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Cross of St George
The Bolitho Novels: 22
By Alexander Kent
McBooks Press, Inc.Copyright © 1996 Bolitho Maritime Productions
All rights reserved.
SWORD OF HONOUR
The Royal Dockyard at Portsmouth, usually a place of noise and constant movement, was as quiet as the grave. It had been snowing steadily for two days, and the buildings, workshops, piles of timber and ships' stores which made up the clutter in every big yard had become only meaningless shapes. And it was still snowing. Even the familiar smells had been overwhelmed by the white blanket: the sharp tang of paint and tar, hemp and new sawdust, like the sounds, seemed smothered and distorted. And, muffled by the snow, the echoing report of the court-martial gun had gone almost unnoticed.
Set apart from the other buildings, the port admiral's house and offices were even more isolated than usual. From one of the tall windows, which overlooked a nearby dock, it was not even possible to see the water in the harbour.
Captain Adam Bolitho wiped the damp glass and stared down at a solitary Royal Marine, whose scarlet tunic was a stark contrast to the blinding whiteness of the backdrop. It was early afternoon; it could have been sunset. He saw his reflection in the window, and the light of the blazing log fire on the other side of the room, where his companion, a nervous lieutenant, sat perched on the edge of his chair with his hands held out to the flames. At any other time Adam Bolitho could have felt sorry for him. It was never an easy or a welcome duty to be the companion ... his mouth tightened. The escort, for someone awaiting the convenience of a court martial. Even though everyone had assured him that the verdict would be unquestionably in his favour.
They had convened this morning in the spacious hall adjoining the admiral's house, a place more usually the venue of receptions than a courtroom where a man's future, even his life, could be decided. Grotesquely, there had even been a few traces of the Christmas ball which had been held there recently. Adam stared at the snow. Now it was another year: January 3, 1813. After what he had endured, he might have imagined that he would have grasped at a new beginning like a drowning man seizing a lifeline. But he could not. All he loved and cared for lay in 1812, with so many broken memories. He sensed the lieutenant shifting in his chair, and was aware of movement elsewhere. The court was reassembling. After a damned good meal, he thought: obviously one of the reasons for holding the proceedings here, rather than force the court to endure the discomfort of a long pull in an open boat to the flagship, somewhere out there in the snow at Spithead.
He touched his side, where the iron splinter had smashed him down. He had believed he was dying: at times, he had even wanted to die. Weeks and months had passed, and yet it was hard to accept that it was less than seven months since he had been wounded, and his beloved Anemone had been surrendered to the enemy, overwhelmed by the massive artillery of the U.S.S. Unity. Even now, the memories were blurred. The agony of the wound, the suffering of his spirit, unable to accept that he was a prisoner of war. Without a ship, without hope, someone who would soon be forgotten.
He felt little pain now; even one of the fleet surgeons had praised the skill of Unity's French surgeon, and other doctors who had done what they could for him during his captivity.
He had escaped. Men he had barely known had risked everything to hasten his freedom, and some had died for it. And there were others, who could never be repaid for what they had done for him.
The lieutenant said hoarsely, "I think they've returned, sir."
Adam acknowledged it. The man was afraid. Of me? Of having become too intimate, if it goes against me?
His frigate, Anemone, had turned to face a vastly superior enemy, out-gunned and out-manned, with many of his company sent away as prize crews. He had not acted out of arrogance, or reckless pride, but to save the convoy of three heavily laden merchantmen he had been escorting to the Bermudas. Anemone's challenge had given the convoy time to escape, to find safety when darkness came. He remembered Unity's impressive commander, Nathan Beer, who had had him moved to his own quarters, and had come to visit him as he was treated by the surgeon. Even through the mists of agony and delirium, Adam had sensed the big American's presence and concern. Beer had spoken to him more like a father to his son than like a fellow captain, and an enemy.
And now Beer was dead. Adam's uncle, Sir Richard Bolitho, had met and engaged the Americans in a brief and bloody encounter, and it had been Bolitho's turn to give comfort to his dying adversary. Bolitho believed they had been fated to meet: neither had been surprised by the conflict or its ferocity.
Adam had been given another frigate, Zest, whose captain had been killed while engaging an unknown vessel. He had been the only casualty, just as Adam had been the only survivor from Anemone apart from a twelve-year-old ship's boy. The others had been killed, drowned, or taken prisoner.
