied him—among them Childers, Hayden’s coxswain.
Rain reached them, carried on the making wind, and for a moment the French vessel dissolved into the blur. As the gun captains fumbled their lock covers into place, a gust struck the Themis, heeling her sharply to larboard.
Hayden took hold of the rail to steady himself, closing his eyes against the battering rain and wind. A moment the gust mauled them, pressing the sails and wailing in the rigging. Just as suddenly, the wind eased and the ship regained her feet.
“Where is the Frenchman?” Hayden whispered. “Can any man see?”
The question was met by a silence that grew deeper and more disconcerting by the moment.
“I see ’er, sir!” One of the men at the gun pointed. “Starboard quarter. ’Alf a league. A mite less.”
“I see nothing,” Barthe complained. “That gust should have pushed her past us.”
“I have found her as well, Captain!” Wickham stood upon his tiptoe. “There away. Not quite where I would have expected, but the current must be setting us inshore.”
“This bloody night,” Barthe grumbled. “Can’t see naught for nothing, Captain Hayden, and that is giving the truth a little pull and a stretch.”
“Are you ready to brace yards and ease sheets, Mr Barthe?”
“In every way, sir.”
Some part of Hayden felt a vague sense of disquiet with their present situation. Despite the darkness and veiling rain, he had been certain this ship had been nearer before the squall struck. “Helmsman, what is our heading?”
“East by nor’east, Captain.”
Unchanged, Hayden realised, so the slant of this approaching ship should not be different, even though it appeared to be.
“May I order the helm put up, Captain?” the sailing master asked.
“You may, Mr Barthe.”
The helm was put over, sails sheeted, and slowly the head paid off until the backed topsail fluttered, then filled. More quickly now, the wind was brought aft. This evolution, timed to a nicety, set the Themis on a parallel course to the ghostly frigate, whose lights winked and flickered through the drizzle.
“Mr Gould! Have Mr Archer stand ready to open larboard gunports. Caution him not to let any man do so until I have given the order.”
“Aye, sir,” and the midshipman went off at a run.
If the French captain discovered them and decided they were a British ship, Hayden wanted to be certain his guns fired first.
The human silence upon the decks was covered by the sounds of wind, of the bow parting waves as the ship pitched in the small sea. Slowly the moon revealed the frigate, her sails and spars, the wide, pale stripe upon her topsides.
“They must see us, Captain Hayden,” Wickham observed in a whisper. “I can make them out most clearly.”
“As can I.”
Nearer the ships drew to one another. Hayden could distinguish figures moving on the deck.
“Shall we not fire into them, Captain?” the sailing master hissed.
“Mr Barthe, if you please!” Hayden replied, not taking his eyes from the enemy ship. He was not adverse to suggestions or questions from his officers—but a man of Barthe’s experience should display better judgement than that.
Even through the blear, Hayden could discern an officer, leaning upon the rail and staring intently at the Themis. Perhaps he beckoned another, who appeared out of the darkness, affixing his attention upon the British ship with equal intensity. Suddenly, that man turned and ran for the companionway.
Hayden did the same; at the head of the companionway he looked down to find Archer standing on the ladder’s bottom step.
“Mr Archer! Open gunports and fire our entire larboard battery.”
The bump and screech of gunports hinging up stole a little of Hayden’s breath. Apprehending the gunports opening, the French officers turned to shout the alarm, but their calls were lost in the shattering report of British eighteen-pounders. There was no reply from the Frenchman. Musket fire cracked from the tops as Hawthorne’s marines began firing at the men scurrying about the enemy’s deck.
Immediately, to both left and right, the gun crews went coolly about reloading their carronades. Many were seasoned hands at this now, after their convoy to the Mediterranean. There was no hesitation or confusion, but only a well-greased axle, turning with precision and regularity. The balls and wadding were pushed in together. At the same time, the gun captain uncovered his lock, ran his pricker into the touch-hole, poured a measure into the pan, closed the lock, and pulled back the cock with two thumbs. The carronades were run out on wooden slides, and the gun captain made certain of his target and yanked the firing lanyard with a quick jerk.
Hayden had stepped back from the rail, turned away, and covered his ears just in time. A tremendous explosion tore open the darkness, with the muzzle flash, and smoke plumed forth, blossoming up into a weeping night.
In the ensuing silence, Hayden heard officers shouting orders in French. Gunports began to open on the enemy ship. As his own crews were running out their guns, an irregular fire erupted from the French frigate. The always horrifying sound of iron balls rending the air was immediately followed by the crash and splintering of wood reverberating through the Themis’ deck. A sheet carried away, and sail began to shake and snap.
