Falmouth, September 1803: As Bolitho faces the grim reality of war at close quarters, he will be called upon to anticipate the strategies of the French fleet. But the conflict has also taken on a personal note, reviving his vendetta with the French Admiral, Jobert, who once commanded the Argonaute. One last, potentially fatal rendevous with this enemy lies ahead of Bolitho and his mena meeting in which no quarter will be asked or given.
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The Bolitho Novels: 16
By Alexander Kent
McBooks Press, Inc.Copyright © 1986 Highseas Authors Ltd
All rights reserved.
It was unusually cold for mid-September and the cobbled streets of Portsmouth Point shone like metal from the overnight rain.
Vice-Admiral Sir Richard Bolitho paused at a corner and stared back at the George Inn where he had stayed for two days since his arrival from Falmouth. There was the old Blue Posts Inn too, a plume of smoke pouring from a chimney, a reminder of long-lost times when he had begun a voyage as a lowly midshipman.
He sighed and turned to his companion who was waiting for him and as they rounded the corner Bolitho felt the Solent's chill wind like a challenge.
It was morning and yet the narrow streets were all but deserted. For this was 1803 and the fragile peace had been swept away in the first broadside of May. No young man or casual idler loitered here for fear of the dreaded press-gangs. Like a lesson repeating itself with little learned from before, he thought. He saw his nephew watching him, his eyes troubled, and was reminded of a remark made at the George Inn just that morning while he and Adam had played out a last cup of coffee. The man had been a traveller and had been watching the two sea officers in conversation, and later had said that he had originally taken them for brothers.
Bolitho faced his nephew, hating the moment of parting but knowing it was selfishness to detain him further. Adam Bolitho was twenty-three and in his uncle's eyes was little changed from the day he had first joined his ship as a midshipman.
But there was a difference, a marked one. Adam had gone through danger and pain, sometimes at his side, other times not. The line of his mouth and the firmness of his chin showed he had learned well, and the solitary gold epaulette on his left shoulder said all the rest. A commander at twenty-three and now with a ship of his own. The little fourteen-gun brig Firefly lay out there beyond the wall, lost amongst the sprawling anchorage with its big men-of-war, transports and all the life of a naval port at war.
Bolitho looked at him fondly without really seeing him, but catching glimpses of small, swift pictures of what they shared.
He said almost without realizing it, "Your father would have been proud of you today."
Adam stared at him, his eyes anxious but pleased. "That was good of you."
Bolitho tugged down his gold-laced hat to compose himself. Then he said, "If I had to discover a reward for myself in all this, it is here and now, seeing you about to sail with your own command." Impetuously he gripped his arm. "I shall miss you, Adam."
Adam smiled but his eyes remained sad. "You were looking back just now, Uncle?"
"Aye," They fell in step again and Bolitho tried to contain the feeling of depression which had been his shadow since leaving Falmouth. Was this then the last time? Was that the cause of his apprehension? Would he end up like so many others on some torn and bloodied deck never to return home?
Adam said, "He thought we were brothers. A compliment to me I thought."
He laughed and Bolitho saw the midshipman again. Bolitho adjusted the boat-cloak about his shoulders. His flagship was waiting for him too. Perhaps the weight of responsibility which lay in his sealed orders would drive away his doubts and lose them far astern like the land.
They would all be out there waiting for him. Thank God he had managed to keep Valentine Keen as his flag captain. There would not be too many other familiar faces this time, he thought.
The Peace of Amiens, as it was called, had lasted less than a year but in that time their lordships and a complacent government had seen fit to run down the fleet in numbers and men to a maniac proportion. Sixty out of a hundred sail of the line laid up, and forty thousand sailors and Royal Marines thrown on the beach. Bolitho had been lucky to stay employed when so many had lost everything. It was ironic that his last flagship, Achates, had fought and won the first real battle after the Peace against the odds at a time when the fleet needed to hear of a victory of any kind. It was a further twist of fate that the French admiral's ship Argonaute, which they had taken as a prize after one of the fiercest close actions Bolitho could recall, was now about to break his flag at the foremast. Achates had been an old ship and would remain in the dockyard for many more months. She had never really recovered from her earlier battles in the Caribbean. Argonaute was new by comparison and had been on her first commission when they had beaten her into surrender.
He wondered briefly if prize-ships ever resented their new masters and one-time enemies. Bolitho had once been flag captain in a prize-ship but could not recall any strange behaviour in his command.
Anyway there was no choice. They needed every ship and experienced seaman they could get. For whereas England had allowed her strength to sap away, the old enemy across the Channel had done the reverse. New ships, young, eager captains, and a vast army bent on final victory painted a gloomy picture for the future.
Some Royal Marines were sheltering by the sallyport wall and sprang to life as the two officers drew near.