The only verbal evidence submitted this morning had been his own. There had been one other source of information. When Unity had been captured and taken into Halifax, they had found the log which Nathan Beer had been keeping at the time of Anemone's attack. The court had been as silent as the falling snow as the senior clerk read aloud Beer's comments concerning the fierce engagement, and the explosion aboard Anemone which had ended any hope of taking her as a prize. Beer had also written that he was abandoning his pursuit of the convoy due to the damage his enemy had inflicted. At the end of the report he had written, Like father, like son.
A few quick glances were exchanged in the court, nothing more. Most of those present were either unaware of Beer's meaning, or unwilling to remark on anything that might prejudice the outcome.
But to Adam, it had been like hearing the big American's voice in that hushed room. As if Beer was there, offering his testimony to an adversary's courage and honour.
But for Beer's log, there was little else to confirm what had truly happened. And if I were still a prisoner? Who would be able to help? I should be remembered only as the captain who struck his colours to the enemy. Badly wounded or not, the Articles of War left little room for leniency. You were guilty, unless proven without doubt to the contrary.
He was gripping his fingers together behind his back, so hard that the pain helped to steady him. I did not strike my colours. Then, or at any time.
Curiously enough, he knew that two of the captains who were sitting on the board had also been court-martialled. Perhaps they had been remembering, comparing. Thinking of how it might have been, if the point of the sword had been towards them ...
He moved away from the window and paused by a tall mirror. Perhaps this was where officers examined their appearance, to ensure it would meet with the admiral's approval. Or women ... He stared coldly at his reflection, holding back the memory. But she was always there. Out of reach, as she had been when she was alive, but always there. He glanced at the bright gold epaulettes. The post-captain. How proud his uncle had been. Like everything else, his uniform was new; all his other possessions lay now in his chests on the seabed. Even the sword on the court martial table was a borrowed one. He thought of the beautiful blade the City merchants had presented to him: they had owned the three ships he had saved, and were showing their gratitude. He looked away from his reflection, his eyes angry. They could afford to be grateful. So many who had fought that day would never know about it.
He said quietly, "Your duty is all but done. I have been bad company, I fear."
The lieutenant swallowed hard. "I am proud to have been with you, sir. My father served under your uncle, Sir Richard Bolitho. Because of what he told me, I always wanted to enter the navy."
Despite the tension and unreality of the moment, Adam was strangely moved.
"Never lose it. Love, loyalty, call it what you will. It will sustain you." He hesitated. "It must."
They both looked at the door as it opened carefully, and the Royal Marine captain in charge of the guard peered in at them.
He said, "They are waiting, Captain Bolitho." He seemed about to add something, encouragement, hope, who could tell. But the moment passed. He banged his heels together smartly and marched out into the corridor.
When he glanced back, Adam saw the lieutenant staring after him. Trying to fix the moment in his mind, perhaps to tell his father.
He almost smiled. He had forgotten to ask him his name.
The great room was full to capacity, although who they were and what they sought here was beyond understanding. But then, he thought, there was always a good crowd for a public hanging, too.
Adam was very aware of the distance, the click of the marine captain's heels behind him. Once he slipped. There was still powdered chalk on the polished floor, another reminder of the Christmas ball.
As he came around the last line of seated spectators to face the officers of the board, he saw his borrowed sword on the table; its hilt was toward him. He was shocked, not because he knew the verdict was a just one, but because he felt nothing. Nothing. As if he, like all these others, was a mere onlooker.
The president of the court, a rear-admiral, regarded him gravely.
"Captain Adam Bolitho, the verdict of this Court is that you are honourably acquitted." He smiled briefly. "You may be seated."
Adam shook his head. "No, sir. I prefer not."
"Very well." The rear-admiral opened his brief. "The Court holds that Captain Adam Bolitho not only acquitted himself of his duty in the best tradition of the Royal Navy, but in the execution of such duty has done infinite credit to himself by a very obstinate defence against a most superior force. By placing his ship between the enemy and the vessels charged to his protection, he showed both courage and initiative of the highest order." He raised his eyes. "But for those qualities, it would seem unlikely that you would have succeeded, particularly in view of the fact that you had no knowledge of the declaration of war. Otherwise ..." The word hung in the air. He did not need to explain further what the outcome of the court martial would have been.
All the members of the court stood up. Some were smiling broadly, obviously relieved that it was all over.
The rear-admiral said, "Retrieve your sword, Captain Bolitho." He attempted to lighten it. "I would have thought you might be wearing that fine sword of honour I have been hearing about, eh?"