As was ever the case, the English gun crews fired thrice for every two times the French fired; some crews doubled the enemy’s pace. Rate of fire, at short range, trumped accuracy, a fact that Hayden knew well and had led him to manoeuvre his ship so near.
The next quarter of an hour saw an unrelenting fire kept up between the two ships, breaching the oak planking, tearing away shrouds and stays, and ripping through sails. Smoke mixed with rain and low mist to obscure the vessels from one another and hide the true damage being inflicted.
In the midst of this, Hayden glanced shoreward, fearing that they would carry on this battle until they came beneath the enemy’s batteries. He must finish this frigate before that could happen. He might yet be forced to lay his ship alongside and board.
Around him, men fell and were carried below or slipped over the side if death was certain. To his surprise, Hayden realised he could now distinguish action upon the forecastle of his ship—dawn was not so far off.
“Captain Hayden . . .” came a call from somewhere forward. “A boat, sir. A cutter, it looks.”
“Not a gunboat?” Hayden shouted to be heard above the din.
“I don’t believe so, sir.”
Ransome would return at this moment!—when it would be worth his life to even approach the ship.
Gould, who had conveyed Hayden’s orders forward, came running back along the gangway. “It is our cutter, sir,” he called out. “They are pulling for us like madmen and shouting and waving.” The boy was flushed and speaking almost too rapidly to comprehend.
“What do they say, Mr Gould?”
“We do not know, sir.”
No more explanation was required—the noise of battle was deafening.
“Signal them to stand clear; they will gamble their lives to draw near now.”
“I will, sir.” And the boy went hurrying forward, apparently oblivious to the cannon balls that hummed over the deck and the musket balls lodging in planking with ominous cracks.
Dawn was still some time off, but morning twilight was beginning to reveal a few shadowy shapes across the deck. From the quarterdeck, the cutter was not yet visible.
Smoke burned Hayden’s eyes, and his ears rang from the constant explosions. The French captain, despite being surprised, was putting up a spirited defence and Hayden feared he might yet make the cover of the shore batteries.
As if the French commander had been thinking the same thing, a hoist of signals jerked aloft, the flags mostly obscured by sails. The French officers were hoping there would be light enough for the shore gunners to make out their signals.
“Where is Mr Gould?” Hayden called out.
“Have him run up the French naval ensign and a hoist of flags to starboard. Let us confuse the enemy if we can.”
“Captain!” Gould came running along the deck. “Mr Ransome is ignoring our signal to stand clear, sir.”
“Well, then he must look to himself. A hoist of signals to starboard, Mr Gould, and the French ensign aft.”
A young sailor came dashing up, making a knuckle. A blast of carronade fire completely smothered his words.
“Why are you upon my quarterdeck and not at your station?” Hayden demanded.
“If you please, Captain,” the young man began, looking more frightened of Hayden than the French, “Mr Barthe has sent me. Mr Ransome is yelling somewhat about a French frigate, sir.”
“‘Somewhat’? Whatever do you mean?”
The boy shrugged. “Those were Mr Barthe’s words, sir.”
Hayden hesitated a second, then made up his mind. “Mr Gould! I am on the forecastle.”
He hastened forward in the wake of the running sailor. “What is this about, Mr Barthe?” he demanded as he reached the bow.
Only thirty yards off, Hayden could make out their cutter, the men pulling like they were running from gunfire, not into it. Hayden leaned out over the barricade, half hidden by smoke, no doubt, and waved Ransome away. Spotting his captain, Ransome leapt upon a thwart and began gesturing frantically towards the shore. Hayden’s eye was drawn towards France. Out of the mist and morning twilight the sails of a ship materialized, and then beneath these a jib-boom penetrated through the fog.
For the briefest second Hayden’s mind went utterly blank, and then he turned to the sailing master.
“Sail handlers to their stations, Mr Barthe,” he shouted almost in the master’s ear. “The instant Mr Ransome is aboard, we will bring the wind onto our starboard beam, gain way, then shape our course to the nor’west—hard on the wind, Mr Barthe. Do you understand?”
Barthe looked as though he did anything but. “W-We are going to run, sir?”
“Yes, of course we are going to run. Two French thirty-six-gun frigates, sir. What else are we to do? With all haste, Mr Barthe.”
Barthe seemed to come suddenly awake to their situation. “Aye, sir.” He went trundling off with a rolling run, shouting for Mr Franks to call the sail handlers.