It felt strange not to have Allday with him at this moment, Bolitho thought. Hogg, Keen's coxswain, would be at the stairs with the barge this time. Allday had asked to go and visit someone. That in itself was strange. Allday never asked favours or discussed personal matters, and for a moment Bolitho had wondered if he had intended to accept his earlier offers to stay ashore. He had been at sea all his life apart from a brief spell when he had learned to be a shepherd. He had earned his freedom from the navy a thousand times over. And in Achates his life had nearly ended. Bolitho often thought of that day when his coxswain had taken a sword thrust in the chest which should have killed him instantly. He was usually his old cheerful, irrepressible self, but the wound showed itself none the less. He found it hard to straighten his back when he walked, and Bolitho knew just how much it hurt his pride. He had often compared Allday with an oak, or a faithful dog. He was neither. He was a true friend, one whom he could trust, who saw more of Bolitho the man than any other.
They reached the stairs and Bolitho saw the barge swaying below him, Hogg, the coxswain, and a young lieutenant standing by the boat, faces upturned, heads bared. The tossed oars were in perfect white lines, the tarred hats and checkered shirts of the bargemen saying much for what Keen had already achieved with a new company.
Keen would be watching him right now with his telescope, and probably his new flag-lieutenant, Hector Stayt, whom he had also sent on ahead of him. Stayt was a fellow Cornishman whose father had served with Bolitho's father. He was highly recommended but looked more like an adventurer than someone who was supposed to show diplomacy when so required.
A thousand worries and regrets rushed through his mind but his face was composed as he turned to his nephew once again. From one corner of his eye he had seen Adam's little gig standing well clear while they waited for their youthful commander.
The tide was on the ebb and he saw an old man gathering driftwood where the shingle showed itself. The man glanced up and looked directly at the two officers. They could be brothers. Each with black hair and the same steady grey eyes. Adam's hair was cut short in the new fashion for sea officers; Bolitho retained the queue at the nape of his neck.
The man on the shingle threw up a mock salute and Bolitho nodded. A last farewell.
He said, "Take each step with care, Adam. You'll get your frigate after this if you stay out of trouble."
Adam smiled. "I am sailing for Gibraltar with your dispatches, Uncle. After that I fear the fleet's apron strings will tether me."
Bolitho returned his smile. It was like seeing himself being reborn. "Apron strings can stretch." He clasped him against his boat-cloak, oblivious of the rigid marines and the watching bargemen. Almost to himself he said, "God be with you."
Then, as Adam doffed his new gold-laced hat and allowed his raven hair to ruffle in the wind, Bolitho hurried down the stairs. He nodded to the lieutenant. A face from the recent past, except he had been one of Achates' midshipmen then.
"Good day, Mr Valancey. It will be a hard pull in this wind."
He saw the flush of pleasure on the youngster's face because he had remembered his name. Any link would help.
He seated himself in the sternsheets and then waved to Adam as, with oars dipping and rising like wings, the smart, greenpainted barge thrust clear of the piles.
With unseemly haste the little gig pulled towards the stairs, and as they swept around the stern of an anchored transport the sallyport was hidden from view.
There were many vessels at anchor, their black and buff hulls shining dully in the rain and spray. Beyond them the Isle of Wight was little more than a misty hump, but the wind was steady. Was he glad to go this time?
The lieutenant coughed nervously. "The frigate yonder is Barracouta, sir." He flinched as Bolitho glanced at him. The frigate must have dropped anchor this morning otherwise he would have been informed. She was to be one of his new squadron under Jeremy Lapish who had commanded a brig like Adam's when he had last served under him. In war the chance of promotion, like death, was ever present. But it was sensible of the lieutenant to tell him and also showed that he took an interest in the comings and goings within the fleet.
Bolitho said, "What is your appointment?"
"Sixth lieutenant, sir." One step up from the gunroom.
Hogg swore under his breath and snarled, "Oars! Easy there!"
The oar blades hovered, dripping and motionless, as Hogg put his weight on the tiller bar. A longboat was cutting directly across their path, so full of people it looked almost awash.
Hogg glared at the youthful lieutenant and when he remained silent cupped his hands and bellowed, "Stand away there! Make way for a King's officer!"
Somebody waved and the longboat veered towards some nearby transports.
Bolitho saw that one of the passengers was a young girl, her head and shoulders unprotected against the spray and wet breeze. She twisted round between two companions to see who was shouting and Bolitho's eyes met hers across fifty feet of tossing whitecaps. He stared at one of her hands as she gripped the gunwale. She wore manacles on her wrists, but she turned away before he could see more.
He asked quietly, "Who are those people?"
Hogg eased the tiller carefully, still outraged that such a thing could happen under the eyes of his admiral.
He said gruffly, "Convicts, sir."
