The Blackwood family saga continues in this thrilling sequel to BADGE OF GLORY. Captain David Blackwood of the Royal Marines Light Infantry-one of the youngest men to reach that rank and already decorated with the Victoria Cross, the realm's highest award for valor-is ordered from the Mediterranean to Hong Kong. Trouble is brewing in China. Before long, David and his cousin, Ralf, are embroiled in the bloody massacres of the Boxer Rebellion. In its midst, fighting for his life on the gore-smeared decks of a passenger liner, David meets a beautiful, alluring German countess, a woman he desires but cannot have. Ordered to escort her on a dangerous, ultimately useless journey up the Hoshun River, he sees death and slaughter unlike anything he has known. But finally, standing against the frenzied Chinese at the walls of Tientsin, side by side with Japanese, Russian, American and French soldiers, Blackwood must hold on to hope as he watches friends and allies swept aside by a torrent of suicidal warriors.
Douglas Edward Reeman, a contemporary British writer, joined the British Navy at 16, serving on destroyers and small craft during World War II and eventually rising to lieutenant. He also has taught navigation to yachtsmen, and has served as president of the British Sailors Society and as a script adviser for television and films. Under the pseudonym, Alexander Kent, Reeman is the author of the best-selling 25-volume series of Richard Bolitho Novels. His books have been translated into nearly two dozen languages.
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The First To Land
The Royal Marines Saga, No. 2
By Douglas Reeman
McBooks Press, Inc.Copyright © 1984 Highseas Authors Ltd.
All rights reserved.
OLD AND NEW
The Hampshire countryside gleamed dully after a heavy overnight mist. The big house which dominated the Hawks Hill estate and outlying farm cottages felt damp, despite the fires in each room which had been laid and lit long before dawn.
From a window in his study Major General Harry Blackwood gazed out at the grey clouds and frowned. November. At any other time he would have relished this month with its first meeting of the local hunt of which he was Master, but he could not dispel his apprehension, which both worried and irritated him. In a few weeks it was the birth not only of a new year but also of a new century. The thought disturbed him more than he would ever admit to his wife, Deirdre, or anyone else. When 1899 closed he knew his life would somehow lose its purpose. This might even be his last November. He swung away from the window and looked around the room with its dark panelled walls and cheerful log fire. The servants and visitors to Hawks Hill always referred to this as the General's Room. Indeed it contained innumerable relics and mementoes of his life and career in the Royal Marines. A portrait of his father hung on one wall. As he had lived, not as he had died here in this great house. Stern-faced and proud in his scarlet coatee, one hand resting on his sword. Even the sword was mounted in a glass case. Pictures, weapons, fox masks, a bugle with a hole punched through it. It was not difficult to see the expression of horror on the boy's face as he had been cut down by a bullet even as he was sounding the charge. Harry Blackwood was 67 years old but in his immaculately cut frock coat he was as straight-backed and trim as the day he had won his majority in the corps he loved so dearly. But his features told a different story. There were deep crows-feet around his eyes caused by staring at sun and sky in so many ships, so many campaigns in all parts of the globe. His hair and neatly clipped moustache were white, in marked contrast with his skin, which was like tooled leather.
He crossed to the fire and lifted his coattails to benefit from the blaze. He had been born here in this house which had been in the Blackwood family for four generations and purchased originally by old Samuel Blackwood, the last of a long line of soldiers. After him all the Blackwoods had been Royal Marines, although Harry had never been able to discover how the change had come about. The main house was a great rambling place which had begun as a fortified Tudor farmhouse. Added to over the years, it spread in several directions with cellars and tiny attics, which had once delighted the Blackwood children like a magic castle. It even had a moat, although that was only half-filled nowadays: a home for geese and swans.
He heard his wife speaking with one of the maids beyond the door and hoped she would not disturb him. A quiet, faded lady, it was difficult to recall her as the vibrant girl she had once been. She had given him three sons, all of whom were now in the corps. The youngest, Jonathan, had joined his first ship at Portsmouth just two weeks ago.