Hayden cursed himself for not slipping off the minute the French ship had been spotted. Ransome could make England in the cutter. Men had gone much further. He cursed himself again.
Hawthorne appeared beside him at that moment, hat gone, face powder-stained, a musket in hand. “Will the Frenchman not rake us, Captain?”
“We are half hidden by smoke and mist. If we are quick, we will have braced our yards and put over our helm before he comprehends what we are about.”
Men came running onto the deck and began coiling down ropes as quickly as hands could move.
“With all speed! With all speed!” Hayden called as he hastened down the larboard gangway.
Upon reaching the quarterdeck, Hayden positioned himself a yard from the helmsman. Even though Hayden could see the crew working as quickly as human hands were able, and racing aloft at a dangerous speed, it still seemed that morning light would find them before the helm could be put over.
Defying his captain, the French gunners, and all common sense, Ransome brought his cutter alongside and the men scrambled up to the deck. The first man over the rail staggered back into the man behind, and then fell on his side, bleeding from his chest. The others took him up and bore him quickly below to the doctor. Immediately, Ransome hastened to the quarterdeck, calling out orders to stream the cutter.
Almost out of breath, he touched his hat and began, “I apologise, Captain, for disregarding your orders, but we were trying to warn you, sir, about the frigate.”
Hayden nodded. “Yes. I see what you were about. But we must now run, sir, if we are to preserve our ship. Wickham and Archer are overseeing the guns. You will be the lieutenant of the watch until I order you relieved.”
Mr Barthe’s voice came hollowly through a speaking trumpet. “Ready to brace our yards, Captain.”
“Port your helm,” Hayden ordered the two men at the wheel—one standing by in case his mate was felled.
The Themis was a handy ship and answered her helm readily. Hayden realised that the second frigate would be within range of his eighteen-pounders as they made the turn.
“Mr Gould. Jump down to Mr Archer and instruct him to fire upon the second frigate as she bears.”
Hayden turned to watch the French frigate and was gratified to see that he had caught them unawares. They might yet bring guns to bear upon Hayden’s stern, but there would be no devastating broadside raking his ship.
Finding the second ship in the murk, Hayden realised that his adversary would not dare to immediately change course to follow Hayden lest he run afoul of the ship emerging from Le Havre. It was a rare bit of luck that would see him jump ahead, for he was confident his crew could make sail more quickly than the French.
Aloft, the hands were making all possible sail, and the Themis heeled a little towards France, as though reluctant to let it go. And then the Themis was lifted on the wind, slipping into the rain-fog and morning gloom.
When sails were set and drawing, the master came puffing along the gangway, speaking trumpet tucked under an arm, a hand crushing down his hat as the wind freshened.
“We shall haul our bowlines, Mr Barthe. There is Pointe de Barfleur to be weathered, and do not tell me how distant it is. If we are forced to tack ship, we shall have two frigates upon us.”
“This wind will go into the north-east yet, Captain. See if it doesn’t. We shall easily lay our course for Tor Bay. By midday, sir, I will wager.”
Barthe had been involved in sufficient wagering so Hayden did not take this up, but he did hope the sailing master would be proven correct; reaching England was more than urgent.
Archer’s head appeared in the companionway, followed by torso, waist, legs, and running feet. He was gasping as he approached and only managed, “Your . . . orders, Captain?”
“We shall race these Frenchmen back to England, Mr Archer, and hope we have the luck to meet one of our own cruisers so we might turn things round on them. If that does not prove possible, we will attempt to fight these frigates off until we can reach the Channel Isles, though we must weather Barfleur to do even that. For now, we set everything she will carry and pray these Frenchmen do not know their business.”
The call “belay-o” reached Hayden. “Bowlines hauled, sir” came from the forecastle and Hayden went to the binnacle to discover their course.
“Not even nor’west by west,” Archer observed, following Hayden to the compass.
“Let us hope this wind veers, as Mr Barthe predicts.” Hayden turned his attention astern, into the drizzle and surface mist. A thin light began to penetrate the low-lying grey, revealing a dull, uneasy sea. A cool April northerly seemed to penetrate through his coat and whistled about his ears, which still rang from the blasting of the great guns.
Thin, grey daylight began to overspread the sea, revealing the coast of France, faintly charcoaled across the south and nearer than Hayden would like. In no direction was the horizon distant more than half a league. Beyond was obscured by rain and low, scudding cloud. Hayden went to the stern and, as he leaned his hands upon the taffrail, one of the French frigates emerged from a squall of rain. Aloft, French sailors could be seen setting top-gallants.
