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The Darkening Sea
The Bolitho Novels: 20
By Alexander Kent
McBooks Press, Inc.Copyright © 1993 Highseas Authors Ltd.
All rights reserved.
The meandering track that ran around the wide curve of Falmouth Bay was just wide enough to allow passage to horse and rider, and only slightly less dangerous than the footpath which was somewhere beneath it. To the stranger or the foolhardy either could be hazardous.
On this particular dawn the coast appeared abandoned, its sounds confined to the cries of seabirds, the occasional lively trill of an early robin, and the repetitive call of a cuckoo which never seemed to get any closer. In places some of the cliff had fallen away, so that where the track ran closer to the edge it was possible to hear the boom of the sea against the jagged rocks below. Rarely still, it was never to be taken for granted.
There was a damp chill in the air but this was late June, and within hours the horizon would be hard and clear, the sea glittering with a million mirrors. The horse and rider rose slowly above a steep slope and paused like a piece of statuary or, like this bewitched coast, a vision which might suddenly vanish.
Lady Catherine Somervell tried to relax her body as she stared back above the drifting mist. They must have thought her mad at the big grey house below Pendennis Castle, like the stableboy who had snatched up a lantern when she had startled him out of sleep. He had mumbled something about calling the head groom or the coachman, but she had refused. As he had saddled Tamara, the powerful mare Richard Bolitho had found for her, she had felt the same sense of urgency, and a conviction which her rational mind could not dismiss.
She had dressed herself in the big room, their room, with the same driving desperation. Her long dark hair was only loosely pinned about her ears, and she wore her thick riding skirt and one of Richard's old seagoing coats, which she often used on her cliff walks.
She had felt the gorse and bushes dragging at her skirt as Tamara had moved purposefully along the track; had tasted the sea. The enemy as Bolitho had once called it, his voice so bitter in one of those rare, private moments.
She stroked the horse's neck to reassure herself. A fast packet had brought news to Falmouth from the Caribbean. The English fleet and a considerable force of soldiers and marines had attacked Martinique, the main base for French naval operations there. The French had surrendered, and most of their activities in the Caribbean and on the Main had ceased.
Catherine had watched the faces of the people in the square when the news had been read out by a dragoon officer. Most of them would be unaware of the importance of Martinique, a thorn in Britain's side for so many years, or even know where it was. There was little enthusiasm and no cheers either, for this was 1809, and four years had passed since the death of Nelson, the nation's darling, and the battle of Trafalgar which must have seemed to many the final stage of this endless war.
And with the packet had come a letter from Richard. He had written in great haste, with no time for details. The fighting was over and he was quitting his flagship, the 94 -gun Black Prince, and was under orders to return to England with all haste. It did not seem possible even now. He had been absent for little more than nine months. She had steeled herself for a much longer period, two years or even three. She had existed only for his letters, and had thrown herself into helping Bryan Ferguson, Bolitho's one-armed steward. With every young man pressed into the fleet, unless they were lucky enough to hold a protection, it was difficult to keep the farm and estate working. There were several crippled men who had once served with Bolitho, men he now cared for much as he had tried to do at sea. Many landowners would have thrown them on the beach, as Richard called it, left them to beg from those they had fought to protect.
But all that mattered now was that he was coming home. First to Falmouth. She shivered as if it were winter. The rest could wait until he was here, in her arms.
She had read his short letter so many times, trying to guess why he had been required to hand over his command to another flag officer. Valentine Keen had also been replaced, and perhaps was intended for promotion. She thought of Keen's young wife and felt a touch of envy. She was with child; it must be due, born even. But Keen's well-meaning family had taken Zenoria to one of their fine houses in Hampshire. She had been the only girl Catherine had found it easy to talk with. Love, suffering, courage — they had both experienced their extremes in the past.
There had been a very unexpected visitor after she had received Richard's letter. Stephen Jenour, his flag lieutenant and the newly appointed commander of a smart brig, Orcadia, had come to see her while his command was taking on store in Carrick Roads: a different Jenour, not merely because of what he had endured in the open boat after the wreck of the Golden Plover, but matured also by a sense of loss. His own command, taken at Richard Bolitho's insistence after returning to England with their captured French prize, had also removed him from daily contact with the superior he respected, loved even, more than any other yet encountered in the course of his young life.
They had talked until the shadows were deep in the room and the candles had been guttering. He had told her of the battle in his own words, as Bolitho had requested. But as he had spoken she had heard only Richard, the men who had fought and died, the huzzas and the suffering, victory and despair.