Deirdre had been tearful about it but had made no protest when her husband insisted that his sons should follow the family tradition.
The general had many fixed ideas, one being that women in any kind of authority could not be tolerated. Even the queen, whom he had served for the whole of his life, irritated him. Still on the throne after 61 years. It did not seem possible. With the British Empire spreading to encompass the whole world you needed strong and decisive leadership, an example for those who had to defend it.
He smiled grimly, the years falling from his features as he did so. It was proclaimed that the sun never set on the Empire. Nor would it while there were still marines.
The door opened slightly but it was Briggs, once his trusted attendant and orderly, now his valet, his shadow.
"Well man?" His voice was sharp. He was not looking forward to the next moments. The thought of them had spoiled the morning, and Deirdre might just be inclined to argue with him.
"Young Mr Blackwood is 'ere, sir." Briggs eyed him warily. He knew all the general's moods and had been at his side on blood-reddened decks with all hell breaking loose around them. In the desert and the jungle, wherever the Royal Marines had been called to action.
"Give me a few minutes, Briggs."
Briggs withdrew. He knew this mood. Keep a young officer waiting, even if he was one of the family. Make 'em sweat a while.
Alone again the general walked to the place of honour in his collection. A great painting depicting a battle which had raged in the Crimea: snow, flashing guns, grim-faced marines with fixed bayonets ... running to and dying on the summit ... of that terrible redoubt. Framed against one fiery explosion was a solitary officer, sword high over his head as he urged his dwindling followers to drive the Russians away from their guns.
Philip Blackwood, Harry's half brother, was that officer. Now as then he was a hero in the general's eyes. All those years ago when Harry had been a youthful lieutenant, like the one he was about to receive in this room, Philip's life had been marked with pain. His wife, Davern, had died in childbirth, and Philip died just ten years later from a fever he contracted in India.
The general had taken it upon himself to care for and raise Philip's only son, Ralf. Maybe he and Deirdre had spoiled him because of his background. Ralf had never known his mother, and seen little enough of Philip, who like all serving officers had been more away from the country than in it.
Ralf Blackwood was eighteen, the same age as Jonathan, and was until recently at Woolwich, the Court Division as it was nicknamed. Other than that, he had no other similarity with the general's youngest son. Ralf had some of his father's good looks, but was resentful of discipline, and inclined to sulk if admonished.
For although the general's military activities were now confined to occasional ceremonials in London or twenty miles away at the Royal Marines' barracks at Portsmouth, he retained a close link with the corps and had plenty of friends who were still serving. He knew all about Ralf's heavy gambling in the mess. His frequent outbursts of temper when he had been accused of cheating. Being a bad loser usually led to something worse. Had his weakness been women, the general would have understood and probably encouraged him. As a boy he had had his first woman, one of the servant girls, right here at Hawks Hill. There had been dozens since of every class and colour.
Deirdre knew the general's record but like most things she never mentioned it.
The door opened and Ralf Blackwood entered. He was in uniform, the scarlet tunic bright in the poor light.
The general said, "You look well."
Ralf exclaimed, "I've come from Portsmouth, Uncle." He sounded as if he could not believe it himself. "I was sent to the barracks yesterday. No notice. Nothing. The colonel must be mad!"
The general snapped, "Don't be so bloody impertinent! You were sent to Portsmouth to join a new detachment which is going overseas." He added dryly, "I can see you know that, too. But I was the one who arranged the transfer. For your own good and that of the corps."
Ralf stood his ground, his face pale and astonished.
"I want to resign, Uncle."
"Say sir when you address me. You are my nephew, but today I am speaking as your superior. You have been gambling heavily. Again."
"They all do it." He flinched under the general's cold stare. "Sir."
"Three hundred pounds, I believe?" He saw it strike home like a bullet. "And just how did you intend to repay the debt?"