“Is that not the height of folly?” Archer wondered as he, too, came to the rail. “The horizon is less than half a league distant, and there is every sign that the wind is making and the squalls growing worse.”
“It is the height of folly, Mr Archer, I agree entirely. But if he overhauls us before there is another squall . . .”
“Shall I order top-gallants, sir?”
A second of hesitation. “I do not believe we have another choice, Mr Archer.”
The second frigate appeared at that moment, a little aft of and to leeward of the first. She was making sail in emulation of her sister. For a few moments Hayden stood at the rail, gauging the speed of the enemy ships. They were closing the gap, though there was some slight indication that the nearer frigate was a little faster than her sister—or so Hayden imagined. If he could but separate them by a league and a half, he would luff and bring this nearer ship to battle. If he could inflict enough damage on her rigging, he might gain some distance on them. But he hardly thought these Frenchmen would be so foolish. His only hope was that they would be separated by fog and he could act before they realised such distance had grown between them.
French ships, Hayden well knew, were reputed to be more lightly built than their British counterparts and notably faster, though Hayden was aware of enough instances of British ships chasing and catching French ships of similar rate that this argument did not impress him overly. The frigates in his wake, however, were larger and longer on the water line, and very likely did have a small advantage in swiftness. This advantage he hoped to overcome by seamanship and sail handling. In this, his father’s people did have an advantage, he knew, for the British ships and their officers and crews were at sea in all weather for much of any given year, whereas the French ships languished in harbour bottled up by the Royal Navy blockade. Though, as he had stated to Hawthorne, these particular French vessels might be exceptions to this, as at least one—and very likely both—had been raiding British commerce for some months, and doing it regularly.
For a few moments he stood at the rail, watching the chasing enemy, looking for signs of poor seamanship—poorly trimmed sails, an indecisive hand upon the helm, tardiness in the sail handlers, but he saw none of these things.
“She appears crack, does she not, sir?” Archer had reappeared at the moment after passing along the orders to Barthe and Franks. Clearly, he was thinking along the same lines as his captain.
“I am afraid she does, Mr Archer.” Hayden turned in a slow revolution, examining the brightening circle of sea within which his ship sailed.
“Mr Archer,” Hayden began after a moment’s contemplation, “I do believe I have made a mistake.”
“Order Mr Barthe to belay setting top-gallants.”
Archer stood a moment; Hayden could feel him hesitating. “Aye, sir.” He went off at a run, calling out to Mr Barthe and to the men aloft at once.
Although Barthe complied immediately, he did not order the men down off the yards. He hastened aft to Hayden, who remained at the taffrail, his eye fixed on the French frigates.
For a moment Barthe did the same, saying nothing, but then could not hold his peace. “They will be upon us in a trice, sir.”
“Not if they are upon their beam-ends, Mr Barthe.”
Barthe turned his attention to weather. “It is a gamble, Captain Hayden. There have been squalls in quick succession and then long lulls between.”
“Let us hope I am not proven wrong. We shall luff through the squalls, Mr Barthe, and bear away the moment we are able. The French coast is too close for us to run off, and I do not wish to take in sail unless we must to save the ship.” Hayden turned to eye the coast, which was almost obscured in the low cloud and mist.
“Only the best helmsman shall have the wheel, sir. I will make certain they understand your wishes completely.”
“Thank you, Mr Barthe.”
The sailing master went off, calling out the names of the men he wished to take the helm.
Hayden could never remember wishing for a squall, but it was his most fervent desire at that moment. For half of an hour he kept watch on the chasing ships and the northern horizon, willing a squall to burst out of the rain and scudding cloud . . . but none did.
Standing at the taffrail watching the chasing ships, Hayden felt chagrined to the point of mortification. He had made an unconscionable mistake. He should have doused his lamps and lain silently in the dark and hoped the French frigate had not seen or slipped off before the French discovered him. Returning Monsieur Benoît’s intelligence to Britain had been paramount and he had foolishly let himself be drawn into an action with the French. He even wondered if pride had not been at work in this and he had not wished to appear shy before his crew—had even feared the Lords Commissioners might question his resolve. He cursed himself silently.
A bloom of smoke—quickly swept off to leeward—appeared at the bow of the nearer ship. A hundred yards aft of the Themis an iron ball splashed into the sea.