What would Richard be thinking on his way home? Of his Happy Few, his band of brothers? There were even fewer now with Jenour gone.
She nudged the horse and Tamara moved forward again, her ears twitching towards the sea, the continuous murmur against the rocks. The tide was on the make. She smiled. She had been listening too long to Richard and his friends, and the fishermen who brought their catch up to Flushing or into Falmouth itself.
Always the sea was there. Waiting.
She strained her eyes towards it now but there was still too much mist, and not enough light to see the headland.
She thought of her ride here. The countryside stirring itself, the smell of freshly baked bread, of foxgloves and the wild roses in the hedgerows. She had seen few people about but had sensed their presence: very little was missed by these folk whose families had known the Bolithos from generation to generation, and the men who had gone year after year to die in forgotten campaigns or great sea-battles. Like the portraits on the walls in the old house, watching her when she had gone up alone to bed, measuring her still.
At least Richard would have had his beloved nephew Adam with whom to share the days at sea. He had finished his letter by revealing that he would be sailing independently in Adam's own command. She allowed her mind to stray once more to Zenoria, and then to Zenoria and Adam. Was it merely imagination, or that warning instinct which had been born out of her own early years?
She reined the horse around, her fingers groping for the small carriage pistol she always carried. She had not even seen or heard them. Relief surged through her as she saw the dull glint of their buttons. They were coastguards.
One of them exclaimed, "Why, Lady Somervell! You gave us a start! Toby here thought some gennelmen were runnin' a cargo up from the beach!"
Catherine tried to smile. "I am sorry, Tom. I should have known better."
The light was already strengthening, as if to dispel her hopes, lay bare her foolishness.
Tom the coastguard watched her thoughtfully. The admiral's lady, the one who was the talk of London according to some. But she had called him by his name. As if he mattered.
He said carefully, "May I ask what you be doing up 'ere at this hour, m'lady? Could be dangerous."
She faced him directly, and afterwards he was to remember this moment, her fine dark eyes, her high cheekbones, her utter conviction as she said, "Sir Richard is coming home. In the Anemone. "
"I knows that, m'lady. We had word from the navy."
"Today," she said. "This morning." Her eyes seemed to blur and she turned away.
Tom said kindly, "There be no way o' knowing, m'lady. Wind, weather, tides ..."
He broke off as she slipped from the saddle, her stained boots striking the track as one. "What is it?"
She stared out at the bay as it began to open up, the light spilling above the headland like glass.
"Do you have a telescope, please?" Desperation put an edge to her voice.
The two coastguards dismounted and Tom lifted his glass from a long leather case behind his saddle.
Catherine did not even see them. "Be easy, Tamara!" She rested the long telescope on the saddle, still warm from her own body. Gulls were swooping around a tiny boat far out towards the point. It seemed much clearer than before, and pink on the sea's face she saw the first sunlight.
Tom's companion had also extended his telescope, and after a few minutes he said, "There be a ship out there, Tom, by God so there be! Beggin' your pardon, m'lady!"
She had not heard him. She watched the sails, misty and unreal like shells, the darker line of the slender hull beneath.
"What is she, Toby? Can you see her rig?"
The man sounded stunned. "Frigate. No doubt o' that. Seen too many o' they in an' out o' Carrick Roads over th' years!"
"Still, could be anyone. Ride down to the harbour an' see if you can discover anythin' ..."
They both turned as she said quietly, "It is he."
She had extended the telescope to its full length. She waited for the horse to quieten so that she could stare without blinking. Then she said, "I can see her figurehead in the sunshine." She handed back the glass, her eyes suddenly blind. "Anemone ..." She saw it in her mind's eye as she had seen it in reality, before the ship had tacked into shadow again: the full-breasted girl with the raised trumpet, her gilt paint so clear in the reflected glare. She repeated as if to herself, "Anemone ... daughter of the wind."
She leaned her face against the horse. "Thank God. You came back to me."
Vice-Admiral Sir Richard Bolitho awoke from a disturbed sleep and stared up at the darkness of the small sleeping cabin, his mind responding instantly to the sounds and movements around him. His sailor's instinct told him that like the cabin the sea was still dark outside this lithe, graceful hull: a command for which any young officer would give his right arm. He listened to the dull thud of the tiller-head as it matched the rudder's strength against the sea and the wind's thrust in the sails, heard the sluice of water alongside as the frigate Anemone leaned over on a new tack to a different motion. Gone were the great soaring thrusts of the Western Ocean, through hard sunshine and lashing rain in equal portions. Here the seas were short and steep as the ship ploughed her way nearer to the land. Three weeks from the Caribbean. Adam had driven his Anemone like the thoroughbred she was.