Bolitho looked away. Going to Botany Bay probably. What had she done, he wondered? Who was she?
"Ready, bowman!" Hogg was gauging the last cable or so with great care.
Bolitho saw the tapered masts of Argonaute as the barge swept around another two-decker. She was a fine-looking ship, he conceded, shining in her new livery with a huge Red Ensign streaming out from her poop to welcome him aboard. She had fine graceful lines and Bolitho knew from hard experience she was an excellent sailer. Her poop deck was rather longer than her English counterparts but otherwise she was little different from any seventy-four, the backbone of the fleet.
But as she drew closer Bolitho saw there were slight differences which any Frenchman would notice. The stronger bow and stiffly raked jib-boom and the gilded stern gallery which seemed almost flamboyant after earlier French ships. It was hard to see her with her decks puddled in blood, as embattled men hacked and thrust at each other to hold their ground. Many good hands died that day and on their way home to Plymouth. The dockyard had done magic with their battered charge, Bolitho thought. He had been tempted to visit his new flagship several times during her refit and repairs but had stayed away. Keen would hardly have been pleased to have his admiral come aboard in the midst of such confusion.
Bolitho had wanted to go, needed to see and speak with people he understood. He tossed the cloak from his shoulders to reveal the gleaming epaulettes, each with its two silver stars. Vice-Admiral of the Red, apart from Nelson the youngest on the Navy list. Even that he could not get used to. Like the title which had made everyone so pleased but which left him feeling awkward, embarrassed.
More pictures flashed through his mind as he watched the ship and gripped the old family sword between his knees.
London, the bright liveries and bowing footmen. The hush as he knelt before His Britannic Majesty, the lightest tap of the sword on his shoulder. Sir Richard Bolitho of Falmouth. It had been a proud moment surely? Belinda had looked so radiantly happy. Adam and Allday beaming like schoolchildren. And yet —
He saw a cluster of figures around the entry port, the blues and whites of the officers, the scarlet of the marines. His world. They would be watching his every move. Usually Allday would have been on hand to make sure he did not lose his balance or trip over his sword.
The thought of ever being without Allday was beyond belief after what they had seen and endured together. He would be aboard before the ship weighed. He must. I need him more than ever.
He saw the lieutenant staring at him and for a terrible moment imagined he had spoken aloud.
But Valancey was merely anxious and stood aside as Bolitho waited for the barge to sway heavily against Argonaute's fat flank.
Then he was swarming up the side and through the entry port, his ears cringing to the slap and click of bayoneted muskets presenting arms, and the fifes and drums breaking into Heart of Oak.
There was Keen, his fair hair visible as he doffed his hat and strode to meet him, even as Bolitho's flag broke smartly from the foremast truck.
"Welcome, Sir Richard."
Keen smiled, not realizing that the greeting had caught Bolitho unawares. It sounded like somebody else.
"I am glad to be here." Bolitho nodded to the assembled officers and the watch on deck. If he had still expected to see some sign of the battle he was disappointed. Newly paid deck seams and blacked-down rigging. Neatly furled sails and every upper deck eighteen-pounder with all its tackles and gear perfectly in line as if on parade.
He looked along the deck and through the criss-cross of standing and running rigging. He could see the white shoulder of the figurehead, depicting the handsome youth who had been one of Jason's crew in the mythical Argo. Less than three years old from the day she had slid into the water at Brest. A new ship by any standard, with a full complement of six hundred and twenty souls, officers, seamen and Royal Marines, although he doubted if even the resourceful Keen had gathered anywhere near that total.
They walked aft beneath the poop deck. By making it longer than in English third-rates, the builders had given better and more spacious accommodation to the officers. In battle, however, as in any man-of-war, the deck would be completely cleared from bow to stern so that every gun, large or small, could be worked without obstruction.
They ducked beneath the deckhead beams and Bolitho saw a marine sentry marking the screen doors of his quarters right aft.
"When Allday comes aboard, Val, I want —"
Keen glanced at him curiously. "He preceded you, Sir Richard."
Bolitho felt a great sense of relief, as he had of fear when Allday had been hacked down on that terrible day.
It was quite dark between decks and Bolitho allowed his feet to guide him by instinct. The smells were like old friends. Tar, oakum, paint, damp canvas. Like the ship's fabric itself.
He nodded to the marine sentry and entered the stern cabin. A spacious dining table brought from Falmouth, the wine cabinet which followed him from ship to ship, and aft in the broad day cabin a fine carpet laid upon the black and white check canvas covering of the deck.
Keen watched his reactions as little mole-like Ozzard, who had been aboard for several days, hurried from the sleeping space. He too watched as Bolitho walked slowly to The Chair.
Excerpted from Colours Aloft! by Alexander Kent. Copyright © 1986 Highseas Authors Ltd. Excerpted by permission of McBooks Press, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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