Among the crew there was shifting if not muttering. At sea, Hayden almost invariably made decisions quickly and with confidence, but this day he second-guessed himself at every turn.
Like a corpulent angel of doubt, the sailing master reappeared at his elbow at that moment.
“There is not a great deal of weight in this wind, sir,” he observed.
“Did you not tell me it would make and haul aft, Mr Barthe?”
“I fear I might be proven wrong, sir,” Barthe replied quietly.
“Let us hope not, Mr Barthe. Let us hope we are both proven right.”
But the wind appeared to be defying both Hayden and Barthe; it was neither increasing in strength, altering its direction, nor sending the hoped-for squalls and gusts that Hayden was gambling on. In the normal course of things, Hayden would never order top-gallants carried in such weather, but present circumstances could hardly be termed “normal.”
Again the French frigate fired her forward chase gun, the ball wounding the sea a little nearer than previously.
“Do you make it fifty miles to Pointe de Barfleur, Mr Barthe?”
“Nearer sixty, I should think, Captain.”
“Nine hours, then? Perhaps ten?”
“Just after dusk, sir, if this wind holds.”
“Will we weather it?”
The sailing master turned to look west, as though he could gauge the distance to the invisible point of France. “On this slant, sir? It will be very close run.”
This only confirmed Hayden’s own reckoning.
“I believe we could tack in this much wind, Captain,” Barthe observed, staring fixedly at the chasing ship.
“On deck!” came a call from aloft. “Gust in the offing.”
Hayden turned to windward and could see the tops of the waves being torn away in white spray, the sea rippling into fish scales as it did beneath a gust.
“Let us hope this presages our squall,” Hayden said quietly to the sailing master.
The helmsman gauged the progress of the gust, measured its moment of arrival to a nicety, and luffed just enough to shake the wind out of the sails, but not so much as to have them thrown aback. Running off, downwind, was the safest way to meet squalls, but with the mizzen sheeted flat and the mainsail set, the ship would not steer off, and it was often necessary to hand those sails, or at least let sheets fly, before such a turn could be made.
The sails shook and tossed their clews about, rattling the rigging. Even so, the gust heeled the ship over to leeward. Hayden turned to see the effect on the French and found them doing the same, though heeled much further down.
The length of the Themis’ deck, men whose attentions were not taken up by the present evolution stared, with great hope in their faces, at the heeling French ship.
“Carry away,” Barthe muttered, apparently placing a curse on the enemy’s top-gallant masts.
In a moment the gust withered away, and the helmsmen put their respective ships back on course, hard on the wind, as close as they could come without giving away speed. All along the deck there was a moan from the hands, and they turned away, back to their labours, with shaking heads.
Out of the companionway, the Reverend Mr Smosh appeared, pushing one arm into a woolen coat, then the other, settling the garment around his shoulders with a shrug. The doughy clergyman asked permission to approach the captain’s private area of deck and came to the rail beside Hayden and Barthe.
“Have you come to take the air, Mr Smosh?” Barthe asked.
“Indeed I have, and the sights, Mr Barthe. One should never miss the sights.” He paused to reflect. “In truth, my reading class has been superseded by the call of all hands. As I have no willing scholars this morning, and the doctor had no further use for me, I thought I might venture forth and see these French frigates I have been hearing much about.”
“Well, there they are, sir,” Barthe answered him, “as fine a team as you shall ever hope to see, I would venture.”
The clergyman stared at the pursuing ships a moment. “Have they not more sails than we carry? Three tiers to our two?”
“Courses, topsails and top-gallants, Mr Smosh, but the captain believes we shall have a squall by and by and then we shall be more evenly matched in sails, for some of theirs shall carry away.” Barthe turned to Hayden. “I thought that gust would convince these Frenchies to take in their top-gallants, but I see they have learned nothing from it.”
“I had hoped the same,” Hayden replied.
“Do they gain on us, then?” Smosh wondered.
“They do, Mr Smosh,” Hayden informed him, “though so little in these winds that one can hardly measure it. I have been observing the speed of the vessels, and it seems for a while they get a wind that carries them nearer and then, for a time, the wind will favour us. Only a few moments ago the furthest vessel appeared to be gaining on her sister, but now she seems to have fallen back somewhat. We could go on in this same manner until darkness finds us, or the wind could carry our enemy up to us within the hour. We will see who the winds favour.” Hayden had almost said “who the wind gods favour” but was reluctant to display such paganism before the clergyman.