Adam slid the borrowed sword into its scabbard. Leave now. Say nothing. But he looked at the rear-admiral and the eight captains who were his court and said, "George Starr was my coxswain, sir. With his own hand he lit charges which speeded the end of my ship. But for him, Anemone would be serving in the United States navy."
The rear-admiral nodded, his smile fading. "I know that. I read it in your report."
"He was a good and honest man who served me, and his country, well." He was aware of the sudden silence, broken only by the creak of chairs as those at the back of the great room leaned forward to hear his quiet, unemotional voice. "But they hanged him for his loyalty, as if he were a common felon."
He looked at the faces across the table, without seeing them. His outward composure was a lie, and he knew he would break down if he persisted. "I sold the sword of honour to a collector who values such things." He heard the murmurs of surprise behind his back. "As for the money, I gave it to George Starr's widow. It is all she will receive, I imagine."
He bowed stiffly and turned away from the table, walking between the ranks of chairs with his hand to his side as if he expected to feel the old torment. He did not even see the expressions, sympathy, understanding, and perhaps shame: he saw only the door, which was already being opened by a white-gloved marine. His own marines and seamen had died that day, a debt no sword of honour could ever repay.
There were a few people in the outer lobby. Beyond them, he saw the falling snow, so clean after what he had attempted to describe.
One, a civilian, stepped forward and held out his hand. His face seemed vaguely familiar, yet Adam knew they had never met.
The man hesitated. "I am so sorry, Captain Bolitho. I should not detain you further after what you have just experienced." He glanced across the room where a woman sat, gazing at them intently. "My wife, sir."
Adam wanted to leave. Very soon the others would be milling around him, congratulating him, praising him for what he had done, when earlier they would have watched him facing the point of the sword with equal interest. But something held him. As if someone had spoken aloud.
"If I can be of service, sir?"
The man was well over sixty years old, but there was an erectness, a pride in his bearing as he explained, "My name is Hudson, Charles Hudson. You see ..." He fell silent as Adam stared at him, his composure gone.
He said, "Richard Hudson, my first lieutenant in Anemone." He tried to clear his mind. Hudson, who had slashed down the ensign with his hanger while he himself lay wounded and unable to move. Again, it was like being an onlooker, hearing others speak. I ordered you to fight the ship! Each despairing gasp wrenching at his wound like a branding iron. And all the while Anemone was dying beneath them, even as the enemy surged alongside. And Hudson's last words before Adam was lowered into a boat. If we ever meet again ...
Adam could still hear his own answer. As God is my witness, I will kill you, damn your eyes!
"We had only one letter from him." Hudson glanced again at his wife and Adam saw her nod, helping him. She looked frail, unwell. It had cost them dearly to come here.
He said, "How is he?"
Charles Hudson did not seem to hear. "My brother was a vice- admiral. He used his influence to have Richard appointed to your ship. When he wrote, he always spoke of you so warmly ... he was so proud to be serving with you. When I heard about your court martial, as they dare to call it, we had to come. To see you, to thank you for what you did for Richard. He was our only son."
Adam tensed. Was. "What happened?"
"In his letter he said he wanted to find you. To explain ... something." He dropped his head. "He was shot, attempting to escape. He was killed."
Adam felt the room sway, like the deck of a ship. All that time, the pain and the despair, the hatred because of what had happened; and he had thought only of himself.
He said, "I shall tell my uncle when I see him. He was known to your son." Then he took the man's arm and led him towards his wife. "There was nothing for Richard to explain. Now he is at peace, he will know that."
Hudson's mother was on her feet, holding out her hand to him. Adam stooped, and kissed her cheek. It was like ice.
"Thank you." He looked at each of them. "Your loss is my loss also."
He glanced round as a lieutenant coughed politely, and murmured, "The port admiral wishes to see you, sir."
"Can't it wait?"
The lieutenant licked his lips. "I was told that it was important, sir. To you."
Adam turned to say goodbye, but they had gone, as quietly and patiently as they had waited.
He felt his cheek. Her tears, or were they his own?
Then he followed the lieutenant, past people who smiled and reached out to touch his arm as he passed. He saw none of them.
He heard nothing but his own anger. I ordered you to fight the ship. It was something he would never forget.
Lady Catherine Somervell walked softly toward the window, her bare feet soundless as she glanced back at the bed. She listened to his breathing. Quiet now: he was asleep, after the restlessness he had tried to conceal from her.
Excerpted from Cross of St George by Alexander Kent. Copyright © 1996 Bolitho Maritime Productions. Excerpted by permission of McBooks Press, Inc..
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