Spithead, 1784. His Majesty's Frigate, Undine, sets sail for India and the seas beyond. Europe may be at peacebut in colonial waters the promises of statesmen count for little and the bloody struggle for supremacy still goes on.
About the Author
Alexander Kent, pen name of Douglas Edward Reeman, joined the British Navy at 16, serving on destroyers and small craft during World War II, and eventually rising to the rank of lieutenant. He has taught navigation to yachtsmen and has served as a script adviser for television and films. His books have been translated into nearly two dozen languages.
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Command a King's Ship
The Bolitho Novels: 6
By Alexander Kent
McBooks Press, Inc.Copyright © 1973 Alexander Kent
All rights reserved.
THE ADMIRAL'S CHOICE
An Admiralty messenger opened the door of a small anteroom and said politely, "If you would be so good as to wait, sir." He stood aside to allow Captain Richard Bolitho to pass and added, "Sir John knows you are here."
Bolitho waited until the door had closed and then walked to a bright fire which was crackling below a tall mantel. He was thankful that the messenger had brought him to this small room and not to one of the larger ones. As he had hurried into the Admiralty from the bitter March wind which was sweeping down Whitehall he had been dreading a confrontation in one of those crowded waiting-rooms, crammed with unemployed officers who watched the comings and goings of more fortunate visitors with something like hatred.
Bolitho had known the feeling, too, even though he had told himself often enough that he was better off than most. For he had come back to England a year ago, to find the country at peace, and the towns and villages already filling with unwanted soldiers and seamen. With his home in Falmouth, an established estate, and all the hard-earned prize money he had brought with him, he knew he should have been grateful.
He moved away from the fire and stared down at the broad roadway below the window. It had been raining for most of the morning, but now the sky had completely cleared, so that the many puddles and ruts glittered in the harsh light like patches of pale blue silk. Only the steaming nostrils of countless horses which passed this way and that, the hurrying figures bowed into the wind, made a lie of the momentary colour.
He sighed. It was March, 1784, only just over a year since his return home from the West Indies, yet it seemed like a century.
Whenever possible he had quit Falmouth to make the long journey to London, to this seat of Admiralty, to try and discover why his letters had gone unanswered, why his pleas for a ship, any ship, had been ignored. And always the waiting-rooms had seemed to get more and more crowded. The familiar voices and tales of ships and campaigns had become forced, less confident, as day by day they were turned away. Ships were laid up by the score, and every seaport had its full quota of a war's flotsam. Cripples, and men made deaf and blind by cannon fire, others half mad from what they had seen and endured. With the signing of peace the previous year such sights had become too common to mention, too despairing even for hope.
He stiffened as two figures turned a corner below the window. Even without the facings on their tattered red coats he knew they had been soldiers. A carriage was standing by the roadside, the horses nodding their heads together as they explored the contents of their feeding bags. The coachman was chatting to a smartly dressed servant from a nearby house, and neither took a scrap of notice of the two tattered veterans.
One of them pushed his companion against a stone balustrade and then walked towards the coach. Bolitho realised that the man left clinging to the stonework was blind, his head turned towards the roadway as if trying to hear where his friend had gone. It needed no words.
The soldier faced the coachman and his companion and held out his hand. It was neither arrogant nor servile, and strangely moving. The coachman hesitated and then fumbled inside his heavy coat.
At that moment another figure ran lightly down some steps and wrenched open the coach door. He was well attired against the cold, and the buckles on his shoes held the watery sunlight like diamonds. He stared at the soldier and then snapped angrily at his coachman. The servant ran to the horses' heads, and within seconds the coach was clattering away into the busy press of carriages and carts. The soldier stood staring after it and then gave a weary shrug. He returned to his companion, and with linked arms they moved slowly around the next corner.
Bolitho struggled with the window catch, but it was stuck fast, his mind reeling with anger and shame at what he had just seen.
A voice asked, "May I help, sir?" It was the messenger again.
Bolitho replied, "I was going to throw some coins to two crippled soldiers!" He broke off, seeing the mild astonishment in the messenger's eyes.
The man said, "Bless you, sir, you'd get used to such sights in London."
"I was going to tell you, sir, that Sir John will see you now!"
Bolitho followed him into the passageway again, conscious of the sudden dryness in his throat. He remembered so clearly his last visit here, a month ago almost to the day. And that time he had been summoned by letter, and not left fretting and fuming in a waiting-room. It had seemed like a dream, an incredible stroke of good fortune. It still did, despite all the difficulties which had been crammed into so short a time.
He was to assume command immediately of His Britannic Majesty's Ship Undine, of thirty-two guns, then lying in the dockyard at Portsmouth completing a refit.
As he had hurried from the Admiralty on that occasion he had felt the excitement on his face like guilt, aware of the other watching eyes, the envy and resentment.
