April 1797, Falmouth Bay. As France continues her bitter struggle for supremacy on land and sea, the Royal Navy receives a crippling blow at home: the Great Mutiny. Returning home after eighteen-months' service, Flag Captain Richard Bolitho finds himself at the center of the crisis.
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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The Flag Captain
The Bolitho Novels: 11
By Alexander Kent
McBooks Press, Inc.Copyright © 1971 Alexander Kent
All rights reserved.
As six bells of the morning watch chimed out from the forecastle belfry, Captain Richard Bolitho walked from beneath the poop and paused momentarily beside the compass. A master's mate who was standing close to the great double wheel said quickly, "Nor' west by north, sir," and then dropped his eyes as Bolitho glanced at him.
It was as if they could all sense his tension, he thought briefly, and although they might not understand its cause, wanted to break him from it.
He strode out on to the broad quarterdeck and crossed to the weather side. Around him, without looking, he could see his officers watching him, gauging his mood, waiting to begin this new day.
But the ship had been in continuous commission for eighteen months, and most of her company, excluding those killed by combat or injury at sea, were the same men who had sailed with him from Plymouth on an October morning in 1795. It was more than enough time for them to realise that he needed to be left alone for these first precious moments of each successive day.
The wet sea mist which had dogged them for most of the night while they had edged slowly up the Channel was still with them, thicker than ever. It swirled around the black criss-cross of shrouds and rigging and seemed to cling to the hull like dew. Beyond the nettings with their neatly stowed hammocks the sea was heaving in a deep offshore swell, but was quite unbroken in the low breeze. It was dull. The colour of lead.
Bolitho shivered slightly and clasped his hands behind him beneath his coat-tails and looked up, beyond the great braced yards to where a rear-admiral's flag flapped wetly from the mizzen masthead. It was hard to believe that up there somewhere the sky would be bright blue, warm and comforting, and on this May morning the sun should already be touching the approaching land. His land. Cornwall.
He turned and saw Keverne, the first lieutenant, watching him, waiting for the right moment.
Bolitho forced a smile. "Good morning, Mr Keverne. Not much of a welcome, it appears."
Keverne relaxed slightly. "Good morning, sir. The wind remains sou' west, but there is little of it." He fidgeted with his coat buttons and added, "The master thinks we might anchor awhile. The mist should clear shortly."
Bolitho glanced towards the short, rotund shape of the ship's sailing master. His worn, heavy coat was buttoned up to his several chins, so that in the strange light he looked like a round blue ball. He was prematurely grey, even white haired, and had it tied at the nape of his neck in an old fashioned queue, giving it the appearance of a quaint powdered wig of a country squire.
"Well, Mr Partridge." Bolitho tried again to put some warmth into his tone. "It is not like you to show such reluctance for the shore?"
Partridge shuffled his feet. "Never sailed into Falmouth afore, Cap'n. Not in a three-decker, that is."
Bolitho shifted his gaze to the master's mate. "Go forrard and see there are two good leadsmen in the chains. Make sure the leads are well armed with tallow. I want no false reports from them."
The man hurried away without a word. Bolitho knew that like the others he would know what to do without being told, just as he was aware he was only giving himself more time to think and consider his motives.
Why should he not take the master's advice and anchor? Was it recklessness or conceit which made him continue closer and closer towards the invisible shore?
Mournfully a leadsman's voice echoed from forward. "By th' mark seven!"
Above the deck the sails stirred restlessly and shone in the mist like oiled silk. Like everything else they were dripping with moisture, and hardly moved by the sluggish breeze from across the larboard quarter.
Falmouth. Perhaps that was the answer to his uncertainty and apprehension. For eighteen months they had been employed on blockade and later the watch over the southern approaches of Ireland. A French attempt to invade Ireland and start an uprising had been expected weekly, yet when it had come just five months ago the British blockade had been caught unready. The invasion attempt had failed more because of bad weather and the French fleet being scattered than any real pressure from the overworked patrols.
Feet clattered in the passageway beneath the poop and he knew it was the admiral's servant going to attend his master in the great cabin.
It was strange how after all that had gone before they were coming here, to Falmouth, Bolitho's home. It was as if fate had overrun everything which both duty and the Admiralty could muster.
"... an' a quarter less seven!" The leadsman's call was like a chant.
Bolitho began to pace slowly up and down the weather side, his chin lowered into his neckcloth.
Rear-Admiral Sir Charles Thelwall, whose flag flapped so limply from the masthead, had been aboard for over a year. Even when he had first hoisted his flag he had been a sick man. Old for his rank, and weighed down with the responsibility of an overworked squadron, his health had deteriorated rapidly in the fog and piercing cold of the last winter months. As his flag captain Bolitho had done what he could to ease the pressures on the tired, wizened little admiral, and it had been painful to watch as day by day he fought to overcome the illness which was destroying him.