Within the hour, the wind gods appeared to have made their decision in favour of the French, for the nearer ship began to lob shot very near the stern of the Themis, and Hayden had his own stern chase guns readied. Occasional gusts heeled the ships far over, though these were not so strong as to require luffing, though ships had a natural tendency to round up when so pressed. Squalls had ceased altogether, but rain and gusts were common, and the horizon never drew away beyond a league and it was commonly much nearer.
Noon saw the first French ball find the Themis, passing through the mizzen topsail and then the main topsail in turn. No other damage was reported, unless it was to the spirits of the hands, who became undeniably disconcerted.
The day’s full light never seemed to arrive, a dull near-twilight prevailing, the hidden sun’s glow never growing or lessening over the hours. Astern, the chasing ships appeared ominous and relentless, bearing down on them with a predatory determination. To Hayden, there seemed to be no human agency involved but only an unswerving, malevolent will. For someone who had commonly been the chaser, this was a feeling both singular and deeply unsettling.
A liquid bloom of grey-black enveloped the chasing ship’s bow. The iron ball howled by scant yards to starboard, the report pealing in its wake.
“Mr Archer,” Hayden addressed the young lieutenant, who hovered nearby. “Let us return fire.”
The watch warned of a gust just then and the ship heeled to the wind, which whipped about them, pressing the ship over and causing the men at the helm to struggle with the wheel on a slanting deck. The sails appeared to stretch, tight as drum skins, pregnant and slick with rain.
“Luff!” Barthe ordered the helmsmen. “Luff! Let run the foresail’s leeward sheet!”
The ship heeled, pressed down by the wind. A cracking of timber and shaking of sail alerted Hayden, who turned in time to see the Frenchman’s main and fore top-gallant masts go by the lee at almost the same instant.
A squall of wind struck the speeding ships, shaking anything that was loose and whipping the pennants at the masthead so that they curled and cracked. Hayden saw the French cruiser rounding up into the wind, and then she was absorbed into the curtaining rain. Whether she had been caught aback he could not tell.
The clew of the Themis’ mainsail flailed the air, threatening man and ship, until the wind relented and let the over-pressed and straining ship back onto her feet. She began to race on, the beam-sea lifting and lowering her in a plunging, ponderous rhythm.
The men on deck all cheered, as though they had been responsible for the enemy’s ill luck. In that instant, their spirits lifted notably.
Hayden left the taffrail and went with the sailing master and Archer around the ship.
“We are stretching these shrouds, Mr Barthe,” Hayden observed as they came to the standing rigging which supported the mainmast, “if we get upon the other tack, have Mr Franks employ his top-burton tackle and set them up properly again.”
For a moment all three looked up into the rigging at the straining sails, the rain driving to leeward and splattering against sailcloth and wooden deck.
“How much longer do you think we can carry our mainsail, Mr Barthe?” Hayden asked so that only the sailing master and Archer could hear.
Barthe shaded his eyes from the driving rain and gazed up. “I would have it off now if we had no Frenchmen in our wake.”
Hayden was of the same opinion, and Archer nodded agreement. “Do you think they were caught aback?”
“The Frenchman?” Barthe contemplated this a moment. “I couldn’t rightly say, Captain. The rain and mist closed over just as her masts went by the board. Perhaps not. I could not see her companion at that moment. Certainly, she might have all her masts standing yet.”
Hayden looked up at the straining sail with some misgiving. “Let us carry the mainsail as long as we dare, then.”
Hayden was sorely tempted to tack, trusting to the lack of visibility to hide them from the enemy—and throwing them off his trail entirely—but he was afraid they would pass close enough to one or the other of the chasing ships that they would be seen, and tacking in so much wind carrying all this sail was a dubious endeavour. Keeping on as he was appeared to be the only sensible course of action, for France was still ominously close to leeward. The thought that he bore information that might prove critical to the defence of England weighed upon him. Above all things, he needed to get into an English port, but he dare not let that push him into doing something reckless that might lead to the loss of his ship. He cursed himself now for engaging the enemy and not attempting to slip away. If what Benoît had told him was true, then certainly that knowledge was worth a hundred French frigates. Before he had been concerned that the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty would think this reported invasion unlikely and judge him shy for not engaging the frigate; now he wondered if they would not think him a fool for not racing back to England with Benoît’s information and upbraid him for avarice and prize hunting when clearly the other matter was of critical importance.
“Mr Archer, order the stove lit. Send the men down to breakfast forty at a time. Keep the other men at their stations. We are in French waters yet, and the two frigates chasing us might not be the only enemy vessels we discover this day.”