The task of taking command, of gathering the dockyard's resources to his aid to prepare Undine for sea, had cost him dearly. With the Navy being cut down to a quarter of its wartime strength he had been surprised to discover that it was harder to obtain spare cordage and spars rather than the reverse. A weary shipwright had confided in him that dockyard officials were more intent on making a profit with private dealers than they were on aiding one small frigate.
He had bribed, threatened and driven almost every man in the yard until he had obtained more or less what he needed. It seemed they saw his departure as the only way of returning to their own affairs.
He had walked around his new command in her dock with mixed feelings. Above all, the excitement and the challenge she represented. Gone were the pangs he had felt in Falmouth whenever he had seen a man-of-war weathering the headland below the castle. But also he had discovered something more. His last command had been Phalarope, a frigate very similar to Undine, if slightly longer by a few feet. To Bolitho she had been everything, perhaps because they had come through so much together. In the West Indies, at the battle of the Saintes he had felt his precious Phalarope battered almost to a hulk beneath him. There would never, could never, be another like her. But as he had walked up and down the stone wall of the dock he had sensed a new elation.
Halfway through the hurried overhaul he had received an unheralded visit from Rear Admiral Sir John Winslade, the man who had greeted him at the Admiralty. He had given little away, but after a cursory inspection of the ship and Bolitho's preparations he had said, "I can tell you now. I'm sending you to India. That's all I can reveal for the moment." He had run his eye over the few riggers working on yards and shrouds and had added dryly, "I only hope for your sake you'll be ready on time."
There was a lot in what Winslade had hinted. Officers on half-pay were easy to obtain. To crew a King's ship without the urgency of a war or the pressgang was something else entirely. Had Undine been sailing in better-known waters things might have been different. And had Bolitho been a man other than himself he might have been tempted to keep her destination a secret until he had signed on sufficient hands and it was too late for them to escape.
He had had the usual flowery-worded handbills distributed around the port and nearby villages. He had sent recruiting parties as far inland as Guildford on the Portsmouth Road, but with small success. And now, as he followed the messenger towards some high gilded doors he knew Undine was still fifty short of her complement.
In one thing Bolitho had been more fortunate. Undine's previous captain had kept a shrewd eye on his ship's professional men. Bolitho had taken charge to discover that Undine still carried the hard core of senior men, the warrant officers, a first class sailmaker, and one of the most economical carpenters he had ever watched at work. His predecessor had quit the Navy for good to seek a career in Parliament. Or as he had put it, "I've had a bellyful of fighting with iron. From now on, my young friend, I'll do it with slander!"
Rear Admiral Sir John Winslade was standing with his back to a fire, his coat-tails parted to allow the maximum warmth to reach him. Few people knew much about him. He had distinguished himself vaguely in some single-ship action off Brest, and had then been neatly placed inside the Admiralty. There was nothing about his pale, austere features to distinguish him in any way. In fact, he was so ordinary that his gold-laced coat seemed to be wearing him rather than the other way round.
Bolitho was twenty-seven and a half years old, but had already held two commands, and knew enough about senior officers not to take them at face value.
Winslade let his coat-tails drop and waited for Bolitho to reach him. He held out his hand and said, "You are punctual. It is just as well. We have much to discuss." He moved to a small lacquered table. "Some claret, I think." He smiled for the first time. It was like the sunlight in Whitehall. Frail, and easily removed.
He pulled up a chair for Bolitho. "Your health, Captain." He added, "I suppose you know why I asked for you to be given this command?"
Bolitho cleared his throat. "I assumed, sir, that as Captain Stewart was entering politics that you required another for ..."
Winslade gave a wry smile. "Please, Bolitho. Modesty at the expense of sincerity is just so much top-hamper. I trust you will bear that in mind?"
He sipped at his claret and continued in the same dry voice, "For this particular commission I have to be sure of Undine's captain. You will be on the other side of the globe. I have to know what you are thinking so that I can act on such despatches as I might receive in due course."
Bolitho tried to relax. "Thank you." He smiled awkwardly. "I mean, for your trust, sir."
"Quite so." Winslade reached for the decanter. "I know your background, your record, especially in the recent war with France and her Allies. Your behaviour when you were on the American station reads favourably. A full scale war and a bloody rebellion in America must have been a good schoolroom for so young a commander. But that war is done with. It is up to us," he smiled slightly, "some of us, to ensure that we are never forced into such a helpless stalemate again."
Bolitho exclaimed, "We did not lose the war, sir."
"We did not win it either. That is more to the point."
Bolitho thought suddenly of the last battle. The screams and yells on every side, the crash of gunfire and falling spars. So many had died that day. So many familiar faces just swept away. Others had been left, like the two ragged soldiers, to fend as best they could.
