Read an Excerpt
The Dying Trade
The Privateersman Mysteries, No 2
By David Donachie
McBooks Press, Inc. Copyright © 1993 David Donachie
All rights reserved.
IT HAD BEEN a mistake for the Ludlow brothers to attend the ball given in honour of Admiral Hood. Yet what excuse could they give to such a close family friend? You could not say they were being ignored, since all the proper forms were fully observed, and the officers of the newly arrived fleet, unaware of what was about to take place, were agog to hear about the action they had just participated in, a battle in which the Magnanime of seventy-four guns had engaged two Frenchmen of equal strength, though they studiously avoided any allusion to the other events which had resulted in a number of dead bodies aboard the ship.
But those based here were giving them a wide berth, lest by association they would be thought to be taking sides. Gibraltar was, in all respects, a garrison town. The governor was an army officer. Those posts in the administration not filled by officers of the army or the navy were filled by civilians who depended on the military for their very existence, and aware of the quarrel and its possible outcome the civilians were taking their cue from those in uniform.
The admiral had stopped by and had a word, and for a brief moment they were at the centre of a busy throng. But the guest of honour could not be expected to expend his time on them, and Hood had passed on, circulating round the room in the company of the governor, exchanging a word with everyone in turn. A number of ladies glanced in their direction, for the Ludlows were a handsome pair. But with strict orders from their husbands or fathers, none dared approach within ten feet.
James turned to his brother, having listened to him explain the recent action for the twentieth time. "I think we could decently leave, don't you?"
Harry took a glass of punch from a passing servant, "Let's wait till the admiral leaves. It won't be long. He's not overfond of this sort of gathering."
James frowned slightly. "Do you think he knows?"
"I doubt it. If he did, he would likely forbid it," said Harry.
"He surely cannot forbid you."
"Duelling is illegal. Especially for serving officers. He could most certainly stop Clere."
"I should think there are any number of people in this very room who could stop Clere."
James had raised his voice so that a fair number of the people close by could hear him, including a knot of officers standing in a group by one of the tall windows. Some of them turned sharply at the sound of his words, flushed with embarrassment or anger.
Harry knew that James was indulging in a touch of family loyalty. He'd spent the last two days trying to persuade Harry that he was being foolish. Indeed, that his opponent wasn't worth the effort. But Harry took what James had done at face value, adding a small laugh. "Hush, James. We can't fight them all."
Hood, at the other end of the room by the double doors, was just taking his leave. Seeing the admiral finally depart, a lieutenant detached himself from the group by the window and walked towards them.
"Mr Ludlow," he said, stopping in front of them and addressing James. "My principal wishes me to inform you that an apology is still possible."
James just shook his head. He didn't even bother to ask Harry. Despair he might, but he knew his brother too well for that.
"Then I must inform you that Captain Clere has chosen swords for the encounter."
"Thank you, Lieutenant," said James stiffly. "We shall see you at dawn."
The man turned on his heel and walked away. With a sudden show of anger, Harry flung the contents of his glass down his throat and stalked out of the room, followed by his brother.
At dawn, the top of the Rock was a beautiful place to be. The sun would rise in the east, clear across a thousand miles of sea, catching the tip of the mountain and bathing it in light, while the town below remained in darkness. Indeed, they had walked up in darkness and in silence, for all that had to be said had been tried. Harry could have declined this encounter with no real loss of honour, for Captain Clere, who had engineered the challenge, had been drunk at the time. It seemed to Harry that Oliver Carter, late captain of the Magnanime and his old adversary, whose body now lay in the cemetery, was going to cause him as many difficulties in death as he had in life.
Clere stood with his second silhouetted against the first hint of light in the morning sky, the false dawn that came when the sun had yet to clear the rim of the Earth. The effect was grey and morbid. The surgeon stood off to one side, fussing around, not sure whether to sort out his instruments or the two swords he was holding under his arm. The sky was lightening quickly, as the new sun lay just below the horizon. They stood watching as it rose, turning the night sky from blue through grey. The red rim of the emerging orb added a slim line of bright orange to the very east.
"I suppose one last appeal to reason would be a waste of breath?" said James softly.
"It would only be putting off the day, James. If I decline this challenge, I only open myself up to others."
"You do that anyway, brother. It is not good to have a reputation for going out. There are people who love this sort of thing, and will challenge you for mere sport."
"One thing at a time. Let me survive this and I promise you I will worry about the rest."
James spoke again, the light from the east now strong enough to show the anger on his face. "Someone could have stopped him, Harry."