“Aye, sir.” Archer touched his hat and hastened away.
Men had been stationed to watch on all quarters of the ship as well as aloft. The coast was distressingly near, and this poor visibility might lead to surprises Hayden would not welcome. Upon the upper deck, the enforced silence only made the subdued spirits of the men seem more unnatural and ominous.
When smoke began to drift up from the cooking-stove, the men’s spirits rose a little, and at eight bells, when the first men were sent down to break their fasts, there was a noticeable lightening of the mood.
The French ships had not appeared in their wake in almost two hours, and this, too, had its leavening effect. Mr Barthe ordered the log streamed and recorded their speed as just exceeding six knots. Following a quick consultation with his charts, Barthe calculated that Barfleur would appear two hours after dark. What concerned the sailing master were the unpredictable tidal currents in that area of the Channel, and he clomped about the deck with a notable scowl upon his doughy face. The leadsman was set to work swinging his sounding lead, but no bottom was found at twenty fathoms, which was information that neither granted comfort nor caused undue alarm.
Squalls continued to sweep down upon them at intervals, often materializing out of the blear not a hundred yards to starboard. The men standing watch and the helmsmen were ever upon the alert, but the murk disguised these bursts of weather until they were all but upon them.
Hayden took a quick breakfast in the gunroom; his own cabin remained dismantled. Despite Hayden’s having been blessed with excellent and dutiful officers, they were, with the exception of Mr Barthe, relatively inexperienced and new to their responsibilities. Their judgement had not yet been tested in difficult situations. He only hoped his own, impaired as it was by an almost constant anxiety about his own troubles, would not prove lacking.
Over the course of the morning, the seas built and were soon striking the topsides and sending spray high up into the rigging, where it slatted against sails and slashed down upon the deck with such force it almost seemed not to be liquid at all. The bellying mainsail was watched with a particular fascinated horror. If it had not been of fairly recent vintage it would surely have let go by then, but its seams held up, and Hayden continued to carry it, breaking all seagoing conventions to reef the topsail to ease the strain on the ship while keeping the mainsail set.
There was no sun to allow a noon-sight, but this important hour—the beginning of the ship’s day—was marked, the glass turned, log streamed. Now that the Themis was apparently free of chasing ships, and the crew had been fed, the men’s mood lifted and became almost content, despite the disagreeable weather.
This was only temporarily altered when a black-hulled transport appeared almost under their bow and avoided collision only by some intercession of divine nature. Under normal circumstances, Hayden would have chased it down and made it a prize, if possible, but today he watched it slip astern, trying not to think of the money it represented. He was even more concerned that it might encounter the chasing frigates and inform their captains that the Themis held upon her course.
The men, too, watched the little coaster disappear astern, engendering much muttering and many an aggrieved look. How dare a prize appear at that moment? Had it no consideration at all?
The wind, which had remained remarkably constant throughout the morning, began to shift from north-north-east to north-north-west. Each time the wind went into the north-north-west Barthe would consult the compass and charts, stream the log, and recalculate their position and likelihood of doubling Pointe de Barfleur. On one of these occasions, Hayden went below to look at the chart with the master, who was guarding this valuable paper from rain on a makeshift table at the foot of the aft companionway.
Hayden glanced at the little “cocked hat”—the triangle within which Mr Barthe believed the Themis lay at that moment.
“We get a better slant each time the wind backs into the east,” the sailing master observed, “but I fear we are being driven below our course more frequently.” He placed a blunt finger upon the chart, a small peninsula that shifted over the paper sea as he spoke. “There is a rocky shoal extending out from Barfleur Point to the north-east which we must avoid at all costs.”
“Will we pass outside the shoal or not, Mr Barthe?” Hayden asked. “Or will we be forced to wear her around, for we dare not tack in such a wind.”
“I am most sorry, Captain Hayden, but the currents in this bay are not entirely predictable . . .” He stared unhappily at his chart a moment. “I cannot say for certain that we shall.”
It was not the news Hayden wished to hear, but nor did he want an overly optimistic lie at that moment. “I appreciate your candour, Mr Barthe. Better we know the truth. Pointe de Barfleur is very low and in this foul weather will not be visible until we are upon it. I say we wear ship now while we have room, and hope the French are far enough behind that they cannot take advantage of us.”
“I agree, sir.” Barthe’s shoulders relaxed a little and there was less tension in his tone.
“Then let us begin immediately.”
The two men went up the ladder, but before they had emerged onto the deck a cry came from the lookout Hayden had positioned on the mizzen top.