Bolitho clambered from the swaying cot and steadied himself with one hand on a deckhead beam until he was accustomed to the lively movements. A frigate: no man could want more. He recalled the ones he had commanded as a youthful captain, younger even than Adam. The ships so different, yet still familiar. Only the faces, the men themselves seemed blurred, if not forgotten.
He felt his heart beat faster as he thought of the nearness of land. After miles of ocean without even sighting another ship, they were almost home. Today they would anchor in Falmouth, and after a brief pause for fresh water Adam would sail again for Portsmouth, from which place he would send the brief details of their return to the new telegraph that linked the senior naval port with the Admiralty in London.
They had sighted the Lizard at dusk the previous evening before losing it again in a sea mist. Bolitho recalled how he and Allday had watched it on another occasion. It had been first light then too, and he had whispered her name, longing for her, as he was now.
Overnight Old Partridge, Anemone's sailing-master, had changed tack so that in the darkness, close-hauled and under reefed topsails, they had given the dreaded Manacles a wide berth.
Bolitho knew he could not sleep and toyed with the idea of going on deck, but he was also aware that his presence there might distract the watchkeepers. It had been hard enough for them to get used to a vice-admiral in their midst, and a famous one at that. He gave a grim smile. Notorious, anyway.
He had watched and listened to the way the frigate's cramped company of some 220 officers, seamen and marines had worked as a team, quick to respond to storm and screaming gales like the seasoned hands they had become. Adam could be proud of what he and his young wardroom had achieved, with the backing of some excellent warrant officers like Old Partridge. Adam was probably dreading the arrival in Portsmouth, where it was more than likely some of his best hands would be transferred to other vessels that were short of men. Like poor Jenour, Bolitho thought. So eager to do well in the navy, and yet because of his loyalty and friendship, unwilling to leave his admiral and take charge of the French prize, and a captured enemy flag officer for good measure. He thought too of the good-byes when he had left the Black Prince for the last time. Julyan the sailing-master who had worn Bolitho's hat to deceive the enemy when they had closed for battle with the French flagship after Copenhagen; Old Fitzjames the gunner who could lay and fire a thirty-two-pounder as easily as a Royal Marine could aim his musket; Bourchier, major of marines, and so many others who would never see anything again. Men who had died, often horribly, not for King and Country as the Gazette would proclaim, but for each other. For their ship.
The keel bit into a deep swell and Bolitho opened the screen door to Anemone's stern cabin. So much more spacious than older frigates, he thought; so unlike Phalarope, the first he had commanded. But even here in the captain's private domain the guns were tethered securely behind their sealed ports. The furniture, the small touches of civilized living, could all be rushed below decks, the screens and doors torn down to open this place, this ship, from bow to stern with the long eighteen-pounders on either side. A ship-of-war.
He thought suddenly of Keen. Perhaps his departure had been the greatest wrench of all. Promotion, and well-deserved, awaited him: to commodore or even to rear-admiral. It would be as big a change of circumstances as it had once been for Bolitho himself.
One night when he had been dining with Adam, while the ship drove blindly on into an Atlantic squall with every shroud and halliard screaming like an insane orchestra, he had mentioned Keen's promotion and the differences it would bring to Zenoria. Catherine had written to him of the impending birth, and he had guessed that she had wanted Zenoria with her at Falmouth. What would become of the child, he wondered. The navy like his father? Keen's record and success as both captain and natural leader would give any boy a good beginning.
Or the law, or the City perhaps? Keen's family came of far wealthier stock than the usual inhabitants of any midshipman's berth in some overcrowded liner.
Adam had not commented immediately. He had been listening to the slap of feet on deck, the sudden bawl of commands as the helm had gone over yet again.
"If I had to begin all over again, Uncle, I'd not ask for a finer tutor."
He had hesitated, just for an instant the thin, half-starved midshipman who had walked all the way from Penzance to search for his unknown uncle, with only Bolitho's name scrawled on a piece of paper. "Nor a better friend ..."
Bolitho had intended to make light of it, but knew that this was far too important to the youthful captain who had been sitting across the table from him. It was something very private, like that other secret which was rarely out of Bolitho's thoughts. They had shared so much, but the time to share that had not yet come.
Then Adam had said quietly, "Captain Keen is a very lucky man."
Excerpted from The Darkening Sea by Alexander Kent. Copyright © 1993 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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