At last the ship was returning to England to replenish stores and make good other shortages. Sir Charles Thelwall had already despatched a sloop with his reports and needs, and also made known the state of his own illness.
"By th' mark six!"
So when the ship dropped anchor the admiral would go ashore for the last time. It was unlikely he would live long enough to enjoy it.
And then there was the other twist of fate. Two days earlier, as the ship had tacked ponderously clear of the Wolf Rock in readiness for her passage up the Channel, they had been met by a fast moving brig with new orders for the admiral.
He had been in his cot at the time, racked by his dry, deadly cough which left his handkerchief spotted with blood after each convulsion, and had asked Bolitho to read the despatch which had been passed across in the brig's jolly boat.
The orders stated in the briefest of terms that His Britannic Majesty's Ship Euryalus would proceed with all despatch to Falmouth Bay and not to Plymouth as previously arranged. There to receive the flag of Sir Lucius Broughton, Knight of the Bath, Vice-Admiral of the White, and await further instructions.
Once the receipt of the orders had been acknowledged the brig had gone about with undue haste and sped away again. That was also strange. Two vessels meeting for the first time, and with the country in the grip of a war growing in fury and intensity, made even the smallest item of news valuable to the men who kept constant sea watch in all weathers and against any odds.
Even the brig's approach had been cautious, but Bolitho had grown used to such treatment. For the Euryalus was a prize ship, and as French in appearance as would be expected from a vessel only four years old.
All the same, it was one more thing to put a finer edge on his sense of uncertainty.
"By th' mark six!"
He turned and said sharply, "Bring that lead aft, Mr Keverne, and set the other to work at once."
A barefooted seaman padded on to the quarterdeck and knuckled his forehead. Then he held out the great, dripping lead and watched as Bolitho dug his fingers into the bottom of it, where the inserted plug of tallow gleamed dully with what looked like pink coral.
Bolitho rubbed the small fragments on his palm and said absently, "The Six Hogs."
Behind him he heard Partridge murmur admiringly, "If I'd not seen it I'd never 'ave believed it."
Bolitho said, "Alter course a point to larboard, if you please, and pipe the hands to the braces."
Keverne coughed and then asked quietly, "What are the Six Hogs, sir?"
"Sandbars, Mr Keverne. We are now about two miles due south of St Anthony Head." He smiled, suddenly ashamed for allowing the apparent miracle to continue. "They call the sandbars by that name, although I do not know why. But they are covered with these small stones, and have been so since I can remember."
He swung round and watched as a sliver of sunlight pierced the swirling mist and touched the quarterdeck with pale gold. Partridge and the others would have been less in awe of his navigation had he been wrong in his calculations. Or perhaps it was more instinct than calculations. Even before he had been bundled off to sea as a gawky twelve-year-old midshipman he had learned every cove and inlet around Falmouth and several miles in either direction as well.
Even so, memory could play tricks, and it would have been small comfort to the admiral or his own prospects if the coming day had found Euryalus aground and dismasted in sight of his home town.
The big topsails flapped loudly and the deck tilted to a sudden pressure of wind, and like an army of departing ghosts the mist seeped through the shrouds and moved clear of the ship.
Bolitho paused in his pacing and stared fixedly at the widening panorama of green coastline which reached away on either bow, growing and coming alive in the sunlight.
There, almost balanced on the jib-boom, or so it appeared, was St Anthony's beacon, usually the first sight of home to a returning sailor. Slightly to larboard, hunched on the headland, its grey bulk defying the sun and its warmth, was Pendennis Castle, guarding the harbour entrance and Carrick Road as it had down the centuries.
Bolitho licked his lips; they were dry, not merely from salt air.
"Lay a course to the anchorage, Mr Partridge. I am going to pay my respects to the admiral."
Partridge stared at him and then touched his battered hat. "Aye, aye, sir."
Below the poop it was cool and dark after the quarterdeck, and as he strode aft towards the companion which led to the admiral's day cabin Bolitho was still pondering over what might lie in store for him and his command.
As he ran lightly down the companion to the middle deck and past two small ship's boys who were busily polishing brass hinges on some of the cabin doors, he recalled with sudden clarity how mixed his feelings had once been about assuming command of the Euryalus. It was common enough to take prize ships and put them to work against their old masters, it was more common still to let them keep their original names. Sailors often said it was bad luck to change a ship's title, but then seafaring people said a lot of things more from habit than known fact.
She had once been named Tornade, flagship of the French admiral Lequiller who had broken the British blockade to cross the Atlantic as far west as the Caribbean, there to cause havoc and destruction until finally run to earth by an inferior British squadron in the Bay of Biscay. She had struck her colours to Bolitho's own ship, the old Hyperion, but not before she had pounded the worn two-decker almost into a floating wreck.
The Lords of the Admiralty had decided to rename Bolitho's great prize, mostly it seemed because Lequiller had outwitted them on more than one occasion. It was strange, Bolitho had thought, that those who controlled His Majesty's Navy from the heights of Admiralty seemed to know so little of ships and men that such changes were thought necessary.