“On deck! Ship on our starboard quarter.”
Immediately, Hayden and Barthe went to the rail and stood gazing at the vessel, which had top-gallant masts standing yet.
“Can that be one of our Frenchmen?” Barthe wondered aloud. “How could she get so far to windward of us?”
“She might have had more east in her wind than we have received.”
Barthe unleashed a string of curses aimed, perhaps, at the French or the fickle wind or both.
Hayden called for a glass and fixed the French frigate in it just as a hoist of signals went up behind the sails of her mainmast.
“Signals, sir,” Archer observed as he arrived at the rail.
“Yes, but is there really a second ship or is she trying to make us think she is not alone?”
No one spoke a moment as they stood gazing at the indistinct form of a frigate in the drizzle and mist.
“Shall I give the order to wear ship?” Barthe enquired.
Hayden did not reply but stood weighing all the possibilities, all the scraps of knowledge he possessed about their present position. They did not know precisely where they were, a dangerous point of land and shoal lay somewhere ahead, a single enemy frigate was stationed on his quarter, and a second might not be too distant. If he wore, these ships might trap him in a corner. If he did not wear, his ship might be in danger of going ashore. There was also a slim possibility that they might weather Barfleur and its imposing shoal. Hayden had never felt so paralysed. There seemed to be no course that offered a better possibility of success. The part of him that made these decisions on gut instinct appeared to have abandoned him entirely.
“I think it might be a danger to stand on, Captain,” the sailing master observed quietly.
“If we wear, we might end up in a corner fighting two frigates of superior strength, Mr Barthe. Is there any chance that we might double Barfleur? Can you not give me a more certain answer?”
Barthe would not meet his eye. “I regret that I cannot, sir.”
Hayden almost sighed. “Then we shall wear ship and prepare to fight if we must. All hands to wear ship, Mr Archer.”
“Aye, sir. All hands to wear ship, Mr Franks!”
Although it took hardly a moment for the crew to find their stations, Hayden was barely able to retain his exasperation. The entire time, he observed the French ship through his glass, attempting to see if her captain had ordered his own men to make ready to wear.
“Aloft there!” Hayden called to the hand on the main-top, preserving his hat with one hand as he looked up. “Does this Frenchman make ready to wear?”
The crewman stared a moment through his glass. “I cannot be certain, sir, but I don’t believe she does, Captain.”
“Let us hope he is correct,” Hayden muttered to Archer.
“Up mainsail and mizzen! Brace in the after-yards!” A brief pause. “Up helm!”
The ship began to turn to larboard, seas and wind veering aft.
“Lay the headyards square. Shift over the headsheets!”
Yards were braced, tacks and sheets eased and hauled. The stern of the ship came through the wind and the Themis settled upon her new course, which would take them more or less back to Le Havre on their present wind.
Hayden noted Barthe and Archer sharing a glance, both unhappy.
The Frenchman had stood on less than a quarter of a mile before perceiving what his enemy was about, and he brought the wind across her stern, though not quite so quickly as the English. When both ships had settled upon their new course, the French were on the larboard quarter, but not so far to the north as they had been. Immediately, upon her new course, a bloom of smoke appeared to leeward of the French frigate, and a moment later the report reached the officers standing upon the Themis’ quarterdeck.
Archer turned to Hayden in surprise. “Certainly we are beyond the range of eighteen-pounders?”
“Indeed we are, Mr Archer, but that gun was not aimed at us. They are merely trying to alert their sister ship.”
Hayden had sent the men back down to the guns and exchanged the lookout on the end of the jib-boom. If the second frigate appeared out of this murk, Hayden wanted to see it first. He had witnessed the calamitous results of collision at sea and never wanted that particular experience again.
Archer had positioned himself by the binnacle and sighted steadily across the compass at the chasing ship. “Sir,” he said after a few moments. “We appear to be holding our own—not pulling away, but neither are we losing.”
“I am happy to hear it, Mr Archer.” Hayden fixed the enemy in his glass. “Let us hope this wind drops away, for we have our top-gallant masts standing and our top-gallants still bent, while one of the enemy ships has neither.”
This observation spread a little cheer around the quarterdeck, but over the next three quarters of an hour the wind only appeared to be making.
“Ship!” one of the forward lookouts called out. “Point an’ a ’alf off the starboard bow.”
Hayden hurried forward, as a ship appeared to take form out of mist and rain.
“Open starboard gunports!” Hayden called. “Run out the guns!”