In September 1804, as England stands alone against France and the fleets of Spain, Vice-Admiral Richard Bolitho hoists his flag above the veteran Hyperion and sets sail with a new squadron for the Caribbean. His orders are to plan and execute a daring dawn raid on the Spanish Main.
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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Honour this Day
The Bolitho Novels: 17
By Alexander Kent
McBooks Press, Inc.Copyright © 1987 Highseas Authors Ltd.
All rights reserved.
English Harbour , in fact the whole island of Antigua, seemed to crouch motionless as if pinned down by the noon sun. The air was humid and oppressively hot, so that the many vessels scattered at anchor were blurred in heavy haze, like reflections in a steamy looking-glass.
This October in 1804 was only days old, the middle of the hurricane season, and one of the worst on record. Several ships had been lost at sea, or driven ashore when they had been caught in some dangerous channel.
English Harbour was the important, some said vital, headquarters for the fleet which served the Caribbean and to the full extent of the Leeward and Windward Islands. Here was a fine anchorage, a dockyard where even the most serious damage and refitting could be carried out. But peace or war, the sea and the weather were constant enemies, and whereas almost every foreign flag was assumed to be hostile, the dangers of these waters were never taken for granted.
English Harbour was some twelve miles from the capital, St John's, and so the social life in and around the dockyard was limited. On a flagged terrace of one of the better houses flanking the hillside behind the harbour, a group of people, mostly officials and their ladies, stood wilting in the unmoving air watching the approach of a man-of-war. It seemed to have taken an eternity for the newcomer to gain substance and shape through the shimmering haze, but now she stood, bows-on to the land, her sails all but flat against her stays and yards.
Ships-of-war were too commonplace for mention. After years of conflict with France and her allies, such sights were part of these people's daily lives.
This one was a ship of the line, a two-decker, her rounded black and buff hull making a sharp contrast with the milky water and the sky which seemed without colour in the unwavering heat. The sun stood directly above Monk's Hill and was encircled with silver; somewhere out at sea there would be another storm very soon. This ship was different in one respect from other comings and goings. News had been brought by a guardboat that she was from England. To those watching her painstaking approach, just the name of England created so many images. Like a letter from home, a description from some passing sailor. Uncertain weather, shortages, and a daily fear of a French invasion across the Channel. As varied as the land itself, from lush countryside to city squalor. There was hardly a man or woman watching the two-decker who would not have traded Antigua for a mere glimpse of England.
One woman stood apart from the others, her body quite still, except for her hand, which used a fan with economical care to revive the heavy air.
She had tired long ago of the desultory conversation of the people she had come to know and recognise out of necessity. Some of their voices were already slurred with overheated wine, and they had not even sat down to eat as yet.
She turned to conceal her discomfort as she plucked the ivory gown away from her skin. And all the while she watched the ship. From England.
The vessel could have been quite motionless but for a tiny feather of white foam beneath her thrusting, gilded figurehead. Two longboats were leading her inshore, one on either bow; she could not see if they were attached to their mother ship by line or not. They too were barely moving, and only the graceful rise and fall of their oars, pale like wings, gave a hint of effort and purpose.
The woman knew a great deal about ships; she had travelled many hundreds of leagues by sea, and had an eye for their complex detail. A voice from the past seemed to linger in her mind, which had described a ship as man's most beautiful creation. She could hear him add, and as demanding as any woman.
Someone behind her remarked, "Another round of official visits, I suppose?" No one answered. It was too hot even for speculation. Feet clattered on stone steps and she heard the same voice say, "Let me know when you get any more news."
The servant scurried away while his master opened a scrawled message from somebody in the dockyard.
"She's the Hyperion, seventy-four. Captain Haven."
The woman watched the ship but her mind was drawn to the name. Why should it startle her in some way?
Another voice murmured, "Good God, Aubrey, I thought she was a hulk. Plymouth, wasn't it?"
Glasses clinked, but the woman did not move. Captain Haven? The name meant nothing.
She saw the guardboat pulling wearily towards the tall two-decker. She loved to watch incoming ships, to see the activity on deck, the outwardly confused preparations until a great anchor splashed down. These sailors would be watching the island, many for the first time. A far cry from the ports and villages of England.
The voice commented, "Yes, she was. But with this war spreading every day, and our people in Whitehall as unprepared as ever, I suspect that even the wrecks along our coastline will be drummed into service."
A thicker tone said, "I remember her now. Fought and took a damned great three-decker single-handed. No wonder the poor old girl was laid up after that, eh, what?"
She watched, hardly daring to blink as the two-decker's shape lengthened, her sails being brailed up while she swung so slowly into whatever breeze she could discover.