"The good of the service, James. He might have been behaving like a drunken oaf. It may be that none of his fellows esteems him very highly. But our actions have not endeared us to his fellow officers. Call it partly envy if you like. But while they don't feel strongly enough to challenge us themselves, they are quite prepared to let Clere have his chance. Besides, to interfere may expose them to the same threat. He has quite a reputation for his temper, I believe. A hard man to control. All that about Carter being his friend is so much eyewash."
"All the more reason for you to decline," said James. "You have the flask, Pender?" Harry used this question to his servant to avoid answering his brother. Pender passed him the flask containing coffee laced with brandy. Harry took it, and allowed himself a small sip, before passing it to James. "You may need this more than I, brother. Watching a duel is much more disturbing than taking part."
James just shook his head, and Harry passed the flask back to Pender with the injunction to help himself. His servant did so gratefully, giving an exaggerated shiver as he did so.
The formalities had started as soon as the first edge of the sun tipped over the horizon. The surgeon approached both parties, giving them the option to withdraw. Once refused, cloaks and coats were removed, and with their white shirts taking on the colour of the blood-red sun, now just clearing the horizon and steadily turning gold, the two combatants joined the surgeon in the centre of the open space. Quietly he ordered them to abide by the rules of the engagement.
"For the last time, gentlemen," he said, "is there no way to avoid this encounter?"
Both shook their heads. Harry looked at Clere, seeing him for the first time without wig or uniform coat. The hair was long, mouse-coloured, straggled, and thin. His face bore the marks of many physical encounters, including a nose that had been on the receiving end of a fair number of heavy blows. His blue eyes were opaque and lifeless, and the lips, which always seemed to have a superior smile, were now tightly pursed together, evidence of the tension he was feeling. And the shoulders seemed hunched without the benefit of his epaulettes. Like this, Clere was an altogether less imposing figure. Harry felt himself relax. Now that he was finally going into action, the knot of fear, always present in the period of waiting, evaporated. He felt alive, able to see and think with absolute clarity, and the grin he gave Clere as they took up the "on guard" position caused a look of fear to flash across the man's eyes.
Harry knew then that he was in the presence of an opponent who talked a good fight, a man who intimidated people by his sudden loss of temper and the violence of his language, a man who was now afraid, for on this occasion his passion had carried him to the point of a proper duel, and with a dangerous opponent. He didn't want to be there any more than Harry Ludlow, yet he could not withdraw for fear of losing face.
The sun was full up now, bathing the grassy slope that capped the mountain in a brilliant light, and making the carpet of long grass sparkle as it caught the tiny drops of morning dew. Below them the sea had gone from black to grey. Soon, as it reflected the light from the sky, it would turn to blue. The swords scraped together as the surgeon commanded the duel to commence. Clere tried to circle round, forcing Harry to face the low, blinding sun. Harry declined and thrust at his unprotected side. Clere parried and started to swing his sword to cut at his opponent. But Harry Ludlow wasn't there. In defiance of the proper rules of swordplay, he leapt past Clere and gave him a mighty whack on the buttocks with the flat of his blade. Clere gave a strangled cry, spinning round swiftly. Harry's sword sliced right through his flapping shirt, swept in an arc to push Clere's sword away, before he darted round to the back again and fetched him another mighty blow on the arse.
Clere staggered forward, propelled by the force of the blow, and Harry followed through, hitting him again and again, driving him on like a beast of burden. Every time Clere tried to turn to face him, Harry plied to with his sword, smashing down his opponent's blade to check him, before getting behind him again. Half his eye took in the astonishment on the faces of Clere's party as he alternately whipped his adversary with the flat of his blade, or slashed another slice out of his now tattered shirt. And they winced as their man's cries of pain rent the morning air.
He had no doubt that Clere would have put up a decent show in a proper contest, fought according to the rules. No doubt the man would have taken a wound and chosen to carry on, even have died, rather than face the humiliation of being thought a coward. For Harry the choice was simple. To kill him or debunk him. He could see no point in the former course, for it would, to him, be tantamount to murder. Inelegant it might be, but this was a course that appealed to him more than the futile taking of a life.
Another blow to the buttocks, followed by a foot jammed into the back of his knees, forced Clere to fall forward. Harry waited for him to struggle to his feet before commencing again. The cries got louder, turning to screams as Harry's sword fell heavily on a part already bruised. The air resounded with the sound, the loud smack as the metal made painful contact, interspersed with the increasingly rare sound of blade upon blade.
Clere fell again, his breath coming in great gasps. Harry stood back, allowing him to rise. He moved like an old man, the pain he was feeling obvious in his eyes.