"I — I'll borrow —"
The general ignored him and glanced again at the picture. In the flickering glow from the fire it seemed to be alive. In quieter moments he often relived it. The terrible crack of grenades as he had blown up the magazine on the redoubt, the shock of seeing his hero, Philip, fall wounded in the bloody snow.
"Your father should have got the Victoria Cross for what he did." He touched his coat as if to seek the precious decoration. "Instead, I got it. With my eldest son, David, that makes two VCs in the family, not a bad achievement, wouldn't you say?" It was all he could do to keep the bitterness from his voice as he thought of his mother, elegant and beautiful, but a whore for all that. Society had known of her relationship with the late Lord Cleveland and others like him. It was never mentioned but, like troops in battle, society had closed ranks and excluded her. Harry blamed her for the harm she had done him. A major general, and awarded the most coveted decoration the country could bestow, but no knighthood like some of his contemporaries, most of whom had never attained such merit.
A knighthood would have rounded things off and Deirdre would have liked it. He thought of her mild tolerance for some of the things he had done in his life. More than that, she deserved it. He thought suddenly of his eldest son, David, a captain and somewhere at sea on passage for Hong Kong under orders.
He frowned and did not notice Ralf's sudden apprehension. David had got his Victoria Cross at the capture of Benin. Now he was on his way to the Far East and eventually to China, unless the situation there eased. The Chinese mandarins were becoming troublesome again, and it was hinted that there might be actual attacks on British trade missions and foreign legations. So why was David being wasted there? With his record, and a captain at 27, he should have been sent to one of the new iron battleships for further experience and promotion. It seemed almost like a punishment after what he had done in Africa.
Harry said crisply, "You will be going to the Far East by troopship. With luck you will be placed under David's command. I say 'with luck' because there are those who would be quick to see your manners as insolence. I will not tolerate any more of this gambling. It will only drive you to something far more serious and bring disgrace on the family. Do I make myself clear?"
"Yes, sir." He looked at the floor, the corners of his mouth turned down like a pouting child.
The general snorted, "Resign indeed!" It was strange that Philip, his beloved half brother, had once intended to resign from the corps. Philip had imagined he liked action too much. Maybe David's experiences in Africa had hardened him too?
"I shall see Mother before I leave, sir."
The general relented but only very slightly. There was more at stake than family affections. "Do that and then return to the barracks. I wish you good luck."
When he turned his head the room was empty again.
He sat down wearily. The brief interview had drained him. Getting old. Past it. He would pay off young Ralf's debts. He gave a rueful smile. Could have been worse.
Briggs padded back into the room, a glass of sherry balanced on his small silver tray. Harry stared.
"Sun's not over the yardarm yet, man!" Harry said.
Briggs grinned. "Can't be sure in this weather, sir." He saw the general's hand shake slightly as he took the glass.
Harry said, "I'd better see the steward this morning, I suppose." It was the part of Hawks Hill and all its farm workers and smallholdings he hated. They were always complaining, asking for new roofs, more livestock — it never stopped. He had spent a fortune on the estate. The local hunt, the hounds, and a lavish fashion of entertaining which was the talk of the county.
Trent, the estate steward, was an old woman, he decided. Always hinting at bankruptcy, the need to sell off land to pay for what he had the gall to describe as extravagances.
He thought of Ralf's pale, defiant face and stood abruptly.
"Maybe the boy'll have lunch before he leaves."
Briggs looked away. "'E's gone already, sir."
"Damn!" The general left the room and saw his wife watching him from the entrance hall. Reproachful, hurt? It was hard to tell.
"Had to put him right, m'dear." It sounded defensive and that angered him too. "Young idiot."
"Quite so, dear." She smiled gently. "But you'll pay off his debts just the same, if I know you."
The general straightened his back and touched his neat moustache, suddenly pleased with her remark. He took her arm and led her into the big drawing room, where the windows faced a stone-flagged terrace and a line of bare trees beyond. It looks cold and miserable outside these stout walls, he thought.
They sat down and Harry stretched his legs. "Did I ever tell you how Philip and I chased some slavers halfway across Africa?"