"She's no private ship, Aubrey." Interest had moved the man to the balustrade. "God, she wears an admiral's flag."
"Vice- Admiral," corrected his host. "Very interesting. She's apparently under the flag of Sir Richard Bolitho, Vice-Admiral of the Red."
The anchor threw up a column of spray as it fell from the cathead. The woman flattened one hand on the balustrade until the heat of the stone steadied her.
Her husband must have seen her move.
"What is it? Do you know him? A true hero, if half what I've read can be believed."
She gripped the fan more tightly and pressed it to her breast. So that was how it would be. He was here in Antigua. After all this time, after all he had endured.
No wonder she had remembered the ship's name. He had often spoken so affectionately of his old Hyperion. One of the first ships he had ever commanded as a captain.
She was surprised at her sudden emotion, more so at her ability to conceal it.
"I met him. Years ago."
"Another glass of wine, gentlemen?"
She relaxed, muscle by muscle, aware of the dampness of her gown, of her body within it.
Even as she thought about it she cursed herself for her stupidity. It could not be like that again. Never.
She turned her back on the ship and smiled at the others. But even the smile was a lie.
* * *
Richard Bolitho stood uncertainly in the centre of the great stern cabin, his head cocked to the sudden thud of bare feet across the poop. All the familiar sounds crowded into the cabin, the muffled chorus of commands, the responding squeal of blocks as the yards were braced round. And yet there was hardly any movement. Like a phantom ship. Only the tall, shimmering bars of gold sunlight which moved along one side of the cabin gave any real hint that Hyperion was swinging slowly into the offshore wind.
He watched as the land edged in a green panorama across the first half of the stern windows. Antigua. Even the name was like a stab in the heart, a reawakening of so many memories, so many faces and voices.
It was here in English Harbour where, as a newly appointed commander, he had been given his very first command, the small, lithe sloop-of-war, Sparrow. A different kind of vessel, but then the war with the rebellious Americans had been different also. How long ago it all seemed. Ships and faces, pain and elation.
He thought of the passage here from England. You could not ask for a faster one — thirty days, with the old Hyperion responding like a thoroughbred. They had stayed in company with a convoy of merchantmen, several of which had been packed with soldiers, reinforcements or replacements for the chain of English garrisons throughout the Caribbean. More likely the latter, he thought grimly. Soldiers were known to die like flies out here from one fever or another without ever hearing the crack of a French musket.
Bolitho walked slowly to the stern windows, shading his eyes against the misty glare. He was again aware of his own resentment, his reluctance at being here, knowing the situation would require all the diplomacy and pomp he was not in the mood to offer. It had already begun with the regular crash of salutes, gun for gun with the nearest shore battery, above which the Union Flag did not even ripple in the humid air.
He saw the guardboat riding above her own reflection, her oars stilled as the officer in charge waited for the two-decker to anchor.
Without being up there on the poop or quarterdeck Bolitho could visualise it all, the men at braces and halliards, others strung out along the great yards ready to fist and furl the sails neatly into place, so that from the land it would look as if every stitch of canvas had vanished to the touch of a single hand.
Land. To a sailor it was always a dream. A new adventure.
Bolitho glanced at the dress coat which hung across a chair-back, ready for the call to commence his act. When he had been given command of Sparrow all those years ago he would never have believed it possible. Death by accident or in the cannon's mouth, disgrace, or the lack of opportunity to distinguish yourself or gain an admiral's favour, made any promotion a hard climb.
Now the coat was a reality, bearing its twin gold epaulettes with their paired silver stars. And yet ... He reached up to brush the loose lock of hair from above his right eye. Like the scar running deep into his hairline where a cutlass had nearly ended his life, nothing changed, not even uncertainty.
He had believed that he might be able to grow into it, even though the step from command to flag rank was the greatest stride of all. Sir Richard Bolitho, Knight of the Bath, Vice-Admiral of the Red, and next to Nelson the youngest on the List. He gave a brief smile. The King had not even remembered his name when he had knighted him. Bolitho had also managed to accept that he was no longer involved with the day-to-day running of a ship, any ship which flew his flag. As a lieutenant he had often glanced aft at the captain's remote figure, and had felt awe, if not always respect. Then as a captain himself he had so often lain awake, fretting, as he listened to the wind and shipboard noises, restraining himself from dashing on deck when he thought the officer of the watch was not aware of the dangers around him. It was hard to delegate; but at least the ship had been his. To the ship's company of any man-of-war their captain was next only to God, and some said uncharitably that that was only due to seniority.