"Damn you, Ludlow. Stand still and fight," he gasped.
Harry lunged forward. Clere raised his sword and managed to parry a few blows before Harry was through his guard, his sword on the man's chest. Clere had a look of defiance on his face, daring Harry to finish things and run him through. But Harry just leapt past him again and started on the same tactic of beating him. Clere went down several times, struggling to his feet more painfully on each occasion, his breath coming in great gulps. There was a look of despair in his eyes now, mirrored in the faces of his party, as they saw how fresh his enemy was, hardly even perspiring as he danced around, always out of reach of Clere's flailing sword.
It could not go on, and Harry, realizing that Clere would never give up, thrust forward with ease and put his blade through the fleshy upper part of the man's sword arm. A great spurt of blood came from the wound as Clere dropped his weapon. He clasped his other arm across his chest, his hand seeking to stem the flow of blood, and looked defiantly at Harry.
"Go on, sir. Finish it off."
Clere was a victim of his tongue to the last. He could not see a way to withdraw and would not acknowledge that honour had been satisfied. Harry lunged forward again, his sword aiming straight for a point just under Clere's rib cage. He saw the look of terror in his opponent's eyes, just before they went glassy and blank.
The surgeon, standing behind Harry's opponent, rushed forward as Clere slid to the ground, turning him over and looking to stem the wound in the man's chest. He spun round startled, looking at Harry, who was standing, breathing easily, in the golden light of a full and sunlit morning. When he spoke, it would have been easy for the surgeon to mistake the target, for the distaste was evident in his voice. But it wasn't aimed at the comatose naval officer. Harry Ludlow was angry with himself, both for being here in the first place, as well as for the manner in which he'd behaved.
"Tend his arm, Doctor. I didn't touch his chest. He just passed clean away from fright."
Harry walked back to where his brother and Pender stood. He took the flask his servant offered and allowed himself a deep swallow before saying anything.
"It's always seemed to me, brother, that the last word one should use at the conclusion of a duel is satisfaction."CHAPTER 2
"DAMNED STUFF and nonsense," snapped the old man, looking directly at Harry Ludlow from under his thick grey eyebrows. "I can't think what your father would say to hear you talk like this."
"Perhaps it would be better not to discuss it at all, sir." James Ludlow, Harry's younger brother, looked at the two men and tried to suppress a smile. Both faces held expressions of politely masked displeasure. The older man sat at the head of the long table, set across the great cabin of the Victory, with the two brothers on his right and left. His dark blue coat was covered in sparkling decorations, with the red sash of the Order of the Bath across his snow-white waistcoat, evidence of his success, many years before, as a fighting sailor. And for all his years ashore, both at the Admiralty, in the House of Lords, and in attendance at the court of King George, Hood's language had lost none of its salty flavour. He was a man accustomed to silencing opposition, be it on a quarterdeck or in an oak-panelled debating chamber.
Harry Ludlow, despite his regard for Admiral Hood's age and reputation, did not enjoy being talked down to. He had spent too many years in command of his own ships to relish the tone of avuncular disapproval which had been an ongoing feature of their voyage aboard the flagship.
"I will discuss at my table any matter I please." Hood, perhaps being a mite sharper in his response than was strictly polite, tried to stare Harry down.
"Then you will very likely find yourself dining alone," snapped Harry, returning the stare, and the tone of the admiral's observation, in full measure.
Hood's face started to show real anger, the mouth hardening, his nostrils flaring, and the eyebrows seeming to thicken as they joined above his nose. But he suddenly leaned back in his chair and laughed out loud. He was a tall man, with a long raw-boned face, a big nose, and a high red colouring, set off by his thick grey eyebrows. Handsome in his youth, he'd aged well, seeming much younger than his years. Yet he had the kind of hearty, heaving laugh that with his ruddy complexion made one wonder for his health.
"You always were a gamecock, Harry, even as a nipper. I recall your father tellin' me how often he had to stretch you across a gun and thrash you."
He dropped his voice to a clearly audible whisper. "None of this lot would dare talk back to me. They agree with everything I say, sane or stupid. It makes for a dull voyage." He looked down the long dining table at the assembled officers, senior captains amongst them. None even dared to catch his eye.
Hood sat back in his chair, the bony red face adopting an air of polite enquiry as he turned to his left to address his other civilian guest.
"What about you, young James. Do you share the Ludlow family temper? Or are you more of your mother's sort?"
Excerpted from The Dying Trade by David Donachie. Copyright © 1993 David Donachie. Excerpted by permission of McBooks Press, Inc..
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