She smiled. "Remind me, dear." A hundred times or more. But he obviously needed reassuring, to relive those moments which became more precious with each passing month.
The general leaned back. "It was this way —"
Briggs walked away. The general sometimes got his facts mixed up when he told his stories. Only his longing to be back with the corps remained the same.
Captain David Blackwood lay motionless on his vibrating bunk and stared at the slowly revolving fan overhead. He was completely naked, his tanned limbs spread-eagled to catch even the slightest coolness, but there seemed to be no relief. Around and below him the little paddle-steamer Cocatrice squeaked and rattled as her hull deeped over the long-undulating swell of the Indian Ocean.
Blackwood was beginning to wonder if he had made the right decision when he had decided to take passage in the small mail and passenger steamship.
When he had received his orders to proceed to Hong Kong he had been serving as acting major aboard the massive battleship Royal Sovereign in the Mediterranean. After all the land-fighting he had seen and shared at the capture and burning of Benin in the Niger Protectorate, he had felt strangely out of place in a powerful man-of-war, a symbol of Britain's unchallenged might at sea. Even in the Mediterranean there had been plenty of action when the Royal Navy had taken steps to evacuate Christians, who had somehow escaped the terrible Turkish massacre the previous year. He could have waited for passage in a warship, but the Cocatrice was faster, if only because of her lack of armament.
He touched his bare skin with his fingers. It was almost dusk and yet he was still damp with sweat. It had been another long, hot day in the Indian Ocean, ninety degrees of blazing sunshine and not a breath of air.
He, too, had been thinking of Hawks Hill all those thousands of miles away. The gardens, the terraces, the agelessness of the rooms with their great pictures and proud portraits.
His youngest brother, Jonathan, would be at sea by now, unless there had been some delay. Neil, the middle brother, who was 23, was probably still serving as a lieutenant in a frigate in India. Communications might be far superior to those of his father's day, but it still took a long, long while to discover what was happening around the fleet.
He closed his eyes and half-listened to the rumble of the great paddles. The passage seemed as if it would never end. They had spent a week at Trincomalee where he had been invited to several dances and receptions aboard ships there. Thank God for the Suez Canal, he thought. It did cut the monotonous journey by weeks.
It would be cold and frosty in Hampshire. Bare trees, sodden hedgerows. He felt his lips smile. Heaven.
Singapore next, then Hong Kong, and then? It was pointless to think further than that. The Chinese situation might have settled itself. He might easily be sent home to England, sent on another ship?
He thought of the day he had joined the Royal Sovereign at Gibraltar. The glances in the mess, the way they looked from his Victoria Cross to his face as if to discover something. Even the battleship's captain had received him with something like awe.
"Two VCs in one family." He had asked dryly, "Have you finished now?"
And yet the only thing that had made that fight on the Niger River different for Blackwood had been its ferocity and the firm belief that he was going to be killed.
His captain had died within minutes, a sergeant major next, and two experienced marines before Lieutenant David Blackwood had been made to realize that it was upon himself and a small squad of marines that the whole flank depended.
His hand moved up to his shoulder and rested momentarily on a livid scar. The bullet had remained embedded in his body for a whole day before he could find a surgeon. In that climate and under such conditions it was a marvel the surgeon had not lopped off his arm. As it was he still felt pain on occasion. He smiled again, the shadows falling from his face, making him look younger than his 27 years.
Excerpted from The First To Land by Douglas Reeman. Copyright © 1984 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.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
1 Old and New,
2 The Letter,
3 Boarders Away!,
4 A Bit of a Lark,
5 Just Ten Good Men,
6 A Walk in the Sun,
7 Under Fire,
8 A Bit of History,
9 Divided Loyalty,
10 No Pity,
11 The Hero,
12 The Last Bugle,
14 Love and Hate,
15 Stand and Fight,
16 Never the Right Words,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Great 2nd novel covering the history of a fictional British family who serve in the Royal Marines. The story is based on historical events. If you enjoy the Bolithio series, you will also enjoy this series. Worth the read.