As a flag officer you had to stay aloof and direct the affairs of all your captains and commanders, place whatever forces you controlled where they would serve to the best effect. The power was greater, but so too was the responsibility. Few flag officers had ever allowed themselves to forget that Admiral Byng had been shot for cowardice by a firing party on the deck of his own flagship.
Perhaps he would have settled down to both his rank and unfamiliar title but for his personal life. He shied away from the thought and moved his fingers to his left eye. He massaged the lid and then stared hard at the drifting green bank of land. Sharp and clear again. But it would not last. The surgeon in London had warned him. He needed rest, more treatment, regular care. It would have meant remaining ashore — worse than that, an appointment at the Admiralty.
So why had he asked, almost demanded, another appointment with the fleet? Anywhere, or so it had sounded at the time to the Lords of Admiralty.
Three of his superiors there had told him that he had more than earned a London appointment even before his last great victory. Yet when he had persisted, Bolitho had had the feeling they were equally glad he had declined their offers.
Fate — it must be that. He turned and looked deep into the great cabin. The low, white deckhead, the pale green leather of the chairs, the screen doors which led to the sleeping quarters or to the teeming world of the ship beyond, where a sentry guarded his privacy around the clock.
Hyperion — it had to be an act of Fate.
He could recall the last time he had seen her, after he had worked her into Plymouth. The staring crowds who had thronged the waterfront and Hoe to watch the victor returning home. So many killed, so many more crippled for life after their triumph over Lequiller's squadron in Biscay, and the capture of his great hundred-gun flagship Tornade which Bolitho was later to command as another admiral's flag captain.
But it was this ship which he always remembered. Hyperion, seventy-four. He had walked beside the dock in Plymouth on that awful day when he had said his last farewell; or so he had believed. Battered and ripped open by shot, her rigging and sails flayed to pieces, her splintered decks darkly stained with the blood of those who had fought. They said she would never stand in the line of battle again. There had been many moments while they had struggled back to port in foul weather when he had thought she would sink like some of her adversaries. As he had stood looking at her in the dock he had almost wished that she had found peace on the seabed. With the war growing and spreading, Hyperion had been made into a stores hulk. Mastless, her once-busy gundecks packed with casks and crates, she had become just a part of the dockyard.
She was the first ship of the line Bolitho had ever commanded. Then, as now, he remained a frigate-man at heart, and the idea of being captain of a two-decker had appalled him. But then, too, he had been desperate, although for different reasons. Plagued by the fever which had nearly killed him in the Great South Sea, he was employed ashore at the Nore, recruiting, as the French Revolution swept across the continent like a forest fire. He could recall joining this ship at Gibraltar as if it was yesterday. She had been old and tired and yet she had taken him to her, as if in some way they needed each other.
Bolitho heard the trill of calls, the great splash as the anchor plummeted down into the waters he knew so well.
His flag captain would come to see him very soon now for orders. Try as he might, Bolitho could not see Captain Edmund Haven as an inspiring leader or his personal adviser.
A colourless, impersonal sort of man, and yet even as he considered Haven he knew he was being unfair. Bolitho had joined the ship just days before they had weighed for the passage to the Indies. And in the thirty which had followed, Bolitho had stayed almost completely isolated in his own quarters, so that even Allday, his coxswain, was showing signs of concern.
It was probably something Haven had said on their first tour of the ship, the day before they had put to sea.
Haven had obviously thought it odd, eccentric perhaps, that his admiral should wish to see anything beyond his cabin or the poop, let alone show interest in the gundecks and orlop.
Bolitho's glance rested on the sword rack beside the screen. His own old sword, and the fine presentation one. How could Haven have understood? It was not his fault. Bolitho had taken his apparent dissatisfaction with his command like a personal insult. He had snapped, "This ship may be old, Captain Haven, but she has out-sailed many far younger! The Chesapeake, the Saintes, Toulon and Biscay — her battle honours read like a history of the navy itself!" It was unfair, but Haven should have known better.
Every yard of that tour had been a rebirth of memory. Only the faces and voices did not fit. But the ship was the same. New masts, and most of her armament replaced by heavier artillery than when she had faced the broadsides of Lequiller's Tornade, gleaming paint and neatly tarred seams; nothing could disguise his Hyperion. He stared round the cabin, seeing it as before. And she was thirty-two years old. When she had been built at Deptford she had had the pick of Kentish oak. Those days of shipbuilding were gone forever, and now most forests had been stripped of their best timber to feed the needs of the fleet.
Excerpted from Honour this Day by Alexander Kent. Copyright © 1987 Highseas Authors Ltd.. Excerpted by permission of McBooks Press, Inc..
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