Only the Euryalus's new figurehead was English. It had been carved with great care by Jethro Miller at St Austell in Cornwall, as a gift from the people of Falmouth to one of their most popular sons. Miller had been Hyperion's carpenter and had lost a leg in that last terrible battle. But he still retained his skill, and the figurehead which stared with cold blue eyes from the bows with shield and upraised sword had somehow given the Euryalus a small change of personality. It bore little resemblance perhaps to the hero of the Siege of Troy, but it was enough to strike fear into the heart of any enemy who might see it and know what was about to follow.
For the great three-decker was a force to be reckoned with. Built at Brest by one of the best French yards, she had all the modern refinements and improvements to hull design and sail plan that any captain could wish.
From figurehead to taffrail she measured two hundred and twenty-five feet, and within her two thousand ton bulk she carried not only a hundred guns, including a lower battery of massive thirty-two-pounders, but a company of some eight hundred officers, seamen and marines. She could, when handled properly, act and speak with authority and devastating effect.
When she had commissioned, Bolitho had been made to take every man he could get to crew her constant demands and requirements. Pale-skinned debtors and petty thieves from the jails, a few trained men from other ships laid up for repairs, as well as the usual mixture of characters brought in by the dreaded press-gangs. For they had been hard times, and an ever-demanding fleet had already sifted and poached through every port and village in search of men, and with growing fears of a French invasion no captain could allow himself the luxury of choice when it came to gathering hands to fight his ship.
There had been volunteers too, mostly Cornishmen, who knew Bolitho's name and reputation even, although many of them had never laid eyes on him in their lives.
It should have been a great step forward for Bolitho, as he had told himself often enough. The Euryalus was a fine ship, and a new one. Not only that, she represented an open acknowledgement of his past record as well as the obvious stepping stone to advancement. It was something dreamed about by every ambitious sea officer, and in a Service where promotion often depended on the death of an officer's superior, the Euryalus must have been watched with both admiration and envy by those less fortunate.
But to Bolitho she meant something more, something very personal. While he had been searching the Caribbean and then driving back again to the last embrace in the Bay of Biscay he had been tortured by the memory of his wife, Cheney, who had died in Cornwall, without him, when she most needed him. In his heart he knew he could have done nothing. The coach had overturned and she had been killed, and their unborn child also. His being there would have made no difference. And yet it still haunted him, had made him withdraw from his officers and seamen to a point when he had been tormented by loneliness and loss.
And now he was back again in Falmouth. The big grey stone house would be there waiting for him as always. As it had for all the others before him, and yet it would now seem even more empty than ever.
A marine sentry stamped to attention outside the cabin door, his eyes fixed on some point above Bolitho's shoulder. Like a toy soldier with his blank expression and scarlet coat.
Sunlight lanced through the great stern windows, throwing countless reflections across the deckhead and dark furniture, and he saw the admiral's grey-haired secretary checking papers and documents before stowing them in a long metal box. He made to rise from his seat but Bolitho shook his head and walked slowly to the opposite side of the cabin. He could hear the admiral moving about his sleeping cabin, and imagined him contemplating these last hours of his presence aboard his own flagship.
A mirror hung on the bulkhead and Bolitho paused to study himself, tugging his coat into position as if under the critical stare of a senior officer at an inspection.
He still could not get used to the new-style uniform, the additional encumbrance of gold epaulettes to denote his rank of post-captain. It seemed wrong that in a country struggling in the worst war of her history men could create and design new forms of personal adornment when their minds would have been better used in thinking up ideas for fighting and winning battles.
Excerpted from The Flag Captain by Alexander Kent. Copyright © 1971 Alexander Kent. Excerpted by permission of McBooks Press, Inc..
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I am a Bolitho fan and I highly recommend "The Flag Captain" to other Bolitho fans. However, I do NOT recommend buying from B&N Online. When I ordered this book they said my credit card was refused (which made no sense). So I later (a couple of days later) ordered the book from Amazon -- after that B&N sent me the book. But they sent it in an obsolete format which my iPad will not read. I sent two e-mails to customer service with my complaint, both times I received an automated message promising to respond in some period -- they NEVER RESPONDED for real. So I have paid twice for the same book, but I can read the Amazon copy and cannot read the B&N copy. I have bought hundreds of books from B&N stores over the years, but after this B&N has gotten their last penny from me (through any sales channel). I highly recommend the book and I highly recommend never buying from B&N!
This is the middle of the long running Bolitho series of Napoleonic sea-warfare novels. In this Bolitho learns how not to be a flag officer serving under a vicillating flag officer. Once again Bolitho shows initiative. Douglas Remann writing under the name Alexander Kent once again demonstrates his knowledge of the men and ships that sustained England in her 20 year war against Revolutionary and Imperial France.