He said quietly, "We did our best, sir."
The admiral was watching him thoughtfully. "I agree. You may not have won a war, but you did win a respite of sorts. A time to draw breath and face facts."
"You think the peace will not last, sir?"
"An enemy is always an enemy, Bolitho. Only the vanquished know peace of mind. Oh yes, we will fight again, be sure of it."
He put down his glass and added sharply, "Now, about your ship. Are you prepared?"
Bolitho met his gaze. "I am still short of hands, but the ship is as ready as she will ever be, sir. I had her warped out of the dockyard two days ago, and she is now anchored at Spithead awaiting final provisioning."
Two words, but they left no room for manoeuvre.
"Fifty, sir. But my lieutenants are still trying to gather more."
The admiral did not blink. "I see. Well, it's up to you. In the meantime I will obtain a warrant for you to take some 'volunteers' from the prison hulks in Portsmouth harbour."
Bolitho said, "It's a sad thing that we must rely on convicts."
"They are men. That is all you require at the moment. As it is, you will probably be doing some of the wretches a favour. Most of 'em were to be transported to the penal colonies in America. Now, with America gone, we will have to look elsewhere for new settlements. There is some talk of Botany Bay, in New Holland, but it may be rumour, of course."
He stood up and walked to a window. "I knew your father. I was saddened to hear of his death. While you were in the West Indies, I believe?" He did not wait for a reply. "This mission would have been well cut for him. Something to get his teeth into. Self-dependence, decisions to be made on the spot which could make or break the man in command. Everything a young frigate captain dreams of, right?"
He pictured his father as he had last seen him. The very day he had sailed for the Indies in Phalarope. A tired, broken man. Made bitter by his other son's betrayal. Hugh Bolitho had been the apple of his eye. Four years older than Richard, he had been a born gambler, and had ended in killing a brother officer in a duel. Worse, he had fled to America, to join the Revolutionary forces and later to command a privateer against the British. It had been that knowledge which had really killed Bolitho's father, no matter what the doctor had said.
He tightened his grip on his glass. Much of his prize money had gone into buying back land which his father had sold to pay Hugh's debts. But nothing could buy back his honour. It was fortunate that Hugh had died. If they had ever met again Bolitho imagined he might kill him for what he had done.
"More claret?" Winslade seemed absorbed with his own thoughts. "I'm sending you to Madras. There you will report to ... well, it will be in your final orders. No sense in idle gossip." He added, "Just in case you cannot get your ship manned, eh?"
"I'll get them, sir. If I have to go to Cornwall."
"I hope that will not be necessary."
Winslade changed tack again. "During the American campaign you probably noticed that there was little co-operation between military and civilian government. The forces on the ground fought the battles and confided in neither. That must not happen again. The task I am giving you would be better handled by a squadron, with an admiral's flag for good measure. But it would invite attention, and that Parliament will not tolerate in this uneasy peace."
He asked suddenly, "Where are you staying in London?"
"The George at Southwark."
"I will give you an address. A friend's residence in St. James's Square." He smiled at Bolitho's grave features. "Come, don't look so gloomy. It is time you made your way in affairs and put the line of battle behind you. Your mission may bring you to eyes other than those of jaded flag officers. Get to know people. It can do nothing but good. I will send a courier with instructions for your first lieutenant." He darted him a quick glance. "Herrick, I gather. From your last ship."
"Yes, sir." It sounded like "of course." There had never been any doubt whom he would ask for if he got another ship.
"Well then, Mr. Herrick it is. He can take charge of local matters. I'll need you in London for four days." He hardened his tone as Bolitho looked about to protest. "At least!"
The admiral regarded Bolitho for several seconds. Craving to get back to his ship, uncertain of himself in these overwhelming surroundings. It was all there and more besides. As Bolitho had entered the room it had been like seeing his father all those long years ago. Tall, slim, with that black hair tied at the nape of his neck. The loose lock which hung above his right eye told another story. Once as he had raised his glass it had fallen aside to display a livid scar which ran high into the hairline. Winslade was glad about his choice. There was intelligence on Bolitho's grave features, and compassion too, which even his service in seven years of war had not displaced. He could have picked from a hundred captains, but he had wanted one who needed a ship and the sea and not merely the security such things represented. He also required a man who could think and act accordingly. Not one who would rest content on the weight of his broadsides. Bolitho's record had shown plainly enough that he was rarely content to use written orders as a substitute for initiative. Several admirals had growled as much when Winslade had put his name forward for command. But he had got his way, for Winslade had the weight of Parliament behind him, which was another rarity.
Excerpted from Command a King's Ship by Alexander Kent. Copyright © 1973 Alexander Kent. Excerpted by permission of McBooks Press, Inc..
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Could not put it down for food or sleep it just kept on going .
More complex character development